It doesn’t want people: “The Changeling” (1980)

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By Scott Ross

“That house is not fit to live in. No one’s been able to live in it. It doesn’t want people.”

The Changeling poster

Thanks to the recommendation of a very good friend, I finally got to this elegant exercise in horror, a movie I somehow managed to miss during its original release. Odd, in that, at that time, I went to damn near any movie that either starred, as The Changeling (1980) does, a favorite actor, or that held any sort of cinematic promise. Directed, with an uncanny eye for beauty, by the gifted Peter Madek, the man responsible for two superb early 1970s adaptations of exceptional British plays (The Ruling Class and One Day in the Death of Joe Egg) and based, so the story goes, on phenomena the credited story writer Russell Hunter encountered in Colorado, this is an exceptional, and remarkably stylish, ghost story. Further, and most unusually, it’s a ghost story with a patina of sadness that, while subtly limned, is at times nearly unbearable.

The Changeling is far from a perfect work. Its characterizations are thin and rely largely on the star-power of George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere and Melvyn Douglas to bring fulsomeness to them. And there are niggling little bits of interior illogic; unless the recently widowed, Romantic-style composer Scott portrays is as wealthy as Leonard Bernstein, it’s a bit of a stretch to accept his inhabiting the massive Victorian Seattle mansion he rents from the local Historical Society, whatever the discount.

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George C. Scott has an unnerving encounter. No violence here, or even the threat of it, yet this is one of the most unsettling scenes in the movie.

Still, what is remarkable about the movie, aside from its intelligent refusal to overplay its creepy hand, are its emotional plangency and the rich, saturated photography of John Coquillon. Medak and the screenwriters William Gray and Diana Maddox concocted a horror movie as if in reaction to every bad, or at least obvious, spook-picture ever made. In this, the picture resembles the 1944 The Uninvited — also about a composer, and in which Victor Young introduced the theme that became known as “Stella by Starlight.” The psychic disturbances Scott encounters are unnerving, but, until the climax, more unsettling than apocalyptic. The Changeling, unlike so many high-concept horror movies that both preceded and followed it, isn’t interested in shocking you every 20 minutes. And it’s that very evenness of tone and eschewing of the obvious that make the various supernatural visitations in the house so quietly unnerving; Medak and his collaborators make the sight of a child’s ball bouncing down a staircase and settling in a hallway seem more unsettling than a full two hours of non-stop, ghoulishly hysterical special effects.

Melvyn Douglas weighing the facts of his life.

Melvyn Douglas weighing the facts of his life.

I wish Jean Marsh had more than a single scene, and I could easily have done with more of the great Melvyn Douglas, whose year 1980 certainly was (he won the Academy Award® that spring for his beautiful performance in Being There) and Madeline Sherwood, who has all-too-brief a role as Van Devere’s practical mother. There is, however, a séance sequence that is absolutely unique in my experience of horror films, made compelling by a notably intense illustration of automatic writing, something I don’t recall ever having seen in a movie before. More importantly, the sense of grief that underlies The Changeling, in both the recent and in the distant past, gives The Changeling a sense of gravitas that makes its ultimate revelations deeply moving.

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Perhaps the most puzzling thing about the film is not its central mystery, but an exterior one: Its “R” rating. Only a few, mild, obscenities are uttered; there’s no sex, real or implied; and even the crucial sequence of little Joseph in the bath is staged, shot and edited discreetly, as such things must be to keep the country sane. (In Europe, unlike America, they admit, and perhaps even accept, that a child has genitals.) While the climax does include some ghostly violence, it’s hardly gratuitous, nor is it especially grisly. If keeping the impressionable kiddies away was the idea, there’s a hell of lot more for a parent to object to in any number of supposedly “child-friendly” features that achieved the coveted “PG,” so precious to movie studios, then and now.

But then, no one has ever accused the MPAA of sanity.


Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

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A Few Second Thoughts on The Changeling, May 2018

Thanks to the Carolina Theatre in Durham scheduling the new Canadian restoration of The Changeling as a regular feature (as opposed to a special screening of the original) I was able to revisit the picture, four years after being introduced it — and, pleasurably, on a big screen. The re-viewing has prompted me to a new evaluation, inspired in part by the lively discussion my best friend and I had afterward. Happily, it seems an even richer and more subtle picture now, although the supposed 4K restoration has its problems. The opening scenes carry heavy grain, and the sound was in some ways rather poor, which may be inherent to the movie itself, produced somewhat cheaply and without a stereo sound mix. (We get spoiled, don’t we, by THX? Even those of us who, like myself, seldom go to a new movie.) Still, I seldom encounter a problem at this theatre’s screenings of much older movies, so I must assume the occasional problems, especially with Trish Van Devere’s dialogue, were there in 1980. Perhaps they resist cleaning up?

That said, The Changeling holds up remarkably well to a second viewing, the inevitable loss of tension grounded in a foreknowledge of its events notwithstanding. Indeed, the picture seems even more ingenious and, in its avoidance of audience-pleasing cliché, even more quietly daring.

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I had forgotten, while writing up my initial impressions in 2014 immediately after seeing it, the movie’s splendid use of sound, specifically the periodic pounding noises George C. Scott encounters in the old mansion. And if these spectral soundscapes owe a little something to The Haunting, they’re no less remarkably carried off, providing a tantalizing early mystery for Scott’s John Russell, one that leads him to deeper exploration of the various paranormal phenomenon in the house — and, ultimately, to a heartbreaking revelation, especially for a man who has had his own child violently taken from him, however accidental the means. This is what I meant, above, by the almost unbearable sadness the picture encompasses, and about which I will say little, not wishing to spoil anyone else’s experience of it, except to note that I was struck, on this second viewing, by how logical the unseen presence’s heedless, demanding, hectoring of the Scott character is: The ghost is a child; he’s understandably angry. He wants what he wants, and he wants it now. This too has a pay-off, in the moment when the elderly Melvyn Douglas is confronted by Scott with his putative father’s crimes; his chin trembles as he faces Scott’s accusations, and, informed of the insupportable, bursts into pathetic weeping, like a hurt and resentful little boy, crying out at the suggestion that his parent was anything less than wonderful and perfect. Despite his octogenarian status, he is still a child as well.

My friend wondered, during our impromptu post-mortem, what the Scott character gets out of the experience. I would say nothing… except an even deeper grief. That’s the special grace of a movie as idiosyncratic as this one. There is no facile, happy pay-off at the end, no sense (to use an idiotic hack- word) of “closure.” Although a certain balance has been redressed by the fade-out, no one is any better off. Even the house has to die. (Although, if the appearance among the ruins of the little wheelchair and music box are to be taken at face value, even that is not entirely satisfactory to the victim.)

The thinness of the characterizations is still an issue, but a less nagging one at a second viewing, in part because the story is so beautifully and compellingly told, and due as well to how resourceful the actors are, particularly Scott. One may wonder, as my friend did, why the Van Devere character’s mother is even there, since she has no real stake in the action, except that she provides an emotional anchor for her daughter. And my earlier preoccupation with the cost of renting such a looming pile was mitigated this time around by the talk of how impossible it’s been for the Seattle Historical Society to unload it onto a tenant. Additionally, my previous essay title was mis-chosen: The old harridan at the Society may believe the house “doesn’t want people,” but that’s a misinterpretation by someone at a remove, who has never lived in the place; it does want people, rather desperately as it turns out. It — or rather, the spirit of its restless inhabitant — wants the aide of people, but, being an angry manifestation, and very young, goes about asking for that succor in all the wrong ways. It takes someone attuned to loss to be, at first intrigued enough and, later, anguished enough, to see through the clumsiness of the attempt to the aching heart of what is being demanded.

In the past four years, I have also become a great admirer of The Changeling’s score, especially important in a good ghost story but also of great urgency in a narrative whose major character is himself a composer. There’s a complicated back-story to that musical soundtrack, even as the picture itself had a rather torturous route to the screen: Howard Blake composed the thematically important central lullaby, but (presumably through poor communication on the part of the producers) was replaced as composer by Ken Wannberg, whose compositions were then fleshed out by the Canadian Rick Wilkins, making for a complex set of music credits. The music-box theme, both sweet and achingly yearning, is one of two central motifs in the picture; the other is a remarkable atmospheric piece that encompasses both the Scott character and the essential — and deeply disturbing — mystery of the house itself.*

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Peter Medak’s direction, particularly given the niggardly budget imposed upon him, is beautifully fluid and precise, yet with room for poetic metaphor. He repeatedly emphasizes the importance to the story of water, yet never overplays this, as he also handles the vertiginous qualities of the grand staircase; the moment in which Scott and a compatriot are shown, from above, digging out a crucial well hidden by the floorboards of a contemporary house, is a perfectly rendered visual bookend. (My friend and I were equally struck by the way Scott, when the police have come to remove the bones of the dead hidden there, instantly lights up a cigarette — he smokes throughout the picture — in the woman’s home without asking permission, and no one says a word. Imagine such a scene in a movie made nearly 40 years after this one! No filmmaker today would conceive of such a thing, except to illustrate by it how disgusting, boorish and horrible the character committing this atrocity is.) The séance sequence remains as riveting as ever, particularly when wedded to the way the Scott character realizes, later, that he too has succumbed to a crucial spell of automatic writing.

Speaking of subtlety: I wonder how many of the dolts who write literalist comments on imdb understand that the Douglas character isn’t really in the house at the end? The audience of 2018 expects, and demands, that everything be spelled out for it in the most obvious manner. No doubt the lazy- minded preview attendees and dread focus groups of today would also insist on a love/sex scene between the Scott and Van Devere characters. (And would you want to see George C. Scott in the nude?) It’s to the credit of Medak, and to the scenarists, William Gray and Diana Maddox, that they were not bound by such conventions, and that they, and the producers, were content to tell a small, perfectly delineated, spook story without recourse to mile-a-minute, chop-chop editing, ubiquitous special effects and pandering to a sub-literate audience’s expectations.

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While I am still a perplexed by that “R” rating, perhaps it as my friend suggested: A reaction to the picture’s central act of violence. Although the murder sequence was filmed with great restraint (the boy, in long shot, seems to have been wearing a flesh-stocking) it’s still squirmingly difficult to watch, and the age of its victim may have been the deciding factor in the MPAA’s schoolmarmish rating, retained for the movie’s re-release. It’s the most appalling crime imaginable, not in the sense of gore (there is none) but in the parameters of its circumstances. The picture is not, as a recent, Bettinger Law-courting headline posited, “the scariest movie ever made.” No. Not even close. The Changeling is not a traditional blood-and-guts horror picture. Nor is it a screeching spook-fest. It is an unusually understated and richly textured ghost story, with grave emotional plangency at its core, that never telegraphs its effects or insults the intelligence of its audience. (Pretending otherwise to whet the appetites of the uninitiated risks setting up unreasonable, and unrealistic, expectations that can only lead to disappointment.) And that one, horrific act, performed with mad, unfeeling, cold-blooded calculation, is — pardon, but there is no other word for it — haunting. Not in the standard way of such things, for there is nothing supernatural about it. It is, simply, the sort of thing whose unspeakable cruelty can haunt your memory long after you’ve shaken off the more casually outré blood-letting of many, much lesser, movies.

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*Interestingly, on the recent limited edition Blu-Ray reissue, Wannberg expresses his belief that the music-box tune is too harmonically complex, and should have been simpler. This may be so, but Blake’s theme is one I can easily imagine, set to lyrics, as a popular song of the period encompassing young Joseph’s boyhood. Further, it seems to me to encapsulate the picture, and its emotions, beautifully: It’s charming and sweet, yet plaintive and a little odd.


Additional text copyright 2018 by Scott Ross

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A much bigger circle: “Fiddler on the Roof” (1971)

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By Scott Ross

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“For everything you have missed, you have gained something else, and for everything you gain, you lose something else.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
The 1971 film transmigration of the 1964 Broadway phenomenon Fiddler on the Roof is arguably the most beautifully made of all adaptations from the musical stage, and certainly one of the most faithful. By filming it in as realistic a manner as possible, and as close to the birthplace of its progenitor, Sholem Aleichem, as the director, Norman Jewison, could get (Yugoslavia), the filmmakers honored the material as well, I think, as the source. What fell away, inevitably, was much of the very thing that made Jerome Robbins’ original so striking and even, in the terms of the musical theatre of its time, revolutionary. Any truly theatrical experience, play or musical, that exists in a heightened, stylized state can only be diminished by literalism. This is why any sane admirer of Follies, say, can only hope no movie ever gets made of it. Unless (as here) the material can support the transliteration, and the filmmakers are able to balance the inevitable losses with considerable gains of their own.*

Boris Aronson's set design for the interior of Tevye's home. Note the circle of houses surrounding it representing Anatevka. Like the figure of the Fiddler, they are precariously balanced, even upside-down, but they hold.
Boris Aronson’s set design for the interior of Tevye’s home. Note the circle of houses surrounding it representing Anatevka. Like the figure of the Fiddler, they are precariously balanced, even upside-down, but they hold.

Realism cannot take in, for example, the potent abstraction of Boris Aronson’s original Fiddler set. Inspired by (but in no way slavishly reproducing) the shtetl-based paintings of Marc Chagall, Aronson constructed a series of stage images that fully expressed the key concerns of Robbins and his collaborators: Not merely the sense of tradition (arrived at through Robbins’ insistent, necessary, question, “What is this show about?”) but the crucial aspect of the circle which binds the community, the people of the play, even the faith itself.

Great Performances

Zero Mostel’s Tevye leads the original company of the stage musical.

Nor can a realistic style encompass the inherent theatricality of the piece as a whole, especially as Robbins directed and choreographed it — as when, for example, in the opening, Tevye is suddenly joined by the figures of the villagers, hands linked, emerging from either side of the stage to create the circle that stands for Anatevka itself. A couple of songs in the Jerry Bock/Sheldon Harnick were also shed during filming, but their omissions are more than adequately compensated for by the filmmakers’ otherwise rare fealty to the score, superbly enhanced by John Williams’ rich, sensitive and often thrilling arrangements.

Thus, what was lost. (For some die-hards, the replacement of Zero Mostel with the earthier and less ostentatious Topol was likely also a grievous deficiency.) So what was gained? On a simplistic, yet pleasurable, level, the land itself — vast, verdant, arable, even majestic —and the physicality of Anatevka, especially the magnificently realized wooden shul with its stunning, intricate murals, glimpsed in the opening number and, at the climax, gazed at in anguished silence by Zvee Scooler’s Rabbi as he prepares to depart its walls forever. (In her splendid book Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of “Fiddler on the Roof,” http://alisasolomon.com/ Lisa Solomon reports that Jewison wanted the building preserved but, by the time he’d reached an agreement in Israel for its transportation it had, heartbreakingly, already been torn down.) And too, the pogrom that destroys the wedding of Tevye’s daughter Tzeitl at the end of the first act is, because of film’s innate ability to realistically depict such events (Cossacks on horseback, flaming torches, shattered glass, the shredding of the young couple’s gifts) far more gripping, and powerful, on the screen than it can ever be on the stage.

Tevye and his director: Topol and Norman Jewison.
Tevye and his director: Topol and Norman Jewison.

The strength of photographic imagery in the movie of Fiddler begins almost immediately, and to the point; as Topol warms up “Tradition,” Jewison and his editors (Robert Lawrence and Anthony Gibbs) cut, in rhythm, to Anatekva’s various articles of faith as well as to the villagers themselves, engaged in their respective tasks. Not quite the image of the circle as enacted by the company on the stage, but each rapidly glimpsed clip sets, and reinforces, the theme of communal traditions as the glue that allows those in the Russian Pale of Settlement “to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking [their] neck[s].” Nowhere in the show, or the movie, of course, do the authors (Joseph Stein in his book and screenplay, Bock and Harnick in their score and, although un-involved with the movie, Jerry Robbins) suggest that the bending of ritual leads to the eventual expulsion of Anatekva’s Jews. It’s all of a piece: The advent of 20th century modernity and czarist anti-Semitism, conspiring by accident to alter the face, and form, of institutional observance. Tevye, seemingly the least hidebound of the older Anatevkans, bends, as he says, only so far. And although he is unwilling to break entirely, even he softens enough by the end to at least express his parting concern for his wayward daughter Chava, if only through the intermediary of his eldest, Tzeitl.

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Topol, that “huge dancing bear of a man” singing “Tradition.”

The one, indispensable, element of the movie’s strength must be accounted the performance of (Chaim) Topol as Tevye. As a Sabra the actor was, in common with many of his fellow Israelis of the time, not especially attuned to Yiddishkayt. (Indeed, many were entirely antipathetic.) But Topol’s size, his vigor, his warmth and his courage — as much as, when compared to that of Mostel, his smaller but no less compelling theatrical presence — bring him closer to us, and perhaps even to Sholem Aleichem. Pauline Kael, in her review of the movie, which she called “the most powerful movie musical ever made,” referred to Topol as “a huge dancing bear of a man.” That’s just about perfect, I think. Although the then-35-year-old actor was only slightly younger than Zero Mostel when he first assayed the role, he carries with him an authority, and an expansiveness, that goes far beyond the touches of gray in his hair and beard. And although he is a far more handsome man than Mostel, sings better and more easily attains the higher notes without noticeable strain, what’s essential, even elemental, about Topol is the sense he projects of a man who, while firmly affixed to the appurtenances of his faith, is capable of elasticity — the flexibility a plant, however well rooted, needs to survive.†

Great Performances

The lyricist (Sheldon Harnick) and the composer (Jerry Bock) of “Fiddler.”

Essential, too, are the songs by Bock and Harnick. It is not merely fashionable to dismiss them; most of the show’s original reviews expressed reservations (is that the polite term?) about this immensely treasurable score. But as much as Sholem Aleichem himself, the Fiddler songs are inextricably linked to the show’s sense of identity, its abundant charm and humor, and its remarkable power. Bock, one of his era’s most accomplished musical dramatists, as at home in New York’s Tenderloin as in Hungarian milieu of 1930s She Loves Me, steeped himself in Yiddish folk melody and klezmer, and refracted it through the prism of his own exceptional composition acumen. While the ultimate tone of, and concept for, Fiddler (then called Tevye) was not set during much of the writing process there is in Bock’s supple, often yearning, melodies the concert of the shtetl, at once vigorous and elegiac. And they are perfectly complemented by Harnick’s alternately playful, moving, direct and ruefully funny lyrics all of which seem, as he said of his experience wedding his words to Bock’s music for “Sunrise, Sunset,” to “crystallize on the music,” as though there could be no other possible lyrics to any of those tunes. (Although there were, reportedly, dozens of attempts for every song that finally placed.) I’ve noted this before, but I think it bears repeating: If you think evoking Sholem Aleichem’s people, and place, and doing so while keeping in your mind the correct rhythms and cadences, and the needs of the performers, and making the humor or the pathos land properly and effectively on 1,500 minds and hearts and pairs of ears hearing them for the first time, is easy, then go ahead: You write something as effective as “Tradition” or “Anatevka” I’ll wait.

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Norma Crane (Golde) and the Yiddish theatre star Molly Picon (Yente the Matchmaker). Note Picon’s playful signature.

Kael, who loved the movie in spite of what she saw as the “squareness” of Jewison’s direction and the (to her) Broadway jokes and disposable songs, nevertheless carped about the performance of Molly Picon as Yente the Matchmaker. For all her gifts, Kael sometimes seemed to go to inordinate lengths to separate herself from her own Jewishness. I don’t mean her less than laudatory remarks about Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (with many of which I agreed — not least her complaints about its sheer, numbing length — but which got her in a lot of hot water with some readers and colleagues); I refer instead to her rejection of some of the richer veins of humor which American show business has accepted as a delicious gift from its creative Jews but which, for Kael, smacked either of special pleading or of unconscious self-abasement. She was hardly alone in this. Indeed, as Solomon points out in Wonder of Wonders, resistance to, and rejection of, Yiddish theatrical traditions lies at the heart of controversies that attended every mid-century attempt to place Sholem Aleichem’s stories on the stage; second and third generations of Jewish-Americans didn’t want all that schmaltz and inflection with which their parents and grandparents cluttered up a brave new assimilationist world. So, nu? But Yente — her very name a Yiddish convention — is, while admittedly an invention of the show’s book writer Joseph Stein, very much a part of the soil of the shtetl — indeed, its soul — at least as delineated by the creative team that put the show together. Even granted Robbins’ understandable aversion, as Solomon also tells us, to making his Sholem Aleichem musical The Return of the Goldbergs, who better to embody Yente’s very yenteism than Picon? As the one-time, undisputed queen of the Yiddish theatre (although when she began she neither spoke nor understood Yiddish) Picon knew this woman in her very bones; the kvetching and kvelling, the self-martyring geshrais, the constant smug (and self-justifying) nudzhnikness of a woman who is despaired of but never entirely dismissed (all those children to be wed!) Picon’s performance, always pleasurable, is especially — sorry, it’s the only word that will do — piquant, now that Molly herself is no longer with us.

No such grumbles greeted Norma Crane’s Golde, although Kael did complain that the role was under-written. Perhaps. But so is everyone’s, aside from Tevye; after all, the show is not called Hello, Golde! What Crane achieves in her limited screen-time is a highly believable portrait of a careworn, un-lettered woman of the earth with a great deal of love but no time for sentiment. Crane (who died, shockingly young, of breast cancer, three years after the movie opened) had an almost Classical beauty, but hers is no glamour-puss Golde. No-nonsense, she bears her husband’s mischievous wiles as she does her daughters’ unruliness: with a shrug, an exasperated bark, or a sighing aside (“You can die from such a man…”) Yet Crane’s strength of character is not merely admirable, it’s necessary. How else could a woman like her bear the vicissitudes of that life? And when she breaks, after Tevye orders her on the road to forget her middle child Chava, the effect of her normally ram-rod straight body, black-clad as though in mourning and whipped by the winter wind, bent double in hopeless despair, is harrowing.

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Maybe the most rapturous lovers in movie musical history: Leonard Frey (Motel) and Rosalind Harris (Tzeitel.)

As Tzeitl, the eldest of the three marriageable daughters (the youngest pair are marginal) the beautiful Rosalind Harris makes an impression that can remain with you a lifetime. At a precocious 20 when the film was made, Harris carries herself with both a wry dignity and an open honesty of expression that she lingers in your memory long after Tzeitl’s major part in the family drama is over. And as her nebbishy swain Motel, the adorably tongue-tied Leonard Frey is utterly endearing. Frey, who played the Rabbi’s son Mendl in the 1964 production (and who would eventually graduate to Motel on stage) had just come off reprising his definitive Harold in the movie of Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band. Here, he is scarcely recognizable as the actor who portrayed that acid-tonged, “32-year old, ugly, pock-marked Jew fairy.” He nabbed an Academy Award® nomination for Motel (as Topol did for his Tevye) and one would have thought that, if he could successfully negotiate those two, wildly disparate, roles, the world should have been open to him. (Alas, it wasn’t, and he succumbed to AIDS at 50, in 1988, leaving behind the sense that an important career had, somehow, been thwarted aborning. By homophobia? Perhaps. Or maybe just the usual Hollywood myopia.) When he finds his voice at last, his serenading of Harris, and their delighted dance to “Wonder of Wonders” is one of the most rapturous numbers of its kind ever filmed.

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Bending, but not breaking: Perchik (Michael Glaser), Hodel (Michele Marsh) receive Tevye’s permission, and his blessing.

Michele Marsh, as Hodel, is a touch too conventionally cute, but she does convey the spirited independence of the role and sings a notably beautiful, poignant “Far from the Home I Love.” Hodel’s vis-a-vis, Perchik, is a bit of a pill in his ardent Socialist mania, which could make him a self-righteous boor in the wrong hands. Blessedly, Michael Glaser (later, as Paul Michael Glaser, the Starsky of television’s Starsky and Hutch) brings a kind of thoughtless, arrogant charm to the part, making Hodel’s eventual willingness to follow him as far as Siberia at least explicable.††

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Neva Small as Chava.

The third daughter, Chava is, in her way, crucial to the success of the narrative.  Her determination to not merely throw over tradition for love but to engage in apostasy, risking the eternal enmity and alienation of her beloved family and the entire Jewish circle of Anatevka, must be absolutely grounded or the increasingly troubling arc of the play’s darker second act can topple off its delicately balanced wheels. In Neva Small, Jewison found his ideal. In each of the show’s succeeding marriage stories, one gets the sense that these girls have been paying sharper attention to Tevye’s warm interior than his gruff exterior, and play off it in ways that place their father in ironic binds. But in the Chava story, that reading has not been nearly close enough; she pushes back harder, and more devastatingly, than she knows. Small somehow manages to embody both her father’s idealized vision of her (his “little bird,” his cherished Chavelah) and the less perfect self of reality. Inquisitive, keen, at once guarded and openhearted, Small’s face radiates intelligence and love in equal measure, making Chava’s eventual estrangement (and Tevye’s anguish) deeply, personally, traumatic.

Zvee Scooler lends his beautiful, gaunt face and gentle gravitas to The Rabbi.

Zvee Scooler lends his beautiful, gaunt face and gentle gravitas to The Rabbi.

The smaller roles were cast with similar care. Zvee Scooler, who played the innkeeper for the entire seven-year run of the play, makes a superb Rabbi. His gaunt, moving face and his gentle gravitas do much, I think, to take the curse off a role some Jewish commentators felt was too condescendingly comic on Broadway. Paul Mann’s Lazar Wolf, with his charmingly Santa Claus-like mien, is nicely judged as well, neither as boorish as Tevye at first believes nor as completely docile in the face of marital defeat as the peripatetic dairyman might hope. Louis Zorich likewise does wonders with the off-handedly anti-Semitic Constable who — in a scene added by Stein to the screenplay — makes agonizingly clear what Edmund Burke meant when he wrote that “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” (Well, maybe not “good” so much as halfway decent.)§ And the Welsh singer Ruth Madoc is an unforgettable Fruma-Sarah in the inspired dream sequence, wildly funny in her uncannily witchy ululations.

“The Dream”: Tevye and Golde menaced by Fruma- Sarah (Ruth Madoc.)

Which brings us rather nicely around to the strengths of Jewison’s imagery. Onstage, “The Dream” leaps from one form of heightened theatricality (Aronsons’ set) to another (folk-inspired ghost story.) In the movie the effect of the humor, and the quality of its tongue-in-cheek ghoulishness, in the midst of the filmmaker’s “square,” quotidian visual palette, is even stronger, and funnier. (There’s a shot of Topol reacting to Fruma-Sarah with knock-kneed terror that is especially uproarious.) It’s a folk nightmare, the colors de-saturated, the costumes and make-up both over-the-top and eerie. That push-pull of the pragmatic and the fantastic is also true of the sudden distancing effect Jewison goes in for when Tevye confronts his daughters’ romantic yearnings: Topol is seen at a vast remove, suspended in agrarian space between his core beliefs and his overmastering love for his children. But when he speaks/sings, “Look at my daughter’s eyes…” the director immediately closes on those expressive orbs, bringing Tevye, and us, instantly back to the crux of the material’s emotional center. Likewise, the gorgeously realized “Chava Ballet” is rendered as a hallucination-like reverie, Tevye’s sense of his immediate world crumbling in the face not only of modernity but of the inevitable loss a parent experiences when his children move, as they must, away from his sphere of influence, and love.

The

The “Chava Ballet.”

The famous

The famous “Bottle Dance,” inspired by Jerry Robbins observing a red-bearded trickster at a couple of Jewish weddings in 1963.

In his quest to hone Fiddler to its essentials, the director Jerry Robbins left the choreographer Jerome Robbins somewhat high and dry; that “Chava Ballet” arrived at its effective abbreviation only after a much longer, more frenzied and frightening, number outstayed its welcome. But Robbins at least had a first act topper in the famed “Bottle Dance” during Tzeitl’s nuptials. Inspired by a trick he witnessed a red-bearded wedding guest perform at two different Jewish weddings, the dance has since become so much a part of the Fiddler ethos that many assume it’s an actual freylekh. Having been fired from the movie of West Side Story for the very deliberateness that led his theatrical collaborators to despair but which enhanced his unique staging, Robbins was never truly considered to helm the movie of his most successful stage musical, so it was up to his assistant, Tom Abbott, to re-create the original choreography, and it’s nowhere more ebullient or felicitous as during the wedding. Not only the sinuous “Bottle Dance” itself but the entire sequence is informed by Robbins’ meticulousness in recreating the exuberant, uninhibited, even frenetic, merry-making he witnessed at various Jewish weddings preparatory to mounting the show. And it’s here that Jewison makes one of his few missteps. The dance is shot, and edited, too casually, denying us the pleasure of watching those limber bodies going through their joyous paces. This is even more obvious when watching the Canadian Broadcasting documentary about Jewison on the Fiddler DVD, when the CBC’s camera placement during the “Bottle Dance” trumps Jewison’s own. Dance on film is always a sticky problem. Fred Astaire felt, with no small justification, that the camera should be placed at a distance (and not further cluttered up by fancy editing) so the audience could appreciate the footwork. Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen concurred, and they never interfere with our enjoyment of, and exultation in, even the most complex numbers in Singin’ in the Rain. So documentary realism does have its limits, especially in musicals.

Fiddler on the Roof was, seemingly, a tough sell in the mid-1960s. Not only was the material overtly, even proudly, Jewish (as indeed were the Sholem Aleichem stories on which it was based) but its action embraced a pogrom and the saddest of all possible climaxes — the enforced expulsion of an entire people. In comfortable, and comforting, hindsight, one can always look back and say, of a hit, “Well, of course…” (I always thought John Simon was being more than slightly disingenuous when he opined during that decade that the most enormous possible sure-fire Broadway hit would be “a big, vulgar musical about black, Jewish homosexuals.” Simon’s target was theatrical parochialism, I know. But let’s not be ridiculous.) No, Fiddler was no sure thing, in 1964 or 1971. What sold it, and continues to sell it, was the collective intelligence, even genius, of its creators as much as — and I would argue, more than — the universality of the underlying material. The unwavering devotion of Robbins, Bock, Harnick, Stein and the original producer Harold Prince to telling this story well, and with scrupulous dedication to its shades of meaning within a specific confluence of humanity, was picked up, and codified, by Jewison & Co. in sumptuous turn. Those final, ineffably moving, images of a new Diaspora infused both with hope (in the amorphous forms of Palestine and America) and hopelessness (in the unutterable grief of the dispossessed that presages the Shoah) contain, in microcosm, everything that made, and makes, Fiddler on the Roof such an imperishable fact of life.

Exodus: The haunting finale.

Exodus: The haunting finale.

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*One of my five favorite movies is the 1972 Bob Fosse version of Cabaret, itself, under Harold Prince’s direction, a highly stylized show. But as Fosse and his collaborators re-imagined the material, hewing more closely to the Christopher Isherwood model and throwing out the “book” songs, it’s the exception that proves the rule. Especially as the name most often reported in connection with a movie of Follies is — saints preserve us! —Rob Marshall.

†Topol was the London Tevye in 1967, based in part on the producer Richard Pilbrow’s having seen his 1964 Israeli comedy Sallah (or Shallah Sabbati.) Pilbrow was expecting to meet much older man. Topol, who had succeeded Bomba Zur in the role during the highly successful 1965 Israeli Fiddler, was not what you would call proficient in English before he starred in London, and it’s interesting to compare his performance on the movie soundtrack with that on the ’67 Columbia cast recording; his inflections in the latter tend to Anglicized pronunciation (“You may ahsk” rather than “You may ask.”)

††Glaser/Perchik lost out on a solo in the movie. Motel’s original number during rehearsals for, and early performances of, the show (“Now I Have Everything”) was eventually ceded to Bert Convy’s Perchik but Jewison didn’t think it right for the movie. Jerry Bock’s replacement melody, “Any Day Now,” is among the finest and most rousingly apposite he ever composed, and Harnick’s lyrics are in admirably quirky character. But the moment is a bit of a dead-end, and it’s probably just as well the number was cut. You can hear it, in Glaser’s somewhat over-taxed rendition, on the Fiddler soundtrack CD and the DVD.

§Zorich is probably best known for his role on Mad About You as Paul Reiser’s father Burt. From conductor of pogroms to befuddled Jewish pater familias — that’s one hell of a range.

 

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

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

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The 1960 television

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

By Scott Ross

If, as I believe, Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night is the great American play, his The Iceman Cometh vies with very few fellow contenders for a most respectable second place. And if family is the great subject of 20th century American dramatists, there is no family play that can touch Long Day’s Journey in its merciless yet pitying dissection of the means by which our immediate relations shape, and misshape, us, and the unshakable, death-grip hold they exert on us: How, even when we comprehend, and confront, the psychic murders parents and children visit on one another, we are unable to fully forgive, let alone, forget, them.

James Barton, holding forth at center, the original Hickey of O'Neill's 1946 staging. That linear row of tables couldn't have helped.

James Barton, holding forth at center, the original Hickey of O’Neill’s 1946 staging. That linear row of tables couldn’t have helped.

While the nuclear unit is not the dramatic center of The Iceman Cometh, family is never very far from the surface. The denizens of Harry Hope’s saloon themselves form an uneasy, shifting, kind of family, made up largely of disaffected brothers and eccentric uncles, with Harry himself the predictably mercurial pater familias. And for many of these men, some sort of familial uncoupling forms the basis of dipsomania. Larry Slade, the “old foolosopher,” a one-time Anarchist, claims he’s long finished with the movement, yet it was his ultimately untenable involvement with young Don Parritt’s mother, rather than the movement per se, that soured him on his youthful pipe-dream of political upheaval. Parritt himself, who looks to Larry as a potential father-figure, has betrayed the movement to the police for a mess of pottage, ostensibly for money but really to get back at his indifferent mom, that self-same paragon of the movement who so effectively killed Larry’s activism. The one-time “brilliant law student” Willie Oban was likewise undone by the arrest and imprisonment of his bucket-shop proprietor father, and Jimmy Tomorrow pretends the cause of his bibulousness was his wife’s infidelity when it is far more likely that the reverse was true: That it was he, not her, who was unfaithful. Even “The General” and “The Captain,” old Boer War antagonists now inseparable companions in methomania, have been disowned by their families at home, while Harry deludes himself that he has withdrawn from life outside due to his great love for his (conveniently) dead wife Bessie, in reality a nagging termagant he could barely stand. And Hickey, whose arrival is so widely anticipated — and whose sudden reversal of persona is just as avidly despaired of — has finally reached the limit of his capacity to torture, and be tormented by, his endlessly forgiving wife Evelyn.

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O’Neill at the time of the first, ill-fated, production of “The Iceman Cometh” on Broadway.

O’Neill generally (and Iceman most specifically) can feel like strong medicine, even to his admirers. For Arthur Miller, himself no slouch in the practice of heavy-handedness, O’Neill “is a very insensitive writer. There’s no finesse at all: he’s the Dreiser of the stage. He writes with heavy pencils.” Pauline Kael classified Iceman as “the greatest thesis play in the American theatre.” And Kenneth Tynan was absolutely correct when he noted of it, “Paul Valery once defined a true snob as a man who was afraid to admit that he was bored when he was bored; and he would be a king of snobs indeed who failed to admit to a mauvais quart d’heure about halfway through The Iceman Cometh.”

I myself avoided both reading and seeing Iceman for decades, for precisely the reasons explicated above. Well, that and its 4-hour length, which cowed me. But no one who considers himself a playwright, or a critic, has any business avoiding O’Neill, or this play, indefinitely. Despite its obviousness, its insensitivity, its longueurs, its lack of poetry and its undeniable position as a thesis play, The Iceman Cometh is, somehow, indispensable. It says little, and at great length and volubility, and one can argue endlessly about whether O’Neill is averring that human beings need their pipe-dreams in order to live (Kael) or that the specificity of a barroom/flophouse filled with alcoholic bums invalidates its universality (Tynan.) I would say that O’Neill is not necessarily claiming anything for everyone but that, if he was, it is that pipe-dreams are less what allow us to face the impossibilities of life as they are the inevitable run-off of personal guilt and the fantasies permitting those who feel themselves failures to believe in some sort of hope, however tenuous or unattainable, for the future.

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Robards as Hickey.

O’Neill himself staged the 1946 Iceman, in a production starring James Barton that was roundly unappreciated and puzzled over, and which ran only briefly; it took 10 years for the play to be rediscovered, in the popular Circle Rep re-staging by Jose Quintero. And while there is as yet no “definitive,” complete video rendering of this unwieldy, occasionally stupefying but undeniably powerful dramatic cantata, two exceptional, if slightly abridged, editions were, thankfully, preserved for posterity. The first, Sidney Lumet’s 1960 video production, produced by the nascent public broadcasting entity National Educational Television (NET) would be notable if only for its capturing of Jason Robards’ universally acclaimed characterization of Hickey but is, despite its visual limitations, much more than merely a showcase for a great actor’s defining performance. The second, John Frankenheimer’s 1973 movie for the short-lived subscription series American Film Theatre, while lacking Robards, has a visual palette is far richer and gives us as well, in a uniformly superb cast, the final performances of two great American actors.

The great Robert Ryan as Larry (1973.)

The great Robert Ryan as Larry (1973.)

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Myron McCormick as Larry (1960.)

Since the play is at base a contest between Larry and Hickey, the casting of the two roles is crucial. About Hickey, more anon. But in its Larry, the AFT production has the decided edge in Robert Ryan. Then 59 — and, although he did not know it during the filming, dying — this greatest of unheralded American actors gives the performance of a lifetime. The movie camera helps, of course, but what is written on Ryan’s craggy, lived-in face is unique to him. As a lifelong leftist, the role of a former anarchist drowning in his bitterness must have held great appeal, but Ryan also brought to the movie the experience of his previous role as James Tyrone opposite Geraldine Fitzgerald in a Long Day’s Journey revival, so his O’Neill bona fides are secure. He lends a gentleness, and a grace, to Larry that is absent in Myron McCormick’s effective but more obvious 1960 reading; in Ryan, the warring impulses of instinctive pity and a desperate desire to an indifference he cannot feel are as absolute, and as heartrending, as his conflicting hope for, and fear of, “the big sleep” of death.

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The magnificent Frederic March as Harry, with Ryan and Tom Pedi, the once and future Rocky.

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Robards with Farrell Pelly as Harry Hope.

Crucial too to the 1973 edition too is the Harry Hope of Frederic March. One of the most important actors of his time, March was a popular matinee idol (A Star is Born), twice an Academy Award® winner (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Best Years of Our Lives) and, latterly, the creator of James Tyrone in the 1956 premiere, following O’Neill’s death, of Long Day’s Journey. At 76, March plays the 60 year-old Harry with rare gusto, his malleable face stretching from the slackness of both bottomless self-pity and irritable garrulity to the infectious grin of devilish (and innately sadistic) merriment that make it instantly clear why, aside from his largesse with liquor, the denizens of what Larry calls “The Bottom of the Sea Rathskeller” adore him and put up with his periodic grousing. I don’t mean to slight Ferrell Pelly, who played the role in 1956 and again in 1960. If March’s performance did not exist, Pelly’s would seem sublime. But March’s does.

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The Parritts of the Lumet and the Frankenheimer are, by contrast, a virtual draw. The 1960 Parritt, Robert Redford, is so staggeringly good you can only lament how seldom, once he became a star, he has been given — or allowed himself to take — a role that gave him so much latitude. It isn’t that the self-hating young man is a great role, or even a terribly good one. It’s more a device, and an occasionally irritating one, but that merely makes Redford’s achievement all the more remarkable. There’s nothing guarded here, as there so often is with Redford’s later appearances; the moods are sudden and startling, the outbursts at once annoying and deeply moving. I think it’s the best work he’s ever done.

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Jeff Bridges had been giving fine performances for some time before the 1973 Iceman, so his appearance here may have seemed less spectacular than Redford’s at the time. And, as with Ryan, he’s helped by the Eastmancolor camera; there are moments when you watch, filled with wonder at the beauty of his open young face. For all the schematicism of the role, Bridges brings to it the heartbreaking ardor, confusion, guilt and cruelty of youth, and more. The sound he makes when he feels Larry has given him permission to enact the very escape his hoped-for father substitute cannot undertake for himself — something between a sobbing whimper of relief and a sigh very close to the post-orgasmic — is unforgettable.

Moses Gunn as Joe Mott

Moses Gunn as Joe Mott

Bradford Dillman, right, as a heartbreakingly believable Willie Oban.

Bradford Dillman, right, as a heartbreakingly believable Willie Oban.

In the smaller roles, most of the 1960 cast are the equal of those in 1973. Two exceptions are the Willie of Bradford Dillman and the Joe Mott of Moses Gunn. James Broderick’s 1960 Willie is very fine, but Dillman’s is revelatory. We’d seen him in a profusion of thankless, largely forgettable, movie and television roles for years in the ’60s and ’70s, and he’d always seemed one of those actors, not beautiful enough to star, always reliable in support, who never quite get the chance to grasp the brass ring. Drunk, Dillman’s Willie simmers in self-disgust, and his delirium tremens is so terrifyingly right that he becomes a genuinely tragic figure, too young to be so lost, yet too long in the sauce ever to amount to anything. Moses Gunn, one of our best, and least well known, character actors, with a voice as commanding as it is recognizable, looks both like a sport and a hopeless drunk, and the way he bestirs himself to righteous anger at the others, and at himself, for their genial racism and his own complicity in it, are searing. In 1960, Maxwell Glanville was rather too robust physically to quite get the wreck Joe has become. And while his characterization is, like Broderick’s Willie, a good accounting, Gunn’s is non-pariel.

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Tom Pedi, second from left, as Rocky. To his right is Sorrell Booke. At far right, John McLiam, the movie’s heartbreaking Jimmy Tomorrow.

Lee Marvin's Hickey sizes on Jimmy Tomorrow and Harry Hope.

Lee Marvin’s Hickey seizes on Willie Oban and Harry Hope.

Tom Pedi had the distinction of playing Rocky, the saloon’s weather-vane of a bartender who deludes himself that being a procurer does not make him a pimp, in 1946, 1960 and 1973, and is both the same, and different, in the television edition and the AFT movie. The same, in that his characterization is roughly identical in each, yet diverges if only for his having aged into it. He’s at once keenly perceptive and eye-rollingly capricious, first cozying up to then deflating the bums in Harry’s bar with the breathtaking suddenness of a born sadist. (Like owner, like barkeep…) He’s also more than slightly terrifying. Sorrell Booke, too, is in both the Lumet and the Frankeheimer. As Hugo, perpetually sozzled, waking from his stupors just long enough to express his true loathing of the proletariat he believes he loves, Booke is both comic and (to use a word that, in context, sounds like a pun but isn’t) sobering. The Jimmy Tomorrows of 1960 and 1973 also constitute a near-draw, with the knife-edge going to latter. Harrison Dowd’s Jimmy, while eschewing any sort of noticeable accent, is moving enough. But John McLiam, whose voice carries more than “the ghost of a Scotch rhythm,” has sad, limpid eyes, helped along by the color camera, and his tremulousness is no less heartbreaking than are his occasional, doomed stabs at a regained dignity. Like Dillman, he’s ultimately heartbreaking.

The women are more problematic. Not the actresses themselves (Hilda Brawner, Julie Bovasso and Joan Copeland in ’60 and Hildy Brooks, Juno Dawson and the preposterously named Evans Evans in ’73) but the characters. Billy Wilder once allegedly — and notoriously — said of the women in his movies, “If she isn’t a whore, she’s a bore.” Well, the whores in this play are bores, devices through which O’Neill gets at his theses. The women in both casts do what they can, and Evans (married at the time to the director) rises above the material occasionally. But only barely.

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Lee Marvin as Hickey.

Which brings us, finally, to Hickey, and the great divergence. I wonder whether Lee Marvin’s performance might have been granted more honor in 1973 had Robards’ not been broadcast thirteen years earlier. (Although Kael, who discerned too much shouting in Marvin’s long, climactic aria, may have been relying on a faulty memory; Robards also bellows.) For my part, both actors are equally fine, if in different ways. Robards may be more jocular, raising that patented sheepish chuckle of his after revealing more than he means to, and the fact that the vocal gesture is one he used in other, later roles, does not diminish its effectiveness. Marvin’s persona was never that of the glad-hander, and there is a certain tightness behind his initial bon homie that hints at the coldness with which Hickey operates; he’s spent a lifetime sizing up his marks, calculating the unstated yearnings of those he’s selling before moving in for the kill. (Not that anyone with a halfway decent mind would have much trouble figuring out this bunch.) To grouse about Marvin not being Robards is to deprive oneself the pleasure of watching an actor stretch himself, and in a role whose richness he must have known would likely never come his way again.

Sidney Lumet in the mid-1950s.

Sidney Lumet in the mid-1950s.

Lee Marvin (Hickey) with John Frankeheimer on set.

Lee Marvin (Hickey) with John Frankeheimer on set.

As directors, both Lumet and Frankenheimer serve O’Neill, and their actors, never getting in the way of either. Both editions cut the text a bit, and the ATF Iceman omits the (admittedly minor) character of Ed Mosher, Harry Hope’s circus con-man brother-in-law, perhaps because of budget — the series producer, Ely Landau, of necessity restricted her filmmakers to one million dollars — but more likely because it was felt that one parasitic hanger-on (the corrupt former cop Pat McGloin) in Harry’s apartment was sufficient. The NET production, aired over two evenings, appears to have been live; lines are flubbed slightly now and then, and the actors begin to perspire noticeably around the mid-point of each segment. If so, it makes what Robards & Co. accomplish that much more impressive. That Lumet was trained in live television, and a past master at it, in no way dulls the luster of his achievement in directing so rich and immediate a production.

The major differences between the two versions is one less of scale than of opportunity. (Although the television edition is more like a filmed stage-play, owing as much to the space in which it takes place as to anything else.) Lumet, working within the severe limitations of early video, is unable to get a visual balance, or to light his actors suggestively. The starkness of the image washes out contrast, and what I assume must have been very hot lights presumably negated any possibility for subtly or nuance in the visuals. Frankenheimer, working with the color cinematographer Ralph Woolsey —  and film — and able to avail himself of Raphael Bretton’s realistically solid and beautifully tatty sets, had greater opportunity to make his Iceman Cometh much more cinematic, although he is never showy. The textures of the settings, rich and shadowed and lived-in, and the ability to use far more technically advanced, and supple, film stock than the flat black-and-white video available to Lumet, allowed Frankenheimer a looser, more realistic palette. It’s notable that the two, although radically different, got their start as directors during the era of live television drama, and had, perhaps as a result, deep respect for actors and text, both crucial here. In their respective versions of this essential American drama, each man came through with honor bright. And honor, as Aristotle suggested (and as I suspect Eugene O’Neill would have agreed) is the second greatest quality of the mind, eclipsed only by courage. All three men, to one degree or another, certainly had that.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

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She went through my soul: “Poltergeist” (1982)

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By Scott Ross

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A catch-phrase that really caught on.

For every avid filmgoer there are those rare, popular movies whose first viewings are so powerful they alter the contours of experience. For this viewer, Poltergeist (1982) was one of the most indelible.

If, as I do, you love good horror movies, or ghost stories, your love is apt to be largely un-requited, and disappointed on a fairly regular basis. There simply have not been enough great ones. There are those that make an enormous impact on the wider culture but which, over time, can seem nugatory at best, ludicrous at worst. The 1931 Dracula is a fine (or rather, not so fine) example of the phenomenon: Seen today, this early talkie is beset by the technical limitations of the nascent sound-film; static dialogue sequences, stilted performances, and great long periods of sleep-inducing ennui. Stack Bela Lugosi’s hammy, self-regarding turn as the Count against Boris Karloff’s magnificent, shockingly sympathetic performance as Frankenstein’s Creature that same year, and its deficiencies become overwhelming. The only performer who really registers in Dracula is the unfortunate Dwight Frye, doomed as he was to increasingly minor roles, as Renfield; he’s as over-the-top as Lugosi, but his bizarre inflections, unhinged chortle and terrifyingly mad grin stay with you.

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Dwight Frey as Renfield.

The master list of truly great horror movies, alas, adds up to a paltry few: Frankenstein; King Kong (1933); The Invisible Man (1933); The Bride of Frankenstein (1935); The Thing (from Another World) (1951); Dead of Night (1945; the influential ventriloquist sequence starring Michael Redgrave, anyway); several of the RKO Val Lewtons (the 1942 Cat People, the 1943 I Walked with a Zombie and the 1945 The Body Snatcher especially); the 1960 Hamer Brides of Dracula (if only for Peter Cushing’s jaw-dropping self-cauterization of the vampire’s bite); Psycho (1960, although it’s less a horror picture per se than an all-too human, contemporary shocker); Rosemary’s Baby (1968), less horrific than unsettling, especially if you’re a woman who has ever experienced or even contemplated pregnancy, and far funnier than was noted at the time; perhaps Planet of the Apes (1968); The Legend of Hell House (1971); The Exorcist (1973); Jaws (1975); Carrie (1976); Alien (1979); Dressed to Kill (1980); the woefully under-seen The Changeling (1980) and Wolfen (1981); Fright Night (1985); Aliens (1986); The Silence of the Lambs (1990), more police procedural, perhaps, than outright horror, and what you don’t see is more chilling than what you do; Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992); and The Sixth Sense (1999). Television managed to produce two masterworks in The Night Stalker and Duel (both 1971), one very good, if desperately truncated adaptation of a Stephen King (IT, 1990) and although I haven’t seen the Jack Palance Dracula, about which I hear good things, and aside from series like The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, funny and frightening in equal measures, very little else since.

(It’s a mark of real deficiency in the genre to note that horror’s most successful late 20th century practitioner has had so few good adaptations. Aside from Carrie, most of the 1983 Cujo and parts of the generally ludicrous 1980 Kubrick edition of The Shining, Stephen King’s work has produced only one great transliteration — and, at that, not a horror picture at all: Frank Darabont’s 1994 The Shawshank Redemption. There is something certifiably wrong with the people who make these things, that King’s batting average as a source is so appallingly undernourished.)

I recognize that I’ve left off this list a number of accepted “classics” of the genre — The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1920); London After Midnight (1927); the Fredric March Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931); Black Sunday (1960); The Innocents (1961); Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978); The Abominable Doctor Phibes (1971); The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974); Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) — and can only offer the feeble but nonetheless binding excuse that I’ve never seen them. (I did see part of one Elm Street sequel, and that was plenty.) I also realize I’ve omitted any number of movies others love. The simple explanation is, I don’t happen to share the enthusiasm of the mavens for items like the following, whatever their individual or incidental accomplishments: The 1925 Phantom of the Opera (despite Lon Chaney’s extraordinary performance, and unforgettably grotesque appearance); The Mummy (1932); Freaks (1932, whose final image is so disturbing I cannot bring myself to watch the movie a second time… and what is the use of a “classic” you can’t bear to see again?); The Island of Lost Souls (1932); The Uninvited (1944), to which Poltergeist owes an obvious debt; The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947); the deeply unpleasant Peeping Tom (1960); Village of the Damned (1960); The Birds (1963); The Tomb of Ligeia (1964); and The Haunting (1963), which despite fine work by Julie Harris and Claire Bloom and that memorable breathing door, isn’t a patch on Shirley Jackson’s superb novel except in its re-characterization of the parapsychologist’s wife, in the book is a caricaturish, meddlesome battle-ax.

Others are good but, by larger or smaller degrees, manage to skirt greatness: The Barrymore Dr. Jekyll (1920); The Old Dark House (1932); The Wolf Man (1941), hobbled as it is by the stunningly amateurish performance of Lon Chaney, Jr.; perhaps the 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers (if you ignore its reactionary McCarthy-ite allegory… or is it anti-McCarthy? No one seems sure.); The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957); Theatre of Blood (1973, which is ultimately too mean-spirited and gruesome to be wholly enjoyable); the stylish Brian DePalma spoof The Phantom of the Paradise (1974); Hallowe’en (1978, fatally marred by the supernatural implications at the end); DePalma’s thin but exhilarating The Fury (1977); the satirical 1978 Philip Kaufman version of Body-Snatchers; An American Werewolf in London (1981); The Company of Wolves (1984); the funny/frightening Arachnophobia (1990); Neil Jordan’s elegant Anne Rice adaptation Interview with a Vampire (1994); and, perhaps, Tim Burton’s 1999 Washington Irving fantasia Sleepy Hollow, or even his and John Logan’s very effective 2007 adaptation of the Sondheim-Wheeler musical Sweeney Todd.

Similarly, while I love it with an affection one reserves for Three Stooges shorts, Deep Rising (1998) can hardly be counted among the masterworks in the field any more than its writer-director Stephen Sommers’ later Mummy movies. And while there are horror comedies I hold in esteem — Bob Hope’s 1940 romp The Ghost-Breakers, Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966), Ghostbusters (1984), Beetlejuice (1988), even the 1974 Young Frankenstein — these must be accounted as special institutions and not really what we mean when we talk about great horror pictures.

The foregoing is to suggest both the paucity of really satisfying cinematic horror,* and why Poltergeist was, and remains, a high-water mark for the genre — for me; one of the sharpest and most informed movie aficionados I know found it “studied.” (But then, he also loves the later Kubrick, the last word on “studied” as far as I’m concerned, so caveat emptor.)

I first saw the picture in early June, just after its opening. It was a weeknight, so the theatre was largely empty; but one small gaggle of teenagers more than made up for the sparse audience, hooting and yakking throughout the first reel. I was on the verge of heading to the lobby to complain when the tree smashed through the window of the children’s bedroom and all Hell broke loose. After that, I never heard a peep from those kids. And that goes some way to suggesting the stunning power of that sequence, which the filmmakers had painstakingly prepared us for during the movie’s first twenty minutes (is that what my friend meant by “studied”? And would he still feel the same if Spielberg’s name wasn’t on the picture?) yet which burst with a suddenness, and an intensity, that were genuinely shocking.

Tobe Hooper, who the credits tell us directed the movie, was widely suspected of being little more than a figurehead on the production, to the point that its producer (and story author) Steven Spielberg took out an ad in Variety to quell the rumors. But Spielberg’s imprint on Poltergeist is not merely evident in its pace and lighting (that tell-tale kukaloris) but in the way the characters and their milieu are introduced. The first reel of the movie bears an aura similar to sequences of domesticity in Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977): Parents and children in everyday interaction, warmly limned but never idealized. The Freelings — low-key father Stephen (Craig T. Nelson), earthy mom Diane (JoBeth Williams), eye-rolling adolescent Dana (Dominique Dunne), overly-sensitive middle child Robbie (Oliver Robbins) and adorable, but not precocious, youngest Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) — are normal to the point of being mundane, yet strikingly individualized and almost figures of documentary in that very casual, seemingly ad-libbed normality; their suburban world is bordered by middle class cookie-cutter architecture, Star Wars posters on the children’s walls… and the ever-present cathode tube.

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Carol Anne meets “The TV People.”

Indeed, our first important image is of a television, Stephen sprawled out a chair in front of it, asleep, as the broadcast day ends. (Younger viewers may need to have that concept, and the pre-signoff playing of the National Anthem, explained to them; they’ve never known anything except the 24-hour cycle.) And the picture ends with Dad, in a credulity-stretching yet emotionally satisfying moment, banishing the TV from the Freeling’s motel room. (You try pulling one of those things out of a wall; they’re anchored.) Spielberg said the movie was his “revenge on television,” and he wasn’t kidding: Stephen and a neighbor nearly come to blows over control of their remotes, and the small screen, as in so many American households, is ubiquitous; it’s on in every room in which there is a set. Its banalities infect everything; as Diane makes a bed, she’s singing, not the latest pop hit or a song from her youth but the then-current Miller Beer jingle. And it is from the television that un-welcome visitors first make themselves known to Carol Anne and, later, violently forge a portal to the interior walls of the Freeling home. (Side-note: The inclusion in one scene of a clip from A Guy Named Joe is not merely an in-joke for those who know Spielberg’s identification with it; the discussion of the intersection between life and death is very much germane to Poltergeist. Its inclusion is pointed, but lightly handled.)

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The portal opens…

The opening sections play up this ordinariness bordering on banality… until, at breakfast, some odd things happen: Robbie’s milk glass shatters as he’s holding it, and his silverware curls while he’s not looking. Still, there’s nothing spectacular at play until that spine-chilling moment when Diane turns back to the dining area to see all the chairs stacked on the table. What makes the incident especially startling is the way Hooper keeps Williams and O’Rourke in view throughout; only when Diane turns back and gasps do we see what she does. (I clocked this; the crew had fewer than seven seconds to remove the chairs around the table and place the stacked ones on top of it. Even presuming the second batch of chairs, and the table, were glued together, that’s still pretty impressive.) It’s this pleasurable little shock that let me know, in 1982, that I was seeing something very different from the normal run of spook-fests.

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The first of many startling moments. Diane: The… TV people? Carol Anne: Un-huh.

Another of Poltergeist’s prime assets, one that puts it well above the usual run of escapist entertainment, is the lived-in, almost vérité quality of the acting. Much of the dialogue in the early sequences has the same ad-libbed feel that gave the domestic scenes in Jaws their verisimilitude — a sense of reality that grounds the characters and that makes the terror, when it explodes, all the more shocking. In private, Stephen and Diane josh each other with an ease of long standing, and the children (young Oliver Robbins especially) perform with a naturalness seldom seen in a major Hollywood production. That Spielberg, whatever his unofficial function here (he is reputed to have been on set nearly every day of the shoot, and Zelda Rubinstein claimed he directed all of her scenes) has a special affinity for, and with, children was evident as early as Jaws, but not even the kids in E.T. have quite the unaffected spontaneity Robbins, Dunne and O’Rourke exhibit here. (Although the children in Close Encounters were every bit as believable.) Robbins’ reaction to realizing he’s hearing Carol Anne’s voice coming from inside the television is so good it brings chills; anyone who’s ever been so frightened he or she could not produce speech, let alone a cry (“Scream, ladies and gentlemen! Scream for your lives!”) will recognize the phenomenon instantly. It’s one I’d never seen done quite so well in a movie before and have since only seen as convincingly once (Laura Dern in another Spielberg, Jurassic Park, ordering her suddenly boneless legs to run.)

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Robbie “finds” Carol Anne. Young Oliver Robbins is almost preternaturally good in this sequence.

Although my paperback library includes a fairly extensive collection of movie “novelizations,” I don’t think I’ve actually read one in 30 years or more. (They’re just fun to collect, and to look at.) But I sat down with James Kahn’s Poltergeist “tie-in” recently, and found it remarkably fulsome, and markedly different from the finished picture. Unusually, its cover proclaims it as “Based on the Story by Stephen Spielberg and the Screenplay by Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais and Mark Victor” rather than merely the latter. Kahn’s narrative deviates only in that it contains much about the parapsychologist Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight in the movie) and a great deal more about Tangina Barrons, who in Spielberg’s original conception was a woman haunted by her psychic gift, going forth through astral projection to do battle with what she calls “The Beast” on the plain of existence in which little Carol Anne Freeling is trapped. It’s fascinating, and makes Tangina much more central to the narrative; it also reassures the reader about her motives, which in the movie as shot are slightly ambiguous. (Kahn’s source might have been Spielberg’s earlier story-draft, which he eventually conflated with the work of Grais and Victor for the final screenplay.) As it turned out, introducing Lesh and Tangina separately, and after Carol Anne’s disappearance, suits a more streamlined, less amorphous, approach. And here we come to one of the movie’s great strengths: Beatrice Straight’s superb performance.

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Martin Casella, Beatrice Straight and Richard Lawson encounter the restless spirits inhabiting the children’s bedroom.

Audiences at Paddy Chayefsky’s Network had already seen Straight’s stunning rendition of a monologue of grief, anger and rhetorical flourish — although brief, the role, and her reading of it, won her an Oscar®. I believe she’s even better in Poltergeist, not least because she’s on screen longer. Dr. Lesh calls upon Straight to exude intellectual rigor, professional competence, mounting terror, and deep, embracing warmth in equal measure; she is, in a way, the beating heart of the movie. She has a couple of reactions in Poltergeist that I treasure (her look of shock on seeing Carol Anne’s room in a state of full possession, and the way her hand flutters to her face when the full extent of the Freeling’s un-welcome visitation is made manifest) but her finest scene of masterfully sustained acting is the one in which she talks, in a whisper, to Diane and Robbie. It’s an annealing sequence, beautifully acted, that brings a kind of desperately needed respite from all the supernatural goings-on which precede, and succeed, it. It’s also splendidly written, which is not something one expects, or very often gets, at a spook movie.

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Beatrice Straight, as the parapsychologist frightened out of her wits. The lovely sequence in which she whispers the nature of hauntings to little Oliver Robins, is a small master-class in luminous acting.

The women of Poltergeist are exceptionally strong, as written and performed, and share a bond that does not extend to the male characters. Diane becomes, in a sense, Supermom by the climax, willing herself through sheer, terrified determination. But Dr. Lesh and (to a smaller but no less plangent extent) Tangina act as surrogate mothers to her as well; the older women’s embraces comfort and sustain her. This intensely feminine aspect went largely un-remarked upon at the time of the movie’s release, but I’ve always felt it lies at the very core of the narrative, and is an essential part of its effectiveness. Motherhood itself is seldom as felt in a movie as it is in Diane’s anxious love. When a sudden gust in the den portends Carol Anne’s presence, Williams’ reaction, alternating from astonishment to joy to nearly hysterical anxiety (“She just moved through me… It’s my baby. She went through my soul…”) are almost palpable. It would take a sterner heart than mine not to melt at that moment.

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Zelda Rubinstein. As the Southern-accented psychic, she is dominating, witty and a wholly unexpected delight, even as we are unsure at first how to take her, or even what her motives are.

The entrance of Tangina into the proceedings is so individualized I think it would have been a shame to have introduced her earlier, as Spielberg’s original story suggested. (That Kahn describes the character in the novel as a dwarf presumes that the casting of Rubinstein was no fluke, although she was a midget rather than a dwarf, and identified herself as such.†) Our lack of preparation and “back story” also give her an unknown, and unknowable, quality, and we may be forgiven for wandering, briefly — as Diane does at a crucial moment — whether Tangina is all she says, or some curious agent of The Beast. One drawback, or perhaps unintentional, mis-direction occurs in the finished film that is explained more fully in the novel; when Tangina says of the chief malevolence in the house, “To us, it is The Beast,” the sudden turn of phrase, and the other characters’ reactions to it, lead us to think she is referring to no less a presence in the house than Satan himself, and may cause some confusion as to exactly what we’re seeing later, when Diane is menaced by a spectral beast in the movie’s wild, accelerated climax.

There are two additional missteps in the movie as released. The first is the abrupt cut to Stephen and Diane with their casually hostile neighbor, especially as it comes in mid-dialogue. I’ve often wondered what’s missing between those scenes. The second is a notably poor special effect, in a movie almost over-brimming with exceptionally well-executed ones. When Dr. Lesh’s assistant Marty (Martin Cassella) hallucinates in the mirror and begins tearing off the flesh of his face, the countenance seen in his reflection is so obviously a made-up dummy that it completely dissipates the horror. I think it’s the quality of his hair: Marty’s is loose and lank; the hair on the Marty in the mirror is fuller, and seems plastered onto its head. (In Spielberg’s story, the sequence is even more terrifying, as Marty imagines he’s being overrun, and devoured, first by insects, then by a horde of rats; he later hallucinates turning into The Beast that bit him earlier.)

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Signs of Spielbergian oversight: The kukaloris in action.

I remark on this lapse only because the rest of the movie’s effects (executed by ILM) are so spectacularly successful, and so perfectly integrated. This is especially true of the extended climax, in which the house itself seems to be doing its best to deter Diane’s repeated attempts to free Robbie and Carol Anne from the newly opened portal. Her confrontation with The Beast is both beautiful and almost unbearably scarifying, but the moments leading to, and away from it are rendered with equal panache. There is, first, the way Diane is physically manipulated, up the wall of her bedroom and across the ceiling; it’s the old “upside room” trick, so memorably enacted by Stanley Donen when Fred Astaire dances all over the walls in Royal Wedding, but on a much grander and more astonishing scale. Hitchcock’s simultaneous zoom-forward/pull-back effect in Vertigo has been imitated widely, but only Spielberg has used it appropriately, and twice: Once in Jaws, at the moment Roy Scheider feels most disoriented, fearful and isolated, and here, as Diane attempts to race down a hallway that elongates as she’s running, suddenly shrinking back to normal dimensions as she struggles to move forward. It’s a great moment in a movie filled to busting with them.

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Diane Freeling confronts The Beast.

Craig T. Nelson, like JoBeth Williams, is eminently strong, and equally likable, as Stephen Freeling. I particularly relish the quiet, affectionate manner in which he greets the unseen Carol Anne as he’s lowering the den lights (“Hello, Sweet Pea”) and the confidence he shows as an actor when confronting his boss (the always dependable James Karen) at the climax. The way his voice careens into nearly incoherent screeching (“You son of a bitch! You moved the cemetery, but you left the bodies, didn’t you? You son of a bitch, you left the bodies and you only moved the headstones! You only moved the headstones! Why? Why?”) is deeply impressive. Only a performer of great confidence can afford to let hysteria take over quite so completely without being unmanned by it.

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James Karen and Craig T. Nelson sure look as though they’re being directed by Steven Spielberg…

Special mention must be made of Matthew F. Leonetti’s sumptuous cinematography, which is responsible for much of the movie’s effectiveness, and of Michael Kahn’s dynamic editing. Like the direction, it eschews flash in favor of long scenes played with minimal fuss. The sight (and sound) of Beatrice Straight, Oliver Robbins and JoBeth Williams just talking, quietly, is as compelling as any of the more apocalyptic sequences. It’s an art that Hollywood, in its drive to (as they say in the ad biz) “blow you against the back wall of the theatre” has forgotten, seemingly forever.

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Gatefold detail of the 2013 Mondo release of a 2-LP vinyl soundtrack album.

The movie’s greatest collaborator, however, after Hooper and Spielberg, is Jerry Goldsmith. Setting aside the annoying book-end device of children’s laughter electronically manipulated to sound like a gaggle of Rosemary’s offspring, the soundtrack LP quickly became one of my personal touchstones. In a career spanning some 50 years of scoring, and taking in everything from intimate drama to special-effects comedy, it would perhaps be unfair to cite Poltergeist as Goldsmith’s masterpiece. But its effectiveness, in what it brings to the movie, and as music, simply cannot be overstated. The “Carol Anne” theme, gentle and haunting at once, is the cornerstone of the score, imbuing the Freeling household with its own sense of innocence touched by something ineffably unsettling. But the “action” cues — particularly “Twisted Abduction,” “Night Visitor,” “Let’s Get Her/Rebirth” and “Night of the Beast” — are so muscular, so chromatically varied, instrumentally complex and gripping, they amount to almost a master-class in what a composer of genius can bring to a film which, already strong, is made damn near invincible by his contributions. Sentiment rather than relative merit seemed to dictate Goldsmith’s being shut out at the Academy Awards® that year by John Williams’ score for another Spielberg creation. I’m not knocking either Williams or E.T., which in its own rights is a landmark. But the more I listen to the Poltergeist soundtrack, the more convinced I become that this is one of the quintessential movie scores, to be placed in a Pantheon that includes Bride of Frankenstein, Sunset Boulevard, A Streetcar Named Desire, Spartacus, Psycho, To Kill a Mockingbird, Jaws and Close Encounters as a prime representative of the art. (By contrast, Williams’ E.T. score has a tendency, like the movie it accompanies, of pulling tears as manipulatively as The Sound of Music.)

Much ineluctable noise has been made since 1982 concerning the fates of two of the three young actors who played the Freeling children, and I don’t intend to rehearse that here… nor to ennoble the specious, insensitive talk of a “curse” attending the movie; Dominque Dunne’s murder was horrific, as was poor little Heather O’Rourke’s demise via medical misadventure. To imply otherwise, to suggest that somehow these young people “tempted” some god of chaos by appearing in a goddamn movie is to dishonor their deaths, and their lives. Just as using the current, odious Hollywood phrase “re-boot” to describe the planned 2015 “remake” of Poltergeist itself is to dignify the ghoulish (and creatively anemic) cinematic equivalent of grave-robbing.

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Diane discovers she’s not alone in the swimming pool. Do you find yourself thinking of Karen Allen in the tomb of the Ark? (Those skeletons, by the way, were real.)

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*If my list of good titles seems extensive, reflect for a moment on how many hundreds, if not thousands, of horror pictures have been made since the early 1900s.

†And yes, there is a difference: Midgets are normally-proportioned in every way but height. (Think of Hervé Villechaize or Meinhardt Raabe… or indeed any of Raabe’s fellow “Singer Midgets” in The Wizard of Oz.) Dwarves have thicker, stumpier extremities. (cf., Billy Barty, Warwick Davis, Peter Dinklage and Kenny Baker.) It’s believed by many that it is the latter who are most insistent on both groups being identified as “little people,” and on labeling “midget” a pejorative. Further deponent sayeth not; that’s one culture war I’m not about to participate in.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

Jill Clayburgh in Paul Mazursky’s “An Unmarried Woman” (1978)

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By Scott Ross

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An Unmarried Woman, written and directed by Paul Mazursky, was a touchstone for me when it opened in 1978. I kept going back to see it, over and over throughout that spring, and bringing women friends with me. It was a foreign country, kids; they did things differently there. Like making mature, intelligent, sexy and truthful movies about human beings… and especially, about women.

Why Jill Clayburgh did not take home the Academy Award the next year for her fulsome, achingly honest performance I’ll never know. Which would I rather sit through? The earnest, phony pieties of Coming Home again, or the joy of An Unmarried Woman?

Baby, there’s no contest.

Goodspeed, Mr. Mazursky. Thanks for the laughs, and the love.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

What kind of crazy story is this?: “All the President’s Men” (1976)

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By Scott Ross

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Los Angeles, CA. May, 2011. Richard Stayton writes a compelling piece in the Writers Guild of America (West) magazine Written By (http://bluetoad.com/publication/?i=67460), responding to claims made by Robert Redford that he and the late film director Alan J. Pakula completely re-wrote William Goldman’s Academy Award®-winning screenplay for All the President’s Men (1976), further insisting that only 10 per cent of Goldman’s work remained in the completed film.

Redford, who as progenitor and producer of the movie (and indeed, as unofficial godfather to the original Bob Woodward/Carl Bernstein book) treated his scenarist with appalling condescension during the re-writing, insisting that Goldman read an un-commissioned script Bernstein and his then-girlfriend (later, wife; still later, famously ex-wife) Nora Ephron had cobbled up emphasizing, in Goldman’s tart phrase, that Carl “sure was catnip to the ladies” — an act the screenwriter quite properly regarded as “a gutless betrayal.”* He didn’t add this, so I will: Particularly since it was Goldman’s original screenplay Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid that made Redford a certified movie star, and that it was the author who recommended his casting as Sundance.†

On one of the supplemental documentaries featured in the 2006 DVD (and subsequent Blu-Ray) reissue of ATPM, Redford claims as well that he and Pakula “re-structured” Goldman’s work from top to bottom before filming. If William Goldman is famous for nothing else (and he is, of course, famous for many things, or was, back when people still read books) it is as the author of two statements, one about Hollywood’s endless and panicky chase after the Next Big Thing (“Nobody knows anything”) and this, on his craft: “Screenplays are structure.” That Goldman, who suggested what now, in hindsight, seems the most obvious, simple means of cracking that book’s screen adaptation (throw out the second half) and who, say what you will about the quality of his individual novels and scripts, is absolutely solid on structure, needed an actor and a director, however gifted, to give his work that very element —  particularly after a decade’s worth of scenarios, an Academy Award® and ten novels  —  most of them bestsellers — is, on the face of it, absurd.

William Goldman

William Goldman

Back to May, 2011. Richard Stayton suspects all of this too, but goes beyond it:  Through dogged, painstaking research which involves (among other things) reading every single draft he could get his hands on of the ATPM script written by Goldman and comparing that work to the film as it has stood since 1976, he concludes that William Goldman — and William Goldman alone — wrote the screenplay. And I would take this a step further. It’s my understanding of WGA nominating practice for its own awards —and Christ only knows the rules may have changed in the years since I came across this data in Harlan Ellison’s book on the “City on the Edge of Forever” Star Trek episode — that the screenwriting committee making said nominations reads those screenplays. They may also compare them to either the completed movie or to continuity scripts (essentially, transcripts of the finished film after the final edit.) In any case, the WGA duly conferred on Goldman its Best Adapted Drama award for ATPM. I have no idea what procedures the Motion Picture Academy screenwriting committee undertakes, but they may be similar. Yet I would go further still: Neither Redford nor Pakula applied for arbitration with the Screen Writers Guild for credit on this movie they, according to Redford, completely re-wrote.††

The astonishing overhead dissolves at the LOC.

The astonishing overhead dissolves at the LOC.

I preface my remarks on ATPM with all of this in part because what Stayton did to prove the provenance of the screenplay is precisely what “Woodstein” undertook to unravel the mysteries attendant to the June, 1972 break-in at National Democratic Headquarters, and what the movie of their book is really all about. And here Goldman and Pakula, whatever the latter may have said to Redford, certainly agree: The movie is filled with examples of the sheer, mind-numbing, foot-wearying legwork Woodward and Bernstein went through, and which at that time was a hallmark of serious American journalism. Indeed, the highest (no pun intended) moment in the movie is an explication of exactly that. Faced with stacks and stacks of Library of Congress check-out cards, some of which might implicate E. Howard Hunt, the pair digs in. The movie cuts to a shot from above, of Redford and Hoffman at the table, poring over the cards. Pakula and his superb cinematographer, Gordon Willis, then dissolve to a higher vantage-point, the two Washington Post reporters swallowed up by the reading room, the cards spreading out before them like a small paper flood. They dissolve again, to an even higher overheard shot, almost a god’s-eye view that renders “Woodstein” as ants to a forest floor. That the search the pair is on ultimately proves fruitless is unimportant; it conveys the lengths to which two dedicated journalists go to nail down the facts they need to buttress their suppositions. The metaphor is repeated, in various ways, throughout the movie: Hoffman or Redford dwarfed by government buildings, or Redford’s car, seen via a helicopter shot, disappearing into Washington traffic. To a city whose very institutions, represented by those massive buildings, regard them as insignificant, Woodward and Bernstein are puny. Unnoticed, and unnoticeable. At least until they hit pay-dirt.

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For my generation of writers, Woodward and Bernstein were heroes. Not because their investigation ultimately led to the resignation of a notably hated President (although that rich icing on the cake) but because their work, unappreciated at first, thorough and irrefutable at last, was, to us, a shining example of why newspaper journalism existed, and was so terribly important to the life of the Republic. Legions of us became (or wanted to become) would-be Woodsteins because of their example. Alas, far too few of us wanted the grinding, exhaustive, shoe leather-thinning grunt-work that went into it. And fewer still, in this age of 24/7corporate cable news, instant celebrity and the blogosphere, practice it. Why dig for the truth when you can present rumor, or (even better) just make up your own “facts”? Why ask questions, and seek their answers, if airing innuendo will get you the fame and the book-deal and the featured position on Fox or MS-NBC? They still want to be Woodstein; what they don’t want is having to do the work Woodstein did. That Bill Clinton, with his 1996 Telecommunications Bill, guaranteed the death of the vaunted (and necessary) American free press and replaced it with one wholly subservient to corporate desires is, for once, almost beside the point.

Redford as Woodward struggles to hear Kenneth Dahlberg over the noise of the Post newsroom in this riveting scene.

Redford as Woodward struggles to hear Kenneth Dahlberg over the noise of the Post newsroom in this riveting scene.

In this regard, if in no other, All the President’s Men looks better with every passing year. It is, moreover, a movie of rare intelligence, filled with pleasures. Aside from the improbability, in this age of corporate media consolidation, short attention spans and internet profusion, of a Woodward and Bernstein ever being able to latch on to a story of its like or magnitude and follow the crumbs to its ultimate conclusion, it is nearly impossible to imagine a movie like this being made today, at least in Hollywood.§ As such it fits neatly into that brief, shining moment, the glory that was 1970s cinema. Few studio suits now would consider green-lighting a movie in which politics are central; recognizable and fully-explicated human characters fill every frame; the ultimate outcome is already known; and a considerable portion of its greatness, and its concomitant tension, arise from long, close, unbroken shots of its stars talking on the telephone. Two such sequences in particular (one each for Redford and Hoffman) show the power of fine dramatic writing, good acting, and assured direction by people who weren’t afraid, as filmmakers are today, of holding on an actor in a medium close shot for several minutes… unless, of course, the actor and the camera are both moving, allowing yet another Scorsese-wannabe his moment of ostentatious Steadicam glory. (And would a mass audience even put up with such a thing now?)

Jane Alexander as the unnamed CREEP bookkeeper.

Jane Alexander as the unnamed CREEP bookkeeper.

Pakula must also be accorded credit, along with Willis, for the prevailing aura of increasingly justifiable paranoia the movie generates. This was something of a Pakula specialty; his previous films as a director included The Parallax View and Klute, which form with All the President’s Men a kind of unholy trinity of anxious national obsession. (Quartet, if we include the later Presumed Innocent.) That he was an actor’s director is made manifest in the performances in these movies, from the smallest role to the largest, and by his astute sense of casting. ATPM, like another Redford hit, The Sting, benefits from one of the finest all-around supporting casts of the period: Jason Robards (Ben Bradley), Jack Warden (Harry Rosenfeld), Martin Balsam (Howard Simons), the magnificent Jane Alexander giving a virtual master-class on screen acting in two scenes as the frightened, angry Committee to Re-elect bookkeeper, and Robert Walden as an amiable, anxious Donald Zegretti. And, in smaller but no less telling or important roles: Meredith Baxter, James Karen, Stephen Collins, Penny Fuller, John McMartin, Nicholas Coster, Lindsay Crouse, Neva Patterson, Ned Beatty, Polly Holliday (the last two in a scene — presumably from Bernstein’s self-serving draft of the screenplay — with wholly fictionalized accents, such as Carl’s fooling Holliday’s secretary in order to see Beatty.)

Hal Holbrook, deep in shadow as Deep Throat.

Hal Holbrook, deep in shadow as Deep Throat.

And that is not even to mention Hal Holbrook’s mesmerizing turn as “Deep Throat” (now known to have been the former FBI Deputy Director Mark Felt.) It was to Deep Throat that Goldman assigned the script’s most famous (and wholly fictitious) line, “Follow the money.” But there is far more to the role than unintentional catch-phrases, as there is more to Holbrook’s riveting performance than shadow and cigarettes.# Veiled in more ways than merely the visual, Holbrook’s Deep Throat is, despite a certain, indefinable, air of the sinister, also a man outraged, disappointed and disgusted by the Nixon Administration’s utter contempt for the law, the Constitution, and the American people. (Although it has been suggested that Mark Felt was equally livid at being passed over for the Directorship of his agency after Hoover’s death.) And it is in these scenes that Goldman lands some his most apposite dialogue. Some of it may come from Felt’s own remarks in the book — it’s been a few years since I last read it — but in either case, many of the movie Deep Throat’s observations are as relevant now as they were then, if not more so:

“Look: Forget the myths the media’s created about the White House. The truth is, these are not very bright guys, and things got out of hand.”

And, later: “I don’t like newspapers. I don’t care for inexactitude and shallowness.”

How he would loathe the papers (and the broadcast networks) now.

The superb Jason Robards as Ben Bradley.

The marvelous Jason Robards as Ben Bradley.

Willis’ lighting is superb throughout, from the strong depth-of-focus that keeps every image crisp and allows the viewer a firm grasp of everything in the frame to the way he darkens the surroundings as the central mystery itself becomes more circuitous and frightening. In a career whose highlights included Klute, The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, The Parallax View, Annie Hall, Manhattan, Pennies from Heaven, Zelig and Broadway Danny Rose, Willis’ work here stands as a veritable exemplar of his devotion to craft, and clarity, as well as to un-self-conscious art. Equally worthy of praise is George Jenkins’ set designs, and the set decor of George Gaines, which include a meticulous re-creation of the Post’s pressroom; and the quietly efficient editing of Robert L. Wolfe. David Shire’s uncannily effective, abbreviated score too deserves mention: It’s brief (less than 12 minutes) and there isn’t a note heard until 30 minutes in, yet this spare, splendidly-spotted music — essentially winds, brass, strings and an un-emphatic but most efficacious synthesizer — performs miracle work in its subtle suggestion of a subcutaneous un-ease that slowly becomes first pervasive, then quietly terrifying.

In this year, which has just seen the 42nd anniversary of the Watergate break-in and will soon commemorate the 40th year since Nixon’s characteristically worm-like resignation, and in a world (and a country) that is essentially unrecognizable to those of us who lived through these events and dared to dream that Woodward and Bernstein just might, in their dogged, unassuming fashion, have helped to create a new political reality, it is incumbent upon us to revisit these crucial events, the meticulous, careful investigative journalism that exposed them, and the nearly flawless movie that evolved from both… and which was itself enormously successful.

And to reflect perhaps as well that, from the first instance to the last, both those initial Post articles and the movie that celebrates them, are the work of the what is arguably the last, un-sung, hero of American life: The writer.

Look on these Works, ye Modern, and despair.

The past is a foreign country.

Alas.

Pakula - All the Presidents Men (TIME)

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*Maybe it was seeing that phrase “gutless betrayal” that turned Redford from a friend to such an implacable foe. He seems remarkably thin-skinned, even for an actor… about himself, anyway, if not about the feelings of others. It appeared to personally offend him that Pauline Kael’s reviews got reprinted in her books. I wish I shared Redford’s conviction that books are immortal, since these days it seems only pop songs, motion pictures and old television sitcoms are.

†Goldman, perhaps wisely, did not comment on the controversy. In an emailed response to Stayton’s request for discussion he wrote, “Thanks for thinking of me. It was not a happy experience, and I don’t want to write about it anymore.” In his influential Adventures in the Screen Trade, Goldman wrote: “If you were to ask me, ‘What would you change if you had your movie life to live over?’ I’d tell you that I’d have written exactly the screenplays I’ve written. Only I wouldn’t have come near All the President’s Men.”

††I would never suggest that Pakula filmed every word or scene exactly as Goldman dictated. Nearly every movie is altered, to some degree, and often improved, by its making. Circumstances change. Locations are switched. Scenes are cut. New sequences may be added. Actors improvise. Dustin Hoffman, in one of those ATPM video documentaries, makes the ludicrous claim that “you don’t film the script”; No — apparently, you film what Dustin Hoffman decides to do, and say. He also maintains (on the Tootsie DVD) that “screenplays are just blueprints,” a falsehood of such epic proportions, and repeated by directors and producers so often it seems to have become Holy Writ. A blueprint is not a suggestion. Once it has attained its final form, it cannot be altered significantly, without the entire building structure becoming unstable. You don’t unless you are mad or self-destructive or criminally negligent add or subtract or move walls or floors in a building under construction once the architect has signed off on the final blueprint. The “screenplays are blueprints” metaphor is both entirely specious and blissfully ignorant of reality.

§ The recent success of Spotlight seems to refute my argument, unless you reflect that the picture, which I admire, concerns itself with the sex-abuse scandals in the Catholic priesthood and not, as with ATPM, with the anti-Constitutional machinations of the Federal government. Both were appalling. Indeed, the damage done by the Church to its most vulnerable parishioners might seem, taken on an emotional basis — and over not merely decades but centuries — to trump what Tricky and his minions achieved. But (and I most certainly do not mean to minimize or in any way denigrate the suffering of young victims of rape — I had my own “#MeToo” moment as an adolescent) the attempted murder of a democracy is, I aver, the far greater sin, if only because it affects so very many more people.

#It is not unreasonable to suggest that Chris Carter was inspired by Holbrook, and his cigarettes, when he created “The Smoking Man” for The X-Files.


Post-Script: August 2018

I was struck, on re-reading this essay, by the sentence which begins, “Aside from the improbability, in this age of corporate media consolidation… of a Woodward and Bernstein ever being able to latch on to a story of its like or magnitude and follow the crumbs to its ultimate conclusion…”

If the current mass-insanity among first Democrats and the mainstream press (and now, increasingly, Republicans) which has led to a resurgence of Red-baiting McCarthyism unseen since 1954 and based wholly on a lie cobbled up by one candidate to “explain” her loss to another, and based as well on that candidate’s vulnerability on the “collusion” question (all those uranium bucks from Russia going to her husband and their phony Foundation) is not an illustration of the impossibility, now, of independent journalism by the major news media, I’m Ben Bradlee.


All text (other than Goldman’s) copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

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

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

By Scott Ross

Thankfully, the Tony Palmer/David Rudkin film of Testimony (1988) is not notably gray, at least in its visual tone. In Nic Knowland’s sumptuous cinematography, it is for the most part brilliantly, adamantly, gloriously black-and-white. I doubt there had been a more strikingly lit and photographed monochromatic movie, at the time of Testimony’s late ’80s release, since Gordon Willis’ rapturous work on Manhattan nine years earlier. The film is also, despite some longueurs and a smattering of symbolic pretension, as strikingly and exhilaratingly cinematic as the best work of Orson Welles and Martin Scorsese.

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

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

testimony_Lg1

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

Testimony piano

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

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

Ben Kinglsey as Dmitri Shoshtakovich.

Ben Kinglsey as Dmitri Shoshtakovich.


Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross