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Cinematic Vegetables (Part three in a continuing series)

The weeding out of movie offerings on the DVR continues apace at Rancho Yesteryear, which is why you might have noticed that I’ve been a bit more prolific with the blog this month.  I also thought, seeing that it’s the Thanksgiving holiday and all, that I’d update a few important bulletins while several of us recover from overindulging yesterday (I tried to refuse that third piece of pie…but I was powerless to resist).

I mentioned that my mother had been prescribed a wheelchair to allow her a bit more mobility in dealing with her back problem, and I’m pleased as punch to report that she has taken to the apparatus like a duck to water, as evident in this photo approximation:

The wheelchair has also allowed her to perform many more household tasks that had temporarily become my responsibility (sadly, these chores do not resolve me of grocery duty), and while I am grateful for the workload shift, I still find myself cautioning her constantly not to overdo.  Here’s an example: my sister Debbie had made Thanksgiving plans with her in-laws in Franklin, Tennessee—and while there wasn’t room on the itinerary for a brief stop-and-say-hidy, she wanted to do something to help Mom out with the Turkey Day menu so she offered to order a dinner for the three of us from some local outfit like Publix or the like.  My mother simply would not have this; she was perfectly capable of getting the feast together.  She explained to me later that doing the dinner was a matter of pride with her.  I, on the other hand, still tenaciously cling to my belief that old people are stubborn.  (Wait a minute…)

cinevegWhile Mom isn’t back to full kitchen capacity, she’s been able to take over enough to allow me to retreat into my boudoir office environs and pick up where I left off with the blog. However, I’m sad to report that I don’t think Doris Day(s) is going to be returning to Thrilling Days of Yesteryear soon.  (Please…leave us not resort to embarrassing displays of grief.  Or displays of whooping it up with wild abandon, for that matter.)  Truth be told, each weekly Doris presentation takes up a lot of time: first, I have to watch the episode…then I have to spend time wondering why I watched the episode…but there’s also a lot of time spent in transcribing dialogue and gathering up screen captures…it really is a labor intensive process, and it’s just not going to be doable until things return to a sense of normalcy around here.  Despite her initial plans to fight everyone tooth-and-nail on this, Mom has discussed her situation with the surgeon and has agreed to undergo the surgery; this will get underway in the early part of January of next year.  There will also be a brief period of convalescence for mi madre, so don’t be surprised if the blog goes dark again at that time.

Doris and Jackie appear to be taking it well.

So much for the updates at Rancho Yesteryear—here’s some flickage that I sat down with recently:

I’ll Cry Tomorrow (1955) – Before winning a Best Actress Oscar for her role in 1958’s I Want to Live!, Susan Hayward had received four prior nominations beginning with her performance as an alcoholic singer in Smash-Up, the Story of a Woman (1947).  There was just something about tackling the roles of singing lushes that appealed to Hayward, because her fourth Academy Award nom came from playing the legendary Lillian Roth in the M-G-M biopic I’ll Cry Tomorrow.

Don Taylor, TDOY crush Virginia Gregg, and Susan Hayward in 1955’s I’ll Cry Tomorrow

Lillian Roth is a successful Broadway and film star whose career has been propelled a great deal by her ma Katie (Jo Van Fleet), the yardstick by which stage mothers are measured.  When her childhood sweetheart and fiancé (Ray Danton) dies on the opening night of her show, Roth starts a slow march toward depression and eventually the bottle (thanks to a nurse played by Virginia Gregg, which made me cackle to no end).  Her career in show bidness spirals downward, no thanks to her drinking and some really terrible choices in husbands (one of which is played by Richard Conte, who was such a rat bastard I was even repulsed by him…and I’ve seen Conte play some real wankers).  Lillian hits rock bottom, with a suicide attempt and a major case of the D.T.’s before finding redemption with Alcoholics Anonymous and a romance with her sponsor (Eddie Albert, who also appeared with Hayward in Smash Up).

Hayward mediates between Richard Conte (at left) and Tol Avery (right)

Had I been an Academy voter in 1955, my choice for Best Actress would have gone to Hayward because I thought she gave an incredible performance in Tomorrow—even better than in the film for which she did garner the trophy, I Want to Live!  (Hayward did get a consolation prize in snapping up Best Actress honors at Cannes.)  Sue is positively fearless in Tomorrow, never afraid to show just how ugly alcoholism can become (I was never completely sure how much of it was acting and how much was personal experience), and the supporting cast in this film is also first-rate: Fleet (outstanding as her domineering mother), Conte, Danton, Albert, etc.  (To be honest, though—I have always been bewildered at how Don Taylor succeeded in the moviemaking business; he’s fairly bland as Roth’s first husband.)  I also chuckled at seeing Peter Leeds as an A.A. member (“It’s too piercing, man…too piercing”) and This is Your Life host Ralph Edwards plays himself in a recreation of Roth’s appearance on that program (one of the few times someone was told in advance what Edwards had planned).  I was a little hesitant about watching I’ll Cry Tomorrow, but it was a most exhilarating experience (well, if you can call movies where people are out to destroy their liver exhilarating).

The Long, Hot Summer (1958) – Because I attended college in the South, many of the books I was required to read in English courses placed a heavy emphasis on Southern writers…and as such, I have a rather jaundiced view of a lot of them—case in point, the celebrated William Faulkner.  The Long, Hot Summer is comprised of several of Faulkner’s scribblings; 1938’s Spotted Horses (a novella), 1939’s Barn Burning, and the 1940 novel The Hamlet.

Joanne Woodward, Orson Welles, Anthony Franciosa, and Lee Remick in The Long, Hot Summer (1958)

But to be honest—Hot Summer comes across more as warmed-over Tennessee Williams: the story involves a no-‘count drifter named Ben Quick (Paul Newman) who drifts into the sleepy Mississippi town of Frenchman’s Bend, which functions under the iron fist of Will Varner (Orson Welles), owner of all of the bidnesses in town.  Varner likes the cut of Ben’s jib, and schemes to manacle him to his daughter Clara (Joanne Woodward) because she’s 23 and practically an old maid.  (Will’s not satisfied with running Frenchman’s Bend—he’s got a vested interest in the lives of his family as well.)  The senior Varner hires Ben to be a clerk in his general store…and then later extends an invitation for the ambitious Quick to live in Casa del Varner.  These overtures do not sit particularly well with Will’s son Jody (Anthony Franciosa), who fears being shoved out by the charismatic Ben.

I feel your pain, Orson.

At the Facebook page for my friend Cliff’s classic film website In the Balcony, I jokingly commented that I had spotted character great Byron Foulger in Hot Summer (he’s the farmer who’s a bit miffed that his barn has burned down in a sort of pre-credits sequence), which prompted Cliff to ask if it was necessary to watch anything else beyond that.  I had to be honest: unless you enjoy watching people overacting with fake Southern accents (okay, I will give Joanne Woodward a pass on this because she hails from Thomasville, GA) for two hours you’re probably going to want to avoid The Long, Hot Summer.  I bow to no one in my admiration for Orson Welles, but I was honestly embarrassed for him in this movie.  Orson took the gig because he owed Uncle Sam some back taxes but he later commented: “I hated making Long, Hot Summer. I’ve seldom been as unhappy in a picture.”

In reading the background on this picture, I learned that Newman (who nabbed Best Actor honors at Cannes) spent time in Clinton, Louisiana before filming getting into character by studying the mannerisms and accents of Southern men.  This does not explain, however, why Newman’s accent sounds the same as the one he used in Hud (1963), a movie that takes place in Texas.  Most of the actors in Summer lack an authenticity when it comes to Southern accents (it’s not as easy to do as you’d think) but I think Franciosa was the worst offender.  You can take the boy out of New York City but…well, you know how that goes.

Paul Newman and bride Woodward decide not to wait for the honeymoon.

If there was anything good to come out of this movie, it’s notable as the production where Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward met and married, instituting one of the most solid couplings in a town not known for marital longevity.  Hot Summer also jump-started the directorial career of Martin Ritt, who had been blacklisted in the industry for his political affiliations; he’d work again with Newman on five more theatrical films including Paris Blues (1961) and Hombre (1967) as well as helm such TDOY favorites as Sounder (1972), The Front (1976), and Murphy’s Romance (1985).

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1968) – I had avoided for many years this adaptation of Carson McCullers’ first novel (yes, I had to read this one, too, because Southern writers in college) since I couldn’t quite see how it was possible to do a movie version.  As it turns out, it’s a difficult task—but director Robert Ellis Miller and screenwriter Thomas C. Ryan do a not-too-shabby job.  Deaf-mute John Singer (Alan Arkin) relocates to a small Southern town in order to be closer to his best friend Spiros Antonapoulous (also deaf and mute, and played by legendary kiddie show host Chuck McCann), who’s been placed in an institution.  Singer unwittingly has an impact on the lives of many of his fellow residents—a young woman (Sondra Locke) painfully transitioning from adolescence to adulthood; a proud African-American physician (Percy Rodriguez) disillusioned with the choices his daughter (Cicely Tyson) has made in life, etc.—but his condition makes it difficult for him to communicate how unfulfilling his own existence really is.

Alan Arkin and an unbelievably not-terrible Sondra Locke in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1968)

I know this is a biased opinion—but I am a huge (yoooooooge) Alan Arkin fan…and in a world that makes more sense, the actor would spend much of his free time polishing the Oscar that instead went to Cliff Robertson in 1968 for Charly.  (He had to settle for the New York Film Critics Circle honors, which just goes to show that critics based in the Big Apple know the score.)  Arkin gives an incredible performance in Hunter, and I never thought I’d actually write this…but I thought Sondra Locke (who received an Oscar nom along with her co-star) was good as the young woman whose enthusiasm for classical music Arkin determinedly stokes.  (The scene where Locke, confused after losing her virginity to the older brother of a classmate, pushes Arkin away literally tore out my shriveled little heart.)  I jokingly commented to Mom as we watched this: “Just when did Sondra Locke become such a shitty actress?”  (My esteemed blogging colleague and BBFF Stacia has a dissenting opinion—she doubts that Locke was ever good, and being Clint Eastwood’s significant other only helped her career—but she did it with her trademark humor: “She was once passable—now she’s shitty!”)  In all honesty, I think Collin Wilcox (Paxton) would have been a better choice for the part of Mick Kelly (To Kill a Mockingbird’s Mary Badham auditioned for the role but was rebuffed).

I found the backstory of Rodriguez and Tyson to be the most interesting in the film (I would have watched an entire movie of that) and was sorry to see Stacy Keach (his theatrical film debut) depart so early, though I knew it was coming (Keach’s character is a labor agitator in the novel—in the movie he’s mostly just a drifter).  Overall, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is a bit dramatically uneven but a most worthwhile film, with gorgeous cinematography from James Wong Howe and an evocative score courtesy of Oscar winner Dave Grusin.

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