Pandora’ Box Contains Flying Dutchman

DATELINE: Legends Collide in 1951 

Director Albert Lewin only made a handful of unusual movies: most of them lost money. He directed and produced too, and even adapted one of his own novels to film (The Living Idol). His most idiosyncratic and stunning movie was the stunning and stupefying Pandora and the Flying Dutchman.

Some critics called it “depressing,” which is like dismissing Hamlet for having a downbeat plotline. This film is now fully restored to gorgeous Technicolor—and it is hypnotic.

This film combined several legends about immortality and damnation. The Flying Dutchman was a sea captain doomed to travel on his ghost ship for centuries looking for redemption. Pandora opened a box of ills to the world, perhaps inadvertently.

When you cast brilliant James Mason as the Dutchman and Ava Gardner in her most beautiful as Pandora, you have something special. They are both at the tiptop of their youth and careers. The film is luscious, staggering in its Jack Cardiff color, lush, outrageous, and over the top in every way. Each scene is beyond anything normal.

When he is Humbert Humbert, Rommel, or the Flying Dutchman, James Mason delivers such a distinctive brand of stardom that he mesmerizes in every moment on screen. Gardner is tempestuous and infuriating, but totally watchable.

 

It takes place on the coast of Spain in 1930 when an American bon vivant (Ava) sees a mysterious yacht anchored in the bay. She is a vixen and monster, destroying men, until she meets Mason’s laconic legend.

Every scene is developed to meet the caricatures of the cast: you have the professor of antiquities who begins to discover Mason is immortal, and you have Marius Goring in a cameo as a drunken suitor of Gardner. You have a race car driver with reckless abandon, and a matador too full of bull.

With its flashbacks within flashbacks, it manages to provide a convoluted tale of 17thcentury fables and the rich of the 20thcentury at play.

How Lewin manages to cram all this beauty, brains, and fantasy into one movie is a marvel.

 

Every Act of Life: Terrence McNally

DATELINE: Surviving Show Business

 Terry McNally & Eddie Albee back when….

In all my connections to Broadway writers, Terrence McNally never came up much.

Now James Kirkwood would talk about everyone in show biz! We gossiped about them all. Yet, there is no memory of him mentioning McNally.

Oh, they knew of each other: gay writers winning friends in great theater. Kirkwood certainly knew Edward Albee who was McNally’s first important boyfriend, but McNally may have been too openly gay for Jim Kirkwood. It’s the only conclusion to make.

Every Act of Lifeis a documentary on the life of McNally who worked with every actor imaginable since the death of Jim Kirkwood in 1989, and that may be the survival of your reputation in show business. Richard Thomas, Nathan Lane, Rita Moreno, F. Murray Abraham, Angela Lansbury, all share memories of their careers and personal ties to McNally and his funny and varied plays.

All Jim’s closest actor friends, like Sal Mineo, are long gone. One young writer once said to me: “Wow, I didn’t think any of Kirkwood’s friends were still alive.”

McNally survived, though people like Robert Drivas, his tempestuous and exotic actor boyfriend after Albee, died of AIDS in 1985 in the first wave of notable show business deaths. Drivas was a closet case, and yet it was open and flamboyant McNally who still lives nearly forty years later.

There is no accounting for survival, but you have to admire it when it shows up at your door. The film on the life of McNally is likely a tonic and a fizz for gay people who need superior role models. If you die too soon, you can’t be much of a mentor. If Jim Kirkwood were here, I might say you should never have told me to write your autobiography and play coy about your gay life. Yet, he did.

McNally, had I known him, would never have said such a thing, but those plays and characters never quite grabbed like Jim Kirkwood’s creations.

Oh, it’s too late now to do much about it, but we can celebrate the life of Terrence McNally, albeit a tad on the late side.

 

Dr. William Russo wrote Riding James Kirkwood’s Pony, available in paperback and e-book on Amazon.

Edward Albee’s Balancing Act

Hepburn

DATELINE: Stars on Stage in American Film Theatre

Certain plays will never make it to film because the demographics are not right. It takes an act of superstars to pull it off.

Cable networks do yeoman work in bringing rare works to the screen, but in 1973 before anyone thought of cable, movies were still the purview of audiences that loved their grand stars.

One of the era’s lost masterpieces included the prestigious absurdist drama A Delicate Balance by Edward Albee. With its ponderous and literary dialogue, it might win a Pulitzer Prize, but it would lose the wider audience of film fans unless you made it a star-studded spectacle.

And so, Katharine Hepburn and Paul Scofield signed on as the well-to-do, educated couple Agnes and Tobias. Their multi-divorcee daughter could be played by Lee Remick. Their best friends, equally educated and rich, were Joseph Cotten and Betsy Blair. Throw in Kate Reid as the alcoholic sister of Hepburn, and you had an intriguing cast. And a plot that never pays off.

Alas, only Reid seemed to know how to handle the surreal dialogue with a deft touch. The others were all doing soap opera on afternoon network TV.

Yet, you must not miss it, even if you have to hang on to your No-Doze. This play was written in an era when literate playgoers could follow densely packed metaphors.

It seems long-time friends Harry and Edna (Cotten & Blair) show up suddenly on the doorstep of Hepburn and Scofield in a state of panic, terror, and fear. Of what we might ask? Old age? Loneliness? Or some other devil? Perhaps it does not matter as the absurdist interplay involves consideration of the depth of friendship.

To have your oldest, old friends decide to move into your home may be a bit much even for those who can afford it.

Though there are red herrings to indicate violence is around the corner and under the surface (murdering cats, mass killing of one’s family, and a loose gun in the hands of a hysterical woman), there really is no payoff that way.

Today, we’d be expecting a bloodbath. But, this is 1973 when theatre was not quite dead and not quite physical. That’s the delicate balance apparently.