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.


kathleenmaher said...


Woodenaye said...

Where can I get ahold of this flick?

Greg Artlip said...

This Movie was shown on TCM Sat. 7/19 PM.
I had never seen it and enjoyed the movie.