Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Boys are Back in Vogue?

The fight for marriage equality is all but won as of 2015. Gay rights are now seen by the majority of the world for what they are, human rights. Gay is OK. But just a few short decades ago, the subject of homosexuality was taboo, and honest portrayals of gay people in theater and film simply did not exist. Until The Boys in the Band

Mart Crowley’s groundbreaking play was made into a film in 1970 and starred all the actors from its original 1968 stage production. Produced more than a year before the historic Stonewall riots, where a group of bar patrons banded together against police brutality and started the movement for equality, the play provided unprecedented visibility to the contemporary gay experience. Though leavened by its memorably caustic wit and humor, Crowley’s work revealed the loneliness and isolation of the gay lifestyle, and underlined the lack of emotional support available to gay men among members of their own “tribe.”

A rare moment of camaraderie 
In the intervening years between Stonewall and the present day, the reputation of The Boys in the Band suffered a backlash by the gay community itself. Perhaps fearing that Crowley’s brutally honest storytelling would forever brand gay people as pathetic, promiscuous, unlovable freaks of nature, downright scary to the rest of society, many shunned this seminal work for its negative portrayal of gay life. 

Beneath its razor-sharp wit and self-deprecating humor, The Boys in the Band is a searing and often heartbreaking exposé of urban gay life. When a group of friends converge for Harold’s birthday party at Michael’s downtown apartment, high drama ensues. With a nod to Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (Albee was among one of several “angels” who helped Crowley along the way), the centerpiece of the story is a terrifying party game in which the participants are dared to phone and reveal their feelings to the one person they have loved.

Natalie Wood and Mart Crowley
It was the play Mart Crowley was born to write. After failed forays into writing for film and television (authoring a campy TV pilot starring Bette Davis as an interior decorator!), Crowley had been working as a personal assistant to movie star Natalie Wood when he wrote the first draft of a groundbreaking and controversial new play. Championed by Wood and her second husband, attorney Richard Gregson (who came between her first and third marriages to RJ Wagner and is the father of actress Natasha Gregson Wagner), the play found its way into the right hands. Edward Albee helped arrange the play’s first workshop, which led to a successful Off-Broadway production that ran for more than 1,000 performances. 

In a rare example of artistic integrity winning out over the financial concerns of the “business of show,” Crowley refused to sell his property to Hollywood unless the entire original Broadway cast reprised their roles. Incredibly, Crowley prevailed, and the film version has forever preserved the brilliant ensemble’s now iconic characterizations. 

Hank (Laurence Luckinbill) and Michael (Kenneth Nelson)
Crowley later wrote a sequel, The Men from the Boys, became a writer and executive producer on Robert Wagner’s series Hart to Hart, and wrote the teleplay for There Must Be a Pony starring Elizabeth Taylor as a fading movie star attempting a comeback. But Boys in the Band is his masterpiece, and the 1970 film has captured it in perpetuity. 

Director William Friedkin (The Exorcist), the only artistic collaborator not a part of the original stage production, brings a cinematic approach to what could have ended up as merely a filmed stage play. His opening sequence captures the energy of New York and offers brief, telling glimpses into the main character’s lives. Though the rest of the action takes place in one setting—various rooms and the terrace of Michael’s apartment—Friedkin’s artful choreography and blocking and masterful use of the camera help drive the story, following and tracking the actors’ movements, darting in and out of the action for two shots, three-shots and close-ups. 

Harold (Leonard Frey) and the Cowboy (Robert La Torneaux)
Wisely, though, Friedkin creates an atmosphere that allows the actors to shine. The all-male cast (save for a fleeting glimpse of future Bond girl Maud Adams in an unbilled bit as one of fashion photographer Larry’s models) is uniformly astonishing, bringing to life just about every archetype in the gay pantheon. 

Kenneth Nelson is unforgettable as the high-strung host Michael, who shops obsessively, frets about his thinning hair and becomes a frighteningly mean drunk when he falls off the wagon early in the proceedings. Leonard Frey is hilariously caustic as neurotic guest of honor Harold, who has issues of his own, struggling with weight, food, acne and being Jewish.  

Kenneth Nelson

Leonard Frey

Peter White
The question of monogamy versus promiscuity is explored through the relationship of schoolteacher Hank and photographer Larry, played memorably by Laurence Luckinbill (longtime husband of Lucie Arnaz) and Keith Prentice. Reuben Greene is quietly affecting as Bernard, who struggles valiantly with the double whammy of being gay and black in a world that is slow to accept either. Frederick Combs underplays admirably as Donald, Michael’s compassionate friend and confidante. 

Peter White (familiar to longtime watchers of the ABC soap All My Children) perfectly captures the sexual ambiguity of Alan, the unexpected guest who serves as catalyst to Michael’s alcoholic breakdown. Robert La Tourneaux is charming and amusing as the guileless male escort who serves as Harold’s birthday present. 

Bernard (Reuben Greene), Emory (Cliff Gorman) and Hank (Laurence Luckinbill) 

Michael and Donald (Frederick Combs)
Cliff Gorman triumphs in the role of the flagrantly effeminate Emory, the outrageously campy queen who cooks up a storm and longs for domestic bliss but can’t find a man except in the dark caverns of the baths.  

To some gay audiences of the time, the character of Emory was as cringe-worthy a stereotype as Uncle Tom and Stepin Fetchit have been to the black community, but through Emory, Crowley makes a strong statement about the gay world’s own caste-and-class system. If you appear to be masculine, the unwritten rule goes, you can sleep with men, as long as you blend in with the mainstream. Hide your fabulousness under a bushel if you want to maintain your dignity as a human being. Effeminacy is the self-hating gay world’s ugly little secret...and only in very recent years has gender-fluid self-expression become more socially acceptable. Today, in viewing Boys in the Band, Emory comes off the strongest and most courageous character in the film.  

Cliff Gorman
But the LGBT community, hyper-vigilant and hyper-aware of how they were being portrayed in films, theater and television, turned their back on Boys for many years. (Interestingly, 10 years later Friedkin directed the even more controversial film Cruising, similarly accused of using gay life to perpetuate negative stereotypes.) Indeed, mainstream entertainment of the past tended to portray gays as either victims or villains, rather than fully developed characters. But in light of the tremendous progress the equality movement has made, the years have been kinder to The Boys in the Band, and I hope it now can enjoy its rightful place in the history of gay film. It is after all, a moving story about people—and Mart Crowley’s complex characters are flawed, fascinating and endearingly human.

Luckinbill, Greene, Frey, Prentice, Combs, Gorman, Nelson, White and La Torneaux

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Hats Off to Billy Wilder's Fedora

Legendary director Billy Wilder’s penultimate film is far from his best, but it’s an absorbing yarn nevertheless, with a neat plot twist and lively (if a bit over-the-top) performances. 

Fedora (1978) concerns a Garbo-like superstar who supernaturally retains her beauty and appeal through five decades, only to die under tragic and mysterious circumstances. Superior to Robert Aldrich’s turgid Hollywood fable Legend of Lylah Clare a decade earlier, and the ho-hum 1976 adaptation of Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon, Fedora has so far failed to achieve the cult status of those films, or of the more deserving Day of the Locust.  But if you enjoy the “untold tales of Hollywood” genre and are willing to suspend your disbelief, you’re bound to be entertained and engaged. 

Marthe Keller in the title role

While obviously not in the same league as iconic Wilder classics like Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot and The Apartment, Fedora has gotten a bad rap, its reviewers implying that the director was somehow losing his faculties when preparing and filming this picture. I personally find it at least as entertaining as some of Wilder’s lesser efforts of the ’60s and ‘70s, including One, Two, Three, Irma La Douce and Avanti. Wilder directed only one more film after Fedora, the forgettable Jack Lemmon/Walter Matthau comedy Buddy Buddy

William Holden as Barry Detweiller
Perhaps such unfair comparisons are drawn between Wilder’s Fedora and his legendary Sunset Boulevard because both are Hollywood stories of a leading lady as mentally unhinged as Hamlet’s Ophelia…...and the fact that Wilder casts the same leading man in both, a somewhat unfortunate homage now that a haggard William Holden is far from his prime here.

Holden (who won his only Best Actor Oscar for Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17) worked steadily up to his death in 1981, even scoring a huge commercial and artistic success with 1976’s Network, but his continuing struggle with alcoholism had begun to take its toll, and in Fedora he’s not really firing on all cylinders. As Barry Detweiller, a down-on-his-luck producer desperately trying to lure Fedora out of retirement so he can get his film produced, Holden has some good moments, but the heavy lifting of the story is achieved through the efforts of the rest of the ensemble cast. 

Hildegarde Knef as Countess Sobryanski
José Ferrer as Dr. Vando
Frances Sternhagen as Miss Balfour
Stephen Collins plays the young Detweiller in the 1947 Hollywood scenes, when he has a brief fling with the star while assistant director on one of her films. The reliable character actress Frances Sternhagen (Misery, And So it Goes) plays Fedora’s no-nonsense personal secretary. (And amazingly looks the same age today as she did in 1978 when the movie was filmed.) Scene stealer José Ferrer (Cyrano de Bergerac) is gerontologist to the stars Emmanuel Vando, upon whom Fedora depends to maintain her ageless beauty. Hildegarde Knef (The Snows of Kilamanjaro) is the dour, wheelchair-bound Countess Sobryanski, a bitter old crone swathed in black who keeps Fedora firmly under her bony thumb and speaks only in a raspy whisper. Michael York plays himself in a brief cameo, as the catalyst that causes the distraught Fedora to throw herself in front of a train, a la Anna Karenina, and end her stormy life. 

Fedora falls hard for her handsome costar (Michael York)
Marthe Keller is effective as the enigmatic Fedora, once a vibrant superstar and now a schizoid recluse, an amphetamine addict and a virtual prisoner on a private island off Corfu. The Swiss actress had enjoyed quite a Hollywood buildup in recent years, having costarred with Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man and opposite real-life paramour Al Pacino in Bobby Deerfield, and in the big-budget mid-’70s epic Black Sunday.  After Fedora, she appeared with George C. Scott and Marlon Brando in The Formula, but her career as a leading lady in the States never really took off. But as Fedora, Keller gives a creditable performance in a difficult role, though the film’s failure at the box office obviously didn’t do her career much good. 

Young Detweiller (Stephen Collins) and Fedora
Fedora on the set for the nude swimming scene
Without crossing the line into full-on camp, the film offers a heightened reality, rife with melodramatic moods and situations that stretch credulity against a backdrop of picturesque Corfu and Paris locations, embroidered with touches of dark humor and guignol.  Fedora sleepwalks around the Greek island in picture hats and big Jackie O sunglasses, always wearing a pair of white gloves despite the summery climate. A peevish Countess Sobryanski smashes Fedora’s record player with her heavy black cane when Fedora’s music annoys her. Out of the blue, Henry Fonda, billed as the President of the Academy, appears in Corfu with a Lifetime Achievement Oscar for Fedora in a velvet drawstring pouch. In the flashback scenes, Fedora swims nude in a pool on the Hollywood studio soundstage a la Esther Williams. Later, an out-of-control Fedora is strapped into a straightjacket by her handlers before they throw her into the back of the Countess’s Roll Royce. And so on...

Fedora and her friends
The shrine to Michael York
Mr. Fonda delivers an Oscar to Corfu
The superstar lies in state
The flamboyant production design of scenes where Fedora’s body lies in state are pure Hollywood-style artifice, replete with the staples of funereal showmanship: hundreds of bouquets of roses and a string quartet playing mournful dirges as the public files solemnly past Fedora’s skillfully spotlighted casket--open, of course! (The effect is eerily similar to the outrageous Campbell’s Funeral Home scenes in Ken Russell’s Valentino, made the previous year.) 

Fedora is based on the short story of the same name in Thomas Tryon’s fascinating collection of fictional tales of classic Hollywood, Crowned Heads. Better known as the author of legendary horror novels The Other and Harvest Home, Tom Tryon began his career as a Hollywood actor. Classically handsome, with chiseled features reminiscent of his contemporary John Gavin (indeed, Tryon lost the part of Sam Loomis in Psycho to Gavin), Tryon appeared in films as varied as I Married a Monster from Outer Space to Otto Preminger’s The Cardinal, and played Marilyn Monroe’s hunky fellow castaway in her last unfinished film Something’s Got To Give in 1962. 

Beefcake actor turned best-selling novelist Thomas Tryon

Tryon gave up acting in the late 1960s to become a very successful novelist, his brand of suspense/horror on a par with Stephen King and Ira Levin. Two of his biggest best-sellers were The Other (made into a 1971 film starring Uta Hagen) and Harvest Home (adapted into a 1970s miniseries with Bette Davis and Rosanna Arquette). Each of these stories featured a famously ingenious plot twist or reversal that results in a satisfying jolt for the unsuspecting audience. (And so does Fedora.) 
Deeply in the closet all his life, the bisexual Tryon enjoyed long-term relationships with A Chorus Line original cast member Clive Clerk and with gay porn star Casey Donovan but never publicly admitted his sexuality before his death in 1991 at age 65. 

Though Fedora’s screenplay was written by Wilder and longtime creative partner I.A.L. Diamond, credit for the film’s unique storyline and impressively startling deux ex machina must go solely to original author Tryon...they are what make this lurid and melodramatic film special.  No spoilers will be found see the film if you can!

How old IS Fedora?