Tuesday, July 31, 2012

THE WIZ 1978

A conversation between Motown head honcho Berry Gordy and Universal Studios in regard to the already eight-months-into-preproduction film adaptation of The Wiz:
Gordy -“I just got awakened by a call from Diana (Ross) who wants to play Dorothy in 'The Wiz'! She had a dream that she played the part and the film was one of the biggest smash hits of all time!”                                        "The Wiz Scrapbook" by Richard J. Anobile

And thus began one of the most divisively controversial casting decisions since Jack Warner threw Julie Andrews over for Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady.
Diana Ross has the answer to the question:
 "Whose turn is it to be the big screen's next Dorothy Gale?"

The Wiz is based on the 1975 Tony Award-winning Broadway musical that is itself a very '70s, funkified, all-Black reimagining of Frank L. Baum's 1900 children's book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The story of the little Kansas farmgirl who gets whisked away by a tornado and learns the value of home and family through the help of characters she meets in the mythical land of Oz is a tale as well-known and beloved as Alice in Wonderland. The Wiz, which hews closely to Baum's book (silver slippers, not ruby) was created at the height of the '70s Black Pride revolution in fashion, music, film, and art. The Broadway production (then billed as The Wiz: The Super Soul Musical "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz") was an attempt on the part of Charlie Smalls (music) and William F. Brown (book) to create a modern children's fantasy familiar enough to encourage crossover appeal, yet reflective of contemporary Black culture. The score is full of songs influenced by funk, soul, and gospel, and the book is peppered with comic dialog derived from '70s slang idioms. Thanks to the creative contributions of director/costume designer Geoffrey Holder and the powerhouse vocals of 17-year-old Stephanie Mills as Dorothy, The Wiz proved a great success and went on to win seven Tony Awards that year, including Best Musical. 
Diana Ross as Dorothy
Michael Jackson as The Scarecrow
Lena Horne as Glinda
Richard Pryor as The Wiz
Nipsey Russell as The Tin Man
Ted Ross as The Cowardly Lion
Mabel King as Evillene
Theresa Merritt as Aunt Em
When it was learned that Motown and Universal Studios were to collaborate on a film version of The Wiz, speculative casting buzz centered around Stephanie Mills reprising her Broadway role and Motown Golden Girl Diana Ross being cast as the glamorous Glinda the Good. Of course, all that changed with Diana's fateful dream and the subsequent early-morning call to Berry Gordy.

Disregarding the very real possibility that Miss Ross’ dream could just as well have been a nightmare, the powers that be behind The Wiz—a film that stood the chance of being one of the most expensive musicals ever made—abandoned plans to conduct a nationwide talent hunt for a talented, age-appropriate unknown yo play Dorothy and instead went with what then must have seemed a smart business move: casting an internationally famous, Oscar-nominated singer/actress with both marquee value and mainstream appeal. Thus, swayed by variables ranging from the capricious (Diana wanted it, dammit!) to the practical (Ross' participation most assuredly contributed to the acquisition of other notables, like pal Michael Jackson and Lady Sings The Blues co-star, Richard Pryor), The Wiz was launched with considerable fanfare and star-power, but also amid a flurry of boxoffice-crippling negative publicity.
While I really liked the look of Diana Ross in The Wiz, a vocal majority let it be
known they preferred their Ross glamorized and Mahogany chic.

The mounting of a large-scale film adaptation of The Wiz was already a sizable professional gamble (not only was the public touchy about anyone challenging the memory of a film as beloved as The Wizard of Oz, but there had not yet been any kind of boxoffice precedent for such a big-budget film with an entirely Black cast). A gamble not entirely helped by the almost unanimously unpopular announcement that the, shall we say, “mature” Diana Ross would be playing Dorothy; a character whose age is unspecified in Baum’s books (a fact Ross was quick to point out at every opportunity), but whom even the most imaginative of readers were unlikely to have envisioned as a fully-grown woman.
One wonders how things might have turned out for The Wiz and indeed, Diana Ross' feature film career (it came to an abrupt halt with The Wiz) had Ross campaigned for the role of Glinda. As it now stood, the head-scratching incongruity of her casting and all the changes it precipitated (Dorothy was now a 24-year-old Harlem school teacher with a doozy of a social anxiety disorder, living in a brownstone with her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry) fueled the public's already strong perception of Ross as an ego-driven diva. The mainstream press tends to already look upon the ambitious artistic endeavors of Black artists with a hyper-scrutiny not applied to the work of white artists, and so in the film's initial stages of production, the negative advance buzz threatened to overshadow everything else. 
The news of Ross' casting set off a veritable tornado of outraged cries of ruinous miscasting the likes of which we wouldn't hear again until 1990 when perennial daddy’s darling Sofia Coppola plodded through the waters of casting nepotism and single-handedly sunk The Godfather Part III.  In hindsight, it's obvious that the preoccupation with Ross's casting also served as a convenient grievance smokescreen for those taking racist umbrage over Black artists "daring" to tackle a beloved all-white cinema classic.
The casting of 33-year-old Diana Ross proved an insurmountable hurdle for many viewers, blinding them to The Wiz's many delightfully witty design concepts. Here, Dorthy and pals dance atop charmingly bulbous Oz Taxicabs in front of a surreal rendering of the Cowardly Lion's home, The New York Public Library.  The cabs, in satiric commentary on an all-too-familiar urban reality, are always off-duty when the black characters try to hail them. The Yellow Brick Road traffic signals flash "Ease" or "Don't Ease" for pedestrians.

When Diana Ross was brought into The Wiz the film's original director, John Badham (Saturday Night Fever), took a powder. Scrambling for a replacement, the studio settled on Sidney Lumet (known in the industry as Mr. finish-it-on-time-and-under-budget) in spite of his inexperience with the musical genre. It's a perverse Hollywood tradition that an industry famously averse to risk-taking ONLY seems to take chances when it comes to placing directors unfamiliar with a genre at the helm of multi-million-dollar productions (cue: John Huston and 1982s Annie)

Then-screenwriter Joel Schumacher (Sparkle, Car Wash), later hack-director (Batman and Robin), jettisoned the entire Kansas-to-Oz elements of the play and, at Lumet's suggestion, fashioned the film into an urban fantasy with an Oz resembling a surreal, fever-dream vision of New York. Schumacher, who, like Diana Ross, was a proponent of EST (Erhard Standard Training - the self-help teachings of Werner Erhard which were popular at the time), also inserted tons of Me-Generation proselytizing into the script and supplanted The Wiz's simple themes of "There's no place like home" with a great deal of the "You'll find it within yourself" navel-gazing of the '70s Human Potential Movement.
The Yellow Brick Road leading to The Emerald City
Tony Walton's Oscar-nominated production designs for
The Wiz 
convey a charming storybook wit  

The relative haste with which The Wiz was fashioned perhaps explains why a film of this magnitude contains so many errors of editing, dubbing, and "We don't have time for a retake!" awkwardness. As with many films, it was given a release date before even a foot of film was shot. Slated as a summer 1978 release, the date was later moved to the fall due to issues of weather, union strikes and Ross burning her retinas staring into the white beams of The Wiz's eyes. Critics were quick to call attention to shots of a buckled yellow brick road, sweat stains under Miss Ross' almost perpetually upraised arms, poor lip-syncing by the Cowardly Lion, and surprisingly cheesy-looking special effects for a film that cost a whopping $24 million (Dorothy's mannequin-stiff entrance into Munchkin land and Glinda the Good's graceless"floating" were popular targets). However, almost unanimous praise was afforded Quincy Jones' work on the musical score, and the brilliant production design and costumes by Tony Walton (Mary PoppinsThe Boy Friend).
Dorothy Learns the Value of Friendship
In another of the film's witty, New York design concepts, the Yellow Brick Road leads to a subway entrance where a sign directs pedestrians to "Get Down"

I first saw the theatrical production of The Wiz in October of 1976 when the touring company of the Broadway show played in San Francisco. Ren Woods (Xanadu) was taking over for Stephanie Mills and I remember it being a spectacular production. My single strongest memory of the show is the fabulous staging of the tornado whisking Dorothy and her farmhouse away to Oz: The tornado itself was embodied by a beautiful, leggy dancer sporting a scarf headdress that billowed behind her, far beyond the wings of the stage. She danced seductively around the farmhouse, ultimately (and provocatively) straddling its roof. As the house began to rotate on a turntable, the ever-elongating scarf wound itself around and around the entire structure until it completely enfolded the house in the fabric. It was mind-blowing!
In the movie version of The Wiz, Glinda the Good is something of a supernatural life-coach. Here she creates the tornado that will blow the house-bound Dorothy out of Harlem into a vision of New York unlike anything I'd ever seen. 

By the time the film version was released in October of 1978, I was living in Los Angeles and any initial trepidation I may have had about Diana Ross' casting had long been absorbed by all the exciting hype surrounding the film. Michael Jackson's film debut! Quincy Jones arranging the music! Lena Horne returning to the screen for the first time in almost ten years! From Richard Pryor landing the role of The Wiz, to the behind-the-scenes talents of Tony Walton and Albert Whitlock (the latter, visual effects artist for The Birds, Earthquake, Day of the Locust); it seemed as though all the top talents in Hollywood were working on this musical. Once the colorful billboards and posters began appearing around town (tagline: The Wiz! the Stars! The Music! Wow!) and the Ross/Jackson duet single of "Ease on Down The Road" was in heavy rotation on the radio...well, I was gone. Everything surrounding the promotion of the film looked so fantastic that I convinced myself the final film was going to be something so stupendous, it would make us all eat our words at ever doubting the wisdom of casting superstar Diana Ross.
If it can be said that any single image sold me the film version of The Wiz, it has to be this vision of Oz rendered as a surreal landscape where the Coney Island Cyclone roller coaster meets five Chrysler buildings. It's exactly like something a kid would conceive of as a fantasy image of New York.


As I mentioned in a previous post, the one way to get both the best experience of a movie yet at the same time the least reliable impression of how that film will perform at the boxoffice, is to see it on opening night. The Wiz opened at the famed Cinerama Dome theater in Hollywood. The Dome itself was bathed in yellow light, as were the decorative fountains out front. The only thing missing was a literal Yellow Brick Road. Lines stretched around the parking lot and the sold-out opening night audience was primed for an "experience." And that's what they got. The crowd ate the film up. Laughter drowned out dialog, special effects and sets drew gasps of approval, and the conclusion of every number was met with rounds of applause.
The audience was especially responsive to Diana Ross' vocal performance (which, no matter what one thinks of her acting, is pretty phenomenal here). Seriously, Ross was never known as a belter or even considered particularly soulful...not in the Aretha Franklin vein, anyway...yet in The Wiz she displayed a versatility and range that had audience members literally screaming! By the time her soul-searing rendition of "Home" ended, some members of the audience were acting as though they were at a live concert. It was all very heady and a major goosebump experience for me, especially the dancing. Ah! Such dancing! Were The Wiz edited down exclusively to its dance sequences, that alone would be enough for me. Needless to say, I was absolutely thrilled by The Wiz and was positive that the film was going to be a big, big hit. Of course I was dead wrong.
The cast of The Wiz reacts to early reviews

The newspaper critics savaged virtually everything about The Wiz, all uniting in agreement over Diana Ross' adult Dorothy being a severe liability no amount of movie magic could surmount. The public even chimed in, complaining of the film being too dark (if cinematographer Gordon Willis ever shot a musical, it would look like The Wiz), too scary, too preachy, or just too somber in tone. Grease (a film I absolutely abhorred, by the way) emerged the big musical blockbuster of 1978, and The Wiz, much like the misguided reworking of the film's title character, pretty much slumped away in ignominious defeat.

I like Diana Ross a great deal. Indeed, I get teased a lot by my partner due to my baseless belief that she can't be as bad as her diva reputation attests, because she has such kind-looking eyes (I also think Faye Dunaway has kind eyes...so maybe my partner has a point). I find Diana Ross very likable in The Wiz but I'm the first to say that she really needed to turn it down a notch. Her idea of conveying Dorothy's shyness is to approach the role as though she were portraying Laura in The Glass Menagerie...with all of the attendant ponderousness. She's far too high-strung and neurotic from the start. By the time she reaches Oz you almost expect her head to fly off, she's so unwound.
No one can say Diana Ross didn't throw herself into the role
The rousing production number Brand New Day is one of my favorites...for any number of reasons.

That being said, I think Ross is rather appealingly game throughout the film, throwing herself into the strenuous dancing and singing in a way I can't help but admire. She's in the finest voice she's ever been, and while I get a little worn down by her personality towards the end (she's a tad harsh on Richard Pryor), I have to say her grown-up Dorothy has never bothered me as much as it has others. A friend of mine once made the astute observation that when The Wiz came out, the concept of a grown-up unable to leave home was such an anomaly, with audiences balking at what they considered to be the obvious contrivance of her character. Today, with what we know about social anxiety and the phenomenon of "Boomerang Kids" who stay under their parents' roof well into adulthood; The Wiz seems almost ahead of its time.
The Great and Powerful Oz

If my blog has any objective at all (which it doesn't, but I'm trying to make a point) it's to promote my firm contention that "good" movies are not always the ones we most enjoy, and that a film's boxoffice success or failure has absolutely no bearing on its actual quality or value as entertainment. For example: Variety's list of the 100 highest-grossing films of all time reads very much like an "avoid at all cost" inventory of my least favorite movies. Whereas the films that bottom out in the "flop" category (Day of the Locust, 3 Women, Two for the Road) are among those that have meant the most to me.
The great Quincy Jones makes a cameo as one of the fashion-conscious citizens of The Emerald City

The Wiz is in many ways a mess. There is little time devoted to character; it seems over-infatuated with scale over emotion; some script choices are seriously ill-advised (by this point, the cinematic de-fanging of irreverent comic Richard Pryor had come to border on the tragic); it doesn't seem quite fair to the legendary Lena Horne to have Diana Ross have first crack at her only song; and finally, it's much too long.
But I swear, there is something about The Wiz that has the power to lighten my heart every time I watch it. It's certainly full of spectacle and eye-popping visuals, it has moments when it's lighthearted and fun, and there is no lack of energy and style in the thrilling musical numbers. Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell, and Ted Ross provide refreshing contrast to Diana Ross' twitchy over-emoting (which reminds me of Joan Crawford's exhaustive earnestness), but even that is mitigated by her peerless singing, which is the finest part of her performance. Her rendition of "Home" forgives all transgressions.
The Emerald City sequence, filmed in the Plaza of the World Trade Center Towers

I've always loved the show's score, and Quincy Jones' arrangements are very good. But in the end, I always come back to Tony Walton's designs for the look of The Wiz as being one of the most enduring pleasures of the film for me. I keep noticing new details in the costuming and sets each time I revisit it. The Wiz's whimsical take on a grungy New York City may not be to everyone's liking, but it is the single most cohesive thematic thread in a film that at times feels as though it were created by a hydra. Envisioning and constructing a complete fantasy world on film can't be easy, but Walton's contributions meet and even exceed the potential The Wiz had for being one of the great musicals of the 70s.
The New York State Pavilion of the 1964 World's Fair was transformed into Graffiti City for Dorothy's arrival in Munchkin Land  
The Emerald City
In a world where three Transformers films and three Twilight films rank among the highest-grossing movies of all time, you'll never convince me that audiences avoid films simply because they're "bad" or even "inept." Many factors play into why a movie flops, some of them having nothing to do with what's happening up there on the screen, others having to do with our culture. Hollywood doesn't have the most stellar record when it comes to highlighting and showcasing black talent, and American movie audiences STILL have a long way to go toward accepting films with African-Americans in principal roles. The Wiz isn't perfect, but there's no doubt in my mind that large segments of the populace were never going to give it a chance from the getgo, and Hollywood allowed its boxoffice performance to excuse its already rigid practice of rarely greenlighting motion pictures with Black protagonists or Afrocentric themes.
Escapism Politicized
Hollywood films are predominately about the white experience. Unless politicized or shunted to the background, the depiction of black life on the big screen is still all too rare.

In a strange way, The Wiz is one of those movies I think many people wanted to like, but the film kept thwarting the viewer's goodwill. Diana Ross' Dorothy is a tough nut to crack. Ross' one-note performance never engages our hearts. Then there is the matter of her "journey" in Oz. We're given endless spectacle in lieu of character identification and sometimes it's hard to find reasons to care what happens to her. The script, which relies on the impressive makeup effects to provide most of the character distinctions for the Scarecrow, Lion, and Tin Man, doesn't always make a lot of sense...even for a fantasy. For example: I thought it a grievous mistake to have Dorothy actually "resolve" to kill Evillene as The Wiz requested. Killing the witch by mistake in an effort to acquire her broom is one thing; having her make a conscious decision (however reluctantly) to murder Evilene (even if she IS a baddie) feels somehow wrong.
Dorothy is just a little too happy for a woman who's just committed involuntary manslaughter

When I think of The Wiz and how much pleasure I derive from it in spite of its flaws, I think of my friend, a big fan of Grease, who will call my attention to how much he loves that film in spite of its cast of middle-aged teenagers; icky message of "conform or be unpopular," and the score's anachronistical '70s-sounding, disco-era musical arrangements.
Just like Dorothy discovers that her imperfect home is nevertheless a place that makes her happy, it's good to remember that if a movie brings you joy, it doesn't have to be perfect. It only has to have something that makes you respond to it. That's personal, that's private, and it has nothing to do with whether the movie is deemed a hit or a flop by Variety.
There's No Place Like Home

Although The Wiz is only 34 years old as of this writing,  Diana Ross is the only major cast member still living.

According to the book Footprints on Broadway by David W. Shaffer, dancer Gregg Burge (he played Richie in the film version of A Chorus Line, was featured on TV's The Electric Company, and co-choreographer of Michael Jackson's Bad video) appears as Michael Jackson's dance double in certain scenes in The Wiz and had to sign a release promising not to seek credit.

Diana Ross' self-produced album Diana Ross Sings Songs From The Wiz was intended for release in 1979 but shelved when the film performed so poorly. The album was finally released in 2015.

Copyright © Ken Anderson 2009 - 2012

Monday, July 23, 2012


I first saw The Grasshopper in 1979 at Filmex, the now-defunct Los Angeles Film Festival, at a special screening titled "Underrated American Films" (an event that also introduced me to Robert Altman’s masterpiece, 3 Women, and hosted, if memory serves, by Roger Ebert). Seeing The Grasshopper in a packed theater of film enthusiasts was the best possible way to see a film that, when initially released, was sold as an exploitation flick. I'd been wanting to see this flawed little late-'60s gem since I first laid eyes on the film's soundtrack album back in 1970. 

Then just 13-years-old, I was drawn to the photo on this bi-fold LP jacket which offered, on the front, an image of star Jacqueline Bisset locked in a passionate embrace with co-star Christopher Stone. On the back, however, was this racy "reveal" of their tryst location being a shower stall and Mr. Stone marvelously, teasingly, naked. I'm sure fans of Ms. Bisset were disappointed (she would more than make up for the oversight in 1977 when her wet t-shirt poster from The Deep became one of the year's top sellers), but as for me; I was just thrilled that such an unexpected glimpse of naked male flesh (and it's really little more than a glimpse) had been made available to me in surroundings as wholesomely irreproachable as the local record store. Looking at the album cover today after so many years (below), I'm not the least bit surprised to find that it still packs a visual punch as a seductively potent erotic image. Tame, to be sure, by today's standards, but in those pre-internet days, we oversexed adolescents had to take our thrills where we found them.
Music to My Eyes
This image is as evocative of my memories of the early '70s as that image from Midnight Cowboy of John Voight and Dustin Hoffman huddled in an alleyway. So enamored was I of this photo that I owned the soundtrack for over a year before I even bothered listening to it. As luck would have it, the songs by Brooklyn Bridge, Vicki Lawrence (The Carol Burnett Show), and Bobby Russell (Mr.Vicki Lawrence for a time) are all pretty good. I now have the album on my ipod.

I tend not to be overly fond of coming-of-age-films. Most I find to be interminably male-centric wish-fulfillment fantasies prone to leaning heavily on the callowness of youth as an excuse for indulging in a lot of puerile sexism and misogyny. On the other hand, female coming-of-age films, while rarer and seldom very well-known, are more to my taste (my absolute faves being 1961s A Taste of Honey and 1985s Smooth Talk). The female perspective is so infrequently explored in films in general, so any film attempting to offer insight into the inner lives of girls maturing into young womanhood is to me a much-welcome change. I especially appreciate when these films portray their heroines as active participants in their fates and steer clear of the clichéd, woman-as-victim trap. Films in which women learn the ropes by being mistreated by a series of men always come across as the efforts of male writers who really don't know much about women. 
The '60s-era Las Vegas setting of The Grasshopper is one of my favorite things about the film
In attempting to dramatize the aimlessness of late-'60s youth while satirizing the swinging, anything for kicks attitude prevalent at the time, The Grasshopper at times feels like the crasser, less artful American cousin of John Schlesinger’s Darling. But despite the film's unsure footing (TV sitcom director Jerry Parisbest known as the neighbor on The Dick Van Dyke Showhas no real aptitude for drama) The Grasshopper does succeed in capturing the essence of a particular type of American woman at a particular point in time in our culture. Of course, the “American” woman I speak of in this case is the very British Jacqueline Bisset, serviceably, if unconvincingly, identified as Canadian for the film. (Ironic, given that the heroine of the little-known novel upon which this film is freely adaptedThe Passing of Evil, by Seance on a Wet Afternoon author Mark McShane—1s British, the story taking place in London.)

The late '60s and early '70s offered dozens of American movies dramatizing the heroically romanticized plight of the misunderstood heterosexual white male as he struggled to find his identity in a society in flux and shifting beneath his feet. African-American females are perhaps still waiting for their own definitive coming-of-age-film (a good place to start: Ossie Davis’ woefully overlooked 1972 film, Black Girl, or Kasi Lemmons' brilliant Eve's Bayou), but for women in general, The Grasshopper provides a well-observed, adult portrait of a kind of spiritual restlessness usually only afforded movie males. 
Jacqueline Bisset as Christine Adams
Jim Brown as Tommy Marcott
Joseph Cotten as Richard Morgan
Christopher Stone (in his film debut) as Jay Rigney
Corbett Monica (yes, THE Corbett Monica, Ed Sullivan fans) as Danny Raymond
Ed Flanders as Jack Benton
The Grasshopper was promoted with the tagline: “The story of a beautiful girl’s lifetime between the ages of 19 and 22.” And lest one assume the “beautiful” adjective was inserted solely for the purpose of a little sex-bait ad copy; rest assured, The Grasshopper’s Christine is one in a long line of movie heroines whose destinies are shaped as much by their provocative beauty as by their flaws of character. When Valley of the Dolls' Neely O'Hara bitchily comments on how Anne Welles got through life on a pass because of her "Damned classy looks," she is speaking of girls like Bisset's Christine. Girls whose looks open up so many doors for them that not until those looks begin to fade does it begin to dawn that those doors largely led nowhere.

As the film begins, 19-year-old Christine Adams (Bisset) has dropped out of high school in Kingman, British Columbia, left a note for her parents, and slipped away in the wee small hours of the morning in her beat-up convertible. Her destination: Los Angeles, where she has plans to shack up with Eddie (Tim O'Kelly) her high-school sweetheart. Her youthful optimism unfazed even when her car breaks down en route, idealistic hitchhiker Christine informs a friendly pick-up, “It’s very simple what I want to be; totally happy, totally different, and totally in love!” Of course, as soon as she says this, we all know she doesn't have a chance in hell of being any of them.
You're Gonna Make It After All
In this age of "Boomerang Kids," the most startling thing about The Grasshopper is the idea of a teenager, with no money or prospects, actually looking forward to leaving home and starting out life on her own.

What is Christine over the course of the next three years? In no particular order: a bank teller; a mistress;  a would-be actress, schoolteacher, flight attendant; real estate saleswoman; a Vegas showgirl; a high-class call girl; a discontented housewife; a sugar mama; a widow; a kept woman; and a prostitute. Only on occasion is she ever practical, introspective, or more than fleetingly satisfied. As you must have gleaned by now, the grasshopper of the title is Christine. The human embodiment of America’s "instant happiness" culture. In the land of plenty, happiness, like freedom, is a birthright; something one is entitled to whether or not it’s earned, appreciated, or deserved. If you don’t find it in your own back yard, America’s a big place with lots of back yards. All you need is a suitcase, a little resourcefulness, and who knows? Maybe happiness can be found in the one thing you haven’t tried yet.
Impetuous Christine falls for down-to-earth former quarterback Tommy Marcott 
Christine: Tommy, sometimes I envy you.
Tommy: Why?
Christine: You don't always have to be doing something. With me it's sort of a disease. I guess it's because no matter what I'm doing or how much fun I'm having, somewhere way back in my head I'm thinking somebody somewhere else is having more fun than I am. 

The Grasshopper, in its sometimes over-earnest efforts to be now, relevant, and say something pertinent about the times we live(d) in, is a marvelous panorama of everything that was happening in America in the late '60s. So many controversial topics are covered and touched upon in the film’s scant 98-minute running time, Jacqueline Bisset seems at times like a tour guide through a new Disneyland attraction called Sixtiesland. We have rock bands, groupies, free-love, homosexuality, lesbianism, interracial marriage, nudity, drugs, prostitution, pedophilia, and physical abuse. It all sounds pretty incendiary, but to the film’s credit it does manage to present a great many of the hot-button social issues of the day in a refreshingly matter-of-fact manner, reserving sensationalism for things like scenes of unexpected violence.  
Atypical for its time, gay couple Timmy (John David Wilder) and Buck (Roger Garrett) are presented sympathetically and as just  another couple in Christine's circle of friends.

In the '70s, Jacqueline Bisset and Raquel Welch were the two (dubiously) reluctant sex-symbols most vocal over never being taken seriously as actresses. Raquel Welch had a point; she was pretty much offered one crap supporting role after another. Bisset on the other hand, was handed in succession, The Grasshopper and The Mephisto Waltz; two films which were, while by no means a Doctor Zhivago or Rosemary’s Baby, nevertheless substantial and challenging star-vehicles requiring more of Bisset than to merely look good in a bathing suit. 
Bisset is at her relaxed best in the brief scenes she shares with the always-welcome Joseph Cotten

Because I like Jacqueline Bisset so much, I wish I could say that she made the most of these opportunities, but as an actress, Bisset is something like a hot-air balloon; as the story around her heats up, she seems to get lighter. A vibrant screen presence with a stunning, if not particularly expressive face, Bisset is fine in scenes requiring wide-eyed optimism or vague restlessness; but she’s a bit out of her depth when events take a more dramatic turn. And then again, perhaps it's really sitcom-trained Jerry Paris who is really the one most out of his depth, as he's rarely able to depict the dramatic elements of the story in ways more substantial than that of a sub-par '70s movie-of-the-week.  
We're Gonna Make Our Dreams Come True
The Grasshopper was co-written and produced by TV's Garry Marshall (Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley). Here Garry casts baby sister Penny Marshall (Lavern herself, left, holding the ruler, pictured with Eris Sandy) as a member of the "Plaster Casters": groupies who make plaster casts of the genitals of rock stars.

Showgirls: 1970. In his autobiography Wake Me When It's Funny, producer Garry Marshall writes that the original leaping pattern for The Grasshopper was considerably more global (London, New York, Hollywood) but for budgetary reasons Las Vegas became the dominant location. I can't say I mind one bit. The shots of a long-gone Vegas Strip and the behind-the-scenes glimpses into those old-fashioned Vegas reviews are fabulously nostalgic.
The grasshopper perched first one place, then another...wherever she happened to land. And then she moved on.
(Ad copy from the film's poster)

While there’s no denying that The Grasshopper could have benefited from at least one female voice involved in its creation (the product of at least three male collaborators, the film suffers a bit from a sense that there are a few too many over-the-age-of-30 male voices weighing in on what it's like to be a 19-year-old girl), I’m personally grateful for even this imperfect portrait of a complex female character in the male-dominated '70s cinema landscape. And, since women who seek to define themselves exclusively by the men in their lives are far from being an extinct species, there exists a contemporary relevance to the film which transcends its appealingly dated trappings. 
The Grasshopper is definitely worth checking out, for while not as deep as it aspires to be, it's nonetheless a compelling look at the cost of a life lived without attachments.

Oh, and lest we forget that glorious backside which sparked my interest in the first place...

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

THE FAN 1981

If theater geeks and Glee habitués ever longed for their own 80s slasher film, then The Fan fits the Playbill, so to speak. This unappetizingly violent, yet oh-so delectable blend of backstage musical, slasher-thriller, and woman-in-peril melodrama (to borrow a line from one of the Louis St. Louis [Grease 2] showtunes crooned over the course of the film), “Got no love” when released in the spring of 1981, but is deserving of rediscovery. 
And the audience LOVES me! And I love them! And they love me for lovin' them and I love them for lovin' me. And we love each other! And that's 'cause none of us got enough love in our childhoods. And that's showbiz...kid!
(This Fred Ebb lyric pretty much encapsulates the psychological backstory of The Fan)

No low-budget gore-fest populated by a cast of nondescript teens stalked by a masked phantom, The Fan was A-List all the way. It had then-hot-as-a-firecracker producer Robert Stigwood (Grease); a sizable budget; great Manhattan locations and a distinguished cast of New York actors; and pedigreed Broadway composers (Marvin Hamlisch and Tim Rice contributed two songs).
It also had and up-and-coming creative team comprised of TV commercial/music video director Edward Bianchi (making his feature film debut), and choreographer Arlene Philips (Can’t StopThe Music, Annie). The production was conceived as a stylish, Hitchcockian thriller along the lines of Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) and Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill (1980).
Lauren Bacall as Sally Ross
Michael Biehn as Douglas Breen
James Garner as Jake Berman
Maureen Stapleton as Belle Goldman
Hector Elizondo as Inspector Raphael Andrews
Unfortunately, somewhere along the path from screenplay to movie-house, The Fan transmutated into something which simultaneously confounded and confused. Star Bacall claimed the final film turned out to be bloodier and a great deal more graphic than the initial screenplay indicated, thereby turning off her audience base. Meanwhile, the typical youth-based demographic for slasher films like Halloween and Friday the 13th had a hard time relating to The Fan’s largely middle-aged cast and theater world setting.

Of course, what proved most grievously detrimental to The Fan’s ultimate public reception was the December 1980 shooting death of John Lennon by an obsessed fan (The Fan, having wrapped that summer, was already in post-production). This tragedy was followed by the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan in March of 1981 by a fan obsessed with actress Jodie Foster. This happened just two months before The Fan's May 1981 release date. Further compounding the whole reality vs. fiction creep-out factor of all this was the fact that Bacall, portraying a Broadway star opening in a new musical, was at the time indeed opening on Broadway in the musical, Woman of the Year (March, 1981). As if that wasn't already too much too-close-for comfort coincidence, Bacall happened also to be a resident of The Dakota apartments, the very site of Lennon’s fatal shooting (and the birthplace of the Antichrist in Rosemary's Baby; but let's not confuse fantasy with reality any more than we have to at this point).
 The Fan makes use of a great many terrific Manhattan locations. Here, the famed Shubert Theater serves as the site of Sally Ross's opening night in Never Say Never, the fictional musical that provides so much of  The Fan's camptastic eye candy

Depending on how cynical one was, the general atmosphere at the time couldn't have been better or worse for the release of a film about a star drawing the homicidal attentions of an obsessed fan. Paramount, perhaps to its discredit, chose not to postpone the release of The Fan and instead instead distributed theatrical trailers featuring a disclaimer stating that in no way was The Fan inspired by the tragic death of John Lennon. An act which actually served to  to remind people of the Lennon tragedy under the guise of distancing itself from it. Whether seen as sensitive or in poor taste, in the end it didn't really matter.
This starkly simplistic (aka: cheap) graphic looks more appropriate to an Italian gaillo cheapie

Torpedoed by probably one of the worst posters in recent memory and mixed to pan reviews, The Fan continued on its inexorably jinxed, undeserved course to obscurity. 

Alienating the very audience that might most be interested in seeing a film offering up healthy doses of musical theater, showtunes, tight male bodies in various states of undress, and Lauren Bacall in full Margo Channing mode; The Fan drew the ire of many Gay Rights groups with its self-loathing, not-so-latent homosexual stalker. After the release of Windows in 1980 - a film about a lesbian psychopath, and Cruising in 1981 - about a gay psychopath, nobody was really waiting with bated breath for another film which portrayed gays as slice-'em-dice-'em psychos

Celebrity and fan obsession is a compellingly intriguing topic for a thriller. The whole codependent, love/hate, need/resent, fear/envy aspect of the “relationship” between the famous and the adoring public is ripe fodder for film treatment. The connection between celebrity and fan is a "relationship," by design and necessity, doomed forever to be one-sided: the fan feels an intimate kinship with someone who doesn't know they exist. Perhaps because of this imaginary, essentially hungry, connection, it's no surprise then how quickly fawning fandom can change to bilious hate if the fan’s attentions are even marginally rebuffed.
I’m reminded of a scene in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (a marvelously dark black comedy about fan obsession that would make a great double-bill with The Fan) in which talk-show host Jerry Lewis is walking down the street. When asked by a fan at a public phone to say a few words to her friend on the line, he politely demurs, claiming that he's running late. At this point, the seconds-ago adoring fan flips to bile-spewing enemy, shouting “You should only get cancer! I hope you get cancer!” Yikes! 
But such is the mercurial, frighteningly delicate line between love and hate that is fandom and celebrity obsession. Had The Fan set its sights on examining this already terrifying dynamic in the form of a strict psychological thriller, it had the potential for providing an insightful, genuinely chilling look at our increasingly celebrity-obsessed culture. In going the slasher/stalker route, The Fan cheapens and sensationalizes the material, making the events appear more remote and unlikely than in reality they are. 

Anyone who has ever attended a celebrity autograph convention or looked at the crowds outside of a movie premiere knows how Day of the Locust-like and unnerving celebrity-worship feels. There are so many things The Fan does right (depicting the many ways in which the famous are vulnerable to the public, conveying how the promise held forth by fame-culture fuels a never-to-be-satiated hunger in fans) but in not trusting the inherent, subtle creepiness of the material as is, misses a terrific opportunity to scare us with a bracing look at ourselves.
The Celebrity Conundrum
Nothing angers a worshipper of celebrity more than listening to the famous gripe about how much they hate all the attention that comes with celebrity

What brings me back to The Fan time and time again are its many sequences depicting the behind-the-scenes creation of the fictional Broadway musical Never Say Never, which is to be star Sally Ross’ singing and dancing debut. What with its use of recognized Broadway dancers, NY locations, and knowing attention to procedural detail; the feel is very authentic, very 80s, and very stylishly evoked. I find these scenes a bit camp to be sure (what with all those legwarmers and Arlene Philips' trademark Hot Gossip choreography), but I have to say all of it contributes to giving us a refreshingly novel backdrop for a suspense thriller. Silly as they may be, they are also terrifically fun. Of course it doesn't hurt that I saw this film during my early days as a dancer, or that in 1983, when I took my first trip to New York, I studied dance at Jo Jo's, the studio featured in the film.
Cheek to Cheek
That's Kurt Johnson providing literal backup to Lauren Bacall as she sings " A Remarkable Woman," one of two Marvin Hamlisch/Tim Rice compositions introduced in the film
All The Boys Love Sally
Broadway dancer Justin Ross (l.) appeared in the film version of A Chorus Line, and dancer Reed Jones (r.) originated the role of Skimbleshanks in the original Broadway production of Cats 

If you’re going to make a film about the kind of classic Hollywood star capable of inciting the flames of obsessive fandom, you can't do much better than all-around class-act, Lauren Bacall. Her gravitas as a full-fledged movie star from the golden era gives The Fan a shot of instant legitimacy every time she appears. In one of the largest roles of her career, Bacall is really very good at portraying a character not very far removed from what the public perceives her to be. She is so good in fact, that I kept wishing the film would just allow for the basic character drama of this ageing star grappling with loneliness, self-doubt, and vulnerability, play itself out minus all the genre machinations.
The charmingly lived-in romance of James Garner and Lauren Bacall is a welcome change from the  usual blank-faced couplings of callow youths typically found in slasher films 

The '80s come vividly alive in the film's Broadway musical sequences, which are sort of Solid Gold meets Can't Stop The Music. I don't care if I enjoy these sequences for all the wrong reasons, they're a hoot and absolutely fantastic!
A Remarkable Woman
More Like Hot Flash, Baby, Tonight
I saw The Fan the night it opened at Mann's Chinese Theater in L.A., and I swear,  the entire audience did a collective spit-take when Ms. Bacall launched into this hilariously inappropriate disco-ditty.

I've never considered The Fan to be as bad a film as its reputation has led people to believe. Its screenplay is clichéd to be sure (the stage doorman is actually named “Pop”) and the violence needlessly gruesome for such a visually distinguished and stylish film (Bianchi’s music video background is in full, glossy evidence), But with a provocative theme and talented cast, The Fan has quite a bit going for it even with its flaws. One might have wished for a little more finesse in the areas of motivation and character, but I seriously have a soft spot in my heart for this movie...mostly centered around the Broadway setting, the images of a still gritty and grimy New York, and reminders of my early years in dance. Who was it that said, "Nostalgia ain't what it used to be"?

Copyright © Ken Anderson   2009 - 2012