Thursday, April 28, 2016

Like Rolling Off A Log

The run of eight films that Preston Sturges wrote and directed at Paramount from 1940-1944 continues to inspire awe in me the older I get and I love every ounce of screwy, optimistic madness that can be found in them. Whatever the reasons were that he couldn’t sustain this streak after he moved on from the studio, the fact that such brilliance was able to spill out so fast is awe-inspiring and I still think of how my mind was blown when I first discovered these films long ago. Some are more venerated than others, of course, and it’s safe to say that THE LADY EVE and SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS are the two which are most enshrined by now. I have little problem with this. One of them I’ve even written about and there’s no reason why I shouldn’t get around to the other eventually. But certain things mean more to you as time goes on for reasons you only partly understand and I’ve reached the point that, maybe against popular opinion, HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO might very well be my favorite. I’m not saying it’s the best. I’m not saying I’m right. Even considering this over the combo of Fonda & Stanwyck in THE LADY EVE probably reveals just how screwy I am. But Quentin Tarantino has said that his favorite Sturges is either this one or the later UNFAITHFULLY YOURS so I’ve got him on my side at the very least. Though it wasn’t intended to be, HAIL was the last film made during his Paramount run so it feels like the culmination of all of his themes that had been building up until then. A main character pretending to be what he isn’t, the snowballing nature of the plot as it spins downhill, the incessant use of his mellifluous display of language (“He likes those big words,” to steal some dialogue), the manic portrayal of his many beloved character actors in the frame reaching a sort of crescendo here as if he’s trying to cram more of them into the shot than ever before. At the very least, the recent screening at Tarantino’s New Beverly Cinema paired with the unknown Eddie Bracken-Veronica Lake vehicle HOLD THAT BLONDE (never released on video, but pretty good) was a chance to remember why I feel this way about it in the first place and confirm that it does warrant such a defense, even if it may never be the most canonized of his filmography.
With World War II still going strong, Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith (Eddie Bracken) has tried to enlist and left his hometown to join the Marines, the only thing he ever wanted to do. But long since discharged for chronic hay fever he’s merely working in a shipyard, afraid to go home and admit the truth. Until one night he meets a group of Marines on leave and with fifteen cents between them. Honored to buy them each a beer, Woodrow tells them his story and realizes that the group’s leader Sergeant Heffelfinger (William Demarest) actually knew his father “Hinky Dinky” Truesmith who was a hero back in World War I. The shell-shocked Bugsy (Freddie Steele) is furious that Woodrow has lied to his mother and immediately calls her to let her know that Woodrow is on his way home. Before he can explain his way out of it, Heffelfinger comes up with an idea that will let him quietly go back to Oakridge (the town motto: “Business as Usual”) as a hero. But word quickly spreads through the town and a massive hero’s homecoming is what greets him at the train station, along with one-time sweetheart Libby (Ella Raines) afraid to tell him about her new fiancée and the heads of the welcoming committee who come up with an idea to use Woodrow’s status as a hero to their fullest advantage, nominating him as a candidate for the town’s upcoming mayoral race.
HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO achieves a balancing act which is rather awe-inspiring as if Sturges’ goal was to tell the screwiest “Local Boy Makes Good” story imaginable. It’s a satire of Americana and all that implies--small town, apple pie, home, motherhood, the frantic and desperate pleas of the masses to latch onto anything which might promise a better future through whatever means necessary. But it also displays a genuine love for each of these concepts, as if all that’s good in America lies within the frantic, impulsive decisions made by a happy crowd. The recurring song “Home to the Arms of Mother” written by Sturges with exactly the sort of sappy lyrics you’d expect shows how it can be taken both ways, a concept that deserves to be tweaked but also venerated just as strongly. Amid the wartime dialogue (the film was shot in ’43, released in ’44) tinged with subtle propaganda to help make it perfectly acceptable for whoever was keeping tabs on those things, HAIL revels in the glories of the soldiers responsible for finally bringing Woodrow home and even within their craziness is everything the American character should be.
In contrast to the nervous weakling he played in THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK who can barely get through a conversation with Betty Hutton without stammering, Bracken’s Woodrow is actually a pretty regular guy who wants to be one of those Marines, he wants to be a hero, the honest desire to be part of a tradition which is all he’s ever known. He’s just afraid to admit the truth, ashamed that he isn’t really one of them. When first seen he’s all alone in a nightclub, isolating himself as far away from everyone else as possible. It’s as if it takes this madness for him to turn into the expected bumbling Eddie Bracken character, to start sneezing immediately when handed flowers at his homecoming and be surrounded by people in practically every single shot for the rest of the film. HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO is not only about tradition and what it means, it’s about what it needs to be for us sometimes, whether the glory of the Marines or even Libby’s annoyance when new fiancée Forrest (Bill Edwards) discusses the inevitability of the children coming with their impending union as he asks with zero romantic thought, “That’s what marriage is for, isn’t it?” This gives a certain sense of reality to the film when compared with the broader and more slapsticky MORGAN’S CREEK (shot on the same sets at the Paramount Ranch) with a sense of emotion this time around to ground things while keeping the correct manic levels.
What little we see of the big city is filled with people tired of the war and missing wherever their real home is, with a nightclub owner not at all impressed by the Marines who stop by. In comparison they’re treated like gods amidst the small town madness of Oakridge, a sort of place that presumably only ever existed in Hollywood, where we wonder how there are possibly enough houses to fit all the people cramming the streets. Four marching bands play different songs at once as Woodrow arrives creating total chaos, which seems like a perfectly normal occurrence when Franklin Pangborn is in charge. The patriotism is unquestioned only no one in the town knows what to do with it anymore so it’s just left out like that statue of General Zabriski which is there for everyone to see but mainly serves as a place for pigeons to rest and is there because it was purchased at an ironworks going out of business. All anybody knows is he’s a hero and that’s all that matters argues the sergeant, just like Woodrow, about whom the townsfolk repeatedly mention how honest he is—it’s even in the name Truesmith. The laughs in the film escalate as the logic gets more and more twisted but it also knows to calm down for the reminders of the war going on. The picture of Woodrow’s father that hangs in the living room almost seems meant for laughs, with a cockeyed smile given by the uncredited actor playing him, but the movie treats the sight with a genuine respect earned by a fallen soldier.
The town of Oakridge exists unto itself with a white picket fence seemingly in front of every house and everyone knows each other. Even the hapless mayor Everett Noble, President of the Noble Chair Company (motto: “Seats of All Descriptions”) is hardly a Mr. Potter-level villain, instead happy to keep things the way they are, wartime or not. The subtle message seems to be that under his leadership it’s a town that isn’t moving forward towards the future, ignoring the war and whatever sacrifices must be made. Unlike the all-powerful bad guys of Capra it feels like everyone, even the blowhard Everett Noble, is on the same level scrambling for their piece just like anyone else. Sturges doesn’t tweak Capra so much as use the themes of the common man going up against the establishment for his own screwy ideals. Even the speech given by Judge Dennis played by Jimmy Conlin, yet another regular face in these movies, about what is going wrong in the town feels shot in a way to mirror the soda jerk’s endless speech to Gary Cooper in Capra’s MEET JOHN DOE. But it has a goal unlike the vague John Doe campaign in that film—more than anything, action needs to be taken, even in a small town whose only connection to the outside world is the train that comes through a few times a day. As much as Bracken’s Woodrow frantically screams and the deeper he gets into his predicament while doing nothing worse than drinking cooking wine the film points up the gravity of the situation not just from the honest responses, the grateful townsfolk, the former girlfriend who can’t find any time to tell him her secret. Plus there’s the mother he’s come home to, played by Georgia Caine with all the gravity in the world with so many tears from sadness or gratitude like no one told her she was even in a comedy. As rah-rah as the film is about victory along with dialogue about food rations there are the reminders that maybe it’s all more complicated than that like a subtle indication that Woodrow might even be lucky for not having to go off to battle and deal with whatever nightmares that the mother-obsessed Bugsy has to deal with. Maybe becoming a Marine wasn’t needed for Woodrow to finally become a man after all.
Maybe this is bordering on taking the themes of HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO too seriously, ignoring the expected Sturges madness and how joyous it is just to watch this film. It all feels effortless, about as effortless as it can feel to deal with countless people in the frame at once all with screaming dialogue to get out. The plot threads of the characters mixed with the Sturges touches whether Franklin Pangborn yelling at everyone to be quiet, William Demarest coming up with an explanation out of nothing or Al Bridge’s “Political Boss” eating his meal backwards. Plus there’s the infectious nature of that “Win With Woodrow” song the crowds endlessly sing that I still can’t get out of my head. And there’s the Sturges dialogue which could be plugged in to today however you like such as Woodrow’s pleas with the crowd not to vote for him taken as false modesty (“He has a natural flair for politics”) contrasted with how the Mayor overreaches as he prepares the victory speeches he assumes he’ll give. “If they want you, they want you. They don’t need reasons anymore,” goes a key line near the end which is touching in context but of course appropriately screwy still in this day and age.
The behind the scenes problems between Sturges and Paramount during production which led to his departure from the studio ranged from the still unreleased THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK and THE GREAT MOMENT to how he refused to replace female lead Ella Raines when the bosses insisted. Paramount recut the film without him when his contract lapsed and after a disastrous preview Sturges returned even though he was off salary to fix things. Whatever was going on, HAIL features some of the best and most confident pure filmmaking by the director. The opening sequence introducing Woodrow and the Marines gradually takes its time particularly in a lengthy single take as Woodrow tells his story and recites every famous battle the Marines ever had. It’s more than a little jaw-dropping and shows how little Sturges needed to get his point across while also displaying how confident he was to simply let these moments tell the story on their own. It all builds to the freneticism once we hit the town after several long scenes setting everything up we smash into the Oakridge train station in a cut that’s almost modern in how abrupt it is—you imagine them shaving off frames in the cutting room. And it even subtly one-ups the famous long takes in MORGAN’S CREEK that follow Bracken and Betty Hutton—a few similar shots here including one involving Ella Raines and Bill Edwards walking through the manic small town life going on around them feel at least as complicated, only not as pronounced, focusing on the story more than the bravura of the camerawork. “The only amazing thing about my career in Hollywood is that I ever had one at all,” Sturges writes at the end of his association with Paramount in his autobiography which shouldn’t be an understatement but maybe looking back years later at however he pulled off these movies must have seemed like a true miracle.
And while it’s arguable how much we should talk about the seriousness underlining the slapstick in Sturges’ films it possibly came to the forefront more as his Paramount run went on—a recent viewing of his earlier CHRISTMAS IN JULY revealed it to be somewhat slight in plot but possessing more weight than I remembered, becoming genuinely emotional in a way that prefigures this film. Maybe now that I’m older I’m just noticing those things more. The closing gag of MORGAN’S CREEK includes a title card that reminds us of the old Shakespeare “…some have greatness thrust upon them” quote without getting into the consequences of that. HAIL has the greatness thrust upon the main character right up front and in some ways it’s about how all men have it in them to be a hero or display their own greatness even if it is thrust upon them and they deserve that chance to prove they can follow through on the mistake when it happens (as for the women who stand loyally beside those men…well, it was a different time). The film has a heart several of his other films don’t have, even if part of it belongs to several people who are all screaming at once. And even more than THE LADY EVE or SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS it might hold together as his best story. All the parts go together beautifully and everything pays off right down to the very end. And as embarrassing as it is to say, it’s the one Preston Sturges film which when the final line of dialogue is spoken gets me to cry. Maybe not because of the Marine, or homecoming, or love of small towns or any of that but maybe the movie reminds me of the foolish hope that everything can be OK in the end if the right mistakes are ever made.
The familiar Preston Sturges faces are at their best here from Eddie Bracken as the everyman lead to each of the supporting players, all grabbing frantically for their few seconds of dialogue just like you’d imagine Sturges would want them to do. From William Demarest as Sgt. Heffelfinger to Raymond Walburn as the Mayor, it’s some of their best roles. At the very least, it’s my favorite Pangborn performance. And with his recurring “Save your voice, Evvy,” Al Bridge, too. Boxer Freddie Steele walks off with many bits as Bugsy, again walking that tightrope of a character with a comical gimmick to the utmost seriousness. The controversial Ella Raines is continually endearing as Libby--honestly, Ella Raines is a slight favorite of mine (I like her in the noir PHANTOM LADY too) and seems the perfect choice as just the sort of girl you’d want to be waiting for you back home. Sturges even gets something out of the height difference between her and Bill Edwards but she also pops off the screen with enough flavor that you can see why Woodrow is so stuck on her even if she wasn’t so preoccupied by the matter at hand. Maybe there were never towns like Oakridge with girls like Libby waiting for their guy to come home but Ella Raines makes me believe there were.
The first time I ever encountered several of these Sturges films was at a massive Film Forum retrospective in New York long ago, way back in 1990, which felt like it opened up this entire realm of classic film that I never even knew was there. Actually, at the 2015 TCM Film Classic Festival I got to meet Film Forum head programmer Bruce Goldstein and told him how much it, and a similar Billy Wilder retro the following year, had meant to me. He looked taken aback for a moment and then asked, “Why haven’t you been back since?” Well, I have been but eventually I moved out to L.A., what can I tell you. But I’m still grateful and still try to revisit these films every now and then. Come to think of it, there is a study to be made in how Sturges approached the conceit of charade in his films compared with Wilder. But that’s for another time. HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO may not be THE LADY EVE or SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS and the wartime setting does date it, after all. It still just makes me feel good like few other films in how it almost displays the pinnacle of the world as viewed by Preston Sturges but I also find it touching in ways that I can only partly understand. The final image goes back to an earlier plot point that almost seemed minor but turns out to be what the story was headed for all along, as if to explain the off-kilter grin on “Hinky Dinky” Truesmith’s portrait in the first place. A reminder of how sons try to live up to the enigma their fathers always will be. The past, after all, holds the secrets of the future. Life proceeds as it was always meant to.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Here For About Ten Seconds

I was talking with someone recently. Actually, we were texting but of course there’s nothing unusual about that. Some of my best relationships these days seem to happen over texts which is better than nothing, I suppose. I shouldn’t go into details but the conversation skirted on the issue of how we deprive ourselves of certain things in life and what are we waiting for, after all? Lately I think about this, how I was afraid of the mistakes I knew I’d make so now there’s the creeping dread that someday I’ll realize I fucked up one time too many. But let’s face it, I’m still trying to figure all this out. You plan ahead in your mind, you’ve got it all prepared, then when the moment comes you freeze up hoping the few things you actually do say are the right ones. “You’re here for about ten seconds,” Robert Culp tells his friend Elliott Gould in Paul Mazursky’s BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE as a way to chastise his friend for not acting on impulse. That impulse had to do with an affair Gould’s Ted didn’t have, but in the greater context there’s a lot on my mind. Wasted time, what certain events meant, whether I’m just treading water. But enough about all that for now. BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE was the fifth highest grossing film of 1969 and, like some of Mazursky’s best films, is locked into its era as if a few years earlier or later it would have been impossible for the film to exist at all. On the one hand I wonder how much I can identify with the film since so much about it feels far removed from me. And yet as I watch it these days not only do certain trappings begin to wash away, I realize it’s a film about people just trying to figure things out, wondering how much they’re screwing it all up in the process. Something that sounds familiar, after all.
The film is of course about the four title characters, the open-minded Bob (Robert Culp) & Carol (Natalie Wood) whose lives have seemingly been forever altered by a marathon group encounter session and the more straight-laced couple Ted (Elliott Gould) & Alice (Dyan Cannon), their friendship intermingled with their marriages, the affairs they have and what that means for each of them. When Quentin Tarantino reopened the New Beverly Cinema in the fall of 2014 this was the first film screened, in a gorgeous print that Tarantino had made as part of his DJANGO UNCHAINED deal with Columbia—Mazursky himself even supervised the color timing on it. The opening night screening took place only a few months after the director had passed away at the age of 84, serving as a fitting tribute as well as a reminder of the sort of film he specialized in, the kind that isn’t getting made much anymore, just like the concept of a gorgeous new 35mm print is sadly disappearing as well. The context of the film has of course changed, some of the ideas the characters espouse has changed and, yes, the fashions have as well, all of this is true. But instead of feeling dated the film feels free and open in its willingness to delve into these characters along with possessing a comic intelligence that is nearly obsolete today. The structure of only about a dozen or so major sequences (even the building blocks of the narrative feel a little like Tarantino) carefully examines what happens to the foursome as they learn secrets about their spouses and friends, how they relate to each other as well as the outside world. Right from the beginning the details always feel genuine as if we’re watching a satirical tweak of what 1969 was, not a sitcom exaggeration. The laughs come not from the wacky new world that Bob & Carol have discovered but from the newfound honesty it brings out of them and trying to figure out if they’ve really changed at all.
Written by Mazursky and Larry Tucker, BOB & CAROL was Mazursky’s directorial debut, coming roughly a year after their collaboration on the screenplay of the Peter Sellers comedy I LOVE YOU, ALICE B. TOKLAS and while the earlier film went for the broad, comical portrayal of the late 60s hippie zeitgeist with his own film Mazursky satirizes the scene but also keeps things grounded and humane, allowing each of his characters a point of view which, even if it isn’t always valid is at least partly understandable. Or maybe this is simply another case where the satire in the material has been drained away over time into pure naturalism. For Mazursky, there might not be a difference anyway. The encounter group which serves as the catalyst for all this is based on the Esalen Institute up in Big Sur, only called “The Institute” here (it was also the inspiration for where Don Draper found his big eureka in the final episode of MAD MEN), and the film opens with shots from above as a Quincy Jones-ified Hallelujah Chorus plays over images of the place. As Bob & Carol arrive, everyone already seems totally free of inhibitions—all the answers are there, the imagery seems to say, everything has been settled and they need to do nothing more than learn this. Mazursky went to Easlen to research the idea he had for the film, just as Bob says he’s researching a documentary he’s going to make—essentially researching an idea about a character researching an idea and finding the story about himself within that. Interestingly, Bob seems unsure whether that’s why he’s really there, as if to question how committed he’s really going to be to this newfound outlook on life--we never hear about the documentary again anyway. The sequence sets the tone right away, treating characters who would be played as jokes in other films—the old guy, the nympho—with respect and taking its time doing it so we can understand a fraction of what Bob & Carol have been through, why they insist they’ve been forever changed.
Like some of Mazursky’s best work it skirts the satirical edge of the story as the characters take their behavior to its ultimate extreme, viewing them with both sad bemusement and at times total compassion, knowing that they’re wrong more often than not, knowing that they’re trying their best no matter how outwardly odd their behavior is. It’s inevitable that they’re going to screw things up somehow but Mazursky loves them anyway, he loves how they’re trying to figure out what they’re trying to figure out. The film never becomes arch or contemptuous because he can’t, all of the four leads are part of him anyway. You can feel Mazursky as one of this crowd wondering these same things, enamored by Natalie Wood, fascinated by what Dyan Cannon isn’t admitting to those around her, feeling those same pangs of confidence and terror that Robert Culp and Elliott Gould do. Bob and Carol are the glamorous couple, almost too good to be true, and the way they insist how the affairs they’ve had are just physical and nothing beyond that is almost too perfect, there’s no way it can hold up, the all-too predictable whiplash of someone claiming to change who they are so fast. Ted & Alice are slightly supporting as characters—that’s how Gould & Cannon were nominated at the Academy Awards—but also supporting to the flashier movie star-like couple of Bob & Carol as well so when the film focuses on them after learning about Bob’s affair it’s a jolt that shifts things towards them leading to what may be the best scene in the film, a tug of war between their own individual reactions and exactly what that’s going to mean in bed for the rest of the night. Mazursky plays the confrontation perfectly through the laughs and the honesty between the two actors with their characters no longer sure how to behave with each other, ending on a note that resolves the scene and still leaves it totally unanswered as the two can barely understand what’s going on.
There’s a sense of freedom in how willing the film is to continually let these scenes play out but also an intelligence that knows what needs to be focused on. Like the post-party scene where the foursome smoke pot the film is in no rush to focus on what each character react to at any given moment and even the jokes become a normal extension of their reactions to what happens, never simply part of the patter. Instead it’s the little things, Carol’s total confidence in her new worldview, Ted’s discomfort at Bob shooting home movies of him, the tennis pro who Carol’s cheating with hedging on Bob’s offer of a drink until the 12 year-old Ballantine is mentioned. The awkward intimacy the film achieves in its close-ups reaches its peak when Cannon’s Alice visits her therapist (played by Donald F. Muhich, Mazursky’s own therapist) and how she discusses her own confusion, how much she doesn’t want to talk about sex, reaching for possible answers but not getting any beyond more questions. The aesthetic glimpses we do get at 1969 might be secondary to all this (as enticing as it is) but correctly gets across how everyone is feeling this excitement for what’s around them, something Alice simply can’t. Maybe partly because she’s the only one who stops to think about all this for more than a few seconds Alice is also the one who finally gets everyone to take things to the logical extreme—whether because she’s feeling left out by being the only one who hasn’t had an affair or because she can’t take being so afraid about the whole thing anymore it doesn’t really matter. The film wisely doesn’t always spell out the reasoning since it can’t, the tension between them makes it inevitable for things to build to the iconic image of the four of them in bed together. The answers don’t really matter, anyway. It’s just the way it is. The film observes the way things were. Or, more likely, still are.
As his own directing credit appears Mazursky makes a cameo at The Institute as someone is getting him to scream, to let it all out, the perfect entryway to four characters somehow attempting to do the same. The more I watch it the more BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE seems just miraculous, flowing beautifully with an intricate structure to the screenplay that adds to the freedom. Pauline Kael called it ‘a slick, whorey movie and the liveliest American comedy so far this year’ and although her complete review reads as pretty mixed it is lively, continually slick with a late 60s magazine layout feel to the visuals. On the surface the four of them go perfect together and the friends on the sidelines of the gatherings arguing about their kids aren’t with it enough, representing the audience who can only dream of being one of these people who on the surface have it all. With 1973’s BLUME IN LOVE (the second film in that opening night double at the New Beverly—Donald F. Muhich appears again, basically playing the same therapist, which made the pairing even more ideal) Mazursky went deeper making a darker look at infidelity and that film dangles on a tightrope like few others do but BOB & CAROL with its 60s sense of hope and optimism still felt in every scene comes together beautifully. There are no missing parts, each of the characters get their say and the realization they all silently come to at the end feels natural for them to stay who they are.
That’s the ‘What now?’ of the final moments between the four of them in bed together, of Robert Culp’s expression when he seemingly achieves everything he was trying for since the beginning of the film. What are you supposed to do when you get everything you thought you wanted? It’s not that it’s wrong, like Ted fears, it’s just that things are more complicated than that. They have to be for anything to work. Thinking about this film and a few of Mazursky’s others reminds me of the end of his 1980 JULES AND JIM homage WILLIE AND PHIL (not at the level of BOB & CAROL but still interesting—unfortunately, it’s not even on DVD) in which the narration at the end concludes the story and then says about the two leads, “they went on to live very ordinary lives.” The intentional break with reality at the end of this film aside, it’s easy to imagine that this is what happens to Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice as well. The director actually makes a second cameo near the very end, walking along in the crowd with his co-writer/producer Larry Tucker, the two of them looking like the best friends in the world. It’s a sort of bookend to that scream he let out at the start and in some ways his films are sometimes about that scream you have to let out before you retreat to that version of ordinary life you have in front of you, having hopefully figured out a little something. You do sometimes have to let out a scream, yes, but the ending finds the main characters in silence as they redo the encounter from the Institute, finally seeing the other person and embracing what it really means for themselves, for once not hiding their feelings. Mazursky based the film on his own experience and since he’s a part of this narrative of course he doesn’t have all the answers. But he seems to know that all we have in the end is ourselves. And, if we’re lucky, the person in front of us staring back.
Along with all that is the perfection of the performances, both together and separate, always fully lived in, always fully the characters. Robert Culp displays his character’s hollow confidence with the beads and chains, obviously trying to stay with it and a certain ‘Am I really getting away with this?’ air to his actions that prefigures how fast he crumbles when he’s not able to control the situation. Natalie Wood’s own elegant blitheness perfectly matches him in how she looks at her husband with all the love in the world—she introduces herself as “Bob’s wife” as if that’s all that matters—while still being able to hold enough surprises, displaying so much confidence and amazement at the world that she can’t believe everyone else doesn’t feel the same way, amazed that there can be other such emotions. There’s a sense that Bob & Carol as characters are each more comfortable in their own skin so the more conservative Ted & Alice feel more out of place as a result. Since they don’t put on as many airs, the discomfort that they show makes their more relaxed moments that much more genuine. Elliott Gould, the goofiest of them, is maybe the most human in his physicality with the way he dances while getting high and the way he primps before the big orgy, the gears clicking away in his head always apparent as he tries to figure out the difference between Bob’s advice and what’s right. The inner awkwardness makes it Gould’s most endearing performance and the way Dyan Cannon expresses Alice’s own discomfort alongside him makes her an ideal match, displaying the right amount of insecurity as if continually unsure how to behave when any situation doesn’t go exactly her way. Her insistence of her own vulnerability feels totally honest.
We break with reality Fellini-style at the very end of course in a Las Vegas ending which could be about all sorts of things or maybe could mean nothing more than the famous lyrics of “What the World Needs Now”. Regardless, we leave the four of them content with each other, ready to face the 70s which according to Mazursky means BLUME IN LOVE and AN UNMARRIED WOMAN but hopefully Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice had a happier decade. Thinking back to that line about being here for ten seconds the actress who played Carol has been gone for close to 35 years by now. Bob has been gone for six. I hope Ted & Alice stay with us for a long time to come. Joe Swanberg’s recent film DIGGING FOR FIRE (recommended) was dedicated to him and is a valid look at how some of these themes can be expressed in 2016 so hopefully Mazursky’s legacy will continue to make its way out there through the New Beverly or other means. I also suspect certain long ago women in my life tried to apply some of what gets learned at The Institute to me but, of course, I was too young and stupid to get it. That’s the way it goes and, as usual, I forgot that we’re only here for about ten seconds. But here I am, not living anything like this film, just trying to get through this stuff, while I have those late night texting sessions with people who, if I’m being honest, I’d rather be talking to with them right there in front of me. Sometimes you have to scream, yes. But you can’t scream forever. I’m trying to remember that.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

All Those Chances

The first time I ever came to Los Angeles old enough to drive I went looking for Johnie’s Coffee Shop, that key location in the film MIRACLE MILE. Imagine my disappointment to discover the place wasn’t really open all night as portrayed. An early reminder that movies can lie or at least exaggerate. Suddenly I blinked and found myself a few blocks away years later, somewhere around 2001, at a LACMA screening of the film which featured an appearance by writer-director Steve De Jarnatt. During the Q&A I got the feeling that certain questions being asked were things people had wondered about for years, obsessing over the movie like an old paperback you read over and over looking for more clues to put everything together. After the film we walked outside to Wilshire where we essentially found ourselves on the set of the film we had just seen and as we stood there waiting for the light to change everyone started to laugh. I blinked again and found myself here, now, still thinking about that film. MIRACLE MILE is heading towards three decades old. I’ve worked right down the block from where it’s set, I’ve been to the County Museum of Art many other times since and I’ve even had a friend who lived nearby in Park La Brea, one of the other key locations. Now I live twenty minutes away from that stretch of Wilshire (traffic allowing, of course) and still pass through it on occasion, the film is in the past yet it seems right there all the time. I’m not sure when that happened.
Now the film has been rescued from the purgatory of old VHS tapes and full-frame DVD by a gorgeous Blu-ray that came out in 2015 (as did De Jarnatt’s previous film CHERRY 2000) reigniting some of the thoughts I’ve had about it over the years. The question I asked that night had to do with the oddness of the opening narration, including a brief opening shot which gives the presumably mistaken impression the whole thing might be a flashback. De Jarnatt acted a little sheepish about this issue, saying he’d fix some things in the first ten minutes if he could and to be honest I always felt kind of bad for bringing this up, even apologizing to him for it years later via Facebook. He said that wasn’t necessary although on the Blu-ray commentary he brings up the possibility how that opening shot, which if you’ve seen it you know couldn’t possibly take place during the body of the film, could be a sort of out maybe allowing for the possibility that the whole film is a dream or other unexplained scenario. I like this answer. Much of the film has a dreamlike logic anyway and looking at it that way opens up the possibilities of what it all means, what MIRACLE MILE can ultimately be in the back of your own mind. Enough of Los Angeles is like a dream anyway and if you find yourself out on the streets between 3 and 6 AM when everything outside your car window looks like outtakes from THE OMEGA MAN you can believe this. Besides, no one ever said a single thing in life was ever going to make sense.
If ever a movie seemed designed to be watched totally cold, with no awareness of what’s coming this would be the one, not that most people would get the chance to do this. I think of the plot of MIRACLE MILE, what happens to trombonist Harry Washello (Anthony Edwards) after he meets and possibly blows it with the girl of his dreams Julie Peters (Mare Winningham) during a visit to Los Angeles, and I think about what could have happened if it never takes the jarring shift it needs to take from the off-kilter romance of the first section to the dangerously panicked thriller it quickly becomes. I think about how Harry in his narration said he waited thirty years to meet Julie, as if his life isn’t really getting started until that moment, as if his very world isn’t really getting started until then, but none of that does any good. We spend too much time looking back. It’s what happens. We think of regret, of what might have been. We find ourselves staring back at a point we just left, wondering about whatever unfinished business we left there that no one else is ever going to care about. Written by its director, MIRACLE MILE was picked long before it was made by American Film magazine as one of the ten best unproduced screenplays in Hollywood. Its long development process included being part of a potential TWILIGHT ZONE film as well as an incarnation with a lead character written as older and possibly for Gene Hackman returning to town looking for his ex-wife. We’ll never know what that version would have been but ultimately it doesn’t matter. The MIRACLE MILE we do have features someone still close to youth, right around 30, someone who’s maybe been living in the past too much already. And on the cusp of grasping onto something, willing to finally take that chance for a future when it all comes tumbling down around him almost as if the world has chosen to end simply because he’s finally taking some sort of action.
There’s an immediacy to every single moment in MIRACLE MILE, grounded in the feelings of what our own reality is, what it has to be, along with an incessant dreamlike tone where not everything is going to be explained. It also contains a certain neon-strobed feel to its nighttime vibe of a down and dirty 80s genre piece that recalls any number of other up-all-night movies from that decade—it’s definitely rooted in the time from the prevalent nuclear feel which made slightly turned it into a period piece when the Berlin Wall fell as well as a few spare articles of clothing some people wear but so what. It’s compact as it’s forced to be by the almost real-time plotting and yet somehow all-encompassing of life down to the very smallest details. Much of what causes it to stick in the brain are those vivid little touches like the offhand visual of Harry dumping all that cream into the coffee during his initial panic—meant to resemble a mushroom cloud, according to De Jarnatt on the Blu-ray commentary and the frame always seems loaded with symbols whether you want to read into them or not. Even the occasional unexpected extra in the corner of the frame who stands out for mysterious reasons could mean everything or nothing.
The undeniable, unexplainable paranoia kicks in early after we’re feeling relaxed by the automatic chemistry of the two leads and it never goes away but always remains grounded by the reality of the nightmare. It’s especially good during the extended Johnie’s sequence which could easily serve as a stage play or, as the director also points out would be right at home in a vintage TWILIGHT ZONE and the film knows how to draw out the odd feeling on the back of your neck of when you’re out there on the street at 4:30 AM and something’s wrong you can’t quite shake. That roving Steadicam creeping along following Harry as well as the floating, otherworldly Tangerine Dream score kicking along and the nagging worry of doubt as to what’s really happening, that this can’t all be true, that there has to be some sort of mistake like fingernails digging deeper into our skin. Even the low-tech nature of a few of the effects shots have a kick that adds to the momentum as the movie ticks forward towards the inevitable. After his first, best hope at an escape the main character never even gets further than a few blocks, perfect for a nightmare in the early morning hours where you wind up running so fast to get away that you go absolutely nowhere.
How much the film pays attention to its own geography is something there was no way I could have known about when I saw it way back in May 1989 at the White Plains Galleria (a twin which closed long ago but the mall is still there). I certainly didn’t know I was still going to be thinking about the film all these years later but I still loved it as maybe only a kid who experiences a film like this all by himself can love it. I felt like the only one who had discovered it but I wasn’t, of course--I even remember around that time day I met someone who claimed to have seen it five times during its brief theatrical run. But even now that I’ve been there of course the correct geography adds to the reality as well how little ground is ultimately covered in this attempt at a getaway, perfect for a nightmare where you wind up running so fast that you go nowhere. The way it is here is the way the area still looks to me in my mind even if it isn’t that way anymore, the darkness that was once around there, the now-gone LACMA parking lot that I remember from a date long ago after seeing Blake Edwards’ THE PARTY. The Pan-Pacific Auditorium that Harry is playing a benefit for was destroyed by a fire in ’89 literally days after the film opened (of course, I didn’t know that then either), Park LaBrea has had more buildings put up around it (I played tennis in courts that are no longer there) and construction of the Academy Museum at the old May Company building in the middle of it all continues. Johnie’s, also seen in RESERVOIR DOGS and THE BIG LEBOWSKI, has long since only been used as a film location and as it turns out I never wound up going there to eat, late at night or otherwise. The site is now a historical landmark and the Googie architecture makes it notable, of course, but the fact that MIRACLE MILE was filmed there is a perfectly good reason as well.
Anthony Edwards successfully walks a tightrope of being an outsider you can tell his character has always been with the Hitchcockian everyman he needs to be right at that moment—even his suit is almost a goofball version of Cary Grant’s in NORTH BY NORTHWEST—and he helps us understand the lies he winds up telling some people about what’s going to happen since the truth itself is almost impossible to say out loud. Not getting as much screentime, Mare Winningham paints a picture of a loner as well—in another movie it might be clear just what a goofball her character probably is and a loner as well, living with her grandmother in a strange city. It’s to the movie’s credit how much it pays attention to the supporting cast no matter how little time there is for them--John Agar and Lou Hancock are Julie’s grandparents, Denise Crosby is the mysterious Landa with the mobile phone that may or may not confirm what’s happening, Robert DoQui is the cook at Johnie’s, O-Lan Jones is the waitress (there is no greater coffee shop waitress than O-Lan Jones) and Kurt Fuller is the disbelieving Gerstead, pissed at Landa for getting him up so early. There are too many others to mention but they all not only come off as fully-formed in their brief screentime but I still wonder what some of their backstories are. Raphael Sbarge, the voice of Chip on the phone, has recently been the human form of Jiminy Cricket on ONCE UPON A TIME and even that seems like an extra layer to his casting now. It says something about MIRACLE MILE and how it’s stayed with me that as much as I’m aware of the reality of film production and whatever must have been in the script if I ever met a few of the actors like Denise Crosby or O-Lan Jones deep down I’d still want to ask them about their characters and what must have happened in deleted scenes I’m certain never actually existed. Somehow I need to think they do.
I had a dream the other night. There's no point in describing it but the very end, right before I woke up, was a moment of such clear cinematic paranoia that days later I still can't shake it as a reminder of not being entirely sure of where I’ve been, of where I am. Maybe like this film. “All those chances…” exclaims Winningham’s Julie Peters near the very end and, of course, we don’t need any elaboration from her. We all have those chances that we fucked up and will never get back. That’s the way it goes. Each time I see the film it occurs to me that the final moment between the two main characters goes by faster than I expect it to and there’s no real chance to pause the moment before we get to the end, to the final bang. Not being able to connect it to the opening shot in a literal way doesn’t bother me anymore now, if it really ever did. In some ways I can take the opening shot as a sort of alternate path taken, maybe winding up at the bottom of the La Brea tar pits, maybe into infinity, maybe just in the dead of night wondering about the woman you screwed up with. Maybe in each of those endings there can be a small piece of hope. After all, the world’s probably going to end in L.A. anyway. Sometimes in life something happens and you think, this is it. This is the way it’s going to be. But everything changes one way or another before you’re ready for it. Life becomes more complex. What happens next isn’t really up to you. Ultimately, nothing ever is.

Monday, March 14, 2016

That Extra Five Yards

Let me back up for a minute. Near the end of the year I started paying visits to Billy Wilder at the cemetery where he resides in Westwood. There were reasons for doing this, which I’d mostly rather keep to myself, and there was something strangely helpful about it. It was like I needed to be there talking to him, pouring out all my troubles to the legend. I pictured him rolling his eyes at it all and not really caring about what I was saying, but it felt good anyway. I even read him the blog piece I was working on at the time (meant to be a ‘final one’ just in case I decided not to do this anymore, but so much for that), imagining him slightly annoyed that it wasn’t quite as finished as I first claimed but he allowed that there was at least a spine to it--you can go read it again to see if he was right--and that imagined encouragement helped me finish it a few days later.
This is all a roundabout sort of way of getting at my recent mindset and why I haven’t been writing lately. For a lot of January I pretty much watched only Billy Wilder films, several multiple times, all of them I’d seen before of course. I guess I was looking for something in them, while also considering the inherent cynicism in those films along with how I was feeling. Are some of them really that contemptuous of humanity or just simply reporting the way it is? Deep down, does anyone really expect their own Miss Kubelik to show up just past midnight on New Year’s Eve? I’d rather not get a definitive answer to that question so for now, I’ll just focus on one of those multiple Wilder films I spent the month watching, maybe one of the nastier ones. THE FORTUNE COOKIE is an interesting case, the film that paired Jack Lemmon & Walter Matthau for the first time, gave Matthau his Oscar and solidified his movie star status yet still feels a little like one of Wilder’s problem films. As enjoyable in its own acidic way that you’d expect, the result is maybe too blunt at times almost as if Wilder is trying to smother any pleasure the laughs are giving us in an attempt to get at the truth of what’s going on. He was even surprisingly critical about the film in interviews later on saying, “It didn't impress the critics and didn't make money and it disappeared in the big garbage pit along with a year of my life.” Which is maybe a little harsh but he’s entitled to think that even if it did get an Oscar nomination for the screenplay, the last one Wilder and co-writer I.A.L. Diamond ever received. The film came just a few years after the flop of his sex farce KISS ME, STUPID and it almost feels like THE FORTUNE COOKIE is the work of someone who has just gone through an extreme trauma like a divorce (which, for the record, he hadn’t) and this was his ferocious shout back at the world in response. It’s still pretty funny, and pointed, at least in parts. It’s Billy Wilder.
After television cameraman Harry Hinkle (Jack Lemmon) is accidentally injured during a Cleveland Browns game when running back Luther “Boom Boom” Jackson (Ron Rich) accidentally crashes into him, brother-in-law “Whiplash” Willie Gingrich (Walter Matthau) comes up with a plan to fake Harry’s injuries for a major lawsuit, getting as much money as possible. Harry, knowing Willie all too well, wants no part of the plan until the possibility of the return of his ex-wife Sandy (Judi West), anxious to get part of any payout herself, is dangled in front of him. So he goes along with it, strapping himself into a corset and wheelchair and not moving with the guilt stricken Boom Boom tending to his every need while awaiting Sandy’s return. But while Willie turns the screws on the lawyers who are doing everything they can to prove the whole thing is a fake, Harry begins to see what it’s all doing to Boom Boom, putting Willie’s carefully developed plan to get as much money as possible from the insurance company in jeopardy.
THE APARTMENT may or may not have been Wilder’s greatest work (hell, it may or may not be one of my three favorite films of all time—actually, it definitely is) but it also laid out his stylistic approach for much of the 60s: stark visuals in widescreen by cinematographer Joseph LaShelle defiantly resisting Technicolor, cynicism coursing through the veins of seemingly every single person, the lead character concealing the dirty business that’s really going on, the folly of living without any consequences. Written of course by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, the structure of THE FORTUNE COOKIE seems to strip away all but the basic essentials to get the plot across with chapter titles to each section laying out the bones of the scheme, simple white-on-black credits and even the sets feel deliberately bare giving the whole thing a no-nonsense, just-the-dirty-facts approach. It could even be considered the third in a Wilder-American Dream trilogy closing out the themes that were first explored in THE APARTMENT and KISS ME, STUPID (the international scope of ONE, TWO, THREE seems slightly removed). The greyness of the Cleveland working class vistas that we get glimpses of even contrast nicely with the steel towers of Manhattan in THE APARTMENT and the barren desert town of KISS ME, STUPID. The threads of deception and fraud familiar from so much of Wilder seem to come to a head here with the emotional wreckage bound to occur from it all.
The plot device of why nice guy Jack Lemmon would ever go along with such a scheme (Gingrich says the two of them are in it together, “Straight down the line,” using a phrase from DOUBLE INDEMNITY) is explained by the possibility of winning back his nightmare of an ex-wife who couldn’t care less about him. It’s hard to believe that he wouldn’t already know this deep down but in the world of THE FORTUNE COOKIE it doesn’t matter. It’s saying that all of humanity is just waiting for that one false brass ring to grab on to get our dreams back, the ones that long ago flew away, those few extra yards Boom Boom was going for that caused the accident in the first place (“Everybody tries for that extra five yards and sometimes people get in our way,” Sandy replies when she hears the story). Happiness is a mirage, the film is saying, to try for that instead of a straight payout is just being a chump. Even the recurring use of the song “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” isn’t based on any genuine feelings beyond Harry’s hollow dreams of his wife returning. From the guilt Boom Boom feels for reasons that are a fraud to the guilt Harry feels over that almost nothing is real that could result in actual pleasure, any sort of connection to anyone else is bound to be a lie.
While Lemmon is playing what could be the flawed Wilder surrogate caught between good and evil, valiantly trying to be the ‘mensch’ that Dr. Dreyfus tells him to be in THE APARTMENT, Matthau is just as plainly Wilder as he sees the world that really is—cold, calculating, knowing all the angles, the embodiment of the worldview the movie really has. The result contains some of Wilder/Diamond’s most incisive and underappreciated dialogue (“Do you suppose he’s telling the truth?” “I wouldn’t put anything past him.”) that continually seems determined to cut through the needed laughs while going for the jugular. Almost everyone is figuring out their own angles beyond any concern for Harry’s supposed condition and it’s all simply business, nothing more. Even the nuns in the hospital are betting on the big game. The overall coarseness almost seems like an ultimate statement on humanity by Wilder, minus one key element. “It’s about greed, love, compassion, human understanding, but not sex,” Wilder told Army Archerd in Variety at the time, presumably a reaction to the flop of KISS ME, STUPID and there’s barely even the thought of it beyond Willie worrying about what’s going to happen in Harry’s apartment during Sandy’s first night there.
That lack of passion in THE FORTUNE COOKIE seems part of the point but it also makes the film as constricted as the brace Willie forces Harry to wear. THE FORTUNE COOKIE is allowed to break out from that feeling mainly through Matthau’s joy in the scheme, humming classical music for his own pleasure and along with the bouncy Andre Previn music feels like the whole thing feels like it could have moved just a bit more fleetingly. It feels a little too cooped up in the bland apartment where much of the second half takes place, never becoming its own character the way the titular dwelling did in THE APARTMENT. It’s funny but also deliberately stifling, the laughs come with a bucket of ice water poured over the head, we’re aware of the pain that’s really going on behind that charade. For Wilder, it’s a world where genuine tragedy is nothing more than a brief story on the news before the commercial. Everyone is a fake to one degree or another, the film is saying. When Harry opens up the fortune cookie of the title to find the old “You can fool all of the people some of the time…” quote (a lot to fit on there, not that I imagine it was a big concern for Wilder) and as far as the film is concerned, even if you can fool all of the people all of the time, so what? If THE APARTMENT was about learning how to be a mensch, a “human being”, THE FORTUNE COOKIE is about finally building enough character, enough guts, to admit the truth, whatever that really is. Otherwise you’re just another chump in a corset which is no way to go through life. Of course, in getting this message across it’s no THE APARTMENT but, in fairness, few films are.
The one thing that anyone seems to agree on when it comes to THE FORTUNE COOKIE is Walter Matthau and his dynamic portrayal of Whiplash Willie, following up his recent scene stealing work in MIRAGE from the previous year and his success on Broadway in THE ODD COUPLE. He takes what is essentially a supporting character and makes the whole movie revolve around him, even to the point that it was released in the UK as MEET WHIPLASH WILLIE. Matthau doesn’t take control of the film he takes control of the world of the film, fitting in perfectly with the harsh black & white look as if he won’t let someone so much as leave the frame without his permission to fleece something off them. As Gingrich sees the scheme in front of him plain as day there’s joy in simply watching Matthau work things out in his head. As expected, there’s even enormous pleasure in listening to him answer a phone. Top-billed Jack Lemmon obviously cedes the focus to him since it’s clear who has the better part but he still grounds the film in his everyman quality. It’s almost as if he wants to be the lead in the nice Jack Lemmon Technicolor romantic comedy of the time, he just can’t admit that he isn’t and this whole thing is as much his fault as anyone, making his bitterness grow as things get deeper into the plot and deeper.
There’s added interest in the supporting roles but it’s also where some of the problems turn up. Ron Rich as Boom Boom is likable but that’s about it. In one of the few substantial African-American roles in Wilder’s filmography it feels a little like the director trying to engage more with the outside world of 1966 and not quite nailing it. With multiple girls scattered across the country Boom Boom isn’t even meant to be a total innocent but he comes off as so nice and guilt-ridden that something else is needed, either in the performance or on the page, some extra level of bite so he makes sense in this world. There are even a few comments that Harry makes, expecting the chicken dinner Boom Boom is preparing to be fried, where it’s tough to know if Wilder is making a comment on Harry’s tone deafness to the situation of if it’s just the film doing that. Judi West, playing essentially an unrepentant bitch as the ex-wife, brings to the role as many layers as she can but there’s just not enough to her on the page and even when I first saw the film long ago, young and stupid(er), I thought the character might be a bit much. Watching it now the character and her behavior makes more sense to me but it still doesn’t feel like enough. Even ultra-cynical nastiness has to be fully clarified, after all. I can’t help but imagine what a still-alive Marilyn Monroe in 1966 willing to demolish her image could have done with this role, built up to more of a co-lead. The shifting focus might also be a problem with the film—it bounces back and forth between Harry/Willie, Harry/ Boom Boom and Harry/Sandy so much that it never fully becomes about any of them. Or maybe we just want more of Walter Matthau.
Some of the smaller roles work better as if Wilder knows exactly what to do with these actors to make his points. Cliff Osmond is given a Hitler mustache as the private detective trying to prove the scheme is a fake, Harry Davis as a concerned doctor, Sig Rumann (who goes all the way back to NINOTCHKA with Wilder) as a disbelieving specialist along with early appearances by William Christopher of M*A*S*H and Robert Doqui, later in NASHVILLE and ROBOCOP. Character actor Billy Beck, a familiar face from several bit parts in Wilder films, appears briefly near the end in a scene with two stadium workers playing a game with numbers on the jerseys, proving another example of how everyone always has an angle, they’re always willing to do whatever necessary for just one small victory. THE FORTUNE COOKIE isn’t one of Wilder’s best but maybe like other films by great directors that fall just short it still feels essential to his world view and what once felt almost too nasty just plays in my own personal world of 2016 as pragmatic, the way it really is. But, like I’ve already indicated, maybe that’s my mood. An early beat of the marching band at the game starting up right after Harry is injured says it all, it’s a world of trying to avoid the reality of what’s really going on with music as loud as possible. Ultimately, the reality of it all only hurts as we try to convince ourselves that things aren’t the way they really are. Painful truths are withheld. Beautiful blondes cut you out of life with the deepest insults imaginable. All you’re left with are the depths of self-hatred followed by the darkness which consumes you. And there’s not much that can be done about that. Except go talk to Billy Wilder about it, I suppose.
Which is something I did again on New Year’s Eve, a holiday forever associated with Wilder thanks to SUNSET BOULEVARD and THE APARTMENT. As I stood there thinking about his films and all the other crap that was in my mind I suddenly heard a brief, valuable piece of advice in his voice that seemed like it was meant to help get me through the coming year. I’ll keep it to myself for now, but it meant something. And I’m actually not sure if continuing to write this blog goes against it or not. I’ve actually gone again a few more times since including on Oscar Day, a few hours before the show started. It seemed appropriate somehow. Unfortunately the section he’s in (along with Jack Lemmon and a few other notables) was taped off, it seemed due to some landscaping work. I tried to stand outside the area and converse with him, but no good. It was too far away. Sometimes you have no choice but to stand outside of it all, keeping your feelings to yourself and not much can be done about that, except maybe just watch a few more Billy Wilder films looking for that one ray of hope. But you do what you have to do. Even at your very best, you can only be who you are.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Mystical Optimism

Life may be what you make of it, even if it never becomes what you want it to be. But you try. You have to try even if you wind up wondering, was that really my life? It’s hard to understand just about anything sometimes. Released in September 1996, Allison Anders’ GRACE OF MY HEART was never a big hit but it’s lingered in the memory like a favorite song that only a few other people seem to know about. Lovingly crafted, it’s a film that contains a certain amount of messiness but more often than not it’s the endearing kind, the sort of messiness that seems pure, almost like going through the clutter of your own memories as you try to sort out exactly how certain things happened over the course of time. Willing to embrace the melodrama, the film is completely heartfelt and sincere about itself so its portrayal of how the simple act of creativity can really truly matter to a person rings genuine. And even more than that it contains a lead performance by Illeana Douglas that is so raw and powerful it transforms everything about the film around her. It’s not just a film but a searing melody coming from the soul of her screen presence and it makes the film something it wouldn’t have come anywhere close to otherwise. The events in GRACE OF MY HEART matter just like the events of your own life matter, the regrets that are portrayed leave a mark and it avoids breezy nostalgia of the eras it depicts in favor of something deeper. It portrays a life where true creative expression is the ultimate good as we try to figure out what kind of life we’re living while we fight our way through it all.
Illeana Douglas writes about the making of GRACE OF MY HEART in her new memoir, the highly recommended I BLAME DENNIS HOPPER and it’s only one of the many stories she has to tell. She writes about the challenge of working with Robert De Niro on the remake of CAPE FEAR, going days without eating while filming ALIVE and the freedom Gus Van Sant gave her during the making of TO DIE FOR. But she also talks about her childhood, the background of which explains the book’s title, along with her early days of discovering movies at the drive-in as well as deeply affecting recollections of her relationship with grandfather Melvyn Douglas including her formative experience visiting him on the set of his late-career triumph in Hal Ashby’s BEING THERE, the film that won him his second Oscar, where she also had a memorable encounter with the film's star Peter Sellers. This turned about to be one of only several meaningful and often fortuitous brushes with legendary figures in her life that she details including an unfortunate phone call with Billy Wilder (who at another point she correctly refers to as God), a lasting friendship with Roddy McDowall and an unexpected run-in with a presumably hungover Lee Marvin on a New York sidewalk early one morning. She also discusses her own passion for movies and why they mean so much to her, how that connection helped transform her into who she ultimately became and it’s a beautiful, funny, inspiring read, one of the best such books in a very long time. It’s a must for anyone who loves films and a reminder of why they can mean so much as we watch them so obsessively. Her book is a connection to GRACE OF MY HEART as well, it deepens how much the film clearly meant to those who made it, a film in which you can feel the undeniable yearning of its lead character just as you can feel the yearning of Illeana Douglas in the stories she tells about her own life. “I don’t have a song in me,” declares the lead character she plays in the film at a crucial stage, just before writing the ultimate song within her. Sometimes the very thought that we don’t have any songs left in us is the most frightening thing of all.
In the late 50s, steel heiress Edna Buxton (Illeana Douglas) uses an impulse choice during a music competition to sing a song that allows her to win the contest, throwing her into the New York world of hustling for success as a singer and songwriter. With no one looking for girl singers anymore, Edna hooks up with Brill Building producer Joel Milner (John Turturro) who wants her solely for her writing talent and changes her name to the more enticing “Denise Waverly”. As her success as a songwriter grows she begins to take more chances with her work and meets the more socially minded songwriter Howard Cazatt (Eric Stoltz) who she teams up with. The relationship soon turns into a marriage with a baby and as the 60s press forward with the music business changing with Denise meeting famed California rocker Jay Phillips (Matt Dillon) as she records her most personal song ever. But when her relationship with Jay sweeps her away into a new life far away from New York, Denise begins to lose track of the creativity she was once so passionate about.
It can be argued that GRACE OF MY HEART tries to cover too much ground, tries to hit too many highlights of the decade as things move from early 60s Brill Building to late 60s Malibu and beyond. However much it can be seen as an accurate depiction of the setting and period, the film manages to transcend such concerns by knowing to focus on the story of Denise Waverly as things rapidly change around her. “You can be dramatic as long as it’s truthful,” the lead character declares at one point and GRACE OF MY HEART achieves a mixture of being a film which not only displays a love for the music but also for the act of creating that music. Writer-director Allison Anders brings to the material both a sensitivity and excitement, showing how creativity can come from what appears around us as well as the yearning we feel inside. It’s a film that loves the people in its world, just as Anders seems to love placing Illeana Douglas up against her co-stars in the frame so they can play off each other and the result becomes hopeful, sad and raw all at once.
There’s an undeniable energy through much of the film and it feels as excited to explore this world of jazz clubs and recording studios through Denise Waverly’s eyes with an optimism coming from its portrayal of her, a lead character with two names from two worlds trying to find herself in this world even when she’s told by someone that she doesn’t have that ‘grace’. Instead of trying to make it an all-encompassing look at the period the film sees the magic in simply letting some of the songs play out as the lives are lead and the characters discover them for the first time so we share their pleasure in creating them, knowing they’ve discovered something special. The recreations of that era’s sound capture part of the soul of that music without sounding like spoofs or hollow tributes—fitting for the movie, all the songs seem to share the inescapable feel of yearning—and the introduction of Denise Waverly’s own personal anthem “God Give Me Strength” (a collaboration between Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello) when Matt Dillon’s Jay Phillips enters the story turns what seems to be a minor moment at first into an absolutely shattering sequence, of a connection that suddenly develops from an unexpected glance between two people. The scene as it turns out is powerful, such an exhalation of all the themes that have developed up until then that the movie peaks and there’s almost nowhere else dramatically to go from this private triumph.
It’s moments like that which stay with you in GRACE OF MY HEART even without Illeana Douglas doing her own singing which has always played like the biggest flaw in the entire running time, as if we’re being deprived of a crucial nerve in the film’s bloodstream. Maybe it’s a case where certain scenes, even specific moments, are better than all the connective tissue so the end result plays a little like we’re seeing extremely tantalizing sections of a much longer story. Coming in at a few minutes under two hours some holes can be felt and there is the feel that it’s maybe trying to cover too much ground (of course, one’s reach should exceed their grasp and all that…) so when it becomes clear that the Brill Building section is ending it’s hard not to think that we’re watching the final episode of a long-running series about New York songwriters in the 60s that we never got to see every episode of (there’s a thought—Denise Waverly running into Don Draper in a bar late some night in ’63). It’s like the film we’re gotten attached to has ended without warning and is suddenly restarting which becomes frustrating—the transition is almost too abbreviated, the rhythm doesn’t feel quite right and races to the tragedy almost too fast. Every now and then a moment that sticks out where it feels too rushed or how maybe the film is trying a little too hard for period detail, just like how it’s not really Douglas’ voice singing, it’s as if the movie comes within reach of the greatness being portrayed in the “God Give Me Strength” number but falls just short. Deleted scenes on the DVD may have fleshed some elements out that feel slightly hanging in the release version—executive producer Martin Scorsese’s regular editor Thelma Schoonmaker worked on this film and you can feel the tightness at times particularly when the pacing rushes through an affair with Bruce Davison’s disc jockey so fast that it barely seems to qualify as a relationship but even this manages to make sense in the film’s collage-like approach. Sometimes the people you haven’t spent that much time with fuck you up the most, after all.
But GRACE OF MY HEART’s awareness of itself is important as is the emotion is displays. It matters just as much as the conscious echoes of other films, particularly A STAR IS BORN (presumably the 1954) and the obvious real-life inspirations whether Carol King, Lesley Gore or Brian Wilson. Several of the actors makes hard not to connect it to other films as well, intentional or not, whether Patsy Kensit providing a connection to Julian Temple’s 50s-set rock musical ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS, Matt Dillon playing a California rocker just like his brother Kevin did in Oliver Stone’s THE DOORS and even an appearance by David Clennon provides a direct link to BEING THERE, the film Illeana Douglas once visited her grandfather on the set of and which in her book she writes about how it has continued to turn up in her life unexpectedly. And the awareness is also revealed in how Jay tries to talk Denise into making an album that can be ‘more personal’ because she’s a woman and it feels like that’s what the movie is as well. The film is unafraid of any sensitivity, showing how Denise has to overcome how the industry doesn’t want girl singers, fighting to get a song to tell a girl’s story since it’s not about the guy and even the touch of casual sexism tossed into some dialogue. Douglas stresses in her book that part of the goal was to make a woman’s picture and it’s correctly unapologetic about that. One shot of Douglas and Dillon embracing late in the film stuck out to my on a recent viewing as I realized how long it went on and how insistent the moment seemed to become about their closeness. It’s easy to imagine that most directors wouldn’t have lingered on the shot as long as Anders does, to stress the yearning in that moment, a reminder that for all of the references to other things and people all swirling around it the film is sometimes about nothing more than reaching for that person in front of you, hoping that moment will last and knowing it can’t. The yearning cuts deep and stays with me, just as some of the lyrics in “God Give Me Strength” that play in my head over and over again as I do my best to forget some of the past.
But even more than that is Illeana Douglas since there is no film without her, she is the film just as much as anything that Allison Anders brings to it and the way the director uses her is a reminder of that. You fall for her instantly and in scene after scene she keeps giving you reasons to fall for her even harder. Every moment coming from her huge eyes means something, every time she breaks out into a huge smile means that much more, every time she brings an unexpected laugh to a scene means that much more. You fall in love with her very presence just as you know that most of the men in Denise Waverly’s life aren’t worthy of her either—I’ve seen the film enough by now that I’m certain Eric Stoltz’s Howard doesn’t deserve her even as I can’t decide if that’s my reaction to the character or Stoltz’ deliberately unlikable performance. Some of the best supporting work comes from the people in the margins – I almost referred to one actor in the film as ‘underappreciated’ but the truth is the film is filled with underappreciated people with lots of interesting faces in small roles and some pertinent cameos particularly Jennifer Leigh Warren, Bridget Fonda, Chris Isaak, Lucinda Jenney and Richard Schiff (ask me my story about Schiff and his appearance in this film sometime).
The unexpectedly fragile innocence Matt Dillon projects as Jay Phillips becomes sadder to me each time I see the film and Patsy Kensit is particularly good as the foil for Douglas after the characters’ initial coolness towards each other; you can feel the friendship clicking in their scenes together, their rapport feels totally genuine. Maybe best of all aside from the lead performance, John Turturro is particularly memorable as the Phil Spector-like producer (fortunately the real Phil Spector is actually referenced so we don’t have to worry about that possible future for the character) coming off as appropriately larger than life but always grounded—considering how big he plays it, I’m not sure Turturro has ever seemed as relaxed and as natural as he does in this film. What develops onscreen between Douglas and Turturro becomes the real chemistry of the film which pays off when he returns near the end for a dynamite prolonged confrontation scene done entirely in one shot, the film’s own version of Tommy Noonan yelling at Judy Garland near the end of A STAR IS BORN. Of course, Illeana Douglas channeling Judy Garland makes you think of Liza Minnelli in Scorsese’s NEW YORK NEW YORK which not only adds to the mirrors in this context, it’s a reminder that in the incarnation of the oft-told showbiz story we’re being told here Illeana Douglas surpasses each of them, earning a beautifully haunting final shot in which every conceivable emotion that’s been building up over the past two hours washes over her face and it’s nothing less than a triumph.
Sometimes, in the blink of an eye, things in life suddenly become clear. But too often that clarity goes away as fast as it turned up. That’s what you reflect on at the end of the year, I suppose, when you can’t stop dwelling on what went wrong. In her book I BLAME DENNIS HOPPER, Illeana Douglas writes about how GRACE OF MY HEART has endured in some unexplainable way, that people have taken it to heart no doubt because they see something of themselves in her journey. It’s a reminder of the things you need to strive for, that you can’t let them just fade away as the years go on no matter what happens. You need to hang onto that as much as possible if it’s what you feel deep down. And you still need to find out who you are, what your life is and whether or not you can find the strength, as well as the grace, to move on in this world.