Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Hearing the Last of Janet Waldo, aka Judy Jetson (R.I.P.)

The last time I spoke to Janet Waldo on the telephone, she sounded like a sixteen-year-old girl. This seemed remarkable, because she must have been in her 80s at the time. Waldo, who passed recently at the ripe old age of 96, was an actress best known for her youthful voice. Her voice is what earned her the breakthrough role of Corliss Archer, a perky teenager who was the title character in an amiable radio comedy I faintly remember from my childhood.

Janet played her share of live-action roles in movies and on television. She’s remembered, for one thing, for appearing on I Love Lucy as a teenaged fan enamored of Ricky Ricardo. (She was 28 at the time.) But she truly made her mark as a voice actress, especially for Hanna-Barbera Productions. It’s hard to believe now how many households tuned in each week to watch The Flintstones, a Hanna-Barbera animated sitcom set in a tongue-in-cheek version of the Pleistocene. The Flintstones, on which Waldo played a battle-axe mother-in-law, was so popular with audiences of all ages that it spawned a similar series with a futuristic slant. This was The Jetsons, and Waldo’s portrayal of rock ‘n’ rolling daughter Judy Jetson was to be her most iconic voice role.

Janet specialized in voicing effervescent young women like race-driver Penelope Pitstop and the lead singer in Josie and the Pussycats. But as a thoroughgoing professional she could handle any voice, from that of a small child to an elderly crone. For an animated TV series based on The Addams Family, she took on six different voices, including those of Morticia and Granny. As she insisted to me when I interviewed her for an article in Performing Arts magazine, “I don’t do voices; I do people.” Still, like most voice actors she was an excellent mimic, one who could respond with ease to a director’s request for a sultry Mae West voice, or  a sweet Billie Burke, or a sexy-tough Barbra Streisand. For Fred Flintstone’s mother-in-law, she reached back into movie history and came up with “an exaggerated Marjorie Main.”

I first met Janet when I was working for Roger Corman at New World Pictures. Roger, who had just begun distributing prestigious European art films like Ingmar Bergman’s Cries in Whispers, picked up a charming French-language animated feature set on a faraway planet. The original title was Planète Sauvage, but we re-named it (with a nod to several American sci-fi classics) Fantastic Planet. In order to screen our movie in the heartland, we dubbed it into English. Since I was involved in both casting and the dubbing process, I was lucky to work with voice actors from the golden days of radio. Janet was one of them, and from the start I found her delightful.

While we worked on Fantastic Planet, Ralph Bakshi was heating up Hollywood with R-rated animated features like Fritz the Cat. Of course Roger Corman wanted a piece of that action. Someone came forth with an outrageous cartoon project called Cheap: we all knew Roger would respond in Pavlovian fashion to said title. After much dithering, Cheap became a raunchy piece of animation called Dirty Duck. Sweet, wholesome Janet Waldo was hired to do some of the voices. She told me she had a ball. But she was too embarrassed to put her own name in the credits.

Janet had a long happy marriage to Robert E. Lee, who with writing partner Jerome Lawrence created Broadway and Hollywood favorites like Auntie Mame and Inherit the Wind. He died in 1994, so I guess she’s rejoined him now.  

Friday, June 24, 2016

Keeping Britain Great: Kings and Queens and Princesses, Oh My!

So—Great Britain is once again at the center of the world. Queen Elizabeth, who turned a hale and hearty 90 on April 21, is now history’s longest-reigning monarch as well the longest-lived ruler of England ever. And, of course, people all over the globe are mesmerized by the outcome of the Brexit vote to leave the European Union.

In thinking about England’s place on the world stage, I can’t help remembering how often the movie industry has turned to British kings and queens for inspiration. The bloody, bawdy Tudors and their circle have been particularly popular on film. The first movie built around the ample figure of Henry VIII dates all the way back to 1911. Charles Laughton won an Oscar for his weighty performance in The Private Life of Henry VIII in 1933. He was thereafter so closely identified with the role that he played Henry once again twenty years later in Young Bess, in which Jean Simmons starred as Henry’s daughter and eventual successor, Elizabeth I. But the actress most identified with the first Queen Elizabeth was the formidable Bette Davis, who played opposite Errol Flynn in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essez (1939), and returned to the role in 1955’s The Virgin Queen.

What is there about British royalty that’s so attractive to American audiences? I don’t know, exactly. Maybe it’s a passion for ruffs, cloaks, and farthingales. Maybe it’s the opportunity for swashbuckling, or the fact that a film seems IMPORTANT (if not terribly serious in terms of our day-to-day existence) when there’s royalty involved. Producer Hal Wallis, for one, made quite a career out of epic sagas featuring the British royal family. In 1964 he produced Becket, with Richard Burton as a crony of King Henry II (Peter O’Toole), one who puts his life on the line when he starts taking his religion seriously. As a follow-up to this Oscar-winning hit, Wallis launched 1969’s Anne of The Thousand Days, turning Burton into a love-crazed Henry VIII and pitting him against an Anne Boleyn (Genevieve Bujold) determined to be a queen, not a mistress. Finally, in 1971, he tried for a royal hat-trick. In Mary, Queen of Scots he had two leading British lionesses—Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson—scratch and claw ferociously in their roles as Mary Stuart and her archenemy, Elizabeth Tudor.

Elizabeth I has continued to show up in more recent films. Her appearance in 1988’s charming Shakespeare in Love is little more than a cameo, but it won Judi Dench (who -- barely 5 feet  tall -- looks nothing like the tall, slender Elizabeth of history) a Supporting Actress Oscar. In 1998 Cate Blanchett won acclaim, if not an Oscar, for Elizabeth, a fascinating film about the making of a very young monarch. (There was also a 2007 sequel.)

Though films about the Tudors are still being made, in the twentieth-first century several hits have focused more on what it’s like to be a British monarch coping with the modern world. The top Oscar-winner for 2010 was The King’s Speech, in which a reluctant George VI (Colin Firth) must assume the throne because of his brother’s abdication. His struggle to conquer a bad stutter in order to make himself heard by the nation in the dark days of World War II is for me truly memorable. And of course there’s 2006’s The Queen, in which Helen Mirren as Elizabeth II faces both the perks and the challenges of her office, including the death of Princess Diana, thereby proving that she’s by no means an anachronism. All hail!

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Helen Scott: Chère Amie de Truffaut

Though my kinfolk are good people, one and all, I can’t think of any who changed the course of history or contributed to any major artistic achievement. But my journalist-colleague Lisa Reswick has legitimate bragging rights about an aunt who helped nurture the French film industry of the Sixties. And it’s partly thanks to that aunt, Helen Scott, that the great Bonnie and Clyde got made.

Let’s start at the beginning. Helen Scott, though New York-born in 1915, was raised in Paris, where her father served as a correspondent for the Associated Press. To the end of her days, it was her flawless knowledge of the French language, along with her feisty personality, that made all the difference. Her 1987 obit in the New York Times fills in details of her early professional life as a political journalist: “During World War II, Mrs. Scott broadcast for the Free French from Brazzaville, the Congo. After the war, she served as press attaché for Chief Justice Robert Jackson at the Nuremberg Trials of German war criminals. Later, she became a senior editor at the United Nations.” Throughout these experiences she displayed the deep sympathy for the underdog that had once led her (back in the economically dismal 1930s) to work as a Communist organizer.

In the McCarthy era, her past political leanings threatened her livelihood. But a New York-based job at the French Film Office  proved her salvation. Through her position she became involved with many of the leading lights of the French New Wave. In 1959 she came to know young French filmmaker François Truffaut, who was visiting the U.S. in conjunction with the release of his first directorial feature, The 400 Blows. The two became close friends and colleagues, exchanging heartfelt letters for many years. When in 1966 he shot an English-language film adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, she served as an uncredited assistant. She was also the interpreter during the 1962 interviews between Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock that were later turned into a classic film book.  

The relationship between Truffaut and the much older Scott was explored by Lisa Reswick’s daughter, Lillie Fleshler, who used their correspondence as a springboard for her senior thesis in Cinema Production at Ithaca College. Her short film (which was screened as part of a Truffaut retrospective at the  Cinémathèque Française in 2014) spotlights the letters, while also incorporating footage of an interview with Truffaut’s former wife, Madeleine Morgenstern. Morgenstern speaks with great affection of Helen and also of the man whom they both—in their way—deeply loved. The two women agreed that Truffaut was something of a brat, who “didn’t know what he wanted, wanted what he couldn’t have.” They both realized that he “needed love and acceptance from everybody, and especially women.” He was not, in other words, the ideal husband, and Helen felt the sadness of this realization, on Madeleine’s behalf.

Her own closeness to Truffaut led to an unexpected cinematic coup. Would-be screenwriter Robert Benton and his writing partner David Newman idolized Truffaut, and hoped to interest him in their original script, Bonnie and Clyde. It was Helen who helped them connect with Truffaut, who admired their work but had no time to pursue the project. Through Truffaut the screenplay made its way to Jean-Luc Godard, who was equally enthusiastic—and considered himself available. So Bonnie and Clyde could have been a French production.  Of course, it ultimately wasn’t, but Helen Scott remains part of the history behind the Arthur Penn masterwork that turned Benton and Newman from screenwriting newbies into Hollywood insiders..

Friday, June 17, 2016

"China Dolls": There’s No Business Like Show Business

Funny – she doesn’t look Chinese. Lisa See, whose mother is novelist Carolyn See, has explained her unusual history on her father’s side in On Gold Mountain: The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of My Chinese American Family (1996). Through a complex set of circumstances, beginning when her Chinese immigrant great-grandfather married an outcast white woman, See inherited a strong interest in the Chinese side of her ancestry. That interest has led her to write a number of bestselling novels set in China, including Shanghai Girls and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Her latest is China Dolls, which in telling the intertwined story of three Asian-American performers in the era just before and just after World War II graphically delineates the role of the Chinese woman on the American stage and screen.

The three heroines of See’s novel, who take turns narrating the story, become nightclub performers for very different reasons. Grace, a Chinese-American raised in a small town in the Midwest, has always felt inferior to her Anglo classmates. The movies are her refuge, but at first she sees no opportunities for women with Asian faces, aside from the Dragon Lady roles of Anna May Wong. Then she discovers a subculture of Chinese performers who imitate their All-American peers, billing themselves as the Chinese Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and even (as a spicy attraction at San Francisco’s Golden Gate International Exposition) the Chinese Sally Rand. Eventually Grace and the novel's other main characters—who have their own reasons to overcome their past—find jobs as dancers at a new San Francisco Chinatown nightclub called The Forbidden City.

The allure of this nightclub, which actually did flourish in pre-war San Francisco, lay in its titillation of mostly-white patrons with a floorshow combining the exotic with the familiar. The lavish décor was straight out of a fantasy opium den, and the all-Asian performance troupe delighted the customers with professionalism and sex appeal. One passage from the novel, in which the nightclub’s dancers are filmed on a local beach for a newsreel, gives some indication of the cross-cultural forces at play: “We lined up on the sand, wearing big headdresses that tinkled and glittered with every movement, and embroidered Chinese opera gowns with long water sleeves made of the lightest silk, which draped over our hands a good twelve inches. Our feet dragged in the sand, but our water sleeves floated and blew in the ocean breeze. We sidestepped until we were behind a coromandel screen set up incongruously on the sand to discard our headdresses and gowns, and toss them toward the camera in a manner bound to provoke good-natured chuckles. The music changed to a jitterbug. Now in bathing suits, we swung out from behind the screen. ‘Well, well, well,’ the announcer intoned with proper surprise. ‘What would Confucius say?’” 

The WASP enthusiasm for ersatz Oriental culture (evenings at the nightclub conclude with a spirited “Chinaconga” line) comes to a quick end with the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the entry of the U.S. into the war. See’s story line doesn’t overlook the situation of Japanese-American performers who try to evade relocation orders by masquerading as Chinese Americans. One such, historically, was funnyman Goro Suzuki, who changed his name to Jack Soo and went on to a successful Hollywood career on sitcoms like Barney Miller. As for See’s characters, they eventually learn to make ends meet by going out on the “chop suey circuit” of novelty nightclub acts. My favorite part of China Dolls was learning what American showbiz meant to perceived “lotus flowers” with roots in the Far East.  

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Women Under Attack: Theresa Saldana and Some Others

Somehow it’s fitting that, at the time that a particularly ugly campus rape (and its prosecution) is making news across America, media sources are announcing the death of actress Theresa Saldana. Saldana, who died of an unnamed illness at age 61, was a working actress celebrated for her role in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull and for a number of TV appearances. But the public best knew her for surviving an attack by a deranged fan, who traveled from his home in Scotland to track her to her West Hollywood apartment. On the morning of March 15, 1982 he approached her on the sidewalk and stabbed her ten times, only stopping when accosted by a passing bottled-water delivery man. Thankfully she recovered from her wounds, founded an advocacy group to push for stricter anti-stalking laws, and had the fortitude to play herself in a 1984 TV movie titled “Victims for Victims: The Theresa Saldana Story.” Re-enacting the scene of her attack for the cameras must have taken real courage. (Sadly, the story was repeated—with a much more tragic outcome—last week when a finalist on The Voice, singer Christina Grimmie, was killed after a concert in Orlando, apparently by yet another male “fan.”)   

It’s not only women who suffer at the hands of stalkers: look at what happened to John Lennon. But women, whether famous or not, are particularly vulnerable. Which reminds me of another death that occurred this past year, that of British actress Adrienne Corri. She may not be well known, particularly in this country, but personally I’ll never forget her. For it was Corri who played a ghastly scene in Stanley Kubrick’s brutal dystopian drama, A Clockwork Orange (released in the U.S. in 1971). In the film, Corri is an affluent housewife, lounging with her husband in an isolated suburban house filled with arty bric-à-brac. Suddenly, the sanctity of their home is violated by protagonist Alex (Malcolm McDowell) and his band of marauding delinquents, known in the parlance of Anthony Burgess’s source-novel as Droogs. As her husband, bound and gagged, is forced to watch, Corri’s character is attacked by the young punks. Her red jumpsuit is sliced away, leaving her naked and vulnerable. Alex then assaults her viciously to the cheery tune of “Singin’ in the Rain,” before ramming her with a phallic-looking piece of object d’art. The scene is staged by Kubrick to be darkly funny. Most of the first-run audience surrounding me at the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre howled with laughter. Personally, in all my days of moviegoing, I have never felt so female, nor so vulnerable.

Why would a woman want to play such a role? The legend is that Corri took the part when another actress refused to go through with it. For her, a role was a role. In the course of her long stage and screen career, she acted in the works of Samuel Beckett, and was directed by legends like Jean Renoir (The River) and David Lean (Doctor Zhivago). Her New York Times obituary describes her as “fearless,” and she was even able to approach a harrowing rape scene with a sense of humor.

But rape, as we keep needing to be reminded, isn’t funny. Jonathan Demme drove  home that point in a 1988 film, The Accused. The role of the victim of a brutal gang rape in a pool hall won Jodie Foster her first Oscar. The film forcefully argues against the “blame-the-victim” mentality that still shows up in too many courtrooms. Still, it’s sad that Hollywood actresses are so often rewarded for parts that trade on their characters’ victimization.