Archive for Gore Vidal

Forbidden Divas: ‘Allo, Sailor!

Posted in Fashion, FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 5, 2018 by dcairns

David Melville Wingrove returns to consider another movie star who is both deep scarlet and beyond the pale ~

FORBIDDEN DIVAS

‘Allo, Sailor!

 

“My mother taught me there are two fragile things

– a staircase and a reputation.”

–          Maria Montez, Hans le Marin

In my distant and long-ago youth, one of my favourite films was The Moon in the Gutter (1983) – Jean-Jacques Beineix’s disastrous but hyper-poetic follow-up to his international hit Diva (1981). Set in a hallucinatory night world on and around the docks of Marseilles, it tells the tale of a poor chump (Gérard Depardieu) in thrall to an exotic and glamorous dream girl (Nastassja Kinski) but finding comfort with an earthy hooker (Victoria Abril). I saw this film over and over in its (admittedly sparse) theatrical showings. Its cinéma du look visuals, its swooning Gabriel Yared soundtrack, its invitation to “Try Another World” – emblazoned on a billboard above Nastassja, pouting provocatively in her bright red sports car – are etched on my subconscious to this day. It is, most likely, a truly terrible film.

I do not love The Moon in the Gutter any less now I know it is, essentially, a remake of a forgotten French film noir of the 40s. Hans le Marin (1948) is the tale of a poor chump (Jean-Pierre Aumont) who arrives in Marseilles on shore leave from an American merchant vessel. (His name is Eric and he is originally French Canadian; that is the script-writer’s novel way of explaining why a Yankee sailor speaks in fluent French throughout the movie.) He goes to a bar called the Kit-Cat Club and falls under the spell of a glamorous and exotic hooker named Dolores. She is played by camp B-movie legend Maria Montez, best known for such absurd Technicolor extravaganzas as White Savage (1943) or Gypsy Wildcat (1944) or, of course, the immortal Cobra Woman (1944). She sleeps with him and sets him up to be beaten up and robbed by a pair of thugs – one of whom is the noted French character actor Marcel Dalio. In the best masochistic film noir tradition, Eric responds by having her name tattooed onto his forearm.

Going on the hunt for his attackers, Eric accidentally kills one of them and is forced to seek refuge in a gypsy encampment. There he finds solace with an earthy wench named Tania (Lilli Palmer) who tells fortunes by breaking a raw egg into a glass. (I swear I am not making this up.) He is still prey, of course, to his overpowering obsession with Dolores. His quest to recover and reclaim her will lead him deeper and deeper into Marseilles and its squalid nocturnal depths. (In fact, Wicked City was the film’s title when it surfaced – albeit briefly and badly dubbed – in English-speaking markets.)  His is not so much a case of amour fou as amour of a downright bloody fool. It is obvious to any spectator over the age of twelve that Dolores is completely and consummately rotten. As in her psychedelic Technicolor epics, Maria Montez is in the business of hunting down hunky and half-naked men and turning them into live human sacrifices. Judging from her wardrobe, it is a highly remunerative profession.

 

Her first appearance, perched on a high bar stool in the Kit-Cat Club, is possibly her most dazzling and iconic screen moment. Her camp followers will protest loudly that her infamous ‘cobra dance’ in Cobra Woman is a display of diva excess that has no rivals. The one drawback is that Maria Montez emphatically could not dance. She does, however, show a remarkable flair for sitting on top of a stool. Up until that point, Eric has been dancing and flirting with one of the other girls. He glances over casually at the far side of the bar and his face, abruptly, turns to stone. We get a close-up of a pair of long and shapely legs, rising gracefully and sinuously out of a pair of elegant black evening shoes. The camera rises slowly to reveal two rounded knees, crossed one over the other, emerging from the black velvet folds of a skirt. A gleaming black leather handbag is perched on top of them. A hand, heavy with bracelets of rhinestone and silver, strokes the bag with its long, sharp varnished nails. Whoever these hands belong to is ignoring – and triumphantly – Marlene Dietrich’s rule that “Dark nail polish is vulgar.”

The camera does not pause, but goes on travelling upwards. It moves more slowly perhaps – tantalisingly, almost imperceptibly – as it reveals a voluptuous torso in a tight black bodice studded with sequins, which wink and glitter in the too-bright light of the bar. A rhinestone necklace glows, like a circlet of cold fire, about the base of the neck. The face above it seems cut off, almost disembodied, afloat in a magic space all of its own. It is the face of Maria Montez – dark, sultry, magnificent. She is staring insolently back across the bar at Eric. The smile that plays about her lips is the smile of a hungry cat that has already dined off one bird and is searching idly for another one to round off her meal. Slowly, she draws a cigarette out of her handbag. With a cool nod, she gives her permission for the strange man to walk across the room and light it for her. Eagerly and walking as if under hypnosis, he does so. His entire fate is sealed in that moment. The rest of Hans le Marin is as tragic and inevitable as Euripides. No matter if the dialogue is not quite the same calibre.

This whole film, in fact, was something of a family affair. Montez and Aumont were married at the time. They had relocated back to France after her career in Hollywood began to fade and his, unfortunately, never really began. Their co-starring vehicle at MGM, Siren of Atlantis (1948), was a legendary fiasco commemorated by Gore Vidal in his satirical novel Myron, a follow-up to the more famous Myra Breckinridge. Their first outing as an acting duo in Europe, Hans le Marin was scripted by Aumont himself and directed by his brother François Villiers. In style, the film is an intriguing mix of the pre-World War II poetic realism of Julien Duvivier or Marcel Carné and the newly fashionable Neo-Realism of Roberto Rossellini or Vittorio de Sica. It goes without saying that Villiers never became a big-name international auteur. Yet there are many worse-made films that were not directed by a member of the star’s immediate family.

If only Hans le Marin were better known, it might help to put paid to the idiotic notion that Maria Montez was possibly the worst actress in the history of movies. Her persona was flamboyant, to put it mildly, and an obscure Puerto Rican drag queen made something of a name in the 60s by performing in underground movies under the pseudonym of ‘Mario Montez.’ But her performance in Hans le Marin is sultry and hypnotic and about as finely nuanced as a portrayal of pure and unadulterated evil can possibly be. We can understand all too well why Jean Cocteau sought her to play the Princess of Death in Orphée (1950). Montez died tragically young in 1951 and Orphée would have been the ideal capstone to her career. We can only lament that she demanded too high a fee. Hans le Marin even lets her hint at a softer side. When she lures the hero back to her lair, we see keeps two white doves in a cage and cares for them with far greater tenderness than she ever shows to any of her men.

So was Maria Montez truly as bad an actress as film historians claim? I know a simple yet highly effective way to dismiss that charge. Just try to picture Meryl Streep playing her role in Hans le Marin or any of her other films. Talent is as talent does. And whatever it may have been, Maria Montez did it with a vengeance.

David Melville

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A Delicate Operation

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 26, 2018 by dcairns

I considered following up VISIT TO A SMALL PLANET with BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S, since Orangey the cat who plays Cat (typecasting) in that film has appeared in two of our sci-fi season (in the important roles of Butch and Josephine) but in the end I opted for a Gore Vidal farrago theme and we ran MYRA BRECKINRIDGE. This seemed apt as we had just watched THE DANISH GIRL. Of the two, MYRA BRECKINRIDGE probably is the more sensitive and accurate portrayal of the trans experience.

That’s not quite true or fair. THE DANISH GIRL has pretty design and is deadly dull as drama. We didn’t believe real people lived in these rooms and we didn’t meet any real people. Alicia Vikander comes closest to human life. Fiona had read both the novel and, not satisfied with that, the source memoir. I guess the movie wanted to tell an inspirational trans story, and so omitted the highly dysfunctional, dependant relationship Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe had with her surgeon (in reality, more than one doctor, combined into one characterless cypher in the film). We aren’t told that the doctor was attempting to implant ovaries and a uterus, something that could never have worked and wasn’t particularly sensible or necessary anyway. It WAS the first sex change op, so they didn’t know what they were doing. But had nobody already discovered that you couldn’t chop bits off one person and stick them on another and expect it to work?

The movie invents a scene where Lili is beaten up by transphobes, a desperate attempt to create some tension. That’s a terrible bit of writing, because it not only didn’t happen, it doesn’t lead anywhere. It’s just a cheap attempt to upset us. Fiona remembers a much stronger and more nuanced scene in the memoir where Lili meets a businesswoman who is horrified by her simpering mannerisms and scolds her for thinking this is how women are. The first TERF? Eddie Redmayne, accurately I suppose, IS really simpering, and such a scene would have been immensely liberating for those of us tired of his one-note performance.

MYRA BRECKINRIDGE is so farcical it mainly deserves a free pass on all its inaccuracies and insensitivities. It’s pretty far removed from reality and it’s being deliberately crass — a defense that might work for James Gunn — sick humour depends on our shared recognition that something is beyond the pale. If you accept that, where you draw the line becomes a very delicate operation, depending on what you take the joker’s attitude to be. Most of Gunn’s jokes were really unfunny, which doesn’t help his cause. But you can see he’s trying to shock, albeit for no particular reason. Contrast with the joke that sank, or more or less sank, Milo Iannopolis, which merely confirmed that he doesn’t care about anything he says. It probably offended the squarer part of his rightwing base, who had liked the idea of having a gay ally so they could claim they weren’t homophobic, just because it explicitly referred to same-sex sex acts. These guys do not like to think about those things. The fact that it was a joke about child abuse was more or less an alibi for their disgust.

MYRA’s big set-piece is the rape of a straight man, something I’m a bit uncomfortable with. It IS a reversal of the norm and it IS subverting patriarchal assumptions, but men getting raped has quite often been treated as comedic (can I back that up? WHERE’S POPPA? and TRADING PLACES, with its randy gorilla, come to mind) which is about men distancing themselves from it, “proving” it can’t happen to them because it only happens to ridiculous comedy men. That’s surely not what Gore Vidal had in mind, but I think Michael Sarne, the film’s adapter/director, did not have such a nuanced worldview.

Sarne, a decent actor, had made the appalling JOANNA in 1968, one of the worst things that ever happened, and then pitched MYRA to 20th Century Fox, claiming he’d had the perfect idea of how to film the unfilmable. This idea was, basically, It Was All A Dream. This plays out in a somewhat intriguing way in the movie, but is nevertheless pretty lame. I don’t blame Sarne, but I do blame Richard Zanuck for being impressed at all. This is 1970, where all the major studios knew was that they didn’t know what the young audience wanted. The same year they made BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS. One obvious connection being the involvement of film critics: Roger Ebert as co-writer on the Russ Meyer phantasmagoria, Rex Reed as co-star in MYRA.

The idea of Myra’s male self, Myron (Reed) following her around as a vision only she can see (like the faux-Bogart in PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM), sometimes taking her place for a moment (like Jason Miller in EXORCIST III) is quite a good and cinematic one — would that THE DANISH GIRL had a single narrative idea to lift it from the mundane. And Reed, though a little lacking in variety in his distant, acidulous manner, is fairly effective. The real stars are of course Raquel Welch, who has some stunning moments of campery; top-billed Mae West, who isn’t embarrassing at all (unlike in SEXTETTE), proving that there ARE third acts in American lives, and they’re like the first and second acts only dirtier and a little slower; and Calvin Lockhart, who’s swishy turn gets many of the best laughs in the first and best half, but who unaccountably vanishes from the story midway like King Lear’s Fool or VERTIGO’s Midge.

Mae, who once dressed as the Statue of Liberty, here puts me in mind of the end of PLANET OF THE APES: a magnificent ruin. Her once-great blues voice is now a husky croak, but she can still sell a song by sheer force of personality. Cinematographer Richard Moore, acquired by Huston for a couple of late follies, is unable to get light into those lacquered eyes, so it’s not always clear if Mae is really in there or phoning it in from some spangly pre-code afterlife, but she still, on some level, has it.

All the casting is good, and all of it is almost cruelly apt. John Huston seems perfectly happy to emphasise his physical grotesquerie — his cowboy walk, as “Buck Loner,” is hilarious. As a silicone construct, Raquel is absurdly apt, and the Brad & Janet figures she corrupts, Roger Herren and Farah Fawcett, project precisely the required vapidity (Raquel’s regal delivery of “She is mentally retarded,” marks her as some kind of comedy genius). I’ll give Sarne credit for some of this because he’s an actor, though more of the kitchen sink school himself. The performances in JOANNA are appalling, and the better tha actor the worse they are, with Donald Sutherland soaring far, far beneath the rest.

Clearly somebody decided the film was in need of rescuing and editor Danford B. Greene, fresh from MASH, is the one who played Galahad, reshuffling scenes for pace rather than narrative logic and splicing in snippets from Fox’s back catalogue to rupture the flow with celebrity cameos and joke Freudian symbolism. Given Myra’s cinephilia, that may always have been part of Sarne’s scheme — it works like gangbusters, until you stop being surprised, and finds the only acceptable use for Laurel & Hardy’s dispiriting Fox features.

Also featuring Harry Mudd, Mr. Magoo, Og Oggilby, Baron Latos, Phoebe Dinsmore and Magnum, P.I.

And 36 views of the Chateau Marmont.

Sarne didn’t direct again for twenty-three years, and when he did, he adapted a punk novel, The Punk, written in 1977 by a fourteen-year-old. In 1993, this must have seemed not exactly up-to-the-minute stuff. Did Sarne realise he was making a period piece?

As for Vidal, he argued strongly that the writer is the true creative force on a film. When William Boyd made the same case, someone rather unkindly pointed out that with his credits, a safer argument would be that the writer was entirely blameless, a minor component in an infernal machine. But Vidal wasn’t in any sense in charge here, and his vision wasn’t being faithfully followed (though Sarne probably hewed closer to the trail than any Hollywood hack at the time would’ve).

What can we learn from MYRA? “Don’t try to be Fellini when you’re an idiot” seems like a good general principle. On the other hand, Sarne’s ludicrous ambition resulted in probably the best film he ever made, and it’s never not highly watchable. It’s the kind of farrago I’m glad exists, like the even more shapeless and obnoxious CANDY.

Tomorrowsday #5: Our continuum is rather a frost

Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC, Politics, Television, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 24, 2018 by dcairns

Anticipating ufologist Jacques Vallee by decades, Gore Vidal ruled in his 1955 television play, Visit to a Small Planet, or perhaps his 1957 stage play, Visit to a Small Planet, that flying saucers are transdimensional rather than interplanetary craft, and to hell with the Carpenters, who wouldn’t put forward their contradictory theory until 1976. Meanwhile, in 1960, because time is “all one thing” — “a trapezoid” — Jerry Lewis starred in a film version of either the TV or stage play, adapted by Edmund Beloin and Henry Garson. (Beloin has numerous Bob Hope credits, a couple of Lewis ones, an Elvis movie, story credit on DONOVAN’S REEF; Garson is one of several writers on THE RECKLESS MOMENT and collaborated as a duo with Beloin on his other Lewis movie and his Elvis. They’re not negligible talents, but they’re not fit to lick Gore Vidals seven-league boots.)

Excitingly, the alien Kreton was played by Cyril Ritchard (above) on TV and stage — the lecherous artist from Hitchcock’s BLACKMAIL. Not exactly a Jerry Lewis type, though I believe Lewis could have stretched himself to play the part as written if he’d been offered it or if director Norman Taurog had any ambition to deal with ideas. The movie is a sad travesty of the play, without any coherent reason for existing. It’s only intermittently funny, but it’s stupid all the time. However, let’s see what we can find to admire.

The copy I was able to track down has German credits, allowing us to learn that the German title is JERRY, DER ASTRONAUTEN-SCHRECK, which seems odd to me. Is “fright-astronaut” a common German term for what we would call a little green man or bug-eyed monster? It’s a nice compound word, anyway.

Special effects are by John P. Fulton, a long way from James Whale and Alfred Hitchcock. But they’re excellent. The film tries to get laugh with them, and fails, because they don’t have comic timing. That’s not what you hire John P. Fulton for.

The physical effects are good too.

Excuse me while I do a spot of time-travelling myself — my memory is that I didn’t see this film in 1974, only the ending — I have a vivid memory of Lewis’s space pod and him running about like a lunatic, one of several memories of UFOs that are far more vivid than the movies they appear in — ESCAPE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN and DALEKS: INVASION EARTH 2150 form a kind of trilogy with this one. But, watching it this week, I was struck by the image of Lewis sticking an entire pack of cigarettes in his mouth and lighting it. I’d seen THAT before. So maybe I saw the whole thing and then just erased it. Maybe I erased my childhood recollections, like Johnny Mnemonic, to make room for interesting facts about Anthony Mann’s filmography?

At any rate, Fulton’s UFO is memorable. I’ve proved that, by remembering it for forty-odd years. The film features both nifty opticals and impressive practical effects — a levitating dog, a car that slides sideways into a parking space, an invisible barrier that surrounds Kreton (taken from the play but given vivid visual form). Maybe that’s what earned it an Oscar nomination for Best Production Design, which makes little sense otherwise (it lost, and rightly so, to THE APARTMENT).

Fred Clark, great dyspeptic patriarch of the fifties, is perfectly cast as TV pundit Roger Spelding. Joan Blackman is perky as the love interest. Farmer/boyfriend Earl Holliman is much more of a jerk than in the play, which is a silly change to make because they’ve already got Lewis. Lee Patrick, recently enjoyed in VERTIGO, is Clark’s ditzy wife, and John Williams plays a fellow alien, his role greatly expanded from the play, partly because if they filmed the play as written, Lewis wouldn’t enter for ten minutes, which audiences in 1960 would not have stood for. So we begin in space, in a weird studio afterlife of dry ice, Paramount’s attempt to visualise Vidal’s suggestion of another dimension.

The movie also features Miles Archer, Talkie Tina, Dr. Eldon Tyrrel and Grandma Walton (also from VERTIGO).

Ye-es… at one point, Joan Blackman takes Jerry to a beatnik joint, the Hungry Brain. In Virginia? I don’t know that much about your Earth Culture, but I’d always assumed beatniks were more of a coastal thing. A salt water bi-product. OK, it IS the best bit of the film, with Joe Turkel freaking out at Jerry’s out-of-this-worldliness, Jerry’s simultaneous translation of a scat song, and Barbara Lawson’s dance with Jer. Although the presence of a beat club in this movie is completely unforgivable, a more efficient solution would be to junk the other, less entertaining bits of the movie and come up with a whole new story set in New York where Jerry could “plausibly” visit a beatnik place. There’s no reason why the film should be set in Virginia, though the source play did have its reasons.

Much of the movie is pure Mork & Mindy avant la lettre. Kreton’s spaceship isn’t quite an egg, but it’s tending in that direction. If you were going to morph Klaatu’s big saucer into Mork’s egg, Kreton’s capsule would be the midway point.

OK, update, I’ve now read the whole play. It’s only mildly amusing by Vidal’s standards, but it at least hangs together. It’s Gene Roddenberry’s #1 plot from Star Trek: God is an astronaut, and he’s a lunatic, an idiot, a child. Did Gore invent this trope? Vidal’s Kreton is a moral imbecile, escaped from supervision for the day. He was hoping to witness the Battle of Bull Run but arrived a century late and so decides to start WWIII instead. So there are reasons for Virginia (handy for the air force too), and it all ties together, whereas the movie is a big ball of loose ends. Intriguingly, in the movie, we do learn that Kreton was somehow responsible for the extinguishing of all life on Mars, but this is brushed aside, a throwaway gag. We’re not meant to hold genocide against him.

Gore Vidal wrote three mysteries under the name Edgar Box, about a crime-solving metrosexual PR man, and they’re excellent. It seems he could turn his hand to anything, including Mork & Mindy.

Orangey the cat, fresh from his roles in THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN and THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK, drags up as Clementine, voiced by cartoon favourite June Foray. (Kreton talks psychically to the cat, called Rosemary in the play, but we don’t hear her responses). The movie invents a dog also, but whoever does his voice is unlisted on the IMDb.

My favourite gag that’s original to the movie: whenever anyone tries to tell the world about Kreton, he zaps them and all they can say is “Mary had a little lamb,” sung in falsetto. When the movie’s hysterical ufologist (not in the play) snaps a Polaroid of Kreton in spaceman attire, this is how the pic comes out ~

Vidal’s notion that the aliens have moved beyond sex (“Our continuum is rather a frost,”) is spun off into lots of creepy business about Lewis wanting to watch the romantic leads making out. If you want that NOT to seem creepy, you need someone other than Lewis, whose manchild act is not devoid of lechery. The funniest thing in the play, for me, is that the young lovers had been planning to check into a motel with fake luggage to avoid suspicion — a valise full of phone books. Kreton learns of the plan and somehow imagines the phone books are an essential part of the proposed loveplay. (Ah, kids these days don’t know what lovemaking IS… because they don’t know what phone books are.)

Vidal’s Kreton is quite camp in his touristic enthusiasm — his enthusiasm for war turns him into Bud Cort in my imagination, in that scene in HAROLD AND MAUDE where Harold tries to freak out the general by being TOO pro-war. “Zero hour is almost upon us. I’m getting all shivery.” The sad thing is, Jer could have done all that brilliantly, if only they’d wanted him to.

Here is a picture of director Norman Taurog. Hahahaha he has a funny face. His career runs from Larry Semon to Elvis Presley, with Jerry near the end.

I guess VTASP served as a comedic break in the 1974 sci-fi season where I saw it, or part of it. Allowing us to gather ourselves before the strong meat of THEM! But also following neatly from THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, which it subverts (though a faithful rendition of the play would have subverted it even better).