Tuesday, October 01, 2019

A Dramatic Rendering of A Remarkable Diary

Holocaust survivor Otto Frank said, “There are no walls, no bolts, no locks that anyone can put on your mind.” Despite the efforts of others to dehumanize fellow human beings and rob them of their lives and dignity, the spirit of freedom persists, through art, through imagination, through self-expression.

The story of Anne Frank is now legendary. As Hitler’s armies marched into the Netherlands in 1942, Jews were forcibly taken from their homes, their possessions and property confiscated, and put on trains to death camps, where millions perished. Anne Frank’s family and a group of neighbors were given the opportunity to hide in a secret annex and wait out the war.

Through the courage of Kraler and Miep, dear friends who risked their own lives to help, the group were given just a few precious months in a small attic apartment atop the factory that had been Otto Frank’s place of business. It is through the journal of Otto’s youngest daughter that the world was told this now iconic story. (All the residents but Otto Frank himself died in concentration camps.)

The diary had been a bestseller since it was discovered and published after the war, and adapted into a Pulitzer Prize-winning play in 1955 by veteran screenwriters Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, best known for their tender, seriocomic family films It’s a Wonderful Life and Father of the Bride and the musical classic Easter Parade. The Hacketts adapted the stage play for the screen, to be directed by George Stevens (Giant, The Greatest Story Ever Told).

Schildkraut, Huber, Jacobi, Perkins, Winters, Beymer and Baker

Director Stevens, who during WWII had filmed the ravages of war including the horrors of Nazi concentration camps where millions of Jews were exterminated, was moved by the story of the little girl whose family had been forced to flee and hide, and brought the hit play to the screen in 1959.

Stevens assembled a brilliant cast to play the roles of the terrified Dutch Jews forced to go underground and hide themselves from their Nazi persecutors in a hidden attic room.

In a way, director Stevens was a chief mentor to legendary actress Shelley Winters, helping her develop into the skilled actor she would become under his direction in two key film roles. Winters had worked with Stevens on A Place in the Sun in 1951, the film that evolved her image from that of B movie glamour gal to respected A-list character actress. Her role as the doomed, plain factory worker Alice Tripp, who falls in love and becomes pregnant by Montgomery Clift, won her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.

Shelley Winters as Petra Van Daan

In A Place in the Sun, she had completely changed her physical appearance, and the buxom, brassy blond became the mousy, timid Alice. For Diary of Anne Frank, Stevens called upon Winters to transform her appearance once again, to become the zoftig middle aged Petra Van Daan, wife of a well-to-do Jewish businessman and mother of a teenage son. (Winters later complained that by gaining weight for the role, she destroyed her metabolism and indeed suffered from a serious weight problem for the rest of her life.)

Shelley won her first Oscar for the role of Mrs. Van Daan, which she donated to the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam, where the real-life drama had actually taken place. (In addition to Best Supporting Actress Shelley Winters, the film won Oscars for cinematography and art direction, and was nominated for best picture, costume design and supporting actor Ed Wynn.)

Ed Wynn in his Oscar-nominated role of Mr. Dussel

Wynn, best remembered as the tipsy levitating floating uncle of Mary Poppins who sang  “I Love To Laugh,” gives one of his most complicated performances as the eccentric, bewildered old dentist who never considered himself a Jew and now finds himself in an uncomfortable position.

Of course, the most difficult role to cast would be Anne Frank herself. Far from a saintly martyr, the Anne of both the book and the play is cruel to her mother and talks back to her elders, wild, willful, playful and imaginative.

On Broadway, Susan Strasberg had triumphed in the role of Anne. Daughter of legendary Actors Studio founder and teacher of the Stanislavky Method (Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, Julie Harris and Jane Fonda were among Strasberg’s most famous students), Susan Strasberg had already proven her cinema worth with am impressive performance in the film version of Picnic.

Susan Strasberg onstage in the play, with Schildkraut and Huber

But George Stevens chose not to cast Strasberg after seeing her play the role on stage, though he did  cast Joseph Schildkraut (who had won a Supporting Actor Academy Award for Life of Emile Zola in 1937) Oscar and Austrian actress Gusti Huber from the Broadway production to play Anne’s parents.

Millie Perkins in the title role
Instead Stevens chose lovely and photogenic newcomer Millie Perkins to play the complicated title role, the willful, imaginative, fun-loving soul whose exuberance and restlessness pose a risk to the denizens of the hiding place. Among the ensemble of powerhouse actors, Perkins holds her own, although she received mixed reviews for her portrayal at the time.

She would go on to a relatively undistinguished acting career—the other highlight of her filmography is Wild in the Country opposite Elvis Presley—basically disappearing from the screen by the mid 1960s, later to reemerge in character roles, usually as someone’s mother.

Another tense moment in the hiding place

As Anne’s older sister Margot, Diane Baker is warm and wise, the image of her mother (while Anne is passionate and curious, like her father). 1959 was an important year for Baker, who also shined in the all-star Technicolor soap opera The Best of Everything with Joan Crawford, Hope Lange and Suzy Parker. Baker would enjoy a long, fruitful career as an actor in films and television, and years later would memorably play the senator mother of one of serial killer Buffalo Bill’s intended victims in Silence of the Lambs.

Handsome Richard Beymer, who would go on to star opposite Natalie Wood in the big budget screen adaptation of West Side Story (both were beautiful; neither could really sing), plays the role of shy Peter, son of the constantly bickering Van Daans. Embarrassed by his parents’ sturm and drang, Peter retreats to a quiet corner with his orange tabby cat Mouschi before being befriended by Anne and Margot. (When Beymer’s brief stint as male ingenue was finished in Hollywood, he continued to find regular work in television, notably on the quirky cult series Twin Peaks.)

Petra (Winters) and Peter (Beymer)

Margot (Baker) and Anne (Perkins)

Veteran character actor Lou Jacobi (Irma La Douce) lends strong support as the tense and high-strung Mr. Van Daan, whose appetites for chain smoking and overeating cause tension in the attic household of strangers. Douglas Spencer and Dody Heath, as Kraler and Miep, are properly stalwart as the brave accomplices who stash them in the annex and share their guilty secret, bringing food and news, and hope.

Fans of fine acting and stories based upon real-life events will enjoy both the epic sweep and intimate storytelling of Diary of Anne Frank. Filmed in moody black and white, and eliciting both tears and laughter, this timeless story continues to provoke thought about the complexity of the human condition and whether peace and understanding can ever really be achieved. “In spite of everything,” wrote young Anne, “I still believe people are good at heart.”

Thanks so much to the lovely Realweegiemidget Reviews and Poppity Talks Classic Film for hosting the Shelley Winters Blogathon. I look forward to reading all the posts on one of our greatest classic stars!

Friday, June 21, 2019

A Very Gay Aussie Adventure

Now that homosexuality, gender fluidity and the art of drag are ubiquitous in mainstream entertainment and popular culture—witness the success of TV phenomena from RuPaul’s Drag Race to Pose— it’s hard to believe that just a short time ago, you could only find queer stories in arthouse indie films and maybe the shelves of the more adventurous Blockbuster franchises.

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) is a rollickingly funny yet touching gay-themed road movie. It tells the story of three Sydney drag performers as they undertake a bumpy journey of epic proportions, from their urban coastal home through the hinterlands of the desert outback. When a voice from the past sets him on a cross-country odyssey with two friends (who can’t stand each other), a lonely drag queen named Mitzi begins a vision quest of self discovery. The trio pile into a broken down bus named Priscilla loaded with sets and costumes and set off for Alice Springs via parts unknown.

Hugo Weaving as Mitzi

Hugo Weaving (beloved to sci-fi and adventure film fans through his elegantly skilled performances in V for Vendetta, The Lord of the Rings and The Matrix) is superb here, conveying complexity, humor and heart as the deeply conflicted Mitzi (aka Tick) whose surprising secret will change the course of his life.

Terence Stamp, the British-born international sex symbol of the 1960s who played opposite superstars Julie Christie (Far from the Madding Crowd) and Jane Fonda (Spirits of the Dead) nearly steals the whole film with a subtly sardonic performance as Bernadette (aka Ralph), a recently widowed transsexual. (Fans of 1980’s Superman II may or may not recognize Bernadette as the evil Zod of Krypton: “Kneel before Zod!”)

Terence Stamp as Bernadette

Bernadette’s nemesis Felicia (aka Adam) is beautifully played by Guy Pearce (LA Confidential, Mildred Pierce) in a memorable breakout performance. Pearce’s Felicia manages to be hyperactive, obnoxious, flamboyantly queeny and adorable at the same time. Stripped to the waist and showing his lean musculature in several of his non-drag scenes, Pearce also provides a generous helping of eye candy.

Along the way they meet Bob the mechanic (wonderfully played by the down-to-earth Bill Hunter) and his mail order bride (a hilarious turn by Julia Cortez), and a host of other unique characters, including two important people from Mitzi’s former life.

Guy Pearce as Felicia

A balls-out, no-holds-barred celebration of outrageousness in every respect, Priscilla boldly goes where no mainstream movie of the era could. In addition to its glitzy, over-the-top fabulous protagonists, it features wonderful supporting performances by a diverse bevy of Aussie character actors. Irreverence is the order of the day here—amid the many touching moments are countless scenes of indescribable outrageousness. (Don’t even ask me to describe the significance of three ping pong balls or the souvenir excrement of a famous rock star!)

Stunning cinematography spotlights the quirky originality of Australia in this universal story of love, connection and self-acceptance. Once you’ve seen Priscilla, you’ll really feel as if you’ve been Down Under. The Australian outback setting affords viewers a glimpse of the remote and sparsely populated inland areas off the beaten path, peopled by the indigenous tribes of Aboriginal natives and what can only be described as Aussie rednecks.

A dreamy Guy Pearce out of drag—I couldn't resist!

The eclectic and wide-ranging soundtrack spans almost every imaginable genre, from Italian opera to classic standards, ’60s pop to ’70s disco, and Abba to “Hava Nagilah,”  and includes memorably lip-synced renditions of the campy “I’ve Never Been To Me” and “I Will Survive” (accompanied by a native Aborigine didgeridoo!).

There are sober moments as well that underline the prejudice and discrimination that gay people faced in 1994 (and still do in many places), including a violent gay bashing sequence and the beloved bus vandalized with the ugly message  AIDS F***KERS GO HOME (later painted over in fabulous lavender).
No camping while driving, Hugo!

Written and directed by Stephan Elliott, with Oscar-winning costumes by Lizzy Gardner and Tim Chappel, the film was transformed into a West End musical that made it to Broadway in 2011, produced by Bette Midler.

If you love Australia and are interested in a road movie with more than a twist, climb aboard and take this unforgettable journey.

Many thanks to my friend Quiggy for inviting me to join the Blizzard of Oz blogathon party—the perfect opportunity for me to celebrate Pride Month and the splendors of Australia at the same time!

Friday, January 25, 2019

The Force is Still With Us

I was 11 years old when the original Star Wars came out in 1977, and I found myself going back week after week to see it again and again…I think a total of 14 times that summer and fall. (Remember, this was before the advent of home video…when a movie left the theaters, it was possibly gone forever, unless it appeared on television many years later, interrupted by commercials and viewed on the very small screens of the ’70s.)

Star Wars was more than just a movie, or a trilogy, or a film series. It became part of the fabric of our collective consciousness, where it remains to this day. For kids of the 1970s and the ’80s, the first three films (Episodes IV, V and VI) of the series are especially dear.

It was the brainchild of an ambitious young filmmaker. George Lucas (American Graffiti) was close friends with Spielberg, Brian de Palma, Francis Ford Coppola—some of the masters of 1970s cinema—and there was a definite rivalry and competition among them about who would “make it” and get ahead first. (Coppola hit it big first with The Godfather.) 

Archetypal: The Hero's Journey and epic struggle between Good & Evil

Star Wars would solidify Lucas as a Force to be reckoned with. For his magnum opus, Lucas was working on a modern version of the old 1930s-40s B-movie sci-fi serials like the popular Flash Gordon programmers that starred handsome Buster Crabbe in a sequin-studded space suit.

So much more than an entertaining space opera, Star Wars created a worldwide, generation-spanning phenomenon. Lucas’s vision spawned not only beloved unforgettable characters but an entire imaginary universe, an entire human-extraterrestrial history and cosmology, and a philosophy that is literally practiced as a religion by a small percentage of earth’s population. 

With Star Wars, George Lucas continued the establishment of a sci-fi multiverse envisioned by 20th century sci-fi writers and futurists including writer Arthur C. Clarke (2001: A Space Odyssey) and producer Gene Roddenberry (Star Trek).

The Star Wars saga touches upon and recalls so many elements of philosopher and teacher Joseph Campbell’s work on the The Power of Myth, exemplifying his Hero’s Journey narrative and archetypes—the storytelling elements that create “universal appeal”

Indeed, when first released, Star Wars was likened to a futuristic Wizard of Oz—on some of the 1977 movie posters you can even find find homages to a a space-age Dorothy, Cowardly Lion and Tin Man. 

Multidimensional aspects of the storytelling point to a time-bending multiverse by associating sci-fi themes with the traditional “once upon a time” fairy tale preamble: “A long, long, time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”

Artoo and Threepio: As emotional and flawed as their human counterparts

Technology and robotics figure prominently in the George Lucas galactic weltenschaung.  What makes the treatment different here are that the robots—called ’droids in Lucas’s world— are even more emotional than the humans….C3P0 in particular frets and worries and bemoans the fate of their unending servitude and the vicissitudes of life in general. “We seem to be made to suffer; it’s our lot in life,” he wails, even as he and R2 faithfully and loyally serve their human masters.  The fiercely loyal, cagey and versatile R2D2 (who plugs into any system) has a one-track mind to fulfill whatever mission he is programmed with, but he does have a total devotion to his masters, particularly Luke Skywalker. 

The ‘droids also serve an important role in the unfolding of the saga, serving as a Greek chorus by commentating on the action as well as giving background exposition when necessary. 

Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker

Despite their endless scientific and empirical knowledge and AI, Lucas’s ’droids prove statistics are not the keys to peace and serenity. Indeed, these robot characters display fears, issues and imperfect personality traits as pronounced as those of the humanoid heroes. 

Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia Organa
Of course, in addition to the pyrotechnics, pioneering special effects that heralded the birth of CGI (Lucas also fathered Industrial Light & Magic), were iconic performances by an ensemble of actors whose characterizations brought those old archetypes to life in a new and unique way. (And of course, we may forget, even the robots and space creatures are enacted by talented humans as well.)

Mark Hamill (Corvette Summer, The Last Jedi) is Luke Skywalker, the young protagonist with whom we embark on this epic hero’s journey. Lovers of the original trilogy will notice that Hamill’s physical appearance changes markedly after the first film. A serious car accident between filming of the first and second films required extensive reconstructive surgery. So, for Empire Strikes Back, Lucas wrote in an attack from a wampa (that looked much like the abominable snowman in the Rankin-Bass claymation Christmas classics) in which Luke was uncharacteristically bloodied. 

Harrison Ford as Han Solo

Harrison Ford is the laconic mercenary Han Solo, desperately trying to hide his sensitivity and heart of gold under a layer of machismo. Throughout the 1980s, Harrison Ford played a number of heroic characters, most notably the title role in Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones series. Later in the decade, director Mike Nichols would bring out Ford’s vulnerable and romantic and human sides as the actor gave unforgettable performances in films like Working Girl and Regarding Henry. But Ford’s bread-and-butter roles would always be as action hero. 

Darth Vader, portrayed by David Prowse and voiced by James Earl Jones

Carrie Fisher (Shampoo, Hannah and Her Sisters) is the fearless and canny Princess Leia, one of the architects of the rebel alliance against the evil Empire.  Not content to rest on her laurels as an iconic sex symbol and action figure, Fisher, daughter of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, was a true artistic renaissance woman—a brilliant novelist and Hollywood screenwriter and script doctor, who parlayed her unusual upbringing (a Hollywood soap opera in itself) into acerbic comic gold in the book and film of her autobiographical roman a clef Postcards from the Edge. Fisher’s untimely death at age 60 cut short her later missions as General Leia in the continuation of the saga, though of course she did appear in both The Force Awakens and Last Jedi.

Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian

Sir Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan "Ben" Kenobi
Sir Alec Guinness (Bridge on the River Kwai, Murder By Death) lends acting gravitasse as the wise old Jedi Master Obi Wan “Ben” Kenobi. Peter Mayhew, without a single line of dialogue but an expressive and emotive animal-instinct style of communication, is the brave, skilled and loving wookie Chewbacca. 

Peter Cushing (Dracula AD 1972, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed), American International horror star of the 1960s beside cohort Christopher Lee (who would join the Star Wars franchise in the 1990s-2000s with parts I, II and III), is the deliciously diabolical Grand Moff Tarkin with his clipped posh British delivery (so powerful that newcomer Fisher found herself falling into a faux British accent herself in her scenes with Cushing, which she ruefully and humorously admits on the video commentary.)  

James Earl Jones (Sounder, The Great White Hope) provides the sonorous voice that gave life to one of the cinema’s most elegant villains (as well as the tagline of global cable news network CNN!), the dark Jedi Knight Darth Vader— a wounded human bolstered by AI and robotics, the labored breath of the human still heard within his bionic, computer-aided mobility…the mind of a Jedi Master in sinister service to the Dark Side.

Peter Mayhew as Chewy

Frank Oz gives life to Yoda
A golden, electronic version of  the Tin Man of Oz, Anthony Daniels frets and worries as the neurotic Cyborg Relations ’droid—with adventures ranging from having his golden casings blown to bits by storm troopers and put back together by Chewbacca, to being worshipped by the Ewoks on the forest moon of Endor, by virtue of his shiny gold visage, bright flashing eyes and ability to communicate in their language.

Frank Oz, the brilliant puppeteer behind Muppet superstars Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy, brings to life the character of the wise, deep and wizened Jedi teacher Yoda, who speaks in with Socratic solemnity in a cute purring baby-voice. 

The costume that ignited many an adolescent hormone

Empire introduced the debonair Billy Dee Williams (Brian’s Song, Lady Sings the Blues) in the character of Lando Calrissian (played by Donald Glover in the recent prequel Solo), who joins the existing ensemble, continuing through Return of the Jedi.

In 1977 the original Star Wars film broke all attendance records and became the highest grossing film of all time. Today, it is #2 on filmsite.org’s list of Top 100 All-Time Films (domestic gross, adjusted for inflation, as of January 2019) between Gone with the Wind and The Sound of Music. (Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi also made the Top 20, along with 1999’s Phantom Menace and 2015’s Force Awakens.)

The rousing score by John Williams (The Poseidon Adventure, Schindler’s List), with a theme even more recognizable than the ones for The Godfather or Lawrence of Arabia, adds immeasurably to the Star Wars iconography. 

Luke, Ben, R2D2 and C3P0
In the 1990s, as the home video market boomed and Lucas planned the next three chapters of the story to unfold on the big screen, (actually the prequel to parts IV, V and VI), he revamped and remastered and reworked entire sequences to the original trilogy of films, adding CGI effects as well as actors and characters and creatures from the upcoming parts I, II and III, in order to tie the series together and create continuity. Most millennial viewers are unaware of the renovation of these first three films, and indeed, copies of those original cuts are exceedingly rare. 

It is quite an amazing feat to give birth to a new version of reality...a story to which practically everyone on the planet can relate. For me, the original Star Wars trilogy is epic storytelling at its creative zenith. May the Force continue to be with us!

This is an entry in the Robots in Film Blogathon hosted by The Midnight Drive-In and Hamlette’s Soliloquy. I look forward to reading the other entries and exploring new blog worlds and galaxies! 

Monday, December 03, 2018

Who's Afraid of Liz and Dick?

They’re movie legends who have appeared in dozens of classic films, both separately and together as a screen team. But arguably, the crowning cinematic achievement in the careers of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton is the film version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) directed by newcomer Mike Nichols (The Graduate, Postcards from the Edge).

For two larger than life personalities considered more to be “movie stars” than serious actors, the casting of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton as George and Martha in the film adaptation of Edward Albee’s searing play was a creative risk. 

Even Burton, who once was poised to inherit the mantle of “world’s greatest actor” from his rival Sir Laurence Olivier, was taken less seriously as an artist due to his preoccupations with partying, publicity and purchasing large diamonds for his movie star wife. The poor Welsh boy’s desire for commercial success often superseded artistic fulfillment. 

Burton’s life and career had changed irrevocably his first day on the set of a fabled big budget sword-and-sandals epic. Immediately he found himself with more fame and notoriety than he had ever imagined when he left his wife Sybil to pluck costar Elizabeth Taylor away from her new husband Eddie Fisher during the filming of Cleopatra in Rome in 1962. 

For her part, Elizabeth Taylor had already been branded a man-trap and an erotic vagrant by the press. Fisher had recently left Debbie Reynolds and his family and destroyed his own reputation to be with Taylor after the death of his best friend, Taylor’s third husband Mike Todd. Now Burton was added to the cast of the ongoing Elizabeth Taylor saga that would play out in the tabloids for decades to come, until the actress’s death in 2011. This chapter of the Liz soap opera would now be dubbed Le Scandale by the Roman tabloids. 

Richard Burton as George

Still, with his deep and resonant voice and studied artistry, Richard Burton reminded the world he was a classical actor with his acclaimed performance in Shakespeare’s Hamlet on Broadway in 1964, just before his marriage to Taylor in Montreal. Burton became Taylor’s fifth husband, and probably her most compatible playmate, on screen and off.

After Cleopatra, the couple appeared together in entertaining cinematic puff pieces including The VIPs and The Sandpiper, cashing in on their fame and notoriety. Burton had also turned in a powerful performance in Tennessee Williams’ Night of the Iguana as a semi-retired Liz joined him on the set in Puerta Vallarta, Mexico. 

But then came a project that both actors could really sink their teeth into. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is the story of a late-night cocktail party gone terribly wrong. This is the turning point in the lives of an alcoholic middle-aged couple, the “stupid, liquor-ridden night” when George and Martha go too far in “walking the wits” of their “vile, crushing marriage” for a young couple they’ve invited over for a nightcap. This is the night when the slender thread between truth and illusion snaps.

Elizabeth Taylor as Martha
The 1962 Broadway production of Virginia Woolf had starred Uta Hagen (The Other, Reversal of Fortune), George Grizzard, Arthur Hill and Melinda Dillon (Close Encounters of the Third Kind), and took place in a single claustrophobic living room set. 

Screenwriter and producer Ernest Lehman, who had just brilliantly adapted the Broadway hit The Sound of Music to the silver screen, exercising his flair for transforming stage plays with his cinematic storytelling techniques, took another risk by hiring young stage director Mike Nichols to helm the film upon on Elizabeth Taylor's recommendation. On Broadway, Nichols had just directed the Neil Simon hit Barefoot in the Park after starting his showbiz career as half of a stand up comedy team opposite the brilliant writer Elaine May. 

Cinematographer Haskell Wexler’s crisp black and white photography, which includes a few moody outdoor scenes to “open up” the stage play, and Alex North’s mournful, downbeat classical scoring set the scene for an unforgettably savage all-night bender. 

Edward Albee’s masterfully poetic use of language is unparalleled here—this is probably the playwright’s masterpiece, though A Delicate Balance and Zoo Story do come close to Virginia Woolf’s perfection. Punctuated by very dark humor, peppered with literary allusions and set off by four-letter words and singsongy baby talk, Albee’s dialogue is rich, dense and often brutal. 

It was said that Albee, a homosexual, had used the drunken verbal brawlings of bitter gay men to bring his characters of George and Martha to life, but Albee never dignified those notions with an answer. His poetic, intricate, searing use of language was universal in its ability to connect with the audience. 

George Segal as Nick

Cast opposite the Burtons as the young Midwestern couple who are invited for an after hours nightcap were George Segal and Sandy Dennis. The chemistry among these four fine actors is truly remarkable as they bring four iconic characters to vivid life: The loud and obnoxious Martha, the ineffectual and embittered George, the ambitious and socially correct Nick, and the high-strung and tightly wound Honey. 

George is Richard Burton’s most difficult and rewarding role. The handsome and heroic Burton, who had played King Arthur and Marc Antony, is transformed into a beleaguered, henpecked milquetoast in a frayed sweater, whose sonorous voice quavers at first and then finds strength as he becomes angrier and surlier and more empowered as the evening wears on. Burton is masterful in all his pas de deux with the other actors—he has unforgettable moments with Segal and Dennis as well as Taylor. 

As good-looking, well-built new associate professor Nick, George Segal is less flamboyant than harridan Martha, poetic George and high-strung Honey, but it is his attempt to remain calm in the face of a storm that holds the story together. It is Segal’s most subtle and effective performance. 

Sandy Dennis is a revelation as the young wife who reveals layers of complexity as she becomes more and more soddenly drunk on sip after ladylike sip of brandy, until she’s literally foaming at the mouth and nose. Her skilled performance made Dennis the go-to actor for any female character labeled as “neurotic” in a script. Nobody ever played it better. 

Sandy Dennis as Honey

Elizabeth Taylor was one of Hollywood’s most underrated actresses, uniformly giving wonderful performances in film after classic film, from Father of the Bride to A Place in the Sun to Giant. The Academy finally began to recognize and acknowledge her talents in the late 1950s, when she was nominated as Best Actress four years in a row from 1957-60. Ironically, Taylor had won her first Best Actress Oscar for a role that she felt didn't deserve the honor, as a call girl in the tawdry melodrama Butterfield 8. (Taylor had been near death with pneumonia during the Academy voting process and won the sympathy vote.)

Here, Elizabeth has a field day as the domineering, foul-mouthed Martha. Making the film in 1966, Taylor was only 34 and in lush, full womanhood, still the greatest beauty the silver screen had ever known.  Costume designer Irene Sharaff (who won an Oscar for this film), hairdresser Sydney Guilaroff and makeup wiz Gordon Bau transformed Liz’s look to make her appear 15 years older and 20 pounds heavier with with makeup and padding. (And for the first time, Elizabeth stopped watching her weight and packed on some real pounds as well, the beginning of a lifelong battle of the bulge that would last the rest of her life.)

How did Ernest Lehman get the controversial script past the censors? It was said he substituted phonetic spellings of the swear words (gah-dam or g’dam for goddamn, for example) in the script he submitted for approval, but this film marked the the beginning of a new era in film frankness. Producers and studios basically began to thumb their noses at their own self-imposed censorship and tell adult stories they felt needed to be told. Though Virginia Woolf was not rated at the time of its release, the film was one of the main reasons that the Motion Picture Association of America came up with its (constantly evolving) ratings system that is still used to this day. 

One of the greatest film foursomes ever!
Nominated for 10 Oscars, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf won a total of five. Elizabeth Taylor was pleased to have won her richly deserved second Best Actress Oscar for playing Martha but then cursed the Academy for passing over her husband. Burton did win the BAFTA for his role of George, but lost the Oscar to Paul Scofield in A Man for All Seasons. Richard Burton was never to win an Academy Award, despite a total of seven nominations, the last two for his roles in Anne of the Thousand Days (1969) and Equus (1977). 

Sandy Dennis (The Out of Towners, Come Back To the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean) won for Best Supporting Actress as the high-strung Honey, while Segal (The Owl and the Pussycat, It’s My Party) lost the Best Supporting Actor statuette to Walter Matthau in the Billy Wilder comedy The Fortune Cookie. (Haskell Wexler, Richard Sylbert and Irene Sharaff were the other Oscar winners.)

Together, Taylor and Burton would never experience a critical and artistic triumph on the scale of Virginia Woolf, though they were lauded for their fine performances in Zeffirelli’s production of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew a year later. Resounding flops like Boom, Doctor Faustus and Hammersmith Is Out made the screen team box office poison, though they both found some success working separately. All told, Elizabeth and Richard would make a total of 10 films together. But Virginia Woolf was the zenith of their screen partnership.

Both alcoholics themselves, the Burtons’ hard-drinking jetset lifestyle led to constant bickering and battling, and in the end they became very much like the Albee characters they had inhabited so skillfully. The were never quite able to shed those personas, offstage or on.

Did the Burtons use their own volatile relationship as subtext?
In particular, Elizabeth added a new earth mother dimension to her sex goddess image, providing a perfect transition into character roles that ensured her career longevity. Most of Taylor’s more showy roles to come, including Michael Caine’s scorned wife in X, Y and Zee and the gaslighted heiress in the suspenseful horror flick Night Watch, featured shades of Martha. 

Off the screen, Burton and Taylor tired of playing sparring partners and divorced in 1974 after 10 years of marriage, then briefly remarried and quickly divorced again in 1976. As actors they would team up just one more time after their final breakup, for a brief Broadway run of Noel Coward’s Private Lives in 1983. 

In her later years, Taylor rhapsodized about both Burton and Virginia Woolf, calling him the love of her life and this film her all-time favorite acting experience. It is indeed a masterpiece in filmmaking; everyone involved was truly at the top of their game.

This is an entry in RealWeegieMidget’s Regaling About Richard Burton blogathon. I look forward to reading all the entries about one of the silver screen’s greatest leading men!

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Palling Around with Rita, Frank and Kim

Faithful translations of Broadway musicals to film are rare—and trust me, Pal Joey (1957) is definitely not one of them. It does, however, retain a few elements of the original 1940 Broadway production with score by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, based on a book by John O’Hara (Butterfield 8)—and the talent and charisma of its three bright stars makes it a memorable movie musical experience.

Back in Hollywood’s golden age, it was common practice to buy the rights to the latest Broadway extravaganza and dispense with the original score and libretto, tack on a brand new story, add songs from other source material, maybe salvage a hit song or two from the original, tailor it to the talents of the stars involved—and then use the original title as a marketing come-on to draw in audiences. 

In the 1957 film directed by George Sidney, eight of the original 14 songs are used in the film version (some as background orchestrations), and quite a few well-known Rodgers and Hart standards added, including “My Funny Valentine” and  “The Lady Is a Tramp” (from Babes in Arms) and “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” (from Too Many Girls) and  “There’s a Small Hotel” (introduced in On Your Toes).

Rita Hayworth as Mrs. Vera Simpson 

The chemistry of three megawatt stars, gorgeous San Francisco locations, and some of the most beautiful music ever written by American songwriting legends Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers, made Pal Joey a solid hit when it was released. The film helped launch the legend of Kim Novak, solidified the comeback of superstar Frank Sinatra, and marked a career transition for Columbia Pictures’ all-time top-grossing star Rita Hayworth in her final musical role.

The racy story of an amoral con man named Joey Evans who finds a meal ticket in a rich older older woman Vera Simpson while concurrently romancing a young ingenue, Pal Joey received mixed reviews in its initial Broadway run but it launched the career of a young song and dance man named Gene Kelly, who was plucked from obscurity and promptly signed to star opposite Judy Garland in the MGM musical For Me and My Gal. 

Frank Sinatra in the title role of Joey Evans

Columbia Pictures bought the rights to Pal Joey a year or two later, when it was planned that Kelly would star as Joey opposite new Columbia star Rita Hayworth in the ingenue role. The role of the sugar mama/rich cougar was reportedly offered to some of filmdom’s most glamorous grande dames, including Marlene Dietrich and Mae West, but both turned it down, and the film would not be made for more than a dozen years. (Kelly, of course, would eventually star with Hayworth in 1944’s Cover Girl.)

For her role as stripper turned Nob Hill society matron Vera Simpson, Rita Hayworth garnered top billing above the title for the last time in her career, as per the terms of her Columbia contract. Superstar Sinatra good-naturedly waived his own usual top billing, so his name would appear between Hayworth and Novak.“I don’t mind being the meat in that sandwich,” he cracked. 

Hayworth evokes the Love Goddess magic that made her a star with her first song, the burlesque satire “Zip.” Though the number was in the original play, it was performed by a character not in the movie, a female journalist who spoofs Gypsy Rose Lee. (In the 1952 revival, the role was played by Elaine Stritch, who brought down the house night after night with her wry interpretation of the lyrics.) In the film, it’s the perfect opportunity for Rita Hayworth to resurrect the ghost of Gilda a decade before, peeling off her elbow-length glove and tossing it to the crowd while undulating to the bumps and grinds of the burlesque drumbeat with the aplomb of a lifelong professional dancer (which she, of course, was).

Kim Novak as Linda Christian

Dressed by her Gilda costumer Jean Louis—who also designed for Marilyn Monroe, Doris Day and Susan Hayward among others—and still oozing glamour and sex appeal, beautiful Rita is in the flower of radiant maturity here, although in the second half of the film she wears an overcoat and a severe older-woman short hairstyle—appropriate for playing the “heavy” who comes between Sinatra and Novak and keeps them apart. 

But earlier, Hayworth’s languid and sensual rendition of “Bewitched” in Vera’s bedroom has her in silky lingerie, hair wild and free…and as Rita dances into her enormous spa bath, she disrobes and steps into the shower, pressing her bare bosom against the frosted glass of the shower at the end of the number—a startlingly sexy moment for 1957 Hollywood.

Hayworth captivates her audience with a rousing rendition of "Zip"

A love triangle pas de deux dream sequence was choreographed by Hayworth’s pal Hermes Pan, Fred Astaire’s personal choreographer who had staged their dances together in You’ll Never Get Rich and You Were Never Lovelier.

Despite her luminous performance, Pal Joey turned out to be the swan song of Hayworth’s musical film career and last glimpse of the Love Goddess image she had created. She was only 39, but in those days the age of 40 sounded a death knell for a female glamour star. Moving forward with her career, Hayworth had a few interesting dramatic films yet to make including Separate Tables and The Story On Page One, but she was no longer a leading lady, and her “older woman” roles became smaller and smaller, and during her final decade in film she ended up playing harridans and alcoholics. (But she imbued even these throwaway roles with humanity and vulnerability.) Hayworth retired from film in 1972 and passed away in 1987 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease.   

A rapturous Rita in the shower after performing "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered"

Linda Christian is somewhat of a thankless role for Kim Novak, who had had meatier roles in Picnic and The Man with the Golden Arm (opposite Sinatra) and would soon become an icon herself with Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Bell, Book and Candle (both with James Stewart). But Miss Novak (still with us as of this writing) is a lovely and incandescent presence here, holding her own opposite the two veteran stars.

Joey and Linda: "I Could Write a Book"

As Joey Evans, Frank Sinatra puts on film unforgettable renditions of, among others, “Lady Is a Tramp,” “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” and “There’s a Small Hotel,” his sublimely silky delivery as iconic as the Rodgers and Hart standards themselves. (Hayworth’s and Novak’s song vocals were dubbed, by Jo Ann Greer and Trudi Erwin, respectively.)

Sinatra won the Best Actor Musical or Comedy Golden Globe for his performance in Pal Joey, solidifying the A-List superstar status that he had almost lost at the beginning of the decade. In the late 1940s, Sinatra’s popularity as the darling of the bobbysoxers had begun to wane, despite appearances in MGM films like On the Town and Take Me Out to the Ball Game. 

Hayworth, Sinatra and Novak in Hermes Pan's dream sequence

His personal life was in turmoil, amid rumors of mafia involvements, the dissolution of his marriage to first wife Nancy and his volatile relationship with new flame Ava Gardner. His record sales plummeted. Depressed, stressed and down on his luck, Sinatra literally lost his voice for a time and thought his career was over. But he fought his way back. He took a non-singing supporting role in 1953’s From Here to Eternity and earned a well-deserved Academy Award, revitalizing his career. And the famous voice came back—better than ever, in fact.

Some of Sinatra's most iconic musical numbers are found right here in Pal Joey
Though it veers far from the Broadway original, the film version of Pal Joey is a glossy, splashy, tuneful Technicolor extravaganza that’s delightfully diverting and packed with star power—perfect for a lazy Sunday afternoon and a pint or two of your favorite ice cream. 
Happy 100th birthday, Miss Rita!

This essay was written for the Rita Hayworth is 100 blogathon hosted by Love Letters to Old Hollywood. I look forward to reading everyone’s entries about our beloved Love Goddess!