Monday, October 27, 2014

The Other Side of Doris

The very name Doris Day conjures sunshine, happiness, sweetness and light. She brought smiles to the faces of millions with her ebulliently positive persona, wholesome good looks and angelic singing voice. Eternally, she’ll be known as the epitome of the girl next image manufactured by Hollywood but largely embraced by the star herself, a down-to-earth midwestern girl from Cincinnati. In the Eisenhower ’50s, Day’s purity and virtue were held in high esteem, but that didn’t stop pianist and wit Oscar Levant from caustically joking that he knew Doris Day before she was a virgin. Her apple-pie image made her a star...but pigeonholed her into too-often bland film roles.

 A natural actress, Day rarely had the opportunity to exercise her strong flair for drama, except for a few non-singing forays into the mystery and thriller genres. Personally, I prefer her work in films like Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, Julie and Midnight Lace to either her early Warner Brothers musicals or her frothy 1960s sex comedies with Rock Hudson, Cary Grant and James Garner. Day always sparkles, but often in spite of her material.

 But what is arguably Doris Day’s greatest film performance combines both her musical and dramatic skills. As Ruth Etting in the biopic Love Me Or Leave Me (1955), Doris Day cemented her status as a lasting superstar by playing decidedly against type. Day’s first film as a freelance star, after a seven-year-long indentured servitude as a contract player at Warner Brothers, Love Me or Leave Me boasts a strong script, a juicy role for Doris, a selection of musical standards for her to sing, lushly arranged in high-MGM style, and a legendary costar who kept her on her toes in some highly dramatic scenes.

The dynamic performances of Cagney and Day
This film truly crackles with excitement in Day’s scenes with James Cagney, who plays Ruth Etting’s aggressive, crude and domineering manager husband, Marty “the Gimp” Snyder. Doris more than holds her own against Jimmy, one of the screen’s most iconic tough guys, and the pair create remarkable screen chemistry together. The combative, love-hate relationship of Etting and Snyder is beautifully realized in the tense and gripping square-offs between Day and Cagney, both actors giving surprisingly strong performances.

As Ruth, Doris wavers between admiration and appreciation for Snyder lifting her out of the dancehall and jump-starting her singing career, and fear and revulsion at his crudity and strong-arm tactics. Day should have been nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her triple-threat performance. The scene in which she’s reduced to utter hysteria as Cagney’s character hits her, knocks her down onto the bed and prepares to rape her (on the couple’s wedding night) is some of Day’s very best onscreen work.

 It’s Cagney’s last great role, too, in which he pays homage to his own iconic image of the violent bad guy, but adds touches of humor and vulnerability that he only rarely displayed in his early Busby Berkeley musicals and his Oscar-winning performance as George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy. For his performance in Love Me or Leave Me, Cagney earned his final Academy Award nomination as Best Actor.

The film contains some of Day’s best musical numbers, too, including one that highlights her flair for dancing as well as singing. (Day’s original ambition was to be a hoofer until her legs were crushed in a freak train accident as a teenager.) Her performance of “Shakin’ the Blues Away” in the Ziegfeld Follies sequence is fortified with verve, and while she’s no Ann Miller, Miss Day can move. She really sells it. And her vocal renditions of "Everybody Loves My Baby," “You Made Me Love You” and “Ten Cents a Dance” are utterly sublime.

 Her portrayal of a street-smart dancehall hostess smoking, drinking and carousing in nightclubs provided her a change of pace, and Doris Day garnered almost unanimous raves for her multilayered performance, but not everyone was thrilled. She actually received a considerable amount of hate mail from her conservative fan base that preferred to see her continue to play sunny virgins or dutiful wives and mothers. Day, herself a Christian Scientist who had a soda fountain installed in her home to take the place of a bar, gloried in the freedom the role gave her to explore a darker side.

 If she looks a little different in this film than in any other, it’s by design. Director Charles Vidor preferred to shoot her from what she considered her “bad” side, which had a cheekier and harder look appropriate to the shrewd and ambitious character she was playing. This is the first and only film in which Day allowed herself to be photographed from the left side. (On a later picture, even the handsome Cary Grant had to accede to her request and allow himself to be filmed on his own “bad side” to accommodate Day.)

 After nearly a decade of playing bland ingenues, little sister types and arm candy to male stars from Ronald Reagan to Frank Sinatra at Warner Brothers, Doris Day had reinvented herself. Soon she’d work with Hitchcock, and then begin producing films on her own with her husband and manager Martin Melcher. Four years later, she’d earn her only Oscar nod for the souffle-light Pillow Talk and begin a long reign as Hollywood’s #1 box office star. But it was as Ruth Etting in Love Me or Leave Me where she reached her cinematic zenith as actress, performer and legendary star.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Survival of the All-Stars

Warning to the award-winning actors performing in all-star disaster epics: Your Oscars and box office mojo do not necessarily guarantee your survival. But if your character does happen to bite the dust before the final reel, you may get nominated again, and prolong your career longevity in the process.  

The success of Ross Hunter’s lavish productions of Arthur Hailey’s novels Hotel in 1967 and Airport in 1970 revitalized the tradition of the all-star ensemble that had begun with MGM’s Grand Hotel in 1932 and continued through film fare as varied as The Ten Commandments, Judgement at Nuremberg, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and Ship of Fools. (Later, the all-star concept became a TV staple, with shows like The Love Boat, Fantasy Island and Murder She Wrote consistently topping the Nielsen charts.) But it was Airport that offered an exciting new wrinkle--put your stars in peril  amid some disastrous occurrence to heighten the drama--spawning the age of the 1970s disaster movie. Throughout the decade, a surprising number of disaster flicks were released, with varying degrees of artistic merit and box-office success, including Earthquake, The Towering Inferno, The Swarm, Airports ’75, ’77 and ’79 (aka The Concorde). But The Poseidon Adventure (1972) is arguably the best of the bunch.

Literate, thought-provoking and entertaining, The Poseidon Adventure boasts a compelling theme, a cogent through-line, spectacular special effects and notable performances by a group of talented and award-winning actors--it’s an old-fashioned, story-driven crowd-pleaser.

The special effects were groundbreaking for their time and created the appropriate suspension of disbelief necessary to keep viewers on the edge of their seat. Even today, they’re impressive--especially film’s the iconic set piece as the ship capsizes and overturns amid a New Year’s Eve celebration. To achieve the realistically terrifying topsy-turvy effect, producer Irwin Allen and director Ronald Neame rigged the vast dining room set to revolve 180 degrees to literally tumble and scatter dozens of actors and extras, a feat never before attempted on film up to that time. (Perhaps they were inspired by Fred Astaire’s famous dancing on the ceiling moment from Royal Wedding, but that was a much smaller room and only involved one actor). It’s an action-packed ride.

Gene Hackman as Reverend Scott
But unlike many of today’s big-budget films, the pyrotechnics do not detract from the strong performances of the seasoned actors with whom we take this harrowing journey. The actors and the effects both serve the story--a rollicking, well-plotted adventure interwoven with the universal themes of triumph over adversity, determination and courage.  

Ernest Borgnine as Rogo
Red Buttons as Mr. Martin
Consistent with the values embraced in what was soon to be dubbed “the Me Decade,” the film’s chief protagonist, a radical and rogue man of the cloth, preaches a libertarian gospel of self-determination and survival of the fittest. Foreshadowing the concepts of today’s New Age philosophies, Reverend Scott asks his followers to depend on the god force within rather than looking to an external father figure in the sky. Follow your own instincts, he advises, rather than relying on groupthink (or faith or prayer, for that matter) to solve problems. But, in this film as in real life, there are no guarantees. Only the strong survive--and even then, not always.

Stella Stevens as Linda Rogo

Waiting for “the authorities” to arrive and save them, the vast majority of the passengers are lost. But those aboard the Poseidon with the sharpest survival instincts are a diverse and motley crew--from an elderly Jewish grandmother to an unusually bright 10-year-old child. One by one, many of these characters lose their lives in pursuit of freedom, often right after helping others to safety or having given their own lives to save others.

Roddy McDowall as Akers

This unforgettable ensemble of stars--Roddy McDowall, Stella Stevens, Jack Albertson, Carol Lynley, Red Buttons, Shelley Winters, Leslie Nielsen, Ernest Borgnine and Gene Hackman, joined by young newcomers Eric Shea and Pamela Sue Martin (who later gained TV fame on The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries and Dynasty)--make this a film worth watching over and over. The chemistry among all of them is strong; this must have been a difficult shoot, obviously involving some potentially dangerous stunt work, and there is a familial feel among the group and an underlying strain of dark humor throughout that enhance the audience’s experience.

Eric Shea as Robin
Pamela Sue Martin as Susan
Of course, as in almost all adventure films, the he-men of the group are its leaders--Hackman and Borgnine vie for the alpha male position, while lonely bachelor Red Buttons (is this character gay, I wonder?) lends support to the group with compassion and common sense. Both Borgnine and Buttons enjoyed long lives and careers--Borgnine lived into his mid-90s and Buttons into his late 80s. Prior to this film, both had won Oscars, Borgnine for Marty in 1955 and Buttons for Sayonara in 1957.

The great Shelley Winters as Belle Rosen 

Gene Hackman dominates the film as the maverick Reverend Scott. Hackman had just won the Best Actor Oscar for The French Connection, after nominations for Bonnie and Clyde and I Never Sang for My Father. Of all the surviving stars of The Poseidon Adventure (basically now just Stevens, Lynley, Shea and Martin), Hackman is the only one still working steadily in Hollywood.

Carol Lynley has little to do but whimper and cry when she’s not lip-synching to Maureen McGovern’s Oscar-winning rendition of “The Morning After,” but brassy Stella Stevens has her all-time best film role as the former prostitute now married to a gruff cop (Borgnine), who gamely slips out of her skirt to climb to safety in nothing but panties and gold-toned high heels.

McDowall must have enjoyed the break from donning the ape makeup of his Planet of the Apes epics to join the adventure, taking on a charming Scottish brogue as Akers the waiter, but his character is one of the first to perish and his screen time is all too brief. A former child star (Lassie Come Home) who became one of the most reliable of supporting actors, it’s a shame he was never even nominated for one Academy Award in his long career. He died in 1998.

Veteran scene-stealing Method actress Shelley Winters, already the recipient of two Best Supporting Actress Oscars (for Diary of Anne Frank and A Patch of Blue) earned another nod for her portrayal of the brave (if a bit kvetchy) Belle Rosen, who saves Reverend Scott from a gruesome underwater death before expiring herself. Once a svelte blond sex symbol, Winters gained respect as an actress as her weight ballooned--but she lived to be 85, obesity be damned.  

A big box office hit when it was first released, Poseidon’s popularity has only grown through the years, attaining cult status for its spectacle, its star performances and its sheer audacity. Its early special effects must have inspired James Cameron’s vision for his own epic masterpiece,  1997’s Titanic. Its camp value, underlined by the ballsy performances of actors Winters and Stevens, the wooden delivery of other actors including a humorless Leslie Nielsen, and the high-’70s production design (I personally dig the “groovy” gyrations of the black-tie New Year’s revelers on the dance floor) make it a beloved staple in the film collections of anyone with a gay sensibility. It’s a well-made film with something for just about anyone, and holds up well.

For a delicious video overview of this film from a gay standpoint, visit classic movie “vlogger” Steve Hayes here.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Life is a (Chinese) Banquet

A dozen years before Brokeback Mountain broke ground in its portrayal of gay characters in mainstream film, director Ang Lee made a similar statement with this little-known independent gem titled The Wedding Banquet (1993). With its practically all-Chinese cast (English-language viewers must depend on subtitles for much of the proceedings), it offers a rare opportunity to experience life through the eyes of some of the millions of immigrants who come to New York City for their chance at the American dream. It may be director Lee’s most personal film.
Director Ang Lee
Equal parts farce, comedy of manners and touching family drama, The Wedding Banquet centers upon the relationship of a well-adjusted and well-to-do gay couple who live in Manhattan, one of whom happens to be a native of Taiwan. Wai-Tung (Winston Chao) is a typical New York early ’90s yuppie, a driven workaholic who even multitasks at the gym, listening to his mother’s audiotaped letters from home on his Walkman. His lover, Simon (Mitchell Lichtenstein), a physician, is far more laid-back, the exact opposite of uptight Wai-Tung.

Lichtenstein, Chao and Chin
Of course, Wai-Tung has kept his sexuality secret from his traditional Taiwanese parents. His mother is relentless long-distance matchmaker, sending Wai-Tung on dates with suitable Chinese girls who live in the U.S. To put an end to the madness, Simon comes up with the idea of marrying his lover off to Wai-Tung’s female tenant We-Wei (May Chin), a native of mainland China who is desperately in need of a green card.

Wei-Wei is fun-loving free spirit, a bohemian artist who tries to make a home in one of the crumbling warehouse lofts Wai-Tung owns as an investment property. She is wildly attracted to Wai-Tung though she knows that he and Simon are in a committed relationship. But that doesn’t stop her from flirting outrageously with her handsome landlord. Wai-Tung reluctantly agrees to Simon’s marriage scheme, rolling his eyes heavenward and shaking his head. Wild child Wei-Wei is far from the perfect girl for Wai-Tung, even if he were interested.
Wai-Tung (Winston Chao) and his parents (Sihung Lung and Ya-Lei Kuei

The plan to placate Wai-Tung’s parents backfires when Mr. and Mrs. Gao announce that they’ll be arriving in New York for the wedding, forcing the threesome to take their deception to an elaborate new level. Simon and Wai-Tung quickly “de-gay” their home before the arrival of Wai-Tung’s parents from Taiwan, removing gay pride paraphernalia and intimate photos of the couple, and install a happy Wei-Wei in the house, who is delighted to finally have air conditioning. The scene is set for their charade.

General Gao (Sihung Lung) is a very serious and stoic person (it’s easy to see where Wai-Tung gets his intense demeanor from). Mrs. Gao (Ya-Lei Kuei) is the perfect wife and mother, and delighted to be a new mother-in-law to Wei-Wei. But when the Gaos discover that Wei-Wei and Wai-Tung plan to be married hastily at City Hall, they are horrified and disappointed.
The wedding at City Hall
To cheer them up after the shabby City Hall ceremony, Simon takes them all to the best Chinese restaurant in Manhattan for a celebratory meal. Here is where General Gao is reunited with a former member of his regimen, who treats Gao with the utmost awe and respect, offering to stage a proper wedding banquet for the young couple in the restaurant, which is owned by the man’s son.
With the extended wedding banquet sequence, Ang Lee masterfully illustrates the blending of  East and West, giving audiences a slice of life of the culture of Chinese-American immigrants and how they continue to honor their ancient traditions while the next generation becomes more and more westernized. We see how the wedding guests thoroughly enjoy the traditional rituals and games of the Chinese wedding banquet--a rare opportunity for these introverted Asians to let loose and have a little fun. A great scene: To ensure fertility of the union, a baby bounces on the marriage bed in the hopes that the bride will conceive on her wedding night (spoiler--she does!).

As the deception deepens, Simon and Wai-Tung find themselves in conflict, especially after the frisky wedding-night goings-on leave Wei-Wei pregnant. The tension causes ailing Mr. Gao to be hospitalized with a second stroke. Mrs. Gao is told the truth about Simon and Wai-Tung, and is devastated. Wei-Wei decides to terminate her pregnancy. The lighthearted farce has taken a dark turn. How will it end?
Simon has had just about enough
The entire cast is first-rate. Chao, Chin and Lichtenstein (the only Occidental member of the otherwise all-Chinese cast ) enjoy easy chemistry with one another as their characters drive the story, moving easily from farcical and comic to touching and meaningful moments. Lung is perfect as the strong, silent General Gao; one of his best moments is when he reveals to Simon that he knows who Wai-Tung’s true spouse is, and hands Simon the sizeable wedding dowry. Beautiful Ya-Lei Kuei is particularly effective as Mrs. Gao, loving and doting —but stubbornly unable to accept her son’s sexuality. A telling moment: As the Gaos are about to board the plane for home, they embrace Wai-Tung and Wei-Wei. But when Simon attempts to hug Mrs. Gao, she coldly pulls away from him.  

For much of the mainstream filmgoing world, Brokeback Mountain was a “big deal” in its depiction of same-sex love, but independent films like The Wedding Banquet, My Beautiful Laundrette, Maurice and Parting Glances had already been dealing frankly and intelligently with this issue for was, after all,  one of the chief topics that gave birth to the whole “indie” film movement of the 1980s and ’90s. I hope a whole new generation of gay and gay-friendly youth will discover these wonderful films, especially this rare Ang Lee delight.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

X Marks the End of an Era

As a pair of iron gates open and we sweep up the drive to a stately East Coast estate, a feverish piano concerto swells and the opening credits announce her name in a stylized cursive typeface: “Lana Turner” in the title role of Madame X (1966). Fans of Miss Turner will know exactly what to expect--they’ll forget their real-life troubles for a while and immerse themselves in melodramatic splendor and manufactured tragedy for the next couple of precious hours. The movie is no masterpiece, but the actress who plays her is, if not a work of art herself, definitely a piece of work. She is the raison d’etre for the picture.  

Lana Turner, Queen of the Weepies
Variations on this hackneyed plot are as old as the hills, but die-hard fans of its star (like me) will pay no mind. In Madame X, Turner’s Holly Anderson, newly married to a rising young politician,  makes a shameful mistake that could destroy the reputation of her husband and the future of her young son. She agrees to falsify her own death in order to save them from scandal, sacrificing her identity, her own happiness and ultimately her life in the process. Cue the Kleenex box.

As her appeal as sexy sweater girl and smoldering femme fatale of the 1940s began to wane, a still-glamorous Lana Turner reinvented herself to become the queen of the scandalous soap opera in the late ’50s and early ’60s, extending her shelf life far beyond that of the garden variety sex symbol. The over-the-top melodramas that marked this successful second act in her career, from Peyton Place and Imitation of Life, Portrait in Black to By Love Possessed, cemented her status as a lasting film icon--and even seemed to mirror the dramas in her personal life, most notably the 1958 stabbing of her gangster lover Johnny Stompanato (reportedly by Turner’s daughter Cheryl Crane, but audiences could certainly picture Lana herself wielding that knife).  And Madame X is Turner’s swan song as a top-billed, above-the-title star. If only it were a better movie...but does that really matter?   

The fault is not Lana’s. Turner gives it all she’s got, and still looks remarkably well-preserved in the early scenes that depict her as a newly affluent young newlywed, bedecked in chic Jean Louis gowns and dripping with diamonds by David Webb. Her descent into alcoholism and despair is appropriately gripping for the film in which she’s appearing...the trouble is, the mannered and surreal  “imitation of life” style of storytelling is already years out of date.
John Forsythe and Keir Dullea 
Released in 1966, the same year as the searing and groundbreaking Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and refreshingly risque comedies like Georgy Girl and Alfie, this sudsy, sexless G-rated confection is already hopelessly dated, even for its time. Filmgoers were now interested in gritty realism, social issues, and sex--savvy 1960s audiences were no longer content to be fed pablum served under a veneer of glamour and artifice.

Scene-stealing character actor Burgess Meredith
The ’30s version of this film with the long-forgotten Gladys George rang truer, as did similar films of this genre that were so popular in that decade, most notably Barbara Stanwyck’s Stella Dallas. The 1966 retelling loses touch with reality in favor of gloss, glitz and over-the-top sentimentalism.

A G-rated pas de deux with Ricardo Montalban
Legendary producer Ross Hunter gives Madame X a stylish production. After all, this was the man who gave Doris Day back her sex appeal after a decade of tomboy and matron roles with 1959’s Pillow Talk, and elevated sorrow to tragedy with Turner and Sandra Dee in Imitation of Life--but at its heart the picture, based on an ancient French stage play, is still a hoary old chestnut: a sobber, a weepie, the already-dead movie genre once known as a “woman’s picture.” And without a visionary director at the helm like a Douglas Sirk or even a camp stylist like a Mark Robson, cliched material such as this is bound to fail, even if dressed up with star performances, stylish trappings and an overbearing music score.

The brilliant Constance Bennett in her final film
But what makes this film compulsively watchable is Lana Turner herself. This woman is a pro as she propels her audience through the pedestrian script and bravely attempts to enhance the inanities she must utter with meaning. The lady works her ass off to tell the story, and we applaud her courage, we stay with her, because she promises to deliver in the last reel, and so she does. No wonder poor Madame X is so tuckered out by the end of the picture that she simply drops dead. The final scene in which Lana expires in her son’s arms is pure pathos, and probably failed to elicit a single tear among 1966 audiences. We’ve seen this all before, and more artfully executed. But Lana tries valiantly to make it a movie moment worth remembering. 

The unforgettable dialogue...

"So you've killed your lover, my girl!"

The supporting performances are entertaining, essayed by skilled actors with lots of charisma, but with little help from the threadbare script. Burgess Meredith chews the scenery, adding layers of attention-grabbing business to his role as the two-bit hustler. Ricardo Montalban seduces with his smile and Latin charm. Handsome John Forsythe is a bit wooden (he did loosen up a bit decades later on Dynasty), but his inimitable speaking voice (Charlie: “Hello, Angels”) already seems comfortingly familiar. A young Keir Dullea is earnest and attractive, and as the young public defender, displays good chemistry with Miss Turner as the ailing defendant who turns out to be his long-lost mother. 

Properly deglamorized to show the effects of the "toxic liqueur" absinthe

Practically stealing the film is the legendary Constance Bennett, the classy dame who frolicked with Cary Grant in Topper and countless 1930s films. In this, her last role, Bennett lacerates with studied bitchery as Lana’s still-glamorous but poisonous mother-in-law.

Madame X is forced to protect her identity
Unfortunately, this was Miss Turner’s last major motion picture, although she made several appearances in exploitation films, TV movies, guest shots on series like The Love Boat, and played a recurring role on Falcon Crest before her death at the age of 74 in 1995. Her presentational style of acting was passé, based so fundamentally on her movie star image of female glamour, that she simply could not change with the times. 

Get out the Kleenex...
Contemporaries like Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine found their footing as scream queens in successful horror films. Her MGM colleague Elizabeth Taylor had successfully made the transition to character roles starting with the raucous middle-aged Martha in Virginia Woolf. But beyond their allure and razzle-dazzle, those gals had all proven themselves real actresses. Lana Turner had always been more of a sensation and a personality than an artist. She made more headlines for her personal travails than raves for her performances, though she did receive a Best Actress Oscar nomination for Peyton Place. Stripped of her perfectly coiffed blond hair, red lips, high heels and designer gowns, the icon she’d manufactured would cease to exist. So instead, she clung to her accoutrements of glamour and became a bit of a caricature of herself in later years, and worked less and less. 

But in Madame X, Turner commands the screen one last time--and triumphs in her own unique way, while signaling the end of the era of the once-beloved “woman’s picture.”