Friday, February 21, 2014

Stars Who Sing

Back in the halcyon days of the Hollywood studio system, stars were required not only to act but to be able to sing and dance credibly if the role required. Today, some actors still retain the gift for all-around entertaining (Hugh Jackman being a primary example), but there are also those who went into the recording studio only once or a couple of times to reveal their heretofore undiscovered talents, for better or worse.

By way of full disclosure, I own original vinyl versions of all of the records mentioned in this post. Hey, what can I say? It's Weird Movie Village, Jake.

In 1966, Mae West decided to get groovy with an album of current rock hits. Of course, she'd been an established singer on film, on stage and in Las Vegas forever, so it's not so big a leap, but what makes this album so hilarious is her take on the material. Even the Beatles were not safe.

The rock and roll has been slo-o-o-o-wed down for the 73 year old, but she still sounds a bit sweaty when performing covers of "Twist and Shout" and "Shakin' All Over." And you really don't want to think about the septuagenarian actress's spasms of ecstasy when she sings "You Turn Me On." My favorite track on the album is "Day Tripper" (which she pronounces as "trippah"). She tries to add some salaciousness to the lyrics and throws in some of her trademark "oohs." Of course, her real indignity still lay ahead with Myra Breckenridge and — oh God — Sextette, in which the 84-year-old drooled over bodybuilders in Speedos.

Speaking of legends, Bette Davis hit a rough patch after running away screaming from Warner Bros. to become a freelancer in 1949 and her sensational Margo Channing in All About Eve amazingly failed to restart her career. When Broadway beckoned in 1952, she responded. Unfortunately, what she responded to was a musical revue called "Two's Company."

It had a roster of A-list talent behind it — Jules Dassin, Ogden Nash, Horton Foote — but the songs are just wretched. Perhaps if you were able to see the sketches along with the numbers, it might've helped, but today we have no way of ascertaining that.

Bette's certainly game, speak-singing her way through the show, but horrible lyrics like "You can find your Shangri-La without a bra" are just groanworthy and not even campy in an awful way. In "Just Turn Me Loose on Broadway," she misses more notes than she hits as she sings:

Give me four boys to dance with
Hoofers who twist and twirl
Just turn me loose on old Broadway
To be a musical comedy...not melodramedy
Musical comedy GIRL!

(And yes, she pronounces "girl" as "gull.") You just feel sorry for her. Reportedly she worked her ass off, too. Ticket sales were brisk thanks to curiosity seekers and New York's entire gay community, but she kept having collapses and breakdowns, eventually shutting down the show entirely. Maybe she realized it was total crap, too, and wanted to leave with at least a modicum of dignity intact.

When Anthony Perkins took the role of Norman Bates in Psycho, it was a curse and a blessing. Before the 1960 Hitchcock classic, he'd been a matinee idol in such films as Friendly Persuasion, The Matchmaker and Tall Story, a basketball comedy with Jane Fonda.

Post-Psycho, the characters he was most frequently offered were homicidal, suicidal and otherwise screwed up. Some were good (Pretty Poison) but some were just terrible (Mahogany). His decline was marked by a terrific performance in an insane Ken Russell film (Crimes of Passion) and, regrettably, the bluntly-titled Edge of Sanity, made just three years before his death from AIDS, in which he played a diseased, kinky Mr. Hyde.

The stage gave Perkins the opportunity to retreat from Norman's shadow. He appeared in a musical, Greenwillow, and took the role of Dr. Dysart in Equus. Strangest of all was his performance in Evening Primrose, a 1966 musical produced for television, with songs by Stephen Sondheim, with whom he'd go on to write a 1973 mystery movie, The Last of Sheila.

But back in the late '50s, he was still in his Tab Hunter-style boy toy phase and released a few albums, including From My Heart. His voice is pleasant enough; still, it's a novelty to hear Norman sing. He does "The More I See You," "Too Marvelous for Words," Swinging on a Star" and my favorite track, "Ole Buttermilk Sky." The musical accompaniment was by Urbie Green and His Orchestra, who also accompanied Billie Holiday for her excellent Lady in Satin.

Sissy Spacek won the Academy Award for her portrayal of Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner's Daughter (1980), so an album of country songs should've come as no surprise.

And it's actually a fine album. She covers Hank Williams' "Honky Tonkin'," performs one of her own compositions and another one co-written with Lynn. Yes, this is hat-slappin' on-thigh, yee-haw country — one song is called "This Time I'm Gonna Beat You To the Truck" — but it's fun and she sounds great.

 Spacek started out singing and playing guitar in Greenwich Village coffeehouses in the 1960s (Carrie was a little folkie?!?) and even recorded a song, "John, You've Gone Too Far This Time" in 1968, under the pseudonym Rainbo. It was about the outrage caused over John and Yoko's banned frontal nude album cover for Two Virgins.

The name Walter Brennan may not mean much to audiences today, but he was a beloved character actor whose career spanned nearly 50 years and garnered three Academy Awards. As I said, you may not know the name, but if you imagine someone saying "Consarn it!", it's his voice you're hearing in your head.

Anyhow, he actually cut several albums, all done in the "talk-singing" style also favored by nonsingers Rex Harrison and William Shatner. One of them, Our Presidents — A Musical Biography of Our Chief Executives — must've been a real hoot, considering he was a hard-right conservative.

I have Mama Sang a Song, released in 1962, which'll have you overdosing on whimsy with the first track. Unfortunately, the album has ten more. In one song, "Houdini," he's singing to a fish:

So, swim Houdini
Whilst I close my eyes
Cause you and me's friends 

Now you ain't no fool
And neither am I and one day
I might pull you in

No, you ain't no fool
And neither am I and one day
I might pull you in
Ha ha ha ha ha ha

Now imagine these lyrics being "sung" by Yosemite Sam in a mellow mood, and you're getting there. And give the cackle at the end just the right touch of senile dementia. Hilarious.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Nephew of Great Performances

It's been a while since we've had a post celebrating some truly terrific performances in film, so here we go. In honor of Stockard Channing's birthday (February 13th), let's start off with...Stockard Channing!

In Grease (1978), the high school musical with the oldest students in film history, Channing was the most senior in the cast at age 33. Nevertheless, her Betty Rizzo is the liveliest, most fully-formed character in the film, especially when compared to the less-experienced Olivia Newton-John's rather wooden performance. Ah, she was too pure to be pink.

Lusty and free-spirited, Rizzo represented rock 'n roll in a 1950s postwar world that was still white bread and Pat Boone. When Danny Zucco (John Travolta) tells her to bite the weenie, she replies, "With relish," and the deliciously nasty tongue she sticks out says it all. Most of the characters in Grease are cartoons — and they're meant to be — but Riz is a fully-realized character with recognizably human vulnerabilities.

Lines like "I'm gonna get my kicks while I'm still young enough to get 'em" are funny today for different reasons, but she throws herself so completely into the role that it's irresistible. Who else could have pulled off the song "There Are Worse Things I Could Do" like Channing? Of course, in the ensuing decades, she's conquered all media, winning Tonys, Emmys and SAG Awards, but she still speaks fondly about ol' Riz.

I was doing some research online to refresh my memory about Grease and noticed that the formerly PG-rated film has been re-rated as PG-13. Strange in this day of instant internet porn that Paramount would resubmit it to the ratings board for a more restrictive designation. As Riz herself would say, "Some people are so touchy." Maybe they had to do it to get the DVD into Wal-Mart.

The late, great Peter O'Toole appeared in some of film history's most acclaimed films (Lawrence of Arabia, The Lion In Winter) as well as some real turkeys (Caligula, Troy), but my favorite O'Toole role can be found in Richard Benjamin's charming My Favorite Year (1982), a golden-hued tribute to the exciting early days of live television in New York.

Benjy Stone (Mark Linn-Baker) is an eager young pup getting his first big break as a junior writer for the King Kaiser Variety Show (a nod to Sid Caesar's "Your Show of Shows"). He is thrilled to hear that his childhood idol, swashbuckling star Alan Swann (O'Toole) is announced to be the guest star on the following week's show. They run footage from Swann's films in the writer's room, and as Benjy excitedly announces the titles of each clip (Captain from Tortuga!), the hilariously cynical head writer (Maude's Bill Macy) retorts: "Captain from Crap"!

But when Swann arrives completely plastered and immediately passes out on the writers' table, Kaiser (Joe Bologna) is appalled and demands that he be replaced. Benjy pleads the formerly great star's case, promising to serve as Swann's babysitter day and night, assuring Kaiser that he'll be sober and in top form for the show.

In a film full of wonderful performances (Baker, Bologna, Macy, Lainie Kazan), O'Toole pulls out all the stops with a character meant to be a parody of Errol Flynn — but it also mocks his own reputation as a hard-drinking gadabout. Memorable scenes include: Swann taking a horse for a joyride in Central Park; going to Brooklyn to meet Benjy's family; and taking his bow after triumphantly overcoming his fear of performing on live television. And when he takes a secret trip to the suburbs to see his young daughter, but doesn't even have the nerve to get out of the car when he sees her coming out of her house, it's a wonderfully poignant moment.

O'Toole later played a wreck of himself again in 2006's Venus. As faded actor Maurice Russell, his career is long over and he's reduced to playing bit parts. When he describes playing a corpse in a television show to his still-beloved ex-wife (Vanessa Redgrave), she utters one word: "Typecasting!" as only Redgrave can.

One of the strangest actors in the business, Crispin Glover really brought it as the star of Willard (2003). As the socially inept, mother-dominated Willard Stiles, he only has a job because the manufacturing company his father built was taken over by Frank Martin (R. Lee Ermey) with the promise that Willard would remain employed.

At his creepy, rundown mansion awaits Mother — a hideous, needy crone (the one-of-a-kind Jackie Burroughs) who surely must've been what Norman Bates saw when he looked at his mother's fossilized corpse in Psycho.

Mother orders Willard to set traps for the multitude of rats inhabiting their decaying mansion, but he  befriends and begins to train them instead. When Mom dies and Martin fires the hapless misfit, he sends his rodents out on a revenge mission.

Glover takes big chances with this role, pushing it to the absolute end — and his choices work. A couple of examples:

The morning after he'd sent his pals into Martin's garage to chew through his expensive car's tires and his boss storms into the office in a fury after having to take the subway, Willard opens his desk drawer to gaze affectionately at his beloved rat Socrates, closes his eyes and whispers "So good." And at his mother's funeral, when he's confronted by the family attorney who advises him to sell the house and start over, Glover goes completely bonkers, blubbering and shrieking, snot pouring out of his nose. "How can I start over?" he screams. "I'm practically done!" It's really terrific.

Bruce Davison, who played Willard in the original, was blonde, tousle-haired and cherubic, which made his crossing over to the dark side even more shocking. Glover's take on the character is straight out of the Addams Family, but his interpretation is abetted by solid support from the screenplay and art direction, as if time has been standing still in this particular place since the 1940s. Davison even has an amusing cameo as Willard's late father as seen in portraits around the house.

Glover made a great music video to promote the film, performing a cover of Michael Jackson's "Ben" with the horrifically gigantic rat that played Ben. I wonder if it got residuals.


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