Saturday, May 27, 2023

For a Good Time, Call "Butterfield 8"--but Hang up if Eddie Fisher Answers


"Working Girl": Liz Taylor checks out her surrounding in "Butterfield 8".

There are many reasons why an actress wins an Academy Award: a knock-out performance (like Catherine Zeta-Jones in "Chicago"), appearing in a role completely opposite their public image (like Donna Reed as a hooker in "From Here to Eternity") or a stunning transformation (like Hillary Swank in "Boys Don't Cry" or Sissy Spacek in "Coal Miner's Daughter") into another person.

 In 1960, Elizabeth Taylor won a Best Actress Oscar for recovering from a near fatal bout of pneumonia and an emergency tracheotomy--it couldn't have been for her acting in "Butterfield 8" (1960), today's featured flick.

Based on the novel by John O'Hara, Liz plays Gloria Wandrous, "the glamour girl who wakes up ashamed!" Why? Is it because she tells people she's "a model" when she's really a high-end escort? Is it because her twitchy ma Annie (Mildred Dunnock) can't bring herself to admit her daughter is a call girl--and it might be partly her fault? Or perhaps Gloria is ashamed because the script by John Michael Hays and Charles Schnee makes her say stuff like "I've had more fun in the back seat of a '39 Ford than I ever could in the vault of the Chase Manhattan Bank!" and "Maybe it's too late for marriage, but it's not too late for love!"?

How did this turkey trot onto Liz's filmography? After 17 years, Liz Taylor's long-term contract with MGM was about to expire. Naturally, the studio wanted Taylor's last MGM movie to be a box office success. To the producer's way of thinking, Gloria's racy exploits--and the off-screen notoriety of Taylor's own behavior-- would propel "Butterfield 8" to box office gold.

Liz, however, balked at her assignment. She called the script "pornographic" and said Gloria was "a sick nymphomaniac". Threatened to be kept off the screen for two years, Liz gave in. Just as MGM hoped, audiences thrilled to the sight of Taylor screeching, "Face it, mama. I was the slut of all time!"--especially in light of the public thrashing she was getting for "stealing" crooner Eddie Fisher from wife Debbie Reynolds so soon after the death of hubby #3 Mike Todd. "Butterfield 8" became one of the year's top money makers and would earn Liz her third Oscar nomination. However, none of that cut any ice with Taylor, who repeatedly insisted, "I still say (the movie) stinks."

"Smoking Hot": Gloria (you know who) prepares to light up.

And she's right: "Butterfield 8" does stink--but in a good way! It's a Velveeta banquet with all the trimmings: censorious neighbors, long-suffering wives, snooty society doyennes, sex mad businessmen, broken dreams, cheap moralizing, throbbing music, bed hopping, boozing and Taylor flouncing around in a custom-made Edith Head wardrobe. "Butterfield 8" is the sort of Lifetime movie the Lifetime Channel would make if they had money.

 "Butterfield 8", in case you're wondering, is the phone number of Gloria's answering service. That's where she gets her daily "modeling" assignments and messages from "friends".  Among Gloria's many "friends" is Weston Liggett (Laurence Harvey). The film suggests he's a bitter sad sack because A) he's married to rich heiress Emily Jesscott (Dina Merrill, who, in real life, was a rich heiress) and B) he has a do-nothing "son-in-law job". To cope with these humiliations, Weston drinks like a fish, acts like a jerk, insults his wife and visits hookers like Gloria. Still, wife Emily refuses to believe hubby is as bad as he is. When her rich ma tells her, "Somewhere, at this very minute, he's probably lifting a glass in a bar or some woman's skirt! Or both! And you know it!" Emily can only gasp, "Oh, mother! Don't be vulgar!"

While Emily refuses to follow her mother's advice and divorce Liggett, hubby and Gloria are having a wild night together. How wild? When Gloria wakes up, she finds her dress on the floor, ripped in two.  Harvey has already left for work, so Gloria decides to makes herself at home: she pours herself a drink, checks out Emily's dressing room, looks for some smokes and brushes her teeth. Then she finds an envelope of cash with a note that reads, "Is this enough?" Miffed, Gloria writes "No Sale" in lipstick on a mirror, steals one of Emily's fur coats--a girl's got to wear something if she's going to hail a cab--and marches off. Later on, Liggett will insist the money was to replace Gloria's torn dress, not a payment for services rendered.


Although Liz vows to never see Liggett again, they meet up at the bar in a fancy restaurant. 

"What's a nice girl like you doing in a place this?": Weston Liggett (Laurence Harvey) makes Gloria an offer she can refuse.

"We didn't talk much last night, did we?" Liggett pants.

"Hardly. But be grateful for small favors," Gloria replies.

Determined to have Gloria all to himself, Liggett gives her an offer he believes she can't refuse: a fancy apartment, charge cards, even Netflix (if it had been invented back then). Furious that Harvey thinks she can be bought, Taylor hisses, "Mr. Liggett! Put your assets away! You don't have enough! You couldn't match what I've already turned down!" And just so Harvey doesn't get any more nutty ideas, Gloria informs him, "I earn my living modeling clothes like these!" thrusting her cleavage in his face.

Gloria turns to leave and Liggett grabs her wrist. When he refuses to let go, Gloria digs her spike heel into his foot. If Liz thought the pain of this action would make Harvey back off, she was wrong. Very wrong. Instead, from the look on Liggett's face, it's clear it's turning him on.

"I want to grab you and carry you right out of this place right now!" Harvey throbs.

Dina Merrill (as understanding wife Emily) is horrified to learn her name will appear in the credits of "Butterfield 8".

Instead, after Gloria finishes her latest "modeling assignment", she and Liggett decide to run away together for a few days. Their first stop is a no-tell motel run by an ex-starlet named Happy (Kay Medford). Liggett is so anxious to hit the sheets with Gloria, he can't even wait for Happy to finish her latest story about her failed Hollywood career. Next, the duo visit Harvey's childhood home, where they kiss on the street, shocking all the neighbors walking by. Last, they arrive at Liggett's boat, "a rust bucket" that he declares is "all mine". 

"A yacht!" Gloria coos. "You didn't tell me!"

"Well, it doesn't have any Van Goghs in it," Liggett admits. "But I do have two original copies of Playboy magazine somewhere!"

The smitten kittens have such a great time, that when they return to NYC, they decide they're in love. That means Liggett will leave his wife and Gloria will not only give up hooking, she will no longer need to see a mental health counselor.

Ah, but the course of true love rarely runs smooth for a hooker and her john--especially in the movies. 

"Any calls while I was gone?": Gloria phones home.

As "Butterfield 8" enters its final act, the flick starts to resemble the movie "Go Naked in the World" (reviewed in this very blog). The similarities are endless:  Taylor is described as "the most desirable woman in the city" and Gina Lollobrigida is called "the highest priced woman in captivity" (actually San Francisco). Both women have "customers" who fall in love with them. Both movies feature the smitten kittens running off together. Both movies have characters that stand as warnings of how a life of sex-and-sin ends ( for Gina, it's a careworn hooker staggering down the street; for Liz, it's ex-starlet Happy who ends up "running a roadside brothel" instead of becoming a movie star). Both Harvey and Tony Franciosa  get drunk, realize their hooker true loves have slept with lots of men (Tony's own dad was one of Gina's clients, too!) and realize they can't possibly marry such a disgraceful creature. When Liz and Gina learn this, they're heartbroken, devastated that even true love can't erase their hooking pasts. Alas, both Back Alley Sallies come to tragic ends. The men survive, of course, becoming sadder, but wiser, for the experience. Harvey even asks understanding wife Emily to reconcile. After all the hank-panky we've witnessed, there has be a moral in there, right?

Anyway, unlike her character on screen, Liz Taylor managed to overcome all the indignities she was subjected to in "Butterfield 8" and earned an Oscar Nomination for Best Actress. Before the big night, however, she came down with pneumonia, was put in an iron lung and almost died. It was a tracheotomy that saved Taylor's life. By then the public had forgotten all about Liz "stealing" Eddie Fisher from Debbie Reynolds and praised her for surviving such an ordeal. The good wishes carried Liz to triumph on Oscar night. Her tracheotomy scar clearly visible, Taylor hobbled up on stage at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium and tearfully accepted her Golden Guy.

When Shirley MacLaine, nominee that same year for "The Apartment", learned Liz had won, she quipped, "I lost to a tracheotomy!"

Even Debbie Reynolds, spurned wife of Eddie Fisher, wasn't immune to the outpouring of support directed at Liz: "Even I voted for her," Deb admitted.

Although Taylor gave a listless, lackluster performance in "Butterfield 8", she didn't stuff this turkey alone. She had plenty of help along the way.

"Stuck in the Middle with You": Girlfriend Norma (Susan Oliver) stands between best pals Gloria and Steve (Eddie Fisher).

Laurence Harvey, for instance. As the married, obsessed Liggett, he needs to get a restraining order on himself. The way he follows Taylor around, you can tell his "problems" go far deeper than being married to a rich woman and having a "son in law job." Harvey was an expert at playing this type of sour, hollow social climber (see "A Room at the Top" and "Darling"), so he was basically on auto-pilot.

Dina Merrill, meanwhile, as the most understanding wife in the world, is so selfless and clueless, you want to slap some sense into her. Clearly the invention of a male scriptwriter, Emily firmly believes her hubby's drinking, sour mood and fondness for hookers is her fault. Instead of being a part of Liggett's world, the filthy rich Jescotts sucked poor Harvey into their world. Seriously? It doesn't look like Liggett was dragged into his life of wealthy non-purpose against his will. As he explains to a friend, "Bing, do you know three of the most over-rated things in the world? Home loving, home cooking and security."

Then there is Eddie Fisher. As an actor, Eddie Fisher makes a good singer. His character Steve is Gloria's childhood friend and suppose to be the voice of reason and common sense. In reality, he's just a whiney pipsqueak trapped between two demanding women: Taylor (who always expects him to bail her out whenever she's in a jam) and girlfriend Norma (Susan Oliver), who expects him to marry her. Naturally, the ladies don't like each other and Fisher has a hard time playing referee between them.

"Is she or isn't she a tramp?" Norma asks Fisher.

"I never liked that word," Steve mumbles as a way of defending his gal pal.

"Unhappily Never After": Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds weren't smiling for long.

On another occasion, Gloria lifts a glass and says, "I hate to drink and run. To the three of us."

Steve replies, "One for all and all for one."

"The question is: which one?" Norma snarks.

Fisher is so inept in his part, you wonder why he was even allowed on the set. Turns out, MGM hired Fisher to appease Taylor and ensure she honored her contractual obligations. In short, Eddie was Liz's babysitter as well as her costar. No wonder the only emotion Fisher could conjure up was irritation--and Eddie had plenty of reasons to be irritated: his career and reputation died after hooking up with Liz. Nobody would buy his records, his contracts were canceled and he became a punch line for years (Don Rickles once said Eddie Fisher marrying Liz Taylor "was like me trying to wash the Empire State Building with soap"). By 1963, Liz had tired of him, leaving Eddie for Richard Burton (a move I heartedly approve).

Although critics called the flick "trash", "dreck" and "sumptuously sordid", like the best of Junk Cinema, "Butterfield 8" nevertheless offers bad movie fans several profound points to ponder:

"Such Good Friends": Liz, Eddie and Debbie before the scandal hit.

* If being a hooker is an awful way for a woman to live (and it is), how come it isn't awful for men to frequent hookers?

* How come the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences never nominated or awarded Liz Taylor for her best work? Her performances in "A Place in the Sun", "Giant" and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" were much worthier of an Oscar than "Butterfield 8" or "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

* How is it that Liz Taylor won two Oscars, yet Richard Burton was never awarded one?

* Why is playing a hooker such a good way to win an Oscar? Think about it: Donna Reed, Shirley Jones, Liz Taylor, Jane Fonda, Janet Gayner, Helen Hayes (!), Susan Hayward, Jo Van Fleet, Mira Sorvino, Charlize Theron and Kim Basinger all won Oscars playing ladies of the evening. Meanwhile, Elisabeth Shue, Sharon Stone, Shirley MacLaine, Jodie Foster and Julia Roberts were all nominated for playing hookers. The only man nominated for playing a hooker is Jon Voight for "Midnight Cowboy".

* Why are there so many movies about hookers and johns who fall in love? I don't think it happens a lot in real life, but in the movies it's as common as the day is long: hooker Kim Basinger and cop Russell Crowe fall in love in "LA Confidential", hooker Jane Fonda and cop Donald Sutherland fall in love in "Klute", drunk Nicholas Cage and hooker Elisabeth Shue fall in love in "Leaving Las Vegas", rich Richard Gere and poor hooker Julia Roberts fall in love in "Pretty Woman", MP Michael Caine and hooker Sigourney Weaver fall in love in "Half Moon Street", soldier Montgomery Clift and hooker Donna Reed fall in love in "From Here to Eternity", hooker Kim Basinger (again) and cop Richard Gere fall in love in "No Mercy" and married couple Ernest Borgnine and Stella Stevens in "The Poseidon  Adventure" met when he was a cop and she was a hooker.

"We'll drink to that!": Gloria and her many "friends".

* Is "Go Naked in the World" a rip-off of "Butterfield 8" or is "Butterfield 8" a rip-off of "Go Naked in the World"? They both came out in 1960, after all.

So movie lovers, this is where I leave you, at the end of another moralizing trashfest about a fancy hooker, the john who loved her and her sad, sordid end. Perhaps what "Butterfield 8" was really about was the old saw on how money can't buy happiness. Or, to put it another way, "Money can't buy happiness--unless your favorite hooker's named Happiness."


Friday, May 12, 2023

Dyan Cannon, Janice Rule and Rachel Roberts All Experience Marital Malpractice in "Doctors' Wives"

 Rachel Roberts, Janice Rule, Cara Williams, Marian McCargo and Dyan Cannon want a second opinion on the state of their marriages in "Doctors' Wives" (1971).

Think it's easy being the wife of a rich, socially prominent doctor?

Think again, movie lovers.

Those rich, socially prominent doctors spend so much time being rich, socially prominent doctors they have no time for their wives, who married them because they were rich, socially prominent doctors.

So what do the wives of  rich, socially prominent doctors do?

They hit the bottle, take drugs, make half-hearted suicide attempts, sleep around and play cards at their snooty country club.

The prim doctor's wife Elaine (Marian McCargo) wears a constant expression of suffering. Perhaps her pantyhose are too tight?

At least that's according to 1971's "Doctors' Wives", a cheesy, sleazy (but rather breezy) combination of "Peyton Place", "A Letter to Three Wives", "General Hospital", Valley of the Dolls and Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure.

When the staff at the elite, state-of-the-art, cutting edge hospital/teaching college known as the Weston Clinic aren't performing life saving operations or discovering new miracle drugs, they're acting like a pride of lions in heat (FYI: lions can mate up to 100 times a day according to the Insider Monkey website). Even super star doctor Pete Brennen (Richard Crenna) declares, "I don't like to talk about (sex). I like to do it!"

"God, I feel horny," sighs Lorrie Dellman (Dyan Cannon) during one of the doctors' wives' regular card parties. "I mean it! I'd really like to make it, right now, this minute!"

Then the former Mrs. Cary Grant inquires, "Would any of you like to slip out to the parking lot for a while?"

The surprised recipients of Lorrie's request are doctors' wives Maggie (Cara Williams), a high school drop-out who drinks like a fish and is divorced from urologist Carroll O'Connor; tense Brit Della (Rachel Roberts) who seems unusually obsessed with golf; Amy (Janice Rule) who complains endlessly about her "migraines" and the prim, pained Elaine (Margo McCargo), married to George Gaynes, who's as frigid as the North Pole.

Doctor's wife Lorrie Dellman (Dyan Cannon): The last honest tramp?

When Lorrie has no takers, she complains that her gal pals are suffering from "sexual malnutrition." Her solution? Lorrie will sleep with each of their husbands, diagnose "what they're doing wrong in bed" and then prescribe "a treatment."

"Darlings, I'm not bluffing!" she exclaims. "In fact, I've covered 50% of the territory already!"

If the Dyan Cannon character sounds like fun, that's because she is. Lorrie is that classic Junk Cinema archetype, the unapologetic tramp (or as Maggie explains, "She's just an honest tramp"). Although she's married to world renown brain surgeon Mort (John Colicos), he alone can't even begin to meet her "needs". That's why Lorrie is always on the look out for nooky opportunities.

"Some people are stage struck," Lorrie says. "Some people are clothes struck. I'm sex struck."

She's got plenty of company. Take, for example, randy intern Mike (Anthony Costello). Not only is he hitting on ditzy med student Sybil (Kristina Holland), he's also scored with the prim Elaine. Unfortunately, that close encounter wasn't as satisfying as he hoped.

Randy intern Mike (Anthony Costello) gives ex-cuddlemate Elaine a negative performance review.

"I don't mean to be insulting, babe," Mike drawls. "But I've had more action in a rocking chair."

Meanwhile, charity volunteer Amy, married to Dr. Brennen (Crenna), suffers from "migraines" that apparently lead to long sexual droughts in their union. That changes when Amy starts shooting morphine. Not only does the crippling pain go away, but the morphine causes her to act like a hose monkey on Ecstasy.

That's clear when Dr. B arrives home from work and is greeted by his wife in hilariously ugly Pop-Art PJs. Slinking up to hubby, Amy pants, "How long has it been, Pete?"

The stunned Pete replies, "I didn't mark it in my calendar."

Then Amy starts rolling around on the floor and wonders, "Why do people stop doin' it?" Soon after, she suggests to Peter they make whoopski on the floor, instead of in bed.

Amy (Janice Rule) wants to play doctor with her husband. Dig those far out jammies!

"People do," Rule says. "In paperbacks, anyway."

Her delighted hubby quickly assents.

"Doctors' Wives" really gets cookin', however, when gun shots suddenly ring out. Cut to Mort Dellman (Lorrie's better half and renown brain surgeon) coolly informing the police he's just killed his wife--although the fellow caught in the sack with her might still be alive.

Who could that unfortunate man be? Remembering Lorrie's plans to bed their husbands, the horrified  wives rush to the Weston Clinic. One by one, the gals are relieved when their husbands are A-OK--except for the prim, pained Elaine. It was her husband Paul caught in the act with Lorrie when the bullets started flying. And Elaine's not the only one shocked: after Paul's been admitted to the hospital, randy intern Mike takes one look at the patient and exclaims, "I just scored with that man's wife and at the same time he's ballin' the hottest thing in town!"

It really is a small world, isn't it?

The doctors' wives interrupt their regularly scheduled drinking for an important news bulletin.

Now, for a normal movie, these assorted dramatic conniptions would be more than enough plot points to ponder. However, "Doctors' Wives" isn't a normal movie. So, while Dr. Paul clings to life, subplots start to sprout up like mushrooms after a rain shower.

Remember Pete, the doctor with the morphine addicted wife? Well, it turns out he's having an affair with head surgical nurse Helen (Diana Sands). She's a widowed ma with an adorable little boy. Helen's getting tired of waiting for Pete to leave Amy, so when Crenna admits he's having sex with his spouse, she flips out. "You're just not with it!" Helen rages. "I don't appreciate you sleeping with your wife!" Finally coming to her senses, Helen breaks things off. "I want to get married somebody who isn't already married," she explains wearily.

Further down the cast list, golfer Della has been stewing...about something...and she's taking it out on her hip, jargon-spouting husband, Gene Hackman. When he suggests they have another child ("Every marriage needs a psychic energizer", he points out), Della goes ballistic. Shrieking in 1970's American slang that "the scene's passin' me by, man! I can feel myself getting older!", she says more people need to be shot like Lorrie. When Hackman insists his wife tell him what's upsetting her, Roberts drops this bombshell: she and Lorrie had an affair! It happened when the sex-struck Cannon helped get a cinder out of Della's eye. It was also "a hot day" and she wasn't wearing a bra. After his wife confesses all, it's Hackman's turn to go nuts, which he does, smacking Della repeatedly with a rolled up newspaper. She then collapses in hubby's arms, sobbing. Can this marriage be saved? 

 Helen and Pete, meanwhile, are drawn back together when her adorable son is found to have a rare brain aneurysm. The tyke needs surgery right away, but there's only one doctor qualified to do it: Mort. Unfortunately, he's been arrested for murder. He's also blackmailing the hospital for big bucks to fund his getaway (he plans to relocate to Beirut) or he'll spill the beans about all the hanky-panky going on at the elite Weston Clinic.

 "You know, your problem Pete is your an ethical man," Mort says. "Therefore, you assume the next fellow is. But I'm not."

Dr. Mort Dellman (John Colicos): Brain surgeon, murderer, blackmailer, SOB and comb-over expert.

Pete is so disgusted he seethes, "Mort, you're a brilliant surgeon. You're also a son-of-a-bitch."

Unfazed, Mort announces he wants $100,000 to finance his new life ($100,000 dollars in 1971 is worth $742, 814.81 in 2023 values, in case your interested) or he goes to the press.

Seething even more, Pete declares, "You're not a son-of-a-bitch, Mort. You're a loathsome son-of-a-bitch"--and stalks off.

 Have I forgotten anything? How about med student Sybil tape recording all her sexual encounters? Or Lorrie's irate father (Ralph Meeker) cutting Mort out of his will? Or the elaborate switcheroo where meanie Dr. Mort tries to give the police the slip after performing brain surgery on Helen's adorable son---only to discover he can't find his car keys? D'Oh!

 "Doctors' Wives" is based on the novel written by Frank G. Slaughter in 1967. It's directed by George Schaefer ("the winner of 13 Emmy Awards" according to IMDb)) from a script by Slaughter and Daniel Taradash. Despite the histrionics of the cast, (more about that later), the script is the real star of the show. It presents an endless stream of outlandish, faux-hip, trite howlers that will stick in your brain forever, taking up space that could've been used for more pertinent information, like your WiFi password or your blood type. Some of my favorites are:

"Testing! 1-2-3! This is a recording!": Ditzy intern Sybil (Kristina Holland) prepares to add another tape to her collection.

*Randy intern Mike taunting the prim, pained Elaine: "You're failure to fertilize has got to be strictly psychological. Enter Big Daddy. Oh, don't get me wrong. I'm flattered, 'cause I got the feeling I'm the first." 

*Randy intern Mike explaining why he and Elaine should have more sex: "All I'm prescribing is a booster; you can't be sure with just one injection!"

*When the deeply offended Elaine calls randy intern Mike "the most vulgar young man" she's ever met, he replies, "Well, Elaine, it's the vulgarity in you old people that brings out the vulgarity in us young people!" (And don't trust anyone over 30, too!)

*Here's the late, lamented Lorrie explaining her philosophy of life: "An orgasm a day keeps the head shrink away!"

*Tense Brit Della on Lorrie: "She's not the major league slut she seems; she's more dangerous than that." Husband Gene Hackman's response? "That's what I call 'nailing down a point.'" For extra measure, Della also calls Lorrie "an over-sexed kook" (but in this movie, who isn't?!).

"Hey, baldy! Down in front! You're blocking my view!": Carroll O'Connor struggles to get a good view of the Weston Clinic's latest blockbuster surgery.

*When boozy Maggie believes it's her husband that's been shot, she races to the hospital to give blood exclaiming, "We're both group A-B! That's hard to find!" When O'Connor chides her for thinking he'd sleep with Lorrie, Maggie fumes, "Next time, get your own blood!"

*After ditzy Sybil explains that her "whole slew" of taped interviews with unwed mothers were the basis of her graduation thesis in sociology, she announces, "Professor Reed gave me an A double plus". Pause. "And then I taped Professor Reed!"

* Della orders her husband to send their son some money at camp because "he hates the food" and "he's living on candy bars". When hubby Hackman seems miffed, Della snaps back, "Well, it's better than pot!"

When you have dialog like that, performers can't help but go over the top--and the cast of "Doctors' Wives" does not disappoint. In fact, with all the eye-rolling, teeth-gritting, chin-jutting theatrics on display, you begin to wonder if the Weston Clinic should rename itself the Royal Hospital for Over-Acting (after the Monty Python sketch).

John Colicos, for instance, appears to be channeling the ghost of George Sanders from "Rebecca" (1940), complaining about how tacky the D.A.'s office is ("If were the D.A., I'd hire a decorator"), insulting the staff ("I wouldn't say the art of the interrogation was his bag") and bragging about his many interests ("I'm an authority on first editions, I published a book on West Indian cooking..."). For the brief time Dyan Cannon's on screen, she acts like a participant in a hormone experiment. "I want to know about the length of (your hubby's member)!" she asks one of her friends. When lush Maggie counsels Lorrie, "Keep your body stocking on, baby, until you and Mort get home", Cannon blathers, "This is Wednesday! Mort thinks God gave it to men only for Saturday night!" 

Doctor Pete (Richard Crenna) discusses his marital problems with mistress Helen (Diana Sands).

Randy intern Mike, meanwhile, spends so much time playing doctor with the ladies, his buddy Lew is worried he's suffering from satyriasis (what they called sex addiction before they came up with the term sex addiction).

"Man, don't you ever get enough?" Lew asks.

"Enough?" Mike replies. "What's that?"

"Like, how many yesterday?" Lew inquires.

Randy intern Mike thinks for a moment. "Uh...four."

Med students Sybil and Mike also play doctor.

"You're sick!" Lew announces. "It's a sickness--it really is!"

"Let's hope it's incurable," smirks randy intern Mike.

"Doctors' Wives" ends, as all over-wrought soap operas do, with meanie Mort carted away by the police. Shaking his head, D.A. Richard Anderson (from "The Six Million Dollar Man") says, "I always believed doctors were special. A breed of their own."

"No," Richard Crenna replies. "No, we're not. We're just like lawyers."

What does that mean? 

"Doctors' Wives" proves doctors (and lawyers) aren't purrfect.

The filmmakers don't tell us. They also don't tell us if lush Maggie follows up on her promise to join AA or if Elaine has sought treatment to deal with her frigidity or if Peter has confronted Amy about her morphine addiction or if Della has left her husband since admitting her affair with the late Lorrie or if randy intern Mike has decided to reduce his screwing schedule. Is that because the producers were hoping the world would be clamoring for "Doctors' Wives 2"? Or because they didn't know how to end this over-flowing, fetid stew of medicine, murder and mendacity?

I think it's a little bit of both. Of course, you don't have to take my word for it; you can get a second opinion (rim shot).

And so movie lovers, please always remember, and never forget, bad doctors and bad movies can both make you sick, but only bad movies about bad doctors aren't fatal.

Thank you! Goodnight! I'll be here all week!

Sunday, March 26, 2023

Junk Cinema Serves Up Another Heapin' Helpin' Of Southern Fried Cinema, New Orleans Style!


The remarkably restrained publicity poster for "Suddenly, Last Summer" (1958). 

Welcome, movie lovers. How y'all doin'?

Was last year's summer vacation a dud? Was your hotel a dump? Did it rain everyday? Did your kids bitch and fight? Did you get sick, have car trouble or run out of money?

However awful last summer might've been for you, trust me, Catherine Holly's (Elizabeth Taylor) summer was much, much worse.

What was so awful, you ask?

How about watching someone get devoured by a street gang.

"Are we having fun yet?": If your last vacation was bad, Catherine Holly's (Liz Taylor) was even worse. Much, much worse.

Released in 1959, "Suddenly, Last Summer" is a deep, dark dive into the fetid swamp waters of Southern Fried Cinema, courtesy of Tennessee Williams. 

Although Tennessee is one of  America's greatest playwrights, not everything he wrote rose to the level of A Streetcar Named Desire or The Glass Menagerie. Once in a while, Tennessee went a wee bit over the top and the end result was less Southern Gothic poetry and more like "The Bold and the Beautiful" with southern accents on acid.

Based on Williams' one-act play, "Suddenly, Last Summer" uses the mysterious death of a man named Sebastian to explore the nature of madness, obsession, incest, guilt, repression, sexual abuse, rich dowagers, greedy relatives, aging, death, violence, transparent bathing suits, sea turtles, treatment of the mentally ill, flesh eating birds, lobotomies and cannibalism. 

Something for everyone!

Despite its ambitious subject matter and Tennessee's signature prose, "Suddenly, Last Summer" is the cinematic equivalent of an over-stuffed Muffuletta sandwich*. While the script (by Gore Vidal) gives its all-star cast plenty to chew on, it also gives them plenty to choke on.

The deep fried theatrics begin by introducing us to Violet Venable (Katherine Hepburn), the richest woman in New Orleans, circa 1938. She's summoned mild mannered Dr. Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift), a pioneering neurosurgeon, to her home to discuss the welfare of her niece, Catherine (Taylor). As befitting a mega rich grande dame, Violet's residence is no new-money McMansion. Instead, it features antique furnishings, an elevator and an elaborate garden that resembles the Amazon Rain Forest. That's where Mrs. Venable keeps her pet Venus Flytrap (nicknamed "My Lady"), who snacks on flies delivered via air mail.

"Open wide!": Violet Venable (K. Hepburn) feeds her Venus Flytrap only the best flies.

Violet is mourning the death of her only child, Sebastian. Catherine was on vacation last summer with Sebastian when he suddenly died. Hepburn insists her son died "of a heart attack", but the traumatized Catherine details a more gruesome story. Horrified by her niece's "hysterical babbling", Violet has Catherine locked up in a mental hospital. She believes the poor girl is beyond help and wants Dr. Cukrowicz to perform a lobotomy so Catherine can "be peaceful."

As this is an unusual request, Dr. Cukrowicz wants to interview Catherine himself. Everybody thinks that's a waste of time. The urgency to operate comes not only from Violet (who offers to pay for everything), but also from Clift's superior Dr. Hockstader (Albert Dekker). He wants the doc to operate because Mrs. Venable has promised to throw a million dollar donation their way. Hockstader reminds Clift every chance he gets that Mrs. Venable's financial gift will help improve conditions at the their hospital (which is funded--just barely--by the state). Catherine's flighty, annoying mother Grace (Mercedes McCambridge) and her himbo brother George (Gary Raymond) think the operation is a good idea, too; in reality, they're more interested in collecting the $100,000 thousand dollars Sebastian left the Hollys in his will--which is languishing in probate, thanks to Aunt Vi. Hepburn promises to fix that state of affairs, too, if the Hollys agree Catherine needs a lobotomy.

Naturally, Catherine isn't happy about any of this. However, mom and bro remind her they lost all their money in 1929. What's more, George insists a lobotomy is no different "than having your tonsils taken out!"--so why is she being so difficult?

Catherine lashes out that everybody wants her lobotomized because they don't want her telling people "the truth" about Sebastian, that he used her and Aunt Vi as "bait".

"We were procuring for him!" Taylor wails. "And when she (meaning Violet) became too old, he used me to get the bigger fish.!

Kate, "I can act up a storm!"  Liz, "Oh, yeah? Well, I can act up a bigger storm!": Hepburn and Taylor argue over who can go more over the top--while Montgomery Clift wisely stays out of it.

The Motion Picture Production Code in 1959 would not allow Catherine to say Sebastian used his mom and cousin to attract men, who he would then seduce and discard. Instead, "Suddenly, Last Summer" has its characters inch close, closer to this revelation...and then be stopped by someone yelling at them. This happens a lot. No wonder doctors Cukrowicz and Hockstader think Catherine is talking about fishing for real fish and not picking up guys.

Dr. Cukrowicz later visits Violet at her estate. It's there, in her mini-rain forest, that Hepburn recounts a trip she and Sebastian took to the Encantadas. It was there, on a hot day, that Sebastian watched the hatching of baby sea turtles. Once the critters were out of their shells, they made a mad dash to the sea. Unfortunately, a flock of flesh eating birds arrived and began attacking the baby sea turtles, flipping them over and taking bites of their flesh. This sight horrified Violet, but transfixed Sebastian, who became convinced that in this spectacle "he had seen the face of God".

"Nature is not created in the image of man's compassion," Clift replies (and, frankly, neither is this movie).

"Nature is cruel!" Violet snaps.

At first, however, she says she didn't think that. However, upon reflection, Violet began to believe that Sebastian was right. We're all trapped, she explains, in this "devouring contraption" called "life." After the death of Sebastian last summer, Violet became even more convinced this was true.

Is it just me, or is the skeleton in this scene flipping the bird?

Realizing this is clan is nuttier than 20 fruit cakes lined up in a row, Dr. Cukrowicz assembles everybody at Violet's in order to straighten things out. He gives Catherine a shot of Sodium Pentothal and guides her in recalling her time with Sebastian last summer. In fits and starts, Liz remembers Sebastian took her to Spain. He later forced her to wear a swim suit that turned transparent when wet. Naturally, this attracted a crowd of eager men and an even bigger crowd of teenage street kids. While the cousins were having lunch, the street gang formed a band with homemade metal instruments and began harassing the duo. Rather than getting a taxi and leaving for their hotel, Sebastian instead yelled at the gang and pitched a fit, which only made them more aggressive. To escape, Sebastian ran up the steep steps of a nearby twisting road. The gang gave chase; Catherine followed them. At the end of the road, Catherine saw the street kids en masse set upon Sebastian, cutting, punching, biting and even eating bits of him.

Catherine gave out a blood curdling scream (not really; Taylor is an awful screamer) and ran back to the village, talking hysterically about what she had seen. The locals assumed she'd had some kind of breakdown and called the police, who sent her back to the states.

As Catherine recalls Sebastian's final moments, Violet, sitting near-by, must finally face the truth about how Sebastian died. However, doing so makes her go insane. You know this because 1) after her niece finishes recounting the whole ugly ordeal, Violet's head is bowed and 2) when Dr. Cuktowicz approaches her, Violet looks up and calls him "Sebastian". Convinced she's on a yacht with her son, Mrs. Venable says, "Oh, I thought you were still on deck. And where's your hat? Oh, dear..."

Dr. Cukowicz gives Violet his arm as she continues to prattle away.

"Of course God is cruel, " Violet says. "We didn't need to come to the Encantadas and look at those turtles to find that out, did we?"

One of the luckier baby sea turtles Sebastian saw at the Encantadas.

When Violet reaches her Art Deco elevator, she turns to Clift and says, "I'm going up to see the captain now and tell him to change our course for home. Oh, Sebastian," Violet trills. "What a lovely summer it's been! Just the two of us! Sebastian and Violet. Violet and Sebastian..."

As her elevator floats upstairs, Violet tells the astonished Dr. Cukowicz, "Oh, we are lucky, my darling, to have one another and need no one else, ever..."


It's pretty obvious Sebastian and Violet were even closer than that other mother/son fun couple, Norman Bates and Mother. Of all the female characters Williams created over the years, Violet Venable is his Mommie Dearest.

Now, about the movie...

 Liz Taylor reacts in horror when she realizes her marriage to Eddie Fisher is real.

As the saying goes, good movies are all alike. However, bad movies are bad in their own unique ways. This is especially true for "Suddenly, Last Summer." 

Take the acting, for example. Katherine Hepburn, in one of her few unsympathetic roles, is excellent as evil puppet master Violet. Yes, she walks around as if she swallowed a yard stick, but it fits her character perfectly; after all, Mrs. Venable is rich, imperious and used to getting exactly what she wants. What's more, Tennessee's signature dialog suits her to a "T". When she says stuff like, "My son, Sebastian and I, constructed our days. Each day we would carve like a piece of sculpture, leaving behind us a trail of days like a gallery", you don't flinch or roll your eyes. This is exactly what a woman like her would say. Meanwhile, Montgomery Clift is warm and sympathetic as Dr. Cukowicz. His achievement is even more impressive considering Clift was suffering from the effects of severe drug and alcohol addiction during the filming. And Mercedes McCambridge is note perfect as Grace, Catherine's greedy, annoying, blabbermouth ma.

Then there is Liz Taylor. 

As the traumatized Catherine, Liz should be the film's strongest element; instead, she's it's weakest link. Yes, Taylor was a fine actress. However, she just didn't have the stuff to pull off this particular role--unlike Maggie in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof". This time around, Taylor wasn't able to get a grip on Williams' demanding dialog. When Liz launches into one of Tennessee's signature speeches, Taylor appears awkward, as if she had no idea what she's saying or what it means--she's just repeating the lines she's been given. This reminded me of what happens every time Trump tries to read a prepared speech: he sounds flat, insincere and fake. He only comes alive as a speaker when he launches into one of his crazy, off-the-cuff rants, like when he said ingesting Clorox could cure COVID-19.

Incidentally, Williams shared my view that Taylor was miscast. "It stretched credulity to believe that such a hip doll as our Liz wouldn't know she was being used for evil," Tennessee groused. "I think Liz would have dragged Sebastian home by his ears and so saved them from considerable embarrassment." 

Esteemed playwright Tennessee Williams reacting to the film version of his play Suddenly, Last Summer.

Although Taylor received an Oscar nomination for her performance, Tennessee thought her celebrity caused critics to over-rate her acting. Of course, it was no secret the play write didn't like the Hollywood version of "Suddenly, Last Summer" at all. When asked what he thought about the flick, Williams replied, "It made me throw up." John Wayne couldn't have agreed more. "The subject matter is too distasteful to be put on a screen designed to entertain a family--or any member of a decent family," he sniffed.


Still, "Suddenly, Last Summer" was a hit and made buckets of money. Although well acted in parts and starkly powerful at times, the movie remains an under-rated Junk Cinema classic. Watching Liz Taylor wander into the men's ward at the mental hospital and scream "Hellllp! only to wander into the women's ward and yell "Helllp!" like, two seconds later, is an unexpected hoot. Also look out for Taylor's southern accent to come and go at will. Both Taylor and Hepburn wear up-to-date '50's clothes, while McCambridge is dressed in frilly 30's dresses. Finally, director Joseph L. Mankiewicz couldn't stop himself from laying on the symbolism real thick: the Venus Fly Trap, the devouring birds, the street gang setting upon Sebastian, the skeletons everywhere--death, death, death, death, death. The contrasting of Violet and Catherine (old and young, beauty as a decoy, men using women), rich people using money to be mean to poor people (Violet), mothers who obsessively coddle and/or favor one child over another (greedy Grace and smothering Violet), mental illness equals ugliness, etc., etc. Talk about heavy handedness; "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" was more subtle.

"Suddenly, Last Summer" proves yet again that bad movies are not just made by struggling hacks who have no money, no real actors, no decent sound equipment and no money...but it helps! Talented, famous, A-list film makers, given enough time and money, can create the cinematic equivalent of Lester's Bacon Soda* and leave people like Harold P. Warren in the dust.

So movie lovers, please always remember, and never forget, bad flicks can come in fancy packages and help me SAVE THE MOVIES.

"The Land of the Lost"? Nope. It's Violet Venable's backyard in "Suddenly, Last Summer."

*Oh, and by the way...

*A Muffuletta sandwich is a New Orleans classic, called "an Italian sub on steroids." It's made with with large, round bread, marinated olive salad, cheese and charcuterie.

*Lester's Bacon Soda is a real product! You can get a 3-pack on My brother would've loved it.

*I don't recommend eating a Muffuletta sandwich and washing it down with Lester's Bacon Soda. But if you'll eat anything, give it a shot! Just take small bites, please.

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Hey, Mr. "Postman"! Mark This Movie "Return To Sender"!

"You're such an ass!": Kevin Costner gets acting tips from his co-star Bill the mule.

Hello, movie lovers.

Kevin Costner. A national treasure, to be sure. Handsome, talented, affable, athletic, an Oscar winner, a box office draw, star of the wildly popular series "Yellowstone".

In a career that began as Alex, the late campus radical in 1983's "The Big Chill", Costner has appeared in some fine films, including "No Way Out", "The Untouchables", "Silverado", "Field of Dreams", "Dances with Wolves", "Open Range", "The Upside of Anger", "Let Him Go" and (my favorite) "Bull Durham".

Alas, he has also appeared in some...shall we say...not so fine flicks: "The Bodyguard", "Swing Vote", "Revenge", "Water World", "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" and "The Postman".

Strangely enough, "The Postman"(1997) is the subject of today's article. Isn't that lucky?

The shades make the Postman look like a bad ass.

To get straight to the point, this movie sucks. On toast. If it was more of a dog, it would have fleas. This flick makes about as much sense as a knitted condom. This movie is about as believable as a Kardashian virginity pledge. It's stupid, awful, dunder-headed, smug and down right offensive--and I mean that from the bottom of my heart. The best character in the cast is played by a mule named Bill, who wisely kept his real name out of the credits.

Although "The Postman" is based on a dystopian novel by Brian Drin, it's really just the same old saw about an eccentric loner wandering aimlessly among the remains of a once-great-nation, who inadvertently starts a movement that inspires the downtrodden to throw off the yoke of their oppressors and reclaim their freedom and dignity.

For our purposes, the eccentric loner is played by Kev, who wanders aimlessly among the ruins of a once-great-nation, visiting knots of villages, performing bits of Shakespeare with his mule Bill, who out acts him at every turn.

Of course, eccentric loner Kev doesn't think much about the people he meets or their sad lives; he just does his thing, gets his money and trudges off into the sunset, leaving behind only the great smell of Brut. However, one day a nasty, fascist, violent, megalomaniac thug named Gen. Bethlehem (Will Patton) rides into a village. He orders Kev and the other guys to join his "army"--an "army" called "The Holnists" who are obsessed with the number 8. An "army" that considers itself the law of the land. An "army" that steals Kev's mule and then later eats him. 

It's clear our eccentric loner isn't going to put up with this nonsense for very long, so he ditches the Holnists and finds safety in an old mail truck. Besides lots of old, unopened mail, the eccentric loner finds the skeletal remains of a postal worker. Kev slips on the stiff's jacket, puts on his cap, grabs his satchel full of letters and heads off into the great wide somewhere.

"Don't you know it's illegal to read other people's mail?" smart ass Bill reminds Kev.

The eccentric loner's first stop is the village of Pineview, where he convinces the town's mayor that he is indeed a mailman and that the government has slowly gotten up and running. The villagers are delighted, especially when Kev gives them actual letters from real family members that folks haven't heard from in ages. That evening, the town has a hoe-down to celebrate and our eccentric loner meets up with a lady person named Abby (Olivia Williams). As they dance, Abby asks Kev some very personal questions, like if he's married, if he's ever been sick, if he's ever had the Clap and if he has healthy man juice. Then Abby introduces Kev to her husband Michael (Charles Esten). See, hubby's man juice is kaput (due to a bout of "the bad mumps") and Abby would like Kev to get her pregnant. Michael is perfectly OK with this, by the way--said no sane husband ever born on God's Green Earth. Always a gentleman, our eccentric loner agrees, to the couple's delight.

As nothing can keep a postman from his appointed rounds, our eccentric loner heads off to the village of Benning, lugging a whole batch of letters from the folks of Pineview. Unfortunately, Gen. Bethlehem and his fanatical fascists arrive shortly thereafter. See, they fear an independent postal system will threaten their power over the population. So they shoot everybody in sight, torch the post office a plucky dude named Ford Lincoln Mercury (Larenz Tate) has restored and take Abby hostage. The Holnists also catch up with Kev and he surrenders (don't ask). But have no fear: Kev and Abby manage to escape and even find a cute cabin to spend the winter.

While Kev and Abby nest, word continues to spread about the postal service and villagers everywhere start writing letters. To deliver the letters, people of all ages sign up to be postal carriers. Soon, mail routes have been established, linking once isolated villages. Even more important than the letters, however, is the hope the mail carriers are spreading. The government has been re-established! The president is a good guy! They no longer have to fear the Holnists! Civilization is being restored!

No one is more surprised by this than our eccentric loner. He only donned the mail carrier's uniform to escape the Holnists. He only wanted to find his old home/neighborhood/village called Rosewood (or something like that). He never intended to spark a social uprising. He's an eccentric loner who has only ever thought about himself, for Pete's sake! Does he look like Gandhi?

Fearing that his reign of terror might be coming to an end, meanie Gen. Bethlehem orders any and all mail carriers shot and redoubles his efforts to find the Postman, as he's now called. Kev, learning that the mail carriers are being killed, feels things have gotten out of hand and tries to disband the postal service for everyone's safety. Nothin' doing'. Neither rain, snow, sleet, hail or murder will keep these mail carriers from their appointed rounds. What's more, the Postman's message of hope has traveled as far as (what once was) California, which drives Gen. Bethlehem batty. Who will rid me of this troublesome Postman?! wails the general.

"You got Lucky": Mayor Tom Petty (yes, he's really the mayor!) of Bridge City happily agrees to help the Postman on his appointed rounds.

Meanwhile, Abby and Kev, guided by mail carriers Eddie, Ponytail (Costner's real daughter Annie) and Billy head off to Bridge City. It's at this site that the Postman hopes to escape via a cable car. In order to do that, Kev will need the help of Bridge City's mayor who happens to be and ,no, I am not kidding, Tom Petty! The real Tom Petty! He's not playing a character! Tom Petty is the REAL mayor of Bridge City! How do we know this for sure? Because Kev gives the mayor a hard stare and says, "I know you." Pause. "Your...famous."

"I was once," the good natured Petty replies. "Not anymore."

Later, when the people of Bridge City converge and realize Kev is the Postman, Tom says, "I heard of you, man. Your famous!"

Tom Petty is one of my favorite artists. It's great to know he had such a healthy perspective on the true nature of fame. I bet he was a good mayor, too. I mean, not every rock star is cut out for public office. As much as I love George Thorogood, for example, I just don't see him in a position like that. Also, Bridge City's nightly campfires must have beeen wild, with Tom belting out "Free Falling", "Don't Come Around Here No More", "The Waiting" and other hits. The scenes with Tom are the highlight of this film; Petty totally steals the flick--he's even better than Bill! (May they both rest in peace. Tom left us in 2017, remember).

Anywhooo, Kev and Abby hitch a ride on the cable car and Mayor Petty urges the Postman to keep up the fight for freedom and justice, which he does.

The Postman and his Carriers are ready to deliver mail and kick ass. And their out of mail.

In a scene that would give AP English teachers the vapors, "The Postman" stages the final confrontation (there's always a final confrontation in these type of movies) between the Carriers and the Holinsts as a replay of Henry V's Siege of Harfluer. Kev even rallies his troops with Henry's (actually Shakespeare's) famous speech, "Once more unto the breech dear friends, once more...!" (You can read the rest of the speech yourself; it's pretty rousing). Unfortunately, Kev, talented as he is, isn't an Olivier or a Kenneth Branagh. Not since Millard Coody (of the Wichita Mountain Pageant) who appeared as Jesus in H. Kroger Babb's "The Prince of Peace" (1948) uttering in his flat, mid-western twang, "Which one o' you is gonna betray me?" has there been a greater mismatch between an actor and their dialogue--unless some genius gets the idea to cast Tori Spelling as Cleopatra ("I'm, like, fire and air; My other elements I totally give to, you know, baser life or something", I can hear Tori warble).

I don't want to spoil the ending for you, but Gen. Bethlehem and his fascist fiends are defeated, just not in the way you'd expect. Never the less, with Bethlehem gone, freedom returns to the once-great unnamed nation and everybody lives happily ever after. In the-not-to-distant future, the daughter of the Postman and Abby, all grown up, gives a speech at the unveiling of a statue of the Postman from a grateful nation. The statue is a recreation of a moment when Kev (on horse back, mind you) snatched a letter from a young boy so it could be delivered. Among the throng at the unveiling is that very boy, now all grown up.

"That was me," he whispers, holding back tears as the music swells.

If director Costner wanted this moment to pack the kind of punch of ,say, the ending of "Saving Private Ryan" or "Spartacus" ("Here's your son, Spartacus and he's free!") or "Brian's Song" ("I love Brian Piccolo. And I want you to love him, too. And tonight, when you hit your knees, please ask God to love him...")  he was very, very mistaken. Even a single-celled organism would know what's coming, especially when they saw the statue and the camera pans to a blond guy tearing up, with his wife offering up wifely support. 


"A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!": The entertainment starved citizens of Pineview sit through the Postman's version of Richard III and over look the fact that Bill (far left) is a mule, not a horse.

Of course, "The Postman" was a box office bomb and the critics weren't too impressed. USA Today called the movie a "futuristic folly", while Film Journal International  said it was a "bloated spectacle with leaden attempts at humor." The Movie described it as "a miserable failure in just about every respect." The New York Times, meanwhile, took issue with the flick's "bogus sentimentality" and "mawkish jingoism." My favorite review of "The Postman" comes courtesy of Paul Tatara of He felt "The Postman" was "about as inspiring as a movie about a vengeful meter reader." Director/star Kevin Costner, however, defended his MESSterpiece insisting "I always thought it was a good movie!", but admitted he "probably started it wrong." Probably? 

However, to the Golden Raspberry Awards (aka the Razzies), "The Postman" was catnip. It earned Costner both the Worst Actor and Worst Director honors for 1998. It also won Worst Picture, Worst Screenplay and it's entire soundtrack won Worst Song. That's an impressive basket of berries, considering "Water World" (an equally bad movie dubbed "Fishtar"--after the megaflop "Ishtar"--and "Kevin's Gate" after "Heaven's Gate") was nominated for four Razzies in 1995 and only brought home one: Worst Supporting Actor for Dennis Hopper.

While it's true "The Postman" ended up delivering useless junk mail instead of, say, an IRS refund check of $50,000 dollars, the flick did finally convince Kev to move on from playing selfish loners who discover they have untapped wells of greatness in them. "The Postman" also showed us the value of the written word over, say, texting, and how vital our postal service is. And then there is the Tom Petty cameo. And the Peggy Lipton cameo. Both of these folks are gone now, so it's a real treat to see them on screen. And Kev's daughter Annie (as Ponytail) showed promise as a young actress (she was 10 or 12 at the time). And the flick swept the Razzies, which is impressive in itself, considering "Batman and Robin" and "Speed 2" were also in contention for Worst Picture (just for the record, I find "Batman and Robin" utterly unwatchable; therefore, for "The Postman" to bring home the Worst Picture basket of berries has to stand as one of the highlights of Kev's career).

So, for being the best thing in this rotten, nasty chain-letter of a movie, Tom Petty, Junk Cinema salutes you!

The mayor of Bridge City tells the Postman that freedom-loving citizens everywhere are "Counting on You" to continue the fight against fascism. 

Saturday, January 14, 2023

The People Who Inspired The Characters In "Babylon"

 Greetings, movie lovers and happy 2023.

By now you've probably all heard and read about Damien Chazelle's take on 1920's Hollywood, "Babylon".

The film has received mixed reviews and so-so box office.

However, instead of posting another review of the flick (which I may still do), I thought it might be more interesting to discuss the real life inspirations fueling Chazelle's three in a half hour epic.

Sound like fun? Good! Let's begin!

Theda Bara was the premiere "vamp" (short for vampire) of early Hollywood. She's considered a "truly silent star" because there's no recording of her actual voice. Although she's not featured in "Babylon", Bara is one of the silent eras most iconic figures.

Who is Who

 "The Wild Child" Nellie La Roy (Margot Robbie) was clearly based on 1920's super star Clara Bow.

Presented as the ultimate fun loving flapper, Bow appeared in such films as "Mantrap" (1926), "The Plastic Age" (1925) and "It" (1927). However, it was novelist Elinor Glyn who dubbed Clara "The It Girl", not her studio.

"There are few people in the world who possess 'IT'", Glyn declared. 

The lucky ones were Rex "the Wild Stallion star", Spanish actor Tony Monero, "the Ambassador Hotel doorman" and Clara Bow.

Like Nellie, Clara had an awful childhood. Her mother was mentally ill and her father was abusive. Also like Nellie, Clara was a natural on camera and, yes, she did allow her father to handle her money (which he lost). When the talkies arrived, Bow struggled to meet the demands of the new medium, just as Nellie did. Although it's true Clara liked to party, the rumor she had sex with the entire USC football team--as reported in the underground classic Hollywood Babylon by Kenneth Anger--is false. And mean.

"She has IT": Clara Bow was the personification of a 1920's flapper/good time girl.

"Babylon" contains a scene where actress Constance Moore pitches a fit because Nellie is stealing her movie. However, the flick has this wrong. Samara Weaving was suppose to be Colleen Moore; actress/singer Constance More didn't make her film debut until 1930.

Along with Louise Brooks, Colleen helped popularize the bob haircut. Her screen image was that of a flirty flapper, but not as rambunctious as Bow. Like Clara, Moore didn't make the jump to talkies, but she came out way better financially: Colleen invested her movie earnings wisely and became a millionaire. Later on, she'd write a book about investing. Edith Davis, the mom of Nancy Reagan, was a life long friend.

Moving right along, we have the doomed matinee idol Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt).

The inspiration for Conrad is John Gilbert. Not only was he one the eras biggest stars, John had a very public romance with his co-star Greta Garbo. Like future super couples Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton or Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez, John and Greta's doings were written about in papers cost to cost. One movie theater, hoping to cash in on their popularity, advertised their latest flick (conveniently called "Love") with the tag line "Garbo and Gilbert are in 'Love'."

 Greta Garbo and John Gilbert were hot and heavy on and off the screen.

Although Hollywood lore has it that John Gilbert's voice didn't jibe with his looks, his speaking voice was fine. Still, his career faded anyway, helped along by alcoholism and feuds with Louis B. Meyer. On the other hand, Greta's career only got bigger with the arrival of sound. To promote her talking debut "Anna Christie" in 1930, her studio MGM merely said "Garbo Talks!" and the audience arrived in droves (for the 1939 film "Ninotchka", MGM did the same thing, declaring "Garbo Laughs!"). To help her ex-boyfriend out, Garbo insisted Gilbert be cast opposite her in "Queen Christina" (1933). This was the the couple's fourth pairing (their other films were "Flesh and the Devil" (1926), "A Woman of Affairs" (1928) and the already mentioned "Love" (1927), but John's last film. He died in 1936.

After the failure of her film "Two Faced Woman" in 1941, Garbo left Hollywood for New York City. She shunned all publicity, refused to give interviews and wouldn't consider a comeback. She passed away in 1990.

Li Jun Li portrays the alluring singer/actress/writer Lady Faye Zhu. Her character is a mix of Anna May Wong and Marlene Dietrich.

Wong was one of the first Chinese-American actors to become a movie star. However, racism kept her from more prestigious roles. Anna seemed the natural choice to play O-Lan in the big screen adaptation of "The Good Earth" (1935). However, the studio gave the part to Luise Rainer, who was Austrian. MGM, who was producing the movie, said audiences wouldn't accept an Asian actress playing opposite a leading man (Paul Muni) who was white. Despite winning several Oscars, "The Good Earth" has become a prime example of "yellow face": using extensive make-up and costumes to make white actors appear Asian. 

In "Babylon", Lady Faye wears a tux and sings a racy number about her "girlfriend's pussy". Later on, she kisses a female audience member on the lips. This is where the Dietrich influence comes in. Several of Marlene's films had her performing in white tie and tales--which was considered quite daring back in the day. The scene where Faye kisses a woman is copied directly from the movie "Morroco" (1930), where Marlene did the same thing. A "pre-code" Hollywood movie, "Morocco" has Marlene playing a world weary cabaret singer and Gary Cooper as the French Legionnaire who loves her.

"Mind if I smoke?": Lady Faye Zhu (Ji Lun Ji) is based on Anna May Wong with a bit of Marlene Dietrich thrown in for good measure.

Marlene Dieteich as Mademoiselle Amy Jolly in "Morocco": "Mind if I smoke?"

Later on, "Babylon" shows Nellie and Faye having a romance. (Early in the flick, Lady Faye, writing titles for one of Nellie's first films, asks a co-worker, "I wonder if she swings both ways."). Nellie's studio believed the relationship would jeopardize La Roy's career, so Lady Faye is fired. With the arrival of talkies, Faye goes to Europe to work for Pathe' (a French film and distribution company started in the 1890's) and seek out other opportunities. Wong did this, too.

Once movies got the sound-thing under control, producers and directors decided to add singing and dancing to the mix. This allowed JoVan Adepo's character Sydney Palmer to branch out into "Soundies": mini movies that featured music, singing and dancing. Some film historians believe Soundies were the inspiration for the music videos of the 1980's (when MTV played nothing but music videos).

Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Count Basie are just a few of the black artists who appeared in Soundies. Sydney Palmer is a composite of these men. Just as racism kept Lady Faye from a bigger Hollywood career, Sydney is also denied the chance to star in movies--even though his Soundies are huge hits. Later on, Sydney is asked to wear make-up so he will appear "more black" in his latest short subject. Unfortunately, this really did happen. Hollywood studios were worried that the lighting needed for film production made certain black performers "look white". In order to release their movies in the south, and to ensure audiences didn't think the bands were "mixed", black artists were asked to darken their skin.

SPOILER ALERT: disgusted by the practice, and everything else, Sydney leaves Hollywood and returns to playing nightclubs. Of all the "Babylon" characters, he's the luckiest, and it's clear he's happier playing live music than making movies.

Another "Babylon" character based on a real person is the drug dealer known as "The Count" (Rory Scovel). 

Musician Sydney Palmer (JoVan Adepo) wails away at a Hollywood party. His character will turn his back on Tinsel Town for good.

Rumor has it The Count was based on an actor who worked for Mack Sennett. He's mentioned in the underground classic Hollywood Babylon directly as "The Count". Described as a "quiet, gentlemanly actor", he supposedly supplied drugs to actors Wallace Reid (who died of an over dose), Mabel Normand, Barbara La Marr and others.  Hollywood Babylon, of course, is the most reliable source. Since its publication in 1959, most of the "scandals" detailed in the book have been debunked.

That said, another inspiration for The Count could be Captain Spalding. He was a military man who smuggled and sold drugs to silent film stars. He was implicated in the over dose/suicide of Olive Thomas in 1920, although he denied it. What is true is that struggling actors often did peddle drugs on movie sets in hopes of getting parts. In "Babylon", The Count is seen reminding studio exec Manny Torres (Diego Calva) that he wants "a monologue" in his next picture in return for getting the cash needed to pay off Nellie La Roy's gambling debts.

The final "based on a real person" character is Jean Smart's Elinor St. John, the ever-present gossip columnist. She's patterned after Sheilah Graham (who was British) and Louella Parsons.  Together along with Hedda Hopper, these gals were syndicated in hundreds of newspapers across the country and exercised considerable power. The film studios often supplied the gossip columnists with stories to keep potentially more damaging items out of the press. Getting on their bad side could be hazardous for your career. For example, when Gene Tierney failed to tell Louella Parsons she was pregnant, Parsons was so mad, she told Tierney not to expect anything good about her next film from her (I read this story in Ingrid Bergman's autobiography My Story).

When Orson Welles released "Citizen Kane", he so enraged Hedda Hopper that she organized a campaign to discredit the movie--and it worked.

Strangely enough for a movie set during the 1920's, "Babylon" didn't mention Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Gloria Swanson, Douglas Fairbanks or Lillian Gish. Of course, the movie was a fictional account of roaring twenties Hollywood, not a documentary, but leaving them out seems odd.

Mary Pickford was known as "The Little Girl with the Golden Curls" even though she was an adult.

Charlie Chaplin as "The Little Tramp". He based the character on a man he saw at a mental institution. 

Oh, and one more thing: the drug abuse shown in "Babylon" was pretty accurate. What? You think great grandma and great grandpa didn't know how to party? Movie sets in the '20's were teaming with drugs, especially cocaine, because it allowed the actors to work long hours and stay thin. The popularity of coke in the movie industry inspired something called "Cokie Comedies", the Cheech and Chong flicks of the day. Perhaps the most famous Cokie Comedy was "The Mystery of the Leaping Fish" from 1916 and starring Douglas Fairbanks (!). Doug was suppose to be a send-up of Sherlock Holmes, who was so crazy for coke that he wore a belt with syringes on it and had a clock that had "Dope" and "Drink" etc. instead of numbers. There is also a big can labeled "cocaine" on his desk, in case you missed the point. Just for the record, Fairbanks didn't like this movie.

This is where I leave you movie lovers. My next post, hopefully, will be about the real events depicted in "Babylon". Until next time, SAVE THE MOVIES.