Thursday, April 7, 2016

LIZ SMITH: Everything Old Is New Again

Katharine Hepburn in her less than impressive film debut, "A Bill of Divorcement," 1932.
by Liz Smith

Doris Day ... Ben Affleck ... Burlesque ... Nostalgia ... Bruce Springsteen for president ... Katharine Hepburn before she became The Great Kate.

"OH, Miss Day, I saw "With Six You Get Eggroll" 54 times!"

"Really? And you didn't get diabetes?!"

Paul Brogan with his idol, Doris Day.
That was one of the first exchanges between fan Paul Brogan and his idol, Doris Day, many years ago. Brogan, who has become a serious admirer/historian of the great star, was impressed and amused by her candor and humorous self-deprecation. (Like all true cinema survivors, Doris has a fine sense of the ridiculous and a healthy dose of realism.)

Mr. Brogan shared this little anecdote with us, along with a reminder that on April 3rd, the divine DD turned 92. She is still in fine fettle, still a tremendous animal rights devotee, and still determined to keep her life to herself. In other words, no — she still won't acquiesce to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences to accept an honorary Oscar in person. I don't believe she cares about it at all, but her fans do, and as I have said for years, the Academy's stance on Day has been shameful.

In any case, happy belated birthday, Doris.
THIS N' THAT: Even though "Batman v Superman" might eventually gross a shade of under a billion dollars (the box-office fell off drastically in its second week) that's still enough of a success for fans — and studios — to consider Ben Affleck returning as Batman in a "stand alone" movie about the Caped Crusader. Ditto another solo turn for Henry Cavill as Superman, and we already have Gal Gadot's "Wonder Woman" effort forthcoming. The comic-book genre is not waning, folks.
... IF YOU happen to be in Silver Lake, California on April 24th, why not take in the popular "Sultry Sweet Burlesque" revue at the venerable El Cid Theater. Produced by Cherish Bliss, this is a "body positive, women empowerment burlesque show." (Cherish also throws in a few "boy-lesquers.") The title of this show is "Drop Dead Gorgeous" and mixes the "sexy and macabre." Apparently, it has everything from good old break-away gowns, the classic bump and grind, garter belts and pasties, to aerial acts, magic, comedy — the works. I have to give you some of the stars' names — Dolly Danger ... Sin Twisted ... Molly D'Amour ... Blanche Bourgeois ... Leggy Lass Greenleaf. For tix go here.
... "THE MIDDLE class would have the best chance with Bruce Springsteen. He understands the issues facing working Americans." So said Vice President Joe Biden when asked which musician would make the best Commander in Chief?
EVERYTHING OLD is new again. In the April 4th issue of The New York Observer, Sheila Weller addresses the passion current television has for looking backward, via shows such as "Vinyl," "The Americans" and the limited series, "The People Vs. O.J. Simpson." 

Within this piece, Weller quotes novelist and TV writer Peter Blauner: "On the one hand, the eras are close enough for the writers to remember how they were formed by the music, the language the attitudes.  But they're just far enough away that you can define them and be ever-so-ironic about how things used to be. And best of all, there are no cellphones or computers which kill traditional narrative." 
Photo Illustration by Kaitlyn Flannagan
Rich Cohen, the creator of "Vinyl" also cites an audience grateful not to deal with modern technology.  He declares: "The biggest calamity for the human race since the loss of Eden: social media!  Even people too young to remember a pre-Internet existence, long for an earlier less fraught time."  

Nostalgia done with care, can educate — the real struggle of civil rights, women's rights is fictionally presented, but on target.  (How many liberated young women, taking those liberties for granted, were startled, watching the struggles of Peggy Olson in "Mad Men?" For some, Peggy's evolution over seven seasons was more instructive than a college class on the subject or a documentary.)
But it has ever been thus.  Remember the 1950s craze of the 1970s?  (Which was very much a reaction to women rising up, and protests of every sort mounting.  The subtext was: Let's all go back to the "innocent" Eisenhower years, when women knew their place — and cleaned house in smart little dresses and a pearl necklace — there were no "dirty hippies" or drugs or casual sex. And certainly no homosexuals! ) Each generation looks back on the previous one with a rosy regret for certain things lost, and a natural tendency to forget much that was bad or destructive — fashioning the negatives into amusing, eye-rolling missteps in history.
Phyllis Schlafly protesting against equal rights for women at the White House in 1977. Photo by Warren K. Leffler, courtesy of Library of Congress.
I suppose the 1980s are up next for re-assessment — in fact this weekend, an '80s-themed movie opens, Richard Linklater's "Everybody Wants Some!!" Although in a fashion revival who would want to wear those ghastly clothes and ratted-up hairstyles?  The '90s just seemed to be about Wall Street, and that's rather boring.
After all, in the '80s almost everybody wore leggings and sloppy sweaters with a bra-strap showing, and/or daunting shoulder pads, and blew their hair out to monumental proportions. Relatively few made millions in the stock market.
Well, here's something(s) good that came out of the '80s!
SPEAKING of bygone eras, I caught a rare film on Turner Classic Movies the other night, 1932's "A Bill of Divorcement" directed by George Cukor and in her very first screen appearance, Katharine Hepburn.  Time has not been kind to this antique about a long-absent husband (John Barrymore) returning from an insane asylum, wishing to reconcile with his wife (Billie Burke) who has found a new love. The psychiatrically errant dad also attempts to bond with his daughter (Hepburn), just a child when he was committed.  There's a lot of shocking, stupid, ill-informed (to what we know now) pronouncements about genetic insanity, along with absurd self-sacrifice and general misery. (Barrymore is supposed to be "cured" but he carries on like a man who needs a strong opiate and another couple of decades under the butterfly net.) 
Katharine Hepburn and John Barrymore in "A Bill of Divorcement."
The movie looks great, better than a lot that were done after, and Billie Burke, famed for her dizzy comedy roles, has some surprisingly effective dramatic moments.  But, just two years from silent films, naturalistic acting was still to come, and all concerned are on the arch/stagy/hammy side. (Barrymore slices it thick enough to feed an army!)
Hepburn and Billie Burke.
And what of Miss Hepburn in her debut?  She is simply awful. Really. But she is definitely Katharine Hepburn.  That is, so many things that are wrong with her performance here are the quirks and mannerisms she would refine, enlarge, minimize to much greater effect.  Also, she lived so long and worked so relentlessly, that we eventually got used to, and in fact came to adore her shameless showing off — which is what her technique evolved into. (Miss Hepburn did not submerge herself into her roles; they bent to the power of her personality!)
With David Manners.
Had I been a film critic back then, I might have panned Kate's acting but would have raved over her great beauty and her undeniable "presence" or star quality or whatever it is that makes people sit up in their seats and exclaim, "Who IS that?!"

I hope TCM re-runs this strangely glittering gem again.  If for nothing else than to swoon over Hepburn's magnificent face.  To think, she was not considered beautiful by the standards of her era!

With Denis Ferrara

Contact Liz here.