Thursday, March 30, 2017

S.O.B.: Blu-ray (Lorimar, 1981) Warner Archive

Julie Andrews bore all for her art and hubby/director, Blake Edwards in S.O.B. (1981); a satirically petulant and not altogether successful farce of Hollywood’s hoi poloi. For the record, Ms. Andrews ‘all’ is fairly attractive. The movie, populated by a spurious roster of n’er do wells, including a lace panty-wearing movie mogul, deranged director whose catatonia snaps back as fetishistic sadomasochism, an uber-bitch gossip columnist, and, needle-jabbing Doc ‘Feel Good’ knockoff, are anything but entertaining. S.O.B.’s outrageousness – angry, crude and hitting hard and well below the belt, if decidedly closer to the truth, or rather, truth as skewed by Edwards after having endured the slings and arrows of his own series of high-profile flops, will likely be lost on a contemporary audience. However, it does not take much to interpret S.O.B. as Edwards carping at a system and an industry he so clearly understands from the inside out, but whose mythology he rather insincerely wants to debunk; the sour grapes of his poisoned pen knowing better and having done far better work elsewhere. If only S.O.B. were as caustically erudite, witty and nail-biting as Edward supposes it to be, the movie might have attained a level of razor-sharp, back-biting clarity on par with the likes of Sunset Boulevard (1950). But what’s here is rather transparently obnoxious and thoroughly rotten to its core. Even the film’s premise - transforming a $40 million dollar road show musical into heavy-handed porn – just seems mean-spirited. Ditto for seeing everyone’s sugary-sweet English nanny go au naturale in a pointless vignette as shockingly gratuitous and self-serving as seeing one’s own mother drunk.    
Edward likely wanted revenge on the system here; the same powers who had made him a success, but were now holding him accountable when his war-themed romantic musical/comedy, Darling Lili (1970, also starring Andrews) did a belly flop at the box office. Lil’s implosion directly impacted Edwards’ ability to continue writing his own check in Tinsel Town. Retreating to some lucrative, though decidedly subpar Pink Panther sequels, before rising from the ashes with the more astutely playful and ribald spoof, ‘10’ (1979), in hindsight it now appears Edwards never quite forgave Hollywood for the smack down endured after he went way over budget on Darling Lily. But S.O.B. is just spiteful; its barbs, bitchy instead of brazen; its transparent ‘fictional’ characters, decidedly more curmudgeonly caustic than comedic. This isn’t the sort of good-natured farce we are used to seeing from Blake Edwards - not at all, but a decidedly unvarnished, full-on assault with Edwards’ pit bull precision clamping down and biting hard on the hand that feeds him. The picture isn’t so much an exposé or even a tack-sharp reflection of Hollywood as it is, but Edwards’ vitriolic condemnation and hard-liner determination to dismantle its credibility even when credit isn’t due, to make it as terrible a place no one in their right mind would want to visit, much less aspire to become a part of its inbred community of toadies and phonies. His stereotypes are uglier, dirtier, more callous and soulless. As such, Edwards resorts to a sort of cardboard cutout philosophy in spinning this yarn; no character development at all; just one smart ass begrudgingly grumbling and/or indiscriminately stepping on the head and testicles of another smart ass in his midst; neither of them wickedly clever enough to afford the price of a packet of tea. Straight scotch would likely suit these characters better, chased down with a shot of pure white vinegar to distill the ice water already running through their veins.  
It makes for a fairly unappealing movie – more fanatical than funny. We are not entertained so much as indoctrinated by Edwards into accepting Hollywood as that big, bad den of iniquity where not even the strong survive while everyone else squirms and slithers to whatever tune the puppet masters on high are currently playing. Adding jibes to gibberish and wit to wallowing self-pity is merely applying lipstick to the proverbial piglet being marketed herein and inclusively for its bacon; all of it singed in that 70’s laissez faire yen for ‘tits and ass’ whore-mongering. It spanks of a first-time director of lowbrow smut – Edwards devolving his camp from homage to the lowest common denominator. Yet, even as garden variety ‘kick in the crotch’ humor, S.O.B. fails to entertain. Ralph Bakshi cartoonish is the best way to describe the characters that inhabit his scenarios: Robert Vaughn’s butch/transvestite studio mogul, David Blackman; Larry Hagman’s perpetually flustered ‘yes-man’ Dick Benson; Shelley Winters’ boozy and blowzy lesbian agent, Eva Brown, Robert Webber’s ulcer-forming press agent, Ben Coogan, Benson Fong’s passé Chinese chef, Larry Storch’s even more grotesquely timeworn concept of a guru, and, Loretta Swit’s crocodile-smiling gossip maven, Polly Reed are cameos a la a Mike Todd, though decidedly without Todd’s air of showmanship to carry them off.
This leaves the real heavy lifting to a handful of Hollywood stalwarts; Robert Preston’s jaunty charlatan, Dr. Irving Finegarten (a riff on the rather insidiously renowned Max Jacobson - the German-born New York physician who hooked his high-profile clientele from the worlds of entertainment and politics on a steady diet of amphetamines and other addictive medications) herein, joyously jabbing his unsuspecting clientele with syringes loaded in his own homemade ‘seven-percent solution’ of anesthetizing drugs, with an ebulliently wicked ‘keep ‘em happy/keep ‘em quiet’ mantra. Preston, moustached and synched into his Velour leisure suits, is obviously having a very good time with this silly caricature and manages to rise above its rank cliché to make something more sincere and satisfying of the part. William Holden’s beleaguered producer, Tim Culley, has his moments too; ogling Babs (Rosanna Arquette), an ex-junkie/hitchhiker he has just picked up by the side of the road, along with her cohort, Lila (Jennifer Edwards) as she playfully strips from the waist up to nude sunbathe, hoping hunky police officer, Phil Buchwald (Joe Penny) will come around to arrest her.
Regrettably, it is the central performances in S.O.B. that leave one feeling flat: Richard Mulligan as distraught director, Felix Farmer, on whom the entire narrative hinges, gives a perversely over-the-top performance as a man whose ego is so utterly fragile, his tenured success in movie-making is completely wiped out by one flop; the bloated family musical, ‘Night Wind’; starring his famous actress/wife and America’s sweetheart, Sally Miles (Julie Andrews, who is anything but in private). Even so, Sally has her misgivings when Felix, brought forth from his suicidal and self-destructive state of catatonia by one of Irving’s injections, decides with manic lucidity to gamble their entire life savings, buy back Night Wind, and juice it up as a bitter and sleazy softcore sexploitation, celebrating kink in lieu of wholesome glamour.  Sally’s attorney, Herb Maskowitz (Robert Loggia) thinks it’s a terrible idea. But her agent, Eva Brown flips her own Janus-faced coin in favor of the idea. The rest of Hollywood’s glitterati sweat bullets while Variety declares Farmer’s turkey the biggest singular misfire in movie-making history. Eager to cash in on Felix’s reaction to the news, vapid gossip maven, Polly Reed arrives to pick at the bones of his reputation, but is delayed in her investigation by Culley and Dr. Finegarten; sent by the studio at  to do damage control and keep Felix’s ‘condition’ hush-hush. In the meantime Felix, semi-lucid and yet again trying to off himself (his first suicide attempt by asphyxiation in his garage was repeatedly thwarted by his gardener – Bert Rosario – culminating with the car accidentally put into gear, driving through the back wall of the garage and into the ocean), falls through the upstairs floor, landing on Reed in the living room below. Taken to hospital and placed in a full-body cast to recover, Reed later learns from the tabloids that Night Wind is to be revamped as a semi-pornographic exploitation movie with Sally making the big announcement she will bare her breasts for her art.
Others sharing in this collective nervous breakdown include yes-man, Dick Benson whose wife, Joyce (Mimi Davis), is teetering on the brink, trapped in their loveless marriage while her father/ studio head, Harry Sandler (Paul Stewart) is only marginally concerned for her welfare. Meanwhile, Blackman’s trophy wife, Mavis (Marisa Berenson) is having an affair with actor, Sam Marshall (David Young); Hollywood’s latest hunk du jour on the cusp of super-stardom.  Of course, it all culminates in an orgasmic house party at Felix’s Malibu beach house, riddled in the sort of casting couch clichés that would make even a trailblazer like Elinor Glynn, or smut-monger like Norman Mailer blush – or vomit. Amidst all the heavy groping and drug use, Felix is stirred from Doc Irving’s stupor with a venomous new concept for Night Wind: take the tepid musical mélange and transform it into a taut and tawdry sexploitation flick for Sally to flash her ‘boobies’. While many in the Hollywood community thinks Felix is clearly off his nut, David Blackman is at least willing to entertain his insanity when Felix offers to buy back Night Wind’s negative to the tune of $40 million, thus pulling the studio out of the hole while seemingly digging himself – and Sally – into another by draining their bank accounts to bankroll the acquisition. Sally’s attorney, Herb Maskowitz begs her indulgence. If she sues Felix now she will appear to the public to be cruel and heartless, hardly the image of a scrubbed and tubbed movie queen with a squeaky clean image. However, if she proceeds to take her estranged hubby’s advice, appear in the raw, and Night Wind is still a flop, she will have sacrificed herself for the good of the cause and the public will side with her, should she decide to divorce Felix thereafter and sue.
Reluctantly, Sally agrees to this latter scenario. With a little help from one of Doc Irving’s ‘feel good’ tranquilizing injections she performs the strip in a revamped version of the big, bloated production number that originally opened the Night Wind; the once playfully clad soldiers, ballerinas and oversized stuffed animals now replaced with a menagerie of dominatrix, pimps, sex slaves and other fetishistic revelers. Polly Reed is shocked by this display. Alas, Felix’s detractors are proven wrong. The new Night Wind is a hit and Blackman and his entourage elect to connive their way back into the game; gaining control over the movie by convincing Polly to sell back her shares in the production. When Felix learns of this betrayal he flips; driving his Caddie through Sally’s kitchen (this sends her temperamental chef – Benson Fong – into a tizzy), then, barging into studio accountant, Mr. Lipschitz’s (Hamilton Camp) office with a loaded gun pointed at his head, demanding every last reel of Night Wind be returned to him on the double. Previously fired security guard, Harold Harrigan (Ken Swofford) alerts the police of the showdown and, in reply, the LAPD opens fire, killing Felix in Lipschitz’s lobby. The evening before his burial, Culley, Doc Irving and Polly’s empathetic husband, Willard (Craig Stevens) elect to steal Felix’s body from the morgue, thus sparing him the indignation of a real ‘Hollywood’ wake with Sally, incredulously warbling ‘O Promise Me’ while a guru presides over the spectacle of this public funeral. Culley, Irving and Will load Felix’s corpse onto a dinghy, setting it afire and observing in their own moment of silence as the blazing spectacle floats further and further out to sea. In an epilogue we learn Felix’s vision for Night Wind was a colossal success; in fact, the biggest box office money-maker of all time; Sally winning another Academy Award and everyone living happily ever after…well, not Felix…and, predictably, until the next movie!
S.O.B. could have been a seriously ribald farce about Hollywood’s incestuous and thoroughly misguided community of self-loving/self-loathing bastards and bitches. Indeed, the wicked opening gag; Burgess Webster (Herb Tanney – billed as ‘Stiffe’ in the credits), a middle-aged jogger suffering a fatal heart attack and planting his bones at the break of dawn on a plot of sand within earshot of Felix’s Malibu home; his remains virtually ignored thereafter by all but his faithful mutt, Troubles – the dog; the gaggle of sun worshipers later to flock to these sun-kissed shores, all but oblivious to the corpse lying face down in their midst, eventually reclaimed by the tides, is an ingenious metaphor and a fairly funny indictment on these navel-gazing Californians. It’s what follows that proves problematic; Edwards’ perniciousness overtaking the comedy in strides until all that is left is a sort of venom-drenched dreck; Edward’s poop-pounding La La Land into the stone-age with his egocentric contempt. There is not an empathetic creature in the bunch; not a single moment where remorse plays a factor in the cause and effect fate of Felix Farmer. Undeniably, Edwards’ point is that Hollywood en masse has no soul. This we get – in widescreen, no less. This we understand. And apart from the morsel of regret shared between Culley, Irving and Willard that causes Felix to miss his own garishly glamorized send-up to the great beyond, S.O.B. teems with the sort of cadaver-embalming buyer’s remorse put forth by a slowly asphyxiating used car salesman connecting our intellect to the carbon monoxide-emitting tailpipe of his artistic cruelty; adding ‘suck on this, you morons!’. Enough said: S.O.B. did absolutely nothing for me. Actually, it was rather sad to see so many one-time high profile talents succumbing to the bait for an as equally revered director; all of them wasting their talents on this base, crass, backstabbing and thoroughly unamusing tripe. For the record, Julie Andrews has a nice set of ‘boobies’. But she really didn’t need to share them with the rest of us to convince me she is a very fine actress, a wonderful comedian and one hell of a grand singer!
S.O.B. makes its debut via the Warner Archive (WAC). This transfer has its issues, beginning with the opening shot of an over-sized child’s play castle, complete with its quartet of life-sized soldiers lining the columns. The entire upper half of the image judders back and forth, the castles turrets and flags swaying left to right. This credit sequence also appears to have been sourced from a dupe, or perhaps, is merely plagued by primitive optical printing: colors, decidedly muted, fine detail wanting and contrast weaker than anticipated with a heavy patina of amplified grain. Mercifully, all of these shortcomings are corrected once we segue into the body of the film. Here, the palette shows off its dated 80’s vintage with softer pastels. Flesh tones are generally less vibrant than one might expect. Exterior photography looks gorgeous; rich hues, stunning amounts of fine detail, elevating the texture of the image in all its 1080p glory. But indoor sequences just seems bland by comparison; colors, anemic, contrast often waffling between just okay to subpar muddy, and film grain – again – heavier than anticipated. WAC has cleaned up the image. There are no age-related artifacts; but this is not a stellar presentation to be sure; just middling and competent without ever attaining the ‘WOW!’ factor Blu-ray is capable of delivering. The audio is a big fat 2.0 DTS mono and sounds it; dialogue strident and the Henry Mancini score, sparse and never affecting, but rather tinny and dull. Outside of a well-worn theatrical trailer, WAC has offered up NO extras; probably, just as well. I know about all I want to about S.O.B. – code for ‘standard operating bullshit’. You better believe it.  Bottom line: pass and be very glad that you did!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Sunday, March 26, 2017

PEYTON PLACE: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1957) Twilight Time

For more than half a century the name ‘Peyton Place’ has been synonymous with salaciousness and sin, thanks to the runaway best seller by Grace Metalious’ on which director, Mark Robson hand-crafted a rather affecting movie version in 1957; all about the comings and goings of a seemingly button-down conservative enclave of ‘church-going’ folk in Maine, dedicating their lives to hard work and Christian principles…at least…on the surface. Alas, it’s only a façade; the veneer very thin and about to crack and buckle from under with an insidious malaise of dark family secrets and tantalizing bits of tawdry gossip, threatening to crush the faux respectability shored up by all this slum prudery and middle-class morality.  If the concoction appears tame by today’s bargain annex standards that have left little to nothing to the imagination, it is really only due to Hollywood’s then starchy and self-governing code of censorship. Metalious’ novel was far more incendiary, chocked full of meaty chapters devoted to illegitimate affairs, murder, unwed pregnancy, abortions, and, even family incest. That Robson could show none of it on the screen, and only hint at the rest in half shadow, yet still come up with a genuine, if at 2 ½ hrs., rather lengthy (though never tedious) barn-burner (with pizzazz, glamor and a killer score by Franz Waxman) is a testament, not only to Robson, but also his star; the legendary Lana Turner – glamour queen deluxe, primarily known for her nightclubbing prowess while still MGM’s sweater girl in the 1940’s; more recently in 1957, and infamously for tom-catting around Tinsel Town with bona fide Mafioso, Johnny Stompanato (a real piece of work…more on this later).
Lovely Lana would go through two trials by fire; one for her art, the other to spare her real-life daughter, Cheryl Crane from spending the rest of her natural life in prison for murder. Turner had lived the hai-hooi sexpot and spicy intrigues of a dime store novel in her youth; the hottest trick in shoe leather with her pick of any number of adoring male suitors from Hollywood’s stellar gene pool of male virility. Now at the age of thirty-six, Lana was hardly right for the part of Constance Mackenzie; ‘mom’ to teenager, Allison (Diane Varsi) and yet, given her circumstances with Cheryl, so right for it too, if only to stand the precepts of such turpitude on end – do as I say, rather than ‘do’ – the maxim of both these ‘unhappily ever afters’. Ten years earlier, Turner might have made a go of the part of Betty Anderson (played by Terry Moore), the girl of easy virtue who lands Rodney Harrington (Barry Coe), the most amiable buck in town, or perhaps even Selena Cross (Hope Lange); the impoverished and put upon, ginger sweet girl-next-door who is raped by her estranged stepfather (Arthur Kennedy), and escapes being branded a murderess when a verdict of ‘justifiable homicide’ is entered into the public record. Now, that’s a Peyton Place I would have killed to see! Alas, somewhere in screenwriter, John Michael Hayes’ meandering, though commendably condensed screenplay, the repeatedly thwarted love affair between Lana’s fiery drama queen and newly appointed high school principal, Michael Rossi (Lee Philips – a real milquetoast) gets lost. That said; Lana proves her every merit as a box office draw herein. There is, after all, a reason they used to call them ‘stars’; the cache of a Lana Turner enough to carry the ballast of any role - even when Turner is not on the screen.      
Peyton Place began its gestation in the mind of a disillusioned daydreamer: Grace Metalious: an unassuming 32 year old housewife from Gilmanton, New Hampshire. No doubt, those dwelling within Gilmanton’s borders could see more than a few parallels between themselves and Metalious’ cleverly concocted fiction. For upon publication, Gilmanton’s citizenry wanted absolutely nothing to do with the novel’s tidal wave of publicity (selling over 10 million copies within the first year); nor Metalious’ overnight celebrity or, indeed, with Metalious herself. Deemed a bawdy and rebellious trailblazer elsewhere, to the narrow-minded living close by, Metalious’ had become an anathema to their hypocrisies; a chain-smoking Judas, no one could trust with their family secrets. In hindsight, Metalious was possessed by her own inner demons; wed at the tender age of eighteen and living in squalid conditions with her three children; derelict in her payments on a broken down jalopy; perpetually hungry, careworn and depressed and frequently drunk; discovering her hubby, George, had been unfaithful while away during WWII, and combating this betrayal with one of her own after he came home. No, for Grace Metalious, writing Peyton Place was neither a pastime nor a hobby, but a means to simultaneously escape and expose this life she knew only too well; also to vent her pent-up frustrations to likely compatriots in the world at large, to side not only her set of circumstances, but respect her unvarnished honesty. Sadly, Metalious would soon discover she was very much the outsider – if not to the world at large (having embraced the novel and made her an immediate darling in the publishing world) - than definitely to the ‘good’ people of Gilmanton, who took every opportunity to expunge her from their collective memories and ostracize her from their social circles. Hence, when Metalious died of acute alcoholism a scant seven years later – just two years after producer, Jerry Wald immortalized her poison-penned wit with a smash hit film – Gilmanton had yet to forgive their most infamous citizen for blowing the lid off their community. There was, in fact, a boycott to stop her internment at Smith Meeting House Cemetery, with several more attempts made over the years to have her body exhumed and moved elsewhere, presumably, far far away. This never happened, but it did not stymie certain influences in Gilmanton from repeatedly trying; their vitriol knowing no bounds. Gee-whiz: let the poor girl rest in peace.
In hindsight, Mark Robson’s Peyton Place (1957) is an impressive achievement; the novel’s most scandalous vignettes transposed to the larger-than-life Cinemascope screen with ole-time Hollywood glamour butted against hints and flashes of a tawdrier, more perverse reflection never entirely to materialize. The book and movie’s popularity were predicated on an even simpler premise: that, to varying degrees we are all living through our own version of this shameful den of iniquity. The notion, that simply by walking down any street one was apt to pass within inches of a sadist, rapist or murderer is, I’ll grant you, not a very comforting thought, although nevertheless true, and an astute observation for which Metalious made absolutely no apologies and thus, seemed fair game to be pilloried in the press. Even so, sex and violence are as ancient as the existence of mankind. Moreover, from the Bible to Shakespeare, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Ian Fleming and beyond, they have served as cornerstones in popular literature for centuries. That Peyton Place just happened to come along during a period in America’s cultural evolution when the very thought of sex was considered as wicked an indulgence as partaking in the act itself outside of wedlock (our 50’s movie art turned to antiseptic fairy-tales about chaste goodness and virtue being its own reward), just happened to be Metalious’ dumb luck and bad timing; though perhaps, not entirely. For Peyton Place fired the intrigues and curiosities of both young and old; the novel’s overwhelming salability, despite being banned in several states, attesting to its staying power. That the name ‘Peyton Place has remained a nom de plume for most any garden variety impiety, conveniently popped into our hushed collective cultural understanding, tells us all we really need to know about the potency and legacy of both Metalious’ novel and Robson’s movie.
In Hollywood, the book’s wildfire in a wheat field success was not lost on producer, Jerry Wald. Known for his ability to bring forth powerful, provocative and seemingly un-filmable stories to the big screen, Peyton Place was right up Wald’s alley. Still, Wald’s battles herein proved very hard won indeed; Hollywood’s self-governing censorship jumping all over the project even before a single page of script had been submitted for their consideration. To hedge his bets, Wald hired John Michael Hayes to write the screenplay. Hayes knew his way around double entendre. He also subconsciously used the power of ‘inference’ as a master wordsmith, to convey many – if not all – of the novel’s transgressions, without ruffling too many conservative feathers. Metalious’ book explored two abortions, one murder, and several cases of family incest as frankly as if she were discussing Emily Post’s most recent spate of mantras for dinner etiquette. It was precisely for this impenitent candor the evangelical right had taken umbrage. On the screen, however, Hayes, Wald and Robson would be required to ‘finesse’ and imply, rather than ‘show and tell’. Miraculously, they succeeded in keeping the book’s scandalous revelations in the final cut; a cause célèbre, repeatedly championed by Robson – who went to the matt for Hayes’ screenplay more than once, ironing out the compromises one by one. Regrettably expunged in preproduction was Constance’s moonlit skinny dip with Michael Rossi; also, the novel’s most fondly repeated line in hushed giggles “Untie the top of your bathing suit. I want to feel your breasts against me when I kiss you,” never uttered in the movie for obvious reasons.
Also absent from the film were the more creepy aspects of Norman Page’s (Russ Tamblyn) incestuous relationship with his possessive mother, Evelyn (Erin O'Brien-Moore). In the novel, Mrs. Page is still giving Norman – who is seventeen – baths and home enemas; stifling his normal sexual impulses for other girls, cuckolding him as something of her surrogate lover/subordinate man slave for her own gratification. Indeed, the biggest sacrifices made on Peyton Place – the movie – concern Norman Page; the censors unwilling to budge an inch; Tamblyn’s performance transforming Norman into a sheepish mama’s boy, unable to express his awkward affections for Allison for fear she might discover his ‘secret’ with mama. In hindsight, Jerry Wald’s real victory was in getting Peyton Place made at all, but especially with so much of its taboo subject matter intact; marking the first sincere blow to dismantle the ensconced and governing board of censorship. Today, it is difficult to imagine what all the fuss was about, in part because the pendulum of our present day/laissez faire attitudes toward human sexuality has swung much too far in the other direction. But in its day, Peyton Place – the movie - was fairly shocking; scenes of rape, confessions of adultery, bastard children, and, a suicide all given their moment to…uh…shine… on the screen. Perhaps, Wald understood that, as a movie, Peyton Place could easily have turned into a gumbo of B-grade melodrama, particularly without the proper casting. What Wald needed was a star of the first magnitude to commit to the picture. 
And thus, enter Lana Turner, newly released from her lucrative MGM contract after a series of high-profile flops and certainly no stranger to sin; either playing it to the hilt on the movie screen or, regrettably, living it large in her many varied private liaisons with dangerous men.  By the time Peyton Place went before the cameras Lana’s amour for beefy Johnny Stompanato, thug muscle for California kingpin, Mickey Cohen, had decidedly cooled. If there is such a thing as art imitating life, then Lana Turner’s court room histrionics during the penultimate murder trial of Selina Cross in Peyton Place would prove a dry run for her even more provocative and tear-stained defense of daughter, Cheryl Crane – on trial for Stompanato’s murder a scant three months after the picture’s premiere. For the record, Stompanato was hardly ‘good people’; in fact, a brute who attempted to corner Sean Connery on a movie set in Britain for allegedly ‘showing interest’ in Turner, to which the disarming Connery – a former bodybuilder no less – casually diffused the situation with his own inimitable brand of guts; Stompanato deported from the U.K. shortly thereafter. Nevertheless, it was not brute force that put a period to Stompanato’s intimidation, but rather Cheryl Crane’s naïve confrontation of the man in her mother’s boudoir on the eve of April 4, 1958, after enduring several hours of heated bickering between the couple. Reportedly fearing for her mother’s life, Cheryl ran upstairs and tapped on the bedroom door, Stompanato suddenly appearing and the girl repeatedly stabbed him with a knife retrieved from the butcher block in the kitchen. Stompanato’s family sued to the tune of $7 million, but Crane was exonerated of the crime; spending several years in a reformatory as her recompense.
The part of Constance McKenzie was a leap for Lana; the first time she acquiesced to playing the mother of a teenage girl. It earned Turner a Best Actress nomination; the only one she would ever receive in her long and prolific career.  Interestingly, Wald also cast Russ Tamblyn against type. Tamblyn was another MGM alumnus, known primarily as a ‘tumbler/dancer’ in light and frothy musicals. Wald also hired David Nelson (of Ozzie and Harriet fame) in a sort of reprise of playing himself, herein as the ever-faithful, Ted Carter; Selina’s betrothed. But perhaps Wald’s most daring appointments to the cast were Terry Moore (as the ‘fast girl’, Betty Anderson) and Barry Coe (as Rodney Harrington), heir apparent to his father’s (Leon Ames) profitable cotton mill on which the whole town’s economic prosperity depends. Neither Moore nor Coe were established actors. Indeed, they are somewhat forgettable as the star-crossed lovers, if undeniably good to look at as eye-candy. Wald also rounded out his cast with some of 2oth Century-Fox’s finest contract players; Lloyd Nolen as the benevolent, Doc Swain, Arthur Kennedy (the unscrupulous drunkard/rapist, Lucas Cross), Betty Field as Selina’s distraught mother, Nellie; Lorne Green (the high-priced prosecutor, determined to see her hang for murder), and finally, Mildred Dunnock as the sad-eyed schoolmarm, Miss Elsie Thornton. If Peyton Place has a flaw, it is undoubtedly its rather loose adherence to period. The novel takes place in the early 1940’s with America at the cusp of WWII. Wald also sets the story in this time frame. Alas, no one could confuse Jack Martin Smith and Lyle R. Wheeler’s art direction for being anything except a send-up to the chichi styles of the 1950’s; ditto for Adele Palmer’s costuming and hair. The effect is amplified by William C. Mellor’s gloriously rich color cinematography, shot in the trending 50’s mode of presentation: Cinemascope, and Franz Waxman’s superbly soapy main theme and underscore. None of the aforementioned is complimentary to the wartime milieu. In fact, even the rigid morality Peyton Place’s citizenry supposedly adheres to plays more like social commentary on the postwar Eisenhower generation than the Franklin D. Roosevelt/Harry Truman era. Does any of this matter? Not really, I suppose, because the story being told is as universal as time itself; youth rebelling against the conventions established and imposed by the generation preceding them. 
Peyton Place opens with Waxman’s towering fanfare preempting the 2oth Century-Fox Cinemascope intro, written by Alfred Newman in the 1930's and expanded to encompass the Cinemascope logo after 1954. Only in a few instances had Fox allowed for such a concession, the absence of their trademarked ‘logo’ theme illustrating the importance already placed on Peyton Place as their ‘prestige’ production for 1957. In short order, we are introduced to Michael Rossi, who drives past some cardboard shanties on route to New England’s city of homes and churches where, curiously, no one desires to discuss the slums. As Metalious’ hometown was decidedly off limits to Wald (Gilmanton’s city council even went so far as to file an injunction temporarily prohibiting the sale, distribution and/or possession of any photographic equipment to ensure no shots of their hometown could be taken on the fly by a second unit without officially breaking the law), Robson and company settled on Camden, Maine for the principle shoot, with additional interiors and a few rear projection stock shots made back at 2oth Century-Fox. It should be noted that these process screen inserts are generally badly done, and really do take the audience out of the ‘you are there’ location work whenever they appear. Still, as a cost-cutting measure, and as a time-honored way of making movies then, Peyton Place is very much a product of its time – and looks it from beginning to end.
As Rossi’s car passes the shanties we are introduced to the Cross family; Nellie, her abusive second husband, Lucas, eldest daughter, Selina, eldest son, Paul (William Lundmark) and youngest child, Joey (Scotty Morrow). It seems Lucas has managed to scare Paul off; Selina begging her brother not to go, but to no avail. The camera picks up Rossi’s car arriving into town, near the malt shop run by Cory Hyde (Edwin Jerome), taking his liberties with a shave in Cory’s bathroom before proceeding to the Harrington Mill. There, Mr. Harrington and the school Board of Trustees are about to appoint a new principal. Everyone in the graduating class has naturally assumed it would be Miss Elsie Thornton, who has dedicated her entire life to the education of Peyton Place’s children. We segue into the home of single mother, Constance McKenzie and her teenage daughter, Allison who is preparing a speech Rodney Harrington will deliver as a parting gift to Elsie. Nellie, who works part-time as the McKenzie’s housemaid, informs Constance of Paul’s departure. And while Constance shares Nellie’s concerns about his future, Allison thinks it quite splendid of Paul to have struck out on his own – something she daydreams about doing herself. Unhappily, the class presentation of a dictionary and Allison’s speech delivered by Rodney turns sour when Elsie learns of Mike Rossi’s appointment in her stead. Rossi has struck a hard bargain with Mr. Harrington, who initially offered him a mere $3000 a year to accept. “We're all wasting our time,” Rossi insists, “That's only $5 a week more than I was making as a teacher.” When Mr. Harrington suggests the offer comes with the security of a long-term contract, Rossi bluntly admits, “Guaranteed poverty is not security!”  The truth stings, but Harrington can admire a man who stands up for his rights. He accepts Rossi’s terms. Taking nothing less than $5000, plus a $500 bonus at the end of the first year, Rossi begins taking charge of Peyton High almost immediately; his rules – to teach the students how to think for themselves and place their personal honor above curricular studies – finding considerable favor amongst the faculty.  After Rossi has gone home, Lucas, who is the school’s janitor, pokes fun at his ideas, adding insult to injury over Elsie bitter loss of the position.
At the end of the school day, Allison joins Selena, her best friend, the two hurrying to Constance’s dress shop where they meet up with several other girls, including resident sexpot, Betty Anderson who gives Allison a bit of sound advice: ‘racy girls get first pickin’ of the most eligible boys in town.’ Case in point: Betty’s lure on Rodney Harrington: the town’s most amiable bachelor. Not only does Rodney stand to inherit his father’s wealth and the mill, he is also Harvard-bound and destined to make something more of his life. Betty’s been sweet on Rodney since they were children and vice versa. Alas, Mr. Harrington has a few choice words for his son. ‘Fast girls are okay for a fling…but they have no place in a solid family like the Harringtons in the long run’. Constance too objects to Allison inviting Betty to her birthday party, but gives in when Allison bristles about the yoke in their mother/daughter relationship being too tight. Constance trusts Allison, electing to go to the movies while the house party is in full swing. Alas, Rodney and Betty arrive fashionably late with a bottle of gin to spike the punch bowl, and, mistletoe Rodney has brought to get the real petting party started. After her movie, Constance makes a pit stop at Cory’s diner; Doc Swain introducing her to Mike Rossi. The two momentarily hit things off. But Mike’s interest in Connie leaves a frost in the air. She coolly says her goodbyes. Returning home to find the lights dimmed and all the party attendees paired two by two, Constance orders everyone out of her house. Allison is humiliated. The two argue and Constance tries to explain to her headstrong daughter how easy it is for any girl to get ‘a reputation’. Constance ought to know. She was once the mistress of a married man – Allison’s father – who never married her and died before Allison was barely two years old. Allison, of course, knows nothing of this as yet, leaving her dejected and confused over her mother’s brittleness toward boys showing her even the slightest affection.
A short while later, Allison goes to collect Selena Cross for Sunday mass, inadvertently witnessing Lucas spying on Selena while she is dressing. When Selena threatens to tell Nellie, Lucas wallops her with his hand. Allison barges in to narrowly avert a catastrophe before the girls hurry off to church. In the meantime, Mr. Harrington has decided to give Rodney a brand new car. The gift comes with certain provisos; namely, Rodney should give up Betty. Rodney refuses. Nevertheless, Mr. Harrington makes his son break off his commitment to take Betty to the graduation dance. He then commits Rodney as Allison’s date instead. In the meantime, Rossi pays a social call on Constance to tell her Allison has been named class valedictorian. Actually, it is just another excuse for Rossi to see Constance again; also to get her to commit to being one of the chaperones at the dance. Betty arrives on the arm of another boy, determined to make Rodney jealous. Knowing he has been coerced into taking her to the dance, Allison encourages Rodney to pursue Betty instead while she attempts to engage Norman Page in a dance. Allison is fond of Norman. Perhaps, the feeling is mutual. Although Norman is unable to dedicate himself to anything beyond an awkward glance and half-crooked smile cast in Allison’s direction.
Rodney manages to sneak off with Betty. The two get comfortable in his new convertible; Betty leading Rodney on into believing he can have his way with her before thrashing him with her beaded handbag. Evidently, she is not as easy to get and is not about to let any boy who cannot even tell his own father what’s what take her in the backseat of his car. Rodney is, understandably, shaken and perplexed. Moreover, he has decided one thing. He needs to step up and be a man. As the dance winds down, Rossi takes Constance home, making his first failed attempt to seduce her with kisses.  She equates his affections to cheap maneuvers; all men paw at women simply to get what they want. But Rossi explains his affections quite clearly. Moreover, he is not about to let Constance get away with anything. “I kissed you,” he forcefully resolves, “You kissed me. That's affection, not carnality. That's affection, not lust. You ought to know the difference!” Alas, Constance will have none of it and orders Rossi away. He tells her the door to his heart is always open and encourages her to use it when she is ready to let down her hair and be a woman rather than a martinet. In another part of town, Ted escorts Selena home. The two profess their love for one another and Ted vows to make an honest woman of Selena before the summer is out. Alas, after he has gone Lucas, lecherous and drunk, forces himself on his stepdaughter in a violent act. At graduation, Allison delivers an inspirational benediction that everyone except Selena believes. For Selena has since discovered she is pregnant with Lucas’ child and upon bitterly confessing this truth to Doc Swain, she incurs Lucas’ wrath yet again. Swain makes Lucas sign a written confession, ordering him to leave Peyton Place for good or face being exposed for the sick molester that he is.
*Aside: in the novel, Selena is not eighteen, but rather fourteen when the initial rape occurs. Also, in the book (but not in the movie) Lucas repeatedly molests the girl for some years. The production code forbade even the inference of sex with a ‘child’, hence Selena’s rape takes place at the cusp of what was then considered the age a girl becomes a young woman – eighteen. Lucas is angered by the prospect of having to leave his home – such as it is. He finds Selena and pursues her through the woods on foot, the intent, presumably, either to rape her again or perhaps even beat and murder her for telling the truth. Instead, Selena manages an escape and Lucas leaves town in the dead of night. Tragically, Selena suffers a tumble down a steep ravine and is forced to have surgery. Officially, Doc Swain writes up the operation as an appendectomy, to spare Selena her reputation. Unofficially, he helps clear out the discharge after she miscarries. In the novel, Doc Swain actually performs an abortion on a healthy fetus; again, something the Production Code would not allow. Now, Selena gets a job working at Constance’s dress shop. With the money she earns she is able to make modest improvements to the house. Alas, Nellie becomes suspicious of Selena’s operation.
During the annual Labor Day picnic, Rodney renews his vow to make an honest woman of Betty. The two elect to run off to a secluded spot near Crystal Lake where they indulge in some heavy petting before going skinny dipping. At the same moment, Allison and Norman are spotted riding their bicycles together near the lake by town busybody, Marion Partridge (Peg Hillias) and her husband, Charles (Staats Cotsworth); also headed up to the lake to do some fishing. From a distance, Charles spies Betty and Rodney emerging from the water in the raw. Unable to make out who they are, he merely tells Marion two young people have gone into the woods naked. Putting two and two together (and coming up with sixteen) Marion sets into motion the rumor Norman and Allison have been up to no good; the incendiary tittle-tattle reaching Constance’s ears before nightfall. Electing to telephone Mrs. Page at once, Constance and Evelyn await the return of their children, confronting Norman and Allison about their whereabouts that afternoon. While Norman admits to going swimming, he insists both he and Allison were wearing their suits. In point of fact, his story is the truth. Wounded by her mother’s mistrust, Allison and Constance have it out once and for all; Constance revealing she was another man’s mistress and Allison, their illegitimate love child. Shocked by the news, Allison hurries in tears to her bedroom, only to discover in horror Nellie has hanged herself in the closet. Sent into a self-imposed catatonia for several days, Allison’s first words to Constance are she intends to leave Peyton Place at once and pursue a career as a writer in New York. Selena pleads with Allison to remain, but it is no use. Embittered by her mother’s sordid past, and repelled by the fact she has been led to believe a lie about her father for so many years, Allison departs on the first bus out of town. Several years pass.
Rodney and Betty sneak off together and are married. Mr. Harrington quietly pulls his son aside, assuring him he can get the marriage annulled. Rodney is disgusted by the suggestion. Moreover, he puts his foot down and stands up to his father, informing him he has no intention of attending Harvard. Mr. Harrington decides to make the best of things, offering Rodney steady employment at the mill, which he accepts as a proposal ‘man to man’. The war comes and Norman enlists as a paratrooper. He is followed by Rodney and Ted, along with other men and boys of eligible years. Regrettably, Rodney dies overseas – his name added to the memorial plaque in town. A tear-stained Betty and Mr. Harrington are reunited in their grief, Mr. Harrington remembering a promise he made to his son before he went off to fight; to look after Betty in the event anything should happen to him.  Confessing he was mistaken about Betty, Mr. Harrington now extends an unprejudiced hand, ‘to keep what’s left of the family together’. Genuinely touched by this olive branch, Betty willingly accepts. With Christmas fast approaching, Constance reconciles with Rossi; revealing the truth about her youthful indiscretions and how it has cost her Allison’s love. Rossi renews his promise to look after Constance if she will let him, and this time she confesses she has loved and wanted him almost from the moment he arrived in town. Alas, the holidays prove perilous for Selena and Joey after Lucas returns. An enlisted sailor on shore leave, Lucas is already drunk by the time he returns to the slum they once shared. He wastes no time in attempting to have his way with Selena once again. Only this time, she is more than ready for him. After a brief struggle, Selena manages to beat Lucas to death with a rather large piece of firewood. Joey and she elect to bury Lucas’ remains in the back yard. Not long thereafter, a pair of M.P.’s come to Constance’s shop to question Selena about her stepfather’s disappearance. She lies to them about not having seen Lucas for more than a year. But after they leave Selena confesses her ugly secret to Constance, who believes it her duty to telephone the police.
In the meantime, Allison and Norman (who has returned home after serving his country) are reunited on a train bound for Peyton Place. Norman makes it very clear he is interested in pursuing Allison romantically, and Allison reveals her failed venture as a writer in New York has resulted in her working at a publishing house instead. There is little opportunity for the Allison/Norman romance to blossom, however; particularly after each learns of Selena’s arrest and pending murder trial. Arguably, this is a flaw in the narrative construction; one leaving a gaping hole in their relationship, but also in the minds of movie-goers, expecting a more conclusive dénouement for these two fairly important characters, more beloved and fleshed out in the book than on the screen. In lieu of this, the last act of Peyton Place is dedicated to an elaborate trial; catching up the characters within the story to a point where the audience already is – and, in fact, has been for quite some time. We get a rather heavy retread, as the unnamed lead prosecutor (Lorne Green) squeezes Selena on the witness stand, twisting the facts to suggest she is a cold-blooded murderess. Selena is a wreck. Moreover, she refuses to give up the truth about Lucas raping her, believing the truth will destroy Ted’s love for her. Having come home for the trial, Allison delays Constance’s attempts at a reunion, but takes the witness stand in Selena’s defense.
Acting as Selena’s attorney, Charles Partridge (Staats Cotsworth) does not believe her chances for an acquittal are good. But Selena has sworn Doc Swain to secrecy regarding the rape. However, when Constance breaks down on the witness stand in Selena’s defense, Swain bravely assures her she did what she had to do. Stirred by the hypocrisy in these words; Doc Swain breaks his own pledge of silence to Selena for her sake, revealing Lucas’ signed letter of confession as evidence he has kept locked in his office safe these many years. Swain also admonishes the town for their duplicity in forcing a young girl to remain silent for fear of becoming a social outcast. His words cut deep, but they also ring true. Armed with the facts, the judge (Tom Greenway) reads the jury’s verdict of ‘not guilty’ by reason of self-defense. Ted rushes to Selena’s side and together with Doc Swain they make ready to meet the prejudices of the crowd waiting outside. Instead, Selena discovers the town only too willing to comfort and welcome her back from her silent ordeal. After the verdict, Rossi takes Constance home, their arrival interrupted by Allison’s impromptu appearance – finally forgiven her mother’s indiscretions – and Norman, who we are led to presume will become Allison’s husband at some later date. Peyton Place’s finale is a tad too optimistic for all that has transpired before it; Allison’s voice-over epitaph of forgiveness ringing as preachy and ever so slightly insincere. Still, the bulk of the film clings together with such moody magnificence, we can almost forgive this tacked on resolution.
Besides, placed in its proper context Peyton Place – both as a novel and a movie – was the divining rod for deconstructing the repressive 1950’s. The picture’s infrequent bouts of awkwardness are more a product of these times and the production code than a flaw in any of the performances given. Consider the scene where Allison and Norman go up to a favorite hiding spot; a barren hillside overlooking the whole of the town with a bird’s eye view. Allison vertically rests against a rather large bolder; Norman pressing against the same rock and just above her as they exchange flirtatious bits of dialogue. Yet censorship was so stringent, Norman and Allison could not even be allowed their moment together on a horizontal plain – even fully clothed; the Hayes Office ridiculously believing such an angle would suggest a prelude to intercourse. Later, when Norman and Allison prepare for their ‘legitimate’ swim, she confides his gaze is making her blush ‘all over’. Yes – exactly what it means. But it is about as close as we get to actual lust. Potentially, there may be a lot of sex taking place in this fictional hamlet; but all of it is kept behind tightly locked doors. Even the more adult ‘romance’ between Constance and Rossi is marred by Lana Turner’s frequently panged expressions; presumably signifiers to hot-blooded lust denied, and Lee Philips’ lengthy pledges of respectful manhood; a sort of subversive mindf_ck to get Constance to admit she pulsates with the same erotic urges he has for her. Sex in the movies: it was a problem then. It’s still a problem now; only today’s filmmakers have resolved to show us everything, thus managing to lay (pun intended) the specters of post-coital shame and regret at our feet on the altar of lowbrow snuff masquerading as pop art. Tragically, neither of these absolutes proves effective on the big screen. Too little, and we are not entirely certain if love is the answer, or merely, a curse. Too much, and love seems to take the proverbial backseat to the mechanics of an act already well known to most anyone having graduated to long pants.  Still, Peyton Place has its moments; enough of them to sustain our renewed interest in these conflicted characters and their sordid lives.
In its initial release, Peyton Place went on to gross $25,600,000 in the U.S. – a sizable hit, compounded by its nine Academy Award nominations. For a very brief wrinkle in time, Jerry Wald and Mark Robson likely viewed this as a complete vindication of their hard-won battles along the way to bring this story to the big screen. For her part, Grace Metalious thought the picture unsatisfactory at best. It perhaps amused her to see the more obvious exploits she had written about distilled into precisely the sort of hypocritical ‘wink and nudge’ she so daringly aimed to dismantle with her prose in the first place. Deriding her critics, Metalious observed, “If I'm a lousy writer, then an awful lot of people have lousy taste…even Tom Sawyer had a girlfriend, and to talk about adults without talking about their sex drives is like talking about a window without glass.” Unfortunately, Peyton Place holds the dubious distinction, along with 1977’s The Turning Point and 1985’s The Color Purple for being the most nominated movie never to win a single Oscar. Nevertheless, there was enough smoke in this fire to warrant a sequel. And in 1961, Fox attempted a Return to Peyton Place; not nearly as successful as its predecessor. The plot was resurrected once more; this time as a soap opera on ABC. It ran from 1964 to 1969 and is credited with giving Mia Farrow and Ryan O’Neal their starts in showbiz. But it is this original movie, full of glam, guts and gas that continues to hold a soft spot in so many hearts; a charming and mostly effective relic from another time. Tragically, Metalious’ own reputation has not weathered the years as well. Succumbing to cirrhosis of the liver at the age of 39, she was as wistfully frank as ever, saying “If I had to do it over again it would be easier to be poor. Before I was successful, I was as happy as anyone gets.” Leaving everything to her most recent lover, John Rees, a struggle between surviving family for the rights to her last will and testament revealed an even sadder truth: despite having been heralded as ‘Pandora in Blue Jeans’ and earning a reputable salary for five novels, Metalious’ estate was only worth $41,174; thanks to her high living/drinking, her generosity to ‘friends’ and a devious agent, who managed to syphon off a good deal of her earnings. Hence, at the time of her death, Metalious owed more than $200,000. And I suspect here is a story still waiting to be told; one Metalious would have likely relished exposing, had she lived to tell the tale.
Fox Home Video’s DVD from 2001 was pretty lousy. So, frankly, Peyton Place on Blu-ray really had nowhere to go but up…sort of.  Colors are vibrant, sometimes oddly so: blood red graduation gowns that leap off the screen and a blue bias that, at times seems overpowering and artificial. The green foliage is emerald, and briefly featured yellows and oranges also tend to dazzle the eye in ways not entirely indigenous to the source. DeLuxe color was not usually this intense and I have no doubt some serious digital tinkering has been applied to get the palette to pop as it does herein. That said, and with the caveat that Peyton Place in hi-def probably did not look like this when it was originally screened in 1957, the overall spectrum is ‘pleasing’ and will, except for the aforementioned examples, likely not distract from one’s viewing pleasure. Besides, it is light years ahead of the ugly, muddy bluish/black and otherwise seriously faded presentation Fox Home Video afforded Peyton Place on DVD. So, blessings of a sort are in order, I suppose. Grain is perfect, and contrast relatively pleasing. This Blu-ray is sourced from a single strand negative with prints intermittently used to fill in the gaps. Some serious digital manipulations have gone into homogenizing these discrepancies and create a visual consistency to bridge these disparate source materials. Overall, it’s a success with minor fluctuations duly noted. As per the audio: it is 5.1 DTS, presumably mixed from the original magnetic 4-track Cinemascope stereo. I say, ‘presumably’ because there are subtle variances throughout, with dialogue mostly front and center, but with exceptions paid to a few scenes where directionalized microphones follow a character from left to right (or vice versa) across the screen.
Franz Waxman’s score sounds positively lush. But for shame, TT has not furnished us with an isolated score, usually their modus operandi. In lieu of this, we get a newly recorded audio commentary from filmmaker/historian, Willard Carroll; also a puff piece featurette from Carroll – mere addendums to the extras originally featured on Fox’s DVD: a notable audio commentary from Terry Moore and Russ Tamblyn; a badly worn episode from Fox’s forgettable ‘Hollywood Backstory’ on the making of the movie. I will just go on record with a general complaint: that I never quite understood how ‘Hollywood Backstory’ became a series. Most of the episodes I have seen are just a compendium of sound bites from surviving cast and crew intercut with snippets from the movie itself: no real insight provided by Kevin Burns’ narration and no wealth of ‘backstory’ either.  We also get a pair of Fox Movietone newsreels – very brief – and theatrical trailers. Bottom line: Peyton Place is a cultural touchstone in so many ways, I really cannot applaud Fox for not giving it a broader release with all the bells and whistles it so justly deserves. Twilight Time’s Blu-ray is a must have for hardcore movie lovers. But get it while you can. With only 3000 copies afforded, once it’s gone, it’s gone! Buy today. Treasure forever. Or be stuck with Fox’s lackluster DVD (out of print, but still readily available from Amazon sellers).
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

Friday, March 24, 2017

BLOW-UP: Blu-ray (Premiere Productions, 1966) Criterion Collection

Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up (1966) is a movie about a sex-crazed/emotionally vacuous fashion photog who, in his spare time, snaps some fascinating pictures in the park that may or may not reveal a murder in progress. Or is it? Anyone having seen any of Antonioni’s Italian masterpieces (Le Amiche, 1955, L’Avventura, 1960, La Notte, 1961, L’Eclisse, 1962) will be inclined to disagree, or rather, knows better. Antonioni’s movies always go farther than mere plot: the director’s screenwriting skills, more intelligently focused on getting under the skin, and most intriguingly of all, between the scabs of humanity’s foibles – sifting through the puss and marrow of our communally resonating and singularly felt social angst, self-pity and disillusionment. The rancidness in this critique extends well beyond the journey at hand; tearing Antonioni’s protagonists apart as they aimlessly tumble into their emotional labyrinth, outwardly expressed by a dystopian maze of modernity, fraught with endlessly bad and occasionally very wrong life choices; all of them leading to an inescapable malaise of the mind, body and spirit. Unhappily ever after, the characters in an Antonioni movie are never more than two steps away from expiring in a lethargic quicksand of passionless regrets they have neither the social skills nor wherewithal to escape, much less understand. Once described as a “postreligious Marxist and existentialist intellectual” Antonioni’s perspective on life is perhaps more succinctly summarized by the master himself, who considered the age of ‘reason and science’ a straight-jacket of “rigid…stereotyped morality”, making cowards of us all via our “sheer laziness” to break out of the ensconced mold. For the record, Antonioni despised the notion of ‘morality’, adding “When man becomes reconciled to nature, when space becomes his true background, these words and concepts will have lost their meaning, and we will no longer have to use them.”
Despite his critical successes then, and, the renown and esteem he so rightfully holds today, Antonioni’s scrubby form and aimless characters have had their share of admirers and detractors over the years. While such emissaries in the movie world as Akira Kurosawa and Stanley Kubrick were mesmerized and perhaps even influenced by his work, others like Orson Welles and Ingmar Bergman thought Antonioni pretentious, dull and self-promoting of a personal style at the expense of his character-driven drama; the detached and dreamlike quality of his work, translating to less than profound revelations as tragically vacant as the characters who populate the decaying urbanity in these ethically bankrupt landscapes. Considered a ‘mod masterpiece’ in its day, Blow-Up really does not hold up as well as some of the director’s other aforementioned movies, even as it remains a touchstone of the endemic disenfranchisement of youth spreading like wildfire across America in the 1960s; ironic too, as the movie is set in London, England, looking marvelously decrepit.
For certain, Antonioni’s gratis exploitation of base human sexuality is Blow-Up’s chef de oeuvre and arguably the reason for its enduring fascination with movie historians today. Neither impinged upon nor impugned by the code of censorship, for so long stifling film makers’ visions, and then, even more shockingly frank, titillating and, perhaps a tad gratuitous, simply because it dared to fly in the face of convention, Antonioni has pushed decency about as far left of center as is deemed ‘permissible’; veering dangerously close to establishing Blow-Up as ‘art house’ – code for pornography. Interestingly, there is no sex in the movie per say; none that would satisfy this latter proclivity for smut beyond the occasional flash of some supple breast. For all his anti-neorealist ambitions, and, even more impressive on a $1.8 million dollar budget, Antonioni has brought Hollywood’s preconceived and long-standing template for prudence to a shudder, and, perhaps most impressive of all, to the nose-thumbing tune of $20 million at the box office; by far, his most profitable attempt at becoming ‘main stream’ – arguably, never his goal, though a necessary evil to remain relevant in the ever-changing and extremely volatile picture-making biz, particularly under attack in Hollywood then.
Blow-Up is an unvarnished critique of sacrificed sensations; swinging London, the epicenter of an imploding societal holocaust strewn in real human wreckage, browbeaten, back-stabbed and eventually submarined by its own constant bombardment of synthetic imagery; simulacrum substituted, then robotically ascribed to, and finally, even more disturbingly, retreated to with an almost coma-like ennui and acquiescence as the standard-bearer of the present generation. In a decade where ‘love’ (free or otherwise) was frequently the Band-Aid answer to all deeper inquiries, the real revelation in Blow-Up is just how dull and dissatisfying it can be: Antonioni’s spellbindingly offering us a glimmer beyond the hippie-infused trance of his main character, Thomas (David Hemmings) the fashion photog, briefly awakened by an adrenaline rush for the existential murder mystery seemingly at the crux of Blow-Up’s plot, yet never entirely reconciled, either in the movie or in Thomas’ own mind. Did he really photograph a murder in Maryon Park? Unimportant – at least, for Antonioni or, if actor, Ronan O’Casey (who plays Jane’s lover in the park) is to be believed, denied its denouement after Antonioni went ‘seriously over budget’. Indeed, the latter might be true, as MGM was in steep decline at the time Blow-Up went into production. Refused approval by the MPAA to distribute the picture in the U.S., MGM instead released it through a subsidiary – Premiere Productions and, however briefly, was once again able to reap the benefits of being at the forefront of a ‘new movement’ in movie-making. At this point in their sad implosion, Metro was hardly in a position to call the shots; rather, writing checks to cash for up-and-coming creative geniuses as well as old-time masters, now toiling far away from their once galvanized leadership, and, by the mid-1960's, wearily nervous, if still very watchful eyes; praying for a miracle to save the studio from sinking more deeply into the red.          
Blow-Up’s plot is suspiciously simple and very loosely inspired by the lifestyle of swingin’ London’s resident shutterbug, David Bailey: reconstituted herein as a day in the life of wildly popular fashion photog, Thomas; a really ruthless and arrogant piece of work; prick with a capital ‘P’ immediately comes to mind. Thomas arrives hours late to his studio for a prearranged shoot with supermodel, Veruschka (Veruschka von Lehndorff, posturing in two strips of slinky black fabric loosely masquerading as a dress). She is tart and coy with him, presumably miffed for having been kept waiting. Thomas is his usual sly and petulant self, critically studying her visage before cruelly inquiring, “Who were you with last night?” – a query, barely to illicit a brittle ‘hmph!’ The shoot quickly escalates from sex-kittenish eroticism to a quasi-sexual assault; Thomas getting right up and into his subject’s personal space, straddling her as she contorts on the floor, his camera lens – a Freudian phallus – almost pressed against Veruschka’s face. It’s all done ‘matter of fact’; just another day at the office, as far as Thomas and his assistant, Reg (Reg Wilkins) – who casually reloads the cameras – are concerned. Thomas’ whole day has been put into a tailspin by this unlikeliest of watershed moments; the seemingly endless parade of pretty faces he is forced to photograph leaving him utterly deflated. He makes a quick pit stop at the home of artist, Bill (John Castle) and his live-in, Patricia (Sarah Miles). She quietly offers Thomas a pint in a comfortable chair, gingerly massaging his temples with her slender fingers. Without suggesting any explanation for his actions, Thomas simply disappears, returning to his studio to discover two aspiring models (Jane Birkin and Gillian Hills) waiting.
Instead, he callously drives off, pausing to peruse an antiques shop. With his camera still strapped about his neck, Thomas next takes an aimless stroll through Maryon Park where he spies on and, from a distance, takes photos of two lovers in their clandestine meeting. The woman, Jane (Vanessa Redgrave) is furious for having the affair exposed. As nervous as a cat, she miserably attempts to bargain with Thomas for the film; then, tries to bite him to retrieve it. He forces her into retreat. However, seemingly excited by this encounter, Thomas returns to the antique shop, this time confronting its owner (Susan Brodrick) with an adamant bid for a rather large boat propeller. Unable to tote it in his sleek sports convertible, Thomas leaves the owner in the street, rather erotically clinging to the propeller; yet another of Antonioni’s phallic symbols. Next, Thomas meets his agent, Ron (Peter Bowles) for lunch. Antonioni is, in fact, a master at crafting meaning from these seemingly disparate sequences; on the surface, very much disjointed or perhaps even nonsensical. The hypnotic combination of Carlo Di Palma’s cinematography and Antonioni’s sparsely constructed dialogue (co-written by Tonino Guerra) leaves the viewer with just enough tantalization to sell each moment as an intricate piece in a much larger and ostensibly never-to-be-completed puzzle.
The plot thickens, or rather, continues to expand and unravel as Thomas takes notice of a mystery man (Dyson Lovell) snooping around his convertible. He abandons Ron, seemingly without rhyme or reason; Antonioni indulging Thomas in his flagrant despondency and contempt for contemporary society. London is depicted as a decaying and isolated ramshackle of tightly woven, but generally empty streets; foot traffic practically non-existent, except for the occasional picketing peace protester, mime and isolated group of fez-wearing Afrikaners Thomas nearly mows down as he hastily speeds home.  Not long thereafter, Jane makes her not-so-impromptu visit to Thomas’ studio. Thomas is again cruelly mischievous; first, denying; then, promising Jane the film. He takes a phone call from his estranged lover whom we never meet, implying he is in the middle of a ‘delicate’ matter with some other woman. It’s an insidious game, fraught with sexual tension, confusion and, finally, acquiescence on Jane’s part. Both she and Thomas strip to their waists. He offers her a canister of film – not the one she is after, mind you; and she incessantly flirts with him, using the excuse of ‘the time’ to avoid consummating their casual assignation. He asks for her number. She gives him a phony and bolts for the door.
Afterward, Thomas sets about developing the actual roll of B&W film he shot in the park; becoming intrigued when the resultant images reveal a moment previously passed him by – a queer expression on Jane’s face and the sight of a possible killer lurking behind a tall tree, gun in hand. Unable to contain his exhilaration at having unearthed and foiled a crime, Thomas telephones Ron. Disturbed by a knock at his door, Thomas discovers his ‘birds’ - the pair of aspiring models - returned with a new inducement. As with most of Antonioni’s explorations of human sexuality, what follows is a bit of a blur and widely opened to interpretation. While the brunette hints at being a virgin, the blonde willingly strips to her waist to try on some designer clothes. Thomas accosts her, toppling the racks of clothes and angrily paws at her. Her shrieks and look of absolute terror, combined with his beady-eyed satisfaction dovetails into a sort of pseudo-rape, inexplicably turned playful; then, bizarrely grotesque. The trio romp and wrestle in the studio, Thomas even more ravenously assaulting the girls who, in turn tear at one another’s stretch pants until each is completely nude. Thomas is not particularly serious about pursuing the matter; it ends, rather abruptly with his insincere promise to each girl to photograph them both ‘tomorrow’. 
Obsessed with the photographs he has taken in Maryon Park, Thomas makes several blow-ups that appear to reveal the extremely blurry outline of a body lying in the tall grasses. Can it be? Did he really witness a murder? Now approaching dusk, and without his camera, Thomas hurries to Maryon Park where he does, in fact, discover a body in the same proximity to the location featured in his pictures; frightened off by the sound of a snapping twig in the underbrush that may or may not suggest he is not alone, or has been followed, or that the murderer has returned to cover up the evidence. Hurrying to Bill and Patricia’s flat, Thomas finds the front door unlocked and the couple in the throes of heated passion, making love in their bedroom. Although Patricia sees Thomas clearly, she keeps his presence a secret from Bill. Racing home to grab his camera, Thomas soon discovers his studio has been ransacked; all evidence of the crime – save one exceptionally grainy photo – gone. On the hunt for clues, Thomas telephones Ron; then, spies Jane waiting outside the Permutit; a swinger’s club where The Yardbirds are performing.  A buzz in lead singer Beck’s amplifier causes him to throw a temper tantrum and wreck his guitar, tossing its shattered neck into the audience. Thomas greedily retrieves it as a souvenir. But only moments later, he discards it on the pavement outside the club. A passerby examines the relic, but also sees no reason to keep it.
Now, Thomas hurries to Ron’s fashionable house on the Thames; the scene of a drug-drenched orgy where Veruschka, who lied to him earlier about going to Paris, and higher than a kite now, blatantly suggests she is in Paris.  Unable to convince Ron of his discovery, Thomas gradually succumbs to the wanton revelry, awakening hours later in a half stupor, only to return to Maryon Park and realize someone has removed the corpse. Disillusioned, Thomas quietly observes as a jeep-load of mimes, who first appeared at the start of the movie – jovial and frenetic, participating in the ‘rag’ (a charity-raising ritual popularized in Britain) now enter a nearby caged tennis court to perform an impromptu match with imaginary balls and rackets. At some point, the mimes direct Thomas to fetch their imaginary ball, presumably played out of bounds. He obliges, and the sound of a real tennis ball is heard as the pretend match resumes.  Antonioni concludes with a high overhead shot: Thomas, a mere speck on the grassy knoll, isolated, quite alone, and wholly inconsequential. In these final moments, Antonioni exposes our antiheroic protagonist for the pointlessness of his superficial lifestyle; emasculated and ultimately disposable; Thomas, fading into obscurity (literally) and obliterated by the words ‘the end’ on the screen.
Blow-Up’s finale feeds into Antonioni’s reoccurring theme of humanity’s incapacity to find pleasure outside of its collective avarice for material wealth. In this regard, Antonioni is almost Shakespearean in his storytelling, the lives of his characters ‘full of sound and fury’ or humanity’s mad inhuman noise, as unimportant in man’s evolutionary process and most certainly ‘signifying nothing’ in the end. The bleakness that saturates virtually all his movies, but most succinctly is represented with hyper-intensity herein, is counterbalanced by Antonioni’s elliptical and open-ended narrative; the vacuity of our emotional content in general, and, lovers in particular, illustrating precisely how isolated, fragile, jaded and lost humanity has become in modern times. It is this theme that remains as relevant, if not more so, today. Despite centuries of interaction we are no closer to understanding each other, and even more obscure, ourselves or purpose in this godless and abysmally unattractive world of our own design. Curiously, despite its effectiveness in conveying this absence, and, even more shocking in lieu of its social relevance amplified with each intervening decade since, and further still, because of the avalanche of critical acclaim it received back in 1966, Blow-Up is rarely discussed, not only outside of filmdom’s contemporary discourse but also from within.  
It is too simplistic to suggest the times have merely changed: that Blow-Up no longer references or resonates with humanity’s collective nervous breakdown, social angst and self-pity the way it did for the navel-gazing sixties; a counterculture it both reflected and, in some ways, helped to kick start and expose.  And Antonioni has so cleverly, if very loosely, situated his story around the conventions of the Hollywood thriller; if nothing else, a selling feature for those seeking ‘only’ plot-driven narratives to satisfy their more narrowly construed movie-going appetites.  Whether the murder is real or imagined, or perhaps, covered up by Jane, who may or may not be part of it, is inconsequential as far as Antonioni is concerned. If Blow-Up contains the kernels of a classic whodunit, it easily assuages the notion that a neat and tidy summation for the crime will follow. Rather, Antonioni’s filmic quest is for answers to other questions: about people struggling to make meaning about and for themselves in a world of unplanned and negligible variables. Thomas is neither driven my ambition, per say, nor deep enough to recognize his own thoroughly disgusting and self-destructive deficits as a human being. But he is obsessed by his muse and driven – nearly half-mad – in his pursuit to deconstruct meaning, using his craft. Under the rubric – and time-honored cliché, ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’, both Thomas and Antonioni illustrate the power and sway modern art possesses –  in photographic stills, and via the moving image – this potency gets reaffirmed, then muddled again, even in these inexplicable temples of half shadow and light.   
Blow-Up finds its way to Blu-ray via Warner Home Video’s licensing agreement with the Criterion Collection and the results could not be more pleasing. Sourced from an original camera negative, with a few inserts from an IP, what’s here (outside of the main titles, sourced from a dupe) is simply stunning. Prepare to be dazzled as Blow-Up’s restored 4K master represents the swingin’ sixties palette in richly textured psychedelic colors. There is some discrepancy about framing: the theatrical release was in 1.66:1. This Blu-ray is in 1.85:1. Hmmm. Contrast is perfect, as is film grain - very indigenous to its source. The overall image is slightly darker than previous SD incarnations, and, with slightly warmer flesh tones. Yeah, baby – this one is ‘fab’!  Criterion’s PCM 1.0 audio perfectly captures the mono theatrical release, with subtly balanced ‘wind effects’ in Maryon Park creating a truly haunting sense of taut aural isolation. Curiously, we get NO audio commentary to accompany the feature. But fear not: extras are rather extensive and otherwise welcome, beginning with a five and a half minute excerpt from Michelangelo Antonioni: The Eye That Changed Cinema. Personally, I would have preferred the whole 2001 documentary. In lieu of this, we get a fairly comprehensive hour long documentary by Valentina Agostinis from 2016. We also get two interviews with actor, David Hemming: the first, running 5 min. from 1968, the other, a 20 min. conversation with Brian Linehan from 1977. There is a 45 min. conversation piece recorded late last year, featuring Vanessa Redgrave; 9 min. from a 1989 interview with Jane Birkin and two ‘exclusives’ produced for Criterion about Antonioni’s artistry: Antonioni's Hypnotic Vision; cumulatively, clocking in at just under an hour. Finally, we get the teaser and theatrical trailer, and liner notes by David Forgacs and Stig Björkman: also, the 1959 short story by Julio Cortázar on which Blow-Up is very loosely based. Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

Sunday, March 19, 2017

DIRTY DANCING: 30TH ANNIVERSARY: Blu-ray reissue (Vestron Pictures 1987) Lionsgate Home Video

“One of a handful of crowd-pleasing flicks that are seemingly impervious to criticism…and while those just stumbling upon the film today without being wrapped up in the warm glow of nostalgia may end up wondering what all the fuss was about, taken on its own terms, 'Dirty Dancing' is still an immensely likable (if terribly clichéd) tale of first love.”
-        Peter Bracke
Can it really be 30 years since the late Patrick Swayze and now virtually unrecognizable, Jennifer Grey took to the mambo in Emile Ardolino’s Dirty Dancing (1987)? Okay, now I feel old, having been a part of the original theatrical experience that absolutely mesmerized and dazzled an opening night audience; Swayze’s breakout role as the tight-fitted greaser with the proverbial heart of gold, Johnny Castle bringing Grey’s wall-flowered ingénue, Baby Houseman to her sexual prime with the now, iconic line, “Nobody puts Baby in a corner,” still ringing in my ears. A minor programmer from then fledgling – and now defunct – Vestron Pictures, Dirty Dancing became an iconic part of the puff pastry, eighties pastiche for ‘feel good’ fluff Hollywood today has completely forgotten how to make. More shocking, at least then, the picture made dancing permissible again for men – the sissifying of the art ever since Gene Kelly hung up his taps, brought to a full-throttle, pulsating sexual throb by the sight of a shirtless Swayze, up to his rippling waistline in decidedly frigid lake water, hoisting Grey overhead to teach Baby the proper balance during a dance lift. Swayze, classically trained as a dancer in his teens at his mother’s studio, regrettably, never fulfilled his dream to costar with his wife in a ‘Fred and Ginger’-esque musical of his own. Regardless, he is forever etched into our movie-land culture as the epitome of this sinewy hunk du jour. It helped that, two years earlier, the actor had played a pivotal part in one of television’s seminal mini-series; North and South, reprising the role of soft-spoken southern gentleman, Orry Main in the second installment of the franchise, on TV just before Dirty Dancing debuted. And Swayze, for all his tough-as-nails posturing and dark sun-glasses male machismo at the beginning of Dirty Dancing (my favorite line of his, actually directed at Max Cantor’s scummy waiter, Robbie Gould: “You just put your pickle on everybody's plate, college boy, and leave the hard stuff to me.”), cannot help but to remain the grandee of old school manly finesse: a sort of homespun toughness, as infectious and even more rarefied in movie studs from any vintage, though particularly, the eighties.
Dirty Dancing really is Patrick Swayze’s show; marvelous too for its Svengali-esque re-conceiving of Grey’s awkward and gawky ugly duckling with a Toucan Sam profile, miraculously transformed into a graceful swan in Johnny’s eyes, and, of course, through his expert tutelage in the bedroom and on the dance floor. Swayze and Grey possess that elusive spark of on-screen chemistry; as intangible as it is essential to make all the quirky comedy in Eleanor Bergstein’s screenplay click. Bergstein based the story largely on her own childhood as the younger sibling in a Jewish family whose doctor/father preferred to vacation in the Catskills.  Ever since the ‘erotic’ dance sequence she had scripted for 1980’s It’s My Turn had been left on the cutting room floor, Bergstein had become hell-bent on doing a ‘dance’ movie. Four years later, with success, she pitched the idea to MGM’s Eileen Miselle and producer, Linda Gottlieb; basing Baby’s character on herself and modeling Johnny Castle on Catskill’s dance instructor, Michael Terrace (on whom Bergstein herself had had a crush). For inspiration, Bergstein handpicked choreographer, Kenny Ortega, a disciple of Gene Kelly. As the Catskills had long since ceased to be a favorite retreat for affluent vacationers, Lake Lure, North Carolina and the Mountain Lake Hotel near Roanoke, Virginia were substituted as locations.
By now, Dirty Dancing’s featherweight plot should be predigested and regurgitated as part of North America’s cultural DNA; the summer of ’63 transformed into an idyllic coming of age story about seventeen year old Frances ‘Baby’ Houseman (Jennifer Grey); the favorite daughter of dad, Dr. Jake Houseman (Jerry Orbach) and by far the most introspective and forgiving of this family brood. Baby is vacationing at the fashionable Catskill’s resort, Kellerman’s; its avuncular owner/host, Max (Jack Weston) a close friend of her father’s. Baby’s distant plans include attending college in the Fall to study economics. Her more immediate plans…well. She’s bored and disillusioned, and, truth be told, a wee sexually frustrated too. Her life has not exactly been enriched by her family’s affluence; her superficially prettier elder sister, Lisa (Jane Brucker) more interested in preening and teasing her hair than expanding her mind. 
Max rather hopes to inveigle Baby in a summer romance with his goofy-looking son, Neil (Lonny Price) whom he is grooming to take over the family business. Instead, Baby develops an almost immediate crush on the resort’s butch dance instructor, Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze), leader of the proletariat entertainment staff. Housed in a crooked line of squalid shacks on an adjacent properly, Johnny and his brood are generally frowned upon by Max as a ‘necessary evil’ to keep the middle-aged female clientele ‘happy’ – a word of varied meaning. Bored by the pre-arranged ‘event coordinated’ pabulum meant to amuse guests, Baby wanders off in the woods at dusk, encountering Johnny’s cousin, Billy Kostecki (Neil Jones). Offering to help him tote a pair of weighty watermelons to the staff quarters, Baby is introduced to the real life of this party; a bump and grind to the primal beats of rock n’ roll. Johnny is not amused, but he does give Baby her first lesson: dance as sweat-soaked/straight-up sex with their clothes on. Baby is mildly embarrassed and withdraws from the all-night bender, but later, discovering Johnny’s jaded dance partner, Penny Johnson (Cynthia Rhodes), pregnant by Kellerman’s waiter, Robbie Gould (Max Cantor), magnanimously offers to get the necessary funds to help them both out of this very sticky situation.
Fearing his parental judgment, but knowing her cache as ‘daddy’s little girl’ will get her what she wants, Baby does not tell Jake for what the money is to be used. The more prescient problem: what to do about Johnny and Penny’s prearranged professional engagement at the nearby Sheldrake Hotel. To forfeit the money is not an option. So, with time running out, Baby suggests she might substitute as Johnny’s partner. Penny is game and Johnny very reluctantly agrees. Although Baby proves an extremely awkward pupil, she nevertheless invests everything into learning the necessary dance steps to perform the mambo. In the meantime, Billy agrees to take Penny for her abortion and look after her until Johnny and Baby return. Fate intervenes. Setting aside her anxiety, Baby takes notice of an elderly couple, the Schumachers (Alvin Myerovich and Paula Trueman): guests of Kellerman’s, curiously found their way to the Sheldrake. Returning to Kellerman’s after midnight, Johnny is informed by Billy that Penny’s backroom abortion was badly bungled. She is feverish and hemorrhaging. While everyone begins to panic, Baby rushes back to her suite, awakening Jake in the middle of the night. His medical expertise saves Penny’s life. Alas, he has mistakenly assumed Johnny to be the father, and furthermore, has lost all faith in Baby’s ability to make sound judgment calls. Vowing to keep the entire evening a secret from his wife, Jake plans to leave Kellerman’s immediately. But Lisa dissuades her father from this hasty departure because of her insidious desire to be the center of attention at the hotel’s planned ‘talent’ competition.
Embarrassed by Jake’s prejudice, Baby returns to Johnny’s cabin to apologize. Penny is grateful for her intervention, however, and Johnny has already begun to recognize her courage. Moreover, he has fallen in love with Baby. The two engage in a dance that segues into passionate love-making. Knowing Robbie was responsible for Penny’s pregnancy, and moreover, he is infamous for whoring around with the middle-aged female clientele at the hotel, Baby does everything she can to dissuade Lisa from ‘going all the way’ with him. Assuming Baby is merely jealous, not only of her ‘friendship’ with Robbie but also of the fact she has suddenly become ‘daddy’s favorite girl’, Lisa scoffs at Baby’s suggestion. Against Jake’s direct orders Baby continues to see Johnny on the sly, but sheepishly pulls him aside when she sees her father approaching. Believing Baby to be like all the rest, ashamed to ‘go slumming’ but just as readily hypocritical to use him, Johnny and Baby have their first argument. Having witnessed their tiff, Robbie confronts Johnny. The men scuffle and Johnny knocks Robbie to the ground.
Not long thereafter, one of Kellerman’s notorious ‘bungalow bunnies’, wealthy middle-aged viper, Vivian Pressman (Miranda Garrison) attempts to engage Johnny for a ‘private lesson’ – code for an afterhours sexual rendezvous. Reformed by Baby’s love, Johnny turns Vivien down. So she indiscriminately takes Robbie to bed instead (after all, any young stud will do); a scene accidentally witnessed by Lisa who has skulked off to throw herself at Robbie’s head, erroneously believing she has found true love. Alas, when Vivien leaves Robbie’s cabin at dawn she also witnesses Baby departing Johnny’s room. Not long thereafter Max and Neil reveal to the Housemans Moe Pressman’s (Garry Goodrow) wallet is stolen while he was playing poker with a few of the other guests. Driven by jealousy, Vivien accuses Johnny of the crime. As a few of the more well-heeled patrons at Kellerman’s have recently discovered their moneys and other valuables gone missing, Max, along with Neil, too keen to assume the worst about Johnny, immediately dismiss him. To spare Johnny his job, and unaware her confession will nevertheless result in his dismissal for ‘other reasons’, Baby confesses in front of the Kellermans and her own family Johnny could not have stolen Moe’s wallet because at the time of the crime she was with him in his bungalow and remained there all night.
Although Johnny is exonerated after the Schumachers are exposed as a pair of pro con artists, he is nevertheless dismissed from the hotel for this ‘fraternizing’ affair. At the end-of-season talent show, Jake is more disillusioned than ever. He cannot forgive Baby her indiscretion. Unaware of Robbie’s indiscretions, Jake offers to give the boy an endorsement for medical school. Believing Jake already knows the truth about him from either Lisa or Baby, Robbie now casually confesses to having impregnated Penny. Thoroughly insulted, Jake withdraws his offer in disgust. Despite having been ordered off the property, Johnny suddenly appears at the Houseman’s table. He challenges Jake’s classicism and liberates Baby from her corner seat, taking center stage to perform the closing ‘dance’ against the Kellerman’s objections. Sensing the couple’s infectious romance, the auditorium erupts into thunderous applause as patrons – young and old - decide to partake of this eclectic dance explosion. Jake accepts Johnny as Baby’s boyfriend; the couple’s future uncertain as everyone enjoys one final spin around the dance floor.
It all looked good – on paper – except that a management shakeup at the perennially flailing MGM forced the project into turnaround.  Free to shop her script elsewhere, Bergstein was soon to discover zero takers on the outside, except for the fledgling Vestron Pictures. In a series of ‘firsts’; Dirty Dancing would be Vestron’s entre into picture-making and herald the debut of its director, Emile Ardolino, who had never made a feature before, but had won an Oscar for 1983’s documentary, He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin’. At a time when the average feature cost $12 million, Dirty Dancing’s paltry $5 million budget seemed like a safe investment to Vestron’s President Jon Peisinger; not enough to sink the newly amalgamated studio if the picture flopped, and just enough to lend credence to a possible sleeper hit, should Bergstein’s hunch play itself out. Casting Dirty Dancing proved a minor ordeal as Ardolino was adamant about filling the two leads with dancers who could act, rather than actors who could learn to dance, or worse, flat-foots requiring a double, lit in half shadow, to conceal the switch. Jennifer Grey was first to be cast. An experienced dancer and the daughter of 1972’s Cabaret gris eminence, Joel Grey; her hiring created a minor difficulty when Ardolino announced his decision to costar Patrick Swayze. Swayze and Grey had not gotten on during the filming of Red Dawn (1984). And actually, Billy Zane had already tested for Johnny Castle, proving the right ‘type’ – physically, but quite unable to keep up with the more vigorous dance moves during his audition.
Reluctantly, Grey agreed to ‘test’ with Swayze; the pair amicably finding their détente on the dance floor in an audition Bergstein would later describe as ‘breathtaking’. While Gottlieb and Bergstein were over-the-moon to hire Swayze, he received minor opposition from his well-intentioned agent who advised him not to accept the part. Swayze, however, loved the role and vetoed his agent. Of the various other casting choices, only two would remain a constant during Dirty Dancing’s preliminary phase: Broadway actor, Jerry Orbach (who had made himself familiar to TV audiences with a reoccurring character part on Murder She Wrote) and Jane Brucker (as Baby’s vacuous elder sister, Lisa). Bergstein’s initial plan to hire close friend and sex therapist, Dr. Ruth Westheimer to play Mrs. Schumacher fell through when Westheimer learned her character was a kleptomaniac (Paula Trueman eventually filling the role). Bergstein was also to recast the part of Kellerman’s social director, Stan with Wayne Knight, and Mrs. Houseman with Kelly Bishop, after the original actress signed for this latter role, Lynne Lipton suddenly fell ill and was forced to withdraw. As Bishop had already been hired to play Kellerman’s resident oversexed rich bitch, Vivian Pressman, Bergstein coaxed Dirty Dancing’s assistant choreographer, Miranda Garrison to accept this part in her stead.
To suggest Dirty Dancing’s shooting schedule was tight is an understatement; two weeks of rehearsals followed by a mere 44 days of principle photography, with cast and crew sequestered at the Mountain Lake Lodge and Lake Lure Inn and Spa. Shot after Labor Day, 1986, cast and crew were exposed to some inhospitable weather; staggering 105 °F heat, stifling humidity and impromptu showers. As temperatures soared, casualties were incurred; fainting spells and bouts of dehydration. The production was also delayed when Patrick Swayze, having repeatedly tumbled while performing the ‘balancing scene’ on a log, suffered a knee injury that required immediate hospitalization. As the shoot moved into late autumn, Ardolino and his set designers were forced to spray-paint the turning foliage green; the unpredictable temperatures toggling from stifling heat to just above freezing. While crew were shielded from these radically fluctuating conditions, allowed to wear whatever clothes they required to keep warm, Swayze and Grey were forced to strip down to light summer attire in order to perform their now iconic ‘lake rehearsal’ scene. Inspiring a sense of community as well as friendship, Bergstein encouraged fraternizing on the set; the line between actors and the characters they were playing, effectively blurred when after work gatherings turned into off-the-cuff disco parties, both dancers and non-dancers honing their terpsichorean skills in a spirit of playfully erotic interaction. Alas, Swayze and Grey were to reestablish their old mutual animosity as production wore on; Bergstein forcing them to re-watch their screen test to regain that aura of ‘positive’ chemistry for their love scenes. Despite these delays, Ardolino wrapped his movie on Oct. 27th, on-time and on-budget.
Interestingly, the director’s rough assembly and sneak peek impressed no one; not even Ardolino and certainly not Vestron’s executives, who believed they had a formidable turkey on their hands. Almost half of the test audience failed to grasp the movie’s abortion subplot, while producer, Aaron Russo is rumored to have sarcastically suggested to Vestron exec, Mitchell Cannold “Burn the negative, and collect the insurance.” Instead, Vestron began shopping the film for a sponsor. Acne cream manufacturer, Clearasil offered a tie-in until they learned of the abortion subplot. As Bergstein unequivocally refused to cut this out to satisfy the sponsorship, Clearasil withdrew, leaving Vestron to promote Dirty Dancing alone. As Vestron was primarily a video distributor, the plan now was to quickly premiere the picture for a weekend and then quietly pull it from circulation with a direct-to-video release shortly thereafter. Given the initial reaction from Vestron, Gottlieb’s sentiments and level of expectation ebbed low as the official premiere on August 16, 1987 fast approached. With heavy hearts, Vestron, Ardolino and the rest of the cast and crew prepared to accept their raspberries in public. Ironically, they had absolutely nothing to fear. Audiences fell in love with the picture almost instantly, Dirty Dancing doing repeat business, with word-of-mouth catapulting the box office into the stratosphere; $170 million worldwide, making it one of the highest grossing movies of 1987. 
Fueled by its pop-chart topping soundtrack, that not only included the Jennifer Warnes/Bill Medley crowd-pleaser, ‘The Time of My Life’ (weirdly, the third most popular song to be played at funerals forever after?!?) but also Swayze’s singing debut, ‘She’s Like the Wind’, Dirty Dancing’s dreaded Hiroshima-sized implosion with audiences never happened. The critics were more or less forgiving, their reviews ping-ponging from over-the-moon ebullience (The New York Times called in “a metaphor for America in the summer of ’63 – orderly, prosperous, bursting with good intentions; a sort of Yiddish-inflected Camelot”) to downright insidious and scathing (Chicago’s Roger Ebert eviscerating the “idiot plot” as “tired and relentlessly predictable.”).  And Dirty Dancing would continue to break records: the first VHS cassette to sell a million copies at a rate of approximately 40,000 a month. As of 2005, in its various home video incarnations, Dirty Dancing continues to sell roughly a million copies per annum, listed in Britain's Sky Movies as the #1 most-watched video of all time; well beyond figures touted for the Star Wars trilogy, Grease, The Sound of Music, and Pretty Woman.
Good press and clever marketing can greatly enhance a picture’s reputation. But not all movies are worthy of the hype. Some calculably survive it. Placed in its proper context, Dirty Dancing remains a modest and enjoyable programmer, elevated in status by Patrick Swayze’s reputation that would continue to soar and acquire even more cache in the intervening decades as an amiable and very popular leading man. Above all else, Swayze had personality plus to recommend him; and class too. It goes a long, long way. He left us much too early; dead of pancreatic cancer at the age of 57. In viewing the picture again, it speaks to his incredible vitality as both a dancer and a true artist whose acting style was as unaffected, natural and well-meant as the man himself. Emile Ardolino, who only directed a handful of movies, among them, Chances Are (1989) and Sister Act (1992) would never scale such heights again. Spun off into a tragically underwhelming TV series in 1988 (that lasted only 11 episodes) and a rather unprepossessing prequel, Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights (released in 2004 but set in 1958), like most any example one would care to ascribe, it’s the original that counts here. Dirty Dancing remains a cultural touchstone from the whack-tac-u-lar eighties; a decade fraught with fun and fabulous ‘feel good’ flicks that made one glad to be alive and optimistic about the future. Viewed from our present day dystopian movie culture, Dirty Dancing is still exuberant, energetic and amply endowed entertainment, with good solid talent working both in front of and behind the camera.  
Perhaps it’s time to have the time of one’s life all over again. Ah…not quite. Certainly, Lionsgate Home Video thinks as much – or as little – with this 30th anniversary re-re-re-reissue. Dirty Dancing has to be one of the most obscenely milkable sacred cows in the home video industry with multiple reissues to make even the likes of Disney Inc. blush. We could almost jump for joy, except Lionsgate has done absolutely nothing to update the tired and sincerely flawed 2010 1080p transfer, still sporting thick and rather unnatural grain that sporadically appears more digitized than indigenous to its source. Colors tend to clot, or rather, look muddy and inconsistent. Daytime photography yields some impressive fine detail, but Jeffrey Jurs’ moodily lit interiors are bland and boring; flesh tones pasty and pinkish; the whole image wanting for that colorful oomph it ought to have. Increasingly I am impatient with video-mastering companies recycling old transfers with new swag as their only supposed selling feature; that, and the fact the old Vestron Pictures logo remains lopped off at the start of the movie. If it’s a rights issue, get the rights! Period! We do get a new 7.1 DTS soundtrack, adding new life to these time-honored classic rock tunes interpolated throughout. But dialogue still sounds tinny and frontal by comparison.  
Okay, we get a newly produced 30-minute retrospective with Bergstein and original cast members, Bonnie Timmerman, Miranda Garrison, Doriana Sanchez, Jesus Fuentes, Jane Brucker, Kelly Bishop and some of the Broadway musical revival’s cast weighing in on the ‘timeless’ magic of the original. There’s also 90 minutes of archival interviews with Patrick Swayze, Bergstein, Jennifer Grey, and, choreographer, Kenny Ortega, who was rumored to be first in line to direct a remake that, mercifully, has since fallen by the waste side.  Two optional commentaries enlighten further: Bergstein’s the better of the two; the other, misguidedly fluffy and featuring Ortega, Garrison, Jur and Production Designer David Chapman and Costume Designer Hilary Rosenfeld. None of the aforementioned really goes beyond the self-congratulatory gushing phase in their praise of the movie.  Nearly two-dozen deleted, extended or alternate scenes, some screen tests, and, three horrendously tacky music videos pad out the extras. Monumentally disappointing, the old tributes to Swayze and Jerry Orbach have been excised; also, the rather silly, but fun ‘trivia track’. The Limited Edition Collector’s Set delves deeply into some A-list swag; including a rather handsomely produced set of ‘lobby cards’; a fake map to Kellerman’s resort, a ‘Do Not Disturb’ door tag and hall key, a poster reproduction and ‘Arthur Murray-esque dance map to illustrate how to do the mambo. I like swag, but not at the expense of a properly remastered hi-def transfer. Bling is bling – not the thing to make me want to double dip for this pointless reissue.  If you already own Dirty Dancing on Blu-ray steer clear of this set.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)