Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Queer Cinephile(s) #12: Johnny Guitar

I'm a cinephile. Studied film in college and got to review movies for a TV station (don't get excited; it was way back in the 20th century). My Netflix queue swelled to over 400 titles in 2013, filled with movies I never got around to seeing. So, for 2014, I gave myself an assignment: watch 50 films that I've never seen before and write something about them. I'll be watching a little bit of everything -- Oscar bait, indie darlings, black & white classics, cult flicks, blockbusters, big-budget flops and weird shit my friends have been recommending for years.

Johnny Guitar (released January 1954)

Left to right: 
Ben Cooper (as Turkey), Joan Crawford (as Vienna) & Sterling Hayden (as Johnny Guitar)

Here's the original theatrical trailer...

What the Queer Cinephile Says: Western films have been around since the silent era. They were always popular, but big producers regarded them as low-budget pulp for smaller studios and B actors. All that changed in 1939 when a handful of high-profile westerns (Dodge City, Destry Rides Again, Stagecoach) with some breakout stars (Errol Flynn, James Stewart, John Wayne) made a lot money and earned critical praise. Author and screenwriter Frank Gruber (1904-1969) once argued that there are only seven basic western plots: something involving the Union Pacific railroad; something about building a ranch from nothing; something about the ranch being threatened by rustlers or competing landowners; something about revenge; something about the cavalry and the Indians; something about an outlaw; something about a lawman. The only things missing from Johnny Guitar are the cavalry and the Indians. Just change the ranch to a saloon and recast the cattle baron and saloonkeeper as women -- Mercedes McCambridge and Joan Crawford, respectively.

With a little research I learned that Joan Crawford bought the rights to an obscure novel and brought it to Republic Pictures, suggesting it as a project for her and director Nicholas Ray. Republic assigned the screenplay to Ben Maddow, but since he'd been dubbed a Communist by Congress's House Committee on Un-American Activities, the studio slapped another writer's name on the script. Meanwhile, Crawford demanded changes that favored her character, Vienna, because she owned the book rights and she's Joan Fucking Crawford.

Audiences were expecting a western version of the typical Crawford vehicle. What they got was a baroque, highly-stylized melodrama filmed in something called Trucolor, a process best described as Technicolor's crude little brother. Yes, it looks like a western for about the first five minutes. Our titular character -- played with stiff, stoic ease by Sterling Hayden -- is on horseback, riding through a section of Arizona's mountainous terrain where railroad workers are dynamiting the hell out of things to make way for tracks. Johnny Guitar surreptitiously witnesses a stagecoach robbery, then rides on to his destination, Vienna's saloon and gambling hall. Enter Crawford's Vienna, who sent for the guitar player to be her establishment's entertainment. One male employee sums her up for us: "Never seen a woman who was more a man. She thinks like one, acts like one. And sometimes makes me feel like I'm not." That's followed by an extended, somewhat stagey, semi-surreal but remarkably sustained first act scene that introduces every main character and establishes the nasty rivalry between Vienna and the local cattle baron, Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge).

Mr. Guitar muses, "When you boil it all down, what does a man really need? Just a smoke and a cup of coffee." Then all hell breaks loose: fistfights, gunslinging, a bank holdup, horseback chases, more dynamite, an impressive fire and a lynching party. Sounds like a western, right? The cliches and conventions are all there, but everything about this movie is emphatically askew -- Crawford's costumes bounce back and forth between masculinized western wear and girly clothes; the revered Vienna and feared Emma literally appear to be the only two women in the whole town; half the cast is acting in a proper western and the other half is chewing through the sensational Arizona scenery with abandon.

Which brings us to Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge. Before Johnny Guitar, Crawford had already made over 80 movies. McCambridge had made a handful of films and won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for 1949's All the King's Men. Crawford wanted Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck or Claire Trevor -- all too expensive or unavailable. Director Nicholas Ray settled on McCambridge. Credible sources (including McCambridge herself) swear that both women were battling alcoholism and developed a deep animosity for each other during the production. I don't know what these performances would look like if they weren't tinged with booze and acrimony. All I know is this: It's damn near impossible to upstage Joan Crawford, but McCambridge does it with a performance that's pitched between fermented belligerence and unrestrained mania. McCambridge did a lot of episodic TV roles after Johnny Guitar, but her later career is eclipsed by one shockingly good performance delivered off screen: she's the demonic voice emanating from a possessed teenage girl in 1973's The Exorcist.

Stray Gay Observations: I'm going to tell you why I almost never enjoy westerns: Because I feel sorry for the horses. They're always having to ride past scary fires and explosions, or carry people across rivers. Invariably, somebody slaps one of them with a strap and yells, "Faster!" So, you can distract me with the hot cowboys, but I'm probably never going to stop thinking that their horses are doleful about the whole Wild West lifestyle.

And then there's this dress. Perfect for any occasion -- a piano recital, a lynching...

The gown was designed by Sheila O'Brien. She got her start on The Wizard of Oz.

Should You See It? Oh, come on. You have to see this! It has characters named Vienna, Johnny Guitar, The Dancin' Kid and Turkey. It's like a goofy fever dream. I was utterly fascinated and regularly gobsmacked by Johnny Guitar. It's not "Joan's Greatest Triumph," despite the movie poster's hyperbolical header. By this phase of her career, the triumphs were behind her -- Grand Hotel (1932), The Women (1939), Mildred Pierce (1945) and Possessed (1947). And some of the reviews were blunt and harsh. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther dismissed it as a fiasco, concluding that Crawford "is as sexless as the lions on the public library steps and as sharp and romantically forbidding as a package of unwrapped razor blades." Ouch.

Opinions have certainly shifted since then. In 2008, the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress selected Johnny Guitar for preservation, deeming it "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant." In the 60 years since it's release, plenty of critics and filmmakers have reevaluated and praised the film. Roger Ebert cites it as "surely one of the most blatant psychosexual melodramas ever to disguise itself in that most commodious of genres, the western." In a DVD extra, Martin Scorsese extols: "Johnny Guitar is an example of a minor film growing to achieve the status of a classic. It's modern sensibility has induced a number of different readings from the feminist analysis of the film to the Freudian subtext in the perverse sexuality running through it." Well, I am certainly not going to argue with Martin Scorsese.

Next Week: Pillow Talk (1959)

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Queer Cinephile(s) #11: Thelma & Louise

I'm a cinephile. Studied film in college and got to review movies for a TV station (don't get excited; it was way back in the 20th century). When my Netflix queue swelled to over 400 titles, I gave myself an assignment: watch 50 films that I've never seen before and write something about them. I'll be watching a little bit of everything -- Oscar bait, indie darlings, black & white classics, cult flicks, blockbusters, big-budget flops and weird shit my friends have been recommending for years.

Thelma & Louise (released May 1991)

Susan Sarandon (right) as Louise; Geena Davis (right) as Thelma

Here's the artwork designed for the 20th anniversary Blu-ray release.
Notice the emphasis on the gun; there wasn't even a hint of one on the original poster. 

Here's the original theatrical trailer...

What the Queer Cinephile Says: Anton Chekhov, the 19th century author and dramaturge, insisted: "If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there." Movies and TV shows have been jerking us around with this trope, dubbed "Chekhov's gun," forever. Within the first ten minutes of Thelma & Louise, one of the titular characters packs a handgun for a weekend trip to the mountains, sort of half-seriously explaining that it might come in handy if they encounter any psycho killers, bears or snakes. It gets fired before the end of the first act. Two ordinary women had some idyllic little excursion planned, but an impromptu stop at a roadhouse bar goes gravely wrong, turning a housewife and a waitress into fugitives.

Watch the trailer and see how Thelma & Louise was originally advertised as a lighthearted female buddy road trip picture. In fact, it's almost made to look like one of those low-budget 1960's era drive-in features that were the specialty of American International Pictures, the now-defunct studio whose marketing philosophy was simple: To catch your greatest audience, zero in on the 19-year-old male. Perhaps that explains the emphasis on two beautiful women with an apparent disdain for the law, a 1966 Ford Thunderbird convertible and one big-ass explosion. I bet the 19-year-old guys who bought tickets to Thelma & Louise back in the summer of 1991 got taken for a darker ride than they were anticipating. And I suspect a lot of the women who accompanied them were surprised to discover that Thelma & Louise was no silly romp.

Doing some research on how the film was received back in 1991, I discovered that a lot of critics and essayists described it as a well-crafted feminist road movie. Most of the negative criticism can be summed up sort of like this: I didn't like this picture because the women do some stuff that we're used to seeing men do, and that's just wrong. The former is worthy of debate; the latter is specious nonsense belched up by people who should never be allowed near a keyboard. If this movie is guilty of anything, it's for having the temerity to take a tired genre dominated by brooding,  disaffected men -- the road movie -- and telling its story entirely (and freshly) from the perspective of two women. It's defiantly forthright about sexism, without ever really crossing the line into overt male-bashing. Midway through the movie, a male law enforcement officer schools Thelma's boorish, patronizing husband in the fine art of sweet-talking a woman so she can be cajoled into surrendering the next time she phones home. "Women love that shit," he contends. The script, by Callie Khouri, is a powerful, revolutionary treatise on all the shit women do not, in fact, love -- like non-consensual sex and paternalism.

Director Ridley Scott, who'd made six films and was primarily known for 1979's Alien and 1982's Blade Runner, took on the project after a lot of others passed. According to interviews with Scott, at least one other director summarily dismissed the script for Thelma & Louise: "Listen, dude, it's two bitches in a car." A lot of different actresses were considered for the roles of Thelma and Louise: Holly Hunter, Frances McDormand, Jodie Foster, Michelle Pfeiffer, Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn. Scott saw Susan Sarandon as Louise. Geena Davis, an Oscar winner for 1988's The Accidental Tourist, also wanted to play Louise. Ridley Scott thought she'd make a better Thelma. He was right. Geena Davis demonstrates stunning range that probably should have earned her a second Oscar (she lost to Jodie Foster, collecting her second Oscar for The Silence of the Lambs.)

Stray Gay Observations: This is widely considered to be Brad Pitt's breakout role. He plays a charming, hitchhiking robber who has a sexual rendezvous with love-starved and sexually unfulfilled Thelma. Afterwards, Thelma confides to Louise, "I finally understand what all the fuss is about." Pitt has never caused a stirring in my loins, but he's perfectly cast and terrific here -- you also get a quick glimpse of his ass. We can all thank Geena Davis for the ascendance of Mr. Pitt. During the casting process, she read lines with a bunch of guys, then finally told Ridley Scott to hire "the blond one." Their chemistry is palpable. Personally, I was crushing on Michael Madsen -- he  plays Louise's musician boyfriend, Jimmy. It's the kind of part that can easily slip into self-conscious parody, but Madsen gives it plausible nuance.

Should You See It? Sure, I know that Thelma & Louise and The Sixth Sense have had their endings spoiled more than any other movies made in the '90s, but in this case, knowing the finish doesn't make the preceding two hours any less exciting or compelling. It's a helluva road trip. There's so much to recommend here: outstanding performances, an Oscar-winning screenplay, fearless direction, flawless cinematography. My only complaint is the musical soundtrack -- there are a number of carefully chosen classic tracks by people like B.B. King and Marianne Faithfull, yes, but then Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald (whom I can appreciate in a different context) do some generic pop wailing, too. In this film, that's a fail.

Look, movies that examine the bonds between women are fairly rare: this isn't BeachesFried Green Tomatoes or Terms of Endearment. Thelma & Louise was controversial in its day -- probably because it brazenly dares to tell the truth in some dramatically cunning and wincingly funny ways. It may leave you conflicted. Great films do that sometimes.

Next Week: Johnny Guitar (1954)

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Queer Cinephile(s) #10: Bringing Up Baby

I'm a cinephile. Studied film in college and got to review movies for a TV station (don't get excited; it was way back in the 20th century). My Netflix queue swelled to over 400 titles in 2013, filled with movies I never got around to seeing. So, for 2014, I gave myself an assignment: watch 50 films that I've never seen before and write something about them. I'll be watching a little bit of everything -- Oscar bait, indie darlings, black & white classics, cult flicks, blockbusters, big-budget flops and weird shit my friends have been recommending for years.

Bringing Up Baby (released February 1938)

Katharine Hepburn & Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby

Here's the original theatrical trailer...

What the Queer Cinephile Says: Bringing Up Baby is what is known as a screwball comedy -- a genre of American film that originated in the early 1930s and was very popular during the bleak economic times of The Great Depression. But the word screwball came from the world of baseball. New York Giants pitcher Carl Hubbell became famous for striking out batters with a pitch dubbed "the screwball." My understanding of this is that, depending on the pitcher's arm angle, the ball can flutter and drop, go in different directions and generally behave in unexpected ways. That describes the characteristics of good screwball comedy, too. A lot of film historians would probably call 1934's It Happened One Night the first true screwball comedy -- and that also happens to be the same year Carl Hubbell made baseball history when he struck out five men in succession with his screwball pitch during an All-Star Game.

According to my research, Bringing Up Baby was a troubled production and not a financially successful film in its day. The part of Susan Vance, described as a "flutter-brained vixen" in the trailer, was tailored for Katharine Hepburn, who'd made a dozen films and already won an Oscar (1933's Morning Glory), but had never made a comedy. The part of David Huxley, an earnest paleontologist who just needs one last bone to finish assembling a brontosaurus skeleton, was offered to Cary Grant only after a half dozen other actors were considered. Hepburn was insecure about her comedic skills and Grant wasn't sure how to make an intellectual character funny. The script was rewritten multiple times; at one point gag writers were brought in to punch up the dialogue and add a subplot.

Here's all you really need to know: It's the day before David's marriage to chilly fiance Alice, who acts more like a personal assistant than a bride-to-be, and says things like, "This will be our child!" while gesturing to David's dinosaur skeleton. To continue his work at the museum, David needs to schmooze a potential donor and wangle a million dollars. There's a meeting on a golf course that goes awry when heiress Susan Vance hijacks the game. Of course, Susan also happens to be the donor's niece -- and she would love to inherit that million dollars. Meanwhile, Susan's brother has sent her a leopard from Brazil because that makes sense in this family -- and it's name is Baby. Deciding the leopard needs to be at her family's Connecticut farm, she tricks David into accompanying her on a road trip home. Complications arise thanks to a haughty aunt, a drunken gardener, a bumbling constable, the circus that just happens to be in town, and a rude little dog.

The set up of a screwball comedy is always pretty preposterous. Two things make them work: A cast that can sell the crazy and a director that keeps it all moving along so briskly that you forgive the plot holes and accept the coincidences. Howard Hawks, one of Hollywood's best-ever directors (Sergeant York, The Big Sleep, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) was in charge here. He gallops past some of the script's clunkier transitions and sustains the pace. Bringing Up Baby also benefits from the considerable charms of Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. When an exasperated David refers to Susan as a "conceited, spoiled little scatterbrain," he's absolutely right. But you have to give Hepburn credit for a performance that generates opportunities for us to like her anyway.

Imagine George Clooney and Mad Men's Jon Hamm rolled into one person and you get the impossibly good-looking Cary Grant (1904-1986), an extremely versatile actor who made over 75 films -- comedic and dramatic, even teaming with Alfred Hitchcock four times. Despite critical praise, Bringing Up Baby failed to make a lot of money during its initial release, but no one blamed Grant or Hawks for that. Instead, Hepburn was labeled "box-office poison" by the president of the Independent Theatre Owners of America and her studio, RKO, allowed her to buy out her contract. Hepburn would ultimately make about 50 films and win four Academy Awards anyway; she skipped every Oscar ceremony. Cary Grant was awarded an honorary Oscar in 1970, "For his unique mastery of the art of screen acting with the respect and affection of his colleagues."

Stray Gay Observations: My friend Linda loves it when I mention the fashion. Bringing Up Baby's credits say Gowns by Howard Greer. Greer designed clothes for about two dozen movies, with emphasis on the gowns. Greer's gowns for Hepburn are at once sophisticated and whimsical. I don't know who decided to put Cary Grant in a pair of glasses to make him appear more intellectual, but it just makes him look like the sexiest museum nerd on Earth. And then there's this:

Cross-dressing is fairly common in screwball comedies. Here, Grant is forced to don Hepburn's ridiculous negligee. When Hepburn's high and mighty aunt demands an explanation, Grant's hapless character kicks up his heels and bellows, "Because I just went gay all of a sudden!" It's since been debated whether this is the first use of gay to imply homosexuality in a motion picture. At the time, gay was widely used as a simple synonym for happy. But according to the Dictionary of American Slang, gay men have been referring to themselves as gay since the 1920s. Who knows what mainstream audiences made of this declaration at the time. And according to multiple sources, the line wasn't even in the original script; Grant is believed to have ad-libbed it. As Bringing Up Baby became a wildly popular fixture on TV in the 1950s and '60s, everybody was exposed to the sight of an ostensibly heterosexual man in a negligee declaring that he'd suddenly gone gay. Cary Grant was married five times and gay rumors advanced about him during the latter part of his life. His sexual orientation has been written about extensively since his death in 1986.

Should You See It? In 1990, Bringing Up Baby was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. That's where they keep copies of all the "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant" movies in the U.S. The American Film Institute has placed it on their lists of both the greatest and funniest films of all time. So, there's that. To be honest, it took nearly a half hour for me to go from being mildly amused to chuckling pretty consistently. A second viewing only heightened my appreciation of the film. This is what a top comedy looked like in the 1930s; it's doesn't contain the raunchy humor of The Hangover, nor does it look like any Adam Sandler comedy that's ever been made. But if you're a fan of something like Sandra Bullock's The Proposal, this should be pretty satisfying.

Next Week: Thelma & Louise (1991)

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Queer Cinephile(s) #9: Kiss of the Spider Woman

I'm a cinephile. Studied film in college and got to review movies for a TV station (don't get excited; it was way back in the 20th century). My Netflix queue swelled to over 400 titles in 2013, filled with movies I never got around to seeing. So, for 2014, I gave myself an assignment: watch 50 films that I've never seen before and write something about them. I'll be watching a little bit of everything -- Oscar bait, indie darlings, black & white classics, cult flicks, blockbusters, big-budget flops and weird shit my friends have been recommending for years.

Kiss of the Spider Woman (released July 1985)

William Hurt as Luis Molina in Kiss of the Spider Woman

The theatrical trailer released after Hurt's Best Actor win at the 1985 Cannes Film Festival...

What the Queer Cinephile Says: Kiss of the Spider Woman begins with an entrancing scene set in a South American prison cell. Molina (William Hurt), a window dresser imprisoned for "corrupting a minor," lovingly describes the plot of a favorite movie to his cellmate, Valentin (Raul Julia), a journalist locked up and being tortured for aiding a leftist revolutionary group. The contrast between Luis, openly gay and unapologetically feminine, and the coarse revolutionary Valentin, is pronounced from the start. Valentin thinks Molina is a shallow fool and barely tolerates his dramatic storytelling.

But they're stuck together in that grim cell. As the days pass, Valentin's objections wane and Molina really gets into the narrative of his story, freely admitting, "I embroider a little so you can see it the way I do." Gradually, Valentin realizes that Molina is describing a Nazi propaganda film he saw as a child. Molina assures him that he knew that already; it was the film's romance he embraced, not its politics. As Molina recounts the exploits of a movie character named Leni Lamaison, the viewer is treated to florid, noir fantasy sequences that illustrate just exactly what's going on in his head. These feature Brazilian actress Sonia Braga, who does a particularly good job of creating the caricature of a bad actress in a Nazi propaganda film. But watch carefully -- she actually has three different roles in the movie.

At first you might think this movie is just going to be about the way two disparate individuals learn to live together under terrible circumstances. No. There's quite a bit more to it than that. As Molina and Valentin grow closer and more interdependent, we're also given some details about their lives before prison. It's an unusually structured film -- flashbacks and fantasy sequences mixed with the intimacy of prison cell scenes -- but it's never hard to follow or a tonal train wreck. The mashup of these two men's current reality and Molina's movie world is daring and transfixing. I also like the way Kiss of the Spider Woman builds slowly (but never dully), gathers momentum and delivers a gripping climax outside the prison.

The film is based on the 1976 novel of the same name by Manuel Puig. As scripted by Leonard Schrader and directed by Hector Babenco, the movie is free of any specific references to the year it takes place (though it's doubtful it could be any later that '76 if Molina saw a Nazi propaganda film as a child). The name of the city or country where they're imprisoned is never revealed, nor do we ever learn exactly which revolution Valentin supports. Ultimately, I think it was a good idea to leave all that out -- it really doesn't matter what country or whose politics are involved; it could be any revolution, anywhere. And the idea of Molina being arrested for sex with an underage boy gets interestingly tweaked later in the film, prodding the audience to examine (at least momentarily) their willingness to accept it as fact.

Kiss of the Spider Woman was developed as a play before it was made into a film, and has since been made into a musical for Broadway. No, I haven't read the book or seen either stage version, so I can't make any comparisons. I do believe the film succeeds as drama, melodrama, character study and thriller. Even the sparing use of humor works to great effect. I have a quibble with at least one choice made by director Hector Babenco late in the film -- a scene involving Molina and his mother -- but it's minor and may not bother anyone else like it did me. Bottom line: Hurt and Raul Julia make it all work.

Stray Gay Observations: Kiss of the Spider Woman was released in 1985, receiving all kinds of accolades and awards recognition. It even won William Hurt an Oscar for Best Actor. I loved William Hurt -- went to the theater to see him in Altered States (1980), Body Heat (1981) and The Big Chill (1983). Then why did it take me so long to see this film? I'm pretty sure I just rejected the idea of William Hurt playing gay for two hours. Gay parts began to appear more frequently in mainstream films during the 1980s, but every time a heterosexual actor signed up to play one, it was A BIG DEAL. There was incessant chatter about how brave they were, or how it was career suicide. And Hurt is certainly not playing a Log Cabin Republican-approved gay here. At various points in the film, he wears makeup, a turban, earrings, a floral kimono robe -- that's all evident from the trailer itself. Back then, I decided it was going to be an excruciating experience; there was no way I was going to enjoy, admire or appreciate this film. I'm embarrassed to admit that now.

Frankly, Hurt deserved the Oscar (he won over Harrison Ford, James Garner, Jack Nicholson and Jon Voight that year). Based on the trailer, it's too easy to dismiss Molina as stereotypically gay. Not true. He's an enormously complex character. Hurt, easily one of the finest actors of his generation, begins with a mannered performance that's never too showy, theatrical or flamboyant. He reveals Molina's layers subtlety and credibly scene by scene. By the film's final sequences, Hurt exposes the depths beneath Molina's artifice and gives us glimpses of his raw humanity.

Should You See It? Definitely. I confess: I didn't anticipate liking this movie at all. I wasn't bored for a minute. It's aged very well, too; feels like a movie that could have been made in this decade instead of the '80s -- and it would probably be considered just as provocative and controversial today.

Next Week: Bringing Up Baby (1938)