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Film Essay

Grief and Jack Lemmon

What does it mean to save the tiger? Scale your hurt and loss with things you can help, knowing that somewhere out there, you’ve done something that matters. Or is it the promise that you’ve done something that matters that supersedes the results?

***

 The first time Jack Lemmon won an Oscar was for his supporting role in Mister Roberts (which still isn’t even remembered as much as his other big films), the second for his leading role in Save the Tiger. In both films, he’s not paired with his usual stock, he’s almost alone. No Tony Curtis, no Walter Matthau, no Judy Holliday, no Shirley MacLaine. It’s no mistake that most of the films you remember Jack Lemmon by also star any of his frequent collaborators, but his Oscar wins eschew this great legacy, his ability to collaborate so generously with others, in favor of his isolated talent. Of course he could stand on his own, but that’s not what made Jack Lemmon great, or what we remember him by.

When you think about Jack Lemmon, Save the Tiger is not the first film that comes to mind. The Apartment, Some Like it Hot, The Odd Couple, Grumpy Old Men (one or two), or if you’re like me: The Prisoner of Second Avenue, It Should Happen to You, Days of Wine and Roses, The Great Race. When you think about Jack Lemmon, you think about Billy Wilder, or if you’re like me: Richard Quine and Blake Edwards. When you think about Jack Lemmon, you think of an old pro, a master, one they just don’t make like anymore. Or if you’re like me: a confidant, a kind man, a friend.

***

My cousin died two weeks ago. We were never exactly close, but growing up I always lived about fifteen minutes from my uncle’s, her father’s house. She was thirteen when I was born, and I’ve only ever seen a few photos of me as a baby and her as a young teenager, together. After that it was random Thanksgivings, maybe a few Christmases when both of us were younger. Then it was my mom and my brothers and I taking care of her child. Then it was her memorial service. I’ve never known anyone in my family to die before, and I almost didn’t go to her service. I asked my dad if he needed me to be there, as it was his older brother who’d lost his child, and he said yes. So I went.

One of those photos from me as a baby, her as a young teenager, was shown in a slideshow, accompanied by one of those modern worship songs. “Hosanna, Hosanna, Hosanna in the highest”— it’s our new house in Colorado, it’s my brother and I as kids, it’s mom and dad as thirty-somethings, it’s our old dogs, it’s my aunts and my uncle, it’s my cousins who I never see anymore (or haven’t since the day that photo was taken). “Hosanna, Hosanna, Hosanna in the highest” — it’s my younger brothers, now three of them, on the couch with her. “Lord, we lift up your name, with our hearts full of praise” — it’s a her thick eyeliner and flat-ironed blonde hair that makes her look like Evan Rachel Wood, a photo that was surely used for her MySpace profile back in the day. “Be exalted, O Lord, my God” — it’s her with her child, who is beautiful, smart, and bright, who just stopped bouncing up and down on the stage to pick at the fake flowers and watch these photos of his mommy come and go. “Hosanna in the highest!” — it’s a photo of my uncle, who has always reminded me of Spencer Tracy, feeding her a bottle on his lap as a baby. I’ve gotten all of these photos out of order, they really just came chronologically, but this is how I remember my cousin. I didn’t know her as a person, ever, I only knew her through my uncle and my aunt, my brothers, my mom, my dad, the dogs who have all come to pass throughout our family and theirs. Her baby. I didn’t think I needed to go to her memorial service because I didn’t know her, and closer to what I now know as the end, it looked more and more like I never would. But I did need to go, not just because of her, but because of the effort both of our families made in keeping her alive. I don’t need to know the roads she took in her life, why she isolated herself, why I never knew her, because I can see just how much she affected those around her, the weight of her sudden and sad death on my family members who I’d never seen cry until yesterday. It always rocks my world to see the men in my life, sans my three younger brothers, cry. The devastating way Spencer Tracy goes into that good night in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner—that’s what it was like seeing the men in my life cry. It turns your insides to hot mush and fogs up your glasses because you’re breathing through the tears inside of your mask. It makes you want to never leave these people, to prove that you can be good, you can live through them, make them never know loss again. But of course you can never anticipate the ways a life can be cruel, so you just stay by their side, and promise that you’ll live one.

***

Life just doesn’t go right back to normal after you’re in a room with crying, hurt, grieving people. I didn’t try to do anything but stay with my mom and dad yesterday after the service. We struggled to find something to do or watch, but as my mom and I like to joke when we can never settle on a movie: “Let’s just watch Some Like it Hot! Tony Curtis hops from one identity to another, from his impenetrable pursed lips as the respectable “Josephine” to a spot-on Cary Grant accent in ridiculous stolen coke-bottle glasses and sailor suit, faux-millionaire style. Marilyn Monroe is glamorous but soft, with a sparkling vulnerability that melts hearts and moves mountains. Jack Lemmon is lawless, his “Daphne” persona completely eclipses his male ego in the most wonderful, non-threatening and endearing proportions. Fashioning this Daphne after his mother, Jack Lemmon as a woman is insightful and fun, a complete abandon of himself and an homage to a great woman in his life, that’s not exactly profound in presentation, but exciting in its novelty and recklessness. Jack Lemmon was never afraid to jump the shark, and Some Like it Hot is the first real time he fully commits to escalating a role for the sake of our laughter (to Curtis’s question: “Why would a guy wanna marry a guy?” he answers, unwaveringly, “For security!”). There’s also no perfect spectrum of femininity presented by the film, so while Lemmon and Curtis are always somewhat floundering in their female personas, they are never attacking what it means to be a woman, they are simply figuring it out. To me, this is more refreshing than anything. Ultimately, though, lives (their lives) are at stake throughout the film, and while there is so much fun that fills the space in between, once George Raft and his troupe show up at the Hotel del Coronado, there’s that oh shit moment of remembering that these men are on the run for their lives, after all. And of course there’s the bombastic get-away, the reveals, that perfect last line. This trio of fun and mobility, the starry high-life and rush of the 1920s, lends to the wild chase that Some Like it Hot is, and always will be for me. My mom loves it in the way I do, too (she once turned to me while we were watching this film to say, “You know Jack Lemmon is actually kind of a handsome guy”), but it wasn’t the movie we landed on. While Some Like it Hot is a showy escape from an immediate reality, it’s just not an exoneration from blame and the excruciating rat-race of being a person. The film we were looking for? The Great Race.

***

Dedicated to Laurel and Hardy, the magic of The Great Race is its ability to recognize and honor what makes comedy the best medicine. Vaudevillian gags with comic heroes, villains, and stooges are all played out by the hottest stars of the mid-60s: Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, Natalie Wood, and Peter Falk pre-Columbo. There’s absolutely no reality to the film. Sure Natalie Wood’s character is a suffragette, sure the film fills the space of a historical event (the real 1908 New York to Paris Race), but Jack Lemmon is a cartoon villain with painted eyebrows and mustache, Peter Falk is his comically persistent henchman who accepts the blame for all of his shortcomings, Tony Curtis is never not wearing white and his eyes and teeth sparkle (literally) in front of the camera. Against all of this, there are constant, unending callbacks to masters of slapstick and famous gags that fill the film with so much frivolity, it’s hard to place any of it in any kind of reality whatsoever. With flimsy rivalries, this cast of characters race from New York to Paris and endure events throughout that force each pairing (Natalie Wood with Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon with Peter Falk) to switch around and come together in the most marvelous ways to champion their circumstances, wherein the goal of finishing the race first doesn’t seem to surface until the very end (when, even as it happens, doesn’t matter much—the real great race is the friends we made along the way). A rematch is demanded because Jack Lemmon’s Professor Fate can’t accept that he won the race under false pretenses, and there is a return to the ridiculous. But was there ever really a break from it, though?

Lemmon and Curtis as Professor Fate and The Great Leslie.

In Some Like it Hot, the break from the ridiculous manifests itself in showers of bullets and terrifying, powerful men. In The Great Race, the break from the ridiculous actually never happens—even before the race starts, the rivalry between Curtis’s Great Leslie and Lemmon’s Professor Fate and Falk’s loyal Max sinks you into this obvious hero-villain tug-of-war, with Wood’s “emancipated woman” Maggie DuBois challenging and entangling the two for her own professional gain. The conflict is silly. Inconsequential, even. As the race itself ends, Lemmon is shouting “I won!” (Falk is echoing “We won!”) and Curtis and Wood embrace in a long-awaited kiss just before the finish line. What even was the race for, then, if not to be won fair-and-square? Between these ends, there’s the travel from New York to the Wild West to the Bering Strait to a fantasy Russian kingdom to Paris, wherein each character is double-crossed, their plans foiled, their bodies thrown around the room, with pie soiling each of their carefully-curated outfits (except for Curtis, who in his crisp white trappings, is immune to it all). Each actor is thrown into a comedy style that continued to become less and less relevant, certainly not what any of them had experience in before. But the remarkable thing? Everyone rises to the occasion. Wood emotes with silent film sensibility, Falk becomes a slapstick maestro, Curtis, like in Some Like it Hot, fastens himself to a machismo persona and never sheds it, and Lemmon, well he does and tries everything. He whips is body around in bizarre cadence, plays the dual role of a boozing prince with remarkable sharpness, and never lets up on his focused, albeit short-sighted goals of destroying The Great Leslie. He’s a character. He’s Professor Fate, not Daphne or Jerry, not Jack Lemmon. He’s the villain of the story who lives in a comically dark, spider-webbed mansion, who has all these resources to create and inevitably destroy wacky contraptions to try and thwart his make-believe enemy, who can’t be grounded in his modern world like all of his other characters, because in The Great Race, reality is second to the race. The forward motion of all of these characters lets the world around them match their chaos, and not the other way around. Their reality is a vaudevillian, silent film-scape, wherein every wrench in their race from one dot on the map to another, is just for laughs. You can choose whether or not you buy it, but it’s much more fun if you do. The perfect film to watch when all you need to do, when all you can do is laugh.

The Great Race is technically a Lemmon-Curtis joint, but it’s really the four-way pairing at the heart of the film that sells its non-reality and vaudevillian homage. It was also his fourth time working with Blake Edwards, who had previously been credited as a writer on Operation Mad Ball, My Sister Eileen, and The Notorious Landlady and had directed Lemmon in Days of Wine and Roses a couple years prior. With his repeat costars, directors, and writers, it doesn’t take much to understand just how much of a team player Jack Lemmon was. Throughout his film career, though, Lemmon never played anyone like Professor Fate before or after The Great Race (you might make a case for his character in Irma La Douce, but I certainly wouldn’t); perhaps his greatest anomaly? Maybe. He looks happy to play a character who is not grounded by his own comic, worldly sensibilities; The Great Race was a break for him from often-taxing characters he played, who always required a bit of him, who always drew from something personal inside of the real Jack Lemmon. It’s tiring to be so much of a person all the time. Professor Fate and The Great Race are a break from all that. For almost three hours, it’s Jack and I who get to live inside of this ridiculous play-world, where nothing is ever so bad that can’t be fixed, cleaned up, or lived through. 

***

In thinking about Save the Tiger, I also think of Days of Wine and Roses. Maybe you would consider The Apartment as Jack Lemmon’s biggest dramatic role, but I always think of Days of Wine and Roses. It’s just different. There’s promise at the end of The Apartment, that you can shut up and deal your way through life, new relationships, new people and jobs. There’s no such promise at the end of Days of Wine and Roses. It’s a story about addiction. I don’t want to, or maybe I can’t, talk about addiction because of my family. But it does mean something to see Jack Lemmon’s character in that film, Joe Clay, champion his addiction, even though it has nasty side effects in the way of destroying his wife, played brilliantly by Lee Remick. He does try to help her, but it’s messy and it’s hard. I won’t talk any more about Days of Wine and Roses, but knowing that that was a film that he did, that he was proud of, means a lot.

To save the tiger means to literally save the tigers. It’s a petition that Jack Lemmon’s character signs during the movie. Tigers and other animals in the wild will return to places of remembered beauty to die, and that’s what Lemmon does throughout Save the Tiger. Tossing that slogan around in my head enough, I’ve bended it into odd iterations of how I remember that movie (which I now can see is very little), and how I think about life. So for me, saving the tiger means to stay alive regardless of how terrible things get. In the film, Jack Lemmon’s character doesn’t commit arson or kill himself or do any of these drastic things he’s (maybe) planned for. (He just sleeps with a younger woman, which is still weird to see Jack Lemmon do, but I digress.) It’s hard to see the men in your life cry. Jack Lemmon isn’t an extension of Spencer Tracy—that hard-to-crack decency that characterizes a lot of good men—like the way uncle and my dad are, he’s a completely singular man in my life. I don’t actually remember if he cries in Save the Tiger, but I know that Jack Lemmon can cry, and he’s on the brink of crying in complete exhaust the entirety of that film. It’s enough to register as strange, to turn my insides into hot mush, to make me cry, too. 

I do hope my cousin is in a better place, and I know that my brothers and I will do damn near anything to make sure her child grows up healthy and strong. So really, saving the tiger is not just a sign, a promise or an effort, but it’s the results, too. Only most of the time, you never live to see the results play out completely. Jack Lemmon died just a little over a month after I was born. What he is to me is all the results, all the proof of what it’s worth to save the tiger. It’s not just about making ‘em laugh, it’s about doing and being something good for other people. Jack Lemmon has championed my grief by showing both integrity and humor in human weakness, living proof that he could be both in it and above it. His navigation is my own, and it’s nice to have a friend.

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Anne-Fare Film Essay

We Should All Love Anne Bancroft: Revisiting “The Graduate”

I’ve let two years, almost two whole ones from my undergraduate career go by before writing about The Graduate again. The last time I touched the film in any kind of retrospective, I was only slightly aware of the kind of life I would have as a working Anne Bancroft scholar, I wasn’t sure of where I would be going to college, I hadn’t even graduated high school yet. Between seventeen and nineteen, I’ve held the running joke with myself that I would never watch this film again if my life depended on it, with all the misgivings and dreams deterred that have occupied that space in between. That running joke had to expire, though, because The Graduate is my favorite film after all, and like most favorite films, it is a bit painful and sobering to watch again; however, I can decidedly put my hurt feelings aside to write about The Graduate on its 53rd anniversary. Upon its release in 1967, film critic George McKinnon wrote for The Boston Globe, “The movie is not only extremely funny, but it is also touching and searingly acrid, sometimes all at the same time” (McKinnon 24); hold your favorite film close to your heart, and it will burn you indubitably in the end.

Like the great breed of American filmmaking to arrive by the end of the decade, The Graduate reaches towards abrasive storytelling guided by the assured hands of newcomers and hopefuls. Mike Nichols, half of Nichols and May, comedy team to the gods, was attracted to the project by the eagerness of producer (and The Graduate flagship) Lawrence Turman, who had acquisitioned the rights to Charles Webb’s 1963 novel, The Graduate, in 1964 for $1,000. Established producer Joseph E. Levine joined the project (with an executive producer credit in tow) as he was eager to bet on Nichols to direct a winning outfit for Embassy Pictures. Levine, famous for his campaigning prowess, had faith in Nichols, who hadn’t even directed a feature film by the time he was signed on to the project; Nichols’ experience as an up-and-coming theater director with gravitas, with such 60s tentpole productions as Barefoot in the Park (1963), Luv (1964), and The Odd Couple (1965) under his belt before he even set foot into the Hollywood directing arena (and that’s not even to mention his credits in the legendarily popular An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May, which ran during the 1960-61 Broadway season), made him a hot name in Hollywood by the mid-60s. As for the subject matter of Charles Webb’s book that Turman was so clearly willing to go to bat for, Levine could take it or leave it; he really just wanted to distribute a film with Nichols’ name attached to it. But before Nichols could jump into a project as half-baked as The Graduate, he directed the much-celebrated, acerbic adaptation of Edward Albee’s play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as his feature film debut; Virginia Woolf? fossilized him as a leading dark horse of New Hollywood direction. While Nichols was shooting his first feature film, Turman signed on Calder Willingham to write what essentially became a rough first draft of the screenplay. Neither Turman nor Nichols were particular fond of Willingham’s script, so at Nichols’ discretion, the team turned to a young comedian working as a television writer, Buck Henry; even this early on, all signs pointed to Anne Bancroft’s casting as Mrs. Robinson, as Buck Henry’s most significant credits at the time were on the TV show Get Smart, which he co-created and wrote with Mel Brooks, Bancroft’s husband. Henry, unlike Willingham, shared the same understanding and excitement for The Graduate as Turman and Nichols, which was clearly reflected in his script. Willingham sued for credit, which is genuinely hysterical, considering Turman actually called his script “vulgar” (Kashner). Willingham ultimately receives top billing for the film, but credit for the final script adapting Charles Webb’s novel, the script that was actually used for the film, rests entirely on the shoulders of the great Buck Henry. When Nichols departed from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which earned him an Academy nod for Best Director and was already on its way to becoming an American classic, he devoted himself fully to the production of The Graduate, and casting was the next minefield.

The same year that The Graduate went into production, Dustin Hoffman was considered for the role of Leo Bloom in Mel Brooks’ feature film debut The Producers (1967), a role that eventually went to the late genius Gene Wilder. Plenty now-recognizable names looking for their first (or next) big break auditioned for the role of Benjamin Braddock before New York-native Dustin Hoffman scored the part. At a screening of The Graduate at the Director’s Guild of America Theatre in New York in 2003, Mike Nichols told the now-famous anecdote of Robert Redford’s audition, giving voice to the struggle he and Turman faced in casting the part of a pedestrian young man who could pull a believably astute performance but remain sympathetic with audiences: “I said, ‘You can’t play it. You can never play a loser.’ And Redford said, ‘What do you mean? Of course I can play a loser.’ And I said, ‘O.K., have you ever struck out with a girl?’ and he said, ‘What do you mean?’ And he wasn’t joking” (Kashner). Hoffman was legendarily awkward in his audition tape (which you can now view in part as a featurette in the Criterion Collection’s re-release of The Graduate), crossing the line into sexual assault, pinching Katharine Ross’ behind as a way for him to “alleviate tension” (of course this wouldn’t be his first offense in the name of awkwardness, as he touches Bancroft’s breast without consent in their first intimate scene together; that scene makes the final cut of the film). In fact, Hoffman was so incredibly awkward throughout the production of The Graduate, the little “hmph” noises he makes as Benjamin were birthed out of uneasiness, but Nichols bought into this character quirk so much, he encouraged Hoffman to keep the bit going. Benjamin Braddock is just about one of the most original American film characters of all time, and Hoffman is about as incredibly sincere and naive as they come in his portrayal; Benjamin is a perfect reflection of Hoffman’s own anxieties about being a screen newcomer in a role that was intended for a recognizable name of a WASP-type leading man. He was the exact opposite of how Benjamin was written, but the kind of life and disturbed heroism he brings to the part perhaps pioneered a new era of opportunities for young Jewish actors; he is seen as desirable but rounded by insecurities all the same: he is, above all, touchingly human. Ultimately, Hoffman was perfect for the part of Benjamin, a “delightful film hero of our generation” (Alpert 66), but I can never, in good faith, lionize him beyond that. His behavior on the set of The Graduate was inappropriate, and an unfortunate reminder that the greatest heroes of film are capable of acting wildly off-color in the name of their artistic whims.

The casting of Anne Bancroft and Katharine Ross looked different than the process which landed Hoffman as Benjamin Braddock. The original shortlist of young actresses considered to play Elaine Robinson, Mrs. Robinson’s sought-after daughter (who could still maintain the less-than-ten-year-age-difference between herself and actress playing her mother) included Natalie Wood, Jane Fonda, Caroll Baker, Sue Lyon, Lee Remick, Hayley Mills, Patty Duke, etc. While Patty Duke would have certainly been an interesting choice considering Anne Bancroft as Mrs. Robinson, which would have reunited The Miracle Worker pairing in a far departure from their teacher-student roles, the cast was all but set when Katharine Ross auditioned with Dustin Hoffman. As aforementioned, the chemistry of their audition together was compromising on Ross’ behalf, but the uncomfortable air between them all but bowled Nichols over. Katharine Ross, whose sanguine disposition as Elaine Robinson ultimately traps her in a hell of a love triangle, is not to be dismissed as a key player in The Graduate. Nichols even insisted that Ross bring her own wardrobe to the shooting dates for scenes at UC Berkeley (which were actually shot at the University of Southern California), as she carried such a natural pitch of a contemporary graduate student. Ross underscores the emotional turmoil brought upon by both Benjamin and her mother, and the expectations of marrying appropriately that obscure her, with a kind of bubbling anger that bursts in small moments of heavy distress; the screech as Benjamin refutes the story she’s been fed about him and her mother brings Elaine’s tension up to Ben’s level momentarily, then it pipes down in a matter of seconds. She is just as confused and astringent as he is, only, she’s better at hiding it in sweet, unassuming mannerisms. 

The casting process of Mrs. Robinson cuts in much of the post-studio system pandemonium; who was old enough but still sexy enough to play Mrs. Robinson? Who was looking for a job, or who needed a vehicle for relevance in a new age of American filmmaking? Famed names like Ava Gardner, Doris Day, Jeanne Moreau, and Ingrid Bergman dominate interest in the “what could have been” conversation about The Graduate’s production (personally, I find more interest in the “what could have been” regarding Patty Duke’s casting as Elaine Robinson, but I digress); all of these women were actually considered for the role of Mrs. Robinson, but Anne Bancroft was the only actress who was officially offered the part by both Nichols and Turman. Mel Brooks, Bancroft’s husband, ushered her into the project, as it was written by his friend and Get Smart colleague Buck Henry, and after slight hesitation, Bancroft accepted (Daniel 142); if you were previously unaware of the hand Mel Brooks played in The Graduate, I suppose now you are. Bancroft was payed a healthy $200,000 for the part, and marked the experience of filming with a conflicted tone. Bancroft was never exactly comfortable with the kind of physical intimacy a role like Mrs. Robinson demanded of her, and she had never played a role with as much sacrifice of her bodily autonomy previously; a Broadway mainstay by 1967, Bancroft was much more familiar with and comfortable with roles that required intimacy of the heart over her body, starring in gritty productions like The Miracle Worker (1959), Mother Courage and Her Children (1963), and The Devils (1965), all with scant seductive tones. The role originally called for nudity, which likely gives credence to her reluctance towards accepting the job in the first place, but Bancroft, like every role she had previously acted in, was confident in giving her all. However, on the day the nude scenes were set to be filmed, she later recalled, “I just couldn’t do it. And, of course, that sort of left Mike [Nichols] up a creek” (2000). So, a double was brought in for the flashy shots of Mrs. Robinson’s naked body; similarly, while I hate to be the first one to tell you if I am, that wasn’t actually Anne Bancroft’s leg on the film’s poster, it was then-unknown model Linda Gray’s leg. Physicality was not the only emotionally strenuous term Bancroft would have to champion while filming The Graduate; she was playing a character who was canonically ten years older than her actual age, and the actor playing her junior was only six years her junior. While Anne Bancroft was, of course, a consummate professional more than capable of turning out a top shelf performance, her external points of stress were more than daunting, and should be considered with her legendary turn as Mrs. Robinson.

When Bancroft was preparing for her first largely unfamiliar role, Gittel Mosca of Two for the Seesaw, she saw to the great task of bringing an eccentric, grating character to fruition with sensibility enough the punctuate her sympathetic draws; she worked under the leadership of acting teacher Herbert Berghof, introducing her the teachings of Stanislavsky, coaching her to draw from her innermost conflict in order to connect with her character. Her strengths were honed for the first real time in her acting career, and she was allowed a space to exercise plenty of new tricks for a team who was rooting for her. She was the newcomer who got all the attention during Two for the Seesaw, a fare which would reverse itself during the filming of The Graduate; Bancroft was the largest acting name associated with the picture, as other major roles filled out with Murray Hamilton as Mr. Robinson, William Daniels as Mr. Braddock, and Elizabeth Wilson as Mrs. Braddock, and there was a certain expectation that she would be the dovetailing force of the acting side of the production.

Soundstage rehearsals at Paramount studios. Photograph by Bob Willoughby.

As filming began in March 1967, much of the film’s scheduling was allotted for rehearsals, where Bancroft could truly begin to understand Mrs. Robinson, how she should play her, and what she could draw upon within herself to add clarity to an otherwise unsympathetic, maligned role. Mike Nichols was perhaps her greatest champion on set, a man who had thoroughly considered the hang-ups and misgivings of Mrs. Robinson before Bancroft even had the chance to fill such exhaustive terms; though reminiscent of her time at the HB Studio and her formative lessons of the Method, Mike Nichols was increasingly novel in his approaches to culling great, nuanced performances from his actors. Nichols encouraged his stock of actors to consider the intricacies of the Braddocks and the Robinsons, both in conflict and as separate entities, in order to understand exactly the kind of people they would be portraying, an approach very similar to Berghof and Stanislavsky. He also encouraged his actors to consider the “theme of empty consumerism that had marked Mrs. Robinson’s life and now threatened Benjamin’s future” in creating a life for their characters (Daniel 144). Where Nichols differed, however, from the increasingly pedantic terms of method acting, was within his familiar comedy routine of calculated improvisation. A review of the film from 1967 noted how, “Sometimes it seems as if Nichols had just discovered the camera and is delighting in the freedom of the film medium over his more familiar stage” (McKinnon 24). He encouraged improvisation in both character study and blocking, inspiring Hoffman’s infamous and grossly inappropriate handling in the first scene where Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson are alone in a hotel room together; as the story goes, Bancroft was unaware of the advances he would make to touch her breast but acted along professionally, and to smother his laughter, Hoffman turned to the nearest wall and started banging his head. Nichols was reportedly in tears by the end of the scene and his sexual assault made the final cut of the film. To anyone unaware of the scene’s context, this routine reads as characteristic to Benjamin’s self-sabotaging whim, blocked with enough awkwardness to guarantee audience laughs and at least a few winces out of relatability.

Improvisation crossed the line in that scene, and luckily a stunt like that wasn’t pulled again by Hoffman or encouraged by Nichols, because as the production wore on, the latter party became increasingly aware of how uncomfortable Bancroft was with being Mrs. Robinson. In addition to this strain of uncomfortable physical endurances, Bancroft caught pneumonia while filming and fainted while outside of the United Methodist Church where the last scene of The Graduate was being shot. Much of that sympathy Nichols had for her shows up in the film, as he later expressed, “‘Part of Annie’s genius is that you’re sort of on Mrs. Robinson’s side, partly because she’s so much fun and partly because…I don’t know. She’s a beautiful woman and I feel for her” (Daniel 145). Bancroft and Nichols are quite the collaboration for the books, certainly my books, and he was likely the greatest thing, creatively, to come out of The Graduate for her. The two appreciated each other’s company so much, Anne signed on to a Broadway production of The Little Foxes, with Nichols directing, shortly after The Graduate wrapped shooting; the production ran from October 26 to December 16 at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, and from December 19, just days before The Graduate was released in U.S. theaters, to January 20, 1968 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, closing after a modest run of 100 performances. Affectionately remembering her staggering performance in the 40th anniversary DVD commentary track for The Graduate, Nichols made the sharp observation that, “Everything she does is perfect.” It certainly seems so.

Call it her professionalism, her honest calling as an actor, because Bancroft gives an unsparing, gorgeous performance as Mrs. Robinson, all tensions considered. Bancroft spent much of her time on The Graduate considering each and every strain that Mrs. Robinson was acting under, and as the role became more and more synonymous with her name as an actress, her creative process was pulled further into the limelight than any of her prior afamed roles had been before. Bancroft later revealed to Charlie Rose where her sympathies aligned in her performance as Mrs. Robinson: “I think she had dreams. She had dreams and the dreams could not be fulfilled because of things that had happened, and so she spent a very conventional life with this conventional man in a conventional house, you know. Even though it was Beverly Hills, it was still a very conventional life. And meantime, all the dreams that she had had for herself, you know, and the talent–she probably was a gifted artist you know. I thought that she was. And none of that could happen anymore” (2000). Bancroft was careful and focused on the intentions of Mrs. Robinson, never mincing words about her character that would open the film up for further speculation of what was already done, behind her, and obviously perfected; she never divulged detail about Mrs. Robinson that hadn’t already been confirmed by her performance in the film itself: “‘There was such a delicate balance in The Graduate that I had to keep a straight line. If I took one step away from that line I would make her a caricature. And if I stepped the other way I would have made her a tragic character” (Daniel 145). I have a heart full of sympathy for Bancroft’s cause, and the complicated legacy Mrs. Robinson bestowed on her; she didn’t watch the film for nearly twenty-five years after its release, as she was entering her sixties. She took a five-year break from film before she embarked on her next project, Young Winston, in 1972; though this break did not spare her from public heckling and interview fodder, it certainly did separate her mind and body from Mrs. Robinson, a taxing role she never wanted to serve as her typecast. The Graduate and Mrs. Robinson are what first introduced me to Anne Bancroft, and though I’m grateful, I don’t consider either/or to be the crux of why I love Anne or why I love The Graduate; rather, I believe that Anne Bancroft is what makes The Graduate great. While I have been able to separate the legacy of Mrs. Robinson from Anne Bancroft, I realize that this is not nor has it ever been the agreed-upon expectation of American art; she is Mrs. Robinson, and sometimes she is just Mrs. Robinson to others, and though I can save a case with my research, I cannot expect everyone to disparage the conditions that American filmmaking requires of its greatest legends. Anne Bancroft graciously accepted the terms, even though she never should have needed to.

When I started to look beyond the obvious voice of The Graduate–Benjamin and his incongruous identity–I began to understand the film as more than a personal reflection, something so selfish I strongly held myself to, that was stealing away from the greatest pleasures of the film. To claim the obvious that was not so obvious to me until very recently, the film is riotously funny. My younger brother, now sixteen, watched the film with me not so long ago, and there was hardly a moment where we could stop laughing from sight gags, Hoffman’s disturbed mannerisms, the droning of Simon and Garfunkel, or simply just as a response to the increasing hilarity of the film’s events, from one absurd proposition to its ridiculous solution. Of course, we found different things funny. The scene where Hoffman and Buck Henry battle for dominance over the hotel lobby bell absolutely broke me up, but my brother could hardly spare a sympathetic chuckle, even after I rewound the scene just to make sure he caught just how good it was (“that was a classic Nichols bit,” I prodded). Before this, I could never escape a viewing of The Graduate without crying, receding maniacally into cycles of despair, hurt, guilt, all in vain: what was I actually crying for? I think I had that expectation of myself, but maybe a few of those tears were actually sincere; I don’t think it’s worth much to poke around guessing. I never let myself fully enjoy the keen comedic pitch The Graduate has, because as a teenager, I was so obsessed with the minutiae of the film: what was this film trying to say about the milieu of its time, and further, what did my connection to it say about my life and relation to my surroundings? Trying to diagnose why this film meant something to me from so early on has proven to be an exercise in futility, such as the case of Benjamin, such as the case of anything when you focus aim so hard on prescribing a meaning that is your own, that you miss the true greatness of that thing. No, I do not think I missed the beauty of The Graduate entirely, because it certainly did influence my writing, even landing me an acceptance from my dream school, apropos of my first screenplay, though I did not end up attending (and if I recall correctly, a college essay for that school was written about The Graduate and what it means to me as a writer. Embarrassing, but likely true). So at least I understood what made the writing great, even if I did not know how or why it mattered so much. The Graduate also struck me as something completely novel from the get, and I have always known just how special it was for me to recognize that movies can be so confusing but recognizably great, from as young as fourteen; I’ve always known that The Graduate is a great film, even when I could not understand it in simple terms, even when I could not understand it in the terms I decided it would have. I have stopped trying to align identity, meaning, and significance to The Graduate in such discernable terms; these statutes are instead completely arbitrary, but they are cyclically made up by me, and only me, as I get older. Benjamin might have wanted to say the same about the rules governing his own life, too.

Anne Bancroft is the best thing about The Graduate. In the essay I wrote about the film when I was seventeen, all I wanted to do was discuss the scene that has always moved me the most. This is the last scene Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson share in bed together, and it is a meticulously blocked, perfectly acted, painful scene that centers the true tragedy of the film: “you live in a world of objects you become an object” (Douglas 144).  That was the first scene, likely in any movie, where I was truly stopped in my tracks by a performance from an actor I was never previously aware of. The very clear and very frightening contention that this scene operates on is the working conversation that builds both Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson up to the point where they are both able to recognize that what they are doing to each other is misguided and cruel.

“I’m not good enough for her to associate with, am I? I’m not good enough to even talk about her, am I?”

“Let’s drop it.”

“We’re not dropping it. I’m good enough for you, but I’m not good enough for your daughter. I’m good enough for you, but I’m not good enough to associate with your daughter. That’s it, isn’t it? Isn’t it?”

“Yes.”

“You go to hell. You go straight to hell, Mrs. Robinson. Do you think I’m proud of myself? Do you think I’m proud of this?”

This is the first scene where it is obvious that Mrs. Robinson is a person, she is a parent. She is always cool and distant, a direct contrast to Benjamin’s constant unease, but not in this scene, not when the stakes are raised, where she fears the ramifications. She fears her daughter will become like her, but not just because of Benjamin, but because he stands for nothing she could’ve prepared herself for. She wants Elaine to go to graduate school, grow up, curate her own passions and interests on her own terms, a chance that she never had; Elaine has access to all of these things because of her mother and her great sacrifice, but the fruits of Mrs. Robinson’s labor are perpetually being threatened by anyone who might inspire dissent or discomfort, and Benjamin is that very threat. Only, she has no idea what to make of his intentions. Mrs. Robinson protects her efforts with enduring might and antagonistic fronts, but the generation her daughter and Benjamin belong to inevitably have plans that reject her sympathies and aim for the same disastrous fate that she once came into. It’s only under the idiosyncratic terms of liberation that that these things happen. Never once is there a moment spent in The Graduate where anyone thinks about the consequences of their actions, so these things happen.

Mrs. Robinson is a woman who champions her own hurtful losses by intricately stacking the cards in favor of her daughter who might do more, be better than her, all while allowing herself pleasure amid the pain. Anne Bancroft pulls a performance that has not only immortalized the maligned conflicts of grown women, but brings to Mrs. Robinson a scope of vulnerabilities that do not completely mark her as an embittered adversary. Anne Bancroft being both thirty-five and forty-five as Mrs. Robinson qualifies a kind of ambiguous identification, aligning her with those who do not entirely understand the blight that drives Benjamin and Elaine to their demise, nor do they relate to their parent generation; she is the dreams deferred, those who have carefully planned against others who threaten to attack their defenses, but she is also the face of a generation who might understand the terms that their parents operated under, because she is not without her sympathies. And most are willing to understand someone who is as beautiful and communicative as Anne Bancroft. I know that I was.

References:

Alpert, Hollis. “‘Mike Nichols Has Made the Freshest, Funniest, and Most Touching Film of the Year.’” Daily News, 22 December 1967, p. 66.

Daniel, Douglass K. Anne Bancroft: A Life. University Press of Kentucky, 2017.

McKinnon, George. “Nichols, Hoffman Score With ‘Graduate.’” The Boston Globe, 22 December 1967, p. 24.

Kashner, Sam. “Here’s to You, Mr. Nichols: The Making of ‘The Graduate.’” Vanity Fair, 25 February 2008.

Rose, Charlie. Interview with Anne Bancroft. Charlie Rose Show, 25 April 2000.

When I was sixteen and seventeen, respectively, I wrote about The Graduate, and I have published those personal works on here. You are more than welcome to read those short essays in accompaniment.

Categories
Anne-Fare Film List & Essay

Noirvember Notables: 2020

Popular fare in the Classic Hollywood blogger/watcher/TCM devotee community, Noirvember, affectionately Frankenstein-ing the month and film genre, entails a month’s watching of gumshoes, sharp-shooters, femme fatales, and crooked outsiders in pictures from around the world. Or, if you’re like me, this Noirvember entailed a month’s watching of Anne Bancroft, Farley Granger, and Yakuza films. Admittedly, I’ve never been a genre obsessive, but it did not take me long to realize that this month would not be devoted to much else. This Noirvember I’ve also spent time revisiting Anne Bancroft’s early Hollywood pictures of the noir persuasion, which I will be taking a look at here for those interested in her oft underseen noir side. Formalities out of the way, here are the ten noirs that were notable to me this month.

10. The Naked Street, 1955. Directed by Maxwell Shane. Rewatch.

Anne Bancroft and Farley Granger in The Naked Street (1955).

Starting off with the worst, The Naked Street (1955), directed by Maxwell Shane. Alright, this is not a good noir, but I’m including it on this list because I did rewatch it this month for the first time in over two years, and this is more or less a note to all of the Anne Bancroft or Farley Granger completionists out there. An entry in the string of b-noirs Bancroft was making in the mid-50s and the last picture Farley Granger would make at 20th Century Fox, this is a stunningly unremarkable film that not even its stellar cast could save. Anthony Quinn (did I mention he stars, too?) leads as the incorrigible mobster Phil Regal with a soft spot for his demure younger sister Rosalie (Anne Bancroft). When Regal finds out his sister is with child and death row resident Nicky Bradna (Farley Granger) is the father, his character begins to heavily resemble the brutish strongman he plays in La Strada (which, to put this puzzling film even more into perspective, was released a year earlier. Anthony Quinn, you’re better than this!). Nonetheless, he uses his racketeering prowess to spring Bradna from jail so he can marry Rosalie before she can have their child; shockingly, the marriage doesn’t work out, Bradna fools around with other girls (over Anne Bancroft, really?), Regal finds out, and unleashes that Zampanò wrath again. Not much else happens.

Understandably, Farley Granger hated The Naked Street, holding no reservations about the film in his autobiography, Include Me Out: My Life From Goldwyn to Broadway, stating, “All I have to say about my final movie at 20th Century Fox is, ‘Thank God for Tony Quinn and Anne Bancroft.’” My sentiments exactly, Farley Granger. However, I count this as a notable picture in my Noirvember 2020 catalog largely due to the off-screen friendship between Bancroft and Granger. Remembering his time making the film, “Tony was a unique actor, as was Anne, and we all struggled to inject some kind of drama into a script that was preachy, trite, and pedestrian. Anne and I would spend our lunches talking about the theatre and life in New York. This was her tenth film, and she was not happy about any of them. I felt that she was too special and too good for Hollywood to ever figure out how to use her well and suggested that she go back to the theatre,” there is something incredible to be said about this mutually inspiring friendship, one of Bancroft’s first in Hollywood. Fortunately, a few years and a few more banal pictures later, Anne did leave Hollywood for the theatre, finding wild success and a renewed sense of confidence in her craft. Granger did the same. At least some stirring of passion came from this picture, if it wasn’t the action on screen itself.

My engaged interest in this film does not stretch further than Granger’s own sentiments, and being that he was in the picture, I will let him have the definitive say in the matter. Truly, do not take this as a suggestion. My investment in Bancroft and my rekindled love for Farley Granger has thrusted me into an odd consideration of this film again, and I have taken it upon myself to warn anyone who entertains the thought of spending a dull 84 minutes of exactly what they’re in for. To use Farley Granger’s own words, The Naked Street is “preachy, trite, and pedestrian,” and completely not worth your time, unless, like me, you enjoy entertaining the thought of Bancroft and Granger engaging in lunchtime chatter in between scenes.

Let it be known that there are much, much better Farley Granger and Anne Bancroft noirs on this list.

9. La tête d’un homme (A Man’s Neck), 1933. Directed by Julien Duvivier.

Harry Baur and Valéry Inkijinoff in La tête d’un homme (1933).

Everybody loves a good double-crossing and dirty deed. With French director Julien Duvivier’s La tête d’un homme (which does translate to A Man’s Neck, not A Man’s Head), a disturbed early French film noir, one might have have a viewing experience akin to the anxious sensation of a clamped neck in a guillotine’s scaffolding. When short-on-change gambling addict Willy Ferrièrre (Gaston Jacquet) announces in a Montparnasse cafe that he would pay a generous sum for any person to kill his wealthy aunt so he can claim her inheritance, two men overhear him, two men take this seriously, but only one of these men, Joseph Heurtin (Alexandre Rignault) actually gives him a note as physical evidence of taking up his offer. Later that night, as Heurtin breaks into the wealthy aunt’s house only to find her D.O.A., but with his fingerprints all over the job. The other man, later identified by the name of Radek (Valéry Inkijinoff) who took up Ferrièrre’s offer (and actually carried it to fruition) is in the house, too, but Heurtin is the one who takes the heat for the crime. As the leading suspect, Heurtin tracked down by Inspector Maigret (Harry Baur), but convinces him of his innocence and is granted escape; Radek starts blackmailing Ferrièrre and it becomes increasingly obvious to the authorities that there are more people involved in this case than originally expected, and the rat race to find the man who hired Radek to kill one wealthy aunt ensues and drives the film home with sharp-shooting precision.

Polished and incisive, La tête d’un homme feels like watching every single noir trope play out for the very first time, exactly like watching your favorite dime store crime novel come to life. Duvivier’s early exercise in film noir is like anxiously watching a ticking time bomb in pure, immobile shock; though it’s not a decidedly creative or nuanced noir, the language of the genre is there, and it is beautiful watching a genre in its infancy assemble itself from its pithy source material. Stirring and unsparing, La tête d’un homme is the noir to watch if you enjoy the sensation of hair rising on the nape of your neck.

8. Secret Beyond the Door, 1947. Directed by Fritz Lang.

Joan Bennett in Secret Beyond the Door (1947).

Of course, I couldn’t let a Joan Bennett-Fritz Lang noir slip through the cracks! Secret Beyond the Door is an oft underseen collaboration between the two maestros of film noir that deserves due credit. Marrying a man you barely know is always cause for trouble, such is the case of Celia (Joan Bennett) who, after the death of her dear brother, is whisked away in a hasty marriage to the wealthy and (seemingly) charming Mark Lamphere (Michael Redgrave) after their brief encounter in Mexico. Moving to his opulent and tragic East Coast mansion, home of murders that may or may not be Mark’s doing, Celia quickly realizes that the whole mood of their affair has shifted and that she might not have married the man she thought she did. If these plot beats sound familiar in writing, it’s because they are. Another noir I watched for the first time this month was Edgar G. Ulmer’s Bluebeard (1944), an adaptation of the French folktale, “Barbe bleue,” originally written in 1697, which is a much more literal rendering of Charles Perrault’s classic tale of an affluent man who murders his wives in succession and the endeavor of the most recent wife to escape the fate of her antecedents. This is a loose adaptation of the classic tale, but Lang loves romance, so Secret Beyond the Door is a meditation between a perilous folktale and the sunken sleepiness of a Hollywood film noir. 

As one of my favorite film directors, one who I have spent a significant amount of time with, I feel confident in saying that Fritz Lang’s work takes an increasingly American feel deeper into his occupation in the country; though Secret Beyond the Door holds inflections of German expressionism that marks his early silent film work, it does carry that stiflingly American inclination towards structure over imagination, which is likely why you don’t hear about this film as much as you do The Woman in the Window (1944) or Scarlet Street (1945), his earlier collaborations with Joan Bennett. However, this is still an immensely watchable film and a more-than-solid noir; the aforementioned German expressionism flare presents itself in Lang’s brilliant use of atmosphere in an expansive and calamitous mansion (really doubling down on that “doors are secret passageways” visualism). Joan Bennett is tops as her usual frustratingly cool leading lady (I wouldn’t exactly call her a femme fatale in this, however), and I found it interesting to see what Lang made of an oft-retold blend of fantasy (offering space to his expressionist flame) and smothering reality. A great watch for those who like their movies how they like their dreams.

7. Caught, 1949. Directed by Max Ophüls.

Barbara Bel Geddes and James Mason in Caught (1949).

I really went back and forth between including this or the aforementioned The Reckless Moment (1949) in this list, but I have more to say about this film, so it’s this Mason-Ophüls collaboration for the books. Caught is a tragedy of obsession and the suffocating presence of love, or lack of it. Something of a social-climber, young model-with-moxie Leonara Eames (Barbara Bel Geddes) hastily marries (this is quite a popular theme, no?) disturbed magnate Smith Ohlrig (Robert Ryan); neither do it for love. As one might expect, this becomes criteria for their estrangement, and after bathing in riches for a short while, Leonara separates from Smith and finds a job in a medical clinic under the oversight of the charming (dreamy, gorgeous, smoldering, etc. etc.) Dr. Larry Quinada (James Mason). The two kindle a flame but after a brief reconciliation with Smith, Leonara becomes pregnant with his child; baiting her with this unfortunate lapse in judgment, Leonara suffers between the clutches of her captor and the man who she truly loves. 

Now, if you have never had the great fortune of catching James Mason in a noir, this is definitely one to consider. He has his convictions (smartly pivoting him from the stock “knight in shining armor” character, ready and willing to whisk Leonara away from her deranged ex-husband), but he is ultimately the perfect foil for Robert Ryan’s power-hungry Smith Ohlrig. He is generous with the time and resources he has, offering Leonara compassion for the first time in her life. Similarly, Barbara Bel Geddes shines as a woman whose only vice is wanting a better life for herself, who perilously falls into the keep of a man who can offer her one, only not on her own terms. She’s similarly great in Robert Wise’s Blood on the Moon (1949), which also almost made it to this list, as Robert Mitchum’s tough-skinned, gun-wielding right hand man and love interest (that film is great too, if you enjoy the hybridization of western and noir). Ophüls’ brief love affair with the Hollywood noir marks some of the greatest staples in the genre, and Caught is every indication as to why: power play and a misunderstanding of love makes for great material, and Ophüls perfectly charges the film with sharp pace, interesting characters, and damning interrelationships. Caught engagingly fills the noir space in his expansively accomplished filmography and Hollywood history alike.

And while I do not need to tell you that he’s hot (both because it’s obvious and I try to keep things professional here), James Mason is hot and has a voice to inspire angels.

6. Ossessione (Obsession), 1943. Directed by Luchino Visconti.

Massimo Girotti and Clara Calamai in Ossessione (1943).

It’s The Postman Always Rings Twice but in wartime, fascist regime Italy. And in my opinion, everything that falls flat for me in Tay Garnett’s American-made 1946 adaptation of James M. Cain’s 1934 novel of the same name, is made lush and dreadful in Visconti’s vision. This is the second adaptation of Cain’s novel, the first being Pierre Chenal’s Le Dernier Tournant (The Last Turning) from France in 1939 (I, however, have not seen Chenal’s adaptation so I will not be comparing the two). I’ve always found Cain’s material akin to the vulgar richness of Lolita (particularly Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant adaptation from 1962), and Ossesssione absolutely revels in that vulgarity; the sickly verve of guilt lingering in infidelity and murder that makes for a staggering exercise in film noir.

(Mild spoilers ahead if you’ve never seen Ossessione or any adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice). Massimo Girotti (swoon) plays the the gruff vagabond Gino Costa who takes residence at a small inn owned by Giovanna Bragana (Clara Calamai) and her older husband Guiseppe (Juan de Landa), who she is disgusted by. In a whirlwind affair rife with departure and denial, Giovanna persuades Gino into her conspiracy to kill her husband and frame it as an accident, so that the two can be together. After the murder, tensions and resentment about the scornful act rise between Gino and Giovanna; Gino spends time away from Giovanna as he begins to feel trapped and a pawn in her scheme to rid of her husband, but the two ultimately rekindle their passion and Giovanna announces to Gino that she is pregnant with his child. Authorities now fully involved with the accident (murder) that killed Guiseppe, the two become doomed beyond reconciliation.

I know many consider The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) to be a classic Hollywood noir essential, but I have never exactly taken a shine to that accolade, always favoring the popular work of Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) that occupies relatively the same space (murderous femme fatale asks a deadly deed of a male co-conspirator sworn by love); Ossessione, however, is a grimly romantic vision of Cain’s novel with a context that provides the source material a much-needed exigency. Gino and Giovanna are framed as hopelessly intertwined in the barb of love’s undying flame (with convincing and flagrant chemistry), which provides interesting and decadent foreground for a story that is riddled with highs and lows; though the murder first drives a wedge between them and neither can fully be atoned for their crime, they are resolved to this fate together, no matter what lies in the wake of their tragedy. In a time and place where censorship was king (more so than in America), Ossessione is adult in feel and flavor, with the kind of filmmaking that suggests this as a story that needs to be told. For your next Noirvember, mind this superior version of The Postman Always Rings Twice.

5. A Colt is My Passport (拳銃コルトは俺のパスポート), 1967. Directed by Takashi Nomura.

Joe Shishido as Shuji Kamimura in A Colt is My Passport (1967).

Deck the halls with blood and foul play. Takashi Nomura’s A Colt is my Passport is stunningly assured filmmaking, offering a little of everything in a polished, well-balanced package. Hit man Shuji Kamimura (Joe Shishido) is hired by Yakuza boss Sensaki (Eimei Esumi) to kill mob rival Shimazu (Kanjūrō Arashi) who has become greedy in his business dealings; Kamimura accepts the job and executes the act with the remarkable ease of consolidating murder into getting a job done. He is a truly lonely man plagued by the skeletons in his closet, but you wouldn’t be able to tell by his sharp-shooting precision alone. After the deed is done, Kamimura, accompanied by his faithful driver Shun Shiozaki (Jerry Fujio), has an elaborate plan to prove the success of his hit Sensaki, eliminate the evidence, then flee Japan; these plans are foiled, however, by complications on Sensaki’s end. In a tailspin for survival, Kamimura and Shun hide out in a motel frequented by the Yakuza, where they meet the repressed waitress Mina (Chitose Kobayashi), who irrevocably affects the trajectory of Kamimura’s journey.

Takashi Nomura seamlessly blends French New Wave and spaghetti western influences into this  stylish, melancholy noir while also telling a story that chews plenty of scenery and opens the floor to existentialist dread. Plagued by the ghosts of his past in a profession that begs indifference and estrangement from all things emotional, Joe Shishido’s Kamimura is the perfect leading man. Not that he needs have an American counterpart, but if you are keen on name recognition, Kamimura has a similar feel to Robert Mitchum’s Jeff Markham (alias Jeff Bailey) in Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947); however, Kamimura does not seek to escape his past, or his profession, he only seeks to survive with the existing terms and how they have irrevocably shaped him. This is a compact, neat, and satisfying neo-noir that draws from both its genre predecessors and the movements that were shaping the current landscape of filmmaking from around the world at the time. If you are looking to shake up your noir watchlist, or perhaps save a spot for next year’s Noirvember fare, this is not one to miss.

4. Strangers on a Train, 1951. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Rewatch.

Farley Granger and Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train (1951).

“We talk the same language.”

It almost feels like cheating to put a Hitchcock film this high on my list. However, since this was the month of Farley Granger, Strangers on a Train, Hitchcock’s second queer-coded collaboration with Granger, was to be expected. To double-down on my confidence in the high-ranking of this picture on this list (which was a rewatch at that), this November I have fortuitously rekindled my relationship with the master of suspense, and have decided that he is one of the only directing giants oft-recognized out of the cinephile reach who I definitively have an opinion on (he’s good!).

Strangers on a Train opens on the titular train, wherein titular strangers engage in a famously awkward conversation, one of Hitchcock’s favorites to have on screen: what constitutes the perfect murder? Perfect strangers though they are, Guy Haines (Farley Granger) is no stranger to the public as an amateur tennis star in an adulterous relationship with a senator’s daughter, which is why second stranger Bruno Antony (Robert Walker) initiates said awkward conversation. Guy is unnerved but doesn’t entirely reject Bruno, an unfortunate saving-of-face that justifies bringing his side of their “deal” to exchange murders (Bruno to Guy’s wife Miriam who won’t grant him a divorce and Guy to Bruno’s father who he resents) to fruition. Miriam (Kasey Rogers) now dead at Bruno’s hands (in a carnival sequence comparable to sweat-down-your-back, wake-in-fright nightmares), Guy has an incorrigible mess on his hands with a psychopathic murderer who has claimed him as a friend; what’s more is that Bruno is holding Guy up to his half of the deal, with more dirt against him than lets on. Through a stomach-churning tennis match, dinner party conversation, and yet another carnival sequence, Strangers on a Train culminates in the most bristling end scene to come of Hitchcock’s pantheon of bristling end scenes (a bold but true opinion).

Alright, it’s queer-coded. Farley Granger has spoken about the subtext of Rope (1948) in such LGBT retrospectives as The Celluloid Closet from 1995, but Strangers on a Train has always crossed me as a much more inflicted way to brace homosexuality on screen, much deeper a reflection than Rope. Played for its subtle, more reflective side of homosexuality by proxy of murder (though that is certainly simplifying things), Strangers waxes poetic about out-of-body experiences, and seeing the darkest parts of yourself in someone else. Farley Granger is beautiful and brilliant, feeling the role of Guy with every part of him, mirroring the stilted genius of Robert Walker’s corrupt Bruno. This is almost like watching a Shakespearean tragedy see itself to completion, again, with the end scene acting as an orgasmic atonement for the cluttered darkness of the human psyche. Only, of course, homosexuality is that very darkness. Not to be a reductivist, but it was 1951, and god bless Farley Granger for breathing light into that darkness. Strangers on a Train is an intelligent film noir and cautionary tale of what might happen when we take too kindly to the oddness of strangers; the untold parts of ourselves become too transparent to keep, and must be expelled accordingly.

3. Nightfall, 1957. Directed by Jacques Tourneur. Rewatch.

Anne Bancroft and Aldo Ray in Nightfall (1957).

Arriving in Hollywood in 1951 and swiftly signed to a two-year contract with 20th Century Fox under the hand-selection of Darryl F. Zanuck, Anne Bancroft spent the remaining few years of her first Hollywood stay freelancing after her first (and only) film contract was up. Before her chance-of-a-lifetime role in William Gibson’s Two for the Seesaw, Jacques Tourneur’s Nightfall was the most complex and career-defining role Anne had to her name by 1957. 

Emerging from Los Angeles nightlife, James “Jim” Vanning (Aldo Ray) bums a light from a stranger (later revealed as an insurance investigator on the prowl for a missing $350,000 from his company) and wanders into a bar where he strikes an unlikely conversation with fashion model Marie Gardner (Anne Bancroft). As she asks him to borrow five dollars in a pinch, Marie offers reason for conversation and the two share dinner together. Leaving the bar, Marie is thanked by two men waiting outside, John (Brian Keith) and Red (Rudy Bond), for distracting Vanning; the two men then whisk Vanning away and demand that he tell them where their money is, but Vanning swears he doesn’t know. Having taken a generous beating and feeling slighted by the underhanded company of Marie, Vanning returns to her and demands answers; she demands them back. The puzzling affair is revealed in a flashback of Vanning’s unfortunate run-in with John and Red during a hunting trip in Wyoming turned awry, wherein Vanning is actually proven to be the innocent party. Now in an involved romance, Vanning and Marie flee to Wyoming to retrieve the mentioned loot; in Wyoming, Vanning comes face-to-face with the insurance man, Ben Fraser (James Gregory), who has been investigating his missing cash but believes in Vanning’s innocence. Also shacked up in the wilderness, John and Red have other plans of fatal intervention.

Anne Bancroft plays Marie Gardner with the distinct feel that she is more than a fashion model, more than a frightful dame in damning connection with a murder-robbery plot. In one scene where Vanning confronts Marie about her put-on at the bar that led to a ruthless beating from John and Red, she rises from her bed and answers the door with her hair in rollers, no makeup on, face lightly but visibly cloaked in sweat. She has no reservations about showing her natural appearance in the presence of a man she barely knows; in fact, her scorned reaction to Vanning’s presence all but speaks for itself. She is a woman whose daytime fare as a model has afforded her to live alone in a minimally but carefully decorated apartment in the heart of Los Angeles. There is a certain bravery and aptitude to Marie’s implied life that Bancroft pays such a mind to with the small details she has at her disposal; in that very scene, she presents as a tactful woman who has provided for herself who won’t be compromised or taken a fool by anybody. Needless to say, Bancroft is damn good with the material provided; creating this exigency reveals a kind of tact that Hollywood could not appreciate or fully understand. While not as rich a role as to come on the stage (Two for the Seesaw and The Miracle Worker), Bancroft’s sincere conviction as Marie in Nightfall sees the modern woman she so-loved playing to fruition, setting the precedent for many roles of the same persuasion to come.

Anne Bancroft photographed on location in the High Sierra region of California during the filming of Nightfall (1957). Photo from my collection.

Nightfall is a sleek low-budget outfit staggered by changes-of-pace that merit its #3 ranking on my Noirvember list. Alright, I’ll say it: I am a huge sucker for the “Wyoming” landscape. Snow and the extension of wilderness into the unknown makes for an exciting departure from the classic Hollywood noir setting of city nightlife (not like the picture doesn’t begin in this ecosystem, if you’re still aching for a taste of the familiar); this shifting landscape also helps to warmly invite narrative inconsistency, with a generous half of the picture being told in flashbacks, often disorienting reality from Vanning and the viewer alike. Another notable featurette of the film is its fashion show: a tense, Hitchcockian galleria of beautiful Jean Louis gowns (gracefully modelled by Bancroft). This seemingly oddly-structured break from direct action smartly gives way to believable exigency, the feeling (and reality) of being watched, for the film’s final unfolding of events to ensue with agency. Running at just under 80 minutes, Nightfall, with its charged simplicity and nonlinear narrative structure, lends the the kind of ambiguous modernity that was registering at the time it was made. This is not escapist fare, rather a reminder for the everyman and woman that being in the wrong place at the wrong time can look just as cold.

2. Tokyo Drifter (東京流れ者), 1966. Directed by Seijun Suzuki.

Tetsuya Watari in Tokyo Drifter (1966).

Rolling in my top two pick with another Nakkatsu-produced Yakuza film and one of the most colorful neo-noirs I have ever seen: Tokyo Drifter, a film that wonders if we can ever really let old habits die. When crime boss Kurata (Ryūji Kita) decides to put his crime syndicate days behind him, he has to dispatch his dedicated and dutiful enforcer, Tetsuya “Phoenix Tetsu” Hondo (Tetsuya Watari). With a name that suggests his aptitude as a crime ring devotee, Tetsu finds it difficult to adjust or enjoy life outside of his previous profession. After turning down an offer from rival Yakuza boss Otsuka (Eimei Esumi), Tetsu is seen as a threat to the gang’s racketeering plans and has a price put on his head. Usurping death and revealing deceit, Tetsu becomes the titular drifter who spares no one but his old girlfriend Chiharu (Chieko Matsubara) in the end.

Seijun Suzuki’s living, breathing masterpiece is a genre staple, a breathtakingly stylish portrait of late ‘60s Japan, a damn good film. Tetsuya Watari, who passed very recently, is brilliant as Tetsu in this prolific highlight in his string of Yakuza films, many in collaboration with Suzuki. As one the leading titles of the Yakuza film sub-genre, one does not exactly have to search high and low to understand exactly why, or exactly what makes this film special. The day and nightlife of its contemporary Japan are bright and expansive, opening a whole different world to Tetsu that he might have otherwise neglected in his oft-occupied crime underworld. Still, it proves near impossible for an old dog to learn new tricks, and Tetsu is just as confined to an impersonal and hard-boiled trade as he was under the leadership of Kurata, only now, he can call his own shots. A drifter on his own self-assigned escapade. Another incredibly noteworthy contribution to Tokyo Drifter is the staggering Chieko Matsubara, who dazzles as the breezy center in a world of corruption. It is interesting to see how a shifting cinema zeitgeist affected the whole world, as films from the late 1960s have a certain flavor of confidence and certainty for being so unique and novel to their respective time period. Tokyo Drifter bodies this new life perfectly, building on the traditional noir beats and adding new, jazzy color to a genre that Suzuki proves to be more flexible than meets the eye.

1. They Live By Night, 1948. Directed by Nicholas Ray.

Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell in They Live By Night (1948).

You only love once.

When I was fifteen (maybe sixteen), my brother gifted me a DVD set of James Dean’s three films on Christmas Eve. At that point, I had only seen East of Eden (1955), but even with that formative education, I was completely smitten with the idea of Dean. A few hours after receiving the gift, I watched Rebel Without a Cause (1955) for the first time. I will never forget that it was on a Christmas Eve, on a holiday, when I could have been involved more in my family’s affairs but favored the teenage wasteland of a kind of Hollywood movie I had never seen before; afterwards, the film became a living, breathing part of my teenage zeitgeist, sharing the unfortunate fare of being an expression of my unequivocal angst with the likes of The Graduate (1967). I never looked at people my age or movies about people my age quite the same way again after watching Rebel Without a Cause; it all seemed so futile, to care as much to be sensitive to new love when it was all but fleeting and tragic. But at the same time, it encouraged me to be more of a teenager, more romantic and less achingly aware of myself. Rebel Without a Cause, to this day, carries a conflicted tone and memories for me: missed chances, teenage love I never experienced, my dignified insistence on being “above it all” even though I wasn’t, a penalizing reminder of how being young and tragic looks better on James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo than those from around my block. Nicholas Ray is perhaps best remembered for his seminal work on Rebel Without a Cause, a puzzling figure of Hollywood pratfalls and distinguished sincerity, now only remembered in his art. Rebel Without a Cause blends everything that makes They Live By Night aesthetically significant and affecting, down to the prepossessing casting of both pictures. But where Rebel Without a Cause is a flagship for all past seasons and their hauntings, They Live By Night is distinctly current: you must act on this love/chance/escape now, or you won’t live to see the daylight. 

Adapted from the 1937 novel by Edward Anderson, Thieves Like Us, They Live By Night was originally intended to be released under the same name; however, this title was discouraged, anticipating the misinterpretation:  “Thieves Like Us.” That was Howard Hughes’ suggestion, and a sordid reminder of the stifling nature of Hollywood filmmaking during the golden age, even for something so simple. In fact, Hughes’ involvement, discouraging artistic choices and shelving the picture in a great RKO takeover fumble, ensured that They Live By Night would not see a fortuitous American release, despite its distinctly American context. Deviating from its source text a generous amount, They Live By Night tells the story of a young Arthur “Bowie” Bowers (Farley Granger) who, with two seasoned bank robbers Chickamaw (Howard Da Silva) and T-Dub (Jay C. Flippen), escapes from prison amid the rural south during the Great Depression. Planning their next move, the three outlaws hide away with Chickamaw’s brother at his service station, where Bowie meets Catherine “Keechie” Mobley (Cathy O’Donnell), Chickamaw’s sullen niece. Cold and attuned to indifference, Keechie takes a quiet, genuine interest in Bowie, who seems to be a decent young man that simply got mixed up in the wrong trade. On a whim, the two run away together, swiftly marry at a drive-by chapel, and hide out in a mountain cabin while Bowie’s name makes its rounds in local papers as the wrongly-accused shepherd of the robbery he, Chickamaw, and T-Dub committed earlier in the film. Still indebted to the men who helped spring him from jail, Bowie agrees to help pull off one last robbery, much to Keechie’s chagrin. The robbery goes awry, tensions rise between Bowie and Keechie, and the two flee from their hideout as the authorities continue to name Bowie as the ringleader in the now string of robberies. All too quickly, the two young lovers become pinned against the world.

I think I knew my month would veer into unexpected territory a couple scenes into They Live by Night. Having nothing but introductions between them, Bowie watches Keechie light her cigarette against the night. He watches her too intently, his hand slips from against the wall, rattling chains and startling Keechie, thrusting them into terse conversation: their first. Farley Granger is so beautiful in that scene, a kind of beauty that you might take for granted in any other one of his films, but here it’s special because it’s so unprecedented. He’s a rare case of prepossessing, pure of heart, and outlawed all at the same time. Cathy O’Donnell, too, turns on a sunken world-weariness that might come with women from the side streets of the rural country, but she’s a rare case in that she’s so young and already so sad. As their conversation deepens, Keechie learns that Bowie has spent seven years in the can for a murder plot he was mistakenly involved in. Though he’s done time and flies with a crowd like Chickamaw and T-Dub, Keechie responds kindly to him, thinking him different. Decent. There’s never anything smoldering or burning between them, not even in their first few conversations, only a quiet understanding that comes when you truly know someone; a kind of connection that goes beyond dialogue or physical touch. It’s innocence. It’s quite literally spelled out for us:

“This boy…and this girl…were never properly introduced to the world we live in…To tell their story…”

To wax poetic about this film, Romeo and Juliet each taking the poison in the greatest dramatic irony known to literature, Bowie and Keechie never have the fortune of being star-crossed; they come together in the most desperate of circumstances that would otherwise prove their romance hasty and colorless, if not for the tender interference of being one another’s teacher. They attach to each other and learn to know the world, though limited and grey, through the eyes of another. Though they live their days of splendor in the grass, glory in the flower, it’s with the constant accompaniment of fear and desperation. Though they live, it’s only from dusk till dawn.

They Live By Night is rhapsodic and devastating, completely stealing away from the polished romances of Hollywood film noir by paying mind to the unbridled matters of the heart. Nicholas Ray, with his softness towards human calamity and sympathy for the youth of the then-present, considers the stakes in every thought, action, and fear between our two young lovers and measures them out accordingly, with an assured sense of reality. Same is the case in his tenderness towards the teenagers of Rebel Without a Cause: everything is so important because it is. In They Live By Night, the exigency is recognizable, but the subtlety of Bowie and Keechie’s shy resolve till the end of time completes the narrative. They become adults by the end of the line, only it’s too late to enjoy the fruits of their labor. A reserved portrait of romance amid suffering, love against corruption, They Live By Night accounts for those who had that one person who taught them everything.

It wouldn’t be a month of spectacular reconsideration for a genre I’d long neglected if it hadn’t been for this film that knows its conventions so well that it breaks them, creating something that is not boastful or demonizing, but compassionate and sincere. It’s noir that does not fear the ultimately kind and tender. It’s Farley Granger when he, too, was young and naive. It’s Nicholas Ray when he held the courage of his convictions. On the last page of his script, Ray handwrote, “This is a love story, it is also a morality tale in the rhythm of its time.”

It’s been lovely watching. Till next Noirvember.

References:

Calhoun, Robert and Granger, Farley. Include Me Out: My Life from Goldwyn to Broadway. St. Martin’s Press, 2007.

Categories
Film Essay

Film Noir for the Innocent: “They Live By Night”

You only love once.

When I was fifteen (maybe sixteen), my brother gifted me a DVD set of James Dean’s three films on Christmas Eve. At that point, I had only seen East of Eden (1955), but even with that formative education, I was completely smitten with the idea of Dean. A few hours after receiving the gift, I watched Rebel Without a Cause (1955) for the first time. I will never forget that it was on a Christmas Eve, on a holiday, when I could have been involved more in my family’s affairs but favored the teenage wasteland of a kind of Hollywood movie I had never seen before; afterwards, the film became a living, breathing part of my teenage zeitgeist, sharing the unfortunate fare of being an expression of my unequivocal angst with the likes of The Graduate (1967). I never looked at people my age or movies about people my age quite the same way again after watching Rebel Without a Cause; it all seemed so futile, to care as much to be sensitive to new love when it was all but fleeting and tragic. But at the same time, it encouraged me to be more of a teenager, more romantic and less achingly aware of myself. Rebel Without a Cause, to this day, carries a conflicted tone and memories for me: missed chances, teenage love I never experienced, my dignified insistence on being “above it all” even though I wasn’t, a penalizing reminder of how being young and tragic looks better on James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo than those from around my block. Nicholas Ray is perhaps best remembered for his seminal work on Rebel Without a Cause, a puzzling figure of Hollywood pratfalls and distinguished sincerity, now only remembered in his art. Rebel Without a Cause blends everything that makes They Live By Night aesthetically significant and affecting, down to the prepossessing casting of both pictures. But where Rebel Without a Cause is a flagship for all past seasons and their hauntings, They Live By Night is distinctly current: you must act on this love/chance/escape now, or you won’t live to see the daylight. 

Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell in They Live By Night (1948).

Adapted from the 1937 novel by Edward Anderson, Thieves Like Us, They Live By Night was originally intended to be released under the same name; however, this title was discouraged, anticipating the misinterpretation:  “Thieves Like Us.” That was Howard Hughes’ suggestion, and a sordid reminder of the stifling nature of Hollywood filmmaking during the golden age, even for something so simple. In fact, Hughes’ involvement, discouraging artistic choices and shelving the picture in a great RKO takeover fumble, ensured that They Live By Night would not see a fortuitous American release, despite its distinctly American context. Deviating from its source text a generous amount, They Live By Night tells the story of a young Arthur “Bowie” Bowers (Farley Granger) who, with two seasoned bank robbers Chickamaw (Howard Da Silva) and T-Dub (Jay C. Flippen), escapes from prison amid the rural south during the Great Depression. Planning their next move, the three outlaws hide away with Chickamaw’s brother at his service station, where Bowie meets Catherine “Keechie” Mobley (Cathy O’Donnell), Chickamaw’s sullen niece. Cold and attuned to indifference, Keechie takes a quiet, genuine interest in Bowie, who seems to be a decent young man that simply got mixed up in the wrong trade. On a whim, the two run away together, swiftly marry at a drive-by chapel, and hide out in a mountain cabin while Bowie’s name makes its rounds in local papers as the wrongly-accused shepherd of the robbery he, Chickamaw, and T-Dub committed earlier in the film. Still indebted to the men who helped spring him from jail, Bowie agrees to help pull off one last robbery, much to Keechie’s chagrin. The robbery goes awry, tensions rise between Bowie and Keechie, and the two flee from their hideout as the authorities continue to name Bowie as the ringleader in the now string of robberies. All too quickly, the two young lovers become pinned against the world.

I think I knew my month would veer into unexpected territory a couple scenes into They Live by Night. Having nothing but introductions between them, Bowie watches Keechie light her cigarette against the night. He watches her too intently, his hand slips from against the wall, rattling chains and startling Keechie, thrusting them into terse conversation: their first. Farley Granger is so beautiful in that scene, a kind of beauty that you might take for granted in any other one of his films, but here it’s special because it’s so unprecedented. He’s a rare case of prepossessing, pure of heart, and outlawed all at the same time. Cathy O’Donnell, too, turns on a sunken world-weariness that might come with women from the side streets of the rural country, but she’s a rare case in that she’s so young and already so sad. As their conversation deepens, Keechie learns that Bowie has spent seven years in the can for a murder plot he was mistakenly involved in. Though he’s done time and flies with a crowd like Chickamaw and T-Dub, Keechie responds kindly to him, thinking him different. Decent. There’s never anything smoldering or burning between them, not even in their first few conversations, only a quiet understanding that comes when you truly know someone; a kind of connection that goes beyond dialogue or physical touch. It’s innocence. It’s quite literally spelled out for us:

“This boy…and this girl…were never properly introduced to the world we live in…To tell their story…”

To wax poetic about this film, Romeo and Juliet each taking the poison in the greatest dramatic irony known to literature, Bowie and Keechie never have the fortune of being star-crossed; they come together in the most desperate of circumstances that would otherwise prove their romance hasty and colorless, if not for the tender interference of being one another’s teacher. They attach to each other and learn to know the world, though limited and grey, through the eyes of another. Though they live their days of splendor in the grass, glory in the flower, it’s with the constant accompaniment of fear and desperation. Though they live, it’s only from dusk till dawn.

They Live By Night is rhapsodic and devastating, completely stealing away from the polished romances of Hollywood film noir by paying mind to the unbridled matters of the heart. Nicholas Ray, with his softness towards human calamity and sympathy for the youth of the then-present, considers the stakes in every thought, action, and fear between our two young lovers and measures them out accordingly, with an assured sense of reality. Same is the case in his tenderness towards the teenagers of Rebel Without a Cause: everything is so important because it is. In They Live By Night, the exigency is recognizable, but the subtlety of Bowie and Keechie’s shy resolve till the end of time completes the narrative. They become adults by the end of the line, only it’s too late to enjoy the fruits of their labor. A reserved portrait of romance amid suffering, love against corruption, They Live By Night accounts for those who had that one person who taught them everything.

It wouldn’t be a month of spectacular reconsideration for a genre I’d long neglected if it wasn’t for this film that knows its conventions so well that it breaks them, creating something that is not boastful or demonizing, but compassionate and sincere. It’s noir that does not fear the ultimately kind and tender. It’s Farley Granger when he was young and demure. It’s Nicholas Ray when he held the courage of his convictions. On the last page of his script, Ray handwrote:

“This is a love story, it is also a morality tale in the rhythm of its time.”

Categories
Film Essay

Second Chances Are Fighting Chances: “Wanda” & “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”

Wanda walks among piles of coal in a landscape shot of eastern Pennsylvania that lingers for almost two minutes. Her hair pinned in rollers, dressed in all white, she is the only vision in a terrestrial matter of darkness. She moves forward on a track that is unknown and undisturbed, for the while being; she knows just as well as the audience knows where she is going: nowhere. This doesn’t seem to matter.

Alice is solipsistic in the way many a small girl lives: playing Dorothy in her own private Wizard of Oz. This scene of fiction is suddenly disrupted by an arid Socorro, New Mexico, where Alice is now 35 years old, no longer an actress in her own world, now with people to answer to. Her face pink and her movements rigid, she is exhausted by routine: her personal liberties are dead in the water, so she obliges. She’s tired, and the American housewife is, too.

***

In 1970, Barbara Loden, acclaimed theater actress who had only appeared on screen briefly in the works of her partner, then-husband, Elia Kazan, premiered her first, and only, writing and directing feature, Wanda, at the 31st Venice Film Festival. She won the International Critics’ Circle award for her film and she was, at the time, the only woman to earn the Pasinetti Award for Best Foreign Film. Before Wanda, Loden was a pin-up girl, model, and Copacabana dancer in New York City by the age of sixteen. In 1957, Loden made her theater debut in Compulsion, appearing in The Highest Tree and Night Circus the same year; with the aid of her first husband, Larry Joachim, Loden landed her first screen-role in the Ernie Kovacs Show, as the titular character’s promiscuous sidekick (a position in which she was initially denied if not for Joachim’s influence as a television producer). Maturing from her odd-jobs in the entertainment realm, Loden ushered in her life’s “Kazan era.” With the condemned director Elia Kazan, who in 1952 had offered the names of several colleagues associated with the Communist Party to the House Un-American Activities Committee in an act of gross self-service, Barbara Loden began a professional and romantic relationship. In Kazan’s Wild River she played a small, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role and in Splendor in the Grass, a slightly larger part where, with her bare-bones character, she gracefully, poignantly elevates the film’s tragedy.

Barbara Loden as Ginny Stamper in Splendor in the Grass (1961), a devastating scene.

It was, however, during the Broadway production of After the Fall in 1964, starring Loden and directed by Kazan, that both Loden’s knack for portraying a certain type of tragic blonde bombshell and her romantic relationship with Kazan became fossilized. After the Fall, written by Arthur Miller, is a semi-autobiographical critique of Miller’s own life and relationship with former wife, Marilyn Monroe, in which her thinly-veiled character write-in, Maggie, was played by Barbara Loden. Vapid and unnervingly starved of attention and love, Loden’s Maggie not only piqued the interest and acclaim of critics, the performance winning her a Tony award for best actress, but also dangerously mirrored Loden’s own personal history of bereavement.

***

Loden was born in 1932 to a poor household in Asheville, North Carolina. After her parents divorced early in her childhood, Loden spent the better part of her adolescent years living with her grandparents in the rural Marion, North Carolina. Loden held little reservations, later in life, lamenting the emotional vagrancy of her childhood, reflecting that much of her artistic process in the creation of Wanda was the consequence of both her upbringing and her place as a woman, married to such a powerful and domineering man for a significant amount of time in her short life. In Katja Raganelli’s 1991 documentary, filmed in 1980, on Barbara Loden entitled I Am Wanda, Loden acknowledged that, “Whether it’s good or bad, that’s all we have to draw on: our life experience…I accept what I am. I was born in a very small town in North Carolina, called Marion, and I lived out in the country in a rural area. My mother and father were separated and my mother worked in another town and my father worked in town, so I lived with my maternal grandparents. I remember I was very lonely.” In the same sit-down conversation with Loden in Raganelli’s documentary, she broadcasted, “When I was very little I used to sit behind the kitchen stove all the time. I didn’t know who I was or what I was doing there–I wasn’t that conscience of it–but looking back I know, really, what must’ve been going on unconsciously was, ‘What am I doing here? How did I get into this place?’ So you might’ve said I had a little identity problem there, and it’s taken me many years to find out who I am and what I’m about. I’m not that clear, still, but I’m a little bit more.” Within this small concession, Loden discerns that not only were there certain ramifications of her lonely childhood upon her development as an adult, but also as a woman who rose to a stage of morally eclipsing proportions that she, herself, never expected.

Barbara Loden in I Am Wanda (1991).

The process of making Wanda came first with Loden’s inspiration to write a screenplay as prompted by her friend, Harry Shuster, who, in 1966, offered her $100,000 to make her own movie; loosely inspired by a true account of a woman who became involved with a bank robbery turned awry, Wanda‘s original script was also somewhat based upon her own volition as a wandering woman. Finalizing her script, Loden struggled to pitch her story to any production company, as she came to find that any resource available to her (limited to begin with) would rob her creative control, so she opted to tell her story upon her own distinction. Shot on 16 mm stock with a skeleton crew of four and a script that was hardly referred to during shooting, Wanda became rubricked as the prophetic story of Barbara Loden’s own fare, as Loden told her documentarian, “Wanda was a woman who was ill-equipped to deal with life. She had no preparation for life, she had hardly any education, she was not particularly bright, she came from very poor, working-class people, and she could hardly function even as a working person. She married very young and had several children, there again she was hardly what would be called a ‘good housekeeper,’ or even a good mother.” The definitive lines between character and actress, story and director, are so thinly guarded by the inhibited affairs of Wanda’s life and Barbara Loden’s own mistrust in why she was born into life at all. Shortly after the documentary was filmed, Loden passed away from breast cancer on September 5, 1980, at 48 years old. If you have seen Wanda, but have never accompanied the film with Katja Raganelli’s sensitive and affecting documentary, I highly suggest you do. Wanda, in every way Loden tells it, is more than a solipsistic portrait of a woman’s life, void of the pleasantries of human connection or even kindness in small: it is a capture of self that Loden had the liberty of creating on her own terms, to canonize the uniqueness of her experience as a woman with touchstones of remarkable empathy.

***

In 1972, Ellen Burstyn earned her first Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress in The Last Picture Show, a category she would familiarize herself with in coming years, once again nominated in 1973 for her supporting role in The Exorcist. With two nominations under her belt and a stage career that had prompted her snowball success as an actress, Burstyn’s growing esteem would lend beautifully to the impact of and acclaim for her turn as Alice Wyatt in 1974’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. The same year that Burstyn would win Best Actress for Alice, she also won a Tony award originating the role of Doris in Same Time, Next Year (for which she would earn another Best Actress nomination in 1978’s film adaptation), and became a member of the American Film Institute Directing Workshop for Women’s first graduating class. Needless to say, 1975 was a big year for Burstyn; she planted seeds in many places as a newly-minted Academy favorite. In tandem, the subject matter of the film was as timely as the road to Alice’s success; as Barbara Loden was the dovetailing force for the making of Wanda, Ellen Burstyn was such the vehicle for the production of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.

In lieu of her Academy nomination for The Last Picture Show and her wild success in The Exorcist, Burstyn had “earned” the autonomy to become more selective with scripts, and after finding nothing of considerable merit for a while, recalling in a 2004 mini-documentary entitled, Second Chances: The Making of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, that, “All of the women’s parts were the wife, the mother, or the whore: the three standard roles for women. But they were all in relation to the man: the man’s story, the woman was the assistant,” she happened upon first-time screenwriter Robert Getchell’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Confident that this was the film she wanted to bring to fruition on screen, as it reflected her own rite as a woman at that certain point in her life, Burstyn was asked if she wanted to direct the picture as well as act. In 2014, she reflected on this proposal, “Back in the 70s, the idea of a woman directing was pretty unheard of…when I brought Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore to John Calley at Warner Bros, he asked me, then, if I wanted to direct it. I said I didn’t feel I was ready to act and direct at the same time. AFI made me more confident, but somehow it never came together and I never got asked again the way that John had asked me.” Even an assured woman like Burstyn could not be confident that a directorial debut would be impressive or successful enough to nullify the conversation of gender and let the nuance of the film speak for itself with no accommodations or special reservations, simply as a field equal.

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Perhaps an intelligent (though unfortunate) maneuver to drop the prospect of directing, Burstyn began scouting an up-and-coming director with a gutsy prowess. She was pointed in the direction of a young Martin Scorsese, who, at the time, had only a few feature-length films to his name. One of these films was the 1973 crime-drama, Mean Streets, an early exercise in a genre that would later find itself a staple in his directorial body of work. Burstyn watched and fell in love with the film. It’s no secret that Scorsese is not exactly known for his canon of female characters, but Alice was his first significant female-centric picture, and Burstyn enclosed his occupation as director under his earnest concession of knowing next-to-nothing about women with a willingness to learn from Alice, and that the crew of the film would be predominantly female. Scorsese agreed: Toby Carr Rafelson (then director Bob Rafelson’s wife) was hired as a production designer, Marcia Lucas (married to director-producer George Lucas at the time) as the film’s editor, Audrey Maas a producer, and Sandra Weintraub an assistant producer. In the early days of his already-promising career, Scorsese was completely sincere about bringing the realized woman to film, letting Ellen Burstyn call the shots while guiding with the confidence of hand that Burstyn already loved and knew she could trust. Interestingly, as much as the film is a pivot from Scorsese’s usual scene, it does not fasten itself completely in his body of work; Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore exists somewhere outside of his personal canon, inhabited fully by the vital life that Ellen Burstyn not only sources from Alice Wyatt, but within every pull of the film’s reality.

Ellen Burstyn in a scene from Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974).

There is no mistaking Alice to end tied nicely with a bow, but it is the kind of familiar portrait of the American woman trying to make ends meet, who, for better or worse, does, that consolidates the taxing go-at-things women were really registering at the time; Alice was to be a story of fiction that could be as dangerous as Harvey Keitel’s flippant violence or promising as Kris Kristofferson’s gentle companionship, flexible to fit the ever-changing mold of what it meant to be a woman in the 1970s. As Burstyn put it, “The point was to have Alice go through the transformation that so many of us were going through at the time: to start out in the place of the wife who was there to assist the husband, and then, for whatever reason, in Alice’s case it was the death of her husband, in my case it was the divorce, to be on her own. And to discover a sense of self, that there was more to life than planning dinner and doing the dishes afterwards. Perhaps she could be living the life that was meaningful to her, taking pride in the tips she got and the responsibilities she was taking on and taking care of her son. And it was working out.” Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore had a very specific tone upon its release: “this is a story about the kind of tough-as-nails woman who has already been provided, through economic or racial means, to repurpose herself as a woman outside of a domestic ecosystem.” Though there are beats of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore that are remarkably understanding of the unique struggle of being a woman widowed, divorced, or stuck in an unhappy marriage, that relate Alice’s processing of why or how the picture could be different, or better, to the average American woman, Alice was, and still is, a film that rings very sympathetically for a very specific audience: white women in the process of estranging themselves from a certain paradigm of unfulfillment, whether it becomes their choice or not, with the kind of stock that allows them to do so intermittently. Alice Wyatt is an attractive, educated American white woman living in the 1970s whose husband unexpectedly dies under these unforeseen circumstances, has to pack up her stationary life and make a living for reasons concerned only with her son at first. The difficulty of making a living soon infiltrates her well-being, welcoming reconciliation with how unhappy she was in her past and married life. Because Alice checks all of these boxes—white, educated, and attractive—she is allowed to be the principal of her own story, not about her whiteness or the privilege this necessitates, but the kind of rubric of struggle that only white women were allowed to endure, and, in effect, champion. 

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Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is not a kind of universal story of staggering womanhood, but rather a secular feminist touchstone: the kind of story a white, god fearing nation was willing to, and could, digest about a white woman who subverts expectations of herself and her environment, but doesn’t challenge or reject the society in which she lives. Because, ultimately, this society is able to throw her some crumbs, when Black women or women of color were (and still are) pardoned none the same. As a film, Alice isn’t completely universal; a story told by white people, it exists in only a universe of white people. There are stories as simple as Alice’s that aren’t built upon an advantaged whiteness, and just the same, there are audiences that merit stories of redemption, rooted in reality, but bookended by satisfying fiction. Though Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is transparent about the topical pressures and anxieties that Alice piles through, and though it does ultimately feel more like Ellen Burstyn’s film than Martin Scorsese’s, it is still small picture, eclipsed by bigger, perhaps more influential/disconcerting films about women or of Scorsese’s filmography in whole. It is the willingness by men to take a back seat in the process that ultimately makes Alice a narrative remembered for its triumph; still a process that not every woman has the privilege to, those who cannot be the champion of their own story.

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Barbara Loden is talked about in certain circles to be the female counterpart of John Cassavetes; both filmmakers organically defended and captured the female experience, both died tragically young: Cassavetes at 59, Loden at 48. Both were prophets of an audience that registered the bizarre, disruptive, and melancholy stories of the human experience, opposed to those hyper, or even tangible, stories of fiction. When Gena Rowlands gave her touchstone, perhaps career-defining, and certainly most recognizable performance in Cassavetes’ 1974 picture, A Woman Under the Influence, it was Ellen Burstyn who went toe-to-toe with her in both an awards race, and in a polar canon, wherein both hers’ and Rowlands’ defined how women felt, or were beginning to feel, during the third quarter of the 20th century. Really, Rowlands and Burstyn are like comparing apples to oranges, in terms of career-defining performances (both coincidentally given the same year) and bodies of work in full. The fares of both women and the characters that they portrayed in 1974 are products of two types of experimental filmmaking that were beginning to cement themselves in the post-studio system climate of American cinema: Alice Wyatt of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is a product of realism polished by fulfilled fantasy or expectation while Mabel Longhetti of A Woman Under the Influence is a product of realism scuffed by the sharp edges of life that do not promise goodness to be sealed within hardship and misfortune. The trials and mistruths engulfed by Gena Rowlands as Mabel Longhetti discover themselves quickly to be at the comparative end of Barbara Loden’s Wanda; she is a sound prophet to the way in which John Cassavetes captured women in his films (who were, more often than not, his wife Gena Rowlands), but completely accomplished on her own practice.

John Cassavetes directing Gena Rowlands in a scene from A Woman Under the Influence (1974).

The story that Loden tells with Wanda is not of a woman departed from her first life to be born again with the wishful divination of a second chance, because this is not a life given to Wanda to be born again with plentiful opportunity for her to become more or better, but a story of a woman who has no choice but to live, as she can’t fully comprehend why she’s alive at all, or even how she could bring an end to things. How Cassavetes and Scorsese told, with their acute world-building, the fortune of second chances, though lined with hiccups, are an optimistic vision of what Loden builds with Wanda; she is a woman upended by Loden at different points of her life, and it is through the unnerving portrait of Wanda’s life, Wanda’s America, Wanda’s relationship with men and people, that we can understand Barbara Loden as a person, much more the haunting marginalization of women who are never given a chance to become, at all. It is interesting to know the artist behind the art, much more if they are a vision of a begone time or movement, much less if their horrific anxieties of personhood plague their art and inflict violence or calamity on their female characters. Barbara Loden was a woman who came with her characters, whoever they were: she eulogized them completely; more or less, it was all she knew, purely her own visage and wanting to become a person of substance. What’s more, is that Wanda tells us that she was.

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We can only begin to understand the stage on which women perform if we are able to see them, organically. Time has only known certain women on film to be impoverished, starved of humility, or received by copious amounts of it; there are compartments by which women are allowed to exist, and if they’re lucky, exercise movement in. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and Wanda examine how flexible a narrative can be as a product of a time’s relation to filmmaking fads, much more how its women are tokenized and given a fighting chance. Works of fiction can register just as well as a work of almost complete linear realism: Alice and Wanda are stakeholders in that truth, and staples of canons that seek to eulogize the chances that some women will never have.

References:

Fleming, Mike Jr. “Emmy Nominee Ellen Burstyn Sets Long-Awaited Feature Directorial Debut.” Deadline, 25 August, 2014.

I Am Wanda. Directed by Katja Raganelli, Diorama Film Munich GmBH, 1991.

Second Chances: The Making of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Automat Pictures, 2004.