Saturday, September 21, 2019
The following contains extensive spoilers about ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD.
Sharon Tate did die. We already know this. She died and so did Jay Sebring and the others who were at the house up on Cielo Drive with them and then the LaBiancas across town the next night. We know all this. And when I look at certain films that came from Hollywood over the next few years it’s hard not to see the darkness that has fallen over things because of that horrible event, because of the 60s ending then as the narrative became. Whether it’s the climax of BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS and how it was very much exploiting the events of that night, when Mark Rydell as gangster Marty Augustine in THE LONG GOODBYE takes a Coke bottle to the face of his angelic redhead girlfriend (played by Jo Ann Brody in her only screen appearance) it’s always Sharon Tate that I think of, Goldie Hawn sitting in her house up in the hills in the ’68-set SHAMPOO who has “this terrible feeling that something awful is going to happen” or, maybe most obviously, the way Roman Polanski chose to end CHINATOWN. All this becomes a part of these films just as much as it becomes a part of the town itself and whatever else ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD shows us, we can never forget that.
Sharon Tate also lived. She lived and she married Roman Polanski and she made THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS with him and she also made movies like DON’T MAKE WAVES and THE WRECKING CREW, quickly becoming one of the most stunning examples of Hollywood beauty ever seen, while also displaying a comic potential that would have been truly wonderful to see develop in a life that is too often forgotten except for how it ended and nothing else. “Why don’t you stand over by the poster? So people will know who you are,” the ticket seller at the Bruin says to Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate, never even thinking that one day people might know her for anything else. I probably shouldn’t mention the girl I knew some years back who once went as Sharon Tate for Halloween and what that costume entailed.
This was a Los Angeles that I never knew since I wasn’t around yet but at least in ’69 my parents lived on Wilshire in a building that Sharon Tate would have driven past shortly after picking up that hitchhiker on her way to Westwood Village. The past stays with us and like it or not in Los Angeles some of those memories are going to be about all that driving, all those times on the freeway when we have to make our way back to the valley, the goddamn valley, so far up it feels like the end of the earth. Brad Pitt driving in this film is a wonderful thing to see as the day turns into night, with him speeding down Hollywood Boulevard, speeding down the freeway towards the exit with that Van de Kamp’s windmill waiting at the end of the Panorama City off-ramp as he heads for his trailer behind the Van Nuys Drive-In. All that driving in this film feels like it’s at least partly taken from Jacques Demy’s all-holy MODEL SHOP, a film actually released in ‘69 which also understood the rhythm those long days can fall into when you’re doing almost nothing but that driving, in no hurry to get anywhere. Cliff Booth is never in much of a hurry either. It’s just the way he drives.
ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD is a memory piece, the Tarantino version of Fellini’s AMARCORD, with its own history of what life was whether it’s what really happened or not, filtered through all those movies, TV shows and half remembered daydreams of billboards never seen again. Filtered through memories that never happened or maybe were never allowed to happen, which in this town can sometimes get mixed up. It takes its time like no other Tarantino film, the story of Hollywood cowboy actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), stuntman buddy/driver Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) as well as Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), the rising star living next door to Rick on Cielo Drive and the long day each of them spend in February ’69 before the film jumps ahead to August 8th of that year when the only thing anyone on that street seems to know for certain is that it’s going to be another hot summer night. There are many things that make ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD as glorious as it is, vibrant through every moment yet elegiac in its recreation of this time with a tinge of sadness always hanging around the edge of the fame and is maybe more about love than any other film Quentin Tarantino has ever made, even if it’s a love you always worry might fade away like the end of a movie. In that sense, it’s about loss as well. It’s as close to pure joy as any film I’ve seen in a long time.
Whether or not I wind up calling it Tarantino’s best film is something I’m willing to wait on but right now at the very least it feels the most confident, the most fearless, the one most willing to pause and take in the air in a way films never do anymore, yearning to remember what things were like as it tries to turn those memories into something more. And through every heightened, fanciful moment it feels the most human. There’s a carefree vibe all along the way, never in a rush to get anywhere and along with how much the film loves its three main characters there’s a non-stop affection for the ephemera of its world and pop culture that years later you only sort of remember whether it’s the rush of gazing at certain movie posters as a kid or even down to the sound of the Screen Gems logo briefly heard. The astonishing detail of Barbara Ling’s production design transforms those Hollywood streets filled with signs and marquees of what was around then with camerawork by Robert Richardson that always becomes a part of the moment, capturing the middle ground of a past receding further into memory and how much it always stays with us. Of the sprawl sometimes found in Tarantino’s films and scripts, this is the one most unencumbered by the rigidness of plot and any impulse to toss unexpected twists into the narrative, freeing the film up in its exploration of character, behavior and sense of place. The only thing close to a ticking clock, after all, is August 1969 with that whoosh heard as the end of each day cuts to black, propelling us closer to that night whether we like it or not. But along with all those movie posters, and you know every single one of them is there for a reason, it also catches what it can be like to feel stranded in this town when things have changed so you no longer know for sure if you’re still living here or just waiting for something else to happen.
Already each new viewing offers moments that I keep looking forward to seeing again whether the natural camaraderie of the two leads, the way former Spider-Man Nicholas Hammond as Sam Wanamaker directing the LANCER pilot comes in full throttle at the hungover Rick Dalton, Cliff Booth’s realization that Margaret Qualley’s Pussycat might be more than he can handle even before she gets in the car, the way Al Pacino’s agent says the name of his wife “Mary Alice Schwarrrrrzs”, the guy who says, "Rick. It's a flamethrower." or, to go darker, how The Mamas and the Papas’ “Twelve Thirty” rises on the soundtrack as a certain car appears, ready to fill us with dread for all time. Not to mention the specificity of the Kurt Russell narration when describing Rick’s six month stay in Rome, giving us all the footnotes that anyone who wants to know about these films is going to care about. The sounds of the day coming from the radio that everyone always has on AMERICAN GRAFFITI-style veers away from what are by now the expected late 60s sounds from every movie, instead giving us Paul Revere and the Raiders, Neil Diamond, Buffy Sainte-Marie, not to mention all that easy listening music drifting out of episodes of MANNIX and the like, offering an innocence still found then in pop culture as a reminder how even as the world outside was falling apart that naïve charm was still barely hanging on for a few seconds longer. The amount of time spent on the set of the LANCER pilot that Rick Dalton is appearing in feels a little like an excuse by Tarantino to quietly make another western without anyone knowing ahead of time but he uses that fantasy to make this show look better than any of those shows ever did back then. But just as how Rick Dalton’s hit NBC show BOUNTY LAW and his B-grade WWII epic THE FOURTEEN FISTS OF McCLUSKY, which apparently uses a piece from Bernard Herrmann’s rejected TORN CURTAIN score, echo Tarantino’s own films it’s also like he’s reveling in the chance to make a fantasy version of what he’s done before only removing any post-modern irony from it, to show off where those films and ideas were really born to make clear how much he wants them to stay alive, how much he loves and misses them more than anything.
When agent Marvin Schwarzs offers an assessment of Rick Dalton’s prospects over that Musso & Frank lunch it clearly strikes a nerve and though maybe his career isn’t looking as bad as he seems to think but it’s still in a precarious state. That TV-to-film transition, which apparently included one with Suzanne Pleshette called JIGSAW JANE that I want to hear more about, didn’t go so well but doing guest shots alongside people like Norman Fell doesn’t really sound that bad (plus TANNER co-stars Ralph Meeker so I’d really like to see that one). Even if a director wants him to look like a hippie cowboy it seems to bring something out in him making me think Rick is a better actor than he’s ever allowed himself to be but as a perennial guest star he’s never at home on the these sets, as if always renting instead of buying to recall the advice Edmund O’Brien once gave him, always asking for directions to find his way and I suspect falling back on an acting tick of tossing trash down on those western streets whenever he can. He’s got the talent as well as determination but has maybe burned a few of the wrong bridges and, besides, even if he stays alive another 28 years, questionable with that cough and all those whiskey sours, he’ll be too old for Tarantino to use him in the Max Cherry role when JACKIE BROWN comes along.
Rick is as set in his ways as anyone resentful of the counterculture would be, happy to stick with his booze that don’t need no buddy while everyone else is trying something considerably stronger and the only thing that really throws him off is his encounter with the future in the form of the child actress played by the remarkable Julia Butters and in describing the book he’s reading, the tale of cowboy Easy Breezy, he gives a fairly heady summary that just like the movie we’re watching sounds strangely more character oriented than the slim piece of pulp fiction we’d expect (one small bit here that’s gone without comment involves the dispute over Rick Dalton’s character name on LANCER which plays like a reference to the way ‘Domergue’ is pronounced in THE HATEFUL EIGHT versus how DiCaprio’s Howard Hughes says the same name in THE AVIATOR). Rick’s answer to his problems always seems to be how much he’s in a war that he has to fight with himself whether acting in a scene opposite an eight year-old girl who baffles him at first or being surprised when lounging around in his pool. And he has to win. When he remembers that, when that eight year-old gives him that compliment after he pulls things together for his LANCER guest shot, it seems like he might be ok.
Cliff Booth doesn’t have these problems. He doesn’t have much of anything at all beyond a questionable past involving the death of his late wife and the trailer where he lives among the oil derricks, the MODEL SHOP influence sneaking into frame again, and even the TV left on for his loyal dog Brandy while he’s gone recalls Kim Novak’s equally broke Polly the Pistol and her parrot in Billy Wilder’s KISS ME, STUPID. But compared to the jitteriness of Rick, Cliff is always in his Zen state, always knowing where he’s going on the road even though he has no idea what lies far ahead. The unexpected glory of watching Brad Pitt make macaroni & cheese for dinner while watching MANNIX in another of those moments in the film I can’t stop thinking of, at the very least getting me to make some for myself some and as he pours out Brandy’s food before sitting down to talk back at the TV it makes me wonder what secrets he’s holding onto. After all, you know that he and Rick have never talked about what happened with his wife. Brad Pitt’s weathered face almost cracks a few times through the chill demeanor during his time out at Spahn Ranch when pushed to the breaking point and he’s a Tarantino character unlike any other, definitely not one who can be explained in a pulp novel since there’s no one else to compare him to. Cliff is a guy who doesn’t have any idea where he’s going anymore but he’s always up for watching Rick’s network guest shot with a six pack nearby ready and waiting, just like any good friend would.
Sharon Tate, meanwhile, doesn’t have a care in the world except for maybe people not being sure who she was in VALLEY OF THE DOLLS but she loves her husband Roman who may or may not be cheating and has Jay Sebring nearby, whatever the state of their relationship is. And Tarantino has held back on his legendary dialogue to simply let her exist and looks at her with nothing but affection, especially when she decides on impulse to go see her co-starring role with Dean Martin in the Matt Helm spy spoof THE WRECKING CREW, which I always say is the best of the four Matt Helm films partly because of the spark the actress brings to it although your mileage on these things may vary. The theater is the Bruin (where 23 years later I would attend the premiere of UNFORGIVEN, starring an actor curiously unmentioned here), a reminder that, not counting the Chinese and the Cinerama Dome, Westwood Village really was once the greatest place to go to the movies but it also turns into what is for me the most purely joyous scene in the film partly because of the way it highlights this stupid movie I’ve always secretly kind of liked but also in the way it gives us a glimpse at the real Sharon Tate so that along with the way Robbie responds to the film and everyone around her watching it, the moment is played as if sneaking off for the afternoon to see THE WRECKING CREW represents all that is Good in the world. It’s pure cinema, no dialogue necessary at all and the look on her face as she leaves the theater while the Jose Feliciano cover of “California Dreamin’” plays is a person who is totally at home, the image saying more than words ever could and, at last, the right way for this actress to be remembered.
The film offers that moment to Sharon and pretty much no one else, certainly none of the other real people portrayed get the chance. Steve McQueen, The King of Cool himself, feels like one of the least likely movie stars to ever be saddled with giving exposition so naturally the way Tarantino does that here itself feels like a joke, lamenting that he never had a chance with her in words echoed by Rick Dalton about his near miss of getting the McQueen role in THE GREAT ESCAPE even as he plays himself in the part in his mind. Bruce Lee is worried about saving face after his run in with Cliff Booth but no one listens and he never gets a chance. LANCER star James Stacy as played by Timothy Olyphant is last seen riding off on his motorcycle in what feels like Tarantino’s requiem for all those actors he was too late to give a shot at a comeback to. Just a few years later he’d lose an arm and a leg after being hit by a drunk driver while on his motorcycle so he never had a chance either. They’re all out of time, none of them knowing the full extent of the New Hollywood that was already well on its way.
It also comes up with a solution of what to do with that third rail of anything involving Sharon Tate at all and having her be the loving, beating heart of the film means it’s not about Manson who turns out to be close to a total non-entity, appearing in one brief scene before being summarily dismissed and only referred to as “Charlie” otherwise. Tarantino correctly shows no interest in any of that or what he was doing, not even deserving of a thirty-second scene ranting about Helter Skelter or whatever and particularly surprising coming from the man who wrote the original screenplay for NATURAL BORN KILLERS, the film has no interest in glorifying the Family or even in making them ironically interesting. It’s another reminder that I’d rather read a book about the making of THE WRECKING CREW than anything Manson related and in some ways that’s what the movie’s about too. Whatever he represents is irrelevant as far as the movie is concerned and the visit to Spahn Ranch where he’s not even around plays out as a PSYCHO/TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE slow burn mashup without the expected payoff, dragging out the suspense only to give us monsters in the form of these hippie girls who have emerged from the bones of Hollywood’s western past that Rick so reveres. Both Rick and Cliff spend this afternoon on old west sets encountering young people who behave in totally unexpected ways but it’s the more relaxed and open Cliff who turns out to have zero connection with what he finds. It’s one of the best extended sequences by Tarantino ever and along with editor Fred Raskin it nails the tempo of how certain shots and beats are allowed to play out, stretching the tension as far as it can go between the VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED stares of the Family and the sounds coming from the TV, including more Bernard Herrmann music not used in TORN CURTAIN as it turns out, locking into the nightmare fantasy of finding yourself in this place in early ’69. Even the tension between Cliff and the Dakota Fanning version of Squeaky Fromme offers no way to tell the true horror of what’s coming but there’s clearly something very wrong with the dazed George Spahn as played phenomenally by Bruce Dern who after several agonizing minutes of Cliff trying to get in there to for a look turns out to be not a Mrs. Bates in control over these kids from a back room at all but a zoned-out old cowboy with western themed wallpaper in his bedroom, not unlike all those western tchotchkes Rick Dalton has, only his version of the past is already lost and he’s given in to the power these children of the future have over him without a single thought, the future coming faster than anyone possibly realizes.
With INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, the director presented an alternate WWII where knowledge of film theory made someone qualified for a top secret mission, a comic strip fantasy where cinema literally killed Hitler and won the war. But the way this film alters what happened late that night feels like it’s coming from somewhere more personal for Tarantino, as if even as a kid he sensed that something very wrong happened here which allowed itself to permeate the world he grew up in. And while Tarantino may or may not share Rick Dalton’s feelings on the youth culture of the time (“Who, the dirty hippie?” Sydney Poitier asks about Rose McGowan in DEATH PROOF) he finds the beauty of the carefree hope in the air as Sharon Tate picks up that hitchhiker on Wilshire heading to Westwood Village, the two of them instant best friends with only good things seemingly in front for both of their lives and all the possibilities in the world. Even Rick’s new wife Fancesca Capucci played by Lorenza Izzo, who you can easily picture turning up in an Italian James Bond knockoff, is mostly a comical figure but the way she snores just like Sharon shows there’s some endearment towards her and by getting in a punch at one of the most notorious murderers of the twentieth century she more than earns her stripes.
But then there are those young hippie girls marching away from that mural of James Dean and everything he represents, even if there is a vague awareness of who he was along with all the other cowboys they had on their lunchboxes but they still don’t care, as if the film is anticipating a future of people who have no idea who these hippie girls were or what they did or who Sharon Tate was or what it all meant, a reminder that in Hollywood the past doesn’t matter whether it’s 1969 or 2019. But it matters to Rick Dalton just as it matters to Tarantino and as for the Manson family, in their rantings about Hollywood and in their hatred of who they’re determined to wipe out it sounds like the seeds of the way people years later would choose to follow a racist reality TV star and be part of a much more dangerous cult. Their hatred of Hollywood in their rationale of who to kill and what it did to the town, what it did to the world, becomes Hollywood itself fighting back against that which is what Cliff with his brute strength and Rick with his flame thrower that he’s been keeping out back do in their moment of triumph that they’re not even completely aware of while on booze or acid-dipped cigarettes. It’s to finally laugh in the faces of these detestable people while providing a form of catharsis for all the fear, sadness and terror begun on that night and continued over the decades by these people which means the film marks the fiftieth anniversary of this event by stripping them of their power and Tarantino treats them the way they deserve right up to the end. When we finally hear the voice of Sharon coming from that intercom and the Polanski home gate opens up at the end as Maurice Jarre’s score from THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JUDGE ROY BEAN (another film where an actress is revered from afar and which contains a title card reading, “Maybe this isn’t the way it was…it’s the way it should have been.”) comes up on the soundtrack to reveal the final moment it’s as if everything is suddenly reborn in an alternate reality, even while none of them have even the slightest idea of what’s just happened. The world is different now and there’s hope for the future. It’s a nice dream but the sadness in that music makes it clear the movie knows what really happened. It happened, after all. It always did.
Leonardo DiCaprio at least equals his career high in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, balancing the comedy and Rick Dalton’s arrogance with his insecure desperation over where he’s suddenly found himself and it’s tremendous work right down to the way he walks from moment to moment, leading to the spectacular ferociousness of his trailer breakdown where every ounce of his anger and desperation comes pouring out. Brad Pitt is essentially a god here as Cliff Booth, delivering what might be the best performance of his career as well as very likely the best part he’s ever had to play with his charm always in control of the moment and more than anyone else here a display of star power in a way we just don’t get anymore. Margot Robbie isn’t quite a dead ringer for Sharon Tate but she captures the carefree and blithe charm just right, with the unknowing goodness found in the way Sharon politely waves at Manson as he walks away. Plus the joy in Robbie’s face watching the real Sharon Tate is magic itself, not to mention the one key moment when all we hear is the sound of her voice, essentially what the entire film has been leading to and the result is otherworldly. Of the others in the cast, maybe too many to mention and praise, there’s Julia Butters as child actress Trudi Fraser whose intellectual approach to the work leads to its own rewards, the awesome physicality of Margaret Qualley as Pussycat and how she prepares to finally get in the car as Cliff drives up, Mike Moh as Bruce Lee, Bruce Dern as George Spahn, Emile Hirsch as Jay Sebring, Dakota Fanning as Squeaky Fromme, Lena Dunham as Gypsy, Luke Perry in his final role, Kate Berlant as the box office girl at the Bruin and the great Clu Gulager helping Sharon Tate out in the bookstore. Plus the no-bullshit directness of Kurt Russell’s stunt coordinator Randy on THE GREEN HORNET and the way he tells Rick about Cliff, “I don’t dig him,” along with how perfect the actor is for the narration with the tone of someone who’s been there and remembers.
The past becomes little more than half-remembered names as time goes on, the way Bruce Dern’s half-awake George Spahn can only mutter ‘John Wilkes’ as Cliff Booth introduces himself. Generally, the past doesn’t matter to people. If only Sharon Tate could have lived. If only the movies were still larger than life. If only a lot of things but who knows what would have changed. Of course, the 70s would still have happened. The western would have continued to fade away. Nixon was still president, Reagan was still governor. DIRTY HARRY would likely have been at least somewhat different but Joan Didion was still going to have to find something to write about. There are too many what ifs and LA was going to change as well just as it always will, whether you’re having dinner at El Coyote or Casa Vega. Maybe because of this, the neon beauty of the glorious sights of the Cinerama Dome, Musso & Frank and Taco Bell in the “Out of Time” montage devastates me more each time I see it, the lights coming on as the world is ending. Like the best films do, ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD reminds us of the things we love in this life and somehow makes them even better than we ever could have dreamed even as there are parts of my own life that echoed through my head at certain moments in the dialogue. But it’s also about what friendship can actually mean in this town, not just what other people say it means, and the hope found in that idea, so maybe for just a few moments late at night you feel like you’re no longer just passing through but in the place where you belong and were always meant to be. Maybe this film means so much I don’t want to say all the reasons. I just look forward to future viewings and what it will mean for me as time goes on as I continue to dream of living in this movie, the inevitable dread of the first viewing replaced by a joy at revisiting it until, finally, the sadness that I always feel at the end of this masterwork. That haunting final shot has Margot Robbie as this version of Sharon Tate emerging from her home just as her DON’T MAKE WAVES co-star Claudia Cardinale does at the end of Sergio Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, each sent to offer a form of cinematic benediction, each in their own way a symbol of all that is good in the world, one the promise of the coming civilization and growing west, one the totally pure love of the movies and all their possibilities coming out to greet her neighbor Rick at last. It’s that feeling of what we wish we could change but never can. But even if it may be too late we still hope for what our lives could be, so the best parts of our past will be allowed to become part of our future. We live the lives we were meant to and dreamed of long ago.
Sunday, August 25, 2019
Whatever crush I had on Molly Ringwald back in the day ended long ago but I follow her on Twitter for old times’ sake and was very pleased to see her 2018 New Yorker piece where she looked back at the films she made with John Hughes to confront certain plot points in them which, to be blunt, have aged about as well as Mickey Rooney’s Mr. Yunioshi in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S. Acknowledging such things are necessary, particularly since people out there are presumably showing these films to their kids but as for the films themselves I’m not sure how passionate I am about them. To be honest, I lost interest in high school about 48 hours after graduating from high school so revisiting THE BREAKFAST CLUB or FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF never holds much interest for me. The freewheeling all-in-one-night aspect to SIXTEEN CANDLES can still be fun although I can’t ignore that film’s problematic aspects nor do I want to. I still have a fondness for the Howard Deutch-directed PRETTY IN PINK and SOME KIND OF WONDERFUL in theory even considering how they mirror each other but, in truth, I haven’t seen either one of those in years.
Coming in the middle of all this, WEIRD SCIENCE is just about the silliest of this group and the one most detached from any sort of reality, so much so that it almost overrides whatever issues there might be with the plot of inventing a gorgeous woman as plaything. Not that it makes any difference now but it’s the only one of these films that I’ve never seen in a theater; released by Universal in early August ’85, I was trapped in summer camp up in Maine at the time and it must have already left the local multiplexes by the time I got back. Looking at it now, WEIRD SCIENCE seems to represent a moment when Hughes let his attention wander away from Ringwald and PRETTY IN PINK notwithstanding never seems to have entirely gone back. Maybe instead of a muse he wanted an alter ego and that’s where his interests led him. WEIRD SCIENCE is maybe too slight to be offended by but as a full movie maybe there’s just not enough there. It does present the idea of a teenage weekend where everything goes right thanks to a fantasy woman who shows you the way and even now I can kind of relate to that as a daydream while still being very aware that maybe there’s nothing wrong with leaving this movie back in the 80s.
Teenage outcasts Gary (Anthony Michael Hall) and Wyatt (Ilan Mitchell-Smith), whose parents are out of town for the weekend, are doing nothing on Friday night when Gary gets an idea to use Wyatt’s computer to make a girl, an actual girl. Miraculously this somehow works and the beautiful Lisa (Kelly LeBrock) appears in his doorway, ready to do whatever they want. And she wastes no time upending their lives but soon Lisa’s real agenda to makes their lives better, to give these boys a shot at becoming men, becomes clear and even as Wyatt has to deal with bullying older brother Chet (Bill Paxton) the two of them see a chance to win over the girls of their dreams and throw the greatest party the town has ever seen.
The key image of the film, not counting any shot which contains Kelly LeBrock, might be the two guys with bras on their heads which could be seen as a metaphor for the teenage male trying to find a way into the female psyche but on the other hand it could just be typical John Hughes immaturity. Looking at WEIRD SCIENCE now is a reminder that what John Hughes could do was write scripts that might have actually come from real high school students (most likely male) if they really knew how to write them. They’re slight, they’re goofy, they’re immature even as they reach for deeper themes and in many ways they’re fearless which allows them to capture something about the feeling of being a suburban teen in an affluent suburb that many other such films haven’t. For a film set over the course of a weekend—36 hours, really—it feels a little like WEIRD SCIENCE took just as long to write, which considering some of the stories about how Hughes cranked out things during this period may not be far from the truth. It’s a weekend movie that feels like it was written over a weekend but I don’t mean that in a bad way. It doesn’t even have the briefest time span of these Hughes films but it does feel like the slightest of any of them with even the big party, which you couldn’t be blamed for remembering as the climax, kicking off before the film is even half over. In broad strokes, it’s a story about two guys maturing due to the guidance of a woman but also how clueless you can be when fantasy unexpectedly becomes reality and only you can decide what’s going to happen next.
Coming out during the same summer as other teens-and-science movies like REAL GENIUS and MY SCIENCE PROJECT (Joe Dante’s EXPLORERS sort of counts, to say nothing of BACK TO THE FUTURE), more than anything WEIRD SCIENCE plays right from the start as a much goofier RISKY BUSINESS, maybe the closest Hughes came to that other Chicago teen film, combined with the wish fulfillment aspect of this woman willing to do anything with powers that are never clarified but so what, but is really there to turn the boys into men just not the way you’re thinking. All of this works as well as it does thanks partly to the sheer energy of the leads but the slapdash nature of it all means that it doesn’t have too many plot ideas beyond the big party. The way the high school kids are paired up from the leads to the girls they’re going after as well as the bullies played by Robert Downey (Jr.) and Robert Rusler all against the singular force that is Lisa feel like a set of parallels that a more fleshed out concept could have done something with, particularly since Downey and Rusler basically disappear by a certain point. When Lisa takes Gary and Wyatt to a sketchy bar downtown it’s actually not a bad idea as a comment on how sheltered kids are up in the suburbs but the whole sequence feels a little random coming so soon in the film and the racial element plays like leftover ANIMAL HOUSE material combined with some half-baked improv. John Kapelos, who gets the immortal line “What’s a beautiful broad like you doing with a malaka like this?”, is always welcome in these movies and if Hughes had written ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING (he didn’t, you just think he did) I’d call this a very rough draft of the club scene in that film. But as usual this is very much set in the affluent white Chicago suburban Hughes world of Shermer, Illinois, with less screen time in the actual high school than the other films but we can get a taste of what it’s like. It feels just as segregated as ever with the brief glimpse of the one tough-looking, somewhat androgynous girl at the end of a line of guys ogling Lisa about as progressive as this world ever gets.
It feels like the future according to this film is computers and a colorized version of FRANKENSTEIN although it seems a little curious that they’re not watching BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, but never mind. “I want her to live, I want her to breathe. I want her to aerobicize,” Gary tells Wyatt as Lisa is created and it’s a film where all logic is sent spiraling into outer space but as much as Hughes has no interest in rationality here, LeBrock somehow grounds it. From Lisa’s very first line she gets the tone and even finds an emotional logic to every scene, possessing no inner life—hell, nobody in this movie has an inner life—but she also never hesitates for a moment in what she does, pushing the guys into taking command of their situation as they bounce off her in scenes displaying disbelief although oddly, even though Hall was the star at the time he doesn’t get the big kissing scene with her. Parents are more irrelevant than usual in Hughes’ films this time out and Gary’s are a joke but one bit near the very end where Wyatt’s returning dad declines a hug has a surprisingly plausible edge in the middle of all this, another of those fathers trying to turn their sons into men in the most toxic way. The stuff with the grandparents showing up works pretty well, especially the line about “the Rex Harrison hat” even though the movie totally forgets about them too and when the film goes vaguely near T&A material with the girl at the party who gets her clothes ripped off when things go haywire and hurled out of the chimney I wonder how much of the slightly skeezy vibe can be attributed to producer Joel Silver (this was the only time Hughes and Silver worked together; a Silver-produced remake announced in 2013 has yet to happen). But even the girlfriends, mostly presented as insecure and confused in wondering why they’re with any of these guys to begin with, are still kind of playthings to be bartered over as well as rescued which turns out to mean more than simply having the courage to talk to them ever would.
There’s still a definite conservative streak to the whole thing and maybe another film might have tried to play games over whether or not anything ever really happened between Lisa and the two guys. Even back in 1955 it was only the production code that kept Tom Ewell from sleeping with Marilyn Monroe in Billy Wilder’s THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH, after all. It maybe feels more finely honed production-wise than SIXTEEN CANDLES but that film had better jokes as well as Molly Ringwald at the center and there are maybe a few too many shots here of the guys standing, staring incredulously at whatever’s happening. It moves so fast at the start, jumping into things as quickly as possible with the whole creation montage that makes no sense but who cares helped by that incessantly bouncy Ira Newborn music but it’s still pretty thin and when the movie hits the hour mark even though I know what’s coming I still wonder how there’s actually 30 minutes left to go. Broader than the other Hughes-directed films during this period it’s loaded with throwaway gags tossed into the frame like Hall drinking Coke from a brandy snifter but just as many of those jokes fall flat, another thing that makes it all feel a little tossed together so the mayhem doesn’t quite hit a peak.
A few Frank Tashlin-style sight gags as the party spirals out of control along with the missile that emerges from the floor to stick out of the chimney makes it seem like the movie could have gone crazier and even the blocking in the big confrontation with the bikers who invade the party is pretty dull as if they had no real time to shoot it. But more often than not the film maintains a sense of looseness through its rush to have almost nothing of actual consequence happen and some actors even visibly break character in one scene, smiling during some Bill Paxton antics near the end but it’s the sort of film where this isn’t a big deal. Mainly, it’s a movie about overcoming fear and trying to find the real person in an illusion, a lonely Friday night fantasy of what you wish could happen over a weekend before going back to school. Plus the title song by Oingo Boingo is pretty great. The film was released in August and even though I didn’t see it then, it’s a dog days of summer movie that’s a product of a more innocent time. Nothing wrong with revisiting, of course, I just never want to stay there.
It’s so broad that if it was a movie with more naturalistic performances it wouldn’t work and unlike his character Anthony Michael Hall seems up for trying anything; no reaction is too big and his acting style becomes the equivalent of the fearlessness in Hughes’ writing. With Ilan Mitchell-Smith (who starred in the Cameron Crowe-scripted THE WILD LIFE the previous year) as Wyatt, the charm is in always looking like he might start cracking up at his friend even when he’s supposed to be upset so the relaxed vibe bounces off him nicely and he even gets a sly fourth wall break. Kelly LeBrock is confident, loose and seemingly up for anything as Lisa, always working the frame that she’s in so no one pays attention to anyone else and using the commanding tone of her voice to full advantage, as if always daring the younger guys to take command of a scene they’re in together.
The forever awesome Bill Paxton almost steals the movie as Wyatt’s brother Chet, going even bigger than Anthony Michael Hall if that’s possible and doing things to contort his face that are still mesmerizing and finding the joy in this prick that Robert Downey and Robert Rusler never do as their bullies who aren’t as much fun in their assholishness. Boy, I miss Bill Paxton. Suzanne Snyder, who went on to play two separate roles on SEINFELD and Judie Aronson, who appeared again with Robert Downey, Jr. as “Gift Bag Girl” in KISS KISS BANG BANG, have a sincerity to their scenes which comes off as genuinely likable and their bits together have a genuine chemistry that makes the friendship seem totally real in the middle of all this. Vernon Wells of THE ROAD WARRIOR and Michael Berryman of THE HILLS HAVE EYES are a few of the mutant bikers who invade the party while the perfume salesgirl is played by Jill Whitlow who one year later starred in NIGHT OF THE CREEPS, a film Suzanne Snyder had a small part in which always gave the impression the two had switched places for some reason.
WEIRD SCIENCE was released only six months after THE BREAKFAST CLUB and maybe it makes perfect sense to follow that one with a movie which is pretty much its total opposite in tone but it does feel like the genuine sensitivity that people have always responded to in John Hughes’ films, for better and also for worse, is a little absent this time out. It wasn’t the hit that some of his other films of the period were although it actually did slightly better than SIXTEEN CANDLES just over a year earlier. Go figure, but of course it has the expected cult following these days. WEIRD SCIENCE was also the last Hughes film to feature Anthony Michael Hall, which is still surprising maybe since we just assumed at the time there would be lots more and feels like what we remember about the 80s was already starting to fall apart halfway through the decade. Maybe the filmmaker’s biggest hits were still to come but it’s as if the things people responded to in them as well as the looseness they had which feels so rare these days (SUPERBAD comes to mind) was lost along the way. There’s never any reason to think all that much about WEIRD SCIENCE, a film that doesn’t really ask you to anyway. It has its charms but strains a little too much to get there and maybe isn’t really worth defending all these years later. Guess I still have to think about it anyway, whether it’s because I missed it at the time or because I never had a weekend like this one in my own suburb. Of course, eventually you have to move on.
Saturday, August 17, 2019
It’s an unavoidable observation about comedies that sometimes the concept of cinema is just a little too incidental. Of course, in certain cases it can be argued the only thing that matters is whether or not a film succeeds at being funny. And it’s not that there’s anything wrong with comedies or that they’re some sort of lesser form but when it comes to writing about them sometimes there’s simply not much to say. It may be insulting to point out that often comedies aren’t meant to be good movies and the history of film calls this out as a lie but it’s still the approach many of them seem to take, especially when a film plays like they shot a lot of footage, went crazy with the improv and assembled it out of the pieces of that, plot be damned, construction be damned, logic be damned. Whether or not it’s a good movie be damned. The recent film THE HUSTLE is a remake of the fondly remembered 1988 Frank Oz comedy DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS but this in itself is not a terrible thing especially since that film is also a remake, specifically of the 1964 BEDTIME STORY starring Marlon Brando and David Niven. The plots of the three films are so close that original writers Stanley Shapiro & Paul Henning even get full credit on the scripts of the other two films (THE HUSTLE opening credits lists the two along with DIRTY scripter Dale Launer and the new writer) but on its own BEDTIME STORY isn’t very good at all, acted by leads who are mostly waltzing through their parts and it’s directed like a sitcom of the time which makes sense since that’s what director Ralph Levy mostly did otherwise. It’s an early 60s studio comedy which contains all the bland artificiality that implies with a particularly bad ending so today it doesn’t play as much more than a reminder that those movies back then weren’t all fortunate enough to be directed by the likes of Blake Edwards or Stanley Donen. Coming 24 years later, DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS is such an improvement in every possible way that it’s a safe bet it would be regularly named on the list of best remakes if anyone knew or even cared it actually was one.
As for THE HUSTLE, there’s not much to say about that film, certainly not much to write about it, even if it is surprising that roughly 95% of the plot has been retained. It’s simply not very good and maybe the nicest thing I can say about the film is that it makes me want to send a letter to Anne Hathaway saying some of us are getting worried about her. Along with the lack of actual wit is the poor construction to what should be a pretty solid narrative, especially compared with DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS which possesses a tangible sense of elegance to its storytelling and through that an undeniable economy in how it’s told. THE HUSTLE merely rushes things and when it does diverge from the other film the reasons don’t feel correctly thought out, seeming to have little awareness of what worked before and why, possibly making changes simply to give more screentime to star Rebel Wilson for no reason other than she was one of the producers. And, this should probably be said, it’s not very funny. But there’s little reason to dwell on that. Better to figure out why a comedy was successful and what can be learned from that since THE HUSTLE certainly didn’t. Sometimes it doesn’t matter that a comedy isn’t a great film. Sometimes you instead get a sense of the care which was put into a film and how much attention was paid in order to make it all come together. Too often we get reminders that the things which allowed certain films to work so well are long in the past. But even in the 80s when DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS was made, it was still possible for that to happen.
Wealthy con artist Lawrence Jamieson (Michael Caine) resides in the seaside town of Beaumont sur Mer in the South of France with the Chief of Police as his main ally, spending his time almost effortlessly bilking money from wealthy women traveling through, often in the guise of a deposed prince looking for funds for his freedom fighters. All is well until the arrival of Freddie Benson (Steve Martin), an American who has traveled to the region in search of the finer things and looking for women to fleece himself. After failing in an attempt to get Freddie out of the way, Jamison accepts his presence and instead tries to teach him in the art of his trade. But when their brief partnership ends due to a falling out, Freddie suggests a bet to have them both go after an agreed upon woman and the loser will have to leave town. They settle on visiting American soap heiress Janet Colgate (Glenne Headly) with each man willing to stop at nothing to get her money and prove that they really are the best at the game.
There’s a surprising melancholy tinge to DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS mixed in among the laughs, particularly in the way Michael Caine’s Lawrence Jamieson explains to Freddy that in spite of his ambition of becoming an artist he had little actual talent, merely the appreciation for the finer things so life as a con artist was the way he chose to pursue that. In a way, achieving the goal of spending money on beauty and culture served its purpose just as much as being an artist ever would have. In its own way, what he does is an art. Not everyone is qualified to aim so high and sometimes you never know that the other person already has you beat. Released during the Christmas ’88 season when most of the comedy business went to TWINS, the fantasy of SCOUNDRELS (written by Dale Launer and Stanley Shapiro & Paul Henning) is rooted in the old world money of the south of France and the characters of this movie are part of this fantasy, ready to take advantage of the women looking to be a part of all that opulence whatever the cost. BEDTIME STORY was the title of the original so it was told in that fashion but what DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS does is make that feeling so matter of fact it comes off as effortless and every laugh seems perfectly natural as if there was no other correct way for certain moments to play.
The films Frank Oz has directed, just going by the funny ones, haven’t always totally succeeded as comedies and a few of them aren’t all that great as films (hot take: BOWFINGER, for example, is funny but a little slapdash). But while DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS is as broad as it needs to be at times to get the joke across, never holding back on the stupidity if it’s necessary, the film never forgets to exude a sense of elegance and class to fight against that, to give us a sense of the fine life this con artist lives at the expense of all those others. If the film weren’t so impeccably made this wouldn’t come across at all and Oz intentionally directs his film as an old school Hollywood entertainment, giving each of the three leads big movie star introductions and in filming his actors he always knows where to put the camera to let us observe them playing these roles as big as possible in tandem with each other. There’s a sense of calm to the direction, aided in how the look of the film is pulled off by the great cinematographer Michael Ballhaus (whose other 1988 credits included THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST and WORKING GIRL) and along with that expert camerawork is a confidence to how the visuals are laid out. Shots gradually reveal what they are as they happen and even the transitions seem to glide perfectly from one scene to the next. The subtlety to the laughs are all played with expert timing; there’s almost no way to explain just why and how Barbara Harris being pushed up against a series of plants as she’s let into what she thinks is the private life of a deposed prince is as funny as it is but when played out the joke makes perfect sense. Just the sight of the two leads sizing each other up in the early scenes wastes no time in showing off the expert rhythms they display together and by the time Caine as Jameson takes on the guise of the very Germanic Dr. Emil Shaffhausen to examine his newest ‘patient’ it’s a beautifully constructed sequence of reveals and blocking with each of the three leads bouncing off each other beautifully. Even the throwaway touches, like the bookmark Freddy keeps in his copy of Mad Magazine, are just the right sort of appropriately ridiculous details that the film pulls off as it glides along.
Through that impeccable plotting the film is always looking for the comic beats that can be brought out within a scene, doing this while being in no rush whatsoever. It pulls off the trick of having almost no real conflict until roughly the 45 minute mark but once it does the developments quietly snowball, one after the other. On the DVD audio commentary Oz, very analytical about his approach, gives lots of credit to Shapiro & Henning for the original structure but seems too modest to say that his film is an improvement over what was already there and even when much of the dialogue is the same it’s often been improved, taking comic beats beyond points where they stopped in the original and pushing those moments in the pursuit of greater payoffs, even down to the way the plot beats of the second half build bit by bit to a final twist which BEDTIME STORY didn’t have. The brief musical interludes also fit in so well with the relaxed yet spirited vibe like when Martin’s Freddy is being trained for this lifestyle, utilizing old standards of the “We’re in the Money” and “Putting on the Ritz” sort via the score by Miles Goodman, playing so close in tone to an actual musical that it’s no real surprise it became one on stage later on. And the French locations that make up the fictitious Beaumont sur Mer offer the perfect storybook quality, just as fitting as the innocence that Glenne Headly’s soap queen projects while the two men squabble over her. Because, really, it’s not like there’s anything at stake here and, as it turns out in the end, even less than we ever realized.
Everyone who has seen DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS of course remembers the absurdity of Martin’s guise as Ruprecht holding that trident and his quizzical “Not mother?” will always be funny, I don’t care what you say. Whether it’s the pure physicality of Steve Martin or what Michael Caine does to play against that, sometimes without moving a muscle, not to mention how this may be the only film with a Deny Terrio joke, for crying out loud, so many of the laughs pay off but the quieter moments balance them out whether Caine’s musings or Martin’s indignant claims that men are the weaker sex as the justification for doing what he believes is right by taking their money to give an edge to all the silliness. The sexual politics of the film are largely of another time, I guess the early 60s, and it makes sure we know that most of these snobby women don’t deserve anything less (“You were saying the poor shouldn’t be allowed in museums?” Caine asks one played by SIX FEET UNDER’s Frances Conroy). But just as Martin’s civilian wardrobe is a little 80s to clash with the surroundings, Glenne Headly’s unknowing Janet who believes just about anything anyone tells her is the sort of innocent no one in the Riviera has ever encountered and whose unquestioning goodness seems to be part of the new way of doing things, lulling us into a sense of sweetness and humanity almost without realizing it.
Miles Goodman’s lovely and boisterous score offers some of that as well, heavy on the violin but in addition to lending the film a richer sense of luxury it also contains a wistfulness that develops near the end as if to underscore how impermanent all this fantasy really is. Through his direction, Oz is always looking to underline this feeling, even in the economy of how a farewell at the airport late in the film holds on one character with another reflected in a nearby window and the surprising emotions being felt. But in another beat soon after that holds on Martin and Caine during a certain realization, the shot becomes about how they react as well as who moves and who doesn’t, turning it into a perfect reflection of their chemistry and in a nutshell this moment encapsulates what the film is more than anything. It’s possibly the best directorial work of Frank Oz’s long career, at the very least his most impeccable as well as the one most fully aware of where the jokes should go in order to truly matter.
The film always knows how much it’s about the two leads in the frame together facing off and even one of the slyest directorial moments has them gradually coming closer to camera during a tense moment, daring the other to go one step further. It’s safe to say this remains one of my favorite films of both of them; Steve Martin is more of a broad comic figure in his performance, obviously, taking his various characterizations as far as they can go particularly during the unspeakable insanity of Ruprecht but he always finds the right joke in moments like his desperation to remember someone’s name but also the way everything about his jittery energy throughout gets on people’s nerves. And it makes sense up against the fully fleshed out portrayal Michael Caine brings to his part beginning from the simple physicality of him turning around into close-up but particularly displayed through his timing in the guise of the officious Doctor Emil Schaffhausen. Even what Caine does with his hands can be fascinating to watch in this film and he cuts through every line of his dialogue with just enough of an edge to remind us of how much of an act the elegance is. The great and sadly underappreciated Glenne Headly is perfectly matched with the two of them in the way Janet Colgate seems to totally accept every ludicrous thing she’s told and the total sense of goodness it seems to bring out in her, with even the mere sight of her walking becoming a key part of that characterization. It’s very much a three person show but there’s also the way Barbara Harris as Fanny Eubanks of Omaha is so wide eyed in believing everything she’s told, Anton Rodgers (who later played a French chief of police again in Blake Edwards’ SON OF THE PINK PANTHER) bouncing off Caine nicely and in particular Ian McDiarmid aka Senator Palpatine as Jamison’s butler Arthur who amusingly gets extremely little dialogue but slaughters a few of the lines that he does get.
A film becomes a product of its time. This is unavoidable. Both BEDTIME STORY and THE HUSTLE are products of their time at least in the way of how mediocre they both are (although discovering what Brando does in the Ruprecht scenes makes a look at that film worth it). And as much as there’s nothing wrong with doing this particular plot with women in the lead roles maybe this is a case where keeping the final twist just seems wrong, in a thematic way or maybe just for comedy and the way the new film handles it simply gives the impression that it wasn’t very well thought out making the whole thing feel like a step backwards. Even comedies need to feel like there was some thought behind them, after all. In his memoir “The Elephant to Hollywood”, Michael Caine has nothing but fond things to say about filming DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS in the south of France (you can hardly blame him) along with calling it one of his favorite films as well as the funniest. It’s the epitome of a film that you think of fondly years later, remembering both the jokes as well as the spirit of the whole thing, playing as light as it should but with just enough depth to remind us of that dream of jetting off to the south of France in the summertime. You still need those dreams while stuck in the real world and that’s the fantasy DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS reminds you of. And it’s funny. That matters too.
Thursday, July 18, 2019
“Roger died,” said the text. I knew this already. I just hadn’t wanted to be the one to tell her. This was the day, several years ago now, a lifetime ago now, that Roger Ebert died. We still remember him as a great writer and critic as well as someone who bravely fought cancer in his final years after his voice was taken away but often in the dead of night it’s going to be about his screenplay for the legendary BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS. The film’s director Russ Meyer continues to be celebrated for it as well and though he’s also known for the likes of VIXEN and FASTER, PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL! it’s BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS that I return to, often in the dead of night, always trying to figure out just what this film is that’s unlike any other. Originally released in 1970 with an X rating (changed to an NC-17 years later), the film is known these days partly due to pop culture references in places like AUSTIN POWERS but all on its own is about as compulsively entertaining as any movie ever made and rewatchable as few others have ever been, making multiple viewings almost mandatory, the more the better. There is nothing like it. That’s even on the poster: This is not a sequel. There has never been anything like it.
There has still never been anything like it in every possible way and there are few films that bring the same exuberant rush of dangerously pure cinematic crack to every single shot, every single manic cut. You can’t say that about many films made these days and you certainly can’t say it about the original VALLEY OF THE DOLLS but no sane person would ever write about that film anyway (full disclosure: I’ve seen VALLEY OF THE DOLLS exactly twice but have seen BEYOND exactly 5,643 times). The thing about BEYOND is that, as extreme as it is, as much as it gleefully dispenses with anything resembling actual life in the real world, there’s something about it which is impossible to resist that somehow lets you identify with its madness. It’s the perfect film for L.A., making you think of those people in this town who fall into your world, the ones who keep you up until all hours of the night and what tears that connection apart in the end. For a long time I used to say that one of the reasons you keep going to parties in L.A. is the hope one night you’ll end up at Z-Man’s—for the first party, obviously, not the last. Since I don’t go out to parties as much anymore that dream isn’t as strong, but we all need to hold out a sliver of hope for these possibilities.
Kelly MacNamara, lead singer of the rock group The Kelly Affair along with guitarist Casey Anderson (Cynthia Meyers) and drummer Petronella Danforth (Marcia McBroom), suggests to manager/boyfriend Harris Allsworth (David Gurian) that they give L.A. a try which will give an excuse to look up her long-lost aunt Susan Lake (Phyllis Davis), the heir to the family fortune. When they are reunited, Kelly’s presence causes suspicion in Susan’s lawyer Porter Hall (Duncan McLeod) but she wastes no time inviting everyone to a party thrown by teen rock tycoon Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell (John LaZar) who after hearing them perform immediately announces that he can take the band which he renames The Carrie Nations and make them the biggest rock group around. As they rise on the charts with everyone getting sucked into the fast rock lifestyle, Harris is left behind and as Kelly squabbles over the family fortune that Porter Hall insists she won’t get a penny of, each of the girls begin to lose sight over what they really care about as they tumble further into that hard living land known as the valley of the dolls.
Sure, I could have made that synopsis longer adding a few more characters and incidents but we’ve got places to be. To accurately describe BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS is to fully understand it and I’ve never made that claim. To say the film is simply exhilarating isn’t quite enough, because to only specify what it achieves in one way is selling it short. It’s a glorious piece of exploitation, it’s a rock movie, a melodrama, a spoof, maybe even a little bit of a feminist film as well as a commentary on the nature of movies itself. Roger Ebert’s hand in the script (official credits: story by Ebert and Meyer, screenplay by Meyer) is a reminder of how while providing the expected melodramatic tropes it also plays as a compendium of maybe just about everything he had ever bemusedly noticed about movies up to this point, the sort of details he later compiled in his various glossaries of movie terms and clichés.
Along with how utterly quotable it is, said the spider, et cetera, it’s all filtered through the Russ Meyer prism of extreme sexuality, hell extreme sense of everything within the frame, of manly men and, more importantly, as many well-endowed women in a shot as is ever possible. The combination of the writer and director’s viewpoints explode in an array of madness which creates an immensely colorful and cluttered widescreen image that rapidly shoots from one type of film to another. It leaves no time to catch your breath as if daring you to scream uncle in the first ten minutes but once you get adjusted to the rhythms there’s also a joy to its arch playfulness as well as a strange familiarity as if a remake of a film we’ve watched in dreams but can’t quite remember.
Right from the start the sheer density of what Meyer brings as a filmmaker is undeniable, beginning with the kaleidoscopic way of structuring the film and how the baffling sequence of events under the opening credits make no sense but of course it all will eventually. What gets teased at the start is inevitable, just like much of what happens in L.A.is inevitable, just as Z-Man seems to understand it always is. The perfect ideal for a Russ Meyer shot is a packed widescreen frame, possibly at a canted angle, one that cuts as fast as possible to the next before we’ve fully registered what’s in it, but as intense as the pacing is even during a brief scene filmed from every conceivable angle it always feels focused, none of it is ever random. The early frenzied montage used to illustrate everything we need to know about the people and places of Los Angeles (“Rich Aunt Susan?” “Bitch Aunt Susan.”) works now as part time capsule and part something else entirely but also on a smaller scale is the manic intensity of the fashion studio introduction to Susan Lake that shortly follows which is just as dizzying, barely giving us a chance to catch our breath. From early on the film always seems to be looking for bits of footage to insert in other places as part of that approach to make its point, the series of edits in rapid succession whether what’s coming between Casey and fashion designer Roxanne (Erica Gavin of VIXEN) who takes an immediate interest in her or a simple reminder of the joys of what Edy Williams’ lecherous Ashley St. Ives does in a Rolls versus a Bentley.
The first Z-Man party introduces us to seemingly a hundred people, some of whom we’ll get to know and others we’ll never see again, with snatches of pseudo-hipster cool dialogue that never make complete sense spoken by the most eccentric bit players imaginable and who the hell are all these people anyway. “This is my happening and it freaks me out!” Z-Man famously exclaims while showing Kelly around his pad, introducing her to what will be all the supporting characters in the film, nothing subtle about all that exposition but fitting for this rock tycoon who has taken control of everyone in this city he knows inside and out. Z-Man says they’ll be superstars and, poof, The Carrie Nations are superstars, the band’s rise to success depicted in a tableau of the girls performing bracketed by what they think of as the two men in their lives on each side, repeated later almost in a mirror image as the darkness of that success takes hold. It’s the strong, decisive women of Meyer’s films at the center of it all and whatever mistakes they fall into still have power that the men, almost all weak in their own ways, are never able to handle.
For Russ Meyer, the maverick approach of his independent films combined with the studio aesthetic seems perfect for the Hollywood collapse of 1969-70 in the wake of EASY RIDER and all the events of the time. I can never explain what it is about movies circa 1970 for me that feel a little nightmarish as if there was something about the film stock or lenses used but maybe I’m just thinking about this film in particular which always seems to come from somewhere unexplainable or maybe it’s just the unreal fashions and all that hair on the women, playing as both an exaggeration of the time and a total representation of it, or at least what I think it was. There’s no point getting caught up in the unending debate over what exactly camp is but there’s too much style found in the way BEYOND is staged and shot to ever consider it a bad movie, let alone an intentionally bad one, it’s just a style that is almost impossible to pin down. Everything about it is calculated in a pre-fab way, every second has just a little more intensity to it than you’d expect, the characterizations too vivid and when compared to the likes of MYRA BRECKINRIDGE which happens to be the other X-rated 20th Century Fox film of 1970 (they came out a mere week apart and what a time that must have been) it’s a reminder of how much that film is an unfunny chore to sit through once you take away the holy-shit vibe, no discipline to its offensiveness.
BEYOND constantly veers close to the cliff of total anarchy but never falls over, reveling in each heightened “Since the last time I saw you, you won the heavyweight championship! Congratulations!” moment. The music has some of that blatant manufactured pop style to fit the fake groovy vibe but it also has an unexpected power, whether that never-ending scream that kicks off the anthem “Find It”, the cheery hippie vibe of “Come with the Gentle People” or how well the later “Look On Up At The Bottom” goes with the darkness that’s falling over everything. All throughout, the music correctly highlights the specific tone of the moment whether for wacky Russ Meyer sex antics, the soap opera organ that invades the most histrionic moments or the title track by The Sandpipers presented totally poker-faced as if meant to be the theme for the normal version of this movie and no one said anything to stop them.
Plotted in the immediate wake of Tate-LaBianca and released the following summer after arrests had been made, part of where the story leads may be done in extreme tastelessness at least partly because of who one of the stars of VALLEY OF THE DOLLS was, after all, but on the other hand if an exploitation movie doesn’t exploit anything then what would be the point. The excessive nature of how even the most basic scene is staged almost manages to disguise how much of a modestly scaled film it is with almost the entirety of the main unit footage shot on either the Fox lot or presumably out at the Fox ranch in Malibu, but there’s always something within the clutter to disguise it (that said, a few night shots of Edy Williams driving, maybe on Wilshire Blvd, have a dangerous kick to them and I wish there was more of this sort of thing).
The film isn’t perfect, granted, since a few characters fall away when the film doesn’t have anything left to do with them and it does dwell too long on Porter Hall’s financial machinations in the middle section, dragging things with more literal plot than it really needs. This is a film about emotions, after all, and it never has to make any more sense than the fury of those emotions (the way Sam Fuller describes Cinema in PIERROT LE FOU comes to mind), the excess of the second hour’s rising fervor and the bloodshed of the climax which seems to come out of nowhere, coinciding with a use of the famous Fox fanfare to provide a joke late in the film if you’re listening for it during just about the grisliest moment. It’s all an exaggeration of what movies usually are as well as real life. But in Hollywood very little ever has to do with real life anyway.
BEYOND was almost going to serve as an actual sequel to VALLEY at one point and the draft I’ve read even has the names of the two characters from the first film before they were changed, presumably after threat of litigation from the author of the original novel but as Vincent Canby said in his New York Times review, “Any movie that Jacqueline Susann thinks would damage her reputation as a writer cannot be all bad.” Released in late 1967, the original VALLEY OF THE DOLLS was a huge hit at the time, presumably meant to be serious but since then has always been a so-bad-it’s-good joke. Coming several years later, BEYOND was meant by Meyer & Ebert to be a joke in the first place but is heightened to the point that gives every scene an unexpected intensity, never holding back on each overly emphasized emotion which manages to make it all the more strangely real, that cruel showbiz feeling of standing on the outside looking in.
Even now I still kind of hope for the best for some of the characters after the credits roll and also feel bad for a few who didn’t make it that far and don’t quite get redemption via the epic closing narration which in its benediction offers sympathy to only some through its skewering of conservative morality. In some ways the entire film is a joke, a borderline offensive joke down to the perverse dark humor of at least one particular sound effect, daring us to actually care about some of these people but it’s also a film about what films are in the first place and it lets us make up our own minds. The mayhem of the climactic party lives up to its nightmarish aims and while the most surprising revelation is the most problematic in this day and age it still plays out as a perfect joke about those last-minute revelations that come out of nowhere, answering everything and nothing all at once. Whatever new thing the film becomes on each viewing it’s always a combination of the L.A. we want to find and the one we’re afraid might still be out there, maybe even when we answer our phone in the dead of night. Maybe there is no code to crack when it comes to BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, merely simple acceptance of how in its own way this movie is really every movie.
All of this goes perfectly with the unrelenting energy of Dolly Read as Kelly who commands the film and seems ready to devour the world in every scene, no matter how much she loses sight of the people around her, no matter how many times her English accent slips in. It’s charming, just as Marcia McBroom also has a bubbly charm as Pet and she’s the one who seems to have the most fun with some of the over-enunciated dialogue she’s given to say and her scenes with Harrison Page as law student/love interest Emerson Thorne are just about the most relaxed of anyone. Cynthia Myers as Casey gives what is maybe the rawest performance in the film, her nervous energy bubbling under until it explodes without a hint of irony and is one of the strongest elements to really challenge whatever we might think this film is supposed to be. It comes through in her scenes with Erica Gavin, who herself is part of what is probably the film’s most notorious image and as much as it sometimes feels like the movie cuts around her, Gavin still gives her part more soul than it feels like was on the page.
John LaZar is extraordinary as the unforgettable Z-Man, fearlessly belting out every piece of pseudo-Shakespearean dialogue he has, becoming one with the film in his sheer display of intensity while David Guarian as Harris almost seems to be mentally wrestling with whatever intricate instructions Meyer has given him while saying the words, as if he’s struggling to stay afloat in all this as much as his character is. Michael Blodgett oozes sleaze as gigolo Lance Rocke who Kelly gets mixed up with while Charles Napier (all these years later, maybe the most recognizable person in the film) and his chiseled matinee idol looks play like he’s walked right out of an unseen Douglas Sirk film so he fits right in when reunited opposite the charming but slightly underused Phyllis Davis as Aunt Susan. Everyone here gets moments that will never be forgotten and it’s safe to say that for even some of the bit players here, this film is their immortality. When Edy Williams as Ashley St. Ives leans in close to David Guarian and says, “You’re a groovy boy, I’d like to strap you on sometime,” there’s nothing else to call it. Among the extended cast of bit players, Pam Grier is credited in the end crawl as “Fourth Woman” and is almost totally invisible but existing stills prove she was there for Z-Man’s party and I’ve actually spotted her, I swear!
And Roger did die on that day in 2013, sadly, but all things considered he made it longer than expected although still not as long as we wanted. Many years ago he gladly signed my copy of the script for this film, adding “Another BVD fan!” on the cover page. Russ Meyer passed away in 2004 and only made one other studio film after this, also for Twentieth Century-Fox, the considerably more normal and mostly forgotten THE SEVEN MINUTES which I haven’t seen in decades. Also in my own history, one day long ago I was wearing my BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS t-shirt while working on a low budget film when the cinematographer, the legendary Gary Graver, walked up to me and said, “I used to go out with…that one” pointing at one of the girls on the shirt (Erica Gavin, for the record). And through the years from my first viewing at SUNY Purchase in glorious 16mm Scope then to 35mm, the old Magnetic Video VHS, laserdisc, DVD and now that stunning Criterion Blu-ray, BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS continues to fascinate. Plus if you’ve ever seen it with a packed house you know that it just about destroys the place but even watching it by myself it still makes me want to examine each cut and figure out what’s going on there as if I’ll ever really get an answer. I’ll also remember how, in writing this film, Roger Ebert passed along a twisted reminder of what you sometimes need to expect from movies in the first place which is one of the reasons why they matter so much. And all that will be part of what I think of when I remember the text I received on the day he died, even if it is one of those pieces of the past you should decide to finally forget. But the film will continue, those words that Roger Ebert gave it will continue and the film in all its sleazy glory will be there to trust and count on, as the Carrie Nations once sang, come a rainy day.