Tuesday, July 30, 2013

STAR 80 (1983) / LOVELACE (2013): PORN, COMPLICITY, AND RAPE-CULTURE IN MOVIES

“Everyone that watches ‘Deep Throat’ is watching me being raped.” 
― Linda Lovelace, in her 1980 book, Ordeal  

“Yes, there’s a lot of nudity, but it’s a message movie about respecting women.”
 Producer Patrick Muldoon, speaking to the press about his 2013 film, Lovelace

Mariel Hemingway as Dorothy Stratten and Eric Roberts as  Paul Snider in Bob Fosse's last film, the morbid and depressing, Star 80
America loves its porn, but it’s never quite sure how it feels about it. Looking at the theatrical trailer for Lovelace, the forthcoming biopic of 70s Deep Throat porn sensation, Linda Lovelace; I was struck by how much it reminded me, both in subject and approach, of Star 80, Bob Fosse’s 1983 film about Playboy Playmate, Dorothy Stratten.

Both films tell the story of unsophisticated small-town girls who come under the influential wing of sleazy, disarmingly charming - ultimately controlling and abusive - lovers/managers who pimp the women out to the sex industries. Hardcore porn in Linda Lovelace's case (nee, Linda Susan Boreman); the sanitized, mainstream-porn limbo of “men’s magazine” nude photography in the instance of Dorothy Stratten.
photo: The Times
Peter Sarsgaard & Amanda Seyfried (top) portray Linda Lovelace and husband Chuck Traynor (below) in the film, Lovelace (2013).

The trailers for Star 80 and Lovelace are available for viewing on YouTube, with their similarities extending not only to leaving vague each film’s attitude about any presumed passivity or unwitting complicity on the part of these women in their fates, but in addition: near-identical prototypical sleazeball boyfriends assayed by Peter Sarsgaard in Lovelace and Erich Roberts in Star 80 (Roberts also happens to be in the cast of Lovelace); scenes of a woman dominated and forcibly seated in a chair by an aggressive male; and, most intriguingly, a subliminal “inheritance of exploitation” element introduced by the casting of conspicuously deglamorized former sex-symbols (Carroll Baker in Star 80, Sharon Stone in Lovelace) as the mothers of these victimized women.
Given our culture’s ambiguous relationship with industries that traffic in the commodification of sex, it’s perhaps not surprising that whenever we choose to train a cinematic spotlight on pornography, it’s not by way of celebration, but through the dramatic prism of a moral cautionary tale. (Although one might think, in an industry raking in upwards of $1.8-billion annually, there must be somebody celebrating somewhere.)
Lovelace and Star 80 tell tragic true-life tales of women suffering physical abuse at the hands of a professional Svengali. Stratten was ultimately murdered by hers, Lovelace broke free. But the air of sadness that always seemed an intractable part of Linda Lovelace's liberated, anti-porn countenance, hinted at a psychological scarring that prevented one from taking much comfort in her too-public emancipation. The message one gets from the trailers is clear: pornography is dehumanizing. The analogy unassailable: the porn industry and mainstream show business are not dissimilar in their treatment and exploitation of women.

But what about the films themselves?  Is it possible to make a film about sexual exploitation without inadvertently resorting to (and in effect, participating in and sanctioning) the very kind of behavior it seeks to indict?

Read the complete article at HERE at Movieline.com

Copyright © Ken Anderson


Saturday, July 27, 2013

SCROOGE 1970

It’s Christmas in July! Or, at least that’s how it feels since I got it in my head this month to read (for the first time!) Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. An act which, in turn, brought about my umpteenth revisit to the 1970 big-budget musical flop Scrooge (mercifully, without an exclamation point), my absolute favorite screen adaptation of this oft-told holiday allegory.

A Christmas Carol and its tale of a miserly old curmudgeon who finds spiritual redemption through the intervention of three spectral warnings, has been adapted, reworked and re-imagined so many times and in so many different formats that reference sources can't even agree on an actual number. I've seen and suffered through a great many over the years myself, the best of the lot being the well-regarded 1951 Alastair Sim version; that beloved staple of my childhood, Mr. Magoo’s A Christmas Carol (1962); and, a particular favorite, 1992’s The Muppet Christmas Carol. But no adaptation rouses me, touches my heart, or gets the waterworks flowing for me like Scrooge. I just adore it. It may not be the most faithful Dickens adaptation, or even the best, but like the tree atop the Capitol Records Building in my neighborhood of Hollywood, it never fails makes me feel like it's Christmas. And as such, it's the most thoroughly charming and satisfying of all the versions of A Christmas Carol I've ever seen.
Albert Finney as Ebenezer Scrooge
Alec Guinness as Jacob Marley
Dame Edith Evans as The Ghost of Christmas Past
Kenneth More as The Ghost of Christmas Present
A brief look at the films released in 1970 reveals a kind of battle being raged at the boxoffice. Old-fashioned, elephantine studio releases like Airport, Tora!Tora!Tora!, and Ryan’s Daughter were duking it out with smaller, youth-centric films like M*A*S*H, Five Easy Pieces, and Diary of a Mad Housewife. When my friends and I went to the movies on weekends, it was often a choice between what we called “parent's movies” or “something good,” which usually meant something pretentious, grounded in “realism,” or with nudity (preferably, all three). Old-style Hollywood movies, particularly musicals, were considered "plastic." Something which, in post-'60s vernacular, was appreciably worse than old-fashioned. Plastic meant artificial, contrived, corny, and old-hat. Hollywood, which had grown increasingly out of touch with public tastes in the latter part of that decade, could have saved itself untold headaches (not to mention millions) by heeding the cultural warning signs and not continuing to sink money into pricey dinosaurs like Star! (1968), Hello Dolly (1969), and Paint Your Wagon (1969) long after interest in films of this scope had waned.
Dancing on His Grave
The townsfolk celebrate Scrooge's demise in the exuberant (and Best Song Oscar-nominated) "Thank You Very Much,"a number owing a considerable debt to Oliver!'s "Consider Yourself"
A good example of how abruptly tastes had changed by 1970 is apparent in the way movie fans that year avoided Barbra Streisand doing what she does best (singing) in the G-rated On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, in favor of seeing her in a more realistic milieu (crassly so, many thought) playing a foul-mouthed, non-singing, New York prostitute in the R-rated and hilarious The Owl & the Pussycat. Even Julie Andrews, the lady largely responsible for reviving the musical with The Sound of Music, couldn't get fans to turn out for Darling Lili that same year. Tellingly, the only movie musicals young people went to see in 1970 were all documentaries: Woodstock, The Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter, and The Beatles’ Let It Be.
The Ghost of Hollywood Yet to Come
By the '70s, big studio productions like Scrooge were already a dying breed. 

While the story of Ebenezer Scrooge had a pre-sold market familiarity and a royalties-free public domain accessibility, the mounting of a large-scale, wholly British musical production of the material was a hard sell from the start. Albert Finney was known to American audiences for his Academy Award nominated/Golden Globe winning performance in Tom Jones (1963), but was nobody's idea of a boxoffice draw. Likewise director Ronald Neame (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The Poseidon Adventure), who was hardly a household name. Screenwriter/composer Leslie Bricusse was seen as something of a drawing card due to his long association with entertainer Anthony Newley, but whatever goodwill he'd built up on the strength of Broadway hits like Stop the World-I Want to Get Off (1961) was compromised by being very publicly associated with the double-barreled bombs: Goodbye Mr. Chips (1969) and Doctor Dolittle (1967). Saddled with feebly-rendered posters and a terrible ad campaign practically designed to scare audiences away (“Scrooge - All Singing! All Dancing! All Heart!”) Scrooge limped into theaters in November of 1970 with its only marketing hooks being the familiarity of Dickens' story and the surprising presence of a handsome 34-year-old leading man cast in the role of the crotchety old miser.
Albert Finney as young Ebenezer, Suzanne Neve as Isabel Fezziwig, the love he let get away

For all the above stated reasons, I steered clear of Scrooge when it came out. But when it began to make the rounds on TV every Christmas, I regretted never granted myself the opportunity to see it on the big screen. Even in its heavily-edited* state, it thoroughly delighted and captivated me.
*Perversely, early TV broadcasts eliminated most of the musical number "Thank You Very Much," arguably the most lively and kid-friendly song in Scrooge's lovely but somewhat sluggish score, and edited out the scenes of Scrooge in hell and some of the scarier stuff involving Marley and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Ignoring the fact that children's classics like The Wizard of Oz are heavy on both scares and cheerful music, like a death-wish, the networks zeroed instead on Scrooge's warmth...a guaranteed humbug for children's Christmastime viewing. Happily the DVD has everything restored.
Banished to Hell, Scrooge is shown the ropes (or, in this case, chains) by his old friend, Jacob Marley 

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Not meaning to sell Scrooge short, but I'd be less than honest if, in praising this well-acted and wholly pleasing adaptation,  I fail to mention that I'm a bit of a soft touch when it comes to A Christmas Carol as a story. There is just something I find so elementally moving in the hopeful theme of personal transformation, the retrieval of the lost soul, and the warming of a frozen heart. The idea that all people, no matter how deeply mired in the selfish and superficial, have within them the potential for positive change, has always been one of my narrative pet weaknesses. It just rips me up. It’s a poor adaptation of A Christmas Carol, indeed, that doesn't have me in tears by the time Ebenezer begins to see the error of his ways. Scrooge does this job exceptionally well, and by the film’s last 10 minutes I’m fairly a mess.
Albert Finney won a  Best Actor Golden Globe for Scrooge. He would sing onscreen again as Daddy Warbucks in 1982's Annie
There’s something about the fairy-tale quality of Dickens’ writing - present in A Christmas Carol in particular - which lends itself to easy transfer to a musical format. The characters have great, Seussical names like Fezziwig and Cratchit (and of course, the onomatopoeic perfection that is Ebenezer Scrooge…which is like, the best name EVER!), and the broad emotions of Scrooge’s reality are almost like musical counterpoint to the melancholy tenderness of the story's sentimentality. During the last act, the two contrasting worlds mesh, it feels like a musical crescendo.
The redemption/transformation musical medley that makes up the final act of  Scrooge (wherein many of the songs that had previously underscored highlighted Scrooge's misanthropy, are converted into anthems celebrating his magnanimity) is the star on top of this particular cinema Christmas tree. It's funny, it's moving, and I wish I could watch it just once without getting all choked up.

Perhaps due to the fact that the story itself has such a musical rhythm, Leslie Bricusse's score of melodic, undistinguished songs, feel perfectly fine without being particularly noteworthy. The songs are pleasant enough, propelling the plot, fleshing out character and motivation, and, when they are at their best, expressing joy. But unlike say, the songs of the Sherman brothers (Mary Poppins, Bedknobs & Broomsticks) whose melodies for Disney movies are so infectious they have almost become nursery rhymes and childhood classics; no matter how often I see Scrooge, I can’t remember a single song afterward except “Thank You Very Much.” On the plus side, the forgettable nature of Bricusse's songs has the effect of making the film feel new to me each time I revisit it.
David Collings and Frances Cuka as Bob & Ethel Cratchit
I love adaptations of A Christmas Carol which deviate from the book text and allow for scenes of the Cratchit family reacting to the rehabilitated Scrooge.

PERFORMANCES
Where Scrooge surpasses so many other versions of A Christmas Carol for me is in the pleasure I derive from Albert Finney’s bilious take on Ebenezer Scrooge. He’s a great deal of fun as a devoted killjoy, barking insults at people and shoving children out of his path. So much so that one is likely to be reluctant to see him rehabilitated too soon. As should come as no surprise to anyone who’s seen his Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express, Finney is a movie star with the heart of a character actor. Concealing makeup and prosthetics that would swallow up lesser actors only seem to liberate the versatile British actor from the limitations imposed by his leading man good looks.
As Scrooge, Finney’s transformation is mostly body language, and he plays Ebenezer as a sad, disappointed man who has steeled himself from pain by stiffening and gnarling his entire countenance into a knot of meanness.
Scrooge contemplates his younger self

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
I have no idea what that shooting budget for Scrooge was, but the the film looks great in that old-fashioned, shot-entirely-in-a-studio way that triggers a certain nostalgia. The scope of  the film isn't as grandiose as its spiritual cousin Oliver!, but Scrooge boasts a distinguished cast of British actors, pleasing period detail in costumes and sets, and the overall look of it is finely turned-out and sumptuous. The special effects, which must have been pretty dazzling in 1970, are pretty primitive by today's standards, but rendered all the more charming by that fact (God, am I tired of CGI). Also, I think most of the cast, if not all, does its own singing! 
A Page Out of Dickens
Bob Cratchit with son Tiny Tim (Richard Beaumont) and  daughter, Kathy (Karen Scargill)

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Christmas is my favorite holiday season. And living here in L.A., its a beautiful time where the city of glitter and glitz puts on an extra layer of tinsel that makes a simple walk down the street feel like you're starring in your own MGM musical. It's not my usual habit to watch holiday movies in the swelter of summer, but in this case, I had such a blast (and a REALLY good cry) revisiting the world of Charles Dickens. Dickens by way of a delightful musical film that just happened to have been released when delightful musical films were no longer on America's agenda of moviegoing prerequisites. If Scrooge isn't already considered a holiday classic, it should be. It stands as an excellent reminder that just because a film is out of step with the times in which it was made, doesn't necessarily mean that it's a film out of step.
"God bless Us, Every One!"
Copyright © Ken Anderson

Saturday, July 20, 2013

SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE 1978

I'm afraid I'm guilty of coming down pretty hard on the current appetite for comic book movies. My usual gripes:
1. The cloak of self-seriousness they’ve shrouded themselves in of late.
2. The need for each successive film to be busier, noisier, and more frenetically plotted than the last.
3. The gradual usurpation of the kid-friendly genre by adult males (college-age to middle) willing to come to social media blows and death threats over plot points, casting, trivia, and fidelity to source material— which, it bears repeating…is a comic book.
4. There just being so darn many of them.

Despite their obvious popularity and profitability, I still stand by my assertion that glutting the market with so much ideologically and stylistically identical “product” may be good for business, but it's lousy for culture. But whenever I find myself being a big ol’ grump about the ceaseless hype surrounding the most recent cookie-cutter entry in the latest superhero franchise, I only have to remind myself of what a flurry of hoopla and excitement I happily allowed myself to get swept up in way back in 1978. I don’t think there was a soul on earth more charged-up and enthusiastic about the release of Superman: the Movie; a film that was then, and remains today, my absolute favorite superhero film of all time.
Christopher Reeve as Superman / Clark Kent
Margot Kidder as Lois Lane
Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor
Valerie Perrine as Eve Teschmacher
Like many people my age, Superman comic books and TV reruns of The Adventures of Superman were an inextricable part of my childhood. They were also, outside of a few Saturday morning cartoons, the only Superman I knew (the less said about the 1975 TV adaptation of the 1966 Broadway musical, It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman [available for viewing on YouTube] the better). While I always loved the TV show, an updating of its '50s sensibilities, cheesy flying effects, and George Reeves’ baggy-kneed Superman costume factored into my elation when, in 1976, it was announced that a mega-budget, all-star Superman film was to be made. This left me inundated with nearly two years’ worth of pre-production hype and trade-paper advance publicity to discover, collect, and pore over. And I didn't mind it one bit.
Marlon Brando and Susannah York as Jor El & Lara
Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter as Ma & Pa Kent
Superman opened Friday, December 15th, 1978 at Grauman’s Chinese Theater here in LA, and, of course, I was in line opening night. The pre-release press reviews were near-unanimous raves, and the film’s marketing strategy kept everyone intriguedyet completely in the dark; its ads consisting primarily of minimalist teaser commercials dramatically highlighting the Superman insignia and little else. In those pre-internet days, movies could keep a great deal of their content under wraps before release, so there was excitement, wonder, and sense of being present at an "event" buzzing through the crowd that night. What am I saying? The anticipation was unbearable! If I remember correctly, the theater added late-night screenings to accommodate the overflowing masses, and in the line I occupied that wrapped nearly completely around the block, all any of us could talk about was how Superman: The Movie was going to stack up, special effects-wise, to last year’s megahit, Star Wars, and wonder aloud as to how the film could make good on its resolute tagline: “You’ll Believe a Man Can Fly.” 
The makers of Superman really had a knack for meeting and exceeding audience expectations
The first time Reeve is shown in his Superman outfit is also the first time the audience finds out how this particular Superman is going to fly. The audience I saw it with started cheering the moment they saw the cape and blue tights, but when he took off in graceful flight, throwing us a literal curve by banking the wall of the fortress (no prior Superman had ever flown in any direction other than horizontal and vertical) ...they lost it.

To this day, whenever I watch Superman, I can still remember, clear as a bell, the rumble of excitement that went through the packed house when the lights dimmed. I’ll never forget the moment preceding the credits, when the screen expanded, the black and white intro footage changed to color, and (with the assist of MAJOR amplified sound) those laser-like “flying names” whooshed towards us. The loudest sound (the sound of a jet plane taking off or Superman himself flying directly overhead), accompanied by the first blare of horns from composer John Williams’ majestically heroic score, came with the Superman insignia. And with that, the audience totally lost its collective mind. The biggest collective gasp you ever heard filled the cavernous theater, followed by deafening excited applause and cheers. Here Superman wasn't even two-minutes-old and it had the audience eating right out of its hand.
Otis (Ned Beatty) and Miss Teschmacher read about the Man of  Steel. I think Otis moves his lips.
Although production on Superman had begun before Star Wars was released, Superman: The Movie arose from the same cultural zeitgeist in that it was another affectionate update of and tribute to the kinds of films kids of my generation grew up seeing at Saturday matinees. Superman had somehow accomplished the miracle of being something totally new, yet nostalgic; something self-aware, yet charmingly corny; something playful and fun, yet respectful of both the Superman legend and its legions of fans. All at the same time! For once, a film had lived up to its massive hype. And it makes me happy to think back to that evening in December of 1978, and how Superman reduced me and an entire audience of fully-grown adults to a giddy state of childlike awe and wonder at the magic of the movies.


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
I always take umbrage when action films and summer blockbusters run to the defense of “It’s pure escapism!” or “It’s intended for kids!” when coming under critical fire for being moronic, shoddily written, or just a series of explosions and special effects strung haphazardly together (directors Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich come to mind). As Dr. Seuss and Roald Dahl knew, kids aren't stupid. And just when did mindless become synonymous with “escapist”?
Jackie Cooper as Perry White
What I love about Superman is how smart it is. Correction: make that ingenious. It's the canniest transfer of a comic book character to the movie screen I've ever seen. There's fun, there's escapism, and there are certainly a great many thrills to be had in the masterfully-handled action sequences. But not once does the film play its audience for mindless drones in need of little more than bright, shiny objects flashed before our eyes to keep us in our seats. Expertly balancing ever-shifting tones of adventure, romance, drama, and comedy, Superman employs classic, three-act story structure, fulfilling the basic need for solid storytelling that every film, whether for adults or children, requires.
Jeff East as Young Clark Kent
Perhaps what plays best for me these days is the scale of the film's story. Hewing closely to the simplicity of the comic books and TV series, the goal of the villain and the stakes of the peril in Superman: The Movie might come across as somewhat minimal compared to the overcrowded, overplotted, mass-mayhem destruction noisefests of today; but that's part of the film's charm.
I like a Superman who has time to rescue cats from trees and apprehend common thieves. That whole global destruction angle of contemporary superhero films is just too emotionally distancing for me.
Jor-El sentences Ursa, Non, and General Zod to the Phantom Zone
Villains Sarah Douglas, Jack O'Halloran, & Terence Stamp don't really make their presence felt until Superman II (1980)

PERFORMANCES
During the entirety of my childhood George Reeves and Noel Neill were the only Superman and Lois Lane I knew. Now, rather spontaneously, when I think of Superman and Lois Lane, I can only see Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder. Their performances have blotted out all prior and subsequent incarnations of the characters. Both actors are such spot-on, visually witty, temperamentally ideal incarnations of the characters in the comic, that they have become Superman and Lois for me. 
Much like Jeremy Irons in David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers, Reeve's dual performance involves a great deal of incredibly subtle shifts in body language that seem to transform his features right before your eyes
I've loved and studied movies most of my life, but in all these years I've never fully understood that imperceptible, interdependent alchemy the camera captures that goes into screen chemistry and star quality. It strikes me as a most elusive, ethereal factor, yet multimillion-dollar movies can crash or soar because of it. I like Reeve and Kidder a great deal, but in my opinion neither has ever been better than they are than in this film and paired with one another.
The casting of Marlon Brando was the major thrust of Superman's early publicity, but time has revealed the film's to be worthy of praise. I sense a great deal of the credit is owed to director Richard Donner (The Omen), who sets the right tone and creates a kind of cartoon reality, then has his actors pitch their performances to just the right level of believable and comic. It's a marvelous cast no matter how you slice it, but Donner gets wholly captivating performances out of everyone assembled. Jackie Cooper's excitable Perry White is a hoot, and I particularly delighted in Gene Hackman and his barely-up-to-the-task minions, Valerie Perrine and Ned Beatty.
Marc McClure as Jimmy Olsen
THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Swoon alert. I think one of the top reasons Superman is my fave rave superhero movie is because I am absolutely enchanted by the Superman/Lois Lane romance; and as embodied by Reeve and Kidder, they make for one of cinema's great screen couples. I'm a sucker for corny romance anyway, but in taking the time to create a Lois and Clark that are quirky, imperfect, and endearing, Superman made the pair so likable that you're practically rooting for them to fall in love. This in spite of the fact that as any Superman fan knows, they HAD to fall in love.
Spoiler alert*
I'm past middle-age, I've seen the film dozens of times, and this is a movie adapted from a comic book, for Chrissakes; but when Lois dies at the end, I get waterworks each and every time. Christopher Reeve's performance is just remarkable (love that bit where, when he's tenderly placing her body on the ground, he winces as if afraid to hurt her, even in death), and the sequence is a tribute to what writers are able to achieve in a big-budget, genre film if they remember a film's audience is comprised of human beings, not market-analysts. Superman got me to believe in these fictional characters by getting me to care about and identify with them. Today, I think superhero films want me to to identify with the stunts, gadgetry, and hardware.
The Effects Are Fake, The Characters Are Real
Since the relationship between Lois and Clark looms so large in my fondness for the film,  it never bothers me that the special effects in Superman look dated. I'm too involved in what's going on between the engaging cast of characters. Sure, films today give us painstakingly realistic CGI, but who cares if it's only in the service of synthetic, one-dimensional mannequins.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
I’d be remiss in praising Superman without making special mention of the indispensable contributions of famed cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth (Murder on the Orient Express, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Cabaret) and composer John Williams (Jaws, Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind). A master of light with an eloquent eye for composition, Unsworth gives Superman a distinctive sheen (obvious in the screen caps used here), its degree of impact made all the more conspicuous by how significantly subsequent Superman films suffered due to its absence. 
And what can I say about John William’s epic Superman theme? Absolute perfection! It deftly strikes the right chord of nostalgia by recalling the classic TV show theme, yet feels like a wholly new take on those soaring themes from serials and adventure films of yesteryear. Williams' score is one of those real goosebump-inducing anthems that absolutely MAKES the film. As far as I'm concerned, in this case, John Williams is as responsible for Superman's success as Richard Donner.
Past Meets Present
The best joke in the film and the one that got the absolute biggest, loudest laugh of the night was the sight gag  featuring Clark Kent, in full retro "This looks like a job for Superman!" mode, encountering his first modern phone booth. Self-aware gags like that are what made Superman so appealing to me.

After 1980s Superman II (which I very much enjoyed) it's fair to say I haven't liked a single Superman incarnationfilm or TV programsince. A fact having more to do with my preferential fondness for this film than for any implied deficiencies in those projects themselves. I do plan on seeing Man of Steel (2013) when it comes out on DVD*, my only hope being that it at least be a moderately well-made film (my expectations for superhero films are pretty downsized these days).

*Update: Saw Man of Steel and my jaw never left the floor, stunned as I was for how epic a miscalculation the whole costly enterprise was.
So, the point of this post is that, in spite of my grousing, I really do "get it" when it comes to the public's preoccupation with comic book movies today. I mean, the hardest thing to recapture as I get older is that wide-eyed sense of amazement and fun that was a regular part of the moviegoing experience for me when I was young. The ability to transport us into worlds of unimaginable fantasy is a significant gift that films have to offer, so who can entirely blame people for wanting to feel that kind of exhilaration when they go to the movies?  
However, I DO wonder who needs a non-stop, steady diet of escapist fantasy to the exclusion of all else. But that's just me.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Monday, July 15, 2013

INSIDE DAISY CLOVER 1965

Nostalgia isn't what it used to be. It’s a strange feeling, indeed, to harbor a fond memory of a film enjoyed in childhood, only to encounter it again as an adult and find yourself at a complete loss to know just what it was that captured your imagination in the first place.
Had this post been written in recollection of the many times I enjoyed Inside Daisy Clover on late night TV as a kid, I’m certain my comments and observations would reflect my generally positive response to this not-uninteresting-in-concept (but veering towards camp in execution), very '60s look at '30s Hollywood and the dark underbelly of the film industry. Back when I could only see Inside Daisy Clover in black & white with commercial interruptions, I guess I was just young enough to have found the era-inappropriate music to be rousing, and the strung-together show biz clichés that make up its plot (this was years before the days of the celebrity tell-all and 24-hour, peel-back-the-veneer, Hollywood infonews) to be a bold inversion of the usual rags-to-riches story.
So, after many years, when the opportunity arose to finally get a look at Inside Daisy Clover in color, digitally-restored and widescreen, I couldn't pass it up.  I should have left things as they were.
Natalie Wood as Daisy Clover
Robert Redford as Wade Lewis
Christopher Plummer as Raymond Swan
Ruth Gordon as Mrs. Clover
Inside Daisy Clover (adapted by Gavin Lambert from his 1963 novel), is about two traumatic years in the life of its titular character; a 15-year-old Santa Monica beach urchin with a big voice (“I open my mouth and a song comes out!”) who, in 1936 Hollywood, becomes America’s Little Valentine virtually overnight. Advertised at the time with the tagline “The story of what they did to a kid...,” Inside Daisy Clover is a behind-the-scenes exposé of the Hollywood Dream Machine as assembly-line sweatshop. A hardhearted factory that systematically exploits talent, treats people like property, and callously discards those too sensitive to withstand the near-constant demoralization. All in the pursuit of the Almighty Dollar. It’s a story Hollywood never seems to tire of telling about itself, this time the familiar tinsel-town pathos given a tawdry facelift by having as the target of all this abuse, a teenage child star. That is, if you can buy 26-year-old Natalie Wood as a 15-year-old. 
Natalie Wood felt her performance was compromised when the heavily-edited film (21 minutes were cut prior to release) left much of her character's voiceover narration on the cutting room floor. I shudder to think what they left out when what they left in are such piquant Daisy-isms as:
"My mother says the world's a garbage dump and we're just the flies it attracts. Maybe she's right. But when I sing the smell doesn't seem so bad."

Two things struck me on seeing Inside Daisy Clover again after so many years: 1) A common complaint I have about '60s period films, one so pervasive I should by now accept it as a given (yet can’t)-'60s movies are notorious for always looking like the '60s, no matter what era they try to depict. Inside Daisy Clover takes the trouble of changing the novel’s 1950s setting to Hollywood in the 1930s, but outside of a few vintage automobiles thrown at us, there's precious little effort made to advance period authenticity.
I know it’s partly a matter of aesthetics…'30s standards of beauty (pencil thin eyebrows, narrow silhouettes, severe hairdos) can be unflattering to celebrities who still need to look alluring to their contemporary fans, but in Inside Daisy Clover, a movie I assume wants to be taken seriously, it merely looks lazy, cheap, and uncommitted. The anachronistic rendering of the era prevented me from being fully drawn into the story, and gives this drama the unintended look of light comedy. Compare Inside Daisy Clover’s superficial, overlit sheen to the 1930s as depicted just four years later in Sydney Pollack's They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?. Movie fans who mourn the loss of Old Hollywood need a film like Inside Daisy Clover to remind them of what used to pass for gritty realism in movies before foreign films and Bonnie and Clyde came along and shook things up 
Former child stars Natalie Wood and Roddy McDowall 
McDowall appears in the thankless role of Walter Baines, producer Raymond Swan's vaguely sinister flunky 

2) Why is it that when Hollywood attempts to be hard on itself and show the world its true face, warts and all, it comes across as being phonier than when it's feeding us platitudes and myths? Based on what's come to light over the years about the lives of countless child actors, the events of Inside Daisy Clover are far from exaggerated (over-acted, perhaps), yet little of what happens feels particularly true-to-life. Part of it's due to the acting, which seldom moves beyond the surface, the other falls heavily on the writing. Everything grim seems to have been unnecessarily pitched to melodrama (Plummer’s Swan is only lacking a top hat, cape, and a handlebar mustache to twirl), and that which should be moving, feels under-directed and under-performed. Daisy's frequent outbursts and eruptions of temper have all the requisite sound and fury, but there’s no anguish behind it…Natalie Wood's one-note performance turns a young girl’s pain into a series of shrill tantrums.
Loopy
Daisy Clover's nervous breakdown while looping a song in a sound booth has become a camp touchstone over the years. I found it quite harrowing when first I saw it as a kid. Now Natalie's histrionics are overshadowed by the inspired sound editing, which is really quite marvelously done.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
For reasons that make sense only to myself, Inside Daisy Clover remains weirdly engrossing and watchable in spite of not being in the least bit good. How is this possible? Well, chiefly due to my certainty that the entire film is haunted by the campy ghost of Patty Duke as Neely O’Hara in Valley of the Dolls. I can’t help it. When I watch Inside Daisy Cloverfrom fade-in to fade-outI can’t stop drawing parallels between Clover's story and that of the pint-sized trainwreck at the center of Jacqueline Susann's iconic soap opera. That and thinking how much better and more hilariousthis film would be had Patty Duke been cast instead of Natalie Wood. (Even Clover's "The story of what they did to a kid..." tagline, recalls Dolls' "Neely...such a nice kid. Until someone put her name in lights and turned her into a lush!")
I consider myself a fan of the immensely appealing Natalie Wood, but Patty Duke, at age 19, would certainly have made a more persuasive 15-year-old. Not to mention the fact that Duke’s less glamorous, tomboyish looks are much more appropriate to the character than Wood’s angular, inescapably mature and feminine countenance. In addition, Duke’s speaking voice has the naturally low register and raspy edge Natalie Wood works hard (far too hard) to capture in the early scenes. 
The Circus is a Wacky World / Give a Little More
As much as I like her in Splendor in the Grass, I truly find Natalie Wood (who campaigned aggressively for this role) to be terribly miscast in Inside Daisy Clover. I would have much preferred to see Patty Duke or Sally Field in the part. That's Duke pictured here as Neely O'Hara, just minutes before getting her big song cut from Helen Lawson's show. For the uninitiated: the only hit that comes out of a Helen Lawson show is Helen Lawson.

In both form and function, Daisy Clover IS Neely O’Hara to me, and Inside Daisy Clover is full of scenes which recall or inadvertently reference Patty Duke’s legendarily comic performance. There’s the laughable adopting of “little toughie” postures to convey defiance; the cornball, climbing-the-ladder-of success montages; the rebellious bristling at authority; the theatrical mental breakdowns and self-destructive behavior; the barely adequate dubbed singing that’s nevertheless hailed by any and all to be the stuff of which stars are made; and, best of all, Daisy’s and Neely’s songs were penned by the exact same composers: Dory & Andre Previn— two people who never heard a Vegas-style musical cliché they didn't like.
Natalie Wood and Robert Redford doing what they do best in Inside Daisy Clover...looking pretty.
Wood and Redford reteamed in 1966 in This Property is Condemned

PERFORMANCES
I hate to say it but 26-year-old Natalie Wood plays Daisy Clover as Peck’s Bad Boy with bosoms. She doesn't inhabit the character so much as reduce the rather enigmatically-written teen down to a series of broadly-drawn attitudes. There’s that awful pixie/waif haircut wig (and if it isn't a wig, Ms. Wood should have sued); the freckles; the studied, ungainly gait; and let’s not forget the artfully applied smudges of dirt to the requisite nose and chin to convey pugnacious spunk. In lieu of a characterization we’re given a too-mature actress in '60s false eyelashes and eyeliner, trying too hard to convey spirited adolescence by means of cartoonishly-rendered explosions of piss and vinegar feistiness. 
An actress I've always felt could deliver with a strong director, Natalie Wood during the film's first ten minutes displays some of the most amateurish acting I've ever seen outside of a John Waters or Andy Warhol film. She's downright embarrassing, and the film takes a long time to regain its footing. She gets better once she gets to drop the butch act, but not by much. I'm not sure if it's one of the worst performances of her career, but it's pretty darn close.
Ruth Gordon was nominated for an Oscar for her role as Daisy's (what else?) eccentric mother. To be fair, this was Gordon's return to the screen after a 22-year absence, and at the time the Academy had no way of knowing she'd be giving variations on this same performance for the next 20.

My favorite performance in the film is given by Christopher Plummer as the ironfisted producer, Raymond Swan. Plummer plays him in an amusingly reptilian mannerholding himself very still, lizard-like eyes darting aboutthat make his scenes the most lively in the movie. The same can't be said for gorgeous superstar-to-be Robert Redford, whose method of conveying ladykiller charm is to precede each line of dialog with a drop of his chin and a purposeful stare upwards into the eyes of whomever he's talking to...like a superannuated member of some boy band.
Daisy gets Schooled

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
I do have a weak spot for Inside Daisy Clover's two big production numbers granted the songs You're Gonna Hear from Me and The Circus is a Wacky World. Cheesy, camp, and anachronistic as hell, these numbers (staged by Funny Girl's Herbert Ross) are nevertheless a lot of guilty-pleasure fun for a guy raised on variety shows from the '60s and '70s.
"Listen world, you're gonna love me!"
Intergalactic megalomaniac Daisy Clover foists herself on an unsuspecting planet
Like Sammy Davis, Jr's I Gotta Be Me, Frank Sinatra's My Way, Anthony Newley's Gonna Build a Mountain, or Helen Lawson's immortal I'll Plant My Own Tree, Daisy Clover's You're Gonna Hear from Me is one of those self-aggrandizing show-biz anthems beloved of pop stars and Vegas lounge singers in the sixties. Obligingly, and with an obvious eye towards a Best Song Oscar nod, or at least a Robert Goulet single, composers Dory and Andre Previn keep the musical arrangement snappy and thoroughly mired in mid-'60s Easy Listening tastes. In 2003, Barbra Streisand covered this song on her The Movie Album, but she kinda made it sound like a threat.
The Pepto-Bismol-pink musical extravaganza, The Circus is a Wacky World stands as Inside Daisy Clover's metaphor for the phoniness of Hollywood. It's also a melody so infectious that it takes several days to dislodge it from  your brain after seeing the film. Happily, as this little ditty runs a marathon around your head 24/7, fans of the film will be granted the opportunity of reenacting Daisy's nervous breakdown scene for friends and family.
Character actor and vaudevillian song and dance man Paul Hartman (best known as Emmett the handyman on The Andy Griffith Show) seen here with Natalie Wood in a deleted scene. Most likely from the film-within a film "Dime Store Kid."


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
It’s difficult to imagine how any well-constructed film can survive the excision of 21 minutes of footage, so perhaps one of my biggest dissatisfactions with Inside Daisy Clover (Daisy’s disillusionment with Hollywood is near instantaneous. We’re never given even one scene where she’s happy to have her dream come true) might be the result of how much had to be left out.
That being said, it’s still unlikely that Inside Daisy Clover would ever register with me again the way it did when I was young. For one, when I was a kid EVERYBODY looked older and it didn’t bother me so much how little Natalie Wood looked or acted like a teen. Now, I can’t get past it. Similarly, the then-shocking revelations of the filmbisexuality, adultery, family dysfunction, child labor abusesare rather tame without good performances and writing to back it up. 
Katharine Bard is really rather good as Raymond's Swan's neglected wife, Melora. There are better screen caps I could have used of her, but the ever-shaggable Robert Redford is just so darn cute here

On the plus side, I must say that Inside Daisy Clover looks rather spectacular in widescreen and in color, still, I'm not so sure that balances out having to face the fact that a movie I once liked a great deal just didn't stand the test of time for me. 

THE AUTOGRAPH FILES:
Christopher Plummer
I got this autograph of back in 1983 when I was studying dance in New York. I saw him walking down the street somewhere in the theater district, and I asked if he would be so kind as to sign this (a schedule from Jo-Jos Dance Studio). Of course I had one of those cheap pens that made you scratch the paper just to get ink to come out. That accounts for the undecipherable first word preceding "...of best wishes" in the autograph above. As I recall, he was very nice, very tan (this was dead of winter) and VERY handsome!

Copyright © Ken Anderson