Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Misfits: Misfire or Masterpiece?

Dark and downbeat, poignant and profound, The Misfits (1961) is an unflinchingly clinical examination of the inner psyches of a group of disparate unfulfilled characters played against a backdrop of the arid and cheerless Nevada desert, filmed in silvery black and white. To some film fans, it’s a masterpiece of motion picture truth. To others, it’s an unrelentingly dry and joyless two hours and four minutes, difficult to watch in one sitting.

Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright Arthur Miller (Death of a Salesman, All My Sons) and directed by the legendary filmmaker John Huston (The Maltese Falcon, Treasure of the Sierra Madre), The Misfits assembled some of the greatest talents of the mid 20th century for this original story about a group of cowboys whose lives are touched by a beautiful, lonely divorcee. The cast includes Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe (the final film for both stars), Eli Wallach, Thelma Ritter and Montgomery Clift.

The performances are faultless, the characters well-drawn, and some of the language among Arthur Miller’s best and most perceptive observations of the human experience, but this is far from the perfect movie, and the fault rests chiefly with the author himself.

Miller and Marilyn on the set
Miller’s recent years had not been productive or artistically satisfying. He had spent more time fighting House Un-American Activities inquiries into his supposed Communist leanings, and playing nursemaid to a needy and narcissistic movie star wife, than he did creating theater magic. By 1960, his four-year marriage was crumbling. As he adapted his 1957 short story, originally published in Esquire magazine, into a vehicle for Marilyn, he was obviously in a state of deep depression.

Clearly written by a man in need of a prescription for one of today’s serotonin reuptake inhibitors, Arthur Miller’s screenplay for The Misfits is a negative and gloomy tale of lost hopes, unrealized dreams and an inability to change—almost everyone we meet finds their life frozen with regret and despair. Artfully articulated, yes...but entertaining? If you are a fan of fine acting, perhaps.

Clark Gable in his final film role, as Gay Langland
Gable’s portrayal of disillusioned cattle rustler Gay Langland plumbs the depths of the actor’s capacities. He hasn’t had a juicy acting role like this since Rhett Butler, and we see moments of surprising vulnerability from one of Hollywood’s most iconic he-men. The brilliant Eli Wallach is intense and raw as Gay’s sidekick Guido. The reliable and real Thelma Ritter adds a much-needed dose of ironic humor to the often lugubrious proceedings, but she is also touching and wistful as Roslyn’s Reno landlady. Monty Clift’s physically ravaged rodeo rider Perce reminds audiences of the actor’s own horrifying car accident three years earlier, which left him permanently disfigured and hooked on pain medication. His scene in a phone booth speaking haltingly with his mother is among the very best Montgomery Clift moments ever captured on film.

Montgomery Clift as Perce
Veteran character actress Thelma Ritter as Isabel

Eli Wallach as Guido

Roslyn and Gay follow the star that will take them "right home"
Monroe is a revelation as over-30 divorcee Roslyn Tabor. If you’ve never seen The Misfits, this is truly a Marilyn Monroe you’ve never encountered on the screen. Here is one of the few performances in which she was able to fully use her Actors Studio training to realize a character who is more than a cartoonlike depiction of beauty and seductiveness. Monroe’s Roslyn is disappointed with life and can find little to hold onto or believe in...yet her sheer life force has the power to bring magic to the moment.  To use Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio technical jargon, we see Marilyn “make contact” perfectly with her character, particularly in the scenes where she describes feeling abandoned by her mother and let down by her ex-husband. Though Monroe disliked her character and the story, feeling Miller stole intimate details from her own life and their marriage, her performance in this dark film strikes a poignantly incandescent note.

Marilyn Monroe as Roslyn
Much has been written about the filming of this movie, and in the ensuing years the surviving players all seemed to point to Marilyn Monroe as the reason for the film’s failure. Marilyn was difficult. Marilyn was ill—drinking—overweight. Marilyn was late. Marilyn was mean to her soon-to-be-ex. That may all have been true, but the real culprits in the film’s failure to entertain are the author and the director, who were reported to have indulged in countless gambling and drinking binges during location filming in the Nevada desert. The drama offscreen was far more exciting than the action being photographed, and Miller used Huston as a surrogate therapist and confidante as his marriage fell to pieces. 

All the major players involved in putting together this quirky film displayed behavior perfectly in keeping with the movie’s title. It's a fascinating film, but only if you're in a deep and reflective mood.

Three misfits—director Huston, star Monroe and writer Miller
Last dance for Mr. and Mrs. Miller

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Indomitable Doris Day

America’s sweetheart and eternal girl next door is alive and well at 89
by Christopher Cooper

She hasn’t graced the silver screen since 1968 or appeared on television in decades, but at 89, singer/actress Doris Day is one of a select few bona fide living superstars from Hollywood’s golden era.

“I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin,” cracked wit Oscar Levant about the perky blond beauty with the sunny disposition. (The joke was so good, Groucho Marx stole it for himself.)

Born Doris Kappelhoff on April 3, 1924 (the same day and year as Marlon Brando), she changed her name when she got a job as vocalist with Barney Rapp’s band, where her first spotlight number was  “Day by Day.” She was signed for pictures by Warner Brothers in 1948, and quickly became one of Hollywood’s brightest young stars.

Romance On The High Seas (1948)

Singing "Secret Love" in Calamity Jane (1953)

With James Cagney in Love Me Or Leave Me (1955)

With James Stewart in Alfred Hitchock's The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

With Rex Harrison in Midnight Lace (1960)

Rehearsing with Rock for Send Me No Flowers (1964)

Though later in life she protested her screen image as a virginal  goody-two-shoes, her way of life was nevertheless an example of positive thinking and clean living. A Christian Scientist for most of her life, she didn’t drink or smoke--although she admitted in her 1975 memoir that she’d fall off the wagon with a Tom Collins on occasion when she was  “feeling crotchety.”

Doris turned down the part of lascivious cougar Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate because she deemed the role too racy. (Anne Bancroft then got the part.) Still, she was socially liberal. Rumored to have dated African-American L.A. Dodger Maury Wills, Day’s own father married a black woman his later years. Married unsuccessfully four times, she publicly stated that she felt a couple should live together before tying the knot.

She admitted that upon first hearing the song “Que Sera Sera,” which became her biggest hit and signature tune, she didn’t much care for it, but later warmed to the song’s simple philosophy: What will be, will be.

She had been the #1 box office champion for four years running in the early 1960s, but made a graceful exit from show business after her TV sitcom “The Doris Day Show” ended a five-year run in 1973. She turned her considerable energy toward another lifelong passion by founding a rescue organization called Actors and Others for Animals in 1971. The charity, now championed by Day’s old friend Betty White, still thrives. Day hosted a short-lived cable series centered around animals, “Doris Day’s Best Friends,” in 1985.

With son Terry Melcher circa 1970

Doris founded Actors and Others for Animals in the early 1970s

Doris with some of her best friends

Today, Doris Day lives a quiet life. She has outlived her beloved only son, record producer Terry Melcher, who died of cancer in 2004. She currently shares her house in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California with six dogs and four cats. In 2011, she did record an album and agreed to a few rare interviews via radio to promote it, but is content to let the new stars shine and enjoy her retirement. “I’ve had mine,” she told an interviewer in 2012. “I had a great time. Now it’s their turn.”

To hear Doris Day's 2012 NPR interview, click here.

Little-known Doris Day data:

- Dated Ronald Reagan between his marriages to Jane Wyman and Nancy Davis.

- Received just one Oscar nomination, as Best Actress for Pillow Talk (1959).

- Feared for her son Terry Melcher’s life in 1969. The music producer had been the initial target of Charles Manson’s gang and owner of the house rented by Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate at the time of the grisly Helter Skelter murders.

- Hates the name Doris Day, so all her close friends call her nicknames like Clara Bixby, Eunice and Suzie Creamcheese.

- Is so afraid to fly that she turned down a recent Kennedy Center Honors spot. She has been terrified of airplanes after traveling through a blizzard on a tour with Bob Hope in the 1940s.

- Owned a pet-friendly hotel in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California.

- Cannot read music.

- Preferred being photographed on the right side, as she thought her left was too cheeky.

- Swore by a beauty regimen that included slathering her entire body with Vaseline once a week.

As seen on

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

The Dark Side of Daytime TV

“My name is Victoria Winters,” Alexandra Moltke Isles intones as the eerie music swells, dark waves crash against craggy cliffs and the foggy Collinwood estate comes into view. I’m in heaven. Stories of vampires, witches and time-travel enthrall a young gay fifth grader as he rushes home from school to munch cereal in front of the TV as reruns of the gothic soap opera Dark Shadows come on at 4 p.m.

Though Jonathan Frid is hardly a heartthrob as the menacing vampire Barnabas Collins, he’s such a compelling actor that I am transfixed by his every British-inflected syllable. “Miss Wintizzz,” he says in that snooty cultured voice...

Jonathan Frid

Alexandra Moltke (aka Isles)

The great ensemble included Kathryn Leigh Scott as Maggie Evans, Nancy Barrett as Carolyn Stoddard, John Karlen as Willie Loomis, Grayson Hall as Dr. Julia Hoffman, David Henesy as David Collins...and the grand dame herself, old-time movie queen Joan Bennett as Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, the Collins matriarch. Later on, Kate Jackson and David Selby joined the cast.

Grayson Hall
Kathryn Leigh Scott
Nancy Barrett
John Karlen

Joan Bennett

Kate Jackson
David Selby

Created by visionary producer Dan Curtis, Dark Shadows ran for five seasons on ABC and spawned two big-screen adaptations during the series heyday. It was briefly revived in the early 1990s, and I was delighted: British actor Ben Cross was a sleek, sexy new Barnabas in the Christopher Lee vampire mold. Jean Simmons took over the role of Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, and a young Joseph Gordon Levitt played the role of David Collins. Alas, the new nighttime series was preempted several times by ABC News continuing coverage of the first Iraq Gulf War, and quickly cancelled. (But all 12 surviving episodes are available on 

Ben Cross

Johnny Depp
As a huge Johnny Depp fan, I eagerly awaited the 2012 remake, hoping against hope that director Tim Burton, who had already made mincemeat (to steal a phrase from Sweeney Todd) of both Planet of the Apes and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, two of my favorite films, would treat Dark Shadows with some degree of seriousness. Alas, my hopes were dashed. The film is a mess. It’s a shame—I sense that Depp and Burton share my recherché taste in film but in their quest to create something new out of something old (and already brilliant), they continue to fail miserably. Mr. Burton should use his old favorites as inspiration for new works instead of trying to update the classics in order to pander to contemporary mass audiences.

Today, lovers of True Blood have Dan Curtis and Dark Shadows to thank for blazing the trail for gothic and gory supernatural television entertainment.

Here’s a great resource for fans of Dark Shadows:

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

I Saw Alfie Kissing Superman

The first time I ever saw one man kissing another onscreen was in the comedy thriller Deathtrap (1982), based on the play by the great Ira Levin (Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives). The fact that it was international superstar Michael Caine locking lips with strapping Superman star Christopher Reeve only added to the jaw-dropping surprise I (and the rest of the audience) experienced. Sitting in the darkened theater, I could hear men groaning and women gasping at the moment of the man-on-man embrace. A few people even walked out of the auditorium in a huff. Too bad; they missed a really good movie...

Seen today, the Caine/Reeves kiss seems quite tame; you can see hotter male-male makeout scenes on Bravo or reruns of Desperate Housewives. But the film itself holds up superbly. Perfectly plotted, with a clever series of twists that keep you guessing until the very last frame, Deathtrap is a delicious mind game for the mystery movie buff.

When a celebrated playwright Sidney Bruhl (wittily played by Caine) loses his creative mojo, he hatches a diabolical plan for a big Broadway comeback: passing off the work of a neophyte writer and fan (Christopher Reeve) as his own. The fact that Bruhl will have to do away with the young man in the process is a mere technicality. And so the fun and plot twists begin.

Critics of the time complained that Deathtrap was too much of a filmed stage play, but that is by design. The story is a play within a play within a play. All told, there are only six or seven speaking parts, but the action, much like a formulaic mystery play, centers around the playwright, his wife, the student, a lawyer and a next door neighbor. Within the confines of a living room set in the Hamptons, director Sidney Lumet (Network, Dog Day Afternoon) keeps the action taut and suspenseful.

Add a few supporting characters with impeccable comic timing to the tightly plotted narrative, and you have a movie that’s satisfying on every level. The underrated Dyan Cannon, who perfected the role of the comically neurotic wife in her Oscar-nominated performance in Heaven Can Wait (1978), is a scream as the playwright’s high-strung wife. And veteran stage actress Irene Worth all but steals the picture with her deadpan performance as the dotty Teutonic next-door neighbor, psychic Helga Ten Dorp.

It’s also a refreshing opportunity to see Christopher Reeve, who started his own career as a stage actor (he appeared onstage in A Matter of Gravity with the great Katharine Hepburn), in a role that requires more than looking good in red and blue tights.

Here, Michael Caine is, as in all his films, a joy...he delivers every line with a crispness reminiscent of that first sip of an ice-cold dry martini. From 1966’s Alfie to Batman’s butler in 2012, Caine is enduring film royalty. In Deathtrap, he returns to a genre he was particularly adept in, having shared the screen in the brilliant cat-and-mouse thriller Sleuth with Sir Laurence Olivier the decade before. This film is an apt companion piece.

If you enjoy mystery, comedy and good acting, you should love Deathtrap.