Thursday, September 21, 2017

aronofsky's unrelenting provocation

"Darren Aronofsky’s 'Mother!' Will Likely Be 2017’s Most Hated Movie!"

So blared the headline for a movie review on The Verge site when Aronofsky's work - a true cinematic affront - played The Toronto International Film Festival a few days prior to its national release.

"The most hated"? Perhaps. But, frankly, who cares? It's an opinion, that's all. "The best..." The worst..." "The most..." When it comes to movies, why do opinions lean towards overstatement and exaggeration? Sorry, but in this case, a more interesting consideration is why "Mother!" might be hated, particularly when one considers the execrable junk that moviegoers sit through week after week and that weak-willed critics leniently endorse.

"The most hated?" No, but it is certainly "the most talked-about and debated." That's something that one could hardly say about anything recently critically-acclaimed or about any of the recent Oscar winners. Quick! I challenge you to name the last three Best Picture winners. You probably can't because most Oscar winners, risk-free and politically correct, prove to be unmemorable. "Mother!" is hardly unmemorable.

From where I sit, Aronofky's film in currently on the same fascinating journey previously taken by Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo," Charles Chaplin's "A Countess from Hong Kong," John Huston's "The Misfits," Peter Bogdanovich's "At Long Last Love," Elaine May's "Ishtar," John Boorman's "Exorcist II: The Heretic," Francis Ford Coppola's "One from the Heart" and, most notably, Michael Cimino's "Heaven's Gate" - all "hated" films.

Each and every one of them angered critics and the public alike - each was called "the worst" - and the disapproval lingered and burned for years. What sets "Mother!" apart from all of them is that it is willfully troublesome, with hellish imagery and sounds that grow more repellent, pronounced and overwhelming until it, well, simply expires. The end.

Given that this site is devoted largely to movies that have been unpopular and mostly misunderstood, "Mother!" fits right in - and one of the qualities that I like and admire about the film is just how inscrutable it is and how it is not audience-friendly at all. It's also elusive. "Mother!" has had critics flailing about as they've attempted to define, describe or pigeon-hole it.

Exactly what is it? A psychological thriller? A religious horror film? A movie about the most traumatic home invasion imaginable? Or is it the dark, dark comedy as A.O. Scott bravely called it in The New York Times?

Superficially, it's your basic woman-in-distress movie - a variation on Roman Polanski's 'Rosemary's Baby" about an entrapped woman married to man whose ways are suspect to say the least. It can also be taken as a filmic nightmare, plain and simple - a movie that catches us while we're still awake and then lulls us into a dream that, almost insidiously, turns bad, holding the heroine (and us) captive in a place that's clearly hell.

The latter point has prompted critics to label it a religious allegory and I have to admit that I am disappointed that Aronofsky and his stars, Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem, supported that analysis when they were interviewed by Melena Ryzik for The New York Times. (Bardem feels that the film is about "the birth of a religion as a cult.") I was hoping Aronofsky would remain quiet and simply leave his film open to free interpretation.

Here's my take, an analysis as fractured as the movie itself... We are introduced to a nameless husband and wife - played by Lawrence and Bardem - although the end credits list them as "mother" and "Him" (capitalized as one does when referring to God or Jesus - hence the religious slant). He's a poet struggling with writer's block.  His only feedback comes from her. She tends to restoring his childhood home that was destroyed by fire. She is devoted to Him and to home.

They live a solitary life that should be blissful, but Aronofsy creates immediate tension and anxiety by having his camera trail (stalk, actually) Lawrence whenever she is on screen. It is seemingly attached to her at the hip as she walks from room to room and turns and goes up a staircase. She is never alone even when, ostensibly, she is alone.

It's a nerve-wracking conceit that never lets up and that becomes more suffocating as the film progresses - or should I say as it regresses?

The solitude ends when an elderly stranger shows up at their door and is invited to stay the night by Bardem, much to Lawrence's distress. The man's wife, a truly unsettling woman, shows up the next day and the two are invited - again by Bardem - to stay as long as they want. It turns out that the stranger is dying. He's also a fan and wanted to meet Him before passing. Tellingly, this attention is catnip to Him. He can't resist it. He can't say no to this creepy couple - or their two grown sons, who also show up.

Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer (excellent!) play the older couple (also nameless), and while Scott likened them to George and Martha in Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," they are closer to Minnie and Roman Castevet (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer) from "Rosemary's Baby."

Our initial feeling of dread, it turns out, is well-founded. Awful things happen, mostly to the Lawrence character who just wants to make her husband happy, but as more and more people invade their home, taking over and destroying the hard, meticulous work she put into it, the more Him becomes oblivious, self-centered and narcissistic - and the more she becomes invisible. Not just to Him but to the hordes of hangers-on now populating their home. Her pleas to Him to stop this madness go unacknowledged because - and this is important - he listens to no one.

He can't get enough attention. There are never too many people - his "core" support - in their home. He enjoys the jarring chaos that comes with all the fawning - and he is complicit in the destruction that follows.

Maybe this is a stretch but, for me, the crazed, surreal narrative of "Mother!" matches the current political climate. Him is reminiscent of someone currently in the public eye who creates chaos (and possible destruction) with his insatiable need for attention and adulation. Sitting through this movie, cringing and witnessing something all too recognizable, I saw it not as something religious but as a nasty political allegory.

"Mother!" may be the first Trump-era horror movie.

That said, Aronofsky's direction is impeccable and completely, relentlessly focused. His choreography of the crowds and the crowded excess that ravenously overtake Lawrence's world, abetted by Matthew Libatique's invaluable cinematography, make for major, awesome filmmaking.

The director creates a hysteria that's absolutely brilliant but beyond the appreciation of the average moviegoer. A seriously misunderstood movie.

Notes in Passing: Since writing this and sharing my political allegory theory, reader "v.h." posted a a compelling response in the comment section, extending this observation - "I saw Jennifer Lawrence as Hillary Clinton during the primary and after the election as everything seemed to gang up on her and everything fell apart." Great catch.

BTW, "Mother!" received a rare F rating (no surprise here) from CinemaScore, one of only 19 movies to be so graded. (Such sites have become the bane of the movie industry.) Meanwhile, the readers of The New York Times responded to the Times' review and Ryzik's interview with their own opinions. The movie is divisive and polarizing. Is that so wrong?

Any film that truly impassions people is a positive, all too rare these days. 
* * * * *
~image~
~Javier Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence in a scene from "Mother!"
 ~photography: Paramount Pictures 2017©

Sunday, September 17, 2017

imperfect

I'm here today to play devil's advocate - to advance an observation that will probably be unpopular with most movie critics and film aficionados.

It's my contention that there is no such animal as a "perfect film" - that even an entitled movie lauded universally as a masterpiece or masterwork can have a distracting flaw or blemish. It's a troubling notion, particularly when the seemingly perfect film in question is the work of a favored director. Blind loyalty can delude even the most reasoned movie buff.

Throughout the years, there have been certain filmmakers in my private universe who can do no wrong - early on Billy Wilder and Richard Quine, and then Hal Ashby and Paul Mazursky, and perennially, Vincente Minnelli and Alfred Hitchcock. Especially Alfred Hitchcock. To him, I'm blindly loyal.

It's disturbing for me, after watching a masterwork for the umpteenth time, to discover belatedly (and improbably) that it has - this can't be! - a flaw. This just can't be. But it be. Suddenly, a film that's the definition of "perfection" isn't. This revelation is the result of having watched Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo" for the 758th time and Billy Wilder's "The Apartment" for the 962nd time, both on Turner Classic Movies, always on Turner (even though I have DVDs of both that, for some reason, I've never watched).

"Vertigo" routinely tops every arbitrary movie list as "the greatest film ever made," and deservedly so. "The Apartment" has been a personal favorite since forever, the one movie that fueled my passion for movies.

It pains me to say this but neither one is the perfect film that I discovered decades ago. Their respective blemishes, while hardly damaging, are disillusioning nevertheless. As well as annoying and ... unnecessary.

"Vertigo" is Hitchcock's lulling 128-minute metaphor for the tingling dangers of falling in love, the operative word, of course, being "falling."

Jimmy Stewart spends the first half of the film simply following Kim Novak around a shimmering '50s San Francisco. Kim Novak is gorgeous. San Francisco is gorgeous. So far, perfection. Stewart's obsession mirrors Hitchcock's for actresses who worked for him and, in the film's second half, after Novak is seemingly gone, he tries to recreate her cosmetically, the way a controlling filmmaker would. He's blissfully possessed. The initial dreaminess of the film becomes a nightmare that is not at all unappealing.

Blemishing the wonder of "Vertigo," however, is the unwatchable tribunal scene - archly written by Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor and poorly acted by Henry Jones as a sonorous, accusing coronor and Tom Helmore as the old friend who framed the Stewart character. It stops the film cold, adds little to the narrative and, largely because of Jones, is a trial to watch.

It's difficult to believe that this scene, which is heavy-handed and atypically unsubtle (in contrast to the rest of the film), was written by the same authors and directed by the same filmmaker responsible for the movie surrounding it. It could be cut without affecting "Vertigo" at all.

As for "The Apartment," it's a caustic and acerbic workplace comedy, streaked by nastiness, and comes with Wilder's trademark cynicism and his rather blatant lack of sympathy for any of his characters. It remains as bracing and as incorrigibly satisfying as it was almost 60 years ago.

But then there are those awful scenes with Shirley MacLaine (in the victim phase of her career) as a lovelorn elevator operator and Fred MacMurray as the imperious, rather repellent (married) executive with whom she's having an affair - an affair not the least bit believable. One never has an understanding of what these two see in each other. Would MacLaine's character actually be attracted to someone as dull as MacMurray's?  And he seems more inclined to seduce a tall blonde - a model or an actress - rather than a downtrodden unskilled worker with a kookie haircut.
These scenes are pure soap opera - glaringly out of place in a movie as smart as "The Apartment" - and they're poorly acted. Or perhaps MacLaine and MacMurray simply have no chemistry. Or perhaps the actors don't believe this relationship any more than I do. Whatever, it doesn't work.

MacLaine, meanwhile, has been given True Romance dialogue (tied to the affair) that is cringe-worthy. For example:

"Why do people have to love people anyway? "  

And...

"I was jinxed from the word go. The first time I was ever kissed was in a cemetery."

And...

"I just have this talent for falling in love with the wrong guy in the wrong place at the wrong time."
  
And...

"When you're in love with a married man, you shouldn't wear mascara."
 
This stuff was written by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond? Really? (And I don't buy for an instant that MacLaine is "in love" with MacMurray.)

There are curious elements in two other films by Wilder and Alfred Hitchcock that, while not exactly flaws, never made much sense to me and could be explained by only the filmmakers themselves - if they were still around to answer questions. In the case of Hitchcock, the film is "Rear Window" and the curiosity is the villain played by Raymond Burr.

Perhaps it's the contrarian in me but, except for his confrontation with Jimmy Stewart at the end of the film, I never found Burr's Lars Thorwald to be much of a threat. In fact, for me, through most of the film, he's a rather sympathetic character married to what appears to be a harridan.

That's not to excuse the character for murdering his wife, but it seems that, as conceived by writer John Michael Hayes and Hitchcock and as played by Burr, Lars is an ineffectual man more than a little pathetic.

I almost feel sorry for the guy as he's relentlessly targeted by Stewart, Grace Kelly and Thelma Ritter. Is it just me or did Hitch plot this reaction?

Finally, there's Wilder's "Some Like It Hot," always heading lists as "the best comedy of all time" - and a seemingly perfect one at that.

But there's this inconsistency in the film that has come to annoy me...

The early scenes in the film paint the Tony Curtis character as an unapologetic womanizer and irresponsible screw-up and Jack Lemmon's as the voice of reason, trying to keep his friend in check.

With me so far?

But once the guys crossdress, their personalities seemingly switch. Suddenly, Curtis is the cautious one, intent on reigning in Lemmon who is acting like a flake. Plus, Lemmon is now the womanizer, ogling the women in the band he and Curtis just joined and fantasizing about sex - and getting "a cup of that sugar" - i.e., Sugar Kane (aka Marilyn Monroe).

If Wilder were still alive, I'd like to ask him if putting on dresses is the reason why Tony Curtis suddenly becomes, well, proper and prudent and Jack Lemmon transforms into a leering, incorrigible burlesque comic.

I don't presume to rewrite Wilder and Diamond's inventive script, but wouldn't it make more sense if Lemmon remained the more serious one of the two guys, becoming involved with Marilyn, and if Curtis remained the irredeemable scamp that he is - and in Joe E. Brown's arms? Just asking.




* * * * *
~images~
(from top) 

~Paul Bryer (seated from left), James Stewart and Henry Jones in the tribunal sequence from "Vertigo"
~Jones and Tom Helmore in the same scene
 ~photography: Paramount 1958©

~Two images of Shirley MacLaine and Fred MacMurray in "The Apartment"
 ~photography: United Artists 1960©

~Raymond Burr in "Rear Window"
 ~photography: Paramount 1954©

~Jack Lemmon in "Some Like It Hot"
 ~photography: United Artists 1959©

Thursday, September 14, 2017

a fosse/olden postscript

One of the responses to my how to appreciate "how to succeed" essay came from DanM, who made an astute observation that I'd like to share:

"Great article! I learned a lot about one of my favorite films. I don't know if I'm off-base but when the "Secretary" number travels into the secretarial pool and we are introduced to the three men standing with their backs to the camera, I have always been reminded of the Georg Olden-designed logo for "To Tell The Truth." Maybe it was the zeitgeist of the era, but that connection has stayed with me all these years."

Good catch, Dan. Yes, the iconic Olden design logo for "To Tell the Truth" certainly does seem to have been the inspiration for one of Bob Fosse's trademark dance postures during that number in "How to Succeed."
Georg Olden
FYI: Georg Elliott Olden, born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1920, was an acclaimed graphic artist who initially worked in the art department of CBS and as such was one of the first African-Americans to work in television. In 1963, he was the first African-American to design a postage stamp for the U. S. Postal Service. He died in 1975 at age 56.
* * * * *
~images~
(from top) 

~Tucker Smith (from left),  Howard Parker and Paul Bradley as the dancing junior executives in the "A Secretary Is Not a Toy" in "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying"
 ~photography: United Artists 1967©

~Georg Elliott Olden, 1920-1975 

~The Georg Olden logo design for "To Tell the Truht"
 ~Georg Olden/CBS 1956©

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

adventurers in movie reviewing: Glenda Jackson & Richard Chamberlain in New York, 1971

Glenda Jackson, celebrated here in the previous essay, was someone I interviewed during my decades-long stint as a movie critic.  In retrospect, this should have been referenced in the original piece but I tend to forget the various interviews I did because, frankly, I didn't want to do them.

When I was hired for one position, I jokingly told my editor, "I don't do windows or interviews." It's too much of a compromise for a critic, who is supposed to be objective, to get too close to the people whose movies he/she will be reviewing. There's the threat of being finessed. The New York Times has the right idea, keeping criticism and interviewing apart.

But I did interview Jackson and I guess writing about her brought back a wonderful memory of the events surrounding our session together.

Consider this a tiny postscript:

It was January, 1971. A small number of the press gathered in New York for a private Friday night screening of Ken Russell's "The Music Lovers," which Jackson would be promoting with her co-star Richard Chamberlain.

The screening was at the fabulous, now-gone Coronet Theater.

The Coronet and its twin, The Baronet, located on Manhattan's Upper East Side (59th Street at Third Avenue), were two of the smartest movie houses in Manhattan (the marquee announced them as "A Walter Reade Twin Theater"), specializing in the highest pedigree of Hollywood films and foreign-language movies. They closed in 2001 and were eventually razed.

A sad end to a glittering movie era in New York.

The subsequent one-on-one interviews the following day took place in a suite at The Plaza Hotel, where the out-of-town press was also based.

I was happy to have an early-morning time slot because I was anxious to get back to the Coronet which was playing Robert Altman's ”Brewster McCloud.” (It was one of MGM's arty 1970 Christmas releases, along with Paul Mazursky's "Alex in Wonderland." These two titles, so hot at the time, are now barely remembered.)

But first, the interview...

Chamberlain arrived for the session with the beard he grew for the role of Tchaikovsky and a new British accent. He was friendly but very actorly (if that's a word). Jackson was surprisingly down-to-earth. Known largely as a stage actress, she was new to film and, no snob, claimed that she now preferred it to the stage. She confessed an admiration for Joan Crawford among Hollywood legends and I asked her if she'd ever consider a Crawford-type role in a more conventional Hollywood movie.

"Who could top Joan Crawford,?" she responded.

I guess at some point we got around to discussing "The Music Lovers," but then Jackson noticed that I was wearing a Mickey Mouse wristwatch.

Uh-oh, nerd alert. But wait! She was wearing the same watch. Whew! No judgment. A chat about our watches followed, until I was rather diplomatically escorted me out of the suite by the United Artists press rep. Just in time for me to make the first show of "Brewster McCloud" at the Coronet. Which I adored. And still do.

* * * * *
~images~
(from top) 

~Ken Russell directing Glenda Jackson and Richard Chamberlain in "The Music Lovers"
 ~photography: United Artists 1971©

~The Coronet and Baronet Theaters
 ~photography: Matt Weber/Street Photography 1985©

~Bud Cort in "Brewster McCloud"
 ~photography: MGM 1970©

~An authentic Mickey Mouse wristwatch, circa 1970

Sunday, September 10, 2017

façade: Glenda Jackson

Twenty-five years ago, in 1992, Glenda Jackson walked away from acting, movies and the stage to pursue a political career. She became a member of Parliament in Great Britian, working on behalf of the Labour Party.

Well, today, while perusing the New York Times' voluminous Fall Preview sections, there it was - an ad for the first New York staging of Edward Albee's Pulitzer Prize winner, "Three Tall Women," starring Laurie Metcalf, Alison Pill and, top-billed, Glenda Jackson, each playing the same woman in different stages of her life. Glenda Jackson is back and I. Can't. Wait.

The production opens at the John Golden Theater on March 29th, following a month of previews. In his capsule descriptions of Broadway's fall productions, Times reporter Steven McElroy writes that the show is about Albee's "relationship with his adoptive mother who didn't approved of his homosexuality," but noticeably missing, for some unfathomable reason, is any mention of Jackson's first acting assignment after a 25-year absence.

Jackson made a crucial decision to walk away and, when she did, people - her fans, the critics - seemed to walk away, too. In the opposite direction. In the past few years, Jackson's name has rarely been invoked in reviews or film essays.

For those moviegoers who have forgotten, or younger moviegoers who don't know Glenda Jackson and don't care, she was a force of nature. She was positively electric. There was always this unquenchable hunger in a Glenda Jackson performance. It was as if she wanted to make acting so much more than what it was. She was restless, active - an indication perhaps that there was an activist buried inside her and aching to get out.

It was during her last few years of acting that Jackson became involved in politics, entering the House of Commons in the 1992 general election as the Labour Member of Parliament for the constituency of Hampstead and Highgate in the London Borough of Camden. Her days in politics became numbered when, in 2013, she criticized the policies of Margaret Thatcher, an unpopular move, and she decided not to seek re-election in 2015.

I'm confident that she gave the same on-going passionate performance in her new role as a politician as she did on stage and on screen. It will be a pleasure, once again, to witness that no-nonsense Jackson drive - that sometimes frightening energy that she brought to so many films.

So many films... Where do I start?

If I were to pick, the essentials for a Glenda Jackson film festival would include:

"Women in Love" and "The Music Lovers." Two by Ken Russell, the first an Oscar winner for Jackson. "Women in Love," adapted by Larry Kramer from D. H. Lawrence's 1920s novel about the complex relationships among two women and two men, is sex-charged in an adult way that evades today's smirky, sexless films. It is highlighted by (1) Jackson's willfully unsympathetic performance as one of the women, (2) several bracing sex scenes and (3) a full-frontal nude wrestling sequence involving Alan Bates and Oliver Reed. "The Music Lovers," meanwhile, is Russell's contemplation of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's struggles with his homosexuality and his unwise marriage to a nymphomaniac. Richard Chamberlain plays Tchaikovsky and the homosexual panic that overcomes him, unleashed in a small private room on a speeding train, is truly harrowing, not the least of which is Jackson's predatory sexuality role in it."Stevie." Robert Enders' endearing adaptation of Hugh Whitemore's West End stage play is essentially a precise acting duet between two titans of the British stage and cinema, Jackson and Mona Washbourne, respectively playing the poet Stevie Smith and her beloved aunt. Through the tricky, observant wordplay of Smith's poetry, which Jackson recites directly into the camera at intervals, and her bracingly articulate conversations with her aunt, we come to know Smith and her emotional problems intimately.
"Sunday Bloody Sunday."  John Schlesinger's lascerating psychodrama, written by Penelope Gilliatt, in which Jackson and Peter Finch, whose characters are vaguely aware of each other, share the same callous young lover (male) who alternates between them. Finch, subtle as always, plays a doctor dealing with Jewish guilt about his sexuality and his family's expectations for him to marry. Jackson, whose character has more masculine qualities than Finch's, is positively intimidating here, never more so than when she screams at a child for chasing a dog fatally into traffic.

"Turtle Diary." Harold Pinter adapted the Russell Hoban novel for director John Irvin. It's a gentle tale about two people - Ben Kinglsey and Jackson (also atypically gentle here) - who bond over the sea turtles in captivity at a London zoo. Although they would never call themselves animal activists, they are - and they plot to kidnap the turtles and return them to the ocean. The supporting cast includes the singular Eleanor Bron (always compulsively watchable), Richard Johnson, Jeroen Krabbe and the invaluable Michael Gambon as another gentle soul taken with Jackson.

"The Boy Friend." Finally, another Russell title, his G-rated, yet wildly gay, adaptation of the charming Sandy Wilson musical with Twiggy in an awesome performance as a backstage assistant for a cheesy acting troupe(performing the Wilson show) who is called into service, a la Ruby Keeler, to take over the lead role when the star breaks her leg. The star, Rita Monroe, is played by an uncredited Jackson who gives a wickedly snarky performance. The idea of Twiggy replacing Jackson in anything adds to the hilarity of this whizzing, breezy musical.

These few titles make me long to see Glenda Jackson again. She's 81 now and the likelihood that she will ever make another movie is slim. It is also unlikely that we will ever see the likes of her again. But then there's Broadway, Albee and "Three Tall Women."

* * * * *
~images~
(from top) 

~Glenda Jackson in her prime 

~Poster art for "Three Tall Women"

~Jackson with Oliver Reed in "Women in Love"
~photography: MGM/U.A. 1969©

 ~Jackson with Mona Washbourne in "Stevie"
~photography: First Artists 1978©

 ~Jackson with Peter Finch and Murray Head in "Sunday Bloody Sunday"
 United Artists 1971©

~Jackson with Michael Gambon in "Turtle Diary"
~photography: Britannic  1995©

~Twiggy in "The Boy Friend"
~photography: MGM   1971©

~Glenda Jackson today 

Friday, September 08, 2017

the ruse

While watching one of the unrelenting TV ads for "Home Again," the new Reese Witherspoon film, I kept thinking of someone named Manning. It was annoying because the name kept coming into my head but I couldn't connect it to a person. But I'll get to that later. Back to "Home Again."

If "Home Again" ("from Nancy Meyers" but not really) is as funny as its ads, it could be another one-week wonder, box office-wise. It's not the highlighted scenes from the movie that are funny (they aren't), it's the ravings that punctuate each scene. The ads have these hyperventilating quotes but, at first glance, there seems to be no attribution at all.

If you squint real hard and get up-close to your 50" TV screen, however, you detect a blur under each quote that apparently gives the name of the critic in question. It's a safe guess that the critic is not from The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times or Rolling Stone because, in such a case, the name of the publication would be larger than the quote itself.

No, these "critics" are nobodies from the internet.

Which brings me back to Manning. I couldn't connect the name to a person because there is no person. Sixteen years ago, in one of its 2001 June editions, Newsweek magazine exposed a critic named David Manning who, up until that point, was a star of sorts in television spots and also in display ads that ran more frequently in daily newspapers back in those days.

David seemingly came out of nowhere. According to the ads, he wrote for the Ridgefield Press, a small Connecticut weekly. But no one knew who he was, including the Ridgefield Press. The new Kilroy. David liked the right movies. He was the only critic on planet earth who actually liked Rob Schneider's "The Animal," a film not screened in advance for any critic.

"Another winner!," David gasped nevertheless.

Newsweek pursued the story when reporter John Horn noticed that "David Manning of the Ridgefield Press" was quoted in ads for movies released by Sony Entertainment exclusively (that would include Columbia Pictures, TriStar and Screen Gems) and became suspicious. The story broke.

There is no David Manning and there never was. He was a PR concoction.

The two Sony advertising flacks, who created the fictional critic and wrote the quotes for Sony ads themselves, were suspended. David Manning was gone. He never made the National Society of Film Critics, although I hear that there were serious plans to court him. If only he could be located.

David was invented because the good old days of studios threatening and co-opting critics were fading. There was a time when gossip columnists like Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons were only too happy to supply the studios with money quotes. The new breed of movie critic would not be controlled or compromised. All that was left were the die-hard Junketeers, those celebrity-obsessed interviewers who are wined and dined and put up in hotels by the studios (and, if everything works as planned, have their picture taken with the celeb!) and who are expected to produce fawning pieces from which a planted quote could be conveniently extracted.

A quote from a critic who isn't a critic - and from a review that doesn't exist. These days, this is the new normal, thanks to the internet.

In the 16 years since David Manning perished and went to critics' heaven, everything has changed. The world is now full of  self-proclaimed "movie critics" - wannabes  and amateurs. These professional jokes seem to forget that one really isn't a critic unless a media source actually pays you.

But the point is, there's no need in 2017 to invent someone like David. He's back, multiplied many times over. I've never counted (who has the time or the patience?) but there seems to be thousands of so-called movie critics on Rotten Tomatoes, a place where someone who works as a shoe clerk and writes reviews in his bedroom is put on the same plane as Roger Ebert. Great, just great. Wait a minute! "Great, just great"? That's it!

Hey, taken out of context, that's a hell of a money quote, the kind studios love. But please don't attribute it to me. Instead, sign it ... David Manning.

* * * * *
~image~

~What David Manning might look like if he existed

Monday, September 04, 2017

how to appreciate "how to succeed"

Now is the time to reacquaint ourselves with "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" and its curious journey to the screen. David Swift's colorful 1967 film adaptation of the 1961 Frank Loesser stage musical airs tomorrow afternoon on Turner Classic Movies at 3:45 (est) as part of its clever "How To" series of films ("How to Steal a Million," How to Marry a Millionaire," you get the drift). But first a word about DVD Savant.

If you are not familiar with Glenn Erickson's excellent site, I highly recommend that you check it out.  It's invaluable. That said, one of Glenn's favorite movies is "How to Succeed." And I am willing to bet the rent money that the film is also Glenn's favorite movie musical of all time, given that he's written about it three times (to the best of my knowledge) - here and here and here. And I relate. My personal movie-musical obsession is Mervyn LeRoy's ”Gypsy.” We all have one, right?

A good part of Glenn's focus on "How to Succeed" has been the missing "Coffee Break" number, which was a showstopper on stage and was filmed for the movie but then hastily deleted, seemingly at the very last minute.

The song is included on the soundtrack album and stills from it abound - and have been used on the dust jackets of the film's various home entertainment incarnations.  Lots of stills. Just no footage. United Artists which released the film - and was not known for valuing the elements of its products - apparently junked the footage. Although I'm certain that some film freak out there, a former U.A. employee maybe, has it. Just guessing.

Glenn's two most recent posts on "How to Succeed" and the missing number (published back in March) caught the eye of a correspondent/colleague, identified only as B., who shed light not only on "Coffee Break" but also on the many other changes made for the stage-to-film transition. "Coffee Break" is only the tip of the iceberg. I highly doubt that Frank Loesser was very happy with this adaptation of his baby.

And adaptation is the operative word here.

When a book or stage production is optioned for the movies, it's a given that it will be adapted for the new medium. Those moviegoers who are fans of a book or a play expect an exacting adaptation - an exact replica of what they read or saw - and nothing less. I'm definitely a member of this group, particularly in the area of filmed Broadway musicals.

When Warner Bros made movies of celebrated stage musicals in the 1950s and '60s - "The Pajama Game," "Damn Yankees," "The Music Man," "Gypsy," "My Fair Lady," "Camelot" and "Finian's Rainbow" - it was as if Jack Warner himself hauled the cameras to New York's theater district. These films preserved the shows that inspired them, almost slavishly so.

Few-to-no alterations - my idea of a good adaptation.

But filmmakers, understandably, prefer the challenge of reworking something for the screen - to the point that it's sometimes barely recognizable. I'm thinking of the films of "Bye Bye Birdie," "Cabaret," "Living It Up" (based on "Hazel Flagg" - even the title didn't survive!) and "On the Town," "Pal Joey" and "Can-Can" (curiously all Sinatra titles).I suppose that tracing over a Broadway original is a rather lazy form of moviemaking. It takes more thought and planning to do a thorough adaptation. Superficially, Swift's "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" seems to be a replica of its stage source, but Swift, who also wrote the screenplay for his film, was shrewd and obviously put a lot of thought into the adaptation which changed the material ever so slightly.

Here's a stage-to-film history, most of it fact-based but some of it speculative: "How to Succeed" opened in New York at the 46th Street Theater on October 14, 1961, following a tryout run in Philadelphia (where I saw it as a kid).  In New York, it ran for 1,417 performances.

 Although based on a playful 1952 book (of the same title) by Shepherd Mead, the show was also clearly part of the new-style "buttoned-down" humor of the 1960s. There was Bob Newhart doing stand-up in businessman attire, as were Mike Nichols, Shelley Berman and Mort Sahl, Jack Lemmon on movie screens in "The Apartment," and Dick Van Dyke on his eponymous TV series.  All wearing suits and ties.

And buttoned-down shirts, natch.

And now there was Robert Morse as J. Pierpont Finch in a stage musical about businessmen.


The show was a trendy hit and went on to win awards galore, including the prestigious Pulitzer Prize.

But the idea was less trendy by the time the movie version was released in 1967.

The buttoned-down humor era had passed and, frankly, it was difficult to believe that the show actually won a Pulitzer.  I've no idea of exactly when United Artists and The Mirisch Corporation (the producers of "The Apartment") snagged the film rights for "How to Succeed" - how soon the show was purchased after it opened or how long it lingered at U.A. before being filmed. I do know that times had changed.

And Swift, in turn, had to make some changes. On Glenn's site, B. solves the mystery when he writes (1) that the powers wanted to keep "a relatively modestly produced film to a reasonable running time" and (2) that "a shared spotlight had been trimmed to favor Finch alone."

A casualty of the adaptation is Frank Loesser's score. On stage, "How to Succeed" had nine songs and two reprises in Act One and four songs and three reprises in Act Two - 18 numbers in all sung by the entire cast.

In comparison, the film version has eight songs and three reprises - 11 numbers in all. Finch - Robert Morse - sings in all but two of those numbers, the exceptions being the "A Secretary Is Not a Toy" ensemble and one version of "I Believe in You." As for his co-stars in the movie, Michele Lee has one solo and one duet,  and Rudy Vallee has two duets.

There was a decision that, for the film version, Robert Morse and only Robert Morse would be showcased. This is not the first time that a Broadway musical was made into a film seemingly interested in only one character. Director George Sidney did it twice. On its long journey to the screen, "Pal Joey" became "An Evening with Frank Sinatra," and "Bye Bye Birdie" was turned into "Ann-Margret Does Sweet Apple, Ohio."

To match Morse's affable mugging in the lead performance, Swift elected to film the musical in the broad cartoon style of Frank Tashlin ("The Girl Can't Help It" and "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?"). Case in Point:  Maureen Arthur's theatrical entrance in the film (as the outrageous Hedy LaRue) and the bug-eyed reaction of the businessmen is pure Tashlin - not exactly worthy of a Pulitzer but certainly the stuff of popular moviemaking.

Among the numbers deleted were all the songs originally performed by Michele Lee's Rosemary character - "Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm,""Paris Original" and "Cinderella Darling," all wonderful songs that brought dimension to the character, but that apparently were considered unnecessary, given the new, determined focus of the film. There's no indication that any of them was filmed. But "Coffee Break" was and the exact reason it was cut from the film has never been explained.
Among the reasons bandied about... It was deleted because Radio City Music Hall, the site of the film's New York opening, wanted a shorter film. This doesn't make sense, given that the release version of "How to Succeed" runs two hours and the Music Hall routinely played films that ran two-and-a-half hours. IMDb, not the most reliable source for information, has advanced the rumor that "the footage was ... deemed unusable."

But IMDb may be on to something. As mentioned earlier, "Coffee Break" was a showstopper on stage, where it was choreographed by Bob Fosse. Dale Moreda recreated Fosse's signature moves for the film and my hunch is that what played well on stage looked arch on screen. Weird. Just not funny. A similar situation occurred when Vincente Minnelli made "Bells Are Ringing" and filmed - and then deleted - the "Is It a Crime?" number, also a show-stopper on stage. Great number. But only on stage. The outtake of it on the "Bells" DVD is - how should I put this? - unwatchable.

But back to "Coffee Break." I've another theory why it was deleted. Originally, there were only two ensemble numbers in the "How to Succeed" film - "Coffee Break" and "A Secretary Is Not a Toy" - both performed without the Finch character. And they're rather similar (again, the trademark Fosse moves). Too much alike. One had to go. And while "Coffee Break" is fun (at least on stage), "A Secretary Is Not a Toy" is the better number, hands-down. Too good to cut. Decision made.

Speaking of 'Secretary," there is another cut in the film, one never discussed. The middle of "A Secretary Is Not a Toy" (for my money, the best number in the play/film) is missing.  The song is truncated.  It's apparent that the number was filmed in its entirety,  but there's an awkward (bad) cut to the dancing in front of elevators, a cut that deletes the middle portion of Loesser's lyric for the song.*
Another curious fact about "How to Succeed" is that when it was in production, it was widely reported that Swift was also filming "dramatic bridges" to replace the movie's musical numbers for its European engagements. This may account for some strange transitions in the film, particularly its opening - the jump cut from Finch, washing the windows of the World Wide Wickets building, to his suddenly singing the film's first number, "How To," which almost feels like an afterthought. 

Does the straight, non-singing version of "How to Succeed" still exist?  And if it does, wouldn't it be a nifty feature to include on a BlueRay/DVD?
Also missing is the "mirror" cameo appearance by Cary Grant at the end of Morse's rendition of "I Believe in You," something that was drumbeated in the "How to Succeed" pressbook, but that was never part of the finished film. When David Swift's film was in production, rumors were rampant that Grant would be making an appearance in the film.  Nothing was elaborated on; it seemed a tease at the time.

When the film finally materialized, Grant was decidedly not on screen - and the scribes that had written about the event apparently forgot all about it.  But United Artists didn't.  In what amounts to a massive Hollywood screw-up, whoever put together the pressbook for the film (the pressbook being an important marketing tool in those days) included a reference to Grant, inviting newspapers to use the information. You can read the clip for yourself (at right) - and learn Grant's rationale for agreeing to do a turn in the movie.  It appeared on Page Eight of the pressbook.

One can assume that Grant did indeed film his non-speaking cameo. But it was never explained why it isn't in the complete film. As for the sequence in question - the "I Believe in You" number - it was supposed to end with star Robert Morse looking at himself in a mirror when his image turns into Cary Grant's.  In the final release version of the film, the sequence ends with Morse seeing his own image in the mirror, not Grant's

One can only assume what happened to the Grant footage and the "straight" version of "How to Succeed." Where are they now?

* Re the missing portion of "A Secretary Is Not a Toy," there's an abrupt cut to dancing in front of an elevator after the chorus sings about a secretary "not being used for play therapy." This was originally followed by:

"She's a highly specialized key component
Of operational unity,
A fine and sensitive mechanism
To serve the office community.
With a mother at home she supports;
And you'll find nothing like her at FAO Schwarz.

"A secretary is not a pet
Nor an e-rector set.
It happened to Charlie McCoy, boy:
They fired him like a shot
The day the fellow forgot
A secretary is not a toy." 

Notes in Passing:  Billy Wilder had a track record with the Mirisch Brothers, the producers of "How to Succeed," and the Mirisches wanted Wilder to direct the musical with Jack Lemmon as his star (just as Paramount originally wanted Wilder to direct Lemmon in "The Odd Couple"). Wilder declined because, as he explained when he turned 1963's "Irma La Douce" into a songless comedy, "I don't know how to make musicals."  The project, of course, went to David Swift, who had also directed Lemmon - in the back-to-back comedies, "Under the Yum-Yum Tree" and "Good Neighbor Sam."  But, Swift opted instead for Morse, the play's original star and, for many, the owner of the leading role.

And as Glenn Erickson mentions on his site, that's the director, David Swift, who plays the elevator operator who chides Michelle Lee late in the film.  Nice cameo.

Belated note: Vanessa posted a response asking if the late Robert Osborne, of TCM, is an extra in the film.  See her question and my reply among the comments.
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~images~

~A moment from the "Secretary Is Not a Toy" number in "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying"
~photography: United Artists 1967©

~Dust jacket  art for the Shepherd Mead book on which the musical is based

~Jack Lemmon in "The Apartment"
~photography: United Artists 1960©

~Dust jacket art for the RCA/Original Cast recording of the stage show

~Robert Morse and Bonnie Scott in the original Broadway production of "How to Succeed..." 
~photography: Friedman-Abeles 1961©

~A moment from the deleted "Coffee Break" number in "How to Succeed..."
~photography: United Artists 1967©

~Morse singing "I Believe in You" (sans Cary Grant) in "How to Succeed..."
~photography: United Artists 1967©

~A clip from the United Artists pressbook for "How to Succeed."
~United Artists 1967©