Monday, December 13, 2021

WEST SIDE STORY 1961

West Side Story is the first movie I ever OD’d on. 
It was my first pre-teen movie crush, my first filmic fateful attraction, my first case of movie musical mania. I saw West Side Story when I was in early adolescence and fell for it with the kind of overawed intensity and enthusiasm only the very young and impressionable have the time and stamina to sustain. I was so overwhelmed by the film's soaring music, glorious dancing, and striking visual style, I embarked on a decades-long campaign of self-inflicted West Side Story oversaturation so immersive, I ended up overdosing on the movie. Over the course of 35 years, I saw and listened to West Side Story so often and on so many different occasions in my life (it was my go-to "comfort food" movie) that I ultimately reached a stage where I couldn’t stand to watch it even one more time. 
The Sharks
The last time I saw West Side Story in its entirety was way back in 2003 when the Special Collector’s Edition DVD boxed set was released. I think I watched it then about three or four times before finally hitting a wall.
But here I am in 2021, the year marking West Side Story’s 60th Anniversary, the death of Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim (WSS’s lyricist), and the release of Steven Spielberg’s long-delayed, eagerly-anticipated reimagining of the iconic film. No better time for me to fall off the wagon, acquire West Side Story in yet another home entertainment format (VHS to Blu-ray) and revisit the 1961 classic before my initial thoughts and memories risk becoming entwined, influenced, and shaped by comparisons and reactions to the latest adaptation. 
The Jets
The groundbreaking musical West Side Story—the show that introduced the world to dancing street gangs and balletic inner-city combat—premiered on Broadway on September 6, 1957. Conceived, directed & choreographed by Jerome Robbins, this seminal theatrical production was a reimagining of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet as a contemporary star-crossed love story set against the violent backdrop of turf wars and racial conflict between rival New York street gangs. With a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, and lyrics by 27-year-old Oscar Hammerstein protégé Stephen Sondheim (his Broadway debut), West Side Story was an innovation in the advancement of the realistic musical. A gritty fusion of ballet and operatic romantic tragedy in a production that moved ensemble dance to the forefront.

I was born roughly two weeks after West Side Story opened on Broadway and was only four years old when the much-heralded Jerome Robbins-Robert Wise co-directed feature film was released, so I've no memories to share whatsoever of those two landmark events. My first real memory of West Side Story is from early childhood when I was perhaps maybe when I was six or seven, via the omnipresent original Broadway cast recording album my parents owned, but to the best of my recollection never played. As a child, I, too,  avoided that album, accurately gleaning from its cover art that it contained no songs to which I could do The Twist.
Natalie Wood as Maria

Richard Beymer as Tony
The opportunity to see West Side Story for the first time came in the fall of 1968 when the 10-time Oscar-winning film was given a national re-release before being sold to television (and to coincide-with/cash-in-on the October 1968 release of Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet). I was then 11-years-old at the time and remember West Side Story was playing at our neighborhood movie house (the Castro Theater in San Francisco) for a single one-week engagement during the Thanksgiving holiday. In a rare gesture that I suspect was inspired by a combination of the theater’s proximity and the prolonged proximity of a bunch of restless kids at home and underfoot over Thanksgiving break; my parents decided to treat us all (my three sisters and I) to a rare family night out at the movies. 
Rita Moreno as Anita

George Chakiris as Bernardo
Going to the movies at night with my parents always felt like a big event and a little magical to me. For one, we all had to get dressed up. Plus, it was nice going by warm car instead of walking or having to catch a bus. But my favorite thing, and what really made going to the movies at night feel magical was the bright neon and colored lights of the theater marquee and lobby. As often as we kids had attended screenings at the Castro on weekend afternoons, the familiarly ornate theater looked totally different at night. More like a palace or castle. With parents along, we didn't have to ration out our allowance money for popcorn and candy, and best of all, we got the major thrill of being able to sit in the balcony. A place our parents forbid us to go when we were on our own because—according to mom—the balcony is where all the troublemaking kids sat. 
Russ Tamblyn as Riff
While I was overjoyed to be going to the movies that night, I don’t recall being particularly enthusiastic about seeing West Side Story. I still didn't know much about it, and what little I did (shots of Natalie Wood & Richard Beymer clinging to each other with their mouths open on a fire escape) didn't suggest a whole lot of laughs. But having gone to see Pete Sellers several times in Casino Royale (1967) earlier that year and later in The World of Henry Orient (1964) on TV,  the movie I was most excited about seeing was the one the Castro paired with West Side Story on a double-bill: Blake Edwards' The Party (1968) - in which Peter Sellers plays an Indian actor who comically destroys a Hollywood party. 
Screened first, I loved The Party and think it's one of Sellers' best. However, looking back I have to say that was one weird double-feature: Welcome to four full hours of ethnic cosplay and brownface!

(On a side note: the movie booked to follow West Side Story’s one-week engagement at the Castro was Rosemary’s Baby. So being traumatized by that film's spooky theatrical trailer was another memory I took away with me that evening.)
The 1968 West Side Story re-release was shown minus the overture and intermission of its 1961 roadshow engagements, but it was presented in breathtaking widescreen (a welcome change from our 20-inch B&W console TV), eye-popping color (growing up seeing 95% of all entertainments in grayscale, a bigger thrill than you might think), and with stereo sound that fairly lifted me out of my seat. But none of these things would have mattered if the film they buttressed hadn’t measured up to the fanfare. And on that score, West Side Story fairly blew the roof off the Castro Theater that night.
A phenomenal film experience, West Side Story was like nothing I’d ever seen (granted, at 11, the list of things I'd never seen was pretty extensive, but you get my point). I couldn't think of any movies I'd seen that looked even remotely like West Side Story. From that astounding 8-minute Prologue that sets the stage and establishes the film's stylized realism and visual vocabulary of saturated colors, to the vivid elegance of its cinematography and evocative use of music, it was obvious from West Side Story's jaw-dropping first frames (those aerial views of New York!) that it was a breed apart from the kind of musicals being turned into films at the time (Bells Are Ringing, Flower Drum Song, The Music Man). Even its innovative score…classical, operatic, jazzy...one unforgettable song after another--didn’t sound much like the other musicals (Bye Bye Birdie, The Sound of Music). 
And the dancing. Had there ever been such engagingly witty, extraordinarily exhilarating dance sequences? Electrifying ensemble dance numbers that were genuine showstoppers, not because of empty spectacle, but because dance, music, cinematography, and editing were in simultaneous, seamless service to character, emotion, and the dramatic flow of the narrative. In the large-scare numbers, every dancer is doing more than dancing...they're giving a performance. There's so much detail to take in and so much "business" going on in every corner of the frame, it feels like this 1961 movie was made for the digital age of the freeze-frame. To watch the way Rita Moreno and George Chakiris look at each other when they dance is to learn everything you need to know about the relationship between Anita and Bernardo.
My first goosebump moment in the movie came when West Side Story, heretofore rooted in a kind of lyrical reality, bursts into magical fantasy when Maria's twirl in the dress shop leads to one of the heavenly scene transitions in musical cinema.

I’ve recounted in earlier essays how averse to age-appropriate movies I was when I was young. That's how I missed out on seeing Funny Girl, The Sound of Music, and Mary Poppins...I thought they were all "kiddie movies" or worse, movies deemed  “fun for the whole family.” West Side Story won my heart in no small part due to it being a grown-up musical. Grown-up by ‘60s movie musical standards, anyway. The film was pretty dated and tame in some ways. I mean, the Jets—direct descendants of The Bowery Boys and Dead End Kids who pronounced “world” as “woild” and spoke in the colorful bop-slang patois of those low-budget ‘50s juvenile delinquent movies my sisters and I devoured on Saturday afternoon TV (“Daddy-o!”)—were harmless hoodlums. (The Jets' cartoonishness had the perhaps intentional effect of softening the distastefulness of their "Make The West Side Great Again" anti-immigrant racism.)

But this was also a movie, a musical, no less, that was critical of what was wrong with American society and referenced mature themes like racism, drugs, poverty, gang violence, prostitution, rape, and police corruption. It even had good-girl Natalie Wood having sex without benefit of marriage (although I admit, at the time, I thought Maria and Tony had just spent the night cuddling). 
The Delicate Delinquent
Speaking of things I'd never seen before, gay Ken, whom I hadn't yet been properly introduced to, never saw ANYTHING like George Chakiris. I don’t quite know what I did with the feelings aroused by the sight of Bernardo in that purple shirt and skinny tie, but I suspect they were tucked away in the same place I put my unconscious identification with/recognition of the queer-coded character of Baby John. 
(Ask Anybodys: For those who don't know, the creators of West Side Story - Laurents, Bernstein, Sondheim, and Robbins - were all gay or bisexual men. Too bad at least one of them wasn't also Puerto Rican.)
Somewhere
As the song that best expresses what co-creator Arthur Laurents described as West Side Story's theme: "How can love survive in a violent world of prejudice?" --Somewhere has gone on to become a pop standard and a gay anthem. The latter confirmed when The Pet Shop Boys reworked it into a synth-pop dance tune.

My earlier use of the word "dated" wasn't intended as a pejorative. As it relates to my impression of West Side Story as a product of the past, a film reflecting the perspective, aesthetics, and concerns (and occasional cluelessness) of a very distinct point in time, I see it as one of West Side Story's strengths. The same way I would mean it if I referred to the films of Fred Astaire and many of the classic MGM musicals as dated. They are of the time they were created and reflect a kind of past urgency or vitality that can't be wrested into another era.
West Side Story being behind-the-times in some aspects (while simultaneously raising and setting the bar of innovation in others) lends the film an air of parable or fairy tale. Its themes are rooted in realism, but the world depicted is very different from reality.  
One scene in West Side Story is far from dated and is so firmly rooted in contemporary reality I no longer watch it. Although it's one of the strongest and most pivotal scenes in the film, sometime during the Reagan '80s I lost my taste for the sequence where Anita is assaulted in Doc's drugstore by the Jets. The pain in Rita Moreno's eyes and the vulnerability of performance is a little too raw. The look on the faces of the Jets, a look I've seen too often in my life. The look of tiki-torch bearers. The scene is powerful and Moreno and Ned Glass as Doc are terrific, but it's too ugly and too prevalent a face of America. I fast-forward past it. 

The world had changed a great deal between the time West Side Story first appeared on screens and the time I saw it. It wasn't a seven-year gap, it was a lifetime. Even as a kid I thought the film's depiction of a world where restless youths (just how the hell old  ARE the Jets and Sharks supposed to be?) blew off steam by having turf wars and zip-gun rumbles seemed as remote as Neverland when contrasted with the what young people were dealing with in 1968: Two political assassinations in 1968 alone, race riots, the Vietnam War, police brutality, campus protests.
Yet the film still spoke to me. And I think that's because the things it talks about (even in its clumsy '50s jargon) is still real for young people. And it has been since the days of Romeo and Juliet. 
Cool Never Goes Out Of Style 
For a maddeningly long time after seeing this epic number, my sisters and I got into the annoying habit of preceding every question and answer with - "Boy, boy, crazy boy." 
Mom: Did you take the garbage out? - Me: Boy, boy, crazy boy...I'll do it right now.
 I don't know how our parents stood it.

Looking back, I feel so lucky to have seen West Side Story for the first time with no idea of its significance, no sense of its legacy, and no prior exposure to its music (I HAD heard the lilting "I Feel Pretty" on some variety show, and was so surprised to learn it came from this show). I’ve never forgotten what it was like experiencing this innovative, visually dazzling, and highly entertaining musical as a journey of complete discovery. I was taken on a real emotional roller coaster that night, from the ecstasy heights of those fabulous numbers to that ending that gave me major waterworks (I think you always cry harder in movies if you see your mom is crying, too) everything came together so beautifully. West Side Story was without a doubt a most extraordinary movie experience.

I Saw You and The World Went Away
West Side Story remained an ongoing passion and fan favorite for lo these many years. The visual aid purpose of this collage is to show not only how much fun I had being a West Side Story fan, but also illustrate how I came to reach such an oversaturation point. And if you're wondering about that TV Guide ad at the bottom that has nothing to do with West Side Story, let me put it this way... there's a reason I say dreams are what the cinema is for.
The year 1985 (five years after the movie Xanadu inspired me to study dance) found me on a cordoned-off city block in Los Angeles--folks watching from behind barriers, massive speakers blaring musical playback, a camera on a crane---dancing as a member of a terpsichorean street gang in a West Side Story-inspired musical fantasy sequence for a CBS Schoolbreak Special: Ace Hits the Big Time
The hilariously cheesy number was more nightmare than dream sequence, and my dancing in it didn't give George Chakiris any sleepless nights, but for that entire day I felt as though it wasn't really happening...that it was all a fantasy playing out in the head of  11-year-old Ken sitting in the balcony of the Castro movie theater.

Gee, Officer Krupke
Always thought Russ Tamblyn deserved an Oscar or Golden Globe nomination
Nobody does a flip-out like Natalie Wood. I really adore her in this movie, and she's at her strongest in this scene. The way she yells "Don't you touch him!" is heart-wrenching. Cue the waterworks.

Anita's Gonna Get Her Kicks
Perhaps it's been run into the ground, but there's no getting past Rita Moreno really bringing it and earning her Oscar and Golden Globe wins. The only Puerto Rican in the cast, her performance has humor, authenticity, grit, and tragedy.



I didn't expect to be as moved by seeing West Side Story again after so many years. In fact, each musical number left me as something of an emotional wreck. It was nice to see these old friends again. Especially Maria and Tony. 

WEST SIDE STORY INFLUENCE & INSPIRATION
(Top - Tony Mordente as Action). This quotable admonition, in addition to the Jets' stare-down, finger-snapping response to authority figures, found its way into the 1967 teen musical The Cool Ones, choreographed by West Side Story's David Winters (A-rab).  

Critics couldn't make up their minds as to whether Bob Fosse's rooftop staging of "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This" in Sweet Charity was a skirt-flipping homage or blatant rip-off. The same with his decision to stage the "Rhythm of Life" number in a parking garage (a la West Side Story's "Cool").

It's not unusual for artists to be unfamiliar with the trailblazers and innovators in their field. Indeed, in many cases, ignorance behooves the young artist, lest they find out their trumpeted originality is often just history repeating (see: Lady Gaga, Bette Midler, and a singing mermaid named Delores DeLago).
But director Bob Giraldi's persistent claim that his music video for Beat It (featuring dancing rival street gangs - complete with singer-snaps and a choreographed rumble) was not influenced by West Side Story is both laughably unconvincing and blatantly disingenuous. And (the most likely option) the kind of cagey deception one engages in to sidestep potential legal hassles.
 In any event, Rita Moreno once relayed in an interview how Michael Jackson approached her at a social function and proclaimed to be such a huge West Side Story fan that the film inspired the song, concept, and choreography of the music video.
Premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theater on Wednesday, December 13, 1961. A week earlier, on December 5th, Natalie Wood had her footprints placed in the cement in the theater's forecourt. 

 
BONUS MATERIAL

Actress, singer, dancer, and TV game-show stalwart 
Elaine Joyce making her uncredited film debut

Womb to Tomb
Former Jets Russ Tamblyn and Richard Beymer appeared in the
David Lynch series Twin Peaks in 1990 and its 2017 return.


I promised myself that I wasn't going to post this somewhat overworked image, but I have to concede there's a very good reason for its popularity. The tenement backdrop, the natural light, the low camera angle (accomplished by digging a pit in the asphalt), and the graceful athleticism of the dancers as they execute a grand battement à la seconde in relevé...is pure visual poetry. With their faces lifted to the sun and their bodies literally rising above their gritty reality, this image perfectly captures the aspirational spirit that is the essence of West Side Story's "Somewhere." 


Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2021

Saturday, November 20, 2021

THAT'S A STRETCH: Actors Playing Against Type

Training Day (2001)
Denzel Washington played his first villain and won a Best Actor Academy Award
 for his electrifying (and to me, his best) against-type performance

If you’ve ever read a celebrity memoir, sat through an episode of Inside The Actors Studio, or listened to an Academy Award acceptance speech, you know that artistic challenges are the raison d’être of the working actor. At least to hear them tell it. Sometimes after listening to these luminaries wax exhaustively about their commitment to creative risk-taking and honing their “instrument,” I’m compelled to go to my computer and check out IMDB to remind myself that yes, indeed, that WAS Ms. or Mr. Master Thespian I last saw reprising that stock character for the umpteenth time in the newest installment of “Name That Overworked Movie Franchise.”
I’m not making light of the seriousness with which actors approach their work. Certainly not in this day and age when the Marvel and DC movie universes have me nostalgically pining for the now very distant past when actors spent more time in acting classes than in gyms. No, I’m just making an observation about how the “industry” side of the movie industry has a way of countering what I presume is the actors’ natural artistic impulse—to have their work reflect a creative range and versatility…

TOOTSIE (1982)
Casting Director: “We’re looking for somebody different.” 
Michael Dorsey: “I can be different.”

…with words more appropriate to a supermarket: Give me something I can sell.

The Shrike (1955)
I loved seeing perennial girl-next-door June Allyson drop the Peter Pan collars and put her dimpled smile in escrow to play the sort of woman once described as "a hard article.

The studio system may be long dead but the star system lingers on. And no matter how talented or versatile an actor is, big screen employability consistently boils down to being a marketable “type.”  A reality of the movie business that most actors seem to accept (or reconcile themselves to). That is, until being too closely associated with a specific image or too often identified as a particular type leads to the kind of role-selection pigeonholing that ends up in being typecast. 

As the careers of many of Hollywood’s biggest stars, past and present, would attest, typecasting in and of itself isn't necessarily a bad thing for careers. Say the names Cagney, Day, Wayne, Dietrich, and a particular kind of role pops into mind. That's how movie stars are made and how Hollywood was born. And certainly, amongst those factions of pop-culture consumers who crave a steady diet of the exact same thing (Fast and Furious, Halloween, Transformers, et al.), typecasting is essential and doesn't detract from one's enjoyment of the franchise "brand."
Me, I don’t mind a bit of typecasting now and then, but on the whole, I tend to lean toward the axiom that what’s good for business is often bad for art.
All Night Long (1981) 
Too bad the film's flat script lets her down, because Barbra Streisand's rare excursion into character work (playing a bullied housewife and wannabe entertainer who can't sing) is an absolute delight.

When it works, typecasting serves as a sort of visual shorthand for the audience and has actors playing to their strengths (the fits-like-a-glove casting of Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl in Robert Altman's Popeye - 1980 ). At its worst, it leads to acting's #1 cardinal sin: being boring. Few things make you feel the passing of every ticking second than witnessing an actor on cruise control giving the same, stale, by-the-numbers performance they’ve given several times before.
When typecasting results in actors playing it safe, it reinforces the familiar and undercuts the essential element of surprise that gives all good performances authenticity and immediacy. This is why I love it when actors occasionally break away from what they’re used to and take the risk of playing against type. The results can be astoundingly good or jaw-droppingly awful, but they’re fresh. Even if I don’t like the end, I tend to respect the moxie it took to go artistically out on a limb.

Limiting my selections to the films in my collection, here - in no particular order - are my 
TOP TEN FAVORITE AGAINST-TYPE PERFORMANCES.
Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People (1980)
Having heretofore assumed sitcom sobbing and crying out "Oh, Rob!" in a quavering voice to represent the full scope of Moore's dramatic ability, you can imagine how gobsmacked I was by the raw honesty she was able to bring to her Oscar-nominated performance as the emotionally-rigid matriarch of a dysfunctional suburban family in Robert Redford's directorial debut. The highest compliment I can pay is to say that while watching her performance, I never once thought of Laura Petrie or Mary Richards. 
Diahann Carroll in Claudine (1974)
Carroll’s sole Academy Award nomination was for a performance in a film the actress/singer with the aristocratic bearing would never have been considered but for the insistence of best friend Diana Sands (originally cast, she fell ill during filming and died of cancer shortly after). Playing a single mother of six trying to make ends meet as a housekeeper, Carroll is relaxed and accessible in a way I hadn’t seen before. Given the opportunity to play a character of some complexity, she proved there was more to her than sequined gowns and impeccable bone structure.
Mia Farrow in Broadway Danny Rose (1984)
Mia & Woody. In retrospect perhaps it took a relationship as fucked-up as theirs for it ever to occur to someone to cast cinema's eternally fey flower child as the tough-as-nails mistress of a borscht belt lounge crooner. Farrow’s transformation—from body language, voice, to her heretofore untapped gift for characterization—is nothing short of startling. I was floored when she wasn't Oscar-nominated. (I always wondered if her hilariously coarse portrayal was in any way inspired by the wives and mistresses of Frank Sinatra's Vegas cronies she must have encountered during their brief marriage.)
Elizabeth Hartman in You're a Big Boy Now (1966)
Playing a narcissistic go-go dancer with a sadistic streak and a temper as short as her miniskirts, Hartman being cast as the unattainable dream girl Barbara Darling was hailed by Life magazine as the single crowning inspiration of novice director Francis Ford Coppola’s film. And they’re right. Pigeonholed early in her career as the introverted, luckless type, Hartman’s performance is a textbook example of the surprising things that can be unleashed in an actor when typecasting is thrown out the window.
Harry Belafonte in Kansas City (1996)
The element of the unexpected plays a big part in why legendary humanitarian and charismatic nice guy Harry Belafonte is so unsettling as a brutal mob boss in Robert Altman’s 1930s crime noir. As the slick gangster kingpin Seldom Seen, Belafonte (who wrote most of his dialogue) is so chillingly dignified in his benevolent menace (nothing's scarier than a cool-headed murderer), the film surrounding him can never quite keep up. His superb performance won the New York Film Critics Award
Doris Day in Love Me or Leave Me (1955)
So indelibly linked to a particular image, at least two Broadway musicals that I know of (Do I Hear a Waltz?, Grease) feature songs that use the name Doris Day as a satiric synonym for wholesome blandness. Well, neither is much in evidence in this welcome departure that finds Doris taking a walk on the darker side of her sunny persona to deliver a gangbusters performance as torch singer Ruth Etting. Day has appeared to good effect in dramatic roles before, but the somewhat unsympathetic nature of her character here is a first. And a favorite.  
Nichelle Nichols in Truck Turner (1974)
As embodied by Nichelle Nichols, Star Trek’s Lieutenant Commander Uhura was one of the most beautiful, eloquent, and downright classy ladies on TV in the ‘60s. Which is precisely why I had to be picked up off the floor after seeing her performance as Dorinda, the provocatively dressed, homicidally ruthless, astoundingly foul-mouthed whorehouse madam in this entertaining Isaac Hayes action flick. Strong-arming and bitch-slapping her way through the fulfillment of a crime vendetta, Nichols appears to be enjoying herself as she shoots for the stars and boldly goes where her talents have never gone before.
Diane Keaton in Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977)
The more Keaton’s recent screen output has felt committed to reasserting her career-long image as a loveable kook, the more grateful I am that when faced with an opportunity to take a creative risk so early in her career, she not only seized upon it but soared. Giving what remains hands-down my absolute favorite performance of her career, the forcefulness of Keaton's emotional honesty in this difficult dramatic role hasn’t diminished for me iota since first seeing it some 40-plus years ago.
Debbie Reynolds in What's The Matter With Helen? (1971)
This isn’t MGM musical-comedy star Debbie Reynolds’ first serious role. But it does represent her first and only go-round in the Grande Dame Guignol annex of the exploitation horror genre, and she acquits herself with steely aplomb. Playing the purposefully hardened yin to Shelley Winters’ nutty-as-a-fruitcake yang, Reynolds is terrifically game in not needing to make her character come across sympathetically. It’s my favorite of her dramatic performances. 
Elizabeth Taylor in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
I rarely get to say this, but I was too young to remember the hubbub surrounding celebrated glamour-puss Elizabeth Taylor being cast as the vulgar, boisterous Martha in the film adaptation of Edward Albee’s scorching play. I suspect few doubted she’d have trouble with the vulgar/boisterous part, but at almost twenty years junior to the character as written, Taylor was not exactly a shoo-in casting option.
Especially since her tabloid high-visibility so tended to overshadow her talent.
I saved Elizabeth Taylor’s role in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for last in this Top Ten List because hers is the only against-type performance I became aware of in reverse. 
When I saw “Woolf” in 1967, I was about 10-years-old and it was my very first Elizabeth Taylor movie. Having no idea of what type she was playing against, I just thought she was really good because she made me cry.
Not-so-fast forward several decades…by which time I’d seen virtually all of Taylor’s films and rewatched “Woolf” more times than I can count. What's happened is that my gradual after-the-fact awareness of how so NOT like Albee's Martha Elizabeth Taylor was when cast in 1965 has given me a greater respect and appreciation for the degree of risk involved and the range displayed in her performance. And what an Oscar-winning triumph of a funny, raucous, and very touching performance it is. 


HONORABLE MENTION
Albert Finney - Night Must Fall (1964)
Jane Fonda - They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969)
Dean Martin - Toys in the Attic (1963)
Patty Duke - Valley of the Dolls (1967)

Halle Berry - B.A.P.S (1997)
Candice Bergen - Starting Over (1979)
Anthony Perkins - Psycho (1960)
James Darren - Venus in Furs (1969)

Cher - Silkwood (1983)
Raquel Welch - Kansas City Bomber (1972)
Michael Keaton - Batman (1989)

Andy Griffith - A Face in the Crowd (1957)
Glenn Close - Fatal Attraction (1987)
Jean Simmons - Angel Face ((1952)

Ann-Margret - Carnal Knowledge (1971)


Readers: 
 Good or Bad, what's your favorite playing against type movie performance?  


Copyright © Ken Anderson    2009 - 2021

Thursday, November 4, 2021

SUNSET BOULEVARD 1950

"If the monkey hadn't died, the show [movie] would be over."
Sign backstage during the L.A. run of the musical version of Sunset Blvd. 
"Close-Up on Sunset Boulevard" Sam Staggs 2002

Sunset Boulevard had its broadcast television premiere October 2, 1965, at 9 pm on NBC’s Saturday Night at the Movies. Being just seven years old at the time, this event came and went without incident or notice by me. When I did get around to seeing Sunset Boulevard it was in the early '70s, when I was about 14-years-old and a budding film buff in the first flush of a newfound infatuation with old movies. 
Up until that time, my movie preferences leaned toward age-inappropriate contemporary films oozing with New Hollywood permissiveness. But in 1971 Ken Russell’s The Boy Friend was released, and that film---a visually stunning, spoofish tribute to the musicals of the '20 and '30s that took my breath away--single-handedly inspired me to seek out and discover old movies.  
A personal journey that happened to coincide with the then-peaking nostalgia craze. 
Ignited by the popularity and influence of Bonnie and Clyde in the late '60s, America grew increasingly enamored of its recent past. A rose-colored love affair of exploration and escapism (the '70s were no picnic) that found expression in every corner of pop culture from fashion to music. Classic films and their stars were especially popular with the younger generation, who responded enthusiastically to them for their artistry as well as their camp appeal.
1971 - Everything Old Was New Again
My own particular interest in nostalgia manifested itself in a fascination with movies headlined by former leading ladies of yesteryear. The more melodramatic, the better. I was especially taken with Grande Dame Guignol, which, if you're not familiar, are essentially monster movies for gay teens.

Grande Dame Guignol (or hagsploitation) are sensationalistic melodramas and horror thrillers centered around older actresses in roles that exploit or exaggeratedly play off the star's declined status and advanced age (by Hollywood standards, mind you, which is simply over 30) contrasted with their often over-the-top, prima donna behavior. Recognizable by their formula mix of deglamorization + histrionics + gerontophobia with a dash of kitsch and camp thrown in,  their plots tended to be baroque variations on familiar monster movie tropes. Only the "monster" in this instance is usually a middle-aged woman who behaves violently or becomes unhinged after suffering some kind of emotional breakdown or traumatizing social outcast rebuff (imagine Stephen King's Carrie for the AARP set). 
In its inability to imagine a fate more terrifying than aging for a woman, Hollywood channeled its misogyny and fear of "La femme vieillissante" into the creation of an entirely new horror genre - The Grande Dame Guignol. Aka: hagsploitation, hag-horror, or the psycho-biddy movie

Empathy always drew me to the "villains" in these films: these larger-than-life women who suffered or were driven mad by their unwillingness or inability to surrender their outré, outsized fabulousness to the conformist dictates of age, gender, marital status, childlessness, standards of beauty...or sanity. 
Even when they resorted to murder (which they always did), it was still kind of tough not to feel bad for them since their crimes were almost always pitiable acts of desperation and madness. Besides, from the film's point of view, the real crime these women were guilty of was growing old and ceasing to be desirable to the male gaze.  
Queer Identification in Sunset Boulevard - Approximating the Female Gaze
As written, the character of Norma Desmond is a direct assault on postwar cinema's reassertion of rigid gender roles. Her dominance, sexual agency, and solitary independence are presented as an appropriation of masculine power; ergo, she's a monster. Joe Gillis' dependent status and physical objectification render him "the male feminized," which, in the eyes of the film is an irredeemable sin.

Grand Dame Guignol movies were largely viewed as a comedown for the stars involved, but I credit them with introducing me to: Bette Davis (Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte), Joan Crawford (What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?), Tallulah Bankhead (Die! Die! My Darling!), Olivia de Havilland (Lady in a Cage), Barbara Stanwyck (The Night Walker), and Eleanor Parker (Eye of the Cat).

I’d never even heard of Gloria Swanson at the time, but when my older sister circled the plot synopsis of Sunset Boulevard in that week’s TV Guide, it sounded exactly like a horror movie to me, so I was looking forward to seeing it. (A weekly ritual my sisters and I shared in rotation was to go through the entire TV Guide when it arrived and circle every “must-see” movie and special scheduled.)
Of course, the noirish Sunset Boulevard – a grim melodrama that has a struggling screenwriter meet a bad end after hoping to take advantage of the comeback delusions of a  fading silent screen star – is neither a horror movie nor an example of Grand Dame Guignol (at least not, to quote Norma, not “in the usual sense of the word”). But it shares enough similarities with those genres for me to have actually mistaken Sunset Boulevard for a hagsploitation horror movie the first time I saw it.
Crazy in Love
From Frankenstein to Dracula, the monsters of horror movies have always been the most vulnerable and fragile figures in the story.  Over the years, Norma's delusional grand passions ("I wrote that with my heart!") and emotional vulnerability strike me as saner than Joe's cold opportunism or Betty's pushful ambition.
Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond

William Holden as Joe Gillis

Nancy Olson as Betty Schaefer

Erich von Stroheim as Max Von Mayerling

Everything about Sunset Boulevard's set-up (from a screenplay by Wilder, Charles Brackett, and D.M. Marshman) is strictly Gothic Horror 101. The stranger-in-distress who happens upon a crumbling castle occupied by a mad scientist and henchman is a horror movie trope so timeworn it's parodied in The Rocky Horror Picture Show and countless Warner Bros. cartoons. Only in this instance, down-on-his-luck screenwriter Joe Gillis is the stranger in need, a decaying Beverly Hills mansion plays stand-in for the castle, and of course, it doesn’t take much imagination to picture fading silent screen star Norma Desmond as Frank N. Furter and Max as Riff Raff. 
Gothic tradition gives us a mad scientist obsessed with regenerating dead human tissue, Sunset Boulevard has a mad actress obsessed with regenerating a dead career.
The horror indicators keep piling up in Sunset Boulevard as the Old Dark House trope morphs into The Villainous Crush device that always leads to the Domestic Incarceration machination from which our hero (antihero in this case) must escape. To my adolescent sensibilities, Sunset Boulevard was every bit as chilling as any horror movie I’d yet seen. More so, in fact. Well into Sunset Boulevard’s 110-minute running time…what with Franz Waxman’s ominous (Oscar-winning) score; John F. Seitz’s stark and shadowy Black-and-White cinematography; and the utterly unique strangeness of Swanson’s raptorial Norma Desmond…I was certain I was watching Creature Features: The Hollywood Edition. 

So well had an atmosphere of "anything's possible" bizarreness been established that I was convinced there was going to be some kind of 11th-hour “big reveal” moment…something like Joe discovering that the only room in the house with a lock on it contained the mummified remains of Norma’s ex-husbands. Or that the film’s climax would involve an ax-wielding Norma stalking Joe and Betty through the halls of her Addams Family-chic gothic mansion.
Norma Desmond, The Hollywood Chimera
Age isn't the only reason Hollywood banished Norma Desmond to the scrap heap. The subtleties of  Gloria Swanson's extravagantly operatic characterization (and Oscar-worthy performance...she was robbed!) suggest that Norma knows only one channel. Her gestures, manner of speech, & facial expressions are representative of an acting style that had long gone out of fashion.  


Despite thwarting my cliché-fed, B-movie horror expectations at every turn, Sunset Boulevard nevertheless proved sufficiently dark of theme and weird of story to give me a good case of the willies that evening and a sleep full of nightmares (Norma’s advance to the camera at the end really freaked me out). 
But numerous viewings over the years haven't truly altered my initial impression of Sunset Boulevard as a horror movie, only the syntax: I no longer see it as a horror movie, but it’s most definitely a horrific movie.  A nightmare vision of Hollywood that qualifies as a grim antecedent to The Day of the Locust and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
Time Passages
Twenty-eight years later and Joe is still hustling to make a buck in Hollywood. Billy Wilder (then 74) and William Holden (59) had their 4th screen collaboration in 1978's Fedora. A movie unrelated to Sunset Boulevard that feebly sought to evoke memories of that superior film with its plot involving a down-on-his-luck movie producer (Holden) and a reclusive screen star (Marthe Keller). Critics felt Wilder would have been better off shooting Norma's Salome script.


"There's nothing tragic about being fifty -- not unless you try to be twenty-five."
In life, aging and the passing of time are so subtle they're almost imperceptible. When you’re young they’re measured in things acquired: experience, independence, wisdom; as you get older they’re measured in things lost: hair, agility, time. And matters aren’t helped any by the fact that one’s chronological age (how old one is) and biological age (how old one feels) are rarely--if ever--in sync. 
That's How Young I Feel 
Anyone thinking Norma's reaction to being a 50-year-old woman in Hollywood is hysterical would do well to remember when the James Bond film Spectre garnered global headlines in 2015 simply for casting 50-year-old Monica Bellucci as 46-year-old Daniel Craig's love interest. 

In Hollywood, where time is the enemy and aging is regarded as a bad career move, Sunset Boulevard sees the ironic tragedy in the story of a woman for whom time has stood still being overlooked by an industry that’s literally in the business of stopping time. The Dream Factory paradox is that Hollywood is only able to peddle the fantasy of eternal youth and beauty by callously discarding its manufactured idols the moment their images are tarnished by reality (i.e., age). 
That’s where the horrific part of the Hollywood nightmare comes in. Are the stars who mutilate and starve themselves in an effort to hold onto youth considered "sane" because doing so keeps them in the game and they understand that's how the game is played? Certainly, the public seems to think so. 
In 2015, social media drew the ire of the late Carrie Fisher when Star Wars fans deemed the then-59-year-old actor to have "aged badly" since her Princess Leia in a metal bikini days. Her response: "Youth and beauty are not accomplishments. They are the temporary happy by-products of time and/or DNA. Don't hold your breath for either."  
Is Norma's insanity that she can't distinguish fantasy from reality,
or simply that she learned Hollywood's lessons all too well?

"All cardboard, all hollow, all phony, all done with mirrors."
Sunset Boulevard’s allegorical use of Hollywood’s artificiality serves to underscore its themes related to our susceptibility to fantasy, the importance of maintaining one's authenticity, the easy corruptibility of our values, and the price of losing touch with reality. 
And indeed, between the film’s use of genuine, Hollywood locations (Schwab's Pharmacy), real movie industry personalities appearing as themselves (Cecil B DeMille, Hedda Hopper), and silent-era star Gloria Swanson and silent-era director Erich von Stroheim playing characters that are NOT themselves, but kinda are… Sunset Boulevard blurs the line between fantasy and reality as freely as Norma herself.
In the 70-plus years since Sunset Boulevard’s release, Hollywood really hasn’t changed all that much. But the world HAS become a bit more like Norma.
Norma's cocooned narcissism finds its contemporary corollary in the normalized self-absorption of social media selfie culture where delusions are allowed to run rampant in Instagram and Tik Tok accounts devoted exclusively to self-enchanted images of oneself. Norma would love it. 
The tortuous regimen Norma undergoes in the name of self-rejuvenation, once the somewhat loony but practical province of those whose livelihoods are predicated on their appearance, is child's play compared to what the average person today is willing to subject themselves to under the marketing-friendly brand of "self-esteem."
Perhaps most remarkable of all, fame-culture and its attendant wealth-worship has turned America's working poor into the frontline defenders and protectors of the rich. The quickest way to pick a fight on social media these days is to criticize ostentatiously wealthy celebrities or question whether obscenely rich wealth-hoarders should perhaps pay proportionately as much in taxes as disabled veterans living on Social Security. 
I've been told that when I go off on one of my windy jeremiads about what I deem to be the superiority of '70s films over the movies made today, my arguments can take on a tone not dissimilar to Norma Desmond lamenting post-silent-era cinema's lack of "faces" and bemoaning the smallness of "the pict-chas."


A Most Unusual Picture!  - Movie poster tagline for Sunset Boulevard
The quotation that headed this essay - "If the monkey hadn't died, the show would be over" - only partially relates to the narrative logic suggesting that had Norma not been anticipating the arrival of an animal mortician, Joe Gillis would have never made it past Max at the front door. 
I think the quote also speaks to the loneliness of Norma's life. Whether she considered the chimp to be a pet, a companion, or a child surrogate, it's easy to conjecture that if the monkey hadn't died, perhaps Norma wouldn't have been so desperately lonely. Arguably, Norma's loneliness is the source of much of her pain and madness. Certainly, loneliness and desperation are what prompt her to go full Grand Dame Guignol and all but kidnap and hold hostage a complete stranger. 

Although, when speaking of a complete stranger who looks like William Holden...




BONUS MATERIAL
This fuzzy screencap looks a bit like Dame Edna Everage is having a go at Norma Desmond (which sounds pretty fab, now that I think of it), but it's actually Mary Astor with Darren McGavin in a one-hour television adaptation of Sunset Boulevard. Broadcast in color on NBC December 3, 1956 as part of the anthology program "Robert Montgomery Presents," it was  2nd made-for-television version of the Paramount film. Available for viewing HERE.


Although Gloria Swanson herself had unsuccessfully tried to turn Sunset Boulevard into a musical for years, in 1993 Andrew Lloyd Webber, Don Black, and Christopher Hampton premiered their theatrical musical version of Sunset Boulevard in London's West End with Patti LuPone starring as Norma Desmond. The show had its pre-Broadway US opening December 1993 in Los Angeles at the now-defunct Shubert Theater in Century City with Oscar-nominated actress Glenn Close in the lead. I saw the production in January of 1994 and truly loved it. Especially the breathtakingly elaborate production and set design. 
As magnificent as Glenn Close was, I was in near hysterics when it was announced on June 15, 1994 that Oscar-winner and personal fave Faye Dunaway was set to don Norma Desmond's turban when Glenn Close took Sunset Blvd. to Broadway (with lots of attendant ugliness involving Webber giving the shiv to role-originator LuPone). It mattered not a whit to me that Dunaway had heretofore never evinced even a glimpse of singing ability. We fans of camp knew exactly what her casting in the role augered: "Mommie Dearest, Live!"
Alas, it wasn't to be.
In an 11th-hour twist worthy of Sunset Boulevard itself (screen star rejected!) on June 24th, word came out that Dunaway's services were no longer required and that Sunset Blvd. was to close. Cue the press circus reporting on the conflicting and litigious reasons for the decision. The trouble-plagued production moved on to Broadway where it was a great success, winning several Tony Awards, among them Best Musical and Best Actress. 

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2021