Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Another Look at Sandra

Sandra Dee died Feb. 20. A hard-luck story in death as in life, she died on the same day Hunter S. Thompson chose to blow his brains out. Pity the priest of Gonzo, ran the snide asides, for having to share the obit page with Gidget. Mind you, it had been years since Thompson wrote anything that matched his early glories (33his last piece to show much of the old brilliance was, ironically, an obituary--of Richard Nixon). In the end he was every bit the has-been Dee was, but despite his long decline, repellent personality and senseless check-out he received one thing she did not: respect.

Certain elements appear in the biography of a studio-system actress with appalling frequency. Dee's life had them all. Start, as we so often do, with the ghastly stage mother. Mary Douvan was shoving her daughter in front of cameras almost as soon as she noticed the little girl was beautiful. Dee's first modeling gig was for Girl Scouts Magazine. Impatient to start maximizing the Sandra returns, her mother started adding two years to the girl's age when she was four years old, and that lie kept going until Dee's career had long ended.

What with modeling jobs and parading the child before talent scouts, there was little time to notice the small personal details, like the fact that Mary's second husband was sexually abusing Sandra.

Some Hollywood victims of sexual abuse go flamboyantly to the bad, grabbing at alcohol or pills, flinging themselves at men only marginally better than their abusers. Dee, for her part, continued to be a good girl at home and on the set. Her success grew, as she tried to disappear. Anorexia began in adolescence and continued, off and on, until her death. In the 1990s Dee recalled days when all she ate was a head of lettuce.

Knowing Dee's background gives all those sunny movies some pronounced shadows. You start noticing how almost all her characters are trying so hard to please an older figure. The horrific mother in A Summer Place, for example, who forces Dee to submit to a gynecological exam--a rape, in effect--to see if she's still a virgin after a night with Troy Donahue. I wonder how Mary and Eugene Douvan felt watching that one in a darkened movie theater. To a viewer in 2005, the scene is mawkish hokum. Read about Dee's pathetic teenage years, and it becomes a shattering tragedy.

For those who love Imitation of Life, without question the best movie Dee ever made, the story of maid Juanita Hall and daughter Susan Kohner gives the movie its depth and sadness. Those two face the real agony of racial bigotry, while Lana Turner and Dee, as her daughter, deal only with the imitation problems of the wealthy and blonde. Yet Dee's performance deserves more consideration than that. Her confrontation with Turner, where she snaps at Turner to "stop acting" and asks for a little autonomy, echos every woman who ever looked at a neurotic, inadequate mother and decided, finally, to move on.

The year after Imitation's release Dee made Come September, met Bobby Darin on the set and later married him. Her film career began in 1957, and after 1963 it was all but over.

The future held multiple miscarriages, probably linked to her eating disorder; one son, Dodd, born in 1961; a divorce from Darin in 1967; and his early death from congestive heart failure in 1973. Alcoholism followed as Dee became a near shut-in. She had never had much of a social life, anyway; people who form their parents' main source of income seldom do. "I've never had any friends," she said in 1959, "but it's like strawberry shortcake. If you've never had it, you don't miss it."

Dee, tied so tightly to Eisenhower's America as the ideal teen--the perfect date, the perfect daughter--found some acting jobs, but never could revive her career. The only thing that could put her back in the public eye was when Stockard Channing donned a blonde wig and held her up to derision with the song "Look at Me, I'm Sandra Dee" in Grease. Dee always said she thought it was funny.

You must excuse the Siren if she withholds her pity for Thompson and saves it for Sandra, whose troubles were far less of her own making.

Monday, April 25, 2005

The 80s, a time of high-style living and low-grade hair gel Posted by Hello

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Good Remakes

Toronto has been the Gobi Desert for this classic movie lover. No Turner Classic Movies on cable, and a paucity of revival houses. I don't think a week-long film festival once a year makes up for no Film Forum and no TCM.

Their public channel does show some good movies, however (largely uncut, too, so thank you, Canadian government), and last night Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was on. I don't think I have seen this one since it was released in 1988. The 80s will not be remembered as a golden (or even a bronze) decade for moviemaking, but time has been good to this film. Glenne Headley's outfits no longer seem adorably chic, but that happens with movies when less than a couple of decades have elapsed since their release. In ten years perhaps those shoulder pads won't seize me with the urge to balance tea trays on them.

Despite Hannah and Her Sisters, the 1980s weren't Michael Caine's best decade. Some of his movies (The Hand! why, Michael? why?) are so bad they can't even be watched for their camp value. There were exceptions, though, like Mona Lisa, and he gives a wonderful performance as a high-end con man in Scoundrels. He has superb timing and reactions. When Steve Martin is doing one of his flashy comic turns, watch Caine go along with it. The famous scene comes when Martin, having joined forces with Caine to fleece a rich lady mark, plays a spectacularly insane man-child named Ruprecht. Martin gets the huge laughs here, but Caine sets up the moments perfectly. And Caine has one of the most delicious lines in the film's celebrated conclusion.

Scoundrels owes a lot to Ernst Lubitsch's masterpiece Trouble in Paradise, with a sleek European setting, haute sophisticate dialogue ("To be with another woman, that is French. To be caught, that is American") and a similar story of two criminals competing to rip off a wealthy American. The movie that Scoundrels remakes, however, is Bedtime Story, a 1964 comedy starring Marlon Brando and David Niven. I haven't seen the original, but a glance at various sources convinces me I haven't missed much.

That brings up remakes, and whether they should be allowed to happen, or outlawed by the Geneva Conventions. In his autobiography, John Huston says the ideal subjects for remakes are not classics, but movies that had good elements (engaging source material, great story and setting) that didn't work on screen. Huston cited his own Roots of Heaven (where, among other catastrophes, he had to cast Darryl Zanuck's mistress in a pivotal role) as a good remake candidate. Scoundrels fits these criteria nicely.

Others have noted that in the days before movies were shown on television or available on video, it made some sense to remake even a classic film for a new audience. Now we can see any number of great films when we please (and here the Siren genuflects toward the Criterion Collection and Ted Turner). So is there any remaining justification for remakes?

Obviously, if the idea is "Let's cast that L.A. Law chick in the Harlow Dinner at Eight part!" the answer is "For the love of God, NO." Ditto any story conferences that begin, "Hey, you know who reminds me of Cary Grant? Mark Wahlberg, that's who."

There have been some brilliant remakes of good movies, however, so I can't bring myself to plead for their extinction. The 1959 version of Imitation of Life, for instance. The 1934 version is beautiful and touching, but Douglas Sirk's remake is the one that scalds us with its take on American hypocrisy about race. Gosford Park isn't an outright remake of Rules of the Game, but it probably wouldn't exist without that illustrious ancestor, and the Altman movie has great merit in its own right. I have no definitive answer to the remake quandary, then, except perhaps "Cast Michael Caine, not Mark Wahlberg."

One last note about Scoundrels. I spent a lot of time working behind a vintage store's jewelry and accessory counter in the 80s, and I sold Glenne Headley a couple of items that were used in the film. I report happily that the accessories still look darling.

Toronto would be more enjoyable if Gary Cooper showed up to arrest me. Posted by Hello

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Toronto Looks Nothing Like New York

So, my blue-state pal, you were really angry about the last election, weren't you? Emailed that famous "United States of Canada/Jesusland" map to everyone you knew. Even logged on to the Canadian immigration site, just to check it out.

And you think, hmmm, maybe Toronto. Yes, Toronto. Aren't they always using that city as a substitute for too-expensive New York movie shoots? So it must be like New York, only better, because you don't have to worry about those goons in Washington.

Listen to the Siren, my dears. Toronto isn't New York. It isn't even Great Neck.

I moved here in October 2004. I am a proud liberal Democrat, but there was nothing ideological about going to Canada. I moved for money, and for a girl. I didn't get that much money, and the girl (and the boy--my children) didn't get much, either.

Admittedly, I was in New York before, and New York is the greatest city in the world. Just about anything short of Paris was bound to seem like I'd moved to Boise. But the longer I stay here, the more I cannot believe anyone ever uses Toronto as a New York substitute in the movies. It's like filming Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., and hoping a few judicious edits will make it look like Chartres.

I am horribly, achingly homesick. Toronto and I aren't getting along. Toronto and I are barely on speaking terms.

I try to stay positive. That is difficult for me. I am a Capricorn. Capricorn isn't a sunny-side-up kind of sun sign. Richard Nixon was a Capricorn. So was Al Capone. Even real (as opposed to Self-Styled) Capricorn sirens such as Marlene Dietrich and Ava Gardner weren't particularly perky. Hedonists, yes. Optimists, no.

Anyway, here I am. Circumstances dictate that here I stay for a while. So here is a short list of things the Siren likes about Toronto:

1. The Canadian postal service kicks the stuffing out of the USPS. It is more expensive, but having things arrive as they should and being waited on by polite human beings is worth the added cost.

2. Toronto is the most wheelchair-accessible city I have ever seen. New York isn't that bad, but Toronto is stellar. I am among the temporarily able-bodied, but for the disabled, sometimes all it takes is one step to prevent them from entering a place. That Canadians have taken such care to eliminate these obstacles speaks very, very well for them.

3. The shop assistants are, by and large, incredibly polite.

4. There are a lot of parks.

5. Canadians are generally too polite to bring up George Bush. So you don't have to explain, as you do in Europe, that you wouldn't vote for the man on a bet.

6. I don't mind the weather. Self-Styled Sirens are above caring about the weather, except insofar as it prevents us from wearing attractive shoes.

I hope to post more things to like about Toronto as soon as I discover them. Any day now, I'm sure.

And Let Me Edit the Books, Too

This week the Siren succumbed to a coffee-table volume, despite a recent vow to trim my book purchases: The Complete Book of Oscar Fashion: Variety's 75 Years of Glamour on the Red Carpet. What I discovered made me glad I got it for 70% off.

Gorgeous pictures fill this book, and many of the photos were new to me (not something I often encounter). Unfortunately, the text is atrocious. The warning bell rings on page 23, where actress Evelyn Venable (Death Takes a Holiday, Alice Adams) is identified in a caption as "Evelyn Wanable," leading me to wonder if wavishing Kay Fwancis wrote this thing from beyond the grave.

More howlers follow. The ermine tails adorning Natalie Wood's stole on page 53 are called "feathers," I guess from an unidentified but awfully furry bird. On page 79 we have a picture of Leslie Caron (who looks fantastic) as she "holds her Oscar high." I adore Caron, but since when did she win an Oscar?

Page 70: A picture of Cher arriving with Sonny at the 1968 ceremony says this "was probably the most covered up Cher has ever been at the Oscars." Fine, except that there are three pictures of a clearly more covered-up Cher at subsequent ceremonies. The author says that when Cher reached the podium to receive her Moonstruck Oscar, she took off the wrap concealing her famous outfit. She didn't. She took it off backstage for the press (and the picture in the book is obviously a press-room pose). At the podium she was still wrapped up.

While we're at it, can we lay off Cher's outfits, please? I love them. Look me in the eye and tell me you'd rather see Gwyneth in another princess dress than Cher in another wild Mackie creation. Cher defies the taste arbiters every time she steps out. For that we should thank her. Every feather headdress she wears strikes another blow for the right of other women to wear see-through-mesh-sequined thingys in front of a billion people. Jennifer Lopez, write Cher a thank-you note, pronto.

Back to the book, where the author makes many boring choices. Enough about Uma Thurman's lilac Prada (it did nothing for that famous figure) and there is just too much Audrey Hepburn. (More on that in another post.)

The bitchiness mars Oscar Fashion the most. On page 63 you have Joan Crawford, in a beautiful beaded sheath at the 1963 Oscars, described as "aging" and her necklace identified as "the same one she had worn to several ceremonies in the 1940s." Horrors! the same one? Imagine having a fabulously valuable diamond necklace and wearing it more than once. Call M. de Maupassant.

Shirley MacLaine's pink Oscar acceptance suit is charmingly characterized as a "shade favored by many Florida retirees." That's funny, it was favored by Nicole Kidman one year, too. We encounter the adjective "aging" again later, in reference to Ingrid Bergman. Note to fashion writers everywhere: We are all aging. Even you.

[Pause as the Siren delicately sidesteps a Conde Nast stampede to the plastic surgeon's office.]

All in all, go ahead and buy this book if you see it on the remainder table. But buy it for the pictures, not the insight.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Just Let Me Pick the Movies, Damn It

I, Campaspe, have spent much of my adult life trying to persuade people that everyone would be happier, saner, more discerning and all-around plain-old better off if they would just let me pick the video. Or the DVD. I spent so many years in the video store, pushing to rent Rules of the Game when my companion was determined to take out Batman Returns. This Self-Styled Siren is tired, tired, tired.

This blog of my own enables me to present my opinions on movie matters with no pesky reminders that the store is about to close. I can explain, in detail, just why the The Matrix is pretentious hokum, and why The Crowd is more daring than anything I have seen in the past decade. I need not hate any video renter; he cannot hurt me, or force me to watch Broken Arrow. I need not flatter any Netflix subscriber; I can write about Trouble in Paradise and leave him to his three-part epic about a bunch of goddamn elves.

Here are my plans. On bad days, I will write about things that irritate the bejesus out of me. I have many candidates. There's that "A List" gossip site, and why it nauseates me; the useles IMDB "250 Best" list; the contemptible attempts to whitewash the blacklist; why towering John Ford is so little appreciated these days; the silliness of saying "oh, he always played himself." I will also have days when the urge to vent about politics overtakes me. I may even post something personal.

On good days, I will write about the actors, directors, cinematographers, costumers, art directors and movies that I love. I may throw in a little fashion talk, and I am certain to write about books as well.

My tastes, and welcome to them.