Sunday, January 24, 2016


As Oscar time rolls around, my thoughts invariably go to all the movies I absolutely adore which never got the time of day from The Academy. But being that this blog is in itself already something of a chronicle of what a personal "Best Picture" nominees roster would look like if I were to hand out my own film awards (I'd call them The ANDYs, but that's already taken); I decided instead to list the Top 20 Songs from motion pictures I'd nominate in my own personal "Best Song" category. In this instance, not songs that didn't win, but songs that weren't even nominated.

I'm intentionally leaving out more well-known omissions like Kander & Ebb's "New York, New York" (New York, New York), "Pure Imagination" (Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory), "Staying Alive" (Saturday Night Fever), and "To Sir, With Love" (To Sir, With Love), choosing, as is my wont, to concentrate on oddities and obscurities I've loved since the first time I heard them. All personal, wholly subjective, all-time favorites currently on my iPod. 
Songs are not listed in order of preference.

Click on song title captions to listen on YouTube. 

Film: Such Good Friends (1971)  Song: "Suddenly It's All Tomorrow"
Words & music - Thomas Z. Shephard and Robert Brittan. Sung by O.C. Smith
Played over the end credits of Otto Preminger’s overstated comedy-drama about a Manhattan wife who discovers her dying husband has had numerous extramarital affairs; this lovely, wistful song succinctly captures the feeling of dark clouds parting and the contemplation of a brighter future.

Film: Ziegfeld Follies (1945)  Song: "This Heart of Mine"

Words & music - Harry Warren & Arthur Freed. Sung by Fred Astaire
This song wins out due to a confluence of reasons. It’s an entrancingly beautiful melody, Fred Astaire’s vocals are flawless, and it contains a lyric line which turns the waterworks on for me unfailingly (“As long as life endures, it yours this heart of mine”). They really don't write 'em like this anymore. The song begins at the four minute point on this video, but check out the 8-minute point to see what I call the “goosebump moment” wherein Vincente Minnelli’s eye for baroque romanticism and the heavenly dancing of Astaire and Lucille Bremer confirm just why dreams are what Le Cinema is for.

Film: Xanadu (1980)  Song: "Xanadu"

Words & music - Jeff Lynne. Sung by Olivia Newton-John & Electric Light Orchestra
Olivia Newton-John and ELO is the most inspired musical pairing since The Pet Shop Boys recruited and retooled  Liza Minnelli. Livvy’s heavenly vocals are a perfect blend with Jeff Lynne’s soaring orchestrations, the result: a pulsatingly infectious, smile-inducing title tune that ranks among my favorite songs of all time.

Film: Raintree County (1957)  Song: "The Song of Raintree County"

Words & music - Johnny Green & Paul Francis Webster. Sung by Nat King Cole
I think I would like the melody of this touching, old-fashioned love song anyway, but Nat King Cole’s stirring vocals (that voice!) really make this delicate tune such a dreamy delight. 

Film: Freaky Friday (1976)  Song: "I'd Like To Be You For a Day"

Words & music - Al Kasha & Joel Hirschhorn.  Sung by NOT Barbara Harris & Jodie Foster
Nominated for a Golden Globe but ignored by Oscar, this cute mother-daughter duet combines the catchy rhythms of classic TV sitcom theme songs with the lyric playfulness of nursery rhymes. A thoroughly charming arrangement and appealing harmonizing mystery vocals (they’re too smooth for Barbara Harris, too high-pitched for Jodie Foster) work in concert with clever cut-out title animation of the sort that was at one time a Disney trademark.

Film: Emmanuelle IV (1984)  Song; "Oh, Ma Belle Emmanuelle"

Words & music - David Rose / Sergio Renucci / Marie Claude Calvet.  Sung by The Performers Band
OK, this one is a bit of a cheat. On two counts. First, Emmanuelle IV is a French film and would never be considered for a Best Song Oscar nomination, but I’m including it here because …well, the ANDYs are just like Emmanuelle herself: capricious, easy, and a little tacky. Which brings me to point number two; I love the this title tune, sung over the film’s opening credits (which also serves up a Penthouse magazine-worthy montage of actress Sylvia Kristel) because it is a sensational slice of French cheese. It’s actually rather sublime, really. Romantically lush orchestrations blend with an '80's Kenny G-like saxophone accompaniment, all in service of a vaguely Euro vocalist crooning an anthem of love to “new” Emmanuelle (don’t ask). Like a Serge Gainsbourg composition, it manages to be sexy, sleazy and romantic all at the same time!

Film: Shanghai Surprise (1986)    Song: "Shanghai Surprise"

Words & music - George Harrison.  Sung by George Harrison & Vicki Brown
Nothing even remotely associated with this film got any love back in 1986 when Madonna and then-husband Sean Penn were successors to Barbra Streisand and Jon Peters as Hollywood’s most obnoxious couple. Too bad, for while I couldn’t stand the film myself, I’ve always been crazy about this title song: a cleverly rhyme-happy duet that's the equivalent of a musical flirtation. 

Film: Macon County Line (1974)  Song: "Another Day, Another Time"

Words & music - Bobbi Gentry.   Sung by Bobbi Gentry
A lyrical, rather haunting melody distinguished by Bobbi Gentry’s easygoing way with lyrics that paint vivid pictures and tell a story. Considerably more graceful and affecting than the redneck exploitation film it was written for, I’m particularly fond of Gentry’s melancholy vocals.

Film: Sparkle (1976)   Song: "Hooked on Your Love"

Words & music - Curtis Mayfield.   Sung by Lonette McKee, Irene Cara & Dwan Smith
It’s doubtful the old coots representing the music branch of the Motion Picture Academy even knew who Curtis Mayfield was, let alone receptive to the outstanding R & B score he composed for the low-budget musical, Sparkle.  The Motown-influenced score is pure 70s soul (it takes place in the ‘60s)  and of the many songs I like, my favorite is this silky- smooth number with a pulsing backbeat. Aretha Franklin sang all the film’s songs on the soundtrack album, but check out the YouTube video - not only to hear the smoking-hot,  girl-group vocals of Irene Cara, Lonette McKee, and Dwan Smith,  but to check out the slinky choreography.

Film: The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart (1970)  Song: "Sweet Gingerbread Man"

Words & music - Michel Legrand, Marilyn & Alan Bergman.   Sung by The Mike Curb Congregation
The late-‘60s sound no one ever talks about is the easy-listening, inoffensive pop of The Ray Coniff Singers, The Jerry Ross Symposium, The Bob Crew Generation, and, the folks behind this sunshine pop ditty, The Mike Curb Congregation. While a whole lot of hard rock and rollin’ was going on, bands like these (often just studio singers) gently introduced older folks (and clean-cut young ones) to the New Sound.
Michel LeGrand was all over the place in the 60s, and this sugary pop gm was covered by Sarah Vaughn, Jack Jones, Bobby Sherman, and many others.
Almost unbearably cutesy and bubblegummy for most tastes, it practically screams “Sixties!” to me, and I have a decided soft spot in my heart (and most likely, my head) for this song. 

Film: From Noon Till Three (1976)    Song: "Hello and Goodbye"

Words & music - Elmer Bernstein / Marilyn & Alan Bergman.   Sung by Jill Ireland
An elegant, lilting music box love song whose sentimental lyrics are simple but very touching to an old softie like me. Although just a little over 90 seconds long, it too, never fails to get the waterworks flowing. An instrumental version plays under the opening credits, the song itself is later sung by a character in the film.

Film: There's A Girl In My Soup (1970)  Song: "Miss Me in The Morning"

Words & music - Mike D'Abo & Nicolas Chinn.   Sung by Mike D'Abo

This perfectly irresistible and utterly groovy bit of ‘60s fluff crosses Burt Bacharach with Herb Alpert and delivers a bouncy tune that feels as stylishly mod and British as a walk down Carnaby Street.

Film: Across 110th Street  (1972)    Song: "Across 110th Street"

Words & music - Bobby Womack & J.J. Johnson. Sung by Bobby Womack
1970’s sophisticated soul doesn’t get much better than this. Womack’s hard-edged vocals work in discordant concert with the sweeping orchestral arrangement and funky downbeats reminiscent of the Philadelphia soul sound. A criminally infectious title song with a memorable musical hook.

Film: Something Big (1971)    Song: "Something Big"

Words & music - Hal David & Burt Bacharach.  Sung by Mark Lindsay
As far as I’m concerned, when it comes to film composers, the 60s sun rose and set with Burt Bacharach (and the underappreciated but invaluable contributions of lyricist, Hal David). I am mad about all of his work, but this smooth title song to a perfectly terrible western swings with a bossa nova beat and Bacharach’s trademark syncopation and shifts in meter. Truly putting this song over for me are Mark Lindsay's (of Paul Revere and the Raiders) vocals, which really play up Bacharach’s amusing (and tres-groovy) habit of ending musical phrases on an “up” that sounds like a question being asked. A really good song.

Film: Popeye (1980)    Song: "Swee'Pea's Lullaby"

Words & music - Harry Nilsson.  Sung by Robin Williams
One of Robert Altman’s most financially successful films is also one of his most unwieldy, the copious amount of drugs ingested by cast and crew while filming no doubt contributing to the effect. Harry Nilsson contributed many witty, albeit repetitive tunes, the best, as far as I’m concerned, being this winsome, genuinely stirring lullaby. An oasis of quiet in a chaotic film. 

Film: Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)   Song: "In The Long Run"

Words & music - Rob Stone & Stu Phillips.   Sung by Lynn Carey
The very first time I saw BVD, even as I was sitting staring in open-mouthed amazement at what was unfolding before me, I seized upon this song as a standout. From those killer chords that precede the vocals to the overall MOR psychedelic vibe of the arrangement, this song is a winner. All-girl rock groups rule!

Film: Carbon Copy (1981)  Song" I'm Gonna Get Closer To You"

Words & music - Paul Williams & Bill Conti.    Sung by England Dan Seals
I place Paul Williams up there with Burt Bacharach and Charles Fox as one of my favorite composers for the movies. The song played over the closing credits of this largely forgotten comedy, notable only for being Denzel Washington's film debut, and it hooked me immediately. Hook being the operative word. Like a commercial jingle, the bouncy arrangement, cleverly-rhymed lyrics, and light-as-a-feather vocals single-handledly elevated a so-so film into one I never forgot. Primarily because I liked this song so much.

Film: Star Spangled Girl (1971)    Song: "Girl"

Words & music - Charles Fox & Norman Gimbel.    Sung by Davy Jones
Any fan of The Brady Bunch knows this song, but few know it as the theme to a flop Neil Simon comedy. Composed by fave-rave Charles Fox (Barbarella, Goodbye Columbus) to my ear it seemed exactly the kind of movie theme song that should have been a shoo-in had the 70s not been such an awkward transitional period for the Academy.
As it stands, Fox and Gimbel deliver a catchy confection of musical candy floss with this song, aided immeasurably by Jones' pronunciation of the oft-repeated central word, "girl."


Words & music - Richard O'Brien & Richard Hartley.    Sung by Cast
This not-really sequel to the insanely successful The Rocky Horror Picture Show has grown on me a bit lately (especially in these reality TV times), but I thought it was a huge disappointment when I first saw it. I did however love much of the music, most favorably the title tune which rocks, harmonizes, is catchy as hell, and a great deal of fun. A rollicking ensemble song punctuated by the "Shock Treatment" lyric pause/hook.

Film: The Touchables (1968)   Song: "All of Us"

Words & music - Alex Spyropoulous & Patrick Campbell-Lyons.  Sung by Nirvana (not that Nirvana)
I end my list with a song from a film made in 1968, the first year I actually started to pay attention to movies. It's also the year when hippies, flower children, and psychedelia flooded pop culture, making this trippy British import of a theme song a stand-out favorite because it couldn't have been written at any other time. This dreamy, slightly hallucinatory song plays over the film's equally far-out, James-Bondian/Maurice Binder inspired title sequence. Fabulous British '60s sound.

Everyone assumes the classic theme from Goldfinger (1964) was a Best Song nominee.
It wasn't even nominated!
"Chim Chim Cher- ee" from Marry Poppins was the winner that year

Do you have a favorite song from a film? One which failed to win or even garner an Oscar nomination? Would love to hear about it!

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Tuesday, January 19, 2016


This updated and expanded repost of an earlier essay is part of The Remembering Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon hosted by The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.  Visit the site for more posts from participating blogs.

If prostitution didn’t exist, Hollywood most certainly would have had to invent it. How else to surmount the troubling obstacle presented to screenwriters required to develop female characters not defined by the label of wife, mother, or girlfriend? How else to include as much sex, salaciousness, and female objectification as possible while still tent-poling the dual hypocritical obligations of have-your-cake-and-eat-too moralizing necessary to keep one step ahead of the censors, and the proper amount of after the fact, self-righteous finger-wagging to placate audience guilt?

America loves its sex, violence, and debauchery, but never really lets itself enjoy the fun it has rolling around in the gutter unless also afforded the opportunity to give itself a good slap on the wrist after it’s all over. This need to have one’s "sensitive adult material" served up with a healthy dose of religious dogma goes a long way toward explaining why a moralizing piece of Hollywood sleaze like Walk on the Wild Side is such an enduringly entertaining hoot. 
Laurence Harvey as Doug Linkhorn
Jane Fonda as Kitty Twist (nee Tristram)
Capucine as Hallie Gerard
Barbara Stanwyck as Jo Courtney
Ann Baxter as Teresina Vidaverri
 Published in 1956, Algren’s anecdotal, relentlessly downbeat, essentially unfilmable (at least in 1962) Depression-era novel A Walk on the Wild Side bears little resemblance to the sanitized movie adapted from it, save for a few characters' names and the excision of the “A” from the title. The film version, rumored (rather remarkably) to be the result of no less than six writers, among them playwright Clifford Odets (The Country Girl) and screenwriter Ben Hecht (Spellbound), strives to be a tale of lost souls searching for redemption through love on the sordid side of the streets of New Orleans. But the strain of having to balance sexual candor and social uplift shows in nearly every scene and dialog exchange, ultimately proving far too unwieldy a burden for director Edward Dmytryk (Raintree County, Murder My Sweet) who it is rumored, stepped in when original director Blake Edwards was replaced. In the end, the movie promoted with the self-serving warning “This is an ADULT PICTURE - Parents should exercise discretion in permitting the immature to see it,” was no more than another teasing Hollywood soap opera.
The composition of this shot sums up Walk on the Wild Side's major dramatic conflict
The time is the 1930s (you’ll just have to take the film’s word for that). Following the death of his ailing father - an alcoholic, unordained preacher - Arroyo, Texas farm boy Dove Linkhorn (Lithuanian-born Laurence Harvey) travels to Louisiana on a quest to find his long lost love, Hallie (French-born Capucine), an amateur painter and sculptress. En route, he crosses paths with savvy runaway orphan Kitty Twist (Fonda) who teaches him the tricks of riding the rails and thumbing rides. Although Kitty has a few other tricks she’d like to teach him, Dove says no to hobo hanky-panky because his heart remains true to Hallie, whom he calls his religion. 
After a brief stopover at the rundown café of Mexican head-turner Teresina Vidaverri (Baxter) brings out Kitty’s claws, resulting in her stealing form the proprietress out of jealousy, the morally offended dirt farmer sends her on her way and stays on at Teresina’s place as a hired-hand.
The composition of this shot sums of Walk on the Wild Side's OTHER dramatic conflict
Cut to New Orleans’ French Quarter and the popular bordello known as The Doll House. Run by no-nonsense man-hater (aka lesbian) Jo Courtney (Stanwyck) and given assist by her devoted but ineffectual husband, former carny strongman Achilles Schmidt (Karl Swenson), who lost his legs in a train accident, the Doll House is typical of most movie whorehouses in that it doesn't look like very much fun.. The big shocker (to the screenwriters perhaps, but certainly to no one with even a passing familiarity with soap opera plotting) is that Dove’s virginal and virtuous Hallie is the Doll House’s most desirable and sought-after prostitute… Jo categorically taking top honors as Hallie’s most persistent and ardent pursuer.
As Hallie Gerard, statuesque ex-model Capucine embodies the kind of regal, exotic glamour suited to a high-priced escort ("upscale and sophisticated enough to take anywhere!"). But breathtaking beauty aside, the woman comes off as the least-fun hooker you're likely to meet.
Of course, when Dove finally reunites with the wild Texas love with whom he shared his first kiss and more: “Afterwards, in the moonlight...we danced like we was celebrating a miracle. A crazy kind of dance. And then we sang and it wasn't real!.” (a laughable reminiscence rendered all the more inconceivable once we set eyes on the high-cheekboned haughtiness of Capucine), the romantically idealistic hayseed is a tad slow in catching on as to how Hallie manages to afford all those expensive Pierre Cardin-designed frocks from 30 years in the future; but when he does, heartbroken disillusionment gives way to the usual macho proprietary protectiveness.
The dislike Capucine and Laurence Harvey had for one another is the stuff of legend
You see, since the film regards Hallie’s lost virtue as something which has been taken from Dove and that he's the principally wounded party in her taking up a life of prostitution, it’s thus up to him to take the necessary steps to secure and safeguard Hallie's soul and body. (As any pro-lifer will tell you, women just aren't capable of handling decisions about what they choose to do with their own bodies for themselves.)

Resorting to his father's bible-thumping ways, Dove proselytizes ... I mean, explains to an understandably exasperated Teresina (who's busy meanwhile dousing her torch) his philosophy and the film's narrative through-line :
 “In the Bible, Hosea fell in love with Gomer. She was a harlot. They got married but she couldn't stay away from men. Hosea got mad and threw her out. Sold her into slavery. But he couldn't get her out of his mind, so he went looking for her. When he found her, he brought her back home. But it was no good. Before long, she was up to her old tricks again. But he loved her anyway and he couldn't give her up. So he took her into the wilderness...away from temptation. Away from other men. And that's what I have to do with Hallie.”
Sorry, but I'm supposed to believe that these two stunning, Continental-looking
creatures spent even one minute in dustbowl Texas?
The remaining bulk of Walk on the Wild Side occupies itself with being a romantic triangle-cum-spiritual tug-of-war between Dove (representing honest values and true love) and Jo (representing well-dressed depravity and perversion) with the magnificent but I’m-not-all-that-convinced-she’s-worth-all-this-trouble Hallie at the center.
Happily, by way of distraction we have the welcome reappearance of Kitty, the former boxcar good-time-girl transformed into garter-snapping sexpot, as the newest employee of The Doll House; chipper Southern belle, Miss Precious (the always terrific Joanna Moore, Tatum O’Neal’s mom), a Doll House resident who sleeps on a confederate flag pillow and punctuates even the shortest sentences with “The Colonel always said…” ; and sexy, short-tempered strong-arm-man, Oliver (Richard Rust of Homicidal) who has an eye for the ladies and suede gloves to keep his hands nice and unbruised when he roughs them up. 
Richard Rust as Oliver Finnerty
Posters for Walk on the Wild Side proclaimed: “A side of life you never expected to see on the screen!” which is not altogether false given you've got a 4-time Oscar-nominee playing one of the screen’s first lesbians (who lives, yet!) and the daring-for-its-time setting of a New Orleans brothel. The rest, alas, is what Hollywood has always done: a) Offer up endless reworkings of the Madonna-whore dichotomy as soap opera and love story, b) attempt to shock and scandalize but only revealing a staunch conservatism and prudery.
Joanna Moore as Miss Precious
I'm not sure if the genre has been afforded a name beyond Southern Gothic, but I am a major fan of the overheated, sex and psychosis dramas of Tennessee Williams, William Inge, and Carson McCullers. When these southern-fried potboilers are crossed with a touch of the soap-opera overstatement associated with Harold Robbins, Jacqueline Susann, and Sidney Sheldon ...well, I'm in 7th Heaven. Walk on the Wild Side has all the luridness of Williams, the pretentiousness of Inge, plus all the unintentional humor of anything bearing the stamp of Susann.
There's dialog that sounds as though it were written by a robot; overearnest performances that are nevertheless as limp as a clothesline; the ever-present topic of sex that is hinted at and alluded to but never spoken of in even remotely direct terms; and clashing accents left and right: Texas drawl, Southern twang, Georgia singsong, French, British,  Spanish (sort of).
Riding the Rails
Jane Fonda recalls her father Henry in The Grapes of Wrath in this shot of Dove and Kitty
catching a ride in a freight car
Fans of the by-now-anticipated unwillingness and inability of '60s films to remain faithful to the era they're depicting will have a field day with Walk on the Wild Side's interpretation of the Depression era South. Outside of a few automobiles and some distant dress extras, the look is 1961, through and through. A long time ago a friend of mine who once designed costumes for film told me that this is not an unintentional or careless phenomenon. It's an industry's appeal to the contemporary aesthetic tastes of their audience.
When a studio is forking over big bucks for a glamour actress, they want the audience to see her as glamorous. The concern is that the baggy fashions and severe makeup styles of the '30s (thin eyebrows, bow lips, thick stockings, figure-concealing frocks, etc) will look odd or comical to '60s audiences. A point well taken, I concede. but it doesn't address the jarring incongruity of seeing women with '60s bouffants and bullet bras stepping out of DeSotos.
Jaunita Moore as Mama
Where to start? To say that I enjoy all the performances in Walk on the Wild Side is not at all saying that many of them are any good. If anyone emerges from the chaos with their dignity intact, it's Barbara Stanwyck. An actress virtually incapable of giving a false performance Stanwyck is not really called upon to deliver more than a professional, standard-issue, tough-broad performance; but she's nevertheless the most believably passionate person in the film for me. She wants Hallie and I don't doubt it for a minute.
In this her first film since 1957's Forty Guns, the very private Stanwyck was yet another classic-era star forced to embrace the burgeoning era of movie permissiveness and take on a role she at one time might have considered unsavory. Hollywood columnist Louella Parsons disapproved of Stanwyck taking on such a role, to which Stanwyck is said to have responded "What do you want them to do, get a real madam and a real lesbian?"  On the bright side, at least she was playing a lesbian madam in a major motion picture, by 1964 Stanwyck would be following in Joan Crawford's B-movie footsteps and starring in a William Castle schlock thriller, The Night Walker.
The Glamorous Life, She Don't Need a Man's Touch
Barbara Stanwyck was outed as lesbian in two substandard books: The Sewing Circle by Axel Madsen, and the pull-no-punches Hollywood Lesbians by Boze Hadleigh. If they're to be believed, Walk on the Wild Side was a film set with more closets than a Feydeau farce: a closeted leading man (Harvey); a closeted lesbian, possibly bisexual leading woman (Capucine), and a closeted lesbian co-star (Stanwyck).
The strikingly beautiful Capucine may not be much of an actress, but she's not helped much by a script which calls for her to behave like a non-stop pill from the minute she's introduced. Male screenwriters unfamiliar with how women actually think are often guilty of writing about "beauty" as though it were an actual character trait rather than a physical attribute. In the case of Hallie Gerard, so little of the character's much-talked-about passion, restlessness, or joy is conveyed that we're left to imagine she's fought over by Dove and Jo simply because she's so outrageously pretty. If the Hallie we now see is supposed to represent a broken woman whose life-force has been drained out of her by her having "fallen down the well," all the backstory we're left to imagine requires an actress substantially more skilled than what we're given. You get about as much emotionally out of Capucine as a walking/ talking entity as from one of her model photo shoots from the '50s.
Star Cheekbone Wars
Capucine 1962 and Faye Dunaway The Towering Inferno 1974 rock
twin towers of hair and Grecian goddess gowns 
For me, Jane Fonda gives the film's liveliest performance. Liberated from the lacquered, overly-mature look adopted for The Chapman Report and Period of Adjustment (both 1962), Fonda is sexier and looser here. Perhaps a little too loose in her early scenes. There's something about "earthy" that brings forth the inner ham in actors. Fonda in her early scenes can't seem to keep her finishing school refinement from creeping into her overly-mannered interpretation of Kitty Twist, railway ragamuffin. Parts of her performance have the feel of an over-coached acting school scene. But, unlike so me of her co stars, she's never a dull presence and really comes into her own in the sequences in the Doll House. She looks amazing as well. The cameraman obviously thought so too, for Fonda's shapely backside has arguably as many closeups as her face.
Nine years later, Jane Fonda would win an Oscar for playing another prostitute in Klute (1971)
Laurence Harvey has always been a favorite of mine (owing at least in part to my tendency to develop matinee crushes on birdlike, Tony Perkins types), but he really seems out of his element here. The thoroughly engaging (and sexy) energy he brought to I Am a Camera (1955), or 1959's Expresso Bongo is nowhere to be seen in his tediously virtuous Dove Linkhorn.
Ann Baxter's Mexican accent "Wha Hoppen?" is so bad it's close to being offensive 

Is there an axiom that says the cooler the opening credits sequence, the more likely one is apt to be let down with the film? Outside of the brilliant and stylish art-deco title sequence for Mame which got me all hyped-up only to then lead me down a path of soft-focus croaking; Saul Bass' snazzy, jazz-tinged title sequence for Walk on the Wild Side (assisted immeasurably by the Oscar-nominated Elmer Bernstein, Mack David theme music) sets one up for a film that never materializes.
Edward Dmytryk would go on to direct Richard Burton and Joey Heatherton in Bluebeard.
For those who've seen the film, the question that immediately comes to mind is, who took that photo on the left?

Walk on the Wild Side is, like the 1976 US/USSR collaboration that resulted in the dreadful musical mistake that was The Bluebird, a film whose backstory is infinitely more interesting than the motion picture released. Conflict-of-interest deals were behind much of Walk on the Wild Side's grab-bag casting (Laurence Harvey was being pushed by the wife of the head of Columbia Studios, while Capucine was being promoted by producer Charles K. Feldman). The film was plagued by constant rewrites, deleted scenes (the internet is full of rumors regarding a curiously missing-in-action hairbrush spanking scene between Stanwyck and Capucine ... be still my heart), costly delays, and a cast that was often openly antagonistic to one another as well as to the director.
Character actress actress Kathryn Card, best remembered as Mrs. Magillicuddy,
Lucille Ball's ditsy mother on TV's I Love Lucy 
The end result is a film that is a disappointment as both drama and love story, but a bonanza of unintentional humor and delicious badness. And you'd be hard pressed to find a more enjoyably watchable film. Easy on the eyes and no strain on the brain, your biggest concern will be stomach cramps from laughing aloud at the dialog.Woefully tame and coy by today's standards, Walk on the Wild Side maintains its historical notoriety as one of the earliest major motion pictures to feature a lesbian character. As the years have passed, the film has revealed itself as a movie with a pretty high behind-the-scenes LGBT pedigree as well. In addition to Laurence Harvey, Capucine, and Barbara Stanwyck all having been  been mentioned in various celebrity memoirs as being gay or bisexual, Jane Fonda has written in her own autobiography about participating in bisexual three-ways with her husband Roger Vadim.
One would think a little bit of all that sexual democracy might have wound up on the screen, but no. At best, Walk on the Wild Side remains an entertaining but tame timepiece and cultural curio for those interested in seeing what kind of film Hollywood thought it was ready to tackle during the early days of the abandonment of the Motion Picture Production Code.
Barbara Stanwyck would make only two other films after Walk on the Wild Side:
Roustabout  with Elvis Presley, of all people, and The Night Walker, both 1964

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Friday, January 15, 2016


A motion picture comfortable in its own skin, about two men who weren’t.

Let’s see if I’ve got this straight (no pun intended): during its most repressed and puritanical years, Middle America, under the guise of “showman,” took to its heart a fey and outlandishly flamboyant, closeted gay man and kept him a star for over 50 years. Twenty-six years after his death, in the presumably more enlightened era of the 21st century, a motion picture about the personal life of said showman (Waldziu [Walter] Valentino Liberace) is unable to land an American distributor because the subject matter is deemed “Too gay.” This from an industry that would greenlight Heaven’s Gate II if it contained ten seconds of girl-on-girl action.
What to take away from all this: 1. America prefers its gay men closeted, cartoonish, or nonthreateningly “other.” Preferably all three. 2. Unless viewed and validated through the prism of the heteronormative gaze (where the prerequisites are shame, self-pity, and a tacit plea for acceptance) America is uncomfortable with anything remotely approaching an authentic depiction of gay life. 3. Hollywood doesn’t acknowledge lesbians, only hot women having sex with one other (explaining, perhaps, why the phrase "too lesbian" has never been said by any heterosexual male at any time, ever)
Steven Soderbergh’s gleefully impudent Liberace film Behind the Candelabra, eventually found a home on cable television, cable and the Internet being the only frontiers of risk left in today’s landscape of cinematic follow-the-leader. As an HBO TV-movie, Behind the Candelabra emerged a critical and ratings blockbuster and a multi-award winner. An outcome confirming perhaps that the term “too gay” is valueless except perhaps as a signifier of a studio head being “Too ignorant.”
Michael Douglas as Liberace
Matt Damon as Scott Thorson
Rob Lowe as Dr. Jack Startz
Debbie Reynolds as Frances Liberace
Celebrity biography films, with their built-in melodrama, potential for questionable impersonations, and cheesy reenactments of real-life events, can be a lot of trashy fun. They can also be fascinating glimpses into the smoke and mirrors artifice of fame culture, often revealing the sizable disconnect between a star's public image and their private reality. But, more often than not, they tend to be formulaic, dramatized chronologies of the career milestones of a public figure. Like an AV study guide for a class called Celebrity History 101.

Celebrity biopics have been around so long that they’ve ceased being a categorization and have evolved into their own genre. But since real life rarely occurs in perfect three-act format, the fashioning of a coherent, workable narrative out of the often haphazard and random events of a public figure’s life often proves to be an obstacle for screenwriters that is not easily surmounted. Hence, most film bios rely on the serviceable but grossly overused rags-to-riches trope:
Initial struggle followed by success, then disenchantment followed by downward career spiral, all of it culminating on a note of ultimate redemption. A format as fixed and set in concrete as the footprints outside Grauman’s Chinese Theater.
Cheyenne Jackson as Liberace protege Billy Leatherwood

I don't look to biographical films for documentary accuracy and adherence to facts, but it's frustrating when a bio appears hellbent on mythologizing its subject by skirting unpleasant truths. Similarly, I find dirt-only hatchet jobs to be as inherently dishonest and rose-colored as hagiographies. What I get excited about is when a filmmaker, in chronicling the life of a public figure, is able to seize upon a unique perspective which casts the work and life of the individual in broader context. To comment upon the difference between art and artifice, or perhaps hold up a mirror into which we, as a culture, can gaze and perhaps see something of ourselves reflected back. Something that might even indicate how we have played a part in making this individual a notable in the first place. 
The late Ken Russell, whose rhapsodically operatic films about the lives of classical composers gloriously transcended the usual “and then they wrote….” clichés, was a master of this. One can only imagine what a field day he would have had with Liberace’s excessive, troubled, and sequined-encrusted life.
Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, Erin Brockovich), wisely choosing to ignore the directive of Liberace’s “Too much of a good thing is wonderful!” paraphrase of Mae West’s famous line, avoids the potential for baroque overkill in favor of looking at Liberace’s life through the downsized prism of domestic drama. Behind the Candelabra, a serio-comic take on the last ten years in the life of the legendarily overdressed entertainer (adapted from the ghostwritten memoirs of former lover and current hot mess, Scott Thorson), is devoted to good-naturedly reducing Liberace’s grandiose public persona down to as close to human scale as the showman's outsized lifestyle and personality will allow.

In the process, both Liberace and Thorson are granted a depth of humanity not readily apparent in Thorson's sordid kiss-and-tell recounting of their years-long, tabloid-ready association. Indeed, given that Liberace, talent and fame aside, could be easily characterized as just another eccentric narcissist, and Thorson no more than a naive opportunist; the screenplay by Richard LaGravenese treats both individuals with a kind of empathetic delicacy. Not dissimilar to the way Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor approached their Southern Gothic grotesques.
That may sound like faint praise, but one need only look at what happened with Mommie Dearest to appreciate what a considerable achievement it is for a film to find the humanity, no matter how small the capacity, in a public figure so ceaselessly devoted to turning themselves into a living caricature.
The Emmy-Award winning recreations of Liberace's beyond-outrageous costumes
are the work of Ellen Mirojnick and Robert Q. Mathews

One of entertainment history’s great head-shakers is the fact that anyone with a functioning brain and eyes in their head ever thought for a nanosecond that mononymous pianist/entertainer Liberace was straight. More fascinating still, if his fanbase was comprised exclusively of, as one critic put it “Teenage girls afraid of sex and middle-aged women no longer interested in it,” what does that say about the breadth and scope of his appeal?

At the start of Behind the Candelabra Liberace is 57-years-old, firmly ensconced in the Vegas glitz period of his career, and the successful plaintiff of several homosexuality libel suits. As the darling of the blue-haired set and with a stage show gayer than a Judy Garland convention, Liberace’s public disavowal of his true sexuality at this point was largely moot; just another ritualistically maintained aspect of his manufactured public image, no more authentic than the hair on his head or the diamonds in his lapels.
Blatantly “out” in his cloistered private life, Liberace, already on the ebb side of a relationship with prissy protégé Billy Leatherwood (Cheyenne Jackson), feels an instant attraction when introduced to 17-year-old veterinary trainee Scott Thorson (42-year-old Matt Damon) by mutual friend, Bob Black (Scott Bakula).
The Seduction
Watching Liberace perform at the Las Vegas Hilton, Scott Thorson is already hooked.
Scott Bakula, mustachioed and bescarfed, is one of Scott's pre-Liberace lovers

In the tradition of countless May/December romances the world over, one individual’s great wealth proves as equal and potent an aphrodisiac as the other's youth and beauty...and voila! Say goodbye to all rational obstacles otherwise posed by a 40-year age gap. Liberace and Scott Thorson embark upon a relationship that lasts six years. An affectionate and (by this film’s account, anyway) mutually loving cohabitation wherein the isolated entertainer and the teen with the history of being shuttled between foster homes, formed a marriage (of sorts) and became a family.
But Liberace and Scott Thorson were no Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, and their brief time together proved to be as toxic as it was intoxicating.
Given Liberace's personality, history, the insular nature of his life, and his at-crossed-purposes relationship with his sexuality, his mother, and his Catholic upbringing; it’s not exactly surprising that the riches he lavished upon his young paramour came with weirdly possessive strings. Nor was it as far-fetched as it sounds when Liberace launched on a plan to adopt Thorson, coming as it was from a place of kill-two-birds-with-one-stone pragmatism. Since gay marriage was illegal and gay couples had no legal protections or rights under heterosexist laws, adoption was the loophole by which many long-term gay couples availed themselves in order to gain legal protection in cases of illness and death. The second advantage to the adoption idea was that Liberace could further promote his heterosexual image by pawning Thorson off as his biological son.
The late Sydney Guilaroff, the famed, closeted hairdresser to the stars, did this very thing; he adopted his (much younger) male lover and publicly passed him off as his grandson.

No, where things take a turn for the bizarre is when Liberace has Thorson undergo extensive plastic surgery to resemble the pianist in his younger days. A strange request given that Liberace was always a rather peculiar-looking man, but understandable in light of it serving the dual purpose of feeding Liberace’s narcissism while further supporting the heterosexuality-reaffirming biological son gambit.
"I want you to make Scott look like this."
Liberace, whose private life and obsessions make him come across like the gay Hugh Hefner or Howard Hughes, enlists the services of a plastic surgeon to perform an unorthodox (if not downright creepy) variation on the traditional sugar-daddy-buys-mistress-a-boob-job routine

As drug use and petty jealousies escalated, and mutual sexual attraction waned, Thorson, at the ripe old age of 23, found himself the himbo soon to be put out to pasture to make way for the next “Blonde Adonis” on Liberace’s list. The latter part of Behind the Candelabra veers to the dark side as it recounts the painful circumstances precipitating the pair’s rancorous parting, complete with Liberace having his greatest fears being realized when Thorson files a very public palimony suit against him to the tune of $113 million. The lengthy court battle lasted nearly as long as the relationship itself, ultimately being settled out of court for $75,000).
Liberace succumbed to AIDS in 1987, keeping that closet door shut (at least in his mind) to the last. Behind the Candelabra affords the estranged couple a deathbed reconciliation and Liberace a glittering, heaven-bound sendoff more fitting than the modest burial he was given in real life.
Paul Reiser as Scott Thorson's attorney for the palimony suit he filed after
being evicted from Liberace's home. The ugly battle stretched out for four years

I’ve never been a fan of Liberace nor much understood his appeal (although if you haven't already seen it, I recommend you run, don't walk, to get your hands on the hooty 1955 film Sincerely Yours). But he’s one of those old-fashioned show-biz “personalities” who has their act so down pat, they’re rather difficult to actually dislike. Check out any of his TV appearances on YouTube and you’ll see a man who has mastered the art of amiable subterfuge. Repeating the same self-deprecating jokes and anecdotes for what must be decades, Liberace skillfully hides behind witty patter and good-natured evasion.

Like a politician, he’s able to speak sincerely and at great length without ever once approaching the truth or revealing anything about himself he hasn’t already calculated he wants you to know. All the while coming across as genuine, friendly, and accessible. It would be terrifying if it weren’t so entertaining. (Dolly Parton and Charo are the only stars I know today to possess a similar quality.)
With nothing to go on in the way of recorded images of the showman just being himself, I'm impressed by how screenwriter Richard LaGravenese was able to forge so richly a dimensional representation of Liberace. One gets the impression of a gravely lonely man of not overwhelming depth-of-character who is simultaneously believable (and quite frightening) as both powerful and selfishly controlling.
Behind the Candelabra paints a portrait of a gay man who has learned (all too well) the lessons for survival taught to him by society (homosexuality was illegal much of Liberace's adult life) and the Church (he was devout Catholic). The lesson: you must learn to exist as two people: one for your private life, one for public consumption. And of course, Liberace’s extreme, schizophrenically dual existence is but a gold-plated, gilt-edged amplification of the day-to-day reality for millions of gay men living in a society that encourages masks and role-playing for those outside of the heteronormative standard.

By exploring the Liberace/Thorson relationship beyond the extremes of lifestyle and eccentricities of character, Behind the Candelabra draws provocative and amusing parallels between the roles the couple adopted in public (Liberace is a heterosexual, Thorson his chauffeur) and the roles they assumed in private (ironically, a realm where Liberace proved more comfortable in his sexuality than the prudish Thorson, who clung unconvincingly to his "bisexual" life preserver).
If Behind the Candelabra is to be believed, it must be said that for all his public artifice, Liberace was nothing if not his fully out and authentic self in his private life. And while I’ve never found anything admirable in his distancing himself from anything remotely connected to the gay community in his lifetime, it’s difficult not to acknowledge how the outrageousness of his stage persona couldn't help but expand the boundaries of what was acceptable for a male performer to be (and look like) onstage. And getting the Bible-belters to swallow it, yet! Liberace was definitely a product of his time, but as closeted as he was, it's somewhat miraculous that he never resorted to going through a sham heterosexual marriage like his heir-apparent in sequined crass, Elton John.
Lee and Scott, Fat and Happy

Whether true to the real-life circumstances or not, Behind the Candelabra is a love story...a marriage, in fact. And what I so admire about the film is that it tells this same-sexy love story in a language no different from what you’d see in any other film about dysfunctional romance (Closer, Blue Valentine). Unconcerned with the comfort levels of the audience, gay respectability politics, or whether or not it will “play in Peoria”; Behind the Candelabra depicts two people in an intimate relationship as it should be: kissing, caressing, bickering, fucking, and going about their lives in the manner of countless couples the world over. It's a credit to the filmmakers that the extreme trappings of wealth and eccentricity emblematic of Liberace's life never overwhelm the human element.

I’ve seen Michael Douglas in a great many films since his debut in Hail, Hero! in 1969, but I honestly think his Liberace is the best work he’s ever done. He’s remarkable. Referencing Mommie Dearest yet again, Douglas was given a public figure every bit as over the top as Crawford (more, actually) and somehow found a way to access the complexity behind a conspicuously superficial image. In the early scenes of courtship, Douglas captures Liberace's studied vulnerability and manipulative neediness, yet still makes us see these are simply the survival tools of an aging, lonely, isolated man. Later, when his tough side emerges (a flamboyant gay man who manages to sustain a show business career for more than four decades HAS to have a tough side), the image of Liberace as a hard-edged survivor is made startlingly believable. 
Garrett M. Brown and Jane Morris are standouts as Scott's concerned foster parents

Without looking exactly like him, Douglas captures the essence of the Liberace we know, embellishing this mini-impersonation of the stage personality with a well-conceived characterization of a Liberace away from the public glare. In an astoundingly vanity-free performance, Douglas achieves the impossible: he turns Liberace into an authentic human being. Michael Douglas surprised the hell out of me with this film and he deserved every one of the many awards his performance garnered.
Dan Aykroyd as Liberace's fix-it-all manager Seymour Heller

For all the issues I have with Matt Damon, the man (occasionally he just needs to shut the fuck up), I like him a great deal as an actor. Playing a perhaps less guileful version of Scott Thorson than the real deal, Damon’s reactive performance is easier to overlook. But like a painter working with a blank canvas (and if you’ve ever seen one of the real-life Thorson's numerous television appearances, you'll know they don't come much blanker) Damon imbues the character with a grifter's survival instinct and an urchin's willingness to please that grows quite poignant in the latter third of the film when the relationship starts to sour (as good as they are in the film’s earlier scenes, both actors are at their best when these individuals are at their worst.

With its gold-cast cinematography, impeccable eye for period detail in costuming and wigs, and painstaking recreation of Liberace's world of "palatial kitsch"; Behind the Candelabra is, as might be expected for a film about the life of one of show business's showiest showmen, a real visual treat. I suspect the visual haze and yellow glow also serve to soften the effect of the many prosthetic devices and makeup effects, as well as the digital work employed during Michael Douglas's scenes at the piano and during the finale where he appears younger than springtime.
I loved the film's sharp and funny script and its solid performances throughout (Debbie Reynolds is particularly good). As movie bios go, Behind the Candelabra doesn't rewrite the book, but it deserves kudos for being able to fashion something emotionally and dramatically compelling out of a personality and public figure who practically dared the world to take him seriously.


Seeing is believing: The real Liberace and Scott Thorson, Las Vegas 1981

Liberace's oddness is used to excellent effect in Tony Richardson's brilliant satire of California and the funeral business, The Loved One (1965). Cast as "Casket Specialist" Mr. Starker, Liberace pretty much only has to play himself, but he's hilarious and looks infinitely more at ease hawking coffins than he did in his love scenes with Dorothy Malone in Sincerely Yours

Opened by Liberace himself in 1979, the no-longer-in-existence Liberace Museum in Las Vegas (it closed in 2013) had several buildings housing a collection of Liberace's performance costumes, automobiles, and pianos (not to mention the biggest rhinestone in the world). Located in a surprisingly unassuming mall just off the Strip, the location also contained Candelabra, Liberace's own restaurant. My partner and I visited it back in 2005 and it was a blast. I've never seen so many mirrors, rhinestones, and candelabras in all my life. You seriously could go glitter-blind in this place. The sheet music adorning the side of the building (below) is one of his performance staples, "The Beer Barrel Polka." 

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2016