Wednesday, September 29, 2010

What Ever Happened to Baby Bacall?

One of the most hallowed genres in The Underworld is the "Formerly A-List, Aging Movie Queen in Distress" trend. Inaugurated by What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? in 1962, which, of course, starred Miss Bette Davis and Miss Joan Crawford, many such flicks followed that dragged a lot of once popular leading ladies out of semi-retirement and gave them top-billing (albeit in vehicles often far beneath their prior standing.) Barbara Stanwyck, Ann Sothern, Geraldine Page, Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine are just a few of the names who found themselves acting in macabre, sometimes violent movies.
Within about a decade or so of Baby Jane, the genre had run its course, but then there was this late entry starring Miss Lauren Bacall, 1981’s The Fan, an odd blend of glitzy suspensor, garish musical and violent slasher flick that even spawned a mini-trend of it's own, the "High-powered female being brought down by a maniac" flick. The film could hardly be described as good, but it's still entertaining in a tacky, campy way and does include some unsettling moments.

Bacall plays former film actress turned Broadway fixture Sally Ross, attempting her very first musical (just as Bacall had done in real life with Woman of the Year and Applause! in the wake of her comedy success Cactus Flower.) Stationed in New York City in a high-rise apartment, she is still licking her wounds from a heart-wrenching divorce from James Garner and relies on her personal secretary Maureen Stapleton for not only moral support, but also the handling of scheduling and the many pesky tasks that come with being a star.
Michael Biehn is an overly fixated admirer who types her a stream of increasingly obsessive fan letters. Living alone and working as an underling in a record store, he has plenty of time on his hands to invent a relationship in his head with the actress who could be his mother (and, truth to tell, looks like she could be his grandmother!) One of his coworkers, by the way, is a just-getting-started Dana Delaney. He carries all the hallmarks of a nutjob from a delusional sense of entitlement to a false idea of his own position of authority in his job to projection of his own (warped) feelings of affection towards Bacall onto her.
When Stapleton doesn't handle his letters in the manner that he wishes, all hell starts to break loose. Biehn begins to systematically eliminate the people surrounding Bacall until they have to face each other one on one. One person who raises his ire is Bacall’s eternally fruity pal and dance partner in her upcoming opus, Kurt Johnson. Johnson sports a pair of glasses that may have been obnoxious even in 1981 when they were allegedly popular, but look really bad now. In a moment that causes a true feeling of unease, he follows Johnson to the YMCA where he is about to swim laps. Biehn enters the pool and swims near him, eventually pulling something far more dangerous out of his swim trunks than you might imagine!

Stapleton also finds herself on the receiving end of Biehn’s wrath. While trudging through a deserted (aren’t they always?) subway ramp, arms weighted down with packages, she is viciously assaulted by the razor blade-wielding meanie. It’s a surprisingly vivid depiction, but what really sticks in the mind is the unintentionally hilarious sight of Mo plopped down in a hospital bed with a series of overwhelming bandages strapped to her face.
Bacall’s non-English speaking maid also has the misfortune to be in the way of Biehn during his pursuit of the legendary star’s affection. She happens to be in the apartment during a raid of his in which he slashes a painting of Bacall based on her earlier days in Hollywood when she was teaching Bogie the right way to whistle.

Meanwhile, detective Hector Elizondo tries to get to the bottom of the killings while attempting to safeguard Bacall. Despite her underlying residual affection for Garner, she can’t help engaging in a little flirtation with him as well. He assigns a (basically ineffectual) female cop, Anna Maria Horsford (later of Amen fame) to watch over Bacall until the maniac is apprehended.

Biehn is no dummy, however. He stages his own death in order to throw off the police and the way he goes about it is unusual to say the least. Like all homicidal loons in love with a woman at least thirty years his senior, he goes to a gay bar and picks up a suitable stand-in for his plan. He takes the poor victim up to the roof for some proposed fooling around. However, he doesn’t just off the guy and proceed with his plans. He waits until he’s been properly serviced by his trick and then does him in! In any case, many viewers have wondered how on Earth, despite his graphic descriptions of sex regarding Bacall, that Biehn’s character can really be straight. He pines away after Lauren the way I did Joan Collins during high school. My friend’s mother, a licensed clinical therapist, called it “deliberately pursuing the unobtainable” because that way the love never really has a chance of being consummated, thus the young homo is freed from ever having to act on his alleged lust for the woman in question.

Bacall (once nicknamed “Baby” by her legendary first husband Humphrey Bogart) gives a performance that varies greatly. It goes without saying that it was no stretch to portray an aging movie star segueing to the stage, but she perfectly captures the sardonic wit and sarcastic, self-effacing qualities of the character as depicted in the original novel. At the same time, she often looks bored when her character should be upset. Her character behaves foolishly at times, though it could be argued that pampered celebs do behave foolishly sometimes.

Biehn has some decent moments (notably when he tells off his interfering sister and when he prepares to confront his boss – an obvious rip-off from Taxi Driver) and is even sexy at times, but the directorial choice to so often feature his long, blank stares diffuses his intensity and threatening qualities. His blasé line delivery and calm performance aren't necessarily inaccurate, but they can be less effective than broader approaches from a cinematic stance. In fact, it's possible that most killers are more like this than the flamboyant movie murderers audiences have come to expect and who help enliven the movies they’re in.

Stapleton completely steals the film as the snarky, no-nonsense secretary. Her performance is so on the money and so true to the book's characterization that it almost seems written for her. She and Bacall have great chemistry together and display a believable relationship (more believable than Bacall and Garner, for certain.) They are allowed some entertaining repartee. Incidentally, she plays a character named Belle Goldman and won an Oscar this very same year (for Reds) playing Emma Goldman. To say that the films were of a vastly different caliber is a major understatement! I often have trouble when I watch Stapleton, especially in this stage of her career, because of the stories of how she eschewed underwear. I always wonder if I’m going to receive an unexpected (and unwelcome!) flash!

Garner is easy enough to watch, but is left to flounder with a role that has very limited importance to the story, which is basically a face off between Bacall and Biehn. Bacall had guest-starred not long before this on his hit series The Rockford Files and scored an Emmy nomination. There would be no awards this time out! I was once told, by someone who is a reasonably reliable source, that Bacall and Garner were discovered during the filming of The Fan snorting cocaine together! Besides any disappointment that tidbit gave me, I always for some reason associate those types of drugs with much younger people.
Bacall had to have relished the chance to star in a film for the first time in ages (and get to “sing,” to boot!), but the end result didn’t do her many, if any, favors. Though she had worked in ensemble films such as Murder on the Orient Express and HEALTH (a film that also had Garner in it), she had only done cameo or supporting parts in movies since the mid-60s. Following this turkey, she was off the screen for eight years, though she did reemerge and keep quite busy during the 90s and the 2000s, keeping at it even now. She has a hit-or-miss reputation among the gays, but I always appreciated the drops of vinegar she brought to films like Harper and Orient Express, among others, and in her day she had great hair. I also, and I would have felt this way regardless of who the honoree happened to be, thought it was utterly appalling that her honorary Oscar was presented off-screen and apart from the primary night of the Academy Awards. Tacky, tacky, tacky of AMPAS and inappropriate.

Biehn had become a rather busy actor in TV and movies in just a few short years prior to this. Though his career stalled briefly following The Fan, it soon picked up, and how, when he won the hero role in James Cameron's The Terminator in 1984. Cameron gave him the same position in Aliens (although he was obviously second to Sigourney Weaver in that one) and then used him once again in The Abyss (this time in support of Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and, perhaps, being a bit too convincing as an unpleasant and deranged aquanaut.) He even filmed a scene for Terminator 2: Judgement Day, but it was deleted in the release print. A steadily working actor today, he for some reason never had the same level of success in projects not directed by Cameron. (Frankly, I've always thought his last name hurt him because it's difficult to spell and questionable to pronounce correctly.)

Adapting this novel to the screen had to have been quite difficult as the book is simply a collection of letters and/or telegrams from one character to another. There is no narrative. In adapting it, the writers have diluted the relationships somewhat and pumped up the violence. (In the book one person is injured and two die.... In the movie, two people are injured and at least four people die.) This unnecessarily exploitive approach (especially at the end) is what puts it into the slasher/horror genre rather than the suspense genre.

The schizophrenia of the title character extends to the pre-release tampering of the film. The recent success of Friday the 13th led the makers to toss in more gore and violence. This upset Bacall, who did not want to be part of a common slasher flick, very much and she declined to promote it. Then, still before release, the film was re-softened a bit in light of the then-recent killing of John Lennon by a crazed fan. So the end result bears the mark of too many adjustments, compromises and cash-ins. In the years since its release, several stars have been stalked, injured or killed by obsessive admirers, so in that respect it was either prescient (or inspirational?)

The film does have going for it some gauzy cinematography and a few pretty settings and a solid, suspenseful (if repetitive) musical score by Italian composer Pino Donaggio. (The costumer on this film, Jeffrey Kurland, whose first cinematic credit this was, soon went on to design the clothes for many Woody Allen films.) Then, of course, there’s the glee in watching the unfortunate events unfold and the giggles that come with seeing any so-so film on the threshold of the 80s.

The worst (and most hilarious) aspect of the film is the depiction of (and assault on the audience from) the musical numbers. If someone wants to believe that Bacall can sing that's their business, but no one can say that the numbers in this movie are any good. Viewers will be screaming for her to stop after one more round of, "No energy crisis...My professional advice is...." as she saunters across the floor with the grace of a three-legged yak during mating season. Then there's the infamous Hearts, Not Diamonds “showstopper” in which her voice cracks like the San Andreas Fault. Everything about the faux musical is low-rung, low-rent, preposterous and vomitously inane, despite songs co-written by Tim Rice and Marvin Hamlisch! Could a show this heinous really have been produced on Broadway?? If so, no wonder audiences stuck to Phantom and Les Mis for years and years at a stretch!

However, she is rightly punished on opening night when Biehn takes a razor and then a riding crop to her! He shows up at the tail end of her “triumph,” decked out in a black tie with his hair slicked back, striding to his seat as if she has been waiting for him all night instead of wearily going through the motions of this dreadful production. Then, regardless of the fact that the show was a stunning success, she is left alone in the theatre with no one around at all but her (and the unfortunate doorman) so that Biehn can run at half speed all through the backstage area in order to (not) catch his aged, high-heel ridden, evening gown clad object of lust. The final shot of the film is as amusing as it is absurd, too. (This, by the way, is not the ending found in the original novel.)

Check out this gem, which paved the way for Morgan Fairchild's The Seduction and Lee Grant's Visiting Hours. (See also, Lauren Tewes’ Eyes of a Stranger.)


Topaz said...

Funny how all I remember from this movie was Michael Biehn being shirtless. Oh, yeah. And getting a blow job from a guy.

I thought he was going to be a big star after Terminator and Aliens. As I recall, he went public with having a drug problem and anger issues in later years.

Michael O'Sullivan said...

You have whetted my appetite for Bacall now - 'Designing Woman' perhaps, and I have been meaning to watch a recording of her show 'Applause' from '73 - Betty as Margo! I saw the show in London at the time but can't remember anything about it !!! She was signing her book at the time as well and positively glared at us.

Dean said...

This was the movie that turned me onto Michael Biehn and turn me on he did! It was a few years later that I saw him in the movie he did before this "Coach" (with Cathy Lee Crosby..... another older woman entanglement) on a TV re-run. Those two exposures cemented my years long crush on him. God, what a beautiful man! I was so distracted by him that I can't remember whether either movie was any good. :-)

Poseidon3 said...

Thanks, guys, for your comments, remarks and recollections!

Dean, I don't know if you've ever seen it or not, but I strongly recommend that you go to youtube and search for Michael Biehn and the word Sebastian together (I believe that's the spelling.) He plays St. Sebastian, the one who was stripped to a loin cloth and shot with arrows. Take a Kleenex with you (not necessarily for drying tears! LOL)

Labuanbajo said...

Apropos of Bacall's honorary Oscar,
I well remember the night of the awards in 1997. Bacall was up for best supporting actress in "The Mirror Has Two Faces" and she was the hot favorite - old star at the end of a long career deserves an Oscar (see my comment on Eileen Heckart), But the odds-makers were way off. Juliette Binoche won for "The English Patient".

The look on Bacall's face when she heard the winner's name was a mixture of horror, anger, self-pity, surprise, etc. It was better than anything she's ever done as an actress.

Dean said...

Poseidon: LOL! Well, as fate would have it, after posting my initial comment I thought "hmm, I wonder if there's anything on youtube" and lo and behold, there was Michael Biehn as St. Sebastian in all his glory! Lordy hallelujah! Needless to say, I added it to my favorites.
;-) Thanks for the heads up though!

Michael O'Sullivan said...

That's not all about Binoche - Bacall had to go through it all again at the British BAFTA awards that year, she was nominated and again saw Binoche scoop the prize. I'll bet Betty was fit to be tied!

Ken Anderson said...

So many years after the fact, but I'm glad to have been directed to this wonderful post on one of my favorite "I know it's bad but I love it anyway" movies. You touch on a great many comical things (the size of Kurt Johnson's glasses, for one)and provide terrific commentary on the plot, both its pluses and minuses. I thoroughly enjoyed this and appreciate all the informative detail you manage to squeeze into a small post.