Thursday, June 30, 2016

SHOOT 'EM UP BANG BANG: 15 TOP FAVORITE JAMES BOND THEME SONGS

It’s complicated. That would be my description of my relationship with James Bond movies. I was born during the Cold War and was but a mere babe of five when the first Bond film, Dr. No (1962) was released; so I grew up during the whole “spy mania” craze of the ‘60s with nary a recollection of a world without spies, espionage, and James Bond. Although Boris Badenov and Don Adams’ Agent 86 were more my speed, spy culture was everywhere during my formative years; from movies, TV shows, pop songs (Johnny Rivers’ Secret Agent Man was a personal favorite), fashions, magazines, novels, and, of course, the real-life nightly news. If you think John Travolta's white 3-piece-suit was omnipresent in he '70s...well, that's nothing compared with how many wannabe 007s sought out the instant cool of a white dinner jacket.
Bond movies were intended for adults, but that didn’t prevent them from being marketed to kids during Saturday morning cartoons and in comic books. I had a James Bond doll (excuse me, action figure) and one of those very cool, arsenal-laden Bond attaché cases before I’d ever seen a Jams Bond film. In fact, the first James Bond film I ever saw in its entirety was Live and Let Die (1973) when I was 15-years-old. (I saw and fell head-over-heels in love with the much-reviled, psychedelic Bond spoof Casino Royale when I was 10, so perhaps my ultimately warped perception of James Bond got off to a particularly twisted start.) 
So why did it take me so long to see a Bond film? Well, this is where things start get complicated. You see, I don’t exactly like James Bond movies. See, even as a kid I found all those spy shows: The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Girl from U.N.C.L.E., The Avengers, Secret Agent, I Spy, Mission: Impossible, The Saint, etc. – to be dull as dishwater. The same “shoot ‘em up, bang bang” with different faces was all it was to me. 
When I tried watching the Bond films when they aired on TV, if I didn’t fall asleep, they simply failed to hold my attention. As I've said in previous posts on the topic of action films, Ive never found stoic heroism and macho aggression to be in and of itself very compelling. In fact, it just feels redundant and done-to-death.
To this day the only Sean Connery Bond film I’ve ever watched all the way through is the lamentable Thunderball remake and “rogue” Bond production, Never Say Never Again (1983); a film which marked Connery’s return to the role after a 12-year absence and saw the then-53-old agent succumbing to frequent naps in between saving the free world.
Given what appears to be my indifference to (if not downright antipathy for) the genre, you'd figure I’d just leave 007 alone. But once, again, this is where things get complicated. Spy movies were the westerns of my generation, and James Bond is this mythic figure that looms as a pop-culture staple in my psyche, like Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny. Bond was such a pre-consciousness presence in my formative years that it feels like he’s in my blood, if not exactly my DNA. And while I have no problem ignoring the current craze in superhero films, James Bond isn't exactly the same. He MY era's Star Wars and feels like an indelible fixture in a distant corner of my moviegoing life.
So, of the 24 “official” James Bond films made to date, I’ve seen 13. Can I remember the plots to any of them? No. Do I enjoy them? Yes. Do I like them? No. Funny, that.

And so it goes. It’s like a knee-jerk, spontaneous response. I haven’t missed a Bond film since 1985s A View To a Kill – which featured my favorite Bond villain, the exquisite Grace Jones as May Day, but I do so almost out of tradition and a vague connection to something I’ve never been able to put my finger on. Whatever it is, it’s the same willful surrender to mindless spectacle and purposeless action that drove my interest in disaster movies during the ‘70s.
Daniel Craig is my favorite Bond of all, and Judi Dench was so good she made me forget that I never knew what the hell was going on from one movie to the next. I watch Bond movies for the scope, the explosions, the stunts, the special effects, and the retro “cool” of handsome guys going about in suits and beautiful women kicking ass in high heels and gowns. I seem to like that "idea" of James Bond more than I like the real thing.

And then, there are the title sequences. Even as a kid I was entranced by the dreamlike (now iconic) title sequences of Bond films, often finding them more rewarding than the films they introduced. And the music…the influential James Bond theme and intro music is as identifiable a trademark as the Coca-Cola logo. The individual theme songs...because of their need to reflect the taste of the times and due to their heavy radio play, I easily associate with specific moments in my life.

Since it’s highly inconceivable that I’ll ever devote any energy to reviewing a Bond film on this site (never say never, I suppose),  I do love James Bond theme songs, so here is a list of my favorites. Not the best crafted, well-written, best-sung, or most iconic; simply the ones, in order of personal preference, I absolutely and subjectively adore. And, not being a Bond fan frees me from having to be a Bond purist, so some of my choices fit in the “unofficial” category: songs commissioned and rejected, or end-credits songs that should have been used for the title.

MY TOP 15 FAVORITE BOND THEME SONGS:

1. Casino Royale (1967)
Not officially a James Bond film, but Burt Bacharach's theme music (played to a fare-the-well by Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass) is for me the all and end-all of Bond themes ever. Timeless while being oh-so-Sixties, it ranks at the very top of my Bond chart. Since most everyone is familiar with the instrumental version played over the film's animated title sequence, I've posted a single of the rarely-heard complete lyric version by Mike Redway (its abbreviated version is heard over the closing credits). Alpert's horns are sorely missed, but the comic lyrics - and Mr, Redway's voice - soar.

2. Goldfinger (1964)
For my money, everything about this track is practically perfect- from the dramatic arrangement to its slithery lyrics; but, to coin an overused cliché, Shirley Bassey’s forceful and sexy vocals make this the gold-standard of Bond theme songs. Anthony Newley (Leslie Bricusse co-lyricist on this Dave Barry composed tune) does a wonderful version of this song that’s definitely worth a listen.

3. Skyfall (2012)
If Shirley Bassey and Goldfinger didn’t exist, this would be my top favorite “official” James Bond theme. Composer/vocalist Adele (with Paul Epworth)channeled the feel and sound of all the classic Bond songs to come up with the most hauntingly beautiful (and dark) theme of them all. It’s a gorgeous song that has the feel of a dirge, an anthem, and a melancholy love song, all at once. And god, what a voice!

4. Goldeneye (1995)
Tina Turner has a voice tailor-made for a Bond theme, and this sensuous and smoky song (composed by Bono and The Edge) fits her husky vocals to a T. The musical arrangement is marvelously slick and dramatic, but the danger and lurking in Turner’s delivery is what makes this song work. It’s hot!

5. The World Is Not Enough (1999)
This lushly-orchestrated theme performed so seductively by alternative band Garbage (vocalist Shirley Manson) reminds me that, at least in part, some of the unbreakable connection I have to James Bond is due to the films being so outrageously flamboyant. James Bond movies are to the action film genre what Busby Berkeley movies were to the musical. The sheer high-flown theatricality of this song is seductive as hell. This credits sequence is great, but the music video for this song is really something.

6. Casino Royale (2006) - "You Know My Name"
Chris Cornell’s powerful, veins-bulging vocals back up the vivid lyrics in this intense self-penned Bond theme (with five-time Bond composer David Arnold) that gives me goosebumps each time I hear it. The feeling I look forward to experiencing at least once in every Bond film is the adrenaline rush this song gives me. Also, aren't the graphics in this title sequence simply amazing? 

7. Quantum of Solace (2008): "Another Way To Die"
This is a really big favorite of mine. The pairing of singers Jack White and Alicia Keyes in an alternating duet combines several of my favorite things. First, from the time I discovered Cole Porter as a kid, I’ve always had a thing for “list” songs. Here, the cataloging of danger signals that a spy need be wary of (a door left open, a woman walking by, etc.) is just too cool to talk about.  Second, I love when discordant voices blend into something unexpected and perfect. Keyes’ velvet smooth vs. White’s rasp is like badass dramatic counterpoint in this effectively tense tune. This is the song that has the “Shoot ‘em up, bang bang” riff I used for this post’s title (Alicia Keyes slays on this song). And can we take a minute to appreciate that Daniel Craig has the sexiest walk of any Bond?

7. The Man With the Golden Gun (1974)
This one is a sentimental favorite. part for its very '70 arrangement which I find to be thoroughly infectious, but mostly because I have always loved the voice of '60s pop star Lulu (To Sir, With Love). The song itself doesn't have much to recommend it, even by my fondness for bubble-gum tunes standards, but Lulu's energetic performance makes a strong case for the power of interpretation. Even managing to put over the singularly crass lyric: "His eye may be on you or me. Who will he bang? We shall see!" with cheeky charm.

8. Tomorrow Never Dies (1997): "Surrender"
The official title by Sheryl Crow is actually quite good, but I really prefer this k.d. lang alternate song, played over the film's end credits. Lang's vocals have the retro sound of Keely Smith or Nancy Sinatra, so that hooks me from the start. But I love the traditional arrangement and classic Bond sound. Crow's song is more melodramatic (always a good thing), but the coffeehouse smoothness of k.d. lang wins out  in the end.

9. Diamonds Are Forever (1971) 
The inimitable Shirley Bassey is back, but in place of Goldfinger bombast is a mellow (some would say middle-of-the-road) ballad that soars exclusively due to Bassey's vocals. I can honestly say that had someone else recorded the song, it likely wouldn't have made my list at all. But, c'mon it's Dame Shirley Bassey!

10. Live & Let Die (1973 )
This Paul McCartney & Wings song was all over the radio in 1973 (I was surprised to discover it was the first Bond song to be nominated for a Best Song Oscar) and its '70s sound is one of its most enduring charms. I have always liked McCartney's voice, but my favorite thing about this theme is its elaborate/erratic shifts in tone and tempo. I remember at the time being impressed the old Beatle (he was all of 30 at the time) still had it in him!

11. For Your Eyes Only (1981) - Blondie version 
Although I adored it at time and it made me a short-lived fan of singer Sheena Easton, the official For Your Eyes Only theme hasn't aged particularly well for me, evoking as it does, unfortunate memories of '80s radio and that era's preponderance of sound-alike romantic ballads. This rejected song submitted by Blondie is more my speed. The song is tres-'80s (but in the best Debbie Harry "Call Me" kind of way) and the guitar riffs sound very '60s spy-mania retro.


12. Thunderball (1965): "Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang"
I've no problem with Tom Jones' memorably testosterone-pitched theme song, but this rejected tune sung by Ann-Margret is more to my liking. Making up for in Rat-Pack-era sultriness what she lacks in seductive menace, Ann-Margret IS a Bond girl even if in real life she had to settle for one of those dreary Dean Martin Matt Helm spy spoofs (Murderers' Row) rather than the real thing. This song has been sung perhaps more effectively by Shirley Bassey and Dionne Warwick (you can find them on YouTube) but when it comes to sex-kitten slink, Ann-Margret has a lock on it and nobody does it better.

13. The Living Daylights (1987) "If There Was A Man"
The A-ha theme song gets my vote for most forgettable, nondescript Bond theme ever. I had to listen to it again before writing this because it's a song that refuses to remain to make an impression. However, Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders contributed a longingly plaintive, waltz-time ballad that is really lovely. Hynde's low-register voice is ideal for a song like this, which could  have come off as too tamely lyrical.

14. Moonraker (1979)
Hmmm, looks like dreamy slow songs are dominating the end of my list. Ms. Bassey again, this time keeping her bombast in check (a little) and giving a gentle caress to this this floating romantic ballad. I have a thing for the more melodramatic Bond themes, but quiet ones like this...ones that showcase just how velvety-soft Bassey's voice can be, are a delight of a different sort.

15. The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) "Nobody Does It Better"
Closing out this Top Fifteen list is Carly Simon's rather quintessentially Simon-esque Bond theme. This one is a nostalgic favorite likely to be someday bumped to a lower ranking, but stays firm at #15 because I have always been so crazy about Simon's voice. I played this to death in 1977, so perhaps my waning fondness for it now is a result of prolonged exposure to one too many repeated "Baby, you're the best!" refrains.


BEST JAMES BOND THEME MUSIC THAT ISN'T BUT SHOULD BE

"So Hard"  Pet Shop Boys
From the instant I heard this song on the Pet Shop Boys' 1990 Behavior album, I thought it sounded like it came from a James Bond movie. It has "spy movie" written all over it - not the lyrics, but that absolutely amazing arrangement and tempo. I'd read online that Pet Shop Boys had been approached for contributing a song for The Living Daylights, and there's an odd, unsubstantiated tune up on YouTube said to be the result of that aborted collaboration (later reconfigured into their This Must Be The Place I've Waited Years To Leave), but I have my doubts. However, I can visualize a '90s James Bond title sequence accompanying this song with ease.

On a final note, you can't write anything about the music of the James Bond films without crediting composer John Barry (12 Bond films). Along with: Monty Norman, David Arnold, Thomas Newman, and no doubt many others I'm forgetting.  YouTube has a wealth of rejected Bond songs- one the more curious, Johnny Cash's Thunderball.

Do you have a song from a James Bond film that's your particular favorite? Perhaps, one that drives you to distraction? Either way, I'd love to hear about it!
Copyright © Ken Anderson

Sunday, June 26, 2016

THE OSCAR 1966

“You finally made it, Frankie. Oscar Night!. And here you sit, on top of a glass mountain called ‘success.’ You’re one of the chosen five, and the whole town’s holding its breath to see who won it. It’s been quite a climb, hasn’t it, Frankie? Down at the bottom, scuffling for dimes in those smokers, all the way to the top. Magic Hollywood! Ever think about it? I do, friend Frankie, I do….”

And thus begins one of the most sublimely terrible movies ever to grace the screen. Rife with overelaborate hyperbole (even in the 60s, few took the Oscars as seriously as this potboiler suggests), labored clichés, and the name “Frankie” repeated three times in a brief paragraph (the three, count ‘em three, screenwriters responsible for this gilt-edged burlesque must have thought they were writing for the radio. Characters keep repeating the name of the very person to whom they're speaking.)

With nary an ironic or self-aware bone in its overfamiliar, moth-eaten body, The Oscar is the kind of pandering-yet-earnest, self-serious Hollywood trash no one has the tragically unhip, old-school, out-of-touch naiveté + clueless moxie to know how to make anymore. A 1966 film that would have felt warmed-over in 1960 (the year Ocean’s Eleven and Sinatra’s Rat Pack made this kind of clean-cut, pomaded, sharkskin suited, ring-a-ding-ding brand of cool into a veritable brand), The Oscar is from the Joseph E. Levine (The Carpetbaggers, Harlow) school of overlit, elephantine artifice. Every interior looks like a soundstage, everyone’s clothes look as though they’d never been worn before, and the characters are so lacquered and lovingly photographed, they resemble department store mannequins. As though encouraged to get into the spirit of things, The Oscars’ flirting-with-obsolescence “all-star cast” (eight Oscar winners in all) gleefully comply with the latter by giving hyperactive, yet mannequin-stiff, performances wholly unacquainted with the psychology,  movement patterns, or vocal rhythms of normal human behavior.
With each viewing of this unrelentingly unconvincing take on what I assume was intend to be a cautionary tale on the dangers of unbridled ambition, I grow less and less surprised that one of its screenwriters (Harlan Ellison) is known principally for his work in science fiction.
Stephen Boyd as Frankie Fane
"I'm fighting for my life! And there's a spiked boot for anyone who gets in my way!"
Elke Sommer as Kay Bergdahl
"It's that seed of rot inside of you which makes you what you are that
you can't change. You just dress it better!"
Tony Bennett as Hymie Kelly
"You lie down with pigs, you come up smelling like garbage!"
Eleanor Parker as Sophie Cantaro
"You go after what you want. In some men it's admirable, in you it's...unclean!"
Milton Berle as Arthur "Kappy" Kapstetter
"You never know you're on the way out until you suddenly
realize it would take a ticket to get back in."

The Oscar, subtitled: Memoirs of a Hollywood Louse, is an unabashed laundry list of every show biz/Hollywood cliché handed down since What Price Hollywood? (1932). A beyond-camp, glossy soap opera which stands as a reminder that when it comes to churning out overripe and overwrought melodrama, the Dolls of the Valley and Beyond sometimes can’t hold a candle to the hilariously hirsute histrionics of hardier sex.

Stephen Boyd, he of the narrow frame and chiseled, Tom of Finland profile, is Frankie Fane; your garden-variety ruthless user with a suitable-for-movie-marquees alliterative name (I don't recommend anyone try playing a drinking game in which you take a shot every time someone in the film says Frankie’s name, you'll be rushed to the hospital with alcohol poisoning by the 20-minute mark).
As this told-in-flashback opus begins, Frankie and longtime buddy Hymie Kelly (Tony Bennett, making his film debut / swansong and looking like he wished he were back in San Francisco with his heart) are eking out a living largely thanks to the bump and grind efforts of Frankie’s stripper girlfriend, Laurel Scott (Jill St. John).
Jill St. John as Laurel Scott
"What does he think I am, dirt? Every morning I'd get the feeling
he was gonna leave two dollars on the dresser for me!"
After a nasty run-in with a crooked sheriff—a bulldoggish Broderick Crawford playing the flip side of his Highway Patrol TV character (1955-1959)—the vagabond trio thumb a ride to NYC where breadwinner Laurel (who’s, of course, basically a nice, decent girl who just wants “a kid”) soon tires of Frankie's freeloading. This in spite of the fact that Hymie, the perennial 3rd wheel, appears to be living with them and shows no sign of being any more gainfully employed than his pal.
As audiences wait in vain for Hymie to happen upon a microphone and solve everyone’s problems by discovering a latent talent for singing (and in the bargain provide a much-needed respite from the film’s ceaseless stream of risible dialog and ‘60s slang); Frankie the hound dog decides to accompany Hymie to “a swingin’ party in the village…lots of chicks” where he meets aspiring costume designer Kay Bergdahl (Sommer). In no time Frankie makes his move:
“You a tourist or a native?”
“Take one from column A and two from column B and get an egg roll either way.”

On the strength of that doozy, one would be forgiven for leaping to the conclusion that Kay might perhaps be suffering a stroke-related episode and in need of immediate medical attention, but not our Frankie. Clearly smitten by Kay’s pouting accent, silk-awning bangs, and mink eyelashes, our smarmy antihero instead continues to engage the comely blond in more Haiku-inspired small talk. Kay, hewing close to the film’s theme, has a way of making everything she says sound like excerpts from an Academy Award acceptance speech:
 “I am the end result of everything I’ve ever learned… all I ever hope to be, 
and all the experiences I’ve ever had.”

Oh...O.K., if you say so.

In a too-little / too-late display of backbone, Laurel—that hip-switchin’, nice-walkin’, bundle of loveliness—gets wind of Frankie’s nocturnal knavery and lays down the law:

“If you think I’m gonna work my tail off so you can run around with the village chicks…oh, stop spreadin’ the pollen around, Frankie...or else!”

Unfortunately, after having spent an evening with hard-to-get Bergdahl, round-heeled Scott’s ultimatum doesn’t exactly have the desired effect on Frankie, and the village pollen-spreader soon beats a hasty retreat. So hasty he misses the joyous news that Laurel is pregnant.

In much the same way Willy Wonka’s shiftless Grandpa Joe miraculously finds the energy to haul his wrinkled carcass out of bed once the prospect of a candy factory tour looms; the heretofore serially unemployed Frankie promptly lands a job in the garment district when it affords the opportunity to see more of the glacial good looks of lovely Miss Bergdahl. But it isn’t long before Kay’s middle-European cool proves no match for Frankie’s hotheaded, borderline sociopathic personality.
Koo koo Frankie shows a wise-guy actor (Jan Merlin) what it's like
to be on "the business end of a knife."

Frankie expends so much abusive energy exorcising inner demons (“The way he sees it, no woman’s any better than his mother,” intones Hymie, deep-thinker) that Kay scarcely has time to examine her own Bad Boy issues (“Sometimes I get the feeling, Frankie, that you ought to be chained up with a ring in your nose!”), before their relationship comes to take on all the dysfunctional sparring rhythms of Robert De Niro & Liza Minnelli in NewYork, New York…minus the warmth & mutual respect.

One particularly theatrical outburst of Frankie’s captures the slightly rapacious eye of roving talent scout Sophie Cantaro (Parker), who sees in Frankie’s mercurial mood swings the makings of a star (Charlie Sheen, no doubt). Faster than you can say “Bye bye, Bergdahl! Hello, Cougar Town!” Frankie is whisked off to Hollywood and becomes exactly the kind of noxious nightmare of a movie star you’d expect. Think Neely O’Hara crossed with Helen Lawson combined with every ego-out-of-control rumor you’ve ever heard about Jerry Lewis, and you get the idea.
Joseph Cotten as Kenneth Regan, head of Galaxy Pictures
"I find myself repelled and repulsed by you."

Of course, this is precisely when the already dizzying lunacy of The Oscar really swings into high gear. Cue the laughably garish sets meant to signify high-style glamour, the tired visual short-cuts (EVERY scene in a studio backlot features strolling cowboys, gladiators, and showgirls in headdresses), and the standard-issue What Makes Sammy Run? rise and fall of a an unscrupulous schnook scenario.

Yes, whether it be the simile-laden narration (“Man, he wanted to swallow Hollywood like a cat with a canary.”); the rote, claws-his-way-to-the-top conflicts (“The fact is my 10% before taxes is paying your office overhead. And you stop earning it when you stop giving me what I want.”); or clumsy, tin-eared metaphors (“Have you ever seen a moth smashed against a window? It leaves the dust of its wings. You’re like that Frankie, you leave a powder of dirt everywhere you touch.”), The Oscar leaves nary a cliché unturned and untouched. And for that we should all give thanks.
Ernest Borgnine & Edie Adams as Barney and Trina Yale

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
The Oscar is artificiality as motif. Without actually intending to, director Russell Rouse (who made the must-see Wicked Woman -1953) has crafted a film so phony and plastic, it winds up saying a great deal more about the real Hollywood than this contrived, self-serving fairy tale that would have us believe Hollywood is comprised of basically decent, principled, hard-working folks, and unscrupulous bad apples like Frankie are the rotten exception.
When I watch The Oscar I always wonder: was this a movie pandering to star-struck yokels and serving up a patently false, fan-magazine / press agent image of tinseltown because it believed that’s what they wanted to see; or had years of lying to itself  deluded “The Industry” into believing its own publicity? This can’t be how ‘60s Hollywood actually saw itself, could it?
In the film's most blatantly parodic role, Jean Hale is hilariously spot-on as the self-absorbed Cheryl Barker, an obvious and rather mean-spirited swipe at Carroll Baker that must have been included at Joseph E. Levine's behest. (Baker & Levine clashed famously during the making of Harlow, leading to her ultimately suing the producer).

It’s not as though nobody knew what a good film about Hollywood looked like (Sunset Boulevard -1950, The Bad & the Beautiful -1952, A Lonely Place -1950, Stand-In -1937), so I’d like to think everyone involved in The Oscar knew exactly what kind of trash they were making (Bennett doesn’t recall the experience fondly in his memoirs). But given the expense, effort, and the fact that many similarly fake-looking, questionably-acted, poorly written, overstuffed ‘60s films had found acceptance (The Carpetbaggers comes to mind); I can only imagine that the eventual awfulness of The Oscar wasn’t as much of a surprise to those involved as was the public’s total indifference to it. 
Exteriors of The Oscar were shot at the 37th Academy Awards in 1965. Bob Hope hosted that year, but as the interior sets don't match, I've no idea when or where they were shot. In 1967 The Oscar was nominated for but two Academy Awards (art direction and Edith Head's costume design) losing both.

PERFORMANCES
It’s an overcrowded, competitive field, but Stephen Boyd walks away with the honors for The Oscar’s most exaggerated, artificial performance. In a film of  parody-worthy acting, Boyd's bellowing, bombastic over-emoting (much like Faye Dunaway's in Mommie Dearest) sets the bar and serves as the rudder for this Titanic testament to overstatement. It's a performance that towers over the rest. And while one might argue he’s no worse than anyone else (certainly not Bennett) and only as good as the knuckleheaded screenplay allows; when there’s this much collateral damage, every offender has to be held accountable for their fair share of the carnage. 
Frankie's cutthroat efforts to win an Oscar make up the bulk of the 1963 Richard Sale novel
upon which the film is adapted, but comprise only the last half hour of the film  

Indeed, in a reversal of my usual standard in camp movies I adore, the women don’t really dominate in The Oscar. In spite of their towering hairdos and colorful wardrobes, Elke Sommer, Eleanor Parker, Jill St. John, and a woefully over-rehearsed Edie Adams have their work cut out for them in trying to keep pace with the hambone scenery-chewing of Boyd on one side, and the Boo Boo Bear blandness of mono-expression crooner Tony Bennett on the other (whose raspy voiceover narration is almost as annoying as Joe Pesci's in 1995s Casino).
The Dynamic Duo
Hope you like Tony Bennett's expression here, 'cause that's all you're getting for two hours

Add to this, schticky comedian Milton Berle as another one of those saintly talent agents that only seem to exist in Joseph E. Levine films (Red Buttons, another face-pulling comic, played a similar role in Levine’s Harlow). Berle’s approach to serious drama is something out of  an SCTV Bobby Bittman sketch: go so low-wattage as to barely register any vitality at all.
Not really sure the last time I saw a character in a movie resort to
 knuckle-biting to convey distress, but in The Oscar, it happens twice!

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
As hard as it is to believe that the Motion Picture Academy actually endorsed this sordid melodrama, one has to wonder about the many drop-in guest appearances of so many "stars" adding verisimilitude and unintentional comic relief. Were they contractual, or were they simply prohibited from reading the entire script?
Edith Head (or an amimatronic copy) as herself
Columnist Hedda Hopper balancing several pounds of hair and a Joan Crawford necklace
A puffy Peter Lawford portrays a has-been actor (a little too convincingly)
Jack Soo as Sam, Frankie's live-in valet
A beaming Frank Sinatra and daughter Nancy, in her brunette phase

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
The bad film delights of The Oscar are so myriad, I can only speculate that its relative unavailability is to blame for its not having risen in camp stature equal to Valley of the Dolls or Mommie Dearest over the years (it’s not on DVD and pops up on TV only sporadically). That perhaps, and its lack of an ostentatious drag queen aesthetic or even compelling roles for women. I’m not sure why, but a lot of the best camp is rooted in seeing women presented in the traditional “drag” of ornamental allure (big hair, theatrical makeup, elaborate costumes), only behaving in the aggressive, assertive, ambitious manner we habitually ascribe to male characters (Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill!)
The incongruity is a pleasant surprise and welcome change of pace, and often accounts for why a nasty piece of work like Neely O’Hara tends to remain in one’s memory longer than the passive Jennifer North.
The women in The Oscar are, despite giving lip-service to the contrary, a pretty passive bunch and more or less serve a traditional, reactive function in the plot. Pointedly, one of the film's two exceptions (the other being the blowsy but street-smart Trina Yale), the poised and elegant Sophie Cantaro is presented as both sexually desperate (“You, you’re 42. There are many good minutes left for you,” a well-meaning, tactless friend tells her) and unable to prevent her feminine emotions from playing havoc with professional decision-making.
I'm not sure if this preponderance of masochistic females has anything to do with The Oscar falling short of becoming the midnight screening hoot-fest its entertaining awfulness suggests; but such wrong-headed thinking prevails throughout The Oscar, making it one of the best of the worst, the apex of the nadir, and unequivocally one for the books. A book titled: " What The Hell Were They Thinking?"



BONUS MATERIAL
Elke Sommer wore the same Edith Head gown to the real 1966 Academy Awards she wears in the fake ceremony that bookends The Oscar (top photo).  Here's a clip of a somewhat botched dual acceptance speech with Connie Stevens for Doctor Zhivago's absent costume designer, Julie Harris. Watch HERE


Although only an instrumental version plays in the film, Tony Bennett sang the Muzak-ready theme song from The Oscar (titled, "Come September" ) on the soundtrack album. This 45rpm single was an opening day giveaway at many first-run theaters. Listen HERE


Copyright © Ken Anderson

Friday, June 17, 2016

DREAM LOVER 1986

I will dream a gentle dream
a soft dream.
I am at peace in this dream.
I am safe...

Dream Lover is a not-uninteresting Freudian psychological thriller from the director of Klute, derailed by a too-clinical fascination with the sterile, simultaneously uncinematic and exposition-reliant world of dream therapy.
In the mid-‘80s, erstwhile child star and ‘70s teen idol Kristy McNichol made a tantalizing bid for adult credibility when cast against type in Alan J. Pakula’s visually persuasive psychosexual thriller Dream Lover. At age twenty-three, the two-time Emmy Award-winning actress (Family) with the easygoing smile and tomboy image was cast in her first truly adult role as Kathy Gardner, an emotionally and sexually repressed music student plagued by recurring nightmares.
Kristy McNichol as Kathy Gardner
Paul Shenar as Benjamin Gardner
Ben Masters as Dr. Michael Hansen
Justin Deas as Kevin McCann

Kathy is a talented and gifted jazz flutist (you’ll just have to take the movie’s word for that) living in a state of infantilized, vaguely incestuous arrested-development under the dictatorial thumb of her overbearing father (Paul Shenar), a prominent D.C. attorney.
After winning a scholarship at a New York music academy, Kathy, in an uncharacteristic show of independence and in strict defiance of her father, sublets an apartment in Greenwich Village, and, in short order, becomes romantically involved with her jazz improv instructor (Justin Deas). But before she even has a chance to adjust to her newfound freedom, Freudian guilt and paternal retribution comes swiftly and brutally in the form of an "I warned you it wasn't safe away from Daddy" apartment break-in and assault, resulting in Kathy killing her assailant with his own knife.
Now haunted by recurring nightmares in which she is forced to relive the attack, Kathy submits to an unorthodox, experimental sleep therapy. A treatment which, while proving to be successful in quelling her nightmares, may have the unforeseen side-effect of inducing, in her waking moments, the compulsion to act out and upon emotions heretofore confined solely (and safely) to her dream world.
As a fan of psychological thrillers, I recall at the time hoping that Dream Lover - with its themes of violence, sex, dreams, and repression (redolent of Marnie, Spellbound, and Vertigo- was Pakula picking up the Hitchcock mantle after serial Hitchcock homagist Brian De Palma at last appeared ready to set it aside following the flop reception of his Rear Window-inspired Body Double (1984). If so, I was beyond excited at the prospect of what a director of Pakula's skill and sensitivity with actors could bring to the genre.
Thus, I turned a blind eye to anything negative portended by Dream Lover being released in the dump month of January (a traditionally low-attendance time), and remained blissfully ignorant to the fact that I was one of the few (the very few, as it turns out) enthusiastically anticipating the opening of this, Alan J. Pakula’s first film in four years…since 1982's Sophie’s Choice.
My imagination was tweaked by Dream Lover’s striking, pulpy poster art (at the time my work commute took me past MGM’s Culver City studio, so for over a month I got to gawk at the sight of an enormous billboard featuring America’s teen sweetheart brandishing a switchblade). I was sent thoroughly over-the-top the first time I saw the theatrical trailer—all fast cuts, Psycho-strings, and ominous voice-over: “Imagine the terror of living a nightmare every time you sleep. Every... time… you sleep….” And I was unaccountably taken with the intriguing notion of seeing squeaky-clean Kristy McNichol in a role that promised to be a dramatic departure.

But what excited me most was the return of Alan J. Pakula (one of my ab fab favorite ‘70s directors) to the suspense thriller genre. To me, Klute (1971): a character drama disguised as a detective story, and The Parallax View (1974): a truly terrifying political paranoia suspenser, are two of the most stylish, distinctive, and chillingly effective thrillers of the decade. Pakula knew how to tell a story and go for the effect, but never at the expense of character. Indeed, he seemed to have the magic touch when it came to actors, often extracting unexpectedly fresh and authentic performances out of long-established stars. In The Parallax View Paula Prentiss, known for her light-comedy roles, gives a nakedly intense dramatic performance, while, conversely, Pakula’s comedy Starting Over (1979) single-handedly reinvented Candice Bergen’s career by unearthing the self-effacing comedienne beneath the ice-princess veneer.
It’s this latter directorial alchemy I anticipated Pakula working on Kristy McNichol, a talented actress I’d always liked (even in the wretched-but-oddly enjoyable The Pirate Movie), but who, when not busy being the only good thing in a string of mediocre films, appeared headed on a career collision-course that threatened to turn her into Marie Osmond’s answer to Erin Moran.
Kathy, Scat Singing With a Jazz Combo
Remarkably, this is NOT the reason someone tries to kill her a few moments later.
(McNichol also played a flutist in 1984's Just The Way You Are)

However, when I say Alan J. Pakula is one of my favorite ‘70s directors, I say it with an emphasis on the “70s” part, for I tend to be a tad less fond of the late director’s post-1979 output (Pakula died in 1998). Starting with the soporific financial thriller Rollover (1981), Pakula's work during this period vacillated between ambitious (Sophie's Choice), banal (See You in the Morning - 1989), conventional (The Pelican Brief -1993), and, in the case of Dream Lover, fascinating but flawed.
Kathy's dreams are affected by the repressed, conflicted feelings
she has about her love-hate relationship with her controlling father


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM 
As contemporary psychological thrillers go, Dream Lover is very much up my alley. Yet, due to reasons easily attributable to its script (a first effort by one-time Pakula assistant and co-producer Jon Boorstin) and less verifiably ascribed to Pakula’s directorial choices, Dream Lover proves itself to be one of those high-concept, high-style thrillers that starts out promisingly, only to later develop serious problems sustaining suspense and maintaining a consistent tone. 
To Kathy's growing roster of father-related hang-ups, add male trust issues and sexual anxiety.
"Someday your father's gonna have to find out you're a woman."
"Not today."
Before its script gets hijacked by the self-serious contributions of a phalanx of sleep-research technical advisers (presented with the kind of grave earnestness guaranteed to make it sound absolutely crackpot), Dream Lover at least has the benefit of a marvelous setup. From the outset the central conflict is established as one both emotionally subjective (Kathy’s unresolved feelings about her father) and psychologically reactive (resultant of the discrepancy between Kathy’s dream reality – aka her desires - and her actual existence). In being made privy to the content of Kathy’s dreams, we’re made aware of her rather vague daily persona as a dutiful daughter contrasts significantly with her vivid and active dream life.

In her nocturnal life, Kathy variably casts herself as a child; her own late mother (dressed, significantly, in red); and as an imprisoned figure capable of escape only through means of literal flight. Meanwhile, her father, for whom Kathy in real-life serves as a combination surrogate wife figure and eternal child, appears in alternately as an idealized figure of warmth and acceptance, or a threatening, faceless specter. 
In her peaceful dreams, Kathy places herself within the pastoral scene depicted
in a painting that hangs (significantly, again) over her father's bed.

Since Dream Lover is presented from the exclusive perspective of Kathy’s reality—the perspective of a repressed-bordering-on-regressed grown woman with serious daddy issues; the film makes an interesting case of positing Kathy’s attack (though psychologically scarred, she comes to no physical harm due to unleashed pent-up rage) as being a physical manifestation of guilt - she defied her father, and sexual panic - the attack occurs moments after what may have been her first sexual encounter.
"I stabbed him...he dropped his knife, so I picked it up and I stabbed him!
And...I never felt so good as when I stuck that knife in him!"
Dream Lover’s Freudian overlays are metered out with such style; its intensifying cycle of recurrence and repetition so measured and deliberately paced…it’s a little too bad that the gripping psychological thriller we’ve been primed for never actually shows up. The introduction of the sleep therapy angle (precisely when things should accelerate) takes what had heretofore been a fairly gripping, fun/trash psychological melodrama and tries to turn it into a serious exploration of the scientific advancements made in the area dream research. Zzzzzz. 
Movies themselves are dreams. If a director wins over an audience’s confidence, he/she can make them believe and accept almost anything, no explanations necessary. Thrillers grind to a pedantic halt the minute they find it necessary to try to ground the primarily emotional pleasures of the genre in sober factualism (especially when, in order to accommodate a patently preposterous climax, you later choose to jettison all laws of physics and common sense). Hitchcock had the good sense to leave all the psychological mumbo jumbo to the end of Psycho, and even then it still comes across like the most superfluous scene in the movie.
Top: The red-walled apartment Kathy sublets is festooned with vivid animal prints, patterned drapes, and nude artworks hanging on the wall. It's like someone's libido has exploded all over the room. Below: Once moved in, uptight Kathy substitutes virginal whites for the blazing reds and patterns, has taken down the artwork, and covers the animal-print furniture with sheets. Here we have the mysterious stranger (Joseph Culp) in search of the whereabouts of the unknown "Maggie."

Throughout the film, Kathy's surroundings consistently reflect her emotional conflicts, reinforcing the theme of Kathy's dream reality having an increasing influence on her real life.


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
From a literal standpoint, the phrase “Dreams are what le cinema is for” is no idle claim. Dreams have been depicted in motion pictures since their Inception (a little dream-related film-geek joke there…heh, heh) dating as far back as the early 1900s.
If asked to cite directors whose visual sense best captures what my own dreams look like, I’d have to say Ken Russell and Roman Polanski (making musical room for Busby Berkeley and Vincente Minnelli), but such baroque theatricality isn’t always necessary to make the fantasy world of dreams feel authentic to me.
Dream Lover presents dreams in a relatively straightforward, decidedly Freudian manner. All corridors, portals, vivid reds, and symbolism, one could likely reference any of the film’s images in a dream interpretation manual and arrive at precisely the intention Pakula is going for. Dream Lover was lensed by longtime Ingmar Bergman cinematographer Sven Nykvist (Fanny and Alexander) and he gives Kathy’s dreams an austere luster of atmospheric dread.
Unfortunately, Dream Lover came out just around the time of MTV over-saturation. Freudian symbolism had become such a clichéd overused staple of music videos at this point that Dream Lover’s imagery (as beautiful and fitting to the plot as it is) was met with a lot of been-there, done that.
Taking Flight


PERFORMANCES
I know a great many people don’t care for Kristy McNichol in this film (if the words “great many” can be used in reference to a film as obscure as Dream Lover), but I find her to be absolutely riveting. Given what I consider to be the low to marginal quality of most of her films (Only When I Laugh and White Dog being the exceptions) it’s perhaps not saying much to credit this as my favorite of her screen performances, but it really is…she absolutely makes the film for me.
It must be quite the challenge for actors to portray individuals who are emotionally shut-down, but McNichol gets under the skin of her character, infusing Kathy’s low-flame jitteriness with a great deal of emotional poignancy. McNichol has several really remarkable scenes, one of my favorites being when she is afraid to go to sleep and is asked by the empathetic sleep therapist to relate a sleep ritual from her childhood. Just absolutely marvelous work.
All of the performances in Dream Lover are uniformly fine, some suffering at the hand of their utilitarian service to the machinations of plot more than others. But I particularly like Ben Masters as the sleep researcher. He shares an easy rapport with McNichol, and his genuine seemingly nice-guy vibe plays terrifically to the elements of the story centering on Kathy's suppressed distrust of (and impaired judgment regarding) men.

Gayle Hunnicutt & John McMartin appear in brief roles as family friends 

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Dream Lover embodies two of my favorite things in off-beat films: 1) So-called "serious" directors tacking genre material. 2) Actors cast against type.
Alan J. Pakula can't help but bring a lot of technical skill and intelligence to this thriller (in spite of a screenplay that too often has intelligent characters engaging in dumb behavior in order to keep the plot moving), but Dream Lover has the feel of a melodrama too proud to revel in its own enjoyably schlocky premise, and instead keeps trying to convince us of its seriousness of purpose. Too bad, because for at least 60 of its 104 minutes, Pakula looks like he's willing to go for broke and serve up a tasty, low-calorie thrill-ride. It only falls apart when he tries to shoehorn in the substance.
As for Kristy McNichol in the lead, she was a major draw for me back in 1986, and her subtle and affecting performance only looks better to me 30-years later. Not so much the 80s fashions and Kenny G-type sax musical interludes.
The 80s were not kind


BONUS MATERIAL

 The theatrical trailer that got my pulse racing back in 1986

Copyright © Ken Anderson