Overcoming Fear: Jerry Goldsmith in the 1960s

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“I think that the great part of creativity is overcoming fear. Fear is a given. When you sit down and have to begin something, don’t be afraid to be filled with fear, because it goes with the turf.” — Jerry Goldsmith

By Scott Ross

One of the abiding sorrows of my life is that, while I am intensely musical I play no instrument and, although I would rather sing than do almost anything else, cannot read music, or in any case can do so only in the most rudimentary fashion. (As in: I see the notes rise and fall on the staff, so know they’re either higher, or lower. Higher or lower than what, though, is another matter.) I enjoy a fairly eclectic blend of music, a variety which takes in concert works (I loathe the catch-all term “Classical” except when applied to the actual Classical era, which it seldom does), theatre scores (the odious, and largely ignorant, phrase “Show Tunes” will never pass either my lips or my typing fingers), some folk, a smattering of pop and funk (Paul Simon and Rufus Wainwright are idols and I am still partial to the Top 40 of my childhood and early adolescence), and a whole lot of jazz (Louis Armstrong is, for me, as close to a Supreme Deity as any pretend sky-god.) But what I tend to listen to most are film scores.

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Miklós Rózsa

Miklós Rózsa

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My personal Pantheon embraces Franz Waxman, whose early work, like The Bride of Frankenstein, did much to give us a grammar for movie scoring (Max Steiner got there slightly earlier, but, as with Eric Wolfgang Korngold, his scores tend to the stolid, the sentimental and the over-emphatic, with nothing like the compositional daring or the harmonic complexity that were Waxman’s stocks-in-trade); Alfred Newman and Dmitri Tiomkin, both of whom were capable of indifferent work but whose masterpieces are as fine as anyone’s; Miklós Rózsa, the supreme classicist of the so-called Golden Age, without whom both Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder would have been the poorer; Bernard Herrmann, the first great genius of the form, and a giant on whose shoulders virtually everyone who followed has stood; Carl Stalling, whose Warner Bros. cartoon scores took animation spotting to heights of playful, antic sublimnity and whose best compositions are as far from simple “Mickey Mousing” as it is possible to get; David Raksin, a

Alex North with his "Honorary" Academy Award. Your compromise statuette when they won't give you an actual award for your best work.

Alex North with his “Honorary” Academy Award. Your compromise statuette when they won’t give you an actual award for your best work.

minor deity but an important one, whose best work, such as The Bad and the Beautiful and What’s the Matter with Helen? exhibit a stylistic range and a tonal flexibility that are considerable; Alex North, the first great modernist of the American film score, whose Spartacus is one of the glories of the moving-picture age; Nino Rota, who, even if hadn’t composed the score for The Godfather would be a giant, if only for his work with

Vic Mizzy, surrounded by some of the creatures for whom he wrote his memorable scores.

Vic Mizzy, surrounded by some of the creatures for whom he wrote his memorable scores.

Fellini; Jerome Moross, who despite some redundancy of style was a bracing composer of Americana; Laurence Rosenthal, whose lyricism is beyond reproach and whose score for The Miracle Worker is as close to transcendent as music comes; Henry Mancini, whose sound virtually defined his era but who, due to his penchant for producing easy-listening albums rather than soundtrack LPs, is still not taken as seriously as he had every right to be; John Barry, another era-definer, whose James Bond scores are infinitely richer than the series deserved and whose best work elsewhere (The Lion in Winter, Robin and Marian, Dances with Wolves) need apologize for nothing; Jerry Fielding, a fiercely idiosyncratic composer who, after years of blacklist, pushed himself to an early grave; Vic Mizzy, whose Don Knotts music, particularly The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, are among the best comedy scores in movies; Ennio Morricone, who is sometimes repetitious, and occasionally absolutely dreadful, but whose work for Sergio Leone (not to mention later masterworks like The Untouchables and The Mission) transcend their movies, and their genres; John Williams, whose more syrupy and/or emphatic excesses can be forgiven for any number of masterworks, from The Reivers to Schindler’s List (and including, of course, Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the Star Wars series); Lalo Schifrin, so splendid at “cool,” jazzy atmosphere that it’s impossible to imagine McQueen’s Frank Bullitt or Eastwood’s Dirty Harry without him;

John Williams and friend.

John Williams and friend.

and David Shire, whose limited output is in no way indicative of his gifts and whose incomparably rich score for Return to Oz is among the finest composed for any movie in the last 70 years.

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A pair of masters, however, share the top spot: Elmer Bernstein and Jerry Goldsmith. When these twin giants took their appallingly untimely leave within a month of each other in the summer of 2004, the art and craft of movie scoring received a blow to its very soul, one from which I doubt it will ever fully recover.

Elmer Bernstein in 1967. He never won for any of his great scores, only for "Thoroughly Modern Millie," which contained very little of HIS music.

Elmer Bernstein in 1967. He never won for any of his great scores, only for “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” which contained very little of HIS music.

For me, Bernstein’s loss hurt in a way that Goldsmith’s did not. Aside from his having been, by all accounts, a courtly and rather lovely man, the sheer emotional heft of his greatest work revealed a heart as expansive as any that ever beat. If I had to pick a single cut, by any composer, as my favorite the choice would be, without question, the one labeled “End Title” in Bernstein’s To Kill a Mockingbird (but which is actually the music accompanying the final scene.) Those final, elegiac, annealing chords, rising impossibly high before, finally, resolving themselves, gently yet decisively, never fail first to send chills of rapture up my spine and then to move me to shameless tears. It isn’t merely the perfect climax to that movie’s story. It is, on its own, as close to perfection in emotional response, and release, as anything I’ve ever heard. It’s the music I’d want to be the last thing I ever hear in this life.

A young, and very handsome, Jerry Goldsmith in the mid-1960s. He had reason to smile.

A young, and very handsome, Jerry Goldsmith in the mid-1960s. He had reason to smile.

Jerry Goldsmith’s scores seldom move me in quite that way, although there are quite a few whose emotional qualities, beautifully controlled and never allowed to slip into bathos, are exemplars of the scorer’s art. Almost without exception — I’ll come to a few achingly singular examples by and by — these are from his scores for smaller movies, of the type Hollywood seldom makes now, and was making fewer and fewer of as Goldsmith’s life came to its close.

One is struck by the composer’s remarks on that subject, inasmuch as the bulk of Goldsmith’s best work was in the action or thriller genre. “I like the variety,” he was quoted as saying. “But basically my choice of films [sic] is a small intimate film. Quiet film, no action, just people in relationships. That’s what I like the most.” It’s telling how relatively few of these he actually scored. Did, as I suspect, the opportunities simply vanish? “When I get a fantasy film job,” he noted, “the first thing I look for is the non-fantasy element to build the music upon. The human side of the film is what’s important, not the hardware. My work on Poltergeist is a perfect example. Most people saw it as a ghost story and a horror story. I saw it as a love story and wrote the music with that emotion in mind. There is no formula to finding what musically fits a science fiction film. I just look for the emotion. When I don’t find those, it makes things more difficult.” Judging from his later output, it must have been difficult indeed, much (if not most) of the time.

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While Goldsmith had television credits as early as 1954, his composing career only really began to build, and blossom, in the early 1960s. The familiar Dr. Kildare opening is his, but his first important credit for movies was for one of those “small intimate films,” the melancholy Lonely Are the Brave, which its star Kirk Douglas has often called his favorite from among his own work. That same year (1962) Goldsmith was engaged by John Huston for Freud (aka, Freud: The Secret Passion) and for which he composed an enormously effective, somewhat atonal, score, which earned him the first of far too many Academy Award nominations he would ultimately lose. The following year, and in a complete change of pace, Goldsmith wrote a deliciously sly, playful, Kurt Weillian score for Huston’s tongue-in-cheek Phillip MacDonald whodunnit The List of Adrian Messenger which has, thankfully, recently been issued on a limited edition CD by Varèse Sarabande, one of several cottage outfits of varying sizes specializing in preserving American film scores, many of which specialize in Goldsmithiana.

Somewhat surprisingly, Goldsmith did not receive an Academy nod for the much-nominated Lilies of the Field, a small, heartfelt work, although he was nominated for the subsequent Sidney Poitier drama A Patch of Blue. The composer received 18 nominations in all (Bernstein got 14) winning only once, for The Omen — a fine, if derivative, horror score, leaning heavily on faux-Stravinsky via Gregorian vocalese, but nowhere close to his best work.* Could Goldsmith’s peers have seriously imagined this was his only award-worthy score, or that it was in some way superior to The Sand Pebbles, Chinatown, Islands in the Stream, The Wind and the Lion, Lionheart, Poltergeist or even The Secret of NIMH? Granting that those are highly personal choices, I submit that any one of them displays greater emotionality and more daring, even wit, than the highly popular, and influential, Omen.

The Washington, D.C.-based political thriller Seven Days in May (1964) elicited from Goldsmith an appropriately spare, martial score and the same year’s Western Rio Conchos one of the composer’s most insistent melodic ear-worms of a theme. For Our Man Flint, a cheerfully ridiculous Bond spoof starring a relaxed and genial James Coburn, Goldsmith offered up some delicious, tongue-in-cheek spy-pop that includes the riotously and deliberately inane theme-song “Your Zowie Face” (lyric by Leslie Bricusse.) Von Ryan’s Express (1965) has some splendid things in it as well, as does The Blue Max of 1966 with its soaring main theme, although one can point here to Waxman’s superb The Spirit of St. Louis as an obvious point of sonic reference.

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No such niggling comparisons obtain for Goldsmith’s magnum opus, The Sand Pebbles (also 1966.) While the movie itself, for all its seriousness of purpose and remarkably epic qualities, is a lamentable diminution of the magnificent Richard McKenna novel, its thinness exacerbated by the disastrous miscasting of the intolerably unresponsive Candice Bergen and the incredibly overrated, and terminally blank, Steve McQueen in the central roles. But that score… ah, that score! Along with the lovely, and ultimately heart-wrenching supporting performances by Mako and Richard Attenborough, it is left largely to Goldsmith to provide the unsettling dramatic thrust, the aching melancholy and the almost unbearable emotional underpinning the story needs to convey the results of the tragic alliance of imperialist misadventure and explosive social upheaval. The cue “Death of a Thousand Cuts,” for Mako, is arguably the most moving thing of its kind in the composer’s oeuvre, a track that continues to move the listener as much on the dozenth play-through as on the first. The Sand Pebbles is Goldsmith’s first undeniably great work for the movies, a score so intriguing, so layered, and so fraught with plangent humanity that it has been released numerous times, in incrementally superior editions the last of which, on Intrada, and which contains the score as heard in the movie as well as the contents of the re-recorded “soundtrack” of the period, belongs in the library of every serious aficionado of film music.

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For Hour of the Gun, a rather good 1967 variation on the Wyatt Earp legend starring James Garner, Jason Robards and the great Robert Ryan, Goldsmith composed a terrific genre score. (Choice cuts: The propulsive main theme and the curiously un-punctuated “Whose Cattle.”) 1968 saw another iconic Goldsmith score, for Planet of the Apes. The composer had flirted before with electronica, but had not fully explored its possibilities for appropriately other-worldly sounds until this one, although the best cues (“The Hunt” and “No Escape”) are largely more traditional in composition and orchestration. Goldsmith would, in future, lean too heavily on augmented instrumentation for my taste; I admit to a decided prejudice against synthesizers and related musical hardware over sounds produced by human players — the only really good synthesized film score I’ve ever encountered is Arthur B. Rubinstein’s Blue Thunder — but I defy anyone to seriously defend the “superiority” of Hoosiers over even such minor achievements as, say, Rudy or The 13th Warrior.

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In 1969 Goldsmith returned to television, composing the gentle, memorably optimistic theme, and some of the early scores, for the excellent, laugh-trackless comedy-drama (as they used to be called in those antediluvian days before the hideous neologism “dramedy” was incessantly heard, like the voice of the turtle, throughout the land) Room 222. He also scored the absurd but effective Gregory Peck thriller The Chairman, and the Cukor-directed misfire Justine. For this transliteration of one-fourth of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, Goldsmith contributed a vivid, enticing, spirited score in which sitar, auto harp and recorder, added to the already rich orchestral palette, evoke eroticism, exoticism and terror equally, and equally well.

At the very beginning of the next decade Jerry Goldsmith would not necessarily become a household name, but he would compose a single theme that very quickly achieved nearly universal identification, instantly reminding listeners of that film, its star, and the movie’s towering, contradictory real-life subject…

*Most so-called film critics, who know as little about music as they do about acting, direction, cinematography, literature, history or any of the other, myriad aspects that go into making the art, seldom single Goldsmith out for praise. Or, if they do, as did John Simon in his review of the 1974 Chinatown, may be capable, as Simon was a scant two years later in a critique of The Omen, of referring to “that pretentious hack Jerry Goldsmith.” He’s done this sort of thing repeatedly in his criticism, to the point where I wonder if Simon, whom I admire in spite of his more than occasional ugliness, has a peculiarly selective memory.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

 

 

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The native eloquence of the fog people: Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962)

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From my Playwright at Liberty blog.

Playwright at Liberty

By critical consensus at least, Long Day’s Journey into Night ranks as the Great American Play. But one needn’t necessarily be a critic, or susceptible to the official canon, to attain reverence for Eugene O’Neill’s ultimate (in both senses of the word) cride-couer. One need only see, or read, it.

The poster for the 1956 American premiere. The poster for the 1956 American premiere.

Autobiography abounds in our native theatre, of course, whether by hint or inference (Neil Simon’s Come Blow Your Horn and Jake’s Women and Lanford Wilson’s Yellow Sky and all of Tennessee Williams’ great works, for example, or even some of Larry Hart’s and Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics) or through near-documentary (Simon’s Chapter Two, his alliterative and O’Neill-inspired — at least in name — “Eugene” trilogy and the superb Lost in Yonkers, Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart.) Seldom, however, has an American playwright drawn so extensively on his own past…

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End of the Line Cafés: “The Iceman Cometh” (1960/1973)

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A comparison of two “Iceman Cometh” films. From my “Playwright at Liberty” blog.

Playwright at Liberty

icemancometh1960 hirshcfeld The 1960 television “The Iceman Cometh” as seen by Al Hirschfeld. Left to right: Hilda Brawner, Myron McCormick, Jason Robards and Julie Bovasso.

If, as I believe, Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night is the great American play, his The IcemanCometh vies with very few fellow contenders (The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Lanford Wilson’s Fifth of July, Angels in America) for a most respectable second place.

Fifth of July is an odd contestant, I admit, in that is it far less well known than the others — although Lawrence Kasden obviously knew Wilson’s play well enough to rip it off for his infinitely more superficial and less plangent movie The Big Chill — and is very much a personal choice. Nearly all American playwrights of any standing used to cite Chekhov as among their greatest influences, if not…

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A dirty shade of gray: “Testimony” (1988)

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“For some reason, people think that music must tell us only about the pinnacles of the human spirit, or at least about highly romantic villains. Most people are average, neither black nor white. They’re gray. A dirty shade of gray. And it’s in that vague gray middle ground that the fundamental conflicts of our age take place.” — Dmitri Shostakovich (Attributed, in the still-disputed 1979 memoir Testimony, edited by Solomon Volkov)

By Scott Ross

Thankfully, the Tony Palmer/David Rudkin film of Testimony is not notably gray, at least in its visual tone. In Nic Knowland’s sumptuous cinematography, it is for the most part brilliantly, adamantly, gloriously black-and-white. I doubt there had been a more strikingly lit and photographed monochromatic movie, at the time of Testimony‘s late ’80s release, since Gordon Willis’ rapturous work on Manhattan nine years earlier. The film is also, despite some longueurs and a smattering of symbolic pretension, as strikingly and exhilaratingly cinematic as the best work of Orson Welles and Martin Scorsese.

I first saw Testimony on PBS in the spring of 1990 and was so taken with it I watched it over again when it was repeated a few days later. Seeing it a third time I am fully persuaded that, if not the finest attempt to explicate that essentially unknowable enigma we call the artistic temperament, it is certainly among the tiny minority of victors in the field. What it is not is in any way a standard, or even atypical, example of that almost entirely useless stock entity, the “biopic.” In my immediate experience as a moviegoer only Warren Beatty’s Reds and Scorsese and John Logan’s The Aviator truly broke out of that mold, even if the latter expunged the bisexuality of Howard Hughes and the former both obliterated John Reed’s similar eroticism and overdid the deathless heterosexual romance. Nor is Reds incidental to Testimony: In Reds the Revolution first inspires excitement then dismantles it as the Socialist dream crumbles in internecine sectarianism and totalitarianist brutality. In Testimony there is no passionate optimism; the dream has already soured to a waking nightmare.

Testimony is impressionistic, fractured and superbly aligned to the music of its subject, in a sense approximating its rhythms in optic-dramatic terms. What is also, unavoidably and understandably, black and white, are the crushing, homicidal Soviet system that encompassed the arc of Shostakovich’s life and career, and the chilling understatement of Terence Rigby’s Stalin, who more than represents it. Ben Kinglsey’s Dmitri sees his friends and neighbors disappear — or rather, doesn’t — with a hideous regularity and his own position as the primary composer of Soviet Socialism grandly raised and debilitatingly stymied depending on official whim and pleasure. That we never see Stalin give the order is incidental, and implicit; nothing that happened to Uncle Joe’s favorite composer, good or bad, could have without that direct order.

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Although Palmer and Rudkin (who wrote the bracingly intelligent screenplay) eschew the overt depiction of bloodshed — Stalin was responsible for upward of 30 million murders of Russian citizens, effectively making Hitler a piker — the threat of it is seldom far from the surface, both in our minds and in the composer’s. Kingsley’s understated and ironic posthumous voice-overs fill in a few details, such as the arrest and execution of Vsevolof Meyerhold (Robert Stephens) and of the official purging of his great friend Mikhail Tukhachevsky (Ronald Pickup) and his seeming detachment, coupled with an incisive visual or two, chills the blood far more effectively than would the display of viscera. Indeed, the movie’s most terrifying moment consists of a static shot of a lighted window and the retraction of all other sound as Shostakovich describes the murder of Meyerhold’s wife, her screams as her eyes are cut out by the knives of her sanctioned killers deliberately silenced just as they were undoubtedly heard but assiduously ignored by her neighbors, waiting in hushed terror for the midnight knock on their own apartment doors. The only exception to this assiduous avoidance of violence is Palmer’s use of documentary footage of Holocaust dead late in the movie, and that is as it should be: No depiction of screen violence, however realistic, could quite compare to that appalling reality, and might only seem obscenely trivial by contrast.

Testimony piano

Palmer’s framing is uncannily apt throughout and his long, involved tracking shots are not mere technical ostentation. They capture the composer’s resolute, practiced treks through the grubby mazes of Soviet bureaucracy, accompanied, always, by perfectly selected excerpts from Shoshtakovich’s oeuvre. The director, who also edited, seems to have shot Testimony to music rather than the usual, reverse, post-production practice. (The score was performed by the London Philharmonic and conducted by Rudolf Barsha, occasionally on-camera, and in color.) There are a few surreal moments, such as the composer playing a bizarrely Constructivist piano, and while these flights of fancy occasionally feel oppressively symbolic, they are less important than Shostakovich’s own fluctuating fortunes and ultimate survival of the Stalinist regime.

What Testimony gets absolutely right, in concept, design, production and in Kingsley’s magnificent performance, is the everyday horror of a system that murders its citizens as effectively with words as with knives. The long central sequence of the official 1948 denunciation of Shostakovich and others by that dangerous and self-important ignoramus Zhdanov (John Shrapnel) and the composer’s own shamefaced and public self-censure, depicted on the movie’s poster, is perhaps the finest explication of helpless artistic degradation in Western movie history. The later, stomach-churning scene of Shostakovich’s squirming equivocation in America, then, is, despite its effectiveness, almost anticlimactic: The dirty gray death of his soul has already been accomplished; the rest is just the body’s discomfort at still going on.

Ben Kinglsey as Dmitri Shoshtakovich.

Ben Kinglsey as Dmitri Shoshtakovich.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

“New Faces” (Or: I wish I was in Hell with my back broken)

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By Scott Ross

I finally sat down this week with the Critics Choice DVD release of New Faces, the 1954 CinemaScope movie of the popular Leonard Sillman revue New Faces of 1952. I may never recover. To paraphrase Churchill rather horribly, seldom have so many done so much to so little effect.

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Hirschfeld captures “New Faces.” Looks like a fun show, doesn’t it? Well, looks can be deceiving.

Jimmy Thiem in

Jimmy Thiem in “The Little Foxes” at Raleigh Little Theatre in 1952. He looked very much the same when I knew him, between 1979 and 1990.

I was introduced to the cast recording in my late teens or early 20s by my friend Jimmy Thiem, who has, I am sorry to say, since joined the majority. Jimmy, who before I met him owned a much-loved record shop (ask your grandparents) in Raleigh, was my guide to many of the older Broadway musicals. I knew the big ones, of course, or at least knew of them. Jimmy filled in the gaps. (I owe him especially for sharing Finian’s Rainbow, thus making me a lifelong convert to The Church of Yip Harburg and Burton Lane, and for The Most Happy Fella.) He was mad about New Faces, so I dutifully picked up a copy. I wish I could have told Jimmy I liked it as much as he did, but the fact was it left me underwhelmed.

New Faces

I liked some of the songs, was indifferent to most of them, and loathed more than a couple. It may have been one of those cases of “You had to be there,” but the talent behind the show, and on the stage (and the LP) was in many ways remarkable for their collective staying power, and for what they would achieve in the future: Sheldon Harnick, Mel(vin) Brooks, Paul Lynde, Alice Ghostley, Carol Lawrence, Ronny Graham and the (there’s no other word for her, sorry) fabulous Eartha Kitt.

Oh, yeah. And Robert Clary. More on him anon.

Eartha Kitt

Many of the songs must have seemed old hat to a lot of people even then. Some of them have pretty tunes, especially those by Arthur Siegel, later known to a generation of musical aficionados for his collaborations with the very strange Ben Bagley on the latter’s often risible “Revisited” series. But the lyrics nearly always let you down. Siegel’s “Love is a Simple Thing” (lyrics by June Carroll) has, initially, a pleasing rhyme-scheme, perhaps a little too reminiscent of Hugh Martin’s “Love” for comfort, but the words, like the tune, trail off into nothingness. “Time for Tea” contains a nice idea — two elderly spinsters caution the listener not to miss the opportunity for happiness — and then galumphs along in a seemingly endless flash-back until you’re ready to cry, “Enough!” Or take “Penny Candy”: Again, a plangent idea (the little ache of longing we feel for childhood pleasures) and an interesting composition, both of which get mired in ennui, especially when the hopelessly trivial dialogue interrupts. Only Siegel’s “Monotnous,” performed with exquisitely bored eroticism by Kitt, really works. Not that its lyrics are as clever as they might be, nor the music as ineluctably soignée as it thinks it is. It begins to sound too much like cast-off Cole Porter, although he’s far from a bad target at which to aim your artistic sights. Michael Brown’s hoe-down “Lizzie Borden” likewise exudes a whiff of must; Tom Lehrer would do this sort of thing much better, and with infinitely greater wit, a couple of years later.

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The great Alice Ghostley in full cry.

Of the ballads, only Murray Grand’s gently sardonic “Guess Who I Saw Today?” stands out. But the show’s best number, by far, is Harnick’s deliciously wry “Boston Beguine.” My affection for the number, a riotously, rapturously absurd paean to doomed romance, is not mere 20/20 hindsight. Here, composer/lyricist and performer meet in one of those rare confluences of enormous talent, even — dare I say? — genius that both promises a golden future and is giddily superb on its own. What makes the number treasurable, aside from Ghostley’s unerring comic touch and sparkling lyric soprano, is Harnick’s playful intelligence. He alone saw something potentially funny in the very nature of the beguine itself, and his juxtaposition of that slightly studied passion with a set of lyrics bemoaning the incongruously hilarious setting (“We went to the Casbah/That’s an Irish bar there/The underground hideout/Of the D.A.R. there…”) is, even this early in his career, masterly. I’d hate to have to been the poor schmucks who had to follow that one.

Now to the movie. And abandon hope, all ye who enter there.

New Faces poster

I won’t dignify the alleged director of this indigestible mulligatawny by mentioning his name. Trust me, you’ve never heard of him. Although New Faces is essentially a filmed performance, albeit sans audience, someone had the (to him, I presume, brilliant, but actually thrice-baked) notion of setting off the numbers with a loathsome, idiotic “backstage” framing story and, having had it, resolutely stuck to the damn thing. Perhaps it was felt that a movie audience wouldn’t accept a filmed revue without some narrative, however tenuous or anemic. That’s no excuse. But there is worse, far worse, to come: He, or they, also built up Robert Clary as if he was France’s answer to Sinatra and Jerry Lewis, all in one foul, diminutive package.

June Carroll’s restrained and knowing rendition of “Guess Who I Saw Today” got the ax, but considering the overall cloddish conception and the inept manner in which the movie was shot, that may have been a blessing for her, and for her composer. Infinitely more appalling is the way Ghostley’s “Boston Beguine” is completely ruined by long cutaway shots to Clary, made up as a teenager (or perhaps a little boy, who can tell?) lying on the grass of what I assume is Boston Common and making a complete cul of himself. I can’t begin to imagine how Ghostley felt when she saw the results, but for me, it is one of the gravest crimes against decency, wit, and performance in the entire history of the movie musical. And that includes the Village People. And El Brendel.

Ghostley and Clary at the recording session. Presumably she's picking nits; Lord knows he behaves as if he's feral.

Ghostley and Clary at the recording session. Presumably she’s picking nits; he certainly BEHAVES as though he’s feral.

Clary is nearly beyond human endurance throughout. He mugs to the furthest balcony, hurls every over-sold emotion and steel-belted note like a berserk Al Jolson, scampers and grimaces and poses and flits about adorably until you want to throttle him, and generally shows off what we have to assume is his thorough (and utterly misguided) inner conviction of his own adorableness. God knows the French did themselves no favors by embracing Lewis, but even they did not deserve Robert Clary. Ronny Graham is almost as obnoxious, especially in his inane and lugubrious commingling of Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote (whose name Virginia De Luce mangles as “Ka-pote.”) Graham just skirts parity with Clary in the insufferability sweepstakes, but only because he gets less screen time.

Blessedly, Kitt gets to perform “C’est si bon” and Francis Lemarque’s “Bal Petit Bal,” and to commit her ineffable rendition of Phil Springer’s “Santa Baby” (added to the show late in its run) to celluloid. But her delectable version of “Monotonous” is, like “Beguine,” sabotaged by an abrupt cut to that leaden backstage story, just as it builds to its climax. When your director is intent on killing your performance, not even the most brilliant singer/comedian can triumph.

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Even an inveterate Paul Lynde fan such as myself finds slim (or is it overfed?) pickings here. Lynde’s African monologue was familiar to me from his early live album of uniformly gruesome, would-be black-comic sketches that, taken on their own, make me wonder how the hell he ever got to be a household name. The nasty tone toward, and the xenophobic ugliness about, Africans makes this one of those artifacts one watches with a numbing dread, and the Brooks-written spoof of Clifford Odets and Arthur Miller, unfunny in itself, is made fully unpalatable by Lynde’s staggeringly inapt over-acting. Brooks himself might have actually been subtler. (Although I doubt even he could have made the joke funny.)

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The print on the Critics Choice disc is as atrocious as the content, the color faded and, occasionally, flashing from a saturated yellow to a weird pea green every few seconds. I gather the later VCI Entertainment DVD’s print is no better. But even if it were, it would take a desperation for entertainment bordering on the suicidal for me to sit through this melange of witless excess (in which even the redoubtable Richard Barstow contributes dances of yawn-inducing, style-less obviousness and for which Raoul Pene Du Bois could not conjure up more than a series of threadbare and moldy “sets”) ever, ever again.

I don’t know the precise answer to the ages-old question of what killed entertainment, but this movie surely had a hand in its demise. I wouldn’t be surprised to discover it carried Plague.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

That sinking feeling: Waiting for the epithet (Or, “Frickin’ Faggot!”)

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By Scott Ross

In my 1930s Hollywood play The Dogs of Foo, the character Paul Lehrmann, based slightly on George Cukor, confronts his leading actress on the set of the movie they’re shooting. She’s just ordered Paul’s young assistant, whom she suspects, quite accurately, is also his lover, to carry a note for her. Paul steps in, reminding his star that “Johnny takes orders from me, Lita, not from you.”

“And what else does he take from you?” She snaps back. “Dick-tation?”

PAUL: Sooner or later, it always comes out, doesn’t it?

LITA: Paulie—

PAUL: Who needs vino for veritas?

LITA: I didn’t mean it, Paulie. I’m upset, I’m sorry.

PAUL: They always are—after they’ve said it. Never before, never during, but always, always after.

If you, as they say when pussyfooting, happen to be gay, much of your entertainment life is spent waiting for that insidious other shoe to drop. Especially if, as I do, you enjoy reading old novels and perusing old movies.

(For the purposes of this essay, let us define “old” not as a month or two ago, or however long it now takes the average American to forget, or lose interest, in, anything, but as from, say, the early 1980s backward. Although as late as 2003, in The Frumious Bandersnatch, Ed McBain rather gratuitously, and falsely, has a young singer think the phrase “Frickin’ faggot” toward her music-video dance partner when, asked by her how she looks in her fantasy get-up, has the faggoty effrontery to reply, “Hot!”)

No matter how sterling the qualities of the people involved, or how identifiably “liberal” they may be, sooner or later the reader or viewer of an older novel or movie written or directed by someone he or she admires is going to be hit with one of the many lurking epithets. Faggot. Queer. Sissy. Nance. Or, in the 1956 Ed McBain 87th Precinct installment The Mugger I began reading as I was pondering this very subject, “pansy.” (“Faggot” shows up a few pages later. Why? Because the eponymous felon has the odd habit, after assaulting and robbing his female victims, of bowing from the waist and saying, “Clifford thanks you, madam.” It isn’t merely the strangeness of this post-violation ritual that elicits so much speculation concerning his sexuality but his very name. Clifford. Faggoty, right? A real man would presumably call himself “Cliff.”)

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Sometimes it isn’t the words themselves that you anticipate with dread but the characters, usually, although not always, peripheral. Yesterday afternoon I watched, with a good friend, the 1965 movie of Edward Lewis’ The Pawnbroker. We were both somewhat flabbergasted by the unspoken allusions to queerdom in the film, and the inescapable sense we both had of a strange, coded homophobia in the undercurrent. First: The character of Rodriguez, the studiedly elegant gangster for whom Rod Steiger’s Shoah-haunted broker, Sol Nazerman, acts as a money-launderer. (Although he bears a Latin surname, the character is played by the unmistakably, and I think beautifully, African-looking Brock Peters. But let that pass…) In Rodriguez’s first on-screen appearance, we see him waited upon by a young blond man. At the climax of his second, a pivotal scene in which he cajoles, threatens and humiliates Nazerman the young white man again appears and climbs the staircase of Rodriguez’ large and well-appointed apartment. Rodriguez trails him up the steps, in what to our rather dazed eyes could only be an indication that the pair is ascending to the bedroom.

Second: The aging, heavily-set and curiously undulating dancer at the club Nazerman’s assistant (Jaime Sánchez) goes to with his black girlfriend (Thelma Oliver) and who is revealed at the end of her set to be a drag-queen. Third: Among the many Harlem regulars who appear in Nazerman’s shop hoping to barter furnishings and personal items to make their untenable present just a jot less desperate is a man of indeterminate age (he might be anywhere from 30 to 50) who brings in, first, an award he won from a field of (he says) 22,000 entrants and, later, a pair of bronzed baby shoes we can only assume are his own. Although neither this character nor the un-credited actor who plays him exactly screams “Fag!” I suspect it would take a veritable social hermit to miss the implications. And at least, unlike Rodriguez, this sad, defeated specimen of lower-depths humanity is not a threat, and in his touching hopefulness at the prospect of digging out yet one small turnip from a diminishing store to sustain his otherwise hopeless existence, he is no different from the lonely, intellectual and prating elderly gentleman played the great Juano Hernandez who comes to Nazerman’s pawnshop less to scare up a few pfennigs than to connect, however tenuously, with another human being. Or, indeed from any of Sol’s downtrodden regulars.

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Which brings us to the fourth, and by far most disturbing, example of the seamy homo underground of The Pawnbroker. Sánchez decides to kick over Nazerman’s safe and enlists the aid of an old associate (Raymond St. Jacques.) The night before the theft we are given a glimpse of St. Jacques’ hoodlum pal, played by the instantly identifiable, flat-nosed Charles Dierkop, playing with his pistol while thumbing through what in those antediluvian days, and to avoid legal entanglements with the U.S. Postal Service, were called “male physique” magazines. Did I mention he’s holding an obvious penis substitute, in this case a harmonica, in his mouth?

What was Lumet thinking? What, if these elements also make a showing in the novel, was Lewis? What the hell was everyone on???

Anent The Pawnbroker: Both St. Jacques and Peters were themselves gay. (Although St. Jacques, notably closeted and ultimately a victim of AIDS, legally adopted his younger lover.) One wonders how they felt about all this. Especially as, at that time, being both black and actors was more than marginalization enough for one lifetime.

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Last winter I undertook a novel I’d long avoided, by one of the favorite writers of my youth: WIlliam Goldman’s Boys and Girls Together. While the author, interestingly, depicts only two heterosexual relationships among his quartet of main characters, and while none of these liaisons can in any reasonable way be called ideal (and while none of the boys or girls a model of probity or psychic wellness) it is to the novel’s gay characters that the worst degradation accrues. In the preface to a recent reissue, Goldman admitted he’d done badly by them. But short of wholesale revision of the kind no author would wish to undertake, and certainly not in his 70s, I don’t see how even a writer of Goldman’s imagination could undo the damage. I  do know I could have lived the rest of my life happily without reading that final chapter about Aaron. As it is, I doubt now I’ll ever be able to block out its deeply unpleasant memory.

Goldman is interesting in that his subsequent book on the Broadway scene, The Season, constitutes one of the few important cases of the time (1968) of a heterosexual writer seriously considering the case of gay playwrights, the subterfuge they felt it necessary to indulge in at least as far as their work was concerned, and the prevailing pop culture of what Goldman would not have known to call heterosexism that surrounded them. Goldman’s was one of the rare calls for openness in that period, so I’m not singling him out for approbation. But for a man who (with his gifted brother James) was a one-time musical theatre librettist and a long-time Hollywood fixture and who, presumably, both knew and worked with any number of homosexual men to get an entire book of queer characters so wrong is telling.

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It can be a relief of nearly cataclysmic proportions when, in the middle of a popular novel of even recent antiquity, one encounters the slightest positive portrayal. In the late James Clavell’s series of Eastern novels (Shogun, Tai-Pan, Gai-Jin etc.) the reader runs across homosexual characters with fair regularity and, while the Westerners in the books may express disgust or derision, their Oriental counterparts accept the difference without even a shrug. One learns, after painful experience, to look (and feel disproportionately grateful) for the little things. In, for example, the decidedly heterosexual The Seven Year Itch, George Axelrod and Billy Wilder have Marilyn Monroe casually mention the two men who live upstairs from her. They’re interior decorators, and never seen (making them even more invisible than the then most visible homo of the period, the faceless Sebastian Venable in Suddenly, Last Summer) and while their profession is certainly a coded inference of their being a couple of fags, at least they’re mentioned. A year later Sal Mineo would create what is arguably the first important gay character in a mainstream movie, the doomed Plato of the gay Stewart Stern and the bisexual Nicholas Ray’s influential Rebel without a Cause, but again you have to pay fairly close attention. (Note the Alan Ladd pin-up in his high school locker.) And since he’s only the queer-boy, Plato’s violent death isn’t even properly mourned in that overrated potboiler’s ludicrous finale (“Mom, Dad… This is Judy…”)

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While some very good authors (Ross MacDonald in his Lew Archer novels, for one) toss fags into the mix as an especially unsavory element of their rot-gut ragouts, others, such as Raymond Chandler, seem to be working out more something personal, if coded to the point of the subliminal. Chandler was no friend to the faggot, yet one of his most deeply felt Philip Marlowe novels (The Long Goodbye) seems to hinge on Marlowe’s homoerotic friendship with Terry Lennox. They damn near meet-cute, and there is virtually no reason for their instant liking of each other beyond the physical. Yet I feel sure that, like the man who made the best extant movie of one of his books, Chandler (or Marlowe, anyway) would have presented a knuckle-sandwich to anyone who suggested such a thing, just as Howard Hawks was known to dismiss film critics who commented on the nearly incessant, and occasionally risible, instances of intense male friendship in his movies. (The infamous scene of John Ireland and Montgomery Clift comparing pistols in Red River springs instantly to mind, and the entire, and central, Clift/John Wayne antagonism in that movie seems, pretty clearly, a sublimation of unspoken erotic and emotional desire.)

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A friend recently asked me if I found the gay characters in The Maltese Falcon offensive. I replied that, at least as far as the movie was concerned, I was more amused than anything else. It tickles me that, in 1940, John Huston (and in his debut as a writer-director, no less) actually got away with a supporting cast made up entirely of fairies: The lavender-scented Joel Cairo, the garrulous Caspar Gutman and, not incidentally, The Fat Man’s catamite, Wilmur. It amuses me as well, as it did my friend, that so many ignoramuses have assumed the word “gunsel” was street patois for “cheap, gun-toting young hood,” and that it has come to mean that, when in fact it refers to a kept-boy: The passive partner in anal intercourse. Sam Spade knew it, and so did Wilmur; it’s why Wilmur gets so angry whenever Spade refers to him by that name. And as one who enjoys every subterfuge smart filmmakers used in those dread days of official (and Catholic-driven) censorship, my delight when someone like Huston could pull the wool over the Breen Office’s eyes — busily gyrating as they were for any moist sign of immorality — far outweighs my sense of hurt.

But I appear to have wandered far afield. My point is that every gay reader, or viewer, knows, and dreads, that moment when a writer he admires or a movie he’s enjoying, turns against him. And turns in a more deeply unsettling way than against nearly any reader or viewer aside from women, who, unless they’re brain and/or soul-dead, or have otherwise inured themselves to insult, know that sinking sensation all too well. That soul-chilling moment when they do it to you again. That nano-second when you sense it coming, and cringe in advance, and hope against all hope that your instincts will be proven wrong. That stomach-churning moment when a writer or filmmaker instantaneously devolves from your erudite companion to your sudden, and very possibly lifelong, nemesis. And, unlike the actress in my play, they’re never in the least sorry for it afterward. As Paul Lehrmann asks, and answers, at the end of The Dogs of Foo, “Do you know the Hollywood definition of a faggot? A homosexual gentleman who’s just left the room.”

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

Janus or Pluto?: (Some more) theatre on video and film

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From my Playwright at Liberty blog

Playwright at Liberty

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When I first heard that Mel Brooks’ wildly uneven but utterly original 1968 comedy The Producers was being developed as a stage musical. my heart sank. Another adaptation of a movie? This was only in 2000, remember, long before the mad rush to plaster the entirety of Broadway with pre-sold movie titles and “jukebox” shows, yet the trend had already planted its pernicious roots, due largely to the flowering of Michael Eisner’s beloved “synergy”: Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King. It now routinely requires two dozen named producers to mount the average musical in New York; a movie company can spend and spend (and spend) in the theatre, and its investment will still be, comparatively, minimal, even relatively painless.

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My apprehension for this particular show was largely alleviated when I discovered that Brooks himself was writing the score, and co-authoring the book. Since Brooks has written delicious songs for most of his movies (including of course…

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