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Mommie Dearest (1981)
It got a bad rap, and Dunaway was robbed
I saw this movie the first night it opened in Las Vegas in 1981. The large theater was packed, SRO. What may come as a surprise today, the film was received seriously by the audience, who sat transfixed throughout. I don't recall inappropriate laughter (well, maybe a muted laugh or two when little Christina said "Jesus Christ" at the end of the wire hanger scene), and I remember hearing favorable comments from people around me, although many were horrified by the depictions of child abuse.
Unfortunately, the movie did not live up to the high expectations at the box office. After all, it was based on a best-selling book that sold 4 million copies in hard cover alone.
A few weeks later, Mommie Dearest was re-released and was being advertised as a campy movie in the vein of Rocky Horror, and patrons were urged to bring wire hangers to the theater. The studio turned against its own movie in order to milk more money out of it. That's a shame, because Faye Dunaway gave the performance of her life and deserved an Academy Award nomination, if not the award.
Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell (1968)
Gina's a delight in this '60s screwball comedy
Former sex goddess Gina Lollobrigida is a gorgeous 40ish redhead in this screwball comedy set in Italy in 1968.
La Lollo plays the mother of the lovely Janet Margolin, whose American soldier father was supposedly killed during World War II. The thing is, Gina isn't sure who the father was, since she was friendly with three soldiers at the time, (played by Peter Lawford, Phil Silvers and Telly Savalas), and all are very much alive. Each of the three thinks he is the father and has been financially supporting the girl in secret for over 20 years. Trouble and hilarity ensue when the three men and their wives return to the Italian village for an Army reunion, and Gina has to juggle all six of them while keeping her daughter from finding out the truth.
It's a funny script that hearkens back to Hollywood's great screwball comedies, with especially good jobs from Silvers and Savalas and Shelley Winters and Lee Grant as their wives. But it's Gina who steals the show with her glamorous mugging.
Bachelor in Paradise (1961)
Worth a look at back when
Bob Hope plays a worldly writer whose specialty is the sexual practices of Europeans. He is called back to the U.S. from his home on the French Riviera after his business manager takes off with his money, leaving him with back taxes to pay. His editor (played by the delightfully droll John McGiver) assigns him to write a book about the sexual practices of American suburbanites and places him in a tract house in a new Southern California subdivision. There, Hope meets the glamorous Realtor Lana Turner, who has given up on men, and the wacky pre-feminist wives and mothers who are his neighbors. Romance and troubles follow to a predictable ending.
This is escapist humor at its purest, produced at a time when Americans faced a world on the brink of nuclear war. Filmed on location, it also provides a fascinating look at the culture of the time, making you wish you were living then amid the Atomic Age architecture. Dig those compact tract homes in California coral and aquamarine, that far-out supermarket with the giant windows in front, that snappy diner with the carhops, that chic barbecue restaurant where they serve shrimp cocktails, ribs and gibsons al fresco! (I wish I knew where it was filmed).
The first hour is great, with quirky comic turns by Paula Prentiss as the kooky young wife next door, Janis Paige as the sexy divorcée on the make and Reta Shaw as the overbearing neighborhood snoop. Unfortunately, the second half drags down with some kind of plot about artistic freedom. Bob Hope grows more grating as it goes along, and most of the action moves inside to studio sets.
Still, it's a nice trip back to 1961.
Gloria Grahame steals the show
She's just a girl who can't say no, but Oklahoma! would've been far less without her. Gloria Grahame is not given enough credit for her spunky turn as the easy farm girl Ado Annie in the movie, which she saves from being just another overblown Hollywood spectacle of a classic Broadway musical. She didn't get a deserved Academy Award nomination, but at least she got second billing.
Eddie Albert as the peddler is the only other actor who comes close to Grahame's spontaneity. The two of them together are the best part of the movie.
Unfortunately, the other actors tend to get lost in the Cinemascopic, Stereophonic, Technicolor scenery. Even the delightful Charlotte Greenwood as Aunt Eller is just a shadow of herself. The two leads, lovely Shirley Jones and white-bread Gordon MacRae, have strong voices, and they're great as long as they're singing.
The Glass Bottom Boat (1966)
A delight for fans of Alice Pearce, Paul Lynde, Edward Andrews, et al
This fast and wild James Bond spoof is not the usual Doris Day bedroom comedy of the 60s. It's different in that it has a bevy of talented comic actors in supporting roles, who all have their moments to shine.
Paul Lynde in drag is sublime. He looks spectacular in a red bouffant wig and aquamarine satin gown, and is even more glamorous than Doris. They have a "powder room" scene that is hilarious slapstick.
Alice Pearce recreates her Gladys Kravitz-type character from "Bewitched" and is wonderful as usual. It's her last movie role, unfortunately, as she died too young.
A young Dom DeLuise has a funny scene that he does in pantomime. Dick Martin shows up with some good reaction takes, and the great character actor Edward Andrews is also in fine blustering form.
The stars, Doris and Rod Taylor, are quite appealing, although looking a bit too mature for their fluffy romance.
Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)
Hack... Hack, Sweet Hasbeen
Faded Southern belle Charlotte Hollis lives in depression and loneliness in her family's Louisiana plantation house, still distraught over the axe murder of her married lover 40 years earlier, a bloody killing that she was accused of doing. When the state condemns her home to put in a new highway, she defiantly refuses to leave, with a shotgun. When her long-lost Yankee cousin Miriam arrives to help, heads start to roll, literally.
Although not a sequel to Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, it was conceived as a vehicle to reteam Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. And the story is similar in that the parts were written as Crazy Bette and Phony Joan (as Davis put it). Too bad Davis drove Crawford off the picture. (For details read "Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud" by Shaun Considine). It would've been great to see them do battle again, this time with Crawford having the upper hand.
Still, I enjoy "Charlotte" more than "Jane." For one thing, it has the delightfully grotesque Agnes Moorehead acting like Quasimodo as Charlotte's screwy ally/servant Velma. She steals every scene she's in (and an Oscar nomination), and I'm surprised Davis allowed it.
It's also nice to see sweet-faced Olivia DeHavilland cast against type as Miriam. She handles herself quite well, and god knows it couldn't have been easy for her. When Crawford heard that she was out and DeHavilland was in, she ranted against Davis and director Robert Aldrich in the press, but cooed, "I'm happy for Olivia, she needs a good movie role." Ouch. And after the picture was completed, Queen Bette said Olivia "was good at keeping the audience's attention while I'm off screen." With friends like her....
By the way, there is a long shot of Crawford still in the movie. Look for it when "Miriam" gets out of the taxi after arriving at the plantation house. That's actually the back of Joan's head, not Olivia's.
Marie Antoinette (1938)
Rediscovering Norma Shearer
As a young actress still in her 20s, Norma Shearer was hailed as the First Lady of MGM, and she reigned as queen of the studio throughout the 1930s. For about two decades after early retiring in 1942, she was fondly remembered by fans and critics, but slowly she was forgotten. Then in the early 70s, antagonistic film critic Pauline Kael, grudge-holding MGM rival Joan Crawford and others took delight in trashing her, usually with the implication that Norma's greatest talent was finding a powerful husband (Irving Thalberg). Unfortunately, those unfair remarks carried great weight since Shearer's movies were unavailable on video and rarely shown on TV.
We're now able to see her talent for ourselves, thanks largely to Turner Classic Movies, and Norma Shearer's star is rising again.
If you've never seen a Shearer movie, Marie Antoinette is a good beginning. It is one of Hollywood's great epics of the 1930s, with lavish costumes and scenery, and its historic setting holds up well. Shearer plays the doomed French queen from teenager to the Guillotine, and the final scenes as she awaits death in prison are among the finest of her career.
In recent years, Shearer has gained new respect for her silent films, in which she was one of the most accomplished young actresses of the era. Two standouts are Lady of the Night and A Lady of Chance, in which she plays "worldly" women with a sly wit. She was not a typical ingénue, and you can see why sophisticated audiences of the time were enchanted by her.
Marjorie Morningstar (1958)
Gentle coming-of-age drama that is now an interesting period piece
Natalie Wood's star quality shines in this rather weak adaptation of Herman Wouk's poignant novel about a young New York Jewish girl trying to break into show business in the 1950s. As Marjorie, Wood's acting is ... well, wooden ... but her beauty and intelligent eyes hold your interest.
Handsome Gene Kelly is miscast as Marjorie's unhappy, older love interest, but his dance numbers are a highlight. Good performances come from Claire Trevor as Marjorie's confused but understanding mother, and Carolyn Jones as Marjorie's kooky but tragic best friend. Ed Wynn appears in one of his last movies in a too-obvious role designed to wring out the most in laughter and tears. He's effective, but he deserved better.
It's a great look at the '50s and what appears to be the last innocent time of America. It's a gentle look at New York City and life at a little summer theater in the Catskills. Was the world ever this way? It's nice to think so, at least.
The Trouble with Angels (1966)
A tour de force for Hayley Mills, the most gifted juvenile actress of her generation. She makes the contrived material about adolescent escapades in a Catholic girls' boarding school look believable. It's a rarity for a Hollywood comedy to show a teenage girl who is intelligent and sensitive, and director Ida Lupino should be applauded for it.
The movie is also notable for the best latter-career work of high-strung movie star Rosalind Russell, who gives a restrained performance for a change as the Mother Superior. She has quite a few arched eyebrows, however.
Watch for a rare cameo by the great Burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee, who is hilarious as a risqué instructor of dance and ladylike comportment.
Elvis Meets Nixon (1997)
Eccentric and funny
Bob Gunton's performance as Richard Nixon is astounding. He gives a humorous characterization of the man, yet shows the sadness of a personality racked with deep-rooted demons. His body twists and turns with emotional pain and paranoia. His performance puts to shame Anthony Hopkins and that turgid "Nixon" movie.
Rick Peters is good but not great as Elvis, mainly because he's unable to capture the Elvis magnetism. But Peters is able to capture Elvis' naive, childlike quality: Just an ignorant country boy lost in the world.
Although not historically accurate, the satire is based on a real-life meeting between Elvis and Nixon at the White House. The script is first rate and captures the times well. It provides keen insights into Elvis' entourage, father, Priscilla and the chaotic life at Graceland, and Nixon's corrupt White House run by Bob Haldeman. It's perhaps the most entertaining movie about Elvis ever made, and the only one I'd sit through again.