Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Ann-Margret is Super Video


My tribute to Hollywood's enduring (congrats on that recent Emmy), mega-talented hyphenate is up over here at YouTube. I was able to keep the music, so the visual imagery plays out as intended.

Bye, Bye Birdie was the only videocassette I owned that eventually wore out, primarily from my watching the opening and closing of the movie non-stop, which features the overwhelming Ann-Margret commanding that blue-backgrounded screen using an awesome combination of talent, beauty, vigor and eroticism rarely seen on-screen. No sweet, unassuming starlet, Ann-Margret was an attention-getting original, rumbling her way through musicals, dramas and comedies with a mischievous leer and an unsurpassed vitality. In 1966 Pauline Kael, in a review of Stagecoach, wrote "Ann-Margret comes through dirty no matter what she plays. . . (she) gleams with built-in innuendo. She's like Natalie Wood with sex, a lewd mechanical doll." So what? John Forsythe may perform with more professional restraint, but who the hell's watching him when Ann-Margret's flouncing around and teasing him with assertive, charismatic abandon in the trash classic Kitten With a Whip? And who wants to see a demure Ann-Margret opposite Steve McQueen in The Cincinnati Kid? Her vampy Melba, getting hot and bothered at a cock fight or just about anyplace else, is a lot more fun and entertaining. And Ann-Margret definitely was an entertainer from the get-go. A couple of years ago, I was able to finally gain access to her star-making appearance on the 1962 Academy Awards (big thanks to May at the Academy Archives for making this happen) and all the elements of a first-class performer are already there as Ann-Margret alluringly charges her way through "Bachelor in Paradise" with an alarming degree of confidence and skill, rousing even the stodgiest Academy member to applaud the gifted newcomer's eye-catching efforts.


Concurrent to the Oscars, she made a similar impact on-screen performing a truly sizzling "Isn't it Kind of Fun" in the otherwise polite, old-fashioned State Fair update. Major stardom came with 1963's Birdie and was solidified the following year via her iconic teaming with Elvis; Viva Las Vegas should be another standard travelogue-type vehicle for the King, but sparks keep flying between the enamored costars, and the heat is on. After a couple good years, the Sex-Kitten formula began to grow tiresome, and TV and Vegas appearances, along with trips to the boys in 'Nam, sustained Ann-Margret until Mike Nichols offered her a chance for big-screen redemption and her first serious recognition as an actress of merit via her fragile, emotionally beat-up yet eerily sensual Bobbie in Carnal Knowledge.


Ann-Margret has nicely counterbalanced dignified roles (Who Will Love My Children? was a high point) with her formerly-established saucy, high-wattage persona during the last several decades, and sometimes combines the two elements- her alternately flamboyant and defeated Nora Walker in Tommy successfully showcases both her dramatic and musical talents. However, for me the image of Ann-Margret twisting and undulating through the final moments of Birdie with a passion for performing that rivals Streisand's still offers the best example of her unique, valuable gifts as a performer. Not to lessen her achievements, but I could see other performers pulling off some of her later career roles with a comparable impact. However, in the early stages of her career, Ann-Margret's feats on-screen, especially in musicals, are more singular. Sure, she's great in Knowledge, but the many glowing reviews from clearly surprised critics suggested she'd previously shown little if any ability as a performer. Does Ann-Margret's incredibly vivid work in the early-mid 1960's really pale in comparison to her fine, mature performances in straight dramatic roles? Or does this lack of respect stem from the traditional bias that dramatic work outclasses musical and comedy performances? When it comes to pinpointing an example that best illustrates Ann-Margret's impressive talent, I'm posting my tent in the Birdie camp, with its image of a bold Ann-Margret miming a kiss smack into the camera maintaining a place high on my list of perfect movie moments.

I've been out and about during the last few months taking in several special events in the LA area, and filming what I could for posterity using a Flip camera. Here are links to these interviews:

All good wishes go to Kim Novak as she faces a serious heath issue. Last July, Ms. Novak made a compelling, rare public appearance at the Egyptian Theater in conjunction with the release of Sony's "Kim Novak Collection" DVD set. Check out the interview here.

Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner also appeared at the Egyptian in July. I was able to get one of the last available seats in the balcony's front row. The image is pretty much washed out due to strong lighting and distance issues, but the audio is good. Click here for the link.

I've also been to Santa Monica a lot, to catch special events at the wonderful Aero Theater. First up was a Don Murray appearance last July, between showings of The Hoodlum Priest and Bus Stop, featuring a brief appearance in the audience by Murray's onetime costar, Eva Marie Saint.

In September, after a sold-out showing of North By Northwest, Ms. Saint made it to the stage at the Aero for a great interview of her own.

The talented, incredibly likable Paula Prentiss also made it to the Aero in August for an interview. Unfortunately, my Flip camera went dead midway through the Q&A, but I did capture about fifteen minutes of an entertaining interview.

Prentiss' husband Richard Benjamin was on deck a couple nights later at the Aero to discuss his noteworthy career.

Finally, the personable Barbara Rush vividly discussed her life on and off the screen during an appearance at the Aero.

Monday, August 09, 2010

A Fond Farewell: Patricia Neal 1926-2010

I was fortunate enough to meet Patricia Neal in person last February 18th at the Egyptian Theater's showing of A Face in the Crowd during a Elia Kazan 100th birthday tribute. Ms. Neal was interviewed after a showing of the film, and she signed copies of books and memorabilia before the screening. This enduring star was just as I hoped she'd be: both down-to-earth and larger-than-life. I admit I became a star struck, grinning idiot once I spied the lady of the hour as I waited in line for an autograph; I‘d admired Ms. Neal for both her onscreen performances and for the personal fortitude which had seen her through many tribulations in life (many times over, this women earned the right to proclaim "You think you've got it bad," but her attitude always remained extremely positive), and it was awesome to see her in person. One of my earliest film viewing experiences was watching Neal staring Gort down with a forceful "Klaatu barada nikto." Waiting in line to get an autograph, I observed she was so down-to-earth and well, Patricia Nealish with everyone (when the woman in front of me mentioned to Ms. Neal she‘d met the star a year ago at an event, Ms. Neal replied, “Oh, I thought you looked familiar“ in such a polite, sincere manner it didn‘t really matter if she remember the fan or not), it was easy to relax a little before meeting her. When I made it to the signing table, she seemed pleased I had a copy of her autobiography, As I Am, along with the book featured at the signing, Stephen Michael Shearer's Patricia Neal- An Unquiet Life (she stated "THAT'S the original" before signing As I Am). I managed to mention The Day the Earth Stood Still was one of the first films I saw repeatedly and, in that warm, rich, deep voice she replied, “And how old were you, darling?” That pretty much did it for me but, I stated her work in Hud was one of my favorite performances before stepping to the sidelines to observe her working her way through the many well-wishers. While standing in line, I managed to captured a little video of her as she good-naturally chastised her assistant at the book signing:

video

Unfortunately I didn't realize my camera captured sound along with video, so I didn't record the post-film interview with Ms. Neal (it must be out there somewhere, though). However, I did jot down some notes, and here are some of Neal's observations:

On The Day the Earth Stood Still: "I love it. I think it's a fantastic film. I really could hardly keep a straight face making it."

On Earth's director, Robert Wise: "He was an editor. He didn't really know how to talk to an actor. He was a lovely man otherwise."

On A Face in the Crowd's director, Elia Kazan: "I loved him. He was a beautiful man- a beautiful man. He was a gorgeous director. He used to be an actor, don't forget that. If you're an actor you know what an actor's made of."

On Face costar Lee Remick: "Gorgeous, gorgeous girl. I really loved her. She was a beautiful woman. I'm so sorry she's no longer with us." When a audience member (correctly) mentioned Remick did not do all her own baton twirling in the film, the loyal Neal insisted Remick carried it off solo, then charmingly stated "Don't take anything away from her."

On her most famous scene in A Face, wherein Marcia reveals Lonesome Rhodes' true nature to a television audience by turning on the sound, then grabbing a hold of the soundboard's control panel while a group of employees fight in vain to pull her away: "Oh, it was fantastic. He (Kazan) didn't want me to ever let go."

On the initial public reaction to A Face: "I don't think people wanted it to be successful. The communist thing was still very much alive. But I think it's beautiful."

On overcoming her personal tragedies: "Almost killed me, baby. Roald (Dahl) shoved me back into it. He wanted me to work. I loved it. I'd like to have a job. If anyone hears of one, let me know."


Possessing an indomitable spirit until the end, Neal stands tall among the bravest, most admirable women to ever be found on, or off, a stage or screen. My love of Neal has lasted well beyond those childhood viewings of Earth; on film, Neal only got better after her early screen appearances, possibly reaching her zenith as Alma in Hud. Martin Ritt's 1963 western drama has been a touchstone film for me, largely due to Neal's impressively understated work. It's a textbook example of great film acting- Neal has no false moments, and she never appears to be straining for truth in the role- she's relaxed, open, funny, and totally in sync with Alma's situation. Neal was surprised at the accolades she received for a film in which she had no "big" scenes, but her work is more memorable than many a more 'dramatic' Best Actress winner. Alma's lazy, humorous method of keeping Hud in his place while fending off his amorous advances, the motherly warmth she displays with Lon, and her weary, despondent goodbye to Lon at the bus stop stay with a viewer due to Neal's quiet-yet-powerful work. Like Alma, the image of Neal as a strong, independent and endearing survivor lingers in the memory.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Surf's Up! with Donna Loren at the Egyptian


It was cowabunga time for one-night only last Thursday at the Egyptian Theater, with a double feature of two 1960’s American International sun-and-surf outings, Muscle Beach Party and the best of the Beach bunch, the fast-paced, diverting Beach Blanket Bingo. The relatively small turnout or about 60-70 patrons (more classic movie buffs might be up for this sort of thing in June or July) still worked up a substantial amount of enthusiasm for this colorful double bill. As a terrific bonus, powerhouse vocalist and Beach alumni Donna Loren was in attendance to join in the fun, and offer the audience a taste of her great vocal abilities.

The fun-in-the-sun formula that proved so successful in these breezy entertainments hadn’t quite gelled with the second in the Beach series, 1964’s lackluster Muscle Beach Party, which offers viewers scant signs of life. Even if expectations might not be high, when the combined shticks of Don Rickles, Buddy Hackett and Morey Amsterdam can’t muster a smile, the unoriginality is apparent. Although Muscle Beach is a prime location for the series’ detractors to point to, among the film’s assets are a well-oiled lineup of male pulchritude led by Peter Lupus, Annette and Frankie competing for the biggest hair in the movie, swirling, shrugging Candy Johnson doing her best to imitate a blender, Dick Dale pairing up with a bopping Donna Loren for "Muscle Bustle" and Little Stevie Wonder making his film debut and grabbing the biggest kudos with his spirited rendition of “Happy Street.”


At intermission Donna Loren took the stage and, after explaining how her 1963-1968 stint as the “Dr. Pepper Girl” led to her involvement in the Beach Party films, she performed a melody of songs from the movies, and a new number, “Love it Away.” Loren’s phenomenal vocal prowess is virtually undiminished, and she belted out the numbers with great finesse (she can still add an unparalleled rumble to her vocal rhythms). Her huge voice couldn’t be completely ignored during her busiest years as a performer, but one wonders why this primarily unknown mega-talent didn’t hit much bigger, especially as Loren’s attractive, fresh-faced look and upbeat manner were ideally suited for the 1960’s teen scene (perhaps if American Idol had been around during this era, Loren would’ve been a surer bet for major stardom). Afterwards, a Q&A with the audience was conducted. Loren was queried regarding her fondness for Dr. Pepper, and she admitted she doesn’t go in for any soft drinks, stating “I’m a tea drinker.” I asked Loren how she obtained her impressive run on Shindig: she stated she just auditioned and was chosen, and found the experience very rewarding. She started on the show at 17 singing “Wishin’ and Hopin’” and missed out on her senior year of high school due to all her professional activity (besides the Shindig gig, Loren was still was honoring her Dr. Pepper contract, as well as turning up in the Beach Party movies). Check out Loren as the embodiment of a hip teen via her assured, sensual performance of “Shakin’ All Over”:



Someone asked for specifics concerning the shooting of the beach movies; Loren claimed she had a good working relationship with director William Asher but, as one of the few genuine teens in the cast, she observed more than took part of any wild shenanigans taking place on the set among the twenty-somethings in the cast.


Bingo represents this unpretenious series' finest hour, with its lighthearted script consistently blending laughs (this time out, Rickles gets a chance to really cut loose with his special brand of insults, targeting Frankie and Annette at the local hangout) and upbeat, catchy musical numbers (the ingratiating title song sets the fun tone for the film). Paul Lynde manages to make every line sound amusingly snide, and other key Bingo players include Harvey Lembeck reprising his role as Eric Von Zipper from the first Beach Party, Deborah Walley as a sexy parachuting siren who puts the moves on Frankie, Walley's then-husband John Ashley as her jealous partner in the skies, Buster Keaton getting a few opportunities to demonstrate his genius, a luscious starlit-eyed Linda Evans as Lynde's singing protégée, and Michael Nader as a surfing beachboy, nearly twenty years before costarring with Evans on Dynasty. Bingo even features a genuinely sweet subplot concerning the hapless Bonehead’s (Jody McCrea) romance with a comely mermaid, Lorelei (Lost in Space’s Marta Kristen). McCrea may not take to the screen as effortlessly as father Joel, but he did inherit a substantial amount of his dad‘s sincerity, which helps sell this fantastic storyline. Loren briefly appears to sell her signature tune, “It Only Hurts When I Cry” with polish and style then, unfortunately, disappears for most of the rest of the film. Kubrick cult figure Timothy McCarey had fans clapping when his name appeared onscreen, and everyone applauding his audacious work during the end credits. He’s a fearless, unguarded and completely original actor, and he's both hilarious and deeply disturbing as South Dakota Slim, a nefarious associate of Von Zipper’s.


Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello may not possess the strongest personalities or rival the great screen teams, but their appealing, wholesome chemistry is a pleasure to watch. It’s clear this is one cinematic couple fully at ease performing together, and when they casually duet on the endearing “I Think, You Think” or Annette fumes over Frankie’s innocent flirtations with Walley or the bevy of bikini beach babes constantly twisting and twitching around him, their forthcoming pop iconic status is a given. Bingo itself offers a nostalgic time capsule view of carefree youthful exuberance just prior to the more rebellious “Flower Power” era, giving off an infectious summertime vibe that will make you want to catch a wave, or sing along with Donna:





Saturday, February 06, 2010

Steven's Dark Sun Turns Noir at the Castro


Last Sunday I ventured to the fabulous Castro Theater in San Francisco to take in a showing of director George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun, an intriguing reworking and updating of Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy.” I’ve long harbored conflicting feelings regarding this seminal 1951 work, and therefore viewing this Sun has always been a frustrating, fascinating experience. The film was considered a work of major significance upon its release, with Charlie Chaplin calling Sun the greatest film about America ever. The film may not hold up to that lofty praise nearly sixty years later (or even that year, with A Streetcar Named Desire, Strangers on a Train, Ace in the Hole, The African Queen and others also in the running), but it remains a worthwhile, absorbing drama. Curiously, although I’ve never heard of the movie categorized as a film noir, it was deemed one on this occasion, as Sun closed the Castro’s eight annual Noir City Film Festival. Sun does contain a lot of dark themes and darker cinematography, but in tone and presentation the movie fits the description of a large-scale drama more aptly than that of a bleak noir.


I’ve never attended one of the previous noir festivals, and therefore I innocently Barted over from Oakland expecting to find a relatively small audience for the matinee showing of Sun. When I reached the theater, the line was at the end of the block, and I ended up being lucky enough to find a decent seat in the balcony just before show time (kudos to the Castro’s extremely well-organized concession stand workers, who zipped through the long line of popcorn patrons in record time). Watching Sun on a big screen for the first time increased my fondness for the movie, but also highlighted some of the film’s problems. Overall, it was a rewarding and memorable experience to watch the film unfold amid a packed house of Sun worshippers.


Stevens’ firm hand is clearly guiding every aspect of this production. It’s easy to admire his serious commitment to his films, as it’s clear Stevens cares deeply about the quality of these ambitious productions; however, he frequently over-emphasizes his themes, as if he doesn’t believe an audience will understand his key plot points otherwise. Sun contains some prime examples of the director’s tendency towards overstatement, with those constant overlapping dissolves and continual loon calls growing tiresome with their important overtones, until one wants to call out to the screen, “Alright George, we get it already!” (I’ll take the less contrived, and more entertaining Alice Adams, Gunga Din or The More the Merrier over any of Stevens “big” studio offerings). Still, Stevens total involvement in and control of Sun also draws viewers in quickly, and maintains their rapt attention until the film’s final fadeout/dissolve two hours later, as well as during repeated viewings of the movie.


Montgomery Clift was nearing his peak as an actor and star attraction in Sun, with the emphasis on attraction. He’s so ungodly handsome, the first time he turns towards the camera during the film’s memorable opening, it brought cheers and hubba-hubba whistles from the large audience. More importantly, Clift had swiftly established himself as possibly the finest young actor in films by 1951, and his ultra-sensitive performance as George Eastman puts the audience on the wayward character’s side from the get-go. When George is on the stand pleading for his life, Clift is so mesmerizing, fragile and convincing the character’s guilt or innocence becomes a non-factor: no one wants to see this man punished, even if it might be true George’s opportunism knows no bounds. Although his engrossing work may pale somewhat in comparison to his even more realistic and dynamic portrayals in The Search, The Heiress and From Here to Eternity, as George Clift admirably epitomizes the hero as anti-hero soon to become a staple in Hollywood films.


The role of Alice Tripp, a plain, naïve factory worker George becomes involved with, afforded Shelley Winters the opportunity to shun her glamorous image as a sexy, good-natured blonde and reinvent herself as a character actress of substantial stature. However, although she has some vivid moments as Alice, Winters and Stevens tend to overplay the victimization of the character, in a ploy to guarantee the audience’s utmost sympathy. In her early scenes Winters does a good job of illustrating Alice’s shyness and genuine feelings for George, managing to make the character sweetly appealing, but once their relationship begins to sour, in look and manner Winters’ Alice becomes progressively more pathetic (and Winters is deglamourized to such an extent that Alice’s physical appearance comes across as a doleful gimmick more than a natural aspect of the character). However, Winters incorporates a pallid, indistinct quality into the performance that is intriguing to watch, especially in the tour-de-force scene wherein Alice visits a doctor in an attempt to obtain an abortion (this moment sealed the deal for Winters’ Best Actress nomination). Winters is certainly playing against type as this introverted, insecure working girl, but it’s a relief when Alice finally gets fed up with George’s neglect and starts taking charge of matters, as Winters’ acting becomes much more persuasive when she employs the vivid, direct style found in her most successful work. You can believe Alice has the fortitude to convince George to stick by her, even with the luscious Elizabeth Taylor providing an alluring obstacle, as when Winters is doling out ultimatums, she’s a force to be taken seriously.


The rich, beautiful Angela Vickers serves as a stark contrast to drab, forlorn Alice as an object for George’s affections: as Angela, the teenage Elizabeth Taylor is composed, mature and compassionate in one of her best performances. Even though Alice is obviously the film’s cast-aside victim whose plight we’re intended to strongly identify with, Taylor is so touchingly believable it’s easy for an audience’s sympathy to shift towards this affluent-yet-vulnerable ethereal girl destined for heartbreak. Angela’s final meeting with George is probably the saddest, most heartfelt scene in the movie, and Taylor’s gentle, poignant acting is indelible and very moving. George encounters many trials, both figuratively and literally, in an attempt to establish a life with his true love, and Angela is definitely worth the trouble. Furthermore, Clift and Taylor generate great erotic chemistry, creating one of the screen’s most achingly romantic couples, with those huge Stevens close-ups and Franz Waxman’s lush score generously assisting this once-in-a-lifetime teaming (of course Clift and Taylor costarred later, but not like this).


Raymond Burr has a showy role as Frank Marlowe, the powerhouse district attorney who goes after George, but his intensity is often rendered in an overwrought fashion. Although Burr is obviously well cast, with flamboyant courtroom scenes that serve as a warm up for his forthcoming glory days as Perry Mason, in manner and action Burr attacks and/or is directed to attack the role using an unsubtle, heavy-handed method, resulting in some unintended guffaws from the audience as this bullish D.A. takes down the sincere, humble George in savage manner (Burr appears ready to bite Clift at any given moment during their key courtroom confrontation). An attempt to add some more realistic human dimensions to this unrelenting character would have been welcome.


Small touches I’ve never noticed on a television screen leaped out from the pristine print on view at the Castro (Paramount Studios may not distribute their classics with the verve of Warner Home Video, but they sure manage to keep their older titles looking fine): the bespeckled Laura Elliot/Kasey Rogers showing up as Miss Harper, saying “Yes Sir,” then vanishing from the picture a lot faster but less fatally than she does in Strangers on a Train; Kathleen Freeman working on the factory line wherein George first encounters Alice; Ivan Moffat, Sun’s associate producer, featured on the poster as the producer of the movie playing at the theater where George runs into Alice; and that painting of Ophelia in George’s room, which ominously foreshadows George and Alice’s destiny.


Sun won six Academy Awards (although the Oscars, in a rare lighter moment, chose the colorful An American in Paris over Sun and Streetcar for Best Picture) and was a major box-office success, thereby cementing its status as one of the keystone films of the early 1950’s. Time has been kinder to some of the other signature films of the period but, to varying degrees, Sun features interesting work and early career peaks for its three stars, and stylistically offers viewers possibly the most perfect example of what constitutes a George Stevens production.


The festival's terrific poster:

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Elmer Gantry Preaches to the Choir at the Aero


Saturday night I ventured to the Aero Theater to take in a special 50th Anniversary showing of one of 1960’s big ones, Elmer Gantry. This Oscar-winning success tackles some big, controversial themes (Religion for Profit, Darwinism vs. Christianity, Prostitution, etc.) and writer/director Richard Brooks guides his exceptional cast through this ambitious effort in admirable fashion. Although Gantry may not have gained the staying power or reputation of some of the year’s other top films (Psycho, The Apartment), it remains a fine example of an absorbing drama.


As Gantry, Burt Lancaster delivers one of the most hypnotically watchable performances ever. It’s easy to see this constantly grinning, vibrant fast talker giving a Jerry Falwell or Billy Graham a run for his money, as Lancaster sells himself as Gantry in magnificent, magnetic fashion. You believe this inexperienced but charismatic salesman with a gift for gab (he gets a lot of mileage out of his catchphrase, “Love is the morning and the evening star”) could easily hit the ground running with his first sermon after he’s quickly ingratiated himself into the inner circle of Sister Sharon Falconer (Jean Simmons), a popular traveling evangelist. Lancaster is an incredible presence as he bellows and bandies his way through the movie, and his robust talents are given full range in one of those rare perfect fusions of actor and role (Lancaster once commented, “Elmer wasn’t acting- Elmer was me”).


The ever-dependable Arthur Kennedy lends wry credibility to his role as Jim Lefferts, a reporter following Gantry’s upward trajectory. Edward Andrews is also impressive with his spot-on work as the sweaty, hypocritical George Babbitt, the businessman who becomes a somewhat unwilling participant in Gantry’s shenanigans. As Lulu Bains, the blast-from-the-past hooker who complicates Gantry’s good fortune considerably in possibly the film’s most entertaining, involving storyline, Shirley Jones is a little too obviously acting up a storm to counter her established good girl image; however, her “out there,” all-out performance is something to see, with Jones giving the juicy role all she’s got. She invests some perverse, debauched elements into her racy characterization, none more so than when she delivers the film’s most infamous line, “He rammed the fear of God into me. . .” Her florid, colorful work is impossible to ignore and fun to watch; in addition, stylistically she matches up very well with her formidable leading man’s vibrant presence.


Brooks does an excellent job adapting key storylines from the Lewis novel into his engrossing, Oscar-winning screenplay. Although the film goes on for almost 2 ½ hours, Brooks keeps things moving along in exciting fashion, including rousing scenes of revival meetings with Gantry and Falconer stirring up the crowds and converting the masses, an engrossing sequence wherein Lulu attempts to alternately frame and seduce her former lover and, especially, an impressively staged, fiery climax to the film.


After the film, a resplendent-looking Shirley Jones took the stage for an entertaining discussion. The star detailed her involvement in the film and her career in general, in the down-to-earth, amiable manner familiar to anyone who’s seen Jones interviewed over the years (Jones first comment upon arriving onstage: “That was a LONG movie!”). At the outset, Jones stated at the time she won the role of Lulu Bains, a performer could be pegged into one category- a singer, a dancer, a comedian or an actor. After attaining success as the lovely musical star of Oklahoma, Carousel and April Love, Jones sought opportunities to prove herself as an actress. Television provided the medium for Jones to illustrate her skill as a dramatic performer via her against-type casting in a 1956 Playhouse 90 presentation, The Big Slide. Lancaster saw the telecast and later contacted Jones to ask her if she’d read Gantry, as he felt she was a good bet to play Lulu. After perusing the novel, Jones reaction to the uninhibited character of Lulu Bains was “Oh, my.” Jones then met with Brooks, and she explained the director only allowed his actors to read their roles, not the entire script. After reading Lulu’s scenes, Jones told Brooks, “I’ll do it for nothing.” Jones said if she somehow managed to get the rich, demanding role, she knew that “this would be an incredible thing for me,” as she felt the role would offer her the chance to clearly establish herself as an actress outside of the peaches-and-cream onscreen ingénues she’d previously cornered the market on. She stated she was given “no test, no reading, nothing” before Lancaster called her to inform her she’d won the part.

Jones mentioned, “I don’t show up until the film’s well over an hour over,” but Lancaster “would have me come to the set every day and watch the shooting” in order for Jones to feel integrated into the rest of the cast. However, Jones explained “I filmed my most difficult scene (Lulu’s introductory scene in the whorehouse) first” and Brooks, who wanted Piper Laurie for the role, somberly offered Jones no feedback or encouragement during her initial day of shooting. Jones went home distraught, certain that she would be fired from the film. Jones explained, “I didn’t work the next day, and Brooks had a chance to watch my footage.” Afterwards he called Jones, telling her he didn’t originally want her, but after viewing her first day’s work he felt, “Not only are you going to be wonderful in this part, you’re going to win an Academy Award.”

Regarding her Oscar victory, Jones stated she felt she had no chance to win the award, stating, “I was truly the dark horse.” Jones explained she believed Janet Leigh was the frontrunner for the Academy Award after winning some major precursor awards for Psycho, including the Golden Globe (Jones said she hadn’t won any pre-Oscar awards for Gantry; however, Jones was really about even with Leigh entering the Oscar derby, having obtained the prestigious National Board of Review Supporting Actress award prior to the Academy Awards). On her way to the ceremony, husband Jack Cassidy implored Jones to write something down just in case her named was called. Presenter Hugh Griffith did call Jones to the podium, whereupon she stated to the audience that winning the Oscar was “the greatest moment of my career.” Jones received criticism from both Cassidy and current husband Marty Ingels for her remark: Ingels has asked, “Why did you say ‘career’ instead of the greatest moment of your life?” Jones explained she places her roles as wife, mother and grandmother of ten above anything she achieved in her career, thereby drawing a clear line between her work and her personal life.

Jones discussed her post-Gantry career, then provided the audience with a terrific story concerning her start as a performer. Jones stated she was going to be a vet, and was taking a vacation in New York City prior to heading to college. A pianist friend Jones had worked with growing up was working in the city, and encouraged Jones to attend an open audition to find chorus members for the three Rogers and Hammenstein shows then running on Broadway. After, “I stood in line, just like all the other singers,” Jones said she finally was given an opportunity to sing for a casting director. When asked what her prior experience was, Jones replied, “Nothing.” Then she sang. Upon finishing her audition, the director called Richard Rogers in. Rogers listened to Jones and said, “Wait 20 minutes, I’m going to have Oscar Hammerstein come and hear you.” At this point, the pianist had a plane to catch, and Jones was informed by Rogers, “We’ll work something out.” With Hammerstein now in tow, the City Center Symphony was utilized to provide Jones with some musical accompaniment. When asked if she knew the score of Oklahoma, the inexperienced Jones informed the audience she replied, “I think I know the music, but I don’t know the words. And, of course, I’m talking to the lyrist.” Nevertheless, things obviously worked out well for the youngster after her fortuitous meeting with this dynamic duo.


When the Q&A session was opened to the audience, I queried Jones about her working relationship with Lancaster, asking the star is she sensed a special chemistry or vibe while filming their scenes together. Jones responded, “Yes, I did feel chemistry. Burt was a great teacher who knew his business, he knew his craft- he helped me a lot.” Jones went on to state that in her stage show she features eight minutes of film clips of her kissing her leading men. “Whenever I’m asked who the best kisser was, I always say ‘Burt Lancaster!’” Husband Marty Ingels raised his hand to ask the next question: “Is it fair to say you never slept with Burt Lancaster?” As the audience laughed, Jones looked back at me and said, “Maybe that’s the question you were really asking” (I’d intended my question to refer to their similar performing styles, and I shook my head no- guess I’ll have to be clearer next time).

The final question posed to Jones involved Frank Sinatra’s original casting in Carousel. Jones stated she was excited by the chance to work with the legendary performer: “It was the dream of a lifetime for me.” Sinatra told her he was thrilled with the prospect of playing Billy Bigelow, who Jones viewed as “the greatest male role in a musical.” However, the film was originally to be shot in both regular 35 mm and in the Cinemascope 55 process, and when Sinatra arrived on the set for his first day of shooting and saw two cameras, he asked director Henry King about the setup. When King explained the situation, Sinatra asked, “Does this mean I might have to shoot the same scene more than once?” When King replied in the affirmative, Sinatra stated, “I signed to do one movie, not two,” then got in his car and departed the set for good. With Sinatra literally out of the picture, a distressed King turned to his female star and asked, “Shirley, where’s Gordon MacRae?” Jones contacted her Oklahoma costar in Las Vegas, where MacRae was appearing with his wife, Shelia. When she asked him if he was interested in the role, MacRae replied, “Give me three days, I have to lose 10 pounds.”


The evening also served as a fitting tribute for star Jean Simmons, who passed away at age eighty the night before the Gantry screening, as the film provides the talented Simmons with one of the finest roles of her career. Simmons was a sure bet for stardom after a sensational start in Britain with attention-getting roles in Great Expectations, Black Narcissus and, especially, as an Ophelia for the ages in Laurence Oliver’s Hamlet. She ventured to Hollywood for an intriguing career as one of the more reliable talents found in 1950’s and 1960’s films, after being placed under contact with Howard Hughes. Interestingly, although Simmons was prominently featured in some of the era’s biggest films (The Robe, Guys and Dolls, The Big Country, Gantry and Spartacus among them), she never gained the “top star” status of some of her contemporaries, such as Grace Kelly and Elizabeth Taylor. However, Simmons did receive a substantial degree of critical recognition during her career, gaining two Oscar nominations, as well as several Golden Globe nods, a Globe for Guys and Dolls, and a late-career Emmy for The Thorn Birds.


Simmons’ work endures as well as any female star of this period- although she could play a beautiful, seductive heroine with ease (check out her work opposite Robert Mitchum in her best effort under her Hughes contact, Angel Face, or her sexy swim in Spartacus) Simmons built her solid reputation based on the fact she was one of the most intelligent actresses to ever grace the screen. Gantry plays to her strengths in this area. Simmons adroitly conveys Sister Sharon’s ambitions and growing attraction to Gantry, while also making it clear to the audience Sharon is skeptical of Gantry’s motives as he becomes involved in her life and career. Even in the dated seduction scene, which elicited groans from the audience after Elmer chauvinistically informs Sharon, “Every woman is fighting every other woman for every man,” Simmons thoughtful interpretation makes the viewer identify with Sharon’s apprehensive submission to her suitor. In one of Simmons’ finest moments, a hesitant Sharon appears at a loss when Lefferts asks her why she believes she should hold her privileged position as a prophet over someone else. Simmons’ pensive reaction to the penetrating inquiry allows the viewer to gain insight into Sharon’s conflicted mindset concerning her role as an evangelist. With her focused, complex performance Simmons creates a vivid, memorable portrait equal to Lancaster’s, and her subdued, compelling portrayal serves as a perfect counterpoint to his bombastic playing. Jones remembered Simmons fondly, stating, “she was a total professional, but also someone who had a great sense of humor,” and went on to state, “How she didn’t get a nomination (for Gantry) I’ll never know” (fortunately, Simmons was recognized for her later re-teaming with Brooks and Jones, 1969’s The Happy Ending).


Simmons was never afraid to takes risks as a performer, as she certainly did when tackling the blockbuster musical Guys and Dolls opposite Marlon Brando. Simmons heretofore untried musical comedy abilities proved up to the role, and she surprised audiences by coming through with a thoroughly engaging performance. Simmons had an uncanny ability to give herself over to any role she attempted, in the process making each performance distinct and seemingly effortless. It’s difficult to think of a Simmons performance that isn’t proficient, professional, and thoroughly satisfying (personally, I’ve been anxious to see her work in Home Before Dark for years, but the film is hard to find). Simmons was a class act both onscreen and off, but she maintained a very low profile during the last couple of decades, and I have to admit that even though I’m a big fan of her work and once sent a fan letter/autograph request to her in the 1980’s (which she graciously answered), due to her low public profile I thought Simmons had passed away years ago. Simmons’ created a fine roster of skillful, versatile performances during her career, and her work deserves to be viewed and reviewed by anyone interested in watching superior acting by a true leading lady of the silver screen.

Simmons at ease on the Spartacus set, with costars Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis:

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Olivia Williams Provides An Education of Substance


I turned to the textbooks this year to uncover an entry for Stinkylulu’s 4th Annual Supporting Actress Blogathon. Although Carey Mulligan's spirited performance as Jenny in An Education is a hot contender for an Oscar nomination after racking up major awards this season via her star-making role, one of her costars held at least an equal amount of intrigue for me. Portraying the character of Miss Stubbs, Jenny’s forthright, no-nonsense teacher, Olivia Williams lends originality and flair to a role that could easily have come across as uninteresting and lifeless in less talented hands. Although at first glance, peering behind her spectacles at her students with a tight-lipped countenance, the seemingly colorless Miss Stubbs appears to fall into the category of the lonely spinster schoolteacher seen without much variation in scores of films, via Williams’ adept interpretation, the audience immediately senses there's a lot more to this educator than meets the eyeglasses.


There’s a sharp, terse alertness and a regal bearing that cuts through Miss Stubbs opaque personality and, later, a warmth that proves this teacher cares for Jenny, and for the gifted pupil’s outcome. In one of the movie’s most vivid, moving scenes, Miss Stubbs tells Jenny she shouldn’t waste her future by leaving school to marry, and that she needs to go to Oxford as originally planned, “No matter what.” In this moment, the viewer senses that the conscientious Miss Stubbs is absolutely right- Jenny should not be chucking her college plans to live in the moment with her cagey older finance, David, who really is something of a creep. Later, after Jenny has dropped the ball concerning her scholastic endeavors and seeks Miss Stubbs assistance to get back on track with her schooling, Williams superbly conveys the teacher’s strong supportive nature, and makes it clear that, with this woman’s assistance, Jenny can find the path back to academic success.


Although Jenny can’t get her parents to address her finance’s conniving behavior, I’m sure if he’d met up with Miss Stubbs during the course of the film, the grounded teacher could tell him plenty. Indeed, before Jenny has faced the reality of her situation with her sly suitor, Miss Stubbs has already bluntly suggested to the starry-eyed youngster that she’s ruining her life via her engagement. Jenny coolly counters this criticism by questioning how rewarding a lifestyle similar to Miss Stubbs’ could be in comparison, but Williams makes it obvious the forward-thinking Miss Stubbs’ satisfying career and mature outlook on life is preferable to the troublesome situation Jenny finds herself facing. Williams' thoughtful portrayal keeps a viewer interested in the sage, mysterious Miss Stubbs, to the point that one begins to wonder what her background is (I could eagerly view another “coming of age” story, this one focused on the fascinating character of Miss Stubbs during her formative years).


Williams' quiet, resourceful performance in An Education enables a viewer to admire Miss Stubbs as an intelligent, independent spirit who knows what’s best for herself and for her students. Although there’s not a lot of “flashy” characteristics to the role, Williams invests rich, intriguing layers to her character and enriches the film’s quality considerably in the process. Her smart, skillful contribution to An Education should not be underestimated; Williams’ work as Miss Stubbs is of top-of-the-class caliber, and this fine performer deserves an A+ for her sublime portrait of a somewhat conservative, yet liberated woman.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Remembering Jennifer Jones in Shades of Gray


A lifetime fondness for Jennifer Jones was cemented very early on in my movie-going years. As a child, I took in The Towering Inferno during Christmastime in 1974, and felt an immediate kinship with the extremely soft-spoken, gentle “Lady in White” who helped save two children from the title character. The colossal success of Inferno served as a brief comeback, as well as a swan song, for the woman who was a decade or two removed from one of the more interesting Hollywood careers, as after Inferno Jones returned to her comfortable life as Mrs. Norton Simon. The film also served to pique my interest in the performer later, when I developed a huge affection for classic films. I often found myself seeking out titles starring the actress, and I always viewed Jones‘ contribution to a film as interesting, and frequently exceptional. At her best onscreen, Jones conveys a unique presence, combining vulnerability, steely resolve and, often, an abundance of neuroses, which makes it difficult to watch anyone or anything else.


With the unwavering support of husband David Selznick, Jones managed to maintain her place among the top of the Hollywood heap for over a decade, racking up five Oscar nominations, including one of the first Supporting Actress nominations for a star player (for Selznick’s big WWII drama, Since You Went Away). Interestingly, Jones won her sole Oscar and major stardom at another studio, after landing the title role in 20th Century Fox’s Song of Bernadette. The Best Actress award was warranted, as the film possibly contains Jones’ most consistently convincing dramatic performance (there’s no nervous ticks or actressy bits of business that marred some of the star’s subsequent performances- she‘s straightforward, charming, and believable playing the innocent peasant who may have seen the Virgin Mary- Jones makes you believe Bernadette did see her). Esteemed critic James Agee wrote of her work: “It remains to be seen whether or not Cinemactress Jones can do in other roles the delicately dynamic things she achieves as this little peasant saint. If she can, Hollywood should watch and guard Miss Jones as sedulously as the Church watched over Bernadette.” Selznick watched alright, but the unguarded Jones quickly let her emotionalism flourish onscreen, switching from wholesome to whorish as the flashy, wanton Pearl Chavez, a 180 degree career turn-around if there ever was one (Jones had safely solidified her leading lady status by following up Bernadette with acclaimed “good girl" turns in Since You Went Away and Love Letters). In Duel in the Sun, Jones seems at home getting hot and bothered by Gregory Peck (who surprisingly takes to his role of a snake in the grass with great zeal), and she is lively, fun and as overblown as the role requires, given director King Vidor’s flashy approach to the torrid material.


Jones’ adept comic turns in Cluny Brown and Beat the Devil may represent her best work in film (it’s unfortunately Selznick wouldn’t allow her to loosen up more frequently onscreen). However, her reunion with a stoic Peck in 1956’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit was the film I chose to re-watch upon learning of her passing, as the film showcases some of Jones’ most intriguing and memorable acting. Although Jones appears normal in her first scene with Peck, as she discusses their homey family life, it soon becomes apparent her Betsy Rath is no conventional, content 1950’s housewife. Twisting and fidgeting away, and frequently employing a low vocal quality to highlight Betsy’s deep discontentment with her family’s lack of financial security, Jones’ tight-lipped yet tempestuous playing lends a degree of depth and an element of surprise to her scenes not found elsewhere in the film, while Bernard Herrman’s pulsating score nicely complements Jones’ enthralling acting. Jones is such a unique, unstable presence, one begins to wonder about Betsy’s past much more than the flashback presented in the film (a WWII subplot featuring Peck’s romantic interlude with Marisa Pavan).

Desperate to obtain financial solvency for her family, Betsy is made to be the nagging villainess of the piece, but her practical idea to parcel off acre lots of the family homestead they stand to inherit sounds good to me, and Jones conveys the idea Betsy has the strength and intelligence to bring it off (when Peck proclaims “There are zoning laws” preventing the plan, the restless Betsy brushes off the notion they can’t be changed, and you can see her making her idea happen, no matter what). Jones clearly is pushing herself as an actress in Gray, and she finds a lot more complexity in Betsy than the requirements of the role suggest. Her intense, unbalanced performance is certainly out of the norm for a big 1950’s studio film (although surely Jones' Betsy was not the only desperate housewife to be found in the Eisenhower Era), and director Nunnally Johnson deserves credit for showcasing his star’s fearless, unusual interpretation, instead of attempting to have Jones conform to the era’s standard view of a calm, supportive spouse, ala June Allyson in nearly all of her 1950‘s films. Jones took some critical hits for her riskiest portrayal. For example Elspeth Hart, writing in Films in Review, stated “Jones’ playing is too neurotic for the wholesome Betsy Rath” and goes on to claim “. . . the film dehumanizes Betsy Rath.”

Watching the film today, Jones’ unnerved and unnerving Betsy appears to be the most vividly real and human element in the film. Her disillusionment with her husband reaches its apex when he reveals his past affair with Pavan, and the child that resulted from their union. Jones is amazing in this sequence, first tensely spitting out her resentment over her husband’s faithlessness, before going into a tailspin by jumping in the family car and careening down some suburban roads at an insane speed (I love the wild, slightly possessed look Jones employs while driving, making it unclear just what Betsy is capable of doing behind the wheel). The film could only go so far, however, and therefore Betsy pulls herself together long enough for a final, somewhat happy fadeout with Peck. However, thanks to Jones’ edgy, unhinged performance, it’s abundantly clear Betsy’s behavior will remain anything but predictable, and therefore the future of the couple is truly not ours to see, que sera, sera.

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Hot off an Oscar nod for her more conventional playing in Love is a Many-Splendored Thing, Jones’ daring characterization of Betsy endures in a much more substantial manner than most of her more highly-regarded work. She invests all of her considerable skills as a dramatic actress into her characterization of Betsy, resulting in one of her richest, most satisfying and most disturbing performances. It’s a tribute to Jones’ talent that while the rest of Gray may fade from memory, her singular contribution to the film lingers.

P.S. My personal affinity with Jones reaches beyond her films, as a quote she once made regarding how to build a solid career in the movies (something to the effect of “You have to keep your eye on the ball”) aided me immeasurably as I slowly slogged and worked my way through college, while firmly keeping the final objective in mind through each seemingly endless semester. Thanks for the tip, Jennifer Jones.