Friday, November 10, 2017

THE BABY MAKER 1970

In 1970, decades before the topic of surrogacy became a standby staple of Lifetime TV thrillers, fodder for mediocre comedies (Paternity, Baby Mama), or a nightmare vision of a dystopian future (The Handmaid’s Tale), it was once considered a movie theme so unique and unusual that critics and audiences alike were at a bit of a loss as to how to respond to it. 
Barbara Hershey as Patricia "Tish" Gray
Sam Groom as Jay Wilcox
Collin Wilcox as Suzanne Wilcox
Scott Glenn as Tad Jacks
The Baby Maker, the debut film of Oscar-nominated screenwriter James Bridges (The Paper Chase, The China Syndrome) tells the story of a Los Angles hippie (Barbara Hershey, the then go-to flower child of the movies) who, for a substantial amount of money and because she just loves being pregnant (“Proof of the reality of my own existence”), agrees to bear a child for a square-but-nice, well-to-do Brentwood couple (Sam Groom & Collin Wilcox). Combining as it does—with varying degrees of success—elements of the well-intentioned Generation Gap TV movie-of-the-week (Maybe I’ll Come Home in The Spring); the quickie cash-in counterculture youth flick (1969s natural childbirth gimmick comedy Generation), the racy and “with it” social exposé (The Christine Jorgensen Story), and the sensitive indie character drama (Five Easy Pieces); The Baby Maker proved a hard picture to categorize and an even tougher film to market.

As such, The Baby Maker was deemed too “straight” by young audiences who saw it as yet another inauthentic screen depiction of the hippie counterculture (a valid criticism given that at one point Hershey's tree-hugger character literally hugs a tree), while mainstream critics labeled it a “bizarre” movie (The Miami News) and couldn’t seem to get past framing its then-daring themes in terms of exploitation and sensationalism. Audiences titillated by the film’s teasingly salacious ad campaign: “She’ll live with a couple. Share the husband. They get a baby that’s at least half theirs. She gets the joy of making it.” (Mind you, this is back when “making it” was popular hipster slang for sex)—were disappointed to find a thoughtful, often clinical, nearly two-hour drama. 

Lili Valenty as Mrs. Culnick, the sweet little old lady go-between who
 facilitates the pairing of the childless couple with a willing surrogate

Further adding to the film’s woes were those who simply saw the film’s subject matter as being either distasteful or amoral, or, perhaps most damaging, the fact that just a few months prior to the release of The Baby Maker, John G. Avildsen’s low-budget social melodrama Joe (which climaxed with a vigilante massacre at a hippie commune by a pair of ultra-conservative working-class reactionaries) had struck some kind of chord with the public and became a controversial sleeper hit.
By 1970, The Baby Maker’s positive depiction of hippie culture had grown cliché and was fast becoming passé.
Thus, in spite of its having received a good share of favorable notices for its performances, actress Barbara Hershey attracting a lot of Best Actress Oscar nomination buzz in the trade papers, and actually garnering an Academy Award nod for its original song score (composer Fred Karlin was nominated for The Baby Maker the same year he won a Best Song Oscar for “For All We Know” from Lovers and Other Strangers), The Baby Maker only enjoyed a brief run at theaters and then promptly disappeared. Both from movie screens and most people’s memories.
"I was just looking at your records. You have an awful lot of Frank Sinatra."
The surrogate mother meets (and sizes up) the father

I don’t recall it ever appearing on television or even having a video release. And while I remember when it came out, I confess to having responded to the newspaper ads much the same as I suppose many did: the film looked like cheap exploitation. Not that that had ever been a deterrent to my interest in any film, but with both Myra Breckinridge and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls hitting the screens that same year, I guess my reasoning was that if I was going to see trash, it might as well come from a major studio.

I finally got to see The Baby Maker in 1973 or 1974 when it played at the bottom of a double bill at San Francisco’s Alhambra Theater where I worked as an usher during high school. By this time Barbara Hershey had officially changed her name to Barbara Seagull (an ill-advised phase that had lasted about two years), and hippies in movies were starting to look as dated as beatniks. Nevertheless, for the week of the film's run, I saw it about three times. I loved it!
Tish and Tad
One of the things I like about how the character of Tish is conceived is that she never thinks twice about treating her body as her own. Although she is in an open relationship with her boyfriend Tad (for all of six months), when she decides to be a surrogate she doesn't seek his permission or approval. The scene where she finally tells him is touching and beautifully played, and feels light years away from how I imagine the scene would be written today. 


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS MOVIE
James Bridges was successful screenwriter who got his start in television (he wrote “The Unlocked Window” my all-time favorite episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour) with a background in acting and directing for the theater. Dissatisfied with the films made from his scripts, Bridges decided that he’d direct his next screenplay (“I can fuck ‘em up as good as they can!”). Bridges based The Baby Maker on a woman he life-partner/business partner Jack Larson knew from a Venice Beach bar called The Carousel. The woman was a free-spirit type who liked being pregnant and made extra money by being a surrogate mother for childless couples. 
It's Complicated
The Baby Maker is a twist on the classic triangle, only in this instance the third party is engaged in the most impersonal manner to engage in the most personal of relationships. In those pre-in vitro days, the fact that the surrogate is impregnated “the old-fashioned way” may have provided the film with its gimmick and marketing hook, but the conflicts, complications, and comedy arise out of the clash of generations, cultures, and unforeseen emotions.
In all, Bridges set a heady task for himself in his first outing as director. And while he’s not always successful in balancing the shifts in tone or sustaining its narrative thrust over the length of the film’s running time; I was impressed that he seems to respond to the material as a story he wants to tell, and doesn’t appear inordinately concerned that it doesn’t meet expectations or fit easy genre description. 
 Collin Wilcox made her memorable film debut as Mayella in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)


PERFORMANCES
Critics were divided over The Baby Maker’s merits, but the quality of Barbara Hershey’s performance was undisputed. And without a doubt her performance is the single most distinguished takeaway from the entire film. Barbara Hershey’s real-life hippie-dippy reputation may have blighted her early career (and indeed may have cost her a much-deserved Oscar nod for her role here), but it’s precisely the fact that she comes across as the real thing, that she’s not “acting” the part of Hollywood’s idea of a hippie, is what saves the film.
Hershey, who gave a truly chilling performance in Frank Perry's shattering Last Summer (1969) gives another incredible performance in this, her 5th film. Always an underrated actress, she is The Baby Maker's Most Valuable Player.  In scene after scene, whether it be some bit of dialogue that would sound clichéd or laughable coming from someone else, or a moment when the film feels to be veering into soapy waters, Hershey’s unselfconscious and nuanced performance moors potential contrivance to truth.
Making his film debut, actor Scott Glenn is very good as Tish's sweet but immature boyfriend. 
Glenn would go on to have a featured role in James Bridges' Urban Cowboy (1980)

As the middle-class couple, Collin Wilcox and stolidly handsome Sam Groom (whose large head makes him well suited for the medium shots of television, where he indeed found his success as TV’s Police Surgeon) supply more traditional performances that, by comparison, feel more generic, but both are quite good. Wilcox in particular (whom I don’t think I’ve seen in anything since To Kill a Mockingbird) plays Suzanne as a grounded but somewhat neurotic character of emotional complexity. It’s the unique female relationships and the dominance of the women’s performances in The Baby Maker (this includes Jeannie Berlin as Tish’s activist best friend) that makes it such a surprisingly refreshing period-piece of a movie for me.
Tish uses some of her money to help support her single mom (Phyllis Coates) and her  grandmother (Madge Kennedy) who both live in a Venice trailer park. In a sea of post-Easy Rider male-centric buddy films, The Baby Maker is unique for its dominant narrative perspective of women and their relationships. 

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
I’m a big believer in the tenet that different voices can’t help but result in different stories. The subject matter couldn’t be more heterosexual, but as one written and produced by gay men, I feel it qualifies as a keen example of Queer Cinema.
For all its progressive ideas, the youth movement and hippie counterculture (at least as depicted in films) was woefully male-centric and conventional in its attitudes toward women. The Baby Maker is the only hippie-themed film of the era with a female protagonist and told from a woman’s perspective (not a fetishized, free-love, heterosexual male perspective like Candy or There's a Girl in My Soup).
The Baby Maker producer Jack Larson (l.) & director James Bridges met when both appeared as actors in the film Johnny Trouble (1957). Openly gay, they remained lovers/partners till Bridges' death in 1993. Larson passed away in 2015
For its time, The Baby Maker’s feminist perspective, non-sexualized heroine, and unorthodox domestic relationships are a subtle challenge to heteronormative status quo; something I wholly attribute to the gay sensibilities of its creators. Like the works of playwrights Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee, I think what’s brilliant about Bridges’ screenplay is that it looks at heterosexuality through the outsider insights of queer.
In a reversal of a common youth film trope, the male bodies are the
ones exposed and made the object of the gaze in The Baby Maker

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Being that I was just a child when my family lived in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco in the late ‘60s, I tend not to be a very good judge of what passes for the authentic or inauthentic representation of hippie culture in movies. Largely shielded from the sex and drugs side of it all, my kid's-eye-view memory of the time is so tied to its pop-cultural trappings, my nostalgia buttons can be pushed by the most superficial depictions of the era. The Baby Maker takes place in Los Angeles, but one of its major perks its many moments of "I remember that!" memory-jogging that take me back to my SF roots.
Fringed suede/leather jackets were all the rage, and everyone seemed to know how to tie-dye but me.  My elder sister (who really caught the hippie bug) was a whiz, but I used so much bleach tie-dying my jeans that they practically disintegrated. Hitchhikers were visible all over San Francisco, but thankfully, my parents weren't the give 'em a ride type. Especially since at the time the lyrics to The Doors' Riders on the Storm ("There's a killer on the road...") had scared the holy shit out of me.

War Is Not Healthy For Children & Other Living Things
I remember the many protests and picket-sign slogans of the day, the above being so ubiquitous it became a popular poster and graphic for the 1971 film Bless the Beasts and the Children. In this scene Jeannie Berlin (daughter of writer/director Elaine May) leads a protest against a store selling toy guns.

Pop-Top Fashion
From roughly 1965 to 1975, beverage cans came with disposable pop-tops. Hippies, being ecology minded and all, took to using these aluminum tabs to create fashion and "art." Everything from hats, dresses, and vests were made out of these things. I hope she'll forgive me for ratting on her, but my older sister (Yes, Ms. Tie-dye) made herself a pop-top headband just like this. My Fanta root beer addiction helped her out a lot.

Home Decor
The days of gigantic stereos, door-size coffee tables, and sofas that seat 20

Candles, Candles, Everywhere
Candle stores were like the Starbucks of the Sixties; you couldn't take two steps on Telegraph Avenue without bumping into one. I remember I had a beloved, star-shaped rainbow candle in my room (back when they were, y'know, just rainbows) and, of course, my sister made her own 

The Single Wing Turquoise Bird
How's that for a '60s name? Psychedelic light shows and avant-garde multimedia theater was all the rage. Not only did every youth-culture movie feature at least once sequence of freak-out visuals, but the phenomenon went mainstream with 2001: A Space Odyssey. In The Baby Maker, Tish and friends attend a light show performance by The Single Wing Turquoise Bird, a real-life troupe still in existence.

Although it’s one of my favorites, The Baby Maker isn’t some undiscovered classic. It’s shot in the flat, undistinguished style of a TV-movie, the hippie trappings and dialogue can be a bit distancing, and modern audiences may find the tempo sluggish. But I find the film’s sometimes uncompromising presupposition of the inevitability of growth and change to be very moving.
A consistent theme in many of my favorite films is the human need for contact, so I'm a sucker for movies about people who misguidedly assume independence means the absence of attachments. Plus, anybody who knows me knows how much I love a good cry at the movies, and the ending of The Baby Maker never fails to get the ol' waterworks going.


 BONUS MATERIAL
The Superman Connection
Jack Larson was best known as cub reporter Jimmy Olson on the TV series The Adventures of Superman from 1952 to 1958. That show's original Lois Lane (1st season only) was actress Phyllis Coates. Larson and Coates remained friends over the years, leading to her being cast in The Baby Maker in the brief role of Barbara Hersey's mother.
Phyllis Coates, Jack Larson, and Ann Doran in The Adventures of Superman
Phyllis Coates as Patricia's mother

Brenda Sykes (Cleopatra Jones) appears in an unbilled bit part as a woman
with whom Tad shares a flirtation (and a joint)
In 1985 I appeared as a dance/exercise extra in the virtually unwatchable James Bridges film Perfect, starring John Travolta & Jamie Lee Curtis. Although the aerobics class scenes were shot on location at the Sports Connection gym in West Hollywood, this particular scene was shot months later on a set designed to look exactly like the gym. Aside from having to do something like six hours of pelvic tucks, what's most memorable about this particular sequence is that, after filming had begun, shooting halted in order for the costume people to figure out a way to sew up the legs to Travolta's shorts in order to give him a more pronounced package. When Travolta returned a half hour later with a more camera-ready crotch, it also appeared that a bit of filler had been added. Jack Larson produced and was often present on the very "happy" set.


Copyright © Ken Anderson

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

THE AMITYVILLE HORROR 1979

It’s strange to me how I can think back as far as my adolescence and recall with relative clarity how I responded to certain movies at the time, yet memories of films seen in my adult years often leave me stumped. I was 21 when The Amityville Horror came out (not exactly yesterday, were talking 39 years ago, folks); but I can’t seem to recall exactly what I thought of it at the time. I mean, did I find it even remotely scary? Did I buy into any of that “Based on a True Story” hype? Did I find it then, as I do now, to be an entertaining parade of haunted house clichés and hoary horror film tropes?
Is there something paranormally suspicious about my inability to remember? Hmmm….
James Brolin as George Lutz
Margot Kidder as Kathleen Lutz
Rod Steiger as Father Delaney
Don Stroud as Father Bolen
I have only the haziest memory of The Amityville Horror as a bestselling 1977 novel prompted as a fictionization of the purported-to-be real-life tale of a family beset by a series of paranormal events in their Long Island home that was once the site of a mass murder. I had no interest in the book, nor do I even recall having paid much attention to news stories about the real-life DeFeo Murders that gave that distinctive-looking house it’s horror reputation (on November 13, 1974, 23-year-old Ronald DeFeo, Jr. killed his parents and four three siblings in the home they shared in Amityville, Long Island).

What I do remember is that the film version of The Amityville Horror opened in the summer of 1979: two months after Ridley Scott’s mind-blowing Alien; one month after the hotly anticipated (by me), but wholly disappointing John Frankenheimer monster movie Prophecy; and two weeks after the bloodless Dracula re-up with Frank Langella.

My rapturous fondness for Aliena film which reminded me that scary, innovative, intelligent, and well-acted can peaceably coexist—had placed me in a horror frame of mind that summer. Unfortunately, the diminishing returns proffered by the genre films released in Alien’s wake left me anticipating the opening of The Amityville Horror with an enthusiasm drastically disproportionate to my actual interest in the movie. 
The Amityville house lays out the unwelcome mat for Kathy's Aunt Helena (Irene Dailey)

Chiefly propelled by a hope for a repeat of the jumped-out-of-my-seat thrills of Alien, plus a desire to see what actress Margot Kidder had chosen for her follow-up vehicle to her star-making turn as Lois Lane in the blockbuster Christmas 1978 release Superman: The Movie (still playing in second run theaters at the time); I stood in a long line on Hollywood Blvd on Friday, July 27th, to catch The Amityville Horror on opening night. The house was packed and the theater was abuzz with the kind of amped-up excitement only an R-rating, “Based on a True Story”-hype, and saturation marketing can produce (“For God’s Sake, Get Out!” screamed posters from billboards and bus shelters all over town).

Unspooling under a cloak of a collective goodwill that began to dissipate around the film’s 60-minute mark—when animated squeals of delight and nervous giggles began to take on the hollow timbre of blatantly derisive laughter—The Amityville Horror trod largely familiar haunted house/demonic possession ground. Early on it became clear that the film was going to lean heavily on claims of “This really happened!” as a means of mitigating the fact that the episodic screenplay was less a cohesive story and more of a laundry list of “Things that make you go hmmm…” events taking place in a creepy old house.
This House Pays For Itself
Kathy's brother (Marc Vahanian) preps for his wedding as the house preps for a little self-help
A more polished and technically tricked out film than I’d come to expect from the traditionally low-rent American International Pictures, for all its sound and fury (a disproportionate amount coming from grievously miscalculated performances by Rod Steiger and Helen Shaver) it was clear that The Amityville Horror was not going to pose any real threat to the legacies of The Exorcist or The Omen. The audience I was with seemed to enjoy the film’s low-wattage fright delivery system (regular as clockwork. 3:15 to be exact) and the best that I can come up with—as I’d returned the following week to see it again with a friend—is that I found The Amityville Horror to be more of a “fun” scary movie (escapist and diverting) than a legitimately frightening film.
The Amityville Horror goes for the semi-documentary approach in chronicling the strange occurrences that befall cash-strapped newlyweds George and Kathy Lutz (Brolin & Kidder) and their three kids (Kathy’s from a previous marriage) when they move into the spacious, obscenely affordable house that had just the year before been the site of a brutal mass killing. Charted with titles highlighting dates and times, I believe The Amityville Horror was a big hit with audiences at the time simply because it dispensed with a great deal of character and plot and dove headlong into trying to justify the presumptuous use of the word horror in its title.

Wasting no time, the film begins with graphic depictions of the shotgun murders of the DeFeo family (never named in the film), following this up whenever possible with closeups of characters “feeling uneasy” in the presence of odd camera angles and an imposing musical score. The house, distinctive and camera-ready from the start with its numerous jack-o-lantern closeups, is filmed so often and so flatteringly it becomes the Barbra Streisand of haunted houses, isolated (so much so that it appears to exist on another planet entirely) and always dead-center of the action.

Since the Lutz family only lived in the house for a month, it’s imperative that weird things start to happen to them right off the bat. Events unfold at such breakneck speed that only after the film is over does it dawn that those nondescript Lutz kids never go to school, or that George’s surveyor business suffers setbacks disproportionate to the brevity of his time away.
While George obsessively continues to chop logs for the fire,
Kathy laments the sudden wood shortage in their bedroom
...if you get my cruder meaning.

Because a haunted house/possession story is nothing without religious subtext, Kathy is Catholic. Or, more precisely, Hollywood Catholic. Which means she doesn’t actually go to church or display any discernible traits of devoutness, but she does paint Virgin Mary figurines, hang ginormous crucifixes all over the house, has an actual nun in her immediate family, and is given to grocery shopping in a fetish Catholic School Girl uniform.
Kathy’s Catholic background occasions her inviting priest and friend Father Delaney (Steiger) to come and bless the house. A bad idea for the puffy priest, but a bonanza for lovers of uncured ham and unbridled scenery-chewing. Rod Steiger’s appearance, ostensibly meant to signal the graveness of the Lutz’s situation and escalate the film’s drama, is so over-the-top it merely opens a hell-gate of hilarity.
Fathers Delaney and Bowen, badly in need of a St. Christopher medal
At this point the horror gauntlet has been thrown down and the Lutzes find themselves in a race against time, the forces of evil, and their own thick-headedness. And if the objectives of these forces are conveyed in the vaguest terms possible (Revenge? Demonic possession? The endless reenactment of a violent past?), rest assured that the scope and severity of these paranormal assaults (Gates of hell? Native-American burial ground? Devil-worship? Bad juju?) are mind-bogglingly elastic, inconsistent, and convenient to plot contrivance.

In the end, the scariest thing about The Amityville Horror is that this family of five occupying a three-story colonial doesn’t own a television set. The rest is a comfortably conventional, enjoyably cheesy, surprisingly by-the-numbers haunted house tale with its share of jump-cut shocks (hissing cats, loud noises, the old “I wake up screaming” trope, flashes of gore); a few genuine creep outs (the shotgun murders, the locked closet door, that weird little girl who looks like Robert Blake with a wig); and more than a few unintentional laughs (Brolin’s eye-popping mood swings, the cut-rate haunting special effects, the cartoonish reactions of visitors to the house).
While Kathy & George stare aghast at the front door that's been mysteriously blown off its hinges,
viewers get to stare at James Brolin's cobblers


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
I have a hunch that both my infatuation with Margot Kidder and my initial ignorance of the story behind The Amityville Horror made that 1979 opening night screening an enjoyable one. But I’m just as certain that subsequent viewings of the film have been rooted in how enjoyably routine a movie it is. That’s certainly the case today. When I look at the film now, it plays like an end-of-the-decade “best of” medley of all the supernatural horror films of the 1970s. 
You could make a drinking game of the clichés.
The malevolent demon, ineffectual cop, the invisible friend: The Exorcist
The too-inexpensive-to-be-true, parasitic house: Burnt Offerings
Religious mumbo-jumbo: The Omen
House built over the gates of hell: The Sentinel
Serial killer possession: The Possession of Joel Delaney
Going back for the pet: Alien
And for good measure, you have an axe-wielding dad that predates The Shining by one year, plus a hyperactive house built above a burial ground that predates Poltergeist by two.
Creepy Amy (Natasha Ryan) consults with Jody, her invisible friend

The overall effect is of The Amityville Horror being something of a goulash horror creation. Everything but the kitchen sink (or bile-spilling toilet) seems to have been thrown into this mechanical mix of sure-fire horror standbys. Nothing wrong with that, but the film is so overcrowded with disparate ideas that it ends up with a ton of loose threads and setups introduced that fail to pay off. Happily, the whole undertaking manages to be repetitious without ever really being boring, so the film ends up as being inoffensively watchable as one of those Creature Features horror programmers aired on TV when I was a kid.

PERFORMANCES
No matter the relative quality of the end results, no one associated with The Amityville Horror can be accused of phoning in their performance. A fact that proves to be both a blessing and curse.
Screenwriter Sandor Stern and director Stuart Rosenberg both come from television, which may account for every dramatic scene seeming to be structured to end in a fade out and commercial. As though to compensate for the film’s episodic pacing and structure, the entire cast performs at near-operatic pitch. 
Mr. Groovy Guy
Full beards and big, pouffy hair was all the rage in the '70s.
Here's Brolin with his gay porn star doppelganger George Payne  

Although easy on the eyes, I can’t say James Brolin (he’ll always be Mr. Barbra Streisand to me) has ever made much of an impression on me. Here however, as the possessed George Lutz, Brolin has so many scenes where he gets to bellow, shout, and bug his eyes out, he quickly became my favorite character in the film. He's so consistently bitchy and surly, it's like watching a bearded Joan Crawford.
Margot Kidder, something of an early scream queen with her roles in Sisters, Black Christmas, and The Reincarnation of Peter Proud, is the film’s bright spot, but is saddled with a role that has her doing what bad writers always have women do in horror movies: screaming and going around asking everybody if they’re OK. I love watching her though, and she remains a natural and relaxed presence even in the film’s most absurd moments. 
Rod Steiger, praying for an Oscar nomination
In what I can only hope was a Karen Black-like bid on Rod Steiger's part to invest The Amityville Horror with a little emotional gravitas (Black approached her role in the nonsensical Airport ’75 with intense solemnity because she felt no one else in the film was taking it seriously), Steiger—never a particularly subtle actor—in trying to convey spiritual anguish and fear, only succeeds in going full-tilt Neely O’Hara/Mommie Dearest on us.

As the concerned priest who becomes the target of the malevolent forces inhabiting the house, Steiger invests every moment onscreen with such ferocious overacting, I seriously thought in one scene his head was going to explode like that dude’s in Scanners. Steiger is taking risks and obviously committed to the role, but he mostly just succeeds in delivering an awe-inspiring, athletically awful performance that begs to seen at least once.
Helen Shaver and Michael Sacks (Slaughterhouse Five) as family friends Carolyn and Jeff.
Playing a New-Age type, I'm not sure whose idea it was to have Shaver pitch her performance so high on the weird-o-meter, but her big scene in the Lutz's basement is listed in the dictionary under "overkill" 

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
The Amityville Horror is guilty of not being very scary, which is a bit of a crime given that “horror” is part of the title; but, as someone once said about life that is also true of motion pictures: “The one unforgivable sin is to be boring.” I could call this movie a lot of things, but boring isn't one of them; for what The Amityville Horror skimps on in thrills, logic, and coherence, it more than makes up for in unintentional laughs.
Back in 1979 when the film had its best chance of being taken seriously, the public was obviously caught up enough in it to make it one of the highest grossers of the year. But that didn’t stop the opening night audience I saw it with from still appreciating the occasional laugh at the film’s expense.
Sweating profusely, nauseous, covered in flies, and witness to a door opening all by itself, Father Delaney hears a creepy voice demand that he "Get out!" Given that those words inspired the tile of Jordan Peel's 2017 horror classic, maybe those laughs this scene was greeted with in 1979 were of the nervous kind.
Those tacky-looking glowing red eyes
Margot Kidder and Lalo Schifrin's Oscar-nominated score work like Trojans trying to convince us that Kathy Lutz has seen something unspeakably terrifying outside of her daughter's second-story bedroom window. Regrettably, a cut to Kathy's POV reveals "glowing red eyes" that look for all the world like outdoor Christmas lights
Amity meets Amityville
Actor Murray Hamilton, who played the doubting Thomas mayor of Amity in Jaws, this time out plays a doubting Thomas priest. His brief scene in the film is memorable for the manner in which he commands a (still) frothing at the mouth Rod Steiger to the sit down. It's like he's giving a command to an overgrown Bullmastiff 

Over the years, The Amityville Horror has spawned something like 15 Amityville-related sequels, remakes, and spinoffs. I don't know if this qualifies the original as some kind of minor classic or a mere franchise fluke; but for whatever reasons, The Amityville Horror (even with its always dubious claims to reality since debunked) has proved to be a movie that endures.  
Copyright © Ken Anderson

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

THE ACTRESS 1953


I’m training my eye on The Actress: a film which marked the fifth and final collaboration between Spencer Tracy and director George Cukor. After teaming on Keeper of the Flame (1943), Edward My Son (1949), Adam’s Rib (1949), and Pat & Mike; Tracy and Cukor’s final collaborative hurrah was with the serio-comic domesticity of 1953’s The Actress.

From a screenplay by Ruth Gordon adapted from her autobiographical 1946 Broadway play Years Ago (which was itself based on her serialized memoirs Look in your Glass, published in several issues of The Atlantic Monthly in 1939); The Actress is set in 1913 Wollaston, Massachusetts, and chronicles, in episodic fashion, her teen years when first bitten by the acting bug. The featherlight project first caught the interest of two-time Oscar-winner Spencer Tracythen the darling of MGM and well into the “professional father” years of his career (Father of the Bride, Father’s Little Dividend); accounting perhaps for the charming film feeling somewhat dominated by the character of the father. More of a I Remember Papa reverie than a contemplation on a young girl’s determination to embark on a life on the stage.
Jean Simmons as Ruth Gordon Jones
Spencer Tracy as Clinton Jones
Teresa Wright (given not a single closeup in the entire film) as Annie Jones
Anthony Perkins (making his film debut) as Fred Whitmarsh
When heretofore aimless 17-year-old Ruth Jones (Simmons) sees actress and former Ziegfeld Follies star Hazel Dawn on stage in “The Pink Lady,” she undergoes an epiphany: she MUST hereafter devote her life to becoming an actress.
Ruth freely shares her newfound ambition with her practical and empathetic mother (Wright), but due to his having a “disposition,” works hard to keep her aspirations a secret from her bearish father (Tracy), a former adventuring seaman currently bristling at the penurious state of his current life as a factory worker.

While her mother harbors the hope that after graduation, Ruth will simply settle down and marry Fred (Perkins), the handsome and genial Harvard student avidly courting her; her father, who paradoxically believes women should be independent and learn to earn their own keep, yet forbids his wife from lightening their financial load by taking sewing, has set his sights on Ruth becoming a physical education teacher. 
Clinton participates in a YMCU fitness exhibition (married men's division)

Meanwhile, Ruth pursues her dream, albeit largely though daydreams and acting-out fantasies, but a well-placed fan letter to Hazel Dawn occasions a much-coveted meeting with the Great Lady (offscreen) and a summons to Boston to meet with the director of the company. Ruth Gordon Jones’ dream of life as an actress is set. Or is it?

Since from the outset there is never any doubt that timorous Jean Simmons will grow up to be a Tony Award nominated stage actress, a novelist, a playwright, an Oscar nominated screenwriter (with her husband Garson Kanin), and win an Academy Award for Rosemary’s Baby; the only dramatic conflict The Actress has to offer are comedic slice-of-life vignettes highlighting the domestic uproar in the Jones household born of Ruth’s decision to become an actress.
Indeed, the film’s slightness of plot and episodic nature (as delightful as I find it to be, as with Meet Me in St. Louis, not much really happens in the way of plot) proved to be an insurmountable obstacle as MGM struggled to market a film featuring one of Spencer Tracy’s finest performances in the context of a story not exactly about his character, but whose presence and contribution was indispensable. 
Instead of studying, Ruth and her girlfriends engage in an impromptu
performance of Hazel Dawn's signature song "Beautiful Lady"
 

Reflecting this dilemma is the fact that The Actress (a title few were happy with) entertained several working titles from pre-production through preview screenings, the blunt and misleading Father and the Actress proving too reminiscent of Tracy’s Father of the Bride series, but at least reflecting the film’s proper character emphasis.

Although Jean Simmons cites it as one of her favorite films and Spencer Tracy won a Golden Globe for his performance (and a BAFTA nomination), favorable critical reception couldn’t save The Actress from fizzling at the box-office. In the book You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet: Interviews with Stars from Hollywood’s Golden Era, Simmons recalls going to see the film at a theater in Westwood and being the only person in attendance.

I first came across The Actress about five years ago when it was screened on TCM. I had never heard of the film before, but found myself instantly charmed by its simple structure and old-fashioned feel. In its simple humor and nicely-drawn characters, it reminded me a great deal of the aforementioned Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), as well as The Happy Time (1952) and The Matchmaker (1957)—the latter being the play for which Ruth Gordon won her sole Tony Award nomination, the film adaptation affording Anthony Perkins another opportunity to mine the same boyish appeal in a similar role.

For all the talent in evidence both in front of and behind the camera (personal favorite Teresa Wright is underutilized, but a real treat), there’s no denying that Spencer Tracy is the film’s most valuable player. The naturalism which earned him the reputation as “the actor’s actor” serving to ground his blustering but principled character (and with it, Cukor's entire frothy enterprise) in a realism that is engagingly funny as it is occasionally touching.
Clinton's most treasured possession is the spyglass he purchased during his youth as a sailor

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
The lack of a propulsive plotline seems to have been a major point of contention with many when it comes to The Actress, but for me the small scale and intimate presentation of this character-driven comedy feels wholly appropriate to the subject matter. The simple, even drab surroundings and humdrum concerns of budgeting, homework, school dances, pay bonuses, and cats attracted to Boston ferns, is the idea contrast for the larger-than-life theatricality of Ruth and her dreams. 
Ruth's dreamy dissatisfaction with the confining contentment of the
life her parents have chosen for themselves 

The small-scale of the family’s domestic dramas and the workaday concerns of a small-town life are grist to Ruth’s desire for a better, more exciting life. When I watch Meet Me In St. Louis, the loving home depicted is one so enchanting, I can’t imagine anyone ever wanting to stray from it. But the home life depicted in The Actress, while every bit as loving, also contains an air of dissatisfaction. Clinton bemoans the overarching oppression of poverty and speaks of his past as a sailor as though it were the happiest time in his life. Annie is clearly a housewife out of love and convention, her expressed longing for a velvet dress and hint of a skill as a seamstress suggesting broader interests and desires than those of home and family. 

The Actress, without criticizing those who choose to settle down and live quiet lives of simple pleasures, makes Ruth’s desire for something more into a basic, keenly felt human quest for personal fulfillment.
Watching Hazel Dawn Perform, Ruth Sees a Vision of All That Life Can Be
Any person who's ever sought a life in the creative arts has likely experienced that one moment
when all that was beautiful in the world seemed to beckon with a voice meant only for them

PERFORMANCES
If you’re going to mount a film more character-based than plot-driven, it helps to cast actors capable of creating indelible, fleshed-out personas out of sometimes slim material. The Actress distinguishes itself in its casting, even down to the smallest bits.
Former child actor Jackie Coogan (better known as "Uncle Fester" on The Addams Family TV series) is hilarious as an over-amused spectator at the YMCU fitness exhibition. Ruth is appropriately mortified.

The boyish appeal of Tony Perkins is clear in this, his first film role. What’s also clear is that after seeing his performance here and then his livelier take on same in The Matchmaker five years later; Hitchcock’s use of him in Psycho is positively inspired.
The likability of the actors cast goes far in mitigating the fact that several roles, Anthony Perkins' moony suitor Fred Whitmarsh, for example, are a tad underdeveloped

If Tony Perkins’ trajectory from boy-next-door to everyone’s favorite psychopath seems swift, it’s nothing compared to Oscar winner Teresa Wright’s swift journey from fresh-faced ingenue in 1941’s The Little Foxes to long-suffering mom. Wright was only 11 years older than Jean Simmons when cast in The Actress (34 to Jean’s 23) and would play Simmons’ mother again in 1969s The Happy Ending. Late in her career when a reporter asked Wright why she stopped making movies, she replied: “I guess Jean Simmons no longer needs a mother.” 
As Far As I'm Concerned, Teresa Wright Can Do No Wrong
I wouldn't call her underappreciated, for her reputation as an actress is one respected and revered. But Teresa Wright doesn't get nearly the attention and play in classic film circles as she deserves. She brought a contemporary, genuine quality to every role she undertook, In The Actress she is has marvelous moments where she is both funny and breathtakingly real. Still, her impressive talents feel somewhat wasted in the role of caring mom, and as good as Simmons is (and she's very good) I can't help imagining how Wright would have been in Simmons' role just a few years earlier.

Without recalling the actress in any way at all, Jean Simmons is really splendid as the stage-struck teenage Ruth Gordon. Called upon to show vivacity, naiveté, rebelliousness, and ultimately determination and maturity; if her performance suffers at all (test audiences at the time to a decided dislike to her) I’d say it’s because she captures the sulky self-absorption of adolescence all too well. Gordon isn’t exactly easy on herself, and depicts her younger self’s single-mindedness in sometimes unsentimental ways. But I like that the character has an arc of growth in the film. And if perhaps she starts out as a dreamy-eyed brat, she grows into a mature woman of some empathy and understanding of what parents sacrifice in raising spirited and independent offspring.
Ruth suffers her first taste of rejection 
Because he’s never been tops on my “favorite actors” list, I tend to harbor the impression of Spencer Tracy as one of those solid, reliable, studio system actors who could always be depended upon to deliver a professional performance in any film assigned. It’s only when I actually watch one of his films that I’m reminded what a valuable and rare thing that is.

It could be argued that nothing Tracy does as Clinton Jones is anything he hasn’t done before, after all, by this time in his career he’d made well over 50 films. But what’s remarkable about Tracy is that he was a star with a character actor's gift for inhabiting a part so completely, the behavior, movements, and vocal inflections all seem to exist exclusively for whatever character he was portraying at the time.
In The Actress, his character is largely identified by a gruff, irascible demeanor and a comic paternal bossiness. But to watch Tracy stay in character while delivering a monologue that's part searing tirade against the cruel aunts who brought him up/part lamenting requiem for his mother who committed suicide when he was two years old--well, it's to watch a little bit of acting genius.

Ruth hopes to convince her parents of the soundness of her decision to go upon the stage

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Much like my experience with the film adaptation of Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker, I came to The Actress with low expectations and found myself not only surprised by how good it is, but completely captivated by its simplicity and charm.
The film's vignette structure may play a bit of havoc with Ruth and Fred's relationship (we never understand whether it's as serious as Fred takes it or as casual as Ruth makes it out to be), but it nicely suits the photo album/scrapbook setup of the title sequence. The script is witty, the performances uniformly fine.
Of course, given my own life-changing brush with the arts (see: the Xanadu post), I can't help but find certain details of Ruth Gordon's teen years to resonate with me and have a certain universal appeal.
Ruth's reaction to seeing Hazel Dawn (Kay Williams) on the stage is not unlike my response to seeing the critically lambasted 1980 musical Xanadu. So inspired was I by that film, I embarked on a career as a dancer.  
Effort and hard work are indispensable, but having dreams is where it all begins
Like the unexpected setback which threatens to ultimately derail Ruth's plans to move to New York, my own move away from home—to L.A. from Berkeley—was beset by a similar reversal. Exactly as it happens in the film, I panicked, certain that if I allowed this one problem to stop me (an apartment I had put a deposit down on was suddenly no longer available), I'd be stopped by another and another.
Happy Ending: went to LA even without a place to live, got my deposit refund, spent the entire day apartment-hunting and found a place before sundown on the very same day I arrived (on a weekend, yet).
So, you see, there's much in The Actress that speaks to anybody who strikes out on their own, armed with little more than impossible dreams and a foundationless belief in self.
The Actress is not a perfect film, to be sure, but it is certainly something of an unsung cinema gem.

Copyright © Ken Anderson