Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Very Open About Things

I recently made the long drive across town to the American Cinematheque’s Aero Theatre in Santa Monica for a tribute to actor/director Richard Benjamin. The night featured a double bill of two movies he starred in, WESTWORLD and DIARY OF A MAD HOUSEWIFE, with a Q&A with him in between. I will not be writing about that for the moment. Hey, it’s my birthday this week, I can do what I want. The reason why I’m not writing about it is because as much of a thrill as it was to see the star of QUARK and director of MY FAVORITE YEAR there that night (Said me to the person on the phone as I entered the Aero to buy a ticket, “I have to go, Richard Benjamin is standing in the lobby.”) it was even more of a thrill for me to see his wife Paula Prentiss there as well. I have a thing for Paula Prentiss, you understand, particularly in Howard Hawks's MAN’S FAVORITE SPORT but also from a few other films she made back in the 60s and 70s. Not really in the public eye anymore, she wasn’t the focus that evening remaining quietly off to the side as her husband signed a few autographs for people and all I could think was how the one and only Paula Prentiss was seated by herself. That is her, isn’t it, I was thinking. It definitely was and here she was, looking older now, but that’s ok. After all, she is older. And I went up to her. I had to. I kept thinking about MAN’S FAVORITE SPORT but if I’d had more time I might have gone on longer about a few of her other films, maybe starting with her supporting role in LAST OF THE RED HOT LOVERS, released in 1972 based on the Neil Simon play which based on looking around the net seems to have become a bit of a regional theater mainstay. It’s not a great film, certainly not one of the more memorable Neil Simon comedies ever but rarely have you ever seen someone come into a movie midway through and totally take command as she does here. She’s funny, she’s sexy, kind of off the charts nuts and pretty much brilliant. The movie isn’t. It has its good points, but the claustrophobia becomes a bit much by a certain point and not in a good way, with being cooped up in the tiny apartment it’s set in for eighty percent of the movie making for kind of a dingy film experience, though not one without its pleasures. And Paula Prentiss…my gosh.

Keeping its Neil Simon Broadway origins apparent all the way through, LOVERS centers around Barney Cashman (Alan Arkin), the middle-aged owner of a fish restaurant in Manhattan who has been married for 23 years and, feeling that the world is passing him by, is suddenly consumed with the enormous desire to live before its too late and that includes taking a stab at adultery. The three women (who presumably make up the three acts in the stage version) who he arranges secret rendezvous with in his mother’s apartment in the middle of the day are the hard-drinking, hard-smoking and also married Elaine Navazio (Sally Kellerman), actress/singer Bobbi Michele (Paula Prentiss) who turns out to be crazier than he ever imagined and his wife’s best friend Jeanette Fisher (Renée Taylor) who it turns out is distraught over her own husband’s affair. Naturally, none of these secret meetings ever quite go according to plan.

The first ten minutes, detailing Alan Arkin’s character waking up and traveling to his restaurant in the city with an inner monologue in voiceover, goes on long enough that for a few minutes we become convinced that this is going to be a real movie. At that point we enter the apartment where the lead character’s unseen mother lives which is where we spend much of the remaining ninety or so minutes. Directed by Gene Saks (both the stage and film versions of THE ODD COUPLE among numerous Neil Simon-related credits but, interestingly, not the original production of LOVERS) there’s really very little point in addressing LAST OF THE RED HOT LOVERS as an actual film considering how much of it set in this tiny apartment is pretty dingy and grainy, as if it’s ready made to air on the CBS Sunday Night Movie or maybe just some tiny UHF station. Saks seems just perfectly willing to plunk the camera down and record the action which considering what the material is may be the right way to go—and in fairness to Saks there are a few subtly effective moments in his direction, particularly in the way he holds on Prentiss as she blurts out one of her long, impossible-to-believe speeches about her current living situation with a Nazi vocal coach only to then cut to Arkin sitting there speechless, not sure whether he should run away or pounce on her. It’s not much, but it does at least reveal someone paying attention to how to visually present material. The apartment set in question does at least feel like a place where an elderly woman might have lived in Manhattan or one of the outer boroughs during the early 70s but as a setting for almost an entire movie it comes off as pretty visually dull.

As a Neil Simon play it has definite strengths and even if much of it feels rooted in mid-twentieth century middle age angst it still has some teeth--listening to Arkin muse about how he feels invisible and that life is totally passing him by struck a cord for me while watching it this week, aware of my own mortality. When Alan Arkin says it, I can relate to those fears. But it’s hard to avoid it all from becoming awfully claustrophobic by a certain point even with a few minutes of early 70s New York location footage. What it does have is its cast headed by Alan Arkin who is for the most part terrific even though, in his late 30s at the time, never looks quite old enough to be 45. Making him bald isn’t quite enough—is this the first film where the actor appears this way? He does convince in all his insecurities with some great comic beats throughout particularly the silent moment when he pauses, trying to put together Prentiss’s comment that she met a strange man when “he was living with my roommate and she moved out” until he finally mutters to himself, “The roommate moved out…”. As for the three female leads, Kellerman overcomes a early overly-mannered feel to fully convince as her cynical adulteress unafraid to call Barney on what he won’t admit to himself, Renée Taylor is borderline intolerable even if her character is supposed to be but Paula Prentiss, who appears during the middle section (“Act II”) as an impossibly nutso actress is pretty much brilliant, walking in and insisting on paying back the money he loaned her while sitting on a park bench right away only to immediately say that she doesn’t have the money.

With her voice constantly rising and falling in octaves as only Paula Prentiss can do it with just about every single thing she says (“I’m goofy today, must be the heat,”), pretty much the uber version of every uber-hot and uber-crazy girl ever met in the history of the world…well, at least met by me, anyway. I will mention no names, but I’m feeling a little reflective right now. Prentiss and Arkin had already worked together in CATCH 22 at this point and the rhythm they achieve here is pitch perfect with all this madness resulting in her smoking pot and singing Burt Bacharach songs to Arkin and, frankly, it drives me kind of crazy. When he sits down with her after she insists he join her in the pot the sequence does feel more stagebound than almost anything else in the film, with the camera just focused on them from dead ahead, but by that point the section is working so well mostly driven by her manic energy that there’s no way to destroy it.

As it turns out, any sort of drama the film builds up is hurt the most by the final section—Renée Taylor kind of sucks all the air out of the room and if the entire movie sounds to you like shrill people screaming Neil Simon wisecracks and platitudes at each other in a tiny room, that’s what it all begins to feel like at this point, even if the movie does leave the apartment during this stretch more than it does at any other point. As it plays here the strongest drama has already occurred when Kellerman’s character tells Arkin off and if the third act was supposed to tie everything together it really doesn’t, damaging the whole film in the end. Maybe it needed to bring Arkin’s unseen wife into the story (she’s never glimpsed even though her character is present during a few scenes including a suburban party that kicks off the third section) or maybe it needed to do something totally quiet and serious—maybe this worked better on Broadway and I certainly don’t have any better suggestions, but the way it is here just doesn’t work for me. There are definite strengths in the work of Arkin, Kellerman and especially Prentiss along with the crackling of Simon’s dialogue but by a certain point the shrieking makes the claustrophobia that’s been building during the entire film feel all too apparent. Surprisingly, the film opened in New York (The Times hated pretty much everything about it) at none other than Radio City Music Hall which seems about as overwhelming a booking as could be imagined for a film set mostly in such a tiny enclosed space. One definitely enjoyable part would have to be the Neal Hefti score, as bouncy as you would expect coming from the guy who composed the theme to THE ODD COUPLE. It’s probably Hefti’s basic style but it sounds just as ready made for its own sitcom as well, although I doubt a show about Alan Arkin taking a different woman up to his mother’s apartment every week probably wouldn’t last very long. Then again, it was the early seventies.

The story about my night at the Aero doesn’t really build to anything. Before Prentiss went to sit down with her husband I stopped her and basically said, “I just want to tell you that you’re one of my favorite actresses. You’re in something, it makes me happy and I don’t want to watch anyone else onscreen. I love you in MAN’S FAVORITE SPORT, I love you in LAST OF THE RED HOT LOVERS, I love you in THE STEPFORD WIVES.” I probably couldn’t think of anything else right then so I just gushed about her in MAN’S FAVORITE SPORT for another moment or so. As I did a big smile began to appear on her face and when I finished she gave me a hug. That was nice. And she still sounded like Paula Prentiss, too. But I didn’t want to overstay my welcome so I let her be and I went to my seat to watch WESTWORLD. I didn’t get to tell Richard Benjamin how much I love MY FAVORITE YEAR, but suddenly that didn’t seem so important. There were very good two movies to go, but at that point the night felt like a complete success. LAST OF THE RED HOT LOVERS is only one film I would recommend to spotlight the comic genius of Paula Prentiss, something that has been unfortunately forgotten over the years when actresses from the sixties and seventies are discussed. The film she gives this performance in may not be all that great but every moment she’s there is totally memorable and there are times when something like that is all a movie really needs.


Marty McKee said...

I believe her sister Ann died earlier this year. Ann was co-starring in CAPTAIN NICE while Paula was on HE & SHE. Unfortunately, she had some serious emotional problems and went to prison for trying to kill her father and Paula's husband. Sad story.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

There doesn't seem to be much out there about her death, but I had read a few items about these unfortunate events in the past. I'm pretty sure that the only film I've ever seen Ann Prentiss in is Altman's CALIFORNIA SPLIT and she's very good in it.

Beveridge D. Spenser said...

Paula Prentiss totally defined the dizzy dame type for the 60's, didn't she?

I was 8 when Man's Favorite Sport? came out. I somehow saw a preview (maybe at the drive-in in my jammies). I thought it looked like the funniest, sexiest thing ever - and I had seen Shot in the Dark.

I watched it again not long ago, and it might not have been that funny/sexy, but close enough.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

It might not be that funny/sexy, but there are nights where it does the trick. She, however, is completely funny/sexy through the entire film.