Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Lovely Rita, Lethal Gilda

They say the love of a good woman can save a fallen man. Gilda (1946) is not about that kind of woman. It’s the story of a sultry siren who leads a man to his destruction, and with wanton malice aforethought. Masterfully directed by Charles Vidor, Gilda is textbook film noir, chock full of all the elements that define this quintessential 1940s genre.

Lurid and suggestive rather than explicit in their portrayals of the dark side of human nature, film noir provided a creative milieu in which verboten themes and subjects could be safely explored without breaking the stringent Production Code that promoted “clean and wholesome” moviemaking. 

Rita Hayworth triumphs in the title role
With Gilda, Vidor and cameraman Rudolph Maté pull out all the film noir stops, creating a moody, glittering black-and-white mise en scène. Set in steamy postwar Buenos Aires, the film transports the viewer to a shadowy underworld of rootless expatriate revelers who come out only after the sun goes down. (Indeed, every scene in the film takes place in the dark of night.)

All the classic elements of film noir are present and accounted for in this seminal film—a cynical worldview, sexual symbolism, the double-cross, even a Nazi subplot. Just about everyone’s pretending to be something they’re not—there’s even a masked Carnivale ball to underline the theme of falsity and impersonation. And at its apex is a poisonous love affair fueled by the most venal of impulses. 

Johnny (Glenn Ford) rolls the dice
Here, Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford display perhaps the most explosive and smolderingly sensual screen chemistry of any movie couple of the 1940s, far more than Stanwyck and MacMurray in Double Indemnity, or even Bogart and Bacall in To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep. Both their characters are opportunistic narcissists, forced to dance to the tune of the rich and powerful to make their way in the world, bartering their assets and skills for protection and security. Survival by any means, beginning with pretense and deception, is the only goal.

Unshaven and raggedly attired, armed only with his own set of specially weighted dice, Johnny Farrell (Ford) makes his own luck by cheating his way through life. But a chance (?) encounter with a wealthy benefactor, the sinister Ballin Mundson (George Macready), sparks his ambition and gives him the opportunity for respectability and the good life. Alas, Johnny’s newfound success turns out to be even more seamy and dangerous than his former life as two-bit hustler. 

Johnny, Ballin (George Macready) and his constant companion: "Just the three of us"
Johnny visits Mundson’s underground gambling establishment and insinuates himself into the proprietor’s good graces. There he will learn the cardinal rule of gambling: The house always wins--the establishment may let you cash in up to a point, but when you cross the line, you’re out. Or maybe even dead.

Even after quickly rising to the role of casino manager and confidante to Mundson, dressed in an impeccable tuxedo and tails, Johnny is nevertheless pegged as a peasant by the wise and wily restroom attendant Uncle Pio (Steven Geray). Though under the aegis of Ballin’s protection, Johnny will never be respected. 

Always be nice to your sugar daddy

But Johnny’s problems have only just begun, as a major complication threatens the security of his newfound berth. Mundson returns from a brief business trip with his beautiful new wife Gilda in tow—and the girl in question happens to be a former paramour with whom he did not part amicably, to put it kindly.

Gilda and Johnny’s karmic connection is based not on unrequited love and not on money. Hate and revenge are their aphrodisiacs, keeping both in a perpetual state of seething anger,  barely concealed contempt and unfulfilled sexual arousal. Indeed, in their first private moment together, Gilda whispers savagely, “You know how much I hate you, Johnny? I hate you so much I’d destroy myself to bring you down with me.” And so she will. 

Gilda delights in taunting Johnny
The diminutive and vaguely effeminate Ballin Mundson, who carries a silver-tipped cane as a substitute phallus, seems far more entranced and obsessed by Johnny than he is with wife Gilda, and studies his employee’s reaction to her with amused interest. Later, we’ll see Ballin voyeuristically spying on the lovers in flagrante delicto, while anxiously massaging the tip of his cane, which converts to a lethal weapon, an elegantly thrusting razor-sharp spear. (Voyeurism is a major theme here, beautifully illustrated by the shadow-casting electronic blinds in his office that give Mundson a birds-eye view of all the happenings in his casino and nightclub.)

At her new husband’s club, Gilda works hard to make a spectacle of herself, flirting brazenly with practically any man who shows interest— not to make Ballin jealous but to get her ex-lover and chaperone Johnny in trouble with his employer--and keep him hot, bothered and nearly frantic.

The character of hustler and pretty boy Johnny Farrell shows Ford at the flower of impetuous youth that would later give way to a more laconic, weathered and world-weary persona, but here his violent and explosive passion and desire for revenge more than match Gilda’s. In many ways, the film belongs to him. He gives a fierce performance as the hardened adventurer whose perfect setup is compromised by a dangerous doll who threatens to blow his cover. 

"I hate you so much I think I'm going to die from it."

The untamed redhead in the title role is played, of course, by Rita Hayworth (the former Margarita Cansino). After a long Hollywood buildup, during which she changed her name and dyed her dark Latina hair in various shades of red from strawberry blond to torrid sunset, Hayworth had paid her dues as an extra, bit player and featured actor. By the mid-1940s, Rita was now being recognized as an A-List star, appearing mostly in musicals and comedies opposite the likes of Cary Grant, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. She had played a femme fatale once or twice before, most notably in Blood and Sand opposite Tyrone Power, but here was a role that only came once in a lifetime; no wonder the publicity posters screamed, “There never was a woman like Gilda!”

Ballin Mundson sees all
Poured into a slinky strapless satin gown and breathing heavily, she sings “Put the Blame on Mame” and creates one of classic film’s most iconic moments with her titillating near-striptease. Though her vocal performance was reportedly dubbed by jazz singer Anita Ellis, Hayworth gives the song its sultry sizzle with her languid and suggestive dance moves.

The plot is too deliciously serpentine to reveal beat by beat, but suffice to say that Gilda is a gripping melodrama featuring iconic imagery, striking performances and a style that is copied in film noir homages to this day.

Though they costarred in several more films together, including The Loves of Carmen and Affair and Trinidad, plus a brief reunion years later with her cameo appearance in The Money Game, Hayworth and Ford never quite generated the same amount of raw heat as they had with Gilda.

Hayworth struggled to live up to the indelible screen image she had created. The many men in her life found it hard to separate the fiery love goddess character from the sweet, often insecure child-woman that Hayworth really was. And unlike Ford, Hayworth found it a little more rough going as she matured, often reduced to playing alcoholics and harridans in the latter part of her career. 

Another long, long night for Gilda
Gilda was a big break for Glenn Ford that propelled him to the top of the Hollywood food chain and kept him on a career trajectory that would last for decades, in genres as varied as war epics to westerns, romance, drama and family comedy. Ford would always be grateful to Rita for jump-starting his career with Gilda.

As a big fan of film noir, this is my absolute favorite, chiefly due to the searing chemistry of the two principal stars and the unsettling idea that hate can be as powerful as love. Gilda is the ultimate anti rom-com!

Big thanks to my friend Quiggy at The Midnite Drive-In for hosting the Film Noir Blogathon. I’m very excited to discover new blogs and immerse myself in this classic genre! 

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Make Way for Myra

1970 was the first and only year that an X-rated film won the Academy Award for Best Picture. (No, not this one...that was Midnight Cowboy.) But America’s then-reigning sex symbol and the top box office blonde of yesteryear appeared together in an X-rated film in 1970 too.

Myra Breckinridge (1970) will go down in history as one of the weirdest films ever made. An ignominious flop when it was first released—and rightly so!—its lethal brand of camp and unforgettable imagery and performances have elevated it to cult status, where we hope it will remain in perpetuity. This outrageous tale of a transsexual anti-heroine is a product of its era, the height of the so-called sexual revolution, but its flamboyant bad taste and balls-out bravado are astonishing even today. 

Raquel Welch in the title role
Based upon the novel by the prolific and famously bisexual writer Gore Vidal (who also wrote those page-turners of historical fiction 1876, Lincoln and Burr), the film version of Myra plays upon the worst fears of every right-wing conspiracy regarding the sexual revolution and the so-called gay agenda. Everything that scares people about homosexuality (and any other sexuality, for that matter) is exaggerated and lampooned with perverse democracy.

If you’ve never read the book of Myra (or Myron, its equally entertaining sequel), it may be hard to discern in the film version that mild-mannered Myron, played by Rex Reed in his first and only acting role, undergoes a sex-change operation and becomes his alter-ego and evil twin, the gorgeous Myra, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Raquel Welch, then Hollywood’s top glamour girl. At the end of the film, it all makes sense though—spoiler alert—it was all a dream. Myron never had his you-know-what chopped off, after all…

Rex Reed as Myron: "Where are my t*ts?"

Helmed by hippie British director Michael Sarne (Joanna) who freely admitted to sneaking off the set to smoke the occasional joint between takes, the movie is a strange melange, episodic and tangential,  with a hard-to-follow storyline that makes very little sense, but does it really need to, with all that gratuitous nudity and debauchery? Here’s the theme in a nutshell, in the heroine’s own words: “I am Myra Breckinridge, who no man will ever goal is the destruction of the American male in all his particulars.” And how!

Punctuating the narrative for satiric effect, and probably further confusing the situation, are numerous clips from classic Fox films, as stars like Jack Benny, Dietrich (in drag, of course), Laurel & Hardy, Judy Garland and Alice Faye (singing “America, I Love You”) pop into the action for editorial effect. Republican Shirley Temple Black, then the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, was incensed by the film’s use of her classic numbers  “You’ve Got to S-M-I-L-E” and “On the Good Ship Lollypop.” Temple sued, as did Loretta Young. 

Huston, Welch, West and Reed
Myra marked the return to the screen of the legendary Mae West after a 26-year absence. In the supporting role of Tinseltown super-agent (and recording artist!) Leticia Van Allen, West nevertheless received top billing. Despite her mummified and waxen appearance, the legendary superstar still displays glimmers of her iconic wit in her few brief scenes, mostly as Leticia interviews much-younger would-be clients and potential bedmates. “Forget about the 6 feet...let’s talk about the 7 inches…” she purrs to a tall and strapping wannabe actor. Referring to a pair of handsome identical twins, she tosses her head and declares, “I’m the only one who knows the difference.” As Leticia, Mae has only one goal: to add to her “stable of studs” and create a “boy bank” since the “gay boys are taking over the business.” 

Mae West as Leticia Van Allen: "Male Clients Only"
“You Gotta Taste All the Fruit” is Mae’s obligatory musical number, performed by Leticia in salmon silk and sequins, carried onto the stage on a Cleopatra-like litter. Later, after another Edith Head costume change, Mae caterwauls her way to the big finish surrounded by a bevy of tuxedoed black men doing a frantic frug (with an assist from a clip of Carmen Miranda and her giant bananas and Tutti-Frutti hat!). It truly has to be seen to be believed.

Film critic Rex Reed is surprisingly photogenic and affable as Myron, especially when singing a song called “My Secret Place” by the Mamas and the Papas’ John Phillips, and when grabbing his chest and exclaiming “Where are my tits?” in his inimitable southern drawl.

Myra and Mary Ann (Farrah Fawcett)
The film also jump-started the careers of two soon-to-be TV icons. A young Tom Selleck, sans moustache, makes a brief appearance as one of Leticia Van Allen’s victims--er, clients. Farrah Fawcett, six years before she became an Angel, is adorably virginal as one of acting teacher Myra’s star students. 

Myra and Rusty (Roger Herren)

Roger Herren is perfect as the dumb-as-a-post Rusty, the unfortunate Midnight Cowboy-type forced to submit to the will of unstoppable man-hating rapist Myra. John Huston, better known as director of classics including The Maltese Falcon and The African Queen, is amusing in one of his few onscreen turns as the former Western star who now runs an acting school.

But the film really belongs to its titular (sorry, I couldn’t resist) star. As the transsexual alter ego of Myron Breckinridge, Raquel Welch walks away with the film, displaying a brilliant flair for dark comedy. Myra's serious-as-a-heart-attack militant feminism is brought to hilarious life by the skilled Welch, who keeps her tongue planted firmly in her cheek in her quest of “preparing humanity for its next phase”... the emasculination of America, of course.

Whether teaching a class on 1940s film acting, boogy-woogying to “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” seducing both Fawcett and her alter-ego Reed, or riding poor Rusty hard and putting him away wet (while poured into that revealing red, white and blue swimsuit), a confident Welch dominates in every scene. Wham, bam, thank you, ma’am!

Myra prepares to spill her "t"

No wonder that Mae West refused to appear in a two-shot with the young and energetic Welch. In the finished film, the pair have only one scene together. The encounter precipitated the only hint of a feud between the two female stars, a black-and-white war of sorts, with Welch in a Theodora Van Runkle black suit, trimmed with white ruffles, vs. West in an all-white Edith Head ensemble pierced by a black veil. West thought she had vetoed Welch’s wardrobe, commandeering the non-colors for herself, but Welch pulled rank and refused to do the scene unless she wore black and white as well. They filmed the sequence without incident, but never appeared in the same frame. (A couple of years later, West was asked how it was to work with Welch. “She was nice,” purred Mae, but her famous eye roll gave her away and her audience exploded into knowing laughter.)

How anyone thought this mess of a film would be a commercial success is one of those unsolved Hollywood mysteries. It truly fell between the chairs in its appeal for 1970 audiences. The older generation who might have appreciated all the classic film references were shocked and appalled, and younger, hip moviegoers were totally uninterested.  It is, to be sure, an acquired taste…nostalgic gay camp with an edgy undercurrent, drug-fueled and a little cockeyed.

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

A Longtime Gay Classic

In the 1980s, the rise of the independent film gave us a window on the world largely unseen in mainstream entertainment and storytelling. Gay-themed stories were being told brilliantly and poignantly in films like Maurice, Parting Glances, My Beautiful Laundrette and Prick Up Your Ears. Longtime Companion (1989) is one of the very best of that period.

The film is among the very first to deal head-on with the onset of the AIDS epidemic; Longtime Companion chronicles its devastating effects on a group of NYC friends and acquaintances, many in the entertainment industry. Without pulling any punches, it illustrates how the horrifying mystery illness began its deadly toll on young urban men, forcing the gay community to stand up and be counted. Visibility of gay people in American life was an important first step in gaining support for combating the AIDS crisis, and would prove to be just as important for the LGBT rights movement overall. 

Willy (Campbell Scott) and Fuzzy (Stephen Caffrey)
Longtime Companion is set among these beginnings of awareness and political activism, but is mostly an intimate story about love and loss and friendship and hope, educating heterosexual viewers of the late 1980s that their gay brothers and sisters are truly a part of one human family. (Indeed, one slogan appearing on many of the movie posters was “a motion picture for everyone.”) The original screenplay by Craig Lucas (Prelude to a Kiss, The Dying Gaul) is moving, funny and heartbreaking, and brought to life by an ensemble of masterful actors.

Like its counterpart The Normal Heart (the play by Larry Kramer written in the 1980s but not made into a film until 2014), the narrative begins in Fire Island on July 3, 1981, the day the New York Times published its first article about the cancer affecting the gay community. 

Fuzzy and Lisa (Mary-Louise Parker)
Indeed, the HBO film of The Normal Heart pays homage to Longtime Companion’s opening sequence, which depicts the sexy, risqué fun and decadence of a Fire Island summer set to the tune of Blondie’s “The Tide is High.” But flesh and frivolity gives way to serious concern and ultimate tragedy as one by one, friends and loved ones are felled by the dread disease. 

The cast is first-rate, particularly Bruce Davison (Short Eyes, Mame), who earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his portrait of a stalwart caregiver who encourages his partner (Mark Lamos) to let go of the pain and agony at a bedside death vigil. And Campbell Scott’s halting eulogy to the Bruce Davison character later in the film is equally moving, eliciting both tears and laughter.

Bob (Brian Cousins) and Michael (Michael Schoeffling)
Patrick Cassidy as Howard

As the first member of the circle of friends to fall ill with the mystery disease, succumbing to pneumonia,  Dermot Mulroney (My Best Friend’s Wedding) is at first young, adorable and full of lively humor, then devastatingly heartbreaking, struggling to breathe in a tense emergency room scene, underlining the disease’s relentless attack on young men in the prime of life. 

Dermot Mulroney as John
Michael Schoeffling (Sixteen Candles) and Brian Cousins are charming as the young couple who turn to New Age positive thinking, vitamin supplements and naturopathic remedies to help their ailing friends and keep their own personal fears and terrors at bay. 

David (Bruce Davison) urges Sean (Mark Lamos) to let go...

Patrick Cassidy (brother of Shawn and and half-brother of David) is effective as the hunky soap opera actor who watches his lover (John Dossett) die while struggling to live and work under the stigma of HIV. The soap opera scene, where everyone gathers in front of the TV to see the first gay kiss on daytime television (which was not to occur in real life for a decade or more), shows us how hungry gay people were to be represented and accepted in popular entertainment media. (Hard to believe now that to be gay before the 1980s was to be practically invisible in mainstream media.)

A very special episode of the daytime drama "Other People"

Mary Louise Parker, before Angels in America and Weeds, adds refreshing humor and fierce humanity to her role as devoted friend and—pardon the expression—fag hag to Fuzzy (Stephen Caffrey ), an entertainment lawyer, and his new lover Willy (Campbell Scott). Together, they devote themselves to easing the pain of others through volunteering for the Gay Men’s Health Crisis.

The closing of the film, which brings us back to the beach as the protagonists imagine the joyful day the cure for AIDS is found, is memorable and still sob-inducing for those who lived through these troubled times. 

The ending always makes me cry
Establishment cinema, always slow to catch up with the indie film’s finger on the pulse of collective consciousness, would have to wait a few years before the subject of AIDS became the focus of a major motion picture. It was not until Oscar graced the film Philadelphia (1994) and its star Tom Hanks (our generation’s Spencer Tracy?) that an open discourse on the subject of AIDS and its effect on the fabric of everyone’s lives went mainstream.

Since June is traditionally Gay Pride month, today I’m inspired to share my passion for one of my all-time favorite gay-themed films. If you’ve never seen it, it is definitely worth a look.  

Monday, May 16, 2016

The Queen of Mean

When a 2016 presidential candidate was recently described as “Lucifer in the flesh,” the first image to flash into my mind was not a politician at all, but rather a slim, elegant and impeccably dressed woman played in a movie by Meryl Streep.

Based upon Lauren Weisberger’s roman a clef novel, inspired by a stint as assistant to none other than Vogue maven Anna Wintour, The Devil Wears Prada (2006) is given a slick and entertaining film treatment by director David Frankel and features fabulous fashions, sumptuous production design and engaging performances by a bevy of attractive and talented actors. But the film really belongs to just one person, in the eponymous title role.

Meryl Streep as the Devil incarnate

The character of Runway editrix Miranda Priestly joins the ranks of cinema’s greatest female bosses from hell including Joan Crawford’s Amanda Farrow in The Best of Everything, Susan Hayward’s Helen Lawson in Valley of the Dolls, and Sigourney Weaver’s Katharine Parker in Working Girl. Miranda is brought to terrifying life with brilliant precision by the most multifaceted actress of all, Meryl Streep, who earned a richly deserved Academy Award nomination for the role. (If only she had won that third Oscar for this juicy part, and not as a bucktoothed and boring Margaret Thatcher!)

Miranda Priestly is everything an iconic screen villain should be—an irresistible combination of beauty, brains and cruelty. She’s narcissistic and self-centered; talented and driven; ruthless and cold-blooded;  in short, a glamorous embodiment of pure and unadulterated evil. 

Miranda Priestly, editor of Runway magazine

Streep takes great pains to fashion a completely original character in Miranda, who looks and sounds nothing at all like Anna Wintour. Instead, Streep cleverly makes her antiheroine a soft-spoken dragon lady; her vicious putdowns and catty remarks are all uttered sotto voce, with ladylike deportment. But her murmured asides are skillfully designed for systematically belittling, criticizing and dismissing her long-suffering staff, who exist only to please her. But the mere pursing of her lips in displeasure is “a catastrophe.” Her opinion is the only one that matters.

Anne Hathaway as Andrea Sachs

Giving an endlessly long string of orders to her assistants in a hushed monotone, demolishing deadlines and rescheduling meetings, the Queen Bee then sighs with weary disappointment when her worker bees and drones fail to fulfill her commands quickly or efficiently enough. “It’s baffling to me, confusing to me“ she sighs in quiet exasperation, “Why is no one ready?”

Stylish, poised and supremely self-possessed, and fortified by a healthy case of borderline personality disorder, Miranda cuts a swath of pure terror through the Runway offices. Her few redeeming qualities — talent, a singular focus and a steely determination to survive in the shark-infested waters of the New York fashion pool—do little to offset her hard-as-nails persona.

Here she comes: "Gird your loins"
Described by other characters as “a notorious sadist” who is “not happy unless everyone around her is panicked, nauseous or suicidal,” Miranda is as iconic as Cruella deVil and Mommie Dearest, minus the cartoon campiness. Streep imbues the character with disturbing reality.

Perfectly playing Snow White to Streep’s glamorous Wicked Queen is Anne Hathaway in one of her most winning roles. As fresh-faced Northwestern graduate Andrea Sachs, who reluctantly takes the job of second assistant to Miranda, Hathaway arrives fully prepared to pay her dues, but doesn’t yet realize she’ll be paying in tears, toil and blood. (And by changing every aspect of her appearance to measure up to the fashion industry’s impossibly high standards. Hard to believe that the willowy Hathaway is shamed for eating and described as “fat” by her new coworkers.)

Andrea and Emily (Emily Blunt)

Nigel (Stanley Tucci) and Miranda

The ice queen puts her new assistant through her paces, treating her like dirt when she acknowledges her presence at all, damning her with the faintest of praise. Like a starving animal, Andrea eagerly laps up the few crumbs of approval that are offered by her new employer. Then, in true Faustian fairy tale fashion, Andrea becomes the girl Miranda wants her to be, ditching her friends, lover and personal integrity in the process.

Though Andrea enjoys a personal happy ending, walking out on Miranda and getting her dream job as a newspaper reporter, the villain is far from vanquished at the close of this story. Ultimately, it is her power that allows Andrea to get her next job; ironically confirming that Miranda’s influence will probably continue, undiminished, perhaps indefinitely. Evil triumphs!

Nate (Adrian Grenier) and Andy
Simon Baker as Christian

Though Streep and Hathaway dominate here, they’re bolstered by an impressive cast and production that make the film an utter delight to watch again and again. Brilliant supporting performances by Emily Blunt as a bitchy Miranda mini-me and Stanley Tucci as a twitchy gay fashion director (sharp-tongued but with a heart of gold, of course!) are perfect foils for Miranda and Andrea. Adrian Grenier and Simon Baker add some tempting male eye candy to the proceedings. Costume designer Patricia Field (Sex and the City) captures the fashion zeitgeist of that moment, and the soundtrack and cinematography capture the mood and magic of the New York and Paris fashion worlds.

Though Meryl Streep has aced practically every kind of role imaginable, like most actors she really seems to relish this rare opportunity to play an out-and-out evil bitch. And a decade later, it remains one of her most memorable roles. 

Thanks to Speakeasy, Silver Screenings and Shadows and Satin for hosting The Great Villain Blogathon of 2016. So much fun to participate!