Saturday, October 22, 2011

Falling Star

There's nothing I hate more than stupid/sensationalistic Yahoo News headlines.  There was one earlier this week with a headline that said something to the effect of "Stars Who Have Children While They're Young."  Underneath it was a photo of, of all people, Bristol Palin.  I immediately disregarded the subject matter of the article itself and thought to myself "Why the Hell is she considered a star?"

I realized how the definition of "star" seems to have become cheapened in recent years.  Used to be, the term applied to people who had reached the highest pinnacle of success in their careers, most notably movie or TV actors, or music performers, or professional and Olympic athletes.  Now it seems to apply to anyone who is notorious to the public, whether it's for appearing on reality shows, or through some sort of public scandal.  There have always been notorious famous people throughout history.  But, in the past, they were reserved for the pages of the sleaziest tabloids, not for the mainstream press.  These days, people like Bristol Palin or the Kardashians or that couple who crashed the White House party are profiled and legitimized by regular newspapers and magazines.  These are the sorts of "celebrities" who appear on shows like "Dancing with the Stars."

Decades ago, in the 1970s and 1980s, we had "Battle of the Network Stars," a series of TV specials where the actors from then-current TV shows representing all three networks faced off against each other in athletic competition.  But in the case of "Battle of the Network Stars," we watched people who were truly the top stars of television back then, not the "never weres" that we are subjected to now.  What's sad is that mainstream publications will devote paragraphs and pages upon people who haven't really done anything legitimate to earn our attention, while more deserving figures are ignored.

A couple of days ago, I was in a barber shop getting a haircut and I was flipping through Entertainment Weekly.  A letter to the editor was featured in the issue I was reading, chastising them for giving short shrift to the recent passing of Cliff Robertson, who won the Best Actor Oscar for "Charly" (1968).  Entertainment Weekly had mentioned Robertson's death in just two sentences, while they shamelessly devoted pages to people that no one will remember or care about 10 years from now.  It used to be that the term "starlet" was a denigrating term reserved for actresses who toiled in "B" movies or had generally second-rate careers.  But nowadays, "starlet" (if we apply that definition) sounds much better than "star" because at least the "B" actress has a career in movies or TV she can hang her hat on to explain why she might be well known to people. 

I don't know who is to blame here--the press or the public for paying just enough attention to these people to make the press think that the public wants to read about them.  I know I don't pay attention to them except when I casually spot their names on magazine covers at the barber shop or supermarket checkout counter and wonder "Who are they?!"  I know many people who are also sick of them and would prefer to read about people who have earned our interest.

What I also despise is how "reductionist" the press has become in describing the importance of particular people to the public.  Whenever I read obituaries of accomplished people, obituary writers seem to feel they have to appeal to the lowest common denominator by making an arcane reference to a minor footnote in their lives that the general public might remember them for, or draw a weak analogy to something current or hip because they expect the public wouldn't otherwise be able to relate to them, as opposed to highlighting their truly important accomplishments.

Take Lois Nettleton, for instance.  She was a talented actress who had numerous credits in film, television and theatre.  She had won 2 Emmys and was nominated for a Tony.  And what did most of her obituaries mention?  A "Seinfeld" episode where she caught George eating an eclair from a trash can.  I'm not dissing "Seinfeld" at all, just the fact that the obituary writers felt that they had to reference something as throw-away (no pun intended) as that in Nettleton's career in order to make the general public take interest in her.  It makes as much sense, for example, as having my retail job at JC Penny's during summer vacation from college turn out to be the thing I'm best remembered for when I pass away someday.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Norma Desmond be Damned!

I was at a dinner some months ago where a friend at the table was telling the other guests of my interest in interviewing actresses who worked in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s about their careers.  One of the guests at the table made the glib comment “I’m sure they were all eager to tell you all about their faded careers because they don’t have anything now to fill their time!”  I was surprised by the presumptuous comment.  I know we should all “consider the source” whenever snotty comments are made.  But I thought the comment deserved a response so I said “That’s not true.  A lot of them are busy with their families, their grandchildren.  Some of them are still active in the arts and pursuing acting roles.  Others are pursuing careers in other fields, or doing volunteer work that means a lot to them.  It’s not fair to make generalizations or presumptions about people you haven’t met.”

Nevertheless, his remark made me stop and think about how people easily assume that, if an actress is now over 50 and isn’t in the spotlight the same way they once were, their personal and professional lives are over and they are living in self-centered seclusion.  As much as I love Billy Wilder’s classic film “Sunset Blvd,” the Norma Desmond character he created has helped perpetuate this negative notion about mature actresses.  I’ve had the privilege of interviewing actresses of earlier generations and stayed in touch and developed friendships with some of them.  While they are glad to share anecdotes from their lives and careers with people who are interested, it’s not their raison d’etre.  They all live in the present day, enjoy what life currently has to offer, and remain contributing members of society.  If they share anecdotes about the past, it is no different than an experienced attorney that I know who now teaches law school and often shares his experiences with students about how he handled numerous cases in his career.  They are also no different than the retired Generals and Admirals I’ve known who share anecdotes about how they faced professional challenges in the course of their military careers.  What these people have in common is that they are simply sharing their personal histories so that they can impart the wisdom and knowledge they have acquired with others.  All of this has taught me that you cannot make presumptions about individuals based on the demographic they fit into. 

Take the two Ann(e)s for instance—Ann Rutherford and Anne Jeffreys.  I’ve had the privilege of getting to know both of them in the last year.  They are both vibrant, energetic people who have an incredibly positive attitude and enjoy life.  Rutherford is always busy raising money for organizations she cares about, such as the Young Musicians Foundation, or for Kent State University.  Jeffreys filmed an Italian movie earlier this year with Danny Glover and Val Kilmer called “Vespro d’un Rinnegato” (a.k.a. “Espiation”).  During the past year, Jeffreys also visited her hometown of Goldsboro, N.C. to see her relatives, went on a cruise, and attended the wedding of one of her granddaughters in Oregon.  Both Ann(e)s are often seen around Los Angeles together attending arts-related events, such as the Turner Classic Movies Classic Film Festival, glamorously dressed in elegant gowns designed by David Hayes.  They remain close with their families and have strong relationships with dozens of friends.  When a friend was recovering from surgery, Ann Rutherford made arrangements for someone to take care of him until he was well on the road to recovery.  Both Ann(e)s are justifiably proud of their careers, but it is not the only thing that matters to them.  Whenever I mention to each of them that I just saw one of their films from the 1930s or 1940s on TCM or YouTube, they each laugh and exclaim “I can’t believe you wasted your time today doing that!” and then proceed to ask what is happening with me.  Rutherford, in particular, has taken a mentoring interest in my life and career, always offering a sympathetic ear and advice about how best to handle any situation.  Whenever I tell them I will be in Los Angeles, Ann Rutherford always exclaims “We’ll go dancing in the streets together!”  They have more joie de vivre than people half their age and are always thinking about helping others. 

Another good example is the Chinese American actress Lisa Lu, who is a longtime family friend.  Lisa was recently in Washington, DC as a guest of honor at the Smithsonian Museum’s Sackler Gallery for the opening of an exhibit of artwork depicting the life of the Empress Dowager Cixi of China.  Because Lisa played her in two lavish Shaw Brothers productions in Hong Kong “The Empress Dowager” (1975) and “The Last Tempest” (1976), she attended the opening night reception of the exhibit as guest of honor.  I was able to spend time with her that evening at the reception and at dinner afterwards and we caught up with each other’s lives.  I hadn’t seen her since the mid-1990s.  The next day, she was on a plane to Shanghai to start filming a Chinese language version of “Dangerous Liaisons” starring Zhang Ziyi, and would be appearing in a Chinese opera in Hong Kong this month.  In the last few years, she appeared in the disaster epic “2012” and Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere” and garnered praise at the Berlin Film Festival for her lead role in the Chinese language film “Apart Together.”  She already made another movie in Mongolia earlier this year.  I was just amazed at her sustained energy and enthusiasm for her craft, more than 50 years after she started her career.  I could tell how grateful she is about her continued success, and her kindness was inspiring.  She made a point that evening to share with me extremely positive insights about my father and mother, both of whom she admired greatly, that helped me to look at my parents from a fresh perspective.  As we were leaving after dinner, Lisa went back into the restaurant to thank the representative from the Sackler Gallery who was hosting the dinner.  She wanted to express her gratitude for all that the Sackler personnel had done on her behalf.  It demonstrated how good manners and genuine kindness still counts for a lot at a time when too many people rely on post-modern glibness or irony to express themselves. 

Yet another example is the talented Bridget Hanley, known to TV viewers as Candy Pruitt on the “Here Come the Brides” series or as Barbara Eden’s nemesis on her 1980s sitcom “Harper Valley PTA.”  Bridget is very active with Theatre West, the oldest continually running theatre company in the Los Angeles area.  I have seen her in several plays there that provide strong evidence that her enjoyable television roles only tapped into a portion of the talents and range Bridget is capable of.  In recent years, she performed in a production of “The Lion in Winter” at Theatre West that won her great acclaim from the city’s theatre critics.  Through it all, Bridget is constantly “out and about” spending time with her two daughters and her new grandson, as well as actively participating in the lives of her nieces and nephews, stepchildren and step-grandchildren, and other extended family members and friends.  She has lost none of her enthusiasm for acting and continues to enjoy the process of exploring the nuances of characters.  Bridget and her good friend Lee Meriwether often attend theatre productions in Los Angeles together, eager to sample and explore what their peers are working on.  They both have active, well-rounded lives and are too busy to just stay at home resting on their laurels. 

These are just some examples of mature actresses who defy the Norma Desmond stereotype.  I'm not implying that every actress who is over 50 is as kind or well-rounded as the women I mentioned here.  I am sure that there are people who fit the negative stereotype, but they should not be the standard with which to judge all the rest.  The ultimate point I am making is not merely about actresses, or about women in general.  All around us, in different industries and communities, we are surrounded by mature men and women who are, as Ann Rutherford likes to say, “turning their golden years into platinum.”  They are vibrant members of society with a lot to offer all of us with their wisdom, maturity and experience.  We just have to be smart enough to listen. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Why I'd rather hang out with Bryan Mills from "Taken" than Jack Bauer of "24" any day

While going through my DVD collection, I noticed the seasons of “24” that I owned.  I realized that, even though I loved, and was obsessed with, the show while it was in first-run airings on Fox, I had no desire to relive the series in reruns, except for maybe Season 2.  After you know all the plot twists and surprises, there actually is very little left to go back and enjoy because you never get emotionally invested or engaged by any of the people on-screen.  The characters are all plot devices that, with some rare exceptions, were never carefully thought out or consistently written since they were all malleable to the whims of the writers.  There was never a clear vision to them because they were susceptible to doing 180-degree turns if the lazy writers dictated it.  (Season 2 was an exception because it was the only one where the plot and characters had a clear and natural progression, and you were as engaged by the personalities and the relationships on-screen as much as you were by the skillful plotting.)

The one character who seemed to have a clear vision, Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), eventually became a pretentious bore and a drag to watch.  At first, it was appealing to watch a hero who was willing to make personal sacrifices for the greater good, who was ruthless in doing what he felt was right, blah, blah.  But, after awhile, he became a character who wallowed in self-pity due to the failures of the relationships in his life that were the consequences of his ruthless and short-sighted actions.  He was estranged from his daughter for much of the series, and spent way too much time obsessed with his “one true wuv,” drippy Audrey Raines (the mealy-mouthed Kim Raver).  He became an incredibly negative and heavy-handed character, and his “I-feel-the-weight-of-the-world-on-my-shoulders” act grew tiresome.  This was more damaging to the character and the show than the charges of fascism and brutality that were lodged against it by harsh critics.  It was a mistake to continually kill off main characters just for shock value and to narrow the focus of the series to Jack.  This meant that the emotions and tenor of the entire series rested on the unstable psyche of a character who was even moodier than Kay Hamilton (Andrea Leeds) in "Stage Door" (1937).  The show’s vision of Jack as a perpetually tragic figure makes it difficult to revisit it on DVD or reruns.  After awhile, it’s just not FUN to watch anymore.  I say this with great reluctance because I used to be such a devoted fan of the series. 

Despite some similarities, the Liam Neeson character in the thriller “Taken” is everything that Jack Bauer is not.  When I watched “Taken” for the first time in the theatres, I found myself comparing these two characters.  Bryan Mills, like Jack Bauer, is a ruthless agent who has participated in dangerous missions while serving his country and, as a result of focusing much of his attention on his career in the CIA, has an awkward relationship with his own teenage daughter.  (Interestingly, both men’s daughters are named Kim.)  But Bryan Mills has retained one quality that Jack Bauer has lost: hope.  Even with all he has experienced in the course of his dangerous career, he still finds things to enjoy in his life and is determined to repair his relationship with his daughter.  When the movie opens, we see Mills driving a cheap compact car and living in a dingy Los Angeles apartment.  Neeson does a wonderful job portraying Mills as an ordinary guy.  He works security at rock concerts for extra cash, and his attempt to impress his daughter with a karaoke player on her birthday is upstaged when his ex-wife’s wealthy husband gives her a horse.  But Mills hasn’t given up on himself and remains grounded and positive.  When his other former CIA colleagues show up for an impromptu BBQ, he still has the ability to relax and have a good time.  When the rock singer, whose life he has saved, offers to give his daughter singing lessons to repay him, he is clearly excited at the opportunity to give her something her rich stepfather cannot.  When his daughter is kidnapped while on vacation in Paris by Russian mobsters determined to sell her into white slavery, Mills is determined to get her back not merely because he loves her, and does not want to see harm come to her, but because he knows the potential still exists for good in his life as long as he can rescue her. 

Despite his brutality and ruthlessness, Liam Neeson infuses warmth, unexpected optimism, and a refreshing lack of pretense into Mills.  Neeson’s unconventional interpretation of the character helps to ensure that Mills never degenerates into sanctimonious self-importance the way Jack Bauer did.  At the end of “Taken,” when Mills rescues his daughter, he is finally able to give her something that her wealthy stepfather was unable to: her freedom.  Because the filmmakers of “Taken” paid as much attention to the logic and motivations of the characters as they did the action, this scene has more emotional impact than anything “24” or Jack Bauer were able to muster in 8 seasons.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Jessica Fletcher: TV's Greatest Female Character

As I was reading recent articles discussing the new Fall 2011 TV season, and how many of the new shows with female leads have them in highly sexualized roles, it made me think about my newest TV rerun obsession, “Murder, She Wrote.”  I must admit that when “Murder, She Wrote” originally ran on CBS in the 1980s and 1990s, I didn’t really follow it.  I didn’t think it was cool enough to watch the weekly adventures of elderly, widowed mystery writer Jessica Fletcher (played brilliantly by Angela Lansbury) as she traveled the globe, solving one murder after another.  And the TV promos highlighting the guest-stars each week gave it a “Love Boat/Fantasy Island” aura that made it seem even stodgier.  Now that I’m much older, and have a different set of values as to what constitutes entertainment than the people who follow the flock of reality shows, I have a greater appreciation for an hour-long, scripted drama with a strong, older female lead who was intelligent, assertive, principled, humane, gracious, and polite; who was involved with solving literate and thoughtfully-written cases; and who dealt with a gallery of victims and suspects every week played by veteran actors who were too often overlooked by a youth-obsessed industry.  She did it all while being attractive and stylish without being overly-sexualized or objectified in any manner.  In my humble opinion, I would argue that Jessica Fletcher is possibly the greatest female TV character of all time.

While watching the 12 seasons of “Murder, She Wrote” on DVD or Hallmark Channel reruns, I have noticed the gradual, steady development of Jessica Fletcher from the beginning to the end of the series (and through the four “reunion” TV movies that were made after the show ended).  Jessica started out as a widowed High School English teacher, slightly plump and plain-looking, who wrote her first mystery novel to keep her busy after her husband’s death.  She was not looking to create a new life or career for herself.  However, in the first scene of the pilot episode, when Jessica attends the rehearsal of a mystery play about to open in her sleepy Maine village of Cabot Cove, she guesses the identity of the killer before the play is over.  This simple, beautifully written scene, establishes in short-hand manner Jessica’s thoughtful ability to take in her surroundings and other people, and to be able to draw logical conclusions from what she has witnessed.  It also establishes her as a vibrant, alert individual who is ready to begin the next phase of her life.

As the series establishes Jessica’s street credentials as both a respected mystery writer, and a skillful amateur detective, Jessica’s personality slowly develops in unique ways over 12 years.  “Murder, She Wrote” was not a serialized-drama depicting the inner psyche, nor the trials and tribulations at home, of Jessica Fletcher.  It was clearly a plot-based drama where Jessica was in a different locale, involved with a different situation, each week.  In a sense, this structure allowed the show to take on an “anthology” feel per episode.  The show, like Jessica, was allowed to continue evolving and maturing.  Her adventures allowed her to travel the world and make new friends (or enemies) wherever she went.  Eventually, she abandoned the New England tweedy attire that defined her character in the early years, and developed an elegant, tasteful, stylish wardrobe that allowed her to cut a sleek, attractive, striking figure wherever she went.  (The costume designers on “The Golden Girls” could have taken cues from “Murder, She Wrote’s” costume designers on how to dress a mature woman in attractive clothes without being gawdy or tacky.)  Through the years, Jessica had occasional, mild romances with some of the distinguished guest stars on the show (including Arthur Hill, Len Cariou and Howard Keel) but these relationships did not define her and merely went to show how she was still attractive to men. 

Angela Lansbury richly deserved the 12 consecutive Emmy nominations the earned throughout the run of the series, just like the show itself deserved its nominations as Outstanding Dramatic Series during its first three seasons on the air.  The fact that Lansbury, nor the series itself, never took home the statuette reflects the screwy, flavor-of-the month values of Emmy voters, who seem to confuse shows with a “social significance” with anything of true value or lasting appeal.  (It is interesting to note how shows seen merely as entertainment like “Murder, She Wrote” and “Dallas” were overlooked during their runs, while “Hill Street Blues” and “LA Law” took home the Emmys.  Nevertheless, it is “Murder, She Wrote” and “Dallas” which are still watched and remembered today, not those Steven Bochco issues-oriented treatises.)  

Lansbury achieved the right blend of authority, gravitas, and whimsy, and created a character who was more assured and heroic than the now-cliched, one-dimensional “ass-kicking” action heroines of movies and TV during the last 15 years.  Lansbury, and her skillful team of writers, producers and directors throughout its 12 year run (who include the series’ original creators/producers Peter S. Fischer, William Link, and Richard Levinson; underrated TV directors like Walter Grauman, John Llewellyn Moxey, Seymour Robbie, and E.W. Swackhamer who were as good as any directors working in feature films; and Lansbury’s own family of talented artisans including her brother, writer/producer Bruce Lansbury, and son, director Anthony Pullen Shaw) all deserve kudos and credit for creating a consistent, dynamic vision of Jessica Fletcher as someone who outmatched her enemies with humanity, wit and intellect, rather than brute force.  In her own quiet way, Lansbury’s presence on the series could be as reassuring and authoritative as John Wayne. 

In later years, Jessica established a second home base, outside of Cabot Cove, by taking on a job in Manhattan teaching criminology at a local university, and living out of a stylish New York apartment.  Her circle of friends broadened to include spies, politicians, wealthy businessmen, artists, and designers of all nationalities and ethnicities.  But the character never became elitist or snooty, and never lost the common touch.  She looked as comfortable being home in Cabot Cove as she did circling the globe.  Eventually, law enforcement officials, who initially rejected her efforts to assist them in early seasons of the show, grew to welcome her participation in solving the mysteries as her reputation for solving crimes grew to a near-legendary status.  It is sometimes amusing to see certain episodes where the other characters are fawning over Jessica’s reputation as a writer and/or a detective.  How could one person accomplish so much?  But I think it was good for people to see an older person, especially a mature woman who, instead of being in her waning years, was actually entering the most rewarding phase of her life during her 60s and 70s, rather than relegating her to the sidelines as most media portrayals of the elderly (especially now) are susceptible to doing. 

What I also liked about “Murder, She Wrote” was that the show was smart enough to not allow Jessica to always be perfect or that she always had the correct perspective.  An interesting episode from 1987 called “When Thieves Fall Out” had the town of Cabot Cove up in arms because a mysterious stranger (played by John Glover) has arrived seeking justice and revenge.  Glover’s character served over 20 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit and is in Cabot Cove to ferret out the real culprit.  In the course of the episode, Jessica comes to the painful realization that the true perpetrators include her own friends and neighbors.  This leads to tragic consequences as she is forced to bring her own loved ones to justice.  At the end of the episode, Glover comes to her home to thank her and say goodbye.  Jessica, unnerved at how this stranger has caused tragedy and made her send her friends to prison, sanctimoniously says that she would prefer he didn’t come to say goodbye and wishes he didn’t come to Cabot Cove.  When Glover challenges her by saying “What would you have had me do?” it causes Jessica to stop and rethink her own sanctimony and double-standard on that particular case.  The episode ends with a more somber, reflective Jessica at the closing freeze-frame shot, not the usual jolly, almost comically goofy Jessica who laughs jovially at the end of almost every episode.  Usually, in television, the perspective of the main character is meant to reflect the “right” or “moral” attitude of the situation in the storyline.  For once, Jessica is forced to consider her own hypocrisy and bias favoring her friends, and that even her usual quest for justice has its limits. 

Much has been made about how CBS, in the final season of the show, moved “Murder, She Wrote” to Thursday nights at 9:00 PM from its Sunday 8:00 PM timeslot to go head-to-head with ratings juggernaut “Friends.”  This disasterous move effectively sounded the death knell for the series, and it ended in 1996 after 12 seasons.  However, looking at the episodes from that season, it is obvious that the writers and creative personnel were still at the top of the game and used this as an opportunity to challenge themselves and further broaden the scope of the show and Jessica’s character.  Because “Murder, She Wrote” was now bumping heads with a hot sitcom involving 20-somethings, many episodes that season involved a murder mystery among characters that were considerably younger than what Jessica was used to dealing with.  One episode dealt with Jessica investigating a murder involving the hip members of a hip Latin music group.  Another episode involved Jessica solving the murder of the lead singer of a contemporary rock band performing a benefit concert in Cabot Cove.  Another one had Jessica solving a murder that involved an illegitimate baby and a love quadrangle among the 20-something youths living in Cabot Cove.  The funniest, perhaps most bitingly-satirical episode that season had Jessica out in Hollywood solving the murder of the creator/producer of a popular “Friends-type” TV series called “Buds.”  

In these episodes, the young people Jessica becomes involved with no longer see her as an authority figure, nor address her only as “Mrs. Fletcher.”  Many of them refer to her by first name as she has become more their peer and their confidante than ever before.  This may have been an attempt by the show to broaden its appeal to younger viewers, by having storylines involving younger characters, but it works.  It helped expand the scope of the stories by involving Jessica with characters and situations that were fresh to the series, and also further broadened Jessica as someone who was in-tune with contemporary, modern society.  Nevertheless, I still smile during one episode where Jessica listens to music playing from a stereo and opines that it sounds like a song from Metallica.  But it reflected that Jessica was not stodgy and was someone still open to new ideas and experiences. 

If you watch “Murder, She Wrote” reruns, keep a look-out for two of my favorite episodes.  One is the very tense women’s prison-based segment “Jessica Behind Bars,” where Jessica solves a murder while she is held hostage in a prison locked-down during an inmate riot that features a motley cast including Vera Miles, Yvonne DeCarlo, Barbara Baxley, Eve Plumb, Susan Oliver, Mary Woronov, Linda Kelsey, Janet MacLachlan, and Margaret Avery.  The next is the two-part, near-epic “Death Stalks the Big Top” where Jessica solves a murder at a circus and her guest stars included Jackie Cooper, Martin Balsam, Pamela Susan Shoop, Lee Purcell, Alex Cord, Charles Napier, Florence Henderson, Greg Evigan, Mark Shera, Gregg Henry, Ronny Cox, Barbara Stock, Laraine Day, and Courtney Cox.  (Every time, I see these episodes, my jaw drops at the roll call of guest-stars listed during the opening credits.)  These episodes reflect the adventurous, vibrant spirit that “Murder, She Wrote,” and Jessica Fletcher, have to offer. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Reassessing "Charlie's Angels" 35 Years Later

Over the Labor Day weekend, the Universal HD channel aired a day-long marathon of “Charlie’s Angels” episodes.  With the new “Charlie’s Angels” series about to debut on ABC later this month (September 22nd), now is as good a time as any to take a second look at the series.  It is a show that has often been derided as being one of the worst examples of 1970s “Me Generation” jiggle TV.  And not without some justification:  episodes where the Angels go undercover in a women’s prison, as student flight attendants, as ersatz-Playboy bunny type cocktail waitresses, and in an apartment exclusively for prostitutes give credence to this notion. 
But, if you can look past it, this was one of the few successful TV shows or movies in the 1970s where the lead characters were almost exclusively female, in a decade where male “buddy” stories dominated the big and small screens.  Throughout the different cast permutations, the Angels were always depicted as mature, sophisticated, women.  They were never whining, squealing, cutesy, “girls.”  (Despite Charlie’s gently condescending reference to them as “three little girls” or “three beautiful girls” in the opening credits, depending on which season you are watching.)  The “Charlie’s Angels” movies produced by Drew Barrymore were much more troubling because the big-screen Angels were more often the victim of sexual innuendoes, trashy costuming, humiliating situations, boring boyfriends, and adolescent giddiness than their TV counterparts ever were. The Barrymore Angels were "empowered" in so far as they were willingly exploiting and degrading themselves.  Ironically, the TV Angels, produced by Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg, were comparatively much more dignified. 

Unlike most movies and shows centering on women, the series always depicted the Angels as competent, cooperative colleagues.  It avoided the cliche of portraying female colleagues as being competitive with each other.  The focus for the TV Angels was almost never on their personal lives, but on their work.  In years past, conventional female characters on television were usually concerned about family, marriage, relationships.  The few characters that did not fit into this mold included Anne Francis on "Honey West," Diana Rigg on "The Avengers," and Beverly Garland in the 1950s crime drama "Decoy."  Like those shows, "Charlie's Angels" did not fall into the TV cliche of focusing on the trials and tribulations at home of the regular characters.  In addition, even though Bosley came along and helped out in every episode, they often got the job done by themselves.  (Unlike “Police Woman,” where Angie Dickinson often needed the “big brother” trio of Earl Holliman, Charles Dierkop, and Ed Bernard to get her out of a jam.) 
With the exception of the two-part “One Love, Two Angels” episode in 1980—a misguided episode during the Shelley Hack season where the show unsuccessfully attempted something different by having Kelly (Jaclyn Smith) and Kris (Cheryl Ladd) compete for the affections of Patrick Duffy in a bizarre, awkward storyline where Kelly learns that she may be the long-lost daughter of wealthy hotelier Ray Milland—they weren’t romantic rivals with each other in any conventional sense.  The Angels were clean, wholesome “girl scouts” because romance or sex were rarely on their minds.  They were a distaff version of director Howard Hawks’s vision of competent professionals who worked as a cohesive whole to accomplish their goal or mission.
What really sunk the Angels, more than the purported sexism or sexual innuendos, were cliched scripts that rarely worked well as crime dramas.  It would have been interesting if the show had had better writers who could concoct better cases for them to solve than the lame ones they were often saddled with.  What the show coasted on was the chemistry of the cast members, and that aspect of it should never be underestimated.  Like the characters they portrayed, the cast of “Charlie’s Angels” were solid professionals who did good work every week.  Kate Jackson may have been stuck with the label of “the smart one” on the series, but she managed to infuse Sabrina with a humorously quirky, off-beat quality that complimented her tall, gangly persona.  (Her near-nerd appeal was heightened by having her drive the orange Ford Pinto, while her colleagues drove the more stylish Mustangs.)  She never became dry or boring as the Angels’s de-facto leader. 

Jaclyn Smith, despite popular opinion leaning towards Farrah Fawcett, is probably the most popular Angel.  People talk about her elegance and class, but what she really brought to Kelly Garrett was a disarming sensitivity.  The writers made Kelly an orphan who was always looking out for the underdog who needed to be protected, whether it was an autistic child (in one episode in Season 1) or an abused child (in Season 4) or a former juvenile delinquent-turned-Air Force airman she had previously mentored (in Season 3).  This quality made Smith the heart and soul of the series.  The show could survive the departure of Fawcett and Jackson, but couldn't continue without Smith. 

Farrah Fawcett may have been the sexy bombshell of the team, but she always projected a “big sister” quality that evoked warmth and affection among viewers.  It was no coincidence that, in the 1970s, men fell in love with her and women imitated her.  She was never off-putting or haughty the way, say, a Cybil Shepherd could be. 
Cheryl Ladd played Fawcett’s little sister Kris on the series, and early episodes reflected her character’s naivete and inexperience.  But she became one of the most serious characters on the show.  Ladd was probably the best actress on the show and she brought clear-headed gravitas to a lot of episodes that attempted to ground the series more in reality.  Whenever the show needed a scene where one of the Angels confronted another character in a pointed and direct manner, they often gave it to Ladd.  One of her best episodes was in Season 4, "Harrigan's Angel," where Ladd is paired with Howard Duff as a drunken, over-the-hill private detective who reminds her of her alcoholic father.  Ladd and Duff are very good together in that episode and evoked some genuine feeling and pathos.  Ladd was definitely the most underrated actress on the show.  She should also be commended for taking on the unenviable task of replacing a popular predecessor--Fawcett--and doing such an exemplary job that it could be argued that she was an improvement over Fawcett. 
Shelley Hack is arguably the weak link in the series’s cast.  Her one-season tenure as Tiffany Welles is awkward over 30 years later.  Perhaps it was a mistake to replace the earthy Jackson with a character designed to be a cool New Englander.  There’s a disconnected quality to Hack that prevents her from fully integrating with the rest of the cast.  Some of the dialogue in her episodes have the other cast members state how much they value her contribution.  It always felt like the producers and writers were overcompensating for Hack’s inability to successfully blend in with the show by having the characters state how important she is to them.  But what really sinks Hack is that she never seems confident or relaxed on the show.  She often gave a forced and stilted performance and that lack of assurance must have affected the audience, who abandoned the show in droves that season.  If she is to be commended for anything, it is that Hack does project intelligence and competence and her acting improves as the 4th season progresses.  By the end of that season, her gawky awkwardness becomes almost endearing.  (Hack redeemed herself a few years later with a very skillful performance in “The King of Comedy,” where Martin Scorsese uses her intelligence and coolness to her advantage.) 
To be fair, the writers during the Hack season attempted to “shake up” the show by violating the rules and ethos of the series in objectionable ways. There were many episodes featuring just one Angel working alone, while the others are only seen at the beginning and end to wrap up the story.  The single-Angel episodes that featured Hack left her alone to carry the shows and further highlighted her deficiencies.  There was an episode that season, "Fallen Angel," where Farrah Fawcett returned in a guest appearance, seemingly having fallen in love with a jewel thief played by Timothy Dalton.  This was used as a pretense to have her character end up fighting with her friends and sister and former colleagues.  This violated the rule of having the Angels always work in a cooperative manner with one another, and focused far too much attention on their personal lives instead of their cases. 

In addition to the aforementioned “One Love, Two Angels” episode, which violated the rule that the Angels would never be romantic rivals against themselves, another episode that season, “Toni’s Boys,” violated the rule that the Angels would always rescue themselves and never rely on a man to help them.  In that appalling episode, Barbara Stanwyck ran a detective agency staffed by three young men.  They are assigned to protect the Angels from someone out to kill them.  It was meant to be a backdoor-pilot to a potential series featuring Stanwyck and the men.  As a result, the Angels are sidelined like damsels-in-distress as the three toothless guys save them from the villains.  It is one thing to try and give individual scenes and episodes more gravitas and depth.  It is another thing entirely to try and completely redefine the series.  The writers seemed to have renounced what made the Angels unique and turned them into conventional characters.  The changes made that year give a bad name to the concept of "change-of-pace."  The confused writing, probably more than Hack’s uninspired performance, were the true villains that season.
There are some who debate whether Tanya Roberts is better or worse than Shelley Hack.  I’m in the former category.  Roberts blends in well with the cast and brings an air of levity and assurance to the show that had been missing during the Hack season.  Furthermore, the writers abandoned their efforts to experiment with the series, and the storylines returned to the format that had worked well for them in the past.  This was Roberts’s big break as an actress, and you can sense her enthusiasm in all of her performances on the series.  Unlike the later Tanya Roberts (who seemed somnambulistic in “Sheena” or “The Beastmaster” or even “That ‘70s Show”), the “Charlie’s Angels” version never fell down on the job.  In some episodes, you sense Jaclyn Smith and Cheryl Ladd feel revitalized by working with someone who hadn’t been burned out yet by the show.  At this stage in her career, Roberts appeared competent and promising.  With her raspy voice and off-beat New York-native quality, she had a quirkiness reminiscent of Kate Jackson.  In her debut episode, “Angel in Hiding,” Roberts has some big dramatic scenes when her mentor and friend Vic Morrow is murdered by the villains.  She handles these with confidence and makes you wonder what happened to her in later years when she worked in films and shows and seemed to have difficulty reciting the simplest dialogue. 
Probably the most important and underrated cast member of the show was David Doyle.  He has never gotten enough praise for his skillful performance as Bosley on the series.  In the first season, Bosley was officious and uptight, and was often at odds with the Angels working methods.  In later seasons, Doyle’s innate warmth started to shine through.  He was less bumbling and clumsy and became a reliable member of the team.  He never interfered with letting the Angels do their job, and helped out in vital ways.  He also did not turn into a male authority figure who always rescued the Angels.  Doyle’s relaxed, comfortable quality blended in well with his female cast members.  He complimented, rather than competed, with them.  Some episodes in later years even allowed Bosley a love interest, and Doyle handled those episodes with confidence and aplomb.  He richly deserved his Emmy nomination in 1977 for Best Supporting Actor in a dramatic series.  Doyle provided comedy, competence, and consistency to a show that suffered far too many cast changes in its 5 year run. 
Which brings me to the question:  Which cast ensemble was the best?  While popular opinion may favor the first season with Jackson, Fawcett, and Smith, I think seasons 2 and 3 (with Jackson, Smith, and Ladd) work best.  Fawcett had a larger-than-life quality that tended to draw attention to her  no matter what she was doing.  Ladd, because she was much more down-to-earth, blended in perfectly with the ensemble and the Sabrina/Kelly/Kris teaming feels more like a cohesive whole.  I will also stick my neck out to suggest that the the final season Smith/Ladd/Roberts ensemble may have been the 2nd-best cast on the series because that final trio also seemed very comfortable with each other on-screen. 

During the Univeral-HD “Charlie’s Angels” marathon, there was one episode whose darkness and seriousness shocked me.  “Angel Baby” from 1978 had the Angels investigating an illegal black-market baby ring.  Kelly went undercover as an unwed mother, Sabrina and Bosley posed as a rich couple wanting to buy a baby, and Kris posed as a girl who is desperate for money and agrees to sleep with a guy designated by the villain to become pregnant and sell her child.  There was nothing unusual about the basic storyline of the episode, but the handling of individual scenes made this one standout.  The scene where Kris meets with the desperate guy (he owes the villains money) that she is supposed to sleep with to become pregnant is handled in a surprisingly somber manner.  (There’s even a reviewer on IMDB who has commented similarly on this episode as well.)  The audience is unsure at how she is going to handle this unusual situation.  For once, the show drops its light-hearted mood and genuine emotions and intensity shine through.  Kris takes pity on this guy as she reveals her true identity and intentions to him and pleads with him for information on solving the case before letting him go.  It’s probably the best-acted scene in the entire series.  In a later scene, Kris seems truly shaken when she shoots a man for the first time.  I don’t want to overrate this episode, or the series as a whole, but in “Angel Baby” Ladd and company brought some welcome moments of gravitas that suggests at how legitimately good, rather than campy, the series could have been had it tried harder. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Prolific and Underrated: Lois Chiles

There are many prolific and underrated actors and actresses whose work made a significant impression on me while I was growing up, and still resonate with me today.  I plan to write about many of them on this blog.  Texas-born Lois Chiles is one such individual.  Chiles is primarily remembered as a Bond Girl in “Moonraker” (1979).  Her performance as Holly Goodhead is where I first discovered her, as it was one of the first movies I ever saw in the theatres when I was still a kid.  However, my interest in Chiles didn’t begin and end with “Moonraker. ” It was merely the jumping off point.  Being a Bond Girl might be most people’s frame-of-reference to Chiles, but she was the rare one who had a notable career both before and after Bond.  It helps that she appeared in high-profile films and TV shows that many people actually saw.  Her direct manner and confident screen persona made her a pleasure to watch.  Over time, she became an actress who, if I knew she was in something, I would always take the time to watch it, no matter what it was.  It’s a shame that director Howard Hawks was no longer making films by the time Chiles came along.  Her brunette-looks and deep-voiced maturity would have appealed to him. 
Chiles first came into prominence as the second female lead in “The Way We Were” (1973) playing Robert Redford’s girlfriend before he fell in love with Barbra Streisand.  Chiles eschewed the “other woman” stereotype by playing Carol Ann as sensible, warm, level headed.  She provided a viable alternative to Streisand’s fiery campus radical.  Because Chiles was so appealing as Carol Ann, it made you realize how deeply Redford’s character had fallen in love with Streisand in the film, despite their differences, because he already had a terrific girlfriend in his life. 
Chiles followed this up with another notable role in a Robert Redford film by playing self-possessed 1920s golfer Jordan Baker, one of the less malevolent characters in the 1974 adaptation of “The Great Gatsby.”  As with Carol Ann, Chiles brings welcome flashes of humanity to what could have been a cynical portrayal of ennui and decadence.  Her Jordan Baker comes across worldly and self-aware.  She knows her own shortcomings but is too lazy and resigned to change it, which is why her relationship with Sam Waterston’s Nick Carraway is doomed.  Chiles’s relaxed and subdued elegance strikes a welcome contrast to the hysteria of Mia Farrow and the vulgarity of Karen Black in the film. 
Chiles essayed her first genuinely unsympathetic character in 1978’s “Death on the Nile,” playing Agatha Christie’s murder victim Linnet Ridgeway Doyle.  Unlike similar characters in other Christie adaptations, Chiles has a significant amount of screen time in the first hour of this 2 and a half hour film.  She has funny sparring scenes, and holds her own, opposite screen legends Bette Davis, Maggie Smith, and Angela Lansbury in the film.  (I laugh everytime Lansbury references her thinly veiled novel about Chiles’s character entitled “Passion Under the Persimmon Tree.”)  If Chiles’s character comes across as chilly and shallow in “Death on the Nile,” it is because Linnet Ridgeway is constantly held up for ridicule or criticism by almost every other character in the film.  It is only upon repeat viewings of the film that it becomes obvious that her character is not the monster that everybody is describing.  If you watch “Death on the Nile” closely, she really hasn’t harmed anybody else in the story.  She is the object of hatred and resentment more for what she symbolizes to the other characters in the film than by her actions. 
I have to admit that, for a long time, I honestly did not understand the double-entendre of the Holly Goodhead name in “Moonraker” because Chiles played her in a classy, understated manner.  (I had to have a friend in college actually explain it to me!)  She was never as crass or obvious in her approach as Lana Wood playing Plenty O’Toole in “Diamonds are Forever” (1971) or Britt Ekland as Mary Goodnight in “The Man with the Golden Gun” (1974).  Her character was more “grown-up” than other leading ladies in the series.  She played Goodhead with an insouciant and self-possessed wit, and I wish the script actually allowed her a chance to be more than a plot device.  But as “plot devices” go, Chiles is one of the best in the series.
She was off-screen for several years tending to a family crisis, but returned with a vengeance in 1982 playing another memorable Holly—Holly Harwood—on the 1982-83 season of “Dallas,” which was then the top television series in the world.  Chiles did some of her best work on “Dallas,” playing an initially na├»ve young oil company heiress who foolishly becomes business partners with JR Ewing and lives to regret it.  Holly allies herself with JR’s tenacious younger brother Bobby in his competition against JR for control of Ewing Oil under the terms of family patriarch Jock Ewing’s will. 
Unlike Goodhead, this Holly was much more than a mere plot device.  Chiles created a sympathetic, essentially decent woman pushed into a corner, who toughens her resolve, and ultimately retaliates against JR with unforeseen consequences for all involved.  Her scenes with Larry Hagman and Patrick Duffy always crackled with intensity and fire.  In some episodes during her tenure, she would appear in just one scene.  But typically those single scenes were so well-written and acted, they pushed the story and emotions forward with more momentum than characters who appeared frequently throughout the whole episode.  She was a completely unpredictable character.  In one episode, she pulled a gun on JR during a late night visit to her bedroom as she laid down "new ground rules" for their business relationship.  Her actions inadvertently created a tragic situation for the other characters, and cost her any chance of Bobby falling in love with her.  Chiles’s Holly Harwood caused so much damage within one year (and just 25 episodes!) of “Dallas,” the characters were still talking about her five, six years later.  She accomplished the near-impossible task on “Dallas” of catching JR off-guard and messing with him in ways nobody else in the series could.
Chiles enjoyed a career renaissance in the late 1980s.  She had a notable supporting role as a TV journalist in “Broadcast News” (1987) and, again, defied the “other woman” stereotype by coming across as less manipulative than Holly Hunter in her pursuit of William Hurt in the film.  Chiles’s character disappears in the latter-half of “Broadcast News,” sent away by Hunter to cover the Alaska serial killer murder trial so that she can pursue William Hurt unimpeded.  Except for a brief vignette with Chiles reporting in the snow on a TV monitor, you never see her character again.  I always wished Chiles got to return from Alaska, during the sequence when the news room team is being laid off, so that she could run into Hunter in the hallway (while Hunter is distraught over the firings), and remind Hunter of her own underhanded machinations before she gets to wallow in her self-pity.
That same year, Chiles stole the show in the final segment of “Creepshow 2” (1987), playing a wealthy, adulterous woman terrorized on the highway by the ghost of a hitchhiker she has just killed in a hit-and-run accident.  In a role that was essentially a running monologue, she was profane, cynical, unsympathetic, and hilarious.  You were never sure who to root for, her or the hitchhiker, because both were monstrous in their own unique way.  Chiles’s played the role with gusto and relish and made the most of the opportunity.  I remember seeing it with my friends from High School at the Edwards Temple Cinemas in Alhambra, California on a Saturday afternoon and we cheered with laughter and enjoyment during Chiles’s sequence. 
In the 1990s, Chiles made welcome appearances in Wim Wenders’s “Until the End of the World,” various television movies, and episodic TV guest appearances (including an excellent “Murder, She Wrote” in 1990 where she reunited with Angela Lansbury), as she matured gracefully and started playing mothers and other authority figures.  In 1997, she had a funny cameo in the first “Austin Powers” movie, and was one of the few passengers whose performance was not lost in the cacophony of explosions, tedium, and catastrophe of “Speed 2: Cruise Control.”  (The same, unfortunately, could not be said for the game Colleen Camp in the same film.  But I’ll save that for my upcoming blog entry about Ms. Camp!) 
In recent years, Chiles has taught film acting courses at the University of Houston and married the classy and respected Wall Street financier and philanthropist Richard Gilder.  She now serves on the board of advisors for the Yale School of Drama, is actively involved in supporting the arts and other philanthropic endeavors, and will have a theatre named after her at the Northfield Mount Hermon secondary school due to Gilder’s support of the school’s theatre and arts programs.  While I hope Lois Chiles can still find time for acting roles, amidst all of this activity, there is no doubt that she continues to brighten the world both on-screen and off. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Linda Darnell day on TCM; Saturday, August 27th, 2011

This month TCM is doing a tribute to a different movie star every day with their "Summer Under the Stars" festival.  On Saturday, they are paying tribute to Linda Darnell, one of the 1940s most popular movie stars.  She is forgotten by the general public today, but during the decade she was arguably more popular than, say, Lauren Bacall (even though Bacall is better-remembered today).  Many have noted that her rise to stardom was the stereotypical Cinderella story, but with an unhappy ending.  By the time she was in high school, she was a child model and had appeared in beauty contests due to machinations of a driving stage mother.  At the age of 15, she was discovered by a talent scout at 20th Century-Fox, who helped arrange a screen test.  She was deemed too young by the studio and sent home disappointed.  Nevertheless, she stayed in touch with the talent scout and eventually the next year, at age 16, she was given a long-term contract at Fox and starred in her first feature film "Hotel for Women" (1939). Her mother moved the entire family out to Los Angeles intending to supervise Darnell's career and bask in the glory of her daughter's success.

Her career at Fox was delineated by two distinct phases.  She started out playing sweet, ingenue types with a light, soft voice and later matured into playing more worldly, sexier roles with a deeper voice.  In the first phase at Fox, she was paired four time on-screen with Tyrone Power, in "Day-Time Wife" (1939), "Brigham Young-Frontiersman" (1940), "The Mark of Zorro (1940), and "Blood and Sand (1941).  Darnell and Power were indescribably beautiful together.  They had a wholesome, easy chemistry that seemed more like brother-and-sister than intense lovers, but it always seemed appropriate when their characters ended up together.  It would have been interesting, later in the 1940s, to have seen the Power/Darnell chemistry develop further, when both of their screen images matured after WWII, as they lost their youthful naivete and became darker, even seedier at times.  Unfortunately, they never worked together again, as Darnell had to relinquish the female lead in "Captain from Castille" (1947) to Jean Peters when its shooting schedule conflicted with the filming of "Forever Amber" (1947).

During her career, she worked with top directors (Ford, Mankiewicz, Sturges, Mamoulian, Sirk, Preminger, to name a few) but was always taken for granted because of her looks.  By all accounts, Darnell was well-liked but generally seen as light-weight material in Hollywood.  At Fox, she always seemed overshadowed by Anne Baxter (who was considered a better actress) or Gene Tierney (who was considered more exotic and mysterious).  During the height of the war, despite her popularity and visibility (especially in the movie magazines of the day) Darnell's career appeared to have stalled.  Some have speculated that this was due to Darnell's reluctance to acquiesce to the sexual advances of studio head Darryl Zanuck.  (Since the parties are no longer here to confirm or refute this rumor, I am inclined out of fairness to not give it credence.)  Others have opined that Darnell fell out of favor with Fox executives due to the meddling influence of her mother, whose eccentricities included bringing the family pet chicken to the studio. 

Whatever the reason, she was given thankless parts in "The Loves of Edgar Allen Poe" (1942) and "Sweet and Low-Down" (1944), was loaned out to Columbia for "City Without Men" (1943), given the second female lead in "Buffalo Bill" (1944), and was uncredited playing the Virgin Mary in "The Song of Bernadette" (1943). The disapproval by Fox executives was exacerbated when, at age 19, she married cinematographer J. Peverell Marley, who was 22 years her senior.  Darnell kept herself busy during this fallow period by doing commendable volunteer work in support of the Allied war effort--selling war bonds, visiting military installations, working for the Red Cross, and volunteering in the evenings entertaining military personnel at the Hollywood Canteen.

However, by mid-decade, there was a turn for the better when Darnell, while on loan-out to United Artists, garnered good publicity for her femme fatale role in "Summer Storm" (1944) director Douglas Sirk's adaptation of Chekhov's "The Hunting Party."  This caused Fox to start paying more attention to Darnell, and better opportunities were on her horizon in the post-war years.  Darnell was one of the beneficiaries of the burgeoning noir genre, thanks to "Hangover Square" and "Fallen Angel" (both 1945).  Both her acting and screen image matured during this time, as she was no longer typecast as the sweet ingenue.   During this phase of her career, she appeared in such major Fox productions as "Anna and the King of Siam" (1946), John Ford's "My Darling Clementine" (1946), Preston Sturges's "Unfaithfully Yours" (1948), and "Forever Amber" (1947).

The last was meant to be her tour-de-force, based on Kathleen Windsor's best-seller, but it was plagued by production difficulties, a ballooning budget, inordinate audience expectations, and Otto Preminger's lifeless direction.  Darnell did not enjoy working with Preminger, and it's likely that his alleged contempt for her acting abilities made him unwilling to tap into her strengths as an actress (an underlying vulnerability and decency no matter what the role) while directing her in "Amber."  She capped off the decade with a pair of Joseph L. Mankiewicz dramas that constitute her best work, "A Letter to Three Wives" (1949) and "No Way Out" (1950).  In contrast to Preminger, Mankiewicz recognized Darnell's virtues as an actress and her work blossomed under his tutelage.  Under Mankiewicz, Darnell's created characters whose outward cynicism masked a hopeful idealism for a better life for themselves.

However, this renaissance had its limits and was short-lived.  Despite the good critical notices for her performances during this time, she still had to struggle to land good parts.  After her triumph in "A Letter to Three Wives," Zanuck followed it up by dumping Darnell into "Slattery's Hurricane," an unchallenging melodrama where Darnell had to compete with Veronica Lake for screen-time with Richard Widmark.  Darnell had hoped to star in Elia Kazan's "Pinky," the story of a young African American woman who passes for Caucasian.  While, admittedly, Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge were the most appropriate candidates for the role, the brunette Darnell would have been arguably much more convincing than red-haired Jeanne Crain, whose fair appearance undercut her otherwise good performance and makes it difficult for contemporary audiences to take the film seriously.  By the early 1950s, her contract with Fox was not renewed and she went freelance for the next decade, doing TV and B features.  Her final film with Fox after over 13 years with the studio was the low-grade mystery drama "Night Without Sleep" (1952) where Gary Merrill spends 77 minutes trying to figure out if he really committed a murder, or was just imagining it.

She was plagued by drinking problems, three failed marriages (to a business executive and an airline pilot after divorcing Marley), and financial difficulties.  She reportedly had had a disappointing affair with her "A Letter to Three Wives" director Joseph Mankiewicz that further undercut her self-esteem.  It ended when she learned in the trade papers that the role he claimed he was writing for her in "The Barefoot Contessa" (1954), a movie she helped to inspire and counted on to revive her career, was going to Ava Gardner.  As a product of being under contract to Fox for so long, Darnell had not developed the survival instincts that it took to continue working in Hollywood without the mentoring and guidance of others.  Her most notable film in the late 1950s was "Zero Hour!" (1957), an airline disaster melodrama later remade in comedic fashion as "Airplane!" (1980).  Darnell had a decent part as Dana Andrews's estranged wife who plays a key role in helping him land the plane by manning the communications equipment after the flight crew is felled by food poisoning.  It was her last film for 8 years.  By the 1960s, she wasn't able to find any work in Hollywood and was doing summer stock, touring companies, and night club appearances.

She died from third-degree burns over 90 percent of her body sustained in a house fire while visiting friends near Chicago in 1965.  She had just completed her "Black Spurs," one of the many low-budget "B" westerns produced at Paramount by A.C. Lyles.  It was her first film in 8 years since "Zero Hour!" and the last she would ever make.  Lyles claimed that he was planning to hire Darnell for further "B" westerns with Paramount and, considering his sizable output of drive-in oaters during the 1960s starring veteran actors of the 1940s and 1950s, one could argue that Darnell was on the verge of another shot at gainful employment in Hollywood.  (I sometimes scan the titles of other Lyles westerns on IMDB and speculate which could have been the ones that Darnell was supposed to make.)  She could have parlayed that into roles in other "B" features and more guest-starring roles on television in the 1960s and would have been around to enjoy a potential resurgence in the 1970s when Hollywood classics of her era were being appreciated at revival theaters and college campuses.  With her career accomplishments, and the pedigree of her colleagues, she undoubtedly would have been a great participant in DVD commentary tracks and featurettes in recent years had she not died so soon. 

Obviously, this is the sort of idealistic speculation by someone who appreciated her work and wanted a better outcome for her life.  Unfortunately, none of this happened for her, but she left behind a more-than-respectable 40-plus film career that deserves better recognition, so I am glad TCM is giving her her due.  At the bottom is a link to their schedule for the day.  If you want a quick, short-hand tutorial on Darnell that day, the most notable films are "A Letter to Three Wives" (1949) at 8 PM, "Star Dust" (1940) at 10 PM, and "No Way Out" (1950) at 1:00 AM. 

If you can, you should DVR these three films, but try and see any of the films airing that day to learn more about one of the most underrated stars of that era.  I have no doubt that, if you give Darnell a chance, you'll get hooked and want to see more of her.  She always had a touching quality, even when she played seedier characters, that made you want to root for her.  "A Letter to Three Wives" and "No Way Out" are generally considered her best performances.  In "Three Wives," she steals the show playing a sympathetic golddigger who finds true love in spite of herself.  She has the best part of all three female leads, and is the only one who appears in all of the flashback sequences in the film, which arguably makes her the de-facto main character in the film.  In "No Way Out," she has a gritty dramatic role as a car hop who instigates a race riot and later tries to make amends for it by preventing Sidney Poitier's character from being killed by racist Richard Widmark.  The movie itself is dated and heavy-handed, but Darnell carries the best portions of the story when it drops the social-reform posturing and diverts into straightforward suspense melodrama mode.  Her character is allowed to be more complex and nuanced compared to Poitier's clean-cut doctor, and Widmark's mannered thug.  It's a shame these films arrived towards the end of her Fox tenure, when Darnell had matured as an actress to effectively tackle more challenging roles.

"Star Dust," made early in her career, is particularly delightful--it is a semi-autobiographical story of a young girl discovered in the South who goes to Hollywood and, despite obstacles, becomes a movie star.  The irony is that, the night Darnell died, she and her friends caught "Star Dust" on the late movie and she watched this film, which was inspired by her own life, just hours before the fire that would claim her life.  The movie gives Darnell the happy ending that she should have had in real life.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

RIP: Polly Platt (1939 - 2011)

I have been planning to start a blog for some time.  I really had not planned on writing something personal, but events this week appear to have dictated otherwise.

You may have seen in the papers the obituary for Polly Platt, the esteemed producer/production designer/screenwriter.  Her numerous career accomplishments are detailed here: 

Many people will be writing and commenting about her because she touched the lives of countless individuals, and everybody’s story will no doubt be as unique and insightful as she was. For my part, she was my friend for the last 11 years. 
When I met her in Los Angeles in 2000, I was working at a museum.  I met her while she was touring the museum and asked "Didn't you make 'Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women' with Mamie Van Doren?" and she said "Yes, but I call it 'Gill Women of Venus.'"  She gave me her email address and we started corresponding. 
Over time, we became friends and started going to movies every Sunday for three years and we would always have dinner afterwards.  She  encouraged me to go move East for law school—she said Hollywood had become a “corporate slum”—and taught me to treat everybody I encounter in the professional world with respect because "The people you meet on the way up are the same ones you meet on the way down." 
As expected, we talked a great deal about the movies she made, the people she worked with, the life lessons she encountered during the course of her career.  The anecdotes are too numerous to detail in this posting.  My personal favorite of her movies was “Targets” (1968) and she generously discussed all aspects of the making of that film with me.  She pointed out specific nuances and details in movies that made the difference between a film that was merely OK, and a film that was truly great.  

She taught me how to appreciate the works of esteemed filmmakers I am embarrassed to say that I took for granted prior to discussing them with her.  I taught her all about 1960s starlets that I was fascinated by and she was not familiar with.  She gave me John Ford and Orson Welles.  I gave her Tina Louise.

I remember the time we saw "We Were Soldiers" and she was appalled at the makeup and costuming for the women.  She said to me afterwards, "You will notice that there are many aspects of fashion that remain timeless and last through the generations.  Most people designing period movies forget that you don't have to overdo the period costuming and decor all the time.  Just some subtle touches here and there is enough to set the tone."  

Even though she had very high standards for what determines a good film, she always (always!) wanted to be pleased when she went to the movies.  She didn't enjoy criticizing other people's films because she knew the hard work that went into making them.  When we waited to see Brian DePalma's "Femme Fatale," she pleaded to the screen, "Come on, Brian!  Entertain us!"  

During the time I knew her, she was attached to several projects as a director that did not come to fruition.  She often recused herself from these projects because she had doubts as to quality of the scripts.  I once asked her why she didn't just make the film, even with its flaws, in order to work and to be able to finally say she directed a film.  She said, "It's so hard to make a good film...why would you want to waste all that energy on making a bad one?"

When I first knew her, she was living in a classy bungalow on the canals in Venice, California.  She had a very self-possessed jet-black chow dog named Charcoal.  We often took walks with Charcoal along the canals discussing movies as well as her friends and family.  There was a young filmmaker friend of Polly's who took her to movies on other days of the week.  She often discussed him with me and told me of her great admiration for him, and how his experiences that he had been sharing with her about his efforts to build his career reminded her of her own struggles when she and her then-husband Peter Bogdanovich came out to Los Angeles in 1962 with nothing but hope and dreams of becoming filmmakers.  

Of course, her children were never far from her mind.  She often worried about them, as all mothers do, but also had tremendous admiration and respect for their intelligence, their wit, and their perseverance.   She was very proud of the lives they built for themselves in recent years. 
An aspect of her life that fascinated me was her childhood as an "Army brat" who lived in Germany during the war crimes trials because her father was assigned to work on them.  One reason she became a production designer is because she had a fantasy as a child of rebuilding all the cities of Europe after the war to their original splendor.  As she learned about the atrocities being revealed during the trials, it was difficult for her to comprehend how the Holocaust could take place in the same world where her own father used to scold her brother for just teasing her.  For a woman who was known for working on some of the finest movies about human relationships (ie: "Broadcast News," "Terms of Endearment," "Say Anything," "The Last Picture Show," etc.), she would read books about Churchill, Eisenhower, Patton, and about military history.  She was more engaged and fascinated about the world surrounding her than most individuals.
I knew her health was not well for a long time due to ALS--Lou Gehrig's disease--but I continued to call her to see how she was doing.  Over time, however, it became difficult for her to speak.  The last time I tried to reach her was 2 weeks ago.  Her live-in caregiver said she was unable to come to the phone.  She passed away peacefully on July 27, 2011, leaving behind two daughters, a stepdaughter and stepson from her third marriage, three grandchildren, four step grandchildren, her brother Jack, sister-in-law Paige, three nieces, and last, but not least, her dog Madeline.  She was a well-rounded individual, one of the most intelligent people I ever knew, and someone who put me on the path to working on growing up.  I am very proud that she was my friend.