Monday, August 24, 2015

FOR LOVE OF IVY 1968

After more than a decade of shouldering, with both dignity and grace, the damned-if-you-do/damned-if-you-don’t burden of being Hollywood's first African-American superstar  (the representative movie face of the entirety of black America, while at the same time liberal Hollywood’s unofficial Civil Rights symbol), Sidney Poitier’s appearance in the well-intentioned, but nonetheless cringe-worthy 1967 film, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, successfully brought his trademark Noble Negro character to its logical conclusion. I number myself among those who felt that by 1967, if Poitier's godlike paragon of Afro-American perfection was the kind of sugar necessary to make the medicine of interracial marriage go down, then the time had indeed come for a complete overhaul of the cinema image of the American black male.
Sidney Poitier as Jack Parks
Abbey Lincoln as Ivy Moore
Beau Bridges as Tim Austin
Lauri Peters as Gena Austin
Leon Bibb as Billy Talbot
Carroll O'Connor as Frank Austin
Nan Martin as Doris Austin

I was just ten-years-old at the time, but I recall Sidney Poitier being all over the place in 1967. First, there was To Sir With Love, which I went to see more times than I can count; In The Heat of the Night, which was powerful, but I can’t say I enjoyed it much; and the release of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? was such a major event in our household (my mom adored Poitier and was a Katherine Hepburn fan), it occasioned the rare movie outing for the entire family. (As much as I can't really abide the movie now, you have no idea what a groundswell of controversy it sparked when it came out. I also remember how scary it was that, no matter how divided everyone was about the film, the only ones leveling angry protests, violent threats, and acts of terrorism at theaters showing this almost comically circumspect movie were the KKK and white extremists.)

With Poitier starring in three such profitable and high-profile films in the same year, signs would seem to indicate the Academy Award-winning actor’s already illustrious career (1964 Best Actor -Lilies of the Field) was on the ascendance. But, irony of ironies, after being virtually the sole lead black actor working consistently in films for many years, Poitier's popularity started to decline in direct proportion to the emergence of the youth-market fueled, black film explosion of the 70s. With a new decade dawning, and with it, an exciting array of new black talent and afro-centric narratives filling movie screens; Poitier must have found it dismaying to have the very doors he had been so instrumental in opening for actors of color, suddenly closed to him.
40-year-old Sidney Poitier Grooves at a 60s Happening
Poitier's comforting, buttoned-down image began to look dated as the more militant 70s approached 

Sidney Poitier’s screen persona – that of the non-threatening, nobly acquiescing, almost saintly black male – embodied the assimilationist ideals of the early days of the Civil Rights Movement. But it wasn’t long before factions of the African-American community began to find the sexless, selfless characters Poitier played in films like A Patch of Blue (1965) and Lilies of the Field more representative of white fantasy than black reality. In the tumultuous social climate of the late 60s, as Civil Rights assimilation gave way to the more self-identifying thrust of the Black Power Movement, and galvanizing events like the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. (four months after the release of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?) signaled a new self-determination and militancy; Poitier's image (inseparable from Poitier the actor) had become an anachronism.

Thus it was perhaps with no small sense of relief on his part, when Poitier was at last able to discard his socially-appointed halo and embark upon a series of human-scale roles designed to update and reconstruct his image. That he essentially had to write, produce, and eventually direct most of these roles in order to achieve this, points to the level of reluctance he faced within the industry when called upon to relate to him as anything other than a symbol of tolerance. In 1969s The Lost Man Poitier played a militant revolutionary (!), a single father in A Warm December (1973), and a thief in A Piece of the Action (1977). But his very first attempt at downsizing the saintly Poitier mystique was in the charming romantic comedy, For Love of Ivy.

Debunking the myth of the contented domestic,
happy to be "Like one of the family." 
Jack - "Looks like you've got a pretty good setup here."
Ivy - "Too good!. I don't want to die here."
Jack - "You've got to die somewhere."
Ivy - "Well, isn't it better not to go ignorant and alone?"

The upscale suburban household of the Austin family is thrown into a tailspin when Ivy (Lincoln), the family maid of nine years, decides to quit, move to New York and attend secretarial school (in other words, make a life for herself). Certain she’s simply lonely, the younger members of the family, Tim & Gena (Bridges / Peters), elect to find her a boyfriend. Not just any suitor, since they certainly don’t want her falling in love and leaving, but someone who’s altar-shy and willing to wine and dine Ivy with no strings attached. Their best candidate for the job is Jack Parks (Poitier), the wealthy owner of a trucking company whose reputation as a swinger assures Ivy won’t be whisked away, and whose illegal mobile gambling operation makes him a shoo-in for a little maid-courtship extortion.

With Ivy thinking she's dating Jack just to help the family business (the Austin's own a department store and contracts with Jack's trucking company), and Jack doing it to avoid exposure of his illegal nighttime activities, each thinks they know what they're getting into as the embark on their arranged rendezvous. And if you’ve ever seen a movie in your life before, there’s no mystery as to how things between Ivy and Jack will play out.
The Set-Up
The plot is negligible, but the context is what fascinates. The well-intentioned Austins mistake their need for Ivy with actual concern for her welfare. She's a buffer between the acrimonious father and son, a sister of sorts to the daughter, and she completely runs the household. White liberalism is lampooned, black self-reliance is championed, and among a cast of characters at loggerheads over how to best live their lives, Ivy emerges the one clear-headed individual who never strays from her desire to have a life of her own.

Genre-wise, it's all familiar territory that feels somehow unfamiliar due to the fun of seeing how significantly these Doris Day / Rock Hudson tropes are turned on their heads when (at long last) the lovers at the center of their own narrative - permitted to be funny, determined, amorous, conflicted, self-assured, independent, and imperfect - are black. A rarity then, and not exactly a commonplace occurrence now.
For Love of Ivy was taken to task for being corny in the Swinging 60s. In today's atmosphere of misogynist, mean-spirited rom-coms, the respectful, genuinely sweet romance at the center of the film looks positively cutting-edge. 

With a screenplay adapted by Robert Alan Aurthur (All that Jazz) from a 19-page story treatment written by Poitier himself (that was turned down by three studios), For Love of Ivy is one of those familiar, old-fashioned romantic comedies built around a grand deception. A lie first contrived to bring the lovers together, followed by a misunderstanding, ending with a romantic reconciliation. It’s exactly the kind of movie Hollywood has churned out for years. And therein lies the twist. 
For the longest time, Hollywood’s depiction of African-Americans in movies has been defined by the narrow parameters of symbols, stereotypes, sidekicks, or vessels of suffering in need of white rescue. Characters just being black and human in a motion picture is still such an original concept, you could use plots from silent movies, but with blacks in the leads, the film would still come out looking like an innovative act of cultural insurgency.

Paraphrasing the sentiments of a movie critic from the time  after having played so many solemn, “uplift the race” roles, Poitier, as a black movie star, was more than entitled to exercise his right to appear in the same mindless, escapist movie fare white stars like Frank Sinatra and Tony Curtis had been making for years. Sidney Poitier had earned the right to be in an amusing diversion.
After nearly 20 years in the business, leading man Sidney Poitier finally gets a love scene

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
When a film dismissed at the time of its release for being too light and conventional provides: 1) One of the screen’s most independent, dimensional black female characters, 2) The still-rare occurrence of a black romance at the center of a mainstream, non-niche motion picture, 3) An Afro-centric narrative in which the goals and objectives of the black characters are in no way invested in, nor dependent upon, the happiness of white characters - perhaps there’s a bigger statement to be made about why it is today, during the Administration of our first black President, Hollywood still seems unable to move beyond butlers (The Butler- 2013), maids (The Help- 2011), and slaves (not enough space to list them all).
Ivy Is The Only Austin "Family" Member Required To Use The Service Entrance
This silent, throwaway shot of Ivy returning home from a date contains the crux of the reason she wants to leave. A reason right under the noses of the people who profess love for her, yet are unable to understand why she wants to quit.  

I have a real soft spot in my heart for For Love of Ivy...and not just because I find Poitier and Lincoln to be an absolutely adorable couple. The  gimmicky aspects of its plot notwithstanding, I respond sentimentally to For Love of Ivy because the character of Ivy Moore is one of the most satisfyingly believable black female characters I've ever seen in a film.

Surprisingly, this feather-light comedy was directed by Daniel Mann, the director behind the film adaptations of the dramas, Come Back Little Sheba, The Rose Tattoo, and I'll Cry Tomorrow. Sidney Poitier was inspired to write For Love of Ivy to provide his four daughters with an alternative to the usual glamorized (fetishized?) images of black women onscreen. Stars like Lena Horne, Dorothy Dandridge, and Diahann Carroll (with whom Poitier once had an affair), were favored for their Eurocentric features and exotic similarity to white actresses. Poitier wished to present a more authentic representation of black womanhood.
And authenticity is what I find in the character of Ivy, as embodied by the late Abbey Lincoln. Ivy is a dignified, independent woman who wants love and a better life, but isn’t looking to be rescued or saved by anyone but herself. She's a woman who only works as a maid, she is not a maid. An important distinction.
"What do you want?"
"I'm not sure. I just know I haven't got it now."

When I watch For Love of Ivy, I see my four sisters, my mom, and every black woman who has ever had to define herself, for herself, because society, by and large, can't be bothered. I've no doubt that the main reason the character of Ivy resonates with me is because, when I was small, my mother worked for a time as a maid. Later, when I was a pre-teen when my parents divorced. I remember my mom going to night school and getting her driver's license, eventually working her way to a managerial position in government at San Francisco’s Federal Building. All the while sending all of us kids to private Catholic school.
That she eventually came to meet and marry a terrific, well-to-do gentleman who was her own Sidney Poitier figure (and a dynamite father figure for me), making it possible for her to quit her job and live out her days in comfort, is the kind of real-life "Hollywood" ending for a deserving woman that makes the fairy tale romanticism of For Love of Ivy feel a good deal less sappy for me than perhaps it does to others.

Self-reliant and proud, my mother, as remarkable as she sounds, isn’t really unique among black women. There's lots like her around. But I never saw any black women like my mother represented in the movies (glamorized and glorified, to boot!) until I saw For Love of Ivy.
Principally a jazz singer and songwriter, here is 25-year-old Abbey Lincoln as she
appeared in the 1956 film, The Girl Can't Help It

PERFORMANCES
For all its abundant charm, For Love of Ivy is a bit of a puzzler when it comes to comedic tone. It’s like when I was a kid and easy-laugh sitcoms like Gilligan’s Island aired before laugh-free “heartwarming” humor shows like The Ghost & Mrs. Muir. I always felt like my funny bone had a short in it or something.
Watching For Love of Ivy, comedically speaking, I get a sense of where it’s coming from: It’s partly one of those fraught-with-complications Cary Grant romantic comedies like That Touch of Mink; part class-satire along the lines of Goodbye Columbus; and part bourgeois romantic comedy, like Cactus Flower
Making her film debut (far right): Jennifer O'Neill of The Summer of '42 (1971)
Making her film debut (far right): Gloria Hendry, the first black Bond Girl in Live & Let Die (1973)
I say I get a sense of where the film is coming from because, comedy-wise, For Love of Ivy never really arrives. Movies like this thrive on wit and a kind of effortless effervescence, but the comedy rhythms in For Love of Ivy always feel a little off. Beau Bridges as one of those super clean-cut hippies that only exist in the movies, has great comic energy. He’s a terrific actor capable of conveying sincerity while inhabiting the genre-mandated hyperactivity of expression, inflection, and body language. But too often it feels as if he’s working a particularly tough room.

Tim Harbors A Not-Too-Secret Crush On Ivy
No stranger to onscreen interracial relationships, Bridges fell in love with Diana Sands in 1970s The Landlord, and most recently, portrayed Tracee Ellis Ross' father on the TV show, Black-ish

Sidney Poitier, playing a morally dubious character for the first time since Blackboard Jungle (1955), looks to be enjoying himself, and is more relaxed than he’s been in years.  Cutting a dashing figure in his tux and fairly oozing sex appeal and star quality, Poitier finally gets the chance to look the part of the matinee idol he’s always been. Poitier has a splendid chemistry and rapport with co-star Lincoln, but when it comes to the comedy; the palpable intelligence behind his piercing eyes has a way of grounding even the most convoluted of plot contrivances in an emotional reality antithetical to the breeziness of tone required of material like this. (It would be six years before Poitier loosened up enough to give his disarmingly funny performance in Uptown Saturday Night -1974.)

Not really given much to do in this film, Nan Martin would go on to play a tougher version of the same role the following year in Goodbye Columbus. Carroll O'Connor , along with his fame from All in the Family, would play the Rod Steiger role in the  long-running TV series based on Poitier's film, In The Heat of the Night 

But while the broader comedy doesn't always catch fire in For Love of Ivy, the very gentle, very affecting character humor and touching relationships are handled rather extraordinarily. Beau Bridges' character may be a misguided liberal, but his very real affection for Ivy is a rather endearingly portrayed.


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Displaying that rare brand of professional generosity I generally associate with Clint Eastwood - being one the few leading men willing to hand over his film to his female co-star - Sidney Poitier allows For Love Ivy to be Abbey Lincoln's show completely. And the picture is all the better for it.
For Love of Ivy Should Have Made the Beautiful and Gifted Abbey Lincoln a Movie Star
She was nominated for a Golden Globe for this, but wisely (in terms of holding on to her sanity and dignity) stuck to her music career. She didn't make another film until 1990- Spike Lee's Mo' Betta Blues.

She's a natural at capturing the essence of a uniquely contemporary type of female character...one who possesses a great deal of old-fashioned charm. Word has it that Lincoln, a singer and Civil Rights activist, for whom Ivy represents just her 2nd film (first: the must see 1964 drama, Nothing But a Man), beat out 300 actresses for the role. I can easily see why. She's one of a kind.

From beginning to end, Lincoln commands the screen in a way born not so much of technical skill, but rather of an ability to appear 100% genuine every single minute.
In the film's brightly-lit, Love American Style  TV sitcom gloss, Lincoln stands out as the real thing.
Not a single one of her scenes is ever less than compelling because she is incapable of emotional playacting. Her performance so fills my heart up, I confess that in the many times I've seen the film, I have yet to make it  through dry-eyed. Her character is so endearing, and Lincoln's performance at times so emotionally raw, I've pretty much got the waterworks going full-throttle by the film's conclusion.
Get Out Your Handkerchiefs 
I have many favorite scenes, but this one slays me. Poitier has never been more charming,
and Lincoln is a heartbreaker 
Along with Two for the Road and A New Leaf, For Love of Ivy is one of my top favorite romantic comedies. Nostalgia plays a role (after all, it was released the same year as so many of my most beloved films: Rosemary's Baby, Barbarella, Secret Ceremony, etc.). As does sentiment (Poitier & Lincoln have chemistry to spare). But there's also a bittersweet element. I think of Sidney Poitier's heroic career and all he sacrificed in the way of personal choice, taking on roles because of his deeply felt sense of social responsibility. I think of Abbey Lincoln and all the other black actresses whose gifts we've all been deprived of because nobody was writing roles like this for black women.

And then I think of how things are today, and that it sometimes as if so little progress has been made. I mean, can you imagine what Tyler Perry would do to a remake of For Love of Ivy? (For Love of Medea) or how hard I have to rack my brain to think of the last time I saw a black female character onscreen with as much dimension as Lincoln's Ivy Moore?

Although For Love of Ivy has been a favorite of mine for years, how I came about rewatching it is due to my being contacted by Deep THOTS, a weekly pop-culture podcast hosted by the amazing Angie Thomas, and asked to participate in a conversation contrasting the depiction of domestics/maids in1968s  For Love of Ivy with 2013s The Help. What a difference 45-years can make...in anti-progress! You can listen to the spirited podcast HERE.


BONUS MATERIAL
Quincy Jones' title song was For Love of Ivy's sole Oscar nomination. Listen.

Nothing But a Man (1964)  - Complete film available on YouTube


Copyright © Ken Anderson

Friday, August 14, 2015

EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU 1996

This post is dedicated to Drew, but for more Barrymore, visit the site!

At one time or another, everyone has had the experience of feeling as though some real-life event or activity were taking place in a movie. For example (and speaking from embarrassingly personal experience): owning a convertible in Los Angeles in the early 80s made it a certainty that when Blondie’s Call Me played on the car radio, that infectiously percussive, synth-pop ditty instantly became my background music. Even a routine Slurpee run to the nearby 7-Eleven was transformed into the slick opening credits sequence of my very own 80s erotic thriller.

The desire for reality to more resemble the idealized fantasy world of the movies is, perhaps, a film fan's wish as old as cinema itself. And while there's no telling the countless headaches, heartaches, and dashed illusions to be spared were one were outfitted with some kind of built-in immunity to the seductive sway of Hollywood's Technicolor fairy tales; were such a thing even possible, I'm more than certain that a reality stripped of the belief in the possibility of the impossible would hardly qualify as anybody's idea of living, anyway.

The eternal paradox of movies has always been its ability to render the real as slightly dreamlike, while capturing the essence of the ethereal with canny verisimilitude. No other sphere of emotion seems to inspire this quality in movies as evocatively as the contemporary notion of romantic love. Especially love of the transcendent, dizzying, sweep-one-off-one's-feet variety favored by musicals. And when it comes to romance and the eloquent expression of love, can any movie genre compare with the Hollywood musical?
Woody Allen as Joe Berlin
Goldie Hawn as Steffi Dandridge
Alan Alda as Bob Dandridge
Drew Barrymore as Skylar Dandridge
Edward Norton as Holden Spence
Julia Roberts as Von Siddell
Everyone Says I Love You is Woody Allen’s first - and to date, only - musical. Chronicling a year in the life of an affluent (what else?) extended family residing in New York’s Upper East Side, Allen uses the changing seasons to metaphorically underscore this nervous musical comedy about the variable nature of romance. As characters with I-wish-I-could-believe-he’s-being-satirical names like Skylar, Djuna, and Holden navigate the choppy waters of love in picturesque Venice and Paris; Woody Allen’s familiar universe (where every city looks and feels exactly like New York) reveals itself to be a wonderland of  magic realism.  

The fantastic has always figured in Woody Allen’s particular take on reality: Humphrey Bogart was his life coach in Play it Again Sam, Marshall McLuhan materialized from behind a movie poster to silence an intellectual boor in Annie Hall, etc. But the world depicted in Everyone Says I Love You is a world swept up and in concert with the giddy elation of love and spring fever. Ordinary folk break into spontaneous song and dance; store mannequins come to life; the injured and infirm leap and turn cartwheels in a hospital; the dead cavort amongst the living; and, in my absolute favorite Woody Allen moment of all time, romance grants lovers the ability to defy the laws of gravity.
Just You, Just Me
Store mannequins put on a show for engaged couple, Holden (Norton) and Skylar (Barrymore)  

But don’t be fooled; for all its song, dance, humor, appealing performances, beautiful locations, game cast, and moments of genuine charm; Everyone Says I Love You is still, never, ever anything more than your typical Woody Allen film. Which is both its boon (I like that Allen doesn’t bend his style to fit the conventions of the genre, he literally makes them dance to his tune), and its bane (if you already don’t like Woody Allen, this film isn’t likely to turn you into a convert).   

Perhaps due to the challenge presented by shooting a full-scale musical on location with a score of some 16-plus classic songs -lushly arranged, at least four choreographed production numbers, and a cast of largely non-singers who (according to production notes) only discovered they’d signed on for a musical after having already committed to the project; Allen gave himself more latitude than usual in recycling so many of his familiar tropes:
The eccentric, broadly-drawn extended family - Radio Days, Hanna & Her Sisters
The refined character attracted to a coarser individual - Love & Death, Interiors, Crimes & Misdemeanors, Hannah & Her Sisters
The heart wants what it wants - Manhattan, A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy
Two women attracted to the same man- September, Hanna & Her Sisters
Spying on an individual’s therapy session - Another Woman
Allen’s old coot/young woman fetish - Manhattan,  Husbands & Wives
Allen’s bougie lifestyle fetish - Too many films to list

Cuddle up A Little Closer 
Playing the daughter of Woody Allen and Goldie Hawn, actress Natasha Lyonne is Djuna, the film's narrator and central romantic flibbertigibbet. Here she's serenaded by love-at-first-sight beau, Ken (Billy Crudup) who's joined in song by cabbie Robert Khakh, who sings the 1908 ditty in Hindi

When you add to the mix the fact that Allen also indulges his other catalog of obsessions: The Marx Brothers, jazz, pseudo-intellectual pretensions, and people who actually consider "poet" to be a career path; Everyone Says I Love You winds up representing a kind of  Woody Allen "best of" collection set to music. Happily for me, it manages to be the best of his lighter, funnier films.
Looking at You
Happily married couple Steffi (Hawn) and Bob (Alda) head a household overrun with five children, a grandfather, a tyrannical maid, and Steffi's romantically luckless ex-husband, Joe (Allen)

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Woody Allen, a man who strikes me in interviews as someone incapable of understanding even the most elemental aspects of human behavior, does seem to understand movie musicals. Indeed, a great deal more than many directors like Rob Marshall (Nine) or Susan Stroman (The Producers), who have their roots in musical theater.

There’s something intriguingly off about the idea of a Woody Allen musical. At first glance, it seems as if the director’s trademark neurotic, over-cerebral style is an ill fit for a genre characterized by breezy lightheartedness and fantasy. But upon reflection, one realizes that Allen’s films have long taken place within a fantasy bubble. What is his hermetically sealed vision of Manhattan, populated with characters bearing little to no resemblance to actual human beings, but an update of those impossibly rich penthouse dwellers who spent all their time in tuxedos and evening gowns in those Warner Bros. musicals from the 30s?
The already built-in artificiality of Woody Allen’s world, one he’s cultivated in film after film, is a Cinderella-shoe fit for a musical, simply because one of the chief hurdles of contemporary musicals has been the increasing audience resistance to the conceit of average people spontaneously bursting into song in natural surroundings.
Woody Allen's version of Manhattan has always been a New York of his own state of mind, so there's no authentic "reality" to be shattered. With Everyone Says I Love You, Woody's artificial New York feels tailor-made for the genre-mandated artifice of the movie musical!
My Baby Just Cares for Me
 A trip to Harry Winston for an engagement ring erupts into an amusing production number

By the 1990s, the movie musical had almost become extinct due to director's inability to make the genre work. Modern audiences (who had no problem with animated characters) just found real people singing onscreen to be either comical or corny.The genius of Everyone Says I Love You is that Allen, rather than trying to ignore that fact, distract audiences from it, or try to think of clever ways to sidestep that particular hurdle; structures the entire film around exploiting it. He embraces the corniness, shares in the camps, and by doing so, celebrates the naivete of old musicals.

Jumping in with both feet, Allen instantly addresses the issue of audience discomfort by having the very first words of the film sung by a character. He even plays with the genre by citing the characters' self-awareness ("We're not the typical kind of family you'd find in a musical comedy") and consciousness of their vocalizing ("What are you singing about? You're not in love with Holden!")

But best of all, Woody finds a way to keep his fantasy on human scale. Ordinary people DO break into spontaneous song, but only in appropriately ordinary voices. Choreographed production numbers erupt around them, but the characters fail to be instantly imbued with terpsichorean gifts. Instead, they move with the ungainly grace of those overcome by emotion.
And therein lies the source of Everyone Says I Love You’s ultimate triumph of charm over Allen’s sometimes problematic world view: all the singing is just an extension of the character's emotions.
If I Had You
Skylar finds herself falling for the ill-bred charms of ex-convict Charles Ferry (Tim Roth) 
I loved musicals long before I became a dancer, but I think movie musicals dug their own grave by their over-reliance on cold spectacle and technical polish. I much prefer the wavering, unsure voices in Everyone Says I Love You, to the kind of rigid vocal perfection of a Marnie Nixon (West Side Story My Fair Lady). Likewise, the dancing here is sometimes a little ragged, but it touches my heart more than any of the impenetrably cold, gut-busting numbers in Hello, Dolly!. When it comes to musicals, I still prefer being made to feel something about the characters than merely being asked to ooh and aah over empty spectacle and technical polish.
Makin' Whoopee
Patients, orderlies, and doctors alike weigh in on the consequences of marriage


THE STUFF OF FANTASY
When it comes to the creative expression of emotion, I’ve always felt there to be a kind of unofficial hierarchy of intensity. If it can be verbalized, you say it; if it’s a feeling difficult to put into words, write it. Feelings too strong for the spoken and written word cry out to be sung, and that which transcends verbalization, can only be danced.
That’s why musicals are the ideal genre for depicting love and romance. It’s a natural thing for people to want to express happiness. When you’re a kid, you skip, maybe as an adult you’ll whistle or hum…but for the adult, the sex act is the only outlet we’ve afforded ourselves for unrestrained expression of amorous joy. An act so personal and subjective that the more literal its depiction, the less joyous any of it seems. 
More than any other genre, musicals are able to externally depict the internal sensations of love. 
In Everyone Says I Love You, Woody Allen takes the usual hyper emotionalism of his stock characters to the next logical step. They sing of their joy, their longing, and their anxiety. True to the Woody Allen universe, the film’s main musical theme is the 1931 pop standard, I’m Thru With Love; not a song about the rhapsodic elation of love found, but of the wistful resolve of love lost and never to be.
I'm Thru With Love
The elegant pas de deux Goldie Hawn & Woody Allen perform along the Left Bank of the Seine is beyond sublime  


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
I enjoy Everyone Says I Love You a great deal, some parts I even love (the Halloween sequence is delightful, and Drew Barrymore and Edward Norton make an adorable couple). But I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a bit of a chore slogging through yet another one of Allen’s peculiar takes on morality and ethics. (Everyone Says I Love You was released some four years after this messy breakup with Mia Farrow, but just one month before the publication of Farrows tell-all memoir, What Falls Away.)

One of the things I’ve always hated about those sex comedies of the 60s was the degree to which lying and deception was depicted as a cute, harmless path to love. In this film, the heinously invasive subterfuge Allen’s character engages in to snag Julia Roberts (a stomach-churning pairing suggesting necrophilia more than a May/December romance) feels downright sociopathic.

However, the overall appeal of the cast, and the goodwill extended by the film’s sprightly tone and lovely score of old standards, goes a long way toward mitigating my general impatience with Allen’s self-serving moral code.
Hooray For Captain Spaulding
A Marx Brothers-themed Christmas Eve costume ball
Everyone Says I Love You was released at a time when it was widely believed only animated films could succeed as musicals. Allen's film, a more traditional musical, was released in December 1996, the same month as Alan Parker's Evita - a musical that seemed to go out of its way to try to make audiences forget it was a musical.
Enjoy Yourself (It's Later Than You Think)
Recent guests at a NY funeral home refuse to let death spoil their fun

PERFORMANCES
Since a tribute to the illustrious Barrymore family occasioned this particular post, I'll reserve the focus of this section exclusively to then 20-year-old Drew Barrymore (granddaughter of John) as Skylar Dandridge. Unique in this instance not only for being the sole member of the cast to be dubbed (crippled by fear, she claimed her voice was too abysmal even for a film populated with untrained singers), but having the distinction of later conquering her fear and singing in her own voice in two (!) later films: Music & Lyrics and Lucky You, both released in 2007.

A star at the age of six with her appearance in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Drew survived a Lindsay Lohan-ish adolescent to become a popular star, director, and producer. While a likeable and winning personality on talk shows, I confess I've always credited (blamed?)  Barrymore (along with Sarah Jessica Parker, Catherine Heigl, and Matthew McConaughey) for killing the romantic comedy.
Barrymore is well within her rom-com comfort zone in Everyone Says I Love You, but in small doses her familiar giggle and demur routine comes off rather well. Her close association with Adam Sandler has made her strictly persona non grata with me, but her performance here and in the exceptional Grey Gardens (2009) reminds me that she is indeed a very talented actress. Albeit one to whom the lyric from the song, My Baby Just Cares For Me applies: "There's sometimes a doubt about her choices!" 


BONUS MATERIAL
The "Everyone Says I Love You" number from the Marx Brothers film, Horse Feathers (1932) 


Copyright © Ken Anderson

Friday, July 31, 2015

THE POSSESSION OF JOEL DELANEY 1972

An urban classist xenophobist socioeconomic commentary supernatural occult suspense thriller 

One big reason I adore the films of the 1970s so much is because at no other time in the history of motion pictures can one find so many mainstream films that are just so off-the-chart, batshit crazy. For reasons both cultural and industry-related, it was a freer, more risk-taking time, resulting in a slew of exhilaratingly oddball feature films wholly deserving of the attribution, “Only in the 70s!”
Shirley MacLaine as Norah Benson
Perry King as Joel Delaney
Miriam Colon as Veronica
Lovelady Powell as Erika Lorenz
Edmundo Rivera Alvarez as Don Pedro
Barbara Trentham as Sherry Talbot
When I was a teen, San Francisco’s Market Street was the weekend movie-going destination for me and my friends. The bustling commercial boulevard was lined with one movie house after another offering a staggering selection to choose from, virtually all double or triple features, at kid-friendly matinee prices ($.75 cents). Memorable for the elaborate, hyperbole-laden promotional displays and cutouts featured in the glass cases that flanked the ticket booths of their recessed outer lobbies, most were second-run movie theaters like The Embassy (with its Ten-O-Win wheel spin giveaways) and The Strand; others, like The Warfield and The Crest, were full-on grindhouses showcasing the best in exploitation: kung-fu action films, westerns, blaxploitation, and those inexplicably popular doberman movies.

I first became aware of the occult thriller, The Possession of Joel Delaney, while walking on Market Street one saturday in 1972 and being stopped in my tracks by the sight of this arresting poster staring out at me from of a theater’s “Coming Soon” display case:
I still have this poster, which I purchased back in 1974
Gadzooks! What a cool poster!
Not only was I seized by the eye-catching graphic and provocative tagline, but here was a genre film (I was very much into scary movies at the time) headlined by an Oscar-nominated, A-list actress, whose name was commonly associated with light comedies, musicals, and the occasional serious drama. I was stoked!

Always peripherally aware of Shirley MacLaine growing up, I was never what you’d call a fan. I remember she always seemed to be impersonating Japanese women in her movies (My Geisha -1962 / Gambit -1966), and while I thought she was funny enough in froth like Ask Any Girl (1959) and All in a Night’s Work (1961), her being so consistently cast as the object of sexual desire confused me. Was she supposed to be sexy? (This was back in the Phyllis Diller, Carol Burnett, Totie Fields era when,  in order to considered funny, women were encouraged to be the opposite of sexually appealing). So, while MacLaine always exuded a kind of pert and personable screen personality, she just didn’t seem to register with me very strongly

That indifference changed in 1969 when I fell in love with her in Sweet Charity, after which she became a lasting favorite. So much so that I subsequently caught up with a lot of her old films on The Late Show, and even subjected myself to her short-lived, fairly awful, 1971 TV series, Shirley’s World.
Worlds Apart
African tribal masks, divested of their spiritual and cultural significance, are mere
decorative objects d'art in this swank Manhattan Penthouse

So, when did I see The Possession of Joel Delaney? I didn’t.

That is to say, I didn’t get to see it when I really wanted to. I saw it in the early 1980s, not back when I was fourteen, impressionable, and easily scared. When this darkly intense, exceptionally creepy little thriller could have really done a number on my head.

What did me in was my still-existent habit of repeat-watching movies I like. 1972 saw the release of Cabaret, The Godfather, What’s Up, Doc?, Lady Sings the Blues, The Poseidon Adventure, The Getaway, and Sleuth. All faves I saw numerous times, always telling myself I’d see Shirley MacLaine’s film “next weekend....” Well, when a film performs as poorly at the boxoffice as The Possession of Joel Delaney, “next weekend” is over before you know it. I snoozed and I lost.
But the wait was worth it.
Wealthy divorcee Norah Benson (MacLaine) lives an insular, privileged life in the Upper East Side Manhattan apartment she shares with her two pre-teen children, Peter and Carrie (David Elliot & Lisa Kohane). When not lording despotically over Puerto Rican domestic, Veronica (Mariam Colon), Norah dotes obsessively and possessively over her aimless younger brother, Joel (King). Much to Norah’s chagrin, Joel, whose social principles are very much at odds with those of his sister, has denounced the advantages of their family’s wealth. Instead he has chosen to live in a shabby apartment in the East Village given to him by his friend, Tonio Perez. A young man unknown to Norah of whom Joel says, “He’s just about the only close friend I ever had. He stands for everything Norah hates.”
After Joel suffers a violent episode that lands him in Bellevue (a physical assault he has no recollection of committing), Norah, suspecting drug use, insists he move in with her (“It’ll be just like old times, Joel. We’ll have such fun together!”), and see psychiatrist and family friend, Ericka Lorenz (Lovelady Powell).
"Joel, why do you live down there with those people?"
Norah's children, Carrie (Lisa Kohane) and Peter (David Elliot), listen in as Norah
 obsesses over Joel's whereabout

While Norah’s almost incestuous preoccupation with her brother is appeased by their new living arrangement, Joel’s own behavior grows increasingly uncharacteristic and erratic. Dangerously so. He erupts in outbursts of Spanish profanities, afterward claiming he doesn't speak the language. He grows possessive and sexually violent with his girlfriend, Sherry (Trentham), behaves inappropriately with his sister and nephews, and overall seems changed by his inexplicably close friendship with Perez. A young man suspected by police to be involved in a rash of beheadings in Central Park.
Tonio Perez (Jose Fernandez) shares Joel's contempt for the upper classes
They also share a deep-rooted resentment of women perceived to be dominating
Without divulging more of the plot than the film’s own title affirms, suffice it to say that on the topic of living arrangements, Joel’s body can be said to have become an involuntary sublet to a particularly twisted homicidal maniac.
On the way to its tense, almost unwatchably disturbing climax, The Possession of Joel Delaney reveals itself to be a fairy riveting mix of suspense and social commentary.
Both a worthy offspring of Rosemary’s Baby’s religion-as-cult urban horror, and a fittingly grisly (albeit comparatively subdued) exorcism precursor to 1973s game changer, The Exorcist.
Urban Jungle

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
In an earlier essay on the classic film Rosemary’s Baby, I related how so many of my favorite horror films are those which derive from or reflect upon the anxieties and tensions of the time. These films, serving as shrouded emotional outlets, allow for the safe venting of fears hidden deep within the collective psyche. Fears usually rendered inaccessible by virtue of their immediacy. Taking the position that all horror films are all in some way socially revealing, The Possession of Joel Delaney then provides an ideal time-capsule glimpse into the race/class tensions of big cities in the 1970s.  
New York during this time was, from a humanity viewpoint, a real-life horror story and something of a tragedy. The city - destitute, decaying dangerous under the weight of political, economic, and racial tensions too labyrinthine to go into here – was on the brink of social and economic collapse. 
Hispanic Panic
Norah's excursion to Spanish Harlem results in a full-throttle attack of xenophobia
While white flight, labor unions, and classism contributed to the wealth divide pitting the haves against the have nots; the close confines of the city, coupled with the great disparity in the quality of life experienced by its ethnic populations, fed urban fear amongst New York's advantaged whites. Specifically in regard to the city’s Puerto Rican population, which increased following “The Great Migration” of the 50s.
The squalor of 70s-era New York has played a role, either significant or atmospheric, in American movies as diverse as: Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970), The Out-of-Towners (1970),  Little Murders (1970), The Panic in Needle Park (1971),  Klute (1971), and MacLaine's own 1971 drama, Desperate Characters, which plays something like a prequel to this. But The Possession of Joel Delaney (so gritty Travis Bickle could have been the cinematographer) is the first film to put classist race-fear and the city’s socioeconomic divide in service of the horror genre.
In this film about spirit possession, Christian beliefs are replaced by the voodoo-like rituals of Puerto Rican Santeria. Norah finds her skepticism challenged in this harrowing exorcism scene

PERFORMANCES
As probably everybody knows by now, William Peter Blatty, author of The Exorcist, wrote the character of actress Chris MacNeil for and about Shirley MacLaine. Reagan was sketchily based on MacLaine's daughter, Sachi (although, contrary to what her mother claims, Sachi denies the blurry photo of a girl on the cover of the hardback is her). MacLaine was offered the the opportunity to play herself in the film version (a role which went to Ellen Burstyn), but being as she was under contract to Sir Lew Grade (producer of this film, her TV series, and Desperate Characters) she had to decline.

More's the pity, for if her performance in The Possession of Joel Delaney is any indication of what she could deliver as Linda Blair's mom, she would really have given the devil his due,.
MacLaine is the emotional lynchpin in The Possession of Joel Delaney, and her performance is one of my favorites. There's an art to playing an unsympathetic, sympathetic character, and MacLaine finds that narrow line and walks it like a tightrope. She really is outstanding, and the film belongs to her. I especially like the ease with which she inhabits all sides of her character. The good, the bad, and the slightly icky.
Simpatico Siblings
In his first major feature film role, Perry King, who at times resembles, alternately, Jodie Foster and Bridget Fonda, is fine when called upon to mercurially shift from nice guy to nut case.


THE STUFF OF FANTASY
No matter how clever or provocative the framework upon which the premise of a horror film is draped, the proof of any good thriller is if it works. And this one does. The Possession of Joel Delaney is, to paraphrase Clifford Odets, a cookie full of arsenic and a vitriol valentine to urban class conflict. All balanced precariously between being the realization of a racist’s worst nightmare, and an ethnic-culture revenge fantasy.
Alas, it's a balance the film, for all its effectiveness a spellbindingly claustrophobic chiller, is not completely successful in maintaining.
Warhol star Pat Ast has a brief bit as a Bellevue patient appreciative of Norah's fur coat

A movie fashioned as an indictment of classism and race-fear runs the same risk as a film designed to condemn sexism or violence against women: if not handled delicately, said film can wind up actually BEING the very thing it attempts to excoriate. For example, on initial release, Bryan Forbes’ brilliant The Stepford Wives (1973) was misinterpreted as being sexist, in spite of the entire thrust of the narrative being a sendup of the absurdity of sexism. 
In spite of frequent attempts to present Norah's regressive, racist attitudes in the most negative light possible, The Possession of Joel Delaney is considered by many to be unappetizingly racist in its depiction of Puerto Ricans as mysterious and inherently dangerous “others.”
A valid point, but one I attribute more to flaws in direction than in the film itself. For the most part, the events of The Possession of Joel Delaney are seen from the perspective of Norah Benson, a character we know to be the worst kind of upper class snob (To Joel:“Look, I’m not na├»ve. I know there’s poverty around, but one doesn’t have to seek it out. I don’t have to and you don’t have to either”).
The Possession of Joel Delaney would have benefitted from more scenes like the one where Norah seeks assistance from her maid, Veronica. The deferential domestic is revealed to be a self-assured woman wise to the realities of class disparity.

Had the film remained true to this initial setup and presented events as unfolding exclusively from Norah’s narrow-minded point of view, The Possession of Joel Delaney, in my judgement, could have achieved what I think it set out to do: to show that Norah’s fear and mistrust of Puerto Ricans is a barrier between her fully comprehending (or taking seriously) what is happening.
Unfortunately, The Possession of Joel Delaney occasionally drops the subjective perspective and shifts to the omniscient eye of the observer. We're shown things Norah would never be privy to (Joel's psychiatric sessions, his aggressive treatment of his girlfriend, his staking out his psychiatrist's apartment). Since the depiction of Puerto Ricans as threatening, impenetrably mysterious "others" doesn't change, the point of view of the entire film morphs into that of a character we have been shown to to be, at best, a casual racist.
It's obvious to me this isn't what the filmmakers were going for at all (in fact, quite the opposite) but a failure to understand narrative perspective plays havoc with The Possession of Joel Delaney's socially conscious intentions.
Ramona Stewart's 1970 novel was adapted for the screen by the late African-American writer / producer / actor, Matthew Robinson (in collaboration with Irene Kamp). Robinson was one of the original developers and producers of Sesame Street, appearing onscreen as the character, Gordon, and giving voice to the puppet, Roosevelt Franklin. Robinson later went on to become a writer and producer on The Cosby Show for seven years. 
Rounding out this "R"-rated film's curious, Sesame Street connection, The Possession of Joel Delaney has a score written by Academy Award-nominee, Joe (It's Not Easy Being Green) Raposo. Composer for The Great Muppet Caper and TV's Sesame Street and The Electric Company.
If anyone has a problem with this movie, it usually has to do with its concluding fifteen minutes.
Even as much as I like it, I'm not always up to rewatching it to the end.
Excessive to some, unnecessarily cruel to others, its a fine example of how disturbing a film can be without having to resort to gore.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
The failure of The Possession of Joel Delaney to add much depth or dimension to its ethnic characters prevents its social-commentary subtext from registering with the same impact as its authentically conveyed race-fear. But the film’s inability to land its target doesn’t stop me from admiring that it took the shot in the first place. 

Where The Possession of Joel Delaney hits the jackpot is in being a totally out-there, risk-takingly offbeat occult thriller, with the soul of a 70s art film.
Flirting with everything from incest to insanity; white guilt to wealth privilege; the socioeconomic roots of violence and the willful impressionability of culture- The Possession of Joel Delaney is worth checking out for anyone interested in seeing what horror with something on its mind looks like.

BONUS MATERIAL
The Possession of Joel Delaney - Complete film - on YouTube

Read a review of The Possession of Joel Delaney DVD on Joe's View

Copyright © Ken Anderson