Thursday, May 31, 2012


Bernice Bobs Her Hair, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s satirically comic, finely-observed 1920 short story about feminine identity in the emergent jazz age, can be read in less time than it takes to watch this exceptional made-for-TV short film adaptation directed by Joan Micklin Silver (Hester Street, Crossing Delancey). A movie clocking in at a little over 48 minutes, Bernice Bobs Her Hair is a disarmingly witty little film that offers more food for thought, first-rate performances, snappy dialogue, and keen period detail than most films three times the length and ten times the budget.
Shelley Duvall as Bernice
Veronica Cartwright as Marjorie
Bud Cort as Warren
Dennis Christopher as Charley Paulson
Mark La Mura as Carpenter
Mark Newkirk as G. Reece Stoddard

The moneyed idleness of finishing school girls and prep school boys on summer holiday in Connecticut is a ritualized flurry of status-defining social activities which have about them the contradictory quality of simultaneously relieving and heightening boredom. The time is 1919; the very brink of flaming youth, flappers, jazz, and silent movie vamps. While the conventions of mannered society are stringently observed by young and old alike, those teens fumbling most uneasily on the verge of adulthood can’t resist exercising their newfound independence through small acts of social rebellion.
Among the debutante set, this means engaging in (and trying to navigate one’s way through) behaviors that walk a tightrope between popularity-enhancing daring and ostracized-by-one’s-peer-group scandalousness.

It’s August, and all-around “fun” girl and social hub Marjorie Harvey (Veronica Cartwright) is having her summer fairly ruined by visiting cousin Bernice (Shelley Duvall). In contrast to the well-liked Marjorie who has mastered and understands the seemingly endless little gambits and ploys a girl must practice in order to convey availability through the highly contrived appearance of unavailability, Bernice is dull to the point of distraction. A well-heeled socialite from Eau Claire, Wisconsin, Bernice nevertheless suffers from shyness and an overabundance of the kind of genteel femininity that was swiftly becoming passé in the pre-flapper era of the early '20s.
"Bernice, girls our age divide into two groups: there's the ones like me who like to have a good time, then there's the ones like you who just love to sit around and criticize us for it!"

An eye-opening conversation overheard by Bernice (“I didn't mean to listen…at first”) between Marjorie and her mother (Polly Holliday) compels the visiting cousin to grudgingly allow herself to be taken under Marjorie’s wing for a thorough personality overhaul. What follows is a cross between Pygmalion, the third act of Grease, and the “Popular” number from Wicked as Marjorie coaches Bernice in all the finer points of being a sought-after modern woman. As the summer progresses Marjorie proves herself a master educator… but does Bernice perhaps learn her lessons all too well?
So, you think you can dance?

The distancing effect of Bernice Bobs Her Hair’s period setting works to the film’s advantage, allowing for a kind of clear-eyed, dispassionate assessment of laughable social mores not always possible (or welcomed) when the lens of satire is trained on contemporary fads and trends. Additionally, the notion that one’s parents and grandparents might have been plagued by the same adolescent insecurities and pressures to conform that we’ve experienced provides both a historical perspective and a reinforcement of the cyclical nature of human behavior.

When Bernice Bobs Her Hair first aired in 1976 as part of the PBS The American Short Story anthology series, the film was viewed through the prism of mid-'70s second-wave feminism (those years when the initial strides of Women’s Lib began to take root, culturally). With films like Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), The Stepford Wives (1975), and A Woman Under the Influence (1974) reflecting the evolving cultural prominence of women in the 70s, the duplicitous, restrictive, male-centric behavior of the young women at the center of Fitzgerald’s story appeared foolish, outmoded, and as unlikely for a comeback as the bustle.

Well, here we are in the year 2012, and the litany of silly “how to get a man interested” rules and stringent feminine “dos” and “don’ts” at the center of Bernice Bobs Her Hair (each presuming some innate female inadequacy) look positively dignified in light of the tyranny of reality shows like “The Bachelor” and how-to-catch-and-keep-a-man books like “The Rules.
You'll be Popular...Just Not Quite as Popular as Me
Marjorie (Veronica Cartwright) and Roberta (Lane Binkley) prepare for the Country Club dance

As earlier posts will attest, I am thoroughly besotted with Shelley Duvall. Here, as she did so artfully in Robert Altman’s 3 Women, Duvall brings an oddball stamp of pluck and silent self-regard to characters who, as written, would otherwise be pitiable or pathetic. Duvall’s Bernice may be socially withdrawn and ill-at-ease around members of the opposite sex, but it’s clear she holds an opinion of herself more solidly defined than that of her rather superficial cousin. Bernice’s willingness to undergo a personality makeover is born more of a kind of misdirected introspection (there’s a scene wherein she more or less encounters herself in male form—the reserved and judgmental ministry student, Draycott Deyo) than poor self-esteem.
Duvall's transformation from wallflower to man-trap is a delight 

I don’t believe there exists on film an uninteresting Veronica Cartwright performance. Splendid in Alien and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, as the vain and spoiled socialite of Bernice Bobs Her Hair, Cartwright displays a comic timing and command of expression and inflection that lends bite to her scenes of bitchiness and real humanity to those moments that reveal the coward behind the monster. Her scenes with Duvall are marvelously engaging in their chemistry.

The character of Yale undergrad Warren McIntyre is sketchily drawn in Fitzgerald’s story, but as embodied by baby-faced Bud Cort (the victim of Shelly Duvall’s betrayal in Altman’s Brewster McCloud, but better known for Harold & Maude), Warren is a mass of post-adolescent agitation and self-seriousness. Wearing the expression of one perpetually amazed by the depth of his own emotions, Cort mines pure comic gold in fleshing out an otherwise stock Ivy League character.
Unburdening himself to Bernice, Warren longs to reveal his true self by becoming a writer. Albeit under the deliciously loony pseudonym of Charlotte Van Heusen.
"I don't want anyone to know it's me. I'm in too much pain."

Someone once said that it’s the responsibility and privilege of the young to blaze new trails and challenge social convention, for in nonconformity lies progress. What’s fascinating to ponder is how significant a role hair and hairstyles have played in the shattering of social conventions throughout history.
As was the style of the day, the socialites in Bernice Bobs Her Hair sport mountainous piles of hair. The numerous scenes of women fussing and tending to their hair dramatize the dichotomy posed by the narrative. Long tresses may be a badge of femininity and old-world gentility, but their need for constant care inhibits female mobility and freedom. With its minimal upkeep requirements, the short bob haircut was liberation personified and branded the ideal symbol for the modern woman. Alas, its lack of social precedence and too-close association with the morally suspicious silent-screen “vampires” also branded the haircut as immodest and instantly scandalous (aka, rebellious).
Braiding is a motif repeated so often in Bernice Bobs Her Hair that the ritual begins to take on the weight of metaphor - the braids come to resemble ropes tying the women to constrictive notions of femininity.

One of my favorite exchanges in the F. Scott Fitzgerald short story didn’t make it to the film.

Marjorie’s mother is trying to make sense of the fuss Marjorie is making over Bernice not fitting in with her social crowd. From where Marjorie’s mother sits, there’s not much to be gained in the shallow approval of people who scarcely seem interested in you in the first place.
Mrs. Harvey: “What’s a little cheap popularity?”
Marjorie: “It’s everything when you’re eighteen!”

And so it is. The world of an eighteen-year-old will undoubtedly expand, but for that brief moment in time (which can feel like an eternity) when one’s entire universe is inhabited exclusively by immediate family and the kids you go to school with, the petty concerns of popularity and peer acceptance can take on the importance of world-turning events.
There's no way to watch Bernice Bobs Her Hair without acknowledging, time and time again, how little has changed in the realm of human interaction since 1920. 
Bernice: "My philosophy is that you have to either amuse people, feed 'em, or shock 'em!"

Those words, written in 1920, could literally be Lady Gaga's mantra.
A World on the Verge of Change

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2012

Thursday, May 10, 2012


Stephen Sondheim’s onetime-flop/now-revered 1971 Broadway musical, Follies: a tuneful, dark-hued elegy to aging and its attendant lost illusions, has always been one of my favorites. At age 14, my adolescent arrogance (a redundancy if ever there was one) convinced me that I had fully understood the show’s themes, when in honesty, all that my then-limited life experience could reasonably have brought to the table was sympathy. Now that I’m roughly the same age as Follies’ representative cast, I find the show to be not only infinitely smarter and more insightful than initially thought, but the passing years have added empathy to the mix. What I know now that I couldn’t have known at 14 is that the follies of one’s life aren’t regrets; they’re just youthful dreams that have just grown too burdensomely heavy to continue to carry with us as into old age.

This all calls to mind Francis Ford Coppola’s ambitious but flawed dream-project, One from the Heart being dubbed “Coppola’s Folly” on release, and the irony of its creation being instrumental in the demise of that other Coppola dream: his American Zoetrope Studios. As someone who came of age and developed a love for movies during the youth-centric, formative years of The New Hollywood out of which Coppola emerged (roughly 1967 to 1979), I've discovered one of the more sobering realities of aging has been bearing witness to what’s become of the ideals and ambitions of the golden boys of the Hollywood Renaissance.
Francis Ford Coppola takes an ordinary couple and places them at the center of an extraordinary, fantasy vision of Las Vegas
George Lucas, the once-venturesome director of the lively American Graffiti, now seems a virtual prisoner of his own success, holed up in Skywalker Ranch like Charles Foster Kane in Xanadu, content to spend his days endlessly tweaking and re-tweaking the same movie; film geek Peter Bogdanovich, after a couple of ill-fated Svengali episodes, reached creative stasis after exhausting his fan-boy catalog of borrowed film styles; Martin Scorsese is making kid’s films in order to stay relevant; and Steven Spielberg, always more a company man than maverick, has emerged more quotidian and old-guard than the most journeyman of filmmakers from the rigid days of the studio system.

Of all the directors of the era, the trajectory of director Francis Ford Coppola’s career is perhaps most indicative of what was right (individualistic, innovative, artistic) and wrong (arrogant, undisciplined, insulated, and out-of-touch) with the American New Wave in cinema of the '70s. His Godfather films (1972 & 1974) and Apocalypse Now (1979) all made good on the movement’s assertion that commercial film was a viable medium for artistic and personal expression. Of any of that film-school breed to proffer themselves as the worthy heir to the throne of the deposed moguls of yesteryear, Coppola alone seemed to possess the requisite business smarts and creative vision to see it through. Or so it seemed.
Raul Julia and Teri Garr lead a cast of seeming hundreds through a dance number staged on one of the meticulously recreated Las Vegas street sets 
Throughout his career, Coppola has spoken out (exhaustively) about the levels of studio interference he’s had to battle in order to get his films made. His unparalleled track record of critical and commercial successes only seemed to confirm his contention that meddlesome studio heads were the enemies of art. When, in 1980, Coppola purchased Hollywood General Studios to form his own, independent motion picture studio—American Zoetrope—it was the realization of a groundbreaking New Hollywood ideal: a space to make films independent of the interference of the Hollywood money men. 
Oh, but that Coppola could have had such interference. 
As the studio’s debut feature, Coppola envisioned a simple, old-fashioned Hollywood musical given a modern twist through the employment of cutting-edge digital filmmaking innovations Coppola would come to dub “Electronic Cinema.” This allegedly creativity-enhancing/money-saving innovation proved no match for a director unable to understand that technology fetishism is never a viable substitute for basic storytelling skills.
Teri Garr as Frannie
Frederic Forrest as Hank
Nastassja Kinski as Leila
Raul Julia as Ray 
Have you ever had a McDonald’s hamburger served to you on an antique sterling silver salver tray? No? Well, if you had you would have some sense of what it’s like to watch One from the Heart; an intimate, almost inconsequential, character-driven dramatic musical about a young couple as ordinary and uninteresting as any you’re likely to meet, inflated to near-bursting by a staggeringly inappropriate $23 million budget. Frannie works at a travel agency while Hank is co-owner of an auto junkyard. After five years together, on the eve of their July 4th anniversary, the couple finds themselves at a romantic crossroads: she wants adventure, he wants stability. How each works through their respective five-year itches is beautifully rendered in a meticulously recreated Las Vegas (everything was shot on the Hollywood sound stages), but the content never justifies the presentation.

It’s my guess that One from the Heart, in all its brobdingnagian excess, is attempting to comment on the transformative power of love and its ability to make even the most unprepossessing of souls feel as though they have suddenly stepped into one of those lushly romantic, old-fashioned MGM musicals. A charming idea, conceptually speaking, that holds a great deal of potential. It’s only in the practical application where things start to hit a snag. Where a feather-light touch and considerable wit is required for this kind of material, One from the Heart keeps tripping over its own intentions because Coppola’s directorial approach to tender matters of the heart is to pound you over the head with his tinker-toy infatuation with the technological.
To anyone who has ever actually experienced the pains and joys of life, love, and romance, it’s plain that the only intensely felt passions on display in One from the Heart are the hots Francis Ford Coppola has for his “Electronic Cinema” gadgetry. A prime example of a man so lost in an onanistic orgy of film love that, $23 million later, he failed to even notice that he hadn’t yet made a movie.
Frannie finds her idealized vision of romance in singing (and apparently dancing) waiter,  Ray

By 1982, bad word of mouth preceding the release of a Francis Ford Coppola film was as common an occurrence as an appearance by Charo on The Love Boat. From The Godfather to Apocalypse Now, Coppola seemed to willfully perpetuate the image of himself as the wild cannon maverick who could pull a masterpiece out of the ashes of months of troubled production rumors and bad press. It’s in light of all this that Coppola’s long-held assertion that One from the Heart didn’t get a fair shake from the press has never quite rang true.
I remember being among the throngs of people clogging the streets of Westwood Village in Los Angeles, excited beyond all reason at the prospect of getting a pre-release glimpse of One from the Heart in January of 1982. The crowd was abuzz, each of us parroting to the other Coppola’s rhetoric hype about being eyewitnesses to the beginning of a new era in filmmaking.
One of the many miniatures of Las Vegas signs used in the film's clever title sequence. I got the opportunity to see this and many of the other props from One from the Heart when, in 1984, American Zoetrope auctioned off its assets after declaring bankruptcy. As staggeringly beautiful as it all was, it was also very sad.

As is typical at these kinds of preview screenings, a general atmosphere of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” takes over and everybody loves EVERYTHING. Each set, dissolve, and digital camera trick was greeted with thunderous applause (in part, I suspect, because we all thought Coppola was somewhere in the audience) and we were all convinced that we were watching the Citizen Kane of the '80s. It wasn’t until I was walking back to my car that I realized that all of my laughter had been forced, all of my emotional responses self-generated; and though dazzled by the visuals, a great many of the much-touted innovations were in reality, age-old theatrical stage effects (walls dissolving, color fades). I love romantic films and anyone who knows me knows that I'm a sentimental slob who cries at the drop of a hat...and yet the only sequence that brought forth waterworks was the finale…and even that was due more to the still-touching-to-me instrumental theme "Take Me Home," arranged to sound like a child’s music box. 
Reluctantly I had to admit that all of my positive feelings about One from the Heart were keyed in to my anticipation of the project and to the artistic potential Coppola’s candy-colored confection presented. One from the Heart’s visuals and technology were indeed impressive, but as evidenced by the audience’s meeting each display of cinema magic with a round of applause; none of us got lost in the magic enough to stop taking notice of it. Shades of Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York!

The structure of a great many musicals is to have at their center, incredibly ordinary, if not downright dull characters (e.g., Bells are Ringing, Sweet Charity, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, Oklahoma) who find their lives magically transformed by love. However, few, if any, of the people involved in the making of these movies have ever been so ill-advised as to actually cast dull, ordinary people in these roles. Both Frederic Forrest and Teri Garr are wonderful, talented character actors, but neither has the requisite something (star-quality?) to make watching them more interesting than, say, spying on my neighbors over the back fence. (Imagine the 1949 Stanley Donen musical, On the Town with the emphasis placed on the Ann Miller/Jules Munshin romance instead of Gene Kelly and Vera Ellen.) 
Hammering home the obviousness of this fact are One from the Heart’s stupendously charismatic co-stars, Nastassja Kinski and Raul Julia. Both actors have in abundance what the film’s leads lack: screen presence. I kept wishing the story would somehow shift gears and magically become a love story about the circus girl and singing waiter.
Harry Dean Stanton and Lainie Kazan are terrific in their brief roles as the supportive friends of the constantly bickering lead couple 

For good reason this blog isn’t titled “Levelheadedness is What Le Cinema is For…”, because movies, like dreams, have this ability to get to us on so many different levels…even when said dream or movie doesn’t make a lick of sense. By the same alchemy that interprets movement from still images flickering past one’s eyes at 24-frames per second (precisely the way a zoetrope works, the magic lantern device from which Coppola’s production company derives its name), One from the Heart’s almost non-stop flashes of technical brilliance do much to mitigate the emotional hollowness at the center of the whole enterprise. The shimmering images Coppola devises for One from the Heart enchant in a way not dissimilar to mentally flipping through an expensive coffee table book on photography; beauty in no need of context.
Fanciful imagery abounds: Hank finds his romantic ideal in circus performer, Leila - here seen dancing in a martini glass

When it all began, the New Hollywood presented itself as the antidote to the bloated, outmoded, assembly-line methods of studio system filmmaking. With minimal budgets but ingenuity and talent to spare, a veritable army of young and enthusiastic movie-makers succeeded for a time in rejuvenating American motion pictures in a way we will likely never see again. 
Unfortunately, success begat money, money was met with unbridled freedom, and with freedom came arrogance, a lack of discipline, and even respect for the principles that inspired the revolution in the first place. Directors once up in arms over the fact that the budget for a single over-inflated bomb like Paint Your Wagon ($20 million) could have financed 20 smaller, perhaps better films, themselves nearly brought the industry to its knees due to their own ego-driven excesses.

Of all the golden boys who imploded when given a big budget and free-rein (Michael Cimino -Heaven’s Gate, Stephen Spielberg – 1941, Martin Scorsese - New York, New York) it can at least be said of Francis Ford Coppola that he bankrupted his own studio and wasted his own money.

The version of One from the Heart currently available on DVD has been re-edited and is a tighter, and in some ways, better film than the one I saw in previews back in 1982. Alas, there’s just no getting past the fact that this neon heart has no real pulse. One from the Heart feels like a film made by someone who knows an awful lot about movies, but not much about life.
One from the Heart would have benefited greatly from the intimacy Coppola brought to The Conversation. Instead, this simple romance was handled with the bombast and overkill of Apocalypse Now
Today, One from the Heart still has the power to thrill me as eye candy, and pleases with its sometimes hauntingly beautiful jazz-tinged score, but in an odd way, it offends me in its epic waste.
In The Towering Inferno Paul Newman says of the smoldering shell of the skyscraper that needlessly took the lives of so many: “I don’t know. Maybe they ought to just leave it the way it is. Kind of a shrine to all the bullshit in the world.”

Maybe that’s One from the Heart’s ultimate merit: it stands as a melancholy shrine to all the tarnished optimism and corrupted ideals of the Hollywood New Wave of the '70s.

Teri Garr autograph from when I was working at a bookstore on Sunset Blvd.

Harry Dean Stanton autograph I got when he came to the Honda dealership where I used to work

Copyright © Ken Anderson