Archive for David Wingrove

Forbidden Divas: May I Use Your Ocean?

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on July 10, 2019 by dcairns

David Melville Wingrove returns with another, and particularly extreme, shameful pleasure from the more disreputable vaults of film history…

FORBIDDEN DIVAS

May I Use Your Ocean?

“I’ve never had cheap sex before. I was sort of looking forward to it.”

–          Lily Tomlin to John Travolta, Moment by Moment

“We all have ideas,” says Lily Tomlin’s gal pal several aeons into the trash classic Moment by Moment (1978). “Sometimes the real talent is knowing not to do anything with them.” At some point in the late 70s, producer Robert Stigwood had the idea of casting his hot young discovery John Travolta in a steamy tale of intergenerational romance with the alternative comedienne and would-be film star Lily Tomlin. The movie was written and directed on a vast budget by Tomlin’s life and production partner Jane Wagner, who had never directed a movie before and has – oddly enough – never directed another movie since. The result was a critical and box-office bomb of apocalyptic proportions, one that almost ended the careers of everybody involved with it only a few years after they began. What is astonishing to realise today is that…yes, Moment by Moment actually is as bad as critics and audiences in the 70s thought it was. That being said, it is still a vastly more enjoyable movie than Saturday Night Fever or Grease.

In a truly inspired stroke of miscasting, the sassy and sparky Tomlin plays a bored and blasé Beverly Hills housewife who is starting to find her life a bit empty. OK, she drives a stylish silver-grey Mercedes and owns a palatial beach house in Malibu that is exquisitely decorated in stripped pine and muted tones of white and beige. (It boasts the single best fireplace I have ever seen in any film.) She has an adorable white Maltese dog called Scamp – who gives the most assured and convincing performance in the film by a long chalk – and spends her time shopping at Gucci and Hermès and other fancy stores along Rodeo Drive. But truly, what is life when one is lonely and neglected and unloved? Lily’s husband, a construction tycoon, is boffing a girl young enough to be their daughter. Her name is Stacy and she resembles a giant animatronic Barbie doll. Poor bereft Lily breaks down in tears every time she thinks about it; be warned that she appears to think of very little else. But it has never occurred to her (incredibly) that she might commit any sexual indiscretion of her own.

One afternoon, she goes into Schwab’s Drugstore to buy some sleeping pills. As she does not have a prescription, the pharmacist refuses to give her any. It seems she is the one person in the whole of Beverly Hills who cannot simply bribe a doctor and get an unlimited stash of pills on demand. Suddenly, a handsome young street hustler comes bounding up and offers her some. He follows her out to the beach house and they soon become lovers. He is played by John Travolta and his name is Strip. The name of Lily’s character, by the way, is Trish. All the characters in Moment by Moment have names so determinedly cool and casual that you long to meet somebody called Euphemia or Marmaduke, if only for the sake of a little diversity. But in fairness ‘Strip’ is an eminently sensible name for this young man; that is pretty much all he does for the length of the entire movie. Virtually every scene in Moment by Moment involves John Travolta stripping down to a pair of skimpy briefs. I can think of no other non-pornographic film in which the hero wears so little without also yodelling and swinging through the jungle on a vine.

It is clear from the outset that Trish and Strip are made for each other. The two lovers sport an identical unisex haircut and you keep expecting them to remark that they both go to the same stylist, so how is it they have never met before? That would be a considerable improvement on anything they do say. The dialogue in Moment by Moment does not seem to have been written so much as improvised by members of the Andy Warhol Factory on a day when the drugs were running low. Whole stretches go by in which one lover utters a non sequitur and the other repeats it back dumbly. “Do you belong to the Automobile Club?” asks Trish when Strip’s car breaks down. In a flash of rapier wit, he answers: “Do I look like I belong to the Automobile Club?” When the lovers eat lunch on the veranda of the beach house, Strip asks Trish meaningfully: “Is that tuna?” Overpowered by his romantic badinage, she replies: “Yes, it’s tuna.” It might be amusing to stretch out a conversation like this for an hour or even a whole day. But midway through Moment by Moment, you feel as if you already have.

Nothing in the film can compete, for sheer hilarity, with the scene where Strip shows up at the beach house and asks Trish if he can use her ocean. She loves him, of course. But she feels self-conscious about him too. Not about the gaping gulf between his and her socio-economic status, but about the wide gap in their ages. One afternoon, a friend drops by for a visit and Strip comes in with some groceries. Trish is abashed and pretends he is the delivery boy. In another cringe-making scene, she takes Strip as her date to an exhibition of ‘Footography’ that consists of a gallery lined with photos of people’s feet. To be honest, I can think of far worse artistic concepts and at least a dozen of them seem to be in this movie. Trish is mortified when he takes two glasses of champagne off a tray at the same time. When the glitterati start to stare, he ditches her and storms off into the night. We pass the time by wondering exactly who Moment by Moment was ever made for? I can think of no audience for it apart from adolescent girls and middle-aged gay men. At no point does it seem like the brainchild of a high-powered lesbian couple.

The critic Boyd McDonald wrote of Robert Ryan that he was one of the few actors who could convincingly play a heterosexual. On the basis of their work in Moment by Moment, neither Tomlin nor Travolta is in any danger of challenging him for the title. Moaning about the woodwork in her home, Trish’s pal remarks: “Cedar always looks like a big empty closet.” Dare I say the closet in this movie appears to be bursting at the seams?

David Melville

Forbidden Divas: A Lousy Kind of Love

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 25, 2019 by dcairns

I’ve been blessed with a trio of great guest-Shadowplayers this week — third up is regular contributor David Wingrove, celebrating the divine Kim N. ~

FORBIDDEN DIVAS

A Lousy Kind of Love

“Everybody was always sleeping at my house. That’s the one thing I’ll always remember. Everybody was always sleeping.”

–         Kim Novak, Middle of the Night

At a booze-fuelled New Year’s Eve shindig somewhere in upstate New York, one overdressed matron turns to Kim Novak and says: “You’re a very attractive young woman.” The understatement is so glaring that it provides a rare moment of hilarity in Middle of the Night (1959) a film that is otherwise quite relentlessly glum. Here as in most of her films, Kim Novak has a quality that is almost translucent – like a Classical Grecian head carved exquisitely on a priceless antique cameo. If she has a limitation as an actress, it is that she is just too luminously beautiful to play a woman who is in any way plain or ordinary or dull. It is no accident that her most successful roles – and the ones audiences remember – show her as haunted by some queer and otherworldly presence. The witch who longs to be a mortal in Bell, Book and Candle (1958) or the girl who may be a ghost in Vertigo (1958) or the starlet possessed by a dead movie queen in The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968).

The whole point of Kim Novak is that she is not quite real. Yet there she is on a screen just in front of us. It is enough to make you believe dreams do come true, after all. So whose idea was it to cast her as a dowdy secretary – lonely, divorced and embittered – suffering through a May-December romance with her much-older boss (Fredric March)? The script delineates him repeatedly as 56 (!) but he and the other characters carry on as if he were well into his eighties and reliant on life support. Kim gives the role her considerable all and turns in a jittery, nervy and overemphatic performance. She suggests a Vogue cover girl who has been required, in the middle of a shoot, to play Nora in A Doll’s House. Her work is never embarrassing but, on a scale of conviction, it ranks somewhere between Michelle Pfeiffer as a frumpy greasy spoon waitress in Frankie and Johnny (1991) and Catherine Deneuve as a grimy Mid-Western factory worker in Dancer in the Dark (2000). An audience can only resent these women in their futile attempts to look ordinary. Most of us can do that more than adequately for ourselves.

Middle of the Night is based on a Broadway play by Paddy Chayefsky – who was, in the 50s, a sort of Tennessee Williams for socially conscious New York Jewish heterosexuals. March plays a wealthy businessman in the Garment District who has recently lost his wife. He is bored by his domineering and over-protective sister and his materialistic, rather vulgar offspring. He is irritated beyond endurance by his business partner (Albert Dekker) who boasts relentlessly about his sexual exploits with “tootsies.” Of course, Dekker has a secret. (Is there anyone in a Chayefsky play who does not have a secret?) That secret is revealed portentously towards the end of the film. This self-styled ladies’ man is, in fact, impotent. This being the 50s, the dialogue puts it rather more coyly: “I haven’t been good for a woman for two years.” All this palpable middle-aged angst is used as ‘motivation’ for the fact that March feels irresistible attracted to his young secretary. Does a man actually require motivation to feel attracted to Kim Novak? Some might say that all he requires is a pulse. Failing that, an artificial pacemaker will do just as well.

As the secretary, Kim tries her damnedest to look like someone’s idea of an everyday working girl. The credits reveal that her plain and sensible wardrobe was specially designed for her by Jean Louis. That is an indication of just how well she succeeds. Being a Chayefsky character, she has had no end of pain in her own life. She is recovering from a disastrous three-year marriage to a jazz musician. Although the script is too decorous to say so, it is clear their mutual attraction was based entirely on Sex. (Tennessee Williams would have made him a truck-driver or a dock-worker and posed him provocatively in a tight-fitting string vest, but Chayefsky has no flair for eroticism of any sort. A dash of Raw Sex might actually stop his characters yacking for five minutes.) Having been so badly bruised emotionally, Kim is all too vulnerable to the attentions of this adoring older man. She enters into an affair with March – but more as a relief, it seems, than as any sort of erotic awakening. To his considerable amazement, she accepts his proposal of marriage.

Incredibly enough, Kim’s mother (Glenda Farrell) turns out to be the only working-class mother in captivity who objects to her daughter marrying a kindly and courteous older man with lots of money. She urges her to dump March and go back to her penniless, two-timing musician. Why? Chayefsky’s pretensions to gritty realism are hollow at the best of times – but this particular piece of dramaturgy reveals what a fundamentally absurd writer he is. Kim gets the same argument from her best friend, who is played by Lee Grant in one of her first movie roles. Lee Grant is by no means a more gifted screen actress than Kim Novak. She is simply more adept at playing Paddy Chayefsky’s brand of highly polished, impeccably crafted junk. Nobody could ever make a silent film out of a Chayefsky play. Like that of Neil Simon (his comedic alter ego) his work consists of dialogue and nothing but. Yet Novak, like Garbo, has the ability to convey more with a mute flicker of an eyebrow than most actors with a full-blown Shakespeare solo. She slogs her way dutifully through this thick verbal porridge, like Garbo in the film of Anna Christie (1930).

It is not entirely a surprise when Kim – assailed by self-doubts and brow-beating from her family circle – gives in to temptation and has a one-night stand with her no-good ex-husband. She makes the mistake of telling March (again, why?) and he takes the news rather badly.  He tells the poor girl that hers is “a lousy kind of love.” Having been adapted with painful fidelity by Chayefsky himself, the script splits their relationship into easily digestible dramatic chunks. The lovers go from fancying one another (Act One) to adoring one another madly (Act Two) to being unable to stand the sight one another (Act Three) with barely a hint of transition in between. That is the way plays work. Alas, it is the way films do not. The director Delbert Mann (who won an Oscar for his 1955 film of Chayefsky’s Marty) dishes it all up with stifling reverence – as if it were Strindberg, at the very least.  It takes an acute visual sense to make a successful film of a stage play, as David Lean did with Blithe Spirit (1945) or Alain Resnais did with Mélo (1986). Judging from his work here, Mann seems to lack any visual sense of any sort.

Alfred Hitchcock, who immortalised Kim Novak a year before in Vertigo, complained famously that most movies are just “photographs of people talking.” It’s too bad that Middle of the Night is barely even that.

David Melville

Forbidden Divas: A Villain in the Villa or A Room with a Screw

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 8, 2017 by dcairns

David Wingrove’s back! With another Forbidden Diva piece, although, as he put it to me, “Perhaps it’s not really a ‘diva’ movie (Margaret Johnston and Dulcie Gray, anyone?) but the director Leslie Arliss seems like a candidate!” Now read on ~

A Villain in the Villa or A Room with a Screw

“It might be good to have a man about the house.”

– Margaret Johnston, A Man about the House

Do you adore films where genteel Victorian ladies feel their hearts start to throb with genteel and tumultuous passions? Do you revel in swarthy Latin seducers, their dark curls aglow with Brylcreem, their bronze torsos a-glisten with spray-on studio sweat? Do you yearn, above all, to travel to exotic back-projected locales where roistering peasants stomp riotously – the strains of a wild tarantella – on vast and overflowing vats of grapes? Or where palatial villas cling precariously to a cliff-edge, while the waves pound orgasmically, over and over, on the rocks below?

If you answered ‘yes’ to any of the above, A Man about the House (1947) may well be some sort of High Camp Holy Grail.

Two demure Victorian sisters (Margaret Johnston and Dulcie Gray) have been forced to live in ‘reduced circumstances’ and run a girls’ school in the wilds of suburban London. We experience their horror as their pupils play bum notes on the piano and, occasionally, use an incorrect form of the subjunctive! One day they receive an inheritance from their eccentric and long-vanished Uncle Ludovic, who moved to Italy and became “an artist” – and whose name cannot be mentioned in polite circles. (The exact nature of his offence is left to our imagination; perhaps not a great deal is needed.) This inheritance includes a large sum of money and a plush, if slightly dilapidated villa on a cliff-top outside Naples.

The two ladies make the journey down in inclement weather. They are still swathed in dour mourning black, not for their uncle – Heaven forbid! – but for their father, who has also recently died. Their names, by the way, are Agnes and Ellen Isit. This is pronounced EYES IT and not IS IT, which is a bit of a letdown. Personally, I can think of few things more fun than being named after an existential conundrum. The starchy and severe Agnes (Johnston) brings along her Scotch terrier; the sweet and rather fragile Ellen (Gray) brings her large and lazy tabby cat. Their train pulls into Naples as the rain pours down in torrents. Agnes is outraged to see that the stop has been marked NAPOLI. “Why can’t they call it Naples,” she sputters, “as we do?” She is the proud embodiment of a Little Englander abroad. No doubt Nigel Farage would find a use for her special talents.

But a stranger is waiting on the platform. A tall, dashing and vaguely sinister Italian named Salvatore. He was the uncle’s general factotum at the villa; he has come to welcome the ladies to their new home. Exactly what his relationship with Uncle Ludovic may have been is left, politely, to our imagination. We can hazard a guess when Ellen – on her first morning at the villa – unveils one of the late uncle’s paintings, which was shrouded in a heavy velvet curtain. It is an image of Salvatore, fully nude, in the homoerotic guise of the Great God Pan. Unusually for a portrait in movies, it is filmed strictly from the waist up. We see Salvatore’s nude and muscular chest, his impish and rather perverse smile, the twist of roses and vine-leaves in his lustrous black hair. The sisters may only have just met him, but we can tell – from the look of frozen shock on their faces – that they have got to know this man rather well.

As played by the swoonily handsome Kieron Moore, Salvatore is the one Italian in captivity who speaks in Neapolitan dialect with an Irish brogue. Moore is best remembered today for the disaster that all but destroyed his career, his pallid turn as Count Vronsky in the 1948 remake of Anna Karenina opposite an exquisite but rather bored-looking Vivien Leigh. In fairness, not a great deal can be done with a role like Vronsky – but the lovely Moore failed to do even that. Yet he was an up-and-coming heart-throb in British films of the 40s. Leslie Arliss, who wrote and directed A Man about the House, cast him a number of times. The leading auteur of bodice-ripping Gainsborough romances, Arliss had previously made a star of James Mason (The Night Has Eyes, The Wicked Lady) and Stewart Granger (The Man in Grey, Love Story). It is safe to say he was a connoisseur of dark and brooding male beauty.

It does not take long to work out that Salvatore is up to no good. His ancestors were a dynasty of feckless aristocrats; they once owned the land the villa is built on. Quite naturally, he feels the whole place is his by right. Our main element of suspense is about which of the two sisters will succumb to him first. His eye, of course, is on Agnes. She is the elder and heir presumptive to the estate. For the most part, Agnes glares at him in dour disapproval. (She has the air of Theresa May on a jaunt to Brussels – a stolid and unimaginative Englishwoman, forced against her will to have dealings with disreputable foreigners.) Yet one morning, Agnes discreetly but provocatively undoes the top button of her dress. She wanders out to meet Salvatore in the villa’s sunlit garden. There she sees him holding Ellen by the arm. Flying into a jealous rage, she promptly storms back inside. Salvatore had taken her sister’s arm only to stop the girl tripping over a stone. But in the warped eyes of Agnes, he is already guilty of betrayal.

Things come to a head at the annual grape harvest. As in any film with a pastoral Italian setting, the peasants pour them into an enormous vat and stomp on them with gay abandon. Salvatore frolics with a lusty local wench, whose bosom is in constant danger of spilling out of her blouse. He even induces Ellen to join the fun and tread some grapes herself! Agnes stays locked in her room, obsessively playing games of patience. Suddenly, she can endure no more. Flinging open the door to her balcony, she stands there like Death in a story by Edgar Allan Poe – glaring balefully down on the festivities. She shrieks out a single word: “SALVATORE!” All at once, he leaves off roistering and bounds up the marble staircase to her chamber. The soundtrack rising to a thunderous frenzy, he runs inside and the door swings slowly shut. A Man about the House may not be a Gainsborough production, but it has the same inimitable blend of depravity and coyness.

It is not long before Agnes and Salvatore are married. Every morning, he lovingly prepares her a special egg-flip. She begins to suffer from headaches, nausea and fatigue. When the Scotty dog dies after licking a spilled egg-flip off the floor, even Ellen starts to grow a tad suspicious. Having started off as a blend of Black Narcissus and A Room with a View, the film now morphs bizarrely into a Victorian remake of Suspicion. Never one to indulge in excessive displays of originality, Arliss even places a light-bulb in the drink that Salvatore carries up the stairs to his wife’s sickbed. Yet quite unlike the ending of the Hitchcock film, the finale of A Man about the House actually does make sound (if deeply disquieting) dramatic sense. Kieron Moore’s was a star career that never quite got off the ground, so a director was under no pressure to show that he was actually a nice guy.

Ultimately, A Man about the House is ‘not nice’ and all the better for it. Yet a full seventy years before Brexit, its message is alarmingly clear. It implies – and not even too subtly – that solid and respectable Britons would do well to steer clear of dodgy Continental types. It shows that any dalliance of that sort can only end in tears.

David Melville