There’s a reasonably well-known Monty Python sketch in which Pope Alexander IV critiques Michelangelo’s The Last Supper (OK, OK, yes, we know, but that’s how British comedy occasionally rolls). While a complete outline is unnecessary, sufficient to say the Pope is somewhat peeved that the finished work has three Christs (two thin and one fat), 28 disciples and a kangaroo. It ends with an exasperated Pope exclaiming, “Look, I’m the bloody Pope! I may not know much about art but I know what I like.”
I may not know much about art. But I know what I like.
I get that. Because, like most people, I know fuck all about art but I know what I like.
Regrettably (because not only does it date me horribly but places me at the very outer limits of contemporary art’s target market), part of what I appreciate is that it requires a certain level of skill. I like to look at something I know I couldn’t do myself. Something that requires talent and hard work and dedication.
Or, at least, it did.
It’s an old-fashioned conceit, to be sure, in this Age of Inclusiveness. Where anybody can be an artist. Where all you have to do is declare yourself an artist and, voila, an artist you become. And, in very many cases, be very well rewarded for it.
In my travels, I’ve been lucky enough to spend a lot of time in art galleries, checking out my favourite artists. I’ve seen monumental works by Dali across the world, from Madrid to Yokohama, Klimt and Schiele in Vienna, Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud at the Tate Britain, Jackson Pollock as far afield as Canberra and Venice, Botticelli’s Birth Of Venus at the Uffizi, and, without fail, whenever I was in Chicago, there had to be a stop at the Art Institute for Edward Hopper and Nighthawks. There were even times I grew to appreciate an artist by seeing their works in the flesh (so to speak), the best example being Van Gogh from viewing his works in the Hermitage.
Not surprisingly, I’m a great believer in the traditions of a formal art education, the apprenticeship system that started out with the Guilds of the Middle Ages into the Renaissance, that evolved into the Academies and continue in some shape or form to the present day at the conservative end of the art spectrum.
Hundreds of years ago, young artists would learn their craft from the ground up, literally from sweeping the stone floors of their masters’ studios, along with a range of ancillary skills such as grinding pigments and priming panels. If they showed promise, there were years rigorously developing their draughtsmanship skills by copying the works of established artists; Michelangelo, for example, spent much of his youth in Florentine churches, slavishly imitating Giotto.
The last two hundred years has been marked by a rolling tide of rebellions against such tradition. Pre-Raphaelite, Art Nouveau, Dada, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art. Just a sampling of the movements that railed against what had come before.
In some garret somewhere in the world, there seemed always to be some paint-splattered personage, with a catchy didactic ready to be flung, knife-like, at their betters and a band of followers eager to man the barricades.
The result is that art is no longer a spectator sport. The rebellions have come so continually and spun so fast that we are all now our own Che Guevaras with the merchandise to match. With our smartphones at the ready, we’re Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons and each and every one of the Kardashians in one underwhelming multi-media package.
Power to the people. And even if we have no traditional tangible talent, point and shoot, upload to Facebook or Instagram and, as the likes and comments swamp us with the toasty satisfaction that comes from the approval of complete strangers, we become not only the artist but the art itself.
And so we arrive at the 14th Factory, which has recently completed its run in Los Angeles. The organisers call it a “monumental, multiple-media, socially-engaged art installation” as well as the “largest experiential art project” the city has ever seen.
And, in a city that can lay claim to inspiring more social media than most, the crowds came, saw, recorded and uploaded in record numbers.
Its home was an empty warehouse complex in Lincoln Heights, on the edge of downtown. Hong Kong-based artist, Simon Birch and 20 collaborators put on a show that perfectly exemplified art in the age of instant gratification. Utilising video, installation, sculpture, painting and performance, it was satisfyingly snappy and tactile in ways that traditional art galleries can never be.
The audience became complicit in the exhibits, smartphones poised, making sure every trout-pout, upwardly tilted face and angled body is immediately shared with their followers. Can’t do that with the Mona Lisa.
There is, of course, a word for all this. The “artselfie” was coined by art critic Brian Droitcour in 2012. It is, he has said, part of the “…aestheticisation of everyday life in social media that has leeched the authority of image-making from mass media and from art”.
But is an art gallery that celebrates the artselfie really art? Who knows. And, really, who cares, when it looks as good as it does and provides so many self-interacting opportunities.
A room with 300 pitchforks hanging from the ceiling has a line of onlookers waiting patiently to take their own artselfies underneath. A reflecting pool in an outdoor courtyard contains dozens of salvaged airplane tail sections. The queue starts over there. A video installation showing, across multiple screens, a red Ferrari in a slow-motion car crash, with the adjoining room presenting smalls pieces of wreckage on a long table. Best you come back later.
And, at least to my undiscerning eye, the best of the lot. A full-size recreation of the eerily-lit Empire-inspired bedroom from 2001: A Space Odyssey (at a point in the film when the astronaut Bowman appears as old man before transforming into the Star Child). Masterminded by Birch and architect Paul Kember, it’s a major hit with the crowd and full points to the organisers who limit only a few visitors into the room at any one time. Instagrammers and Snapchatters swooned with delight.
Of course, the inevitable had to happen. In mid-July, a woman taking selfies accidently demolished one of the exhibits, causing an estimated $US200,000. Simon Birch, contacted in Hong Kong, was philosophical (though most likely delighted with the world-wide publicity which, invariably, led to claims the incident was staged). Any publicity, in the age of Insta-art, is good publicity.
So while there may be some who decry today’s “technically impoverished” artists, you can’t help but feel Simon Birch and 14th Factory have given the public exactly what they want. And what these precocious times need the most. In an ironic post-modern kinda way.
Inherent Vice didn’t make it far in the 2015 Oscars race, having gained only two very minor nominations (of course, as every member of the film community acknowledges, it’s an honour just to be nominated although you’re more likely to get laid or have the late night scribbles on the back of a Polo Lounge napkin green-lit by a major studio if you get one of the little golden guys. But that’s another thing. Entirely.).
Josh Brolin did tie for Best Supporting Actor (with Mark Ruffalo in Foxcatcher) at the prestigious Central Ohio Film Critics’ Association awards. So someone from the production does have a trophy to show for all their hard work, even if they only get to gaze upon its luminous presence every other week and maybe a little longer when Ruffalo is off doing Avengers sequels.
I should stop right here for a quick admission: I’m a big fan of director Paul Thomas Anderson. If ever there’s a theme park ride based on a Paul Thomas Anderson movie, I’ll be first in line. Especially if it’s Boogie Nights and roller skates are involved. But that’s another thing. Entirely
Until now, my favourite Anderson outing was There Will Be Blood (2007), a movie that was just so impressive on first viewing and gets better as time goes on. Granted, I’d never been much of a Daniel Day-Lewis fan (although he was one of best things about Gangs Of New York, another favourite). However, it was Day-Lewis’ titanic performance in There Will Be Blood that nudged him several points higher in my estimations.
Ditto for Joaquin Phoenix. Maybe it’s just a latent animosity that stems from having a name that’s so needlessly difficult to pronounce (what happened to the good old days when actors would go out of their way to create audience-friendly names? Whether they were born with something puzzlingly unusual – we’re looking at you, Marion Morrison – or just plain vanilla, they could be transformed into a Rip Torn or Tab Hunter?).
No, Joaquin doesn’t so much trip off the tongue than plummet screaming to the ground (note to self: it appears to be pronounced WAW – KEEM but please correct me if I’m wrong). As for his acting chops, I’ve never quite understood the adoration.
In Inherent Vice, Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest, Phoenix is a revelation. He’s so comprehensively immersed in the character that it’ll be difficult to believe him in anything else. That, my friends, is what acting is all about.
I generally don’t write about current release cinema. I leave that to the bulk of the blogging universe. But when it comes to Inherent Vice, a movie I know will stay with me a long time, I’ll make an exception. It helps that it encompasses two of my favourite things – detective stories and the history of Los Angeles.
Phoenix plays Larry “Doc” Sportello, an idealistic hippie stoner who, inexplicably, holds a private detective license. He lives in a scummy apartment in an equally scummy LA beachside community. Most importantly, deep down inside, Sportello is nothing more and nothing less than a reincarnated Philip Marlow.
Like Marlowe, he’s a hopeless (and occasionally helpless) romantic, a tilter at windmills, a champion of lost causes. The story begins when his lost love, Shasta, she of the long limbs and evocatively Southern Californian name, reappears with a plea to help her current lover, a wealthy married real estate mogul.
The time is 1970. The Summer of Love got the ultimate Dear John letter with Manson and Altamont the year before. Optimism and the hope for a better world has faded like reefer smoke on a Santa Ana. It’s a new decade and, despite the best efforts of Sportello and his ilk, big changes are in store.
On the mean streets that Sportello wanders, he must dodge skateboarders, neo-Nazis, an angry sociopathic cop who may or may not be his best friend, and Shasta, who maintains a vice-like grip on his heart. The cases he pursues fold back on themselves like Escher staircases. He’s beaten regularly, never paid, hardly accorded thanks. But he continues doing what he does because it’s all he knows. And the world, or at least Los Angeles, is a slightly better place because of it.
The mystery of Shasta’s missing boyfriend isn’t that important and logic really plays no part. It’s the figures in the landscape, the people he encounters along the way. It’s what they bring to him rather than how he addresses their problems.
Inherent Vice is another section of a much larger canvas slowing being assembled by Paul Thomas Anderson. From Boogie Nights and Magnolia, to Punch Drunk Love (2002) and on to There Will Be Blood (drawn from Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel, Oil!, and loosely based on oil tycoon Edward L. Doheny, who dotted the landscape of early 20th century LA with thousands of oil derricks), Anderson’s larger intentions seem to lie in creating a grand narrative of Los Angeles, its life and times, on par with a Diego Rivera mural.
In doing so, he’s contributing to a much grander artistic tradition; Hollywood (and, by association, LA) and the film industry grew up together. They are intertwined by far more than just geographic proximity. Inherent Vice (and, to varying degrees, There Will Be Blood, Magnolia and Boogie Nights), stands alongside the very best depictions of the city – LA Confidential (1997), Day Of the Locust (1975), Chinatown (1974), Robert Altman’s unconventional interpretation of The Long Goodbye (1973), and Sunset Boulevard (1950).
With Inherent Vice, the traditional narrative stream is both enlivened and complicated by two factors, the most obvious being its LA noir overtones. The next is that it’s based on a Thomas Pynchon novel.
I have no idea of the source material and would barely know where to find Pynchon in a bookstore if I didn’t have a few rather obvious clues to work with. I’m not a literature kind of guy, preferring genre anytime. It’s a survival thing. I’ve already died once and have no intention of being bored to death so, when that trusty reference resource, Wikipedia, says that Pynchon is noted “for his dense and complex novels”, I’m already reaching for the nitroglycerin tablets. Just in case.
On the other hand, I’ve been told Pynchon (note to self: PIN – CHIN) delights in inside jokes, popular music references, sex, drugs, and freaks, all thrown against the wall like a monkey with a handful of shit. Some sticks, some doesn’t. He’s beginning to sound like my kinda guy.
Then, invariably, someone, somewhere, compares Pynchon with James Joyce and I recall the fateful words of Admiral Ackbar: “It’s a trap!” So I’m back to square one, literature-wise. I’ll just have to be content with Pynchon on film. This may well be the perfect example of not wanting to read the book in case it spoils the movie.
I’ll admit Inherent Vice has its challenges. It pays not to anticipate too eagerly a conventional three-act format, no neatly-wrapped mystery with the guilty party named, shamed and brought to justice before the closing credits. Rather, the mystery lies in the journey (and in Sportello himself, in a Carlos Castaneda kinda way). It’s the story of Los Angeles as much as the temporary travails of the characters who bump around on the screen.
The exceptional supporting cast is a joy in itself. Josh Brolin in a man-mountain police detective with anger management issues who alternates between Portello’s worst enemy and saviour.
Special mention to Katherine Waterston as Shasta, Portello’s Guinevere in a black Cadillac Biarritz convertible. This is very much her breakthrough role; up till now, the acting accolades in her family have been heaped on her father, Sam, better recognised these days for his 16-season run as ADA (and later DA) Jack McCoy on television’s Law & Order (although also fondly remembered as Nick Carraway opposite Robert Redford in the 1974 version of The Great Gatsby).
Like Pynchon, Paul Thomas Anderson also has an appreciation for in-jokes and musical references. In a scene featuring his real-life wife, Maya Rudolph, the soundtrack swells with the coloratura soprano of Minnie Riperton on Les Fleurs (Google is your friend. I’m not here to provide all the answers.)
Is Inherent Vice a genuine masterpiece or a “coulda been, shoulda been” of the sort I generally love? Only time will tell. In the meantime, repeated viewings uncover details you may not have noticed before (much like a prog rock gem will still offer up undiscovered facets decades after it was first relegated to the remainder bin).
In all, it’s fair to say that Inherent Vice is a worthy addition to Paul Thomas Anderson’s evolving cinematic mural. And, at least to me, it’s as enthralling and intricate as Chinatown or The Long Goodbye.
Who wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to meet one of their heroes? Over the course of a career careening towards its fourth decade, I’ve had quite a few chances although experience has taught me to be wary. Singers, musicians, writers, actors, you may love their work but that doesn’t necessarily mean meeting them will be enjoyable or that they’ll enjoy meeting you. The celebrity ego, deeply-ingrained sense of entitlement, the after-effects of substance abuse, age, world-weariness, there are so many factors working against the average Joe being in the company of greatness, self-perceived or otherwise.
While I love their work, for example, I know enough about Jerry Lee Lewis and Hunter S. Thompson to acknowledge I’d never want to spend any time with them (not that I’ll have much of a chance with Hunter this side of the vale of tears).
There’s also the matter of timing. Your heroes are only human after all. Everybody has good and bad days. You just might be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
However, and I’m inclined to bold, underline and italicize however, there are those glorious moments when celestial bodies align and the people you’re most looking forward to meeting are everything you’re hoping for. And more.
As it was recently, aboard the cruise ship Sun Princess, on a voyage from Sydney to Auckland. I’d been commissioned to interview actor Gavin MacLeod, better known as Captain Merrill Stubing of The Love Boat; the editor knew I’d get a kick out of it and she was right. I’m a huge fan of 1970s television shows and The Love Boat is at the very top of the list.
It just so happened I had a copy of Gavin’s recently-released memoirs, This Is Your Captain Speaking, and one of the local Sydney television channels had run the complete series of Love Boat episodes in chronological order, most of which I’d watched.
For those too young to remember or not of this galaxy, it’s difficult to describe just how popular a show it was. It ran from 1977 to 1987, ten seasons in all. At its peak, it screened in more than 90 countries. It probably still is.
The Love Boat revolved around the adventures of a cruise ship crew – the ship’s chief medical officer, Dr Adam Bricker, generally known as Doc, purser “Gopher” Smith, bartender Isaac Washington, and cruise director Julie McCoy, overseen by a kind yet firm father-figure, Captain Merrill Stubing. A year into the run, producer Aaron Spelling decided it needed younger blood and introduced Stubing’s teenage daughter, Vicki, to the group.
For a one-hour show, it had something of a radical narrative in that each episode consisted of three stories. One emphasised the crew, another the passengers, and the third veered between the two. The guest stars provided a large measure of interest, anybody and virtually everybody who was reasonably ambulatory and within travelling distance of Los Angeles in those days appeared on the Love Boat; casting favoured well-known, if slightly overlooked, movie stars, some going as far back as the silent movie days.
So, you are asking, how did Captain Stubing come to be on this cruise ship more than a quarter of a century later? Soon after production wrapped in 1987, Gavin MacLeod was signed as an ambassador by Princess Cruises, which had provided the ships used in The Love Boat. The Love Boat itself was, as you’ll find in the opening credits, the Pacific Princess, although others in the Princess fleet stood in from time to time although only for exteriors or location shoots. The cast spent most of their time (at least for the first five seasons) on sets at 20th Century Fox in Century City, Los Angeles.
That Gavin has been an ambassador for Princess Cruises for far longer than he was captain of the Love Boat is remarkable. Founded in 1965, the company was acquired in 1974 by P&O, then taken over by Carnival in 2002. In the meantime, it’s gone from strength to strength; the 18th ship in the Princess fleet, the 3,560-passenger Regal Princess debuted early in 2014. Despite the vagaries of the tourism industry, Gavin has been retained as ambassador and today continues a busy schedule of promotions and appearances. In 2011, he celebrated his 80th birthday aboard the Golden Princess.
Gavin was born Allan George See in 1931 and grew up in an upstate New York town with the unlikely name of Pleasantville. At the age of four, he appeared in a Mother’s Day play at his local school and there experienced an epiphany. His young heart responded to the siren call of applause. He loved it, craved it, wanted more of it. As small as he was, at an age when most of us are still giddy with the novelty of walking or stringing half-intelligent sentences together, he knew he wanted to do whatever it took to hear that applause over and over again.
He was determined to be an actor.
It came to be so. Once out of high school, he moved to New York City where he worked as an elevator operator at Radio City Music Hall while he studied acting. He was young and inexperienced, on the very bottom rung of a career ladder he was anxious to climb but he had one more drawback than most of his contemporaries. He lost his hair at an early age and, as agents and casting people were quick to point out, that didn’t exactly make him the next big thing.
His confidence improved remarkably upon obtaining a second-hand hairpiece. Gavin (by this time, he’d taken another step upwards by changing his name to a more marketable one) readily admits it turned his life around; he even started dating a Radio City Rockette.
In short order, his future looked rosier. His performance in his first Broadway play garnered interest although another cast member, who went by the name of Steve McQueen, ended up on a far faster track. He made friends, including an actor by the name of Marion Ross, of which more later, and director Blake Edwards, and followed the trail of many actors heading west to Hollywood.
If the 1950s was the East Coast, by the end of that decade he was well established on the West Coast. He took on some movie roles, playing opposite Susan Hayward in I Want To Live (1958), Orson Welles in Compulsion (1959), and Cary Grant in Operation Petticoat (1959), and through the 60s seemed to pop up on every television show of note. Perry Mason, The Untouchables, Dr Kildare, The Munsters, Rawhide, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Hogan’s Heroes, Gomer Pyle USMC, and The Flying Nun, the list goes on. He spent two years on McHale’s Navy with Ernest Borgnine but, as an ambitious actor, he felt under-utilised and under-appreciated.
Then, as the 1970s dawned, things got a whole lot better. He was offered the role of Archie Bunker in a new sit-com called All In The Family. It was edgy and subversive, far ahead of its time, and now regarded as ground-breaking for shattering the staid orthodoxy of American television. Bunker was a blue-collar American, rigidly conservative, bigoted, sexist and misogynistic. To creator Norman Lear, it was a satire although many viewers considered it more a documentary.
Gavin was uncomfortable with the material and immediately knew he wouldn’t be able to portray such a character, even in a comedy. He turned it down. Carroll O’Connor took it on and it became a hit. It ran for nine seasons and netted a trove of Emmy Awards (including four for O’Connor). There were no hard feelings. All In The Family wasn’t the door of opportunity he’d failed to knock on but it led directly to his first great television success.
Almost immediately after turning down All In The Family, Gavin auditioned for the role of Lou Grant, boss of a fictional television news team that would be at the centre of a new comedy called The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Again, he sensed that a hard-nosed yet soft-hearted martinet wasn’t quite his speed and he asked for and won the role of Murray, a sort of Everyman.
Murray was much more a Gavin creation and it resonated with audiences. The show was an ensemble project with even the titular star barely bigger than her supporting cast. Many of the friends he made on set, such as Betty White, continue to the present day. The Mary Tyler Moore Show was a huge success, running for seven seasons and picking up an unprecedented 29 Emmy Awards (a record not broken until Frasier in 2002).
When it ended in 1977, Gavin wondered whether he’d come close to having the same experience, the same enjoyment in turning up each day to work with a close bunch of friends, ever again.
The answer came soon enough. Gavin was offered two pilots. One was a Western with Jeff Bridges in the lead. The other was actually the third pilot to be filmed for an idea that producer Aaron Spelling couldn’t and wouldn’t let go. The first two efforts hadn’t quite gelled and were turned down; some of the previous cast were held over for a third try.
The role of Captain was begging (the first pilot in 1976 had Australian actor Ted Hamilton – known to local audiences from Division 4 – as the Captain; the second Quinn Redeker, an actor best remembered for Days Of Our Lives but who notably received an Academy Award nomination for the screenplay of The Deer Hunter).
Just a few months after the second pilot had been turned down, Gavin and the cast were shooting exteriors aboard the Queen Mary in Long Beach. In an echo of his Lou Grant experience, the initial Love Boat script called for the Captain to be quite strict, a disciplinarian. Gavin suggested softening the character, making him more of a father figure. Spelling agreed, the pilot was completed. And the top-rating US ABC network, which was already airing smash-hit Spelling productions of Starsky & Hutch, Charlie’s Angels and Fantasy Island, jumped aboard.
And this, as they say in the classics, is where I came in. At the appointed time to meet Gavin MacLeod, I was ushered to his suite, armed with notepad, pen, copy of This Is Your Captain Speaking (and an Extra Fine Point Sharpie in black, for the all-important autograph), camera and digital voice recorder.
Oh, and eight pages of notes. Did I mention I was a huge fan? Of The Love Boat, 70s televisions and Hollywood in general? Just saying. So, anyway, eight pages of notes didn’t seem excessive for a one-hour interview, although the 42 points I’d bullet-marked for discussion may have tipped the scales slightly into the overly optimistic category.
In an interview situation, I’m happy to take a passive role. Turn the recorder on, chat a little while assessing the interviewee, point them towards the desired subject and do the occasional sheep-dogging but, if they want to digress and it seems relevant or interesting, let them.
An interview will rarely progress the way you envisage. It can be one of those brightly-wrapped parcels under the Christmas tree that reveals a lump of coal. Or it can hold the most magical, enthralling of treats. You just never know what you’re going to get. Some of my best interviews have come from the most unlikely of sources, often because I allowed them to talk about what interested them, without too much in the way of interruption or continually dragging them back to the designated subjects.
Gavin MacLeod greeted me warmly, his handshake firm, his smile genuine. It was soon obvious that this was going to be one of those magical times, when all I needed to do was to switch on the recorder.
Stories, anecdotes, recollections, they all came thick and fast, a lifetime of funny, heart-warming recollections, delivered in a style that recalled Milton Berle and a million other Borscht Belt comedians that Gavin would have associated with in the old days. Gavin was raised a Catholic and remains a committed Christian but there’s a certain rhythm to the delivery, a way showbiz veterans tell a story that borrows much from Jewish traditions; comedic, self-effacing, annotated with a little gentle kvetching.
Aside from the acting roles he did land, an interesting aside were those that were almost his. It was his long friendship with director Blake Edwards that provided the best instances. Edwards put him into the comedy classic, The Party (1968) with Peter Sellers and allowed him to improvise a quick, wonderful scene with a hairpiece. Such was the high regard that Gavin was held by Edwards, that he was considered for numerous other parts. Gavin almost took the Peter Falk role in The Great Race (1965) and the part of Mr Yunioshi in Breakfast At Tiffany’s (1961) that was eventually played by Mickey Rooney. It was on the set of Breakfast that Gavin first met Audrey Hepburn.
Yet I’m more eager to learn more about The Love Boat and Gavin is happy to accommodate me. He revealed that one of the pleasures of playing Captain Merrill Stubbing was in meeting so many of Hollywood’s most revered actors. Having three plots running in each episode allowed any number of actors the chance to shine and it’d be easier to list those in Hollywood who didn’t appear on the show.
In terms of oldest to youngest, Love Boat guest stars ranged from silent movie stars Lillian Gish, Janet Gaynor (in 1929, she won the first Academy Award for Best Actress) and Luise Rainer (still living in London at the age of 104, she has the distinction of being the first actor to win two back-to-back Oscars for Best Actress, for The Great Ziegfeld in 1936 and The Good Earth in 1937), to such 70s pop cultural staples as Andy Warhol and designers Halston and Bob Mackie.
Gavin was often awestruck when meeting so many he’d idolised over the years, yet their own reactions could be even more surprising.
“Can you imagine going to work, and there would be people like Helen Hayes, the first lady of American theatre, and Mildred Natwick. I’ve been on the stage since I was four years old and I wanted to be like all these people, and here they are on my set and they’re saying how nervous they are. Helen Hayes said to me that she did one appearance on The Love Boat and was seen by more people than had seen her in her entire career on stage.”
It was such a great honour working with so many fine actors, Gavin says. “They all knew their lines, they were all prepared.” The difference between traditional and modern actors was readily apparent, though. “If they were from the theatre, it’d be one, maybe two takes. If they were from television, it may be eight or nine takes.”
Gavin gleefully recounts those actors who appeared the most. He mentions Charo, an exuberant Spanish-American entertainer who shtick revolved around her generous figure and penchant for mangled English (a 70s version of Sofia Vergara), who racked up eight appearances. “She was so much fun,” he offered. And close friend Florence Henderson (Mrs Brady from The Brady Bunch), the record holder with 14 times.
Gavin’s wife, Patti, who he married in 1974, divorced in the early 80s, and remarried in 1985, played five different roles on seven episodes.
There were also the cross-over episodes with other Aaron Spelling shows, where the Love Boat cast interacted with characters from Charlie’s Angels and Fantasy Island.
Among Gavin’s favourite episodes, he keeps returning to a two-part episode in Season 5 called The Love Boat Follies. It had an amazing cast including Ethel Merman, Carol Channing, Ann Miller, Della Reese, Van Johnson and Cab Calloway in a tribute to old-time Hollywood musicals. Incorporating several dream sequence song-and-dance numbers, it allowed Gavin, resplendent in a sequined captain’s uniform, to effortlessly show off a different range of skills.
Gavin recalls that Merman and Channing got on each other’s nerves due to a long-running dispute about who would be collected first each morning by the studio’s limo service. “That episode was one of the highlights of my career,” he says. It didn’t win favour with the critics but that’s no surprise; those who felt obliged to determine the public’s taste rarely cut The Love Boat any slack, a situation that, all these years later, still makes him laugh. “It’s great to be part of something the critics hated but was so successful.”
Another favourite was also a two-parter from Season Five in 1981, which was filmed in Sydney although the visit wasn’t quite everything Gavin could have anticipated. The plot line revolved around the Love Boat crew gathering for the wedding of cruise director Julie McCoy.
Filming had progressed well and included the usual scenes of petting kangaroos and other wildlife. The wedding was scheduled for the day before they were to return to the United States and the penultimate scene was where Captain Stubing would give Julie away to her fiancé, played by Anthony Andrews.
The church was St Mark’s in Darling Point, which would gain a further soupcon of notoriety just a few years later as the place where Elton John married Renate Blauel. On this day, however, rehearsals went well but, when filming commenced and Gavin had to chase Julie as she fled the church in tears, he fell on the uneven flagstones and broke his ankle. For the last few scenes remaining, he was strapped to a trolley and photographed from the waist up.
He has since returned to Sydney a few times. “I just love the people,” he enthuses.
A good friend of Gavin’s who made multiple appearances on The Love Boat is Betty White, who was also part of the ensemble on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. “She’s a National Treasure,” he says. Gavin joined her in filming a recent Air New Zealand air safety video and became the target of tabloid newspapers, reporting they’d had an on-set affair. He laughs it off. “Betty is 93, I’m 83; we’re just happy we can walk.”
The ship on which we were conducting this interview, the Sun Princess, has its own Love Boat connection. In 1998, it was the setting for The Love Boat: The Next Wave, a short-lived continuation produced by Aaron Spelling and starring Robert Ulrich as the Captain. It lasted just two seasons but one episode brought together the original Love Boat crew for a reunion.
While Captain Stubing by this time has been elevated to Commodore, the most disturbing aspect has yet to be verified. The series hasn’t been released on video or DVD and only the sketchiest of synopsis is available on the Net yet such that is available suggests that Julie McCoy and the lovable yet romantically-indiscriminate Doc express their long-submerged passions for each other.
Gavin has no memory of this storyline and is rather horrified at the prospect. “That’s so unrealistic, it couldn’t happen,” he says finally. “I would see her more with Isaac. They were very close friends.”
For those who are wondering, the original Love Boat hasn’t fared so well. The Pacific Princess, launched in 1971, had a long and illustrious career, serving under the Princess Cruises banner until 2002. In 2013, it was broken up for scrap metal in a Turkish salvage yard; in a bizarre coda, two workers dismantling the ship died when overcome by toxic gases.
Gavin could have carried on this conversation for far longer and I would have been more than happy to listen. Over the next few days in his company, I watched him interact with the passengers; he was always gracious and patient, happy to answer their questions, scribble an autograph or pose for photographs. At the Princess Theatre, he hosted a chat about his career in front of a capacity crowd, and charmed them all.
For someone of his age and experience, it would be excusable if he wished some peace from his ever-adoring public but he never disappointed. He had a genuine commitment to giving his fans his best, to returning the complement they’d shown him over the years by keeping his shows at the top of the ratings and paying to see his movies.
Unlike many celebrities, there’s no sense that he feels more privileged than anyone else. He’s just like you and I, only his gifts have led him along a different path. He’s had a good life, his hard work and talent has paid off, and he seems genuinely delighted that he is still attracting the love and respect of people he’s never met.
Gavin MacLeod is a fine ambassador for Princess Cruises and doubtless a marketing asset. But he also reminds us that nostalgia isn’t such a shallow pursuit, that in recalling the good times, whether twenty-five months or twenty-five years ago, is a way of commemorating our lives, loves and experiences and those special to us. Of putting aside our differences, the mis-steps and tribulations, of slipping into that deep timeless reservoir of remembrance and bathing in its warm waters.
For me, all it took was meeting one regular guy who has lived a most extraordinary life.
Note: For those who have been paying attention, this article will seem familiar as it originally ran in May 2011, not long after I started this blog. Over time, it’s slipped so far down the listings that it’s virtually inaccessible but I thought it worth resurrecting as a good example of how a sense of place can be evoked just as much by a person as anything else.
Of the twenty to thirty times I’ve visited New York (I’ve lost track of exactly how many), it’s this incident that I most associate with the city. It brings back so many ancillary memories. While I’d never want to live there, New York remains in my Top Five favourite places.
It was in the late 1990s and I was in New York researching an article on the newest and trendiest martini bars. In reality, this turned into something of a continuing quest and, several visits later, I was still hard at work. It was a tough job but somebody had to do it. I owed it to my readers to be as thorough as possible and damn the consequences to my liver and other vital organs.
On this particular trip, I planned to cover four martini bars a night for the duration of my stay. That evening, I’d started out at the Ritz-Carlton on Central Park South, went on to the historic Algonquin Hotel, then to Pravda, a very fashionable bar just south of Houston Street, virtually next door to the building where Grace Adler works with Karen Walker in television’s Will & Grace.
Pravda was below street level with vaulted ceilings and a run-down quality that lent it, at least to New York bar-hoppers, an authentic Russian appearance. By this time, dangerously, I was on my third martini and feeling no pain. To those whose sole experience with cocktails is with the stunted Australian variety, carefully measured out with laborious precision, it’s worth pointing out that an American cocktail is much, much bigger. Alcohol is cheaper and the size of the drink is often governed by the tip you left for the last one.
At Pravda, I had my fourth martini of the evening in a plush private booth, washing down caviar and blinis. Just as I was considering calling for the bill, the hostess rushed up explain that a VIP group was imminent and would I mind terribly vacating the booth? If I’d be happy to move to a table in the middle of the room (in reality, about 20 feet away), she’d send a round of drinks on the house.
Who was I to turn down such a kind invitation?
Within minutes, in walked Nicole Kidman, the Academy Award-winning actress of The Hours (2002), The Others (2001), To Die For (1995) and, one of my all-time favourite movies, Moulin Rouge! (2001). She was accompanied by her sister, Antonia, and another woman I took for a minder. I was aware that Nicole and husband Tom Cruise were then filming Eyes Wide Shut with Stanley Kubrick in London; it appeared she was in New York briefly for an awards ceremony.
Our Nicole, as she is known in Australia (born in Hawaii of Australian parents, there’s long been a national pride in her achievements and we even went so far as to consider Tom Cruise, during their marriage, as a sort of Australian-in-law) looked radiant that evening, every inch the movie star, in a body-skimming strapless black evening dress that highlighted her pale flawless skin. She was the embodiment of a movie star. Although not generally the type to intrude on celebrities, I’d certainly consumed enough rocket fuel to think Nicole would be happy, even eager, to greet a fellow Australian.
I held back for a while, aware that the true measure of a celebrity encounter is in the exit line, something witty and sophisticated and memorable. After a suitable period of reflection, it came upon me in a hot rush of originality and creativity. I knew without a doubt that she would be impressed; one Aussie chatting without artifice to another. The skillfully-rendered exit line would be the perfect way to sign off. My sharp but self-deprecating humour, delivered with typical Australian panache, would, I felt sure, be well appreciated after the endless parade of phoneys and sycophants she endured in her professional life.
In hindsight, I recognize that the tingle I felt was not really anticipation but more likely a premonition of rapidly approaching disaster, a train wreck of truly momentous proportions. The engine was tearing down the track, the throttle on full. The bridge was down and the river high. I was in the driver’s seat, Casey Jones cap at a jaunty angle, martini glass in hand, and a maniacal cackle issuing from my frothy lips. The inevitable was rapidly approaching and there was nothing I could do about it, even if I wanted to.
Standing a little too unsteadily, I pointed myself towards Nicole’s table. Three anxious faces turned at my approach but, once Nicole heard my accent, she seemed to relax. As far as I can remember, she was enchanting and attentive but I have no memory whatsoever of the conversation.
Suddenly, the time seemed right. I deftly maneuvered the conversation towards the exit line and then, just as I was about to permanently impress the Greatest Living Actress of Our Generation………my mind went blank. I stood there uncertainly, my mouth moving but nothing coming out, a sense of helplessness and growing hysteria compounding by the second. If Travis Bickle had suddenly pressed a handgun to my forehead, I still wouldn’t have been able to remember the line.
The combination of my apparent consternation, my mouth motioning silently like a goldfish and my swaying from side to side may have led them to believe I was about to be ill. They shrank back in the booth. I was desperate to flee so, after what seemed an eternity, I blurted out the first thing that popped into my head.
“You’ve come a long way since BMX Bandits.” I then turned for the door and stumbled inelegantly into the night.
Not long after, Nicole and Tom split up. Was it one of those wild coincidences, I wondered, or had our encounter coloured her decision? Had Our Nicole realised that what was missing from her life was the meat and three veg of a down-to-earth Aussie guy just like she’d met that fateful evening in New York, like the ones she’d left behind when stardom, and Tom Cruise, came calling?
Later, of course, she married Keith Urban, the singing country superstar from Caboolture, Queensland, and her fairytale was complete. Coincidentally, I’d met Keith a few times in the early 1990s when I was working on a book on Australian country music and always found him delightful and entirely uncomplicated. I’m sure he’s still so.
That niggling sense of guilt continues to this day. I can’t help but think that, in some miniscule way, I was responsible for Nicole and Tom’s divorce. Had a nameless Aussie guy with an easy repartee and far too much vodka brought a Hollywood marriage undone? Only Tom’s eventual autobiography will tell.
A friend called, inviting me along to a preview screening of the new movie, Pompeii. I was bemused and more than a little curious. The trailer was interesting and I was quite looking forward to seeing it. But I also knew my friend and his taste in movies, which ran to what were once referred to as art-house.
He has a well-honed disdain for anything resembling commercial Hollywood cinema (a few days before, we’d seen Nebraska together. I’d sat through so many like it in the 1970s when the kite that was the New Hollywood was as high as many of its participants and there were no reasons I could see to revisit those days. True, Bruce Dern, who was never the most engaging of character actors, rating slightly below Warren Oates for his capacity to engender excitement, was excellent even if I was too often reminded of Jack Nicholson the morning after an Oscars after-party. That director Alexander Payne was constantly signalling the movie’s “importance” by a) filming in black-and-white and b) unfolding the narrative at a pace that made the downhill progress of treacle on a winter’s day seem like NASCAR sailed a little too close to emotional manipulation in my book.).
I wondered, then, if my friend hadn’t mixed up his directors.
Pompeii is directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, whose career has a joyfully unashamed popcorn aesthetic. His Resident Evil series, starring his wife, Milla Jovovich, was based on a computer game as was his Mortal Combat (1995), while his other films, as director and, generally, producer and scriptwriter, includes Death Race (2008), AVP: Alien Vs Predator (2004) and an ever-so-slightly steampunk version of The Three Musketeers (2011).
The W.S. (which stands for William Scott) delineates him from another Paul Anderson, that of Paul Thomas Anderson, another hyphenate, with an output definitely more attuned to the mature demographic. This Paul Anderson attracts acclaim like shit to a Shih Tzu, having been responsible for Boogie Nights (1997), Magnolia (1999), There Will Be Blood (2007), and The Master (2012), all of which were garlanded with Academy Award nominations (eight in the case of There Will Be Blood).
I didn’t want to miss this preview or the reaction of my friend. As it turned out, the difference in directors hadn’t occurred to him. Like me, he’d seen the trailer and thought it had potential. I was still along for the ride, though; Pompeii was never going to be anything more than the sum of its parts (and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. To me, movies are enjoyable flights of fancy, narrative wonders that temporarily eclipse the disappointments of everyday life. These days, a frozen Coke and a Choc Top far outweighs the appeal of Mahler and the emotional root canal of Death In Venice).
I try not to count the anomalies in popcorn movies (continuity errors are another matter). Too distracting. But there was something I couldn’t ignore. The hero, who goes by the name of Milo (don’t ask), as a small child with more than a passing resemblance to Emil Minty, is the sole survivor of a massacre of his Celtic village by Roman centurions. He is sold into slavery and becomes a gladiator.
Much is made in the production notes of Paul W.S. Anderson’s extensive research into his subject material. Which leads us to Milo’s casting; the character’s people are Celtic warriors, the most feared of the barbarian hordes who rampaged across Europe, ruffling the togas of the ancient Greeks and, later, Romans, in the process.
Celts were renowned warriors, generally characterised as tall and muscular, towering over their Mediterranean foes. So in casting the lead role, it appeared Anderson had a certain inclination towards Orlando Bloom (who he’d worked with on The Three Musketeers). Bloom, being otherwise occupied, the casting call went out, which must have attracted every barista, indie musician and underwear model in North America. Kit Harington, who knew his way around a sword from playing Jon Snow on Game Of Thrones, eventually got the gig. That Harington was even smaller than Orlando Bloom didn’t seem to bother anybody.
Anderson’s female lead of choice, Milla was also busy but, in the spirit of feisty waifs, Emily Browning was signed as the love interest, Cassia, the daughter of a Roman nobleman. Already well-known to fanboys for the saucy bits in Sleeping Beauty (2011) and Sucker Punch (2011), Pompeii was well on the way to satisfying its target demographic. At least on paper.
In surveying the result, it’s worth reflecting on why so many actors in swords-and-sandals epics are required to emulate mid-century BBC radio announcers. Kiefer Sutherland, as the arch baddie, Corvus, a Roman senator with more than a touch of the Jack Bauers, except crueller, crash-tackles the accent conundrum with characteristic flair. Variety, in its review of the movie, suggested Sutherland was impersonating Boris Karloff. That’s fair although I also detected Charles Laughton and Sydney Greenstreet, all of them delivering their lines while wearing ill-fitting dentures.
If another of the Roman baddies, played by Joe Pingue, is anything to go by (doing a wicked version of Frank Thring in his Biblical epic days) is anything to go by, there may well have been a competition on set to impart the fruitiest menace.
Competitive acting aside, Pompeii is an enjoyable hyphenate – action-adventure-disaster-movie-romance. The characters and situations may be well-worn but that doesn’t make it any less entertaining. The art direction and digital effects are good, and the 3D (filmed, not post-production) immersive if a little muddy.
The forbidden love between the Roman noblewoman and barbarian gladiator is contrasted with the volcano as it glowers over the city, bubbling, threatening to break its confines, in cutaways that will have even the most naive of teenage boys simmering along. The explosion of molten heat grows closer by the minute and so too does Mt Vesuvius.
Kit Harington is buff and affects a take-charge demeanour but doesn’t totally convince. Emily Browning is effulgent as ever. Their pairing is not the most electric but there’s an undeniable drama in their quest to escape the city and the engulfing firestorm, which threatens to transform them into ashen Lladro.
Sutherland is the true delight; he chews the scenery in big meaty hunks, spits it out and whips it up into a double-baked cinematic soufflé.
A notable quibble is Pompeii’s curiously muted approach to the violence and eroticism that should be expected from such a storyline; bodily fluids flowed more prominently in the cable Spartacus. Overall, though, Pompeii is enjoyable and, in the right circumstances, worth the price of admission.
Perhaps, as Anderson did with The Three Musketeers, the movie could have benefitted from a bit of steampunk. Or even, as in Resident Evil, zombies. Nothing wrong with injecting a little originality into a bog-standard plot.
As I consoled my friend, who had been hoping more for Bergman or Bertolucci, I noted that while W.S. definitely wasn’t Thomas, there were far worse things he could be. For example, he’s certainly not Uwe Bole, a director with a similar aesthetic who has fashioned something resembling a career from movies based on video games. While W.S. in most cases pleases the fans, even ultra-finicky fanboys, there’s a general consensus that Bole has come closer than anybody in history to achieve alchemy in that he consistently manages to transform celluloid into stinking piles of dog turd.
Pompeii mightn’t be Paul W.S. Anderson’s best movie but, on many levels, it does what it sets out to do. It’s an enjoyable companion for an empty couple of hours, a fizzy drink and some snack food. Sometimes, that’s all someone needs.
Amidst the sunshine and palm trees of Beverly Hills are deep shadows, some of which have lingered for a very long time. Where North Rodeo Drive intersects with Sunset Boulevard is the garish confection known as the Beverly Hills Hotel. Opened in 1912, it has hosted just about every Hollywood celebrity since the silent film era; the only reason more scandals and tragedies associated with the Pink Palace aren’t better known is the cone of silence maintained by management, an institutionalised gossip vacuum which has snapped a lid tighter than Tupperware down on its influential and highly-valued guests.
Guided tours of the immediate area point out the public park just across the road where pop star George Michael indiscreetly answered a very different call of nature in 1998 into the arms of a waiting policeman; the house of Linden Drive where, in 1947, gangster Bugsy Siegel was gunned down in the lounge room of his girlfriend’s home; the cosy suburban cottage where another hard man, mob enforcer Johnny Stompanato (who, coincidentally, worked for Mickey Cohen, the man who took over Siegel’s operations) was stabbed to death by fourteen-year-old Cheryl Crane, daughter of actress Lana Turner in 1958.
And within walking distance from all of these is a location on North Rodeo, now much changed, where, on a chilly evening a few weeks before Christmas 1944, a beautiful and talented thirty-six-year-old actress decided she’d had enough. Dressed in blue silk pajamas, she retired to bed with a nightcap of 80 Seconals and a glass of brandy, and was ushered into that strange, dark and enduring kind of immortality that only Hollywood can generate.
I came to know Lupe Velez not through her movies, many of which I’ve since had the privilege to discover, but from a collection of vintage publicity photos. I’ve been collecting such items since the mid-1970s but it’s not been until on-line auction sites like eBay opened up the market that the truly choice stuff has become readily available, especially to someone as far removed as Australia.
On visits to Los Angeles, my first stop would generally be my favourite showbiz bookstore, Larry Edmunds (founded by Larry himself in 1938; in true Hollywood underbelly fashion, he exited life with his head in a gas oven just three years later. The store, however, continued under his name). On Hollywood Boulevard, a few blocks from the corner of Vine, it holds somewhere around 500,000 photos, 6,000 movie posters and 20,000 movie and theatre books.
It’s in a part of Hollywood that’s ground zero for any serious movie fan, with a heritage that stretches back to the very earliest days of orange groves and nitrate stock. Within a few minutes’ walk is the restored 1923 Egyptian Theatre, now operated by the American Cinematheque as one of its LA revival houses (the other being the Aero in Santa Monica); the Musso & Frank Grill, opened in 1919, where such writers as Raymond Chandler and F. Scott Fitzgerald were regulars and where I dined on one visit with cult 70s director, Monte Hellman; Boardner’s, a classic 1940 cocktail bar that has changed little since Robert Mitchum and Ed Wood (possibly wearing a fetching angora sweater and pearls; no jaunty scarf) would knock back shots (it’s so unashamedly dowdy and original, it was used in LA Confidential without very little set dressing needed); and Micelli’s, dating back to 1949 with the best spaghetti and meatballs around.
Hence, like Pete Seeger, we turn, turn, return to Lupe Velez. As I mentioned, I didn’t know a lot about her when I bought these photos but they were so beautiful and the prices so very right I couldn’t resist.
What I did know was from recent rescreenings of her Mexican Spitfire series on late-night television. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
María Guadalupe Villalobos Vélez was born in San Luis Potosi, in north-central Mexico, in 1908. She was dancer who came to the United States to further a show business career. She was young, beautiful and extremely exotic, qualities that worked in her favour when she was asked to do a screen test for MGM.
Although that didn’t pan out, she was hired by Hal Roach for a Laurel & Hardy comedy, Sailor Beware (1927). With a vivacious and comedically combative nature, Lupe’s star rose quickly and by the time silent film was being supplanted by sound, she was a leading lady. In the pre-Code years, she became even more popular. This was despite Hollywood producers not displaying an overly evolved vision of her possibilities; her Latin heritage and accent had her playing largely ethnic roles although on occasion they veered towards the ridiculous (Russian, American Indian, even Asian; in East Is West (1930), she played Chinese as did that other well-known ethnic actor, Edward G. Robertson).
While she handled drama well, and she could sing and dance with the best of them, she really shone in comedy, gleefully overplaying her Mexican heritage into something of a caricature. Fiery and argumentative with a motor mouth capable of paralysingly-funny malapropisms (“You’ve been trifling with my afflictions,” she angrily informs one unsuitable suitor), the peak of her comedy was undoubtedly the Mexican Spitfire series produced by RKO in the 1940s.
From the early efforts, The Girl From Mexico (1939) and its sequel, The Mexican Spitfire (1940), the series encompassed eight movies and, although largely featuring the same plots, are great fun. It’s interesting to compare Lupe with Sofia Vergara of television’s Modern Family and trace the lineage of kooky, Spanglish-challenged south-of-the-border media portrayals through the decades, from Lupe via Carmen Miranda and Charro to the present day. Some things, it seems, never change.
It’s difficult to know just how close Lupe’s on-screen character was to her own but some clues lie in her often stormy relationships. She was romantically linked with many men including silent movie star John Gilbert. She married Johnny Weissmuller, the Olympic gold medal swimming champion and on-screen Tarzan (who, legend has it, a Hollywood executive discovered by the swimming pool of the Beverly Hills Hotel) in 1933. Lupe and Johnny were a volatile combination. They divorced in 1939.
However, Lupe’s great love was Gary Cooper, who she met on the set of the 1929 silent movie, The Wolf Song. Again, it was a relationship that proved rocky, prone to violent arguments and physical confrontations; when Cooper had an affair with Marlene Dietrich on the set of Morocco (1930), Lupe famously threatened murder and most probably would have if the mood had seriously taken her.
Despite her best intentions, it seemed Lupe’s temper as much as her temperament drove any chance of love and happiness from her. She made another bad choice with married Austrian actor, Harald Maresch. In 1944, she found herself pregnant and alone and in December took the fatal overdose that also claimed the life of her unborn child.
It’s barely worth mentioning Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon and his treatment of this sad episode but it’s there if anyone cares to look.
Whether she meant to end it all, had had enough and wanted the pain to stop or if it was a cry for help that went unanswered, we’ll never know. There are some who suggest that, today, Lupe would be diagnosed bipolar.
What is possible is that Lupe Velez, in modern times largely forgotten (aside from Kenneth Anger’s sordid Grand Guignol spin on her passing), is well on the way to being rediscovered. Australian author Michelle Vogel’s Lupe Velez: The Life and Films of Hollywood’s “Mexican Spitfire” was published in 2012. The film rights have been optioned and a biopic is planned, produced by and starring Ana de la Reguera (Cowboys and Aliens).
In the meantime, enjoy these wonderful old photos of Lupe and seek out her films. I’m sure you’ll agree she was remarkable and certainly didn’t deserve what happened to her – during her life and after.
It’s the realisation that chills many of us, haunting those early morning hours before dawn, when our subconscious is at its most vindictive.
You live, you collect, you die. And a new generation of collectors are waiting and eager to pick through the pieces and the cycle starts all over again.
I’m not even sure when I started collecting, or even why, but it would have been sometime around the mid-1970s and I was drawn to Hollywood movie posters, lobby cards and stills. Collecting was in its infancy and there were few places, especially in Australia, to acquire such pieces. Prices were ridiculously low. An avid movie-goer, it was a way of extending my interest in film, of acquiring things that other people didn’t have.
In those pre-Internet days, collecting was a solitary occupation. I had no idea how many others, with interests like mine, were out there. Eventually, with eBay and other on-line marketplaces, the market exploded and I discovered many, many others like me. The walls came down and we were able to obtain choice items, often from the other side of the world.
No matter how obscure our interests, whether it was vintage Hollywood memorabilia (like me) or barbed wire, airline sick bags, fossils, shellac 78rpm records, 19th century cookbooks, farm machinery, or anything else people collect (and it’s likely that there’s nothing out there that doesn’t attract a hardened core of collectors like birds of prey on roadside carrion), the Internet brings us all together to discuss, critique, evaluate, acquire, disperse and/or regift.
The Net giveth and the Net taketh away. Collectors like to think they’re in control. They buy what they want, decide on the extent on their holdings, and sell their duplicates or weaker pieces to acquire better ones.
The elephant in the room is the one thing they can’t control – their own mortality. They can spend their entire lives amassing the most fantastic collection, ticking every box they’ve ever envisaged. But time is running out. Eventually, the fruits of their labour will outlive them. And, in most cases, it will be dispersed. At fate’s most humiliating, it will be simply dumped or destroyed by relatives who have no idea what they’re dealing with. Or it will go to auction houses or eBay, parted out, item by item, to people with the same interests, merging into other collections.
As Sammy Davis Jr. was wont to observe: the rhythm of life is a powerful beat.
Take Lester Glassner, for example. Ring any bells? No, thought not. No reason why it should. I have no idea whether Lester was a Catholic but, for collectors, he must rank as a patron saint. To be a collector, it’s necessary to have something of an obsessive nature. Lester turned obsession into an art form, in the nicest possible way.
It all started, innocently enough, for Lester in the early 1960s when he purchased a Mickey Mouse lamp from a junk shop in Buffalo in upstate New York. It was the mere hint of a breeze, an almost imperceptible dropping of barometric pressure that quickly built into a cyclonic frenzy of collecting which never abated.
He gained such recognition as a collector of what became legitimised as pop culture that, on his death in 2009, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times both published lengthy obituaries.
He concentrated not just in one area but across an almost unlimited range and scope, with so many different collections that he was probably uncertain of what he had. His holdings of vintage movie stills, for example, eventually totalled more than 250,000 pieces and he made a considerable income from licensing these for newspaper, magazine and book reproductions.
His four-storey townhouse on East 7th Street in New York City became crammed with his holdings.
As the New York Times observed: “Dolls and wind-up toys, plastic fruit sculptures and costume jewelry, sunglasses and makeup kits, greeting cards and matchbooks, salt and pepper shakers and Christmas ornaments, not to mention movie stills, posters, cardboard cut-outs, books, magazines, records and 8- and 16-millimeter films: they made up a museum-sized collection. And they turned his long-time home, a brownstone on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, into, literally, a private museum, one that Mr Glassner would gladly show to friends, and friends of friends.”
His personality had much to do with affection and respect he generated. Again from the New York Times: “Soft-spoken, with a gentle manner, Mr Glassner was by most accounts an eccentric man but not an antisocial (or even unsociable) one, as consumed hobbyists have been stereotyped. He was apparently gifted (or cursed) with the contradictory attributes of an avid collector. He could be terrifically discerning but he could also be omnivorous. He was a relentless browser of antique stores, Internet marketplaces like eBay and collectors’ catalogues.”
He published a book about the influences on his collecting in Dime Store Days (Viking Press, 1981). It had a foreword by Quentin Crisp and introduction by Anita Loos, author of the 1925 novel, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes; when Loos died in 1981, she left Glassner her hat collection.
Some of his collections remain intact. In 2001, he donated almost 500 vintage movie posters to the Library of Congress. The earliest was a 1921 poster of The Adventures of Tarzan, starring Elmo Lincoln, while others included Gone With The Wind and The Wizard of Oz (two of his favourite films), Sunset Boulevard, Mildred Pierce, and Rebecca.
A collection devoted to vintage African-American memorabilia including some 2,500 rare children’s, theatre and film books, was donated to Buffalo State College.
Many other items were dispersed through auction houses and eventually made their way onto eBay. While most movie stills available on eBay are modern reprints, and to the practised eye readily distinguishable as such, it’s still possible to find original vintage stills at remarkably reasonable prices.
An original movie publicity still is a remarkable item. The weight, wear and look (a sepia-like tint of age), with a back marked by photographer or studio stamps, archive notations (from such as Lester Glassner’s collection) or press releases. Some in my meagre collection (at least compared with Lester’s) are 80 years old and it’s not entirely necessary to be a romantic to feel the hands they’ve travelled through in that time – from studios to newspapers or magazines, buried for years in filing cabinets then liberated to collectors and archivists such as Lester and, finally, to me.
I’ll let them go one day, these treasured pieces of Hollywood’s lost art, carefully arranged, hair and make-up exactingly so, costumes draped and stylised, poses held stock still, breath in, backs straight, while bulky plate cameras drew agonisingly long exposures under the florid heat of arc lamps on airless soundstages for movies that no-one now remembers and indeed may no longer exist.
I may let them go voluntarily or not. But it’s a cosy realisation that I’m part of a continuum, a guardian of sorts for something special. That I’m in rarified company with people like Lester and, although I’ll never be in his league, I recognise some of his qualities as my own. And, hopefully, what I will pass on will continue to be treasured as others who preceded me did.
Many, many thanks to long-time reader and avid travel blogger Ashley Paige (no, not the Californian bikini designer – for those who fret about such things – but the East Coast anthropology student) of the fortheloveofwanderlust blog for nominating me for a Versatile Blogger Award.
As a condition of my nomination I must list 15 of my favourite blogs, a tricky task as I subscribe to so few. I’ve put in a little research and found some wonderful blogs that align with my interests.
If ever there was a subject worthy of a Broadway musical, it would be the coterie of elegant swans that surrounded Truman Capote. Beautiful, stylish and inevitably wealthy, they came from all manner of backgrounds but what they had in common was that New York City was their world and the world was their playground, much as it was his.
That Capote could charm such creatures was no real surprise. His wit, as sharp and entangling as razor wire, was the perfect accompaniment to every dinner party and social soiree.
When Breakfast At Tiffany’s appeared in the pages of Esquire magazine in November 1958, the burning question became: who was the real Holly Golightly? Even more pressing, amongst his circle of friends and admirers, was – could it be one of us?
Early in Capote’s novella, the unnamed narrator meets one of Holly’s friends, a West Coast agent by the name of O.J. Berman. He tells the story of “discovering” a 15-year-old Holly at the Santa Anita racetrack in Los Angeles. She was involved with a jockey at the time and, despite thick glasses and an almost impenetrable Okie accent, he detected certain qualities that could have made her a star.
“…it took us a year to smooth out that accent,” Berman confides. “How we did it finally, we gave her French lessons; after she could imitate French, it wasn’t so long that she could imitate English. We modelled her along the Margaret Sullivan type, but she could pitch some curves of her own, people were interested….”
Berman arranges her to test for an upcoming movie, The Story of Dr Wassell, starring Gary Cooper and directed by Cecil B. DeMille. The day before she’s due to audition, Berman gets a phone call from Holly saying she’s in New York and has no intention of returning.
This is one of the principal clues towards identifying the real Holly. There actually was a Story of Dr Wassell, with Cooper and DeMille, which was released in 1944. Gerald Clarke in Capote: A Biography (1988) ventures that this was a reference to Doris Lilly, described as a “tall, pretty, streak-blonde starlet”. Wassell is Lilly’s only Internet Movie Database entry, where she is rather ingloriously listed as “Civilian (Uncredited)”.
Lilly went on to become a journalist and author, best known for her 1951 bestseller, How To Marry A Millionaire. Interestingly, the 1953 movie adaptation co-starred Marilyn Monroe, a close of friend of Capote, who had futilely championed her as Holly in the film version of Breakfast At Tiffany’s.
Lilly was interviewed by George Plimpton for his 1998 book, Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career.
“There was a lot of wondering about who the original Holly Golightly was,” she said. “Pamela Drake and I were living in this brownstone walk-up on East 78th Street, exactly the one in Breakfast At Tiffany’s. Exactly. Truman used to come over all the time and watch me put make-up on before I went out…There’s an awful lot of me in Holly Golightly. There is much more of me than there is of Carol Marcus and a girl called Bee Dabney, a painter. More of me than either of these two ladies. I know.”
Carol Marcus had fallen in with a teenage Capote in the early 1940s and introduced him to a circle of friends, including Oona O’Neill (daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill, who married a 54-year-old Charlie Chaplin when she was 18 years old) and heiress Gloria Vanderbilt and the group prowled such celebrated nightclubs as El Morocco and the Stork Club.
Marcus had a short-lived career in Hollywood as Carol Grace; she was best known for marrying author William Saroyan twice (the first time when she was just 16) and then actor Walter Matthau. “I married Saroyan the second time because I couldn’t believe how terrible it was the first time. I married Walter because I love to sleep with him,” she later said.
Bee Dabney was an artist who was briefly engaged to George Plimpton although it ended badly; she ran off with a man she met at the engagement party.
With the hardcover publication of Breakfast At Tiffany’s, Capote’s career soared further and, inevitably, the search for the real Holly became more frantic. A woman who shared Holly’s surname sued Capote for $800,000 but the suit quickly stalled. Capote was quoted as saying: “It’s ridiculous for her to claim she is my Holly. I understand she’s a large girl nearly 40 years old. Why, it’s sort of like Joan Crawford saying she’s Lolita.”
(As an aside, it’s interesting to note that Doris Lilly would later become a close friend of Crawford, from 1967 living in the same apartment block.)
Capote himself was not beyond muddying the waters to maintain interest in his most famous creation. In a 1968 Playboy interview, he spun an elaborate story about the real Holly being a German immigrant he met when they both lived in the same brownstone on the Upper East Side.
Another interesting clue comes by way of another of Capote’s friends, author James A. Michener, whose novel Tales Of The South Pacific (1947) was adopted as a Broadway musical and subsequent movie, South Pacific. In an essay penned as the foreword for Lawrence Grobel’s Conversations With Capote (1985), Michener tells of a woman he firmly believed to be the model for Holly. Although he doesn’t name her, he describes her as “…stunning would-be starlet-singer-actress-raconteur from the mines of Montana. She had a minimum talent, a maximum beauty, and a rowdy sense of humour. Also, she was six feet, two inches tall, half a head taller than I, a head and a half taller than Truman.”
This occasioned a competition between Michener and Capote for the woman’s affections, although she leaned (in more ways than one) more towards Capote. “They made a stunning pair, this statuesque miner’s daughter soaring above the heavens, this rotund little gnome dancing along beside her,” Michener wrote.
As an accompaniment to his celebrity status, Capote undoubtedly loved the attention as much as the scarlet swirl of notoriety that swept along the discussion of Holly’s origins.
In all probability, Holly was a mix of many women. A little of this one, some more of that one. Doris Lilly, Carol Marcus, Michener’s unnamed companion, Capote’s mother, Capote’s own idealised alter ego, and maybe even splashes of his very own coterie of gorgeousness he called his “swans” which included Gloria Guinness, Babe Paley, C.Z. Guest, and Slim Keith.
Capote’s fiction draws so heavily from his own life and the people he knew that sorting the real from the imaginary is a Herculean task. In his most famous work, the 1966 In Cold Blood, he approached this from a different angle, creating an ambitious mix of real-life events and improvised reportage that, for want of a better description, was labelled a non-fiction novel.
Yet, unknown to anyone, let alone the beguiling members of New York society who had allowed this strangely beautiful interloper into their lives, he had another agenda. He was planning a literary masterpiece peopled with his friends and foes. In essence, he’d been planning it even before he finished Breakfast At Tiffany’s, giving it the title of Answered Prayers.
He finally signed a contract for it in 1966, hot on the heels of In Cold Blood; deadlines, however, came and went, contracts were renegotiated and it wasn’t until the mid-1970s that a couple of unconnected chapters appeared in Esquire.
By that time, Capote was well used to people quizzing him about whether they would appear in the book, whether they could expect literary glorification or abject and enduring humiliation. The longer the project meandered, the more it seemed the result would be the latter rather than the former. He was well aware of, and even delighted in, the power he held. When the question inevitably arose, he would tease: “Not yet but, like Forest Lawn cemetery, I’ve reserved a plot for you”.
When Esquire printed these tantalising glimpses in 1975-76, it made for turgidly compulsive reading. The overall effect was to rankle his social circle. Secrets that had been shared with him, sometimes over decades, made their way into print. Mojave was a thinly-disguised tale of one of his closest and oldest friends, Babe Paley and her husband, television executive William S. Paley. Le Cote Basque followed; if Mojave was a snide aside in a crowded room, Le Côte Basque, which referred to a fashionable restaurant preferred by New York society, was a screaming hissy fit that, however artfully, made public all manner of indiscretions.
Babe never talked to Capote again, the real-life model for one of the main characters committed suicide and New York society turned their elegant backs en masse. He had driven his swans away. By the end of the decade, Capote was alone with the demons that had always haunted him, increasingly filtered by prescription drugs and alcohol.
Answered Prayers was never to see publication beyond the chapters that originally appeared in Esquire. Through the late 70s and early 80s, whenever questioned about its progress, he continued to obfuscate. Close to the time he died in 1984, he even handed a close friend a safety deposit box key, claiming it held the completed manuscript. No trace of it was ever found.
I know of fervent movie fans who play out elaborate rituals before their favourite films. Prom dresses and pigs’ blood for Carrie, chain smoking in the shower and Benzedrine for All That Jazz. And don’t even think about Single White Female.
Xanadu (1980) is one of those movies that never quite achieved its full potential, a coulda’ been shoulda’ been masterpiece, a disappointing sum of numerous wonderfully satisfying parts. It’s a musical that is the glittering wrapping around a grand love story set against a 70s roller disco backdrop.
The best way to fully appreciate this criminally under-rated slice of movie magic is to dress the part: leg warmers and roller skates, the old style not the in-line, and something acrylic and flowing. Natural fibres just won’t give you the same feeling.
Roll up the flokati rug to expose the bare boards. A large unencumbered viewing space is a necessity especially for the final, glorious dance scene when you must skate with your arms stretched above you, wrists crossed, lycra-sheathed hips bumping out the sensuous disco beat, your entire body held straight and proud. Beware of small, enclosed spaces. There’s nothing so humiliating than being in the midst of a major dance number and sprawling across a nest of coffee tables.
The beating heart of Xanadu is Australia’s darling, Olivia Newton-John, known proudly throughout the length and breadth of that great brown land as Our Livvy. Australia has always adhered to a carefully-qualified paraphrasing of the “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses” ethos except in this case it’s more akin to “give me your Grammy-winning, Golden Globe-grabbing, Oscar-adorating, million-seller masses from across the oceans and we’ll make them our own”.
Thus, Our Livvy was born in England but, more importantly for our celebrity-embracing culture, settled in Australia with her family at the age of five. The roll call of Australia’s adopted entertainers include Andy Gibb and the Bee Gees (born in England); AC/DC (England and Scotland); The Easybeats (England, Scotland and the Netherlands); Jimmy Barnes and John Paul Young (Scotland); Split Enz, Crowded House, Dragon and Russell Crowe (New Zealand), and Nicole Kidman and Mel Gibson (United States). The best Australia can rightfully claim as their own is one half of Air Supply.
Through the 70s, Olivia Newton-John was a recording sensation, topping the charts worldwide with such hits as If Not For You, Banks Of The Ohio and I Honestly Love You before breaking into the movie big-time with her stellar turn as the squeaky-clean good girl out to snare bad boy John Travolta in Grease (1978).
The hits continued and it seemed as if she could do no wrong. She was attached to Xanadu before there was even a script, not that one actually appeared until well into the shooting schedule.
Our Livvy is cast as Terpsichore, one of the daughters of Zeus and a muse, a goddess who inspires creativity in mortals. In modern day Los Angeles is artist Sonny Malone (Michael Beck), who earns his living from turning record covers into giant advertising murals and fears he will never find his true creative calling.
“Sometimes I see more in the covers than what is really there,” he says tellingly; deep inside, he knows that in the right circumstances he could be the da Vinci of promotional painting. But he anguishes over his craft. “Guys like me shouldn’t dream anyway.”
As an aside, this seques beautifully with a comment I overhead recently at a TEDx conference where two trend spotters were discussing Xanadu. One said: “At its core, Xanadu seeks to examine the deepening chasm between continental and analytic philosophy up to and including Hegel, the emphasis on metaphilosophy on one hand and its repudiation by the continentals and the development of the logical positivist approach on the other; in particular, and it’s a question Wittgenstein agonised over until late in his career, should leg warmers ever really be paired with lycra?”
At the lowest point in Sonny’s artistic journey, Terpsichore and her eight muse sisters spring from a wall on the Venice boardwalk. In a flowing white peasant dress with ribbons decorating her blonde hair, she decides it more prudent to disguise herself lest she be confused with the numerous other muses already flooding Los Angeles and adopts the name Kira.
She straps on a pair of roller skates, leaving her sisters behind to dance to a rock-symphonic Electric Light Orchestra number in an alley and goes in search of Sonny. Her virginal beauty, thick Australian accent and habit of answering questions with more questions while skating in circles, beguiles and inspires Sonny.
Later, Sonny meets up with a clarinet player, Danny Maguire (Gene Kelly). Danny was a featured player in Glenn Miller’s big band in the 1940s but gave up music after loving and losing the girl of his dreams (a dance sequence between Our Livvy and Gene Kelly reveals that girl to be Kira only he doesn’t appear to recognise her; time and bedevilling disappointment has coloured his memories to a fetching shade of Alzheimer’s).
Sonny and Danny set out to find a venue in which to open a disco. Kira magically leads Sonny to the cavernous Pan Pacific Auditorium, a real-life Art Deco landmark located in the Fairfax district near Farmers Market. (It burnt down in 1989, something of a metaphor for the film itself.)
While debating a name for their new club, Kira suggests Xanadu, which implies either she was also a muse to Coleridge or that the lending library on Mount Olympus is unusually comprehensive. When Sonny declares his eternal love for Kira, she discloses her true identity and says they can never be together.
Skating the gravel-pocked pavement of true love, Kira and Sonny fall desperately in love; he travels to the alleyway mural at Venice Beach and leaps through into Mount Olympus which looks like a cross between an empty stage set and Tron, where he implores Zeus for Kira’s hand.
It looks like his quest will be in vain. He returns to the real world in time for Xanadu’s opening where Danny, Sonny and Kira skate in circles for the final dance number leading a cast of hundreds of colourfully-dressed guests; it’s an explosion of satin shorts, feathered hairstyles, lycra, jersey dresses, body shirts, undulating hips, and leg warmers.
Just when all seems hopeless with Danny broken-hearted amidst the celebrations, a waitress who bears a startling resemblance to Kira brings him a drink. Double-take on Sonny’s part and fade out.
On release, the movie bombed badly; one magazine reviewed it with the unnecessarily harsh: “In a word – Xana-don’t”. The soundtrack, however, with such numbers as Xanadu, Magic and Suddenly, with writing credits split between ELO and long-time Livvy collaborator, John Farrar, charted well.
It’s difficult to know exactly where it went wrong. Our Livvy and Gene Kelly were absolute delights. Michael Beck, with an acting style as wooden as Pinocchio, much less so, although he’d just come off the cult hit, The Warriors (1979), and was considered a hot property. Beck’s passing resemblance to singer Andy Gibb has since created some confusion and many still think it’s Our Livvy and Andy Gibb together in Xanadu; the combination is certainly worth entertaining.
There were also reports from the set that the script was constantly being rewritten throughout production; by the time shooting wrapped, there were six different versions of the script.
Overall, though, Xanadu remains a delight, even if it’s somewhat of a guilty pleasure. It is one of the most comprehensively satisfying movies of the disco genre, just slightly above Can’t Stop The Music (and that’s saying something, although I’m not quite sure what) and Thank God It’s Friday.
With so many fans and so much timeless attention lavished on this paean to love and artistic inspiration, Olivia Newton-John and roller disco, Xanadu will remain a muse to all its fans.
In the 70s, before the accountants took over Hollywood and the merits of a film came to be judged largely by its opening weekend gross, there occurred a vivid flowering of cinematic creativity. Scorsese, Coppola, Peckinpah and more rode the monster surf of the American New Wave but none were more audacious than Robert Altman.
After honing his craft as a documentarian, short film maker and director of television shows, he burst onto the scene in 1970 with the vibrantly shambolic MASH. The green light glowed above subsequent projects and there followed such critically-acclaimed, though less successful, films as McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), The Long Goodbye (1973), Thieves Like Us (1974) and California Split (1974).
By mid-way through the decade, Altman had cemented a reputation both as a visionary film stylist and a perfectionist who would not be cowed by studios or producing partners. Yet scripts continued to flow his way. In 1975, he was approached to direct a film about the country music industry, intended as the debut vehicle of Welsh singer, Tom Jones. Altman, in his characteristic go-to-hell manner, kept the city and dumped the script and star.
The result was Nashville, undoubtedly Altman’s masterpiece, a bold and enterprising delight that just gets better with each viewing. Richly detailed, the foundation was a screenplay by fledgling writer Joan Tewkesbury, responsible for Thieves Like Us. Altman had sent Tewkesbury off to Nashville to scout out suitable storylines. In collaboration with Altman, the resulting script juggled 24 main characters, weaving the entertainment industry and a growing preoccupation with celebrity into the souring of a nation’s spirit by Vietnam and Watergate.
Altman traditionally drew upon a group of regular players for his films and many were earmarked for Nashville. Some early casting selections, however, didn’t play out. Louise Fletcher was the original choice to play Linnea Reese, conservative housewife and mother of two deaf children; Fletcher’s parents were deaf and she had grown up using sign language, experience that Altman incorporated into the final script.
When Fletcher dropped out to play Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (for which she won an Academy Award), she was replaced by Lily Tomlin. Haven Hamilton, vanguard of Nashville’s country music royalty, was earmarked for Robert Duvall; Henry Gibson, like Lily Tomlin, better known as a comedian on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh In, took the role and made it his own, down to a hairpiece that seems fashioned from a slumbering Ewok.
Gary Busey was an early casting choice for Tom, the priapic and emotionally distant folk singer which was eventually played by Keith Carradine. Bernadette Peters and Bette Midler both turned down the role of blowsy country music wannabe Albuquerque.
Altman allowed his actors to comprehensively inhabit their characters without censure. Considering a script more of a blueprint than gospel, he requested they improvise their own dialogue as well as write their own songs. His trust was usually well placed.
Jan Stuart, author of The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman’s Masterpiece (Simon & Schuster, 2000), told of an actor asking Altman whether he’d be in a close-up or a two-shot. “What makes you think you’re on camera at all? Altman replied. “When I say “Action”, just live your life. I’ll either see you or I won’t.”
Some, like Gibson, stayed in character for the entire two month shoot. And a lot of the most memorable moments came not from Altman regulars but newcomers such as neophyte Ronee Blakely, portraying fragile country singer Barbara Jean, based on Loretta Lynn. Blakely wrote four of her own songs as well as the complex rambling monologue for her tragic on-stage emotional breakdown.
The women have the best roles in this film, facilitated by Tewkesbury’s script and Altman’s relish of female points of view. The result is a range of fascinating moral ambiguities; we may not agree with the choices made by many of the characters but we are constantly enthralled and care about them all the same.
Nashville plays towards a final major set piece organised around a political rally. We never see the candidate but, just as it seems the plot will culminate in a political assassination, it all gets turned on its head and one of the performers becomes the target of the opportunistic killer. In this, Altman was far ahead of his time in predicting celebrity assassinations; the quiet, owlish loner who wields the gun bears a disquietening resemblance to Mark David Chapman who, five years after Nashville’s release, would gun down John Lennon.
Another of Altman’s daring experiments was in the area of sound recording, creatively blending several conversations at once to propel plot and character development. Altman used technician Jim Webb, who had learned his craft on music documentaries such as Mad Dogs and Englishmen (1971) and later worked with Altman on Thieves Like Us.
Webb hooked radio microphones to each of the major players in a scene and recorded their dialogue onto individual sound tracks via an eight-track system. Altman could then mix the sound to his exacting standards during the editing process. The disappointment was that, given this revolutionary process, Nashville didn’t get an Oscar nomination in the sound category.
At the end of the two-month shoot, Altman had more than 200,000 feet of film, coming in at about 16 hours of footage. When it seemed that one movie wouldn’t be big enough for his vision, he briefly toyed the idea with creating two films, Nashville Red and Nashville Blue. This didn’t get beyond the planning stage, nor did a television mini-series utilising the extra footage. Decades later, a sequel to Nashville, reprising many of the major characters, was also stillborn.
As it was, the final cut of Nashville ran 2 hours and 40 minutes. Although the critics once again loved it (Pauline Kael of The New Yorker previewed a rough cut in a lengthy review that ran three months before the premiere, calling it “a radical, evolutionary leap” and “the ultimate Altman movie”), it made just $US7 million at the American box office (on a $US2.2 million budget). It wasn’t babka but it also wasn’t the return to financial form that had been predicted.
Altman would spend the next 15 years wandering the cinematic wastelands with ever-decreasing budgets and success until the career-replenishing double-whammy of The Player and Short Cuts in the early 90s.
Nashville, however, remains his great classic, a movie that repays every favour it asks of an audience and is as fresh and inventive as it appeared 35 years ago.
The recently-opened career retrospective accorded film director Tim Burton at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) has drawn mixed reviews but the adoration of his fans is just as dangerously entrapping as the goo that snared dinosaurs millions of years ago in the adjacent La Brea Tar Pits.
From the opening day, Burton’s legions of admirers have flocked to LACMA clothed in the off-kilter aesthetics of his characters. Burton has always had a thirst for the visually spellbinding, from Beetlejuice (1988) and his revolutionary re-imagining of the Batman mythos to the culturally merciless, almost Andrew Lang-like fairy stories of Edward Scissorhands (1990) and Big Fish (2003), and the electroconvulsive short-circuiting of traditional Hollywood fodder in Planet Of The Apes (2001) and Alice In Wonderland (2010).
I’ll admit I’m not a great fan of Burton but will religiously line up on opening day for each new film. Burton is all technicolourful style and movement, bright and shiny and just as long lasting as one of Willy Wonka’s confections. What he brings to the screen, a reawakening of expressionism and the gothic sensibility, he neglects in his characters; I haven’t been emotionally connected to a Tim Burton character since Edward Scissorhands. Like Edward, crack the chest of Burton’s films and all you find is a mechanical heart.
It’s all blue screen and CGI and motion capture. Burton’s is a closed universe with little room for an aesthetic to wander around unhindered. Compare this with a director such as Tarantino where, the more you watch, the more minor details emerge from the busy canvas and take on a life of their own.
That’s not to say his films are entirely unsatisfying. I’m a rabid supporter of movies that almost just not-quite realise their full potential, the coulda been, shoulda been masterpieces.
The Gotham City of Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992) was a dystopian wonderland, hemorrhaging from the ravaged heart of its own citizenry; it was a cityscape that even Christopher Nolan couldn’t improve upon. The main problem was Michael Keaton’s Batman, whose pursed lips were his only semaphore for emotional agony.
Alice In Wonderland was gorgeous to look at and packed with great actors but the sum of their talent was wasted by a script that allowed them little more than the opportunity to turn up in flamboyant costumes.
The simian Statue of Liberty in the original Planet Of The Apes made more sense and had significantly more shock value than Burton’s Ape-raham Lincoln twist ending.
Far more interesting are his early films. Ed Wood (1994) was the one instance where Burton didn’t scatter his expressionistic bag of tricks across the screen like a cinematic Jackson Pollock and hope for the best. In this affectionate tribute to the 1950s schlock director, he was understated, even muted. Shot in black and white, it had the effect of reigning in a visual delinquency that would become a regurgitated motif in later years.
The Tim Burton retrospective was originally curated by the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2009 and travelled to Melbourne’s Australian Centre For The Moving Image the following year. It runs at LACMA until 31 October 2011.