What matters more: “Casualties of War” (1989)

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By Scott Ross

During the late 1980s I was writing so many newspaper movie reviews that, if I wasn’t assigned a picture by my editor, chances were good I’d miss seeing it. That was the case when Casualties of War was released, although I also recall being leery of it for another reason: Michael J. Fox.

I was always aware of Fox’s talent, but his perpetual smirk was annoying; it suggested an un-earned smugness that was there even to a degree in his otherwise pleasant performance in Back to the Future. And although he’d been quite good with Joan Jett in a middling Paul Schrader drama called Light of Day (1987) I still couldn’t take him terribly seriously, due in part to his choices: When Fox appeared in a How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying knock-off called The Secret of My Success (also 1987) the critic David Denby found him too immature to be considered a heavyweight, comparing him to something made from a chemical synthetic. Fox, he wrote, was “miscast as a movie star. Tiny, hairless and smooth, with an unnervingly placid face — the face of a wizened child — Fox looks like he’s been dipped in polyurethane. If you spilled something on him, he would wipe clean.” My college roommate was outraged by the Sunday New York Times ad for Casualties of War, reproducing the poster with its bold proclamation of the actors’ surnames over the title; he couldn’t believe Fox was being given that sort of billing, as if he was Brando.

Casualties of War - Michael J. Fox resized

I finally sat down with the picture, after first reading Daniel Lang’s October, 1969 account in The New Yorker of what later became known as the Hill 192 Incident. It’s in the form of a long interview with the young man Lang called “Sven Eriksson” (known as Max Eriksson in the movie, and played — as it turns out, splendidly — by Fox) and is a relatively straightforward narrative of the abduction, gang-rape and brutal murder by four American squad members of a 21-year old Vietnamese village girl named Phan Thi Mao and the guilt feelings of “Eriksson” (real name: Robert M. Storeby) who refused to participate in Mao’s brutalization, in not being able to save her. It’s a quietly devastating portrait, with no embellishment — the sort of investigative journalism now seemingly lost forever in the age of corporate news  with its deliberate obfuscation and government-sponsored lies about world events. This is entirely relevant to the movie, because what’s good in it is real and comes directly from Lang’s piece; what’s bad is what Brian De Palma and the screenwriter David Rabe made up, out of whole cloth and old movie clichés.

The poor things in Casualties of War don’t sink the movie, though — the basic material, and De Palma’s depiction of it, are too strong for that. The horror of what is done to Mao, and the hideous reality of Eriksson’s impotence, are so powerful that, coupled with the terrible intensity of the Vietnam experience itself, they buoy up and tide you over the weak spots. And by “weak” I don’t mean inert, merely overstated. Too much is done to “explain” why the soldiers are prepared to rape and torture Mao when a lack of reason is what made the incident so appalling.

Casualties - Brian DePalma and Thuy Thu Le resized

Brian DePalma and Thuy Thu Le

I don’t know how much Rabe was responsible for these lapses, how much was De Palma’s fault and how much blame can be laid on interference by the studio (Columbia) that produced the picture — and which has to be given credit for taking on, and financing, such difficult material — but the purely narrative missteps begin immediately, with a night-action in which Eriksson falls through the ground after an explosion and is stuck above a Viet Cong cave tunnel, his legs dangling helplessly as a V.C. soldier crawls toward him with a knife. The sequence itself is superbly crafted: De Palma built the open anthill-like cave below the ground on which he shot, and was able to move his camera from Fox down into the tunnel itself in one smooth, disorienting and frightening crane-shot, giving the sequence a visceral terror cutting alone probably couldn’t have accomplished. (Today it would be done with computers, and would be entirely unimpressive.) But when Penn as the young sergeant Meserve saves Ericksson’s life it unbalances the story; it makes Eriksson indebted to Meserve, adding an unnecessary inhibitor to Erikkson’s later inability to act for the girl. If this was fiction, I not only wouldn’t have minded, I would have responded wholeheartedly, because De Palma’s control of such material is magisterial. In any other movie, these sequences would be perfect. It’s only the deviation from reality that is offensive.

As if that wasn’t enough, the filmmakers invent a hip black soldier called “Brownie” (Erik King) who is, in a moment that is simultaneously shocking — and, occurring as it does immediately after, relaxed and expansive, with his arm around Penn he’s just announced that he’s “an armor-plated motherfucker,” expected — is raked with machine-gun fire. A part of the shock is the suddenness of the violence; the other is the way blood from the squibs on the actor’s body explodes across the lens. But the moment you recover you realize you’ve been played, and in the worst, war-movie genre tradition. Worse, Brownie’s death becomes the precipitating incident that turns Meserve into a calculating psychopath; the soldiers believe, not without reason, that the villagers have betrayed them to the Viet Cong. That they might have been forced to do so does not mitigate the collective guilt of the Vietnamese for Meserve, and the sequence as a whole rings false in a way the remainder of the picture, which hews more or less to the facts, largely doesn’t. Brownie’s shooting is the stuff of hack-work. It’s dramatically anemic and utterly unnecessary: Meserve is 30 days from his service discharge, and everything he’s experienced, and done, however elliptical it might seem to a viewer, is what really motivates him, something an audience could have understood intuitively, without narrative prodding.

The filmmakers were in a lather to make Meserve’s acts explicable, when his incentives are entirely incidental to the later action. He doesn’t need the killing of his best friend in Vietnam as a motivating factor. Young men, and those not so young, commit atrocities in war, and showing a “last straw” event like Brownie’s shooting insults our intelligence as well as bringing dishonor to Eriksson’s story. The renaming, and (in some cases, re-ethnicizing) of the soldiers in the squad, whom Lang in his New Yorker piece had already anonymized, performs a further distancing, so that they become pretty much fictional. Maybe that’s what led Rabe and De Palma to treat them as characters rather than people, but I think it does a disservice to what happened, and diminishes Eriksson’s very real anguish. And this, like Eriksson being targeted by the most unhinged of the squad with a grenade in the latrine after he’s made his report, mitigates the indefinite terror of the real story; Eriksson had a near-miss soon after reporting the squad members for rape and murder, and it was just ambiguous enough it could have been accidental, although it almost certainly wasn’t. I find it interesting that Pauline Kael, who had been unforgiving about Oliver Stone’s Platoon a couple of years earlier, and who was familiar with Lang’s original New Yorker story, fell for the movie clichés in Casualties of War. “The movie crowds you,” she wrote of Platoon; “it doesn’t leave you room for an honest emotion.” What about honest execution? But then, De Palma was a pet of hers, Stone wasn’t, and she sometimes praised in her pets that which she, quite correctly, had no patience for in others.

Meserve (real name: David Edward Gervase) told his squad, in Eriksson’s words, “that we would get the woman for the purpose of boom-boom, or sexual intercourse, and at the end of five days we would kill her,” and that it would be “good for the morale of the squad.” Why Gervase/Meserve made his plan is almost irrelevant. What matters more is that, while none of the soldiers initially took him seriously, only Eriksson refused to go along. Of the rest only one, Steven Cabbot Thomas (known in the movie as Corporal Thomas Clark and played by Don Patrick Harvey with a glimpse of psychopathy chilling in its grinning obviousness) had as much time in-country as Gervase. What were the others’ excuses for succumbing to savagery? They didn’t all have their best friends shot right next to them… which, as I’ve pointed out, didn’t happen anyway; but if as a filmmaker you think you have to justify the actions, however mad, of one character, then you have to motivate the others too. The remaining two squad members were Latino, and cousins, and I suppose I can understand why the creative team made only one of them Hispanic, even if I disapprove of their obscuring the facts.

Kael was correct, however, to decry the way Eriksson, introspective and articulate in Lang’s account, was made in the movie to be so much less relatively literate. As an actor, Fox seems better equipped to play the Eriksson of Lang’s article than he does reciting the double negatives the movie saddles him with such as, “I ain’t gonna rape nobody!” But where Kael chalked this showy democratizing of the character up to Rabe, and to his being a playwright opting for theatrical stylization, I don’t see why we should assume it was the screenwriter’s doing; there are a whole lot of people in movies who stand between a script and a finished product, including not only the suits, and the directors, but the actors themselves.

Casualties of War - Fox, Thuy Thu Le and Penn

Fox, Thuy and Penn before the rape

Once the squad moves out into their deployment, and departs from its planned route, De Palma and Rabe seldom make a misstep — at least until the last 20 minutes or so, and setting Sean Penn’s bug-eyed-crazy performance aside (no easy task.) As Eriksson becomes more and more estranged from the others who, with the exception of Pfc Antonio Dìaz (John Leguizamo) are eager to begin brutalizing the girl, Pfc Hatcher (a young John C. Reilly) even crows that Merserve’s plan bears comparison to the more spontaneous atrocities of a Genghis Khan; to him, Eriksson is the “sick” one for not wanting to rape and pillage. And when Meserve taunts Eriksson, all too predictably, with macho allegations that he must be “a faggot” for not wanting to rape a girl it’s horribly like the junior high locker-room all over again, except that this time it’s a matter of life and death — of soundness of mind and insanity.

The abduction sequence, staged and enacted like a nighttime reconnaissance mission, has a creepiness that suggests a panty-raid gone wrong, as Meserve shines his infra-red light on the villagers asleep in their huts, searching for a likely candidate. When she’s located, the silence is exploded and the cold-bloodedness of the act, as the abductee’s mother weeps hysterically and the scarf she holds out for her is stuffed into the girl’s mouth as a gag, is far more devastating than the usual anonymous bombing scene. Earlier, Brownie has cynically instructed Eriksson to say, casually, to any native, for whatever is done, “Sorry about that.” Now Eriksson tries to apologize, to anguished people who cannot understand him, or what is happening, or why, and all he can manage is an ineffectual, “I’m sorry.” Brownie was right, but for the wrong reason: It doesn’t matter what Eriksson says at that moment; he can’t stop the abduction, so an apology, even if he’d rendered it in Vietnamese, wouldn’t be heard, or understood.

The rape of the girl, here called Than Thi Oanh and played by an extraordinary Vietnamese actress called Thuy Thu Le, is both stark and discreet, each of the four acts played out on the right side of the screen, the soldiers backs to us as the girls screams, her cries of pain and anguish and outrage almost more than is bearable, for us and for Eriksson, who watches, unblinking, almost as self-punishment for his inability to protect her, as each of the squad members takes his turn with the girl. (Naïvely, Dìaz removes his shirt and trousers, as if he’s preparing to make love; none of the others can be bothered even to drop their pants for what they see, not as a terrified and brutalized human being, but only as their “whore”; they’d have been kinder to an actual prostitute.) Although the sequence is horrific, it’s in no way exploitative, the very thing so many routinely accused De Palma of being. The systematic manner in which the girl is taken, over and over, is bloodless — without passion, only design, which makes it doubly repellent.

Casualties 3 - Thuy Thu Le and Michael J Fox

Eriksson is left the following morning to guard the girl while the others in the squad move off to observe a nearby Viet Cong encampment; shocked by her condition, he attempts to clean her up and to comfort her, and it is in her reaction that Thuy Thu Le breaks the heart. The daughter of refugees from our dirtiest and most cynical war since the Philippines and before Iraq and Syria, Thuy may or may not have heard stories of her people’s brutalization by U.S. forces and have used them to fuel her acting in the picture. That’s an intangible, almost incidental, and suggesting she might have been drawing on what she knew does her a disservice because her performance is so raw and agonized it transcends mere acting. Thuy had to play the role entirely on her nerve endings, because from the moment she’s grabbed by Merserve and Clark, Oanh/Mao is necessarily either terrified, hysterical or weepy and numbly hurting. Eriksson had a moment with the girl earlier, after the long hike following her abduction and after she was made to carry a heavy pack, in which he cleaned the cut on her back. But her body posture — Thuy never entirely turns her back on Fox — revealed that she was incapable of fully trusting him, and why would she be? Here, he finally breaks through their barriers and determines to help her escape but, when he realizes that if he goes with her he will be deserting, and hesitates long enough for Clark to return to the hut and find them leaving, it feels, despite Eriksson’s logic, like the worst betrayal of all.

The horror doesn’t end there, of course; dragged back to the others, who are observing a surreptitious ammunitions exchange and reporting it in and who must now deal with the fact of Oanh’s existence. Although De Palma and Rabe made Eriksson more heroic (and, perhaps, foolhardy) at this moment than he was in reality, what’s blood-curdling about the action is the way Merserve orders the others to kill their victim. While it’s true that he’s the squad’s senior officer, his turning from one soldier to another to another and demanding each perform the act of murder, Merserve (as Gervase did during the actual event) is both shunting the final responsibility for death onto the others, perhaps for the sake of deniability, and, sadistically, forcing them to degrade themselves in committing perhaps the worst act one human being can perform against another. Yet even as Eriksson is attempting to subvert Oanh’s murder, Clark, behind him, is stabbing her repeatedly. And even then the atrocity goes on. Leaving Oanh for dead, Clark rejoins the squad, and behind them on the raised railway track on which they’re perched, she rises like (in Kael’s apt phrase) a “wounded apparition,” a bloody, silent, dying accusation. De Palma makes her death an act of violation far worse than the squad’s gang-rape of her, and her fall from the bridge becomes a hideous metaphor for the xenophobic genocide America visited on the Vietnamese, Northern and Southern, in a war that was set in motion, cynically, as early as 1945.* This climactic sequence (filmed in Thailand; the bridge was actually part of the River Kwai construction famously depicted in the David Lean movie) is, in a way, the flip-side of the earlier anthill scene, elevated where the tunnel sequence was subterranean, yet it feels completely organic; the symmetry is the furthest thing from studied.

Casualties 5 - Bridge

While I resent the filmmakers’ cluttering up of Eriksson’s history with invention, and (as Kael showed in her review) their translating the words he spoke to Lang with slow deliberation into sub-literacy, Rabe and De Palma kept the shape and central idea behind Eriksson’s words when, transplanting them to the theatre of war they have Fox say, “Everybody’s acting like we can do anything and it don’t matter what we do. Maybe we gotta be extra careful because maybe it matters more than we even know.” While, again, the “don’t”s and “gotta”s diminish Eriksson’s articulation, his essential thoughtfulness and decency shine through as brightly as his determination, in the face of official indifference, to pursue justice for Mao. Yet even here the filmmakers fluff things by having Eriksson made vulnerable (Storeby was transferred immediately), by presenting the courts martial of all four squad members as a single trial and letting Penn get close enough to Fox to whisper a threat into his ear.†

One the other hand, although I think the scene at the end, with the girl Fox sees on the bus at the beginning of the movie and which sends him into his sleeping reverie, is too neat, too symmetrical, I disagree entirely with Kael that it suggests a healing beginning to take place in Eriksson. The young woman (Thuy Thu Le in prosthetics, and dubbed by Amy Irving) asks him if he’s had a bad dream, and when he answers in the affirmative she adds, “It’s over now, I think.”

The dialogue may suggest a conventional, ameliorating finish. The lost look on Fox’s face, however, says otherwise. Eriksson’s bad dream not only isn’t over, it’s never going to be.


*See L. Fletcher Proutry’s excellent book JFK: The CIA, Vietnam, and the Plot to Assassinate John F. Kennedy for the single best, and most accurate and honest, short history of the war in Vietnam and the stark opportunism of the OSS that built and (later, as CIA) implemented it.

†As Eriksson was warned by superior officers and Army prosecutors beforehand, the men in the squad received severe sentences, which were then whittled away at until they became insultingly minor. Worse, Mao’s mother, desperate to recover her, was later taken by the Viet Cong as a traitor, as was her other daughter. As Storeby remarked to Lang, “we destroyed that family.”

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

More wonder’d at: Harold Prince (1928 – 2019)

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Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wonder’d at.
 — Prince Hal, 1 Henry IV (I, ii. 221)

By Scott Ross

When Harold S. Prince died in July, at 91, I have the feeling the general reaction among at least two generations who grew up with the effects of his genuinely revolutionary approach to musical theatre was a collective shrug… if they noticed at all. (He wasn’t making news just before he died, and with today’s collective 15-minute memory span, who knows?) Yet nearly everything they, and we, now take for granted, both as audience members and as creative and performing personnel, about the way musicals are staged, and about what their content is permitted to be, stems from Prince’s advances, and from those with whom he collaborated: Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, John Kander and Fred Ebb, Stephen Sondheim, Michael Bennett.

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Prince in the ’70s by Al Hirschfeld, glasses characteristically perched atop his dome.

Without Prince, the harder-edged musical play would have happened… but not nearly so soon. I say “musical play” as opposed to “musical comedy,” which encompasses everything from George M. Cohan to The Producers. The musical drama, pioneered by Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern with Show Boat (1927) and to a degree perfected by Hammerstein in his shows with Richard Rodgers (Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I) was, for all its innovations, unwilling, or incapable, of addressing harsh reality, or even satire; by the time of Oscar’s death, Rodgers & Hammerstein had become the old conservatives of their own movement: Murder, yes, and miscegenation… war and racism… even Nazis (although they don’t sing and dance; we have to wait until Mel Brooks for that). But these are easy to come out against; who’s for Nazis and murderers? On the other hand, it takes real intestinal fortitude to stage near-rapes, gang violence, pogroms, 1930s Reds, brownshirts menacing Jews, American incursion into Japan, serial killers and cannibalism, Fascist rallies, stories that run backwards, Nora after the door-slam, nelly queens and systemic prison abuse, and lynching. That is where Harold S. (“Hal”) Prince comes in, and why we owe him so very much. (Re-reading that last sentence, I am irresistibly reminded of Alan Bennett’s witty bon mot in Beyond the Fringe: “I go to the theatre to be entertained. I want to be taken out of myself. I don’t want to see lust and rape, incest and sodomy — I can get all that at home.”) He also left us in debt by making musicals more cinematic, less convention-bound even in the matter of the spaces between scenes. A Prince show moved, and what he called the “boring holdovers” of blackouts (except when effective dramatically) and “in one” transition bits played before the curtain while stagehands busily moved furniture behind it slowly disappeared. Here Robbins, with West Side Story, is the most important progenitor of a new mode of transit — “through-staging,” we might call it — but Prince, as one of the show’s producers, surely approved. Why should an audience be bored by the same things that bored the people who put the show together?

It seems impossible that he could have been born with the almost jokey-prosaic last name of Smith. Fortunately, his mother re-married a certain Mr. Prince. That was more like it. (I’ve always been rather nonplussed that no one in the press, when profiling Hal Prince and his innovations, saw the Shakespearean obvious: Just reverse the names.) Prince began his theatrical career as an assistant stage manager, then a stage manager, for George Abbott, eventually becoming, with Robert E. Griffith, Abbott’s producer. The first Prince/Griffith show, The Pajama Game (1954, score by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, choreography by Fosse, co-directed by Abbott and Robbins), was a massive hit. The team followed it up with Damn Yankees (1955, also Adler and Ross, with Abbott and Fosse), New Girl in Town (1957, Bob Merrill out of Eugene O’Neill, with dances by Fosse), Fiorello! (1959, Bock and Harnick, directed by Abbott) and Tenderloin (1960, ditto) with a break from Abbott for West Side Story in 1957. When Griffith died in 1961, Prince became a solo producer with the comedy Take Her, She’s Mine (1961) and when David Merrick walked away from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962, directed by Abbott, ghosted by Robbins) Prince stepped in, largely as a favor to the show’s composer and lyricist, Stephen Sondheim. In 1964, he had his greatest success until the late 1980s with Fiddler on the Roof (1964, staged by Robbins), which kept his production office going through any number of bad years and disappointing shows. Prince’s last musical purely as producer (1965’s Flora, The Red Menace) strikes one now — as indeed it struck many then — as a very tame affair. Although it was peripherally concerned with ’30s labor agitation, toward which “Mr. Abbott” was predictably cool, it boasted the first Kander and Ebb score and gave Liza Minnelli her first starring role, and defining number (“It’s a Quiet Thing.”)


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She Loves Me: Barbara Cook, Gino Conforti and Daniel Massey

The second phase of Prince’s career, overlapping the first, was as a producer and director, mostly of musicals: A Family Affair (1962, music by John Kander with lyrics by the librettists, James and William Goldman), the exquisite She Loves Me (1963, once more with Bock and Harnick), It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… It’s Superman (1966, score by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams). But it was his last show of 1966 that would mark the real turning point. Within (and without) a more or less square musicalization, not of Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin stories so much as the pale John Van Druten play made of them, lurked a striking, even frightening, political floorshow, a fierce, grinning Brechtian commentary on the action, and the disintegrating Weimar Republic, conducted by a grotesque little Master of Ceremonies, patent-leather hair parted in the center, rouge, mascara and lipstick splitting his clown-white face at strategic angles.

This character, no part of any previous iteration of the material, is pure, impure Prince; during his military service he’d seen, in a seedy Stuttgart nightclub, a dwarf M.C. made up exactly that way. The gorilla in a tutu the Master of Ceremonies sings to was likewise part of a dream Prince had during rehearsals, and which he got Kander and Ebb to musicalize. I am the furthest thing from a subscriber to auteurism, and as a one-time playwright my sympathies are naturally more attuned to the writers than to the vaunted “directocracy” (and now, it seems, “dramaturgic community”) that wants credit for everything done in a play or musical. But what Prince wrought with Cabaret — indeed, throughout his entire career as a creative collaborator — is an example of what can happen with a visionary director has a hand in shaping theatrical material. Prince also used a galvanizing experience he had at Moscow’s Taganka Theatre, where he saw a blazingly theatrical production of a play based on John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World, and whose effects, such as using spots trained upward from the stage floor to create a curtain of light, he carried with him forever after. (That Orson Welles had done similar things in the 1930s does not diminish their impact; whatever is neglected will seem new when re-discovered.) The loose form Prince developed for Cabaret freed him to give everything a shot.

What he came to call the “Limbo” numbers of Cabaret were what the show was really about, and had its creators (which included Kander and Ebb, the book writer Joe Masteroff, and the choreographer Ron Field) played to those strengths and remained wholly true to their intentions — and to Isherwood’s homosexuality — the show would have likely run a tiny fraction of its eventual 1,165 performances but would have been a greater blow for the freedom of creative expression in the marketplace. Still, for Prince it was an impressive hurling down of a personal gauntlet. Its success gave him, and a lot of other people, permission to try.

Cabaret - Wilkommen (Joel Grey)

Cabaret: Joe Grey leads the performers of the Kit Kat Klub in “Wilkommen.” Note the titled mirror, which reflected the audience back at itself, forcing it to become a part of what it was witnessing. Jill Haworth, the show’s Sally Bowles, is at right.

His, and Kander and Ebb’s, follow-up, the almost unrelievedly dark Zorbá (1968) and told through even stronger theatrical means, ran less than a third as long as Cabaret, which tells you something. But it was with his next two musicals that Prince made his boldest statement yet. First, developing with the actor/playwright George Furth a fragmentary narrative frame for a seemingly unconnected series of marital and romantic encounters — the first of the so-called “concept” musicals — Prince and Sondheim (and Michael Bennett, who choreographed) concocted a book musical almost more like a revue: Bold, witty (although perhaps a bit more arch than was good for it), wildly theatrical, sophisticated in content, style and form, Company (1970) was unlike any musical comedy before it. And if it caused arguments (there were those who loathed it) they were as nothing to what Follies inspired.

Company - Being Alive

Company: Dean Jones as Bobby. Note the body language of those “good and crazy people,” his friends. What they are urging him toward — marriage — in this configuration looks so unsettling it’s no wonder he’s ambivalent.

Follies drew blood, and meant to. Originally intended, under the title The Girls Upstairs, by Sondheim and James Goldman as a sort of musical murder-mystery (or, as Goldman called it, a “Who’ll-Do-It?”) set against a reunion of old showgirls, the musical evolved under Prince’s tutelage into a ghost story, a metaphor for the nervous America of the Nixon era, an extravagant reverie on loss, disillusion and regret set to music — specifically, the music of America before and between the wars, in the “Follies” numbers, and, in the “book” scenes, the singular and piercingly modern voice of Sondheim. No musical before it had hit back so forcefully against what the creators thought was the lie of pop culture, and of the Popular Songbook itself: The phony optimism, sexless love and happily-ever-after dreams that sustained generations of Americans, and American songwriters, who woke up one day and realized it was all shit.

Set in an old, crumbling theatre about to be demolished (itself a potent metaphor) Follies presented past and present at once, with impossibly tall, ghostly showgirls floating through the action and its main characters appearing on stage in both their current and their former personae. Goldman’s dialogue frequently overlapped past and present, and when the four protagonist/antagonists’ feelings bubbled over, everything split apart, reality replaced with a “Follies” of the mind, in which, singly, the quartet expressed their dissatisfaction in traditional musical-comedy terms that revealed a kind of anger and bitterness no such song ever admitted to in the past.* A “You Don’t Know the Half of it Dearie, Blues,” baggy-pants routine for a philandering husband, his bored wife and overly avid lover; an aching, emotionally naked torch number, slightly reminiscent of “Black Coffee,” for a woman who for 30 years has been in love with an unattainable ideal. And long before that show-within-a-show, there were contrapuntal duets for a singer and her younger self (“One More Kiss,” one of the show’s major musical metaphors), a dance number (“Who’s That Woman?”) in which ageing flesh and uncertain limbs are juxtaposed with the bright and beautiful bodies of the past, and a  soaring love duet (“Too Many Mornings”) in which the lovers sing past each other, she seeing him even in his middle age as her perfect love, he seeing only her lovelier past self.

Follies - Too Many Mornings embrace

“Too Many Mornings”: Dorothy Collins as Sally, who can no longer tell the difference between the past and the present; Marti Rolph as Young Sally; and John McMartin as Ben, who does see it. One of the most moving, and chilling, moments in the American musical.

Young people, perhaps especially those (usually gay) with a knowledge of the history of musicals, loved the show. Older spectators, uncomfortable with what they were being shown about themselves, hated it. But Follies dared. It said, in Sondheim’s words, “that to live in the past is foolish,” and not doing so becomes harder with age. In a show this music-heavy, and which depended so strongly on songs and dances to grow its metaphors, Prince made the smart decision to share direction with Bennett. It was his most dance-heavy show, and one sometimes wishes he — and Sondheim — had trusted that more in the years to come; eschewing dance in favor of “movement” loses you a lot, even in a “serious” musical, including the goodwill of audiences, who love watching dancers in a musical.

Follies’ effect was one of Total Theatre. With Florence Klotz’s extravagant costumes, Tharon Musser’s atmospheric lighting and Boris Aronson’s deteriorating sets moving with fluidity from one space to another, and all adhering to a single idea, Follies is arguably the most perfectly integrated musical ever created. And in Dorothy Collins’ Sally it presented the American musical’s first true madwoman, her brain split apart by the unbridgeable abyss between obsessive fantasy and untenable reality; Sally’s final line (“Oh, dear God — it is tomorrow!”) was the most despairing ever written for a musical.


Send in the Clowns

“Send in the Clowns”: Glynis Johns as Desirée in A Little Night Music.

The next Prince/Sondheim was almost the antithesis of Follies, a romantic European period musical — one based on Bergman, admittedly, and with dark undertones to the froth — in which, through the composer’s strange alchemy, all of the music was in three-quarter time. Even so, A Little Night Music (1973) actually ran fewer performances than its predecessor. (Its “hit” song, “Send in the Clowns,” only became big two years after the show opened, when Sinatra and Judy Collins recorded it.) The next year, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Prince produced a re-conceived, and largely re-written, edition of Leonard Bernstein’s esteemed 1957 flop Candide. With (at her insistence) the original Lillian Hellman book jettisoned — Hugh Wheeler wrote the revision, hewing closer to Voltaire — old numbers cut, new ones created using trunk music (the lyrics were Sondheim’s), a vaudevillian structure and an environmental staging, the show was so successful it virtually demanded a Broadway transfer.

Never content to play it safe, Prince convinced young John Weidman (John’s son) to let him musicalize his un-performed play about the opening of Japan by the West and corralled Sondheim to compose for it. The result, Pacific Overtures (1972) was a glorious nonesuch, a nearly operatic meditation on American imperialist power kitted out with Kabuki conventions (including invisible stagehands, a Lion Dancer and men playing the female roles) and an entirely Asian cast. Its score is among Sondheim’s finest, especially in the phenomenal “Someone in a Tree,” during which past and present meet, commingle, conjoin, and explode, with one of the most hair-raisingly glorious climaxes ever heard in a Broadway theatre. Pacific Overtures enjoyed only 193 performances, but that it ran at all, much less during the Bicentennial year, is something of a miracle.

Pacific Overtures - Please Hello

“Please Hello”: Yuki Shimoda, center, importuned — and threatened — by Admirals from Britain (Alvin Ing), America (Ernest Harada) and Holland (Patrick Kinser-lau)

Prince’s next show may have seemed a surer thing. On the Twentieth Century (1978) boasted a Hecht and MacArthur pedigree (they based it on an unproduced play by Charles Bruce Milholland called Napoleon of Broadway, a satire of the impresario David Belasco) and movie aficionados might have recalled the hilarious 1934 Howard Hawks movie with John Barrymore and Carol Lombard. The score, maybe his richest, was by Cy Coleman, and the book and the genuinely witty lyrics were by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. However… their concept was not, as might have been expected, hot 1930s Broadway jazz but, inspired by the absurd comic passions of the larger-than-life leading characters, opéra bouffe, which may have been a hard sell. Set largely on the eponymous train, the show had a fabulous, gleaming Art Deco design by Robin Wagner and three indelible comedic performers in John Cullum, Madeline Kahn and Imogene Coca (plus Kevin Kline in an athletic supporting role) but it was a costly show and Kahn was unreliable. Her understudy (later replacement), Judy Kaye, was from the evidence every bit as inspired and musically sound, but it always hurts to have your above-the-title star making a habit of not showing up when fans are expecting her, and Kaye was then an unknown. It won a Best Score Tony® but only ran 449 performances.

On the twentieth century

On the Twentieth Century: The “It’s a Contract” sextet. From left, John Cullum, Madeline Kahn, Dean Dittman, George Coe, Kevin Kline, and Imogene Coca. (Martha Swope/©NYPL for the Performing Arts)

Significantly, On the Twentieth Century marked the third phase of Prince’s career, as a director only. The increasing cost of Broadway production, plus the ageing-out of his old reliable angels, had made producing less fun and took his attentions away from mounting his shows. From this point to the end of his life, and with few exceptions, Prince was a director only. It may have lost him some money when it came to projects like Evita and The Phantom of the Opera, but he was by then already wealthy enough. (Easy for me to say? When you produce Fiddler on the Roof and have a second house on Majorca you’re not exactly starving.)

The next Prince/Sondheim collaboration yielded a masterwork. The composer had seen Christopher Bond’s 1973 Marxist rendering of the Victorian penny-dreadful Sweeney Todd in London, and thought it might make an interesting chamber musical, with a few songs. He’d intended writing the book himself but as it grew he needed assistance, and called in his friend Hugh Wheeler, who had written the book for A Little Night Music and assisted John Weidman on Pacific Overtures. The piece got larger as it went along, with Sondheim ending up composing what amounted to a demi-operatic score. It’s a show in which music is present throughout, either in song or as underscore (Sondheim wanted a Bernard Herrmann sound, and got it). It also featured the strangest content of the composer’s oeuvre. The original (called The String of Pearls) featured serial murder and unwitting cannibalism, as the victims of the “demon barber” were conveniently baked into meat pies by Sweeney’s accomplice Mrs. Lovett. Bond made Todd less a remorseless villain than a societal victim bent on revenge who, maddened by his inability to wreak his vengeance on the hated judge who sentenced him to exile, raped his wife and took in his daughter (and on whom the jurist now also has lecherous designs), focuses his rage on the entire human species. It was a heavy brew, leavened only by Lovett, now a convivial if criminally opportunistic comedian.

With Prince aboard, and the leads entrusted to Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury, Sweeney developed into a black-comedy thriller of epic proportions in its sweep and physical production (Prince and his designer Eugene Lee disassembled an old New England foundry and employed its parts, some of them working, for the set) and the sheer size of the sick joke at its core. In the contours of its themes and content it was absolutely non pariel, in its (no pun intended) execution, a work of genius, and of art. Not even the smallish but growing legion of Prince/Sondheim fans saw it coming.

A Little Priest

Sweeney Todd: Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou performing “A Little Priest,” the most macabre first act finale in Broadway musical history, and the funniest.

The show was overwhelming, in every particular. I count myself fortunate that it was my first Broadway musical seen on Broadway, and that I caught it with what Sondheim called “the unbeatable combination” of Cariou and Lansbury (although, alas, by the time I saw it, in December of 1979, Victor Garber was gone and Sarah Rice had been dismissed). It was also, I could just about swear, the first black-and-white musical I’d ever seen, its deliberate grayness of person, setting and costume mitigated only by the blood, shockingly and vividly red.

If Sweeney had a flaw, it was the size of the physical production, which, while intentional — the cruelty and dehumanization of the Industrial Revolution was a subtextual theme of the show — somewhat dwarfed the action. This was proven to my satisfaction when I acted in a small college production of in 1982, the first such in the Southeastern states (I was Toby), and again when I saw the scaled-down Circle in the Square revival in 1989 starring the splendid Bob Gunton and Beth Fowler. There the major drawback was the minimization of the music, reduced to synthesizer accompaniment and dubbed by Gerald Alessandrini in his Forbidden Broadway series, quite rightly, as Teeny Todd. But I was aware even while watching the original that in Lansbury and Cariou I was being privileged to witness two of the great, galvanic performances in Broadway musical history, to hear in Sondheim’s music and lyrics one of the finest of all American musical theatre scores, and in see in Prince’s staging one of the modern theatre’s most impressive feats of direction. If not the show of the century (I think that was likely Follies, or perhaps the original Pogry and Bess, both of which I can imagine only in the theatre of my mind), Sweeney was certainly one of them.


Prince’s follow-up was not an American show, but the stage version of a British concept album by the creators of a previous successful LP-to-stage hybrid, Jesus Christ Superstar. The Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice Evita (1979) premiered in London, with Elaine Page as Eva Peron. In America there was some revision of the material, and a long tour beginning in California, the release of the 2-LP cast recording pre-dating the Broadway opening on which its Eva, Patti LuPone, who often strained for notes (she later wrote that Lloyd Webber “hated women” and that he would not lower keys to accommodate her voice) but as a star presence was nearly incandescent.

The show was criticized for seeming to glorify its fascist subject by people who, carried away with the power of Prince’s staging (and Larry Fuller’s dance movement) in the first act finale, couldn’t take their irony without a scorecard. A much stronger case could be made, not against the show’s point of view — the inclusion of a Greek chorus figure called Che (Mandy Patinkin in his Broadway musical debut) made that plain enough, or should have — but in critiquing its surface treatment of complex issues and personalities. But Evita certainly had its moments, not least of which were its clever metaphors (revolving power as a game of musical chairs, for instance, and the way the aristos moved together in a fashion not unlike Bob Fosse’s organic “amoebas” and were, late in the show, literally stripped of their possessions) and that chilling first act closure, one so powerful Lotte Lenya recognized in the manipulation of Argentinian voters and media a reflection of what she’d lived through as Weimar Germany collapsed and loosed the Nazi daemon. Interestingly, especially for an inveterate Lloyd Webber skeptic like me — I prefer his pop/rock passages to his better-loved, soupier Puccini imitations — the show actually plays better as a recording, where you don’t mind the elliptical structure or the thin characterizations. But even via a stripped-down, bus-and-truck tour, Evita was something to see.

Hal Prince and Patti LuPone Evita.jpg

Evita - Patinkin, Lapone resized

Just a little touch of star quality: Patti LuPone as Evita with Prince (above) in rehearsals and Mandy Patinkin (below) on stage. (Color photo: Martha Swope.)

With his next show, Prince hit the beginning of what can only be called a long losing streak that was as precipitous a decline as his previous rise had been formidable; he was, at the time, as one with Bennett (A Chorus Line), Fosse (Sweet Charity, Pippin, Chicago) and Gower Champion (Bye Bye Birdie, Hello Dolly… an interesting juxtaposition) in the league of Broadway musical “super-directors,” his name as well-known as those of his songwriters, and his shows, and deficient only in that he did not also choreograph. It began with the ill-conceived Merrily We Roll Along (1981), an adaptation of a depressing, flop Kaufman and Hart drama (there’s a tip-off right there) reconfigured as a musical brimming with un-tested youth, and with Sondheim a reluctant collaborator. The play’s structure, telling the story of its central character’s rise and fall in reverse, was retained, and it was there that the concept really caught fire. Unlike with many musicals (and indeed plays) which peter out after intermission, Merrily‘s second act topped its first, and the songs, largely based around a particular chromatic structure, got better and better until, by the end, when you’d experienced their development and realized how subtly and traditionally they had been expanding all evening, they were both exhilarating and heartbreaking in their emotional pain and their optimistic ebullience: There aren’t many second act builds in American musicals as good as the progress from “Not a Day Goes By” to “Opening Doors” to “Our Time,” and what the ignorati call “show tunes” don’t rate much higher either. But the piece, under Prince’s direction, was frustrating, its Eugene Lee gymnasium sets tacky and its proliferation of characters so confusing to its preview audiences that the creators were reduced to slapping T-shirts and sweaters on the actors with their characters’ names, or phrases like “Producer” and “Best Friend,” emblazoned across their fronts. When Merrily opened it received the worst reviews Prince and Sondheim had gotten yet, and ran 16 performances before shuttering. Sondheim blamed the critics, believing, not without reason, that they were gunning for him and Prince. But while time has been kind to his score, few indeed are those who feel the original production of the show that contained them was under-appreciated.

Merrily - Lonny Price, Ann Morrison, Jim Walton, Sally Klein

Merrily We Roll Along: Lonny Price, Ann Morrison, Jim Walton, Sally Klein

Fortunately, as with Goddard Lieberson at Columbia Records on Sondheim’s earlier flop Anyone Can Whistle, Thomas Z. Shepard recorded the score anyway, preserving a wistful souvenir of a might-have-been that, whatever its flaws as a show, contained a set of songs so good they couldn’t be allowed to languish in artistic limbo. Indeed, Sondheim and James Lapine later revised the show, originally written with George Furth, casting it with rueful adults rather than enthusiastic kids. Yet even Off-Broadway it didn’t run long, and it’s never going to be a rouser with the public, any more than Assassins or Pacific Overtures. The greatest irony in this musical about old friends lay in Prince and his choreographer, Ron Field, nearly coming to blows after a performance, and ending their long friendship and collaboration. They subsequently reconciled, but Merrily’s failure also put an effective end to the artistically compelling, if financially risky, Prince/Sondheim corporation.

Prince’s creative recession continued in 1982 with A Doll’s Life, which he for some mad reason chose to produce as well as direct and which eked out two more performances than Merrily. It was a notably cheerless affair to have a book and lyrics by Comden and Green, picking up Nora Helmer after she slammed the door and performed as a play-within-a-rehearsal, something John Gielgud attempted with his 1964 Hamlet and which perhaps only Orson Welles, in his Moby Dick—Rehearsed, managed to pull off. A Doll’s Life is one of those shows for which you remember the negative reviews more than the songs. I have the cast album. I’ve listened to it once. But two lines from John Simon’s critique in New York magazine have remained with me; of Larry Grossman’s lugubrious score, Simon likened it to “two bars of Sondheim, stretched on a rack” and said of the show as a whole that it “should make passionate door-slammers of us all.” Unsurprisingly, the cast knew the production was headed for the dust-bin. Its star, Betsy Joslyn, knitted as Prince gave his final notes before the opening; when he asked what she was working on she held up her handiwork and replied, “A coffin cover for the show.” Well, at least George Hearn, Cariou’s replacement as Sweeney Todd, got a Tony® nomination out of it.


The downturn in Prince’s fortunes worsened with, in succession: Play Memory (4 performances, 1984), the baseball revue Diamonds (122 performances, Circle in the Square, 1984) and Grind (Larry Grossman again, with Prince producing again… do some people never learn?… April – June 1985). Salvation came, financially if not artistically, with the 1986 Lloyd Webber The Phantom of the Opera, although its raison d’être, for a man of Prince’s convictions, is almost wholly inexplicable. Certainly no one can accuse the director of not giving his all to it, what with subterranean, candle-lit lakes and (at least initially, in London) old-fashioned scene-moving equipment — shades of that New England foundry in Sweeney — but other than desperation I can see no reason for him to have undertaken such a creatively barren, soppy enterprise. But with 13,270 Broadway performances, who knows how many in London, and only Cameron Mackintosh’s accountants aware of the additional revenue generated from touring companies, music sales, recordings and DVDs, Prince’s widow is likely set for life from his cut of this one show alone, not to mention his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren as well. As if to atone, in 1987 Prince assayed the flop Roza, which ran two months before closing, and a revival of Cabaret, which lasted 261 performances, with Joel Grey given top billing now (he was fifth in 1966) for the same role he’d played 21 years earlier.

Kiss of the Spider Woman - Brent Carver, Chita Rivera, and Anthony Crivello

Kiss of the Spider Woman: Brent Carver, Chita Rivera, and Anthony Crivello. (Martha Swope / The New York Public Library) 

Although Prince’s involvement with the musicalization of Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman eventually yielded a Broadway run of over 900 performances, its beginnings spotlighted an episode of ugliness that ultimately destroyed a potentially useful program. In 1990 the Performing Arts Center at SUNY-Purchase created New Musicals to provide “a working home for sixteen new musicals over four years,” one of the first of which was Kiss. Broadway critics were urged to stay away from these workshops but Frank Rich in his magnificent arrogance decided his pronouncements were more important than giving writers, actors and creative personnel the safety to fail more privately; he and others duly hied to Purchase and wrote highly negative reviews that killed the show’s chances for years, and destroyed the New Musicals program in the process. Were it not for the (now-disgraced) Garth Drabinsky and Livent, that might have been the end of it. Drabinsky presented the musical first in Toronto, then in London, before deigning to let Broadway get a look at it. While the show’s Kander and Ebb score is good, it isn’t great, and it may well be that Rich’s criticisms were valid; in his review of the eventual Broadway edition, he wrote that the musical “does not meet all the high goals it borrows from Manuel Puig’s novel. When it falls short, it pushes into pretentious overdrive… and turns the serious business of police-state torture into show-biz kitsch every bit as vacuous as the B-movie clichés parodied in its celluloid fantasies. Yet the production does succeed… in using the elaborate machinery of a big Broadway musical to tell the story of an uncloseted, unhomogenized, unexceptional gay man who arrives at his own heroic definition of masculinity.”

Rich’s self-important tactics at SUNY-Purchase, however, were and remain an example of how those equipped with tunnel-vision and a convenient set of professional ethics are perfectly willing to extinguish a needed corrective to the problems of creative people in what was, and had long been, an increasingly perilous milieu (and which Rich well knew.) He and his cohorts could have gone to Purchase out of curiosity, seen the show, and either kept mum permanently or held off on expressing their opinions until after the workshop. But their egotism, their need to air their verdicts, was stronger than their desire to see new Broadway musicals thrive, or to allow creative artists to experiment without censure. To Rich, the ability to critique without restriction was more important than the nation perhaps getting one or two good shows  out of the experience.

Showboat - John McMartin and cast

Show Boat: John McMartin and company. (Martha Swope/©NYPL for the Performing Arts)

Prince’s 1993 Livent revival of Show Boat “was deliberately staged to cast attention on racial disparities; throughout the production, African-American actors constantly cleaned up messes, appeared to move the sets (even when hydraulics actually moved them), and performed other menial tasks” (Wikipedia). Naturally, the production was met with protests from self-styled black “leaders” who, predictably, picketed the show — and Prince, whom they screeched at for being that hated thing, a Jew — without seeing it. But then, pressure from Jewish groups forced Prince and company to alter that moment in Cabaret (restored in Bob Fosse’s movie) when the increasingly Nazi-embracing M.C. confides to us that if we could see her through his eyes, his gorilla girlfriend “wouldn’t look Jewish at all.”

It’s a wonder anyone ever attempts anything bold in Western culture.

Parade - Brent Carver and Carolee Carmello

Parade: Brent Carver and Carolee Carmello

Post-Show Boat Prince shows included one of many attempts to interest an indifferent public in Lloyd Webber’s Whistle Down the Wind (1996); a revival of Candide (1997) with Jim Dale as Pangloss, Andrea Martin as the Old Lady and an  unexceptional Harolyn Blackwell as Cunegonde (Prince had previously directed the 1994 Civic Opera House production); and Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry’s Parade (1998), which he initiated. (Prince had asked Sondheim to compose the score, but he passed.) The story of Leo Frank’s arrest, trial, imprisonment and eventual lynching for the rape and murder of 13-year old Mary Phagan, a worker in his Atlanta pencil factory, a crime of which the Jewish Frank was entirely innocent, had previously been explored in an excellent television mini-series (The Murder of Mary Phagan, 1988, starring Jack Lemmon as the former Georgia Governor John Slaton and Peter Gallagher as Frank) but this was prime Prince territory. It ran three months. Although the show and its score were popular with critics and musical aficionados generally, the subject of American miscarriages of justice is no crowd-pleaser, as Kander and Ebb and Susan Strohman discovered to their cost when they mounted their masterpiece The Scottsboro Boys a few years later.

Carrie Hamilton and Carol Burnett resized

Prince’s first theatrical venture in the new century was a heart-breaker: Hollywood Arms (2002), Carrie Hamilton and her mother Carol Burnett’s stage adaptation of Burnett’s memoir One More Time concerning her childhood with her grandmother and her unreliable parents. Well before there was a Chicago or New York production, Hamilton’s lung cancer spread to her brain, and she was killed by the pneumonia that resulted. The play was received rapturously by, of all people, John Simon, who wrote of it:

“Plays about passion are profuse and easy: heterosexual or homosexual, interracial or senescent, kinky or chaste. What is difficult and rare is a play about affection, which is what Carrie Hamilton and Carol Burnett’s Hollywood Arms is. Authentic affection: not syrupy or sentimental, posturing or feel-good-ish, gussied up for theatrical effect. Hollywood Arms is about real people who fight or let one another down, jab and jeer, needle and explode, but also, when need be, help people who are sarcastic or pathetic failures, impoverished and disappointed.

“But Hollywood Arms has yet another form of invaluable affection, that of Harold Prince for the characters and their story. You will never see more feelingful insight, more self-effacing love for their quirks, foibles, and kindnesses, from a director for his stage children, big and small. If only this thoroughly endearing play and production could have been seen by Burnett’s daughter and co-author, Carrie Hamilton, dead before even the Goodman Theatre premiere. One fervently hopes that the joy of such a true creation accompanied her on her final journey.”

Hollywood Arms ran all of 76 performances.

Things like this are part of the reason I no longer write plays.

There were other Prince shows in the next 17 years, but I’m afraid my increasing antipathy and indifference to live theatre generally, and to new musicals specifically, prevents my having much to say about them. In 2003 came the Goodman Theatre production of Sondheim and Weidman’s Mizner Brothers show, now called Bounce (it premiered at the Kennedy Center as Gold!) That engagement represented the extent of Prince’s involvement in the project, which has been revised and re-written for years by its authors and is now known as Road Show. Even my 45-year old veneration for Sondheim has not been sufficient these past 15 years or so to get me to put either the Bounce or Road Show cast recording on the CD player. I’m afraid for me that particular ship not only sailed but foundered, and sunk. I have also not heard the recording, on Ghostlight, of Prince and Uhry’s LoveMusik (2007) based on the letters of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya and including a laundry list of Weill songs. My ennui regarding Broadway musicals is now so complete that not even Donna Murphy is adequate enticement.

Prince attempted a Jerome Robbins’ Broadway sort of career retrospective in 2015, but aside from a tryout in Japan(!) and at the Manhattan Theatre Club, Prince of Broadway hasn’t made a ripple. This, I’m afraid, is the fate now of Broadway’s old innovators. If they can get an airing for something that isn’t a pre-sold property like a musical retread of some hit movie, they’re lucky; if it runs, it’s a miracle. And what does run is enough to make anyone who cares about theatre, or who used to, give up on it entirely. That’s not to mention the audiences who now, trained by television talent shows, give an automatic standing ovation to everything they see, diminishing the spontaneous tribute to a mere expectation — an accoutrement, as meaningless as the ubiquitous sound-board that has turned the musical into a glorified rock-arena show.

With the American musical reduced now to the “synergy” of Disney shows attempting to cram old animated wine into new live-action bottles and asinine hip-hop editions of American history, it’s no wonder the Princes and Sondheims of the Broadway theatre can find no home there.



I’ve said little here about Harold Prince as a man, but I think his work and his legacy are what matters. My own playwriting was as influenced by the stagecraft of Cabaret, Company, Follies and Pacific Overtures as the plays I read and absorbed by Chekhov, Lanford Wilson, Harvey Fierstein and Larry Kramer, and I am not ashamed to say so just because those shows were “mere musicals.” That Prince had an ego, and foibles, and wasn’t always the nicest person around is a given; he’d not only have been pretty rare not to, he’d have been inhuman. Richard Bissell based a character in his novel (and subsequent play-with-music) Say, Darling on Prince, and Bob Fosse left a wicked impression of him via John Lithgow’s performance as a grasping Broadway director in All That Jazz (1979), even unto Lithgow perching his sunglasses atop his head in a very Princelike fashion. (Both Prince and Sondheim, by the way, took a dim view of Fosse’s achievements, expressing their reservations in a highly self-serving fashion. See Sam Wasson’s biography Fosse.)

Like Fosse, Prince also tried directing movies, but found the experience unsatisfying. Something for Everyone (1970) is a good black comedy (although not nearly as dark as the novel on which it was based) but A Little Night Music (1977) is a mess, losing most of Sondheim’s great score and even transporting — by demand of the picture’s international financiers, I presume — the show’s Bergmanesque Swedish setting to sunny Vienna, I suppose to justify the waltzes.

In 1974 and at the height of his notoriety Prince dictated his theatrical memories as a book that, over the years, has been one of the most well-thumbed in my library. In Contradictions: Notes on Twenty-six Years in the Theatre (Dodd, Mead) he provided context, history and origin for all his shows, from Damn Yankees to Candide. Thankfully, Prince expanded that useful book as Sense of Occasion (Applause, 2017), offering some revised opinions on his previous statements and bringing the reader up to date. Perusing this second volume last winter I was struck by how much I remembered from previous readings in my 20s of Contradictions, and despite my coolness now to theatre, grateful again for what Prince brought to it. I even, reading about the evolutions of Cabaret and Follies, felt some small stirrings of my former passion. Not enough to wipe out my distaste for, and distrust of, the theatre as it is currently constituted in America (and, judging from podcasts from the National Theatre, it’s scarcely better in Britain) but at least sufficient to remind me that there was a time when it all mattered.

And it mattered more for Prince being there.


* Cabaret, Company and Follies all, to a degree, owe something to two musicals: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1947 Allegro and the virtually un-known, sadly un-remembered (and un-recorded!) Kurt Will-Alan Jay Lerner musical Love Life (1948) which among other things ends with its married lovers on a tight-rope, groping their way toward each other. Mark N. Grant: “Alan Jay Lerner described Love Life as a cavalcade of American marriage. The unusual structure of the show alternates scenes chronicling the Cooper family’s progression through successive periods of American history starting in the 1790s with vaudeville-style acts that comment on the main story. The two types of scenes do not overlap until the end of Part II. The Coopers’ ages do not change noticeably despite the 150-year lapse of time.” Grant, it should be noted, wrote the single best book on the American musical theatre I’ve read in years. The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical (Northeastern University Press, 2004) is not only erudite and technically impeccable (the author is also a musician and composer) but expresses admirable disgust at the decline of a once-great popular art form.

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

But what if Mr Simon doesn’t like Heaven?

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By Scott Ross

John Simon - Moose Murders

I guess he forgot his “I Survived Moose Murders” T-shirt?

Years ago there was a theatre critic called Percy Hammond who was famous for his dyspeptic opinions of the local offerings. When it was announced that he was to be made a war correspondent in the 1914 conflict, one wit asked, “But suppose Hammond doesn’t like the war?” I imagine something like my headline may have occurred to some in the New York theatre when it was reported that John Simon had died at 94… although many, I suspect, will imagine he went directly to Hell, there to sit in heated splendor beside his spiritual brother, Satan.

Inevitably referred to as “acerbic” (which he joked may have had something to do with his having been born a Serb) and as either “acid” or “vitriolic,” as boring a pair of epithets for his writing as “tuneless” and “un-hummable” were for the earlier music of Stephen Sondheim, John Simon (1925 – 2019) was both more cruel about the physiognomy of performers than was strictly necessary (if you’re not playing a romantic lead, who cares whether you’re homely or overweight?) and, as he rightfully accused Kenneth Tynan, much less reliable a film than a theatre critic.

As a writer on theatre, however, Simon was seldom less than erudite, masterly and — this will doubtless enrage some, particularly those with only a cursory knowledge of his output — fair. Simon, as we all do, had his pets (Ingmar Bergman, Fritz Weaver, Philip Bosco and Lanford Wilson spring immediately to mind) but they were, generally, very good pets indeed, and as vicious as he could occasionally be — the periodic attacks on Barbra Streisand and Austin Pendleton were all the evidence some people needed to proclaim him an anti-Semite — Simon’s opinions were usually just.

Usually. I cannot fathom how a man of Simon’s intelligence and erudition could refer to the character played by Kathy Bates in Marsha Norman’s ‘night, Mother as “a fatty,” for example, and his waffling on artists could be as baffling as it was infuriating: The same composer whose work, for Simon, enriched Chinatown in 1974 was, in ’75, due to his emulating Stravinsky for The Omen, “that pretentious hack Jerry Goldsmith.” (See Michael Feingold’s rather specious obituary of Simon in American Theatre* for a similar anecdote concerning André Ernotte, a man I became quite fond of when he directed me in a production of a short Brecht play in 1985.) Then too there were his, on the one hand, admirable refutations of both Nixonism and Vietnam and, on the other, his writing movie reviews for William F. Buckley’s National Review, as well as his weird resistance to full acceptance of homosexuals — he was capable even as late as the early ’90s of referring to a new play as “faggot nonsense”; of another, in the mid-’80s, he was heard to fume, “Homosexuals in the theatre! I can’t wait ’til AIDS gets all of them!” (He later apologized.) But despite that now infamous incident of Sylvia Miles dumping her salad on his lap — it became, he noted, an increasingly impressive entrée as the years went on — a friend who knew many members of the New York theatre community in the 1970s and ’80s tells me that each of these actors could recite with glee his or her favorite negative review of their work by Simon. And anyway, I would rather the sometimes insufferably inflexible standards of John Simon than the panting avidity of a Ben Brantley, for whom the latest staggering abortion officially sanctioned by the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization is, rather than an appalling travesty, “altogether wonderful.”

In the area of movies, Simon and Pauline Kael famously traded blows in print. Her observation that she did not believe a critic should be able to enjoy only “the highest and the best” was by implication rather obviously aimed at his well-known aesthetic. (How many other movie critics of the period could she have been referring to?) He on the other hand considered her taste irredeemably vulgar if not altogether Barbaric; in a review of one of her 1970s collections, Simon was flabbergasted by Kael writing that we were living through “a legendary period for movies.” She was nearly alone in recognizing this contemporaneously and time, of course, has proven her entirely correct. A friend once said he didn’t think Simon really liked movies, or at any rate did not take them as seriously as he did theatre, music, literature and fine art. I demurred; he loved movies as much as Kael. What he didn’t care much for were American movies. This is perhaps understandable; he grew up abroad and appreciation of his adopted nation’s popular culture had not been inculcated in him from birth as it is for us natives. Interestingly, Simon (according, anyway, to Brendan Gill) was so terrified of the tiny Kael that when encountering her in public he became uncharacteristically tongue-tied.

Daniel Rosenblatt, Pauline Kael, John Simon and Dwight MacDonald

Daniel Rosenblatt, Pauline Kael, John Simon and Dwight MacDonald at a symposium. Simon had as much praise for MacDonald as he had opprobrium for Kael.

Yet there was, on balance, more in Simon to embrace than to deplore. He was, for instance, unique among theatre critics (or any critics) in being multilingual, and could for example so splendidly judge the efficacy or ill-favor of various Ibsen translations that one wished he had done his own. The best evidence in his favor are two collections from 1975: Singularities: Essays on the Theatre, 1964 – 1974, which includes some of his best work, and Uneasy Stages: A Chronicle of the New York Theatre, 1963 – 1973. In them you will find a bracing wit and a strong intellect confronting the best and the worst the American theatre had to offer during those essential years. Additionally, and whatever his reputation, Simon was at his best, as are all great critics, airing not his (sometimes hilariously expressed) hatreds, but singing his enthusiasms… and when he loved, no one sang with more elegiac euphoria than John Simon. One example of many was his final word on the Jason Miller play That Championship Season, in which Simon opined that if a play as demonstrably great as this was allowed to fail, “Broadway itself deserves to die.”

Speaking of death, Simon got off what I consider one of the great bons mot when, in his review of (I think) What’s Up, Doc? he observed that if Streisand were to be hit by a Mack truck, “it would be the truck that would die.” The use of the word “die” at the end is the essence of wit rather than mere sarcastic humor; it explodes the statement, conjuring up an uproarious image that perfectly caps the joke. Simon could also, like Falstaff, be not merely witty in himself but the cause that wit is in other men, as in Gore Vidal’s, “What a nightmare it must be, to wake up every morning and know you are John Simon.” Peter Bogdanovich was so incensed by Simon he named the comic villain played by Kenneth Mars in What’s Up, Doc? “Hugh Simon” in negative tribute. It didn’t bother Simon in the least. What might have was Bogdanovich’s assertion, to Dick Cavett, that Simon was “a pseudo-intellectual.” No. Simon was a fully-fledged intellectual, and Bogdanovich ought to have known the difference.


There was perhaps no review more piquant and revealing of a certain sordid Broadway reality than Simon’s report — verified by the playwright Wendy Wasserstein, who was there — on the opening night of the now legendarily dreadful 1980s comedy Moose Murders, at which the sparse audience was treated to the overwhelming and unavoidable odor of vomit. In Simon’s view, and he wasn’t alone, the show became its own olfactory metaphor.

Like many writers, Kael included, Simon composed his own headlines for his magazine reviews. My all-time favorite of his, in reference to the title of a meretricious C.P. Taylor play he panned therein, ran in New York in the 1980s: “All’s Well That Ends Good.”

I didn’t even need to read the review after that… although I did. I also attempted to read Good and couldn’t get through the first act. I can’t tell you, now, why I found Taylor’s play so dreary; but Simon’s one-line critique has long outlived in my memory the drama that inspired it. What more can we ask of a great critic?


*Feingold finds something odd and tragic about a man in his 90s continuing to attend, and to write reviews of, theatrical productions. When you’re 94, Mr. Feingold, perhaps you’ll tell us with what lofty pursuits you fill your waking hours? Or will you simply give up, and stare at the wallpaper?

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

Getting to Know Me: A primer for new friends and fellow-travelers on this strange road we call the interwebs

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By Scott Ross

Written for my old blog in 2014 as a Facebook intro. Although no longer on Facebook I am placing it here, in a slightly revised edition, as a warning — er, I mean, introduction — to Word Press readers.

I don’t send many Friend Requests on social media, or accept many, unless they’re vouched for, or otherwise recommended, by others. I de-friended someone I didn’t know well earlier this evening for what I consider his uncalled-for rudeness. Clearly, he didn’t know me too well either. As a result, I feel the need to “introduce myself” to newer friends, and family members who’ve re-connected with me. So please bear with this, my own, bastardized edition of This I Believe.

1. I’m gay
I doubt anyone I know, whether in “real life” or Internet reality, does not know this. But I’m covering as many bases as I know how to here, so forgive the epic non-shock.

My sexuality does not define me, but it does inform who I am, and what I feel. I do not believe I chose it. I cannot believe anyone does. I am simply incapable of fathoming the notion, informed by ignorance and fed by inert lack of imagination on the one hand and active, irrational fear and hatred on the other, that most non-heterosexual people — especially adolescents — wake up one day and say to themselves, “Gee… I want to part of a sub-group that is in so many places despised, misunderstood, legislated against, persecuted, prosecuted, inveigled against, bullied, assaulted, beaten, sometimes tortured and often and murdered that I’m likely to be miserable, and possibly dead. Yeah! That’s for me!”

I am ill-equipped to understand why anyone’s adult, consensual sex life, with or without a loving component, should be a matter for public discourse, or legislative mandate.* Nor do I think that marriage should be assumed de rigueur for everyone, or that any opprobrium ought to be attached to those who don’t desire it. And while I don’t necessarily believe in marriage itself as a social institution, I do believe that institution, and the benefits derived from it, should be available to any pair of consenting adults. I strongly suspect, should the human race survive what it has done to its earthly home, that in a brace of decades most people will not merely wonder how such a basic right could have been refused to a largely un-offending segment of the population that desired it but will also express dismay that such an expression of love (or affection or even just plain old sex) ever become — like AIDS before it — so divisive and ugly a political hot potato.

The foregoing not withstanding, I am not now, nor (to borrow an insidious phrase) have I ever been part of an alphabet organization. I’m not “LGB,” or “LGBT,” or “LBGTQ” or “LGBTQIA,” or whatever the ridiculously elongated acronym of choice may be this week. (That last one I just discovered today, and wish I hadn’t.) I’m a human being, not a cog in some social matrix that functions largely to place us all in convenient little subsets. I am, however, aware that my cohort has become both socially and politically trendy, as so often happens when a sub-group that emerges from hated to coveted (in the economic and political sense) status. But if they think I’m going to fall down in a dead faint and worship at the shrine of some obscenely overcompensated television hack because she’s a dyke with a horsey face, or, worse, vote for a weirdly creepy little pipsqueak who bears all the hallmarks of a CIA/NSA plant just because he’s gay… well, to paraphrase Bugs Bunny… Dey don’t know me vewwy well, do dey?

2. I’m an atheist
Or anti-theist, if you prefer. I was raised Presbyterian, converted to Catholicism, became lapsed, settled into uneasy agnosticism, applied for (and achieved) Excommunication and, finally, after years of spiritual fence-sitting, admitted to myself that I simply am not, and have never really been, capable of belief in a supreme being. Or at any rate, as Quentin Crisp once admitted, “I am incapable of believing in a God susceptible to prayer.” I am particularly antagonistic toward Christianity, in part because, examined in the cold light of day, I find its systems no less fantastic and magick-myth-based than those of the ancient Greeks, and in part because very few “Christians” adhere to the lessons and the teachings of the (possibly real, possibly imaginary) rabbi we now call Jesus. Indeed, at least in my own country, the essential — the core — Christian tenets of sympathy, compassion, forgiveness, aestheticism and egalitarianism are as foreign to His alleged followers as a belief in jurisprudence is to the Taliban.

On the other hand, few things in my life have given me more palpable warmth than being named, by several Jewish friends (and one Jewish ex) independently of each other, an Honorary Jew. I have a fellow-feeling with Jews I do not enjoy with any other sect, and a deep sense of the horrors of the antisemitism that has been so pronounced a factor in the history of the modern world for at least the past 2,000 years. That said, I also do not believe in Israel, Right or Wrong. As I don’t believe in America, Right or Wrong, there is no reason on earth for me to put any other nation above my own. I will not, however, and despite the murderous apartheid currently being visited on Palestinians by the increasingly frightening, increasingly racist, Israeli government, engage in debate over Israel v. Palestine. That does not by any means indicate that I give the government of Israel an automatic pass; my emotions on that subject are as complex as anyone’s. But the actions of Israel are all too often used as the flimsiest possible pretext for deep-seated, anti-Jewish bigotry, just as the actions of some Muslims are used as an excuse to blacken an entire people, and I want no part of it. Would most Americans wish to be judged, as a people, by the actions of our own government? In any democracy, decency does not always obtain in a plebiscite.

At base, my religious philosophy is this: If you wish me to respect your belief, respect my lack of it. Or at least, leave me alone about it. Which is, I suppose, a form of respect.

3. I am politically and socially radical
As the man I (although I only met him once) consider my political mentor, Gore Vidal, often noted, “radical” means “of or going to the root or origin; fundamental.” My beliefs in the political arena are essentially humanistic. I could never in good conscience, or sanity, be a Republican, but neither could I put any faith in a Democrat. We’ve been down that sorry road too many times, and will again, and there is now very little light between the parties in any case, although both pretend there is. Vidal had it perfectly when he opined that there was “one political party in America: The Property Party,” and that it has two right wings.

As well, I should say that politics per se, as practiced by professional politicians, do not interest me. They are, in fact, the most obtrusive impediment to effective political (meaning “of the people”) movement. Social and ethical progress occurs in spite of, seldom if ever due to, politicians. If pressed to define the parameters of my belief system, I suppose I should admit to being a kind of socialist, but with a small “S.” Although I find the very idea of swapping one’s labor for something as ephemeral, imagined, hide-bound and essentially meaningless as money absurd and almost wholly without merit, I am not against the notion of profit. I merely wish the system was no so hideously rigged in favor of so infinitesimally few over so very overwhelmingly many.

I believe in life. I dislike, and distrust, firearms. (Although the last few months of enforced enslavement to what is, laughingly but alas without humor, called a pandemic have given me pause to reconsider.) I do not have an automatic love, or reflexive respect, for the military — or the paramilitary, also known as the police. I am against whatever, and whoever, demeans, or kills, life. I am vegetarian and an anti-vivisectionist. (Isaac Bashevis Singer: “I did not become a vegetarian for my health. I did it for the health of the chickens.”) While I am, and have long been, a devoted feminist, I am uneasy about abortion. But then, I don’t trust anyone who isn’t. Those who maintain that some women are indifferent to abortion are not necessarily wrong; when I was a senior in high school and stage-managing the spring musical, one of my production assistants (a junior, all of 16) when told me, with no discernible loss of aplomb — indeed, practically with a shrug — that she had had three abortions. I do not believe, however, that most women approach the procedure with anything less than dread, and do so, moreover, with considerably more thoughtfulness than their knee-jerk critics; I staunchly abhor the moralists who condemn abortion with one side of their mouths while banning all access to comprehensive sex education and contraception with the other.

That said, I deplore the alleged “feminism” currently professed by harpies of both genders who seem to believe that the mere possession of a vagina ennobles the holder, especially when she is running for political office (and as long, of course, as she is a member of Our Party) while at the same time ignoring the violence done to women across the globe thanks to the policies of women such as a certain former Secretary of State who shall, for perhaps the first time in her sad, grasping life, go nameless. (Hillaryclinton.) I am a believer in truth. Not Conservative Truth, or Liberal Truth, or even Progressive Truth. I may lean left, but I won’t be its bitch any longer.

4. I am a chronic depressive
I suffer from the delightful confluence of major depression and high anxiety. Together, they have blighted my life, held me back, stymied my creativity, and rendered me virtually a hermit. I am a playwright who can no longer write a play. I am an unhappy, and impecunious, state employee who makes a salary laughably, and insultingly, small for a person of my talents and intelligence. With two noteworthy exceptions (see 9 and 10, below) I see only my flaws — especially the physical. I beat myself up quite enough I require no one else to do it for me (which among other things is why my ex is my ex.) I am nervous around, and about, everyone I know. That’s every. One. I was not able, ever, to wholly relax, even with my best friend, whom I knew for 45 years. If ignored for more than a few days I am liable to assume I have caused offense, however absurd that rationale. When placed on the spot, my mind shatters. Complete aphasia. The same holds true when I am forced into an emotional confrontation, with the addition of shaking as violently a leaf in a typhoon. (It’s called a panic attack, and yes, Virginia , they are very real.) As a result, I avoid conflict, sometimes with disastrous results, ruinous to myself and to my relationships with others. It requires a conscious effort of will for me to do anything: Clean the house, take the trash bins to the street, shower, go to the grocery store, get out of bed. And what makes all of the above so insupportable is that I know, from my own bitter experience with a veritable pharmacopoeia of anti-depressants, that this is not my natural, or normal, state of being. That I can feel, and have felt, my real self, but only once in the past four decades, for a whole six months before I stopped responding to Prozac. I have no doubt my chronic anxiety has taken its physical toll on me and is responsible for many of my physical debilities, from high blood pressure to acid re-flux; one cannot, I don’t think, live with extreme anxiety for four decades without it taking some physical toll on the body.

Depression, like pain, is different for everyone. When the darkness descends on me, when my mood is at its blackest, and bleakest — as it was two weeks ago, when my sister informed me of our mother’s imminent death — I have a tendency to shut down. I become even more reclusive than usual. I speak little. I may withdraw from social media for days, weeks, even months. And even the longest and (seemingly) closest friendships can suffer, sometimes irreparably, particularly when that friend is incapable of seeing that my withdrawal, or my mania (which is a sometime component of my disorder) are not about them, but about my mind.

The past 20 years have seen the demise of three such friendships. The third case is largely why I wrote this essay originally. When I last ran into this friend and, after hugging her several times and expressing my delight at seeing her, asked her to have dinner with me she replied, “That ship has sailed.” Last week, after years of silence, I received a Friend Request from her. I am tempted to send her a message reading, “As someone once said, ‘That ship has sailed. Or at any rate, been cut loose. I don’t see a return to port.”

I won’t send such a note, of course, but the point is this: If you lack that essential empathy, or at least, sympathy, required for mutual appreciation… if you cannot take my depression, and how it affects me, not as a reflection on you but as a manifestation of how I feel… if you aren’t willing to discuss the parameters, and at least allow me to explicate for you the contours, and confines, of my reality… Well, let’s just say I don’t allow anyone, even a close friend, indefinite opportunities to hurt me.

5. I am obsessive; also compulsive
I’ve always been peripatetic. My mind, and my enthusiasms, flit from one thing to another, from one creative artist to a different one. (Doubters need only peruse my overstuffed personal libraries of books, music or movies.) This in itself may or may not be cause for concern. But the contours of my romantic and emotional life have all too frequently been limned by obsessions with unobtainable, uninterested men (boys when I was a youth), leading to a sense of rejection and lack of worth that, taken as a flood, forms a perfect circular linearity: Rejected, I am unworthy; reject me.

6. I am highly critical, and of myself most of all
I do not suffer fools gladly. I am not predisposed to make small-talk, and have no facility for it. I am an elitist. Like Harlan Ellison I maintain a passion for liberty and a healthy distrust of equality; I believe that there are those who are simply brighter, finer, more creative, more compassionate — more worthy — than others. Not worthier of life, or of opportunity, but of our approbation and esteem. The humanitarian in me believes in the sanctity of life and in the essential rights of all living beings. The realist in me isn’t too wild about the mass of humanity. (Linus Van Pelt: “I love mankind — it’s people I can’t stand!”) I believe, also with Ellison, that everyone is not entitled to his or her own opinion, but that we are all entitled to our informed and enlightened opinion. An opinion based on circular logic, or religious mania, or irrational prejudice, is no more worthy of my consideration (and considerably less worthy of my respect) than a house erected on a foundation of quicksilver. Therefore, my critical thoughts, ruminations and opinions, when set into words, is, however harsh, informed and considered. By living, through reading, and via the evidence of my experience.

7. I cannot abide personal betrayal
Either of myself, or anyone I love. If there is a single unforgivable sin, betrayal heads the list of candidates. I’ve cut off relationships of long standing over this. I’ve also walked away from lucrative and, potentially, fulfilling freelance situations over unconscionable meddling by editors. I never shy from, object to, or resent serious editorial assistance. But I cannot and will not put up with having my copy altered on a whim, or in an attempt to change my style. Especially if you could contact me before publishing, and don’t.

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8. I use profanity
Which expressive expletives very possibly include the taking of your lord’s name in vain. The only true obscenity in my personal lexicon is hatred.

9. I am a writer. (But I love to sing)
Although I loathe her as a phony and a longtime CIA asset, I am as one with Gloria Steinem (or is that phrase suggestive, Gloria?) when she observed, slightly ungrammatically, “Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.” What value I place on myself, I place on my ability to parse a readable sentence that, when I am at my considerable best, flows with what this non-musician knows in his bones is a form of grammatical music. If actual lyricism eludes me (and one of the things I most wanted to be in my youth was a lyricist) I am not satisfied unless and until my cadences scan. If they soar, so much the better. That which is worth doing, is worth doing well. Or at least, to the utmost of one’s prosaic abilities.

I am proprietary about my words. To paraphrase Iago (and yes, I am aware that he is not the most savory character to cite, but hear me out):

Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing;
‘Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good [words]
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed.

If you cite my writing, give me the credit. Re-post my Facebook posts without attribution or the courtesy of an acknowledgment and I may be disappointed at your thoughtlessness; re-post my writing on those posts without naming me, and you have stolen the only thing I possess of value. If you don’t wish to be un-friended without explanation… just give me the goddamn credit!

So: Whatever else I am, or am not, I am a writer. But, O blessed Muse, how I have loved to vocalize on a stage! My range and expression would never give Placido Domingo or even Rufus Wainwright a sleepless night, but I would almost rather sing than do anything else. (Yeah, even that…)

10. I try to be kind
I believe, finally, that the gravest of all human sins is a lack of imagination. Or, if you prefer, a refusal to empathize. The ability to see, or examine, suffering by a human being or other animal and not experience a twinge of anguish — or worse, to countenance and even to cause, such suffering — is to my mind, evidence of sociopathy so extreme (and, sadly, so common) as to make us marvel at the human capacity for atrocity while at the same time leading us to wonder it isn’t even more frequent. I cannot abide deliberate cruelty — physical, mental or emotional. I have been on the receiving end far too often in my own life to accept it when it’s meted out to others. On social media, my rule of thumb is to refrain from commenting in a negative fashion on my friend’s posts, no matter how strong the urge, or how deserving the aperçu nor how witty the bon mot I may be contemplating. In return I ask only that my friends extend the same courtesy to me. Those who do, are cherished. Those who don’t, are let go.

That’s it. My credo, or credos. So now you know. Fair warning has been given. Please don’t act as if you were never warned.


* We have to conform in public to the strictures of the law in the nation in which we live, hence the inclusion above of the word “adult.” That this does not admit of those under 18 having consensual sexual relations, with other teens or even adults of their choice, nor the concept that other sovereign nations may have differing notions of what constitutes the age of consent, even for gay and Lesbian kids (in most sane countries, it’s 16) is an all-too-typical American delusion: “Age of Consent everywhere in the world is 18, because we say it is.” Do we really imagine that would hold up in an international court of law? Oh, wait… I forgot… We’re Americans. We don’t abide by international law. In any case, nothing supports this arrogance like the internet.

† I have since lost three more, one the longest of my life and another not far behind. Why, you’d almost think the problem was me! Well, in the interim I also gained one that has made up for the losses of all the others. Quality is what counts, after all, not quantity.

See also:
https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2019/07/18/file-under-no-good-deed-goes-unpunished/


Copyright 2014, 2019 by Scott Ross

Oranges on an escalator: “California Split” (1974)

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By Scott Ross

California Split is a potsherd from a culture not far removed, chronologically, from our own but which in appearance, artistic accomplishment on a popular scale, the possibility of progress and of a general maturity is as ostensibly ancient, and as forgotten, as Carthage.

Written by the actor Joseph Walsh, himself a gambler (and who has an unsettling role in the picture as a mercurial bookie) and initially developed by, of all people, Steven Spielberg, California Split focuses on two speculators, the casual novice Bill (George Segal) and the degenerate Charlie (Elliott Gould) who meet during an acrimonious game of poker, form an odd friendship based pretty much entirely on their shared addiction, and, on their uppers, travel to a high-stakes poker meet in Reno where everything they have rides on Bill’s abilities. Although not originally intended as a Robert Altman movie, that admittedly terse précis certainly suggests his approach — seemingly meandering, shaggy-dog stories that illuminate their subjects, and their characters, in ways many more “daring” or “challenging” narrative techniques and stories fail to do, and what the overwhelming bulk of movies never even attempt.

With Altman at his considerable best, only the contours remained the same, by which I mean those readily-identifiable personal traits that marked his filmmaking: The actors’ improvisations, the long takes, the large ensemble casts, the muted palettes, the zooms, the overlapping dialogue. But that is window-dressing, almost by the way. How Altman used film to explore human beings and their relationships to each other, which because it changed from film to film was never predictable, is what we should mean when we think of his work, or refer to anything as “Altmanesque.” In his and Brian McKay’s adaptation of the Edmond McNaughton novel McCabe, for example, what was removed was everything trite and predictable — the gambler dying on the street in Mrs. Miller’s arms, for example. Altman’s McCabe keeps muttering, “I got poetry deep inside me” when he hasn’t (and anyway, what man who is genuinely poetic needs to keep reassuring himself of it?) Yet at the end, sitting in the gathering snow with no witnesses to his murder, he’s become a beautiful metaphor: In death he is poetic… and Mrs. Miller is nowhere around; she’s deep in an opium dream, with Altman ending the movie on a close-up of the oblivion contained within her preternaturally glazed eyes. And that is poetry too.

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Charlie (Elliott Gould) and Bill (George Segal) about to wager on the names of the Seven Dwarfs.

Although Altman had been experimenting with overlapping dialogue at least as early as MASH in 1970 and certainly relied on it in McCabe, especially in the long first sequence in the saloon, it was for California Split that he developed his multi-track recording system without which his follow-up, Nashville, would not have been possible; it enabled him to capture several conversations at once without our losing track of what’s important. It isn’t over-used in California Split, and never becomes oppressive, but during the opening poker sequence in a large, organized gambling establishment, it’s as essential as the many extras imported from the Synanon organization (or cult, if you prefer). The faces, and the personalities, that come through in these scenes are both peripheral and essential; they’re the milieu into which we’re about to plunge, and they have a tang, an earthy charge, that ground the action and give it savor. I can’t imagine them in any other movie by any other filmmaker.

Despite the cavalier desperation of Charlie and Bill, and the glancing sadness of the women in their lives, a pair of lower-middle class prostitutes played by Ann Prentiss and Gwen Welles, this is a surprisingly buoyant movie, and it lacks the mean-spiritedness that dogs so much of ’70s cinema, especially in the realm of the homophobic. I’m thinking specifically of the sequence in which Prentiss and Welles’ date with the transvestite “Helen Brown” (Bert Remsen) is upset by Bill and Charlie’s need to celebrate their winnings. Although the two, pretending to be vice cops, send the poor man scurrying, the fact that he’s in drag is not made an issue, nor do they abuse him for it; even if their playing with him could be seen as victimization, it’s not the kind of sequence that makes you squirm. You laugh along with it, and Remsen, who plays the role of “Helen” with astonishing delicacy, is somehow able to exit with most of his dignity intact. Indeed, neither Bill nor Charlie ever lets on to “Helen” that they know he’s anything but a well-dressed and sophisticated middle-aged woman, enabling him to maintain his own necessary fiction. Had the movie been made by a professional liberal of the period like Sidney Lumet, I shudder to imagine what Bill and Charlie would have done to the poor man. Calling him a queer would have been the least of it — they’d have probably beaten him up as well. Contrast this with the later bar scene in which a blowsy drunk (Sierra Bandit) spews alcoholic invective in a monologue of self-pity remarkable in its piggishness, hurling the word “faggot” at her absent boyfriend and anyone else who crosses her. She’s clearly meant to be an offensive boor and is treated as such, even by the disgusted bartender (Jack Riley) who’s obviously beyond caring whether she hears his sarcastic comments or not. Charlie and Bill may be cheerfully amoral but they don’t engage in deliberate ugliness. This puts them on a plane above Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John in Altman and Ring Lardner Jr.’s MASH, who, as Richard Corliss observed, in their modish “irreverence” behave like frat-boy bullies to anyone who isn’t on their special wavelength.

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Bert Remsen as “Helen Brown,” flanked by Gwen Welles and Ann Prentiss.

In a picture like this the side-long glance is as piquant as the piercing gaze, and the incidental figures have more impact than the leads in other, less alive and incisive movies. There’s a wonderful sequence in which Charlie takes the bus to the racetrack, and can’t get the seat his superstitions demand he take because each of the other riders has his or her own gambler’s fetish, leading to an elaborate switching of seats that is wonderfully farcical but which holds its own, demented logic. And even as Charlie exploits the trusting nature of the woman he sits beside on the bus (Barbara London) when he and Bill win on the long-shot horse Charlie has told her not to bet on she becomes furious at Bill, hilariously hurling oranges at him in her rage as he rides up an escalator. As written by Walsh and directed by Altman it’s a set of scenes at once quirky, idiosyncratic, wildly funny, thoroughly on point and absolutely in character. Bill will likely never see that woman again, but he’ll always remember her…. and so will we. How do you forget someone who throws oranges at you?

Likewise, in an Altman movie even the extras and small-part roles resonate, like the hefty older woman in the opening poker scene, or the receptionist played by Barbara Colby in the magazine office at which Bill works. (A young Jeff Goldblum also shows up, as the editor, forever seeking the errant Bill, who ignores him.) The best and most memorable of these cameos is the Reno barmaid portrayed by Barbara Ruick. She hasn’t many lines, but with her engaging middle-aged mien, white cowboy hat, half-glasses, long hair, large grin, blasé good humor and un-self-conscious dance moves to a private melody only she can hear Ruick is, while nearly always in the background, intensely memorable; you want more of her.*

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In Reno: Barbara Ruick at center.

Pauline Kael, who admired the picture, felt the breakfast meeting between Bill and his bookie had the feel of an expository play scene, its neatness at odds with the looser structure of rest of the picture, but I demur. It helps us understand how close to the financial edge Bill has gotten himself in a relatively short period of serious gambling, and gives what has up to then been merely a disembodied voice on the other end of Bill’s telephone a bodily presence, a life and a psychology. Walsh had become by 1974 the furthest thing from the odd minor child star† he’d been in the ’50s; as the bookie called Sparkie his jumpiness and buried rage give him dimension, and weight. You judge that violence is not his first resort — he’s been carrying Bill for months — but that he’s getting closer to it, and that in turn makes explicable Charlie’s convincing Bill to take that all-or-nothing plunge in Reno. If the sequence is squarer than most of the others in the picture, neither does it feel false or unnecessary.

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Bill and Sparkie (Joseph Walsh).

Elliott Gould’s gift for cheerful, amoral expansiveness suits Charlie perfectly. He accepts everything that comes his way, even being beaten up, robbed and having his nose broken by an abusive thug of a fellow gambler; before exacting vengeance, he expresses admiration for the punch he’s just received. Charlie lives for the chance, and in common with many degenerate gamblers it doesn’t seem to matter to him whether it’s big or small. (Early in their relationship he and Bill bet each other over the names of the Seven Dwarfs.) A clue to his character is that his girlfriend is a whore, a fact that never seems to bother him, except when it gets in the way of a celebration. That he doesn’t exhibit any of the standard masculine jealousy has less to do, I think, with Barbara (Prentiss) letting him crash at the apartment she shares with Susan (Welles) — unlike with Bill, we never see any other place Charlie calls home — than that getting upset about such an immutable fact of life would probably strike him as a waste of time that could be better spent on fun. He’s so loose and secure in his sexuality he isn’t self-conscious about smearing hot shaving cream on Bill’s abdomen after they’ve been beaten up, and doesn’t respond defensively when Barbara has a light suggestive response to walking in on them, as he later and out of sheer ebullience gives Segal a public kiss on the lips during Bill’s winning-streak. In Gould’s equable performance, although Charlie can be annoying he is just about the happiest, most relaxed and likable wastrel you’ll ever see.

Prentiss is amiable too, and endearingly protective of Welles, but Susan’s character is difficult to pin down. She doesn’t seem quite real, which is no reflection on Welles herself but on the conception of the role; although Susan is appropriately casual about her carnality — when she offers herself to Bill, it’s as if she’s giving him a freebie because she’s un-engaged, and bored, and he’s present — she falls in love with random johns (Bill included) and repeatedly lapses into crying jags over them. We can’t get a handle on her, and she finally becomes slightly irritating. Susan is the one area of the picture where I think Walsh, and Altman, blew it.

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Bill is a far more successful creation, and I suspect Segal is largely the reason. Gould and Altman were gamblers, and Segal admits he was an innocent, which he used to help give Bill a naiveté that lets the audience in. He isn’t our surrogate, exactly, but he’s often as much at sea in Charlie’s milieu as we would be, and that confusion allows us access; when Charlie is explaining a system to Bill, he’s also telling us, but without seeming to, which would be fatal to the movie’s tone. It’s easy at this remove, in the years after he became a weekly comedic fixture on the television series Just Shoot Me, for an audience to forget what a fine dramatic actor Segal was, and is. (Not that an Academy nomination is or has ever been the final arbiter of quality but he got one, in 1966, for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) As opposed to Gould, whose humor is brash, Segal is subtler, and more charming. The actors compliment each other, and when at the end Bill has what, to employ an over-used word, we can only call an epiphany, Bill’s (or Segal’s?) reserve gives the moment its quiet power.

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Bill and Charlie, on a roll.

There’s a certain dread that goes with movies like this: The fear that you’re going to watch the main characters spiral so far downward there’s no going back, especially when, as it does here, everything rides on the outcome; it’s what happens in another under-seen George Segal picture from the ’70s, Ivan Passer’s 1971 study of a middle-class junkie, Born to Win. How Altman and his stars surmount that hurdle is exemplary, even if their muted ending upset the screenwriter. (Henry Gibson, in Mitchell Zuckoff’s oral biography of Altman, remarks that Walsh has been repeating that story “for the last 700 years.”)  When Joseph Walsh’s previous collaborator saw the picture made of the script on which he had initially worked, he lamented that Altman had squandered the climactic final third. He, Spielberg, would, he said, have shaped the material in a way that would have stroked the audience’s response to a glorious orgasm. We can all too easily, and with a shudder, imagine the Spielberg version of California Split, and be doubly grateful he never got to make it.

The DVD in my collection is the 2004 Columbia Tristar release, and it’s in full widescreen. From what I hear, the aficionado should beware the later Mill Creek release, which while slightly (3 minutes) longer is not in the 2:35:1 aspect ratio; it’s allegedly in 1:85:1, which is a considerable difference in framing, and Paul Lohmann’s images are too good to be squeezed, or “panned-and-scanned.”

I’ve also heard California Split dismissed as “minor Atlman,” but no movie that engages you on the levels this one does, or that so beautifully limns the contours of human personality and experience, is “minor” anything.

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* Horribly, the actress, the memorable Carrie Pipperidge of the 1956 Carousel, died of a cerebral hemorrhage during filming, which may account for the brevity of her appearance. Married to the composer John Williams, who scored Altman’s The Long Goodbye, Ruick left him a widower with three children. She is the Barbara to whom Altman subsequently dedicated California Split.

† Walsh, who had a good role in Walter Hill’s minimalist 1978 crime thriller The Driver, is probably best-remembered as Danny Kaye’s young, Platonic companion in Hans Christian Andersen (1952) — which given the complex sexuality both of the Dutch writer and of Moss Hart, the author of that movie’s screenplay, feels like more than a bit of a dodge.

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

Something Awkward This Way Came

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By Scott Ross

All movies based on great literature are, necessarily, diminutions of their sources. The best one can hope for is the occasional transmogrification that distills the essence of its subject: Horton Foote’s screenplay for To Kill a Mockingbird comes to mind, and even it misses, presumably due to length, one of Harper Lee’s central metaphors. There are, however, some titles whose technical innovations are so strong, and whose prose is so rich and ruminative (I’m thinking at the moment of Toni Morrison’s novels and Harlan Ellison’s stories, and the meta-fictions of Gore Vidal) they should never be touched by filmmakers. All their would-be adapters can achieve is a bare-bones fealty to a narrative arc, losing the essential, interior psychology — and the idiosyncratic dialogue, so dazzling on the page, which comes off as false when spoken by actors. High on the list of books that militantly defy adaptation are Ray Bradbury’s, and especially high is this Bradbury. In its 1983 Disney adaptation, nearly everything that could go wrong with a movie of Something Wicked This Way Comes, does.

First, the casting is off: Will Holloway and Jim Nightshade are, in the novel, 13 going strong on 14 (“Both touched toward 14; it almost trembled in their hands”) and I suppose for those who no longer recall the difference between 11 and 13, Vidal Peterson and Shawn Carson are perfectly adequate, if determinedly unexceptional. But as both boys look no older than 10 at best, their physiognomies further dilute their wan performances. But Disney, attempting at the time to stretch into a more adult market, was also trying to have it both ways — filming material that might attract adults while casting it with actors childish enough to appeal to those moviegoers’ offspring — and so achieved (Walter Murch’s wonderful Return to Oz notwithstanding) neither truly mature pictures, nor movies wholly appropriate for small children.

Additionally there are undercurrents of eroticism in the novel, both homoerotic (between Will and Jim, but especially on Will’s part toward Jim, an observation Bradbury would no doubt have disputed with vociferation) and heterosexual (Jim’s interest in the strange “theatre” in town of whose offerings he has caught furtive glimpses and longs for more and which one presumes are orgies being held in someone’s private home, along with his aching general desire to be older, a common dream which nearly always includes sexual experience within its yearning) and which the Disney concept cannot accept, let alone navigate — although the filmmakers shift desire to the barber, Mr. Crosetti (Richard Davalos), ultimately making him a prisoner of it. And however fine an actor Jason Robards, Jr. was, and as rich a portrait of Will’s aged father as he gives, Charles Halloway is only 54 in the novel, not 61…  and in Robards’ case, a hard 61, exacerbated by alcohol, that looks and feels rather more like 71.

Second, the screenplay, which not only reduces the poetic scope of the novel but alters its actions, sets what seems to me a deliberately timeless story in the 1930s, creates new characters (the double amputee Ed the Bartender), puffs up existing ones (Crosetti, Mr. Tetley, Mrs. Nightshade, Tom Fury the lightning rod salesman) or alters their narrative arcs and their characters for no discernable reason (The Dust Witch, Miss Foley), creates pat psychological alibis for Mr. Holloway’s inaction, blithely ignores period racial norms, turns the Cooger and Dark Carnival into Dr. Lao’s Circus, and literally reverses the deus ex machina of the climax. As Roger Ebert noted in his review, “Bradbury’s prose is a strange hybrid of craftsmanship and lyricism. He builds his stories and novels in a straightforward way, with strong plotting, but his sentences owe more to Thomas Wolfe than to the pulp tradition…” While I disagree with Ebert’s further observation that “the lyricism isn’t missed in this movie” (it’s completely missing) his take on Bradbury is apt. The man was a prose poet wed to pulp material, and his best work — Something Wicked, Fahrenheit 451, Dandelion Wine, The Martian Chronicles, From the Dust Returned — sings. (His actual poetry hewed to rhyme, and was less interesting.) And if the novel Something Wicked This Way Comes owes a debt to Charles G. Finney’s The Circus of Dr. Lao, the progenitor of all creepy side-show stories, it’s one the book wears lightly, unlike the movie, which essentially rips Finney off.

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13 going on 11: Vidal Peterson and Shawn Carson

It’s hard to know who is to blame for the movie’s fatally confused script. Bradbury adapted his book not long after its 1962 publication and attempted to get the studios interested, unsuccessfully, for years. And while what’s on the screen is credited to him, the director Jack Clayton brought John Mortimer on to prepare revisions, a decision as bizarre as it was a betrayal of Bradbury. What in the British Mortimer’s background — he was the barrister author of the Rumpole series, remember — suggested him for this project? And that the Disney suits fired Clayton, reshot several sequences and dumped Georges Delerue’s lyrical score as “too dark” confuses the issue even further. The picture is such an unholy mess it’s almost impossible even to get angry at it; the stench of desperation wafts from it like a choking miasma.

One example of many should suffice to illustrate what I mean. In Bradbury’s novel, Dark (Jonathan Pryce) sends the Dust Witch — a truly frightening and unnerving figure, eyes sewn shut, a hag reaching out with her senses, not the sultrily sexy enchantress portrayed by Pam Grier in the movie — to scour the area for Will and Jim, whose names he does not know. She does so in a monstrous balloon, which Will shoots down with an arrow, diminishing (although not, alas, destroying) her power. In the movie, Dark instructs her to find the boys and — this is important —  bring them back. An eerie green mist is then deployed on the town, reaching out for the Halloway and Nightshade homes like a pair of ghastly hands. Does the Dust Witch then do as she has been ordered? She does not. Are Jim and Will grabbed, and brought back to the carnival? They are not. They are instead assaulted in Jim’s bedroom by armies of tarantulas, which they fend off together as best they can before suddenly awakening in their separate beds, in their separate homes, implying that the entire attack was nothing but a supernaturally shared nightmare.

I don’t know what purpose the sequence was meant to serve but whatever it was, the boys are decidedly not brought back to Dark. And wasn’t their specifically ordered abduction supposedly what mattered? If so, what was the point of what we just saw? I gather a more elaborate sequence was planned, one which would have made extensive use of computer animation for the first time, but was junked as too expensive. So why concoct a replacement sequence that makes no sense? I can only assume our not seeing the carnival coming together by itself as the boys watch near the beginning — which could have been utterly, if eerily, entrancing — was, similarly, a victim of the budgetary chopping-block.

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Dark: Jonathan Pryce…

Speaking of the Dust Witch, I feel that little was gained by casting Pam Grier in the role, especially as she has so few lines and such a vague raison d’être. (In the movie she is also, naturally, the figure in the ice at the beginning. So why is she not the Ice Witch, then?) Mr. Tetley (Jack Dengel) becomes a blubbering fool at the sight of her sitting alone on a Ferris wheel seat and hastens to join her, but however heavily veiled she is, she is quite obviously a black woman. And as the picture is at pains to tell us it’s set in the ‘30s, how many white men would have been willing to make such public idiots of themselves over a figure they in their most charitable moments would have regarded, with a contemptuous sniff, as a Negress? Similarly, where in the novel the Dust Witch goes to stop Halloway’s heart and is nearly done in by his laughing in her face, here she merely slows it down. Why would Dark, who intends running Will backwards on his enchanted carousel, returning him to infancy in order to stop his mouth, leave his father alive? He wouldn’t. (And while we’re on the subject of Charles Halloway, it should be noted that the movie turns him from a somewhat disreputable if autodidact library janitor into the town’s librarian. Could the people at Disney simply not imagine a man content enough to immerse himself in literature without making its custody his profession? One assumes so, since they also subject Dark to what in the original does Cooger in because, one assumes, they could not conceive of filming his end as a dead child.)

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… and light: Jason Robards, Jr.

The picture is filled with such frustrating inconsistencies and betrayals of the original material. Miss Foley (Mary Grace Canfield) rather than being a favorite teacher who foolishly allows herself to be seduced by the house of mirrors and is ultimately rendered a little girl, becomes a termagant, angry over the loss of her youthful beauty, who is granted it again, but at the cost of her vision. Why? Why do Jim and Will spit invective at each other constantly, yet behave as if they love each other dearly when it suits the story? Why does Tom Fury (Royal Dano) dispatch the Dust Witch as if he was an avenging Ishmael and she (ironically) the great white whale?

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Pam Grier as a dustless Dust Witch

The movie gets almost nothing right, including James Horner’s replacement score, a conventional affair with a good theme and one neat percussive effect for the spider sequence which Horner all too typically lifted for his later score for Aliens. Only two sequences really work: The long scene of the boys hiding beneath the sidewalk grate in front of Tetley’s cigar stand, and the confrontation between Dark and Mr. Halloway in the library. And they succeed because they a) in the case of the former, hew closely to Bradbury’s original; and b) in the case of the latter, lift, shuffle and reassemble Hollaway’s dialogue to the boys before Dark’s arrival into a colloquy between the forces of seductive darkness (Pryce) and strained light (Robards), suiting striking action to potent word as the Illustrated Man rips a magically illuminated page from Holloway’s father’s journals for every year of the man’s life counted down. That both sequences also give the movie’s leading actors (and the actors in the picture who most give over to the roles) something to play doesn’t hurt. Yet even this is muffed: When Robards leaves the library he wears a bloody handkerchief around his hand, but, unlike in the novel, we haven’t seen Dark crush it.

The mirror sequence near the end is rather more effective than most in the picture, but it elides the horror of Jim and Will being made blind, deaf and mute by the Dust Witch and turned into living wax figures beforehand. And the finale of the thing is as confused as the tarantula sequence, with Mr. Halloway giving only a hint of the capering hilarity that in the novel brings Jim back to life, as if actor and filmmakers were too embarrassed to make much of it. It’s such a fey conception in Bradbury you can’t, if you know the book, imagine how anyone could bring it off, convincingly, on screen. But the people behind this Something Wicked didn’t even try.

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

Old Reliable: “Big Jake” (1971)

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By Scott Ross

A good Western from John Wayne’s late period, with a sharp and even occasionally witty screenplay by Harry Julian Fink and R. (Rita) M. Fink, a characteristically robust Elmer Bernstein score and a typically savory performance by Richard Boone as the story’s mercenary central miscreant. It’s the sort of movie in which characters remind each other that it’s 1909, presumably to prepare the audience for the sight of sniper rifles and REO Touring Cars in what looks like the Old West, and where an old reprobate (John Wayne) does battle with his estranged and snarky older sons (Patrick Wayne and Christopher Mitchum) as well as with the heavies who have kidnapped his youngest for a hefty (million-dollar here) ransom. And if the movie is no more, or less, than what many Wayne fans of the time expected, there are a few surprises along the way, the picture is seldom less than engaging, and it even holds an occasional, modernist twist: Instead of circling Conastogas in an Indian raid, for example, we get Federal Marshals hiding behind their REOs. And where “Little” Jake (Ethan Wayne) is shown at the beginning in the appalling “sissy” clothes of the period, complete with frilly white collar and wide-brimmed and beribboned hat, we are least spared “Big” Jake ridiculing the boy or having to teach him how to be a man.

Maureen O’Hara gives her usual flinty performance as Jake’s estranged wife (and with a creditable American accent); the younger Mitchum is better and more naturally charming here than in the later The Last Hard Men; the junior Wayne likewise acquits himself admirably; Harry Carey, Jr. is almost shockingly nasty as the oldest of the kidnappers; and there’s a clever Magic Lantern show in the opening titles, narrated by George Fenneman, no less. There’s also some lovely matte-work by Albert Whitlock and the often beautiful cinematography is by William H. Clothier, whose previous pictures as director of photography included Ford’s Fort Apache and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the striking Track of the Cat for William Wellman, Merrill’s Marauders for Samuel Fuller, the dark Stewart-Fonda Western Firecreek, and Rio Lobo for Howard Hawks. Harry Gerstad’s editing is crisp and utilitarian, some odd moments of discontinuity nothwithstanding, and Bernstein’s score includes, along with his customarily ebullient title theme, the effective use of harp and guitar as percussion during the final battle.

The screenplay contains the same style of laconic yet lightly crackling dialogue that distinguishes the exchanges in Rio Bravo, and a nicely stated threat by Boone which Wayne deftly turns on him: “Anything goes wrong, anything at all… your fault, my fault, nobody’s fault… it won’t matter I’m gonna blow your head off.” The generally likable script by the Finks (who also in 1971 created the quasi-fascistic “Dirty Harry” Callahan) nonetheless descends into occasional low throughs, as when Wayne resurrects his own “That’ll be the day” in The Searchers and, later, paraphrases John Huston’s paraphrase of Shakespeare from The Maltese Falcon.

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Richard Boone as the chief villain. You were expecting maybe Chico Marx?

Wayne, whose gravelly voice here betrays his medical historyhe’d had a lung removed from cancer — gives the sort of relaxed, amusing and assured performance expected of him, and he gets a great antagonist in Boone. As John Fain, whose only concern is money, Boone is intelligent, seemingly reasonable and casually murderous; he’s not looking to kill, but he’s not averse to it if it gets him what he wants. It’s the sort of role he made his own in pictures as diverse as Rio Conchos, The Night of the Following Day and The Kremlin Letter. His approach to arch villainy here is erudition, eloquence and a genial surface beneath which runs a river of ice water. I would imagine the Finks wrote the character’s dialogue with Boone in mind; once an actor develops a screen persona that works, even a base hack can hear that voice in his head as he’s typing.

One weird note: Jake has a reliable old Apache compatriot called Sam Sharpnose (played richly but with what would now be an unthinkable lack of appropriate ethnicity by Bruce Cabot) and a big, dark Collie he calls “Dog” who metes out toothy justice whenever he’s commanded. Both are dispatched in the big final shoot-out, chopped to bits by a frightening machete-wielding psychopath yet when the dust settles, not a moment is spared to respect either of them; it’s heigh-ho and on our way, with a happy final freeze-frame of the “Big” and “Little” Jakes. Since Jake himself isn’t heartless, I can only presume the filmmakers had additional material at the end that was cut by the studio. Further, the deaths of Sam and Dog are so discreetly recorded that neither emits so much as a soft mewl as he’s being hacked to ribbons. That’s carrying circumspection to rather an extreme, don’t you think?

Big Jake was directed with no special distinction whatsoever by George Sherman, whose last movie this was in a long career without a single significant title in it.

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

The Syns of Uncle Walt: “The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh” / “Doctor Syn — Alias the Scarecrow” (1963 / 1964)

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By Scott Ross

As a cartoon-obsessed child, I was an inveterate watcher of Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color (originally Walt Disney Presents, later The Wonderful Wold of Disney.) Most of the episodes, of course, had little to do with animation, at least after Walt stopped hosting the show; it was more a showcase for Disney’s live-action movies, either cut into multiple parts or made directly for television. In 1973, QB VII gained note as the first “mini-series” for television, but Walt had done it two decades earlier with his influential, three-part Davy Crockett series — one part longer than the Leon Uris, please note, about which so much was made in the early ’70s — run during the Disney show’s first season in 1954, before being edited into a much briefer theatrical feature.

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The Disney series that had the strongest impact on me was the 1970 re-airing of the three-part 1963 The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh. What I was unaware of then was that Walt had originally produced the series, in 1963, with an eye to re-editing it into a theatrical feature, which he duly did, releasing a 96-minute edition (as Dr. Syn — Alias the Scarecrow) in Britain before airing the three-part edition on American television in 1964.* I was also unaware, not being a viewer at that time of either Secret Agent or The Prisoner, of the series’ star, Patrick McGoohan. What gripped me were the eerie, malevolent spectre of Syn in his terrifying Scarecrow garb, complete with cross-bar emerging from the shoulders, and that ghastly, sneering laugh. Although we are given to understand, fairly early in the narrative, that this hair-raising figure with his hellish rasp of a voice is in fact the Robin Hood-like pastor of Dymchurch parish, an eerily effective aura of menace and the quasi-supernatural still pervade the series. What shocked my nine-year old sensibilities most, however, was, in Part Two, the mock-hanging of the gang’s traitor Ransley (Patrick Wymark); extremely strong meat for a more or less sheltered pre-pubescent for whom thanks to an overly-sensitive mother — the most intense televised experience in suspense had been watching re-runs of Jonny Quest.

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The Disney collectors’ tin series of DVDs briefly (it was a fast sell-out) included a two-disc set containing the original 1964 tripartite run of the show, complete with Walt’s avuncular, if slightly duplicitous, introductions† and the theatrical release version, in gorgeous color and widescreen format. (The director of photography was Paul Beeson.) Alas, the Blu-ray edition, available only to members of the Disney movie club or to collectors willing to pony up a premium on EBay merely contains the original series, omitting the movie.

I’ve just re-visited these splendid examples of Disney “synergy” (how the octopoidal Michael Eisner must have loved them!) and so a few observations seem in order. First, and surprisingly, when one considers how much had to be cut, the shorter theatrical release holds up remarkably well, considering it is only half the length of the original series. It lacks, curiously, the atmospheric opening sequence that was such a hallmark of the longer television edition and which contains Terry Gilkyson’s memorably folk-flavored “Scarecrow,” itself something of a lyrical puzzle. “Scarecrow!/Scarecrow!/The soldiers of the King feared his name,” runs the opening line. Do they? I see scant evidence of this claim in the action of the movie(s). And this, which makes perhaps for effective balladeering but almost no narrative sense:

So the King told all his soldiers,
“Hang him high or hang him low!
But never return
‘Til the day I learn
He’s gone in the flames below;
Or you’ll hang —
With the great Scarecrow!”

Well, I mean, really. The King (played in a single scene, and with an appropriate Teutonic inflection, by Eric Pohlmann) says no such thing. And how can they “Hang with the great [Who calls him “great”? Certainly not George III!] Scarecrow” if they do indeed return without him? Speaking of music, the score, by Gerard Schurmann, is wildly over the top, in a manner very un-Disney. Say what you will about Walt’s occasional bent to sentimentality, the scores he commissioned are usually far subtler than the banging, crashing, string-and-brass-heavy cues Schurmann came up with here. Even the one nice touch — flutes fluttering up, then abruptly down, in a pair of tense sequence — has the feel of “Mickeymousing” although, since the music doesn’t accompany a specific action, it isn’t.

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The Scarecrow menaces Ramsey

Syn’s Scarecrow hood, while effective, is also highly unlikely, since the Disney make-up artists molded the mask for effective speaking by taking a cast of McGoohan’s head, something the Reverend Doctor himself would hardly have bothered doing for himself.

There is virtually nothing else to criticize. By which I do not mean that The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh is a perfect work, merely, for a children’s series, an unusually engaging and sophisticated one. The English pedigree doubtless helped — it was loosely based on Russell Thorndyke’s far grimmer, and racier, books — and the (mostly) British cast is a decided asset, especially in the Canadian McGoohan’s amused dual portrayal of Syn and the Scarecrow, on the one hand kindly (if slightly arch) and gentle, while on the other (seemingly) vicious and threatening; in the great Michael Hordern’s multi-faceted Squire of Dymchurch, no supporter of either Scarecrow or Redcoat, and with a private ax to grind against the King’s Navy; in George Cole’s smiling jack-of-all-trades sexton Mr. Mipps; in the smirking cruelty of Geoffrey Keene’s General Pugh; in the comic rages of Kay Walsh’s innkeeper Mrs. Waggett; in Alan Dobie’s imperious prosecutor; in Eric Flynn’s earnest Lt. Brackenbury, knowing he’s abetting an evil system but not quite able to buck it… until he does; in Patrick Wymark’s self-involved and venal Ramsey, who nevertheless evokes pity in the viewer; in Elsie Wagstaff as the kind, aged Mrs. Ransley, viciously ill-used by her stepson; and, most particularly, in Sean Scully’s remarkably poised John Banks, son to the Squire and secret cohort of the Scarecrow. Scully has the requisite attractiveness of a Disney boy-hero (he was previously the Prince and the Pauper, also for Disney) but gives a performance infinitely more measured and mature as befits John’s social rank  than any comparable job by a young American of the period.

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A rather gaunt-looking Patrick McGoohan, with Sean Scully

There’s an enormous amount of day-for-night shooting in the series, most of it first-rate (the director was James Neilson, who later helmed the delightful 1967 Disney comedy The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin), and some equally good matte work. (By whom?) The script, by Robert Westerby, is tidy and compact — clever always, witty when called for and neither under- nor over-wordy; and the costumes, art direction and set decoration, by Anthony Mendleson, Michael Stringer and Peter James respectively, could scarcely be bettered.

In either full-length or foreshortened version, The Scarecrow benefits from Walt Disney and his creative staff treading with such skill that exceptionally difficult terrain: The line between juvenile and adult. A child of six or seven can follow this story easily, yet an adult in his 50s (ahem) will never be bored, or annoyed, and indeed will pick up, and savor, a great deal more of the film’s (or films’) historical references and period flavor, along with wallowing in the almost gratuitous splendor of that remarkable cast… and being, as I was in 1970, suitably spooked by the rest.

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* The movie was only shown on American theatre screens in 1975.

† Disney claims Dr. Syn existed: “One of the strangest characters who ever lived,” Walt avers. “A real-life [emphasis mine] Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He lived in England nearly 200 years ago.” No, he didn’t; although Thorndyke based Dr. Syn’s activities on those of the 18th century Hawkhurst Gang, the character himself lived entirely in the brain of the author, at least before his novels were loosed upon a ravening public. The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh was based largely on the 8th such volume, the 1960 Christopher Syn, which listed the American William Buchanan as co-author.


Post-Script, 2020
Although it is quite beautiful-looking, the recent members-only Blu-ray release via the Disney Movie Club contains only, alas, the television film in three parts.

Lyrics copyright Walt Disney Music Company. All other text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross