Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Two and a Half Bond Girls on "The Fall Guy"

In 1984, in the wake of the dueling James Bond movies that were released the previous year--the official Cubby Broccoli produced Bond film "Octopussy" (1983) starring Roger Moore and the unofficial "Never Say Never Again" (1983) starring Sean Connery--the Lee Majors adventure television series about a veteran stuntman who moonlights as a bounty hunter, "The Fall Guy" (1981-86), did a tongue-in-cheek episode that paid tribute to all things James Bond entitled "Always Say Always," which aired February 22, 1984.  The title of this episode was itself a pun on the title of the aforementioned Sean Connery Bond movie.  In the storyline, Lee Majors' character Colt Seavers is in Hong Kong working on a fictional James Bond movie called "Always Say Always."  While over there, Colt and his colleagues Howie Munson (Doug Barr) and Jody Banks (Heather Thomas) become involve in a hunt for three Ming vases that involves unscrupulous smugglers (played by James Hong and Barry Ingham), a well-meaning art expert trying to find the vases and also clear his name of a murder charge (played by pre-"Star Trek: The Next Generation" Jonathan Frakes), and Chinese government agents (among them, famed character actor Soon-Tek Oh, who appeared in the 1974 James Bond movie "The Man with the Golden Gun) who are trying to ensure that the vases do not end up in the wrong hands.

The most interesting aspect of this charmingly lame and goofy episode was how the story integrated the presence of Two and a Half former Bond Girls, playing themselves in this episode, who are supposed to be on-location reprising their prior Bond movie roles in this fictitious "Always Say Always" movie.  The Two Full-Fledged Bond Girls are Britt Ekland, who played Mary Goodnight in "The Man with the Golden Gun" (1974), and Lana Wood, who played Plenty O'Toole in "Diamonds are Forever" (1971).  The "Half" Bond Girl is Joanna Pettet, who played Mata Bond, one of the female leads in the James Bond spoof "Casino Royale" (1967), which was loosely based on Ian Fleming's first James Bond novel.  One of the amusing conceits of this episode is the presumption that there would ever be a James Bond movie where a prior love interest would ever return, something that's never happened in any of the real Bond pictures.  The other amusing conceit is the presumption, if there were to be a Bond picture with a prior love interest coming back and being involved in a new adventure, out of all the iconic Bond Girls who brightened the series, that they would be the ones who would be asked to return.

Despite whatever virtues these women have to offer, they hardly represented the best Bond Girls the series had to offer.  Britt Ekland has always been considered one of the weakest of all the James Bond Girls, chastised for having given a whiny and unsympathetic characterization in her Bond picture.  Lana Wood, while appealing and charming, had a very brief role in "Diamonds are Forever" and was killed off within minutes in the storyline of her movie.  As such, the likelihood of her ever returning in a future Bond movie was particularly dim.  And Joanna Pettet, who had the best part and gave the best performance of any of these three actresses in her so-called "Bond" movie, suffers simply by virtue of the fact that her "Casino Royale" was not part of the official series of James Bond movies.

As such, we're left with a second-rate group of Bond Girls in a James Bond tribute episode that shamelessly cuts corners left-and-right by utilizing stock footage, attempts to substitute obvious California locations in place of actually filming in Hong Kong (at one point, in a sequence that is supposed to take place at a construction site, you can see the office buildings that comprise the Century City section of Los Angeles in the background), utilizes cheesy faux-Bond inspired musical cues to try and emulate Monty Norman's famous James Bond theme song, and concludes with a toothless cover version of Carly Simon's "Nobody Does it Better"--the theme song from "The Spy Who Loved Me" (1977)--playing over the end credits.  Somehow, the episode manages to rise above all of these deficiencies and still delivers an entertaining hour of television.

It's hard not to be amused with this episode right from get-go during the scene where Lee Majors' Colt Seavers, along with his partners Howie and Jody, spot the Bond Girls intently studying the script and going over their lines together.  In this fantasy-reality of Hollywood, these former Bond Girls are chummy and hold no grudges or competitiveness against one another.  The scene then establishes how each of the Bond Girls already know Colt Seavers personally and how each are very attracted to him.  (It's suggested that Colt may have had a prior relationship while working with each of them on their previous Bond movie.)  As "Joanna Pettet" tells Colt "I saw the stunt.  You haven't changed a bit!  You're still going for the brass ring!"  Then "Lana Wood" tells Colt "I'm always amazed how easy you make everything look!"  And finally "Britt Ekland" tells him "You appear to be in great shape!"

The scene then becomes a delightfully embarrassing mass of self-indulgence as the hapless Howie character ends up putting his foot in the mouth by complimenting "Joanna Pettet" on her performance as Plenty O'Toole, only to have her correct him by saying "Well, actually, I wasn't Plenty O'Toole.  I was Mata Bond.  But that's OK."  Howie then compliments a crestfallen "Lana Wood" on her performance as Mary Goodnight," only to have an indignant "Britt Ekland" interject, "Howie, I was Mary Goodnight."  As tacky as this scene sounds, I admired how it acknowledged the actual roles that each of these actresses played in their Bond movies, makes a joke about how some people find the actresses who played Bond Girls interchangeable, and then concludes by emphasizing that each and every one of them are actually their own unique individual and personality.

Throughout the episode, each of the former Bond Girls becomes involved with helping Colt and his crew in the search for the missing Ming vases.  Britt Ekland does absolutely nothing with her vignette, a final-act storyline where her character is kidnapped by the smugglers and held hostage in exchange for Colt returning the vases to their custody.  Ekland pouts and ambles through the proceedings with her usual air of haughty indifference, causing no damage but also adding nothing to the proceedings at the same time.  Ekland is particularly poor during the scene where the villains threaten to pump her with narcotics in order to make it appear that she died from a self-inflicted drug overdose.  Her emphatic line readings and facial expressions throughout the scene painfully underscores the extent to which she over emotes.

Lana Wood does better with a disappointingly short sequence where she charms a fawningly admiring British official into using his influence to help Colt and his team in the search for the coffin containing the Ming vases.  Even though it's a short sequence, Wood has the right air of conniving charm and light-hearted bantering.  She does particularly well with the double-take she registers when the British official informs her that his wife died at his country club's last golf tournament, and that they'll be dining alone.  It's too bad that the script doesn't allow her to get more involved in the action, as she is clearly game under the circumstances.  In contrast to Ekland, Wood tries hard to do as much as she can within the confines of the thin material and her professionalism is admirable. 

In the end, it's Joanna Pettet who walks off with the acting honors, as the script gives her the most substantive role to play of all of the "Bond Girls" appearing in this episode.  She is the one who inadvertently makes contact with Jonathan Frakes' art expert; convinces Colt Seavers to meet him at an acupuncture clinic in a dangerous part of Hong Kong in order to help him; is kidnapped by the villains; ends up in a car chase where Colt arrives by helicopter to rescue her; kicks her kidnapper in the shin so that he loses his weapon and is knocked unconscious by Colt; takes Colt to where Jonathan Frakes is hiding; witnesses two henchman enter the room and get the upper hand on Colt, Howie and Jonathan Frakes; and has the presence of mind to knock the remaining henchman unconscious by smashing a chair over his head.  In so doing, Pettet demonstrates the vivacious sense of adventure that she projected in "Casino Royale" while playing Mata Bond and even gets to make some fast and funny quips.

When Pettet comments how the neighborhood Jonathan Frakes is hiding at "is the sort of place where anything's for sale," Heather Thomas' sardonic Jody observes "Sounds like Hollywood," only to have Pettet wryly quip "With an egg roll on the side."  During the car chase, when Pettet's kidnapper asks her where Jonathan Frakes went to after she spoke with him, she petulantly pouts, "How should I know?  I'm an actress, not a tour guide."  When she knocks out one of the smuggler's henchman by smashing the chair over his head, a flustered Pettet jokes, "Well, it's not exactly an autograph, but he won't forget me!"  At the end of the episode, when Howie attempts to compliment Ekland, Wood and Pettet by indicating that their roles in Bond movies have ensured their places in film history, Pettet effectively mimics the voice of an elderly lady and jokes "Lordy, Lordy.  Where's my wheelchair?"  Pettet makes the most of the episode and appears to be enjoying herself even when it's clear that she's probably only doing this TV guest appearance for the remuneration.  (She also indirectly inspires the funniest line in this episode.  When villainous police inspector Barry Ingham informs James Hong's smuggler that a beautiful actress--Pettet--has become involved in the search for the Ming vases, an exasperated Hong bombastically reminds him, "There are many beautiful women in this world, but only three Ming Dynasty vases!"

"The Fall Guy" episode "Always Say Always" remains one of the most elaborate examples of celebrating both the iconic images and motifs connected with the world of James Bond, as well as the individual contributions of the actors and actresses associated with the series.  For many Bond Girls--as well as the male actors who have appeared in the series--their Bond movie appearance is often the acting credit they can point to, out of many, that continues to be their calling card to be remembered in the annals of cinema. The episode underscores the fact that Britt Ekland and Lana Wood will always be remembered as Bond Girls, and I'm also glad it included Joanna Pettet in order to acknowledge her tangential, but ultimately undeniable, connection to the world of 007.  The episode is also unique in that it directly acknowledges the contributions of almost every variation of James Bond films up until that time.  The presence of Ekland, Wood and Soon-Tek Oh (and the use of "Nobody Does it Better" over the end credits) directly acknowledges the films of Sean Connery and Roger Moore in the official EON Productions-produced Bond films.  The presence of Joanna Pettet acknowledges the unofficial Charles Feldman-produced "Casino Royale" in 1967.  And, as indicated earlier, the title of the episode "Always Say Always" references the unofficial Warner Brothers-released Bond film "Never Say Never Again," which was Sean Connery's one-shot return to the role.  At the time, the series was only 22 years old, but James Bond had already made a strong enough  impact upon pop culture to inspire this unofficial tribute.  As Bond spoofs go, "The Fall Guy" episode "Always Say Always" still holds up as good, gimmicky fun.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

"There's No One Left to Fly the Plane!"

Karen Black's passing this week of cancer at the age of 74 has brought back a flood of memories of how following her career, and watching her movies, greatly expanded my knowledge of cinema and television.  I first discovered her while watching "Airport 1975" (1974) on the CBS Late Movie around 1986.  I was in junior high school at the time and I always loved movies and television since I was little, but I never had a true understanding of the medium up to that time.  While watching Karen Black in "Airport 1975," I became fascinated by her performance (I'll never forget the heartbreakingly sincere way she delivered the line "There's no one left to fly the plane!") and, as a result, began watching as many of her films as I could get my hands on.  Over the next few years, I discovered all of her 1970s classics like "Five Easy Pieces" (1970), "The Day of the Locust" (1975), and "Nashville" (1975) and she easily became one of my favorite actresses.  In so doing, I became familiar with the "New Hollywood" group of directors who rose to prominence in the 1970s as the traditional studio system was in decline.  If it weren't for Karen Black, it might have taken me awhile to get around to exploring that era of filmmaking.  By this point, however, Karen Black's career in the 1980s had degenerated into appearing in direct-to-video "B" movies.  Nevertheless, I marveled at how her name continued popping up in the "Variety" production listings of films currently, or about to start, filming.  It appeared as if she never stopped working, which turned out to be both a curse and a blessing for her career, depending on how you look at it.

As a big fan of her work, what makes her passing particularly poignant and bittersweet is reading all of the tributes being written about her in mainstream publications and websites, as well as seeing all of the fond and affectionate comments left by many of her fans at the end of these obituaries.  I kept thinking "Where was all of this acclaim and affection for her while she was still alive?  Why didn't this translate into continued employment in major-studio films and major awards and nominations?"  Even though many of her obituaries mentioned that she had made over 150 films, it should be made clear that many of those films were obscure, little-seen productions that usually played at film festivals or went straight to video or DVD.  The last time she made a film that could be considered a major studio release was Rob Zombie's horror movie "House of 1,000 Corpses" (2000), which was produced by Universal, and filmed on their backlot, but released by Lion's Gate when Universal chickened out of releasing it.  I happened to have seen many of her obscure movies because I consciously sought them out, but people who were more casual movie-goers were under the false--but understandable--impression that she had stopped working circa 1979.

Even though I was very complimentary of her career longevity in my previous post about her, unfortunately, Karen Black must ultimately take some responsibility for diminishing her own cache as an A-list actress by continuing to accept roles in one B-movie after another, especially during the 1980s and 1990s.  Similar to Stella Stevens, I believe that Black would have had a better career had she not spread herself thin with the sheer multitude of second-rate movies she appeared in.  (In her defense, Black acknowledges some of the bad career choices she made during a particularly candid moment in the 2000 documentary, "Karen Black Actress at Work.")  It's a shame that it took her death to make it apparent that Karen Black still had a significant following--a fervently loyal audience--who would have welcomed seeing her appear in higher-profile productions.  She deserved to be as revered on a wide-spread basis as her 1970s counterparts Ellen Burstyn or Diane Keaton.

Even though one would have liked to have seen her retain her A-list status, it's possible that Karen Black made herself too obscure for people to easily appreciate at times.  As much as I respected and enjoyed her work, the lady herself had a tendency to present herself in a rambling, oblique, roundabout manner that some people may have found off-putting.  In a very illuminating interview on YouTube from 1986, where she is interviewed by Charlie Rose in order to promote her new movie "Invaders from Mars" (1986), Black comes across as prickly, incoherent, self-aggrandizing and self-involved--although charmingly so.  At one point, she's caught on camera distractedly fiddling with her fingernails.  Despite her idiosyncracies, Karen Black ultimately proved to be as unique and engaging an individual off-screen as she was an actress on-screen.  She didn't have a flat personality off-screen the way the aforementioned Ellen Burstyn often comes across in interviews, and she didn't come across as whiny as Diane Keaton could in her interviews.  At one point, she brashly tells Charlie Rose "I'm terribly good with the English language...my verbal I.Q. is genius and when I went to college I didn't have to take English at all.  Anyway, so I've been writing.  And it's probably very silly that I hadn't been writing for so many years given that kind of potential--my mother's a writer--but anyhow I have a friend, Paul Williams, who's a Harvard summa person...summa, did I say that right?  Thank you.  And he noticed that I was very literate and he said 'Well you've got to write, you've got to write, you've got to write.'  And thanks to him I wrote a screenplay, finally, called 'Deep Purple' when I was terr--...it's very interesting when you have a good sense of the language and you know and all that.  Plus you're an actor and you get SO involved in writing that when something goes wrong with these characters you, I mean the secretary came in, thought someone in the family had died.  It's just consuming."

While watching the interview, you sense that, within minutes, Charlie Rose has gone from being a respectful fan to someone who is impatiently trying to take control of the discussion again.  When Rose announces that he has to go to a commercial break--in the middle of Black's anecdote that the screenplay she wrote was accepted at Sundance--she attempts to save face by defensively responding "Oops, you're going now?  What a time to leave me."  She pouts, sits back in her chair, leaning her head against her upraised hand and petulantly says "Bye."  In so doing, Karen Black makes it quite clear that she was an individual who always operated on her own unique wavelength.  Which, of course, added to our fascination of her as a person as well as an actress.

My current opinion about Karen Black is shaped by an anecdote that an actress friend of mine recently shared with me about being at a dinner party with her 10 years ago that was filled with other actors and industry people.  This actress friend has enjoyed a long and prolific career for the last 35 years in films, television and theater.  She had a hit TV series for several years in the 1980s and continues to work in independent movies.  My friend recalled how Karen Black looked across the table and said to her "You're very pretty.  What do you do for a living?"  My friend responded by saying "Well, I'm an actress," to which Black said, "Oh, it must be so difficult for new people like you to get started in the business" and then proceeded to lecture her on the importance of getting proper training as an actress in order to develop her craft and tried to "mentor" her throughout the dinner.  My friend, her husband, and many of the others at the table were surprised that Karen Black automatically presumed she was a neophyte--instead of regarding her as a peer even if she wasn't immediately familiar with her career--and no one at the table had the heart to correct her.  Ultimately, my friend said that Karen Black was very kind and well-meaning and she took it as a compliment that Black thought she was in her 20s or 30s when she was actually in her late 40s when this incident took place.

Nevertheless, this anecdote helped solidify my impression of Karen Black as someone who saw herself as the foremost expert on filmmaking and acting, as opposed to simply viewing herself as just one out of many accomplished and experienced actresses with a knowledgeable perspective about her craft.  In her defense, however, Karen Black would not be the first actor or actress who saw themselves as some sort of acting and filmmaking guru.  The industry is filled with admittedly accomplished individuals who have a subjective view of their stature.  However, in her defense, I believe that some of the latter-day attention she received at film tributes held at places like the Castro Theater, or other venues where she was exalted by adoring fans as a larger-than-life icon, may have gone to her head and contributed to her less-than-humble belief in her own importance, and may also explain why she was rarely held accountable to give coherent interviews when discussing her craft.  It stands to reason that, if an individual is told all of the time how wonderful they are, they are eventually going to believe it about themselves. 

As eccentric as Karen Black may have appeared to be at times, she still did not deserve to be ridiculed by the president of a marketing and communications firm in a presentation he made at a marketing convention held in Washington, DC on June 5th, 2013.  By this time, news of her battle with cancer had already been in the media since March after Black and her husband asked the public for help in funding experimental cancer treatments in Europe.  In this marketing presentation, which used to be available on YouTube but has since been taken down as of Friday morning after news of Karen Black's death was announced in the media, the president of the marketing firm compared the career accomplishments of Karen Black and Betty White in order to demonstrate how he felt organizations should learn how to "brand" themselves.  The title of this presentation was called "Association Branding--Are you Karen Black or Betty White?  (Exactly, who's Karen Black?)," and attempted to make the case that Betty White had created a stronger "brand" name for herself, compared to Karen Black, and that this was supposed to explain the differences in the levels of success between both actresses.  In the presentation, White was depicted respectfully, while Black was portrayed in a derisive manner by the president of the marketing firm (who seemed to be trying to emulate the smug, snarky, and self-satisfied tone of David Letterman in his comedy skits).

While I acknowledge that Karen Black made some mistakes that caused her to slip from being in the A-list, she still had a long and prolific career that most actresses would envy.  The subtitle of the presentation, "(Exactly, who's Karen Black?)" further underscored its mean-spirited and myopic nature.  The sheer number of fans from all across the world who left comments on all of her obituaries regarding how much they cared about her--not to mention the fans who helped her raise over $60,000 on the internet for her cancer treatment--demonstrates the fallacy of the logic behind the subtitle.  It was just bizarre to see Betty White and Karen Black--two actresses who have little, if anything, in common--being compared with one another so extensively.  Now that we know that Karen Black had only two months left to live at the time this presentation was made, it was thoughtless and cruel to be casting aspersions on her career accomplishments.  When this presentation was still on YouTube, it was distasteful to see these people making a mockery of Karen Black while she was sick in the hospital battling a cancer that, according to her husband, had "eaten away part of a vertebra and nerves in her lower back...Her left leg stopped functioning."  It was particularly careless for the president of this marketing firm--and for the marketing and communications organization hosting this convention--to allow this presentation to be made when simply Googling her name would have allowed them to realize that Karen Black was in the midst of battling cancer.  If they are reading this, I sincerely hope that all of the people involved with making this shameful presentation--the president of the marketing company, the personnel who helped prepare it, the marketing organization who permitted it, and the audience who snickered derisively at Karen Black's expense--are all deeply ashamed of themselves, but that's probably expecting too much of them.

One continuing theme throughout Karen Black's career was her perseverance and determination despite all of the challenges and hardships that came her way.  She never seemed to let the occasional direction her career was headed affect her view of herself--which may explain her headstrong belief in her own stature and importance--and this self-confidence is what makes the prolificacy of her career ultimately an impressive and inspiring achievement.  Like Bette Davis--another idiosyncratic actress who defied all the odds in Hollywood--Karen Black continued giving A-list performances even in less than impressive circumstances, which is why her iconic performance as flight attendant Nancy Pryor in "Airport 1975" is such a perfect metaphor for Black's career.  Even under treacherous circumstances, Black always managed to take control of a damaged career and find the strength and resolve to fly it to safety and ensure long-term survival.  In an industry that values image and frivolity over genuine accomplishment, Black is a classic example of an old-fashioned professional with a solid work ethic.  With fewer and fewer of her type left, we are eventually getting to the point where there truly is "no one left to fly the plane" in show business. 

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Please Don't Bring Back Audrey Raines!

Before I became disillusioned with it for being a lazy and pretentious show, I was as big a "24" fan as there ever was.  Having been a fan of the 1980s prime time soaps, I eagerly welcomed another series into my life that completely embraced serialized storytelling, where the story and characters wouldn't be resolved by the end of the hour.  Throughout the many years "24" was on the air, I fooled myself into thinking it was one of the best TV shows ever made.  In so doing, I ignored the sloppy and lazy writing, where it became obvious after awhile that the writers and producers hadn't carefully thought through the characters and storylines.  You got the impression after awhile that they were making things up as they went along week-to-week, and were changing the characters 180 degrees on a whim--often merely as a cheap shock tactic--rather than allowing plot or character twists to develop and reveal themselves naturally and organically.  That being said, I am still intrigued by FOX's announcement that they plan to revive "24" next year as a limited-run miniseries entitled "24: Live Another Day."  However, I'm put off by the idea that this "24" is only going to run 12 episodes and will purportedly only focus on "the most dramatic moments" of Jack Bauer's (Kiefer Sutherland) latest day.  "24" just isn't "24" if it's only 12 hours long.

Moreover, I was concerned about one article which suggested that the producers were considering bringing back Kim Raver (a mediocre, uninspired actress not generally known for playing individuals with intelligence, strength and integrity and who bears a disconcerting resemblance to the equally mediocre and uninspired Michele Greene of "LA Law" fame) as Jack Bauer's love interest in Seasons 4, 5, and 6--the pitiful and pathetic Audrey Raines.  I always hated that character, and hated Raver's performance as that character, and sincerely hope they do not bring her back.  I admit that one reason I resisted welcoming the Audrey Raines character onto the show was due to the fact that I was a big fan of Season 2's love interest--Sarah Wynter as the brave civilian Kate Warner--who got short shrifted and phased out of the series with a quick cameo at the beginning of Season 3.  I was always hoping Kate would return to the show but, after having seen how the show had a tendency to ruin characters that I liked, I think it's just as well she didn't come back so that her Season 2 character and story arc weren't undermined by some sort of twist which would have contradicted everything that had already been established.  Even though I was biased towards Kate, however, the Audrey Raines character didn't help matters by turning out to be one of the most shallow, unsympathetic, narcissistic, whiny, wimpy, and useless TV characters of all time, which is ironic considering that the writers and producers evidently intended for Audrey to be a very sympathetic individual. 

Let's be upfront and make it clear that the characters on "24" were, by and large, mere plot devices to keep the story moving along.  The writers had no interest in creating consistent personalities who would engage us week-after-week, except for Sutherland's Jack Bauer and Mary Lynn Rajskub's computer tech geek Chloe O'Brien.  Aside from them, and a very small handful of other characters, most "24" characters existed merely to propel the storyline forward.  With that in-mind, Audrey Raines was a particularly useless character in that her storyline was mostly confined to scenes at CTU, where the writers awkwardly tried to give her duties and tasks to perform in order to try and make it appear that she was actually being useful to avert the latest crisis at-hand.  She never ended up being a character who was out in the field helping Jack, the way Kate Warner in Season 2--and FBI Agent Renee Walker (Annie Wersching) in Seasons 7 and 8--did.  It was never really clear what Audrey's talents and skill sets were that warranted having her character work for the DoD, much less being involved in assisting at CTU, and the only times she was ever out in the field was when she was kidnapped and held hostage in Seasons 4, 5 and 6.  Because her character was so poorly defined in terms of what her job and abilities were, any of the functions that she performed while at CTU could have easily been filled by any of the other characters on the show.

As such, on a show where most of the characters are deemed useless unless they help propel the story forward, it becomes clear that Audrey's sole and only purpose of existing within the "24" universe is as Jack Bauer's love interest.  Her character never became a metaphor for the resilience of civilian America after 9/11, the way Kate Warner was, nor proved to be Jack Bauer's equal as a Federal Agent experiencing the same challenges and personal conflicts the way Renee Walker was in Seasons 7 and 8.  Audrey only exists on the show to be Jack's girlfriend, which would have been fine if she were actually a likeable and sympathetic character.  I never really liked the presence of Audrey in Jack's life because, by making her character so important in the fabric of the series, the producers undercut the significance of Jack's late wife Teri (Leslie Hope), who was tragically killed at the end of Season 1 by turncoat agent Nina Myers (Sarah Clarke).  By constantly harping on the notion that Audrey was purportedly "Jack's true love," the show tarnishes the memory of Teri, whose death symbolizes the terrible moment in Jack Bauer's life when things turned irretrievably out of control.  It would be the same, in regards to the James Bond movie series, as suggesting that any of the leading ladies who followed Diana Rigg's tragic Tracy, who marries George Lazenby's James Bond at the end of "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" (1969), were more important to Bond than Tracy ever was.  (Eva Green's marvelous Vesper Lynd in 2006's "Casino Royale" doesn't undermine Tracy's legacy because her character appears in the rebooted Bond series timeline that presumes Tracy never existed.)

Audrey Raines proved to be pretty useless even as a love interest.  In Season 4, her introductory season, she was already off-putting from the moment she arrived because she was wavering between both Jack and her estranged husband Paul Raines (James Frain) who, as it turns out, is actually a good and decent man who genuinely loves Audrey.  As the season progresses, Audrey's loyalties continually bounce back and forth between Jack and Paul and it becomes clear that Audrey is a wishy-washy individual totally lacking in strength of character who can't make up her mind who she wants to be with.  It didn't help matters that, before the scenario of Season 4 even began, Audrey and Jack had already been deep in their affair, which meant that viewers never really had a chance to slowly acclimate to this romance and they had to accept her wholeheartedly from the moment she was introduced.  It was as if the producers were sternly telling us, "This is the woman Jack loves.  Get used to it."  This "in-your-face" introduction of the Audrey character contrasted with the way Kate Warner was introduced in Season 2, and also with the way Renee Walker was introduced in Season 7.  In both cases, Jack didn't know either Kate or Walker at the start of the day and the audience had an opportunity to see the trust, caring and rapport that eventually developed between Jack and each of these women throughout those seasons.

But what really turned me off to Audrey Raines was how whiny, weepy and wimpy Kim Raver played her throughout much of her tenure on the series.  When "24" came to Washington, DC in 2007 to film Season 7, I approached Executive Producer Jon Cassar when they were filming near the Navy Memorial and asked him why they wouldn't bring back Kate Warner, even for one episode.  Mr. Cassar was generous with his time and we chatted for awhile.  The conversation turned to the Audrey character and I mentioned how a lot of fans in DC hated her because of how weepy and shamelessly emotional she was in Season 4, and that that set the tone for our dislike of the character.  Cassar attempted to defend Kim Raver's performance by explaining how the writers make up the story week-to-week, rather than having a established game plan for the direction of the stories.  He explained that the writers had inadvertently written one scenario-after-another which required Audrey to react in an emotional manner so that, by the time they realized that they had written one crying fit too many for her, it was too late and that the character had already been established as weak and self-indulgent in the minds of many fans of the show.  I never bought that explanation because, as an actress, Kim Raver could've chosen to play those scenes in a calmer, more collected manner if she was inspired and talented enough to think outside the box.

My opinion on this is influenced by the anecdote Lauren Bacall shared in her memoirs where she related how director Howard Hawks instructed her to train her voice to speak in a low, deep manner so that, if he ever gave her a scene that was very emotional, she could still play it with a deep voice.  Hawks' logic was that a whiny voice often reflects how a character has lost control of a situation.  If Bacall could play an emotional scene with a deeper voice, then it would show how her character was still calm and collected, despite the turmoil she is experiencing, and that that would demonstrate the strength of the character.  The purpose of this example is to illustrate how actors can approach how they perform a scene from a wide variety of perspectives.  It was obvious while watching Season 4 that Kim Raver never read Bacall's memoir.  If she did, she apparently learned nothing about the direction Hawks gave to Bacall in terms of how to modulate her speaking voice.  Raver could have chosen not to play Audrey in such a sniveling, weepy manner and she simply did not do that.  As such, Kim Raver must ultimately take the blame for the negative first impression she made as Audrey by choosing to play her from a such conventional perspective and for not finding ways to give the character more gravitas and authority by having her react to the crisis around her in a more mature manner.

There are people who felt her character had been "improved" when she returned in Season 5, but I felt that those were shallow and cosmetic changes.  Even if she wasn't crying as much as she was the previous season, she still rarely demonstrated any genuine sense of character or depth.  This was reflected in the scene in Season 5 where Audrey interrogates the working class woman Diane Huxley (Connie Britton), who Jack had been living with for months while incognito after having staged his death at the end of Season 4.  I recall how Audrey was unable to set aside her emotions about Jack and ended up asking Diane intrusive and personal questions--not necessarily to understand what had happened to Jack while he was in hiding--but to find out whether Diane was having an affair with Jack.  For someone who was supposed to be a DoD official, she demonstrated an utter lack of professionalism with the way she conducted that debriefing.  Moreover, as Season 5 progressed, as in the previous season, there really wasn't a strong raison d'etre for Audrey to even be around CTU, much less the show, anymore.  This is reflected in the fact that Audrey had dwindling amounts of screen time in the concluding episodes of both Seasons 4 and 5.  If she was truly an important character, she wouldn't have been relegated to the sidelines in the climactic hours of both of those seasons, left with only a handful of lines of dialogue in each segment.

I guess what I really don't like about the Audrey Raines character was the manner in which she and Jack turned out to be bad news together.  They may have been passionately in love, but they brought out the worst qualities in each others' personalities.  While Audrey was a mass of simpering, narcissistic self-indulgence in the context of her relationship with Jack, Jack turned into an illogical, emotional, sentimental mess where she was concerned.  Rather than inspiring Jack to rise to the occasion and be the best that he could be, her presence on the show made Jack selfish and self-involved at key moments, forgetting about the larger crisis at-hand and only concerned about whether he and Audrey would find happiness together.  This was exemplified by the subplot in Season 5 where it was suggested that Audrey might be a treasonous turncoat agent.  Rather than remaining objective about the situation, Jack's character went into a total meltdown in order to defend his lover against all suggestions she might be evil.  His own interrogation of her was not so much to learn about her alleged treachery, but to find out whether she was having an affair with someone else during the year he was in hiding.  I always applaud stories where characters are able to show their vulnerabilities and weaknesses despite their overwhelming strength, but these moments merely demonstrated the level of blind co-dependency that characterized this relationship.  Teri, Kate, and Agent Walker never distracted Jack in such a destructive manner.

The careless narcissism of the Audrey character is exemplified by her mercifully brief Season 6 story arc where she has become a catatonic mess after being captured and held hostage by the Chinese.  This occurred after she foolishly went over to China, without any assistance or backup, to try and negotiate Jack's release after he was captured by the Chinese at the end of Season 5.  So self-involved is her character that she never considers the dangers she has put herself, and those around her, in by embarking on such a dangerous mission alone.  Kim Raver's scenes in Season 6 demonstrate the extent to which both the show, and the Audrey character, had veered into camp territory.  Her frightened, childlike mannerisms and reactions to everything around her seemed to be an exaggerated metaphor for the character as a whole.  For the first time, I found myself amused by the character because of the bad writing and the absolutely terrible, dreadful acting on the part of Kim Raver that was involved in demonstrating Audrey's catatonia.  It's amazing how as useless a character as Audrey continued to survive when more sympathetic and/or compelling characters such as Agent Walker, Michelle Dessler, President Palmer and even the turncoat Nina Meyers all met their maker.  I still hoped that her character would be killed off that season--the last one to feature her so far--in order to rule out any risk of her ever returning to the "24" universe, but I guess Kim Raver has built up enough strong allies on that show that Audrey was allowed to survive at the end of that day. 

Which brings us to the upcoming "24: Live Another Day."  I really hope they resist their worst impulses and keep the Audrey character off of this miniseries.  There are plenty of other characters in the history of "24," other than Audrey, who would make valuable contributions to the new storyline.  (Carlos Bernard's Tony Almeida being one of them.)  While I hesitate to even hope that they would ever bring Kate Warner back, I would welcome them bringing Renee Walker back from the dead so that the underrated Annie Wersching can reprise that wonderful character and Jack's life can be redeemed by finally pairing him off with a woman who is his true equal.  The Audrey Raines character--and Kim Raver's uninspired, unsympathetic, and mediocre performance--demonstrate the worst aspects of "24" as a series, especially with regards to creating a weak, emotional, unprofessional, shallow, self-centered and narcissistic individual who simply reinforced negative and harmful stereotypes of the portrayal of women in the media.  Kim Raver's dreadful and pathetic Audrey Raines ranks with Kristian Alfonso's Pilar Ortega in Seasons 8 and 9 of "Falcon Crest" as my least favorite TV characters of all time.  Please, don't bring back Audrey Raines. 

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Lesley Ann Warren, Sandra Dee, and Karen Valentine are "The Daughters of Joshua Cabe"

Lesley Ann Warren, Sandra Dee, and Karen Valentine are three actresses whose names you would never expect to see in a sentence, much less appear in the same film together.  But appear together they do in the ABC Movie of the Week "The Daughters of Joshua Cabe" (1972) starring Buddy Ebsen and Jack Elam.  In this light-hearted, yet surprisingly touching, Western, Warren, Dee, and Valentine are given good roles that allow them to play smart, hard-working, courageous young women who leave behind tarnished lives marked by criminal activity in order to redeem themselves in the Western frontier and earn a place to call home.  Buddy Ebsen, marking time after the end of "The Beverly Hillbillies" (1962-71) and before the premiere of "Barnaby Jones" (1973-80) stars as Joshua Cabe, an elderly fur trapper who has been squatting on land in Wyoming, that he does not actually hold title to, for decades.  Joshua lives on the land with his best friend Bitterroot (Jack Elam) after the death of his wife Martha, and after he sent his three daughters, who he has not heard from in decades, to go live in St. Louis.  Joshua's life is turned upside down when he learns that a recently passed homestead law might allow his mean-spirited rival Amos Wetherall (Leif Erickson) and his four vicious sons (played by Don Stroud, William Katt, Paul Koslo, and Michael Anderson, Jr.) to lay claim upon the land he has been living on for years.

Joshua realizes his only hope is to find his three daughters, convince them to return to Wyoming so that each of them can lay claim upon two sections of land apiece so that Joshua can hold onto his home.  The catch is that the daughters must be willing to live on the land for a year in order to qualify under the new homestead law.  Joshua travels to St. Louis, only to learn that one of his daughters has become a nun, and that the other two are married and have families in New York.  While in St. Louis, Joshua rescues a prostititue named Mae (Lesley Ann Warren) from being abused by her pimp.  Joshua realizes that he can still save his land if he can convince Mae--and two other young women--to return to Wyoming with him so that they can pose as his daughters and lay claim to the land together.  Joshua eventually convinces recently paroled con artist Charity (Karen Valentine) and pickpocket Ada (Sandra Dee) to join Mae in posing as his daughters.  Mae, Charity, and Ada soon form an impromptu family unit with Joshua and Bitterroot as they work together to improve the land and wait patiently for the day when the government filing agent arrives in town so they can formally claim the land.  While living together, Mae, Charity, and Ada put aside their individual differences and start to see one another as surrogate sisters.

However, Amos Wetherall causes a cattle stampede that destroys the dam that the quintet have taken weeks to build and which almost causes Charity to get killed.  Joshua decides to send the ladies back to St. Louis before there is further violence.  While in town awaiting the train, Wetherall's son Blue (played by Don Stroud) learns about Mae's past as a prostitute and blackmails her into acquiescing to his sexual advances.  Blue explains to Mae that, once the entire town realizes that Joshua has been perpetrating a fraud, he would be driven out.  While in the stables, Mae gets the upper hand turning Blue's gun on him, but not before Bitterroot and Joshua come upon the scene, and a shootout takes place where one of Wetherall's sons is injured.  Wetherall and his boys challenge Joshua and Bitterroot to a gun battle in the streets.  Mae, Charity, and Ada realize that their friends are outnumbered, so they steal rifles from the local store and prove to be effective marksmen as they work together to ultimately defeat the Wetheralls.  Joshua, Bitterroot, Mae, Charity, and Ada are present when the government land official arrives in town and they apply to become partners and owners of the land.  As they ride back home together, the three young women resume quarreling amongst themselves as Joshua and Bitterroot smile contentedly.

Produced by Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg, "The Daughters of Joshua Cabe" is now interesting to watch as sort of a precursor/prototype for their later hit series "Charlie's Angels," at least four years before that series debuted.  As with "Charlie's Angels," "The Daughters of Joshua Cabe" features three beautiful women--who are smart, hard-working, and brave individuals--who go to work for two older men, one of whom (Joshua) worked to bring them together, acts as their leader, and assigns them new identities, just like Charlie assigned covers every week to his Angels whenever there was an assignment.  Meanwhile, the other gentleman--Jack Elam's warm and touching Bitterroot--acts as a kind and encouraging intermediary between Joshua and the three young ladies, just like David Doyle's Bosley did on "Charlie's Angels."  Even the title of the movie--"The Daughters of Joshua Cabe" echoes the later "Charlie's Angels" title by referring to the three young women with adjectives--"Daughters" or "Angels"--in relation to the paternal figure--"Joshua Cabe" or "Charlie"--who has brought them together for a common purpose.  The configuration of the types of actresses brought together for this movie--two brunettes and one blonde--also echoes the configuration that Spelling and Goldberg brought together for "Charlie's Angels."  It's obvious while watching "The Daughters of Joshua Cabe" that Spelling and Goldberg were already experimenting with the sort of characterizations that they would later make famous on "Charlie's Angels."

But I don't want to give the impression that "The Daughters of Joshua Cabe" is only interesting in comparison to its more famous counterpart.  On its own, it's a very entertaining and charming Western helped immensely by the fine performances of its cast.  Buddy Ebsen has impressive grit and determination as the wily Joshua Cabe.  I particularly like the scenes where Ebsen's Joshua confronts Leif Erickson's insufferable Wetherall.  Seething with rage and anger, you can see that Ebsen's character is no milquetoast and that he can be a formidable adversary to the cowardly and cruel Wetheralls.  Jack Elam is very endearing as the wise and sensible Bitterroot, with enough compassion and understanding of all the characters in the story to help mediate in times of conflict.  I also like the dinner table scene, where Bitterroot realizes the women are all exhausted from their chores, and suggests giving them an extra hour of sleep in the morning.  He recognizes that the women are at their breaking point and that he and Joshua cannot thoughtlessly assume that they will continue to stay in Wyoming without some incentives.  Both Joshua and the ladies are lucky to have Bitterroot around, as he has the kindness and wisdom to recognize what each of them needs in order to continue weathering all of the challenges facing them.

Best of all are Lesley Ann Warren, Sandra Dee, and Karen Valentine as the "Daughters" of Joshua Cabe.  Despite its short 75 minute running time, the fine performances and the script by Paul Savage goes a long way towards making them distinct, yet cohesive, personalities.  Karen Valentine has a smart, feisty grittiness that demonstrates how she was capable of playing characters beyond the "cute" image that was established for her on "Room 222."  Here, Valentine is still "cute," but she instills Charity with leadership qualities of wisdom and determination that indicate how she should have played more mature roles in her career.  Valentine also instills Charity with a sly, quirky sense of humor that demonstrates the extent of her character's wisdom and shrewdness.  (In some respects, Charity's gritty and feisty intelligence and leadership abilities echoes Kate Jackson's Sabrina on "Charlie's Angels.")

Similarly, Sandra Dee impresses as the sneaky pick-pocket Ada, a young woman with amusing airs of superiority.  Dee was several years past her days as one of Universal's top money-making actresses, and her voice had deepened so that it now resonated with maturity.  Dee brings a quick-witted and quick-thinking quality to Ada, particularly in her introductory scene where she is pick-pocketing a wallet from a woman's purse while casing a dress shop, that one would never have expected from her Gidget/Tammy days.  Dee is particularly good in the scene when she calmly slaps Wetherall in the face for feigning mock innocence about initiating the cattle stampede that has caused Joshua to give up and send the ladies back to St. Louis.  She demonstrates backbone and maturity that one would never have expected from her more famous film roles.  At the age of 30 when she filmed this, Dee is possibly even more beautiful than ever.  Years of life experience have now brought a sense of determination to Dee's face that should have also warranted more and better acting assignments for her in the 1970s.

All three of the female leads are excellent, but Lesley Ann Warren especially stands out as the former prostitute Mae, whom Joshua rescues from being abused by her pimp.  Warren brings a touching vulnerability to Mae that allows her story to be the most compelling of all.  In perhaps the best-acted scene in the whole film, after Joshua has rescued her from her pimp, Mae attempts to cozy up to him to show her appreciation for what he has done for her.  Mae tells Joshua, in a slinky manner, "You're a tiger."  An unamused Joshua tells her, "You're wasting your time."  An insolent Mae responds, "You mean 'Thanks' would've been enough?" only to have Joshua say "Ain't even necessary, Missy."  A sincere and humbled Mae drops her defensive stance and tells Joshua that her name is "Mae...and thank you.  Not that it'll have changed anything."  Joshua sensibly observes, "I don't see chains on you."  Mae humbly points out, "Look again."  Joshua opines, "Nothing that a little face scrubbin,' fresh air, single-bed sleepin' wouldn't fix."  Mae retorts, "Look closer," only to have Joshua respond "Closer lookin's up to you."  Mae explains to Joshua, "Who hasn't had the thought of somehow starting over again?"  A lightbulb suddenly goes off in Joshua's head as he asks Mae "Would you if you could?"  Mae playfully and sardonically answers with "You got an unused miracle lying around, have you?"  As written, these short lines of dialogue don't appear to add up to much, but Ebsen and Warren (who previously worked together playing father and daughter in the 1968 Disney musical "The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band") do great work in order to bring more meaning and nuance to them than was probably intended.  In so doing, we realize that Mae has never before encountered a sincere gentleman who doesn't expect any favors from her in return for his kindness.  Without intending to, Joshua is able to get to the essence of Mae's character in ways that men before him have never been able to do.  Concurrently, Joshua also seizes upon the moment to devise his scheme to find himself three faux-daughters to help save his land.  In so doing, because of this fortuitous encounter, both Joshua and Mae have helped save one another from the dire fate their lives were headed.

What I find particularly touching about "The Daughters of Joshua Cabe" is how these three young women rise to the occasion to help Joshua when he needs them the most.  Back in St. Louis, when Mae's pimp returns and threatens to harm Joshua if she leaves with him, both Ada and Charity quickly arm themselves with impromptu weapons in order to do battle with the pimp if he lays one hand on Joshua.  Later, in the finale of the movie, Charity, Mae, and Ada steal rifles from the local general store in order to provide backup for Joshua and Bitterroot as they confront the Wetheralls in the street.  The three women, like Charlie's Angels, each prove to be effective action heroines in the face of danger.  They single-handedly take down the Wetheralls without Joshua or Bitterroot having to fire a single shot.  In so doing, they've taken control of their own destinies rather than leaving it up to the men in the story to determine it for them.

"The Daughters of Joshua Cabe" was successful enough for ABC and Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg to produce two sequels, made in 1975 and 1976, respectively.  However, in each of the sequels Joshua Cabe, and his "daughters," were played by an entirely new set of actors.  Only in the third film in this series, "The New Daughters of Joshua Cabe," did Jack Elam return as Bitterroot.  Dub Taylor played Bitterroot in the second one.  By not reuniting the original cast, ABC and Spelling-Goldberg sabotaged any attempts to make this a truly successful series of films (and also inadvertently foreshadowed the frequent cast changes that would befall the similar "Charlie's Angels" TV series later in the decade).  The casts of each of the sequels were never able to recapture the chemistry of the cast in the original film.  It's a shame that more of an effort was not made to reunite the original cast for the sequels, because I would have welcomed more opportunities to see Buddy Ebsen, Jack Elam, Lesley Ann Warren, Sandra Dee, and Karen Valentine find other sly ways to hold onto their land in the further adventures of Joshua Cabe and his "daughters."