Friday, June 28, 2013


David Cronenberg’s profoundly creepy Dead Ringers is a film that defies pigeonholing as deftly as it eludes any single interpretation of what it all adds up to. Ill-suited to pat, genre classification and easy summation, the stylish surrealism that is Dead Ringers combines Cronenberg’s by now trademark technology-fetish / body-horror motifs with the most compelling elements of the psychological suspense thriller, the romantic triangle drama, and the horror film.
Dead Ringers is a fictionalized treatment of a true story about prominent New York physicians, Stewart and Cyril Marcus: identical twin gynecologists who made headlines in 1975 when their bodies were discovered in their Manhattan apartment a week after their deaths, the result of trying to kick mutual barbiturate addictions. The story was dramatized in the 1977 novel Twins by Bari Wood &Jack Geasland, and it is from this source that screenwriter David Cronenberg and Norman Snider draw their inspiration for Dead Ringers.
Jeremy Irons as Elliot Mantle
Genevieve Bujold as Claire Niveau
Jeremy Irons as Beverly Mantle
In Dead Ringers, the functional dysfunction of the psychologically and emotionally co-dependent twins Beverly and Elliot Mantle (Irons), threatens to unravel when Beverly (the introvert to Elliot’s self-possessed extrovert) falls in love with a patient they share (both professionally and sexually, albeit unknown to her). Claire Niveau (Bujold) is a famous movie actress with a slight masochistic streak and a functioning drug problem (“It’s an occupational hazard) who arrives at the twins’ fertility clinic to discover why she can’t get pregnant.  When the doctors discover that the source of her infertility is a trifurcate cervixa rare condition branding her a “mutant” in the eyes of the doctorsElliot reacts with clinical detachment while Beverly responds empathetically. This fundamental psychological difference in the makeup of the otherwise identical, obsessively-attached brothers, coupled with the introduction of an intelligent, self-aware female into their otherwise male-centric existence, is the catalyst for a disturbing series of events culminating in a darkly tragic conclusion that is as unexpected as it is inevitable.
Dead Ringers is an irresistibly offbeat psychological drama that generates tension not only from its examination of the mystifyingly synergistic relationship between identical twin brothers (with all its attendant homosexual panic and latency), but from a unerringly pervasive sense, sustained throughout the film, that at any moment this dark-hued character study can erupt into unimaginable horror.
Claire: "I think you two have never come to terms with the way it really does work between you."

Typically, if one wants to see a film about heterosexual men both afraid of and repulsed by women, yet have no recourse but to have sex with them lest they be forced to confront the broader sexual identity ramifications of their deeper emotional and psychological affinity for men; one has to go to a Judd Apatow movie or watch one of those reprehensibly misogynist romantic comedies unvaryingly starring Gerard Butler or Katherine Heigl.

In dramatizing a narrative wherein two gynophobic men share an emotional and psychological bond between them that is infinitely deeper than either is capable of with a woman (a childhood flashback reveals the brothers to be fascinated by the prospect of sex without touching, and their interest in females never more than clinical. “They're so different from us,” laments Elliot), Dead Ringers and the story of the Mantle twins works as a macabre metaphor for the kind of casual misogyny one encounters frequently in motion pictures about male/female relationships. Only this time, the ugliness lurking behind the oh-so-subtle "bromance" jokes and anti-female subtext is writ large and in blood.
A History of Violence
The threat of female-directed violence runs through Dead Ringers like an exposed nerve. In this scene where Elliot visits Claire on the set of her film, Cronenberg provocatively stages the scene in the makeup trailer with Bujold sporting false bruises and injuries. 

Dead Ringers is set in the world of gynecology. A world nevertheless presided over by condescendingly patriarchal men who make use of women's bodies, often with little regard for their feelings in the name of research and medical progress (per the unexplained scene of a woman leaving Elliot's office in near hysterics). Elliot and Beverly's casual disregard for women is manifest in their habit of interchangeably treating (and sleeping with) their clients without benefit of disclosing their true identities. The latter habit effectively keeping at bay the twins' nervously unaddressed issues of homosexuality; a prominent element in the novel that is merely hinted at in the film.
Think What You Can Keep Ignoring
Woman as smokescreen for homosexual anxiety

Similarly, the brother's deep-seated curiosity about (and revulsion to) female anatomy not only reflects a common cultural attitude (director Cronenberg discusses on the DVD commentary track how the film's gynecological setting was enough to scare off many studios and several prospective leading men), but when coupled with the psychological fallout of the twins' crippling interdependency and drug use, their propensity to see women as "the other" and the "disruptive element"; leads to the nightmarish invention and utilization of gynecological surgical instruments more befitting instruments of torture.

While Dead Ringers ranks as my absolute favorite David Cronenberg film of all time, I can well imagine that its considerable unpleasantness and inherent creep-out factor contributed to it being thoroughly being ignored by the Academy come Oscar time. Which is really a pity, because you’d have to look far to find a braver, more persuasively committed job of acting than what Jeremy Irons archives in his performance(s) as the tragically conflicted Mantle twins. No matter what one feels about the movie as a whole, there’s no getting around the fact that Irons carves out two distinctly separate personalities by means of the most intriguing subtleties. His refusal to resort to showy and obvious means of conveying the differences between the brothers roots this fantastic story in a reality which makes Dead Ringers a thriller both horrific and deeply moving. (Irons must have felt the same for in 1991 when he won the Best Actor Academy Award for Barbet Schroeder's Reversal of Fortune,  he thanked David Cronenberg in his acceptance speech.)
Jeremy Irons’ virtuoso dual performance is Dead Ringers’ main attraction, but for me, in spite of its technical and stylistic brilliance, the film wouldn't have worked at all were not for the incisive and grounded contribution of Geneviève Bujold. A film rooted in laying bare the adolescent male fear of women and their bodies would simply not work were the primary female role handed over to one of those indistinguishable Hollywood actress types molded to fit into the standard objectified fantasy image of womanhood. 
Geneviève Bujold, an actress whom I've always admired (although I will never understand what the hell she was doing in Monsignor) and whose praises I sing in my post about her breakout role in Coma, is always assertively, intelligently herself. She's an image of woman as a real, complex, flawed individual. A human being, not a fantasy or fetish figure As portrayed, her Claire Niveau stands as a credible threat to the union of the brothers because no matter how hard they may try to see her otherwise, she remains a mature, fully fleshed-out person, not an object.
Beverly: "My Brother and I have always shared everything."
Claire: "I'm not a thing."

Bujold is such a vibrant catalyst that Dead Ringers suffers a bit when her character disappears for a long stretch during the film's second act, but I derive so much pleasure out of what she brings to each scene that she absolutely makes the film for me. It's so integral to the plot to have the Mantle twins' stunted image of women contrasted with a decidedly dimensional, fleshed out example of woman as she is, not as she's perceived. And in the casting of the always-intense and interesting Geneviève Bujold, Dead Ringers hits home the discrepancy between male adolescent sexual fixation and a mature emotional and physical attraction to a human being of the opposite sex.
Heidi von Palleske as Dr. Carey Weiler
A casualty of  Dead Ringers having so many fascinating central characters is that Elliot's relationship with Carey is barely fleshed out. Although von Palleske is an intriguingly sensual presence of somewhat ambiguous allegiance, her role is so sketchily drawn that I had no idea until researching this post that she was a fellow physician. 

As one might well guess with a film about identical twins, themes of identity, duality, and role-playing figure prominently in Dead Ringers. In one scene, a pair of identical twin call-girls arrive at Elliot's hotel suite and he asks one of them to call him by his own name, the other to call him by his brother's. Bujold's Claire is not immune to identity issues either, for while she has a strong sense of herself as a person, in her profession she is called upon to assume the identities of many different people. In her private life, she likes to role play as well, in the form of gently masochistic sexual games.
Elliot: “She’s an actress, Bev, she’s a flake. She plays games all the time. You never know who she really is.

In the case of Elliot and Beverly, the two exploit the inability of others to tell them apart, yet their own nebulous sense of identity make them susceptible to the same subterfuge. In spite of thinking of themselves as individuals, in all things emotional and psychological, neither of them can really ascertain where one ends and the other begins.

People who know me might be surprised to find a film as morbid and depressing as Dead Ringers listed among my favorites, for as is my wont, I tend to shun (on principle) movies I consider to irresponsibly wallow in the gross and violent for the sake of sensation. Of course, the key factor here is responsibility. For as long as I've been a fan of movies I've held to the belief (not a particularly popular one) that movies do indeed affect, influence, and condition us. I feel that as a viewer, I am in a vulnerable position with a filmmaker (one cannot “unsee” what has been shown) and I expect them to respect the power their images have. Nothing bores me more than when weighty issues like death, pain, human suffering, and violence are treated as purely escapist entertainment by geek directors wallowing in perpetual states of arrested development and using film as a venting mechanism for their sensation-deprived childhoods.
I don’t trust directors like Quentin Tarantino, Eli Roth, and Michael Bay, because, as far as I'm concerned, their sensibilities are stuck somewhere between middle school and Mad Magazine. They have nothing to say to me. Directors like David Cronenberg (add to that David Lynch, Michael Haneke, Nicolas Roeg, and of course, Roman Polanski) may have taken some time to find their artistic voice, but they understand that you can deal with any subject in film if it is dealt with honestly and responsibly. That honestly being that violence, cruelty, and death come at a human cost, and that there is attendant pain and suffering as a result of people's action. I find I can watch a film about any dark subject when it is dealt with it in a manner true to human experience, and by doing so forge a deeper understanding of personality, humanity, and behavior. Violence rendered as a cartoon, for something to ooh and ahh over, for conscience-free consumption...that's about as close to a definition of obscenity as I can imagine.
Dead Ringers is a film I can watch repeatedly and still marvel at the visual cohesion it has with its subject matter. It's a beautifully bleak-looking film with a haunting, mesmerizing score by Howard Shore. It's intelligent, daring, and unflinchingly honest in the depiction of its characters and in the exploration of its themes. Dead Ringers is not perfect, but I personally consider it to be David Cronenberg’s  best, most mature, and fully-realized work. 

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Saturday, June 22, 2013


With major motion pictures looking more like overproduced TV shows: Man of Steel, Star Trek Into Darkness, Fast and Furious: God Only Knows How Many. And binge-watch television programming providing the most satisfying viewing around: Sherlock, Downton Abbey, In Treatment—I suspect it’s only a matter of time before I completely jettison the cinephile conceit of this blog and concentrate exclusively on network television and cable TV. As it’s a widely-held belief that today’s Golden Age is taking place not on movie screens but on the HD flatscreens in our living rooms (a great article on the topic can be found here at Joe’s View); I’ll seize upon the current zeitgeist as an opportunity to highlight a 1983 cable-TV adaptation of a play which takes advantage of the intimacy-enhancing attributes of the diminished-screen medium to produce a work a great deal truer to its source material than the Oscar-winning 1958 motion picture adaptation. 

Terence Rattigan’s two-act play, Separate Tables debuted on Broadway in 1956 after having enjoyed a successful run in London’s West End since 1954. Four years later, Burt Lancaster, Rita Hayworth, David Niven, and Deborah Kerr starred in a significantly reworked film version that garnered seven Oscar nominations (including Best Picture) with awards going to Niven and co-star, Wendy Hiller. 
Rita Hayworth and Burt Lancaster in the 1958 film adaptation of Separate Tables
Though aware of the 1958 film adaptation of Separate Tables by reputation, I only just this month got around to actually seeing it. Alas, in spite of its pedigree, cast, awards, and overall fine performances (excluding the jarringly ineffectual duo of Burt Lancaster and Rita Hayworth. He, doing all of his acting with his teeth; she, going for superficial but merely coming off as artificial), I was underwhelmed. A handsome production to be sure, but strangely inert.
But to be fair, I suppose the true source of my dissatisfaction with the Lancaster movie lies in my having been exposed, just two weeks prior, to the vastly superior 1983 HBO television adaptation of Separate Tables directed by John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy, The Day of the Locust, Sunday, Bloody Sunday) and starring—be still my heart—Julie Christie and Alan Bates. Heretofore unknown by me (how was THAT possible?), this film is simply an extraordinary acting showcase for all concerned, and comes off as something of a minor theatrical miracle: the filmed play that satisfies as a film. It's such a feast of stunning performances and heart-wrenching emotion (far more faithful to Rattigan's play) that the rather cool film version can't help but pale in comparison.
Julie Christie as Anne Shankland
Julie Christie as Sibyl Railton-Bell
Alan Bates as John Malcolm Ramsden
Alan Bates as Major David Angus Pollock
Separate Tables was filmed in Bristol, England following the $24 million dollar mega-flop of Schlesinger's Honky Tonk Freeway (1981), a movie that signaled the end of John Schlesinger's glory days as the go-to expatriate director of big-budget hits. At first glance, the excellence of Separate Tables as a TV-film would appear to signal a kind of career resurgence for John Schlesinger, but instead it represented the last glimmer of brilliance in a steady professional decline for the director that extended from his last hit feature film—the 1976 thriller, Marathon Man—to his death in 2003.
There’s no guessing what lay behind the mediocrity of most of Schlesinger's post-1983 films, but something about returning to his homeland, working with a nearly all-British cast, and being reunited with two actors whose careers he's largely responsible for having ignited (Julie Christie: Darling - 1965, Alan Bates: A Kind of Loving - 1962), brings out the Schlesinger of old. Always a gifted actor's director with an eye for the broken spirit behind the artifice of calm, Separate Tables is top-form John Schlesinger and a triumph on every level. I was hoping for a good movie, but I wasn't expecting a TV-film I hadn't even known existed before this year would turn out to be one of the finest films of John Schlesinger’s very distinguished career.
Irene Worth as Mrs. Maud Railton-Bell
The entirety of Separate Tables occurs within the dining room and lounge of The Beauregard Hotel, a modest residence hotel in the resort town of Bournemouth, on the south coast of England. Concerning itself with the lives and interactions of the hotel’s sundry inhabitants - most of them elderly, nearly all of them alone - Act I: “Table by the Window” takes place in December, 1954; Act II: “Table Number Seven” occurs some 18 months later. As is the custom with most theatrical productions of Separate Tables, the lead roles in Acts I & II, while different characters, are played by the same actors. Thus, not only are we blessed with the reteaming of frequent movie co-stars Julie Christie and Alan Bates (Far from the Madding Crowd, The Go-Between, Return of the Soldier), but we're granted the exceptionally rare treat of seeing these awe-inspiring actors in dual roles. (This device was abandoned in the film version, which cast different actors in each role and compresses the events of a year and a half into one overwrought couple of days.)
Claire Bloom as Miss Cooper
In “Table by the Window,” Julie Christie (looking quite the stunner in an elaborate 50s hairdo that succeeds where several of her high-profile period dramas of the '60s hadn't: getting Christie to abandon her trademark bangs) plays an aging fashion model  “accidentally” reunited with ex-husband Alan Bates, a disgraced Labor politician drowning his regrets in drink and a one-sided love affair with the hotel’s compassionate proprietress Claire Bloom. “Table Number Seven” has Christie as a childlike, repressed spinster dominated by her mother (the splendid Irene Worth) and infatuated with a posturing military Major (Bates) harboring a dark secret.
All of these characters share the common, pitiable trait of fighting to maintain a sense of dignity while struggling to cope with regret, loss, disillusionment, age, fear, and most acutely, loneliness. Within the crippling confines of staid, British social conventions—such as the doggedly adhered-to tradition of hotel guests dining at separate tables in spite of sometimes years-long associations—Separate Tables provides a most moving dramatization of the contradictious nature (frail, yet resilient) of the human soul.

I’m showing my age when I say I feel the same about good acting as young audiences today feel about noise, explosions, stunts, and special effects: I don’t need much else. Separate Tables is pretty much a filmed play. There’s essentially one big set, no superfluous “opening up” of the sort engaged in by the 1958 film, and if there’s any kind of cinematic dexterity on display at all, it’s Schlesinger’s ability to come up with so many interesting angles in such cramped quarters (although a pesky boom mic shadow makes an appearance in one scene). But with a cast as talented as the one assembled for this TV movie, all you can wish for is that the director keep the filmmaking gimmicks to a minimum and just let the actors do their stuff. And, happily, that is just what Schlesinger does. The performances in Separate Tables are the main attraction, and let me tell you, there's not a IMAX CGI experience that can match the thrill of watching gifted actors at the top of their game.
Resident busybodies Miss. Meacham (Sylvia  Barter) and Mrs. Railton-Bell (Worth) unearth some unpleasant news about one of the hotel guests.

A welcome problem with having a favorite actor about whose work one has written enthusiastically time and time again, is the fear that you’re going to one day run out of superlatives. Well, in the case of Julie Christie, I think I've hit it. In having already written essays on no less than six Julie Christie films to date, I think I've used up my entire thesaurus of accolades. Which is a shame, because in a long career of noteworthy performances that never fail to leave me deeply impressed by her beauty, skill, and sheer star quality, her work in the dual roles of Separate Tables left me fairly thunderstruck. Julie Christie's not just good in Separate Tables, she's magnificent. She gives what is for me the absolute best performance of her career. And given how over the moon I am about her already, that's really saying a a mouthful.
Having carved an early career out of playing shallow, self-involved characters, Christie is in fine form and in well-trod territory as the vainglorious Anne in "Table by the Window." But what I love is how, after playing variations on this type for years now, she's still able to mine bits of genius in her characterization that result in making her performance one that feels wholly fresh, wholly astonishing. A favorite: in a moment of defensive desperation when her character confesses to her accusing husband "You see, I've still got a little pride left !" Christie conveys in a split second, with just vocal emphasis and the look in her eyes, the kind of wounded dignity a person clings to moments before having to relinquish everything to the fear of being alone. It's a brilliant moment.
But without a doubt, my highest praise is reserved for Julie Christie in "Table Number Seven." I've never seen her in the role of the mousy underdog before, and witnessing a severely deglamorized Christie - who always registers such strength and intelligence - losing herself within a character of tissue-thin self esteem and naked vulnerability, is rather glorious. She floored me completely and the double-barreled impact of both roles is both mesmerizing and unforgettable.  

Say what you will about the cultural tradition of “English Reserve,” but a society rooted in formality and rituals designed to conceal emotion and ensure personal distance makes for some seriously fascinating drama. What gives Separate Tables its profound intensity (and where this particular cast most notably excels) is that the characters so often speak to each other in ways antithetical to how they really feel. 
In less talented hands, such restraint can result in a film that feels remote and formal. But when you have a cast of actors capable of showing the concealed layers of emotion and sensitivity lying behind the stiff-upper-lip dialog, you get characterizations of staggering depth and complexity. It’s very poignant and often heartbreaking to see these flawed characters struggling to maintain their decorum while every fiber of their being is screaming out to be loved, seen, accepted, or understood. As I've indicated, the entire cast is flawless, but special mention has to go to Alan Bates (whose Major Pollock is nothing short of transcendent) and the always-enchanting Claire Bloom. Bloom has always possessed a kind of grounded, worldly quality, and never has it been put to better use. Her character provides the play with a sensitive ballast to whom the more emotionally uncertain guests gravitate.

Gay playwright Terence rattigan often wrote works which subtly critiqued the cold rigidity of the upper classes. In dramatizing the crippling effects of sensitive people forced to live lives of suppression and isolation, in Separate Tables, Rattigan (author of The Sleeping Prince, which was made into the Marilyn Monroe film, The Prince and the Showgirl) makes a deliberate plea for the acceptance and tolerance of those who are "different"; those don't easily fit into the narrow confines of what is socially perceived as normal or conventional.
Sibyl: "What's the matter with me? There must be something the matter with me...I'd so like to be ordinary."
Miss. Cooper: "I've never met an ordinary person. The one thing I've learnt in five years is that the word 'normal' applied to any human creature is utterly meaningless."

There are other, equally insightful entreaties in the play for the abidance of a compassionate humanity towards those we don't understand, all of them capable of  inducing a major case of waterworks when delivered by such a stellar cast.
Note: Those interested can research Separate Tables online to read more about a gay subplot that was considered for the Broadway version but ultimately jettisoned before opening.

A big shout out of thanks to my good friends Jeff Marquis and Chris Tassin, two faithful readers of this blog who, upon learning of my obsession with all things Julie Christie, graciously and very generously sent me a copy of Separate Tables. This particular film has only ever had a VHS release, never seems to pop up on television, and is as rare as hen's teeth on eBay. You might well imagine that I flipped my graying wig when I received it, and as I had such a delicious time crying my eyes out watching it, I will forever be in their debt.
Jeff and Chris are the comic geniuses behind Punchy Players, a series of hilariously loopy viral videos that have made a smash on YouTube. If you're a classic film fan (and what would you doing here is you weren't?), you owe it to yourself to check out these great videos HERE.  

Lastly, I have to give a big hug and kiss of thanks to my sweetheart (whom I'll spare by not mentioning his name). For without him I would never have seen the long-out of print 1958 version of Separate Tables. After watching the Schlesinger version, he knew the film geek in me was chomping at the bit to see how it compared to the award-winning original. I was nevertheless content to wait and see if it would turn up on TCM sometime, when, out of the blue, my hon dug up a rare DVD copy online and surprised me with it! That just about knocked me out.
As Separate Tables is a film about the importance of friendship and the indispensability of love, I dedicate this post to my good friends, and my true love. Thanks so much, guys!
Copyright © Ken Anderson

Tuesday, June 11, 2013


For as long as I can remember I've been intrigued by films whose themes dramatize a perception of reality I seem to have held since my teens: the banality of evil. A term first coined in 1963 by political theorist Hannah Arendt in her Holocaust trial book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, it’s a theory that has gone on to signify many things, most persistently for me—the notion of wickedness thriving in the most innocuous of environments. 
Rosemary’s Baby found Satanic evil lurking behind the everyday meddlesome intrusions of nosy neighbors; The Stepford Wives exposed the murderous misogyny cloaked within patriarchal social systems; and Andy Warhol’s Bad used basic-black comedy to satirize the lethal side of suburban materialism. In Pretty Poison, a bizarre little chiller that slipped past audiences in 1968 but has since developed a loyal cult following, first-time director Noel Black (with an award-winning screenplay by Lorenzo Semple, Jr. adapted from the novel, She Let Him Continue by Stephen Geller) treads a path well-worn by directors as diverse as Alfred Hitchcock (Shadow of a Doubt) and David Lynch (Blue Velvet): the dark underside of small town life.
Anthony Perkins as Dennis Pitt
Tuesday Weld as Sue Ann Stepanek
Beverly Garland as Mrs. Stepanek
Anthony Perkins is Dennis Pitt, a recently-released-from-a-mental-institution loner (for the arson death of his aunt when he was 15) with, to put it charitably, a tenuous grip on reality. A pathological liar, albeit not an especially accomplished one, Pitt is given to flights of espionage fantasy so elaborate, one is never quite sure…least of all Dennis himself…if he knows he's lying or not. Into his peculiar orbit comes drill team flag-bearer Sue Ann Stepanek, a 17-year-old high-schooler every bit as wholesome and unrefined as her name.
Convincing the gullible Sue Ann that he’s a CIA agent on a covert mission to investigate environmental crimes committed by the chemical plant where he’s employed, the delusional Pitt fancies himself the city slicker to Sue Ann’s easily-seduced farmer’s daughter. Unfortunately, it isn't long before things grimly escalate in this bizarre game of “Who’s zooming who?” - a game that finds the hunter, a tad slow on the uptake, discovering he has been captured by the game.
Although Most Men Are Loathe to Admit It, Women Terrify Them
Pretty Poison dramatizes this unassailable fact (the very genesis of the femme fatale) by adopting a familiar film noir trope: the wiseguy male who thinks he knows all the answers gets himself mixed up with a woman who has rewritten the book. 

One of my strongest memories of being a pre-teen in the late '60s was the prevailing, almost oppressive sense (from movies, television shows, and newspaper articles) that America was in a tumultuous state of self-reflection. After so many years of looking outside ourselves at Germany, Russia, Japan, and the vague specter of communism as this monolith of absolute evil out to overthrow our just and unsullied American Way of Life; the ethical and moral morass that was the Vietnam War—coupled with the rash of political assassinations, civil-rights related violence, and campus rioting exploding throughout the country—posed the discomforting postulate that we were now living in an age when what we most had to fear was ourselves.
Movies as dissimilar and ostensibly politically benign as Last Summer, Rosemary’s Baby,  Bonnie and Clyde, Petulia, Angel Angel Down We Go, Easy Rider, They Shoot Horses Don’t They?,  The Parallax View, and Targets, all reflected the late-'60s zeitgeist: ambiguity about and disillusion with the beliefs, conventions, and institutions in which we at one time placed our absolute trust.
The All-American Girl
Rather pathetically, this image of a handgun amongst the innocent, little-girl  trappings of a teen's dressing table still embodies the American ideal for a great many people: every man, woman and child in the country armed to the teeth.

For a time, it felt as though everything clean and shiny about American culture was revealing itself to have an underside of decay and rot. Pretty Poison, a film whose title even captures this sense of wary disquietude, gives us a film that appears on the surface to be a harmless, anarchic black comedy about misfit youth, but is, in fact, a twisted and rather unexpected tale where nothing is as it seems and good intentions don't amount to very much.
Dennis studying a vial of the chemical his plant produces whose waste pollutes the river and nearby lake...or is he thinking of Sue Ann?

American films in the sixties were obsessed with unearthing the villains who presented themselves as the clean-cut upholders of family values; in exposing the hypocrisy behind the small town bastions of normalcy and conformity; and in confronting the violent institutions and belief systems that casually traded lies for lives in the belief that something real was being defended. Films like Pretty Poison—films that sought to explore the enemy within—asked audiences to take a good look at what America had become.

It’s perhaps debatable whether or not Anthony Perkins and Tuesday Weld deconstruct or merely exploit their trademarked screen personas in Pretty Poison. But what is clear is that in assuming roles that both recall and add unexpected twists to past performances for which they've become indelibly linked in the public's mind (Psycho’s unhinged Norman Bates for Perkins, Lord Love a Duck’s covetous co-ed Barbara Ann Greene for Weld), Perkins and Weld—who share an electric chemistry—take audience preconceptions and make us choke on them.
It begins to dawn on Dennis that Sue Ann is something of a force to be reckoned with
Tuesday Weld, an incredibly talented actress who has shunned fame the way most people avoid a trip to the dentist, is said to have been miserable during the making of the film, loathed her director, and blamed him for her giving what she considered to be one of her worst screen performances. (Obviously upset and trying to make a point, Ms. Weld should nevertheless know that that dubious honor falls to her timeless work in Sex Kittens Go to College.)
On the contrary, in spite of having been labeled a "neurotic" by Pretty Poison co-star John Randolph, and said to have been frequently in tearful hysterics during the filming, Tuesday Weld gives a masterfully canny performance in the film. One that is, at turns, both charming and chilling. I think she's mesmerizingly good, her performance here ranking among one of the best of her career. And at almost 25-years of age at the time and playing 17, she somehow manages to get away with it...her preternatural physical development hinting at a shrouded psychological maturity.
Roger Corman stalwart (and personal fave), the always excellent Beverly Garland is a particular standout as Sue Ann's brassy mother. 
And then there is Anthony Perkins. When I was growing up, he always gave me the creeps. But upon discovering more of his pre-Psycho work, I have begun to find him strangely attractive and have since developed quite the posthumous crush. In Pretty Poison, Perkins is once again cast to type in the kind of role he found it near-impossible to escape following Psycho. Yet, typecast as he was, no one could ever accuse him of sleepwalking his way through Pretty Poison. His Dennis Pitt is one of his more affecting and underplayed performances. Sympathetic, complex, and imbued with a great deal of dimension. I especially like how his character starts to revert to an almost childlike state of bewilderment and confusion as his overactive fantasy life begins to spiral out of his control into a nightmarish reality.
John Randolph plays Dennis' appropriately concerned case officer, Morton Azenauer

Adding to Pretty Poison’s already considerable quirk factor are the odd ways in which Pretty Poison’s plot intersects with, Tuesday Weld’s 1966 teen-culture spoof Lord Love a Duck, and Weld’s own private life. Note: If you haven’t yet seen Pretty Poison, you may want to skip over this section.
Pretty Poison Lord Love a Duck / Real life
The characters Weld plays in both films have aggressively contentious relationships with their mothers. In real-life, Weld loathed her mother and was fond of telling reporters that her mother was dead, even though she was quite alive and kicking. This prompted Weld's mother, one Yosene Ker Weld, to write the tell-all book If It's Tuesday...I Must Be DEAD! published in 2003 - ironically, after her death.

Pretty Poison / Lord Love a Duck / Real life
The ageless, feckless men Weld manipulates in both films are portrayed by actors (Perkins, Roddy McDowall) who in real life were closeted gay men. In 1972, Tuesday Weld and Anthony Perkins reteamed for the film Play it As It Lays, in which Weld portrayed an actress suffering a nervous breakdown and Perkins her gay best friend, a suicidal film director. In real life, the depressive Anthony Perkins was indeed Weld's good friend and directed two of them being the last-straw sequel Psycho III.
The Lord Love a Duck connection finds Weld marrying the assistant of her good friend Roddy McDowall in 1965, only to discover that her new husband also happened to have been McDowall's lover.
Pretty Poison Lord Love a Duck
Weld’s character in both films is a dissatisfied, disaffected high-school senior who comes under the influence of a strange man whom she’s able to manipulate into helping her out with her “problems.”

Pretty Poison / Lord Love a Duck
In both films, Weld’s character rises like a phoenix from the ashes while her male compatriot rots in prison.
Pretty Poison / How Awful About Allan
In Pretty Poison and the 1970 TV movie, How Awful About Allan, Anthony Perkins plays a man who, in his youth, causes the accidental death of a relative by fire. Both roles cast the twitchy actor as a potential villain only later to reveal him as a victim of a complex, calculated scheme.

Given how superior their performances are and what a thoroughly hard-hitting thriller it is, it's a pity that neither Anthony Perkins nor Tuesday Weld care(d) much for Pretty Poison. Weld, for the aforementioned animosity she felt toward her director, Perkins, less for his performance than for finding the film "slow moving." I remember when Pretty Poison was released in the San Francisco area in 1968 and being intrigued by the newspaper ads and TV commercials. Still, given all that, it seemed to disappear from theaters so quickly that I never actually got around to seeing it until the late 1970s, when it was screened at a revival theater compatibly double-billed with Pert Bogdanovich's Targets (another socko, small film from the same year that I highly recommend).

I was simply floored by Pretty Poison and still consider it to be a film far superior and more frightening than some of the more high-profile films with similar themes (Badlands, Kalifornia, Natural Born Killers). There's really much to recommend it, not the least being a '60s vibe that somehow doesn't feel dated, and, most gratifyingly, top-notch lead performances by two of Hollywood's more charismatic (if idiosyncratic) stars.
She Let Him Continue
"I was such a fool, Mr. Azenauer. I let him go on even after I knew he was crazy..."

In 1996, Pretty Poison was made into a pedestrian TV movie of profound mediocrity. All plot, no subtext.

Happily, Noel Black's Pretty Poison is available on DVD. Unfortunately the U.S. version is without the director's commentary on the UK DVD release. To read more about this forgotten gem, check out this great article at Joes' View.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Saturday, June 1, 2013


It's a little-known fact, but just three years after 1967's hippie revolution dubbed "The Summer of Love," America enjoyed an unofficial "Transgender Summer." It occurred in 1970 when the films Myra Breckinridge, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, The Christine Jorgensen Story, and Dinah East were all released in the very same month. Before summer became known as the time Hollywood reserved for the release of its potential blockbuster action flicks, sci-fi movies, and superhero franchises, the movie industry once associated the warm summer months with the Drive-In trade, and thus released a slew of exploitation films and teen-attraction fare. That meant biker flicks, B-horror movies, and beach party musicals. It was also the perfect market for softcore sleaze. 

I suspect it wasn't just happenstance that all the above-listed films with gender-identity plotlines were released in June of 1970. The lower budget features clearly sought to compete with and share the publicity overflow of whatever market was imagined to be waiting with bated breath for the release of 20th Century-Fox's big-budget Myra Breckinridge. Fans of camp and cinéma de l'étrange will most certainly recognize three of the titles, but what exactly is Dinah East? Well, to put it simply, Dinah East is the best camp classic you've never heard of.
Jeremy Stockwell as Dinah East
"Too much love or too little of it...isn't that why people take chances?"
Matt Bennett as Ex-boxer, Tank Swenson
"It makes no difference to me whether you're a man or a woman!"
Ultra Violet as Costume designer, Daniela
"Dinah, have you thought of what will happen if you are found out?"
Ray Foster as Matinee idol, Tony Locke
"You took me home and gave me more liquor than I ever had. Then asked me to drop my drawers!"
Andy Davis as Alan Sloan, Dinah's attorney
"Have you always thought of me as...a man? I mean, 100% male in every respect?"
Reid Smith as Jeff East, Dinah's adopted son
"I suppose being one's mother gives one the right to look every once in a while."
Joe Taylor as Bobby Sloan, Alan's son and Jeff's best friend
"How did you and Dinah East make love...did you do it to her or did she do it to you?"

Dinah East takes a “What if it were really true?” approach to the age-old rumor about silver screen legend Mae West being transgender. (A legend gleefully kept alive today by West’s understandably grudge-holding Myra Breckinridge co-star, Raquel Welch.) From this premise Dinah East fashions a fictitious, deliriously camp (i.e., dead serious), surprisingly sincere soap opera about a 1950s screen siren whose death reveals her life to have been one great big drag. 
The brainchild of producer Paula Stewart, publicist-to-the-stars Phil Paladino, and screenwriter/ director Gene Nash, Dinah East (originally titled The Demise of Dinah East and The Great Put-On of Dinah East, alternately) chroniclesthrough flashbacksthe guarded life of movie goddess Dinah East, and tackles the subsequent emotional and psychological fallout amongst those who came to know her, following the headline-making revelation of her death.

Dinah East (a title that not only recalls the whispers about Mae West, but the lesbian rumors surrounding TV personality Dinah Shore during her heyday) is part 1940s "Suffering in mink" women's film, part Douglas Sirk melodrama, and part daytime soap. Or at least that's how it sees itself. Conceived as the type of glossy, behind-the-scenes Hollywood expose Jacqueline Susann and Harold Robbins came to be known for, due to its meager budget, amateurish performances, and frequent concessions to its sexploitation roots, it comes off largely as the kind of gender-fluid underground film of the sort associated with John Waters or Andy Warhol.
But what Dinah East lacks in production values it more than makes up for in deliciously low-rent '70s ambiance. It boasts gaudy fashions, tacky décor, a cliche-saturated plot, and Hollywood insider jokesDinah does a pretty good impersonation of columnist Louella Parsons, and matinee idol Tony Locke parodies Tony Curtis' infamous, "Yondah lies da castle of my faddah."—plus, a sensibility that's both salacious and sentimental. In addition:
Slow-motion romantic romps!
Lots of full-frontal male nudity!
Scenes in '70s gay bars!
Porn-level  Performances!
"That's too hard to for a son born out of rape? That's much too heavy to swallow!"
Derisible dialog accompanied by theatrical,  unconvincing displays of temperament!
Alan- "You're nothing but a deranged little faggot!"  (*Slap*)
Did I mention the male nudity?

In several ways, Dinah East does indeed recall the work of Jacqueline Susann. If one of Jacqueline Susann's novels was directed by Ed Wood, cast with models from a 1970 Ah Men catalog, and produced by Andy Warhol. From start to finish Dinah East is such a campy delight, I'm still rather stunned that I never heard of the film before a couple of years ago. Everything about it seems ripe for discovery by the cult hit/midnight movie crowd, yet no one I know has ever heard of it, and there is no mention of it even in books devoted to trash obscurities.
As is often the case with movies slipping through the cracks, Dinah East owes much of its obscurity to a muddle of legal issues involving copyright ownership and distribution. Too bad. This is a film deserving of a much wider audience.
Tony takes Dinah to the fights
Ray Foster (l.) was to be seen that same year as Mae West's
stereotypically fey receptionist in Myra Breckinridge

According to producer Paula Stewart (a former Broadway star [Wildcat, What Makes Sammy Run?], lifelong friend of Lucille Ball, and one-time wife of Burt Bacharach), the X-rated Dinah East had its world premiere in San Franciso in December of 1970 and opened in Los Angeles (even garnering a favorable review from LA Times critic, Kevin Thomas) in early 1971. That is, before the government shut it down and confiscated all prints of the film due to unpaid withholding taxes. Unable to meet its financial obligations, Dinah East was fairly submerged in a quagmire of copyright and legal hassles that extended over several years, rendering the film virtually lost.

Stewart's legal hassle account contradicts the more publicity-friendly reason used to promote the 2010 DVD release. DVD promo material asserts that Mae West herself halted distribution of the film because she was displeased with it and didn't want the potentially libelous film to distract from her Myra Breckinridge comeback. Paula Stewart, whom I spoke to by phone before writing this, claims to have known Mae West well and says that while the legendary star was most assuredly “Pissed off” by Dinah East's obvious allusions to the rumors that have followed her throughout her career, she did not in any way try to hinder its release. 
Dinah East director and screenwriter, Gene Nash, was also a manager, composer, and country western singer (1959 single, "I'm an Eskimo, too").  

As Marilyn Monroe-esque glamour queen Dinah East, New York actor Jeremy Stockwell (he appeared Off-Broadway in Fortune and Men’s Eyes - 1969) is a little too stiff and inexpressive to radiate the necessary diva quality to make the character a believable superstar (Candy Darling would have been great). Wearing a wide array of wigs and smart slacks ensembles, Stockwell comes off resembling Doris Day, Carol Wayne, or Donna Mills depending on the scene. He plays Dinah in a refreshingly straightforward manner, happily refraining from adding any problematic "feminine" flourishes that could have instantly turned the character into a caricature. 

Indeed, Stockwell's performance is infused with so much sincerity that after a while it seems as though his constricted body language and modulated line readings are actually acting choices; the intentional means of conveying the behavior of a person holding themselves in reserve for fear of detection. The screenplay leaves viewers on their own to intuit what would motivate an aspiring actor to keep up such a life-changing charade for so long (like Dustin Hoffman's Tootsie, the initial goal is to merely land a job). Nor does it shed much light on whether Dinah's gender identity as a woman is actual realization rather than deception. In any event, whatever flamboyant fun is lost by Stockwell refusing to camp it up as a movie diva is more than compensated for in the depiction of Dinah East as such a likable person. 
Maybe I'm just corny, but the romance that develops between Dinah
 and ex-boxer Tank, is really sweet. 

This brings me to one of the points I think works against Dinah East ever realizing its true camp potential: the film doesn't have a bitchy bone in its body. The film is singularly lacking in bitchiness or spite, prime ingredients in gay film campdom. The characters in Dinah East are flawed but decent, and treat one another in an uncharacteristically considerate manner for an exploitation film (the very odd character of Dinah's emotionally-conflicted attorney, Alan, notwithstanding).
Stockwell’s performance falls into arch camp primarily due to the limitations of his acting, the Douglas Sirk-inspired twists of the melodramatic plot, and the camp array of wigs and '70s fashions at his disposal. Beyond those trappings, there's a wellspring of sincerity written into the story of Dinah East that makes the characters too compassionately conceived for us to want to laugh at them for too long.
A big star requires big hair
But sincerity is not what one usually watches exploitation films for, so fans of over-the-top drag theater might be disappointed in finding Dinah is no Margo Channing or Helen Lawson. Though often funny, the script is not well-acquainted with wit, so those looking for All About Eve levels of catty dialog and diva posturing will have to look elsewhere. By way of compensation, the film does at least try to shoehorn nudity and sex into the plot with clockwork regularity. Also, there is a priceless scene set in a gay bar (Bitchy queens! Nude go-go dancer! A bubble machine!) that screams 1070 and gives a hint of the levels of outrageousness this film could have risen to if it just wasn't so darn decent. 
A somewhat dodgy-looking movie poster for one of Dinah East's films  

Although essentially a melodrama, Dinah East does contain much humor  (whether you find it to be particularly funny is another thing), but happily there is unintentional humor in abundance. There are laughs to be had at the expense of the film's pushed-to-its-limit budget (the '50s flashbacks are particularly challenging), uneven performances, often hilariously tin-eared dialogue, and the curious commingling of sincere soap opera with grindhouse sex exploitation. While Dinah East's endearing ineptitude is to die for, I also found myself appreciating its lack of cynicism or self-aware snark. So many of the movies that have gained cult status in the gay community have done so in part because of the comedy inherent in their outre homophobia (Valley of the Dolls, Myra Breckinridge). Dinah East at least comes off as far ahead of its time in its empathetic depiction of gays, lesbians, and transgender.
Cornball montages were very popular in '70s movies, and Dinah East has a romantic montage that wouldn't be out of place in a Debbie Reynolds or Doris Day film. Tank and Dinah fall in love (rather appealingly) to the wince-inducing strains of, "Thank you, Alexander Graham're swell!" An original song sung by '40's singing combo, Jon and Sondra Steele (My Happiness- 1948). 

Movies about Hollywood can always be counted on for the camp recycling of over-familiar soap opera tropes and hoary show business clichés. Dinah East is no exemption. With the film's obviously slim budget not allowing for even a passable representation of the 1950s or a convincing depiction of the opulent high life of a major Hollywood star (Edgar Bergen’s home stands in as Dinah’s Bel Air mansion), the one thing Dinah East gets incredibly right is its depiction of Hollywood as a town where it's possible to keep lifelong secrets simply due to the fact that absolutely everybody else in town has secrets they also don't want to have exposed.

In the satiric 1973 Hollywood murder mystery, The Last of Sheila (penned by Anthony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim, two then-closeted homosexuals who obviously knew a thing or two about the need to keep secrets), the character played by Raquel Welch sums up the phenomenon perfectly when she says: "That's the thing about secrets. We all know stuff about each other...we just don't know the same stuff."
Dinah and Daniela forge a friendship out of  a commitment to protecting one another

In a welcome change of pace from most hetero-centric exploitation films full of shapely but untalented bimbos hired with an eye towards the director’s casting couch, Dinah East is loaded with good-looking himbos and male eye-candy who can’t act their way out of their tight pants. Which, I'm happy to say, they're never required to wear them for very long.

With all the great purveyors of cinema camp either dead (Jacqueline Susann, Andy Warhol, Ed Wood, Russ Meyer) or unofficially retired (John Waters, Roger Corman), I can't tell you what a kick it was unearthing an honest-to-god, period-perfect, classic piece of ripened '70s cheese like Dinah East. Although virtually every frame feels made-to-order for my personal warped sense of aesthetics, it was actually my partner who brought the film to my attention after discovering it on Netflix. I fell in love with Dinah East on first sight.
It's funny unintentionally, sometimes it's even funny on purpose. It's bizarre, silly, audacious, tacky, unevenly paced, and mostly terribly acted. But it's also marvelously entertaining, better-plotted than most movies today, and as a bonus, given the subject matter's potential for vulgarity and offensiveness, it's a surprisingly sweet-natured, forward-thinking film.
It has become an instant favorite of mine, and I understand that it has been re-released on DVD in a restored, widescreen version that should be a good deal brighter and crisper than these screencaps indicate. Still, Dinah East is one of those films worth seeing any way you can get it. They don't make 'em like this anymore. And more's the pity for us lovers of retro camp cinema.
Dialogue between two grave-diggers at the end of the film (one being Studio-54- flash-in-the-pan-to-be, Sterling St. Jacques)
"Just goes to show you; you can really put the world on if you try hard enough."
"Yeah man, but who wants to go to that much trouble?"

Actor Jeremy Stockwell out of drag.
Photo by Kenn Duncan from the 1969 Off-Broadway production of Fortune & Men's Eyes

Some of My Best Friends Are... (1971)
Dinah East's Joe Taylor (bottom left) went on to appear with Warhol superstar Candy Darling in another gay-themed film that has somewhat disappeared. That's Gil Gerard of Buck Rogers fame to Taylor's right. Also in the cast, future TV stars, Rue McClanahan, Fannie Flagg, and Gary Sandy, in addition to Sylvia Syms and Carleton Carpenter (of MGM, Debbie Reynolds, and  "Abba-Dabba Honeymoon"). 

You can read more about Dinah East at Poseidon's Underworld

Copyright © Ken Anderson 2009 -2013