Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Melodramas, Guilty Pleasures, and High Camp

Dorothy Malone — hypnotiziing with every unnatural leer and smirk in Douglas Sirk’s 1956 melodrama, “Written on the Wind.” 
Appreciating “Written on the Wind” ... Waiting for “A Star is Born” ... The Soundtracks of Our Guilty Pleasures ... Rare Ella Fitzgerald ... And, Tom Cruise is Not Paying Me Anything — although he can if he wants to.
by Denis Ferrara

filthy liar, Marylee!”
“I’m just filth, period!!

So it went between drunken, neurotic Robert Stack, and drunken, neurotic nymphomaniac Dorothy Malone as battling siblings, in director Douglas Sirk’s lurid, mesmerizing melodrama “Written on the Wind.” 
I caught this one for the umpteenth time on Turner Classic Movies and stayed with it from beginning to end — the fade out of Miss Malone sadly caressing an oversize model of an oil derrick, symbolic of her unattainable love, Rock Hudson.
Rock preferred the wife of his best friend — Stack — played by Lauren Bacall, who is trying her best not to be too Lauren Bacall-ish. As for Stack, like his sister, he seems viscerally obsessed with Hudson himself.
Douglas Sirk was the master of this sort of thing, although he’d made his name in black and white noirs such as “Summer Storm,”  “Lured,” “Sleep My Love,” and “Thunder on the Hill.”  But it was his four deeply melodramatic, richly Technicolored and cynically subversive box-office smashes that immortalized him — “Magnificent Obsession,” “All That Heaven Allows,”  “Written on the Wind” and “Imitation of Life” (in the latter, Miss Lana Turner obliges her fans with a sanitized version of her real-life mother/daughter/lover drama.)
“Written on the Wind” is the most delirious of Sirk’s movies, mainly because of gorgeous Dorothy Malone’s overstated performance — she hypnotizes with every unnatural leer and smirk.  She won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for this camp-fest.  Malone cinched her win with her fabled “Dance of Death.”  To the blaring, frantic sound of “Temptation” Malone — who had just been dragged out of a seedy motel, shacked up with a gas station attendant — strips off her cocktail dress (black lace corset underneath), whips on a peach negligee, and mambos frantically while her father keels over with a heart attack in another room of the mansion.

If you can’t win an Oscar after a scene like that, what the hell are Oscars for? 

... WE have to wait another two months to see what director/star Bradley Cooper and pop goddess Lady Gaga have done with the timeworn tale of “A Star is Born.”  But if Tim Stack’s cover story in Entertainment Weekly magazine is anything to go by, Cooper and Gaga have goosed up the old she-rises-he-falls saga admirably. Writer Stack calls it “exhilarating,” with a “career best performance” from Cooper and a “career redefining” stint from Lady G.

His compliments are not a full review, just an intro to a lively, mutually affectionate interview with Cooper and Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta. Because of my great admiration for the flawed but magnificent Garland/James Mason version and my eternal giggles over the so-misguided-it’s-genius Streisand/Kris Kristofferson epic, I can’t help being happily anxious for the latest “ASIB.” Good or bad, I know it’ll entertain me.  And, boy, do I need that now!
SPEAKING of entertainment, my guiltiest TV pleasure, “Claws” had its season finale, drenched in blood, high camp and gaudy acrylic nails. It will coming back for a third season and I’ve given high praise to the entire cast and the loony vibe of the show previously.  But this season I noticed what an eclectic soundtrack “Claws” features on each episode, music as varied as Edith Piaf, Nina Simone, Cyndi Lauper and Lesley Gore (singing a French version of her great early women’s empowerment anthem, “You Don’t Own Me.”) 

TV soundtracks hype new songs and revitalize old favorites. Recently, a lot of people got turned on to the works of the late Leonard Cohen, when a full three-minute plus version of his “Dance Me To the End of Love” was used to devastating effect in one of the last episodes of “The Americans” — I seem to recall actress Keri Russell, aka Russian spy Elizabeth Jennings was killing somebody as the song played!  (I was pulled into the hypnotic world of Cohen after reading a remarkable profile of the singer/composer in The New Yorker. Now I’m addicted.) 
And speaking of The New Yorker, I highly recommend Rebecca Mead’s “The Return of the Native” in the August 20th issue.  Mead was born in Britain and has lived and worked successfully in the United States for over 20 years. Now she is going “home.” 

Illustration by Eleni Kalorkoti for The New Yorker
Although at first the article seems to read like typical current-administration-bashing, it is not.  This is an elegant, eloquent paean to America, her not-always-realized ideals and the sad decision that what was once so stirring and optimistic about the author’s adopted land — she became a citizen — had soured into nagging fears and dread.

And Ms. Mead is honest enough to admit that moving herself and her family back to England is no panacea. As she notes: “The difference between the political climate in the U.K. and the U.S. these days feels like the difference between depression and psychosis. I’m opting for depression.”   I loved this article because it tells the story of our times through Mead’s own life — her career, husband, son, family back in England; personal but universal.  Toward the end of the piece she writes, “I’m not absolving myself of my duty as an American ... you can bet I’ll be voting.”

... MUSIC NOTE: Ella Fitzgerald fans — and are we not legion? — get ready for something delightful and rare.  Last year, in celebration of Ella’s centennial, Verve/Ume put out a previously unreleased limited edition of “Ella at Zardi’s” recorded in 1956. This two-set 21-song performance was issued on pink-and-blue vinyl and disappeared quickly.  Now it will be released again, on “regular” black vinyl and made more available.  Ella is near her peak here (she would release the first of her legendary “Song Book” albums later that year). Among the gems in the Zardi’s concert are “In a Mellow Tone,” “And the Angels Sing,” “A Fine Romance,” “Joe Williams Blues,” “Lullaby of Birdland” and “How High the Moon.” The press release on this news included a long complicated link that didn’t work.  If you order “Ella at Zardi’s” — and I order you to! — go to Amazon.  It’s there.
MAIL:  A recent sampling: “How much is Tom Cruise paying you?” ... ”Marilyn Monroe, you realize she’s dead, don’t you?!” ... ”It used to be that Christians could read the NYSD without being insulted.” 

I’m always grateful to receive positive correspondence about this column. But I’m just as interested in the other side. Why not? One must keep an open mind.

The review of “Mission Impossible: Fallout” and praise of Tom Cruise that appeared here recently received a mostly positive reaction.  But a couple of readers felt sure that Mr. Cruise or his “people” had somehow encouraged me to speak nicely about the star.

Hilarious! Back in the day, we often wrote nicely about Tom.  He never once indicated whether he approved or not.  Sometimes his press rep Paul Bloch would send a brief note of thanks.  Although Paul never sent what we wanted most — a scoop!  We always got a lot of “How much is Madonna ... Elizabeth Taylor ... Barbara Walters ... etc. paying you?”  We laughed then, we laugh now. (Does anybody really think the current $500 million-plus take from Tom’s “Fallout” depended in any way on us?)

Marilyn?  I know she’s dead.  Please also inform all the book and magazine writers, not to mention my Google Alert — which has something MM-related at least once a day — of her passing.  Years ago Liz Smith told an interviewer, “I write about what interests me, and I hope I write about it well enough that it interests the reader.  If not, well — it’s still my column!”  I have been taught by masters.

As for the lady who thought I was insulting Christians, I apologize.  (I’d written that these days I’d rather “sit down with a Scientologist than an Evangelical so-called Christian.”)  Evangelical support of a certain person is a mystery to me.  Actually, it’s not.  But if I expanded on that, I’d be insulting again. Although not a religious person myself, I bear no ill will at all to people of true Christian faith — live and let live, pray and let pray.  Just don’t tell me how to live or pray.  Once again, my apologies to you, dear lady.

P.S.  On the upside in the matter of mail, it was pleasant that everybody seemed on board with our tribute to Aretha Franklin.  I heard from people who claimed they’d never been moved to write to us before. I’m not sure I quite believe that, but then I’m always much better at taking an insult than a compliment.

voice of intelligence is drowned out by the roar of fear. It is ignored by the voice of desire. It is contradicted by the voice of shame. It is biased by hate and extinguished by anger. Most of all it is silenced by ignorance,” said the famed psychiatrist Karl A. Menninger.
Contact Denis here.