Windmills passing: “Comes a Horseman” (1978)

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By Scott Ross

This genuinely offbeat modern Western is one of the most beautiful movies of its era, comparable in its more modest way to Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven but without the studied fussiness. Dennis Lynton Clark’s spare, incisive screenplay, concerning a woman rancher’s struggle against the elements and the wealthy cattle baron determined to wrest control of her land, was, like picture itself, traduced by critics of the time, who characterized it as “lethargic” and “boring” (or, in Leonard Maltin’s view, “low-key to the point of catatonia”) when the movie is actually refreshingly unfettered by cliché. Set during the waning years of the Second World War, Comes a Horseman pits Jane Fonda against a quietly rapacious Jason Robards, Jr., with two flies in his ointment in the persons of the former soldier played by James Caan, teaming up with Fonda after he’s nearly murdered by one of Robards’ goons, and George Grizzard as an oil executive whose plans threaten to gum up those of the avaricious old rancher. Perhaps, to be charitable, the picture’s contemporary critics expected a standard Western and were flummoxed when confronted by a multiple character study, of Fonda’s hostile cattlewoman, Caan’s easygoing but unshakable cowboy, the old veteran ranch-hand played with almost stunningly effective simplicity by the former stuntman Richard Farnsworth, and Robards’ acquisitive and utterly deadly oligarch.

With a filmmaker like Pakula, however, contemporary reviewers surely should have been more attuned to his pacing, and the concerns he addressed in his movies. He’d directed three so-called “paranoia thrillers” in an almost unbroken row (the despairing Klute featuring Fonda’s best performance, the under-performing but extremely observant The Parallax View and the beautifully conceived and wonderfully executed All the President’s Men) and none of them was shy about indicating that those with power and money in America were agents of chaos, determined to undermine the public weal at every turn. Robards’ rancher may not be as powerful as what I think of as the permanent U.S. government but in his corner of the West he’s assured of his ability to take what he wants, and from whomever he wishes to rob, without fear.

Although the song itself is not heard in the picture, Clark took as his title a line in the refrain of the 1972 Gordon Lightfoot ballad “Don Quixote”:

Through the woodland, through the valley
Comes a horseman wild and free
Tilting at the windmills passing
Who can the brave young horseman be?
*

His screenplay was originally called Comes a Horseman, Wild and Free which I think you will agree is taking poetic allusion a shade too far. Do not, however, assume from this that the movie slathers its metaphors on with a trowel; Pakula was too good a filmmaker for that. But the Quixote reference isn’t far off; Ella Connors, Jane Fonda’s character, is of necessity tilting at windmills. Attempting to do as what was seldom done by a woman, let alone one solitary save for an ageing trail hand and a cowboy of unknown quantity, Ella is fighting, not for the imaginary chivalric honor of a deluded would-be knight-errant but for survival: If she fails in her quest, she loses everything she ever had. She’s not exactly a damsel in distress but she needs all the help she can get.

The picture isn’t lethargic so much as evenly-paced, and whatever the critics said in 1978, it’s never dull. (I am constantly astounded that people who routinely praised Kubrick and Antonioni ever had the cheek to call anyone else’s work “boring.”) I recognize that others are less patient than I with leisurely narratives that take their time enlarging the contours of their characters, but as long as the people behind the picture seem intelligent, and treat me with respect, I’m usually willing to go with them, at least for the first hour. Comes a Horseman is not Red River, and doesn’t pretend to be. It’s more of a mood piece, as I think is evident from Gordon Willis’ quietly stunning color cinematography. As with Philip Lathrop’s work on the equally photogenic Blake Edwards Western Wild Rovers (1971), Willis’ images aren’t there merely to serve as pretty moving postcards; in movies about people working the land to survive, the surrounding vistas are a part of their story, and their breathtaking quality here becomes part of the movie’s overall texture, as integral as the cattle and the plains they graze on.

If Clark’s script is a bit elliptical and if we aren’t sure at first what to make of his characters, that is not necessarily a defect; in an age whose popular entertainments have no room for shades of meaning and do not admit of characters who are not utterly defined the moment we lay eyes on them, such a novelistic approach now seems a revelation. Imagine a screenwriter in the 21st century letting us wonder for several reels why the Jane Fonda character is so angry, and so resentful; he or she would be handed a copy of Sid Field’s Screenplay and told to return when the script conformed to its “rules.” Clark’s dialogue doesn’t waste words, or action: After the Farnsworth character is wounded and admits to Fonda he knows his trail-riding days are over, we see him painfully climbing onto the back of his horse with the aid of a wooden chair; the next time we see him he’s dead on the prairie. Like a non-sapient animal, he’s gone off to die, and in the sort of campfire setting in which he feels most comfortable. Clark also occasionally slips in a pungent metaphor, as when Caan’s Frank says to Ella (and not without some admiration), “Lady, you got balls the size of grapefruits.” And she reads a book at the dinner table, he goes into her parlor and picks up a volume himself. “Shakespeare,” he grins, and you know he knows exactly how much he’s bitten off that he’ll never be able to chew. If that isn’t good observational writing, it’s surely the next best thing.

Gordon Willis’ photography is mouth-wateringly rich, and its verdancy is partly the result of the weather on location (the picture was filmed in Colorado and the Coconino National Forest area of Arizona) which vexed Pakula but may have delighted his lighting cameraman. And Michael Small, who had provided tense and highly individualized minimalist scores for Pakula in Klute and The Parallax View (and would contribute a third, for Marathon Man in 1976) eschews the unnerving electronica here, opting for a full symphonic treatment that is as expansive as the images. And while Small occasionally apes both Copland and Elmer Bernstein (as well as seeming in one cue to make reference to the Jerry Goldsmith/Ernie Shelton song from the Edwards movie; perhaps he thought it was a folk song?) in the main his music is fulsome and varied, anchored to a wistful main guitar theme for Fonda’s Ella and containing a gentle, heartbreaking elegy for Farnsworth’s Dodger.

Farnsworth’s performance may remind you of one by another stuntman. Like Ben Johnson as Sam the Lion in The Last Picture Show, Farnsworth knows the value of silence, and of speaking softly when words are required. He’s so honest and likable a presence in Comes a Horseman you feel as if you’ve been watching him act for years. Speaking of silence: Jason Robards does no thundering or emoting here, and his lack of demonstration makes his character all the more fearsome. He’s a snake on a rock, always watching, occasionally flicking out his tongue to test the air, seemingly relaxed but poised to strike when it’s least expected. We know he’s dangerous from the beginning but we only discover the vicious sadism of which he’s capable when Ella tells Frank about her past. People for Jacob “J.W.” Ewing are necessary evils, or impediments to be gotten rid of, as Grizzard’s oil man is too self-satisfied with what he perceives as his own unlimited power to comprehend. Robards and Fonda have an interesting arc as movie co-stars: Before Comes a Horseman she was his mistress in the sex comedy Any Wednesday in 1966; eleven years later, he was a romanticized Dashiell Hammett to her improbable but rewarding Lillian Hellman in Julia. After his J.W. Ewing tries to burn her Ella Connors to death here, there may not have been anywhere left for these actors to go together. (Although wouldn’t you have loved to have seen them both in a production of Anna Christie?)

Since it causes some confusion on an initial viewing, I wish Caan’s character didn’t go by both the name Frank and the nickname “Buck” but I have no complaints about his performance. The script plays to his strengths as an actor — to his cool sexuality, his largely unemphatic masculine grace and the humor that is expressed by a glint in the eye and a sly smile at his own wit when one of his characters get off an especially good line. (He studied with Sanford Meisner.) At his considerable best Caan has what so many see in Steve McQueen and which I can’t, and he isn’t afraid of expressing himself in dialogue the way McQueen, who routinely asked for fewer lines, apparently was. Fonda, who prepared for her role with ranch-work, appears tan and slightly weathered and the look suits Ella Connors. Here it’s the actress rather than her leading man who doesn’t speak much. You can’t quite imagine why she’s so surly, so suspicious of strangers and so resentful of any attempt by Frank to help her, and when you discover the reasons you can’t help admiring her relative restraint. It’s a largely interior performance by an actress who tends to express herself best in dialogue, and a damned impressive one.

It’s interesting to note that Robards’ character is called J.W. Ewing, and that his chief henchman here is played by the instantly recognizable cowboy actor Jim Davis, who after filming his role in Comes a Horseman was cast as the father of Larry Hagman’s “J. R. Ewing” in the evening soap opera Dallas. There doesn’t seem to be any possible connection between the two projects, so this appears to be one of those mysteries of coincidence that occasionally present themselves on the periphery of The Show Biz.


*Lyrics ©1972 by Gordon Lightfoot.

Text copyright 2021 by Scott Ross

Necrology: February 2021

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By Scott Ross

January death announced in February: Hal Holbrooks, 95. I was both fortunate and unfortunate enough to see Holbrook in his famous Mark Twain Tonight! in the early 1980s. Unfortunate in that the theatre in which I saw it was the cavernous Raleigh Memorial Auditorium, home to the North Carolina Symphony, a venue roughly as appropriate to seeing a one-man show as trying to view “The Starry Night” at the Cotton Bowl, yet fortunate in that even in such an elephantine space, Holbrook’s Twain was magical. I had long been familiar, from the Columbia Masterworks recordings of the show, with its highlights. But I had not, at that time (roughly 1982) encountered “The War Prayer,” which Holbrook recited in a fury so white-hot it was terrifying, and it was surely no coincidence that Ronald Reagan was in the White House at the time; Holbrook, like Samuel Clemens, had no love for war. But while Gore Vidal was abroad in the land then, many of us wished in those years that a wit as devastating, and as popular, as Twain had been there to lance the twin boils that were the Reagan and Bush Administrations, the pernicious fallout from which we deal with still.

In his way Holbrook was for Twain as the drifters at the end of Fahrenheit 451 for literature generally: Our rememberer of Twain. The actor had committed to memory every passage he recited in his show, and randomly altered the program from performance to performance depending on how he felt and what he judged a particular audience ought to hear. He was as Homer to the Greeks, bringing us anew the antic spirit of our first important jester, whose observations, usually comic if often darkly so, remind us that very little changes in human nature, and almost nothing about Americans; bombs are bad when the red team drops them on civilians, good when it’s the blue team’s turn. I think we can imagine what Twain would have said to that.

Apart from touring Mark Twain Tonight!, Holbrook didn’t seem to have much time for theatre after the late ’60s and he became best known to television and movie viewers, from items like the pioneering 1972 Levinson and Link TV movie That Certain Summer. Despite such dated apologetics as the gay father Holbrook portrayed telling his adolescent son (the once-ubiquitous Scott Jacoby) that he wished he wasn’t homosexual this was landmark television and also served to introduced home viewers to Martin Sheen as Holbrook’s younger lover… although I have often wondered how such obvious Gentiles as Holbrook and Hope Lange produced a Jewish son. I presume the same drunken stork was responsible who delivered Dustin Hoffman to William Daniels and Elizabeth Wilson.

The actor was also in the very good, and refreshingly adult, 1973 videotaped drama Pueblo, based by Stanley R. Greenburg on the 1968 seizure of the crew of an American naval vessel spying on the North Koreans. (He won two Emmys for that, interestingly.) The supporting cast was almost unbelievably stellar, and bears mentioning as I doubt we’ll ever see its like in one place again: Ronny Cox, Andrew Duggan, Stephen Elliott, Larry Gates, George Grizzard, Paul Hecht, Alan Hewitt, James Hong, Barnard Hughes, Robert Ito, Gary Merrill, Richard Mulligan and John Randolph. In 1979 Holbrook was the star of one of Levinson and Link’s most ingenious television mysteries, the diabolical Murder by Natural Causes, which was for me the writing partners’ best work until the even better three-hander Guilty Conscience (with Anthony Hopkins, Swoosie Kurtz and Blythe Danner, no less!) came along in 1985.

Holbrook’s good movie roles were surprisingly few, but he is forever linked to Watergate for his indelible performance in the 1976 All the President’s Men, as Bob Woodward’s background source “Deep Throat,” whom the world now knows to have been Mark Felt… although the original was not, I don’t think, quite as vaguely sinister as Holbrook’s Deep Throat, into whose mouth the screenwriter William Goldman memorably placed the phrase (nowhere in Woodward’s book with Carl Bernstein) “Follow the money.”

Recalling Holbrook as Twain prompts a related memory. I was a very literal child: When I was small I thought the people I saw on television lived inside our Zenith black-and-white console, and only came to life when we turned the set on. (Where did they go when we turned it off again? Into little boxes, I think. As well as literal I was also both naïve and imaginative.) And being literal, you can imagine my confusion when in 1967 I began seeing promotional advertisements on CBS for its special airing of Mark Twain Tonight! Somehow I missed that this was an acting performance and since even at age six I was pretty certain the author of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn had lived and written in the mid-1800s, I was staggered by this event. How could Mark Twain still be alive?

Thanks to his books, and to Hal Holbrook, he was. Now, alas, we’ve only the books. And in a nation as subliterate as ours has become, one in which Twain’s great comic masterpiece against racism has so often itself been called racist and has, in a recent edition, been cleansed of all words that might cause readers “offense” — a decision about as intelligent as depicting Treblinka without those nasty yellow stars that presumably give such pain to Jews who otherwise have no problem seeing murdered Jewish bodies thrown into ovens — books alone won’t keep Twain alive much longer.


Christopher Plummer, 91. Plummer, one of the premier theatrical actors of his age, shot to international prominence in a movie he’d little interest in and a role that bored him. He may have been, as he said of himself in his memoirs, “a pampered, arrogant, young bastard spoiled by too many great theatre roles,” but by 1965 he had played Jason opposite Dame Judith Anderson in the Robinson Jeffers adaptation of Medea (Paris); Mark Antony in Julius Caesar and Ferdinand in The Tempest (American Shakespeare Festival); Warwick opposite Julie Harris in The Lark (Broadway); Henry V, Hamlet, Leontes in The Winter’s Tale and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing (Stratford Shakespeare Festival); Nickles (Satan) in the Elia Kazan production of Archibald MacLeish’s J.B.; Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, Cyrano de Bergerac and Macbeth (Stratford again); Benedick and Richard III for the Royal Shakespeare Company; Henry II in Jean Anouilh’s Becket; Arturo Ui, the Adolph Hitler figure in Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui; and Pizarro in Peter Shaffer’s The Royal Hunt of the Sun. Attractive or not as a personality trait, I would say Plummer by that time had some reason both for arrogance and for boredom. (And even for excessive drinking, which he later called unconscionable.) Yet Plummer’s Captain von Trapp is arguably the most interesting thing in The Sound of Music — Pauline Kael referred to his rather arch performance as “a spider on the Valentine” — and one rather regrets it when he too turns soft and gooey toward the end.

If the movie’s genuinely phenomenal success did not lead to film stardom for Plummer (until relatively recently his movie roles were few, although sometimes rich) he continued to devote his energies to classical and popular theatre. A definitive Cyrano in his youth, he won a Tony for playing a singing version, for Michael J. Lewis and Anthony Burgess, in the 1973 Cyrano; played in Jean Giraudoux’s Amphitryon 38, Büchner’s Danton’s Death, Pirandello’s The Rules of the Game; and O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night in London; several roles in the Neil Simon Chekhov evening The Good Doctor; E. L. Doctorow’s rhetorical experiment Drinks Before Dinner; Iago to James Earl Jones’ Othello (as so often happens with that play, the villain walked off with the reviews); an ill-fated Scottish Play with Glenda Jackson as Lady Scottish Play; with Jason Robards in a revival of Pinter’s No Man’s Land; a second Tony for Barrymore; King Lear for Jonathan Miller; Drummond in a revival of Inherit the Wind; Caesar in Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra; and Prospero in The Tempest at Stratford. In the ’70s he assayed Robards’ role in Arthur Miller’s television adaptation of After the Fall with Faye Dunaway, and, later, reunited with his Sound of Music co-star Julie Andrews for a live TV edition of On Golden Pond, which many viewers were doubtless shocked to find a great deal less sentimental than the Fonda-Hepburn-Fonda movie.

I said before that Plummer’s movie credits were limited, but that may be mostly by comparison with his busy theatre life. Beginning with the Sidney Lumet-directed Stage Struck in 1958, he was also in The Fall of the Roman Empire; Inside Daisy Clover; the title role in Oedipus the King; The Royal Hunt of the Sun, in which he switched roles, playing Atahualpa to Robert Shaw’s Pizarro; taking up where David Niven left off in The Return of the Pink Panther, embodying Rudyard Kipling for John Huston in The Man Who Would Be King, as a coldly calculating psychopathic murderer in the underrated Canadian thriller The Silent Partner; playing an unusually emotional but utterly winning Sherlock Holmes in Murder by Decree; enacting a modern-day version of the old Lunt-Fontaine vehicle The Guardian opposite Maggie Smith with Lily in Love; as a patrician publisher in the initially promising but finally unsatisfying Wolf; sans his toupée as the relentless police detective in Dolores Claiborne — a role not in Stephen King’s original, literary novel (although neither was Kathy Bates’ daughter, played by a co-starring[!] Jennifer Jason Leigh); doing a truly terrible Southern accent as Brad Pitt’s father in 12 Monkeys; as Mike Wallace in The Insider for Michael Mann; as the unspeakable Ralph Nickleby in the 2000 Nicholas Nickleby; a memorable Aristotle in Oliver Stone’s Alexander; the dying Tolstoy in The Last Station; one of the Doctors after the death of Heath Ledger caused Terry Gilliam to re-think his The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus; and winning a Supporting Actor Academy Award for his aged parent coming out of the closet following his wife’s death in Beginners — at 82 the oldest actor to win one for performing. He was to star in a film adaptation of Lear later this year which now, sadly, will never be.

Although he was, as Andrews said after his death, a consummate actor, Plummer’s reputation offstage was less salutary. Famously bad-tempered and arrogant (perhaps in part due to being born wealthy?) he infamously compared working with Andrews to being hit over the head with a Valentine’s card every day, and exhibited appalling public hauteur, unless or until he got called on it at which point he retreated as bullies are wont to do. Fortunately for his memory, Plummer’s exit will ensure that everyone now speaks of him with that sunny reverence reserved for the aged dead of politics and other forms of show business.


Warren Beatty presents the American Cinema Editors Career Achievement Award to Robert C. Jones, February 2014 (Photo by Lester Cohen/WireImage)

Robert C. Jones, 84. Jones, like the film editor and composer John Ottman, occasionally wore other hats, in his case those of screenwriter and educator. Indeed, Jones won his only Academy Award, with Waldo Salt, for a screenplay: The implausible, manipulative and self-righteous Coming Home in 1978. (And that in a year whose eligible scripts included An Unmarried Woman, Comes a Horseman and Movie Movie!)

As editor, Jones had two notable recurrent collaborations, one with a great filmmaker, the other with a hack: He worked on four of Hal Ashby’s pictures, and seven of Arthur Hiller’s. These included Love Story (1970), The Last Detail (1973), Shampoo (1975) and Bound for Glory (1976). He also worked for Stanley Kramer (thrice) and for Warren Beatty (twice, on the charming 1978 fantasy Heaven Can Wait and the subversive 1998 political satire Bulworth.). Jones’ other editing credits include the notorious but oddly enjoyable Paint Your Wagon (1969), I Love You, Alice B. Toklas (1968), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), Ship of Fools (1965) and the impressively edited but almost militantly un-funny It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963).


Stalmaster with Jeff Bridges in 2016.

Lynn Stalmaster, 93. As with the prolific Mike Fenton and Jane Feinberg you’ve almost certainly seen Stalmaster’s name dozens of times over the years. He was the first casting director to receive credit on a separate card in the main titles of a feature (The Thomas Crown Affair in 1968) and was associated with over 400 movies and TV projects. He was also the first of his profession to receive an Academy Award. When you consider the casts of the following titles — and not merely the leading roles but the ensembles — reflect that Stalmaster did his job and, to paraphrase Arthur O’Connell in Anatomy of a Murder, did it right well: I Want to Live!; Judgment at Nuremberg; Toys in the Attic; Kiss Me, Stupid; The Hallelujah Trail; The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming; The Fortune Cookie; In the Heat of the Night; Hour of the Gun; The Graduate; The Scalphunters; The Thomas Crown Affair; They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?; If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium; Castle Keep; Gaily, Gaily; Viva Max; The Reivers; The Landlord; The Hawaiians; Monte Walsh; Lawman; Fiddler on the Roof; Harold and Maude; The Cowboys; Pocket Money; Deliverance; Junior Bonner; Jeremiah Johnson; The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean; Scorpio; The Iceman Cometh; The Last Detail; Sleeper; Cinderella Liberty; Conrack; The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz; Rollerball; Harry and Walter Go to New York; Silver Streak; Nickelodeon; Bound for Glory; Black Sunday; New York, New York; Coming Home; The Fury; Foul Play; Go Tell the Spartans; Superman; The Onion Field; Being There; Stir Crazy; Blow Out; Absence of Malice; Making Love; Tootsie; The Right Stuff. Alas, with few exceptions the post-1983 movies for which Stalmaster cast roles are a parade of slick commercialism, dopey comedy and general insipidity… one marched in by everyone else during those years who worked, and flourished, in American movies.


Lawrence Ferlinghetti, 101. As a poet Ferlinghetti is best known for his million copy-selling 1958 collection, the wonderfully titled A Coney Island of the Mind, as a bookseller and publisher for co-founding City Lights, for putting Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems (1957) into print, being subsequently arrested for obscenity, and for ultimately being acquitted of the charge. Miraculously, City Lights is still open, an official San Francisco cultural landmark for 20 years and a popular one for much longer. Whether it can survive COVID-1984 is anyone’s guess. But then, why should a bookstore be less immune to a long-simmering fascist wet-dream than the rest of us?

Text copyright 2021 by Scott Ross

Invitation to the dance, if not the dance itself: “Nijinsky” (1980)

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By Scott Ross

Nijinsky was a rather odd movie for the at best unusually nervous Herbert Ross to have directed, considering that his normal and instinctive approach to gay characters and homosexual material was ridicule: The filmography of the former ballet dancer and choreographer is filled with ugly stereotyping, easy laughs at the expense of fags and sidestepping reality, suggesting (although I would be lying if I said I knew definitively) nothing less than a terrified closet-case madly deflecting for the hetero audience. Indeed, on The Turning Point, his previous picture about the world of ballet, Ross axed the most touching aspect of Arthur Laurents’ original script, captured in the scenarist’s novelization of his own screenplay: The furtive, closeted sexuality of the husband of Shirley MacLaine played by Tom Skerritt and the couple’s eventual understanding. As the movie stands, their relationship bears hints of trouble but absolutely no specifics, so that at the end the payoff has almost no resonance. Moreover, Ross wouldn’t even allow a reference to the ballet’s artistic director being involved with one of his young male choreographers, a pointless bit of self-censorship MacLaine allegedly applauded. How could anyone, in 1977, make a picture about the ballet and not address homosexuality? Having been fed a steady diet of such items from the Ross Factory in the ’70s, I avoided Nijinsky on its release. Now I’m rather sorry, if only because Douglas Slocombe’s lush cinematography must have looked glorious on a big theatre screen. Moreover, this was one movie in which not even Ross could fudge the issue.

The picture had a long gestation. It was planned in the early 1970s as a Harry Saltzman production, to be directed by Tony Richardson, written by Edward Albee, and to star the mouth-watering team of Rudolph Nureyev as Vaslav Nijinsky and Paul Scofield as Sergei Diaghilev. By the time it reached the screen, Stanley O’Toole and Ross’ wife Nora Kaye had joined Saltzman, the playwright Hugh Wheeler was the new screenwriter, and Diaghilev was Alan Bates. (Bates is another interesting case: Bisexual, and comfortable enough to play gay characters on stage and on the large and small screens, but reputedly uncomfortable with his own sexuality in life.) And while there is very little overt sexual or romantic content in the picture — the only homosexual kiss is through a handkerchief — the fact of Nijinsky’s relationship with Diaghilev is the unavoidable center of the story, their partnership extending from private to public and artistic life.

Saltzman, at one time the co-producer with Albert R. Broccoli of the James Bond franchise, obviously spent money to insure the movie, set in Europe and South America in the 1910s, looked sumptuous. Yet he didn’t spend it where it might really matter. Ever since reading as a youngster about the infamous 1913 premier at Théâtre des Champs-Élysées of Le Sacre du printemps, I have longed to see some filmmaker recreate the event, in which the audience, offended as much by Nijinsky’s arrhythmic choreography as by Stravinsky’s pulsating musical score, rioted, literally tearing up theatre seats in their fury and drowning out the orchestra, causing the choreographer to shout out the step numbers to his on-stage dancers. In Nijinksy that notorious evening is reduced to George de la Peña as Nijinsky, yelling, and to Bates’ Diaghilev pleading with the spectators and being pelted with fruit. Thus was a great cinematic opportunity lost, sacrificed one assumes, on the pyre of budgetary parsimoniousness.

That omission is, by way of contrast, a minor flaw to the movie’s major one: Leslie Browne’s staggeringly inept performance. As Romola de Pulsky, the socialite dilettante who fixated on Nijisnky and opportunistically married him when he believed Diaghilev had abandoned him, Browne is thoroughly embarrassing. She had done a creditable enough job in the much less demanding role of MacLaine’s young ballerina daughter in The Turning Point, a part which fortunately required her to dance and look lovely more than to act. Here, largely bereft of dance and required to play a significant range of emotions, she is hopeless; her numb, amateur’s performance wouldn’t pass muster on a little theatre stage, let alone in a multi-million dollar screen production. Fortunately, she is more than offset by the intensity of de la Peña’s Nijinsky and the expansive, mercurial job by Bates. de la Peña’s dancing is even more impressive, and contains the famous moment from the end of Le Spectre de la Rose of Nijinsky’s spectacular leap through the open window. There is fine work as well, in smaller roles, by Janet Suzman, Siân Phillips, Carla Fracci, Colin Blakely, Alan Badel as the genially bitchy but dangerously envious Baron de Gunzburg, Ronald Pickup (as Stravinsky) and, in a performance that somehow manages to be both languid and tense, Jeremy Irons as Mikhail Fokine.*

Wheeler’s screenplay is refreshingly literate and intelligent and, if short perhaps on his own specialty, humor, entirely forthright about the then open-secret, accepted in artistic and Parisian circles, of the romance between Diaghilev and Nijinsky. Whether it could have survived the latter’s jealous rages and the former’s wanderlust is an academic question, but this sentence on the Wikipedia page for the movie deserves mention: “The film suggests Nijinsky was driven into madness by both his consuming ambition and self-enforced heterosexuality.” The film does no such thing, and I can’t imagine what sort of demented viewing of it could lead to such a spurious conclusion aside from deliberate falsification to suit some weird social justice agenda. Nijinksy’s fear of madness is suggested early on, when at the premiere of Prelude à l’Après-midi d’un faune he rubs his groin against the stage floor at the end, simulating (if not actually achieving) orgasm and, off-stage, says he was not in control of his own mind. The dancer also cites the insanity of his brother, and his terror of it visiting him, so the foreshadowing of his eventual succumbing to schizophrenia is plainly in evidence. What the idiot who wrote that sentence imagined this had to do with either ambition or “self-enforced heterosexuality” is anyone’s guess.

Ross was allegedly “unenthusiastic” about the project, and that seems to have extended to the way he shot the dances. Unlike in The Turning Point, where the ballets achieved a genuine fusion of theatricality and high cinematic style, the famous excerpts presented here feel flat, as if the director couldn’t be bothered to stage them interestingly for the camera. Not that there are no striking moments of dance in the picture, but those are due more to de la Peña’s splendid technique than to any particular sense of inspiration on Ross’ part. Yet somehow the movie is not dispiriting. Its production design (John Blezard), art direction (George Richardson) and costumes (Alan Barrett) are all superb as is the dance music conducted by John Lanchberry, which runs from Weber to Stravinsky. While the movie remains fascinating throughout, Tony Richardson somewhat understandably pronounced the final work a travesty, and there are those who feel it misrepresents both Nijinsky and Diaghilev. I confess I don’t know enough about either to venture an opinion, but I will make one observation: Nothing Nijinsky does on the ballet stage is quite as shocking as the sight of George de la Peña on the Lido in bathing trunks so brief in the back they all too publicly reveal the lower thirds of his buttocks.

Not that I’m complaining.


*Aside: The name Mikhail Fokine is in my mind forever wedded to perhaps the best pun I’ve ever read, by Alan Bennett. Cut by the author from his stage play 40 Years On, the line was one to be spoken by John Gielgud, and you must hear it in his voice to enjoy the full impact. Here is Bennett’s recounting: “When the play opened in Manchester it included a piece about the first London visit of the Diaghilev ballet in 1911. A boy got up as Nijinsky, dressed as the faun in L’Après-Midi, dances behind a gauze, while downstage the practice pianist reminisces: ‘Ah yes. Nijinsky. I suppose I am the only person now able to recall one of the most exciting of his ballets, the fruit of an unlikely collaboration between Nijinsky on the one hand and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle on the other. It was the only detective story in ballet and was called The Inspectre de la Rose. The choreography was by Fokine. It wasn’t up to much. The usual Fokine rubbish.'”

Text copyright 2021 by Scott Ross

Time capsule: “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975)

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By Scott Ross

There are a handful of performances given by movie actors that are so vivid, so original and overpowering, they virtually define a new genre in screen acting, something far beyond what contemporary audiences knew before. Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront spring immediately to my mind, along with Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath, Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca, Orson Welles in Citizen Kane, Agnes Moorehead in The Magnificent Ambersons, James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life and Vertigo and Anatomy of a Murder, Montgomery Clift in Red River and A Place in the Sun, Julie Harris in A Member of the Wedding, James Mason in A Star is Born, Paul Newman in The Hustler and Hud and The Verdict and Nobody’s Fool, Shirley MacLaine in The Apartment and Sweet Charity and Terms of Endearment, Sidney Poitier in A Raisin in the Sun, Katharine Hepburn in Long Day’s Journey into Night, Rod Steiger in The Pawnbroker and In the Heat of the Night, Michael Caine in Alfie, Warren Beatty in Bonnie and Clyde and Reds, Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl, Melvyn Douglas in I Never Sang for My Father, Gene Hackman in The French Connection, Jane Fonda in Klute, Cicely Tyson in Sounder, Diane Keaton in Annie Hall and Looking for Mr. Goodbar and Marvin’s Room, Jill Clayburgh in An Unmarried Woman, Sally Field in Sybil and Norma Rae, Jessica Lange in Tootsie, Whoopi Goldberg in The Color Purple, Geraldine Page in The Trip to Bountiful, Maggie Smith in The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, Jodie Foster in The Accused and The Silence of the Lambs, Mary McDonnell in Dances with Wolves, Sean Penn in Dead Man Walking and Milk, Frances McDormand in Fargo, Leonardo DiCaprio in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Meryl Streep in The Hours and Jeff Bridges in just about anything. There’s a word for this, one that is both over-used and little understood: Genius.

Certainly Al Pacino’s performances as Michael Corleone in The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II belong among those names. How an actor as young and relatively inexperienced in screen acting as Pacino was at the time could take that journey from bright, unambitious college student and demobbed soldier to haunted, soul-deadened mafioso shell was almost beyond comprehension except that he had a strong writer-director to keep him on the line. Certainly with Sidney Lumet on Dog Day Afternoon Pacino had a similar guide, and his performance here should be on the list as well. As the perennial fuck-up whose attempt to rob a Brooklyn bank devolves into a street carnival that all-too-quickly accelerates well beyond his control, Pacino is staggeringly good. There is not one moment, or gesture, or blink of an eye, that doesn’t feel exactly right, and utterly organic. Even when he’s stirring up the neighborhood crowd that gathers in the street by shouting, “Attica!” it’s not an embellishment; it grows out of Sonny’s certain sense that the cops surrounding the bank are salivating at the prospect of killing him.* (It is interesting to note, in view of that moment quickly becoming the most famous in the movie, that the suggestion to Pacino for the chant came not from the screenplay, or even from Lumet, but from Burtt Harris, the picture’s Assistant Director, just before a take.)

And while I don’t think people in the arts (the arts, for crissake!) should automatically be congratulated for being fair toward homosexuals, Pacino’s was for the period also a gutsy performance, the first by a major American movie star in an identifiable gay role that was not, as had been the case in movies of the late-’60s and early ’70s, a closet-case torn apart by his secret sexuality (Brando in Reflections in a Golden Eye, Steiger as The Sergeant). Although Pacino’s Sonny is married to (if separated from) a woman, he doesn’t feel for her anything close to the passion he holds for Leon (Chris Sarandon), his male lover. Nor does he seem to care who knows; when Sonny asks the negotiating cop (Charles Durning) to bring his wife to the bank he’s tried to rob it isn’t, to the audience’s surprise, Susan Peretz’s Angie who shows up, but Leon. Sarandon’s is also a brave performance, and a miraculous one; his telephone conversation with Pacino, the movie’s dramatic highlight, in which they air their difficulties (but really air; the cops are listening in) and come to the sad realization that they’re insurmountable, probably got both of them Academy Award nominations. I can certainly tell you, between Pacino here and that year’s eventual winner as “Best Actor,” Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which performance I have seen more often, which feels more achingly true, and which I treasure.

Pacino plays the role with his antennae alive to every whisper, and he’s volatile, especially when he feels things go out of control. His Sonny is also rather sweet — sometimes even endearingly soft-spoken, although there’s nothing remotely effeminate in Pacino’s performance — but you can also sense what it is about him that drives the people in his life crazy. Sonny also thinks of himself as cool and in charge and thinking better and faster than everyone. He may even believe it. However, it isn’t only the fates arrayed against him that leads to disaster; it’s lacking a sense of timing, and knowing when to cut his losses. Although he’s bright and adaptable, he isn’t as smart as he thinks, or wants others to think. And like the head teller (Penelope Allen) who gets a sudden unexpected cheer from the bystanders or the pizza delivery boy (Lionel Pina) who knows his every move has been captured by the television camera and who does a little acrobatic dance on his way back to the street (“I’m a fuckin’ star!”) Sonny too plays to the crowd, ultimately to his cost: A mob is a fickle thing, and it turns on a dime.


Penelope Allen with Pacino: “Attica! Attica!

The movie also seems to have broken through whatever strange attitudes its director, Sidney Lumet, held about gay men and which soured so many of his movies before Dog Day Afternoon. Lumet’s sensitivity to how Sonny (and Leon) would be perceived by an audience unaccustomed to the “freak-show” aspects of the robbery determined how he and the picture’s gifted writer, Frank Pierson, developed the characters — based on the real life John Wojtowicz and his lover Ernie Aron — and their approach to the narrative. I imagine there were still cat-calls in some theatres then, just as there are when the crowd outside the bank realizes Sonny’s “wife” is a man. But I don’t see how any creative team could have prepared better for the really dicey moments, such as when Sonny, dictating his will to the head teller, says, “To my darling wife Leon, whom I love… as no other man has loved another man… in all eternity…” The way Pacino plays the scene, and that line, with the un-histrionic quality of a man who believes he’s going to die, and has accepted that, just as he accepts his loving Leon and thinks despite the evidence that their affair has attained romantic grandeur, makes it a statement only a clod could laugh at. Pacino’s Sonny is a man of explosive passions but little or no sentimentality. If the actor had played the line with bathos, he’d have killed its impact; it’s the simple, honest quality of his reading that makes it so true, and so moving.

And that moment has also been prepared for, by the long telephone conversation which precedes it, so beautifully enacted by Sarandon on one end of the line and by Pacino, gently goaded by Lumet to push beyond his limits, on the other. Unlike with The Pawnbroker and The Anderson Tapes, previous movies in which Lumet sneered at his “fag” characters, the only moment in Dog Day Afternoon that makes me cringe is when the local gay activists show up, as some did on that day in Brooklyn, to get in on the limelight, and my reaction has nothing to do with the way Lumet presents them but to their own opportunistic political shamelessness, exploiting Sonny’s sexuality for media exposure.† Even Durning’s tough New York cop behaves with sensitivity towards Leon, angrily admonishing an officer who laughs at him when Leon says his psychiatrist believes he’s a woman trapped in a man’s body. One could argue, of course, that the Durning character is trying to hold a volatile situation in check, that he needs Leon sober and cooperative and unoffended — Sonny’s lover has been brought to the block from Bellevue, where he’s been recovering from a suicide attempt — and that the snickering cop is an impediment. All of that is true, but I suspect Durning’s dialogue was also a means by which the filmmakers could safely chide their own audiences for any derisive laughter they might be indulging in at that moment.‡

Charles Durning, James Broderick and Chris Sarandon. Obscured behind Sarandon is Lance Henrieksen. Note the cop at center, trying to stifle his laughter.

Speaking of dialogue: Lumet was one of those rare movie directors who scoffed at the auteur theory and, perhaps partly due to his roots as a young actor and, later, a stage and live television director, believed strongly in rehearsals, and in working closely with his screenwriters. With Dog Day Afternoon that process included allowing the performers to improvise — keeping the general intent and shape of the lines but adapting them to their characters’ mode of speech and their own instincts. Pierson took notes and together he and Lumet revised the shooting script, incorporating their actors’ suggestions. This seems to me an eminently sane way to approach a movie, as it sometimes is in making a play, and all that preparation, instead of making the dialogue seem overly worked out, actually gives it an impromptu feel. There’s nothing in the movie that seems scripted, yet it’s all of a piece, and has a precision denied to genuine improvisation. (Although occasionally, as with the “Attica!” sequence, or John Cazale’s ad-lib in which his character equates Wyoming with another country, improvisations on film do help the movie.)

Everything about the picture works, from the on-the-fly shots of a sweltering Brooklyn day Lumet himself stole on the streets to the almost unutterably sad finale at Laguardia. It’s perhaps Lumet’s best New York movie, in a career full of them, largely I think because the feelings between people are so beautifully evoked. It’s an extraordinarily stripped-down picture; there’s nothing in it that is not germane, or organic, to the story and the characters, and that very much includes the lack of a musical score. As much a fan of movie scoring as I am, I sometimes feel that music clutters up good movies, and falsifies their values. Lumet’s in particular require special handling, and he occasionally (and wisely) eschewed a score, as he did here. The only music we hear in the picture is the Elton John song “Amoreena” playing on Sonny’s car radio during the opening credits, and we’re grateful we don’t hear anything else or the documentary reality Lumet and his splendid director of photography Victor J. Kemper achieve would be shattered, probably beyond repair. Kemper, often shooting with extraordinary depth of field, relied by design on, in Jim Hephill’s apt phrase, lighting from “realistically motivated sources.” It’s one of those rare movies whose look, while beautiful in itself, so completely serves the narrative, the performers and the filmmaker that you can scarcely imagine its cinematography being in any way bettered. A mark of Kemper’s inspiration is that, when at the beginning of the would-be heist Pacino had difficulty quickly pulling his shotgun from its florist’s package, the director of photography kept the cameras rolling; it became one of the picture’s most familiar moments, both grimly funny and a portent for everything that follows. And Pierson, for all that he was open to the actors’ improvisations, provided a strong spine to begin with; his screenplay, dictated by the real events of that day, has an almost perfect structure, and I think it’s no accident that, while the picture took home only a single Oscar™, that award went to him.

While, as with his Fredo Corleone in the two Godfather pictures (and Francis Coppola’s The Conversation in 1974) John Cazale’s role in Dog Day Afternoon is a small one it is as integral to the action, and the performance is no less galvanizing. As Sonny’s confederate Sal, Cazale’s is a quiet presence but an unnerving one. (“I bark,” Sonny tells the bank manager early on in the siege, indicating Sal. “That man there, see him? He bites.”) When things first begin to go haywire, Sal reminds Sonny that their agreement was that neither would surrender, that they would commit suicide first. We can tell from Pacino’s reaction that it was not a promise he took seriously, and he’s a little surprised Sal did. It’s the first such moment in the picture in which Sonny seems to be silently questioning Sal’s stability. (As always, however, Sonny thinks he’s on top of things, just as by burning the bank’s register he inadvertently ensures the heist, nearly at an end, will be stopped in its tracks. ) Cazale was too good an actor ever to indicate, so everything Sal says and does has, for the viewer, the aura of discovery, as when his greatest agitation is being presumed by the media hacks reporting on the robbery to be gay because Sonny is. We, like Sonny, never quite know what Sal will do, and Cazale keeps the character quietly coiled, and unpredictable, throughout.§

As always with Lumet, the small and supporting roles are beautifully cast. Charles Durning, two years earlier Robert Redford’s corrupt bête noire in The Sting and who was often called upon thereafter to bring a certain, often likable bluster to the movies he was cast in, adds a surprisingly humane touch to his role as the NYPD detective sergeant with whom Sonny negotiates (until the Feds takes over, with all too predictable results) while James Broderick as the primary FBI agent is his polar opposite, an essential, calculating chilliness belying his every reassuring smile. Penelope Allen, in life Pacino’s surrogate mother during his early days as a young actor, gives a superb performance as the bank’s head teller, as wry as she is forthright and utterly believable at every level. Dick Anthony Williams makes a marked impression as a limo driver; Dominic Chianese has an amusing bit as Sonny’s father; Judith Malina is pathetic and a little frightening as his smother-mother; and Susan Peretz as Sonny’s estranged wife Angie, is just about perfect: Sweet, hurt, confused and annoying in equal doses. The cherubic young Gary Springer, as the third accomplice who drops out early when the guns come out, is quite good in his brief role and, his cute rump packed tightly into his jeans, he reminds those of us who came of age in the mid 1970s how much we miss seeing boys in brush denims.


Sidney Lumet was one of the first contemporary American filmmakers I became aware of during the early stages of my adolescent love affair with movies, when I realized he’d directed three of the recent pictures I’d most enjoyed, and admired, either at the theatre (Murder on the Orient Express, Network) or on television (this one, heavily edited for language but, surprisingly, not much else). Seeing his name attached to a movie was not of course a guarantor of flawless quality, but even when he made a failure it was bound to be more interesting, and intelligent, than most of what was around. I once said to an initially puzzled friend, while Lumet was still alive, that he was our own William Wyler. I meant that Lumet had range. Like Wyler he specialized — with Wyler it was melodrama, with Lumet New York crime stories — but beyond that he could do almost anything. (Although he didn’t think he was especially good at comedy, a self-assessment with which I respectfully disagree.) And discovering through the years that he was adamantly opposed to the wholesale embrace of auteurism (he rightly thought it asinine) made me admire him even more. He would, I think, be both baffled and irritated to discover that a recent documentary celebrating his work is called By Sidney Lumet. That “by” would probably have enraged him.

Sidney Lumet with his star. Note the sweaters and jackets worn on this “dog day afternoon.”

Lumet was, possibly by dint of the number of television shows he directed before making his first features, an absolute master of the technology of movies. His creative use of lenses, always in service to character and story, is, while not generally showy, almost phenomenally right. A Lumet camera does not call attention to itself. The images don’t grin at you, shouting, “See how clever I am?” Yet they are nearly unerring in their framing, their placement, and in how they’re arrived at. I challenge you to find one moment in Dog Day Afternoon that feels out of place, or show-offy, or wrong. The only tiny flaw I can think of is in the first night scene, when I thought I briefly spotted Pacino’s breath in what it turns out was a cold September evening of shooting doubling for the high heat of August. That’s it.

Much is, correctly, said about the high quality of personal filmmaking in the 1970s, especially as contrasted with the soulless corporate pabulum that has come after. And just why Sidney Lumet is so seldom discussed along with the Coppolas, the Altmans, the Scorseses, the Ashbys, the Penns, the Bogdanoviches, the Mazurksys and the Pakulas, I don’t know. But the man who directed Serpico, Network and Dog Day Afternoon contributed as much to what made that decades’s American movies so unique as any of his contemporaries. And he would go on making quality pictures, about people, many decades after it had ceased to be considered fashionable. Dog Day Afternoon is not merely a time-capsule movie because it captures the way New Yorkers looked, spoke, dressed and acted circa 1974, but because it was made in a foreign country. One, as L.P. Hartley famously observed in the opening lines of The Go-Between, where they did things differently. Like making great movies on a regular basis.


*That cry meant something in 1975; now we have to explain what it means. Well, look it up yourself; Daddy can’t spoon-feed you everything. It is interesting to note, however, in view of the fact that moment quickly became the most famous in the movie, that the suggestion to Pacino for the chant came not from the screenplay, or even Lumet, but from Burtt Harris, the picture’s Assistant Director, just before a take.

†It’s no good arguing that the modern American gay rights movement was less than a decade old then and the tactics were those the times required when you can easily imagine a similar bunch pulling that sort of act today, and for identical reasons. Add in the transsexual element (Sonny’s performing the bank heist to get money for Leon’s sex-change) and you’ve got a perfect identity-politics moment, ripe for now. And anyone, even a gay commentator, who critiqued the motivations behind the group’s appearance, or its banner (“We Love You, Sonny!” for a man they’ve never met and would probably avoid if they had) would instantly be labeled a “CIS-gendered hater” or a bigot in every realm of social media.

‡The Village Voice writer Arthur Bell, who knew the real John Wojtowicz (“Sonny” in the picture) claims the heist was Mafia-oriented and the operation for Ernie Aron (“Leon”) peripheral to the scheme. But since Frank Pierson tried repeatedly, and without success, to get Wojtowicz to talk to him, he had, ultimately, to write his own version of the events based on what had already been reported.

§Wojtowicz was supposedly offended by what he saw as the movie’s insinuation that he sold Sal out to the FBI. Although you could conceivably read the action that way, and while it is possible Sonny is as relieved as grieved at the end after Sal is shot, I don’t think either Lumet or Pierson in any way implied such collusion.

Text copyright 2021 by Scott Ross

Monthly Report: January 2021

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By Scott Ross

Note: This went out initially as “January 2020.” Thanks to Eliot M. Camarena for catching the new-year typo; it always takes me a month or two after the 1st to recalibrate.

Anastasia (1956) Arthur Laurents, who adapted the Marcelle Maurette play — itself translated for the English-speaking stage by the playwright and lyricist Guy Bolton — considered Anastasia a fairy-tale, and although it’s ostensibly based in fact there’s little sense in the picture that anyone involved in making it thought they were recreating history. (Even the main setting is off; the actual events took place largely in Berlin, but the director, Anatole Litvak, wanted to shoot in Paris, and did.) In the late 1920s a young woman was presented by exiled White Russians as the Grand Duchess Anastasia, who had somehow miraculously survived the massacre of the Czar’s family in 1918. DNA tests since the woman’s death have proven she wasn’t who she claimed to be, and she was likely mad, but it’s an irresistible set-up for a romantic pastiche, and the movie, taken as a fable, is grand entertainment anchored to three superb central performances, by Ingrid Bergman, Yul Brynner and Helen Hayes. (Four, if you count Martita Hunt’s marvelous turn as the Dowager Empress’ lady-in-waiting.) Although much of the picture takes place on Andrew Low’s excellent sets (look especially for the elevated trains running outside Bergman’s windows) it’s beautifully lit and shot by Jack Hildyard, who also photographed Summertime and The Bridge on the River Kwai for David Lean. The sumptuous score with its infectious, Russian-inspired main theme, was by Alfred Newman. For a more historically accurate but far less entertaining look at the Czar’s family, see the 1971 Nicholas and Alexandra.


Dark Passage (1947) An effective thriller somewhat undone by the plot’s emphasis on coincidence and melodrama but a must for admirers of Bogart, of which fraternity your correspondent has long been an enthusiastic member. Lauren Bacall is rather better here than she would be a year later in the John Huston and Richard Brooks adaptation of Key Largo, perhaps because her character is less wholesome. Written and directed by Delmer Daves from a novel (and first-draft screenplay) by David Goodis, the picture concerns a convict (Bogart), previously found guilty of a murder he did not commit, who escapes prison, falls under the wing of a sympathetic woman artist (Bacall), changes his face and attempts to clear himself in San Francisco. What the movie has, aside from Bogart, are: A good Franz Waxman score; excellent cinematography by Sidney Hickox; effective editing by David Weisbart; and imaginative direction from Daves, who, because of the plastic surgery the Bogart character will later receive, shoots much of the first third from the actor’s point of view, often with a then-novel hand-held camera. Amidst the good supporting cast the always splendid Agnes Moorehead gives good account of a woman for whom the happiness of others is a misery and who is herself only content when she’s making everyone else unhappy, Tom D’Andrea contributes a lovely performance as a sympathetic cabbie, and Clifton Young is very fine as a pathetic opportunist with a grudge. Bogart has the unenviable job of making a marked impression when, first, we don’t see his face and, later, we can’t. Of course, only Bogart sounded like Bogart. Nevertheless, he comes through like a champion.


His Girl Friday (1940) Despite the terrible title — in the argot of the period, a girl Friday was an office assistant, certainly not an ace reporter as Rosalind Russell’s feminized Hildy Johnson is here — this is the best, and funniest, of the three major movie versions of the venerable Hecht and McArthur play The Front Page. The fast Howard Hawks pace is a factor, certainly, as is the casting of Russell, and Cary Grant as Walter Burns; their breakneck, often overlapping banter (some from the play but much of it added by Hawks, Charles Lederer and the uncredited Hecht, Morrie Ryskind and Chet La Roche to reflect the characters’ status as newly divorced husband and wife) is, to employ an overused term, dazzling and their comic aplomb at lobbing it close to sublime. It’s hard to believe, watching her in this, that until her work as the rich bitch Sylvia in The Women in 1939, Russell was known primarily for drama. That performance, like Grant’s in The Awful Truth, seems to have liberated her, and I suspect she realized that she could go where she may have thought was too far and that a good director could modify her characterization downward, or let it fly as necessary without doing damage either to the piece or to her acting in it. Her Hildy Johnson is scaled exactly right, sometimes midway between calculation and rasping hysteria and always with the right mix of brains, femininity, reporting instincts and an ambition nearly as ruthless as Walter Burns’ own.

The only thing that defeats her are those awful clothes.


Dances With Wolves (1990) Extended Version A movie I’ve long admired, and always enjoy seeing, but which despite the many great things in it somehow skirts greatness. Possibly because the picture also needed a great actor at its core and didn’t get one?


Time After Time (1979) Nicholas Meyer’s debut as writer-director, adapted from Karl Alexander’s clever novel, itself inspired by Meyer’s ingenious Sherlock Holmes pastiche The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. Alexander’s conceit (and that of Steve Hayes, with whom he created the original story, as a screenplay) concerns Jack the Ripper stealing a time machine constructed by H.G. Wells, prompting Wells to follow his quarry into 20th century San Francisco. The picture was slightly hampered by its low budget, particularly in the time-travel sequence, although the second half of that looks quite good. Paul Lohmann’s beautiful, deep-focus widescreen cinematography is a decided asset, as is the wonderful score by Miklós Rózsa. Malcolm McDowell, who’d become associated before this with a number of unpleasant characters and pictures (Caligula, Stanley Kubrick’s repulsive A Clockwork Orange), makes a charming Wells, David Warner an effective (and, at the end, oddly pitiable) Jack and the adorable Mary Steenburgen a perfect mate for McDowell, although Meyer saddles her character with some unfortunate crudity in the dialogue. It’s not as delicious as the Holmes picture, or as satisfying, but for a maiden effort it’s an enjoyable, intelligent entertainment. Remember those?


Song of the South (1946) The self-censorship by the Walt Disney Company of this often charming movie (and anything that springs from it) is far more dispiriting than the picture’s rather idealized depiction of black sharecropping life in the postbellum South.


The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945) A mildly amusing comedy-fantasy that, while no classic, is also nowhere near the turkey its star, Jack Benny, used to pretend. Benny, as an angel perennially frustrated in his attempts to blow his horn and end the earth, is occasionally hilarious; the director Raoul Walsh keeps the action moving at a dizzy clip; the light-hearted score by Franz Waxman is so good the composer later adapted it into a comic overture called “Athanael the Trumpeter”; the photography by Sidney Hickox (who also shot Dark Passage) is splendid; and there are two funny sequences of characters clinging for dear life from the side of a skyscraper that are also rather terrifying, especially if, like me, you suffer from acrophobia. Alexis Smith a quarter century before Follies illustrates why she was a pin-up dish in the Forties and the good supporting cast (almost everyone has two roles) includes Dolores Moran, Allyn Joslyn, Reginald Gardiner, John Alexander, Guy Kibbee, Margaret Dumont, Mike Mazurki, the young Robert Blake (as a bratty schoolboy) and, as a hotel detective, the peerless Franklin Pangborn, whose repeated slow-burn “take,” with one eyebrow raised and one eye narrowed to a slit, never fails to slay me.


Left to right: Max Montor, Estelle Taylor, David Landau, Eleanor Wesselhoeft and Beulah Bondi.

Street Scene (1931) A good, if stagy, early talkie of the 1929 Pulitzer winner for drama by Elmer Rice, with effective cinematography by George Barnes and Gregg Toland and fine acting by a cast that includes a number of the actors who played it on Broadway: Matt McHugh, Eleanor Wesselhoeft, T.H. Manning, Ann Kostant, George Humbert, Conway Washburne, John Qualen and the inimitable Beulah Bondi as the neighborhood’s all-purpose Gentile yenta. Sylvia Sidney is the nominal star, William Collier, Jr. plays the Jewish boy who loves her, and the cast is largely excellent apart from Estelle Taylor and David Landau as Sidney’s parents. Landau growls all of his (admittedly one-noted) lines like a stevedore who’s just discovered a lefty on his work-crew, and Taylor never stops posing. (See photo above for a representative sampling.) The multi-ethnic “slice-of-life” quality of Rice’s play has dated badly, but there is still genuine emotion within it, well-mined by King Vidor, who is, alas, only allowed a wider, more cinematic, canvas in the last quarter. Alfred Newman’s Gershwinesque main theme is still impressive. (Kurt Weill and Langston Hughes later musicalized the Rice play for their opera-like musical drama of, as they used to say, the same name, out of which came the exquisite, haunting ballad “Lonely House.”)

Interestingly, while Conway Washburne plays the building’s young expectant father, something about him reads, in a largely indefinable fashion (or in any case to me) as gay. I was reminded by Washburne of another young actor in an early ’30s talkie, Harold Waldridge from Five-Star Final. And, as with Waldridge, I can find almost nothing about him save that he had very few Broadway credits and died single, and rather young.


Dog Day Afternoon (1975) Arguably Al Pacino’s finest performance, at least in his youth, in one of the director Sidney Lumet’s most representative “New York movies.” Virtually no one today would know how to do it, or would care to.

That’s always assuming there is a New York left to film in, a proposition increasingly less secure thanks to the city’s mayor and the state’s governor, both of whom seem determined to destroy one of the world’s hitherto great capitals, more and more a dystopic ghost-town from which everyone with the means to do so is now fleeing.


They’re young – they want gaiety, laughter, ha-cha-cha! They want to dance ’til the cows come home!

Monkey Business (1931) The Marx Bros.’ third feature, and their first original (i.e., not based on one of their stage triumphs) is a wild, anarchic collection of largely unrelated gags and sequences set first on an ocean liner in which the boys have stowed away, later at the swanky home of an American gangster. It was written largely by S.J. Perlman and Will B. Johnstone with, as they used to say, additional dialogue by Arthur Sheekman, who became one of Groucho’s favorites. Among the highlights: Harpo’s routine with the Punch and Judy show; the four brothers trying to get through Customs, each pretending he is Maurice Chevalier; and Groucho vamping Thelma Todd. Todd, who is also in Horsefeathers (1932), was the closest thing the Marx pictures ever got to a real match for Groucho. She’s nearly as daffy as he is, and completely game. Whether she’d ever follow through is academic; I suspect Groucho would run from any woman who actually gave in without a fight.

The movie doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.


The Godfather (1972), The Godfather, Part II (1974), The Godfather, Part III (1990) and The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone (1990/2020)

The recent Godfather Coda clarifies some things that were muddy before, such as Donal Donnelly’s previously unexplained remark in the earlier opening sequence about the Church having an agreement with the Corleones, and is a bit tighter generally, but loses an occasional nice moment — such as Eli Wallach’s Don Altobello pouring Sicilian olive oil on his bread — that, while not essential, is like an unexpected grace-note. The ending, which Coppola claims is also clearer, is every bit as opaque now as it was in 1990. Is this a leap forward from 1980 to 1990, or is it instead a dying Michael’s dream of how he’d like his life to end, the way his father’s did? I’ve never known, and I still don’t.

I also don’t know what, if anything, is left to say about the first two masterworks that hasn’t been said, better than I could, and by the possessors of finer minds than mine. The 2008 “Coppola Restoration” makes Gordon Willis’ rich cinematography (not even nominated for an Oscar™ that year) in the first look more lustrous than it has in decades, although in the second the faces are sometimes, inexplicably, orange. I will, however, venture one, negative, observation: In every Godfather picture, Coppola and Mario Puzo saddled Diane Keaton with the only bad lines. I don’t think either was really interested in writing about women.


Under glass: Robert Mandan and James Coborn.

The Carey Treatment (1972) I can’t quite imagine why, after the MGM chief James Aubrey “cut the heart out” of Blake Edwards‘ beautiful 1970 Western Wild Rovers, Edwards believed that Aubrey would leave him alone on this interesting medical mystery thriller. The filmmaker later claimed, not without reason, that Aubrey deliberately set him up to destroy him, and Edwards tried without success to take his name off the completed movie. (The screenwriters, John D.F. Black, Harriet Frank Jr. and Irving Ravetch, were luckier; the movie is credited to one “James P. Bonne,” a pseudonym.) Based on A Case of Need, a good but somewhat meandering early Michael Crichton thriller published under the nom de plume Jeffery Hudson, the movie retains the basic narrative arc — pathologist investigates the botched abortion murder of an underage girl — but alters much of the surrounding detail and even some of the plot, making the central character much more of a maverick than he is in the novel, as well as a Chandleresque smart-ass even when it’s foolish, and dangerous, to mouth off. And while Edwards received no screenplay credit, the writer-director’s touch is everywhere: In the widescreen images, the use of deception, the general look of the picture, its interest in the process of investigation, and in much of the dialogue; the Ravetches were fine scenarists, but an abundance of sparkling wit was not among their hallmarks as screen writers.

James Coburn gets more than a massage from Michael Blodgett. (Photo by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images)

Although Edwards maintained that the studio head butchered his movie, it’s difficult to tell exactly where Aubrey interfered; the man John Houseman famously dubbed “The Smiling Cobra” pulled the plug with ten days’ filming left to go, so obviously it’s an incomplete picture, but just what is missing I can’t say. I do suspect that the moment in which Michael Blodgett’s homicidal masseur attempts to murder Coburn by driving his car through a telephone booth is less effective than it might be due to the foreshortened schedule (we never see the car hit the booth) but another complicated sequence, in which Coburn’s Carey terrifies the murder victim’s boarding school roommate (Jennifer Edwards, the director’s daughter, and excellent) by driving erratically along the coast near Boston, does not suffer from similar limitations. I wish Roy Budd’s score was more interesting (Edwards was feuding with Henry Mancini at the time) but Frank Stanley’s cinematography is rich and varied, and the performances by an equally charming and abrasive Coburn and a large supporting cast cannot be faulted. The latter includes Jennifer O’Neill, lovely as Carey’s girlfriend; Pat Hingle as a phlegmatic police captain (he was more of a dangerous, possibly corrupt, martinet in the novel); Skye Aubrey as a suspect junkie nurse Carey terrorizes into submission; Dan O’Herlihy as the victim’s patrician father; Alex Dreier as her gourmand uncle; and Blodgett, creepily effective as a remorseless killer. James Hong contributes a fulsome portrait as the falsely accused physician, Elizabeth Allen gets a good scene as the girl’s rich lush of a stepmother, and Robert Mandan, Regis Toomey and John Hillerman also give effective brief performances.

Two additional points of interest in this early ’70s movie: First, Edwards’ use of glass as a recurring motif gives a good but not exceptional thriller some visual fascination, suggesting transparent Bostonian and institutional repression without beating you over the head with the idea. Second, the picture, like the novel, hinges on illegal abortions performed by a conscientious doctor who believes alleviating his patients’ distress is more important than obeying what he sees as a bad law. In America at least, the entire business would become legally moot in less than a year. (Although, of course, the emotional drama goes on.)


Child’s Play (1972) In his marvelous little book Making Movies, Sidney Lumet admitted that he knew this adaptation by Leon Prochnik of Robert Marasco’s play wasn’t going to work after two days of rehearsal. What made the melodrama, one of the few non-musical hits of its time, so frightening on stage, Lumet felt, had been lost, and all he could do was shepherd it to the screen as best he could. The picture isn’t bad, by any means, and its tale of creepy, seeming mass-hysteria in a Catholic boy’s school is largely well-acted, especially by Robert Preston and James Mason as warring teachers, Beau Bridges as a former student now engaged as a physical education instructor and David Rounds as a bibulous young priest. (Marlon Brando was originally slated for Preston’s role, which probably helped lure Lumet to the project.) The dialogue, as John Simon noted in his contemporaneous review of the play, is refreshingly intelligent but (as Simon also pointed out) the plot and the action are sheer nonsense. I don’t know what the limitations of Lumet’s shooting on the Marymount Secondary School in Tarrytown were, but he seldom shoots out of doors, and the student body of what late in the action we see is clearly a very large campus is, as far as the movie is concerned, puny. Gerald Hirschfeld’s cinematography is impressive, and adds immeasurably to the increasingly unpleasant atmosphere, but Michael Small’s electronic score is aggressively annoying. Still, Preston cannily brings his engaging persona to a role in which expansive bonhomie cloaks a murderous fascistic spirit while Mason, conversely, plays a humorless, demanding taskmaster who genuinely cares about educating the boys.

Perhaps the best (or at least, the funniest) fallout of the movie is Lumet’s anecdote concerning the picture’s producer, the “Abominable Showman” David Merrick. Lumet shot and had screened for key personnel two endings, because he couldn’t decide which to use. When the lights came up Merrick, seated in the back row, derisively asked, “Is that it?” Lumet shot back, “Ask me in that tone of voice again and I’ll smack you, you shitheel.”

Merrick, Lumet said, “like all bullies,” beat a hasty retreat from the screening room.


Lionheart (1987) This Franklin J. Schaffner-directed epic about a young noble leading a group of children in a quest for Richard Lionheart, and suggested by the ill-fated “Children’s Crusade,” has the quality of a fable or a chapter-book for pubescent readers, with glorious photography by Alec Mills and a score by Jerry Goldsmith so good it got no fewer than three soundtrack LPs (the score in two volumes and a third record containing selected music from the previous releases). The screenplay by Menno Meyjes and Richard Outten is good, and the cast is even better. The latter includes the young and very appealing Eric Stoltz in the lead, Gabriel Byrne at his most despicable as the Black Prince and, as the young people, Nicola Cowper, Dexter Fletcher, Deborah Moore, Chris Pitt and Sammi Davis. Paul Rhys is also on hand, and excellent, as the young Mayor of the Underground City in Paris. And like a good fable, the picture goes down with pleasant ease.


A Star is Born (1954) The 1983 restoration by Ronald Haver of the first musical version of that now-familiar saga of a young woman on her way up aided by an older man plummeting downward. Although I’m grateful to Haver for his preservation work, it’s always hard when I see the picture not to wish that the overlong (15 minutes!) “Born in a Trunk” number, not shot by the director George Cukor, had never been added to the already long original. It goes on and on, and adds nothing, just as the restoration of the later “Lose That Long Face” production number is superfluous to the action, rubbing in the irony of Garland performing it while her heart is breaking. She’s terrific, of course, but James Mason as the doomed Norman Maine is staggering; he anatomizes anguish without even facing the camera, acting with his shoulders.

Cukor, working in CinemaScope from an excellent Moss Hart screenplay (and with a lovely song score by Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin) ignored everything he was told he could not do with the new format, and while his camera occasionally goes out of focus on a tracking shot, his grasp of imagery and his assured use of that huge letterbox-shaped screen, are superb.

Text copyright 2021 by Scott Ross

Gone are the days: “Song of the South” (1946)

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By Scott Ross

“The principle [of censorship] is wrong. It’s like demanding that grown men live on skim milk because the baby can’t have steak.” — Robert Heinlein, “The Man Who Sold the Moon”

While no one now could claim that this musical fable centered around three of Joel Chandler Harris’ “Uncle Remus” stories presents a wholly accurate portrait of the grim economic and social realties facing black sharecroppers (and their white-trash counterparts) in the postbellum South, the picture was also never the racist fantasy it’s been painted as — accusation of which caused the Disney company to lock it away in its vaults during the 1980s on what one presumes is a permanent basis. (Although the veteran black animator and “Disney Legend” Floyd Norman has repeatedly called for the picture to be reissued.)

This is lamentable not merely because the animated Br’er Rabbit sequences are so beautifully and imaginatively done but because depriving everyone in America from ever again enjoying James Baskett’s rich portrayal of Uncle Remus merely on the basis of your being personally offended it exists seems to me the height of arrogance. Indeed, censoring this performance is itself a form a reverse racism, especially since it’s an historic one. I’m not referring to the then-novel (and, in the case of Song of the South, nearly flawless) blend of live action and cartoons or even to how charming, and ultimately moving, Baskett is but to his being the picture’s starring role, and to the actor’s having been given a special Academy Award for his work, the first time a black man was cited, and only the second in which a person of color was honored… and at the insistence not only of Walt Disney but, surprisingly, of no less a reactionary than Hedda Hopper.* (All of which is doubly bittersweet because diabetes-related heart failure felled the relatively youthful actor — he was 44 — a few months later, before he could capitalize on his new-found fame.)

Ingrid Bergman hands James Baskett his Honorary Oscar™. To their left is Jean Hersholt, for whom the “Humanitarian Award” was named. Note that while Uncle Remus was bald, Baskett was not.

Some of the blame for the controversy, then as now, belongs squarely in Walt Disney’s lap. The Production Code Office warned him to make plain in the opening credits that the story takes place after the Civil War, and his refusal to do so has caused countless children and other ignoramuses over the years to assume the action occurs during the hostilities. Walt should have known better, but this opprobrium can only extend so far. First, anyone seeing the picture who doesn’t realize that no slave could, as Remus does, leave his plantation at his own whim is either a child, a professional victim or an idiot unable to follow the outlines of a simple story. Second, there are thousands of old movies made in this country that no longer accurately reflect the way Americans live, act or speak (if they ever did) but somehow only those involving a narrow spectrum of race, ethnicity or gender (and now, presumably, gender fluidity) are considered thoroughly beyond the pale. It is true that the inclusion of the Tar Baby narrative is unfortunate, even though it’s wonderfully animated and its payoff is probably the most famous in Harris’ original stories… the provenance of which, like the good newspaperman he was, their chronicler insisted be verified by at least two sources. (Although, again, Floyd Norman argues that the Tar Baby itself was not intended as representative of race, in this one instance I’m not sure I can agree with him.) And if Ruth Warrick as the plantation-raised mother of Bobby Driscoll’s Johnny comes off as imperious with Remus, it’s not merely because she grew up before the war and is used to ordering blacks around but because she’s incapable of seeing what her lonely young son needs, and how much of it the gentle old storyteller supplies. (She learns.)

Song of the South as I first knew it, on the oddly titled 1960s reissue of the soundtrack album, bought for my birthday when I was eight years old. (Three years before I saw the movie itself.)

Although the score lacks the unity so often found in the best Disney pictures, what with so many different hands working on its songs, it has a number that reflect Negro folk music of the period: Ken Darby and Foster Carling’s lyrics for “Let the Rain Pour Down,” for example, are set to “Midnight Special”; Darby’s new version of “All I Want” is based in a traditional arrangement; “Uncle Remus Said” by Eliot Daniel, Hy Heath and Johnny Lange has the feel of a period campfire song; Hattie McDaniel’s cooking solo “Sooner or Later” (by Charles Wolcott and Ray Gilbert) is reminiscent of a sly blues; and all of the black choral numbers are performed by the Hall Johnson Choir. The Academy Award-winning “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” written by Allie Wrubel and Ray Gilbert, has a happy swing and its lyrics, anchored to a nonsense word recalling the songs of Stephen Foster, probably made Johnny Mercer, who later recorded it, grin with a native Atlantan’s delight in wordplay. (Some claim the song is based in the racist “Zip Coon” but it seems, at least to me, more influenced by Foster’s “Camptown Races” with its nonsensical “Doo-Dah” chorus.) The main title theme evokes the lyrics of Foster’s “Old Black Joe” (“I seem to hear those gentle voices calling low”) and although the infectious “Everybody’s Got a Laughing Place” (also by Wrubel and Gilbert) is the better remembered of the cartoon sequence songs, the spritely “How Do You Do?” (written by Robert MacGimsey) is for my money the score’s best, especially as performed by Baskett and Johnny Lee (Br’er Rabbit) with assistance from some other animated fauna. (And if you listen to it carefully, you might almost swear its main tune is almost a sped-up “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.”)

Harve Foster was the movie’s live-action director, and he does a pleasing job of it, as does his cinematographer, the great Gregg Toland. The pair frames the action largely from Driscoll’s point of view, except when the vision, in the Bre’r Rabbits stories, is Baskett’s, and while too clean by half it’s less a celebration of plantation noblesse oblige than a remarkably (considering the time the movie was made, and who made it) clear-eyed depiction of the postbellum Southern working class. Perry Ferguson, Orson Welles’ art director on Citizen Kane, was responsible for the effective sets, and having lived many years in the South I’m especially impressed by the recreation of the distinctive red clay. Wilfred Jackson directed the animated sequences, and they’re glorious, richly colored and lively without freneticism. Bill Peet was one of the animating directors and the animators and designers included Ken Anderson, Mary Blair, Les Clark, Marc Davis. Al Dempster, Ollie Johnson, Milt Kahl, Eric Larson, John Lounsbery, Don Lusk and Paul Murry, later the best of the many artists who drew Mickey Mouse and Goofy — and Bre’r Rabbit — for comic books. Driscoll is excellent, as always†, never seeming to act but only to be, and Glenn Leedy is enormously likable as his plantation playmate and official guardian. But little Luana Patten as his unofficial white trash girlfriend is astonishing; she doesn’t appear to be acting at all, merely behaving, as if she didn’t know there a camera recording her. (She also seems much younger than her eight years.)

Baskett with his young co-stars. From left, Luana Patten, Glenn Leedy and Bobby Driscoll.

The live action screenplay (by Morton Grant, Maurice Rapf and Dalton S. Reymond) is, while in some respects idealized, and within the narrative and dialogue limitations of the period in which the picture was made, more than serviceable, especially when dealing with the picture’s black characters, to whom I aver it does not condescend. Is Remus a subservient role? Of course; he’s a former slave living on a plantation. Is that in itself, as has been claimed of it, somehow “demeaning”? I don’t see how. Millions did so after the war, and millions spoke in unlettered dialect, just as Remus does, and as did the people from whom Harris adapted his tales, because they had never been educated. This simple (indeed, Simon simple) concept always escapes the narrow minds of the identity-politics censor.

My praise of a number of elements in Song of the South is not meant to imply that this is an entirely blameless movie; a black viewer brings to it a perspective I can’t pretend to have, and it may be that I am somehow missing the obvious. I don’t think I am, but Gone with the Wind and The Birth of a Nation are much more problematic and we’re still permitted to see them.‡ As we should be. But just try telling that to the Newly Woke, for whom the mere fact of their personal displeasure justifies any and all acts of censorship… against others.

No work of popular art, whatever its provenance and however it is viewed, either at the time of its making or later, should ever be censored, or hidden from view. This is perhaps especially true of that which offends; we must be able to see, and hear, and read, the offensive, the vile, the derogatory, the misogynist, the homophobic and the racist. To pretend otherwise is also to pretend those things do not exist. How can we ever learn to arm ourselves against such evils if we refuse to admit of their very existence? Once censorship, cloaking itself in the mantle of virtue, begins, there is no end to it. One day the target is a movie such as Song of the South, the next something like Samuel Fuller’s White Dog, and after that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Personally, I’d rather not live in a world where Mark Twain’s masterpiece about American racism is itself considered racist, by people who’ve never read it.§

Besides: Sooner or later the target will be something you love — or worse, something you made.


*Disney’s sensitivity to Baskett did not, howver, extend to a consideration of the location he chose for the picture’s premiere: Atlanta, where his star could not attend without humiliation.

†Driscoll, who was, shockingly, dead by 31 and whose unclaimed body was interred in an unmarked pauper’s grave in Potter’s Field, was rightly cynical about his early fame. Unable to get work as an actor after being released from narcotics rehabilitation he said, with justifiable bitterness, “I have found that memories are not very useful. I was carried on a silver platter — and then dumped into the garbage.”

‡Although I suspect in the case of the latter we wouldn’t be were it up to the idiotic Directors Guild, which in 1999 foolishly stripped the name D.W. Griffith from its highest award. Never mind that Griffith more or less invented the language of film. The professionally Woke must be ever-vigilant in rewriting history to suit a dangerously narrow frame of popular reference.

§The “Uncle Remus” controversy extends even to the representation of Bre’r Rabbit at Disneyland; petitioners recently got Disney to remove all trace of the animated characters from Song of the South from the park’s “Splash Mountain” attraction, where their mere existence seems to have sent hundreds fleeing for their fainting couches.

Special thanks to Eliot M. Camarena.

Text copyright 2021 by Scott Ross

Necrology: January 2021

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By Scott Ross

Michael Apted, 79.
Apted was a young researcher on Paul Almond’s BBC documentary Seven Up! (1964) and later chronicled the lives of its 14 participants in seven-year installments. (The last, in 2019, was 63 Up.) His approach has been criticized for, among other things, a patronizing attitude, but as I have seen none of the series I’m afraid I can’t comment on it one way or the other. Aside from the dispiriting 1987 Richard Pryor picture Critical Condition which I walked out on, the Apted movies I have seen suggest a filmmaker of intelligence and taste, attributes not to be sneezed at, especially now.

The solution to the problem of a very tall leading lady and a very short leading man: Make a joke of it.

These include Agatha (1979), written by Kathleen Tynan, a clever fantasia on a famous brief disappearance by Agatha Christie in the late 1920s; Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980), one of the better pop music “biopics,” with a superb central performance by Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn and excellent support from Beverly D’Angelo as Patsy Cline; Gorky Park (1983), a beautifully made adaptation (by Dennis Potter) of the Martin Cruz Smith thriller which, while it telescoped a complex novel, also did honor to it; Gorillas in the Mist (1988) while undermined by a truly terrible Maurice Jarre score, was a good examination of the life and murder of Dian Fossey, splendidly portrayed by Sigourney Weaver; Class Action (1991), a neat courtroom thriller starring Gene Hackman and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio; and Thunderheart (1992), which fictionalized the 1973 Wounded Knee incident with intelligence and compassion and contained lovely performances by Val Kilmer and Graham Greene. (The same year Apted made a documentary on the subject, Incident at Oglala.) Apted also directed the nastiest of the Pierce Brosnan Bonds, The World is Not Enough (1999) and a very good adaptation by Tom Stoppard of the Robert Harris novel Enigma (2001), an espionage mystery set at Bletchley Park in 1943.


Bernstein, left, with Woody Allen on the set of The Front. Allen isn’t bad, until the climax, where he proves negatively the difference between an actor and a personality. Always hire an actor.

Walter Bernstein, 101.
Bernstein’s screenwriting career almost ended before it had properly begun; he was blacklisted after only one Hollywood credit (Kiss the Blood Off My Hands, 1948) and spent years toiling anonymously for television, his highly regarded scripts going out onto the airwaves under other men’s names. (At least one of these fronts earned a well-paid movie contract on the basis of Bernstein’s scripts. “Careers were made on my talent,” he observed.) Among the series for which he wrote for CBS, where he was covered for by a sympathetic producer, were “The Philco Television Playhouse,” “Danger” and “You Are There.” He also wrote a 1958 adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s beautiful novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Bernstein first tried the ruse of a pseudonym (Paul Bauman) but eventually had to kill his nom de plume (in a Swiss avalanche!) when his increasingly desperate ploys to avoid network executives ran out of gas. He was amused that anyone would think most American communists capable of a violent overthrow of the government: “No one I knew in the Party ever dreamed of it,” he wrote in his 2000 blacklist memoir Inside Out. “Our meetings might have been less boring if they had.” (Attention, Nancy Pelosi!) Otto Preminger and Kirk Douglas both took credit for ending the blacklist of screenwriters, but it seems to me that Sidney Lumet did it, and earlier, when Bernstein got credit for the 1959 Sophia Loren drama That Kind of Woman. Perhaps it got less ink because it was made in New York?

Fail-Safe (1964): Fritz Weaver as the homicidal maniac Curtis LeMay figure is led away, too late. Happily for the world the original was, somehow, kept in check.

Bernstein worked with Lumet again, on the quietly terrifying nuclear war thriller Fail-Safe (1964), a deadly serious treatment of material similar to that Stanley Kubrick and Terry Southern were making ridiculous the same year with Dr. Strangelove. He wrote Semi-Tough (1977), Yanks (1979) and both wrote and directed the 1980 remake of Little Miss Marker starring Walter Matthau and Julie Andrews. Bernstein also did uncredited work on The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Train (1964) and collaborated thrice with the director Martin Ritt, on Paris Blues (1960), The Molly Maguires (1970) and The Front (1976), the last a labor of love in which former blacklistees who worked before and behind the camera were revealed in the end credits and included Bernstein, Ritt and three of the picture’s stars, Zero Mostel, Lloyd Gough and Herschel Bernardi. This earnest comic drama tends toward wish-fulfilment (Woody Allen telling members of a HUAC committee to go fuck themselves and being cheered by supporters as he’s carted off to prison) but it’s also funny and moving and brought the Blacklist home to millions who had either forgotten about it, or didn’t know it had happened. In our current climate of American liberals screeching for the censoring of anyone with whom they disagree and the Speaker of the House nattering on with inane senescence about “domestic terrorists” and “the enemy within,” The Front, whatever its flaws, should be revived, and heeded.


Cloris Leachman, 94.
Leachman’s status as an Academy Award winner led off nearly every headline about her death, predictably and prosaically. But you don’t define a career as varied as hers, or a gift as wide, by noting that she was given a gold-plated statuette. (Besides, she had a lot of those.) Who else, in a period of three years, could have so publicly played a good-humored whore babbling inanely about how much she really likes Butch Cassidy, Mary Tyler Moore’s vain, impossible landlady and a woman whose loveless (and sexless) marriage leaves her so desperately lonely she begins an affair with a callow high school boy who will eventually drive her to even great despair? That last was the Oscar™-winner, of course, in Peter Bogdanovich’s beautiful adaptation of the Larry McMurtry novel The Last Picture Show. Although Leachman’s entire performance is courageous, she likely got the award for her final scene with Timothy Bottoms, a moment so incendiary with rage and so nakedly revealing of essential aloneness you want to look away from the screen. Yet is her Judith Anderson/Una O’Connor hommage in Young Frankenstein (1974) any less an achievement? Is the iron-breasted Nurse Diesel (“Those who are tardy do not get fruit cup”) in High Anxiety? Is Phyllis Lindstrom? To be that comically irrelevant, narcissistic, smug and self-satisfied and still make an audience love you is a prodigious feat, and Leachman almost made it work in her Mary Tyler Moore Show spin-off Phyllis. It wasn’t her fault that the scripts were less sparkling than Mary’s, and anyway the show had, in Stan Daniels’ brilliant Jerry Herman song parody opening, the funniest main title sequence ever to air on American television. I still laugh when I see it, the chortle split between appreciation of Daniels’ payoff line and Leachman’s simultaneous glare at the camera. It’s the look of a woman who knows the joke is true, but doesn’t like hearing anyone say so. We’ve all been there.

Blücher!


Cicely Tyson, 96.
I admit to finding Tyson’s eight-year marriage to the violently abusive Miles Davis as incomprehensible as the spelling of her name. But between 1972 and 1974 she seemed poised to become the most important black actor since Sidney Poitier’s breakthrough, garnering an Academy Award nomination — the first for a black woman — as Best Actress for her incandescent performance in Sounder and, two years later, winning the Emmy™ for her stunning appearance in the television adaptation of Ernest J. Gaines’ The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Here she convincingly aged from a young slave woman to a 110-year old reviewing her life and, at the end, taking a drink from a “Whites Only” water fountain in the early 1960s. The radiant sequence in Sounder in which, without manipulative musical accompaniment, Tyson runs through a field shouting, “Nathan!” as her husband (Paul Winfield), wrested from her side for stealing to feed his Depression-shattered family and now permanently maimed, limps his way toward her, is arguably the single most moving moment in an American movie of the 1970s. And while I last saw Miss Jane Pittman during my high school years, I can still vividly picture the way Tyson slowly, painfully and with infinite dignity, walks to that fountain to make her stand. If her later career was disappointing, nothing that can take the luster from those two indelible performances. As Mr. Welles said to Mr. Bogdanovich, “Peter, you only need one.”

It is not, I don’t think, by the way that Tyson was among the almost impossibly stellar cast of the 1961 production of Jean Genet’s The Blacks: A Clown Show, for some time the longest-running show in Off-Broadway history and in which her co-stars included Maya Angelou, Godfrey Cambridge, Charles Gordone (later the first black playwright to win a Pulitzer, for his No Place to Be Somebody), Lou(is) Gossett, James Earl Jones, Raymond St. Jacques and Roscoe Lee Browne. Imagine going to the theatre and seeing that cast!


Allan Burns and James L. Brooks at Writers Guild of America, West. June 2005. (Photo by Stephen Shugerman/Getty Images)

Alan Burns, 85.
Burns may have been the most influential television writer you never heard of, at least for kids of my generation, and Baby Boom children generally — those for whom the television set was babysitter, friend and, in Harlan Ellison’s memorable term, glass teat. Burns worked extensively with Jay Ward and Bill Scott on Rocky and His Friends and The Bullwinkle Show (85 episodes from 1961-1963) for which he, Chris Hayward and Alex Anderson created Dudley Do-Right. Burns worked as well with Mel Brooks and Buck Henry on Get Smart! (11 episodes, 1968), created the character Cap’n Crunch for Quaker Oats (whose advertisements Ward’s company animated from 1963 until the 1980s), wrote 10 episodes of the highly regarded, if short-lived, He & She (1967-1968), for one of which he won an Emmy™, and several scripts for Love, American Style and Room 222. With fellow Ward alumnus Hayward, Burns created The Munsters (1964 – 1966) and, with James L. Brooks, both created and developed The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1970 — with All in the Family, M*A*S*H and The Bob Newhart Show arguably one of the four best and most admired comedy series of the ’70s. (Among other things, he also wrote the final episode.) Burns’ Paul Sands in Friends and Lovers (1974) ran only slightly longer than He & She, but during the same period he also created the successful MTM spinoffs Rhoda (1974 – 1978) and Lou Grant (1977 – 1982). For the movies he wrote the damn near perfect screenplay for A Little Romance (1979) and the unnecessary but extremely likable Butch and Sundance: The Early Years (also 1979). And if television is a pernicious, numbing and ultimately dangerous medium (and I believe it is) Alan Burns at least helped elevate the tone. Whether that in itself is an evil — making narcotic pabulum more palatable — I leave to you.

Presumably just to keep themselves humble, Burns and Hayward also created the show regarded in its time as the worst ever to air on American television: My Mother, The Car.

Text copyright 2021 by Scott Ross

Richard Amsel: A timeless sense of glamour

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By Scott Ross

Note: This is essentially a re-post of an earlier essay. One of the original images had inexplicably dropped off and the new WordPress “Blocks” system made it impossible for me to re-edit the post without altering and damaging it. Consequently, I have reassembled it here. I also discovered I had mis-attributed some artwork to Amsel which I had thought, in some cases for years, he drew (or in the case of the “The Seven Percent Solution” poster, completed) and have either removed them or amended their entries accordingly.

As before, most of these images, and much of the information, are from Adam McDaniel’s lovely Amsel tribute site.

Richard Amsel’s artwork, evocative of earlier eras but infused with a modernist’s wit and self-conscious sense of style, graced the posters for many of the iconic American movies of the 1970s. His magazine cover art, for TV Guide especially, shimmered and his book covers gave his subjects an eloquence to match their own contents. Although he died, a casualty of the AIDS pandemic, at the obscenely early age of 37, his best work is a timeless reminder of his own, particular and unduplicable, genius.


I first encountered this signature, as distinctive as the work it ornamented, on the poster art for Murder on the Orient Express in 1974. It became a talisman for me; whenever I saw it, I could feel reasonably sure of a rich visual experience to accompany the signature.

This, almost unbelievably, is the work of the 18-year old Amsel, for his high school yearbook, in 1965:

An early self-portrait.


I. Magazines
Amsel created a number of covers in the 1970s and early ’80s, often for TV Guide. Here, a delightful dual portrait of Carol Burnett and her gifted alter-ego, Vicki Lawrence:

Amsel’s study for a cover portrait of Lucille Ball, commemorating her retirement from regular series television (left), and the completed cover (right). As glorious as the finished product was, some hint of soul was lost in the process.

Amsel: “I did not want the portrait to be of Lucy Ricardo, but I didn’t want a modern-day Lucy Carter either. I wanted it to have the same timeless sense of glamour that Lucy herself has. She is, after all, a former Goldwyn Girl. I hoped to capture the essence of all this.”

He did.

Valerie Harper as Rhoda. Amsel captures both the actress and the character’s quirky and stylish clothing choices.

Sometimes the color balances on these beautifully rendered covers were distressingly off by the time the magazines hit the newsstands (ask your mother) and checkout aisles. Here is the art for two such: Hepburn’s ill-advised network television debut as a Connecticut Yankee Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie, and the telecast of Gone with the Wind.

Two beautiful Amsel portraits, for a cover story on John Travolta and the premier of Shōgun, respectively:

Other magazines: Note the Klimt hommage on the first GQ cover, left.

The then-current movie of The Great Gatsby did well enough at the box-office, thanks one presumes, to Redford’s presence, but its real impact was on fashion and style. Images from, and costumes for, it were almost ubiquitous in the popular magazines of 1974.

Lily Tomlin, for the cover of Time. She was then starring in her hit Broadway debut, Appearing Nitely. Amsel, having very little time to create this, drew on a photo of Tomlin used in conjunction with the show and added stars to illustrate that the funny youngster from Laugh-In who did Ernestine and Edith Ann had fully arrived.


II. Music
Amsel art for the front-and-back covers for two RCA Victor This is retrospective LPs from the early 1970s.

Appropriately enough for a young gay man in the ’70s, Amsel was drawn to two of the three big diva icons of the time. Here, Barbra Streisand in the oddly appropriate style of Gustav Klimt:

The cover of the Divine Miss M LP.

Amsel’s artwork for Bette Midler’s 1975 Clams on the Half-Shell Revue: Miss M as she might have been seen by Vargas.

The Divine Miss M in her most archetypal portrait. A New York friend who was there tells me, “This was 6 stories high on The Palace Theater in Times Square.”

Midler à la Alphonse Mucha. Artwork for the Songs for the New Depression LP.

Midler’s once-indispensable backup trio, The Staggering Harlettes.


III. Books
First, the Not-Amsels. Although I previously attributed to Richard Amsel the covers for two of the better paperback movie books of the early 1970s (Leonard Matlin’s Movie Comedy Teams and Marjorie Rosen’s Popcorn Venus) if I’d looked more closely I would have seen that the art for both of these distinctive, nostalgic pop-art designs were signed “Meisel.” You can see, I think, why I was so easily mistaken. (Apart from the fashion illustrator and, later, photographer Steven Meisel I have been unable to find out anything about a graphic artist of the ’70s signing himself “Meisel,” so if anyone can identify the creator of these beautiful covers, please let me know.)

Now for some genuine Amsel: First, for one of Peggy Hudson’s annual Scholastic Books television season run-downs. Note the psychedelic late-’60s visuals. Like, too mod!

The marquee will eventually read Act One: An Autobiography by Moss Hart. Interestingly for an account of an allegedly heterosexual man’s teenage years and early youth, and despite the leading lady here who seems to have eyes only for Mossy, there are no women to speak of in this justly famous theatrical memoir; Hart never mentions girls at all.

The clenched-fisted-men-against-the-world renderings by Amsel of Hart and George S. Kaufman are rather odd.

For a fascinating study of Fitzgerald’s Hollywood years (hotly refuted by Tom Dardis in his contemporaneous Some Time in the Sun) an appropriately shattered Scott, anchored by the Gatsby-esque figure at the bottom.

The unholy marriage of Mucha and Klimt: Sacred (Duse) and profane (Madams.)

Amsel’s cover art for The Madams of San Francisco without the text. Note the cursive signature and, arguably, the Bob Peak influence.

Also in modernist mode, Amsel’s cover for an early ’70s reissue of Romola de Pulszky’s 1934 biography of her husband Vaslav Nijinsky. The “major motion picture,” originally planned by the James Bond co-producer Harry Saltzman to be written by Edward Albee, directed by Tony Richardson and to star Rudolf Nureyev and Paul Scofield, would have to wait until later in the decade, when none of the principals would still be involved. More on this anon.

The “star” portraits are surprisingly undistinguished, but Amsel’s depiction of Selznick captures his intensity, his anxiety, and his essential alone-ness.


IV. Movie Posters
Here is the area in which Richard Amsel carved his most indelible niche, and made his deepest impact. He was doubly lucky to be working when he was. First, in the rich period of poster design before the photographic montage or single image completely supplanted hand-drawn poster artwork and, second, by creating exhibition illustration during the last great period of American movies during which, while some glamour still existed, taking a dramatic chance was de rigeur.

Hello, Dolly!: Amsel captures the “Gay 90s” feeling, filters it through late 1960s pop- and op-art and adds a Mucha headdress (with Spirographed flowers!) to promote a musical that nearly broke its studio. If only the movie itself had exhibited half as much joyous life as Amsel’s artwork for it.

An early Amsel poster, for the German release of a cultural landmark.

Amsel’s first poser art for Robert Altman. The real saloon-door plank on which it’s painted and the carved filigree to either side capture the Western setting while the portraiture suggests the quirky nature of the leads in this, one of the late filmmaker’s true masterpieces.

Amsel’s jokey portrait of Burt Reynolds here is a humorous nod to his then-recent Penthouse centerfold and the total picture a canny evocation of Frank Frazetta’s crime-caper comedy movie posters of the 1960s. (For those familiar with the Ed McBain 87th Precinct novels, Yul Brynner, at extreme left, played The Deaf Man.)

A slightly (Bob) Peak-ish study, for What’s Up, Doc? Amsel limns both the oddball romance of the thing and its classic face nature (the keys.) Top: The color version of the complete drawing. Bottom: A variation, cleverly bifurcated to represent the keys to the co-stars’ San Francisco hotel rooms. Streisand should have hired this man to be her full-time portraitist; she seldom looked more radiant than she did in one of his drawings.

Another one of those “If only the movie had been as distinguished” Amsel posters. That’s Ava Gardner in the background, as Bean’s unwitting inamorata Lily Langtree.

Variations on a theme: First, the superb Amsel image for Irvin Kershner’s underrated adaptation of the Anne Roiphe novel about a young married New Yorker ruefully contemplating her latest pregnancy through a series of wild fantasies and starring a non-singing Barbra. Note the integration of the star’s surname in the title. (And which should have forever ended the mispronunciation of it as “StreiZand,” but didn’t.) Second, the TIME magazine parody version.

One of Amsel’s most memorable designs, evoking the Saturday Evening Post of the 1930s.

Amsel based his concept for The Sting on J.C. Lyendecker’s “Arrow Collar” ads. That Lyendecker used his male lover as a model adds an interesting, if unintentional, twist to what was perceived by some critics as the movie’s un-articulated homoerotic undercurrent. (Adam McDaniel created this comparison image for his original Amsel website.)

A lovely Amsel image for the last Lerner and Leowe musical, best remembered for Gene Wilder’s sweetly uncanny Fox and Bob Fosse’s marvelous “Snake in the Grass” sand-dance in the desert.

Although I’d seen Amsel’s work before, his brilliant design for the Paul Dehn/Sidney Lumet adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express in 1974 was the first of his posters to completely capture my attention. It’s all there: The evocation of 1930s design, the starry cast, the train and even the murder weapon, its filigreed hilt beautifully incorporated into the image of the engine. Wouldn’t this make you want to see the movie? It certainly persuaded me. I still consider this one of the finest examples of the poster designer’s art in all of movies.

A splendid Amsel design for the Stanley Donen mis-fire Lucky Lady starring the third of the era’s big movie/musical divas. If the picture had been half as good as this…

An Amsel concept design for Nashville. Note that he captures the 24 main characters, the country-and-western milieu, and the sense, despite the seemingly amorphous quality of the complex narrative arc, that something is about to explode.

Amsel’s superb artwork for the writer-director Robert Benton’s nifty, semi-comic meditation on the hard-boiled L.A. gumshoe genre starring Lily Tomlin and Art Carney as a very sane kook and the aging shamus she hires.

The Shootist, John Wayne’s final movie. One dying legend playing another: Glendon Swarthout’s terminally ill gunslinger John Books, framed by Amsel faces on a gold and sepia base. (From top left: Richard Boone, Hugh O’Brien, Ron Howard, Sheree North, Lauren Bacall and James Stewart.)

Amsel’s original design for Voyage of the Damned (right) and the release poster (left), in which Janet Suzman’s image (at lower right) was replaced by that of Katharine Ross. A great, agonizing subject undone by tepid filmmaking and overwhelmed by too-starry a cast. On the other hand… Where are the comparable faces today who could fill out that cast-list?

From top left: Orson Welles, Malcom McDowell, Faye Dunaway, Max von Sydow, Oskar Werner, James Mason, Lee Grant, Helmut Griem, José Ferrer, Janet Suzman, Julie Harris, Fernando Rey, Dame Wendy Hiller, Ben Gazzara, Sam Wanamaker, Maria Schell, Michael Constantine and Suzman/Ross. (Not depicted: Denholm Elliott, Nehemiah Persoff, Leonard Rossiter, Victor Spinetti, Luther Adler and Jonathan Pryce!)

Amsel evokes Fin de siècle Vienna (and again, appropriately, the lithographs and jewelry designs of Alphonse Mucha) in his original poster art for Nicholas Meyer’s marvelous Sherlock Holmes pastiche The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. (From left: Nicol Williamson, Laurence, Olivier, Alan Arkin, Vanessa Redgrave.)

The final poster, re-designed and re-drawn by Drew Struzan, omits the woman’s arm and tempting cup (I’m not sure why Amsel included that, since the Redgrave character is being drugged by injections of cocaine, not deadly pots of tea) as well as Olivier’s Moriarty, keeping only his eyes, misterioso, at the center. Struzan also moves Redgrave to the top and refashions her, but essentially retains Amsel’s renderings of Williamson and Arkin.

Amsel’s glorious design for Julia. Jane Fonda’s Lillian Hellman is central, but is dominated by both Jason Robards’ Dashiell Hammett and Vanessa Redgrave’s eponymous figure — less distinct, and idealized, as Julia is for Lillian.

Striking concept art of Robert DeNiro and Liza Minnelli for Martin Scorsese’s ill-fated (and rather ill-conceived) New York, New York. The final poster used a photo of the stars.

Concept art for the pointless Farewell, My Lovely follow-up, and the completed poster. Mitchum as Marlowe; note that his mussed hair in the poster suits him better than the pompadour, as does the more lined, saggy face. Candy Clark in the Martha Vickers role clings, damsel-in-distress-like, to Chandler’s iconoclastic private detective and looks much more frightened in the finished work. Despite the great cast and the filmmakers’ hewing close to the novel, it’s a lousy movie — when you’ve seen Bogart and Bacall, directed by Howard Hawks, why bother? But that’s a terrific design.

Death on the Nile. It’s a variation on Amsel’s own Murder on the Orient Express design, but then the movie — charming and witty as it was — was a bit of a re-tread too. Still… what I wouldn’t give to see all of these actors alive and kicking again! (From top: Peter Ustinov, Maggie Smith, David Niven, Jack Warden, George Kennedy, Olivia Hussey. Mia Farrow, Bette Davis and Angela Lansbury.)

Un-used Amsel art for a forgotten Sylvester Stallone epic. One of the reasons, aide from his… shall we say, limited acting palette?… Stallone had to keep making Rocky and Rambo movies: His “big” brainchildren had an unfortunate tendency to flop, as this one did. That Felliniesque design does make you want to see the movie, though. And that’s what poster design is supposed to be all about.

The Muppet Movie. Another un-used concept design, and another picture for which Amsel’s artwork was supplanted by Struzan’s. Nonetheless, he captures the joy of the Muppets’ first picture, along with its highest moment (which came, unfortunately, right at the beginning): Kermit singing “Rainbow Connection.”

Sally Fields’ break-through movie performance, as Norma Rae Webster. The more well-known poster featured a photo of Fields triumphant, but Amsel’s portrait more nearly captures her anxieties and social class.

The unused concept for the eventual movie of Nijinsky. The golden-hued ballet designs emphasizing Nijinksy’s defining roles almost overwhelm the central figures (Leslie Browne, George de la Peña and Alan Bates.) Note de la Peña’s headband and damp locks, suggesting the sweat behind a great dancer’s art.

The completed design emphasizes the (so-called) love triangle, gives de la Peña sculpted prettyboy/matinee-idol hair, and opts for a single dance: Nijinsky’s L’après-midi d’un faune.

Amsel invokes 1930s screwball comedy, as well as the Damon Runyan characters, for this forgotten 1980s remake, written and directed by Walter Bernstein. Sort of makes you want to shell out your $3.50 to see the movie, though, doesn’t it? Indeed, now that Matthau and Curtis are gone and Andrews is an old lady I can’t help wanting to see it, on a big screen, even at three times the original admission price.

Amsel’s superb design for the George Lucas/Steven Spielberg/Lawrence Kasden Raiders of the Lost Ark, capturing the sepia-era quality of those movie serials that inspired it, the derring-do and brooding nature of Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones, and the main desert setting. Left: The un-edited design. Right: The completed poster.

The reissue poster: Nothing makes a man smile faster than a monster box-office hit. Note Ford’s newly exposed chest and suggestive crotch-bulge.

Lily and Amsel, together again: Art for Jane Wagner’s comedic remake The Incredible Shrinking Woman. (Yeah, I know Joel Schumacher directed it. But in the beginning was the word.)

Amsel was commissioned, by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, to create this gorgeous design for the restored, rereleased version of A Star is Born. The pose is from the movie (“Here comes a big, fat close-up!”) and was used in the original 1954 ad campaign. Amsel emphasized the spotlights, added the stars and a made a slight change to Garland’s costume. Compare this with the original: Amsel’s “Vicki Lester” somehow has a greater sense of yearning.

Amsel captures an emblematic moment in American pop-culture for the laser-disc release of The Seven Year Itch. An elegant presentation of what is in fact Billy Wilder’s only truly bad movie. Even Kiss Me, Stupid is better.

Amsel’s design for this Graham Greene adaptation incorporates a portrait of Michael Caine: The eyes of God, watching the lovers. The picture is also known as Beyond the Limit, as though Greene had written some sort of fast ‘80s kiss-kiss/bang-bang techno-thriller rather than a typically thoughtful examination of the cynical political murder of a minor functionary.

La Streisand, as Yentl. You can see why Struzan’s work is so often mis-cited as Amsel’s.


Richard Amsel died just as his style of design was being phased out by the Hollywood studios in favor of the far less rich (but, presumably, much cheaper) photo-image that now dominates the American movie poster, to the detriment of the movies and the sorrow of those who valued an art that was once universal. And, for reasons that are for me somewhat inexplicable — perhaps due to his rock LP covers, or the fact he was associated, peripherally, with Star Wars… or just because he’s straight? — the fine but far less inspired Drew Struzan has gotten much more press in the last couple of decades than the almost infinitely more gifted Amsel, on whose work Struzan appears to have drawn, or was at the very least heavily influenced by. I’m not, by the way, knocking him for that; all creative people are affected by the work of those who precede them. I simply feel that Struzman’s is less distinctive and original than Amsel’s, and less praiseworthy.

Richard Amsel in the 1980s. As beautiful himself as the work he created.

We who love Amsel’s work can only express our deep thanks to Adam McDaniel for carrying the burden, and the illuminating torch, through efforts which include not only his splendid website (and his design of a square honoring Amsel for inclusion in the AIDS Memorial Quilt) but also a documentary and a celebratory book, both in the works, and godspeed the day. Thank you, Adam.


Special thanks as well to Amsel’s friend the late Bob Esty, for inspiring me to collect here, and comment on, these magnificent works of popular art.

Revised text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Monthly Report: December 2020

Standard

By Scott Ross

Great Expectations (1946) One of David Lean’s best early features as a director, adapted from the Dickens novel by himself, the director Ronald Neame, Anthony Havelock-Allan, the actress Kay Walsh and Cecil McGivern. Gorgeously and disturbingly photographed by Guy Green and beautifully designed by John Bryan, the movie effectively telescopes the events of the book, at least until its unfortunate ending. Walsh wrote it, and while I take no issue with the notions of the adult Estella (Valerie Hobson) in danger of becoming the representation of her dead guardian nor of Pip (John Mills) bringing light to Miss Haversham’s rooms by opening the draperies, the sudden conversion of Pip’s former tormentor from brooding would-be recluse to laughing girl in love is risible, the only bad moment in the entire picture.

I could have done with more of Ivor Barnard’s Wemmick, Eileen Erskine’s Biddy and O.B. Clarence as Wemmick’s Aged Parent, but it’s the rare literary adaptation that gives us so much and yet leaves us wanting more. While at 38 John Mills was a decade too old for the role of Pip, and looks it, he gives a lovely performance, balancing hope, despair and resolution, and the supporting cast is superb: The young Alec Guinness (whose own stage adaptation of the book gave Lean the notion of making the picture), endlessly cheerful and accommodating as Herbert Pocket; Martita Hunt, equally deluded and calculating as Miss Haversham; Bernard Miles, gentle and sweet-natured as Joe Gargery; young Anthony Wager as the boy Pip, quietly stalwart and movingly buffeted less by fate than the selfish ruses of his elders and “betters”; Jean Simmons, astonishingly beautiful and exquisitely ruthless as the young Estella, so ethereally lovely it’s difficult to accept the much plainer Hobson as an older version of the character; Francis L. Sullivan, coolly shrewd as Jaggers, whom Pauline Kael memorably described as “that alarming upholder of the law”; and, supremely, Finlay Currie, at first frightening, then entirely endearing as the convict Magwich, whose cunningly staged first appearance in the cemetery at the beginning of the picture caused contemporary audiences to gasp and jump in their theatre seats, and still startles the unwary today.


Notorious (1946) The second Hitchcock picture I saw as a teenager, at a late show screening (the first was North by Northwest, on television) Notorious, which I loved at 16, now seems to me to encapsulate everything both good and bad about its maker. Nothing in the nearly perfect script by the redoubtable Ben Hecht (and, as usual with him, an un-credited Alfred Hitchcock) is to blame for my uneasiness; it’s all to do with the alternately fussy and indifferent approach to the staging and photography. Why, for example, send a certifiably great cinematographer (Gregg Toland) to Rio to film rear-screen backgrounds and then make no attempt whatsoever to match them with your foreground shots, which seem phony in the extreme? Why make such a fetish of an elaborate crane shot from high in a mansion down to Ingrid Bergman’s hand, ludicrously clutching a key she has earlier tried desperately to conceal her possession of? Why show more care at framing a goddamned coffee cup than you do shooting your actors? These sorts of grandiloquent gestures, empty of feeling, which so delighted me in my movie-mad adolescence — Hitchcock’s slavish devotion to things rather than to people — are precisely what have turned me against so much of his work in the intervening decades.

That said, the picture is still endlessly fascinating for the way it plays its lovers against each other, the Cary Grant character’s wounded masculine pride militating against his very real feelings for Bergman’s estranged daughter of a Nazi spy. It’s a curiously perverse reaction, in that he sets her up as a lure for another Nazi (Claude Rains) and then faults her for succeeding so well; he’s a pimp who, like the mec in Irma La Douce, becomes insanely jealous of the whore on whom he makes his living. Hecht and Hitchcock’s distrust of the American government is obvious, astounding for the period, and wiser than either knew: The same sorts of intelligence agents they depict casually manipulating people here, in the pursuit of stopping old National Socialists from developing a hydrogen bomb, are stand-ins for the very men busily smuggling similar “ex”-Nazis into the Western Hemisphere after the war, expressly to work on our bombs. Neither could have been aware at the time of Operation Paperclip, but one can well imagine the professional Zionist Hecht’s reaction had he found out. But Grant and Bergman make a great team, he alternately doting on and sniping at her and she with that radiant anguish for which she pretty much held the patent in the 1940s. And Rains is oddly moving as their quarry; when he’s left to face certain death at the hands of his collaborators at the end, you ache for him in a way that feels uncomfortably ambiguous.


Oliver and Company (1988) The Disney animated feature just preceding The Little Mermaid, and pointing towards it. Its fulsome character design had a richer visual palette than was the case in ’70s Disney animation and, especially in the Bette Midler number, the picture suggested the Broadway and movie musical-savvy direction the studio, influenced by the lyricist/librettist Howard Ashman, was about to head. (Imagine: A Hollywood studio letting itself be directed by a lyricist!) Oddly, the characters were offset by stylized backgrounds in which all of the locations and most of the humans in them are rendered abstractly. The four exceptions in this loose adaptation of Oliver Twist are Fagin (Dom DeLuise), Sykes (Robert Loggia), the little rich girl (Natalie Gregory) who adopts the kitten Oliver (Joey Lawrence) and her butler Winston (William Glover). Fagin’s gang here are a pack of canine strays led by Billy Joel’s Dodger, who against his instincts gradually finds his resistance to Oliver melting, and which includes a preternaturally dumb Great Dane voiced by Richard Mulligan and a pompous, cultured bulldog given life by the great Roscoe Lee Browne. The Cheech Marin character Tito is roughly as annoying as an actual Mexican hairless, and Sheryl Lee Ralph’s Rita, whose singing voice was provided by Ruth Pointer, has too little to do to make a real as opposed to a vague impression. No Nancy, she. Midler, giving voice to the rich family’s pampered show poodle, also has a limited character to portray, one with no counterpart in Dickens. But she got a great, Busby Berkeley-like number called “Perfect Isn’t Easy” with apposite music by Barry Manilow and smart, funny lyrics by Jack Feldman and Bruce Sussman.* (For years I erroneously believed Ashman had written them but his work here was limited to the lyrics for Barry Mann’s opening anthem “Once Upon a Time in New York City”; still, that misapprehension is a compliment to Feldman and Sussman.) Oliver and Company is not, strictly speaking, a musical — it doesn’t have enough songs to qualify, few are related as the Midler number is either to plot or to individual character and, written by different teams, the score consists of too many warring styles for an organic feel — but it edges toward the form, and the staging of the numbers by the animating directors gives a hint of what was to come at Disney in the next few years.

The picture, if thin, is also sunny and agreeable despite the genuinely threatening presence of the homicidal Sykes, his menacing Doberman pets and a hair-raising subway and elevated chase at the climax that on a big theatre screen was suspenseful, and even, at times, genuinely terrifying. (It, and Sykes’ massive limousine, like Big Ben in Disney’s previous feature The Great Mouse Detective, were rendered by early computer animation, and look it.) George Scribner directed, and among the names associated with the movie are a number that would become prominent in the years to come: Kirk Wise, Roger Allers, Gary Trousdale, Tony Anselmo, Hendel Butoy, Andreas Deja, Mike Gabriel and the supervising animator Glen Keane.


Is it just me, or does “And now, with all its breakout joy” strike anyone else as an odd way to sell a movie? Wouldn’t the second clause of that sentence have been enough?

Cactus Flower (1969) When I first saw this one as an adolescent, on television in the summer of 1973, it delighted me. Watching it again, via HBO in the mid-’90s, it seemed flat to me — smirky and unsatisfying. Seeing it a third time recently, on Blu-ray, it struck me as bright and extremely funny. Since the movie hasn’t changed in a half-century, I assume I have. (All right, I know I have. I’m being coy for a reason.) If I see the picture again in a decade, will I go back to finding it dated and un-funny?

Maybe nostalgia has something to do with it. I was eight when the movie opened, and an immoderate fan of “Laugh-In,” on which Goldie Hawn was the adorable resident giggler. (The giggles were real; she couldn’t help it.) When she was given the Academy Award for the picture in 1970 there were grumbles, especially from the admirers of Dyan Cannon (Alice in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice) and Susannah York, superb in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Seeing Cactus Flower now, when the award controversy has faded from most memories, it’s possible to simply enjoy Hawn’s performance as Walter Matthau’s kooky mistress for what it is: a very deft bit of comic acting accented by that charming wide-eyed wonder of Hawn’s which somehow cleanses the mildly risqué farce set-up, making it feel, despite her short skirts and dancer’s gams, about as erotic as a toothpaste ad.

It was, by the way, the dialogue and the performances I found so amusing this time around, not the wholly unconvincing plot (I.A.L. Diamond out of Abe Burrows via the French playwrights Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Grédy). The spunky diagetic Quincy Jones score, a mélange of ’60s pop hit arrangements, also helps, augmented as it is by a lovely title song for which Cynthia Weill wrote the felicitous lyrics and Sarah Vaughan provided the lilting vocal. And speaking of nostalgia, it’s difficult not to feel something of the like watching Walter Matthau and Ingrid Bergman play out this silliness. Matthau of course was a master of the form, languid and wry, but Bergman makes the comedy feel completely grounded even as she gives in gloriously to the nonsense in which her character becomes enmeshed. 54 when the movie was made, she looks fabulous… but then she always did. Gene Saks, who the year before made the best of all Neil Simon movies with The Odd Couple, keeps the plot rolling along at a fast enough pace you don’t have much time to reflect on how ludicrous the whole thing is.


Roddy McDowall seems to be giving the cameraman a rather dubious look here. As well he should.

Midas Run (1969) Equally silly and inconsequential but with far less to recommend it, this comic caper from the same year as Cactus Flower has several small assets but, alas, only a single great one. The smaller include the featured players such as Ralph Richardson, Adolfo Celi, Maurice Denham, Cesar Romero (in an exceptionally nasty role as a rich, sadistic roué), John Le Mesurier and Roddy McDowall; a pair of pleasant lovers in Anne Haywood and Richard Crenna; a spritely Continental score by Elmer Bernstein; a reasonably intelligent and occasionally amusing if utterly unlikely screenplay by Ronald Austin, James D. Buchanan and Berne Giler; some lovely photography by Kenneth Higgin; and brisk editing from Fredric Steinkamp. The jewel, of course, is Fred Astaire. Taking on the unaccustomed role of a British MI6 agent, Astaire elevates his usual purring elegance only slightly. When he literally strides into the picture at the beginning and all you see are his legs, it takes only a moment to recognize that famous walk of his — purposeful yet festooned with infinite grace. It’s a close as he gets to dancing in the picture, but it’s enough.

The movie, a modestly budgeted flop on its release, is merest fluff. Yet the director, one Alf Kjellin, known mostly for his acting, takes a few things with almost unnerving seriousness, such as the big lovemaking scene between Crenna and Heywood, which he shoots and edits in the worst and most self-consciously “arty” manner imaginable, even for 1969; the few paying patrons of this one must have looked at each and wondered whether the projectionist had suddenly slipped in a reel from I Am Curious (Yellow). And aside from Romero’s “Joker Meets The Marquis de Sade” sequence, the screenwriters also have Crenna at one point needlessly taunt McDowall by comparing him to an interior decorator, a line that reminds you precisely why Stonewall had to happen.


Die Hard (1988) If you ignore the inevitable franchise it spawned, to diminishing returns of pleasure, Die Hard remains an entertaining “high concept” picture, stylishly directed by John McTiernan and sharply adapted by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza from a much darker novel by Roderick Thorp, a brief sequel to his earlier brick of a bestseller The Detective. And if Bruce Willis’ smirk is too often on display, most of the supporting actors are poor, a few of them (Paul Gleason, William Atherton, Robert Davi and especially the appalling Hart Bochner) are wretched and none were helped by the sour dialogue they were given, still the structure is sound, Michael Kamen’s score and Jan de Bont’s cinematography decided assets, and Willis, Bonnie Bedelia, Reginald VelJohnson and Alan Rickman are all in excellent fettle.


Excalibur (1981) John Boorman’s low-budget epic out of Mallory, planned from the early 1960s, co-written by Rospo Pallenberg and filmed largely in the lush, sylvan vicinity of the director’s own Irish home, seemed thin and cold when it was new. It still seems thin and cold, but somehow I mind that less now. It certainly feels, by 21st century standards, no more undernourished than the latest American franchise or tent pole picture, or whatever they’re calling these things now and if nothing else it contains in Nicol Williamson’s marvelous performance as Merlin one of the great, hammy jobs by an outsized actor.

Whatever my reservations at 20, I was always impressed by Boorman’s vision, and his ability to express it on a minimal budget: The picture is lush and, within the limitations of low cash-flow and the special effects capacities of the time, magical. My only real cavil now has to do with the musical score. I don’t mind the overlays of Wagner and Orff — the use of excepts from Parsifal during the quest of Sir Percival (Paul Geoffrey) is very much to the point, and the “O Fortuna” out of Carmina Burana is more or less right for the Arthurian period. The problem is that Trevor Jones’ original compositions clash so badly with the interpolations. But Alex Thomson’s cinematography has both heft and delicacy and the production design (Anthony Pratt), art direction (Tim Hutchinson), set decoration (Bryan Graves) and costume design (Bob Ringwood) could scarcely be improved upon. And along with Nigel Terry’s very fine Arthur and Helen Mirren’s deliciously witchy Morgana, the striking pulchritude of a frequently naked Nicholas Clay as Lancelot, the Pre-Raphaelite beauty of Cherie Lunghi as Guenevere and the fiercely patricidal Mordred of Robert Addie you can also savor the robust early appearances of Gabriel Byrne, Liam Neeson and Patrick Stewart.


Summertime (1955) Has any European city ever been given so rapturous a cinematic frame as Venice gets in this David Lean adaptation of the Arthur Laurents  play The Time of the Cuckoo? Nearly every image in the picture shimmers with the ecstasy of a besotted lover’s glance, yet nothing in its feels like mere picture-postcard ostentation. Jack Hildyard’s color cinematography perfectly captures the lure of the city and the Katharine Hepburn character’s fascination with it, and seeing the movie in a good print can make you feel as if color photography was invented solely for this picture.

Lean, working with the novelist H.E. Bates and an un-credited Donald Ogden Stewart, condensed the Laurents play and flattened it, to the dramatist’s chagrin. It isn’t as fully peopled as The Time of the Cuckoo, and I think losing the moment where the Hepburn character makes trouble for the young married couple at her pensione out of pettiness over her own heartbreak is a mistake. I suppose it was done so the movie audience would not hate her, even momentarily, and the hint that she is capable of it must have been deemed enough.

Cecil Beaton somewhat infamously wrote about Hepburn’s bad skin in his diaries, and the color photography rather emphasizes how poorly she was aging. I also find her performance as a middle-aged Ohio spinster finding romance with a philandering Venetian a bit much generally, what with its self-conscious posturing and overplayed emotional responses that make you long for Ingrid Bergman or Olivia de Havilland, both of whom were considered for the role. But Hepburn has some good, true moments, particularly in her scenes with charming little Gaetano Autiero as her unofficial ragazzi tour-guide. Rossano Brazzi makes a strong impression as her somewhat opportunistic lover, Jane Rose (who was in the play) and MacDonald Parke provide rich comic relief as the American tourists who stretch but never break the patience of everyone around them, and the recurrent theme by Alessandro Cicognini is a honey. Lean’s direction seems to me exactly right, whether the action takes place in the expanse of the Piazza San Marco or in one of Alexander Korda’s beautifully designed interior sets and it’s obvious that this, his first picture in color, expanded his already impressive sense of vision enormously.


Experiment in Terror (1962) A tight little thriller written by the Gordons and directed by Blake Edwards with a strong feeling both for the suspenseful elements and for the city of San Francisco, which he and his gifted cinematographer Philip H. Lathrop shot with clear eyes and a little, perhaps inevitable, romanticism, in crisp black and white.

As the young bank teller targeted by a possibly homicidal thief Lee Remick acts with that ineffable mixture of strength and vulnerability which were her particular forte, and she is especially effecting in the opening sequence in which she is first accosted by her tormentor, filmed by Edwards in long, and very tense, takes that would be unheard of in today’s filmmaking climate, where the camera doubtless would be flying over her head and rotating madly around her body.

The young Stefanie Powers makes a strong showing as Remick’s teenage sister, and the last shot of her, traumatized into wide-eyed catatonia, makes you worry for her future. Ross Martin, hidden even from the opening credits and deliberately shot obliquely by his director until well into the picture, is properly frightening, so much so that when he shows up in drag late in the proceedings you aren’t even tempted to giggle. Patricia Huston is splendid as a woman with a secret, Anita Loo and Warren Hsieh as a “subject of interest” to the cops and her invalid son get a couple of fine scenes, Ned Glass has an excellent role as a paid police stool-pigeon, Roy Poole and Clifton James good ones as FBI agents and even Glenn Ford is better than usual as the chief investigator. Henry Mancini wrote one of his distinctive suspense scores, appropriately taut and creepy but with time out for some contemporary jazz and a little ersatz Gay Nineties pop for the sequence in the ludicrously overstated theme-bar.


It Happened One Night (1934) Frank Capra’s best movie, with a nearly perfect screenplay by Robert Riskin from Samuel Hopkins Adams’ 1933 novella “Night Bus,” concerning a runaway heiress’s misadventures on the road. Riskin cannily mated Adams’ charmingly wiseacre picaresque with the then-popular “newspaper picture,” and turning Peter Warne (Clark Gable) from an unemployed engineer to a fired reporter automatically raised the stakes for the leads. (It also grounds Warne’s educated wit and savvy.)

Gable and Claudette Colbert were both reluctant stars of the movie but Gable gradually understood while filming how good it, and his role, were; Colbert never did. Both won Academy Awards — in the first such “clean sweep,” so did Capra, Riskin and the picture itself — and they’re a terrific comic/romantic pair, deftly batting sharp wise-cracks at each other as they slowly fall in love. Walter Connolly shines as Colbert’s millionaire father, Alan Hale has a funny sequence as an aria-singing crook, Ward Bond effectively portrays a surly bus driver, and Roscoe Karns is appropriately nasty as a smug, vulgar opportunist.

It Happened One Night is sometimes described as a screwball comedy, and it isn’t, really. But there’s not a line, a scene or a moment in the picture that plays false, and Capra’s populism is blissfully and blessedly unfettered by his usual simultaneously grandiloquent celebration of, yet ambivalent unease with, The People. If there is anything else in his work as unabashedly sexy as the “Walls of Jericho” sequence, or as effortlessly charming as the joyous impromptu sing-along on the bus in this movie, I’m unaware of it. Very few pictures provide as much unalloyed pleasure as this one and if there are people who hate it I don’t want to know who they are.


Murder on the Orient Express (1974) The perfect escapist movie with which to mark the beginning of the end of a truly terrible year, the worst of whose machinations were pretty obviously manufactured. An all-star enterprise, and what stars! Who have we now to compare with the likes of Albert Finney, Martin Balsam, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, John Gielgud and Wendy Hiller? Who like Paul Dehn to write, Sidney Lumet to direct, Tony Walton to design, Geoffrey Unsworth to photograph and Richard Rodney Bennett to score?

Note to ambitious actor/directors: This is how you make a glamorous movie mystery whose stylistic flourishes compliment, yet do not overwhelm, the material.


I Bury the Living (1958) Steven H. Scheuer in his Movies on TV deemed this atmospheric little B-movie chiller “34s of a good thriller,” which seems exactly right. Well written by Louis A. Garfinkle and effectively directed by Albert Band, it’s a little overstated — characters tell each other what they should already know, never a good sign — the ending is a bit of a letdown, Gerald Fried’s hysterical score is appallingly bad, and Theodore Bikel’s old-age makeup is wretched. (Although that may owe more to the otherwise good Blu-ray remastering than to the black-and-white original. In a time when the reporters’ faces in the screening room at the beginning of Citizen Kane, deliberately obscured by Orson Welles, get fully revealed by digital ignoramuses, one never knows.) But within the parameters of its flaws and budgetary limitations lies a compelling story about a reluctant cemetery chairman (Richard Boone) who may or may not have telekinetic abilities, the retiring caretaker (Bikel) both more and less than he seems, and a map that at times appears malevolently alive. Boone gives his usual peerless performance, Band had a keen eye for framing, Frederick Gately’s cinematography is effective and despite the picture’s shortcomings (or perhaps because of them?) watching I Bury the Living seemed to me the perfect way to bid adieu to the deliberately-planned worst year of the 21st century.


* Note for the trivial-minded: In the early ’70s, Manilow was Midler’s musical director and accompanist at the Continental Baths in New York where both got their start, so Oliver and Company marked a pleasant reunion.

Text Copyright 2021 by Scott Ross

Necrology: October – December 2020

Standard

By Scott Ross

OCTOBER

Ain’t Misbehavin’: Armelia McQueen, Nell Carter and Charlaine Woodard

Armelia McQueen, 68. With Nell Carter and Charlaine Woodard, one of the original three ladies who sang with the band in that vest-pocket hurricane Ain’t Misbehavin (1976). Situated about midway between Woodard’s wide-eyed stridency and the take-no-prisoners sass of Carter, McQueen was the jolly fat girl whose eyes could, in a moment, flash from daffy to deadly and her sweet mezzo gave sex to “Squeeze Me,” opéra bouffe grandiosity to “When the Nylons Bloom Again” and, flawless comic aplomb to “Find Out What They Like” (with Carter) and “Two Sleepy People” (with Ken Page). Her later career did not live up to that promise, but how many performers get even one hit the size of that one?


Johnny Nash, 80. Initially marketed as a rival to Johnny Mathis (because two young black male singers with extended ranges in the high registers must be performing in opposition to each other, right?) Nash eventually scored a million-selling hit with his reggae-based “I Can See Clearly Now,” which he also wrote, in 1972. Although the recording is slightly marred at the end by those weird, unnecessary sounds of… what? lasers swooping?… the song itself is one of the nearly unalloyed joys of a great period of popular music, and Nash’s glorious, almost androgynous voice pours over it like honey on a griddle-cake. When I was 11, every time I heard the song on the radio, no matter what my mood was, I immediately felt better. Two minutes and 45 seconds of exhilaration.


Margaret Nolan, 76. If, like me, you have a fondness for the James Bond pictures, you know Norman as the gold-painted model in print ads, on the LP art and in the main title sequence of Goldfinger (1964) in which she was also on display, in the first scene, as Bond’s masseuse. Later that year she had a brief role in the most joyously entertaining musical made after 1960, The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night.


Conchata Ferrell, 77. I first became aware of Ferrell, that marvelous comedian with the improbable name, as April Green, the jovial hooker on the then-controversial Norman Lear-produced sitcom version of Lanford Wilson’s rich ensemble play The Hot l Baltimore in 1975. (She had originated the role at Circle in the Square.) The show, which also introduced me to those comic marvels Charlotte Rae, Al Freeman Jr., James Cromwell and Richard Masur, provoked howls of outrage in the hinterlands owing to the seedy residential hotel’s two prostitutes (one of them what would now condescendingly be called an “illegal immigrant”) and a somewhat prissy middle-aged gay couple. Sadly, ABC canceled it after a half-season, not out of cowardice but because the series couldn’t capture a large enough audience. But Farrell’s April was a sunny, cynical presence on the show, as notable for her vulnerability as for her distinctive belly-laugh. I saw her next in small roles in Network and on Maude, Lou Grant, St. Elsewhere and Frank’s Place before she turned up for a season on L.A. Law, but Ferrell also did acclaimed work opposite Rip Torn in the independent picture Heartland in 1979. For twelve years she made sour wisecracks sound like choice lines from a screwball comedy on Two and Half Men. The show earned her the widest audience she’d ever known, and I suppose a form of immortality. But, Christ, I hope the pay was one hell of a lot better than the scripts.


Connery in 2009. (Photo by Uri Schanker/WireImage)

Sir Sean Connery, 90. Sean Connery was a fixture of my personal cultural life since the first television airing of Goldfinger in 1972; I’d seen him a couple of years earlier in a reissue of Darby O’Gill and the Little People but scarcely remembered him, what with the leprechauns, banshees and ghostly Cóiste Bodhar. As it is for everyone, James Bond was a velvet trap, earning him money and worldwide fame but typing and limiting him as an actor. Despite several fine performances, often for Sidney Lumet, in such off-beat pictures as Marnie, The Hill, A Fine Madness, Shalako, The Molly Maguires, The Anderson Tapes and The Offence, it was not until he removed his toupée and took on the mantle of character actor that he was finally able to shake off 007, resume his status as a bankable star and prove to those who deal only in surfaces what an interesting and intelligent actor he always was.

Goldfinger: Gert Frobe presides over one of the most squirmingly effective sequences in ’60s cinema, a castration nightmare not in Ian Fleming’s novel but which he would almost certainly have approved had he lived to see it.

That is not to knock his performances as Bond, although often the movies themselves let him down. While I tend to think that Daniel Craig is closest to the James Bond of Fleming’s novels, even unto his slight resemblance to Hoagy Carmichael, Connery embodied the character better than anyone aside from Craig, locating the character’s cavalier cruelty as well as his off-hand charm. If Dr No is a bit perfunctory (and, occasionally, uncertain), From Russia with Love comes close to capturing Fleming’s slightly queasy perversity and Goldfinger is even better, the overall best in the series before Skyfall. Where the early Bonds betrayed Connery, and Fleming, was in their embrace of gadgetry and bigger-is-better design. Thunderball was pretty much conceived that way, by Fleming among others, and its action sequences were hampered by taking place underwater, so I doubt it could have been improved upon. But there’s little excuse for how bad You Only Live Twice is. The original novel was astounding, deathish in the way perhaps only a man who’d just survived heart trouble could imagine, might have made a sharp, disturbing movie and indeed could make a superb one now, for Craig. Connery’s return, Diamonds Are Forever, is rather better, but he looks pudgy and discomfited throughout. And his own 1980s Bond, Never Say Never Again, was just Thunderball Redux, if slightly less wet.

Connery almost seemed to grow as an actor as soon as he shed his toupée. He played a stolid, rather thankless, role as Vanessa Redgrave’s gallant lover for Sidney Lumet in the latter’s stylish 1974 Murder on the Orient Express, which I hear some pretentious ass of an actor/director “remade” recently. A year later he was on sturdier ground, first as a Berber insurrectionist(!) for John Milius in The Wind and the Lion, and then, gloriously, a Daniel Dravot so perfectly realized Rudyard Kipling would surely have applauded, for John Huston in his adaptation of The Man Who Would Be King. This is the real beginning of the re-evaluation of Connery, post-Bond, as one of the English-speaking world’s more interesting and versatile screen actors. In rapid succession there were the revisionist James Goldman/Richard Lester Robin and Marian (1976), in which Connery was an aging, bitter Robin Hood to Audrey Hepburn’s exquisite Maid Marian; the real-life Major General Roy Urquhart, dealing with German troops, laughing madmen and a bridge that won’t be taken in A Bridge Too Far (1977, written by James’ brother William); Michael Crichton’s charming, funny caper The Great Train Robbery (1978); the rather good Richard Lester flop Cuba (also 1979); the 1981 High Noon-in-space variation Outland (1981); a robust, likable Agamemnon for Terry Gilliam in Time Bandits (also 1981); a cynical television reporter in Richard Brooks’ fine, underseen satire Wrong is Right (1982); the inquisitive monk Williams of Baskerville in the 1986 transliteration of Umbero Eco’s oddly homophobic medieval whodunnit The Name of the Rose; the Irish(!!) cop Malone in the overblown but occasionally effective 1987 Brian de Palma/David Mamet The Untouchables, for which Connery won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar®. In 1989 he wittily sent himself up as Harrison Ford’s academician father in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) and, in 1990, was wonderfully sly and emotional as Barley Blair in the beautiful Fred Schepisi/Tom Stoppard adaptation of John le Carré’s waning-Cold War thriller The Russia House.

I missed most of Connery’s later performances, but then I missed most movies of that era; he stopped making pictures around the time I stopped going to new ones, and for the same reason: Those he called the “idiots now making films in Hollywood.”

Alas, one can all too easily imagine the idiots’ reaction to Connery’s critique: “Oh, yeah? What’s he done lately?”


NOVEMBER

Groucho Marx with Dom DeLuise and Carol Arthur, circa 1973. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Carol Arthur, 85. Nowhere near as well-known as her late husband Dom DeLuise, Arthur had memorable small roles in movies, mostly for Mel Brooks: Sweetly reading out the slightly obscene letter to the Governor as Harriett Johnson in Blazing Saddles; as George Burns’ gentle daughter in The Sunshine Boys; and as the pregnant woman who sets Brooks’ yellow Morgan back on two wheels in Silent Movie. She was also in The World’s Greatest Lover, Robin Hood: Men in Tights and Dracula: Dead and Loving It, and I am very sorry to note that she died of Alzheimer’s, with which she’d been diagnosed in 2009.


Geoffrey Palmer, 93. Britain’s answer to Walter Matthau in the phlegmatic hang-dog rubber-face sweepstakes, Palmer was known largely as a television performer. Given the quality of the series in which he appeared, however, only a true snob could attach any opprobrium to that. He was the doctor determined to eat his breakfast despite Basil Fawlty in “The Kipper and the Corpse” episode of Fawlty Towers; Leonard Rossiter’s brother-in-law Jimmy in David Nobbs’ The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (1976 – 1978), forever cadging a meal (“bit of a cock-up on the catering front”) and in a classic scene, preparing for the day “the balloon goes up”; the imperturbable husband of Wendy Craig in the charming Butterflies (1978 – 1983); and as partner to Judi Dench in the pleasant but (to me) inexplicably popular As Time Goes By (1992 – 2005). His film roles were fewer, and less showy, but he was in O Lucky Man!, Clockwise, A Fish Called Wanda, Tomorrow Never Dies and as Dr. Warren in the film of Alan Bennett’s The Madness of George III in which to an importuning interloper in church he memorably snaps, “I’m praying, God damn it!”


David Prowse, 85. The man in the iron mask, his voice forever supplanted by that of James Earl Jones, Prowse was both anonymous and universally recognized… as long as he was under his Darth Vader costume.

Typically, in its own necrology list Wikipedia attempted to pass off Prowse’s death as being “caused” by COVID-19. Yet even that venerable font of misinformation can’t always carry off its own lies; go to Prowse’s entry, and this is what confronts you: “Prowse died at a hospital in London, England, on 28 November 2020, aged 85, after a short, unspecified illness [emphasis mine].” We’ll call anything COVID-19 if we think it can peddle a little useful fear.


DECEMBER

Ann Reinking, 71. The second great muse of Bob Fosse after Gwen Verdon (or, if you prefer, the fourth following Mary Ann Niles, Joan McCracken and Verdon) and the possessor of the best pair of dancer’s legs since the heyday of Cyd Charisse. She was in the chorus of Coco and Fosse’s Pippin, where the pair became romantically involved and later won leading roles in the Sherman Brothers’ Andrews Sisters musical Over There! and Good Time Charley, in which with her raspy whiskey-contralto the sexiest dancer-singer of her time played Jon of Arc. It was a strange time for musicals, obviously.

She then became the replacement of choice: For Verdon in Fosse’s Chicago and for Donna McKechnie in Fosse’s chief rival Michael Bennett’s A Chorus Line before appearing in a leading dance role in Fosse’s Dancin’. (Increasingly known for her absences, Reinking was alas out the afternoon I saw the show.) She was also in Fosse’s semi-autobiographical movie All That Jazz, in which she essentially played herself opposite Roy Scheider’s Fosse and had two great numbers: A charming duet with Erzebet Fioldi to Peter Allen’s “Everything Old is New Again” and, near the end, in the extended, Felliniesque hospital fantasy sequence, a sexy, sizzling “There’ll Be Some Changes Made,” complete with patented Fosse bowler and limp-wristed finger-snaps. For those who never got to see her onstage in a Fosse show, these are compensations of a very high order.

Reinking photographed by Jack Mitchell

Although Reinking had retired from performing by 1996, she was asked by the City Center Encores! program to choreograph a staged concert reading of Chicago “in the style of Bob Fosse” and to play Verdon’s Roxie Hart role. The concert was such a success it led to a Broadway revival, also with Reinking. Interestingly, for a show that was a hard sell in 1975 and which while successful did not run nearly as long as Fosse had hoped, the “stripped-down,” black-and-white revival played for nearly 24 years, its ridiculously long run only curtailed by official overreach in response to the engineered “pandemic” of 2020. I’m not sure why this Chicago ended up as the longest-running American musical production since it had a look of overall cheapness and, however energetic and well choreographed was still, essentially, a staged concert. I suspect the public, prepped by Lorena Bobbett, Tanya Harding and O.J. Simpson and the circuses surrounding them had caught up to the show’s cynicism about the unholy wedding of violent crime and media excess. Even less explicable, to me, was the success of Reinking’s subsequent endeavor, re-creating signature Fosse dances for the 1998 revue bearing his name. Maybe because I had seen and loved Dancin’ in 1979, Fosse had the feel of going to the same well twice too often. But the show was a hit, so what do I know?


John le Carré (David John Moore Cornwell), 89. A former MI5 and MI6 agent, for the first of which he spied on left-wing groups (which Wikipedia conveniently labels “far-left”) trying to ferret out dirty commies, when Cornwell began writing and publishing novels he was required to do so under a pseudonym. “le Carré” translates as “the square,” the meaning of which, for Cornwell, I cannot begin to fathom. If I seem to be taking a snide tone here against a writer whose books I admire enormously, there are two reasons. One: My enjoyment of spy fiction and James Bond movies to one side, an implacable loathing for intelligence services, which over my lifetime and before have made the world a more violent, dangerous and unstable place in the name of some sort of weird, fanatical devotion to a thing they inevitably label “security,” but which in their hands makes everyone and everything infinitely less secure. And Two: le Carré’s very public opposition to the right of Salmon Rushdie (and, by extension, everyone else on earth) to “insult” a religion “with impunity.” That anti-free speech stand, I argue, emboldens the religious of all stripes to persecute, and murder, those with whom they disagree and who they feel have somehow “insulted” their god. As Stephen Fry among others has argued most persuasively, blasphemy laws have no right to exist in a civilized society, and no one on earth, let alone in Britain, deserves what happened to Rushdie. Indeed it is the very compassion so plentifully on display in le Carré’s books that made his inflexibility on the subject of free speech so astonishing, and so dispiriting. (Yet he later, citing something Hillary Clinton termed “fake news,” rather blithely accused Donald Trump as being tantamount to Nazi book burners…)

Those reservations aside, to read a le Carré novel is to be in the hands of a man whose intelligence was keenly matched by his creativity. His best work transports the reader to dangerous avenues of intercourse where no while one is to be fully trusted yet faith in someone else is imperative for the emotional, if not the physical, health of his protagonists. Often there is betrayal, sometimes a happy (or, in the case of The Russia House, a hopeful) ending, often a despairing one, as in The Constant Gardener, which contains one of tho most anguished, painfully moving climaxes I’ve read in any modern novel. That book is le Carré in a mood of white-hot fury, which may come as a shock to those who relish his phlegmatic George Smiley, so beautifully encased in the amber of the BBC’s multi-part adaptations of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People starring Alec Guinness but which seemed increasingly a component of his fiction. How a man this sharp could so easily buy into the phony Trump/Putin “collusion” narrative is, like his earlier unwitting embrace of religious intolerance, a mystery requiring a Smiley to unravel.


Peter Lamont, 91. Although I suppose they were, to employ an over-used word, iconic, it has long seemed to me that Ken Adams’ fantastic sets for the 1960s James Bond pictures were part of what made the series increasingly ridiculous. (And what was that obsession of his with spherical patterns?) Lamont’s less fanciful designs gave the 1980s and ’90s Bonds a reality against which to play out their preposterous action. Lamont worked as an un-credited draftsman on Goldfinger (1964); a set decorator (again without credit) on Thunderball (1965) and with credit on You Only Live Twice (1967), On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) and Diamonds Are Forever (1971). He was the art director on Live and Let Die (1973), The Man with the Golden Gun (1974) and The Spy Who Loved Me (1977); in charge of all those terrible Star Wars knock-off visual effects for Moonraker (1979); and full production designer on For Your Eyes Only (1981), Octopussy (1983), A View to a Kill (1985), The Living Daylights (1987), Licence to Kill (1989), GoldenEye (1995), The World Is Not Enough (1999), Die Another Day (2002) and Casino Royale (2006). He also worked on Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968); was the set decorator on Fiddler on the Roof (1971) — an extremely important job on that picture, with its wealth of lived-in shtetl detail; and the production designer on Aliens (1986) and Titanic (1997), the last of which got him an Academy Award.


Collage by Mega

David Giler, 77. Giler wrote what many regarded as a superb adaptation of Gore Vidal’s wild satirical novel Myra Breckenridge which was then allegedly re-written and destroyed by a forgotten nonentity called Michael Sarne. Giler did some writing on the very likable James Garner comedy The Skin Game (1971) and, with Lorenzo Semple, Jr., also wrote a very strong adaptation of Loren Singer’s thriller The Parallax View (1974) which while disdained by the novelist gave Alan J. Pakula an excellent springboard for his second paranoia thriller after Klute (1971) and before All the President’s Men (1976). Giler’s directorial debut, a would-be comic sequel to The Maltese Falcon called The Black Bird (1975) was perhaps too determinedly wacky to be amusing, but his next picture, as producer, was one of the most genuinely shocking, and frightening, movies of its time, the eventual progenitor (rather in the reproductive manner of its parasitic monster) of a series which, alas, seems to have no end: The brainchild of the gifted Dan O’Bannon, Alien (1979), on which Giler wrote some script revisions, was a shot across the space-fantasy bow, stylishly directed by Ridley Scott, terrifyingly populated with creatures out of H.R. Giger’s demented “biomechanical” imagination, brilliantly scored by Jerry Goldsmith and wonderfully designed by Ron Cobb and Chris Foss. Giler worked as well on the 1986 Aliens, writing the story (with Walter Hill) and serving as the Executive Producer; as the screenwriter (with Hill and Larry Ferguson) and co-producer of Alien3 (1992) and in a production capacity on all of its successors to 2017. It says something about Giler, as well as about the American movie industry, that not only could he not walk away from the lure of a perpetual sinecure, he couldn’t seem to do anything else.


Lee Wallace and Tony Roberts in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Lee Wallace, 90. Although Wallace had roles in such pictures as Klute, The Hot Rock and Private Benjamin, it is as the comically bedridden mayor in that great time-capsule thriller The Taking of Pelham One-Two-Three (1974) that he is best and most enthusiastically remembered. Clearly cast for his resemblance to Ed Koch, Wallace was the very picture of the annoying, weaselly professional politician infinitely more concerned with his image (“How’m I doin’?”) than with the people of his city. We in the audience, then and now, would far rather have had Wallace’s faux-Koch than the real thing.


Claude Bolling, 90. Bolling is best known in the U.S. for his series of recorded suites that fused swing jazz with orchestral forms, often in a Baroque vein. The first of these, Suite for Flute and Jazz Piano Trio featuring Jean-Pierre Rampal (1975) was an enormous success and was followed by Concerto for Classical Guitar and Jazz Piano with Alexander Lagoya (1976), Suite for Violin and Jazz Piano with Pinchas Zuckerman (1977), Concerto for Classic Guitar and Jazz Piano with Angel Romero (1980), Picnic Suite with Rampal and Lagoya (1980), Toot Suite with Maurice Andre (1981), Suite for Chamber Orchestra and Jazz Piano with Rampal (1983) and Suite for Cello and Jazz Piano Trio with Yo Yo Ma (1984). All of the LPs featured witty, airbrushed cover art by Roger Huyssen. An occasional movie composer, Bolling also wrote the score for the movie of Neil Simon’s California Suite, similar in tone and approach to his LP suites.

Copyright 2020 by Scott Ross