Impropriety: “What’s Up, Doc?” (1972)

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By Scott Ross

Eunice: Don’t you know the meaning of propriety?
Judy: Propriety; noun: conformity to established standards of behavior or manner, suitability, rightness, or justice. See “etiquette.”
— Madeline Kahn to Barbra Streisand (and vice-versa) in What’s Up, Doc?

I’m not sure what astonishes me more: That it has been 48 years since I saw this modern “screwball comedy” on its initial release, or that it is still so charming, and so very, very funny, nearly a half-century later.

Having scored an unexpected success with the black-and-white period drama The Last Picture Show, Peter Bogdanovich wanted a change of pace: Something like Bringing Up Baby, with a heroine who makes life difficult for a stuffy but handsome academic. He “stole” (his words) the idea of a lost collection — igneous rocks here in place of Baby‘s dinosaur bones — a bespectacled professor, his even stuffier fiancée, a ripped jacket, a comic chase and, working with David Newman Robert Benton, added a musicologist’s convention in San Francisco and three identical plaid overnight bags. (Buck Henry, doing the final rewrite, came up with a fourth bag, its contents suggested by the recently released and published Pentagon Papers.) The result was the director’s second of three consecutive hits — Paper Moon was to follow — and a comedy that had my 11-year old self laughing so long and so hard he, quite literally, nearly fell out of his theatre seat.

What's Up, Doc - Streisand as Judy (resized and cropped)

What’s Up, Doc? was also my first exposure as a moviegoer, or watcher, to Barbra Streisand, and I was captivated by her poise, her fast Brooklynite line-readings and Yiddish inflections (“Eunice? That’s a person named Eunice?”), her comic timing, her inimitable singing voice (heard at the beginning and the end and in a brief sequence during the third act), her sharp fashion sense (that cunning little cap), her big expressive eyes, her long sandy-colored hair and, yes, even her looks, which my mother corrected my pronouncement by calling “striking” but which seemed to me then (and seem to me still) strangely beautiful.

And Mom was shocked when I came out seven years later…

Seeing What’s Up, Doc? again, on the beautifully rendered Blu-ray edition, I’m struck by what I now apprehend as Bogdanovich’s recurrent directorial signatures: The long takes, usually done in full and often requiring complex movement, not by a hack’s camera as is now so often the case, but by the actors; the eschewing of a background score; the crispness of the images (the director of photography was the splendid László Kovács) and the editing (Verna Fields); the always apposite production design (Polly Platt — note that Ryan O’Neal’s tie is of the same plaid pattern as the overnight bags); and the wit, both verbal (“Don’t you dare strike that brave, unbalanced woman!”) and visual: When Sorrell Booke chased Mabel Albertson down a hotel hallway with the intention of tripping her, I remember being doubled over with laughter; when, later, the pair was glimpsed, struggling on the carpet, Alberton fastening her teeth onto Booke’s leg, I found myself gasping for air. The set up was absolutely perfect, and the timing could not be improved upon. Once we’d seen her hit the floor like Buster Keaton that first time, we knew what was coming, and when it happened it was riotously, blissfully funny. The picture also employed so many stuntmen, in so many varied roles, that Bogdanovich insisted they all get a credit during the end title sequence, the first time to his knowledge it had ever been done.* Streisand herself almost qualifies; she put herself in danger, twice, for Bogdanovich in the streets of San Francisco.

What's Up, Doc - Albertson and BookeThat’s not to mention the marvelous supporting cast: Kenneth Mars as a comic stand-in for the critic John Simon; Austin Pendleton as the toothsome head of a philanthropic foundation; Albertson as the rich old lady with a penchant for hot-pants and young men; Phil Roth as a harried Federal agent; Michael Murphy, his temples touched with gray, presumably to make him more resemble Daniel Ellsberg, as… well… essentially, Daniel Ellsberg; Booke as the larcenous hotel detective; Graham Jarvis as a prototypically annoying bailiff; John Hillerman as a preternaturally unflappable hotel manager; and Liam Dunn, until then a casting director, as the San Francisco judge attempting to hold onto his nerves and his sanity, both hanging by the thinnest of threads. (He also gets one of the biggest laughs in the picture with only two, perfectly spaced, words.) If you look quickly you’ll also spot Randy Quaid and John Byner as convention delegates, M. Emmet Walsh as a cop, and, if your eyes are sharper than mine, Christa Lang (Samuel Fuller’s wife) as Quaid’s wife.

 

What's Up, Doc - Madeline Kahn

The movie’s greatest casting coup, however, was Bogdanovich’s introducing to the screen Madeline Kahn as Eunice, Ryan O’Neal’s impossible bride-to-be. Kahn is not only astonishingly funny in herself, especially in the small sounds of confusion and fear she makes under her breath but, as an attractive young actress new to movies, rather brave in allowing the filmmakers to make her as physically (on top of personally) unappealing as possible. Certainly Kahn was better cast than Ryan O’Neal in the Cary Grant role. I’ve never thought O’Neal was bad as Howard Bannister, but comedy is not among his strengths, or in any case was not in 1972. (He was much better suited to Moses Pray in Paper Moon the following year; the experience of What’s Up, Doc? doubtless taught him a great deal about comic performance.) O’Neal, previously the masculine heart-throb of Love Story, was almost too conventionally beautiful for a comedic role, especially of the absent-minded professor type. Cary Grant was devastatingly handsome too, and sexy as hell. But Grant was somehow able to look convincingly obtuse and his comic frustration had a kick, especially when he whinnied like an outraged nag. O’Neal enjoyed far less experience with comedy than Grant had by that point in his career (none, in fact) and fewer ideas of how to make the farce work for him. He is good at looking dreamy and distracted, however, and effective in expressing a certain comic bewilderment; there is a very funny moment when he turns to the camera and seems to be asking us why this nightmare is happening to him.

What's Up, Doc - Streisand and O'Neal

What’s Up, Doc? is, in its way, a comedy of castration. Howard is a kind of handsome male frump, guided via the metaphorical ring through his nose by an officious termagant, and further tormented by Streisand’s anarchic Judy Maxwell. Although the latter loosens him up, as Katharine Hepburn does to Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby, she, like Eunice, is pushing him this way and that, if only in opposition to their manipulations. Still, the imagine of him in 10 or 20 years as Eunice’s completely emasculated spouse is so terrible a notion that he, like the audience, has to be relieved when Judy collars him at last. (That Eunice fastens on to Austin Pendleton’s Larrabee so quickly suggests she has an eye for soft, pliable men no less acute than Judy’s.)

But that’s an avenue of inquiry almost as academic as whether Howard Bannister’s igneous rocks can make music, and nearly as governed by propriety. Thankfully, What’s Up, Doc? itself is gloriously improper.

What's Up, Doc - O'Neal, Bogdanovich, Streisand resized

Bogdanovich, himself movie-star handsome, with his stars.

*In the later Disney comedy Hot Lead and Cold Feet (1978) the stunt crew got a similar credit during the main titles.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

But what if Mr Simon doesn’t like Heaven?

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By Scott Ross

John Simon - Moose Murders

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daniel Rosenblatt, Pauline Kael, John Simon and Dwight MacDonald

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

Barbra Streisand in “Yentl”

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By Scott Ross

Barbra Streisand, examining the china on Amy Irving’s table (“A matched set/From France, yet”) in her own adaptation of I.B. Singer’s “Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy.” A beautiful, visually rich evocation of early 20th century Polish-Jewish life, Yentl also boasted a splendid central performance by its writer-director. The diva has made a lot of enemies over her career, not least due to her well-documented arrogance, although her admirable sense of perfectionism doesn’t endear herself to the conformists either. Still, one cannot help thinking that, had a male actor had made this impressive a directorial debut, he would have been showered with praise and given an Oscar.* Streisand got neither.


*cf., Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, Kevin Costner, Mel Gibson.


Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

A timeless sense of glamour: The graphic art of Richard Amsel

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By Scott Ross

Richard Amsel’s artwork, evocative of earlier eras but infused with a modernist’s wit and self-conscious sense of style, graced the posters for many of the iconic American movies of the 1970s. His magazine cover art, for TV Guide especially, shimmered and his book covers gave his subjects an eloquence to match their own achievements. He died, a victim of the AIDS pandemic, at the obscenely early age of 37, but his best work is a timeless reminder of his own, particular and unduplicable, genius.

1 Amsel

I first encountered this signature, as distinctive as the work it ornamented, on the poster for Murder on the Orient Express in 1974. It became a talisman for me; whenever I saw it, I could feel reasonably sure of a rich visual experience to accompany the signature.

 

This, almost unbelievably, is the work of the 18-year old Amsel, for his high school yearbook, in 1965.
2 Amsel

An early self-portrait.
3 Amsel
A delightful portrait of Carol Burnett and her gifted alter-ego, Vicki Lawrence:
5 Burnett

Amsel’s study for a cover portrait of Lucille Ball, commemorating her retirement from regular series television. As glorious as the finished product was, some hint of soul was lost in the process.
6 LucyThe completed Lucy cover. Amsel said, “I did not want the portrait to be of Lucy Ricardo, but I didn’t want a modern-day Lucy Carter either. I wanted it to have the same timeless sense of glamour that Lucy herself has. She is, after all, a former Goldwyn Girl. I hoped to capture the essence of all this.”
He did.
7 Lucy

Valerie Harper as Rhoda. Amsel captures the character’s quirky and stylish clothing choices.
12 Harper

The cover of the Divine Miss M LP.20 Divine

Streisand in the curiously appropriate style of Klimt.
17 Babs

Lily Tomlin, for the cover of Time. She was starring in her Broadway debut, Appearing Nitely.
78T1572A_1

Amsel’s artwork for Bette Midler’s Clams on the Half-Shell Revue. Miss M as she might have been seen by Vargas.
19 Clams

The Divine Miss M in her most archetypal portrait. A New York friend tells me, “This was 6 stories high on The Palace Theater in Times Square.”
18 Midler

Midler a la Alphonse Mucha. Artwork for the Songs for the New Depression LP.
16 Midler

Midler’s once-indispensable backup trio, The Staggering Harlettes.
21 Harlettes

The marquee will eventually read “Act One: An Autobiography by Moss Hart.” Interestingly, there are no women in it to speak of in this famous memoir; Hart never mentions girls at all.
25 Act One
For a splendid study of Fitzgerald’s Hollywood years, an appropriately shattered Scott, anchored by a Gatsby-esque figure.

26 Sundays

 

The unholy marriage of Mucha and Klimt: Sacred (Duse) and profane (Madam.)


The “star” portraits are undistinguished, but Amsel’s depiction of Selznick captures his intensity, his anxiety, and his essential alone-ness.
29 Selznick

The first Amsel I “owned”:
31 Comedy Teams

Marjorie Rosen’s overview of women in American movies is, to me, almost infinitely superior to Molly Haskell’s much more widely heralded From Reverence to Rape, and Amsel’s art for the paperback edition makes it that much more of a treat. Note the Art Deco filligree.
33 Venus

The mid-’70s era “Gatsby Craze” in full flower.
34 Gatsby

Hello, Dolly!: Amsel captures the “Gay 90s” feeling, filters it through late 1960s “pop,” and adds a Mucha headdress (with Spirographed flowers) to promote the musical that nearly broke its studio. If only the film had exhibited half as much life as Amsel’s artwork for it.
40 Dolly

An early Amsel movie poster, for a cultural landmark.
38 Woodstock
Amsel’s first poser art for Robert Altman. The saloon-door plank and the carved filigree to either side capture the Western setting while the portraiture suggests the quirky nature of the leads in this, one of the late filmmaker’s true masterpieces.43 McCabe

Amsel’s jokey portrait of Burt Reynolds here is a humorous nod to his then-recent Penthouse centerfold as well and the total picture a canny evocation of Frazetta’s crime-caper movie posters of the 1960s.
45 Fuzz

A slightly (Bob) Peak-ish study, for What’s Up, Doc? Amsel limns both the oddball romance of the thing and its classic face nature (note the keys.) Streisand should have hired this man to be her full-time portraitist; she seldom looked more radiant than she did in one of his drawings.

44 Doc

Another one of those “If only the movie had been as distinguished” Amsel posters. That’s Ava Gardner in the background, as Bean’s unwitting inamorata Lily Langtree.
46 Bean

A superb Amsel image for Irvin Kershner’s underrated adaptation of the Anne Roiphe novel starring a non-singing Barbra. Note the integration of the star’s surname in the title.
48 Sandbox

Variations on a theme: Two different Amsel designs for Robert Altman’s seriocomic (and absurdly overrated) take on Raymond Chandler. That cat in the second poster appears to be planning something especially unsavory.

One of Amsel’s most memorable designs, evoking the Saturday Evening Post of the 1930s.
52 Sting

Amsel based his concept for The Sting on J.C. Lyendecker’s “Arrow Collar” ads. That Lyendecker used his male lover as a model adds an interesting, if unintentional, twist to what was perceived by some critics as the movie’s un-articulated homoerotic undercurrent.
53 Sting

A lovely Amsel image for the last Lerner and Leowe musical, best remembered for Bob Fosse’s marvelous “Snake in the Grass” sand-dance.
57 Prince

I’d seen Amsel’s work before, but his brilliant design for Sidney Lumet’s adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express was the first that really captured my attention, in 1974. It’s all there: The evocation of the 1930s, the starry cast, the train, and even the murder weapon. Wouldn’t this make you want to see the movie? (From top left: Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Martin Balsam, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Jean-Pierre Cassal, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Dame Wendy Hiller, Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Widmark and Michael York.)
58 Murder

Amsel’s splendid design for the Stanley Donen mis-fire Lucky Lady. If the movie had been half as good as this…
60 Lucky

An Amsel design for Nashville. Note that he captures the 24 main characters, the country-and-western milieu, and the sense, despite the seemingly amorphous quality of the narrative arc, that something is about to explode.
62 Nashville

Amsel’s superb artwork for Robert Benton’s nifty, semi-comic meditation on the hard-boiled L.A. gumshoe genre starring Lily Tomlin and Art Carney as a very sane kook and the aging shamus she hires.
63 Late Show

A striking Amsel design for a very, very bad movie. Elia Kazan directed this supposed evocation of 1930s Hollywood as if he’d never seen a vintage film, let alone directed one. Amsel could have taught Kazan a thing or two about real glamour.
65 Tycoon

John Wayne’s final movie: The Shootist. One dying legend playing another, framed by Amsel faces on a gold and sepia base. (From top left: Richard Boone, Hugh O’Brien, Ron Howard, Sheree North, Lauren Bacall and James Stewart.)
66 Shootisy

Amsel’s design for Voyage of the Damned. A great, agonizing subject undone by tepid filmmaking and overwhelmed by a too-starry cast. On the other hand… Where are the comparable faces today who could fill out that cast-list? (From top left: Orson Welles, Malcom McDowell, Faye Dunaway, Max von Sydow, Oskar Werner, James Mason, Lee Grant, Helmut Griem, José Ferrer, Janet Suzman, Julie Harris, Fernando Rey, Dame Wendy Hiller, Ben Gazzara, Sam Wanamaker, Maria Schell, Michael Constantine and Katharine Ross. Not depicted: Denholm Elliott, Nehemiah Persoff, Leonard Rossiter, Victor Spinetti, Luther Adler and Jonathan Pryce!)
67 Ship

Amsel evokes Fin de siècle Vienna (and, again, Alfonese Mucha) in his original design for Nicholas Meyer’s marvelous Sherlock Holmes pastiche The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. (From left: Nicol Williamson, Laurence, Olivier, Alan Arkin, Vanessa Redgrave.)
68 Solution
The final version omits the woman’s arm and Olivier’s Moriarty, retaining only his eyes, misterioso, and moves a luminous Redgrave to the top.

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (Amsel final)

Amsel’s stunning design for Julia. Jane Fonda’s Lillian Hellman is central, but is dominated both by Jason Robards’ Dashiell Hammett and Vanessa Redgrave’s eponymous figure — less distinct, and idealized, as Julia is for Lillian.
69 Julia

Striking Amsel concept art for Martin Scorsese’s ill-fated (and somewhat ill-conceived) New York, New York. The final poster used photos of Robert DeNiro and Liza Minnelli.
70 NYNY

Mitchum as Marlowe. Candy Clark clings, damsel-in-distress-like to Chandler’s iconoclastic private detective. A lousy movie (when you’ve seen Bogart and Bacall directed by Howard Hawks, why bother?) but a terrific Amsel design.
71 Sleep

Death on the Nile. It’s a variation on Amsel’s own “Murder on the Orient Express” design, but then the movie —charming as it was — was a bit of a re-tread too. But what I wouldn’t give to see all of these actors alive and kicking again! (From top: Peter Ustinov, Maggie Smith, David Niven, Jack Warden, George Kennedy, Olivia Hussey. Mia Farrow, Bette Davis and Angela Lansbury.)
72 Death

One of the reasons Stallone had to keep making Rocky and Rambo movies: His “big” brainchildren had an unfortunate tendency to flop, as this one did. That Felliniesque design does make you want to see the movie, though.
73 Paradise

Amsel captures the joy of the Muppet’s first movie, along with its highest moment (which came, unfortunately, right at the beginning): Kermit singing “Rainbow Connection.”
74 Muppet
Sally Fields’ break-through performance, as Norma Rae Webster. The more well-known posters featured a photo of Fields triumphant, but Amsel’s portrait captures her anxieties and social class.
76 Norma
The unused concept for Nijinsky. The golden-hued ballet designs almost overwhelm the central figures (Leslie Browne, George de la Peña and Alan Bates.) Note de la Peña’s headband, suggesting the sweat behind a great dancer’s art.
77 Nijinksy
 

The completed Nijinsky design emphasizes the (so-called) love triangle, gives de la Peña sculpted pretty-boy/matinee-idol hair, and opts for a single dance: Nijinsky’s L’après-midi d’un faune.
78 Nijinsky

Amsel invokes 1930s screwball comedy, as well as the Damon Runyan characters, for this forgotten 1980s remake. Sort of makes you want to shell out your $3.50 to see the movie, though, doesn’t it? Indeed, now that Matthau and Curtis are gone and Julie is an old lady, I can’t help wanting to see it, on a big screen.
79 Marker

Amsel’s superb design for the George Lucas/Steven Spielberg Raiders of the Lost Ark, capturing the sepia-era quality of those movie serials that inspired it, the derring-do and brooding nature of Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones, and the desert setting.
81 Raiders
The completed poster.
82 Raiders
 
 

The reissue poster: Nothing makes a man smile faster than a monster hit. Note Ford’s newly exposed chest and suggestive crotch-bulge.
83 Raiders

Lily and Amsel, together again for The Incredible Shrinking Woman.
84 Woman
Amsel was commissioned, by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, to create this gorgeous design for the restored, rereleased version of A Star is Born. The pose is from the movie (“Here comes a big, fat close-up!”) and was used in the original 1954 ad campaign. Amsel added the spotlights and a slight change in Garland’s costume. Compare this with the original; Amsel’s “Vicki Lester” adds a subtle sense of yearning.

Amsel captures an emblematic moment in American pop-culture for the laser-disc release pf The Seven Year Itch. An elegant presentation of what is in fact Billy Wilder’s only truly bad movie.
88 Itch

Amsel’s design for this Grahame Green adaptation (also known as Beyond the Limit—as though Green had written some sort of fast ‘80s kiss-kiss/bang-bang techno-thriller rather than a thoughtful examination of the cynical political murder of a minor functionary) incorporates a portrait of Michael Caine: The eyes of God, watching the lovers.
89 Counsel
La Streisand, as Yentl.
90 Yentl

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Richard Amsel in the 1980s.
91 Amsel

Most of these images, and much of the information, are from Adam McDaniel’s lovely Amsel site: http://adammcdaniel.com/RichardAmsel2.htm

Special thanks to Amsel’s friend Bob Esty for inspiring me to collect, and comment on, these magnificent works.



Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

Talent is Beauty: Funny Girl (1968)

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By Scott Ross

One of the most spectacular debuts in movie history. In a highly romanticized biography of Fanny Brice with a strong Jule Styne score (and some very good lyrics by the highly variable Bob Merrill) Barbra Streisand repeated, and deepened, her star-making Broadway role.

This big, romantic musical biography of Fanny Brice has a curious pedigree. With the active collusion of Brice’s daughter Fran (the wife of the producer Ray Stark), Isobel Lennart wrote a soapy screenplay for a projected 1950s biopic that never sold. She later re-imagined it for the stage, coming full-circle as the author of the movie adaptation, which is not as light on its feet as her book for the Broadway show. The show’s director was Garson Kanin, his Fanny a gawky young singer who had previously stopped her Broadway debut I Can Get it for You Wholesale cold with a hilarious rendition of Harold Rome’s comic lament “Miss Marmelstein.”

“Pardon the big words I apply / But I was an English major at CCNY”

David Merrick originally co-produced but, loathing Stark, bowed out. (Thereby proving something about loathsomeness, although I’m not sure just what.) Fran thought Streisand looked like her maid, and Barbra in turn drove Kanin to distraction with her lack of expertise and professionalism. But her voice was a force of nature, and Kanin (among others) molded her into a real actress, much as Moss Hart had performed his own Pygmalion job on Julie Andrews for My Fair Lady. Then he was fired; Jerome Robbins stepped in.* Naturally, the show was a hit. While Robbins, Kanin and company handled the material comedically, with a light touch on the central Brice-Nick Arnstein romance, the movie (also produced by Stark) unfortunately reasserts the soapier aspects. Indeed, Fanny Brice might not have recognized herself amid all the suds; of her marriages to Nick Arnstein and Billy Rose, she famously said, “I didn’t like the man I loved, and I didn’t love the man I liked.” But she would surely have been impressed by Barbra.

Everything Streisand could do was packed into the movie, from the “I’m-gonna-be-a-star-whether-you-like-it-or-not!” opening to the stunning finale in which she stands in a spotlight and pours it all into Brice’s signature torch song, “My Man.” As with the great “Don’t Rain on My Parade” sequence, one of the most exhilarating numbers in all of American movie musicals, “My Man” was planned and shot, not by the film’s director, William Wyler, but by its choreographer, Herbert Ross.† It’s said that Streisand convinced her co-star, and ersatz off-screen lover, the badly miscast Omar Sharif, to break up with her a second time, just before the take, which was done “live.” If the story is true, it’s one of the supreme acts of masochism in service to art, but in any case, the sight of Barbra-as-Fanny, choking back tears and gradually giving in to the sheer, narcissistic joy of performance, is shocking in its visual simplicity and histrionic intensity.

I’ve always thought that the ideal casting for Arnstein would have been George Segal. The real Nick was far scrappier — and a great deal less elegant — than the rather stuffy conception of him in Funny Girl, but the project belonged to Fanny’s daughter and her husband, and Mrs. Ray Stark was determined to present an idealized version of Papa. (My thesis is proven, in a way, by how well, and sexily, Streisand and Segal sparked off each other two years later in The Owl and the Pussycat, directed by Ross.)

“The sun spit morning into Julian’s face…” “Wait a minute! The sun spit morning into this guy’s face? His face… got morning… spit into it?”

Streisand’s Fanny is smashing, and she’s pretty much the whole show. Her comic timing is a thing of beauty, and between the stage musical and the movie her singing had softened and deepened, and become infinitely richer. Kay Medford is a memorably sly Mama Brice, but poor Anne Francis had most of her performance cut (at La Streisand’s insistence, it was alleged, although this seems unlikely) and Walter Pidgeon is more than a shade too Miniver-ish as Flo Ziegfeld. But the movie, despite its occasional ponderousness, is full of delights. Although Styne was less than pleased by the way the movie jettisoned much of his score, he and Merrill came up with a lovely title ballad, beautifully performed and shot (also by Ross?) and there are delicious faux-period items like the big Ziegfeld glorification number Streisand turns into a comic shambles, and a very funny Swan Lake parody. (Although the former is overdone and the latter is slightly truncated; similarly, a Baby Snooks number was shot and deleted.)

Funny Girl is not quite a classic. But it’s got Streisand, and that’s more than enough.


*For a bittersweet (if highly self-serving) take, see Kanin’s roman à clef revenge account Smash.

†Wyler, an otherwise superb director, filmed most of the movie rather stodgily. That Wyler was famously deaf and making a musical raised a lot of eyebrows, and generated a number of quips, at the time.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross