Monday, February 29, 2016


“I’m sure you recognize this lovely melody as ‘Stranger in Paradise.’ But did you know that the original theme is from the ‘Polovtsian Dance No. 2’ by Borodin? So many of the melodies of well-known popular songs were actually written by the great masters….”

Thus began the TV commercial for 120 Music Masterpieces, a four-LP set of classical music selections offered by Columbia House and Vista Marketing from 1971 to 1984. This ubiquitous and long-running commercial featured British character actor John Williams (famous for the Hitchcock films Dial M for Murder and To Catch a Thief, but known in our household as the “fake Mr. French” from the sitcom Family Affair) touting the joys of  discovering how many classical melodies were appropriated for contemporary pop songs.

This commercial and Williams’ cultured English accent unfailingly come to mind whenever I watch The Heiress. The reason being that The Heiress’ oft-repeated love theme—the 1784 Jean-Paul-Egide Martini classical composition Plaisir d’Amour (The Joys of Love)—had its melody borrowed for the popular ballad Can’t Help Falling in Love in the 1961 film Blue Hawaii. The unfortunate result of all this is that every time the melody is played in the movie (and that’s quite a lot) it evokes for me not Victorian-era romance, but Vegas-era Elvis Presley.
Ever the Method actor, Clift learned to play the piano for this scene
in which Morris sings The Joys of Love to Catherine
Others feel differently, I'm sure, but this pop music cross-referencing has always only had the effect of cheapening the original compositions for me. Coming as it did a full 12-years before Elvis serenaded Joan Blackman in Blue Hawaii, it’s not The Heiress’s fault Elvis’s version (never a favorite) is so hotwired into my brain that I fairly wince every time Plaisir d’Amour swells on the soundtrack, wrenching me out of the The Heiress' scrupulously rendered 19th century New York, and thrusting me onto some kind of Gilligan’s Island vision of Hawaii. (I have a similar reaction to the now-distracting use of 1939’s Somewhere Over The Rainbow in the 1941 film noir I Wake Up Screaming.) Happily, my personal aversion to the song Plaisir d’Amour and its use in the film's score (something I might share with the film's Oscar-winning/Oscar-disowning composer Aaron Copland) is the sole complaint I have with William Wyler’s classic romantic melodrama, The Heiress.
Olivia de Havilland as Catherine Sloper
Montgomery Clift as Morris Townsend
Ralph Richardson as Dr. Austin Sloper
Miriam Hopkins as Lavinia Penniman
The Heiress is one of my favorite popcorn movies. And that’s “popcorn movie” in the old-fashioned sense: an enjoyably entertaining film, well-acted, with a good story intelligently told, no heavy message. Not the current definition signifying a check-your-brain-at-the-door exercise in sophomoric cretinism (cue my usual Adam Sandler, Fast & Furious diatribe).
Based on the 1947 Broadway play by Ruth & Augustus Goetz, which itself was adapted from Henry James’ 1880 novel Washington Square, The Heiress is a serious drama to be sure. But anything deeper to be found in its subtext regarding the emotionally stifling social class system or the lingering imprint of love lost (The Heiress overflows with widows and widowers who live in the memory of the departed, never entertaining the thought of finding someone new), remains in service of a not-unfamiliar “Poor Little Rich Girl” romantic melodrama.
As a motion picture adapted from an esteemed literary work, The Heiress was Paramount’s “prestige film” for the year, its pre-release publicity suggesting a Grand Romance between fated-to-be lovers kept apart by some shadowy adverse obstacle. In truth, the film is really a rather severe, withering rumination on love (familial love, romantic love, self-love) and the injurious cost of its absence.
Three is the Magic Number
The Heiress was Montgomery Clift's 3rd film, and his co-star was three years older
Catherine Sloper (de Havilland) is an unprepossessing, socially awkward young woman whose very existence is a source of nagging disappointment to her widowed father, physician Austin Sloper (Richardson). Dr. Sloper’s beloved wife died giving birth to Catherine, yet lives on as an idealized, phantom presence in Dr. Sloper's heart and in the household he shares with his daughter. A presence to whom Catherine, in her failure to live up to even a modicum of her mother’s beauty or social graces, is ceaselessly compared and judged. Forced to grow up in the shade of her father’s barely contained reproach and resentment, Catherine’s natural virtues (visible to us in private moments where she reveals herself to have brains and a winning sense of humor) have understandably failed to flower.

Sharing their home in Washington Square is Dr. Sloper’s sister Lavinia (Hopkins), a somewhat frivolous but prototypical example of the kind of aimless social butterfly women were expected to be in Victorian times. Given to silly flights of romantic fantasy and hyperbole, yet well-versed in the dos and don’ts of society protocol, Lavinia is tolerated for her ability to assist Catherine in developing the social graces. Supportive of her niece and devoted to not seeing her drift heedlessly into spinsterhood with only her embroidery to keep her company; Lavinia is nevertheless one more pitying voice reminding Catherine of her lack.
Miriam Hopkins is the queen of the silly and superficial busybody.
No matter how extremely her character is written, she finds both the humor and the humanity

Although Dr. Sloper and Lavinia are both of the mind that Catherine’s failings in looks and charm are significantly mitigated by her being an heiress with a considerable fortune, Lavinia is too much of a romantic to ever admit to such base pragmatism, while Dr. Sloper regards the assessment as indisputable fact…like a medical diagnosis.

Curious, then, that when an outside party is suspected of appraising Catherine by similarly pragmatic terms—the outside party being the dashing, obscenely handsome and penniless young suitor Morris Townsend (Clift)—it is Dr. Sloper who lodges the loudest protest.

What I like about The Heiress is that it does a remarkable job of putting us in the middle of the film's dramatic/romantic conflict without specifically telling us how we should feel about it. At times it appears as though Dr. Sloper is unnecessarily brusque in his assessment of his daughter, but he isn't entirely wrong. At the same time we also see that there is more to Catherine than her retiring demeanor belies, making us hope that "someone" comes along and sees in her what those around her fail to recognize.
When that someone comes in the form of Montgomery Clift, playing a man in possession everything that Catherine lacks except money; we can't help but feel (hope) that at least in some ways, this pair is well-suited. Certainly the superficial attractions of physical beauty are no more a barrier to true love than the superficial allure of wealth?
Playboy After Dark
Does our distrust of Morris come from the reversal of the beauty ethic (women are supposed to be the pretty ones), or the reversal of the patriarchal tradition (men are expected to support women)?

The Heiress deviates from the play in that it never makes the honorableness of Morris' attentions entirely clear. At least not initially. As the film progresses we are manipulated back and forth, forced to view Morris' whirlwind courtship of Catherine through the alternating perspective of Dr. Sloper's suspicious eyes or Lavinia’s willfully rose-colored gaze.
Provocatively, we’re placed in the position of preferring to be right rather than see Catherine happy (her father, again), or hoping…perhaps beyond reason…that Townsend is not really what he seems and merely a penniless suitor genuinely seeing in Catherine that which we ourselves have been witness to: her very real charms have just not been given the opportunity to develop in the loveless home she shares with her father in Washington Square.

The film tugs at our beauty biases, our belief in Cinderella fantasies, and our weakness for ugly duckling myths. It also, in providing an emotionally and dramatically satisfying ending which deviates from the novel, taps into the kind of visceral revenge scenario beloved of any individual who has ever felt undervalued or underestimated. 

Popular Hollywood movies all tap into common fantasies. There's clearly a market out there for romantic comedies about cloddish, schlubby boy-men who win impossibly beautiful women simply because they possess an ounce of common decency. That is to say, I assume there to be a market for it based on the sheer number of Seth Rogen films out there; I'm just happy I don't know that market personally. 

Because of the unique circumstances of my adolescence: shy, a member of one of the few African-American families in a largely white neighborhood, gay in an all-boys Catholic high-school—I find myself drawn to stories about outsiders. Those who are habitually overlooked and underestimated because they don't conform to established norms.
"I'd never contradict him."
I'm afraid my response to my formative years are reflected in the brand of "outsider" films which have become my favorites over the years: Carrie (shy teen kills entire senior class), That Cold Day in the Park (shy spinster kills for and imprisons sex slave); 3 Women (shy enigma engages in personality theft - deaths to follow) get the picture. While never seriously interested in purging the patina of my youth in such melodramatic ways, I'm aware that revenge fantasies rate inordinately high amongst the films in my collection. Vicarious projection, I guess.
The Heiress fits easily into this informal sub-genre, it being a kind of tragic pop fairy-tale that tells the story of a woman who, having misguidedly invested her sense of self and happiness in finding someone who deems her worthy of being loved, seeks that tenuous approbation in the eyes of not one, but two woefully inadequate men. Though her path is one both heartbreaking and life-alteringly painful, Catherine nevertheless comes to arrive at a place of self-discovery, self-acceptance and, ultimately strength. 
And, conforming to the ambiguous emotional tone of all that went before, the ending of The Heiress can be viewed as either tragic or triumphant with no loss to the film's overall effectiveness and poignance.
"That's right Father. You never will know, will you?"
Olivia de Havilland's thorough and complete transformation from doting daughter to embittered adversary is as chilling as it is heartbreaking.

When writing this essay, it came as something of a surprise to me to discover that I've only seen Olivia de Havilland in six films; four of them from her less-than-stellar, post- Lady in a Cage period. But this is more a reflection of the type of movies she appeared in (westerns, period adventure films...neither particular favorites) than a reaction to the actress herself, who, as of this writing, is still with us at age 99.
The Heiress represents Olivia de Havilland's 5th (and final) Oscar nomination
and 2nd win in the Best Actress category
Within my admittedly narrow sphere of exposure, I have nothing but admiration for de Havilland's work in The Heiress. It cannot be an easy feat to imbue an outwardly plain, reactive character like Catherine with as much depth and feeling as de Havilland achieves. Perhaps a flaw in the play's structure is that it is impossible to adapt it in a way in which Catherine can ever be seen in a light reflective of how her father sees her. (Wyler encourages us to identify with and like Catherine. Her comic resilience in the face of humiliation after humiliation wins us over.)
In our being able to so readily appraise and recognize Catherine's worth, her father becomes a villain before he gets a chance to show the sympathetic side of his case.(Marginally sympathetic, anyway. One can empathize with a man missing his wife, but to withhold affection from a motherless child due to repressed resentment or blame is cruel and tragic.). But as I've stated, the narrative tipping point falls to the casting of Morris, and whether or not the actor playing the role is able to conceivably play sincerity and knavishness with equal credibility.
Recreating the role he played on the London stage, Ralph Richardson (knighted Sir in 1947)
is remarkable as the over-assured and unyielding Austin Sloper. The sureness of his performance
serves as the virtual touchstone for everyone else in the film 

I like Montgomery Clift a great deal, but if reports are true that he was deeply dissatisfied with his performance in The Heiress, I can't say his feelings are entirely unfounded. Simply put, he seems to be outclassed and a tad out of his depth when it comes to to the performances of de Havilland, Richardson, and Hopkins. To be sure, this could merely be an instance of clashing acting styles, his co-stars representing a more formal, old-guard style of acting to his more relaxed contemporary technique. The latter resulting in the actor occasionally coming across as stiff and uncomfortable.

However, in his defense, Clift's very "otherness" in manner and speech (whether intentional or not) works marvelously within the context of the story. His Morris Townsend is a character we are meant to be unsure of; unaware of where the real person ends and the artifice begins. He introduces passion and impulse into the Sloper's world of strict formality. Clift's awkwardness, which wreaks havoc with the viewer's ability to ascertain his character's sincerity, winds up adding a great deal to Morris' ambiguity.
Sizing Up The Interloper
Montgomery Clift's Method-era naturalness comes from somewhere so genuine, you don't entertain for a minute that he is not as he seems. His beauty is suspicious, but his behavior is not. He seems ill-suited to a certain level of showy artifice, so his scenes with de Havilland have a warmth that has you rooting for their union even as you sense it is ultimately impossible.
I like him a great deal in the film, even while recognizing his Morris Townsend is perhaps not one of his strongest performances.
As Audrey Hepburn did in Two for the Road, Olivia de Havilland is able to convey very distinct stages in the emotional maturation of her character simply through her facial expressions, body language, and voice modulation. Here, Catherine Sloper has grown into a woman at peace with herself 

The Heiress garnered a whopping eight Academy Award nominations in 1949: Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor (Richardson), Cinematography - winning in the categories of Best Actress (de Havilland), Music (Aaron Copland..a matter of contention), Art Direction (J. Meehan, H. Horner, E. Kuri), and Costume Design (Edith head, Gile Steele).
I'm particularly fond of the costume design and art direction in The Heiress, which is truly gorgeous. Even more so with today's digital restorations and HD TV screens.

Adapted from a Broadway production, The Heiress shows its stage roots in being a somewhat stagy and talky motion picture more reliant on dialog, performance, and characterization than action. In this instance I wouldn't have it any other way, for The Heiress has such marvelous, quotable dialog.

"No child could compete with this image you have of her mother. You've idealized that poor dead woman beyond all human recognition." 

"Headaches! They strike like a thief in the night! Permit me to retire, of course. It's not like me to give in, dear, but sometimes fortitude is folly!"

"He must come. He must take me away. He must love me. He must!...Morris will love me, for all those who didn't."

"How is it possible to protect such a willing victim?"

"Yes, I can be very cruel. I have been taught by masters."

"I can tell you now what you have done. You have cheated me. You thought that any handsome, clever man would be as bored with me as you were. It was not love that made you protect me. It was contempt."

Composer Aaron Copland's original music theme for The Heiress, before it was controversially reworked by Nathan Van Cleve under director William Wyler's orders.

Washington Square (1997): Agnieszka Holland - the director of the 2014 TV-movie remake of Rosemary's Baby - helmed this impressive-looking adaptation of Henry James' short novel starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Albert Finney, and Maggie Smith. It's truer to the book than either the play or the 1949 film, so purists should be happy. But in spite of the good performances and lovely cinematography, the film failed to stay with me very long after seeing it. Some are sure to prefer it to the William Wyler film, but it reminded me of the kind of faithful movie adaptation you're required to watch in a high school English class after having read the book.

The legendary 120 Music Masterpieces  TV commercial

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

NIGHT GALLERY: The Joanna Pettet Episodes

The Pettet Principle: The face that launched a thousand fantasies
For the unversed (or those who've left the seventies back in the '70s where they belong), Rod Serling's Night Gallery is a suspense anthology TV series that ran Wednesday evenings (final season: Sundays) on NBC from 1969 to 1973. A supernatural/horror follow-up to Serling's more sci-fi driven The Twilight Zone (1959 -1964)—still in heavy rerun rotation at the time. Night Gallery most definitely had its moments, but I remember it mainly as an exercise in protracted fizzle. 
As a means of building suspense in episodes whose narrative trajectories were telegraphed within minutes of their setup, it was common for even the briefest of segments to be drawn out to almost comic effect. Episodes routinely featured characters speaking in needlessly vague, cryptic language ("You don't mean…!") that never came to the point. All while assiduously avoiding any and all action that might bring about a resolution to their problem. Unfortunately, when it came time for the payoff, it always seemed as though the slower the buildup, the more unsatisfying and frustratingly ambiguous the final twist.
But as one does with SNL these days—suffer through 95% of ho-hum in hopes of the occasional 5% of brilliant—Night Gallery was my Wednesday night ritual. A ritual fueled in part by a pre-cable paucity of bedtime-stalling TV options, and that still-mysterious-to-me adolescent fascination with horror and the desire to be frightened. Besides, whether good or bad, each Night Gallery episode was sure to be the water fountain topic of conversation at school on Thursday mornings, so one needed to be up on such things.
Rod Serling on the cover of TV Guide - July 3, 1972
That being said, it's still probable for the entire Night Gallery series to have remained just another dimly-remembered blip on my post-pubertal pop-culture chart had it not been for the four profoundly memorable appearances made by London-born actress Joanna Pettet during the program's three-season run. Holding what I believe to be the record for Night Gallery appearances, Pettet starred in four mesmerizingly eerie segments which, due to their spectral eroticism and Pettet's mythic dream-girl persona, thoroughly captured my imagination and burned an indelible tattoo on my teenage psyche. Even now, some 40+ years later, I still find these episodes to be as hypnotically compelling and intoxicatingly seductive as ever.
As Mata Bond in the James Bond spy spoof Casino Royale

My initial familiarity with the work of Joanna Pettet stemmed from the TV broadcast of The Group (1966, her film debut) and falling in love with her (and her killer dimpled smile) as Mata Bond in the overstuffed spoof Casino Royale (1967). Both films are ensemble-cast efforts in which Pettet, by turns, distinguished herself splendidly as a talented dramatic actress and as an appealing light comedienne. But by the time she made her first Night Gallery appearance in 1970, the accessible, dimpled ingénue had been replaced by the slinky, strikingly beautiful, irrefutably dangerous '70s equivalent of the classic film noir Woman of Mystery.
As detailed in the marvelous book Rod Serling's Night Gallery: An After-Hours Tour by Scott Skelton and Jim Benson, Pettet consciously used her Night Gallery appearances to cultivate a mysterious, ethereal screen persona for herself. Adopting a contemporary "look" every bit as smoldering and distinctive in the '70s as Lauren Bacall's was in the '40s, Pettet offset the aloof quality of her rail-thin physique, long hair, and angular features with soft, gauzy "boho gypsy," "hippie chic" outfits from her own wardrobe. The combined effect was that of a modern seductress/enchantress: welcoming but unapproachable, a preternatural being who was very much of flesh and blood, yet something slightly less than real.
The dramatic landscape of early '70s television was largely male-centric, with women primarily occupying wife and girlfriend roles (Wonder Woman, The Bionic Woman, and Charlie's Angels would come along later). One of the reasons Pettet's Night Gallery episodes stood out so firmly in my mind is that she broke the mold. This was no girl; this was a woman. She wasn't pliable, she wasn't agreeable, she wasn't even attainable. She was a distinct feminine force operating from a place of her own needs and desires. Provocative in her mysteriousness, the men in these narratives were drawn into HER orbit, not the other way around. The characters she played were enigmas – entities perhaps, more than real women – but they exuded elegance, romance, sex, and danger. All contributing to Joanna Pettet being the perfect neo-noir femme fatale for an age that held precious little in the way of sexual mystery. 

The House - 1st Season: Air date December 30, 1970   
Everything Joanna Pettet would build upon to greater effect in future episodes of Night Gallery appears for the first time in "The House," a legitimately haunting ghost story that pivots 100% on Pettet's wispy, wraithlike persona. In "The House," directed by John Astin (Gomez of TV's The Addam's Family) and adapted by Rod Serling from a (very) short story by Andre Maurois, Pettet plays Elaine Latimer, a somewhat chimerical former sanitarium patient – "She's dreamy…Never walked. Just sort of wafted along like a wood sprite. Never put her two feet on the ground." – plagued by a recurring dream. Not a nightmare, but a tranquil, languorous dream in which she sees herself driving up to a secluded country house, knocking on its door, but always leaving just before the inhabitant answers.
The dream, a sun-dappled, slow-mo symphony of flowing hair and gossamer garments billowing in the wind, replays over and over in this episode, creating a truly hypnotic effect once the events of the story (she finds the dream house in real life, only to discover it is haunted...but by whom?) call into question the very nature of reality and illusion.
When a dream comes true, is it then a premonition? And when fantasy and reality merge, can one honestly know where one ends and the other begins?
Chasing Ghosts
Whenever anyone mentions Night Gallery, unfailingly, this is the episode that comes to mind. Embodying as it does every one of the qualities/liabilities listed above as representative of the series as a whole, "The House" is perhaps the quintessential Night Gallery episode. But in this instance, all that evasive dialog and narrative ambiguity really pay off in an indelibly atmospheric story that perhaps makes not a lick of sense, but captures precisely the strange, floating quality of dreams and the way they never quite seem to hold together in the bright light of day.
I was just 13 years old when this episode premiered in 1970, and trust me in this, you cannot imagine how deeply this episode got under my skin. To use the vernacular of the time, it was a mind-blower. It wasn't any one particular thing about the episode, but rather all of its elements combined to make it a uniquely unsettling TV experience. I mean, what kid can make sense of eerie eroticism? "The House" episode is one I never forgot, and I revisited it every chance I could when it cropped up on reruns. (In those pre-DVD days, anticipation played a significant part in the cultivating of pop-culture obsessions. Once a particular show aired, one had to content oneself with memory until the summer reruns came along.) 
The use of slow-motion photography, already an overused cliche in TV commercials and counterculture films of the day, feels oddly innovative and fresh in this episode's dream sequences 

Looking at the episode today, I still feel its fundamental appeal for me lies in its eerie mood and atmosphere of ambiguity. Something I'll attribute to its director, but only with the evenhanded observation that I'm certain none of it would have worked quite as well with another actress in the role. In all these years, I've never been able to put my finger on precisely what quality Pettet brings to this story. But it's essential and remains, rather appropriately, confoundingly elusive. 

Keep In Touch- We'll Think Of Something:  2nd Season: Air date Nov. 24, 1971
In this nifty Night Gallery outing, real-life couple Joanna Pettet and Alex Cord team up (for the first and only time in their 21-year marriage) in this supernatural update of the old film noir trope of the man who thinks he has all the answers, only to cross paths with a woman who's rewritten the book.
Directed and penned by Gene R. Kearney, screenwriter of one of my favorite underrated Diabolique-inspired thrillers: Games (1967), "Keep in Touch - We'll Think of Something" casts Cord as Erik Sutton, a musician who concocts elaborate, ever-escalating schemes to meet his dream girl. That is to say, a woman he has only seen in his dreams…he really has no idea if she is a real person or even exists. However, Sutton doesn't let the fact that she may only be a figment of his imagination dissuade him from exhausting and even harming himself in her pursuit.
Mr. Groovy
Long, styled hair; sideburns; porn-stache; rugged features; and a form-fitting
wardrobe of leather and suede. Alex Cord threw my adolescent hormones into overdrive

When he, at last, discovers the vision haunting his dreams is an actual, flesh-and-blood being – an unhappily-married woman of mystery named Claire Foster – we realize in an instant just why his search for her has been so fervent; for she comes in the exquisitely beautiful, vaguely celestial form of Joanna Pettet.
But if the visual compatibility of these two near-perfect physical specimens augers a fated meeting of two kindred spirits, then a plot twist revealing Sutton's object of obsession may harbor an obsession or two of her own paints these dream lovers in a decidedly darker palette.
"Keep in Touch" successfully builds upon the enigmatic dream-girl persona Joanna Pettet established so vividly in "The House." In fact, "Keep in Touch" feels in many ways like an "answer" episode to "House," incorporating as it does a similar "dreams vs. reality" narrative with a Cherchez le Femme overlay which has Alex Cord's character acting as the surrogate for every viewer left intrigued by Pettet and that earlier segment's ambiguity.
As a supernatural noir pair, Pettet and Cord make an outrageously sexy couple (in an über-hip, '70s way), their palpable chemistry placing one in the position of rooting for the couple's hookup even while sensing there to be something a tad duplicitous in the mystery woman's suspiciously empathetic manner.
Best of all, in the tradition of some of the best film noirs, the ostensibly objectified female turns out to be the more complex character and the one revealed to be holding all the cards. Once again, Joanna Pettet acquits herself nicely in a made-to-order episode and easily steals every scene with a persuasive performance and her unique star-quality presence.

The Girl With The Hungry Eyes - 3rd Season: Air date October 1, 1972
This episode is actually Joanna Pettet's fourth and final appearance on Night Gallery, but I've listed it here in the third position because it completes what I consider to be Pettet's Dream Girl Trilogy. A rather exceptional episode titled "The Caterpillar" precedes this one, but it's the sole Night Gallery outing to cast Pettet in a fundamentally traditional role. "The Caterpillar" casts her as a wife, a romantic ideal, and a lust object, all rolled into one. And though functional to the plot as a credible figure of desire for the male protagonist/villain, as written, her strictly ornamental character has no objectives to speak of, and does nothing to advance the plot herself.

"The Girl with the Hungry Eyes," on the other hand, is an answer to an adolescent fanboy's prayers. Adapted from a 1949 short story by Fritz Leiber and directed by John Badham (Saturday Night Fever, Reflections of Murder) "Hungry Eyes" is another updated nourish tale featuring an icy femme fatale; this time out, a soul vampire who lures men to their doom out of desire for her.
James Farentino plays David Faulkner, a down-on-his-luck photographer whose fortunes change (but luck runs out) when a nameless woman (Pettet, known simply as The Girl) wanders into his office wanting to be a model. Although lacking in modeling experience or even a personal history, The Girl proves a natural in front of the camera, skyrocketing Faulkner to fame as the exclusive photographer of the woman who has become, practically overnight, the hottest face in advertising.
Photographer to the stars Harry Langdon is credited with
all the photos attributed to James Farentino's character 

But for Faulkner, new-found success brings with it the nagging sense that he has unwittingly entered into some kind of Faustian bargain. Fearing that in exchange for riches, his photographs of The Girl - which seem to inflame an obsessive, trancelike desire in men - have unleashed a kind of vampiric scourge on the world, Faulkner seeks to unearth the mystery behind "the look" he's convinced sends men to their doom.
John Astin, director of "The House" episode of Night Gallery,
appears as Brewery magnate Mr. Munsch

Serving almost as meta-commentary on my own obsession with Joanna Pettet's Night Gallery career, "The Girl with the Hungry Eyes" builds a solid, very sexy supernatural suspenser around that indefinable something we all seek in (and project onto) those idealized creatures we deify in the name of fandom. And as a fitting vehicle for Pettet's final Night Gallery trilogy appearance, "Hungry Eyes" provides her with the opportunity to be the most forceful she's ever been. Playing a woman who doesn't suffer fools gladly, there's a kind of bitch-goddess kick to Pettet's cool awareness of exactly what kind of effect her looks have on men. A kick made all the more exciting because of the feminist subtext inherent in having a woman turning the tables of the objectifying "male gaze" on homicidal effect.
Pettet's character is fully in charge in this episode, and there's no small level of eroticism in the tug-of-war byplay she has with Farentino. With her husky voice, commanding presence, and penetrating gaze, Pettet comes across as more than a match for any man. Whether intentional or not, "The Girl with the Hungry Eyes" brings the Dream Girl Trilogy to a satisfying conclusion. The cumulative effect is a subtle and controversial point about the degree to which a woman owns herself and her appearance and to what extent men project their own fantasies upon them. 

Not to be ignored (and certainly fitting with a male adolescent's point of view) is the equally persuasive notion that these episodes embody a kind of naif, fear-of-women trilogy. In these episodes, sex and feminine allure are intrinsically connected with danger and death. 
However interpreted, what I now find I'm most grateful for is the way these episodes depicted women. They breathed fresh and provocative life into the feminine mystique, creating fascinating women of mystery during an era known for its "let it all hang out" transparency. In addition, they proved marvelous showcases for Joanna Pettet's versatility. They made the most of what I think is her one-of-a-kind ability to appear to inhabit the ethereal and corporeal worlds simultaneously.

The Caterpillar - 2nd Season:  Air date  March 1, 1972
My strong affinity for the episodes which make up the unofficial Joanna Pettet Dream Girl Trilogy is so firmly rooted in my adolescence and decades-long crush on Ms. Pettet; I concede that I speak of these episodes with nary a trace of objectivity. I have no idea how others respond to them; I only know they represent my absolute favorite episodes of the entire series. That said, I'm comfortable recommending the episode "The Caterpillar" as one of Night Gallery's best. One so successfully creepy and well-done, you don't have to be Pettet-infatuated to enjoy it.

Directed by Jeannot Szwarc (helmer of the terrific TV movie, A Summer Without Boys), this episode is another Rod Serling teleplay, adapted and significantly retooled from a short story by Oscar Cook titled Boomerang. A macabre Victorian-era love triangle set on a tobacco plantation in Borneo, "The Caterpillar" is a revenge tale with a nasty twist. It's about a man (Laurence Harvey) who devises a diabolical plan to win the beautiful wife (Pettet) of his elderly business partner (Tom Helmore). A plan that (as it must in shows like this) goes nightmarishly wrong. Laurence Harvey and character actor Don Knight star in the episode and walk off with the lion's share of honors in this atmospheric piece which I recall finding uncommonly creepy when I was young.
Joanna Pettet is once again the object of obsessive affection, but her role is so slight one is left to assume, overall quality of the script and production notwithstanding, that her longtime friendship with Laurence Harvey played a significant part in her accepting it. (She would co-star with Harvey in his final film–which he also directed–the oddball cannibal horror feature Welcome to Arrow Beach -1974.)  
While Pettet is photographed lovingly and offers a not-unpleasant change of pace as the reserved, principled wife of a man old enough to be her father; for me, it just feels like a waste of natural resources. She's beautiful, yes. And she does convey a certain mystery about her that makes you wonder just why a woman of such youth and refinement would be content in such an isolated environment, but I think Pettet brings this to the role; as written. I don't really think there's that much there.

Which brings up the issue of why these remarkable Night Gallery showcases failed to launch Pettet into the kind of stardom she deserved. Old Hollywood always seemed to know how to showcase their glamour stars (did Hedy Lamarr or Marlene Dietrich ever play a housewife?), not so much Hollywood in the '70s. In my opinion, Joanna Pettet wasn't particularly well-used by either television or films following her Night Gallery years. She remained a near-constant figure on episodic TV and Movies of the Week in the 70s, but her roles were akin to casting a diamond to play a Zircon. Appearing in projects that muted rather than emphasized her unique appeal, she just always struck me as so much better than a lot of her latter-career material. 

In 1967, Shirley MacLaine starred in an Italian anthology film titled Woman Times Seven. Because I consider these Night Gallery episodes to represent some of Joanna Pettet's best work, AND because this is a film blog, I've taken the liberty of visualizing Pettet's four TV excursions into the macabre as a single, four-episode anthology film; Woman Times Four, if you will. A tribute to one of my favorite underappreciated actresses of the '70s.  
All Night Gallery paintings by Thomas J. Knight

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2016

Wednesday, February 3, 2016


Before my recent essays on Mommie Dearest and Behind the Candelabra got me thinking about the form and function of the biographical movie as a genre, I don’t know that I’d ever given much thought as to what I personally look for in a biopic.

While I know I’m comfortable relinquishing a certain level of historical fidelity for the sake of drama and a filmmaker’s vision (for example, I don’t mind the glamorization and historical inaccuracies in 1967’s Bonnie & Clyde); I do find I lose patience with complete whitewash jobs that alter historical fact in an effort to sanitize the subject and adhere to a standardized Hollywood biofilm format (the 1946 Cole Porter biopic Night & Day turned the life of the homosexual composer into just another conventional heterosexual love story).

I guess when I’m really out to learn something about the life of a historical figure, I tend to go to a documentary or a book; but when it comes to biographical films, I don’t mind if a filmmaker plays fast and loose with the “facts” if in the end, what they deliver is some kind of “truth.”
And by that I mean, rather than simply chronicling the events of an individual’s life, I prefer when the director and writer of a biopic find a way to use the life story of a public figure to say something broader about humanity, art, the creative process, cultural myths, or the pernicious lure of fame and the American success ethic. In such instances, I gladly surrender encyclopedic accuracy to creative interpretation.
Ken Russell claimed his film was not so much the story of Tchaikovsky as it
was a commentary on the destructive force of dreams on reality
If I’m going to invest time watching a fictional reenactment of a real-life narrative (something to which even the most meticulous biopic must ultimately lay claim), I’m of a mind to look to the filmmaker who is capable of creating order out of chaos; able to find poetry within the banal; and willing to unearth something universal and profound in the neutral, haphazard events which make up a human life. Especially a life deemed exceptional enough to biographize.
So often, biopics hide behind the “based on true events” excuse to justify the overuse of clichés, coincidence, choppy storytelling, and flat characterizations. Storytelling flaws that would never pass muster in the construction of a purely fictional screenplay. I prefer when biographical movies make an attempt at hewing out a unique dramatic thrust of a story while still sticking somewhat closely to real-life events. Good biographical films are those which I can enjoy as stand-alone narratives. Stories that compel and keep my interest independent of any foreknowledge I have of the famous personality or the alleged veracity of the events depicted.
Tchaikovsky Triumphant
What Price Success?
Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980) is an excellent example of a biographical film transcending its subject material. The film works whether or not one has an interest in boxing or is unaware that Jake LaMotta was a real person. It's an emotionally and dramatically credible story buoyed by (but not reliant upon) being based on true events.
By way of contrast, Alan Parker's 1996 musical Evita (a project to which Ken Russell was briefly attached) has a fascinating and incredibly complex individual at its center, but the movie is so lacking in a point of view or perspective about its subject (due more perhaps to the flaws inherent in Andrew Lloyd Webber & Tim Rice's treatment), the entire film - which seems comprised exclusively of processions and marches - has no narrative thrust beyond "It actually happened!" historical regurgitation.

The one director whom I consider to be one of the screen’s most gifted fictional documentarians is Ken Russell, a director whose biopics lean to the wildly subjective, daringly interpretive, and highly stylized. His films and BBC TV plays about the lives of Rudolph Valentino, Franz Liszt, Gustav Mahler, Henri Gaudier, Isadora Duncan, and Claude Debussy, are splendid paradoxes: they are frustratingly fruitless sources of biographical fact, yet they're bountiful vessels of emotional honesty.
Richard Chamberlain as Peter IlyichTchaikovsky
Glenda Jackson as Antonina Milyukova
Christopher Gable as Count Anton Chiluvsky 
Izabella Telezynska as Madame Nadejda von Meck
Sabina Maydelle as Sasha Tchaikovsky
Ken Russell first became known to American audiences (this American audience, anyway) by way of his second film, the soporific 1967 Michael Caine spy thriller Billion Dollar Brain (his first feature film French Dressing – 1964, I’ve yet to see). While he indisputably hit his artistic stride with the poetic and well-received adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love (1969), Ken Russell, the baby-faced enfant terrible of cinematic excess who scandalized sensibilities and drove Pauline Kael to distraction, didn’t really show his face until his fourth film, the controversial and polarizing The Music Lovers.

Based on the 1937 book Beloved Friend: The Story of Tchaikovsky and Nadejda von Meck, The Music Lovers is Ken Russell’s fever-dream vision of the life of the famed 19th-century Russian composer. And I’m not just using fever dream as an easy expression. At times The Music Lovers looks exactly like the kind of overheated dream one would have after falling asleep listening to Tchaikovsky while pulling an all-nighter studying for an exam on the composer.
Kenneth Colley as Modeste Tchaikovsky
Originally titled The Lonely Heart, the film’s full title: Ken Russell's Film on Tchaikovsky and The Music Lovers clues us in that this is to be Ken Russell’s uniquely personal, subjectively emotional (some would say hysterical) look at the tortured life of the artist.

To the frenetic accompaniment of The Nutcracker’s “Dance of the Clowns,” the film’s first frames thrust us directly into the center of the joyous revelries of a Moscow winter carnival. This moment is important to savor, for it is one of the last times genuine happiness makes an appearance in the film outside of idealized images in impossible fantasies.

As he would do in his next film The Boy Friend (1971), Ken Russell uses the opening sequence of The Music Lovers to introduce all the film's major characters in context of their personalities and interrelationships – present and future – before we actually know who they are. This not only has the effect of heightening our visual alertness (we are asked to absorb and store narrative information we will draw upon later), but it invites us from the start to voluntarily surrender to what Russell will later demand: that we experience his film as pure sensation and emotion…just as one might experience Tchaikovsky’s compositions.

Born This Way
The Music Lovers presents Tchaikovsky's denial of his homosexuality as the source of his greatest torment. Our first glimpse of the composer, cavorting with his lover (Christopher Gable) at a winter fair, culminating in the pair collapsing drunk and contentedly in bed - is also the last time we ever see him happy

The full themes of The Music Lovers are revealed in the next sequence, which has all the individuals from the opening scene reassembled at the Moscow Conservatory on the occasion of Tchaikovsky’s debut of his Piano Concerto no.1 in B-flat Minor. Again utilizing a device employed to similar effect in The Boy Friend, Russell familiarizes us with the main players in his drama by granting us access to their fantasies and innermost desires. It is here that Tchaikovsky and each of his “loves” – his impassioned music; his sister Sasha, for whom he has a quasi-incestuous attachment; melancholy patron of the arts, Madame von Meck; the mentally unstable fantasist (and future wife of convenience) Nina; and his real but forbidden love, the foppish Count Chiluvsky – all reveal themselves to share a similar susceptibility and responsiveness to Romanticism and the Romantic Ideal.

The inherent unattainability of said ideal suggested by the extravagant-bordering-on-absurd visual extremes of each fantasy; its anguish reflected in the real-life self-contradiction that has nearly everyone in question falling desperately in love with precisely the person least capable of returning it.
Max Adrian as Nicholas Rubinstein
With desire charting the path of the conjoined destinies of these individuals, The Music Lovers takes the position that Tchaikovsky, a gay man tortured by his homosexuality and his inability to lead a life of emotional truth, poured all of his impassioned fantasies and romantic dreams into his music. In centering his film on an artist who struggled to create artistic truth while being untrue to himself, Russell provocatively posits whether an inauthentic life can ever produce authentic art.
Portrait of the Artist as a Babe
In photographing Tchaikovsky in a manner redolent of Hollywood's glamorized biographies of  historical figures, Ken Russell mocks the romantic myth of artists nobly suffering for their craft

I didn’t see The Music Lovers when it was first released, but following on the heels of the comparatively restrained Women in Love, I can only imagine what a shock to the system Russell's horrorshow take on the life of Tchaikovsky was to 1970 audiences. After all these years I think The Music Lovers' brash imagery, feverish performances and bold disregard for conventional storytelling (and historical accuracy) still has the power to astonish. 
Phallic Frenzy
Ken Russell's signature penis-themed imagery appears in this fantasy sequence in which Modeste, Tchaikovsky's pragmatic brother, vanquishes the parasitic "music lovers" in the composer's life
In no way, shape, or form is this a movie for all tastes. And indeed, I would agree with those who say it is fairly valueless as biography (although it did serve to spark my interest in the composer and led me to seek out the more traditional – but arguably just as false – Russian film on Tchaikovsky released in 1972) .
However, speaking as a confirmed dreamer, fantasist, and head-in-the-clouds romantic, I can’t praise Ken Russell enough for dramatizing in The Music Lovers precisely the conundrum that has always intrigued me about the arts, creativity, and the role of fantasy in our lives.
A spirited inner life is the common byproduct when restrictions are placed on the free expression and development of one’s true nature. So by framing the film’s central conflict around Tchaikovsky’s well-founded inability to come to terms with his homosexuality (it was illegal in Russia) and subsequent need to suppress his natural romantic desires in order to pursue his art (something Richard Chamberlain knew a thing or two about); The Music Lovers effectively explores fantasy from both sides of the issue.
Fear of scandal and a denial of self inspires Tchaikovsky to shun the affections of his lover, preferring instead to hide behind his sham marriage and his long-distance infatuation with benefactress, Madame von Meck 
The beauty of Tchaikovsky’s music alone is evidence of the redemptive power of fantasy. But Russell, in holding the composer’s life in contrast to his art, asks us to contemplate how it is that the same dreamy nature capable of bringing forth "Swan Lake" and "The Nutcracker" could also foster such a propensity for self-deception and (in his unfeeling use of Nina as a shield against gossip and his own fears about himself) selfishness. Tchaikovsky's infatuation with a Romantic Ideal gave the world great music, but in his personal life, it marred his perception and inhibited his ability to connect at all with any of the "music lovers" in his life in a realistic or even feeling manner.   
Bad Romance
Following an established pattern, Nina works herself into a romantic delirium over
an unprepossessing Russian hussar she's never met (actor Ben Aris, who played Sally Simpson's proselytizing father in Ken Russell's Tommy).

It's really saying something to note that in a resolutely emotional movie about a man who wrote resolutely emotional music, the central relationship between Tchaikovsky and Antonina “Nina” Milyukova stands out as one of the most impassioned. Tchaikovsky, against the wishes of his family and in an effort to conform to societal pressure, did in fact impulsively marry a woman he barely knew, a young music student from his conservatory. Their marriage was disastrous, the composer remaining married (the better to deflect rumors of his homosexuality) but deserting his wife within weeks of their wedding.

As envisioned by Russell, Tchaikovsky marries out of rebellious self-denial and romantic self-delusion, while Nina (Jackson) is depicted as just another dreamy fantasist. A mentally and emotionally unstable woman given to reckless romantic infatuations who sets her sights on wooing the composer because of his fame and stature. (I personally reject the nymphomaniac label, even in Russell's vision, simply because I’m weary of it being the lazy go-to word used by men who don’t know what else to call an actively sexual woman.) 
Nina Meets Her Rival
Costume designer Shirley Russell uses color to emphasize the connection between
 Tchaikovsky's actual and illusory loves. Christopher Gable & Richard Chamberlain later co-starred in the 1976 musical The Slipper and the Rose 

Biographers don’t tend to devote much space to the marriage, but Russell depicts Nina, and Tchaikovsky's cruel treatment of her, as a symbol of the film's theme. She's a tragic figure representing the destructive side of reality avoidance, her mental and emotional deterioration a hysterical indictment of Tchaikovsky's weakness of character and the false promises held forth by his unabashedly romantic compositions. 

The Music Lovers' most controversial scene (of many, I assure you) is the honeymoon train journey which finds the visibly repulsed Tchaikovsky trapped in a tiny carriage car with his drunk, sexually rapacious bride. As the car jostles violently back and forth, Nina, now nude and unconscious, rolls about on the floor as Tchaikovsky literally climbs the walls in horror and disgust.
None of it should work (it's practically a burlesque of a gay man's reaction to seeing a vagina) but somehow it does. 
And that the sexually-conflicted composer should be portrayed by a sexually-conflicted actor (Richard Chamberlain came out in 2003 when he was 68 years old) adds heaps of unexpected subtext to the already over-the-top proceedings.
In this scene from Russell's Women in Love, Gudrun Brangwen (Glenda Jackson) and the artist Loerke (Vladek Sheybal) engage in a bit of play-acting, assuming the roles of Nina and Tchaikovsky during their honeymoon journey on the Trans-Siberian Express (minus the nude rolling about on the floor part).

Although my childhood is full of memories of my sister's major crush on Richard Chamberlain during his Dr. Kildare days, I can't say that I've actually seen him in very much. Certainly not enough to gauge how successful he was in his bid to shed his teen heartthrob image and be taken seriously as an actor. I do know that as leading men go, he's very easy on the eyes, and that I can find no fault with his performance here. Called upon to depict Tchaikovsky as a man of near-operatic heights of anguish and rapturous longing, Chamberlain, in perhaps his least decorative role ever, is more animated and vivid than I've ever seen him.
Nina Ends Her Days In An Insane Asylum
It's Glenda Jackson, already a personal favorite, who stands out most in my memory. Delivering an affecting performance that can also be as broad as a barn when required, she's just a marvel to behold. Her showier scenes got all the critical notice (and lambasting), but it's her smaller moments (like the range of emotions that play across her face when she meets Tchaikovsky for the first time) that make her Nina a rivetingly sympathetic, dynamic, ultimately pitiable character.

I don't have the space to pay tribute to them all, but the entire cast of The Music Lovers is uniformly top-notch. Fans of Ken Russell will recognize his familiar band of repertory players, each contributing invaluably to the whole.
Beloved Friend
In love with both the man and his music, wealthy widow Madame von Meck (here with her twin sons) supports Tchaikovsky for thirteen years and is content to love him from afar

Ken Russell is known for being a visual director, and on that score, The Music Lovers doesn't disappoint. The lush imagery and sumptuous costumes are more than a match for Tchaikovsky's colorful compositions. But because Russell's films are such an assault on the senses, I sometimes think the soundness of the ideas behind his films get shortchanged.
My appreciation of The Music Lovers is rooted not in its status as biography, but in its thought-provoking themes examining the origins of artistic creativity and the heavy price that's often extracted.

When Richard Chamberlain came out as gay in his 2003 memoir Shattered Love, one of the things he was fond of saying during his media tour was that after a lifetime of living in fear, how liberating it was to finally be himself. Yet one of his strongest epiphanies was the realization that his being gay was the least interesting, most benign thing about him.
While I've no doubt of this being Chamberlain's reality, his observation fascinated me. It fascinated me because of its failure to recognize (or accept) that if one's sexuality prompts one to spend an entire life "in the closet" and engaged in the non-stop denial of one's true nature, it can hardly be called a benign issue because a lifetime of self-rejection HAS to shape personality, perception, and reality.
In the context of what Ken Russell explores in The Music Lovers, it's inconceivable to me that a life lived in total denial of who one actually is would fail to leave a mark on the soul of any sensitive individual...on the soul of an artist, most acutely.

In all its frenetic hysteria, The Music Lovers asks us to entertain the possibility that Peter Tchaikovsky, a romantic prohibited from freely expressing love as he would choose, was forced, because of his homosexuality, to channel all of his tortured emotions, suppressed pain, and unexpressed passion into his music. Russell doesn't use Tchaikovsky's homosexuality for shock value or fodder for gossip; he makes a case for the artist's socially-unacceptable sexuality being the very source of his creative genius. In Russell's vision, Tchaikovsky's homosexuality is neither benign nor is the defining aspect in the shaping of the man's character and the cause of his heartfelt romantic longing.

Leave it to Ken Russell - instead of just another biopic heralding the achievements of a famed composer, he constructed a sensual think-piece that invites me to contemplate the art as well as the artist.

The reason for this film's windy full title: Ken Russell's Film on Tchaikovsky and The Music Lovers, was so as not to be confused with the Russian film Tchaikovsky by Igor Talankin that came out that same year. (A 1970 production not released in the U.S. until 1972).
Innokenty Smoktunovsky as Tchaikovsky
This beautiful, more traditional recounting of the life of Tchaikovsky cost $20 million (to The Music Lovers' $3 million) was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar, and is available for viewing on YouTube HERE.

Copyright © Ken Anderson    2009 - 2016