Thursday, January 21, 2021

When Lana Clarkson Met Phil Spector: To Know Him is NOT to Love Him


Well, music mogul Phil Spector is dead. I’m sorry, of course, for anyone who succumbs to COVID, but far be it for me to pay tribute to a madman and a murderer. Instead, I want to mark his passing by remembering his victim, Lana Clarkson. She was a B-movie actress—tall, blonde, and gorgeous—who on February 3, 2003 met Spector at Hollywood’s House of Blues, and accompanied him back to his castle-like mansion in (of all places) suburban Alhambra, California.  Exactly what happened between them that night remains a mystery, but she suffered a fatal gunshot wound to the mouth, and courts did not buy Spector’s claim that her death was an “accidental suicide.”

 I never met Lana Clarkson, but I knew many of the people involved with making perhaps her most notable film, Barbarian Queen (1985). It was a classic Roger Corman quickie, shot in Argentina by H├ęctor Olivera, a courtly Argentine gentleman best known for the satiric Funny Dirty Little War, and written by a Corman regular, the late Howard R. Cohen. Corman’s minions were well versed in the selling of movies by way of eye-catching poster art, and Boris Vallejo’s poster for Barbarian Queen says it all: it shows a gaggle of young lovelies who wear little but suntans, each of them brandishing a lethal-looking sword or spear. The catchline: “No man can touch her naked steel.” (At Concorde-New Horizons, we were good at coming up with suggestive turns of phrase.)

 Barbarian Queen well served the audience for which it was intended, which I think of as horny young men with money for video rentals. The irrepressible Joe Bob Briggs, a Texas-born promoter of B-movies, gave it a stellar review: "It's no Conan the Barbarian II, but it's got what it takes, namely: Forty-six breasts, including two on the male lead. Thirty-one dead bodies. Heads roll. Head spills. Three gang rapes. Women in chains. Orgy. Slave-girl sharing. One bird's-nest bra. The diabolical garbonza torture. Sword fu. Torch fu. Thigh fu (you have to see it to believe it)."

  The fascinating thing about Roger Corman’s Concorde flicks is that they merge a feminist outlook with raw exploitation. Corman leading ladies are as tough as they are gorgeous. They have no patience for being pushed around, and they can out-think -- as well as out-fight -- pretty much everybody in the room. Still, they do have this penchant for taking their clothes off, making the males in the audience very happy indeed. Corman’s many disciples certainly borrowed the master’s strategy. When I saw that moment in Titanic when Kate Winslet poses for Leonardo DiCaprio wearing nothing but the Heart of the Ocean necklace, I knew that alumnus James Cameron had learned his Corman lessons well. Ditto for the smart, tough Sigourney Weaver strippng down to her scanties before rescuing her cat in Alien. (No, director Ridley Scott didn’t work for Roger, but Hollywood in the Eighties certainly picked up on Roger’s style, then added a much bigger budget.)

 Movie heroines of old were always needing to be rescued. (See The Perils of Pauline, and everything starring Lillian Gish.) Corman heroines (like Angie Dickinson in Big Bad Mama and Pam Grier in just about everything) were always on the verge of being raped, tortured, or killed—but they knew how to turn the tables. That’s one of the very sad things about Lana Clarkson’s fate. In the movies, her Queen Amethea might have been threatened by rapacious bad guys, but she always managed to gain the upper hand. In real life, though, Phil Spector had her beat.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Sam Shepard: Writer, Actor, “The New Gary Cooper”

Shepard, as Yeager, is at left

The story of Sam Shepard is one of Hollywood’s most unusual. How many of America’s award-winning playwrights also end up as full-fledged movie stars? As a serious theatregoer, I’d thrilled to the jazzy rhythms of Shepard’s 1972 play, The Tooth of the Crime. At L.A.’s Mark Taper Forum, I’d also been present in 1977 for a New Theatre for Now presentation of his Angel City, but joined two-thirds of the audience in not coming back after intermission. Still, I have serious respect for Shepard’s mature domestic dramas, which include the Pulitzer Prize-winning Buried Child (1979) along which such other mature works as True West and Fool for Love. No question that he’s one of the most essential American playwrights of his era.

 So how did he wind up acting in movies? As John J. Winters’ definitive 2017 biography, Sam Shepard: A Life, makes clear, partly his native restlessness made him open to trying new things. And during his lifetime he always hung around with creative types who were ripe for experimentation. That’s how he chanced to be part of Bob Dylan entourage, charged with writing and shooting 1978’s ill-conceived Renaldo and Clara. In that same era, writer-director Terrence Malick convinced him to take the role of a taciturn farmer who’s blinded by his love of a much younger woman in the evocative Days of Heaven. The role suited him exactly: It turned out Shepard had no special gift for on-camera line-readings. But the camera loved his weathered features and the sense he projected of being close to the soil. The film’s producer explains how in the cutting room Malick “went with Sam’s silence and the way he looked when he had a big sky or a white field behind him.”

 Five years later, he landed his best role: as flyboy Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff. The film draws a contrast between Yeager’s authentic heroics and the flamboyant, petulant corps of Apollo astronauts. Fans remember the film’s opening, in which Yeager, on his horse, stares down a late-model jet amid the Joshua trees of the Mojave Desert. Director Philip Kaufman has said of this scene, “Sam’s got the persona of Gary Cooper, the tall solitary American on horseback.” The film earned him a 1983 Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, as well as a slew of offers for other acting roles. His second-billed 1982 appearance in a biopic called Frances had already introduced him to  actress Jessica Lange, who would become the center of his romantic world for decades thereafter. Together they appeared in Country, in which he again explored his farming roots. And he played in other ambitious dramas too, such as Ridley Scott’s Somalia film, Black Hawk Down and the well-received (though annoyingly titled) The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, in which he took the role of Frank James in a starry cast that included Casey Affleck and Brad Pitt.  

 At the same time, Shepard was also fattening his bank account by accepting “paycheck” parts in trifles like Baby Boom and the mostly-female weepie, Steel Magnolias. After a while I stopped hearing about him, either as an actor or a playwright, and wondered why. Winters’ book has the answer, in an epilogue added to the paperback edition. On July 27, 2017, Shepard died of complications from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) at the age of 73. Stoic to the last, he had let few people know that a degenerative illness was stealing his life away, thereby robbing stage and screen audiences of a distinctive and memorable presence. Winters’ book fills in the gaps nicely.


Friday, January 15, 2021

Wonder Woman At Home On the Range: Joan Crawford’s Johnny Guitar

Why did I want to watch a pulpy 1954 western called Johnny Guitar?  Let me count the ways. First of all, I’ve always been fascinated by the title. Secondly, it came out of an enterprising Poverty Row studio, Republic Pictures, that produced such major films as John Ford’s The Quiet Man and Orson Welles’ Macbeth, as well as hillbilly musicals, low-budget westerns, and flicks starring ice-skating queen Vera Hruba Ralston. Also, its director is Nicholas Ray, who began his career with haunting film noir dramas like They Live By Night (1949) and In a Lonely Place (1950), in which Humphrey Bogart gives one of his most distinctive performances. Just one year after Johnny Guitar, Ray charged into the bigtime by way of Rebel Without a Cause.

 And then there’s the fact that the movie stars Joan Crawford. Yes, Mommie Dearest herself, an actress whose career began almost at the start of the movie era, in silent films. In the 1930s, she played flappers, but her great period began in 1939 with The Women, then continued into her Oscar-winning 1945 role as a self-sacrificing mother in Mildred Pierce. By the time she shot Johnny Guitar, she was about 50, on her third husband, and heading toward her Grand Guignol era, during which she subverted her glamour-girl image in grotesqueries like 1962’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

 Johnny Guitar, though, gives her a role in which she is strong and svelte. Though the title refers to a mysterious guitar-playing stranger (Sterling Hayden) who stumbles into a weather-wracked saloon in the middle of nowhere, Crawford’s Vienna is clearly the queen of this domain. From her first appearance, in sleek black slacks, at the top of a staircase, we know she’s in charge. She’s also generous to her friends, shrewd about her business dealings, and tough on the bad guys who exist in abundance in this out-of-the-way spot. And what about her heart? As the plot moves forward, she blossoms, even dressing at one point in a filmy white gown to signal that she’s emotionally engaged. But we should not be distracted by her revealing of her feminine side. True, at one point she desperately needs to be rescued, but fundamentally she’s a winner all the way. This gal’s tough, and she’ll prove it before the final fadeout.

 By contrast, there’s a secondary female character, played by the always interesting Mercedes McCambridge, who denies her femininity in a way Vienna does not, and becomes, in the course of the film, her implacable enemy. Apparently the enmity was real: the two women hated each other, and it didn’t help that Crawford (who like McCambridge enjoyed abusing alcohol) was having an affair with director Ray during the shoot.  

 Instead of the usual good-guys-versus-bad-guys dynamic, Johnny Guitar benefits from a complicated triangular framework involving three factions. There’s Vienna and her employees at the saloon; her former lover and a batch of raggle-taggle misfits hanging out at a hidden silver mine; and finally the wealthy land baron (Ward Bond) and his minions who show up in both locales to foment trouble. Part of the fun is seeing such classic character actors as John Carradine, Royal Dano, and Ernest Borgnine show their stuff. Locations are cheap and unconvincing: there’s many a painted backdrop being passed off as the real thing. But the atmosphere within Vienna’s saloon is splendidly detailed and powerfully evocative. I suspect Quentin Tarantino had Johnny Guitar in mind when he created his own saloon as the chief set for The Hateful Eight. The world of Johnny Guitar, though, is less hateful than exciting.