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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Farewell to Elizabeth Taylor

What a long, strange trip it's been. Elizabeth Taylor, who left us today at age 79, seemed to have had at least her fair share of lives. Child star. Adult star. Sex symbol. Homewrecker. Tabloid fodder. AIDS activist.

One role that always remained with her, though, was that of glamorous Hollywood celebrity. Even though her film career ended years ago, one can't invoke her name without bringing to mind visions of spotlights cutting through the night at Grauman's Chinese, the flashbulbs of the paparazzi and evenings out on the town with Richard Burton.

She was a product of the old MGM studio system, which was at its zenith in the early 1940s. Although National Velvet (1944) made her a child star at the age of 12, she never seemed like a child, already possessing the great beauty that would help her to easily transition to adult roles. A Place in the Sun, with Montgomery Clift, is one of the best.

She won America's sympathy when her husband Mike Todd died in a plane crash, and then courted controversy when she stole singer Eddie Fisher from Debbie Reynolds. It was Fisher's turn to get dumped, though, when she fell in love with Richard Burton during the filming of the disastrous Cleopatra (1963), beginning a very public—and often very messy "supercouple" marriage. Make that marriages—they did it twice.

When you think about it, Taylor isn't a stranger at all to Weird Movie Village. After Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, she made her way to England where she alternated between arthouse-style films and outright bizarre projects, frequently with Burton. They did The Taming of the Shrew for Franco Zeffirelli, and then Burton co-directed an adaptation of Christopher Marlowe's play of Dr. Faustus (both 1967). Many people admire the former, which served as a warm-up for Zeffirelli's even more successful Romeo and Juliet (1968), but just as many derided the latter, labeling it boring and pretentious.

1967 was a busy year for Taylor, as she nipped back to the States to do Reflections in a Golden Eye with Marlon Brando, directed by John Huston. Talk about strange movies—she plays the wife of an army major with repressed homosexual urges. She's having an affair with the doctor next door, whose wife has cut off her nipples with garden shears after the death of her baby. Meanwhile, the major has the big-time hots for a private (Robert Forster) who likes to ride horses in the altogether. If you haven't seen this film and you're saying "Ehhh?", that's a perfectly adequate reaction. Clift was supposed to have played the major, but he died before production began.

The strangest was yet to come. Boom! (1968), starring Taylor, Burton and Noel Coward, was based on Tennessee Williams' play "The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore," and directed by Joseph Losey. I saw a bit of it many years ago when it aired on television, but I was too young to appreciate it (if there's anything to appreciate). John Waters loves it—you can see a poster for it on the wall of the Marbles' home in Pink Flamingos.

It was at this point that Burton seemed to enter the "somnambulistic" phase of his career, shambling through roles in a hammy daze, demonstrated most amusingly in Exorcist II: The Heretic. Fortunately, he managed to snap out of it to turn in a good performance as the psychiatrist in the film adaptation of Equus, winning a Golden Globe.

Losey wasn't done with Taylor. Next they made Secret Ceremony (1968), a strange thriller also starring Mia Farrow. Taylor plays a former prostitute who meets a waiflike girl (Farrow). The girl reminds the hooker of her daughter, who died as a child, and the hooker reminds the waif of her mother, etc... I haven't seen it, but it evidently has elements of Bergman's 1966 Persona (I can see that), and Polanski's 1965 Repulsion.

Taylor's most out-and-out horror film has to be Night Watch (1973), also starring Laurence Harvey and Billie Whitelaw. It's an "old dark house" type of thriller in which she plays a rich widow who witnesses a murder and can't get anyone to believe her because she'd recently recovered from a nervous breakdown. This title isn't available on DVD in the States, but I'd like to find a VHS copy from one of the few stores that still carries tape.

She reteamed with Burton for the 1973 TV movie Divorce His-Divorce Hers, a two-parter that tells their story from his point of view in the first half and hers in the second. Made during the period when their first marriage was actually crumbling, it was a surefire audience-grabber.

Later Taylor made more frequent appearances on television, including guest spots on "General Hospital" and "All My Children." She played Louella Parsons against Jane Alexander's Hedda Hopper in 1985's Malice in Wonderland, about the feud between the famous gossip columnists who exercised such influence in Hollywood that their words could make or break a career.

But when her friend Rock Hudson died of AIDS in 1985, she became an activist to find a cure for the disease at a time when no one in the industry dared utter the acronym for fear of blacklisting. She tirelessly organized fundraisers, founded the American Foundation for AIDS Research and even testified before Congress.

She survived numerous illnesses, more marriages and a very public weight gain episode (remember John Belushi's parody?), but she remained an independent woman and a true friend. She supported Michael Jackson through all of his trials even as the press commented snarkily about their unusual, close relationship.

Even as her health was failing, Taylor was an avid Twitterer. Her last Tweet was on February 9th, celebrating her final interview in Harper's Bazaar.

And I always know it's Christmastime when her "White Diamonds" perfume ad airs. "Not so fast, John Ryan!" They'd better damn well show it this year.

Godspeed, Elizabeth. There's a bright new star in heaven tonight.

Let's finish this tribute with a shot of the luminous Taylor in the final scene of A Place in the Sun:

Monday, March 14, 2011

Terror in the Woods Again

Well, I'm making my whenever-I-flippin'-well-want-to sojourn to Sequoia National Park, and this post is coming to you live from the luxurious Wuksachi Lodge. There's a little snow here, as you can see. I snowshoed my way around the park today and my legs are rebelling against the rest of me.

Last time I was up here, I did an installment about horror movies that were set in the woods. Let's continue that theme, but let's throw it a curveball—environmental horror films. You know, "Animals Gone Wild"? And for some reason, this particular genre defies quality. A lot of people hold the Oscar-nominated Warner Bros. film Them! (about the giant ants) in high regard, but once you start superimposing insects and animals onto backgrounds—or worse yet, integrate them with shots of people—to make them look big, it's always goofy to me.

Bert I. Gordon (Mr. B.I.G.) is a director best-known for his special effects-laden horror and science fiction films, usually involving supersized (or shrunken) creatures or people. Filmmaking was truly a family business—wife Flora did the rudimentary special effects for many of his films, and daughter Susan appeared in several as well. Cheap and cheerful, they're nevertheless fun and endearing in their odd way.

The Amazing Colossal Man and War of the Colossal Beast, with the towering, disfigured Glen Manning, are two titles most people are familiar with, but Gordon was threatening the world with Earth Vs. the Spider as early as 1958, and in 1965 he provided moviegoers with ginormous Beau Bridges, Tommy Kirk and breasts (not theirs) in Village of the Giants, based on H.G. Wells' "The Food of the Gods."

In 1976, Gordon got around to making Food of the Gods with Wells' original title, and it's a hoot. A bunch of guys are on a hunting trip on a remote Canadian island where they encounter giant wasps, chickens and rats. The critters have grown to enormous size as a result of eating a mysterious "food" that has bubbled up from the ground.

I just saw the sequence in which '40s star and pioneering femme director Ida Lupino is being menaced by giant caterpillars in the kitchen of her cabin. Next, we see normal-sized rats crawling around a hilarious model of the exterior, and then a giant rat puppet starts chewing on Ida's throat. It's very bloody, but it's also ridiculous. Poor Ida. This was Pamela Franklin's last theatrical film...I wonder if the experience of making it pushed her into early retirement.

Another independent director, William Girdler, whose laff-riot Abby has been mentioned in these pages a couple of times, jumped on the bandwagon with Grizzly, a Jaws ripoff about a gigantic killer bear stalking a national park that even features Susan Backlinie, the first victim in the opening scene of Spielberg's film. The ever-reliable Christopher George, whose exploitation career was legendary, stars as a ranger trying to hunt down the renegade ursus before all the campers are eaten or flee in terror. Since the bear is supposed to be 18 feet tall, there are lots of high-up POV shots of the creature pursuing its prey.

As the opening credits roll, a helicopter (whose shadow you constantly see) is flying over the beautiful terrain while breezy '70s adventure music plays on the soundtrack. But then—when it's time to reveal the film's title, the music strikes a terrifying note. Not to worry, though...when the title has passed, the music calms down again.

This was actually a huge financial success for Girdler and Edward Montoro's Film Ventures International. Jaws had given the public a taste for animal disaster films, and Grizzly fit the bill. And, as Jaws had shocked people with its more-or-less explicit sequence featuring the shark attacking and killing a young boy, Girdler does Spielberg one better by showing a kid actually being dismembered by the bear.

I'm really intrigued by the sequel, Grizzly II: The Predator, filmed in 1983 but never released, featuring early appearances by George Clooney and Charlie Sheen! Now that I'd like to see.

Even more po'-faced is Claws, which has the distinction of being a rip-off of a rip-off (Grizzly) and a movie that most people have never seen—or even heard of. I only know of it because the television syndication company I worked for distributed it. Made in 1977, it stars Jason Evers (The Brain that Wouldn't Die) as a logger who, when he's attacked and left maimed by a bear, becomes obsessed with hunting and killing it, especially after it attacks his own son on a camping trip and the kid slips into a coma.

Now that plot sounds pretty good, doesn't it? Sort of a "Moby Dick" for the wilderness set? Well, just imagine this film made on a budget that makes Grizzly's budget look like Jaws' budget. Get it? Throw in some terrible performances and terrible direction—oh, and every single grizzly attack occurs in slow-motion and ends in a freeze-frame.

Girdler struck back with Day of the Animals, in which a bunch of hikers are attacked by animals driven wild by the depletion of the ozone layer. This film has tons of documentary footage as padding, including shots of a hawk flying over a mountain, landing in a tree, and then—in close-up—looking around and blinking with its tongue sticking out. I think there are about 650 of these shots in the film. There's also a pack of exceedingly well-groomed German Shepherds prowling around.

And those of you who are used to seeing Leslie Nielsen in his Frank Drebin-style comedy roles are in for a shock. He plays a really mean bastard who also seems to be affected by the ozone depletion, becoming more and more unhinged until finally, shirtless and sweaty, he takes on a grizzly in hand-to-hand combat. Susan Backlinie is also back for this one to get killed (again). This time, we get a POV shot of her falling off a cliff, face-up, having been attacked by a bunch of birds, but not the swooping, blinking one, I don't think.

Now I can watch this film with amusement and nostalgia for those teen years when I used to go see this crap all the time at the drive-in, but when it was first released, my reaction was boredom. Imagine my fury when—a few months later—I returned to the drive-in to see a film called There's Something Out There—and it was Day of the Animals retitled! Edward L. Montoro presents, my foot. It got to the point when I'd see certain opening logos—like Film Ventures International and the Jerry Gross Organization—and I'd groan, knowing I was in for a crappy Italian crime drama that had been advertised as a horror film, or a retitled piece of junk I'd just seen weeks before. Oh, well...that's show business.

One of my favorite environmental horror films is the tongue-in-cheek Piranha, made for Roger Corman's New World Pictures in 1978,cowritten by John Sayles, directed by Joe Dante and with music by the wonderful Pino Donaggio (Carrie, Dressed to Kill). It shamelessly throws its conservative special effects budget in our face (there are repeated shots of the killer fish, obviously painted on glass, swimming past the lens), but some of the work is quite good, and it certainly delivers on the gore. Plus, you have Corman favorite Dick Miller and the always-welcome Barbara Steele along for the ride. Reportedly the producers of Jaws were really pissed about this one, but it's actually more of a send-up than a ripoff. And frankly I find it the more entertaining of the two films.



I haven't seen the remake yet, but I intend to catch up when it's on cable. Interestingly, it's old-timer Corman himself who seems to be keeping the animals-gone-wild theme alive with his Syfy films Dinocroc, Supergator, Dinoshark and, of course, Dinocroc Vs. Supergator. I haven't seen them either, but I can imagine they all contain the requisite level of cheese.

Now that we have convincing, first-rate CGI, making environmental horror films would be a breeze. But without terrible superimposition, ridiculous puppet models and bad matte paintings, they just wouldn't have the same charm.

Monday, March 7, 2011

My "Virginia Woolf" Obsession

Uta Hagen. The name may not mean much to you, but this acclaimed actress helped me to lose my innocence at the tender age of 12. No, I never met her, so get that nasty thought out of your head.

What I mean is that Ms. Hagen helped me to discover a cultural landscape far beyond that which I could fathom in South Bend, Indiana, in the suburban 1970s. She played Martha in the original Broadway production of Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" in 1962, and when I checked out the cast album of the production from the South Bend Public Library in 1972, a lifetime obsession was born.

As you know, it's not a musical, so the recording actually preserves the entire play as performed by Hagen, Arthur Hill (as George), George Grizzard (as Nick) and Melinda Dillon (as Honey). A four-record set, it's out of print, never released in any other format and highly prized by collectors. I have it, of course—and in stereo yet!

God knows I was used to hearing adults fighting, but I never knew they could do it so cleverly. Plus, I could actually listen to swearing on a record! And Hagen's Martha—alternatively brassy and purring like a jungle cat, she's a magnificent monster. Hill is kind of one-note; his George sees the humor in their dead-end situation, but his reading tends to be kind of shrill and—uh, theatrical?

The film version was an MPAA nightmare in 1966, even with the mega-couple Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, so I didn't get to see it until it started airing on TV in the 70s. Directed by Mike Nichols, it's a good film, and Alex North's score is wonderful.

Liz was pretty young to play Martha (she was 34; Martha is 52) but she gained 30 pounds for the role and allowed herself to be photographed as blowsy as possible. Her performance was good enough to win her the Academy Award for Best Actress. As the years go by, I have to commend her fearlessness in a time when A-list actresses worked hard to maintain as much glamour as possible.

Burton was the opposite of Hill, I thought—his George is almost sleepwalking, but he does manage to give the audience a glimpse into the seething cauldron of resentment he's carrying around. Sandy Dennis also won as Best Supporting Actress for her performance as Honey, and it propelled her career in film, even though she was a very peculiar actor.

Albee originally wanted James Mason and Bette Davis as George and Martha for the film. Even though they were both a decade older than the characters as written, I think Mason would've worked fine, but I wonder if Davis would have pushed it too far—by 1966, she was well into her horror hag period.

In 1978, Albee came to lecture at Notre Dame University, and this kid had the opportunity to get closer to the originator of the magnificent play that was such an obsession in my pre-teen years. He talked about his career and read selections from his plays, including "Virginia Woolf" and "The Zoo Story." Afterwards, I went backstage for an autograph. I think he was amused to see an 18-year-old kid so obsessed with his work.

Later, he directed "Woolf" for a production at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles. John Lithgow and Glenda Jackson played George and Martha, and Brian Kerwin and Cynthia Nixon were Nick and Honey. The kids were great, and Lithgow was spot-on, but Jackson was terrible. She played Martha as a staggering drunk, delivering many of her lines in a sing-songy voice. As a matter of fact, she ran frantically around the stage as if she thought she was still in one of her earlier Ken Russell films.

But back to Uta. She became a revered acting teacher and appeared occasionally on film and television. In 2000, the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles announced a production of "Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks," starring David Hyde Pierce and Hagen, and I was delighted to have the opportunity to see Martha in person.

23 years after its debut, I finally saw "Virginia Woolf" on Broadway. Bill Irwin was George and Kathleen Turner was Martha. Turner was fine. She's got that natural growl anyhow, and she played off her former sexpot image. I saw it again in 2007 at the Ahmanson, so I've actually seen two productions of "Virginia Woolf" at the same theater.

Oh—I forgot to include the time I saw it at the tiny Firehouse Theatre in South Bend.

If I try hard enough, I think I can still recite George's "bergin" monologue from memory. Hey, if John Waters can have obsessions, so can I.

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