Tuesday, July 25, 2017

RIP Barbara Sinatra, Ava: A Life in Movies

Barbara Sinatra passed away on Tuesday at her home in California. The former model and fourth wife of Frank Sinatra was 90, and had been in declining for several months. Barbara became one of the most famous women in the world when she married Sinatra in 1976, spending 22 years with the singer before he passed away in 1998 at the age of 82 from a heart attack. She leveraged the fame afforded to her by way of her marriage to raise funds and rally support for a number of charitable causes, most notably the Barbara Sinatra Children's Center at Eisenhower Medical Center.

Barbara divorced Zeppo Marx in 1973, at which point she and Sinatra had already made a very public display of their relationship. She said it her way: The star, seen here in 2005, wrote about Frank in her tell-all autobiography "Lady Blue Eyes" (2011). Barbara converted to Roman Catholicism before marrying Frank in 1976, with the two enjoying a long and happy union. Barbara had previously told the Desert Sun she was never sure why Frank wanted to marry her instead of another star like Ava Gardner or Mia Farrow. 'I’ve tried to analyze it,' she said. 'I think it’s because we were friends before anything romantic happened. He would call and chat, but it wasn’t romantic until later. It’s something you can’t explain why or how it happened.'

There is no one Frank trusted more however, which was made very clear in his final will and testament, which left almost everything to Barbara. She received over $3million, three California mansions (in Beverly Hills, Malibu and Palm Springs), the rights to Sinatra's legendary 'Trilogy' recordings and complete control over her husband's name and likeness. Source:

Ava, a Life in Movies (2017), a new biography by Kendra Bean and Anthony Uzarowski, delves into the late screen siren’s colorful life, on and offscreen.  From her wild affair and marriage with Sinatra to her other rocky romances here are some of the most fascinating details about the woman who won the hearts of movie audiences and some of Hollywood’s most famous leading men. She was divorced twice before the age of 25.

“She was more than just a sex symbol or Mrs. Frank Sinatra or this crazy hard-drinking person,” Bean says. Bean’s co-author Uzarowski echoes this sentiment: “She was a real person, and she was an actor as well. There is a legacy there that needs to be looked at. It’s not just image.” For Gardner, image and glamour are central to her identity; after all, it was a photograph that first earned her a ticket to Hollywood. The authors compare her to Marilyn Monroe in this regard, with Uzarowski noting, “There exists this very one-dimensional view of her as just this unbelievably beautiful person.” “She just had a really keen sense of humor. She didn’t take life too seriously,” Bean says.

Sinatra was still married when he dated Ava, and the book recounts a time when an insistent Gardner made the crooner drive to his house, where he phoned his wife Nancy asking her to confirm to the actress that he had asked her for a divorce. Though Nancy initially refused to give in, she eventually granted Sinatra a divorce and he married Gardner in 1951. She had two abortions while married to Sinatra: While the two traveled to Nairobi for Gardner’s role in Mogambo, Gardner became pregnant with Sinatra’s child and chose to have an abortion after Sinatra left, without telling him. 

Sinatra was reportedly crushed when he found out about the abortion, but the two continued to try to make their difficult relationship work. When Gardner became pregnant again and decided to terminate it, Sinatra was there when she woke up with “tears streaming down his face.” The two would go on to have multiple affairs with others before divorcing in 1957, though they remained close friends until her death in 1990. By merging the image of a woman renowned for her physical beauty with a nuanced study of her life and career, the book forces readers to look beyond Gardner's exterior star persona. “It puts her in a wider cultural context, and that was very important for us,” Bean says. Source:

Saturday, July 22, 2017

‘Baby Driver’ Strikes the Right Notes

“The linkage of musical passage and unreason is a philosophical commonplace… of course music speaks through mere sensations without concepts, and hence does not, like poetry, leave behind something for reflection, yet it moves the mind in more manifold ways and, though only temporarily, in deeper ways…” —Immanuel Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgement

Baby Driver (2017) is a heist and dark-comedy hybrid, as well as a musical thriller written and directed by Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), featuring a baby-faced antihero whose insouciant attitude vaguely echoes James Dean for the millenial generation. Baby (Ansel Elgort) is an outcast prodigy who keeps the rhythm at the wheel—even during an impossible car chase or after a botched bank robbery—all the while  strategically synchronizing oldies from his iPod. The soundtrack serves not only to underline the emotions that the main characters (Baby’s partners in crime) want to communicate in certain key scenes—the songs add further momentum just like in classic musical movies.

The eclectic track selection mixes the frantic action scenes and the romance subplot with the melodies of The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Beck, T. Rex, The Detroit Emeralds, Martha & The Vandellas, R.E.M., Queen, Barry White, Simon & Garfunkel, etc.

A very precious moment is the introduction of Debora (Lily James) while The Beach Boys’ tune Let’s Go Away For Awhile resonates inside the diner—that instant brings out the nostalgia factor, which will prove to be crucial for the resolution of the story. Debora is a charming young waitress who shares with Baby her dreams of escaping into another world, by etching in his mind the ‘open road’ leitmotif as a 1950’s retro postcard.

Throughout the film, Baby seems to be trapped in Doc’s criminal enterprise in order to pay off an old debt. Doc (Kevin Spacey) is a calculating mastermind who doesn’t ever hire the same gang twice for his planned heists, but feels a special bond with the inscrutable Baby. Spacey gives a menacingly laconic performance, reminiscent of his manipulative manager John Williamson in Glengarry Glen Ross (1992). Despite Doc and Baby’s power imbalance, Doc persistently courts the ultracool chauffeur’s respect and friendship. Buddy and Darling (played by Jon Hamm and Eiza Gonz├ílez) are a romantic couple of crooks plagued with an addiction to sex, drugs, and luxury. Their constant displays of trashy affection and sympathy towards Baby’s plight (tinnitus or ‘hum in the drum’ due to a childhood car accident) turn them into sort of his surrogate parents for a while.

Edgar Wright’s major influences in Baby Driver are Richard Sarafian’s Vanishing Point (1971), Walter Hill’s The Driver (1978), and Quentin Tarantino’s blend of pop culture references angled towards bursts of violence. The central ingenious gimmick in Wright’s story, however, hinges on an underlying commentary of how most of us periodically file in our memory a meaningful song of our choice to drown out the reality’s adversities. Debora lost her mother and now aspires to “head west on 20 in a car I can’t afford, with a plan I don’t have, just me, my music, and the road.”

Related to this aspect of taking refuge in nostalgic music as a means of survival, Sounding the Virtual: Gilles Deleuze and the Theory and Philosophy of Music (2010) expounds: “All musicians have always proceeded by drawing their own diagonal, however fragile, outside coordinates and localizable connections, in order to float a mutant sound block down a liberated line. In order to unleash, in space, a haecceity.” This understated philosophy, sprinkled underneath the choreography of spectacular getaways and flippant non-sequitur jokes, makes Baby Driver trascend the ‘fun summer blockbuster’ label.

Not quite so obvious as the intermittent allusions to Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs, True Romance), Walter Hill (Streets of Fire), Michael Mann (Heat) or Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive), but equally powerful is the absurdist undertone that connects Wright’s film to Vanishing Point (a post-Woodstock road movie influenced conceptually by Kerouac’s mythical On the Road). In addition to this context, Baby Driver (1981) is a novel written by Jack Kerouac’s daughter Jan Kerouac, and although her narrative style is often gloomy (opposite to Wright’s sunny touch), both stories share similar strokes of hopeful obstinacy.

In a tender scene with his foster-care father, Baby fixes a peanut butter sandwich while the piano music starts a descending octave. In Jan Kerouac’s Baby Driver, the heroine bravely recalls: “At Bellevue, the girls had given me a hard time. I had been thrown into a pit of rational vipers. They plastered my head with cold cream, peanut butter and talcum powder, expecting me to resist. But I sat there shrugging vacantly beneath their slopping blobs.”

Also, there is a parallel with the love interest instigating mutual desertion of an oppressive past. In the Baby Driver novel: “I was despairing over my star-crossed affair with Paul. The desire to get out and see him filled my spirit, leaving rom for nothing else. Paul brought me a red chiffon nightie with black lace to cheer me up. I wore it around that night, lost in imageries of my own, tiptoeing through the halls with a faraway look on my face.”

In Wright’s film, Debora, a flawed underachiever girl, is seen in Baby’s eyes as an angel who will be waiting for him forever. “I got all the time in the world,” she assures him. Baby’s childish magnetism seduces the sexy Debora, especially in the diner and laundromat scenes. Their romance is indeed ‘love at first sight… and sound,’ having Baby found a woman who—like his aspiring singer dead mother—will love him unconditionally. To Ansel Elgort’s credit, he can look detached and warm at once, being capable of fleshing out an old-school antihero without unnecessary mocking gestures or a sense of false superiority.

The erotic tension between Elgort and James is sincere and palpable, despite of their innocent stares and kisses. Indeed, the film would have benefitted from developing Debora’s persona a little more, since Lily James creates such a delightful character. Maybe Wright wants us to remember her just like an angel, standing before a gleaming classic convertible, a white 1954 Cadillac Eldorado.

Article published previously as Movie Review: ‘Baby Driver’ Strikes the Right Notes on Blogcritics.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Tarantino's planned film take on Sharon Tate and The Manson Family murders

Quentin Tarantino is developing a film about the Manson family murders. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the Pulp Fiction and Hateful Eight director will write and direct the as-yet untitled film, which concerns the notorious killings of five people, including pregnant actor Sharon Tate – wife of director Roman Polanski – carried out by followers of Charles Manson in 1969. Manson and four followers later received life imprisonment – and his group were also responsible for a number of other killings during the 1960s.

Details on the plot of the film remain unknown, but Deadline reports that Margot Robbie has been approached to play Tate, while the Hollywood Reporter suggests that Jennifer Lawrence is also being considered for the part. Brad Pitt and Samuel L Jackson are also being linked with roles in the film, which will begin shooting next year. The Manson Family murders became headline news around the world, and were seen as symbolic of the disorder and violence of the late 1960s, as well as the demise of the hippie movement. Tarantino’s last film, the violent western The Hateful Eight, was released in January 2016. Despite an all-star cast that included Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Samuel L Jackson, the film performed disappointingly at the box office. Source:

In June 1968, Roman Polanski’s film Rosemary’s Baby had become a huge success and made the Polish director a celebrity in the United States. Sharon Tate, an actress he had married in January 1968, was not yet a star. She had appeared in Valley of the Dolls, a film depicting the sleazier side of screen fame, Polanski’s Fearless Vampire Killers, and a nude pictorial in Playboy magazine—her husband shot the session photos. Tate seemed to be the quintessential Hollywood starlet. With Rosemary’s Baby a substantial hit, Polanski and his wife had to be based in L.A., though they could and did spend considerable time in England and Europe on film projects. 

They had trouble finding the right place to live, settling for a while in a Chateau Marmont apartment on Sunset Boulevard, then renting a house in the Hollywood Hills from actress Patty Duke. The place didn’t really suit them. They wanted something grander, commensurate with Polanski’s new, exalted status, and so they kept looking. Meanwhile, the couple hired a housekeeper named Winifred Chapman. Tate hoped soon to become pregnant. Despite her flashy image and nude photos, she was something of a homebody at heart. When they learned about Altobelli’s Cielo Drive property, Polanski and Tate were interested; their plans to find a new home had taken on new urgency when they learned that Tate was pregnant. Even when Polanski was away, there were friends with her all the time, quite often celebrity hair stylist Jay Sebring, who had been Tate’s boyfriend before she left him for Polanski. After their breakup Sharon and Jay stayed close friends.

In the "Manson Women" documentary of the Biography Channel it's mentioned that Jim Morrison visited the Ranch Spahn's and The Family Manson at some point prior to the murders. Jim knew one of the murder victims, Sharon Tate's ex-boyfriend Jay Sebring, who worked as hair stylist for actors in Hollywood. His clients included Warren Beatty, Steve McQueen, Frank Sinatra and Kirk Douglas. Sebring was introduced to Sharon Tate by journalist Joe Hyams in October 1964 and they had a romantic relationship until 1966, when Tate went to London to work on The Fearless Vampire Killers and began a romance with director Roman Polanski.  

Jay Sebring was also the creator of Jim Morrison's famous haircut (a free-flowing hairstyle) for the photo sessions by Joel Brodsky (The Young Lion photoshoot). Jim Morrison did visit Death Valley several times in his famous shamanistic "Vision Quests" trips and allegedly met there some members of The Manson Family, who hung out at The Spiral Staircase, the place that inspired Jim Morrison to write "Roadhouse Blues"—about the drive up Topanga Canyon Blvd to The Corral. Charles Manson often hung out at The Corral with his Family. On December 9, 1970, the day after celebrating his 27th birthday, Jim Morrison sat in the Doors’ business office, reading an article from the LA Times about a grand jury having indicted Charles Manson and members from his Family for the slayings at Cielo Drive. Jim Morrison put down the paper and said to others in the room, "I think I’m having a nervous breakdown." It seemed strange Manson had seized upon the sunny music of the Beach Boys and the Beatles for his psychotic projections but he had ignored The Doors' prophecies.

Sharon Tate, here pictured around 1969, with her husband, Roman Polanski, were customers of Pamela Courson’s store, Themis. Sharon is wearing a traditional Moroccan djellaba robe. Although it has not been proven Sharon actually purchased this item in Themis, it is almost certain she bought it at Pamela's boutique. 

Pamela Courson (aka Pamela Susan Morrison, Jim Morrison's common law wife) operated Themis (1968-1971), a fashion boutique that Jim Morrison bought for her with his royalty checks from the album Strange Days. One of The Family Manson's followers was seen wearing the same Moroccan djellaba robe that both Sharon Tate and Pamela Courson wore. The Manson Family were known to be thieves, or as they called it “creepy crawling,” their way into people’s homes to steal at night. We don’t know if the night Sharon Tate was murdered they stole any of her clothes, but it is very eerie that one of Manson’s followers was wearing this same rare djellaba that Sharon Tate owned in 1969—probably bought at Pamela Courson's storeat one of those “Free Manson’s” protests. Source: pamelasusancoursonmorrison.

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Howard Hawks' screwball influence on Edgar Wright's Baby Driver

“Baby Driver” (2017) is exuberant, fast paced and tightly scripted. There’s not much in the way of fat—no scene goes on longer than it needs to. The picture isn’t just a collection of jokes and improve-y back and forths poorly glued together to resemble a feature length film. Edgar Wright firmly believes in narrative and structure to keep things organized and the action moving. Story and character come first, while the humor flows effortlessly out of them. “Baby Driver” keeps to a meticulous and playful comedic rhythm, sort of like a classic screwball comedy with more music, heavier cutting and a lot more action.

Edgar Wright also likes working within established genres. “Baby Driver” embraces a well-worn sub genre of the crime film—an expert criminal trying to get out that dangerous life but that life wont let him leave. In this case, that expert criminal is a young (talented) getaway driver known as “Baby” (Ansel Elgort). A good kid who mostly means well, he works for the master criminal Doc, (Kevin Spacey) doing jobs to pay off a debt he acquired years ago. “Baby Driver” is Wright’s hyper screwball take on films like “Thief” and “Drive.” It’s kinetic and cartoon-y, with a palpable undercurrent of violence and danger. Source:

Between the favorite films of Edgar Wright, there are several directed by Howard Hawks: "Scarface" (1932), "Bringing Up Baby" (1938) and "The Big Sleep" (1946). Source:

Between April and July 1974, Tom Luddy at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley ran the most complete Howard Hawks retrospective ever organized to date, in that it included the silent films until then thought to be lost: Paid to Love, The Cradle Snatchers, and Trent’s Last Case. His Girl Friday and To Have and Have Not received the usual rapturous receptions. While in Berkeley, Hawks agreed to speak with three representatives of a radical leftist film journal called Jump Cut. The interviewers were prepared to suspend their “aversion to his reactionary romanticism and hail him as a closet subversive, a repressed populist, perhaps even a right-wing anarchist.” The result was undoubtedly the oddest, most rambling, but in some ways most personal interview with Hawks ever published. In it he railed, as much of his generation did, against the “biased” media that “has turned people against Nixon,” against newfangled school textbooks, against political messages in motion pictures, and against “sick” pictures, which he defined as “pictures of psychopaths, pictures of strange people, pictures that are nauseating, people that you don’t like to look at or follow—those are sick pictures.” He expressed a revulsion at politics in general and at the “gradual erosion” of ideals in America. On the subject of Vietnam, Hawks said, “America lost all over the world by fighting there. I think that whoever started it in the first place was wrongly advised. They should have said, ‘Go over there and drop a couple of big bombs, and if you don’t feel like doing that, stay out of it.’”

Hawks was not an intellectual yet he was very intelligent; he possessed the wisdom of his years but remained an adolescent in his enthusiasms even in old age; he was innately conservative in his worldview yet daring and inclined to risk; he was embraced by many feminists in the 1970s for liberating his women characters from the home and placing them on the same field with men, yet he held an utterly conventional view of women’s role in his own life; he was stoic but reckless, reserved but excessive; he was celebrated but little known; he was a pragmatist but a poet; and he had the mind of an engineer but the subconscious of an artist. He was, above all, a modern artist. —"Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood" (2007) by Todd McCarthy

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Only Angels Have Wings' emotional core and redemption: Jean Arthur

Frank Capra's 'Lost Horizon' (1937) headed for an 80th Anniversary Blu-ray Edition this Fall. Celebrate the 80th anniversary of the lavishly produced Frank Capra classic, LOST HORIZON, based on the best-selling novel by James Hilton. Ronald Colman and Jane Wyatt star in this unique journey to the enchanted paradise of Shangri-La, where time stands still. Sony is working on 'Lost Horizon: 80th Anniversary Edition' for Blu-ray on October 3. Fully restored in 4K and presented in high definition, the Blu-ray is housed within a lavish, limited edition 24-page Digibook, complete with an all-new essay from film historian Jeremy Arnold and rare archival photos from the film. In addition, as part of the restoration, more than a minute of rarely-seen original footage from the film was found and included, making this the most complete cut of the film in existence. In 2016, the film was selected for inclusion in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." 

According to Frank Capra, the word around Columbia was that Jean Arthur was a bit "cuckoo." But he liked her style-and her voice-and signed her for Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) over the objection of Harry Cohn. "Great voice?" Cohn bellowed. "See her face? Half of it's angel, and the other half horse." But Capra fixed the problem, as he did for Claudette Colbert, by making sure his cameraman Joe Walker always shot the actress with her best face forward. It was a move to which Arthur later attributed much of her movie success. When the American Film Institute honored Frank Capra with its Life Achievement Award in 1982, practically all the major living stars Capra had directed, including Bette Davis, Claudette Colbert, Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed, showed up to pay tribute. But not Jean Arthur. "She's just a hermit," Capra told Tom Shales of the Washington Post. "She doesn't do very well in crowds, and she doesn't do very well with people, and she doesn't do very well with life but she does very well as an actress. She certainly had two sides: the actress, this wonderful actress, and this person, this shy personality that she was in reality."

When movie buffs sought out Capra's films, inevitably they stumbled upon the director's "favorite actress," Jean Arthur. America's "forgotten actress," as one journalist called her on the occasion of her birthday in 1985, could readily be seen in such classics as The Plainsman, Only Angels Have Wings, The Devil and Miss Jones, The More the Merrier and Shane. And her list of leading men: Jimmy Stewart, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, Charles Boyer, William Powell, Ronald Colman, John Wayne, Ray Milland, William Holden, Joel McCrea and Alan Ladd.

Becoming Cary Grant (2017) documentary by Mark Kidel draws on an unpublished memoir by Cary Grant, and also dwells on his experiments with LSD in the 1950s. Grant’s LSD experiences were part of a rigorously supervised experiment in cutting-edge Southern California psychotherapy. He would take a tab, once a week, in his therapist’s office, lie down on the couch with a cover over him, and hallucinate his way back into his subconscious self. He found the experience to be frightening, liberating, and healing—“I passed through seas of horrifying and happy sights, through a montage of intense love and hate, a mosaic of past impressions,” Grant wrote. “At last,” he said, “I'm close to happiness.” “Becoming Cary Grant” leaves too many questions unanswered. Grant, who was married five times and was so handsome that Pauline Kael described him as the most pursued male of the 20th century, was a person haunted by the fragility of his romantic temperament. The film includes commentary from his daughter Jennifer Grant, his last wife, Barbara (Harris) Jaynes, longtime friend Judy Balaban and authors David Thomson and Mark Glancy.

“If you haven't seen Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, and Rita Hayworth in Howard Hawks's romantic and exciting 1939 South American flying drama, Only Angels Have Wings, you have not experienced one of the most vibrant, resonant, and deeply entertaining movies ever made.”—Peter Bogdanovich 

In Only Angels Have Wings (1939) Howard Hawks transformed Geoff Carter's “stoicism” into a metaphor for the very type of reserved, nonswaggering macho heroism that young American servicemen would need after America's coming entry into World War II, so much so that the film's signature line of dialogue, “Where's Joe,” would serve as a catchphrase for the wives and mothers of a generation of wartime G.I. Joes. As Peter Bogdanovich rightly points out, this picture transformed Cary Grant from light comedy into the front ranks of Hollywood leading he-men, the first successful action film in which he got the girl—or rather, the girl got him. It was the intricate dynamics of sexual combustion between men and women that preoccupied the poetic engineer Howard Hawks. The screenplay of Only Angels Have Wings has always been viewed as the essence of Jules Furthman in its world-weary romanticism, cynical attitude toward sex, hard-shelled and stoic leading man, and footloose leading lady with a past. One could carp that certain scenes represent a warped, toxic notion of masculinity (not an uncommon criticism of Hawks), but that would require ignoring Geoff’s willingness to give Bonnie what she needs from him even as he makes it appear that he’s withholding it (in order to protect himself from a potentially disastrous surge of vulnerability).

Hawks encountered heavy resistance to his methods from Jean Arthur. Questionable in the role of a vagabond showgirl knocking around Latin America, Frank Capra’s greatest leading lady was simply too wholesome and irrepressibly upbeat to fit comfortably into Hawks’s world. Arthur was not adept at improvising with the quicksilver Grant, and when Hawks would try to direct her to act in the sexy, subtly simmering way that he'd later find in Lauren Bacall, she simply refused, saying, “I can’t do that kind of stuff.” Hawks didn’t hide his disappointment and attributed Arthur's inability to follow his direction to “a quirk.” The film greatly benefited from the romantic optimism Hawks was feeling at the time, as he was just in the initial throes of falling in love with Slim, the most important woman of his life. Howard Hawks eventually had to admit that Jean Arthur was "really good," marveled  at "one of the best love scenes that I've ever seen in a picture. That was beautifully done."

There had been rumors that Arthur was unfriendly to Hayworth during filming, beginning when Arthur refused to stand next to the striking newcomer for publicity stills. Hayworth recalled that Arthur would do a scene, run off to her dressing room and lock herself in. Then Hayworth would do her scene, run back to her own dressing room, and lock herself in. Finally they bumped into each other on the last day of shooting. "You're shy," observed Arthur to the young newcomer. "You are too," Hayworth replied. Rita Hayworth eventually displaced Jean Arthur as queen of the Columbia lot, but she also inherited the title of Harry Cohn's chief whipping girl. Like Jean Arthur before her and Kim Novak after her, Rita Hayworth refused to bend to Cohn's will or to submit to his possessive, bullying tactics. All three actresses had introverted natures that did not respond well to the mogul's gruff manner, but it was Rita Hayworth who suffered the special indignity of constantly having to ward off her boss's blatant sexual advances.

At the start, Carter’s feeling is that women are dangerous, and there is considerable evidence that Bonnie’s mixture of ingenuousness and impulsiveness, however attractive, makes her more dangerous than any girl he may have had in mind in the first place. Carter and Bonnie first become intimate in an argument about the compatibility of male professionalism and female domesticity, and their growing love affair erodes Carter’s code a good deal. Carter gradually subsides in a growing and largely unstated emotional commitment to a girl who is herself rather rootless (she is an unemployed showgirl, daughter of a circus tightrope walker who died from a fall). Each fills a real emotional need in the other. Only Angels Have Wings would inspire adventure TV series Tales of the Gold Monkey (1982) which was set in 1938 in the South Pacific, about an ex-Flying Tigers pilot named Jake Cutter, his best friend Corky, a good-hearted alcoholic, and his love interest Sarah who sings in the Monkey Bar as a cover for her espionage activities.

The most fascinating character in Only Angels Have Wings is Bonnie, played brilliantly by the always-underrated Jean Arthur. She's the film’s emotional core. She holds Geoff’s redemption. Modern Oscar historians regard Arthur's repeated slightings as among the more egregious of the Academy's many errors of omission. In 1990, Emanuel Levy observed that Arthur "occupies a special position among the Academy's underestimated actresses," noting that at least three of her performances should have been nominated but were not. Danny Peary ventured that Arthur deserved several nominations (for Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Easy Living), and at least one Best Actress award (for The More the Merrier). Several factors conspired to cause Arthur's work to be overlooked so frequently by the Academy. Comediennes have fared especially poorly in Oscar competition. She had abandoned the role of Billie Dawn in "Born Yesterday" for which Judy Holliday won a Best Actress Oscar in 1950. But the biggest factor Arthur had going against her in the annual Oscar sweepstakes was simple politics. Hedda Hopper had labeled Jean the "Least Popular Woman in Hollywood" in 1942. The Academy voters, among whom Arthur had few friends, were aware of her reputation for being difficult, and it was considered bad form for a star to feud so openly and repeatedly with her employers. So, when Arthur finally did garner her first and only Oscar nomination, it was in spite of, rather than because of, Harry Cohn. —Sources: "Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew" (2004) by John Oller and "Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood"  (2007) by Todd McCarthy

Monday, July 03, 2017

Happy 4th of July! Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

"Every movie star is disliked by some people," said John Cromwell, another director with whom she worked, "but everyone liked Jean Arthur." She worked assiduously at placing herself beyond Hollywood's usual grasp. She recoiled from interviews, shunned photographers and declined to participate in the standard publicity gimmicks. She avoided parties and nightclubs and the glamour set that inhabited the likes of Club Mocambo and the Troc. Instead, she chose to live as a virtual recluse. As her one-time husband, movie producer Frank Ross, once affirmed, "She really wants to be left alone." 

Peter Pan provided Arthur with a fictional affirmation of her values, "If you can hang on to your individuality, hold tight to your freedom, and not get squigged-out as you grow older, then and only then are you mature," she said during the play's run, later adding that "people who aren't free like Peter, or at least hunger to be free, aren't aware of the adventure of living. They're walking around dead." "She was a nonconformist too," said Jean of Joan of Arc, "a believer in her own intuition. Intuition, that's what Joan's voices were. She just wanted everybody to go home and mind their own business," which is all that Arthur wanted, as well.

Jean Arthur's aversion to publicity would eventually cause the mainstream Hollywood press to turn on her, but for the time being journalists were more intrigued than anything else. Many saw her as a sort of American Garbo, only even harder to reach. "It is Miss Arthur, even more than the divine Garbo, who wants to be alone," declared Movie Classic in January 1937.

James Stewart was impressed with his leading lady, later calling her "the finest actress I ever worked with. No one had her humor, her timing." You Can't Take It With You was far from either's best opportunity to display their respective abilities, but it helped establish them as the quintessential Capra couple. Arthur and Frank Ross had recently moved from Beverly Hills into a unique, modernistic three-story house high in the hills of Brentwood, complete with pool, terrace and garden. Still, Arthur remained curiously frustrated from a professional standpoint. Her husband further explained that "Jean is not essentially a happy person, you know. She is not in any way a Polyanna. She is never satisfied with herself."

Few Hollywood films have stamped themselves as deeply upon the American consciousness as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). The real message of this film is that the forces of evil in America's political institutions are as powerful and entrenched as the forces of good, and that only through the latter's eternal vigilance can occasional, marginal progress be made. The film's own conflicting impulses were a product of the melding of the fundamentally conservative philosophy of its director, Frank Capra, and the left-wing leanings of screenwriter Sidney Buchman, a Communist Party member who brilliantly adapted Lewis Foster's original story. In the Capra/Buchman treatment, good is represented in the figure of Stewart's Jefferson Smith, a "Boy Ranger" leader who is unaware that his appointment to fill out the term of a deceased senator is the work of a political machine that expects him to serve as a rubber stamp for its graft. Smith's opposite number, with a heart as evil as Smith's is pure, is machine boss Jim Taylor, played by portly Edward Arnold, who practically came to define the role of the snarling, capitalist pig. 

Between the polar opposites of Stewart and Arnold in Mr. Smith were two other principal characters whose attitudes toward the democratic system were decidedly more ambivalent. Senator Joseph Paine, Smith's idol, was once an idealist whose presidential ambitions led him to sell out his principles to the powerful Taylor machine. Veteran character actor Claude Rains, with whom Arthur had once appeared on Broadway in The Man Who Reclaimed His Head, was cast in this role as the distinguished-looking orator whose eloquence masks a guilty conscience and weak stomach for the fraud he must perpetrate in order to continue Taylor's patronage.

Though she constantly talks of quitting and going back home to Baltimore, Arthur's Saunders stays on because she needs the job "and a new suit of clothes." Paine has given her the assignment of watching over his junior colleague and keeping him away from anything that smacks of real politics. Arthur's screen time in Mr. Smith is modest in comparison with that of her leading man, but again her role is the pivotal one in the film. She is both the agent of the unsuspecting hero's ultimate triumph and the buffer Capra has set up between the almost unbearably naive protagonist and the presumably more skeptical audience. For if the world-weary Saunders can be converted to Smith's cause, then we will be convinced as well. In the beginning, we see Smith as Saunders does, as a hayseed whose wide eyes have failed to notice that he is nothing but an "honorary stooge," as the press has scornfully labeled him.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is best remembered for Stewart's famous filibuster at the end of the film. But the most moving scene in the movie is the immediately preceding one, where Saunders talks Smith out of quitting the Senate and urges him into battle. Smith sits sobbing at the Lincoln Memorial, where he has gone, baggage in hand, for one last look before leaving town that night. "You can't quit now, not you," she admonishes him. "You didn't just have faith in Paine or any other living man. You had faith in something bigger than that. You had plain decent everyday common rightness. And this country could use some of that-yeah, so could the whole cockeyed world-a lot of it." On October 17, 1939, Jean Arthur's thirty-ninth birthday Mr. Smith Goes to Washington had a celebrity preview at Washington's Constitution Hall, home of the conservative Daughters of the American Revolution. In attendance were 4,000 special guests, including members of Congress, the national press corps and several Supreme Court justices. Embarrassed and humiliated by the unflattering portrayal they had received, official Washington lashed back, calling the film an indictment, rather than a celebration, of American democracy. Fortunately the critics and public strongly supported Mr. Smith, and it was nominated for eleven Academy Awards. And in 1942, defiant Parisians proved the opposite of Joe Kennedy's theorem: they chose Mr. Smith as the last English-language film to show before the Nazi ban on American and British films took effect.

Hollywood passed from the golden era of the thirties to a new decade, and Jean Arthur became more insecure with each new success. To the extent Arthur had political thoughts, they tilted heavily leftward (George Bernard Shaw and Erich Fromm, her two greatest intellectual heroes, were both committed socialists). Louella Parsons thought Arthur's aversion to conformity was the real explanation for her idiosyncrasies. "I never believed that Jean Arthur suffered from any kind of a complex," Parsons said. As Arthur explained in one of the last interviews she ever gave, "You have one life, you do what you want to do. Some people like to do what everybody else does-go to parties and talk about nothing. The only real reason for living is doing what you want to do, or trying to, anyway." For the remaining years of her life, Arthur would keep on doing just what she wanted-or trying to. She didn't let many people see what she was really like. Helen Harvey, Arthur's one-time agent, added: "She wasn't very real. Her deepest passion in life was reserved for her ideals, rather than for people." —"Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew" (2004) by John Oller

Friday, June 30, 2017

Lou Reed & Jim Morrison: Moralists between Irony and Sentimentality

A student group in Canada apologized for playing Lou Reed’s 1972 hit “Walk on the Wild Side,” claiming the song is transphobic. The Guelph Central Student Association, a group at Ontario’s University of Guelph, said it regretted including the song on a playlist at a campus event. “We now know the lyrics to this song are hurtful to our friends in the trans community,” the group wrote in a (deleted) Facebook post, “and we’d like to unreservedly apologize for this error in judgement.”

The lyrics in question concern late trans performer Holly Woodlawn, whom Reed knew from Andy Warhol’s Factory: Holly came from Miami, FLA. Hitchhiked her way across the USA. Plucked her eyebrows on the way/Shaved her legs and then he was a she/Hey, babe, take a walk on the wild side. The student association said it would be “more mindful” in choosing music in the future and offered to speak with anyone who heard the song and “was hurt by its inclusion.” They added that the lyrics appeared to be “problematic” because they “dehumanise and fetish” transgender people by suggesting they are “wild.” Those who knew Reed say the concern is misplaced: “Lou was open about his complete acceptance of all creatures of the night,” said Jenni Muldaur, a friend of Reed’s and former backup singer: “That’s what that song’s about. Everyone doing their thing, taking a walk on the wild side. I can’t imagine how anyone could conceive of that. The album was called Transformer. What do they think it’s about?”

“I don’t know if Lou would be cracking up about this or crying because it’s just too stupid,” producer Hal Willner said. “The song was a love song to all the people he knew and to New York City by a man who supported the community and the city his whole life.” Hal Willner, who recently completed a reissue of Lou Reed’s later solo work, said: “This song was how the world first heard about these people. It’s a song about love. The students should be focusing their anger on other stuff and this isn’t it.” Source:

In heterosexual men, pictures of rotting flesh, maggots and spoiled food induce the same physiological stress response as pictures of two men kissing each other. That is the surprising finding that was recently published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Psychology & Sexuality. Measuring levels of salivary alpha-amylase, a digestive enzyme that is associated with stress and is especially responsive to disgust, allowed the researchers to examine the men’s physiological reaction to the photos. “In comparing the salivary alpha-amylase responses of participants to the various slideshows, we found that participants had higher salivary alpha-amylase responses to the images of two men kissing and the disgusting images, even those with very low levels of prejudice.” The study is the first of its kind, and the researchers hope that future research will strengthen their findings. Source:

Shelley Albin: "Lou Reed is a very fifties type guy. He's ultimately straight. He wants his wife, Sylvia, who is a very fifties type girl, to take care of him." As much as Reed's sexuality was pondered, he had a long time girlfriend in Shelley Albin, and married three times. Reed even admitted his heterosexuality when initiated his relationship with Sylvia Morales. Reed's Ecstasy album addressed the failed marriage to Sylvia Morales (in the songs Baton Rouge and Tatters - she wanted kids, Reed obviously did not) and then he came with Set The Twilight Reeling, which dealt with his need to become "the newfound man, and set the twilight reeling" with Laurie Anderson.

Ellen Willis, the first rock critic for The New Yorker wrote “The Velvet Underground” essay, included in fellow critic Greil Marcus’ book “Stranded” (1979). “The songs on ‘The Velvet Underground’ are all about sin and salvation,” Willis begins. The crux of Willis’ essay is that Lou Reed managed to exist in that rare space between irony and sentimentality, to avoid slipping into either the snarl or the smile. His music was an exercise in rejection, but not the knee-jerk anti-establishment hostility. It’s a rejection of rejection, a fight against both the nihilism of punk and the boppy, commercial vibes of pop music. “For the Velvets, the aesthete-punk stance was a way of surviving in a world that was out to kill you,” Willis writes. “The Velvets were not nihilists but moralists.” Willis explains, “Their songs are about unspeakable feelings of despair, disgust, isolation, confusion, guilt, longing, relief, peace, clarity, freedom, love—and about the ways we habitually bury them from a safe, sophisticated distance in order to get along in a hostile, corrupt world. Rock & Roll makes explicit the use of a mass art form was a metaphor for transcendence, for connection, for resistance to solipsism and despair.” Source:

Lou Reed: "For every one of my songs, I know which line is my favorite. All of those lines jump out at you in some way. They’re upside-down, or they’re darker, or they come out at you. Because that line also gives you the rhythm and allows you to touch other people’s hearts. Probably most people have five, ten songs that are really milestones in their lives and upon hearing them, just change their mood. Everybody remembers the song from their first date or the wedding song. We really do attach songs to moments. Probably one of the reasons I’m still around is because I can’t fulfill some people's expectations. They don’t like what I do, and I don’t like them either actually. I walk away because I can only take so much of music industry nonsense, before it starts to get debilitating or depressing, how low the bar gets to be. I’m exposed to the horrors of these people. But at a certain point, I think people learn not to come to you. You’re just the wrong person. They know that it’s hopeless." —Interview by Stefan Sagmeister (2008)

At George Washington High in Alexandria, Virginia, Jim made the honor roll with little effort. He had an I.Q. of 149. Jim was a precocious performer, too. When running into a pretty girl, Jim played the southern gentleman: he would bow and recite a Shakespearean sonnet. His first steady girlfriend at George Washington High was Tandy Martin. The pretty and straight-laced brunette at first found him smart, funny and cool. Then he started getting weird on her. One time, he dropped to the floor of a crowded commuter train and yanked off one of her saddle shoes. Tandy’s mother had warned her about Jimmy from the start. “He seems unclean, like a leper,” she’d told her daughter. The couple broke up senior year after Tandy accused Jim of “wearing a mask” all the time. Jim broke down in tears, saying he truly loved her. He supposedly lost his virginity to Mary Werbelow, a Sun’n’Fun beauty queen, whom he met in Clearwater, Florida. Meanwhile, he excelled academically, writing scholarly papers on everything from “The Sexual Neuroses of Crowds” to the surrealist paintings of Hieronymus Bosch.

Jim also took to the stage for the first time in a student production of Harold Pinter’s, The Dumbwaiter. After his junior year, Jim saw his father for the last time. His mother insisted he wear new clothes and get a haircut, so as not to look like a “beatnik” on arrival in San Diego. Jim begrudgingly consented. But no sooner did he board the USS Bonnie Dick, than Admiral Morrison sent him to the ship barber for a regulation Navy haircut. Thinking he had fulfilled his duty, Jim asked the commander permission to transfer from FSU to the UCLA Film School, among the most radical liberal arts programs anywhere. Permission was denied. Jim, now 21, cashed in a trust fund and enrolled anyway. His parents disinherited him. Or, as he Jim preferred it, he disinherited his parents. From now on, he would refer to himself as an “orphan.” —"Jim Morrison: Orphan" (2014) by David Comfort

A Cosmic Mating: He looked out across the room. He saw her from the stage... As his cue came up Jim Morrison caught her eye. She smiled. As Jim walked off the stage at the end of the set, she was waiting for him with a beer at the bottom of the stairs. "I think I love you," Morrison said. She asked "what happened here?" touching the side of his face where he still had some cuts from the debacle of the biker bar. "Critics," he joked: "what's your name?" "Pam," she replied. She was aching for a way out and shared with Jim a baggie of mushrooms. Out back was a rusting swing set. They pumped their legs urging the swings higher. They let go and were rolling around in the cold dewy grass. "Just love me," Jim said. They spent the next couple of hours making love (Jim would rhapsodize how wonderful he felt sexually with Pam). They woke up the next morning feeling raw and vulnerable. "Do you think I like being promiscuous? I love you!" Pam blurted out. Jim didn't want to lose her. "We can rent a house on Norton Avenue. Or up in the hills, anything you want. Look, I have money." As all the true love stories, Jim Morrison's unique relationship with Pam Courson was utterly misunderstood. Some insiders thought Morrison was lost, at the mercy of the mentally depressed Pam, but they were dead wrong. Jim chose love and married Pam. Jim Morrison said that love was the answer. —"The Last Stage" (2008) by Jim Cherry