Saturday, August 17, 2013

Many Thanks, Robert Altman, Robert Altman

A crumbling relic of the past, which was never built to be anything but a facade in the first place, is far from a foundation on which to base a life and an identity. That’s the theme of Come Back To The Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, the little-seen 1982 film based on a play by Ed Graczyk and directed by Robert Altman. Currently unavailable through any mainstream DVD-on-demand service, lovers of this film must content themselves with scratchy VHS transfers offered by those lucky enough to buy the film when it was still in circulation more than two decades ago. (And thank goodness for that crumbling relic of a videotape which allowed this film lover to enjoy this remarkable little film once again.)

Black, Bates and Cher—Disciples of James Dean
A quirky piece, even for the king of quirk himself, the great Robert Altman (M*A*S*H, The Player), Come Back To The Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean is a forgotten gem of a film, featuring a collection of strong and dimensional women’s roles brought to life by an eclectic group of fine actors. Here is where film fans will find Sandy Dennis in her last great role and superstar Cher in her first, plus startling turns by a young Kathy Bates, Marta Heflin, and a Karen Black as you’ve never seen her before.

Sudie Bond, Sandy Dennis and Cher
Based on a 1976 play by Ed Graczyk, Jimmy Dean takes place in a dusty and arid one-horse Texas town several hundred miles from Marfa, where scenes from the 1956 George Stevens epic Giant were filmed. It is now two decades since these local Texans experienced their brief brush with Hollywood magic, and the members of a local fan club, the Disciples of James Dean, are scheduled to meet at the local dime store where they originally held their meetings, 20 years after Giant and the young star’s untimely death. All that's left of the past are crumbling bits of the fictional Reata Ranch, which Mona collects during a yearly pilgrimage to the long-abandoned film location.

By the late ‘70s, the “well-made play” as popularized by Ibsen and continued by Tennessee Williams and William Inge had fallen out of favor, and Graczyk’s play was considered old-fashioned and derivative with its rhythmic and formulaic uncovering of secrets and revelations, culminating in a transformational climax, but within this well-worn structure actors are allowed to shine.

Edna Louise (Heflin), Mona (Dennis) and Juanita (Bond)

Mona, Joe (Patton) and Juanita

A tense moment for Mona, Joanne and Sissy
Lacking the operatic and often Shakespearean spectacle of Robert Altman’s most well-known films, this one is a curiousity, with its claustrophobic single setting of a faded drugstore interior sweltering in a Texas heatwave. Altman also uses the stage conventions of lighting and the reflection of a mirror behind the counter to differentiate the 1955 flashback scenes with the present action. But fans of the filmed stage play genre will appreciate Robert Altman’s loving focus on his actors. Having also directed the play on the Broadway stage with the same cast, the director chooses to allow them to tell the story.

Sandy Dennis as the high-strung Mona
As the troubled and dreamy Mona, chosen as an extra for a few of Giant’s large crowd scenes and still starry-eyed from her mythic encounter with James Dean, Sandy Dennis gives one of her most layered and complicated performances. Look up the word neurotic in the dictionary and you’re bound to find a picture of Ms. Dennis in any of her iconic film performances, perhaps in her Oscar-winning turn as Honey in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, or as Jack Lemmon’s beleaguered wife in Neil Simon’s The Out-of-Towners. Mona is a crowning achievement for Dennis, who did very few films after this one.

Karen Black reveals an uncomfortable secret as Joanne
The versatile Karen Black, who worked so well with director Altman in the legendary 1975 country music epic Nashville, gives one of the most arresting performances of her career in the difficult role of Joanne, the transsexual visitor who serves as catalyst for the destruction of Mona’s fragile facade of untruth. Joanne’s “Edie Gormé” monologue, delivered while perched against the rusted jukebox, is an iconic moment for Karen Black fans.

Cher's acting debut, as the sassy yet vulnerable Sissy
Jimmy Dean also marks the film acting debut of Cher—no, her appearances with Sonny in specialty movies Good Times and Chastity don’t count! Already a seasoned performer, Cher makes the transition from musical variety to drama seamlessly and skillfully, recreating her stage triumph as the brassy, bawdy and big-bosomed Sissy.

The smaller roles are standouts, too, particularly plaintive-voiced veteran character actress Sudie Bond as Juanita, the hyper-religious proprietress of the drugstore; Altman stalwart Marta Heflin as a shy wallflower, and Kathy Bates as her pushy, loud-mouthed former BFF. The only male role in the story, their gay friend Joe, is played in the flashbacks by Mark Patton. Unseen by the audience is the title character, the supposed offspring of Mona and the movie star, a half-wit who became a cause celebre when used to promote Texas tourism after James Dean’s sudden death.

Watching these wonderful actors work together under the direction of a creative risk-taker like Altman is a joy. Even if this film is ultimately deemed a failure by film historians, it’s an experimental work of of movie art designed for lovers of acting and theatrical storytelling.  

Robert Altman with his stars 
"Sincerely" by the McGuire Sisters

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Hitchcockian Dopplegängers, De Palma-style

Brian de Palma’s obvious zeal for voyeurism reached its cinematic zenith in 1984’s Body Double, perhaps the director’s sexiest and most playful film. Written off as one of De Palma’s lesser efforts and mostly forgotten by today’s film audiences, Body Double combines comedy, romance and sex with suspense, thrills and gore.

It’s a titillating Hollywood story of success and failure, juxtaposing the fantastic wealth and luxury of Bel Air and Beverly Hills against the seamy and gritty reality of struggling actors and wannabes, prostitution and pornography. A glossy and seductive mystery punctuated by creative acts of kinky violence, Body Double takes the genre perfected by the original master of suspense and ups the ante under the aegis of an equally visionary auteur.

AA Lautner's futuristic treehouse provides the perfect vantage point for De Palma's voyeurism

Four years after Dressed to Kill, Brian de Palma was still deep in his “Hitchcock period,” and Body Double pays homage to two of Hitchcock’s best, Vertigo and Rear Window, both starring the redoubtable everyman James Stewart.

For Body Double, de Palma cast Craig Wasson, an unconventionally handsome and sensitive blond actor who was making a name for himself at the time, most notably in the 1980 thriller Ghost Story, where he starred opposite Hollywood legends including Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Fred Astaire and Melvyn Douglas. But in an era where pretty boy male ingenues like Tom Cruise and Michael J. Fox and overbuilt he-men like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone ruled the box office roost, Wasson never quite took off as a leading man. But here, he’s perfect...this is Wasson’s defining film.

Craig Wasson as Jake Scully
Like James Stewart’s Scotty in Vertigo, Wasson’s Jake suffers from a debilitating phobia, in this case a fear of confined spaces. An actor in a low-budget vampire movie, Jake is fired when he has a panic attack in his coffin during shooting. Dejectedly, he goes home, only to find his wife Carol in bed with another man. The camera lingers perversely on the lust-glutted expression on Carol’s face as she completes her orgasm even after being discovered by Jake.

Gregg Henry as Sam Bouchard
But things are looking up as Jake is befriended by Sam, a fellow student in his acting class, who offers him a place to incredible mid-century modern home in the hills with panoramic views of the city which Sam is housesitting for a rich friend. (Sam is played with smarmy charm by Gregg Henry, now a regular on the TV series Scandal.)  All Jake has to do is water the plants...and enjoy the view with the help of a powerful telescope. There are more fringe benefits to the arrangement: an eye-filling show through the window of a neighboring mansion, where the beautiful lady of the house does a slow striptease and sensual dance ending in self-gratification. Nightly.

In an extended sequence where Jake follows the woman on her errands, De Palma takes a familiarly suspenseful Hitchcockian mood and makes it his own. Not only does Jake spy on the woman while she shops for lingerie on Rodeo Drive; he even peeps into her dressing room as she tries on panties and is almost detained by security. Finally, the pair meet. Mystery, murder and mayhem follow in inimitable De Palma style.  

Deborah Shelton as Gloria Revelle
The flat-voiced Deborah Shelton, perhaps trying to imitate Kim Novak’s throaty whisper from Vertigo, is a perfect fantasy for Wasson’s character, with her curvy Playboy-ready physique and diaphanous designer clothes...until she opens her mouth to speak. Then she’s as wooden as a Rodeo Collection mannequin.

Melanie Griffith as Holly Body
Performance-wise, the film belongs to Melanie Griffith, who sparkles as porn star Holly Body. This underrated actress was truly the Judy Holliday of the 1980s, and her infectious laugh, baby-doll delivery and unerringly instinctive sense of timing inject this thriller with a dose of irreverent fun not found in most De Palma films. Griffith’s Holly is particularly amusing in her adult film pas de deux with Jake, with her deadpan delivery of bad porn movie dialogue:

You like to watch?

Makes you hot, doesn’t it?


Makes me hot, too.

Tightly plotted, with a satisfying climactic twist, so beloved to 1980s thrillers, Body Double is an absorbing film and includes all the sex and over-the-top bloody gore that De Palma fans demand. Lovers of 1980s nostalgia will also appreciate the MTV-like music video sequence featuring Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s sexy megahit “Relax,”  which for me is enough to elevate this visually stimulating horror movie to high camp.