Three Strikes: A Dirty Shame, When Will I Be Loved, Broadway: The Golden Age

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John Waters’ A Dirty Shame and James Toback’s When Will I Be Loved are both horrible movies in utterly dissimilar ways.

I didn’t have high hopes for the Waters, but I did have low hopes. Even these were dashed. There’s one mildly amusing bit at a senior citizens’ home that recalls a Hairspray dance, but mostly A Dirty Shame wallows in tedious gags that are meant to hark back to Waters’ Pink Flamingos. The first hour of the movie last about two hours; after another 20 minutes, I looked at the screen less and less. When the first vomit joke splattered, there wasn’t a laugh to be heard anywhere in the crowded screening room. The offensiveness, obviousness, and overall sleaziness of Waters’ desperation to put anything before our eyes might be pardonable if A Dirty Shame weren’t so damned boring. That faithful old bad taste has no juice, no pleasure.

Tracey Ullman, one of the all-time great comic actors, has never been in a movie that’s done justice to her gifts. She came closest with Small Time Crooks, which she and Elaine May lifted high above Woody Allen’s on-going post-Mia quagmire. Ullman gave Allen some much needed friction to play against, and the pull of opposites held the thin little contraption together. Ullman’s affectionate, character-driven parodies and Waters’ incredibly small, either/or universe of flying excrement are also at odds, but instead of thriving on the dissonance, his movie smothers her. Waters’ broad strokes and absence of comic shading laboriously telegraph, “This is fun! This is fun!” But it isn’t. In trying to prove he can be as gross now as he was 30 years ago, Waters comes across as having a puritan’s delusional misconception of “sin.” It would take someone secretly prim to make a sex farce this joyless; Waters’ movie advertises his fear of being found out.

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Where does that leave James Toback, who also made his name, such as it is, in the 1970s? In When Will I Be Loved, Toback casts himself as a buffoon, a professor of some sort who, at the beginning of the movie, interviews Neve Campbell on a succession of Manhattan sidewalks for a job as his assistant. Corpulent and bearded, Toback’s professor (named Hassan Al-Ibrahim Ben Rabinowitz – a better joke than anything in A Dirty Shame) sports dark sunglasses and a purple fez; he patters lunacy about “life’s journeys” and “philosophical context.” He seems eager to entice Mike Tyson as a guest lecturer in his classroom. The prof finds it odd (yet alluring) that his potential protégé keeps interrupting their conversation to pick up attractive young men en route.

Unlike John Waters, Toback at least has a visual command of the medium. His crosscuts in the first half-hour or so, contrasting Campbell’s academic naïf with Frederick Weller’s hustling hipster, are alive with what Toback’s late girlfriend Pauline Kael might approvingly refer to as “scuzz energy.” The film is beautifully composed and lit; cinematographer Larry McConkey does stunning work both with location shoots (a marina sequence is a standout) as well as the interior of Campbell’s Niagara Street loft, a cozy haven of red, white, and beige-yellow-cream. The opening shots that behold Campbell as she showers in her gray-tiled bathroom, the gray of the sky above and the river below framed through a double window adjacent to her wet, naked figure, are absolutely riveting.

bway8Toback’s screenplay, however, is drivel. What’s the point in naming Weller’s character, a budding porn auteur, Ford Welles? Why does Weller tell Campbell, prior to their un-erotic anal sex scene, that she’s “on the path to Ovid, Sappho, D.H. Lawrence, and Edna St. Vincent Millay, to say nothing of the whole hip hop revolution”? Speaking of which, Toback constantly toggles the soundtrack between hip hop and the first of Beethoven’s Razumovsky quartets; the aural discontinuity may be the lone well thought out direction, until an elderly, terribly cultured Italian count (whose accent sounds more Transylvanian than Italian) orders his female assistant to buy him only Glenn Gould recordings of Bach and “give the others to musical illiterates.” Toback then drowns the actors in long passages scored to Gould’s clinically cold, mathematically precise, aesthetically dead interpretations of the Italian Concerto, one of the French Suites, and a few of the Two-Part Inventions. Nearly everyone makes reference to Campbell’s mattress as being “firm and hard,” though her sexual encounters usually take place on the floor, on the sofa, or between a gauzy curtain and a glass wall.

I first saw Broadway: The Golden Age in a supposedly unfinished form that screened perhaps twice at the 2003 Seattle International Film Festival. At the time, the film’s assembler, Rick McKay, promised spectators that more and more “legends” were ready and willing to be interviewed for an expanded version of the documentary. Over a year later, this “upgrade” of his original footage will finally receive a theatrical run in Seattle, and it isn’t markedly different from what was shown before.

bway10Elaine Stritch, Fay Wray, and Celeste Holm at Broadway’s NYC premiere (Photo by Donna S. Aceto)

What was glaringly wrong with McKay’s movie then remains so. Except for a quip that “the only Barrymore left was Drew” by the time he began to interview prominent stage performers from the 1940s and ‘50s, McKay’s voice-overs are dreadful. He sounds poorly recorded and his rhetorical questions (“Did I learn anything?” or “Was there really a golden age?”) are hopelessly inane. Worse still, McKay has failed to excise the amphibious vulgarian Charles Nelson Reilly from the picture. It was crystal clear to me last year that in the company of the authentic article (Patricia Morison, Gretchen Wyler, Ann Miller), Nelson Reilly belonged nowhere but on the cutting room floor. Listening to Gwen Verdon, who recalls the blizzard of ’47 that brought New York to a standstill, or John Raitt, still breathtaking in the “Soliloquy” from Carousel, you can lose yourself in these memories, only to be pulled out by the Mardi Gras bead-wearing, gold chain-sporting Nelson Reilly’s idiotic anecdotes about subsisting on “ziti and sausages” for nine years. Why does McKay spotlight this garish fop and at such length while the infinitely more significant and insightful Celeste Holm and Jane Powell receive short shrift? Holm has a superlative moment when she recounts telling an abrasive press secretary, “You bark.” It’s bewildering that McKay doesn’t include more of her soft-spoken wit.

To his credit, McKay has done a valuable and long overdue service in videotaping the reminiscences of these elderly performers, several of whom have since passed away. Not everyone is seen to good advantage: Eva Marie Saint has nothing of interest to say; Elizabeth Ashley gesturing with her cigarette is histrionic and overbearing; Tammy Grimes manages to be unbearably pretentious in the space of about 20 seconds or less; both Janis Paige and Carol Channing have smeared lipstick. On the plus side, Wyler, Carol Burnett, and Shirley MacLaine share backstage tales that are well told. Robert Morse is unexpectedly moving in a clip of reading aloud his opening night raves. And there’s a 1938 screen test of Laurette Taylor that resonates with tragedy. Taylor’s naturalistic style would be right at home in today’s cinema, but she was a bit too natural for the eye-rolling emotions of 1930s Hollywood. The few lines she speaks here are all you need to know of what a remarkable loss for the movies, and for us, her exclusion proved to be.

Yet I find it impossible not to be irritated by Broadway: The Golden Age. Irritated that it isn’t better. Irritated that such an irreplaceable legacy never fired the imagination of a less slapdash storyteller. –NPT

September 15, 2004

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