Thursday, March 31, 2016

NOT WITH A BANG, BUT A WHIMPER: A List of Lamentable Last Films

“This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.”   - T.S. Eliot   

It can’t be easy maintaining a film career. The practical side of the motion picture business doesn’t readily correspond with an artist's desire to work well and consistently while trying to hold onto whatever faint vestiges of integrity and self-respect are left intact after one is deemed no longer young or the pop-culture “flavor of the month.” Fans, critics, and rear-view-mirror biographers tend to speak of an actor’s career and body of work as though they are things strategically orchestrated and mapped out. Perhaps in some cases this is true, but for the most part, the cold realities of the business of fame suggests an actor’s lingering legacy is often the result of nothing more premeditated than the serendipitous meeting of talent, luck, ambition, and tenacity.

A film career of any length is bound to have its ups and downs, but if an actor is lucky, the ups outnumber (or outweigh) the bad to sufficient degree as to have little impact on time’s overall evaluation of an actor's merits. Because Hollywood films ween us on happy endings and tidy conclusions, perhaps this breeds in us an expectation (or hope) that the careers of our favorite stars culminate in films and performances worthy and emblematic of their lifetime achievements, in toto.

Occasionally it works out: as in John Wayne, dying of cancer in real-life, portraying an aging gunman dying of cancer in his last film The Shootist (1976); or Sammy Davis Jr. appearing as a revered, aging tap-dancer in Tap (1989) his final film. But all too often stars with illustrious early careers bow out in vehicles severely at odds with their cumulative talent, reputations, and dignity.
So here's a list of the less-than-celebrated last films of a few of my favorite actors. An unlucky list of 13 movies - indicative of nothing deeper than a movie fan's wish that these talented stars had been shown to better advantage in their final movie roles.
1. Mae West — Last Film: Sextette (1978)
The final film of screen legend Mae West turned out to be something of a good news/bad news affair. The good news being that the self-enchanted octogenarian ended her four-decade movie career in a name-above-the title star vehicle (vanity project) designed as a tribute to her image and career. The bad news, of course, is that I’m referring to Sextette: an ill-advised, fan-produced exercise in celebrity exploitation so unflattering to its leading lady, it essentially ends up being a 90-minute exercise in character assassination and idol-smashing...set to a disco beat.
Shoulda Quit While I Was Ahead: My Little Chickadee (1940) 

2. Laurence Harvey  — Last Film: Welcome to Arrow Beach (1974)
Speaking in terms of equal opportunity, it’s nice to know that late-career leading men are as susceptible to the beckoning charms of the B-grade horror film as the cadre of older actresses populating that subgenre known as Grand Dame Guignol. On the heels of appearing with gal pal Joanna Pettet in a 1972 episode of TVs Night Gallery, and co-starring with longtime friend Elizabeth Taylor in Night Watch (1973); Oscar nominee Laurence Harvey (Room at the Top - 1959) went the full  slasher route in the rarely-seen cheapie Welcome to Arrow Beach. Appearing again with (VERY) good friend Joanna Pettet, Harvey underplays a military vet with a cannibalistic taste for hitchhiking hippie chicks and blowsy booze hounds. Looking gaunt from the stomach cancer that would claim his life before this film was released, Harvey also directed this bloody exploitationer which rode a short-lived 70s trend of cannibalism-themed horror movies. I remember seeing this as a teen (under the alternate title, Tender Flesh) on a double bill with the another  cannibal horror film, The Folks at Red Wolf Inn (1972). I guess we all have our low moments.  View trailer HERE
Shoulda Quit While I Was Ahead: Night Watch (1973)

3. Joan Crawford — Last Film: Trog (1970)
As a journalist once noted, the boon and bane of every Crawford fan has always been the actress’s dogged professionalism. No matter how low she'd fallen (and Trog is about as low as it gets) Crawford always emoted as though Louis B. Mayer were still breathing down her neck. Crawford’s co-star in Trog is a professional wrestler in a rubbery Halloween mask (Joe Cornelius), but by the level of her intensity and commitment, you’d think she was acting opposite Franhcot Tone. And while this trait is certainly admirable, it has the unfortunate effect of making Joan appear to be performing in a vacuum; acting her ass off independent of the tone and timbre of the scene, not really relating to her co-stars. In Trog, Joan – looking tiny and occasionally pretty well-oiled – plays an anthropologist who attempts to tame a "Kill-crazy fiend from hell!” amidst public outcry and resistance. As always, Joan is the best thing in it (on my personal Camp-o-meter, anyway), but this B-horror movie programmer is so beneath her talents it makes the schlock she made for William Castle look dignified.
Shoulda Quit While I Was Ahead: Berserk (1967)

4. Gene Kelly — Last Film: Xanadu (1980)
A curious inclusion given how much I love this film and how, considering what he had to work with, I actually think Gene Kelly acquits himself rather nicely.
But I have to admit I've always found my enjoyment of Kelly in this musical to be running neck and neck with a sense of missed opportunities and a disappointment in how poorly he’s served by this charming but rather weak vehicle as a whole. Xanadu is nothing if not respectful of the influential actor/singer/dancer/director/choreographer who helped shape the face of the modern movie musical; it’s just that he’s let down by an insipid script, sabotaged by editing and camerawork which fails to understand the rhythms of dance (or rollerskating...they cut off his feet!), and is left to play third-fiddle to two low-wattage leads who fail to possess even a fraction of his screen charisma. So while Xanadu is not exactly a career embarrassment (I'd say that honor goes to his direction of Hello, Dolly! & The Guide for the Married Man), it ranks as a poor representation and send-off for the genius that was Gene Kelly.
Shoulda Quit  While I Was Ahead: The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)

5. Gloria Swanson — Last Film: Airport ’75 (1974)     
In this loopy sequel (of sorts) to 1970’s Airport, silent screen star Gloria Swanson appears as herself and makes up for all those mute years by never shutting up. Swanson’s not onscreen a great deal ‒ although it feels like it since, in a film overrun with nuns (Helen Reddy, for one), Swanson makes the curious choice of dressing exactly like a nun who’s been to a couturier ‒ but when she is onscreen you can bet she’s talking about herself. Ostensibly under the guise of dictating her memoirs to her self-medicating secretary (Planet of the Apes’ Linda Harrison or Augusta Summerland, who knows a thing or two about keeping quiet), Swanson, who is said to have written her own dialog, captures perfectly what it’s like to be in the company of an actor: they are always their own favorite topic of discussion.
Overlooking the suspense-killing casting of having Swanson playing herself in a fictional narrative (what are they gonna do, have her get sucked out a window?), her role feels like a far-in-advance infomercial for her 1980 memoir Swanson on Swanson. A title describing the entire thrust of Swanson's self-enamored characterization here.
Shoulda Quit While I Was Ahead: Sunset Blvd. (1950)

6. Dean Martin / Frank Sinatra — Last Film: Cannonball Run II (1984)
Although I tend to consider myself a child of the '60s & '70s, and therefore lay no claim to the cinema atrocities committed in the 80s; the next time I go on a jeremiad about the craptastic bros-before-hos movie oeuvre of Adam Sandler and Kevin James, someone needs to remind me that Burt Reynolds – an actor from my generation – pretty much originated the lazy buddy comedy genre. That's when you find someone to pay for you and your pals to get together and have a good time, hand somebody a camera, film it, slap a title on it, and then call it a movie.
I never saw the original The Cannonball Run (1981) but the appeal of having the '60s Rat Pack reunited onscreen in this movie (Sinatra, Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. & Shirley MacLaine all appear) got the better me, and so I watched it one night on cable TV. With this movie (and I use the term loosely) I discovered that nostalgia is no match for a film that clearly holds its audience in low regard. The level of contempt this movie has for the intelligence of its audience is palpable and pungent. Dean Martin dares you to call him on the obvious fact that he really doesn’t give a shit, and Frank Sinatra looks exactly like someone dutifully following through on a favor/obligation. Dreadful. An unspeakably depressing last film for two of my favorites.    
Shoulda Quit While I Was Ahead: Airport (1970) / The First Deadly Sin (1980)

7. Elizabeth Taylor  — Last Film: The Flintstones  (1994)    
Beyond the garden-variety complaint that Hollywood never seems to know how to properly showcase stars once they cease to be young, I’ve no objection to an actress of Elizabeth Taylor’s magnitude and reputation being cast as Fred Flintstone’s harridan of a mother-in-law (one Pearl Slaghoople) in a live-action version of the enduring 60s primetime TV cartoon show (inspired by the live-action The Honeymooners). Indeed, given Taylor’s sense of humor about herself, lack of pretension, and past success in playing shrews and shrill, fishwife types, it’s actually a pretty cool idea.
My problem lies with how dismal a comedy The Flintstones turned out to be. Taylor's role is little more than an extended walk-on, but in it, she's saddled with some strenuously unfunny material that she doesn't handle particularly well. There's so little to The Flintstones beyond the wittily prehistoric costumes, sets, and special effects (it's all concept, no content), that one is left with too much time to contemplate why the only laughs the film earns derive from how accurately the production team has captured some device or creature recognizable from the cartoon. Taylor (sporting that awful Jose Eber feathered helmet hairdo she adopted at the time) has definitely been better, was capable of better, and I only wish she had been given better.
Shoulda Quit While I Was Ahead: The Mirror Crack’d (1980)

8. Peter Sellers — Last Film: The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu (1980)
It’s anybody’s guess how this flat, misguided comedy ever got beyond the planning stages, but avarice likely played a role in this unsuitable-for-release trainwreck ever seeing the light of day (it was released weeks after Sellers’ death). Fandom fuels a desire to see the last professional efforts of any favored celebrity, but it’s hard to imagine any Peter Sellers fan deriving much joy from this slogging crime comedy. A film which also served as the last screen role for Mary Poppins’ David Tomlinson and features Helen Mirren impersonating Queen Mary, the grandmother of Queen Elizabeth II, whom Mirren would win an Oscar portraying 26-years later. Sellers was a comic genius who made a career out of disappearing behind impersonation, but by the '80s his extended yellowface Fu Manchu shtick was strictly cringe material. Matters aren’t helped much by Sellers (ill at the time) playing dual roles: bored & tired.
Shoulda Quit While I Was Ahead: Being There (1979)

9. Tallulah Bankhead —  Last Film: Die! Die! My Darling!  (1965) 
This one’s a bit of an academic call. A call resting both on the awareness of Tallulah Bankhead being an esteemed stage actress whose motion picture appearances were rare (thus branding this Z-grade exercise in Hag Horror as a film far beneath her talents); and the full understanding that no one in their right mind would care to deprive the world of Bankhead’s mesmerizingly over-the-top performance in said Psycho-Biddy gothic. Bankhead is too fine an actor for a title like Die! Die! My Darling! to stand as the representative coda to her brief film career, but as a longstanding connoisseur of camp, I can’t deny that I’m forever grateful to her for having undertaken it.
Shoulda Quit While I Was Ahead: A Royal Scandal (1945)

10. Bette Davis — Last Film: Wicked Stepmother (1989) 
It’s kind of a good thing this chaotic comedy about a homewrecking witch (Davis) is so aggressively unfunny, for the sight of the frail, reed-thin, surgically tightened, post-stroke, eerily animatronic Bette Davis croaking out her lines while chain-smoking like a madwoman is a bonafide laugh-killer. A problem-plagued production that had the ailing, dissatisfied Davis deserting the film shortly after shooting began (resulting in her onscreen time amounting to slightly less than 15-minutes), Wicked Stepmother may have brought Davis a hefty paycheck and yet another opportunity to work – something obviously very important to her – but beyond the curiosity value of seeing one of Hollywood's greats in her last film roe, the whole affair has a ghoulish feel to it.
The only joke in the film that works is a brief sight gag revealing the late wife of Davis' new husband (Lionel Stander) was Joan Crawford.
Shoulda Quit While I Was Ahead: The Whales of August (1987)

11. Charles Boyer — Last Film: A Matter of Time  (1976)
Charles Boyer is an interesting case. He dodged having to be shackled with Ross Hunter’s Lost Horizon (1973) as his last film by following up that misstep with the stylish Alan Resnais film Stavisky…; a fine and suitably distinguished movie to end his career. Unfortunately, Boyer dodged the Ross Hunter bullet only to jump into the firing line of Vincente Minnelli’s calamitous A Matter of Time (1976). A film which not only reunited Boyer with the director of two of his earlier films (The Cobweb and The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse), but reunited him with his Arch of Triumph and Gaslight co-star, Ingrid Bergman.
Hopes couldn’t have been higher when it was announced Vincente Minnelli (making his first film since 1970s On a Clear Day You Can See Forever) was going to direct daughter Liza (in need of a hit after Lucky Lady) in a lavish costume drama. Without going into the ugly details behind a problem-plagued production, suffice it to say A Matter of Time didn’t do anybody’s resumés any favors. Boyer, as the husband of dotty Contessa Bergman, is really rather good. It’s the film that’s such a mess.
Shoulda Quit While I Was Ahead: Stavisky…(1974)

12. Lucille Ball — Last Film: Mame (1974)  
Mame was released with a ton of hoopla and cheery smiles all around, but once the smoke cleared (and a few years had passed) what were we left with? A star who claimed making the film “was about as much fun as watching your house burn down”; a costar (Bea Arthur) who went on record stating, “It was a tremendous embarrassment. I’m so sorry I did it,” and that the leading lady was “terribly miscast”; a discontented composer (Jerry Herman); and a marriage dissolved (according to Arthur, her husband – Gene Saks, Mame’s director – used emotional blackmail to get her to do the movie: “As my wife you owe it to me to play this part.”).
Mame was to be TV legend Lucille Ball’s return to the silver screen, but reviews and reception to the film were so harsh, this $12-million misstep was her swan song. Oops! Maybe it’s not polite to bring up singing in this context.
Shoulda Quit While I Was Ahead: The Long Long Trailer (1953)

13. Barbara Stanwyck — Last Film: The Night Walker (1964) 
After playing a bordello madam (Walk on the Wild Side) and appearing in an Elvis Presley movie (Roustabout), I guess Barbara Stanwyck decided to make her career degradation complete by working for William Castle. The Night Walker is a somewhat listless, surprisingly gimmick-free William Castle melodrama that, while not doing much for Stanwyck, at least reunited her with former hubby and co-star Robert Taylor.
As always, Stanwyck and her trademark intensity are fascinating to watch and the only worthwhile elements in a film that really would have been just fine as an episode of one of those suspense anthology TV programs (although the really creepy music by Vic Mizzy is effective as hell).
Happily, with the movies treating her so shabbily, it's nice to know television provided Stanwyck with some of her finest latter-career moments (I'm crazy about her performance in The Thorn Birds).
Shoulda Quit While I Was Ahead: Walk on the Wild Side (1962)

"I am big! It's the pictures that got small."
Norma Desmond - Sunset Blvd.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Tuesday, March 22, 2016


To a major extent, mid-‘70s Hollywood was a bit of a boys’ club sandbox overrun with buddy films and disaster movies in which women were required to do little more than support the dreams of the hero, or sit around waiting to be rescued. Jane Fonda, Karen Black, and Faye Dunaway divvied up the few plum, non-“clinging girlfriend” roles to be found (Liza Minnelli & Barbara Streisand being not-quite-human entities unto themselves); while Glenda Jackson remained in demand for parts requiring the kind of accessible, high-toned hauteur American actresses tend to look ridiculous trying to carry off outside of TV soap operas.

But even a two-time Oscar-winner like Jackson must have found it tough going, for in order to play something other than co-starring roles opposite then-bankable stars like George Segal and Walter Matthau —roles for which she was grossly overqualified—financing for her films had to come from unusual places: an independent patron of the arts (Ely Landau: The Maids), a cosmetics company (Brut: Hedda), and a magazine publisher (Reader’s Digest: The Incredible Sarah).
Readers Digest. I can’t even look at those words without picturing the stacks of unappealing-looking mini-magazines which seemed to grow like weeds in the corners of my grandmother’s living room. And don’t get me started on those volumes of Reader’s Digest condensed books. Condensed books…what was up with that?
But I digress. For a time in the 1970s, Reader’s Digest was in the movie business, producing a string of “Family Classics” (often musicals) based on works of literature. There was Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer (1973) and Huckleberry Finn (1974), and an adaptation of Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop titled Mr. Quilp (1975). The British arm of Reader’s Digest deviated from G-rated kiddie fare and produced this PG-rated biographical drama about the life of French actress Sarah Bernhardt. Certainly, the notion of having Glenda Jackson, the greatest actress of the 20th century, portraying Sarah Bernhardt, the greatest actress of the 19th century, must have struck everyone as ideal. Indeed, in 1971 Ken Russell entertained the idea of making a Bernhardt bio-pic with Jackson after first-choice Barbra Streisand(!) failed to follow through. 

But alas, Glenda Jackson, in spite of having garnered an Oscar nomination the previous year for Hedda, was in a bit of a career slump, having not appeared in a hit film since 1973's A Touch of Class; a slump not reversed until House Calls in 1978. The modestly-budgeted The Incredible Sarah was released in November of 1976, just when the studios were going full bore (pun intended) with its saturation promotion of the high-profile Christmas releases of Streisand's A Star is Born remake, and Dino De Laurentiis' King Kong reboot.
With Bernhardt neither a household name nor a familiar face (a star of the stage, Bernhardt nevertheless made a few silents and talkies) and only lukewarm reviews to assist it, 
The Incredible Sarah came and went without much notice or fanfare.
Glenda Jackson as Sarah Bernhardt
Daniel Massey as  Victorien Sardou
John Castle as Aristides Damala
Douglas Wilmer as Adolphe Montigny
Bridget Armstrong as Marie

The Incredible Sarah has occupied a spot on my list of holy grail films (out-of-print or hard-to-find movies I’ve always wanted to see) for a whopping 40-years now. The initial San Francisco Bay Area run of The Incredible Sarah in 1976 was so brief; it seemed to disappear from theaters before I even knew it had opened. In the ensuing years, I’ve no recollection of it appearing on either broadcast television or cable TV, and its release on VHS in 1992 was one of the best-kept secrets in the video rental business.

So it was with no small degree of excitement when—that after all these years—I discovered it on YouTube just a month ago and was finally afforded the opportunity to watch personal fave Glenda Jackson in what was to be one of the last of her major “star” vehicles. Always a critical and Academy Award favorite, Jackson was never really a populist favorite in the States. Though TV audiences took to Jackson in the BBC via PBS broadcast of  the miniseries Elizabeth R, her biggest successes tended to come from being paired with likable, light comedy male co-stars capable of “softening” her somewhat remote, intellectual image.

Well, there’s no denying that merely seeing The Incredible Sarah after such a long period of anticipation is gratifying in and of itself, and certainly the remarkable Glenda Jackson doesn’t disappoint. However, no amount of fandom, expectancy, or nostalgia can make this wholly undistinguished, startlingly old-fashioned bio-pic into anything more than a fabulous Glenda Jackson showcase (she's had better) and well-intentioned, honorable misfire.

I don’t know much about the life of Sarah Bernhardt—which, under the circumstances proved a distinct and decided advantage. But I do know a thing or two about show biz biographical movie clichés; an awareness which turned large segments of The Incredible Sarah into a bordering-on-camp laundry list of hoary bio-pic tropes.
King Lear - 1866
The Incredible Sarah chronicles the life of acclaimed French actress Sarah Bernhardt (born Rosine Bernardt) between the years 1863 to 1890 (taking her from age 19 to roughly 45; something it helps to know since the only person to visibly age in this film is her illegitimate child). From her inauspicious beginnings at the Comédie Française through her gradual emergence as one of the principal players at the Odéon Theatre, Bernhardt is depicted as a headstrong individualist and rebel, drawn to the calling of acting simply because…well, that’s never quite explained beyond her stating it's “Something I have to do!”—which could well be applied to getting one’s eyebrows tweezed.

On her path to becoming hailed as an international star and earning the name “The Divine Sarah,” Bernhardt is briefly shown appearing in several of her classic roles: King Lear, Le Passant, Phaedra,  The Lady of the Camellias, & Joan of Arc. Meanwhile, her offstage life rivals her stage performances in theatricality and excess. There’s the aforementioned illegitimate child born of a Belgian prince; her household menagerie of animals; her habit of sleeping in a coffin; her many lovers; her interest in sculpting; her legendary temperament; her stage fright; and her unpropitious marriage to a handsome Greek attaché. Lest we get the impression Bernhardt’s life was one rosy romp of self-interest and accolades, we’re also shown how she selflessly turned the Odéon Theatre into an infirmary during the Franco-German War, and battled an unsympathetic public judgmental of her wicked, wicked ways. 
The Incredible Sarah ends on a high note—some 33-years before Bernhard’s death at age 78—with her triumphant portrayal of Joan of Arc. As the film faded to black, I was left with the dual sensations of feeling how much I really missed Glenda Jackson and wondering about the film (like Bacharach’s Alfie), what’s it all about?
Le Passant  - 1869
I was entertained throughout (how can one NOT be entertained watching Glenda Jackson?), but save for a scene in the theater converted into an infirmary, strangely unmoved by anything that transpired between the characters. I loved the elaborate costumes, hairstyles, ornate art direction, and, here and there, even a performance that wasn’t Jackson’s, but I never got a sense of the film having anything particular to say about its subject. I thought I'd certainly come away with at least more knowledge about Sarah Bernhardt's life than when I arrived, but given that the film begins with the disclaimer: “This motion picture is a free portrayal of events in her tempestuous early career,” can I even say that?

I’m too much of a fan of the freewheeling liberties of Ken Russell’s biographical films to hew to the notion that historical accuracy and chronological fealty equal a good bio-pic. That The Incredible Sarah plays fast and loose with the facts doesn’t trouble me so much as the fact it has (for me, anyway) no point of view, perspective, or motivation beyond Bernhardt being a notable person whose life deserves recording.

The closest thing I could glean, and perhaps this was more obvious in ’76, is that The Incredible Sarah, in being a film produced and written by women (Helen M. Strauss & Ruth Wolff, respectively) sought to present a notable historical female figure in a feminist light. And indeed, it is refreshing to see a woman deciding for herself what is important in her life and not having her womanhood or value as a person called into question because she chooses the career path. But this theory is undermined a bit by the script making Bernhardt's chief adversary a woman jealous of Sarah stealing her man.
On the whole, The Incredible Sarah ranks as the perfect kind of historical film to show in school history classes or something. As a stand-alone entertainment with no lessons to impart to impressionable minds, I’m afraid The Incredible Sarah  measured up as being a must-see vehicle for Glenda Jackson enthusiasts like myself, but an easy pass for the general film fan. 
Phaedra - 1879

Liking Glenda Jackson as much as I do, it’s very rewarding to see her in a film where not only is she front and center (and given very little in the way of competition), but she’s photographed flatteringly and made to look movie-star glamorous in a multitude of sumptuous, Oscar-nominated costumes by Anthony Mendelson (Macbeth, Young Winston).
The film is handsomely mounted (its only other Oscar nomination came for Art Direction: Elliot Scott & Norman Reynolds) and it's something of a feast to see Jackson in every single scene, playing the classics, hamming it up, being funny...basically being given free rein in a film designed to showcase her talents. But alas, I’m aware of clinging to these particular joysall centered around the film's starbecause the very weak screenplay gives Jackson quite a lot to do, but not very much she can to sink her teeth into. When she's not reciting the words of the Masters, Jackson is saddled with some of the most mundane dialogue imaginable.
Simon Williams portrays Henri de Ligne, a Belgian prince with whom Bernhardt has a child out of wedlock
Directed by Richard Fleischer, whose skills run the gamut from the outstanding 10 Rillington Place-1971 to the laugh-a-minute vulgarity that is Mandingo-1975, The Incredible Sarah is so old-fashioned in its construction and execution, it feels as though it were made at least a decade earlier. 
Joan of Arc - 1890

A film about the world’s greatest actress would be terribly embarrassing without an actress about whom those words could be uttered onscreen without inciting laughter, so the casting of Glenda Jackson is perfection on that score. Where things get a little dicey is that, for all her skill as an actress, Glenda Jackson's innate intelligence seems incapable of being tamped down. Coming across as the human personification of common sense, level-headedness, and reason, Jackson doesn't exactly convince when trying to depict Bernhardt’s rootless flamboyance and fiery nature. Jackson doesn’t have a frivolous bone in her body. And so while it’s fun when she gets to run amok in not one, but two rip-and-tear temper tantrum scenes, the effort in trying to appear irrational shows.
Perhaps counting on the plausible likelihood that not many people caught his Golden Globe-winning, Oscar-nominated performance as Noel Coward in the 1968 Julie Andrews flop Star! (anther biopic about an actress few Americans were familiar with), Daniel Massey essentially repeats himself and gives the same performance. Massey and Jackson had previously co-starred in 1971's Mary, Queen of Scots

Much like the joyless Anthony Hopkins was a bust in his vulgar showman scenes in 1978's Magic, but ideal for the off-his-rocker stuff; sound-as-a-dollar Glenda Jackson is an ideal fit for Sarah Bernhardt the brilliant actress; but as an eccentric narcissist, she has both feet a little too firmly planted on the ground to make it work.  
Sarah Bernhardt relaxes in the coffin she traveled with

The Incredible Sarah and the show business biofilm cliché checklist: 
Scene in which the artist conveniently declares her life’s ambition aloud (Funny Girl, Sparkle, The Loves of Isadora, Star!).
Scene depicting the artist’s unbridled, unsubstantiated self-confidence (Funny Girl, Sparkle, The Loves of Isadora, Star!)
Scene where artist makes amusingly disastrous performing stage debut (Funny Girl, The Loves of Isadora, Lady Sings the Blues, Love Me or Leave Me, Star!)
The confidant to whom the artist can give voice to her inner yearnings and provide plot exposition (Funny Lady, The Loves of Isadora, Lady Sings the Blues, Star!)
The bad marriage trope (Funny Girl, Star!, Sparkle, The Loves of Isadora
The so-called comic scene depicting Sarah Bernhardt's calamitous stage debut could have been
 lifted directly from an episode of That Girl

I've watched The Incredible Sarah twice. The first time I was just too taken with the pleasure of at last seeing it to be able to access it with any objectivity. On the second go-round, its script flaws stood out a great deal more (events happen in biographical films because "they really happened"...screenwriters don't always concern themselves with making sure the events and character motivations fit a narrative logic. Real life is haphazard; I tend to like a little more structure in my drama. Even biographical drama), but I was happily surprised by how much the film is buoyed and made pleasurable by Glenda Jackson alone.
It isn't one of her best performances (as stated earlier, I was largely left unmoved) but it's a good one. Much better in my opinion than her Oscar-winning turn in A Touch of Class (1973). The Incredible Sarah didn't live up to my expectations, but I have to say, Glenda Jackson, even with weak material, is still the personification of incredible.


The Incredible Sarah concerns itself with the actress' early career. Sarah Bernhardt was one of the first stage actors to appear in film. Here is a clip of the real Sarah Bernhardt playing Hamlet in her 1900 film debut. 
She made several other films and continued to tour and perform onstage even after the amputation of a leg in 1915. In addition to acting, she managed and directed her own theater company, sculpted, and published a novel and a memoir of questionable veracity. She passed away in 1922 at the age of 78.

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2016

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

"WHERE'S YOUR FILM SECTION?" A Movie Lover's Bookshelf

My family moved around a lot when I was young, so new cities and new schools were a commonplace part of my upbringing. But commonplace doesn't mean easy. Having to always adapt to new people and new surroundings contributed to my being a very quiet and shy young man who kept to himself and didn't make friends easily. 

At home, I retreated into watching movies on TV. But during lunch hours, after school, and on weekends (when I wasn't sitting for hours in a darkened movie house) I haunted the bookstalls at the local library. For as long as I can remember I've loved reading books about Hollywood, filmmaking, and the movie industry. So much so that in every public library in each new city and at every used and new bookstore in each town, my first question of inquiry was always: "Where's your film section?" - and there I'd literally spend hours engrossed in a world which seemed as distant and fantastic as any sci-fi adventure or futuristic fantasy.
My love of reading about film continues to this day, my home bookcases bulging with so many volumes it looks like the film reference section of a research library (I can't really get into e-books - I still like the heft and feel of hardcover books). 
At the request of a reader of this blog, I thought I'd list a few of my favorite Hollywood/film-related books. Not a comprehensive list by a longshot, and not a list to be taken as "recommended reading." Merely a few of the titles that come fondly to mind when asked about books I've enjoyed over the years. (The one restriction I've applied is that I've limited my list exclusively to books I own.)

Since my partner shares my love of exploring the few used bookstores still in existence in the LA area, I'm hoping some of you might perhaps share the names of some of your favorite film-related books. One never can tell what gems will be unearthed!

The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman’s Masterpiece by Jan Stuart / 2000 — Since it looks like the once-proposed 10-hour miniseries version of Nashville ABC-TV was at one time interested in will never see the light of day (made up of all the unused footage from Robert Altman's 1975 opus), this impressively comprehensive behind-the-scenes account of the making of one of my favorite films is an invaluable substitute. A vision of personal filmmaking I can only imagine is long gone in this day of the corporate franchise.

Hitchcock -Truffaut  by François Truffaut Francois Truffaut / 1966  —  I have yet to see the 2015 documentary based on the legendary eight-day interview French director François Truffaut had with Alfred Hitchcock in 1962, but when I read this book in 1970, it was my very first in-depth glimpse into what had heretofore been something we regular folks could only guess at: the job of the director. I know I said none of the books on my list could be called "recommended reading," but if you love film at all, I'd call this book mandatory reading.

Ever, Dirk: The Bogarde Letters Edited by John Coldstream / 2008 —  Academic film study is all well and good for understanding the nuts-and-bolts side of filmmaking; but nothing beats a book where a celebrity lets their hair down and exposes the mundanity behind the art. This massive collection of letters written by actor Dirk Bogarde between 1969 and 1999 (a period when he eased into becoming an author of six novels and eight guarded autobiographies) is enjoyable in direct proportion to your fondness for the actor (I adore him) and love of casual bitchery ( I plead the Fifth). Bogarde refers to Glenda Jackson as "Tits Jackson," thinks Michael Caine has "the ugliest voice in the business," and had this to say about the stars of 1976s Logan's Run: "...even (Tyrone) Power was better than the homogenized sexlessness of (Michael) York or Fawcett Major...she sounds like a Public School or some village in green Wilshire. Is she?"

For Keeps by Pauline Kael / 1994  — Perhaps because there were so many films I wanted to see that I wasn't allowed to, when I was young I developed a passion for reading film criticism. I pored over collections of the writings of Stanley Kauffmann and John Simon, but I credit Pauline Kael exclusively with really teaching me how to look at movies and for introducing me to the still-revolutionary notion that we don't love a film because it's "good"; we love a film because it speaks to us. Happily, I've been able to find her earlier books on eBay, but this career collection of more than 275 of her reviews and essays is pure bliss. Even when she goes off in directions I don't agree with, I always related to her passion and way with words.

Edge of Midnight: The Life of John Schlesinger by William J. Mann  / 2005 — The life and career of the magnificent director of Darling, Midnight Cowboy, and The Day of the Locust are examined in this thorough and thoroughly engaging biography written with the participation and co-operation of Schlesinger himself. Outrageously informative and insightful in its conveyance of artistic genius in a modest man who rarely saw himself as a trailblazer and creator of some of the most enduring works in cinema.

The Busby Berkeley Book by Tony Thomas / 1973 — The occasion of my getting this book is a particularly happy memory, as it was an early 16th birthday present from one of the rare occasions in my mid-teens when the entire family went to the movies together. The film was Neil Simon's The Heartbreak Kid and it was playing on Polk Street in San Francisco at the Royal Theater. The line for the movie was long so we were stalled for some time in front of the bookstore on the corner. The Busby Berkely Book was part of the store's window display and I had been chattering away to one of my sisters about how, after seeing Ken Russell's The Boy Friend (1971), I had become such a fan of Berkeley's movies. So caught up in the topic, I didn't pay much heed when my mom sent my eldest sister off to check on our parking meter. As it turns, out, my mom actually gave my sister money to go into the bookstore to purchase this book. A book I vocally lusted after, but which seemed too grand and costly a purchase (a whopping $15) to seriously entertain.
As any adolescent is likely to attest; when a parent gives even the slightest sign of knowing what is of importance to their child, it feels like the most extravagantly heartwarming acknowledgment and validation. I've never forgotten the way this terribly sweet gesture made me feel that day, and I forever associate my mom (an avid reader) with instilling in me a love of books.
The Busby Berkeley Book itself? exhaustive, photo-crammed, film-by-film look at how Berkeley achieved all those dazzling musical panoramas and kaleidoscopes. They don't make 'em like this anymore.
The Richard Burton Diaries Edited by Chris Williams / 2012 —  I'm not a huge fan of Richard Burton, but I grew up during the whole Liz/Burton thing, so a book like this is irresistible. It seems Richard Burton, in addition to being an avid reader who devoured books like Neely O'Hara devoured pills, was a lifelong diarist. Encompassing the years 1939 to 1983, this collection of Burton's jotted-down thoughts is every bit as juicy as you'd think it would be. Sure it's fun to read him laying into stars like Lucille Ball, Joey Heatherton, and Eddie Fisher; but for guys like me - whose childhood memories are filled with Taylor and Burton as movie magazine staples - it's entertaining and enlightening to get a private glimpse into a very public relationship. 

Ken Russell's Films by Ken Hanke / 1984 — More an academic monograph than a book geared to the casual fan, Ken Hanke's book analyzes and critiques Ken Russell's entire body of work up to 1980 (ending on a Ken Russell high-note with Altered States, so we're spared the years of decline). For the true Ken Russell aficionado, the level of research and study here is sublime. 

The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West / 1939 — Got this paperback in 1975 after seeing the film, and to this day it stands as one of the most scathing indictments of Hollywood I've ever read. Like a grimly surreal allegory, the timeless The Day of the Locust "gets" the strange, hungry symbiosis that exists between the dreamers and the dream machine. Even when one thinks about the Hollywood of today, it's difficult to know who's tune is being danced to. Is it the ones without hope, demanding that movies lie to them and feed them fantasies that can never be fulfilled; or is it the dreammakers who intentionally create want and desire out of the valueless, guaranteeing an endless supply of lack and resentment?
As one who has found in movies a level of comfort and release, I can't help but wonder to what extent I may also use film as a means of escape. I don't have any answers as to it's potential harmfulness (although my instinct leans toward whether films help us to engage in life or encourage us to avoid it) I'm impressed by how artfully Nathanael West turned Hollywood into a state of mind.

The Fifty Worst Films of All Time (And How They Got That Way) by Harry Medved and Randy Dreyfuss / 1978 — One of the great things about coming from a big family is that watching movies on TV together becomes a kind of impromptu MST3K episode. Growing up, my sisters and I all harbored a taste for bad movies and loved riffing on them as we watched, so we actually sought out B-movies and loved cheapo horror programs like Bay Area's KTVU Creature Features (then the only program I knew of to poke fun at movies).
When this book came out, it felt like it could have been a family collaboration. Poking fun at films as diverse as Airport 1975 to Alain Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad, it's more than just easy potshots taken at questionable filmmaking. The book offers a lot of background info on the films in question, and the critiques are more grounded in legitimate structural and contextual gripes than later copycat books could lay claim. A laugh-out-loud funny book with sharp observations.

Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock 'N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood  by Peter Biskind / 1998 — Fan of the 60s and 70s as I am, this book was heaven for me. Especially since - in profiling directors like Altman, Bogdanovich, Spielberg and everyone in between - the author isn't really of a mind to build a shrine to anyone. Gossip monger that I am, I prefer my film history behind-the-scenes anecdotes with a certain amount of irreverent candor. This book doesn't disappoint. 

They Shoot Horses, Don't They? by Horace McCoy / 1935 — As with The Day of the Locust, I can't imagine compiling a list of Hollywood/film industry books without including this dark companion piece to West's brilliant nightmare. McCoy's novel, set in a marathon dance during the Depression, is more an existential parable, but it's Hollywood backdrop, populated by wannabes and hangers on, is the flip side of the sunny "those were the good old days" nostalgia that was so popular when this paperback edition was published in 1969. If you can get your hands on one of these it's worth it, for in addition to the novel they've included the screenplay to the Sydney Pollack film.

(Honorable Mention: Pictures at a Revolution- Mark Harris, The Fred Astaire Ginger Rogers Book- Arlene Croce, Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark -Brian Kellow, Jane Fonda: The Private Life of a Public Woman- Patricia Bosworth, Robert Altman: An Oral Biography - Mitchell Zuckoff, Roman Polanski -F.X. Feeny, Phallic Frenzy: Ken Russell & His Films -Joseph Lanza, The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock-Donald Spoto, Twiggy In Black & White: An Autobiography-Penelope Dening & Twiggy Lawson, Mommie Dearest- Christina Crawford)

Not every film-related book can be a winner. Here are a few I'd put at the bottom of the pile.

Crowning Glory: Reflections of Hollywood's Favorite Confidant by Sydney Guilaroff  & Cathy Griffin / 1996 — The prospect of the chief hairdresser at MGM for more than 50 years writing his memoirs certainly sounds like a can't miss book. He met all the great stars in his time, and lasted through the Golden Age into the '60s. Listen, I like a good show-biz fish story as much as anybody, but most of Mr. Sydney Guilaroff's "I was there!" memories are called into question when he asks the reader to accept the rather outlandish notion that he is a heterosexual male (he was for all practical purposes outed by Esther Williams in her autobiography) romantically involved with some of his famous female clients. Meaning no disrespect, but if he was seriously trying to carry off this Liberace-esque charade, he should have left out the precious early photo of himself looking like Norma Shearer with his two adopted sons, and most CERTAINLY a later photo with his hunky adopted "grandson" at his side (said grandson being a full-grown man when adopted). When an author lies about the single most glaring fact about his life, the book may be 100% fact, but with the author so determined to nail the door shut on this very obvious closet, I can't trust anything in the book to be reliable.

Raquel: Beyond the Cleavage  by Raquel Welch  / 2010 — As one of the last of the old-fashioned studio-created sex symbols, one would think Raquel Welch would have a lot to talk about. She's a survivor with a legendary temperament who's worked with some of the biggest names in the business. Unfortunately, Miss Welch (whom I adore) decided that what her fans most needed from her are beauty, diet, and wig-buying tips. She glosses over her questionable film resume (all the more reason I wanted to know more about them) and turns her book into a tedious episode of The View.

The Elephant To Hollywood by Michael Caine  2010 — This is Caine's second autobiography (his first, What's It All About? was published in 1992) and I guess by this time he was a little talked out. The lack of anything substantive to relate about a late career sustained by accepting any and everything that's laid on your doorstep becomes apparent as we are treated to chapter after chapter in which he recounts how much he loves his birthday. Hoping for at least a mirror into what it's like to go from heartthrob to Batman's butler, the best that can be said is reading this book is like being seated at a dinner next to an amiable chap well versed in inoffensive, unenlightening small talk.

Undiscovered  by  Debra Winger / 2008 — Back in the early 90s Debra Winger used to take my dance class (because she couldn't relate to "perky"- a word she used to describe the other instructors). I've been called many things, but since perky isn't one of them, we developed a friendly rapport, even sharing a tuna sandwich at a diner on her birthday while she talked about her aversion to Hollywood.
Anyhow, when this memoir came out I was very excited because I knew Winger to be a straightforward, pull-no-punches type and I thought she'd use this opportunity to dispel some of the many myths surrounding her tumultuous career.
No such luck. At this point in her life the talented actress must have been going through some kind of self-exploration journey, for Undiscovered is almost hostile in its refusal to be what anyone picking up a celebrity memoir might expect. Want to know about Terms of Endearment? Tough. She's got several pages of poetry for you. Want to know how the hell she was chosen to replace the fired Raquel Welch in the ill-fated Cannery Row (1982)? Sorry, but prepare to read about her garden.
At the end of it all, you wonder if she just wanted to screw with the publishers (which sounds more like the real Debra Winger than most parts of this book).

Tony Curtis: American Prince by Tony Curtis and Peter Golenbock  / 2008 — Perhaps because I was never really a Tony Curtis fan to begin with (the book was a gift) but I found there to be a huge ick factor attendant to reading this. Curtis was 80 or so when this memoir was published, but it reads like something that would sound puerile coming from a 16-year-old. 
To grow older without wisdom or insight is a sad thing, and as Curtis recounts love affairs, sexual flings, and his oddball double-standards when it comes to infidelity (he, a man could sleep with as many co-stars as he wished...the height of insults was to find his wife may have done the same...once!) is to to stare into a pretty but vacuous void. For me, all that came off of the page was ego, self-justification, and the pathetic laundry-listing of sexual conquests as though it actually meant something. I had the same reaction when I read Eddie Fisher's 1999 autobiography Been There, Done That. Ick!

So what are your favorite books about Hollywood, celebrity, or the film industry? Any you want to recommend or warn others about? Let me know! In the meantime...see you around the bookstalls!

Copyright © Ken Anderson   2009 - 2016