Tuesday, November 26, 2013


Given how so many of my favorite movies are films I first saw while working as an usher at San Francisco’s Alhambra Theater on Polk Street (it still stands, currently a Crunch gym), it's no wonder that I tend to look back upon my high school years working there as my preparatory film school education (after graduation I studied film at The San Francisco Art Institute).
The Alhambra was a beautiful, ornate, old-fashioned first-run theater (until they split it into two), but as it was considered the neighborhood sister-theater to the ritzier, high-end Regency Theater on Sutter, it was the custom for the Alhambra to be assigned the low-budget and independent first-run films. Thus, it was something of a fluke when the Alhambra was chosen as the site of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore's exclusive San Francisco engagement in February of 1975 (the post-Christmas "dog days" of movie exhibition) and proved to be the breakout hit of the new year.
Ellen Burstyn was popular after her Oscar-nominated turn in The Exorcist (1973), but female-driven narratives were still so rare in the male-centric '70s that Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore was given a limited release in urban markets to test its appeal (it played in Los Angles a full month before opening in San Francisco). Neither Martin Scorsese nor rock-star-turned-actor Kris Kristofferson had what you'd call marquee names at the time, so expectations for the film were modest, and advance publicity minimal.
Ellen Burstyn as Alice Hyatt
Kris Kristofferson as David
Diane Ladd as Flo
Alfred Lutter as Tommy Hyatt
Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymorethe story of a newly widowed housewife (Burstyn) who sets off on the road with her 12-year-old son to become a singer in Monterey, Californiafrom a marketing angle, didn't have much in the way of publicity bait (no hookers, no gunplay, no nudity, no car chases), yet I recall it as being the biggest film to play the Alhambra during my time there. As one of those films that opens slowly, only to boom practically overnight, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore had sold-out screenings and lines stretching around the corner for nearly the entirety of its exclusive engagement. Patrons came back to see the film two and three times, almost always with someone new in tow to whom they'd recommended it. I had never seen anything like it. A true word-of-mouth hit. And what amazed me even more was the high volume of elderly people this film attracted. For some reason (the film's nostalgic tone, perhaps), older audiencesa market largely ignored by the youth films of the dayabsolutely flocked to this movie! Sunday matinees looked like an AARP convention.
Somewhere Over the Rainbow...with a really foul mouth
Mia Bendixson portrays 8-year-old Alice in the Wizard of Oz-inspired opening sequence

There are several books, online articles, and even a DVD commentary detailing the significant role Ellen Burstyn played in getting Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore made. Aside from the almost mythic appeal of the story (a feminist collaborates with a famously male-centric director to make a film considered by many to be the quintessential cinematic articulation of the '70s women’s movement), what comes through strongest is the passion and commitment of everyone involved.
The family that prays together is still pretty screwed up
In an effort to move the plot forward and get Alice on the road as quickly as possible, several scenes that would have fleshed out the character of Alice's husband, Donald (Billy Green Bush) had to be cut. 

Martin Scorsese speaks of having the foreknowledge of the studio expecting him to turn out a genre filma romantic comedy with a happy endingyet he and Burstyn turn in a film of such unexpected freshness, I still find myself dazzled by it. Its characters, settings, dialogue, and character-based humor felt so refreshingly personal, so original, and so surprising. Scorsese succeeds in creating a '70s revisionist take on the '40s woman's picture, something he endeavored (with considerably less success) with the '40s musical genre when he made New York, New York in 1977. Now there's a film that could have benefited from Ellen Burstyn's level-headed feminine perspective. 
I'd never seen an onscreen mother/son relationship like the one Alice and Tommy share
Scorsese’s fluid visual style gives the film a gritty kind of grace, while his laser-sharp editing has a way of turning simple cuts into clever visual punchlines. The performances are uniformly first-rate (I have a particular fondness for the sweetly oddball waitress, Vera. I always wanted to know more about her character's life), and the very funny screenplay never scarifies character or theme for an easy laugh. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is one of my enduring favorites from the 1970s. 
As Alice's best friend Bea, actress Lelia Goldoni (so memorable in John Cassavetes' 1959 film Shadows) doesn't have a lot of screen time, but I always remember how touchingly real her character's relationship with Alice felt. Only in later years did I learn of Burstyn's and Goldoni's lengthy real-life friendship.

True to the axiom that comedy never gets any respect, whenever I think about my favorite film performances by an actress in the '70s, my mind goes straight to Jane Fonda in They Shoot Horses,Don’t They? and Klute, Faye Dunaway in Chinatown, Karen Black in The Day of the Locust, or Glenda Jackson in anything. I always overlook the absolutely astonishing job Ellen Burstyn does in bringing the character of Alice Hyatt to life. I thought so in 1974, and looking at the film again after so many years, it still stands out as such a thoroughly realized performance. And by that, I mean Burstyn makes Alice Hyatt so authentic an individual, you honestly feel as though you have been observing a real person, not a fictional character. She is no male fantasy construct. She's not even a Women's Lib figurehead; she only seemed so when compared to the type of degrading roles being offered women during the '70s.
Smart Women / Foolish Choices
As  Ben Eberhart, Scorsese stalwart Harvey Keitel gives a chilling portrait of the kind of courtly gentility that often masks a dominating nature. One of the many things I like about Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore is how, in presenting a woman's point of view, it doesn't take the easy route of vilifying men. Instead, it explores why some women are drawn to a kind of archaic definition of masculinity that can lead to abusive relationships. I love the scene where Alice tells David how she was drawn to her husband's bossiness ("Yes, master!" she says, mocking her own passivity) and how she initially liked that he forbade her to have a career, admitting that his oppressiveness was, "My idea of a man...strong and dominating."

The depth of Burstyn's performance has the effect of fulfilling what the premise of the film promises: an ordinary woman is revealed to be remarkable by sheer force of her humanity. Alice goes from being someone's wife and mother to being the standout heroine of her own life. And it's the talent of Ellen Burstyn, giving an Academy Award-winning performance, that makes it happen.
The Academy got it right in awarding Burstyn the Best Actress Oscar, but seriously dropped the ball with the terrific Diane Ladd. Her folksy waitress, Flo, is one of the screen's great character performances. By the way, back when I was a movie usher, Flo's frustrated outburst: "She went to shit and the hogs ate her!" got the longest, loudest laugh I'd ever heard in a movie theater, yet it was also the single moment in the film I was most questioned about by departing patrons. It seemed like every third person came up to me after a screening asking, "What did that waitress say?" Apparently, folks were only able to make out the word "shit" and that (along with Ladd's explosive tone and body language) was sufficient for the scene to work.
When I told them what she'd actually said, their faces almost always registered bewilderment. Like me, not a single individual was familiar with the old saying (referring to someone who should be working but keeps disappearing), plus, I think most people's imaginations had conjured up something far funnier and vulgar, so finding out what was really said inevitably came as something of a letdown. 
11-year-old Jodie Foster, two years before her explosive Oscar-nominated performance in Scorsese's Taxi Driver.
Another question I was often asked by patrons was whether Jodie Foster was a boy or a girl. This despite the fact that her character's name is Audrey and is shown wearing a dress in her last scene.

In spite of it being a somewhat troublesome film genre with a built-in anecdotal construct that frequently leads to directors being unable to arrive at or maintain a consistent tone, I like road movies a great deal (a personal unsung favorite being the quirky Rafferty & the Gold Dust Twins – 1974). Like most road movies, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore has a literal road trip serve as a “journey of life/path of growth” metaphor, but in this instance, the cliché feels fresh because Alice’s storya woman approaching middle age forced to confront life as a single motherisn't the kind Hollywood has been falling over itself in an effort to tell.
Uncharted Territory
Stars Wars wouldn't premiere until some three years later, but to 1974 audiences, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore - a movie about a 35-year-old woman, told from her perspective - was a visit to a world as remote as any galaxy far, far away.

Scorsese, Burstyn, and Oscar-nominated screenwriter Robert Getchell (one of the many writers involved in wresting Mommie Dearest to the screen) fashion an engagingly contemporary Alice in Wonderland liberation allegory out of Alice Hyatt’s automobile pilgrimage to, as one writer astutely put it, the Monterey of her mind. Whereas most road films tend to run out of steam somewhere around the midpoint, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore grows increasingly funnier and more emotionally substantial as it goes along. I love the opening scenes in Socorro, New Mexico; the hilarious moments on the road that delineate Alice's unique relationship with her son; and the scenes highlighting Alice's early employment efforts or the ones that show her navigating the choppy waters of dating. But my favorite sectionwhere the film fully hits its comedic strideare the latter scenes of the film that take place in Tucson, Arizona. Specifically those within Mel & Ruby's Diner.
Being at turns funny, gritty, touching, dramatic, and very sweet, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is a movie that covers a great deal of ground. But throughout, the film somehow sustains that amazingly delicate balance of being true to its genre conventions while still being a solid character drama focusing on people we come to really know and care a great deal about. Best of all, it gives us a story of an individual's journey of self-discovery that is also one of the most well-rounded, dimensional portraits of a woman ever committed to film.
The depiction of the friendship that develops between the superficially dissimilar Alice and Flo is one of the best things in the film

A lot has been written about Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore’s somewhat problematic ending. An ending (two, actually, if you count the brief coda after the diner scene) suggesting Alice, after finding the love of a good man (a ranch-owning, dreamboat of an eligible bachelor who also happens to be the only guy for miles around who doesn't look like an extra from Hee Haw) is going to table her dream of going to Monterey. This Warner Bros-mandated ending proved a real crowd-pleaser with '70s audiences growing weary of all that New Hollywood nihilism, thus making Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore one of the top-grossing films of 1974. And while many welcomed the change of pace that an old-fashioned Hollywood happy ending presented, others were dismayed by the extent to which the chosen ending conflicted withif not outright contradictedmuch of what preceded it. 
Had Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore been just one of many films made during the '70s that told a story from a woman’s point of view, audiences would likely have accepted the ending as being merely a choice suitable for this particular character (after all, as the honey-tones of the opening sequence imply, Alice’s memories of her life in Monterey are likely as idealized as the scope of her early singing career). But being that the vast majority of roles available to women in the '70s could be typified by Karen Black’s catalog of supportively deferential, frequently-abandoned trollops, a disproportionate amount of feminist significance was therefore placed on Alice Hyatt and her personal journey of self-discovery.
That's 6-year-old Laura Dern (daughter of Diane Ladd and Bruce Dern) listening in on Alice and David's conversation
As is my wont, I’m of several minds about the ending.

a) From a movie buff’s perspective, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore’s ending feels like a perfect full circle for a film that begins with a title sequence (cursive lettering on satin) that references the tropes and clichés of the women’s film genre of the '40s. Happy endings were a big part of what many of those 1940's films were about, so thematically, it makes a lot of sense for Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore to end with what could be described as an updated take on the standard Hollywood happy ending. 
b) From a character-based perspective, I think it’s possible to look upon Alice’s dream of returning to Monterey as a romanticized fantasy…a retreat to childhood, if you will…that she clings to in the midst of an unhappy marriage. In this light, her ultimate decision to be with Donald and remain in Tucson (“If I’m gonna be a singer I can be a singer anywhere, right?”) indicates a newfound maturity and personal growth on her part. She’s gained the ability to find happiness in her life as it is lived in the present, not by trying to return to an idealized happier time in her past.

c) It’s only when I look at the film from an ideological or sociological perspective that I have a problem with the ending. And that’s largely the film’s fault for establishing such a compelling narrative trajectory. One that takes us from the words of Alice’s friend Bea at the start of the film: “Well, I sure couldn’t live without some kind of man around the house, and neither could you.”; to Alice’s declaration near the end: “It’s my life! It’s not some man’s life I’m here to help him out with!”
So many '70s films ended with the male protagonist leaving behind a girlfriend or wife in order to find themselves (think Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces), that it virtually became a cliché. In each instance, the ending is presented as a happy and necessary step toward independence and self-growth. Given how Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore sets itself up as a challenge to the long-held belief that a woman’s life has little to no value without a man, who can be blamed for wishing this brilliant film had ended with a repudiation of that persistent myth?
In an early draft of the screenplay, the diner sequence was to be followed by (and the film end with) a close-up of Alice's hands playing the piano. The tight framing of the shot providing an ambiguous coda, as it is not apparent whether she's playing piano in a bar in Monterey, or in the living room of David's housewe just know that Alice didn't stop singing. Since this footage is used in the sidebar of the film's closing credits, I'd like to think that Alice did indeed become a professional singer...perhaps somewhere in Tucson where she made a happy life for herself with Tommy and David. (Best of all, this allows Flo to remain her new best friend. Now, that's what I would call a happy ending.)

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2013

Thursday, November 14, 2013


Back before the days of celebrity tweets, 'round-the-clock entertainment networks, and broadcast news programs that deem it essential we know what stage of rehab the celebrity-of-the-month is in before enlightening us on the state of the economy; film fans had to get their Hollywood fix from movie magazines. And of the many periodicals available in 1968: Modern Screen, Photoplay, Movie Mirror, and Silver Screen, to name a fewit was difficult to find one that didn't feature either Elizabeth Taylor or Mia Farrow on its cover. The personal and professional lives of both actresses were hot topics that year, reflecting, conversely, a career on the ascendance (Rosemary’s Baby made Hollywood flower-child, Mia Farrow, into a star at the exact moment her controversial and highly-visible marriage to Frank Sinatra imploded), and a career in decline (after eight films together, the Liz Taylor-Richard Burton magic had begun to pall in the wake of a string of boxoffice flops).
When production began on Secret Ceremony in March of 1968, Rosemary's Baby had yet to be released. With Farrow having only her Peyton Place TV fame and a forgettable role in A Dandy in Aspic (1968) to show for herself, Elizabeth Taylor was the main draw and attraction. Secret Ceremony would reunite Taylor with Joseph Losey, the director of her most recent film...the yet-to-be-released but much anticipated Taylor/Burton opus Boom!; a big-budget adaptation of the little-known Tennessee Williams play The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore
Jump ahead six months and the stardom tables had dramatically turned: Boom! proved to be the bomb its title augured, while Rosemary's Baby, director Roman Polanski’s American film debut, had become a blockbuster hit and launched Mia Farrow as a star of tomorrow.
Advance publicity for Secret Ceremony made extensive use of suggestive (and, in director Losey's opinion, misleading) images of Taylor & Farrow cavorting and bathing together, prompting superficial but boxoffice-baiting comparison to the forthcoming release of the lesbian-themed, The Killing of Sister George 

Overnight, the two queens of the Hollywood tabloid press had become two above-the-title movie stars appearing in the same film. Suddenly, Secret Ceremony, the eccentric, difficult-to-market arthouse vehicle adapted from an obscure short story by Argentinian author Marco Denevi, was a hot property with two very popular stars heading the cast. Posters for the film subsequently beefed up Mia Farrow’s participation, unsubtly alluding to her new-found success wherever it could (“More haunted than in Rosemary’s Baby!” read the ad copy).
I was just 11 years old when Secret Ceremony came out. And still flush with excitement from being caught up in the early throes of a lifetime fascination with Rosemary's Baby, a film I’d seen just a few months earlier. Naturally, I was fairly chomping at the bit at the prospect of seeing Mia Farrow in what looked to be another descent into horror, so, being secure in the belief that the film’s “Intended for Mature Audiences” rating accommodated know-it-all 11½-year-olds, I saw Secret Ceremony the week it opened.
Death & Rebirth
A graveside encounter where the sorrow and guilt of a childless mother (Taylor) conjoin with the forlorn loneliness of a motherless child (Farrow).

As it turns out, the combined marquee value of Taylor and Farrow proved no match for how taken aback '60s audiences were at seeing these two movie magazine divas in a sordid tale involving, as one critic cataloged, "...psychosis, incest, lesbianism, murder, suicide, obscenities...."  Secret Ceremony in spite of its cast, was lambasted by critics and flopped at the boxoffice.
I can't say that I was quite prepared for how "out there" Secret Ceremony was either, butas should come as no surprise to anyone with a preteen in the housethere are few things more precocious (read: pretentious) than an 11-year-old film buff. I saw Secret Ceremony several times in the fall of 1968, and, enjoying it a great deal, convinced myself (if, perhaps, no one else) that I both understood it and had a solid grasp what I was watching. Not so much.
"What do you know about drowning?"
"Ducks don't drown."
When, in later years I revisited the film as an adult, I was surprised to find myself confronted with a movie significantly altered with age. Somehow in the intervening years, Secret Ceremony, a movie I had once thought I'd only liked, had morphed into a film I loved!
An offbeat oddity of a movie that’s as likely to impress some viewers as absurdist camp as readily as others are apt to view it as a deeply disturbing psychological exercise in magic realism; Secret Ceremony is full of motifs and themes that strike me as unimaginably obscure and inaccessible without benefit of a few years’ worth of life experience. In other words, there is no way in hell that my 11-year-old self understood this movie.
Elizabeth Taylor as Leonora Grabowski (I kid you not)
Mia Farrow as Cenci (pronounced Chen-Chee) Englehard
Robert Mitchum as Alfred
While visiting the grave of her ten-year-old daughter who drowned five years prior due to some real or imagined “neglect” on her part, Leonora (Taylor), a London prostitute, finds herself being followed by a strange, child/woman (Farrow) who insists that Leonora is her mother. That the mostly silent girl, named Cenci, recalls to Leonora her own dark-haired, hungry-eyed daughter, she allows herself to be taken to the girl's homea huge, opulent mansion where Cenci resides in solitudeand learns that she herself bears an uncanny resemblance to Cenci’s mother, a woman whose illness and recent death the obviously unbalanced Cenci has failed to accept.
Family Resemblance
Cenci and her late mother, Margaret
Out of delusion, shared loss, mutual need, and subtle self-interest, an unspoken agreement is seized upon; each allows the other to use them as an instrument of atonement for unforgiven past familial transgressions. Leonora blames herself for her daughter's death, Cenci feels guilt for attempting to gain sexual superiority over her mother with Alfred, her stepfather. These feelings are agonizing demons of guilt and regret that can only be exorcized by engaging in cryptic, ritualized ceremonies of reenactment and transference.

What makes Secret Ceremony a film that feels richer and more textured with each viewing is the fact that, in this tenuous psychological merging of damaged souls (which, for all its artifice and deceit, comes from a deeply sincere desire for intimacy), it is not made readily apparent which parties are consciously engaging in delusional role-playing and which are merely incapable of determining reality from fantasy. That “reality” here is presented as a flexible, circular extension of perception (What roles do we all play? Is there a difference between identity and self-perception? What responsibility does one person have to another?), is what makes Secret Ceremony a not very well-regarded film by critics and audiences alikeone of my absolute favorites.
Observing the portrait of Cenci and her mother, Leonora reacts to the dual likeness to herself and her deceased daughter. 

Secret Ceremony is a rarity amongst my list of favorite films inasmuch as it’s a movie I enjoy and admire a great deal, yet I don’t know of a single soul to whom I could recommend it in good conscience. The film is just that weird.
For me, it has Elizabeth Taylor and Mia Farrow giving fascinating, sharper-than-appearances-belie performances to recommend it (they stay true to their dysfunctional characters even at the risk of losing the audience), and the always-intriguing Joseph Losey, whose marvelous films, The Servant, Accident, and The Go-Between reveal the artist’s deft hand at dramatizing offbeat psychological complexities. 
But chiefly, Secret Ceremony appeals to me because it addresses themes I find myself drawn to in film after film. Themes for which I so obviously harbor some kind of aesthetic predisposition, their mere inclusion in a movie’s narrative being enough to blind me to that film’s flaws. 
Secret Ceremonies
As a prelude to their ritualized games of incestuous role-playing, Albert, Cenci's lecherous stepfather, in a mock ceremonial gesture, places a wedding ring on her finger. All of the characters in Secret Ceremony engage in formalized patterns of behavior designed to avoid self-confrontation and purge guilt.

From even a cursory glance at the list of films I've written about on this blog, it’s obvious that I harbor a particular fondness for movies about psychological dysfunction and personality displacement (I don’t even want to think what that means). 3 Women, Images, Dead Ringers, The Maids, That Cold Day in the Park, Vertigo, and Black Swan, are all favorites having something to do with the shifting nature of identity and personality. Each is a melodrama or psychological thriller in which an individual or individuals (usually women) are at the center of a story which uses metaphor and allegory to explore themes of duality, role-playing, identity-theft, loss, longing, insanity, guilt, redemption, and, most significantly for me, the basic human need to connect.

When I saw Secret Ceremony as a preteen, its title struck me as nonsensical. Viewing it now, I discover that one of the things I most appreciate is how  Losey establishes from the outset a recurring motif of ceremony and religious ritual (frequently in solitude or secret, like a confession) that serves to both underscore and emphasize the film’s primary theme: the pain of loss and the passing of evil.
Leonora’s act of immediately removing her identity-concealing blond wig and washing her face after a john leaves her apartment is like a baptism ceremony designed to cleanse and wash away the “sin” of her actions.
As if enacting a passion play, Cenci engages in elaborate, incestuous, rape fantasies that cast her as a victim and absolve her of having to face her own sexual precocity or her repressed feelings of hostility and competitiveness toward her late mother.
Religious imagery and iconography abound. Prayers recited to protect the fearful from harm; lullabies sung to quiet restless souls; and throughout, scenes take place in and around churches and cemeteries, heightened by the death/rebirth symbolism of funerals and baptisms.

Indicative of Secret Ceremony’s all-encompassing strangeness is the fact that, even as I write (in all seriousness) about what a provocative and arresting film I consider it to be, I’m also fully aware and understand why for some it has become something of a camp classic of bad cinema (the scene where Taylor wolfs down an enormous English breakfast and shows her appreciation with a huge, unladylike belch is an example).
But for me, Secret Ceremony is an example of the kind of risky, baroque style of filmmaking that largely died out in the '70s (Ken Russell was a master). A kind that takes so many chances and goes so far out on a limb that it risks courting giggles. Daring to look foolish can sometimes be a film's most appealing quality.
In this scene, Elizabeth Taylor's fine performance is undermined by unflattering costuming that is either character-based (Leonora is coarse and unsophisticated) or just plain ugly '60s fashion. 

Elizabeth Taylor long ago proved to be a natural for the brand of purple, overstated acting a film like this calls for, and Mia Farrow once again shows that there’s not an actress alive better suited to hitting all the right notes in a role requiring woman-child/sane-unstable ambiguity.
Peggy Ashcroft and Pamela Brown are outstanding as the light-fingered, meddlesome aunts

As Alfred, personal fave Robert Mitchum rallies around his patented brand of complaisant sexual menace (if not a very sure accent. What is it supposed to be British? Scottish?) to ratchet up the psychodramatic stakes by going head to head (and psychosis to psychosis) with Taylor in a combustible test of wills.
Leonora, really getting into the whole playacting thing

Even as a kid I was blown away by the gorgeous mansion occupied in solitary madness by Mia Farrow's character. With its ornate furnishings; eclectic, Moroccan and art nouveau design; and those mesmerizing blue and green ceramic tiles that line the walls and hallways like some Dali-esque mental institution of the mind...this house is as much a participant in Secret Ceremony's drama as The Dakota was in Rosemary's Baby.
The mansion used in the film is Debenham House, located in the Holland Park district of London. Built around 1896, architect Halsey Ricardo is one of perhaps several who worked on its design. Secret Ceremony production designer Richard MacDonald is credited with refurbishing the house and designing studio sets (the main bedroom, for instance) to blend with the original style.
Ken Russell made use of the mansion in his 1974 film Mahler

There’s no getting past the fact that Secret Ceremony is a strange film not suited to everyone’s taste. But another word for strange is interesting, and on that score, I cast my vote for directors who take chances over those who play it safe.
On the commentary track for the 1970 British cult film Goodbye Gemini (a remarkably bizarre film that could go toe-to-toe with Secret Ceremony for weirdness), producer Peter Snell speaks of a time when movies were made because someone found a story to be interesting, paying only marginal heed to things like what market the film should target and how well it would play outside of big cities. While this was probably a terrible way to run the “business” side of the movie business, quite a lot of worthwhile films were made. Not necessarily good ones, but at least they were films that sparked debate, discussion, and thought.
It's time to speak of unspoken things...
Secret Ceremony has Elizabeth Taylor and Robert Mitchum giving two of their better late-career performances (Taylor, in particular, is quite moving), and early-career Mia Farrow giving what amounts to her last cogent performance before her Woody Allen years (although I’m partial to 1977’s The Haunting of Julia), so, therefore, I think it's worth at least a look if you’re unfamiliar with it.
But remember, I’m not exactly recommending it. I’m just sort of dropping a hint.
Dear God, by whose mercy
I am shielded for a few hours
Let no one snatch me from this heaven

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2013

Monday, November 4, 2013


For this essay ushering out the month of October and welcoming in November, I present for your edification, a movie that qualifies as both a Halloween horror and an overstuffed Thanksgiving turkey. Said turkey being Allan Carr’s notorious Can’t Stop the Music, a longtime guilty-pleasure favorite that, unlike most camp films in my “favorites” canon, grows increasingly less fun to watch as time goes by. 
A highly fictionalized account (and I stress fictionalized) of the creation of the gay-themed disco singing group Village People, Can’t Stop the Music, released in the summer of 1980, hit theaters at the worst possible time and under the worst possible circumstances. If Xanadu—that other 1980 summer musical release that tanked at the boxoffice—suffered from too much '80s faddism by way of roller skates, spandex, and leg warmers, Can’t Stop the Music looked and sounded exactly like a disco relic that had been gathering dust on the shelf since 1978.
A 1979 Trade ad from Boxoffice Magazine with the film's original title.
Note the dodged-a-bullet cast members, Chita Rivera and Pat Ast.
Presumably in the Altovise Davis and Marilyn Sokol roles

So significantly had the music and cultural landscape shifted from the time of its August 1979 production start date to its June 1980 release, Can’t Stop the Music opened at theaters as a literal, antiquated period piece. Thankfully, someone saw the writing on the wall early enough to jettison the film’s original title: Discoland: Where the Music Never Ends, but not early enough to tone down its already anachronistic glitter & amyl nitrate fueled “shake your booty!” overzealousness.
Valerie Perrine as Samantha Simpson
Steve Guttenberg as Jack Morell
Village People as the closeted version of the Village People
Caitlyn Jenner as Ron White
Tammy Grimes as Sydne Channing (are they kidding with that name?)

Bad timing also reared its head in that the release of Can’t Stop the Music—a self-professed family musical with a closeted, “don’t ask, don’t tell” gay sensibility—coincided with an emerging cultural conservatism (aka, The Reagan Era) that was anti-gay, anti-sex, and anti-drugs  (the naive "Just Say No!" campaign started in the '80s). Can't Stop the Music came out, so to speak, during the early days of the AIDS epidemic. The attendant groundswell of public anxiety at the time prudishly and homophobically associated it with the '70s sexual revolution and the drugs & sex lifestyle that disco culture glamorized and marketed.

It also hit theaters in the wake of the earlier release of two controversial 1980 films with gay themes: Gordon Willis' Windows, about a homicidal lesbian; and William Friedkin's Cruising, a movie about a gay serial killer. Given the paucity of positive portrayals of gays in films, activist groups were wise to protest two films released within months of each other depicting homosexuals as homicidal maniacs. The heterosexual filmmakers behind these epics took a wide-eyed "Who me?" position, playing ignorant to observations that such a concentrated association of Gay=Death could only feed into the rising tide of homophobia and anti-gay violence across the country. 
Into this atmosphere of what appeared to be media-sanctioned homophobia came Can't Stop the Music, a gay film that came across as being duplicitously coy about that very fact.
Reflecting perhaps the tastes of the film's casting couch...er, agent, the eye-candy supporting cast of himbos, twinks, and Muscle Marys is predominantly white. Which is pretty much in keeping with the way the gay community tended to depict itself in the '80s.

Had Can’t Stop the Music been made with even a shred of the strength of its flimsy convictions, I’m sure its leering “cocaine and Crisco” homogenized ode to homosexual hedonism would have come under attack as well. But at least then the film's "out and proud" dialogue: "I don't judge people. I accept them"  - and anthems like Liberation would have made a little sense.
But as it stood, Can't Stop the Music failed to take any kind of stand whatsoever, for producer Allan Carr knew that much more money could be made from within the closet than outside of it.
Good, Clean, Wholesome, Hetero Fun!
With scenes like the above in a PG-rated "family" musical, Alan Carr relied on coding to attract "knowing" gay audiences, while simultaneously banking on mainstream viewers remaining reliably clueless of the film's so-obvious-even-a-blind-man-can-see-it gay subtext. And why not? Keeping it in the closet for capitalism certainly worked for the Village People themselves. In the 2012 documentary The Secret Disco Revolution members of the group contributed such eye-rolling statements as: "Our songs were never gay, we were just a party band!" and the absolutely mental "There was not one double-entendre in our music. 'In the Navy' was just about enlisting." Right...and Dinah Washington's "Long John Blues" is just about dental hygiene.

At a time when it really would have made a powerful statement to have an unashamedly out, “We’re here, we’re queer” mainstream movie in the theaters (along the lines of The Ritz or The Rocky Horror Picture Show), Allan Carr, one of the most high-profile and powerful gay men in Hollywood (especially after Grease), instead gave the world a movie so self-negating, so deeply in the closet and in denial about itself, Liberace could have been its technical advisor.
We know, James...we know

Although it didn't hit me as strongly in 1980 as it does now, Can’t Stop the Music, to an almost contemptible degree, suffers from a distasteful undercurrent of homophobic self-loathing and ideological selling-out. In an effort to keep its many corporate sponsors happy (Dr. Pepper, Baskin-Robbins, Famous Amos Cookies, American Dairy Association) and to court the mainstream boxoffice that made Grease into such a mega-hit, Can’t Stop the Music systematically and schizophrenically undercuts every bit of the film’s laid-on-with-a-trowel gay subtext with an unpersuasive overlay of bland heterosexuality. Honestly, in spite of Can’t Stop the Music being about a gay-themed singing group formed in New York’s Greenwich Village featuring numerous coy allusions (acres of male flesh on display, a multitude of homoerotic double and triple entendres) - I don’t think the word “gay” is uttered even once in the whole film.
Olympic Gold Medalist Caitlyn Jenner, making her film debut, here achieves the
impossible by actually managing to look sillier than the Village People

To paraphrase one of my favorite Judge Judy-isms, Can’t Stop the Music is a movie that doesn't know whether it’s afoot or horseback. It courts gay dollars with its setting, its music, its "Auntie Mame syndrome" supporting cast of flamboyant elderly actresses, and its virtual non-stop parade of beefcake. Yet it doesn't want the polarizing effect (at the box-office) of actually being what it is...a big-budget, big ol' gay musical. Instead, it operates in a sex-neutral (Guttenberg’s character swears off sex until he becomes a success…how convenient), heterosexual-insistent (just WHO are those nondescript, lost-looking women clinging to the Village People during the “Magic Night” number?) limbo that makes no sense. As I mentioned earlier, at one point in the film, the Village People sing a song titled “Liberation,” but in the "Ain't nobody here but us straights!" context of the movie, what the hell kind of liberation are these guys even singing about?
Male starlet Victor Davis strikes a pose to show Guttenberg & Jenner
just how "not gay" Can't Stop the Music is.
In trying to be the all-things-to-all-people crowd-pleaser its sizable budget demanded, Can’t Stop the Music wound up not being much of anything to anybody.

Seventies bisexual porn "star" George Payne jogs by (twice!) in the
excruciating Guttenberg-on-roller-skates opening sequence

A must-read for behind-the-scenes details on the making of this rainbow-colored fiasco is Robert Hofler's 2010 Allan Carr biography Party Animals. Wherein we learn that Carr's desire to bring back the glamour of old Hollywood extended to reviving the casting couch. In an attempt to put a male spin on the old MGM "Goldwyn Girls" tradition of featuring beautiful girls as extras and bit players throughout the film, Allan Carr made ample use of a coterie of male dancers, models, hustlers, starlets, and party boys ("Cash or career?" was purportedly Carr's standard come on when meeting a handsome young man). We also learn that director Nancy Walker and Valerie Perrine hated one another, that sizable chunks of the film were actually directed by choreographer Arlene Phillips and cinematographer Bill Butler (GreaseJaws), and that Allan Carr harbored a near-Hitchcockian obsession with his heterosexual protegee, Steve Guttenberg. 
I took this picture in the summer of 1980, not long after this billboard for Can't Stop the Music was unveiled on Hollywood's Sunset Strip during a red carpet ceremony on what LA's mayor declared to be "Can't Stop the Music Day." The Village People were granted the key to the city (or maybe it was to a bathhouse, I'm not exactly sure)

That summer, my excitement regarding the forthcoming release of Xanadu so eclipsed all else, I tend to forget that 1980 was something of a banner year for musicals. There was Alan Parker’s Fame and Saturday Night Live alums Belushi & Aykroyd brought their characters The Blues Brothers to the screen. The heavily-hyped Can’t Stop the Music wasn’t very high on my list of must-see summer films mostly due to my general antipathy towards Grease (I know it’s considered a classic and all, but I just find it clunky) and my lack of fondness for the Village People (their anthem-like songs always sounded like Romper Room marching music to me, and, having grown up in San Francisco, their costumes suggested nothing more daring than your average ride on the Market St. F streetcar).
However, being the devoted disco maven I was (and remain), just the idea of a multi-million-dollar disco musical was too tantalizing a prospect to dismiss. Which brings me to the reason I was most excited to see Can’t Stop the Music: choreographer Arlene Phillips.
Arlene Phillips (Annie, The Fan) first came to my attention through her work in a series of fantastic TV commercials for Dr. Pepper. The top photos are from the 1975 Sugar-Free Dr. Pepper commercial, "Penthouse" (see storyboard here), which bears a strong resemblance to Can't Stop the Music's "Milkshake" number. Even down to sharing the same set designer, Stephen Hendrickson.
Gay, straight, or bi, the one thing we DO know about Jack is that he's a Pepper!
CSTM came under fire for its comically blatant product placement

While my enjoyment of Can’t Stop the Music’s non-musical sequences has diminished significantly over the years, my affection for Arlene Phillips’ deliciously awful/wonderful musical numbers has increased, tenfold. I absolutely love them. Her cheesy “Las Vegas showroom by way of aerobics class” choreography fairly oozes with late-'70s sleaze, and her “What WAS she thinking?” staging has the staggering, jaw-dropping lunacy of Busby Berkeley at his most ingeniously demented. That these musical numbers are also monumentally tacky, done with a great deal of wit, and, like the film itself, possess an almost surreal lack of self-awareness, only adds to their appeal.  Each time I have a chance to revisit the industrial glitter factory of “I Love You to Death” or that wholesomely raunchy paean to homoerotic health & fitness “YMCA,” my heart soars and a smile comes to my face. 
Given how so many of Arlene Phillips' dance tableaus resemble photoshoots from Eyes of Laura Mars, it comes as little surprise that the late Thenoni V. Aldredge, the designer of all those slit-skirt ensembles for Faye Dunaway, also contributed costume designs (with Jane Greenwood) to the musical numbers in Can't Stop the Music.
Seriously, if it sounds as though I'm putting these dance sequences down, nothing could be further from the truth. They're a delight and a lot of fun. Most of them appeal distinctly to all my aesthetics, which more than one person has assured me run to the cheesy and grandiose. They're, clever, cinematic, over-the-top, and for me, more than worth the price of admission on their own.

Where to begin? What can be said about performances in a film where the amateurism of the neophytes and professionals is evenly matched? I like Valerie Perrine a great deal and she seems like an awfully sweet woman, but her (and there’s no other word for it) fag-hag role here requires a personality, not an actress. Ms. Perrine splits the difference by being neither. She comes across as the genial housemother for a gay fraternity.
No, that's not Tim Curry's Dr. Frank-N-Furter from The Rocky Horror Picture Show making a cameo appearance. That's actress Marilyn Sokol attempting to channel Bette Midler's bawdy Divine Miss M "Bathhouse Betty" persona. To grating effect.

And then there's Steve Guttenberg. Prior to this, I'd always considered Todd Susman's underground newspaper journalist in 1971s Star Spangled Girl to be the most annoying performance committed to film. Guttenberg wins by a landslide.
Striving for boyish exuberance, he gives a performance of such overarching hyperactivity that a mere absence of restraint can't be the only answer (it's like he's on crack). He's a character who never speaks when he can shout, and is perpetually in motion. With eyes popping, cords in his neck bulging, forming his words as if to make himself understood by lip-readers on Mars...Guttenberg constantly appears on the brink of popping a blood vessel.
This film has the oddest grab-bag of celebrity cameos. Jack Weston, recruited perhaps for his gay-cred as the star of the gay bathhouse farce The Ritz pops up as disco proprietor Benny Murray

There being so many of them, the Village People have little time (and even less ability) to establish themselves with any personal individuality. Thus their costumes are left to do all the acting., often coming off as visiting tourists in their own movie. 

I've seen Can't Stop the Music so often that when I watch it these days, it's usually with my remote close at hand, finger poised over the FFWD button, moving swiftly from one delightfully garish musical number to the next. They are totally awful, but I swear, I love them to pieces.
Taking four days to shoot and featuring 250 dancers, athletes, and sundry bleached-blond hunklets, the full-tilt camp YMCA song - a salute to the gymnasium number in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes - is said to have been Allan Carr's most hands-on sequence. Which I don't doubt for a minute. There allegedly exists an R-rated cut of the shower scene, commissioned by Carr for his private collection.

I Love You to Death
This number most resembles Arlene Phillips' work with her dance troupe Hot Gossip. A staple of the '70s UK TV program The Kenny Everett Show, you can see a slew of Hot Gossip videos here on YouTube.

Her Milkshake Brings All The Boys To the Yard
The Busby Berkely-esque "Milkshake" number really does a body good. Choreographed for the camera in a series of rhythmic cutaways, close-ups, and inserts, it's pure movie musical bliss. The most fun 3 1/2 minutes of the entire film. 

Can’t Stop the Music is kind of a strange movie to include in a collection of films I love, because, in many ways, I find the film to be rather cowardly and reprehensible. Part of me wants to simply enjoy the movie on a Showgirls level…just escapist, mindless, campy fun. But as a gay man, I find myself unable to get past the fact that Can’t Stop the Music is (to me) such a colossal sellout. A bunch of wealthy gay men make a movie full of gay people, gay references, and gay music. But because there are dollars to be made and hetero sensibilities to be appeased, the film spends all its time trying to avoid making an assertive declaration of what is hidden in plain sight. What could have been a mainstream celebration of the Queer influence and contribution to the arts ends up just another pop culture misfire.
Paul Sand, the David Schwimmer of the '70s, as record exec Steve Waits

I watch this movie, and sometimes all I can see is, at worst, gay self-loathing. At best, the kind of fence-straddling, middle-market project that remains willfully clueless of the far-reaching cultural ramifications of perpetuating gay "invisibility" under the guise of a broader audience appeal.

And as an ostensibly “family-oriented” entertainment that thinks it’s being racy by slipping in coy and winking gay references at every opportunity, Can’t Stop the Music is a homophobe’s dream (nightmare) of the subversive cult of a “gay agenda” being secretly foisted upon unsuspecting straights. Look!...a red bandana! Look!...naked men playing innocent grab-ass in the shower! Listen!...subtle-as-a-sledgehammer triple-entendres like, “Anybody who can swallow two Sno-Balls and a Ding Dong shouldn't have any trouble with pride.”    Kill me now.
Joining Jenner and Perrine in this shot are Broadway star Tammy Grimes and actress-dancer (and Mrs. Sammy Davis, Jr.) Altovise Davis. Grimes sang a song in the musical 45 Minutes from Broadway called "So Long, Mary" which, when you stop to think of it, would have been a great subtitle for this movie.

All gripes aside, I still rate Can’t Stop the Music among my enduring favorite musicals because, as I look over my career as a dancer, Arlene Phillips ranks among the choreographers who were the most influential and inspiring to me. A list headed by Bob Fosse, Michael Bennett, and David Winters (growing up, I was a big fan of the teen variety show Hullabaloo).

Can't Stop the Music is so problematic it's difficult to imagine it would have been much of a hit even at the height of the disco craze. But there exists the possibility that it could have grown into an affectionately-remembered cult hit had it at least acknowledged the community that Village People grew out of (and initially intended to celebrate).

In the terrific Christopher Guest Hollywood satire For Your Consideration..., there's is a scene in which the makers of the film "Home for Purim" - a movie about the distinctly Jewish holiday, are told to "Tone down the Jewishness" in order to appeal to a broader market. Clearly poking fun at Hollywood's legendary lack of backbone, I laugh, but how satiric is it, really? One can easily imagine a similar gay-centric scene being played out in production meetings for Can't Stop the Music. This perspective severely undercuts my ability to wholly abandon myself to the film's campy sense of fun. And as it now stands, Can't Stop the Music has become for me a little like one of those tasteless jokes you initially laugh at, only to regret it later.

Can't Stop the Music Addendum:
11/11/13  Yay! After posting this essay critiquing Can't Stop the Music on its closeted, mainstream agenda and total lack of a single (acknowledged) gay person in the film, my eagle-eyed sweetheart spotted what may be the film's sole gay couple!
Although their presence is used as a kind of "We're not in Kansas anymore" sight-gag for Caitlyn Jenner's straight-laced character to react to as she walks the streets of Greenwich Village, there is nevertheless a prominently featured gay couple shown with their arms across each other's shoulders in a PG movie. I love it! 

Copyright © Ken Anderson 2009 - 2013