Thursday, June 30, 2016


It’s complicated. That would be my description of my relationship with James Bond movies. I was born during the Cold War and was but a mere babe of five when the first Bond film, Dr. No (1962) was released, so I grew up during the whole “spy mania” craze of the ‘60s with nary a recollection of a world without spies, espionage, and James Bond. Although Boris Badenov and Don Adams’ Agent 86 were more my speed, spy culture was everywhere during my formative years; from movies, TV shows, pop songs (Johnny Rivers’ Secret Agent Man was a personal favorite), fashions, magazines, novels, and, of course, the real-life nightly news. If you think John Travolta's white 3-piece-suit was omnipresent in the '70s...well, that's nothing compared with how many wannabe 007s sought out the instant cool of a white dinner jacket.
Bond movies were intended for adults, but that didn’t prevent them from being marketed to kids during Saturday morning cartoons and in comic books. I had a James Bond doll (excuse me, action figure) and one of those very cool, arsenal-laden Bond attaché cases before I’d ever seen a Jams Bond film. In fact, the first James Bond film I ever saw in its entirety was Live and Let Die (1973) when I was 15-years-old. (I saw and fell head-over-heels in love with the much-reviled, psychedelic Bond spoof Casino Royale when I was 10, so perhaps my ultimately warped perception of James Bond got off to a particularly twisted start.) 
So why did it take me so long to see a Bond film? Well, this is where things start to get complicated. You see, I don’t exactly like James Bond movies. See, even as a kid, I found all those spy shows: The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Girl from U.N.C.L.E., The Avengers, Secret Agent, I Spy, Mission: Impossible, The Saint, etc. – to be dull as dishwater. The same “shoot ‘em up, bang bang” with different faces was all it was to me. 
When I tried watching the Bond films when they aired on TV, if I didn’t fall asleep, they simply failed to hold my attention. As I've said in previous posts on the topic of action films, I've never found stoic heroism and macho aggression to be in and of itself very compelling. In fact, it just feels redundant and done-to-death.
To this day, the only Sean Connery Bond film I’ve ever watched all the way through is the lamentable Thunderball remake and “rogue” Bond production, Never Say Never Again (1983); a film that marked Connery’s return to the role after a 12-year absence and saw the then-53-old agent succumbing to frequent naps in between saving the free world.
Given what appears to be my indifference to (if not downright antipathy for) the genre, you'd figure I’d just leave 007 alone. But once, again, this is where things get complicated. Spy movies were the westerns of my generation, and James Bond is this mythic figure that looms as a pop-culture staple in my psyche, like Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny. Bond was such a pre-consciousness presence in my formative years that it feels like he’s in my blood, if not exactly my DNA. And while I have no problem ignoring the current craze in superhero films, James Bond isn't exactly the same. He's MY era's Star Wars and feels like an indelible fixture in a distant corner of my moviegoing life.
So, of the 24 “official” James Bond films made to date, I’ve seen 13. Can I remember the plots to any of them? No. Do I enjoy them? Yes. Do I like them? No. Funny, that.

And so it goes. It’s like a knee-jerk, spontaneous response. I haven’t missed a Bond film since 1985s A View To a Kill – which featured my favorite Bond villain, the exquisite Grace Jones as May Day, but I do so almost out of tradition and a vague connection to something I’ve never been able to put my finger on. Whatever it is, it’s the same willful surrender to mindless spectacle and purposeless action that drove my interest in disaster movies during the ‘70s.
Daniel Craig is my favorite Bond of all, and Judi Dench was so good she made me forget that I never knew what the hell was going on from one movie to the next. I watch Bond movies for the scope, the explosions, the stunts, the special effects, and the retro “cool” of handsome guys going about in suits and beautiful women kicking ass in high heels and gowns. I seem to like that "idea" of James Bond more than I like the real thing.

And then, there are the title sequences. Even as a kid I was entranced by the dreamlike (now iconic) title sequences of Bond films, often finding them more rewarding than the films they introduced. And the music…the influential James Bond theme and intro music is as identifiable a trademark as the Coca-Cola logo. The individual theme songs...because of their need to reflect the taste of the times and due to their heavy radio play, I easily associate with specific moments in my life.

Since it’s highly inconceivable that I’ll ever devote any energy to reviewing a Bond film on this site (never say never, I suppose),  I do love James Bond theme songs, so here is a list of my favorites. Not the best crafted, well-written, best-sung, or most iconic; simply the ones, in order of personal preference, I absolutely and subjectively adore. And, not being a Bond fan frees me from having to be a Bond purist, so some of my choices fit in the “unofficial” category: songs commissioned and rejected, or end-credits songs that should have been used for the title.


1. Casino Royale (1967)
Not officially a James Bond film, but Burt Bacharach's theme music (played to a fare-the-well by Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass) is for me the all and end-all of Bond themes ever. Timeless while being oh-so-Sixties, it ranks at the very top of my Bond chart. Since most everyone is familiar with the instrumental version played over the film's animated title sequence, I've posted a single of the rarely-heard complete lyric version by Mike Redway (its abbreviated version is heard over the closing credits). Alpert's horns are sorely missed, but the comic lyrics - and Mr, Redway's voice - soar.

2. Goldfinger (1964)
For my money, everything about this track is practically perfect- from the dramatic arrangement to its slithery lyrics; but, to coin an overused cliché, Shirley Bassey’s forceful and sexy vocals make this the gold standard of Bond theme songs. Anthony Newley (Leslie Bricusse's co-lyricist on this Dave Barry composed tune) does a wonderful version of this song that’s definitely worth a listen.

3. Skyfall (2012)
If Shirley Bassey and Goldfinger didn’t exist, this would be my top favorite “official” James Bond theme. Composer/vocalist Adele (with Paul Epworth)channeled the feel and sound of all the classic Bond songs to come up with the most hauntingly beautiful (and dark) theme of them all. It’s a gorgeous song that has the feel of a dirge, an anthem, and a melancholy love song, all at once. And god, what a voice!

4. Goldeneye (1995)
Tina Turner has a voice tailor-made for a Bond theme, and this sensuous and smoky song (composed by Bono and The Edge) fits her husky vocals to a T. The musical arrangement is marvelously slick and dramatic, but the danger and lurking in Turner’s delivery is what makes this song work. It’s hot!

5. The World Is Not Enough (1999)
This lushly-orchestrated theme performed so seductively by alternative band Garbage (vocalist Shirley Manson) reminds me that, at least in part, some of the unbreakable connection I have to James Bond is due to the films being so outrageously flamboyant. James Bond movies are to the action film genre what Busby Berkeley movies were to the musical. The sheer high-flown theatricality of this song is seductive as hell. This credits sequence is great, but the music video for this song is really something.

6. Casino Royale (2006) - "You Know My Name"
Chris Cornell’s powerful, veins-bulging vocals back up the vivid lyrics in this intense self-penned Bond theme (with five-time Bond composer David Arnold) that gives me goosebumps each time I hear it. The feeling I look forward to experiencing at least once in every Bond film is the adrenaline rush this song gives me. Also, aren't the graphics in this title sequence simply amazing? 

7. Quantum of Solace (2008): "Another Way To Die"
This is a really big favorite of mine. The pairing of singers Jack White and Alicia Keyes in an alternating duet combines several of my favorite things. First, from the time I discovered Cole Porter as a kid, I’ve always had a thing for “list” songs. Here, the cataloging of danger signals that a spy need be wary of (a door left open, a woman walking by, etc.) is just too cool to talk about.  Second, I love when discordant voices blend into something unexpected and perfect. Keyes’ velvet-smooth vs. White’s rasp is like badass dramatic counterpoint in this effectively tense tune. This is the song that has the “Shoot ‘em up, bang bang” riff I used for this post’s title (Alicia Keyes slays on this song). And can we take a minute to appreciate that Daniel Craig has the sexiest walk of any Bond?

7. The Man With the Golden Gun (1974)
This one is a sentimental favorite. part for its very '70 arrangement which I find to be thoroughly infectious, but mostly because I have always loved the voice of '60s pop star Lulu (To Sir, With Love). The song itself doesn't have much to recommend it, even by my fondness for bubble-gum tunes standards, but Lulu's energetic performance makes a strong case for the power of interpretation. Even managing to put over the singularly crass lyric: "His eye may be on you or me. Who will he bang? We shall see!" with cheeky charm.

8. Tomorrow Never Dies (1997): "Surrender"
The official title song by Sheryl Crow is actually quite good, but I really prefer this k.d. lang alternate song, played over the film's end credits. Lang's vocals have the retro sound of Keely Smith or Nancy Sinatra, so that hooks me from the start. But I love the traditional arrangement and classic Bond sound. Crow's song is more melodramatic (always a good thing), but the coffeehouse smoothness of k.d. lang wins out in the end.

9. Diamonds Are Forever (1971) 
The inimitable Shirley Bassey is back, but in place of Goldfinger bombast is a mellow (some would say middle-of-the-road) ballad that soars exclusively due to Bassey's vocals. I can honestly say that had someone else recorded the song, it likely wouldn't have made my list at all. But, c'mon it's Dame Shirley Bassey!

10. Live & Let Die (1973 )
This Paul McCartney & Wings song was all over the radio in 1973 (I was surprised to discover it was the first Bond song to be nominated for a Best Song Oscar) and its '70s sound is one of its most enduring charms. I have always liked McCartney's voice, but my favorite thing about this theme is its elaborate/erratic shifts in tone and tempo. I remember at the time being impressed the old Beatle (he was all of 30 at the time) still had it in him!

11. For Your Eyes Only (1981) - Blondie version 
Although I adored it at the time and it made me a short-lived fan of singer Sheena Easton, the official For Your Eyes Only theme hasn't aged particularly well for me, evoking as it does, unfortunate memories of '80s radio and that era's preponderance of sound-alike romantic ballads. This rejected song submitted by Blondie is more my speed. The song is tres-'80s (but in the best Debbie Harry "Call Me" kind of way) and the guitar riffs sound very '60s spy-mania retro.

12. Thunderball (1965): "Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang"
I've no problem with Tom Jones' memorably testosterone-pitched theme song, but this rejected tune sung by Ann-Margret is more to my liking. Making up for in Rat-Pack-era sultriness what she lacks in seductive menace, Ann-Margret IS a Bond girl even if in real life she had to settle for one of those dreary Dean Martin Matt Helm spy spoofs (Murderers' Row) rather than the real thing. This song has been sung perhaps more effectively by Shirley Bassey and Dionne Warwick (you can find them on YouTube) but when it comes to sex-kitten slink, Ann-Margret has a lock on it, and nobody does it better.

13. The Living Daylights (1987) "If There Was A Man"
The A-ha theme song gets my vote for most forgettable, nondescript Bond theme ever. I had to listen to it again before writing this because it's a song that refuses to remain in my memory. However, Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders contributed a longingly plaintive, waltz-time ballad that is really lovely. Hynde's low-register voice is ideal for a song like this, which could have come off as too tamely lyrical.

14. Moonraker (1979)
Hmmm, looks like dreamy slow songs are dominating the end of my list. Ms. Bassey again, this time keeping her bombast in check (a little) and giving a gentle caress to this floating romantic ballad. I have a thing for the more melodramatic Bond themes, but quiet ones like this...ones that showcase just how velvety-soft Bassey's voice can be, are a delight of a different sort.

15. The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) "Nobody Does It Better"
Closing out this Top Fifteen list is Carly Simon's rather quintessentially Simon-esque Bond theme. This one is a nostalgic favorite likely to be someday bumped to a lower ranking, but stays firm at #15 because I have always been so crazy about Simon's voice. I played this to death in 1977, so perhaps my waning fondness for it now is a result of prolonged exposure to one too many repeated "Baby, you're the best!" refrains.


"So Hard"  Pet Shop Boys
From the instant I heard this song on the Pet Shop Boys' 1990 Behavior album, I thought it sounded like it came from a James Bond movie. It has "spy movie" written all over it - not the lyrics, but that absolutely amazing arrangement and tempo. I'd read online that Pet Shop Boys had been approached for contributing a song for The Living Daylights, and there's an odd, unsubstantiated tune that's up on YouTube said to be the result of that aborted collaboration (later reconfigured into their This Must Be The Place I've Waited Years To Leave), but I have my doubts. However, I can visualize a '90s James Bond title sequence accompanying this song with ease.

On a final note, you can't write anything about the music of the James Bond films without crediting composer John Barry (12 Bond films). Along with: Monty Norman, David Arnold, Thomas Newman, and no doubt many others I'm forgetting.  YouTube has a wealth of rejected Bond songs- one the more curious, Johnny Cash's Thunderball.
1965 LP

Do you have a song from a James Bond film that's your particular favorite? Perhaps, one that drives you to distraction? Either way, I'd love to hear about it!

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2016

Sunday, June 26, 2016


"You finally made it, Frankie. Oscar Night!. And here you sit, on top of a glass mountain called 'success.' You're one of the chosen five, and the whole town's holding its breath to see who won it. It's been quite a climb, hasn't it, Frankie? Down at the bottom, scuffling for dimes in those smokers, all the way to the top. Magic Hollywood! Ever think about it? I do, friend Frankie, I do…."

And thus begins one of the most sublimely terrible movies ever to grace the screen. A speech rife with overelaborate hyperbole (it's hard to imagine anyone taking the Oscars this seriously, even in the '60s), clumsy metaphors, labored clichés, and the name "Frankie" repeated no less than three times in a single breathless paragraph. Remarkably, three (count 'em, three) screenwriters are responsible for the dialogue in this gilt-edged burlesque, which, given how the characters are prone to repeat the name of the very person to whom they're speaking, sounds as though it were written for the radio.
Frankie Goes to Hollywood
Stephen Boyd with Johnny Grant, the real-life honorary Mayor of Hollywood

With nary an ironic or self-aware bone in its bathetic, threadbare body, The Oscar is the kind of pandering-yet-earnest, self-serious Hollywood trash no one has the old-school, out-of-touch naiveté to know how to make anymore. A 1966 film that would have felt warmed-over in 1960 (the year Ocean's Eleven and Sinatra's Rat Pack made this kind of clean-cut, pomaded, sharkskin-suited, ring-a-ding-ding brand of cool into a veritable brand), The Oscar is from the Joseph E. Levine (The Carpetbaggers, Harlow) school of overlit, elephantine artifice. Every interior looks like a soundstage, everyone's clothes look as though they've never been worn before, and the characters are so lacquered and buffed they resemble department store mannequins.
As though encouraged to get into the spirit of things, The Oscars' flirting-with-obsolescence "all-star cast" (eight Oscar winners in all) contribute performances that somehow manage to be mannequin stiff and over-the-top at the same time. Performances wholly unacquainted with human psychology, normal speech patterns, or recognizable human behavior.
With each viewing of this unrelentingly unconvincing take on what I assume was intended to be a cautionary tale about the dangers of unbridled ambition, I grow less and less surprised that one of its screenwriters (Harlan Ellison) is known principally for his work in science fiction.
Stephen Boyd as Frankie Fane
"I'm fighting for my life! And there's a spiked boot for anyone who gets in my way."
Elke Sommer as Kay Bergdahl
"It's that seed of rot inside of you that makes you what you are
that you can't change. You just dress it better!"
Tony Bennett as Hymie Kelly
"You lie down with pigs, you come up smelling like garbage!"
Eleanor Parker as Sophie Cantaro
"You go after what you want. In some men, it's admirable. In you, it's...unclean!"
Milton Berle as Arthur "Kappy" Kapstetter
"You never know you're on your way out until
suddenly you realize it would take a ticket to get back in."

The Oscar, subtitled: Memoirs of a Hollywood Louse, is an unabashed laundry list of every show biz/Hollywood cliché handed down since What Price Hollywood? (1932). A beyond-camp, glossy soap opera whose overripe performance and purple prose present the first male-centric challenge to the women of Valley of the Dolls (and Beyond).

Stephen Boyd, he of the narrow frame and chiseled, Tom of Finland profile, is Frankie Fane; your garden-variety ruthless user with a suitable-for-movie-marquees alliterative name. Side note* I don't recommend anyone try playing a drinking game in which you take a shot every time someone in the film says Frankie's name; you'll be rushed to the hospital with alcohol poisoning by the 20-minute mark.
As this told-in-flashback opus begins, Frankie and longtime buddy Hymie Kelly (Tony Bennett, making his film debut/swansong and looking like he wished he were back in San Francisco with his heart) are eking out a living, largely thanks to the bump-and-grind efforts of Frankie's stripper girlfriend, Laurel Scott (Jill St. John).
Jill St. John as Laurel Scott
"What does he think I am, dirt? Every morning I'd get the feeling
he was gonna leave two dollars on the dresser for me!"

After a nasty run-in with a crooked sheriff—a bulldoggish Broderick Crawford playing the flip side of his Highway Patrol TV character—the vagabond trio thumb a ride to NYC where breadwinner Laurel (who's, of course, basically a nice, decent girl who just wants "a kid") soon tires of Frankie's freeloading. This is in spite of the fact that Hymie, the perennial 3rd wheel and clearly healthy as an ox, also appears to be living with the couple, yet shows no signs of being any more gainfully employed than his pal.
As audiences wait in vain for Hymie to happen upon a microphone and solve everyone's problems by discovering a latent talent for singing (and, in the bargain, providing a much-needed respite from the film's ceaseless stream of risible dialog and '60s slang); Frankie the hound dog decides to accompany Hymie to "a swingin' party in the village…lots of chicks" where he meets aspiring costume designer Kay Bergdahl (Sommer). In no time, Frankie makes his move:
Frankie- "You a tourist or a native?"
Kay- "Take one from column A and two from column B and get an egg roll either way."

On the strength of that nonsensical rejoinder, one would be forgiven for leaping to the assumption that Kay was suffering a stroke-related episode and in need of immediate medical attention, but not our Frankie. Clearly smitten by Kay's pouting accent, silk-awning bangs, and mink eyelashes, our smarmy antihero instead continues to engage the comely blond in more Haiku-inspired small talk. Kay, perhaps as a nod to the film's title, has a way of making everything she says sound like excerpts from an Academy Award acceptance speech:
"I am the end result of everything I've ever learned...all I ever hope to be,
and all the experiences I've ever had."

We return now to Laurel—that hip-switchin', nice-walkin', bundle of loveliness—who, in a late-in-coming display of backbone, lays down the law to Frankie when he returns home:

"If you think I'm gonna work my tail off so you can run around with the village chicks…oh, stop spreadin' the pollen around, Frankie...or else!"

Unfortunately for Laurel, her ultimatum doesn't have the desired effect on Frankie as she'd hoped. After spending the evening with hard-to-get Bergdahl, round-heeled Laurel starts to look like used goods to him, and in record time, Frankie, the village pollen-spreader, beats a hasty retreat. So hasty that he misses out on hearing the joyous news that Laurel is pregnant with his child. 
In much the same way Willy Wonka's shiftless Grandpa Joe miraculously finds the energy to haul his wrinkled carcass out of bed once the prospect of a candy factory tour looms; the heretofore serially unemployed Frankie promptly lands a job in the garment district when it affords the opportunity to see more of the glacial Miss Bergdahl. But it isn't long before Kay's middle-European cool proves no match for Frankie's hotheaded, borderline sociopathic personality.
Koo Koo Frankie shows a wise guy actor (Jan Merlin) what it's
like to be on "the business end of a knife."

Frankie expends so much abusive energy exorcising his inner demons ("The way he sees it, no woman's any better than his mother," intones Hymie, deep-thinker) that Kay scarcely has time to examine her own Bad Boy attraction issues ("Sometimes I get the feeling, Frankie, that you ought to be chained up with a ring in your nose!") before their relationship begins to go south and take on all the dysfunctional sparring rhythms of Robert De Niro & Liza Minnelli in NewYork, New York…minus the warmth & mutual respect.

One particularly theatrical outburst of Frankie's captures the rapacious eye of roving talent scout Sophie Cantaro (Parker), who sees in Frankie's mercurial mood swings the makings of a star (Charlie Sheen, no doubt). Faster than you can say, "Bye-bye, Bergdahl! Hello, Cougar Town!" Frankie is whisked off to Hollywood and becomes exactly the kind of noxious nightmare of a movie star you'd expect. Think Neely O'Hara crossed with Helen Lawson combined with every ego-out-of-control rumor you've ever heard about Jerry Lewis, and you get the idea.
Joseph Cotten as Kenneth Regan, head of Galaxy Pictures
"I find myself repelled and repulsed by you."

Of course, this is precisely when the already dizzying lunacy of The Oscar really swings into high gear. Cue the laughably garish sets meant to signify high-style opulence, the tired visual short-cuts (EVERY scene in a studio backlot features strolling cowboys, gladiators, and showgirls in headdresses), and the standard-issue What Makes Sammy Run? rise and fall of our unscrupulous schnook scenario.

Yes, whether it be the simile-laden narration ("Man, he wanted to swallow Hollywood like a cat with a canary."); the rote, claws-his-way-to-the-top conflicts ("The fact is my 10% before taxes is paying your office overhead. And you stop earning it when you stop giving me what I want!"); or clumsy, tin-eared metaphors ("Have you ever seen a moth smashed against a window? It leaves the dust of its wings. You're like that Frankie, you leave a powder of dirt everywhere you touch."), The Oscar leaves nary a cliché unturned and untouched. And for that, we should all give thanks.
Ernest Borgnine and Edie Adams as lowbrow couple Barney & Trina Yale

The Oscar is artificiality as motif. Without actually intending to do so, director Russell Rouse (who made the must-see Wicked Woman -1953) has crafted a film so phony and plastic, it winds up saying a great deal more about the real Hollywood than this contrived, self-serving fairy tale. A fairy tale that would have us believe that Hollywood is comprised of basically decent, principled, hard-working folks, and that unscrupulous bad apples like Frankie are the rotten exception.
When I watch The Oscar, I always wonder: was this movie pandering to star-struck yokels and hicks from the sticks? Was this fable of Tinseltown-as-Toilet designed to make Nathanael West's "locusts" feel less-resentful of the rich, famous, and privileged? To feed us the comforting fantasy that those beautiful, glamorous people on the screen have it far worse? 
Or had years of lying to itself deluded "The Industry" into believing its own publicity? This can't be how '60s Hollywood actually saw itself, can it? 
In the film's most blatantly parodic role, Jean Hale is hilariously spot-on as the self-absorbed actress Cheryl Barker. The role is an obvious and mean-spirited swipe at Carroll Baker that was likely included at the behest of producer Joseph E. Levine. (Baker and Levine clashed during the filming of Harlow, leading to her suing to get out of her three-picture contract. Baker won, but was blacklisted.)

It's not as though no one knew what a good film about Hollywood looked like: Sunset Boulevard -1950, The Bad & the Beautiful -1952, A Lonely Place -1950, Stand-In -1937. So, I tend to think everyone involved in The Oscar knew precisely what kind of trash they were making (Bennett doesn't recall the experience fondly in his memoirs) and just cashed their paychecks and moved on. But given the expense, effort, and the fact that many equally overstuffed, fake-looking, questionably-acted, and poorly-written films that came before it had somehow managed to find boxoffice success (The Carpetbaggers comes to mind); I can only imagine that the eventual awfulness of The Oscar wasn't as much of a surprise to those involved as was the public's total indifference to it.
Exterior shots of the Oscar ceremony were shot at the 37th Academy Awards in 1965. Bob Hope was indeed the host that year, but as the stage design was different, I suspect these scenes were shot on a sound stage. The Oscar actually did garner two Academy Award nominations in 1967: art direction (remarkably, given how ugly the sets are) and costume design. 

It's a crowded, competitive field, but Stephen Boyd walks away with the honors for The Oscar's most exaggerated, indicating performance. In a film of parody-worthy performances, Boyd's bellowing, bombastic over-emoting (much like Faye Dunaway's in Mommie Dearest) sets the bar. It serves as the tonal rudder for this Titanic testament to overstatement. It's a performance that towers over the rest. And while one might argue he's no worse than anyone else (certainly not Bennett) and only as good as the knuckleheaded screenplay allows; when there's this much collateral damage, every offender has to be held accountable for their fair share of the carnage. 
Frankie's cutthroat efforts to win an Oscar make up the bulk of the 1963 Richard Sale novel
upon which the film is based, but comprise only the last half hour of the movie 

Indeed, in a reversal of my usual standard in camp movies I adore, the women don't really dominate in The Oscar. Despite their towering hairdos and colorful wardrobes, Elke Sommer, Eleanor Parker, Jill St. John, and a woefully over-rehearsed Edie Adams have their work cut out for them in trying to keep pace with the hambone scenery-chewing of Boyd on one side, and the Boo Boo Bear blandness of mono-expression crooner Tony Bennett on the other.
Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci They're Not
Hope you like Tony Bennett's expression here, 'cause that's it...for two whole hours

Add to this, schticky comedian Milton Berle as another one of those saintly talent agents that only seem to exist in Joseph E. Levine films (Red Buttons, another face-pulling comic, played a similar role in Levine's Harlow). Berle's approach to serious drama is something out of an SCTV Bobby Bittman sketch: go so low-wattage as to barely register any vitality at all.
Not sure, but I think knuckle-biting to convey distress went out with silent movies.

As hard as it is to believe that the Motion Picture Academy actually endorsed this sordid melodrama (although it is thought that the embarrassing flop of this film is responsible for the copyright stranglehold the Academy has had on the use and depiction of the Oscar Award in movies ever since). But one has to wonder about the many drop-in guest appearances of so many "stars" adding verisimilitude and unintentional comic relief. Were they contractual, were favors owed, or were they simply prohibited from reading the entire script?
Edith Head (or an animatronic copy) as Herself
Jack Soo as Sam, Frankie's live-in valet
Famed Hollywood columnist, commie-finger-pointer,
and homophobic blabbermouth, Hedda Hopper 
A puffy Peter Lawford is a little too convincing as Hollywood has-been Steve Marks
Ed Begley as Grobard, the scowling strip club owner
A beaming Frank Sinatra and daughter Nancy, in her brunette phase
Waler Brennan (right) as network sponsor Orrin C. Quentin of Quentiplak Products, Inc.
On the left, one of my favorite character actors, John Holland, as Stevens, his associate 

The bad film delights of The Oscar are so myriad, I can only speculate that its relative unavailability is to blame for its not having risen in camp stature equal to Valley of the Dolls or Mommie Dearest over the years (it's not on DVD and pops up on TV only sporadically). That, and its lack of an ostentatious drag queen aesthetic or even compelling roles for women. I'm not sure why, but a lot of the best camp is rooted in seeing women presented in the traditional, male-gaze "drag" of ornamental allure (big hair, theatrical makeup, elaborate costumes) but behaving in non-traditional ways--i.e., assertive, aggressive, and with a plot-propelling agency (Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill!)
The gender-role incongruity of seeing ornamentally decked-out women behaving in the aggressive, toxic ways movies have traditionally ascribed to male anti-hero types, comes as a pleasant surprise and welcome change of pace. It also probably accounts for why a nasty piece of work like Neely O'Hara in Valley of the Dolls tends to remain in one's memory longer than the passive Jennifer North.
Despite giving lip service to the contrary, the women in The Oscar are a pretty passive bunch and more or less serve a traditional, reactive function in the plot. Pointedly, the poised and elegant Sophie Cantaro, as one of the film's two exceptions (the other being the blowsy but street-smart Trina Yale), is presented as both sexually desperate ("You, you're 42. There are many good minutes left for you," a well-meaning, tactless friend tells her) and unable to prevent her so-called "feminine" emotions from playing havoc with professional decision-making.
It's not difficult to imagine that The Oscar's preponderance of masochistic females is due to its three male screenwriters. This leads me to wonder if one of the reasons The Oscar never became the midnight screening hoot-fest its entertaining awfulness might otherwise guarantee is because the women's roles are so toothless. 
But such wrong-headed thinking prevails throughout The Oscar. Making it one of the best of the worst, the apex of the nadir, and unequivocally one for the books. A book no doubt titled: "What The Hell Were They Thinking?"

Update: After being unavailable for decades, a Blu-ray edition of The Oscar was released on February 2, 2020.

Elke Sommer wore the same Edith Head gown to the actual 1966 Academy Awards she donned in the fake ceremony that bookends The Oscar (top photo). Here's a clip of a somewhat botched dual acceptance speech with Connie Stevens for Doctor Zhivago's absent costume designer, Julie Harris. Watch HERE

Although only an instrumental version plays in the film, Tony Bennett sang the Muzak-ready theme song from The Oscar ("Come September") on the soundtrack album. This 45rpm single was an opening day giveaway at many first-run theaters. 

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2016

Friday, June 17, 2016


I will dream a gentle dream
a soft dream.
I am at peace in this dream.
I am safe...

Dream Lover is a not-uninteresting Freudian psychological thriller from the director of Klute, derailed by a too-clinical fascination with the sterile, simultaneously uncinematic and exposition-reliant, world of dream therapy.
In the mid-‘80s, erstwhile child star and ‘70s teen idol Kristy McNichol made a tantalizing bid for adult credibility when cast against type in Alan J. Pakula’s visually persuasive psychosexual thriller Dream Lover. At age twenty-three, the two-time Emmy Award-winning actress (Family) with the easygoing smile and tomboy image was cast in her first truly adult role as Kathy Gardner, an emotionally and sexually repressed music student plagued by recurring nightmares.
Kristy McNichol as Kathy Gardner
Paul Shenar as Benjamin Gardner
Ben Masters as Dr. Michael Hansen
Justin Deas as Kevin McCann

Kathy is a talented and gifted jazz flutist (you’ll just have to take the movie’s word for that) living in a state of infantilized, vaguely incestuous arrested-development under the dictatorial thumb of her overbearing father (Paul Shenar), a prominent D.C. attorney.
After winning a scholarship to a prestigious New York music academy, Kathy, in an uncharacteristic show of independence and in strict defiance of her father's wishes, sublets an apartment in Greenwich Village, and, in short order, becomes romantically involved with her curly-permed jazz improv instructor (Justin Deas). 
Unfortunately, before Kathy even has a chance to adjust to her newfound freedom, Freudian guilt and paternal retribution comes swiftly and brutally in the form of an "I warned you it wasn't safe away from Daddy" apartment break-in and assault, resulting in Kathy killing her assailant with his own knife.
Now, haunted by recurring nightmares in which she is forced to relive the attack, Kathy submits to an unorthodox, experimental sleep therapy. A treatment which, while proving to be successful in quelling her nightmares, may have the unforeseen side-effect of inducing, in her waking moments, the compulsion to act out and upon emotions heretofore confined solely (and safely) to her dream world.
As a fan of psychological thrillers, I recall at the time hoping that Dream Loverwith its themes of violence, sex, dreams, and repression (redolent of Marnie, Spellbound, and Vertigo)would be Pakula picking up the Hitchcock mantle after serial Hitchcock homagist Brian De Palma at last appeared ready to set it aside following the flop critical reception to his Rear Window-inspired Body Double (1984). If so, I was beyond excited at the prospect of what a director of Pakula's skill and sensitivity with actors could bring to the genre.
Thus, I turned a blind eye to anything negative portended by Dream Lover being released in the dump month of January (a traditionally low-attendance time), and remained blissfully ignorant of the fact that I was one of the few (the very few, as it turns out) enthusiastically anticipating the opening of this, Alan J. Pakula’s first film in four years…since 1982's Sophie’s Choice.
My imagination was tweaked by Dream Lover’s striking, pulpy poster art (my work commute took me past MGM’s Culver City studio, so for over a month I got to gawk at the sight of an enormous and threatening billboard featuring America’s teen sweetheart brandishing a switchblade). I was sent thoroughly over-the-top the first time I saw the theatrical trailer—all fast cuts, Psycho-strings, and ominous voice-over: “Imagine the terror of living a nightmare every time you sleep. Every... time… you sleep….” And I was unaccountably taken with the intriguing notion of seeing squeaky-clean Kristy McNichol in a role that promised to be a dramatic departure.

But what excited me most was the return of Alan J. Pakula (one of my ab fab favorite ‘70s directors) to the suspense thriller genre. To me, Klute (1971): a character drama disguised as a detective story, and The Parallax View (1974): a truly terrifying political paranoia suspenser, are two of the most stylish, distinctive, and chillingly effective thrillers of the decade. Pakula knew how to tell a story and go for the effect, but never at the expense of character. Indeed, he seemed to have the magic touch when it came to actors, often extracting unexpectedly fresh and authentic performances out of long-established stars. In The Parallax View Paula Prentiss, known for her light-comedy roles, gives a nakedly intense dramatic performance, while, conversely, Pakula’s comedy Starting Over (1979) single-handedly reinvented Candice Bergen’s career by unearthing the self-effacing comedienne beneath the actress' much-touted ice-princess veneer.

It’s this latter directorial alchemy I anticipated Pakula working on Kristy McNichol, a talented actress I’d always liked (even in the wretched-but-oddly enjoyable The Pirate Movie), but who, when not busy being the only good thing in a string of mediocre films, appeared headed on a career collision-course that threatened to turn her into Marie Osmond’s answer to Erin Moran.
Kathy, Scat Singing With a Jazz Combo
Remarkably, this is NOT the reason someone tries to kill her a few moments later.
(McNichol also played a flutist in 1984's Just The Way You Are)

However, when I say Alan J. Pakula is one of my favorite ‘70s directors, I say it with emphasis on the “70s” part, for I tend to be a tad less fond of the late director’s post-1979 output (Pakula died in 1998). Starting with the soporific financial thriller Rollover (1981), Pakula's work during this period vacillated between ambitious (Sophie's Choice), banal (See You in the Morning - 1989), conventional (The Pelican Brief -1993), and, in the case of Dream Lover, fascinating but flawed.
Kathy's dreams are affected by the repressed, conflicted feelings
she has about her love-hate relationship with her controlling father

As contemporary psychological thrillers go, Dream Lover is very much up my alley. Yet, due to reasons easily attributable to its script (a first effort by one-time Pakula assistant and co-producer Jon Boorstin), and less verifiably ascribed to Pakula’s directorial choices; Dream Lover proves itself to be one of those high-concept, high-style thrillers that start out promisingly, only to later develop serious problems sustaining suspense and maintaining a consistent tone. 
To Kathy's growing roster of father-related hang-ups, add male trust issues and sexual anxiety.
"Someday your father's gonna have to find out you're a woman."
"Not today."
Before its script gets hijacked by the self-serious contributions of a phalanx of sleep-research technical advisers (presented with the kind of grave earnestness guaranteed to make it sound absolutely crackpot), Dream Lover at least has the benefit of a marvelous setup. From the outset, the central conflict is established as one both emotionally subjective (Kathy’s unresolved feelings about her father) and psychologically reactive (resultant of the discrepancy between Kathy’s dream reality – aka her desires - and her actual existence). In being made privy to the content of Kathy’s dreams, we’re made aware of how her rather vague daily persona as a dutiful daughter contrasts significantly with her vivid and active dream life.

In her nocturnal life, Kathy variably casts herself as a child; her own late mother (dressed, significantly, in red); and as an imprisoned figure capable of escape only through means of literal flight. Meanwhile, her father, for whom Kathy in real-life serves as a combination surrogate wife figure and eternal child, appears alternately as an idealized figure of warmth and acceptance, or a threatening, faceless specter. 
In her peaceful dreams, Kathy places herself within the pastoral scene depicted
in a painting that hangs (significantly, again) over her father's bed.

Since Dream Lover is presented from the exclusive perspective of Kathy’s reality—the perspective of a repressed, bordering-on-regressed grown woman with serious daddy issues; the film makes an interesting case of positing Kathy’s attack (though psychologically scarred, she comes to no physical harm due to unleashed pent-up rage) as being a physical manifestation of guilt (she defied her father) and sexual panic (the attack occurs moments after what may have been her first sexual encounter).
"I stabbed him...he dropped his knife, so I picked it up and I stabbed him!
And...I never felt so good as when I stuck that knife in him!"

Dream Lover’s Freudian overlays are metered out with such style; its intensifying cycle of recurrence and repetition so measured and deliberately paced…it’s a little too bad that the gripping psychological thriller we’ve been primed for never actually shows up. The introduction of the sleep therapy angle precisely when things should acceleratetakes what had heretofore been a fairly gripping, fun/trash psychological melodrama, and tries to turn it into a serious exploration of the scientific advancements made in the area of dream research. Zzzzzz. 
Movies themselves are dreams. If a director wins over an audience’s confidence, he/she can make us believe and accept almost anything, no explanations necessary. Thrillers grind to a pedantic halt the minute they find it necessary to try to ground the primarily emotional pleasures of the genre in sober factualism (especially when, in order to accommodate a patently preposterous climax, the film chooses to jettison all laws of physics and logic). Hitchcock had the good sense to leave all the psychological mumbo jumbo for the end of Psycho, and even then it still came across like the most superfluous scene in the movie.
Top: The red-walled apartment Kathy sublets is festooned with vivid animal prints, patterned drapes, and nude artwork hanging on the wall. It's like someone's libido has exploded all over the room. Below: Once moved in, uptight Kathy substitutes virginal whites for the blazing reds and bold patterns, removes the artwork, and covers the animal-print furniture with sheets. In this screencap we have the mysterious stranger (Joseph Culp) in search of the whereabouts of the unknown "Maggie."

Throughout the film, Kathy's surroundings consistently reflect her emotional conflicts, reinforcing the theme of Kathy's dream reality having an increasing influence on her real life.

From a literal standpoint, the phrase “Dreams are what le cinema is for” is no idle claim. Dreams have been depicted in motion pictures since their Inception (a little dream-related film-geek joke there…heh, heh) dating as far back as the early 1900s.
If asked to cite directors whose visual sense best captures what my own dreams look like, I’d have to say Ken Russell and Roman Polanski (making musical room for Busby Berkeley and Vincente Minnelli); but such baroque theatricality isn’t always necessary to make the fantasy world of dreams feel authentic to me.
Dream Lover presents dreams in a relatively straightforward, decidedly Freudian manner. All corridors, portals, vivid reds, and symbolism, one could likely reference any of the film’s images in a dream interpretation manual and arrive at precisely the intention Pakula intends. Dream Lover was lensed by longtime Ingmar Bergman cinematographer Sven Nykvist (Fanny and Alexander), who gives Kathy’s dreams an austere luster of atmospheric dread.
Unfortunately, Dream Lover came out just around the time of MTV over-saturation. Freudian symbolism had become such a clichéd, overused mainstay of music videos at this point that Dream Lover’s imagery (as beautiful and fitting to the plot as it is) was met with a lot of been-there, done that.
Taking Flight

I know a great many people don’t care for Kristy McNichol in this film (if the words “great many” can be used in reference to a film as obscure as Dream Lover), but I find her to be absolutely riveting. Given what I consider to be the low to marginal quality of most of her films (Only When I Laugh and White Dog being the exceptions) it’s perhaps not saying much to credit this as my favorite of her screen performances, but it really is…she gives an authentic performance and absolutely makes the film for me.
It must be quite the challenge for actors to portray individuals who are emotionally shut-down, but McNichol gets under the skin of her character, infusing Kathy’s low-flame jitteriness with a great deal of poignance. McNichol has several really remarkable scenes, one of my favorites being when she is afraid to go to sleep and is asked by the empathetic sleep therapist to relate a sleep ritual from her childhood. Just absolutely marvelous work.
All of the performances in Dream Lover are uniformly fine, some suffering at the hand of their utilitarian service to the machinations of plot more than others. But I particularly like Ben Masters as the sleep researcher. He shares an easy rapport with McNichol and his genuine, seemingly nice-guy vibe plays well to the elements of the story centering on Kathy's suppressed distrust of (and impaired judgment regarding) men.

Gayle Hunnicutt & John McMartin appear in brief roles as family friends 

Dream Lover embodies two of my favorite things in off-beat films: 1) So-called "serious" directors tackling genre material, 2) Actors cast against type.
Alan J. Pakula can't help but bring a lot of technical skill and intelligence to this thriller (in spite of a screenplay that too often has intelligent characters regularly engaging in dumb behavior in order to keep the plot moving), but Dream Lover has the feel of a melodrama too proud to revel in its own enjoyably schlocky premise, instead, it keeps trying to convince us of the soberness of its subject matter. Too bad, because for at least 60 of its 104 minutes, Pakula looks like he's willing to go for broke and serve up a tasty, low-calorie thrill-ride. It only falls apart when he tries to shoehorn in the substance.
As for Kristy McNichol, her participation in the film was a major draw for me back in 1986, it's nice to report that her subtle and affecting performance looks even better to me 30-years later. Not so much the '80s fashions and Kenny G-type sax musical interludes.
The '80s were not fashion-forgiving


 The theatrical trailer that got my pulse racing back in 1986

Copyright © Ken Anderson   2009 - 2016