Friday, October 26, 2012

'Wait Until Dark' Was Classic Suspense

Few of their mid–20th century contemporaries could match the appeal of Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly.

A large part of their appeal, I think, was the fact that they could be credible damsels in distress — but, when it became clear that no one was going to come to their rescue, they were able to rescue themselves ... plausibly.

There was steel beneath the facade.

Not an easy task, considering that both actresses, especially Hepburn, seemed rather frail. You wouldn't think from looking at them that either could stand up to a sudden gust of wind.

But, somehow, they did. It was largely because the characters they played were resourceful and independent — truly deserving of admiration.

My admiration for Kelly knows no bounds, but, frankly, Hepburn takes the prize for her performance in "Wait Until Dark," a movie that made its debut 45 years ago today.

Hepburn played a young blind woman who was believed to be in possession of a doll that had been used to smuggle heroin into the country.

The doll had actually been given to Hepburn's husband by a woman he met on a flight. The doll's presence in the apartment was unknown to Hepburn.

But that was something that a trio of criminals — played by Alan Arkin, Richard Crenna and Jack Weston — who wanted the doll (or, rather, what was inside it) did not know. They assumed she knew things she did not.

And they tried to take advantage of her blindness, playing the roles of police officers who were investigating a suspicious death in the neighborhood. Through this ploy, they won her confidence, gained access to the apartment and searched unsuccessfully (and right under Hepburn's nose) for the doll.

With the help of a young girl named Gloria, Hepburn's character discovered what was really going on around her and fought back.

Modern audiences might not appreciate the way most of the action in the film takes place in a small apartment. But "Wait Until Dark" was a psychological thriller, and there are few scenes in movie history that are as gripping as the climactic struggle between Hepburn and her ruthless nemesis, played by Arkin.

Each time I have watched "Wait Until Dark" — and I have watched it many times — I have been struck by how effortlessly the movie leads the viewer to empathize with Hepburn's predicament.

That, it seems to me, is the essence of a truly suspenseful movie. The viewer can see the threats to Hepburn, but she cannot. It reminds me of what the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, used to say.

Hitchcock rejected the idea that suspense could be achieved merely by watching an explosion. True suspense, he said, came from letting the audience in on the presence of a threat — a ticking bomb, perhaps — of which none of the affected characters in the scene was aware.

Hepburn proved that he was right.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

In Praise of Equus

I knew nothing of the play "Equus" when it premiered in 1973.

In fact, I'm not sure I knew anything about it when a movie adaptation was made four years later. I guess I must have read about it, but I probably didn't comprehend much about the plot. I suppose I went to see it when it came to our town only because I knew Richard Burton was in it, and I was one of Burton's admirers.

So I went to see "Equus" sometime in 1978, even though it premiered on this day in 1977.

It was a haunting tale, inspired by a true story of a teenager who blinded six horses. When he wrote the play, Peter Shaffer knew few, if any, details of the case, and he tried to create a fictionalized explanation for what might have happened.

I was enthralled by the story — and, at the same time, repulsed by it. I have always admired horses — so, from that perspective, I suppose I can understand how the main character could regard horses (and their god figure, Equus) as deities. Swirling around them were the themes of ritual sacrifice and religion.

The main character (Peter Firth), as the audience discovered, had been the recipient of contradictory messages on religion from his devoutly Christian mother and atheist father. He also developed, from an early age, a sexual attraction for horses.

I'm telling you, there's a lot going on here, and it was Burton, playing the role of the psychiatrist, who had to peel away the layers and find out the truth.

It was a meaty role for Burton, appearing in one of his final films (and, in the assessment of many, giving his last great film performance) — a worn out psychiatrist doubting himself and his life's work with troubled young people tries to unravel what may be the greatest challenge of his career. Why would a young boy blind several horses?

I often think of the first time Burton's character, already working with more patients than he can handle, and Firth's character meet in Burton's office. I've been in offices like that — musty and crowded with books. If we could smell it, I suspect it would be a mix of odors, mostly old papers, pipe tobacco and quiet desperation.

Burton's character kept trying to get basic information from Firth's character, who insisted upon singing commercial jingles and little ditties that revealed nothing.

But Burton pressed on.

Jenny Agutter aided in this endeavor, playing a young woman who met Firth's character in the shop where he worked. Agutter's character had close contact with horses, which drew Firth's attention.

And she was drawn into the story, participating in a tryst at which (I presume) the stage play only hinted — but was on full display in the movie. For awhile, it appeared Firth's character might begin to understand the complicated nature of his twisted relationship with sex, religion and horses.

But then he heard horses making noises in the stable where Agutter had been seducing him, and he pulled away from her.

It was, as I say, a haunting story, a disturbing film.

So many moments linger in my memory, even though it has been years since I have seen this movie.

It was a story of faith — and the loss of faith. In a tale full of symbolism, a typical example came when Burton told Firth a story about the "old gods ... before they died."

"Gods don't die," Firth replied.

"Oh, yes, they do," Burton said.

Burton received his seventh — and last — Academy Award nomination for his performance in "Equus."

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Remembering the Death of John Denver

Yesterday was a somber anniversary for me, so somber, in fact, that I could scarcely think about it, much less write about it.

It was the 15th anniversary of the private airplane crash that took the life of singer John Denver.

Denver was one of my favorite singers when I was in my early teens, and he was one of my mother's favorite singers, too. Mom died in a flood a couple of years before Denver died while piloting an experimental plane that he had recently purchased, crashing into the Pacific Ocean near Pacific Grove, Calif.

When I heard of Denver's death, I felt as if I had lost Mom all over again.

Denver had extensive flying experience. In fact, he purchased an airplane and flew himself to concerts around the time that I really started listening to his music. I actually did see him perform once, and, for all I know, he may have flown himself there.

About a year before his death, though, the Federal Aviation Administration became aware that he had not abstained from alcohol after his drunk driving arrests and revoked his medical certification. Consequently, at the time of his fatal crash, Denver was not authorized to fly.

But when his body underwent an autopsy, no signs of alcohol or drugs were found in his system.

The actual reason for the crash, the FAA determined, was that Denver was unable to switch fuel tanks in flight. The fuel in the tank that was in use had been almost entirely depleted when the plane was transferred to nearby Monterey and Denver did some practice maneuvers before taking off on his final flight.

The design of the plane made it impossible for the pilot to safely switch tanks while strapped in his seat.

Sadly, an offer to refuel the plane was made, but Denver declined, saying that he would only be flying for about an hour.

He was 53 at the time of his death.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Misfits in Paradise

It has been said that, if you can remember the '60s, you weren't really there.

There is truth in that, I suppose, but perhaps it is really more applicable to the '70s.

When said in regard to the '60s, it's a joke based on the quantities of recreational drugs that were consumed.

But when it is applied to the '70s, the context changes. Novelist Tom Wolfe labeled it "the me decade," largely because Americans turned away from the emphasis on the group that was at the heart of the counter–culture communal lifestyle so many embraced in the 1960s and instead lived their lives in a kind of single–minded pursuit of individual satisfaction.

Whereas "free love" had been a concept primarily associated with the 1960s, there was really nothing free about sex in the 1970s. Many more unmarried couples were living together than ever before, but there were high prices to be paid for the more open sexuality.

The emphasis on self contributed to things like the Roe v. Wade judicial decision, giving women new authority over their bodies. It may have encouraged the gay movement as it gained momentum while the clouds of the AIDS crisis loomed in the horizon.

There was clearly a sexual revolution under way.

"Boogie Nights," which premiered 15 years ago today, tried to tell the story of that time.

Set against the backdrop of the porn industry of the 1970s, Mark Wahlberg played Eddie Adams, a young and extraordinarily well–endowed porn star who went by the name Dirk Diggler. Julianne Moore was Amber Waves, another porn star who lost a custody battle to her ex–husband when the court concluded she was an unfit mother in part because of her line of work.

Denied the opportunity to be the custodial parent of her own child, Amber proceeded to mother her colleagues in the adult film industry.

That was the story of the cast of "Boogie Nights." All those characters toiled in an industry devoted to sex, happiness and pleasure, but they found themselves desperately unhappy, their fondest dreams strangled.

They reminded me, in a perverse sort of way, of the inhabitants of the Island of Misfit Toys in the Christmas TV special "Rudolph the Red–Nosed Reindeer." They were broken, defective in some way and searching for something that was always just beyond their reach.

In fact, that is the thought that kept coming to my mind as I watched this movie. Sex had become routine for all the characters, the folks who ran the cameras, the ones who performed in front of the cameras.

Their product was intended to arouse and titillate the audience, but the cast of "Boogie Nights" seemed almost bored with it — except for the character of Little Bill (William H. Macy), who finally, after being humiliated one too many times by his porn star wife's public and private sexual antics with other partners, shot her and her lover and then turned the gun on himself.

Neither, for that matter, did Rollergirl (Heather Graham) seem to be terribly happy. Rollergirl was defective in many ways — apparently unsuccessful in school and craving a mother figure (once, she asked Amber Waves to "be my mom" — the very thing that would appeal to Moore's frustrated maternal instincts — when the two were getting high on cocaine).

She had her idiosyncrasies, like always wearing roller skates. When director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) auditioned Dirk, he watched him have sex with Rollergirl, who not only wore her skates throughout but also made sure that "Brand New Key" (aka "The Rollerskate Song") was playing in the background.

Nearly everyone in the ensemble had some sort of personal quirk. Buck (Don Cheadle) had a thing for cowboy stuff and wanted to run a stereo shop. Philip Seymour Hoffman (about a decade before he won an Oscar for his portrayal of Truman Capote) played a gay soundman who was infatuated with Dirk.

They were all caught up in the rapid rise and equally rapid fall of porn films, which was rather nicely summed up in the final scene.

After drugs and videotape had taken their toll on the adult film industry, Dirk, while preparing for a scene, pulled down his pants, exposing his enormous sexual organ, and repeated, mantra–like, the line, "I'm a star ..."

Once a misfit ...

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Conversations With the Almighty

"You can love each other, cherish and nurture each other or you can kill each other. Incidentally, 'kill' is the word. It's not 'waste.' If I had wanted 'waste,' I would have written 'thou shalt not waste.' You're doing some very funny things with words. You're also turning the sky into mud. I look down, I can't believe the filth. Using the rivers for toilets, poisoning my fishes. You want a miracle? You make a fish from scratch. You can't. You think only God can make a tree? Try coming up with a mackerel. And when the last one's gone, that'll be that. Eighty–six on the fish, goodbye sky, so long world, over and out."

God (George Burns)

Considering that there were three colleges in my central Arkansas hometown, I really find it astonishing, as I look back on my childhood, when I remember that there was only one theater in town until I was in junior high — when a modest two–screen theater opened in a strip mall (well, it was mostly a Walmart store with some smaller stores sprinkled around it).

The original theater had been one of those old–fashioned places with a marquee out front, a real lobby and an actual balcony section that one climbed a carpeted stairway to reach. It was the kind of theater you might see in old movies or TV reruns today — but seldom, if ever, anywhere else.

When that two–screen theater came along, it really was the beginning of the end for that old–fashioned theater. In fact, it went out of business a few years later.

But the two–screen theater faced its share of competition, too. Even though the number of movie options available locally had doubled, the city of Little Rock offered far more so that is where the college kids — and the high school kids, too — went on the weekends.

I've been thinking about that because it was 35 years ago today that "Oh, God!" — an amusing and thought–provoking comedy starring John Denver and George Burns — premiered on American movie screens. And that, in turn, reminded me of the first time I saw that movie.

Even with two screens in my hometown, it generally took many months for new releases to get there. If you wanted to see the latest hits while they were still hot, you had to go to Little Rock.

(The duplication of screens did speed things up some, as I recall. When I was a child, it wasn't uncommon for it to take a year or more for a hit movie to come to my hometown. After the two–screen theater opened, the wait was cut to about six months.)

Anyway, I recall one weekend when Karen (my high school girlfriend — I've written about her here before) and I had been through a rather stressful period. I don't remember what the cause of the stress had been, only that it had been stressful.

Karen's father suggested that we go see a movie, and he specifically suggested that we go see "Oh, God!" I suppose that wasn't surprising. Karen's father was a philosophy professor (and son of a Lutheran minister) — not to mention something of an admirer of screen comedians of Burns' generation. "Oh, God!" was a hot topic at the time. It was getting good reviews, and he thought it would be just the thing to lift our spirits.

But the thing I remember is that he kept calling it "Oh My God!" at the dinner table that evening, producing some muffled snickering at his mistake from Karen, her brother and sister and me.

(I guess, with OMG being such a popular acronym today, he might be regarded now as being ahead of his time.)

During that meal, however, he persuaded Karen and me to take the 30–minute drive to Little Rock to see the movie that evening — and we did.

And it certainly did lift our spirits.'s Brendon Hanley writes that "[t]he movie's surprising charm owes a lot to the understated comic timing and charisma of vaudeville legend George Burns in the title role."

There was much truth in that. Burns, with his curmudgeonly appeal, would have been my choice to play the Almighty. He had the kind of demeanor I would like to think God has.

Like in the scene in which, after being urged by Denver to perform a miracle to prove his identity, God makes it rain inside Denver's Pacer (if you aren't old enough to remember the Pacer, consider yourself lucky).

When Denver observes that it is raining only in his vehicle, Burns replies, "Why should I spoil everyone's day?"

The premise of the movie, in case you've never seen it, was that God needed a messenger to spread the word that he was alive and he had provided the people of the earth with everything they needed.

His choice to serve in this capacity was an assistant manager of a grocery store.

Like most people probably would, Denver's character asked, "Why me?"

"Why not?" Burns asked. "Life is a crap shoot, like the millionth customer that crosses the bridge gets to shake hands with the governor. You thought I picked you because you're better than everyone?"

"I'm not?" Denver asked.

"You're better than some but not as good as others," Burns answered, "but you crossed the bridge at the right time."

I also thoroughly liked watching Teri Garr in the role of Denver's long–suffering wife who has questions about her husband's stability but stays with him in spite of it all.

(I would have enjoyed watching Garr, anyway. I first saw her in "Young Frankenstein" a few years earlier, and I thought she was cute.)

Denver actually was a pleasant surprise for me. I had been a fan of his music for awhile. I even saw him perform in person once. But I had no idea he could give such a plausible performance in a movie.

Denver's music was featured in several movies, both before and after his death in 1997. He also made several guest appearances on TV shows. But it really is a shame that he never starred in another movie.

His performance in "Oh, God!" offers glimpses into what might have been in store for us if Denver had chosen to share his acting talent with us more frequently.

He had a look of boyish wonder on his face in the rain–in–the–Pacer scene that thoroughly enhanced his straight–man line: "It's just like Noah's ark!"

"Same thing," Burns replied. "Without the smell."

Earlier, when Burns appeared before Denver and told him that he wanted him to be his messenger, Denver protested as many people probably would, "I don't even go to any church."

"Neither do I," replied Burns.

"Oh, God!" was quite a hit — and, as hits often do, it inspired some dreadful sequels that should have served as cautionary tales — but clearly, in many cases, they have gone unheeded.

As did Burns' parting line to Denver.

"[N]ow and then," Denver says, "couldn't we just talk?"

"I'll tell you what," Burns says. "You talk, I'll listen."

Friday, October 05, 2012

'Love Me Do' Turns 50

I'm an acknowledged Beatles fan.

Less charitable people might see it as an addiction. Perhaps they would say I am a "Beatles–a–holic." But I don't feel that way. To confess to being addicted to something is to admit to being powerless over a bad thing, something that is not healthy or desirable but over which you have no control.

I'll admit that I have no control over my affection for Beatles music. But it is not an addiction. True, there are days when I feel that I absolutely must hear a Beatles song — or a song that was released by John Lennon, Paul McCartney or George Harrison in their solo careers.

But I don't think that is a bad thing. It is something that has been a part of me all my life — and it has enriched my life.

Beatles songs have been enriching many lives for half a century.

The very first Beatles single, "Love Me Do," was released on this day in 1962.

Fifty years. Wow. As Tony Sclafani writes for NBC News, the Beatles "probably couldn't have imagined being age 50, much less anyone marking the single hitting the half–century mark."

Nevertheless, we are witnessing the first of many such milestones today. In the years ahead, all the other Beatles songs that you've been humming as you went about your daily business and singing in the shower all these years will be turning 50 as well.

But "Love Me Do" was — and is — the first. If you want to mark the date when the British invasion really began, it was on this day 50 years ago.

With a ditty that McCartney wrote in the late 1950s when he was about 16.

Actually, I guess, the invasion was more than a year away on Oct. 5, 1962. I suppose the invasion part occurred when the Beatles came to America and appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show — and were greeted by wildly screaming Beatlemaniacs who had been watching the explosion of Beatlemania across the ocean.

After that, things would never be the same.

It all began on this day in 1962.