Friday, November 9, 2018

Mr. Smith Goes to Vegas

Las Vegas may be in Nevada, not California, but it’s an outpost of Hollywood in more ways than one. Hollywood mega-tycoons and mobsters have all had a part in its founding. Hollywood stars have traditionally gone to Vegas to both to play and to perform. (And, of course, to get married.) My parents used to love heading for Las Vegas not to gamble but to see celebrities on their own turf, frolicking in hotel swimming pools, displaying their talents live on-stage in showrooms. Back in the day, there was a kind of relaxed glamour about the place: if you went to see Frank Sinatra, you might find other members of the  Rat Pack casually invited up to the stage. And who knew what rising star you might discover in one of the free lounge shows.

And then there are all those Las Vegas movies. Some try to capture the raw exuberance of the place; see everything from Elvis’s Viva Las Vegas to Swingers to The Hangover. Some focus instead on the dark forces beneath the glittering service: Bugsy (about the life and death of one of Vegas’s founders) and Martin Scorsese’s take on the city’s corrupt side, Casino,

Martin J. Smith had Las Vegas on his itinerary when he set out to chronicle the oddities of daily life in a small, charming essay collection called Mr. Las Vegas Has a Bad Knee, and other Tales of the People, Places, and Peculiarities of the Modern American Southwest. Marty, with whom I’ve shared a panel on several delightful occasions, is an award-winning journalist and magazine editor who also moonlights as a writer of suspense fiction. He once wrote a book called The Wild Duck Chase, chronicling a group of artists competing to win the Federal Duck Stamp Contest.  (Yes, there is such a thing—see Marge Gunderson’s husband struggling with his entry in the Coen Brothers’ Fargo.) Smith’s 2012 exploration of the ins and outs of the contest became the source material for a 2016 documentary, Million Dollar Duck.

Marty’s Mr. Las Vegas Has a Bad Knee includes his interviews with fascinating real-life characters (both the famous and the unknown) from all over the Southwest. In Orange County, he catches up with Dick Dale, SoCal’s one-time King of the Surf Guitar, who accepts life’s ups and downs with admirable equanimity. Near Palm Springs, he interviews the man who erected giant dinosaur statues along the highway, then saw them eclipsed by modern construction. Also in the Palm Springs vicinity, he gets to know the folks standing vigil outside Liberace’s desert home, waiting reverently as the glitter god breathes his last

The title story, “Mr. Las Vegas Has a Bad Knee” (from 2006) zooms in on a hero of the Nevada oasis, crooner Wayne Newton. Here’s Marty’s unforgettable opening sentence: “Wayne Newton arrived in Las Vegas as a fresh-faced seventeen-year-old singing sensation, looking like the result of a science experiment involving Brylcreem and estrogen.” Ultimately Newton settled in the area, bought a 52-acre ranch, and continued to pack showrooms full of ageing “Wayniacs.” Old pleasure palaces like the Stardust and the Flamingo: he knew them all. Because Newton has been a local fixture—and booster—for so many years, Marty jumped at the opportunity to take an insider tour of his personal “Wayne’s World.” Marty’s hope was to learn the behind-the-scenes realities of a place that seems all façade. Only problem: the promised tour never materialized. Driving back to SoCal,  thinking about the lost secrets of imploding hotels, Marty realized that “it’s hard not to worry about the way Vegas treats its ageing legends.”

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

In Tribute to a Classic Character Actor: James Karen

The late James Karen (who left us on October 23 at age 94) was not a winner of major acting awards. But, especially in the post-Halloween season, he’s highly worthy of a salute. The Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films nominated him for a Best Actor honor in 1986 for his role in The Return of the Living Dead. (A decade later, the group bestowed upon him its Life Career Award.) In 1991, he was a nominee for Fangoria’s prestigious Chainsaw Award for playing the evil Dr. Richard Meyerling in The Unborn.

I worked on The Unborn, when I was Roger Corman’s story editor at Concorde-New Horizons Pictures. It’s a creepfest of which I have always been guiltily fond, because it takes women’s all-too-natural fears about pregnancy to their most extreme conclusions. Among other things, The Unborn launched the career of Rodman Flender, a busy Hollywood TV director who may be better known today as Timothée Chalamet’s uncle. It was written by screenwriters Mike Ferris and John Brancato, who in those days concealed their identities behind the pen name Henry Dominic. It did not destroy the career of Brooke Adams, in the leading role of a woman with a major problem pregnancy, nor that of Lisa Kudrow, who played a small role early in her pre-Friends days.

 What really made The Unborn a success, though, was the ultra-creepy James Karen as an obstetrician who has more on his mind than delivering healthy newborns. (Yes, shades of Rosemary’s Baby – originality was never a prime Concorde virtue.) Karen was adept at walking the line between avuncular and sinister, and I marveled at his skill, to the point where I was a bit nervous when meeting him in an office hallway. Afterwards, though, I was excited to talk about our little chat when I went home for the day. My children—fans of the Math Net segment of the terrific kids’ math program, Square One—vividly remembered him as a sneering prosecutor trying to pin good-guy George Frankly to a robbery at the Next to the Last National Bank. (See below, about 25 minutes in.)

Karen was also a Broadway presence, usually as a standby or understudy for leading roles in plays like Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Pinter’s The Birthday Party. Always a lively presence onscreen, he was featured as Jane Fonda’s TV producer boss in The China Syndrome and as a realtor in Poltergeist. His most unusual appearance came in Film, an almost totally silent short movie from 1965, written and directed by Samuel Beckett and starring Karen’s longtime friend, screen legend Buster Keaton.

Yet television watchers in the Northeast best remember Karen as a friendly supermarket pitchman in commercials for the Pathmark supermarket chain. He shilled for the company for 28 years, flying east every two weeks from his L.A. home to tape a batch of TV spots. His so-called Pathmark Man was a likable guy, but Karen ran into trouble when he appeared in the finale of the Little House on the Prairie series as a real estate tycoon who aims to take over the town of Walnut Grove. His scheming on that show so disturbed Pathmark customers that he found himself in trouble with Pathmark management.  It was only when he personally wrote to shoppers, reassuring them of his good intentions, that they accepted his continuing role as the store’s spokesman.

Jim Karen was a classic. His wife, my friend Alba Francesca, once told me he loved toys, the more intricate the better. I only know that audiences—and the camera—loved him. May he rest in peace. 

Friday, November 2, 2018

Public Enemy: The Life of Whitey Bulger Comes Full Circle

Not so long ago, my mother and Whitey Bulger had some nice sidewalk chats. It was June, 2011. She was in her nineties, and in the aftermath of a bad fall she was stuck in a rehab facility on 4th Street in Santa Monica. Her caregiver liked to take her out for walks in the neighborhood, and they both enjoyed kibitzing with a white-bearded gentleman who was frequently seen walking his dog. Then one day the street was ablaze with police cars and emergency vehicles. The notorious James “Whitey” Bulger, a Boston mob boss who’d been on the lam for 16 years, had just been caught. The FBI’s Most Wanted Man had been living a quiet life in a Santa Monica condo down the street from where my mom was staying. Obviously—given his background in organized crime—he was no gentleman. But he’d always be my mother’s favorite gangster.

Now both Mom and Whitey Bulger are gone. She passed on in 2014, at the ripe old age of 96. He lived until the day before Halloween: October 30, 2018. When I first read that he’d died  behind bars, I figured old age had caught up with him. Yes, he needed a wheelchair, but his end was apparently not as uneventful as that. When he was found unresponsive in his cell at the high-security prison in West Virginia to which he’d just been transferred, authorities immediately began investigating. Now the word is that he’d been beaten to death by a fellow inmate, who just happens to be a Mafia hitman.

More to come, I’m sure.

And this story will of course once again ramp up our fascination with the life (and death) of mobsters. Bulger himself inspired more than one movie and television drama. TV series ranging from Law and Order to Ray Donovan have included characters based on Bulger. In Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning 2006 film, The Departed, Jack Nicholson plays a colorful Bulger-like mob boss. The film Black Mass, released in 2015, is based on a 2001 non-fiction book, Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob, by Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill. To quote Wikipedia, “The film chronicles Bulger's years as an FBI informant, and his manipulation of his FBI handler as a means to eradicate his rivals for control of the Boston underworld, the Italian Mafia.” A heavily made-up Johnny Depp nabbed a Screen Actors Guild award for his lead performance.

Let’s face it: we love on-screen gangsters. Think of Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather films. Think of Scorsese over and over, probably hitting his peak with 1990’s Goodfellas. Now think back in time to the glory days of James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson. Cagney’s  The Public Enemy and Robinson’s Little Caesar, both 1931, helped pave the way for bigger, bolder films about vengeful hoodlums who somehow won the audience’s affection. They also paved the way for the enforcement of the Production Code, which tried (but failed) to staunch the public’s yen for bad guys who were blood-thirsty but appealing.

Gangster stories are also fairly economical to film, which is why low-budget moviemakers of the Roger Corman ilk often put them on their production schedules. They mostly require prop weapons, lots of blanks, and gallons of fake blood. Corman made I Mobster, Machine-Gun Kelly (with the young Charles Bronson), and lots of others. I personally worked on Capone (starring Ben Gazzara) and—much later—Dillinger and Capone (with Martin Sheen and F. Murray Abraham). In Hollywood, at least, bad guys make good.