Sunday, July 10, 2022

THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN 1969

If You Want It, Here It Is, Come and Get It. Mm...Mm...Mm...Mm

State of the World - 2022: The world’s richest men are eccentric billionaires who, proportionate to the degree to which their hoarded obscene wealth could ease human suffering, have fundamentally taken on the role of real-life supervillains.

State of Mind - 1969: Terry Southern’s anti-capitalism satire The Magic Christian – about an eccentric billionaire who spends his money orchestrating elaborate practical jokes exposing the avarice, bigotry, and hypocrisy of the over-privileged classes – is made into a major motion picture.
Peter Sellers as Sir Guy Grand
Ringo Starr as Youngman Grand

One of the nicer things I remember about the late-‘60s was its social and political idealism. From my pre-teen perspective, it felt like young adults all across the country were collectively waking up to the inequities and injustices of society and were serious in their commitment to the belief that change was possible. 
Capitalism, being what it is, was also doing some waking up at this time. In the form of noticing that the disposable income of this sizable demographic was being freely spent on goods and entertainments that reflected their values, supported and promoted their beliefs, and gave the appearance of being, if not exactly one of them, at least at one with them. 
Raquel Welch as Priestess of the Whip
Despite her prominence in the marketing of the movie, the strikingly beautiful Welch shows up ten minutes before the film is over for all of 30 seconds. Defying all laws of probability for such brevity, Welch still manages to come off stilted and affectless.    

As usual, Hollywood…sometimes the trendsetter, often a step behind, but only rarely ever in pace with the times…found itself in the position of playing “catch-up” in trying to develop projects that appealed to this newly-recognized audience. But the world was changing so fast that the crunch to meet the market demand for suitably “now” motion pictures only exposed Hollywood’s bloated, slow-moving studio system as ill-suited to compete with the immediacy (and, by extension, relevance) of inexpensively-made independent and underground films. 

Sheer law of averages accounted for the rare youth-market breakout success: e.g., The Graduate – 1967, Bonnie and Clyde -1967, Easy Rider – 1969, and Midnight Cowboy – 1970. But as the major studios were still a bunch of conservative white men well past the age of 30 trying to make a quick buck off of the liberal and diverse “Don’t trust anyone over 30” crowd; more often than not the haste to get “Where it’s at” movies into theaters before they became “Where it was” cultural artifacts, resulted in a glut of big-budget miscalculations like Skidoo (1968), Myra Breckinridge (1970), and Terry Southern's Candy (1968). 
Ewa Aulin & Ringo Starr in Candy (1967)
Counterculture icon Terry Southern (contributing screenwriter for Dr. Strangelove, Barbarella, Easy Rider, Casino Royale) wrote the sex satire Candy in 1958 with Mason Hoffenberg. Buck Henry adapted the script for the truly dire film version. 

Relying heavily on the most exploitable signifiers of youth-cult marketability—profanity, nudity, sex, & drugs—these blatantly pandering exercises in desperation were so arrogantly clueless in their lack of understanding of the very public whose dollars they so cynically courted that they came across as being almost hostile to young people. 
By all accounts, the film version of The Magic Christian started out as a sincere, well-intentioned ideological passion project spearheaded by Peter Sellers (who, in his 40s, had joined show business’ ever-growing ranks of over-age flower children and millionaire hippies). But the finished product wound up illustrating the Grand-ish point - “Nothing is so sacred that it can’t be corrupted by money” in ways not intended. 
Grand & Son
A man who has everything joins forces with a man who has nothing,
and together they set about to prove that "Everyone has their price."

Over the film’s opening credits, we’re introduced to Sir Guy Grand (Peter Sellers), the world’s richest man. Before the credits are over, the unmarried, childless billionaire meets and promptly adopts a homeless man (Ringo Starr), dubs him Youngman Grand, and makes the shaggy young derelict the heir to his fortune. Since the film begins mid-stride and hits the ground running, we never learn what prompts Grand’s impulsive want for offspring, nor what’s behind his mania for using his great wealth to take the piss out of the posh. But it’s certainly not out of the question for us to assume that he's perhaps insane, for it’s something of an anti-establishment movie tradition (a la, King of Hearts – 1966 and The Madwoman of Chaillot - 1969) to depict the lunatics and madmen in our world as the only sane people left. 
Laurence Harvey (in a bit originally intended for David Hemmings)
performs Hamlet's soliloquy as a striptease

The darkly comic “capitalism kills” satire of The Magic Christian was written by Texas-born Terry Southern in 1959, but the climate of counterculture rebellion that was America in the late-‘60s made his episodic evisceration of American excess feel more relevant than ever. At least in theory. 
Peter Sellers had expressed interest in making a movie of The Magic Christian as far back as 1964 while filming Dr. Strangelove (he’d hoped to get Stanley Kubrick to direct). Drawn to what he saw as the satire’s idealistic principles— "It illustrates to the public the truth about power, money, and corruption,” he intoned to a skeptical press— the recently spiritually and politically awakened actor acquired the rights, secured financing, and corralled a slew of celebrity friends to work for scale.
Richard Attenborough as the coach of the Oxford Rowing Team

But in taking four years and some 14 screenplay drafts to reach the screen, a movie idealistically espousing the hippie ethos (signaled by the film’s finale which finds Grand and Youngman choosing “A simpler way,” and opting for a life of vagrancy) felt as though it had arrived a bit late to the party. Close to the 1967 Summer of Love would have been great. During the global student protest year of 1968 perhaps better.
 But the out-and-out worst time for the release of a movie advocating the longhair generation as society’s saviors was in the wake of the two most defining moments signaling the end of the hippie era: the Manson Murders (August 1969) and the Altamont Festival killing (December 1969).
I can’t speak for the UK, but in post-Manson Family America, the notion of a put-on artist staging guerilla acts of protest against the rich to incite anarchy and chaos had lost a great deal of its subversive appeal.
Peter Sellers with friend and fellow Goon, Spike Milligan

Peter Sellers’ involvement assured The Magic Christian would be made, but it also turned Terry Southern’s very American satire into a very British one. Hiring friend and Casino Royale co-director Joseph McGrath to helm and Southern to adapt (with the too-many-cooks assist of Sellers, Magrath, and a pre-Monty Python John Cleese and Graham Chapman), The Magic Christian became (perhaps intentionally) a kind of filmed version of The Goon Show radio program that got Sellers his start in the ‘50s’.
British humor tends to be a little tough going for me anyway, especially when it's very male-centric and sophomoric (I was never a Monty Python fan). But my main complaint with the British setting is that from an American perspective, the targets of Guy's pranks are such obvious prigs and snobs that the satire feels toothless. 
Poking fun at a culture that appears (to us, anyway) to be more openly classist (Royalty, observance of historical traditions, accents denoting class distinctions) is quite different from poking fun at a country that pathologically waves the flag of its egalitarianism when in fact it's ragingly racist, wealth-worshipping, and classist as hell.
John Cleese as the Sotheby's director
Wilfred Hyde-White as Capt. Reginald K. Klaus


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
I was 12 years old when I saw The Magic Christian in 1970. Then, funny to me meant: Mad Magazine, The Three Stooges, Bugs Bunny, and Laugh-In. Countless trips to the theater to see Casino Royale (1967) and The Party (1968) had cemented Peter Sellers as my #1 favorite comic actor. And, thanks to several years of involuntary exposure to the music and movies of The Beatles (thanks, sis), I was also a bonafide Beatles fan myself. So, of course, I thoroughly loved The Magic Christian. I thought it was hilarious. And my finding it so made me feel oh-so-hip and oh-so-sophisticated.
Christopher Lee
For those still in the dark, The Magic Christian is the name of an elite luxury liner
with an interior straight out of 2001: A Space Odyssey.


Being at that awkward tween-age—socially invisible, politically powerless, desperate to assert individuality—my inner anarchist delighted in the Bugs Bunny/Marx Brothers-style of “comedy of disruption.” As one critic put it, The Magic Christian was all about "...deflating the pompous, punishing the greedy, and discomfiting the complacent." So, in the adolescent spirit of being attracted to anything you’re certain your parents will disapprove of, I reveled in The Magic Christian’s raciness (bodybuilders in skimpy bikinis!); bad taste (the hunting party with heavy artillery); and ham-fisted satire (the Oxford/Cambridge race). It was an issue of Mad Magazine come to life.
The audacious notion of tossing money into a vat filled with blood, urine, and manure and then getting people to wade through it for the free cash would have a lot more satirical bite today if it didn't sound like something the GOP would actually propose to replace Social Security. 

I also imagine that some of the appeal The Magic Christian held for me was that Sir Guy Grand was like an adolescent boy’s wish-fulfillment fantasy of adulthood. The asexual Guy Grand has no interest in either women or men (nudity and sex are things to be giggled at); never has to answer to anyone, and is saddled with none of the pain-in-the-ass responsibilities of being a grown-up. He just gets to spend all of his time hanging out with his best buddy (adoption adding a new twist to BFF) playing games and pulling wise-ass pranks on authority figures. 
Yul Brynner & Roman Polanski
There are times when you've just gotta let an image speak for itself

"Ah, but I was so much older then. I’m younger than that now."Bob Dylan

Revisiting The Magic Christian after a nearly 40-year gap was an experience by turns amusing, nostalgic, and bewildering. It was great seeing the movie looking so good on Blu-ray, and I especially got a kick out of the many cameo appearances and discovering what things about the film had stayed with me over the years. For example, it was gratifying to find that the pre-credits sequence (my favorite part of the film) was still as clever as I’d remembered it: a distinguished portrait of the Queen is revealed to be a British 10-pound note, after which the audience is encouraged to sing along to a follow-the-bouncing-ball stanza of the Paul McCarney composition (sung by Badfinger) “Come and Get It.” (How tragic is it that my favorite part of The Magic Christian takes place before the film proper even begins?)

Tangoing bodybuilders Lincoln Webb & Roy Scammell provoke and 
 tantalize the racist and homophobic passengers on The Magic Christian.
 

What bewildered me was just how unfunny the film now seems to me. I wasn’t bored, I enjoyed myself, and the film kept my interest, and I still champion the overall idea of the film. But the experience of watching it was entirely laugh-free. Granted, so much of the film’s humor is reliant on shock and the element of surprise, so it can be said that my reaction is at least in part due to my being so familiar with the material.
But that doesn’t account for the benumbing effect of the wash-rinse-repeat satire cycle of the screenplay or the loose-moorings structure of the film itself. It's weird watching an entire film that has no real human behavior in it. At the start of the film, there's a kind of sweet series of crosscuts between Sellers and Starr that juxtaposes the lives of the haves and the have-nots and sets the stage for a humane political polemic that never materializes.
Leonard Frey as Ship's Physician Laurence Faggot (pronounced, Fa-goh)
The Magic Christian -- a movie "The Celluloid Closet" author Vito Russo called "A viciously homophobic film" --never met a gay joke it didn't like. Funny then how it never once addresses the comic or homoerotic implications of a middle-aged man adopting a young man he just met in the park.

Not helping matters is the inconsistent nature of Guy's pranks. The point he's trying to prove to Youngman grows murky as his stunts veer from harmless (turning Shakespeare's Hamlet into a burlesque) to mean-spirited (overpaying a hot dog vendor and insisting on his change from a moving train).

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
Bedazzled (1967)
I'm of the opinion that the truest screen interpretation of Terry Southern's Guy Grand is to be found in Gene Wilder's Willy Wonka (think about it...all he does is play tricks on the greedy and self-interested!). And for a good example of the kind of lively, in-the-spirit-of-mischief chemistry lacking in the pairing of Sellers and Starr, I really think Peter Cook and Dudley Moore hit paydirt in Bedazzled


PERFORMANCES
I’m gonna lead off by saying that I truly love the look Peter Sellers devised for Sir Guy Grand. Simultaneously dashing and screwball, it’s said that Sellers sought to approximate the look of a young Albert Schweitzer while portraying Grand as a kind of British Groucho Marx. He’s considerably more successful in the former than the latter. I think Sellers is far too inspired a comic actor to ever be uninteresting, so I can’t say I don’t enjoy him in The Magic Christian. But the screenplay doesn’t provide a character for Sellers to play and he doesn’t appear particularly interested in supplying one on his own. So, outside of an accent and a whimsical swath of hair, his Guy Grand very nearly doesn’t exist.

But he's in good company with the charming but wholly superfluous Ringo Starr. In a role not in the book and was written with him in mind (contrary to erroneous claims that John Lennon was first considered) I suspect the intention was to mine the silent, Chaplinesque quality Starr brought to his well-received solo bits in Help! and A Hard Day’s Night. And certainly, if you saw him in Candy, you know a Ringo Starr with no dialogue is the best possible course of action to take. But, like Sellers, he's not given a character to play and brings nothing to the part but a droopy mustache and Rita Tushingham eyes.
"Well, you know, Youngman, sometimes it's not enough merely to teach. One has to punish as well."


THE STUFF OF FANTASY
At least one aspect of The Magic Christian has not changed a bit for me over the years. The soundtrack to this movie is terrific. I love the infectious "Come & Get It"--particularly the soaring strings instrumental arrangement that accompanies the closing credits. It gave me goosebumps the first time I heard it blaring through the speakers at the movie theater. 
But the song that really stands out as the one I most associate with the film is Thunderclap Newman's youth rebellion anthem "Something in the Air." I think it's brilliant. I heard it for the first time in The Magic Christian theatrical trailer and instantly fell in love. And I'm still crazy about it. One of my all-time favorite '60s songs. In 1973 the singing group Labelle covered it in a version that combined it with Gil Scott Heron's poem "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised." You owe it to yourself to give it a listen...to use one of my favorite Magic Christian quotes: "It'll tighten your wig."


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
What keeps The Magic Christian among my list of "tarnished favorites" is that despite not feeling as strongly about it as I did when I was a kid, I tend to think of it as one of the last of the optimistic flower-children/hippie films. The Nixon era of disillusionment and cynicism was right on the horizon and the idealism at the heart of The Magic Christian had already started to be replaced by the snark and smirk of movies like M.A.S.H. (1970).
In the ensuing decades, capitalism has done its job so well that today, social media is full of individuals just managing to get by financially who nevertheless seize every opportunity to be the white knights and front-line defenders of the Jeff Bezos and Elon Musks of our culture whenever a legitimate criticism is voiced regarding the morality of being grotesquely rich in a civilized society that tolerates hunger.

In such an atmosphere it's impossible to completely dislike a movie that associates wallowing in money with wallowing in feces, blood, and urine.
A hippie at heart, Sir Guy Grand has the three-pointed star hood ornament
 of his Mercedes-Benz reconfigured as a peace symbol. 

Copyright © Ken Anderson   2009 - 2022

Wednesday, June 8, 2022

TRILOGY OF TERROR 1975

Spoiler Alert: Crucial plot points are revealed in the interest of critical analysis and discussion

An unforeseen dividend in being a movie fan “of a certain age” is living long enough to see what films end up being the legacy benchmarks in the careers of actors I grew up watching. There’s something democratically perfect about the idea that no matter how accomplished, acclaimed, varied, or lengthy a career, no actor gets to decide what movie will "stick"...be the one they’ll most be remembered for. 

It can be a film that kickstarts a career (flying in the face of the accepted dictum that this is just a taste of things to come, often it turns out to be their finest career hour): Mia Farrow (Rosemary’s Baby) and Liza Minnelli (Cabaret). Or a movie of such nagging popularity that even a career's worth of an actor’s best efforts fails to diminish its influence: Patty Duke (Valley of the Dolls) and—Bless her heart—Faye Dunaway (Mommie Dearest). 

If internet saturation is any indicator, Breakfast at Tiffany’s has been branded Audrey Hepburn’s official signature motion picture. I've seen almost everything Jane Fonda has ever done, but she will always be first and foremost my Barbarella psyche-della. And when I think of Shelley Winters, my mind zips right past Lolita, A Patch of Blue, and The Diary of Anne Frank only to land squarely on the deck of the S.S. Poseidon. Go figure.
Time becomes the great leveler. The public, the ultimate determiner of what film in an actor's resume has left the most indelible impression.
The Day of the Locust - 1975
No one symbolized the cinema of the 1970s for me quite like Karen Black. One of the more prolific and visible actresses of the decade, Black was a true original whose every virtue embodied the iconoclast spirit of Hollywood’s new wave of filmmakers (indeed, seeming to be everywhere at once and in every new movie that came out, she was like the Jack Carson of the New Hollywood). 

I first saw Karen Black in Francis Ford Coppola's coming-of-age comedy You’re a Big Boy Now (1966) when it was shown on TV in 1969. I didn’t know her name then, but as the unglamorous “good girl” waiting on the sidelines for the hero to notice her (a type she was never cast as again), she radiated such a sweetness and oddball vulnerability that I was drawn to her character immediately. Later that same year when I saw Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda's Easy Rider (1969) at the theater, I didn't even recognize her (even after sitting through it twice) as the long-legged, scene-stealing New Orleans prostitute. So thoroughly has Black transformed herself from the soft-spoken love interest in Coppola's film, she was like a different person. 
SF Examiner Sunday, March 9, 1969
That's actually not-yet-famous Karen Black all but obliterated in the grainy photo
promoting the television broadcast premiere of what was her first feature film appearance 


By 1970 the chameleonic character actress was being earmarked for major stardom after her breakout, Oscar-nominated, Golden Globe Award-winning supporting performance in Five Easy Pieces (1970). Between 1971 and 1978 Karen Black appeared in 18 feature films, and I tried to see as many as I possibly could. Karen Black had become my new favorite...a kind of Stateside Glenda Jackson when it came to glamour-free fearlessness and risk-taking...and I was certain there was no one else quite like her in the movies.  
Five Easy Pieces - 1970
To me, Karen Black's particular gift was her emotional authenticity and talent for making her characters relatable. She made the arcane and artificial “establishment” standards of beauty that once defined what movie stars looked like seem obsolete. She always seemed to “be” who she was playing, and the lack of self-consciousness in her acting style had a way of granting even the most extreme characters a personal dignity.

Although Karen Black's tenure as a mainstream, A-list star was surprisingly brief (she didn’t get first billing in an American movie until 1976’s Family Plot, and by 1977 she was appearing in stuff like Killer Fish), but during that period she had the great good fortune to have appeared in what are currently recognized as some of the most iconic, influential, and enduring films of the decade: Easy Rider–1969, The Great Gatsby–1974, Airport 1975–1974, Nashville–1975, Family Plot–1976, Burnt Offerings–1976, and my personal favorite The Day of the Locust–1975. 
Comeback
The end of the '70s signaled the end of Karen Black's mainstream ascendence. Before her latter career became subsumed by the horror genre (a term she resisted), Black made a brief return to her glory days in Robert Altman's Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean giving one of her career-best performances

When Karen Black died on August 8, 2013, the films obituaries singled out as her most memorable were: her vulnerable waitress in Five Easy Pieces, the pathetic Myrtle in The Great Gatsby,  Nashville's country singer Connie White, and the plucky Nancy ("The stewardess is flying the plane?!") Pryor of Airport 1975. No argument from me.

But I'm sticking to my guns when I contend that when the respectability smoke clears and the prestige-impressed voices of the critics and cineastes die down, the first movie that comes to mind when the average person thinks of Karen Black is 1975s Trilogy of Terror...arguably the most widely-seen and most well-known of all of her films.
Woman Times Four
In the ‘70s, the division between movie star and TV star was far more pronounced than it is today, so it was big doings in the Anderson household (my corner of it, anyway) that THE Karen Black was starring in a made-for-TV movie; a genre that, to my mind, had heretofore been the near-exclusive domain of Donna Mills, Kay Lenz, and William Windom. It was especially notable because career-wise, Karen Black was mainly a cult-popular actress who was just starting to make a mainstream name for herself. 
Trilogy of Terror aired just a couple of months after Black was awarded the Best Supporting Actress Golden Globe for The Great Gatsby. In fact, both Gatsby and Airport 1975 were still playing in theaters when the TV-movie was broadcast. Adding further to the feeling that 1975 was The Year of Karen Black was the fact that all over town and everywhere you turned you were confronted with ads, articles, and posters heralding Black's forthcoming summer releases—The Day of the Locust in May, Nashville in July. 
Airport 1975 - 1974
Hotly anticipated by yours truly, Trilogy of Terror was broadcast Tuesday, March 4, 1975 at 8:30 pm as one of the last entries in the final season of the immensely popular ABC Movie of the Week series that began in 1969. Directed and produced by Dan Curtis of Dark Shadows fame, the trio of terror tales making up this anthology are all based on short stories by Richard Matheson (Die! Die! My Darling! – 1965). William F. Nolan (screenwriter for that other Dan Curtis/Karen Black collaboration Burnt Offerings) wrote the teleplays for the first two, and Matheson himself adapted the iconic final episode.

TRILOGY OF TERROR
Based on the short story: The Likeness of Julie - 1962
The male gaze is given a (Karen) black eye in this first tale of “terror” which casts Ms. Black as a buttoned-up, dressed-down English Lit teacher who finds herself the target of the abusive sexual attentions of a student (Robert Burton, then Mr. Karen Black).
Karen Black as Miss Julie Eldridge
Robert Burton as Chad Foster 
JULIE is my second favorite story in the trilogy. Not least in part due to its singularly emphatic kink factor, and for its devilishly clever affiliating of the proprietorial dominance of the male gaze (a form of presumptive access to, and ownership of, the female body) with voyeurism, scopophilia, date rape, and sexual exploitation. A psychological thriller with a touch of the occult/ supernatural, JULIE is a fine work of feminist horror and made me think of Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives.
Hot for Teacher
Of course, Levin’s contemporary gothics were at the forefront of my mind back in 1975 because the movie version of The Stepford Wives had opened in theaters just a month before Trilogy of Terror aired. In fact, the darkly satirical horror of The Stepford Wives…an ideal distillation of post-Women’s Lib male panic…felt in parallel with JULIE’s use of the micro-inequities of day-to-day male/female sexual politics as the springboard for a horror story centralizing what we now understand to be the hidden-in-plain-sight atmosphere of harassment and potential violence women are exposed to on college campuses (well, everywhere, honestly). A point emphasized in the opening sequence where self-styled campus Casanova Chad and his buddy Eddie (Jim Storm) voice their toxic opinions while engaged in the “harmless” act of girl-watching: Chad -“God, have you ever seen so many dogs in one place?”
The Objectifying Gaze
With the villain early-identified and the story’s rising mostly the intensifying degrees of Chad’s abuse, dramatic tension becomes largely of the pressure-cooker variety; Julie will either break or break free…but something’s got to give. And it does. Rather effectively, I must say, in a nifty twist ending I did NOT see coming at the time. 
Though the most heavily populated of the three stories—affording an almost orgasmic parade of outré ‘70s fashions—JULIE is essentially a two-hander. Robert Burton makes for a convincing chauvinist sleazeball (coyly alluded to as being a natural talent by Karen Black on the DVD commentary, perhaps explaining why their 18-month marriage had already dissolved by the time the TV movie came out), but it’s Karen Black’s show all the way. 
Chad blackmails Julie with obscene photos he took of her when she was unconscious.
 Thanks to this nanosecond blooper reveal, it looks like his fetish
was dressing Julie up to look like Charles Foster Kane 
Black is always fascinating to watch and never less than believable in depicting Julia’s trauma. But it’s only after I saw the entire vignette and the twist was revealed that Black’s traditional, almost cliché characterization of an “academic” (precise diction, books clutched to the bosom, mainspring-tight hairdo, owlish spectacles, soft voice) struck me as being perhaps the “performative” display I think it’s intended to be. Until the very last scene, Julie is more or less “acting” the part of the meek bookworm.
By the way, double kudos to whoever’s idea it was for Julie to keep her spectacles on during the film’s big “reveal” scene. 
The framing of the final sequence emphasizes Julie's physical dominance over Chad
After decades of women whipping off their suddenly-useless glasses after letting their hair down, Julie exercising her power while wearing glasses (this is a woman who doesn’t care if men seldom make passes) is an almost Hitchcockian touch (apropos that director's well-known fondness for women in eyewear). Particularly in a story about the power of the gaze.

Based on the short story: Needle in the Heart - 1969
“There are just some people who’ll come to any [movie] with story overviews. It’s nothing to do with the acting or with the writing at all. It’s just that . . . they say, ‘well if the story’s going this way, a great ending would be this. And if a  story’s going that way, the surprise would be that.’”
That’s Karen Black on the Trilogy of Terror commentary track explaining to teleplay writer William F. Nolan her insightful theory on why Millicent & Therese, the trilogy's second terror tale, is so often dismissed with the claim of being predictable. Black is correct in recognizing that when a viewer is presented with something as overworked as the “good twin-evil twin” trope in a horror movie, it takes no great feat of cleverness to guess that if there's going to be a twist ending, that twist will reveal the twins (who are never shown occupying the same frame) are the same person. 
Karen Black as Millicent Larimore
Karen Black as Therese Larimore
But I don't think surprise twists are essential to a good horror story. Sometimes the surprise of a performance that makes the familiar seem new can be very satisfying. Millicent & Therese, the story of two identical twins (moral Millicent, amoral Therese) engaged in an antagonistic battle of wills is so slight as to be little more than a sketch, so even as a teenager, I guessed the “twist” of its plot (linked to my obsession with the 1971 novel and subsequent film version of Tom Tryon’s The Other - 1972). 

But what made the whole thing seem new was the hinted-at cause of Millicent/Therese’s split personality. Behind the genre trappings of voodoo, witchcraft, and demonology is a poignant story of ongoing childhood sexual abuse and how the victim dealt with her trauma by slipping into a catastrophically extreme form of dissociation. A splintering off of her psyche to protect herself from dealing with what is happening (and, in the matter of the death of her mother, what she has done).
Significantly, it's the death of the father that precipitates the showdown between the two sisters. The child is at last "safe" but too many years of identity suppression has clouded the awareness of which personality was genuinely that of the child and which developed as a defense mechanism.  
It's nice seeing Dark Shadows' John Karlen as Mr. Anmar, one of Therese's lovers 
Despite its dark overtones, Millicent & Therese is actually the most fun of the three episodes. Even if sometimes unintentionally so. For instance, the comically broad-stroke visual shorthand used to distinguish the personalities of the two sisters has Black dressed alternately like the illustration on a pack of "Old Maid" playing cards, and a Party City Halloween costume labeled "peroxided trollop."
But when it comes to acting, Karen Black transcends the obvious and gives two rather terrifically realized, distinctly separate performances. Veering effortlessly between compelling and camp, Black gives what amounts to a “best of” performance medley of the quirks, idiosyncrasies, and unique talents that made her one of the most intoxicatingly watchable actresses of her time.

Based on the short story: Prey - 1968

A woman spends a nightmarish evening fighting for her life after inadvertently releasing the spirit of a Zuni warrior encased in an ancient fetish doll. 
When the topic turns to Trilogy of Terror, the now-iconic AMELIA episode is what everyone thinks of exclusively. And for good reason. Even after all these years, the idea of an ankle-high, razor-toothed, knife-wielding Zuni warrior speeding at you across the wall-to-wall carpet is still pretty hair-raising shit. Coupled with Karen Black’s glass-shattering screams, frequent falls, and oh-so-relatable shock reactions; there can be no mystery as to why this memorable horror vignette has achieved the status of kindertrauma klassic.
Karen Black as Amelia
I was a senior in high school when Trilogy of Terror aired, so while the widely-watched TV movie was all any of us could talk about at school the following day, it was never the stuff of nightmares as it was for so many who have claimed it as their seminal childhood freakout. 
(Curiously enough, my own kindertrauma moment was a different teleplay written by Trilogy of Terror’s Richard Matheson. It was that 1961 episode of  The Twilight Zone titled “The Invaders.” It starred Agnes Moorehead as a woman alone in a deserted farmhouse terrorized by ankle-high, knife-wielding spacemen.)
Karen Black’s performance in this episode is the jewel in the trilogy’s crown. It’s a one-woman show-stopper (she should have been Emmy-nominated for the self-penned phone monologue sequence alone) that sees Black’s wholesale commitment to her character and Matheson’s fantastic premise saving the whole thing from slipping into macabre silliness.
Playing on primal fears and familiar phobias, AMELIA is a “fun” scare all the way, allowing the viewer to jump in surprise, squirm at the suspense, giggle at their own jitters, and yell at the screen “Don’t open that suitcase!” Best of all, Amelia is a character we really root for. So much so that the film’s literal killer ending is hard not to be perceived as a triumph for Amelia, for she is at last in a position (a warrior’s crouch, in fact) to have the last word with her mother.
Burnt Offerings - 1976
Although it’s well-known that Trilogy of Terror was a movie Karen Black initially had no interest in making and that she perhaps ultimately regretted the role the film’s popularity played in pigeonholing her as a Scream Queen and taking her career into a direction she hadn't intended. But as a Karen Black fan who has always been a little bit frustrated by how little camera time she has in some of her most famous supporting roles, I’m grateful as hell for Trilogy of Terror. Not just because it represents some of her best work, but because it's a stellar, front-and-center showcase for a brilliant actress who too often had to shine from the sidelines.

Sweet Dreams


Copyright © Ken Anderson   2009 - 2022

Sunday, May 8, 2022

CHICAGO 2002

For me, the history of CHICAGO  has always been inextricably linked with that of A Chorus Line. CHICAGO premiered on Broadway June 3rd; 1975; A Chorus Line, six weeks later, on July 25th. CHICAGO opened to mixed reviews and struggled at the boxoffice; A Chorus Line was met with raves, won the Pulitzer Prize, and was nothing short of a cultural event. CHICAGO was nominated for 11 Tony Awards, won 0; A Chorus Line was nominated for 12, won 9.

CHICAGO and A Chorus Line also happen to be linked together in my memory. Certainly my memories of that day in August of 1975 when I went to The Grammophone, a gay-owned and operated record store on San Francisco's Polk Street, and purchased the Original Broadway Cast Recording LPs of both shows at the same time. Although I hadn't yet heard a single note from either score, I was so fired-up from consuming all the After Dark Magazine-fed hype surrounding the opening of each production (that invaluable, homoerotic, national entertainment magazine being my sole West Coast pipeline to what was happening on Broadway), that I was almost smug in my confidence that my two blind purchases were far from being a gamble. 
August 5, 1975 - $4.88 each
Both were single LPs in glossy gatefold jackets loaded with photos & liner notes
Unlike movies, new Broadway musicals don't pop up every Wednesday and Friday, so when one appeared on the horizon that interested me, it was a big event. The last Broadway cast recording I'd purchased was Sondheim's A Little Night Music, a musical meal I'd been dining out on since 1973. Having committed every note and melody of the splendid score to memory by then, I could scarcely believe my good fortune that 1975 held forth the promise of TWO major Broadway musical releases I could submerge myself in. 

At the time, all the smart money was on CHICAGO. The only familiar names to me from A Chorus Line were composer Marvin Hamlish, who then was all but unavoidable after his Oscar win for The Sting (1973), and director-choreographer Michael Bennett, who I came to know from reading the backs of the library-borrowed cast albums of Company and Follies. CHICAGO distinguished itself as the one with the Broadway heavy hitters and showbiz pedigree. It marked the Broadway musical return of Gwen Verdon (last seen in 1966’s Sweet Charity)! The professional reunion of husband & wife team Verdon & Fosse!  The reteaming of Fosse with his Cabaret and Liza with a Z collaborators, the composer-lyricist-writing duo of John Kander and Fred Ebb! And it was the first-time pairing of two genuine Broadway legends…Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera!
Illustration by Sam Norkin -1975
Wanting to start off with the “sure thing,” I listened to the CHICAGO album first, which turned into one of those rarer-than-rare occurrences where one’s extraordinarily high expectations are not only met, but exceeded. Hearing that incredible score for the first time...every single song a showstopper...not a clunker in the bunch...was such a thrill. The songs and their often hilarious lyrics set my imagination on fire... I could practically see the entire production in my head. I was instantly attracted to the storyline--the phoniness of show biz reflecting the phoniness of the American legal system. And if the cynicism at CHICAGO's core struck me as caustic and pessimistic, consider that I was just 17 at the time (sarcasm and snark are like crack to a teenager) and that it was the summer of '75. The summer that saw the dynamic downer duo of Nashville and The Day of the Locust released to movie theaters just weeks before. The timing couldn't have been more perfect. CHICAGO was simply riding the crest of the zeitgeist. 
May 6, 1976
That's Jane Fonda speaking at a Tom Hayden rally in Sacramento and 18-year-old me in this, the only photo I have of my beloved official CHICAGO T-shirt, which I wore for years until it disintegrated. A photo captured mere moments before Ms. Fonda graciously signed the Barbarella photo I've got secreted away in the Busby Berkeley Book tucked under my arm. The memo is an affirmative reply to a written request by yours truly to NY's 46th St. Theater inquiring as to the possibility of purchasing a CHICAGO T-shirt (mail order Broadway merchandise wasn't yet a thing). It cost a whopping $5 plus $1 shipping. 

I next listened to A Chorus Line, optimistically resigned to the certainty that it couldn’t possibly match my CHICAGO experience. Jump ahead several hours. Me on the floor in front of the family stereo, headphones on, in a theater geek's state of transcendence, eyes red and nose runny from listening to A Chorus Line three times in a row and bawling my eyes out. 
And there you have what was then, and continues to be, my essential relationship with CHICAGO and A Chorus Line. They're culturally joined at the hip. Iconic templates of a particular time and place in my life--I'd graduated high school in June, I'd been "out" to myself for about two years (4 more years to go for family), it was the summer of Jaws, it was the summer of my independence. And these two shows, listened to as routinely and relentlessly as though they were on a loop, were the soundtrack of my adult-adjacent freedom. 
June 7, 1976
I saw A Chorus Line when the National Company came to San Francisco's
 Curran Theater in May. Ever the autograph hound, my friend and I became
stage-door johnnies for the show's entire run

But CHICAGO was always the diamond…sharp, dazzling, and cold; while A Chorus Line was always the heart (a vision of Lauren Bacall singing "Hearts, Not Diamonds" in The Fan just popped into my head). To me, A Chorus Line was a dark, almost melancholy show... a Follies for theater gypsies...but unlike CHICAGO, it was humane. And that made listening to it a poignant and exhilarating experience—all goosebumps and waterworks. Each musical, reflecting as they did, opposite yet equally true faces of our culture (post-Watergate disillusionment & "Me" generation introspection), also appealed to the contrasting sides of my own nature. CHICAGO and A Chorus Line complemented one another. 
It wasn't until 1992 that I got the opportunity to see CHICAGO on stage for the first time. The Long Beach Civic Light Opera put on a fabulous, faithful-to-the-original production starring Juliet Prowse and Bebe Newerth, utilizing Tony Walton's original set designs, Patricia Zipprodt's costuming, and featuring two members of the original 1975 cast. It was astoundingly good. This perhaps accounts for why I was never very never fond of the pared-down, anachronistically Vegas-y look of CHICAGO’s phenomenally successful 1996 Broadway revival. An antipathy reinforced when I saw a 2012 production starring Christie Brinkley (by this point, stunt-casting was the only teeth the show had left).

Since 1975, A Chorus Line’s cultural grip has weakened a bit. Thanks to a monumentally mishandled 1985 movie adaptation, and the musical’s once-innovative confessional format feeling almost quaint in today’s climate of social media oversharing. Meanwhile, CHICAGO, a show once criticized for its relentlessly downcast gaze into life’s sewers, has hung around long enough for its down-in-the-gutter perspective (I hear Candy Darling in Women in Revolt "Too low for the dogs to bite!") to be exactly eye-level with what mainstream American culture has come to normalize, make viral, and elect.   

And something I thought for the longest time would never happen... after decades of false starts and rumors (Liza and Goldie! Goldie and Madonna!) and against impossible odds (non-animated movie musicals were believed to be a dead genre), CHICAGO, at last, made it to the big screen. Twenty-seven years after its debut on Broadway. 
Renee Zellweger as Roxie Hart

Catherine Zeta-Jones as Velma Kelly
Richard Gere as Billy Flynn
Queen Latifah as Matron Mama Morton
John C. Reilly as Amos Hart

CHICAGO, the Bob Fosse/Fred Ebb/John Kander musical vaudeville about two amoral, overaged, gin-soaked jazz babies on murderers’ row desperate to parlay their 15-minutes of criminal infamy into show biz careers, was made into a $45 million major motion picture. The director making his feature film debut? None other than Rob Marshall, the Tony Award-nominated choreographer-director of that 1992 Juliet Prowse/Bebe Neuwirth Long Beach production that knocked my socks off.  

It's impossible to overstate how excited I was that Friday morning in December of 2002 when my partner and I, returning home from a Christmas trip, stopped off at our place just long enough to drop off our luggage so we could hightail it to Century City and be among the first audience to see CHICAGO on its December 27th opening day in LA. By the time the film was over and anxious-looking marketing folks began handing out audience evaluation cards and pencils (the film wouldn’t open wide until the following month), I thought I had died and gone to stage-to-screen heaven. We were both so euphoric over what we’d just seen, after exiting the theater we swiftly got right back in line to see it again
Chita Rivera as Nickie
Broadway's original Velma Kelly makes a cameo appearance as a Cook County Jail inmate.
Her name is a nod to the character she played in Fosse's 1969 film, Sweet Charity.

Rob Marshall and screenwriter Bill Condon avoided several pitfalls from the outset by not trying to reimagine the show for the screen. Instead, they came up with a device (the musical numbers erupt out of Roxie’s fevered fantasies) that made the highly-stylized, stage-bound show more cinematic. Boasting spectacular cinematography, a sensational cast, and dazzling choreography, they succeeded in bringing the CHICAGO I loved to the screen. (It had been my gravest fear that the “Victoria’s Secret meets International Male” Broadway revival version of  CHICAGO was going to be the only surviving template for future generations.) 
The film went on to be a major boxoffice and critical hit, garnering a whopping 13 Oscar nominations that year, winning 6, among them Best Picture. CHICAGO revitalised the movie musical.
Taye Diggs as The Bandleader
Christine Baranski as Mary Sunshine

But writing this now in 2022, it's clear my once all-encompassing ardor for CHICAGO has cooled a bit over the years. After the dust of anticipation settled and I was able to breathe a sigh of relief that the screen adaptation wasn't a botch job like A Chorus Line: The Movie, only then did I notice that somewhere along its 27-year path to the screen, CHICAGO had become harmless.
When I look at CHICAGO today, the film's black comedy subtext targeting the institutional corruption of the media, penal system, politics, and law, doesn't hit nearly as hard as how sympathetically Roxi and Velma are portrayed. 
Gwen Verdon & Chita Rivera gave us a Roxie and Velma who were genuinely "...older than I ever intended to be." Their hunger for vaudeville fame was a last-gasp act of desperation after a lifetime of failure and rejection. The Roxie and Velma of the film are both so young and beautiful, that one is left with the impression that life has been unduly unfair to them. Throughout the film, each suffers so many humiliations, setbacks, and exploitations that by the finale, we truly forget (or have long stopped caring) that they are remorseless murderers. Instead of being made to feel complicit participants in this depravity, we're simply relieved and happy these women get to have their dreams come true.  

Fosse/Verdon (2019)
Bianca Marroquin and Michelle Williams
CHICAGO rehearsals 1975
Bob Fosse: “And I’m saying that it would be better for the show if the…”
Gwen Verdon: “Better for the show? Oh, really? Better for the show… Is that really what you think? I’ll tell you what would have been better for the show; opening four months ago with a director who wasn’t hellbent on turning it into two hours of misery for the audience.”

The above exchange may be fictional (from the splendid miniseries Fosse/Verdon). Still, it reflects a genuine issue that plagued the original production from the getgo...many felt that Fosse had simply made the show too bitter and misanthropic. 

Hollywood had no such concerns. When the time came for the film adaptation, far too much Hollywood money was riding on CHICAGO for the studio to even consider taking a chance on having another Pennies from Heaven on its hands (1981's mega-depressing megaflop about another amoral character who uses musical fantasy to escape reality). Miramax insured its $45 million investment by making sure that with this CHICAGO, a good time was going to be had by all. Even if it was a musical about murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery, and treachery--all those things we all hold near and dear to our hearts.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS MOVIE
No one can say Rob Marshall didn’t understand the assignment. He was hired to deliver a hit movie musical and he did. Brilliantly. It really wasn't his fault that the CHICAGO he (and I) fell in love with back in 1975—labeled by many critics at the time as mean-spirited and ugly—had long given way to the forget your troubles, c'mon get happy crowd-pleaser CHICAGO of today. The 1996 Broadway revival turned CHICAGO into the 2nd longest-running musical in Broadway history. And it didn't accomplish that by making visiting tourists and blue-haired theater parties uncomfortable. It became a hit by submerging the show's unsavory attributes under layers of glamour, sex, and style. Yes, with nary a trace of irony or self-awareness, CHICAGO had become Fosse's "Razzle Dazzle” number.
CHICAGO's themes remain relevant, but its contemptuous 
view of America and humanity no longer discomforts

PERFORMANCES
Casting a movie in ways that invite comparisons to a show’s original cast can be problematic. Since there IS no other Roxie Hart for me but Gwen Verdon, I was actually pleased that the film went with an entirely different take on the character. I hadn’t seen Renée Zellweger in anything before, but her Roxie has a Glenda Farrell quality—tough, quirky, wisecracking—that feels both period-perfect and suits the film’s concept. Catherine Zeta-Jones is dynamic as Velma Kelly, but the lovely woman hasn’t a coarse bone in her body. It's impossible to take your eyes off of her when she's onscreen, but when she tries for Velma’s lowbrow vulgarity, the best you get (and here she isn’t alone) is Damon Runyon-esque posturing of the Guys and Dolls sort. The entire cast of CHICAGO is exceptionally good, Richard Gere--the most animated I’ve seen him onscreen since Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977)--being a particular delight, displaying even more playful showmanship at age 52 than in that online clip of his 1973 appearance in Grease.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
The thrill and terror of seeing any movie adaptation of a favorite show is discovering what they did with (or to) the songs you loved best and played most often on the OBCR album. Sometimes your favorites don’t even make it into the finished film (On a Clear Day You Can See Forever’s baffling decision to excise its sole lively production number “Wait Till We’re Sixty-Five”). Other times you’ll wish they hadn’t (don’t get me started on A Chorus Line: The Movie again). From the very first time I listened to the CHICAGO Broadway cast album, “Funny Honey”, “The Cell Block Tango”, “Roxie”, and “Nowadays” became my favorite songs in the show. How did their transfer to film rate? 
"Funny Honey"-    B
The movie goes for a sultry, torchy interpretation of this number, and scores high points for the way it cleverly establishes the film's visual vocabulary for Roxie's fantasies. It only earns a "B" grade because I've never gotten over the sheer brilliance of Gwen Verdon's vocal performance of this song. It's comic poetry. 
"The Cell Block Tango"-  A+
Every detail about this inspired fever dream of a number works magnificently for me. I especially love that Marshall includes the "victims" in this death tango, and the way the prison reality is intercut with the fantasy. The number is theatrical, it's cinematic, it's a scarlet wall of women behind bars. My favorite number in the movie.
"Roxie"-  A+
Roxie is a singular sensation to herself in this narcissist anthem that becomes a terrifically glossy and stylish production number in the style of the classic Hollywood musicals. It's deliciously old-fashioned and Zellewgger shines in it. Literally. 
"Nowadays/Hot Honey Rag"- A+
Gangbusters! Because "Hot Honey Rag" wasn't on the OBCR album, I only became aware of it when Verdon & Rivera performed it on variety shows, and then I think it was just called "Keep It Hot." Anyhow, it's now a standard part of revival recordings and a "new" favorite for me. "Nowadays" is given its due as both a solo & duet, and the electric staging of  "Hot Honey Rag" had me thinking of the flappers in Thoroughly Modern Millie. And seriously, the lyrics to "Nowadays" are out of this world.


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
In spite of that dreadful, written-for-the-film Oscar-bait song "I Move On", I'll always enjoy the movie version of CHICAGO. It's an incredibly well-crafted musical that I credit for rescuing the genre from animated singing teapots, and I genuinely think it deserves all of its success. (Though Marshall revealing in the DVD commentary that personal fave-rave Toni Collette was almost cast as Roxie was a bit of news I didn't need. OMG...can you imagine?! Be still my heart.)
But through no fault of its own--after all, the movie didn't change, I did--CHICAGO just doesn't stand the test of time for me as what I might consider a classic musical. When I revisit Cabaret (1972), even after all these years, it's a film that continues to offer me a full-course meal. Rewatching  CHICAGO recently was like having a sorbet dessert...thoroughly delightful and pleasant, but there wasn't anything for me to chew on. 

I told you that CHICAGO and A Chorus Line are eternally linked for me. Here it is 2022, both shows have been made into films, yet when I really want to have my best experience of either and both...I still go back to listen to those original Broadway cast records I purchased in August of 1975.


BONUS MATERIAL
There's a wealth of material on YouTube and on the internet about CHICAGO. You can see clips from the original production, the 1992 Long Beach production, the 1996 Broadway revival, and the deleted "Class" musical number from the motion picture. Any footage you can catch of Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivers performing is pure magic. 
Also available on YouTube (for the time being) is the silent film version of Chicago (1927)
 and the Ginger Rogers remake/reworking Roxie Hart (1942)
 - Thanks, Cinefilia

My favorite curio is an audio track from the 1975 Philadephia tryouts that features cut songs and the original lyrics to "The Cell Block Tango" (wherein we discover "Lipschitz" initially referred to Jacques Lipschitz, the cubist sculptor). Listen to it HERE.  

"Minsky's Chorus" Reginal Marsh - 1935
The painting that inspired the original CHICAGO poster art


Copyright © Ken Anderson   2009 - 2022