Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Leave It to Elia Kazan's Baby Doll

(Elia Kazan, US, 1956, 114 mins.)

Today is the fifth day of November. Tomor-
row is the sixth day of November, and the
day after that is November seventh. And
you know what day that is, don't you? No-
vember seventh is your 20th birthday.
-- Archie Lee Meighan to Baby Doll

***** ***** ***** ***** *****

If Elia Kazan had created a sitcom,
it probably would've looked like
Baby Doll
. Well, "looked" might not be the best choice of words.
Jean Vigo and Sidney Lumet favorite Boris Kaufman (L'Atalante,
The Pawnbroker
, On the Waterfront) did, after all, score an Os-
car nomination for his flavorful black-and-white cinematogra-
phy (Dick Sylbert aids immeasurably with his high baroque-
gone-to-seed art design). But the richly comic premise
could've fueled at least a season's worth of hilarity.

First, there are all those domestic comedies from the
1950s, like Ozzie and Harriet and The Honeymoon-
, in which married couples slept in separate beds.

Then there are all those
slick dramedies from the
1980s, like Moonlighting
and Remington Steele.

In their early days, the
latter crime-solving duos
acted as if they were wed
(unlike Hart to Hart, where
the central twosome really
were married). They work-
ed together, fought toge-
ther, and spent their free
time together. But they
didn't sleep together.

Instead, they generat-
ed sexual tension via wit-
ty repartee. And once they
actually kissed, the tension
began to evaporate. At least Remington Steele waited until the finale to suggest that the Big Day had arrived--Irish castle included. Moonlighting, unfortunately, couldn't keep its pants on. And with that premature coupling went the will-they-or-won't-they suspense that made the show such a hit.

In Kazan's tragicomedy, Carroll Baker, another Academy Award
nominee, and Karl Malden's Archie also sleep in separate beds--sep-
arate rooms even. In fact, they haven't consummated the marriage.

They wed when she was almost 19, and she promised he could have
his way with her when she turned 20. Now Baby Doll is two days from
that milestone, and Archie can barely contain himself. Within the first
few minutes, he spies on her as she sleeps. In a crib, thumb in mouth.

Later, Archie enters her room while she's getting dressed. Baby Doll tries
to kick him out, but he won't budge, so she turns her closet into a dressing
room. Then, while she's taking a bath, he attempts a soggy grope. Kazan
suggests the move while Baby Doll is in the water, a shower curtain artful-
ly concealing her chest. Then she screams and Archie flees, but Kaufman's
camera waits respectfully outside. Instead of "Archie," Tennessee Williams
could've just dubbed his hubbie "Blue Boy." Rarely have the movies pro-
duced a man more desperate--to get with his own wife. Then again,
Kazan did cast Malden as the pious priest in On the Waterfont.

Yet the future Streets of San
gumshoe doesn't play
Archie with sadness or self-pity,
but rather antic energy. He zips
about his cavernous Southern
home, running up and down rick-
ety steps, and yelling at Baby
Doll's dotty Aunt Rose (Mildred
Dunnock, alternately hilarious
and heartbreaking) to do this, that, and the other thing. Baby Doll is just a big, dumb kid, and managing a household is beyond her
limited skill set, but Rose is hard-of-hearing and possibly senile (poor
Dunnock; as if having a psychopathic maniac kick her down the stairs
and enduring marriage to a suicidal salesman weren't bad enough).

Worse yet, the former plantation serves as a 24-hour stage show for its
African American audience. Some, like "Boll Weevil," are servants. With
others, it's hard to tell as they don't seem to do anything--other than
laugh at bigoted ol' Archie's ridiculous antics, that is. And these aren't
boisterous guffaws, but silent chuckles (deadpan derision at its finest).

Archie ends up doing most things himself, but he rarely gets what he
wants. That doesn't bring him down either. It's par for the course. Like
Ricky Ricardo by way of Wile E. Coyote: he'll never capture the object
of his desire. (Ricky, on the other hand, may have enjoyed off-screen
relations with Lucy, but who's to say he ever really "got" his wife.)

Then Baby Doll makes fun of him because he's losing his hair. There isn't
anything desirable within Archie's reach: wealth, affection, respect--a full
head of hair. He can't even be pathetic in private. Rose knows he's got it
bad, as does the "audience," and as it turns out, the whole damned town.

Archie, Baby Doll, and Rose could almost serve as prototypes for the
Beverly Hillbillies before they struck it rich and moved to the city. Into
this Li'l Abner atmosphere enters smooth-talking Silva Vacarro (Eli Wal-
lach in his first film appearance). Silva is everything Archie is not. Archie
blames the outsider for stealing his business, so he sets fire to Silva's gin.

For some reason, the townsfolk find the resulting blaze funny, too (osten-
sibly because he also stole their jobs). Yep, these "people of Benoit, Mis-
sissippi" as the credits would have it, operate exactly like a studio audi-
ence. Instead of chortling at things clearly intended to be funny, they
direct their mirth at those which normally would seem tragic.

Chortling aside, Silva is the
designated straight man.
While Wallach is too char-
ismatic to suck the air from
the scenario, he's closer to
a fully-realized human than
a stylized cartoon, and Ba-
by Doll
's comedy shifts
towards melodrama when
he hits the scene. Granted,
with his pencil-thin mous-
tache, black togs, flat-top-
ped hat, and riding crop (?!),
he looks like a low-rent Zor-
ro, but that serves to em-
phasize his "ethnic" other-
ness (and Archie looks as-
kance at all non-whites).

Kazan brings the men
together when Silva borrows Archie's worn-out machinery to con-
vert his cotton into gin. Silva suspects Archie set the fire, so his offer
has nothing to do with generosity. In fact, he's cooking up a plan. And
it involves, as he seethes, "Biblical justice." While Archie processes Sil-
va's cotton, the Texan-born Sicilian processes--er, charms--his virgin-
al wife. It's mostly talk, of course, but Baby Doll is clearly...intrigued.
Silva acts like he is, too, though that may simply be part of his plan.
In either case, Baby Doll becomes less of a caricature in his presen-
ce as she accelerates from flirtatiousness to fear to acquiescence.

When Archie realizes something's going on between his rival and his wife,
he also changes, in his case from an amusing loser to a potential killer. He
grabs a gun and starts wailing Baby Doll's name (yes, Malden almost out-
does Brando's iconic "Stellaaa!"). Along the way, the ultimate question
comes to light: Did the two get it on in Archie's absence? I say no, but
you'll have to decide for yourself (and I don't consider that a spoiler,
since her deflowering wouldn't have appeared on screen anyway).

Nonetheless, Time magazine condemned the film, the Legion of
Decency censored it, thousands of Catholics boycotted it, and a
reported 77% of the scheduled theaters cancelled screenings.

That's the old
news. I'm more
interested in
the way the
film plays to-
day. When I
wrote that it
resembled a
sitcom, I had-
n't yet watch-
ed the whole
thing. Once
Archie turns
arsonist, the tone changes. Since situation comedies now top out at 22 minutes, I still feel that the
first act plays as such, but then drama dominates the proceedings.

With its sexual suggestiveness, Baby Doll never really would've made
it as a 1950s sitcom--not when it barely got a chance to make it as a mo-
vie--but in light of the small-screen, fornication-free sex comedies of the
1960s, like I Dream of Jeannie, or even the '90s, like Married with Chil-
, it's hard not to imagine that Baby Doll paved the way for all
those scantily-clad women, ineffectual men, and double entendres.

Then there's Baby Doll's crib. Though she's past the age of consent,
her infantile predilections suggest that, like Nabokov's Lolita (as op-
posed to Kubrick's or Adrian Lyne's), she hasn't entered adolescence.
And when Kazan introduces Silva's riding crop, the kink factor goes
through the roof, even if he never uses it (he does, however, flick
Baby Doll a few times, claiming he's "swatting flies"--yeah, right).

Of course, television writers have played around with the concept of
strange sleeping quarters before. Note that Adrian Pasdar's offbeat at-
torney in the too-quickly-cancelled Profit slept in a cardboard box. But
that took place in the '90s. There was nothing suggestive or controver-
sial about that; it was just creepy in a post-Twin Peaks kind of way.
Well, it was masochistic, but not in the sexual sense of the word.

Nowadays, some consider Baby Doll a classic, others a disappointment or
even an embarrassment. To me, it's none of those things. Rather, it plays
more like self-parody (specifically of Kazan's previous Williams adaptation,
A Streetcar Named Desire
), Tennessee Williams in general (his first script
combines two one-act plays), the Actors Studio (from which the core trio
originated), and the Deep South (though the cast denies it). The irony is
that it was made by all these insiders on location, rather than a bunch of
outsiders on a studio back lot. The good news is that it's just as entertain-
ing now as it must have been in 1956. It's also much funnier (intentional-
ly or otherwise). Not as funny as 30 Rock, perhaps, but close enough.

And lest it seem as if I pulled that name out of a hat, the film also feat-
ures the debut of TV star (and 30 Rock guest) Rip Torn. An unrecog-
nizably scrawny fellow in the '50s, Torn plays a freshly-minted dentist
from whom Baby Doll attempts to finagle a receptionist gig. I'm not
about to suggest that Baby Doll led directly to Torn's small-screen
triumphs--most notably The Larry Sanders Show--but it can't
have hurt. For that achievement alone, viewers should be grateful.

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

Of course, I knew who Tennessee Williams was. He was a bad man because the
nuns in Catholic Sunday School had told us we'd go to hell if we saw that movie
he wrote, Baby Doll-the one with the great ad campaign, with Carroll Baker in
the crib sucking her thumb, that made Cardinal Spellman have a nation-wide
hissy fit. The same ad I clipped out of
The Baltimore Sun countless times
and pasted in my secret scrapbook. The movie I planned to show over and
over in the fantasy dirty-movie theater in my mind that I was going to
open later in life, causing a scandal in my parents' neighborhood.

-- From John Waters' introduction to Williams'

Baby Doll is available from Warner Bros. (extras include a bit about
the infamous billboard and a featurette with Baker, Malden, and Wal-
lach). It's also part of the Tennessee Williams Collection. Images from
AFI, DVD Town, Film Freak Central, & Honeymooners Resource Page.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Watch the Landlord Get His

(Hal Ashby, US, 19-
70, 35mm, 114 mins.)

There's no worse career move
in Hollywood than dying. Hal
is now largely forgot-
ten because he had the misfor-
tune to die at the end of the
'80s, but he had the most remar-
kable run of any '70s director.

-- Peter Biskind, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (1998)

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

Few things are sadder than the director who makes one good film be-
fore passing away (see Bill Sherwood, Parting Glances) or disappear-
ing from view (see Neal Jimenez, The Waterdance). That's to say noth-
ing of one-shot director Charles Laughton (The Night of the Hunter).

More commonly, there's the director who makes one good film--and
a bunch of bad ones (too many to name). Fortunately, Hal Ashby
(1929-1988) avoided every one of those depressing categories.

Yet his biography is ultimately a bummer. At least that's how Peter
spins it in the irresistibly dishy Easy Riders, Raging Bulls
(David Thomson goes so far as to dismiss him as a "sad casualty").

Not having read much about the man elsewhere, I found Biskind per-
suasive regarding the filmmaker's passive-aggressive battles with
producers, problems with women and drugs, and agonizing death from
cancer. But along the way he worked with the biggest stars (Jack Nich-
olson, Warren Beatty, and Jane Fonda), directed several hits (Sham-
, Coming Home, and Being There)--and one certifiable cult classic
(Harold and Maude)--and even garnered a few awards (including an
Oscar for editing mentor Norman Jewison's In the Heat of the Night).

The Landlord, which is finally receiving a theatrical re-release, was
his first feature film. Being There (1978) was his last really good one.
Then he lost his way. The IMDb notes four more movies, one concert
film, one straight-to-video effort, a tele-film, and an episode of Dennis
Franz's Hill Street Blues spin-off, Beverly Hill Buntz--his final credit.

If Ashby's debut got overlooked upon release, it offered contributions
from some of the brightest talents around. The film was produced by
Jewison, shot by Gordon Willis (The Godfather) and Michael Chapman
(Taxi Driver), and scored by Bob Dylan associate Al Kooper with the
Staple Singers. The cast includes Beau Bridges, Susan Anspach, Pearl
Bailey, and Academy Award winners Lee Grant (Shampoo) and Louis
Gossett, Jr.
(An Officer and a Gentleman). As Bridges demurred to The
New York Times
earlier this year, "I was just doing my best. I was in
there with some giants." (His brother, Jeff, presided at Hal's memorial.)

Though Harold and Maude would secure his reputation the following
year--once it caught on, that is--Ashby's first film proves he was a natur-
al. Without such storied collaborators, his ability might not be so readily
apparent, though most of them weren't as well known as they are now.

Like Harold and Maude, The Landlord manages to be simultane-
ously dated and timely--and I don't mean that in the pejorative sense.

It isn't just a product of the counterculture, but it takes that very cul-
ture to task, which means that Ashby revels in the signs and signifiers
of the time--marijuana, miniskirts, etc.--but it isn't an exploitation pic-
ture like Easy Rider or a morality lesson on race relations like Guess
Who's Coming to Dinner
, the product of a little playful ribbing.

The film draws from the two forms, possibly why it didn't make more
of an impact; it was harder to classify, its audience harder to identify.

Of course, the director and the star were virtual unknowns, which didn't
help, although Bridges couldn't be better as Elgar Enders, a wealthy New
Yorker who fancies himself hip and open-minded--with a name uptight
and righteous at the same time: a blue-blooded spin on Medgar Evers.

His white-gloved mother, Joyce (Oscar nominee Lee Grant), also thinks
she's got it together, and her uncomfortably close relationship with her
son anticipates the male-female dynamic in Harold and Maude. Not
that that film depicted an incestuous union, but the age gap suggested
a mother-son/grandmother-grandson relationship. There isn't--thank
God--any hanky-panky between Elgar and the still-beautiful Mrs. En-
ders, but it's clear that her clueless coddling has stunted his growth.

At 29, Elgar still lives at home, the lazy recipient of his croquet-
playing family's largess. As the movie begins, he's just acquired a
Brooklyn tenement with plans to restore it, and live like a king. The
thing is--it's still occupied. And located in an all-black neighborhood.
Elgar doesn't let that stop him. He isn't a racist. He's just never
been around (non-deferential) African Americans before.

So, he's scared...and fascinated. His neighbors, on the other hand, are
wary and disdainful. If this was a big-budget production, Elgar and his
tenants would learn from each other and live happily ever after (cue
"Ebony and Ivory"). The Landlord isn't quite as naive as its central
character, but nor is it completely cynical. (The script, an adaptation of
Kristin Hunter's novel, was written by black actor-director Bill Gunn of
Ganja & Hess
fame.) Instead, mistakes are made, feelings get hurt, and
some of the lessons learned are just as quickly un-learned (Elgar's rel-
atives seem to change, but their prejudices are too deeply ingrained).

Did I also mention that it's painfully, almost surrealistically funny?
If you're familiar with Ashby's early work--particularly the profan-
ity-laced The Last Detail--this should come as little surprise.

By the end, Elgar has knocked up one tenant and fallen for a mixed-race lovely. Nowadays, that wouldn't seem so strange. Even in 1970, "shocking" might've been a bit much, but it probably did seem subversive, since Elgar sleeps with Diana Sands' married hairdresser (Gossett Jr. plays her militant husband), while seeing Marki Bey's dancer/art student. These encounters are complicated by class and gender as both women lack El-
gar's range of options. I'm not sure I buy the ending--which means to please all three--but I like the cautious optimism it represents.

According to Biskind, Ashby and Jewison fell out over that ending (Jewi-
son was set to direct until Fiddler on the Roof came along). This is fitting.
Elgar finally breaks from his bourgeois background, while Ashby frees
himself from his spiritual paterfamilias (Ashby's father, an uncompromis-
ing farmer, committed suicide when he was 12; he discovered the body).

It's tempting to describe The Landlord as great since it hasn't hit the
big screen in years, and Ashby is one of those rare helmers who oc-
cupies the sweet spot between cult figure and award-winning auteur.

In truth, it's closer to really good--Elgar's asides to the camera are lar-
gely extraneous and the cutting can be distractingly busy (Ashby did, af-
ter all, edit Jewison's split-screen caper The Thomas Crown Affair)--but
"really good" is no small feat for a first film. Plus, Judith Crist and Gene
Shalit denounced it as one of 1970's worst! How's that for incentive?

Ignore those cranks. The Land-
belongs on the list with 20-
07's other long-lost debuts, like
Killer of Sheep
and Permanent Vacation, which also capture a time when anyone could afford to
live in the now-hot neighborhoods
of Park Slope and SoHo. And
don't wait for the DVD--enjoy the
artistry of Ashby, Willis, Chap-
man, Kooper, and cast (including
Robert Klein, Mel Stewart, and
Hector Elizondo)--on the silver
screen. And weep for the ongo-
ing gentrification of the great-
est city in the world.

It's kind of an imperfect film because it was Hal's first, and he kind of
honed his craft as he went along, but I'd like people to know about it.

--Beau Bridges to The New York Times

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

The Landlord plays the Northwest Film Forum from 11/23 - 29,
Fri. - Thurs. at 7 and 9:15pm (plus Sat. and Sun. at 4:30pm). The
NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. on Capitol Hill between Pike and
Pine. For more information, please click here or call 206-329-2629.
Images from the The Passionate Moviegoer and Senses of Cinema.