Thursday, September 30, 2010
Tony Curtis (1925-2010)
In a strange way, Tony Curtis resembled his great role (I'd argue his greatest) as Sidney Falco in 1957's Sweet Smell of Success. Not that he was overly ambitious to the point of having no scruples, but that for every bit of good fortune Curtis had in his career, it didn't quite seem to stick and now that he has died at the age of 85 though he leaves a legacy of many good performances and great films, somehow he didn't end up having the career that his talent deserved.
He made his film debut in a short film directed by Jerry Lewis in 1949 called How to Smuggle a Hernia Across the Border but, thankfully, features and real roles would come his way. The next year the former Bernard Schwartz got to join the Cavalry in a classic Western: Anthony Mann's Winchester '73 starring Jimmy Stewart, though his credit read Anthony Curtis.
Three years later, he showed his knack for escaping tight spots by taking on the title role in Houdini. Three years later, he teamed with Burt Lancaster in Carol Reed's colorful but silly circus melodrama Trapeze. The next year he and Lancaster teamed up again in what may be his best work, the wonderfully cynical Sweet Smell of Success. As a press agent in Alexander Mackendrick's masterwork, Curtis and Lancaster were a great acting twosome and they had that great Elmer Bernstein score and James Wong Howe cinematography that really brought 1950s Manhattan alive in glorious black-and-white.
In 1958, he and Kirk Douglas teamed up as The Vikings. The same year, he received his only Oscar nomination as an escaped prisoner chained to another inmate, Sidney Poitier, in Stanley Kramer's The Defiant Ones. As was the case with many Kramer films, the social messaging got ladeled on a bit too thickly, but Curtis and Poitier's realism helped to temper that aspect so the film went down a bit more smoothly.
1959 brought him the chance to work with Cary Grant twice in a way. He did it for real in Operation Petticoat. Then, in the film of his that will last the test of time most likely, Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot, he should have earned his second Oscar nomination for essentially playing three characters: Joe, the musician on the run from the mob with Jack Lemmon; Josephine, the female character he assumes in hiding; and Shell Oil Jr., the playboy who sounds suspiciously like Cary Grant as he tries to seduce Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe). He's a riot in all three personas. However, the Academy only nominated Lemmon for the film.
Two years later, he had a small role in Stanley Kubrick's largely disowned Spartacus, where his most famous scene, a bathing encounter full of sexual innuendo with Laurence Olivier, was lost on a cutting room floor for decades.
The rest of the 1960s saw Curtis still work steadily but in projects less worthy of his time. He got hidden under heavy makeup as did many others in John Huston's mystery The List of Adrian Messenger; he co-starred with Natalie Wood in the adaptation of Helen Gurley Brown's best seller Sex and the Single Girl; he showed off a killer instinct as The Boston Strangler; he got to joke around with Lemmon again in The Great Race; and without him in Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies.
Before The Simpsons made it a habit to have famous guest voices, Curtis' voice turned up on The Flintstones, which turned 50 today, as Stony Curtis.
His career really started to cool in the 1970s, thanks in no small part to a cocaine habit, and it led to bad film roles such as The Bad News Bears Go to Japan and lots of television, such as a regular role opposite Robert Urich on Vega$.
His last feature role of interest was probably Nicolas Roeg's 1985 film Insignificance, based on a play, where he played a fictionalized version of Sen. Joe McCarthy encountering Einstein, Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe in a hotel room.
He also appeared on a later episode of Roseanne as a frisky dance instructor who sparks jealousy between Jackie and her mother.
During his marriage to the actress Janet Leigh, they had a daughter who became an actress in her own right, Jamie Lee Curtis.
It's a shame that a career that started so strongly, sort of petered out, but Curtis left so much good material in those early years that he'll still be remembered.
RIP Mr. Curtis.
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Yabba Dabba Doo!
By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
If William “Bill” Hanna and Joseph “Joe” Barbera had done little else in animation but direct a cat-and-mouse team that answered to Tom and Jerry, that alone would insure their place in The Cartoon Hall of Fame. Teamed together at MGM’s cartoon studio in 1939 and directing their first short, Puss Gets the Boot, a year later — the duo would go on to win for the studio seven Oscars in the field of Academy Award for Best Short Subject (Cartoon) between 1943 and 1953. MGM was the Tiffany’s of motion picture studios, and having Bill and Joe in their animation stable was merely the icing on an already prestigious cinematic cake.
So how did “Tiffany” reward their valued employees after 17 years of devoted service? They closed the cartoon studio in 1957, and for a while it appeared that Hanna and Barbera would have to find honest work. The only medium that was still open to animation was that upstart known as television, so Bill and Joe worked out a system that allowed them to produce cartoons for TV without necessitating the lofty expense required for full, theatrical-style animation (a stylized format first practiced by animation studio pioneer U.P.A.). Their first boob tube success was The Ruff and Reddy Show, and following that they would introduce iconic characters such as Huckleberry Hound, Yogi Bear and Quick Draw McGraw to boob tube audiences young and old.
Fifty years ago on this date, Hanna-Barbera premiered their biggest project to date on a Friday evening at 8:30 p.m. Eastern time — the first prime-time animated situation comedy. And until a certain jaundice-colored family from the town of Springfield set up shop on TV 29 years later, The Flintstones’ six seasons in prime-time would be the longest — a page right out of (television) history.
Bill Hanna made no bones about it — The Flintstones was essentially a cartoon version of Jackie Gleason’s classic sitcom The Honeymooners with, as the Wikipedia entry notes, “rock puns thrown in.” But his partner Joe disavowed this in a separate interview — though he did confess that he would be flattered if people compared it to the legendary Gleason half-hour — and most of the special feature documentaries in any of the show’s DVD releases are careful not to mention the connection between the two programs. But they’re not fooling anyone: the Flintstones’ main character, Prehistoric caveman Fred Flintstone, was an animated Ralph Kramden and his sidekick, Barney Rubble, was Ed Norton (Art Carney) in cartoon form. (Their wives, Wilma Flintstone and Betty Rubble, completed the quartet in the roles established by Audrey Meadows as Alice Kramden and Joyce Randolph as Trixie Norton.) In fact, The Great One himself gave serious thought to hauling Bill and Joe into court for copyright infringement until one of his associates asked him if he wanted to be remembered as “the man who killed Fred Flintstone.”
Fred and Barney were blue collar slobs who toiled at a rock quarry owned by the autocratic Nate Slate — though his first and last names varied throughout the show’s run. Many of the Flintstones’ plots were lifted right out of Honeymooners 101 — in fact, the premiere episode, “The Flintstone Flyer,” finds our two heroes faking illness to get out of taking their wives to the opera and going bowling instead, taking advantage of Barney’s newest invention, a primitive helicopter. If the pair weren’t sneaking out to go bowling or to the fights or some other leisure activity frowned upon by their spouses, they would be attending meetings at their lodge, The Loyal Order of Water Buffalos. Now, belonging to a fraternal organization was certainly not a novelty on television at that time — but it was certainly suspect when Messrs. Kramden and Norton were members in good standing in The Loyal Order of Raccoons.
In its early stages, The Flintstones originally was called “The Flagstones” — and in fact, a two-minute pilot for the series was discovered a few years ago with this appellation. (The legend has it that the creators of the comic strip "Hi and Lois" weren’t as bashful as Jackie Gleason and did threaten to take Hanna-Barbera to court because the comic strip family’s last name was Flagstone.) The surname of the modern Stone Age family was then changed to Gladstone, and finally Flintstone — though there are some surviving character sheets that have “The Gladstones” printed on them and then, marked out with a red pencil, the final and eventual choice.
One huge benefit provided by The Flintstones was that it provided a lot of work for acting veterans who spent most of their time in radio — Mel Blanc, the voice of Barney Rubble (and the Flintstones’ pet, Dino), was of course no vocal stranger to the public having appeared on practically every popular radio comedy show at the time (most notably Jack Benny’s) and also voicing most of the players in the Warner Bros. cartoon stables such as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Porky Pig. Bea Benaderet, another Benny vet, was a familiar face to television viewers as next-door neighbor Blanche Morton on George Burns & Gracie Allen’s television series; she would voice Betty Rubble until the 1964-65 season, when the role was taken over by Gerry Johnson (Benaderet’s starring duties on Petticoat Junction by that time kept her fairly busy).
As for Alan Reed, Fred Flintstone would make him a household name — as Teddy Bergman, he had headlined his own comedy series on radio back in the 1930s and would become a prominent character actor on radio sitcoms such as Duffy’s Tavern, My Friend Irma and Life with Luigi. Only Jean VanderPyl was a relatively unknown quality (her best-known radio gig was playing Robert Anderson’s wife on the radio version of Father Knows Best); but that would no longer be the case upon taking on the role of Wilma Flintstone (and also the addition to the family in the series’ third season, baby Pebbles). (Interestingly, VanderPyl would be the only performer from the “Flagstones” pilot to be retained for the series; the other voices were done by Hanna-Barbera utility man Daws Butler and June Foray, the voice of Rocky the Flying Squirrel.) Other actors who appeared on The Flintstones in a regular capacity were Don Messick, Howard Morris, Hal Smith, Allan Melvin and Henry Corden; radio veterans who lent their speaking voices included John Stephenson, Janet Waldo, Frank Nelson, Paula Winslowe, Verna Felton, Howard McNear, Sandra Gould, Herb Vigran and Dick Beals.
The Flintstones was struck by misfortune in its sophomore year when actor Blanc came close to saying “Th-Th-That’s all folks!” as a result of a near-fatal automobile crash. Hanna-Barbera’s Butler came to the rescue by voicing Barney Rubble for five Flintstones shows, but Blanc’s recuperation was speedier than expected and he was able to continue on as Rubble — with the remaining cast and sometimes up to 16 people at a time crowded around in Blanc’s bedroom, where he was on the mend in a full body cast. This also explained why the Barney Rubble voice changed from a sort of nasal whine in the series' first year into the more familiar (and deeper) “hee hee hee” register sometime in the second season.
Years of reruns, series permutations and Pebbles Cereals commercials tend to overshadow how groundbreaking The Flintstones’ debut really was. The prohibitive cost of producing theatrical cartoons was taking a toll on those studios still making them, which is why it was necessary to adopt, adapt and improve for television. But even by “limited animation” standards, production of Flintstones was a daunting task — it required 24-25 minutes of animation per week, whereas the adventures of Huck, Yogi and Quick Draw usually only required six minutes at a time. It was a huge gamble, but it paid off — The Flintstones ranked at No. 18 among all television shows in its debut season, giving the still-struggling ABC a much-needed hit (only My Three Sons, which also debuted the same year, ranked higher). (Unfortunately, the network’s other prime-time cartoon experiment, The Bugs Bunny Show, didn’t do quite as well…and would leave the airways after its second season to toil in the lush orchards of Saturday morning programming for the next three decades.) The success of Flintstones also blossomed into a real cash cow for those companies fortunate enough to get in on the ground floor merchandising games, dolls, puzzles, comic books, coloring books and other kid-like swag.
During its six-year-run on ABC (for a total of 166 episodes), The Flintstones established many television animation “firsts.” The most prominent of these occurred in the third season (in fact, Flintstones became the first prime-time cartoon series to last more than two seasons), when Fred learns from Wilma in an episode entitled “The Surprise” that she is great with child, making her the first pregnant cartoon character. (Fred and Wilma were also the first cartoon couple to sleep in the same bed, though they also kept separate accommodations in some episodes.) Wilma’s pregnancy became a major story arc during Season Three —
making Flintstones the first series to use a continuing plotline, whereas earlier the show utilized stand-alone episodes, and in Season Four, when Barney and Betty adopted a young son named Bamm-Bamm they became the first cartoon couple unable to conceive (though this was conveyed subtly; it would have been a bit untoward to have one of the show’s many cartoon prehistoric animal appliances remark: “Betty’s insides are a rocky place where Barney’s seed can find no purchase...RAWWK!!!”).
Again, because of its pervasive presence on Saturday mornings and in syndication it’s often easy to forget that The Flintstones was geared primarily toward adult audiences (although children could certainly enjoy the show, too) — which is why a casual surfing of YouTube will occasionally turn up the now infamous commercial of Fred and Barney relaxing in flavor country smoking a pack of Winston cigarettes. The Winston people sponsored the series in its first two seasons and featured the denizens of Bedrock in integrated commercials…but the tobacco company pulled out in season three when Wilma was enceinte, letting Welch’s (grape juice and jelly) pay the bills; the switch in sponsor and arrival of Pebbles also shifted the show toward a more family-friendly direction. Miles Laboratories (makers of One-a-Day Vitamins and Alka-Seltzer) was also one of the series’ original sponsors, and after the show’s network run introduced a brand of vitamins called Flintstones Chewables that remain popular to this day. (Post Cereals followed Miles’ lead in the 1970s by manufacturing a line of breakfast foods to capitalize on the Flintstones’ fame, dubbed Fruity and Cocoa Pebbles.)
The success of The Flintstones ushered in several other attempts to capture its prime-time magic; Hanna-Barbera adapted The Phil Silvers Show into the series Top Cat in the 1961-62 season, and even copied their own Flintstones formula with The Jetsons in 1962-63, only this time with a "modern Space Age" family. The Alvin Show, The Bullwinkle Show, Calvin and the Colonel, The Famous Adventures of Mister Magoo and The Adventures of Jonny Quest (another H-B entry) all followed, and for a while it was not at all strange to see cartoons mingling with sitcoms, dramas and variety shows in the evening hours. But none of them managed to last the length of Flintstones; a show whose prime-time longevity would be broken with the debut of The Simpsons in 1989…a show that still soldiers on as of this post.
Generations of couch potatoes grew up singing the fabled lyrics of The Flintstones’ theme song (“Let’s ride with the family down the street/through the courtesy of Fred’s two feet”)…but it may interest you to know that that oh-so-familiar ditty wasn’t actually introduced until three years into the show — the series’ original incidental music was an instrumental known as “Rise and Shine” (which many people have noted sounds similar to the “This is It” theme song of The Bugs Bunny Show). “Shine” and the program’s credits in the first two seasons were removed when the show went into syndication, so when reruns of Flintstones made the rounds on Cartoon Network (with the original theme and titles) people were more than a little puzzled. The Flintstones, according to animation historian Earl Kress, “are the crowning jewel in the Hanna-Barbera legacy” — and on this momentous occasion I’d like to wish all those involved with the show a happy golden anniversary, with hopes of many more to come. Maybe future television generations will continue to laugh and enjoy watching series…and maybe someday Fred will win the fight (and that cat will stay out for the night).
Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. blogs at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, and theorizes that somewhere among people who live without any contact with or knowledge of advanced civilizations, their offspring can sing all the words to The Flintstones theme. (Oh, and Gilligan’s Island, too.)
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Wednesday, September 29, 2010
Arthur Penn (1922-2010)
Arthur Penn, like many of our greatest directors, accomplished many fine works, in his case on stage, screen and television, but one landmark film proved so extraordinary it will inevitably tower among the rest as those of us who write about film try to pay tribute to the man who died Tuesday night, one day after turning 88. In case any of you might be uncertain what that film might be, it came out in 1967, polarized critics and has sparked countless imitators and influenced many more ever since. Its title was Bonnie and Clyde.
Trying to list all the films — good, bad and mediocre — that came in the wake of Bonnie and Clyde and owe a debt to Penn would take up more space than a large metropolitan city's white pages, so I'll spare you the list. Still, it took a director with Penn's talent to turn Robert Benton and David Newman's screenplay about two famous Depression-era outlaws and transform into a work of art that seemed to play as something new each time you watched it. It was a chase film, a romance, a dark comedy, a slapstick comedy all while offering new statements on movie violence and asking questions we still wrestle with today such as who are bigger thieves: bank robbers or the corporations that own the banks? He gave us what arguably is Warren Beatty's best acting work, ably supported by superb turns by Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman, Estelle Parsons and Michael J. Pollard. He managed to make a movie set in the Depression that plays as fresh today as it would have in 1967 while films made much more recently already seem dated.
Though, as I said in the beginning, one film alone does not tell the Arthur Penn story. He directed frequently on Broadway, most recently a revival of Larry Gelbart's play Sly Fox in 2004 starring Richard Dreyfuss, Eric Stoltz and even Professor Irwin Corey. He first directed on Broadway in 1956. He received three Tony nomination as director of a play for Two for the Seesaw (1958), The Miracle Worker (1960) and All the Way Home (1961), winning for The Miracle Worker. He also directed the original production of Wait Until Dark in 1966. He also directed the Broadway show that really gave life to the comic teaming of Mike Nichols and Elaine May. In connection with his theater roots, he served as president of The Actors Studio from 1995 to 1998.
Even before he began working on Broadway, he got his directing start on television on the many showcases for plays that flourished in the 1950s. He made his feature debut in 1958 with the story of another famous outlaw when Paul Newman portrayed Billy the Kid in The Left Handed Gun.
Four years later, he adapted his Broadway success The Miracle Worker for movies with original cast members Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke. Bancroft, who won the Tony as Annie Sullivan, repeated the win at the Oscars. Duke also won an Oscar and Penn received his first Oscar nomination as director.
Two years later, he was fired from the movie The Train and replaced with John Frankenheimer. The next year, he teamed with Warren Beatty for the first time in Mickey One. The year after that, Lillian Hellman wrote the adaptation of the Horton Foote novel and play The Chase which Penn directed Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda and Robert Redford in, but again had disatisfying results with studio meddling.
He received his second Oscar nomination for directing for Bonnie and Clyde and rounded out the 1960s with a third one for the joyous Alice's Restaurant, a loose and entertaining film based on Arlo Guthrie's epic folk hit that starred Guthrie himself.
The 1970s began with what I think is his second-best film, the great satirical Western Little Big Man starring Dustin Hoffman as a man torn between his lives as a white man and an unofficial Native American. It also reunited him with Faye Dunaway in a hysterical supporting role and featured Richard Mulligan, best known as Burt on Soap, in an awesome turn as Custer. He also directed one of the segments of the legendary documentary about the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Visions of Eight.
He re-teamed with Hackman for the 1975 detective film Night Moves and put Brando and Jack Nicholson together for 1976's The Missouri Breaks. In 1981, he made a favorite of mine, a real sleeper called Four Friends written by Steve Tesich. Hackman joined him again along with Matt Dillon for 1985's Target. He followed that with the 1987 thriller Dead of Winter and 1989's one-of-a-kind Penn and Teller Get Killed.
His final film projects were TV movies, an episode of a short-lived TV series and he was one of a huge list of directors such as Spike Lee, Liv Ullmann, Wim Wenders, Zhang Yimou, Michael Haneke, James Ivory, Ismail Merchant, David Lynch and many more, who contributed segments for a film called Lumiere and Company .
RIP Mr. Penn.
Labels: Bancroft, Brando, Dunaway, Dustin Hoffman, Gelbart, Hackman, Haneke, J. Fonda, Liv Ullmann, Lynch, Merchant Ivory, Newman, Nichols, Nicholson, Obituary, Redford, Richard Mulligan, Spike Lee, W. Beatty, Zhang Yimou
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The Walt Disney of Situation Comedies
By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
During the '30s and '40s, actor Fred MacMurray established a silver screen persona as one of the movies’ most affable and likable leading men. He excelled at leads in romantic comedies such as The Gilded Lily (1935), Hands Across the Table (1935) and The Princess Comes Across (1936), and extended his range to dramatic fare such as Alice Adams (1935), The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936), The Texas Rangers (1936) and Above Suspicion (1943). He even demonstrated that he could reach even farther with a critically lauded turn as a killer in Billy Wilder’s film noir classic Double Indemnity (1944), a film which was nominated for seven Oscars (though the actor himself went without a nod)
But by the 1950s, MacMurray’s box-office luster as a movie star had dimmed slightly, though he would appear in two of his best vehicles in The Caine Mutiny (1954) and The Apartment (1960). Instead, his career took a different path when he agreed to star in The Shaggy Dog (1959), a slapstick romp produced by the Walt Disney studios. Fred became one of the most recognizable faces in Disney flicks from that point on, appearing in six additional movies released by the studio…most notably the 1961 box-office smash The Absent-Minded Professor (1961) and its sequel, Son of Flubber (1963).
The original concept of Dog was actually pitched to ABC (who had asked Walt Disney to create more hit programming along the lines of Disneyland and Zorro) as a situation comedy, but the network was a little lukewarm about the idea, and so Uncle Walt decided to make a feature film instead. But there are those who believe that MacMurray’s turn in the film was essentially a springboard for a weekly comedy series that he would star in for ABC (and later CBS); a show that premiered on the network 50 years ago on this date. You know it as My Three Sons.
“The same dog, the same kids, and Fred” was the pungent observation of Walt Disney Studios writer-producer Bill Walsh on the sitcom success of My Three Sons…though that may be stretching things a tad. But there’s no denying that Sons had a Disney-like feel to it; MacMurray’s…or, I should say, Steve Douglas’ (the father he played on the show) oldest son Mike was played by child actor Tim Considine, a veteran of the Hardy Boys and Spin and Marty “serials” that were featured on Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club. Don Grady, who played the middle Douglas offspring (Robbie), was a Club “Mouseketeer” on the early years of the program (as Don Agrati). Stanley Livingston (Richard, though nicknamed “Chip”) may not have had a Disney connection but he had made appearances on TV’s The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet…which was practically Disney to its very core.
My Three Sons, created by producer Don Fedderson and former Leave it to Beaver scribe George Tibbles, essentially chronicled the weekly misadventures of the Douglas family, humorous tales from an all-male preserve (Steve was a widower) that was run by Michael Francis “Bub” O’Casey (William Frawley), the kids’ grandfather. Though a series that had a noticeable lack of female participation might seem a bit chauvinistic (the show did sometimes suggest that males were superior and could do very nicely without the opposite sex), it’s important to note that Sons often offered wry commentary on gender roles in society. Bub, a feisty ol’ Irishman who took no guff from anyone, was technically the “female” of the household — he did the cooking, cleaning, sewing, etc., and essentially looked after Steve’s brood with care and love. (In the show’s first episode, he is summoned to the front door when a cosmetic salesman asks young Chip if he can speak with “the lady of the house.”) Sons also was unique in that it was one of the first situation comedies to ignore the traditional nuclear-family concept of domestic comedies on television, a model established by shows such as Father Knows Best, Leave it to Beaver and The Donna Reed Show. While there were occasionally comedy series that featured unmarried adults in charge of children (Bachelor Father, Love That Bob), Sons really kicked off the single-parent trend, ushering in a vogue of sitcoms that would later include Family Affair (created and produced by many of the same people who worked on Sons), The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, Julia, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and Nanny and the Professor.
At the time of My Three Sons’ debut, there still existed a stigma about television that kept big-screen actors and actresses away from the small screen — even after a few of them began to stick in their toe to test the boob tube waters. MacMurray, in a casual conversation with Robert Young, asked his fellow thespian about the working conditions on Young’s Father Knows Best, and Young launched into a complaint about how time-consuming the schedule could be. So MacMurray — who owned 50% of Sons — had it stipulated in his contract that he only had to work a total of 65 consecutive days per season, a system that was soon dubbed “the MacMurray method.” All of the actor’s scenes were shot within this time frame (so all Fred really had to do was change his cardigan...and facial expression), allowing him to work on feature films if the opportunity presented itself — but it turned out to be a nightmare for the show’s writers, who often had to have a backlog of scripts completed beforehand to accommodate the actor’s unorthodox schedule. This situation was rife with any number of inconveniences for the supporting actors as well — particularly if a scheduled guest star suddenly passed away or if an actor gained weight or had a growth spurt. (The writers often fell back on featuring limited participation from MacMurray, alibiing that his character was “out of town” or phoning in from a business trip.) As problematic as filming out of sequence was (the other performers despised it, with Bill Frawley being the most vocal), the “method” soon became an accepted practice in the business, and was later adopted by new-to-TV stars such as Brian Keith, Henry Fonda and James Stewart.
At the beginning of My Three Sons’ fifth season, actor Frawley (who was 77 at the time) was in ill-health, and Desilu — the company where Sons was filmed — could no longer get insurance for him…which necessitated his character be “written out” out of the show at mid-season (his last appearance was in the episode “A Woman’s Work,” where it was explained that he’d moved back to Ireland to help out the family’s Aunt Kate). The following episode would introduce Bub’s cantankerous brother Charley (William Demarest, who no doubt got the part due to his friendship with star MacMurray, whom he had known and worked with since the 1930s) to the cast, a retired Merchant Marine who would continue on as the household’s chief cook-and-bottle-washer for the next seven years. Frawley made no secret of his displeasure at being replaced…and was particularly nonplussed that Demarest was filling his shoes because of his legendary feud with the actor. The fact that Desilu — who had employed Frawley on the landmark sitcom I Love Lucy as iconic wacky next-door neighbor Fred Mertz — had to give the actor his walking papers is bitterly ironic; Frawley’s last TV role was a cameo appearance in the studio’s The Lucy Show before his death in 1966.
The fifth season also would see the departure of eldest son Mike, who started dating Sally Ann Morrison (Meredith MacRae) in the show’s fourth season and would manage to propose marriage in only a few episodes that followed. The extensive planning and execution of Mike and Sally's eventual nuptials certainly provided a valid reason for their exit…but the real reason for actor Tim Considine’s bow-out was that he elected not to renew his contract after a major disagreement with producer Fedderson. Considine, who had penned a pair of scripts for Sons, was far more interested in directing the show than appearing in it. (Considine was also a auto racing enthusiast, something his contract forbade.) Considine and MacRae appeared in the first episode of Sons’ sixth season in a brief sequence that found the two tying the knot — but for all intents and purposes neither of them were ever heard from again (MacRae later turned up on Petticoat Junction, replacing actress Gunilla Hutton as Billie Jo Bradley). This situation, in which a character drops out of sight and is rarely again referenced by the family came to be known among television aficionados as the “Mike Douglas Kiss Off” — no connection to the legendary talk-show host, of course. (Considine wouldn’t reunite with his TV “clan” until the 1977 Thanksgiving reunion special, which curiously paired the Sons cast with the members of TV’s The Partridge Family.)
Faced with the decision of having to re-title the show My Two Sons, head writer Tibbles hit upon the idea of adding a replacement “third son” to the cast with a three-part story arc that found the Douglas family adopting young Ernie Thompson, a friend of Chip’s that also had been introduced during the show’s third season (Ernie, in order to become a Douglas, had to suffer the indignity of having his parents perish in a car crash as well as becoming two years younger). Ernie was played by Barry Livingston — Stanley’s real-life brother — and he pretty much settled into the “Chip” role for the rest of the show’s run. The disappearance of Mike and subsequent replacement by Ernie, in fact, coincided with Sons’ move to CBS in the fall of 1965 when ABC refused to pay for the show’s switch to color production.
With one son marched down the matrimonial aisle and out of the house, it wasn’t long before the middle son, Robbie, found a fiancée in Katie Miller in the beginning of My Three Sons’ eighth season. (Grady had no directorial aspirations and didn’t race cars so he stuck around on the show for a while until the 12th and last season, when it was explained that Robbie’s job had relocated him to Peru.) Katie, played by Tina Cole, was one of the benefits of the family’s move to Los Angeles, Calif., from their original stomping grounds in the fictitious burg of Bryant Park. Again, in keeping with the Douglas family tradition of moving fast into wedded bliss before their intendeds could change their minds, Robbie and Katie were wed a mere four episodes later — and at the beginning of season eight, the newlyweds got a visit from the stork…in the form of triplets (which they dutifully named Steve, Jr., Charley, and Robbie the Second…which kind of gives you an idea of how much stock Bub and Mike held at that time). Chip wasn’t quite old enough to get hitched (he’d get that done in season 11 with girlfriend Polly Williams [Ronnie Troup]…and ever the rebel, he bypassed the whole ceremony nonsense and just eloped) so patriarch Steve stepped up to the plate by tying the knot with Barbara Harper, a widow played by cult favorite Beverly Garland, not too long after the start of the 10th season. Barbara had a little girl from her previous marriage, a precocious little tot named Dodie (Dawn Lyn), who fortunately arrived just at the right time on the series because Ernie was starting to outgrow his cuteness. (MacMurray must have enjoyed the wedding so much he did it again a second time — only as Laird [Lord] Fergus McBain Douglas, the Scottish cousin of Steve’s who scooped up cocktail waitress Terri Dowling [Anne Francis] in a four-part story arc that ushered in the show’s last season.)
During its phenomenal 12-year stint on television — the second longest live-action family situation comedy after Ozzie & Harriet — My Three Sons failed to crack the Top 30 shows only twice…in its seventh and last seasons. In fact, in its penultimate season, the show was still popular among viewers (#19) and would have probably soldiered on after its 12th year were it not for CBS President Fred Silverman’s insistence on moving it from its Saturday night slot (where it had resided since the 1967-68 season) to a new berth on Monday nights, awarding its old spot to network newcomer All in the Family. The ratings took a nose dive, and a move to Thursdays at midseason couldn’t repair the damage…though in Fred’s defense, Family would soon become the #1 show on TV. (The story goes that MacMurray, who renewed his contract on an annual basis, would have continued playing the Douglas patriarch had the show been renewed for Season 13…and even lobbied Silverman to save the show but to no avail.)
For years after the show’s demise and its inevitable arrival at the Old Syndication Home, My Three Sons was rerun constantly…but only in color; Viacom withheld the early 1960-65 black-and-white shows, much in the same manner as they did the first two monochromatic seasons (1963-65) of Petticoat Junction. A generation of couch potatoes grew up not knowing of Bub and Mike until Nick at Nite reintroduced Sons’ early years to its schedule in 1985, often publicizing the series with wacky promos including an unforgettable spot that added “lyrics” to Frank DeVol’s memorable “Chopsticks”-like theme (“And then there’s Bub/He makes them food/They’ve got a dog/They’re My Three Sons”). The black-and-white reruns (and the shows from Season 12) were a mainstay of the cable channel until 1991; they briefly resurfaced again on TVLand in 2000 and were featured on FamilyNet about a year ago but have since disappeared in the mists of TV memory. CBS DVD-Paramount has released the first two seasons of Sons to DVD but one has to wonder how committed they are to making certain it’s not forgotten; not only have the releases been the dreaded “split-season” issues but much of the music has been changed for copyright reasons.
Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. blogs at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, and for years couldn’t figure out why his mother considered Beverly Garland her favorite actress (“You mean the lady on My Three Sons?”).
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Tuesday, September 28, 2010
Houston, we have a problem
By Edward Copeland
Problem probably isn't the correct word to use here, but hey, I had to go for the play on the phrase since thanks to TCM I finally saw Robert Altman's Brewster McCloud. One word sticks in my brain after viewing his followup film to MASH: bizarre, bizarre, bizarre. It isn't unwatchable bizarre in the way Quintet is, but Brewster McCloud most decidedly spins a strange tale. It does though go a long way in explaining how Altman's reputation as an iconoclast got cast in cement in Hollywood. It took balls to follow up a critical and box office hit such as MASH with a loony lark like Brewster McCloud.
Bud Cort, who made his debut in MASH, stars as the title character, a young man who lives in a room inside the Houston Astrodome. We don't immediately know what his plan is, but we do know that people he comes in contact with keep turning up strangled to death, all marked mysteriously with bird shit.
The film begins with, and is frequently interrupted by, another MASH cast member, Rene Auberjonois, as "The Lecturer," who tells us facts about the history of birds in addition to making strange bird noises and movements. MASH co-stars populate the film including Sally Kellerman as Brewster's friend and protector, Michael Murphy as a San Francisco police detective brought in to help with the murder investigation, John Schuck as a Houston patrolman and G. Wood as a Houston police captain. It also introduces us to future Altman regular Shelley Duvall, features Altman repertory player Bert Remsen, William Windom, Jennifer Salt, a young Stacy Keach hidden behind old age makeup and Margaret Hamilton who even gets to die wearing ruby red slippers. It's got a helluva ensemble for such a weird and wacky tale. It's pretty amazing that Altman already had earned so much faith from so many actors to get them to take a chance on a film whose plot couldn't be called half-baked on a good day.
The movie opens as if to make certain we know it's not to be taken seriously as Leo, the sturdy old MGM lion, fails to emit his usual roar but instead comes forth with Auberjonois' voice saying he doesn't know what the next line is. The next thing we know, we are on the field of the Astrodome where Hamilton is leading a chorus in The Star-Spangled Banner as the credits roll. Someone messes up, so Hamilton insists they start over, only not only does the chorus start over, so do the credits. There even is a credit reading "Title song by Francis Scott Key."
When we meet Brewster, radio reports already speculate about a previous murder as he drives a rich old man (the one played by Keach, who wasn't even 30 years old) under all that makeup) who is going around town terrorizing various people and collecting money from them. It's pure lunacy, but it is funny. When an accident spills the cash from Keach's hands and Cort tries to collect it, the old man pulls a gun and accuses him of trying to steal it. He drops it and as the wind blows the bills to and fro, we see the film's first dropping of bird shit as it strikes Keach's old man. It's the film's equivalent of the mark of death. It also reminded me of all those dog shit jokes nearly a quarter-century later in Ready to Wear, which may be a more conventional movie than Brewster McCloud but also a worse one and definitely a less interesting one. Coincidentally or not, both films contain murder mysteries that hardly seem to matter.
My favorite performance of the film belongs to Murphy as Lt. Shaft (before a more famous Shaft played by Richard Roundtree entered movie lore) as he investigates the murders. He works as the movie's straight man and it makes him all the funnier, especially since it's a mystery that neither the movie nor the characters in it seem particularly interested in solving. Still, Murphy treats it seriously, as if his duty compels him to solve the killings. He's even interested in identifying the type of bird the shit is coming from and if it's the same one.
Reviewing Brewster McCloud does not prove an easy task for a critic. It's not as if I fear spoilers, because there's nothing crucial to ruin since the movie charts such a strange course in which twists don't matter. It's just too odd to analyze. It's not a good movie. I don't think I'd ever want to watch it again, but yet I wouldn't want to discourage Altman completists from seeking it out. Unfortunately, that's difficult to do. Warner Archives has made the film available for DVD purchase, but not for rental. I'm lucky I caught it on TCM because I imagine my reaction would be harsher if I'd spent $30 for this film, sight unseen, just because I'd never had the chance to see it before. Warner really should make rental copies available of its library as well if they are making DVD copies to order.
If you get the chance and you love Altman, Brewster McCloud probably is worth watching, if only so you can say that you've seen it, but I'd think twice before buying it blindly unless you have lots of disposable income.
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Monday, September 27, 2010
Oliver Stone's Other Favorite Lizard King Returns
It has been more than 20 years since Wall Street (1987) was released in theaters and, at the time, it was blamed for cashing in on the stock market crash that wiped out more than a few people’s fortunes. The financial landscape has changed radically since then and so, in many ways, has Oliver Stone’s career. In the 1980s and early 1990s, he was on an unbelievable roll, cranking out controversial, headline-grabbing films such as Platoon (1986), JFK (1991) and Natural Born Killers (1994). And then he made Nixon (1995), arguably his most ambitious and complex (both stylistically and content-wise) film to date — critics were divided and audiences failed to show up.
Stone continued to plug along gamely but after his longtime director of photography Robert Richardson left after the neo-noir oddity U-Turn (1997), the director lost his most important creative collaborator. Any Given Sunday (1999) was an energetic if not flawed expose of professional American football and well, let’s just say that the 2000s have not been kind to him (see Alexander, World Trade Center and W.) With the release of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010), there’s a glimmer of hope that this new project might be a return to form for the auteur. He’s never done a sequel before but with how radically the financial world has changed since 9/11 it is an intriguing prospect to see what a character such as Gordon Gekko would be doing now. With recent scandals such as Enron and the Dow Jones meltdown in 2008, a Wall Street sequel is very timely.
It’s 2001 and Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) has been released from prison. There’s no one to pick him up and instead he’s handed a check for $1,800 and a train ticket. Seven years later, he’s peddling a book, Is Greed Good? and trying to get back into the game. Meanwhile, Jacob “Jake” Moore (Shia LaBeouf) is a young and ambitious proprietary trader working Keller Zabel. This whiz kid is trying to develop an alternative energy project. Stone immerses us in the trading floor and boy, does it look different than it did back in 1987. The technology, obviously, is vastly different but the frenetic energy is still the same. Jake is living with and engaged to a beautiful young woman named Winnie (Carey Mulligan) who is an Internet journalist working for a liberal-minded Web site. Oh yeah, her estranged father just happens to be Gekko, much to her chagrin.
When Jake's investment firm's stock takes a major hit, his distraught and disillusioned mentor Lewis Zabel (Frank Langella) is pushed out of the company by ruthless hedge fund manager Bretton James (Josh Brolin). Devastated and humiliated, Zabel takes his own life. Jake goes to see Gekko speak and is impressed by what the man has to say. Maybe he’s found a new mentor. Afterward, Jake meets Gekko and tells him about his plans to marry Winnie. They strike a deal: Jake will help Gekko reconcile with his daughter and in return Gekko will help Jake exact some payback on James, the man who sent Zabel over the edge.
With Gekko’s help, Jake does some digging and spreads a few rumors that cause Churchill Schwartz, the company that James works for, to take a notable hit. Impressed by what he did, James hires Jake because after all, keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Jake naturally accepts as it brings him in close proximity to James so that he can ultimately bring him down. And like that, it’s on with Jake and James going after each other with Gekko as the wild card, begging the question, what is his stake in all this?
Shia LaBeouf, an actor known for mindless blockbusters (Transformers and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) and generic thrillers (Disturbia and Eagle Eye), finally shows some actual acting chops in his first legitimate dramatic role that has him up against heavyweights like Michael Douglas, Josh Brolin and Frank Langella — guys that can really act. Being in their company forces LaBeouf to raise his game and he holds his own. This time around, it is LaBeouf who is the idealistic young man swimming with the sharks and in danger of being seduced by lots of money.
It is great to see Michael Douglas back in his most famous role and he slips back into it effortlessly. Gekko is as cagey as ever and like Jake we’re never quite sure what his true intentions are but one thing’s for sure, he’s not to be underestimated. And Douglas does a nice job hinting at the dangerous Gekko that lurks under his smiling façade. He has more than a few tricks up his sleeve and with all the cunning of an exceptional card player.
Josh Brolin plays a smug, cigar-smoking shark with no heart. He’s a grinning, deliciously evil bad guy. Carey Mulligan doesn’t have much to do but does a fine job with what she has to work with, especially a scene where Winnie and Gekko finally have it out over how his dirty financial dealings destroyed their family. One of the weak spots of the original Wall Street was Bud Fox’s relationship with his love interest and Stone tries not to make the same mistake with this film by casting a stronger actress with Mulligan and by placing a bigger emphasis on the relationship between Jake and Winnie. However, the film stalls when the focus shifts to them when we really should be tracking Jake plotting revenge on James.
The screenplay throws all kinds of financial jargon at the audience but it is all really window-dressing because all that matters is what it all means and Stone makes sure that we understand the bottom line. The dialogue still has some of the crackle and pop of the original film, especially in a good scene where Gekko and James spar verbally. If there is any glaring flaw in this film it is the overuse of David Byrne songs to the point of distraction. Each cue puts too fine a point on the scene with lyrics that spell out exactly what we are watching. Not to mention the songs are milquetoast drivel robbing the film of its fast-moving momentum at times.
Stone does a good job of keeping things visually interesting but the cinematography lacks the energy and that special something that Robert Richardson brought to the first film. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is easily the best film Stone’s done since Any Given Sunday. Of course, that’s not saying much but at least it feels like the kind of film that Stone used to make back in his prime. There is a confidence that comes with being back on familiar turf that Stone displays with this film. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is just the kind of film that he needs to reinvigorate his career and remind us why we regarded his films so highly in the first place.
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Boardwalk Empire No. 2: The Ivory Tower
BLOGGER'S NOTE: Good news. Ratings for last week's premiere were so good that HBO already has renewed Boardwalk Empire for a second season. This recap contains spoilers, so if you haven't seen the episode yet, move along.
By Edward Copeland
Boardwalk Empire may take its title from the famous walking area in Atlantic City, N.J., but the series' second episode opens in Chicago and a lot of the action, in the first six episodes at least, will take place in the Windy City as in this opening which shows the throngs gathered outside a church on a cold, snowy day for the funeral of slain mob boss Big Jim Colisimo. Among his pallbearers are Johnny Torrio and Al Capone, who disagreed with Colisimo's reluctance to get in on the bootlegging business and stole the load of Canadian Club whisky in Atlantic City that had been intended for Arnold Rothstein. Capone tries to hold off reporters, insisting they have respect for the dead. Place prominently on the back of the casket as it's loaded into the hearse is a large wreath offering condolences from Nucky Thompson.
Back in Atlantic City, the man who sent that wreath is gazing at the photo of his late wife and reading newspaper accounts of Colisimo's death while receiving a shoeshine. Nucky tries to makes small talk with the man kneeling before him, asking if he has any children and learning that he has four sons at home. Soon though, Eddie interrupts to announce that Agent Van Alden is there to see him. Of course, Nucky doesn't recognize the name or even get a chance to tell Eddie to make him wait because by that time Van Alden already has pushed his way into the office, brusquely introducing himself. "You are a hard man to get a hold of," Van Alden complains. "I've been waiting since 9 a.m." "There's your problem," Thompson replies. "I didn't get here until 2:30." The agent suggests that those are odd hours to keeps for the Atlantic County treasurer to which Nucky answers, "Both I and the city of Atlantic City march to the beat of our own drummer." Van Alden gets to the point, questioning him about the massacre in the woods and expressing skepticism at Thompson's story that Hans Schroeder was the culprit, since Schroeder had only one minor run-in with the law, an arrest Nucky himself happened to make in 1912 when he was sheriff. Tiring of the conversation, Nucky finally asks Van Alden if he shouldn't be out raiding stills. As Van Alden rises to leave he tells Thompson, "I suppose I march to he beat of another drummer myself." It's only the second episode, but it's great to finally see Buscemi and Shannon square off in a scene. Arguably the series premier actors, it's a joy to watch them spar and to watch the slick, joking Nucky try to charm his way around the stiff, intractable Van Alden, especially when we will see as the series develops that these two men have more in common than it would appear they do on the surface.
Out on the Boardwalk, a man is openly handing out pamphlets for the Ku Klux Klan as Jimmy strolls along with a large package under his arm. A necklace in a shop window catches his eye and he enters the establishment. With the second episode, directed by Tim Van Patten, Boardwalk Empire finds itself on even firmer footing storywise as the relationships become clearer and the plot strands start becoming clearer.
As Nucky and Eddie are exiting the hotel, a large man waves greetings to him. Nucky has to ask his valet to remind him who he is and what he does. The man is George Baxter (Allen Lewis Rickman) who provides cutlery for most of the city's restaurants. Nucky greets him and meets the young girl Claudia (Megan Ferguson) that Baxter brought up from Baltimore in hopes of romance.
At the hospital, Margaret still recovers from her miscarriage and busies herself reading The Ivory Tower by Henry James. A nurse tells her that Mr. Thompson has come to see her. You can the sense of excitement wash over the widow Schroeder as she tries her best to make herself look presentable and places a ribbon in her hair. To her disappointment, the Mr. Thompson in question turns out to be Eli. He offers his sympathies about her husband's death, but also makes it clear that should anyone ask her questions (i.e. Agent Van Alden) she should tell them that she had seen Hans involved in bootlegging activities. Margaret seems puzzled at first, probably because Eli can't help but bring a slightly threatening tone to anything he says, but she finally understands. Eli also bears a "gift" from his brother: An envelope stuffed full of cash.
Agents Van Alden and Sebso visit their supervisor Elliot to report on their Atlantic City findings. While they had went in pursuit of Arnold Rothstein, their preliminary investigation leads them to believe that Nucky Thompson is the bigger fish. "He is as corrupt as day is long," Van Alden says, describing Thompson's ritzy lifestyle and intricate network of graft where aldermen make collections for him from everyone, yet the voters, especially black voters, remain devoted to him. He owns casinos, whorehouses, booze flows as freely as ever and he even controls wire services for horse race betting. Van Alden compares Nucky's life to that of a pharaoh. At the jail, Nucky lambastes Eli for the way he handled Hans Schroeder. It worked out it in the end, but he wanted to make sure he was identifiable and the fish could have eaten his face off. Eli promises to be more careful next time. However, Nucky has a different mission at the jail. He's there to visit the former Mickey Cusick, now Doyle, who is sawing logs in his cell. His cellmate has to awaken him. Mickey leaps to his feet at the sight of Thompson, wondering where he's been. "You're out," Nucky tells him." A giddy Mickey starts gathering his things to bid the jail goodbye, until Nucky corrects his misconception. He isn't getting out of jail, he's out of the business. The feds know who he is now and he's contagious and he can't afford to be connected to him. Nucky is giving his business to Chalky White.
In New York, Arnold Rothstein amuses himself with some billiards practice when Lucky Luciano arrives with the man who killed Big Jim Colisimo, Frankie Yale (Joseph Riccobene). Rothstein tells Frankie the story of a man who made lots of money betting people that he could swallow any pool ball and bring it up back up out of his throat. One time, Rothstein chose to make that bet. Now, everyone knows that Rothstein does not make stupid bets, as the smooth, cerebral gangster tells the tale, and he'd seen the man do it many times, but the man took the challenge anyway and Rothstein chose the cue ball. What the man did not know and Rothstein did is that the cue ball is 1/16th larger than all the other pool balls. The man swallowed the cue ball, couldn't get it back up and choked to death. He asks Frankie if he realizes the point of his story, but Frankie just says something funny. No, Rothstein corrects him, the point is that if Rothstein would watch a man choke to death simply for his own amusement, what does Frankie think he's prepared to do to the man who killed Colisimo if he doesn't tell him who put him up to it. Stuhlbarg really gives a great turn as Rothstein and it's amazing that I didn't know who he was until last year when he gave his superb performance in the Coen brothers' A Serious Man, a character who couldn't be more far removed from Rothstein.
No sooner has Margaret returned home from the hospital than she receives a visit from Agent Van Alden. He apologizes when he realizes where she's been, but it doesn't prevent him from having a seat and asking her questions about her late husband. As Eli had predicted, the questions start coming involving Hans' involvement with alcohol. Margaret, uncertain of what she should do, stammers around, not really giving an answer in the affirmative or the negative. Van Alden explains to her that based on what he knows of her husband's past record, he suspects that he's been set up as a patsy for the murders in the woods and that he doubts that a mere baker's apprentice was the mastermind of the murders and hijacking. Margaret continues to remain vague, thoughts of her abusive dead husband's reputation and Mr. Thompson's generosity competing for loyalty within her.
Jimmy wanders into a rehearsal for an elaborate show that is not going well, when the director calls for a break and all the showgirls go back to their dressing room. Jimmy makes his way backstage to await their return. As the girls start making their way into the area, one lets out a shriek at the sight of Darmody and leaps into his arms. At first, you think perhaps Jimmy has a woman on the side but when he asks his mom to calm down, you realize this is his mother Gillian (Gretchen Mol), who must have been very young when she had him because she still looks great and can still be the star of risque show such as the type in which she appears. She tells Jimmy she thought he was dead, since he never wrote her while she was away at war. Jimmy then brings out a surprise: the necklace he saw in the shop window. It's almost identical to one she had when he was a child but was forced to sell to take care of her family. He'd always promised he'd get it back for her and here it is. Gillian starts hugging her long-lost son again.
Following the mother-and-son reunion, Jimmy returns to Nucky's office. Thompson asks him what he thinks he's doing. Jimmy says he's clocking in. Nucky says their relationship has changed quite a bit in the past 24 hours, would he not agree? Jimmy again tries to explain what went down and starts to take a seat, but Nucky stops him, saying he didn't say he could take a seat. Thompson expresses his anger since Van Alden had already paid him a visit asking him about the incident in the woods. Jimmy tells him that Al got spooked by a deer, having to explain exactly who Capone was. Nucky wants to know if Torrio sanctioned all this action, but Jimmy says he did only after the fact, but again reiterates that they only killed the five men when it went wrong because they couldn't leave any witnesses. Nucky says there were only four bodies, but let's not quibble about that. One thing is for certain: Jimmy no longer works for him. If he wants to be a gangster in Nucky's town, you have to pay him for the privilege. As far as that share he gave him, the way Thompson figures it, he still owes him $3000 and he has 48 hours to come up with it.
Nucky also has plenty of other issues, major and minor to deal with. Arnold Rothstein finally gets him on the phone and because of the shipment he never received, he feels that Nucky owes him $100,000. Additionally, one of the dead men happened to be his sister-in-law's nephew. Nucky disagrees. Rothstein asks if that's how they do business in Atlantic City and Nucky tells him he better not show his face there again or he'll find out. Nucky runs into a frustrated Baxter, the cutlery salesman, on the Boardwalk still frustrated in attempts at getting anywhere with Claudia. Nucky invents the possibility of a beauty pageant with Baxter as a judge in the hopes it will soften Claudia up and get Baxter laid. Jimmy is having even more trouble getting that $3000. He'd spent most of what he had. When he calls Capone and asks him to wire $500, Al acts like they had a bad connection and laughs. Finally, Jimmy is forced to steal back the necklace he gave his mother to hock it for the rest of the cash. Later that night, after midnight, a guilt-ridden Margaret shows up to see Nucky to return his money. She wants to know what it is he wants from her. "I want you to vote Republican," Thompson tells her.
Even later, Jimmy, finally having gathered, the $3000 for Nucky delivers the cash to him on the gaming floor. Thompson asks if he needs to count it. Only if you don't trust me, Jimmy says and Nucky declines to count. However, he does want to make a point to his former protege so he walks with Lucy over to the roulette table and places the entire wad of bills on black. The wheel spins and comes up 23 red. "I guess it's just not my kind of night," Thompson smiles before walking away, leaving Jimmy stunned at the waste.
It's still not a good time for George Baxter, who has finally had it with all the money he's spent on Claudia to no avail so he tells her he's taking he back to Baltimore. "Now?" she says, surprised. "Why not? My car has hood lights." The two hit the road and before long they are on the road. Baxter bitches all the way, getting on Claudia's nerves who finally tells him to pull over, soon after they pass the sign for the blueberry capital of the world. "Do you want to kiss me?" Claudia asks. Baxter gets a kiss and then Claudia tells him to unzip and begins to give him a hand job until she suddenly lets out a scream in which George joins in on as a bloody, large, mustachioed and bearded man appears in their headlights and collapses on the hood of Baxter's car. I guess Jimmy was right about there being five victims, only the fifth one didn't die.
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Sunday, September 26, 2010
Remembrance of Things Past
By Jonathan Pacheco
Because Annie Hall and Manhattan, the two highly revered comedies that preceded 1980's Stardust Memories, concerned themselves with characters whose insecurities led to the demise of their relationships, Woody Allen's somewhat polarizing 30-year-old homage to 8 1/2 surprised me in its reversal of the old break-up stand-by, "it's not you, it's me." Sandy Bates (Allen), the successful comedic filmmaker in Stardust Memories, could safely say to his chronically depressed lover Dorrie (Charlotte Rampling), "It's not me, it's you." While he bears the bulk of the blame for the setbacks in his current relationships (thanks to a mental breakdown of sorts), Sandy's most cherished romance wasn't sabotaged by the self-hatred and neurosis we've come to expect from Allen's stories, but rather by a cloud of melancholy constantly hovering over Dorrie.
So now, Sandy's problem is guilt. The memories of Dorrie and his own inability to save her from her state torment him. While Allen has always joked about depression and doesn't shy away from doing so here, he also treats it as the very dark, disturbing issue it really is — not heavy-handedly, but with sensitivity, balancing it with his comedy and satire in a way that gives Stardust Memories a very subtle, but amazing and lingering overcast feel.
At a small seaside town attending a film retrospective in his honor, Sandy finds himself (sometimes quite literally) haunted by memories, particularly around the Hotel Stardust, a place where his past joys, failures, and fears mingle with his present dilemmas. He's seriously dating Isobel (Marie-Christine Barrault) but among the rabid fans at the festival calling for him to go back to making funnier movies, Sandy comes across Daisy (Jessica Harper), a young violinist who mysteriously reminds him of his dear Dorrie.
The film's many flashbacks, whisked into the story's timeline, reveal a Dorrie who was a depressed mess for 28 days out of the month, but boy, the two good days? They were really good. Through the bad times, the paranoia and the Electra complex (a partner to Sandy's Oedipus complex, deliciously teased in a fusion of birthday memories), Sandy, in some ways a take on the typical regret-motivated action hero, still thinks he has the power to save Dorrie. When he ultimately cannot, he finds himself in search of lost time.
After Annie Hall and Manhattan, you could safely say that Woody Allen had a certain command over his directorial craft, and it's most evident in Stardust Memories when, in a story driven by the recollection of key moments in one's life, the two most remarkable and engaging memories on screen are the two most important memories to the character: Sandy's best and worst memories of Dorrie.
In a beautifully tragic sequence of quick cuts and close-ups, Allen sensitively reveals Dorrie's deteriorated state of mind through a devastating one-sided conversation, portraying the last time Sandy saw her in the way he probably remembers it: the weary face of what is now a stranger, staring at him, issuing a rapid series of sobering signs of mood disorder.
But when Sandy recalls his favorite memory of Dorrie, Allen uses longer close-ups of the two to absorb a simple but special moment between them. No dialogue, just a Louis Armstrong song in the background as Sandy eats pudding and Dorrie, lying on the floor, soft and beautiful in the Sunday light, looks back at her love. The scene tarries, as if Sandy, in remembering this moment, hangs on for just a bit longer, reluctant to let go.
Despite the sublimity of moments as this one, and even with Allen's hostile-but-no-less-enjoyable shots at critics, audiences, and movie executives, the film's atmosphere remains under Dorrie's cloud of dreariness in the director's earnest attempt to infuse you with the moods of Sandy and Dorrie. It makes Stardust Memories feel much heavier, much more melancholy than some of his other comedies, but no less poignant.
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I would like, if I may, to take you on a strange journey
By Edward Copeland
Thirty-five years ago today, the film adaptation of the stage musical The Rocky Horror Show hit theaters. Since it was now a film, its title had been revised to be The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It was far from a hit, though in isolated theaters it drew a crowd of repeat customers, prompting distributor 20th Century Fox to keep it in release and rethink its strategy. Then one day, someone in an audience somewhere spoke back to the movie and the beginning of an audience participation legend was born.
The film not only continued to run (and continues to run, though not as widely as it once did), it became a phenomenon and a rite of passage for young people (Box office grosses vary depending where you look, but the most consistent U.S. total I find is nearly $140 million). Unfortunately, once the decision was made to release the film to video (coupled with many American towns cracking down on teen fun with curfews), the Rocky Horror requirement seemed not to be an option for lots of younger people today. It's a shame. (Then again, perhaps the zeitgeist is poised for a Rocky resurgence as the TV phenomenon Glee with its throng of young fans has announced an Oct. 26 episode saluting Rocky Horror with guest appearances by some of the film's original cast members.) It's impossible for me to judge the film as a movie because I always will hear the lines the audience shouts back in my head or expect an onslaught of toast or rice. Still, no matter how good or bad The Rocky Horror Picture Show is, it holds a pivotal place in millions of people's memories. On top of that, it contains one helluva performance by Tim Curry repeating his role as Dr. Frank-N-Furter that he created for the stage version, early roles for Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick and, perhaps most importantly, an almost revolutionary-for-its-time look at gender and sexual roles, something that extended to its audience of devotees which seemed to attract all sexual orientations. The optimist in me wants to believe that in its own small way the film has something to do with the reason the younger you are, the more likely you are to support gay rights and same-sex marriage. Could a campy musical spoof of 1950s sci-fi movies and Hammer horror films have had a positive political and sociological effect? Then again, in some parts of the country, you also were liable to run into homophobic crowds who seemed to get off on going to the movie just to shout slurs. Methinks they doth protest too much. I bet Ted Haggard went to screenings wearing fishnets.
I also think its popularity was that it attracted the young, creative misfits, who might have seemed out of their element elsewhere but at Rocky Horror, found a place without judgment, a place to belong. I have to believe if the great Freaks & Geeks had lasted longer, Lindsay Weir and friends might have ended up there eventually, though the timing may have made it too late for Angela Chase and Rayanne Graff on My So-Called Life, though Rayanne was drifting toward drama. To mark the film's birthday, we've gathered anecdotes from various people about their experiences with the film. I thought I'd begin with the stories of more personal friends of mine before expanding out to other parts of the blogosphere and world at large. Thanks to all who participated. This post is no critique, it is audience participation, so use the comments to share your stories.
As I mentioned in my 30th anniversary piece on Fame earlier this year, that film was the first time I heard of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The first time I actually went to a midnight showing was as a sophomore in high school with an older friend who'd never seen it either. We kept our status as "virgins" quiet.
My real beginnings as a Rocky aficionado began the following year after a high school football game when I drove my friends Troy and Wagstaff and two sophomore girls Troy come to know from a drama class and the school band. One of the girls, Jennifer, seems to pop up in many of my friends' anecdotes as the catalyst behind their induction into the Rocky Horror club. As with many aspects, she truly was a power source that affected everyone who knew her and we still miss her. This probably isn't the appropriate place but since her husband Matt and I remain good friends, I feel I should confess to him something that happened between Jen and I before they ever met: Matt, we had elbow sex. The Rocky habit became almost weekly, with growing numbers of attendees and assorted props. We'd prepare the toast, gather the toilet paper and newspapers, buy the rice. We even bought battery-operated squirt guns in the shapes of Uzis for the rainstorm. Occasionally, some would break off to go see a midnight showing of Pink Floyd The Wall instead. Part of the fun was watching as my friend Troy, whose mother I'm convinced Dana Carvey based the Church Lady on, carefully sneak out of his room to attend the movie whose lead was a sweet transvestite. (I tried to convince Troy to write his own anecdote but despite the fact he's 41, married, the father of two and lives in a different city from his mother, I think he still fears retroactive grounding.) Another very funny time was when we talked our born again friend Mike into going and he was so shocked by what he saw on screen he spent most of the movie in what appeared to be a catatonic state. I've long since lost track of how many times I went, but the numbers were at least in the high 30s or low 40s and usually ended with an after-film gathering at the Village Inn.
In college, when I became president of an alternative film club, our most successful booking was Rocky Horror and I learned the hard way what all those poor theater workers had to go through when it came to cleaning up the mess once the film was over. However, Rocky and the X-rated Devil in the Flesh paid for all the other, less attended films such as the Bergmans, etc. Perhaps the most melancholy experience I ever had was when I worked at a newspaper in northern New Jersey and saw that a theater in the town of Boonton showed Rocky. Knowing no one and bored silly, I went one time and, of course, shouting all the lines was old hat to me and, coming from a different region of the country, some were new to the in-theater cast. The Boonton regulars were so impressed that afterward, they asked if I wanted to come and be a regular because I obviously knew it so well. I politely declined. I was pushing 30 by then and Rocky Horror is really a young person's game that you share with a group of your friends, not as a bored stranger. However, it was interesting to learn of the regional differences that develop within the audience participation.
I have two basic thoughts. And then a more personal reverie.
The first is rather obvious and common, and that is (as many of our culturally detached cohort would likely agree) that Rocky was an exciting, accepting, funky and exceptionally fun place to escape the cultural/social angst of growing up "different" in Oklahoma as a teenager. The innate theatricality, ambiguous but hyper-sexuality and exuberant celebration of pleasure (in all forms) was intoxicating and comforting all the same time. It was easily that "special group" into which one could run away and find escape and togetherness. An artistic oasis for alternative teens tired of feeling on the outside. A special group of friends and acquaintances. A communal opportunity for ritual catharsis at the dawn of the age when home video was just starting to lock us away inside our individual homes (Rocky has — for me — always been an experience that never really works on home video). Always, always, ALWAYS a good time. And yet, what other experiences were available to a teen that offered such level of sensual diversion that didn't also risk arrest, injury or even death?
Second, and this is a more personal experience, was the experience of different Rocky cultures. I grew up in the Rocky of the OKC Memorial Square cinema where there were certain rituals and attitudes associated with what Rocky should be. Visiting another locale could be shocking. For example, in OKC, the innate homo-bi-ambi-sexuality of the film was celebrated and embraced by all. Even if it wasn't your cup of tea, you celebrated the love, lust and ultimate pleasure of others. After I went to college, I tried attending Rocky a few times in Dallas, but it was a different world. They openly laughed at the queers. It was as if the whole event for them was about making fun of the "fags" up on screen. Very odd. Ruined the experience for me. Sadly, those were my last Rocky experiences.
On an even more personal note, Rocky was the occasion of my first date with Jennifer. Magical for lots of reasons. But even moreso for the special convergence of all the different parts of my emerging universe and a wonderful memory.
I first saw those red lips across the dimly lit theater of the AMC Memorial Square in OKC. I was 15. It was sex, blood and rock & roll all the way.
Rocky Horror stands square in the middle of my transition to adulthood.
Before I could drive myself, my parents allowed me to "sneak out" of the house with what they presumed were my more responsible friends to attend the midnight showing of RHPS. This was back in the '80s — what were they thinking? Either they didn't have a clue or they are much cooler than they let on at the time. "Sneaking out" was at once a feeling of rebellion and responsibility. Sadly, I guess I continued to earn this privilege by returning home weekend after weekend, without once having to get bailed out of juvie. It pretty much became a habit.
The routine typically included my friend Troy driving, since he was old enough, had the car and could usually get us into the theater for the rated-R movie on account of being an employee. We'd go armed with our toast, t.p. and squirt guns. Jen and I switched off playing as Magenta and Columbia — neither of us was the Janet type. We looked forward to dragging along another friend whenever we could so that they could lose their virginity the way we had — in public, with a cadre of questionably dressed teenagers and more than a few geezers (I'm sure who were younger then than I am now), in the soft glow of Bic-fueled light over at the Frankenstein place. Then when it was over, it was off to the Village Inn for cheap coffee served by tolerant waitresses, with at least six of us stuffed in a booth. Home by 3 a.m. Sleep 'til noon. Lather, rinse, repeat.
This trailed off somewhere in my senior year of high school. Troy and Edward graduated. Jen and I got boyfriends and faded apart. I haven't been back but I often remember. I have to hope that the first time I see my son leave the house sporting fishnets and a cigarette lighter, I will roll over and pretend to be asleep. Another generation gazing at those big red lips...
In order to get to my first show, I recall the older (and thus obviously much cooler) student stopping to put 60 some-odd cents of gas in his car so that we would make it to the show.
The first time I was approached on the street to buy drugs was outside The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the AMC on Memorial in OKC. He offered me speed, stating that one of his pills was twice as strong as No-Doz. I asked, "Why don't I just take two No-Doz?" He said, "Well...you can take two of these." You can see where the rest of this conversation was heading...
During a scene where people were throwing rice, we once got pelted with cooked, slimy rice.
We would often have to buy tickets to other movies showing at the midnight movies since we were not old enough to see R-rated movies. This is how I saw the first half hour of a live action Masters of the Universe.
I was working the concession stand at the AMC Memorial Square 8 and people would come out during the movie to ask for weird objects, such as a broom or a spray bottle full of Dr Pepper.
My first exposure to the Rocky Horror phenomenon came via my college girlfriend and future wife Jennifer Dawson. She was a big Rocky Horror fan in college and continued going to see it as a student at Southern Methodist University. What struck me most about the live shows was how different they were from city to city and town to town. The most laid-back show I saw was at the Casa Linda Theater in Dallas; you could tell that everybody knew each other and had been attending the same midnight show for years, and the atmosphere was very low-key and welcoming. The weirdest show I saw was in some small suburb outside Oklahoma City — I wish I could remember which one. The theater was packed, but there was a weird, hostile energy in the air, and when the film started I figured out why. The performers faithfully re-enacted all the expected moments, but there was a bizarre homophobic undertow. You'd see people onstage having simulated (and in one couple's case, gay) sex behind sheets that turned them into silhouettes, a clever way of approximating the same actions in the movie, but there were a lot of people yelling slurs at the stage. "Fucking faggot!", etc. The screamers had obviously seen the film before — their timing was impeccable. But if they were so disgusted by the non-hetero action, why did they buy a ticket?
I remember when The Rocky Horror Picture Show was first released on home video in the 1980s. It was kind of a big deal; it was thought that people would begin having Rocky Horror house parties much like the famous midnight shows. But the fact is that watching the movie at home is a dud. It's really not a good movie, not by any stretch. But when I finally had the chance to see my first midnight show in Berkeley, I had quite a different experience. The energy in the crowd was infectious, and even dangerously thrilling. I found myself doing the "Time Warp" in the aisles — partly to impress my date — and trying to go along with as many of the call-and-response lines as I could (I was desperate not to be thought of as a "virgin"). I was struck, and still am, by the blatant, open sexuality of the film, which the crowd wholeheartedly embraced without shame or qualification. Such sexuality is still difficult to get into movies today, 35 years later. But the film's ultimate achievement is its big screen and audience participation factors. Many have tried, but no other film has been able to replicate the unique phenomenon that sprung up around this film, all by itself, for that matter. In this age of DVDs and Blu-Rays and streaming movies and movies on iPhones — or in other words, individual viewing rather than group viewing — the concept of a Rocky Horror Picture Show seems even more alien than it must have in 1975. Long live Rocky Horror!
I first ran into The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the age of 14, during a particularly horny night when I was scouring German TV channels for soft porn (even a cheeky nipple used to be enough in those days). The film’s wanton strangeness reminded me of Italian horror comics from the '70s, reprints of which I used to read as a kid. We don’t have enough hedonistic pansexuals as role models these days, and the world’s the poorer for it.
Years later, after a long day — and an even longer night — in London, I found myself at a sing-a-long performance of the film at The Prince Charles Cinema. The anarchic audience was in a state of drugged up haze, except for the couple two rows behind me, who fucked through the entire film. I would have protested had I not been impressed by their fitness, dexterity and lack of inhibition.
So, the two major memories I have of The Rocky Horror Picture Show both involve sex. Sounds about right.
The year was 1995. I was a college freshman living at a co-ed house in Eugene, Ore. One of my housemates was a fellow film lover and he invited me to a 20th anniversary showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show on the University of Oregon campus. I had heard a few things about the film (the main ones being its well-known cult status and its audience-participation reputation) but otherwise knew absolutely nothing about it. I agreed to join him, having no idea what I was in for. At the very least, I knew there was going to be squirt guns, toilet paper and toast thrown around so I dressed casual.
I met my friend at the ERB Memorial Union building where I saw he was decked-out in rather scary-looking make-up and standing in line with hundreds of other equally frightening individuals. As we purchased our tickets, I was asked if I had ever seen this film before. I said I hadn't. They declared me a "virgin" and wrote several big V's on my face with lipstick. Before the show started a student who looked like the Tim Curry character from the film (whom I would soon learn was named Dr. Frank-N-Furter) announced that there would be actors dressed as the characters enacting the scenes below the big screen onto which the movie would be projected. Although I would later learn that all of this was "normal" for a showing of Rocky Horror, at the time it all struck me as strange. Just when I thought it couldn't get any weirder, they announced the virgin sacrifice. They brought all the virgins (myself included) up front and selected, via audience applause, one man and one woman to sacrifice. This was accomplished by thrusting a giant cardboard penis (with a plastic bag "condom" attached to the tip because, as the Doc put it, "it was the '90s") several times into the nether regions of the poor victims. I had survived the sacrifice, but was still pretty unsettled. Coming from a relatively conservative home and high school, I had never been to anything like this before. This level of wildness was new and somewhat scary for me. I actually began to fear for my life.
The movie began, the audience started talking (chanting actually) and they never stopped. Some of it was funny ("Rocky! Bullwinkle!") and some of it was just dumb ("Dammit, Janet! I love you!" became "Dammit, Janet! I wanna screw!"). I couldn't say what I was expecting from the movie itself, but I certainly wasn't expecting what I saw. I never really got into the "story," but as the evening progressed I did loosen up a bit and settle into the ambience of the event. Fear gave way to amusement and I actually began to enjoy myself. When I think back on the experience now I do so with affection. I haven't seen the film since that night (no real desire to), but I could be persuaded to attend another late-night showing of it. This time, though, I want to be the fellow who shouts during the end credits, "This is The Rocky Horror Picture Show! It's not Ferris Bueller's Day Off! There's no surprise ending. Everybody, GET THE F**K HOME!"
My most vivid reminiscence of The Rocky Horror Picture Show has less to do with the film itself — which I saw and tried to forget — than with one of its stars, Susan Sarandon. Sarandon is the reason that I couldn’t quite shake the film. Let me clarify… Thanks to the vagaries of the film-distribution end of moviemaking, I found myself with Sarandon something like four or five consecutive times between 1974 and 1978, when I was reviewing for Knight-Ridder out of Philadelphia. We got to know each other — well, kind of. During our initial interview for The Front Page, in which she sang (and quite well), Sarandon mentioned that she had just made an all-out musical — The Rocky Horror Picture Show — and, based on the conversation that we had been having about movies, she had a hunch of exactly what I would think of it. Hmmm. Another interview (The Other Side of Midnight) and, luckily, the subject of Rocky Horror didn’t come up. It was also evaded at the 1976 Governor’s Ball, where I bumped into her the year that her then-husband Chris Sarandon was nominated for an Oscar. Whew. So far, so good. I didn’t like Rocky Horror, see? But the fateful day finally came — during an interview for King of the Gypsies. It’s etched in my mind. She asked. And I looked in Susan Sarandon’s eyes — her Bette Davis eyes — and confessed what I thought of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I tried to be gentle. “Well, you were supposed to like it,” she deadpanned, waving a hand. We then moved on to discuss Dragonfly, a film that was never released, for which Sarandon said she was deeply grateful. I’m sure Susan has moved on and now barely remembers these encounters. But I remember the anxiety of trying to be diplomatic rather vividly. (BTW, for what it’s worth, I thought she looked and sounded exactly liked Lesley Ann Warren in Rocky Horror. And that’s a good thing.
I was — I think — about 15 when I lost my 'Virginity.' No better place for it that the 8th St. Playhouse! That was the night I quite literally realized that a story, however cheezy, however bad the production values (and in some cases, the acting) could actually be really GREAT — when made with absolute commitment and love! I saw it...many, many times...and when the Playhouse vanished, a little piece of me did with it.
Don't dream it, Be it.
There wasn't a lot to do in the small California town that I grew up in but we did have an old movie theater that often showed midnight double features. One of the most popular movies that played their regularly for a short time during the early 1980s was The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It attracted a small crowd of local kids from my high school who were all outsiders, misfits and loners. None of us really fit in at school or anywhere else for that matter but The Rocky Horror Picture Show managed to bring many of us together. A handful of brave kids would dress up like the characters in the movie and act out scenes from the film on the small stage in front of the screen. The rest of us would cheer them on with our bags of rice, water guns and rolls of toilet paper. When Dr. Frank-N-Furter sang "Don't Dream It, Be It" that song was always the highlight of the movie because he seemed to be speaking directly to the kids in the audience who were questioning authority and looking for new role models. I'll always have a soft spot in my heart for Tim Curry because of the way he portrayed Dr. Frank-N-Furter. He inhabited that character in a way that really inspired people and in the '80s we desperately needed new countercultural figures to look up to. The "Sweet Transvestite from Transexual, Transylvania" was definitely one of the most subversive film characters ever created and we embraced him with open arms.
In an era before megamovie chains were placed in shopping centers, the Punch and Judy of Grosse Pointe Farms, Mich., with its ornate interior and balcony, was one of many local theaters within walking distance of my house. By the late 1970s, the business model for film outlets had changed making weekend midnight showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show the only thing keeping the Punch and Judy financially viable. This put the movie house directly at odds with the local community. Many of its neighbors didn’t exactly appreciate the rowdy crowds Rocky Horror attracted. I don’t think these moviegoers were any worse than those leaving a disco. But, to be fair, who wants to hear the sound of scattered laughter, tires screeching and glass bottles breaking right outside their window at 2 in the morning?
In early 1977, I was 15 and a tad young for my parents to let me stay out until the wee hours of the morning. But, I was anxious to see what this Rocky Horror thing was all about. So, my younger brother and I talked our dad into taking us. In many ways, my tattooed truck driver father was pretty hip. He had seen a lot of the world while playing minor league baseball at 17 followed by a stint in the Army one year later. This wasn’t to say that he was the most progressive guy in the world. I can still picture his amused grin when I brought home an album by a male artist known as Alice Cooper. He gave me a look that wasn’t so much reproachful as it was intended to let me know that I’d never be a first class bad-ass like him.
What I remember most about the evening is the sports jacket my dad wore. This made him the best dressed audience member (unless you count the people who came in costume). The first inkling I had that asking him to take my brother and I was a mistake occurred before we even got to our seats. The three of us first had to wait in a line that was slowed by ushers inspecting each female’s purse. Prefiguring a post-9/11 still two decades away, the Punch and Judy had instituted these searches as part of a “no toast” policy. We were informed that this was enacted after patrons pelting the screen during the dinner scene with crisp and sharp-edged slices of bread had resulted in eye injuries. I could tell from my father’s expression that he was wondering why the fuck anyone would throw toast at a movie screen.
The generation gap only got wider when Dr. Frank-N-Furter dropped his cape during the "Sweet Transvestite” number. I sheepishly glanced over to see my father’s reaction. To put it mildly, this wasn’t his cup of tea. We stayed until the bitter end as Tim Curry, his makeup smeared, sang “Don’t dream it, be it.” All the while, my dad kept checking the time, wearing his amused Alice Cooper grin.
Around 1980, I worked for the Nuart Theater in Santa Monica. At the time, we showed Rocky Horror every Saturday at midnight. The crowd showed up in full Rocky regalia, dressed as their favorite characters — Frank-N-Furter and Magenta being the most popular. They also came with props — rice to throw during the wedding scene, squirt guns and umbrellas for the stormy night, etc. Hundreds of them, it seemed, lined up down the block.
As the youngest and least senior employee, my job was to take the stage before the lights went down, and to face this theater full of — eccentrics? — and tell them that they were not allowed to do any of the things they had come to do. No throwing of rice, toast, or toilet paper. No water deluge. As I was sorely lacking in the personal authority necessary to pull this off, I was regularly catcalled. There were many personal offers, some of them quite flattering in a way. It's just a jump to the left...
Oh, and in case you're wondering — they did it all anyway. At least I think they did, cause I didn't hang around.
The very first time I heard about The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) was in the summer of 1980. Three girls from my high school and I were at Ohio University in Athens, OH attending a “journalism camp” and one of my “roommates” during the week’s stay — whose identity, unfortunately, has disappeared in the mists of time…I’ll call him “David” because that may have been his name — asked me one morning if I had attended the midnight showing of Rocky Horror at a downtown theatre last night.
I told him I hadn’t. David then asked me if I had ever seen the movie, and I replied that outside of seeing the sequence in Fame (1980) the answer would, again, have to be no.
“Well, the movie’s plot is stupid as hell — but the fun in going to see it is the audience participation,” he explained to me. He further went on to describe how a couple of civic-minded movie buffs circulated among the audience making sure those in attendance had their props: toast, newspapers, toilet tissue, etc.
Hearing about this made me curious to see the movie, and I finally got the opportunity to do so a little more than a year later during my freshman year at Marshall University in Huntington, WVa. The experience, I’m sorry to report, was a regrettable one. Apart from the prop comedy — the aforementioned toast, etc. — most of the individuals in the audience had apparently not received the newsletter on proper Rocky Horror protocol. To illustrate: every time Brad Majors (Barry Bostwick) appears on screen, it is customary for the audience to acknowledge his presence by yelling “Asshole!” at the screen. Unfortunately, in the section I was sitting, the participants (who had obviously made quite merry before the film was unspooled) adopted this as more of a mantra, and started yelling it when anyone appeared on screen. After the film was over, a friend of mine (I had sort of ingratiated myself with the sci-fi/film geek crowd at that time) asked me — as a “virgin” — what I thought about the movie.
“Well, I wasn’t too impressed,” was my disappointed response. “Plus, it was sort of hard to hear the dialogue with the Miller Lite crowd in full force.”
“You should have sat where we were sitting,” she replied. They were with a group of New Yorkers, and this wasn’t their first rodeo (Whatever happened to Fay Wray… “King Kong finger-fucked her!”). Great, I thought. You got to mingle with the Algonquin Round Table and I bonded with a bunch of yahoos who are excited by the prospect of a wreck during a NASCAR race.
I went to Rocky Horror a second time when I moved to Morgantown in 1992, and while that experience went a little better I still have never been able to warm to the movie and enjoy the event in the time-honored tradition of moviegoers everywhere. But like I always say — that’s why some folks likes chocolate, and some likes vanilla.
I wasn't the hippest film nerd on the block, in fact I wasn't much of a film nerd at all. I was a drama geek. That drive to perform is what got me to a theater in Santa Barbara for a midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show back in 1983. By then, the trend was in full swing. Many of the audience members were dressed up to look like the characters from the film and they knew every line and every song. I'd never seen anything like that before. Theaters were for sitting quietly and watching a film with an audience; they weren't for jumping up and down in your seat and dancing in the aisles, even going up on stage and acting out the various scenes. It seemed to me that everyone secretly wanted to be Frank-N-Furter. As a young teen, I wished to be Susan Sarandon, or Janet Weiss.
I won't pretend that I ever really caught the bug, or dressed up as any of the characters, or even returned to see the film again. But that one night embedded a memory I will never forget. It was a glimpse into a world I never knew existed. And every once in a while I hear myself singing, "It's just a jump to the left ... and then a step to the right....you put your hands on your hips, and bring your knees in tight. You do the pelvis thrust — oo ah oo ah — it really drives you insane.....let's do the time warp again!"
Recently, the film was on cable and my 12-year-old was sitting nearby. I knew I had to explain to her just what The Rocky Horror Picture Show was, and what it meant to so many people many years ago. I realized you can't explain it; you have to show it. You had to be there.
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