Saturday, August 26, 2006

Dorothy Malone Stirs Up a Turbulent Wind

Considered the jewel in the Douglas Sirk cannon, I first saw 1956's Written on the Wind as a movie-hungry teenager in the early 1980's, and instantly became an obsessive lifelong fan of the film, Sirk, and the movie's beautiful 'linchpin' star, Dorothy Malone. Although I wasn't able to view the film again for many years (until it was finally released on VHS), Wind remained so prominent in my melodrama-loving conscience I even found myself dreaming of key moments from the film, and I wasn't disappointed when I finally was able to view the movie anew. Fifty years after its initial release, Written on the Wind still provides thrills for film fans interested in seeing a prime (and nostalgic) cinematic depiction at what constituted "daring" subject matter for a mid-1950's audience.

Sirk was a gifted storyteller with a distinct visual style, and his adeptness at mixing eye-catching color schemes with performer, music, and editing reach a zenith in Wind, and the director creates wonderfully vivid dramatic sequences while unfolding the tale of siblings Kyle and Marylee Hadley, two young, gorgeous, and spoiled-as-hell Texas tycoons out to stir up a wealth of trouble for their lifelong friend, Mitch Wayne (Rock Hudson), Kyle's beautiful, class-A new bride, Lucy (Lauren Bacall), their frequently concerned father, Jasper (Robert Keith), and any other inhabitant of the small but lively town of Hadley this dynamic duo comes in contact with. From the film's fantastic opening moments, wherein Wind's four stars vividly enact the climax of the movie while the credits unfold to the Four Aces crooning the Oscar-nominated title song, it's clear Sirk's considerable powers are in peak form. Wasting no time in quickly establishing the main characters and the story's arc (but not completely revealing the climax's outcome), Sirk ensures the audience's attention will remain unwavering throughout the film, as we eagerly anticipate who'll do what to whom at the film's culmination.

In their roles as handsome, saintly, idealistic hero and beautiful, understanding, compassionate wife Hudson and Bacall (who, like Malone, is at her most unspeakably alluring) provide blueprints for two of the more reliable 1950's "leading role" types, while Oscar nominee Robert Stack fits right into the flamboyant swing of things, convincingly offering a portrait of Kyle Hadley that dexterously combines believable intensity with a showier, more dramatic approach. However, the film's most enduring appeal lies in Dorothy Malone's incredible, striking depiction of Marylee Hadley. In her florid, energetic portrayal of one of the cinema's classic "bad-but-good" girls, Malone manages to make something real of an extravagant, improbable character (for example, Marylee's so unbelievably mean that, just for the hell of it, she adopts a self-satisfied smirk when it becomes obvious the drunk, insanely jealous Kyle is upstairs beating the crap out of his pregnant wife; nevertheless, Malone makes the smirk "play" on screen). Unlike stars in many Oscar-winning performances Malone, although working with a part rich in drama, clearly appears to be fully enjoying siezing her opportunity to shine in a breakout, meaty role while, dramatically-speaking, she's also giving it all she's got in every scene- Malone's adept mixture of art and pop places Marylee Hadley among the cinema's most indelible creations, and Malone's colorful work remains entertaining and passionate regardless of the number of times Wind is viewed.

Malone's forceful-yet-effortlessly-sensual interpretation, combined with Sirk's genius, produces some truly awesome moments: Marylee tossing the contents of her drink into a potted plant after meeting, then abruptly dismissing Lucy; Malone's long, provocative gazes at Hudson; Marylee at the river, recollecting the lost innocence she shared with Mitch in their idyllic youth; and the film's centerpiece scene, wherein Marylee undulates her way through "Temptation" after a wild night on the town with the local "pump” jockey, while her father crashes down the stairs just outside her door (this scene represents the masterful apex for hyperbolic storytelling in the cinema). Even though sometimes Malone's colorful gestures (grabbing her head-or a miniature oil derrick- in moments of anguish, arching her neck and eyebrows while in her full-tilt 'viper mode') appear old-school and ultra melodramatic, the actress still manages to make these moments work for Marylee in memorable and true fashion- Dorothy Malone is in perfect synch with Marylee Hadley throughout Wind, marking one of those happy instances wherein role and performer mysteriously amalgamate on film in a beautiful, harmonious fashion.

Malone is immeasurably aided by adept vocal modulation, which she skillfully uses to bestow added dimension to the character: for example, when Marylee yearningly utters "Yes, those wonderful, lost afternoons" to Mitch, Malone adopts a tone of melancholic desperation which clearly conveys the considerable depth of Marylee's affection for Mitch; later, in Marylee's big confrontation scene with Kyle, Malone drips acid as she spits out, "I'm filthy, period!" in such a convincing manner the audience never pauses to wonder at the strained nature of the dialogue (as in, "Who really talks like that?").

Malone's ability to suggest the tender spirit existing beneath Marylee's tough, sometimes vengeful exterior enables the character's unrequited love for Mitch to become the film's most touching, memorable plot point. Malone clearly enjoyed working with the stoic-but-strapping Hudson, and she's wonderful with him, whether Marylee's a phenomenally carnal siren leaning in to seduce Mitch on a couch (when Malone, eyes ablaze in wanton lust, agressively states, "I can think of much better things than making smart talk," it's clear what she has in mind, and she's sexier than any nubile, unclad starlet could ever hope to be), or when she's showing a rare "nice" side to her nature, while picnicking with Mitch at their old childhood retreat (wherein Marylee/Malone spontaneously breaks out in a wide, appealing smile after one of Mitch's/Hudson's retorts, which perfectly captures Marylee's adoration of Mitch, as well as Malone's fondness for her costar). Although I think Malone's finest work on screen came the following year in another great Sirk drama, The Tarnished Angels, her Marylee Hadley remains my favorite supporting performance of all time, and stands as a shining, invaluable contribution to the greatest potboiler in cinema history.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Camping Out with a Classic Trio

The last few months have been nirvana for DVD collectors of a certain persuasion, with special editions of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane and Mommie Dearest finally released, along with Valley of the Dolls 'out' for the first time in a special 2-disc campfest. I recently did my bi-annual DVD purchasing during Deep Discount DVD's great 20% off sale, and I picked up all three titles, granting them all top priority on my 'to-watch' list.

Baby Jane may be considered a hoot now, but DVD commentators Charles Busch and John Epperson recall how frightening the movie was to audiences upon the film's inital, box-office smash release in 1962 (and even later: I've always found Bette Davis screeching her way through "I've Written a Letter to Daddy" ("His AD-DRESS is HEAAVVEENNN above!!") so wildly 'out there' its funny (if weird), but during my high school years I had a friend over to watch the movie, expecting her to laugh along with me; instead she was terrified and got mad at me, claiming I'd just shown her the scariest movie she'd ever seen). With her pasty-white, heavily made-up face, Mary Pickford curls, and over-expressive features, the fifty-something Jane appears as a demented soul throughout much of the film, but Busch and Epperson note there are moments when Davis uses her considerable talents to add a touching vulnerability to Jane, thereby preventing the character from becoming a complete freak. In contrast to her costar's onscreen fireworks, Joan Crawford as Blanche wisely chooses to comport herself with a calm dignity, resulting in an impressive, mostly-restrained performance (her work is even more substantial when taking into account all the "dragon lady" roles Crawford devoured, eyes blazing, during the 1940's and 1950's). Alternately amusing and creepy, Jane is a cinematic sister act like no other.

An overabundance of charms are there for the taking in Dolls: the prudish 'almost' nude scenes, the bland, nearly non-existent male costars, the hair, Jacqueline Susann's cameo, Patty Duke bellowing "Neely! Neely O'Hara!!" at the film's conclusion and, of course, the Divas-Gone-Wild catfight between Duke and Susan Hayward, wherein the toliet bowl plays a vital supporting role. Patty Duke goes where no Oscar-winning young starlet has gone before: whether threatening to eat her costars alive during the dramatic scenes via her reckless, over-the-top shenanigans, or lip-synching and 'grooving' along in the swingin'-1960's-by-way-of-1940's-Broadway musical segments, Duke offers a demonstration of untamed overacting for which Dolls fans are eternally grateful (screaming "You better run!! You dirty little tramp!!" is the most subtle Duke gets in the film, and we love her all the more for "character choices" like this). Tough-as-nails Hayward proves two Oscar winners can play at that game, and gives Duke a run for her money in the ham department, while future winner Lee Grant falls into the ham-on-wry category, as hunky Tony Scotti's brittle sibling. Amid the overblown theatrics surrounding them, Sharon Tate amazingly manages to gives a quiet, sensitive performance as Jennifer, the beautiful, tragic sexpot, while Barbara Parkins uses her beauty and her distinctive, soothing voice to maintain an air of class and intelligence throughout the picture, while her wigs, wardrobe, and dialogue fight against her every step of the way.

There's a bunch of fun Valley extras for the gay-in-heart (suitably, the DVDs are encased in a pink box), the best of which is a great commentary track wherein Ted Casablanca queries Parkins-who still has that great voice- on all things relating to the filming and subsequent legend of Dolls. Parkins clearly is in-the-know (and has a sense of humor) regarding the film's camp status, as well as the movie's merits (mainly Tate's work, the film's theme song -"Gotta get off, gonna get, need to get off of this ride. . .", and Dionne Warwick's memorable rendition of it, which became a huge hit in 1968). The actress also has some interesting things to say regarding her brief time working with Judy Garland before the legendary star left the cast. Contrary to most reports stating Garland was too ill or incompetent to play the part, Parkins feels Garland was giving a brillant, Oscar-worthy performance, and it was only the superstar's insecuries of playing aging diva Helen Lawson that caused Garland's departure from the film. I thought Parkins might be stretching it when stating she was surprised the movie wasn't at least nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, until I remembered the other Fox film that year that actually scored a Best Picture nod (Dr. Dolittle anyone?).

Of the three titles Mommie Dearest remains closest to my heart, and not just because I first saw the film upon its release in 1981 with my mother (we once played out the sitting-at-the-dinner-table-from-lunchtime-until-dusk battle of wills scene but, as John Walters points out on the commentary, every kid used to go through this kind of stuff in un-PC times); fortunately I escaped getting the crap beat out of me with a can of cleanser, and I never had to clean up the garden in the dead of night- I guess I treated my mom with the respect she deserved. I'm not sure I agree with Walter's assessment that the film is "so good it's great" (specifically, I think the script is sketchy concerning the film's 1940's-1970's timeline) but I concur in his points that some of the film's humor is intentional, and that Faye Dunaway is too sensational in Dearest to have misgivings regarding her performance (although her work was highly praised by, among others, the noted and difficult-to-please critic Pauline Kael, and Dunaway was runner-up for the NYFC's "Best Actress" award, for the most part the actress has adamantly refused to address her career-defining role in the film). In her unforgettable portrayal, Dunaway empathizes with the struggles and fears Crawford faced as an aging movie queen, and adds rich dimensions to Crawford's complicated personna; her Joan Crawford is among the strongest emotionally-driven, complex screen performances. Take Dunaway out of the picture, and the film would still have some florid, campy moments, but Dunaway's the reason Dearest remains vivid cinema, still resonating with viewers 25 years after it's initial release. It's hard to think of another actress screaming "No wire hangers" or "Don't f--- with me, fellas!" with the conviction Faye brings to the lines. Dunaway made a total commitment to the role, bravely letting her "inner Joan" command the screen. Many feel Faye went too far in delineating Crawford's often-tormented existence (including the star herself, who once labeled her Joan a "Kabuki" performance during an Inside the Actor's Studio appearance, before quickly moving on to a discussion of her post-Dearest career); however, I think Dunaway's acting is remarkably true, bold, and forthright, and her work in Dearest remains the apex of Faye's film career. As Christina, Diana Scarwid is fine (you believe she's strong enough to take Crawford on), but Mara Hobel (as the young Christina) gives the most indelible supporting performance, matching Dunaway's powerful emoting during the infamous "attack" scenes (the "Wire Hanger/Bathroom Floor" rampage, the impromptu haircut, the midnight axing, etc.).

If you're tired of the special-effects-driven epics of today, which often feature scant opportunities for memorable characterizations, take a look at these blasts from the past and sate your need for some real, dramatic special effects offered by a bevy of glamorous, talented divas in some of their signature roles.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Trilling Along with Natalie, Rita and the Gang

Just got back from traversing to the Bay Area, wherein I had an absolute blast seeing (twice) the "Sing-A-Long" West Side Story at the Castro Theater. This is the first time I've had the pleasure of attending one of these Castro 'special events'; you really haven't lived until you've sat in an audience of predominantly gay patrons wailing along to "America" and "I Feel Pretty" - I definitely felt at home as I limbered up my vocal chords and joined in the festivities. Party bags were handed out to help get people spirit of things, so, among other things, bubbles were blown during "One Hand, One Heart," miniature flags waved during "America," tiny mirrors held up during "Pretty," and party poppers were heard during the final shooting.

Viewed 'straight', with none of the above chasers, the film doesn't kill em' like it did in 1961- the 'hip' jargon, sometimes deliberately stylized choreography, and those Tony/Maria love scenes aren't timeless, and often evoke the wrong kind of laughter. There reportedly was tension during filming between directors Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins; this rift possibly accounts for the unbalanced tone of the film- care and attention are lavished on the musical numbers ("Cool" and, of course, "America" hold up especially well), while the dramatic passages often come across as stiff and, in visual terms, stagnant. Still, the film is usually watchable, and the wonderful Bernstein/Sondheim score remains virtually intact for the film, with the "Cool" and "Gee, Officer Krupke" numbers wisely being switched from their pre and post-rumble placements in the original stage version. Although attractive leads Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood are almost totally out of their element as Tony and Maria, I've always thought Wood redeems herself with some remarkable emoting towards the end of the film, particularly in the powerful closing scene (if there's one scene any "Maria" really needs to nail it's this one, and Wood couldn't be better as she grieves over Tony, then screams "Don't you touch him!!"). She's equally convincing reacting to Chino's news regarding the dire consequences of the rumble, then confronting Tony ("Killer Killer!!"), as she sobs hysterically before collapsing in his arms.

However, without the performances of George Chakiris and Rita Moreno, the film probably would have little resonance with viewers today. From their first moments onscreen, it's clear who the true stars of this Story are. It's hard to fathom how Chakiris was never able to capitalize on his success here, as his Bernardo forcefully commands the screen with a quite grace- he's sexy, dangerous, and very classy. Then there's Moreno's peerless work as Anita. In her hands, the role is completely believable, whether Anita's good-naturedly chastising Maria in their first scene, cutting up with Bernardo as she cha-cha-chas her way through the "Mambo" and "America" numbers, or lashing out at the Jets in her final, vivid Story moment. Few performers have managed to ease their way from comedy (or, in this case, musical comedy) to drama with the artful skill Moreno displays in Story, and no one at the screenings laughed at her Anita, only with her during the character's lighter moments- when the role becomes tragic, the theater was silent as we worried regarding Anita's fate; this incredible audience rapport is a tribute to Moreno's talent and to her complete identification with the part. Rita Moreno loves Anita, and we love her as Anita. Among the ten Oscars the film garnered, today the two won by Charikis and Moreno seem the most justifiably warranted.

The Castro is planning a couple more "Sing-A-Longs" in the near future: The Sound of Music in November, and Grease in December. I never thought I'd watch Music again in this lifetime, but the theater's done this before with great success, and I suddenly find viewing Music under these circumstances a "can't miss" event. I'm more partial to Grease, so I'm hoping to attend both films and lighten up the dreary winter months.