Wednesday, September 28, 2016

THE NIGHT DIGGER 1971

In the little-known (but much-beloved by me) psychological thriller The Night Digger (The Road Builder in the UK), Patricia Neal portrays Maura Prince, a 43-year-old recovering stroke victim who works part-time at a hospital helping other stroke victims relearn to speak. That the 44-year-old Patricia Neal had, in 1965, actually suffered a series of debilitating strokes which left her having to relearn how to walk and talk, adds a layer of autobiographical poignancy to both her character and performance.

Single and childless, Maura is what was once known as a spinster. A spinster who, when not stealing away for those brief-but-rewarding two hours a week at the hospital, is at the harried beck and call of her blind and ailing adoptive mother Edith Prince (Pamela Brown). The two women live alone in a somewhat secluded area in the Berkshire district of England in a cavernous old Victorian mansion whose facade, much like Maura herself, shows the wear of years of neglect and abuse. 
Patricia Neal as Maura Prince
Pamela Brown as Mrs. Edith Prince
Nicholas Clay as Billy Jarvis
Left with both a limp and frozen hand from her stroke, Maura dresses dowdily, looks older than her age, and walks with the weighted-down posture and downcast eyes of the defeated. She's a woman with a broken spirit, only part of which can be said to be attributable to her disability.
Yet in spite of the air of forlorn resignation which seems to follow her around like a personal storm cloud; Maura is surprisingly clear-minded and unsentimental about her lot in life. She harbors no illusions as to why, at age 15, she was adopted by the newly widowed Mrs. Prince (to serve as the elder woman’s free-of-charge live-in maid, cook, nurse, and whipping post); nor does she kid herself as to why she has allowed herself to be subjected to the interfering dominance of her mother for so many years.
Guilt and a sense of duty play a part, for it was her mother who nursed Maura back to health following her stroke. A stroke she had the misfortune of suffering mere months after running away (escaping?) with a man who would later come to abandon her. Guilt and duty play a part, but loneliness seals the bargain. Maura submits to her mother’s strong-willed dominance simply because she has nothing and no one else in her life.

Together, these women live a life of claustrophobic co-dependency in an atmosphere of by-now-routine rituals of passive-aggressive resentment: Maura taking silent, unseen delight in her mother’s food-scattering efforts to feed herself; Edith basking in private, sadistic satisfaction whenever she's granted the opportunity to inflict some petty inconvenience on her daughter.

While gossipy Edith—who’s not above feigning a heart attack to get her way—shares the companionship of two equally talebearing neighbors (Jean Anderson & Graham Crowden); Maura, beyond her duties at the hospital, lives a life solitary and internal. But if her sunlit, pink hued, hyperfeminine, and meticulously cared for bedroom is any indication, one can safely assume Maura’s inner life is a vividly romantic one.
See No Evil and Hear No Evil get an earful from Speak No Evil

If there's nothing real to gossip about, Edith and best friends Millicent McMurtrey
 (Anderson) and Mr. Bolton (Crowden) sometimes have to resort to invention

Into this stifling yet drafty environment rides Billy Jarvis (Nicholas Clay), a boy of 20 who mysteriously turns up at precisely the moment the women are in need of someone to perform gardening and maintenance chores around the house. Claiming to be a friend of a friend’s nephew, it’s obvious from the start that Billy is a facile (if not particularly adroit) liar, but the means by which he actually comes to know of this particular job opportunity remains one of the many mysteries surrounding the young man's arrival.

Ever the skeptic, Maura sees easily through Billy's lies, but Edith—if perhaps only to annoy Maura—finds herself charmed by the boy's hard-luck stories (invalid mother died in a fire) sincere avowals of religious fealty (a lie which later comes to bite him on the ass). After half-convincing herself that Billy might actually be a distant relative (a delusional leap of faith more designed to silence local gossip), Edith invites the boy to stay on as their unpaid-laborer/houseguest...in Maura’s room, no less. Understandably overjoyed, Billy, who's been living an itinerant existence as a road builder, moves in immediately; his only possessions being his motorbike and a mysterious bundle secured by a leather harness (“Your Bible and prayer book, I suppose?” Maura sarcastically intones).
When forced to give up her room to the handyman, it's revealed that everything about Maura's room stands in stark contrast to the dark, drab, disarray of the rest of the house. It's our first indication that Maura, like Billy, might be quite different than she first appears.

The introduction into the household of an additional target for Edith’s whip-cracking has the unforeseen result of creating a tacit bond between the appreciative Billy and the emotionally guarded Maura. An empathetic, almost maternal-filial bond that soon evolves into something eminently deeper, infinitely more complex, and ultimately, with the town suddenly terrorized by a serial killer known as The Traveling Maniac, something ominous and deeply macabre.  
The Night Digger is an unusual film. An odd, not-to-everyone's-taste motion picture in many ways deserving of its advertising tagline "A tale of the strange and perverse."  And while it's not a perfect film: fact most evident in the somewhat rushed feel of the film's third act following the sublime deliberateness of its earlier scenes, it struck as something of an undiscovered, underappreciated gem. (The Night Digger had a troubled shoot involving much script-tinkering and clashes with the composer. Neither Neal nor Dahl were pleased with the results, labeling the final edit "pornographic.")

Saddled with a terrible title and somewhat misleading marketing campaign more befitting a grindhouse slasher or exercise in hagsploitation, The Night Digger is a film so unusual I'm not sure it would have found an audience even if its US distributors had not given up on it so quickly.

The Night Digger is an atmospheric suspense film more in line with art house thrillers like Robert Altman's Images (1972) or unconventional character dramas like Michael Apted's The Triple Echo (1972). Critics have commented upon similarities to Claude Chabrol's Le Boucher (1971), but when I first saw The Night Digger, the films it most evoked for me were Night Must Fall (particularly the 1964 Albert Finney remake of the 1937 classic), and especially Altman's (again) That Cold Day in the ParkWhat The Night Digger shares with the 1969 Sandy Dennis starrer is a quality I'm drawn to in so many of my favorite films from the late-'60s/early-'70s: a willingness to allow a story go to the unexpected places. The Night Digger is an intriguing, emotionally provocative thriller containing just enough touches of humor and humanity to offset its pitch-black edges. 


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
I’ve little doubt that the things I love the most about The Night Digger are precisely the things which contributed to it being a film 1971 audiences (and its US distributor, MGM) showed so little interest in that it wound up being shelved not long after briefly playing in limited markets. For me, The Night Digger's chief appeal is in the way it doesn’t settle easily into any particular genre classification.
Promoted as a psychological suspense thriller, The Night Digger, with its measured, serio-comic tone and glum atmosphere of neurosis and dread, is a compellingly effective Hitchcockian melodrama (a major asset being its terrifically creepy score by eight-time Hitchcock composer Bernard Herrmann). But the “thriller” nomenclature doesn’t fully allow for the fact that the film is at its strongest and most affecting when focused on the interplay of the characters.
At these moments, The Night Digger is a sensitively observed character drama about the despairing interactions of damaged people. People disabled in ways both visible and concealed who allow their lives to be ruled or ruined (and possibly reclaimed) by their infirmity. This angle of the film is, for me, its most rewarding, for it effectively invests you in the fates of its characters before things start to shift into full-tilt weirdness. Once the unconventional love story starts to merge with the disturbing serial killer subplot, it's too late...you're hooked.
The emotional burden of dysfunction - be it physical, emotional, psychological, or sexual -
is at the core of Roald Dahl's unsettling screenplay for The Night Digger

The Night Digger’s offbeat tone and jet-black comedy are largely owed to the contributions of screenwriter Roald Dahl (You Only Live Twice, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, The Witches). The story goes that Dahl purchased the rights to Joy Cowley’s 1967 novel Nest in a Falling Tree expressly for wife Patricia Neal (whom he painstakingly nursed back to health following her stroke), after her Oscar-nominated return to the screen in The Subject Was Roses (1968) failed to yield further job offers.

It’s Dahl who devised the film's serial killer plotline (not present at all in Cowley’s book) and rewrote the character of Maura as a stoke survivor. These revisions create effectively disorienting tonal shifts in the film's narrative reminiscent of Willy Wonka's terrifying boat ride or the introduction of the memorably terrifying Child Catcher into his otherwise sweet and sunny Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. In The Night Digger, these tonal shifts—some delicate, others shockingly abrupt—play out with a sinister purposefulness well-suited to the film’s atmosphere of intensifying unease. Every time you think you’ve figured out where The Night Digger is headed, it throws you a curve.
Peter Sallis and Yootha Joyce as Reverend Palafox and Mrs. Palafox
contribute a hilarious bit as the objects of spurious speculation 

Movies fail for all sorts of reasons, but one of The Night Digger’s biggest hurdles had to have been the fact that an audience most receptive to a movie starring Patricia Neal was also an audience least likely to be welcoming of the film's nudity, violence, and lurid themes. Conversely, those in search of the kind of bloody mayhem normally associated with an R-rated serial-killer movie must have felt as though the rug had been pulled out from under them when confronted with a quaint senior citizen suspenser about a lonely spinster and her elderly mum.
So, how then is it that The Night Digger ranks as one of my favorite films? I guess because I fit the seldom-courted “sentimental dirty old man” demographic.

PERFORMANCES
Both Patricia Neal (The Fountainhead) and Pamela Brown (Secret Ceremony) give truly fine performances in The Night Digger. Neal, who usually commands every scene she's in with that marvelous voice and natural acting style, is given fair and equal support in Pamela Brown, an endlessly resourceful actress with an uncanny ability to convey multiple dimensions of her somewhat reprehensible character all at once. I absolutely adore Patricia Neal and think she gives a performance worthy of another Oscar nomination (had anyone actually seen the film) playing a strong woman who's come to define herself by her weaknesses.
The mother/daughter scenes she shares with Brown are so good (like watching an absorbing two-character stage play) I confess to having initially felt a twinge of regret once the story necessitated the introduction of a supporting cast. Happily, as I so often find to be the case with UK films made during this time, the level of talent assembled for the supporting cast (especially Jean Anderson) is beyond impressive.

Making his film debut in The Night Digger is the late Nicholas Clay (Evil Under The Sun), a favorite actor whose genuine talent I tend to undervalue because of his looks and his (blessed) tendency to take on roles requiring him to appear in various states of undress. The Night Digger sets a fine career precedent, nudity wise, but it’s nice to report he also gives a solid and very engaging performance here, rounding out an overall exceptional cast.


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
I saw The Night Digger for the first time just a few years ago when it aired on TCM, but I remember wanting to see it back when it opened in San Francisco in 1971. At the time I didn’t really know who Patricia Neal was (her Maxim coffee ads and Waltons TV-movie would come later) but the newspaper ad had caught my eye and I was fascinated. Unfortunately, the ad also happened to catch my mother’s eye, the prominent presence of the word “perverse” in the ad copy effectively putting the kibosh on any hopes I had of finding out what that title meant.
It took a while, but in finally having the opportunity to see The Night Digger (several decades past that must-be-17-years-of-age hurdle), it's clear to me that I would have liked it ’71, but I’m positive it's provided me with a much richer experience seeing it today.
Always a sucker for films about the intrinsic human need to connect and the agony we put ourselves through trying to convince ourselves otherwise, there's a poignancy and pathos to the plight of the film’s characters that would likely have been a bit over my head back in ’71. What the film has to say about the paradox of growth: that growing up inevitability leads to separation/ that growing closer invariably increases one’s chances of being hurt—strikes the kind of emotional chord with me now unlikely to have been stirred at all at when I was twelve.
Similarly, I'm fairly sure that as a young man I'd have taken the more gruesome elements of the story out of context. That is to say I'd likely have looked upon the film's structure - which is to juxtapose scenes of inhumanity with moving passages of emotional longing - as being merely dramatic or "action packed."
Having lived long enough to understand that part of life is making peace with the eternal coexistence of the gentle and the monstrous (the latter too often a result of a lack of the former); the  violent events in The Night Digger don't feel as arbitrary to me as they might have. On the whole, what I like about the film and what I take away from it (and this is 100% my subjective take on a film I love, not a recommendation) is that it resonates with me as a nightmare fable about the life-defining events of our lives and how we choose to be ruled by them, or ultimately choose to grow to rule over ourselves.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Saturday, September 10, 2016

VALENTINO 1977

“But if you’ve got the story, why do you want the truth?”

Though the question is asked of a newspaper reporter by a character in this, Ken Russell’s 11th feature film, the above-quoted inquiry could well be one posed to movie audiences by any director daring (foolhardy?) enough to venture into the shark-infested waters of the biographical film.
Biopics and their dubious degrees of accuracy have, in all probability, been the topic of comment and controversy since as far back as Georges Halot's Execution of Joan of Arc (1898). Taken to task for their myth-making, fact-manipulation, and outright fabrication; biographical movies have always walked a tightrope straddling documentary and wholesale fiction. At their best, they humanize and give dimension to otherwise remote historical figures, presenting their subjects' lives and achievements in some kind of social or cultural context. At their worst, they’re misleading works of absolute fiction, pawning off hoary narrative clichés as truth simply through the thumbtacking of real names onto over-familiar narrative archetypes and hackneyed tropes. 
Rudolf Nureyev as Valentino in Ken Russell's artful recreation of the 1921 silent, 
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

Entertainment industry figures, with their brand-name familiarity, built-in glamour, fame-idolatry, success-ethic traditionalism, and potential for soapy melodrama and scandalous sex; have always been popular choices for biopics. This in spite of the fact that they also court the potential for embarrassing impersonations, cheap-looking reenactments, actors looking absolutely nothing like the person they're portraying, and a public over-awareness of personal history that wreaks havoc with any desire to deviate from the facts.
But while an anachronistic, out-of-whole-cloth piece of movie fabrication like 1965's Harlow (which barely seems to take place on this planet, let alone the Hollywood of the 1930's) can be painful to watch, the truth is that a blatant disregard for historical accuracy doesn't automatically doom a biopic any more than just-the-facts-ma'am verisimilitude guarantees its success.
Rudolf Nureyev & Leslie Caron in a prototypically
 stylized Ken Russell take on Alla Nazimova's 1921 silent film Camille 

Biographical movies are a sub-genre unto themselves, and as such, unlike documentaries, their very nature presupposes and accommodates the application of a contrived dramatic structure to otherwise haphazard real-life events. And while in many instances this only serves to make the already tenuous connection between the subjectivity of truth and the relative weightlessness of facts even more tangential; it at least provides filmmakers with the latitude to invest historical "truth" with a little creative ingenuity.
I've always held that the employment of a deliberate artistic sensibility is what accounts for the phenomenon which makes a brilliantly-crafted, yet highly-fictionalized and historically inaccurate film like Bonnie & Clyde (1967) somehow "feel" more fact-based and realistic than say, Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid; an equally fictionalized film based on the lives of historic figures, which (due to its adherence to the conventions of the western "buddy picture") feels positively artificial.

If one of the main differences between a documentary and a biopic is the documentary strives to take an "as is" approach while the biopic demands a distinct point of view; then I find I’m always willing to surrender a certain (flexible) degree of historical truth when a filmmaker has a creative and artistically valid reason to use the biographical film genre to illuminate a broader human truth.
Rudolf Nureyev as Rudolph Valentino
Michelle Phillips as Natasha Rambova 
Leslie Caron as Alla Nazimova
Felicity Kendal as June Mathis
Seymour Cassell as George Ullman
In the interest of truth-in-advertising, the title of this film should really be Ken Russell’s Valentino. Making few allusions to historical accuracy beyond its costuming (the brilliant Shirley Russell) and art direction (Philip Harrison); Valentino bears Ken Russell's pyretic, idiosyncratic stamp on every eye-popping frame. Something which turns out to be a very good thing, indeed, since the script— penned by Russell and Mardik Martin (New York, New York)—so often allows the film's central enigma, Rudolph Valentino himself, to go MIA for long periods of time. Even when he's onscreen.

Silent film legend Rudolph Valentino, dubbed "The Great Lover" by his legions of female fans, seemed a shoo-in subject for the biopic treatment in the nostalgia-besotted '70s. But much in the way Fellini’s Casanova—released in the US about six months prior to Valentino—disappointed and alienated audiences by its almost perverse refusal to satisfy expectations (the public anticipated an extravagantly romantic roundelay about the famed 18th century womanizer,  but what they got was an intensely anti-erotic meditation on the soul-killing effects of loveless sex); Ken Russell’s neutered, demythologizing approach to the legend of Valentino left audiences bewildered.
Valentino paying tribute to Nijinsky's Afternoon of a Faun for Nazimova's cameras 

As envisioned by Russell, Rudolph Valentino (Russian ballet star Rudolf Nureyev, grappling with an Italian accent and surrendering somewhere around Transylvania) is a moral innocent who only dreams of owning an orange grove, victimized by Hollywood's venal greed and the grasping self-interests of the women drawn to him. Indeed, Victim of Romance, the name of the solo album released by Valentino co-star and former The Mamas & The Papas songstress Michelle Phillips a few months before the film's premiere (Tie-in…cha-ching!), would make a dandy Valentino subtitle.

When introduced, Rudolph Valentino makes living as a taxi-dancer for lonely society ladies, but lives by his own Old-World code of honor: “They buy my flattery and my time, but my love is not for sale! He holds women in high regard (he answers a starlet’s penitent confession of sexual promiscuity with, "All women are meant to be loved.”), but his irresistibility to the opposite sex—combined with a tendency to surrender all-too-easily to his own romantic fancies—makes him an easy mark for users and manipulators. Which, in this film, turns out to be everybody...women, most fatefully. 

Leland Palmer as Marjorie Tain, Valentino's always-inebriated exhibition dance partner
"Well, God help you, junior. If you ever have anything worth taking,
some bright bitch is gonna give you the ride of your life!"

The film depicts Valentino’s rise from tango dancer to matinee idol as a largely passive journey, the dashing and occasionally unintelligible ladies' man buffeted along by fate, circumstance, and the dominant whims and ambitions of the women who cross his path. From discovery to stardom, two marriages, studio suspension, a bigamy scandal, artistic pretensions (we never learn if he even thinks of himself as talented), to his death at thirty-one; Valentino is seldom shown to be the catalyst for anything that happens to him.

Even his reputation as The Great Lover is chiefly a PR creation born of the effect his masculine beauty and physical grace has on a newly-liberated female population, giddily exercising the prerogative of male objectification. In portraying the silent screen Latin Lover as but a passenger in the vehicle life, Valentino often suggests a Brilliantined Joe Dallesandro prototype: the androgynously beautiful male of enticingly ambiguous sexuality, possessed of just the right amount of charismatic vacuousness upon which one can freely project fantasies of desire.
Depending on the Kindness of Strangers
Carol Kane as a movie actress who helps give Valentino a leg-up in the movie business

Meanwhile, Valentino’s own desires are routinely presented as ineffectual, asexual, or latently homosexual. This leaves him only two dominant character traits: 1) His dream to have his own orange grove, and 2) A prickly, “he doth protest too much” sense of outrage whenever aspersions are cast on his masculinity. And indeed, speculation about the true nature of Valentino’s sexual orientation crops up so often in this movie it becomes the film's defining leitmotif.
I personally find it intriguing that Russell chose to depict Valentino as a man as elusive to himself as he is to his fans. A man certain of his sense of honor, but little else. The only problem with limiting so many of Valentino's most dynamic scenes to sequences of inflamed outbursts over having his masculinity impugned is that Valentino (at least as realized in Nureyev's haughty indignation) doesn't come across like a honorable man defending his name so much as an on-the-defensive closet-case (a la, Liberace) always a little too at-the-ready to fight and publicly proclaim his heterosexuality.
Is He or Isn't He?
Valentino teaches Nijinsky (Royal Ballet dancer Anthony Dowell) the tango
 

With the women in his life posited as the shapers of Rudolph Valentino’s destiny, Ken Russell is free to abandon the traditional rags-to-riches / disillusion-to-reclamation format of most biopics, and instead takes a page from the Citizen Kane handbook. Valentino's life is told in flashback via the unreliable narrators who represent the most important women in his life.
The women: socialite Bianca de Saulles (Emily Bolton); screenwriter June Mathis (Kendal); actress Alla Nazimova (Caron); and designer/Nazimova protégée/ Valentino 2nd wife Natasha Rambova – nee Winifred Shaughnessy– (Phillips).  All have come to pay their final (in some instances, self-serving) respects to Valentino at the New York funeral home where his body lies in ostentatious display.
Each woman, in turn, is grilled by a motley phalanx of cartoonishly boorish “Noo Yawk” reporters straight out of The Front Page; the multi-character narration providing, if not exactly illuminating insight into the deceased, then an enlightening view of the deep chasm that can exist between a man and his public image. It also provides Russell ample opportunity to make several interesting (if relentlessly cynical) points about identity, gender, sex, image, identity, art, commerce, and the fanaticism of fame-culture.
Linda Thorson as restaurateur Billie Streeter & Emily Bolton as socialite Bianca de Saulles

Using the funeral home and the attendant public pandemonium surrounding Valentino's death as a framing device between flashbacks, this otherwise refreshing emphasis on the female perspective is dampened by the fact that, when contrasted with Valentino's genteel malleability and honest motives, the broad strokes with which some of these women are painted has them veering toward caricatures, or worse, grotesques.

Once the flashbacks have ended and the film fades out on the solemn image of Valentino's corpse lying on a slab in the morgue, only then does it dawn that Ken Russell has pulled off the audacious feat of making a movie about a world-renowned lover that is, in itself, thoroughly devoid of love or romance. You think back over the film and realize that at no time does Valentino ever realize any of his romantic dreams, or successfully carry out a seduction. (Even the film's most explicit "love scene" is a masturbatory parody of fan-worship, with a star-struck actress realizing her dream of being alone with The Great Lover, yet only able to work herself into an orgasmic frenzy by ignoring the real, flesh-and-blood article and losing herself in solitary fantasy.)
Emotionally Isolated
Valentino and actress Lorna Sinclair (Penelope Milford) depicted 

as sexual strangers joined in isolated fantasy

If the difference between a documentary and a biographical film is a point of view, then in the case of Valentino, Ken Russell's would appear to be using the life story of one of the film industry's earliest superstars to dismantle the myth of fame and celebrity-worship. Also, to maybe have us ask us to examine what difference exists, if any, between the story and the truth.
The heads of United Artists, MGM, and Paramount discuss 
how best they can profit from Valentino's death 

RECEPTION
Valentino was released amidst much publicity fanfare in October of 1977. Bolstered by a sexy poster that emphasized raciness and the film debut of its lead (Nureyev IS Valentino!), it arrived at the tail-end of a spate of nostalgia-laced movies about the film industry: The Day of the Locust-‘75, Won Ton Ton: The Dog Who Saved Hollywood-’76, The Last Tycoon- ’76, and Nickelodeon- ’76). Unfortunately it followed on the heels of several poorly-received Hollywood biopics—Gable & Lombard, Goodbye Norma Jean, W.C. Fields & Me - all 1976—suggesting that audiences had perhaps had their fill of Marcel waves and art deco.
Budgeted at $5 million, it was Russell’s most expensive film to date, and I was over the moon with anticipation. At this point in time I was already a huge Ken Russell fan, though, discounting his BBC TV documentary on Isadora Duncan that aired on PBS, I had only seen three of his films: The Boy Friend , Tommy, and Lisztomania. Valentino was Russell’s follow-up to 1975s Lisztomania, a boxoffice flop that lost the director a bit of the Hollywood cachet he’d earned following the breakout success of Tommy.
I saw Valentino its opening weekend at the Royal Theater on Polk Street in San Francisco. The 100% male -presumably gay- audience made me feel like I was in a porno theater. Advance publicity for Valentino suggested a return to the Ken Russell of Women in Love, Mahler, or Savage Messiah, but the audience I saw it with that day was wired for the camp overkill of Lisztomania. From the moment Nureyev opened his mouth and the film began its drag parade of unsubtle, highly-stylized performances, Valentino became a victim of its excesses.
Chorus girls sing a song lamenting the emasculation of the American male
thanks to "Rudy, the Pink Powder Puff" 

REACTION
I was 19 and in film school when I saw Valentino (translated: very-self serious and pretentious) and I recall sitting in that theater feeling as though everyone around me had been sent some kind of prep notes on the movie that I’d failed to receive. Here I was taking it all in with deadly sober earnestness, while all around me people were cracking up at Nureyev’s uncertain acting, Phillips’ flat line readings, the curiously dubbed-sound of many of the voices, and the whiplash shifts from broad comedy to melodrama. Picking up on every line of bitchy dialog and every glimmer of homoerotic subtext, the audience wasn't laughing AT Valentino so much as operating from a not wholly unsubstantiated assumption that Russell couldn't possibly be expecting us to take any of this seriously.
I was so thrown by the experience I left the theater not at all impressed with the film and returned the following week to find out if  my reaction had been unduly influenced by the audience (by then word of mouth had begun to spread and I had the place almost to myself).  I could have saved myself the money. I remained steadfast in my initial assessment of the impeccable, often breathtaking period detail and costuming; I appreciated the bitter satire and cynicism; and I honestly loved the lager points the film broached in its brutal evisceration of show business and Hollywood in particular. 
Valentino is blessed with a large and talented cast (Huntz Hall and Felicity Kendal are especially good).
But my favorite performance belongs to Leslie Caron. Playing actress Alla Nazimova
as a woman intoxicated by her own theatricality, Caron fits Russell's style to a T

But I had a better understanding of the source of all that audience derision. The movie just fails to gel as human drama (nor, given the pitch of the performances, opera). But not because of the camp or overkill (although I could have done without that prison scene). Valentino rates as flawed Ken Russell for me because in its 2-hours-plus running time, only two brief scenes—one with Leland Palmer, the other, Carol Kane—ever touched on recognizably human emotions in a way that drew me into the story.
Jennie Linden (Ursula in Russell's Women in Love) contributes a hilarious
cameo as Agnes Ayres, Valentino's desert love-interest in The Sheik

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Watching Valentino for the purpose of this essay was my first time seeing the film in nearly 40 years.
Has the film improved? Well, no. The same weaknesses still prevent it from being one I'd rank among Ken Russell's best.
Has my opinion of Valentino changed? Considerably.
The passing of so many years has made me more aware of how much Valentino is a product of its time. Its cold point of view reflecting the pervasive post-Watergate cynicism and revisionist nostalgia that influenced so many movies of the day (The Day of the Locust, New York New York). Its anti-eroticism, reflective of a late-'70s cultural disenchantment with the idyllic promise of  the sexual revolution, falls in line with a spate of films whose themes challenged the notion of consequence-free hedonism (Saturday Night Fever, Looking for Mr. Goodbar, and the aforementioned Fellini's Casanova). In 1977, I was far too callow for cynicism, and 19-year-olds, by nature, have only the faintest acquaintance with the meaning of consequences.
Perhaps it's my age or perhaps it's because Hollywood today is fresh out of ideas and only knows how to remake things; but Valentino, though far from perfect, feels like a much smarter film than I once gave it credit for. It's still an emotionally remote experience for me, but it clearly means to be about much more than just the life of the late Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina d'Antonguella (whew!). It's a film with a point of view, it's the result of a consistent creative vision, and...although it only intermittently succeeds in getting them across....it's a movie of ideas. Besides, sub-par Ken Russell is still head and shoulders over the best work of many directors I can think of.
Ken Russel makes an unbilled cameo as Rex Ingram
director of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

BONUS MATERIAL
Many of Valentino's films-  including The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, The Sheik, and Camille, are available to watch on YouTube. 


Hear Rudolf Nureyev sing (The Muppet Show) - 1978

A terrific assessment of Valentino from one of Ken Russell's countrymen at "So It Goes..."

By all accounts, the making of Valentino was an unpleasant experience for nearly all involved. To read about Nureyev's distrust of Russell, Russell's crumbling marriage, the mutual animosity between Phillips and Nureyev, how Russell came to appear in the film, and the story behind that deleted funeral scene plot twist---I suggest the following books:
Ken Russell's Films by Ken Hanke
Phallic Frenzy- Ken Russell & His Films  by Joseph Lanza
Copyright © Ken Anderson

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

ONCE IS NOT ENOUGH 1975

The short-lived Jaqueline Susann #1 bestseller book-to-film trilogy train ground to a wheezy and sluggish halt with 1975’s Once is Not Enough. The film adaptions of Valley of the Dolls (1967), The Love Machine (1971), and Once is Not Enough may not have been perfect (or even good), but to me they’re a fairly accurate visual representation (perhaps too much so) of the author’s chief obsessions and preoccupations—sex, drugs, and the seamy lifestyles of the rich & famous—while simultaneously serving as a clear-cut example of the law of diminishing returns.

The first author to have three consecutive novels reach the #1 spot on the New York Times bestseller list, Susann wrote only six books in her brief but prolific career (two published after her death in 1974) but left a controversially indelible mark, if not on literature, then certainly on pop culture and the book publishing industry. And while her novels sparked endless debate about the cultural folly of mistaking “popular” for “good,” the quality of the films adapted from her books was never in question: Susann herself thought they were all pretty lousy.
So disgusted by what they did to her “Dolls” baby, Susann excused herself from the film’s seaborne press junket (Valley of the Dolls was promoted with an ocean liner scuttling cast members to premiers at various ports) vowing to have more control over the screen adaptation of her next book. She did, but in spite of her efforts and those of executive-producer husband Irving Mansfield, the film version of The Love Machine actually turned out to be worse.
Susann’s fourth novel Once is Not Enough was published in 1973 and is the third and last of her books to be made into a film. Although too ill at the time to be involved to the degree she’d like (or even make her usual onscreen cameo), Susann unofficially collaborated on the screenplay with 65-year-old Casablanca (!) screenwriter Julius J. Epstein. Susann died of cancer before Once is Not Enough was released (in September of 1974. The film opened in June of 1975) but Epstein informed Variety and the New York Times that she was displeased with how little screen time he devoted to the character of Karla (the most sympathetic and fleshed-out personality in the book) and accused him of mishandling the big lesbian scene.
Gloria Steinem once wrote, "Compared to Jacqueline Susann, Harold Robbins writes like Proust." So perhaps it's homage that inspired Once is Not Enough's use of a "kneeling lovers" graphic similar to that which appears on the 1970 poster for Harold Robbins' The Adventurers 

Valley of the Dolls was a boxoffice hit; The Love Machine flopped, and Once is Not Enough was a dud. None of the films are what anyone would call exemplary examples of the cinematic art, but only Valley of the Dolls made money and stood the test of trash film time. It’s common for authors uninvolved in the screen adaptations of their books to decry that had they been allowed to write a more faithful adaptation, the films would have turned out better. Beyond a lot of ego-based, after the fact, shoulda/woulda/coulda speculation, there’s very little evidence of this ever truly being the case. 

I’m fairly certain Jacqueline Susann would not have been happy with the completed film of Once is Not Enough, a book that was popular enough to become the 2nd largest selling novel of 1973 (behind Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull, of all things). But I’ve always found it ironic that Susann, an author whose typical defense to criticism of her writing ability was to point to her book sales and declare she’s crying all the way to the bank; could not grant a similar avenue of escape to the critically-maligned but very successful film made from her first bestseller. Susann may not have liked Valley of the Dolls, but by her own questionable standards, wasn’t popular success a valid measure of merit? 
Kirk Douglas as Mike Wayne
Bought for $3 Million, he earned every penny of it
Deborah Raffin as January Wayne
Still a virgin at 19, but eager to make up for lost time
David Janssen as Tom Colt 
Mr. Virility couldn't live the fantasies he wrote about
Alexis Smith as Deidre Milford Granger
She married many men, but her real love was a woman
George Hamilton as David Milford
The Swinging Set's most wanted "escort"
Brenda Vaccaro as Linda Riggs
Silicone in her chest, ice water in her veins. High-fashion editor with low desires
Melina Mercouri as Karla
The ugly rumors about her love life were true
Gary Conway as Hugh Robertson
To the world he was a hero, to his wife he was something else
While I can’t attest to Susann’s novel having any literary value, I can certainly confirm that the film adaptation is steeped in Ancient Myth and Fantasy. Which is to say Once is Not Enough is a film made by a bunch of very old men about a young girl with an Electra complex who lives in a fantasy world populated by beautiful young women who can’t get enough of the saggy, crepey flesh of men twice their age, and where male impotence is regarded as the stuff of Greek Tragedy.

Mike Wayne (Douglas), onetime hotshot Hollywood producer, has fallen on hard times. Wayne (much like this film) is a bit of a dinosaur; a victim of a youth-centric shift in public tastes. Unable to get a film off the ground, the fortunes of the two-time Oscar winner dwindle as his 19-year-old daughter January (Raffin) rakes up hefty medical bills relearning how to walk and talk in a Swiss rehab facility. You see, when she was 16, January was involved in a nasty motorcycle accident triggered by a jealous response to learning that dear old dad was boinking one of his leading ladies.
Now, three years later, January is ready for release and Mike is determined to keep her in a fool’s paradise, luxury-wise. What’s a fella to do? Make the moves on one of the 5th wealthiest women in the world, that’s what. A task which proves to be surprisingly easy, by the way.
The Things We Do For Love
Mike puts in a little overtime in his effort to secure his daughter's financial future

Those Swiss doctors must be worth their weight in gold, for January emerges from her ordeal (five operations in three years) looking none the worse for wear. Indeed, she looks as though she’s just returned from an extended stay at La Costa.
But alas, January’s whirlwind New York welcome of champagne, caviar, Plaza Hotel, Goodyear blimp, and lots of pseudoincestual canoodling, comes to an abrupt halt once she meets Daddy’s new wife and keeper (and her rival): the classy but mannish Deirdre Milford Granger (Smith).
I suppose one doesn’t get to be the 5th richest woman in the world without mastering the art of multitasking, so while keeping her husband’s wrinkled gonads in an vice and trying to foist her virginal stepdaughter on her rather oily, Reggie Mantle-ish cousin David (Hamilton); Deirdre still manages to find time to go hallway to hallway with fading movie goddess (“She’s a bigger recluse than Garbo or Howard Hughes!”) Karla (Mercouri). Karla, who remains as much an enigma to us viewers as she does to her fans in the film, rounds out Once Is Not Enough's bedroom roundelays by carrying on a side affair with the much-younger David.
Girl Talk
Generations from now, film scholars will still be discussing
the significance of that big hunk of bologna 

Meanwhile, January visits old school chum Linda Riggs (Vaccaro), who’s now the potty-mouthed, man-crazy editor of a women’s magazine. Although their friendship begs credibility (January is barely 20, Linda is 28. What the hell kind of school did they go to?) it’s nothing compared to the speed with which Linda offers January both a job and an apartment.
Enter Tom Colt (that name!), a hard-drinkin’ he-man writer (Janssen) who also happens to be the sworn enemy of Mike Wayne. So of course January, unable to get daddy for herself, falls for daddy-surrogate. On the periphery of all this, serving no real purpose save that he was a character in the book, is astronaut Hugh Robertson (Conway). His scandalous problem is that his wife divorced him. In a story already cluttered with characters the film barely has time for, Conway’s presence is baffling. Did someone owe him a favor?

With all the characters assembled and in place, the plot, such as it is, pretty much boils down to whether or not our star-crossed lovers (make that DNA-crossed lovers) can find happiness in the arms of substitutes, when propriety, decency, and a squeamish Oscar-winning screenwriter in his 60s (“I’ve got lesbianism, but I draw the line at incest!”) demand their love remain forbidden. 
Jacqueline Susann described Once is Not Enough as being about “mental incest”: not the real deal, just the love a doting father has for his only daughter, and a young girl’s lifelong infatuation with the first important man in her life.
Whatever you call it, I call it inert. Once is Not Enough is two hours of sizzle and no steak. Characters talk a lot, but outside of Brenda Vaccaro’s one-note raunch act (which seemed a lot funnier back in 1975 before Kim Cattrall gave us six seasons and two movies worth of it in Sex and the City) the film is sorely lacking in Valley of the Dolls-level hooty dialog. And for a film based on a Susann novel, the sleaze factor is surprisingly low. I mean, what is Jacqueline Susanne but the Pucci'd paperback purveyor of glossy sex and drugs?

Vacarro smokes a joint, but alcohol is the sole drug of choice in Once is Not Enough. Like an episode of Bewitched, every room in this film comes with a well-stocked bar, and characters are forever hoisting a glass. Even January’s drug addiction problem from the novel (a dependency on speed-like vitamin shots) is reduced to a single line of dialog. And as for the sex, there's precious little. Precious little you'd want to see, anyway. There's Deborah Raffin clutching a sheet to her bosom, Gary Conway in short-shorts, and middle-aged lesbian action; but (My eyes! My eyes!) David Janssen is granted the film’s only nude scene.
Melina Mercouri grasps while George Hamilton narrowly escapes having
his hair (or face) move in this production still of a scene cut from the film. 

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
It seems to be the natural course of events in the entertainment business that once someone makes a killing appealing to lowbrow popular tastes; the one thing they desire most is to be taken seriously. The film version of Valley of the Dolls brilliantly rose (or sunk) to the precise level of Susann’s trashy-but-readable novel, and, of course, she hated it. Thus, with each successive film we got Susann desperately trying to turn her sow’s ear material into silk purses. The result: drained of all their fun and sleaze, The Love Machine and Once is Not Enough both emerged as nothing but trite melodrama. Worse, they were dull, dull, dull.
When Old Coots Meet
Limp as a noodle yet always ready to prove he still has the ol' poop, the ever-inebriated Tom Colt confronts Mike Wayne over turning one of his novels into a lousy movie. Reading this scene Jacqueline Susann must have thought "Pot, meet kettle!"

Once is Not Enough needed the punch of a vulgar director, hack writer, and actors ill-equipped to modulate the pitch of their performances. The last thing it needed was restraint. What it got was a director of “serious dramas” (Guy Green of A Patch of Blue & Light in the Piazza), an Oscar-winning screenwriter, the cinematographer of Chinatown (John A. Alonzo), and a cast underplaying to the point of somnambulism (Vaccaro & Mercouri, notwithstanding). Once is Not Enough commits the fatal mistake of taking itself and its preposterous plot seriously. Sound the death knell.
If I have any fondness for this movie at all (Lord knows why, but I do) it's because: 1. It's part of the Jackie Susann screen trilogy and you just can't break up a set. 2. There's just enough "good bad" to keep your interest between naps. 3. It opened at the Alhambra Theater in San Francisco when I was still working there as an usher, so in addition to having seen it more times than I can count, I have nice memories of the steady stream of middle aged ladies who poured into the theater on Sunday matinees to see this piece of...cinema history.
Veteran character actress Lillian Randolph as Mabel
"I've worked for your father for 12 years and it was one long parade of poontang."

PERFORMANCES
A quick look and you’d swear January is played by a time-traveling Gwyneth Paltrow, but of course the bland role is blandly assayed by the late Deborah Raffin. And although only her third film, it’s Raffin’s second time portraying a girl with a fetish for old dudes (the first was 1973’s 40 Carats). Were Once is Not Enough the TV-movie it feels like, Raffin’s performance would be perfectly serviceable (see: George Hamilton), but on the big screen her mono-expression only emphasizes the degree to which she’s hamstrung by a script that can’t discern the subtle difference between naïve and dim-witted.
Jacqueline Susann was a huge Dionne Warwick fan
Warwick is the only person to "appear" in all three of Jacqueline Susann's films. She sang the themes for VOD & The Love Machine, and here she peers over Raffin's shoulder from a window display

Making a welcome return to the screen after a 14-year-absence, Alexis Smith, then enjoying a career resurgence thanks to her Tony Award winning turn in the Broadway musical Follies, is saddled with a Dina Merrill role with a gimmick. Photographed and dressed unflatteringly (designer Moss Mabry channeling Vera Charles in Mame…the Lucy one!) Smith’s rather good performance never has the chance to emerge from under the weight of the stunt-like publicity surrounding her character’s bisexuality. 
With no "wig down the toilet" scene (VOD) or "Hollywood party brawl" to publicize (Love Machine), Once Is Not Enough's sole marketing gimmick was to promote the film's lesbian relationship as though it were a circus act

With Kirk Douglas acting with his chin dimple and David Janssen doing his usual sleepwalking growl and grumble bit (I was stunned to discover the actor was only 43 when he made this. He easily looks ten years older), small wonder that Brenda Vaccaro (on the last legs of a six-year relationship with Kirk's son, Michael) garnered so much attention. In a role that in later decades became the "sassy black girlfriend" trope, Vaccaro is easily the best thing in the film, but I don't really see how she got an Oscar nomination and Golden Globe win out of it. Not in a year that saw the release of ShampooThe Day of the Locust, Nashville (Geraldine Chaplin!), The Stepford Wives (Paula Prentiss!), Tommy (Tina Turner!), Night Moves (Jennifer Warren!), and Funny Lady (Roddy McDowall!).
"Listen, if you don't appreciate rock I've got plenty of  others. Mood stuff. How's this... 'Music To Get It Up By'?" The album in question was a hit for Vikki Carr in 1967

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Movies like this make me understand why so writers and directors freak out when their ages are revealed on IMDB. Everything about Once Is Not Enough is a testament to the median age of its creative team (which hovers somewhere around the 55-65 mark). Sure, one of the film’s themes is how quickly the world is changing, but honestly, this film looks and like it was made in 1967.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the jaw-dropping scene where David takes January to his bachelor pad and tries to seduce her. The apartment is one of those garish, patently soundstage-bound creations that wouldn't be out of place in one of those tedious Tony Curtis sex romps of the '60s. In fact, it looks like it's a sublease from Dean Martin during his Matt Helm phase.
Although it's smack in the middle of the cocaine-and-amyl fueled '70's, David doesn't bring out the drugs and crank up the rock music. No, he plies 20-year-old January with champagne and tries to get her in the mood with ersatz Frank Sinatra music. The entire scene is so "off" and out-of-time it feels like a reenactment of a deleted scene from Hamilton's 1960 flick Where the Boys Are, with Raffin standing in for Dolores Hart.

Once Is Not Enough preserves the "blue robe" motif established in The Love Machine

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
So the cliché goes: after money and fame, they all want respect. Given that the film Jacqueline Susann’s disliked the most has ultimately turned out to be the best and most enduring of the lot, maybe there’s something to be said for ambition keeping in step with perspective. The fact that Valley of the Dolls has gained a cult status hasn’t changed it from being a bad film into a good one; it merely illustrates that under certain circumstances, subjective qualifiers like “good” and “bad” do well to take a back seat to words like "entertaining" and "campy fun."  As my blog list of favorite films proves, when it comes to the movies that bring us back again and again, goodness often has nothing to do with it.
For all the hype, this kiss never even appears in the completed film. Karla & Deidre kiss later on in the scene, but the camera can't scurry away fast enough. Production notes and stills reveal two differently-scripted love scenes between Smith & Mercouri were filmed, the Susann-penned scene being the one jettisoned. Along those same lines, two different ending were filmed and tested on audiences. Given how flat the selected one is (those Henry Mancini Singers!) I don't even want to imagine what failed the test screenings

BONUS MATERIAL
Brenda Vaccaro's inhale-heavy tampon commercials were comedy fodder for 70s late-nite TV hosts
Watch It HERE

TV star David Janssen was the Excedrin spokesman for as long as I could remember
Watch It Here

My earliest memory of the underutilized Gary Conway is of him straining his T-shirt in I Was A Teenage Frankenstein (1957). Before embarking on an acting career  and gaining notoriety on the sci-fi TV program Land of the Giants, Conway was a teen "physique" model. No longer a teen, in 1973 he nevertheless reverted back to type and appeared au naturale in the August issue of Playgirl magazine (a copy of which I stole from a local supermarket at the time). Too bad Once Is Not Enough saw fit to keep Conway clothed while Flabby McHairycheeks is the one to shoot us a moon.

To read more about Once Is Not Enough (like finding out the significance of the title) check out the great write-up at Poseidon's Underworld.


Daddy Dearest
Copyright © Ken Anderson