Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Indian Giver

In honor of Thanksgiving, we give thanks today for the lustrous hair, the slender physique, the full lips and the tremendous singing voice of that Native American heroine Pocahontas.

The subject of one of Disney’s more controversial and underappreciated animated films, Pocahontas is one of the surprisingly rare number of “princesses” who didn’t have to marry someone to become one, her being the daughter of a Powhatan chief to begin with.

In this era when there’s always something to offend someone, with people waiting just around the river bend at any second to jump on even the most absurd slights, Disney’s rendition of the girl brought screams of protest over her too Barbie-like figure and her lack of authenticity. (Because, as we all know, animated musicals are always steeped in kitchen sink verisimilitude and no Hollywood product has ever enhanced a historical figure by presenting that person in a more flattering physical light than they themselves had, right?)

There were also those who criticized the adult nature of the movie as it contained a love story between Poca and Captain John Smith. Not a tremendous amount is known about the real life relationship between the two, but surely critics of the more adult looking Poca would not have wanted her to be drawn as a true 11 year-old and then have her involved with an adult male! Anyway, the film is based less on fact (do ya think?) than on previously established legends about the pair. If you’ve ever heard the classic song Fever or seen the 1953 film Captain John Smith and Pocahontas, then you know that rumblings of a romance between these two didn’t begin in 1995 with this movie.

Those who struggled with the liberties taken with the facts and who seemingly wanted a documentary-like approach to the tale, missed out on one of Disney’s all-time most beautiful films. With leaves blowing constantly and Poca’s hair billowing around her, the screen seems in constant motion, but not in a negative way. The colors, the music and the ingratiating characters combine to provide a lovely viewing experience.

Additionally, the film encourages not only a respect for the land and the ecology of the planet, but also stresses the need for racial harmony. Not only that, but Pocahontas also presents a feminist, empowering point of view, refusing to blithely give in to the male-dominated dictates of her environment and struggling to see that things are made right, regardless of the risk or cost.

Though the movie includes the supernatural element of Grandmother Willow, a speaking tree filled with advice, the now-standard animal sidekicks do not talk. Meeko the raccoon and Flit the hummingbird, pals of Pocahontas and Percy the pug, the prized pooch belonging to the villainous Governor Ratcliffe, demonstrate their character through movement and animal-like sounds.

Percy, by the way, marked the first time in my life that I ever could fully relate to a character on screen. Fussy, pouty, snooty, finicky and always above-it-all, he sports a near constant sneer, loves to eat, revels in luxurious baths, prefers not to get dirty and does NOT like to have his hair messed up! Eventually, he loosens up and joins in the fun as I often find myself doing after initial reluctance, but it truly was a revelation to me to see myself represented in a cinematic character!

Pocahontas’ speaking voice came courtesy of an Eskimo actress named Irene Bedard. Her singing voice was provided by Broadway talent Judy Kuhn (who was in her mid-to-late 30s at the time!) The voice of Captain Smith came from quite an unlikely source and it is one that belongs to an outcast of The Underworld, a man who was cast out even before his headline-grabbing, hate-filled, drunken episode and whose body of work in live-action films is almost universally boycotted by Poseidon.

The splendid music is the work of Broadway composers Howard Menken and Stephen Schwartz (Mr. Schwartz being one of the handful of celebrities who Poseidon has met in person.) Sadly, a truly lovely duet between the lead couple (sung while Smith is being held captive and Pocahontas comes to visit him) called If I Never Knew You was excised from the film in its first release. A pop version was always included on the soundtrack album, but the narrative version has since been restored to the anniversary DVD in augmented form.

My affection for this film came as a surprise to me because I have never really been one to take up causes, such as the treatment of Native Americans or even environmental ones, and am only a moderate fan of animation (and, in fact, have no great love for the mammoth Disney machine and all its endless product.) Maybe it was the touching simplicity of the tribe as they opened the film with a harvest. Perhaps it was the fact that Pocahontas can sing underwater, something even I have never been able to effectively accomplish. Could it be the Vanessa Williams video for Colors of the Wind that featured her crooning away while breezes caused the material of her ensemble to waft (a documented obsession of mine)?

All I know is that I instantly loved the film and was saddened to see it maligned by a fair number of people (though it was a success at the box office.) Apart from a major blitz when the film was released, for years, Poca’s likeness was either eliminated or underemphasized in all the never-ending Disney merchandising. In recent years, this has been remedied to an extent. This could be due to a renewed appreciation for the movie or maybe because so many of the subsequent films from the studio have been rancid, contrived, un-enjoyable pieces of junk!

In any case, taken without any preconceived notions and without the expectation of reality, you may find yourself being captivated and maybe even touched by this film should you give it a try.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Beyond Comprehesion...

Poor old Irwin Allen. He just wouldn’t give up on a formula until he was certain that it was dead (and buried!) The stunning success of The Poseidon Adventure led to the development of The Towering Inferno, making Allen the undisputed Master of Disaster. Seeing a chance to wring just a little more success out of his first blockbuster, he urged writer Paul Gallico to write a sequel to his novel, the one that started the whole ball rolling in the first place.

In what was a very curious decision, Gallico wrote his sequel "Beyond the Poseidon Adventure," not strictly in line with his own novel, but rather in line with the movie version of his novel! Thus, the story of the novel didn’t necessarily jibe 100% with his own literary work but more with that of the film. He concocted a tale involving Mr. Rogo, Mr, Rosen and Mr. Martin going back into the barely afloat cruise liner and coming upon pirates, criminals and other survivors. It was a somewhat far-fetched scheme and an at times violent one.

Thing is, when Allen commissioned the sequel novel to become a film, he chucked virtually all of the characters and storyline that Gallico came up with and ran with a whole different scenario!! So Gallico may as well have just stuck to his own version of the story and not tried to match the movie.

The movie sequel, Beyond the Poseidon Adventure, was a cinematic fiasco, disappearing from theaters almost as quickly as it had been booked. Not only was it set the same day the first movie ended, but filmed seven years later(!), but it also bore precious little resemblance to the first film in look or continuity. Someone in the art direction department decided that, apart from some leftover party streamers here and there, the upside down sets should be pristine and lit with flood lights. Thus, the dank, burned, dirty passageways of the original film were exchanged for shiny, spotless, heavily illuminated areas with an occasional body or a hole in the floor to suggest that anything untoward has gone on!

None of the original cast was used, so a whole new raft of characters was created, though some of them adopt characteristics of their predecessors. Michael Caine plays a tugboat captain who decides to claim salvage rights to the capsized S.S. Poseidon and board her with his right hand man Karl Malden and his newfound lady friend Sally Field. Before he can even get inside, a sleek yacht pulls up containing white-clad Telly Savalas (in some most unflattering slacks) and a crew of “medical” personnel who wish to go into the ship and look for survivors.

These folks band together tenuously and soon find themselves every bit as trapped as the folks in the first movie were. A fairly lame contrivance places this gaggle of folks in an entirely different section of the boat than was shown in the first movie and so they come upon the gym, the purser’s office, a different kitchen, passenger quarters and a storage facility. They even stumble upon more survivors.

Among the newly discovered passengers are Peter Boyle, an insufferable loudmouth who is constantly trying to locate his “daughtah,” Shirley Jones, as a nurse whose first voyage this was (why? The ship was en route to be scrapped. Did they need to hire more staff?), Veronica Hamel, as a glamorous beauty who doesn’t seem to want to join in with everyone else, and Slim Pickens, as a boozy Texas big shot. Pickens' line readings offer some of the most amusing moments in what is frequently an unintentional laugh fest. My fave is “Who the devil’s Suzanne?”

Eventually, even more passengers are located (!) including Mark Harmon as a scrawny, but kind, elevator operator, Angela Cartwright, as Boyle’s “daughtah,” Jack Warden as a famous author and Shirley Knight as his devoted wife. Cartwright had worked with Allen for several seasons of Lost in Space, which explains why someone almost 30 years old is playing “daddy’s little girl” in her first feature film role in nearly 15 years. Granted, her prior film was the monumental success The Sound of Music, but she was not exactly right for this part and it certainly did her no favors in return!

I’ve already professed my devotion to the elegant and effortlessly classy Shirley Knight in a different entry on this blog. Her role in the film couldn’t be more thankless and yet she lends the project practically all of the scant prestige that it has. Her entrance in the film is hysterically funny as Field and Cartwright are clearing away debris when suddenly, like out of an old Scooby-Doo cartoon, Knight creeps out of a doorway and blithely taps Cartwright on the back, eliciting a blood-curdling scream. Rather than to acknowledge her or see what she’s all about, the two women either squeal endlessly or holler, “Mike!” until Caine comes forward to see what’s going on.

Later, Knight has another dilly of a scene in which her shoulder is wrenched from its socket (giving her the chance to prove her acting mettle by holding it all bent and awkward) and Jones has to pop it back in, offering her the comforting words, “This is going to hurt a great deal Mrs. Meredith. I’m so sorry!” Thanks!

Apart from Knight, my other favorite character (virtual obsession, truth be known) is Hamel’s. Apart from being drop-dead gorgeous despite all the disaster, she’s one of the few characters with any sort of dimension. She gets to act aloof, haughty, scared, melodramatic, sexy… You name it! At one point, she has to jump over a wide hole in the floor and she falls into Caine’s arms helplessly and utters, “Oh God, please hold me” forcing Field to exclaim, “Oh, brother…” Hamel was under personal contract to Allen and was placed in his next career-killer When Time Ran Out as a result. Thankfully, she would eventually land on Hill St. Blues to great acclaim.

Field, despite being stuck in an ugly outfit with goofy hair, manages to deliver her lines with measurable wit. She has a lot of corny comments to make along with shifts in emotion. Though the guts of a sinking ship may not be the place to go into some of the things her character does, she at least seems to know that she’s in a hopelessly lousy action flick and keeps a light head and heart. Amazingly, this piece of garbage was her follow-up project to Norma Rae, for which she won a Best Actress Oscar! No wonder she didn’t “feel it” the first time (that people liked her!)

Caine, for reasons that can only be explained in terms of dollars, had already been stung career-wise by The Swarm and yet went back to the Allen well for more. That he ever appeared on film again after these two lulus, much less won an Oscar, is downright miraculous. Once again, he’s here stone-facedly barking out orders to everyone and romancing someone while in the face of immediate danger. At least he attains a certain level of camaraderie with Malden and struck up enough chemistry with Field to warrant their later pairing in the marginal Surrender.

Eventually, for reasons I won’t spoil, there’s not only the sinking ship to contend with, but also gunplay! Finally, the remaining survivors must don facemasks, flippers and oxygen tanks in order to swim out from under the ship. This provides some unintentionally foolish-looking visuals as the hapless actors flop around in the water and cling to each other on the overturned hull of the (apparently spanking new?!) S.S. Poseidon, which is cherry red even though the boat was so old it was on its way to be dismantled for scrap.

A thoroughly idiotic, senseless, tired, ludicrous piece of film-making (with a completely forgettable score by Jerry Fielding), this bomb entertains in spite of itself, but for all the wrong reasons. Just try to keep a straight face as it plods along. I’ll never forget my first exposure to the film. I was sitting in my 6th grade classroom looking through a catalog of films available for rent when I saw the ad for it. So hopelessly dire was its box office performance that I, a diehard fan of the original, had never even HEARD of it before! It blew my mind that such a sequel even existed (and the same thing has happened to many a person upon being told that there was a Poseidon sequel filmed thirty years ago.) I had to wait a long time to actually see it for myself. When I did, it was in an expanded television edition that, sadly, is not readily available at present. The DVD doesn’t include the extra 20 minutes, which fleshed out the characters of Warden, Knight and Jones a little bit more among other things.

All that said, I have a certain affection for it, like for a wounded bird. Allen wanted to entertain. He wanted to make audiences jaws drop open. Unfortunately, they didn’t always fall open for the intended reasons. Fan of cheesy all-star casts that I am and for watery special effects, I can’t help but enjoy the dang thing. At least the goings on in the film were created by stuntmen and craftsmen and contained real fire and water rather than the pixilated stuff that’s all the rage now. For this alone, I like it better than the soulless, hyped-up, generic Poseidon remake that came out in 2006.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Hanging Chad

Gay men of a certain age fondly recall watching Dr. Joe Gannon (played by Chad Everett) of TV’s Medical Center prowl the halls of the hospital in his scrubs, which, according to legend, showed off the finer points of his physique. (Sadly, no readily available photos allow us to see this for ourselves!) I remember the series, vaguely, but we must not have watched it in my house because my admiration for Chad comes from mostly other sources.

Everett, one of the last significant clients of notorious Hollywood agent Henry Willson, was born Raymon Cramton in Indiana and raised in Michigan by parents with the names of Virleen and Harry Clyde! Thus, it’s not impossible to believe his claims that he merely “suspected” that Willson might be gay rather than recognizing him instantly as the predatory and overly interested sort of man that he actually was.

In any case, Willson secured Everett a contract at Warner Brothers and then one with MGM (in fact, he has the distinction of having being the sole actor left under contract to the studio as that legendary era of indentured actors came to an end.) At first, Everett got the standard WB treatment, which included featured roles in films of varying quality like Claudelle Inglish and Rome Adventure (in which his teeny part was all but invisible) as well as treadmill-like guest appearances on their series such as Bronco, 77 Sunset Strip, Surfside 6, Cheyenne and Hawaiian Eye. His All-American, handsome, but also somehow bland, good looks kept him at a certain stage of anonymity.

In 1963, he accepted a regular role as a youthful deputy in the western series The Dakotas, which also featured distinctive character actor Jack Elam and nominal star Larry Ward, and it is noted for having been a great example from the genre. Unfortunately, conservative viewer protest over a shootout inside a church (in which two outlaws and one pastor were killed) led to the premature demise of the show.

Eventually, Everett wound up as the young male lead in a series of color films, some of them lightweight (to say the least!) like Get Yourself a College Girl (just look at the ski hat he was pressed into wearing!) and Made in Paris, an entendre-titled romp featuring Ann-Margret as a fashion buyer in the city of love. Others, such as First to Fight, attempted to present him in a more serious vein, though it must be said that some of his still-new emoting talents showed strain when it came to the really difficult sequences.

He also played second fiddle to various other stars who were more famous than he, including Debbie Reynolds in The Singing Nun, Robert Taylor in Johnny Tiger (despite the fact that Chad was portraying the title character) and Return of the Gunfighter, Glenn Ford in The Last Challenge (a film that also included Angie Dickinson as a comely saloon owner) and David Niven in The Impossible Years.

The trend of placing Everett against an older gentleman continued when he took on the role he is best known for, Dr. Joe Gannon of Medical Center. He played the hotshot young surgeon who works under the guidance of Dr. Paul Lochner, played by James Daly. Daly, by the way, was the father of both Timothy and Tyne Daly and when he died in 1978, there was a now-forgotten scandal in which a man came forward claiming to be Daly’s lover and demanding remuneration from his estate!

Medical Center was a significant success, the ER of its day, and had the caring Everett interacting each week with all sorts of guest stars suffering from various maladies. Dr. Gannon's off hours were spent wearing amusingly hip clothing that frequently involved leather, corduroy, wild patterns and paisley. It’s high-octane theme music with day-glo colors got the series off to a rousing start each week. One immortal two-part episode featured The Brady Bunch’s Robert Reed as a male-to-female transsexual, something that opened quite a few eyes (and jaws) when it aired in 1975.

Running for 150 episodes, it made Everett into a household name and he was featured on the cover of TV guide multiple times. Even when it was cancelled in 1976, the series was earning moderate ratings, but perhaps after seven seasons there was a lack of diseases left to cure.

During this period, Everett attempted a singing career (not a very pretty one if the truth be known!) and put out several albums. Also, in what could have been the result of his conservative upbringing, he managed to infuriate Lily Tomlin during their appearance together on The Dick Cavett Show in 1972. As was (and is, in some cases) the way at the time, TV chat fests would involve celebrities from vastly different fields and fan bases (and let the fur fly, if need be!) Everett made a remark about his wife (who is still with him to this date) being his “property” and Tomlin left the set, never to return! Oliver Reed and Shelley Winters also got into a tiff on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson one time.

In the late 70s, Everett worked in made for TV movies and miniseries, from the excellent Centennial, in which he gave a sensitive and committed performance, to the ludicrous The French Atlantic Affair, a bloated, star-studded piece of idiocy about a luxury liner hijacked by terrorists, to the glossy Malibu, all about the bed-hoppings of the wealthy coastal residents.

At least he tried to expand his horizons a bit, spoofing his leading man image in the middling Airplane II, a rehashed, cash-in sequel to the first (and far superior) movie. Though he kept busy in many TV guest roles and minor film projects, he couldn’t gain another regular series foothold with Hagen, The Rousters and McKenna all dying premature deaths.

Chad was handsome as a youth and he’s handsome today, but he did go through a few awkward permutations, especially in the 80s. For a while, he sported an almost Groucho Marx-esque moustache and then he turned up on an episode of Murder, She Wrote with a “tail” in the back of his hair! He did endure a bout with alcoholism during this period, which I hope is responsible for some of the choices.

As the millennium drew near and thereafter, Everett was selected for supporting parts in films directed by men as outré as Gus Van Sant (Psycho) and David Lynch (Mulholland Drive.) He also pushed his personal envelope a bit by portraying a repressed homosexual cop in a memorable episode of Cold Case. This alone almost makes up for one of his other gigs around the same time.

Mr. Everett instantly lost points in the Underworld for appearing on the Trinity Broadcasting Network as the host of one of their programs. I haven’t watched this, naturally, and prefer seeing him in his old movies and TV shows or walking the red carpet these days where he has evolved into a tan, silver-haired, in-shape daddy, at 73, putting most other men in his age range to shame!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Playing with Dolls

Even from the top of Mt. Everest, Patty Duke can be heard screaming out to God in her final monologue of this monumental camp epic, the likes of which will never be seen again.

Based (a little bit too loosely for my taste) on Jacqueline Susann's ground breaking, incredibly successful, roman a clef novel, Valley of the Dolls concerns three young ladies who wind up in Hollywood and are plagued with a variety of temptations and problems.

Barbara Parkins is Anne, a naive, classy secretary to a New York talent agent who is eventually selected to be the face of a major cosmetics ad campaign and swept into a whole new life.

Patty Duke is Neely, an earnest, talented singer who rebounds from being fired from a Broadway show by its jealous leading lady (Susan Hayward) to become a major film and recording star. Encouraged to slim down and “sparkle,” she has trouble staying on top of it all and progresses through the movie into a selfish gorgon even worse than the one who fired her.

Sharon Tate is Jennifer, a strikingly beautiful performer who can only rely on her face and body to carry her career. When her husband comes down with a mysterious illness, she finds that she has to rely on that and more.

Susann's novel (written with, in many cases, personal experiences of her own and those she knew as an aspiring actress in real life) was a vivid, sensational, yet realistic, account of showbiz heaven and hell spanning a couple of decades. The film manages to cram all the events into present day, with as many of the story elements that could pass censorial muster in 1967 being played out against a palette of insane 60s fashions, hairstyles, sets, musical numbers and artfully handled love scenes and montages. The alternately straight-faced and over-the-top acting of the participants, mixed with the over-ladled glitz and mod trappings have turned this into a cult sensation that few other films can attempt to reach. Scene after jaw-dropping scene features unforgettably trashy or funny dialogue delivered by actresses attempting to overcome the endless parade of hairpieces, false eyelashes and kicky costumes.

Parkins gives the most understated (some might say somnambulant) performance. Her satin voice and built-in elegance go a long way in making her the audience's tour guide through the cesspool of show business. Her psychedelic Gillian Girl commercials rank high in the annals of gay camp.

Duke was crucified for her relentlessly passionate work here. She starts out reasonably subtle, but soon turns into a raging, sour-faced shrew whose drunken, pill-laden ravings have become the stuff of comic legend. No one on earth could scream the way she does in her final scene. Despite the horrendous scenery chewing, her incredibly larger-than-life performance does contain some memorable, even fine, work within it. She does become upstaged just once when her beaded necklace decides to play havoc with her chest during a telethon scene!

Tate (one of Hollywood's most tragic figures ever, thanks to her savage murder a couple of years after this film) is surreally beautiful. Her voice lacks training (and certainly her lines are often hideous), but she is still able to imbue her character with likeability and pathos. Her final moments in this film are a thing of beauty, but she's stunning throughout as well.

In an odd bit of trivia, there is not one scene in the film with all three girls interacting! They appear in one still photograph and have one scene in the same large room, but never as a threesome.

The men of the film couldn't be more disposable. Paul Burke, while an okay actor in some roles, is horribly miscast as an irresistible ladies man. Tony Scotti is repellently smarmy and sings off-key through his nose. He and Duke share one of the all-time loony moments in a sanitarium when he, wheelchair-bound, hears her singing one of his old numbers and temporarily emerges from a vegetative state to duet with her and then immediately regresses! Martin Milner is solid, but can't begin to carve out any focus for himself amidst Duke's hypnotic snarling. Alexander Davion, likewise, has trouble filling in his sketchy role thanks to the switching of it from gay to straight.

Buried in the cast is Lee Grant as Scotti's rabidly overprotective sister. She frets and fusses with a hysterical intensity that overpowers such stellar, kitchen-sink lines as "I'll go heat up the lasagna."

Just as Joan Crawford mopped the floor with her trio of secretaries in The Best of Everything, Hayward completely owns every one of her few moments as a Broadway warhorse. Her bass growl (spitting out foul-mouthed, worldly lines) paired with her fully seasoned star-power allows her to make everyone else in the film seem like a junior leaguer. Even she doesn't escape embarrassment, however. Few things are as mind-blowing as Hayward (decked out in an atrocious fall) flailing around and lip-synching to the planet's most ignorant song ("I'll Plant My Own Tree") as a whacked-out, brightly-colored, plastic mobile swims around her! Then, of course, she and Duke share the pinnacle of cinematic showdowns with a ladies room verbal-wrestling-match and hair-pulling scratch-fest. It doesn't get any better than this, folks.

Hayward’s role was initially to be played by the legendary Judy Garland (who, ironically, was part of the inspiration for Duke’s character in this story to begin with!) Susann announced the casting decision at a press conference that offered up a frail and haggard-looking star. She recorded her song and reported to work, but was tremendously uneasy. Depending on what version you believe, she was either fired or she quit or she was made to quit or she forced them to fire her. One account has her being discovered on the pool table in her dressing room, passed out with her skirt pulled up over her panty-less torso! Thus, her 1963 film I Could Go on Singing would have to serve as her big screen swansong for, sadly, she would be dead within two years of Valley. Hayward was brought in hastily and placed into reworked versions of Garland's costumes (at least one of which she made off with and used in subsequent concert appearances!)

Despite massive critical panning, the film was actually a considerable success and it lives on now as one of the gay community's treasures. Regardless of the ad campaign's claim that every shock and sensation was included, this is actually quite a whitewashed rendition of the story. The biggest omission is probably Tate's character's lesbian relationship, but there are plenty of others. A pallid, drab remake landed on TV in mini-series form in 1981 and a late-night soap popped up briefly (with Sally Kirkland in Hayward's role!) and, even now, chatter continues about a remake, but, while the source novel could still do with a more faithful rendition, nothing could ever or will ever come close to duplicating the overflowing, effervescent tackiness of this version. It's surprising that director Mark Robson, who helmed the tasteful, beautifully appointed film adaptation of another sensational novel, Peyton Place, could turn in a zinger like this, but here it is. Dionne Warwick had a hit song with the title track (which is played endlessly throughout the movie!)

It’s either a credit to me or a black mark that I can recite the entire scene between Duke and Hayward in the ladies room complete with accents and inflections, that is when I can get through it without cackling at myself and it!