Friday, July 27, 2018

Steel Yourself for an ’80s Guilty Pleasure

When I first saw this film version of one of my favorite stage plays almost three decades ago, I must admit—I didn’t love it. But over the years, Steel Magnolias (1989) has grown on me. 

Perhaps because our local theater’s version of Robert Harling’s intimate tragicomic play about the strength and fortitude of ordinary everyday Southern women had been performed with such depth, dimension and heart, I didn’t see eye to eye with director Herbert Ross’s cinematic vision of casting larger-than-life movie stars playing these women in such flamboyant fashion.

Though I had enjoyed every member of the cast in other film performances, seeing this all-star extravaganza for the first time was a somewhat jarring experience. Though its star power packed a powerful punch, some of the lead actresses’ broad and over-the-top characterizations bothered me. 

Olympia Dukakis as Clairee Belcher

But that didn’t stop me from seeing the film again. And again. In fact, this has become one of those movies that if I land on it as I channel surf looking for something to pass the time, I’ll stay tuned and watch it to the end (even though I own my own DVD!). It’s an addictive guilty pleasure, imbued with a gay sensibility and a soupçon of camp, eminently watchable despite all its perceived flaws, far superior to a Mommie Dearest or a Myra Breckinridge (both of which I happen to adore). 

For the film, director Herbert Ross (Funny Lady, The Goodbye Girl)  and screenwriter Robert Harling (The First Wives Club, Telenovela), opened up the play (which all took place on the single set of Truvy’s Beauty Spot), actually filming on location in Harling’s own hometown of Natchitoches, Louisiana. But its casting and production design seemed decidedly at odds with a touching play that according to Harling had been inspired by real people and events in his life, including losing his sister to diabetes.

Shirley MacLaine as Oiuser Boudreau
Much of the expanded plot of the movie relies on humor and sight gags—the Pepto-Bismol pink church wedding scene; the shooting of birds from the trees for the reception; the smashed Easter eggs; the outlandish costumes of the principals. Of course, just as in the stage play, comedy gives way to tragedy as the story unfolds. 

Time and repetition have made this a movie I truly enjoy. Harling’s script is chock full of unforgettable one-liners that still zing and sting with rare wit, and tells a heartwarming story with the power to make viewers both laugh and cry. And indeed, I did become attached to these now-iconic characters as brought to life by these bigger-than-life star personalities.

Dolly Parton as Truvy Jones

As wisecracking matron Clairee Belcher, Olympia Dukakis, who I loved so much in her Academy Award-winning role as Cher’s cynical mom in Moonstruck, spews her lethal one-liners with the practiced timing of a Mae West or W.C. Fields, actually talking out of the side of her mouth in broad asides. (“If you can’t say anything nice about anybody, come sit by me.”) Funny as hell, but the stage character used humor to ease the pain of losing her beloved husband. That subtle shading is somewhat lost here. 

As Ouiser, the mean and crotchety one—“I’m not crazy…I’ve just been in a very bad mood for 40 years”—veteran actress Shirley MacLaine (who was still a vibrant, ageless, high-kicking redhead when the film was made), is more than just deglamorized. Her costumes and makeup are hideously ugly, and she’s given too much cartoonlike schtick with a sad-looking (similarly roughed up!) St. Bernard. 

Sally Field as M'Lynn Eatonton

In the play, much of the momentum is carried by the character Truvy, owner of the beauty salon, a long-winded storyteller who passes the time regaling her clients as she teases and sprays. In the film, Dolly Parton’s performance as Truvy is uneven (though heartfelt). In Nine to Five her refreshingly natural and unself-conscious portrayal of a spirited secretary charmed audiences, but here she seems to be a little intimidated by Harling’s intricate and often wordy dialogue. In Parton, Truvy’s humorous turns of phrase are delivered haltingly, but not without timing or humor. At some moments her delivery is odd and awkward — “[Miss Merry Christmas] was caught with her tinsel…down around her knees”— but in her defense, Miss Dolly does fire off a few comedic bullseyes as well. 

Don’t get me wrong, I do love Dolly and enjoy her quirky performance here. Once I learned through interviews with Shirley MacLaine that an impatient Herbert Ross had browbeaten and humiliated Parton in front of the rest of the cast, telling her to go get acting lessons, I looked at her valiant effort in an entirely different light. Now I find her performance brave and balls-out—Dolly is not a skilled actress but a natural performer with boundless charisma, enthusiasm and heart—and her chemistry with the other women is warm and real. 

Julia Roberts as Shelby Eatonton Latcherie

Two-time Oscar winner Sally Field (
Norma Rae, Places in the Heart—both Southern women, by the way) plays the role of M’Lynn Eatonton with matter-of-fact skill and far less bombast than her costars, although she does have her obligatory hysterical “Sybil” moment in the scene in the cemetery following daughter’s funeral. Somehow, though, Sally’s breakdown can still bring me to tears, too.

As Shelby, daughter of M’Lynn, the feisty bride who loses her life to a battle with diabetes—a difficult role that required her to transition from light comedy (“I’ll be the one in the veil, down front”) to high drama (literally expiring in a hospital vigil as the beeping EKG machine slows and stops)— a young Julia Roberts acquits herself with grace and aplomb. (This is despite the fact that director Ross had been equally hard on Roberts as he was Parton.) For Steel Magnolias, Roberts was nominated for her first Oscar, as Best Supporting Actress—the one and only Oscar nod the film received. Roberts would receive a Best Actress nomination for Pretty Woman a year later, and finally win a Best Actress statuette for Erin Brokovich in 2000.

Daryl Hannah as Annelle Dupuis

As Annelle, the new girl in town (“with a past!”), Daryl Hannah displays a great comic flair. Revealing herself to be more than the sex symbol she played in Splash and in Wall Street and the tabloid-selling paramour of JFK Jr. and nemesis of his mother Jackie Onassis (who reportedly put the kibosh on her son’s marriage plans with the actress), Hannah gives one of her most solid film performances.

Ironically, Jackie O’s sister Lee Radziwill was married to Steel Magnolias director Herbert Ross at the time of filming. (Perhaps that even played a part in how Daryl got the role.) Ross had recently been widowed after a 28-year marriage to ballerina Nora Kaye. Together, their cinematic labor of love had been the exquisite 1977 ballet drama The Turning Point, starring Shirley MacLaine and Tom Skerritt. Lee Radziwill, also a lover of ballet and patroness of the arts, had been a friend of Ross for years before their 1988 marriage, but the union was not to last. Ross acrimoniously divorced Radziwill in 2000 and then he died in 2001.

The male characters of Steel Magnolias do not appear in the all-female-cast stage play at all and are painted by Harling as little more than comical cartoon characters, as colorfully described in amusing anecdotes by the women in the beauty parlor. But in the film, Tom Skerritt (Alien, Top Gun), Sam Shepard (The Right Stuff, August Osage County) and Kevin J. O’Connor (Peggy Sue Got Married) manage to imbue their performances with depth and humanity.

Sam Shepard as Spud Jones
As Drum Eatenton, M’Lynn’s husband and Shelby’s dad, Skerritt is affecting in the final act of the picture as his daughter and wife undergo a kidney transplant (after playing Drum as a “dumb redneck” in the first two thirds of the picture).

Sam Shepard gives the most naturalistic portrayal of all as Truvy’s husband (despite his comical character name of Spud). Parton’s best and most touching scene, in fact, is a somber moment opposite Shepard, who plays her husband, as as they prepare for Shelby’s funeral. 

Tom Skerritt as Drum Eatonton

As Shelby’s sardonic husband, handsome Dylan McDermott is properly macho and tongue-in-cheek as he humorously refuses to take anything his mother-in-law Field says seriously, but his shallow character is given very little screen time.  In contrast, Kevin J. O’Connor makes the most of his brief scenes as Daryl Hannah’s gentle bartender boyfriend. 

His knack for writing rich female characters of all ages has turned into a cottage industry for Robert Harling, who parlayed his little play into a successful, still-going-strong career as screenwriter and producer. Harling would work with Sally Field again in Soapdish and with Shirley MacLaine in Evening Star, the sequel to Terms of Endearment.

Dylan McDermott as Jackson Latcherie

All in all, for me the years have been kind to Steel Magnolias; it’s a film I really do love. (I haven’t yet seen the African-American TV film version made in 2012. Now I’m so attached to the film version, I hesitate, because I know it so well after umpteen viewings!) The actors are unforgettable and iconic. Having helmed the musical numbers in William Wyler’s film of Funny Girl (as well as directing its sequel Funny Lady), director Ross gives the film a rhythmic musical flow. Lively southern music and the picturesque Natchitoches Louisiana locations lend charm and authenticity to the proceedings. And ultimately, it achieves, in the words of Truvy,  a  mixture of “laughter through tears—my favorite emotion.”

Director Herbert Ross and his all-stars

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Announcing the Gender Bending the Rules Blogathon Sept. 21-23

"What movie shall I pick for the Blogathon?"

I'm delighted to cohost the Gender Bending the Rules Blogathon September 21-23, 2018 with my friend Quiggy from the wonderful and prolific Midnite Drive In movie blog. The brilliant theme was all his idea.

So let's celebrate gender confusion in all its cinematic glory! Boys dressed as girls, girls pretending to be boys, boys and girls who identify differently than society's traditional gender roles—variations on the theme are infinite in their variety.

• Review any film or television show featuring characters who bend the traditional gender roles to memorable dramatic or comedic effect.
• No more than three duplicates of any one title will be allowed, however, so reserve your topic ASAP.
• Previously published material is OK if it fits well with our theme, but original material is preferred.
• Please request your title/topic in the comments below, and grab a blogathon banner to post on your site and help us promote the event.
• A full list of participants will be posted on a separate page and updated regularly once the blogathon begins. Post your links there.
• Please keep all posts and comments polite and respectful.

The Belles of St. Trinian's (1954)- Great Old Movies
The Birdcage (1996)-  The Midnite Drive-In
The Birdcage (1996)Realweegiemidget Reviews 
First a Girl (1935) - Caftan Woman
Just One of the Guys (1985) Angelman's Place
Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985) The Midnite Drive-In 
Some Like It Hot (1959) Top 10 Film Lists
Tales of the City (1993 miniseries)  Angelman's Place
Tootsie (1982)  Rick's Real/Reel Life

Twelfth Night (1970) Wide Screen World
I Was a Male War Bride (1949) Unknown Hollywood

Have fun! Looking forward to seeing what films and TV shows will be covered.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Announcing The Lovely Lee Grant Blogathon
August 20-23, 2018

She’s been one of our most treasured classic movie character actors for more than 60 years—so it’s about time someone did a blogathon for the beautiful and amazing Lee Grant. Join co-hosts Gill of Realweegiemidget Reviews and Chris of Angelman’s Place August 20-23, 2018 to celebrate the illustrious career of the versatile and prolific Academy Award-winning actress.

From comedy to tragedy, soap opera to adventure to grand guignol thriller, Lee Grant has run the gamut in her six decades in show business—her aptly titled memoir I Said Yes To Everything tells the story of a determined actress, mother, activist, director and survivor of the Communist blacklist of the 1950s, who triumphed over adversity by carving out one of the most unique careers in filmdom.

If you have a favorite Lee Grant performance, you’re invited! Up to three bloggers can choose the same Grant film. If you’ve written previously written about one of Ms. Grant’s films, that’s OK too—just send us the link. And grab one of Gill’s lovely banners below, too, if you have mind to, and post it on your blog. Hope you can join us!

Selected filmography (Check IMDB for a complete list)

Detective Story (1951)
Storm Fear (1955)
Middle of the Night (1959)
The Balcony (1963)
Pie in the Sky (1964)
Terror in the City (1964)
Divorce American Style (1967)
In the Heat of the Night (1967)
Valley of the Dolls (1967)
Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell (1968)
The Big Bounce (1969)
Marooned (1969)
The Landlord (1970)
There Was a Crooked Man (1970)
"Ransom for A Dead Man" (Columbo, 1971)  Reserved by 3 bloggers
The Neon Ceiling (1971)
Plaza Suite (1971)
Portnoy's Complaint (1972) Reserved by 3 bloggers
The Internecine Project (1974)
Shampoo (1975)
Voyage of the Damned (1976)
Airport '77 (1977) Reserved by 3 bloggers
The Spell (1977)
Damien: Omen II (1978)
The Swarm (1978) Reserved by 3 bloggers
The Mafu Cage (1978)
When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder? (1979)
Little Miss Marker (1980)
Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen (1981)
For Ladies Only (1981)
Bare Essence (1982)
Visiting Hours (1982)
Will There Really Be a Morning? (1983)
Teachers (1984)
Defending Your Life (1991)
Citizen Cohn (1992)
It's My Party (1996)
The Substance of Fire (1996)
Dr. T & the Women (2000)
The Amati Girls (2000)
Mulholland Drive (2001)
Going Shopping (2005)

The Lee Grant Blogroll:

Gill from Realweegiemidget Reviews... Voyage of the Damned
Chris from Angelman's Place... Shampoo
Kerry from Prowler Needs a JumpThe Swarm
Bill at Great Old MoviesThe Spell 
Ken at Le Cinema DreamsPortnoy's Complaint
Quiggy at The Midnite Drive-In Portnoy's Complaint 
Maedez at A Small Press Life… "Ransom for A Dead Man" (Columbo, 1971)
Andrew at The Stop ButtonMiddle of the Night
Debbie at Moon in Gemini... Defending Your Life 
Paul from Return to the 80sTeachers
The Craggus from What the Craggus Saw... In The Heat Of The Night
Dick from The Oak Drive InThe Mafu Cage 
Barry P from Cinematic CatharsisThe Swarm
Hakuna Mocata at Synthetic CinemaThe Swarm  
Shroud of Thoughts... Detective Story 
Crystal from In the Good Old Days of Classic HollywoodIn The Heat Of The Night and Storm Fear
Down Among the Z Movies… "Ransom for A Dead Man" (Columbo, 1971)
Caftan Woman…  "Eat, Drink and Be Buried" (Ironside, 1967)
Movie RobShampoo, Portnoy’s Complaint and Divorce: American Style
Jenny at Silver Screen Suppers… "Ransom for A Dead Man" (Columbo, 1971)
30 Hertz Rumble The Landlord
DubsismAirport ’77 
Paula at Paula’s Cinema ClubTerror in the City
Stabford Deathrage…  Airport ’77
NuwansenfilmsenDetective Story
The Vern at Video VortexMulholland Drive
Movie Movie Blog BlogValley of the Dolls
Rebecca at Taking Up RoomDamien: Omen II
Silver ScreeningsPlaza Suite
The Wonderful World of CinemaAirport ’77
Life Daily Lessons BlogCharlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen
W.B. Kelso… When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder
Crítica Retrô…Valley of the Dolls
Words Seem Out of PlaceCharlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen 
Poppity from Film Exodus... The Big Bounce 

Monday, May 21, 2018

Meryl, Kurt and Cher—a Silky Cinema Menage

On its face, it may not seem like Silkwood (1983) would be a highly entertaining film—it’s a grim, ripped-from-the-headlines tale of a nuclear plant worker who blows the whistle on its shady business practices and shines a light on the cancer-causing health effects of working with radioactive materials.

But in the hands of master storytellers, headed by prolific director Mike Nichols (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Graduate, Angels in America) and screenwriters Nora Ephron (When Harry Met Sally) and Alice Arlen, the story of real-life labor union activist Karen Silkwood’s relentless quest for truth and justice becomes an absorbing, compelling and supremely watchable movie, punctuated by dark humor and enlivened by a triumvirate of unforgettable star performances.

Meryl Streep as Karen Silkwood

In 1974 in Oklahoma, Kerr McGee plant worker and union member Karen Silkwood (played by Meryl Streep) died in a mysterious car accident, after having been repeatedly contaminated with radiation, seemingly as a punishment for planning to share her story with The New York Times. As Karen digs further, uncovering ethical and safety violations, her coworkers and even her lover Drew Stephens (Kurt Russell) and roommate Dolly Pelliker (Cher), who also work for the plant, turn on her for upsetting the status quo and putting herself in danger.

Kurt Russell as Drew Stephens
Evoking the Deep South of the 1970s, with banjo music prominently featured in the film score and a Confederate flag draped behind the bed that Karen shares with Drew, the milieu of Silkwood is pure country, with most actors sporting convincing southern drawls and Streep memorably warbling an an impressive a cappella rendition of the gospel standard “Amazing Grace.” Director Nichols goes for gritty authenticity all the way.

An effective workplace and kitchen sink drama as well as an anti-nuclear polemic, Silkwood has universal themes—most everyone can relate to the concept of a toxic work environment, for example! But here, of course, the drama is heightened because this crew isn’t “working with puffed wheat,” as Drew says, but with uranium and plutonium. If you make a mistake, you’re “cooked”—not figuratively, but literally. Exposure to radiation causes cancer—but back in the early 70s, most nuclear plant workers were not fully aware of the risks.

Cher as Dolly Pelliker

Despite the subject matter, if you appreciate fine acting, you’ll love Silkwood. The chemistry among the three principals is, pardon the cheap pun, as smooth as silk. Meryl Streep, Kurt Russell and Cher work wonderfully together as the three coworkers sharing a ramshackle house to cut their expenses, enduring the drudgery of their boring, repetitive and dangerous jobs but creating a family unit of their threadbare existence.

This is truly one of Streep’s best roles, and with her stellar resume of iconic performances, that’s saying a lot. As promiscuous, willful, complicated Karen, Streep brings tremendous vulnerability along with fierce determination and ironic humor to the role. Always at odds with her coworkers, her lover, her ex-husband, Streep’s Silkwood is an antiheroine but heartbreakingly human. For her performance in Silkwood, Streep was nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award (she’d already won her second Oscar just the year before, for Sophie’s Choice.)

Drew clocks in

The role of Karen’s loving, patient and long-suffering boyfriend Drew Stephens may well be the ultimate Kurt Russell dramatic performance. Here, Russell is soulful, masculine yet vulnerable,  forgiving of Karen’s indiscretions, deeply caring and supportive, trying vainly to calm her obsessions and tame her wildness.

Thelma (Sudie Bond) gets "cooked"—just another day at the office

One of Hollywood’s most underrated actors, Russell is a charismatic and versatile actor who has been able to turn easily from drama to comedy to action adventure in his 50+ year career. A child star who acted with Elvis Presley before portraying him in a TV movie years later; a teenage male ingenue for a handful of 1970s Disney classics; leading man to his longtime lady love Goldie Hawn in memorable comedies like Swing Shift and Overboard; and of course, iconic action hero Snake Plissken (thanks to his long-time partnership with director John Carpenter), the hardworking Russell has played almost every type of role in every film genre imaginable.

Don't worry, there's plenty of Kurt in this one!

Though Russell is far more than just a handsome face and physique, he is undeniably easy on the eyes, especially here in Silkwood. In fact, Kurt, shirtless throughout 75 percent of this film, shows more skin here than in any other film except maybe Captain Ron (in which he nonchalantly strutted through much of the proceedings in a speedo!). Some Kurt Russell fans may want tune in to Silkwood just for the eye candy!

Cher’s performance as sardonic, lonely lesbian Dolly Pelliker in Silkwood was a revelation and paved the way for an acclaimed new career as a serious actor. As the female half of a popular singing duo who made it big in prime time television, Cher had always proven herself an able and enthusiastic performer. Her flair for comedy had already been established in the Carol Burnett-style comedy sketches of her TV variety shows. She triumphed on the Broadway stage in a non-singing role in Robert Altman’s Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (reprising her role in a low-budget film version that nobody really saw at the time), and then Mike Nichols hired her for Silkwood. Cher would receive her first Oscar nomination (as Best Supporting Actress) for the role of Dolly; in the coming years she would earn a Best Actress nod for Mask and then the Oscar itself for Moonstruck.

Streep, Scarwid and Cher
Nelson doctors the negatives
Silkwood’s supporting cast is also peppered with brilliance, with brief turns by David Strathairn (Good Night and Good Luck, Dolores Claiborne), Fred Ward (Big Business, The Player), Craig T. Nelson (Poltergeist, Book Club), and the wonderful character actress Sudie Bond (who appeared with Cher in the star’s very first film, Come Back to the Five and Dime.) Other standouts in the cast are Diana Scarwid (Inside Moves, Mommie Dearest) as the funeral parlor makeup artist and object of Dolly’s affections; and Ron Silver (Reversal of Fortune) as the labor union leader with whom Karen has a brief fling in Washington, D.C.

For Silkwood, both Streep and Cher were nominated for Oscars, as were director Mike Nichols, screenwriters Ephron and Arlen, and film editor Sam O’Steen. Kurt Russell was once again overlooked by the Academy, and even to this day has still not received a single Oscar nomination (maybe because he always makes his job look so easy). But for his portrayal of earthy Drew Stephens, Russell did earn a well-deserved Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture. 

Perhaps because of its downbeat subject matter, Silkwood is rarely shown on classic movie channels, but it deserves a place in history alongside well-made true-life, politically themed films like All the President’s Men and Erin Brokovich (which won Julia Roberts her Best Actress Oscar for playing another colorful antiheroine). And if you are a loyal fan of Streep, Cher or Russell, this one is a must-see.

I'm so excited to participate in the Kurt Russell Blogathon hosted by RealWeegieMidget Reviews and Return to the 80s! What a pleasure, and I look forward to reading all the entries. The amazing Kurt Russell deserves a blogathon AND an Oscar, in my opinion! 

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Doris in Distress (Part 1)

Two decades before Karen Black famously played a stewardess forced to fly and land a plane in Airport ’75, Doris Day played those scenes, too, almost verbatim, in an overwrought but entertaining psychological thriller called Julie (1956).

Julie is one of my favorite Day films because it’s one in which she stepped far away from her musical comedy comfort zone. Admittedly, it’s far from a great film, but it’s an entertaining yarn; Doris carries the picture with her eminently watchable portrayal of the archetypal damsel in distress.

Don't worry, she's got it all under control

When you think of a Doris Day movie, a heavily dramatic psychological thriller is probably not the first thing to enter your mind. More likely, you may think of nostalgic period pieces like On Moonlight Bay or By the Light of the Silvery Moon; backstage showbiz musicals like Lullaby of Broadway and Tea for Two; or the early ’60s bedroom farces that made her the #1 Box Office Champion four years running opposite hunky leading men like Rock Hudson (Pillow Talk), Cary Grant (That Touch of Mink) and James Garner (The Thrill of It All).

A gifted songstress and talented comedienne with a seemingly indelible virginal girl next door image, Day was able to sink her teeth into a choice dramatic role only a very few times in her career. Early on she had played Ginger Rogers’s clueless sister, married to a Ku Klux Klan thug in the heavily dramatic Storm Warning, and Kirk Douglas’s platonic singer friend in Young Man with a Horn, but these supporting roles called upon her to do little but play her plucky, sunny blonde self.

In Love Me or Leave Me, though, Doris showed off both her musical and acting prowess in what many believe to be her finest screen performance opposite James Cagney, and soon after she would give an equally memorable performance working with James Stewart and Alfred Hitchcock in the exciting and entertaining remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much.

With the handsome Louis Jourdan as Lyle Benton

In Julie, Doris plays a well-to-do young widow and former airline hostess who has just married a swarthily attractive but dark and brooding man named Lyle Benton, played by French heartthrob Louis Jourdan (The Swan, Gigi). Unfortunately, Julie’s possessive new hubby has a jealous streak and a frighteningly explosive temper. At first, Julie puts up with a tremendous heap of toxic abuse from her handsome but controlling new husband, and it’s not until she discovers that Lyle might have been responsible for her first husband’s mysterious death that she tries to escape. How the rest of the film unfolds is told by the lobby card advertisements of the time, which screamed: “Run, Julie, Run!"

Doris’s husband and business manager Martin Melcher set up a production company to produce Day’s films himself and get a piece of the action. Julie was the first film to be produced by Melcher and Day under their Arwin (as in “your loss is our win”?) Productions.

According to Day’s engrossing and frank autobiography Doris Day: Her Own Story, Julie’s theme of jealousy permeated the atmosphere both in front of and behind the cameras during the filming, as Marty Melcher became increasingly suspicious of the on- and off-screen chemistry of the film’s two stars. Though Melcher himself had cast the good-looking French actor opposite his wife in the role of Julie’s psychotic and insanely jealous husband, Melcher ironically became furious with Day and Jourdan at the hours that the two costars would spend together on the set and on location, taking long walks and chatting about life, love, spirituality and every subject under the sun.

Martin Melcher, Doris Day's manager and third husband

Together, Day and Melcher had embraced the Christian Science religion, and on the Julie set he admonished her to spend more time studying her script and her Mary Baker Eddy, and not so much “gabbing with that Frenchman.” During the filming, Doris fell ill with a benign ovarian tumor (according to Day, it was the size of a grapefruit) and underwent a hysterectomy, which destroyed her hopes of having more children. (Day had one son from a previous marriage, Terry, who had been adopted by Melcher.). So most of Doris’s memories of Julie were not happy ones.

With a storyline that foreshadows the Julia Roberts thriller Sleeping with the Enemy, Julie has some tense and suspenseful moments; but much of the film is a bit silly and overheated, almost to the point of camp. Example: In the scene where her husband leaves the house, giving her a chance to escape, Julie starts packing a suitcase, becoming more and more frantic as she searches for clothes, toiletries, etc. Audiences of the day must have shouted, “Just get out of that house, Doris, he’s on his way back!”

It’s a good thing Doris plays hysterical so convincingly, because she is forced to remain in an extreme state of terror throughout the entire film—literally right from the get-go. The opening scene of the film is a hyper-dramatic set piece: Julie and Lyle leave their country club in the middle of an argument and she gets behind the wheel of their convertible to drive, raving about his appalling jealous behavior. Lyle jams his foot onto the gas, forcing poor Julie to maneuver the wheel to keep from careening off a cliff and killing them both. Later, Day’s stewardess-landing-the-plane business maintains the melodramatic momentum in the film’s climactic moments.

Lyle is contrite after trying to kill them both in the car

Jourdan is properly menacing as the husband from hell, but it is the redoubtable Doris Day who carries the film with her energetic performance, ably supported by reliable Barry Sullivan as her dead first husband’s best friend, who helps her escape Jourdan’s insanely jealous clutches.

Perhaps just to make sure she nailed all the nuances of the damsel in distress, four years later Doris would portray another memorable terrified-wife-having-nervous-breakdown, opposite Rex Harrison in Midnight Lace (another of my favorite Day performances that I will save for Part 2, to come at a later date!)

Much of Julie was filmed on location in the coastal California town of Carmel by the Sea, just south of San Francisco. Carmel was the bright spot of the Julie experience for Day, who fell in love with the picturesque coastline and would move there full-time in the early 1970s as her film and television careers came to a close. But she was only one of two very famous Carmel residents. Neighbor Clint Eastwood, who would one day become the mayor of Carmel, used the splendors of the location in his own debut directorial film, Play Misty for Me.

Doris on location in Carmel by the Sea
On April 3, 2018, living legend Doris Day celebrated her 96th birthday in Carmel. And as of this writing, that is where Miss Day still resides with a houseful of furry friends.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Lady Diana: A Supreme Movie Debut

In November 2017 the American Music Awards bestowed its Lifetime Achievement Award on Miss Diana Ross, and it was a triumphant moment—dazzlingly attired, with a voluminous cape resembling a rare bird’s plumage, Ross commanded the stage for a brief medley of her greatest hits, and it was almost like the old days. We had not seen The Boss sparkle like that for a long time.

Miss Ross has been a star for more than half a century—first as the incandescent apex of an iconic girl group and later as a spectacular solo act and legendary diva. But it was her startling film debut, playing another celebrated singer of yesteryear, that cemented her position as the enduring superstar she remains to this day.

Not all singers are meant to be movie stars, too. (Just ask Madonna and Mariah.) But Diana is, and basically on the strength of just one very successful film performance. In Lady Sings the Blues (1972), Diana Ross proved herself an actress and a force to be reckoned with. It took drive, guts and real talent to portray the troubled jazz singer Billie Holliday, as Ross did to universal acclaim.

It was Motown Records and a singing trio called the Supremes that launched Detroit native Diana Ross on the road to stardom. Before they were Supremes, they had been called the Primettes. As a Primette, young Diana sang backup with her friend Mary Wilson while big boned, trumpet-voiced Florence Ballard dominated as lead singer.

Of course, as soon as they were signed by Motown and Berry Gordy and renamed the Supremes, it was decided that pretty, waiflike Diana was the one whose star power shone brightest, and she was made lead singer and central focus of the group. Florence Ballard never recovered from that demotion; she eventually left the group and was replaced by Cindy Birdsong; Ballard died at age 32 in 1976.

Florence, Mary, Diana

Mary, Diana, Cindy
The story of the fabled 1960s girl group was dramatized in the fictionalized Broadway musical Dreamgirls, made into a 2006 film starring Beyonce, Jennifer Hudson and Jamie Foxx. (Sometimes fiction and myth can tell a story even more effectively than the facts.)

Diana left the Supremes in 1970 (replaced by Jean Terrell and plunging the remaining group members into relative obscurity) and producer Berry Gordy focused all his promotional—and personal—energies on Diana and her career. Though Gordy and Diana did carry carry on an on-again, off-again affair (Gordy is now acknowledged as the father of Diana’s daughter Rhonda, born in 1971), their prime focus was always on the Diana Ross brand—and their collaboration on their dream film project, the Billie Holliday musical biography.

Diana Ross and Berry Gordy

Helmed by director Sidney J. Furie (The Ipcress File) but closely supervised by Gordy, Lady Sings the Blues is a multilayered and satisfying film on so many levels. It is at once a timeless romance, an epic period musical spanning the age of Tin Pan Alley to the Big Band era, a frank exploration of 20th century racism, and a harrowing look at crippling drug addiction.

As the talented and tragic Lady Day, Diana Ross is mesmerizing. Not only does she sing more than a dozen of Holliday’s iconic hits and classic standards, Ross imbues those songs with deeper meaning, relating them to Holliday’s personal troubles and addictions, appearing to perform under the influence of heroin and alcohol, as Holliday too often did—indeed, that may have been a part of her magic. (Interestingly, throughout her career, Billie Holliday had been criticized for her thin, reedy voice; the same charge had often been leveled at Diana Ross herself.)

Diana Ross as Billie Holliday

Obviously a natural Method actor, Ross is equally raw and real in the dramatic scenes, as she believably portrays the performer from her young teenage years to adulthood and struggles with a growing dependence on heroin and the rigors of life on the road.

The film is absorbing and entertaining, with surprisingly poignant moments that use Holliday’s music to illustrate evocative and disturbing scenes (the “Strange Fruit” montage brings to life the horror of the lynchings in the South), yet leavening its sober subject matter with occasional lightness and humor, as in the comedic bordello sequence with veteran character actor Scatman Crothers as Big Ben.

The film also features a memorable supporting turn by Richard Pryor as the kindhearted and humorous Piano Man, who  befriends and helps Billie get her career started but finds himself as hopelessly addicted to the White Lady as Lady Day herself.

Richard Pryor as Piano Man

Billy Dee Williams as Louis Mackay

As a silver screen couple, Diana Ross met her romantic match in suave, dreamy Billy Dee Williams, playing Holliday’s longtime love Louis Mackay, who drifts in and out of the singer’s life, unable to help her kick the drug habit and settle down to a healthier, happier, normal life. (I always thought of Williams as the black Omar Sharif, because his character reminded me of Nicky Arnstein in a musical biopic set in the same era, Funny Girl).

Ross’s bravura performance earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, putting her in that very small group of African American actors to be so honored. In 1955, Dorothy Dandridge had been the first African American Best Actress Oscar nominee, making Ross and fellow 1972 nominee Cicely Tyson (for Sounder) the second and third, respectively. (Halle Berry would become the first African American Best Actress Oscar winner, three decades later.)

The film’s screenplay was also honored by the Academy. (And Motown’s Suzanne de Passe was the first African American woman to be nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar for Lady Sings the Blues.)

The night of the Oscars, Liza Minnelli won the gold as the iconic Sally Bowles in the innovative, groundbreaking Bob Fosse musical Cabaret. If Liza had not been nominated, Diana would surely have won that Best Actress Academy Award; polls had the two women neck-in-neck in the Oscar horse race. (Liza has said that she was certain that Diana would win that night.)

Lady Sings the Blues was the peak of the Ross film career, but would an Oscar win have changed its trajectory? Mahogany (costarring Billy Dee again) would prove a critical disaster and The Wiz (with Michael Jackson) a box office bomb. (But then again, Ms. Minnelli endured flop after flop after winning that Oscar as well—A Matter of Time, Lucky Lady and New York, New York were all ignominious failures.)

Over the years, Ross was announced for a number of interesting projects, most notably The Bodyguard opposite Ryan O’Neal (made years later with Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner), but ended up, to date, never making another feature film after The Wiz.

It’s a shame that Miss Ross has appeared in so few films after such an auspicious debut, but the strength of that one performance is undeniable, and the film holds up well more than 45 years later.