Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Playing By Their Own Rules


The world of film is full of fascinating eccentrics. They choose offbeat material, project distinctive screen personalities, and are a hell of a lot of fun to watch. Here are some of my choices:

New York actress Sylvia Miles started her career in episodic television, but her brief, Oscar-nominated turn as the pampered Park Avenue wife who sleeps with wannabe hustler Jon Voight—and then takes money from him!—in John Schlesinger's 1969 Academy Award-winner Midnight Cowboy started her on a career trajectory during which she has moved from mainstream to offbeat with ease.

Her roles in Cowboy and Dennis Hopper's troubled The Last Movie (1971) surely must have brought her to the attention of Andy Warhol's Factory, and she played the faded actress opposite Joe Dallesandro's gigolo in Paul Morrissey's Sunset Boulevard pastiche, Heat (1972). She was memorable in the bizarre and somewhat repugnant The Sentinel (1977), playing half of a Sapphic couple with a young Beverly D'Angelo. She was also fun as Madame Zena, the sleazy fortune teller in Tobe Hopper's 1982 The Funhouse, who manually...ahem...relieves and then is murdered by the deformed killer who lives under an amusement park. On the other hand, she was in the Robert Mitchum classic Farewell, My Lovely and the Agatha Christie all-starrer Evil Under the Sun. Hell, she's even done soap operas and an Afterschool special!

With her hard features and Noo Yawk rasp, Miles makes for quite an imposing figure, yet she is also capable of projecting a kind of motherly warmth. And can you imagine her as Sally Rogers in "The Dick Van Dyke Show"? She was in the pilot! Her latest film appearance is in this year's sequel to Wall Street, reprising the role she'd played in the original.

And I love her line in Cowboy when Voight hits her up for money after they have sex:

"I could kill ya wid my beah hands!"

Here's a clip from Heat with another bizarre character from the Factory, Pat Ast:

Born in England but educated in Toronto, Jackie Burroughs turned premature aging into an asset, building a career out of playing eccentric old ladies even when she was in her thirties. One early credit is "old lady at pool" in 1975's My Pleasure Is My Business (starring "Happy Hooker" Xaviera Hollander)—and she was only 36! She played Christopher Walken's mother in David Cronenberg's underrated adaptation of Steven King's The Dead Zone and had a long run in the Canadian series "Road to Avonlea."

I love her performance as whorehouse owner Mother Mucca in Showtime's "More Tales of the City" and "Further Tales of the City," in which she is reunited with her long-lost son who is now her daughter (Olympia Dukakis). Her mannerisms and expressions are hilarious. Sure, she's hamming it up, but it's Grade-A ham.

In Don McKellar's Last Night (1998), whose characters collide while awaiting the end of the world, she has no dialogue but plays a jogger determinedly running down the abandoned streets of Toronto. She was also paired memorably with Crispin Glover in the remake of Willard (2002). Both are extremely eccentric performers, and the scenes of Willard ministering to his repulsive mother are suitably shuddery. The shots of her thick yellow toenails are...ewww.

Burroughs was married to Zalman Yanovsky, co-founder of the sixties group The Lovin' Spoonful! And her strangest credit? She was in three episodes of "The All New Ewoks" in 1985!

Best known for her work with John Waters, Mink Stole has done films for other directors, but it's three of the Waters films that make her a beloved resident of Weird Movie Village.

Of course, her Connie Marble in 1972's Pink Flamingos is a study in over-the-top efficiency and rigidity, even when she's calling her butler a queen or telling a job applicant to eat shit. The "shrimping" scene with David Lochary is hilarious, but too often the film is cold and mean-spirited, something Waters doesn't do too well. He was out to shock with this piece, though, so I guess it's a success.

Far better is my favorite Waters film, Female Trouble (1974) in which Stole plays Taffy, the incredibly bratty daughter of Divine's criminal Dawn Davenport. The result of a Christmas morning rape, it seems that Taffy was put on this earth to torture her mother endlessly. She likes to play "car wreck" in the living room by twisting a detached steering wheel, making collision sounds and dousing herself with ketchup.

At one point, exasperated Dawn tells her girlfriends, "I've done everything a mother can do—I've locked her in her room, I've beat her with the car aerial. Nothing changes her. It's hard being a loving mother. Taffy goes in search of her birth father (played by Divine's alter ego, Harris Glenn Milstead!) and she kills him when he attempts to rape her, too.

Taffy seemingly finds inner peace by joining the Hare Krishnas, but it only serves to drive Dawn completely over the edge and she is murdered, too. Keep in mind that this is a comedy, though—and a hilarious one, too!

Stole got her first starring role in Waters' next film, Desperate Living (1977), playing the kind of role she specialized in: high-strung, officious and arrogant. She plays a rich housewife, Peggy Gravel, who must flee with her enormous maid Grizelda (Jean Hill) after they inadvertently kill her husband. They end up in the town of Mortville, which is full of sexual deviates and ruled by evil Queen Carlotta (Edith Massey). Peggy is horrified by all the sleaze, but soon finds herself in bed with Grizelda in a sex scene you will never forget.

Peggy's evil side emerges, and she becomes Queen Carlotta's malevolent sidekick, planning to infect the entire citizenry with rabies as a way of quelling an upcoming revolution. My favorite scene occurs when Peggy realizes in horror that she's in a dyke bar and rushes to the safety of the ladies' room, only to see a pair of enormous breasts pop through twin glory holes cut into the stall.

Stole's last great and sizable role for Waters (so far) is Dottie Hinkle, the high-strung neighbor of Beverly Sutphin (Kathleen Turner) in Serial Mom (1994). Turner is a scream in the starring role, making you wish she'd do more offbeat material like this. She's a seemingly normal, happy housewife who takes affront to her neighbors' violations of social rules which escalates into murder. She enjoys making obscene phone calls to Dottie in the afternoon when the husband and kids are away, and after a particularly obscene (and hilarious) rant which climaxes in Dottie screaming "Fuck YOU!" and slamming down the receiver, Beverly calls back and pretends to be a phone company representative. Relieved, Dottie says, "I'm a divorced woman. Please help me!" Later, when they're visiting at a neighbor's house, Beverly leans over to Dottie and growls "pussy-willow," making her realize who the caller's been all along.

When Dottie must take the stand during Beverly's murder trial, Beverly twists her words until Dottie can't stand it anymore and loses it in front of the entire courtroom. I have to say that although I enjoy Pecker and Cecil B. Demented, Serial Mom is Waters' last great film. But I know he's not done yet!

Enjoy the courtroom scene. Lots of nasty language, though:

1 comment:

Russell Adams said...

Three outstanding choices! I have thoroughly enjoyed the work of Miles and Burroughs, but Mink Stole is a special favorite - because I met her. (very cool!)


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