Wednesday, February 27, 2013

THE STERILE CUCKOO 1969

Before seeing The Sterile Cuckoo in 1969, I had only the vaguest impression of Liza Minnelli. I had a dim memory of her as this somewhat hyperactive, inauthentic personality that popped up occasionally on her mother’s variety show, and another as an over-earnest Red Riding Hood in a 1965 musical TV special titled, The Dangerous Christmas of Little Red Riding Hood. Having missed her film debut in the 1967 Albert Finney vehicle, Charlie Bubbles, The Sterile Cuckoo marked my first encounter with Liza Minnelli the actress, and, in the character of Pookie Adams, my first exposure to what eventually evolved into the Liza Minnelli screen persona.
Liza Minnelli as Mary Ann "Pookie" Adams
Wendell Burton as Jerry Payne
The Sterile Cuckoo, the first film effort by late director Alan J. Pakula (Klute, Starting Over) is a fairly straightforward, bittersweet tale of first love represented as a touching, coming-of-age character study. Soft-spoken biology major Jerry Payne (Wendell Burton) encounters bespectacled oddball, Pookie Adams (Liza Minnelli) as both are waiting for a bus to take them to their first semesters at neighboring colleges. The extroverted but socially awkward Pookie either misinterprets Jerry's passive malleability as interest or willfully disregards the possible indifference masked by his mostly silent countenance, and insists that the two share a mutual attraction ("We got along terrifically on the bus!" she asserts). Pookie, an outcast who aggressively overcompensates and guards her lonely vulnerability behind the labeling of others as “creeps,” “weirdos,” or “bad eggs,” is clearly drawn to the nice, button-down sweetness of the biology major, but one senses that she's a type who habitually latches onto strangers. For his part, the overwhelmed Jerry doesn't so much warm to Pookie’s charms as succumbs to the force of her persistent will.
Pookie worms her way into yet another heart
Yet in that strange way in which a relationship can be forged out of an individual of somewhat amorphous character being drawn / surrendering to the superficially dominant character of another, the very dissimilar Pookie and Jerry embark upon a swift but tenuous romance. Taking place over the course of one school year, The Sterile Cuckoo follows the couple’s evolution and eventual dissolution as Jerry shows signs of beginning to grow into himself just as Pookie’s love-starved neediness starts to reveal itself to be part of larger, more deep-rooted emotional problems.
Tim McIntire plays Jerry's roommate Charles Schumacher (or Shoonover...the film can't seem to make up its mind). A typical macho, sexual braggart, hard-drinkin' fratboy. On the surface. The reality of this ostensibly "popular" character's life underscore The Sterile Cuckoo's theme that all teens struggle to find their identities. Pookie's self-absorbed wallowing in her own problems blinds her to an  awareness of  the feelings of others. 
As a 12-year-old kid enamored of too-mature films I scarcely understood, The Sterile Cuckoo was one of the few movies I saw during this period that didn't feel like a two-hour excursion into the uncharted territory of mysterious adulthood. Although the characters are supposed to be 18 or 19, the issues plaguing Pookie and Jerry (friendships, identity, loneliness, peer group acceptance) were, for the most part, things I could both relate to and recognize within myself. I identified with Jerry’s timidity and deliberate, watchful approach to others. Likewise, as a gay youth, I empathized both with Pookie’s perception of herself as an outsider, as well as her reject-them-before-they-reject-you, knee-jerk defense mechanisms.
The painful paradox of finding yourself snubbed by the very group you profess to have no interest in being a part of is brought to almost excruciating life by Minnelli in this scene at a campus hangout. Hoping to have found someone to share in her outcast isolation, Pookie is unnerved to discover that Jerry, by all appearances a quiet loner, is actually rather socially poised and liked by others.
But what I think I responded to most was the film’s insight into the dynamics of a relationship between two loner personalities drawn together in their isolation. Both Pookie and Jerry are insecure, but each responds to their circumstances differently. Pookie’s insecurity causes her to alienate all others except the one person she selects to smother with all the love she has, and emotionally drain with all the love she needs. Jerry lacks confidence as well, but as his insecurity is neither fear-based nor self-protecting,  he's capable of recognizing that everyone is a little afraid to reach out to others and that it matters if one makes a little effort.
Unlike the offensive message behind the beloved 1978 musical, Grease, whose moral is to encourage teenage girls to change everything about themselves in order to gain peer acceptance, The Sterile Cuckoo is not a film about the need to conform... it's about the inevitability of growing up.
"Pookie, maybe they aren't all so bad. Maybe everybody's just a little cautious of everybody."
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
Always a sucker for movies about vulnerable characters (and movies that make me cry), I fell in love with The Sterile Cuckoo and saw it about six times back in1969. It sold me on Liza Minnelli as a genuinely talented actress and inspired me to read the surprisingly different-in-tone John Nichols novel. For the longest I harbored a memory of The Sterile Cuckoo as just a sad/funny look at first love, and perhaps that’s all it's intended to be. But seeing the film today, in light of all we've come to learn about mental illness (coupled with our culture’s obsession with medicating all idiosyncrasies out of the human personality), I’m struck by how seriously disturbed Pookie seems to me now. That certainly wasn't the case when I was young. She starts out as some kind of early exemplar of the Manic Pixie Girl cliché, but what with her self-delusions, pathological lying, death-obsession, mood swings, and crippling persecution complex, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Pookie is considerably more than just a wounded misfit in search of someone to love her.
Death-fixated Pookie likes to hang out in cemeteries
PERFORMANCES:
Liza Minnelli deservedly won an Oscar nomination for her intense and deeply committed performance in The Sterile Cuckoo. Cynics and the industry savvy might take issue and label such an ostentatiously underdog role as Pookie Adams (significantly altered and made more pathetic/sympathetic than in the novel) to be just the sort of calculated Oscar-bait to attract Academy attention. But given that a similar gambit didn't work for Shirley MacLaine that same year for what many consider to be an equally manipulative and maudlin turn in Sweet Charity; I think it’s fair to say that Minnelli put this one over in spite of Pakula’s and screenwriter Alvin Sargent’s (Paper Moon, Ordinary People) determination to stack the emotional deck so heavily in her favor.
The character of Pookie Adams was conceived for the screen as one far more tragic than depicted in the novel.  
It’s popular to dismiss the less-showy work of newcomer Wendell Burton in the reactive, relatively thankless role of Jerry Payne, but I think his low-key naturalism and likability provide the perfect contrast to Minnelli’s character’s hyperactivity (it’s impossible to watch her Pookie Adams and not think of Anne Hathaway's legendary eagerness to please). His character’s subtle growth is very well played, and to Burton’s credit, he’s never wiped off the screen by Minnelli (no easy feat, that). At the time of The Sterile Cuckoo's release, Wendell seemed poised for stardom. But after next appearing in an almost identical role as a soft-spoken prison inmate in Fortune & Men’s Eyes (1971) he worked primarily in TV before retiring from acting in the late 80s.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
Earlier in this post I mentioned how The Sterile Cuckoo marked my introduction to the Liza Minnelli screen persona. By that I mean that in The Sterile Cuckoo’s Pookie Adams, there lies the genesis of the entirety of Liza Minnelli's screen image. Nowhere is this more obvious than in her Oscar-winning role in Bob Fosse's Cabaret (1971). Fans of that film are apt to recognize in Pookie Adams a nascent version of Sally Bowles.
Pookie & Sally: A Comparison
1. Both sport waifish, gamine bobs.
2. Both mask their inherent insecurity behind displays of delusional self-confidence. 
3. Both win over reluctant, passive men through the sheer force of their personalities.
4. Both suffer from neglectful fathers.
5. Each has a big emotional breakdown scene that virtually screams, “Give that girl an Oscar!”
6. Both have pregnancy scares.
7. Both have gaydar issues. Pookie thinks (perhaps correctly) that Jerry’s roommate is gay, while Sally fails to detect that her boyfriend and her lover are bisexual.
8. Both wind up scaring off their lovers.
Come-on: Would you like to peel a tomato?
Come-on: "Doesn't my body drive you wild with desire?"
The Sterile Cuckoo (top) and Cabaret (bottom) share scenes of Liza Minnelli as the sexual aggressor. Here she attempts to seduce lookalike males with her supine figure.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
The Sterile Cuckoo is one of those forgotten movies that need rediscovering. It’s not heavy on plot, Pookie’s character can prove more annoying than poignant to some, and if you take a dislike to the film’s Oscar-nominated theme song, “Come Saturday Morning,” you’re likely to be sent screaming into the streets, for it comprises the totality of the film’s soundtrack. But to me it’s a perfectly wonderful film of humor, sensitivity, and great emotional insight. Beautifully shot and an authentic-feeling record of the late 60s, The Sterile Cuckoo has terrific performances throughout (Minnelli is at times phenomenal in this) and I think the conveyance of the brief romance is beautifully handled...both its beginning and its painful end. Definitely worth a look.
Oh, and as to the significance of the title? Nowhere to be found in the film (allegedly cut), but referenced in the novel as a poem Pookie writes about herself.
At the start of the film, we don't understand the silence between the two characters sitting on a bench waiting for the arrival of a bus. When this image is duplicated at the end, we have a better understanding of the pattern of Pookie's life and sense that this has been and will be a scenario played out again and again.
Mark, at Random Ramblings, Thoughts & Fiction and a few internet friends have all shared tales with me of having had their encounters with real-life Pookie Adams', so I figured I should share my own. My particular Pookie was a bit of an outcast, wore glasses, and was ragingly funny. She was keenly perceptive and cutting when it came to the shortcomings of others, yet oblivious to her own. She was a deeply loyal friend, but somewhat suffocating in that if you were her friend, you had to be only HER friend. There was no room for anybody else. She was happiest in having the two of us share all of our time together sitting apart from others and putting them down. In my own insecurity, this felt for a time like a kind of strength to me too, but it wasn't long before I recognized what a self-defeating, one-way street this attitude was. We were an insulated, impregnable world of two, but it was a world of  cowards. As much as I enjoyed her company, the ultimately toxic nature of her mean-spirited humor (it was so obvious that she was in such pain and so afraid of others) drove us apart.  I see in The Sterile Cuckoo and Liza Minnelli's excellent performance an exacting depiction of a certain kind of wounded personality. One I'm learning is not as unique as I once thought.
Copyright © Ken Anderson

Friday, February 22, 2013

THE GREAT GATSBY 1974

You pretty much know what you’re in for in this, the third screen adaptation of  F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic 1925 novel, The Great Gatsby, when the film begins with a series of loving, beautifully lit, perfectly framed, Architectural Digest-worthy shots of property and objects. Instead of a haunting rumination on romantic obsession as an attempt to recapture the past poetically framed by a bitter indictment of materialism, the American Dream, and the emotional recklessness of the rich; this is The Great Gatsby as told from the perspective of nostalgia fetishism.
The Great Gatsby suffers a bit from a confused point of view. When the camera lens is trained on Gatsby's beautiful objects, I suspect we are supposed to feel the hollowness of materialism. Unfortunately, the images are so arrestingly beautiful that viewers are likely to ohh and ahh over their lavishness. In essence, to see these things from the possessive, money-enamored perspective of Daisy. A bit of a problem given that she is one of the more superficial and morally corrupt characters in the film.
In this Jack Clayton-directed (The Innocents, Room at the Top) adaptation of an overly-reverential screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola, the unrequited love affair between Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan takes a back seat to the love affair the camera has with all the 1920s Art Deco knickknacks, gimcracks, and gewgaws on display throughout. This The Great Gatsby is a fashionista’s orgy of breathtaking period costuming, a production designer’s wet-dream of glittering Jazz Age opulence, and an antiquities museum curator’s idea of a motion picture. Lovely to look at, yet emotionally arid, antiseptic, and hermetically sealed.
Robert Redford as Jay Gatsby
Mia Farrow as Daisy Buchanan
Bruce Dern as Tom Buchanan
Sam Waterston as Nick Carraway
Karen Black as Myrtle Wilson
Lois Chiles as Jordan Baker
Miscast, misguided, and overproduced (which is an odd thing to say about a movie that revels in the excesses of the wealthy), that this film ranks at all amongst my picks of memorable movies to write about for this blog is largely due to The Great Gatsby being one of my top, all-time favorite novels and this version being a particularly faithful big screen adaptation. Painstakingly so, in fact. Indeed, one finds that the paradox of this nearly $7 million mounting of The Great Gatsby is how it is able to so faithfully replicate so many intricate details of the novel (including sizable chunks of dialog and virtually the entirely of the book's events and characters) yet still manage to leave out both its passion and pathos. It’s like one of those lifelike celebrity waxworks at Madame Tussauds: identical in every superficial detail but falling short of being a true representation of life because it lacks a soul.
How this came to be can perhaps be traced to the film’s troubled genesis, recounted in fascinating detail in Bruce Bahrenburg’s book, Filming The Great Gatsby (my own yellowed and tattered copy, purchased in the heat of 1974’s studio-generated “Gatsby Fever”). Originally conceived and developed as a wedding present vehicle for Ali MacGraw by then-husband Robert Evans, The Great Gatsby was derailed when MacGraw threw a gold-plated, 14-carat monkey wrench into the works by falling in love with her The Getaway co-star, Steve McQueen. While the hunt went out for a new Daisy (in which several credible applicants like Faye Dunaway and Candice Bergen were passed over for, in my opinion, the absolutely incredible choice of Mia Farrow), an ailing Truman Capote was fired as screenwriter and later sued the studio, and the beautiful but inexpressive Lois Chiles was entrusted with the showy role of Jordan Baker simply because she was the girlfriend of the cuckolded Robert Evans, and studio head Charles Bluhdorn figured the poor guy needed to catch a break.
Daisy & Gatsby
Mia Farrow (absolute perfection in Rosemary's Baby) is an actress I greatly admire, but for me she was totally out of her depth as Daisy Buchanan. Lacking the ability of say, Julie Christie, who can somehow play shallow and self-absorbed as interesting and sympathetic, Farrow's Daisy is mostly annoyingly fey and shrill. To be fair, F.Scott Fitzgerald's daughter, Frances, told People magazine at the time, "Mia Farrow looks like the Daisy my father had in mind." However, this was said during the filming. I've no idea what she thought after seeing the finished product.
Most movies have tortuous paths to completion, but The Great Gatsby is one of those instances where it looks as though an inordinate amount of time and energy had been invested in engineering a marketable property, not making a film. We still have the basic story of a millionaire with the shady past who attempts to reignite an old love affair with the idealized socialite who threw him over years ago when he was poor, but that's almost all we have. There's very little that's effectively done with the story's themes involving class, idealism, and morality. One never gets the sense that anyone involved in the making of The Great Gatsby had even read the novel, much less understood any of the book’s themes or tried to figure out what Fitzgerald was trying to say about our culture. Otherwise surely someone would have pointed out the contradiction inherent in making an ostentatious, large-scale behemoth about the pernicious vulgarity of the rich. I have a hunch that Paramount, in having made a fortune with Erich Segal’s Love Story, hoped to combine the crowd-pleasing sentimentality of Love Story (1970) with the big-boxoffice, romanticized nostalgia of The Way We Were (1973) and never gave a thought to much else.
Hype Gripe
The amount of publicity surrounding the release of The Great Gatsby was near-suffocating and ultimately off-putting to the public.   In 1974 Warner Bros. had Mame waiting in the wings, Paramount had Gatsby (both released in March and featuring eye-popping period costumes by Theadora Van Runkle) as well as Chinatown. The entire country was swept up in a nostalgia craze that even the decade's eventual disco-fever couldn't quell.
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
For all my complaining about what a mechanized piece of Hollywood machinery The Great Gatsby turned out to be, I nevertheless get quite a kick out of the film—in spite of not finding it to be particularly good—due to a few Gatsby-esque reasons of my own. The pleasure I derive from watching The Great Gatsby these days is directly (sentimentally and nostalgically) related to the memories I have of my sixteen-year-old self in 1974. Back then I was caught up in all things movie-related and willfully swept up in the Gatsby hype. I read the articles, bought the soundtrack album, dragged my family to see it…I did everything short of insist my mother purchase and serve our meals on the limited-edition The Great Gatsby dinnerware by Corelle® they sold at the local department store.
At that time I hadn't yet read Fitzgerald’s novel, so I didn't have any expectations waiting to be dashed. Nevertheless, in spite of my enthusiasm, I was underwhelmed when I finally got to see the film. It was nothing like the touching romance I was expecting, but it was a great deal like a film adaptation of a campy, self-serious Harold Robbins novel. Then, as now, I find it a gorgeous film to look at and in each passing year I grow ever fonder of the old-fashioned movie magic of large crowds of extras, big sets, period detail, all accomplished with no CGI. But it's impossible for me to regard it seriously and it remains on my DVD shelf, a treasured guilty pleasure.
A Fine Romance
If Gatsby and Daisy failed to sizzle, their lack of heat is nothing compared to the non-romance of butch professional golfer, Jordan Baker and Tony Perkins-esque narrator Nick Carraway. According to IMDB trivia, original screenwriter Truman Capote wrote Nick as a homosexual and Jordan as a lesbian. Sounds about right to me. 
I wish it were otherwise, but the joys I currently find in this surprisingly joyless movie (Gatsby’s parties look well-populated and busy, but not the least bit fun) are of the so-bad-it’s-good variety. I honestly could watch this film every day, yet I wouldn't recommend it to a soul. It's a very watchable, amiable kind of failure that yields new campy treasures and glaring misjudgments with each viewing.
A couple of examples:
Daisy’s hair. In her memoirs, Mia Farrow felt her performance was “undermined” by the unflattering wig she was forced to wear, claiming that for the duration, it “...felt and looked like cotton candy.” Can’t disagree with her there.
The clothes fetish. I know everyone in this movie is supposed to be rich and can afford fancy garb, but this is one of those movies where all the clothes have that distracting “never been worn” look. This also applies to the never-lived-in sets and all those pristine automobiles on display. These cars are so drooled over by the camera that when Myrtle meets her end at the fender of Gatsby’s gorgeous yellow Rolls Royce, I'm tempted to think audiences were left in a quandary...were they upset by her death, or because she left such a big, ugly dent in that perfectly lovely automobile?
Author Tom Wolfe: "I'll never forgive the 1974 version of 'The Great Gatsby,' which was the Fitzgerald novel as reinterpreted by the garment industry. Throughout the picture Robert Redford wore white suits. They fitted so badly that every time he turned a corner there was an eighty-microsecond lag before they joined him."
PERFORMANCES:
According to Roman Polanski, his dream casting of the role of Guy Woodhouse in Rosemary’s Baby would have been Robert Redford. Upon seeing the lack of chemistry displayed between Mia Farrow and Robert Redford in The Great Gatsby, I tend to think he dodged a bullet there. Certainly the Clark Gable of the 70’s, Robert Redford is a strikingly handsome man (I could write a sonnet about the way the sun hits the blond fur on his upper thighs in his swimsuit scene) but he is woefully stiff and colorless as Gatsby. It’s unimaginable that anyone that bland could harbor an obsessed fixation on anything other than Miracle Whip.
Most of the acting in The Great Gatsby falls into one of two categories: stiff or fussy. As garage owner George Wilson, actor Scott Wilson (so good in In Cold Blood) somehow manages to combine both as he's allowed to go through the entire film with the exact same watery-eyed, self-pitying expression you see here. The exasperation expressed by wife Myrtle (Karen Black) is pretty much on par with my own.
By way of contrast, we have my personal 70s fave, Karen Black, giving what can most charitably be described as a ridiculous performance as 20s hotbox, Myrtle Wilson. Karen Black won a Golden Globe for it, so perhaps it’s just a matter of taste, but I don’t believe her Myrtle for a minute…which is not the same thing as saying that I don’t love her performance. Acting her ass off in an almost alarmingly mannered fashion, Black is terrible in that Patty Duke as Neely O’Hara way, and as such, she’s close to being the only life the film has. Whether falling down stairs, shoving her hands through plate windows, or bugging her eyes with rage, hers is a black comedy performance (pun intended) that's true to the idiosyncratic skills of the actress, tone and tempo of the rest of the film be damned.
Actress Brooke Adams, (l.) who would star in 1978's Invasion of the Body Snatchers and actor Edward Herrmann (r.) who played FDR in the 1982 musical, Annie show up in bit parts as party guests in The Great Gatsby.
THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
There’s not a lot that Mia Farrow does right in The Great Gatsby, but there is one scene where she so completely nails it that it almost makes her being so poorly cast worthwhile. It’s the scene that takes place in the Buchanan household when everyone is sitting around the dinner table complaining about the heat (taking place over the course of one summer, everybody sweats a lot in this movie…from the neck up,anyway. No one’s clothes are ever damp). In this scene Daisy forgets herself and speaks to Gatsby as if the others aren't there. “Ah, you look so cool. You always look so cool,” she says dreamily. Catching herself, she blushes and starts to rattle off an explanation that hilariously trails off to nowhere. Farrow seriously knocks that little bit of business out of the park. It’s the single most authentically character-based acting she does in the film and she’s great. In that one minute I can see what kind of woman Daisy was perhaps supposed to be all along.
Very Pretty People Capable of Very Ugly Things
THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
Trusting a book like The Great Gatsby to an industry comprised of individuals who wouldn't know a moral imperative if it tapped them on the shoulder and asked if it could park their Hummers for them, is a little like asking Donald Trump to act like a human being for a five minutes. The desire may be there, but the tools to pull it off aren't.
This version of The Great Gatsby is almost valueless as drama, but it's the perfect kind of screen adaptation of a literary classic for showing in high school English Classes. For while it is a faithful visual representation of the body of the text, at no time does the film tip its hand toward revealing what the novel’s underlying themes are, leaving that to the students.
OK, so I guess you can tell what I think is so great about this particular Gatsby.
Because in my heart I consider The Great Gatsby to be a book of ideas and moral concepts poetically dramatized, I have my doubts as to whether it’s the kind of book that will ever lend itself to a satisfying screen adaptation. I must say I’m intrigued by the little I've seen of Baz Luhrmann’s forthcoming adaptation (although I'm not sure if I'm up for another one of Tobey Maguire's stare-a-thon roles), which, in its considerable visual dazzle once again raises the issue of whether or not it is possible for a film to simultaneously condemn and chronicle extreme wealth. If not, I guess we'll be left with another example of the past repeating itself...in 3-D, no less.
Gatsby reaches out towards the light at the end of Daisy's dock.
Nick: “You can’t repeat the past.”
Gatsby: “You can’t repeat the past? Of course you can.”

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

LAST SUMMER 1969

The occasion of a recent TCM screening of the R-rated edit of this forgotten minor masterpiece from the late 60s (one of several by director Frank Perry yet to make it to DVD - Play It As It Lays, Diary of a Mad Housewife) inspired me to seek out the X-rated version I still remembered so vividly from my youth. And as memories go, that’s really saying something, for the youth I speak of is the summer of 1969 when I was 12 years old. In 1969, the newly-instated motion picture rating system (G, M, R, and X) designated the X rating for films with mature themes from which anyone under the age of 17 was prohibited. Contrary to what “adult” and “X-rated” has come to signify today (porn), back in 1969 Hollywood harbored the idealistically naïve hope that such a restrictive rating would both serve to protect local standards of decency while ensuring filmmakers maximal artistic freedom and minimal censorship interference.
(Boy, just writing the above sentence made me all wistful and nostalgic for why the late 60s and 70s remains my favorite era in American film. The notion that mainstream Hollywood believed, even briefly, in the notion that there was such an animal as a mature adult audience is near unimaginable in today’s climate of pandering, lowest common denominator comic book franchises.)
At left: The vague, rather arty newspaper ad for Last Summer containing it original X-rating. Right: The provocative wide-release one-sheet poster with the R-rating. (Newspaper image courtesy of Obscure One-Sheet).
Before America’s repressed and essentially hypocritical attitude about all things sexual reared its head, a slew of intriguing X-rated films were released (The Damned, Midnight Cowboy, Last Tango in Paris, Last Summer, A Clockwork Orange, Medium Cool), giving the false impression that American movies had at last grown up. Alas, it was not to be, and soon “X” was appropriated by the porn industry and the MPAA (the industry rating board) embarked on a course of action — doling out harsh ratings for minor displays of sexuality, yet showing absurd leniency with acts of extreme violence — that over the years rendered it, if not a laughingstock, then certainly irrelevant.
Barbara Hershey as Sandy
Richard Thomas as Peter
Bruce Davidson as Dan
Catherine Burns as Rhoda
The summer of 1969 saw the release of John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy and Frank Perry’s Last Summer within months of one another. Everyone was talking about these two high-profile, controversial X-rated features, and, thanks to the lax admittance policies of my local movie theater, I was able to see both that summer, in spite of my tender years. Midnight Cowboy, of course, went on to great acclaim and a Best Picture Academy Award win, but Last Summer (in spite of having garnered a Best Supporting Actress nod for newcomer Catherine Burns) has been all but forgotten.
I’m not sure whether it was when the film went into wide release in theaters or when it made it to home video, but eventually some of Last Summer’s X-rated intensity (centered mostly on the film’s harrowing climax) was edited down to an R. If you weren't around in 1969 and you managed to catch this film at all, the R-rated cut is most likely the only one you’re familiar with, and it’s this version that Turner Classic Movies recently aired. Mind you, even this mildly truncated version of Last Summer is still pretty strong stuff, its brief omissions only marginally softening the effect of the film’s intentionally blunt sexuality and merciless depiction of a particularly base aspect of human cruelty. Still, this wasn't the film I remembered and I felt cheated. Happily, thanks to the trusty internet, I was able to track down an unedited copy of Last Summer (as well as a copy of the long out-of-print soundtrack album!) and I have to say, getting to see this film in its entirety for the first time in 43 years has been every bit the emotionally wrenching experience it was when I first saw it as a pre-teen movie theater scofflaw. (Taking into account changing times, even in its unedited form, Last Summer would only garner an R-rating today. A soft one, at that.)
In a scene emphasizing Sandy's sexual acquisitiveness and dominance over the boys' relative inexperience, she and Dan come across two lovers making out on a remote part of the beach. When it's discovered that the lovers are two men, Dan wants to leave but Sandy insist they stay and watch.
With its title a darkly ironic harkening back to the innocent, sun-and-sand Gidget movies of the sixties, or those sexually innocuous Frankie & Annette Beach Party romps, Last Summer is perhaps one of the harshest eviscerations of adolescent social dynamics I've ever seen. Neither a youth-pandering idealization of the Pepsi Generation of the sort typified by late-60s films like The Graduate and Easy Rider, nor one of those nostalgically sentimental coming-of-age films that would later flourish in the 70s (The Summer of ’42, The Last Picture Show, American Graffiti); Last Summer is adolescence viewed through a doggedly nihilistic prism.
A trio of teens vacationing with their parents on Fire Island strike up an intimate friendship when callow, future fratboy, Dan, and sensitive go-alonger, Peter (Davidson and Thomas) come upon sexually precocious brainiac, Sandy (Hershey- “Well you asked me, so don’t think I’m boasting, but my IQ is 157.”) tending to a wounded seagull on the beach. Bonding over their shared isolation, sexual restlessness, and an overweening, heretofore unplumbed disdain for the feelings of others, the threesome find the dynamics of their tightly-knit group challenged with the appearance of Rhoda, a bright but shy and awkward girl who insinuates herself into the fold.
Loners
One of the film's few sympathetic characters, Rhoda is introduced committing a simple act of decency: she tries to get the trio to stop tormenting the seagull they're attempting to make into a pet. 
Plump and pale to their tall and tawny; braces- wearing and happy to act her age to the trio’s fevered acceleration into adulthood; it’s fairly obvious from the start that Rhoda’s emotional self-assurance and killjoy, sober decency is a wrong mix for this crowd (who find in Rhoda another “project” like the injured gull). Yet the point is keenly made by the film that in adolescence, the pain of loneliness can be so acute that even the belittling company of those who fail to see your value is sometimes preferable to being alone.
Poignance is derived from the realization that all four teens come from broken or troubled homes and that   together they could have faced their shared loneliness, alienation, and struggles for identity in ways enriching for them both as friends and individually. That summer could have been memorable for a lot of good reasons. But, being at its heart an existential parable on authenticity, dread, and the concept of decency as a choice one makes as readily as one can choose cruelty, Last Summer is a season made memorable for our protagonists in ways none of them could have foreseen and none will likely ever forget.
Rhoda and Peter's tentative friendship threatens the dynamic of the group

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
 Like so many of my favorite films from this era: They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, Midnight Cowboy, Puzzle of a Downfall Child, even Rosemary's Baby; Last Summer is for me a brilliant example of how fascinating the results can be when mainstream movies and art films combine. What all these films have in common is their being accessible narratives that nevertheless convey the darker aspects of American disillusionment in the late 60s. Movies today tend to feed audiences comforting images of themselves and set out to reinforce tissue-thin myths we harbor about everything from sexual politics to racism. Although I don't require it in every film I see, I must say I enjoy it when movies hold up a mirror to American culture that reveals the decay behind the gloss. 
Last Summer fails to skirt the uncomfortable racist implications behind the privileged arrogance of the Aryan blond teens in their all-white enclaves who idiotically mimic the contrived slave dialect of Gone With the Wind, and, in this painful scene, make cruel, racist jokes at the expense of Anibal Gomez (Ernesto Gonzalez) a sweet and lonely  Puerto Rican computer date set-up for the reluctant Rhoda.
Movies in the 60s/70s were comfortable with revealing the darker shades of human nature. In fact, one of my strongest memories of seeing films during this period was getting the distinct impression I was never going to see a movie with a happy ending again. I loved that I was seeing movies that were making me think, making me feel...but at times it seemed as if every movie released during my teens ended in some devastating tragedy. Even the musicals were downers (Sweet Charity)!

PERFORMANCES:
Playing perhaps on type and using his young cast's relative acting inexperience to their benefit (Last Summer is the film debut of all but Barbara Hershey, who appeared in Doris Day's last film, With Six You Get Eggroll just the year before) Frank Perry gets natural and surprisingly complex performances out everyone, particularly Catherine Burns. Although lacking in the sort of easy, obvious camaraderie Peter Bogdanovich was able to achieve with his cast in The Last Picture Show (most apparent in an uncomfortably forced, "teens bonding" sequence that gives credence to Hershey's claim that despite the intimacy required of their roles, the cast didn't become close during the making of the film), each actor achieves a kind of heroic bravery in allowing themselves to be presented so unpleasantly.
New Blood
Bruce Davidson found success starring in the 1971 thriller, Willard; Barbara Hershey went go on to make headlines throughout the 70s for being David Carradine's "old lady" and breast feeding their child on The Dick Cavett Show; and Richard Thomas became world famous as TV's John-Boy Walton. Ironically, it would be Cathy Burns, garnering the lion's share of the film's best reviews and Last Summer's sole Academy Award nod, who, after being reunited with Richard Thomas in 1971's Red Sky at Morning, disappeared into oblivion after years of TV appearances.
Much has been made of Burn's virtuoso monologue that most deservedly won her an Oscar nomination, and indeed, Burns does give the film's most shaded performance. But Barbara Hershey's assured and dynamic performance as the dreamgirl sociopath is one that has really stayed with me over the years. Carnal, conniving, straightforward and deeply troubled, I think her characterization is so genuinely terrifying because she is just such a recognizable brand of emotional / intellectual bully. Long a favorite of mine and a definite object of my boyhood crush, I'm glad she's still around making films (even scarier as the ballet-mom in Black Swan!) and proving herself a talented and enduring actress.
Barbara Hershey  (born Barbara Hertzstein) briefly changed her name to Barbara Seagull after she claimed the the spirit of a  seagull accidentally killed during the making of Last Summer had entered her body. She stated that it was a moral choice born of feeling guilty about its death. It was also a very hippie-esque one for the actress who would later name her illegitimate son by David Carradine, "Free," and planted the child's afterbirth under an apricot tree in her back yard "...so he can eat the fruit nurtured by our own bodies." Coming to her senses, Hershey eventually dropped the Seagull, and her son now goes by very un-Flower Child  but less giggle-prone name of Tom. 
Poster for the 1975 film, Diamonds, featuring Barbara Hershey with her "Seagull" billing
THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
Perhaps the parallel symbolism is all too heavy-handed for some, but what I loved about this film in 1969 and what still stands up marvelously in 2013 are the parallels drawn between the film's early sequences involving the attempt to rehabilitate and then train the wounded seagull, and the introduction of the character of Rhoda into the group. The foreshadowing of the film's agonizing denouement is as clear-cut and unalterable as a self-fulfilling prophecy, but what grips me is what lies behind why it happens at all.
To see this film now is to understand what occurs inside any group or individual in power when threatened with the loss of that power. Whether it be the behavior of the GOP in the last election or the reluctance of certain states to grasp the inevitability of same-sex marriage; it all fit paints an ugly portrait of cowardice cloaked in entitled domination. To find all of this within a teenage coming-of-age film is just brilliant, and why this film deserves to be seen.
The casual distractions of an idle summer gradually escalate into experimentation with sex and drugs.
THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
For years on the internet there have been reports of Last Summer finally getting a DVD release. Its reemergence on cable TV and a recent American Cinemateque screening of a long-lost, uncut 16mm print  hint that perhaps one day soon this will  be be the case. I certainly hope so. Not only is it one of the best of several forgotten films of the late 60s and 70s worthy of re-discovery, but its themes are no less relevant today than they were in 1969. Sure, the antisocial behavior and so-called explicit dialog of these teens looks positively quaint in the face of what goes on in the hyper-sexualized, accelerated world of adolescents today, but one of the points Last Summer makes clear that still applies, is that play-acting at being grown-up by engaging in adult behavior is by no stretch of the imagination the same thing as genuine maturity. A smart and insightful character-driven motion picture, Last Summer is a reminder of how good movies can be when filmmakers care about something beyond being a hit at the boxoffice.
Notes:
I read Evan Hunter’s novel Last Summer not long after seeing the film and I’d highly recommend it. Eleanor Perry’s screenplay is a faithful adaptation of the book, which is every bit as disturbing as the film. The slight novel provides a bit more backstory to the characters and is told in the form of a flashback memory recounted by an emotionally shattered Peter to his psychiatrist. In 1973 Hunter wrote a sequel to Last Summer titled, Come Winter. I’d say that both novels are unavailable and out of print, but is anything really out of print with eBay around?

Evan Hunter, famous for the novel Blackboard Jungle, is also well known to Hitchcock fans as the screenwriter of The Birds. He was fired from his duties on Hitchcock’s next film, Marnie, for reasons far too ironic to recount here. Those who are interested can find the info in the trivia section of IMDB’s Marnie page.

The late director Frank Perry, largely forgotten today, was one of the heavy hitters in the Golden Age of the New Hollywood. He is responsible for two of the best films to come out of the era: Last Summer and Diary of a Mad Housewife. Making it all the more incomprehensible to me that this is the same Frank Perry who gave us the execrable laugh-fest, Monsignor (1982), and the exquisite awfulness of Mommie Dearest. Talk about your loss of innocence.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Thursday, February 7, 2013

PUZZLE OF A DOWNFALL CHILD 1970

It’s my feeling that one can easily gauge what one’s overall response to this film is going to be simply based on how one reacts to its title. If Puzzle of a Downfall Child strikes you as a potentially profound, enigmatically poetic title conjuring up images of Paradise Lost and existential disillusion, you’re likely to fall in love with this long-considered-lost exemplar of European-influenced, 70s “personal statement” cinema. On the other hand, if the title reeks of self-serious pretentiousness and needlessly arty ambiguity…well, little about the film itself is likely to alter that perception.

Me, I fall a little into both camps. For one, I've always been crazy about about the title. Perhaps that's because I was 13 years-old when the movie came out and the title sounded just gloomily cryptic enough to appeal to my adolescent taste for high-flown self-dramatization. (In an interview, director Jerry Schatzberg has stated that the title alludes to a plot element involving an abortion that was deleted in an early draft of the screenplay.) I adore Puzzle of a Downfall Child  for its introspective examination of the elusiveness of happiness and the human desire to connect in the face of reality-distorting conceptions of image, sexuality, self-worth, and success. In the telling, few of the film’s insights are very acute, but there’s a psychological authenticity to the screenplay and performances that greatly mitigate the sometimes arthouse excesses of the film’s visual style.
Which leads to camp #2. As much as I love Puzzle of a Downfall Child and believe it to be both a beautiful and moving film, I’m the first to admit that at times it can feel like a parody of a 70s art film. The debut effort of photographer turned-director Jerry Schatzberg, Puzzle of a Downfall Child falls prey to the minor sin of over-determined significance. There’s a kind of naïve foolhardiness to be found in acts of absolute sincerity, and if Puzzle of a Downfall Child suffers from anything, it’s from a heartfelt conviction it is saying something “important” about the human condition. To some, such ponderousness can come off as pretentious, humorless, or just plain exasperating. But me, I’ll take a self-serious film that tries to be about something over today’s cynical, eye-on-the-boxoffice, market-research product any day.
Faye Dunaway as Lou Andreas Sand
Barry Primus as Aaron Reinhardt
Viveca Lindfors as Pauline Galba
Roy Scheider as Mark 
Faye Dunaway plays Lou Andreas Sand (nee Emily Mercine), an emotionally fragile former high-fashion model who has retreated to a solitary beach house on Fire Island following a crippling nervous breakdown. Visited by long-time photographer friend and former lover, Aaron Reinhardt (Barry Primus), Lou recounts her troubled life in a taped conversation Reinhardt hopes to fashion into a film. With her life revealed to us in flashbacks that come at us in stylized and realistic non-linear stretches devoid of obvious hints as to their veracity as memory, fantasy or both, Lou reveals herself to be the most unreliable of narrators. Yet the tone of these mental images, playing out like scrapbook pages torn from an album and reassembled, reveals the truth of the woman, if not always the truth of the events. It's a fascinating narrative path made all the more so due to Puzzle of a Downfall Child itself having been created in much the same manner. The experience of viewing a dramatization of the gestation of the film we're actually watching is just one piece of Puzzle’s continually self-referential puzzle. 
Two magazine covers photographed by Jerry Schatzberg
Left: Anne St.Marie -1956 / Right: Faye Dunaway - 1968
Director Jerry Schatzberg, who had worked for more than 20 years as a photographer for magazines like Vogue, Esquire, and McCall's, based Puzzle of a Downfall Child on taped interviews he conducted with one of his favorite subjects, 50s supermodel Anne St. Marie. St.Marie, like her film counterpart, retired from modeling after suffering a nervous breakdown. To further the whole wormhole effect of this enterprise, Schatzberg, who was rumored to have had an affair with St. Marie (as does his screen doppelganger, photographer Aaron Reinhardt with Dunaway's Lou Andreas Sand) in real life photographed Dunaway for many fashion magazines, and for a time the two were engaged to be married. Their relationship had already dissolved before Puzzle of a Downfall Child went before the cameras.
"If one can't keep some friends somewhere, then something is really wrong."
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
I think perhaps my favorite thing about Puzzle of a Downfall Child is that it combines two of my favorite film genres: the 70s trying-to-find-oneself character drama and the 40s suffering-in-mink women’s weepie. How perfect is that? When I first saw this film, Faye Dunaway’s too-sensitive-for-this-world fashion model was an oasis of estrogen ennui in the testosterone-leaden desert of male-centric 70s films romanticizing male identity crises and masculine existential moments-of-reckoning. To my taste, there was a decided oversupply of movies featuring Jack Nicholson, George Segal, Richard Benjamin, or Elliot Gould grappling with the meaning of life while an uncomprehending female (usually a sweet-natured dumbbell, and almost always played by Karen Black) stood around on the sidelines. Aside from the vastly inferior (by comparison) Jacqueline Bisset drama, The Grasshopper (1969), Puzzle of a Downfall Child was one of the few films from this era to grant a female character an equivalent navel-gazing opportunity.
To update Easy Rider's famous tagline, Puzzle of a Downfall Child could have been subtitled: "A woman went looking for America and couldn't find it anywhere."
To its credit, Puzzle of a Downfall Child tries to find the common thread of humanity in the privileged-class despair of Lou Andreas Sand. And as embodied by Dunaway and captured by Schatzberg’s loving camera lens (actually cinematographer Alex Holender of Midnight Cowboy), Lou may never look less than exquisite (even when in the throes of a foaming-at-the-mouth nervous breakdown), but her pain is recognizable and real.

Have you ever seen an old detective movie or TV show and marveled at the perversity of cops and reporters at a murder scene going on and on about how beautiful or desirable a female corpse was. I can't count the number of films I've seen where men stand over a dead woman's body lamenting the "waste" of a beautiful woman and how particularly tragic it is that said woman, so pretty or sexy in life, is now dead. It’s like there’s this overriding mentality that a woman’s looks and physical appeal matter even in death. Or worse, that one can be too beautiful to die...as if the loss of life is sad, but the tragedy is compounded if the corpse is attractive.
Beauty: Fetishism and Objectification
Puzzle of a Downfall Child sensitively addresses the high value we, as a culture, place on beauty, and the price enacted on those who fall prey to it. In placing this character drama in the appearance-fixated world of fashion photography, Schatzberg and screenwriter Carole Eastman take an insightful look at a woman whose entire existence and sense of self-worth is tethered to her beauty. Whose need to please and always be seen as desirable under the male gaze is both a desperate, deep-seated search for approval and a profound denial of self.
Distorted Image
Troubled Catholic School girl Emily Mercine attempts to lose herself by adopting a pretentious name (perhaps borrowed from Nietzschean psychoanalyst Lou Andreas Salome) and engaging in casual sex with father-figure strangers. Like a character out of Damon Runyon, Lou Andreas Sand speaks in a mannered style totally devoid of contractions, and compulsively re-imagines events of the past in order to protect her fragile image of herself.
PERFORMANCES:
Faye Dunaway’s participation was instrumental in getting Puzzle of a Downfall Child to the screen, and her passion for the project is evident in every frame. And it’s a good thing too, because to the best of my recollection there isn't a single scene in which she does not appear. Mind you, I'm not complaining, for in much the same way that Liza Minnelli is so good in Cabaret that she almost makes you forget “Liza Minnelli: The HSN Years”; Faye Dunaway so thoroughly blows me away in Puzzle of a Downfall Child that I'm reminded of everything her career promised before the whole Mommie Dearest / voicemail meltdown thing. One of my favorite but most problematic actresses (you have to have a taste for her mannerisms), Dunaway has every reason to be very proud of her work in this. After Bonnie & ClydePuzzle of a Downfall Child ranks as my all-time favorite Dunaway film. She is phenomenal in it.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
I tell everyone, even if you don't have the patience for the entire film, just watch the first 15 minutes. The sequence chronicling Dunaway as a fledgling model navigating the battlefield of her first fashion shoot is cinema gold. Shot with an eye for detail only possible from knowing this world very well, Schatzberg peels back the illusions we hold in our America's Next Top Model preoccupation the fashion industry and reveals the dehumanizing reality. Sure it's satirical, sure it's depicted from the overwrought perspective of the heroine;  but from the performances, the dialog (tellingly, Lou's voiceover describes the men on the set all looking at her as if they were sex maniacs. The visuals reveal her to have been largely ignored), and the stylish cinematography, this sequence is a great example of MY kind of moviemaking.
Dunaway reacts (I'll say) to being required to share her close-up with a live falcon. This terrifying sequence recall actress Tippi Hedren's accounts of  working with Hitchcock on The Birds.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
One of the good things about viewing an old film (and at 43 years-old Puzzle of a Downfall Child definitely qualifies) is that one  gets to watch it in an environment entirely different from that in which it was created. Puzzle of a Downfall Child bombed in part because it came at a time when audiences were wearying of the glut of European-influenced, tarnished American Dream films that filled theaters after the breakthrough years of 1967. When viewed from the comic book / 3-D / blockbuster perspective of today, the film looks nothing short of miraculous.
Throughout her modeling career, Lou Andrea Sand compiles a list of photographers she refuses to ever work with again due to their abusive behavior. Boldly written in red on this list is the name of the film's director, Jerry Schatzberg. In her memoir, Looking for Gatsby, Faye Dunaway explains that this was an improvisational impulse on her part born of a particularly difficult time the director gave her after actor Marcello Mastroianni (the man she left fiance Schatzberg for) visited her on the set. Schatzberg liked the touch and kept it in the film.
As a culture, we’re guilty of attributing great profundity to the existential midlife traumas of male characters in films, while women undergoing the same are dismissed as merely neurotic. (I don’t know where I read it, but someone once observed that The Graduate missed the boat in focusing on the petulant Benjamin Braddock when the film's most compelling story and most interesting character was Mrs. Robinson and her midlife dissatisfaction.) It’s difficult not to think this subtle double-standard played into the critical response to Puzzle of a Downfall Child, but as good as the film is (and I think it’s a really excellent film) there’s no ignoring that it falls into the usual traps that beset movies that ask us to feel sorry for the beautiful people.
Film is a storytelling medium and all manner of human experience should be explored. But films like Puzzle of a Downfall Child seem to forget why movies exist and who attends them.  No matter how masterful the film, it’s difficult to ask an audience to listen to a woman as breathtakingly beautiful as Faye Dunaway complaining about how unhappy she is in her (perceived glamorous) job as a fashion model, and how empty she finds her life (after amassing enough wealth to live in financially independent solitude in a spacious beach house). We all know that the rich and beautiful can suffer as much as the rest of us, but any film that attempts to dramatize a shared humanity with people whose lives offer far more options than those of the average person has to walk a precarious tightrope. If the world is to glossy,the people too lacquered, it can actually end up glamorizing that which it's trying to vilify. Ultimately sending a message similar to the one expressed by those cops in the old movies bemoaning the fact that certain people are  just “Too beautiful to suffer, too lovely to die.”
The DVD of Puzzle of a Downfall Child is currently only available in France (released Feb. 2012), but every year more and more obscure films are getting "made to order" releases, hopefully this will be one of them.
So, whether you take the film to your heart (as I did), or wish to wallow in its camptastic splendor  (Puzzle of a Downfall Child is an exquisite, sumptuous-looking film that has a scene involving a toilet that is sure to send Mommie Dearest fans into wild ecstatics), this artifact from the days when movies sought to do more than make Variety's Top Ten weekend boxoffice list, has a little of something for everybody.

No matter how you prefer your Dunaway, overdone and theatrical or touching and deeply affecting, Puzzle of a Downfall Child is a lost miracle of a film that is worth taking the time to discover (or rediscover).
"One only breaks oneself apart in order to put oneself back together again...better."

To view some of Jerry Schatzberg's magnificent photographs, visit his website HERE

Copyright © Ken Anderson