Thursday, July 17, 2008

A Celestial Evening with Ms. Holm at the Egyptian

A little over two months after moving to the L.A. area, I finally was able to see a star in the flesh last Monday night, during the Egyptian Theater’s tribute to film and theater great Celeste Holm. Between showings of two of her top films, 1955’s The Tender Trap and the iconic All About Eve, the 91-year-old legend took the stage for a discussion of her stage and screen career with Miles Kreuger, President of the Institute of the American Musical, followed by a Q&A session with the audience. With the assistance of her husband, Frank Basile, Holm reminisced about some of the many highlights of her long career as a performer.

Just before Trap got under way, I was surprised by the sound of applause. Looking around the theater, I saw Ms. Holm entering the theater and talking a seat with the rest of us mere mortals to watch one of her best performances (A gentlemen with a keen eye also spotted veteran 1940’s MGM contact player Marsha Hunt coming in just ahead of Holm). Proving she still has a performer’s instinct, Holm received the first laugh of the evening before the movie even started. The lights dimmed to signal the start of the picture, and they stayed dimmed as the projectionist attempted to get the Cinemascope production rolling. After about thirty seconds of the audience politely sitting in the dark, a feisty “C’mon!!” emitted from Holm’s section of the theater. Guess Celeste knows how good she is in Trap, and wanted others to see her work in the breezy comedy, pronto.

After the movie was enjoyed by one and all Kreuger, who was well versed in anything and everything having to do with Celeste Holm’s career, spent the next half hour or so talking to Holm and her husband. It was mentioned Holm got her professional start with the original touring company of The Women back in the 1930’s, then did some work with George M. Cohan before she become a Broadway star several years later in Oklahoma. Regarding Rogers and Hammerstein’s seminal musical, Holm stated she hadn’t sung onstage before the 1943 production, and she auditioned for and won the part of Ado Annie after performing a “Suee-ee” hog call (Holm then did an impressive “Sueee-ee” demonstration for the audience). A starring role in 1944’s hit Bloomer Girl followed (putting Holm on the cover of Life magazine) before Holm secured a contract with 20th Century-Fox and headed west to start her film career with a standout part (singing “Always a Lady”) in 1946’s Three Little Girls in Blue. The star then stated Moss Hart gave her a copy of Laura Z. Hobson's Gentlemen’s Agreement shortly before Fox started production on the 1947 film version of the successful novel. Impressed by the book, Holm was eager to make the film, playing “any part they wanted to give me.” Holm explained she was ready to prove to audiences she could pull off a dramatic role outside of the light musical comedies that had made her famous. An Agreement Oscar for Holm resulted, and the actress told us she was proud to be a part of a film that dealt with important issues.

Holm related an amusing story regarding her meeting with director Anatole Litvak in an elevator during this time. Holm seized the opportunity to pitch for a role in his upcoming production of The Snake Pit by stopping the elevator between floors. When Litvak exclaimed “We are stuck,” Holm replied, “Yes, because I want to talk to you,” then proceeded to tell the director of her interest in the film, only allowing Litvak to escape the current pit he found himself in after she had secured a meaty role in the tense, successful 1948 drama. So much for agents.

Concerning her burgeoning post-Oscar career, Holm simply and charmingly replied, “Well, you’re busy.” As for Eve, Holm claimed she got on fine with later on-the-set nemesis Bette Davis upon their initial meeting a couple weeks before shooting begin. Pleasantries were exchanged, and the two talented women looked forward to working together on a great script (and, quite possibly, the greatest script). Holm then related how things went south during their first encounter on the set, after Holm offered a cheery “Good morning!” to the cast and Davis shot back with, “Oh shit, good manners.” (on the Eve DVD, Holm stated she never talked to Davis off camera again). Kreuger wondered why Holm abruptly headed back east after scoring three Oscar nods and an Academy Award in three years time. Holm’s response was simple: she wasn’t being offered the type of roles she wanted in Hollywood, so back to Broadway she went (fortunately, Frank Sinatra would beckon Holm and her charming persona back to the silver screen to costar with him in Trap and 1956’s High Society, in two of her very best roles).

After the discussion, Holm took some questions from the audience. Asked about how she felt working with Sinatra, she stated, “He was what you would expect. Funny, fun, and not interested in rehearsing.” Holm explained Sinatra liked sticking to his ‘one-take, and that’s it’ approach, but she had other ideas: “Frank wanted to do a take once, then go home for lunch, but I liked to prepare for our scenes- I won.” The star bristled when asked to name her favorite work on film or in the theater, clearly not interested in dwelling too much on past glories (however, it was mentioned Holm loved playing the Fairy Godmother in the enduring 1965 television version of Cinderella). As the conversation was winding down, I finally thought of something valid to ask Holm (thank you, dear Stinkylu). Outside of mentioning she’d gained an Oscar nomination for her work in the film, no one had said anything about Come to the Stable, so I asked Holm if she had any recollections of working with Loretta Young on the 1949 film (although I was composed during my query, I admit I’m a big enough movie geek that later in the evening I thought, “OMG, tonight I asked an Academy Award winner a question!”). Holm and Basile then related a juicy tidbit concerning a “cuss box” Young had set up on the set. Whenever anyone working on Stable said a bad word, he or she had to contribute twenty-five cents to charity via the cuss box. One day Ethel Merman was visiting the studio, and heard about Young’s fund. Marching onto the Stable set with a twenty dollar bill, Merman shoved the cash into the box and bellowed, “Okay Loretta, why don’t you go f--- yourself!” (well, I guess the set WAS stable until “the Merm” showed up). Holm brought down the house with this bawdy punchline, and I was very glad I’d asked her about the movie.

Discussing more recent work, Holm received another big laugh when Kreuger mentioned Holm had played a cameo role in a yet-to-be released film with Mickey Rooney, Drive Me Crazy. Holm quickly retorted with, “He did, too. That was a long two days, working with Rooney.” The conversation ended with the host mentioning how so many people are able to view the work of Holm today through DVDs and television, whereupon Holm stated the fact audiences would still be loving her films had “never occurred to me- it’s wonderful.” Holm then returned to her seat to watch Eve with us, and it boggled at least one audience member’s mind that he was actually watching this all-time classic with one of its stars. Thank you for a special and delightful evening, Ms. Holm.

Monday, July 07, 2008

A Ratty Davis Dishes it out to Crawford with Relish in the Wild, Wonderful Jane

Watching Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? for the first time with an audience during the final night of LACMA’s tribute to Bette Davis turned out to be the fascinating experience I anticipated. Most compellingly, the film appeared to divide the large audience, providing some viewers with great comedy, while others clearly were more unsettled by the macabre nature of the movie. For example, although there were plenty of chuckles after the final frame, I also heard expressions of “Oh, My God,” and “Wow, that was scary" (one gentlemen who was extremely involved in the film's 'scare tactics' became irate the man behind him was laughing so hard, and wouldn't "shut the f--- up," while I sat nearby and mused over the fact that both of them were right). No matter how in the know a viewer is regarding the Davis/Crawford feud, and how the star's mutual antagonism is mirrored on screen by Baby Jane’s behavior towards her helpless sister, it’s hard not to get caught up in the story’s dramatic arch (especially during the unnerving final hour) and start to bite a few fingernails as the film unfolds.

However, there’s still a first hour or so wherein Jane sets up “camp.” During this portion of the movie, the viewers were kept in a state of stitches watching some indelible scenes unfold: Jane (as a child) opening the film by lip-synching through her and the movie’s invaluable, peerlessly cheesy theme song, “I’ve Written Letter to Daddy,” while belittled sister Blanche seeths in the wings; Jane getting 'buzzed' by Blanche as she utters "You miserable b----"; Jane’s classic “But you are in that chair” retort; and, in probably the film’s most incredible moment in a movie filled with jaw droppers, Davis’ wailing reprise of “Daddy,” accompanied by the pricelessly deadpan Victor Buono on piano, while a nervous, befuddled Crawford sits upstairs listening in awe ((I love how Davis enunciates every word during “Daddy” in her trademark brash manner, just as you hoped she would). I’ve always felt I was fairly hip regarding the movie’s camp value, but I never howled with quite the voracious glee that reverberated throughout the theater during this sequence, especially when Davis' dress momentarily flies up and we catch a glimpse of Jane's knobby knees. The overall high spiritedness of the crowd definitely made one feel included in the mix, and I found myself telling the gentleman sitting next to me after the film was over, “This is the first time I’ve seen the movie with everybody” instead of “with an audience.”

Is there any performer braver than Bette Davis as she rasps her way through “Daddy” in curls, patsy white makeup, beauty mark, and bee-stung lips? Hard to image even gutsy, awesomely talented Davis contemporary Katherine Hepburn not taking pause to ask herself, “Will this work, or ruin my distinguished career?” before launching into such a part. Davis, on the other hand, made damn sure she was playing Jane before signing on to do the film, and she blasts through the role, firing on all cylinders with her characteristic fearlessness. The star obviously understood she possessed the acting finesse to form a multi-dimensional character out of her somewhat shlocky comeback material, as Davis manages to create in Jane a flesh-and-blood person amid all the character's outrageous conduct, making the audience pity this woman while laughing at her over-the-top behavior. For example, it’s impossible not to emphasize with the delusional Jane’s need for recognition as she explains to a bank teller that “I’m Baby Jane Hudson,” then looks hopefully at the young man, waiting for the clueless teller to recall her vaudeville heyday of fifty years before. Similarly, in the grown-up, drunken Jane’s first reprise of “Daddy,” Davis is both scary and heartbreaking as she recites Jane’s mid-song monologue, covering her face and breaking down in sobs after incurring a mirrored image of herself in harsh light as she states “. . .I’m much too young to know!” while looking not a day over, or under, sixty-five. Davis’ Jane Hudson may remain too grotesque and “super-sized” to rank with the actress best performances, but it’s hard to think of a more memorable Davis characterization.

At this point, it appears Joan Crawford’s reputation will never live down the havoc wreaked by Mommie Dearest. Although it was difficult to determine how much of the audience’s often cheerful reaction to her character’s grisly fate was brought about by Crawford and her tough persona finally getting slapped down and around (as opposed to any derisiveness being directed at the character herself, as the many repeat viewers of Jane in the audience knew the real score as far as Blanche is concerned) it’s clear that when a terrified Blanche, who has just been served the cinema’s most unappealing dinner plate by her demented sister, is shown wheeling around her room in a state of hysterics, and the camera cuts to an overhead shot of her caught like a rat in a maze, the uproarious laughter that emitted from every section of the theater was not due to the mood of the film (the house was almost brought down again when Jane kicks the hell out of Blanche before victoriously dragging her invalid sibling back upstairs). To be fair to Crawford, although she’s certainly cast against type playing anyone’s victim and, with her controlled voice and Great Lady airs, she is sometimes too superficial during the early portions of the film, once Blanche starts facing Jane’s horrible wrath, Crawford dives into the heavy dramatics with her typical elan, and even adds notes of subtlety to some of her scenes. Also, although Davis poo-poohed Crawford for the star’s unwillingness to forgo glamour for the sake of art, check out the “Crawford look” once Jane really starts going to town on Blanche- Joan gives Bette a run for her money in the de-glam department, and her modulated acting herein is in nice contrast to Davis’ unrestrained fireworks- Crawford nails the final “payoff” scene by whispering the film’s big revelation in an admirably understated manner not normally demonstrated by the frequently melodramatic screen queen.

Victor Buono gained a warranted Oscar nod for his work as Edwin, and he probably deserved more just for the way he curls his lip up towards the end of “Daddy.” The imposing, hefty (in both size and talent) twenty-four-year-old newcomer skillfully manages to hold his own with Davis in their creepy, fascinating pairing. With his sonorous, classically British voice (impressive, given that Buono hailed from San Diego) and his mixture of slyly comic reactions to the off-kilter Jane’s outlandish behavior with some darker character undertones, Buono makes Edwin as memorably offbeat as Davis does Jane. When a mutual attraction springs up between the two oddballs, resulting in scenes such as Jane reacting in a coy, girlish manner anytime she’s around Edwin, just like a girl on the night of her senior prom as she greets her beau, or the one wherein Edwin whistles “Daddy” as he prepares for a hot date with Jane, while his possessive mother jealously nags her disapproval, the movies enter uncharted, WTF territory. There are plenty of doomed lovers in film, but this is the Apocalypse Now of screen romances, folks (but just try looking away).

Although the Davis/Crawford teaming and Buono’s original contribution are chiefly responsible (both then and now) for Jane’s success, producer/director Robert Aldrich deserves credit for bringing off the risky undertaking with aplomb. Cinematographer Ernest Haller’s Oscar-nominated stark lighting and DeVol’s pensive musical scoring add plenty to the film’s tense, tawdry atmosphere, while Norma Koch picked up the film’s sole Academy Award for her costume designs. Unbelievable and astonishing, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? remains an unmatched peak in the annals of Grand Guignol Cinema.