CIVILIZATION AND ITS DISCONTENTS (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose Ends #115)

A painting by Winston Churchill….

Gifted to Vivien Leigh, the lead in his favorite film, That Hamilton Woman, in 1951, the year A Streetcar Named Desire was released…

…featuring the performance of which she later wrote, Blanche “is a tragic figure and I understand her. But, playing her tipped me into madness.”

I’ve always wondered if she tipped Brando as well. It couldn’t have been easy for the Method actor to watch someone demonstrate a level of commitment neither he nor anyone could match by breaking down mentally in front of him (and a  movie camera)…because the part demanded it.

In any case, she was sent home from her next film set in a strait jacket.

She kept Churchill’s painting by her bed for the rest of her life, so it would be the first thing she saw when she woke up.

She only made 53, but I’m inclined to believe the painting may have added a year or two.

The painting is being auctioned off by her grandchildren in September. One more thing I wish I hadn’t lived to see….

Though I’d probably feel different if I had the money to buy it!

PATRIARCH (Steven Hill, R.I.P.)

stevenhill1One of the original fifty admitted to the first class at the Actor’s Studio in 1947 (along with Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift), he was thought by some to be the comer in the group. Despite steady work, he never came close to achieving that level of iconography.

He was certainly held back, in his middle years, by a devotion to Orthodox Judaism that kept him from working regular theater hours and even, occasionally, filming hours. He left steady work as the original star of Mission Impossible after its first season and walked into a ten-year “retirement.” When he emerged again in the late seventies, it was to play the patriarchal roles that led, finally, to a ten- year stint on the original Law and Order, where his DA and Jerry Orbach’s beat cop provided the sour mash whiskey notes that balanced the show’s tendency towards wine-and-cheese sermonizing. For that alone, his memory should be blessed.

I’m sure he gave plenty of other fine performances, though I’m not all that familiar with his filmography.

I want to note his passing, though, for  a single five-minute scene he played with Christine Lahti in Running On Empty. It’s a running theme of this blog that we never walked away from ’68 and never will. I’ve never encountered anything that drove this unpleasant idea home as forcefully as that scene, which consists of Lahti’s on-the-run radical daughter meeting with Hill’s unforgiving, old guard, father, whom she hasn’t seen in twenty years, to beg a favor for her son. It’s one of the most devastating moments in any American narrative and makes the rest of the very fine film around it, not to mention the last thirty years of American history, fade to black. If we still had a culture, two actors of such quality would have had a chance to play a hundred more like it. As it stands, one will have to do.

Geyn mit got.

stevenhill5

A WORD ON CAMP (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #73)

American actress Patty Duke taking a break from filming on the set of 'Valley of the Dolls', 24th April 1967. (Photo by Harry Benson/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Camp: Something so outrageously artificial, affected, inappropriate, or out-of-date as to be considered amusing.

That’s the relevant Merriam-Webster definition. I have a couple of others.

One is the willingness (or compulsion) to laugh at other people’s misery and pass it off as the courage of cultural rebellion.

Another is the simple act of holding any woman who rejects likability at arm’s length. What better way, after all, to mock whatever said woman is trying to project in likability’s place (or, as seems to have been the case with the film version of Valley of the Dolls in general, and Patty Duke’s genuinely raw, abrasive performance in particular, a means for gay intellectuals to project a “sensibility” which, from the outside at least, seems at least as straitjacketed as the conformist culture it supposedly rejects).

Duke’s recent death led me to the movie, which I’ve been meaning to catch since it came out on Special Edition DVD a decade back.

I’m not sure I would call what Duke did here “acting” in any formal sense. Knowing what we know now about her life to that point and her then undiagnosed bipolarity, her performance–so often defined as “cringeworthy” that picture above should probably be co-opted by Merriam-Webster as shorthand –has the feel of a self-administered therapy session, edging toward primal scream. It is in no way fun or easy to watch.

That is probably why it has become perhaps the most mocked performance in the history of film. There’s always a special place in our culture for any performer–especially any female performer–who goes to a place where they simply don’t care what we think. This is supposed to be the very last word in “over the top,” but I found myself wondering just how subdued an actress is supposed to be playing a drug-addled, bed-hopping, emotionally crippled alcoholic whose life is falling apart?

Not very, I’d say, but I guess everyone’s mileage varies for this sort of thing.

Other actresses have certainly kept the world at bay more serenely (see Vera Miles, whose price is to be the forever unsung muse of both Alfred Hitchcock’s and John Ford’s late masterpieces) or more artfully (see Vivien Leigh, whose price is to seldom if ever be mentioned as the actress of the century, despite blowing Olivier off the screen in That Hamilton Woman,  the only occasion when he was fool enough to test himself against her, and scaring Brando into permanent retreat even while he was giving his own greatest performance). But in a movie that really is a narrative shambles and, for all that’s been projected onto it as a “trash” masterpiece that broke so many “taboos,” extremely tight-assed and pearl-clutching in every other respect, she alone is alive on the screen.

That picture above is from the set, not the movie itself. But the spirit of it is in almost every frame. After a while, it even pervades the legion of lifeless scenes that don’t feature “Neely O’Hara,” who everybody always knew was based on Judy Garland and who Patty Duke turned into a roman a clef of herself.

I’m not sure I would call the performance deep. Given the abilities Duke demonstrated so often elsewhere, when she wasn’t playing herself, I’m not even sure I would call it skillful. I get why people laugh.

In a dying culture, after all, nothing’s funnier than someone else’s pain and nothing’s more reassuring than the belief that, if we laugh hard enough, the mountain won’t fall on us.

DON’T WORRY, NOTHING TO SEE HERE, MOVE ALONG PLEASE…THOUGHTS ON CITIZEN KANE BEING DETHRONED

The headline being attached to Sight and Sound’s latest list of the “greatest films” is that Citizen Kane–which topped the once-a-decade poll five straight times from 1962 to 2002–was displaced by Vertigo.

Studying the top 50, we find that the real news, as usual, is that nothing has changed.

Existentialism still trumps narrative. Concepts still trump people.

Directors still count (and conceptual, existentialist directors still count most of all). Performers still don’t count even a little bit.

A lot of people are lamenting the absence of Luis Bunuel or Howard Hawks or Erich Von Sternberg or Douglas Sirk or whoever and, in at least some cases, I see their point.

But I miss Vivien Leigh and Barbara Stanwyck and Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant a lot more. Not to mention Anne Bancroft and Humphrey Bogart and, heck, Gloria Grahame. (That’s GWTW and/or Streetcar, plus The Lady Eve, Notorious, The Miracle Worker, The Maltese Falcon, The Big Heat and/or In A Lonely Place for those keeping score at home….and, incidentally, shifting the focus from directors-only, to great-directors-collaborating-with-great-actors would also redress the diminution of women’s-importance-in-film discussed, albeit without much insight, here)

Interesting and serendipitous that Vera Miles, the astringent, oft wrongfully-dismissed muse of both Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford’s last great periods–and the woman Hitchcock never forgave for backing out of Vertigo after he had already built his story-boards around her irreplaceable profile (he knew what had gone missing even if his now-triumphant acolytes didn’t and don’t) is the only American lead besides Brando who made the list twice.

So at least they got that part half-right.