Tuesday, October 31, 2017

THE AMITYVILLE HORROR 1979

Generally, I can think back to my adolescence and recall with relative clarity what it is I felt about most of the movies I saw at the time. What's perplexing is how often I fail to be blessed with the same level of recall when it comes to movies I've seen during my adult years. I was 21 when The Amityville Horror came out (not exactly yesterday, were talking 39 years ago, folks); but thinking back on it, I can’t seem to remember exactly what I thought of then. I mean, did I find it even remotely scary? Did I buy into any of that “Based on a True Story” hype? Did I find it then, as I do now, to be an entertaining parade of haunted house clichés and hoary horror film tropes?
Worse, is there something metaphysically suspicious about my inability to remember? Hmmm….
James Brolin as George Lutz
Margot Kidder as Kathleen Lutz
Rod Steiger as Father Delaney
Don Stroud as Father Bolen
I have only the haziest memory of The Amityville Horror as the bestselling 1977 novel heavily prompted as being a fictionization of the purported-to-be real-life story of a family beset by a series of paranormal events in theer Long Island home which was at one time the site of a bloody mass murder. I had no interest in the book, nor do I even recall having paid much attention to news stories about the real-life DeFeo Murders which gave that distinctive-looking house its horror reputation. (On November 13, 1974, 23-year-old Ronald DeFeo, Jr. killed his parents and four three siblings in the home they shared in Amityville, Long Island).

What I do remember is that the film version of The Amityville Horror opened in the summer of 1979: two months after Ridley Scott’s mind-blowing Alien; one month after the hotly anticipated (by me), but wholly disappointing John Frankenheimer monster monster movie Prophecy; and two weeks after the bloodless Dracula re-up with Frank Langella.

My rapturous fondness for Alien—a film that reminded me of how much fun it is to be scared at the movies—had put me into a horror film frame of mind that summer. Unfortunately, the diminishing scare returns proffered by the above-listed roster films left me looking forward to the opening of The Amityville Horror with an enthusiasm drastically disproportionate to my actual interest in the movie. 
The Amityville house lays out the unwelcome mat for Kathy's Aunt Helena (Irene Dailey)

Propelled by a hope for a replay of the kind of jump-out-of-my-seat thrills Alien served up so plenntifully, plus a desire to see what actress Margot Kidder had chosen for her follow-up vehicle to her star-making turn as Lois Lane in the blockbuster Christmas 1978 release Superman: The Movie (still playing in second run theaters at the time); I stood in a long line on Hollywood Blvd on Friday, July 27th, to catch The Amityville Horror on opening night. The house was packed and the theater was abuzz with the kind of amped-up excitement only an R-rating, “Based on a True Story”-hype, and saturation marketing can produce (“For God’s Sake, Get Out!” screamed posters from billboards and bus shelters all over town).

Unspooling under a cloak of collective audience goodwill that began to dissipate around the film’s 60-minute mark—when animated squeals of delight and nervous giggles began to take on the hollow timbre of blatantly derisive laughter—The Amityville Horror made it clear that as a horror movie, it was devoted to treading familiar haunted house/demonic possession ground. In due time it became clear that the film was going to lean heavily on its claims of “This really happened!” as a means of mitigating the fact that the episodic screenplay was less a cohesive story and more of a laundry list of “Things that make you go hmmm…” events taking place in a creepy old house.
This House Pays For Itself
Kathy's brother (Marc Vahanian) preps for his wedding as the house preps for a little self-help

Although The Amityville Horror was a more polished and technically tricked-out film than I’d come to expect from the traditionally low-rent American International Pictures, for all its sound and fury (a disproportionate amount both coming from the grievously miscalculated performances of Rod Steiger and Helen Shaver) I grew aware of the fact that The Amityville Horror was in no danger of  posing any threat to the legacies of The Exorcist or The Omen. The audience I was with seemed to enjoy the film’s low-wattage fright delivery system (regular as clockwork...3:15am to be exact) and didn't seem to mind that the film was serving up equal doses of laughs and frights. I was disappointed, but I was also entertained. I just wish I could remember if any aspects of the film actually scared me. What I do recall is that I returned to see The Amityville Horror the following week with a friend, and his conclusion was that the film was more of a “fun” scary movie (escapist and diverting) than a legitimately frightening one.
In chronicling the strange occurrences that befall cash-strapped newlyweds George and Kathy Lutz (Brolin & Kidder) and their three kids (Kathy’s from a previous marriage) when they move into the spacious, obscenely affordable house--that just so happens to have been the site of a brutal mass killingthe year before, The Amityville Horror goes for the semi-documentary approach. Events are charted with title cards highlighting dates and times, a device serving both to chronicle the escalating "hauntings" and to further suggest what you're watching has been documented as fact. By doing so, The Amityville Horror is able to dispense with a lot of time otherwise devoted to establishing character and plot, and can simply dive headlong into the horrors its title promises.

Wasting no time, the film opens with graphic depictions of the shotgun murders of the DeFeo family (although they're never named in the film) following this up whenever possible with closeups of characters “feeling uneasy” in the presence of odd camera angles and a intrusive musical score. The house, distinctive, camera-ready, and treated to a great many jack-o-lantern closeups, is filmed from so many flattering angles, it becomes the Barbra Streisand of haunted houses: always at the dead-center of the action.

Since the Lutz family only lived in the house for a month it’s imperative that weird things start to happen to them right off the bat. Events unfold at such breakneck speed that only after the film has ended does it dawn that those nondescript Lutz kids never attend school and that George’s surveyor business suffers financial setbacks curiously disproportionate to how brief is his period of neglect. 
While George obsessively continues to chop logs for the fire,
Kathy laments the sudden wood shortage in their bedroom
...if you get my cruder meaning.

Because a haunted house/possession story is nothing without religious subtext, our Kathy is Catholic. Or, more precisely, Hollywood Catholic. Which means she doesn’t actually go to church or display any discernible traits of spiritual devoutness, but she does paint Virgin Mary figurines, hang ginormous crucifixes all over the house, has an actual nun in her immediate family, and is given to grocery shopping in a fetish-y Catholic School Girl uniform.
Kathy’s Catholic background occasions her inviting priest and friend Father Delaney (Steiger) to come and bless the house. A bad idea for the puffy priest, but a bonanza for lovers of uncured ham and unbridled scenery-chewing. The somber seriousness accorded Rod Steiger’s appearance is  ostensibly meant to signal the graveness of the Lutz’s situation and escalate the film’s drama, but the actor's emoting is so over-the-top it merely opens a hell-gate of hilarity.
Fathers Delaney and Bowen, badly in need of a St. Christopher medal

The horror gauntlet is thrown down via a series of mysterious-to-life-threatening events which place the Lutzes in a race against time, the forces of evil, and their own thick-headedness. And if the objectives of these forces are conveyed in the vaguest terms possible (Revenge? Demonic possession? The endless reenactment of a violent past?), rest assured that the scope and severity of these paranormal assaults (Gates of hell? Native-American burial ground? Devil-worship? Bad juju?) are mind-bogglingly elastic, inconsistent, and convenient to plot contrivance.

In the end, the scariest thing about The Amityville Horror is that this family of five occupying a three-story colonial doesn’t seem to own a television set. The rest is a comfortably conventional, enjoyably cheesy, surprisingly by-the-numbers haunted house tale with its fair share of jump-cut shocks (hissing cats, loud noises, the old “I wake up screaming” trope, flashes of gore); a few genuine creep outs (the shotgun murders, the locked closet door, that weird little girl who looks like Robert Blake with a wig); and more than a few unintentional laughs (Brolin’s eye-popping mood swings, the cut-rate haunting special effects, the cartoonish reactions of visitors to the house).
While Kathy & George stare aghast at the front door that's been mysteriously blown off its hinges,
viewers get to stare at James Brolin's cobblers


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
I have a hunch that both my infatuation with Margot Kidder and my initial ignorance of the story behind The Amityville Horror made that 1979 opening night screening an enjoyable one. But I’m just as certain that subsequent viewings of the film have been rooted in how enjoyably routine a movie it is. That’s certainly the case today. When I look at the film now, it plays like an end-of-the-decade “best of” medley of all the supernatural horror films of the 1970s. 
You could make a drinking game of the clichés.
The malevolent demon, ineffectual cop, the invisible friend: The Exorcist
The too-inexpensive-to-be-true, parasitic house: Burnt Offerings
Religious mumbo-jumbo: The Omen
House built over the gates of hell: The Sentinel
Serial killer possession: The Possession of Joel Delaney
Going back for the pet: Alien
And for good measure, you have a movie with an axe-wielding dad that predates The Shining by one year, plus a hyperactive house built above a burial ground that predates Poltergeist by two.
Creepy Amy (Natasha Ryan) consults with Jody, her invisible friend

The overall effect is of The Amityville Horror being something of a goulash horror creation. Everything but the kitchen sink (or bile-spilling toilet) seems to have been thrown into this mechanical mix of sure-fire horror standbys. Nothing wrong with that, but the film is so overcrowded with disparate ideas that it ends up with a ton of loose threads and setups introduced that fail to pay off. Happily, the whole undertaking manages to be repetitious without ever really being boring, so the film ends up as being inoffensively watchable as one of those Creature Features horror programmers aired on TV when I was a kid.

PERFORMANCES
No matter the relative quality of the end results, no one associated with The Amityville Horror can be accused of phoning in their performance. A fact that proves to be both a blessing and curse.
Screenwriter Sandor Stern and director Stuart Rosenberg both come from television, which may account for every dramatic scene seeming to be structured to end in a fade out and commercial break. As though to compensate for the halting, stop-start pace, the entire cast performs at near-operatic pitch. 
Mr. Groovy Guy
Full beards and big, pouffy hair were all the rage in the '70s.
Here's Brolin with his gay porn doppelganger George Payne  

Although easy on the eyes, I can’t say James Brolin (he’ll always be Mr. Barbra Streisand to me) had ever made much of an impression on me during his days as "the young guy" on TVs Marcus Welby, M.D. Here however, as the possessed George Lutz, Brolin has so many scenes where he gets to bellow, shout, and bug his eyes out, he quickly became my favorite character in the film. He's so consistently bitchy and surly, it's like watching a hirsute Joan Crawford.
Margot Kidder, something of an early scream queen what with her roles in Sisters, Black Christmas, and The Reincarnation of Peter Proud, is the film’s bright spot. Unfortunately she's saddled with a role that has her doing what bad writers always have women do in horror movies: screaming and going around asking everybody if they’re OK. I love watching her though, and she remains a natural and charismatic presence even in the film’s most absurd moments. 
Rod Steiger, praying for an Oscar nomination
In what I can only hope was a Karen Black-like bid on Rod Steiger's part to invest The Amityville Horror with a little emotional gravitas (Black approached her role in the nonsensical Airport ’75 with intense solemnity because she felt no one else in the film was taking it seriously), Steiger—never a particularly subtle actor—in trying to convey spiritual anguish and fear, only succeeds in going full-tilt Neely O’Hara/Mommie Dearest on us.

As the concerned priest who becomes the target of the malevolent forces inhabiting the house, Steiger invests every moment onscreen with such ferocious overacting, I seriously thought in one scene his head was going to explode like that fellow in Scanners. Perhaps Steiger should be given credit for taking risks and being committed to the the role, but it simply feels far too strenuous and undisciplined. His priest is off the rails before we get a chance to know anything about him.
Helen Shaver and Michael Sacks (Slaughterhouse Five) as family friends Carolyn and Jeff.
Playing a New-Age type, I'm not sure whose idea it was to have Shaver pitch her performance so high on the weird-o-meter, but her big scene in the Lutz's basement is listed in the dictionary under "overkill" 

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
The Amityville Horror is guilty of not being very scary, which is a bit of a crime given that “horror” is part of the title. But, as someone once said about life (and goes double for motion pictures): “The one unforgivable sin is to be boring.” I could call this movie a lot of things, but boring isn't one of them; for what The Amityville Horror skimps on in thrills, logic, and coherence, it more than makes up for in unintentional laughs.
In 1979 when The Amityville Horror had its best chance of being taken seriously, public appetites were still so hungry for the next The Exorcist that the film became one of the highest grossers of the year. But that didn’t stop the opening night audience I saw it with from still appreciating the occasional laugh at the film’s expense.
Nauseous, sweating profusely, covered in flies, and witness to a door opening all by itself, 
Father Delaney has second thoughts about priests making house calls 
Margot Kidder and Lalo Schifrin's Oscar-nominated score work like Trojans trying to convince us that Kathy Lutz has seen something unspeakably terrifying outside of her daughter's second-story bedroom window. Regrettably, a cut to Kathy's POV reveals "glowing red eyes" that look for all the world like outdoor Christmas lights
Amity meets Amityville
Actor Murray Hamilton, who played the Doubting Thomas mayor of Amity in Jaws, this time out plays a Doubting Thomas priest. His brief scene in the film is memorable for the manner in which he commands a (still) frothing at the mouth Rod Steiger to the sit down. It's like he's training an overgrown Bullmastiff 

Over the years, The Amityville Horror has spawned something like 15 Amityville-related sequels, remakes, and spinoffs. I don't know if this qualifies the original as some kind of minor classic or a mere franchise fluke; but for whatever reasons, The Amityville Horror (even with its always dubious claims to reality since debunked) has proved to be a movie that endures.  
Copyright © Ken Anderson

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

THE ACTRESS 1953


I’m training my eye on The Actress: a film which marked the fifth and final collaboration between Spencer Tracy and director George Cukor. After teaming on Keeper of the Flame (1943), Edward My Son (1949), Adam’s Rib (1949), and Pat & Mike; Tracy and Cukor’s final collaborative hurrah was with the serio-comic domesticity of 1953’s The Actress.

From a screenplay by Ruth Gordon adapted from her autobiographical 1946 Broadway play Years Ago (which was itself based on her serialized memoirs Look in your Glass, published in several issues of The Atlantic Monthly in 1939); The Actress is set in 1913 Wollaston, Massachusetts, and chronicles, in episodic fashion, her teen years when first bitten by the acting bug. The featherlight project first caught the interest of two-time Oscar-winner Spencer Tracy—then the darling of MGM and well into the “professional father” years of his career (Father of the Bride, Father’s Little Dividend); accounting perhaps for this charming film feeling somewhat dominated by the character of the father. Making it more of a I Remember Papa sentimental memory play reverie than a contemplation on a young girl’s determination to embark on a life on the stage.
Jean Simmons as Ruth Gordon Jones
Spencer Tracy as Clinton Jones
Teresa Wright (given not a single closeup in the entire film) as Annie Jones
Anthony Perkins (making his film debut) as Fred Whitmarsh
When heretofore aimless 17-year-old Ruth Jones (Simmons) sees actress and former Ziegfeld Follies star Hazel Dawn on stage in “The Pink Lady,” she undergoes an epiphany: she MUST hereafter devote her life to becoming an actress.
Ruth freely shares her newfound ambition with her practical and empathetic mother (Wright), but due to his having a “disposition,” works hard to keep her aspirations a secret from her bearish father (Tracy), a former adventuring seaman currently bristling at the penurious state of his current life as a factory worker.

While Ruth's mother harbors the hope that she will settle down after graduation and marry Fred (Anthony Perkins), the handsome and genial Harvard student; Ruth's father, who paradoxically believes women should be independent and learn to earn their own keep, yet forbids his wife from lightening their financial load by taking in sewing, has set his sights on Ruth becoming a physical education teacher. 
Clinton participates in a YMCU fitness exhibition (married men's division)

Meanwhile, Ruth pursues her acting dream, albeit largely though daydreams and acting-out fantasies, until the day a well-placed fan letter to her idol Hazel Dawn occasions a much-coveted meeting with the Great Lady (offscreen) and a summons to Boston to meet with the director of the company. Ruth Gordon Jones’ dream of life as an actress is set! Or is it?

Since there is never any doubt that timorous Jean Simmons will grow up to be a Tony Award nominated stage actress, a novelist, a playwright, an Oscar nominated screenwriter (with her husband Garson Kanin), and win an Academy Award for Rosemary’s Baby; the only dramatic conflict The Actress has to offer are comedic slice-of-life vignettes highlighting the domestic uproar in the Jones household born of Ruth’s decision to pursue a life in the wicked theater. 
Indeed, the film’s slightness of plot and episodic nature proved a near-insurmountable obstacle for MGM's marketing department (as with the studio's Meet Me in St. Louis, not much really happens in the way of plot). The film certainly features one of Spencer Tracy’s finest performances, but there's no getting past the fact he's not exactly the central character, despite posters and ads prominently featuring his likeness next to the film's title. 
Instead of studying, Ruth and her girlfriends engage in an impromptu
performance of Hazel Dawn's signature song "Beautiful Lady"
 

Reflecting this dilemma is the fact that The Actress (a title few were happy with) entertained several working titles from pre-production through preview screenings, the blunt and misleading Father and the Actress proving too reminiscent of Tracy’s Father of the Bride series, but at least reflecting the film’s proper character emphasis.

Although Jean Simmons cites it as one of her favorite films and Spencer Tracy won a Golden Globe for his performance (and a BAFTA nomination), favorable critical reception couldn’t save The Actress from fizzling at the box-office. In the book You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet: Interviews with Stars from Hollywood’s Golden Era, Simmons recalls going to see the film at a theater in Westwood and being the only person in attendance.

I first came across The Actress about five years ago when it was screened on cable. I had never even heard of the film before, but found myself instantly charmed by its simple structure and how charmingly it captured the feeling of an old-fashioned mores and attitudes. In its gentle humor and nicely-drawn characters, it reminded me a great deal of the aforementioned Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), as well as The Happy Time (1952) and The Matchmaker (1957)—the latter being the play for which Ruth Gordon won her sole Tony Award nomination; the film adaptation affording Anthony Perkins another opportunity to mine, in a similar role, a likable boyish appeal charm.

For all the talent in evidence both in front of and behind the camera (personal favorite Teresa Wright is a tad underutilized, but wonderful as always), it's still Spencer Tracy who emerges as the film's most valuable player. The effortless naturalism he brings  to the role, the kind which earned him the reputation as “the actor’s actor,” serves to ground his blustering but principled character (and with it, Cukor's entire frothy enterprise) in a realism that is as engagingly funny as it is affecting. 
Clinton's most treasured possession is the spyglass he purchased during his time as a sailor

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
The lack of a propulsive plotline seems to have been a major point of preproduction contention when it came to bringing The Actress to the screen, but for me, the small scale and intimate presentation of this character-driven comedy feels wholly appropriate to the subject matter. The simple, even drab surroundings and humdrum family concerns of budgeting, homework, school dances, pay bonuses, and housecats attracted to Boston ferns provides a fitting contrast, offsetting the grandiose, larger-than-life theatricality of Ruth and her dreams. 
Ruth's dreamy dissatisfaction with the confining contentment of the
life her parents have chosen for themselves is the source of a lot of household tension

The small-scale of the family’s domestic dramas and the workaday concerns of a small-town life are grist to Ruth’s desire for a better, more exciting life. When I watch Meet Me In St. Louis, the loving home depicted is one so enchanting, I can’t imagine anyone ever wanting to stray from it. But the home life depicted in The Actress, while every bit as loving, also contains an air of confinement and shared dissatisfaction. Clinton bemoans the overarching oppression of poverty and speaks of his past as a sailor as though it were the happiest time in his life. Annie, as much a housewife out of choice (love) as convention, is happy in her life, but her expressed longing for a velvet dress and suppressed desire to help with the family's fiances by plying her skill as a seamstress suggest there exist broader interests for her character than those of just home and family. 

It's to the film's credit that The Actress doesn't criticize those who find happiness in a quiet life of simple pleasures, nor does it make Ruth into a figure of derision because her dreams far so far beyond the scope of what we are shown to be her minimal talent. Rather, The Actress is structured as a coming-of-age story with Ruth’s desire for something more out of life is depicted as just one manifestation of the natural, keenly-felt human quest for independence and personal fulfillment.
Watching Hazel Dawn Perform, Ruth Sees a Vision of All That Life Can Be
Any person who's ever sought a life in the creative arts has likely experienced that one moment
when all that is beautiful in the world seems to beckon with a voice meant only for them

PERFORMANCES
If you’re going to mount a film more character-based than plot-driven, it helps to cast actors capable of creating indelible, fleshed-out personas out of sometimes slim material. The Actress distinguishes itself in its casting, even down to the smallest bits.
Former child actor Jackie Coogan (better known as "Uncle Fester" on The Addams Family TV series) is hilarious as an over-amused spectator at the YMCU fitness exhibition. Ruth is appropriately mortified.

The juvenile appeal of Tony Perkins is clear in this, his first film role. What’s also clear is that after seeing his performance here, then his livelier take on same in The Matchmaker five years later; Hitchcock’s use of him in Psycho was positively inspired.
The likability of the actors cast goes far in mitigating the fact that several roles, Anthony Perkins' moony suitor Fred Whitmarsh, for example, are a tad underdeveloped

If Tony Perkins’ trajectory from boy-next-door to everyone’s favorite psychopath seems swift, it’s nothing compared to Oscar winner Teresa Wright’s swift journey from fresh-faced ingenue in 1941’s The Little Foxes to long-suffering mom. Wright was only 11 years older than Jean Simmons when cast in The Actress (34 to Jean’s 23) and would play Simmons’ mother again in 1969s The Happy Ending. Late in her career when a reporter asked Wright why she stopped making movies, she replied: “I guess Jean Simmons no longer needs a mother.” 
As Far As I'm Concerned, Teresa Wright Can Do No Wrong
I wouldn't call her underappreciated, for her reputation as an actress is one respected and revered. But Teresa Wright doesn't get nearly the attention and play in classic film circles as she deserves. She brought a contemporary, genuine quality to every role she undertook. In The Actress she is has marvelous moments where she is both funny and heartbreakingly sincere. Still, her impressive talents feel somewhat wasted in the role of caring mom, and as good as Simmons is (and she's very good) I can't help imagining how Wright would have been in Simmons' role just a few years earlier.

Without recalling the idiosyncratic Ruth Gordon in any way at all, Jean Simmons is really splendid embodying the character of a stage-struck teenage girl. Called upon to show vivacity, naiveté, rebelliousness, and ultimately, determination and maturity; if her performance suffers at all (test audiences at the time took a decided dislike to her) I’d say it’s perhaps because she captures the sulky self-absorption of adolescence all too well. Gordon the memorialist isn’t exactly easy on her younger self, depicting her self-centered behavior and willful single-mindedness in sometimes harshly unsentimental ways. But I like that the character has an arc of growth in the film. And if perhaps she starts out as something of a dreamy-eyed brat, she grows into a mature woman of some empathy and understanding of what parents sacrifice in raising spirited and independent-minded offspring.
Ruth suffers her first taste of rejection 
Because he’s never been tops on my “favorite actors” list, I tend to harbor the impression of Spencer Tracy as one of those solid, dependable, studio system actors who could always be relied upon to deliver a skilled, professional performance in any film assigned. It’s only when I actually watch one of his films that I’m reminded what a valuable and rare quality that is.
It could be argued that nothing Tracy does as Clinton Jones is anything he hasn’t done before, after all, by this time in his career he’d made well over 50 films. But what’s remarkable about Tracy is that he was a star with a character actor's gift for inhabiting a part so completely: the behavior, movements, and vocal inflections all seem to exist exclusively for whatever character he was portraying in a particular film.
In The Actress, his character is largely identified by an irascible demeanor and an authoritarian gruffness, but to watch Tracy stay in character while delivering a monologue that's part searing tirade against the cruel aunts who brought him up/part lamenting requiem for his mother who committed suicide when he was two years old--well, it's to watch a little bit of acting genius.

Ruth gives an impromptu performance in hopes to convince her parents
 of the soundness of her decision to go upon the stage

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Much like my experience with the film adaptation of Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker, I came to The Actress with low expectations and found myself not only surprised by what a wonderful film it is is, but completely captivated by its warm humor and charm.
The film's vignette structure may play a bit of havoc with Ruth and Fred's relationship (we never understand whether it's as serious as Fred takes it to be or as casual as Ruth makes it out to be), but it nicely suits the photo album/scrapbook setup of the title sequence. The script is witty, the performances uniformly fine.

Ruth's reaction to seeing Hazel Dawn (Kay Williams) on the stage is not unlike my response to seeing the critically lambasted 1980 musical Xanadu (of all things). Although I was attending film school at he time and had set my sights on becoming a filmmaker, something about that roller-skating muse musical so inspired me that I quit school, devoted all my time to studying jazz and ballet, and eventually made dance my career for the last 30-plus years.   
Illogical, irresponsible, and highly improbable, yet it was a dream that came true.
Effort and hard work are indispensable, but having a dream is where it all begins

I think there is much in The Actress that speaks to anyone who seeks to strike out on their own, armed with little more than impossible dreams and a (by appearances) baseless belief in self.
Copyright © Ken Anderson

Friday, October 6, 2017

THE LONELY LADY 1983

In interviews for his 1974 adaptation of Henry James’ Daisy Miller, director Peter Bogdanovich is fond of recounting that he chose somber-faced actor Barry Brown for the role of self-serious Frederick Winterbourne because Brown was the only actor in Hollywood who looked like he’d actually ever read a book.

In a similar vein (but at the entirely opposite end of the spectrum), one of the most egregious of the countless missteps taken in bringing Harold Robbin’s relentlessly trashy 1976 novel The Lonely Lady to the screen was to cast in the lead role of Jerilee Randall—gifted English major, novelist, and aspiring screenwriter—an actress who not only looks as though she’s never read a book, but upon encountering one, might be overheard asking, “How does it work?” 
Of course, because that's what intellectual writer-types do

The actress is Pia Zadora: the pint-sized kewpie doll who sought to set movie screens ablaze in the early 1980s with her scorching sensuality, only to see out the decade as a household name via punchline—a female Rodney Dangerfield who got no respect.
Although Zadora had been in the business since childhood (her film debut was in 1964s Santa Claus Conquers the Martians), as an adult she fairly burst on the scene out of nowhere, ubiquitously showcased in high-profile gigs that placed her front and center like a star. The only problem was that absolutely no one knew who she was.

Like that other pop-culture question mark with the exotic name, actress and Alberto VO-5 pitchwoman Rula Lenska, Pia Zadora’s assumption of fame ultimately became what she became famous for. Thanks to the bankrolling of her billionaire industrialist husband Meshulam Riklis (age 54 to her 23), Zadora became the TV and print ad face of Dubonnet, a recording artist, a Vegas headliner, posed nude for Penthouse. and earned “introducing” billing (and a controversial Golden Globe win) for her widely panned starring role in the 1982 Orson Welles film Butterfly.
She was everywhere and did everything, but genuine stardom always managed to elude her. Indeed, if stardom could be bought, she would have been; but public consensus was that she was little more than competent as a performer, and as an actress she was (per the New York Times) “spectacularly inept.
Hey, Looka Me! I'm A Writer!

But deep pockets don’t read reviews. So, while Hollywood was still giggling over the fact that Pia Zadora was awarded the New Star of the Year Golden Globe over Elizabeth McGovern, Howard Rollins, and Kathleen Turner; sugar daddy Riklis was ponying up more than half the budget to land his five-foot inamorata the leading role and above-the-title-billing in a film adaptation of Harold Robbins’ The Lonely Lady.
Pia Zadora as Jerilee Randall
Lloyd Bochner as Walter Thornton
Anthony Holland as Guy Jackson
Bibi Besch as Veronica Randall
Jared Martin as George Ballantine 
Joseph Cali as Vincent "Vinnie" Dacosta

A member of that rarefied, they-don’t-make-‘em-like-this-anymore club of tantalizing cinema trash reserved for such gems as Valley of the Dolls, The Oscar, The Other Side of Midnight, and  Showgirls; The Lonely Lady is a film to be cherished. For in everything from content to execution, it exhibits that one essential quality shared by all craptastic classics—a surfeit of ambition, pretension, and ego supported by a scarcity of talent, budget, and good taste.  
Pared down and retooled considerably from its unwieldly and often incoherent source novel (Robbins credited cocaine for his writing prolificacy), the screenplay for The Lonely Lady is attributed to the contributions of no less than three writers. A rather astonishing fact given the banality of the results, but it does go a long way toward explaining why the lead character comes across as a tad schizophrenic

Borrowing from the popular “three working girls” format of movies like The Pleasure Seekers, Three Coins in the Fountain, The Best of Everything, and Valley of the Dolls, The Lonely Lady consolidates these three standard female tropes: the pragmatist, the romantic, the maker-of-bad-decisions -- into a single character: Jerilee Randall...the serious writer saddled with the name of an aerobics instructor.
When The Lonely Lady was released in September of 1983,
Pia Zadora felt the burn of unanimous critical censure
 

Jerilee is inserted into a garden-variety showbiz cautionary tale depicting Hollywood as a cutthroat, dog-eat-dog business which exploits the talented and corrupts the innocent. The Lonely Lady’s ostensibly feminist angle (don’t you believe it) is that Jerilee, unlike the victimized heroines of Jacqueline Susann novels, has no interest in being an actress, model, or singer; she has brains and ambition and only wants to succeed behind the scenes as a screenwriter. But true to the genre, Jerilee just also happens to be sexually irresistible to all she meets, male and female, so sexism, misogyny, and her overall, impossible to conceal hotness conspire to sabotage her success and prove to be major hurdles to overcome on her path toward being taken seriously as a writer.
Leaving no cliché unturned, The Lonely Lady charts Jerilee’s struggle to hang onto her innocence and principles while making that brutal climb up that Mount Everest called success. Surviving assault, impotent husbands, horny producers, philandering matinee idols, drugs, alcohol, abortion, lesbianism, and sanitariums (not a nut house!). When she finally reaches that peak, Jerilee stands there waiting for the rush of exhilaration to come. But it doesn't, and she's all alone. And the feeling of loneliness is overpowering... 'cause she's The Lonely Lady. (Thank you, Anne Welles.)
Vinnie Goes for the Big Pocket Shot

By the time The Lonely Lady limped to movie screens, public tastes and mores had changed significantly in regard to these Harold Robbins/Jacqueline Susann/Sidney Sheldon-style sex-power-glamour sleaze and cheesefests. Nighttime television—in the form of soaps (Dallas and Dynasty) and the miniseries (The Thorn BirdsWinds of War and Princess Daisy in 1983 alone)—had completely co-opted the no-longer-shocking genre that had been such boxoffice bait back in the days of Peyton Place. The boom in the availability of vhs and cable porn rendering Zadora’s frequent nude scenes and so-called steamy couplings quaint, if not downright passé.

Thus, The Lonely Lady arrived on the scene looking like an artifact from another era. A low-budget, Cinemax-tacky take on the glossy soap operas of the ‘50s and ‘60s, with nothing new to say about Hollywood, relationships, or systemic misogyny (what could the movie say about the exploitation of women when the willing exploitation of its leading lady was its sole raison d’être?).

Worse still, it arrived with virtually none of the usual compensations movies like this offer: exotic locales, glamour, beautiful people. First off, the men. Seriously, you’d have to look far to find a less appetizing and charmless roster of male co-stars. It’s a virtual parade of receding hairlines, flabby middles, and hairy backs. Sure, the movie might be trying to make a point about the kind of slimeball our Jerilee has to fight off (several of them uncannily resembling Harold Robbins), but even the film’s so-called hunks are an uncommonly bland and unprepossessing bunch. 
What Becomes A Legend Most?
Jerilee marries a millionaire and gets a fur coat 

As for glamour, Zadora gets to strut around in a few becoming Armani gowns, but by and large, The Lonely Lady has the look of a cut-rate “supply your own wardrobe” production.
No, Jerilee didn't just appear in a production of Anne of Green Gables. This pigtails and pinafore getup is the film's weak attempt to make 28-year-old Zadora look like an innocent teen, while simultaneously camouflaging her physical "charms" (to be unleashed later, full throttle). Incredibly, the two middle-aged gentlemen flanking her are also supposed to be teenagers, the individual on the left offering a bit of unintentional plot foreshadowing by thrusting a conspicuously tumescent wiener in Jerilee's face.

And say goodbye for any hope of this Italian-American co-production offering any escapist glimpses of faraway places with strange-sounding names. In its place we have the breathtaking splendor of San Fernando Valley; Beverly Hills as viewed from one interior restaurant set after another; and picturesque Rome stands in for Los Angles in a chintzily-rendered movie industry awards event populated by what looks to be about 30 enthusiastic, poorly-dubbed fans (the movie doesn’t even give the fake award a name, it’s simply called The Awards Presentation Ceremony).
Let's Have Lunch...& Dinner...& Brunch...
Ingenuity not being one the film's strong suits, The Lonely Lady
 stages no less than five scenes in restaurants

In light of the film’s blitzkrieg of bad acting (you expect poor performances in films like this, but The Lonely Lady seems to be trying to set a new precedent), risible dialogue (Vinnie [clearly naked with two just-as-visibly naked women] to Jerilee: “Hey doll, we’re naked!”), and the irrefutable sense that nobody involved in this slapdash production is very much invested in it (get a gander at the cover art for Jerilee’s two novels); there’s no denying The Lonely Lady falls short on a number fronts.  
I'd like to thank my publisher, Fisher-Price
Seriously, these are supposed to be the covers of Jerilee's published novels.

But The Lonely Lady is invaluable in illustrating the difference between a showcase and a vanity project. A showcase is intended to present a performer in the best possible light, emphasizing their strengths and minimizing their weaknesses. A vanity project is a vehicle so ruled by ego and delusion that the performer, in so overestimating their talents, winds up only calling attention to their limitations. The Lonely Lady is a four-star vanity project.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS MOVIE
For the true connoisseur of cinema claptrap, what’s not to love? I largely look back on the ‘80s as a nightmare decade for movie fashions, hairstyles, décor, music, and flat, washed-out cinematography; therefore, The Lonely Lady gets off on the right foot (which is to say, the absolute wrong foot) almost immediately with an absolutely dreadful theme song (sung by Larry Graham) playing over an amateurishly shot title sequence. And, like a Malibu mudslide, things just keep going down from there. 
The Night Belongs To Michelob
The Lonely Lady is loaded with subtle mise-en-scene

The Lonely Lady episodically chronicles Jerilee’s pursuit of a writing career as a semi-pornographic Pilgrim’s Progress in which we’re invited to ponder the unique problems faced by an intellectual woman burdened with the dual curses of flawless beauty and low self-esteem. Because the film shares with us but a single example of Jerilee’s writing skill (and it’s a doozy), we are forced to take her intelligence and talent on spec. However, the film is generous to a fault in treating us to scene after scene of Jerilee being the world’s biggest creep magnet or of having to compromise her sexual integrity for the sake of her ambition.
A scene from Homeland, the comically slipshod film-within-a-film for which Jerilee contributes
this single line of dialogue. Magically transforming a B-movie into an Oscar contender

The Lonely Lady is a case of the wrong story (over-familiar to the point of formulaic), starring the wrong actress (it's as though the film's real star refused to show up and they shot the movie with her lighting stand-in), at the wrong time (even 1960s audiences would be hard-pressed to find it shocking). It's a pungent potpourri of miscalculations, poor judgment, and ragingly bad taste. Small wonder it has earned the reputation of being the Showgirls of the ‘80s.
Every trash movie made from a trash novel needed its exploitation setpiece. Valley of the Dolls had a cat-fight wig-snatching, The Other Side of Midnight had abortion-by-coat-hanger, and The Lonely Lady had assault by garden hose.  That's Ray Liotta (possessor of the phantom crotch above, as well) making his inauspicious film debut. 

I particularly like how The Lonely Lady’s half-hearted efforts to be a scathing, feminist indictment of Hollywood’s rampant sexism and misogyny is consistently at cross purposes with the film’s gross objectification of Zadora, and desperate attempts (by way of clockwork-consistent nude scenes) to convince us that its wee cherub of a leading lady is actually a smoking hot sex symbol. 
Let's Make A Deal
Current headlines reveal that after all these years not much has changed in terms of systemic sexism in the film industry. Too bad The Lonely Lady merely treats the issue as fodder for sensationalism

PERFORMANCES
It could be said Ms. Zadora dedicated her career to
making sure no one would ever refer to her by that name

There's no getting around it. Pia Zadora's performance here most definitely calls into question the credibility of her Golden Globe win, while emphatically cementing the validity of her multiple Golden Raspberry Award wins (although she lost 2000s Worst Actress of the Decade to Madonna).
In truth, Zadora is so unconvincing and inexpressive in the film, it's pushing it to call hers a performance at all. But on the plus side, it's not one of those pitiably bad performances that makes you feel bad or embarrassed for an actor. In the tradition of Patty Duke and Elizabeth Berkeley, Pia Zadora's awfulness is so robust and zestfully devoid of anything resembling technique or skill, it achieves a kind of guileless purity.
Words can't come close to expressing the full-tilt comic lunacy of Zadora's worth-the-price-of-admission nervous breakdown scene. From her going-for-broke emoting to the acid-wash graphics and tilt-a-whirl not-so-special effects, it's a Golden Turkey instant classic.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
If The Lonely Lady works on any other level than simply high-octane camp, I'd say it works best (as he places tongue firmly in cheek) as a disquietingly self-referential exposé. The construct of the entire film places the viewer in the position of scrutinizing the Pia Zadora phenomenon through the guise of meta-fiction.
Take for example the fact that The Lonely Lady is about an author no one takes seriously simply because she doesn't look like what people expect writers to look like. The movie places the viewer in a similar position. I began this article with the arguably sexist observation that Ms. Zadora appeared to me to be miscast because she doesn't "look" like a writer. On reflection I have to ask myself, what does that even mean? Sure, Zadora can't act, and indeed, that is where the chief implausibility lie; but do I also mean to imply she's not believable because, instead of looking like Lillian Hellman and sounding like Fran Lebowitz, Zadora is petite and has the face and voice of a kewpie doll? 

Viewer self-confrontation is further tweaked by the way The Lonely Lady appears to court the drawing of parallels between the misadventures of Jerilee and Zadora's own real-life circumstances. Like Zadora, Jerilee has considerable difficulty finding anyone who'll take her and her work seriously. Also like Zadora, Jerilee marries a wealthy man old enough to be her father who helps her career. By the time the film finishes with Jerilee giving an award show speech in which she explicitly expresses what many have whispered about Zadora behind her back, it's not hard to convince oneself that perhaps such cross-referencing is what the filmmakers had in mind all along.


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
As much as I adore The Lonely Lady for its wholesale lack of redeeming value, and how I thank the gods of cinema dross that Pia left us all this wonderful, enduring gift before retiring from acting; I must also add that I have become a big fan of the Pia Zadora of today. Like so many stars who once took themselves so seriously in their youth, only to mature into fun, easygoing personalities able to take a joke (Raquel Welch, William Shatner, Cybill Shepherd, Candice Bergen); Pia Zadora has learned how to laugh at herself.
Carla Romanelli plays a Sophia Loren-type Italian actress (complete with Carlo Ponti-esque husband) who, like everyone else in the film, finds Jerilee impossible to resist. I never realized screenwriters were such sex bombs

After abandoning acting and the whole sex symbol hype (and husband Meshulam Riklis after 16 years together) Zadora pursued what was always her strongest suit, singing, and, in a few cameo roles, revealed herself to be a natural light comedienne. She's been active and good-natured in promoting the DVD release of The Lonely Lady (which includes a spirited interview) and harbors no illusions about either the film's quality or her performance in it. In being so OK with the film's renewed cult status and everybody hailing it as one of the best of the worst, Pia Zadora has given us all her blessing to enjoy a great guilt-free laugh with her, not at her.


BONUS MATERIAL
Back in 1976, Variety announced that Susan Blakely (The Towering Inferno) was slated to star in The Lonely Lady.

Pia Zadora's 1983 semi-hit pop song (it charted #49) is played twice in the film
In the music video she seems to be channeling the Landers sisters HERE

Harold Robbins dedicated The Lonely Lady to Jacqueline Suzanne, and many believe the character of JeriLee Randall to be based upon her. In a November 1976 issue of Pageant magazine, Robbins denied this claim and stated he based the character partially on Peyton Place author Grace Metalious.

As per the Evita lyric—"My story’s quite usual: local girl makes good weds famous man” 
Pia Zadora's story is nothing new. From William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies to Bo and John Derek; stardom by benefactor is as old as show business itself.
One of the more amusing examples is the forgotten Dora Hall, wife of Solo Cups magnate Leo Hulseman, who funded his wife's late-in-life showbiz career to the tune of giveaway albums and hilariously weird TV variety specials in the 1970s.
Listen to Dora Hall sing "Floozy Little Suzy Brown"

Pia Zadora has said she is most proud of these two comedic cameo film roles.
As a beatnik in John Waters' Hairspray (1988) - See it HERE
As herself in Naked Gun 33⅓: The Final Insult (1994) - See it HERE


The late actor Kenneth Nelson appears briefly in The Lonely Lady as hairdresser Bud Weston. Fans of The Boys in the Band (1970) will remember him as Michael, the role he originated in the 1968 Off-Broadway production.


Copyright © Ken Anderson