Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Runaway Bride(groom)

As America prepares to go gaga over the latest British royal wedding, I’ve been pondering marriage at the movies. There’s nothing Hollywood likes better than cinematic nuptials, partly because of the comic possibilities raised by unflattering bridesmaid dresses, men in penguin suits, a large gooey cake, and relatives on both sides who have no earthly use for one another. See (among many prime examples) Lovers and Other Strangers, Monsoon Wedding, and Rachel Getting Married, all films in which a young couple’s love somehow survives all the tensions surrounding the nuptial day. Above all, a wedding is a time for romantic hope—a thing all the more beautiful because we know how easily it can be dashed.

Jane Eyre, both the book and the recent film, contains one of those classic wedding scenes in which the happy pair are torn apart, mere seconds before their vows are solemnized, by the revelation of a terrible secret. That sort of bump on the road to wedded bliss is certainly a staple of both literature and cinema. But recently, while watching Rita Hayworth cavort in the 1944 musical, Cover Girl, I was struck by another familiar movie trope: that of the bride who—just in the nick of time—bolts from her wedding to the wrong guy and runs into the arms of her own true love. This of course, is also the climax of It Happened One Night, as well as scads of more recent films. In virtually every case the rejected groom is good-looking and wealthy, with impeccable social credentials. But American audiences are trained to prefer the blue-collar working stiff to the blue-blooded aristocrat, so we know in advance that Claudette Colbert will be better off with scruffy journalist Clark Gable, and that Rita Hayworth will only be happy with hoofer Gene Kelly, despite the career boost that would come from marriage to the suave stage impresario played by Lee Bowman.

In 1967, The Graduate ended with an interrupted wedding scene that proved so indelible it’s still being copied. Benjamin Braddock (played by the appealingly nebbishy Dustin Hoffman in his first real screen role) makes it to the church just in time to rescue the beautiful Elaine (Katharine Ross) from a marriage her mother has set in motion, to a handsome but callow blond medical student known around his fraternity house as “the makeout king.” Part of what originally made the scene so shocking—and so liberating—was that when Ben disrupts the ceremony, the knot has already been tied. So when Ben and Elaine make their escape from the altar by flagging down a passing city bus, she (still in her wedding finery) is legally another man’s wife. Their elopement thus pokes a thumb in the eye of social hypocrisy, as represented by their parents’ generation. Will Ben and Elaine, once the legalities have been sorted out, ultimately enter into holy wedlock? Personally, I don’t see why they’d bother.

Which takes me back to jolly old England, and one of my favorite romantic comedies, Four Weddings and a Funeral. The film contains misguided weddings, an interrupted wedding, a groom who changes his mind, and much more. (There’s that funeral, after all.) It ends on a hopeful, romantic note, with the central couple agreeing to a lifelong commitment that does not include a marriage ceremony. Let’s wish for William and Kate a lifelong commitment, to which a fancy formal wedding (complete with media blitz) is merely a colorful prelude.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The House on Haunted Hill

As a former English major, I couldn’t resist going to see the new version of Jane Eyre, starring Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender. For those who can accept movies without a single bare breast or car crash, it’s a rare treat: beautifully filmed, beautifully performed, faithful to the spirit of the nineteenth-century original. One special pleasure for me was realizing that Jane, for all of her prim Victorian ways, is a strikingly modern young woman. Despite her low-key manner, she always makes do, for the simple reason that she’s smart, she’s tough, and she knows her own mind. Self-respect and self-reliance are essential parts of her character. And, although she’s never less than conventionally proper, it’s quite clear in Wasikowska’s performance that the fires of passion burn within.

Jane Eyre tells the story of a young governess who gets far more than she bargained for when she reports for work at a musty old country manor. In fact, it’s easy to see Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 novel as part of the long tradition of haunted house stories, in which something (or someone) lurks in the shadows, ready to strike when least expected.

Roger Corman paid homage to this same tradition in 1960, when he adapted “The Fall of the House of Usher,” an eerie short story by Edgar Allan Poe. House of Usher, the lead-off film in Corman’s ambitious (if bargain-basement) Poe cycle for American International Pictures, vaulted Roger to a new level of critical respect, while also winning him fans among impressionable teenagers worldwide. In 2005, House of Usher became the only Corman feature to be welcomed into the National Film Registry, a project of the Library of Congress. I had the pleasure of breaking that news to Roger myself: it was a great day for his enduring legacy.

While shooting his Poe films, Corman was discovering Sigmund Freud. Haunted house movies, from Roger’s Freud-infused perspective, capture a child’s fear of the unknown, symbolizing a tiny tot alone in the darkness, confounded by the mystery of what’s happening behind his parents’ locked door. When interviewed by my former colleague Adam Simon for an Italian TV documentary, Roger stretched this idea even further. For Adam’s camera, Roger wandered through the dark, decrepit Concorde studio, lantern in hand, solemnly intoning: “To me the house is a woman’s body. The hallways, the stairways, the corridors are the vagina. I as a teenaged boy am immensely desirous of penetrating those hallways, yet at the same time I am a little bit fearful about the journey.”

The Freudian explanation helps me understand the attractiveness of horror films to postpubescent audiences (though heaven knows I’ve never been a teenage boy!). Still, there’s another reason that low-budget filmmakers love haunted house movies. In a nutshell, they’re cheap to shoot. Just one big set, with lots of nooks and crannies, and little need for a cast of thousands. Add some things that go bump in the night, and you’re good to go.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter Sunrise

Hollywood has traditionally been, as one wag put it, a place where Jews make movies for Protestant audiences, as a way of affirming Catholic values. Certainly, this was true in the early days, when the Motion Picture Association of America’s notorious Production Code was crafted by a lay Catholic, Martin J. Quigley of the Motion Picture Herald, with the help of a Jesuit priest. The strict enforcement of the code—which regulated screen depictions of sex, violence, and bad behavior—began in 1934, when another devout Catholic, Joseph Breen began his twenty-year reign as the man who granted or withheld the MPAA’s seal of approval.

This is not to say that all serious Catholics have closed minds when it comes to movies. With Easter dawning, it seems time to salute my friend and fellow film addict Gerard Molyneaux, F.S.C., a member of the teaching order of the De La Salle Christian Brothers. Gerry, who hails from a large Philadelphia Catholic family, remembers an annual ritual during his childhood: everyone would stand up in church and take an oath not to see “indecent movies.”

But Gerry, who came of age in the Sixties, was not to be dissuaded from exploring world cinema. While teaching literature and film at a Catholic boys’ school in western Maryland, he clashed with another De La Salle brother about Sidney Lumet’s Holocaust drama, The Pawnbroker, the first American movie to show bare breasts. Gerry argued that the nudity in this particular film was integral to its meaning. Maybe so, said his colleague, but “this will be just the wedge that Hollywood needs to start doing more of this stuff.” Gerry now quips, “It turns out we were both right.”

One of Gerry’s favorite films from the Sixties was The Graduate: “I remember seeing it five times within a span of two weeks—I was that excited by it.” Molyneaux especially relished the sight of Benjamin Braddock in the climactic church scene, swinging a large crucifix like a sword. Caught up in the tumultuous spirit of the era, he was ready to view Dustin Hoffman as John the Baptist or another early church father, lashing out against the complacency of the social and religious status quo.

Now a professor of communications at Philadelphia’s La Salle University, Gerry Molyneaux enjoys showing his students films—like Fellini’s 8 ½ and De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief—that challenge Church teachings and practices. His own moviegoing tastes can rightly be called “catholic,” in the sense of the word that implies “wide-ranging.” Nothing is too profane or too outrageous to spark his interest: he’s a fan, for one thing, of Monty Python’s goofy Christian parody, The Life of Brian. When I asked if there were any film he considered off-limits, he could not think of a single title too morally offensive for him to see. Well, yes, there was one recent movie that had given him pause—Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.

Happy Easter, Gerry! Remember: always look on the bright side of life!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Ticking Clock

Foreign language films don’t mean nearly as much to me now as they did during my college years. Back in the late Sixties, when we Baby Boomers were coming into our own, foreign films opened windows onto another world: a place more complex, more vibrant, and far more sensual than anything I knew at home.

The queen of art films in that era was probably Catherine Deneuve, whose cool blonde beauty seemed to mask a tortured soul. In Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, she played a virgin whose mental stability is eaten away by repressed carnal desire. Her role in Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour turned her into a chic Parisian trophy wife who comes alive in moments of sexual degradation. So beautiful was she, and so powerful was this film, that a devout Mormon I know has been carrying around memories of Belle de Jour for the past forty years.

Back then, he was a young missionary in Japan. On a day off, he and an American buddy went to a local theatre to see Lady and the Tramp. When that Disney charmer faded out, the projectionist began screening Belle de Jour. (I can attest that the Japanese in that era came up with some pretty odd double-bills.) Though the Buñuel film was in French with Japanese subtitles, it was quickly obvious to the two Mormons that Belle de Jour was not in line with the teachings of their faith. My friend now admits, “I don’t think we were very far into that movie when we realized this was not something we probably should have been doing, but neither of us had the courage—or maybe the desire—to get up and walk out.” The experience taught him that Church elders were right to warn about the staying power of movies: Belle de Jour has remained fresh his mind from that day to this.

But for most of us, time doesn’t stand still. This is especially true of actors. I just saw Catherine Deneuve’s latest film, Potiche. Once again she plays a trophy wife, but this is a comedy (albeit a rather lame one) in which she turns the tables on her philandering husband. Despite the silliness of the goings-on, Deneuve is still beautiful, with a regal quality that transcends her material. I must admit she’s become a bit chubby, though at sixty-eight she’s certainly entitled to pack on a few pounds. (Who hasn’t?) Her love interest in the film is Gérard Depardieu, who may once have been swashbuckling but has now got so much swash that I’m not sure it’s buckle-able. Let’s be honest: he resembles the Michelin tire man with a Dutch-boy bob. It’s enough to make me really miss the films of the past, when the stars—and I—were a whole lot younger

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Exodus, Hollywood-Style

The holiday of Passover, when Jews around the world celebrate throwing off the shackles of slavery, is almost here. So naturally I’ve been thinking about Charlton Heston. Heston of course starred as Moses in Cecil B. DeMille’s Bible epic to end all Bible epics, The Ten Commandments. For the Baby Boom generation, it was Heston—tall, broad-shouldered, jut-jawed, and Anglo-Saxon to the core—who led the Jews out of Egypt.

Back in the days before he became the prime-time spokesman for the National Rifle Association, and long before he was claimed by Alzheimer’s disease, I interviewed Heston at his home, an aerie of stone and glass perched in a canyon high above Los Angeles. As I noted then, power symbols were everywhere: “Once past the rather frightening signs that warn off interlopers, you encounter the tennis court and the stable full of family cars (big black Cadillac, white Mercedes sports coupe, new black Corvette). Park at your own risk; you will be instantly surrounded by four enormous mastiffs. (‘Down, Wotan!’, commands Heston in passing.) But the most startling sight here is a huge sculpted horse’s head dramatically mounted near the home’s main entrance. Only plaster, as it turns out . . . but it’s an authenticated full-scale reproduction of a figure from the pediment of the Parthenon.”

Amid all this grandeur, Heston was surprisingly informal, decked out in tennis shorts and alligator shirt, his feet bare. Still, he projected an unmistakable air of authority. My published interview focused especially on his voice, which I described as deep, resonant, and carefully controlled: “Words are chosen slowly, thoughtfully. He is both articulate and candid, but expect from him no lapse into casual banter, no off-the-cuff moments of personal interchange. Cordial though he may be, Heston does not confuse an interview with a conversation. He listens intently to your questions, his keen blue eyes boring into yours, but there’s no idle curiosity on his part about his interlocutor. And why should there be? He’s the star, that’s a fact of life.”

After discussing with Heston his stage and screen career, I segued into a natural question: When your public life is cast in a heroic mold, how is your private world affected? He grinned at that, admitting his friends did expect the occasional miracle: “If I go to a party and it rains, people look at me reproachfully.” And when making a guest appearance on a beautiful day, he enjoyed solemnly taking credit for the weather. “You’re never certain,” he quipped to me, “whether they think I mean it or not.”

Though Heston in those days seemed like the sort of guy who COULD part the Red Sea through sheer force of will, I was never really a fan. Nor was he entirely my vision of Moses. The way I personally read the book of Exodus, Moses wasn’t exactly the tall, dark, and majestic sort. He was humble, sometimes tongue-tied, and in his latter years often exasperated to the max. Above all, he was fallible, and knew it. Yes, not a bad role for Mel Brooks.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Naked Lunch: "Humanoids from the Deep"

The making of Humanoids from the Deep was not Roger Corman’s finest hour. After the film was in the can, Roger decided more nudity was in order. So he sacked director Barbara Peeters, and brought on an underling to shoot additional footage. When I was reminiscing about Corman days with filmmaker John Sayles, he colorfully described for me the end results: “There’s a blonde woman who’s attacked in a tent, and there’s a brunette woman with much larger breasts who runs out of the tent after she’s attacked.” The crude addition caused a major brouhaha, with star Ann Turkel unsuccessfully trying to block the film’s release and the L.A. Times using it as the centerpiece of an article decrying the low status of women in the film industry.

In a way, we can blame Sidney Lumet. Lumet, who died April 9, was a brilliant director known for his unsparing approach to his subject matter. Among his many dramas, I’ll personally remember Twelve Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, and Running on Empty. But he also earned a place in cinema history for making a film that led directly to the demise of the infamous Production Code. Through that code, first established in the 1930s, the Motion Picture Association of America had long tried to protect public morality by way of strict rules about what could and could not be shown on screen.

Lumet’s The Pawnbroker was the first Hollywood studio movie to show bare breasts and still receive the MPAA seal of approval. This 1965 drama, depicting a Holocaust survivor’s struggle to forge a new life in New York, at one point cuts powerfully between an inner-city customer’s attempt to entice the pawnbroker with her naked body and his searing memory of his wife’s humiliation at the hands of her Nazi captors. Because this pivotal sequence violated the Production Code’s longstanding ban on the display of private parts, the film was at first denied its seal. But the MPAA, recognizing The Pawnbroker’s seriousness of purpose, belatedly issued an exemption.

One year later, when Jack Valenti took over as MPAA president, he had to dicker over the raw language in Mike Nichols’ film version of the Edward Albee stage hit, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The next issue to surface involved the flashes of nudity in Antonioni’s Blow-Up. Because Valenti—a blunt, pragmatic Texan—hated the need for legalistic wrangling about matters of taste, he ended up tossing out the old code. It was replaced with a new ratings system meant to keep youngsters away from grown-up fare while allowing adults freedom of choice.

So Sidney Lumet should be remembered as the guy who started Roger Corman on the path to T&A glory. Without him, Stripped to Kill II would never have looked the same.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Bloodfist Redux

A recent slide-show on, entitled “The Best Remakes of All-Time,” chronicles movies that got better when their plots were re-imagined by later filmmakers. Like David Cronenberg’s chilling 1986 update of the old Vincent Price shocker, The Fly. Or the poignant Judy Garland musical version of A Star is Born. Or Howard Hawks’ transformation of that boys-will-be-boys newspaperman story, The Front Page, into a sparkling battle of the sexes, His Girl Friday.

I’m here to tell you: when it comes to remakes, Roger Corman has no shame. He views a remake as a cheap way to get extra value out of an existing script. Even his own best work as a director is fair game. In 1989, he gave upcoming director Larry Brand carte blanche to re-think The Masque of the Red Death, the Corman-directed Poe adaptation from 1964 that most critics consider his finest artistic achievement. And he was all set to green-light a television series based on his classic black comedy, Little Shop of Horrors, until the bureaucracy of TV production did him in.

I myself got involved with remakes, Corman-style, in late 1992. As the winter holidays approached, Roger realized there was no production booked into his Venice studio. Keeping the studio staff idling was anathema to someone of Roger’s frugal temperament. So he needed a quickie production to allow them to earn their keep. That’s when I was approached by veteran Corman production chief Mike Elliott, and told to grind out a fast adaptation of the 1989 Concorde martial arts hit, Bloodfist. The original script by Robert King (with heavy borrowings from Jean-Claude Van Damme’s KickBoxer) had featured Don “The Dragon” Wilson as an earnest young man who enters a Manila tournament in order to flush out his brother’s killer. My job was to transform the exotic overseas competition into the down-and-dirty L.A. under-the-freeway games, and to change the inscrutable Chinese mentor who turns out to be the villain of the piece into a mysterious African-American street bum. (Oops – did I just give away the twist ending?)

To metamorphose Bloodfist into Full Contact, I was allotted about a week. When it was shot (with kickboxer Jerry Trimble in the Don “The Dragon” role), I scored a cameo as a nurse who supplies some key plot information. Full Contact was released through Twentieth Century-Fox, and Roger was clearly pleased with the results, because four months later I was helping move the same story into outer space. This time we called it Dragon Fire. And soon there was a female version, Angel Fist. Briefly we also considered a sword-and-sorcery variation, but that seems a little much.

The kicker (so to speak) came in 2005, when I opened an American Film Market issue of the Hollywood Reporter and found a Concorde ad for Bloodfist 2050. Here’s the ad copy: “To avenge his brother’s death, Alex Danko must enter the erotic and deadly criminal underground of the near future, where he finds the fight of his life!” Yup, same movie. It’s heartening to know that some things never change.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Enter "The Dragon"

Living in Hollywood (or, rather, in that hazy geographic region that considers itself Hollywood adjacent), I am accustomed to seeing movie folk in ordinary surroundings: Elijah Wood at my local Starbuck’s; Dustin Hoffman strolling on the Santa Monica Promenade; Ahnold the Governator practically everywhere. As for the children of the famous—or at least the near-famous—they’re almost impossible to avoid.

The other day, I went to work out at a branch of my favorite gym, and discovered Billy Blanks Jr. teaching a highly aerobic dance class. I made the obvious connection: this dynamic young man was the son of Billy Blanks, a martial arts champion who in the 1990s starred in action films with names like Showdown, Back in Action, and Talons of the Eagle.

So of course I thought back to my own years as a maker of martial arts epics. In 1989, Roger Corman realized that kickboxing movies were the Next Big Thing. The films of rising stars like Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme were cleaning up at the box office, and so Roger decided to add a kickboxer to his payroll. His discovery was Don “The Dragon” Wilson. Don, an amiable fellow with an exotic look (his mother was Japanese) happened to be a legitimate world kickboxing champion, but his acting experience was nil. Roger sent him to acting classes, in preparation for a starring role in Bloodfist (in which, by the way, the senior Billy Blanks played a featured role).

The script for Bloodfist was whipped out in a hurry by a young writer named Robert King. King had become a go-to writer for Corman following his success with a rather good killer cockroach movie, The Nest. In later years, he moved up in the world, crafting bigger budget films like Vertical Limit before hitting the jackpot as the co-creator (with his wife Michelle) of TV’s award-winning The Good Wife. But I suspect that at the time of Bloodfist Robert was somewhat lacking in inspiration. It took me years to realize that his story—about a young martial artist who returns to the ring to sleuth out the identity of his brother’s killer—was a near-total rip-off of a recent Van Damme vehicle, KickBoxer.

No matter. Don the Dragon went on to star in seven more Bloodfist films. In all of them he played earnest and tight-lipped young men, who spoke mostly with their fists (and their feet). In real life Don was animated and chatty. But his limited acting chops made it essential to cast him as the strong, silent type.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Heir Apparent

I’ve been thinking a lot about how our movie tastes are formed. For many of us, I suspect, our parents were our first teachers—in this as in so many other things. Of course, I know that some from my generation were shuttled off to the movies every Saturday, to see whatever was playing at that week’s kiddie matinee. The Saturday afternoon regulars probably came to view their movie outings as a chance to slip away, however briefly, from parental influence (and their parents doubtless appreciated those matinees as a source of cheap babysitting).

Older kids, of course, have always delighted in ferreting out movies that undermine the safe, sane worldview of their parents. Back in the day, this was part of the allure of Roger Corman-style monster flicks. Director Joe Dante (Gremlins) told me as much: “The whole thrust of these cheap movies was that they were movies your parents wouldn’t want you to see.”

Still, conscientious parents have long used moviegoing as a way to instill their own values into their offspring. An African-American filmmaker I know remembers that from an early age she was introduced by her mom and dad to the films of Sidney Poitier as well as every movie that touched on the black experience in America. Some parents share with their kids a taste for science fiction or for musicals or for foreign films with a leftwing slant. As a boy, novelist David L. Robbins regularly accompanied his mother to the picture show. She had a passion for heroic epics like Ben-Hur and El Cid, and David’s whole concept of manliness evolved from those afternoons in the dark. As he confessed to me, “I even to this day still have some sort of internal moral compass: it’s not What would Jesus do?, but . . . What would Spartacus do?”

And me? I was the child of good-hearted liberals who liked films that illuminated the great social issues of their day. When they let me stay up past my bedtime to watch an old movie on the Late Late Show, it was always a quiet kind of teaching moment. From The Ox-Bow Incident, I learned about the dangers of mob rule. Through Gentleman’s Agreement, I discovered that bigotry can lurk beneath a polite facade. The Best Years of Our Lives introduced me to the concept that no one really wins a war. Citizen Kane convinced me that the ultimate source of mystery is the human psyche. No monster movies for me—I grew up conscious that the world could be a difficult place, but also that you could find something approaching a happy ending at the final fadeout.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Movie Generation

Broadcaster Tom Brokaw has hailed what he calls The Greatest Generation, those young Americans who survived the Depression and fought (or outlasted) World War II. I’ve just finished reading Samuel G. Freedman’s Who She Was, an exploration of his own mother’s growing-up years that also manages to be a lively social history of the home front during that same period. What struck me in Freedman’s book was how the lives of young Americans were intertwined with moviegoing.

Baby Boomers like me were raised with TV sets in our living rooms. By the time my kids came along, entertainment had come to mean an ever-evolving spectrum of novelties: home video, the Internet, the Smart Phone, and whatever those Silicon Valley types can dream up next. But the “Greatest Generation”—my parents’ generation—had the movies. For Depression-reared kids with limited horizons and little discretionary cash, a movie theatre was the best place to forget the trials of everyday life.

Sam Freedman’s mother Eleanor, growing up in the East Bronx in a one-bedroom flat shared with parents and two siblings, was badly in need of magic. She found it at the movies, most especially at the Loew’s Paradise, a palatial edifice that had sprung up on the Grand Concourse during the boom years of the 1920s. For a dollar, writes Freedman, you got open sesame into “a realm of tapestries and mahogany panels and a marble fountain, which replenished the water for a pool of live goldfish.” In the flush of first love, his mother and her date would ascend to the balcony, over which shimmered “a ceiling painted with clouds and lit with twinkling stars.”

Young couples went to the movies for a modicum of privacy. They snuggled while watching Wuthering Heights, It Happened One Night, and other films that cast a romantic haze over the world. Above all, Freedman zeroes in on his mother’s passion for The Wizard of Oz. The song “Over the Rainbow” captured her longing to escape the drabness of her parents’ home.

The Wizard of Oz was not an instant hit in all quarters. Many early reviews were extremely harsh, and it took twenty years for the film to recoup its budget. When it debuted in 1939, the U.S. was still two years away from being drawn into World War II, so perhaps adult Americans were not yet quite so desperate for fantasy as they would soon become. But The Wizard of Oz was from the first a huge success in Britain, where it spoke especially to English soldiers going off to war and to English civilians keeping the home fires burning. More recently, many in the gay community have taken to heart Judy Garland’s plaintive certainty that somewhere over the rainbow there exists a better place. And I think I speak for kids everywhere in remembering how The Wizard of Oz gave me—from all those repeated TV viewings—a hopeful vision of friendship enduring, good triumphing over evil, and home always being there when you need it most.

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Eyes Have It

I heard it this morning on NPR: the success of Avatar has paved the way for a future in which movies, TV, billboards, and computer screens will all be 3-D. Receiving data in a mere two dimensions will soon be totally outmoded. Only problem: those pesky 3-D glasses.

But help is on the way. It seems a San Diego ophthalmologist has devised a surgical technique to reshape the eye so that it is receptive to 3-D images, without benefit of glasses. It’s still in the experimental stage, but there are already some satisfied customers.

The news item startled me. After all, in December I underwent eye surgery of my own, to remove from the rear of my left eyeball what is known in the trade as an epiretinal membrane or macular pucker. (So many names for the same disturbing condition, which clouded my vision and gave me the sense of seeing life through a veil.) It’s not that the surgery was painful. Actually, as an eye doctor will be the first to tell you, eyes don’t feel pain under surgical conditions. It was more the anticipation of a doctor cutting into my eye, tinkering with the precious organ that allows me to see the world.

Fortunately, all went well. (Thanks, Dr. Hanscom!) The scariest moment actually came the day after the surgery, when the patch that had covered my eye was removed and I found myself suddenly seeing double. I held up my left arm—all at once there were two of them, and I didn’t know which one was real. Then I looked across the room, and my husband had two heads. Somewhere in all that, there’s definitely a horror film waiting to be written. But I was relieved to learn that my double-vision was a normal, and blessedly temporary, result of the anesthetic that had kept my eye muscles in place during the procedure. Within hours, I was my old self again, only better.

Still, when I heard that news brief, I couldn’t quite fathom why anyone would voluntarily undergo eye surgery for the sake of dumping the 3-D glasses. That’s when the skeptic in me finally began to awaken. That enthusiastic woman on the radio who described the after-effects of the surgery: what was it she’d said? Oh yes, “Seeing Gnomeo and Juliet without those horrible glasses was life-changing.” That’s when it dawned on me. I’d been had. After all, it was April 1, and you shouldn’t believe everything you hear, even if it has the imprimatur of National Public Radio.

Happy April Fool’s Day!

The Legacy of Elizabeth Regina

The death of Elizabeth Taylor, a genuine queen of Hollywood, has had us all scrambling for adjectives and anecdotes. So many people seem to have had close encounters of the Liz kind, but I don’t claim that I’ve ever been caught in her violet-eyed gaze. I’ve admired some of her performances (A Place in the Sun, Giant, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) and guffawed at others. Does anyone beside me remember her as a bohemian free spirit taking the starch out of Richard Burton’s clerical collar in an overblown passion-play called The Sandpiper?

As a student of the Sixties, I’m fascinated by Cleopatra—the film that made Taylor the first female star to command a $1 million payday—and the dent it made on Hollywood. I grew up in the shadow of Twentieth Century-Fox, the studio that nearly went bust in the wake of the Cleopatra debacle. Undone by the film’s lavish budget, Fox chose to sell off much of its back lot to developers linked to Alcoa Aluminum. Soon there arose a sleek new cluster of high-rises known as Century City, complete with a trendy shopping mall that played a major part in my growing-up years.

But Fox’s real salvation was The Sound of Music. When Maria danced down the Alps with a gaggle of moppets in lederhosen, the sweet sound of ringing cash registers convinced Fox that its future lay in big-budget musicals. Fox’s subsequent choices were hardly inspired. The hopelessly inept Doctor Dolittle, trying to blend the whimsy of Mary Poppins with the sophistication of My Fair Lady, succeeded only in making Rex Harrison and his human co-stars look ridiculous. Star!, a film biography of Gertrude Lawrence, could boast Julie Andrews in the leading role, but the sweetheart of Sound of Music was now playing a character it was impossible to like.

Then there was the elephantine Hello, Dolly! The stage version, a light-hearted musical romp, had been a Broadway hit, but the Fox execs felt the need to hedge their bets by tricking it out with elaborate period sets and casting Hollywood’s newest star, Barbra Streisand, in a role for which she was much too young. But my whole neighborhood buzzed with excitement when the film was shot, because its gargantuan parade scene required literally thousands of extras. My mother, my sister, and my future mother-in-law are all somewhere in that crowd of parade-watchers, and my trumpet-playing husband-to-be (a proud member of the UCLA marching band) can actually be spotted in front of the big bass drum. Even with all that local talent, Hello, Dolly! failed to earn enough to cover its massive budget. So much for musicals as money-makers!

Fortunately for Fox, it did manage one unexpected hit film in that era. Would you believe Planet of the Apes?