A Hollywood Legend Shares Her Wisdom

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Last month, I wrote about 102-year-old actress Olivia de Havilland’s lawsuit against FX Networks for defamation of character, instigated by that network’s unflattering and unauthorized depiction of her in the first-season installment of its pay-television series,  Feud.

As often happens when I write something, my curiosity led me deeper into the subject. I did some internet clicking, and discovered a 2 ½-hour interview with de Havilland from October 5, 2006 (back when she was a mere 90 years old). The interview was conducted by the Academy of Achievement, of which de Havilland is an inducted member. Most of the interview consists of her reminiscences of her childhood, family, and acting career. It’s a fascinating overview of a life well-lived, possessing great cultural value.

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De Havilland in Oscar-nominated role in 1948 film “The Snake Pit” (Getty Images)

But at the tail end, she holds forth on subjects more expansive and contemporary: the importance of experiencing foreign cultures; literacy and book reading; the lessons of warfare; the European Union; and the American Dream. Her views on these subjects resonated with me.

However, (obviously), de Havilland has more street cred than longitudes. She’s been around a bit longer and experienced a bit more. She was born in Japan to British parents, raised in the U.S., where she became a citizen and had a long movie career, and she’s lived in France for many years. Her words carry slightly more weight than this author’s.

So, here, I’m doing something a little unusual: I’m going to shut up and let someone else talk. I’m re-printing that conclusion of the Academy of Achievement interview. (To view the entire interview, click here, or to read the transcript, click here.)

Please note: this interview occurred a year before the iPhone became embedded in global culture…and ten years before the election of Donald Trump.

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“The Last Belle of Cinema,” Washington, D.C., October 5, 2006 (original source: Academy of Achievement)

Academy of Achievement: You’ve said that in addition to going to college, you believe that American young people should travel abroad.

Olivia de Havilland: I think it is terribly important for this country that the young have at least one year of university in some foreign country. It’s extremely important to understand another culture, another people. Here we are isolated, this huge continent, isolated from the rest of the world by two great oceans. passportWe don’t understand other peoples. It’s so ironic, because we are made up of people of every race whose origin—origins were other countries. We are almost completely ignorant, and we are rather arrogant in our ignorance, and we are going to make terrible blunders that are injurious to other peoples abroad, and in the end, to ourselves. It’s imperative.

Otherwise, we will be a retrogressive nation…and we are on our way. I know three university students: one is going to do postgraduate work, a brilliant girl; another, who I think will also do postgraduate work; another who is 19, a sophomore. The 19-year-old has a capacity for analysis which would be counted as absolutely brilliant in a 45-year-old woman. (But) she can’t spell. She knows her way around a laptop with these mechanisms that spell for you, but she can’t spell, didn’t think it was necessary. Neither can these other two girls. Top students they were. Can’t spell. Now, that’s retrogressive. I’ll bet you anything they can’t add either, because they’ve got the calculator. Also, one of the reasons they can’t spell is they will watch television, you see, instead of reading books. They won’t look up anything in their dictionary even. It is all done by pressing buttons.

girl readingReading! Think of what the brain goes through! It is a very, very special function. When you read, you visualize. You imagine the characters. When you go and watch television, it is not only physically passive—reading is physically passive, certainly—but it is all done for you. It does arouse your interest, your full attention, and your emotions, but by a different process. The other process, the capacity to envision yourself, is very important to develop. If you do that, you are apt to learn to spell anyway, because you will see the difference between words that sound the same, like “manor,” m-a-n-or, and “manner,” m-a-n-n-e-r, and how they are used, how they are spelled differently. Oh, it is imperative, and I think something has to be done to encourage them to learn to spell, to read, to add and subtract.

Academy of Achievement: You’ve lived in France for many years now. You speak French, and you have written very charmingly about life in France. Do you think that living there has changed your perspective?

Olivia de Havilland: It’s been an extraordinary experience, absolutely extraordinary to learn about another culture and other people. It is an immense privilege and an exciting adventure. Not only that, but just living in Europe has been an extraordinary experience, because I have been living in a culture of peace. Those 19-year-old American boys—Omaha Beach, and up and down that coast—they didn’t die for nothing. Think of it. Europe, with all these different countries, each country separate from the other in terms of history, culture, language, all of them, for 2,000 years and more, at war with each other, generation after generation. And all of a sudden, after World War II, they didn’t want to kill each other anymore, and we now have the European Union. It is a miracle. And the culture there is, indeed, a culture of peace, and the thought of solving a problem, a disagreement through war…unthinkable. Unthinkable.

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Cemetery near Omaha Beach, Normandy, France (site of 1944 D-Day invasion)

Imagine if the United States had been created 2,000 years ago and from then until now, Nevada had declared war on California regularly all through those centuries. If Florida had been at war with Alabama, North Dakota with South Dakota, Oregon with Washington and Idaho and Montana and the rest of them, Nebraska, Mississippi, all at war with each other for 2,000 years, and suddenly, one day, they decide they don’t want to kill each other anymore. That’s what’s happened in Europe. War is a very stupid way to settle a disagreement. Unthinkable. Won’t do. And in Europe, you have the feeling that the whole human race has been raised to another level by what has happened there.

Academy of Achievement: What is your sense of the American Dream? Does it still hold true for you?

Olivia de Havilland: I think we have abandoned our dream, and we must get back to it. We must. We absolutely must.

APTOPIX France Olivia de Havilland

(AP photo)

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.

***

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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Fascism for Beginners, Part 3: Torpor

Our local public television station has been airing two excellent films lately, both related to fascist politics. One of them is the 1962 version of THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, about American P.O.W.s hypnotized by Reds during the Korean War. There’s much more to this brilliant movie, but if you haven’t already seen it, I won’t divulge the plot.

The other movie is JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG. It’s loosely based on fact, and it concerns the post-WWII trial of four German judges who, under the tent of Nazism, helped carry out a sterilization program and sentenced innocent people to death.

One of the judges is a rabid Nazi who shows no remorse. Two of the judges are weak and confused. But the fourth judge, “Ernst Janning,” is a tragic figure.

Highly intelligent, respected both inside and outside of Germany for his judicial knowledge, Janning is a man of great ideals who holds himself above his less enlightened peers. But during the Hitler years, he slowly and inexorably became corrupted. He despises what the Nazis did, but he also despises himself. He is tormented by the knowledge that, because of his actions, he’s turned his entire life into “excrement.”

The defense attorney wages an admirable but futile battle to exonerate Janning, who is a hero of his. At one point, American prosecutors show film footage of liberation of the concentration camps (this is actual footage, and it’s not for the squeamish). The defense attorney becomes so desperate, he tries to justify the judges’ actions by blaming other nations and individuals for Germany’s descent into barbarism.

I’d like to briefly discuss these accomplices, who also figure largely in William Shirer’s book The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.

Joseph Stalin

Russia: In April 1945, the first troops to enter bombed-out Berlin were the Russians, hated by both Hitler and the Western democracies (Joseph Stalin was as fascistic as Hitler or Mussolini, just a different political stripe). Had not the Russians repelled German forces at Stalingrad in 1942-43 – maybe the bloodiest confrontation in the history of man – the war would have had a different outcome. But in August 1939, Hitler and Stalin had signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact. This treaty enabled the two dictatorships to mutually carve up Poland and Eastern Europe.

Stalin was as brutal, cunning, and power-obsessed as Hitler. He just didn’t share Hitler’s pathological theories on race. Stalin’s great mistake was that, like so many others, he trusted Hitler. But Hitler despised Communism almost as much as Judaism, and he ridiculed the Pact from the moment it was signed. Thus, it wasn’t surprising when, against his top generals’ advice, Hitler invaded Russia in June 1941. Stalin’s uncharacteristic coziness with Hitler during the Pact allowed the Germans to build their military and expand their territory for a period of two long years.

The result: hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, Jews, Bolsheviks, and resistance fighters in the East were ultimately rounded up and exterminated by Nazi Einsatzgruppen.

Nazi “Einsatzgruppen” executing a Ukrainian Jewish mother and her child (whom she’s clutching to her chest). This 1942 photo was never intended for distribution, but was somehow smuggled outside the Nazi sphere.

France: France had an opportunity to stop Hitler early on. On March 7, 1936, German forces illegally broke the 1925 Locarno Treaty and entered the demilitarized zone in the French Rhineland. Author Shirer was present when Hitler made the announcement to the German Reichstag, and recorded in his diary the disgusting scene that follows:

All the militarism in their German blood surges to their heads… Their hands are raised in slavish salute, their faces now contorted with hysteria, their mouths wide open, shouting, shouting, their eyes, burning with fanaticism, glued on the new god, the Messiah.

Had the French stood up to this blatant act of aggression, it would have rendered Hitler weak and unreliable in the eyes of Germans, and possibly shortened the reign of the Third Reich. In 1936, the German army was not the juggernaut it later became. Additionally, army Commander-in-Chief Werner von Blomberg had already decided on retreat in case of French countermeasures. But France had been devastated by the previous war and was “paralyzed by internal strife” and “sinking into defeatism.” Hitler’s military coup in the Rhineland set the stage for similar maneuvers in Austria and Czechoslovakia, and ultimately the invasion of Poland.

Neville Chamberlain

Great Britain: under the terms of the Locarno Treaty, Great Britain was obligated to assist France after Germany’s invasion of the Rhineland. Instead, it incomprehensibly believed Hitler when he assured the European democracies that he only desired peace, and that his actions weren’t hostile. Then, in 1938, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain brokered with Hitler the Munich Agreement, which allowed Germany to annex parts of Czechoslovakia (this after allowing the Nazis to force an Anschluss and annex Austria, creating a “Greater (Nazi) Germany”).

Chamberlain’s continued appeasement of Hitler was greeted with huge approval by British citizens and Parliament, since it prevented outright war (although succeeding Prime Minister Winston Churchill remained highly critical). In reality, it merely delayed the inevitable, for it permitted Germany to strengthen its armed forces and opened the door for Hitler to invade Poland, which officially started World War II. Soon, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France also toppled to the Germans.

Many of those same British who applauded the Munich Agreement would soon be huddling in bomb shelters while the German Luftwaffe roared overhead.

***

There’s one other “accomplice” I’d like to talk about. But I’ll wait until the fourth and final installment of “Fascism for Beginners” to discuss my home country.

(Header image: detail from the “Hell Panel” from “Garden of Earthly Delights” by Hieronymous Bosch)

Carnival of Familial Souls

 

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In my last post, I talked about my grandmother. Sadly – and I don’t fault her for this – she was merely a sheet of newspaper that the wind blew toward me one November day. But since I’m plucking walnuts from the family tree, I might as well keep plucking, and climb out on another limb.

These kinfolk, to my knowledge, never experienced forced incarceration like Grandma. But they may be even more interesting, if only because they managed to circulate amongst “normal” society. It’s no coincidence that three of them share the same bloodline as Grandma.

All are long deceased, I’m not using last names, and there are no living descendants, so I shouldn’t need to worry about a libel suit. If their ghosts visit me some night of the full moon… well, if I can avoid strangulation or suffocation, their specters will provide enthralling material for a future nonsensical longitudes post.

Grandma had an older sister named Blanche. According to my dad (who heard it from his dad), Blanche was even more “peculiar” than Grandma. My aunt claims that Blanche used to cook meals while dancing around in her wedding gown. Since the name Blanche is French for “white,” this makes sense. Maybe it was the only garment she owned, because my mom says that, after she drove her husband to his death by suicide (my aunt’s theory) or a broken heart (my dad’s theory), she was reduced to scrubbing toilets in Penn Station (for you younger readers, I’m not referring to the fast-food chain, but a historic passenger terminal in New York City).

But this was during the Depression, and I’m sure a lot of people felt lucky to be employed scrubbing toilets.

Blanche had two children, Virginia and John. John, like his heartbroken and/or suicidal father, died mysteriously at a young age. John fancied himself a poet. My dad knew him and said he was “a real oddball.” But my dad hated non-pragmatic things like poetry, so maybe that’s why he considered John an oddball.

After John died, his mother (Blanche, the toilet cleaner with the wedding dress) paid for a large copper caricature of him to be embedded in his tombstone, accompanied by the words “The Forgotten Poet.”

(If this is getting too weird for y’all, I won’t be offended if you stop reading).

Virginia (John’s sister) was the most normal one in the family. But even she had her idiosyncrasies. She deliberately married a gay guy named Bown (the silent film buff who was in my last post). Now, I’m all for gay marriage. But I’ve never heard of a gay man and a straight woman exchanging vows. Do people do that? What the heck was he thinking?

Like my piano-playing grandmother and failed-poet cousin, Virginia and Bown were artsy-fartsy. But their domain was theater.

They ran an acting studio in Manhattan in the 1950s. Some of their plays were written by Bown, who seems to have been sort of an Ed Wood of New York theater. One of the plays was a one-character oddity starring a woman who was both deaf and blind. This was a very compassionate and progressive thing for Bown to attempt. I’m assuming the actress wasn’t also dumb. Now that would have been really avant-garde.

Even though this “Professional Actors’ Studio” was off-off-off-off-Broadway, a few big names did pass through. One of the students was television and movie star John Forsythe. So was either Ann Blyth (MILDRED PIERCE) or Anne Baxter (ALL ABOUT EVE)… one of those Annie B’s, anyway. And Kirk Douglas briefly was a guest instructor. Probably very briefly.

My impression is that Bown was the mastermind behind this troupe, and Virginia merely acted. Or, at least, tried to. I Googled their studio once and came across a review by noted theater critic Kenneth Tynan of a production of theirs. Virginia had the lead role in the play. Tynan referred to her as a “rock-like creature.” The play was called “Queen Lear.”

(Folks, I’m not making this stuff up).

This acting studio seemed to exist in a New York City nether world: it aspired to artistic greatness, but was permanently stuck in mediocrity (similar to this blog… hey, at least we aspire). There’s little evidence it even existed, other than one or two small newspaper blurbs. Bown closed it down abruptly one day after he caught several of his actors backstage smoking marijuana. It wasn’t so much that he objected to the drug’s illegality. It was because the incident deeply saddened him: he felt that acting was the highest “high” in life, and one shouldn’t need anything else.

Later on, Bown amassed one of the largest collections of silent films in the country. It’s now preserved at Phillips Exeter Academy in Massachusetts.

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Well, there you have it. Bown, Virginia, Blanche, and John the Forgotten Poet. Somewhere I’m sure they’re happily munching popcorn together while watching one of Bown’s favorite silent films.

It may sound like I’m poking fun at these people. But I honestly don’t mean any harm. I’m sure all were very nice (maybe even Blanche). I just find curios like these interesting, and they definitely make for great conversation. Every family seems to have at least one member who’s a little “off:” the free-spirited uncle, the bawdy aunt, the self-destructive sibling, the perverted grandpa. I just happen to have several.

Whether or not I’m a similar curio, or whether or not I’m evolving into one, I’ll leave for others to judge.

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Elegance in a Shuttered Room

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I saw her only once.

It was Thanksgiving Day, 1970. At my aunt’s house in New Jersey. After dinner, Bown showed one of his silent movies. She sat like a tiny sparrow on the sofa. But there was a large elephant in the room. Why was everyone acting so strange?

I didn’t see her the first 12 years of my life, and never again the last 10 years of hers.

When I was very young, I used to ask my parents about her. “Why don’t we ever visit Grandma?” And they always told me that she was “in the hospital.” It wasn’t until my teen years, when I was in my dad’s study and accidentally-on-purpose read an opened letter that she’d written to him, that I finally understood why she was always “in the hospital.”

Ghosts crowd the young child’s fragile, eggshell mind.

My grandmother was born in 1895 in an upscale section of Harlem. Her mother was descended from one of the first families of New York, and her father from early Massachusetts Puritans. She must have begun piano studies at an early age, because she eventually became so talented, she was invited to tour with composer Victor Herbert. But it never happened.

In 1918 she married my grandpa. A more unlikely pairing you couldn’t imagine. He was from central Pennsylvania farm stock and 15 years older. He was a practical New York businessman, she a musical romantic. According to my aunt, he’d had a date with her older sister, Blanche, at Delmonico’s. Afterwards, Blanche invited him to her Harlem brownstone to meet the family. He took one look at the younger sister and was besotted. Poor Blanche.

She gave birth to my dad in 1922, and my aunt two years later. Maybe raising two children was too much for her. She probably had something that she’d inherited. Could it have been from her grandfather, the Civil War naval captain who was court-martialed? No one knows.

In 1930, she entered the hospital for six months, but was released. A year later she entered for good. Permanent vacation. Imposed communal living for the next 50 years. Jeezus. That’s a lot of piano-playing in the day room.

My dad never talked about her. She wasn’t at his wedding. Early in his marriage to Mom, he told her “I never had a mother.” But here’s a quirky upside: her absence brought him very close to his father. “Dad could have left her, and nobody would have faulted him. My dad adopted his dad’s strength of character.

I remember a few things from that Thanksgiving Day. I had a Craig reel-to-reel tape recorder, and I taped conversations in the kitchen while the turkey roasted. Goofing off with my cousin and brothers. Dallas playing Green Bay. George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” all over the radio.

And there are one or two photos of the meal. Bown, married to Aunt Blanche’s daughter, wearing a pin-striped suit, sitting erect with his hands folded on the table, a benign smile on his face. Grandma is at the head of the table, with her hands up to her face, her mouth open, as if surprised, tired, or confused. Her hair is gray and frizzy. She looks small and insignificant. And I remember the other adults, including my noble dad, treating her gently but awkwardly, as if she might break any moment.

Then came the movie. I remember the dark, claustrophobic living room with the thick, Persian rug, and the musty but pleasant smell of old things. A step into antiquity. The movie was “The Thief of Bagdad,” starring dashing Douglas Fairbanks. It was released in 1924, six years before Grandma went into exile.

I remember Bown acting as master of ceremonies and working his bulky black movie projector. He gave a florid introduction, then intermittent narration. Mainly, I remember his politeness to Grandma. “What do you think of the motion picture, Mrs. Kurtz?” he must have asked her three or four times. And Grandma – her eyes blinking in the glow from the movie screen, with God knows what fantastic thoughts and images ricocheting through her broken brain – gave the same response every time:

“Very elegant.”

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When You Have to Shoot, SHOOT (Don’t Talk): The Revisionist Western

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A man lies in a wooden bathtub filled with soap suds. His face is dotted with beard stubble and beads of sweat. There are pockmarks punched into his left cheek and a bloody gash above his right eyebrow. A leather, string necklace dangles from his neck. He licks his dirty finger then digs inside his ear.

Suddenly, the wooden, saloon-style doors swing open and a one-armed man brandishing a six-shooter bursts into the room.

“I been lookin’ for you for eight months,” he croaks. “Whenever I SHOULDA had a gun in my RIGHT hand, I thought of you. Now I find you exactly in the position that suits me. I had lotsa time to learn how to shoot with my LEFT.”

There’s the sound of a click, then four bursts of gunfire, as suds spray from the tub. The one-armed man spins back through the door, topples over a table, and lands on a broken bed. He groans and struggles to get upright. The bathtub guy rests his gun barrel on the swinging door, and fires one final shot.

In a gruff Mexican accent, he says “When you have to shoot, SHOOT. Don’t talk.”

The entire scene lasts almost two minutes. But only twenty seconds is dialog.

If you’re a fan of Clint Eastwood, you probably know this scene. It’s one of many memorable moments from the Sergio Leone-directed “Spaghetti Western” entitled “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” Although Eastwood’s the star, Eli Wallach (the Mexican in the bathtub, named “Tuco”) and bad guy Lee Van Cleef help make this film one of the great “revisionist” Westerns. Even if you’ve never seen it, you’re surely familiar with the title and the music, which are now part of popular culture.

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Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach set the standard for “buddy” movies

It’s Oscar time again, and, surprisingly, two movies nominated this year for awards are Westerns (The Revenant and The Hateful Eight). It gives me an opportunity to talk about some of my favorite Westerns, with “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” at the top of the list.

One hears the term “revisionist” a lot, but it’s usually negative. Revisionist history often implies embellishing or altering historical fact to suit an agenda. But Revisionist Westerns were intended to bring more realism to a film genre, and (in my opinion) they improved the genre. Nothing against John Ford, John Wayne, or Gary Cooper, who made some of the most noteworthy Westerns in Tinseltown. But I prefer cowboys who have a little tobacco juice on their whiskers (if you know what I mean).

Before the 1960s, and dating to the silent film era of the 1920s, movie and television Westerns were extraordinarily popular, but very formulaic. With only a few exceptions, there were good guys and bad guys, and nothing in-between. The actors looked like they’d just stepped from the fitting room at J.C. Penny. The dialog was clean and predictable. Even the violence was clean, with maybe a spot of grey, at most, to reveal blood. If a good guy was shot, he always managed to take a few moments to gasp some poignant last words.

Women were limited to secondary roles as wives or sweethearts. American Indians were always portrayed by white actors, and they were always the evil aggressor. If Mexicans were depicted at all, they were generally lazy and subservient (a notable exception being in the Marlon Brando vehicle, Viva Zapata).

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William Holden in “The Wild Bunch”

But in the 1960s and early ‘70s, America went through many changes, and these changes affected how movies were made, including Westerns. Realism began to displace romanticism, and Westerns became more cynical and critical of the motives and actions of frontier lawmen, settlers, Christian missionaries, government agents, and the U.S. Army. Westerns reflected the times in which they were made.

In addition to theme and tone, style changed as well. European directors like Leone had a lot to do with this. I already devoted a whole blog post to Spaghetti Westerns (Spaghetti Western Feast), so I won’t reiterate here. But these foreign-made Revisionist Westerns greatly influenced Hollywood. They emphasized realistic cinematography, action and atmosphere over dialog, authentic costuming and makeup, and, for good or bad (or ugly)… a much harder edge to the violence.

And – finally – Hollywood woke up and began employing Native Americans, instead of Caucasians who wore wigs and brown skin cream.

I’ve once again blathered on far too long. Let’s get to the good stuff. As promised, here are my top ten favorite Westerns. All of them can be considered Revisionist Westerns:

10. THEY CALL ME TRINITY (1970): An unusual Spaghetti Western that spoofs the genre, it’s the first in a series of “Trinity” movies starring blond, blue-eyed Terence Hill. trinityHe plays a lazy, happy-go-lucky cowboy who teams with his brooding brother to protect a town of pacifist Mormons from a ruthless land baron. Lighthearted fare with lots of funny moments (including hilarious overdubs).

9. THE APPALOOSA (1966): Marlon Brando portrays a Mexican-American buffalo hunter trying to recapture a beloved, stolen horse. scorpionsI haven’t seen it in years, but I remember it as a minor gem with lots of atmosphere (it still hasn’t been released on DVD, for some dumb reason). A highlight is a great arm wrestling scene with live scorpions on the table. Unrelated to Appaloosa (2008) with Ed Harris.

8. WILL PENNY (1968): Charlton Heston called this his favorite film. He plays a loner cowboy whose mountain cabin has been “borrowed” by a young widow and her son. Beautiful scenery, with excellent supporting cast, especially bad guys Donald Pleasance and Bruce Dern. A little old-fashioned, but revisionist due to an unusual ending.

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7. THE WILD BUNCH (1969): This might be director Sam Peckinpah’s greatest film. wildbunchposeIt stars William Holden, Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, and other great actors too numerous to list. The Old West is changing, and a team of aging outlaws go south of the border after one last heist. Raw, bawdy, THE WILD BUNCH makes John Ford Westerns look like chick flicks. “Let’s go!”

6. ONE-EYED JACKS (1961): one eyed jacksAnother Brando flick, this was his only directorial attempt and is maybe the first Revisionist Western. He plays Rio, a robber who is double-crossed by his older partner, Dad Longworth (Karl Malden), and who years later tracks him down. His plans to kill Dad are complicated when he falls in love with Dad’s virginal daughter. Rio’s nasty, but the audience sympathizes with his plight. Malden, who had appeared with Brando in both On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire, called him “a genius in our time” after this film.

5. ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1968): This is an epic Spaghetti Western by Sergio Leone and stars Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, and Charles Bronson. Like THE WILD BUNCH, it concerns the encroachment of civilization (the railroad) on the Old West. bronsonFonda is chilling as the villain, Bronson is moody and mysterious, and Robards adds class. Claudia Cardinale plays a struggling widow, but she’s also sexy and independent. Her “rape” by Fonda is very unsettling.

4. HOMBRE (1967): Based on an early Elmore Leonard novel about a white man raised by Apaches, Paul Newman portrays the stoic and taciturn John Russell, who, reluctantly, has to protect a group of bigoted whites from a band of outlaws. One of the bigots is a corrupt Apache Indian agent (excellently played by the great Fredric March). After 40 years of vanilla Westerns, here’s one that honestly depicts racism against Indians.

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3. JEREMIAH JOHNSON (1972): Beautifully shot in the mountains of Utah, with some of the most breathtaking cinematography of any Western, Robert Redford plays an alienated Mexican War veteran who disappears into the Rocky Mountains to become a trapper. crow indianHe meets an eccentric grizzly hunter, is forced into leading a group of pioneers through hostile Crow country, and soon has to defend himself from isolated attacks by Crow warriors. Atmospheric, with sparse dialog, it’s (literally) great escapism.

2. LITTLE BIG MAN (1970): little big manThis movie is perfect on every level. It’s tragic, funny, dramatic, has great acting (Chief Dan George was nominated for an Oscar), and it depicts Plains Indian cultural and spiritual life with sensitivity, humor, and truth. Richard Mulligan makes a more enjoyable Gen. George A. Custer than Custer himself. See this movie at least once before you die!

1. THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY (1966): Six reasons to watch this film: clintSergio Leone, Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach, Lee Van Cleef, soundtrack composer Ennio Morricone, and the stark Andalusia landscape. What this movie lacks in substance it makes up in style. What else can I say?  Only that I’ve seen this movie well over a dozen times and I keep going back for more.

Whew! I apologize for not heeding Tuco’s advice, and talking too long. I guess my only excuse is that I love movies, particularly Westerns, and I also love lists. And I’d love to see your own lists, so please tell me your own favorites (revisionist or otherwise).

Until then, I wish you happy trails and beautiful sunsets!

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Do NOT Watch Alone! Five Great Chiller Movies for Halloween

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In my last blog piece I wrote about my hike on the Appalachian Trail. I talked about people’s fears of being in the woods at night, and I name-dropped a few scary movies with outdoor “creatures.” One movie I omitted was George Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, about a bunch of zombies who terrorize a young couple. I also forgot to mention an eye-catching t-shirt I saw on my hike. It was worn by a bored-looking teenage girl who was hiking with her family. It said: “I Can’t Wait for the Zombie Apocalypse.”

Zombies are trendy these days for some inexplicable reason. By “Zombies,” I don’t mean the British rock band from the ‘60s. I’m talking about people who walk around in a daze, moaning, with their arms held straight out (kind of like Cleveland sports fans). I’m not sure why zombies are so popular. But I do know that scary movies never seem to go out of style.

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Janet Leigh in the now-classic shower scene of “Psycho”

The ball got rolling in the 1920s with THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, starring Lon Chaney. In the 1930s came Tod Browning’s DRACULA and FREAKS, and James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN. Monster movies became increasingly prevalent (and low-budget), hitting rock-bottom in the ‘50s with the movies of “The Worst Director of All Time,” Edward D. Wood, Jr. But Alfred Hitchcock, “The Master,” soon rescued fright flicks with psychological thrillers like PSYCHO and THE BIRDS. Most horror flicks today, unfortunately, spring from the Wes Craven and John Carpenter school of fright. They’re loaded with shocks and violent bloodletting, but have little Gothic or psychological horror.

Hitchcock and the 1960s were possibly a high-point for horror flicks. For this article, I’ve chosen five movies from the ‘60s that I consider some of the best horror flicks of all time, but which don’t get viewed much anymore. They’re very psychological. They start slowly and build in suspense, methodically drawing the viewer into the maelstrom. By the end of the movie, one feels drained. Some of them, like THE HAUNTING and REPULSION, can worm their way into your dreams.  Or nightmares..

So here they are, listed in order of their release. If you haven’t seen these movies and enjoy the stuff of nightmares, I guarantee you won’t be disappointed. Make sure you watch these at night. But a word to the wise: DO NOT WATCH THESE ALONE!

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VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (1960, starring George Sanders): Residents of a rural English village one day fall asleep at the same moment. When they awake, things are different. Women become pregnant at the same time. The children born to them all have blond hair, hypnotic eyes, and are emotionally frigid. As they grow, they begin to huddle together privately, away from the other children. But this is only the beginning of the horror.damned

The movie is adapted from a novel called “The Midwich Cuckoos.” I saw it as a kid and had to sleep with my parents for several nights (the kids in this movie were far scarier than the bully down the street). Most children are innocent and playful. But these “creatures” are just the opposite: they’re abnormally intuitive, and they never smile. Whoever said “blondes have more fun” didn’t see this movie.

NOTE: John Carpenter remade this movie in 1995, and there’s a sequel to the original called CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED (1964). But the original’s the one to watch.

THE INNOCENTS (1961, starring Deborah Kerr and Michael Redgrave): All the right ingredients for a ghost story are here: a dark Victorian mansion, a neurotic English governess, rumors, mysterious deaths, plus the same disturbing child actor who led the homicidal brats in VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED. The story is adapted from Henry James’s classic novella “The Turn of the Screw,” written when Sigmund Freud was postulating his revolutionary theories of sexuality, dreams, and the unconscious (James’s brother, William James, is considered the “Father of American Psychology”). innocents2The casting of talented Deborah Kerr, as the governess “Miss Giddens,” is spot-on. Her saucer eyes and halting voice perfectly convey the paralyzing fear of a woman on the verge of a breakdown.

NOTE: Truman Capote co-wrote the script for this movie between publication of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “In Cold Blood.” Capote was originally from Alabama, and he added a Southern Gothic aura to the film.

THE HAUNTING (1963, starring Julie Harris, directed by Robert Wise): The classic New England haunted house movie, adapted from a novel by Shirley Jackson entitled “The Haunting of Hill House.” I saw it with my daughter when she was about 13, and she says it’s one of the scariest movies she’s ever seen. hauntingNow, that’s a plug! (She normally hates black-and-white movies). But THE HAUNTING is a movie that could only have been filmed in B&W. The gray, shadowy cinematography gives the film depth and atmosphere, and accentuates the oppressiveness of mounting fear. Like Deborah Kerr in THE INNOCENTS, Julie Harris gives a standout performance as a young woman veering toward insanity. Is it the spooky house, or has she always been unstable, or is it both? You have to watch this movie to find out… but DON’T WATCH IT ALONE!

NOTE: this film has hints of Lesbianism between the characters played by Harris and Claire Bloom.

NOTE 2: the movie was remade in 1999. I haven’t seen it, but it supposedly stinks.

SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON (1964, starring Kim Stanley and Richard Attenborough): A domineering wife and her caspar milquetoast husband devise a plot. They will kidnap a young girl and hold her for ransom so the woman can get publicity for her psychic abilities. In the beginning, they have no intention of harming the girl. But the woman, haunted by the early death of her son Arthur, slowly begins to crumble mentally, and contemplates murder. Her meek husband is the only thing standing in her way.seance

SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON is a tour-de-force of acting, direction, and atmosphere. This was only Stanley’s second movie, and she didn’t make many afterwards. She was most known for theater work and for doing the narration in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” But hers is a powerful performance that earned an Oscar nomination. Richard Attenborough is also great as the submissive husband. The subject matter is sensitive, but it’s handled with care. And the movie title, well… let’s just say they don’t write ‘em like this anymore.

NOTE: the part that Kim Stanley eventually got was turned down by both Deborah Kerr and Simone Signoret (famous for her role in DIABOLIQUE, a sort of French take on Alfred Hitchcock)

REPULSION (1965, starring Catherine Deneuve, directed by Roman Polanski): A definite pattern has developed in this list. Why stop now? Catherine Deneuve’s character in REPULSION makes the mental instability of Kerr, Harris, and Stanley seem like a walk in the sanitarium garden. I saw this movie for the first time two years ago. All I can say is “Wow.” And not just for the shimmering beauty of Deneuve. RepulsionDirector Polanski crafted a movie about a sexually repressed young woman whose older sister leaves her alone in their apartment for a week. At first, the woman’s behavior is just a little odd. But over time, we realize she’s slipping dangerously downstream. When she finally cracks, it’s a shocker. Watch this movie through the last camera shot, which is a close-up of a photograph of the woman as a young girl. Very unsettling.

NOTE: REPULSION was Roman Polanski’s first English-language film. It’s ranked #14 on Rotten Tomatoes’ list of best-rated films.

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After making this list, I noticed four out of five of the movies have a woman in the central role. Even PSYCHO and THE BIRDS feature a beautiful woman at the center of the plot. It was purely accidental on my part. But I’m glad I could strike a blow for women’s rights, even if all of these femmes are a little “off.” Maybe because women’s psyches are more vulnerable? Or have more complexity?

Whatever the answer, I hope that, if you do watch these movies, you’ll agree that one doesn’t need a lot of violence and blood to convey horror. On the contrary, psychological horror is far more riveting than monsters, aliens, or comic-book figures like Freddy Krueger. The greatest horrors are intangible: they lurk inside the human mind.

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Steve McQueen: The King of Cool (Part Two)

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(Tuesday, March 24 is the late Steve McQueen’s 85th birthday. To honor this charismatic actor, here is the second of my two-part commemoration of the man and his films)

There’s a scene in the movie THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963) where American POW Virgil Hilts, known as “The Cooler King” due to his repeated banishments to the isolation box, squats on the dirt in his cramped cell, smiles, and begins to bounce a baseball against the opposite wall. There’s no dialog. But the character’s actions imply “You bastards may be able to kill me. But you can’t eat me.”

This scene is one of many examples of why Steve McQueen earned the title “The King of Cool.”

THE GREAT ESCAPE served notice that a new matinee idol had arrived in Hollywood. As film critic Leonard Maltin observed, “The large international cast is superb, but the standout is McQueen; it’s easy to see why this cemented his status as a superstar.”

After this movie, McQueen was offered one juicy role after another. He was paired with some of the most ravishing starlets in Hollywood: Natalie Wood, Lee Remick, Ann-Margret, Suzanne Pleshette, Faye Dunaway, Jacqueline Bisset. He commanded top dollar for his films. In 1968, his peak year, he starred in two blockbuster films that perfectly exploited his antihero credentials: THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR and BULLITT.

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Getting passionate with Faye Dunaway in “The Thomas Crown Affair”

In THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR, McQueen portrays a wealthy playboy and sportsman who dabbles in high-stakes crime on the side. He’s an ultra-intelligent, smooth operator who enjoys playing chess, riding his dune buggy, reading the Wall Street Journal, and – just for kicks – robbing banks. After masterminding one multi-million-dollar bank heist, an insurance investigator (Faye Dunaway) is hired to trip him up. She comes close to nabbing him in an elaborate game of cat-and-mouse, but of course, she eventually succumbs to his charm. The split-screen scene where McQueen and Dunaway compete in a sexually charged game of chess, then kiss rapturously while the camera whirls around them, is one of the great moments in cinema history, and it assisted Michel Legrand in winning an Oscar for the song “The Windmills of Your Mind.”

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Classic photo of McQueen and shoulder holster, from his quintessential film, “Bullitt”

McQueen’s next movie, BULLITT, which was produced by McQueen’s own Solar Productions company, has an even more iconic sequence. The storyline is nothing exceptional: a police lieutenant appropriately named Frank Bullitt (McQueen) is hired to protect a government witness, who is eventually killed, and Bullitt has to contend with both the Mafia and a vengeful politician (Robert Vaughn). But the film is special for its on-location camerawork, the piece-de-resistance being a high-speed car chase across the hills of San Francisco. This 10-minute chase is considered one of the most exciting ever filmed, with veteran racer McQueen doing the close-up driving scenes himself, including a classic spinout in a turbo-charged, 1968 Ford Mustang GT (the high-speed scenes were done by several well-known stunt drivers, one of whom had doubled for McQueen during the motorcycle jump over barbed wire in THE GREAT ESCAPE). During filming, the two cars reached speeds of an astonishing 110 mph. The BULLITT car chase scene became the model for dozens of other similar chases peppered throughout commercials, comedies, and action films. But other than maybe THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971) starring Gene Hackman, none have come close to McQueen and BULLITT.

After BULLITT, McQueen had enough power and a big enough bank account to race cars and bikes whenever he felt like it. He not only made sure his films had at least one car scene (at least, those set in the automobile age), he also made documentaries about racing, most notably ON ANY SUNDAY (1971), a motorcycle documentary partially produced by and featuring McQueen, and which critic Roger Ebert said “does for motorcycle racing what THE ENDLESS SUMMER did for surfing.”

But McQueen’s film output slowed down considerably after 1969. On the night of August 9, two close friends, actress Sharon Tate and hairdresser Jay Sebring, became victims of the Manson Family murder spree. McQueen had been invited to Tate’s house that same night, but had turned it down because he had a date. He was also supposedly on Manson’s hit list after his production company rejected a Manson screenplay. McQueen’s first wife, Neile, claims that Steve was so spooked he started carrying a concealed handgun everywhere.

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Dressed for speed in LE MANS

In 1971, McQueen realized a dream and produced a movie about the renowned 24-hour road race in Le Mans, France. Racing fans love LE MANS for its authenticity – and McQueen never looked “cooler” – but the film plot was fairly opaque, and it was essentially a vanity project for McQueen (he’d turned down the lead role in the earlier racing film, GRAND PRIX (1966), the role eventually going to fellow race enthusiast and friend James Garner).

During the 1970s, McQueen only made five feature films. Two of them, the lighthearted rodeo homage JUNIOR BONNER (1972) and the crime thriller THE GETAWAY (1972), were done with infamous director Sam Peckinpah, who had an affinity for antiheroes and how they cope in a brutal world. In THE GETAWAY, McQueen portrays an ex-con who robs a bank and goes on the lam with his girlfriend (played by Ali McGraw). High on style but low in substance, THE GETAWAY was a much-needed hit for both McQueen and Peckinpah. But it also broke up McQueen’s marriage to Neile, as he and McGraw became lovers during the film, and eventually married (then divorced in 1978).

In 1974 McQueen was reunited with Paul Newman, one of the few actors who could compete with him at the box office. They headlined the Irwin Allen disaster epic THE TOWERING INFERNO, with McQueen playing a fire chief, and Newman portraying an architect. Both actors wanted lead billing… but which one would get it? The producers solved the dilemma by putting McQueen’s name first, on the left, but Newman’s name slightly higher, on the right! Additionally, both actors received the same pay and had the same number of lines. Poor William Holden, also in the film, had evidently become too old to compete with the other two!

McQueen’s last film of the ‘70s was another vanity project: AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE, based on a Henrik Ibsen play, and in which McQueen played a principled doctor who has a feud with his materialistic neighbors. The McQueen everyone knew and loved was practically hidden behind a beard and spectacles, and the film had an extremely limited theatrical release.

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Taking a break on the set of TOM HORN, his second-to-last film

McQueen returned to familiar territory for his last two films, TOM HORN (1980) and THE HUNTER (1980). The former is a period piece based on true-life cowboy bounty hunter Horn, who was controversially hanged for murder in 1903. In THE HUNTER, McQueen played a contemporary bounty hunter, and was reunited with THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN co-star Eli Wallach. Although both movies were up McQueen’s alley (recalling bounty hunter Josh Randall in “Wanted: Dead or Alive”), both were unfortunately critical and commercial disappointments.

It was during the filming of TOM HORN that McQueen started to have trouble breathing. He was eventually diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma, an aggressive type of lung cancer (though McQueen was a heavy smoker, Neile cited the cause as asbestos exposure, possibly received from Steve soaking his racing facemask in the chemical, which was an oft-used fire retardant… it was long before the dangers of asbestos were known). McQueen fought valiantly against his cancer. He even resorted to controversial treatments that involved coffee enemas and injections of live cells from cows and sheep. But on November 7, 1980, after surgery in Juarez, Mexico to remove a massive tumor, he died of cardiac arrest. He was only 50 years old.

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Layin’ back with James Coburn in pickup truck. Note the Castrol motor oil and Lucky Lager beer bottles

Since McQueen’s death 35 years ago, he’s been the subject of many biographies. He’s been name-dropped in songs by the Rolling Stones, Leonard Cohen, Jimmy Webb, Sheryl Crow, UFO, and many others. The English band Prefab Sprout named an entire album after him. According to Wikipedia, possessions by the late actor sell in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. He had a collection of 130 motorcycles that sold in the millions within four years of his death. Lines of expensive clothing and watches have been inspired by him. Most tellingly, his estate is in the top 10 of highest earning deceased celebrities. Long after his death, the King of Cool remains a hot property.

And how many actors have been inducted into both the Motorcycle Hall of Fame and the Hall of Great Western Performers?

For a brief moment in the ‘60s and ‘70s, a rugged, blue-eyed ex-reform school punk named Steve McQueen burned like red lava flowing from an active volcano. Even in ensemble films, McQueen was so magnetic a presence you couldn’t tear your eyes away from him. If you were born too late to catch him the first time around, his films are still easily available. Below is a short list of what I consider his best flicks (I’ve already discussed three of them).  So grab some popcorn, turn down the lights, and enjoy a Great Escape with the King of Cool.

1. THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963)

2. NEVADA SMITH (1966). Based on a character in Harold Robbins’ novel “The Carpetbaggers,” this is a compelling Western about revenge. McQueen plays a half-Indian teenager (you heard right) whose parents are brutally murdered by three outlaws. One by one he tracks them down. McQueen gets to display his athleticism in some great action scenes, including a tense knife fight with his former Actors Studio buddy, Martin Landau. The final scene with Karl Malden is killer.nevada smith

3. THE SAND PEBBLES (1966). McQueen was nominated for four Golden Globe awards during his career, but this was his only Academy Award nomination. sand pebblesHe plays a rebellious, Brooklyn-bred machinist’s mate stationed on a Yangtze River gunboat in 1926. He’s not only convincing in his role, but the film has a great supporting cast, including Candice Bergen, Richard Attenborough, and Richard Crenna.

4. THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR (1968)

5. BULLITT (1968)

6. THE REIVERS (1969). One of the best all-round movies McQueen made, THE REIVERS is based on a lesser known novel by William Faulkner. It’s a totally winning slice of rural Americana, with McQueen stepping out of his comfort zone and playing Boon Hoggenbeck, a conniving roustabout who cons a young boy into “borrowing” his grandfather’s 1905 Winton Flyer automobile for a trip down the backroads of Mississippi. mcqueen_reiversThe film comes a little close to Disney territory, but there’s enough sobriety to keep it honest, and McQueen never looked happier. And this time he gets to goof in the mud with an antique set of wheels!

7. PAPILLON (1973). McQueen shares the spotlight with another Hollywood legend, Dustin Hoffman, in this tale (based on a true story) about two Frenchmen who are exiled for life to Devil’s Island prison off of French Guiana in the 1930s. No need to worry about Hoffman, though: McQueen is the whole movie. This film is full-fledged action-adventure, and it’s both long and intense. It deals with the indomitability of the human spirit (think of it as THE GREAT ESCAPE on acid). Like so many McQueen films, this one features several classic scenes: a skillfully photographed slow-motion sequence of McQueen stumbling into a jungle river while trying to escape; and the final shot, when he catapults himself off a massive cliff into the ocean. Characteristically, McQueen insisted on doing this dangerous stunt himself. The King of Cool got his way.

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