For the past few evenings, I’ve been time traveling back to the early 1960s, thanks to the new Warner Bros. DVD set “Romance Classics Collection” which was officially released on Tuesday.
Tha package includes four soapy-but-fascinating movies that few people under the age of 50 are likely to have heard of — “Parrish” (1961), “Susan Slade” (1961), “Rome Adventure” (1962) and “Palm Springs Weekend” (1964).
All of these films were rendered obsolete by the sexual revoltion that would explode at the end of the 1960s — by 1969, the notion of a whole drama devoted to whether or not a young couple would “go all the way” would have been hooted off the screen.
The world view and the characterizations in these soaps made them virtually unwatchable for my fellow members of the Woodstock Generation, so TV screenings dwindled in the 1970s and ’80s.
Now, enough time has passed that the pictures have become deeply nostalgic for folks who were teens 50 years ago, and camp classics for everyone else.
Watching these movies in 2009, it’s hard to believe young Americans were ever so “innocent” when it came to depictions of romance and sex on screen.
The four movies in the Warner DVD set all followed in the wake of the huge 1959 Warner Bros. hit “A Summer Place” which made a star out of the handsome and now long forgotten actor Troy Donahue.
Troy played the love interest of Sandra Dee in “A Summer Place” and this hot younger duo shifted the audience’s attention away from the older couple who got top billing — Richard Egan and Dorothy McGuire.
Troy was mocked by most of the men who were dragged to the soap opera — there’s a scene in the 1959-set Barry Levinson comedy, “Diner” (1982), in which the young male characters are stunned that the women in their lives could fall for such a shallow dreamboat. “What kind of a name is Troy?,” one of the guys asks his friend.
Donahue was no actor, but he acquired millions of fans. Contract holder Warner Bros. started churning out over-heated romances for its new star. One of the most interesting aspects of the new DVD set is the reminder that Donahue was such a big star that he received top billing over Claudette Colbert, Lloyd Nolan and other veterans who appeared in these early ’60s romances.
“Parrish” will be especially interesting to Connecticut viewers since much of the movie was shot on location in upstate tobacco country. The film has been gorgeously remastered and is worth watching for its travelogue element alone.
The most entertaining movie of the bunch is “Rome Adventure” which introduced Suzanne Pleshette. While she is billed under Troy and Angie Dickinson and Rossano Brazzi, Pleshette is the real star of this spirited romance in which a Connecticut college librarian is forced out of her job because she endorses an “obscene” romantic novel. The young woman decides to get a taste of real romance by heading off for Rome.
Pleshette is charming and director Delmer Daves (who also did “A Summer Place”) makes Italy as much of a star of the film as any of the actors. Back in 1962, European travel was not so common for middle-class Americans, so it is easy to imagine the oohs and aahs that greeted the stunning location footage that dominates many scenes.
Pleshette fell for Donahue in real life, too, and their very brief marriage was much gossiped-about at the time.
Donahue’s career went into a terrible tailspin when his sort of movie went out of fashion — Warner Bros. dropped the actor in 1966 and he descended into drug and alcohol abuse. During the 1980s, it was reported that Donahue was living as a homeless person in Central Park.
John Waters used Donahue for his camp, has-been aura in the 1990 “Cry-Baby.” The actor spent the subsequent decade working in grade-Z films and died of a heart attack at the age of 65 in 2001.
Archive for January, 2009
For the past few evenings, I’ve been time traveling back to the early 1960s, thanks to the new Warner Bros. DVD set “Romance Classics Collection” which was officially released on Tuesday.
The annual Oscar madness seems to get bigger and nastier each year.
Just as our political races have degenerated into negative campaigning orgies, the movie studios in recent races have spent as much time destroying their opposition as they have promoting their award worthy fare.
The final ballots for the Feb. 22 ceremony went out this week. Today the Los Angeles Times carried a story about the nasty negative campaign that is being waged against “Slumdog Millionaire,” a movie that was the sleeper/darling of the industry and the press just a few weeks ago.
Everyone’s favorite “underdog” has turned into a front-runner, however, because none of the other four best-picture nominees has garnered as many enthusiastic feature stories and reviews.
Pete Hammond of the Times wrote today that reports of Indian criticism of the Mumbai-based film just started circulating in Hollywood, along with old stories that the child actors in the film were paid “dirt cheap wages.”
Director Danny Boyle, producer Christian Colson and Fox Searchlight immediately denied these charges.
“It wasn’t so much the story (it almost never is) but the suspicious circumstances around its re-emergence on the very day Oscar ballots were being mailed,” Hammond writes. “Impressively taking a cue from the Obama campaign, Fox Searchlight strategists immediately got control of the story putting a statement out that carefully answered each allegation…they took an aggressive stance to crush the story in its tracks before it could do serious damage or be misinterpreted by the Academy.”
Hammond points out that similar covert campaigns were waged against “The Hurricane” in 1999 and Ron Howard’s “A Beautiful Mind” two years later. In the case of the Norman Jewison boxing movie the campaign was successful, with Denzel Washington going from a best actor favorite to an also-ran. The Howard film rose above the negative spinners, taking the best picture and best director prizes on Oscar night.
It is a bizarre sign of the Danny Boyle film’s growing popularity that the opposition has started this nasty whispering campaign.
“‘Slumdog’ is now in the enviable position of having the wind at its back,” Hammond concludes. “And just WHO wants to be a ‘Millionaire’? The other four contenders of course, all looking for any way to ward off what increasingly seems to be a done deal.”
Academy voters have until Feb. 17 to return their ballots — that’s five days before the awards ceremony.
Otto Preminger was a hugely successful director of the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s who seems to have faded into obscurity in recent years. Does anyone still look at “Exodus” (1960) or “In Harm’s Way” (1965) or “Advise and Consent” (1962) these days?
A master of publicity — second only to Alfred Hitchcock in terms of making himself as famous as his movies — Preminger battled censors in the 1950s, tackled important social issues in the early 1960s, but went into eclipse in the late 1960s when young directors and young audiences took over Hollywood.
Like Hitchcock — who caused a revolution in the treatment of movie violence in the 1960 “Psycho” and then quickly lost his touch — Preminger broke new ground in the early 1960s but wasn’t able to keep up with the drastic changes of the late 1960s. By the time of “Hurry Sundown” (1967) and “Skidoo” (1968), the director was mocked by the press and the small audiences that turned out for his creaky final films.
What has kept interest in Preminger alive is the aura around the man himself, a legendary tyrant on the set who reduced actors to tears and fired technicians at the drop of the hat.
The Preminger story is much more interesting, and much more entertaining, than most of the movies the Vienna-born director made between 1931 and 1979. There have been two biographies of Preminger over the past year, the gossipy “Otto Preminger” by Foster Hirsch (Knopf) and the more scholarly “The World and Its Double: The Life and Work of Otto Preminger” by Chris Fujiwara, which has just been issued in paperback by Faber and Faber.
Fujiwara is still in thrall to the long takes and self-conscious “cinematic” touches that made Preminger a movie buff favorite in the 1960s — the director’s personal style was always evident in his movies, something that seemed to matter more to cineastes a half-century ago than it does now. Preminger was not so good with actors who wouldn’t bend to his will, so the performances in his ’60s and ’70s epics don’t hold up and the “shocking” elements that got so much press back when the movies first came out now seem passe.
But, it cannot be denied that Preminger was a pivotal figure in bringing adult themes to Hollywood when it was still under the thumb of an industry-wide “production code” and susceptible to pressure from movie lobbying groups such as the Legion of Decency run by the American Catholic Church.
Preminger shook things up by releasing “The Moon is Blue” without a production code seal in 1953 — because the romantic comedy used such then verboten terms as “virgin” — and by dealing with drug addiction with unprecedented frankness in the 1955 “The Man with the Golden Arm.”
The director also fueled his legend by battling with stars such as Marilyn Monroe in the 1950s and Dyan Cannon on the set of “Such Good Friends” in 1971. Some famously contentious directors like William Wyler got great results from pushing his stars to the breaking point, but Preminger’s tactic rarely brought out the best in any actor.
It now seems a little lunatic for the filmmaker to hire the mediocre actor Tom Tryon to star in the 1963 epic “The Cardinal” and then treat the performer abominably on the set for his inadequacies. Preminger believed actors must do as they are told, so he became increasingly out of step with the new stars of the 1960s who wouldn’t sit back and take his abuse (Faye Dunaway on “Hurry Sundown” and Keir Dullea on “Bunny Lake is Missing” in 1965 both rebelled against Preminger’s dictatorial style and by 1970, none of the new stars of that decade would put up with his behavior).
Fujiwara does a masterful job of taking us through the making of each film and then giving us his critical assessment of what ended up on the screen. The author didn’t make me want to see “Hurry Sundown” again, but I enjoyed this thoughtful combination of biography and film criticism.
When you attend as many fiction writers’ conferences as I do, you run up against an interesting but sometimes painful phenomenon.
After attending a panel where a writer seems so bright and so funny, you rush right out and pick up a copy of one of their books.
Then, you go home and find out that the author can talk a good game but isn’t able to get it down on paper.
I have a pretty large pile of half-read books that I’ve bought — or received in goody bags — at Boucheron or the New England Crime Bake or ThrillerFest.
I met the crime writer Alison Gaylin at the Bouchercon in Baltimore last fall and was impressed by her humor and intelligence, so I held on to a copy of “Trashed” (Onyx) that I received in a complimentary book bag.
Well, I didn’t have a chance to read the thriller until last week and was very pleased to find out that Gaylin’s 2008 book is a winner.
The novel takes us behind the scenes at a show biz tabloid in Los Angeles where the new writer on staff, Simone Glass, is distressed to find out that most of what she learned at the Columbia University School of Journalism will be of no use to her at The Asteroid, a gossip rag in such dire financial straits that it always seems to be one issue away from folding.
Simone has a sister who is a success in cable TV news, and family back home who don’t know her first job didn’t pan out.
Gaylin worked as an arts and entertainment journalist for a decade and puts her insider’s knowledge to good use in “Trashed.” The upstate New York resident also clearly did extensive research in Los Angeles to make sure her portrait of the movie colony was up to date.
We follow Simone through her initial embarrassment to be digging into the private lives of celebrities — often by posing as a waitress or other faceless background player at an industry party. Gaylin crosscuts between Simone’s adventures and a maniac who is killing has-beens or minor contemporary players. As the story progresses, the killer moves closer to Simone and the A-list celebrities the Asteroid is tracking.
Although “Trashed” is set in the quite specific world of celebrity tabloids, Gaylin uses the story to show the reader how tough it is for any kind of reporter to get close to a subject and then “betray” him or her with a too-revealing story.
The book is full of black comedy but Gaylin treats the characters and the Hollywood scene with respect for their very strange and exposed lives. The shifts between the wry and determined Simone and the sordid underbelly of show business are handled with great skill — “Trashed” is a very hard-boiled crime novel that never betrays a reader’s trust or intelligence.
“Rosemary’s Baby” is one of the few horror “classics” that never seems to lose any of its luster. It is as smart and funny (and scary) now as it was when it opened during the summer of 1968
On Feb. 4, the excellent critic and Hollywood historian Mark Harris — whose “Pictures at a Revolution” was the best film book I read last year — will be hosting a “Critic’s Choice” screening of Roman Polanski’s classic at the Avon Theatre Film Center in Stamford.
The movie was the American debut of the Polish writer-director and he brought to it the same adventurous spirit (and respect for the audience’s intelligence) that was characteristic of the low-budget Polish and British films that made his reputation (gems such as “Knife in the Water” and “Repulsion”).
Over the weekend, I watched an advance screener of the 2008 documentary, “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desire” that will be released on DVD by Image Entertainment tomorrow.
The documentary by Marina Zenovich is primarily a harrowing account of the “unlawful sexual intercourse” charges brought against Polanski in 1977 that ultimately resulted in the filmmaker fleeing the country and making his home in Paris (where his subsequent career has included an Oscar for directing the 2002 drama, “The Pianist”).
Zenovich makes a strong case against the (now deceased) judge presiding over the case, who first assured Polanski that he would be free after 90 days of psychiatric observation (and probation) and who then turned around and threatened to throw the book at him.
The documentary also features a considerable amount of background material on Polanski’s life and career, including a good interview with Mia Farrow about the excitement of working on “Rosemary’s Baby” (she says it remains the most creative filmmaking venture of her life). Polanski got everyone so energized on his first American film that the cast and crew worked harder and took more chances than they would have for a standard Hollywood production. Farrow talks about acting as camera operator during some of the sequence showing her character’s nightmarish encounter with the devil.
Farrow tells the interviewer she remains amazed that Polanski had her charging into unsupervised Fifth Avenue street traffic for one key sequence in the movie.
Polanski also guided Farrow through a bravura single-take, five-minute telephone booth sequence (above) that remains one of the actress’s finest moments on screen.
The documentary is must watching for Polanski fans and the evening with Mark Harris next week in Stamford should be very special.
(The “Critics Choice” showing of “Rosemary’s Baby” will be at 7 p.m. on Feb. 4. The theater is at 272 Bedford Street in downtown Stamford. For more information call 967-3660.)
The biggest losers in yesterday’s announcement of the Academy Awards nominations had to be DreamWorks and Paramount Vantage who were counting on a bunch of nominations for “Revolutionary Road,” the expensive adaptation of the classic 1961 Richard Yates novel about mid-1950s suburban angst that opens nationally today.
The Fairfield County-set drama starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio is the sort of end-of-the-year “prestige” project that depends on critical support and industry awards to make audiences believe they must see a rather grim story with a bleak finale.
In years past, this marketing and release strategy has made big commercial hits out of “Million Dollar Baby,” “Schindler’s List,” “Philadelphia” and many other serious films that might have died at the box-office if they opened in spring or summer without strong press and industry awards support.
The people behind “Revolutionary Road” built their whole theatrical run strategy on the assumption that Leo and Kate would be nominated yesterday, along with the film, director Sam Mendes, supporting actress Kathy Bates and supporting actor Michael Shannon.
The movie opened in New York and Los Angeles the last week of December in order to qualify for nominations, but the studio decided to keep the film in very limited release for a month, in anticipation of a big push and huge audience interest in the weekend following the Oscar nominations announcement.
The gamble was a bust, with “Revolutionary Road” failing to score any of the major nominations. Shannon was cited in the best supporting actor category, but one secondary acting nod is not enough to draw in moviegoers. By the time the awards are handed out Feb. 22, the movie could be a commercial dead issue, whether or not Shannon wins an Oscar (an unlikely event, with the supporting actor competition including Heath Ledger, who is viewed as a lock for his work as The Joker in “The Dark Knight”).
The real monkey wrench for “Revolutionary Road” was leading lady Winslet’s presence in another end-of-the-year Oscar contender, “The Reader.” She got her best actress nomination for that Holocaust-themed picture, which also snagged the best picture and best director slots that might have been held by the Yates adaptation.
One can only imagine the atmosphere at Winslet’s home yesterday, as she and her husband, “Revolutionary Road” director Sam Mendes, learned the terrible news about their pet project and the “good” news about “The Reader.”
Most of the February issues of the major monthly magazines look like pamphlets this year, so it will be interesting to see if Vanity Fair’s forthcoming March Hollywood issue is its usual telephone-book size.
The annual Oscar tie-in issue is generally second only to Vogue’s mammoth September Fall Fashion issue in terms of ad pages, but the horrendous 2009 advertising market might take a bite out of the Conde Nast special.
In the meantime, VF editor Graydon Carter has overseen the publication of a terrific new book, “Vanity Fair’s Tales of Hollywood: Rebels, Reds, and Graduates and the Wild Stories Behind the Making of 13 Iconic Films” (Penguin).
The Hollywood issue of VF always features a look back of the making of a classic or cult film; these fat and fascinating pieces of reporting have been some of the best movie stories ever published by the magazine.
What’s fun about these pieces — and the book that gathers them together — is the scope of movies VF has deemed interesting enough for in-depth coverage.
Of course, there are accounts of the making of genuine classics such as “All About Eve” (1950) and “The Graduate” (1967) but the book also includes dishy stories on the making of oddball cult classics, like the 1959 working-girls-in-Manhattan epic “The Best of Everything” (above) and the legendary 1970 bomb, “Myra Breckinridge.”
The piece by Peter Biskind on the long and turbulent production of “Reds” (1981) alone is worth the price of admission and bodes well for the Warren Beatty biography the writer has been working on for several years.
One of my favorite films, “Sweet Smell of Success” (1957), is analyzed in the depth it deserves and there is a highly amusing David Kamp account of the making of “Cleopatra” (1963), including the wild off-screen antics of stars-turned-adulterous lovers Richard Burton and Liz Taylor.
Hallie Ephron is the exceptionally savvy crime fiction reviewer for The Boston Globe and the author of a widely admired book on how to write good mysteries.
William Morrow has just provided strong evidence that Ephron knows what she’s talking about — the new thriller, “Never Tell a Lie,” which I consumed in two gulps over the weekend (if I didn’t have to go out Saturday night, I probably would have polished it off in one sitting).
“Never Tell a Lie” is set in the Boston suburbs and has that clammy/compelling this-could-happen-to-me feeling that has powered Harlan Coben’s books for the past several years (his are set in very realistically rendered New Jersey suburban towns).
The story opens at a quintessential suburban event — a Saturday afternoon yard sale in early November. The eight months pregnant Ivy Rose and her husband, David — who are both in their early 30s — decide to get rid of piles of junk that came along with the Victorian house they purchased a few years earlier.
An old high school acquaintance of Ivy and David’s turns up, looking so different from the dumpy, outcast girl of a decade earlier that they don’t recognize her at first.
Melinda White is also hugely pregnant and tells the Roses that she used to play in their house when she was a child and her mother worked for the owner.
There is something slightly off about Melinda’s comments and behavior, but Ivy and David are so distracted by the yard sale that they don’t seem to pick up on the young woman’s oddness (a feeling that comes through to the reader loud and clear).
David agrees to show Melinda the interior of the old house and Ivy returns to overseeing the sale.
Ephron pulls us into a completely realistic situation and setting — and draws us close to David and Ivy very quickly — before a bomb is dropped on the couple. The police show up on their doorstep a few days later with the news that Melinda disappeared on Saturday and the yard sale was the last place she was seen. A few witnesses noticed David taking the woman into the house, but no one (including Ivy) saw Melinda walk out.
In the space of just a few paragraphs, Ephron plunges Ivy (and the reader) into an all too plausible nightmare scenario — the Roses become suspects in whatever might have happened to Melinda. And Ivy begins to suspect that her husband is not being absolutely honest with her.
I would be doing Ephron a terrible disservice to give away any more of her Hitchcockian paranoia plot — Alfred always loved to place ordinary people in sudden and terrible jeopardy.
It’s a wonderful debut novel.