The Outsider

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“She was impossible. Every suggestion you made, she fought; you fought with her all day long,” said Mitchell Leisen about directing Veronica Lake in I Wanted Wings, her first film as a star. “She was a pain in the ass,” said Randy Grinter, the son of Brad Grinter, who directed her 25 years later in her last movie, Flesh Feast.

Ah, yes, Flesh Feast. A movie about a mad scientist, flesh-eating maggots, and Adolf Hitler. It’s nowhere near as good as it sounds. We’ll get around to it; there’s really no hurry. Let’s talk about Veronica Lake first—the difficulties that made her so “impossible,” and the legacy of performances those difficulties have obscured.

She’s remembered today for two things. Her silky and suggestive teamings with Alan Ladd in a series of prototypical 40s films noir. And her hair, hanging down in luxuriant blonde waves and half-obscuring her right eye. In an era when movies wore a sexual straightjacket, this sultry “peekaboo” hairstyle caused a national sensation. Such is the enduring power of her star image that Kim Basinger won an Oscar for attempting to evoke it a half-century later in the neo-noir L.A. Confidential. At one key point in that film, Russell Crowe’s detective drops his tough-guy act for a second and tells her “You look better than Veronica Lake.”

Nice line. But really—not even close.

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Veronica Lake was gorgeous. Not just the hair, which was indeed spectacular, but also the high cheekbones, the petulant lower lip, the wary narrowed cat-like eyes that could widen suddenly and knock you out. Okay, so Hollywood is lousy with beautiful women and always has been. Lake had more than beauty, she had the mystery of a real movie star—an unreadable something. An amused, distant quality, a withholding that made you lean closer in. An unstable mixture of vulnerability and toughness, empathy and contempt. Even her beauty seemed on the edge of disappearing in a cloud of childlike petulance. Then that would pass, like a child’s bad mood. Warm-cold-warm-cold… like somebody idly flipping a light switch on-off.

This quality reads wonderfully on screen. Off it, not so much. Few liked her; many loathed her. Her life story was an unending series of antagonisms, frustrations, poor decisions, tragedies, scandals and sordid headlines—until it did end, not too long after Flesh Feast. She herself got little respect, not just as an actress but as a human being. She was the original Lindsay Lohan: trainwreck first, performer second. A paranoid schizophrenic, according to her mother. A drug addict, according to her second husband. A bitch, according to many of her co-workers. And a raging drunk, by unanimous consent.

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“I was never psychologically meant to be a picture star. I never took it seriously,” she once said. “And I hated being something I wasn’t.” What she was, fundamentally, was an outsider. Her best roles and most memorable performances all tapped into this quality. She seems most fully herself when she’s bending or subverting her era’s ideas of what a good girl should do. When she tucks her hair under a cap and hops a freight train in Sullivan’s Travels, when she drops out of government work into a noir underworld with Alan Ladd’s haunted hit man in This Gun for Hire, or when she travels across a garden in the form of a puff of smoke in I Married a Witch. “I’m a lot older than you think,” she tells Fredric March in that film, but in fact she’s a lot younger than you think: she was only 19 when Leisen’s movie made her a star overnight.

Too much too soon, maybe. After winning a few beauty contests as a teenager in Miami, she was pushed into show business by her mother Constance, who moved her and her ailing stepfather across the country to get her into the movies. In later years, Constance was the source for the claim that she was diagnosed as a schizophrenic, but who knows? When somebody has a biography as fucked up as Veronica Lake’s, it can be hard to sort through the layers of finger-pointing, lurid rumor, repeated gossip, and outright lying (Lake herself was a frequent, flagrant liar). Let’s just say that acting lessons seem a strange therapy for schizophrenia. Also that it’s a bit unusual for a mother to give her daughter the same name—Lake’s birth name was Constance Ockelman, and everyone called her Connie. And then they had a second name in common. “My mother and myself never got along too well and that was from early childhood,” she recalled in a 1969 interview. “My mother’s real first name, it happens to be Veronica. And of all the names they picked [for me], it had to be Veronica.”

“A typical victim of a stage-mother’s dream turned into nightmare. From a miserable childhood packed with broken promises, shoved into the pitfall-littered labyrinths of Hollywood,” recalled her second husband, director André de Toth, in his (also a bit untrustworthy) autobiography.

Whatever the truth, it was a brief leap from dramatic school in Hollywood to bit work in movies, to catching the eye of a producer who changed her name and gave her the plum role in I Wanted Wings, as a bad-girl cabaret singer. Leisen recalled that she couldn’t handle dialogue very well at this point and he had to give her very simple movements. In her first shot in the film, she’s seen singing (dubbed) in front of a band in a nightclub. She caresses her thigh as she’s hit by a spotlight that sets off her clinging, shimmering dress, her cheekbones, her glistening head of hair. Leisen, who usually preferred boys, seems entranced. It’s a wow moment, and his camera knows it; he moves it in and circles her slowly, erotically.

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That shot made her an instant star. Billed seventh, she dominated the posters for the movie and the publicity. The hair got most of it, as the fan magazines shrieked about it and women across America crowded salons wanting the same style. Meanwhile back at Paramount, Lake had already managed to piss off the studio by leaving for Arizona without telling anyone in the middle of filming, after taking childish offense to Leisen’s persnickety personality. With hindsight, it seems her first willful rejection of stardom just as it was being handed to her on a plate… the first of many such gestures.

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For the moment, though, there was no stopping her. I Wanted Wings was Paramount’s highest grossing picture of the year, largely due to her. And the studio’s most successful and high-profile director, Preston Sturges, wanted her for his next film, Sullivan’s Travels. Sturges, a good-natured extroverted egomaniac, knew just how to handle her. The atmosphere on the set of his films was like “a carnival,” one actor recalled. When Lake revealed halfway through shooting that she was pregnant (she had just gotten married, probably to escape from Constance), Sturges didn’t fire her but instead laughed his head off and promised to dress her in baggier clothes. If Leisen is to be trusted about her inability to handle dialogue, Sturges must have taught her well, because she handles pages of his rapid-fire banter, firing back and forth at Joel McCrea in long, unbroken takes. And it’s some of the best dialogue she or anybody else ever had.

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Sullivan’s Travels centers on McCrea’s character, a fatuous movie director who wants to move from comedy to drama, but finds the real Depression-era America a far cry from his privileged, ivory-tower concept of it. Widely regarded as Sturges’ masterpiece, it’s certainly his most personal and probing film. Lake is rarely given credit for her contribution to it, but she’s the emotional center of this complicated movie about The Movies. Her character, called “The Girl” in a bit of meta inspiration by the filmmaker, is bitter and tough on the surface, but genuinely hurt by Sullivan’s selfish obtuseness. Paired with the 6′ 2″ McCrea, she seems even more tiny than she was (4′ 11″), and she’s vulnerable and brave as she pretends to be a boy and tiptoes her way through a land of lecherous, threatening bums. Physically, she and McCrea are a mismatch, but her edginess and his dissatisfied crotchetiness seem made for each other.

Sturges liked her and set up another comedy for her, I Married a Witch. He selected another fine director, the French transplant René Clair. An ideal choice for the film, as Clair was an expert in fantasy and offbeat humor. And for Lake, who spoke fluent French (the Ockelmans had lived in Montreal for a time) and responded to a director who believed in her talent more than she did. According to Clair, Paramount knew they had something special in Lake and didn’t want an ordinary role for her, and it was Sturges who suggested Thorne Smith’s sexy supernatural fantasy “The Passionate Witch.” She’s perfect in it—a wicked sprite motivated by hatred and revenge until she drinks a love potion, at which point she becomes “itchy with sexual frustration,” as Guy Maddin puts it in his loving notes to the Criterion blu-ray. (There was some sniping on film forum boards when Criterion added this movie to its roster of Great Cinema… a curse on those mortals!) The movie is full of subversive fun, and Lake’s funny, mischievous, completely charming performance is her best claim to immortality.

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Between these two comedies came two more films that cemented her stardom and her legacy: This Gun for Hire and The Glass Key. They’re classified as film noir but they came early in that cycle, and so they’re compromised by the movie factory’s conventional efforts at morality and uplift. Just what audiences don’t want. But in both, the half that’s noir is still pretty terrific. In the first, Lake plays a nightclub singer engaged to a cop (Robert Preston), who is secretly recruited by the FBI to gather information on a ring of foreign spies. Contrived and absurd as this is, it leads to her involvement with Alan Ladd as Raven, an emotionally scarred hit man who’s been betrayed by the spies and is out for revenge even as he’s being hunted by the cops. Raven, the ice-cold killer who loves only stray cats, is the role that made Alan Ladd a star. And you can see why: he’s a stray cat himself who’s been kicked around by life and has to run and hide and make his own snarling way in the world. He kidnaps Lake, and while they’re on the run they begin to develop an understanding. Ladd and Lake were both too cool as performers to be able to convincingly act “falling in love,” but here their tentative reaching out to each other feels emotionally satisfying, and the fact that it’s unexpected and transgressive (she’s engaged to his pursuer and he’s more than capable of killing her) gives their scenes a glamorous, sexy tension.

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Paramount recognized the value of this team—they just didn’t quite know what to do with them. (A shame they didn’t give them Double Indemnity, in which she especially might have had a triumph.) The Glass Key was the follow-up, and it’s not as good as This Gun for Hire. Dashiell Hammett’s plot machinations are always a chore to follow, and without colorful characters to be interested in, this movie is all machinations. We want Ladd and Lake, but we get too much of Brian Donlevy as the lead character, a crooked politician trying to get respectable, and she is wasted in the nothing role of the girl both men want. The real romance in The Glass Key is between Ladd and William Bendix, as a terrifying thug. Bendix keeps beating Ladd to a pulp, all the while calling him “sweetheart” and “baby” and insisting that Ladd likes it, which is intriguingly possible. There’s a faint streak of masochism running through Alan Ladd, who in his private life had a house full of paintings of male nudes—less a reflection of his sexuality, perhaps, than of his lusting after size. He was famously short (5′ 6″) and Lake was one of the few actresses with whom he didn’t need to stand on a box. He died, as she did, a lonely and pitiful alcohol-fueled death at 50.

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At this point, Lake had starred in four hits in a row, and the biggest hit of all came next. Unfortunately it led to her downfall. So Proudly We Hail was Paramount’s big patriotic wartime special of 1943, a tribute to the Red Cross nurses who served in Bataan and Corregidor. Claudette Colbert is the tediously sane and responsible head nurse, and Paulette Goddard is the wisecracking good-time girl. Lake, third-billed, plays a sullen, joyless bitch all the other nurses loathe. You can feel the executives at Paramount patting themselves on the back for all this typecasting. The war department had asked the studio to change the famous peekaboo hairstyle, because girls working in wartime factories were supposedly getting their Lake locks caught in machinery (she’s demonstrating the danger in the photo above). So for most of the movie, her hair is pinned up under her nurse’s cap. Going all dramatic, Lake has two big scenes in the film, the first when she breaks down and reveals that the Japanese killed her fiancé, the second when she sacrifices herself to save the other nurses. She appears in a doorway, hair suddenly loose for the sake of the fans, and slips a grenade into her blouse before walking toward the Japs with her hands up. These should be intense, impactful scenes, but they’re muffed by director Mark Sandrich, a ticktock craftsman who was utterly unable to convey emotion on the screen (historian John McElwee reports that one GI responded to Lake being blown to bits by yelling out “I know which part I want!”). Everyone seems to have decided Lake was nothing without her hairstyle, and Goddard got the Oscar nomination.

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Paramount administered the coup de grace with her next movie: The Hour Before the Dawn. (It’s always the darkest, get it?) She plays a Nazi spy, complete with German accent. Skulking around Franchot Tone’s country estate, making shifty evil eyes with her hair up in braids, she’s borderline ridiculous and saves herself only by staying very still in most of her scenes. An actress with more experience and training, e.g. a less honest one, might have camped her way through this farrago. Lake looks utterly mortified. Her voice is soft and quiet, especially when she murmurs “heil Hitler” after a radio broadcast. I mean: of all the things to make an established, glamorous movie star say at the very height of World War II. In this and her other scenes, she looks like she’s physically restraining herself from running off the set. Can a single movie kill a career? This one did.

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Meanwhile, her personal difficulties were only increasing. Miscarriage, divorce, squabbles with co-workers, and more and more partying. Her contract had four years to run, but the studio had already given up. They tossed her into three brain-dead musical comedies with chinless, sexless comic Eddie Bracken, who remembered “they called her ‘the bitch’ and she deserved the title.” But then, who wouldn’t be a bitch if they had to make three movies in a row with Eddie Bracken? Then they put her in a series of cutesy period pieces designed to show off co-star Joan Caulfield’s apple-pie charm, movies which neutralized every single thing that had ever been special about Veronica Lake. Implicit in them is a heavy corporate rebuke for the difficulties she’d caused and the enemies she had made. She was 25 years old, and her career was effectively over.

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She had married de Toth around this time, and he directed her twice for other studios. Ramrod is a tricky, intermittently fascinating noir Western in which Lake plays the willful daughter of a rancher who uses her wiles to get all the men in the story to fight, betray and kill each other. De Toth called this character “a wicked, conniving lady, stronger than a man, with velvet balls,” but Lake really isn’t up to a Barbara Stanwyckish role like that. As an actress she was soft and insinuating; she nails the bitterness but can’t convey the strength. In Slattery’s Hurricane, she has an unattractive part as the girl the hero doesn’t want while he chases after another man’s wife. Her character turns to drugs, but the censors made sure this one interesting aspect of her part was carefully whitewashed. Instead, she just seems jittery, forlorn, and all too believably washed up. It was her last movie in Hollywood.

The drug addiction was an unkind touch; in his book, de Toth alludes several times to her “monkeys.” He doesn’t elaborate, but he does provide the most sympathetic portrait of any of her contemporaries. He describes two Connies co-existing in one person: “One hurt, timid, and scared. Not many—if any—were more insecure, shy and vulnerable. She was afraid and lonely and lived alone with her fear. Too proud to call for human help. The other loud, bitter, boisterous, got lost in ‘tinsel town, the shit capital of dreams,’ where she drowned herself in blind hatred.”

He goes on to say that “actually she, the real She, didn’t exist anymore. ‘That one was sold,’ she told me, at fifteen, as a down-payment for her mother’s dreams.” Around this time, her mother sued her for lack of financial support, as agreed when she’d become a star. The tabloids of the time had a field day. Constance won her suit, but later claimed that Connie sent her nothing but rubber checks. The marriage broke up in a flurry of even more ugly headlines as the couple declared bankruptcy and blamed each other. He got custody of their children. Now there really was nothing, except the one friend who had remained loyal: alcohol.

“She left,” de Toth wrote, “with the ethereal smile of a Kamikaze.”

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Not just unemployable but practically radioactive on the West Coast, she headed East, where there was still some work to be had. On stage and in early blurry television, where if you squinted you could still see “Veronica Lake” sometimes. For Connie, there was only drinking, more bad relationships, professional embarrassments and mishaps. She got tangled in the wires onstage as Peter Pan (another outsider role, and her reputed favorite). Her stage career came to a halt after a dance partner fell on her and broke her ankle. Eventually she found work pasting felt flowers on hangars in a Manhattan factory, and then, more congenially, as a barmaid at the Martha Washington Hotel for women, where the room was free and the booze flowed. She worked for tips in obscurity under the name Connie de Toth, until a reporter from the New York Post stumbled on her and made a story of it. More unflattering headlines. People began sending her money, which she returned with prickly pride, all except a check for a thousand dollars from her one-time lover Marlon Brando (their paths had crossed in the early 50s), which she had framed.

She wrote an autobiography and revealed herself as still smart and tough, if a bit loose with the facts (“the most vicious thing I’ve ever read,” sniffed Mitchell Leisen). And around the same time, she moved to Hollywood. Only this time, it was Hollywood, Florida… just north of Miami. A mutual acquaintance introduced her to Brad Grinter, who was looking for financing for Flesh Feast. She invested in it and was listed as co-producer, and was involved creatively (see “she was a pain in the ass,” above). You can put this down to the shaky judgment of a woman who’d been an alcoholic for a quarter century, but it wasn’t a totally crazy move. A few years earlier, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford had made a fortune in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, starting a vogue for horror films starring the decaying leading ladies of the 1940s. And in fact, she made a little profit on Flesh Feast, according to Randy Grinter. But that may have been because the film’s budget was only $100,000—a pittance, even in Florida in the sixties.

And it looks it. The sets are Ed Wood-cheap, the locations are drab. Grinter doesn’t seem to know where or how to place the camera. (She complained about this in her autobiography, written after the movie was shot but before it was released a couple of years later.)  The people on the screen—you can’t call them “actors”—stumble at times over their business and the banal, dead-sounding lines in the barely functional script. It’s a horror movie without atmosphere or suspense, just a few icky close-ups of maggots. The lead role is a lady doctor who has spent time in a mental institution and who is now working on a rejuvenation formula (thus the flesh-eating maggots). The star in this role is supposed to be Veronica Lake, but really it’s Connie Ockelman—a petite, puffy-faced troll who looks 10 years older than her 47 years, and is unrecognizable as a former divinity of any sort. Her voice, once “a tiny mellifluent purr” (Guy Maddin) is now, thanks to years of smoking and trying to project on stage, a coarse rasp. Her exaggerated gestures and facial expressions show a drunk’s lack of control, and her grimace of a smile reveals a mouthful of blackened, rotting teeth. The ruination she has visited upon herself is the only real, the only true horror on the screen.

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And then they bring on Hitler.

It’s the movie’s big reveal. Some shady South Americans have invaded the house and the laboratory, seeking to have the doctor rejuvenate their leader, The Commander, so he can “take over zee world!” In the final, unforgettable scene, the doctor straps him to a table in her lab, and begins to administer the treatment. She speaks of her mother, whose portrait is conveniently on the wall. “She vas a good Cherman voman?” The Commander inquires kindly. “A servant of zee Third Reich?” The doctor sneers at this and growls “oh yes—as a guinea pig!!” The Nazis experimented on her mother, it seems… now the doctor will experiment on him. She brings out a Tupperware bowl full of maggots and begins applying them to der Führer’s face. As he begins whimpering and screaming, she tosses more and more of them onto him, laughing maniacally, uproariously. “What’s the matter—don’t you like my maggots?!” she yells. And suddenly, this idiotic, pathetic scene begins to resonate. Oh, it’s revenge for mother, all right. It’s payback for the stardom she didn’t want that was thrust upon her, for being reduced to a hairstyle and laughed at, for the talent that never got used, for the frustration of years of mediocre work and tabloid headlines and public shame, for the even deeper private shame, for a confused young girl tossed into a machine that chewed her up and spat her out. It’s what Connie Ockelman thinks of show business, of fame, and herself. Heil Hitler!

She died a couple of years later, alone and destitute, of acute hepatitis and renal failure. An outsider to the last. Only one of her children, and none of her ex-husbands, attended her funeral. In fact, she wasn’t there herself—her ashes sat on a shelf at the funeral home for years, until a friend finally paid the $200 bill for the cremation.

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But Veronica Lake had gone long before that. The last the world saw of that particular apparition was in The Blue Dahlia, one final Ladd-Lake film noir Paramount made at the height of her difficulties with them. A last chance, and a last hit for her. The original script by Raymond Chandler is spotty, but it has some nice ideas—none nicer than the scene where they meet. Ladd is a flier who has returned from the war to find his wife first unapologetically unfaithful, and then dead. As the chief suspect and object of a manhunt, he takes to the road. Lake is the mysterious blonde who picks him up one rainy night. She’s the ultimate Los Angeles girl, materializing out of nowhere on the highway, a blonde vision behind the wheel, an outsider angel. She takes him to a hotel, and then they part. They speak in the low, hushed voices that were such a big part of their beautiful chemistry. It’s hard to say goodbye, he tells her. Why, she asks; you’ve never seen me before tonight. “Every guy’s seen you before, somewhere,” he tells her. “The trick is to find you.”

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Special thanks to Randy Grinter for sharing his reminiscences on the making of Flesh Feast.

 

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NOTE: This post was written for the annual “Late Show” blogathon over at Shadowplay, featuring some very smart film bloggers considering the final films of notable directors and performers, all hosted by the wonderful David Cairns. Check it out!

 

 

 

The Florida Film Festival Begins!

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The Florida Film Festival begins on Friday, April 4. If you’re in Orlando, I strongly urge you to check out the program and see a few of the excellent movies in their two-week lineup.

This year, the Festival asked some of us in the community to be curators of the Festival. I’m one of them, as are my friends John and Kristen.

Here’s a link to us and our fellow curators, with our selections and writeups linked to our photos:

http://www.floridafilmfestival.com/program/tastemakers

(Image above from one of my picks, the moving documentary Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution.)

Too Much, Too Soon

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A Great Profile

Too Much Too Soon  is one of the earliest examples of Hollywood eating its own. Lurid and sleazy, it’s like those cheap 50’s paperbacks that trashed famous people’s lives in the most obvious ways. Yet it remains fascinating, in a heartbreaking and horrifying way, because of its star: Errol Flynn.

Flynn had just come back from years in the wilderness — making one lousy European movie after another while drinking and drug addiction ate away at his self-confidence, his focus, and his looks. At the 11th hour, Darryl Zanuck rescued him by handing him the part of Mike Campbell, the dissipated wastrel in The Sun Also Rises. That excellent performance reawakened Hollywood’s interest in Flynn, and he was offered the part of his old drinking buddy John Barrymore in this bio of Barrymore’s daughter Diana (based on her own cheap paperback, also called Too Much Too Soon).

A soberer man might have rejected this exploitative little production, but at this stage of Flynn’s career, it was like being offered “Hamlet.” He even swallowed his actor’s vanity, allowing himself at age 49 to be cast as a man ten years older, and looking it (at one point in the film, he states his age, but only after a beautiful, telling little pause).

In fact, he wasn’t well cast. Barrymore was a hard, sharp, tough actor — a little guy who went for “big” stylized flourishes in his performances. As copious amounts of liquor gradually coarsened his skills, he descended into grotesque self-parody: waggling his eyebrows and bulging his eyes lasciviously at nothing, rolling his Rs and exaggerating his own cultured diction. Flynn evokes him, but not by behaving anything like him. Despite his swashbuckling reputation, Flynn was a sensitive, gentle performer with a gift of wry humor and rakish charm. His own alcoholism seemed to soften and diffuse his acting while at the same time giving him some inner freedom to finally externalize his rage, shame, bitterness and impotent longing. All of which he puts to effective use in this film, essentially creating a self-portrait with slight Barrymore echoes (the tilt of a hat brim, for example, or standing with body facing the camera but head held in profile).

Unfortunately, he does most of this without much help from the script. It’s a sort of dull soap-opera version of Sunset Boulevard, with the has-been Barrymore rattling around his mansion and his yacht longing for love, or something. In fact the best line in the movie was spoken by Flynn on the set, responding to instruction from the fourth rate, no-name director… drawing himself up, Flynn replied “Are you, Art Napoleon, telling me how to play a drunk?” There’s an unfair perception that Flynn played his final three roles, all of them alcoholics, the exact same way… that he was in fact not acting, but only playing himself. Not true. In The Sun Also Rises, his Mike Campbell is a superficially charming drifter continually being stung to anger by the evidence of his own impotence and irrelevance (and in acting terms, he holds several scenes together single-handedly). In The Roots of Heaven, he’s a cowardly military man tortured by guilt about his own weakness. In this movie, he plays Barrymore as he no doubt had observed him himself: as a broken man occasionally able to pull himself together and show his former stature, but crumbling slowly from the inside and painfully aware of it. Flynn’s uncompromising portrait of greatness in ruins is finally quite haunting, as he intended.

Halfway through the movie, Barrymore dies, and we’re supposed to remain interested in Dorothy Malone’s cartoonish, by-the-numbers Diana. But the movie dies along with Flynn, and there’s nothing left to watch but Ray Danton’s comically phallic tennis bum. Each successive scene is less interesting than the previous one, and Diana’s last-minute pullout from the tailspin of her life is the least convincing of all. In fact, Diana died a couple of years later, from an overdose of booze and pills, at 38.

As for Flynn, in real life he exercised his usual gift for snatching disaster from the jaws of success, using the filming as an opportunity to begin an affair with a girl on a neighboring set. She was Beverly Aadland, a 15 year old extra. Flynn had been tried for statutory rape in the 40s, an event which precipitated his downward spiral, but by this time he was living down to his reputation. After his death a year later, the girl’s mother Florence Aadland wrote (or rather, dictated) yet another sleazy paperback: The Big Love, the story of Errol and Beverly’s “romance,” and one of the craziest and most disturbing of all Hollywood memoirs.

In The Big Love, Flo describes the three of them attending a screening of Too Much Too Soon. Flynn was embarrassed to have revealed so much of himself, but also quietly proud of his work. As he should have been. Despite the fact that it’s a bad movie by any formal measure, it gets way under your skin thanks to his courageous and devastatingly sad performance. Despite everything around that performance being hollow — script, direction, acting — it still rings true.

My Week With Halle

Nobody knows about this but me and her. The tabloids never suspected. It was private, just between us. I want to protect that. But on the other hand, several days have passed since it ended, so I guess it’s OK to finally talk about it.

I spent a week with Halle Berry. Yes, me, Eddie Selover! Just a nobody. Until now.

It happened in Spain. Halle’s over there making a movie with Tom Hanks. She’ll be there for a while longer, because she broke her leg chasing a goat. Spain, ¡ay, caramba!… there are goats everywhere. And the ground is so rocky! You really have to be careful. Anyway, she’s on the mend now, that’s the important thing. Heal fast, Baby.

On the set of this picture, I was at the bottom of the food chain. The lowest of the low. I mean even lower than the screenwriter. But there must have been something about me. Maybe because we’re the same age. Well, I’m ten years older, but you know. It was a chemistry we had, and I’m not just talking about the physical, though that was certainly there on my part. We had an understanding; we knew it the minute we looked in each other’s eyes. I’ll always remember how hers narrowed when she first looked at me. And her first words.

“Could you get me a cup of tea? Right away…?”

Soon we were inseparable. A gentleman doesn’t reveal the details, but there is one thing I want to talk about, and that was the night we watched a movie together. It was that new one about how Marilyn Monroe went to England back in the 1950s to make a film with Laurence Olivier. As an Academy member, Halle had a screener from Harvey Weinstein, and she insisted on watching it in bed. With me!

Who was I to refuse? So I climbed in with her.

“Watch my leg.”

“I can’t take my eyes off it.”

“And stop with the James Bond impression. It’s getting old.”

“Someone’s in a bad mood.”

She gave me that look I’d come to know so well. And then the movie began.

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So turns out it’s about this guy, Colin Clark, who wangled a job as an assistant to Olivier and then worked on The Prince and the Showgirl, a film version of a play Sir Laurence had done on stage. In it, the Showgirl was played by Marilyn Monroe, who had bought the property, and hired Olivier to co-star and direct. Here, Olivier is played by Kenneth Branagh and Monroe by Michelle Williams.

I’ve seen The Prince and the Showgirl, actually. The plot is very thin: it’s a little one-situation comedy about a middle-European prince who invites a showgirl up to his chambers with the intention of seducing her, and how she thaws him out through a combination of innocence and (one is led to assume) very hot sex. Olivier plays it with a monocle and a Dracula accent, very stiff and formal, and no humor whatsoever. Monroe looks fantastic, maybe the best she ever looked, and she’s very charming. But they don’t get any chemistry going. Partly because the film is so trivial and empty (the best thing about it is the original poster, which shows Olivier pinning a ribbon on Monroe’s barely-there dress, and the words “Some countries have a medal for everything!”). Partly too it’s the difference in their acting styles: his all cold surface detail and polish; hers warm, spontaneous and messy.

The new movie gets a lot of comedy, in fact most of its comedy, out of this clash. The movie’s Olivier is arrogant, egomaniacal and rude — Monroe thwarts and frustrates him at every turn, and he’s driven half mad by her lateness, her poor memory, her retinue of coaches and enablers. What finally drives him over the brink is his realization that despite her lack of formal acting training, she wipes him off the screen when they’re on it together. (This isn’t really accurate; they both come across vividly in The Prince and the Showgirl, but the film is like a gleaming gold-plated serving dish with a mackerel and a marshmallow sitting on it.) Branagh makes a very funny Olivier, biting down on every last syllable and modulating his voice from a whisper to a roar. He takes many of the Great Man’s mannerisms and gives them a campy spin, for example rolling his eyes toward heaven in supplication, then lowering them suddenly and pursing his lips. He portrays Olivier and sends him up at the same time, and he’s the best thing in the movie.

Michelle Williams is not so juicy. She does an effective, almost eerie job of evoking Monroe, both the wide-eyed mock-innocent dumbbell and the pouting, soulful little-girl-lost. But it’s all evocation. Marilyn Monroe was ferociously, incandescently alive on the screen. It’s not just that Williams doesn’t have Monroe’s looks or her amazing body. She doesn’t have her feral quality, the intense aggressive sexuality that flashes out in moments that are still startling to watch. Like Elvis Presley, Monroe was an extraordinary personality who bypassed traditional notions of “acting.” At her best, as with Olivier, she made conventional acting look stilted and contrived, but at her worst (usually in drama), with no real technique or training to draw on, she could be repetitive, self-involved, and amateurish. Williams is just the opposite — she’s all brains and technique, but no fire. It’s an Indie performance, small and readable and finely wrought. But this is a movie about giants (it also includes portraits of Vivien Leigh, Arthur Miller, Sybil Thorndike) and you can’t help noticing there are no giants around to play them.

In any case, the main character isn’t really Monroe, or Olivier. Like I said, it’s about this guy Colin Clark. The movie is supposedly based on his true story, as recounted in his published diary and in his book The Prince, the Showgirl, and Me. In Clark’s account, as a fresh-faced 24 year old, he was the only one on the set Monroe could relate to, and after her new husband Miller deserted her to return to America, she turned to Clark for comfort. The only person with no agenda, it seems (though he later went on to write two books and sell them to the movies). The central part of the movie is about Colin and Marilyn’s very special week, after they sneak away from the set to go frolicking around the English countryside. They walk aimlessly through a park, they go skinny dipping, she’s turned on by his innocence, and they share a kiss. If this seems like a particularly puerile fantasy involving borrowed bits of The Misfits, Something’s Got to Give and Bus Stop, that’s because it is. You get tired of watching Eddie Redmayne’s Colin stare wonderingly at Monroe, wet eyed and open mouthed, or for variety, the other way around. She opens herself up to him and reveals her hurts, her fears and insecurities, and they fall for each other, sort of. Alas, she has to go back to being Marilyn Monroe and he has to go back to being…well, who cares, really? All they had was their one magical time together, but it’s a time that changed them both. In fact, the movie is named for it: My Week with Marilyn.

What a coincidence, right? Especially considering who I watched it with! When it was over, Halle shifted discontentedly under the covers.

“This thing is unbelievable.”

“Why thank you.”

“Cut it out, Mr. Bond. I was talking about the movie. Harvey may manage to snag Michelle an Oscar, but I don’t buy a word of it.”

She saw my expression, and gave me one of her enigmatic smiles. Then she put her face close. The eternal temptress.

“Could you go for some popcorn?”

“I’d love it, I’m starving!”

“No, seriously, I can’t get out of bed. Go get me some popcorn. Now.”

It was a long week we had together, Halle and me. But I will never, ever forget it.

They Died With Their Boots On

custer05

They Died With Their Boots On is the eighth and final pairing of Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. It’s not as famous as some of the others — for example, the pirate swashbuckler Captain Blood or the bejeweled Technicolor storybook Adventures of Robin Hood — but it deserves to be. Those are happy, exuberant movies; this is a tragedy of slowly unfolding power that leaves you unsettled and upset. It’s the rare adventure movie that gets under your skin; it achieves its epic qualities through emotion rather than action. The movie is based on the story of George Armstrong Custer, the general whose command of 500 cavalrymen was overwhelmed by ten times as many Native Americans in 1876. Never were the words “based on” more of a euphemism. As history, Boots On bears only a passing resemblance to actual events — in fact the more you know about Custer, the more outrageous the film’s portrait becomes. Virtually every event is twisted almost 180 degrees in order to turn a vainglorious and highly flawed man into a noble figure.

Yet even as the film moves toward its barroom-painting view of Custer and his men staging their heroic last stand surrounded by savages, it has to explain how he got there. It does so by setting him up as vain, callow, physically daring but reckless and prone to troublemaking. Cleverly, the filmmakers play the first half of the movie as a light comedy, in which Custer gets himself into one mess after another and strikes ludicrous poses trying to act like a bigger man than he is. We see him making mistakes and extricating himself through charm and luck; instinctively we know it’s only a matter of time before that luck runs out.

The fact that the same thing was true of Flynn in real life gives the movie an unusual resonance. He was at least as vain as Custer, and easily as reckless; his road to fame and success was just as fast and fortunate, and left him just as unprepared to deal with real challenges. During the making of this movie, Flynn had a couple of underage girls on his yacht, an escapade that led to a long and embarrassing trial for statutory rape that turned him into a public joke after the premiere — particularly after it was revealed in court that Flynn made love with his socks on. His pre-movie life of adventure had left him with an assortment of chronic maladies that resulted in his being declared 4-F and ineligible for the draft. Because Warner Bros. hushed this up, the public thought him a slacker for not serving in World War II as other stars did. Personal and professional disasters came faster and faster, and his drinking and drug use kept pace. Eventually booze, narcotics and dissipation made him a puffy, slurring, dead-eyed zombie before they finally killed him at the age of 50.

Some presentiment of this terrible fate seems to hang over Flynn throughout Boots On. He gives one of his most sensitive and aware performances. His eyes often look wide with fright and he seems more attuned to other actors than usual. Often he pauses and hesitates before taking action, as if genuinely unsure of himself, and when he does act, it’s always a shade too swiftly. He’s as dashing as ever, but often he dashes right into a brick wall. Some of the credit for this must go to the great Raoul Walsh, here directing Flynn for the first time, after the actor had quarreled with his usual director, Michael Curtiz. For the previous seven years, Curtiz had directed Flynn like a toy action figure, throwing him into the middle of clanging swords and galloping horses and trusting him to sail above it all. Walsh’s action scenes were rougher than Curtiz’s, less choreographed and clever, and always suggestive of real threat — as you might expect of a man who had lost an eye in an accident.

At this point in her career, de Havilland had developed some serious ambitions and no longer wanted to be the clinging heroine of Flynn’s boys-own-adventure movies. She only made the film at Flynn’s express request, after they had cleared the air of several years of misunderstanding. By all accounts, including hers, they were seriously in love, but their relationship was undermined continually by his immaturity and instability. Boots On is the only one of their films in which their characters have a real arc, moving from youthful high spirits into a serious relationship, into marriage and ultimately the tragedy of his death. To sweeten the deal for de Havilland, the producer Hal Wallis brought in the fine screenwriter Lenore Coffee for rewrites that rounded out the character of Libby Custer and made her a flesh-and-blood woman rather than a cardboard cutout. De Havilland responds with one of her best and most consistent performances.

In their final scene, she helps him prepare for the battle of Little Big Horn. Both know he’s not coming back, and they can barely look at each other while mouthing cheery sentiments they clearly don’t believe for a second. They’re almost getting away with it when he finds her diary and begins reading it aloud. In it, she confesses her terror over unshakable premonitions of his death. I must have written that every time you left for battle, she says. “Of course,” he murmurs softly. They say their goodbyes and he leaves; she’s rigid against a wall for support. The camera pulls away suddenly from her and she faints from the accumulated tension. Fainting in movies usually is phony as hell, but this time we’ve been holding our breaths too, and it feels like a natural reaction. In real life, de Havilland knew she’d never work with Flynn again, and she felt that he knew it as well. The scene is almost unbearable in its poignancy, for both the characters and the actors. Such is its enduring power that at a screening 40 years later, de Havilland, then about 65, walked out in the middle of it. She went to the lobby, sat down and began to cry.

Suspicion

suspicion

Is he or isn’t he?

That was the question about Cary Grant throughout his life: gay or straight?

This was based, it would seem, on little more than his having shared a house with Randolph Scott in the ’30s and having posed for some goofy pictures of the two of them in aprons and frolicking in the pool. Grant was married five times, had some well-publicized affairs, yet the rumors never stopped, and everyone knew about them. Even my parents. In the early 1960s, they had a live album by Allan Sherman, the singing comedian of “Camp Granada” fame. One of the songs was a riff on a mover and shaker having his secretary call various celebrities, and the big ending went: “And then when you reach Cary Grant, tell him I’d love to, but I just…can’t.” The audience on the album roared; so did my parents.

Around the same time, Tony Curtis did his famous parody of Grant in Some Like It Hot, the humor of which comes not from the accuracy of the impersonation but from the portrait of Grant as a nearsighted, girl-shy millionaire in a silly nautical outfit. Curtis’ very next movie co-starred Grant, so evidently there were no hard feelings. A decade later, when Chevy Chase jokingly used an ugly slur to refer to Grant on a talk show, Grant sued him for slander and won a settlement; later, he was studiously casual about the whole thing. And it continues: a couple of years ago, Grant’s fifth wife Dyan Cannon shot down the rumors yet again in interviews promoting her book about him. But neither Cannon’s testimony, or that of his daughter, his other wives, his former lovers and friends, or anybody else, seems to be enough to put the suspicion to rest.*

Because there’s something about Cary Grant. Whatever he projects at any given moment, he somehow manages to suggest something else at the same time. He’s remembered as the epitome of class and style, but with his strange, not-quite-Cockney accent and thick features, he’s clearly no aristocrat. In his screwball comedies, he projects anger and a kind of general threat to the other actors. His spills and pratfalls are clearly the result of enormous physical mastery and athleticism. Playing heroes in adventure films, he’s a joker and a clown. In love scenes, he’s quizzical, wary, amused — anything but ardent. Often his eyes, his smile, the tilt of his head seem to convey something quite different, and usually more intelligent, than the dialogue coming out of his mouth.

Which is why Johnnie Aysgarth in Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion is in many ways the ultimate Cary Grant role. Johnnie is married to Lina, a wealthy spinster from a small English village. He puts the moves on her and they marry quickly, but soon his evasions and subterfuges cause her to have doubts about him. He may have married her for her money (her father thinks so) and be planning to murder her for it too. Or he may be a misguided, misunderstood underdog who’s uncomfortably adjusting to life with a woman who has more money than he does. Is he or isn’t he guilty, that’s what the entire movie is asking. It’s not spoiling anything to tell you the ending (he isn’t), because it satisfied neither the cast, writers, director, original audiences, or virtually anybody else who has seen the movie since its premiere 70 years ago. Everybody struggled with it during the writing and filming — nobody could come up with the right ending. Because there’s no way to resolve this particular story. Suspicion is about something inexplicable: Cary Grant’s personal ambiguity, his elisions, his ultimate mystery.

Joan Fontaine won the Oscar for playing Lina, an award generally assumed to be a consolation prize for her losing the previous year for Rebecca. She basically repeats the performance here, but with more flattering makeup, hair and clothes, and with a veneer of movie-star graciousness that probably drove Hitchcock a little crazy. Making Rebecca, he had used a variety of psychological tricks on set to undermine her confidence. Here, he improvised a nickname for Grant to call her throughout the film: “Monkeyface.” It’s like a slap every time he says it; he might as well be calling her “shithead” in that musical voice of his. Let it be said for the record that Joan Fontaine is beautiful and looks nothing like a monkey, but her role gives her little to do other than suffer and look elegantly worried while keeping a stiff upper. (Lina was a little more masochistically interesting in the original novel, “Before the Fact,” in which she’s correct about her husband’s motivations but so in love with him that she knowingly drinks the glass of poisoned milk he brings her.)

Grant’s real romance in Suspicion isn’t with Fontaine anyway — it’s with Nigel Bruce as his old friend Gordon Thwaite. Considering his snub nose, he has an inappropriate nickname too: “Beaky.” In the 20 years Bruce mumbled and bumbled around Hollywood, he was never more appealing than in this part. Beaky always says the wrong thing and reveals Johnnie’s tricks and lies, and then hangs his head as both the angry husband and the offended wife slap him around. Bruce and Grant get a real performance rapport going — they play their relationship as if Beaky was a big overgrown dog and Johnnie his affectionate but exasperated master. When Beaky has a brandy-induced choking fit and Johnnie stops Lina from coming to his aid, Grant is expertly unreadable. Is he frozen with concern, or callous indifference?

70 years later, it’s not easy to appreciate what a daring performance this was in 1941. Grant had just come off the greatest string of movies any actor ever had — Topper, The Awful Truth, Bringing Up Baby, Holiday, Gunga Din, Only Angels Have Wings, The Philadelphia Story, His Girl Friday — and was now one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. What was bold of Grant was to take the charm that had brought him to the top and suggest that it might in fact be a cover for any number of repellent qualities. Johnnie is handsome, smooth, and commanding, but he’s also a chronic fibber, con man and embezzler… a spider, as the photo at the top suggests. Essentially it’s the darkest role Grant ever played. And though the director claimed (probably falsely) that the studio forced it on him, Hitchcock’s “happy” ending (as with many of his happy endings) is anything but. Lina blames herself for everything, but she’s still married to a man who lies at the drop of the hat and steals money every chance he gets. Johnnie has explained everything away, but he’s still married to a woman who knows what he’s capable of and shrinks from his touch. Contemplating the future of their relationship is actually the scariest thing about Suspicion.

 

* Why does everyone need Grant to pick a team? Haven’t they heard of bisexuality?   

Viva Las Vegas

A-M and Elvis

Today, Tomorrow and Forever

It’s not difficult to imagine the reaction of Colonel Tom Parker watching the rushes of Viva Las Vegas in early 1964. There he is: Elvis, his only client, His Boy, up there singing and dancing and gyrating as usual. But there’s something wrong. He’s way back in the back of the shot, almost a stick figure back there. Right up in front of the camera, looming in the foreground, taking your eyes inexorably away from him, is Ann-Margret. Or rather, clad in a skin-tight dress and wiggling in unison, Ann-Margret’s butt. I bet the Colonel damn near bit through his cigar.

In fact, Colonel Parker hated Viva Las Vegas. He peppered the MGM front office with complaints: the girl was stealing the picture; she had too many songs and too many close-ups; the director was favoring her and kept adding new material for her; the publicity was all about this great teaming when everybody knew Elvis was the one and only star and doing just fine on his own. Worst of all, the fancy production values and re-shoots were sending the picture over budget, cutting into Elvis’ share: a half-million in salary and 50% of the profits, of which the Colonel was taking 25%.

As usual when it came to anything but cutthroat dealmaking, the Colonel was wrong. Not only was Viva Las Vegas the biggest hit movie of Elvis Presley’s career, but it survives as one of the best of them, and probably the most sheerly enjoyable. It’s not the best movie as a movie (by common consent, that’s King Creole), or the one that presents the essence of Elvis best (that’s Loving You, an under-appreciated minor masterpiece). Vegas’ script is pathetic, its characters one dimensional, its acting perfunctory. Amazingly, it manages to do almost nothing with its ostensible subject (auto racing) or its gaudy setting (despite the title song, performed three times). What makes it great is what the Colonel hated most about it: Her.

What a difference a co-star makes. Unlike most of Elvis’ leading ladies, Ann-Margret doesn’t seem even slightly afraid of him. And she doesn’t make the mistake many of them made, trying to tune into his vulnerable side and get some kind of tender thing going. She’s a tigress. At only 22, she’s a tight little bundle of sheer talent that keeps threatening to burst its seams. She’s so gorgeous she’s like a special effect — days after watching the movie you can’t get her figure or her huge mane of red hair out of your head. Normally Elvis looked at everything and everybody in his movies with the same expression of polite, amiable inattention. But throughout this movie, he reacts to Ann-Margret with something close to astonishment, and his habitual good ol’ boy smirk is replaced by what can only be described as delight. Their chemistry blows the movie to smithereens.

Her energy and his response to it infuse their musical numbers with playfulness and real sexual give and take. The first of them, “The Lady Loves Me,” is set around a hotel swimming pool, as he sings about how hard to resist he is, and she puts him down mercilessly. The lyrics make him out to be pushy and egotistical, qualities Elvis doesn’t project at all, but he makes it work with light self-mockery and the insistence of his attention toward her. By their second number, “C’mon Everybody,” she’s dancing along as he sings, looking up at him undisguised adoration. Her character isn’t supposed to be that much in love with him at this point in the movie, but at this point in the movie, who gives a damn about the script? Not these two, and certainly not us. By the time they dance together near the end — to something called “The Squat” and then to Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say?” — they’re locked in on each other to the exclusion of everything else. The intimacy is so overwhelming you feel like a voyeur.

You feel the same way listening to the two other duets they recorded for the movie. “You’re the Boss” is a great Leiber and Stoller song in which a man and woman trade teasing compliments about each others’ bedroom prowess — the inverse of “The Lady Loves Me.” Leiber was a masterful American lyricist whose style owed something to E.Y. Harburg — both writers were great observers of human foibles, both had sly and witty senses of humor, and both joyfully celebrated the ways sexual attraction makes a person look, act and feel ridiculous. Plenty of Elvis songs simmer with sex, but with Ann-Margret purring and growling along with him, “You’re the Boss” is in a class by itself.

The other duet, “Today, Tomorrow and Forever,” is a love song in standard Elvis ballad style, tremulous and slow. It’s not much of a song, but their rapport lifts it to an almost spiritual level. You can feel the emotion of their real-life love affair in this song, just as you could feel it in the interview she gave Charlie Rose 30 years later, gently but firmly maintaining their privacy as a couple.

You won’t hear either of these performances in the movie, however: the Colonel had the ballad re-done with Elvis singing alone, and the other cut entirely. The soundtrack album didn’t even have Ann-Margret’s name on it. “You’re the Boss,” indeed.

There wasn’t much else the Colonel could do about Viva Las Vegas though; the picture had gotten out of his control and was a total loss as far as he was concerned. However, he had learned his lesson. After shooting wrapped, he signed with Sam Katzman, a producer with absolutely no taste but an ironclad commitment to bringing pictures in under budget. A kindred soul. From now on, Elvis movies would have lower costs, tighter shooting schedules (two weeks, down from the 11 weeks spent on Vegas), hand-me-down songs, no big production numbers, and nobody of sufficient talent to turn the boy’s head. In his next picture, Kissin’ Cousins, he would be his own co-star — he played an Army man who discovers a look-alike hillbilly cousin in the backwoods mountains, tackily re-created on a soundstage. The psychological effect of this doppelganger plot on a man with a dead twin brother and a deep inferiority complex can only be guessed, but it was a glum shoot and there were times Elvis refused to leave his dressing room.

Kissin’ Cousins cost only $800,000 to make, and earned $2 million in profit. Now there, the Colonel must have thought as he fondled his cigar, that’s a picture.