Friday, September 19, 2014

Wild in the United Kingdom: The Scottish Referendum

By now votes in Scotland have been tabulated, with Scots choosing not to declare themselves independent of England. This issue was of great emotional concern to British subjects on both sides of the border, as well as to fans of Sean Connery, Ewan McGregor, Kelly Macdonald, and the movie Braveheart. Personally, I don’t have even a wee bit of Scottish blood (and I am absolutely not a scotch-drinker), so my opinion doesn’t count for much. But what’s striking to me is the fact that Scots as young as sixteen were allowed to vote on their political future. (70% of them apparently supported independence.)

Sixteen-year-old voters? I can’t help thinking of an outrageous movie from 1968, Wild in the Streets, in which a twenty-four-year-old rock-n-roll millionaire named Max Frost (played by the late Christopher Jones) is elected President of the United States.  How does that happen? I’ll tell you, but consider this a great big Spoiler Alert. In the world of the movie, 52% of the U.S. population is under the age of 25, reflecting the huge Baby Boom generation coming into its own in the late Sixties. Max, wildly championed by this youthful demographic, signs on to help the Senatorial campaign of a hip Kennedy-style candidate, Johnny Fergus (Hal Holbrook).  Fergus is advocating that the voting age be lowered from 21 to 18, to match the age at which young men are eligible for the military draft.  (This happened for real in 1971.)  But during a big campaign rally, Max Frost throws the youth of America into a frenzy by arguing, via a new song called “Fourteen or Fight,” that younger teens too should get the vote.

The upshot is that, once every state but Hawaii has granted fourteen-year-olds the ballot, the federal government as we know it is completely overturned. Under the influence of the L.S.D. that’s been added to the D.C. water supply, Congress rewrites the Constitution, making Max eligible to run for the presidency. Once he’s won, he proceeds to overhaul the social system on his own terms. It seems Max has little use for the older generation, as represented by his addled mother (Shelley Winters). He loudly rejects the ravages of passing time, declaring, “I don’t want to live to be thirty. Thirty’s death, man.”

Under Max’s leadership, all citizens who reach age thirty face mandatory retirement. Anyone with the bad fortune to turn thirty-five is shipped off to “Paradise,” a remotely-located retirement home where regular doses of hallucinogens help keep folks in line. But, as the end of the film shows us, the tide is about to turn. Super-Spoiler Alert: the film’s last line belongs to a child who’s vowing, “We’re gonna put everybody over ten out of business.”

The darkly comic screenplay for Wild in the Streets was written by Robert Thom, based on his 1966 Esquire story, “The Way it All Happened, Baby.”  The producers were the American International Pictures team of Samuel Z. Arkoff and Jim Nicholson, who had a talent for bringing to America’s theatres and drive-ins the concerns of young America. Though AIP backed many of Roger Corman’s greatest hits, Roger had nothing to do with this film. (When trying to deal with similar themes in 1970’s Gas-s-s-s-s!, Corman ran afoul of Arkoff and Nicholson’s increasingly conservative sensibilities, and they never worked together again.)     

But I well remember Robert Thom’s contribution to the opening pages of Roger’s Death Race 2000. He was sardonic, bitter, and brilliant. Somehow it seemed apt that we discussed his work over lunch: for him a Rob Roy and a bloody plate of steak tartare.   

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Doctor and the Movie Star

The death of Joan Rivers following what was billed as a routine procedure in her doctor’s office has reminded me of the connection between showbiz and the medical profession. Rivers, who was famously keen on plastic surgery, certainly knew her way around an operating suite. How ironic that a medical slip-up may have done her in. I suspect that somewhere in heaven she’s making dark but very funny malpractice jokes at her own expense.

Meanwhile, following a serious injury to an elderly member of my own family, I’ve  been spending quality time in one of SoCal’s spiffiest hospitals. St. John’s in Santa Monica boasts wall panels that pay tribute to such Golden Age of Hollywood donors as Irene Dunne and Jimmy Stewart, who with wife Gloria has endowed a lovely rose garden. Right across the street from St. John’s is the John Wayne Cancer Institute. West Hollywood’s Cedars-Sinai megacomplex has named streets to honor such charitable luminaries as George Burns and Gracie Allen. At UCLA, meanwhile, there’s the recently-renamed David Geffen School of Medicine, acknowledging the generosity of the record industry mogul. It’s a long Hollywood tradition to support medical facilities with big industry bucks.

How ironic, though, that this week’s Hollywood Reporter -- a memorial issue with Joan Rivers on the cover -- is also devoted to a run-down of Hollywood’s Top Doctors in various specialty areas. In some cases, the listings are augmented by endearing little vignettes, like the one about the internal medicine specialist so busy catering to the in-crowd that he sometimes finds himself flying on patients’ private planes and giving flu shots in the middle of crowded restaurants. This doc charges an annual concierge fee (the latest gimmick in medical billing) in order to be available 24/7 for services ranging from surgeries to diet planning to veterinary care of a celeb’s beloved pooch. Says he, “these are really busy people who have better things to do than go to the doctor.” Methinks that’s true for all of us, but who am I to quibble?

Some of the connections between Hollywood and the medical profession don’t seem quite so self-serving. The Reporter features a few fascinating sidebars: one about a specialist who saves the voices of rock stars; one (titled “I Am the Real McDreamy”) by a USC chief of neurosurgery who actively consults with the staff of Grey’s Anatomy to ensure authenticity; several highlighting the work of researchers and Hollywood folk who’ve banded together to find cures for an array of rare “orphan diseases.” There are also some lively statistics outlining “How Working and Living in Hollywood is Good – and Bad – for Your Health.” I’m glad to know that L.A. residents have lower rates of heart disease, lung cancer, and (who would have thought?) auto accident fatalities than elsewhere. The syphilis stats? Don’t ask. But isn’t it good to know there are 257% more shrinks per capita in L.A. than in the rest of the country?

 Flipping past the ads for “aesthetic dermatology” and the “best allergist in all of Los  Angeles,” I was intrigued to find a page devoted to a comparison of various SoCal emergency rooms. Handy icons indicated those with short waits, top trauma centers, and distinguished pediatric units. But you could also learn which hospitals are the most “celebrity-friendly.” Says the head of the emergency room at Cedars-Sinai, “We treat a number of celebrities and VIPs and are cognizant of protecting people’s privacy.” Not a bad thing, I guess, when you’re treating Suge Knight for gunshot wounds following an MTV Awards after-party that got out of hand.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Mel Brooks Gets His Hands Dirty (and other recollections of a Dynamic Duo)

Sounds like Mel Brooks, impish as always, has just given the finger to Hollywood. In honor of the Blue-Ray release marking the 40th anniversary of Young Frankenstein, Brooks was invited to embed his hand and footprints in the forecourt of Grauman’s Chinese Theater. (Its official name is now the TCL Chinese Theater, in recognition of its current ownership, but it will always be Grauman’s to me.)  When Brooks arrived for the ceremony, he was wearing a fake extra digit, as a way of confounding future stargazing tourists. He happily conjured up for the press some visitor from Des Moines squealing, “Harry! Harry! Look, Mel Brooks has six fingers on his left hand!”

I’ve long enjoyed Mel Brooks’ genial zaniness, and Young Frankenstein, which the L. A. Times calls “a comic monsterpiece,” is a special favorite of mine.  And I’ve been delighted with Brooks’ largely successful conquest of Broadway’s musical comedy genre, which can always use a boost. A family member once was squeamish about Brooks’ humorous glorification of Nazi Germany via the “Springtime for Hitler” aspects of The Producers. But he was completely won over by hearing Brooks explain that, as a Jew, he considered his mocking salute to Hitler and his thugs a public victory over the forces that had tried to annihilate his people.
“It’s good to be the king,” as all Mel Brooks fans know. It’s certainly fair to call Brooks, now 88, the king of outrageous comedy on stage and screen. (Not to mention recordings: who of my generation can ever forget The Two Thousand Year Old Man?) But every king deserves a worthy consort, and I can’t talk about Brooks without paying tribute to his wife of 41 years, the late and very much lamented Anne Bancroft.

When I was newly pregnant with my first child, I was sitting in my doctor’s waiting room, feeling fairly discombobulated by the world in general. To pass the time, I thumbed through an office copy of some ladies’ magazine, and scanned a photo spread on the Brooks-Bancroft marriage. These two had always seemed to me the oddest of couples. He was a goofy comedian, while she was an elegant and serious actress, who’d won an Oscar for her role as Annie Sullivan in The Miracle Worker. As I was reading, the door opened . . . and in walked a woman who looked exactly like Anne Bancroft. I was stunned: who knew that early pregnancy led to hallucinations?

It turned out, of course, to be the real Anne Bancroft, who was a longtime patient and friend of my doctor. It was titillating, somehow, to be under the care of Mrs. Robinson’s own gynecologist. In later years, when I was researching The Graduate, he discussed her with me briefly, making clear his affection and respect. Then one evening there was a screening at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, highlighting Oscar-winning films of 1963. One feature was Mel Brooks’ hilarious short, “The Critic.” Brooks and Bancroft were in the audience, along with Carl and Estelle Reiner. Afterwards, when I grabbed a bite to eat at Kate Mantilini’s (now sadly closed), the two couples were seated in the next booth. I don’t know what they talked about, but Bancroft’s throaty laugh was a joy to hear. Soon afterward, I learned she had died, of uterine cancer, at age 73.  

Too bad she didn’t live to have her handprints at Grauman’s Chinese.  She might have liked to embed in the concrete, in honor of her most famous role, the outline of a very shapely arched leg.  

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

There is Nothing Like a Dame: Remembering Joan Rivers, Elaine Stritch, and Ruby Dee

Seems like most of America’s citizens are busy dumping ice water over their heads. I’m all in favor of supporting ALS research, but (as a resident of a drought state) I wonder if the Ice Bucket Challenge should be re-thought. At any rate, the ladies I salute today—all of whom left us over the summer—would doubtless have preferred to reserve their ice buckets for better things, like chilling magnums of champagne.

These three ladies fall into the category of dames. Not dames in the British sense, mind you. In jolly old England, the word is an honorific reserved for the female equivalent of knights. Many of the British theatre’s brightest stars, like Dame Judith Anderson and Dame Edith Evans, have been granted damehood for their artistic achievements. To us Americans, this may sound rather snooty. True, Dame Judi Dench hardly appears to be the stuck-up sort, but for the imperious Maggie Smith the title seems a perfect fit.

The dames I’m thinking of were All-American feisty broads who rolled with the punches and were never afraid to speak their minds. Like, of course, Joan Rivers. I loved her comedy from her Johnny Carson days, long before she became notorious in some quarters as the Queen of Mean. Yes, her humor had an edge to it, but much of it was directed against herself. In her own eyes, I suspect, she remained forever the ugly duckling, unwed, unloved. That’s the thing about tough dames: they’re usually awfully raw on the inside. That’s why they opt for lots of plastic surgery, or lots of booze.

Take Elaine Stritch, who passed away in July at age 89. I first encountered Stritch as a standout guest on the old Pantomime Quiz ( the celebrity charades show that morphed into Stump the Stars). With her throaty voice and raucous spirit, she was hard to forget. Later I learned she had started out as a Broadway baby, featured in classic musicals like Pal Joey and as Ethel Merman’s understudy in Call Me Madam. She also played dramatic roles, nabbing a Tony nomination as the world-weary small-town waitress in William Inge’s Bus Stop. Though she appeared on TV and in movies, the stage was her real home. In the original Company, Stephen Sondheim wrote for her (and about her) the cynical show-stopper, “Ladies Who Lunch.”  It’s a left-handed tribute to those middle-aged gals who, when they get depressed, turn to “a bottle of Scotch/Plus a little jest.”

Stritch knew about both jests and Scotch. I was lucky to see her one-woman show, Elaine Stritch at Liberty, in which she frankly discussed her problems with alcohol, at least some of which connected with her enduring stage fright. Even after decades in the biz, this old trouper—a good Catholic schoolgirl at heart—needed liquid courage before she could face an audience. Toughness on the surface; insecurity inside: that’s what made these dames tick.   

  I know much less about the personal insecurities of Ruby Dee, pioneering African-American actress and civil rights leader, who died in June. But Dee’s Oscar-nominated performance in American Gangster (at age 83) showed her toughness, as did her refusal, back in 1967, to play a maid in The Incident. The film’s director, Larry Peerce, told me how she demanded that he turn her character into a social worker: “Ruby’s a tough dame. I’ve worked with Ruby a couple of times and I adore her, but she doesn’t take any baloney.”

Another Sondheim tune seems to fit all three dames: “I’m Still Here.” Though they’re gone, I hope they’ll never be forgotten. 
 This post is dedicated to HBO’s documentary wizard, Sheila Nevins, whose favors to me over the years have included passes to see “Elaine Stritch at Liberty.” Sheila knows all about great dames, because she’s one herself. 

Friday, September 5, 2014

Everyone’s a Critic: The Demise of Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide

It’s the end of an era. I don’t mean simply the death of Joan Rivers, whose wicked tongue will definitely be missed. But the world has also learned that the 2015 edition of Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide (now just coming onto the market) will be the very last. It’s not that Maltin, like Rivers, has gone to the big red carpet in the sky. Maltin is alive and well, but the movie fans who have been thumbing through his guides since 1969 have become, it seems, an endangered species.

As Maltin writes in the preface to his last hurrah: “With ready access to information on the Internet, our readership has diminished at an alarming rate. The book’s loyal followers know that we strive to offer something one can’t easily find online: curated information that is accurate and user-friendly, along with our own reviews and ratings. But when a growing number of people believe that everything should be free, it’s impossible to support a reference book that requires a staff of contributors and editors.”

Don’t waste your tears on Leonard Maltin. The guidebooks have made him a household name, and I expect we’ll continue to see him popping up in movie cameos, on TV (he stars in his own Maltin Minute for DirecTV customers), and in pop culture references. Maltin even gets satirized on The Simpsons, and who could ask for more than that? What saddens me, though, is the way that the era of the professional critic is coming to an end.

Not that I love all critics, by any means. Some are smarmy; some can be bought; some are too self-involved to offer dispassonate opinions. But back when I fell in love with film study, it was exciting indeed to see literate, intelligent men and women slug it out in the pages of my favorite magazines. That was the era when Pauline Kael, publishing in the New Yorker, wrote a 9000-word essay that rescued Bonnie and Clyde from oblivion by detailing its historical antecedents as well as its artistic brilliance. Film criticism in those days was a blood sport. We young intellectuals thrilled to Kael’s passionate defense of a film about 1930s bankrobbers that also managed to offer a critique of our own grim decade.  And we were not sorry when venerable Bosley Crowther—he who tsk-tsked primly about violence on our movie screens—was suddenly replaced, after twenty-seven years at the New York Times, by a feisty young woman. (Yes, Crowther in his day had been courageous, championing foreign art films and strongly opposing censorship at the height of the McCarthy era. But his time had, in our not-so-humble opinions, definitely come and gone.) 

As Pauline Kael gained stature, along with a permanent sinecure at the New Yorker, there developed a battle royal between her followers and those of Andrew Sarris, who published chiefly in the Village Voice. Kael was a pop culture fanatic, who through the power of her prose could make a wan re-make of King Kong seem worth watching. Sarris, on the other hand, was America’s pre-eminent supporter of Europe’s auteur approach to film criticism. What fun to compare their outlooks! And I still have on my shelf a rapidly-eroding copy of Film 67/68, a lively publication from the National Society of Film Critics in which America’s sharpest reviewers went head to head, gleefully praising their favorite films and condemning the  many Hollywood offerings they considered unworthy.

Anyone can be merely snarky, as the Internet proves on a daily basis. But, yes, I miss the cogent, educated arguments that make true critics worth reading.