Monday, November 29, 2010

Goodnight, Captain Harrison...


Yesterday marked the demise of one of the members of The Club, that distinctive gaggle of actors and actresses who appeared in a disaster feature film between 1970 - 1980. (This "club" being something completely fabricated that I, as absolute ruler of The Underworld, am permitted to create!) Looking over Mr. Leslie Nielen's career, it seems he appeared in more than a few of our favorite things along the way. He will be missed.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Leftover Turkey

While the rest of the country feasts on the remains of yesterday’s Thanksgiving bird, The Underworld offers up an entirely different type of turkey. Today we will turn the spotlight on one of my favorite books, a compendium of celebrity quotes and anecdotes about films of theirs that were regarded as flops, or “turkeys.” The 1989 book, called Hollywood Talks Turkey, was compiled by prolific Hollywood writer and celeb biographer Douglas McClelland. In my customary way, I have attempted to illustrate the blurbs with appropriate photos!

One of the first remarks in the book is by Bette Davis, who says, “Do you know what I used to do with my first picture? Whenever some young actor would ask how I got where I was, I’d show him The Bad Sister, and we’d end up on the floor with laughter. Seeing how I started out gave them such hope for themselves.” When you consider that George Clooney’s first feature films were Return to Horror High and Return of the Killer Tomatoes, there may be something to this!

Sally Kellerman relates: “I’ve had my share of turkeys, but my first film was also my worst. It was called Reform School Girl and was released back in the late 50s. My ex-boyfriend, Edd ‘Kookie’ Burns, was one of the stars. I played the school dyke and carried a tool case. When I came on the screen, everybody in the theater laughed. I didn’t work for three years after that.” (And I had no clue that Sal and Edd were ever a couple!) She may not be pictured in this still, but here is her yearbook photo to give you an idea of what she looke liked then.

On the film Frenchman’s Creek, director Mitchell Leisen had this to say: “Joan Fontaine was furious that David Selznick had sold her to Paramount for $2,500 a week and he was only paying her $1,200. She dug in her heels and said, ‘I’m going to give you $1,200 worth of work and that’s all.” He added, “Fontaine and (Arturo) de Cordova were fighting all the time. She pranced in one day and said she was sorry for being so difficult, but after all, the whole picture rested on her shoulders. The whole company of distinguished British actors was so insulted they refused to work with her and we lost a lot of time patching that one up.” Do take note, too, of the amusing get up that Cordova has on here. Something key seems to be missing... like a shirt!

Lana Turner relates: “MGM studio chief Dore Schary told the press he hoped to make The Prodigal one of ‘the really significant spectacles of all time.’ But when I read the script I wondered what he’d been drinking…to play him (the prodigal son) (they) chose Edmund Purdom, a young man with a remarkably high opinion of himself. His pomposity was hard enough to bear; worse yet was the garlic breath he brought back from lunch. My lines were so stupid I hated to go to work in the morning. Even the costumes were atrocious.” And Lana did, in fact, take scissors to her costumes to make them as daring and as skimpy as she could in order to try to at least look sexy in what she knew was a stinker in the making!

If you’ve ever seen the 1962 remake of State Fair (starring Pat Boone and Ann-Margret), you will appreciate Alice Faye’s comments: “Going back (to 20th Century Fox) crushed me. The studio was in such chaos you couldn’t even tell who was running it anymore. I think they hated me because I was too young to play Pat Boone’s mother. I had absolutely no direction from Jose Ferrer. I was lit wrong, photographed badly…and they made me play opposite Tom Ewell! Do you know Tom Ewell? The whole thing was a nightmare…I don’t know what happened to the picture business, but I’m sorry I went back to find out.” (Incidentally, Alice was nineteen years older than Pat, hardly reason for any confusion or concern about her being his mom, especially in a rural setting!)

Jane Connell offers background and insights into the spectacular failure that was Mame. She tells of having to stifle her two teenage daughters at the screening who kept saying “Ughhh!” at what was being projected before them. She had portrayed Agnes Gooch in the 1966 Broadway production, but Madeline Kahn, a hot new screen comedienne (notably for her part in What’s Up Doc?) was granted the role in the film, which, of course, starred Lucille Ball. After two weeks of rehearsal, Lucy looked at Kahn and stated, “When am I going to see Gooch?” There was a major clash of technique (and age) and finally Ball announced, “Get me Gooch!” and Connell was called in. Kahn was paid more NOT to star in Mame than Connell made doing it. By now, Connell was a tad long in the tooth to play a soon-to-be unwed mother with little life experience. Of Ball, who she adored, she says, “She had an unnecessary allegiance to her fans, always thinking that she should be the old Lucy for them. Her hair was as orange as ever…she (used) some kind of hooks under her wigs to pull up and tighten her jaw line. All this, plus the soft focus photography she insisted on hampered her portrayal. Remember, Mame was a character whose credo was ‘Live, live, live!” -- she wasn’t so concerned about her appearance or being just so. The familiar freedom seemed to disappear now that Lucy was older. She couldn’t throw her body around like she used to for fear of losing a wig or a muscle hook or getting a bad angle.” Connell talks of going to (one of the business’s wealthiest and most successful women) Ball’s house for dinner and seeing a succulent lobster emerge from the kitchen only to be placed in front of Ball’s husband Gary Morton. Ball reportedly remarked, “Oh, that’s for Gary. We’re just having leftovers.” The final insult was going to a local video store to rent Mame just to be told by the clerk that she didn’t want to see that one because “It’s lousy” and getting the recommendation to rent the earlier, non-musical Auntie Mame with Rosalind Russell instead!

From Miss Susan Hayward: “I was filming something called The Lost Moment…I played a schizophrenic and the director (Martin Gabel) went around telling everybody not to talk to me. Yes, even wanted the crew not to speak to me because he said I had to maintain a mood for the part. At one point, I lost my temper and crashed a lamp over his head, and to this day I’ve never felt sorry. Well, it was a disastrous film. As miserable a failure as you’ve ever seen. Their name for it may have been The Lost Moment, but after I saw it, I called it ‘The Lost Hour and Thirty-Five Minutes.'” Costar Agnes Moorehead looks like the prototype for the Scream killer in this still!

I enjoyed this hooty recollection of Debbie Reynolds’ while filming Mr. Imperium with Marjorie Main as her aunt: “Marjorie was an older woman who had a real-life bladder problem. She’d be saying her lines on camera, and nature would call. Continuing on with her lines as if it were part of the movie, she’d walk right off the set into her dressing room. You’d hear the toilet seat go down, the flushing, and Marjorie was still saying her lines. Then she’d come right back on the set, as if we hadn’t cut, and finish the scene.” She also mentions how Ezio Pinza, the male lead, couldn’t quit pawing all over the star of the film, Lana Turner, relating that Lana once told her, “He’s a slime! I can’t stand being within 10 feet of him!”

The book includes this oft-quoted gem of Joan Crawford’s: “Reunion in France--oh God. If there is an afterlife, and I am to be punished for my sins, this is one of the pictures they’ll make me see over and over again. John Wayne and I both went down for the count, not just because of a silly script, but because we were so mismatched. Get John out of the saddle and you’ve got trouble.” Some of Joan's films from this period, including this one and Above Suspicion have her looking very pretty despite the dire scripts. She was also quoted as saying something to the effect that if anyone thought these movies were bad, they should see the ones she went on suspension to AVOID making!

Prince Valiant was a notorious blight on Robert Wagner’s resume. He states, “Dean Martin was walking around the Fox lot one day and bumped into me while I was wearing full regalia for Prince Valiant, my worst bomb. Observing the black wig and bangs, he talked to me for ten minutes before he realized I wasn’t Jane Wyman.”

Vincent Price recalled one of his least favorite films thusly: “Green Hell is one of the 50 worst pictures ever made! There are lines in it that people still come up to me and quote. Joan Bennett played my wife--and we never met! There was a scene where Alan Hale -- playing a doctor -- finds Joan on the floor of the jungle. In the story, she’s been missing three weeks and she’s wearing a beautiful gown and has two little smudges. Alan Hale leans over, listens to her breathing and announces, ‘It’s all right fellas, it’s just a coma!’ To top it all off, I get killed by being shot with 12 poisoned arrows!

One of my very favorite turkeys is the 1973 musical remake of Lost Horizon. Star Liv Ullmann had this telling memory of her stay in Hollywood during the filming. “They gave me a fantastic house to live in, but you couldn’t even see the toilets because they were discreetly disguised as chairs. As soon as the film was over, I went back to Sweden to make another film for Ingmar Bergman on a deserted island with no drinking water, where you had to walk almost a mile to an outside toilet. It was more fulfilling than doing Lost Horizon.”
Character actor Fritz Feld built a career for himself playing knowing maitre d’s in films and had his heart set on playing the one in Hello Dolly! for Fox, a studio he’d worked for previously. After auditioning, he was led to believe he’d won the part, but was later informed that he was “too French” and that they were looking for German to play it. Feld, who had played Frenchmen, but was born in Germany (!) was crestfallen. They finally put him in the film, at a generous salary, as the assistant maitre d’, but it was a wound he would really never get over. He tells an anecdote that reveals the level of divadom that Barbra Streisand had aspired to on only her second ever film role! “One day I happened to look into a tall, upright mirror that Streisand used. Suddenly, her maid came rushing up and screamed, ‘You can’t look in that! That mirror belongs to Barbra Streisand!’ I said, ‘I don’t give a shit.’ With that, Barbra appeared and said, ‘Of course Fritz can look in my mirror. We love him.’ In the two months I worked on Hello Dolly!, Barbara only talked to the director (Gene Kelly), the cameraman and me.” Her costar on this film, Walter Matthau, allegedly told her off during the shooting with this gem, “You haven’t got the talent of a butterfly’s fart!” It may not be an accurate assessment, but it’s funny to picture him saying it.

I hope you enjoyed this small serving of turkey! If you’re someplace that celebrates Thanksgiving, I hope you had a great time. If not, hopefully your day was terrific nonetheless.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Modeling Some Clay

It seems every generation had its big screen Lancelot. My mother’s was Franco Nero (and I claim him, too, because I selfishly want more than one!) Some fans a couple of years before him might have liked Cornel Wilde. Recent ones have included Ioan Gruffudd and Richard Gere (please…) The one my generation probably identifies the most with the role is Excalibur’s Nicholas Clay. Mr. Clay is the divine subject of today’s posting!

Nicholas Anthony Phillip Clay was born in London, England in 1946. With an early interest in acting, he eventually enrolled at the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. As a teen, he enjoyed small roles in British television and one feature film, These are the Damned, a 1963 Hammer Studios thriller about captive radioactive children.

In 1971, at age 25, Clay filmed The Night Digger, a mysterious drama concerning two sisters (Patricia Neal and Pamela Brown) who take in a boarder/handyman (Clay) who may very well be responsible for some ugly strangulation killings taking place nearby! The hunky, humpy Clay had several shirtless scenes, including one in his tightie-whities and, most surprisingly, a love scene with Neal who was twenty years his senior.

Neal, who had recovered from a debilitating stroke not long before, was making her second foray before the camera in the wake of it. (Her prior film, The Subject Was Roses, netted her an Oscar nomination, but it was three years before she followed it up with this.) Her stroke was written into the plot rather than have her try to mask the resultant symptoms of it.

Clay was charming and dangerous all at once. His unusual features (sort of caveman-ish, at times, to be honest) were alternately beautiful or rather brutish, depending on the angle and the lighting. He was already establishing a screen persona that equated to desirability at the risk of personal danger.
With his thick mop of hair and a sexy voice, Clay continued to work in the West End in various stage plays as well and did several of Laurence Olivier’s productions at the legendary Old Vic. One of them, The Misanthrope, would eventually transfer to Broadway, bringing him some attention in America.

First, however, Clay won the starring role in The Darwin Adventure, the tale of famed naturalist and scientist Charles Darwin, who sails off around the southern tips of the world in order to investigate the geology and try to inform himself about the evolution of mankind. His five-year voyage around the globe aboard the HMS Beagle is filled with strenuous conditions and events.

Adventure or not, Charles Darwin was a bit of a hard sell to many moviegoers and the movie had little impact (and, in fact, is extremely scarce today!) He was a game lead actor for such a film, but it didn’t help set his movie career on fire.

It was in 1975 that he made his way to America to play in The Misanthrope on Broadway. His costar was no less than Diana Rigg and it was she who gleaned most of the attention at awards time. Ms. Rigg would play a part in Clay’s professional life more than once. When their time on The Great White Way was over, she made a British television movie called In This House of Brede, about a wealthy businesswoman who decides to become a nun and Clay was cast in a supporting role.

Nicholas continued to do terrific work, but in supporting parts. He was unhappy scientist Alan Campbell in a BBC production of The Picture of Dorian Gray and good friend to Dr. Victor Frankenstein in The Terror of Frankenstein, a low-budget take on the oft-told story. The telefilm Saturday, Sunday, Monday, based on a play, put him in the company of such actors as Laurence Olivier, Joan Plowright, Edward Woodward and Underworld favorite Judy Parfitt!

He also played The Earl of Southampton in a British miniseries called Life of Shakespeare (with Tim Curry as the title personage!) Then, in 1979, he one of many notable British stars to appear in Zulu Dawn, a prequel to the eye-popping action film Zulu. Along with American Burt Lancaster, the film included Simon Ward, Denholm Elliott, Bob Hoskins, Peter Vaughn, Christopher Cazenove and Peter O’Toole.

In 1980, he married Lorna Heilbron, who would remain his spouse for the rest of his life and give him two children.
Finally, 1981 brought his, perhaps, his most famous role, that of Lancelot in John Boorman’s Excalibur, an opulent, but visceral, retelling of the Arthurian legend that included the famous characters of Arthur, Guenevere, Merlin, Morgana, Mordred and Gawain, most of them played by stalwart actors such as Nicol Williamson, Helen Mirren, Liam Neeson and others.

In the dark, dank world of the film, Clay’s brilliantly gleaming armor stands out. His blue eyes are at contrast with the murky, mystical surroundings. When he finally gives in and makes love to his best friend’s wife, they awaken in a lush, green glade, that is after he dreams of himself fighthing in the nude, his perfect naked body standing out against the background. How many times did we watch this on cable TV, waiting and waiting for the moment to arrive when we got to see Clay without his armor?!

In order for any telling of the Arthur and Guenevere story to work, Lancelot must be alluring enough for the queen to give up everything in order to satisfy her desire for him. I think I still consider Franco to be the very best looking Lance, but as far as I'm concerned, Nicholas Clay is also more than adequate for the task!
That same year, he starred as the title figure in the miniseries The Search for Alexander the Great, a project that also starred James Mason and Gabriel Byrne. 1981 continued to offer up plenty of Nicholas Clay. He was cast as the groundskeeper Oliver Mellors in an adaptation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

A sort of softcore rendition of the famous D. H. Lawrence book, it starred Sylvia Kristel as the wife of a highborn husband who is paralyzed and unable to make love to her. Initially patient with this situation, she eventually begins to fall for another man, something her husband has suggested she do. The problem is, it’s her gardener, a man far below her in station!

This time Clay abandoned all remnants of screen modesty and filmed a frontally nude bathing scene, one that is secretly observed by Kristel. His beefy, manly persona is too much for her to resist any further and the two embark upon a passionate, but doomed, love affair.

The film is cheaply made by the infamous Golan & Globus production team and directed by Just Jaeckin, the man who gave the world The Story of O and Emmanuelle (which also starred Kristel), but thanks to some atmospheric photography and the use of a spectacular mansion for a setting, it comes close to masking its budget. Again, people of a certain age will clearly remember this film popping up on cable and how they waited in anticipation for Clay’s nude scene.

The rugged, burly, hairy looks he sported here are at odds with the many more debonair and slick types of roles he played, but they are most welcome. As the saying goes, “He can chop my wood or hoe my garden any time!” While the images of him rolling around with Kristel, planting flowers in her hair (and I do I mean ALL of her hair!) probably didn’t help legitimize his acting career, it did give the world the gift of his hunky, undressed self.

Still not done with this surge of work, 1981 also brought him the role of the famed lover Tristan (of Tristan and Isolde fame) in Lovespell. In a role very similar to that of Lancelot, he once again played “the other man,” this time opposite Kate Mulgrew and Richard Burton. Despite a cast that included Cyril Cusack and Geraldine Fitzgerald, the film was not a hit and is practically forgotten today.

1982 found him once again surrounded by a bevy of great and fun actors in the Agatha Christie whodunit Evil Under the Sun. As the husband of a sickly looking Jane Birkin, he played the handsome and virile Patrick Redfern who rather openly carries on an affair with the elegant (and delightfully bitchy) Diana Rigg, his old costar from The Misanthrope on Broadway.
The stellar cast also included Peter Ustinov, James Mason, Roddy McDowall, Maggie Smith and Sylvia Miles. Filmed in the breathtaking Balearic Islands of Spain and accented by Cole Porter music interpolated into the score, it’s an elegant and classy affair. Everything, however, takes a back seat to the sight of Nicholas trotting around in a snug, abbreviated pair of swim trunks that caress his sun-kissed body. (Look. I take these things very seriously! Ha ha!) As always, his acting was terrific and he was a joy to watch.

The next year he appeared in a very well received TV version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, which let him sink his teeth into a villainous role. 1984 brought one of his more intriguing parts, this of the story of St. Sebastian called The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian. Clay played Emperor Augustus who falls in love with Sebastian, the chief archer in his Roman Army.

When Sebastian (played by a young Michael Biehn) turns to Christianity and, in turn, rejects the love of Clay, Clay orders him to be shot to death by a team of his fellow archers. The film is given an unusual present day wraparound story, setting the tale of Sebastian more in the category of a dream or flashback. Whatever the case, it’s always nice to see Clay in a homoerotic scenario.

This same year would see him as one of the leads in one of American TV’s most hooty miniseries (and that is saying something!) The Last Days of Pompeii told the story of various citizens of that legendary city scrambling around due to various dramas until everything climaxes with the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Clay played a wealthy, kind Greek, living among Roman people, who pines for priestess Olivia Hussey. Hussey’s high priest brother (ironically enough, former Lancelot Franco Nero) will have none of it.
Throw in gladiator Duncan Regehr, kindly whore Lesley-Anne Down, statesman Laurence Olivier (and his wife Siobhan McKenna), social-climbing Ned Beatty (!), overseer of the gladiators Ernest Borgnine (!) and blind slave Linda Purl (!!) and you have a smorgasbord of cheesy, campy delights. Nicholas practices the discus in a teensy skirtlet and wrestles with Regehr. It’s yet another opportunity to see Clay in his physical glory, but his days in the sun were becoming quite numbered.
In 1987, he was seen (by about twelve people) in the bizarre Sleeping Beauty, one of nine feature film musicalizations of classic fairy tales produced by Golan & Globus for Cannon Films in the mid 80s. The series was intended to consist of sixteen films, but after the first one, Rumpelstiltskin, starring Amy Irving and Billy Barty, flopped at the box office, the remainder, including this one, went straight to home video.

Looking quite preposterous in the most unfortunate of hats, he played Prince to Tahnee Welch’s sleeping Princess Rosebud. (Welch swiftly replaced a fired Page Hannah after shooting had already commenced!) That Morgan Fairchild plays the Queen ought to clue you in on the caliber of the proceedings, though Sylvia Miles as the evil Red Fairy tried in vain to make an impression in the cheap, made-on-the-fly production. Jane Wiedlin, of all people, plays a good fairy while special effects makeup maestro Kenny Baker portrays an elf.

That same year, he appeared in the film Lionheart: The Children’s Crusade, all about young Eric Stoltz and his attempts to join King Richard’s crusades, but distracted by a villain who is kidnapping children for use as slaves. The heavily troubled film was actually shot several years before and reedited a couple of times before seeing a brief release. Collectors praise the Jerry Goldsmith score as one of his all-time best, but the movie has been M.I.A. for years.

Farrah Fawcett, who had gone to great lengths to shed her bimbo image and emerge as an actress made Poor Little Rich Girl: The Barbara Hutton Story and Clay was cast as the debonair first of her seven husbands. His real life character, Prince Alexis Mdivani, was a man who deliberately married into money (he divorced one of the Astors to marry Hutton!), but who died in a car accident not long after Hutton divorced him, so she almost needn’t have bothered.

American audiences saw less and less of Clay after this. He returned to the U. K. to work on a few television series including Gentlemen and Players (which featured a theme song by Petula Clark) and Virtual Murder, a crime investigation series that costarred him with Kim Thompson (of Stealing Heaven.) The offbeat show took its cue from The Avengers, and has devoted fans even now though there were only six episodes, but it was abruptly cancelled and scarcely seen again.

In the GCI-heavy miniseries The Odyssey, which starred Armand Assante and a gallery of other familiar faces like Isabella Rossellini, Bernadette Peters, Christopher Lee, Vanessa Williams, Eric Roberts and Geraldine Chaplin, Clay played Menelaus. Now 50, his face was buried under a large beard.

Though Clay would continue working steadily, mostly in British projects, through 1999, he was stricken with liver cancer and died far too prematurely in May of 2000 at the age of 53. The three films for which he is best known and best loved in The Underworld all came within a period from 1981 – 1982, but we thank him for them! Excalibur, Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Evil Under the Sun were all made better by his presence.