Thursday, July 10, 2014

Book Review: Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures, by Emma Straub (2012)

Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures, by Emma Straub, 2012.

Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont in The Dueling Cavalier. What a great screen pair!
Emma Straub’s first novel, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, tells the life story of a fictional female movie star from the 1940’s. Born Elsa Emerson in Wisconsin, she is eventually rechristened Laura Lamont by a studio executive. Laura goes on to marry that studio executive and win an Oscar. I was intrigued by Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures because I love old movies, and I thought the idea of a novel about a female movie star of that era would be very interesting. Unfortunately, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures is a dull and rather lifeless read. 

I found it difficult to connect with any of the characters in the book. For me, the characters just seemed thinly drawn, and they never came to life. Even Laura/Elsa never seemed real to me. She doesn’t seem to have any drive or ambition of her own. She does not have the toughness that a woman would have needed at that time to be a successful film star. Laura’s studio executive husband, Irving Green, is such a perfect guy that he quickly becomes a bore.

A major plot point of the book is the suicide of Elsa’s older sister Hildy, which occurred when Elsa was nine years old. However, Straub makes the mistake of hammering this home relentlessly, as she keeps mentioning Hildy every three pages or so, as though we’ve completely forgotten who she was. Straub has severely underestimated the attention span of her readers.

The biggest problem I had with the book is that the world of Hollywood never came to life for me. I didn’t get the sense that Straub did much research for this book. She mentioned in an interview that one of her inspirations for the novel was when she read the obituary of the actress Jennifer Jones in 2009. Straub said that she had never heard of Jennifer Jones before she read her obituary. That’s exactly the problem with this book. Straub doesn’t know enough about the golden age of Hollywood to successfully take us there in the novel. I will admit that probably not a lot of people under the age of 50 would know who Jennifer Jones was, but if you’re a fan of the golden age of Hollywood, you should have at least heard of Jennifer Jones. Jones was a huge star in the 1940’s; she won an Oscar for 1943’s The Song of Bernadette, and was nominated for 5 Best Actress Oscars. There are numerous parallels between Jones and Laura Lamont, as their first marriages were to actors who had problems with alcohol. (Jones was married to Robert Walker, who died at age 32, and was most famous for his role in Strangers on a Train.) Jones’s second husband was movie producer David O. Selznick, mirroring Laura’s marriage to Irving Green. However, the more obvious model for Irving Green is producer Irving Thalberg, as they both died young of heart conditions. Also, both Thalberg and Green eschew screen credits. As Thalberg famously said, “Credit you give yourself is not worth having.” 

Laura completely falls apart after Irving dies, and unfortunately, those scenes take up most of the book. We know that Laura will encounter money problems because of the obvious foreshadowing as she thinks things like, “She was sure she had all the money she needed” numerous times. I don’t have a ton of sympathy for Laura. Yes, some shitty things have happened to her. That’s life, deal with it. Pick yourself up and move on, don’t just sit around moping about it. But Laura can only wallow in her misery, as Straub has not equipped her with any kind of drive or ambition. Since Laura doesn’t want to act, she just sits around the house with her children. 

None of Laura’s films ever seem real, and Straub only mentions about five or six movies that Laura made. After about 1950, Laura hardly makes any movies at all. I wonder if Straub’s lack of knowledge about Hollywood is the reason why Laura makes so few movies. Actors and actresses of the golden age usually made a ton of movies. Jennifer Jones is an anomaly because she only made 27 movies. Much more typical would be Lana Turner, who made more than 50 movies. Also, most of the supporting characters are easily spotted caricatures of famous actors. There’s Laura’s best friend Ginger, who goes on to become the star of a long-running TV show opposite her real-life husband, and who seems to be clearly modeled on Lucille Ball, and a handsome, closeted leading man named Robert Hunter, who is obviously meant to be Rock Hudson. 

Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures is really a novel about a woman and her family. Which is fine, but why on earth does Laura Lamont happen to be a movie star? She might as well be a lawyer, a housewife, a teacher, a nurse, or an astrophysicist for all that her job impacts the plot of the book.
My final beef with the book is Laura Lamont’s name. When the book was first published I read reviews of it and said to myself, “Doesn’t the author know that her character has almost the same name as another famous fictional movie star?” The inevitable connotation in my mind when I hear the name Laura Lamont is Lina Lamont, the ditzy silent movie actress with the terrible voice wonderfully played by Jean Hagen in Singin’ in the Rain. (“And I cayn’t stand’im.”) Why didn’t someone point this out to Straub? Why didn’t she change her character’s name to make it less similar? I shudder to think of the possibility that Straub was ignorant of Singin’ in the Rain and that by chance her character’s name just happened to be shared by another fictional movie actress. 

I was hoping that Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures would transport me back to the Hollywood’s golden age, but that didn’t happen.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Book Review: Stars and Strikes by Dan Epstein

Stars and Strikes, by Dan Epstein, 2014.

Mark "the Bird" Fidrych, 1976's biggest rookie sensation.

The 1976 World Champion Cincinnati Reds. How did anyone pitch to that lineup?

Steve Carlton throwing his slider for the Phillies in 1976. Carlton went 20-7 that year to lead the NL in winning percentage.

Reggie Jackson as an Oriole? Yup, only in 1976.
One of the best baseball books I’ve read recently was Big Hair and Plastic Grass, by Dan Epstein, which tells the story of baseball during the tumultuous decade of the 1970’s. I reviewed Big Hair and Plastic Grass here, and I was very pleased when I learned that Epstein was following up that book with this year’s Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of ’76. Like Big Hair and Plastic Grass, Stars and Strikes is a highly entertaining read. As the title tells us, Stars and Strikes focuses on baseball in the Bicentennial year of 1976. 

Why was 1976 such a pivotal year for baseball? Well, one reason was that in 1976 the reserve clause was finally struck down. The reserve clause had kept players tied to one team for as long as the team wanted that player. Once the reserve clause ended, players could become free agents and sell their services to the highest bidder. This led to a dramatic explosion in player salaries, which has continued unabated to this day. To give just one example of how baseball salaries changed with free agency, reliever Bill Campbell went from making $22,000 in 1976 with the Twins to making $250,000 in 1977 with the Red Sox. Unsurprisingly, baseball owners were less than thrilled by the prospect of having to shell out more money to their players, so, for the second time in five years, they locked the players out of spring training. The owners had also locked out the players in 1972, which lead to the season being slightly shortened. The owners were hoping that the players would agree to a new basic labor agreement that forfeited the right to free agency that they had just won. That didn’t happen, so the owners were forced to go along with the new rules of free agency.

The 1976 baseball season saw the emergence of several unlikely stars. Randy “The Junkman” Jones, a starting pitcher for the San Diego Padres known for his off-speed pitches, got off to an extremely good start in 1976. Jones had fashioned a 16-3 record in the first half of the season, giving him an outside chance at winning 30 games. But Jones slowed down in the second half of the season, going just 6-11. However, that still gave him a league-leading 22 wins, and the National League Cy Young Award. 

The 1976 American League counterpart to Jones was the Detroit Tigers’ Mark “the Bird” Fidrych, who became a nationwide sensation thanks to his excellent pitching and amusing antics while toeing the rubber. Fidrych was brought up from the minor leagues in late April and made his first start on May 15th, pitching a complete game and holding the Cleveland Indians to just two hits. Fidrych got a lot of press for his unorthodox behavior on the mound, as he talked to baseballs, shook his teammates’ hands when they made a good defensive play, and smoothed the mound with his hands. For the record, Fidrych always said that he was never talking to the baseball-he was talking to himself, which helped him stay focused. None of Fidrych’s behavior was an act, and he brought a genuine child-like enthusiasm to baseball. Fidrych’s engaging spirit touched a nerve in 1976 America, which quickly embraced him as a kind of folk hero. In interviews promoting the book, Dan Epstein has made the point that the media has changed so much in the nearly forty years since Fidrych became a sensation that it’s tough to imagine the same thing happening again. I definitely agree, as now we know so much about every player from the moment they play in their first game. Now, you can watch every single at-bat of Yasiel Puig or Jose Abreu. Back in 1976, unless you lived in Detroit, your only opportunity to see Fidrych was to catch him on NBC’s Game of the Week. Fidrych finished the season with a 19-9 record, and a league-leading 2.34 ERA. His 24 complete games also lead the league, and Fidrych was the runaway choice for American League Rookie of the Year. Sadly, Fidrych suffered through an array of injuries beginning in 1977, and won just 10 more games over the next four years in the big leagues. 

1976 saw the resurgence of the New York Yankees, as they finally awoke from a decade-long slumber and returned to the World Series for the first time since 1964. The Kansas City Royals ended the Oakland A’s AL West dynasty, snapping the A’s streak of AL West championships at 5 in a row. The Royals started a dynasty of their own, making 7 playoff appearances from 1976 until 1985, when they won the World Series. Unfortunately for Royals fans, the team hasn’t made it back to the playoffs since 1985. 

In the National League, the Philadelphia Phillies won 101 games to make the playoffs for the first time since 1950. The Phillies were a well-rounded team, featuring power hitters like Mike Schmidt and Greg Luzinski, smooth fielders like Larry Bowa and Garry Maddox, great starting pitching from Steve Carlton, Jim Kaat, and Jim Lonborg, and excellent relief pitching from Ron Reed, Gene Garber, and Tug McGraw. The Phillies would make 6 playoff appearances from 1976 until 1983, winning the World Series in 1980. The Cincinnati Reds would stake a serious claim to the title of “Greatest Baseball Team Ever” in 1976, as they won 102 games and then swept the Phillies in the NLCS and the Yankees in the World Series. The Reds’ lineup was stacked from top to bottom, as their usual starting lineup in 1976 was Johnny Bench, Tony Perez, Joe Morgan, Dave Concepcion, Pete Rose, George Foster, Cesar Geronimo, and Ken Griffey. Wow. 

Throughout Stars and Strikes Epstein does an excellent job of weaving what was happening in the larger world in 1976 into the baseball season. He knows his stuff, and it shows. Epstein also does a good job of making some of the larger than life personalities like Billy Martin, Reggie Jackson, George Steinbrenner, Charlie Finley, Ted Turner and Bill Veeck come alive. If you’re a fan of 1970’s baseball, or of Big Hair and Plastic Grass, you definitely need to read Stars and Strikes.

Movie Review: Lana Turner in Peyton Place (1957)

Lana Turner and Lee Philips in Peyton Place, 1957.

David Nelson and Hope Lange looking cute in Peyton Place, 1957.

Hope Lange, looking very beautiful around the time of Peyton Place.
When Grace Metalious’s novel Peyton Place was published in 1956, it became an instant best-seller. The novel shocked America with its portrayal of the dark secrets beneath the seemingly normal surface of a small town in New Hampshire. Hollywood came calling and Peyton Place was filmed the following year and released in December, 1957. The movie was just as successful as the book, becoming one of the biggest box-office hits of the year. IMDB says that Peyton Place grossed $25 million, while Wikipedia says it made $16 million. Either way, it was a big hit, and a fantastic return on a budget of $2.2 million. Metalious wrote a sequel, Return to Peyton Place, published in 1959 and made into a movie in 1961, although none of the cast from the original Peyton Place returned for the second movie. Peyton Place also became a TV show, running from 1964 until 1969. 

The movie of Peyton Place stars Lana Turner as Constance MacKenzie, a widow and the mother of Allison MacKenzie, (Diane Varsi) the narrator and main character. The movie opens in 1941, as Allison is finishing up her senior year of high school. Allison’s best friend is Selena Cross (the lovely Hope Lange) whose mother Nellie (Betty Field) is the MacKenzie’s housekeeper. Selena’s step-father is Lucas Cross (the always excellent Arthur Kennedy) an alcoholic janitor who is abusive to Selena. Selena’s boyfriend is Ted Carter, played by David Nelson, who acted in the film during his summer break from “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.” Ted Carter is a really nice guy, just like the version of himself that Nelson played on “Ozzie and Harriet.” Allison is also friends with Norman Page, (Russ Tamblyn) an overly sensitive boy with a domineering mother. Another student at the high school is Betty Anderson (Terry Moore, who I just saw in Come Back, Little Sheba) the “fast” girl whom Constance disapproves of. 

Peyton Place deals with the issues of these teenagers as they prepare to graduate from high school and either go on to college or go to work. There is a new principal at the school, Michael Rossi (Lee Philips) and he is interested in Constance, but she acts coolly towards him. One of Rossi’s best friends in town is Dr. Swain, (Lloyd Nolan) an upstanding citizen who is the conscience of the town. 

All of the performances in Peyton Place are excellent, with Turner in particular turning in very good work. It might have seemed a stretch for the glamorous Turner to play a woman who owned a dress shop and had a teenaged daughter, but she was very believable as a strong single parent, which she was in real life as well. It also might have seemed like a stretch to have a sex symbol like Turner play a woman like Constance, who is uninterested in men. I thought that Constance’s relationship with Michael Rossi was convincingly portrayed. She is reluctant to date or start a relationship, even though they clearly have feelings for each other. I liked Rossi’s lines about love, as he tells Constance that he doesn’t just want to have sex with her, he’s making a commitment to her because he cares about her. Which might sound like a line, but Rossi means it. Constance always wants to be in control, and she never wants anyone to see any of her weaknesses, which means that she doesn’t want to fall in love. But eventually she and Rossi begin a relationship. Lee Philips does a good job playing Michael Rossi. Philips was a veteran of television dramas, but Peyton Place was his first movie. Philips would go on to become a successful TV director, and ironically, he would later direct 7 episodes of the TV show Peyton Place. Philips doesn’t have the magnetism of a movie star, but the part doesn’t need a star in it. It’s such an ensemble movie that casting a bigger star in the part might not have worked well. 

The most shocking plot development of Peyton Place is when Selena Cross is raped by her step-father Lucas. It’s an uncomfortable scene to watch, and even though we don’t see the rape itself, the film makes it perfectly clear what happens. It’s a very good example of a film that was made under the censorship of the Hays Code still being able to show controversial content. Selena becomes pregnant, and she begs Dr. Swain to help her end her pregnancy. He says he cannot do that. Selena miscarries when she falls down a hill after being chased by Lucas. Dr. Swain falsifies the medical records to show that he performed an appendectomy on Selena, thus protecting her privacy and shielding her from the gossip of the town. Swain also makes Lucas confess what he has done and runs him out of town. When Lucas reappears a year and a half later, he has joined the Navy and tries to assault Selena again; she fights him off with a club and kills him. She buries his body and doesn’t tell anyone for six months. When Navy officers come looking for Lucas, Selena tells them she hasn’t seen him, but she breaks down and tells Constance what really happened. Constance phones the police and Selena stands trial. Selena pleads that she only killed Lucas in self-defense, but she refuses to tell anyone that Lucas had raped her, as she doesn’t want everyone in town to know her secret. Even at the trial she refuses to tell the whole story. But then Dr. Swain takes the stand and saves the day, as he produces the paper Lucas signed admitting that he impregnated Selena. The jury finds Selena not guilty, and as she leaves the courtroom with her boyfriend Ted and Dr. Swain the townspeople offer her words of support. 

All of the supporting performers in Peyton Place turn in superb performances. Hope Lange does an excellent job in the difficult role of Selena. Lange is stunningly beautiful, and she instantly wins the affection of the audience as the kind-hearted Selena. Diane Varsi, a newcomer to films at the time, provides an excellent center for the movie. Russ Tamblyn brings complex shading to the character of Norman Page, and Arthur Kennedy makes you hate Lucas Cross, which means that he did a good job as an actor. Lange and Varsi were both nominated for Best Supporting Actress Oscars, and Tamblyn and Kennedy were both nominated for Best Supporting Actor Oscars. Arthur Kennedy was riding a decade-long hot streak, as he was nominated for 5 Oscars from 1949 to 1958. Four of his nominations were for Best Supporting Actor, and one was for Best Actor. Kennedy never won an Oscar, but he delivered some fantastic performances. 

Lana Turner was also nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress, which was her first and only Academy Award nomination. Unbeknownst to the general public, Turner was going through a very difficult time in her personal life. In 1957, Turner divorced her fourth husband, actor Lex Barker, most famous for playing Tarzan in several movies in the early 1950’s. Soon after her divorce, Turner began dating a man named John Steele, who bought her a lot of gifts and was rather obsessive in his pursuit of her. Turner eventually fell in love with Steele, but some of her friends told her that he might be a criminal. Turner found out that John Steele’s real name was Johnny Stompanato, and that he had been a bodyguard for the gangster Mickey Cohen. Fearing a scandal if the news leaked that she was dating a criminal, Turner tried to keep the relationship under wraps as much as possible. Turner tried numerous times to break off the relationship, but Stompanato was jealous, violent, and abusive, threatening both Turner and her teenage daughter Cheryl Crane. 

The 1958 Oscars were held on March 26, 1958. Lana Turner attended with her daughter, rather than with Stompanato. Turner presented the award for Best Supporting Actor, and she recounts the night in her autobiography: 

“As I read the names off the teleprompter in front of me-Sessue Hayakawa for The Bridge on the River Kwai, Red Buttons for Sayonara, and three others, I was almost delirious with excitement. Slowly I opened the envelope-I had been secretly rooting for Red Buttons-and when I saw his name I gasped, then broke into a wide smile. What a pleasure it was to announce his name.” (Lana, by Lana Turner, p.189-90) 

Lana was so delirious with excitement that she neglects to mention that two of the nominees she doesn’t name in her book were her Peyton Place co-stars Russ Tamblyn and Arthur Kennedy! And to add insult to injury, she was rooting against them! It’s an odd anecdote.

Turner did not win the Oscar, losing out to Joanne Woodward, who won for The Three Faces of Eve. When Turner came home to Stompanato that night after the Oscars, he went into a violent rage and brutally beat her, slapping her and punching her repeatedly. Turner wrote in her autobiography, “There were welts all over my face and neck, and the beginnings of what would be terrible bruises.” (Turner, p.194) Just a week later, on April 4th, Turner and Stompanato had another loud argument and he was threatening her again. Cheryl was listening to their argument, and entered the room. Holding a kitchen knife, she stabbed Stompanato in the stomach, killing him. 

Cheryl was arrested, and Turner had to suffer through the indignities of a very public coroner’s inquest at which she provided dramatic testimony, just as Constance MacKenzie had in Selena Cross’s trial in Peyton Place. There are other similarities to the movie, as in both the movie and real life a teenage girl killed an abusive older man in self-defense. And just like Selena Cross, it was ruled that Cheryl Crane had acted in self-defense. Turner worried that the scandal would ruin her career, but it didn’t, as people still flocked to see her in Peyton Place

Peyton Place is an excellent movie, and it’s well worth seeing as a movie that went about as far as you could go under the Hays Code in 1957. The performances are all very good, and they’ve aged well.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Movie Review: Gregory Peck in The Gunfighter (1950)

Gregory Peck in The Gunfighter, 1950.

Gregory Peck delivers an excellent performance as Jimmy Ringo in the 1950 western The Gunfighter. It’s a taut and tense little movie, and much of it’s 85 minute running time takes place in almost real time, upping the tension. As the movie opens, we see Ringo entering a saloon in a new town. His reputation as a famous gunslinger precedes him, and Eddie, a brash young man (Richard Jaeckel) challenges Ringo. Ringo warns him to not cause any trouble, but Eddie keeps provoking him, and when he draws on Ringo, Ringo shoots him dead. Ringo is warned to leave town, as Eddie’s brothers will be looking for revenge. Ringo leaves town and heads to Cayenne, where his old friend Mark Strett (Millard Mitchell) is the sheriff. Cayenne is also where Ringo’s estranged wife and son now live. The entire town of Cayenne takes to the streets as word spreads that the famous gunfighter is in town. Ringo takes refuge in the local saloon, owned by Mac (Karl Malden). Strett wants Ringo to leave town before any trouble ensues, but Ringo wants to see his wife and son. His wife Peggy (Helen Westcott) refuses to see him at first, but eventually relents. Ringo tries to reconcile with her, promising to go straight and to move to a place where no one knows of his reputation. Peggy says she will reconsider his offer if he can come back after a year of staying out of trouble. Ringo is also able to meet his son, who knows of Ringo’s fame, but doesn’t know that Ringo is his father. Ringo is just about to leave town when town punk Hunt Bromley (Skip Homeier) shoots him in the back and kills him. Before dying, Ringo tells Strett to spread the story that he drew first, as he knows this will increase the pressure on Bromley as “the man who shot Jimmy Ringo.” The film ends at Ringo’s funeral, as Peggy lets the town know that Ringo was her husband.

The Gunfighter is an excellent film with good performances by everyone in the cast. Peck might not have been everyone’s first choice for a deadly gunslinger, but he gives Ringo the humanity needed for us to sympathize with him. It’s very strange for me to see Millard Mitchell in a western, since in my mind he will always be R.F. Simpson, head of Monumental Studios, from Singin’ in the Rain. Mitchell does an excellent job playing Strett, who used to be part of Ringo’s gang, but has since gone straight. Strett tries his best to be fair to both Ringo and the nervous townspeople. 

A major theme of The Gunfighter is Ringo’s fame and notoriety, as this causes punks like Eddie and Hunt Bromley to pick fights with him. They say “Aw, he doesn’t look so tough,” and they think they can become the man who shot Jimmy Ringo. Ringo deliberately lies to Strett as he is dying, because he wants people to think that Hunt Bromley outdrew him, not that Bromley shot him in the back like a coward. Ringo knows that if people think Bromley outdrew him, they will hound him for the rest of his life, and he will constantly be fighting to uphold his reputation, just as Ringo had done. 

Veteran director Henry King was behind the camera for The Gunfighter, and he did an excellent job of crafting an engaging movie with many memorable characters. King directed his first movie back in 1917, and some of his notable credits are the first movie version of State Fair, from 1933, Love is a Many-Splendored Thing, with Jennifer Jones and William Holden, and Carousel, with Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones. King also directed matinee idol Tyrone Power in 11 movies, including Lloyd’s of London, which tells the thrilling tale of how the insurance company was formed. No, really! It’s on my list of movies I want to see, just because I’m curious about how you could make that into an interesting movie. But seriously, King directed Power in many of his most famous movies, hits like Jesse James, A Yank in the R.A.F., The Black Swan, Captain from Castile, Prince of Foxes, and The Sun Also Rises. King had previously directed Peck in Twelve O’Clock High, and they would make six movies together. Another one of King’s movies that sounds interesting to me is 1959’s This Earth is Mine, about a winemaking family trying to survive during Prohibition, starring Rock Hudson and Jean Simmons. There aren’t very many movies about winemakers. 

If you’re looking for an excellent western with a compelling plot and well-drawn characters, you’ll enjoy The Gunfighter.