Sunday, August 24, 2014

Out of the closet and Behind the Candelabra

Michael Douglas is mincing across my TV screen in Behind the Candelabra, the HBO teleflick in which the Oscar winning star of Wall Street and husband of Catherine Zeta Jones plays Liberace, the pianist known to his intimates as Lee. To call Liberace a “pianist” is a bit of a stretch. He played piano, and I think those who are better capable of judging musicianship than I would say he played well, but his skill at tinkling the ivories was not what made him famous.

“Flamboyant” is the word usually tossed around when Liberace’s name comes up, but it doesn’t go far enough. It would be more accurate, if a little rude and certainly politically incorrect, to say he was a flaming fruit. Long before anyone talked about coming out of the closet, Liberace’s door was ajar if not wide open. He stepped out of his closet and brought his sequined wardrobe with him, but drew the line at admitting he was homosexual. He successfully won lawsuits against newspapers that dared to print the truth even though everybody – everybody except, perhaps, the more na├»ve middle-aged women who comprised his fan base – knew he was gay. Like “flamboyant,” “gay” doesn’t go far enough either. Liberace was the embodiment of the once popular homosexual stereotype: a lisping, mincing queen. He didn’t crossdress in the usual sense, but what kind of man wears floor-length fur coats, sparkling rings on every finger, or appears on stage wearing hot pants while twirling a baton?

Why would anyone want to make a movie about Liberace almost three decades after his death?

Steven Soderbergh, the Oscar winning director of Traffic, is the auteur who did the unfathomable and made a movie with HBO based on the trashy memoir of Liberace’s final lover, Scott Thorson. It was Thorson who kicked down the entertainer’s closet door in 1982 when filing the first same-sex palimony suit against the star who denied having anything but a professional relationship with Thorson. When Liberace was hospitalized in 1986, his illness was said to be due to his watermelon diet. Finally, when he died, the medical examiner refused to accept the death certificate, and demanded an autopsy. It was then that the world learned that Liberace died from complications related to Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), the scourge of homosexuals that had claimed beefy matinee idol Rock Hudson a year earlier.

But why a movie about a campy figure unknown to most of the modern audience”

It can only be to titillate an audience curious about that gay sex. There’s very little insight in Richard LaGravenese’s screenplay, no real explanation as to why the world’s most blatantly obvious homosexual would deny the truth about his sexual proclivities for so long. We see him courting Thorson who moves into Liberace’s gaudy mansion where the male servants treat him with scorn. There’s a scene in which the two engage in anal sex (though no anus or penis appears on screen), and one at a triple X bookstore where Liberace visits a gloryhole. It’s a very seedy contrast to the showman’s otherwise luxurious life.

You have to hand it to Michael Douglas for having the guts to play this bizarre figure. When his father, Kirk, played Vincent Van Gogh, the tortured Dutch painter who, by all accounts, was heterosexual, John Wayne allegedly asked him why he bothered to play such a “pantywaist.” Imagine how the Duke would have felt about Kirk’s son playing Liberace? Douglas is good and seems to be enjoying himself. So does Matt Damon as Thorson. It’s Rob Lowe, however, who seems to be having the best time as a grotesque doctor who prescribes drugs to help Thorson lose weight. Wearing a hideous wig and a too-tight shirt, Lowe always seems to be stifling a laugh.

That’s what the audience is likely to do, too, when watching Behind the Candelabra.

© 2014 Brian W. Fairbanks


Friday, April 18, 2014

King of Kings (1961)

King of Kings was released in 1961 by Metro Goldwyn Mayer, which promoted it with a poster design similar to their 1959 Ben Hur (with the title carved in stone), but it was actually an independent production from Samuel Bronston who also made El Cid before going bankrupt with two bac-to-back 1964 flops, Fall of the Roman Empire and Circus World. King of Kings was actually a project begun by Cecil B. DeMille who planned to remake his 1925 silent as a follow up to 1956’s The Ten Commandments. After DeMille’s death, the project fell to Bronston and director Nicholas Ray. DeMille cast 50-year-old H.B. Warner, now most familiar to audiences as the pharmacist of It’s a Wonderful Life, as Jesus in the earlier production. Here the role is played by 33-year-old Jeffrey Hunter.

I don’t care for Hunter’s wispy beard or the bangs which curl slightly above his eyebrows, but his blue eyes radiate compassion and make him a very impressive Jesus. The rest of the cast is good, too, especially Hurd Hatfield as an appropriately arrogant Pontius Pilate, Harry Guardino as a hot-tempered Barabbas, and Robert Ryan, an actor whose specialty was playing psychos, as a grizzled John the Baptist. Best of all for fallen man is Brigid Bazlen as a cute, kittenish, and very sexy Salome whose stepfather, King Herod Antipus (Frank Thring), finds so fetching that he offers her anything she wants – the throne of her mother, half his entire kingdom – if she will dance for him.

Christianity is sneered at by those desiring to be hip, so director Ray’s cult following has all but ignored his impressive work on this biblical epic. The crucifixion is movingly depicted with the sky growing dark and gloomy behind the image of the three crosses at Calvary once Jesus dies and His spirit ascends to heaven. Other impressive imagery abounds, including at the conclusion when Jesus’ shadow overlaps with the fishing nets that his apostles have laid out on the shore of Galilee. Composer Miklos Rosza won an Oscar for Ben Hur, but his score here may be superior. Orson Welles provides a narration to which Ray Bradbury is rumored to have contributed, but receives no on-screen credit (nor does Bradbury with the screenplay carrying only the name of Philip Yordan).

King of Kings performed adequately at the box-office, but bypassed the big three networks when it was released to television. It went directly to the local stations where it was a staple on many a Good Friday of my youth. Even without that nostalgic appeal, it holds up well, and is a moving experience.

Brian W. Fairbanks

© 2014 Brian W. Fairbanks


Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Bible . . . In the Beginning

Released by Twentieth Century Fox in 1966, The Bible . . . In the Beginning was produced by Dino DeLaurentis, the Italian mogul who made just about every kind of film during his lengthy career but is probably most famous, or infamous, for the 1976 remake of King Kong.

The subtitle (. . . In the Beginning) was hastily added to warn audiences that this was not an attempt to cram the entire Old and New Testaments into one three hour film. The movie might have been more accurately titled Genesis, but that title would have been familiar only to those who have actually read the Bible rather than bought a copy to place on the coffee table beside a bowl of plastic fruit.

The movie opens with God creating the heavens and the earth. Of course, we don’t see God, only lots of multi-colored mist and fog with a few clouds thrown in followed by shots of mountains and oceans and trees. Today, when more eye dazzling effects can be achieved on a computer, the opening is impressive for director John Huston’s deep-voiced reading of text from the King James Bible. That’s Huston again voicing the unseen serpent in the Garden of Eden who instigates man’s fall. The music, the subtle use of strings and foreboding flutes – the work of composer Toshiro Mayuzumi – adds a lot to this scene in which Michael Parks and Ella Bergryd play Adam and Eve.

Banished from the garden, the couple follows God’s command to be fruitful and multiply, giving birth to Cain and Abel. Cain is played by Richard Harris, but Abel is swiftly murdered and appears too briefly to warrant the presence of a high-priced star.

We soon move on to the story of Noah, and here the movie gets positively surreal since Noah is played by John Huston who continues to serve as narrator. We now have Huston talking to himself. A mob of heathens mock him as he builds the ark, and we can tell they’re heathens because of their colorful garb, quite a contrast to Noah’s dull sackcloth. The ark, though nicely made, looks too small to accommodate one male and one female representative of every living creature, but their entrance is the highlight of the film. Elephants, giraffes, monkeys, tigers, ducks, birds, turtles, and so on, all board the ark in pairs, doing so with none of the chaos found in the hallway of an elementary school when a class lines up to visit the bathroom. This sequence is cleverly and sweetly done, with one of Noah’s daughters running after a turtle that loses its way.

Once the rain falls and the ark rises, Noah remains calm, but then he’s also the director, less at the mercy of God than the film’s budget. Flooding the world has its advantages, but it does not drown out evil. Naughty man builds the Tower of Babel under the direction of Nimrod who “stores up thunder and wears the lightning like a crown.” The tower, more than likely a matte painting or a miniature, is quite a sight, as is Nimrod himself, played with heavy mascara by Stephen Boyd.

Ten generations later, Abraham is born and looks like George C. Scott. His wife, Sarai, looks like Ava Gardner. Scott was allegedly drunk during filming and his inebriated pursuit of Gardner raised the ire of director Huston. The tension may explain why this segment seems longer and slower paced than the others. When three angels appear to tell Abraham to rescue his brother, Lot, from Sodom and Gomorrah, these apparitions are portrayed by an ethereal Peter O’ Toole. Of course, Sodom is a hotbed of sin, filled with homosexuals and scantily clad women, all wearing exotic makeup and cavorting about to the sound of demented laughter and cracking whips. Scott and O’ Toole summon all their acting skills to convince us that they are offended.

The Abraham segment, culminating with the near sacrifice of his son, Isaac, concludes the film.

The screenplay is credited to Christopher Fry who salvaged, without screen credit, the script for Ben Hur. The credits for The Bible say that Fry was “assisted by Jonathan Griffin, Ivo Perilli, and Vittorio Bonicelli.” That seems like a lot of writers for a script built upon words from the book for which the film is named.

The Bible . . . In the Beginning doesn’t overwhelm with either its effects or dramatics, but it holds the attention, entertains, and adheres closely to scripture.

Brian W. Fairbanks

© 2014 Brian W. Fairbanks


Sunday, January 12, 2014

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: Who's Afraid of Sadomasochism?

When Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf was released in summer 1966, its coarse language (several “goddamns,” at least one “Up yours,” and a lot of other words and phrases thought too profane for the movies) made Warner Bros. designate it for “Adults Only,” three years before the MPAA introduced the first edition of its rating system: G (general audiences), M (mature), R (restricted), and X (no one under 17 admitted).

The film was still controversial when it had its television premiere on The CBS Thursday Night Movies in February 1973. In that pre-home video and cable era, a major movie’s TV debut was a big event, but many of the network’s affiliates refused to carry the prime-time broadcast, choosing to air it instead following the 11 o’ clock news.

Based on Edward Albee’s play, considered by many the finest theatrical piece of the 1960s, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf gave Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton their finest hour on screen as a couple. It remains powerful, but the big revelation at the end – George and Martha are childless and their profound disappointment leads them into the sick games of verbal abuse that their two young guests are drawn into – is not convincing. The playwright had to tie things up at the end, to explain “motivation,” but the couple’s failure to go forth and multiply was merely a safe and acceptable denouement for audiences that would likely have been appalled at the true nature of George and Martha’s relationship.

This is a marriage built on sadomasochism. Martha is the dominant (or “top”) dishing out abuse to George, the self-loathing but appreciative submissive (“bottom”) who derives sexual satisfaction from humiliation. In the ‘60s, some of the more daring and perceptive critics, aware that Albee is gay, saw George and Martha as symbolizing a homosexual couple at a time before Gay Liberation when such a thing was considered shockingly perverse. One doesn’t have to bring homosexuality into the equation, however, since sadomasochism is neither gay nor straight, and is also practiced by heterosexuals. Some of these relationships are strictly professional with the submissive paying the dominatrix to disparage his manhood and humiliate him sexually, as Martha humiliates George, calling him a “flop” and cuckolding him with his younger more athletic colleague.

Ignore the phony conclusion, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is still powerful drama.

Although he was initially considered miscast as George, the diffident associate professor of History at a New England college, Burton may have been telling the truth when he told director Mike Nichols, “I am George.” As his recently published diaries attest, Burton was a frustrated scholar whose first love was not acting (or drinking and sex), but “a book with lovely words in it.”

© 2014 Brian W. Fairbanks


Friday, November 22, 2013

Executive Action (1973): A warmup for JFK

Executive Action is a sometimes compelling but often pedestrian film examining the possibility that a cabal of powerful businessmen planned the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas on November 22, 1963.

Based somewhat loosely on the book, Rush to Judgment by Mark Lane and Donald Freed, Executive Action looks like something of a test run for JFK, Oliver Stone’s more ambitious examination of a similar thesis that arrived 18 years later. The filmmakers were certainly courageous in tackling such explosive material, and if not for the participation of Burt Lancaster and Robert Ryan, it’s doubtful the film would have made it beyond the planning stages, but the results are somewhat flat.

Lancaster and Ryan are wealthy businessmen who see Kennedy as a threat to their interests. The president has opposed a merging of the oil companies, is supportive of civil rights for minorities, and has expressed a less than hawkish attitude toward war. With younger brothers Robert and Edward waiting in the wings, they fear the possibility that a Kennedy could occupy the White House through 1983. When we don’t see Lancaster and Ryan planning and plotting, and trying to convince Will Geer to go along with their assassination scheme, we see marksmen practicing the execution.

Dalton Trumbo’s screenplay strays a bit from the source material. Citing several factual errors made in the interest of drama, Lane disowned the film, but its thesis is worthy of consideration, more so than the discredited Warren Commission Report. Produced by Edward Lewis (Spartacus) and directed by David Miller (Lonely Are the Brave), Executive Action makes an interesting supplement to the more riveting JFK.

© 2009 Brian W. Fairbanks


Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Bela Lugosi stalks the night as Dracula

When Universal’s Dracula premiered at New York’s Roxy Theater in February 1931, the critic for The New York Times wrote that it “can at least boast of being the best of the many mystery films.”

Today, no one would likely regard Dracula as a “mystery.” In 1931, however, “horror” had yet to take its place as a genre like the western, the comedy, the romance, and the drama. There had been “horror” films before Dracula, including Nosferatu, a silent, unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel, but they were few and far between. Dracula and the same year’s Frankenstein established “horror” with moviegoers who would be introduced to more vampires, monsters, and mad doctors, as well as mummies, ghouls, giant apes, and zombies in the years ahead.

Certainly, no mere “mystery” concerned itself with a character like the Count from Transylvania. Dracula is a vampire, Professor Van Helsing tells us, one of those curious undead creatures that can “take the form of wolves and bats. They leave their coffins at night and they feed on the blood of the living.”

If not for its historical significance and Bela Lugosi’s signature performance, it’s tempting to wonder how famous this film would be today.

In that initial review, the Times’ critic praised Tod Browning’s “imaginative direction,” but imaginative direction is one thing this now classic film lacks. The opening scenes at Dracula’s castle are memorably eerie, with Lugosi descending a cobwebbed staircase while a wolf howls in the distance. “Listen to them,” Dracula tells his visitor, “Children of the night. What music they make.” The Hungarian actor’s slow delivery, the effect of having to learn his dialogue phonetically due to a poor grasp of English, adds to Dracula’s otherworldly personality. He is a vampire, after all, who comes to life only after sunset.

Once the Count and the hapless fly-eating Renfield arrive in London, Dracula is as slow as Lugosi’s delivery. Although the film is never as good as those first 15 minutes, it has an almost hypnotic quality, due mainly to the star’s fascinating presence. Like most early talkies, there is no music score (the opening titles are accompanied by a snippet of “Swan Lake”), but that only contributes to the film’s deathly mood. All that silence gives the film the ambience of a tomb. When characters speak, it has the effect of a coffin lid being pried open. In the late ‘90s, Universal commissioned Philip Glass to compose a score for the film, but the Kronos Quartet’s music actually detracts from the film’s power.

Although it takes wolf bane, a crucifix, or a stake through the heart to keep a vampire at bay, Dracula was not immune to the 1929 stock market crash and the economic depression that followed. Universal abandoned plans for a big budget film that would have adhered more closely to Stoker’s novel, and filmed Hamilton Deane’s rather mundane play instead.

Though much about the film is disappointing, Dracula is a landmark in cinema. Everybody over the age of 10 probably knows of Bela Lugosi, or did in those bygone days when people were still culturally literate. For fans of classic horror, however, even such obscure performers as Edward Van Sloan, David Manners, and especially Dwight Frye are legends of a sort due to their participation in this and other now revered shockers. Frye, a tragic figure who found himself typecast as freaky deviants after playing the hysterical Renfield, was even the inspiration for a song by Alice Cooper (“The Ballad of Dwight Frye”).

But Dracula is Lugosi’s showcase. No matter how many actors have donned the Count’s flowing black cape and bared some sharp, blood-stained fangs (which Lugosi does not do), it’s a role he continues to own.

© 2013 Brian W. Fairbanks


Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Flaming Star: Elvis at the crossroads

After his discharge from the Army, Elvis Presley was at a crossroads. Having served his country with honor, he was suddenly seen as a decent American kid by many of the same parents who condemned him earlier as a pied piper leading their children down the path to Hell. To appeal to these newly won fans, his hips now swayed more than they swiveled and the raucous rock and roll that brought him fame gave way to maudlin ballads ("Are You Lonesome Tonight?") and finger snapping pop songs ("Stuck on You").

Nothing reflected the change in his public image more than his movies, though. Whereas his first four films found him playing rebels both sweet (Loving You) and sullen (Jailhouse Rock), 1960's G.I. Blues put him back in the military uniform he was relieved to have been freed from, and had him singing to babies in a role that could have easily been played by Establishment god Bing Crosby two decades earlier. A monster hit, its acceptance by the public did not dampen his enthusiasm for a serious acting career, and his next film, Flaming Star, suggested that this goal was not beyond his reach.

Returning to the western genre in which he made his film debut, Presley is effectively cast as Pacer Burton, a half-breed torn between two peoples.

When the Kiowa Indians launch an attack on the neighboring white settlers, burning homes and savagely murdering the people, the Burton homestead is spared. Though the family is headed by a white man, his wife is a Kiowa. One son is white, but the youngest is a half-breed. Suddenly, the whites, who had accepted the family and welcomed them into their homes, turn against them, threatening to shoot the half-breed should he set foot on their property. Meanwhile, the Kiowas hope to enlist Pacer in their cause. "If a half-breed white leaves his father's people to fight for his mother's people, it will make the strongest magic I have," the chief tells the troubled lad, but he refuses to join their battle. When his mother is shot by a white man and dies after being refused treatment by the white doctor, Pacer's long held but hidden feelings that he never belonged in the white man's world suddenly surface. He abandons his home and joins his mother's people on the warpath. But he remains an outsider, painfully aware that as a half-breed, no matter whose side he takes, he is always fighting himself.

With a literate screenplay by Clair Huffaker and Nunnally Johnson, based on a novel by Huffaker, and the customarily tight direction of Don Siegel, Flaming Star is a meaningful drama potently performed by a strong cast. As Pacer's father and mother, there's the always excellent John McIntire and the lovely Dolores Del Rio. Steve Forrest capably plays Clint, the white son in the Burton clan, and there's a supporting cast that features Barbara Eden, Richard Jaeckal, and L.Q. Jones. Though it's not a shoot ‘em up by any means, there's plenty of exciting action well staged by the masterful Siegel, who later went on to direct Clint Eastwood in such films as Dirty Harry and Escape from Alcatraz.

The role of Pacer Burton was originally intended for Marlon Brando. As an actor, Presley may not be Brando (just as Brando could never be Presley in the recording studio), but by 1960 Brando wasn't Brando much anymore, either, and Presley gives an excellent performance that even Mr. Method Actor could not improve on. Presley's performance may have even been inspired. The situation his character faces is not unlike the one he was facing at the time. Just as Pacer is torn between two divergent cultures, Presley, with the resumption of his career, stood uncomfortably between two different worlds: the rock and roll culture in which he had been the White Negro, the rebel king whose music terrified the guardians of middle class morality, and the whiter than white, white bread world of mainstream showbiz where, with his new more respectable image, he seemed to be headed. The modest reception given Flaming Star and the complete failure of the Clifford Odets scripted Wild in the Country may have sealed his fate more than any Faustian pact he had made with Colonel Tom Parker. Before long, Presley was exiled to another world all together - that strange Twilight Zone nightmare known as the "Elvis Presley movie."

Ah, but Flaming Star is not an "Elvis Presley movie." It's a thoughtful, intelligent western drama, and a good one, that happens to star an actor named Elvis Presley.

© 1999 Brian W. Fairbanks