Friday, March 29, 2013

A Little Lift: Good for Body and Soul?

To my readers: during the month of April, Beverly in Movieland will temporarily take on a new look. Brave soul that I am, I’ve committed to participating in an A to Z Challenge. That means I’ll be blogging daily (except Sundays), with each post representing a different letter of the alphabet. In the interest of preserving what’s left of my sanity, I’ll make my daily posts somewhat shorter than what you’re used to seeing. Roger Corman fans might enjoy knowing that  I plan to focus on the inside stories of people from the Roger Corman world. As always, requests are welcome.  I do hope you enjoy the change – and tell your friends!  

Seems as though the latest Hollywood beauty fad is the so-called “Vampire Face Lift.” Doctors all over Beverly Hills are drawing syringes full of their patients’ own blood to inject into unsightly wrinkles. It may sound ghoulish, but what’s good enough for Kim Kardashian can’t be wrong, can it?

Perhaps women all across America are engaged in self-improvement projects involving their chins, their chests, and their flabby thighs. I wouldn’t know. I can only report on what’s happening here in Los Angeles, where almost everyone wants to look like a movie star. Leaving my dentist’s office last week, I was struck by the name emblazoned on the door of a nearby office suite; “Make You Perfect.” Perfection seems to be what’s expected in my hometown. After all, this is the place that spawned the Barbie Doll. And where actresses emerging from their teens are routinely expected to sign up for breast augmentation surgery. That aspect of Mary McDonough’s 2011 memoir, Lessons from the Mountain: What I Learned from Erin Walton, haunts me still . . . and I know she’s not alone.

We’ve all heard something about the disasters caused by plastic surgeons run amok. Just think of the eerily chiseled features of Joan Rivers and the late Phyllis Diller. Her own bad experience following a so-called boob job led actress Sally Kirkland to turn activist. In 1998 she founded the Kirkland Institute for Implant Survival Syndrome, and fought the good fight against the FDA’s approval of gel implants after a fourteen-year ban. Others go the legal route. The wife of one noted Hollywood producer was so horrified by the results of her Botox injections that she sued her dermatologist. News of the trial was splashed all over the front page of the Los Angeles Times, thus calling wide attention to her dissatisfaction with her own looks.

Composer-lyricist Billy Barnes, himself an L.A. native, passed from the scene last year. But he was razor-sharp circa 1990 when he penned “A Little Lift” for actress Jane A. Johnston. I heard this comic paean to the wonders of cosmetic surgery a few weeks ago, as part of Bruce Kimmel’s delightful Kritzerland salute to Barnes. (Such pillars of 1950s show biz as Jackie Joseph, Tom Hatten,  Susan Watson, and Karen Sharpe Kramer were in attendance.) “A Little Lift” was belted out by the droll Susanne Blakeslee, who graphically explained how “a laser beam, an acid peel, a wedge of silicone” can improve a gal’s – or a guy’s – outlook on life. Her advice to those of us contemplating the way Time has ravaged our faces: “Raise the brow, and hoist the chin/ If it’s too tight, of course, you have that constant grin./ You hide the scars beneath the hair/ They mustn’t lift too much or one could look like Cher!” 

Fortunately for my readers, Kimmel has made an earlier Blakeslee rendition of this ditty available on YouTube. Enjoy!

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Remembering Laura . . . and those who dreamed her into being

Last month I spent an enchanted evening with Vincent Price . . . also Gene Tierney, Clifton Webb, and Dana Andrews. Yes, it was a screening of Laura (cue David Raksin’s evocative theme music). It was held in the perfect venue: the American Cinematheque’s flagstaff theatre, the Egyptian, which has graced Hollywood Boulevard for 90 years. The Egyptian, opulent and Hollywood-exotic, was once the site of America’s first movie premiere. Now it’s a gathering spot for movie lovers catching up on world cinema classics. From April 5 through 21, the Egyptian will host the fifteenth annual Noir City festival. Laura (from 1944) qualifies as film noir too, but the special showing in February coincided with a visit to L.A. of Carl Rollyson, author of the first biography of Dana Andrews, Hollywood Enigma. Also present was Andrews’ daughter Susan, along with many of the film’s biggest fans. One admitted that her parents had named her after Gene Tierney’s character, a mysterious lady who may or may not have been a murder victim.

The invaluable Alan K. Rode, my expert on all things noir, provides the backstory for Laura, which began as a popular novel. According to Alan, who has kindly let me quote him at length, “[Rouben] Mamoulian started out as the director and [Otto] Preminger was the producer. Preminger and Darryl F. Zanuck [of Twentieth Century-Fox] had a major falling-out over Kidnapped in 1938 that resulted in Otto being blackballed in Hollywood for a number of years. Zanuck kept him under contract but didn't let him do anything at the studio as payback. 

“Preminger was earning his way into DFZ's good graces because he was ‘allowed’ to produce Laura. Preminger wanted to direct the film, but Zanuck didn't want him, so Otto as a producer was put in the unfortunate position of having to find a director for a film that he knew he was born to direct.

“Mamoulian was overbearing and egotistical (just like Otto) and started rewriting the script . . . [Mamoulian] cast Fox contract player Laird Cregar as Waldo, a terrible decision that Preminger lobbied Zanuck to change. Zanuck wouldn't budge, so Preminger risked his nascent career to hire Clifton Webb and then convinced Zanuck to schedule a screen test. Zanuck, who loathed homosexuals, was afraid that Webb ‘would fly,’ i.e appear overtly gay on screen. . . . [But] Webb was perfect as the upper-crust dandy, and Zanuck -- who was as honest as any mogul about what was right for a film -- approved his hiring as Waldo with alacrity.

“Mamoulian pouted, misdirected the cast, and did his best to ruin the movie. Zanuck got fed up and, in a conference with Preminger, fired Mamoulian and told Preminger to direct Laura. Preminger . . . hired Joe La Shelle as the cinematographer, got a new portrait of Laura for the movie [to replace one that had been painted by Mamoulian’s wife] and made a classic film. As Vincent Price related, ‘Otto had an idea about the material and he was right. The New York society depicted in the film are all darlings, sweet and charming and clever and bright -- on the surface. But underneath they're evil. And Otto understood this in a way Mamoulian didn't.’”

Alan also supplied a postscript about Mamoulian’s career going downhill after Laura. He doesn’t think much of Mamoulian as a film director. Yet Mamoulian also helmed some landmark stage and screen productions. In the 1980s I spent a fascinating afternoon with him (in a house overrun by cats) . . . but that’s a subject for another day.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Do Pray for Me, Argentina

Now that the world has its first Latin American pope, I’ve been thinking a lot about Argentina. Not that I’ve ever been there. (I do have some cousins in Buenos Aires, whose long-ago visit to L.A. proved traumatic for everyone in my family. For one thing, they looked down their noses because we didn’t serve steak on a daily basis. Yeah, right.)

As a kid, I associated Latin America with the musical numbers so ubiquitous in old Hollywood movies. You know the ones I mean: full of maracas, conga drums, ruffled sleeves, and ladies wearing fruit baskets on their heads. A tiny but spunky Brazilian entertainer named Carmen Miranda became the queen of such musical kitsch. She and her ilk were deftly parodied by Danny Kaye, who (in the famous “Lobby Number” from Up in Arms) briefly posed as “Carmelita Pepita, the Boleevian Bombshell.” I’ve seen vintage musicals in which such blatantly Anglo chanteuses as Judy Garland and Jane Powell impersonate south-of-the-border señoritas by shaking shoulders, hips, and anything else that moves.

Latin America also shows up in American movies as a place full of crazed dictators, evil kidnappers, and massive political unrest, as reflected in such tough-minded dramas as  Salvador and Costa-Gavras’ Missing. Those of us from the Roger Corman world remember how Roger’s penchant for making overseas production deals led to a whole series of shot-on-location thrillers, usually set in the fictitious South American nation of San Pedro. Roger is not much prone to making jokes, but even he sometimes joined in on our comic laments for this benighted republic, which suffered from every disaster our screenwriters could think up. Revolutions! Earthquakes! Native uprisings! Nuclear holocausts!

At least three Corman sword-and-sorcery flicks were filmed on the cheap in Pope Francis’s native country. Regarding The Warrior and the Sorceress, a continuity goof  cited on IMDB reminds me of the haphazard nature of all such productions: “When Naja first escapes from the castle, her g-string is purple. By the time she is reunited with her father, it's gold.”  Corman crews also shot two Deathstalker films, the second of which was completely rewritten on the set by irrepressible director Jim Wynorski. To Jim it seemed pointless “to make a serious movie with tinfoil swords  and a cardboard village.” That’s why he ripped up the script and opted for outrageous comedy. Jim insisted to me, “This was a great film because I was totally out of control.”  

According to Jim, Roger loved the change in tone, despite the hand-wringing of the local Argentine producer. This producer was a courtly old gentleman named Héctor Olivera. I enjoyed working with Héctor on the screenplay of an erotic thriller, also for Roger, called Play Murder for Me. But he is best known by fans of Argentine film as the director of a brilliant 1983 political satire, Funny Dirty Little War. Yes, Argentina’s movie industry is worthy of respect. The great Spanish filmmaker Carlos Saura came to Argentina for one of his intricate, memorable dance films, Tango. The Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, usually won by Europeans, has twice been awarded to Argentine productions: The Official Story (1985) and The Secret in Their Eyes (2009).

But Argentina’s greatest contribution to world cinema is undoubtedly a man who writes wonderfully jazzy film scores. Lalo Schifrin has been responsible for Cool Hand Luke, Bullitt, and a host of Clint Eastwood films. Go to his website to hear his most famous score of all. Perhaps it will serve as theme music for the challenges Jorge Mario Bergoglio will face in the years ahead. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Tooth of the Matter: Dentists to the Stars

I just returned from a long session in the dental chair (don’t ask!). As always I was fascinated by the intrusion of Hollywood into dentistry, SoCal-style. I don’t know whether theatre programs in other cities contain glossy ads for dental specialists. In front of me right now lies a dramatic full-color ad from Performances Magazine, which is handed out as you take your seat at the Los Angeles Music Center. It shows a lovely lady in an evening gown emerging from behind a red theatre curtain, her pearly whites gleaming. The caption shouts, “GET NOTICED FOR A SMILE THAT PERFORMS,” and there follows the promise that a certain Beverly Hills cosmetic dentist “will take your smile from average to spectacular. Come see us for an award-winning smile that always gets a standing ovation!” Then, of course, there’s a web address.

My own dentists have never advertised in theatre programs, so far as I know. But I’ve long been amused by the signed celebrity photos on their walls. My kids’ orthodontist had a full array: I best remember the shot of Margot Kidder, in character as Superman’s Lois Lane.  Most of Dr. Abel’s photos were of famous adults, whom I assume had brought their children in for braces. That’s how I met Graham Nash of Crosby, Stills & Nash fame: he was pecking out song lyrics on his laptop as we both waited for our metal-mouthed offspring.

In my own dentist’s Beverly Hills office, two framed photos occupy a place of honor. One is a dapper shot of Gregory Peck, and the other is of Paul Newman, grinning as he leans against a race car. Obviously, these photos are decades old: they were prized possessions of the late Dr. Leslie Levine, the founder of the practice, who practiced dentistry until his late 80s. A man with impressive credentials, he attracted quite a range of stars. After all, even the rich and famous can suffer, as they age, from receding gums. My mother still remembers back twenty years, when she and my dad encountered yesteryear’s tap-dance sensation, Ann Miller, queening it in the waiting room.

When Dr. Levine passed on, his practice fell into the capable hands of Dr. Hessam Nowzari, former head of USC’s dental school. I like Dr. Nowzari (and he has a great smile), but I was unprepared when he asked me if I’d seen his movie yet. I went home with a DVD labeled with an image of a pharaoh and the caption “What Killed the Smile of Hatshepsut?” When I played the disk, it turned out that the real title is “The AA Bacterium: A Worldwide Epidemic.” The 30-minute film makes a strong point about the persistence, from before the time of the pyramids, of a supermicrobe that has disfigured the front teeth of countless unfortunates all over the globe. It makes for sober viewing (while conveying the upbeat message that a saltwater rinse of the gums can help today’s babies fight off AA’s future ravages).  But I was most struck by the film’s attempts at Hollywood drama. The narrator’s spiels, backed by ominous music, treat the microbe as an assassin, who has caused “tens of millions of people [to] bid farewell to their smiles.”

Not only is this happening in backward countries. Over gorgeous postcard-shots of a gleaming Los Angeles skyline, the narrator intones, “The capital of glamour, beauty, and stars. Who could believe that a hidden enemy is lurking behind the scenes?” Who indeed? Thanks, Dr. Nowzari, for teaching me something important. Next time, though, please get your screenwriter to tone down the Hollywood-inspired kitsch. 

Friday, March 15, 2013

Far and Away to the Emerald Isle

Sure and begorra, it’s time once again for the wearin’ of the green. Not that I’m Irish, except in the way that we’re all a wee bit Irish on St. Patrick’s Day. My parents were hardly fans of John Wayne , but they adored Wayne in the one John Ford movie set in the pristine Irish countryside. It is of course The Quiet Man (1952), in which Wayne woos a feisty lass played by Maureen O’Hara. To this day, the film’s County Mayo locations still attract tourists with a yen for movie history.

 If The Quiet Man has charm, David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter (1970) offers high drama. Though I consider it a big-budget weepie, there’s no question that this story of a tragic love affair is gorgeous to look at. Set in the backwaters of County Kerry’s Dingle Peninsula, it won an Oscar for its wide-screen cinematography. Freddie Young, having brilliantly photographed the Sahara Desert (Lawrence of Arabia) and the steppes of Russia (Doctor Zhivago), brought a sense of stark passion to Western Ireland’s jagged cliffs and wave-swept beaches. More recent Irish films have included political thrillers like In the Name of the Father (1993) and whimsical comedies like Waking Ned Devine (1998). The latter, though thoroughly Irish in spirit, was actually shot on the Isle of Man. But it’s fitting to salute the very Irish David Kelly, who died last year, for his unforgettable role as the buck-naked old geezer on the motorbike.

Ron Howard has loved Ireland since 1958, when he flew to Vienna with his parents to play a featured role in The Journey. Crossing the Atlantic in a prop-jet was a frightening ordeal for a four-year-old. As the sun rose on the lush green fields of Ireland, little Ronny felt vastly relieved. The plane set down at Shannon Airport for a welcome refueling stop. Ronny got out to stretch his legs, and a workman ruffled his red hair in friendly fashion. “You look like you belong here,” he said. “Maybe you should stay behind.”

Flash-forward to the 1980s, when Howard attended a Chieftains concert. A traditional ballad about lovers saying farewell because one was bound for America inspired him to blend a romantic Irish saga with a landmark event in his own ancestral history, the 1893 Oklahoma Land Race. The result was Far and Away (1992), which – after he signed Tom Cruise and new wife Nicole Kidman for the leading roles -- somehow swelled from an intimate romantic comedy into an overblown epic. (To capture the wide open spaces in the Land Race sequence, Howard was persuaded by cinematographer Mikael Salomon to shoot the first 70mm film since Ryan’s Daughter two decades before.)

I consider Far and Away overly sentimental, one of Howard’s weaker efforts. But stunt actor Carl Ciarfalio, who pummels Tom Cruise in a bare-knuckles boxing scene, remembers it fondly: “I've had some outstanding opportunities in my career, but this one is way at the top! Ron was very kind and open when directing, and even took a suggestion from me and used it in the scene. He also introduced me at the red-carpet premiere, which was a big thing for a stuntman.” Years later, when filming Mission Impossible 3, Carl reminisced with Cruise: “I told him that I had gotten a lot of mileage out of our scene and that it was the only fight that I had ever won in 30 years. He told me it was the only one he had lost! Then he laughed that big Cruise laugh.”

May the luck of the Irish be with Carl – and you!

A tip of the hat to Beth Phillips, who loves all things Irish.