Friday, May 30, 2014

Rosemary’s Baby, Reborn

 So they’ve had the guts to remake Rosemary’s Baby as a miniseries. And from what I’ve heard, it’s pretty good.  The setting has been moved to Paris, a city which has its visually spooky side. And the acting is supposed to be fine. But I can’t imagine this Rosemary’s Baby ever having the impact of Roman Polanski’s 1968 original.

Rosemary’s Baby of course started life as a novel by Ira Levin. It was so original, and so audaciously scary, that publisher Bennett Cerf of Random House considered it perhaps TOO suspenseful. Maybe, he suggested, Levin should make clear that the Satanic takeover at the novel’s end was all just a bad dream.

The novel was a 1967 bestseller, and when the film version debuted the following year, it too  quickly became a sensation. Partly the time was ripe: moviegoers in 1968 had (in the words of Shakespeare’s Macbeth) “supped full with horrors.” Many remembered the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. When the film was released on June 12, 1968, only two months had passed since the slaying of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, precipitating nation-wide riots. And Rosemary’s Baby opened just six days after Robert F. Kennedy was gunned down in Los Angeles. America, it seemed, was ripe for accepting a world being usurped by demonic powers.

And director Polanski was uniquely qualified to handle such strong material. The shocking slaughter of his wife Sharon Tate, along with their unborn baby, by members of the Manson clan was still more than a year off. But Polanski was also a Holocaust survivor. In the late 1930s, as a small child, he was living with his family in the Polish city of  Krakow. When the Nazis moved in, he was forced out of school and into a Jewish ghetto. His parents were taken away and killed; he himself survived by pretending to belong to a Roman Catholic family. Later he roamed the countryside on his own, trying to elude German soldiers taking potshots at the fleeing boy. So Polanski had, along with impressive filmmaking skills, a strong personal identification with a God-is-dead world.

I’ve not always been a fan of Mia Farrow, and her current-day behavior strikes me as more than a bit batty, but she plays the passive, put-upon Rosemary with stunning conviction. As much as her acting it’s her physical presence that sells the story. She’s so pale, so thin, so apparently fragile: the lopping off of her blonde tresses into a very short Vidal Sassoon bob midway through the film completes our sense of her as the ultimate victim. (Frankly, I doubt that the statuesque Zoe Saldana could ever spark our imagination in the way that the cadaverous Farrow does.)  I don’t love everything about the movie -- the big Satanic rape scene is definitely heavy-handed – but the sinister presence of John Cassavetes, Sidney Blackmer, and the Oscar-winning Ruth Gordon can’t be beat.

Much of the power of Levin’s story comes from the mysteries we associate with pregnancy. Every woman who’s been with child knows how easy it is to be overawed by the strange things happening inside her. Body parts change size and shape. Emotions swing wildly. Doctors and other traditional allies sometimes don’t seem to have her best interests at heart. She’s eating (and sleeping and breathing) for two, but the final outcome remains very much in question. Until, of course, the baby arrives and demands to be loved. That’s why films about pregnancy (like Rosemary’s Baby and even a Roger Corman cheapie like The Unborn) grab hold and don’t let go.

This post hails the arrival of Mila Danielle Grayver on May 19, 2014, following a perfectly uneventful pregnancy. Family members are thrilled to welcome Mila into their inarguably normal home,  which is in Manhattan Beach, not Manhattan – and therefore nowhere near the Dakota. 

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

“Sorority House Massacre” Hits Home

The horrific events in Santa Barbara that left six young people dead and many others wounded have hit me hard. The killer began his rampage by slaughtering his college roommates. But his real target – spelled out in a series of chilling YouTube videos -- was clearly the pretty, popular co-eds who lived at the sorority houses of the University of California’s Santa Barbara campus. In my Roger Corman days, I worked on Sorority House Massacre II. But I never thought the events of that slasher flick would be played out in real life.

The classic “girls in jeopardy” films, which date back to Halloween in 1978, feature plucky young women menaced in nightmarish fashion by a male intruder. A “final girl” always survives to tell the tale, but not before many attractive females have been brutally slaughtered. Personally, I’ve contributed to the scripts of Concorde’s Slumber Party Massacre II and III, as well as to Jim Wynorski’s quickie take on Sorority House Massacre, not to mention his office-tower follow-up, Hard to Die. Wynorski’s involvement in the latter two films assured the viewer of buxom young lovelies being terrorized in their undies. But mostly Roger Corman mandated that his films in this genre be written, produced, and directed by women. His reasoning: if women called the shots, he’d be able to swear that the on-screen carnage was justified, because it simply reflected the fears felt by post-adolescent girls facing their budding sexuality.

Despite this clever self-justification, the fans of the Slumber Party and Sorority House series are largely male. I suspect what they like is the sight of nubile young women, scantily clad, screaming in horror as they flee from a relentless assassin. There are two Facebook groups I know of that celebrate these films. I’ve communicated with some of their members, and they’re hardly rooting for harm to befall the films’ female protagonists. In fact, they often strongly identify with the damsels in distress. Said one, “Women-in-jeopardy films as a whole appealed to me as a teenager because I was associating myself with the heroine of each film. I wasn't enjoying watching her get tormented. I was enjoying watching her survive. Overcoming the odds.”  These female characters, he said, were “going through the worst time of their life, but they were coming out on top. Battered, bloodied and bruised, they were still beating the bad guys.” 

And yet . . . a key component of all of these slasher films is that bad guy, someone who hates women and wants to make them suffer. He’s so attractive to viewers, in his dark and demonic way, that I’ve seen lively debates about which Driller-Killer (from Slumber Party Massacre I, II, or III) fans prefer. The killer’s backstory varies from film to film, but none seems much different from Elliot Rodger, who announced in a 141-page diatribe that “I will punish all females for the crime of depriving me of sex. . . .  I cannot kill every single female on earth, but I can deliver a devastating blow that will shake all of them to the core of their wicked hearts.” Rodger’s relentless anger and self-pity are hideous to contemplate, but I have the sinking feeling that somewhere out there someone is incorporating him into the script for a new slasher extravaganza.   
According to the newspapers, Elliot Rodger’s life was one of Hollywood privilege. Thanks to family connections, he hobnobbed with celebrities, went to the swankiest schools, drove a BMW on his killing spree. So sad that he went Hollywood by leaving a trail of blood.  

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Normal Heart: How Bruce Davison Found His Valentine at Christmas (with my help)

Scheduling HBO’s production of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart for Memorial Day Weekend makes perfect sense: the play is a memorial to those dead and gone in the early days of the AIDS epidemic. Kramer, who was surrounded by dying friends in the early 1980s, wrote The Normal Heart to galvanize the gay community, the health bureaucracy, and the public at large. It debuted at New York’s Public Theater in 1985, creating a major stir. None other than Barbra Streisand bought the film rights, hoping to play the key role of the female doctor who sympathetically confronts the crisis. But for ten long years she couldn’t find funding. Now, at long last, HBO will broadcast a full-length version on Sunday, May 25, with Julia Roberts as the doctor, and Mark Ruffalo filling the role of Kramer’s own alter ego, activist Ned  Weeks.

 I saw The Normal Heart in a tiny L.A. theatre, the Las Palmas, soon after it played New York. The cast featured Oscar-winner Richard Dreyfuss as Weeks and a pre-Misery Kathy Bates as the doctor. But the actor I’ll never forget was Bruce Davison, who dramatically succumbed to AIDS onstage, mere inches from those of us in the front row.

Davison has had a long movie career, starting as a teenage rapist in 1969’s Last Summer and spanning everything from Willard (1971) to Short Cuts (1993) to X-Men (2000). For Longtime Companion, the landmark 1989 feature film about the impact of the AIDS epidemic on a circle of friends, he won many awards, and was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. But that was still in the future when I talked to Bruce during the run of The Normal Heart.   

I was then writing for the Los Angeles Times. Drama editor Dan Sullivan had charged me with a series of articles tied to various holiday periods. For Christmas, he suggested I ask several actors how they felt about appearing on stage during a season when everyone else was home trimming the tree. It was a thrill to chat with Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, in residence at L.A.’s Ahmanson Theatre in Foxfire. I  loved the opportunity to meet Nancy Kwan too. But when I spoke to Bruce Davison, the conversation ended up changing HIS life. Here’s how it happened.

Bruce, a lively talker, told me he was delighted that The Normal Heart would be closed on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. He viewed his brief holiday from the show as “24 hours out of the trenches. I’d like to be with someone and share it. If you know of a beautiful woman with a turkey . . . .”  Continuing the interview, I alluded to flame-haired actress Lisa Pelikan, who had told me she was glad to be working at Christmas to distract from a recent break-up. Bruce was immediately interested: they’d never met, but she was exactly the kind of beautiful woman he had in mind. It was none of my business, certainly, but I encouraged him to look her up. From what I later heard, he bought a ticket to her play, then rushed backstage afterwards, exclaiming, “I’ve  heard you’re single!” When I saw Bruce a few weeks later, he said, “Thank you for Lisa.”

They wed on July 4, 1986 (I received a formal announcement), and eventually had a son named Ethan.  Of course, in Hollywood nothing good ever lasts. Bruce and Lisa divorced after twenty years, and are now both attached to others. Still, I treasure the memory of the time that I, a mild-mannered reporter, got to play Cupid.  

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

What’s in a Name?: Women Embracing Their Birthright

In Hollywood, everyone wants to make a name for himself. Or, of course, herself. Many mid-level performers keep tinkering with the spelling of their names in hopes of somehow rocketing to stardom. And it’s not just the unknowns: in 1971 pop singer Dionne Warwick, no slouch in the fame and fortune department, was advised by her astrologer to add a final “e” to her surname to encourage good psychic vibrations. (It didn’t work, and she went from “Warwicke” back to her original name a few years later.)

Then there are those celebrities who wed their co-stars and feel a sweet sense of obligation to take their husbands’ names as their own. If they’re smart, they hyphenate. When Farrah Fawcett married TV star Lee Majors, she became Farrah Fawcett-Majors. I can also think of Meredith Baxter-Birney (during her marriage to David Birney), Rebecca Romijn-Stamos (married to John Stamos), and Joanne Whalley-Kilmer (who fell for  Val Kilmer on the set of her first movie, Willow). None of these marriages lasted, and the hyphens quickly disappeared, with no career harm done.

By contrast, comedian Roseanne Barr variously billed herself (depending on her marital status)  as Roseanne Arnold, or Roseanne Thomas, or just plain Roseanne.  And I remember wags poking fun at Elizabeth Taylor by referring to her as Elizabeth Taylor Hilton Wilding Todd Fisher Burton Burton Warner Fortensky. Funny: much-married men don’t get mocked in the same way.

Which I’m sure has occurred to Susan Henry, author of the fascinating Anonymous in their Own Names: Doris E. Fleischman, Ruth Hale, and Jane Grant. Henry’s subjects are three American women who married circa 1920. All three were capable writers, journalists, and businesswomen, but all lived in the shadow of famous husbands: Edward L. Bernays (“Father of Public Relations”), Heywood Broun (popular newspaper columnist), and Harold Ross (editor-in-chief of The New Yorker). Each woman pointedly kept her birth name after she married, and then spent years struggling with post offices, record-keepers, and passport officials over a moniker she’d had all her life.

Doris Fleischman was for me an especially interesting case. She was the dutiful daughter of a strict father, and the man she married was equally controlling. It was husband Bernays who decided she should hold onto her own family name after they wed in 1922. When they checked into New York’s Waldorf-Astoria for their honeymoon, press releases trumpeted that by signing the register in both names they were making hotel history. (It wasn’t true, but Bernays was a master at self-promotion.) 

Fleischman worked closely with Bernays at the public relations firm that bore his name alone. In one respect, I wish she hadn’t been quite so successful. One of their best clients was the American Tobacco Company. As a smoker herself (despite her husband’s objections), Fleischman was instrumental in figuring out how to reach others of her gender. An early ad encouraging women to “reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet” paid off by appealing to the weight-conscious. Next, the goal was to persuade bold young ladies to light up in public places. This campaign (which preceded Virginia Slims’ “You’ve come a long way, baby” ads by many decades) emphasized cigarettes as “torches of freedom” for liberated females.
Cigarette ads, as we all know, generally do their work far too well. Eric Lawson, featured as a rugged cowboy in many Marlboro commercials, died this past January of lung disease at age 72. That makes the fourth former Marlboro man brought down by smoking-related illness. I wish Doris Fleischman had concentrated on names, not smokes. 

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Paul Robeson in Black and White

So Donald Sterling is once again dominating the airwaves, insisting that he’s not a racist. Personally, I’d love to imagine Sterling in the same room with the late Paul Robeson. Not that Robeson was a pro basketball player. But I suspect he could have been. Paul Robeson could do just about everything well. (Except, maybe, stay true to his marriage vows.) In the 1930s he became an international film star, then walked away to champion the plight of his fellow black Americans, along with working stiffs everywhere.

I’m mesmerized with Robeson right now because I just saw Daniel Beaty perform his one-man tribute, The Tallest Tree in the Forest. Robeson, it seems, was indeed tall . . . and handsome . . . and fearless . . . and extremely complicated. The son of a slave who escaped and entered the ministry, Robeson was born in genteel Princeton, New Jersey in 1898. In high school he was a four-sport athlete, but entered Rutgers University on an academic scholarship.

While at Rutgers he used his thrilling baritone voice to earn extra money. Meanwhile, he excelled on the debate squad, became a football All-American, and graduated as class valedictorian. Somehow he then managed to play NFL football while also attending Columbia University’s School of Law. But he ended his law career abruptly because of the racism all around him: he was not welcome in courtrooms, and one secretary refused to take dictation from a black man.
Instead, encouraged by his loyal wife Eslanda, Paul Robeson chose to concentrate on music and the theatre. During the era of the Harlem Renaissance, he starred in several ground-breaking plays, including Eugene O’Neill’s All God’s Chillun Got Wings and a popular revival of The Emperor Jones. He and Essie then relocated to London, where he was one of the first black men ever to play Othello. (His long affair with his Desdemona, Peggy Ashcroft, rocked his marriage, not for the first time. It managed to survive, but entirely on his terms.)
As Robeson’s stature in Europe grew, he began making films. The cinematic version of The Emperor Jones (1933) was the first major movie ever to star an African American male: in 1999 it was selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry. Robeson was also top-billed for his role as a native chieftain in Sanders of the River (1935), a English-made drama set in Africa. The finished film is a paean to British colonialism, with Robeson and the other African characters happily subservient to Commissioner Sanders, the Great White Father who solves all their problems. So appalled was Robeson when he saw the final cut that he fought to halt the film’s release.  
Most famously of all, Robeson was featured in the 1936 film version (directed by James Whale) of Kern and Hammerstein’s legendary Show Boat, singing the immortal “Ol’ Man River.” Today the staging  of that number looks crude indeed, but the force of Robeson’s presence still lingers. “Ol’ Man River” became his signature song, to the point where he changed the famous lyrics to reflect his own fighting spirit. And fight he did, embracing the Soviet Union for outlawing racism, then butting heads with the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Robeson had always championed Jewish causes, both at home and abroad, so one moment in Beaty’s play shocked me. Although Russian-Jewish friends, cruelly persecuted by Stalin’s regime, pleaded with him to speak out, he refused to denounce the USSR while on American soil. One more contradiction in a life that held many. But Paul Robeson was an enigma, and he just kept rollin’ along.