Saturday, June 28, 2014

Cradle Will Rock

Year 6, Day 179 - 6/28/14 - Movie #1,775

BEFORE:  From models who want to be actors to....more actors.  I've got a few films about plays and playwrights lined up for this week.  Linking from "The Notorious Bettie Page", Gretchen Mol carries over, tonight playing Marion Davies, the future wife of William Randoph Hearst.  And this sort of follows the Rita Hayworth films because it focuses on her husband, Orson Welles.  That's my twisted organizational logic for you.

THE PLOT:  A true story of politics and art in the 1930s U.S., focusing on a leftist musical drama and attempts to stop its production.

AFTER: Let me see if I've got this straight - there really was a play called "Cradle Will Rock", which Orson Welles' theater company tried to stage, and the play seen in this film is not exactly that play.  And before he died, Welles was trying to make a film called "Cradle Will Rock", which would have been a narrative accounting of what was done in the 1930's to try and stage that play.  This film is not that story either, not exactly.  This is a fictionalized account of those events, with a couple of other storylines weaved in, with fictional people mixed in with real ones.  Hmm, right away this one set off my B.S. meter, because when someone messes with real events, I start wondering WHY. 

If "The Notorious Bettie Page" was guilty of not having a point to make, this film suffers from trying to make too many.  There's stuff here about the nature of art, the creative process, labor unions, the Red scare, the Great Depression, class struggle, patronage, censorship, etc. etc.  It's a lot to cover - and it seems like the 1930's might have been a different and confusing time.  But after seeing other films about the House Committee on Un-American Activities, I used to be dead-set against that whole blacklisting thing, but after seeing all of the points of view expressed here, now I'm not so sure.  (I'll explain this later.)

The four stories woven together here include: 1) the aforementioned staging by Welles's theater troupe of an allegedly radical play about a steel-workers strike, funded by the Federal Theater Project, 2) the testifying in front of the committee done by managers of the FTP, 3) the prep work being done by a ventriloquist and a whistle-blower he seems to sweet on as they prepare to testify (though they never actually do?) and 4) Nelson Rockefeller's commissioning of a mural by Diego Rivera, which turns out to be "leftist".  There are a number of problems with this structure, or lack thereof, but the main one seems to be that the storylines never converge in a satisfying way.  Other films like "Crash", "Traffic" and "Babel" have pulled this sort of thing off better, because they understood that the plotlines need to connect, or at least influence each other, otherwise things end up seeming more or less random. 

Of the four plotlines, it's tough to say which one is more disconnected from the others - and the stunt casting seems inclined to get as many famous actors and characters into the film as possible, which amounts to the equivalent of name-dropping.  What's worse is that the storyline is firing in so many directions at once, trying to land something akin to a point, that it ends up contradicting itself.  The play is pro-union, yet Actors Equity seems against it.  So, are labor unions good or bad?  Liberal or conservative?  I don't even know any more.

NITPICK POINT: When I say that labor unions are seen as "bad", I mean the part where the union prohibits the actors from taking the stage to perform the radical play.  What this means is that they are forbidden to perform it in public, not specifically forbidden from getting on stage.  The solution of having the actors stand in the audience to perform may satisfy the letter of the law, but not the spirit.  I'd wager that they'd still be drummed out of the union, technicalities aside. 

NITPICK POINT #2: If you don't like a mural painting, isn't it a lot easier to just paint over it, rather than destroy the whole wall with sledgehammers and jackhammers?

Now, when I said that the blacklisting has now become a more complex issue for me, what I mean is that you can take any controversial issue - let's take a more modern one like gay marriage.  It may be a simple issue to you, but it's also simple to your opponent on the other side of the issue.  By that I mean that everyone involved is trying to do the "right thing", as they define it.  Gay people are trying to stand up for their rights, which is admirable.  Conservatives are trying to defend the institution of marriage, so they believe they're doing the right thing as well.  No one is trying to do the wrong thing as they see it, it's just that people can't agree on what the right thing is.  And me?  I'm sitting on the sidelines laughing as DOMA is struck down as unconstitutional time and time again - meaning that the well-meaning people who passed that act inadvertently opened the door in their state for gay marriage to become legal, which is not what they intended at all.  But then, I'm a big fan of irony.

I now see the blacklisting, the HCUA and even the McCarthy hearings in a similar light - the government was trying to do the right thing by fighting Communism, the people who testified were trying to do the right thing, and the people who didn't testify were trying to do the right thing.  Everyone feels they are the hero of their own story, nobody sees themself as a villain, and in the end we get a big mess, and history decides the winners.'

With that said, it should be the job of a historical biopic to sort through all of the information and clarify things, not to make them more confusing.

Also starring Hank Azaria (last seen in "Love and Other Drugs"), Ruben Blades (last seen in "Safe House"), John Cusack (last seen in "Shadows and Fog"), Joan Cusack (last seen in "Where the Heart Is"), Cary Elwes (last seen in "Comic Book Villains"), Philip Baker Hall (last seen in "Mr. Popper's Penguins"), Cherry Jones (last seen in "New Year's Eve"), Angus Macfayden (last seen in "We Bought a Zoo"), Bill Murray (last seen in "Hyde Park on Hudson"), Vanessa Redgrave (last seen in "Howards End"), Susan Sarandon (last seen in "Anywhere But Here"), Jamey Sheridan, John Turturro (last seen in "Summer of Sam"), Emily Watson (last seen in "War Horse"), Bob Balaban (last seen in "Alice"), Jack Black (last seen in "The Muppets"), Kyle Gass, Paul Giamatti (last seen in "Rock of Ages"), with cameos from Harris Yulin, Dominic Chianese, Audra McDonald.

RATING: 3 out of 10 spotlights

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Notorious Bettie Page

Year 6, Day 178 - 6/27/14 - Movie #1,774

BEFORE: From Marilyn Monroe to Rita Hayworth to another cover girl, Bettie Page - makes sense, right?  Only this is a modern biopic ABOUT Bettie Page, so it's nearly impossible to link from a film made in 1944 to one made in 2005.  I'll have to find some actor in this film with a really long career - and there are a couple of possibilities.  I could link from Phil Silvers via "The Cheap Detective" to James Cromwell, who was in "L.A. Confidential" with David Strathairn.  Or I could go from Gene Kelly through "What a Way to Go!" to Shirley MacLaine, who was in "Guarding Tess" with Austin Pendleton.

You know what, that's going to have to do.  I'm too tired to try and find a direct link, which may not even exist.

THE PLOT:  The story of Bettie Page, uber-successful 1950's pin-up model, one of the first sex icons in America, and the target of a Senate investigation into her bondage photos.

AFTER: Well, now I've gone and stepped in it.  I can't talk about this film without talking about porn, but what is porn?  And what is the 1950's version of porn?  According to this film, it's just what people bought in magazine stores before we had the internet, and the occasional stag film with women in underwear and high-heels, pretending to tie each other up.  Oh, and most of it was (apparently) shot by very nice, clean-cut men who were members of "photography clubs".  I'd like to believe this, but something tells me this is really sugarcoating things.

Porn is now a billion-dollar industry - and I find it hard to believe that everyone in that business has the best interest of the models at heart.  I know it would be foolish to assume that it's just a bunch of mom-and-pop operations that make sure that their actresses all get payroll taxes withheld and 401Ks funded - I doubt that it's run by crime syndicates, either, so I think the real truth lies somewhere in between.  I've met some people who work in the industry, and they seem nice enough, but I'd never make a blanket statement about the business based on that.

Bettie Page was known as the "Queen of the Pinups", and one of the earliest Playboy Playmates (as was Marilyn Monroe...) and she later converted to evangelical Christianity, suffered from depression and mood swings, and spent time in a psychiatric hospital.  She married young, filed for divorce young, studied acting, but never got the same sort of breaks that Marilyn got.  But considering Marilyn's depression and drug-use, it's tough to say whether the fame's worth it in the end.  Maybe Bettie lived longer because she got out of the business before achieving fame outside of modeling for men's magazines.

Because of her lack of inhibition, she was the first famous "bondage model" (go ahead, name another one...) acting out all kinds of scenarios involving ropes, whips, ball-gags, etc. Photographer Bunny Yeager took her to a wildlife park in Boca Raton, FL and shot the famous "Jungle Bettie" photos, and also the famous "Santa Hat" image that ended up being in Playboy.  And then in 1970's and 1980's, her photos were re-discovered by erotic artists like Olivia and Dave Stevens ("The Rocketeer") and that led to a sort of cult following.

You can't even keep track of all the people in music and film who can trace their influences back to Bettie - would we have The Pussycat Dolls, or Katy Perry without her?  Dita Von Teese, or Uma Thurman's character in "Pulp Fiction"?  It's hard to say.  But my annual week of being a de facto glamour photographer myself at Comic-Con is coming up - so I don't know if I'd even get to do what I do without someone like Bettie breaking down the barriers and making it OK for women to pose in almost-there costumes.

So it's a darn shame that this film never really GOES anywhere with Bettie's story, it just sort of tells it and lets it lie there.  If you want to see nudity, it's here, so bully for that.  But sometimes you need more than just nudity (yes, I realize how ridiculous that sounds...) - sometimes you need to have a point.  Just as you can admire a photo of a pretty girl posing without being able to tell what she's thinking, in the same way this film never really gets inside Bettie's head, so it's just a bunch of provocative imagery.

I'm left marveling how much society has changed in the last, say, 100 years.  We've gone from a Hollywood system where actresses could be in trouble if they showed too much ankle, to a system where nearly every major actress has been seen topless, at the very least, in one film or another.  At one point it was scandalous for Mae West to tell a man to "come up and see me", and if you watch the recent Adult Video Awards (I caught a bit the other night on cable), you can hear acceptance speeches where actresses talk about how much they love to eat pussy.  If an actress said that back in the 1920's or even the 1950's, I think America's collective brains would have exploded.

Also starring Gretchen Mol (last seen in "Get Carter"), Jared Harris (last seen in "Sylvia"), Lili Taylor (last seen in "Brooklyn's Finest"), Sarah Paulson, Chris Bauer, David Strathairn (last seen in "A Midsummer Night's Dream"), Austin Pendleton (last seen in "Guarding Tess"), Norman Reedus, Cara Seymour, with cameos from John Cullum, Max Casella, Kohl Sudduth.

RATING: 5 out of 10 acting lessons

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Cover Girl

Year 6, Day 177 - 6/26/14 - Movie #1,773

BEFORE: Rita Hayworth carries over from "Gilda".  The IMDB notes for "Gilda" suggested that she did not perform her own songs in "Gilda", that she lip-synched them, but she was so good at doing that, no one could tell.  I'm not sure if that's possible, so I'll be keeping a close eye on that tonight.

THE PLOT: Rusty Parker wins a contest and becomes a celebrated cover girl; this endangers her romance with dancing mentor Danny.

AFTER: The notes for this film confirm that Ms. Hayworth's singing voice was dubbed by Martha Mears.  I'm guessing that they shot the footage first and then overdubbed the singing later, because no one could possibly be THIS perfect at lip-synching.  Someone always makes a mistake, especially if they're dancing while singing.  But in a studio, they can do take after take, or have the sound engineer nudge the lines into perfect synch - that makes much more sense to me.

The notes for this film also state that Ms. Hayworth married Orson Welles while in production on this film - I'll get to him, at least as subject matter, later this week.

Rita's got a double role here, she also plays her character's grandmother, who was also a singer + dancer, and is seen in flashbacks.  An older magazine editor who is running a search for a new cover girl came close to marrying her grandmother, and is reminded fondly of his youth, and the girl that got away.  

So, after winning the contest, Hayworth's character is lured away from the small Brooklyn dance troupe that she performs in, to the glitz of Broadway and the promise of a larger theater, a larger show and larger audiences. 

At least tonight I don't have to deal with complicated sexual politics, just the normal man/woman dynamic, when one becomes more successful than the other, and the relationship suffers.  It's similar in that respect to "A Star Is Born", or anything along those lines.  Eventually Rusty has to make a choice, to either stay in the new larger world of fame, or try and go back to her relationship with her less-successful but more earnest boyfriend/choreographer.  Unless the film is suggesting that women shouldn't be more successful than their men, which means I'm right back in the Stone Age again.

I wasn't sold on all of the songs, some of them just seemed a little wordy, a little too eager to impress with clever rhymes.  That's the only thing that kept this from being on the same level as, say, "Singin' in the Rain" or "On the Town".  Most of these songs were written by Ira Gershwin, I guess I didn't know he was so into obfuscation.

NITPICK POINT: The characters have a weekly ritual where they order oysters from a restaurant, even though none of them like to eat oysters, because they're merely searching for pearls  (or "poils", as the Brooklyn-accented barman says...).  There are a few problems with this, namely that the type of oysters we eat are generally not the kind that produce pearls.  Also, this film is set in 1944, with food rationing taking place, so I'm not sure that people would look kindly on people who order food and don't eat it.  And I don't know how they did things back in the 40's, but you wouldn't see any restaurant today allow customers to shuck their own oysters - there's too great a chance of injury, and the restaurant could be held liable.

Also starring Gene Kelly (last seen in "What a Way to Go!"), Phil Silvers, Eve Arden (last seen in "Anatomy of a Murder"), Otto Kruger (last seen in "Saboteur"), Lee Bowman.

RATING: 5 out of 10 tap shoes

Wednesday, June 25, 2014


Year 6, Day 176 - 6/25/14 - Movie #1,772

BEFORE:  I caught a cold thanks to the recycled air on the plane back from Portland, so I'm very foggy today.  A combination of Dayquil and Mountain Dew (DewQuil?) is keeping me going, but at some point I'm going to collapse.  It's difficult to stay awake during a movie, and nearly impossible to sleep afterwards.

I picked this one to go next because Marilyn Monroe played a singer in "Bus Stop", and I think Rita Hayworth plays a similar cabaret-style singer in this one.  Linking from "Bus Stop", Hope Lange was also in "Pocketful of Miracles" with Glenn Ford (last seen in "The Big Heat").

THE PLOT:  The sinister boss of a South American casino finds that his right-hand man Johnny and his sensuous new wife Gilda already know each other.

AFTER: Well, as often happens, I set out to program a week's worth of films on a particular theme, and a secondary theme has surfaced.  The first theme was the glamour girls of 1950's Hollywood, but this has turned into a discourse on sexual politics of that same time period.

Tonight we see a "love-hate" relationship between Johnny Farrell, a hustler-turned-casino manager, and Gilda, his ex-girlfriend who appears later as his boss's wife.  And Johnny is assigned to watch over her, make sure she's safe - no, I can't imagine that one going south, either.

This film is famous for Rita Hayworth's singing number, "Put the Blame on Mame", which she performs in a slinky evening dress (one that really inhibits her dancing moves, which seems like a shame) and those long evening gloves.  Once upon a time, footage of a woman slowly taking off long gloves was about the sexiest thing you could put on film - I guess because it led the minds of men to wonder what ELSE she was about to remove.  But times change and now we have footage of every sort of sexual depravity available on the internet, so now of course this all seems very innocent by comparison.

NITPICK POINT: It seems to me that running a casino, even one in Argentina, would be a full-time job.  I find it hard to believe that a casino owner would have time (or the inclination) to corner the world market on tungsten.  Which is my way of saying that this was an odd choice of subplots.

Also starring Rita Hayworth (last seen in "The Lady From Shanghai"), George Macready (last seen in "Paths of Glory"), Joseph Calleia, Steven Geray.

RATING: 4 out of 10 hands of blackjack

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Bus Stop

Year 6, Day 175 - 6/24/14 - Movie #1,771

BEFORE: Marilyn Monroe carries over as glamour-girl week continues. 

THE PLOT:  A naive but stubborn cowboy falls in love with a saloon singer and tries to take her away against her will to get married and live on his ranch in Montana.

FOLLOW-UP TO: "The Misfits" (Movie #952)

AFTER: An appropriate follow-up to last night's film as well, because again I'm confounded by the sexual politics of the 1950's.  In this film a cowboy acts more like a caveman - long on survival skills, but short on social skills.  The first time he ever leaves his Montana ranch to travel to a rodeo in Arizona, he sees a girl that he likes, and immediately wants to call her his "angel", club her over the head and drag her back to his cave.  Er, ranch.

In a way, I'm reminded of my first year of dating women, back in college, when I had no success and got more and more frustrated.  No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't form a close bond, or even get a second date, and that's when I realized I was trying too hard.  I had much greater success by NOT trying, not trying to force anything, and by just relaxing and letting things be.  That's the lesson our cowboy learns - eventually - but after a great deal of reprehensible behavior.  This includes everything from being clueless and obnoxious, to actions which seem on the verge of kidnapping and sexual harassment.

Oh, you didn't KNOW any better?  You didn't KNOW that you're not supposed to kidnap a woman, hogtie her and force her onto a bus back to Montana?  Oh, well that's OK, then as long as you're sorry.  Huh?

About the only thing worse than the antiquated (even for the 1950's) battle of the sexes was being forced to listen to Marilyn Monroe's horrific attempt at a Southern accent.

NITPICK POINT: Don't they have rodeos up in Montana?  Why did he have to go all the way to Phoenix?

Also starring Don Murray, Robert Bray, Arthur O'Connell (last seen in "Anatomy of a Murder"), Eileen Heckart (last seen in "Butterflies Are Free"), Hope Lange (last seen in "Clear and Present Danger"), with cameos from Max Showalter (last seen in "Elmer Gantry") and Hans Conried (last seen in "Saboteur").

RATING: 4 out of 10 raw hamburgers

Monday, June 23, 2014

How to Marry a Millionaire

Year 6, Day 174 - 6/23/14 - Movie #1,770

BEFORE: I'm back from Portland, I was there for the wedding of my friend and former co-worker, Amy.   She left New York, moved to Texas, back to New York and then to Portland, OR.  I don't do a lot of long-distance dedications, but since Casey Kasem's no longer around, somebody's got to pick up the slack.  So this one goes out to Amy and Leopoldo, a couple of crazy cats in Portlandia who got hitched over the weekend.  Not that there's a direct connection to this film, but hey, at least it's got "Marry" in the title.  I meant to get to this one before heading out there, but circumstances prevented that.

Really tough to find an acting link tonight - between a 2011 film ABOUT Marilyn Monroe, to a 1953 film starring Marilyn.  Impossible, right?  Nope.  Peter Wight, who was in "My Week with Marilyn", was also in the 1959 film "Journey to the Center of the Earth" with Ivan Triseault, who played a Swedish professor in that film, and he's in today's film playing a waiter.

THE PLOT:  Three women set out to find eligible millionaires to marry, but find true love in the process.

AFTER:  I'm kind of glad things worked out this way, this is a film set in New York in the 1950's, with lots of glamour shots of NYC skylines and huge NYC apartments - so it fits better with my return from Portland than with my trip out there.  When you're away from NYC, even if it's just for a couple of days, there's no better sight than to see that skyline, I don't care if you're coming in by car, train, boat or plane, it's a thrilling sight.

But now we come to the subject matter of today's film, and that's where I'm finding myself a little dumbfounded.  Oh, I know this was made during a different era, with different priorities for men and women, but have the sexual dynamics between men and women really changed so much over the years?  Apparently, they have.

What I'm presented with tonight are three women looking to marry for money - and in an age where men held all the top executive jobs and women could only get so far in the workplace, I'm forced to make some allowances.  But at the same time women were (supposedly) aspiring to be so much more - Rosie the Riveter and WWII proved that women could handle men's jobs, right? - why are we then presented with women who are only aspiring to be wives?  Rich wives, sure, but still just wives.

Clearly, this is a film about women, discussing what women want, but it's made by men.  How else to explain such a giant leap backwards for women's rights?  At what point did women stop trying to marry the boss and start trying to BECOME the boss?  And doesn't this come after all those Katharine Hepburn films where she played a lawyer or a reporter or a sports star?  All that work down the drain, because in the 1950's, once the men came back from the war (?), it seems the best that they could do was marry well.    

But here's where the slippery slope starts - any time a character (or a person in the real world, for that matter) thinks something that starts with "I'll be happy when..."   I'll be happy when I get married, I'll be happy when I get rich, I'll be happy when I've got a better job, I'll be happy when I move to Seattle.  That person isn't asking themselves an important question, which is "Why am I not happy NOW?"  Maybe their situation is better than they think, maybe there's a lot to be happy about right now, maybe just a change in attitude or a small thing like a nice dinner or a night of relaxation would be enough to change their current outlook.  If you're not happy, get happy.  And if you can't get happy, figure out why you can't get happy.  But (generally speaking, anyway) you shouldn't need another person or a better job or a lottery win to make you happy, or at least content.  

Perhaps I'm over-simplifying things - because I know when I was between relationships I had a general feeling of uneasiness and some days that were downright depressing, but that just meant I needed to take positive steps to change my situation.  But I also used the time to teach myself valuable skills, like going out to dinner alone, and being OK with that. 

So I think what I'm saying is, enjoy the journey.  The women seen in tonight's film are looking for a quick fix, and too many people today are looking for quick, easy solutions in a fast-paced, online push-button world.  I'll take a plane to get to Portland or San Diego when I need to, but I can't help feeling I missed something by flying over the majority of the country - surely Indiana and Nebraska have something to offer, right?  If it didn't take three weeks to get to the West Coast by car or train, I might consider it.  

And I think I'll carry that metaphor over to relationships - you can't just skip to the wedding, to the part where you're married and spending someone else's money, or whatever the benefits of the relationship are.  You've got to go through and appreciate all the steps in-between that lead up to that, and then there's that part after where you have to stay married to that person (or not).   

I think, each of the three main characters in this film learn, in their own way, that there are no shortcuts.  They date the rich men, but those men are either already married, or emotionally unavailable, or they just don't connect emotionally.  They learn, perhaps the hard way, that marriage is empty without love or passion, and marriage without love is like eating without tasting your food - you might get what you need out of it, but you won't enjoy it as much.

NITPICK POINT: The lead girls here get called in at one point to do some modeling work in the fashion industry, for a rich guy (though they don't know that) who is interested in dating one of them.  But this means they're connected, and probably paid well for modeling jobs - but most of the time they're portrayed as struggling, even selling off the furniture (which they don't own) to maintain their lavish lifestyle.  So, which is it, are they poor or not?  Very confusing.

Also starring Lauren Bacall (last seen in "Sex and the Single Girl"), Marilyn Monroe (last seen in "The Seven Year Itch"), Betty Grable, Cameron Mitchell, William Powell, David Wayne, Rory Calhoun, Fred Clark, Alexander D'Arcy.

RATING 4 out of 10 Republican rallies