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

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By Scott Ross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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In Reno: Barbara Ruick at center.

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

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Bill and Sparkie (Joseph Walsh).

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

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

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

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Bill and Charlie, on a roll.

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

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

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

California Suite - Gould and Segal at racetrack


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

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

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

Rollercoaster (1977)

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By Scott Ross

I first saw Rollercoaster at 16, at an especially rotten little shopping center duplex cinema in Raleigh, North Carolina; it had earlier been a single-screen theatre until some genius decided to split it in half, around 1974 or ’75 — I remember seeing Jaws there — and the place was like two small coffins separated by what seemed like strips of plywood wedged between the auditoriums. In ’77 I don’t recall what was playing next door, except that I remember seeing whatever that was the week before. The theatre held 99-cent showings every Tuesday evening; whatever the other movie may have been (the atrocious Fire Sale, possibly) I recall, while watching it, the sound and feel of Rollercoaster’s utterly gratuitous Sensurround process bleeding through the walls and vibrating up from the floor, which is precisely as annoying as you think.

It was that very, expendable, addition that had kept me from Rollercoaster initially. One of Universal’s periodic attempts at manufacturing a fad, Sensurround debuted, appropriately, with Earthquake in 1974, sticking up its noisy, bombastic head at periodic (and wholly doomed) intervals until mercifully giving up the ghost for good in 1978. But I had a high school friend who was pretty much game for anything at the cost of only a buck, so we went.

My friend wasn’t particularly impressed with Rollercoaster, but I was — in spite of its being, essentially, a made-for-television movie decorated with widescreen, a few mild profanities and that ubiquitous sound-and-shake process. Its pedigree was, in fact, very television for the time: The movie’s canny screenplay was by William Link and his (now late) writing partner Richard Levinson.

Richard Levinson (left) and William Link.

The team responsible, among other things, for Columbo, Levinson and Link had also written and produced the now hopelessly dated but, in 1972, exceptionally brave teevee movie That Certain Summer starring Hal Holbrook as a divorced father, a young Martin Sheen as his lover, and Scott Jacoby as Holbrook’s alienated son. In later years I would especially admire Levinson and Link’s neat cat-and-mouse thriller Murder by Natural Causes, their evocation of 1957 Little Rock (Crisis at Central High) and their marvelously convoluted three-hander Guilty Conscience with the drop-dead cast of Anthony Hopkins, Swoosie Kurtz and the divine Blythe Danner.

Rollercoaster was another exercise in L & L’s patented games-playing: A chilly young man (Timothy Bottoms) sets off a series of bombs at large amusement parks around the country, the escalations gradually revealing themselves as blackmail — so perfect a terrorism plot I’m surprised no one in these post-PATRIOT Act times has re-made the movie… or tried to re-enact it.


Matching wits with this unknown (and largely unseen) antagonist is the always-engaging George Segal as Harry Calder, a California ride inspector. Naturally, once Harry deduces what the boyish sociopath is up to, no one in charge of the investigation takes him seriously until — also naturally — The Young Man (as Bottoms is billed) strikes again. From there on, Rollercoaster focuses on Harry, as The Young Man puts him through a series of seemingly pointless maneuvers though Virginia’s King’s Dominion park (and, later, the Six Flags Magic Mountain in California) as the Fibbies pursue them both.

It is finally Harry, the Young Man’s cats-paw, alone and feeling increasingly extraneous (and foolish) who is able — once the psychopath’s original plans are frustrated and he resorts to an improvised act of vengeance — to suss out Bottoms’ modus operandi.

Put that baldly, you may well wonder what the attraction was for me, and why I went back to Rollercoaster a second time, Sensurround and all. But, gimmicks aside, the movie has a fascination even after you’ve seen how it comes out. It certainly wasn’t due to any great job of filmmaking: The director, James Goldstone, came from television and, after, pretty much stayed there. Rollercoaster was Universal’s “event” movie that summer, the one the studio was sure was going to be the big hit of 1977. (They, along with everyone else, just didn’t reckon on something called Star Wars.)

Goldstone directing Widmark on the set.

Much of Rollercoaster’s effect on me was due to L & L’s smart, wry screenplay.* A part of it was undoubtedly my then-nascent sexuality; Timothy Bottoms was a dreamboat… which made my later discovery of some egregious, homophobic statements by the actor especially disheartening.

Some of that effect surely sprang from David M. Walsh’s expansive, and occasionally effectively vertiginous, widescreen cinematography: The otherwise fine 2:35 DVD presentation can’t come close to approximating the sensations you got in the theatre as Walsh’s camera took you through the rides themselves and, in one especially hair-raising moment (later appropriated by Stanley Kubrick for The Shining) seemingly off the tracks and away, into the sky. And a large portion of my admiration was the result of Lalo Schifrin’s superb score; I played the soundtrack LP a lot that summer. It’s still a favorite.

While Richard Widmark makes the most of his role as a bellicose special agent, much of the very fine supporting cast is underutilized: Henry Fonda as Segal’s sour boss, Harry Guardino as a local police inspector, and Susan Strasberg as Segal’s inamorata. But you do get to see a teenage Helen Hunt, Jodie Foster’s main competition in the “bright pubescent” sweepstakes, as the divorced Harry’s daughter, if that’s any compensation. (Although you may wonder, from a dramaturgical point of view, exactly why Strasberg and Hunt show up, against Harry’s wishes, at Magic Mountain in the final reel; they’re not put in peril, which is what you expect, and while the willingness of the screenwriters to thwart that cliché is admirable, it makes the pair’s unexpected appearance — especially as Harry convinces them to leave the park as soon as he sees them — feel entirely extraneous.)

Wait… is that Jodie Foster?

However, if you are, as I am, a life-long fan of George Segal, nearly any excuse to watch him at work is sufficient. Segal is one of those rare actors, like Elliott Gould in the same period, who without seeming to do much of anything radiates likability, and quiet intelligence. And since Harry Calder is in nearly every scene following the terrifying accident in the opening reel, he becomes the audience’s surrogate; his confusion is ours, his rages and frustrations our own as well.

I suspect my positive response, then, was due to a blend of elements, not the least of which was the wholly unexpected surprise of being treated, even at 16 and even in the summer, like someone with a mind during the unfolding of what was, essentially, a slick studio programmer.

Or maybe you just had to be there.

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*Tommy Cook and Sanford Sheldon are credited with, respectively, “story” and “screen story.” One smells a whiff of Writer’s Guild arbitration threat there.


Text copyright 2013 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