Friday, October 24, 2014

Moive Review: Dean Martin, Kim Novak, and Ray Walston in Billy Wilder's Kiss Me, Stupid (1964)

Dean Martin and Kim Novak in Kiss Me, Stupid, 1964. There's no symbolism in that really long chianti bottle Dean is holding. Sometimes a really long chianti bottle is just a really long chianti bottle.

Dean and Kim tidy up. Hey, Dean, do you have a permit for those guns?

Ray Walston as Orville Spooner in Kiss Me, Stupid.

Kim Novak and director Billy Wilder on the set of Kiss Me, Stupid, 1964.

A rare color photo of Kim Novak in the dress that she wears when she's pretending to be Zelda.
Billy Wilder’s trashy 1964 sex comedy Kiss Me, Stupid, was a film that shocked many moviegoers at the time with its raunchy subject matter. The plot is that popular singer Dino (Dean Martin) is driving from Las Vegas to Los Angeles when he stops in Climax, Nevada. (This movie is not subtle.) Gas station owner Barney Millsap (the very funny Cliff Osmond) sees in Dino his chance at fame and fortune. Barney writes songs with Orville J. Spooner, (the excellent Ray Walston) a piano teacher who lives across the street. Barney sabotages Dino’s car, forcing him to stay as a guest of Spooner’s so they will have a chance to pawn their songs to him. Dino is looking for action in Climax, as he tells Spooner that if he doesn’t have a woman every night he gets painful headaches. (John F. Kennedy once said much the same thing to British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan: “If I don’t have a woman for three days, I get terrible headaches.”) Spooner is married to the beautiful Zelda (the beautiful Felicia Farr) but he is terribly jealous of her. Zelda reveals that she’s always had a crush on Dino-she saw him driving through town, but doesn’t know he’s currently napping in their guest bedroom. So Barney concocts the ridiculous idea that Spooner should get into a fight with Zelda so she goes back to her parents, and then pick up a trollop from the Belly Button, the local roadhouse, and pass her off as Zelda. Oh, and let Dino sleep with her so he doesn’t get a headache and buys some of their songs. What could go wrong with a plan like that? 

Of course, plenty goes wrong with the plan, as Barney picks up a beautiful cocktail waitress with a heart of gold, Polly the Pistol (the delicious Kim Novak). Polly actually likes Orville, and she gets to fulfill a fantasy by acting like a wife, instead of a girl with a dubious reputation. And once Polly meets Dino she is repulsed by his smooth charm and fast moves. The irony of the movie is that when it comes time for Orville to step aside and let Dino get his action with Polly, he fights for Polly’s honor and throws Dino out of his house, thus losing his chance at selling any songs. But Orville gets to enjoy Polly for a night, as they retire to the bedroom. Meanwhile, Zelda returned home, and Barney, who is spying on the action from the porch, tells her not to go into the house. But he left out some crucial information, so she doesn’t know he’s trying to sell songs to Dino, she just thinks he’s having a great time with Polly. So of course Zelda goes to the Belly Button and gets drunk, whereupon the owner deposits her in Polly’s trailer. And where does Dino go once Orville throws him out? The Belly Button, natch. But Dino is unimpressed by the girls on duty and asks the bartender where the hottest girl is. He directs Dino to Polly’s trailer. Dino finds Zelda there and assumes she’s Polly. Zelda, although star struck by Dino, quickly figures out that he’s a jerk. When she finds out he’s not going to buy any of Orville’s songs, she uses reverse psychology, telling him that the song isn’t right for him anyway, and saying what great things Bobby Darin, Jack Jones, or Robert Goulet could do with it. Zelda and Dino spend the night in Polly’s trailer, and he leaves without a headache the next morning. But everything ends happily, as Zelda gives the $500 that Dino gave her to Polly, so Polly can buy a car and find happiness outside of Climax. Dino sings Orville and Barney’s song “Sophia” on his latest TV special, and Orville and Zelda are happily reunited, although Orville doesn’t understand what has happened. 

Kiss Me, Stupid is, well, a stupid movie. At 126 minutes, it’s far too long, and it takes way too much time to get to the setup. Too much screen time is spent on Orville’s jealousy at the beginning of the movie. If you get bored during this part of the movie, look for Mel Blanc, voice of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Porky Pig, among many others, as a dentist. Also, look for John Fiedler, the voice of Piglet, as a minister trying to get the Belly Button to close down. There’s also a super long and only sort of funny sequence where Orville is trying to pick a fight with Zelda, but she deflects everything he says. It’s kind of funny, but Orville is also an overly jealous jerk. If you see Kiss Me, Stupid, you’d better be well-versed in the pop culture of the mid-1960’s; otherwise there will be many jokes that will go over your head. Two of my favorite jokes were lines spoken by Polly. Orville tells her that she’ll flip over who the third person at dinner will be, and that he’s “very exciting.” She asks, “Who is it, Richard Burton?” When Orville reveals that it’s Dino, she isn’t excited and says, “I like Andy Williams better.” Those jokes cracked me up, but I realize they might not be that funny to other people.

The casting of Kiss Me, Stupid was quite excellent. Dean Martin was superb as Dino and I like that he was fine playing a parody version of himself as a total jerk. Dean Martin wasn’t a saint, but from what I’ve heard and read about him, he sounds like a genuinely nice guy. I know a guy who played softball with my Dad who was an extra in the movie Airport, and he told me that when he broke the rules for extras and went up to Dean to shake his hand, Dean took off the glove he was wearing before shaking hands. That’s always stuck with me as a classy thing to do. The role of Dino must have been written especially for Martin, and the line between real life and the movies is blurred as the beginning of the movie is just Martin’s usual nightclub act, filmed for the movie cameras as Dino’s act. Martin’s jokes at the beginning will be familiar to anyone who has heard recordings of his live act. One joke is about Bing Crosby, as Dino says, “Bing’s always so cool. That’s because he has $21 million dollars. On him.” The movie doesn’t include this line that would have fit with the smutty tone of the movie, but in live performance Martin would preface that joke by saying, “I ran into Bing and I said, ‘Hiya Bing, what’s up?’ He said, ‘Not much.’ Oh, you think that’s funny now, wait till you get home it’ll be hilarious!” The car that Dino drives is Martin’s own Dual Ghia, and when Barney talks about Dino’s hit songs, he’s naming Dean Martin’s hit songs. Martin was an extremely gifted comedian, and he makes the most of this part. My only complaint in that someone in wardrobe should have told Martin to unbutton the shirt he wears in the second half of the movie, as he almost always has it buttoned up all the way. Also, the boxy plaid jacket he wears over that shirt doesn’t do much for him. When he takes the jacket off, you can see what good shape he was in. Dean Martin was just awesome, and he had such a great voice. When Dino sings “Sophia” to Zelda just before they have sex in Polly’s trailer, his voice sounds so good. In order to get approval from the Motion Picture Production Code, an additional scene was filmed which shows Dino being bothered by a back problem as he is about to seduce Zelda, and it’s implied they don’t have sex. That footage was shown when Kiss Me, Stupid was originally released in the United States, but it’s since been replaced by the original cut of the scene, which fades out with Dino and Zelda in an embrace. 

Peter Sellers was originally cast as Orville Spooner, and he filmed for several weeks before he had a series of heart attacks, which very nearly killed him. Sellers was actually pronounced clinically dead in the hospital, but doctors were able to revive him. While on the set, Sellers clashed with director Billy Wilder. Sellers was replaced by Ray Walston, and shooting had to start over. No footage of Sellers as Orville seems to have survived. It would be interesting to see what Sellers’ interpretation of the role would have been. As much as I like Peter Sellers, and as funny as he was, I think that Ray Walston was better in the part than Sellers would have been. I know that might sound like heresy, but I think Walston was a better fit for Orville. Walston was such a normal, ordinary-looking guy that there’s a huge contrast between him and Dino, which the script needs in order for the movie to be funny. Peter Sellers always wanted to be a leading man, and he might have played the role more over the top in order to compete more with Dean Martin. You can argue that Walston played the role over the top, but it’s also written over the top. Ray Walston is really the star of Kiss Me, Stupid, as he has much more screen time than Martin or Kim Novak, and he does a great job. 

Kim Novak is one of my favorite actresses. I find a lot of movie actresses to be very pretty and beautiful, but there aren’t a lot of actresses that I find truly sexy. But I find Kim Novak extremely sexy. I’m not sure exactly what it is about her. I guess part of it, besides her obvious physical beauty, is that she feels more like a real person than say Marilyn Monroe, who always seemed to be obscuring herself behind the persona she created. I will always adore Kim Novak, despite the fact that she’s obviously had some bad plastic surgery work done. It surprises me that she’s had work done, because she always seemed to remove herself from Hollywood and the nonsense that sometimes surrounds movies. Novak is both beautiful and sexy as Polly, but I’m a little surprised that she took the part. Novak was a gifted actress, and I think she tried hard to be seen as more than just a pretty face. Which begs the question, why did she take a part that objectified her so much? As funny as Kiss Me, Stupid is, it’s a little uncomfortable to watch the way in which Novak’s body is exploited for laughs. Dean Martin’s character paws Polly as often as he can, and as much as a 1964 movie will allow him to do. In the parlance of 2014, Dino commits a lot of acts of microaggression towards Polly. Actually, it’s more like acts of macroaggression, as he literally can’t keep his hands off of her. Since Polly finds Dino so objectionable, and it’s clear that he just sees her as an object and not as a person, it’s not fun to watch her get felt up. 

Felicia Farr was well-cast as Zelda, who is pretty much the perfect wife and is really not deserving of Orville’s crazy jealousy. In real life, Farr was married to Jack Lemmon from 1962 until his death in 2001. According to IMDB and Wikipedia, Lemmon, a favorite of Billy Wilder’s, was offered the role of Orville Spooner, but had to decline due to other commitments. 

There are some other interesting facts about Kiss Me, Stupid. The movie was rated a “C” for “condemned” by the Catholic Legion of Decency, which meant that you would have to say a lot of Hail Marys and Our Fathers in order to cleanse yourself of the sin of having watched Dean Martin feel up Kim Novak. The songs that Barney and Orville write in the movie are actually by George and Ira Gershwin, incredibly enough. Wilder was a friend of Ira’s, and asked him if he would write some songs for the movie. Ira said yes and wrote lyrics for melody fragments that George had written but never used. The songs are quite witty, as “I’m a Poached Egg” features classic Ira Gershwin wordplay. 

If you’re in the mood for a 1960’s sex comedy, or are a fan of any of the lead actors, you should give Kiss Me, Stupid a try. Just don’t expect to be intellectually challenged.

Movie Review: Gregory Peck, Anne Baxter, and Richard Widmark in Yellow Sky (1948)

Spanish language poster for Yellow Sky, or Cielo Amarillo, 1948. The poster artist even got Richard Widmark's smirk right.

Gregory Peck in Yellow Sky, 1948. Still handsome, even with a scruffy beard.

Anne Baxter and Gregory Peck in Yellow Sky, 1948. He shaved his beard to impress her. He's really hoping she doesn't punch him in the face again.

Richard Widmark practicing his smirk. He's flanked by Harry Morgan on the left and Robert Arthur on the right.
Yellow Sky, released in 1948, is a fascinating and unusual western. Directed by William A. Wellman, Yellow Sky stars Gregory Peck, Anne Baxter, and Richard Widmark. Wellman directed many well-known movies, including the very first Oscar winner for Best Picture, Wings. Among Wellman’s other famous movies are The Public Enemy, with James Cagney, the original 1937 version of A Star is Born, the 1939 remake of Beau Geste, with Gary Cooper, Ray Milland, and a very young Robert Preston, and The High and the Mighty, with John Wayne. 

Peck stars as “Stretch,” the leader of a gang of outlaws. His gang includes Richard Widmark, John Russell, and a very young Harry Morgan. After robbing a bank, the gang crosses a large salt flat. Desperate for water, they come across an abandoned town whose only inhabitants are a young woman called Mike, (Anne Baxter) and her grandfather, played by James Barton. Mike is hostile to the gang and just wants them to leave. But members of the gang think that she and her grandfather are hiding a cache of gold. 

I’ll leave the plot summary there, so as not to reveal all of the twists and turns the movie takes. I had never heard of Yellow Sky until recently, when it came up as I was searching my DVR for movies starring Gregory Peck. I read the plot summary, which reads something like, “A gang of outlaws come upon a ghost town and its only inhabitant.” I said to myself, “That sounds so weird, I need to see this movie.” I’m very glad I did, as Yellow Sky is an excellent film. The cinematography is great, and there are a lot of very well-composed shots. Many of the camera angles and shadows make it feel a lot like a film noir. There’s even a moment when we see a POV shot through the barrel of Mike’s rifle, which looks just like the famous opening sequence from the James Bond movies, 14 years before there were any Bond movies. One of the coolest parts of Yellow Sky is that we don’t even get to see the climactic shoot-out. We just see the flashes of gunfire and have to wait until Mike runs in to see who, if anyone, is left standing.

The cast is superb, and the characters are well-drawn, as all of the members of the gang have distinct personalities. John Russell is very good as “Lengthy,” and he has an interesting moment at the beginning of the film as he stares at a drawing of a busty woman on a horse. You can tell from the snide comment he makes and his intense glare that he only thinks of women as objects, which becomes more clear when we see his interactions with Mike. With his long hair and mustache, Russell would have no trouble fitting in as a 2014 hipster. Anne Baxter, perhaps best known for playing Eve in All About Eve, is very well cast as the tough girl Mike. (Her real name is Constance Mae.) Although Baxter was slight in stature, she carries herself with the confidence and steely courage the character requires. She even decks Peck when he gets fresh with her. I haven’t seen Anne Baxter is very many movies, but she was stunningly beautiful in Yellow Sky. A really cool fact that I learned about Anne Baxter is that her grandfather was Frank Lloyd Wright. I wonder if she got a family discount on Wright-designed houses? I also learned that I’ve seen Anne Baxter’s grave, without knowing it. She’s buried in the small churchyard across the highway from Wright’s home and studio Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin. Richard Widmark had made his movie debut just the year before in Kiss of Death, in which he played a maniacal bad guy, for which he was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Yellow Sky was just his fourth movie, and although he was getting typecast, it shows how good Widmark was at playing a jerk. His smirky grin lets you know that his character “Dude” is not to be trusted. Yellow Sky was a rare turn as a bad guy for Gregory Peck, although it quickly becomes clear that even though his character Stretch is an outlaw, there are other members of his gang who are worse people. (Like Dude.) Peck plays his part well as the confident leader of the gang. Which makes me wonder, did Gregory Peck ever play a self-doubting character? Greg Peck always knows what to do. He wouldn’t have made a very good Hamlet. Also, let me just say for the record, holy shit Gregory Peck was handsome. I mean, there’s handsome and then there’s Gregory Peck handsome, which is like the ne plus ultra of handsome. Richard Widmark looks like he could be someone you might know in real life. He looks like a normal guy. But you don’t know anyone in real life who looks like Gregory Peck. Gregory Peck looks like a movie star. 

If you’re looking for a western with interesting, well-drawn characters, go see Yellow Sky.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Concert Review: Sondre Lerche and TEEN at the Turf Club

Sondre Lerche at the Turf Club, October 17, 2014. (Photo by Pondie Nicholson Taylor.)

TEEN at the Turf Club, October 17, 2014. (Photo by Pondie Nicholson Taylor.)
Last night I finally got to see one of my favorite artists live, as Sondre Lerche played the Turf Club in Saint Paul. I know that Lerche has played the Twin Cities before, but for whatever reason I’ve always missed him. I almost missed him this time too, as it was only because my wife was listening to 89.3 The Current and caught an interview with him that I knew he was in town. My wife came home and said to me, “Guess who we’re going to see in concert tonight?” “I don’t know, who?” “Sondre Lerche!” “Awesome!” If you’re not familiar with Sondre Lerche, he’s a Norwegian-born singer/songwriter who released his first album in 2001, at the age of 19. Lerche has been very prolific since then, as his discography includes 7 studio albums, 1 live album, and 1 movie soundtrack. Lerche has crafted a diverse discography, and my iTunes music library insists that his albums are classified under “jazz” (“Duper Sessions”) “alternative” (“Faces Down” and “Two-Way Monologue”) “country” (“Heartbeat Radio”) “rock” (“Phantom Punch”) “indie rock” (“Please”) and “pop” (“Sondre Lerche”). While that might sound confusing, if you like melodic pop/rock songs with strong hooks, you will probably like Sondre Lerche.

As a live performer, Lerche has a charisma that hooks the audience in. You can tell he loves performing live and enjoys interacting with the audience. He encouraged the audience to sing along on a couple of songs. (Not as cheesy as it sounds, trust me.) He often stares intensely out into the audience with his blue eyes. Lerche is an excellent guitar player, and he performed with just bassist Chris Holm and drummer Dave Heilman. Live, his music was heavier than it is on his records, which surprised me a bit. On his records, Lerche’s songs sometimes seem lighter than air, with his catchy melodies and high tenor voice, and that works very well. But live his songs had more grit in them. One of the highlights of the show was Lerche performing the excellent “My Hands Are Shaking” solo, and he walked away from the microphone, letting us hear his pure voice unamplified. Lerche played a lot of songs from his new album, “Please,” which was released in September. “Please” chronicles a difficult time in Lerche’s life, as he divorced from his wife in 2013. I haven’t listened to “Please” yet, as I didn’t even know Lerche had a new album until yesterday, but the songs were very strong in concert, packing a muscular punch. Personally, I do wish Lerche had sung more songs from “Duper Sessions” and “Phantom Punch,” which are my two favorite albums of his. (I applauded loudly when Lerche asked the audience if people liked “Phantom Punch.”) Lerche is an intense performer, and he leaves it all out there on the stage. He’s also a very nice guy, as my wife and I got to meet him after the show and I got my new copy of “Please” signed. 

The all-female group TEEN opened the show for Lerche, and they also sang backing vocals on several of Lerche’s songs. Three of the four members of TEEN are sisters, lead singer and guitarist Teeny Lieberson, keyboardist Lizzie Lieberson, and drummer Katherine Lieberson. (The only non-Lieberson in the band is bassist Boshra AlSaadi.) TEEN brought a fresh sound and plenty of energy to the stage. Teeny is a very expressive vocalist and on stage performer, and their songs mix melodic pop with heavy guitars. I expect to be hearing more from TEEN in the future. One of the funnier moments of the show was when Teeny asked the audience, “What’s the difference between Saint Paul and Minneapolis?” That’s a question that is far too complex to be answered in a shout to the stage. “Minneapolis thinks it’s really cool, and Saint Paul just doesn’t care!” “In Minneapolis there’s stuff to do after 9 PM!” “Saint Paul is older!” 

Unfortunately, because some people in this world are just jerks, TEEN had much of their equipment stolen at a recent gig in San Francisco. They are raising money to help replace what was stolen, and you can donate to them here:

I’m very happy that I finally was able to see Sondre Lerche in concert. The concert was full of good music and good vibes, and with the combination of Sondre Lerche and TEEN fans got to see two acts who truly enjoy performing live.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Movie Review: The Last Tycoon, starring Robert De Niro, directed by Elia Kazan, based on the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1976)

Some of the cast of The Last Tycoon. From left to right: Tony Curtis, Leslie Curtis (Tony's real-life wife playing his movie wife), Ray Milland, Robert De Niro, Jeanne Moreau, Robert Mitchum, and Theresa Russell.

Robert De Niro and Jack Nicholson size each other up in The Last Tycoon, 1976. This is before they play ping pong.

Robert De Niro, generating zero chemistry with co-star Ingrid Boulting in The Last Tycoon, 1976.
Director Elia Kazan’s last movie was his 1976 adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel The Last Tycoon, starring Robert De Niro, with a screenplay by Harold Pinter. The movie is proof that all the talent in the world can still produce a bad movie.

There are so many things wrong with The Last Tycoon that it’s hard to know where to start. Perhaps making a movie of an unfinished novel was not a good idea. I haven’t read Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon, also known as The Love of the Last Tycoon, so I don’t know how faithful the movie is to his writing, but it sure feels like it was based on an unfinished novel. The Last Tycoon is set in Hollywood in the late 1930’s, and the titular character is Monroe Stahr, who is the head of a film studio. (Stahr was loosely based on real-life movie mogul Irving Thalberg.) The film follows him as he works on movies and seeks out a beautiful young woman who reminds him of his dead movie star wife. 

Unfortunately, Robert De Niro is miscast as Stahr. Monroe Stahr is a boring character, and it’s a disservice to cast one of the silver screen’s most exciting performers in that role. Stahr was too much of a blank slate for me to ever feel invested in his emotions. There’s no dramatic tension to the movie, and whatever lingering tension there was comes to a screeching halt during the way too long love scenes between De Niro and Ingrid Boulting, as the girl who reminds Stahr of his dead wife. The scenes between Boulting and De Niro are just not that interesting, and they don’t have any chemistry together. Theresa Russell plays the other main female character, and while Boulting and Russell are both very beautiful to look at, they are not very good actresses. On a positive note, I did love Stahr's beautiful red Packard convertible.

Kazan seemed determined to include every famous person he could find in the cast, which makes watching The Last Tycoon slightly more interesting. The supporting cast includes Tony Curtis, Robert Mitchum, Ray Milland, Dana Andrews, Jeanne Moreau, Donald Pleasence, John Carradine, Jeff Corey, Anjelica Huston, Peter Strauss, and, oh yeah, Jack Nicholson. Yes, Jack Nicholson and Robert De Niro made a movie together in 1976. Unfortunately, it was this turkey.

I couldn’t figure out the tone that The Last Tycoon was going for. There are times when it seems to want to be a comedy. On their first date, Stahr takes Boulting’s character to see a trained seal at a restaurant. Am I supposed to laugh at De Niro’s interactions with the seal and his trainer? Is the scene where a movie editor dies during a screening supposed to be humorously ironic? I have no idea. I blame Harold Pinter for this. 

Another weird moment is when we see the movie-within-a-movie that Tony Curtis and Jeanne Moreau have been working on. It’s very obviously a pastiche of Casablanca, as Curtis plays the piano and bids Moreau adieu. She even sings part of the song he’s playing. It’s almost high camp, but not quite. I really think it’s supposed to be serious. Also, Casablanca wasn’t released until 1942, which is several years after the time period of The Last Tycoon. Curtis also has a scene where he confides to Stahr that he can’t get it up anymore, but he knows that Stahr will have a solution for his problem. I don’t remember what the hell Stahr tells him, but it works for Curtis. Of the random celebrity cameos, Robert Mitchum gets the most to do as another powerful producer at the studio. It is fun to watch Mitchum and De Niro together, as they both played the same role in the two different versions of Cape Fear. Hell, it’s always fun to watch Robert Mitchum. Ray Milland doesn’t have much to do other than hang out with Robert Mitchum and look like a more bald version of Jimmy Stewart. Dana Andrews has a couple of scenes as a beleaguered director whom Stahr releases from a movie. Despite his real-life battle with alcoholism, which he overcame in the late 1960’s, Andrews looks super handsome and not much different from his heyday as a leading man in the 1940’s. 

So, what about Jack Nicholson? Does he swoop in to save the movie from terminal boredom? Does he demand to order toast from the studio commissary? Isn’t it super exciting that The Last Tycoon pairs up two of the greatest actors of the 1970’s? Well, even the scenes between De Niro and Nicholson are dull. Their characters are adversaries, as Nicholson plays a Communist who wants to unionize the screenwriters at De Niro’s studio. Both Nicholson and De Niro seem to be operating at half-speed during their first scene together. It doesn’t help that the dialogue is super boring. And I don’t know if Nicholson is trying to do an accent or what-his character is from Tennessee-but he doesn’t have his usual Jack Nicholson vocal cadences. It’s terribly frustrating to watch two exciting, dynamic actors play boring people. In their other two scenes together De Niro totally overacts Stahr’s drunkenness, as he challenges Nicholson’s character to a game of ping pong. Yep, De Niro and Nicholson face off in a movie over a fucking game of ping pong. Opportunity wasted!

The last scene of The Last Tycoon, where De Niro/Stahr breaks the fourth wall and looks directly at the camera as he tells a story about watching a girl burn a pair of gloves-a story we’ve already heard once before in the movie-is a real “what the fuck?” moment. 

The Last Tycoon was an unfortunate waste of talent, and a sad ending to the great directing career of Elia Kazan.