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.