Thursday, January 26, 2017

A Thoroughly Pre-Modern Mary

On January 25, 2017, Mary Tyler Moore passed away at the age of 80. In both of her unforgettable TV roles, as adorable housewife Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show and as self-sufficient “woman on her own” Mary Richards on her eponymous Mary Tyler Moore Show, Moore radiated a persona of cheerfulness, optimism and determination despite a personal life with more than its share of challenges, including a lifetime managing Type 1 diabetes, a bout with alcoholism and the loss of a child. Small wonder we’ve loved Mary for more than 50 years—she truly was an all-American girl next door with “spunk,” as Lou Grant would say.

The 1967 film Thoroughly Modern Millie was Mary’s big-screen debut, after more than a decade of television work culminating in a five-year run with Dick Van Dyke. After Laura Petrie and before Mary Richards, Mary Tyler Moore seemed to be struggling to find a new career direction. During this awkward in-between period, she starred as Holly Golightly in a disastrous Broadway production of Breakfast at Tiffany’s opposite Richard Chamberlain, and even did a stint as leading lady to Elvis Presley in his last scripted film Change of Habit (she played a nun and he played a doctor, famously if not believably!).

Julie Andrews as Millie Dillmount: "The happiest star of all!"
Accepting a costarring role opposite Julie Andrews in a movie musical, playing a naive and virginal young woman of the 1920s, seemed to suit her squeaky-clean, girl next door image. (Born-again virgins must have been all the rage in the mid-1960s, with Doris Day handing her crown as the #1 Box Office Star over to everyone’s favorite nanny Julie Andrews who, incredibly, had played a beloved governess in not just one but two iconic blockbuster movies back to back.)

Thoroughly Modern Millie itself is something of an acquired taste if you’re not an aficionado of gay camp, but if you are, this one is a gem. The plot is silly and outlandish (and very politically incorrect), and the music is quaint and old-fashioned (indeed, many of the tunes were real 1920s hits, like “Jazz Baby” and “Baby Face”). Produced by the legendary Ross Hunter (Pillow Talk, Midnight Lace, Madame X), the production design is lavish and over the top, but its great cast is what makes this movie such good fun.  

Mary Tyler Moore as Dorothy Brown: "It's Miss Dorothy..."
With her clear-as-a-bell soprano (with its fabled four-octave range) and briskly efficient vitality, the brassy Dame Julie dominates the proceedings in the title role of Millie Dillmount, but generously shares the spotlight with her costar Moore, who plays the sweet and guileless Miss Dorothy Brown. (Next to the mannish, short-haired Andrews, the lovely Mary appears even more vulnerable and feminine.) Julie and Mary have good chemistry, especially in the scenes where they must tap dance together to keep the old elevator running in the Priscilla Hotel for Young Ladies where they both live.

Beatrice Lillie as Mrs. Meers: "So sad to be all alone in the world..."
A large part of the farcical plot, dealing with a Chinese white slavery ring that spirits away young women who are “all alone in the world,” is patently offensive today. In 1967, it was still socially acceptable to describe Asians as Orientals and paint them as suspicious, mysterious and “inscrutable” characters. In 2002, the film was adapted into a semi-successful Broadway musical, keeping the “Oriental” plotline.

As Mrs. Meers, the Chinese proprietress of the Priscilla Hotel (not to mention a human trafficking organization on  the side), rushing around in a kimono and high black wig adorned with chopsticks, British stage star Beatrice Lillie makes a wacky villainness indeed. But if you can get past the racial implications, Lillie’s expert clowning, deadpan delivery and unerring comic timing are nevertheless a marvel to behold, and the comedienne neatly steals every scene in which she appears. But there’s no way around the discomfort of watching the cringe-worthy stereotypes that Asian actors Jack Soo (Barney Miller) and Pat Morita (Happy Days, The Karate Kid) are forced to play here.

Carol Channing as Muzzy Van Hossmere: "Raspberries!"

If Miss Lillie were not enough to delight fans of camp styling, the film also stars the legendary Carol Channing as a freewheeling bon vivant named Muzzy Van Hossmere—looking like a glittering diamond-and-sequin studded Muppet, braying, croaking and lisping her way into an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress!  Having lost her iconic stage roles of Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly on film to Marilyn Monroe and Barbra Streisand, respectively, the character of Muzzy is basically a composite of Dolly and Lorelei and allowed Channing the opportunity to emblazon her uniquely zany charisma onto celluloid for posterity.

The cast is rounded out by the square-jawed John Gavin (Psycho, Imitation of Life, and a Ross Hunter favorite) who spoofs his own image as a handsome but wooden leading man, and British actor James Fox (The Servant, Remains of the Day) who dances well and sings with a perfect American accent, leading the slap-happy “Tapioca” number with vigorous, goofy charm. (Gavin, now in his mid 80s, went on to serve as Ambassador to Mexico under Ronald Reagan, and Fox has continued to work steadily in films and television well into his late 70s.) 

Dorothy and Millie with "Silly Boy" Jimmy (James Fox)
Miss Dorothy and her love interest Trevor Graydon (John Gavin)

"Tapioca, everybody!"
Old-fashioned musicals like this enjoyed their last gasp of popularity in the mid-1960s, with My Fair Lady named Best Picture of 1964. 1965’s The Sound of Music also won the Best Picture Oscar and occupied the spot of top moneymaking film of all time until Jaws and Star Wars supplanted it a decade later. (Millie, directed by George Roy Hill, garnered seven Oscar nods, including Miss Channing's; it won the award for Best Musical Score.)

But Millie, though the 10th highest grossing movie of that year, was the harbinger of the death of the Hollywood musical. The next year, Julie Andrews herself would tumble from her box office perch with the disastrous Gertrude Lawrence bio-musical  Star!, and Rex Harrison’s Dr. Doolitle would also prove an ignominious failure. Paint Your Wagon flopped miserably, and even Hello, Dolly starring Streisand and helmed by Gene Kelly, did not meet box office expectations. Yes, Oliver! did win the Best Picture Oscar in 1968 in a mediocre film adaptation that beat out the likes of the groundbreaking Rosemary’s Baby and Planet of the Apes, but the Academy then as now was slow to move with the times.

Mary and Julie in rehearsal
But appearing in a movie musical seemed just the ticket for Mary Tyler Moore, who had first come to prominence as a dancer on live TV commercials (as the spritely and aptly named Happy Hotpoint for the home appliance manufacturer), and had held her own in musical interludes with costar Dick Van Dyke (who, of course, also partnered brilliantly with Julie in Mary Poppins). Though Miss Mary sings nary a note in this film (maybe that’s one reason why her Breakfast at Tiffany’s was such a disaster?) she is obviously having a ball in Millie’s spirited “Tapioca” and “Le Chaim” dance numbers.

After the MTM show left the airwaves in 1977, Moore’s greatest film triumph was playing against type as high-strung midwestern mother who loses a child in Robert Redford’s directorial debut Ordinary People, for which she earned her only Best Actress Oscar nomination. But she retained a passion for song and dance, and in the late 1970s even hosted a short-lived musical variety show (with a cast of regulars that included, incredibly, Michael Keaton and David Letterman). In the 1982 film Six Weeks, she played a former dancer and showed off her balletic prowess and always-lithe figure.

Moore, Gavin, Andrews, Fox, Channing and Lillie

In Thoroughly Modern Millie, Mary acquits herself beautifully in the role of Miss Dorothy, proving herself a versatile entertainer and gifted comic actress. (She did after all learn the art of comedy from masters like Van Dyke and Carl Reiner). It’s a lark to see Mary having so much fun, doing what she loved to do, frolicking with a talented ensemble cast, in a soufflé-light film that has become a camp classic.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

A Postcard from Carrie

To the world at large, she’ll undoubtedly be best remembered as Princess Leia. But Carrie Fisher gave us so much more than just one iconic portrayal. She lives on in my movie collection as the aforementioned rebel princess in the original Star Wars trilogy; as nymphomaniac Lee Grant’s rebellious yet equally promiscuous daughter in Shampoo; and as kooky Dianne Wiest’s romantic rival for Sam Waterston in Hannah and her Sisters. But Fisher’s masterwork, in my opinion, is a film in which she does not appear in front of the camera. In Postcards from the Edge (1990), Fisher reveals hilarious, uncomfortable and touching truths about herself, her famous mother and show business in her brilliant screen adaptation of her own best-selling autobiographical novel.

 In the hands of master filmmaker Mike Nichols, the vivid characters and the wry poetry of Fisher’s incisive script shine like diamonds, with frequent Nichols muse Meryl Streep (Silkwood, Angels in America) bringing Fisher’s pithy dialogue and beleaguered heroine to life with her usual aplomb.

In Postcards, the fun begins when troubled actress Suzanne Vale overdoses on opiates and her horrified bedmate (Dennis Quaid) drops her off, unresponsive, at the emergency room (literally). She’s resuscitated and shipped off to rehab, only to discover that the only way that anyone will hire her again is if she is under the watchful eye of a guardian. So she goes home to live with her estranged mother, who also happens to be a famous actress—a prospect as painful as the stomach pumping she’s just endured. 

Meryl Streep as Suzanne Vale

Shirley MacLaine as Doris Mann
Fisher’s jaundiced view of the movie business is evident here, as a still-fragile Suzanne is badgered by producers and directors as she begins work on a new film, a comedy in which she portrays a lady cop (opposite the dreamy Michael Ontkean, who has precious little to do here). The awkward moments where producer Rob Reiner asks Suzanne for a drug test/urine sample, the endless notes and criticisms Suzanne endures regarding her performance, and the clucking of a smug wardrobe woman (a hilarious turn by Dana Ivey) about the actress’s appearance (“Her thighs are...well, bulbous!”), are uniformly both funny and raw, essayed by a skilled cast and director Nichols. With deft humor and bullseye accuracy, Fisher neatly captures the grueling drudgery of filmmaking, the schadenfreude, jealousy and foibles of the film business.

Gene Hackman and Meryl Streep in the looping scene

Natalie Wood in Inside Daisy Clover
Fisher’s reverence for old Hollywood shows in the film’s many old-movie references including an obvious homage to the famous looping scene from Inside Daisy Clover (remember how Natalie Wood has that hysterical nervous breakdown in the dubbing booth?). In Postcards, Streep’s Suzanne struggles with the effects of the pills she’s just taken (and thrown up) as she attempts to correct the sins of the past—on film, at least-—during the voice-over recordings.

The cameos are worth their weight in Hollywood gold: Richard Dreyfuss as the amorous doctor who pumps Suzanne’s stomach; Lucille Ball’s second husband and Borscht Belt comedian Gary Morton as her agent; Rob Reiner as the gruff producer; Annette Bening as an empty-headed actress who mispronounces “endorphins” as “endolphins”; Gene Hackman as Suzanne’s tough but supportive director; veteran character actress Mary Wickes (The Trouble with Angels, Sister Act) as the “lovable loud mountain” of a grandmother and Diffrent Strokes star Conrad Bain as her senile spouse.

Doris and Suzanne

Carrie and Debbie
Of course, though, the centerpiece of the film is the uneasy relationship between Suzanne and her mother, legendary movie star and gay icon Doris Mann, played with relish by the indefatigable Shirley MacLaine (as unsinkable as Debbie Reynolds herself and a longtime family friend). Of course, MacLaine imbues the character of Doris with her own brand of star power, as does Streep. Much more than stand-ins for Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, Streep and MacLaine add dimension and their own subtle older-and-younger actress-to-actress competitiveness to the proceedings. Sparks of chemistry fly, and the results are absorbing, thanks to the screenplay, the performers and the expert guidance of a true actor’s director.

 Fisher’s often prickly script evokes the relationships of Joan and Christina Crawford and Lana Turner and Cheryl Crane in a tense confrontation scene between Suzanne and a drunken Doris, played under a print of a famous Life magazine cover featuring Shirley with daughter Sachi, who incidentally wrote a cruel Mommie Dearest–type tell-all about life with Mama MacLaine just recently. (Fisher and Reynolds posed for many a similar magazine layout over the years.)

Shirley and Sachi
 It’s not all recriminations and bitchy repartee, though, not by a long shot. The complexity of the mother-daughter relationship is beautifully drawn by Fisher as the film unfolds. There is much love and cameraderie lurking amid the awkward silences and the screaming matches between Suzanne and Doris. Like Debbie Reynolds did for Carrie Fisher, Doris encourages Suzanne in her singing, a talent she is not famous for but truly excels in. Streep’s strong performances of “You Don’t Know Me” and “I’m Checking Out” are counterpointed by MacLaine’s glitzy, showy and slightly camp rendition of Sondheim’s “I’m Still Here.” (Indeed, Carrie Fisher was a lovely singer, too—check out her sweet and soulful version of “The Way You Look Tonight” in the audition scene from Hannah, and her brassy belting of “Happy Days Are Here Again” in her 2010 one-woman show Wishful Drinking.)

Reportedly, Debbie Reynolds was unhappy with the character of the alcoholic, self-centered mother, frightened that the public would believe it was really her. ( “I am not an alcoholic,” Doris Mann insists in the film. “I just drink like an Irish person.”) In the press, Carrie agreed with her mother that the character she had created was fictional, merely using her real-life upbringing as a jumping-off point for her made-up story. (You could almost see Fisher rolling her eyes in interviews at the time; it’s so clear she wanted to help her mom save face, without negating her own experience as the movie star’s daughter.)

Streep, Reynolds, MacLaine and Fisher at the Postcards premiere
 Ironically, the supposed rift between Carrie Fisher and her mother over this portrayal served to bring the two much closer together than they had been in recent years. As they grew older, their relationship flourished. In 2001, Carrie and Debbie had a ball filming a TV movie called These Old Broads with Doris Mann herself Shirley MacLaine, Joan Collins and none other than Elizabeth Taylor…not a great (or even good) film by any stretch of the imagination but a camp curiosity nonetheless. How surreal it must have been for Ms. Fisher to pen that scene between Liz Taylor and Debbie Reynolds, their characters reminiscing about the cheating crooner who left one to marry the other (obviously based upon Carrie’s father, Eddie Fisher).

 Fisher’s admiration and protective affection for Reynolds is glimpsed in the final mother-daughter scene of Postcards, played in the hospital where Doris has ended up after an alcohol-induced car accident. Suzanne gently makes up her mother’s face to help her face the paparazzi crowding outside her hospital room, singing tenderly to her. It’s a sweet moment that says a lot; eventually, the child becomes the parent, and the parent becomes the child...did that occur as well in real life for Debbie and Carrie?

Soul sisters
 At the time of their surprising dual deaths (Debbie passed away a mere 24 hours after her daughter, the week after Christmas 2016), Carrie and Debbie had been longtime next-door neighbors in Beverly Hills—and, by all accounts, soulmates. As 84-year-old Debbie’s health and vigor declined, it was 60-year-old Carrie who accepted many of the recent life achievement awards and honors on her mother’s behalf, most notably Debbie’s Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award Oscar in 2015.

 As Hollywood royalty, Carrie Fisher lived her entire (abbreviated) life in the spotlight, but she gave us so much, first as an actress, later as an advocate for mental health—and ultimately, she might add herself with that streak of dark humor, as a cautionary tale. But Carrie Fisher’s talents reached their zenith as a writer, with her unerring ear for witty dialogue, her frank storytelling and unconventional sense of humor, all gloriously apparent in one of my favorite films, and the outstanding book it’s based upon. Thanks for the Postcards, Carrie!