Archive for Forbidden Divas

Forbidden Divas: Jungle Red

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 2, 2020 by dcairns

David Melville Wingrove returns with a Forbidden Divas piece about one of my favourites…

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FORBIDDEN DIVAS

JUNGLE RED

“I do not need wine to set my blood on fire.”

  • Paulette Goddard, Sins of Jezebel

Fans of bad movies cherish Bible epics for being the one entirely disreputable movie genre. To make the Best Bible Epic of All Time may not be an act of any special distinction. To put it bluntly, how much competition could there be? But to make the Worst Bible Epic of All Time is a truly spectacular achievement. The field is crowded and fiercely competitive and movies like The Prodigal (1955) and The Silver Chalice (1954) and Solomon and Sheba (1959) all have their fanatical adherents. But criticising these movies for their wooden acting, risible dialogue or lack of dramatic coherence is a bit like criticising a KFC Bargain Bucket for its lack of nutritional value. No product is a disaster simply because it does not do something it has never set out to do. To achieve a Platonic ideal of sheer and unadulterated awfulness, a Bible epic needs to be quite a lot worse than that.

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Sins of Jezebel (1953) is the work of one Reginald Le Borg, an auteur who made his name in the 40s with classics like Jungle Woman (1944) and The Mummy’s Ghost (1945). It stars the irresistible Paulette Goddard as the infamously wicked pagan queen who tried to turn Israel away from the One True God and supplant Him with the blood-soaked worship of Baal. There is something less than terrifying about Baal in this movie. His effigies resemble very early models for ET (1982) and his followers show their devotion by lifting their arms to heaven and indulging in some truly excruciating bouts of interpretive dance. It is hard to believe in depravity when we never see anything that looks the tiniest bit depraved. We hear a rumour early on that the queen “paints her nails with the blood of sacrificial victims.” We never do find out if she does that or not. But one must admit her nails are a commendably bright shade of red.

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Paulette Goddard was a movie star for the best part of two decades, but not even her closest friends ever pretended she could act. She was famous for her slightly hard-boiled glamour and her ineffably colourful off-screen love life. A fun-loving Jewish girl from Great Neck, Long Island (her real name was Marion Levy) she started off in the chorus line of the Ziegfeld Follies. In the 30s, she made her way to Hollywood and wound up marrying Charlie Chaplin and co-starring in Modern Times (1936) and The Great Dictator (1940). Her neighbour David O Selznick came perilously close to casting her as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939) – but only briefly, when he despaired of finding anyone better. Divorced from Chaplin, she went on to marry such showbiz intellectuals as Burgess Meredith and Erich Maria Remarque. Her alleged motto in life was never to sleep with a man until he gave her diamonds. She was said to carry a suitcase packed with diamonds on all her travels, to remind herself and others just how well this system worked.

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In short, Paulette Goddard embodied the kind of fragile and artificial movie glamour that made Lana Turner look like Meryl Streep. She got by in her better roles – as an 18th century adventuress in Kitty (1945) or a Gay 90s adventuress in An Ideal Husband (1947) – on a sort of wry and ironical amusement. She looked, as Oscar Wilde wrote, like “an édition de luxe of a wicked French novel.” It was no surprise that she became Andy Warhol’s favourite escort at parties in the 60s. She was, in essence, a Warhol Superstar before that term was even coined. But it was a very great surprise indeed that she gave a realistic, touching and genuinely heartfelt performance as an ageing beauty in an Italian film, The Time of Indifference (1964), just before she bowed out of movies for good.

So what of Paulette as the evil Queen Jezebel? Her Majesty has barely arrived in Judaea when she is cheating on her fiancé King Ahab with a hunky Hebrew general (George Nader). Her bridegroom passes out drunk on the wedding night, but not before she has made him promise to build a temple to the heathen god Baal. This lady is a hybrid of all the sinister dictator’s wives who have wielded a malevolent power from behind the throne. Eva Perón, Imelda Marcos, Elena Ceauşescu – only with deeper villainy and sharper fashion sense thrown in.  “What are you, a man or a piece of dirt?” she sneers when Ahab hesitates to massacre his recalcitrant subjects who refuse to worship Baal. Not even her favoured boy-toy escapes from her tyranny unscathed. He wrestles with his conscience when he is forced to put believers in the True God to death. “In peace or in battle, people get hurt,” he explains to his fellow Israelites. You can’t make an omelette, etc…

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What is truly fascinating about Sins of Jezebel is the fact it is an epic made on a ridiculously small budget. The soldiers wear helmets that look like kitchen pots spray-painted gold. The vases that adorn the royal chambers seem to have been stolen from somebody’s back garden in the San Fernando Valley. At every state banquet (there is not even the faintest hope of an orgy) the tables are laden with identical bowls of wax fruit. One might imagine these came from the studio’s front office – but the independent producers who made this movie were unlikely to have an office of any sort. To his credit, the resourceful Le Borg circumvents the lack of art direction through a strategic deployment of draperies. Every time Queen Jezebel seduces someone, the camera cuts away from the clinch to a swatch of brightly coloured fabric, rippling away. This effect reminds us eerily of the Kenneth Anger film Puce Moment (1949) and the whole production is redolent of one of those underground movies that drag queens in the 60s used to make in memory of Maria Montez.

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Yet however drastically its producers may have skimped, Sins of Jezebel still seems to run out of money well before the end. Long stretches of it are not seen, but narrated by a sententious middle-aged Sunday school teacher in a badly fitting suit. The more the war between Good and Evil heats up – and the number of warriors needed rises above a dozen – the more this narrator tends to take over. Watching him light the seven candles on a menorah – and put them out again, a scene or so later – is dramatically thrilling, I grant you. But the fall of Babylon in Intolerance (1916) or the parting of the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments (1956) it most definitely ain’t. It is the sheer lavish folly of Bible epics that audiences across the world respond to. So a Bible epic that fails even at that is a rare and precious object indeed.

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If this Queen Jezebel really does paint her nails with blood…that can only be because blood was cheaper than varnish.

David Melville

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