Friday, September 26, 2014

Ebola, Medieval-Style: Roger Corman's Masque of the Red Death



The outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa is of course tragic, and I’m glad the world is finally starting to take action. Ironically, I recently found myself giving a talk on Roger Corman’s plague movie, The Masque of the Red Death. To anyone experiencing the horrors of Ebola firsthand, Corman’s highly stylized adaptation of the Edgar Allan Poe short story would doubtless seem insultingly trivial. For the rest of us, though,  this 1964 film still packs a wallop.

This was vividly borne out when I spoke at the Weird Weekend, staged by the Historical Society of the Upper Mojave Desert along with the Ridge Writers, East Sierra Branch of the California Writers Club. (Thanks again, guys!) True, the innuendos abounding in the movie’s trailer inspired guffaws and giggles. How else could one respond to the larger-than-life of image of a mustachioed Vincent Price, clad in medieval robes, in hot pursuit of an angelic young maiden? The deep-voiced narrator made sure we got the point: “Lavishly he plants his corrupting seeds of sin, spreading  living terror that not even the unsullied can escape.” 

But if the audience laughed during the trailer, they quickly quieted down once the movie itself got underway. To many critics then and now, this is Roger’s best-directed film, a serious and rather stunning depiction of good and evil, and of the power of death to level mankind. Upon Masque’s first release, the New York Times critic wrote an uncharacteristically admiring review:  “The film is vulgar, naïve, and highly amusing, and it is played with gusto by Mr. Price, Hazel Court, and Jane Asher. As for Mr. Corman, he has let his imagination run riot . . . The result may be loud, but it looks like a real movie. On its level, it is astonishingly good.”

One reason this particular entry in Corman’s Poe cycle seems so handsome is that, thanks to a lucrative deal made by Roger’s AIP bosses, it was shot at England’s historic Elstree Studio. The fact that Elstree’s scene dock was full of splendid sets from classic films like Becket helped stretch AIP’s $200,000 investment. Roger also had the services of a brilliant young British cinematographer, Nicolas Roeg, who would go on to direct such major art films as Don’t Look Now. Roeg’s dramatically lit color images of Prince Prospero’s castle chambers, where carousing nobles are walled off from the spreading contagion outside, luridly transmit the spirit of Poe’s original story. Roger and his screenwriters, Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell, also chose to pay homage to Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, with its eerie representation of a hooded Death figure moving quietly among the populace.

In 1989, Corman decided to re-make The Masque of the Red Death for his Concorde-New Horizons Pictures, with an up-and-coming young writer-director named Larry Brand at the helm.   As Roger’s story editor, I was surprised that he’d choose to redo perhaps his most famous directorial effort. But Roger Corman is far too pragmatic to be sentimental about his own past achievements. Larry himself later put it to me this way: “Remakes were free, he didn’t have to pay anybody for the rights . . .  he had a castle lying around.”

This time Cormanites didn’t need to travel to England, because there was a castle set in place at Roger’s tumbledown Venice, California studio. The new film also differed from the old one in that on-screen female nudity was now expected. Of course it couldn’t be totally gratuitous. In Brand’s script, the court noblemen demand that peasant girls strip for their amusement. It’s a grotesque scene, though a thematically sound one. But more about that some other time.  


 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Telling the Truth about Polly Bergen and the Queen of the Nile



I’ll always associate Polly Bergen with one of my favorite TV game shows from the late 1950s, To Tell the Truth. Bergen was one of four celebrity panelists trying to guess which of three contestants was being truthful about some unusual accomplishment. Other regulars, like Peggy Cass, specialized in goofiness, but Bergen stood out as a savvy cosmopolitan. Always impeccably dressed and coiffed, she seemed smart as well as pretty.

It was not until her recent death at age 84 that I learned about Bergen’s political side. She was a lifelong liberal, dedicated to women’s rights and to the prospect of electing women to high office. In 2008, she was a staunch supporter of Hillary Clinton to top the Democratic presidential ticket. Which makes it highly appropriate that, back in 1964, she herself played the nation’s first female head of state. But I suspect she didn’t exactly consider this a giant leap for womankind. The movie was a treacly confection called Kisses for My President. Far less plot attention was paid to Bergen’s confident, competent President Leslie McCloud than to Fred MacMurray’s fish-out-of-water First Gentleman, whose discomfort with garden teas and a frilly White House boudoir was intended as a source of high comedy. MacMurray, as Thad McCloud,  had allowed his wife to run for president because he didn’t think she would win. Just when their marital situation seemed hopeless, Leslie stepped forward to resign her post, for the sake of their unborn baby. This “surprise” pregnancy could have been predicted by any moviegoer over the age of seven.  Here’s the film’s final dialogue exchange-- He: “It took 40 million women to get you into the White House . . .”  She (lovingly): “And just one man to get me out.” 

These days, of course, we’ve got a serious female presidential contender. And, on our television screens, women in high places abound. On Commander-in-Chief (2005-2006), Bergen herself played the mother of a U.S. president played by Geena Davis. Currently, Julia Louis-Dreyfus holds the second highest office in the land on the comedy hit, Veep. The brand-new Madam Secretary features Téa Leoni as Secretary of  State. Another newbie is a dramatic series called State of Affairs in which President Alfre Woodard combines the most obvious characteristics of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, thus doubly demonstrating that political correctness is alive and well.

All of the above, oddly enough, make me think of a splendid biography I recently read. It’s Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff, who like me is an active member of the Biographers International Organization. Schiff notes, at the outset, that the Cleopatra most of us have in our heads “seems the joint creation of Roman propagandists and Hollywood directors.” We think of her, in other words, as an untamed vixen, seducing Roman generals for fun and profit, then (if we’re in a Shakespearean mood) throwing away her kingdom and her life for love.

Schiff’s Cleopatra, though, is a far different creature, less Elizabeth  Taylor than Indira Gandhi or (yes) Hillary Clinton. She’s not particularly gorgeous, but she’s indisputably brilliant. With her solid classical education and her ability to speak nine languages, she puts the women of Rome to shame. A master of statecraft and also stagecraft, she uses banquets, parades, and other opulent ceremonies strategically, as a way to advance the cause of her nation. Schiff follows her to the grave, then ends with the death of her son Ptolemy in Rome at the hands of Caligula, “an appropriate end to a dynasty steeped, from the start, in blazing, supersaturated color.”

I can’t wait for the movie.

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.