The picture’s ended (but the imagery lingers on)

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By Scott Ross

When I first saw Alien in 1979, knowing almost nothing about it, and John Hurt gave birth to the chest-burster, I had my first attack of hyperventilation and nearly had to be taken out of the theatre. Seeing it again last night, promoted me think of other movies whose introduction into my life were experiences so intense that their initial impact has never wholly faded. The reasons vary, but what unites these disparate threads is the simple power of images—the thing that has enthralled 100 years of movie-going audiences. And even if, as I sadly believe, the movies’ best days are behind them, the images remain, behind the third eye as it were, always available for re-screening at the hint of mental recall. Here, the first titles that occur to me, and that had the greatest, and most lasting, impact.

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Mary Poppins: Very possibly the first movie I “saw,” at a drive-in with my parents, in 1964 or ’65. Being used to early bedtimes I fell asleep fairly quickly, but woke up to see the Banks children being approached by the old crone and menaced by the dog in the alley. When I saw it again, in the early 1970s during a reissue, that scene was still vivid in my mind. (As I also remember the “Step in Time” number, I think I stayed awake, as the Sherman Brothers’ song impelled, after that.)

irmaladouceIrma La Douce: This was the second movie I remember “seeing,” again at a drive-in. Must have been in 1965, when it ran in a double-feature with Tom Jones. Again, I was asleep for most of it, but remember waking up and seeing a woman with dark hair in a sleeping-mask. Fast-forward to 1972 or so, and watching it with the family on television. When Shirley MacLaine put on the sleeping mask, I had an instant flashback to that night at the drive-in. Imagine; one of my earliest movie memories is of a racy comedy about a Parisian prostitute and her mec!

WizardWest2The Wizard of Oz: On my first viewing, around age 5, I was so terrified of Margaret Hamilton’s witch I hid behind the sofa whenever she was on-screen. I did the same thing, 3 years or so later, when Darby O’Gill and the Little People was reissued, crouching down on the theatre floor at the first sight of the wailing banshee, and begging my sister to tell me when it was gone.

Lampwick2Pinocchio: One of the first movies I saw in North Carolina after the family moved there from Ohio in 1971. The transformation of Lampwick into a donkey stayed with me for decades. A nightmare sequence, terrible in its delineation of panic, terror and hopelessness. Only later, as an adult, did I come to appreciate the totality of this exceptional achievement, its beauty and its astonishing pictorial texture.

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1776: Say what you will about this one, to have come at me at the age of 11, when I was just beginning to become immersed in theatre, musicals and American history, the movie was an instant touchstone.

Cabaret7Cabaret: I saw this on a reissue, the night after having seen the original musical play in a surprisingly fine a dinner-theatre production, a present for my 12th birthday. At first I was disappointed; the movie was so different. I had been an avid listener of the 1967 cast album, borrowed repeatedly from a local library, and I missed those songs. (I was not yet the Isherwood maven I would become.) But it grew on me, steadily. I was absolutely dazed by Bob Fosse’s staging, editing and choreography, unaccountably both titillated and disappointed by the ménage that never happens, and highly amused when Michael York exploded, “Oh, screw Maximilian!”, Liza Minnelli responded coolly, “I do,” and York, after an initial shock, smiled and riposted, “So do I.” That exchange also tickled by best friend, with whom I saw the movie, and for personal reasons it would take me some time to understand… as it would to comprehend my own, nascent and very buried, sexuality.

gone-with-the-wind-gone-with-the-wind-4376036-1024-768Gone with the Wind: Love it, loathe it, dismiss it or embrace it, to see this movie on a big screen, at 13, with my mother and sister, was one of the most intensely memorable experiences of my early adolescence. The dolly-in on Clark Gable’s face (“Wow!” I whispered to my mother); Hattie McDaniel’s big, broad face; the removal of the Confederate soldier’s leg; the massive crane shot of Scarlett at the depot; the burning of Atlanta; the collapse of her horse as she sights Tara; the shooting of the renegade Union soldier; Scarlett’s “morning after” smile; her fall down the stairs; the deaths of O’Hara, Bonnie Blue and Melanie. When one is older, one can roll one’s eyes at the appalling “happy darkies workin’ for Massa,” but also more fully appreciate the rich humor of the thing, and the sheer prowess David O. Selznick showed in putting it together.

jaws-30th-anniversary-edition-20050617034815619Jaws: Seen in 1975, when it opened. Sure, I remembered poor Ben Gardner’s head scaring the bejeezus out of Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw being eaten whole. But the images that haunted me were: The shots of Roy Scheider trying to see past the beach-goers wandering past his field of vision; the simultaneous push-forward/pull back dolly shot of Scheider’s face as little Alex Kintner is attacked; and the scene of Scheider racing to the estuary. I think Spielberg’s direction really introduced me that day to the power of moving-picture images on a technical as well as emotional level.

Marathon Man - is it safeMarathon Man: The first “R”-rated movie I saw, in 1976. The sense of unnerving terror that permeates the narrative, exploding here and there as it unfurls, driving toward a violent, ironic climax. Although I had read William Goldman’s popular novel before seeing his re-imagining of it and knew what to expect of plot and character, nothing prepared me for the creeping dread, the elegantly shot and edited set-pieces with their seemingly incongruous blood and violence and horror, that John Schlesinger brought to it. Pauline Kael complained that director and film were a mis-match; that his direction was too stylish and accomplished—too serious—for what she regarded as pulp material, but I demur. It is precisely the luminous, autumnal glow and gleaming elegance of surface that make the ensuing action of the movie so disturbing and disorienting.

closeencountersdoorClose Encounters of the Third Kind: Deliberately knowing as little as I could about it, I saw this on its second weekend. (Although my loose-lipped high school newspaper advisor, who’d seen it the opening week, spoiled the Devil’s Tower mystery for our entire class.) When you aren’t aware, in advance, of whether the visitors are malign or not—and, really, even if you are—the sequence in which little Barry is abducted is absolutely terrifying. When the screws on the floor heating vent unscrewed by themselves, sending poor Gillian into a justifiable panic, we were right there with her. Yet this is the most benign of all UFO movies, and, at 16, the most completely entrancing movie I had ever seen.

1978-AN-UNMARRIED-WOMAN-006An Unmarried Woman: I saw this one solo, as was often the case at that time. I was working at a local movie theatre, had a pass, and went to damn near everything. While by no means a humorless feminist screed, Paul Mazursky’s magnificently textured exploration of what happens to one, rather typical New Yorker, when her husband of many years dumps her for a younger woman was revelatory. It seemed impossible for a man—a modern writer, anyway—to have conceived it, let alone written and directed such a complete portrait. I went back to it over and over, always bringing a woman with me (my sister, once, close friends at other times.) It feels now as though the movie came from another time, or a distant planet, where it was not only possible to make such things, but to get large numbers of people, of both genders, to see them.

Alien H3kO0Alien: I know I run the risk of admission to fogiedom when I say this, but for anyone who wasn’t there in 1979, it’s almost impossible to describe the impact Alien had on we who saw it when it was new. The working-class grunginess, the slowly building terror, the genuine shocks, the unsettlingly sensual biomechanical Giger designs, the sheer, unholy scale of the thing, were unlike anything we’d ever seen before. It was the anti-“Star Wars,” the acid-bath flip-side of Close Encounters. Movies were tough then, but seldom quite this tough—or this unrelentingly dark and claustrophobic. Few movies I’ve seen before or since have had that kind of impact. And they did it all by hand.

AllThatJazzScheider_zps9e1f9e94All That Jazz: My Star Wars—the movie I saw repeatedly over the first year or two of its release, and never tied of. For a budding playwright, besotted with theatre and longing to secure my own place in it, this mad, flamboyant epic, with its incendiary editing, hallucinatory structure, and obsession with death, became for me a kind of rite of passage.

Richard Pryor in Concert 364455-1Richard Pryor in Concert. Pryor’s first solo effort was, and remains, the single funniest movie I’ve ever seen. We were, quite literally, falling, if not out of our chairs, at least so far forward we risked serious injury, and our faces ached from laughing for some time afterward. Genius, unfettered and unrestrained, given full play, as it never was in any of his more traditional narrative movies, which somehow could not meet, match or contain the troubled meteor at its center.

goodfellas_bar_sceneGoodFellas: Arguably the most exhilarating tour de force movie of its decade. No one limns the easy allure of crime, or the shocking availability and prevalence of sudden violence quite like Scorsese.

lawrence-of-arabia-2Lawrence of Arabia: I’d seen it once, on a very small, black-and-white television. I was given the widescreen cassettes of David Lean’s restoration as a present, and to call that an improvement on my initial exposure would be comparable to noting that a sachertorte beats a Moon Pie. But finally getting to see the “Director’s Cut” on a big screen, in a theatre, knocks every previous viewing from the memory, replacing it with splendor few movies ever provide. Not merely the stunning desert vistas or the big set-pieces, but the enigma at its center, exemplified, if never fully explained, by Peter O’Toole’s magnificent performance.

the-wild-bunch-the-walkThe Wild Bunch: Another “Director’s Cut” experience, and one that left me literally, not figuratively, dazed for about a week afterward. No other movie I know, even Scorsese’s, is more concerned with violence—its effect as well as its execution. From the opening massacre, and the dreadful sight of the scorpions beset by an army of ants that forms perhaps too easy a metaphor but remains indelible, to the horses falling to the water, to the final walk of the Bunch and their terrible end, Sam Peckinpaw had me by the throat, and kept on choking.

Tired of being disappointed over and over again, I go to few new movies now. Two, I think, in the past six or seven years. But in a sense, I really don’t need to. I’m not an adolescent or a thrill-junkie, and anyway, the imagery that remains embedded in my memory from forty and more years ago and remains so vivid still does not require jostling, and certainly not replacing. I’m still discovering older movies, on disc, that, whatever their age, are new to me and that more than fulfill my requirements, so it isn’t that I’m not open to new images. But with such a rich store, I just don’t need them.

Text copyright 2015 by Scott Ross

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

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By Scott Ross

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

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

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

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

New Faces

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

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

Eartha Kitt

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

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The great Alice Ghostley in full cry.

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

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

New Faces poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Faces DVD

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

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

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

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

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By Scott Ross

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

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

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

LITA: Paulie—

PAUL: Who needs vino for veritas?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charles Dierkop Pawnbroker10_sm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

Where love resides: Audrey Hepburn

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By Scott Ross

We, like Astaire, loved her funny face.

We, like Astaire, loved her funny face.

In an especially charming scene in Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s delightfully bittersweet 1957 romantic comedy Love in the Afternoon, an aging Gary Cooper murmurs to Audrey Hepburn that “everything about [her] is perfect.” Her response is immediate, and utterly characteristic:

Hepburn: I’m too thin! And my ears stick out, and my teeth are crooked, and my neck’s much too long.

Cooper: Maybe so, but I love the way it all hangs together.

So did Wilder. So did we all.

That exchange, of course, was written, but the voice is absolutely Hepburn’s. She did not see herself as iconic, although she most certainly was. She did not think of herself as beautiful, yet those elements Wilder and Diamond explicate as comprising her beauty are the very ones Audrey herself would have cited as proof against her own beauty. And, since Billy Wilder was noted for using, and elaborating upon, the on- and off-set behavior and utterances of his actors to spice his deliberately incomplete screenplays (think of Shirley MacLaine’s plaintive query, “Why do people have to love people anyway?” and how Wilder and Diamond placed it in The Apartment, creating one of that excoriating comedy-drama’s most plangent moments) she may well have put it, to him, precisely that way. MBDBRAT EC032 Above her remarkable looks, and her status as a purveyor of fashion — and, indeed, her very real range as an actor — what Audrey Hepburn had, to an exceptional degree, was charm. Bags of charm, as the British say. It emanated from her as obviously, and as beguilingly, as scent from a rose. Philippe Halsman made a shrewd practice of photographing the famous jumping, the results creating an instant psychological profile. The most constricted, indeed constipated, was Richard Nixon. Arguably the most exuberant, and natural, was Hepburn.

Photo by Philippe Halsman

Photo by Philippe Halsman

These observations, I hope, go some way toward explaining why Hepburn was so uniquely accomplished, in spite of her considerable histrionic gifts, in romantic comdey: From her adorable and, ultimately heartbreaking, princess in that most fairy-tale-like of Continental romances, Roman Holiday and the slightly sour Cinderella caprice Sabrina to the lightly satirical Ugly Duckling musical Funny Face, and on through that perfect mixture of badinage and menace, Charade, the soufflé airiness of How to Steal a Million and the unerring emotional temperature of Frederick Raphael and Stanley Donen’s Two for the Road. Even when rather stunningly mis-cast, and in a movie (Breakfast at Tiffany’s) whose nearly inviolate wrong-headedness is offset only by its fabled, soigné sophistication (and distinctive Mancini score, the two meeting to spectacular effect in the famous opening image) Hepburn triumphs. She is no more the original author’s Lulamae Barnes (he would like to have seen Jodie Foster in a more faithful adaptation that, alas, never happened) than that other Hepburn is a creditable hillbilly in the notorious Spitfire. She is, however, very much Capote’s self-invented Holly Golightly in all her manufactured urbanity and mercurial emotionalism, seldom if ever more heart-rending than when she learns of her beloved brother’s death. Speaking of “the other” Hepburn, I have long felt that while Katharine was the greatest movie actress, Audrey was the greatest of movie stars. That does not, however, mean that I don’t believe in her gifts as a performer; Cary Grant was likely the greatest of male movie stars, and although I judge his contemporary, James Stewart, as the finest of all masculine movie actors, that opinion takes nothing away from Grant, who was seldom less than superb in whatever he did.

Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images

Hepburn’s way with a throwaway line was non pariel. Take, for instance, another delicious moment in Love in the Afternoon. Maurice Chevalier is a widowed private detective specializing in marital infidelity, Hepburn his beloved daughter. His case files, unknown to him, are his young progeny’s obsession, despite every effort on his part to shield her from “the sordid stuff” which is his stock-in-trade. She ripostes, “I bet when Mama was alive you told her what you were doing.”

Chevalier: Your Mama was a married woman!

Hepburn (Smiling ingenuously): I’m so glad!

High among Hepburn’s idiosyncratic attributes was that indefinable, but wholly captivating, accent, a legacy of her bifurcated heritage (Scottish father, Dutch mother.) The enunciation is perfect, yet never studied, the impulses almost uncannily apt — think of the way she utters the simple statement, “Well, then!” in answer to Albert Finney’s troubled declaration of love near the end of Two for the Road — and is nowhere more charming than when, as above, she is delivering a comic line.

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Our concepts of beauty, as much as our notions about it, are of course ineluctably subjective. Quentin Crisp, for one, rejected the need for it. “The Greeks were mad about the human form,” he once noted. “So much so that during its heyday Athens must have looked like a dressmaker’s window during a weaver’s strike. But it was no help. Not one of the great classical statues has the least individuality that would make it desirable, or even interesting.” As most of us, when Hepburn looked in a mirror she saw only her flaws. For her, beauty was, always, internal: “The beauty of a woman must be seen from in her eyes, because that is the doorway to her heart, the place where love resides.” Her love was such that, even in her final months, when she must have been in agony from the colon cancer that eventually killed her, in her capacity as a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF Hepburn’s primary concern was for the children of the world, and she devotedly lent her presence, and her passion, to what she called the “nightmare” of 1992 Somalia. John O’Hara famously (or infamously) deplored Hepburn’s thinness, not understanding that she herself, despite her lordly pedigree, had been starved as a youth in Holland during the Second World War. It was this, as much as her love for her own children, that gave her such a passionate drive to alleviate the horror of starving children. 

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Her mother, the Baroness Heemstra, imparted in young Audrey the dictum that, “Manners, as she would say, don’t forget, are kindnesses.” Was it perhaps this that permitted her to accept public humiliations from her one-time husband Mel Ferrer without a murmur of protest or censure? The few recorded instances on a movie set in which Hepburn behaved, as she would term it, badly, her apologies were real, immediate, and charming. That sort of grace, as much as innate or even acquired poise, has never been in surplus. Today, it seems barely to exist. We need Audrey Hepburn’s manners now as much as, or more than, we did when she was with us.

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Hepburn was famously snubbed at the Academy Awards in 1964, when residual anger at her “usurping” of Julie Andrews’ role in the movie of My Fair Lady mixed with resentment at her singing voice being melded with (and, sadly, overshadowed by) that of Marni Nixon to insure her not being given a nomination that year. But those who have seen, and (there is no other word for it) adored Audrey in Funny Face and who cherish her (admittedly heavily edited) rendition of “How Long Has This Been Going On?” regret that there was not a greater reliance on her own, limited but utterly charming, vocalese on the MFL soundtrack. That she was photographed with Andrews wearing what seems to be a smile of genuine pleasure, is testament to those kindnesses so prized by her mother. It certainly made her look far more gracious than her critics.

5 Apr 1965 --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

5 Apr 1965 — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Today’s Google Doodle reminds us that 4 April would have been Hepburn’s 85th birthday, and it seems as impossible now as it did in 1993 that this most vital of movie icons is no longer with us. Yet, of course, she is. Audrey Hepburn can never really leave us, so long as an appreciation of charm and kindness retain some sort of toehold, however precarious, in the larger culture.

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We, like Astaire, loved her funny face.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

Unsound Design: Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971/2001)

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Bedknobs poster MPW-49141
By Scott Ross

The 2001 restoration of Bedknobs and Broomsticks raises some interesting, and unsettling, questions, about the process. Even when exceptional care and devotion are lavished on a movie, as with David Lean’s 1989 “director’s cut” of Lawrence of Arabia, some of the results may be less than felicitous. Lean had second thoughts, for some inscrutable reason, about a single line in the Michael Wilson-Robert Bolt screenplay spoken by Peter O’Toole, and his revision completely reversed its meaning.

General Allenby: You’re the most extraordinary man I’ve ever met!
Lawrence: Leave me alone!
Allenby: What?
Lawrence: Leave me alone!
Allenby: Well, that’s a feeble thing to say.
Lawrence: I know I’m not ordinary.
Allenby: That’s not what I’m saying…
Lawrence: All right! I’m extraordinary! What of it?

In 1962, O’Toole said, “I’m extra-ordinary!” In 1989, Lean re-jiggered that loaded adjective to a mere “extraordinary.” The difference? Only the world.

Like Bedknobs and BroomsticksLawrence was eviscerated, both at the time of its release and for later reissue. By linking the two I am certainly not suggesting that one is any way the equal of the other. Bedknobs is a pleasant, if somewhat derivative, fantasy musical with engaging performers and a charming Sherman Brothers score, while Lawrence is, despite its “bio-filmic” origins, sui generis — one of the supreme glories of the English-speaking cinema. Where the two intersect is in their shared histories of imbecilic, ruinous wholesale cuts for no reason other than commerce. Where their restorations differ is in the quality of the restoration process itself.

When Lean required lines to be dubbed onto found footage with no soundtrack, he not called upon as many of his original cast as were still alive and able; he also recorded the lines with an ear to matching the original sound as much as the timbres of the much younger actors on-screen. Lean is, puzzlingly, virtually alone in this. In nearly every other large-scale restoration of its kind (Spartacus in particular comes to mind, with its visually and aurally flawed restoration of infamous “snails and oysters” sequence) the ambient sound of the newly dubbed lines in no way matches what was originally recorded. How was Lean able to do that which no one else either cares to, knows how to, or is, seemingly, physically capable? How did Columbia Pictures re-create the sound quality of 1962?

I don’t know, and have never been able to track down, what specific sound recording system Walt Disney and his company employed from the 1950s to the ’70s, any more than I can identify the system employed by Warner Bros. from the 1940s on. But one has only to listen with half an ear to the soundtrack of any film from either studio from those years to appreciate the crystal clarity of the reproduction. (Listen to any Looney Tunes or Merry Melodies short from the ’40s and ’50s for a prime exemplar.) Were these sound designs deemed antiquated at some point, perhaps with the creation of newer microphones and tape systems, the original equipment junked? Or is there some other, even more technical reason for the discrepancy? Why, so often, in movies and on CD, does the much-vaunted digital process pale next to the allegedly “inferior” sound recording of old?

Whatever the reason, in the case of Bedknobs and Broomsticks, all of the re-dubbed scenes are reproduced, not with the striking crispness of the original but with the infinitely more casual, and muffled, make-do of our current era. Of course I know that sound recorded on the set with its unique, ambient quality, can seldom be replicated in a studio; it’s why, whatever the time period, you can nearly always tell which lines have been over-dubbed later. Indeed, in the case of musicals, pre-recorded vocals seldom replicate live sound. But the absolutely dead sound the current Disney engineers retro-fitted onto this movie is matched in apathy only by the appalling voice work by the actors attempting to double for David Tomlinson and Tessie O’Shea, the latter of whose accent now fluctuates wildly over the British Isles, like a berserk vocalic Norman chasing after an elusive, mute Saxon zombie.

Apprentice witch Angela Lansbury and her first broom, in a still of the "A Step in the Right Direction" number. Any resemblance between it and "A Spoonful of Sugar" is purely intentional.

Apprentice witch Angela Lansbury and her first broom, in a still of the “A Step in the Right Direction” number. Any resemblance between it and “A Spoonful of Sugar” is purely intentional.

 

Any number of additional ironies attached themselves to this one. The original cut of the movie ran about 2 hours and 20 minutes and was intended as one of the last of the big “road-show” spectacles. Unbelievably, Walt Disney Productions planned its premier at Radio City Music Hall in, it seems, complete ignorance of that tatty but venerable establishment’s rule that films accompanying its live stage shows be of no more than 2 hours in length. Disney exceeded that demand, shearing 30 minutes not merely for Radio City but the movie’s general release, losing several musical numbers and so much dialogue that what was left was difficult to follow — surely a disastrous outcome for a fantasy aimed as much at children as their parents. The studio further compounded this minor obscenity by utterly eviscerating what remained for a late-’70s reissue: 139 minutes in 1971 became first 117 and, finally, a paltry 99 in 1979. Many of the dialogue sequences restored had lost their soundtrack, hence the (again, execrable) re-dubbing. And in a final (and, it seems, irreversible) irony, the very impetus for the 2001 restoration, bringing Angela Lansbury’s “A Step in the Right Direction” number, extant on the 1971 soundtrack album, back to the movie, was thwarted; it has disappeared and was, presumably, destroyed(!)

The 1971 soundtrack LP.

The 1971 soundtrack LP.

I was young enough in 1971 (10, if you’re morbidly interested) to love even the truncated original, although I loved it less a few months later, on reading Mary Norton’s The Magic Bed-Knob and Bonfires and Broomsticks, which bear very little resemblance to the movie on which they were, quite loosely, based. Best to think of the film, as with the more vaunted (and popular) Mary Poppins, as variation on a theme. My invoking Poppins is not coincidental. Not only was the same creative team responsible for Bedknobs, from the screenwriters Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi and the director Robert Stevenson to the song-writing Shermans, both narratives involved magical (and musical, if somewhat starchy) spinsters, contain animated/live action sequences, and feature Tomlinson, here promoted from secondary lead to co-star. (It’s tempting, if fruitless, to imagine the movie with Lansbury squired by Ron Moody, who had to bow out due to a scheduling conflict.) But where Poppins is light on its feet, emotionally plangent and possessed of a seemingly effortless charm, Bedknobs is, despite its magical elements, more earth-bound, less felicitous, and in general has less sentimental resonance than an average re-run of Lassie.

Lansbury and Tomlinson, flanked by Robert Sherman (left) and Richard Sherman (right.)

Lansbury and Tomlinson, flanked by Robert Sherman (left) and Richard Sherman (right.)

And yet… Bedknobs and Broomsticks has much to recommend it, enough to overcome even the dreadfulness of the dubbing. First, the presence of Angela Lansbury. This almost criminally under-utilized performer was given her finest and most taxing roles not in film, in which she began (her acid-etched portrait of mother-love gone mad in The Manchurian Candidate excepted) or on television, where she reigned for some time in the 1980s, but on Broadway. Bedknobs represents her only real, extensive opportunity to shine, not merely as the star, but as a musical star, and is, perforce, treasurable.

Lansbury with her surprisingly likable juvenile co-stars: Roy Snart, Cindy O'Callaghan and Ian Weighill.

Lansbury with her surprisingly likable juvenile co-stars.

Roy Snart, Ian Weighill and Cindy O’Callaghan, the Cockney children Lansbury’s apprentice-witch is saddled with, are exceptionally well-cast, believable both as siblings and as War orphans, and never, as Disney tots tend, cloying. Tomlinson clearly had a high old time of it playing a rogue who would have given his own Mr. Banks in Mary Poppins the jim-jams, and Sam Jaffe makes a small repast of his appearance as the slightly sinister Bookman. Roddy McDowall, in his relatively brief but cunningly executed role as a nakedly avaricious country vicar, is especially welcome. (The restoration gives him greater prominence, which is useful, as the truncated version left one scratching one’s head, wondering who he was and why he was there at all.) If only the great Welsh music-hall performer Tessie O’Shea, seen only in dialogue sequences as a firm but kindly postmistress, had been given a dance or two!

Roddy McDowall as the wonderfully-named Rowan Jelk.

Roddy McDowall as the wonderfully-named Rowan Jelk.

Sam Jaffe.

Sam Jaffe.

The true movie aficionado will also spot, in tiny roles, some mere glimpses, beloved character actors such as Arthur Malet (Mr. Dawes, Jr. of Poppins), Reginald Owen (Admiral Boom of same), Cyrl Delevanti (the beautiful old poet Nono of Night of the Iguana), and, somewhat shockingly, Hank Worden, barely noticeable, singing as part of the seaside town’s Old Home Guard. The twinned live action/animation sequences, directed by the often brilliant Disney veteran Ward Kimball, are variable. The first, in which Lansbury et al. find themselves in an island lagoon, is charm itself. Crashing an underwater tea-dance, Lansbury and Tomlinson perform a charmingly — there’s no other word for it — fluid duet, in a Sherman Brothers number that is quite obviously the precursor and begettor of “Under the Sea,” cleverly orchestrated by Irwin Kostel in patented 1940s ballroom fashion.

Once more, with alliteration: Lansbury and Tomlinson in "Beautiful Briny Sea."

Once more, with alliteration: Lansbury and Tomlinson in “Beautiful Briny Sea.”

The second is more problematic. The Shermans expected the follow-up sequence on the Island of Naboombu, wherein Tomlinson attempts to make off with the lion king’s enchanted medallion, to be musical, and penned a sleight-of-hand routine for the versatile actor.

Bedknobs - Tomlinson and King

 

What the filmmakers presented them instead was a non-musical, mildly diverting, football game. (Helpfully if inappropriately translated for American audiences as “soccer.”) If you stop to analyze the set-up, you’re lost: Why would these animals, whether immortal or merely the descendants of the enchanted originals, and who explicitly bar humans from their refuge, even know what football is, let alone be mad for it? Why, indeed, are they dressed contemporaneously? Logic takes as much an un-jolly holiday as music here.

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Far better, and nearly worth the restoration itself, is the preceding, and vastly extended, “Portobello Road” dance sequence, which even Pauline Kael, while deploring the cuts, enthused over. Here, the faded work-prints were beautifully enhanced, especially in the delightful Jamaican section. Now at last that Kostel-arranged Overture makes sense, as we finally understand why the master orchestrator spiced it throughout with brief, ethnically derived riffs and quotations. It is as if MGM, in order to squeeze in an extra screening or two, had cut the “Broadway Melody” ballet from the release print of Singin’ in the Rain.

The Sherman's credit on David Jonas' distinctive, Bayeux Tapestry-inspired opening credits.

The Sherman’s credit on David Jonas’ distinctive, Bayeux Tapestry-inspired opening credits.

 

Watching this extended edition of the movie, you understand just how badly the Shermans were represented by the 1971 truncation. Doubly sad, as it was in a sense the brothers’ last hurrah for Disney, and that the movie, even at just under 2 hours, was a financial disappointment: $17 million domestic rentals on a $20 million budget. Fortunately, and somewhat balancing the ultimate loss of “A Step in the Right Direction,” the restoration reinstates the wistful Lansbury ballad “Nobody’s Problems,” an all-too-brief reprise of a longer, and un-filmed, number for the children. It’s far too easy for cultural critics, especially today, to cynically dismiss the Shermans, but this snobbery does not admit of their innate and almost profligate musicality, their respect for narrative and characterization, and their sophisticated rhyming which is, somehow, both comprehensible to children and satisfying to adults simultaneously. You try that trick.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

There was a Miss Jean Brodie in her prime…

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By Scott Ross

When asked to name my favorite novel, I am never certain how to answer. Do I chose The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for its sparkling vernacular, its unerring narrative voice, its rich humor (and equally rich horror) and the masterly fashion in which it confronts, head on, the essential hypocrisy of American racism? Perhaps The Great Gatsby for its crystalline prose and absolute evocation of its era? Or Bleak House, for its panoramic narrative, satirical brilliance and aching humanity? Maybe Ragtime for its astonishing style and sweeping vision? Or Beloved for the stunning poetry of its prose and its unblinking fantasia on the profoundest issue facing a nation willing to build itself on one person’s right to own another? Possibly To Kill a Mockingbird for its unsentimental view of childhood, its unflinching portrait of bigotry, its correspondingly glowing depiction (and defense) of decency and its unique position as the only novel of a born writer? Perhaps The Eighth Day or The Magnificent Ambersons or East of Eden for their respective depictions of American families in flux, their understated irony and their expansiveness of heart? Or, if we stretch the word to embrace a collection of related stories, might I not suggest Goodbye to Berlin for the way its lepidopterist author pins its squirming, restive characters firmly to an irrevocable delineation of time and place?

No. I can’t decide. Ask me instead which novels I’ve read most often. That’s a much easier one. MASH probably heads the list, for reasons I’m not entirely sure of. But I’ve read it at least a half-dozen times since the age of 14, and always with great joy. Still, the pseudonymous Richard Hooker’s episodic collection of dark comic sketches from Korea, whatever its pleasures, pales next to Muriel Spark’s magnificent mainstay The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Know its characters, and its slight, impressionistic plot as well as you might from a previous reading, or from either the play or the famous movie (or indeed the seven-part British miniseries) made from it and this slim, slightly autobiographical tapestry continues to delight from inauspicious beginning to unforgettable end, each successive reading over time revealing more of its perfectly pitched tone, its striking manipulation of the temporal, its ironic (but never bitter) detachment, and the mellifluous, biting (but never savage) dialogue of which Spark was long a past-mistress.

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This is Brodie as I first knew her, in a flea-market purchase from around 1976, a 1969 Penguin movie tie-in whose stark back-cover warning (“For copyright reasons this edition is not for sale in the U.S.A.”) made this 15 year-old tremble slightly and wonder if, in buying it, I was transgressing international law. I was drawn to it, not for its relation to a movie I had still to see (or a television series that was yet to air) but because a favorite local director had mounted a splendid high school production of the play that season.

A Miss Muriel Spark in her prime.

A Miss Muriel Spark in her prime.

Brodie, perhaps appropriately for a novel whose center is not so much eccentricity but sexual jealousy, is in a curious way represented by two sets of women: One literary, the other histrionic. First of course, Muriel Spark, who bequeathed Miss Brodie to the world (and who based her to a large degree on a certain Miss Kay, her own teacher at, as Jean Brodie would note, “an impressionable age.”) Next, Jay Presson Allen, who adapted the book for the stage and who would later transmogrify her own adaptation into film.

Jay Presson Allen, Brodie's dramatic amanuensis.

Jay Presson Allen, Brodie’s dramatic amanuensis.

The other set consists of the four women who variously brought Miss Brodie to life: Vanessa Redgrave (in London), Zoe Caldwell (Broadway), Maggie Smith (film) and Geraldine McEwan (television.) Not to mention the countless amateur actors who have breathed life and fire into Spark’s unconventional, admirable, maddening, foolish, and ultimately dangerous pedagogue on more stages separately than even the redoubtable Misses Redgrave, Caldwell, Smith and McEwan have together.

Vanessa Redgrave, the statuesque Brodie of the London stage.

Vanessa Redgrave, the statuesque Brodie of the London stage.

Zoe Caldwell, Brodie in New York.

Zoe Caldwell, Brodie in New York.

Maggie Smith, immortalizing Brodie on film. (With Jane Carr, bovine in brain and body, as Mary Macgregor.)

Maggie Smith, immortalizing Brodie on film. (With Jane Carr, bovine in brain and body, as Mary Macgregor.)

Gerladine McEwen, the Brodie of British television.

Gerladine McEwen, the Brodie of British television.

I cannot speak for the McEwan series, as I still have not seen it, but for all the acting pyrotechnics and the juicy roles for its cast, Allen’s play (and subsequent screenplay) is, perhaps inevitably, a diminution of the novel. I don’t claim for Brodie the same greatness one confers on the finest prose — it isn’t a patch on, say, Doctorow’s or Morrison’s or Fitzgerald’s — but if it isn’t first-tier, it’s nonetheless an entrancingly high second. Although Allen retained a bit of the book’s framing device (involving a nun reluctantly famous for her surprise best-seller), trenchant dialogue and and spicy observations she had, perforce, to jettison Spark’s loose temporal structure in favor of a more linear approach. Had she been a more daring, or in any case a different sort of playwright, Allen might not have matched Spark but she could have at least maintained pace with the novelist theatrically. But as she was essentially a boulevard comedian (or, at best, an adherent of comédie d’intrigue) and not an ironist, Allen built her narrative toward a dramatic show-down where Spark embraced a witty dying fall tinctured with ironic paradox.

In Spark’s Brodie, the self-deluding pedagogic iconoclast has no idea who has “betrayed” her to the authorities for her dangerous — indeed ultimately, if unintentionally murderous — extolling of Fascism, refusing to accept the evidence directly before her in the person of Sandy, the single “Brodie girl” she has most severely, and disastrously, underestimated. Allen climaxes her adaptation with a recriminatory confrontation between the two which, it must be admitted, ends spectacularly, with Brodie memorably shouting, “Assassin!” at Sandy’s departing back.* I once saw the Brodie movie in tandem with Paul Newman’s Rachel, Rachel, in a pointed double-bill. My best friend noted, afterward, that while the latter was deeply felt, and exceptionally moving, the former was more a showcase for its scenery-chewing star. I suspect it was largely that very concluding encounter that led him to prefer Rachel, itself — despite being one of the most deeply affecting portraits of loneliness ever committed to film — slightly hysterical.

"Victim" and "assassin":  Brodie and Sandy in the movie's climactic engagement.

“Victim” and “assassin”: Brodie and Sandy in the movie’s climactic engagement.

Certainly, in Maggie Smith’s deliciously ravenous hands, Jean Brodie is a veritable acting feast. Although her passions are all too real, her affect more than borders on self-conscious camp. One can easily imagine Charles Busch assaying Brodie and, with very little exaggeration, giving a nearly identical performance. I don’t say that as a criticism; as Allen (and the director, Ronald Neame) imagined her, this Jean Brodie virtually demands a comic technician willing to be as ridiculous yet oddly pitiable as Smith. That she occasionally seems, in 1930s Edinburgh, like a deliberately pretentious modern drag-queen avant la lettre merely adds, in a funny way, to her overall potency. On film Smith has been better (as in Ian McKellan’s Richard III and, especially, the flawed but almost agonizingly effective The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne), more quietly plangent (Hot Millions, A Room with a View), wittier (A Private Function) and far funnier (Murder by Death, California Suite.) But she has almost never, aside from Alan Bennett’s magnificent Talking Heads television monologue Bed Among the Lentils, had a leading role as plummy as Miss Jean, or one that has called upon her to pull together everything she does so well in a single performance.

Maggiebrodie

Maggie in her, and Brodie’s, prime.

More notably Sparkian, in the movie, are Smith’s coevals: Pamela Franklin, blankly cunning as Sandy; Gordon Jackson, whose Mr. Lowther somehow makes cowardice seem endearing; and, supremely, Celia Johnson as Brodie’s bete noir Miss Mackay. It’s a vast tribute to Johnson’s gifts that she embodies the head of the conservative Marcia Blaine School with such outward reasonableness, even a certain inflexible charm, never allowing the character’s dogged fixation on Brodie to lapse into simple churlishness or stock villainy. You feel that she is, despite Jean’s underestimation of her, every bit as formidable, and cunning, a foe as Brodie herself, and with far greater (and, inevitably, deadlier) patience. That Mackay is small-minded in her attitudes and, as such, a much greater, because institutionalized, danger to her young charges than Brodie could ever be, does not mitigate her belief in the essential order of things, a tenet as unalterable as Brodie’s more flamboyant devotion to, as her insidious phrase insinuates, molding her girls in her own implacable image.

The great Celia Johnson as Miss Mackay.

The great Celia Johnson as Miss Mackay.

Surely the sharply observational ironist in Spark, who famously converted to Roman Catholicism, knew what she was about when Brodie says, repeatedly, “Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life.” Substitute “child” for “girl” and you have the very essence of Catholic (and indeed, every religion’s) indoctrinal teaching. She is able to see Brodie plain, as a deliberate spell-binder, a foolish monster sacré, and, as Sandy says, “a ridiculous woman” who, in her self-contradictory embrace of Fascism, is directly responsible for sending one such impressionable girl (Joyce Hammond in the novel, Mary McGregor in the play and movie) to her violent death. She may also, as Allen’s art teacher Teddy Lloyd (two-armed where Spark imagined him with one) accuses her, be afraid of her own impassioned sexuality, all too eager to procure a substitute lover from among her girls (Rose in the novel, Jenny in play and movie.) Yet she is no phony. Whatever her motives, Brodie’s devotion to teaching, in her own, wildly original fashion, is true enough. And she does manage, for better or worse, to remain in the minds of her students, as all great teachers do, long after they have forgotten the mediocre run of the overwhelming mill.

Brodie, uncharacteristically up against it, in one of the movie's forceful encounters with Teddy Lloyd (Robert Stephens.)

Brodie, uncharacteristically up against it, in one of the movie’s forceful encounters with Teddy Lloyd (Robert Stephens.)

This may be what I mean when I maintain that The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, in common with those novels we return to again and again at irregular intervals as our lives progress, yields greater pleasures and pithier insights with each new reading. It is easy, as an adolescent, to ridicule Brodie herself, and to see in her only a preening ridiculousness. Later, we may feel that she has indeed been wronged. And, still later, to find we can embrace both her sterling lack of academic orthodoxy (her approach to education, based on the Latin verb educere, is “a leading out”) and Sandy’s self-justification when she maintains, “It’s only possible to betray where loyalty is due.” Seeing people whole demands of us a rejection of childish side-taking, that very egocentrism of which Jean Brodie is rightly accused yet which gives her such a disarmingly original hold, not merely on those special girls called (often with barely contained jealousy) The Brodie Set, nor on the reader, but on life itself. Without it, Brodie withers. With it, she soars. Vaingloriously, yes, even recklessly. But Jean Brodie is, however dangerously, alive in a way few fictions ever are.

“For those who like that sort of thing,” Miss Brodie sniffs at a girl whose avocations reveal, to her, a smallness of vision, “That is the sort of thing they like.” It may not be my favorite, but The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is the sort of thing I like very much indeed.

*On the DVD commentary, Brodie’s director Ronald Neame says that Smith wanted to say the word “Assassin” quietly, to herself but was vetoed by himself and Robert Fryer, the movie’s producer. He adds that, seeing the film again so many years later, he thinks Smith was right and they were wrong.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross