Friday, May 31, 2013

Faux-ning It In

We're still kicking, though the selfishness of others did put a crimp in things for the time being.  At the moment, I'm going to have to phone in another post, and what better way to do it than to "faux"n it in?  Ha!  You may get an odd feeling of deja vu as you peruse this installment because we're going to cast a viewfinder onto a spate of early 1980s TV-movies in which celebrities from years prior had themselves imitated for the benefit of a gossip and scandal-hungry viewing audience.  This sort of thing had been brewing on the big screen with Gable and Lombard and W.C. Fields and Me (both 1976) and in 1965 there were dueling movies on Jean Harlow, both called Harlow, but the trend soon found its way to the small screen.
Though Franco Nero had played the title figure in 1975's The Legend of Valentino (above, with Suzanne Pleshette in the inset), it all really began to take hold in 1980 with a three-part series called Moviola, which consisted of separate telefilms, each one depicting an iconic star during one or more turning point(s) in her career.  The movies, aired one per night over the course of three days, were based on a 1979 book by the same name that Garson Kanin wrote.  First of the three was one based on Marilyn Monroe called This Year's Blonde.  It starred a little-known actress of limited experience named Constance Forslund in the pivotal starring role, with support from Lloyd Bridges as her agent, and character actors Norman Fell, Vic Tayback, Michael Lerner and John Marley on board as well.
TV Guide offered a close-up feature to help build viewer interest, though in those channel-starved days, it was already something of an event waiting to happen.  Surprisingly, the films were broadcast in reverse-chronology, but perhaps the network wanted to grab viewers with the potentially titillating life of Ms. Monroe versus leading off with the more cerebral, or at least less cheesecake-y, Greta Garbo.
As far as I'm concerned, Forslund barely resembles Marilyn Monroe at all, though I have heard that her performance, at least, wasn't bad.  Bridges was handed most of the acting accolades as her aggressive mentor.

Forslund suffered the ignominy one year later of playing a fake Ginger in The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island since Tina Louise had steered clear of all such reunions, though she continued to work here and there, most recently on a British television series called Ave 43.

Next came what I consider to be the most widely-known and best-remembered of the three, The Scarlett O'Hara War, all about David O. Selznick's hugely publicized attempts to cast the role of his heroine, Scarlett, in Gone with the Wind (1939.)  Selznick was portrayed zestfully by Tony Curtis, with the role of Vivien Leigh going to Morgan Brittany.
Brittany had already played Vivien Leigh once before, briefly, in the ill-advised bio-pic Gable and Lombard. Even as a thirteen year-old, I was somehow annoyed that everyone kept going on about her resemblance to Leigh, which I never found all that striking, and of course her voice and accent were nothing at all like Leigh's.
Look at Edward Winter all creased and waxed up to portray Clark Gable.  (Winter may be best known to some folks as one of Blanche's dates on The Golden Girls who turns out to be blind.) Brittany, of course, went on to worldwide recognition as evil Katherine Wentworth of Dallas, the woman who killed Bobby Ewing (until writers turned it into a dream.)

The movie also features Bill Macy, Harold Gould (another actor who worked on Girls as L.B. Mayer!) and Sharon Gless, of all people, as Carole Lombard!  There are also renditions of Joan Crawford,  Paulette Goddard, Charlie Chaplin and Tallulah Bankhead (played by Carrie Nye.)  Curtis, Gould and Nye all received Emmy nominations, signaling the fact that the piece was well-received (it won statuettes for make-up and costuming.)

Part three of the Moviola series was called The Silent Lovers, focusing on the doomed romance of Greta Garbo and John Gilbert.  Barry Bostwick was given a heavy-duty makeover to get him to resemble Gilbert while virtually unknown Swedish beauty queen Kristina Wayborn was cast as Garbo.
Gould reprised his role of Louis B. Mayer, with other roles going to John Rubenstein (as Irving Thalberg), Joseph Hacker and James Olson (both seen here with Bostwick), Audra Lindley as Laura Hope Crews and in one of the all-time head-scratchers EVER, Mackenzie Phillips as Lillian Gish!!!  One hopes that Miss Gish wasn't home watching this the night it aired...

Apart from several other nominations, this one won an Emmy for its cinematography.  If Wayborn seems at all familiar, it might be thanks to her role in Octopussy (1983), which was one of the few significant credits she earned over the course of a spotty career in films and on TV.

Moviola had gotten the ball rolling, but there was much more to come.  In fact, another movie about Marilyn Monroe hit TV airwaves that very same year:  Marilyn: The Untold Story.  This one, focusing much more on the lady herself than her agent or other business high-rollers, starred Catherine Hicks in the title role.
Hicks' central performance (which earned her an Emmy nomination and is considered good despite the leap it was from her typical look and type of part) was bolstered by an array of actors that included Richard Basehart (as Johnny Hyde, in his final role), Frank Converse, John Ireland, Viveca Lindfors, Jason Miller and Sheree North (playing her troubled mother.)
Typical of the horrid lack of attention to detail of this period in movie-making is this shot of Hicks as Monroe rehearsing the famous Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend production number from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953.)  Get a load of the wretched mullet on one of the dancers!  There was no male associated with the cinema in 1953 with hair even half that long except maybe Francis the Talking Mule...

Hicks went on to a busy career (starring the next year in the hooty miniseries Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls!) including Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) and a lengthy run on 7th Heaven opposite Stephen Collins.

Another blonde bombshell's tragic story was also put forth in 1980, The Jayne Mansfield Story.  This one, as the ads said, featured Loni Anderson of WKRP in Cincinnati in the title role, with a body-builder attempting to forge an acting career as Jayne's husband Mickey Hargitay.  The bodybuilder was Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Ms. Anderson certainly had the curves, the height and the pronounced features to suggest Mansfield, but like so many other movies of this type, the "it" factor was mostly absent.  She definitely had fun dolling up in the Emmy-nominated makeup, hair-styling and costumes.
Unlike some of the other biopics, Anderson and Schwarzenegger were practically the whole show, with no other big names to speak of amongst the cast.

Anderson would remain with WKRP until 1982 and then embark on a series of movies with and marriage to Burt Reynolds.  In 1991, she played another tragic blonde movie figure, Thelma Todd, in White Hot: The Mysterious Murder of Thelma Todd.

Schwarzenegger had not yet attained true success in movies, but did so in 1982 with Conan the Barbarian, which led to a sequel and then a plethora of other action-oriented blockbusters.

Before 1980 came to a close, there was still one more Hollywood biopic to hit TV screens, but this one was truly unique.  In Sophia Loren: Her Own Story, Loren played her own mother for the first part of the movie and then at a certain point, took over the role of herself (!) and played Sophia Loren for the remainder!
The funny thing is, most reviewers preferred Loren's portrayal of her mother over her self-conscious rendition of herself!  Her mother, by the way, did NOT approve and was quite bent out of shape about the way she was depicted in the project.  (She claimed she was more slender, beautiful and less "common" that her daughter appeared!)

Costarring Armand Assante, Rip Torn (as Carlo Ponti) and John Gavin (as Cary Grant), the film ran into further problems with the real Cary Grant threatened to sue to prohibit his name and persona being used.  He negotiated a $250,000 settlement along with script approval wherever his name was mentioned!

Our next highlighted TV-movie bio came in 1982 when Ann Jillian (then a former child-star and voice-actress working on the waitress-oriented sitcom It's a Living) portrayed legendary stage and screen sex bomb Mae West.
Costarring with her were James Brolin, Piper Laurie (as West's mother) and Roddy McDowall.  This one was careful to rename some of the real folks or otherwise sidestep issues in order to avoid any unwelcome lawsuits.

Taking a page from Sophia Loren's book, Jillian eventually starred in the TV-movie of her own life, The Ann Jillian Story (1988), recounting her harrowing battle with breast cancer.  (Diedre Hall and Joan Rivers would in turn take part in this trend as well, reenacting their own traumas for viewing audiences.)  Jillian retired in 2000 and is still alive at sixty-three, though I'm ashamed to say that I thought she was dead!

1983 brought a pair of TV-movies based on the lives of wildly famous actresses.  First out of the gate was Grace Kelly, a careful, generally un-sensational valentine to the actress who left Hollywood in order to become Princess of Monaco.  Cheryl Ladd of Charlie's Angels was the one chosen to portray Kelly and she went to a fair amount of trouble to try and recreate the cool, pastel serenity of the subject in question.
She even managed to rather successfully imitate the dazed, surprisingly solemn and drawn expression that Kelly exhibited on her gargantuan wedding day to the Prince of Monaco (played here by Ian McShane.)

Kelly's parents were played by Lloyd Bridges and Diane Ladd.
Kelly's previous fiancee, fashion designer Oleg Cassini, was portrayed by Alejandro Rey while hunky Brian Patrick Clarke and Hotel's Heidi Bohay played siblings of the star.  Grace Kelly as a youth was enacted by Christina Applegate (later of Married: With Children fame!)
The respectful project came to television the year after the real Grace Kelly had died tragically in an automobile accident.
The other 1983 telefim of this ilk came later in the year and starred Lynda Carter as Rita Hayworth: The Love Goddess.  Carter's part-Mexican heritage likely helped lead to her casting in the part, though it was hardly spot on.  She did wear dark (and reportedly quite painful) glass contact lenses over those gorgeous blue eyes in order to help put the illusion over a little better.
Alejandro Rey was back at it again, this time playing her father, with Michael Lerner in as Harry Cohn, Edward Edwards as Orson Welles and Moroccan actor Aharon Ipale playing Prince Aly Khan.  (Ipale would later portray a pharaoh in The Mummy, 1999, and The Mummy Returns, 2001.)

Carter was attempting to expand her image beyond that of Wonder Woman and did, in fact, go on to act in many, many TV movies playing a wide variety of characters.  With her last screen acting credit having been in 2007, it's been too long since we've seen her in action.

In 1985, it was time for a male star to get the TV biopic treatment and it came with My Wicked, Wicked Ways: The Legend of Errol Flynn.  The movie takes its title from the name of Flynn's own autobiography, which was simultaneously scandalous and cleaned-up when he dictated it to a ghost writer shortly before his death.
Duncan Regher, a handsome, well-built actor of miniseries like The Blue and the Gray, The Last Days of Pompeii and V, was nevertheless nowhere near the captivating, beautiful rogue that Flynn was.  (He actually might have made a decent John Gilbert!) Barbara Hershey played his fiery first wife Lili Damita while Hal Linden portrayed Jack Warner.

Lee Purcell was cast as the woman that many people, including Errol Flynn himself, considered the unrequited love of his life, Olivia de Havilland.  (Unrequited in that they never married or made any sort of go of it despite costarring in many classic films together.)

This one was Emmy nominated for its hair-styling and art direction and like most of the films in this post, is rarely broadcast today.

The last film of this post centers on two major players in Hollywood who aren't really famous for their acting, but for their reportage of it and all the drama that surrounds it.  Malice in Wonderland was the story of major league gossip columnists Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, ladies who had a death grip on the lives of most stars and who fostered a heated rivalry with one another for the latest scoop.

Meant to star Elizabeth Taylor and Lauren Bacall, Bacall took a hike early on and was replaced by Jane Alexander (who gleaned an Emmy nomination for her trouble.)  Taylor played Parsons, the shorter, initially less-experienced writer while Alexander was Hopper, a one-time actress who morphed into a significant press personality famous for her elaborate hats.

The movie was also Emmy-nominated for its costumes and sound mixing and won for its cinematography.  Richard Dysart played Louis B. Mayer in this one and Joyce Van Patten, Jon Cypher, John Pleshette and Tim Robbins (as Joseph Cotten!) also appeared.  The film was punctuated with catty comments between the two poison-penned writers and was a decent hit in the ratings.

I've probably omitted some other projects from this era, but these were the ones that stood out to me most significantly in my (ever-failing) memory!  The TV-movie Hollywood biopic is hardly a dead genre, though.  Miss Taylor in turn had Sherilyn Fenn (rather credibly) portray her in Liz: The Elizabeth Taylor Story (1995), but fortunately didn't have to endure the posthumous piece of drek that was Liz & Dick (2012) and which had 24/7 train-wreck Lindsay Lohan (!) playing her.

11 comments:

rico said...

A major oy vey in the TV celeb bio oeuvre!

My movie crazed young self ate these up while laughing at their cheesiness ; )

Fascinating to see Tony Curtis before he acquired his mid-life silver mane of "hair."

One of my early faves was "The Symbol" with Connie Stevens as a faux Marilyn Monroe and Shelley Winters as a Louella Parsons type...major scenery chewing!

All of the above make me appreciate Faye Dunaway as "Mommie Dearest" so much more!

joel65913 said...

Love this post! I've seen all of these except for the Errol Flynn bio and I'll have to make a concerted effort to find it, if for no other reason than that Barbara Hershey is in it.

Most of these were dreadful along with The Symbol that rico mentioned.

A few decent ones stand out in my memory mostly because of the leading performances.

Ann Jillian made a good Mae West and as I remember the film delved a bit more seriously into Mae's life that was usually the case with the TV bios of the time.

Catherine Hicks' Marilyn is the best I can recall seeing. She was able to suggest the essence of the spiritual Marilyn rather than the surface flash that most actress seem to settle for or are able to achieve. That includes Michelle Williams, a fine actress but miscast in the recent My Week with Marilyn.

The best of the bunch at least in star power was Malice in Wonderland. Elizabeth Taylor was fun as Lolly Parsons but the voice that she affected for the part while close to the actual Parsons' wore on the nerves after a while. Jane Alexander however tore it up as Hedda Hopper making that dragon much more enjoyable than she probably was in real life. Plus the two ladies had a fine chemistry together.

I've seen all four of the theatrical films you mentioned too and individually and as a group they are a sorry batch. At least W.C. Fields and Me had decent performances from Rod Steiger and Valerie Perrine and Angela Lansbury was good as Mama Jean in the Carroll Baker Harlow but that's all that mess had going for it. Poor Jean Harlow had to have her reputation trashed and memory degraded not once but twice in a single year! Both those films were utter trash but pale in comparison to the insulting train wreck that was Gable and Lombard.

One last thing, I do remember Edward Winter from the Golden Girls but to me his best and most memorable work has to be the demented and hilarious Col. Flagg on M*A*S*H.

Thanks for the trip down memory lane. Hope the play is going well!

Pantheon Zeus said...

Great post about the wave of TV MOVIE biopics of famous celebs...

Armand Assante may need the Poseidon treatment one day

Narciso Duran said...

Oh, I remember all of these quite well, and like Poseidon, I too grimaced at the bad period hairdo's and clothes.

Still, on the whole, I recall most of these as being entertaining and fun. Not unlike the biopics of the 30s and 40s, with say, Alice Faye as Lillian Russell. And again, I must echo Poseidon's always excellent judgment, the exception still remains the recent Lindsay Lohan as Liz - neither entertaining nor fun - DOA and POS.

There were two that I missed here. One was Andrea McArdle as Judy Garland, in "Rainbow,' (1978) directed by one of Judy's early beaux, Jackie Cooper. Poor Andrea was a sleepwalker. They should have gven her a few uppers.

The other was 1978's "Ziegfeld: A Man and His Women," that was absolutely first rate; in fact, it was among the best that 70's television produced, right up there with "Roots," "Rich Man Poor Man," and all the rest.

Paul Shenar was Ziggy, and a cast of glitzy current stars played all of Broadway's old-time greats. The execution of the musical numbers was top-notch, and the costumes and hair and sets were period and accurate. Go to YouTube to view clips.

This is one TV production that DEMANDS a DVD release. A stunning television achievement -- and as I recall, a good balance between legit and outre dialog.

Narciso Duran said...

Oh, Pantheon Zeus is quite correct -- Armand Assante deserves a little special attention from Poseidon.

Narciso Duran said...

Oh, and Joel65913, my bad, but I had to read your second-to-last sentence twice. At first glance I thought it read that Edgar Winter had guested on "The Golden Girls." : ) ichdown WhyWhew! That would have been an episode.

Ken Anderson said...

What a great trip down memory lane this post was. Great in that I was around and recall sitting through many of these TV movies in my youth- the actual viewing experience...not so much.
What comes to the fore is the jarring cheesiness of casting so many c-level stars to play such A-level celebrities. You capped it all perfectly by aving the most absurd for last. Lindsay as La Liz (although I will forever be grateful to her for providing us with the timeless scene of her passing out on hearing of Richard Burton's death). Loved this post and hope you're back up to speed soon!

A said...

Wonderful post! I remember when most of these came out. And I remember them as all dreadful, too.

BTW, If we are voting, I'd sure see more of Edward Winter

Pantheon Zeus said...

Oh yes loved RAINBOW (1978) with Andrea as young Frances Gumm,Donna Pescow as gumm sister and Piper Laurie as mom Ethel. Liberace saw this and immediately added Andrea to his Vegas act. He threw Andrea's sweet 16 Party. Ps - Andrea reportedly (from sources close to her) HATED Jackie "former head of Screen Gems" Cooper as director.
She belts out Dinah, Zing, I'll get by as long as I have you and of course over the rainbow - but her acting is "sleepy" at best

vinniepop said...

Poseidon - so glad you're still kicking after your recent setback. I've gone through a similar situation and I know how it discouraging it can be to start something all over again, so I just wanted to say "Thanks!" for soldiering on to keep providing us with some flashback fun!

And I'll also add my agreement to the general consensus about Catherine Hicks - I thought she did a great job as Marilyn (and her lack of physical resemblance to MM proved to hardly be a stumbling block).

Poseidon3 said...

How wonderful to come in and see all the great comments from everybody. I'm glad this post appealed to you folks.

I haven't seen ANY of these films except "Grace Kelly" in quite a while, but I remember being very drawn in by Catherine Hicks' portrayal of Marilyn Monroe, so I'm happy to see some love thrown her way.

And Narciso, I remember that Ziegfeld movie now! It's hazy, because I either didn't see all of it or was very young (I'll go with THAT excuse! lol) I'd love to see that one. Paul Shenar was a rather underrated actor, capable of good (and sometimes deliciously bad) things.

I appreciate all of your guys' interest and additional commentary. I'm beginning to get a grip on my new laptop and camera (though I am not sure if my scanner will work right with the computer now), so it won't be long until I'm fitted out with my usual resources. Thank you!