Friday, January 24, 2014

MIDNIGHT COWBOY 1969

I’m sometimes asked if I only like movies about women, or if a film has to have a female protagonist in order for me to enjoy it. Granted, even a cursory look at the films discussed on this blog would seem to bear that out, but the truth is, I’m not drawn specifically to movies about women so much as I have a strong aversion to what passes for male characterization in a great many motion pictures. Preoccupied as they are with perpetuating a narrow (not to mention, outmoded) vision of manhood comprised of oversimplified macho/hero stereotypes; I find that movies too often give us outsized masculine totems instead of fleshed-out, human-scale men.

Never being one to find plot-driven action and adventure to be a preferable alternative to the intensity of simple emotional conflict, I gravitate instead to movies about flawed characters grappling with the human condition. That these have largely been movies about women says more about our culture’s rigidity in its onscreen depiction of masculinity than it does any gender preferences I may hold in the way of  narrative central characters. 
Joe Buck sees the cowboy as the epitome of hetero-masculinity
Hollywood has never lost a dime trafficking in gender stereotypes. In the standard Hollywood film, men “do” while women “feel”; men propel the action, women do all the emotional heavy-lifting. The prototypical American male movie hero is a stoic, unemotional, lantern-jawed man of action, rarely given to moments of self-doubt, feeling, or introspection. He’s the strong, silent type, indigenous to westerns, war movies, crime dramas, espionage thrillers, sports films, sci-fi, or any testosterone-leaden genre requiring things being “blowed up real good,” or cars raced fast and furiously.
Happily, a great deal of this changed (albeit briefly) in the late-60s with the emergence of the movie anti-hero. The New Hollywood, in its youthful repudiation of America's cinematic status-quo, challenged the old-fashioned concept of masculinity and reimagined the traditional Hollywood leading man as an individual of unprepossessing countenance (Elliot Gould, Richard Benjamin, Malcolm McDowell, et. al.) capable of uncertainty, and more apt to be at war with some aspect of his character than to be found pointing a .44 Magnum at some punk and asking, “Do you feel lucky?”
Urban Cowboy
Archaic notions of masculinity collide with the modern world 
A perfect example of the American male redefined can be found in one of the films I consider to be a true, genuine-article, movie classic: John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy. A buddy film for a new generation, which in every way embodies the kind of perceptive, complex, characterizations I love to see in movies. When a film is this textured in exploring emotional isolation, vulnerability, loneliness, and (a favored theme of mine) the human need to connect, from, speaking topically, the relatively rare perspective of the male; it only emphasizes how much time is wasted and how many rich stories we all miss out on when movies persist in depicting men in terms of masculine archetypes rather than genuine, humanly-flawed people.
Jon Voight as Joe Buck
Dustin Hoffman as Enrico Salvatore Rizzo
Sylvia Miles as Cass Trehune
Brenda Vaccaro as Shirley
Midnight Cowboy is the story of Joe Buck (Voight), a naïve Texas dishwasher with a sad, abandoned past, who, possessed of little beyond an elemental self-awareness – “The one thing I ever been good for is lovin’” – seizes upon the tin-pot ambition of going to New York and making it as a sought-after gigolo, servicing the sexual needs of neglected, Park Avenue socialites. Unfortunately, a string of bad breaks (not the least of them being Joe’s ignorance of the largely homosexual implications drawn from his beloved cowboy attire in a Metropolitan setting) results in a drastic reversal of fortunes for Joe, leading to his forging an unlikely friendship/bond with a tubercular, disabled grifter and pickpocket: one Enrico Salvatore Rizzo (Hoffman), or, as he's loath to be called, Ratso.
In detailing the tentative alliance between these two wounded misfits, director John Schlesinger (Darling, The Day of the Locust) and screenwriter Waldo Salt (from the James Leo Herlihy novel), have not only fashioned one of the screen’s great (platonic) love stories, but in the bargain create a terribly moving and heartrending essay on isolation and the need to be needed.
"Joe sees how profusely Ratso is sweating and untucks his shirt to pat down his friend's hair. Ratso, not used to such tenderness, holds onto him, his eyes closed in a stolen moment of bliss."
                        - Dustin Hoffman speaking about one of the film's most poignant scenes in the John Schlesinger
                        biography, Edge of Midnight, by William J. Mann

The kind of mature-themed major motion picture unimaginable in today’s teen-driven multiplex marketplace, the then X-rated Midnight Cowboy fairly knocked me for a loop when I saw it in 1969 (I was fairly shaken by it; finding some parts absolutely harrowing, later feeling heartbroken and bawling my eyes out at the end...then staying to watch it all again). I was just 12-years-old at the time, and in my film fan fervor, Midnight Cowboy looked to me like the future of American movies. Strange to think of it now in the age of Iron Man and The Avengers, but try to imagine: only an adolescent movie enthusiast but already exposed to the brilliance that was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Rosemary’s Baby, Secret Ceremony, and Bonnie and Clyde…and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? was just around the corner.

Like an unspoken promise, the quality of these movies led me to the optimistic (naive?) belief that American films were headed in an entirely new direction. And, freed from the constraints of censorship by the newly-imposed rating system, mainstream motion pictures movies could at last take their place as the emergent pop-cultural art form of the 20th century. Alas, conservatism and consumerism ultimately won out, but for a brief time there, Hollywood was turning out the most AMAZINGLY offbeat and thought-provoking movies.  
No wonder the 60s and 70s still linger in my heart as my absolute favorite era in American film. I see now that its because we were both growing up at the same time.
X-Rated
Bernard Hughes appears as Townsend "Towny" P. Locke in one of Midnight Cowboy's most  controversial scenes

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Putting aside for a moment Waldo Salt’s absolutely incredible screenplay (and if you've read Herlihy's novel you know what a splendid adaptation it is), as far as I’m concerned, cinematographer Adam Holender (Puzzle of a Downfall Child) and composer John Barry (and all sundry music contributors) are as much the stars of Midnight Cowboy as Voight and Hoffman. Displaying the kind of seamless collaboration that served to both feed and mislead auteur theorists critics back in the day,  Holender and Barry create a look and sound for Midnight Cowboy so cinematically swell-suited to its themes of fractured dreams and abandoned hopes (the use of disorienting flashbacks and subjective audio were considered innovative for its time), that the mode of storytelling becomes as important as the story itself. And, of course, who can listen to Fred Neil's Everybody's Talkin' (sung by Henry Nilsson) without visualizing Joe Buck strutting down the crowded Manhattan streets, the diminutive Ratso Rizzo at his side, struggling to keep up.
Repeat viewings reveals the incredible amount of backstory and character exposition relayed through the economic and use of flashbacks and dream sequences. Everything you need to know about Joe Buck's troubled past is revealed, but the richness of this device is found in how little is actually explained. Imagine that, a movie that gives you credit for being smart enough to connect the dots without everything being spelled out!
Shown in flashback, Joe is sexually assaulted by town rowdies jealous of the attention paid to him by the town goodtime-girl, Anastasia Pratt, aka Crazy Annie (Jennifer Salt, daughter of screenwriter Waldo Salt). 

PERFORMANCES
Midnight Cowboy is so chock full of amazing performances that it becomes an exercise in futility to extol the virtues of any one particular actor. Still, each time I watch it, I find I'm left with lingering impressions of newly-discovered bits of brilliance in performances I thought I was long-familiar with.
Making his film debut, long-time favorite, Bob Balaban, is appealingly vulnerable as the young student who, even in his naif outing as a sexual outlaw, has it over Joe Buck in the street-smarts department
"I got a strange feelin' somebody's bein' hustled!" - Doris Day in Calamity Jane
Oscar-nominee Sylvia Miles makes more out of 6 minutes-worth of screen time than any actress I've ever seen. As the Park Avenue "socialite" with the braying voice and whiplash temper, Miles creates a vividly dimensional character out of little more than a sketch. I could go on about what I adore about her performance, but I couldn't put it any better (or more hilariously) than a fellow blogger does HERE
Sylvia Miles had the showier part, but I have a soft spot for Brenda Vaccaro and what she does with her thoroughly unique role as the emancipated woman who gets a kinky kick out of paying for sex with, as she puts it, a "cowboy-whore" she meets at a party. Like almost every supporting role in Midnight Cowboy, hers is a character one can easily imagine having a life beyond the frame of the screen (judging by her apartment, possibly a pretty fascinating one).   
Midnight Cowboy was my first exposure to both Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman, both of whom give the kinds of performances that make stars. Some of the actors considered for the role of Joe Buck include: James Caan, Don Stroud, Alan Alda (!), Michael Sarrazin, Lee Majors, Alex Cord, Gary Lockwood, Robert Forester, and Michael Parks.

Hoffman is, of course, a revelation, especially in light of the extreme departure Ratso Rizzo is from his work in The Graduate; but it's the sad-eyed Jon Voight who ratchets up the film's pathos by way of achieving, in his portrayal of the hapless hustler, Joe Buck, what I've always admired in the work of Julie Christie: the ability to instill in shallow, not-very-bright characters, a considerable amount of inarticulate depth.
Haunted
If it's disappointment and sadness that leads Joe to willingly accept sexual objectification as a viable means of existence, then Midnight Cowboy qualifies as the male perspective of a tragic real-life circumstance we tend to see played out in public most often by women. Consider the doomed fates of sexualized small-town girls, Dorothy Stratten and Anna Nicole Smith.
THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Fantasy isn't perhaps the best word to describe what I mean, but I adore the seedy, grimy look of late 60's New York captured in Midnight Cowboy. It's a Through the Looking Glass view of Manhattan inspired, one can't help but assume, by Brit director John Schlesinger's unfamiliarity with the city, and his fascination with its sordid contrast to the cheery image of America presented in advertising and TV commercials. As would be the case in later years in films like Klute (1971) and Taxi Driver (1976), Midnight Cowboy uses New York as if it were another character in the story.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
As it is rare for a director to even turn out ONE classic film in the entirety of their careers, I find it sometimes a little baffling how easily John Schlesinger's name - the man who gave us Midnight CowboyDarling, and The Day of The Locust...three genuine classics, in my book  is so often bypassed in discussions of great directors. Even the gay community rarely gives it up for this director (to my knowledge, the only "out" director working in mainstream film at the time) whose body of work is decidedly uneven, but nonetheless yields several impressive efforts. Happily, Schlesinger won the best directing Oscar for Midnight Cowboy, and the film won Best Picture that year (Salt also won for his screenplay).
There’s no telling what, if any, impact Schlesinger’s sexuality had on the way Midnight Cowboy turned out (after all, the original novel was written by a gay man, but adapted by a straight). But even by today’s standards, what still impresses me about Midnight Cowboy is how strongly it stands as one of mainstream cinema’s most persuasive examples of the purposeful deconstruction of the masculine myth.
Joe Buck embraces a traditional concept of masculinity no longer considered relevant or even valid in an urban (modern) environment. In fact, Joe is rather stunned to learn that everything he one thought represented masculinity and manhood (macho posturing, sexual pursuit, and dressing like a cowboy) has, somehow, become perversely feminized ("You're gonna tell me John Wayne's a fag?!"). Manliness of the sort he admired as a boy in the movies, or copied from the rodeo cowboys that populated his grandmother’s bed, transmogrified into the macho “drag” adopted by homosexual prostitutes plying their trade on New York's Forty-Second Street.
Like a great many men who haven't a clue as to how to view themselves without clinging to an antiquated hunter-gatherer/alpha-male paradigm; Joe, without a defined code of “masculinity” to follow, is at a loss. (Ironic, because, as revealed in the novel and an early draft of the screenply, what inspires Joe to come to New York in the first place is his learning that the urban phenomenon of the overworked businessman has resulted in a surplus of sexually frustrated city women. In short, Joe believes there is a shortage of "real men" in New York, and his goal is to step in and fill the void, so to speak.)

Even within the sex trade where he hoped to make his fortune, Joe finds himself unwittingly cast in the feminine role of being the one pursued by males rather than in the (equally passive) part of easygoing stud sought after by women. Yet, in his inarticulated longing to love and be loved (his only familiarity with it is as a purely physical act) he finds the closest thing he has ever known of it in the deep friendship he develops with another male. One every bit the misfit as he is. 
Scenes of Domesticity
Over the course of the film, as Joe and Ratso come to need and depend on one another, Joe’s deep-rooted masculinity anxiety shows signs of being replaced by a fragile sense of self-worth, and a broader concept of what it means for him to be a man. Joe even tables his dreams and awakens to the reality that he's not cut out for hustling. He places the needs of someone else before his own, and though he acts out of desperation, it's born of a genuine concern for the only person that has come to mean anything to him (the only person he has, in fact). Rico drops his tough-guy front and reveals his vulnerability (who could call a man in a Hawaiian shirt Ratso?) forcing Joe to abandon his own false macho attitudinizing, resulting in two individuals at last becoming defined (in our eyes and their own) by their humanity; not the empty labels of masculinity.

And for a rather bleak and somber film, I think that's a really lovely, bittersweet  message to end with.


THE AUTOGRAPH FILES
Bernard Hughes - 1980

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Thursday, January 16, 2014

SHAMPOO 1975

Watch. Rinse. Repeat.
I don’t know of any other film in my collection of heavy-rotation favorites that has undergone as many transformations of perception for me as Shampoo. It seems as though every time I see it, I’m at a different stage in my life; each new set of life circumstances yielding an entirely different way of looking at this marvelously smart comedy.

Shampoo has been described as everything from a socio-political sex farce to a satirical indictment of American moral decay as embodied by the disaffected Beautiful People of Los Angeles, circa 1968. Taking place over the course of 24 hectic hours in the life of a womanizing Beverly Hills hairdresser (Terrence McNally’s The Ritz mined laughs from the improbability of a gay garbage man; Towne & Beatty do the same with its not-as-funny-as-it-thinks-it-is heterosexual hairdresser running gag), Shampoo chronicles the petty crises, joyless bed-hopping, and self-centered betrayals (if, indeed betrayal is possible between individuals incapable of committing to anyone or anything) amongst a particularly shallow sampling of the denizens of The City of Angels.
Nixon's the One
Four people, each with their own agenda. Five if you count the smiling portrait in the background

The film takes place in and around Election Day 1968, and, fueled by our foreknowledge of what Nixon’s Presidency portended for America with its attendant undermining of the nation’s moral fiber and erosion of political faith; Shampoo attempts - not wholly successfully- to draw parallels to the decline of the country’s political awareness and optimism of the 60s by training its lens on a group of characters who can’t stop looking into mirrors or get their collective heads out of their own asses long enough to take notice of anything around them that doesn't impact their lives personally. No one in the film even votes!
Warren Beatty as George Roundy
Julie Christie as Jackie Shawn
Goldie Hawn as Jill Haynes
Lee Grant as Felicia Karpf
Jack Warden as Lester Karpf
Aging lothario and preternatural adolescent, George (Beatty), is the most popular hairdresser at the Beverly Hills salon where he plies his trade, but sensing time passing, feels the pang of wishing he had done more with his life. George’s ambition is to open a place of his own, but the not-very-bright beautician routinely undermines his long-term success by allowing himself to become distracted by the short-term gratification offered by the easy sex that got him into the hairdressing business in the first place. Juggling a girlfriend (Hawn), a former girlfriend (Christie), a client (Grant), that client’s teenage daughter (Carrie Fisher, making her film debut), all while trying to negotiate financing of the salon from said client’s cuckolded husband (Jack Warden); George find himself in way over his pouffy, Jim Morrison-tressed head. 
Directed by Hal Ashby (Harold & Maude), Shampoo is really the brainchild and creative collaboration of two of Hollywood’s most legendary tinkerers: Warren Beatty and screenwriter Robert Towne (although a Julie Christie biography credits her with bringing to Warren's attention the 1675 restoration comedy, The Country Wife and it serving as the real genesis of Shampoo). Depending on the source from which one gets one’s information, Shampoo - which underwent nearly 8-years of rewrites and countless hours of on-set nitpicking - was inspired as much by Beatty's own exploits as Hollywood’s leading man-slut, as that of the life of late hairdresser-to-the-stars, Jay Sebring (a victim of the Manson family that fateful night in 1969. Beatty was Sebring’s client for a time), and celebrity hairstylist Gene Shacove (who is given a technical consultant credit for Shampoo, but who I mainly know from a 1956 lawsuit filed against him by TV personally/cult figure, Vampira, claiming he burned her hair off with one of his dryers). Even hairdresser-to-producer Jon Peters (Eyes of Laura Mars) weighed in, claiming the film was inspired by his life.
Blow Job
(It strikes me as the height of irony and the biggest testament to the absolutely stupefying superficiality of the Hollywood/Beverly Hills set satirized in Shampoo, that so many men clamored to be credited with being the inspiration for George. A character depicted - if one is actually watching the film and not just getting off on the number of ladies bedded -  as a selfish, shallow, narcissistic, slow-witted, self-disgusted loser.)
I saw Shampoo nearly a year after its release (I fell in love with the movie poster and bought it long before I even saw the film), but remember distinctly what a huge, huge hit it was. I mean, lines around the block, rave reviews, lots of word of mouth, and endless articles hailing/criticizing it for its frank language and (by 70s standards) outrageous humor. It's popularity even spawned an exploitation film titled, Black Shampoo, which I've yet to see, but I hear features a chainsaw showdown with the mob. Anyhow, Shampoo is a marvelous film, to be sure, but in hindsight, I think a sizable amount of the hoopla surrounding it can be attributed to two things:

1) The The Sandpiper Factor.  In 1965 audiences made a hit out of that sub-par Taylor/Burton vehicle chiefly because it offered the voyeuristic thrill of seeing the world’s most famous illicit lovers playing illicit lovers. The same held true for Shampoo. In 1975, audiences were willing to pay money to speculate about the similarities between Shampoo’s skirt-chasing antihero and Warren Beatty’s reputation as a Hollywood ladies’ man. That the film featured on-and-off girlfriend Julie Christie; former affair, Goldie Hawn (so alleges ex-husband, Bill Hudson); and future girlfriend, Michelle Phillips, only further helped to fuel gossip and sell tickets. 

2) Pre-Bicentennial jitters. Shampoo was released at the beginning of 1975.Three years after the Watergate Scandal broke, one year after Nixon’s impeachment, and just three months before the official end of the Vietnam War. As the flood of “Crisis of Confidence in America” movies of 1976 proved (Nashville, Taxi Driver, Network, All the President’s Men, etc.) movie audiences were more than primed for anything reaffirming their suspicion that America’s values were in serious need of reexamination. 
Carrie Fisher (making her film debut)as Lorna Karpf
In 1975 this line got a HUGE laugh. Her other famous line got a HUGE gasp
I found Shampoo to be a funny, well-written and superbly-acted look at the spiritual cost of the "free love" movement of the 60s. It is a witty, intelligent, and keenly observed comedy of manners. What it never was to me was a particularly profound political satire. The election night stuff, the TVs and radios blaring ignored campaign speeches and election returns...none of it gelled for me as an ironic statement deeper than America's apathy helped put a man like Nixon into office. I'm not saying that others haven't found the subtext to be appropriately weighty, I just find it significant that over the years I've encountered many people who love Shampoo, but only dimly recall any of the political references (or even the death of an unseen character).
In Shampoo's most talked-about scene, Rosemary's Baby producer, William Castle, chats up Julie Christie, while to Beatty's left sits character actress, Rose Michtom. Fans of Get Smart will recognize Rose from her 44 appearances on that TV show (one of the executive producers was her nephew). A curious tid-bit: she's the daughter of the inventor of the Teddy Bear (!), and even has a website devoted to her Get Smart appearances.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Movies about unsympathetic people are not always my thing, but I do admit to being a sucker for a film that taps into a reality I’ve found to be true: that a great many distasteful people don’t like themselves much more than I do. What I love about Shampoo is that it is one of those rare films which showcases the lives of the rich and privileged, yet at the same time is able to convey a sense of hollowness and self-disappointment at the core of each of its characters. And in a comedy yet! It’s a subtle, extremely difficult thing to do (talk to Martin Scorsese about The Wolf of Wall Street), but it gives characters you might otherwise loathe, a sense of humanity. They become individuals whom I can both identify with and understand…if not necessarily like. I think the award-winning screenplay by Towne / Beatty is absolutely brilliant. An early draft of which I read, even more so, as it fleshed out the friendship between Jackie and Jill even more.
Producer/director Tony Bill  plays TV commercial director, Johnny Pope
PERFORMANCES
OK, I’ll get this out of the way from the top: Julie Christie is absolutely amazing in this movie (surprise!).  Not only does she look positively stunning throughout (even with that odd hairdo, which I've never been quite sure was supposed to be funny or not) but she brings a sad, resigned pragmatism to her rather hard character. A character not unlike Darling’s selfish Diana Scott.  Whatever one thinks about her performance, I think everyone can agree that stupendous face of hers is near-impossible not to get lost in.
You Had One Eye in the Mirror as You Watched Yourself Gavotte
One of my favorite things in Shampoo is the way the characters are perpetually captured checking themselves out in mirrors; even in the middle of serious discussions or arguments. 
Lee Grant's voracious-out-of-boredom Beverly Hills housewife won Shampoo's only acting Oscar, and nominated Jack Warden really deserved to win (his is perhaps the film's strongest performance) but I think Goldie Hawn is especially good. Comedic Hawn is great, but serious Hawn has always been my favorite. The scenes of her character's dawning awareness of what kind of man she's allowed herself to fall in love with are genuinely touching, and among the best work she's ever done. Not to overuse a word bandied about in Shampoo with vacant casualness, but Hawn is great.
As Shampoo's most sympathetic character, from her early scenes as a ditsy blond to the latter ones revealing a clear-eyed defiant strength, Hawn shows considerable range.
THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Shampoo is peppered with celebrity cameos and walk-ons. All adding to the feeling that this isn't a period film taking place in 1968 (in many ways the period detail in Shampoo leaves a lot to be desired) so much as a 1975 tabloid-inspired Warren Beatty roman à clef.
Michelle Phillips
Susan Blakely
Andrew Stevens
Howard Hesseman
Jaye P. Morgan
Joan Marshall, aka Jean Arless from William Castle's Homicidal, aka Mrs. Hal Ashby

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Shampoo over the years
1975- First time I was a sex-obsessed teenager (and virgin). Beatty seemed old to me at the time, so I didn’t fully understand how a fully-grown man could allow his life to unravel around him due to an inability to keep it in his pants. What did I know?

1983- OK, let’s put it this way; at this stage of my life I “got” the whole sex thing in Shampoo. Also, I was I was living in Los Angeles by this point, so not only had the film’s satirical jibes at Los Angeles “culture” grown funnier, they became perceptive.
1990- Throughout the 80s and 90s, I worked as a dancer, an aerobics instructor, and a personal trainer in Los Angeles. If you have even a tangential familiarity with any of these professions, you’ll understand why, at this stage, Shampoo started to take on the look of a documentary for me. In fact, I came to know several George Roundys over the years. Straight men drawn to these largely female-centric professions, aimiable, screw-happy, and more than willing to reap the benefits of working all day around women and being in the sexual-orientation minority where males were concerned. All of them exhibited behavior so identical to that attributed to the George character in Shampoo, I gained renewed respect for the accuracy of Towne and Beatty’s screenplay.
Today- I’m happily in my late 50s (I happy about it, not ecstatic); nearly 20 years into a committed; loving relationship; thankful and gratified by the journey of growth my life has been and continues to be. When I look at Shampoo now, I watch it with an empathy toward its characters I don’t believe I had when I was younger. Who knew then that so much in the film referenced growing up? (Jill's harangue at George, Jackie being surprised that an old hippie friend is still throwing the same kind of parties). 
I think what I now know that I couldn’t have known in my 20s or 30s, is the profound emptiness of these people’s lives. Never having been in love before, I didn’t know what I was missing. Now I understand how wonderful a thing it is to be that close to someone... to trust someone that much...to be able to share a life; and how terrifying and disappointing life can feel without it.
Especially when one faces the realization - at middle age, yet - that the very life choices one has made so casually in one’s youth (the lack of introspection, the inattention to character, kindness, or concern for others) have consequences that can render one incapable of ever attaining it.
It's too late...
Jackie checks to makes sure her future is still secure with Lester as George confesses his vulnerability
Shampoo is still amusing to me, but its comedy has more a wistful quality about it. One full of regret and remorse over time wasted, and the bitterness of realizing where one is after years of living, as Socrates wrote "the unexamined life." Shampoo to me is a film that mourns the loss of 60s optimism (the use of The Beach Boy song, Wouldn’t it be Nice? is truly inspired) and stares out through a smoggy sky at a future that, at east in 1975, must have looked pretty hopeless.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Thursday, January 9, 2014

HOT RODS TO HELL 1967

Well, if you’re going to hell, I guess a hot rod is as good a means of transportation as any.

1967 was a banner year at the movies for me. I was just ten-years-old, but in that single year I saw Casino Royale; Valley of the Dolls; Bonnie& Clyde; Wait Until Dark; Far From the Madding Crowd; To Sir, With Love; Up the Down Staircase; Barefoot in the Park; Thoroughly Modern Millie; Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?; and The Happening. Barely a kiddie movie in the bunch! Each was a film I was dying to see, and each, save for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, has become a lifelong favorite (Good intentions notwithstanding, that movie really hasn’t aged well for me. 108 minutes of watching human paragon, practically-perfect-in-every-way, Sidney Poitier having his feet put to the fire for the privilege of marrying, as one critic put it, “vapid virgin” Katharine Houghton, begs a tolerance of a sort different from that which was intended). 
On the Road
Carolyn Cassady, Neal Cassady, and Jack Kerouac...or an unreasonable facsimile thereof
These days, I’d consider it a small miracle if I see even TWO memorable films in the same year, much less the bumper crop of greats 1967 yielded; but thanks to the lax admission policies of movie theaters in those pre-ratings code days I was able, in spite of my tender years, to see practically any film I had a mind to…and usually did. But no matter how mature I imagined myself to be at the time, I was still only a kid, so upon occasion, my budding aesthetics didn't always steer me toward the quality stuff. For example: in spite of my weakness for movies with mature themes that were way over my head, The Graduate, Two for the Road, and Reflections in a Golden Eye – films I now consider to be among the best that 1967 had to offer – held absolutely no interest for me during their initial theatrical runs. Instead, my imagination and attentions were seized by two Drive-In caliber B-movies that were being given the big push on TV back then: Born Losers and Hot Rods to Hell
Get Your Kicks on Route 66
Why, you ask? Well, for starters, the commercials for Born Losers (Tom Laughlin’s biker flick that marked the debut of his Billy Jack character) prominently featured a girl on a motorcycle in a bikini and go-go boots (Elizabeth James) who looked a lot like Liza Minnelli (oddly enough, a crush of mine even at that early age). While Hot Rods to Hell had, in addition to that simply irresistible title, commercials showcasing a screaming teenager (Laurie Mock) who bore a strong resemblance to another one of my preteen, gay-in-training crushes, Cher. Unfortunately, both films came and went from the local moviehouse so quickly that I never got to see them until many years later. 
Psycho-Chick
While my interest in Born Losers dissipated as Billy Jack grew into a pretentious vigilante franchise during the 70s (I finally got around to seeing Born Losers on TCM a year or so ago, and while it’s a lot of lurid fun - especially full-figured gal, Jane Russell, in a small role – once is definitely enough), Hot Rods to Hell, which I was lucky enough to see at a revival theater in Los Angeles sometime in the 80s, was well worth the wait. An example of Grade-A, Drive-In kitsch at its finest, Hot Rods to Hell-arious is a camp hybrid of 1950s drag race exploitation films and those reactionary, youth-gone-wild, juvenile delinquency social problem flicks - all with a suburban midlife-crisis “reclaim your manhood” domestic melodrama thrown in for good measure. It’s a gas!
Dana Andrews as Tom Phillips
Jeanne Crain as Peg Phillips
Laurie Mock as Tina Phillips
Mimsy Farmer as Gloria
After suffering a spinal injury in a nasty Christmas season auto accident, Boston traveling salesman, Tom Phillips (Andrews), emerges a broken and shaken man (“It all came back to me. The horns blowing, the lights, the brakes… ‘Jingle Bells’…”). On the mend from his external injuries, Tom nevertheless carries within him an ugly, shameful disease. A pitiable malady bordering on the abhorrent if discovered, even in minuscule traces, within the stoic, bread-winning, man-of-the-house, post-50s suburban macho American male.
That disease is insecurity. Yes, folks, Tom’s self-image and the entire foundation of his 60s-mandated, nuclear family teeter on the verge of collapse under the strain of Daddy actually having an emotional reaction to almost losing his life in an auto accident. How dare he! Men just don't DO that! Passages of Hot Rods to Hell's screenplay read like a Ward Cleaver lecture on the perils of middle-class/middle-aged men having their masculinity usurped due to the enfeebling act of having feelings. To make his humiliation complete, not only is wife Peg the one who decides to make the move California, but en route (*gasp*) she does all the driving!

Boss Finley Can't Cut the Mustard
Or so wrote Miss Lucy in lipstick on the ladies room mirror at the Royal Palms Hotel in "Sweet Bird of Youth." The topic then was sexual impotence, and Tennessee Williams couldn't address it with any more frankness in 1963 than this 1966 TV-movied (Hot Rods to Hell was originally intended to be as a television release). There's a lot of talk about Tom's bad back, but its pretty clear there's also something going on with his front. Here Dana Andrews uses his semi-stiff, trembling hand as a metaphor for his underperforming man parts. Jeanne Crain's look sums it up.

Under advisement of his physician to take things easier (“What does the doctor think he is, a MENTAL case?” bellows Tom’s compassionate brother), Tom agrees to leave Boston and assume management duties at a thriving motel in the small desert community of Mayville, California. On board with the whole relocation thing are supportive wife, Peg (Crain), and freckle-faced,“all-boy” towhead son, Jamie (Jeffrey Byron). The sole holdout is daughter Tina: an early prototype of the sullen, eye-rolling Goth teen and walking Petrie dish of festering hormonal agitation. "All the kids drag, Dad!" she spews, with typical adolescent bile, in reference to short-distance car racing, not (as I'd hoped) a '60s trend in teen cross-dressing. 
Little Jamie's dominant character trait is taking frequent
 passive-aggressive swipes at his father's masculinity
Loaded into their pre-mandatory-seatbelts station wagon, the Family Phillips motors cross-country to Mayville; the unseen, presumably uneventful, first leg of their roadtrip taking an instant turn for the melodramatic once they hit California. Depicted as a vast landscape of open roads devoted to car culture and thrill-seeking teens, 1960s California takes on the feel of the Old West once the Phillips’ gas-powered covered wagon catches the attention of a trio of exceptionally clean-cut juvenile delinquents (they all come from "good" wealthy families).
The Mild Bunch
Gene Kirkwood as Ernie / Paul Bertoya as Duke
What follows is a comically escalating game of cat-and-mouse where what began as high-spirited, run 'em off the road kicks (“Everybody’s out for kicks. What else is there?”), gets rapidly out of hand. Soon the road-hogging hot-rodders make it their business to see that Tom Phillips and family never reach their destination (square Mr. Phillips plans to crack down on the "fun" once he takes over that motel), or get the chance to squeal to the police (or “Poh-lice” as Dana Andrews peculiarly intones).
Passions flare, dust flies, tires screech, rock music blares, and everybody either overacts shamelessly or unconvincingly. Meanwhile, many questions arise: Will Peg ever stop treating Tina like a child? Will good-girl Tina succumb to the skeevy lure of bad boys? Will little Jamie’s respect for his father ever be restored? Does Tom still have the ol’ poop, or has he lost it forever? The answers to these, and several other questions you don't really care about, are answered in Hot Rods to Hell.
The hospital Dana Andrews convalesces in  (top) previously served as a High School
in the "Ring-A-Ding Girl" episode of The Twilight Zone -1963

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS MOVIE
Hot Rods to Hell is based on a 1956 Saturday Evening Post short story (The Red Car / Fifty-Two Miles to Terror by Alex Gaby) and every frame feels like it. Adapted from a story written at the height of the mid-50s juvenile delinquency panic that spawned Blackboard Jungle and Rebel Without a Cause, Hot Rods to Hell elicits laughs and inspires giggles because it feels so out of step with the times. It really should have been one of those 1950s American International cheapies shot in black & white with Mamie Van Doren.
George Ives (giving the only decent performance in the film) as motel proprietor, Lank Dailey 
There once was a time when feature films and TV sitcoms like Father Knows Best and Leave it to Beaver promoted suburban life and middle-class values as the American ideal. But come the 60s and the New Hollywood youthquake, counterculture rebellion was in (The Graduate, You’re a Big Boy Now), and uptight, staunchly judgmental, middle-class suburbanite “squares” like Hot Rods to Hell’s Tom and Peg Phillips, were out. In just a year's time, offbeat movies like Angel, Angel, Down We Go and Wild in the Streets would normalize the onscreen depiction of outlaw teens as the heroes, while members of the over-30 set were always cast as the villains.
Judging You
The dramatic stakes of Hot Rods to Hell are seriously undermined by the pleasure to be had
in watching this smug suburban family being taken down a notch. 

PERFORMANCES
If you've never seen veteran actors Dana Andrews or Jeanne Crain in a film before, I beg you, don't start with this one. Hot Rods to Hell will leave you wondering how they ever had careers in the first place. This is their fourth film together (State Fair - 1945 / Duel in the Jungle -1954/ Madison Avenue -1962), and to say the photogenic duo went out with a whimper would be a gross understatement. Andrews, hampered by a makeup artist trained during the days of the silents, is so unrelentingly stiff and gruff, he's a figure of derision long before his character has a chance to be made sympathetic. Hammily scowling and grimacing in his Sansabelt slacks, this is far from Andrews' finest hour, but he's awfully entertaining.

The Saga of an Emasculated Male
In this artfully composed shot worthy of Kubrick, Tom nurses his bad back 
while being silently mocked by his wife's handbag
Tom threatening to scratch out the eyes of his tormentors?
Personal faves are B-Movie starlets, Mimsy Farmer and Laurie Mock, each playing yin and yang ends of the exploitation movie female spectrum (they would reunite with co-star Gene Kirkwood in 1967s Riot on Sunset Strip). As actresses, both are severely limited, but what they lack in talent they more than make up for in their grasp of knowing exactly what kind of overheated histrionics a movie like this requires. Farmer in particular gives her discontented small-town teen the kind of edgy Ann-Margret overkill that's the stuff of bad-movie legend.
Showing respect and giving props to her homegirl
But a special Oscar should have been awarded to Jeanne Crain, who not only looks lovely in her matronly Sydney Guilaroff coiffure, but overacts so strenuously she takes the entire film to a level of hilarity unimaginable without her devoted contribution. Let's take a moment to pay tribute:

It's A Grand Night For Screaming


THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Aside from the creaky source material, what further contributes to Hot Rods to Hell feeling like a movie made at least ten years earlier is the fact that its 55-year-old screenwriter, Robert E. Kent  (co-writer of Dana Andrews' vastly superior 1950 film, Where the Sidewalk Ends) was probably drawing his knowledge of teenage behavior from screenplays he wrote for a slew of early 60s / late-50 rock & roll exploitation films. Movies with sound-alike titles (and look-alike plots): Twist Around the Clock (1961), Don't Knock the Twist (1962), Rock Around the Clock (1956) and Don't Knock The Rock (1956). All containing portrayals of teenage life firmly entrenched in the Eisenhower years. Similarly, Hot Rods to Hell's potential for even a moderately authentic depiction of teen behavior was no-doubt hampered by having a director in his 70s at the helm (John Brahm, surprisingly, the man behind the marvelous 1944 version of The Lodger).
Burlesque star, cult figure (John Waters' Desperate Living) and mobster sweetheart, Liz Renay appears all-too-briefly as a bar patron. 
The many decades of behind-the-camera moviemaking experience involved in Hot Rods to Hell lends the film a professional gloss frequently at odds with its small-budget incompetence. The film's poorly-executed day-for-night effects play havoc with the time-frame continuity of the film's third-act action setpiece. What time of day is it actually - is it dawn...is it dusk...is it midnight?
Random sexual assaults are pretty much regulation for 60s exploitation movies 

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
A prime ingredient for the enjoyment of any bad film is often the degree of earnestness displayed by those involved. Like Joan Crawford in the Grade-Z cheapie, Trog, I don’t believe anyone in Hot Rods to Hell had any illusions about the caliber of film they were making, yet that didn't prevent them from pulling out all the acting stops and carrying on as though they were appearing in The Grapes of Wrath. Professional ineptitude without some kind of artistic aspiration or pretension is simply boring, so what qualifies Hot Rods to Hell as one of those top-notch bad movies I can watch over and over again is the sense that everyone in it is clearly giving it all they've got...and THIS is the best they were able to come up with.
Mickey Rooney Jr (right) & His Combo contribute several (un)memorable rock tunes 
to the soundtrack,  here they perform that timeless classic,  "Do the Chicken Walk"
As stated, Hot Rods to Hell has long been a favorite of mine, but an extra layer of enjoyment has emerged now that I'm almost as old as Dana Andrews when he made the film. It cracks me up when I catch traces of my own reactions to today's youth in the humorless outbursts of our stuffed-shirt hero (don't get me started on teenagers and their smartphones). Happily, my fussing and fuming is mostly an internal harangue or confined to the relative safety of social media. These days, road rage is risky and traffic here in Los Angeles is already far too congested and cutthroat to even think about getting involved in automobile skirmishes.


BONUS MATERIAL
A great review of Born Losers can be found HERE
Mickey Rooney Jr. guests on the pop music variety show SHINDIG HERE

Copyright © Ken Anderson