Speaking Truth to Power in Tinseltown

Olivia de Havilland portrait

She is 102 years old. Her first screen appearance was in 1935 in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In 1939 she co-starred in one of the most popular films of all time, Gone with the Wind. She was romantically linked with billionaire Howard Hughes, actor Jimmy Stewart, and director John Huston. She has won two Academy Awards for Best Actress, been nominated for three other Oscars, and been awarded or nominated for multiple other acting trophies.

She changed the face of Hollywood in the mid-1940s with the De Havilland Law, which helped terminate the oppressive “studio system” by freeing artists from tyrannical labor contracts.

She was made a Dame by Queen Elizabeth II. She received the highest order of merit in France, the Légion d’Honneur, from Nicolas Sarkozy. She was awarded the National Medal of Arts by George W. Bush. Since 1956, she has lived in the same three-story house in Paris.

Olivia de Havilland is the last surviving actor of 1930s Hollywood, and one of the last of its Golden Age. She’s also the last person one would think would be compelled to file another lawsuit, this one an appeal to the United States Supreme Court. But in these surreal days of infantile tweets by U.S. presidents, when up is down and down is up…anything is possible.

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In 2017, a mini-series called Feud: Bette and Joan came out on FX Networks. It concerns actress Bette Davis, who was supposedly very feisty, and actress Joan Crawford, supposedly extremely vain (even for Hollywood). The two notoriously clashed during and after the 1962 production of the macabre film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? The recent Feud stars Susan Sarandon as Davis, and Jessica Lange as Crawford.

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Movie still from Baby Jane.  Crawford is on left, Davis is on right.

Olivia de Havilland knew and worked with both Davis and Crawford. Her character, portrayed by Catherine Zeta-Jones, narrates Feud. However, de Havilland was never consulted before or during the making of the series.  

I have not seen Feud, so I can’t comment on its artistic merits. But judging from the subject matter, it sounds not unlike most of the glossy soap-opera trash that Hollywood often promotes as serious “drama” today. (According to de Havilland’s 112-page petition, the mini-series is devoted to “the theme of women actors cat-fighting, using vulgar language, and backstabbing one another.”)

Miss de Havilland’s lawsuit argues that Feud and executive producer Ryan Murphy (previous credit: The People v. O.J. Simpson), take considerable liberties with the truth, to put it politely. But this isn’t unusual in Hollywood (or anywhere else, for that matter). Ever since D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation in 1915, which depicts the Ku Klux Klan as heroic, historical truth has been a malleable commodity in moving pictures. Usually, the factual acrobatics are for artistic and commercial benefit. Sometimes there’s a political or social agenda involved, as with Griffith’s film.

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Davis and de Havilland during the Baby Jane follow-up, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). De Havilland replaced Crawford early on. (Joe Farrington/NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images)

But sometimes these artistic liberties cross a threshold and create false impressions that have a deleterious effect on peoples’ character. Such is the claim of Miss de Havilland and her legal team.

Specifically, and related directly to her, de Havilland objects to a scene where she refers to her late sister, actress Joan Fontaine (with whom de Havilland had a cold relationship), as a “bitch.” She also objects to a scene where she makes snide remarks about Frank Sinatra’s alcohol use. The fact that Feud is presented as semi-documentary lends additional weight to de Havilland’s grievance.

Now, these Tinseltown skirmishes may seem petty and inconsequential to most of us. We’ve been raised in an age of constant media diversion, where fact and fantasy often coexist and overlap, and where manners are seemingly…well… “gone with the wind.” We live in a much cruder time. But Olivia de Havilland is from an earlier era. A time when unwritten codes of conduct were adhered to, and not everything—whether fact or fantasy—was splashed onto a screen. Freedom of speech and artistic license are one thing. But libeling someone in the name of art is another.

“Tens of millions of people* viewed “Feud,” and for a new generation, most likely all they know of Petitioner is found in the unauthorized lies and mischaracterization of her life, her work, and her nature as put forward in that series…This false portrayal has damaged Petitioner’s reputation.” (from Petition for a Writ of Certiorari, Oliva de Havilland, DBE, Petitioner v. FX Networks, LLC and Pacific 2.1 Entertainment Group, Inc.).

The Supreme Court appeal was filed in September. It follows an original petition in March 2017, which was struck down by two appeals courts, including the California Supreme Court. In both cases, Murphy and FX Networks successfully used the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to justify their “artistic license” to reputedly stretch the truth and stain the character of both living and dead persons.

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De Havilland, circa 1940 (Photofest)

In earlier essays, longitudes has touched on issues related to the First Amendment, which protects Americans’ freedom of speech, religion, press, and right to peaceably assemble. Television stars and their supporters have flaunted the Constitution to defend the right to employment after employer termination for vulgar, bigoted remarks (Duck Dynasty vs. U.S. Constitution). Armed political activists have clumsily brandished the Constitution while illegally occupying federal land (This Land is Your Land: Domestic Terrorism in Oregon).

We’ve also seen the U.S. Supreme Court misinterpret the First Amendment in order to protect corporations and enable them to donate unlimited amounts of money to the political candidates they hope will serve their purposes (Citizens United v. FEC).

Longitudes is an enthusiastic fan of Olivia de Havilland. Anyone who has seen either The Heiress or The Snake Pit is aware of her immense talent, not to mention her beauty. But that’s not why this blog supports her in her campaign for truth and decency. It’s because the First Amendment was not intended by the Founders to protect businesses like FX Networks from fictionalizing, in a negative manner, the words and actions of people in the pursuit of commerce, and in the guise of “art.”

Unfortunately, judging from certain recent court decisions where the First Amendment is involved, and the unprecedented clout of U.S. industry today, longitudes doesn’t hold out much hope for Miss de Havilland.

Then again—like a rubber ball bouncing between walls in a closed room—American laws have never been fixed, and their trajectories are purely determined by whomever is doing the bouncing at any given time.

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Promo card of de Havilland in play Alice in Wonderland, 1933.

* Variety magazine reported that 5.1 million people total watched Feud when first broadcast.

(Header photo: Laura Stevens, Variety)

Halloween Movie Review: THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS

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Three years ago around Halloween, I published a list of five psychological horror films that I considered some of the best in the genre (Do NOT Watch Alone…). These are films about the mind that will keep you awake at night.

The film I’m reviewing this time isn’t disturbing like the others. But it has wonderful atmosphere, and I can’t think of another film like it. Critic Leonard Maltin calls it a “near-brilliant mixture of humor and horror.” It is Roman Polanski’s 1967 satire The Fearless Vampire Killers, or Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck (known as Dance of the Vampires in Europe). *

No matter what you think of Roman Polanski’s sexual imbroglios, as with the great Woody Allen, it’s beyond dispute he’s one of cinema’s most talented writers-producers-directors. His 1965 British movie Repulsion is a tour-de-force of psychological horror (and made my aforesaid list). Two years after Repulsion, he made this more lighthearted film.

Since Tod Browning’s classic 1931 film Dracula starring Bela Lugosi, vampire films had become progressively stale. The bottom came with the asinine Billy the Kid Versus Dracula in 1966. (Don’t watch this unless you have a large supply of alcohol on hand…enough to drink yourself into stupefaction.) So it was about time someone knocked the stuffing out of the vampire genre.

(Has anyone yet knocked the stuffing out of ubiquitous vampire books??)

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The movie plot is simple: in the mid-19th century, a scatterbrained German researcher named Professor Abronsius (Jack MacGowran) and his bewildered assistant Alfred (Polanski) travel through the snowy Transylvanian mountains to a small village in search of a vampire who supposedly lives nearby. While Abronsius is obsessed with tracking down and killing the bloodsucker, Alfred is more dazzled by the lasses in the local inn, including the lovely redheaded Sarah (Polanski’s future wife, Sharon Tate), whom he encounters while she’s soaping herself in a bubble bath.

The vampire, Count von Krolock (Ferdy Mayne), disrupts Alfred’s attempt at courtship when he kidnaps Sarah one night. Abronsius and Alfred then track him through the snow to his castle perched on the mountaintop. Bag of vampire-slaying tricks in hand, Abronsius is determined to destroy von Krolock, and Alfred is equally determined to rescue his damsel before she turns into a hollow-eyed blood bank. Without giving anything away, Abronsius and Alfred undergo various nail-biting (and neck-biting) escapades at the castle.

Expressive Irish actor MacGowran is perfect as Abronsius, with his faux pedagogy reminiscent of the standup comic “Professor” Irwin Corey (the “World’s Foremost Authority”). Instead of scientific jargon and Pyrex tubes, though, Abronsius speaks vampire clichés and wields garlic (“GAR-leek”), a wooden stake and mallet, and various crucifixes. Polanski makes a good shell-shocked stumblebum assistant. Tate, one of the most beautiful actresses in Hollywood at the time, doesn’t act much, or well, but she’s a visual delight. (Her horrific fate only two years later lends this film a tragic edge).

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Bathtub scene with Tate and Polanski (photo Turner Classic Movies)

In addition, Ferdy Mayne as Count von Krolock gives veteran vampire actor Christopher Lee a run for his money, with his murky, imposing stature and ominous, throaty voice.

But the minor characters provide most of the funny moments. There’s the hunchback who serves as von Krolock’s personal “Igor,” with his gargantuan buck teeth and Beatle hairstyle. In an inspired move, Polanski gives von Krolock ’s creepy son Herbert (Iain Quarrier) a homosexual spin; Herbert is as sexually attracted to Alfred as he is thirsty for his blood. Best of all is actor Alfie Bass, who is Sarah’s father, and the innkeeper.  After turning vampire, he struggles to locate a comfortable place in the castle in which to situate his coffin. His exaggerated Yiddishness is hilarious.

The movie is filled with many moments of visual humor. The moonlit snowy landscape, courtesy of the Italian Alps, is another attractive feature. As is the shimmering music, particularly the psychedelic-Gothic score that accompanies the opening credits, created by the same person, European jazz musician Christopher Komeda, who later composed the score for Polanski’s universally acclaimed Rosemary’s Baby.

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If you’re like me, you’ll get an adrenaline rush every time the doorbell rings on Halloween night. And if you’re really like me, after the doorbell stops ringing, you’ll plop yourself in your armchair and get a rush from a good horror flick. My suggestion this year is Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers.

And if you one day find yourself in Transylvania… beware of isolated mountain villages that have inns with “gar-leek” hanging over the front door!

(* Originally released in the U.K., The Fearless Vampire Killers was butchered by MGM when released in the U.S. Twelve minutes of the film were deleted, a cartoonish opening sequence was added, and MacGowran’s voice was given a deliberately comical and ill-suited dubbing. Polanski was understandably outraged, and campaigned to have the original version restored, which didn’t happen until the early 1980s.)

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On Top of Mount Whitney

View from Mt. Whitney

Just a few pics from my recent hike up Mount Whitney.  I think this may represent my last strenuous hike.  It was a great experience, but it was also an ass-kicker.  Going straight from the Ohio Valley to 14,500 feet can wreak havoc with your brain and lungs.  But, I summited…and survived to tell.

(Next year, I’m limiting it to a couple days in the Scottish highlands.)

Mt. Whitney Portal road

The Whitney Portal Road from Lone Pine, California looked innocent enough.

Sunset at Mt. Whitney Trail Camp2

Base camp (“Trail Camp”) was at 12,000 feet.  Rock everywhere, a narrow crevasse between cliffs that created a howling wind chute.  No rest for the wicked when 50 mph winds whip your tent all night, and your skull feels like it’s being squeezed in a vise.

 

Trail partner A.J.

On the summit hike, I hooked up with a 39-year-old guy from Daytona Beach named A.J.  Equally fatigued, we doubled over every 300 feet or so to catch our breath, allowing the stronger hikers to pass by.

Climbing toward Whitney

In addition to altitude sickness (acute mountain sickness, or AMS), I suffer from vertigo.  There were several massive drop-offs where I forced myself not to look down, leaning into the mountain, grasping the rock, and praying that my footing was solid.  Many hikers, unbelievably,  follow this trail at night (using headlamps).  Guess there’s a reason why people have died trying to summit.

Mt. Whitney shelter

Mt. Whitney plaque

Mount Whitney is the highest point in the contiguous United States.  The only signs you’ve arrived at the top are a plaque, an old stone shelter littered with graffiti, and your fellow hikers, celebrating in their own ways.

I stayed a second night at Trail Camp on the way down.  The wind was just as vicious, and my headache was only slightly better.  Blood was now clogging my sinuses.

On the way back to Whitney Portal, and Lone Pine, I hiked with a retired 67-year-old man named Dennis.  He and his wife had driven up from Phoenix (his wife stayed in a B&B at Lone Pine).  Dennis was a veteran backpacker, but was unable to summit due to allergies and lack of sleep due to the wind at Trail Camp.  He, too, admitted he was retiring from strenuous hikes.

After returning to Lone Pine, I rested up in the Dow Villa Motel, which dates to the 1920s, then visited a nearby film museum.  I did not know that this area, with its scenic Alabama Hills, is legendary for providing the setting for hundreds of Hollywood Westerns, both silent films and talkies.  In fact, many of the greats at one time stayed at the Dow Villa: Tom Mix, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, John Wayne, among others.

Lone Pine Film Museum

Not sure if Humphrey Bogart stayed in Lone Pine when he made the movie High Sierra.  When I bumped into him at the museum, he wasn’t talking.

After a modest recovery in the relaxing and historic Dow Villa, I hiked for a few days in Yosemite.  Then hitched/shuttled to Reno, Nevada to catch a plane home.

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In summation, I’ve always thought I was immune to altitude sickness.  But I learned otherwise.  If any prospective daredevil mountain climbers are reading this, make sure you become acclimated to higher altitudes before attempting any major climb.  Severe AMS can cause hospitalization, and even death.

Suffice to say, I’m looking forward to the gentler peaks of Scotland’s West Highland Way.

Top 'o the World, Ma

“Top ‘o the world, Ma!”