Thursday, February 19, 2015

THE LAST OF SHEILA 1973

“Just goes to show what can be accomplished when a bunch of closeted gay men put their heads together!”                     Overheard following a screening of The Last of Sheila


In 1973 Stephen Sondheim, Anthony Perkins, and Herbert Ross - three closeted gay men in show business who knew a thing or two about keeping secrets - collaborated on The Last of Sheila, an Agatha Christie-esque murder mystery with a touch of All About Eve vitriol set aboard a luxury yacht on the French Riviera. 
The Last of Sheila came about after Herbert Ross, one-time choreographer (Funny Girl) turned director/producer (The Owl and the Pussycat, The Turning Point), persuaded composer Stephen Sondheim (Company, Follies) to channel his extracurricular passion for inventing elaborate games and puzzles into a movie project. To that end, Sondheim, who at the time was working on the Broadway musical A Little Night Music, sought the help of friend and frequent game collaborator Anthony Perkins (then filming Play It as It Lays) and the two devised a brain-teasing murder mystery thrilling enough to be entertaining and intricate enough so that audiences can play along with the characters in the film.

An early first-draft from these two first-time screenwriters had the mystery take place over the course of a snow-bound weekend in Long Island between business associates. But at Ross’ suggestion, the locale was changed to the more photogenic south of France, and the game-playing participants changed to a glamorous, in-joke cross section of Hollywood movie industry types.
James Coburn as sharkish movie producer Clinton Green
Joan Hackett as heiress and Hollywood outsider Lee Parkman
Richard Benjamin as floundering screenwriter Tom Parkman
Raquel Welch as glamorous movie star Alice Wood
Ian McShane as Anthony Wood, Alice's ambitious manager husband
Dyan Cannon as pushy talent agent, Christine
James Mason as once-famous director Philip Dexter
A year after his gossip-columnist wife Sheila Green (Yvonne Romain) was killed in a hit and run accident near their Bel-Air home, movie producer Clinton Green (Coburn) invites six friends – five of whom were guests at his house that fateful night – to spend a week aboard his yacht (The Sheila) in the Rivera. A gathering that promises to be part vacation, part memorial, and part career-carrot dangled under the noses of a gaggle of show business opportunists willing to subject themselves to week of sadistic game-playing in hopes of being offered a job on Clinton’s planned film about the life of his late, not-exactly-lamented wife. A film to be titled, “The Last of Sheila.”

This being a murder mystery, the murder half gets under way when, in the course of playing an elaborate, subtly cruel, detective/gossip game in which each player is assigned a gossipy secret the others must discover first, one of the participants winds up dead. The mystery revolves around the true inspiration for Clinton's game  - the public exposure of the identity of his wife's killer - and whether or not that person or persons is willing to go to even greater lengths to keep their secret a secret. The stage has been successfully set (an isolated group of people seeking to discover who among them is a killer) for a rise in the body count, the typical-for-the-genre tearful revelations, several heated incriminations, and skeletons tumbling out of closets faster than you can say whodunit. 
The ability to watch and rewatch The Last of Sheila on DVD has revealed it to be a much sharper and smarter film than it was credited with being when first released. Virtually every single frame and bit of character business reveals information pertaining to the overall mystery.

The Last of Sheila is a cinema rarity: a real corker of a murder mystery which plays fair with the viewer and doesn’t tip its hand in the first five minutes. It’s a nesting-doll of a murder mystery in which people characters start out just playing a game for fun must resort to actually engaging in game-like sleuthing methods to unearth a mystery. A mystery which in itself is one we in the audience are invited to play separately (Sondheim and Perkins are our literal “Clintons”…peppering the film with visual and verbal clues which, should we be swift enough to pick up on, lead us to the solution to the mystery).

And if, as many critics cited at the time, The Last of Sheila lacks the humanity necessary to make this murder mystery scant than just a fun intellectual exercise (the common critical complaint was that the characters are all so despicable you don’t give a hoot about trying to solve the mystery because you couldn’t care less whodunit or who it’s about to be done to); time and DVD availability has been kind to The Last of Sheila experience.

And by that I mean, not only is it a kick to see folks like Richard Benjamin and Dyan Cannon and Raquel Welch all in the same film, but the characters and their deep, dark secrets seem almost quaint in line with what celebrities do these days (and happily tweet about). Most significantly though, the ability to rewind, rewatch, and reexamine The Last of Sheila, a film about whose mystery critic Rex Reed wrote, “…requires a postgraduate degree in hieroglyphics to figure out,”  has made watching it a considerably less frustrating experience than it was back in 1973.
Let the Games Begin
The original boat sank before filming. Original cinematographer Ernest Day (A Clockwork Orange) was fired after a week. Joan Hackett refused to say certain lines and was nearly replaced by Lee Remick. Arab terrorist group, Black September, threatened to blow up the set. James Mason couldn't stand Raquel Welch. Welch ruffled the feathers of costume designer Joel Schumacher (later the director Batman & Robin) by arriving with her entire wardrobe already designed and fitted by boyfriend, Ron Talsky. Welch (my, her name does keep popping up, doesn't it?) temporarily halted production when she walked off the film threatening to sue director Herbert Ross for assault and battery.

The Last of Sheila was made in the 70s, so it almost goes without saying that a post-Watergate cynicism and assertive preoccupation with exposing the ugly side of the Beautiful People runs like an undercurrent throughout the film .
Hollywood is never at its most naïve than when it thinks it has to ratchet up the heartlessness in an attempt to dramatize for us plebeians what a phony, anything-for-a-buck business it is. The joke of course has always been that only Hollywood thinks its cash register heart is a well-hidden secret. Most of us over the age of ten grasped long ago what an assembly line of falseness the movie industry is, and after years of “seedy underbelly” exposés  (S.O.B., The Day of the Locust, Burn Hollywood Burn, The Bad & the Beautiful, Sunset Blvd., The Player, Two Weeks in Another Town, A Star is Born, The Oscar, etc.) I’m STILL waiting on a film to show just how soulless and venal it can be…something perhaps only possible were the film conceived as a horror/porn film with traces of science fiction.
The Last of Sheila 
Gossip columnist Sheila Green (Yvonne Romain) moments before she,
as Christine so tactfully puts it "...got bounced though the hedges." 
The busy schedules of Sondheim and Perkins prevented the two from having many opportunities to actually write the script while in the same room, thus the bulk of The Last of Sheila was done through phone calls and courier (Perkins has said only two scenes were written while both were in the same room at the same time), Sondheim handling the particulars of the game (natch), Perkins working hard to infuse Stephen’s academic brain puzzler with scare elements and Hollywood insider atmosphere. The result, while entertaining, sometimes feels as choppy and disjointed as the process of its creation.

The Last of Sheila, is the result of the combined efforts of a composer not exactly known for his warmth; a tortured, somewhat embittered actor whose promising leading-man career was derailed and forever haunted by the spectre of Psycho’s Norman Bates;  and a famously grumpy director whose idiosyncratic relationship with his actors rivals that of Otto Preminger. With nary a sympathetic character in sight, The Last of Sheila is a unified cold front of a movie desperately in need of a few real chills and perhaps some script tweaking to help raise the modest level of high-toned bitchery to a level of wit and bite worthy of the intellectual wizardry of Sondheim’s puzzle.


Stephen Who?
With A Little Night Music opening on Broadway in February, a Newsweek Magazine cover story in April, and a June release set for The Last of Sheila; 1973 marked the beginning of Stephen Sondheim's emergence as a household name. (Center) Perkins and Sondheim on the Cannes set of The Last of Sheila.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
To have Joan Hackett, that darling of idiosyncratic vulnerability, in the same film with the magnificent Raquel Welch, a startlingly uncraggy and boyishly cute Ian McShane, and the comically raucous Dyan Cannon, is quite a treat. But the real star of The Last of Sheila is its twisty murder mystery plot and the cunning “game” motif which runs throughout the film.
From the start, an atmosphere of narrative disequilibrium permeates every scene. 
All the characters are such phonies with ulterior motives behind everything word and action, it’s clear any number of games are already well underway long before Clinton bullies everyone into participating in what he calls “The Shelia Green Memorial Gossip Game.” Once the real game does begin, it becomes harder and harder to know who to believe, who to trust, trust or who’s reality you're seeing. 
And if, in the end, the frequent scenes of lengthy exposition and reenactments necessitated by the complexity of the puzzle have the effect of leaving scant room for fleshed-out performances or dimensional characterizations (in Craig Zadan's book, Sondheim & Co., Perkins concede to he and Sondheim "writing too much" and having to excise some 100 pages of the script before filming); one at least gets to console oneself with the not-unpleasant fact that The Last of Sheila is a fun, difficult-to-solve mystery that respects the viewer’s intelligence and rewards attentiveness.
Elaborate Clues Are Part of the Game

PERFORMANCES
It’s unlikely anyone seeing this now 42-year-old film today knows or even cares that the characters in The Last of Sheila are based on and cobbled together from real-life Hollywood notables (equally unlikely is that anyone could identify them). But at the time of its release, the whole “Who is that supposed to be?” element was just one more of the many games The Last of Sheila set before the viewer.

Of those rumored, Orson Welles was said to have inspired James Mason’s failed director character (even the casting of Lolita's Mason being a bit of a clue to the mystery for the audience). Richard Benjamin was Anthony Perkins' surrogate, and the sex-symbol and pushy husband portrayed by Welch and McShane were presumed by many to be Ann-Margret and Roger Smith. Although more popular opinion favored the filmmakers somehow getting Welch to agree to play herself (and husband Patrick Curtis) in spite of the character’s unglamorous name (Alice “Wood”) being a sly reference to Welch’s acting ability. However, it was no secret that Dyan Cannon was playing  super-agent Sue Mengers (Bette Midler portrayed Mengers in a one-woman show on Broadway in 2013), as the actress’s lively impersonation was a major point of publicity at a time when Mengers ruled Hollywood with her client list: Barbra Streisand, Anthony Perkins, Richard Benjamin, Ryan O’Neal, Dyan Cannon, Faye Dunaway, et al.
Any movie that affords the opportunity to hear Dyan Cannon laugh is a worthwhile endeavor
Like pawns in a chess game, the somewhat overqualified cast of The Last of Sheila are there chiefly to be in service to the riddle of a plot, the minimal requirements of their roles rarely rising above TV-movie competency. So even if few are offered opportunities to really shine (Dyan Cannon has the best lines and the most to work with) all are in fine form and The Last of Sheila offers up an attractive gathering of some of the most familiar faces of the 70s. My particular favorites are James Coburn and Dyan Cannon, with the always-terrific Joan Hackett giving the film a much-needed dose of humanity. (With this film, The Group, Five Desperate Women, and The Class of ’63, Hackett must be the queen of reunion-themed movies).
Hunting Clues In An Abandoned Monastery

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
I was 15-years-old when I first saw The Last of Sheila, dragging my family to see it the first week it opened (smug in my film/theater geek certainty that I alone among my high school peers knew who Stephen Sondheim was). I recall being very taken with the film as a whole, this being the first time I ever saw the traditional Agatha Christie drawing room mystery setup played out in anything resembling a contemporary setting.
I’m not sure how modern audiences respond to it, but in 1973, the mystery worked especially well because outside of James Coburn, no one else in the cast was ever typed as a villain. What with the Riviera setting and Hollywood types featured, it all seemed very glamorous and sophisticated to my adolescent eyes, the only dissonant chord being how old-fashioned all the name dropping seemed. In the 70s Hollywood of Jane Fonda, Warren Beatty and Ali MacGraw, chummy references to Steve & Edie, Kirk Douglas, Yul Brynner, and Sandra Dee seemed very Old World.
Oh, and The Last of Sheila introduced me to Bette Midler. She sings “Friends” over the film's closing credits and I so loved the song, I immediately went out and bought The Divine Miss M album. I've been a fan ever since.
Christine tries to convince Anthony that two heads are better than one

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
As much as I loved The Last of Sheila, poor advance press (it opened out of competition at Cannes to disappointing word of mouth), mixed reviews (claims of it being indifferently directed and aloof were outdistanced by critics throwing up their hands saying the whole thing was just too damned confusing!), and perhaps the overall sourness of the film's tone, kept it from being a hit. It disappeared from theaters rather rapidly and for years you could mention the title and nobody would lay claim to having heard of it, let alone seen it.
Now available on DVD,The Last of Sheila has developed  quite a cult following. Worth checking out if you've never seen it before, worth revisiting to discover all the giveaway clues you missed the first time out.
Friends?
A fun bonus on the DVD is the commentary track provided by Welch, Cannon, and Benjamin. Cannon and Benjamin are obviously watching the film together and having a blast, while Welch (who always comes across more relaxed and funny on the commentary tracks for her films than she does in the films themselves) recorded hers separately.

Little in the way of inside information is imparted - 42 yeas is a LONG time - but in its place is a nostalgia that appears to have erased memories of the troubled, over-schedule and over-budget shoot, replacing them with diplomacy (Cannon alludes to a person causing a long delay because they were dissatisfied with their outfit...one can't help thinking of Ms. Welch) and fond recollections of the experience.
Everyone cops to having found the complex script very hard to follow during filming, and amusingly, Dyan Cannon (who had to gain weight for the role) can't seem to get over how fat she looks, while Raquel Welch laments that she herself looks too thin. All the while Cannon and Benjamin make references to Perkins and Sondheim which make it sound as though they were a couple for a time. I certainly hope so. I'm sure that both gentlemen would be proud to know their sole screenwriting collaboration still has a few gossipy secrets to impart.
Copyright © Ken Anderson

Monday, February 9, 2015

MAME 1974

In Praise of Older Women or: I Love Lucy, But Even That Has Its Limits

Though not originally conceived as such, this look at Lucille Ball’s Mame makes a fitting companion piece to my previous post on Mae West’s Sextette. Both films were made in the 70s, both star actresses who found their greatest fame after turning forty, and both  films represent the simultaneous big screen return-of / farewell-to beloved show-biz legends in star vehicles (vanity projects?) modeled after the old-fashioned, large-scale musicals of Hollywood’s Golden Era. Although light years away from one other in terms of competency, quality, and budget, both films were greeted with near-identical waves of incredulity and hostility from the press and public. The lion’s share of the brickbats hurled centering on accusations of fan-pandering, a distracting over-reliance on age-concealing diffused lighting and fog-filters, and an overall sense of the stars in question being both ill-served by the material and frankly too old for their roles. (West was 84 playing 32. Ball, at 62, begins the film, which spans 1928 to 1946, at roughly the age she should be when it ends.)
Lucille Ball as Mae Dennis
Bea Arthur as Vera Charles
Robert Preston as Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside
Jane Connell as Agnes Gooch
Bruce Davison as Patrick Dennis
Kirby Furlong as Young Patrick Dennis

The eccentric heroine of Patrick Dennis’ fictional 1955 autobiography, Auntie Mame: An Irreverent Escapade - first turned into a Broadway play in 1956, later a film in 1958, and ultimately the 1966 Broadway musical upon which this movies is based - is logically somewhere in her mid to late 40s, but, philosophically-speaking, has always seemed “ageless” (spoken like a press agent). It’s conceivable to me that an actress of any age could convincingly play the wealthy, irrepressible free-thinker who becomes an instant mother when entrusted with the upbringing of her late brother’s son and teaches the child to “Open a new window” and live by the motto,“Life is a banquet and most poor sons-of-bitches are starving to death. Provided she has the necessary iconoclastic verve, personality, and spontaneous, life-affirming energy to bring Mame Dennis to life.

Sixty-two-year-old Lucille Ball certainly had plenty of energy, but after six seasons each of I Love Lucy, The Lucy Show, and Here’s Lucy (the last episode aired a week before Mame was released wide), most of it had calcified into drive, determination and will. Ball hadn’t made a film since Yours, Mine, & Ours (1968), and Mame presented the actress with a dream role she actively campaigned to acquire; this in spite of the expressed preference for Angela Lansbury (the role’s originator on Broadway) by the show’s creators: Jerome Lawrence, Robert E. Lee, and Jerry Herman.

Luckily for Ball, there was no way any studio would mount a $12 million film adaptation of Mame without a star of her caliber and popularity attached to it, so, clearly not having learned his lesson from the film version of Hello, Dolly! (where the common complaint was that Streisand was too YOUNG for the role), composer Jerry Herman handed over Mame’s singing and dancing chores to a well-loved household name of advanced age who has repeatedly gone on record decrying her own inability to either sing or dance.

(I’ve read that Herman, so displeased with how Mame and Hello, Dolly! turned out - and apparently after having banked enough money from both to finally buy himself some principles - has since refused to grant permission for the film adaptation of any of his work without his having creative control.)
Mame was one of the most heavily-promoted musicals since 1973s Lost Horizon (and we all know how that turned out). Lucille Ball supported it tirelessly through personal appearances television interviews. (Top) Hollywood's Cinerama Dome theater is decked out like an Easter bonnet cloche hat for the March 26 premiere. (Below) An advance trade magazine ad. 

It can’t be said that a movie version of Mame didn’t have timing working in its favor. In 1974 the nostalgia craze in fashion (BIBA), music (The Pointer Sisters, Bette Midler), and TV (The Waltons, Happy Days) was in full swing, along with the films: The Great GatsbyChinatown, and the remake of The Front Page, all slated for release within months of one another.
I was stoked to see Mame not only because I was such a huge fan of Rosalind Russell’s non-musical Auntie Mame (perhaps too much so, since I think that film is hilarious and Russell slays in the role), but because, like everybody else, I was raised on Lucille Ball and totally adored I Love Lucy (not so much The Lucy Show, Here’s Lucy, or – and this should have been a tip-off – her film appearances. As Lucy Ricardo, Ball was adorable, warm, and outrageously funny. In films, she tended to lapse into into a starchy, ladylike persona that was rarely any fun).
Mame - starring Diane Belmont
Fans expecting to see Lucille Ball's rubber-faced TV persona were surprised to find in its place, the regal, slightly haughty grande dame Lucy of the 1943 Al Hirschfeld caricature that closed every episode of  The Lucy Show. Ball goes through most of Mame with her chin tilted up, lips pursed, and cheeks sucked in. A look that does wonders for her close-ups, but absolutely kills the comedy. Diane Belmont was the hoity-toity stage name Ball adopted during her modeling days as the Chesterfield Cigarettes Girl.
Nevertheless, in March of 1974 my family allowed me to drag them (kicking and screaming) to see Mame. And if hard work paid off in entertainment value, I would have had a wonderful time, for Lucy is clearly working her ass off. But under several pounds of make-up, elaborate wigs, movement-constricting Theadora Van Runkle costumes, a network of face-tightening surgical tape and straps - not to mention nursing a leg broken in four places just a year before - I'm afraid there wasn’t much room for fun, élan, or even much in the way of a performance to rise to the surface. 
In fact, a character named Mame Dennis is less in attendance in this film than Lucille Ball the revered “comedy institution,” while the musical around her has been transformed into a kind of formal, laugh-free, drag-queen-inspired fandom career tribute. Lucy fans, those who had stuck by their star through 18-years-worth of black-and-white housedresses and dowdy office attire, were rewarded with a two-hour-plus fashion parade of Lucille Ball looking like the glamorous movie star Ricky Ricardo and Mr. Mooney never allowed her to be.
Joyce Van Patten is an all-too-brief bright spot as the conniving Sally Cato 
Lucille Ball's age factored in my enjoyment of Mame only insomuch as it seemed to preoccupy the filmmakers to distraction. Everything is so constructed with an eye toward camouflaging its leading lady’s age, filtered lenses, careful lighting, and a raised chin become the film’s dominant motifs. Ball looks terrific throughout, and I really only thought about her age (and that broken leg) when it came to the physical comedy and modest dance requirements. Ball can kick as high as a chorus girl, but I don't think my reactions - alternately, relief that she didn't hurt herself and awe at her moxie in even undertaking these moderately strenuous endeavors - were conducive to getting in the spirit of things. Mame is a character so full of life she gives the impression of never sitting still. Lucille Ball, for all her efforts, always made me want to offer her a chair.

She'll Croak the Blues Right Out of Your Heart!
Much was made of Lucille Ball's "singing." A lifetime of smoking, a voice-damaging stint on Broadway in Wildcat (1960), and a fondness for bourbon left Ball with a distinctive rasp that wasn't always kind to Jerry Herman's songs. Some critics at the time claimed Lisa Kirk (Rosalind Russell's voice in much of Gypsy) dubbed some of the vocals (Ball said Kirk should sue!), but Ball claimed all responsibility. While it would have been nice to have had a singer in the role,  if we had to have Lucy (and it seems like we did), I prefer hearing her real voice. I'm not a big fan of dubbing. Marni Nixon's soulless voice ruins West Side Story and My Fair Lady for me, Marianne McAndrew's voice in Hello, Dolly! seems to emanate from her hat, and don't get me started on the voices they chose for Liv Ullman and Peter Finch in Lost Horizon...

If anything, I found Gooch’s age to be far more problematic. I know Jane Connell originated the role on Broadway and all, but I couldn't help wishing that her pregnancy number "What Do I Do Now?" had been scrapped (it's always been pure torture for me anyhow) or refashioned into a menopause anthem or something. She just seemed too old. And her sheltered virgin bit was a cartoon. All through the film I kept imagining what fired-during-rehearsals Madeline Kahn might have done with the role.
Open a New Window
Ball has the best onscreen chemistry with Kirby Furlong, who plays young Patrick (my favorite moment is when he's allowed to slide down the banister in her apartment). The actress's legendary comedy timing seems to have abandoned her throughout much of the film, but whenever she is allowed to smile or laugh, her childlike appeal is irresistible. 

For all its faults, I have to say it was rather thrilling seeing Mame on the big screen for the first time; a feeling that has diminished significantly with subsequent DVD revisits. The scale and glossy sheen of the film was breathtaking to me at the time, Ball looking spectacular, if not exactly comfortable, in her elaborate wardrobe (she seems about as at-home in those outfits as she does in the role itself). And if hampered by a lumbering pace, overlong running time, too-familiar plot, and a paucity of real humor (Jerome Lawrence: “The screenplay was by Dostoyevsky…they took out all the laughs!”), something about Mame is so eager-to-please and well-intentioned, you kind of want to forgive it. The same way Ricky always forgave Lucy.
Audrey Christie & Don Porter as the uppity Mrs. & Mr. Upson
Mame does a lot of things wrong, but for me, three of the things they get right are so sublime that Mame has remained a favorite all these years strictly on the strength of them.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
The Title Sequence.
In his review of Mame, New York Times critic Vincent Canby observed, "The opening credits, which look like a Cubist collage in motion, are so good they could be a separate subject."
Indeed, the titles are so classy and eye-popping (footage from old Warner films like Public Enemy and Forty-Second Street are utilized) they whet your appetite and set a standard of style and sophistication the film only intermittently lives up to.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Loving You.
It's common practice for musicals adapted from Broadway shows to have at least one original number written for the screen version. Cynics (or are they realists?) say its to make a bid for a Best Song Oscar nomination, as only songs written expressly for a film are eligible. But in the case of Mame, one can make a good argument for needing to beef  up the supporting role of Beauregard (he has only the title song) in order to attract a two-time Tony Award winner like Robert Preston. Also, since Mame was marketed to women (so-called women's director George Cukor was initially attached to the project but had to drop out when Ball's skiing accident delayed production for an entire year) there was a desire to place a stronger emphasis on the romance. Plus, Preston could actually sing, and Mame needed all the good voices it could get.
The song composed for the film is "Loving You," and not only does the very dashing Preston sing and perform it beautifully, but the number as staged (a honeymoon montage) is so sweepingly romantic, I find myself moved by it each and every time. It's a great song anyway, but how its presented is so nicely handled. Special applause goes to the musical arrangement. The segment in a great ballroom has the most amazing recreation of a 30s sound orchestral sound, then, when the scene changes to a grand garden, the music erupts into a piano crescendo of such goosebump-inducing romantic lushness, blending magically with the image of the dancing the couple...that the waterworks that had been building up just have to go for it. I just love this sequence. It's so wonderful it really does feel as though it were hijacked from another film.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS 
The Title Number.
In a word: Perfection. Every single thing about how this number is done just puts a smile on my face. It's rousing and old-fashioned in just the right way, vibrantly staged and choreographed...it's everything that ever made me fall in love with musicals. The sight of all those red jackets and white jodhpurs in a kickline on the big screen was quite unforgettable! Had the rest of the film been up to this standard, Mame would have been a classic.

PERFORMANCES
On its release, all the performers were understandably positive about the film. In later years Bea Arthur spoke of Ball being miscast in her opinion and that the film was "A tremendous embarrassment." Even Lucille Ball later recanted all her initial happy talk and described making the film as being, "...About as much fun as watching your house burn down."
Personally, Rosalind Russell spoiled my chances of enjoying anyone else in this role, so Lucy bothers me less than those who perhaps loved Angela Lansbury in the role. I don't think Lucy's very good in the role, but how does one go about disliking Lucy? To this day no other TV show can make me laugh like I Love Lucy, and I think she is a genius in that regard. When she was still around, it was easy to rag on this picture....now that she's gone, I find myself a lot more at peace with my disappointments. She's missed, what can I say?
Other than a few unflattering costumes, the late-great Bea Arthur in Mame really has nothing to be embarrassed about (although she should have been upset the way her hilarious number "The Man in the Moon is a Lady" was butchered by so many cutaways). To my taste, Auntie Mame's Coral Browne IS Vera Charles, but Arthur is Mame's saving grace. (Bette Davis famously campaigned for the movie role of Vera opposite Lucy. Can you imagine a sound technician trying to measure those two voices in a duet?)

Mame is one of my "Fast-forward Favorites": A movie I find it difficult to watch all the way through, but delight in watching a la carte...hopping from one favored scene to another. I highly recommend this method with this film - most of the film doesn't work, but there are flashes of brilliance here and there that are just too good to miss.

BONUS MATERIAL
Mame opening title sequence. (*Designed by Wayne Fitzgerald thru Pacific Title & Art). *Thanks, Rick Notch

Here's Lucy: Lucy Carter Meets Lucille Ball. This episode aired March 4, 1974 to tie-in with the release of Mame. Lucy appears in one of her Mame outfits hosting a lookalike contest and plugging her film.

Lucille Ball on The Merv Griffin Show. Ball talks to the host about the making of Mame.

Ginger Rogers in Mame 1969.  Mame's choreographer, Onna White also choreographed the original Broadway production. Here's a chance to see the same equestrian choreography from the film as it was performed on the stage.

Angela Lansbury and Bea Arthur perform "Bosom Buddies."  The 1987 Tony Awards give us an opportunity to see what might have been.

My Three Mames: *An ingenious montage of the "Mame" number as performed by Lucille Ball, Angela Lansbury, and Ginger Rogers.  *Thanks, Jeff!
Copyright © Ken Anderson

Saturday, January 31, 2015

SEXTETTE 1978

“Do you have a thing about older women? That’s sort of faggoty, isn’t it?”
                      Carrie Fisher interrogating Warren Beatty in Shampoo (1975)

Thinking back to those old Popeye the Sailor Man cartoons I watched as a kid, I used to think it was funny the way Olive Oyl ‒ tall, gangly, big-footed, needle-nosed, granny-voiced, and severe-of-hairdo ‒ saw herself as this breathtaking dreamboat, irresistible to men. Funnier still was the fact that in the bizarro world of Popeye cartoons, especially in episodes featuring shapely females of more conventional appeal, not only did Popeye and Bluto pay little heed to the flirtations of more comely lasses, but, obviously sharing Olive’s delusion, fought each other tooth-and-nail for her affections. Of course, it helped that the writers and animators of Popeye were in on the absurdist joke. A factor that goes a long way in making Olive’s subversively contagious brand of self-enchantment feel more like nonconformist self-acceptance than uncurbed mental illness.

Alas, not a trace of fun or self-awareness is to be found in Mae West’s live-action feat of self-delusion titled, Sextette. A film that started out as novelty, slipped into curiosity, careened into embarrassment, and, through its plodding execution and pedestrian lack of wit, leapfrogged right over camp. Its ultimate destination: Bizarre has-to-be-seen-to-be-believed cult oddity.
Mae West as Marlo Manners the female answer to Apollo
Timothy Dalton as  Husband #6 Lord Michael Barrington 
Dom DeLuise as Manager, Dan Turner
Tony Curtis as Husband #3  Russian diplomat Alexei Karansky
George Hamilton as Husband #5 gangster Vance Norton
Ringo Starr as Husband #4 film director Laslo Karolny
Keith Moon as Roger, the excitable dress designer
Sextette takes place in a world where an 84-year-old silver screen siren is enthusiastically pursued and fawned over by throngs of excited males; the mere sight of her inciting near-riots of inflamed masculine passion and desire. Obviously, such a place does in fact exist in the real world...it’s called the world of the gay fanbase. It’s the world of the camp aficionado, the admirer of the drag queen aesthetic, the diviner of covert gay sensibilities in mainstream entertainment, and the upholders of that enduring mainstay of queer culture - diva worship. Had Sextette installed itself in this world, the only world where it made the slightest bit of sense for men in their 20s to go ga-ga over a woman old enough to be their grandmother, a hint of verisimilitude might have graced this otherwise preposterous Hollywood (it can’t be helped) fairy tale.

But were talking Mae West here. The unapologetic egotist who once told a reporter she never wanted children because, “I was always too absorbed in myself and didn't have time for anybody else.” A woman so self-serious and protective of her image she slapped Bette Midler with a cease and desist order when she saw the up-and-coming performer do an impersonation of her on The Johnny Carson Show.  A woman who adored her gay fans yet bristled at any suggestion that her appeal to them might have anything to do with camp.

And so although Sextette’s existence as a film at all is wholly due to the efforts and participation of a battery of gay men both behind and in front of the camera (not to mention a gay sensibility running through it with a ferocity unmatched by any movie until Can’t Stop the Music); gays don’t really figure in the absurdly heteronormative world of Mae West, Sextette, or geriatric sex-goddess Marlo Manners (except as the setup for a tiresome running gag).
(Above) Alice Cooper, the singing waiter, serenades Mae West on a glass piano. (Below) The glass piano - and also, by the looks of it, Alice Cooper's wig - appeared first in the 1974 Lucille Ball musical, Mame.

The world of Sextette is the world of Mae West, and in Mae West’s world, all men are straight (despite flaming appearances to the contrary), and frail-looking octogenarians mouthing puerile vulgarisms while dressed in 1890s finery are the stuff of wet dreams. Watching the film as anything other than a colossally bad joke played on both the actress and the audience is a Herculean task worthy of West's small army of porn-stached bodybuilder co-stars. To be asked to accept the plot particulars of this wheezy sex farce while pretending to ignore the fact that the object of unbridled lust and erotic desire at its center is in serious danger of falling and shattering her hip, is more than any viewer should have to take on. Small wonder that the film (completed in 1977) took a full two years to find a distributor and enjoyed a brief, money-losing limited release before taking its place in the annals of misguided movie megaflops. How could it be anything but? The experience of watching Sextette was like a Vulcan mind-meld excursion into the delusional, soft-focus fantasy world of a real-life Norma Desmond.
Hooray for Hollywood
Slow-moving Marlo is welcomed to her honeymoon hotel by a phalanx of singing bellboys
The story is simple…simple for a farce, anyway. Amidst much hoopla and fanfare, movie star and international sex symbol Marlo Manners (West, who else?) checks into London’s ritzy Sussex Court Hotel to honeymoon with husband number six, one Lord Michael Barrington (Dalton). The never-to-materialize comedic hilarity arises out of the happy, horny couple being unable to consummate their marriage due to an endless stream of ex-husbands, show-biz obligations, and a world peace summit (you can't make this stuff up).
While the wacky Love, American Style disturbances are painfully labored and unfunny, they do at least serve to keep West and Dalton from ever getting anywhere close to doing “the deed,” and for that we can all be grateful.

Given how enjoyably smutty Mae West was in 1970’s Myra Breckinridge (the film that brought West back to the screen after a 26-year absence) I thought Sextette - made a full seven years later in the hedonistic atmosphere of disco, gay liberation, porno chic, and Plato’s Retreat - had the potential to be a fun, over-the-top, musical comedy capitalizing on everything that there was too little of in the Raquel Welch film. No such luck.
Instead of a hip, off-beat entertainment like The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) or cheesy curio like The First Nudie Musical (1976), Sextette was just a crass throwback to those smirking, sexless “wholesome” sex comedies of the 60s. All wink-wink, nudge-nudge, but for a few touches of 70s bluntness, Sextette would have fit right in among those neutered, pre-sexual revolution comedies like A Guide for the Married Man, Boy, Did I Get the Wrong Number!, or Where Were You When the Lights Went Out?. Shot in that murky, flat style so prevalent in on-the-cheap exploitation films of the era, Sextette doesn't recall the Mae West’s glory days or even the glamour of old Hollywood. It feels very 70s, very desperate, and very much an ill-conceived, opportunistic attempt to meld the nostalgia craze with the new permissiveness.The film Sextette most resembles, in both style and content, is the tawdry soft-core vaudeville of trash like The Happy Hooker Goes to Washington (1977)
Before it turned into a career embarrassment, Sextette was envisioned as something of a "best of" tribute to the career of Mae West. It was the hope that fans would delight in all the visual and verbal references to her old films. Here, West's famous Swan Bed from her 1933 film, She Done Him Wrong (below) is recreated (and widened) for Sextette (top).


There would be no movie stars without their fans, but sometimes fans can be an artist’s worst enemy. Fan disapproval kept the talented Doris Day trapped in virginal, goody-two-shoes roles well past the age of expiration, and fans allowed Mae West to believe there was actually a public clamoring to see her shimmy and sashay one last time on the big screen.
I totally get how Sextette came into being: The 70s nostalgia boom was in full swing. In 1976 alone, the following nostalgia-based films were released - W.C. Fields & Me, Gable & Lombard, Bugsy Malone, Won Ton Ton The Dog Who Saved Hollywood, That’s Entertainment II, Silent Movie, Nickelodeon, A Matter of Time, & The Last Tycoon
That almost all were resounding flops might have raised a red flag for seasoned producers, but in 1976, two first-time movie producers in their early-20s, Daniel Briggs and Robert Sullivan (Danny and Bobby as they were youthfully known in the press) paid no heed and followed instead the clarion call of Late Show fans everywhere. Gable was gone, Bogart was gone, but Mae West, one of the last living legends was still with us, that's all they needed to know.
Hollywood columnist, Rona Barrett
Sextette also features appearances by journalist James Bacon (the white-haired reporter in the hotel lobby), Regis Philbin, and sportscaster Gil Stratton.
Although I can’t imagine she needed much convincing, Briggs & Sullivan came to West with an opportunity to pay tribute to her career while giving her fans what they'd been clamoring for: one last chance to see their idol in all her glory. She'd trot out her old gowns, sing a few songs, recite a few of her famous lines...everybody would be happy. The idea must have seemed like money in the bank. (I suspect West always felt the failure of Myra Breckinridge rested on there being too much Welch and not enough West).
The finished product proved far more dire, of course, with Mae West's performance in Sextette evoking the out-of-control narcissism of Sunset Blvd.'s Norma Desmond making Salome. Aghast critics responded to West's elderly sex symbol act with a virulent stream of misogynist, gerontophobic insults on par with the "Old woman's p*ssy" jokes leveled at Valerie Cherish aka Aunt Sassy (Lisa Kudrow) in The Comeback.
Do Not Disturb
Although she appears to be napping here, Marlo Manners is actually helping leading man Ronald Cartwright (Peter Liapis) with a screentest. Mae West was reportedly only pleased with Dalton and Hamilton as her co-stars. She thought Tony Curtis and Dom DeLuise "too old," and was less than thrilled at the lack of sex appeal of younger stars Ringo Starr and Keith Moon. Alice Cooper likes to repeat the story that West propositioned him, but I have a feeling he means she asked him to help her out of a chair. 

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Miscalculations of this caliber are rare and should be treasured. Sextette is valueless as a straightforward musical comedy, but it's priceless as a glimpse into a certain kind of insanity possible only through ego (you know who), greed (a good argument could be made for the producers cruelly exploiting West's delusions), and bad decision-making at almost every turn. Perhaps most shocking of all is that Sextette was directed by Ken Hughes, the director of the charming (if odd) children's film, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968).

A few of my favorite things.

1. The grab bag of songs comprising this musical's soundtrack are not only odd, but sound as if they were culled from scratchy recordings made at wildly different points in West's career. In one scene the tinny arrangement sounds as if started up on a Victrola. Another sounds overcranked, and many of the recordings have the hollow sound of demos.
2) The ungainly musical numbers were choreographed by 60-year old Marc Breaux (The Sound of Music, Mary Poppins) and assistant, Jerry Trent (Xanadu). I would like to think the post-dubbed taps coming from the busboys on the hotel's carpeted staircase is an intentionally camp touch.
3) Mae West has exactly two spot-on perfect line readings: (Following a knock on the door) DeLuise: "Who's that?"  West: "It ain't opportunity!". The second comes at a moment of exasperation when she says (with all too much feeling) "I don't know how I got into this!"
4) In a film with so many obviously gay men playing straight, casting Keith Moon as a flamboyantly effeminate dress designer is more than a little perverse.
5) In Mae West's opening interview with the press, I love the way everyone laughs uproariously at everything she says, only to stop in unison while they await her next quip.
6) The way she just kind of slams into that table during the "Next, Next" number.
7) The weird, decidedly sexist reverse alchemy that goes on when older women are paired with men a third of their age (think Judy Garland, Martha Raye and Margaret Whiting): They don't make the woman look younger, she makes then look gayer.
8) Mae West to an athlete- "And what do you do?"  Athlete -"I'm a pole vaulter."  Mae - "Aren't we all!"
9) The way DeLuise's dialog referencing Marlow's insatiable sex drive has a way of backfiring when you realize it's in relation to a senior, senior citizen: "This is her wedding night and Marlow's going to need all the oxygen she can get." or "By the time Marlow gets out of bed there'll be a new Administration."
Mae West made her first and last film with George Raft
West made her film debut in Raft's 1932 film, Night After Night. As a favor to West, he agreed to appear in what turned out to be the last film for them both, Sextette. Story has it that West didn't want Raft to wear the grey hair toupee he always wore (he'd look too old, you see), and Raft refused to wear the jet-black wig they'd picked out for him. Compromise: the hat

PERFORMANCES
Mae West made a total of twelve films, always playing a variation of the Diamond Lil character she created way back in 1928. As a writer, actress, singer, and comedienne, she's a genuine trailblazer and groundbreakingly feminist icon from early days of Hollywood. But, I find (unlike her quote "Too much of a good thing can be wonderful!") a little of Mae goes a long way. I like her a great deal in some of her old movies, and she isn't without a little bit of charm even in this misbegotten horror show. She doesn't bother me too much in Sextette, possibly because she is virtually impossible to take seriously.
Sure, she makes you gasp or laugh at first viewing, but later you kind of have to give it up to the old girl for still being in there pitching. Also, at her absolute worst, lowest ebb, Mae West is still more talented and interesting to watch than today's no-talent Kardashians, Lohans, or Beibers.
In 1964 Mae West made an appearance as herself on the popular TV sitcom, Mr. Ed. She wore the same gown in that episode (below) that she wears in the final scene of Sextette (above). If you've never seen this episode, I recommend it. Five minutes of it are funnier than the entire running time of Sextette.

Mae West never carries on a conversation. People feed her straight lines, she delivers the gags. This leaves the other actors adapting an every-man-for-himself approach to the material. Every "guest star" doing their bit independent of what anyone else is doing, and then disappearing to the sidelines. George Hamilton comes off perhaps best, with Dalton achieving the near-miracle of escaping the whole mess unscathed. There's a curious prescience in Sextette in casting Hamilton as a mafia lug (he would appear in The Godfather:Part III in 1990), and Dalton playing a spy (of course, he became James Bond in 1987).
Keith Allison of the 60s pop group, Paul Revere & the Raiders
In spite of the film's aggressive-but-unconvincing heterosexual thrust (Hmm, sounds like a West-ism), the casting of Sextette veers more to the gay-friendly. Sextette's entire cast of extras and dancers looks like gay pride weekend in West Hollywood. Timothy Dalton first came to my attention playing gay/bi-sexual roles in The Lion in Winter and Mary, Queen of Scots. Dom DeLuise always had a kind of comedy style that seemed very queer as well. And then of course there's the whole bodybuilder thing which has always seemed more gay than heterosexual in its appeal.
"They're flushin' my play down the terlet."
Mae West speaking to companion Paul Novak as overheard by Ringo Starr  

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Images of Mae West surrounded by bodybuilders were used extensively in advance publicity for Sextette. Her gymnasium musical number promised to be more outrageous that Jane Russell's beefcake-heavy "Ain't There Anyone Here for Love" number in 1953s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Unfortunately, like everything else in Sextette, the end result was a disappointment. While there is plenty of eye candy on hand, the entire sequence is little more than a lot of guys standing around feeding West straight lines for her familiar comebacks.
Like my own high-school locker room experiences, this scene is awkward, uncomfortable, full of exposed male flesh, and you'll want to avert your eyes but find you can't.
Former Mr. America Reg Lewis was an alumnus of West's 1954 Las Vegas act 
To the left is Cal Bartlett as the coach of the US Athletic Team. Front and center is Ric Drasin. Recognizable to fans of 70s physique porn as Jean-Claude(!)
Roger Callard (aka Stacy) is another 70s alumnus of Colt Studios, a studio specializing in nude male physique photography. At the center is Denny Gable, to the right, former Mr. USA Cal Szkalak
That an Olympic team has for its "mascot" a blow-dried and dewy-eyed male starlet (Rick Leonard) is far more provocative than anything Marlo Manners had to offer. Here Leonard greets Miss West with his best Gloria Upson (Mame) straight-arm handshake. Next to him is Mr. Olympia, Jim Morris

THE STUFF OF DREAMS 
Those musical numbers....
Love Will Keep Us Together
Baby Face
Next, Next
This upbeat Van McCoy disco composition was a replacement for the ballad "No Time for Tears" which Mae West vetoed for being out-of-character
One might have thought that the best way to deal with Mae West's age is to not make reference to the subject at all. Perversely, most of the songs seem to go out of their way to the topic. There's "Happy Birthday, 21" ; a disco version of "Baby Face"; and the reworked lyrics of "Love Will Keep Us Together"  - "Young and beautiful, your looks will never be gone!"  Um,...OK.


Walter Pidgeon as the chairman of the World Peace summit.
To the right is Van McCoy,composer of the popular disco classic, The Hustle, and contributor of  Sextette's "Marlo" theme song, and the finale "Next, Next." Some sources list him as the film's musical director.

BONUS MATERIAL
You have a chance to hear Alice Cooper singing "No Time For Tears" , the finale song from Sextette vetoed by Mae West because (as everyone knows) Mae West never cries over any man.

Watch the season 4 episode of Mr. Ed titled: Mae West Meets Mr. Ed (1964) on YouTube

A 1976 interview with Mae West by Dick Cavertt. Not really an interview, he feeds her a lot of lines, and she says the very same qips you expect. However, there's one terrific moment when she talks about the loss of her mother where you get a fleeting glimpse of a real person and not an image. See it on YouTube

Miss West and the boys bid you goodbye
I think this is the first time I've ever seen her so covered up, or wearing anything even remotely approaching a contemporary garment.
I can see why she stuck to the Gay 90s

Copyright © Ken Anderson