Friday, November 30, 2012

Anita Ekberg Comes Back From Eternity

One of my favorite movies to watch whenever it airs on TCM is RKO's disaster melodrama "Back from Eternity" (1956), director John Farrow's remake of his own 1939 drama "Five Came Back."  In both films, a planeload of tourists are stranded in a South American jungle after a plane crash, unaware that they are slowly being stalked by ever-approaching headhunters.  Even though the original "Five Came Back" is generally considered the better film, I admit I prefer "Back from Eternity" because of the presence of the amazing blonde Swedish bombshell Anita Ekberg.  Ekberg plays Rena, a cynical, hard-bitten prostitute who has lost her job working a Vegas casino and, to avoid deportation because she has no citizenship status in the States, was on her way to her next assignment to work for another casino/brothel in South America when the plane crashed.  (Lucille Ball played this role in the original "Five Came Back.")  In the course of the story, Rena goes from being a sullen, self-centered woman to someone who contributes to the care and well-being of her fellow passengers, sharing equally in the chores and eventually developing a maternal concern for Tommy, the orphaned little boy on the flight played by Jon Provost.  When the survivors discover that the headhunting natives are about to close in on them, they realize that the only fully operational engine left on the plane has enough power to fly only five survivors back to civilization.  Who, amongst this motley group, will be allowed to board the plane to come back from eternity?

Throughout the movie, Ekberg and director Farrow defy audiences expectations of Rena by choosing to demonstrate her good qualities.  Since this movie was made in the cynical, post-war film noir era, it would not have been out of the question for Rena to have turned out to be irredeemable.  Because of the changing moral climate brought on by the passage of 17 years, director Farrow could have changed the character arc that the prostitute Lucille Ball played in "Five Came Back" (named Peggy Nolan in that film) experienced when he remade this film, but he chooses not to.  Instead, he honors the character and makes her even more endearing by casting a seemingly unlikely actress to play the role in the remake.  On her own terms, Ekberg makes Rena a sympathetic and surprisingly touching character.  She develops a friendship and emotional bond with the plane's captain, played by Robert Ryan, that goes beyond their initial attraction to each other.  Ryan's character becomes so impressed with Rena's change-of-character that he offers her the property he owns, and the money he has saved, so that she can raise the little boy in a secure environment in case they are able to survive their crisis in the jungle.  The other passengers on the plane start out wary of Rena--her glamorous attire and slinky demeanor make it obvious to them what she does for a living--but they eventually come around once they recognize her underlying decency.  In fact, Beulah Bondi and Cameron Prud'Homme's elderly married couple come to see Rena as almost a surrogate daughter figure.  The screenwriters introduce a judgmental adversary for Rena in the prim and proper Louise Melhorn (Phyllis Kirk) character, who disapproves of Ekberg's Rena becoming a mother figure for the little boy Tommy.  (Wendy Barrie's Alice Melbourne, the corresponding character to Louise Melhorn in the original "Five Came Back" was nowhere as condescending or disapproving of Lucille Ball's Peggy.)  When Rena teases Louise about her attraction to handsome co-pilot Joe Brooks (Keith Andes), the seemingly civil Louise starts a cat-fight that lands both women in a pond.  (I'm sure director Farrow enjoyed staging it!)  When Joe comes upon the scene, the ever-conscientious Rena quickly devises a cover-story that Louise accidentally fell into the water, so that her adversary can save face.  Rena might appear cold and tough on the surface, but her vulnerability and humanity can't help but shine through.

In addition to being based upon the original character that Lucille Ball played in "Five Came Back," Rena is also reminiscent of Claire Trevor's prostitute Dallas from John Ford's classic "Stagecoach" (1939), another social outcast whose virtues the audience recognizes sooner than some of the other characters in the film.  Ekberg is nowhere the actress that Trevor (or Ball) was, and Rena is nowhere as well-written or nuanced a character as was Dallas, but the Swede does well on her own terms.  I admit, in the interests of full-disclosure, that I've always liked Ekberg.  If she did nothing other than "La Dolce Vita" (1960), she would be ensured a well-earned place in cinema history, but she's enjoyable in many other films such as this one.  Ekberg correctly downplays some of her traditional glamor in the latter parts of the movie where Rena shares equally in the communal chores.  She's still gorgeous, but lets herself get mussed enough so that she doesn't seem as unrealistically coiffed amidst tropical conditions as Ginger Grant.  She and Robert Ryan make a likeable couple, and the scenes where she befriends little Jon Provost are surprisingly touching.  Ekberg may not be a great actress, but she brings enough heart and humility to the role to be able to sell the notion that this selfish woman has suddenly become selfless enough that she is willing to sacrifice her life to allow little Tommy to survive.  Because of what we have already seen of her in other roles, it is not at all surprising when Lucille Ball in the original "Five Came Back" ends up becoming a maternal figure.  Ekberg playing these emotions seems less likely.  The fact that she is able to pull off Rena's character change makes her more touching than Ball was in the original. If anything, Ekberg is even more vulnerable than Ball was.  In the scene in the original, when Ball's character volunteers to be one of the people left behind (so that little Tommy can board the plane), she cynically says "I'll stay too.  I'm pretty fed up with things outside.  I don't care much what happens."  In the same scene in the remake, Ekberg simply looks down sadly at Tommy and declares "I'll stay."  Rena has changed so much in the jungle that she doesn't have anymore of the world-weary skepticism that Ball's character somehow retained under similar circumstances. 

(Spoiler Alert!)  Director John Farrow should be commended for avoiding the cliche of punishing the previously sinful Rena for her past transgressions in her prior life.  It was easier for him to allow Lucille Ball to survive in the original film because that film only implied what she is, without actually showing it to you.  Farrow changes the introduction to the character in the remake by opening the film showing Rena working the casinos in Vegas, and being slapped around by her employer.  (You can see that scene here.)  In this instance, there is no avoiding the tawdry nature of what she does for a living--it's smack dab in your face.  Nevertheless, he allows Rena to enjoy a full redemption by including her among the quintet of survivors who fly out of the jungle to a new life filled with promise and hope.  Ekberg must've taken that to heart because, within a few years of this film, she was off to Italy and Fellini and never returned to the United States.  As such, "Back From Eternity" ranks as one of Ekberg's few decent shots at Hollywood stardom.  Her good performance in this film should have warranted better Hollywood offers than the ones she subsequently received.  If the movie has any significance at all in 2012, it is that Anita Ekberg would rarely again be allowed an opportunity to try and create a nuanced character in an American film as she does here. 

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The "Wawa" Bond

My late father, who died earlier this month after battling lung cancer, was a huge fan of the James Bond series.  From the time I was little, he introduced me to those films and we watched them together on frequent ABC telecasts, as well as went to see each new Bond film in the theaters on opening night.  I think he liked Sean Connery and Roger Moore equally--Connery for his tough/athletic presence, and Moore for his lighthearted confidence that made my father laugh with joy.  My father was a tough and kind-hearted man who endured many struggles throughout his lifetime.  As a child, he witnessed the Japanese occupation of China during WWII, and later (as a young man) he left China for Taiwan when the Communists (who he despised vehemently) took over China and he had to leave everything he knew behind.  As a result, because he experienced more in his lifetime than perhaps 20 people put together, he developed a wry and sardonic sense of humor.  When Timothy Dalton took over as James Bond, my father would refer to him in Chinese as "big nose," because of his prominent nostrils.  He once joked that "The Living Daylights" (1987) was the movie of the "big noses" because bland leading lady Maryam D'Abo's nose was almost as prominent as Dalton's and appeared to compete with his for screen time.  (The unfortunate pageboy haircut she wore in the film did not flatter her features.)  Because Dalton only lasted 2 films as Bond, I don't think he made much of a lasting impact on my father as Bond.  In the mid-1990s, however, when Pierce Brosnan was cast as Bond, my father was totally incredulous.  He used to watch Brosnan on the local ABC affiliate station in Los Angeles on late night airings of "Remington Steele."  He found him completely light-weight and insignificant, and used to diminutively refer to him as "Wawa." For the uninitiated, "Wawa" is the Mandarin Chinese expression for "little child."

I used to ask my father why he could never accept Brosnan as James Bond.  My father said, "I watched him too much on that TV show.  He shouldn't try to play an action hero.  He doesn't have the physical presence or personality.  He is too thin and slight.  He should stick to doing silly little stories, like on his TV show, and run around laughing with charming young women like the one he worked with (Stephanie Zimbalist)."  At the time, I thought my father was being overly harsh.  But, with hindsight (and having seen what Daniel Craig has brought to the role of James Bond), I now completely understand what my father was saying.

Last weekend, I was watching "Die Another Day" (2002), Brosnan's last performance as James Bond, on cable.  I remember a decade ago taking both of my parents to see that on opening night and I enjoyed it.  Ironically, my father said he actually thought Brosnan was OK in that film.  My father felt that, maybe because he was older, Brosnan seemed to have a little more gravitas.  But when I watched "Die Another Day" last weekend, I realized what was wrong with Brosnan as Bond.  He really was a light-weight actor, and his attempts to be serious and intense only came off as heavy-handed and artificial.  When he tried to be witty, his quips only came off as smug.  At one point in the film, Rosamund Pike's magnificently villainous Miranda Frost (the best thing about the movie) refers to Brosnan's Bond as "A blunt instrument whose primary method is to provoke and confront...He'll light the fuse on any explosive situation, and be a danger to himself and others."  In retrospect, that line seems to be more of a foreshadowing for Daniel Craig's interpretation of the role than any particular quality Brosnan himself brought to the character in that film or any of the other Bonds he did before.  Connery and Moore (and now Craig) all had a certain confidence and presence that made them seem believable as Bond.  There was a joy they brought to the role that Brosnan never quite succeeded at because Brosnan's attempts at projecting confidence only came off as narcissistic.

I wonder if it must really irk Brosnan to see Daniel Craig actually being allowed to bring nuance and character to Bond, when Brosnan complained bitterly for years that he had hoped to be able to bring depth to the role and was refused.  Craig's Bond has a certain arrogance about him, but it's coming more from a no B.S. directness rather than from a smug self-satisfaction that Brosnan brought to the role.  I was one of the people who questioned producer Barbara Broccoli's decision to replace Brosnan with Craig, but now I'm glad she did it.  It was a gamble that paid off, and refutes any notion that Broccoli and her half-brother Michael G. Wilson are afraid of taking chances with the series.  I must say that the one thing that Brosnan never brought to the role, but which Daniel Craig has, is a certain undeniable sex appeal.  Brosnan often came across as some ghastly matinee idol who would've been more comfortable in an episode of "Dynasty," rather than playing James Bond.  Brosnan was more "dandy" than "dapper."  He never projected the sort of raw masculine sensuality that Craig has brought to the role.  It is particularly telling how Daniel Craig seems to be redefining men's fashions with the perfectly tailored Tom Ford suits that he wears in his Bond films.  Craig has made elegant and fitted suits the unexpected clothing of choice for an action hero in a way that has not been seen since Cary Grant wore his legendary medium grey Glen Check suit in Alfred Hitchcock's "North by Northwest" (1959).

In contrast, bland Brosnan was never a trend setter in any sense of the word when he played Bond.  (Brosnan wore tailored suits in his Bond films, but he never cut as impressive a figure in them the way Craig has.)  Brosnan's take on the role attempted to meld elements of Connery's toughness with Moore's wit and charm, and the result that came out of it was a pale imitation of both.  Even though his films were financially successful, I think it's due to the fact that he appeared to meet the minimum requirements as to what the public expected from James Bond rather than him bringing anything truly inspired to the role.  As mentioned earlier, his attempts at bringing depth and nuance to the role, and the series, now appear forced and superficial.  Pierce Brosnan was a milquetoast who never had the cojones to create a truly daring and original interpretation of Bond.  To be fair, he might have been game for it, but didn't have the chops to pull it off.  In the end, he was, as my father called him, a "Wawa."

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Unsung Heroine of "Smile" (1975)

Michael Ritchie's beauty contest satire "Smile" (1975) was one of the most underrated and funniest films of the 1970s.  It told the story of one-week in the lives of various participants of a state-wide beauty pageant taking place in Santa Rosa, California.  Overlooked at the time of its release (it was probably eclipsed by the similarly-themed and structured "Nashville," which came out a few months before), its reputation among serious film aficionados has justifiably grown through the years.  It's one of my favorite films and I have read many reviews and articles written about the film.  Many of the treatises that discuss "Smile" usually mention Bruce Dern as the pageant's overly optimistic Chief Judge; Barbara Feldon as the former beauty queen-turned-pageant coordinator; Michael Kidd as the cynical, yet humane, veteran choreographer staging the pageant; Annette O'Toole as the shrewd, yet vulnerable, veteran beauty pageant contestant; Maria O'Brien as the manipulative Mexican-American contestant; and Colleen Camp and Melanie Griffith as two other nubile, yet vengeful participants.

Strangely overlooked in most serious discussions of the film is Joan Prather's beautifully realized and delicate performance as Young American Miss pageant contestant Robin Gibson from Antelope Valley, California.  Hers is the sort of performance you scratch your head at wondering why it did not catapult her to greater acclaim and stardom.  Jerry Belson's skillful script makes Robin the central protagonist in the overall film (sorry, Bruce Dern), the one character that we the audience can truly identify with in a gallery of eccentrics.  Robin is an admirable person from any objective viewpoint: raised by a single mother (her father died when she was little), she is a straight-A high school student who is a talented flutist and who got involved with the pageant, evidently, for the scholarship money.  She's naive as to the competitive nature of the pageant, but she soon wises up once she gets a whiff at potential victory.  The dilemma Robin faces in terms of how far she must submerge her genuineness in order to put up an idealized facade for the judges is truly compelling.  Robin's interview with the judges is one of my all-time favorite scenes in the history of cinema.  When asked if it was difficult for Robin to maintain her 4.0 grade point average during her Senior Year of High School while working a part-time job at JC Penny's, the unassuming girl simply responds "Of course!" which evokes a silent reaction of unease from the judges who had, based on the interviews with her competitors, come to expect a flowery and elaborate response to that question from her.  (You can see that scene here.)  Later in the interview, while being interrogated about her musical ability, Robin finds herself forced to provide the sort of stock answer ("I think my music is one of the best ways I can help others!") the judges expect from her in an effort to avoid alienating them.  In the end, however, Robin's healthy skepticism of the pageant helps to ensure that she won't lose her identity or her ethics in the course of trying to win.

What I liked about her character was her ability to take a step back occasionally and assess the madness of the situation without ever seeming condescending or superior about the other characters or of the pageant.  It's as if she has acknowledged to herself "Who am I to judge this when I'm a willing participant in it?"  Robin is that "smart" character who never gets on our nerves or loses our sympathy because, while she has compassion for everyone around her, she is still human enough to have to try and restrain from giggling when Maria O'Brien's contestant has her talent act ruined due to Colleen Camp and Melanie Griffith's sabotage.  Even though she is more self-aware, she is imperfect and flawed like the other characters in "Smile," and that's why we like her.

Some of the best moments in "Smile" are the scenes depicting the evolving friendship between Robin and her roommate, Annette O'Toole's Doria Houston.  They are great together and it's a shame that Prather and O'Toole have never worked together in anything else.  I have always found it touching how O'Toole's Doria starts off as seemingly self-possessed, until her insecurities start to show when she does not win any prizes on the first night.  Naive Robin ends up being the stronger person as the seemingly assured Doria eventually drops her facade and shows how vulnerable she really is.  An absolutely great sequence is one where director Ritchie stages the presentation of preliminary winners from the first night of the contest, with the Beach Boys's "California Girls" underscoring the scene.  Ritchie cuts back and forth between both girls as Doria becomes more and more anxious and desperate when she sees the other girls being chosen instead of her.  Robin is so concerned for the mental and emotional well-being of her new friend that she is too preoccupied to notice when her own name is announced as the winner of "Vim and Vigor" (whatever that's supposed to be) and wins a silver platter in the process.  As the curtains close, rather than savor her own victory, Robin runs to find the weeping Doria and puts her arms around her roommate/friend to give her a comforting hug.  Because they started out as wary yet friendly competitors, it's one of the most touching moments I've ever seen in a movie.  Later, at the end of the pageant, when Doria wins 4th runner-up and Robin ends up being the one left empty-handed, it is Doria who tries to comfort Robin by saying "I wanted you to win, too....Maybe I'm not an opportunist."  But ever sensible Robin responds, "Hey Doria don't worry about it!  I'm just glad it's over."  Prather and O'Toole have such great rapport that you hope that their characters will remain lifelong friends long after the pageant has faded into background. 

"Smile" represents the greatest role Joan Prather ever enjoyed in her career.  It should have led to other roles in major movies.  Nevertheless, she was very prolific in both films and television from the mid-1970s through the 1980s.  She appeared notably in "Big Bad Mama" (1974) as a snooty kidnap victim; as Tom Skerritt's terrorized wife in "The Devil's Rain" (1975); and as Dick Van Patten's smart attorney daughter-in-law on TV's "Eight is Enough" from 1979 to 1981 (a role she reprised in the two reunion TV movies in 1987 and 1989).  She later married and focused her attention on raising her family.  Prather gives an incredibly underrated, unaffected, and natural performance in "Smile," which is why her character is so touching and has such resonance and impact.  She is never mannered nor resorts to a bag of tricks that actors normally use to try and stand out.  She is so skillful at embodying that character in the movie that you don't think of her as "acting," even though I believe she has the most difficult role in the entire cast.  I think the other characters in "Smile" were arguably easier to play because they were so broad and unsubtle.  It's always easier to play characters who are more overt because it's all there on the page.  It's much harder to play a nice, "normal" person and still make them interesting and compelling to watch, and that's what Joan Prather achieves here.  She is the Unsung Heroine of "Smile."

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Hollywood Reporter's Todd McCarthy reviews Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty"

One of my favorite film critics is Todd McCarthy.  He used to write for Variety and now writes for the Hollywood Reporter.  His reviews are unlike any other.  He goes to the trouble of describing the movies he sees in such depth that his reviews should be peppered with the expression "Spoiler Alert!" throughout.  But I don't mind that because I always like to hear as much as I can about a movie before I see it.  I'm the rare person who doesn't feel like a movie or TV show has been ruined just because I know what is going to happen.  I also like McCarthy because, like me, he is a big Howard Hawks fan.  He wrote the excellent biography "Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood."  As such, because he clearly likes the kind of confident/assertive women that populated the Hawks filmography, McCarthy tends to emphasize writing about the portrayal of women in what are otherwise testosterone-driven action films in a way that is very insightful and engaging.

Todd McCarthy, back in his days with "Variety"

Mr. McCarthy has just posted his review of Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty" (2012), a film about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden.  I have tremendous regard for Bigelow's work as a director.  I think that Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson should hire her to direct the next James Bond movie.  I had concerns and skepticism as to how this movie might turn out, but it sounds as if Bigelow has done an exemplary job here.  You can read McCarthy's review here.  As is his tendency, McCarthy takes time to provide an analysis of lead actress Jessica Chastain's character that intrigues me and makes me look forward to seeing "Zero Dark Thirty" even more.  That's McCarthy's gift--his level of detail never spoils a movie for a reader, and only serves to enhance your desire to see a film. 

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Another Look at Vera Miles

Because things have been so busy this holiday weekend, I have not gotten around to seeing the new movie "Hitchcock" (2012) a docu-drama purportedly about the making of Alfred Hitchcock's classic "Psycho" (1960), but I want to.  I admit, however, that I am a bit wary of the movie after reading reviews indicating that the movie heavily fictionalizes the details of the making of the film, and the relationships of its real-life participants and collaborators.  I read the Stephen Rebello book that the movie is based on, "Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of 'Psycho'" many times through the years and can recall many of the documented anecdotes and incidents that Rebello uncovered in his research.  With that foreknowledge, I am afraid that I'll be sitting there with skepticism if I see something depicted in "Hitchcock" that runs counter to what I already know are the established facts surrounding "Psycho."

That being said, I have to admit that I am glad the movie exists because it has brought some well-deserved attention to the career of actress Vera Miles, who starred in "Psycho" as Lila Crane, the younger sister of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) in the movie.  It has been well-documented that Miles was a Hitchcock protege that he put under contract in an effort to groom her to become another Grace Kelly, and that he lost interest in her when she became pregnant and bowed out of starring in "Vertigo" (1958).  According to Rebello's book, Hitchcock cast Miles in "Psycho" in a money-saving effort to cast a relatively well-known actress in the role of Lila who he didn't have to pay a huge salary to because she was already under contract to him.  There's an assumption that Miles lost the chance to become a big star by not appearing in "Vertigo," but I have always disagreed with that.  "Vertigo," by many accounts, was not a huge box-office hit at the time.  Thankfully, in later years it has been accorded the level of esteem that it deserved, but it did not happen right away.  I don't think Vera Miles would have been catapulted into the stratosphere of super-stardom if she had simply appeared in that film because it wasn't as appreciated at the time.  It's also not fair to single her out as the odd-man in the Hitchcock leading lady sweepstakes.  It's not as if Eva Marie Saint, Janet Leigh, or Tippi Hedren continued to set the world on fire with choice roles in major theatrical features in the decades that immediately followed their work with Hitchcock.

I always felt it was inaccurate of film historians to discuss Vera Miles as an actress who somehow had a "lesser" career because she didn't appear in "Vertigo."  If you look at the body of her work, she had an extraordinary career both before and after her collaborations with Hitchcock that belies any notion that she had missed her potential.  She was wonderful in John Ford's "The Searchers" (1956) and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" (1962), and worked with directors as diverse as Don Siegel, Henry Hathaway, and Robert Aldrich.  Even though she missed the chance to star in "Vertigo," she nevertheless worked with director Alfred Hitchcock on "The Wrong Man" (1957), "Psycho" (1960), and on episodes of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" and "Ford Star Time."  She also worked with "Vertigo" leading man James Stewart on both "The FBI Story" (1959) and on the aforementioned "Liberty Valance" (1962).  One can argue that, even if she didn't do "Vertigo," she still enjoyed the benefits that would have come from appearing in that film by working with its director and star on other projects.  I was always offended by Jane Fonda's mean-spirited line in the movie "The Morning After" (1986).  Fonda played a drunken, washed-up actress in that film who boasts to Jeff Bridges that "They were grooming me to be the next Vera Miles...I was supposed to replace somebody the audience didn't even know was missing."  It was a smug line that was totally unjustified in the context of discussing Vera Miles.

In the end, by following her own path, I think Vera Miles had a much better career by becoming the sort of "TV guest star" actress from the 1950s through the mid 1990s that allowed her to play a variety of roles that she would probably have been prevented from doing if she had become a stereotypical "movie star."  I never considered Vera Miles anything less than a supremely successful actress due to her frequent appearances on episodic TV guest appearances and TV movies in the 1970s and 1980s during the time I was growing up.  Her credits in this category are too numerous to mention and I would wager that her frequent appearances helped her accumulate a SAG pension that most actors would envy.  I particularly remember Vera Miles fondly in the 1976 ABC TV movie "Smash Up on Interstate 5."  Miles played an attractive, middle-aged divorcee who finds herself falling in love with a hunky, much younger truck driver (David Groh), who rescued her from being picked on by a motorcycle gang.  Both she and Groh end up being statistics in the film's eponymous massive freeway car pile-up.  Miles defied the sort of stereotypical assumptions Hollywood has for middle-aged actresses, and was truly lovely and romantic playing a woman who is still attractive, and whose heart is still open and receptive, to finding love in her life.  Her character even drives a sporty European red convertible, rather than a much less glamorous vehicle, that reflects her romantic and adventurous outlook.  It's one of my favorite Vera Miles performances.

Anyway, I'll be very interested to see how they have portrayed Vera Miles on-screen in "Hitchcock."  I was heartened to see some very thoughtful and articulate interviews on YouTube with Jessica Biel, who plays Vera Miles in "Hitchcock," and who appears to have approached the responsibility of portraying Miles in a respectful manner very seriously.  In addition to doing the expected research by watching film clips and reading articles about Miles, Biel discusses how she conferred with Vera Miles's grandson in order to have an understanding of who Miles is as an individual.  Because we expect the current generation of young actors and actresses to be callow people who have no interest in the history of Hollywood, or of anything else prior to 1999, I'm glad to see that Biel recognized the privilege she had been handed in being asked to portray Vera Miles on-screen.  Even if Biel looks and sounds nothing like Vera Miles, she appears to have had enough respect for the subject matter to be conscientious about trying to get it right.  Biel even defends Vera Miles's career when a stupidly pretentious, no-nothing interviewer dismisses her post-Hitchcock career as being "almost all television."  Because of her sincere commitment to the role, perhaps Jessica Biel is not as unlikely a choice to play Vera Miles as I had initially thought. 

Friday, November 23, 2012

Goodbye JR (and Larry Hagman)

In law school, my classmates used to say that they learned their values from growing up watching "Star Wars," while I got mine from growing up watching "Dallas."  Even though it's not as sinister as it sounds, it's true.  As I've written about before, "Dallas" was really about family and respecting one's legacy (values that I certainly believe in) and no one projected that aspect of the show better than Larry Hagman as JR Ewing.  As villainous as he was playing JR, he played a villain the audience could identify with.  He was motivated to be as ruthless as he was in order to fulfill what he thought were the expectations of his father, Jock.  Even though he cheated in business, and cheated on his wife, there was a humane side to JR.  He loved his mama Miss Ellie and daddy Jock and his brother Bobby, and his son John Ross.  And he even, at times, remembered that he loved Sue Ellen.  He wasn't just a villain for the sake of being evil.  He did what he did in order to ensure that Southfork and Ewing Oil would continue to thrive for decades to come (under his control, of course).

Hagman was effective in portraying these aspects of JR because, from what I always heard and read about him, he was himself a very loyal and lovable guy who always looked out for his colleagues on "Dallas."  I have read interview-after-interview with "Dallas" supporting actors who always said that it was Hagman who helped ensure that their characters (and, in essence, their jobs) would last longer than it might normally have lasted had it been solely up to the producers of the show.  He also made sure that people who worked both in front of the cameras, and behind the scenes, got their raises so that their contributions to the series were recognized in a significant manner.  He appeared to recognize that "Dallas" was not just about JR--it was about the entire Ewing family and the extended characters that made up the city of Dallas that made the show successful. 

People thought Hagman was playing himself when he played JR, but I don't agree.  He was a superb actor who was capable of playing serious drama (see his portrayal of Joanna Pettet's abusive and self-pitying husband in Sidney Lumet's "The Group") as well as comedy (he wasn't afraid to make a fool of himself week-after-week in "I Dream of Jeannie" back in the 1960s).  At the same time, Hagman had an ability to tap into the dark side of JR Ewing that could be truly chilling.  One of the most brilliantly acted moments in "Dallas" history is the scene when JR calls Holly Harwood (Lois Chiles) to Ewing Oil offices late at night.  You can see it on YouTube here.  He is furious at her for having called the Air Force when JR refused to allow Holly to honor some of Harwood Oil's military contracts.  As he reminds her, no one was ever supposed to know that he was secretly running Harwood Oil.  To prove his point that he controls both Holly and her company, JR forces himself sexually upon the vulnerable Holly.  It is an act that JR would suffer serious repercussions from later on in the season.  The brilliance of the scene comes from the subtle manner in which Hagman and Chiles play off one another.  Rather than overt hysterics, both actors make wise choices and play the scene with a chilling calmness that belies what's at stake here--Holly's sexual and professional freedom.  Hagman also had a satirical quality that was used to good effect in such 1970s movies as "Mother, Jugs and Speed" (1976), "The Big Bus" (1976), and "The Eagle Has Landed" (1977).  I also remember him for his tongue-in-cheek BVD underwear ads in the 1980s.  He had this expression on his face in those ads which seemed to say "You might think I'm silly to be doing these ads, but I'm the one who's laughing all the way to the bank!"

But there's a heartfelt side to Hagman's acting that rarely gets enough praise.  Throughout the run of "Dallas," there were storylines where Hagman had the confidence to allow JR's vulnerable side to show.  In the show's first season, JR learns that his trusted secretary and mistress Julie Grey (Tina Louise), a character that he sincerely loved, but took for granted, has betrayed him by having an affair with Cliff Barnes and given over Ewing Oil secrets.  After Julie's affair and betrayal has been exposed, he confronts her at her desk as she is packing and resigning from her job.  You can see it at 1:41 here.  In one of the rare moments in "Dallas," history, JR drops his bravado and appears truly hurt to learn that a woman he cared about betrayed his trust.  JR's shell-shocked interrogation of Julie by asking her "Do you love him (Cliff Barnes)?" and her sardonic/ironic deadpan reply "I don't love anybody" speaks to the depth of the hurt feelings between these two characters.  As with the aforementioned scene with Holly Harwood, Hagman and Louise make smart, unexpectedly subtle choices in playing this scene that help make the underlying emotions resonant even more deeply.

"Hello JR":  This shot, from the first episode of "Dallas," reflects the intimacy and dominance JR Ewing feels towards his trusted secretary Julie Grey (Tina Louise).  It is the first scene that JR ever appears in in the series, and introduced the world to one of TV's most memorable characters.
In the show's final season, JR had a ridiculous storyline where he intentionally commits himself into an asylum in order to try to get one of the inmates to sign a document so that he can gain control of, I believe, Westar Oil.  He accidentally finds himself committed against his will and subjected to lobotomizing treatments.  JR is befriended by a rag-tag group of mental patients with whom he becomes very close.  At the end of the day, it is his fellow inmates who come to JR's rescue.  As JR leaves the asylum, he has a poignant scene where he comes back and gives each of them gifts.  For the one mental patient who he became closest to (the touching Zane Lasky as the hapless Donia), JR promises to give him a job in Ewing Oil once he is released (the poor soul lost his job, his marriage, and his home and, as a result, had a nervous breakdown) and vows to take care of him the rest of his life.  It could have been a corny moment, but Hagman really sells the scene so that JR's sincerity comes through.

I will also never forget the episode where Jock Ewing's plane crashed into a South American swamp.  The episode, which had JR, Bobby, and Ray, traveling to South America to find him was gut-wrenching.  Having recently lost my own father to lung cancer, I now identify completely with the sense of grief and loss that their characters faced when they realized that Jock had died in the crash.  The moment that stays with me forever is the scene when the boys come home to face Miss Ellie and tell her what happened.  You can see it here.  JR is so overcome with emotion that he can't even face his own mother.  He goes out to the back patio at Southfork, looks at the medallion necklace his father used to wear, smiles to himself (perhaps remembering all the good times he spent with his father), and looks out towards the darkened sky above.  It's a wordless moment, but the emotions Hagman evokes from it speaks volumes.

I met Hagman a few times over a decade ago when he used to attend social functions at a museum in Los Angeles I used to work at.  He attended with his wife Maj and would graciously answer questions I would pose to him about the many actresses he worked with through the years.  I will never forget how Hagman said he never criticizes other actors, because he thinks the tendency to dish about your colleagues is very hurtful, and that he always tries to find the good in people.  I think Hagman's ability to find the humanity even in treacherous JR Ewing is the reason why the character resonated so deeply with viewers around the world and remains fascinating to this day.  What I find so poignant about Larry Hagman's death is that he was a native Texan who passed away in his home state while still playing JR on the new "Dallas," surrounded by people like Linda Gray and Patrick Duffy.  You hear too many stories about people who pass away alone and isolated, that it's good to know that he was in his natural environment, doing what he loved most, and surrounded by the people closest to him.  He died with his boots on.

The Tina Louise Quartet

I admit it:  Tina Louise remains my all-time favorite actress.  That's a dangerous thing to admit.  Whenever you do, you find yourself subjected to comments from people who say "Mary Ann was always hotter" or something to that effect.  (I think it has made me an effective oral advocate, though.  You learn how to effectively build a case to convince people on any issue when you learn at an early age to advocate for Tina Louise as a versatile and talented actress instead of someone like, say, Vanessa Redgrave because people will lazily accept that as a given.)  I have always felt that there is a lot more to Tina Louise than "Gilligan's Island," even though I readily acknowledge that it remains her most famous acting credit from a visibility standpoint.  She really does have a mysterious and intriguing screen presence that goes beyond just her looks.  Her roles are more interesting and nuanced than she is given credit for--she has often played sad beauties who are trapped in unhappy lives.  (Whether she was attracted to these roles, or these roles sought her out, might be worth discussing in a much longer dissertation someday.)  I think that the versatile range of her speaking voice remains one of her most unique qualities.  The breathy and breathless Ginger Grant voice that she used on "Gilligan's Island" was merely an acting affectation.  In many of her other acting roles, she speaks with a deep and resonant voice that demonstrates gravitas and maturity.  She has an under-appreciated ability to manipulate her voice to sound like completely different people from project-to-project.  (Which is why Kristen Dalton's performance as Tina Louise in the 2001 CBS TV movie "Surviving Gilligan's Island" never seemed credible to me.  It was obvious upon first-viewing that Dalton never did her research: she performs the scenes where Tina Louise is off-stage and off-camera in the same breathy and breathless "Ginger" voice that Ms. Louise used on the series.  Dalton demonstrated, to me anyway, that she was a lazy actress who ignorantly assumed that that was indeed how Ms. Louise spoke in real life.)

One of the reasons why it is challenging to build the case for Tina Louise being an underrated actress is because her films, for many years, were difficult to get ahold of on DVD and rarely played on cable.  In addition, some of her best work were in TV movies and episodic guest appearances in the 1970s after "Gilligan's Island," when she made a conscious effort to try and challenge herself by taking character roles that went against her presumed image.  However, in recent years, because of the ever-expanding DVD and Blu-Ray market, which has allowed lesser-known titles in studio catalogues to finally gain the exposure they deserve, many of Ms. Louise's films are now available digitally. Olive Films, which has been releasing titles from the Paramount library, recently released on DVD and Blu-Ray two of Tina Louise's earliest films:  the noir-ish, modern-day western melodrama "The Trap" starring Richard Widmark, and the Michael Curtiz-directed western "The Hangman" starring Robert Taylor.  Both films were released in 1959, along with Andre de Toth's western "Day of the Outlaw" starring Robert Ryan.  Ms. Louise's 1959 trio of films came in the wake of her 1958 film debut in Anthony Mann's "God's Little Acre."  These four films comprise the most valiant attempts by Tina Louise to establish herself as a leading lady in Hollywood movies.  She lost some momentum in her movie career when she moved to Europe for several years and starred in historical potboilers and war movies, before returning to the United States to study with Lee Strasberg at New York's esteemed Actors Studio, and then taking on the role of Ginger Grant on TV's "Gilligan's Island."  As such, these four films are interesting to watch in order to assess the potential Louise demonstrated at this early stage of her career.

"God's Little Acre" (1958) is generally considered by many, including Ms. Louise herself, to be the best film she ever appeared in.  It was based on Erskine Caldwell's serio-comic novel about the efforts of a poor Georgia farmer (played by Robert Ryan) to locate gold buried on his land, and how his obsession threatens to destroy his family.  Ms. Louise played the lonely Griselda, married to Robert Ryan's son Jack Lord, who takes a submissive role in the family by remaining house-bound, cooking and cleaning, while the men are out digging up holes in the land to find the ever-elusive gold treasure.  The first time we see Griselda, she is bringing lemonade for the men to refresh themselves after digging ditches all day, wearing a simple summer dress and high heel shoes, bought for her by her previous lover Will Thompson (Aldo Ray) a frustrated cotton mill factory worker, that seems totally incongruous for wearing around the farm. Throughout the first half of the film, Ms. Louise lingers in the background in most of the family-oriented scenes, a reflection of Griselda's passive and submissive domestic role in the family.  It is in the second-half of the film, when Griselda succumbs to her longing for Will Thompson, and helps him to break into the shuttered factory so that he can turn it on one more time, that she finally finds her own voice and stands up to her husband in the final family confrontation staged on the outdoor porch of the family home.  Ms. Louise effective projects the shyness and sensitivity of this under-appreciated character.  She positively glows in the many transcendent close-ups that director Anthony Mann and cinematographer Ernest Haller (who shot "Gone with the Wind") photograph her in throughout the film.  At the end of the movie, after Robert Ryan decides to go back to farming and gives up looking for gold, Griselda is seen walking around the farm barefoot, which symbolizes how she has stopped longing for Will Thompson and living in town.  She has finally found purpose and contentment living on the farm.  As a result, she and husband Jack Lord are finally happy in their marriage.  When Robert Ryan finds a broken shovel while plowing the land with a mule, and decides to look for his grandfather's gold one more time, it is Griselda who takes the reigns of the mule and plows the land while Ryan continues to pursue his dreams.  Instead of being an ominous suggestion that the family is on the road to ruin again, Griselda's actions in ensuring that the land will be plowed indicates that farming will not be neglected again, and the family will stay the steady course. 

Tina Louise got good reviews from this promising debut and it looked as if her future on the big screen would be bright.  She signed a contract with Paramount and next appeared in "The Trap" (1959), playing another woman living in a rural community trapped in an unhappy marriage.  Ms. Louise played Linda Anderson, wife of sheriff's deputy Tippy Anderson (Earl Holliman) in the California desert community of Tula.  Linda's former sweetheart, now turned successful mob lawyer, Ralph Anderson (Richard Widmark), who also happens to be Tippy's older brother, returns to Tula in an effort to try and help mobster Victor Massonetti (Lee J. Cobb) flee the country.  Ralph wants his father (Carl Benton Reid), sheriff of Tula, to turn the other way when Massonetti attempts to flee the country via the nearby Tula airfield.  Things, of course, don't go according to plan in this Technicolor action melodrama that blends film noir and western elements.  Unlike her debut in "God's Little Acre," Ms. Louise's role in "The Trap" remains mostly thankless.  She is, in filmic terms, merely "The Girl" here.  But she has a few good scenes with Widmark, portraying regret and loneliness regarding the choices she has made in her life since he left town years ago; with Holliman, vulnerable as she pleads with him to understand her unhappiness; and with Cobb, effectively spewing venom as her character becomes more and more contemptuous towards this mobster whose casual attitude towards the deaths he has caused has revolted her.  One wishes the screenplay would allow Ms. Louise to play a more proactive role in the proceedings, especially in the fiery finale at the airstrip Cobb attempts to escape from, where the character of Linda is conspicuously absent.

Ms. Louise's next movie under her Paramount contract rectifies this situation.  "The Hangman" (1959), directed by Michael Curtiz, and with a screenplay credited to Dudley Nichols, allows her a meaty role as Selah Jennison, the widow of a soldier lost in battle with the Indians who has now been reduced to working at the Army post laundry.  Selah is approached by deputy Marshall Mackenzie Bovard (Robert Taylor) to accompany him to a western town in order to identify an old friend (Jack Lord again) who is suspected of being involved with a stagecoach holdup several years before.  Bovard offers Selah a $500 reward, enough money to allow her to start a new life, if she will help point out her old friend so he can be arrested and stand trial.  Selah accepts the offer reluctantly, but changes her mind once she sees her old friend again.  She decides she will not turn her friend in, and tries to thwart Bovard's efforts to arrest him, even going so far as to handcuff herself to the cantankerous Marshall.  With steady direction from the legendary Curtiz, who focuses on the tense adversarial relationship between Selah and Marshall Bovard, "The Hangman" is probably one of the best parts of Tina Louise's career.  She more than holds her own with Robert Taylor, and her mature demeanor helps make the 20 year age difference between Taylor and Ms. Louise appear much less awkward than it might have been with another actress.  Ms. Louise gets to play intense and emotional scenes that demonstrate what a controlled and heartfelt actress she can be.  Even though director Curtiz takes advantage of her beauty by including at least two bathing scenes, as well as shots that emphasize her legs, this never undercuts the intelligence of the character and of Ms. Louise's performance.  The development of the relationship between Bovard and Selah, starting from strained and adversarial, to tentatively trusting, to one of mutual respect and understanding, forms the heart of the movie and makes "The Hangman" an overlooked western worthy of rediscovery.  I never tire of watching her in it.

The last film in this early quartet, Andre de Toth's "Day of the Outlaw" (1959), has risen greatly in stature in recent years.  Its availability on DVD and airings on TCM has allowed film aficionados to recognize it as a heretofore overlooked western classic.  Ms. Louise plays Helen Crane, the unhappy wife of middle-aged farmer Hal Crane (Alan Marshall) who finds herself caught in a love triangle and feud involving her husband's arch rival Blaise Starrett (Robert Ryan) who also happens to be her illicit lover.  The rivalry between Crane and Starrett that has been simmering for months is interrupted by the arrival by a band of psychotic outlaws led by wounded renegade Army officer Jack Bruhn (Burl Ives) who is slowly dying from a gunshot wound.  Helen and the other women in this remote Wyoming community are eyed lasciviously by the lustful bandits.  Fear spreads through the remote town that, once Bruhn dies from his wounds, his men will go on a rampage and brutally rape the women.  The most memorable scene in the movie involves the tense "party" where the women helplessly dance with the men, who carelessly toss them around in their arms as if they were department store mannequins.  (You can see the scene on YouTube here.)  Director de Toth effectively conveys the claustrophobic nature of this party by shooting much of it on a stationary camera that turns around and around at a 360-degree angle.  The net result helps convey that, no matter where the women are, they are unable to escape from the clutches of the men holding them hostage.  Given the snowy nature of the movie's setting, it is appropriate that Ms. Louise gives a controlled and low-key performance.  There's a certain disconnected chilliness to her in this movie that stands in stark contrast to the warmer, more accessible and passionate performances given by her in the other films in this quartet, but I think that is by-design.  Her character Helen has already resigned herself to a life with a man she does not love, and resists any attempts by Robert Ryan's character to remind her of the love and passion they once felt for each other.  She has to remain calm and emotionless as possible, or else face the reality and gravity of how she has settled for second-best in her marriage.  Director de Toth highlights the stoicism of Ms. Louise's character by photographing her mostly in medium shots, which heightens the distance between her and the other characters (as well as the audience), and rarely employs close-ups to create a sense of intimacy or accessibility in Helen.  Of this early quartet of characters in Tina Louise's movie career, Helen Crane is the one who faces an unhappy and uncertain future. 

After these films, Tina Louise turned down roles in "Operation Petticoat" (1959) and "Li'l Abner (1959, where she would have reprised her role from the original Broadway musical) in an effort to stay focused on dramatic roles.  While I respect the logic behind her decision, I still wish she had done them so that she could have balanced serious parts with roles in blockbuster hits that would have helped to further establish her box office appeal.  (I once researched the shooting schedules for all the films she had released in 1959.  I learned that she shot them all in the 1958 calendar year.  She could have easily fit "Petticoat" and "Abner" into her schedule because neither of them started shooting until 1959, and were shot months apart from each other.  As a fan of her work, it is frustrating to realize that, logistically speaking, Tina Louise could have had a banner 1959 with major roles in five good films.)  Nevertheless, this demonstrated how Tina Louise danced to the beat of her own drum.  For all that has been written and said about her through the years, it's clear that she was never anyone's victim or Trilby--this was clearly a girl who did not spend her time trying to please everyone and knew how to take care of herself.  Even though her career had its ups and downs (which is the norm for any successful actor or actress who has worked for a long time), she outlasted many of her contemporaries and defied the stereotype of actresses who are considered "sex symbols" by never succumbing to the sort of tragic ending that others like Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield suffered.  Instead grouping her with Monroe and Mansfield, because of her New York stage and Actors Studio background, I tend to think of Tina Louise as cut more from the Lois Nettleton/Shirley Knight/Jessica Walter mold of attractive character actresses of the 1960s who played a variety of different kinds of roles in movies and television.  These days, Ms. Louise is better known as a literacy advocate who volunteers in the New York Public School system, helping young children learn how to read.  In so doing, by defying expectations, Tina Louise remains as independent and tenacious as ever.

RIP Deborah Raffin (1953-2012)

I was saddened to hear that actress/producer/audio book entrepreneur Deborah Raffin died this week of leukemia at age 59.  Even though she never quite rose to the level of a top box office star, she was a familiar face on both television and movie screens for almost four decades.  Raffin first came to the attention of moviegoers for her appearance in "The Dove" (1974) the bio-pic of Robin Lee Graham, a young man who made headlines when he sailed around the world alone.  She had previously appeared in the movie version of the Broadway hit "40 Carats" (1973) and later played the lead character in the movie adaptation of Jacqueline Susann's "Once is Not Enough" (1975).

But her career REALLY began when she starred in the 1976 ABC TV movie "Nightmare in Badham County."  Raffin and Lynne Moody played UCLA co-eds falsely imprisoned in a segregated women's prison where the inmates are used as slave labor to help support the economy of the nearby town.  While there, Raffin and Moody are terrorized by evil Southern prison guards Greer (Tina Louise) and Smitty (Lana Wood).  It remains, without a doubt, one of the most anti-Southern movies ever made.  When it was released as a theatrical feature film in 1980 in China, the Communist government tried to use it as anti-American propoganda.  Because it was the first American film shown in China in decades, it purportedly sold over 150 million tickets.  Raffin recalled that, while touring China years later, the Chinese people she encountered recognized her from that film and kept pointing at her saying "Nightmare!  Nightmare!"  She learned that, due to the success of "Nightmare in Badham County," she had since become a popular actress in China.  Many of her others films were also released there.  She even learned that a Chinese-language biography about her life had been written and published.  In the 1980s, long before it became the norm, Raffin was a visionary trailblazer when she became an unofficial cultural Ambassador between the United States and China by helping to establish relationships between producers and officials in both countries.  Through it all, she continued starring in TV miniseries such as "The Last Convertible" (1979), "Haywire” (1980), and "Noble House" (1988), as well as dozens of TV movies.  She also produced miniseries, TV movies, and the 1997 theatrical bio-pic of the life of Oscar Wilde starring Stephen Fry and Vanessa Redgrave.  Raffin even directed TV movies and episodic television.  

Probably Deborah Raffin's most important professional accomplishment was to help establish Dove Books on Tape, the preeminent producer of audiobooks starting from the 1980s.  As with her cultural connection with China, Raffin and her husband Michael Viner blazed a trail with the new concept and shrewdly used their show business connections to get their celebrity friends to voice these audiobooks, which helped make them bestsellers.  What I like the most about Raffin was that she was an actress who did it all.  Lots of actresses like to boast that they are producers, but Raffin did not just dabble in it.  She regularly produced projects that people saw and which enjoyed a certain level of visibility.  Despite her many accomplishments, Raffin always seemed down-to-earth and self-effacing in interviews.  She was that rarity in Hollywood—a good actress who also possessed a sound sense for the business aspects of show business, qualities which helped to ensure her a long and prolific career. 

Sunday, November 4, 2012

They Called Her One-Armed Faye

A couple of years ago, Faye Dunaway went to Wales to make a modestly-budgeted horror film called "Flick" (2008).  In this very stylized and stylish film, Dunaway plays Lt. McKenzie, a persistent and perceptive police detective from Memphis, Tennessee assigned to work in a Welsh village on a police exchange program.  She investigates a series of murders committed by the recently revived corpse of a troubled Teddy Boy teen named Johnny who drowned in a car accident after being involved in a violent altercation at a dance back in 1960.  The revived, zombified Johnny is empowered whenever he hears period-era rockabilly music being broadcasted by a pirate radio station in town.  Johnny seeks revenge against the now-elderly youths who had picked on him at that dance nearly 48 years earlier.  In the process, he hopes to be reunited with Sally (Julia Foster), the girl of his dreams who is now unhappily married to the brute who was his rival for Sally's affections back in the day.  Dunaway, working in conjunction with a local area police detective (played by Mark Benton) races against time to prevent Johnny from carrying out his vendetta and finding Sally.

"Flick" remains a little-known movie in the United States.  It was never released theatrically, but is available on DVD in America.  It is hard to understand why the movie hasn't found a wider audience, because there is much to enjoy about it.  Writer/Director David Howard embues the movie with colorful, striking images and camera angles that evoke a strong sense of 1950s nostalgia.  There are interesting bridging sequences where action is depicted on-screen by vividly detailed comic book panel images.  A wistful sense of regret permeates the film, as characters such as Johnny and Sally and all of their allies and enemies from 1960 find their fates sealed in an existence they created for themselves at the dancehall over 48 years before.  1960s British starlet Julia Foster is touching as Sally, a woman married to a man who neglects and mistreats her and their daughter, while still the object of desire of Johnny, a zombie who still cares about her decades later.  Foster, who appeared in "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner" (1962), "Alfie" (1966), and "Half a Sixpence" (1968), made a welcome return to the cinema after having taken time off from her career to raise a family.  One of the most unique and effective features of the film are Johnny's POV shots when he confronts characters from the past.  From his vantage point, he still sees them in their youthful personas rather than their middle-aged selves as they are now.  It helps underscore how these characters remain haunted by their pasts.

What prevents the movie from becoming too heavy-handed and downbeat is Faye Dunaway's delightful performance as Lt. McKenzie.  Even though she no longer receives the high-profile film offers that she still richly deserves, Dunaway remains an interesting and prolific actress in independent productions and made-for-TV movies.  Lt. McKenzie is, without a doubt, the best part she has had in years.  Unlike other mature actresses cast in horror films later in their careers, Dunaway has neither a thankless nor unflattering role in "Flick."  McKenzie is a quirky and offbeat character, exemplified by her prosthetic right arm, but Dunaway makes sure never to allow that to turn McKenzie into a grotesque.  The prosthetic right arm merely reflects McKenzie's tenacious nature and ability to overcome all obstacles, while at the same time indicates, like Johnny and Sally, McKenzie still lives with the long-term effects of the events from her youth.  Dunaway brings heart and humor to "Flick" with her vibrant presence.  She maintains just the right level of enthusiasm and never allows the character to veer into camp.  In her skillful hands, McKenzie is wise, witty, brave, heroic, compassionate, romantic.  The role allows her to tap into her seldom-acknowledged ability to skillfully portray warm, sympathetic and vulnerable characters.

Dunaway has great chemistry with Mark Benton, who plays the Welsh police detective assigned as her partner.  Dunaway draws upon her real-life Southern roots and speaks with a Southern accent that reflects earthy practicality and intelligence.  She contrasts beautifully with Benton's burly Welsh charm.  I would love to see Dunaway and Benton revive these characters for a police procedural TV series.  My favorite scene in the movie is where Dunaway and Benton come upon an Southwestern American-themed diner in the Welsh village.  While they dine, Benton asks Dunaway what happened to her arm.  Dunaway responds with a touching monologue about losing her arm in a childhood accident and the subsequent ostracism she endured from her classmates...a story that parallels the ostracism Johnny faced from the other kids in his village.  She recounts a fanciful story of how Elvis Presley took the one-armed girl to the Prom, an event that gave Lt. McKenzie a strong sense of self-confidence that has stood her well in her law enforcement career.  Dunaway and Benton subsequently slow-dance to the jukebox, and we suddenly realize that this unlikely pair are perfectly matched with each other.  It's one of the most romantic moments in Dunaway's career. 

Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Underrated Bond Girl

With the imminent release of "Skyfall" in the United States, the media has once again turned its attention to all things James Bond.  There are lists in magazines and online publications listing the "Top 10" Bond Girls.  Some of the choices have been ludicrous.  (The crass Jill St. John as Tiffany Case in "Diamonds are Forever"?  The narcissistic Halle Berry as Jinx Johnson in "Die Another Day"?  Please.)  And we are once again subjected to heavy-handed discussions regarding whether it is politically correct to refer to these characters as "Bond Girls" anymore.  (Respectfully, the term "Bond Women," because it adds an extra syllable, just doesn't have the same, snappy ring to it.)  However, there's one Bond Girl whose performance is always moving, who rarely gets mentioned in any discussions of the series, but whose performance deserves recognition.  It's Priscilla Barnes as Felix Leiter's wife, Della Churchill, in 1989's "Licence to Kill."

Della Churchill is introduced at the beginning of the movie waiting at the church for her fiance Felix Leiter, and his best friend/best man James Bond, to arrive at the wedding.  Leiter and Bond parachute down to the proceedings after having nabbed South American drug kingpin Sanchez (Robert Davi) moments earlier.  After Sanchez escapes from custody later in the day, his minions descend upon Leiter's house.  Leiter is tortured in the process and Della is killed.  This chain of events sets in motion the plot of the film, as Bond seeks out Sanchez for revenge in retaliation for what happened to Leiter and Della.

Unlike other women in the series, Della Churchill is not a spy or assassin, not the mistress or ally of some maniacal villain, nor someone with any sort of fantastical or exotic background.  She's an American civilian who comes from a presumably "normal," background.  It's her marriage to Felix Leiter, and his friendship to Bond, that puts Della in the center of a deadly plot beyond her experiences.  Della is one of the few women in the Bond series who has a mostly non-romantic, healthy relationship with Bond.  Even though Bond is seen, immediately after the opening credits, affectionately kissing Della by the wedding cake, it's more a sign of friendship and camaraderie, with only a subtle undercurrent of sexual attraction.  Bond and Della could have been interested in each other under different circumstances, but it's clear both have too much regard for Felix to ever act on that attraction.  The playful moment later on, when Della tosses Bond the garter belt under her wedding dress confirms that, despite mild romantic interest in Bond, she unselfishly hopes to see him someday in contented wedded bliss.

Despite only appearing in the first 25 minutes of "Licence to Kill," Della's fate resonates throughout the movie in more ways than one.  Bond scholars usually write that Bond is motivated to seek revenge against Sanchez because of the maiming of his "best friend" Leiter, but that never really comes across in the movie.  This is due to the fact that Leiter was constantly recast throughout the Bond series with various actors, as well as the fact that David Hedison (a fine, accomplished actor who previously appeared as Leiter opposite Roger Moore in 1973's "Live and Let Die") simply has no chemistry with Timothy Dalton's Bond.  It's hard to imagine them ever working together on a mission, much less becoming friends.  It might have been better for the film had the filmmakers brought back John Terry, who played Leiter in the previous Bond movie, "The Living Daylights" (1987) rather than Hedison.  Terry looks like he could be friends with Dalton and would have been more convincing had he been paired opposite Barnes.

I have always felt that it is Della's death, rather than Leiter's maiming, by Sanchez's assassins that is the true motivation behind Bond's vendetta against the ruthless drug lord.  The screenplay strongly suggests this when Leiter explains to Della, after Bond reacts sadly to Della tossing him the garter belt, that Bond was once married "a long time ago."  This is a direct reference to the death of his only wife Tracy (Diana Rigg) at the end of 1969's "On Her Majesty's Secret Service."  Witnessing the death of yet another bride on her wedding day has stirred up feelings of grief and rage in Bond regarding Tracy's death.  He goes after Sanchez not just to avenge Della's murder, but also to bring closure to the guilt he still feels over his inability to protect his own wife years earlier.  

Della Churchill ranks among the notable women in the James Bond series whose deaths appear to have affected Bond.  Bond appears truly heartbroken when he finds Della's corpse.  In addition to the aforementioned Tracy, this includes Jill Masterson (Shirley Eaton) in "Goldfinger" (1964), Japanese spy Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi) in "You Only Live Twice" (1967), Countess Lisl (Cassandra Harris) in "For Your Eyes Only" (1981), Paris Carver (Teri Hatcher) in "Tomorrow Never Dies" (1997), Elektra King (Sophie Marceau) in "The World is Not Enough" (1999), and Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) in "Casino Royale" (2006).  Bond is simply not indifferent to her death the way he is with Paula (Martine Beswick) in "Thunderball" (1965), Plenty O'Toole (Lana Wood) in "Diamonds are Forever" (1971), Rosie Carver (Gloria Hendry) in "Live and Let Die" (1973) or Andrea Anders (Maud Adams) in "The Man with the Golden Gun" (1974).  This is due in no small part to Priscilla Barnes's warm and sympathetic performance as Della.  Even though she has only about a dozen scenes in the movie, Barnes makes the most of her limited screentime.  She makes Della effervescent, humorous, human.  (Barnes would have been more ideally cast as leading lady Stacey Sutton in 1985's "A View to a Kill" instead of Tanya Roberts.)  Barnes also walks away with the female acting honors in "Licence to Kill."  In contrast, leading lady Carey Lowell is simply too young, whiney, and inexperienced to convince us that she's a former Army pilot now working for the CIA.  Lowell later became a better actress starring on TV's "Law & Order," but at this point she is simply unable to make the most of what is one of the better-written leading lady roles in the entire Bond series.  And Barnes is still far better than second-female lead Talisa Soto, who is stiff and somnambulistic playing Sanchez's abused mistress.  The less said about Soto the better.  Barnes makes a stronger impression with a shorter part than either of her female colleagues on "Licence to Kill." 

Priscilla Barnes is the rare actress in the entire James Bond series with an accomplished career both before and after Bond and is not remembered exclusively for her Bond Girl role.  She did not end up being typecast from Bond and has matured into earthy and unglamorous character roles playing mothers, mentally disturbed characters, religious fanatics, killers, nuns, mentoring race track mechanics, and other gritty/quirky parts that most other actresses who have appeared in Bond movies could only aspire to.  (She was superb playing Hillary Clinton in the play "Hillary Agonistes" which I saw at New York's Fringe Festival in 2007.)  Barnes is still remembered for her three-year tenure on the hit sitcom "Three's Company" from 1981 to 1984.  She even starred opposite previous Bond actor Roger Moore himself in the 1980 comedy "Sunday Lovers."  (Her skillful and lively comedic performance in that film opposite Moore lends credence to the notion she would've been more ideal than Tanya Roberts in "A View to a Kill.")  After "Licence to Kill," Barnes continued to forge an interesting and eclectic career, working in a variety of films including the Sean Penn-directed "The Crossing Guard" (1995) opposite Jack Nicholson, Kevin Smith's "Mallrats" (1995), and Rob Zombie's horror masterpiece "The Devil's Rejects" (2005).  In the latter film, Barnes again touchingly brings humanity and depth to another character who suffers a horrible death at the hands of ruthless killers, just as she did 16 years earlier playing Della Churchill in "Licence to Kill."