Archive for the Movies (Contemporary) Category

Rebecca De Mornay’s Grandmother, Child Star in Silent Movies & Vaudeville

Posted in Child Stars, Hollywood (History), Movies, Movies (Contemporary), Silent Film, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 5, 2017 by travsd

July 5 is the birthday of Eugenia M. Clinchard (1904-1989). From the ages of 3 through 19, Clinchard acted and performed locally in San Francisco area vaudeville theatres. At the time, this geographical base was enough to give her national reach, as well, for Broncho Billy’s Essanay Studios were based in nearby Niles. From 1911 through 1914 she appeared in nearly a dozen Broncho Billy western pictures, usually as a cowboy’s daughter.

At age 18 she retired to marry shipping magnate Walter G. Pearch. But the family wasn’t done with show business. Eugenia’s son became radio and television personality Wally George, most famous for the syndicated conservative talk show Hot Seat.  With Eugenia’s support and encouragement, George had become a radio disc jockey in the mid 1940s. George, in turn, was the father of film actress Rebecca de Mornay. 

For more on Clinchard, this article will probably tell you more than you ever wanted to know!

For more on vaudeville consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever fine books are sold. For more on early silent film,  consult Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,  released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc. 

Vaudeville vs. Wagner: The Genius of “Spaceballs”

Posted in Comedy, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), Jews/ Show Biz, Movies, Movies (Contemporary) with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 28, 2017 by travsd

I write this post this morning at a time of stellar confluence, a constellational alignment — a harmonic convergence, if you will. Today is the birthday of Mel Brooks (b. 1926); Spaceballs just turned 30 years old; and Stars Wars, the film (among others), which Spaceball parodies, just turned 40.  An auspicious time, one thinks for a reconsideration of this cinematic last gasp.

Yes, “last gasp”. For we can agree, can’t we, I should hope, that Life Stinks (1991), Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993), and Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995) are all unambiguously terrible, symptoms of an exhausted talent, adrift in a culture that had progressed beyond his ability to connect. Yes, Brooks was to reinvent himself a few years later on the musical stage with great, even unprecedented, success, but his days of making perfect screen comedies were even then behind him, as long as a quarter century and more ago.

Candy as “Barf”

For years, I would have set the period of decline a decade earlier, marking the descent with The History of the World, Part One (1981), the unnecessary remake of To Be or Not to Be (1983), and Spaceballs (1987). I’ve since re-evaluated the first and last of these, and will talk about the former film on another occasion. But when Spaceballs was released…one rolled ones eyes. Brooks was passé. This movie was passé. For so many reasons. Among others, there’s the fact that in 1987, what could have been less relevant to anything than Star Wars? The last film in the series, Return of the Jedi had been released four years before. For all anyone knew at that time, the Star Wars franchise was dead, permanently a thing of the past. It was no longer in the zeitgeist. I was 21 when Spaceballs came out; a fifth of my life had passed since Star Wars was “over”; half my life had passed since it had begun. So there was that. But then there was the fact that a new generation of comic geniuses had pressed the re-set button, and basically Brooks had been bested and made obsolete on no less than two different fronts: on his left were the SNL-SCTV guys who were making edgier, more youth-oriented comedy (I found the fact that he cast two of the stars of this movement,  John Candy and Rick Moranis, in Spaceballs, embarrassing at the time, as though Brooks thought he could hire his way back to relevance). And to his right, Zucker, Abrahams, Zucker were beating him at his own game with dead-on, far more uncompromising and knowing parodies like Airplane! (1980) Police Squad! (1982), and Top Secret (1984). (ZAZ would lose their own advantage, at least from a critical perspective, soon enough, but for the moment in 1987 they had re-set the bar higher than Brooks himself was able to hit.)

Furthermore, though mainstream audiences and maybe even Brooks himself didn’t know it, there was already a perfect Star Wars parody, Hardware Wars, a comedy short released in 1978 which I wrote about here. I was an enormous fan of Hardware Wars; only a miracle would not make Brooks’ film suffer by comparison. And Hardware Wars had been made on a shoestring. It’s about vitality. (For an interesting parallel completely WITHIN Brooks’ body of work…Brooks’ 1975 Robin Hood tv series When Things Were Rotten is vastly superior to the $20 million stinker Robin Hood: Men in Tights.) Note the date of Hardware Wars. 1978! That was the year for a Star Wars parody! When it was topical, not when it was a decade-old fad already in pop culture’s rear-view mirror!

You know what we needed in 1987? A really devastating Top Gun parody. THAT would have been comedy doing its job. One finally arrived in the form of Jim Abrahams’ Hot Shots! (1991), which was a smash success, although not the biting satire I would have hoped for. But at least it had its finger on the pulse. Much more to the purpose was Alan Spencer’s Dirty Harry parody tv show that ran 1986-1888: Sledge Hammer! That one was right on time, and on the money.

And not least of which…Jesus, that title! “Spaceballs“?! Balls? Really? And dick jokes? Brooks had been brilliant on his own, and brilliant in collaboration with Gene Wilder. Now he was collaborating with this hacky dude Ronny Graham, and it seemed like the whole enterprise was reaching, down, down, to recapture the glory of farting cowboys in Blazing Saddles. The remainder of Brooks’ film career was to be at about this level, actually.

What did this exhausted 60 year old man know about what was going on in the world? What did he know about Star Wars? Ah! And now we come to our point. For time, I feel has vindicated and rehabilitated Spaceballs in all sorts of ways. Out of its own time, we can see it better, more objectively. It has many virtues we (or at least I) never could have spotted at the time. I watched it again not long ago, and found it to be highly rewarding.

To get an easy one out of the way: as we never could have known at the time, the Stars Wars franchise would return years later, much like Star Trek before it, to be a sort of apparently permanent, open ended phenomenon, with many more sequels, prequels, and outlying stories to follow. Rather than a fad of the past, it lives now in a sort of timeless place, allowing Spaceballs to live there, too, as part of its universe, much as High Anxiety lives alongside Hitchcock’s oeuvre and Young Frankenstein lives practically within Universal horror. That’s a relief, but a kind of accidental one. That’s  just time catching up to salvage Brooks’ movie. But Spaceballs (ugh, change the title, though!) has inherent, timely virtues of its own, and three decades later it is easy to see that its creator was vastly smarter, more insightful, and more prescient than I gave him credit for at the time.

To be au courant is important to success. but it also an element that is superficial. As I said, four years, ten years, were a big deal to me at age 21, but to a 60 year old man, they are nothing. Those years passed, and Brooks hadn’t noticed that Star Wars was no longer a thing. So he went ahead and made his parody. And I’m glad that he did. Because a 60 year old man SEES things. He has an objectivity that people who are immersed in the latest pop culture (young people, generally speaking) do not. A few years ago (a bunch of years now) I went to my kid’s junior high graduation. And I had a flashback. The TUMULT of applause and screams and cheers when the popular kids went up to get their certificates! I remember being in Junior High, and thinking that about the popular kids, and thinking they were significant somehow, that they were important in some way. Whether you loved them or hated them, they dominated your life somehow. But, now as a parent, and a parent who lived in a different city (for as you well know, parents too are often sucked into the school culture of popularity), I was looking at this phenomenon with total objectivity, coolly, from a height and distance. To me, it was all very amusing. “They’re cheering for these kids like they’re rock stars! But they’re just kids! They’re just some other kids!”

In other words, I was unmoved by whatever anyone thought was going on here. I wasn’t impressed. I’m not saying I was judging any of it or anyone harshly. I was just aloof, detached, not on board to scream for Jimmy like he was the Beatles, because I was out of it, and could see that he was just another kid. He might be good looking or charming or something, but the odds are pretty good that the next Bill Gates in the class wouldn’t be that kid, it would be some dork who probably didn’t even show up for the ceremony because everyone hates him and he hates them right back.

So Brooks SEES Star Wars, he sees it in a way that many of us can’t or couldn’t. He doesn’t have any particular animus against it, he just doesn’t feel any need to show it slavish respect and worship. As a matter of fact, his attitude towards it is very much like his attitude toward the western in Blazing Saddles. It is a different approach than the one he takes towards musicals or the horror of the 1930s as in The Producers or Young Frankenstein. Those parodies are loving and indeed a little worshipful. But the HEROIC, you see, he is outside that mindset, and that is the point of this essay.

What is the heroic mindset? As is well known, George Lucas was under the spell of Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces when he laid out his masterwork. It obviously, baldly draws from well-known sources in its bid to set up an original mythology: the epic poetry of the Greeks and Vikings; the opera of Wagner; and Tolkien (with its own echoes of Celtic, Norse and Germanic mythology). The story has that shape. John Williams’ music draws overtly from Wagner. And to stretch the point to a place where it is unmistakable, in one famous scene, there are visual echoes of the 1937 Nuremberg Nazi Party Rally in Triumph of the Will:

George Lucas is not a Nazi, of course. He is a cinematic storyteller. As such, he is concerned with summoning powerful iconography and, according to certain conventions, a heroic ideal. He is not alone in this. We live, after all in the age of the superhero movie, where all of our protagonists must somehow be more than human and all our stories must be about the fate of the planet. Even our stories that are not overtly about those things now tack in that direction (see my earlier critique of Poseidon). mere people aren’t good enough; everybody’s got to be Superman! A term coined by Nietzsche, I might add!

This worship of the strong, the invincible, the independently acting vigilante hero who is answerable to nobody but himself and the voices in his head makes some of us — makes me — a little skittish. It feels like conditioning for Fascism. I have been moaning about the deleterious cultural effects of action movies for decades, and people tell you you’re a Cassandra, “It’s just movies!” Yet what do we get in 2o16? A Fascist President, complete with rallies, a stream of Orwellian doublespeak, and a program for stepping on the necks of certain groups of people in pursuit of a vague, ill-defined “greatness”. Look! Look at the asshole in this picture, look at his costume. What do you think inspired it?

Motherfucker thinks he’s a superhero, gonna save something. Like a Knight? A Dark Knight? Or perhaps a Knight of the Ku Klux Klan?

And what does a certain comedian think about that sort of thing? What has he always felt? What respect does he have for it? I’ll show ya:

All the sudden, Mel Brooks looks to me like the hippest, most relevant comedian on the planet, Look at that picture. It’s recent! 

And now a little history lesson, so you know where we are. For decades, Hollywood was a place were the stories were designed to generate sympathy for the little guy — to communicate his perspective, but also, yes, to draw him to the theatre. Chaplin, Capra, Hawks, John Ford. Yes, there were superhero serials, and yes sci-fi fantasy like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon (another model for Star Wars) but that was considered entertainment for children. Grown-ups watched stories about people.

OR…they laughed. Deconstruction has been a major thread in America since the days of vaudeville, burlesque, and Weber and Fields. WASP newspaper critics often sneered at this kind of disrespectful low-brow comedy back in the day, but they did so from a place of willful ignorance. Aristophanes came out of the same culture that produced the tragedians. He was there to lampoon them, keep them humble, keep them “real”. The first democracy gave birth to the first spoofs. When American cinema was born, guys like Mack Sennett, Buster Keaton and Stan Laurel parodied the heroic movies of their day. TV sketch comedy, where Mel Brooks got his start, would do the same.

During the Vietnam Era, the only Batman game in town was a camp tv series that poked relentless fun at the idea of a Caped Crusader. In the 60s, there was a healthy and perceptive idea abroad in the land that people who went around calling themselves saviors and heroes just might be buffoons. The guys who show up to your village to save you from the scourge of communism just might burn down your hooch and shoot every man, woman, child and infant. In fact, it was against this backdrop that Mel Brooks had his first smash success, the tv series Get Smart, which ran from 1965 through 1970. Get Smart turned Cold War super spy James Bond on his head, turned him into an idiot. It’s not that Mel Brooks wasn’t/ isn’t a patriot. He served in World War Two — literally went to Germany to fight Nazis. But you have to keep your eye on the ball. Fascism isn’t just a uniform. It’s a mindset and a way of behaving. And it is to be fought WHEREVER it is, at home as much as abroad, even if it is sitting right across from you at Thanksgiving dinner.

Then something dreadful happened. As Ronald Reagan began to heat up the Cold War again, the culture decided (after a REALLY short time) that the era of apologizing for Vietnam was over. Carter had bungled the response to the Iran hostage crisis, and a few other things besides. The Reagan philosophy was “Let us no longer be crippled by doubt”. Which was fine, as far as it went. Who doesn’t want to destroy totalitarianism? (In fact, that is the point of this very essay). But what rapidly evolved was a cinema that glorified military violence for its own sake, and patriotism at any cost, including the loss of America’s democratic, compassionate soul. It was now okay to kill the enemy for no other reason than the fact that we are us. And where the 60s and 70s had been an age of anti-heroes, and self-examination, it now appeared paramount to re-establish HEROES. Not just heroes, but unquestioned, unquestionable demi-Gods, the kind of characters who destroy buildings and cities to save their girlfriend or something.

But, “Whoa! The laser gun is cool!”

Pizza the Hut: THAT’s puttin’ ’em in their place!

Mel Brooks looked at that mentality, and said, much to his credit, “I’m not so impressed.” Your proto-Fascism has no power over me. This crap you fetishize is immature. The names are hokey, the plot is stupid, your intentions are nakedly self-aggrandizing. It is cloaked in mysticism, but contains no wisdom. There is a level at which a jackass with a gun is childish… therefore a jackass with a gun who is wearing a comically large helmet and falling down and swearing all the time is actually much more mature for laughing at the folly of it all. I KNOW the Buddha and Jesus would agree with me here!

I had a great epiphany a few months back at the Coney Island USA spring gala, when Reverend Billy was there and gave his (usual) great speech about how Coney Island was a a kind of holy place, for being the birthplace and haven for every kind of freak. Not just the literal ones, the born different, but the spiritual ones, too. Outsiders. And New Burlesque, like the sideshow, is so much about embracing all bodies, and celebrating self-ownership by women, the LGBTQ community etc (at least the worthwhile shows are).

Brooks, to state the obvious, is from an outsider culture. He STATES it. At the end of The History of the World, Part One, he announces that his next movie will be Jews in Space. And he made Jews in Space and decided to call it Spaceballs instead. He gives us a “Druish Princess” whose servant is played by Joan Rivers, for God’s sake. And “May the Schwartz Be With You!” Brooks is in dialogue with the dominant culture, the Anglo-Saxon culture, which appears to be getting off on some weird Aryan worshiping mythos. The vaudeville spirit is about creating a unique whole out of a zillion diverse parts, allowing them to remain different, allowing them to remain themselves, not asking them to cleave to some “ideal”. Taking the beautiful and powerful down a few pegs, that’s the stuff for me. God bless you, Mel Brooks. We need a thousand more like you right at this very moment.

Cinematic Selfies: The Most Self Indulgent Vanity Movies Ever

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), Movies, Movies (Contemporary) with tags , , , , on June 23, 2017 by travsd

This is by no means an exhaustive catalog of Self Indulgent Vanity Movies, but merely  some of the most egregious examples that sprang to mind. To qualify for this list, a film must: 1) be primarily about gratifying the whim of its star(s) over, say, such elements as plot, character, or dialogue; 2) be about glorifying the star to a nakedly transparent, downright embarrassing degree; and 3) possess few redeeming qualities, or none at all. Note that these bad films are not made by people at the bottom, but those at the top, those with so much power there is no one to check it. Usually the film will have either a weak director (cowed by the star) or the star will direct the film himself. In either case, in these examples, it’s the same as having no director.

Always Leave Them Laughing (1949)

Milton Berle’s only true starring vehicle after having become Mr. Television — and it’s a weirdie. Essentially, Berle plays a character who is indistinguishable from himself: America television’s top tv star and a man so obnoxious you want to throttle him. What makes it weird is that it’s such an unflattering portrayal: he’s manically ambitious, screws over his friends, dumps women when better ones come along, and basically drives everyone away with bad jokes. Appearing in this film, released at the top of his fame, seems like almost some sort of penance, a masochistic martyrdom of some sort. The thing is, Berle was a pretty good actor when given the chance to demonstrate it. After his tv career wound down, he made a pretty heavy push to appear in films, usually only landing supporting parts. But that’s okay, he does enough scenery chewing in this movie for fifteen films.

Far Be It From Me to Disturb Your Pool Game, But Do Me a Favor: If You Get Near a Movie, Shoot It

Oceans 11 (1960) and Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964)

I wanted to hate on Sinatra far more than this, believe me, but to my astonishment, when I went down his list of film credits, what I saw was mostly a lot of excellent movies, about half of them musicals and half of them dramas. But there’s plenty to hate about these two films. In fact, it might plausibly said that the Rat Pack ethic is what spawned nearly every other bad film on this list. Oceans 11 broke the sound barrier in terms of not supplying any of the ingredients of a good movie, under the presumption that the documentary presence of the film’s stars would be more than sufficient. The entirety of its breathtakingly amoral plot is that its “heroes” (Rat Packers Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr, Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop) rob five major Las Vegas casinos. That is the WHOLE plot. No one has moral misgivings. No one gets caught. There are no consequences. It’s a movie for moral bankrupts and sociopaths. While the movie was being shot, the stars picked up extra dough performing in the casinos at night, and did a lot of drinking, gambling, and womanizing both on camera and off. That is the extent of the thing. I cannot tell you how much I despise this lazy, self-indulgent non-movie. I’ve not bothered watching the remake or its sequels on the assumption that they operate on the same plane. I can’t imagine why anyone would watch it.

Robin and the 7 Hoods gets on my nerves for different reasons. By contrast, this one has a plot, but it irritates because of its meta relationship to the real life stars. It seems to owe something to Frank Capra’s A Pocketful of Miracles (1961), which Sinatra was to star in but walked out of, and both of them build on Guys and Dolls. Peter Falk appeared in both Robin and the 7 Hoods and A Pocketful of Miracles. The former film also has Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Bing Crosby (replacing Lawford, who was now banned from the Rat Pack) and Edward G. Robinson. This film galls especially as an exercise in what I call “hoodlum inoculation”. Sinatra, a guy with a thousand REAL Mafia ties, overplays a cute, cuddly, stereotyped “gangster” in order to prove that he really isn’t one in real life. That’s what every minute of the film feels like to me. Let’s make this fantasy as unrealistic as possible; let’s make organized crime appear as unbelievable as we can. I find myself particularly irritated by the hoodlum voices they all (particularly Sinatra and Peter Falk use) They don’t HAVE to use those voices. They are perfectly believable as gangsters with their natural voices.

Are there Rat Pack movies I like? Yes! Some Came RunningSergeants Three and Four for Texas are all pretty palatable because the actors are playing characters, not demanding that you bask in the sunshine of their existence.

What the Hell is This Shit?

Jerry Lewis in the late 1960s

Staking out my position on Lewis’s movies is always very difficult (not that anyone cares!) The majority of people outright hate him and dismiss him out of hand. That’s not me. I almost always find him enormously interesting, though almost always equally mortifying and irritating. And while I think it can be plausibly said that ALL of his film performances and outings as a director are self-indulgent to put it mildly, new horizons were broached between the years 1966 and 1972.

To be fair, when Lewis entered his 40s and middle age, he was confronted with a serious problem. How to age his character, who was essentially an adolescent? About half of the films of this period deal with it by abandoning the slapstick character altogether. Unfortunately, the other Jerry, the “real” Jerry comes off as an unlikable creep, essentially variations on Buddy Love, his jerky alter ego from The Nutty Professor. So there are all these essentially unwatchable “sophisticated adult” comedies: Boing, Boing (1965); Three on a Couch (1966); Way, Way Out (1966) and Don’t Raise the Bridge, Lower the River (1968) which appeal to almost nobody. And then there are other ones like The Big Mouth (1967), Hook, Line and Sinker (1969) and Which Way to the Front (1969), where he reverts to form a bit more as a performer but is now 42 years old. The latter one breaks new frontiers of cinematic self-indulgence. I seem to recall one scene where he holds the same shot for many, many minutes while he does a seemingly endless number of double-takes — perhaps 15. (That is a lot of double takes). Of course, none of us has yet seen what is reported to be his masterpiece of self-indulgence, his sad-clown-in-a-concentration-camp film The Day the Clown Cried (1972), although, as we reported here, there is now hope that we will see it in our lifetimes. He retired from directing for a time, but not before giving us:

Salt and Pepper (1968) and One More Time (1970)

Well, Jerry never did get back together with Dean for a film, but he did collaborate with his fellow Rat Packers Sammy and Peter for a pair of pictures. I wrote about those unseemly spectacles here. 

O, To Participate in Your Own Deification

Viva Knievel (1977)

I wrote about daredevil Evil Knievel and his massive influence on American popular culture in the 1970s here. Viva Knievel is a bizarre exercise in megalomania in which Knievel plays HIMSELF as a crime-solving superhero who also clears up people’s personal problems and heals a crippled child while giving out action figures of himself and doing death-defying motorcycle jumps. At the climax, he gives an anti-drug speech to kids in which he swears (yes, uses curse words) several times. When the film was in the can, Knievel and his cronies beat the hell out of its promoter with an aluminum baseball bat, and that hurt the film somewhat at the box office.

The Greatest (1977)

The Greatest goes Viva Knievel one better by being an “autobiography” of its star Muhammad Ali — starring Ali, playing himself. Once you’ve done that, what is there left to do?

Everything the World Hates About America All in One Piece of Art

Cannonball Run (1981) and Cannonball Run II (1984), et al.

Burt Reynolds was America’s top box office star for at least part of the 1970s, and did he let it go to his head? Nah! The thing is, he has proven himself a good actor on many an occasion when he puts his head and heart into it. And it’s kind of hard (for me anyway) to pinpoint precisely when he went completely bad. There are many films in which he plays good ol’ boys or football players or the like, and they’re not all bad. The catalyst for descent appears to have been Hal Needham.

Hal Needham had been the stunt coordinator on several Reynolds pictures: The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing (1973), White Lightning (1974), The Longest Yard (1974), and — most relevantly — W.W. and the Dixie Dance Kings (1975). In 1977, he was finally given the keys to the vehicle as it were and was allowed to direct Smokey and the Bandit, which became a monster hit. Now, in no way, shape or form do I object to a stunt man becoming a movie director on principle. No true lover of silent comedies ever could. In the silent days, that very transition happened all the time, the most natural thing in the world. Certainly it’s as natural as a choreographer becoming a film director and that happens frequently, too. Now, I really liked both W.W. and the Dixie Dance Kings and Smokey and the Bandit when I was a kid, and I’ll let you in on a little secret: they’re both the same movie. Almost character for character, plot point by plot point. It’s just that the latter film was bigger and splashier, and got all the publicity and box office. And that’s fine. That’s how most directors start out, imitating a previous movie. The problem is that then he went on to lots of other movies.

For me, the Cannonball Run movies are the nadir. They make Oceans 11 look a like a towering mountain of integrity. Both the Cannonball Run movies are essentially just a bunch of stars (some big, most of them minor, people who were known for being on a sit com for a year or two, ten or twenty years prior) driving in an illegal cross country car race and having mishaps along the way. The “characters” are somewhere on the order of the “characters” teenagers play in the school talent show, or guests play when they show up to a Halloween party. I would tell you who’s in it and what they do, but it’s too embarrassing. (But I will take this opportunity to point out Jamie Farr in the Arabian Oil Sheik costume in the poster above). And Cannonball Run II is worse by an order of magnitude. They should have called it Cannonball Run to the 10th Power.  

Give My Regards to Broad Street (1984)

Tops as a songwriter, musician and singer, Paul McCartney was easily the worst actor of the four Beatles, trailing behind the other three by a good distance. He also had a fairly dismal track record as a cinematic mastermind (the critical disasters Magical Mystery Tour and Let it Be were both his ideas and were produced largely under his supervision). Still…when there’s no one around to tell you you can’t do something…I guess you go ahead and do it. Especially when you’re one of the richest men in the world. He wrote the screenplay for Broad Street himself, a film in which he plays himself (poorly) and nothing happens except that the master tapes for his next album are lost or stolen, and he doesn’t precisely look for them, or track them down so much as occasionally wonder what happened to them. There are lots of songs, but in between songs this is all that happens.

I Want to Punch This

Hudson Hawk (1991)

Bruce Willis seems to have gotten the mistaken idea from the success of Moonlighting that he could make an entire movie out of fourth wall breaking asides, ad libs, smug self-referential in-jokes and getting bonked on the head. It is relentlessly irritating, and was co-written by Willis. Willis plays the titular safecracker. Danny Aiello is his equally unendurable sidekick. Skip it! Even skip reading any description of it.

Waterworld (1995) and The Postman (1997)

High and giddy off the smash success of Dances with Wolves, the now all-powerful Kevin Costner seized his newfound power to play a self-glorifying savior figure in no less than two big budget post-apocalyptic action films — and to direct both of the sprawling, expensive messes himself. The photo above was carefully chosen: the end of The Postman depicts a town full of people gazing worshipfully at a statue of Kevin Costner. He seems somewhat chastened by the failure of these films. While he continued to produce his own vehicles, he only directed one more, the much less ambitious and better realized western Open Range (2003).

Beyond the Sea (2004)

Look at that poster. “The Voice, the Passion, the Confidence”? “The chutzpah” is more like. Look at how that woman is gazing at him! Kevin Spacey himself is obnoxious, narcissistic and soulless, so it kind of stands to reason that it would be his life’s ambition to play the obnoxious, narcissistic and soulless Bobby Darin. Leaving aside the mean criticism that he’s too old for the part, it’s simply torture to watch Spacey do all these smug, sickening musical numbers in between the endless paint-by-numbers bio-pic scenes about the ups and downs of a rich singing star. But it’s really all on screen only so that we can know that Kevin Spacey can sing — it’s evident in every frame.

Fifteen Famous Females Named “Billie”

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, Movies (Contemporary), Silent Film, Singers, Television, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 6, 2017 by travsd

This non sequitur of a blogpost came about because I noticed that show business has given us more than one female performer with the unusual first name of “Billie”. We post it today because it happens to be the birthday of Billie Whitelaw. As a small child, I probably became aware of Billie Burke and Billie Hayes at around the same time and found it fascinating that a woman would have that name. It’s sort of a rare name for a female, right? I’ve never met one IRL.  As a kid I considered it the female equivalent of “A Boy named Sue”. At any rate, there seemed to be a sort of interesting cluster of them at the beginning of the last century; it seemed kind of fun to compare and contrast them. For example, there seems to be an abnormally high association of the name with fantasy and magic, and a few are pioneers in one way or another. Click on links to learn more about their fascinating stories.

Billie Bennett (Emily B. Haynie, 1874-1951)

This interesting actress will be getting her own post on Travalanche later this years, for she got her start acting in many Mack Sennett and Keystone comedy shorts with the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle, and Mabel Normand. In the 20s she was in some major silent features, including Robin Hood (1922) and Lady Windemere’s Fan (1925). Her career did not long outlast the advent of sound, but ironically her life began to be even more interesting at that point. It has been alleged that she became the madam of a “high class bordello” for studio execs and their guests, where many of the call girls were hired based on their their resemblances to major screen actresses of the day. Surely a partial inspiration for L.A. Confidential?

Billie Burke (Mary William Ethelbert Appleton Burke, 1884-1970)

Wife of Broadway producer Flo Ziegfeld, and star of stage and screen, most memorably as Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz. 

Billie Dove (Bertha Bohnny, 1903-1997)

Artist model, Ziegfeld girl, and major star of silent movies such as The Black Pirate (1926) with Douglas Fairbanks. She was a major sex symbol of her day, and is also famous for a three year affair with Howard Hughes. 

Billie Leonard

I’m anxious to dig out the facts on this lady, as almost nothing (dates of birth or death, birth name, or her early and late life) is available readily to hand. All I know is that she was in the Broadway show You Said It (1931) with Lou Holtz, and that she had a very intense year (1934-1935) of appearing in movie shorts, many of which I’ve seen, including the very early Bob Hope musical short Paree, Paree (1934), Soft Drinks and Sweet Music (1934) with Georgie Price and Sylvia Froos, and a couple of comedies with Shemp Howard and Roscoe Ates. If and when I learn more I will share it here.

Billie Bird (Berneice Bird Sowell, 1908-2002)

You mayn’t know the name but you know the face, right? I’ll be giving her her own post in a few months as she started out in vaaudeville. She later became a bit player in tv sit coms and John Hughes movies like Sixteen Candles (1984) and Home Alone (1990).

Billie Holiday (Eleanora Fagan, 1915-1959)

I am way overdue to do a post on this distinctive and tragic jazz singer who remains extremely influential to this day. She took her stage name from Billie Dove (above).

Billie Rogers (1917-2014)

Singer and jazz trumpet player — in fact, she was the first female to play in the brass section of a major jazz orchestra (Woody Herman’s). She later fronted her own bands.

Billie Mae Richards (Billie Mae Dinsmore, 1921-2010)

Actress and voice over performer best known for being the voice of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer in Rankin-Bass specials!

Billie Whitelaw (1932-2014)

While American audiences know her best for playing the sinister Mrs. Baylock in the original 1976 version of The Omen, she was was major sex symbol in British films of the 1950s, and one of the principal stage collaborators of playwright Samuel Beckett. 

Billie Hayes (b. 1932) 

is of course Witchie-Poo!

Billie Jean Horton (Billie Jean Jones Eshliman, b. 1933)

Country singer from Louisiana who was married to Hank Williams and Johnny Horton (“The Battle of New Orleans”) and had an affair with Johnny Cash. 

Billie Jo Spears (Billie Jean Spears, 1937-2011)

Nashville singer best known for her 1975 #1 Country Hit “Blanket on the Ground”.

Billie Jean King (b. 1943)

Champion women’s tennis player and feminist icon. But we include her on this list mainly because she re-created her famous “Battle of the Sexes” feud with Bobby Riggs on The Odd Couple in 1974.

Billie Davis (Carol Hedges, b.1945)

English pop singer of the Swinging Sixties best known for her 1963 hit “Tell Him”. She is said to have taken her stage name from Billie Holiday and Sammy Davis Jr. 

Billie Lourd (b. 1992)

Like a lot of “old school” first names, Billie-for-Girls is in the midst of a strong comeback. There are numerous female Billies on TV and the internet at present, but for the sake of sanity I’ll only mention one timely and topical one. Billie Lourd is the daughter of the late Carrie Fisher and granddaughter of the late Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher. She is a star of the tv show Scream Queens and the most recent Star Wars films.

To find out more about show business history consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. For more on early  film please see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com

Just Carrie: A Tribute to Carrie Fisher by Lauren Milberger on #StarWars40th

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, Movies (Contemporary), OBITS, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 25, 2017 by travsd

 

Guest contributor Lauren Milberger’s previous pieces for Travalanche have included essays on Gracie Allen and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Today she observes the 40th anniversary of the release of Star Wars with this tribute to the recently-passed Carrie Fisher.

“I don’t want my life to imitate art. I want my life to be art.” — Carrie Fisher

The day after Carrie Fisher passed away in December, and for subsequent days afterward, letters still flooded the U.K. newspaper The Guardian where Fisher had an advice column. Not because these people had no idea the actor/writer had just died, but because they thought maybe in some way Fisher could still reach out to them, just as her character Princess Leia had reached out when she was in need: “Obi-Wan Kenobi, you are my only hope.”

After its premiere in 1977, Star Wars became a surprise hit that not only changed the way films were made and how we consume them, but went on to become a global phenomenon. Its creator George Lucas has even referred to it as a “religion,” and for many it holds a cult-like quality over their lives. And what may just be a film for some, has for millions become a beacon of joy passed down from generation to generation. For most, Carrie Fisher’s likeness as Princess Leia has been in their lives since childhood or early adulthood. Whether the film was the glue that brought their family together or solace for them in bad times, Carrie Fisher’s status as a pop culture icon is one draped in the nostalgia of youth, a line ofdemarcation between childhood .and adult responsibility. I have to digress for a moment and admit that I began writing this essay the day after Carrie Fisher died; but when her mother, Debbie Reynolds, passed away that same night, I just put it away. This is in fact my third, as they say in show business, “pass” writing about Carrie Fisher since her passing. For many, 2016 was a hard year personally and creatively, one which included the loss of so many great artists who had touched our lives. Carrie Fisher was no different but her connection to our childhood as a symbol of, well, hope, gave the end of 2016 even more of a sting. I ended 2016 with a scratched cornea, meaning the year had both figuratively and literally broken me. But I see now that my writer’s block was in fact caused by how hard it was to write about Carrie Fisher in the past tense – so much of her life was lived in the vibrant, take-no-prisoners, present. Because Carrie Fisher to me, and to millions, was more than a pop culture princess. She was a wit, a mental health and addiction advocate, a script doctor, an advice giver, a raconteur … a bullshit barometer. (Not to mention Dog Lover and Coca-Cola connoisseur) Carrie was once asked who she would be without Princess Leia: “Just Carrie” she responded plainly. It doesn’t feel right to celebrate forty years of Star Wars without Carrie Fisher. But maybe the best way to celebrate this day is to remind people of her real impact beyond the stars. So in celebration today here is my new (and a little of the old) essay, I hope you enjoy it.

“You know the bad thing about being a survivor… You keep having to get into difficult situations in order to show off your gift.”

I was lucky enough to have met Carrie Fisher a few times and crossed paths (more on that later) with her on a few occasions over the last fifteen years (as a fan). For me, Carrie Fisher was an inspiration at a very formative time in my life, and is even more so now, after her passing. Now, I’m not talking about Star Wars. And listen, I’m not saying there is anything wrong with remembering Carrie Fisher for Star Wars – as our Princess Leia, and later, General Organa. Carrie herself knew (and repeated in interviews) that she knew that would always be the first– and probably the last – line in her obituary. As she said in public and in private to those who knew and worked with her (including actress Maria Thayer who recalled the same story on my podcast The Fordcast), Carrie Fisher’s impact as a strong female character set the mold – or at least the on-ramp – toward women in (what Carrie called) “all-boy fantasies.” Women who stood up for themselves and were able to take the blasters right out of the boy’s hands and save themselves. First impressions for children are important, as is equal representation, inspiring across the boards and sexes. In 2004, on the radio show Fresh Air, Carrie recounted how she had gone to her first fan convention and was shocked when a woman told her that Leia had inspired her to become a lawyer. What Leia was, and Carrie Fisher became,​ was a role model – embodying a visual example for men and women, girls and boys – of what a woman’s place in the world could be: working alongside the menfolk, not two steps behind. In the end, Carrie Fisher the person became an icon, as herself: a kickass woman who, like Leia, spoke up for her beliefs and demanded to be heard. For it was in real life that Carrie inspired people, especially women, not only for being outspoken, but also the notion of survival with a sense of humor. Yes, I spent many a day as a tiny tot watching Star Wars religiously, while simultaneously chewing on the tiny nose of her Empire Strikes Back action figure; but it was her words as a writer that I mentally chewed on, way past my teething stage. Look – the internet is lousy with far more qualified people than myself to talk about Star Wars, especially today of all days. I would just be another voice in the crowd, and I don’t need or like to do what has already been done. Carrie taught me that. After her death, I was warmed by how many journalists and social media users took the time to remember Carrie Fisher the writer, the wit and – if I can be so bold – the humorist. Not to mention acknowledging her as a voice for mental health and addiction who has inspired millions fighting their own personal battles, Star Wars was just the vehicle that brought her to us. The same way Leia fought her war of resistance against the Empire, Carrie was fighting her own wars with mental health and addiction, and in time helped others fight this same battle by example.

“Do not let what you think they think of you make you stop and question everything you are.”

George Burns, a humorist in his own right, once said, “Someone who makes you laugh is a comedian. Someone who makes you think and then laugh is a humorist. If you’re familiar enough with the work, comedy, and banter of Carrie Fisher, you know she possessed very little self-censorship when it came to letting an opportunity for a joke or pun pass her by – so much so that it was as if she had been a vaudeville comedian in a previous life. When asked where she got her personality, she replied, “Sears.” In fact, Carrie Fisher would be the first one to make a joke at the expense of her own death. In fact, she would want us all to laugh and make jokes. Yes, I think I would be paying Carrie Fisher the best possible tribute when I say she never left a hole – I mean, that she never left a void – go un- … okay, well maybe that isn’t appropriate for this medium … but Carrie would have loved the effort. Because what Carrie Fisher did was take ownership of her own narrative by making fun of it.

“I thought I would inaugurate a Bipolar Pride Day. You know, with floats and parades and stuff! On the floats we would get the depressives, and they wouldn’t even have to leave their beds – we’d just roll their beds out of their houses, and they could continue staring off miserably into space. And then, for the manics, we’d have the manic marching band, with manics laughing and talking and shopping and f*%#ing and making bad judgment calls.”

If Nora Ephron’s mantra was “everything is copy,” then Carrie Fisher’s might have been that “nothing is sacred” – or in her own words, “If my life wasn’t funny, it would just be true, and that is just unacceptable.” Carrie weathered two marriages (she was actually married only once, but often called the father of her daughter her “second husband”), drug addiction issues, bipolar disorder, drug relapse, being committed, electroshock treatment, being left by her “second husband” for a man, her mother’s failed marriages (take a breath now and:), and her mother’s two husbands, who took all her mother’s money and left her bankrupt (and breathe again). However, Carrie found a way to comment and poke fun at every melodramatic moment of her life (“I am a spy in the house of me”); and, as absurd as it sounds, I am now half-expecting Carrie Fisher to comment on her own death, throwing out one of her one-liners on a talk show or in an emoji-riddled tweet (Most of her tweets, if you are unaware, were in need of a cartographer and a U.N. Translator). I wouldn’t be surprised to discover some letter in her will from Beyond. The. Grave. I mean, you can already trace Carrie Fisher’s life by her fiction (or roman a clefs) alone: Postcards From The Edge (rehab), Surrender To The Pink (first marriage), Delusions of Grandma (motherhood), and The Best Awful (institutionalization and release). There are her more recent memoirs detailing the in-between, as well, including the book and Broadway show Wishful Drinking, many of which echo lines and moments from of her aforementioned novels. You might say Carrie Fisher’s life was an open book (yes, I said it…); and, you know what, Carrie Fisher was fine with that. She said it helped her cope; and, just as importantly, it helped other people cope through her honesty. Since her death, stories of fans who spoke to Carrie at signings and conventions – and even in private twitter messages of advice about their shared troubles, have come out of the woodwork. She counseled, advised, and commiserated with people, not just by example as most celebrities do, but with the personal, imperfect precision of her candor. I say imperfect because what Carrie Fisher taught us was that perfect was overrated.

That even though she was born into Hollywood royalty as the daughter of a movie star and a pop star, and starred in a global franchise as a Princess, that didn’t mean she was free of problems – far from it. “Say your weak things in a strong voice,” she would say, “I’m very powerful about my weaknesses.” She inspired many to take ownership and control of what might otherwise tear them down, and not just in brief fan encounters. Carrie Fisher was known to bring strangers and friends to stay in her guest house: those who needed a place to stay, addicts in recovery, even one woman she had just met at an AA meeting who was living in her car. Carrie once expressed that it gave her a sense of community, being open and honest about herself with people, even strangers. She felt that commenting on her own life in humorous ways helped her feel somehow outside of it all, looking down. This way of living life, of not feeling ashamed of one’s own weaknesses – of making sure life was funny – became a battle cry for many people, including myself. And although I personally don’t struggle with mental illness or addiction, she opened my mind up to a world I would have never been privy to. She had this effect not only on her fans, but on many people. The outpouring of remembrance on Twitter from people who had never met Carrie, or who only met her briefly, spoke of how she touched so many with an openness we normally don’t grant to strangers. Even Mark Hamill, her Star Wars co-star (Luke Skywalker) said the same about Carrie when he recalled their first meeting. Stories still pour into Twitter and Facebook about people who sat next to her at a charity event, or on an airplane. And the overall theme (except for maybe the guy who got drunk with her in first class) was that Carrie’s connection to people seemed to come from a genuine place. Sharon Horgan, the star and creator of Catastrophe (Carrie Fisher’s last filmed performance), said “Carrie Fisher was so real it was dangerous.”

“So it’s not what you’re given, it’s how you take it.”

My story with Carrie Fisher may be the least interesting. The first time I met Carrie Fisher was after I had just moved to New York and there were far more Barnes & Noble around than there are today. I attended a free signing for Carrie’s book, The Best Awful. It was a moment I had been waiting for since my mother took me as a young teen to the used book store in our home town and I bought a beat up copy of Surrender The Pink. Carrie, first of all, was funny, and that meant something to me at that age. I don’t remember when I first knew that, knew that she was funny – that she could spin words in the air the way my youthful mind dreamed up, in comic couplets and wry, irreverent phrases. All I know is that Carrie Fisher being funny was what led me to buy that first book, and later pay more attention far past a childhood fancy. And I knew long before I read her fiction, the above-mentioned quote, ​“If my life wasn’t funny, it would just be true…” resonated with a little dyslexic girl who was struggling. I had clung to that phrase as my own mantra. When I would come home from school, crying my eyes out from being bullied, there was that line telling me: “Have a sense of humor. Life is hard. You can get through this.” I would try to craft my own one-liners (e.g. “Majoring in acting in college is a high-priced degree in waitressing,” and “I’m Jewish, the other white meat!”) and practice my “talk show” banter. I wrote her quotations, among others, on my notebooks and brown paper-covered school books. I borrowed her other books from the library and never missed a talk show appearance. Any memories of Star Wars I had slowly faded away, replaced by Carrie Fisher The Writer. At this signing, not only had I brought her current book, but the aforementioned beat-up copy of Surrender The Pink. I was young and nervous, and sat in the back.

On every seat in the small room across from Lincoln Center, were papers with the rules of Barnes and Noble: no pictures (pictures in line that don’t stop the line are fine), and no signed memorabilia…books only! I saw two people holding Return Of The Jedi 8x10s (a young man and woman) sit down next to me, read the paper, and then leave. I was appalled. “How dare they!” At least stay and hear her read her amazing words. Carrie arrived and posed for pictures in a comedic way that suggested she found the whole idea absurd. After all, that was her persona: the child of a celebrity who saw it for what it was, in all its, well, absurdity. After Carrie read from her book, I made my way through the line until I was finally face-to-face with my hero. “You make me want to be a writer,” I blurted to her and then she smiled and said only one sentence to me. It confused me, so I gave her an odd look back, and just walked away. What had she said to me? Later, while recounting the story to a friend, I tried to remember. She had said something about…trying. I think…

My friend interrupted, “Did she say, ‘Do. There is no try?’”

“Yes,” I exclaimed, “How did you know that?”

“That’s Yoda, Lauren. She spoke Yoda to you.”

The last time I had seen Empire Strikes Back was in high school and it wasn’t like I hadn’t had all the Han Solo and Princess Leia scenes memorized; but, I guess it hadn’t occurred to me she would speak Star Wars to me. I wasn’t there for Star Wars. And my friend and I both just laughed our faces off.

‘There’s no room for demons when you’re self-possessed.”

I’ve often said being dyslexic is like having a buffet not of your choosing and everyone’s plate is different. Carrie Fisher grew up with a love of books and words, and so did I – only that part of my life was a tragic romance. And today, her frankness still resonates with me – especially after, three years ago, I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease … ”Say your weak things in a loud voice.” This is the first time I have admitted publicly to what has been a four year struggle with my health. And even now, saying this in print is scary. Here’s the thing about Carrie Fisher: she was still sensitive and vulnerable and filled with self-doubt like all of us are – and this isn’t a guess, this is based on her own words and her Twitter feed. Up to her death she was still fighting against Hollywood’s and society’s age and beauty restrictions on women: “Please stop debating about whether or not I aged well. Unfortunately it hurts all three of my feelings.” Or in a lighter mode, at Montreal’s Just for Laugh’s Festival 2016, “Can everybody see me okay? I have to double check because I’m from Hollywood, and ya know, women my age tend to be invisible there.”

Her last book, The Princess Diarist, published only a month before her death, contained Fisher’s personal diaries from when she was nineteen and filming Star Wars in 1978. It was raw, unedited and unflinching, and showed – at least to ​me – a young women I recognized as once having been ​in my life, and one I think many women could relate to. It also showed how far Carrie Fisher had grown emotionally. What many creators of current heroic female characters in pop culture seem to forget is that strength in a woman (or any human) isn’t about how strong she is physically, or how little emotion she expresses; it’s that vulnerability is its own form of strength. “Be afraid. But do it anyway,” was how Carrie Fisher said it. That’s bravery.

“I have problems; my problems don’t have me.”

What I think may be most important thing about the last years of Carrie Fisher’s life is that, unlike her Fresh Air interview in 2004, she now understood not only what Star Wars meant to people, but also what she had meant to people. There is a moment in HBO’s Bright Lights, the documentary about her and her mother (most likely filmed in 2014), in which Carrie tells the camera that she believes her fans look up to Leia and not her. Yet with all the stories of people’s interactions with Carrie, sharing their stories with her, of how she had helped them with their depression, anxiety, and so on, I can’t imagine that, by the end of those two years, she didn’t see how they loved her, just Carrie. She looked people in the eyes, made sure they got a picture (even when they weren’t allowed to), held hands, and often hugged people as soon as they started crying. She showered them with actual glitter, because everyone deserves a little glitter in their life. Some might say she faked this for the money. Carrie herself even comically called them “lap dances” but at least from the outside it looked like the resurgence of Star Wars had helped her understand her own appeal. ​Through the release of The Force Awakens I found myself being reminded of my love of Star Wars and my first introduction to Carrie. I had forgotten what it had meant to me. I started co-hosting a Harrison Ford podcast and now, if someone quotes Yoda to me, I know it. Because of that podcast, I was lucky enough to attend the Catastrophe TV panel at the Tribeca Film Festival and the premiere of Bright Lights at the NY Film Festival with Carrie (Debbie actually called and sang to us over the phone). It even seemed odd to me at the time, but in 2016 I crossed paths with Carrie Fisher about four times. The last time I saw Fisher was a signing for The Princess Diarist, in NYC. If you’ve seen Bright Lights or read her Twitter feed, you’ll understand why I gave Carrie a package of Coca-Cola Lip Smackers, because it made me laugh and I thought it would make her laugh, too. It did. I also had the feeling I should give her a little note to tell her how she had helped me. The signing was November 22nd in New York City, and she collapsed on Dec 23rd, preparing to land in Los Angeles.

“I feel I’m very sane about how crazy I am.”

Meryl Streep’s posthumous quotation from Carrie at the Golden Globes this year, “Take your broken heart, make it into art,” seemed like the fitting epitaph to her life. And then about a month after Carrie’s passing, a Women’s March ​was held around the world. A feminist icon herself, Carrie was there, to my own surprise and delight. In posters and signs, shirts and slogans, the rabble-rouser Princess from the rebel base shone big and bright. Mixed in with the rebel princess signs were a few “Carrie Fisher sent me,” because send us she had. After Carrie Fisher passed away, her ashes were kept in a giant, vintage Prozac pill-shaped impromptu urn (a favorite item or hers). Not her idea, per se, but her spirit. So…we should all be so lucky be live life big enough to end up in a big, giant, porcelain Prozac pill. Carrie Fisher’s life, like the books she loved, now has a clear beginning, middle, and end. Carrie went from the Princess to the Jedi Master. She became Obi Wan Kenobi the teacher … or perhaps one of the letters sent to The Guardian sums it up best:

“Hi Carrie….I know you’re dead. But that shouldn’t stop you from continuing to respond to those who are sick and suffering, because come on, you were super-human in life – and in death you’ve become even more powerful.”

“Back then I was always looking ahead to who I wanted to be versus who I didn’t realize I

already was, and the wished-for me was most likely based on who other people seemed to be and

the desire to have the same effect on others that they had on me.”

Carrie Fisher — 1956-2016 

Southern Comfort: R.I.P. Powers Boothe

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies, Movies (Contemporary), OBITS with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 15, 2017 by travsd

When I was in my late teens, my buddies and I, fans of Walter Hill’s recent hit 48 Hours (1982), somehow stumbled upon his earlier not-such-a-hit Southern Comfort (1981). I’m thinking it was shown on cable, and/or had come out on video, but the upshot is I watched the film several times, and loved it. Action films per se aren’t usually my thing, mostly because the vast majority of them are so formulaic, and on top of that, as a general rule, I find onscreen violence for its own sake (fist fights, gun play, explosions) exceedingly boring without, at the very least, some sort of angle to make it interesting. Walter Hill ALWAYS brings such angles to the table. In fact, 48 Hours was a great example — it hybridized two different genres, comedy and the police thriller, in a way that ended up being extremely influential. It’s not Hill’s fault that now there are a million comedy-buddy-cop-movies. He can take pride in having created the template.

Southern Comfort has a million such angles: a Louisiana bayou location; exotic Cajun culture, a moody Ry Cooder soundtrack. And it has the only kind of macho hero I’m interested in: one who has palpable brains. Actors with this quality are rare enough that I can easily rattle off the ones I like: William Holden, George C. Scott, Tommy Lee Jones. With such heroes at the center of the picture, whether it’s present in the script or not, you can at least project some kind of higher battle onto whatever’s transpiring. It not just “man vs. man” but “man vs. society” (usually the dregs of society) in such pictures. For me, Powers Boothe had this quality, and in Southern Comfort, you don’t have to project it, Hill’s script is all about it.

The film is about a unit of Louisiana National Guardsmen who are sent out on maneuvers in the bayou, and, through a combination of arrogance, ignorance, and ineptitude, run afoul of local Cajun trappers…with fatal consequences. And so this is another reason the movie is a favorite of mine: one of my favorite story structures is the “And Then There Were None” scenario. We meet a diverse group of people who are thrust together for whatever reason,  and then, just as we are getting to know and like them, one of by one, a malevolent force picks them off.  The formula is generally used to good effect in disaster movies and war pictures. It’s also used in slasher movies, generally to much worse effect, because the whole concept hinges on character; if it’s poorly written and acted, the structure has no impact. In Southern Comfort, Hill not only wrote a riveting script, but put together a terrific ensemble cast. In addition to Boothe, it’s Keith Carradine, Peter Coyote, Fred Ward, T.K. Carter, Alan Autry (billed as Carlos Brown), Les Lannom, et al as the Guardsmen; Brion James stands out as one of the Cajuns.

For the most part the Guardsmen, stand-ins for the human race, are all idiots. It requires a certain suspension of disbelief — that a group of guys from Louisiana would be so ignorant of this cherished local culture, and so lacking in respect of people on their own home turf. By “respect” I don’t just mean manners, but also a healthy fear and wariness of those with superior skill. The Cajuns have lived in these parts for generations. They know every inch of the terrain, whereas the Guardsmen are hopelessly lost, the proverbial Babes in the Woods. The Cajuns live off the land as trappers. THEY LAY TRAPS. And the nearest law is very far away. But the Guardsmen provoke them needlessly, steal their boats, scare them with their machine guns (which only fire blanks, but the locals don’t know that). It seems very much a metaphor for Vietnam (and Hollywood hadn’t yet fully rolled out Vietnam as a genre. That would come during the second half of the decade.) It also anticipates by a decade some real life domestic run-ins like Ruby Ridge.

Aloof and above all these assholes are Boothe and Carradine, who manage to keep their wits about them and emerge from the ordeal with their hides intact. Boothe was an inspired choice, one not every producer or casting director would have been smart enough to make. At the time, he was best known for his Emmy-winning performance as Jim Jones in the CBS tv movie The Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones (1980). He had been so good in that part, so creepy and chilling, it was hard to imagine he could ever be a hero in anything, let alone ever be anything but Jim Jones ever again. But, when we saw him in his many subsequent roles, a palpable decency came to seem one of his fundamental qualities. A strong, silent type with a thoughtful nature. (Although, with that dark brow, he could still play a villain, as in in his memorable turn as Curly Bill in 1993’s Tombstone).

At any rate, despite the many things I’ve seen him in over the years, Boothe’s role in Southern Comfort will always be the one I think of first. It’s not a part that required much emotional range or anything, his character is merely sensible and stoic, but I like what the character represents, and how Boothe inhabited that character, in an old fashioned Hollywood kind of way. He passed away yesterday at age 68, of what we are told were “natural causes”. (Not too natural, 68 is pretty young). He was always a welcome sight on screens big and small and will be missed by fans like me.

 

The Perennial Mystique of Bettie Page

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Burlesk, Hollywood (History), Movies (Contemporary), VISUAL ART, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 22, 2017 by travsd

Bettie Page and sister, Coney Island. Parachute Jump in background

April 22 is the birthday of Bettie Page (1923-2008). I feel sort of Bettie Page cult-adjacent, near but not of the intense widespread worship of this iconic pin-up girl of the 1950s. So many people of my generation are so crazy about her that it fascinates me. I feel I get it even if (for some reason) she doesn’t obsess and beguile me as she does so many other people. It’s almost like she’s the Mona Lisa or something to certain people. Without exaggerating, I must know dozens of women who pattern or have patterned their appearance after her, not just burlesque dancers, but artists of various kinds, painters, musicians, stage directors, and women who are simply into vintage culture. My wife has owned this fridge magnet ever since I’ve known her:

Is it something about the period? Is it the clash between the wholesome and the illicit? There is something about Bettie Page that reminds me of actresses in noir films of the 40s, like Veronica Lake. It’s like she’s the girl next door who is game enough to dabble at being daring without being swallowed up in some sinkhole of ruin. She was literally a secretary who posed for naughty pictures for a decade, then stopped doing that. Interestingly, her life didn’t fall apart (mental illness, several divorces) until AFTER she retired from modelling and became a born again Christian.

There are several points of overlap and interest for me about her life and short career. The first is that she is from the great town of Nashville, home of my ancestors. A lot of classic burlesque girls and pin-ups were of my stock: poor Southern white folk. It’s one of the strong connections I feel to classic burlesque culture — a subject for a planned future post.

The second is that she was discovered at Coney Island! She’d come to NYC to be an actress in 1949. A few months later an amateur photographer named Jerry Tibbs saw her on the beach at Coney and asked her to model for him. Ironically, Tibbs was an NYPD officer and Page’s work would eventually take her into illegal territory. But photos like the one at the top of this post, and this one, are illustrations of her connection to the beach and amusement park at Coney Island:

Betty Page is in several burlesque films of the mid ’50s: Striporama (1953), Varietease (1954), and Teaserama (1955). I became acquainted with these about five years ago in preparation for directing a couple of editions of Angie Pontani’s Burlesque-a-pades. With the passing of 60 years these films have acquired much charm they probably didn’t seem to possess when they were first released, full of theatrical values and efforts that fell by the wayside in such films as the late ’60s gave way to straight up porn.

Also, as we wrote here, in the 1950s, Bettie posed — Believe it or NOT — for Harold Lloyd! The former silent film comedian experimented with taking art shots of sexy girls with a 3-D camera during his retirement. Some are published in the 2004 book Harold Lloyd’s Hollywood Nudes in 3-D. 

Bettie Page photo by Harold Lloyd

In 2004, Gretchen Mol starred in/ as The Notorious Bettie Page. Ironically, I discovered this film backwards. Mol had appeared in the film adapted from my friend Jeff Nichols’ book Trainwreck, American Loser (2007). The Mad Marchioness then referred me back to the Page bio-pic, for which Mol is obviously much better known.

In 2012 the definitive documentary, Bettie Page Reveals All was released. Access it here at the official site.

The mania continues unabated!

%d bloggers like this: