Friday, August 31, 2012


I’m not sure what a sociologist would make of it, but the '70s (that post- hippie “Me” decade of Watergate, the energy crisis, and the close of the Vietnam War) seems to have spawned more than its share of movies and novels about malevolent domiciles. The Amityville Horror (1979), The Sentinel (1977), and The Shining (1980) are all films based on popular '70s horror-fiction novels that sought to update the traditional haunted house story.
Burnt Offerings, Robert Marasco’s 1973 novel chronicling the gradual dissolution and ultimate destruction of a family after they take up temporary residence in a large house possessed of a deadly supernatural force, predates Stephen King’s similarly-themed The Shining by four years. I read Burnt Offerings back in 1975, as soon as I’d heard that it was to be adapted into a motion picture reuniting Karen Black with Dan Curtis, the director of the popular TV-movie, Trilogy of Terror (1975).
"There's no such thing as fun for the whole family" - Jerry Seinfeld
The involvement of Dan Curtis—the man behind the long-running Gothic TV soap-opera Dark Shadows, and a TV-based director/producer who never met a horror-cliché he didn’t like—was considerably less promising to me than the possibilities presented by the top-drawer cast assembled (always such a rarity in horror films). Karen Black, red-hot at the time, was cast as the wife; Ken Russell alumni Oliver Reed, fresh from the success of Tommy (1975), was the husband, and veteran star Bette Davis was rescued from TV-movie hell to bring her What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? / Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte scream-queen gravitas to the small role of Aunt Elizabeth. Rounding out the intriguing cast were Oscar-winner Eileen Heckart and indefatigable hambone Burgess Meredith as the eccentric owners of the parasitic (vampiric?) summer rental at the center of the story.
Karen Black as Marian Rolf
Oliver Reed as Benjamin Rolf
Bette Davis as Aunt Elizabeth
Lee H. Montgomery as Davy Rolf
Eileen Heckart as Roz Allardyce
Burgess Meredith as Arnold Allardyce
On its release, I was happy to find Burnt Offerings to be a serious-minded, slavishly faithful adaptation of the book (with the exception of a more cinematic, crowd-pleasing ending) that avoided the usual post-Exorcist bombast and instead concentrated on mood and atmosphere. It's one of those rare films that can give you a good, solid scare when you watch it alone, yet provide plenty of unintentional laughs when you watch it with friends. Contemporary audiences are likely to find the film predictable, slow, over-reliant on tried-and-true clichés (there should be a moratorium on rainstorms in haunted house movies), and hampered by the kind of empty ambiguity that often signals poor storytelling. But those who saw Burnt Offerings when they were very young (the film was rated PG) or before The Shining and the Amityville series drove the genre into redundancy, tend to recall the film with the most fondness today.
The Face That Launched a Thousand Bad Dreams 
Few knew the name of the ghoulishly grinning chauffeur (Anthony James) but no one ever forgot the face. 

A film critic once compared the horror genre to pornography (a '70s film critic...long before the genre's decline and the arrival of those wretched "torture porn" movies) making the point that no matter the flaws, porn films work if you find them exciting, and horror films work if they are scary. Is Burnt Offerings scary? Had I seen it as a ten-year-old, I would say most emphatically yes. Seeing it as an adult, I can't say it scared me so much as it entertained me in a way that encouraged my suspension of disbelief to just sit back and have fun with it all. Perhaps it's due to Curtis having developed his "style" from years working in television,  but the PG-rated Burnt Offerings feels less like a feature film and more like an expanded episode of the TV show Night Gallery (a program Curtis criticized for its poor writing). Burnt Offerings is more a well-told mood piece than a good scary movie. (Perhaps the scariest and most unsettling thing is how this family considers it a "vacation" to spend their entire summer working harder than most people do all year. Even before the house starts acting up, all they do is clean!) However, ask someone who saw Burnt Offerings as a kid and they'll tell you it was the scariest film they ever saw...the stuff of nightmares.
Karen Black discovers that a long-neglected greenhouse has blossomed overnight

One of my favorite things about Modern Gothic is when the horror is portrayed as an external manifestation of some form of inner turmoil in the characters. As in The Shining (and more successfully, if in a slightly different vein, Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby), Burnt Offerings nicely grafts familial dysfunction onto the conventions of the haunted house genre to create an eerie sense of tension both supernatural and psychological. When one really watches how the Rolf family interacts, it's easy to imagine that perhaps the "right people" the Allardyces seek for the house are ones living under a pressure cooker of repressed frustrations and barely constrained hostilities.
From the very first moments we meet the Rolfs, one gets a sense that all is not exactly well with this family. Pragmatic Ben and over-ardent Marian don’t really EVER see eye to eye before things begin to rapidly go awry between them. What is made explicit in the book (her domestic dissatisfaction, his creeping fear of mental illness) is only hinted at in the film, but the keen performances by Oliver Reed and Karen Black shore up the sense that the house doesn't really change these people, it merely amplifies that which is already there.
Unseen Terror

Always one of my favorites, screen legend Karen Black may not have been able to sustain the kind of career she once had at the peak of her '70s popularity (the partial blame for which she subtly lays at the feet of Burnt Offerings director Dan Curtis in the comically discombobulated DVD commentary for this film), but there are few actresses who can boast of having starred or appeared in as many films that have gone on to attain classic or cult status.
Black’s boom years were 1974 to 1976, a period in which it was near-impossible to avoid her on the big screen or television (her performance of Big Mama Thornton's “Hound Dog” on The Tonight Show is burned in my brain to this day).  The uniquely glamorous, off-beat, unofficial face of The New Hollywood, the ubiquitous Karen Black appeared in a staggering 10 feature films and TV-movies in these three years, among them, some of the biggest and most high-profile releases of the era: The Great Gatsby (1974), The Day of the Locust (1975), Nashville (1975), and Family Plot (1976). And of course, one cannot forget Airport 1975, a film so iconically silly that the line of dialogue “The Stewardess is Flying the Plane!” was made into the title of a book about films of the 1970s.
Bring on the Crazy
The eminently watchable Karen Black is the main reason I love this film. Even when her performance veers into the eccentric (and let's face it, they always do), she is so obviously coming from a perceived place of truth for her character that she wins you over through sheer conviction.

The central gimmick of Burnt Offerings is that the house renews and repairs itself with every injury, drop of blood, or instance of physical or spiritual decline it can extract from its inhabitants. Dan Curtis’ television-trained penchant for close-ups and tight framing robs the film of the kind of visual scope necessary to make the scenes of spontaneous regeneration really pay off, but his claustrophobic eye is well suited to building a sense of dread out of a million little isolated details. Not all of them followed through with or given a payoff.
A history of violence is suggested by the discovery of a vintage pair of eyeglasses with a discomforting hole through the center of one lens.
Things That Make You Go Hmmm
Oliver Reed reacts to discovering all the clocks in the house have miraculously wound themselves

Because I so enjoy a good scare at the movies, I’m almost ridiculously willing to suspend my disbelief if it better ensures a solid payoff at the conclusion. On that point Burnt Offerings delivers mightily; it has a great final act. But a movie has to work with me. I can accept the most outlandish plot machinations if a character's actions and motivations follow even a marginally identifiable pattern of a recognizable human behavior. As soon as characters go off doing patently stupid things just to advance the plot, well, then you lose me. 
To its credit, Burnt Offerings plays it smart most of the time. For example: to better counterbalance the swift susceptibility of the Karen Black character (who is sympathetic, if ultimately hard to relate to) and get the plot moving despite everything about the initial setup screaming, “Don’t rent that house!”, Oliver Reed’s dialog mostly has him giving voice to every doubt the audience is thinking. This is a great device that subtly pulls you in with presuming that if a character at least acknowledges something smells fishy, you're more likely to stick it out when they inevitably start disregarding common sense and doing all the wrong things.
Slightly annoying son Davy proves to be something of a disaster divining rod when it comes to who's to be the target of several "attacks" by the house in its attempts to destroy the Rolf family

Burnt Offerings is not a great horror film, but it's a good one that I enjoy rewatching a great deal. Not scary so much as eerie, Burnt Offerings plays like a supernatural parable on the risks of being controlled by one's possessions. Anyone who's ever owned a car, a home, or property can relate to feeling at times as if repairs, taxes, upkeep...the whole desire to acquire things.... can easily dominate one's life. That one is living one's life at the will and behest of the things we sought to possess, but which ultimately come to possess us.
The mysterious photograph collection of vaguely startled looking people 
The Dunsmuir Estate in the Oakland Hills (near my parent's house!) was used for the Allardyce mansion. It looks considerably less creepy now.


Oh, and as for my Karen Black obsession: in spite of her having filmed Burnt Offerings near my family's house in Oakland, and the previous year filming Hitchcock's Family Plot in San Francisco where I attended college, I never once made the effort to catch sight of her on location. Thirty years later, in Los Angeles in 2007, I finally had the opportunity to meet the object of my teen fascination when I went to see her in her self-penned musical play Missouri Waltz. When it came time for the post-performance meet and greet in the lobby, she was a real sweetheart, and I was near speechless. But boy, you should have seen her face when someone held out a poster of The Day of the Locust for her to sign (not her favorite movie), it was like one of those looks she shoots Oliver Reed when she has to rescue him from the attacking vines!

Copyright © Ken Anderson 2009 - 2012

Friday, August 24, 2012


My fondness for…no, make that absolute love for this Swinging Sixties pop musical is as close to boundless as it is baseless. Baseless not in that I love it without reason (on the contrary, the list of things I love about The Cool Ones would fill up this entire post), but baseless in that my affection for this unfailingly gladdening go-go groove-a-rama has absolutely nothing to do with good filmmaking and 100% to do with the emotional, visceral, wholly subjective delight I derive from its cheery evocation of a particularly happy time in my youth.
Debbie Watson as Hallie Rogers
Gil Peterson as Cliff Donner
Roddy McDowall as Tony Krum
Phil Harris as McElwaine
Nita Talbot as Dee Dee Howitzer
George Furth as Howie
Mrs. Miller as Mrs. Miller
In the mid-Sixties I was just a kid (ten years-old in '67) but I had a teenage sister who subsisted on a steady diet of the latest 45s (7-inch, 45rpm records) and every dance TV show she could cram in between doing her homework and talking on the phone. After school she would rush home to watch Where The Action Is, Shindig, Hullabaloo, Hollywood a Go Go, or The Lloyd Thaxton Showteaching me all the latest dance steps (which often consisted of little more than planting your feet in one spot and shaking like you're trying to dislodge a spider that's landed on your clothes) and the words to the Top 40 record hits of the day. My sister's need of a practice dance partner (I was the only boy among four girls) granted me premature entrance into the world of teenagers, and I don't think I ever got over it. The colorful mod clothes; the crazy, code-like slang; the infectiously happy-sounding music; the dances so carefree and silly that you had no choice but to lose yourself in abandon...all pretty heady stuff for a bookworm little kid like me. I was much too shy (then) to ever express myself so freely in the outside world, but in our living room, with the furniture pushed to the sides to create a dance floor, I felt like I was a part of the very "happening" world of the '60s. For some reason, The Cool Ones brings back those days to me better than any of the similar films of the era, and thus I find it a physical impossibility not to smile and surrender myself to nostalgia while watching it.
The Whizbam Dancers
Teri Garr (left) was a staple dancer in a great many of these '60s musicals

The Cool Ones is a breezy, above average Beach Party movie cloaked in a somewhat toothless satire of show business—specifically the teen-centric West Coast music scene, circa 1966. Hallie Rogers (Watson), a professional wiggler on Whizbam (a fictional teen rock & roll TV show patterned after its real-life counterparts, Shindig and Hullabaloo) harbors a burning desire to hang up her go-go boots and pursue a career as a pop singer. Alas, at every turn she finds her ambitions thwarted. Condescended to by well-meaning friends (“This is a boy’s world. Isn’t it enough to be with them all the time…and get paid for it?”) and rudely dismissed by Whizbam producer Mr. MacElwaine (Harris), frustrated Hallie throws an on-the-air fit that inadvertently sparks a new dance sensation: The Tantrum.
Psycho-Chick: Hallie Makes a Bold Play for Stardom
That's a young Glen Campbell back there being upstaged by desperate-for-stardom go-go girl, Debbie Watson. Campbell, cast as Patrick of the fictional group "Patrick and the East-Enders" would release two of his signature hits in 1967: Gentle on My Mind and By the Time I Get to Phoenix.

Of course she’s immediately sacked:“How dare you flip your wig on our time!” scolds McElwaine flunky George Furth–but lucky for Hallie her musical nervous breakdown has caught the attention of washed-up-at-24 former teen idol Cliff Donner (Peterson). With Cliff's help, plus the assist of eccentric pop music impresario Tony Krum (McDowall)— “Tony Krum? Like, he’s zero cool! Everything he touches gets well!” — Hallie at last lands the opportunity to realize her dream of pop singing stardom. But will true love, ethics, and a modicum of singing talent derail Hallie’s teen dreams before they even start? Well, you'll have to tune in, turn on, and stay cool to find out.
"She's young, ambitious, and therefore dangerous. It takes a few years on a girl to know how to mix a cocktail of ambition and desire"

As movies satirizing teen culture and the music business date as far back as Frank Tashlin’s The Girl Can’t Help It (1956), there’s really not much that’s particularly surprising or fresh in what The Cool Ones has to say about the mercurial nature of show biz, fickle teenage fans, the randomness of fame, or the absurdity of pop trends. In fact, cartoon fans are sure to note the similarities between the plot of The Cool Ones and episodes of The Flintstones wherein Fred alternately: 1) Becomes an overnight teen singing sensation named Hi-Fye (1960), 2) Stubs his big toe and inadvertently creates a national dance craze called "The Frantic" (1965). Now, how's that for depth?
Have a Tantrum
Debbie Watson and Gil Peterson sing what seriously has to be one of the hippest, grooviest songs ever written. Below, Olivia Newton-John resurrects Watson's black t-shirt and tiger-print mini-skirt for 1980s Xanadu.

What works best about The Cool Ones is its pacing (it was directed by former movie hoofer and Tony Award nominee [for Follies] Gene Nelson, and produced by William Conrad of Cannon fame), and its candy-colored glamorization of the late '60s. It's a vision of sixteen teendom that probably never really existed, but I can't think of a single film that does it better or has more fun while doing it.

Well I’d say it’s a neck and neck tie between the music and the dancing. Each of which is capable, at various points in the film, of being both marvelous and ludicrous…frequently simultaneously.
With a soundtrack of some 20-odd songs (accent on the odd) The Cool Ones is virtually wall-to-wall music with practically every member of the cast granted the opportunity to burst into tuneless song at one point or another. The songs are a delightfully mixed bag of groove-a-riffic pop ditties, duets, ballads, and plot-propelling book-type numbers of the kind found in traditional movie musicals. 
Warner Bros. produced The Cool Ones and therefore saved a fortune in royalty fees by peppering the film's soundtrack with songs from their vast music library. There's a great deal of amusement to be had in hearing go-go arrangements of such standards as Secret Love, It's Magic, and Birth of the Blues
The Cool Ones is rumored to have initially been conceived as a project for Nancy Sinatra and her longtime songwriting partner, Lee Hazelwood. (Debbie Watson does all of her own singing, but sharp ears might recognize Sinatra's trademark deadpan vocals on The Tantrum.) The late-great Lee Hazlewood (These Boots Are Made for Walkin', Sugar Town) contributes many fine and very danceable tunes to the film's score, along with composer Billy Strange and several others. Even at its most groan-inducing corniness, I am absolutely crazy about the music in The Cool Ones and only wish there had been a soundtrack album.
Roddy McDowall acquits himself very nicely singing a number whose title might well have echoed the actor's own thoughts about his career at this stage: "Where Did I Go Wrong?"
The Cool Ones features guest appearances by several pop groups from the '60s whom you've likely never heard of. Top: The Bantams; Center: The Leaves; Bottom: my personal favorite, T.J. and the Fourmations, materializing in full performance out of an elevator.

Acting of any kind usually gets in the way in movies like The Cool Ones, which run on charm, energy, and personality. Watson and Peterson make for a photogenic couple totally devoid of any real chemistry, but they have real screen charisma and are certainly easy on the eyes.
That actually goes double for the molded-in-plastic good looks of Gil Peterson, the world's worst lip-syncer but best wearer of tight pants I've ever seen. A male starlet of the first order, it matters not a whit that Peterson never convinces as a pop star and displays only a fleeting familiarity with rhythm. Not when the film can (and does) showcase his body at every opportunity.
Dee Dee Goes for the Gusto 
Nita Talbot enacts the fantasy of every gay male in the audience

If the music in The Cool Ones sends me over the top (to use the vernacular, it's wiggy!), then the dancing is just out of this world. It's fun, energetic and just a blast to watch...I get all charged up seeing it. The unbilled choreographer is Toni Basil (of '80s "Mickey" fame) a Shindig! alumnus and student of David Winters, the great granddad of go-go choreography. It's his distinctive style that's most apparent in the film's dance numbers. And while Winters never went on to have a career comparable to that of Hulabaloo dancer Michael Bennett (A Chorus Line, Dreamgirls) his work is TV at this time (Movin' With Nancy) is impressive and vast.
The Cool Ones dancers are recognizable from any number of '60s teen musicals.
The Whizbam dancer with the incredible bare midriff is Anita Mann, pictured here with Davy Jones dancing in THIS VIDEO. A terrific dancer, Mann went on to choreograph Solid Gold (and even took a couple of dance classes from me back in the 80s!).

Here I am at the end of my most image-filled post to date and still I haven't even touched on a number of my favorite things about The Cool Ones. I adore the mad, mod fashions; the it's so-bad-it's-good dialog; the scenic Palm Springs and Los Angeles locations (much of it taking place just a block away from an apartment I once had near the Sunset Strip); and that odd running gag of a mystery man coveting Cliff's vintage automobile. There's even the film debut /swansong of atonal '60s novelty act, Mrs. Miller (not to be confused with Merv Griffin professional audience member, Miss. Miller). Ah, I alluded to at the start, a post about a movie that makes me so happy and brings back so many memories could easily fill a post twice this length.  
Roddy McDowall pretty much coasts on the same performance he gave the previous year in Lord Love a Duck  (a superior satire, but not nearly as much fun) while effortless scene-stealer Nita Talbot and veteran actor Robert Coote provide stronger support than the film sometimes deserves.

I have a hunch that had The Cool Ones been made just a few years earlier, it might likely have been a hit. Coming out at such a pivotal and changing moment in American pop culture (it was released just months before the hippy-dippy Summer of Love and the era of psychedelic rock), the world depicted in The Cool Ones had already began to looked dated. As a 1967 movie it was terribly corny stuff, but it would have looked great and played much better in 1965. For me, truly entertaining and fun movies are incredibly hard to come by, and on that score The Cool Ones rates top on my list. Although its many pleasures harken back to my distant youth, the enjoyment it gives me as an adult brands it forever a timeless favorite.
And then of course, there are still some things that never go out of style.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Saturday, August 11, 2012


Some years back, director Francis Ford Coppola released The Godfather Trilogy 1901-1980: a chronologically reassembled edit of all three of his Godfather films. As appealing as it was (in a passive, brain-dead, sort of way) to have the sprawling Corleone saga laid out in a fashion so as to make it impossible for even the most distracted viewer to lose the narrative thread, the sad result was that in the attainment of unequivocal comprehension, all poetry was lost. Robbed of the sometimes poignant juxtapositioning of past and present events, The Godfather became just another gangster film.

The artful manipulation of time in The Godfather filmsthe past coexisting with the presentis more than just a stylistic conceit; it's an essential representation of the films' narrative themes of destiny and predetermination. In Petulia, the conveyance of time as a nonlinear phenomenon reflective of the characters' fractured lives (a point of annoyance for several critics back in 1968), is no less fundamental to the telling of this distinctly Sixties, yet timeless, story.
Down on Me
Well-heeled attendees of a charity fundraising dance "Shake for Highway Safety" react to the rock group Big Brother & the Holding Company (Janis Joplin)

Richard Lester’s Petulia is the story of a small group of very pretty people whose perfect-looking lives are nevertheless bloody battlefields strewn with the carnage of emotional (sometimes physical) violence every bit as senseless and arbitrary as the glaring images of the Vietnam War that flicker from the largely ignored TV sets running nonstop in every room. Depicted in an artfully disjointed style which intercuts flash-forwards and flashbacks with scenes occurring in the here and now, Petulia examines the tentative love affair between impulsive, unhappily married newlywed Petulia (Christie) and the generationally displaced surgeon Archie (Scott). Archie is an old-fashionedly decent man facing a kind of existential mid-life crisis in the midst of "The Pepsi Generation," and he doesn't know quite what to make of it all.
Just as Coppola's use of flashbacks in The Godfather created a sense of history encroaching upon the present, Petulia is an almost-love-story told in a time-tripping, hopscotch fashion so organic to the era (the swinging Sixties); the place (Summer of Love San Francisco); and characters (the beautiful people), that it’s impossible to imagine the film realized in any other way.
Julie Christie as Petulia Danner
George C. Scott as Archie Bollen
Richard Chamberlain as David Danner
Shirley Knight as Polo (Prudence) Bollen
Joseph Cotten as Mr. Danner
I saw Petulia for the first time just two months ago, and given my predilection for all things Julie Christie, it struck me as more than a little puzzling how this near-perfect little gem had managed to elude me all these years. I suspected I would like it, but I didn't really expect to love it as much as I did. Funny, touching, and full of startling's so perfectly attuned to my tastes and interests it practically has my name on it. Advertised at the time of its release as “The uncommon movie,” Petulia might well have added "unexpected” to the mix, for I've really never seen anything quite like it. Not only does it have Julie Christie at her most jaw-droppingly gorgeous (EVER…and that’s saying something), but she, George C. Scott, and Richard Chamberlain bring an empathetic intensity to characters one might best describe as guardedly dispassionate.
Although they share no scenes together, Petulia reunites Kathleen Widdoes (pictured) with her The Group co-star, Shirley Knight 
Petulia is Richard Lester's savage picture postcard satire of American life in the late Sixties. A time when sentimentality was considered square, relationships tangential, and the polished-metal, automated world of “now” was moving and changing so fast it stood in constant danger of leaving itself behind. As a dissection of an emerging cultural scene and its people, Petulia is a surprisingly focused social skewering considering its relative lack of distance (it's one of the few mainstream films commenting on the decade to actually have been filmed where and when what we commonly associate with '60s culture originated). Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night, The Ritz) takes a fragmented, psychedelic view of the gleaming-surfaced existence of  jaded, wealthy hippies and disillusioned, drop-out professionals. A world where the disenfranchised poor and people of color are always glimpsed (just barely) on the periphery, and the hippies are just as phony and callous as the straights. The darkly comic, fumbling interplay of these lost-and-found souls striving—often in shell-shocked bemusement—to reach out to one another in a disposable, mechanized, instant gratification society is rendered in strobe-light glimpses boldly captured by Nicolas Roeg’s (The Man Who Fell To EarthDon’t Look Now) kaleidoscopic camera lens.

Petulia (based on the John Haase novel, Me and the Arch Kook Petulia) is very effective, not to mention outrageously stylish, in the ways it depicts the messy complexity of relationships. Contrary to what songs, romance novels, and fairy tales would have us believe, really connecting with another human being is a frustratingly difficult business. It's imperfect, inconsistent, and comprised of a million little disappointments and uncertainties, all tethered to an overpowering but seldom acknowledged need for human contact. 
The straightforward Archie can’t make head-nor-tails of the captivating but confounding Petulia, who is herself of two minds about her beautiful but abusive husband, David. Polo, Archie’s ex-wife, is not quite over him, yet seems to have leapt into a compromise relationship. Meanwhile, their friends Barney and Wilma (?!) -Arthur Hill and Kathleen Widdoes - whose own marriage is falling apart, scheme to have them reconcile. These emotionally inarticulate couplings form a roundelay of missed chances and miscommunications endlessly reenacted by the uniformly dissatisfied protagonists. Individuals whose words and actions seem to be forever at cross purposes with their desires.

As Petulia is as much a social satire as a poignantly bleak meditation on emotional authenticity (“Real, honest-to-God tears, Petulia?”), the picture of America that Lester paints is one of alienating mechanization and deceptive appearances. Richard Lester’s San Francisco is one of automatized motels; switch-on fireplaces; indoor flowers that die when exposed to real sunlight; decoy hospital room TV sets; sullen flower children; nuns driving Porches; topless restaurants; gloomy all-night supermarkets; and kiddie excursions to Alcatraz Prison (which is a reality now, but was not, if I remember correctly, the case back in 1967).
Among the row houses of Daly City, Archie seeks the assistance of two two non-cooperative hippies (that's WKRP's Howard Hessman in the pink shirt) 
No one does sham superficiality better than Julie Christie. From Darling's narcissistic Diana Scott, Far From the Madding Crowd's perniciously thoughtless Bathsheba, to the emotionally vacant Linda Montag of Fahrenheit 451, Christie has made a career of adding depth and dimension to otherwise unsympathetically shallow characters.
The walking contradiction that is Petulia Danner: arch posturing one moment, self-recriminating anguish the next, is one of Julie Christie's strongest most persuasive performances.
I can't say I've ever cared much for George C. Scott (who somehow grows increasingly more handsome as the film progresses) but I think he is rather spectacular here. He avoids the usual self-pity that comes with these kinds of roles and makes Archie into a strong, very likable character you come to care a great deal about. It's a most effective dramatic device when a staunchly unexcitable character in a movie breaks into a smile, and when this happens in Petulia, it just about breaks my heart.
Special mention must also be made of Richard Chamberlain (then known exclusively for TV's Dr. Kildare and as a heartthrob romantic lead) daringly cast against type and delivering an overwhelmingly chilling portrayal of a man who is a physically perfect, psychologically damaged, Ken doll.

A film set in '60s San Francisco is bound to be visually vivid, and Petulia is a marvelous-looking movie whose color photography is as expressive as it is overwhelming. There are psychedelic light shows accompanying musical appearances by The Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin, striking vistas of Bay Area locations, and the candy-colored mod fashions of the day take on a fairly 3D effect.
My partner was the first to take note of the beige/brown cheerlessness of Archie's bachelor apartment (top) contrasting so expressively with Petulia's fraudulently festive pink and yellow boudoir (below).

It's always struck me as a curious phenomenon how so many films from the '80s and '90s can appear so dated to me, yet most of my favorite films from the late -'60s and '70s seem to have a timelessness about them. I don't pretend to know the reason, but I suspect it's because so many '60s and '70s films are about people and relationships, while '80s and '90s films are chiefly the result of pitches, formulas, and focus groups. Ignore the swinging '60s window dressing (but who would want to?) and Petulia is as topically relevant today as it was in 1968. Perhaps more so
Estrangement. The natural consequence of erecting barriers in the avoidance of pain

On the strength of one month's ownership of the DVD and three viewings, Petulia has become my absolute favorite Richard Lester film. The first American feature from a director known for his bold comedic style, Petulia is not as great a thematic departure as it at first appears. There are plentiful examples of Lester's penchant for absurdist humor, caustic irony, and the sad/funny details of human interaction. But what distinguishes Petulia for me is the humanity at the core of this little microscopic vision of the world. That and the sophisticated style of its execution. In that, Petulia is indeed an uncommon movie.
Petulia is, at its heart, an adult twist on the classic fairy tale. Petulia is the damsel in distress who, perhaps tragically, can't or doesn't want to be saved. David, the Prince Charming whose beauty conceals a beast. Archie, the frog prince who lives happily ever after.

Copyright © Ken Anderson