Sunday, December 31, 2017

MORTAL THOUGHTS 1991

Warning: Spoiler Alert. Care has been taken to conceal as much as possible, but as this is a critical essay and not a review, some plot points are referenced for the purpose of analysis. 

“Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here and fill me from the crown to the toe, top-full of direst cruelty!”    Lady Macbeth

Just as we know, with reasonable certainty, that Shakespeare didn’t have in mind two New Jersey hairstylists when he wrote Macbeth in 1606; it’s also an odds-on bet that said beauticians Cynthia Kellog (Demi Moore) and Joyce Urbanski (Glenne Headly), the morality-challenged friends at the center of Alan Rudolph’s skittish Mortal Thoughts, wouldn’t recognize a Shakespearean quote if it was set to music and sung by Billy Joel.

Yet Lady Macbeth’s impassioned plea to the gods to divest her of her feminine compassion and intensify her ruthlessness—the better to realize her homicidal musings—has within it the self-same dueling conflicts of violence/guilt/gender aggression/betrayal/loyalty/survival and desperation fueling the tinpot stratagems that set into motion the fatal events in this nifty ‘90s neo-noir. The castles of medieval Scotland may have nothing in common with the brownstones of 1990 New Jersey, but when it comes to survival, woe betide the woebegone male who dares underestimate what a woman is capable of when her thoughts turn to matters mortal.
Demi Moore as Cynthia Kellogg
Glenne Headly as Joyce Urbanski
Bruce Willis as James "Jimmy" Urbanski
Harvey Keitel as Detective John Woods
John Pankow as Arthur Kellogg 
Billie Neal as Detective Linda Nealon
Mortal Thoughts is an atmospheric suspenser of doggerel Shakespearean plotting and betrayals played out in the baseborn haven of Bayonne, New Jersey. Robert Altman protégé Alan Rudolph, who engagingly contemporized the tropes of film noir in his films Remember My Name and Trouble in Mind, again delves into the realm of the character-quirk crime thriller. This time using dark thoughts to motivate the actions of a motley assortment of essentially non-thinking characters, each a late-1980s time-piece artifact depicted in finely-observed detail and only the most garish of local colors.

Mortal Thoughts evokes classic film noir in both the use of a narrative framing device recalling Mildred Pierce (a loutish man is found dead, a woman interrogated, a mystery unfolds via flashback), and in the cunning application of a crisscross murder threat redolent of the unarticulated alliance that got Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train off on the right track (an amusement park even figures significantly in both films). But for all its shrewdly effective nods to the tropes of the genre, Mortal Thoughts, in training its lethal eye on the relationship of its two female protagonists, achieves—much like that other, significantly more popular 1991 release, Thelma & Louise—a kind of mordant unpredictability.
There’s a lot of tension and wit in the convincingly conveyed cronyism of Demi Moore and Glenne Headly (the latter, hands-down, this film’s MVP), making Mortal Thoughts feel like a welcome female-centric variation of all those macho “neighborhood buddies who go way back” crime thrillers of the sort beloved by Martin Scorsese and John Cassavetes (whose Mickey & Nicky this film recalls). 
"Your wedding was great. Except your husband...is such a...I don't know.
 I mean, what groom sells tools at his own wedding?"

Cynthia and Joyce have been friends since childhood. Each now married, they work together at a beauty salon where, along with several pounds of permed hair and shoulder pads, they balance friendship, husbands, work, and children. 

Amiable opposites, Cynthia (Moore), the level-headed one, is married to Arthur (Pankow), a wheel-spinning go-getter type always on the hustle. Arthur is a kind and considerate spouse, but casually dismissive of Cynthia in that way common of fast-track husbands more in need of a “supportive wife” than an equal partner in life. One senses Arthur tolerates Cynthia more than he understands her, an observation driving home the equally strong impression that Cynthia’s always-in-tow children are where her chief familial priorities lie.

The emotionally volatile Joyce (Headly) has an obvious taste for Bad Boy types, explaining but not excusing, her explosive marriage to James (Willis); a physically abusive, drug-dealing, macho hot-head. An accident waiting to happen, Joyce and James, who can't even make it through their wedding day without a fight, are one of those couples for whom passion and erupt-at-any-moment violence are but interchangeable sides of the same dysfunctional coin. It’s in their marital DNA. So frequent and public are their contentious outbursts, the patrons of Joyce’s Clip ‘n’ Dye hair salon, situated just below the cluttered apartment Joyce and James share with their infant son, barely bat an eye when granted ringside seats to the duo’s regular-as-clockwork bouts. 
About now Joyce's thoughts are turning to ways of unsexing James with a pair of thinning shears

Events reach a crisis when Arthur, impatient with Cynthia’s de facto role as peacekeeper to the dysfunctional duo (and none too fond of the battling Urbanskis to begin with), begins pressuring his wife to stop spending so much time with her erratic girlfriend. Cynthia, feeling the stress of playing moderator, conciliator, and referee both at home and in the workplace, responds by doing more of what she already does far too much of: spreading herself thin trying to appease everyone. Meanwhile, nobody seems to have taken notice that Joyce’s once easy-to-laugh-off threats to kill her husband appear to be graduating from thought to action.

Mortal Thoughts, in depicting the female side of all those urban buddy movies, does a good job of subtly drawing attention to the boys’ club network of protection that makes abused wives feel they have so few options. Call the cops--they have no interest in punishing a man for what they see as “letting off steam”; appeal to the husband’s relatives--they see him as a good boy with a wife who provokes him; leave or get a divorce--invite stalking and jealous retribution.

The picture painted is bleak, but as many noir films have illustrated in the past; a woman without power is not necessarily a woman without recourse.
“An accident, Dolores, can be an unhappy woman’s best friend.”  
Dolores Claiborne - 1995


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS MOVIE
Mortal Thoughts lets us know from the outset that someone has been killed, but only by the 30-minute mark do we discover who it is (no big surprise there, nor do I suspect it’s supposed to be). The lengthy setup is devoted to establishing the characters, relationships, and setting (late-‘80s working-class New Jersey lovingly, painstakingly captured in all its stone-washed, cringe-inducing glory); the remaining body of the narrative devoted to unearthing the reverse-order specifics of the crime: the motive, the means, the when, and by whose hand.
In the book Flashbacks in Film: Memory & History, author Maureen Turim cites film noir flashbacks as being of two basic types: the confessional and the investigative. The confessional (as exemplified by the films Sunset Blvd. and Detour) has the lead character looking back over the chain of events which led them to their current (often dire) circumstances. The investigative (Laura, A Woman’s Face) has a law official piecing together the puzzle of a crime through means of examination and interrogation.
Mortal Thoughts employs both methods. In present-time, narrative flashbacks are triggered by the questions posed by two investigating detectives (Harvey Keitel and Billie Neal) to the fidgety, on-the-defensive Cynthia regarding the murder in question. 

Keitel’s Detective John Woods makes a big show of being the good listener, simply there to take down whatever Cynthia has to tell, but his piercing eyes (taking on a mischievous glint when one of his verbal snares finds its prey) tell another story. He’s conducting a full-scale murder investigation without leaving his chair.  

With a video camera trained at her anxious face, Cynthia gives what can best be described as cathartically frank answers to their questions, these somewhat guarded responses delivered with a studied directness intended (one assumes) to convey an eagerness to unburden herself.
Unfortunately, Cynthia’s recollection of events, while superficially appropriate of an individual claiming innocence and who, as she puts it, “Didn’t do anything to need an attorney,” has a nagging habit of getting away from her. In attempting to provide the detectives with “just the facts” objectivity, Cynthia's subjective impulse to protect and/or conceal tends to result in her providing considerably more detail and backstory than necessary. Always volunteering a little more than she’s asked, Cynthia’s testimony takes on an involuntarily confessional tone, her account of the past frequently being at odds with what we’re shown.
Cynthia, distracted by troubling thoughts

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
It’s precisely when Mortal Thoughts tipped its hat to the unreliability of Cynthia as its narrator (especially since hers is the sole perspective we share) that the film really clicked for me. The doubt cast on the veracity of events depicted had the effect of shifting my focus from the story to the storyteller, at which point I found myself enjoying Mortal Thoughts not only as a mystery thriller, but as a sly dramatization of the threat of female alliance.

It’s telling that Mortal Thoughts is bookended by home movie footage depicting the friendship of Cynthia and Joyce from toddler to teens. These women grew up as sisters. They are closer to each other than they are to their husbands. At first glance it appears as though the film’s central conflict is the detrimental effect Joyce's toxic relationship with James has on the marriage of Cynthia and Arthur; but one is reminded that nether woman is in a marriage they deem particularly satisfactory.

No, the most intimate relationship in the film is the sisterhood friendship of Cynthia and Joyce. With this established, dramatic tension arises out of the film’s many subthemes: the inequity of marriage; macho as the flip side of male inadequacy; how women’s relationships are devalued by men (and how easily women internalize attitudes—and how they relate to the film's central conflict: the threat female solidarity represents to the male.
“I fear for my life when the two of you sit down together.”  

By way of example: James and Arthur both have scenes where they vent their jealousy over how close Joyce and Cynthia are, each resentfully alluding to their wives prioritizing their friendship above their marriages. These scenes are echoed in additional sequences wherein the men are shown undermining the women's loyalties or encouraging one to betray the another (Cynthia’s rebuff of James’ crude sexual advances is met with “What are friends for?”).

For centuries men have benefited from pitting women against one another for the same reason the rich benefit from convincing the poor that other poor people of a different color are their barriers to The American Dream: there’s power in division. Misogyny is rooted in the male anxiety of the disposable (castrated) man, and many noir films exploit this fear. I mean, what is the noir femme fatale if not the embodiment of men’s terror of women operating under their own agency? Mortal Thoughts plays on society's limited, dual image of women, Cynthia behaving in the maternal, care-giving manner that reassures, Joyce (the breadwinner in her household) acting as feminine aggression personified. The trick up the film's sleeve is that it dares us to assume we know what’s really going on. 
“Everyone knows a woman is fragile and helpless. Everyone’s wrong.” 


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
A number of critics took issue with the brooding, almost operatic visual style of grand tragedy applied to Mortal Thoughts (dramatic events play out with lots of slow-motion and choral accompaniment), citing the incongruity of solemn gravitas applied to what is arguably a shabby homicide set in a garish world of unsophisticated people. But the film’s baroque overemphasis on kitschy ‘80s details (and truly, you’d have to look far to find a wittier application of hair, costume, and production design) and feels like the intentional over-amplification of small lives.

There’s nothing noble, high-born, or honorable about any of these characters. They are human in the most base, fundamental sense. But in Greek mythology when the Oracle of Delphi cryptically exhorts humans to “Think mortal thoughts,” this ethical maxim to be heedful of one’s human limitations reminds us how often in tragedy characters pay a dear price for thinking they are above their mortality. In other words, to act as gods, believing one has the right to take a life or decide who lives.
That these larger-than-life themes play out in the small-scale environs of Hoboken, New Jersey, makes Mortal Thoughts one of the most intriguingly entertaining and off-beat neo-noirs since Alan Rudolph’s Remember My Name.


PERFORMANCES
My fondness for the work of director Alan Rudolph (Choose Me, Afterglow, Welcome to L.A.) is what initially drew me to Mortal Thoughts. But unlike most of his other features, Rudolph was not involved in either its writing or creation, having been brought in on the project with only five days’ notice after original director Claude Kervin (who wrote the incredible and incredibly funny screenplay with William Reilly) was fired two weeks into production.
That being said, it’s difficult to know how different Mortal Thoughts would have been had Rudolph been involved from the start, for much of it plays out like a more coherent version of any number of his always-fascinating, albeit occasionally jumbled, character pieces.

For a director so skilled with actors and the intricacies of character, Rudolph’s has an impressive understanding and respect for the suspense thriller genre. He understands the importance of taking the time to establish atmosphere and mood, he knows how to build suspense, and (like Polanski at his best) he isn’t afraid of using humor even within the most intense scenes.  I like films with strong women protagonists, and I like mysteries; so it’s no surprise that I found Mortal Thoughts to be a slick, riveting suspense film with plenty of twists and emotional tension to spare. All bolstered by a uniformly excellent (and exceptionally well-utilized) cast.
The always welcome Frank Vincent appears as Dominic, Joyce's father

I’ve never been much of a Demi Moore fan and guiltily admit to never having seen her biggest hit Ghost (even after all this time I’m genuinely hard-pressed to think I’m missing anything), but she's absolutely terrific in this and gives a top-notch performance. With her raspy voice (I even like her Joi-zee accent), sardonic wit, and sharp-eyed common sense, she’s like a real-life Wilma Flintstone; a pillar of rational-thinking stability standing in contrast to her not-wound-too-tight best friend, Joyce.

As embodied by the late Glenne Headly (who passed away in June of 2017), Joyce is the quintessential Dangerous Woman. An outspoken trouble magnet, Joyce is a woman who not only knows how to take care of herself, but how to get things taken care of, She's both the toughest and most vulnerable person in the film. Headly, a remarkably resourceful actress, is a marvel to watch from start to finish (not to mention listen to…her delivery and timing is priceless), and achieves the miracle of making her paradoxical character make absolute sense.
Bruce Willis and Demi Moore were still married when Mortal Thoughts was released, and while both were a bit off my radar at the time, my biggest recollection of them is as Hollywood's most annoying "power couple." Both were riding high on recent successes: Moore exercising her clout by serving as producer on this film, Willis, hot off of two Die Hards (the flop of Hudson Hawk was waiting in the wings), was working off a lot of public ill-will (bad buzz from his offscreen Moonlighting behavior, a couple of ear-bleeder vanity records, and those excruciating wine cooler commercials) by taking on a role in his wife’s film which dispensed with trying to make him appear either charming or likable. 
It's a savvy industry ploy for resuscitating careers of beloved actors who prove themselves to be not so lovable offscreen: disliked celebrity plays the heavy or takes on self-deprecating, self-referential role thereby allowing the public to work off its animosity. Bingo! Career clemency. plagued by negative press  played on what many thought of him anyway. This sort of “Give the audience permission to hate you and they’ll love you" stuff may be cynical, but I confess that I really do enjoy hating Bruce Willis in this.
Quick shout-out to personal fave and scene-stealer Harvey Keitel who does
wonders with his small role.  Never disappoints

Mortal Thoughts didn’t perform well at the boxoffice, but to me it’s an underrated, undiscovered gem. It’s a smart, well-acted crime thriller that not only delivers in the suspense category, but invites the repeat viewing to appreciate the rich characterizations, vivid production values, and sharp execution. Pardon the pun. 
Really, one of my favorites.


The film's first line of dialogue is also its last

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Monday, November 27, 2017

THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE 1972

Warning: Spoilers galore

Looking back, I still find it hard to believe that I came to know of the existence of The Poseidon Adventure only after it had already opened in theaters. It was in December of 1972, I was 15-years-old, and my folks were treating my sisters and me to our first visit to Disneyland over the Christmas holidays. Disneyland and Universal Studios were, of course, a blast for a film fan like me (this was back when Universal was ONLY a tour, not an amusement park, and the main attractions were Lucille Ball’s dressing room, the props from the Land of the Giants TV show, and that bridge Shirley MacLaine got pushed off of in Sweet Charity). But that was for the daytime.
My favorite part of our trip was in the evenings, when we were treated to a driving and walking tour of Los Angeles, Hollywood to be specific. Of all the places we visited, I especially loved seeing Hollywood Boulevard. Hollywood Blvd. was always kind of tacky, but not to my utterly overwhelmed and enthralled eyes. In in the early 1970s it was still a place to go to see first-run movies, where premieres were held, and where they had their annual Christmas parade populated with actual movie stars you've heard of. Hollywood Blvd...all decked out in Christmas decorations, stars on the sidewalks, overflowing with one lit-up movie palace after another…to my eyes it looked every bit as magical as Main Street in Disneyland.

Who Will Survive--In One Of The Greatest Escape Adventures Ever!
Gene Hackman as Reverend Frank Scott
Ernest Borgnine as Mike Rogo 
Stella Stevens as Linda Rogo
All of the 1972 holiday movie releases were playing in the local theaters: Grauman’s Chinese featured Streisand’s Up The Sandbox, Diana Ross was at The Pantages in Lady Sings the Blues, the Cinerama Dome had the Patty Duke thriller You’ll Like My Mother, the Pacific was showing The Getaway with Steve McQueen & Ali MacGraw, and Paul Newman was at the Hollywood (currently a Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum) in The Life & Times of Judge Roy Bean.
Back then, movie theaters still went all out in the way of marketing gimmicks and displays, so every theater was bathed in colorful neon, aglow with bright and flashing lights, and everywhere you looked were banners, streamers, oversized posters, and huge cardboard promotional cutouts for movies now playing or coming soon. My eyes were popping out of my head.

As we strolled along Hollywood Boulevard that night, what really stopped me in my tracks was when we came upon the opulent and enormous Egyptian Theater. There, towering at least two stories high above the theater’s massive, winding marquee was the poster art for a film I’d somehow not heard a single thing about: The Poseidon Adventure. The Egyptian, then every bit as glamorous as Grauman’s Chinese, was in the middle of an exclusive run of The Poseidon Adventure after having hosted the film’s premiere a week prior. Remaining evidence of the event were the massive cast portraits adorning the sprawling marquee, taller-then-me cutout posters, hanging banners, production stills, posters, and lobby cards filling every inch of available display space. Suddenly I was surrounded by images of what looked like the most exciting film I’d never heard of.
Shelley Winters as Belle Rosen 
Jack Albertson as Manny Rosen
Red Buttons as James Martin
Carol Lynley as Nonnie Parry
To understand how a dyed-in-the-wool film fan type like myself managed not to hear a single advance word about a movie that went on to become not only one of my all-time favorites, but the second highest grossing film of the year, it helps to know what kind of year for film 1972 was. In both fan magazines and the legitimate press, the lion’s share of 1972 movie coverage/publicity centered around these high-profile titles: The Godfather (Brando’s comeback!), Cabaret (Judy’s daughter makes good!), Last Tango in Paris (Le Scandale!), Lady Sings the Blues (a Supreme film debut!), The Getaway (behind-the-scenes adultery!), and What’s Up Doc? (Streisand meets New Hollywood wunderkind!).

With no nudity, sex, drug use, violent bloodshed, or profanity, The Poseidon Adventure, an old-fashioned throwback to the Grand Hotel-style “all-star cast” melodrama, couldn't really compete with the more daring, youth-oriented releases of the season, so it pitched itself more to the market largely ignored by the New Hollywood: families and the older demographic. and families.
Roddy McDowall as Acres
Pamela Sue Anderson as Susan Shelby
Eric Shea as Robin Shelby
Leslie Nielsen as Captain Harrison
Arthur O'Connell as John, the ship's Chaplain 
The Poseidon Adventure opened on December 15th in Los Angeles and opened a week later back home in San Francisco where I saw it on Friday the 22nd at the Alexandria Theater. I sat through The Poseidon Adventure twice that weekend and went back to see it two more times over the Christmas holiday. I absolutely loved the film, and it left its mark. For weeks afterward, I couldn’t enter a classroom, library, store, or home of a friend without imagining what it would look like upside down.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS MOVIE
It says a lot about the traditionalism of TV and studio-era films that by the time I was 15 I’d already grown pretty well-versed in recognizing movie clichés. While I’d not yet seen many of the films that established the familiar tropes from which so many ‘70s disaster movies would later draw (The High and the Mighty, Zero Hour!, The Last Voyage), I was familiar enough with combat movies (dangerous situation + dissimilar people from all walks of life + hero = everyone discovers what they’re really made of); all-star ensemble flicks (the aforementioned Grand Hotel, Tales of Manhattan); and waterlogged mlodramas (Lifeboat, A Night to Remember), for the of The Poseidon Adventure’s high-concept upside-down ocean liner premise to seem both intensely original while at the same time sounding reassuringly familiar.
Reverend Scott, not looking exactly pleased to have someone besides himself talking.
Far left is actress Frieda Rentie, sister of 227 actress Marla Gibbs

On New Year’s Eve the ocean liner S.S. Poseidon (significantly, at least in terms of ironic poignancy, making her final voyage before the scrap heap) is capsized by a tidal wave. While several passengers survive the breathtakingly entertaining catastrophe; only nine of the ship’s most stock and photogenic passengers ultimately elect to follow the long-winded Reverend Scott (Hackman) on a perilous climb to safety via navigating their way up to the ship’s bottom.
All involved—save for the resourceful reverend, who oozes so much self-reliance and leadership qualities he can’t help but grow tiresome—are spectacularly ill-suited to the task, but any life-or-death struggle that begins with a ragtag group of “types” having to climb a big, tinsely Christmas tree to salvation is my kind of calamity. And so, armed with little more than pluck, guts, elderly body-shaming, and tight-fitting hot pants; our intrepid troupe begins their adventure.

Meet The Players / Character Shorthand
He's a Rebel 'Cause He Never, Ever Does What He Should
Rev. Scott--who's such a hip, throw-out-the-(Good)book type he wears a turtleneck instead of a clerical collar--helps move the plot along by telling us his character traits
The Bickersons
Common-but-decent police detective Mike Rogo and his foul-mouthed, former-prostitute wife Linda are a kind of Bronx George and Martha. Always speaking what's on their mind, Mike thinks Rev. Scott is a loudmouth, Linda refers to Mrs. Rosen as "Ol' Fat ass, "  so of course they are my favorite characters in the film
Oh, My Papa and Yiddishe Grandmama
As though their borscht-belt accents weren't a dead giveaway, the film makes sure we know Belle & Manny are Jewish by introducing Manny with his nose in an Israel travel brochure, while Belle knits their grandson a sweater with prayer shawl stripes.
Coded and Fabulous
James Martin--the real hero of film, as he is the one who comes up with the idea to climb to the hull--is gay. No one can tell me otherwise. And this 50-something bachelor haberdasher might have said as much had Belle, the Hasidic Heteronormative Buttinsky ("It comes from caring"), not pressed that "What you need is a pretty wife" business.  However, it's not likely anyone bought his "I'm too busy" line anyway. Mr. Martin's character was essentially out and proud in the 2006 Poseidon remake, but the movie itself was so lousy, no one cared.
Damsel in Distress
My real-life experience has been that in moments of crisis, most men & women act more like Nonnie than Rev. Scott, but that doesn't stop this fraidy-cat,  easy-listening songbird from being a bit of a pill. She's genuinely sweet though, and as one of cinema's most high-profile fag hags (you don't honestly think she and middle-aged Mr. Martin became a post-rescue romance, did you?), I like to imagine Nonnie and Mr. Martin became friends: she tagging along on his visits to The Mine Shaft, or meeting up for Sunday brunches in the Village
Susan Being Polite To Mr. You're Not Reverend Scott (Ernie Orsatti)
Although I don't ever recall a brother actually calling his sister "Sis" instead of her given name in real-life, I suppose it was important for the film to establish lovesick Susan and "all boy" Robin (so much the stereotype I expected him to say "Jeepers!") as siblings instead of some kind of Susan Anton/Dudley Moore couple.
Where Am I From?
Sure, his role is brief, but after three Planet of the Apes movies, I'm sure Roddy McDowall was simply glad to show his real face in a movie again. More a plot device than a character, what exactly is Acres' accent? I thought he was British (with a Liverpool lilt), but someone told me he's supposed to be Scots (maybe due to that bagpipes crack?)

In the 1972 shout-fest X, Y and Zee, Elizabeth Taylor has the line:“I may be the worst thing in the world, but I carry it in front where you can see it!”  Well, if The Poseidon Adventure could speak, that would be its mantra. It’s old-fashioned, schlocky, and loaded with what director Ronald Neame (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) labeled “carboardy” characters; but the film carries it all out in front where you can see. 
The Poseidon Adventure wears its corniness proudly on its sleeve. And as a 20th Century Fox production, its asserted broad-market, family-friendly appeal feels like a purposeful shift in direction from Fox's rather desperate previous attempts to court the youth market: Myra Breckinridge -1970, The Panic in Needle Park -1971, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.
Sure, The Poseidon Adventure is hokey, soapy, cliché ridden, and a terribly contrived, but (miracles of miracles) it works. And rather magnificently, at that! I loved the premise, enjoyed the archetypal characters, and I was thrilled as all getout by the upside-down sets and visual effects. Most surprising of all was that the filmmakers somehow not only got me to care about these characters, but to respond emotionally to their fates. Who knew a cheesy movie could be so moving?
The terrible remake (which Carol Lynley called “The biggest piece of shit I’ve ever seen”) cost 32 times more and had CGI wizardry up the ass, but I never gave a whit about what happened to anyone in it. The Poseidon Adventure was ripped apart by many critics in its day, but it has aged remarkably well. What seemed corny in 1972 looks rather sweet today. And creators of today's largely disposable and indistinguishable action films could a lesson on how The Poseidon Adventure takes the time to get us to know/care about the characters before the mayhem starts. The Poseidon Adventure is now 45 years old, and in spite of its well-earned reputation as a campy favorite, I can't help but think that in the realm of disaster movies, The Poseidon Adventure is some kind of a minor classic of the genre.
As both Beyond The Poseidon Adventure and The Swarm proved, when Irwin Allen chooses to direct, the result is a guaranteed disaster. The Poseidon Adventure is directed by Ronald Neame. Allen is on hand only to handle the action sequences

PERFORMANCES
One of the peculiarities of the disaster film genre is that things don’t actually improve when “good” actors are cast. Due to the unique demands of a film dominated by fast plotting and special effects, personality tends to win out over performance. Nothing bogs a disaster movie down more than a so-called serious actor trying too hard. For example--for all their innate talent, you’d have to look to an Ed Wood movie to find performances worse than Olivia de Havilland in The Swarm, or Rock Hudson in Avalanche.
Leslie Nielsen as Captain Harrison
Younger viewers tend to be surprised to see the star of Airplane and Naked Gun star in a serious role. However, those of us of a certain age know that for decades, THIS Leslie Nielsen was the only Leslie Nielsen there was.

No, with the genre’s emphasis on action and expediency, it’s often a matter of finding actors with distinct, identifiable, almost over-emphatic screen personas, capable of projecting a level of conviction appropriate to the arch dialogue and bigger-than-life exploits.
Much in the manner that Vincent Price became the master of schlock horror sincerity, disaster film actors who take their roles too seriously come off as ridiculous, while the most effective performances are given by those who seem to operate on a level of magic reality that hovers somewhere between authentic and artificial.
The distinction I'm trying to make is that while the cast of The Poseidon Adventure may be quite accomplished actors in their own right, what they're called upon to do in the film doesn't require "good" acting so much as "effective" acting. To make material like this believable, it matters more to strike the right tone; in which case performances ranging from hammy to hoary can prove to be 100% on the money.
My absolute favorite shot in the entire film, also my favorite moment.
No matter how many times I see The Poseidon Adventure, Linda Rogo's death remains for me the most shocking and heart-wrenching. Winters' Belle Rosen was set up from the beginning to be nobly tragic, but Mike and Linda Rogo were the couple I identified with. They weren't know-it-alls, they weren't noble, and they said the things I was thinking. They were funny, sweet, and a life-force in the film, and Linda's death reverberated like no other. Ernest Borgnine just breaks my heart in this scene and I always get waterworks from his reaction. To me he was always the film's most valuable player.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
By no means all, but just a few of my favorite things:
I don't care how dated the special effects are, the capsizing of the Poseidon is epic moviemaking
(Gotta love Red Buttons during this part. That's not acting)
No one on the Poseidon faced a bigger challenge than these two trying to find the beat of the music
I love Mrs. Rosen
Even in 1972, the Hot Pants Under The Gown Reveal drew gasps and laughs.
Loving Linda's reaction
That Dive!
The biggest shock of the film. It got laughs, applause, and cheers
I love Linda Rogo

The Poseidon Adventure is a favorite. You'll never hear me call it one of the best films ever made; I don't buy into revisionist assessments ranking it a genuine classic (it's great for what it is, but let's not forget what it is); nor do I harbor illusions about its depiction of women (save for Belle and her big moment, the men are all active while the women are reactive) and lack of people of color in the major cast (Akers & Belle occupy the stereotypical roles of ethnics in action films: "first to die" and "noble sacrifice").
Yet there's no denying The Poseidon Adventure is one of those imperfect films that achieves a kind of lightning-in-a-bottle kind of excellence. From script (dialogue, primarily) to characterizations, to outlandish (albeit exciting) premise; it shouldn't really work as beautifully as it does. But you'd have to look hard and long to find a disaster film that does it better. I've come to regard it with such fondness, I've noticed that over the years my laughs of derision have turned into laughs of affection. Despite its flaws, I fully understand why it has endured and why so many people have taken it to their hearts.


BONUS MATERIAL
In 1973 MAD magazine once again did a movie satire that hit the nail on the head. In "The Poopsidedown Adventure" the characters are named: Reverend Shout, Hammy & Bellow Roseman, Snoozin & Rotten, Mr. Martyr, Ninny, Mr. Rougho, Limber, and Apers.


Shelly Winters won a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nod for her performance in The Poseidon Adventure. When it came time to read the list of nominees on the telecast, Shelley Winters had the misfortune of having her name come up right after Cloris Leachman reads says the title of co-nominee Susan Tyrell's film, Fat City. This causes Robert Duvall to lose it. When questioned about his laughter, Duvall claimed James Caan was making faces from the audience, but few believed him. Though it's nothing compared to U.S. norms today, Shelly Winters' weight gain was a major source of comedy and comment in 1972. See the Oscar sequence HERE.

Copyright © Ken Anderson