Thursday, October 21, 2010

Death and the Movies, Part 2 (1973)

A recent informal internet poll lists the five best long-form magazine articles of all time. Two of the stories are by David Foster Wallace, one is by Neal Stephenson, one is Gay Talese’s “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” (already enshrined as the article that jump-started the New Journalism movement in the sixties) and the fifth is Ron Rosenbaum’s “Secrets of the Little Blue Box.” Originally published in Esquire in October, 1971, this article sounded the opening salvo in the hacker revolution. Apple co-founders, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, both cite the article as what first got them interested in tinkering with computers.

Throughout the seventies, eighties and nineties, Rosenbaum wrote about all sorts of interesting cultural phenomena, from the Ivy League Nude Posture Photo Scandal, to the bizarre case of the reclusive twin gynecologists who were found dead in their New York City apartment, to a visit to a Minuteman missile silo deep underground in the waning days of the Cold War. An impressive collection of his magazine journalism, The Secret Parts of Fortune, also includes celebrity profiles of Troy Donahue and Jack Nicholson in the newly minted skeptical manner of Rex Reed and Tom Burke (whose mid-seventies collection, Burke’s Steerage, also casts a jaundiced eye at the changing role of celebrity in society). But for me, the most intriguing article in this book is a piece Rosenbaum wrote for Esquire in August, 1973, “The Corpse as Big as the Ritz,” detailing a death that took place during the shooting of the western The Man who Loved Cat Dancing in Gila Bend, Arizona in 1973.

These are the facts: in January, 1973, the movie The Man who Loved Cat Dancing was doing location work around Gila Bend. The Travelodge there had been taken over by cast and crew. The stars of the movie were Burt Reynolds, who was on his way to becoming the number one male box office star of the seventies, and Sarah Miles, the respected English actress, who was married to playwright (A Man for All Seasons) and screenwriter (Lawrence of Arabia), Robert Bolt. Miles was accompanied by her young business manager, David Whiting, who was found dead on the morning of the 28th in her hotel room of an apparent overdose of pills. But a search of his room revealed blood all over the place, and an autopsy showed an unusual star-shaped injury on the back of his head. Miles told the police that she had been forced to call for Reynolds’ help the night before after Whiting had tried to assault her. She had spent the rest of the night being comforted by Reynolds in his room.

According to Rosenbaum’s story, this Whiting was a real character, a borderline con man who had a fixation with having the best of everything in life. He basically stalked Sarah Miles (even though that term and that pathology had yet to be recognized) and scammed his way into a position in her life as business manager. He, Miles and the fifty-year-old Robert Bolt enacted some kind of bizarre triangular relationship that was right out of a Harold Pinter play (although for Whiting’s part his fixation with Miles was based more on celebrity worship than sex). During the making of Cat Dancing, the possibly suicidal Whiting seemed to have become estranged from Miles and grown increasingly jealous of her relationships with others, especially Reynolds.

An inquest eventually cleared both Reynolds and Miles of any wrongdoing in the death of Whiting. But some unsettling, unanswered questions remained. Did Whiting really attack Miles that night? Where did all the blood in Whiting’s room come from and how did he come by that star-shaped injury? And were Reynolds and the married Miles having an affair while they were making Cat Dancing?

As a thematic template for his article, Rosenbaum makes use of The Great Gatsby. Whiting’s mother cites that book as the subject of her late son’s honors’ thesis as an English major at Haverford College. She quotes the famous passage from the end of Gatsby: “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

Among the dead man’s itemized possessions was a dog-eared copy of Fitzgerald’s autobiographical The Crack-Up. Rosenbaum’s uses one of Fitzgerald’s most famous short stories as the basis for his article’s title. And he comes to the unspoken conclusion that turns Whiting into a Gastbyish figure (in true Gatsby fashion, he even “sprang from his Platonic conception of himself”) who was destroyed by the people he wanted so desperately to emulate. Just substitute Burt for Tom and Sarah for Daisy and the equation is complete.

Even though, in the end, Rosenbaum is straining for meaning, there is something so apt about the comparisons. At this time, The filming of The Great Gatsby was underway, and no movie was more hotly anticipated. The media was seized by Gatsby fever. Robert Redford was playing Gatsby, which seemed the perfect fusion of actor and character. There were numerous product tie-ins to the movie (Gatsby’s shirts and kitchenware). And there was squabbling between the movie’s two producers, David Merrick and Robert Evans, as each sought primary credit for the project. Evans famously claimed that the book had been brought to his attention by his then wife, Ali MacGraw, who loved Gatsby and dreamed of one day playing Daisy in a movie adaptation.

And something about Fitzgerald was definitely in the air at that time in the early seventies. Nancy Milford’s moving biography of Zelda Fitzgerald, Zelda, was riding high on the Bestseller List. And, in January 1974, NBC broadcast F. Scott Fitzgerald and ‘The Last of the Belles,’ a combination Fitzgerald biopic and dramatization of one of his most famous short stories. The TV movie starred Richard Chamberlain as an elegant but dissolute Scott, Blythe Danner as a troubled Zelda, and, in the adaptation, a radiant young unknown named Susan Sarandon as Ailie Calhoun, who was herself, a fictional version of Zelda.

Of course, the movie version of The Great Gatsby was a tremendous flop when it was released in the spring of 1974. Redford found the unplayable part of Gatsby beyond his abilities as an actor. The other actors (Mia Farrow, Sam Waterston, etc.) seemed equally stymied by their roles. Only Bruce Dern as Tom Buchanan and Karen Black as his working class mistress, Myrtle Wilson, exhibited any signs of genuine life. The screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola was too literal-minded and the direction by Jack Clayton was surprisingly inert, although the cinematography thrilled the eye by reproducing that distinctive color known as Maxfield Blue. The color was named after its creator, magazine illustrator Maxfield Parrish, whose work was undergoing a revival in the psychedelic seventies (posters of his work could be found adorning many a dorm room wall—including mine). Both producers ended up disowning the movie. The plain truth of the matter is that Gatsby as a novel is unadaptable and should never have been made into a movie in the first place.

As to the movie version of The Man who Loved Cat Dancing, which was released in June, 1973, the reviews were not kind. Thanks to Whiting’s death, the movie had a jinxed feel to it and was dumped by M-G-M. The story of Whiting’s death had been broken by gossip columnist Rona Barrett and made headlines for several weeks afterwards. Nobody could look at the movie without thinking of Whiting’s sad fate, and Reynolds' and Miles' possible role in his death. This was before the tabloidization of the media (and society at large) and today the same story would have been stoked to a white-hot intensity by the tabloid media and the internet.

But viewing the movie today is an almost pleasant surprise. It is not unentertaining. Burt Reynolds commits himself and gives a serious, non-smirky performance as a Civil War veteran who joins a gang of train robbers in order to raise money for the children he has been kept from. Sarah Miles plays a rancher’s unhappy wife who is captured by the gang and ends up being liberated by Reynolds’ character. She finds out that Reynolds’ big sin is having married an Indian woman, the Cat Dancing of the title, then killing her after finding her in the arms of another man. The real surprise of the movie is George Hamilton, who is cast against type as Miles’ controlling husband. (And speaking of obscure films, you should seek out last year’s My One and Only; despite its terrible title, this is a wonderful movie about George Hamilton’s peripatetic teen years before he became a movie star.)

Except for its feminist overlay, The Man who Loved Cat Dancing is not a revisionist western in the manner of Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) or Robert Benton’s Bad Company (1972). The screenplay is by Eleanor Perry, whose ex-husband and former moviemaking partner, Frank Perry, went on to direct the revisionist western, Doc (with a screenplay by journalist Pete Hamill). Eleanor Perry’s draft was rewritten by an uncredited Bill Norton, Sr. Whoever wrote it, the dialogue is terrible and filled with too many anachronistic turns of phrase. It’s the melodramatic quality of the script that turns out to be the movie’s undoing. This is a shame since the film is filled with many breathtaking western landscapes, as one would expect from Richard Sarafian, director of the 1971 cult classics, Man in the Wilderness and Vanishing Point. In the end, Whiting’s tragic passing seems to haunt this doomed movie even more than that of the eponymous Cat Dancing.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Death and the Movies, Part 1 (1964)

Ensign Pulver is an unnecessary sequel to an immensely popular movie, Mister Roberts. Mister Roberts was based on the play by Thomas Heggen and Joshua Logan, which, in turn, was based on the World War II novel by Thomas Heggen, inspired on his own experiences as an officer on a Navy cargo ship in the Pacific Theatre. Never having seen action, Heggen’s contention is that the chief enemy for the unhappy and overworked crew of the USS Reluctant (AK-601), known derisively as the “Bucket,” was the boredom of inactivity--that and a despicably despotic captain played by James Cagney in one of his most memorable roles. Henry Fonda was Lt. (j.g.) Douglas Roberts, the cargo officer who did the most on board the ship to challenge the Captain’s authority. And his sidekick, Ensign Pulver, was played by Jack Lemmon, who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for this career-making role. With little interest in performing his duty as Laundry and Morale officer and spending most of his time daydreaming in his bunk, Lemmon, as Pulver, was the original slacker.

In the sequel, made nine years after the original, Ensign Pulver is now played by Robert Walker, Jr., who really has his work cut out for him acting against the memory of Lemmon’s indelible characterization. Walker tries extremely hard to make the role his own, but comes off as Lemmon Lite. This is true of all the actors, who are featherweight replacements for the originals. This time out, the Captain is played by Burl Ives, a folk singer and actor who mainly uses his considerable bulk to embody the captain’s bullying manner. Doc, played so lovingly by the dapper William Powell, in the original, has been reincarnated as Walter Matthau. Matthau, two years before his Academy Award-winning portrayal as the ambulance chasing Whiplash Willie Gingrich in Billy Wilder’s The Fortune Cookie, is, of course, a wonderful actor. But he is light years away from Powell in demonstrating the quality of quiet decency that reminds us the reason wars are fought—the return of civility to the world. The screenwriters, Joshua Logan and Peter S. Feibleman, try to make up for this loss by giving Matthau’s Doc the burden of explaining the movie’s theme ad nauseum. Rounding out the crew are Peter Marshall (who would later find success as the host of the TV game show, Hollywood Squares), a very young Larry Hagman, singer (and Frank Sinatra son-in-law) Tommy Sands, as a sailor whose young daughter’s death sets the plot in motion, and, in the very minor role of Yeoman Dolan, a young actor named Jack Nicholson (immediately recognizable by his voice), and, most shockingly, Al Freeman, Jr. as an island native. There is also a love interest for Ensign Pulver, a nurse played by Millie Perkins (who became famous as the eponymous heroine in the movie version of The Diary of Anne Frank).

As a service comedy, Ensign Pulver is filled with limp gags and recycled jokes from Mister Roberts. The story doesn’t get close to good until the scene, very late in the story, where Doc, on the ship’s radio transmitter, instructs Pulver, stranded on a tropical island, how to remove the Captain’s ruptured appendix. Unlike the first movie, the sequel provides an explanation for the Captain’s bad behavior, making him less of a monster.

Despite its minor status in the history of movies, Ensign Pulver is a movie that is interestingly haunted by three deaths. The first is that of the fictional character, Doug Roberts, whose off-screen death is announced at the end of Mister Roberts, and inspires a paralyzed Ensign Pulver to perform his first act of rebellion against the captain, taking his beloved palm tree and throwing it into the ocean. Who can forget Jack Lemmon bursting into Jimmy Cagney’s quarters and announcing, “Captain, it is I, Ensign Pulver. And I just threw your damned palm tree over the side. So what’s all this crud about no movie tonight?” Cagney’s reaction to this declaration of war is priceless. We are told that Ensign Pulver begins several weeks after Roberts’ death, when the war in the Pacific is winding down, but that Pulver has once again returned to his slacker ways, making elaborate plans to get back at the captain (marbles in the overhead, etc.), but never getting up the energy to put his plans into effect. When a hurricane at sea tosses both the captain and Pulver into the ocean, they wind up on a tropical island together. There, Pulver is forced to save the captain’s life and finally achieves a more mature outlook on life after realizing the captain has become his “Chinese obligation.”

The second death that haunts this movie is that of Walker’s father, Robert Walker, Sr. He is probably most famous for playing one of the most indelible villains in movie history—Bruno Antony in Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (9951). It is Bruno who meets tennis pro Guy Haines on a train and proposes to him that they swap murders in order to get rid of unwanted baggage (Guy’s wife, Bruno’s father). Hitchcock famously cast gay Farley Granger as the straight Guy, and heterosexual Walker as the homosexual Bruno in order to lend their relationship a rich subtext. Walker is unforgettable as Bruno. In real life, though, after playing this role of a lifetime, he got divorced from his wife, actress Jennifer Jones, who went on to marry movie mogul David O. Selznick. Walker’s life and career went into a tailspin and he died in 1951 after having a reaction to medication his psychiatrist prescribed for him. His son was eleven at the time and did not attend his father’s funeral. As an adult actor, Walker, Jr. got into the family business at around the same time as another famous actor’s son, Peter Fonda. In fact, Walker has a small role in Fonda’s Easy Rider (1969), along with his Ensign Pulver co-star, Jack Nicholson. Walker plays the leader of a commune, having jettisoned his straight look for that of a drugged-out hippie drop-out from society.

The third death that haunts Ensign Pulver is that of the character’s creator, Thomas Heggen. A graduate of the University of Minnesota Journalism School, Heggen’s sad story can be found in John Leggett's exemplary dual biography of Heggen and Ross Lockridge, Jr., author of the Civil War epic, Raintree County. Leggett caught the tragic parallels in both men’s lives and even today, 36 years after it was first published, Ross and Tom should be read by all would-be novelists as a cautionary example of what happens when an author tries to wrestle with the Bitch Goddess of Success. Heggen had one book in him, but that’s all. He became increasingly estranged from his book during the creation of the play, watching as it was taken away from him by co-writer and director Josh Logan. He tried to write a follow up to Mister Roberts, but could never light on the right subject matter. He led a Fitzgeraldian existence of wild excess in New York, but was unlucky in love. He was found dead in his bathtub in 1949, at the age of 30, a victim of an accidental overdose of pills.

Today, the J-School Library at the University of Minnesota bears Heggen’s name and is filled with Mister Roberts’ memorabilia. As a grad student in journalism at the same school, I used to study under his portrait. And wonder whether the Bitch Goddess of Success would treat me in a like manner. Douglas Roberts, Robert Walker, Sr., Thomas Heggen—good men all. But the world in which they lived was not yet civil enough to accommodate their inner-demons. If we resurrect their memory long enough, their legacy will become, as the Captain did for Ensign Pulver, our Chinese obligation.