Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Ms. Bacall, You’ve Got Fan Mail

It’s always wonderful to see an actress of a certain age as the leading lady in a major motion picture. Unlike their male counterparts, very few older female stars have been trusted by producers to “open a film,” and even today’s great ladies of the screen continue to struggle to keep themselves relevant, unless they happen to be Meryl Streep.

Lauren Bacall was 57 when she played movie star Sally Ross, a character very much like herself, in The Fan (1981). The fact that it’s a horror suspense thriller that capitalizes on Bacall’s legendary presence is a neat twist, albeit one that propels this film into the cult classic arena and away from the popular slasher genre that dominated the box office in the early 1980s (My Bloody Valentine, Halloween, Friday the 13th).

Lauren Bacall as the star

Having triumphed on the Broadway stage in not just just one but two big musicals, Applause and Woman of the Year, winning Tony Awards for both despite an utter lack of singing ability, Bacall capitalizes on her own image as a famed star of yesteryear making her debut on the Great White Way. 

 As movie legend Sally Ross begins rehearsals for her first Broadway show, a troubled youth writes her heartfelt letters of praise and worship, clacking away furiously on his typewriter. The love letters to the actress become increasingly delusional and sexually suggestive. When he receives no response from his idol, the missives become threatening, and those close to Sally are gruesomely gotten out of the way. 

Michael Biehn as the fan

Playing the title role of Sally Ross’s number-one fan is a young and intense Michael Biehn, three years before making the blockbuster hit The Terminator. As rabid Sally Ross fan Douglas Breen, Biehn crafts a complex character of equal parts obsession, sexual confusion and surprising vulnerability. His character arc from eager-beaver film buff to disturbed and menacing stalker makes Douglas one of Michael Biehn’s most memorable roles. Obviously influenced by De Niro’s seminal role in Taxi Driver, Biehn pulls out all the stops to give Douglas complexity and dimension.  

But Douglas is definitely not sirree

You’d think this cute-as-a-button blond who loves old black-and-white movies would be any gay boy’s dream, but the high-strung Douglas thinks he’s hetero and in love with a woman almost old enough to be his grandmother, which adds an appropriate air of the grotesque. Plastered on his walls are photos of Bacall/Ross as a young ingenue, including one of her perched on a piano as President Truman plays. When he places an obscene phone call to Sally, telling her he wants to make love to her, the camera lingers on Bacall’s gaunt and tired-looking face. The moment is even more chilling than most of the violent scenes that follow. Does Douglas even know his idol’s true age? 

Later on, in order to fake his own death as his identity is discovered, Douglas cruises a gay bar for a victim to serve as his body, whom he dispatches after some male-on-male heavy petting that he really seems to enjoy, despite the bloody aftermath. 

As a counterpoint to Biehn’s feverish intensity, Lauren Bacall is coolly charismatic as Sally Ross. Of course, the superstar dominates in every scene in which she appears, patrolling her palatial Manhattan apartment smoking cigarette after cigarette and downing one strong cocktail after another (sometimes in a filmy negligee), making acerbic observations about her advancing age and lack of male companionship, and sparring with her secretary (Maureen Stapleton). A reluctant cougar, she dates one of the 20-something chorus boys in her show (until Douglas slices him to ribbons in a gory and homoerotic swimming pool scene), though she really loves her ex-husband (James Garner), but takes time to flirt with the police detective assigned to protect her (Hector Elizondo). A fine actress, Bacall carries it all off with aplomb, though she does tend to emote with her nostrils, which flare up frequently to register her anger, disapproval or consternation.

Bacall and Garner

James Garner lends masculine support in the role of her director ex-husband Jake Berman. He’s mostly there to light her cigarettes (she smokes many). In fact, Garner made quite a career by acting as arm candy to a host of female superstars, from Doris Day (Move Over, Darling)  to Julie Andrews (Victor/Victoria).  And veteran character actor Hector Elizondo (Pretty Woman) makes the most of his role as police inspector Raphael Andrews, enjoying real chemistry with Bacall.

The great Maureen Stapleton

Stapleton shines as Belle Goldman, the star’s beleaguered secretary, in the few short scenes she has with Bacall before her face is brutally slashed in the subway by Douglas after she writes him a strongly worded letter advising him to stop sending “smut” to her employer.  Thankfully, she recovers from the attack in time for the opening night of Sally’s show “Never Say Never.”

Hector Elizondo

The rehearsal and performance sequences of Sally Ross in “Never Say Never” are what make this film a camp classic, boldly stealing imagery and mood from recent fare like Fosse’s All That Jazz and Broadway’s A Chorus Line.  (Funnily enough, the same worn-out cliché of the faux show title was utilized by James Bond producers a year or two later for Sean Connery’s return to the role of 007 in Never Say Never Again.) The brief glimpses of the musical numbers are pure pastiche, with Bacall swanning around the stage with scantily clad chorus boys who chant lyrics about her legendary fabulousness:  “A remarkable woman/You want to bathe in her light/The way that she moves/Indisputably proves/God got it right!”

"Inaccessible? Not a bit" 
"Hearts, Not Diamonds" 

And Bacall does get the chance to sing—or croak, if you prefer—an entire song written for her by Marvin Hamlisch and Tim Rice. Not only is La Bacall’s trademark voice deep and foggy, she actually smokes a cigarette while singing the song, inhaling deeply, exhaling a long plume of smoke as she begins to warble “Hearts, Not Diamonds”: “I wanted hearts, not diamonds/I’ve had enough champagne/I don’t care if I don’t fly/Around the world again.”  Despite the camp and irony, though, Bacall triumphs, succeeding in cementing her own image as a beloved, eternal icon of the silver screen.  

The sexy psychopath: Michael Biehn as Douglas Breen

Bacall and Biehn had only one scene together, but it's a humdinger

Directed by Edward Bianchi, The Fan is a well-plotted thriller, with the proper quota of shock, suspense and gore, but it didn’t light any fires at the box office that year. (It did give future TV star Dana Delany one of her first bit roles, though: Look for her as Douglas’s annoyingly perky coworker in the record store scenes.)
The film’s failure may have been the result of unfortunate timing.  Some criticised Ms. Bacall for appearing in this film so soon after her neighbor John Lennon had been slain by an obsessed fanatic right outside their Central Park West apartment building The Dakota (which had ironically doubled as the satanic “Black Bramford” in Rosemary’s Baby.) In The Fan, though, the fictional Sally Ross’s apartment is on Fifth, just steps away from Jacqueline Onassis’s 1040 address.

But the Bacall film was already underway when the Lennon tragedy occurred, so it really was an unfortunate coincidence. Nevertheless, as Mommie Dearest is a film Faye Dunaway is not eager to talk about, The Fan is not a film Bacall would like fans to remember her by, perhaps for this very reason. Rarely shown on television these days (when I see The Fan in TV listings, it’s always the Robert DeNiro baseball-themed movie from 1996 with a similar plotline), this film is a treat for aficionados of horror films, early 80s homoeroticism, classic movie stars, and high camp. “Dear Miss Ross - I am your number-one fan…”

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

The Desperate Housewives of Stepford

Ira Levin’s iconic masterpiece of suburban paranoia plays out what may be every red-blooded American male’s fantasy...a beautiful and selfless helpmate who willingly fulfills his every need and desire, asking for nothing in return...the perfect wife and mother, who lives only to serve her lord and master. It’s the ultimate ego trip for the wounded male psyche, the man who feels he is losing his grip on the world in the face of a more progressive and egalitarian society.  

To Levin, master teller of tales of conspiracy including Rosemary’s Baby and The Boys from Brazil, evil is cool and clinical and expedient, a series of very matter-of-fact decisions devoid of compassion or love---selfishness, after all, is the source of all maleficence. The film adaptation of his novel The Stepford Wives (1975) is no exception.

Joanna is pretty as a picture

By the mid-1970s, the burgeoning feminist movement was reaching a fever pitch, with activists like the alternately hated, feared and glamorized Gloria Steinem and plain-spoken congresswoman Bella Abzug leading the revolution for female equality. Steinem’s Ms. Magazine had given young women an alternative to the traditional titles Mrs. or Miss, and legislation in the form of the polarizing Equal Rights Amendment was on the horizon. And of course, in the face of such progress, the feminist backlash was now in full swing.

The film version of The Stepford Wives lacks the detailed, operatic building of suspense of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, but receives an effective if workmanlike treatment by British director Bryan Forbes. Forbes prefers to focus upon the sleepy town of Stepford’s mundane everyday ordinariness; his pacing is slow and deliberate, but allows the terror to sneak up and strike with satisfying shock and awe by film’s end.

"I'll just die if I don't get this recipe"
Screenwriter William Goldman captures the zeitgeist of the era and puts the story in context with brief nods to some of the current concerns of the day, including pollution and the civil rights movement. When Joanna and Bobbi begin to delve into reasons why the ladies of Stepford are addicted to cleaning and scrubbing and cooking, their search leads them to believe there may be something in the environmental hazard that is causing the women’s strange behavior. Later in the film, with a bow to racial diversity, the newest residents of Stepford, an African-American couple, are seen bickering in the supermarket. (And the sloppily dressed wife will presumably soon be forced to clean up her act as well.) In Stepford, evil is an equal opportunity proposition.

Equal opportunity evil
For Katharine Ross (The Graduate, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), one of the most beautiful actresses of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Joanna Eberhart is a career-defining role.
Joanna, an aspiring photographer, has put aside her ambitions and need for her own identity in favor of being a wife and mother, agreeing to move from her beloved New York City to antiseptic, conservative Stepford. But her talent and drive refuse to let her give up on her dream of being remembered, and she finally begins to stand up for herself (albeit too late). Utterly feminine and undeniably gorgeous, Ross nevertheless exudes a steely strength in her intelligent portrayal of Joanna. (Today, the talented actress is regrettably semi-retired, and makes only rare film appearances, most notably her effective cameo role as the therapist in Donnie Darko.)

Katharine Ross as Joanna
Peter Masterson as Walter

Forbes excels in contrasting the ordinary with the horrific, suspending disbelief and at the same time enhancing the shock value. The scenes of marital disharmony between Joanna and her husband (well played by Peter Masterson) are realistic, as Joanna is alternately coddled, lied to, ignored and disrespected in favor of her husband’s needs.  “When,” he asks Joanna rhetorically when she complains about her neighbors’ penchant for cleanliness, “are things going to start sparkling around here?”

Tina Louise as Charmaine
Talented Tina Louise makes the most of her few scenes as the smart and cynical trophy wife Charmaine; Louise’s typecasting as Ginger Grant on Gilligan’s Island had practically brought the actress’s promising career to a halt until this role came along. Louise gives Charmaine just the right edge in her portrayal of the maturing, throaty-voiced beauty.

Nannette Newman as Carol 
Nanette Newman, wife of the film’s director, is properly robotic as Joanna’s picture-perfect next-door neighbor Carol Van Sant, with her wide-eyed blank stare and whispery singsong delivery: “I’ll just die if I don’t get this recipe.”

Paula Prentiss as Bobbie
The down-to-earth Paula Prentiss brings a refreshing current of dark humor to the proceedings as slobby newcomer Bobbie Marco(witz), who joins Joanna in her distaste for the mindless “pan-scrubbers” of Stepford.  

Patrick O'Neal as "Dis"
The women’s transformations from living, breathing beings to subservient and perfectly proportioned automatons are chilling, thanks to the amazing performances of the principals, particularly Ross, Prentiss and Louise, who are all insidiously replaced right before our very eyes.

Bobbie gets a push-up bra
"I will not become one of those pan-scrubbers" 

Yes, there is fertile ground here in Stepford for camp, as well, but it is used judiciously to leaven the proceedings, and has helped secure this film’s iconic status. The “consciousness raising” women’s group scene, featuring all the wives trading cleaning tips, is priceless, as is the supermarket finale played under the Muzak of the Mighty Wurlitzer.    

"I'm fine. It's just my head. I'm's just my head..."
Just as Rosemary’s hubby Guy Woodhouse is matter-of-fact about selling his wife’s womb in return for material success, so the members of the Stepford Men’s Association have close to zero guilt when it comes to making their lives a little easier by disposing of their pesky wives and replacing them with the equivalent of electronic blow-up dolls. (Though Franklin Cover--TV’s Tom Willis of The Jeffersons-- is shaken enough to pull over by the side of the road after wife  Charmaine’s “change”--but he recovers quickly enough to dig up his wife’s beloved tennis court to put in a swimming pool.)

Patrick O’Neal is appropriately sinister as the diabolical Dale “Dis” Coba, who learned the tricks of the android trade at a stint in Disneyland. The not-so-subtle “upgrades” that Dis installs in his fembot creatures, including the large firm breasts inspired by the old Varga girl drawings from gentlemen’s magazines, foreshadows the plastic surgery craze of today, smooth faces and silicone breast implants wiping away any trace of individuality or character. But today, the women themselves elect these surgeries. There’s no need for coercion, or murder.

The climax of the film is truly terrifying, as Dis unveils his murderous doppleganger of Joanna to the hysterical victim. Katharine Ross’s plaintive, whimpering wails of horror when she learns her fate are unforgettably disturbing.

The makeovers are complete
The unfunny spoof that masqueraded as a remake in 2004 doesn’t warrant a mention here; but the campy 1990s TV movie-of-the-week The Stepford Husbands with Michael Ontkean and Donna Mills at least gave the Stepford women the opportunity for the tables to be turned and to enjoy the services of their own custom-made, ever-ready Energizer stud muffins.

One of my favorite essays on this cult classic can be found over at Ken Anderson’s sensational Le Cinema Dreams blog.