The long audition: Fosse, Me, and Sam Wasson’s “Fosse”


By Scott Ross

Note: Thanks to “improvements” made by WordPress I could not edit and replace the illustrations for this document, originally posted in 2014, to my satisfaction, so I have had to re-post it. Apologies to the handful of my readers for whom the reappearance of the following review may engender confusion.

“To be on the wire is life. The rest is waiting.” — Karl Wallenda, quoted in All That Jazz

(Warning: Memory ahead.)

Bob Fosse has been a touchstone in my life for exactly four decades now. That conscious connection was forged on my 13th birthday, in 1974. The night before, my parents took us to see a dinner theatre production of Cabaret, a show I’d fallen in love with via the Original Cast Recording, which I’d borrowed from the Olivia Raney Library in downtown Raleigh (gone now, alas, as is that dinner theatre.)

The next day, a Saturday, my then-best friend Michael and I went to the movie, brought back for some reason nearly a year after its big Oscar® win. (The soundtrack LP was another of my birthday presents that year, my mother not quite understanding the difference between it and a cast album.)

At the time, I was a sufficient enough musical theatre novice that I preferred the show to the movie; I missed the “book” songs the picture’s producer Cy Feuer, the director Bob Fosse and the scenarists Jay Presson Allen and Hugh Wheeler jettisoned from the score; I also missed the Lenya figure, and her Jewish suitor. (She’s there, but her role is significantly diminished, her dilemma assumed in the movie by the Marissa Berenson character, lifted from Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin follow-up The Last of Mr. Norris.)

Christopher Isherwood in the early 1930s.

I didn’t know, not having yet discovered Isherwood’s books, or the details of his life, how much more closely Cabaret on film dovetailed with his original stories, and with his own biography. But I loved the way the movie was put together; was amused by its nonchalant approach to sexuality; excited by the editing and by the choreography of the cabaret numbers; enthralled by Joel Grey and Liza Minnelli — and, although I didn’t yet comprehend why, with Michael York’s Isherwoodesque physiognomy.

Michael York as Isherwood, more or less.

I didn’t quite realize, not being fully conversant with the possibilities of irony in staging musicals (and not yet having discovered Stephen Sondheim; that would come in a year or two) that what Fosse had made was not a traditional musical but a dramatic movie with musical numbers. Only later would I fully understand that by keeping the song-and-dance — save the ersatz Nazi anthem “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” — within the confines of the Kit Kat Klub, the filmmaker was able to exploit his stars’ talents (and his own) while keeping the action grounded in the drastically crumbling reality of 1931 Berlin and to comment ironically, as had Harold Prince in his original concept for the stage show, but here in purely cinematic terms, on the story’s arc and the characters’ predicaments, erotic and otherwise. I would come to ruminate on this aspect of Fosse’s Cabaret in due course, as I realized who I was, how my feelings for Michael had altered, and that he had his own very personal reasons, not yet shared with me, for his own amusement over the movie’s homosexual implications.

Brian: Oh — screw Maximilian!
Sally: I do.
Brian (After a shocked pause, smiles): So do I.

The less personal, more thematic, revelations came to a head later, after seeing the movie again, on television in September of 1975. That infamous broadcast contained one of the most bizarre acts of censorship I’ve ever encountered, even to this day. I fully expected the movie’s many uses of the word “screw” (“Fuck” in the European release) would be axed, or over-dubbed. What I was not prepared for was that ABC, terrified of the moment in Cabaret that made explicit both Sally Bowles’ (Minnelli) and her erstwhile beau Brian Roberts’ (York) sexual involvement with Helmut Griem’s erotically ecumenical Maximilian, would simply drop the audio in the middle of the scene. At first, I assumed this sudden silence to be a technical glitch, but when the sound was restored immediately after that funny/shocking dialogue (Brian: Oh — screw Maximilian! / Sally: I do. / Brian [after a shocked pause, smiling]: So do I.) I had the uneasy feeling that something else was at play. And it was — the same Puritan impulse that would later greet Fosse’s Chicago, Dancin’ and All That Jazz: How dare he suggest that there was such a thing as sex in the world! Not merely, in George Carlin’s ironic phrase, “Man on top, get it over with quick” sex but transgressive, unusual, non-normative, non-procreative sex!

Timothy Scott in the Dancin’ first national tour, with Valerie-Jean Miller and Cynthia Onrubia. (Photo by Martha Swope.)

Flash-forward to December 1979 and my first trip to New York as a theatre-mad 18-year-old, seeing Bob Fosse’s Dancin’ at a matinee performance. Ann Reinking was out, as was her wont — although I intuited how exhausting the show must be, it was only later that I understood just how grueling that three-act marathon was for Fosse’s dancers — but the experience was transformative nonetheless. I was especially impressed by a brilliant young dancer who, coincidentally, shared two of my names; I simply could not take my eyes of Timothy Scott whenever he was on-stage. While he was, physically, definitely my “type” (or one of my types, anyway) it was his technique, his expertise, his energy and his sheer stage presence, especially in the “Big Noise from Winnetka” trio, that made him irresistible. (When I got home, I wrote him a fan letter; disappointingly, it went un-answered.) A trained jazz dancer, Scott seemed to me the perfect masculine embodiment of the Fosse aesthetic. And my own psyche was no less Art-and-Beauty orientated than Fosse’s, save that his concentration was on the female of the species.*

Rowell Gormon, Life with Father‘s Reverend Dr. Lloyd, gave caricatures to the cast and crew as closing night gifts. In mine, he captured my Fosse phase perfectly.

Then, in the winter of 1980, All That Jazz. A movie that obsessed me to such a degree that, as stage manager of a little theatre production of Life with Father that season, my nightly exhortation to the troupe over the tannoy at the top of Act One was Joe Gideon’s somewhat shame-faced, “It’s showtime, folks!”

That summer I staged, and performed in, a pair of dances for a local revue, one of them my memory, not entirely accurate, of Cabaret’s “Money, Money,” for myself and my friend Lisa. Discovering that Fosse, who did not enjoy the usual and requisite ballet training of his peers and lacking the terpsichorean vocabulary to express to his dancers precisely what he wanted from them, charted his ideas through the use of stick figures, was an encouragement.

Although I was far less conversant with the nomenclature of dance than Fosse, I was able to work out my choreography (such as it was) that way, and did. There was enough enthusiasm on that stage to make up for my choreographic inadequacies, but what mattered most to me was creating an homage to one of my idols.

In retrospect, I realize that my interest in Fosse began much earlier than my seeing Cabaret, at age 11, with the 1972 telecast of his Liza with a Z, one of the entities that conferred on him a still-unchallenged Triple Crown as recipient of the three major nicknamed show-biz awards (Oscar®, Tony®, Emmy®) in a single year. I just didn’t, at that moment, know who he was. I got a much clearer sense of him the following summer, on seeing his debut as a filmmaker, the heartbreaking Sweet Charity, on television.

So, Bob Fosse: One of the handful of true American originals, and a repository of show-biz tropes that, yoked to what he saw as his own physical defects, became a style. Adored and, if not reviled, at least dismissed, in equal measure. Capable of astonishment on a regular basis, yet a simulacrum of his own limitations. Endlessly fascinating while, at one and the same moment, and in some elemental fashion, personally repellent.

On that last point, I suppose Fosse joins a not so very select list; some of the creative artists whose work I most admire were, or are, problematic as people. As someone (sources vary) once noted, he who would eat sausages or respect the law would do well not to find out how either are made. The same holds true of admiration; best to maintain a distance, or risk discovering that one’s heroes possess feet of purest clay. That axiom presents a problem for those who, like me, are by nature intensely curious, particularly about the work they love and the people who make it. Although as a reader I am a sort of literary magpie, flitting from one shiny object to another, I am especially enamored of biography and what a friend used to call “the backstage stuff.” Yet do I dare find out too much about my idols?

Add this: The very nature of the human psyche and the human heart militate against complete understanding. How many of us fully comprehend ourselves, and our own motivations, let alone those of others? How far can empathy extend? How does even the most incisive, competent biographer make sense of what is, essentially, inexplicable? The best know they never can. Externals give clues, but clues only. But thanks to the various schools of psychology, and our own imperfect grasp of them, head-shrinking is now a game any number can play— and, alas, do. And the more noted the subject, the greater the impulse to analyze.

These personal, exhaustive (and, possibly, exhausting?) ruminations are occasioned by my having just read Sam Wasson’s fat biography Fosse (Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.) Wasson’s monograph on Blake Edwards, the wonderfully titled A Splurch in the Kisser, held me, even at its most academically pretentious, and his little book on Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.) was often enchanting. Given my nearly lifelong fascination with Bob Fosse, the pull of the book was damn near irresistible.

And so I have emerged on the far side of Fosse even more depressed than usual.

If that is explicable due to my own chronic condition, coupled with its subject’s love affair with death, it is so only in part: I’ve long been conversant with that aspect of Fosse’s psychology. Indeed, as a more-than-somewhat obsessive aficionado of All That Jazz my first, uncensored thought when I heard, in the autumn of 1987, that Fosse had died was, Well, he finally got to fuck Angelique. Less than Bob Fosse’s own darkness, then, it was the sheer, almost unrelenting, piling up of incident that depressed me; digesting six-hundred pages of neurotic dissipation can do that to you.

But is that due to Fosse — or to Sam Wasson’s Fosse? When I read Kevin Boyd Grubb’s Razzle Dazzle: The Life and Works of Bob Fosse in 1990 I was certainly moved, but the principal emotion I felt afterward was exhilaration — the sense that Fosse’s best work, seen on film or experienced in the moment, mitigated his darkness, even his death. But in Fosse, that very work is itself buried under the relentlessness of detail. The book is not a poison-pen biography by any means. Yet you carry with you not the indelible imagery the man left us but the overall, debilitating miasma of his life… or, in any case, of the life Wasson describes. In its way, Fosse is the literary equivalent of Star 80, the director’s 1983 meditation on the brief life and brutal death of Dorothy Stratten: The dread sets in early, and never abates.

The sense of unease begins with Wasson’s death-watch chapter titles, which open with “60 Years” and devolve from there; the last is “One Hour and Fifty-Three Minutes.” Any life can be measured in those terms, of course, and I suspect that no one would have appreciated those chapter headings more than Bob Fosse. They’re like the shock-cuts that recur in Star 80 and which so unnervingly portend a grisly finish that the viewer feels trapped in a hell too visceral to walk away from. This viewer did, anyway; the images, veiled and uncertain at first but attaining full and hideous definition by the end, still linger from my initial — and for far, only — exposure 30 years ago. Although I didn’t care a great deal for Lenny (Dustin Hoffman is a poor substitute for Lenny Bruce), Star 80 is the one Fosse movie I simply cannot imagine ever sitting through again. The infamous open-heart surgery in All That Jazz was a romp through spring clover by comparison.

While Wasson sings the praises of Martin Gottfried’s Fosse biography All His Jazz and never once mentions Kevin Boyd Grubb in the text, his end-notes indicate that he has quoted from Razzle Dazzle extensively, if selectively. While it is true that Grubb’s book has been faulted for its errors, it at least had the virtue of having been written by an expert in dance, and not by a sexual neurotic: Gottfried, whose long and risibly suspect tendency to determine dread homosexual underpinnings in all things theatrical, and to oppose them rather hysterically, reached a kind of nadir in his review of Pippin which, notoriously, hailed Fosse’s staging as having returned choreography to a heterosexual norm at long, long last. The image one gets is of a Broadway theatre in which squads of screaming nellies, wrists limply a-flail, routinely invaded the stages of every musical, humping each other’s legs (and other body parts?) while Gottfried, aghast, watched, helpless and terrified.

Blane Savage, Ann Reinking, Charles Ward and Sandahl Bergman in Dancin’. (Photograph by Martha Swope.)

Wasson too, despite his avowed adoration of movie musicals, seems curiously loathe to approach homosexuality in any direct manner. Which I suppose is my quaint manner of implying he is heterosexual, and uneasy. But for a field — dance — which has long attracted young gay men, that’s a striking omission. Fosse’s bête noire Michael Bennett is noted in the book as Donna McKechnie’s one-time husband, and later as a notable loss to AIDS, but the leap from one to the other is entirely mental on the part of the reader, as is the author’s citing Fosse’s jealousy over Ann Reinking’s relationship, whatever it was, with the dancer Charles Ward; Wasson tells us that other Fosse dancers assumed Ward was gay, but elides over that, never acknowledging as Grubb does that Ward for many of Fosse’s Broadway corps was their first friend and colleague to succumb to the AIDS virus.

Ben Vereen and the Players in Pippin.

Fosse was quoted (in a New York Times interview from the time of Pippin which Wasson ignores, and which Gottfried presumably never read) as — to use a certain recent Presidential term — evolving in his attitudes toward his gay dancers: “Always before if I found a male dancer I knew was homosexual,” he said, “I would keep saying, no, you can’t do that, don’t be so minty there. This time, I used the kind of people they were to give the show individuality, and they were so happy about it. I think it helped the show.” In a book necessarily drenched in its subject’s sexuality and in his fascination with sex, this omission is telling.


I don’t mean to belabor the point; after all, Fosse’s heterosexuality is integral to his work, and to the dances he created that occasionally scandalized the prudes, much as Joe Gideon’s “Take Off with Us” routine in All That Jazz shocks his collaborators. But, again, the slow realization, by audiences as well as the characters on-screen in All That Jazz, that Roy Scheider’s Gideon has actually done it, that he is going to depict two men and two women dancing romantic and sexual pas de deux in a musical was, in 1979, one of those absolutely galvanizing movie moments, like the achingly almost-ménage à trois in Fosse’s Cabaret, that heralded not merely tense anticipation and a gradually released pleasure in those movies’ gay audiences but a complete relaxation about erotic variation on the part of the filmmaker himself.

The mesmerizing male pas de deux in All That Jazz.

Which brings us rather neatly to the major disappointment of Fosse: While film-freak Wasson illuminates the making of Bob Fosse’s quartet of movies — all that “backstage stuff” — with admirable detail and scholarship, the finished products are not treated with the same consideration. This, from an author whose previous books exhibited a boundless enthusiasm for movies and a keen, if occasionally academized, grasp of technique, is at best puzzling. Yes, Fosse is long already, but if that were the primary editorial concern I would note that the Houghton Mifflin typeface is generous, and could easily have been reduced to a fractionally smaller font.

The sexy, brilliantly staged and acted invitation to a ménage in Cabaret.

Overviews are sometimes dangerous, but in the case of a book like this, they’re almost de rigeur, especially as Wasson is too young to have seen Pippin or Chicago or Dancin’, or even Fosse’s Broadway swan-song, Big Deal (let alone Redhead or Sweet Charity) and is thus at a critical disadvantage in conveying his subject’s theatrical achievements. None of Fosse’s later shows, aside from a rather poor, scaled-down Pippin, was videotaped for posterity, even in the now-standard archival format; you’d either have to have been there or be the sort of writer John Anthony Gilvey proved in his superb Gower Champion biography Before the Parade Passes By to reproduce the sensation of those historic dances by and for those who never got the chance to see them. But film is (at least for the moment) eternal, and each of Fosse’s four movies is available for perusal, and rife for commentary.

Wasson seems so intent on the shock value of ending Bob Fosse’s history, and his book, at the very moment of his death that nothing is said about his legacy in the 26 years since he left us. Surely, a word or two, if only in an epilogue, is due what has been done with Fosse’s choreography, and his shows, subsequently: The popular revue Fosse, say, which  while preserving his choreography also misinterpreted and diminished it. Or the phenomenally popular “stripped-down” Chicago revival, little more than an elaborately staged concert but one that, nonetheless, proved the worth of the show decades after its chilly initial reception. Or the subsequent, rather facile and misguided (if massively popular) movie version, made by people with impeccable backgrounds in musical theatre such as Craig Zadan who nonetheless felt the need to “explain” why the movie had musical numbers. If you have to create a reason for the numbers in a musical, why are you making a musical at all?

Fosse is, despite these many cavils, an engrossing book and Wasson’s many interviews with Bob Fosse’s friends, lovers, colleagues and dancers give it an aspect of laudable completeness and verisimilitude. I daresay that few recent books on the theatre have had greater scope, and Wasson’s organization and arrangement of these disparate details is more than admirable. (Think how much he must have had to leave out!) He allows those who loved Bob Fosse, even as he exasperated them, full sway to convey their emotions, some of them remarkably fresh decades after the fact. He also gives Fosse’s more self-regarding detractors enough rope to hang themselves quite nicely: Hal Prince claiming Fosse ran his entire oeuvre off the energy of his, Prince’s, original staging of Cabaret. (What was Fosse doing, then, before 1966?) Or Stephen Sondheim observing that he never bought Fosse’s darkness as anything other than a pose, and judging that the man who turned his own, much-remarked upon, physical limitations into a style “saw the last 20 minutes of Follies” and made a career out of it.

Yet it is, finally, the numbing piling-on of dissipation that is the chiefest aspect of Fosse, and the most dispiriting. Thesis biographies, like thesis plays, rarely get beyond a narrow point of view; the thesis is everything. Thus: The endless sexual conquests that make Bob Fosse seem like a real-life version of the Dean Martin “Dino” character in Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s Kiss Me, Stupid, in danger of a headache if he doesn’t have sex with a different woman every single night of his life. The insistence, odd in a man whose love of and respect for women suggests a kind of nascent, if foot-scuffling, feminism, on his partners’ absolute erotic fealty to him even as he indulged himself satyrically… and even as he recognized the absurdity in himself. Yet the gentle, apologetic visionary of Shirley MacLaine’s memoirs, the driven soul whose genius could be ruthless and cruel even as he was begging everyone’s pardon for it (“One more time, please… Forgive me”) is in scant evidence here, as is the filmmaker whose apotheosis of style in the service of content, the magnificent Cabaret, won him a deserved place in movie history and whose self-lacerating All That Jazz stands as a model of stunningly effective cutting. Instead, we get: The chain-smoking that reached such heights of madness that, during periods of intense working concentration Fosse often burned his own lips; the drinking; the drugs; the manic-depression. All of it doubtless real, and much of it contributing to both Fosse’s self-made myth and his early demise… but much of it as well repetitious to the point of authorial obsession.

As an adolescent, allowed to perform in the unsavory world of Chicago burlesque, Fosse was likely initiated into sex at an early age, and in circumstances so exceptionally ugly even he lacked the intestinal fortitude to depict them fully in All That Jazz. This may or may not account for his love/hate relationships with women, but it is undoubtedly horrid, and terribly sad, and may go a long way toward explaining his life-long struggles with suicidal depression. “In today’s world,” Fosse was quoted in the late ’70s, “everything seems like some sort of long audition.” For him, that call-back process may have had its central metaphor in the approach/avoidance of death, but that didn’t necessarily make his accomplishments deathish.

The first page of Bernard Drew’s 1979 American Film article on Fosse and All That Jazz

If my response to Wasson’s book seems excessively personal, that’s because it is. Bob Fosse’s work has meant so much to me through the years that I feel compelled to defend him against what is, in the end, a biographer more interested in the man’s personal flaws than his measurable achievement. I’m also aware that my veneration of Fosse is entirely subjective, and selfish; his gradual physical debilitation, as much as his death, deprived me of what I most wanted from him: More.

There is a great deal to admire about Fosse, but I wish the man whose best movies turned my head around and altered my world and whose self-indulgent, occasionally vulgar but more often exhilarating Dancin’ I count as one of the seminal theatrical experiences of my youth, had gotten a more sympathetic biographer than Sam Wasson.† “Sympathetic” in the sense, not of celebrating his subject’s excesses as a man and as an artist or adorning him in mindless hagiography, but in the wider meaning: As one who expresses an understanding of the art itself, and knows that when dealing with a creative person the work, in the final analysis, is what really matters.

Everything else is just marking time.

Sweet Charity (1969): Fosse on set, demonstrating the spotlight dance in “If They Could See Me Now” for Shirley MacLaine. The U.S. Postal Service commemorative Fosse stamp uses this image of him.

*Scott, who played Mr. Mistoffelees in the Broadway Cats in 1982, died of complications from AIDS in 1988.

Post-Script, September 2022
I wished, above, that Fosse had gotten a more sympathetic biographer than Sam Wasson. He got one, finally, in Kevin Winkler’s splendid 2018 Oxford University Press volume Big Deal: Bob Fosse and Dance in the American Musical. While necessarily focusing on Fosse’s theatre work, Winkler takes in his movies as well, and with both greater generosity of spirit and almost infinitely more knowledge than Wasson about musical theatre and dance.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

Monthly Report: July 2022


By Scott Ross

As ever, click the links on the capsules for the complete reviews.

Hopscotch (1980) Brian Garfield’s engaging espionage thriller transformed by him (and Bryan Forbes) into a comic spy caper and a terrific vehicle for Walter Matthau. Interestingly, Garfield’s book ends with a gesture by the Matthau character the author appears to have lifted from the 1973 Charley Varrick, which also starred Matthau but it’s less a literary steal than a likeable homage. Although entirely implausible — if a CIA agent actually did what Matthau’s Miles Kendig does in the movie, even that bunch of incompetents would track down and kill him — it’s thoroughly enjoyable watching Kendig twit his petty martinet of a boss (Ned Beatty, exquisitely frustrated) and evade, not merely his bright underling (Sam Waterston) but the KGB faction headed by the imperturbable Herbert Lom. Glenda Jackson had so much fun with Matthau making the delightful sleeper hit House Calls two years earlier that she signed on for what amounts to an enjoyable recurrent cameo as Miles’ sly inamorata. Pleasantly directed by Ronald Neame, warmly photographed by Arthur Ibbetson and Brian W. Roy and scored by Ian Fraser with (at Matthau’s request) some lively bits of Mozart, Hopscotch is as inconsequential as mousse au chocolate, and nearly as delicious. (Sole cavil: I could have done without the Jackson character referring to a particularly hapless spy as a “Follett the faygelah.”) Amusingly, as in Paddy Chayefsky’s script for The Hospital, several of the characters share surnames with notable mystery and thriller writers: not only Follett but Ross, Ludlum, Fleming and Westlake (first name: Parker).

Destry Rides Again (1939) The enormously entertaining James Stewart-Marlene Dietrich Western, perfectly judged and with a sumptuous look courtesy of its inspired lighting director, Hal Mohr.

The Grapes of Wrath (1940) Nunnally Johnson’s very fine adaptation of the epoch-capturing John Steinbeck novel, directed with extraordinary sensitivity by John Ford, photographed by Gregg Toland with almost shocking documentary realism, and among the least artificial sound pictures of Hollywood’s so-called Golden Age.

What a Way to Go! (1964) A big, bloated, spasmodically amusing shaggy-dog comedy starring Shirley MacLaine in her adorable kitten period and with a host of guest-stars (Dick Van Dyke, Paul Newman, Robert Mitchum, Gene Kelly) as her ill-fated husbands, who get comic material of highly variable quality. The central joke of this DeLuxe-colored bauble is that Shirley, as the hapless Louisa May Foster, hates money but each of her successive husbands somehow inadvertently becomes obscenely rich and then is killed in ever more outrageous ways, leaving her yet another fortune. It’s fairly anemic to have come from the authors of Singin’ in the Rain and the director of The Guns of Navarone; the Betty Comden and Adolph Green script indulges the team’s penchant for overstated satire, only snippets of which (particularly those involving MacLaine and Van Dyke) are funny. An extended sequence featuring ever more ludicrous Edith Head costumes and poking fun, I think, at Ross Hunter (“Lush Budgett presents…”) goes on and on (and on) until you never want to see MacLaine again in anything more haute couture than a burlap sack.

Aside from the Mitchum character, who turns his back on his fortune, the gentle Jekylls Louisa marries turn so quickly, and so completely, into ravenous Hydes when money is in their grip that the situations become ridiculous even for an overblown farce like this one. Examples: Newman, who as an American artist in Paris resembles an Actors Studio dropout imitating a Teamster, with success suddenly sounds like Richard Burton (one of several Burton jokes in the picture); the passive, agreeable Van Dyke becomes a parody of the worst, barking CEO; and Kelly, a sweet-natured nightclub comedian content with being an employed failure, turns into a nightmare version of Harry Langdon, every shred of his charm obliterated. The best moments in the picture occur early and involve Margaret Dumont (whose last movie this was) as Louisa’s harpy of a mother and Van Dyke and MacLaine in a silent movie parody.

The redoubtable Leon Shamroy provided his customary beautiful color cinematography and Nelson Riddle an infectious musical score, but the best that can be said of J. Lee Thompson’s direction is that it is a professional job without the slightest individual characteristics or visual interest. The movie was originally developed for Marilyn Monroe and, after her death, reconfigured for Elizabeth Taylor. It’s possible to imagine Monroe in the role although I can’t see her bringing to it the intelligence MacLaine projects. (Taylor, who given a good enough line could seem witty, was never a comedian and would have been utterly wrong save for the fact that Louisa’s multiple marriages mirrored her own busy nuptial life.) Bob Cummings’ performance as Louisa’s psychiatrist is as unsubtle as the rest of the picture, and Dean Martin seems merely along for the ride. For those interested in coincidental trivia, Newman’s painter character is named Larry Flint.

An Unmarried Woman (1978) Paul Mazursky’s miraculous study of a woman whose life is turned upside down by her husband’s infidelity. Jill Clayburgh gives a luminous performance in the central role.

The Last Valley (1970) I was enormously impressed by this intelligent parable of the Thirty Years’ War the first time I saw it, less so on seeing it a second time after reading the bracing short novel by J.B. Pick upon which it is based. The book (whose original American title, A Last Valley, is far superior to that used by the filmmakers — what a difference an article can make) is a poetic-philosophic rumination on theology, violence, the natures of war and of men, conducted via a narrative of power and survival waged between civil forces in a secluded German glen. Pick’s story is so tightly structured that to pull out a single thread means remaking it anew. Alas, thread-pulling is what James Clavell, who adapted and directed The Last Valley, seems to have been intent on. It’s still a beautifully mounted production, with glorious cinematography by John Wilcox, a splendid Lion in Winteresque score by John Barry and superb central performances by Michael Caine as the cynical military Captain who no longer knows nor cares whose side he is fighting on and Omar Sharif as the former academic-turned-hardscrabble-survivor desperately trying to navigate between factions. Although both characters die at the end of the book as well as in the movie, the way they die matters enormously, and Clavell I’m afraid drains the meaning from those deaths, as well as the author’s savage yet eminently sensible irony.

The Flight of the Phoenix (1965) An effective thriller with a tight screenplay by Lukas Heller, efficient direction by Robert Aldrich and sterling ensemble acting by its mostly male cast. Heller’s script hews closely to the intelligent, entertaining novel by Elleston Trevor, the author (under the nom de plume Adam Hill) of the Quiller books, and even improves on it a little. Beautifully photographed by Joseph Biroc and edited with panache by Michael Luciano the picture, about a group of men stranded in the Arabian desert when their transport plane crashes in a sandstorm, stars James Stewart as the captain devastated by the disaster, Richard Attenborough as his humane navigator, Peter Finch as a soft-speaking military man and Hardy Krüger as a maddeningly aloof and arrogant designer. Krüger’s character is so psychotically rigid he seems almost a new edition of the wartime Aryan. (In the novel he, and everyone else, was British.) The only major change from the book is the addition of a French doctor played by Brando’s old playmate Christian Marquand; he’s able to attend an injured youth, and later goes off with the Captain on his doomed, self-determined mission. His inclusion, however, adds little or nothing of value to the narrative. Of much greater interest are Ernest Borgnine as a pitiable mental case, Ian Bannen as a sarcastic oil fields laborer, Dan Duryea as a gentle worrier, Ronald Fraser as a career soldier who despises his superior officer, George Kennedy as a more easy-going worker, and, in a vision of the delirious soldier, Barrie Chase.

The picture ends with this rather curious dedication: “It should be remembered that Paul Mantz, a fine man and a brilliant flyer, gave his life in the making of this film.” No, he didn’t. Someone on the filmmaking team fucked up on the safety of the movie’s makeshift airplane, and got Mantz killed through negligence. His life was taken from him, he didn’t give it.

“Gave his life”! For a movie. Jesus wept.

Fearless (1993) Speaking of improvements on literary originals, Rafael Yglesias’ script for Fearless trims the self-indulgent fat from his own otherwise very good novel and focuses the narrative sharply, very much to the story’s benefit. It’s about two survivors of a commercial airline crash, unknown to each other before the event, and what the life-altering incident does to each of them. Carla, whose toddler was lost during the crash, becomes nearly catatonic with grief, depression and guilt. Max, who survived because he moved from his seat to comfort a frightened young boy traveling alone, behaves as if he’s invincible, unkillable. Meanwhile Max’s faltering marriage slips further away from him, his own young son is a stranger and he closes his architectural firm, drifting without purpose when he isn’t challenging death by performing such seemingly self-destructive stunts as balancing on the ledge of an apartment building, eating the strawberries he’s allergic to or, with (to her) apparent selflessness, proving to Carla that she could not have prevented her son’s death and nearly killing himself in the process.

Max is a maddening character in the novel and would probably be equally as difficult to like with an actor less charmingly natural than Jeff Bridges playing him. When Bridges smiles in pleasure, the effect is almost like seeing the emotion depicted onscreen for the first time, and it makes you understand what Max is feeling without your being told in words; you’re plugged into the character in a way that somehow eludes you on the page. As Carla, Rosie Perez gives a performance so completely raw, unstudied and without artifice it’s searing, and in a way we seldom experience movie acting. I’m tempted to say that Perez turns grieving into an art form, but that’s not exactly what I mean. Her performance in Fearless has the sort of impact we get from watching the young Brando, or from seeing Sally Field in the TV miniseries Sybil. It’s one of those things that seem to be beyond acting, and in that way Jeff Bridges is the perfect co-star for her. Together they create a kind of documentary realism, each complementing and in a sense completing the other’s work.

Fearless was directed by Peter Weir with both sensitivity and an impressive lack of sensationalism. Taking his cue from Yglesias’ writing, Weir and his gifted cinematographer Allen Daviau shoot the airplane sequences (they occur largely in flashback) not as if he’s trying to wring your guts through suspense yet making it abundantly clear what going through an airplane crash is like. These scenes, and those following the accident, have a surreal quality which if you’ve ever been through a freak violent crash of any sort you recognize immediately. The three editors (William M. Anderson, Armen Minasian and Lee Smith) deserve real credit here as well for the impressive way these sequences play out, and for the excellence of the movie generally. Fearless was one of those rare, thoroughly satisfying, ’90s movies aimed at adults and which, naturally, was a flop at the box office. No one involved need experience the slightest sense of shame for that.

Slap Shot (1977) This thoroughly engaging Paul Newman comedy about a slipping Pennsylvania hockey franchise whose fortunes change when it starts playing with greater violence got a lot of ink in its day not entirely because it was perhaps the most consistently, and often hilariously, foul-mouthed American movie up to that time but due to its having been written by (gasp!) a woman. Nancy Dowd, who a year later shared an Academy Award for the gaseous screenplay for Coming Home, based some of the picture’s plot and incidents on things her hockey-playing brother Ned told her. (He appears in Slap Shot in a funny bit as a bad-tempered goon.) As might be imagined in a frank sports movie, there are things said by some of the characters, including Newman’s Reggie Dunlop, that would cause picketing at the very least today. One of the movie’s funniest moments in 1977 involved Reggie telling the mercenary owner of the team that her young son was “a faggot.” The boy is just a child, and has exhibited no unusual behavior so it’s clear the remark isn’t directed at him at all but at his insufferable mother; Reggie knows it’ll get a rise out of her, and it does, and the shock of it for the audience was nearly as pronounced. People (including myself) roared because of the outrageousness of the line, and Newman’s nonchalance with it. I won’t spoil your possible pleasure by quoting it in full, and I presume you are broadminded enough not to be offended by it. I trust you will not betray my faith in you.

Just about everything in the picture works. The only tiresome gambit is the older player (Brad Sullivan) who talks about little other than sex, and women’s breasts, and seems (to me, anyway) by these excessive displays of heterosexual lust to be trying to prove something to himself. But he’s a minor character, and he’s more than offset by Strother Martin as the prevaricating team manager, Michael Ontkean* as the single player who refuses to go along with the changeover from skill to violence, Lindsay Crouse as his discontented wife, Jerry Houser as a sweet-natured player who decides on the utterly inappropriate nickname “Killer,” Andrew Duncan (complete with trademark wretched toupée) as a grinning fool of a local sportscaster, the young Swoosie Kurtz as a jolly player’s wife and the riotous team of Jeff Carlson, Steve Carlson and David Hanson as the Hansen Brothers, a trio of bespectacled idiots who kick off the Charlestown Chiefs’ violent turn. The only member of the cast who weighs the picture down is Jennifer Warren; as Reggie’s ex-wife she gives the same sort of weird line-readings that put me off her equally irritating performance in Night Moves. George Roy Hill directed with his usual intelligent grace, and while we didn’t realize it at the time, his movie depicted the beginnings of the phenomenon, sped up by Reagan and his successors, of the destruction of American labor through the closure of native manufacturing. Seeing Slap Shot now, this depressing sub-theme gives the comedy an underlying frisson of sadness.

Blue Skies (1946) One of those dispiriting “songbook” musicals highlighting a composer or composer/lyricist team — in this case Irving Berlin — that, aside from the songs and the stars, offers very little in the way of entertainment. (The previous Berlin extravaganzas, Holiday Inn and Easter Parade, are almost infinitely better, and they weren’t all that great to begin with.) Worse, it’s yet another Fred Astaire picture in which he either barely dances, or for which the choreography is minimal. Berlin gets the lion share of the blame here because the alleged story was his idea: A singer (Bing Crosby) and a dancer-singer (Astaire) spend years fighting over the same woman, who inexplicably loves the less reliable of them. There is in Arthur Sheekman’s perfunctory screenplay absolutely no trace of the man Groucho Marx called “The Fastest Wit in the West,” merely of a man dejectedly following orders. The only laughs in the movie stem from Billy De Wolfe’s “Mrs. Murgatroyd” routine, an early example of what would later be called gender-fuck. For the rest of the picture he runs around pretending to be heteroseuxally enamored of Olga San Juan. Pull the other one, Billy.

There are three good dances, and of these one is full of wan “comedy” (“A Couple of Song and Dance Men”) and another (“Heat Wave”) is truncated by the drama of a drunken Astaire falling from an absurd stage height. The best of this trio, however, is a masterpiece: Astaire’s magical challenge dance with nine little Freds to a slightly censored version of “Puttin’ on the Ritz” sans the original’s tone of mockery towards Blacks. Ever the perfectionist, Astaire filmed each of his alter egos separately. The rest of the numbers are just Berlin plugging his old songs in a Technicolor soup so garish you have to amuse yourself by watching the shadows on the ceilings just to keep your eyes from watering in irritation. The crowning glory is the performance by the singularly un-gifted Joan Caulfield, which is of such a mind-numbing badness it beggars belief. When I saw her co-star billing in the credits I wondered who her agent was. Later I discovered she was at the time Crosby’s mistress, and imposed on the picture over the objections of the director, Stuart Heisler. Let that serve as a demonstration of what can happen when you mix business with pleasure.

*When Ontkean’s character gets thrown out of the team’s last game he does an elaborate strip-tease on the ice. It’s one of Slap Shot‘s comic highlights, and all too predictably led to that professional homophobe Richard Shickel, writing in Time, singling out the moment. “[I]n the dénouement,” Shickel whinged, “[Ontkean] is forced to go for a broader, cheaper kind of comic response.” Dig that “forced.” Did Shickel think Ontkean didn’t read the script before he signed on to be in the movie? I wonder what really bugged him: The idea of the striptease, or the sight of an attractive young actor’s naked flesh?

Text copyright 2022 by Scott Ross

Taking flight: “An Unmarried Woman” (1978)


By Scott Ross

One of the last great American movies of the 1970s, An Unmarried Woman, written and directed by Paul Mazursky, was a touchstone for me when it opened in 1978; it was so satisfying I went back to see it over and over throughout that spring, accompanying various young women friends and relatives each time and enjoying their reactions to it. Well, it was a foreign country, kids; they did things differently there. Like making mature, intelligent, sexy, witty and truthful movies about human beings… especially the female of the species. And although awards in general do not matterand Academy Awards matter less than mostwhy Jill Clayburgh did not take home the Oscar the next year for her fulsome, achingly honest performance in this beautiful picture I will never understand. Which would I rather sit through again? The earnest liberal pieties of the “Best Actress” winner Coming Home, or the joy of Clayburgh in all her moods in An Unmarried Woman? Baby, there is no contest.

Mazursky was initially inspired by a deed a divorcée friend showed him, on which she was listed as an unmarried woman. While the characterizing of women in American movies had been evolving throughout the decade (I don’t think Bree Daniels in Klute could have appeared, and been honestly portrayed, before 1969 at the earliest) there had been only one really incisive studio-produced portrait of a previously married woman on her own, the Robert Getchell-scripted Alice Doesn’t Live Her Anymore, commissioned by its star Ellen Burstyn and somewhat mis-directed by Martin Scorsese, a filmmaker not noted for his great interest in depicting women on the screen. (No wonder the boys all love him so.) Although Burstyn’s performance as Alice is entirely gratifying, the movie to a large degree lets her down, a deficiency I ascribe admittedly without actual evidence beyond what’s in the pictureto Scorsese’s tense urban (and entirely masculine) sensibilities. In a country whose divorce figures even then were edging toward the 50%-per-marriage mark, the unwillingness, or disinterest, of the nation’s major filmmakers to look seriously at the effects that upheaval was having on either gender was telling. Aside from Alice the only other picture from the period I can think of that addresses it specifically is another authored and directed by Mazursky, the 1973 Blume in Love, and it contains one of the ugliest scenes of the era, in which George Segal’s character rapes his ex-wife… who then, having become pregnant by him, takes him back! That Mazursky could subsequently (as an act of atonement?) write a movie so completely dedicated to doing right by a woman wronged is as remarkable as everything else about the movie. As Pauline Kael correctly noted in her New Yorker review of An Unmarried Woman, “No other film has made such a sensitive, empathic case for a modern woman’s need to call her soul her own.”

Martin’s confession of infidelity. Note that before Erica hears why he’s weeping, she is comforting him.

Cannily, yet without drawing attention to the device, Mazursky charts the action in An Unmarried Woman through the changes of the seasons. It’s autumn when his movie begins and late fall when Martin Benton (Michael Murphy) tells his wife Erica (Clayburgh) he’s in love with another woman. Erica’s most difficult phase stretches then from winter (seeing a therapist and fully giving up on her marriage) through her gradual rebirth in the spring (tentatively dating, and having the first sex outside matrimony) and the full flowering of her romance with the abstract expressionist Saul (Alan Bates) just as summer begins. The seasons both color Erica’s moods and reflect them, from shock and despair and a kind of spiritual death to the slow renewal of life, but there is no heavy-handed chasing after symbols here; the visual scheme is organic. An Unmarried Woman is also very much a New York picture, as besotted with the city as Woody Allen was in Annie Hall and Manhattan. Arthur J. Ornitz’s bright, warm color cinematography burnishes the images and makes the seasons of Erica’s year vibrant, even when her emotional temperature is low. (Bill Conti’s bright, mutable theme rings similar emotional changes.)

This is one of those exceedingly rare movies, then or now, in which nearly everything works. Mazursky was a master at shaping scenes, both in his writing and in his direction, and the quality of his dialogue it seems to me is just about perfect: the delineation of character in it suggests an ear for comic/dramatic conversation that is just about unerring. He was a kind of funky Chekhov, fully attuned to his characters’ emotions and exhibiting a genuine appreciation for the frailties and the inherent comedy of people; Mazursky was arguably the single actor-turned-director since Chaplin who brought with him and fully expressed what he’d learned about acting in the quality of his dialogue and observation. The only scene whose inclusion I question is the one in which Erica tells her therapist (the real-life psychologist Penelope Russianoff) about getting her first period in junior high school. It feels like an intrusion. Yes, sexual development in adolescents is an important aspect of life, and especially important to the teenagers who experience these changes. But I’ve never known men, even young men, to sit around telling each other about their first wet-dreams or their first auto-erotic experiences. Do women really do this? And what has menstruating for the first time to do with how Erica is feeling at that moment about her husband deserting her? (Although there was some improvisation between Russianoff and Clayburgh, the menstruation monologue is in Mazursky’s original screenplay.)

Jill Clayburgh and Lisa Lucas singing “Maybe I’m Amazed” together at the piano.

Mazursky was also a great director of other actors, and his pictures are beautifully cast. When you first see Elliott Gould and Dyan Cannon in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, or Art Carney and Larry Hagman in Harry & Tonto, or George Segal in Blume in Love, or Lenny Baker in Next Stop Greenwich Village, you immediately grasp their characters and the quirks of their personalities, within which they still surprise and delight you. While everyone in An Unmarried Women is terrific, the two great performances are Clayburgh’s as Erica and the astonishing Lisa Lucas as her teenage daughter Patti.

Viewers of the beautiful 1972 television adaptation of Gail Rock’s book The House Without a Christmas Tree, made when Lucas was 11, fell in love with her precocious, spunky Addie Mills, and knew they were seeing something rare in child acting. Lucas’s Addie was entirely without guile, and didn’t revel in goopy sentimentality, and the lack of those easy traits was part of what made that performance so entrancing: Lucas didn’t so much act on camera as behave, and she never begged the audience for sympathy. She brought similar qualities to her smaller role as Shirley MacLaine’s intelligent daughter in The Turning Point, the only one in the family not besotted with balletomania, but she hadn’t much to do there. Patti a is more fulsome part and, playing her, Lucas never does anything that feels less than honest. A brighter-than-average girl initially amused by her parents and their anxieties (she mocks her father with a smile of complete enjoyment and, wondering into their bedroom after they’ve made love asks, “Did the earth move?”) after her father leaves Patti becomes prey to the sort of adolescent moodiness she’s probably never exhibited before, as she does when Erica invites Saul home to meet her and she, knowing (or at least suspecting) he is her mother’s lover, makes a series of snide remarks toward him. Yet you understand that she really can’t help it; how is she supposed to react to him? Earlier, when Erica has come home after being assaulted by a date to find Patti and her somewhat older boyfriend Phil (Matthew Arkin, Alan’s son) in a bout of heavy kissing and exploded with mis-directed rage, Patti’s own outrage and confusion also seem justified. Nothing Lucas does is self-conscious or smacks of “acting”; I remember being miffed that her performance didn’t get an Academy Award nomination the next year (I cared about such things then) and seeing it again it strikes me as maybe the least affected job of adolescent movie acting I’ve ever seen. Perhaps that’s its own reward.

Although Martin Benton, along with his subsequent performance as the philandering Yale in Manhattan, typecast Michael Murphy in untrustworthy roles, a certain indeterminate shadiness had always been a part of his screen persona. The character signals something to Erica (and to us) in his very first scene, when he rages about ruining a running shoe by stepping in dog shit and seems to blame Erica for it but neither we nor his wife know what’s really set him off. Both as Mazursky wrote him and as Murphy plays him, we don’t hate Martin for what he doeshe’s too torn up by his infidelity to invite ridicule or scornbut we don’t exactly embrace him for it either, and the delicacy with which Murphy treads the thin line between conventional villain and hapless schmuck is perfect. As Saul, the bearded cuddly bear Erica takes up, Alan Bates is Murphy’s polar opposite, calm and yielding where Martin is tense and anxious. His warmth, and his humor, are exactly the tonic Erica needs after her bruising experiences not only with Martin but with the womanizing creep played by Cliff Gorman, her blandly opportunistic doctor (Daniel Seltzer) and the aggressive blind date (Andrew Duncan, wearing perhaps his worst toupée in a career full of them) who damn near rapes her in a taxi cab. Bates makes Saul so likable, and the character is so good for Erica, that it’s easy to sympathize with him at the end when she refuses his offer of a summer in Vermont, even as we also understand that her decision is the correct one; she’s just gotten back on her feet, and he wants her to throw up her job, her new digs and everything else in her life on a whim which could easily backfire. Lovely as Saul is in most respects, he is seemingly incapable of genuine empathy: Of seeing what Erica has been through with her husband and realizing (and accepting) that she can’t be expected to give everything up for a man again so soon.

Erica and “The Club”: Kelly Bishop, Clayburgh, Pat Quinn and Linda Miller.

Novella Nelson, playing an artist friend of Erica’s, has only two brief scenes but she has such a great face, and is so annealing a presence, you’ll probably wish there was a lot more of her in the picture. The young Jill Eikenberry and Larry Tucker also show up as married friends of Erica and Martin, but the most memorable figures in the supporting cast are those in Erica’s informal club of women friends. They’re wonderfully delineated, each entirely unlike the others yet when they come together for drinks or dinner, or to comfort Erica by lying around on her capacious bed reading newspapers and magazines they’re like a single entity with fascinatingly independent limbs. Sue (Pat Quinn) is the somewhat bossy older sister who doesn’t always approve of the jokes but whose heart is as wide as Lincoln Center; Jeanette (Linda Miller) is the grounded one, warm and unflappable; and Elaine (Kelly Bishop) is the wry, funny manic-depressive who despite her cynical shell is far more fragile than Erica.*

However good they may be, individually and in the aggregate, everyone in the picture is mere satellite next to Clayburgh. In a decade of great screen performances by actresses and which include Shirley MacLaine in Desperate Characters and The Turning Point, Maggie Smith in Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing, Fonda as Bree Daniels in Klute and Lillian Hellman in Julia and as the Happy News reporter who wises up in The China Syndrome, Julie Christie in McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Cloris Leachman in The Last Picture Show, Liza Minnelli in Cabaret, Ellen Burstyn in The Exorcist and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Barbra Streisand in The Way We Were, Madeline Kahn in Paper Moon and Blazing Saddles, Faye Dunaway in Chinatown and Network, Ronee Blakely and Lily Tomlin in Nashville, Sissy Spacek in Carrie and Three Women, Vanessa Redgrave in Julia, Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, Melinda Dillon in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Tomlin in The Late Show and Shelley Duvall in Three Women, only two (Fonda in Klute and Sally Field in Norma Rae) are as impressive as Clayburgh’s Erica, not just because only those roles are so completely fleshed out by their screenwriters and allow the actresses playing them to stretch, but for what each brings to the role, and how she expresses that completeness.

Kael wrote of the movie’s star that “Jill Clayburgh has a cracked, warbly voicea modern polluted-city huskiness. And her trembling, near-beautiful prettiness suggests a lot of pressure. On the stage, she can be dazzling, but the camera isn’t in love with her she doesn’t seem lighted from within. When Erica’s life falls apart and her reactions go out of control, Clayburgh’s floating, not-quite-sure, not-quite-here quality is just right. And she knows how to use it: she isn’t afraid to get puffy-eyed from crying, or to let her face go slack. Her appeal to the audience is in her addled radiance; she seems so punchy that we’re a little worried for her.” Clayburgh’s Erica is one of the least narcissistic and self-conscious characterizations of her era. Even when she stops in front of a mirror regarding herself somewhat quizzically and deflating her own self-regard with a jest (“‘Balls,’ said the queen. “If I had ’em, I’d be king.”) it’s not a theatrical gesture. It’s more of a shrug, just as when before going into an impromptu mock ballet performance in her empty apartment she begins by snapping the elastic of her panties against her hip. Probably only a musical theatre performer could have carried the sequence off so effectively; Clayburgh’s moves aren’t so much those of a ballerina as of a trained Broadway dancer aping the style of the danseuse while playing up her own deficiency of technique.† It’s one of the most unabashedly joyous moments in ’70s cinema, sexy and charming and true to the impulse many of us have expressed in our private solitude.

Saul: Independent… Erica: Trying to be. Saul: …woman. Vicious. Erica (shaking her head): Honest. Saul: Driving me crazy.

Mazursky offered the role to Fonda, who turned it down because she, in a statement dripping with unintentional irony, countered that she wanted to do something “political.” The filmmaker assured her there was nothing more political she could do than play Erica, but that he, a man, had to reassure that professional feminist says a great deal about Fonda’s level of acumen, and self-awareness.‡ As much as I often admire her acting, after They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Fonda seemed to have become so serious the good humor she previously exhibited in light comedies like Barefoot in the Park had leaked away; while it’s easy to imagine her in An Unmarried Woman‘s more dramatic scenes I can’t quite see her giving in to Erica’s frequent jocular moods. Clayburgh’s Erica is largely buoyant given to broad smiles and content with the upper middle class life she enjoys — which makes Martin’s abandoning of her that much more shattering. There isn’t a mood or emotion Mazursky misses in the character, and Clayburgh hits them all, squarely and without obvious artifice. When, at the end, Saul enacts his revenge for her refusing to spend the summer with him by gifting her with one of his enormous canvases and leaving her stranded on the sidewalk with it, Clayburgh is briefly taken aback, then smiles and gamely struggles to walk the thing along. Whether or not Erica could have responded to such a challenge with this much aplomb before Martin left, she can do so now, and the movie’s wonderful ending seems as big a step forward for the character as the exhilarating Steadicam sequence in which she and the club ice-skate at Rockefeller Center and Clayburgh, laughing and grinning broadly, seems almost on the verge of literal flight.§

I had enjoyed most of Paul Mazursky’s movies before An Unmarried Woman, with the exceptions of Blume in Love and Alex in Wonderland, both which I was too young to see on their respective releases. Even in truncated, censored form on network television Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice struck me as wonderfully funny and uniquely screwy and when my mother took me to a double-bill of Next Stop, Greenwich Village and Harry & Tonto I recognized the same wry, good-natured sensibility as in Bob and Carol. (Although I appreciated Next Stop, I was wild about Harry & Tonto.) So I expected to enjoy An Unmarried Woman, which from the trailer looked terrific, yet was still not fully prepared for what an artistic step up it was, nor how completely satisfying its portraiture would prove to be. Aside from that menstruation bit, which in any case is well-written and acted, there isn’t a minute of the picture that doesn’t feel instinctive or right, with almost none of the seams of creation visible. I had loved Annie Hall when I was 16, but next to An Unmarried Woman it was a tummler‘s attempt at seriousness the work of a man who couldn’t stop making smart-ass jokes. Mazursky is so fully in command of his craft here his work seems miraculous, as Enemies — a love story, which he also directed and co-wrote, was miraculous ten years later. He carries off a sequence, when Martin tells Erica about his extramarital affair and she walks off, stunned and disgusted and sick, that is deeply impressive as a feat of filmmaking (it’s a sustained shot broken up with a single cut necessitated by logistics) but which feels wholly organic, not, as is so often the case, a matter of showing off. Although it’s technically audacious, it’s centered in the character’s feelings, and it pays off in a way the empty posturing of self-conscious auteurs can only pay faint obeisance to.

Two final, tangentially related, observations: 1) The abstract expressionist paintings supposedly created by Alan Bates in the picture were the work of the artist Paul Jenkins and although I am normally chary of abstract art, the Jenkins pieces in An Unmarried Woman are remarkably cheerful, filled with bright colors and rainbow shades. They’re the furthest thing from pretentious: Happy, upbeat paintings that reflect Saul’s character, and Bates’ performance. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I certainly wouldn’t kick at having that lovely canvas Erica wrestles with at the end hanging on my living room wall.

2) While it could, I suppose, be argued that the Benton’s upscale social and financial status takes them out of the experience of most moviegoers then, and especially now I don’t understand those who dismiss the lives and concerns of others simply because they are better off. (Trust fund babies are another matter.) I once showed The Magnificent Ambersons to someone I considered brighter than the norm and genuinely interested in the artistic history and possibilities of the movies, only to be shocked when the picture was over by his reaction to it: “I don’t care about the problems of the rich.” That attitude perforce throws not only the Ambersons (and Erica Benton) onto the slagheap of popular culture but The Great Gatbsy as well, and any number of other touchstones of popular culture concerning the wealthy including Citizen Kane and The Philadelphia Story, whose motto (“With the rich and mighty, always a little patience”) presumably offends such quasi-Marxist sensibilities. While my own somewhat anarcho-syndicalist beliefs cause me to abhor ostentatious displays of irrelevant capitalist luxury, and while it is also true that the Benton’s privilege gives them such perks as breathtaking panoramic views of 68th Street and 2nd Avenue outside the dining room of their spacious apartment, the fact of their complacency doesn’t insulate any of them from despair, or loneliness, or any of the thousand other shocks that flesh is heir to. Why do so many people now cut themselves off, even from the appreciation of an old movie, over such narrow areas of personal offense?

*Under her real first name, Bishop originated the role of Sheila in A Chorus Line, and won a Tony for it. She had to change her name for movies because there was already a Carole Bishop on the rolls of the Screen Actors Guild.

†Clayburgh was featured in the 1970 Bock-Harnick musical The Rothschilds and co-starred in Bob Fosse‘s 1972 production of Pippin.

‡To her credit, when she saw the movie Fonda admitted she’d been wrong.

§In Mazurksy’s original script, the Rockefeller Center sequence was what he intended to end the movie with. Thankfully for us and for his movie, he reconsidered.

Text copyright 2022 by Scott Ross

Big soul: “The Grapes of Wrath” (1940)


By Scott Ross

Nunnally Johnson’s very fine adaptation of the epoch-capturing John Steinbeck novel, directed with extraordinary sensitivity by John Ford and photographed by Gregg Toland with almost shocking documentary realism, The Grapes of Wrath is among the least artificial sound pictures of Hollywood’s so-called Golden Age. Although Brian Kellow in his biography of Pauline Kael found retrospective fault with the critic Otis Ferguson for not objecting to what Kellow deems the picture’s “studied and self-conscious artiness,” there is little (aside from the occasional scene shot on a 20th Century-Fox soundstage) that stands between the viewer’s emotions and the movie’s visceral, and deeply humane, emotional punch.

Along with the contemporary photographs of Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans depicting the nation’s rural dispossessed, Steinbeck’s 1939 novel is what many Americans remember when they think of the Great Depression. (Assuming, of course, they know of those things at all now, including the Depression itself, which considering the generalized ignorance of Americans today is not a bet I’d care to take.) The Grapes of Wrath — the title was a suggestion of Steinbeck’s wife’s — addresses both the general and the specific: The former via its author’s digressions between the narrative chapters concerning the causes of the Dustbowl and how it affected the largely sharecropping tenant farming families that had been working the land as they were instructed to, which resulted in stripping the soil of its nutrients* and the latter through Steinbeck’s limning of one of these families, the Joads, as they trek from Oklahoma to California in search of sustaining work, the dream (so the Joads find out, too late) of so many thousands of similarly disaffected and displaced others, and one that quickly turns to ashes in all their mouths.

I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve had a copy of the novel for decades without until very recently getting around to reading it, and I did so only after an aborted run at the Leonard Gardner novel Fat City, which was so unrelentingly grim that although it is fewer than 200 pages long I felt forced to abandon it less than halfway through. You might think that The Grapes of Wrath, if you’ve seen the movie and know how essentially dark the story is, would be equally as relentless as a book about failed boxers in the 1950s, but it isn’t. Although the comedy in the novel is often serious, it’s comedy nonetheless, rich and human and all the more striking and appreciated by the reader because so much of what surrounds it is so unsettling. (Fat City by contrast contained not only no laughter, it held no smiles — even They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is less depressing.) Of course, some of the humor in Steinbeck’s book is of an… shall we say “earthy”?… variety, and could no more be included in a movie in the 1940s than the extraordinary final image of the novel in which Rose of Sharon Joad, whose feckless husband has left her on the road and who has recently delivered a stillborn baby, offers her mother’s milk to a dying man, one of several passages in the book that raised the predictable ire of the morally censorious across the land and led to charges that The Grapes of Wrath was at best obscene, at worst pornography. Those guardians of the public weal ca. 1939 would blanch and fall into collective comas could they but behold the literary and pictorial landscape of today. Yet somehow, in spite of them, Ford and Johnson were able to retain the moment when in the government-run camp the Joads’ youngest, Ruthie and Winfield, encounter their first flush toilet. (O horrors!)

Muley Graves breaks down, evoking a Dorthea Lange image. “There ain’t nobody gonna push me off my land! My grandpa took up this land 70 years ago, my pa was born here, we were all born on it. And some of of us was killed on it! And some of us died on it. That’s what make it our’n: Bein’ born on it… an’ workin’ on it… an’ die — dyin’ on it! And ain’t no piece a’ paper with writin’ on it…”

My only real complaint about The Grapes of Wrath as a novel is that Steinbeck’s periodic interjections, while informative in themselves, are often intrusive and occasionally unsuccessful exercises in style, large swaths of would-be poems in a book whose depictions of stark Depression-era reality are already un-forced prose poetry. Their sociological and agricultural usefulness aside, the real value of these interstitial chapters if you’re an admirer of the Ford movie lies in seeing how cleverly Nunnally Johnson lifted some of the dialogue in them for his screenplay, smoothly placing the lines into the mouths of the characters in the picture. The agonizing flashback scenes in which Muley Graves (the extraordinary John Qualen) confronts the banker evicting him from his land and the young Caterpillar operator bulldozes his family’s mean little home, for example, come from these chapters; while in the novel they are not associated with Muley per se Johnson seems to have instinctively understood the dramatic power of these passages, and assigned them to the character. Those sequences are among the most striking, and moving, in the picture and Qualen, so often stereotyped in supporting “Swede” roles, is shockingly effective in them. Muley is one of the lost in both the book and the movie — people who either have some sort of breakdown that puts them permanently outside human society or who succumb to the lure of the promised land of California and are destroyed by its brutal reality, such as the beaten-down laborer the Joads meet on their way in who is going back home after losing his entire family to malnutrition, or indeed simply expire from the strain of their eviction as do Grandpa and Grandma, both of whom die on the road when, left alone on the land they cultivated, they might have gone on for years.

There are a couple of odd elisions in the picture and I’m unsure whether they were the result of cutting scenes that were written and shot, or whether Ford (or his boss, Darryl Zanuck) didn’t think we’d notice, but they’re hiccups that can distract you. The first is the inexplicable loss of Noah Joad (Frank Sully). In the novel he decides to abandon the trek and live off the Colorado River; in the movie he just disappears, with no explanation. The second is the speech to Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) by the one-time preacher Casy (John Carradine) in which he outlines his current philosophy and which Tom quotes to Ma (Jane Darwell) when he leaves the family near the end. But since we never hear Carradine speak the lines, we’re a little confused when Tom says, “Well, maybe it’s like Casy says. Fella ain’t got a soul of his own, just a little piece of a big soul. The one big soul that belongs to everybody.” And the omission is all the more noticeable because it leads off the movie’s most famous monologue.

Speaking of souls: While the Steinbeck novel is concerned with many, the Ford/Johnson/Zanuck movie concentrates itself on only a few. Authors of books of course can afford to be more expansive than filmmakers, and the people who put together the movie narrowed it down to a quartet: Muley in the beginning, Casy in the middle and toward the end, and Tom and Ma Joad throughout. And although Johnson’s script otherwise displays remarkable fealty to its source, the narrative arc was altered, presumably to give the audience (and the Joads) a sense of hope denied to readers of Steinbeck’s book. In the novel, while their early experiences in California are discouraging, things improve markedly when the Joads reach the clean, democratically ordered government camp run by a kindly FDR stand-in (Grant Mitchell in the movie); when they leave this sanctuary in search of work, things go from insupportable bad to nearly incomprehensible worse. The Ford picture reverses this to a degree, eliding over the worst of it, although I should add that the Joads are hardly sitting pretty when the movie ends, and the ultimate fate of Tom, who has killed a cop in self-defense, is left entirely in doubt. Ford ended the picture with Fonda going off into the morning mists in extreme long shot but Zanuck, quite rightly I think, found this unsatisfactory. His ending goes back to an observation of Ma Joad’s from the novel (“We’re the people that live”) which, thematically, links up rather nicely with Tom’s “I’ll be all around in the dark” speech.

Tom Joad by flashlight.

While I suspect that Steinbeck is truer to life than Zanuck and Johnson (and even Ford) I don’t regard the slightly more upward trajectory of the movie as ruinous, especially when nearly everything else in the picture is so beautifully right, beginning with the casting. Fonda, who knew how important the role of Tom Joad was and how perfectly it fit him, even submitted to a seven-year indentured servant contract with Fox to play it. (Zanuck wanted Tyrone Power, if you can imagine such a thing. I can’t.) The actor, although about a decade older than the character, is still so raw-boned and youthful looking he’s believable enough physically. And Fonda carries Tom’s anger coiled within him so that no matter how outwardly calm he is from scene to scene, you feel — as Ma Joad fears — it may boil over into violence at any moment. But that is only part of Tom, and Fonda gets his essential gentleness and likability, especially in his scenes with his mother. Who, having seen it, can forget the way he croons “Red River Valley” to her as they dance together? Tom’s leave-taking at the end is a masterpiece of restraint and even though his speech borders on self-conscious poetics, the way Fonda performs it, with both quiet conviction in his voice and the unspoken ache of parting in his moist eyes, is one of the high-water marks of American screen acting.

Darwell was not Ford’s ideal Ma Joad; he wanted Beulah Bondi, a wonderful actress who might have been just a bit too gaunt. Although she is stouter than Steinbeck’s description of that hardy woman, and inclined at times to conventional emotions, when she pushes beyond them she elevates herself, and the picture, into a realm very close to sublimity, as in those final scenes, or when she silently goes through a box of mementos, burning most of them but retaining a pair of dangling earrings. You can spend hours wondering what those baubles were purchased for (a country dance? a church event?) and why they mean so much to her, and ruminating on Darwell’s hurt demi-smile as she regards her own reflection. Half of our response to this scene depends on the way Ford depicts it — although he was often as sentimental about mothers as he was about Ireland, his self-control here is exquisite — but surely the other half is is due to Darwell.

One of the most remarkable performances in The Grapes of Wrath is, along with Qualen’s, also one of the two least expected, and least commented upon: John Carradine’s as Jim Casy. Carradine, who had one of the great voices in the movies, could be enjoyably hammy — elegantly florid and overstated, especially when playing villains. He (and perhaps Ford?) scaled Casy in realistic terms and his stringbean physique is perfect for the role. Casy is the novel’s philosophical voice, and the character who over the course of the book moves furthest, not geographically but in his own mind. When the story begins, Casy not only tells Tom that he’s no longer a preacher but extrapolates at length on his evolving theology, hence the “little piece of a big soul” to which Tom alludes. Casy slowly begins to find his place, not as a preacher but within the secular family of man; first by claiming he’s knocked out a murderous cop in a migrant camp when he hasn’t, which allows the man who did so to escape, and later by joining with striking workers, where he meets his death at the hand of a vicious strike-breaker. (It’s that act of murder which causes Tom to inadvertently commit homicide.) Casy is never dogmatic, or doctrinaire, and you can see by the smile on his face when he lets himself be arrested that by taking up for the downtrodden that he’s finally found his place in the world. All of that and more is in Carradine’s beautifully judged performance.†

Each of the supporting roles is as well cast as the leads. Charley Grapewin, best remembered as Dorothy’s Uncle Henry in The Wizard of Oz, makes Grandpa moving without a hint of bathos; when he dies on the road to California his last act is to reach out his hand and grasp a piece of earth, as if to re-anchor himself to what has been taken from him. Zeffie Tilbury renders Grandma as comfortable in her somewhat bizarre senility, until she loses the husband she seems to neither be able to live with nor without. Pa Joad is diminished by events he has no control over, and knows it, and Russell Simpson captures this depressed and emasculated sense of loss and confusion with numbed bemusement just as Dorris Bowdon as Rose of Sharon locates the teenage sullenness and hurt of the pregnant young wife callously abandoned by a husband who lacked the fortitude even to tell her goodbye. Although Ruthie and Winfield are not as wild, nor as belligerent toward each other, in the picture as their literary counterparts, Shirley Mills and the very young Darryl Hickman are exceptionally believable without recourse to any sort of movie cuteness, and Hickman has a charming moment when he expresses, with a click of his tongue, his regret at not getting to see any “man bones” in the desert. Eddie Quillan, previously one of the innocent defendants in Ford and Lamar Trotti’s Young Mr. Lincoln, does not telegraph the ultimate defection of Rose of Sharon’s young husband Connie Rivers but lets you see the fear and discontent building in him slowly so that when he leaves the family in the night it isn’t a shock to the viewer but is yet another, seemingly inevitable, loss for Ma, whose family is quickly contracting to a smaller and smaller unit and will probably shrink further when her son Al has had enough. O. Z. Whitehead does a creditable enough job with that role, but he’s many years too old for Al and that fact leeches something vital from the material when, instead of being a randy 16-year old obsessed with girls and engines he’s a man of almost 30. Frank Darien’s Uncle John barely registers, not because of any deficiency in the actor’s performance but because the movie reduces his character, and his importance. I wish the picture had room for Ivy and Sairy Wilson, the middle aged couple the Joads pick up and who assist them in many ways, not least of which is burying Grandpa, but Ward Bond has a nice scene as (hold onto your hats) a helpful policeman.

As to that “studied and self-conscious artiness” with which Brian Kellow dismisses Ford’s (and by extension Toland’s) work: If the accusation is true of The Grapes of Wrath it is true of nearly every Ford picture, as well as of City Lights or Citizen Kane or The Night of the Hunter, or any number of movies which have given people pleasure and expanded their horizons over the last 100 years. Of greater note, it seems to me, is Ford’s avoidance of cliché and sentimentality, starting with the spareness of Alfred Newman’s score, which consists solely of renditions of “Red River Valley” during the main and end titles. (It has nothing to do with Oklahoma but everything to do with Tom and Ma Joad.) Even when a scene is precariously balanced on the edge of sentiment, like the one in the diner where Pa goes to try purchasing half a loaf of bread for Grandma, Ford’s restraint is evident, from the way he shoots it to the performances he elicits from the actors. I suppose Kellow may have had in mind items such as the way Muley’s flashlight illuminates the faces of Tom and Casy in the Joads’ abandoned home, or the long tracking sequence, unique for Ford if not for Toland, as the Joads enter the mean migrant camp and the people in it are seen as if through the truck’s windshield. Is that “studied”? Perhaps so. But it brings the terrible poverty at the heart of Steinbeck’s novel into striking relief as the filmmakers dispassionately record the faces of these beaten down men, women, youths and children. These are the living faces, translated from reality to cinematic fiction, that Roosevelt had in mind when he made his speech citing “one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.” If the depiction of them is “self-conscious artiness,” so be it. We would do well to study these faces. We’ll likely be seeing them in profusion, if not joining them ourselves, ere long.

*It should shock no one who has studied, even cursorily, the extra-Constitutional and essentially illegal Federal Reserve to discover that even one of its former Chairs, Ben Bernanke, admits the Fed did much to cause the Great Depression. Naturally, fingers were instead pointed at small investors for over-speculating, and small farmers for destroying the soil. The same principle is at work today in the Netherlands, where farmers who have for decades been sold the notion that they needed chemical fertilizers are now told, in a blatant attempt at an instant and massive land-grab by the powerful, that they are being promiscuous with nitrates and must stop raising food animals or forfeit their farms. One imagines the increasingly beleaguered (and, one hopes, soon-to-be-dethroned) Speaker of the House cursing herself for not having thought of something similar.

†Although the actor was in 11 Ford pictures the two did not get along. Perhaps because his stepfather, in Carradine’s words, “thought the way to bring up someone else’s boy was to beat him every day just on general principle,” he disliked bullies — and the insecure Ford always had a whipping boy on his movies.

Text copyright 2022 by Scott Ross

That look: “Destry Rides Again” (1939)


By Scott Ross

George Marshall is one of those figures in movie history who almost single-handedly destroys the validity of the auteur theory. In pictures as a director from 1916 he made a few Laurel and Hardy sound comedies, a good-but-not-great W.C. Fields (You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man) and one of Bob Hope’s better vehicles (The Ghostbreakers) but was known (if at all) for his Westerns. He was a journeyman, a studio craftsman with no particular visual style who made made some good, entertaining movies. Destry Rides Again is arguably the best of them. It also has one of the weirder writer credits I’ve ever encountered: “Written by Felix Jackson, Screenplay by Henry Myers and Gertrude Purcell.” What, exactly, did Jackson write? I suspect this was the product of an early Screen Writers Guild arbitration decision.

Based on a Max Brand novel, Destry Rides Again concerns a pacifist deputy sheriff, son of a renowned gunfighter, sent for to clean up a corrupt Western town. Destry can shoot, but won’t… anyway, at least not until the climax. So much for philosophy. But that is almost by the by; in the more or less annus mirabilis of 1939, which saw such wonders in release as Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz, Young Mr. Lincoln, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Gone with the Wind, Only Angels Have Wings, Of Mice and Men, Drums Along the Mohawk, Bachelor Mother, La règle du jeu, Laughton as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, Tower of London, The Hound of the Baskervilles, Ninotchka, Made for Each Other, The Women and Midnight… not to mention Daffy Duck and the Dinosaur (Chuck Jones), Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp (one of three Popeye color two-reelers) and Goofy and Wilbur… Destry is among the year’s consummate entertainments. It has a relaxed, almost leisurely quality, even though it only runs 95 minutes, and its change of tone from comedy to melodrama is nicely managed. I could do without little Dickie Jones’ cutesy/annoying hero-worship of James Stewart at the end — that Destry doesn’t kick that kid up the backside is surely carrying amiability to its limits — but the rest of the picture seems to me perfectly judged.

Stewart, still relatively young (and, with that sensuous lower lip of his, almost pretty) was in the process of developing his characteristic screen presence. The coming war would darken it, but Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, released two months before Destry, tapped the darkness beneath Stewart’s boyish, ingratiating persona. There are hints only of this here, but then Tom Destry is more Tom Sawyer than Jefferson Smith, and Stewart is more likeable than any other comparable male star of his time with the exception I suppose of his great friend Henry Fonda. The sucker-punch in Destry is his co-star. Marlene Dietrich had been the exotic center of too many high-flown fabulist exercises since coming to America in 1930 and like Katharine Hepburn had been labeled “box office poison.” She needed a hit, and her performance as the saloon entertainer Frenchy changed her fortunes; from then until the end of her life she was (also like Hepburn) never less than a major movie star even if the pictures in which she appeared let her down or were unworthy of her. Her Frenchy is such an indelible figure that Mel Brooks lifted her more or less intact — as he also did Destry‘s mustachioed villain — for Madeline Kahn’s magnificently funny Lili Von Shtupp in Blazing Saddles. Established at the start as icily cynical and corrupt, Frenchy begins, slowly and predictably, to thaw under Tom’s gentle ministrations. The only slight criticism I have of Dietrich here is that Marshall shoots her too often from the side and, for all her glamor, Dietrich had a commonplace profile.

Dietrich outraged. Never end a catfight with a bucket of water if there are guns in the vicinity.

Hal Mohr’s black and white cinematography is a knockout — far more sumptuous than any comparable period Western not directed by John Ford; it has the soft and lustrous sheen of a contemporary Paramount picture, and for years I thought it was based solely on its look. (Surprisingly, it was made by Universal.) Dietrich’s performance is enhanced immeasurably by the songs Frederick Hollander wrote with Frank Loesser, one of which, “See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have,” became as much a signature for her as “Falling in Love Again.” The other, “You’ve Got That Look”, taxes her range a bit but is both lyrically and melodically rich: “You with your eyes across the table technique” is as idiosyncratic a Loesser line as anything in Guys and Dolls or How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying.

The terrific supporting cast includes Mischa Auer as the comically subjugated second husband of Una Merkel (who has, with Dietrich, perhaps the most epic cat-fight in movie history); Brian Donlevy as the chief villain; Charles Winninger as the comic drunk appointed sheriff; Samuel S. Hinds as the judge and mayor who looks more like an undertaker and behaves like a tobacco-chewing brigand; Billy Gilbert as a flustered bartender with the hilariously inappropriate name of Loupgerou; and as Dietrich’s knowing maid, the wonderful Lillian Yarbo, for whom this was only one of 10 movies she made in 1939. Comparable by its sheer watchability to another great serio-comic Western, Rio Bravo, in a genuinely great movie year Destry Rides Again may just have been the most profligately entertaining of all the pictures released during that remarkable 12-month period.

Text copyright 2022 by Scott Ross

Monthly Report: June 2022


By Scott Ross

As ever, click the links for the complete reviews.

Shampoo (1975) Warren Beatty’s extraordinary dramatic sex-farce (and no, that is not a contradiction in terms) about empty, self-absorbed Angelinos on the eve of Nixon’s 1968 election, one of the great movie comedies of a great movie era.

The Muppet Movie (1979) The joyous movie debut of Jim Henson’s menagerie, one of the genuine cinematic charmers of its time.

That thing in front of James Stewart, my dears, was called a typewriter. Reporters once used it to write their stories instead of rewriting corporate and governmental digital press releases and calling it “news.”

Call Northside 777 (1948) A straightforward, intelligent, un-hysterical account of the Chicago Times reporter James McGuire’s attempts to re-examine a 1932 killing and, having become convinced of the man’s innocence, to exonerate a young Polish-American sentenced to life for the crime. As far from the rapid-fire, wise-cracking 1930s newspaper picture as can be imagined, the movie depicts the journey of a skeptic without pushing any agenda aside from telling a good story well… an object once of much of the American press. James Stewart is the reporter, and he limns the character’s transition from cynic to passionate believer with admirable restraint. Richard Conte gives a good account of the convict as well but, aside from Stewart, where Call Northside 777 really soars in in the supporting performances. These include Lee J. Cobb as the Times editor who sets the thing in motion; Helen Walker as Stewart’s wife, with whom he has a couple of beautifully observed sequences; Betty Garde as a slovenly witness to the crime; Joanne De Bergh as the convict’s gentle ex-wife; and Kasia Orzazewski, who gives an exquisitely detailed performance as his immigrant mother. It’s interesting from a 21st century perspective to observe Leonarde Keeler, the inventor of the now thoroughly discredited Polygraph, as himself performing a test on Conte.

Leonard Hoffman and Quentin Reynolds adapted McGuire and Jack McPhaul’s 1944 articles and the lean, effective screenplay was by Jerome Cady and Jay Dratler. I’ve never been able to fathom why Henry Hathaway is adored by so many reactive auteurists but he directed the picture efficiently, aided immeasurably by Joseph MacDonald’s mouth-wateringly beautiful black-and-white photography. When I tell you that MacDonald also shot My Darling Clementine, Panic in the Streets, Viva Zapata!, Pickup on South Street, Hell and High Water, House of Bamboo, The List of Adrian Messenger, Rio Conchos and The Sand Pebbles you will if you’ve seen these pictures have an idea of how good his work could be.

Call Northside 777 is an engaging relic from a time, not so long ago as time is measured, when newspapers occasionally defended the powerless instead of, as they now habitually do, attacking them.

Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989) Another miraculous comedy-drama, this one from a period notably short on intelligent movies for adults.

Lost Horizon (1937) I am fascinated by the world-wide success of James Hilton’s 1933 fantasy for three reasons: First because, while exceedingly well-written it is unsatisfying in nearly every respect, from stereotyped characterization to ambiguous denouement; second because its depiction of an earthly Himalayan paradise is predicated wholly on the colonial model — Shangi-La was begun by a French priest and is supposed to be continued by a British diplomat, benignly lording it over both the native Tibetan population and the lesser monks such as the British-educated Chinese Chang; and third because its High Lama thinks nothing of kidnapping not only his successor but a planeload of others who are given no say about where they are taken. The arrogance of the thing is monumental.

The inevitable motion picture was an obsession of its director, Frank Capra, who seemed to have gone completely loopy while making it, doing such things as filming endless reels of Sam Jaffe as the High Lama telling Ronald Colman’s Robert Conway his and his monastery’s life stories, footage which then had to be edited down and paired, unsuccessfully, with badly-matched film of Jaffe’s truncated narrative shot at a later time. (Jaffe’s makeup also varies.) Capra’s innate story sense seems to have left him as well, and the first two reels had to be lopped off the opening following a disastrous preview. His usual scenarist Robert Riskin at least eliminated the pinched spinster missionary but I’m not sure his substitution of a consumptive whore (Isabel Jewell) was any real improvement, nor was cobbling up a fussy paleontologist played by Edward Everett Horton at his simperingly prissiest. Neither was turning Conway’s militant young companion in the novel into his brother a felicitous change from the manuscript; either way the character is a tantrum-throwing irritant whom you would think Conway would be glad to see the back of instead of, in a sudden “revelation,” throwing away his own pacific love for Shangri-La and walking away from paradise on the say-so of an hysterical girl, who in any case is lying. The best things about Lost Horizon are Thomas Mitchell’s typically robust performance as the financial fugitive Barnard, H.B. Warner’s beautiful portrayal of Chang (even though he looks no more Chinese than Boris Johnson), the exquisite art direction of Stephen Goosson and set decoration by Babs Johnstone, the luminous cinematography by Joseph Walker and the splendid score by Dimitri Tiomkin who for once does not overbalance things with thunderous ostentation.

I know I’m speaking heresy about Lost Horizon since it is nearly as beloved as another, equally wobbly Capra construction called It’s a Wonderful Life, but although each time I’ve seen it over the decades I’ve approached it with generosity the picture is always, to me, a gorgeous bore.

You’ll Never Get Rich (1941) An extremely slight Fred Astaire/Rita Hayworth mini-musical with a score by Cole Porter that contains not a single hit, or even memorable, number. Worse, the dances are also unmemorable, which in an Astaire picture is an indication of near-total failure. The screenplay by Michael Fessier and Ernest Pagano is at best perfunctory and at worst wholly unbelievable and gives over entirely too much time to the supposed humor of the double-talk comedian Cliff Nazarro. If you want to hear a real master of the form, and one who in addition is actually funny, watch some old Sid Caesar videos instead.

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) Paul Mazursky and Larry Tucker’s topical comedy is still, despite its dated externals, both funny and surprisingly relevant.

The Reluctant Astronaut (1967) Don Knotts’ follow-up to the delightful The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966) is a pale variation on the great Preston Sturges comedy Hail the Conquering Hero, this time with an amusement park kiddie-ride proprietor who is accepted for a job at NASA which everyone including him assumes is to become an astronaut. (He’s actually been hired as a janitor.) In the Sturges picture the father was dead, sanctifying his war-hero status. Here the hero (Arthur O’Connell) is very much alive, and an overbearing phony. While O’Connell is annoyingly broad the rest of the supporting cast is terrific and includes Jeanette Nolan as Knotts’ mother, Joan Freeman as his would-be girlfriend, Jesse White as his barking NASA boss and Burt Mustin as his ancient carnival sidekick. Although written by Mr. Chicken‘s screenwriters Jim Fritzell and Everett Greenbaum it doesn’t have the special quality of freshness of that unexpected hit and isn’t nearly as funny. Nor is Edward Montagne’s direction as pleasing as Alan Rafkin’s on the earlier picture, and the special effects blue-screen shots are notably poor. Only Vic Mizzy’s characteristically sprightly score is comparable to what he came up with for Mr. Chicken, although nowhere near as good. But the movie is far from a total loss: Knotts is always a pleasure to watch, even in material that isn’t as inspired as he is, and there are several good laughs here amidst the dross. If you get too bored you can always contemplate how no one, including the actor himself, could have predicted that staunch Leslie Nielsen, who plays the object of Knotts’ hero-worship, would one day surpass his famous co-star and become for a time and against all odds the funniest man in the world.

Great poster art by Frank Frazetta featuring multiple Peter Sellerses.

After the Fox (1966) A fitfully amusing farce caper that could have been a minor classic but for its director’s interference. So Neil Simon, the writer, said, and the picture tends to bear him out. What works — what’s funny about it — is what feels written, worked out by a man who understood both comic dialogue and construction. What doesn’t jell are the directorial flourishes and the impositions into the script by the writer (Cesare Zavattini) foisted as co-author on the original scenarist. Simon believed that Vittorio De Sica took the job to support his gambling obsession, and the movie has the feel of work done sloppily by people who are capable of far more, and have achieved it often.*

Aside from the clever plot — to receive a shipment of stolen gold an Italian career criminal with a penchant for disguises takes over a coastal town by pretending to be a film director making a movie — and a few witty lines the chief reasons to watch the picture are Peter Sellers’ often hilarious performance as Aldo Vanucci, Victor Mature’s surprisingly sweet one as the ageing (and failing) American movie star Vanucci engages for his movie-within-a-movie, Akim Tamiroff as the mastermind behind the gold theft, Dick Horn and Maurice Binder’s stylish animated titles and the absolutely wonderful music by Burt Bacharach. It’s one of the greatest of all comedy scores, but unfortunately De Sica did violence to it as well, too often dialing the music out. Fortunately the LP (and later CD reissue) preserves it in full.

*De Sica was the Neo-Realist master whose Shoeshine and Bicycle Thieves had a vast influence on post-war cinema and whose other pictures include the internationally acclaimed Miracle in Milan, Umberto D., Two Women, Yesterday Today and Tomorrow, Marriage Italian-Style and his late masterwork The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. In other words, a serious artist.

Text copyright 2002 by Scott Ross

Whoopee: “The Fabulous Baker Boys” (1989)


By Scott Ross

A miraculous comedy-drama from a period notably short on intelligent movies for adults.

I was absolutely knocked out in 1989 by the writer/director Steve Kloves’ wonderful portrait of two lounge pianist brothers and the girl singer — as such creatures used to be known — whose presence in the act speeds its inevitable disintegration, and it looks (and sounds) equally good today, and certainly better by comparison with what’s been on view in the years since.

Before he got seduced by the relatively easy money afforded by adapting the Harry Potter series, Kloves was one of our most promising screenwriters, with a wonderful grasp of human relationships and a dazzling gift for sharp, funny dialogue that felt entirely organic, not the usual strategically-placed sour wisecracks that inform so much contemporary American comedy. The Fabulous Baker Boys concerns a pair of sibling musicians, Jack (Jeff Bridges) and his older brother Frank (Beau Bridges) whose long-term dual-piano act is slowly killing Jack’s psyche and eating away at his natural talents. When in desperation they audition female singers and stumble upon the brash Susie Diamond (Michelle Pfeiffer) she gradually lifts their act and enables them to play much better venues than they’re used to, but Jeff’s and Susie’s growing mutual attraction threatens to derail their progress. It’s a rich, funny group portrait of genuine human beings in conflict with themselves and each other that almost never stumbles dramatically. I could do without the needy little girl Jack lets come in and go out of his apartment window more or less at her whim, although the cliché is sharpened from what feels like a flabby plot device when Susie comments critically on the situation.

That observation constitutes the entirety of my negative response.

Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

The Fabulous Baker Boys was beautifully shot (by Michael Ballhaus), crisply edited (by William Steinkamp), effectively scored (Dave Grusin) and imaginatively directed by its writer, with three spectacular performances at its center. Beau Bridges, whose once-interesting career had by the late 1980s more or less dissolved, gives Frank Baker marvelous contours. Although he is incapable of recognizing, as Jack does, how lousy their act is, even he cannot ignore its declining popularity. He embodies a certain smug middle-class complacency that basks in getting by without ever having to extend yourself, or take a chance. Frank is happy to play the same song the same way he and Jack have always played it, for the rest of his life. He’s a mediocre man, happy in his mediocrity; he considers moribund perfection sacrosanct. He fusses endlessly with minutia, and has no idea how stifling the routine he cherishes has become (and maybe always was) for his younger brother. He’s stuffy and somewhat humorless and yet you never dislike him for it, or dismiss him, even when it becomes obvious that Jack is subsuming his genuine talent for his less gifted brother’s sake.

Jeff Bridges had by 1989 amassed a trunkful of great characterizations yet for some reason true movie stardom seemed to elude him. Some of us thought it was in his grasp in 1984 when in the director John Carpenter’s surprisingly sweet-natured Starman he brought the alien forth from an initial blankness to full humanity. Yet even though his performance garnered an Academy Award nomination, the movie that contained it was a flop at the box-office. For years that seemed to be Bridges’ fate: To give great natural performances in movies no one saw. Even when the picture was as good as The Fabulous Baker Boys it under-performed, only becoming a hit when it went to video cassette. (There was a message there that Hollywood overlooked. People were breaking their movie-going habit, catching up with good work only when it hit the home video rental houses.) As Jack Baker, Jeff Bridges performs miracles by working for minimal effect. He lets us see how Jack’s devotion to his older brother is killing his performer’s soul without a lot of wordy exposition and overstatement. When Jack plays jazz after hours in a small club we see the bliss on Bridges’ face, and the look of contentment speaks volumes; it’s the first time in the movie that Jack hasn’t looked pinched and depressed. Bridges’ natural sexiness pours from him, and that too is without ostentation, so that when Jack and Susie come together it feels as inevitable as the eventual breakup with Frank.

Playing Susie between two great performances (as Madame de Tourvel in Dangerous Liaisons and as Katya in The Russia House) Michelle Pfeiffer in 1989 was uniquely poised to become one of the most important figures in American movies. Yet in spite of those roles, and this one, she never really did. I have never been able to comprehend why an actress as good as Pfeiffer, and as beautiful, seemed unable to catapult into the stratosphere of movie stars, especially after The Fabulous Baker Boys, in which she gave one of the great, unforced sexy performances not merely of its era but in American movies. Although Susie is too smart to accept Frank’s tired musical platitudes she isn’t as knowledgeable about show business as she thinks she is. Yet her beauty, and her intelligent way with a song, lifts the brothers’ act higher than either could imagine. When Frank is called home by an emergency she and Jack turn the act into something special by being themselves, but even though Susie triumphs, she goes too far; her incendiary performance of “Makin’ Whoopee” drives the tony nightclub audience wild but it’s also a very public seduction of Jack, which leads both to their becoming involved and to the ultimate dissolution of the act.

That Susie is a former hooker doesn’t quite explain her risky behavior on stage with Jack; although she is not naturally vicious, she seems to need not merely to shake things up but on some subconscious level to destroy them. If a male screenwriter or director dared to depict a Susie Diamond in today’s intolerant atmosphere he would doubtless be pilloried as a sexist hater. Thus do idiot conventions of the moment poison popular art and obliterate the possibilities of complex human characterization. No wonder all we get at the movies now are superhero comics.

Text copyright 2022 by Scott Ross

First, we’ll have an orgy. Then we’ll go see Tony Bennett: “Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice” (1969)


By Scott Ross

Paul Mazursky and Larry Tucker’s topical comedy of 1969 is still, despite its dated externals, both funny and surprisingly relevant; we need only imagine Bob (Robert Culp) and Carol (Natalie Wood), in lieu of mindlessly repeating encounter-group psycho-babble about “feelings,” instead prattling on about being “woke” and non-binary to comprehend how cleverly the authors of this wildly successful enterprise ($32 million on a $2 million outlay) pinned down a certain type of upper middle-class, educated moron with no ideas of his or her own who latches onto and submerges within whatever is new and trendy on the misguided principle that its very preposterousness and impenetrability to sense guarantees it’s an improvement on the old way of thinking.

Since Mazurksy, whose directorial debut this was, took his initial inspiration from a weekend he and his wife spent at Esalen, the satire was fresh. And because he and Tucker had backgrounds performing with Second City, their approach to the material was improvisational; the scenes have a theatrical, improvisatory shape, form and build and the cast is appealingly open to the approach, even the one (Wood) you’d think would be the squarest and the least apt. Culp too is gamer than his “cool” I-Spy persona might have suggested, but it’s Elliot Gould and Dyan Cannon who give the picture its particular comic lift. Ted and Alice are bright and educated but entirely out of their depth; they can’t quite fathom what their friends have become, and they’re correct in thinking the blubbery truisms suddenly gushing out of Bob’s and Carol’s mouths are fatuous nonsense yet their all-at-sea responses, while direct and honest, are inherently funny. Ted comes at things indirectly, and you can see his gears whirring as Alice gets herself worked up over Bob’s spontaneous admission to them that he’s had a one-night-stand with a colleague: The cavalier adoption of extramarital sex upsets her, but it turns him on, and the more ardently he pursues Alice the more she resists and the more hilariously frustrated he becomes. Cannon and Gould have more great moments than anyone else in the picture, like Ted’s pre-orgy preparations in the Vegas hotel suite bathroom, or Alice’s encounter with an almost frighteningly intense psychoanalyst. It’s the convention-minded Alice who pushes the academic question of wife-swapping when she begins removing her dress and throwing back at her friends the Esalen gasbaggery they’ve been spouting for the entire picture. (“I am being honest! I am doing what I feel like doing!”)

Both couples are desperate to break through to something meaningful, a long-smoldering human desire that burst out of hiding in the late ’60s, but they keep attacking the problem from the wrong angles. When Bob confesses his infidelity to Carol, you can see from the brief look of shock in her eyes that she’s staggered. Yet instead of weeping, or screaming, or expressing how hurt she is, she stifles her natural impulses and responds to Bob with smooth commonplaces from their encounter-group weekend. Conversely, when the unflappable Bob catches Carol with a man in their bedroom he’s thunderstruck as well, and openly enraged, until he tamps down his impulse just as Carol had and forces himself to be open and forgiving, even of the young tennis pro (Horst Ebersberg) with whom his wife was having it off, who keeps waiting to be beaten up and cannot comprehend the cuckold’s behavior. Bob on some level knows he’s being a chauvinist hypocrite but instead of admitting that falls back on the gaseous bilge he’s been taught at his expensive group encounter. It’s also clear that Carol is enacting her vengeance on her husband by fucking the tennis pro but neither can admit that. The imbalance between them must be addressed solely through recourse to harebrained pop pseudo-psychology.

As director Mazurksy is aided almost beyond measure by the apposite professionalism of his cinematographer Charles E. Lang, whose career extended back to 1926 and whose often ravishing photography included titles from Peter Ibbetson, Desire and Midnight to The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, One-Eyed Jacks and Charade and included several exquisitely shot pictures for Billy Wilder (A Foreign Affair, Ace in the Hole, Sabrina and Some Like it Hot). Lang’s rich, saturated deep-focus color is exactly right, its warmth and brightness grounding the amusing nonsense going on in the picture. And while there is nothing showy or especially inspired about Mazursky’s direction (there almost never is in his movies) his projects are always handsome and he seemed to know instinctively where to place his camera. Only when his material goes awry, as it does in the studiedly Felliniesque ending of Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, was he doing too much. It was as if he and Larry Tucker, having brought their characters to the brink of an orgy and making them realize they could never go through with it, had nowhere to go so they just took the cast outside for a chaste love-in. It’s doubly wrong-headed because the filmmakers also wedged the Burt Bacharach-Hal David ballad “What the World Needs Now is Love” into the mix, inappropriately. David’s 1965 lyric was a Viet Nam protest, not a paean to sexual freedom, or an aide to rising above it. Placed in this context the song sends absolutely the wrong message. It’s the only real misstep in a movie otherwise as sharp and funny now as it must have been over 50(!) years ago.

Text copyright 2022 by Scott Ross

Beat down the walls: “The Muppet Movie” (1979)


By Scott Ross

Forty and more years on it’s difficult to express to those who grew up with the Muppets in their fully-fledged, post-“Sesame Street” state, just how unique and extraordinary they were to children of the 1960s and ’70s, how unlike anything else on the air, and how treasurable their movie debut became. My conscious introduction to Jim Henson’s wild, unpredictable menagerie was via a 1969 appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” on which they performed one of their signature pieces, the delightfully nonsensical “Mahna Mahna,” when I was eight. (It’s just possible, however, that I was introduced to Rowlf the Dog on the last year or two of “The Jimmy Dean Show” when I was 4 or 5, and a vague memory tells me that’s probably the case.)

I have always loved puppets of all kinds, especially hand puppets, of which there were still a representative sampling on children’s television in the mid-’60s, especially on the local level. Although I was delighted by the astonishingly animated Topo Gigio, my favorites were and still are Burr Tillstrom’s Kukla and Ollie. But neither I nor most of the American audience had ever seen anything like The Muppets,* and my absolute pleasure when NET appeared and I first got a look at “Sesame Street” can perhaps be imagined: Athough I was considerably older then than the target CTW audience, the opportunity to enjoy the antics of Kermit the Frog, Bert and Ernie, Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, Grover and Count von Count was one almost calculated to grab me, and to hold on tight. I well remember seeing Cookie Monster for the first time, in a sketch in which another Muppet sang “If I Knew You Were Coming I’d Have Baked a Cake” and my mother’s sardonic comment when C.M. devoured said dessert: “If I knew you were coming I’d have locked the door.”† As the Henson company began to expand we also got such marvels as their charming televised specials “Hey, Cinderella!” (1969), “The Great Santa Claus Switch” (1970; the giant blue Thog came from that), “The Frog Prince” (1971; Robin and Sweetums were introduced in that one) and “The Muppet Musicians of Bremen” (1972). It was the unveiling in syndication, in 1976, of “The Muppet Show,” however, that cemented Henson’s fuzzy foam rubber and felt empire and sent the popularity of Kermit & Co. into the entertainment stratosphere.

“The Muppet Show,” Season One: Dave Goelz (Gonzo), Jerry Nelson (Crazy Harry), Eren Ozker (Hilda), Jim Henson (Kermit), John Lovelady (Baskerville), Frank Oz (Fozzie) and Richard Hunt (Scooter)

Presumably because they predated the Henson group’s creation of characters for the Children’s Television Workshop and were, although associated with “Sesame Street,” not contractually tied to it, Henson was able to use his two primary surrogates, Kermit and Rowlf the Dog, for the new show. He and his team (which included fellow Muppeteers Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt, Dave Goelz and that reluctant genius Frank Oz) designed and perfected a staggering plethora of new characters for “The Muppet Show” which included that oddly endearing depressive Gonzo the Great (Goelz), whose performance-arty pretensions were matched only by his epic ineptitude; the utterly incomprehensible Swedish Chef (Henson); the brash and resolutely corny yet somehow completely winning resident comedian Fozzie Bear (Oz); the heckling balcony mavens Statler (Hunt) and Waldorf (Henson); the dangerously incompetent Dr. Bunson Honeydew (Goelz) and his justifiably terrified guinea pig assistant Beaker (Hunt); the reactionary Nixonian cultural ignoramus Sam the Eagle (Oz); the weird and wonderful Dr. Teeth (Henson); that animated Id Animal (Oz); the bomb-throwing Crazy Harry (Nelson); the gently overweening show-gofer Scooter and the Joni Mitchellesque Janice (both Richard Hunt); and the series’ breakout star Miss Piggy (Oz) whom many of us in the late ’70s and early ’80s were convinced was either a uniquely untalented drag queen, or based on one. You can almost hear Piggy’s simpering response to that notion: “Ha-ha, silly. Moi is not a drag-queen! Moi is a wo-man… YA GOT THAT?“‡ (The ironic use of “moi” in popular American speech can, I think, be traced directly to Piggy. Or Oz. Or whoever wrote her dialogue, probably either Jack Burns or Jerry Juhl.)

“The Muppet Show” was a surreal exercise in the guise of a traditional backstage comedy; a show-within-a-show welded to the stage and television convention in which human beings interact with hand puppets — Fran Allison, “Buffalo” Bob Smith, Paul Winchell, Sherri Lewis and Captain Kangaroo would be the models of the form, although before their syndicated series the Muppets seldom (except on “Sesame Street”) performed with people and relegated the human element on the show to its exterior cast of guest stars. More, anything on “The Muppet Show” could become animated, from Muppet cucumbers and dancing carrot stalks to Muppet wardrobes and even Muppet houses. (That especially unfunny recurring gag, seemingly inspired by the designs of Sid and Marty Krofft, died, thankfully, in the first season.) And while the show was intended to be, and was, uproariously funny (where else on television could you hear a Scotsman playing the “Havah Nagilah” on a set of bagpipes?) The Muppets found time now and then to move their growing audience, as when Gonzo sang Paul Tracey’s lovely “Wishing Song,” Kermit wistfully performed Joe Raposo’s “Bein’ Green,” Robin softly intoned Harold Fraser-Simson’s setting of the A.A. Milne poem “Halfway Down the Stairs” on a staircase that made him seem magically liberated from his Muppeteer, Rowlf sang George Douglas and George David Weiss’ “What a Wonderful World” while stroking a spaniel that looked as though it was about to purr, Lena Horne sweetly crooned “I’m Glad There is You” to a despondent Gonzo or Danny Kaye crooned Frank Loesser’s “Inch Worm” to a tiny articulated puppet on his finger while the Muppet cast gently sang the “Two and two are four” countermelody. Possibly the greatest moment of the series was Harry Belafonte performing his glorious “Turn the World Around” with a quartet of African mask figures, arguably the most entrancing moment of puppetry since Kukla made up a batch of lemonade by himself on live television in 1949.

Henson was under the water, operating Kermit from a diving bell.

Those of us who were addicts of the show looked forward to the Muppet’s first movie not only because we suspected it would be funnier than almost any of the other pictures around (Blake Edwards’ “10” excepted, it was) but also because of moments like that. As well, for those who had been paying attention, Henson and company had been advancing the creative possibilities of video tape, particularly involving special effects, and there was no reason to think The Muppet Movie would stint on the visuals.§ Indeed, the opening moments of the picture as the camera slowly descends on a swamp and a small green figure with a banjo in the center of it, was absolutely thrilling (and, at least to me, still is). It was almost a mistake to open this way, with Kermit singing Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher’s transcendent ballad “Rainbow Connection,” first alone and then with his own reflection, because it’s the highest moment in the movie; as joyous as the rest of the picture is, nothing in it ever approaches that level of exquisite, moving perfection. It made me tear up 43 years ago, and it still does.

Taken purely in cinematic terms James Frawley’s direction could be dismissed as merely pleasant and serviceable, but that is beside the point: He was filming the first big-budget ($8 million, a healthy mid-level amount in 1979) American movie based entirely around manipulated puppets, and trying to make them seem utterly alive and normal in an unmistakably human world. In this he more than succeeded. The Muppet Movie posits that there is nothing at all unusual about a frog playing the banjo or riding a bicycle or facing down a villain like Gary Cooper on a deserted Western street, or a bear doing a comedy act in a disreputable dive, or a pig entering a carnival beauty contest. Much of the illusion is Henson’s, of course, and the structure Burns and Juhl came up with is the perfect vehicle for The Muppets: A road movie in which Bing Crosby is played by an amiable amphibian, Bob Hope by a bear with a penchant for terrible jokes, and Dorothy Lamour by a love-struck porker who thinks she’s Judy Garland but sounds like Florence Foster Jenkins.

I have been unable to discover how the rods that operate the Muppets’ limbs, fully visible on their television appearances and for those of us who more or less grew up with them a part of their look, were disguised for film. I assume they were replaced by invisible wire of some sort, but however the effect was accomplished it’s noticeable right away, and gives the puppets a greater sense of “aliveness” than they ever had on TV, even at their most rambunctious. The moment, astonishing to us in 1979, when Kermit is discovered riding a bicycle, was just one delight among many, and seemed to reward the faith people had in Henson as not merely a clever, funny man with a genius for developing puppetry unlike anything else on offer but a budding visionary who might, given world enough and time, alter the face of fantastic entertainment. He didn’t get a sufficiency of either, as it turned out, but it isn’t he length of one’s years as a creative artist that matters but what you accomplish within the time you’re given. Henson’s achievement, however brief his life, bears comparison with the true innovators of American entertainment, from Chaplin to Walt Disney.

At the time of the picture’s release the song score was panned generally — Leonard Maltin’s movie guide used to refer to it as “pedestrian”; this from a man who once wrote an entire book on the Our Gang series — and I no more understand that attitude now than I did then. I wonder, as I always do when creative people generate good work that is dismissed by ignoramuses, what the hell these people thought they were hearing. The Muppet Movie doesn’t succeed, as some musicals do, in spite of its score but to a great degree because of it. Perhaps it was trendy then to slam Paul Williams, or maybe the critics hearing his and Kenny Ascher’s splendid clutch of songs for the first time didn’t understand what they were listening to. The movie’s score is a compendium of pop styles, from Tin Pan Alley to rock ‘n’ roll, without the usual condescension shown by one side toward the other. The songs in the picture were clearly written by people who understand, enjoy and appreciate a wide variety of popular music, and the songs do not merely accompany the screenplay’s narrative but both comment on it and move it gently along; their tone is exactly right for the Muppets, and for this movie.

Although both men received “Music and Lyrics By” credit, I think it’s safe to imagine Williams wrote most of the lyrics; they carry a certain show-biz savvy and lightly poetic sensibility that are uniquely his. They also have a buoyancy and a bracing, playful wit that suggests he and Ascher were emulating the great Wizard of Oz lyricist Yip Harburg, and not only in their evocation of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in the opening lyric. Their songs are full of fizzy Harburgian wordplay including a direct homage to Finian’s Rainbow in the great Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem number “Can You Picture That?” (Beat down the walls/Begin/Believe/Be/Begat). There are few charm songs in any original screen musical to match the delicious Fozzie/Kermit traveling duet “Movin’ Right Along” with its puns and jokes-that-don’t-quite-work, or the comic lament “I Hope That Something Better Comes Along” between Kermit and Rowlf which overflows with a wit and comedic effect so joyous it’s almost profligate. (To this day when I hear myself or anyone else say, “Sorry about that” my very next thought is, “Two, three, four…”)

Paul Williams during his first season guest appearance on “The Muppet Show.”

To the songwriters (and to Dave Goelz, who performs it) also goes the movie’s sweetest moment: Gonzo’s wistful “I’m Going to Go Back There Someday.” It’s not merely a perfect song for that character, or even exactly the right sentiment to be expressed at that phase of the movie, when the Muppets’ collective dream seems to have died in the California desert. It fits both mood, and setting, and the melancholy look Frawley and his cinematographer Isidore Mankofsky create for it. Note the structure of these lines, and the unforced ethereal poetry of their yearning metaphors, and consider how cunningly they convey the Muppets’ world, what they mean to each other, and to us:

This looks familiar, vaguely familiar.
Almost unreal, yet it’s too soon to feel
Yet, close to my soul and yet so far away,
I’m going to go back there someday.

Sun rises, night falls, sometimes the sky calls.
Is that a song there, and do I belong there?
I’ve never been there but I know the way.
I’m going to go back there someday.

Come and go with me; it’s more fun to share.
We’ll both be completely at home in midair.
We’re flyin’, not walkin’, on featherless wings.
We can hold on to love like invisible strings.

There’s not a word yet, for old friends who’ve just met:
Part heaven, part space, or have I found my place?
You can just visit, but I plan to stay.
I’m going to go back there someday.
I’m going to go back there someday.
©Wellbeck Music Corp

If you can listen to a set of meticulously crafted lyrics like this and call them pedestrian, your idea of perfection must involve a forensic laboratory, a few precise incantations and the use of someone’s spare philosopher’s stone.

Another common complaint about The Muppet Movie at the time of its release was that its string of human guests stars added little to the enjoyment, but they’re variable largely depending on the material they’re given. And since so many of them are gone, it’s a pleasure to see them now, especially Milton Berle as a shady used car salesman (was there ever any other kind?) hoist with his own petard, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy as judges of the beauty contest where Kermit meets Piggy, and Orson Welles as the head of the movie studio who blithely instructs his secretary (Cloris Leachman) to “Prepare the standard rich-and-famous contract for Kermit the Frog and company.” Among the others, the best-served by Burns and Juhl’s screenplay are Mel Brooks as a mad (German, naturally) scientist, Steve Martin as an obnoxious waiter, Charles During as the movie’s chief villain (a fried frog-leg chain entrepreneur), Austin Pendleton as his sniveling nephew, and Carol Kane as a running gag.

Bergen’s appearance in the picture was his last (he died shortly after filming his segment), a sentimental gesture by Henson toward the man who was his, and most Muppeteer’s, idol. And while his performance proves the old adage that Bergen was a great ventriloquist for radio it’s a lovely send-off for the old man. But, nostalgia aside, the guest stars really aren’t necessary; the Muppets themselves are more than enchanting enough.

They were the rainbow connection.

*Rowlf the Dog appeared on the Jimmy Dean show for a couple of years, and Henson was making his living then largely through commercial work, so the Muppets must have been fairly ubiquitous on The Box, at least in 30 second installments.

†I could swear that the Muppet which performed that was female, but all I can find online is videos of Ernie singing it.

‡Oz was apparently sensitive on the topic, once stressing his heterosexuality to a reporter in London by saying, “Let’s get it straight that I’m straight!” (See Brian Jay Jones’ biography of Jim Henson.)

§The effects-heavy 1978 Alice Cooper episode in particular indicated how hipped Henson was to technological advances in video tape imagery and in general the third season of the show continually pushed the limits of the form, such as the Loretta Lynn show in which Kermit and Gonzo operate a railway handcar.

Text (aside from the Paul Williams/Kenny Ascher lyrics) copyright 2022 by Scott Ross

Going nowhere: “Shampoo” (1975)


By Scott Ross

I’m not sure I can express my admiration for Warren Beatty as a creative force in American movies briefly and succinctly so I hope you will permit me a personal privilege, because that veneration is nearly without bounds and has bearing on my attitudes toward Shampoo which he originated, co-wrote, produced and starred in. And if what follows seems wholly personal, that’s because it is. There is no such thing as objective criticism; all passion is personal, and what we love, like what we loathe, in art as in anything else, inevitably reveals a great deal about ourselves.

Although I remember watching and enjoying $ on television in my early adolescence my first exposure to Beatty as a creative artist (that is, as opposed to “merely” as an actor) and in a movie theater, came when I was 17… a not so very good year, in fact a largely terrible one, with compensations, most of them at the movies. And the romantic comedy/fantasy Heaven Can Wait (1978), in which Beatty starred, and which he wrote, with Elaine May and co-directed, with Buck Henry, was a movie almost calculated to get under the skin of a film-besotted teenager.

First, the picture had a lightness of touch bracingly at odds with the slobby, crass comedy we generally got at the movies then. Great movie comedy has often thrived in uncertain times, so you might have thought the ‘70s would have produced some. But aside from one-offs such as Harold and Maude (1971), some of the Woody Allen and Mel Brooks pictures, or rare gems like The Hot Rock (1972), What’s Up, Doc? (also 1972) Peter Bogdanovich’s variation on Bringing Up Baby, the still hilarious 1975 and ‘76 Blake Edwards Pink Panther entries, the beautiful James Goldman-scripted They Might Be Giants (1971), the Larry Gelbart/Carl Reiner collaboration Oh, God! (1977) or oddball items, often tampered with and ruined during production, like the almost-wonderful Harry and Walter Go to New York (1976) and The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother or the surprisingly charming Frank Gilroy romance From Noon to Three (1976), and even if we stretch the meaning of the word to include character studies like the Robert Altman California Split (1974), not so much comic as just a terrific picture with some deft touches and funny lines, it was dismal period for movie comedy, and had been for years. Despite the manifold miracles being wrought in American pictures during that period, if there are seminars or, worse, doctoral theses, devoted to that evergreen The Classic 1970s Movie Comedy, I don’t know of them, and don’t want to. It’s no wonder that college students in the late ‘60s were turning on to the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields: Not only were they anarchic and anti-establishment before The Establishment had been named, they were, even better, funny. What did the kids in 1970 have to laugh at, aside from the Robert Altman MASH, which was anyway under its comic veneer (and if this isn’t an oxymoron) a sardonic cri de couer against the war in Vietnam? And the ‘70s proper were even worse: Nixon, Cambodia, Chile, Watergate, Ford, the Church Committee hearings and — as if we hadn’t been punished enough — streaking, disco, disaster movies and Jimmy Carter.

Heaven Can Wait - Mason, Beatty

Second, Heaven Can Wait was also deeply, if on the surface almost casually, romantic. Other than Annie Hall — which I adored at 16 and which doesn’t seem so terrific today… although that may be less a reflection on the movie itself than of how repulsive I now find Woody Allen’s screen persona — there hadn’t been a great romantic comedy in so long that if you were searching for a representative title you almost had to go back to The Apartment in 1960, Irma La Douce in 1963, The Americanization of Emily in 1964, or Avanti! in 1972. (Can you name another?)* Its screenplay, beautifully poised between reality and the purely fantastic, and stuffed with characters whose assorted idiosyncrasies almost define the word “quirky,” had a point of view, something that smelled suspiciously like a genuinely leftist critique of rapacious capitalism, or at least its excesses, and which also spoke to the frustrated alienation I felt from traditional liberal politics, then as now more enamored with the status quo than with effecting actual change, and all too smugly satisfied with itself. And it looked wonderful; William A. Fraker’s diffused images had a soft-focus patina, perfectly augmented by imaginative staging and editing. It sounded good too; Dave Grusin, although seldom capable of delivering a great full score except in some of his his comedies like Divorce American Style, is nonetheless a master at themes. For Heaven Can Wait, he came up with a charming little recurrent march scored with soprano sax, an apt choice since Beatty’s character fancies he can play that instrument (he can’t) and which gracefully segues into a gentle, rhapsodic romantic theme. The music was of a piece with the movie’s essential sweetness, a sunniness of disposition that, in those sour times, was invigorating — a tonic.

Third, the picture was wonderfully cast: Julie Christie, James Mason — a particular favorite of my youth, and even more so now he’s gone — Dyan Cannon, Charles Grodin, Jack Warden, Vincent Gardenia, Dolph Sweet and Buck Henry, with Joseph Maher, Hamilton Camp and Arthur Malet as a trio of delightfully unflappable servants. But as much as I loved them all, Beatty in the lead was the revelation. Aside from his personal charm, or even his breathtaking physical beauty (and he was among the most beautiful and desirable men I’d ever seen on a big movie screen) his understatement as an actor, which could pull you forward in your seat, alternated with a rapid-fire rhetorical style, ideas seeming to pour out of him in every direction, some eminently clearheaded and others just this side of Bellevue; it all somehow coalesced not merely into coherent thought but into some rough form of utter sanity that almost felt like genius. I was absolutely dazzled.

That vocal and intellectual integrity is a Beatty hallmark, as I came to understand when Reds was released in 1981. It seems an outward expression of his restless, questing brain; when you see him in one of his rare interviews, the concepts pile up behind his words and tumble out in a stream-of-consciousness that can be, at times, a bit exhausting but is never, as it might be with almost anyone else, boring or self-aggrandizing. Nor is it in any manner inarticulate, or pretentious; as with Marlon Brando (another exceptionally thoughtful man whom the surface-oriented regarded as a kook) what Beatty says has clearly been considered, and over a long period — years, and probably decades. The sort of intelligence he evinces is rare, and it goes with his commitment to leftist politics (he was in the McGovern “inner circle” in 1972, and a key fundraiser) but it’s more than the sort of hip Hollywood window-dressing so easily dismissed as trendy “look at me!” dilettantism. It’s genuinely subversive, and in the healthiest way. Probably only Warren Beatty could have gotten Gulf & Western to pony up an eventual $40 million for a kaleidoscopic paean to American Communists, and God alone knows how he managed to convince 20th Century-Fox to commit to Bulworth (1998), very likely the sharpest and most brazenly honest political satire ever produced in this country. Some even claim the picture was never officially “green-lit,” with Beatty hustling the various studio departments so effectively no one knew what was going on until it was too late and the picture was halfway completed. Surely that is apocrypha, but it speaks so well to both Warren Beatty’s reputation, and to his sly wit, I hope it’s true.

Reds - Beatty rewrite
Beatty in Reds. “When you separate a man from what he loves the most, what you do is purge what’s unique in him. And when you purge what’s unique in him, you purge dissent. And when you purge dissent, you kill the revolution! Revolution is dissent! You don’t rewrite what I write!”

Reds meant more to me than almost any movie of my young manhood aside from Norma Rae and All That Jazz. I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing on that screen — the Russian Revolution, presented not as the usual disaster of conservative and liberal American fantasy, but as an arguably necessary corrective even if it quickly went sour† — and I went to the picture over and over while it was playing, and on its reissue after the 1982 Oscars, at which Beatty won as Best Director. (I would have used the modifier “improbably” for Beatty’s win, given the subject matter of his movie, but one must remember that actors make up the largest voting bloc of the Academy, and they always respond favorably when one of their own proves he can do something other than act.) Unlike with Annie Hall, I am entirely unembarrassed by my youthful ardor for Reds; even if the all-heterosexual romanticism of it is belied by the facts of both John Reed’s life and that of Louise Bryant, its exuberance as a movie, its intelligent spirit, its exhilarating editorial dash, its epic sweep and the crucial intimacy of the interviews with its “Witnesses,” its heady embrace of radical politics — its sheer effrontery — do not dissipate with time. If anything, Reds looks better with the passing of the years, especially given the artistic timidity, overwhelming neoliberalsim and nearly complete corporatism of American movies (and life) in the 21st century.

Ideas, of course, are never enough; no one but an academic or a pretentious jerk goes to a movie because of how it expresses its ideas. Everything Beatty produces (with the exception, I suppose, of Dick Tracy, which in any case was more pure, trivial fun than any other comic book or comic strip movie) is about people. As William Faulkner famously noted, “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself” are the only things that make good writing “because only that is worth writing about.” Even good, silly comedy (like great, witty comedy) originates, not just in conflict, the basic building block of drama, but in the essential clash between desire and consideration. Warren Beatty’s movies as a producer, a writer, a writer/director, or a director of other people’s scripts are, without exception, concerned with both ideas and with human beings. I wouldn’t be such a fool as to idolize Beatty as a man — I don’t know him, and in any case, reactive hero-worship lies, I believe, at the root of most of our collective woes; when you imbue a candidate for office with the kind of unthinking passion that fuels sports or matinee idol fandom (those provenances of adolescence which, alas, carry over into far too many adults’ physical maturity) you shut off your ability to think. It’s all mindless cheering. As a creative man, however, Beatty has few peers, and along with his radical political viewpoint and his well-documented penchant for dithering, his interest in what is of vital concern to people has probably limited his options just as similar concerns limited those of Orson Welles. In the current creative sphere (I won’t say “artistic,” because to have that you must also actually have art) the problems of human beings are, after ever-more-elaborate special effects and turning on with mindless drivel the vast subliterate Asian populace which constitutes the true audience for American movies, at best a tertiary concern.

Having heroes, at least still clinging to them when one is past the early age of accountability, is a dangerous delusion. I’ve long since ceased hero-worshiping Warren Beatty as my 20 year-old self once did, but I don’t mind in the least citing him as a creative touchstone. The passion he brings to his obsessions is as remarkable (and as important) as his rigorous intelligence, especially at a time when artistic obsession is equated with the adapting of hit movies of the past into Broadway musicals, and political passion consists mostly of holding supportive marches for whichever elderly psychopath has most recently contradicted Donald Trump.

Shampoo - Hawn, Christie, Bill, Beatty
Musical beds: Goldie Hawn, Julie Christie, Tony Bill, Warren Beatty.

In the 1980s it was said, often, that the former hairdresser, later movie producer and (with Peter Guber) eventual studio head Jon Peters was the inspiration for George Roundy, Beatty’s character in Shampoo, and it’s vaguely possible Beatty may have been aware of or even met him; Jay Sebring, horrifically murdered with Sharon Tate, Wojciech Frykowski and Abigail Folger, was surely a more likely model for George, as was Jack Sahakian. But that Beatty had been thinking about the movie for years is evidenced by his original title for it — Hair — which places its origins, at the very least, in 1967, if not earlier, probably around the time he was putting Bonnie and Clyde together and before “The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical” opened Off-Broadway. He appears to have resurrected the idea after Robert Towne (and, one presumes, his weirdly silent writing partner Edward Taylor)‡ contributed revisions to the 1973 The Parallax View. The delay between mid-‘60s conceptualization and mid-‘70s realization worked in Beatty’s favor; setting Shampoo on the eve of the 1968 Presidential election gives the picture a melancholic undertone and makes its social critique all the more potent. As Jack Kennedy’s murder was the moment the unseen powers took over, Nixon’s election signified the death of hope.

That the political implications are nearly all beneath the surface is one of the hallmarks of Shampoo’s subtlety as a movie, and its faith in its audience. That’s another difference between 1975 and now, and between Beatty and almost everyone else working in mainstream American movies. There’s a moment near the end of the first half of Reds in which Beatty as Jack Reed makes an impassioned, impromptu speech before a hall of working-class Bolsheviks and is greeted with cheers. Beatty the director repeatedly cuts from Beatty the actor, reveling in the sudden acclimation (and his own passion) to Diane Keaton as Reed’s wife Louise: At first she seems intently interested, then pleased; finally, as the crowd’s enthusiasm peaks and she is unable physically to reach her husband, concerned. It’s the moment Louise realizes that Jack’s journalistic advocacy might be tipping over into obsessive political activism. The way her face clouds is a signal, and Beatty (along with Trevor Griffiths, his co-author) is too bright and too accomplished to come out and tell you in words exactly what it means. Beatty trusts us to get it, just as in Shampoo he doesn’t find it necessary for George to protest at the suspicions of some of the other characters about his sexuality. George knows who he is, sexually, and so do the various women he’s involved with; he doesn’t need to strut and proclaim. And Beatty — as with Towne (and Edwards) and Hal Ashby, the movie’s director — assumes we understand that.§

None of the characters in Shampoo is remotely interested in politics. The only one who gives the pretense that he is, the wonderfully-named Lester Karpf (Jack Warden), reveals himself to George late in the picture as being for his own reasons as disgusted with Nixon as with Johnson, but hosts an election-returns party in an upstairs room at The Bistro to woo dedicated Republican money-men who do care who wins. As much as George, if in a different way, Lester is an old hand at the game of seduction, and the filmmakers (again, without comment) contrast this with George’s abortive attempt to apply for a bank loan to set up his own hairdressing shop: George has so little understanding of business that, when asked by George Furth’s loan manager for references, all he can offer is, “I do Barbara Rush,” and when Furth proves resistant, to insult him, storm out of the bank and kick a trash receptacle in impotent rage. It isn’t that Furth’s character isn’t asking for it. He’s quietly smug and dismissive and George is probably saying aloud what countless loan applicants would like to. But Lester, even a penniless Lester, would have schmoozed the man, stroked his ego — charmed him. George has ambitions, but few means of achieving them, and absolutely no idea how. He’s curiously passive, seldom acting, nearly always reacting. And, interestingly, it’s only when George is in despair that he is fully articulate, as when he explains his seeming priapism to Lester, or admits to Goldie Hawn’s Jill that he can’t seem to “get out of [his] own way.” He isn’t stupid, but he’s more apt to speak in meaningless generalizations than with conviction, as when he tells Jill she’s “great.” This gets a subtle echo a few scenes later when George’s ex Jackie (Julie Christie) says he’s “great” and Jill responds, “Yeah… George is great.” This sounds like dumb, empty late-‘60s platitudinizing, but the way Hawn says the line, and the look on her face, suggests she’s trying to convince herself.

Shampoo - Beatty, Warden

George and Lester are almost ironic mirror images in the picture. And although they are strangers to each other until well into the movie’s running time, their lives are intimately intertwined: George is the occasional lover of Lester’s bored, angry hausfrau Felicia (Lee Grant) while Lester is keeping Jackie as an expensive mistress. (Indeed, it’s Felicia who suggests to Lester that he ought to finance George’s dream of having his own salon.) It’s a classic farce set-up — there’s even a lover-hiding-in-the-closet sequence when George and Jackie begin making love in her bathroom after he’s cut her hair for the Bistro party and Lester arrives ahead of schedule, forcing them to improvise — but Beatty and his collaborators are too bright to let their sex-farce exist at a superficial level. Lester may be a liar, but he isn’t a villain. If there’s a true hypocrite in the mix, it’s Felicia (note the ironic name). She’s so brazen about her infidelity that when she greets George at the Bistro she kisses him in such a showy, blatantly sexual manner they both might as well be naked. Yet when it becomes obvious to her that Lester is involved with Jackie — she seems to know but won’t admit it until she has no choice, until Jackie attempts to fellate George under the table, and Lester intervenes — she’s livid. She isn’t just angry at Lester; she’s incensed at anyone else being intimate with George. By contrast, when Lester later comes upon George and Jackie fucking in an empty pool-house, his ultimate decision is not to divest himself of his mistress but to marry her. And while he’s far from happy with George over what he’s seen, he forgives him. Even his (for him, natural) aversion to George, whom he believes for most of the movie is “a fairy” merely because he cuts women’s hair, is expressed with a shrug. He’s still willing to consider backing George in setting up shop for himself, and remains so even after he stumbles upon George in flagrante delicto with Jackie. There is a funny moment when Lester grips George’s arm affectionately, as he might with any other man, and immediately backs off; accepting George is a “fairy” and actually touching the fairy are obviously, for him, two entirely different things. This has a rhyme later in the picture, when George touches Lester’s hair in a professional way and Lester looks panicked, as if George is coming on to him. On the other hand, while he and Jackie are trying to keep Lester out of the bathroom after he’s nearly caught them, George isn’t above playing to Lester’s sexual phobias by suddenly shouting at him in a slightly queeny way.

For all his financial hustling, his cheating on his wife, and even the empty consumerist acquisition he represents, Lester is, with Goldie Hawn’s Jill, one of the two most likable characters in the picture. When, at a much funkier party than the one at the Bistro a naked boy calls to him to join the skinny-dipping and Lester seems about to, we’re pleasantly surprised by an adventurousness we didn’t think he was capable of. (Of course, that a naked girl is encouraging him as well is the deciding factor.) And, later, when Lester indicates George to his bodyguards and tells them not to be too rough, there’s a stomach-tightening moment when we, like George, don’t know he’s joking. The cinephile’s brain automatically reaches back to the horrible end of Sweet Smell of Success when we know Tony Curtis is going to be “chastised” by the crooked cops, possibly to death, and for a moment we’re too stunned to laugh. Yet Lester, however bluff or assured he seems to be, is as riddled with insecurity as anyone else. “I just wish I knew what the hell I was living for,” he says to George the morning after the election. “You can lose it all, you know? I mean, you can lose it no matter who you are. What’s the sense of having it all?” That may be an easier question to ask when you do have it all, but the utterance is still a lot more than we normally expect from the cuckold, or the other man, in a sex-farce. And although it’s Lester who’s worried his words (“You can lose it all”) are more prophetic, for George, than he knows.

Shampoo - Christie, Hawn
Christie and Hawn. George is right: That hairdo does make Jackie look like a hooker.

Shampoo is one of those odd comedies that don’t necessarily make you laugh at first but which may cause you to chuckle when you remember lines and scenes from it later. That doesn’t mean it isn’t funny; Shaw is among the wittiest of all playwrights but when I see Pygmalion I don’t laugh all that often at it either. Zuleika Dobson is comic, too, but it’s not especially funny. (Osbert Lancaster’s watercolor illustrations for it are funnier than the book itself.) Laughter by itself is not necessarily the final arbiter of whether a verbal or situational comedy is successful as it is, say, of physical humor — of a Keaton picture, or one by Chaplin or Blake Edwards. There’s so much going on in Shampoo, so many shrewd, understated observations being made, that in a way they militate against easy laughter, at least until you know it better. (After four viewings in two years it seems much funnier to me now. The fact that I’ve watched any movie that often in so brief a period of time certainly says something for it.) And while its bleak ending is fully prepared for, it can still catch you off-guard. Your response to that may depend on how you look at movies: If you need your main characters heroic, and triumphant, and your comedy buoyant, Shampoo will certainly disappoint you. Because of his over-commented upon love life, all too many people conflated Beatty with the role he performs in the picture, but he considered George, as Jill calls him, a loser. “I thought of my character as someone who couldn’t perform,” he said. And Beatty didn’t mean sexually: “He was exhausted, out of gas.” George is juggling too many lovers — in addition to seeing Jackie and Felicia and Jackie’s best friend Jill, he’s stringing Jill along when, as he tells Jackie, he can’t imagine being with her at 50. (He also has it off with Felicia’s teenage daughter Lorna, played by Carrie Fisher, at her instigation, but that’s as much a function of Lorna’s hatred for her mother as it is of George’s priapism.) Still, as George tells Lester near the end of the picture, “As long as I can remember, when I see a pretty girl and I go after her and I make her, it’s like I’m gonna live forever.” But what happens when you’re 50, or 60, and the women aren’t responding any longer as they once did? Forever seems less and less attainable.

It’s a function of George’s fecklessness that he cannot see either Jill’s emotional attachment to him or her real qualities. On the Criterion Blu-ray of Shampoo, Mark Harris, in conversation with Frank Rich, asserts that Jill floats in and out of the action, as if she’s incidental and Rich says, “She often turns up just when you want the movie to move forward.”¶ I disagree entirely. Even more than Jackie, Jill is the living embodiment of George’s inability to commit to anything, or anyone. It’s what lost him Jackie to begin with, and what will lose her a second time; before George can make up his mind he needs her Lester has already proposed, and she’s accepted. (Ironically, it’s George who tamps down Lester’s anger at Jackie for “cheating” with George, dissuading him from thinking of her as a whore over a single act of infidelity to her married lover.) Jill continually shows that she relies on George, but he doesn’t want her to; he tells Jackie that Jill “needs to be with someone who can take care of her.” Unable to decide whether to take the modeling job abroad offered to her by the commercial director played by Tony Bill, Jill asks George whether she should. It isn’t that she needs his advice; she wants to know whether he can bear for her to be away so long. Tellingly, George’s mind is so peripatetic, so unable to concentrate thought, that when Jill comes to him to ask his advice on the job he doesn’t hear a word she’s said. “Where you goin’?” he asks, genuinely puzzled. “Egypt!” she snaps incredulously. But Jill isn’t entirely passive, and she’s a lot more perceptive than George realizes. When, after his disastrous encounter with the bank loan manager he tells her he’s “trying to get things moving” she snaps, “Oh, grow up! You never stop moving! You never go anywhere!” (Hilariously, Hawn follows this up by screaming, as a child might, “Grow up, grow up!”) By the end of the movie, George might still have a shot at Lester’s financial backing, but he will have lost both Jackie and Jill.

Shampoo is full of such beautiful contradictions, as well as of irony. Just as the Richard Sylbert-designed home sets in the movie feature huge picture windows to let in the sunlight none of the characters (other than George, whose mode of transportation is a motorcycle) spends any time in outside, the war in Vietnam, which was rending the social fabric of the rest of the nation in 1968 and which to a large degree helped propel Richard Nixon into the White House, causes no ripples in the lives of these self-absorbed figures. The only times it does are when the salon worker Mary (Ann Weldon) talks to George about her son’s recent promotion (we see his photo on the wall) and, later, when the soldier son of George’s employer Norman (Jay Robinson) is killed overseas, perhaps significantly in a highway accident. Here too sexuality becomes an interesting, understated (indeed, un-commented upon) aspect of the picture. As played by Robinson, Norman is obviously gay but whether or not he is, or was, married to the boy’s mother is left to speculation. The revelation of Norman’s even having a son (earlier we’ve seen the soldier’s photo displayed on Norman’s desk and may have assumed he was a younger lover) would probably cause Lester Karpf some sleepless nights, but it’s of a piece with the filmmakers’ relaxed attitudes on the subject. Even when Lorna suggests to George that his appreciation of older women is “faggoty,” she doesn’t say the word with any hostility. She’s curious about the man, for her own reasons; like her father, she can’t conceive of a heterosexual man being a hairdresser. Unlike Lester, however, Lorna is attracted to George, so her interest in the question of his sexuality isn’t academic. And with Lorna too comes another fascinating contradiction: She tells George she hates Felicia, and we sense she does (don’t all teenagers hate their mothers at some point?) and her loathing extends to having it off with her mother’s lover. She fucks George — at least, that’s the implication when Felicia comes home and George is using Lorna’s bathroom — and holds up her head defiantly, directly challenging her mother with her transgression. She doesn’t seem pleased by her dalliance with George, or relaxed, or flushed by recent sexual activity. Sex with her mother’s lover is just one more little act of petulant adolescent insubordination. On the other hand, when George exits the bath, Lorna instantly lowers her eyes. Perhaps there is, for her, a thin line between loathing and embarrassment.

Shampoo - Grant

Shampoo is one of those movies that is so perfectly cast you can’t imagine the roles with anyone other than the actors playing them. (And anyway you’re so engaged by them, and what they’re saying and doing, the thought likely never occurs even to you.) Lee Grant was, in the mid-1960s, still working through the marginalization that resulted from her blacklisting in 1952 and was never as prominent as she should have been all along until Shampoo. She’d gotten a well-deserved Academy Award nomination as Joyce, Beau Bridges’ obnoxious rich-bitch mother in The Landlord (1970), Hal Ashby’s debut as a director, and her performance as Felicia, which won the Supporting Actress Oscar, is the flip-side of that character, bitter where Joyce was anxious and needy where Joyce was serenely oblivious. Her hypocrisy — probably a good part of the reason her daughter despises her — is breathtaking: She shares George’s bed whenever she can, but her anger is made incandescent by Lester’s involvement with Jackie, and Grant never makes a play for our sympathies, or even our fondness. Warden got a nomination too (and would also be nominated for his marvelous performance as Beatty’s coach in Heaven Can Wait) and he never sets a foot wrong or telegraphs his intentions.

Goldie Hawn was such a sunny, likable presence in movies of the period that I think (like the character she plays in Shampoo) her abilities weren’t appreciated, and it took a long time for her to shed her image as the giggly girl from “Laugh-In” who couldn’t get through a bit without breaking up. It was as endearing as Lily Tomlin playing Edith Ann or Ruth Buzzi’s Gladys Ormphby but, because it was natural and not character-driven, didn’t really hint at what she was capable of. The Oscar she got for the 1969 Cactus Flower must have surprised a lot of people but Hawn is such an adorable bundle of sexy innocence she’s the best thing in the picture; she makes the cliché of the kooky mistress something altogether fresh. If her role as Jill is smaller than we might prefer — and although the actress found it thin it’s difficult to see where it could have been expanded without overburdening the narrative, and the running-time — her impact is no less potent. Hawn makes it clear that, whatever her silly neuroses, Jill is sexy and fun, and that if George had less of a roving eye he might be able to see what he has in Jill instead of viewing her as a pleasurable impediment to some sort of future he can’t even see clearly, much less attain.

If Julie Christie’s performance is a bit harder to come to grips with, that’s because Jackie is almost unfathomable as a character, and as a woman. That’s not to say the characterization is false, merely difficult to define: Highly physically desirable, she has no discernable interest in anything. She seems to exist to be objectified, either by George, her ex-boyfriend, or Lester, her wealthy lover. At least George has ambitions, even if he’s ill-equipped to realize them; Jill doesn’t really know what, if anything, she actually wants, other than creature comforts, like the house Lester has given her or her horrible, yapping little dogs. To surrender yourself as Christie does so completely to such an essentially vapid character is deeply impressive. It could be argued that Jackie is Diana Scott in Darling (for which Christie won the 1965 Best Actress Oscar) updated, but without even the modeling career — in Shampoo, it’s Jill who is the professional model — just the men. We don’t know what Jackie does with her time, to keep boredom (or madness?) at bay. No wonder she starts pursuing George again, even when she knows he’s no good for her. There’s something dead at her center, and Christie has a chillingly blank look except when she’s being touched — when George is making love to her, or even just paying attention to her hair. Christie is funny as well, in a riotously bitchy way, when she gets roaring drunk at the election night Bistro party, especially when she tells the old letch beside her (played by the shlock movie producer William Castle) what she really wants to do, to Beatty, and slides under the table to do it. Shampoo may not have been the first American movie comedy to acknowledge that there was such a thing as oral sex, but it was probably the first to call it by its name. (It’s also the first picture I know of since Harold Lloyd gave his fun-house mirror reflection the finger in the 1928 Speedy to have a major character use the gesture.) Although there is very little nudity in the movie its language about sex, and its frankness generally, were shocking to many in the mid-1970s, refreshing to others and immediately influential, the way John Schuck’s ad-lib during the football game in MASH (“All right, Bub, your fuckin’ head’s comin’ right off”) was to movies after 1970.#

Shampoo begins with a pitch-black screen, unidentifiable sounds gradually resolving themselves as human beings engaged in the sexual act. I imagine, in our auteurist age, that this has been ascribed to Hal Ashby, the movie’s director, but it’s in the Towne/Beatty screenplay, one of the sharpest and canniest of its era. (Naturally, Leonard Maltin’s movie guide describes Shampoo as “dreary.” If it had a French name and subtitles he’d have pissed all over himself about it.) While much of the on-screen dialogue appears to have been improvised around what was written, it was written; the contours of the lines are largely the same, but the verbal shapes are slightly different — just as wonky but more spontaneous. There are lines in the picture that don’t show up in the screenplay, however, and they’re often illuminating, as when Jackie tells Jill how nice it is to wake up in the morning and know the rent is paid, or when George tells Jill that the telephone company has cut off his service so he can’t make outgoing calls. This may or may not be true (he lies constantly, to all of the women in his life) but if it is, nods toward his fecklessness and irresponsibility. Beatty also gets off a pair of barbs, not in the script, at Jackie’s expense that cut to how he feels about her being Lester’s mistress. The first is peripheral, when he comments that her hair style makes her “look like a hooker.” It does. (Those lousy up-teased 1960s bouffant hairdos always made women look like simpering fools or worse.) The wounding line is when in response to her criticisms of him he snaps, “I don’t fuck anybody for money. I do it for fun.” Probably the best line in the movie is also not in the script, but is overheard in the salon George works in and perfectly, hilariously, codifies a certain type of Los Angeles pretension: An unidentified female voice exclaiming, “Roscoe, I do not believe what you are saying to me. That was the purest comment that I have ever made!”

If what one reads about this movie as well as Bonnie & Clyde is true (and Lee Grant seconds some of it in her memoirs) Beatty the producer was often hell on his directors, and even his co-stars. On Shampoo he had a tendency to emasculate the gentle Hal Ashby, who seems to me the perfect filmmaker for a picture like this one. Ashby observed the people in his best movies with amusement as well as pity but never maliciously or with condescension. He frames the empty, self-absorbed characters in Shampoo with a certain wry detachment, the way he did the people in The Landlord, The Last Detail and Harold and Maude, yet there is nothing dry or academic about the look of the movie, which is burnished by László Kovács’ superb, richly colored cinematography. It would have been so easy to have cynically depicted these selfish people running around screwing up each other’s lives with a flashiness equal to their essential emptiness and lack of self-fulfillment. Beatty and Towne (and Taylor) didn’t, and neither did Ashby. When, at the end, George is left with little but the taste of the ashes in his mouth, Ashby and Beatty do not stoop to making sport of him. Lesser talents would have made their sense of superiority to the character as obvious as the L.A. smog hanging over the scene as George watches Lester and Jackie drive away. Hacks would likewise have invited the audience to feel superior toward him as well. Artists understand instinctively when enough is already too much, and don’t feel they have to put a solid leaden period on everything. They don’t mind being elliptical — yet another aspect that separates the American filmmaking of Shampoo‘s era from that of our own.

“Dreary,” my ass.

*The 1970 The Owl and the Pussycat was a comedy, and ultimately romantic, but while frequently hilarious it’s so dark and abrasive it often feels as decayed as the New York City in which it takes place. The enormously popular The Goodbye Girl (1977) despite Marsha Mason’s wonderful performance wasn’t great, just Neil Simon-wisecrack-happy.

†The Revolution’s origins are also murky, as are the rise of National Socialism in Germany 20 years later, since it seems the same banks and families that bankrolled Marx and Lenin and Trotsky also backed Herr Hitler.

‡See Sam Wasson’s Chinatown book The Big Goodbye. Beatty, like Towne, Jack Nicholson and Roman Polanski, was a friend of the Paramount production chief Robert Evans, and indeed Shampoo was originally slated as a Paramount release, to be produced by Evans. It feels like an Evans picture: Smart, funny, sharp, satirical, and a little sad.

§This admirable restraint contrasts sharply with Beatty’s earlier refusal to make Clyde Barrow either homosexual, as Clyde likely was, or, as the screenwriters Robert Benton and David Newman intended, have him engage in a ménage with Faye Dunaway’s Bonnie and Michael J. Pollard’s C.W. Moss; it was Beatty who insisted on the insertion of Clyde’s line to Bonnie about his seeming asexuality, “Ain’t nothin’ wrong with me — I don’t like boys,” and he was obviously just as reticent to depict John Reed as bisexual. In the case of Bonnie and Clyde, Beatty told Benton and Newman it was needlessly complicated, and that they couldn’t risk alienating the audience’s affection for these two bank robbing killers by suggesting they were also deviants. With Reds, he likely reminded Griffiths they were already making a movie about a pair of Communists; they couldn’t show them as sexually fluid as well. There’s always an excuse to placate an actor’s fears, or indulge his vanity.

¶Rich also claims, on no evidence, that George has “stuck” Jill in “a terrible little efficiency,” with which Harris agrees. First, who says George is paying for it? Second, while the place admittedly has a small kitchenette it also sports a vestibule, a sizable living room, bedroom and bath and a glassed-off deck with a spectacular hillside view of L.A. Have Rich and Harris been well-paid for so long they’ve forgotten what an efficiency is? Did they ever know? I lived in one, for a bad year, at 20. It would have fit in Jill’s place at least twice with room left over for Rich and Harris to hold a colloquy on its merits.

#Shuck later said he never imagined Robert Altman would actually use the line. George Axelrod had filmed Roddy McDowall screaming, “Fuck you!” to his pursuers at the climax of Lord Love a Duck five years earlier, but coming as it did before the restructuring of the MPAA with its new letter-ratings, he couldn’t get away with it then.

Text copyright 2022 by Scott Ross