Friday, January 29, 2010

We'd shoot that terrible wig, too, if we were twinsies Bette Davis in the 1964 hag horror hootfest DEAD RINGER.




How do even powerhouse performers get themselves into movies this bad? After her triumphant comeback as the eponymous loony hag of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, fifty-six-year-old, difficult Bette Davis decreed that she would look good again onscreen, and that she would not work with difficult co-stars like Baby Jane’s Joan Crawford. Hence, Dead Ringer: Davis picked the project because she got to sashay about in expensive-looking clothes, and because she was her own co-star. She plays the dual roles of identical twins Edie and Maggie, who meet again after twenty years at the funeral of the man that one sister stole from the other.

Wealthy widow Maggie takes poor cocktail hostess Edie back to Beverly Hills, where she offers up her cast-off gowns and furs. “They’ll all be out of style before I’m out of mourning,” she explains. But Edie won’t settle for Maggie’s Diors, she wants Maggie’s entire pampered lifestyle. “You never loved anyone but yourself!” Edie says before coolly shooting Maggie dead. And after disguising the murder as her own suicide, she smoothly assumes Maggie’s identity. Now, since Davis makes no attempt whatsoever to differentiate between the twins — they have the identical voice, walk, and bad wig — it’s one of the movie’s hilariously grievous shortcomings that the plot turns on whether any one can spot that Edie’s winging it as Maggie. The good cop, Karl Malden, who loved the supposedly dead Edie, is easily fooled. But Maggie’s Great Dane, Duke, knows the difference at once, and before long Maggie’s gigolo lover Peter Lawford sniffs out the truth, too.

When Edie-as-Maggie learns that Lawford and the real Maggie murdered Maggie’s husband, Edie-as-Maggie realizes that she has killed Maggie only to take on the identity of a killer. Anyway, just then, Duke (make that Duke ex machina) attacks and kills Lawford, leaving Edie-as-Maggie all alone to face the officer who’s come to arrest her for murdering Maggie’s husband. If you guessed that the flatfoot is Malden, maybe you won’t be amazed by what happens next — but don’t bet on it. “Don’t ya know me?” Davis says, heaving her body at Malden. “I’m not Maggie, I’m Edie.” “Nice try,” Malden says, “but Edie was sweet and kind. She would never have killed her own sister. I was planning to ask her to marry me.” Inexplicably touched by this, Edie-as-Edie asks, “Did you ever tell her?” then toughens up again to claim she was just kidding about not being Maggie, whereupon she departs nobly to face Maggie’s certain death sentence — instead of just telling Malden that he’s a lousy judge of character.

Monday, January 25, 2010

TODAY MY DARLINGS, WE MEET MRS. TREFOILE. SHE'S ONE MEAN MOTHER-IN-LAW!

If you ever wondered what Carrie White's grandmother was like, or you enjoy having your horror films draped in hysteri- cal fundamentalist religious beliefs, then step right up and be sanctified by the outrageous Bible belting of Tallulah Bankhead in Die! Die! My Darling!

Believing that she owes her dead fiancé's mother an extended visit, debonair debutante Pat Caroll (spunky Stefanie Powers) ditches her BBC boyfriend at Elstree and heads off to the most baroque home in the British Empire. There she meets Mrs. Trefoile (Bankhead), a fading stage slag turned religious fanatic who has the really bizarre idea that promiscuous Pat needs a moral soul cleansing. She kidnaps the lass, locks her in an attic bedroom, and feeds her unflavored groats hoping she will expel her sin via explosive diarrhea. When that doesn't work, she starves her, all the while quoting various passages from John the Baptist's greatest hits. When Pat acts up, the preachy old prole has her staff of sadists beat, bend, and bind her. Then she recites a few psalms in her breathy, basso beer putsch voice. Eventually, after several failed escape attempts, lots of missed meals, and one too many readings of Paul's Letters to the Ephesians, Pat goes bat guano and wants out. But Mrs. Trefoile has a higher call- ing as part of her criminal conspiracy. She wants the carnal Miss Caroll to confess her digressions and then join her dead son, the sort of homosexual Stephen, in the great be- yond. And there is only one way that the trapped lass can achieve this goal and that is to Die! Die! My Darling!

This strange entry into 60s ‘Grande Dame Guignol” drapes its dementia in a decidedly Deuteronomy design. Mrs. Trefoile is the kind of stark raving loon who bleats the beatitudes of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and then mismanages their intent for her own twisted desire for creating cantankerous chaos. Packing a paltry pistol and wandering the wounded corridors of her fetid funhouse screaming for her self-snuffing son Stephen, she directly answers the questions of What Ever Happened To Baby Jane, Who Slew Auntie Roo, and What's The Matter With Helen all in one sacrosanct swoop.

With the incomparable Tallulah in her last film appearance, Die! Die! My Darling! is a good reminder that your in-laws aren’t as bad as they’re made out to be – most of the time.

Monday, January 18, 2010

TAKE ON THE MILITARY-INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX? YOU'VE GOT TO BE CRAZY.

Based on the famed play by Jean Giraudoux, The Madwoman of Chaillot is one of the the 60s most under-appreciated film treasures. It rewards careful and repeated viewings. The film is a morality play, meant to instruct and illuminate; it is not a typical linear drama – although the interweaving of the real world of contemporary Paris with the fantasy world inhabited by the Countess (Katharine Hepburn, brilliant as usual) and her coterie of elegant female eccentrics (Dame Edith Evans, Margaret Leighton, and Giuletta Masina) gives the movie much of its surface charm. Hepburn's Countess Aurelia is not so much insane as preferring to live in an imaginary world of rosy nostalgia and wishful thinking. She and her cronies fundamentally realize the difference between invention and fact, but they choose to ignore it.

The curious use of three aged women to represent the forces of justice at work in this dual world is perhaps meant as a deliberate hearkening to the witches of Macbeth, or to the Furies of Greek tragedy, (or even the Fates themselves.) Similarly, the huddled poor of the Parisian streets and the menial laborers mostly have no names because they represent archetypes, perhaps – a Greek chorus full of accusations for their tormentors. They contrast starkly with the smooth amorality of the movie's duplicitous villains – a tycoon (Yul Bryner), a clergyman (John Gavin) , a general (Claude Raines), a politician (Oskar Homolka), a business consultant (Charles Boyer), and a prospector (Donald Pleasence) – played to icy perfection and with just the right amount of absurd black humor.

Richard Chamberlain, playing an idealistic activist, adds a dose of romanticism when he leaves the world of the "faceless pimps" (in the damning words of Danny Kaye's marvelous Ragpicker) and journeys for the love of Irma (Nanette Newman), a poor waitress, into the shadow world of the Countess of Chaillot – although in doing so, he must destroy Hepburn's illusions forever, prompting her to take a terrible vengeance on the "greedy, stupid, lost" men who have caused the world to "not be happy."

The climactic mock trial sequence, where the Ragpicker must play the devil's advocate on behalf of the collective monied classes, placed in the docket for crimes against humanity, is a masterful performance by Kaye. (Who ever would have suspected he had it in him?) With honeyed words, he first seduces his "judges" into falling for his deceits; then, when his lies are exposed for the pretense that they are, he turns into a raging, bellowing monster, openly proclaiming his naked desire for money and power merely to make war and destroy what's left of the earth. Finally the mask has slipped; the court renders its verdict; and Hepburn's meting out of justice is as dreadful as any judgment of Nemesis.

Ponderous and heavy? Perhaps. But you can really take the film more than one way -- it is both a whimsical fantasy and simultaneously something much deeper, dark and quite disturbing. The choice rests with the viewer, much as it lies with the characters in the story to choose which path they wish to pursue. The Madwoman of Chaillot may have been made over 30 years ago but the issues raised and the attitudes it depicts are still very much with us today. Only someone as asleep and idealizing as the Countess wouldn't realize it.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

For fans of the unintentionally hilarious, MADE IN PARIS was made in heaven!


"Paris, it's all so wonderful and exciting," Ann-Margret gushes as she cruises past preposterously fake sets inside an MGM soundstage, "postcards don't do it justice!" Trying hard to seem like this movie's Good Girl Who Longs to Go Bad in Paree (but coming across instead, as in all her '60s movies, like a Go-Go Girl Gone Hollywood), she coos while being wooed on a tacky mock-up of a Seine riverbank, "It's all so lovely and unexpected --" then bats her six-inch-long false eyelashes at Louis Jourdan, and whispers, "Please don't make fun of me!" But who can help it? Made in Paris exists to be chortled over, for, like all the very best Bad Movies, it thrusts forward its obvious deficiencies, as if sporting them flashily -- like a zircon-encrusted ring -- might deceive the viewer into thinking they're anything other than dementedly funny.

Nowhere is this more true than in the film's splashy fashion show, since it's a Bad Movie fact that giving lots of screen time to the deliriously dreadful couture of talented-costume-designers-run-amok is always a surefire laugh-getter. With Made in Paris, designer Helen Rose leaped onto our list of first-class offenders, which includes Moss Mabry (The Love Machine) and Edith Head (Lucy Gallant), among others. You'll guffaw while watching A-M, cast here as a fashion buyer, solemnly viewing the long parade of couturier Jourdan's fashion disasters, while Jourdan intones such indispensable tidbits as, "I believe the woman enters the room first, then the gown." (Funny, we'd always thought they more or less showed up together.)

The costume designer isn't the only criminal on the loose here, however -- not for nothing does one screen credit announce, "Special hairstyles by Sydney Guilaroff." Yes, well, "special" is one way to describe the two-story coiffures that A-M must balance on her head while dancing the frug.

Whenever A-M finishes dancing and starts acting again, it's clear that screenwriter Stanley Roberts is at the forefront of the contributors who ought to be lined up and shot. Ready for samples of his dialogue? "I'd like to be judged by what I do between 9:30 and 5:30," A-M snaps after her boss, Chad Everett, gets amorous, "not after hours!" In another scene, Edie Adams advises A-M, "Pay no attention to all that hand-kissing jazz -- the only difference between a Paris salon and a Seventh Avenue showroom is the accent." When Jourdan proposes that they have an affair, A-M gasps, "What gave you the idea that I'd consider such a thing?" His reply is one for the ages: "Do you know what you really want? A thrilling evening of almosts--almost romance, almost love, almost sex!" When A-M wails to reporter Richard Crenna, "They think I'm a swinger!" we long to tell her, "No, that's another Bad A-M Movie We Adore."

It all ends, as unintentionally funny sex farces did back in 1966, with A-M being saved from a Fate Worse Than Death by Everett, who offers marriage and the suburban safety of a station wagon filled with sheepdogs -- and he's not kidding, they're right outside! They drive away, leaving us to ponder a remark made earlier by Everett's father: "If this girl is as respectable as you say," he asked Everett, "why are you interested in her?" Search us.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Today we burn that Delicious 1985 Brat Pack's treasure trove of lunacy 'ST. ELMO'S FIRE.'

For those too old, too young or too drugged-up to recall, St. Elmo's Fire whizzes through the sex, love, drug, career, coiffure, and fashion hang-ups of seven Georgetown U. postgrads played very broadly indeed by Emilio Estevez, Rob Lowe, Judd Nelson, Demi Moore, Ally Sheedy, Andrew McCarthy and Mare Winningham. The movie opens when they gather at a hospital after part-time sax star and full-time sex hound Lowe has crashed the car of his rich, virginal, platonic girlfriend (Winningham). Since neither is killed, damn it, that leaves the self-enchanted Lowe--trying for tragic hipness but achieving tragic limpness--to describe the auto mishap thusly: "Blinding white light, skid, tree, impact. It was out of hand. It was a metaphysical precision collision." (He sounds more at home when getting off lines like, "Look, this face seats five.")

The pals head for their old collegiate bar, St. Elmo's Fire, where would-be lawyer Estevez waits tables and plots how to woo frozen-faced, monotone-voiced doctor-to-be Andie MacDowell, his idea of "the only evidence of God that I can find on this entire planet, with the exception of the mystical force that removes one of my socks from the dryer every time I do the laundry." Chain-smoking would-be writer McCarthy is forever wondering about the "meaning of life" or moaning, "It ain't easy being me." (It's gotta be easier than watching him.)

Then there's "the couple most likely to couple," would-be politico Nelson, who's frantic to wed the annoying Sheedy, hoping it'll change his promiscuous ways. Most fun is Demi Moore, the high-society, low-esteem doll who, decked out in what look like Cyndi Lauper's old frocks and hair extensions, travels the low road to cocaine, maxed-out credit cards and dead-end relationships. Grilled as to why she's sleeping with her boss, Moore growls, "This is the '80s. Bop him for a few years, get his job when he gets his hands caught in the vault, become a legend, do a black mink ad, get caught in a massive sex scandal and retire a disgrace, then write a huge bestseller, and become a fabulous host of my own talk show."

When Sheedy confronts Nelson with his womanizing, he dumps her, so she shacks up with McCarthy, who she dumps before deciding, "I'm going to try my life without any miracles for a while." Lowe nearly date-rapes a protesting Moore, telling her, "I'll bet you wouldn't have so much to say with me in your mouth." With pals like this, no wonder Moore croaks, "I never thought I'd be so tired at 22!" Lowe next hits up Winningham, who, before saying yes, delivers a hooty, must be heard to be believed monologue on independence, as embodied in the joys of being able to make her own peanut butter and jelly sandwiches whenever she pleases.

Hang on for the truly mad sequence in which a cocaine-freaked Moore squats in her ocher-colored living room while sheer curtains billow wildly about her and Lowe stares straight into the screen to say, "We're all going through this. Hey, it's our time on the edge." If you're the type who howls over badly dated movies from other people's youth, maybe it's time to revisit St. Elmo's Fire. It's way out of hand.

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