Sunday, August 28, 2016

Not Only A Way To Live

Sometimes you wonder if there’s any way to get past something only to realize the true impossibility of ever doing it. Those things never leave you. That’s just the way it is. The 60s could be thought of as John Frankenheimer’s decade with some of his best films coming during that period--THE YOUNG SAVAGES in 1961 followed by the likes of BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ, THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, SEVEN DAYS IN MAY, GRAND PRIX and of course the all-holy SECONDS. His last film of that decade was THE GYPSY MOTHS, a nearly unknown film now which apparently never got much of a release by MGM at the time and went mostly unseen for several decades until it came out on DVD in 2002, soon after Frankenheimer’s death. But it’s a lovely, sad film, almost like the end of the road for the world he was portraying in the 60s, much of which was an outgrowth of what he may have thought of as ‘the 50s’ and the America that was being represented. It certainly recalls a few of his other films in what it wants to say about fate, about where you’re going in life, how far you try to get away from yourself and if it’s too late to ever change. That question of can you transform into something else or is the path you’re on already set. Not all of the answers in THE GYPSY MOTHS are ones you want to hear. But sometimes those wishes are just impossible.
A trio of professional skydivers made up of team leader Mike Rettig (Burt Lancaster) savvy go-getter Joe Browdy (Gene Hackman) and the younger Malcolm Webson (Scott Wilson) who travel through the Midwest putting on their show arrive in the small Kansas town of Bridgeville (“If you lived here you’d be home now”) where Malcolm is originally from. They stay with Malcolm’s Aunt Elizabeth (Deborah Kerr) and Uncle John (William Windom), where Malcolm strikes up a rapport with their boarder Annie (Bonnie Bedelia), a local student, and Mike immediately takes a silent interest in Elizabeth as they continue preparations for their big show the next day.
At one time the Kansas small town depicted in THE GYPSY MOTHS might have been filmed mostly on a backlot depicting pure Americana and even the Labor Day excitement of 1955’s PICNIC was drenched in Technicolor stretching as far as the eye could see. But by the time of this film it feels like everything has died off just a little, the warm feeling of community has gone away, even in a town that apparently has a college and missile base everything feels a little bit dead. With screenplay by William Hanley based on the novel by James Drought, THE GYPSY MOTHS is set around the Fourth of July, generally an exciting holiday but that’s never really felt here and any talk of celebration almost comes off as more of an obligation than anything. Looking like the sort of place where trains that go on forever are always passing through, the town of Bridgeville is picturesque but feels stifled as if it’s filled with homes of unfulfilled promises and empty rooms belonging to children who went away but haven’t returned. Only the girlie bar with a ‘THEY SOCK IT TO YOU’ sign out front serves as a reminder of what year it really is and there’s something intentionally stifling about the film as well, even down to dialogue about windows being kept closed. Aside from a brief shot of moths circling the light outside the aunt and uncle’s home the film never bothers with an explanation of the title to underline its themes which are kept deliberately oblique; the interior lives of the characters feel ready to explode but we still don’t learn very much. One person talking about the past is abruptly cut off and there’s no speech drawing in the metaphor to underline why certain things happen so when some of them do talk about their regrets and private fears it’s hard not to wonder about what greater pain they’re leaving unspoken.
A few characters remark to the men how insane what they do is and they’re right but there’s never very much of a response to the obvious and there’s an emotional chill to much of the world of THE GYPSY MOTHS—the house where they stay is forever quiet, as if there isn’t so much as a record player to bring some life into it. There’s mostly sadness and regret hanging in the air even when Gene Hackman’s Browdy tries to take control of the conversation laughing just a little too loud. THE GYPSY MOTHS isn’t top rank Frankenheimer maybe because there’s so much unspoken it makes the film feel almost too constricting but the lack of melodramatic urgency causes the personal nature of the story stand out all the more, making it more satisfying than the Cinerama spectacle combined with the more soapy drama of GRAND PRIX. What we see of the skydiving here is very much an extension of the auto racing in that film, the daredevil nature of attempting to come that close to death. In that case it was more exciting, appropriate for a popcorn movie but this is more fatalistic, as if Frankenheimer was attracted to the material based on the marketable aspect of the skydiving then found himself more drawn to what it all really meant—it says something that the Film Score Monthly CD of Elmer Bernstein’s music contains a few cues of carnival-like excitement that mostly went unused. It’s almost something that can’t be put into a subtle speech revealing why they do it since they can barely put it into words themselves. There’s a lot here you have to take on faith—the sadness, the feeling of loss, with the unspoken thoughts of what didn’t happen.
At one point Burt Lancaster’s Mike Rettig quotes an old friend by calling the act of skydiving “not only a way to live but also way to die…” but even when the actor says this in giant closeup it still doesn’t reveal much about this character who floats above it all in his head anyway, having separated himself from everyone else as if he’s already checked out and is just looking for one more reason to stick around. Gene Hackman’s Browdy might be a little too boisterous in his overzealous nature but he still comes off as the responsible one of the trio. He’s the pragmatist who knows his limitations up there in the sky, not in it for the metaphor but for the money and, presumably, for the good times as long as he’s able to get to church on Sunday to pray away his sins. He talks of wanting to go out to Hollywood to be a stuntman—maybe he’ll get to be Hal Needham. Malcolm, played by IN COLD BLOOD’s Scott Wilson, doesn’t know who he is or what he’s going to be—he only knows who he wasn’t. Bridgeville might have been his home but, to go by the ‘If you lived here…’ welcome sign, it isn’t and he’s wondering what his own limitations are up there. Malcolm tells Rettig, “You can only stay up so long, then you have to come back down” and it’s as if Lancaster’s character is thinking about coming back down for a romance or whatever something deeper it is with the married Deborah Kerr. The romance makes it impossible not to think of the infidelity they already shared in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, only made more frank this time with nudity by both actors in this late 60s film that’s surprising not only due to their age (50s and 40s, for what it’s worth) but also because of its connection to the famous imagery from that earlier film and how there seems to be that much more desperation this time around, the possibility of connection matters that much more. It’s not even clear why they’re so instantly drawn to each other unless it’s some vague awareness they’ve met before in some other film which makes as much sense as anything and they seem to understand each other without knowing why. It’s almost as if when directing their big scenes Frankenheimer kept telling Lancaster and Kerr, “Less, less” to fill in the blanks for ourselves and it somehow works, making the longing in their eyes even sadder. It adds to the inevitably of what eventually happens so you know why it does even though you’ll never know.
The quiet moments through the film are sometimes what linger and John Frankenheimer’s direction is assured enough to allow that to happen, bringing life to even scenes of two characters standing there awkwardly. He knows who these people are, he knows what he wants them to be and the way he frames them, whether he’s shooting close-ups or the stuntwork, is always extremely powerful. Damn, he was good. The skydiving footage and even some establishing helicopter shots never simply feel like second unit work, always adding to the story along with the simple homespun majesty of the Elmer Bernstein score which captures all that longing and regret in the night air. Even if the skydiving footage is secondary to the drama, it’s still jaw-dropping with a few point of view shots that are particularly impressive. But whatever else you want to say, unlike the awesomeness of GRAND PRIX which was really about that spectacle, the heart of THE GYPSY MOTHS is elsewhere even if a few times the film is trying to compensate for what was originally the selling point--one sequence from deep in the film appears to be moved up to the very opening presumably to five us skydiving footage up front since that’s what they were selling. A few rear projection closeups of the actors supposedly skydiving also aren’t so great but whaddyagonnado (of course, professional skydivers did the actual work) and that’s pretty minor stuff. The film always remembers to stay with the characters and only breaks away from them for a runner involving the local high school marching band preparing for the big parade which is cute but maybe unnecessary and a reminder that humor wasn’t always Frankenheimer’s strong suit. Still, the gag makes clear that the seemingly halcyon days of PICNIC in these small towns are over. The outside world is encroaching, filled with all the tragedy and death and cynicism that comes along with that even on the 4th of July and there’s nothing that can be done to stop it. Very little can be done to stop the inevitable and when Lancaster tries to get Kerr to go with him, as if looking for a way to start anew, looking for meaning away from loneliness, maybe part of a dream to transform from moth to butterfly. On a fatalism level THE GYPSY MOTHS is essentially GRAND PRIX meets SECONDS, complete with its own version of ‘the next stage’ as Jeff Corey referred to it in the latter film which feels just as unavoidable this time around even if the emotions attached to it can’t be fully explained.
The film looks at life as three possibilities—taking the path you know you’re destined for, leaving the past behind as you head to the unknown or simply making that unexplainable choice not to pull your chute at the right moment. What really terrifies a person, it asks, being close to death or not living at all? It may be surprising to hear the director on the audio commentary near the end call his film “a positive picture” considering how downbeat much of it is and how devastating what occurs feels in the end. But production began on THE GYPSY MOTHS not long after John Frankenheimer dropped off Robert Kennedy at the Ambassador in Los Angeles for his California primary victory speech, intending to drive him back a short time later. But this event never comes up on the director’s commentary of this film in which people are forced to finally deal with choices that were never made but maybe at the time thinking about the possibilities of that choice was about as hopeful as Frankenheimer was able to get at the time which at least may have been a start.
Looking back at the film all these years after it was made serves as a reminder of these performances but also how the film, coming as the 60s were about to become the 70s works a little as the passing of the torch from a movie star of one age (Lancaster, doing his last of five films with Frankenheimer) to the next (Hackman, in his first of two). Burt Lancaster, gives a moody, wonderful performance which works as a reflection of his work in THE SWIMMER, almost like the next step in his middle aged persona finally coming face to face with what he’s been denying. Gene Hackman, meanwhile, does some of the best of his early work here fully commanding the screen There’s still some raw scrappiness to his presence as late as BONNIE AND CLYDE but here, with THE FRENCH CONNECTION still to come, he seems totally confident bringing an authority to how he works the camera that is already in full bloom here. Scott Wilson, a last minute replacement for John Philip Law who pulled out after an injury, doesn’t have as showy a role but it’s the right sort of quiet, never fully sure if he’s allowed to say what’s on his mind. Deborah Kerr has maybe the most difficult role in what she isn’t allowed to say but there’s a directness to her performance, fully willing to look the other person in the eye while not revealing a thing which goes with the overwhelming guilt her character clearly feels. It’s as if she’s daring William Windom as her husband to say something, anything, to her since she’s not going to volunteer any private feelings but he plays it just right as someone seemingly more interested in his pipe collection than what his wife might have going on. Bonnie Bedelia, apparently in her feature debut, projects curious innocence as Malcolm’s almost-love interest while the awesome Sheree North is the waitress (and stripper) who has no complaints about going home with Hackman for the night.
The problems involving the film’s release (or lack of it) back then extended all the way to the director’s commentary on the DVD which censors out what is presumably a reference to MGM head James Aubrey, presumably done for legal reasons but he’d died in 1994 and by the time these comments were heard by anyone Frankenheimer had passed away as well. But the film is still there, highly recommended for anyone interested in the people involved. Plus for those always hoping that Gene Hackman will make one more film—hey, here it is and still available from Warner Archive. In a subtle, heartbreaking touch near the end—much of THE GYPSY MOTHS is subtle, or maybe ‘subtle in a direct way’ to quote a line of dialogue from it—a handshake between two characters turns into an embrace by the end, yet it still feels like it’s holding back, just like too often we hold things back ourselves in life, much to our everlasting regret. But you can’t get the past back after those times when you’re not very observant, you can’t get what you really want and maybe that one small embrace is the best you can ever hope for. I can’t put the reasons for some things that happen in THE GYPSY MOTHS into words even if I do understand. Sometimes you just don’t have the answers. Frankly, there’s a lot I don’t have the answer to right now.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

All We Can Do

“Most people live in the past,” declares one character in Angelina Jolie Pitt’s BY THE SEA. And it’s true. We spend way too much time in our head on nostalgia, on regret, on those moments when everything came so close. I’d be more than happy to erase whole chunks from my memory but that’s not going to happen. BY THE SEA is set in the past, somewhere in the mid-70s to be more specific, and it feels like it’s made by someone who wants to live in that version of the past, of Antonioni films, of Bergman, of Godard, of what we think of as the glamour prevalent in that age. The film even opens with the early 70s scope Universal logo, as if the entire two hours represents a dream of the opportunity to go back and make movies then. BY THE SEA was either ignored or trashed by most when it opened, barely, back in November 2015 and next to no one outside of the excellent writer Sheila O’Malley said anything positive about it at all. Maybe it was the wrong film at the wrong time, maybe people aren’t looking for that sort of tortured glamour these days, even, or maybe especially, if it does involve Brad & Angie. Now that the Blu-ray is out there, I’m already finding myself returning to it over and over, to a film which is clearly nakedly personal but also, let’s face it, a dream of films that just aren’t made anymore. And I’m finding myself more than willing to live inside it. In many ways, we have no choice but to live in the past, to return to those moments we have guilt over, that we know deep down are our own fault. That’s part of what films are anyway.
Roland (Brad Pitt) and Vanessa (Angelina Jolie Pitt), married 14 years, arrive at a remote seaside hotel in France. Roland, once a successful writer, plans to write a new book there while Vanessa, a former dancer, plans to do nothing at all. As Roland drinks more than he should and accomplishes little aside from his conversations with local café owner Michel (Niels Arestrup), the bored Vanessa discovers a small hole in the wall connecting to the next room over where honeymooning couple Lea (Mélanie Laurent) and François (Melvil Poupaud) are staying. Fascinated by the younger, more exciting couple while her relationship with Roland gets even worse, Vanessa becomes obsessed with watching them through that hole as much as possible. But when Roland finds the hole himself it draws the two closer together and it leads them to getting friendly with that couple, taking whatever game they’re playing a step further towards finally confronting what has happened in their own past.
Roland and Vanessa barely say a word to each other, rearranging their hotel room to suit their needs without speaking. They don’t need to talk and don’t seem to want to but they remain with each other even when they’re apart, one of them trying to write (but mostly drinking), the other hiding in their room in despair, gazing out at the view, gazing at the fisherman who returns to the sea each day. Never in a rush, BY THE SEA settles into this vacation from the world and the days seem to go by in a blur, one spilling into the next. For a while the two of them remain defiant in their quiet hostility towards each other and what they once were, Roland insisting “I was a fucking writer” almost defensively as if to remind himself but also because he knows that Vanessa is waiting to spit back at him that he’s more of a drunk now. And she has even less than that—she even answers a question of what she does since she stopped dancing by simply saying, “nothing” and there’s nothing to replace it for her so even the smallest tasks, leaving their hotel room for a few minutes to walk down that ‘ridiculous hill’ for groceries, seem monumentally absurd to her.
As director of the script that she wrote, Angelina Jolie Pitt doesn’t film the movie as an extension of what her character sees and she isn’t simply playing an alter ego, not in the way that any number of famous star/directors we can think of might. It’s a woman who has nothing to say to anyone but the barest of pleasantries, staying so inside her own bubble that she’s baffled by the strange new sensations of the sounds and smells of where they are. Unlike her, the film itself seems curious about everyone and has a fondness towards them, like that young girl smiling at Vanessa in the grocery store or the charming old couple who tell Roland they’ve been together over fifty years, wanting to simply observe and hold on them for a few extra seconds, quietly luxuriating in the moments of the day. The direction is always alert to these characters, the camera always seems to know where it should be to observe them and there’s a discipline to it, an economy to what shots are held as if it knows when we should keep our distance. The environment all around the hotel is completely tangible to us, the welcoming vibe of the café on the water where Roland spends much of his time or even the fetishizing of their accessories like Roland’s red portable typewriter, clashing with all the more soothing color schemes around them as if an alert from the outside world of what he’s not doing while having gin for breakfast. UNBROKEN, Jolie Pitt’s previous film as director, felt noble but also a little anonymous and maybe held back on where the true drama in the story’s redemption lay. In comparison BY THE SEA always feels thoughtfully elegant in its choices, with a pacing that almost feels musical at times. There’s a deliberate feel to how long the shots are held with editing by Martin Pensa and Patricia Rommel that plays as languid and tight all at once as shots go from one to the next, sometimes lingering when necessary, and a day is gone before we realize it. For a film that seemed to be received as nothing more than an ego trip or vanity project there’s truth in its pain, even if it’s a glamorous pain ready to drift off in an alcoholic haze of the afternoon sun that doesn’t make the hurt go away.
On one level BY THE SEA might be a goof, a kick, nothing more than a dream of being in the world of L’AVVENTURA or CONTEMPT seen through scope imagery thanks to cinematographer Christian Berger who revels in the lusciousness of this tiny bay hidden away from the world. Along with the celluloid ennui to make us think of Elizabeth Taylor & Richard Burton in their late 60s yachting-around-the-world prime (embarrassing admission: I’ve never actually seen BOOM! but have somehow made it all the way to the end of THE VIPs) there’s also, somewhat surprisingly, a certain amount of WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? in its portrayal of games between two married couples and of the specific secrets that get revealed. It’s almost a version of VIRGINIA WOOLF not written by Edward Albee or set in academia but somewhere off in the Mediterranean in that late 60s Liz & Dick world although in this case we’re the only ones who find out the secret that the two leads already know. The other couple is much more incidental in this film because these secrets are just for Roland and Vanessa, the sort of things you only find out about somebody past midnight and it sets them apart from the rest of the world. There’s some of Woody Allen’s ANOTHER WOMAN in the basic plot as well (the Blu-ray special features include a visit to Gena Rowlands by the lead couple to receive her blessing, no doubt because of the Cassavetes connection but her lead role in that film certainly comes to mind) and even a slight Hitchcock vibe, not just in the peering next door reminiscent of PSYCHO but in the always careful placing of point of view, particularly through that peephole or even how Jolie Pitt places the hotel and cafe always in relation to each other in the frame, continually keeping the two leads together when all they want to do is stay apart.
But while it luxuriates in those similarities it never forgets that the film is not about simple homage but the escalating tensions that Vanessa is instigating and Roland is trying to avoid. The film manages the tightrope of being that goof and also acknowledging the pain, aware of the loss that has happened, the reaching for some form of happiness that may never come. As CONTEMPT turned into a commentary on Bardot’s beauty, this film gets closer to the female lead in a way that one couldn’t since, after all, Godard wasn’t Bardot and it’s as if Jolie is laying bare the mechanics of her beauty in each close-up. She watches these two normal people (I don’t know how ‘normal’ Mélanie Laurent is, but I guess in this context…) next door without stopping, maybe with fascination, maybe with terror, maybe with hatred, as if they’re a strange lifeforce she’s never encountered. The obsessiveness in her unblinking expression while watching them also brings a surprising wit to it at times—more than expected, it’s a genuinely funny film in a deadpan way, even down to very slight gestures by characters and bits such as the dryness in Roland and Vanessa’s “I’m blowing you a kiss” patter. Plus the bolt of energy the film receives as we see the two of them primp to get ready for their dinner with the other couple, waiting to ply them with liquor, finally a reason for Vanessa to make herself look as good as she can look. Out of nowhere, they’re coming to life as much as the film does, for once they have a reason to become the couple we’ve been waiting to see.
Roland calls Vanessa his inspiration, of course he does, adjusting her glasses that she’s carelessly tossed down as if trying to fix some small part of her. He seems to say it half-jokingly but finally realizes that’s what she really is, while being glamorous and miserable, beautiful and despondent, the past always flashing through her head. “You resist happiness, you’re a good woman,” he tells her and, of course, all of this is the last thing she wants to hear. They shut out everything around them, they’re not even certain of the date of their anniversary, speaking of a past that has been forgotten, finally finding commonality in their tiny power over the purely innocent, uncomplicated happiness of the couple next door who they can spy on and mess with. They’re not turned on so much by watching the other couple make love but how it’s finally something they can share. For once, they don’t have to be alone. It brings them closer together but only so much and eventually they have to really face each other, face her sorrow, face why he can’t confront it. What gets revealed to us near the end is maybe too easy of a revelation in the sense that if you’re trying to guess what the horrible secret is you might be right but on the other hand it doesn’t have to be more than that since what finally gets spoken out loud is simply what it is, devastating to the two of them who know the truth. The film doesn’t hold back the emotion when it counts, in small and large moments, and is never embarrassed to go to those places. Life goes on. Things hurt. Some people always have someone next to them. Some don’t. Some people can move on from pain. Some get destroyed. It’s hard to look at the very last image of BY THE SEA and not think that maybe Angelina Jolie Pitt is saying something about her own marriage but in the context of just the film it’s a reminder of how much it can mean to have someone reaching out to you with a small piece of understanding even as they know you through all your pain and cruelty as they try to help you back to shore, no one else in the world mattering. And that counts for something.
The chemistry between the two leads is natural and unforced, no real surprise—there’s an uncluttered feel to most of their scenes together, even if there are times when it’s a little like Pitt is doing this to do the film with his wife more than anything else, not that there’s anything wrong with that. His pain is felt and vulnerability comes through more than almost ever before but it’s at a slight remove as if he knows that he’s doing Michel Piccoli in CONTEMPT doing Dean Martin in SOME CAME RUNNING. As an actor Pitt seems instinctive, here playing someone trying to stay in control while Jolie as actress keeps in control while playing someone totally instinctive. She’s the one who really inhabits her role, shutting out the world from the vulnerability she wants to keep hidden at all costs while at times scoping out the other person as if contemplating draining them of their blood like she’s Delphine Seyrig in DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS. She’s aware of how she looks and how much of that is a construct as she puts herself together. Just as Clint Eastwood has always known how to frame himself in the most iconic way possible she does the same when the focus is on her (maybe something she learned when Eastwood directed her in CHANGELING), even tweaking her screen presence at times away from that movie star-ness in a way similar to how he’s done it over the years. It makes her more interesting as an actress here than she’s been allowed to be in most of her films from the past decade which is maybe why some of them have been so boring—it turns out the best director for Angelina Jolie is Angelina Jolie. Mélanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud come off just as callow as they should be, playing the younger pair living in their own private well-off bubble, not yet aware of all the pain that’s out there in the world. As the café owner who has to deal with the hard-drinking writer who keeps coming by, Niels Arestrup gives the film its kindly soul and conscience, staring at the photo he keeps of his late wife and calmly waiting things out in this gentle oasis until he can finally join her.
We don’t get what we want. Things are kept quiet. Things explode. Entire worlds end and no one else in the room knows it. Maybe I need a vacation, but I’m here. Just here. Dreaming of being somewhere else, maybe off in Europe, maybe a little day drinking, sitting by the water while trying to write and trying to avoid writing about certain people. I feel like I’m stuck between not wanting to live in the past and being haunted by it. The thing about BY THE SEA is part of it is how much I want to live vicariously through it for my own reasons and part of it is being faced with that view out the window, facing that depression, that feeling when there’s nothing else. We have bad people in our lives sometimes. But we love them anyway. Sometimes we wake up and realize that we’re one of those people. And then we have to press on, even if we’re never really sure how to do that.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

The Details Of This Moment

Nobody likes realizing that they’re only a supporting character at best in someone’s life. It hurts. You don’t matter as much as you thought you did and that’s just the way it goes. Suddenly you’re a lead character in a completely different story and maybe it’s one where you’re not as cool as you were pretending to be. And deep down maybe the greatest fear is that you’re not going to be remembered anyway, even as just a supporting character. THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN is a film that no one remembers these days except maybe as a curiosity, an odd duck that Elizabeth Taylor made without Richard Burton, the only thing Warren Beatty made between BONNIE AND CLYDE and McCABE & MRS. MILLER. It’s the final film directed by George Stevens who in his heyday made classics from SWING TIME to SHANE and had one of the most harrowing experiences of any of the Hollywood directors who served during World War II as can be read about in Mark Harris’ fine book “Five Came Back”. It’s one of those films from around 1970 caught between generations, the old guard fading away and the New Hollywood emerging which Beatty was such a key figure of. It also has that undefinable feel certain films from this period have for me, as if they were made on a film stock or shot with lenses that give them the vibe of an odd hallucination that you hope to wake up from—maybe it’s the bland color schemes, maybe it’s something about the fashions which have gone a step too far from the coolness of the late 60s and now have the musty feel of something I would spot way in the back of my mother’s closet some years later.
Taken by itself, THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN is a love story about two losers. It’s also a film about two movie stars playing those losers who are mismatched playing two people who are mismatched, with acting styles from two different periods as they try to figure each other out in every shot they’re framed in together. And, yes, sometimes we find ourselves next to that sort of person in real life without knowing what to do next. THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN can’t even be said to have a bad rep these days since barely anyone out there has heard of the film, let alone seen it (from what I can tell it received a very early VHS release on Magnetic Video—look for it on Ebay—then never again until a Blu-ray a few years ago plus some airings on the Fox Movie Channel) and maybe it was a disaster back then but since no one remembers it anyway, I can’t help but think that the film has something, a yearning within its own clumsiness and odd unreality which makes it weirdly affecting now, at least for me.
Fran Walker (Elizabeth Taylor) is a showgirl living alone in Las Vegas, waiting and hoping for the return of her married lover who after continually promising to leave his wife hasn’t been heard from for several months. Late one night she wanders into a bar for a pizza where she meets cocktail pianist Joe Grady (Warren Beatty) and takes him home with her. Joe is also a compulsive gambler just trying to make enough so he can get out of town and though things are tense between them they soon fall for each other. Fran gets an early look at how fast Joe can gamble all his money away but he soon moves in with the mutual promise of no strings attached. But when Thomas (Charles Braswell), the man Fran’s been waiting for, finally reappears having gotten the divorce he’s been promising for so long Fran has a decision to make while Joe focuses on finally winning that five grand so he can make it to New York.
For a film that has so many scenes made up of simply two people talking in a small apartment THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN has a surprising amount of peripheral details that linger, whether Beatty’s nitpicky behavior or even the sterile falseness of the sets. After a burst of fanfare from the Maurice Jarre score, the opening credits segue into an oddly dreamlike series of shots as Elizabeth Taylor walks alone through the streets of Vegas after another night of working as a showgirl. There’s an unexplained beat where a passing car seems to shout something at her (we don’t hear what) then she walks past a ringing phone in a nearby booth which she almost goes to answer, as if hoping a certain someone will be on the other end, but then stops because why bother? A few scenes later she returns home to another ringing phone which she doesn’t get to in time, as if that unseen caller has been following her across town. Maybe because it feels so sealed away from the outside world, there’s an unreal air to much of THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN that almost makes it more compelling, a film set in a world of missed phone calls, a life of waiting for that right person to finally get back to you in the middle of the night. And the unreality of the pairing of Taylor and Beatty, with close to two hours of somehow trying to convince us that they’re right for each other, largely set in a single tiny apartment with a backdrop out the window looking surprisingly detailed but never at all convincing.
Although set in Las Vegas, THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN was actually shot mostly in Paris, something Taylor’s star power at the time could still demand since Richard Burton was also there co-starring in Stanley Donen’s STAIRCASE which, like ONLY GAME,was produced by Twentieth Century Fox. The resulting film cost around $11 million which would probably be a lot now for a two character piece mostly filmed on one set (not that studios are making this sort of thing these days) let alone how outlandish it must have been in 1970. Taylor was reuniting with Stevens who had directed her in the inarguable classics A PLACE IN THE SUN and GIANT with Frank Sinatra originally set to co-star, which sounds like a considerably different film, maybe more believable but also a pairing somewhere apart from cold reality. Whatever that end result would have been, Taylor & Beatty seem like an odd match in comparison which adds to the odd feel of much of the film so the awkward pauses as they get to know each other wind up making perfect sense. The idea of these stars making a film during ’68-’69 in Paris (there were around ten days of location work actually in Vegas at the end of the shoot) with Burton nearby actually seems like an interesting idea for a film itself and THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN might not be quite as intriguing as film sounds it’s still strangely compelling; unreal in a number of ways, maybe to its detriment, but somehow never lifeless.
Written by Frank D. Gilroy (Pulitzer Prize winner for the play “The Subject Was Roses” and a Dartmouth alum as my sister would want me to mention, although I’m going to take a wild guess she’s never seen this film) and based on his play which ran a total of 16 performances on Broadway, not counting previews, it doesn’t try that much to disguise those origins so naturally some of the scenes where we leave the apartment feel a little extraneous. It’s a film starring two people who have always been famous for being famous as much as being movie stars playing what almost seems like alternate loser versions of themselves, each of them waiting for something which seems forever elusive and it sets them down in a few small rooms as if the movie is trying to come up with things for them to talk about and figure all this out, Beatty’s Joe needling Fran, Taylor’s Fran rendered speechless by his behavior. It says something that even in its oddly phony way THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN is never a dull film to look at and visually speaking knows how to keep them facing off against each other, no matter how many times she tells him to get out. It gets that awkwardness, that loneliness of late at night, that need to matter to the other person in the room, the dream of being able to smoke in bed knowing there’s someone next to you. This version of Las Vegas, at least the real stuff we get to see, seems mostly made up of casinos and wedding chapels and fortune tellers, everything a reminder that love is cheap in this place, dreams are cheap. We’re kept away from this world for the most part, trapped in Fran’s apartment directed by Stevens as if he’s still composing his shots for 1952 in a black & white world where that fake skyline out the window wouldn’t have been such a big deal.
Vincent Canby’s March 1970 review in the New York Times is pretty brutal comparing the odd scale of the film to “trying to outfit a leaky Central Park rowboat for a celebrity cruise through the Greek islands” and a little cruel to Taylor’s physical appearance as well, saying she resembles “an apple balanced atop a pair of toothpicks.” He does, however, point out that the script is “not necessarily dishonest” which in this context has to be taken as praise. And THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN does have something, maybe in the material and its often sharp dialogue, maybe just in the way it lingers on the details, the speeches that go on way too long. Maybe consistent with how Taylor’s character reacts towards him, Beatty seems a little like he’s wandered onto the set by accident and has decided to stick around out of pure curiosity. Somehow his performance feels like one of his most vulnerable yet also at times plays like an intellectual exercise as if he doesn’t know what he’s doing there any more than the character he’s playing does--whether or not his bursting into “Some Enchanted Evening” at one point was scripted it plays loose, like he just started doing it at the end of a bunch of takes. Throughout Beatty seems intrigued by the material with the occasional flip, scooby-dooby-doo dialogue he has seeming like a remnant of Sinatra’s involvement while at the same time trying to make the part his own as opposed to Taylor who at times seems like she’s just waiting to spit out whatever she has to say with as much anguish as possible. Reportedly turning down BUTCH CASSIDY right around this time, Beatty seems to have taken the project for the chance to work with Stevens more than anything else saying, “I always thought that it was one of the most sensible decisions I had made because I got the chance to work with George…ultimately it was more rewarding to me to have made a sort of unsuccessful picture with him.” Whatever he took away from the experience, and it would be fascinating to hear him elaborate on it, it’s probably the best reason why when the likes of EASY RIDER were all the rage and he was fiddling with Robert Towne over the very earliest versions of what became SHAMPOO (a film which would ultimately take place when ONLY GAME was being shot) he was off in Paris fumbling with a fishing pole in front of a fake-looking rear projection screen, nothing in this material to indicate why so much time was spent on it beyond the people involved.
According an interview with Stevens, Mia Farrow became a possibility to take over as the female lead after Sinatra dropped out and Beatty came on board. That may actually have been a little too similar to Peter Yates’ JOHN AND MARY (also not an uninteresting film) which Farrow co-starred in with Dustin Hoffman around this time but the pairing may have seemed a little more grounded in reality. On the other hand, there’s something about THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN which, intentionally or not, makes realism not entirely necessary, which adds to the melancholy and how much the characters seem almost blissfully unaware of the outside world. We’re told that Fran is only three years older than Joe, less than it was in real life, but something about their behavior adds to that—Taylor is presumably playing younger but Beatty plays the role as if he’s more a part of that older world which becomes something they have in common, trading off song lyrics from standards to each other as well as admitting to liking old movies—in one of an number of odd asides, Taylor mentions that she likes Bogart because “he’s so ugly.” And it really is a two person show since the few other speaking parts are really glorified bits with the exception of Charles Braswell (mostly stage credits including doing MAME and COMPANY on Broadway) as Fran’s boyfriend who displays such little presence he comes off as a generic “Businessman #2” type they randomly decided to give a few lines to.
However different they are, each star’s presence goes well with the deliberateness in Stevens’ direction throughout as if he wants to gradually force them together. The film is never in a rush which at some points works better than others leading to an odd rhythm to the editing at times particularly during a few montages where it plays like the film is going for a mod vibe which doesn’t seem right and it feels out of step, cutaways to money being spent by the two of them, money being earned, won, lost, to airplanes taking off, as if it’s trying too hard not to seem like an ‘old man’s film’. Many of the long dialogue scenes in the apartment flow correctly even when the transitions are almost a touch too languid but at other times there’s way too much shoe leather, seeming like whole minutes of one of them silently walking from one end of the apartment to the other or the amount of time spent watching Beatty at the craps table. The pacing remains deliberate, with no particular urgency ever given to the dialogue and one scene where Taylor phones Beatty as her boyfriend sits nearby almost approaches surrealism in how it gets dragged out. There’s also a brief supermarket scene (presumably filmed in Vegas, but I guess with this film who knows) which doesn’t serve much purpose other than to get us out of the apartment for a few extra minutes but has its own value as pure documentary, as we imagine the last time these two starts ever set foot inside a grocery store with Beatty in particular seeming like an alien visitor to this planet, hoping that no one catches on to him. There are a few other times when he glances at extras as if trying to somehow understand them and I’m not always sure how much it has to do with the character he’s allegedly playing but the body language becomes fascinating all by itself.
During the supermarket section and a few scenes that follow Beatty wears an extremely goofy-looking fishing hat that does a pretty good job of covering his face as if he’s thinking ‘maybe they’ll forget I’m in the movie’ or daring someone on the set to tell him to take it off. I’ve seen ISHTAR enough times by now to recognize that he wears a nearly identical hat and jacket at one point in that film so maybe it’s some sort of in-joke supplied by Elaine May there but it’s also another film in which Warren Beatty, of all people, is basically playing a loser. At one point Fran says that Joe is ‘average’ at the piano, nothing special, which her returning boyfriend seems to interpret as him being a loser. In some ways THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN is about being average, being a loser, whether you’re doing any good at the craps tables or not, and maybe being able to accept that if the right person is there with you. When her boyfriend insists on whisking her away at a moment’s notice she protests when he says she can’t take her stuff with her—this has been her life, after all. Maybe not much of one but it’s meant something, even if it's been spent sitting in this apartment which for her has been the whole world.
The film is maybe at its best when trapped in that space, not trying to be part of the outside world, in a year where other Fox releases included MASH, BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS and MYRA BRECKINRIDGE. Since it seems out of step for 1970 (I imagine), it winds up playing pretty well in 2016, even if it doesn’t really seem part of now either. And much as the film can’t hide its stage roots it never feels tossed off, playing like a three way struggle between a director trying to make it art, a lead actor who is almost doing the opposite of what’s expected of him and a lead actress who seems on the verge of rage that she’s being asked to do another take. She hits the emotion at the right moments in her performance but never really seems like anything other than the mental image of late 60s Liz Taylor. Near the beginning we famously get a brief series of shots of Fran ‘working’ as a showgirl in an elaborate Vegas revue, giving us a pair of unconvincing close-ups that won’t fool anyone and even the very first seconds of the film feature her waking up in a bedroom that is believably dark and disheveled but looking like she just got out of a makeup trailer stocked with a decent supply of vodka.
At one point Fran insists to Joe on how frugal she lives even though we’ve already seen multiple rings on her fingers making me think of the entries in Richard Burton’s published diaries (highly recommended) from around this time where he writes about her, forever compulsively. He admits to jealousy of Beatty during the filming but also at one point while musing on Taylor’s health issues wonders, “Elizabeth’s endless operations are the natural successors of indifferent eating and drinking habits and no exercise at all, or are they?” No matter how affecting her work here is at certain moments, that’s the woman we’re seeing, sitting around waiting for her boyfriend like he’s Burton returning from location in Prague or, even worse, waiting for MGM to call and tell her that the old studio days are back on again, framed in big close-ups with soft focus. She never looks bad, she just looks like late 60s Elizabeth Taylor so she never looks very much like a Vegas showgirl.
The film is compelling at least partly because of the odd anti-chemistry between the two leads but there still isn't quite enough plot to warrant the roughly 110 minute running time. It always seems fixed on revealing the characters in ways that presumably originated on the stage----a prolonged speech at the end telling us what we didn’t get to see involving how Joe’s gambling addiction is resolved pretty much arrives at the same conclusion Robert Altman’s CALIFORNIA SPLIT did a few years later without all that dialogue only here it feels abstract in its wordiness, a happy ending that comes out of nowhere. On the other hand, another long speech Beatty has near the end involving a crystal ball may be slightly purple in what it expresses but in its own ungainly way the film has earned these moments. Maybe these are just two characters who come off as so stubborn that I want them to reach some sort of understanding. I’ve watched this film several times, getting drawn into it, getting annoyed with it, at times fascinated and thinking about how much I’m reading my own bizarrely personal connections to what it tries to say. It’s affecting in its uncertainty and clumsiness, of how it doesn’t deny the sadness, of people groping for things to say for so long that it turns into a meaningful speech almost by chance.
Then again, maybe I just like films about men and women dealing with each other while crammed into a tiny space, even ones like this which seem slightly divorced from reality. I feel a little divorced from reality these days anyway and because of that THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN may only be good to me in an odd, unexplainable way, but I’m glad it’s there even if it means I stay up later and later at night watching movies like this, wishing I had the right sort of courage to change things and wondering how average it all means I am…or worse. The final moments are about closing your eyes to take the leap for something and the film seems to say to let that idea sink it, then open your eyes for the truth. I’m not sure how much I believe in that sort of happy ending these days, maybe because too often what it represents feels like the kind of ending that never really happens. Which is usually the case when you’re stuck as a supporting character.