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Monsters, Inc. (2001)
In recent years, most Disney films have sacrificed heart and human emotion for "look, no hands, ma!" animated virtuosity, manic "comedy" performances by the likes of Robin Williams, and sloshy musical numbers with one eye on a Best Song Oscar and the other on a #1 Hot 100 chart position.
Thankfully, "Monsters, Inc." rectifies the situation by being smart, witty, and cracking good fun--WITH a heart. Produced in association with Pixar, the visuals are stunning; you are actually tricked into thinking you're watching live action and certain points.
But savvy effects a good film does not make. Enter John Goodman and Billy Crystal, who give voice to the film's unlikely heroes: Sully, a teddy bear-ish, blue-and-purple monster who is the good natured "#1 Scarer" at Monsters, Inc.; and Mike, Sully's wisecracking, one-eyed best buddy and colleague. Goodman and Crystal are pitch-perfect together, making their characters' comfortable, affectionate banter sound easy and natural.
When Sully and Mike's lives are turned upside down by a "child security breach"--Sully accidentally lets a 4-year-old tyke into the monster world--the gags and action never stop. What's most effective, however, is the growing bond between Sully and "Boo," the nickname he gives to the toddler. It is sentimental and sweet without being manipulative or cloying, and offset by Mike's reactionary, seething resentment.
This movie has it all: lovable characters for the kids; witty visual and verbal gags aplenty for the adults; and a rollicking good story for everyone. Plus, the ending ranks among the best I've seen all year: I defy you not to be touched!
Mulholland Dr. (2001)
Disquieting, disturbing and ultimately unsatisfying...but worthwhile.
To say that David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive" is one of the quirkier films of 2001 would be a masterpiece of understatement. A more imperfect example of linear storytelling probably cannot be found, yet it remains compelling and fascinating. By the film's end, however, the resolution to the fantastically surreal visions we have witnessed seems contrived and something of a cop-out.
Beginning with what seems to be a scene from a completely different film (wholesome teenagers doing the jitterbug), "Mulholland Drive" establishes its clarity-be-damned style from the get-go. We are then introduced to a sultry brunette riding in the back seat of a stretch limousine. The ride abruptly ends when the gun-toting chauffeur seems about to perform a "hit"...but those plans are foiled by a head-on collision with joy-riding teens.
Escaping with a nasty gash on her head, the brunette staggers her way to Sunset Blvd., hooks up with perky blonde Betty (an aspiring actress) and attempts to unravel the mystery of her amnesia. Taking the name Rita from a movie poster of Rita Hayworth as "Gilda," the mystery brunette gives us a not-so-subtle clue that she just might be a femme fatale. Along the way, we are treated to a dizzying array of images and seemingly disconnected scenes--all of which make sense once you see the denouement.
POSSIBLE SPOILERS TO FOLLOW!
Although the ending tied up most of the loose ends, that's precisely why it strikes such a false note: for 90% of the film, Lynch creates a world of beautiful, baffling images...to have them tidily explained away is akin to being told there is no Santa Claus. Leaving us dangling would have been deliciously frustrating; instead, the ending left me incredibly dissatisfied.
That aside, the first 2 hours of the film are worth the ticket price. The cast of unknowns is excellent, particularly Naomi Watts, who has a radiant screen presence and the ability to change moods on a dime. She may emerge as an underdog Oscar nominee, an honor she would most definitely deserve.
Laura Harring is sexy beyond belief, although her line readings are stiff and halting; OK, so she's playing an amnesia victim--she still could have injected a little more life into her character. Still, she is undeniably photogenic. Justin Theroux is dry, funny and thoroughly engaging as a likably self-absorped film director whose sudden plunge into a nightmarish dreamscape of strange mobsters, double-crossing wives and philosophical cowboys may or may not be connected to the Betty/Rita plotline.
There are also wonderfully weird cameos by the likes of Ann Miller, Lee Grant, Chad Everett and Billy Ray Cyrus, adding to the carnival-like atmosphere. The haunting score by Angelo Badalamenti (who also cameos as a hypnotic, sinister-yet-sexy performance artist) is complimented by two 60's kitsch classics (Connie Stevens' "16 Reasons" and Linda Scott's "I've Told Every Little Star" never sounded so subversive) and a stunning, a cappella version of "Crying," delivered in Spanish by Rebekah Del Rio. This performance is one of the high points of the film.
"Mulholland Drive" was originally intended as a TV series, along the same lines as the (in)famous "Twin Peaks." It's perhaps a pity that those plans didn't develop; wrapping up all these wonderful twists and turns in a neat, 2 1/2 hour package just doesn't seem fitting.
Gives B-Movies a Good Name
The title alone conjures up images of So-Bad-it's-Good hilarity, but
this is actually a well-made little thriller; at times, it approaches the
There are actually some chills--minor, to be sure, by today's
standards, but a few scenes really got my pulse racing. And
speaking of setting hearts aflutter, Julia Adams is a raven-haired
beauty who gives Esther Williams more than a run for her money
in the bathing suit department, while Richard Carlson and Richard
Denning display surprisingly lean, fat-free physiques in their own
But, of course, the real star is the Creature. The fantastic makeup
job is quite spectacular, given the time period. Even on land, the
costume maintains its scariness; I particularly like the eerie shots
of the caged Creature staring up from his cell through the bars.
The plot, as such, is ridiculous, of course--but we're thankfully
spared much of the ponderous "scientific explanations" that
hamper other sci-fi B flicks, and damage the very credibility that
such long-winded speeches are (supposedly) meant to establish.
Not too much time is spent pontificating on HOW this creature
came to be, or how he's survived, or why no one's seen him
before--the main goal is to keep from being the next victim of its
The DVD edition comes with a pristine print, a fun "Back at the
Black Lagoon" documentary, and the always-fun theatrical trailers.
Definitely worth a look, and the epitome of 50's fun.
The Parent Trap (1961)
Sassy, warm and genuinely funny
"Family" movies usually make me cringe. Saccharine plots, cloying kiddie actors, goopy dialogue...no, thank you! But "The Parent Trap" succeeds admirably as both children-friendly fare and reasonably witty, sophisticated comedy.
The high-class production values don't hurt, and neither does the superb cast, right down to the character roles. The ever-dependable Una Merkel is a gem as the smart-talking maid, having lost none of her streetwise timing since her brassy blonde days in the 1930's. Charlie Ruggles is extraordinarily lovable as the grandfather, and Cathleen Nesbitt plays wonderfully against type as the domineering grandmother. Leo G. Carroll once again benefits a film simply by his appearance, and even Nancy "Miss Hathaway" Kulp is on board as a butch camp counselor (quite a stretch).
Of course, at the heart of it all, is the bravura performance of Hayley Mills as twins Susan and Sharon. She's never revoltingly sweet--there's a winning streak of spice in her personality that separates her from all other child stars. Plus, her kicky pre-Beatles British accent and snub-nosed beauty lend her a more worldly air than her contemporaries.
The ravishing Maureen O'Hara, in one of her last major roles as the twins' mother, Maggie, begins the film as a nondescript cipher, but her glamorous metamorphosis in the latter half of the film shows just how funny and sexy she can be. Mitch, the twins' father, is played by the ruggedly handsome Brian Keith, who generates the right mixture of roughneck toughness and paternal warmth.
And the criminally-overlooked Joanna Barnes plays Vicki, the predatory golddigger looking to sink her claws into Mitch. Vicki's verbal duels with Maggie and the twins are surprisingly catty for a children's film, and delivered with perfect villainy.
The very 1961 flourishes are priceless: the hopelessly tone-deaf Tommy Sands and Annette Funicello "singing" the theme song; the "formal" dance, with the girls all decked out in crinolines and laces; Susan plastering her bungalow wall with pictures of her favorite pin up boys (Rick Nelson!); and, my personal favorites, Sharon and Susan showing each other their parents' photos: hyper-posed, glamorous Hollywood 8x10 glossies!
The plot actually plays like a highly sanitized Rock Hudson/Doris Day bedroom farce, except that Susan and Sharon direct the course of action. You know what the ending will be even before you watch the movie, but it doesn't really matter. This is a delicious bon-bon of a flick, as irresistible to adults as to their children.
Vanity, Thy Name is Mariah
Madonna in "Shanghai Surprise." The Village People in "Can't Stop the Music." Pia Zadora in "The Lonely Lady." And, now, Mariah Carey joins the exalted ranks of Singers Who Should Never Step Onto a Soundstage, with the critically-roasted "Glitter."
Anyone who has seen Ms. Carey's pop music videos might have guessed that her thespian skills are largely confined to throwing her arms up in the air (preferably while on a rollercoaster, or emerging from underwater) and accurately portraying an exhibitionist whose micro miniskirts are an open invitation for the world to be her gynecologist.
That having been said, anyone who expresses outrage at having spent money to see "Glitter" have only themselves to blame. Instead, one should either a) avoid it like the plague, or b) go with a group of scathingly brilliant friends and dish every ludicrous line of dialogue, every inept piece of direction, and every ridiculous costume. In fact, providing that one is in the proper frame of mind, "Glitter" may well be your most enjoyable night out at the movies in many a moon.
Funny Girl (1968)
The Greatest Star?...
...Perhaps not. But for nearly 2 1/2 hours in "Funny Girl," Barbra Streisand at least makes a convincing case for herself.
Forget about the television airings you've seen. Throw away your old video cassette copy. Instead, see the restored, widescreen, road show version now in limited theatrical release. It is the ONLY way to truly appreciate the talents of Ms. Streisand and, more notably, the film's brilliant director, William Wyler.
Movies today no longer look like movies. The highest compliment one can pay "Funny Girl" is that it is a grand, glorious MOVIE in the truest sense. Wyler's brilliance is never more evident than in his glorious treatment of the "Don't Rain on My Parade" sequence, the stunning camerawork of "The Swan," and the incredibly effective set-up of the "My Man" finale.
Ms. Streisand doesn't really give a performance; she simply is Barbra. Every "Barbra-ism" that we have come to know, love and hate over the years is already crystallized at this point. Her brashness can be off-putting, but by the end of the movie, one is completely won over by the sheer enormity of her talent and presence. Yes, you can see the beginnings of the blind egomania that has marred her performances for the last 20-odd years (to be generous); but you cannot deny her brilliance, either. And to see her extraordinary face in full-screen close up is breathtaking. Kudos to the director, lighting director, and make-up artist for making Streisand appear so wonderful in this.
From the sweepingly orchestrated titles to the high-drama impact of the showstopping finale, this is Entertainment with a capital E. About 20 minutes could have been trimmed, and exactly why Omar Sharif was cast remains a mystery; but at the end of the picture, these quibbles are trivial. Did I laugh? Yes. Did I cry? Yes. Was I thrilled, excited, entertained? You betcha.
Singin' in the Rain (1952)
"Round tones, Miss LaMont, round tones..."
This is near-blasphemy, but I would love "Singin' in the Rain" even more than I do if it were a non-musical, or, more to the point, a musical with different music. Gene Kelly's talent is incontrovertible, and sequences such as the lengthy "Broadway Rhythm" number underscore his (and Stanley Donen's) remarkable vision and talent.
They also hold up this snappy, bright, FUNNY comedy.
Which is not to say that all of the musical portions are not entertaining adjuncts to the film; the "Beautiful Girls" fashion show is hysterically camp, and of course, Kelly's solo "Singin' in the Rain" is charming, romantic and joyous. However, the screenplay is so solid on its own, the lesser moments ("Good Morning," "You Were Meant for Me") seem to drag on forever.
Kelly is movie star handsome here, befitting his role as silent screen lover, Don Lockwood. Donald O'Connor is fine as the ubiquitous funny man sidekick, while Debbie Reynolds displays a nice, sassy touch, especially in her first scene. "Here we are, Sunset and Camden," she trills, having just deflated the ego of one of Hollywood's most notorious wolves. She's a much more interesting romantic foil than most of the colorless ingenues which grace male-dominated musicals.
But the real scene-stealer is the extraordinary Jean Hagen, as shrill-voiced screen queen Lina LaMont. It is such a bravura performance, she simply blows the competition off the screen. Never once does she break character. Her slow burns and takes as she reacts to other characters' comments and actions are almost as funny as her (numerous) quotable lines. "I...can...SEEWWWW." "People?! I ain't PEOPLE! I'm a...'shining, shimmering star in the Hollywood firmament.' See? Sez so, right there!" "I CAN'T make LOVE to a BUSH!" "Gee, this wig weighs a ton! What kinda dope would wear a thing like this?" And, her ultimate manifesto: "We're so thrilled you enjoyed 'The Dancing Cavalier,' our first musi-cale picture, togither. If we bring a little joy inta ya humdrum lives, it makes us feel all our hard work ain't been in vain for nothin'."
There are countless comic gems in this film: gossip monger Dora Bailey's breathless account of a movie premiere; Lina's hopeless voice lessons; Lina attempting to "sing"; Don and Lina fighting as they act out a tender, silent movie love scene; and, most famously, the disastrous sneak preview of Don and Lina's first talking picture.
This is one musical that can stand on its own merits as a fine example of Hollywood comedy at its best.
Queen Bee (1955)
The producers of "Mommie Dearest" clearly took copious notes
from the real-life Crawford canon; traces of everything from
"Mildred Pierce" to "Harriet Craig" to "Strait-Jacket" show up in that
biopic-from-hell, but the film it most closely resembles is the 1955
cult classic, "Queen Bee."
Scenes of an imperious Crawford being served coffee in bed;
destroying a bedroom with a riding crop (wire hanger?); and her
children crying out in the dark are lifted directly from this movie;
and Crawford's stunning appearances in various Jean Louis
gowns--descending a grand staircase, posing in a doorway,
preening in front of a mirror--are a harbinger of the demented
fashion show Faye Dunaway would put on in her Crawford
Like her rival, Bette Davis, Crawford is best-known for villanous
roles like this, although neither she nor Davis often played bitches;
but the times they did, the performances were so over-the-top, it's
what we remember them for. "Queen Bee" is the ultimate
late-period Crawford vehicle; she dominates every scene, even
when she doesn't directly appear in it, and her elegant bitchery is a
marvel to behold. No one, but simply no one, could throw a fur
stole over her shoulder like Joan Crawford, and certainly no one
could top her as an obsessive-compulsive, castrating shrew.
Crawford herself was happier playing heroines (like the "young"
widow of "Female on the Beach," or the brilliant playwright in
"Sudden Fear"), but she clearly was even more compelling in
full-on bitch mode. As cruel, evil and thoughtless as her character
may be, Crawford handles it with such glamour and panache, you
secretly find yourself rooting for her.
The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984)
"That'll teach ya to mess with a lady!"
I distinctly remember seeing "Muppets Take Manhattan" in the movie theater when I was 8 years old--following the film, I immediately demanded that my parents purchase the soundtrack LP (yes, on vinyl!). I loved this movie then; I love it still.
Actually, it's my favorite among the first three, classic Muppet films; "Muppet Movie" is great but overlong, while "Great Muppet Caper" is terrific, but seems a bit dated now. "Muppets Take Manhattan," on the other hand, never fails to entertain me, still makes me laugh out loud (the purse-snatching scene; Kermit in his Bert Convy 'fro), and even tugs at my heartstrings.
What's particularly nice about this adventure is that it's an affectionate love letter to Hollywood musicals of yore, without being overly parodying. The musical comedy cliches are presented in a matter-of-fact manner; just as we were expected to suspend our disbelief when Ruby Keeler went out onstage a nobody but "came back a star!", we suspend our disbelief to encompass a group of talking animals putting together a big budget Broadway musical in 2 weeks. These kind of hoary plot devices are presented straight-faced, without any self-conscious "winking" or irony.
The songs are all pretty darn terrific; the show-stopping "Together Again" finale is as good as any contemporary musical number of the last 20 years or so, while "It's Time for Saying Goodbye" always puts a lump in my throat: it's sentimental without being maudlin. The finale, "He/She Makes Me Happy" goes from being sweet to comically over-the-top in less than 3 minutes, and it's a joy.
The expected parade of cameos work well within the structure, without being intrusive. My particular favorites are Liza Minnelli's (the whole Sardi's scene is wonderful), Linda Lavin's (another terrific comedy moment: "YOU are Mr. Enrico Tortellini of Passaic, New Jersey!"), and Joan Rivers' (another gem). The Muppet performers are their usual, endearing selves: lovable, warm, likable. The "love triangle" between Kermit, Piggy and the human Jenny plays surprisingly well, and Piggy's jealous reactions are hysterical.
These days, "family entertainment" usually means disgustingly white-washed pap that anyone over 10 or 11 would find either sedating or inane. (Disney's live action "101 Dalmations" and its sequel spring to mind.) The Muppet movies proved that a G-rated film could be intelligent, witty, funny and entertaining for all ages. It's a formula that has yet to be improved upon, and "The Muppets Take Manhattan" just might be the best example of it.
Three Coins in the Fountain (1954)
The Grande Dame of a Genre
"How to Marry a Millionaire" (1953) set the template--get three beautiful gals, throw 'em together in one impossibly huge apartment, and let the husband-hunting begin! But dated as "Millionaire" is today, it benefits from good casting, a reasonably witty script and solid comic performances. Its direct descendant, "Three Coins in the Fountain," camped the story up, and began a whole sub-genre of trashy flicks: Three Gals Lookin' for Love!
You know what you're in for as soon as Frank Sinatra, the studio orchestra, and a chorus of thousands begin blasting the swoony theme song, as the CinemaScope camera pans on countless smoochin' couples all around Rome.
POSSIBLE SPOILERS...The three girls in question are Dorothy McGuire (the sensible spinster), Jean Peters (the working girl), and Maggie McNamara (the perky one). Actually, only Maggie technically qualifies as a "girl," but this is 1954, and all women were "girls," doncha know. The ridiculous plot has each of them meeting their future hubbies in various picturesque settings; the weirdest and creepiest union has to be McGuire and ancient, effete Clifton Webb. That's one honeymoon that I wouldn't want to be privy to.
Considerably more eye-catching are Peters' and McNamara's beaux, the hunky Rosanno Brazzi and impossibly beautiful Louis Jourdan. Actually, these two slabs of Franco-Italo beefcake are better looking than the rather pedestrian female cast, and kinda make you wish that Peters and McNamara had been replaced by, say, John Gavin and Jeffrey Hunter. But I digress--
Anyway, a few melodramatic turns are provided by the fact that Webb is suffering from some Fatal Movie Disease, and Peters and Brazzi become persona non grata at the office they work at because of their lustful union. But all's well that ends well, and like every single women, er, GIRL, wanted in 1954, all three wind up married. This despite the fact that two gals will almost certainly wind up divorcees, and one will be a widow in what looks to be about 6 months at most. But hey--you wanted a happy, marriage-minded, 1954 ending, right?
The Stepford Wives (1975)
"I'll just DIE if I don't get this recipe!"
Those who dismiss "The Stepford Wives" as absurdist 1) miss the black comedy/satirical point, and 2) obviously never lived in an affluent Connecticut suburb. I grew up not too far from where "The Stepford Wives" was filmed, and trust me, this film got the mileu exactly right.
Despite its apparent lack of blockbuster success upon its 1975 release, the film has aquired an almost mythic reputation; indeed, even those who have never seen the movie or read the book upon which it's based will recognize the term "Stepford wife" when applied to a particularly vapid, "perfect" homemaker.
The plot is simple and scary: Joanna (Katharine Ross) moves to the seemingly perfect burg of Stepford, Connecticut, at the insistence of her husband. There, the liberated (this is the 70's, after all) Joanna is shocked to find every housewife seems to be right out of a Betty Crocker commercial. Are they really all so thrilled to be dedicated homemakers, cooks and sex objects? And just what is this "men's association" that demands so much of the husbands' time?
Joanna's shock turns to paranoia as she begins to suspect that some kind of evil force is behind the all-too-perfect veneer of Stepford. She makes a new friend, Bobbie (Paula Prentiss), who is also a newcomer to Stepford. Both women are determined to find out exactly what is causing "us to turn into hausfraus!" What Joanna discovers, to her horror, is that the "association" is behind the killing of the wives, only to replace them with programmed robots. In one of the most famous scenes, Joanna learns that Bobbie has "Stepford-ized," and stabs her in the stomach with a carving knife--only to have "Bobbie" malfunction rather than bleed!
Yes, this is high camp; the sight of Prentiss mechanically dropping coffee cup after coffee cup while spinning around and muttering, "I thought we were friends! I thought we were friends!", as computerized bleeps and squiggles dominate the soundtrack, is darkly funny--but also very, very spooky. That such ridiculous scenes play well as both camp and black humor suggests that this is what the filmmakers had in mind all along.
Katharine Ross is beautiful and perfectly cast as Joanna; she doesn't really hit any highs or lows, but conveys the character's fear and frustration well. Paula Prentiss, on the other hand, is hysterically funny and over-the-top. She comes off as a big, goosy drag queen--sort of like Jack Lemmon's characterization of "Daphne" in "Some Like it Hot"!
Nannette Newman took some critical heat because she was primarily cast due to her marriage to Bryan Forbes, the film's director, but she's perfect as Carol. Some insisted that the older more matronly Newman didn't fit in with the idea that the Assocation wanted a line of perfect, young, beautiful trophy wives; but Newman isn't exactly Totie Fields, and, after all, wouldn't a suburb-full of Playboy Bunnies make Joanna and Bobbie head back to New York City without even a second thought? Newman also gets off the most memorable line in the film: malfunctioning at a surreal garden party, she intones to every guest: "I'll just DIE if I don't get this recipe!"
Look for the absolutely stunning Tina "Ginger" Louise as Charmaine--in her initial, pre-robotic scenes, she's salty and brassy and incredibly sexy. What a shame she was forever typecast and left to waste away on "Gilligan's Island." The only real complaint I would have is that little or no motivation is given for the husbands' willingness to kill their wives and have them replaced by these domestically- and anatomically-perfect doubles. In the end, though, I suppose it's irrelevant. The film's message, if entertainment MUST have a message, is really a manifesto against a male dominated society's unwritten, unspoken and pretty much unchallenged desire to control women.
Forbes' direction is slick and assured, and aided by the gauzy, soft-focus photography and EZ-listening score. Believe me, towns like Stepford really did exist (still do?), and this movie not only made me laugh very hard, but also scared the hell out of me--because it made the reality that much more chilling.
Mommie Dearest (1981)
Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
There is no doubt that Christina Crawford's scathing 1978 memoirs did much initial harm to her late mother's reputation. The subsequent 1981 film has eclipsed even the bestselling book to become the standard by which the real-life Joan is judged. However, I'm inclined to believe that those who dismiss Joan today as a psychotic harpy and nothing more never even saw the film version of "Mommie Dearest," and only heard secondhand reports of the most infamous scene ("No...wire...hangers!").
Most tellingly, Christina Crawford reportedly hated the film version of her book, and wailed upon seeing it, "They turned it into a Joan Crawford movie!" She's right. With the exception of the two most graphic scenes ("No wire hangers" and the choking scene), Joan's "abuse" of Christina is not all that much different from what passed as "discipline" in those days--just ask your parents or grandparents--and despite Faye Dunaway's full-throttle acting, Joan always somehow comes off in a strangely sympathetic light.
What we see is an insecure woman fighting for survival in an age-obsessed, male-dominated industry. Such scenes as Joan's heartless dismissal from MGM invite sympathy; while her snarling, veritable takeover of Pepsi Co. elicts cheers for her ballsiness and strength. Christina, on the other hand, is invariably depicted as either gratingly whiny or cardboard stiff. It's difficult to empathize with such an annoying character.
"Mommie Dearest"'s grandest artistic achievement is through the impeccable art direction, which truly makes the audience believe they are watching a film unfold in the 1940's and 1950's. Its lasting legacy, however, is Faye Dunaway's career-ending performance, which, depending on your point of view, is either jaw-droppingly awful or unbelievably brilliant.
Dunaway's acting "choices" are nothing if not idiosyncratic: clutching her bosom frantically as she cries, "You...deliberately...embarass me in front of a REPORTER!"; copying the real-life Crawford's facial expressions from the horror flick "Strait-Jacket" in the axe-wielding scene; and, most famously, her odd, cross-eyed pose that she strikes not once, or twice, but three times: holding baby Christina on the staircase, rubbing moisturizer on her elbows after hiding Christina's dolls, and following her wire hanger/cleansing powder attack.
It is Dunaway's nostril-flaring, hair-pulling, bosom-clutching style that really sends this film into the camp stratosphere. On paper, such scenes as Joan swatting Christina on the butt for defying her orders, or Joan insisting that Christina finish her rare steak, would seem bland. In Dunaway's hands, they become something else altogether!
Actually, Christina Crawford should thank Faye Dunaway; if not for her crazed, unforgettable portrayal, "Mommie Dearest" would have been just another trashy Hollywood memoir that eventually would've been forgotten (does anyone really care about B.D. Hyman's book about Bette Davis anymore?). And a film version without Dunaway would've been rightfully panned, forgotten, and relegated to cut-out bins at your local video emporium. Instead, Faye Dunaway has ensured its place in film immortality. It still stands alone among camp classics, but perhaps some re-evaluation of it (and of Joan Crawford herself) is due.
"Girl...boy...girl...Oh, it's just too confusing!"
Fading sex goddess Jayne Mansfield takes a Mondo Cane-type tour of Europe, meeting male hustlers, transvestites, strippers, nudists, topless girl bands, and other colorful types along the way.
Filmed mostly in 1964 but not released until after Jayne's horrific death (and padded with a lot of footage from such Mansfield epics as "The Loves of Hercules" and "Primitive Love"), this deliriously tasteless travelogue was optimistically heralded by Jayne in one of her fan club newsletters as a sequel of sorts to Elizabeth Taylor's famed television tour of London. However, one can hardly imagine the then-Mrs. Hilton Wilding Todd Fisher Burton doing the twist to "The Bird's the Word," much less visiting underground drag nightclubs.
Adding to the weirdness is the fact that "Jayne"'s narration is supplied by a voice double, and in a few new scenes shot from behind, a body double is used as well (apparently, also to pad out the film's length). In fact, such lengthy scenes as the Drag Queen Beauty Contest seem to have been filmed after Jayne's death, with inserts of Jayne's "reactions" to the show edited in.
Never fear, though, because plenty of the real Mansfield form is on display. In Cannes, she prances around in a bikini, then doffs the top for a trip to a nudist colony ("Gee, I hope nobody's watching!" Jayne's voice over simpers). In Paris, Jayne visits a massage parlor/tanning salon and is generously oiled down. And for those who missed them the first time around, the bathtub scene from "Promises! Promises!" and the striptease from "Primitive Love" are spliced in for good measure. (Jayne having "daydreams" in Rome leads to a few choice snippets of "The Loves of Hercules," as well!)
The crazed one-liners attributed to "Jayne" throughout the film have to be more inane than anything that would've ever actually issued from Mansfield's mouth (on the Eiffel Tower: "Gee, I hope nobody tears it down and builds a parking lot!").
To top everything off, the film suddenly ends with screeching tire noises, a simulated car crash, and then gruesome police photos of Mansfield's fatal car accident (including her corpse and that of her chihauhau!). Then, a grotesquely tacky epilogue unfurls of ex-Mr. Jayne Mansfield, Mickey Hargitay, sadly touring the Pink Palace, playing the pink grand piano, and displaying the famed Wall of Magazine Covers. A supremely smarmy narrator intones, "A pair of shoes wait by the heart shaped bed...who will fill those shoes?", as the camera pans on a pair of Jayne's stilletos!
As horrifying as this film sounds, no doubt Jayne would have been delighted with her cinematic send-off. Her legacy of bad taste lives on to this day, and it is as jaw-dropping and mind-reeling as in 1967.
The beginning of the end for Crawford
SPOILERS WITHIN SUMMARY
"What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" (1962) should have been the springboard to further successes for stars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford; instead, both were typecast in increasingly unsavory horror productions, with Davis faring somewhat better than Crawford in this respect.
With "Strait-Jacket," released a scant two years after "Baby Jane"'s flurry of publicity and critical acclaim, Crawford began her descent into B-grade territory; the legendary glamour icon would never again appear in a first class production.
As Lucy Harper, Crawford certainly dominates the proceedings, but gives one of her most laughable performances. The material, to be fair, gives her precious little to work with. Twenty years ago, we are told, Lucy Harper was declared legally insane. She walked in on her studly, younger hubby (a pre-fame Lee Majors) sleeping with the local floozy, and took an axe to both of them.
This initial double murder is shown in flashback, and the scariest thing about it is Crawford's entrance: by narration, we are told that Lucy Harper was "very much a woman, and very much aware of it!" Lucy steps off a train platform, strikes a seductive pose, throws her cigarette over her shoulder and walks to her shabby little house as screeching jazz blares in the background. This would've been a hysterically camp entrance for ANYONE, but the fact that it's a sixty-ish Joan Crawford made up to look thirtysomething (sleazy floral dress, jangling charm bracelets and a ridiculous black wig) transcends camp and sends it into orbit.
Flash forward to the present; Lucy is being released from the mental hospital and coming to live with her daughter, Carol (Diane Baker), and her brother and sister-in-law, on their farm. As soon as Lucy arrives, murders begin occurring again. Who could be behind them? Well, since this is a Joan Crawford film, you can bet that she ain't the villain. (You can also bet that a case of PEPSI makes a prominent cameo appearance, at the behest of the former Mrs. Alfred Steele, international spokeswoman for the soda pop.) Instead, it is revealed at the crazed finale, that Carol is the new murderess--she witnessed the original double homicide, and that trauma, plus her growing resentment of her mother, caused her to snap.
In an obvious nod to "Psycho," Carol-as-a-murderess is shown committing her final crime dressed AS her mother--complete with a rubber mask fashioned after Crawford's face! In a sublimely surreal moment, mother and daughter tussle wearing the same dress, same bad wig...and then Lucy rips the mask off of Carol's face. The only scarier scene possible was when Crawford-in-blackface ripped off her wig in "Torch Song," revealing her flaming orange hair.
There are more howlingly funny scenes: Lucy regressing to her sex kitten past by cranking up bad jazz records, swigging her liquor, and then lighting a match on the spinning record! Brilliant! Or the loony confrontation between Lucy and the rich bitch mother of Carol's fiance, as Lucy freaks out:
MRS FIELDS: It wasn't JUST a sanitorium, was it? WAS IT!!!!!
LUCY: NO! It was an ASYLUM!!!! And it was HELL! Twenty years of PURE HELL!
The completely insane coda has Lucy explaining how Carol carried out her diabolical scheme ("She must have hidden it in her purse," she deadpans--watch the film and understand why that line gives this writer fits of laughter), and then calmly preparing to visit Carol in the loony bin. Never mind that the woman axed two people in a jealous rage. Never mind that she's been portrayed as teetering on the brink of insanity for the last 80 minutes. Suddenly, Crawford is playing her as she would one of her noble, composed 1930's MGM heroines. Absolutely twisted.
The axe murders aren't graphic in the least (there's more gore in the bigger-budgeted, higher-brow Davis vehicle, "Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte), and in the end, this is less a horror movie than it is another in a long line of mother vs. daughter Joan Crawford melodramas. However, this is a far way down from "Mildred Pierce." For sheer enjoyment, camp appeal and demented guilty pleasure, "Strait-Jacket" is ideal. And remember: "Don't give away the surprise, shock ending!"
An Affair to Remember (1957)
The Film That Got Away
The dawn of such technical advances as heightened Technicolor usage, widescreen effects and stereophonic sound prompted many studios in the 1950's to re-hash their most successful stories and "pump up" the glamour in a bid to compete with television.
So, "The Women" (1939) became "The Opposite Sex" (1956); "The Philadelphia Story" (1940) became "High Society" (1956); "My Man Godfrey" (1936) was disastrously remade under the same title in 1957; and, in one of the more successful attempts, "Love Story" (1939) morphed into "An Affair to Remember" (1957).
The classic original film starred Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer as the ill-fated lovers; the update didn't skimp on star power, and reeled in heavyweights Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr.
Grant, of course, was already a legend, and if a few missteps in the early 1950's put him in a mild slump, he scored a tremendous success in 1955 with Hitchcock's "To catch a Thief." Kerr, on the other hand, was enjoying huge acclaim as a result of her performance in "The King and I" (which itself was a super-deluxe, musical retelling of "Anna and the King of Siam," 1948, also starring Dunne).
All the elements seemed to be in "An Affair to Remember"'s favor: popular, charismatic stars; lavish production values; and even the same director as the 1939 original, Leo McCary. Unfortunately, some of the sparkle seems to have gotten smothered beneath the Technicolor trappings, hackeneyed melodrama cliches, and the swelling, swooning theme song.
Everything starts out perfectly fine: Grant, a notorious international playboy, meets Kerr, a sensible nightclub singer, while onboard a luxurious cruise ship. Although both are spoken for (Grant's engagement is humorously reported upon at the film's start), there is an immediate spark, and the banter is quite charming and witty. The film is handled with a light, comic touch, and it seems as if, for once, a 1950's remake is going to at least be on a par with its predecessor, if not exactly surpassing it.
Unfortunately, things begin to fall apart as soon as the star-crossed pair hit dry land. Except for a surprisingly touching (if calculated) scene where Kerr and Grant visit his frail Italian grandmother (the always-wonderful Cathleen Nesbitt), the remainder of the picture veers sharply into pure 1950's soap. **(SPOILERS TO FOLLOW)** Grant and Kerr promise each other to dump their respective fiance(e)s, and meet atop the Empire State Building to reaffirm their love and get married. On her way to the meeting, Kerr gets near-killed crossing a street (no doubt Vic Damone belting that damn song distracted her) and Grant, not knowing of the accident, believes that she's had a change of heart.
Kerr is now confined to a wheelchair; Grant follows his life's dream to become a painter; Kerr buys one of his paintings; Grant tracks her down; Grant learns of her accident by opening her bedroom door and finding a wheelchair in the darkened room, hit by a spotlight. (Groan.) Together at last, Kerr and Grant dissolve into happy tears, with Kerr uttering perhaps the most cringe-worthy line in big budget soap opera history: "If you can paint, I can walk!"
In trying to combine the screwball romantic comedy elements of the 1930's with a tackier, 1950's-era "Love is a Many Splendored Thing"-type mentality creates a very schizophrenic film. The first half is very enjoyable, fast-paced, and charming. The second half is mawkish and shrill; still entertaining, but a disappointment after the relative excellence of the first half. (There's even a horrid musical sequence with Kerr and a disadvantaged children's chorus--a crude and obvious nod to her previous "King and I" success.)
You could do a lot worse than "An Affair to Remember" when it comes to lowbrow melodrama gussied up in deluxe trappings; after all, nothing with Cary Grant is completely without merit. But it's also a sad reminder of the film it could have been.
Roman Holiday (1953)
A Star is Born
Even today, almost a half-century later, there is excitement in watching "Roman Holiday." How even more thrilling it must have been to be in a 1953 theater, watching this story unfold, and knowing that you were witnessing the birth of a truly remarkable star.
Of course, that star is Audrey Hepburn, and her American film debut earned her a Best Actress Oscar and the hearts of millions. Miraculously, "Roman Holiday" still holds up and doesn't collapse under the weight of years and myth.
The story is simple and well-known (POSSIBLE SPOILERS): Princess Anne (Hepburn) is a young, popular European princess on a goodwill tour of Europe. In Rome, she finally tires of smothering protocol, slips out of her embassy disguised as a schoolgirl, and meets Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck), who takes her on a whirlwind tour of Rome. Bradley is a newspaperman, unbeknownst to Anne, and is recording this carefree day with the intent of selling the story and accompanying photos for a high sum. Of course, Bradley falls in love with Anne; she returns to her duties as princess an even more regal and endearing leader thanks to having discovered love, and Bradley loses some of his cynicism as he forfeits the story (and its price) for the sake of his love.
Don't be put off by any details of the plot which may sound trite. Of course, the very idea of a princess running away from the palace to mingle with the commoners requires the suspension of disbelief anyway. The script is so well-written, and the performers are so persuasive, natural and beguiling, one cannot help but believe in it, as well.
As Princess Anne, Hepburn never hits a false note. While radiating, even at that early age, the serene elegance that would become her trademark, she also projects a charming awkwardness that fits Anne's naitivity and youth. This writer, I think, fell in love with her in the moment that the Italian hairdresser tells Anne that she is the prettiest girl. There is a moment of shock that crosses Audrey's face, then a shy and utterly delighted smile--as if she's never been told she was pretty before.
Such scenes as Anne on an impromptu, reckless spin on a Vespa, could come off as contrived or forced in other hands. Hepburn's joy and exuberance are contagious, and we willingly go along for the ride. The ending, too, is extremely satisfying (SPOILER CNT'D!): Anne, having returned to her royal duties, holds a press conference at which Bradley is present. They can only express their mutual affection and sadness through their eyes--a trick which invites silent-star-mugging, but which Hepburn and Peck carry off effortlessly.
At the close of the conference, Bradley remains after all the other journalists have left, perhaps hoping that Anne will reappear. Then, slowly, he walks down a long corridor, toward the exit. Throughout this long sequence, one expects (hopes?) that Anne will reappear, cry "Joe!", and rush into his arms as the studio orchestra swells to a big Paramount Pictures finish.
But she doesn't. Joe keeps on walking. And, even though our hearts have dropped, it is the perfect ending. A "fairy tale" ending would have cheapened and lessened the film. Instead, there is the bittersweet knowledge that Anne has learned through her one-day experience of complete freedom (her perfectly-played confrontation scene with her advisors and chaperones, as well as the press conference scene, conveys this wonderfully), and Joe has learned a few lessons as well.
This is as good a time as any to point out that, though Hepburn obviously steals the show, Peck is a fantastic leading man. Combining Cary Grant's smoothness with Bill Holden's ruggedness, Peck is the ideal match for Hepburn's first major pairing. He doesn't overshadow her, but neither is he a colorless sop. Eddie Albert is also extremely engaging as Irving, the smart aleck photographer, and Paolo Carlini is adorable as the Italian hairdresser who cuts Princess Anne's locks, and tells her how pretty she is. He may have been the first; we have lined up to echo his sentiments ever since.
Dark Victory (1939)
A Tour de Force in 1939; Somewhat Overwrought in 2001.
"Dark Victory" was a huge success for Bette Davis; the "women's picture" was entering its golden age, and the public ate it up, while the critics (who most often scoffed at such material) were unusually kind and lavished every acting superlative upon Davis. She was nominated for yet another Best Actress Oscar, and probably would have won, had she not been pitted against Vivien Leigh in "Gone with the Wind."
However, Davis' performance is not nearly as controlled as it might have been. The director, Eddie Goulding, had a very good rapport with the star, but was hardly a rough taskmaster like William Wyler, who wrangled with Davis, cursed her out, and forced her to reign in her nervous quirks: the eye popping, the twitching walk, the flailing arms and hands. Under Goulding's direction, Davis gives a good performance, but not the great one many have claimed she did.
SPOILERS TO FOLLOW
Judith Tremaine (Davis) is a high-flying Long Island playgirl, concerned primarily with her horses, cocktails, and her sodden group of rich brat friends. The only voice of reason is her best friend, Ann (Geraldine Fitzgerald), who acts as both Judith's conscience and a Greek chorus in the film. Judith's eyesight, exacerbated by blinding headaches, has grown increasingly poor, deteriorating to the point that she is thrown from her prize stallion because she has double vision as she approaches a jump. Sufficiently shaken by this accident, Judith grudgingly agrees to visit neurosurgeon Dr. Steele (George Grent). Outwardly scornful and dismissive, Judith is actually very frightened, and Steele's quiet, authorative manner finally brings her to admit that her health has been in a downslide for some time. Steele diagnoses her with an incurable brain cancer, but he and Ann keep the truth from Judith--so that she may live a happy, unfettered life. Judith and Steele fall in love, and Judith seems to be on the path to a fulfilled life--she is no longer wrapped up in the superficialities of her socialite existance. However, Judith soon learns of her terminal condition, and lashes out at Steele, accusing him of wanting to marry her only out of pity. Choked with self-pity and rage, Judith embarks on a binge of drinking and partying, but, of course, comes back to Steele, so that she may live her final months on earth with dignity, and someone who truly loves her. Judith and Steele marry, move to Maine, and lead a happy, simple life. He works tirelessly at advances in neurology, while she devotes herself to enjoying life to the fullest--not through drink, but by sharing her life with someone. Ann comes for a visit just as Steele is called away to a medical conference; at that moment, Judith experiences a dimming of her vision--the telltale sign that her death is imminent. Determined to end her life with dignity and without hurting those she loves, she sends Ann away, manages to hide her blindness from Steele even as she "helps" him pack for his trip, bids him farewell, then climbs the stairs to her bedroom, where she peacefully and contentedly nears death as Max Steiner's score and an angelic choir soar behind her.
Whew! Certainly, the plot was ripe for overdramatics, but handled properly, similar material could be done compellingly and with a minimum of corn (see Davis' own "Now, Voyager"). This is not a bad movie, by any means, but some of the scenes play very poorly indeed. Watching the increasingly blind Judith pack Steele's bags and then grope her way down the steps invariably induces this writer to giggles. (On the other hand, Judith's actual death scene, as mawkish as it sounds on paper, plays exceedingly well--choir or not.) Davis is wonderful in some scenes, and then completely over-the-top in others, giving her performance a somewhat off-kilter feel.
The script, considering that it was written in 1939, has the right idea: Judith becomes insolent and self-pitying when she learns of her illness, not noble and self-sacrificing. Even after her "reform" and marriage to Steele, Judith is thankfully not written as a latter-day saint. Also adding immeasurably is Geraldine Fitzgerald's marvelous portrayal of Ann; her cool, elegant beauty and wonderful speaking voice are perfect for the character. Her tearful (but not maudlin) reactions to Judith's illness, negative prognosis, and death also effectively relieve the Judith character from having to similarly be awash in tears--a very wise move.
"Dark Victory" is quite a good film, extremely well-produced, and smartly scripted. However, it might have been a truly towering achievement, had stronger direction been applied to Davis. Unquestionably, Miss Davis was one of the greatest actresses in film history, but it is also undeniable that without a strong presence at the helm, she was prone to overplaying. That is why her portrait of Judith Tremaine just misses greatness.
"If I were standing stark naked in front of Mr. Pollack, he'd probably yawn!"
As has been duly noted before, "Arabesque" is essentially an update of Stanley Donen's own "Charade." This time, however, the plot twists are more convoluted, the camerwork is decidedly more "mod" (shooting through chandeliers, reflections in sunglass lenses, etc.) and there is an even greater emphasis on the female star's wardrobe. If the story is more confusing and less compelling than "Charade," it certainly isn't at the expense of entertainment. Its derivative nature (it not only incorporates parts of "Charade," but also the drunk and cropdusting scenes from "North by Northwest") prevents "Arabesque" from entering the elevated realm of its predecessor, but it's a delight, nevertheless. Its strongest selling point, really, is the utterly delectable Sophia Loren as Yasmin, the side-switching enigma. It is a strong statement to declare that the glorious Miss Loren has never appeared more beautiful, before or since, than in this film--but I'm willing to take the risk. Her huge, almond, almost Egyptian eyes; tawny, caramel-colored skin; lustrous hair; and world-famous curves have never been seen to better advantage. (Her stunning Christian Dior costumes certainly add to her already formidable allure.) She also displays a very nice light comedic touch; it wouldn't be difficult to dislike someone so supernaturally gorgeous, but instead, Loren's natural warmth and humor shine through. Gregory Peck, on the other hand, looks more than a little ragged around the edges; Cary Grant obviously didn't lend Peck any of his age-defying secrets. His performance isn't nearly as bad or hammy as some other reviews have indicated, but where Loren's charisma and beauty aid her in creating a completely different character than Audrey Hepburn's in "Charade," Peck comes off as an unfortunately blurred carbon coby of Grant in that earlier film. Having said that, "Arabesque" still stands on its own merits as a cracking good comedy-thriller; the final few scenes are terrifically suspenseful. Alan Badel makes a wonderfully oily villain (love the shades!), and Kieron Moore adds a healthy shot of dated humor as a jive-talking Arabian (!). Although the twists and turns might be confusing for some, just sit back and bask in the glory that is Sophia Loren. You know the good guys will win in the end, anyway.
"You can't choke the truth out of a person!"
When "Deception" was first released, one gushy fan mag declared that it was "just like opera, only the people are thinner!" That remark isn't too far off the mark; the swoony music, florid dialogue and ridiculous situations Bette Davis, Paul Henreid and Claude Rains find themselves saddled with make for terrifically overblown entertainment. Coming at the tail end of the glory days of "women's pictures", "Deception" is a harbinger of the camp artifacts the genre would harden into (see any Ross Hunter production). Just a few short years earlier, in Bette's own vehicles ("Now, Voyager" or "The Great Lie"), the same kind of material could be treated with a degree of sensitivity and artistry. Now, it seems, Davis and crew were allowed to pull out all the stops. Which means that Davis bugs her eyes and flails about; Henreid veers between completely underplaying and going into hilariously manic overacting; and Rains gives the performance of a lifetime as the egomaniacal, bitchy villain. Evilly stroking his white cat, Rains predates the cartoonish baddies of James Bond by several decades, and gives a, well, operatic performance that not even Donald Pleasance (or Michael Myers) could top. A plot summary gives a hint of the sheer silliness that unfolds in "Deception" (POSSIBLE SPOILERS): Christine (nicknamed "Schatzy"!) is the kept woman of brilliant composer Hellanious (Rains). She has really been in love with cellist Karel (Henreid), but thought him a war casualty, and circumstances forced her into her relationship with Hellanious. (For her trouble, Christine has a wardrobe full of fur coats and a soundstage-sized apartment that I'd kill for.) Of course, Karel turns up alive and well, and Christine keeps her relationship with Hellanious a Big Secret. Needless to say, hell hath no fury like a Hellanious scored, and the remainder of the film has Christine telling lie upon lie to keep the truth from Karel (who is prone to fits of jealous rage), while the vindictive Hellanious watches on in malicious amusement. And when Hellanious writes a stunning concerto, guess which cellist he decides to use to debut his piece? Will Hellanious spill the beans about his "protegee"? Will Karel's jealousy ruin his chance of a lifetime? Will Christine have the proper fur to wear to the symphony hall? Watch and see!
Where the Boys Are (1960)
"He wasn't even a Yaley!"
Films revolving around three-girls-about-town are sure bets for campy dialogue, wild costumes, and overblown theme songs: "Three Coins in the Fountain." "Come Fly with Me." "The Pleasure Seekers." "Valley of the Dolls." 1960's "Where the Boys Are" cleverly disguises itself as a harmless beach-blanket romp (and tosses in a fourth girl, Connie Francis, so she can belt out that overblown theme song), but fear not: the theme of this "kids" picture is the same as those aforementioned trash classics: Sex. As is de rigeur for films of this ilk, each character represents a singular, one-dimensional purpose: Good Girl (Dolores Hart), Bad Girl (Yvette Mimieux) and Goofy Girl (Paula Prentiss). Connie's character is a sort of a cross between Dolores' and Paula's, and though she adds a nicely ethnic, urban flair to the proceedings, she's really just a glorified guest star. (Dig her crazy beatnik number, dad.) The wafer-thin plot revolves around the gals vacationing in Ft. Lauderdale on spring break, all the while plotting marriage while the guys are scheming for sex. Given its time period, the film actually fires off a few eyebrow-raising salvos on pre-marital sex and a woman's desire for it; but, of course, the Good Girl still waits, and the Bad Girl pays for her wanton ways. In the end, "Where the Boys Are" isn't quite as enjoyable as, say, "The Pleasure Seekers" because it simply isn't trashy enough, but it IS a fun, fluffy look at sex and the single girl, circa 1960. Plus, there's the always-welcome cameo presence of the divine Barbara Nichols, who made a career out of playing lovably daffy, brassy showgirl types.
An Audience with Diana Ross (1999)
Where did our love go?
Taped before an invited audience in London (before that nasty Heathrow incident), this self-indulgent special provides La Ross a forum in which to run down her greatest hits ("Upside Down," "Ain't No Mountain High Enough"), introduce material from her new album ("Not Over You Yet"), prance around in myriad designer gowns, and field extremely sanitized questions from her fans. The "Q&A" segments are the most boring and patently scripted; new fans won't learn anything remotely substantial, while old fans have heard it over and over again. (Not too surprisingly, nothing even slightly controversial is discussed.) Diana Ross remains a singularly charismatic performer, and even her worst critics have to marvel at how she can work a crowd. But once upon a time, she was an innovator; TV specials like 1977's "An Audience with Diana Ross" show a performer who took chances and created spectacle and excitement. Now, Ross retains the surface glitter but no longer seems interested in digging too deep for new ideas. Because of the claustrophobic television studio setting, this special has none of the immediacy of her live concert performances; and as a TV special, it contains practically no novelty value--basically, Ross just runs down her hits. No sets, no sketches, no production numbers. Granted, with an entertainer of Ross' experience and stature, jumping through hoops is not always necessary. But it would make for a more exciting show.
"I'm a winner, baby!"
In 1975, Diana Ross was just about the most famous black woman in the world. No other performer of color had ever reached her pinnacle of success and celebrity--not Josephine Baker, not Ella Fitzgerald, not Lena Horne. And so with "Mahogany," her second motion picture, Ross' mentor/lover (and, now, director) Berry Gordy fashioned an extravagant "hymn to how glorious it is to be Diana Ross", as reviewer Rex Reed put it. Not since the glory days of Joan Crawford's dewy-ewed close-ups had a star been so lovingly photographed; never considered a classic beauty, Diana Ross is astoundingly luscious in this film. Like all great screen divas, Ross is in nearly every scene, and when she's not, her presence still is. She plays Tracy Chambers, a spunky Chicago ghetto girl with her eye on becoming a great fashion designer. Tracy falls in love with Brian (Billy Dee Williams), an earnest politician, but his social conscience is at extreme odds with her desire for fame, fortune and the good life. Enter Sean (Tony Perkins), the world's most famous fashion photographer, who discovers Tracy, whisks her off to Rome, and prego! Mahogany, the supermodel, is born. (Sean calls Tracy "Mahogany," you see, because she is also "dark, beautiful, rich and rare.") When in Rome, Tracy/Mahogany indulges in la dolce vita, drips candlewax on her nude body at a Roman orgy, becomes the renowned fashion designer she always dreamed of becoming, and also becomes the kept woman of filthy rich Jean-Pierre Aumont...but, she soon learns, "Success is nothing without someone you love to share it with." If you haven't already guessed, despite the chic Roman locales, there's more corn here than in the state of Kansas. However, Diana Ross simply dominates the screen; it's a shame and a sin that her acting career never fulfilled its promise (due in large part to the mostly negative reviews "Mahogany" initially received), because she's precisely the larger-than-life, iconic figure that Hollywood's been lacking for so long. She's a natural and incredibly likable actress--all the more remarkable, considering her "difficult" off-screen reputation. Having said that, "Mahogany" IS best viewed as camp--the cornball dialogue, outrageous costumes (designed by Diana herself) and over-the-top performances ensure its cult status. But there is a degree of art here, and it lies squarely on the dark, beautiful, rich, rare shoulders of Miss Diana Ross.
Single Room Furnished (1966)
The Magnificent Mansfield's Quiet Exit
At the height of her fame, Jayne Mansfield marketed hot water bottles shaped like her notorious 41-18-26 superstructure; sold her used bath water for $10 a shot; reportedly had 1,000,000 lines of copy devoted to her during a six month period in New York alone; and was considered a serious threat to Marilyn Monroe as the world's #1 blonde bombshell. Unfortunately, a relentless drive toward increasingly tacky publicity stunts quickly labeled Mansfield more an event than an actress. By the mid 1960's, her celebrity was renowned, but the star 20th Century Fox once valued at a reported $20 million was adrift without a major studio, appearing in tawdry European film productions and touring in a campy nightclub act. 1966 saw Mansfield hit near-bottom: overweight, alcoholic and dependent on pills, the fading sex goddess was at the nadir of her film career, appearing in worthless dreck like "Las Vegas Hillbillies.": Her current husband, Matt Cimber, however, still fed into her belief that, with the right project, she could become a serious actress. To that end, he directed her first "serious" drama since 1957's "Wayward Bus," a gritty little script called "Single Room, Furnished." In keeping with the film's seedy urban setting, the sets are tacky and threadbare, with a blaring jazz soundtrack. Jayne plays three roles: a teenage bride, a pregnant cocktail waitress, and a call girl. (As one columnist sniffed about the then-unmade film, "Should get into real ART when Jayne plays the teenager!") To Cimber's credit, he elicted a performance from Mansfield which, if not exactly good, is hypnotic and eminently watchable. In most of her films, Mansfield is over-upholstered window dressing; here, she is not given much room to be attractive, and even as the call girl, she's a far cry from her halcyon days at Fox. Therefore, it's to her credit that, without the benefit of silver lame, wriggling undulations or bare-breasted antics, she maintains our interest. It's a hauntingly poetic performance, completely guileless and technically lacking, but somehow very honest. At this point in her life, perhaps Mansfield knew something of her character's sadness and loneliness. On June 29, 1967, Mansfield was killed in a car accident; "Single Room, Furnished" was still incomplete, so additional scenes were shot with the supporting cast. Surprisingly, these scenes are remarkably touching, focusing on the romance between "Flo" and "Charlie." This isn't a good film, by any stretch of the imagination, but it is rather moving, and a sad, quiet postscript to the otherwise gaudy phenomenon of Jayne Mansfield.
Valley of the Dolls (1967)
"This is my yard/So I will try hard/To welcome friends/I have yet to know!"
This is it, kiddies, the Grande Dame of camp classics. The sheer ineptitude of everyone involved is staggering. Mark Robson directs without a trace of nuance or subtlety; Patty Duke and Susan Hayward come off as boozy drag queens; Sharon Tate and Barbara Parkins look and act as if they had taken one downer too many; Dory and Andre Previn's musical numbers are as funny as those in "The Operetta"--the "I Love Lucy" episode which parodied musical theater; Billy Travilla concocts some of the most glamorously god-awful gowns ever seen; and Kenneth (of Hairstyles by Kenneth, of course) must be personally responsible for the hole in the ozone layer, so lacquered, teased and towering are his creations. But, you know what? IT ALL WORKS. The source material--Jacqueline Susann's groundbreaking, scandalous novel--begs for sledgehammer direction, overripe acting and eyepopping fashions. Certainly, subtlety was not a hallmark of Jackie's work. If anything, VOTD should have been even MORE over-the-top. Due to restrictions of the time, the film is sadly devoid of such juicy plotlines as Jennifer's lesbian affair, Tony's preference for - ahem - rear-entry intercourse, and Neely walking in on Ted Casablanca's tryst with another man. What we have, instead, is an endlessly entertaining piece of cinematic trash that is nowhere near as racy as it would like us to believe; and that's part of its twisted charm. Because it fails on so many levels--as true art, as explicitly sexual titillation, or as a faithful adaptation of a popular book--it's downright inspiring that it comes together so brilliantly. VOTD's ultimate triumph is that, despite its incredible waste of talent, time and money, 30 years later, we're still watching.
Promises..... Promises! (1963)
"Jayne Mansfield? Oh, I do her, too!"
Jayne Mansfield generated some of the most heated publicity of her career (and that's saying a lot!) when she agreed to film nude scenes for the 1963 comedy, "Promises! Promises!" No American star of her magnitude had ever appeared undraped onscreen before, and the controversy led to the picture being banned, court hearings on obscenity, and Mansfield stoically bearing the bad press (and no doubt saving all the headline clippings). Watching the film is a sad, strange experience; the nude scenes have nothing to do with the plot, and were clearly filmed solely for sensation's sake. What it shows is a star badly on the wane, appearing in an extremely low budget production, and selling her body cheap for the resultant publicity. Jayne's two nude scenes come fairly early in the film, which means there's plenty of time left for highly strained, largely unfunny, mostly sex-less antics. The crux of the plot involves two married couples, Jayne/Tommy Noonan and Marie McDonald/Mickey Hargitay, on a cruise together. In a rather lewd plot device, both women end up pregnant, and because of some drunken revelry between the couples (never seen), no one is sure who the father is for which baby. One surreal scene has Jayne attending a shipboard party where female impersonator T.C. Jones does celebrity imitations, one of whom is Jayne Mansfield! In character as "Sandy," Jayne squeals with delight and does HER "imitation" of Jayne Mansfield. Unfortunately, it's the funniest moment in the film. On the brighter side, Jayne looks especially lovely and voluptuous, and, playing it relatively straight for once, doesn't rely too much on high-pitched ooohs and aahhhs. Micky Hargitay (Jayne's real-life husband) looks much too young to be marruied to former 40's pinup girl Marie McDonald, but displays a rather sweet, doltish charm as a Hungarian actor striving to lose his pronounced accent (it must've been a real stretch for him). For the die-hard Jayne Mansfield fan, this is basically a harmless, actionless, sexless sex comedy, and a chance to see the star rather perfunctorily topless. For everyone else, it's a historic curiosity, and nothing more.