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

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

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The Iceman Cometh (NET) - Hirschfeld

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

By Scott Ross

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

The Iceman Cometh (1946) - James Barton

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

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

Eugene O'Neill - Time cover

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

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

Iceman - Robards

Robards as Hickey

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

Iceman - Myron McCormick

Myron McCormick, the Larry of 1960

Iceman - Robert Ryan

The great Robert Ryan as Larry (1973)

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

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

Iceman - Robards and Farrell Pelly

Robards with Farrell Pelly as Harry Hope

Iceman - March, Ryan and Pedi

Fredric March as the Harry Hope of 1973.

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

Iceman - Robert Redford JPEG

Robert Redford as Parritt

Iceman - Ryan and Bridges

Jeff Bridges as Parritt in 1973

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

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Bradford Dillman, right, as a heartbreakingly believable Willie Oban in the Frankenheimer version.

The Iceman Cometh - Moses Gunn

Moses Gunn as Joe Mott in 1973

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

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

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

The Iceman Cometh - Dillman, Marvin and March

Lee Marvin’s Hickey seizes on Willie Oban (Dillman) and Harry Hope (March).

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

Iceman - Marvin

Marvin as Hickey. (Evans Evans at right, behind him.)

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

Sidney Lumet - 1950s

Sidney Lumet in the mid-1950s

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

Marvin and Frankenheimer

Lee Marvin (Hickey) with John Frankeheimer on set

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

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross