Making Montgomery Clift

DATELINE: Extraordinary Film

The man who turned down the lead in Sunset Boulevard and East of Eden made it possible for other stars to have their great moments. Montgomery Clift played down his refusal to do those films, but we think he would have reached latitudes and heights later denied to him.

Monty Clift’s nephew Robert has made a biographical film documentary to correct decades of misinformation and misjudgments. It is better late than never and tries to address the legend that he was a self-hating, self-destructive homosexual.

The charges against Clift, salacious and mean-spirited, may have been vestiges of homophobia he constantly encountered, even from sadistic directors like John Huston (our late friend Jan Merlin who made List of Adrian Messenger with Huston confirmed this—and we have been dunned for saying it).

Robert Clift interviews those still around so many decades later—like Jack Larson (Superman’s Jimmy Olson) and his mother Eleanor Clift. They report Monty was a funny creative man with a giving personality. He was an actor and used life experiences all the time in his art.

Brooks Clift, Monty’s brother, collected and kept everything about his brother to the point of obsession and taped conversations. Yet, it was he who was duped into providing info that would disparage the man he most loved and admired in life.

Robert Clift is to be highly commended for sorting through all this data to give us a more balanced, kindest view. Robert was born long after his uncle died, and he does not have the benefit of a personal relationship. Yet, the trove of collectibles, never seen or heard, provide insights that might only come from sitting down with Monty.

Most people looked at his later performances as biography, not art. He loved being alive and enjoyed being artistic, but it was a world of cruelties and harsh realities.

This is a brilliant work, worth your time and should send you scurrying for any Montgomery Clift movie you can find.

Jan Merlin: Statuesque Among the Stars, 1925-2019

  Jan with his Emmy Award!

My co-author and most important literary collaborator has gone from this world.

Jan Merlin might be recognizable to a generation or two of film and TV fans as the villain who populated a hundred TV shows. He made movies with Ann Sheridan, George C. Scott, and Woody Allen. He starred in two 1950s TV series, The Rough Riders—and Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, with Frankie Thomas.

A veteran of the Navy in World War II, Jan went from the military during the big war to the Neighborhood Playhouse where he learned the craft of acting, though he had many talents. He always thought his acting fame was a lesser role. He was always the antagonist to some western star, or some dubious military man.

Yet, despite playing dastardly villains almost constantly, with his Aryan looks (Polish American out of New York City), he was a genteel man with a sense of art and brilliantly self-educated. Like a generation of those who were never able to attend college, he more than made up for it with a dozen books to his credit. He loved fiction—drawing  upon his movie background, or his experiences in Japan after the war.

Together we did a half-dozen books of which I am most proud. We did only one work of fiction, The Paid Companion of J. Wilkes Booth. Most of our Hollywood history tales were based on his insider knowledge of how a set work, from knowing nearly every star of the 1950s and 1960s. He laughed they were all “six feet tall,” no matter what the truth might be.

We wrote about Boys Town, Billy Budd, Reflections in a Golden Eye, among other films, giving a unique perspective on daily life during the studio shoot. He knew Brando, Taylor, Clift, James Dean, in ways that others could never understand. He threw James Dean out of the Pier Angeli house at her mother’s request.

When we did not write books together, he gave me editorial and research insights for my books on James Kirkwood and Audie Murphy. Oh, he knew them too.

Now he is gone, irreplaceable in my life and in Hollywood history, with all those insights and memories. He had stories he would not tell about the damaged figures of show business. He took those secrets with him, as much as I wanted to hear them. He was loyal to the memory of the business he loved and hated.

Once I called it ‘Tinseltown’, and he reprimanded me: it was a cherished professional location, not a frivolous tabloid fantasy to him. He introduced me as his “son” on occasion, which amused me–and made movie star Frankie Thomas look at me with quite an impression.

Goodbye, dear Jan. I am so lucky to have known you and to have worked with you. I have been left a treasure trove of his life, and maybe one day I will tell what he told me. He was my touchstone to a bygone era and glorious movie history.

Winter Kills an Assassination Plot

DATELINE:  Not Citizen Kane

Taylor as Madam Hollywood Miss Taylor, We Presume?

Richard Condon’s novel called Winter Kills, a roman a clef of the Kennedy Assassination, makes for one of the earliest of conspiracy theory movies. Winter Kills is by the man who wrote the Manchurian Candidate and Prizzi’s Honor.

Vincent Canby of the NY Times called it equal to Citizen Kane, but that seems a stretch. It is more akin to Oliver Stone’s JFK.

A stunning cast of cameos appear and disappear quickly. The opening credits are about as jaw-dropping as Murder on the Orient Express:  Jeff Bridges, John Huston, Anthony Perkins, Dorothy Malone, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Boone, Eli Wallach, and on and on.

How could it go wrong? Well, you can start by scratching your head over the notion that movie is billed as a tragic comedy.

The Kennedy murder in 1963 may be a comedy of errors in its commission and solution, but hardly a comedy.

The film takes the off-putting hints of conspiracy and gives them fake names:  Joe Diamond for Jack Ruby, etc.

Jeff Bridges is the young man (at his most attractive in 1979) who is the brother of an assassinated president who decides to solve the crime himself. In the meantime, conspirators are killing everyone around him. His attitude is bizarre, like someone has strung together unrelated scenes (blame goes to the director).

John Huston gives another irascible performance as the President’s father and Dorothy Malone is his mother.

The film predates the Internet but makes some intriguing theories that a master-programmed spy network of computers is following everyone as early as 1960. It is a stunning prediction on today’s world. That alone is gripping and clairvoyant.

All the usual suspects are present: Hollywood moguls, billionaires, crackpot businessmen, mobsters, Cubans, political hacks, the CIA, and on and on. We know the drill by now, but back in 1980, this was shocking. With more evidence now available, the theories here are standard conclusions today.

As for the movie, it is over-the-top and worth your attention. Not Citizen Kane, it is equal to Stone’s JFK.

 

 

 

 

 

Children of Giant: Mexican POV in Marfa

DATELINE: Unavoidable James Dean Strikes Again

Children of Giant Children of Giant!

If you know anything about our Hollywood history books on the story behind making movies, you know that we would be hot on the trail of George Stevens’ 1955 classic epic Giant. 

Made On location in Marfa, Texas, with Elizabeth Taylor as an early feminist in 1920s Texas, and Rock Hudson as the laconic cowpoke who owned Reata, a cattle ranch, you are overwhelmed with James Dean who stood out on the landscape,

However much the director wants to make this a movie about the Mexican discrimination in Texas, James Dean is there to steal the movie. He dominates everything in the fascinating film called Children of Giant.

Actor Earl Holliman is still around to give his perspective, and Jane Withers appears to have declined to participate.

Director Stevens’s son, notable Hollywood producer George Stevens, Jr., offers many insights. They say little about Dean.

It was the film James Dean died making. It was a Western that showed the yellow rose of Texas was a yellow streak of Jim Crow laws against Mexicans. The children loved him, and they saw him as someone special and caring.

Today Marfa’s racism almost seems quaint, next to the horrors being inflicted on Mexicans under Trump.

New York historical novelist Edna Ferber was spot on depicting wild cat billionaire Glenn McCarthy (aka Jett Rink in the movie and book). James Dean’s makeup and style mimics McCarthy in his late middle-age.

Dean is remembered fondly by the Mexican children and adults whom he befriended in Marfa, Texas. Indeed, if you are looking for stories about Dean’s public urination in front of town onlookers, or even the tale of Dean going after director Stevens in a fight over his performance, you will find only slight nods in that direction.

Yet, as a social history document about a social history movie, you could not find a more spot-on documentary. It features townsfolk giving their insights and sharing their unusual photos.

It is nirvana for a movie maven who delights in the behind-the-scenes activity. This little PBS documentary packs a wallop and a message from the children of Marfa in 1955. Unfortunately, James Dean is still the big draw. George Stevens and Edna Ferber could not avoid him then or now.

 Dr. William Russo wrote The Next James Dean, which is available as an ebook and print work on Amazon.

 

In from the Cold? Richard Burton

DATELINE: Portrait of Welsh Rare-bit

Burton & Hamlet Yorick with Burton!

Just a few years after his death in 1984, a comprehensive documentary biography of the great stage and film actor Richard Burton stands as the definitive word on his career and life. It is called, overly rococo, In from the Cold? Portrait of Richard Burton.

To put Elizabeth Taylor and two-time husband Burton into perspective, they were the Tom Brady and Giselle Bundchen of their era.

A poor Welsh boy, Richard Jenkins found success through his good looks and well-modulated voice. His legal guardian was Philip Burton who helped him achieve his initial goals.

Only later did he seem to sell his soul for international fame and money. It seems to have brought him emptiness and unhappiness.

Generous to a fault, he supported dozens of people with his film revenue. It underwrote some of his great stage work:  Camelot, Equus, Hamlet, and even Private Lives.

We see him playing Edwin Booth as Laurence Olivier as Richard III. Indeed, Olivier asked him whether he wanted to be a great stage actor or a rich movie star. He was both.

The film contains some fairly unflattering interviews with Lauren Bacall, Joe Mankiewicz, and Mike Nichols, who seem to trace his downfall to the soul-selling deal with Elizabeth Taylor. Indeed, the film uses clips from Virginia Woof, Faustus, Wagner, and the Spy Who Came in from the Cold, as biographical annotations on Burton’s predicament, in his own words. He is hoisted on the petard ruthlessly.

The man was far gentler than his righteous angry young man personality—and dissipated roue of later years.

If Elizabeth Taylor was his Waterloo and Watergate, he was complicit in the lifestyle. The film skips over a few morsels but stays away from trivia that might be too revealing. He did a guest bit on The Lucy Show to satirize his own character. He gave interviews in which he seems to be acting, or not. It is hard to tell.

To hear that grand voice again, and see those notorious news reel clips, is shocking to reveal how long he has been gone, and how much he is missed. There has never been a replacement—in movies, or the sad last years of Miss Taylor’s life.

Last Great Elizabeth Taylor Movie?

DATELINE:  Grand Taylor Horror!

 night watch Liz @ Her Best

By the time Elizabeth Taylor reached the end of her prime, she ditched Richard Burton. Her first theatrical movie without him, after 11 extraordinary teammate movies, including the notorious TV film Divorce His, Hers, was something called Night Watch from 1973.

Now streaming for the first time ever.

This is vintage Taylor:  extraordinary wardrobe, great hair, jewels to die for, and a svelte damsel Liz in distress.

Night Watch is a paranoid’s nightmare.

As the rich and disdainful Ellen with a swish of silver in her hair, she does jigsaw puzzles and entertains her girlhood friend (Billie Whitelaw) in indolent luxury. Her palacial home, unfortunately, is next to some abandoned, ramshackle mansion that seems haunted.

As she does a jigsaw of Bosch’s painting of Hell, she thinks she has seen a murder in a thunderstorm across the garden. Alas, police think she is bonkers, and her husband (Laurence Harvey) isn’t more helpful, trying to find an old psychiatrist to commit her.

Before you can say Gaslight, the old classic about a mad wife, you may have Hitchcock’s Suspicion on your hands. Perhaps too the director and writer saw Barbara Stanwyk’s chestnut called Night Walker.

It’s all in the horror/mystery family, though this one is definitely high-end in its hoots & laughs quotient.

All while she suffers, Taylor’s insanity is a joy to behold. The suspects line up from every direction: former dead husband, his lover, a smarmy neighbor, a hostile housekeeper, and even cavalier police.

Who wants to drive her crazy? Or is she actually seeing dead people?

As the drama grows more overwrought, the pay-off is way beyond anything Taylor fans could ever desire. We loved every cliché moment. The ending was considered a surprise shock by most fans. Marvelous.

 

 

From Dust to Ash Wednesday

DATELINE: MOVIE MASHUP

ash wednesday

 

Back in 1973 Elizabeth Taylor did a movie directed by Larry Peerce that Richard Burton hated and told her not to do. She did not listen, and they were divorced (again) shortly thereafter.

The movie was Ash Wednesday about a fat, aging rich matron (Taylor) who undergoes plastic surgery and emerges as thin, beautiful, stunning Elizabeth Taylor, up to her shoulders in mink, jewels, and a bon vivant lifestyle.

For starters the movie begins with a montage of Taylor and her husband Henry Fonda in youth (early photoshopping of the two stars) as lovers, friends, and then married. The photos slowly reveal Fonda growing older and then Taylor growing fatter.

We have to give Miss Taylor credit for poking fun at her own image. All this suffering happens to a gorgeous, sensitive and delightful film score by Maurice Jarre.

Taylor is also done up in early scenes with plenty of wrinkles and weight. She looks like she was doing a reprise of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

The movie used actual scenes of plastic surgery, which put people off their popcorn back then. It is still mildly gross to see, and then Elizabeth is wrapped up like Claude Rains in the Invisible Man.

However, the transformation is stunning—and delightful. She expects to reveal herself to her old hubby Fonda as the beautiful girl he married. Therein lies the tale.

A year later Fonda actually did undergo surgery and took 25 years off his face. He then did Once Upon a Time in the West and played himself as a 25-year old villain in flashback scenes.

Who says movies don’t reflect real life?

This is a gem, but only available on VHS. Why? It deserves a wide audience on streaming video. We hooted audibly several times.

Johnny Weir Skates on Thin Ice

DATELINE: MARRYING KINDS

Image

Johnny Weir wants a divorce.

Well, who could blame him? Biting his spouse Victor Voronov, a  would-be Russian lawyer, was distasteful, which seems a tautology at best and an oxymoron at worst, and has proven to be unappetizing for the public that follows him on Facebook.

Johnny married his Russian boyfriend in a twittery and glittery world of social media. Their abusive relationship may be setting gay marriage about as far back as the Battling Burtons set back marriage 40 years ago.

In case you missed it, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were violators of the sanctity of marriage back in the 1960s. After they died, Hollywood started making movies about them (we rather enjoyed Helena Bonham Carter’s Liz).

So, we presume in a decade or two, we shall be casting the roles of Johnny and Victor for the docudrama of queens.

Soap opera-style lives and dirty laundry seem to go together. If it isn’t Dallas, it must be Moscow.

Weir insists that his husband was not a kept boy, but the old barrister never worked once Johnny married him and supported him. We haven’t heard about such shenanigans since Lana Turner’s daughter allegedly killed her non-working thug boyfriend in a scandal that set marriage back again.

All in all, marriage seems to be traditional fodder for misery and jokes, television shows and historical epics.

We commiserate with Johnny Weir, but would recommend that once his divorce is final, he stay single for a while. However, the crime of marriage is usually serial in nature.

Austin Collie Leads a Dog’s Life with the Patriots

DATELINE: HUMOR!

 LIZ Taylor & Austin Collie

Miss Taylor and Austin Collie

Not since Elizabeth Taylor lost her mind and her pooch in Lassie Go Home has a Collie been back and forth to a new owner as often.

Yes, that proverbial dog of a catcher, Austin Collie, is back with the Patriots for another week.

This collie seems unwanted. No sooner does he come home than Bill Belichick sends him back to the doghouse in the land of Nod, somewhere east of Eden.

Maybe Collie is not housebroken and has messed up in the locker room. We certainly have not seen much of him heeling on the field.

The other famous collie could perform miracles and even rise from the dead in endless sequels. This Collie seems unable to perform the most basic of Gronk replacement tricks, like roll over and spike the ball.

Yes, he has been on the PUP list. Where else do you expect to find a Collie?

The media has hit him on the snout once too often with their misprinted newsprint. No wonder the Wonder Dog is on again and off again.

Belichick keeps calling for Astro, but his boy Austin shows up instead.

We suggest that Austin Collie change his name to Boston Collie in order to find his way out of the Belichick doghouse. It would be even better if he changed his name to Boston Terrier.

Of course, what can we expect? It’s a bye week and all the hounds are howling.

 

 

No Private Lives for Taylor and Burton

 DATELINE: MOVIE MASHUP!

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The Battling Burtons as depicted by Helena Bonham Carter and Dominic West

The second TV movie of the year hit the small screen with all the impact of a million dollar star of yesteryear shrunk appropriately.

After the Lindsay Lohan version of a woman who had a true sense of literature, who knew what film acting entailed, and had a theatrical sense about life, we now have the Helena Bonham Carter version of Elizabeth Taylor at 50.

This one focuses upon her grand passion: Richard Burton (Dominic West). The stars are at a more mature point in life and were to do Noel Coward’s Private Lives. He had recommended it to them, but Taylor didn’t come up with the idea again until 1983. Coward really did have them in mind and told Taylor and Burton it was written for them in 1930 without ever having met them.

Carter and West seem like they are playing a real life version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. And, in reality that movie epitomized them—and so art imitated art imitating the Battling Burtons. Carter feared she would look like a female impersonator in Taylor costumes, but her fears were unfounded.

This version makes us nostalgic again for their larger than life talents and movies. We saw them on stage in Private Lives all those many years ago, and they were magnificent—though critics disparaged them.

Burton died shortly thereafter, and they never filmed a movie version of the play. This little motion picture comes about as close as one can. We almost wished that Carter and West simply had put on Private Lives as Burton and Taylor.

The movie took us back in time and made us sentimental for the old days. It may not have that effect on younger audiences, but this is the second biographical movie we have anticipated this year (Behind the Candelabra is the other).

View it as a pale shadow of the real thing and think wistfully of how the titans of that age are now gone. Burton and Taylor was a lovely trip down memory lane.

 

 

 

 

 

RIDING JAMES KIRKWOOD’S PONY

Jim Kirkwood told me much about the story behind his first autobiographical novel THERE MUST BE A PONY, and many years after his passing, I gathered together my notes and wrote what he told me. The result was a book called RIDING JAMES KIRKWOOD’S PONY.

I may not tell all the secrets of James Kirkwood, but I reveal all he wanted me to tell. When the television movie came out, he referred to the stars as Robert Wagon and Elizabeth Trailer. Suffice it to say, he was unhappy with the movie.