Sunday, May 8, 2022

CHICAGO 2002

For me, the history of CHICAGO  has always been inextricably linked with that of A Chorus Line. CHICAGO premiered on Broadway June 3rd; 1975; A Chorus Line, six weeks later, on July 25th. CHICAGO opened to mixed reviews and struggled at the boxoffice; A Chorus Line was met with raves, won the Pulitzer Prize, and was nothing short of a cultural event. CHICAGO was nominated for 11 Tony Awards, won 0; A Chorus Line was nominated for 12, won 9.

CHICAGO and A Chorus Line also happen to be linked together in my memory. Certainly my memories of that day in August of 1975 when I went to The Grammophone, a gay-owned and operated record store on San Francisco's Polk Street, and purchased the Original Broadway Cast Recording LPs of both shows at the same time. Although I hadn't yet heard a single note from either score, I was so fired-up from consuming all the After Dark Magazine-fed hype surrounding the opening of each production (that invaluable, homoerotic, national entertainment magazine being my sole West Coast pipeline to what was happening on Broadway), that I was almost smug in my confidence that my two blind purchases were far from being a gamble. 
August 5, 1975 - $4.88 each
Both were single LPs in glossy gatefold jackets loaded with photos & liner notes
Unlike movies, new Broadway musicals don't pop up every Wednesday and Friday, so when one appeared on the horizon that interested me, it was a big event. The last Broadway cast recording I'd purchased was Sondheim's A Little Night Music, a musical meal I'd been dining out on since 1973. Having committed every note and melody of the splendid score to memory by then, I could scarcely believe my good fortune that 1975 held forth the promise of TWO major Broadway musical releases I could submerge myself in. 

At the time, all the smart money was on CHICAGO. The only familiar names to me from A Chorus Line were composer Marvin Hamlish, who then was all but unavoidable after his Oscar win for The Sting (1973), and director-choreographer Michael Bennett, who I came to know from reading the backs of the library-borrowed cast albums of Company and Follies. CHICAGO distinguished itself as the one with the Broadway heavy hitters and showbiz pedigree. It marked the Broadway musical return of Gwen Verdon (last seen in 1966’s Sweet Charity)! The professional reunion of husband & wife team Verdon & Fosse!  The reteaming of Fosse with his Cabaret and Liza with a Z collaborators, the composer-lyricist-writing duo of John Kander and Fred Ebb! And it was the first-time pairing of two genuine Broadway legends…Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera!
Illustration by Sam Norkin -1975
Wanting to start off with the “sure thing,” I listened to the CHICAGO album first, which turned into one of those rarer-than-rare occurrences where one’s extraordinarily high expectations are not only met, but exceeded. Hearing that incredible score for the first time...every single song a showstopper...not a clunker in the bunch...was such a thrill. The songs and their often hilarious lyrics set my imagination on fire... I could practically see the entire production in my head. I was instantly attracted to the storyline--the phoniness of show biz reflecting the phoniness of the American legal system. And if the cynicism at CHICAGO's core struck me as caustic and pessimistic, consider that I was just 17 at the time (sarcasm and snark are like crack to a teenager) and that it was the summer of '75. The summer that saw the dynamic downer duo of Nashville and The Day of the Locust released to movie theaters just weeks before. The timing couldn't have been more perfect. CHICAGO was simply riding the crest of the zeitgeist. 
May 6, 1976
That's Jane Fonda speaking at a Tom Hayden rally in Sacramento and 18-year-old me in this, the only photo I have of my beloved official CHICAGO T-shirt, which I wore for years until it disintegrated. A photo captured mere moments before Ms. Fonda graciously signed the Barbarella photo I've got secreted away in the Busby Berkeley Book tucked under my arm. The memo is an affirmative reply to a written request by yours truly to NY's 46th St. Theater inquiring as to the possibility of purchasing a CHICAGO T-shirt (mail order Broadway merchandise wasn't yet a thing). It cost a whopping $5 plus $1 shipping. 

I next listened to A Chorus Line, optimistically resigned to the certainty that it couldn’t possibly match my CHICAGO experience. Jump ahead several hours. Me on the floor in front of the family stereo, headphones on, in a theater geek's state of transcendence, eyes red and nose runny from listening to A Chorus Line three times in a row and bawling my eyes out. 
And there you have what was then, and continues to be, my essential relationship with CHICAGO and A Chorus Line. They're culturally joined at the hip. Iconic templates of a particular time and place in my life--I'd graduated high school in June, I'd been "out" to myself for about two years (4 more years to go for family), it was the summer of Jaws, it was the summer of my independence. And these two shows, listened to as routinely and relentlessly as though they were on a loop, were the soundtrack of my adult-adjacent freedom. 
June 7, 1976
I saw A Chorus Line when the National Company came to San Francisco's
 Curran Theater in May. Ever the autograph hound, my friend and I became
stage-door johnnies for the show's entire run

But CHICAGO was always the diamond…sharp, dazzling, and cold; while A Chorus Line was always the heart (a vision of Lauren Bacall singing "Hearts, Not Diamonds" in The Fan just popped into my head). To me, A Chorus Line was a dark, almost melancholy show... a Follies for theater gypsies...but unlike CHICAGO, it was humane. And that made listening to it a poignant and exhilarating experience—all goosebumps and waterworks. Each musical, reflecting as they did, opposite yet equally true faces of our culture (post-Watergate disillusionment & "Me" generation introspection), also appealed to the contrasting sides of my own nature. CHICAGO and A Chorus Line complemented one another. 
It wasn't until 1992 that I got the opportunity to see CHICAGO on stage for the first time. The Long Beach Civic Light Opera put on a fabulous, faithful-to-the-original production starring Juliet Prowse and Bebe Newerth, utilizing Tony Walton's original set designs, Patricia Zipprodt's costuming, and featuring two members of the original 1975 cast. It was astoundingly good. This perhaps accounts for why I was never very never fond of the pared-down, anachronistically Vegas-y look of CHICAGO’s phenomenally successful 1996 Broadway revival. An antipathy reinforced when I saw a 2012 production starring Christie Brinkley (by this point, stunt-casting was the only teeth the show had left).

Since 1975, A Chorus Line’s cultural grip has weakened a bit. Thanks to a monumentally mishandled 1985 movie adaptation, and the musical’s once-innovative confessional format feeling almost quaint in today’s climate of social media oversharing. Meanwhile, CHICAGO, a show once criticized for its relentlessly downcast gaze into life’s sewers, has hung around long enough for its down-in-the-gutter perspective (I hear Candy Darling in Women in Revolt "Too low for the dogs to bite!") to be exactly eye-level with what mainstream American culture has come to normalize, make viral, and elect.   

And something I thought for the longest time would never happen... after decades of false starts and rumors (Liza and Goldie! Goldie and Madonna!) and against impossible odds (non-animated movie musicals were believed to be a dead genre), CHICAGO, at last, made it to the big screen. Twenty-seven years after its debut on Broadway. 
Renee Zellweger as Roxie Hart

Catherine Zeta-Jones as Velma Kelly
Richard Gere as Billy Flynn
Queen Latifah as Matron Mama Morton
John C. Reilly as Amos Hart

CHICAGO, the Bob Fosse/Fred Ebb/John Kander musical vaudeville about two amoral, overaged, gin-soaked jazz babies on murderers’ row desperate to parlay their 15-minutes of criminal infamy into show biz careers, was made into a $45 million major motion picture. The director making his feature film debut? None other than Rob Marshall, the Tony Award-nominated choreographer-director of that 1992 Juliet Prowse/Bebe Neuwirth Long Beach production that knocked my socks off.  

It's impossible to overstate how excited I was that Friday morning in December of 2002 when my partner and I, returning home from a Christmas trip, stopped off at our place just long enough to drop off our luggage so we could hightail it to Century City and be among the first audience to see CHICAGO on its December 27th opening day in LA. By the time the film was over and anxious-looking marketing folks began handing out audience evaluation cards and pencils (the film wouldn’t open wide until the following month), I thought I had died and gone to stage-to-screen heaven. We were both so euphoric over what we’d just seen, after exiting the theater we swiftly got right back in line to see it again
Chita Rivera as Nickie
Broadway's original Velma Kelly makes a cameo appearance as a Cook County Jail inmate.
Her name is a nod to the character she played in Fosse's 1969 film, Sweet Charity.

Rob Marshall and screenwriter Bill Condon avoided several pitfalls from the outset by not trying to reimagine the show for the screen. Instead, they came up with a device (the musical numbers erupt out of Roxie’s fevered fantasies) that made the highly-stylized, stage-bound show more cinematic. Boasting spectacular cinematography, a sensational cast, and dazzling choreography, they succeeded in bringing the CHICAGO I loved to the screen. (It had been my gravest fear that the “Victoria’s Secret meets International Male” Broadway revival version of  CHICAGO was going to be the only surviving template for future generations.) 
The film went on to be a major boxoffice and critical hit, garnering a whopping 13 Oscar nominations that year, winning 6, among them Best Picture. CHICAGO revitalised the movie musical.
Taye Diggs as The Bandleader
Christine Baranski as Mary Sunshine

But writing this now in 2022, it's clear my once all-encompassing ardor for CHICAGO has cooled a bit over the years. After the dust of anticipation settled and I was able to breathe a sigh of relief that the screen adaptation wasn't a botch job like A Chorus Line: The Movie, only then did I notice that somewhere along its 27-year path to the screen, CHICAGO had become harmless.
When I look at CHICAGO today, the film's black comedy subtext targeting the institutional corruption of the media, penal system, politics, and law, doesn't hit nearly as hard as how sympathetically Roxi and Velma are portrayed. 
Gwen Verdon & Chita Rivera gave us a Roxie and Velma who were genuinely "...older than I ever intended to be." Their hunger for vaudeville fame was a last-gasp act of desperation after a lifetime of failure and rejection. The Roxie and Velma of the film are both so young and beautiful, that one is left with the impression that life has been unduly unfair to them. Throughout the film, each suffers so many humiliations, setbacks, and exploitations that by the finale, we truly forget (or have long stopped caring) that they are remorseless murderers. Instead of being made to feel complicit participants in this depravity, we're simply relieved and happy these women get to have their dreams come true.  

Fosse/Verdon (2019)
Bianca Marroquin and Michelle Williams
CHICAGO rehearsals 1975
Bob Fosse: “And I’m saying that it would be better for the show if the…”
Gwen Verdon: “Better for the show? Oh, really? Better for the show… Is that really what you think? I’ll tell you what would have been better for the show; opening four months ago with a director who wasn’t hellbent on turning it into two hours of misery for the audience.”

The above exchange may be fictional (from the splendid miniseries Fosse/Verdon). Still, it reflects a genuine issue that plagued the original production from the getgo...many felt that Fosse had simply made the show too bitter and misanthropic. 

Hollywood had no such concerns. When the time came for the film adaptation, far too much Hollywood money was riding on CHICAGO for the studio to even consider taking a chance on having another Pennies from Heaven on its hands (1981's mega-depressing megaflop about another amoral character who uses musical fantasy to escape reality). Miramax insured its $45 million investment by making sure that with this CHICAGO, a good time was going to be had by all. Even if it was a musical about murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery, and treachery--all those things we all hold near and dear to our hearts.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS MOVIE
No one can say Rob Marshall didn’t understand the assignment. He was hired to deliver a hit movie musical and he did. Brilliantly. It really wasn't his fault that the CHICAGO he (and I) fell in love with back in 1975—labeled by many critics at the time as mean-spirited and ugly—had long given way to the forget your troubles, c'mon get happy crowd-pleaser CHICAGO of today. The 1996 Broadway revival turned CHICAGO into the 2nd longest-running musical in Broadway history. And it didn't accomplish that by making visiting tourists and blue-haired theater parties uncomfortable. It became a hit by submerging the show's unsavory attributes under layers of glamour, sex, and style. Yes, with nary a trace of irony or self-awareness, CHICAGO had become Fosse's "Razzle Dazzle” number.
CHICAGO's themes remain relevant, but its contemptuous 
view of America and humanity no longer discomforts

PERFORMANCES
Casting a movie in ways that invite comparisons to a show’s original cast can be problematic. Since there IS no other Roxie Hart for me but Gwen Verdon, I was actually pleased that the film went with an entirely different take on the character. I hadn’t seen Renée Zellweger in anything before, but her Roxie has a Glenda Farrell quality—tough, quirky, wisecracking—that feels both period-perfect and suits the film’s concept. Catherine Zeta-Jones is dynamic as Velma Kelly, but the lovely woman hasn’t a coarse bone in her body. It's impossible to take your eyes off of her when she's onscreen, but when she tries for Velma’s lowbrow vulgarity, the best you get (and here she isn’t alone) is Damon Runyon-esque posturing of the Guys and Dolls sort. The entire cast of CHICAGO is exceptionally good, Richard Gere--the most animated I’ve seen him onscreen since Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977)--being a particular delight, displaying even more playful showmanship at age 52 than in that online clip of his 1973 appearance in Grease.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
The thrill and terror of seeing any movie adaptation of a favorite show is discovering what they did with (or to) the songs you loved best and played most often on the OBCR album. Sometimes your favorites don’t even make it into the finished film (On a Clear Day You Can See Forever’s baffling decision to excise its sole lively production number “Wait Till We’re Sixty-Five”). Other times you’ll wish they hadn’t (don’t get me started on A Chorus Line: The Movie again). From the very first time I listened to the CHICAGO Broadway cast album, “Funny Honey”, “The Cell Block Tango”, “Roxie”, and “Nowadays” became my favorite songs in the show. How did their transfer to film rate? 
"Funny Honey"-    B
The movie goes for a sultry, torchy interpretation of this number, and scores high points for the way it cleverly establishes the film's visual vocabulary for Roxie's fantasies. It only earns a "B" grade because I've never gotten over the sheer brilliance of Gwen Verdon's vocal performance of this song. It's comic poetry. 
"The Cell Block Tango"-  A+
Every detail about this inspired fever dream of a number works magnificently for me. I especially love that Marshall includes the "victims" in this death tango, and the way the prison reality is intercut with the fantasy. The number is theatrical, it's cinematic, it's a scarlet wall of women behind bars. My favorite number in the movie.
"Roxie"-  A+
Roxie is a singular sensation to herself in this narcissist anthem that becomes a terrifically glossy and stylish production number in the style of the classic Hollywood musicals. It's deliciously old-fashioned and Zellewgger shines in it. Literally. 
"Nowadays/Hot Honey Rag"- A+
Gangbusters! Because "Hot Honey Rag" wasn't on the OBCR album, I only became aware of it when Verdon & Rivera performed it on variety shows, and then I think it was just called "Keep It Hot." Anyhow, it's now a standard part of revival recordings and a "new" favorite for me. "Nowadays" is given its due as both a solo & duet, and the electric staging of  "Hot Honey Rag" had me thinking of the flappers in Thoroughly Modern Millie. And seriously, the lyrics to "Nowadays" are out of this world.


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
In spite of that dreadful, written-for-the-film Oscar-bait song "I Move On", I'll always enjoy the movie version of CHICAGO. It's an incredibly well-crafted musical that I credit for rescuing the genre from animated singing teapots, and I genuinely think it deserves all of its success. (Though Marshall revealing in the DVD commentary that personal fave-rave Toni Collette was almost cast as Roxie was a bit of news I didn't need. OMG...can you imagine?! Be still my heart.)
But through no fault of its own--after all, the movie didn't change, I did--CHICAGO just doesn't stand the test of time for me as what I might consider a classic musical. When I revisit Cabaret (1972), even after all these years, it's a film that continues to offer me a full-course meal. Rewatching  CHICAGO recently was like having a sorbet dessert...thoroughly delightful and pleasant, but there wasn't anything for me to chew on. 

I told you that CHICAGO and A Chorus Line are eternally linked for me. Here it is 2022, both shows have been made into films, yet when I really want to have my best experience of either and both...I still go back to listen to those original Broadway cast records I purchased in August of 1975.


BONUS MATERIAL
There's a wealth of material on YouTube and on the internet about CHICAGO. You can see clips from the original production, the 1992 Long Beach production, the 1996 Broadway revival, and the deleted "Class" musical number from the motion picture. Any footage you can catch of Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivers performing is pure magic. 
Also available on YouTube (for the time being) is the silent film version of Chicago (1927)
 and the Ginger Rogers remake/reworking Roxie Hart (1942)
 - Thanks, Cinefilia

My favorite curio is an audio track from the 1975 Philadephia tryouts that features cut songs and the original lyrics to "The Cell Block Tango" (wherein we discover "Lipschitz" initially referred to Jacques Lipschitz, the cubist sculptor). Listen to it HERE.  

"Minsky's Chorus" Reginal Marsh - 1935
The painting that inspired the original CHICAGO poster art


Copyright © Ken Anderson   2009 - 2022

Thursday, March 31, 2022

LAST OF THE RED HOT LOVERS 1972

I remember when I was a teenager there used to be a radio station format called MOR, which stood for "middle of the road." And as the name suggests, these surprisingly popular stations catered to the seasoning-free music needs of its still market-significant 34-65 listening demographic--folks who were concerned that The Osmonds were beginning to sound a little too “street”--by playing inoffensive melodic pop, soft-rock, instrumentals, and standards (i.e., elevator music). It served as a counterprogramming response to the late-'60s revolution in rock, soul, and R&B that emerged out of the youth movement, drug culture, and changing socio-political climate.
Middle Man
I bring this up because when it comes to movies, I tend to forget that around this same time (roughly 1967 - 1978) Hollywood was in the midst of its own revolution, dubbed the New Hollywood. A revolution the floundering studios responded to with its own brand of MOR counterprogramming designed to satisfy the needs of the middle-age-bracket ticket-buyer who still saw movies as primarily a  "family medium" and went to theaters for escapism, not significance.
In the years following the breakout success of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Easy Rider (1969), a struggling film industry began aggressively courting the rapidly-growing youth market. Embracing unconventional films with topical themes, profanity, and graphic displays of sex, nudity, and violence, the goal was to lure audiences with what they couldn't get on television. While Hollywood traditionalists balked, the coveted college-age demographic dominated the marketplace, turning offbeat, taboo-shattering films like Midnight Cowboy (1969) A Clockwork Orange (1971), and Last Tango in Paris (1972) into major boxoffice hits.

Simultaneously, while television still remained the dominant entertainment choice for the dwindling 35 to 64-year-old market, they proved that, when given the right G or GP-rated inducement, they were capable of showing up in significant enough numbers to make such old-fashioned (if not downright primordial) movies as Yours, Mine, & Ours (1968), The Love Bug (1969), and Airport (1970) some of the highest-grossing films of their respective years.
Stuck in the Middle with You
The "Hollywood Renaissance" era of the '70s is rightfully remembered for its creative daring and for producing groundbreaking films like The Graduate (1967), Klute (1971), and MASH (1970). But they are also the years when doggedly routine MOR comedies sought to cling to relevance in the youth-centric marketplace by viewing the rapidly-changing cultural landscape through a reactive, decidedly middle-aged (mostly male, always white) prism.  

The undisputed master of MOR movies at this time was the late Neil Simon, who built a career out of glorifying the middle-aged, middle-class everyman bewildered by a world that was changing too fast. Having begun his career writing for TV (Your Show of Shows, The Phil Silvers Show), the prolific playwright, screenwriter, and Broadway golden boy was a master of sitcom plotting and gag-heavy humor. All of which reassured ticket buyers that a night out with a Neil Simon movie was a guaranteed risk-free, comfortingly familiar experience. Dubbed the "King of Kvetch Comedy", for almost a decade Neil Simon had his finger on the arrhythmic pulse of America’s “middlers”— folks too old for the Pepsi Generation but not yet ready to join the Geritol set. 
Barney's Queen of the Sea
Sweet savory salmon saute swimming in salivary succulence 

But by 1972, when even TV sitcoms were beginning to adopt a hipper, more contemporary comedy style (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, All in the Family, and Maude all premiered between 1970 and 1972) and Simon--who turned 45 that year, the same age as the main character in Last of the Red Hot Lovers--found that his trademark jokey, setup-payoff style had begun to feel dated even to his core audience. Which perhaps explains why the audience that had helped turn his early screen adaptations Barefoot in the Park (1967) and The Odd Couple (1968) into boxoffice hits went largely MIA by the time Star Spangled Girl (1971) and Last of the Red Hot Lovers (1972) came out. 
Alan Arkin as Barney Cashman
Sally Kellerman as Elaine Navazio
Paula Prentiss as Bobbi Michele
Renee Taylor as Jeanette Fisher

If Classical Hollywood’s fumbling efforts to join the New Hollywood youthquake were a movie, that movie would be Neil Simon's Last of the Red Hot Lovers. It’s the story of Barney Cashman. Balding, happily married, settled-in-his-ways Barney Cashman who every day wears a blue suit when he drives his black 4-door sedan from Great Neck to New York to open his seafood restaurant. The routine sameness of Barney's life has him, at age 45, both contemplating his mortality and grappling with the nagging certainty that on the battlefront of the '70s Sexual Revolution, God has classified him 4-F. 
It's Barney's deepest desire to have just one afternoon of “exciting” in a life that has thus far been one uninterrupted stream of “nice.” Neil Simon's midlife-crisis comedy of bourgeois manners chronicles Barney’s earnest but disastrous pursuit of the perfect Afternoon Delight. 
The Peacock Revolution
Along with everything else, men's fashion underwent an upheaval in the '70s.
Bold styling and vivid colors signified youth and sex appeal

Although a Tony Award-nominated hit when it opened on Broadway in 1969 (with James Coco in the lead), Last of the Red Hot Lovers —the 7th of Simon’s plays to make it to the screen—hit theaters during a downtrend in Simon's career and, like Star Spangled Girl before it, opened to terrible reviews and non-existent business. By the time it was released on VHS in the early '80s (when I saw it) it had earned the reputation of being the most missable of Simon's screen adaptations. 

So wouldn’t you know it...coming to Last of the Red Hot Lovers with rock-bottom expectations and the participation of faves Paula Prentiss and Sally Kellerman my sole interest, I wound up laughing louder, longer, and more frequently at LOTRHL than any other Neil Simon film I'd seen to date. That was more than 40 years ago. Today, even after multiple revisits,  Last of the Red Hot Lovers still remains my #1 favorite Neil Simon stage-to-screen adaptation.
Barney Whips Out His Schtick
The comedy in Last of the Red Hot Lovers is from a time when the mere sight of a middle-aged man in boxer shorts (37-year-old Arkin shaved his head to play 45) was considered a sure-fire laugh-getter 


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM     
The obvious reason I love Last of the Red Hot Lovers is that it makes me laugh. A lot. What’s not so obvious is why. It’s not like I’m blind to the film’s numerous shortcomings: Neal Hefti’s oddly dispiriting musical score; director Gene Saks’ (Mame) pedestrian approach to the material (it looks like a TV movie that ran into budget trouble); and the overall sense that the film's premise is too thin to support the level of repetition imposed upon it by its "comic triple" structure.
For those unfamiliar, the Comic Triple is the ages-old comedy writing principle that says things are funnier in threes. A setup built around - 1. normal, 2. normal, 3. surprise! 
A typical example is this exchange from Young Frankenstein (1974)-co-written by Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks: 

1. "Would the doctor care for a brandy before retiring?"
    "No. Thank you."
2. "Some warm milk, perhaps?"
    "No. Thank you, very much. No, thanks."
3. "Ovaltine?"

Like Simon's earlier play Plaza Suite, Last of the Red Hot Lovers has a "3-in-One" structure (three one-act playlets united by the same male lead) that turns the film itself into a Comic Triple. But I guess for some, 98 minutes was an awfully long time to wait for a punchline.  

(Mel Brooks and Neil Simon were friends who both got their start as writers for Your Show of Shows in the ‘50s. Only a year apart in age, Simon never really shed his status as the comic darling of the blue-hair set, but Mel Brooks' broad farces and satirical movie homages struck a chord with young audiences and came to influentially exemplify the look of hip, college-crowd comedy in the ‘70s.)  
It's All in the Writing / It's All in the Casting
I'd say Simon's jokes hit most of the time. But for me, Arkin, Kellerman, Prentiss, and Taylor bat it clear out of the park with every swing. Seeing what these quirky, broke-the-mold character actors do with Simon's set-in-aspic material is why this movie is such a favorite


THE STUFF OF FANTASY
In Last of the Red Hot Lovers, Barney Cashman’s failed trio of trysts in the New York apartment of his 73-year-old mother (empty two days a week from 3 to 5 when she’s out doing volunteer work at Mount Sinai) begins in the winter of his discontent and continues through summer and fall. Making him a sort of frustrated man for all seasons. Each encounter brings about subtle changes in Barney, something that should have a unifying effect and make the film feel more like a single narrative. Alas, the variance in tone and pacing of these sequences felt less like watching a movie with a cohesive plotline and more like watching the isolated sequences in an episode of Love, American Style.    

LOVE AND THE SENSUOUS WOMAN
"I get cravings. To eat, to touch, to smell, to see, to do.
A physical, sensual pleasure that can only be satisfied at that particular moment."

The first sequence is the most quintessentially Simonesque of all the episodes. A machine-gun barrage of wisecracks and one-liners delivered with surprising comic panache by an amusingly salty Sally Kellerman with a prototypically subdued Alan Arkin – the master of comic stillness – playing straight man. The occasion of two married people agreeing to meet for an afternoon of no-strings adultery has Simon applying his The Odd Couple formula of close-quarters dissimilarity-conflict to an unforeseen obstacle: anxious Barney is looking for romance while illusion-free Elaine (“A coughing woman of Polish persuasion”) is looking for sex. 
What should be a semantic non-issue becomes a Wall of Jericho as Barney’s stubborn need to justify his infidelity with sentimentality finds no common ground with Elaine’s clear-eyed sexual pragmatism. Behind the witty barbs and comebacks in their talking-in-circles banter lies a sharp discourse about the death of romance in the age of Deep Throat and Portnoy’s Complaint (two films that came out the same summer as Last of the Red Hot Lovers).
In her 2013 memoir, Sally Kellerman cited her performance in Last of the Red Hot Lovers as her proudest career accomplishment, which I’m in absolute agreement with. Reminding me of one of those silent wives in a Martin Scorsese mob movie, Kellerman’s hard-edged Elaine Navazio is a standout and my favorite performance of her career. The writing in this sequence is perhaps the tightest and funniest, and Kellerman has a great comedy rhythm with Arkin (the two would team again in 1975’s Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins).  
What hasn’t been as obvious to me until multiple revisits is how hilariously in character Arkin’s underplaying is. His performance is infused with dozens of small bits of business (the running gag of his non-drinker’s reaction to drinking, for example) that not only set up and support Kellerman’s jokes beautifully, but nicely establish Barney’s behavioral details that have their payoff in latter sequences reflecting his evolution as a red hot lover.

LOVE AND THE ACTRESS
"I don't need their stinkin' show. I'm more of a movie personality. 
Barbra Streisand, Ali MacGraw...that's the type I am."

The first playlet ended with Barney emphatically vowing “I will never, never, never do that again.” In this chapter, which stands as the requisite “silly” episode in Neil Simon’s 3-act formula (remember that passed-out hooker storyline in California Suite?) we learn that “never’ for Barney is about six months. It’s summer, and having shed his romantic illusions along with his winter suit, Barney is again inspired to entertain a young woman in his mother’s apartment. This time it’s Bobbi Michele (Prentiss) the “theatrically built” actress-singer he meets in the park. 
From Barney’s outside-looking-in perspective on the sexual revolution, Bobbi represents all those beautiful, long-legged, mini-skirted, sexually-uninhibited women Barney sees and fantasizes about on the streets and staring out at him from the covers of sexy magazines. That she turns out to be Grade-A Looney Tunes turns their afternoon into a “be careful what you wish for” male midlife-crisis cautionary tale.
I’m a huge admirer of the woefully underappreciated Paula Prentiss so I feign no objectivity when I say she’s brilliant is pure gold and hysterically funny in this essentially a made-to-order role. Not a popular performance even among many of her fans, I find her to be brilliant. No one does kooky-sexy like Prentiss, her distinctive delivery and impeccable timing working to make the comedy in this sequence feel almost absurdist.

LOVE AND THE TIMES WE LIVE IN
Jeanette - "You're not appalled by the times that we live in? The promiscuity you find everywhere?"
Barney - "I haven't found it anywhere! I hear a lot about it, but I haven't found it!"

In this final installment, Last of the Red Hot Lovers gets a bit serious. A family friend whose husband is having an affair (Taylor) plummets into a deep depression and solicits the by-now practically predatory Barney for an ill-advised revenge dalliance. In the course of trying to seduce the woman after she’s already expressed she’s having second thoughts, Barney has a Willy Loman moment where he’s confronted with his moral hypocrisy and the very real possibility that he may not be the decent man he prides himself on being. In the midst of this, the film seems to make the questionable (but no doubt comforting) leap that before the sexual revolution introduced so many gray areas, America was a bastion of heterosexual monogamy. Conveniently ignoring the decades of smutty sex comedies (some written by Simon himself) satirizing the morality of suburban bed-hopping.  

In later years, Neil Simon would get better at balancing the whole comedy-drama thing. But this third act episode, which has Simon’s characters dealing with some pretty hard-hitting truths, is somehow written to be the broadest, most farcical sequence of them all. 
Perhaps on stage, it came off better. But with the intimacy of the movie screen, the skill of Renee Taylor's performance only emphasizes the sequence’s whiplash shifts in tone. (Taylor is superb. How she manages to be screamingly funny one minute and heart-breakingly real the next is remarkable.) Does it make me laugh? Yes. Between the running gags of Jeanette's handbag and her retreats to the coffee shop, it has me in stitches. Does it work? Intermittently I’d say. 
Once again I call attention to how good Alan Arkin is, and in this sequence, he has to work with coming off as kind of creepy and unsympathetic. But both actors redeem the shortcomings of the material through the authenticity of their characterizations.
Looking like a flesh and blood Boris Badenov,
incognito Barney tries to make it to his mother's apartment unnoticed

As a journalist noted at the time, Last of the Red Hot Lovers is a sad comedy about a real cultural phenomenon of the time: the youthquake era was the first time adults didn't look to their elders for guidance on how to live their lives, they looked to the young.
It's hard to know what being middle-aged must have felt like at a time when so much of life around you seemed to be in flux for only the young, but everyone can relate to feeling left out, feeling as though you're missing out, or that the parade is passing by. With Last of the Red Hot Lovers, Neil Simon takes a witty and insightful stab at exploring the experience of a character who had to go too far to learn that being in the middle wasn't so bad.


BONUS MATERIAL
Iconic Looks - The Lynx Fur Coat 
I really love the look of Sally Kellerman's Elaine in Last of the Red Hot Lovers. Especially her enormous fur coat. As character-defining costuming goes, the lynx fur coat worked overtime in the '60s and '70s. I don't know if they ever went through a phase when they were considered sincerely chic or glamorous, but when a character is sporting one in a movie, it always seems to serve as a signifier of a certain kind of brassy, East Coast vulgarity. Living in California, I don't think I've ever seen one in person, but my first screen lynx sighting was in 1967's Wait Until Dark when it was worn by street-savvy heroin smuggler Samantha Jones (bottom). Next, in 1970s The Owl and the Pussycat, Barbra Streisand's model/actress wore her omnipresent faux fur coat like it was sex-worker armor.  

Sally Kellerman (June 2, 1937 - February 24, 2022)
The recent death of actress Sally Kellerman is what inspired me to re-watch Last of the Red Hot Lovers. In her 2013 memoir Read My Lips, she cites her performance in the film as one of her proudest accomplishments, and I can't help but agree. The first thing I ever saw Kellerman in was an episode of the Marlo Thomas sitcom That Girl titled "Break a Leg." It was broadcast Thursday, November 10, 1966, and it made an impression on me because I had a 4th-grade teacher I had a crush on who looked just like Kellerman in this episode. Although her most famous role (Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan) is from a film I really can't stand (Robert Altman's M*A*S*H), I loved Sally Kellerman in Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins (1975), Slither (1973), Foxes (1980), Brewster McCloud (1970), and even 1973's  Lost Horizon.

Copyright © Ken Anderson   2009 - 2022

Sunday, February 27, 2022

PASSING 2021

“Back home down South, I could do no right. 
When I moved out West, I could do no wrong.”

The quote is attributed to my late stepfather—a native Georgian who was light-skinned, green-eyed, and had a natural mane of wavy, reddish “Cab Calloway hair" that (according to him and which I don't doubt for a second) drove the ladies to distraction—on one of the rare occasions he spoke to me about the duality of his experience growing up bi-racial in the segregated Jim Crow America of the ‘40s and ‘50s.
It was typical of my stepdad, the quintessential “man of few words,” to capture the entire swath of his racial reality with such astute economy. When he was young, the inflexible Black-White binary of the segregated South disregarded his mixed ancestry. And though he self-identified as Black, how he presented didn’t fit the accepted (and arbitrary) stereotypical distinctions, so he was regarded with suspicion by Blacks and whites alike. 
When he moved to the more integrated shores of California after the war, he discovered anew that how he self-identified was of little real consequence. Not with the ambiguity of his mixed-race appearance making him all things to all people. Integrationist whites, soothed by the familiarity of his European features, embraced him as the safe, “non-threatening” Black man. Among assimilationist Blacks, the toxic legacy of internalized colorism gave him his first taste of light-skin privilege as he was tagged socially as a matrimonial “catch” (“Imagine the beautiful, green-eyed, caramel-colored babies with ‘good’ hair we could have!”) while his white-adjacent appearance granted him unfettered access to professional and educational opportunities his dark-skinned colleagues were denied.
My stepfather's appearance and Scottish surname would have made it easy for him to pass, even if only on occasion of advantage, but he always claimed that to do so held no interest for him. Indeed, his rejection of his own white ancestry was so vehement (and never discussed) I always suspected it was linked to slavery and its heritage of rape.
The duality of experience born of the disparity between how one racially self-identifies and how one presents (and its emotional and psychological toll) is sensitively explored in Passing, the haunting debut feature film from director/screenwriter Rebecca Hall. Adapted from the 1929 book by Black female novelist Nella Larsen, Passing is a delicate, often heartbreakingly perceptive look at a very ugly American reality: the inherently corrosive nature of that illusory social construct we call race.
Tess Thompson as Irene Westover-Redfield
Ruth Negga as Clare Kendry-Bellew
Andre Holland as Brian Redfield
Alexander Skarsgard as John Bellew

Passing examines the complex dynamic that develops between two women, former childhood friends, who renew their association years after their adult lives have taken them on very different paths. The intimate interplay of contrast, curiosity, envy, and attraction that filters through their relationship also sets the stage for an insightful study of the many subtle, and not-so-subtle ways race, class, identity, sexuality, gender roles, and colorism intersect in a society that relies on labels and classification to decide who is and who is not allowed access to rights and freedom.

 “Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.” - Toni Morrison (Beloved 1987)

A member of the Black bourgeoisie and a model of racial uplift, Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson) lives in the affluent Sugar Hill district of Harlem with her physician husband and two children. She spends her days in charity work (The Negro Welfare League), doting on her sons, and imperiously overseeing her had-it-up-to-here-with-your-snooty-attitude housekeeper Zulena. Irene’s sense of self is linked to her class, her fastidiously ordered life ("Ginger-ale and three drops of Scotch. Scotch first, then the ice, then the ginger ale"), and in having a keen awareness of the “rightness” of things. 

But like the ceiling directly above her bed, there are cracks in the perfect façade. For one, her husband Brian (André Holland) longs to uproot the family to Brazil (whose absence of segregation fueled a prevailing Harlem Renaissance-era myth of it being a racial democracy). While Irene, who sleeps a lot and suffers from migraines, is given to saying things like “I have everything I’ve ever wanted” with the kind of unwavering certainly found only in the truly dissatisfied.
Irene’s sense of self is also linked to her identity as a Black woman...or more to the point, her identity as a middle-class Black woman. But, unlike her dark-skinned husband and children who have no choice but to confront the day-to-day racism she would prefer not to dwell upon, she can pass as white and does so on occasion, only temporarily, “for the convenience.” It’s on just such an occasion—with Irene occupying a whites-only space while “disguised as a white woman”—that Clare (Ruth Negga), childhood acquaintance and fearless (reckless?) force of nature, reenters Irene’s life. 
So many years have passed that it takes Irene some time to even recognize Clare. But Clare (in a cinematic moment my mind instantly branded as iconic) sees Irene immediately and knows her. The unselfconscious directness of Clare's gaze reveals volumes about the kind of woman she is and why such indomitable assurance makes her both appealing and a little bit frightening. An effortless charmer and flirt, upon their meeting, Clare is all breezy self-possession to Irene's reticent geniality. 
Although to be fair, Irene is the one who has the most to unpack in trying to process Clare's casual disclosure that for the past 12 years she has been living as a white woman. The former Clare Kendry of Harlem, daughter of a college-educated apartment house janitor, has cast aside her Black identity and reinvented herself as Clare Bellew of  Chicago, wealthy wife and mother married to a successful (and staunchly racist) banker (Alexander Skarsgård).

"Fancy meeting you here. It's simply too lucky!"

What Clare calls lucky is running into “Rene” at a time in her life when the gains of passing (security and an avoidance of the marginalization and violence of racism) are beginning to feel unequal to the cost (literal and figurative self-erasure). Eager to reconnect with the community and racial identity she thought she’d be happier without, Clare aggressively pursues a relationship with the cautious Irene. Meanwhile, Irene, who feels attracted and repelled by Clare in equal, internally confounding measure, is concerned about Clare’s apparent indifference to the dangers of the course she’s embarking on.

 And from this arises one of Passing’s central dramatic conflicts: The woman who has everything she ever wanted (and will do anything to maintain that stability) meets the woman who gets everything she ever went after (and will do anything to secure it for herself). The presumptive tease of the film's title suggests that the Black woman passing for white is the one living a lie. But the film reveals there are many ways to live one's life inauthentically.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
I’d neither heard of nor read Nella Larsen’s book Passing before seeing Rebecca Hall’s exceptional film (the most accomplished first screenwriting/directing effort I’ve seen since Kasi Lemmons’ Eve’s Bayou - 1997). I found the film to be absolutely riveting from start to finish, my emotional stake in the fates of the characters and outcome of the story fairly turning the film into a nail-biting thriller. The threat of violence is so entrenched in America's perpetuation of the racial hierarchy that a story touching on the topic of Black autonomy and self-governance feels (a term repeated often in the film) not safe.
The Talk
Though Irene devotes her time to Black causes, she remains defiantly resistant to her two boys learning anything about what she calls "The race problem." Meanwhile, her husband contends that being in denial about the very real dangers their two sons face in America's violent climate of lynching and racial terrorism only serves to put them at higher risk.

From its dominant Black female perspective to its tackling of queer themes and racial ambiguity, Passing is unlike any other film I've ever seen. So floored by it all, my reaction to Passing was so effusively enthusiastic that my partner (in an effort to get me to stop talking about it, I suspect) surprised me with a copy of Larsen’s novella that following day. I raced through it and emerged with even greater respect for the miracle that Hall and her talented collaborators achieved in bringing it to the screen. I feel it's a motion picture and topic that couldn't have been made as effectively at any other time in history. How remarkable that a book written almost 100 years ago feels as though it was written yesterday. I’ve since seen Passing a total of four times and I still can’t stop thinking about it. And I’m not sure I want to. 
Nothing is Black & White
I found it so moving the way the film begins in summer and is all a blazing glare of whites and grays. Then, as the film progresses, the images grow increasingly darker until its final scenes, set in winter, are so high-contrast B&W they look expressionistic

One obvious reason Passing keeps replaying itself over and over in my head is that it is such an extraordinarily beautiful film. The striking B&W cinematography by Eduard Grau (A Single Man – 2009) evocatively augments the film’s themes via images that poetically illuminate the many shades of gray that exist between the binary poles of black and white.
Class and Colorism
The film leaves the viewer to make up its own mind as to what degree either, both, or none play into Irene's uneasy relationship with her housekeeper Zulena (Ashley Ware Jenkins). Whatever it is, it's an obstacle Clare has no trouble surmounting   

My fondness for films about women has been well-documented on these pages. Likewise, a sizable number of my most revered favorites have been movies exploring the dual nature of personality and the flexible margins of identity. Passing represents something of a jackpot on all fronts, not the least of its joys being that it’s that rarest of rarities, a movie about two Black women. Two Black women of intelligence, depth, and complexity whose actions propel the plot. Whose relationship exists independent of the male gaze and beyond a concern for the white gaze.    
The lovingly-rendered old-fashioned look of Passing had me imagining Classic Hollywood Black actresses like Dorothy Dandrige and Fredi Washington in the roles. But the deftness with which Hall's film addresses matters of gender, sexual identity, and attraction are beyond even what Pre-Code Hollywood would have taken a chance on.


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Passing's command of visual storytelling.
Passing is told from Irene's perspective. Whether it's the blurry fog we encounter when she's waking up from one of her many naps, or the admiring gaze cast Clare's way when she's not looking, the camera frequently provides insight into what Irene is feeling. The destabilizing effect Clare has on Irene is conveyed by showing events first as Irene sees them: the two images on the top and bottom left reflect Irene's internal certainty that her husband has succumbed to Clare's obvious charms. Then, as the events truly are: the top and bottom right images exhibit the spatial truth of the compressed mirror images that play tricks on Irene's eyes.

The Human Touch
(top l.) When Irene and Clare first meet in the tea room, Clare places her hand on Irene's only to have her withdraw from Clare's touch. 

(top r.) Sometime later at a dance, Irene lets her defenses down enough to access her attraction to Clare, and reaches out and holds her hand.

(bottom l.) Much later in their association, Irene's suppressed feelings and overall discomfiture are funneled into an unfocused fear of a loss, manifesting in an uncontrollable trembling in that same right hand. 

(bottom r.) Irene's right hand - "What happened next, Irene Redfield never afterwards allowed herself to remember. Never clearly."

"I only had to break it and I was free of it forever."
Potted Plant                                        Teapot
Unsafe Irene Breaks Things
Passing's bleak suggestion that for some, absolute destruction is preferable to having to confront a painful and inconvenient truth finds its correlative in America's current socio-political climate where normalized fascism reveals a country's willingness to destroy democracy rather than confront illusion-shattering truths about its history.   


PERFORMANCES
My earlier comparison of Passing to Eve's Bayou doesn't stop with their shared brilliance and rare look at a side and condition of Black life rarely depicted in films. They also have in common the dubious (and maddening) distinction of being critically well-regarded films totally ignored by the Academy Awards. But when it comes to films made by women and films about the Black experience, unless the woman is a domestic or slave and/or her life is characterized by the spectacle of suffering and trauma, awards never really seem to tell the whole story, do they?
Irene and her friend author Hugh Wentworth (Bill Camp). Passing.

Both lead actresses give nuanced and memorable performances in Passing. If I had my way Ruth Negga would WIN the Oscar for that tea room scene alone. She is phenomenal. She owns that scene in a way that's almost criminal. She's that good. She imbues Clare with a catlike canniness that is a touching balance of steely self-possession and vulnerability. A clearly fun gal to hang out with, Clare is like a Black Southern Belle, all extravagant gestures and florid expressions, capturing every eye effortlessly. 
The radiant Tessa Thompson gives what I think is her best performance to date in an increasingly impressive career. She does so much with her eyes! It's a marvel to me how she does it, but she makes clear Irene's most subtle feelings and thoughts, taking us in and helping us to understand a character who doesn't fully understand herself.

In interviews, Passing director Rebecca Hall often stated that one of the questions she wanted to explore through her film is: What is the emotional legacy and psychological toll of a life lived in hiding? I think the arresting and challenging Passing offers many very compelling answers. Better still, it inspires a great many more questions.



BONUS MATERIAL

Dona Drake (1914 - 1989)
A fascinating tale of real-life “passing” can be found in the life story of one of my favorite screen supporting personalities. Dona Drake (nee Eunice Westmoreland), a Black, Florida-born actress, singer, dancer, and bandleader who passed for the entirety of her career. Though both parents were of Black ancestry, studio publicity declared Drake (who went by the names Una Villon, Rita Novella, Rita Shaw, and Rita Rio at various stages of her career) hailed from Mexico and was of French/Irish extraction. The beautiful and vivacious performer went on to be cast as "exotics" in a number of films throughout the '40s and '50s, principally as a musical-comedy performer, but occasionally given a dramatic role (she played Bette Davis’ Indigenous housekeeper in 1949s Beyond the Forest).
Another level of "passing" was added to Don Drake’s already fabricated biography when in 1940 she wed gay costume designer William Travilla (Oscar and Emmy winning designer of Valley of the Dolls and Marilyn Monroe fame) in what is believed to have been a mutually-beneficial, studio-arranged marriage. You can read more about Dona Drake’s life and career HERE.


Copyright © Ken Anderson     2009 - 2022