Saturday, 22 July 2017

Ava Gardner: A Life in Movies by Kendra Bean & Anthony Uzarowski

I was fourteen years old when The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972) made its television debut on the CBS Sunday Night Movie. The film starred Paul Newman as real life Western character Roy Bean, who worshipped legendary actress Lillie Langtry from afar. At the end of the film Miss Langtry visited the self-appointed judge's hometown of Langtry, Texas. I was immediately taken by the actress who played Lillie Langtry. The sequence only lasted a few minutes at most, but Lillie Langtry in The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean made an impression on me. The actress playing Miss Langtry was none other than legendary screen goddess Ava Gardner, and I was far from the only teenage boy who had become smitten with her. At the time I would have been shocked to have learned that when the movie was released, Miss Gardner was less than a week shy of her 50th birthday.  In a career spanning around forty years, Ava Gardner became one of the most recognisable names in film. Unfortunately, she was more often recognised for her beauty or her tumultuous personal life than she was her talent as an actress.

Kendra Bean & Anthony Uzarowski have written a biography, Ava Gardner: A Life in Movies, that goes a long way to correcting the view of Miss Gardner as little more than a pretty face who married three times and had several affairs throughout her life. While previous biographies of Ava Gardner focused almost exclusively on her personal life (in particular, her marriages to Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw, and Frank Sinatra), Kendra Bean & Anthony Uzarowski devote a very large part of the book to Miss Gardner's career. The end result is that those who may be unfamiliar with her work will learn that Ava Gardner was not simply a sex symbol--she was a talented actress who gave quite a few great performances in her career.

That is not to say that Kendra Bean & Anthony Uzarowski do not deal with Ava Gardner's personal life, but they go well beyond her marriages and her problems with drinking that have been the focus of earlier biographies. In reading Ava Gardner: A Life in Movies one gets a real sense of who Ava Gardner was. She was a beautiful woman who was well liked by nearly everyone who knew her, even as various scandals dominated newspaper headlines during certain periods of her life. Ava Gardner: A Life in Movies is a very sympathetic look at Ava Gardner's life and career, all the while insuring the reader knows that Miss Gardner was a flesh and blood human being who even had her own doubts about herself (particularly her acting talent).

Kendra Bean & Anthony Uzarowski's text is complimented by what may be the largest collection of photographs of Ava Gardner in any single book. The photographs range from studio publicity photos to photos taken behind the scenes of her movies to photos from her personal life. I had thought I had seen nearly every single photograph of Ava Gardner ever taken, but Ava Gardner: A Life in Movies featured many that I had never seen before. Here I must point out that Running Press did a wonderful job with Ava Gardner: A Life in Movies. It is an absolutely beautiful book, from its layout to its typography. The look of Ava Gardner: A Life in Movies compliments both its subject and Kendra Bean & Anthony Uzarowski's text perfectly.

Kendra Bean & Anthony Uzarowski did meticulous research in writing Ava Gardner: A Life in Movies and it shows. This not only included interviews with those who knew and worked with Miss Gardner, but also examining her personal papers and correspondence. Ava Gardner: A Life in Movies looks like a coffee table book, but it is actually one of the most in-depth biographies of a legendary star that I have ever read. If one is already a fan of Miss Gardner, Ava Gardner: A Life in Movies will be a most enjoyable read. If one is unfamiliar with Miss Gardner and wants to learn more about the actress and her career, I can say with some certainty that Ava Gardner: A Life in Movies is one of the first places one should start.

(Those who enjoy Ava Gardner: A Life in Movies might want to check out Kendra Bean's earlier book on Vivien Leigh, Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait)

(I want to thank Running Press for giving me the opportunity to review this book.)

Friday, 21 July 2017

Les Diaboliques (Diabolique to We English Speakers)

(This blog post is part of the 'Til Death Do Us Part Blogathon hosted by Cinemaven's Essays from the Couch)

When people think of influential horror thrillers directed by a master filmmaker, they are usually inclined to think of Alfred Hitchcock's classic Psycho (1960). Those who are a bit more knowledgeable about film history might also think of Michael Powell's classic Peeping Tom (1960). While both Psycho and Peeping Tom were very influential, however, years before either movie was released there was a French horror thriller directed by a master filmmaker that would be as influential as either of them. Les Diaboliques (1955) was directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, who had earlier directed such classics as Manon (1949) and Le salaire de la peur (1953--in English The Wages of Fear). The film was released in English speaking countries as Diabolique. Not only would it prove to be a hit throughout the English speaking world, but it would have an impact that is still felt to this day.

At the centre of Diabolique is a love triangle, although one that is certainly atypical. Michel Delassalle (played by Paul Meurisse) is a schoolmaster of a school outside Paris that is owned by his wife Christina (played by Véra Clouzot). Deslassalle is abusive towards Christina, even to the point of physical violence. Delassale is carrying on an affair with a teacher at the school, Nicole Horner (played by Simone Signoret), to whom he is also abusive. Rather than being jealous of each other, Delassalle's wife Christina and his mistress Nicole bond over their mutual hatred of Delassalle. It is not long before the two of them hatch a plot to kill him. From there on out I really cannot reveal anything without spoiling the movie for those who have not seen it. Indeed, Diabolique has twists that make the twist in Psycho look small in comparison. Because of this the closing credits included a title card that read, "Don't be devils! Don't ruin the interest your friends could take in this film. Don't tell them what you saw. Thank you, for them."

Diabolique was based on the novel Celle qui n'était plus by Boileau-Narcejac. Henri-Georges Clouzot claimed that none other than Alfred Hitchcock himself tried optioning Celle qui n'était, but was beat out by Mr. Couzot by a mere matter of hours. Whether true or not, Diabolique would certainly have a influence on Alfred Hitchcock, as well as other English language filmmakers (as will be addressed below). 

It was planned that Diabolique would be shot in only eight weeks. Ultimately it would take sixteen weeks. Things were not always pleasant on the set. Henri-Georges Clouzot and Simone Signoret were constantly at odds with each other. Véra Clouzot alternately found herself either arbitrating Mr. Clouzot and Miss Singoret's fights in an attempt to get them to make peace or egging both of them on. To make matters worse, Simone Signoret began rehearsals for a production of The Crucible twelve weeks into the shooting of Diabolique. She had to go straight from shooting Diabolique to rehearsing The Crucible and as a result got little sleep over the next four weeks. By the time Diabolique wrapped up production, Henri-Georges Clouzot, Simone Signoret, and Véra Clouzot were no longer speaking to each other. Strangely enough, Paul Meurisse, who played the villainous Michel, was the only actor who remained on good terms with both the director and his two leading ladies!

Les Diaboliques was released in France on January 29 1955. The film proved to be a major hit in France.  What is more remarkable is that it also proved to be a hit in the English speaking world, where foreign language films often do not do particularly well. When it was released in the United Kingdom it was often part of a double bill with a Hammer film, X the Unknown (1956). When it was released in the United States it was often part of a double bill with another Hammer film, The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), the film that would start a string of Hammer Gothic horror movies that would last for nearly 20 years. 

Diabolique not only made a good deal of money in the United Kingdom and the United States, but it also received a good deal of critical acclaim. It won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Foreign Film. It also won a special Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Foreign Film. Curiously, despite its critical acclaim in the English speaking world, Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard of the influential publication Cahiers du cinema disliked the film and regarded such older filmmakers as Henri-Georges Clouzot as playing it safe. What they failed to realise is that in making Diabolique in many ways Mr. Clouzot produced something as risky, if not more so, than the films they would make. 

The success of Diabolique would not be lost on other filmmakers. It was the success of French thriller Diabolique in the United States that inspired William Castle to produce his own low budget horror movie. That movie would be Macabre (1958), the first of Mr. Castle's many horror movies produced on shoestring budgets. Jimmy Sangster, both a screenwriter and director for Hammer Films, referred to Diabolique as one of his favourite films of all time. It should then come as no surprise that Hammer's psychological thrillers often owe more to Diabolique than they do Psycho. This is particularly true of Hemmer's first psychological thriller Taste of Fear (1961). Unlike Hammer's Gothic horror movies, Hammer's psychological thrillers were shot in black and white and often on low budgets. Their plots often resembled Diabolique more so than some better known, English language thrillers.Some have even seen the influence of Diabolique on Alfred Hitchcock himself. This is certainly true of Psycho, down to the film's director asking its audiences not to reveal its twist ending, but some have even seen the influence of Diabolique on Vertigo. Precisely how I can't reveal because, well, of spoilers.

As to the reason for Diabolique's success, there can be little doubt that it was a unique film at the time of its release. Very few films before Diabolique had ever blended the horror and thriller genres the way it did. And while spouses killing spouses was a common trope even in 1955 (indeed, it would be the theme of many episodes of a show that debuted that year, Alfred Hitchcock Presents), Diabolique played with the trope in a way that no other film ever had before.  Quite simply, Diabolique took a common trope (spouses murdering spouses) and did in a such a way that was downright shocking at the time.

Ultimately the influence of Diabolique is still felt today. From Silence of the Lambs (1991) to Seven (1995), it is no longer unusual for movies to blend elements of horror movies and psychological thrillers. Diabolique was the film that started it all. 


Thursday, 20 July 2017

Mad Men Yourself

Yesterday marked ten years since the debut of Mad Men. Of course, no history of Mad Men would be complete without mentioning "Mad Men Yourself". For those of you who might not be familiar with "Mad Men Yourself", it was essentially an avatar generator. Using "Mad Men Yourself" fans could create their very own Mad Men avatars, down to choosing Sixties-style clothing and accessories for those avatars. What is more, one could place one's avatars in various places, such as the offices of Sterling Cooper, the avatar's home, a bar, an airport, and so on.

"Mad Men Yourself" was launched in 2009 as part of the promotion for the third season of the show. It was created by the digital marketing company Deep Focus. The designs for the avatars for "Mad Men Yourself" were created by Dyna Moe, an illustrator and comedienne whose style draws  heavily upon the Sixties. "Mad Men Yourself" proved to be a hit upon its launch, with thousands of Mad Men fans (myself included) using it to design their own avatars. It received coverage in a good many news outlets, including AdWeek, Entertainment Weekly, In Style, People, The New York Post, NPR, TV Guide, The Washington Post, and many others. In 2011 "Mad Men Yourself" was nominated for the Webby Award for Interactive Advertising.

"Mad Men Yourself" would be updated every season, adding new styles of clothing to reflect the changing fashions of the Sixties. A good number of Mad Men fans then updated their avatars on a yearly basis and some even more often, changing their looks to reflect the current year in which the current season of Mad Men took place. Not surprisingly, many fans use their "Mad Men Yourself" avatars as their profile pictures on such social media sites as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and so on to this day. Sadly, "Mad Men Yourself" appears to no longer be available. I'm not sure when AMC shut it down, but it must not have been long after Mad Men's final episode in 2015.

I have to confess that I was one of those fans who updated his "Mad Men Yourself" avatar fairly often. Below are the "full body" pictures of my avatar. I have arranged them in chronological order, from the first to the last.


Wednesday, 19 July 2017

The 10th Anniversary of Mad Men

Anyone who gets to know me soon realises that the vast majority of my favourite shows were made before 1980. In fact, if I were to make a list of my top fifty favourite shows of all time, there would probably be only one show on the list that was made after the Seventies. What is more, it would likely rank in my top five. That show is Mad Men. It was ten years ago today, on July 19 2007, that Mad Men debuted on AMC.

For those of you are not familiar with the show, Mad Men was a drama that aired on AMC from 2007 to 2015. It was set in the Sixties around the advertising agency Sterling Cooper. It's chief protagonist was Don Draper (played by Jon Hamm), who began the show as the agency's creative director. Equally important to the show was Peggy Olson (played by Elisabeth Moss), who began as Don's secretary and eventually became a copywriter and still later head of creative. While arguably Don and Peggy were the show's central characters, Mad Men was truly an ensemble drama with a fairly large cast, including not only the employees of Sterling Cooper, but their wives, relatives, and lovers. The series spanned the whole of the Sixties, beginning in late 1959 and ending in 1970.

The origins of Mad Men go back to 1999 when the show's creator Matt Weiner was one of the writing staff on Ted Danson's sitcom Becker. It was at that time that he conceived a TV show set in the Sixties. To that end he spent his spare time doing extensive research on the Sixties, including the fashions, the decor, and even what people drank during the decade. It was in 2001 that he wrote a spec script for an advertising agency called Sterling Cooper at the close of the Fifties, a script that would eventually become the first episode of Mad Men, "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes".

Matt Weiner's spec script drew no buyers, but it did get the attention of the creator and executive producer of HBO's critically acclaimed TV series The Sopranos, David Chase. Impressed with the script, Mr. Chase hired Mr. Weiner as a writer. It was only a matter of weeks after Matt Weiner had joined the writing staff of The Sopranos that David Chase recommended Matt Weiner's script for "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" to HBO's development department. HBO decided that they would only make Mad Men if David Chase was an executive producer. At the time Mr. Chase wanted to move away from weekly television shows, so he declined. Despite this, David Chase still admired the script and continued to promote it when he could.

It was in 2004 that Matt Weiner resubmitted "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" to HBO's development department. Once more HBO turned the show down. Afterwards Mr. Weiner's agent shopped Mad Men around to various cable outlets, including Showtime (who, like HBO, had been doing their own original series for some time), the USA Network (then best known for such "blue sky dramas' as Monk and Pscyh), and FX. FX had already produced three critically acclaimed shows: The Shield, Nip/Tuck, and Rescue Me. It should then come as no surprise that Matt Weiner actually got a meeting with FX's president Kevin Reilly. Unfortunately, FX wanted to make Mad Men only as a half-hour show.

It was Matt Weiner's manager's assistant who sent "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" to AMC. AMC had originated as American Movie Classics, a classic movie channel that existed in the days before Turner Classic Movies. It was in 2002 that the channel ceased to be a classic movie channel and began airing movies from all eras. AMC was not known for original scripted drama at the time. In fact, they had only produced one original scripted show in their history, the comedy Remember WENN, which had aired from 1996 to 1998. That having been said, since it had ceased being a classic movie channel, AMC was struggling.  Its vice president in charge of programming and production at the time, Rob Sorcher, decided that what AMC needed was its own signature show, much like HBO's The Sopranos. He hired Christina Wayne as the channel's new vice president in charge of scripted programming. Years before Miss Wayne had wanted to option the novel by Richard Yates, which dealt with suburban life in the mid-Fifties. She saw similarities between Revolutionary Road and Mad Men. In the end, AMC bought Mad Men.

Mad Men would turn out to be a very expensive show. The first episode alone cost $3.3 million. Unfortunately for AMC, the channel could find no partners to help finance the show. AMC ultimately wound up financing the pilot themselves. It proved to be the best investment they ever made. One the pilot was finished Lionsgate, who had turned the pilot, agreed to partner on the show.

As strange as it might seem now, Mad Men was not a hit in the ratings. It debuted to a paltry 1.65 million viewers. That having been said, while its audience would never be very large, the audience for Mad Men did grow over time. Not only was the audience for Mad Men small, but it also tended to be older. Relatively few people in the 18-49 demographic desired by advertisers watched the show. The majority of Mad Men's viewers were over 50.

While Mad Men had a relatively small audience made mostly of older viewers, it also had a good deal of critical acclaim. The Television Critics Association named it the best show of 2007. The American Film Institute named it one of the ten best TV shows several years in a row. In the Writers Guild of America's list of the 101 best-written shows in the history of television, Mad Men ranked no. 7. Mad Men also won a tonne of awards. For its first season it won the Emmys for Outstanding Drama Series and Outstanding Writing in a Drama Series, and was nominated for several more. It became the first drama on an advertising supported cable channel to win the Emmy Ward for Outstanding Drama Series (previous winners had either aired on broadcast networks or premium cable channels). Ultimately Mad Men would win the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series four years in a row. Through the years it also picked up Emmy Awards for Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series, Outstanding Casting for a Drama Series, Outstanding Art Direction for a Single-Camera Series, Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series (for Jon Hamm),  and yet others.

Here it must be pointed out that it would probably be a mistake to consider Mad Men simply another low rated, but critically acclaimed TV show. Mad Men may have had a relatively small audience, but it was one that is fiercely loyal to the show. Over the years Mad Men developed the sort of fans usually reserved only for genre shows like Star Trek and Dark Shadows. Several different books centred on Mad Men have been published, from The Unofficial Mad Men Cookbook to Sterling's Gold: Wit and Wisdom of an Ad Man--the memoirs of Roger Sterling. There is also a tonne of Mad Men merchandise for fans to buy, including coffee mugs, T-shirts, notebooks, pinback buttons, laptop skins, and even clothing lines.

Indeed, fans were so fiercely loyal to the show that many inserted themselves into the show after a fashion. Several fans created their own Twitter accounts for various characters, tweeting in character. Almost no character was overlooked, not even Betty Draper's fainting couch. The various Mad Men Twitter accounts would even roleplay various events, such as the Great Blackout of 1965 and a funeral for Lane Pryce.

In the end Mad Men would prove to be a very influential show. Here it must be pointed out that it did not begin the current Silver Age of American Television (I refuse to call it 'the Golden Age" as to me that was the Fifties). By the time Mad Men had debuted, HBO had already aired Six Feet Under and The Sopranos, while FX had already aired The Shield and Rescue Me. That having been said, it certainly proved that cable channels were capable of producing quality dramas at the same level as HBO. Indeed, as mentioned earlier,  it became the first ever drama on an advertising supported cable channel to win the Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series. In this way Mad Men insured that the Silver Age of Television would not be confined to HBO and Showtime.

Given its status as a quality TV show, Mad Men certainly put AMC on the map. After AMC abandoned classic movies in 2002 it was often in danger of being dropped by cable operators. Mad Men changed all of that. It made AMC the home of quality dramas. Without Mad Men, such shows as Breaking Bad, Hell on Wheels, The Walking Dead, and Preacher might never have aired. After Mad Men, AMC went from a channel that was always in danger of being dropped by cable operators to a must-have channel that could win carriage disputes based on its prestige and popularity alone.

Mad Men would have an impact in other ways as well. In the years since its debut there has been an increase in period pieces in television, some of which could be considered outright imitators of Mad Men. In 2011 alone the broadcast networks tried two: The Playboy Club on NBC and PanAm on ABC.  Since 2007 there have been such other period dramas as The Hour on BBC Two, The Americans on FX, Masters of Sex on Showtime, Manhattan on WGN America, The Astronaut Wives Club on ABC, Halt and Catch Fire on AMC, and yet others.

Mad Men would also have an impact beyond television. Because of the success of Mad Men, in the late Naughts and early Teens, various fashions from the Sixties would make a comeback. The slim Brooks Brothers suits, ties complete with tie bars, and even fedoras came back into fashion for a time. In the wake of Mad Men, men's retail sales actually went up. Brooks Brothers even came out with a "Mad Men Edition" suit. Women's fashions were affected as well, with bodycon dresses, pencil skirts, kitten heels, and pearls even making a comeback. For a brief time in the late Naughts and early Teens, people were actually well dressed again.

Of course, the question for many may be, "What is the appeal of Mad Men?" I am not sure that can ever be adequately answered. Speaking as someone who spent his first seven years in the Sixties, I have to say that much of it is probably nostalgia. The show is a look at a bygone era that many people remember with some fondness. As a Gen Xer I can watch Mad Men and recognise relics from my childhood, everything from the Kodak Carousel slide projector to Burger Chef to the movie Planet of the Apes. Even the aforementioned fashions bring back memories. It was a time when suits weren't only worn for formal occasions.

While much of the appeal of Mad Men is nostalgia, unlike many other shows, Mad Men does not idealise or romanticise its era. Smoking is rampant, with only a few characters never lighting up. Many of the characters drink too much, a fact that sometimes causes problems for them (such as Don Draper getting in an auto accident while driving drunk). Sexism is rampant. Husbands (especially Don Draper) often cheat on their wives and many of the secretaries are often treated as sex objects. Racism is also common place. Dawn Chambers (played by Teyonah Parris) was the first African American ever hired by Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and for a time the only African American working there. Michael Ginsberg (played by Ben Feldman) was the first Jew ever hired by Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and the only one to ever work there as long as Mad Men aired. Sadly, in the offices of Sterling Cooper, sexist attitudes and racist attitudes are all too common. It is one of the great things about Mad Men in that just as one is thinking that the Sixties would be a great time in which to live, there is something to remind him or her that it really wouldn't be.

Regardless of the nostalgia the show creates or its somewhat realistic portrayal of its era, I have to suspect that the primary appeal of Mad Men is that it was very much a character driven show. The majority of characters were complicated and three dimensional, to the point that any given viewer's reaction to those characters could be complex. There were generally those characters one would be expected to like. I have trouble seeing anyone disliking Peggy Olson, the earnest yet determined young woman who in the early days of the show served as the audience surrogate. There were also those characters one liked despite his or her better judgement. Let's face it, Don Draper drinks too much, womanises, can be dismissive, and has a sometimes volatile temper, yet he is so charming that most fans like him anyway. And then there are those characters that fans love to hate: Pete Campbell (played by Vincent Kartheiser), for whom the word "smarmy" may well have been invented and Lou Avery (played by Allan Havey), who is not only extremely old-fashioned, but apparently lacking in any talent as well. Finally, there are those characters I suspect that fans are meant to like, but many fans simply do not. An example of this is Megan Draper (played by Jessica Paré). Most of the characters on the show apparently liked Megan, yet it seems many fans (myself included) never did. I personally found her immature, entitled, passive aggressive, and annoying.

Indeed, the characters of Mad Men were so complicated that one's feeling for them could change over time. Initially I didn't care much for Joan (played by Christina Hendricks) because I thought she was a bit catty with the secretaries and mean to Peggy. Despite this, by the end of the second season she became and remained one of my favourite characters. My feelings for Betty (played by January Jones) were a bit more complicated. I started out basically liking her, only to grow to dislike her, and then to start liking her again towards the end. Of course, even when I disliked Betty, I could sympathise with her. She was an intelligent woman in a time when there were a few opportunities for intelligent women, and one who had been emotionally abused by her mother, spoiled by her father, and emotionally abused by her first husband (Don Draper). I could understand why Betty was the way she was.

Personally I think it is too soon for Mad Men to be termed a classic, but I have no doubt that eventually it will be. As mentioned above, it received a number of accolades and it is still regularly ranked in lists of the greatest shows of all time. It still has a loyal following, one that continues to grow as new fans discover it on Netflix and Hulu. While some other shows from the Silver Age of American Television might eventually be forgotten, I think Mad Men will continue to be popular even once the Sixties are a distant memory.

(for a slightly more personal post on Mad Men, see my post on the show's ending from 2015 here).

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

The Late Great George Romero

Director George A. Romero, best known for his classic horror film Night of the Living Dead (1968), died on July 16 2017 at the age of 77. The cause was lung cancer.

George A. Romero was born in the Bronx on February 4 1940. As a child he was a movie fan, particularly the classic monster movies. He attended Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and graduated in 1961. Mr. Romero made a short film "Expostulations" in 1962. His first paying work came through Fred Rogers, for whom he shot short segments for the show Mr. Rogers' Neighbourhood. Among the segments George Romero made for the show were " How Lightbulbs are Made" and "Mr. Rogers Gets a Tonsillectomy".  George Romero and Fred Rogers would remain friends for the rest of their lives. He also shot commercials

It was in the late Sixties that George Romero formed Ten Productions with nine friends. They produced Night of the Living Dead (1968), which was directed by Mr. Romero and co-written with John A. Russo. Night of the Living Dead was met with controversy. Released shortly before the MPAA's ratings system was in place, theatres sometimes showed it at Saturday afternoon matinees where children would be present. On its initial release the film sometimes received a hostile reception from critics, particularly for its violence. There were a few critics who did acknowledge the overall quality of the film. The reviewer for Variety wrote, "Although pic’s basic premise is repellent – recently dead bodies are resurrected and begin killing human beings in order to eat their flesh – it is in execution that the film distastefully excels." Despite the controversy, or perhaps because of it, Night of the Living Dead became a hit. It remains the most profitable horror movie not made by a big studio. And as history has shown, it has been very influential.

In the Seventies Mr. Romero followed Night of the Living Dead with the comedy There's Always Vanilla (1971) and the horror fantasy Jack's Wife (1973--later retitled Season of the Witch). While both of those films are largely forgotten by all but George Romero fans, in 1973 The Crazies was released. Dealing with a spate of homicidal madness brought on by a chemical spill, the film would gain some respect in the years following its release. These films were followed by two of his better known films. Martin (1978) dealt with a young man who believes himself a vampire. Dawn of the Dead (1978) was the first sequel to Night of the Living Dead. He also directed TV movies in the Seventies, including O.J. Simpson: Juice on the Loose (1974) and Magic at the Roxy (1976), as well as episodes of the TV show The Winners.

The Nineties saw George A. Romero direct some of his best known films. Knightriders (1981) was a modernised version of Arthurian legend, centred around a travelling medieval re-enactment troupe that jousted on motorcycles. Creepshow (1982) was a horror anthology made in  collaboration with Stephen King. Day of the Dead (1985) was the second sequel to Night of the Living Dead. Monkey Shines (1988) was based on the Michael Stewart novel. He directed a segment based on Edgar Allan Poe's "The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar" for the horror anthology Two Evil Eyes (1990).

George Romero would slow down in the Nineties. That decade he directed only two films--The Dark Half (1993), based on Stephen King's novel of the same name, and Bruiser (2000). In the Naughts he directed Land of the Dead (2005), Diary of the Dead (2007), and Survival of the Dead (2009).

In addition to directing feature films, George A. Romero was also an executive producer on the TV horror anthology Tales from the Darkside. Beginning with Night of the Living Dead, he made cameos in several of his own movies, as well as a few made by others, including Flight of the Spruce Goose (1986) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991).  He also wrote comic books, including Toe Tags featuring George A. Romero for DC Comics and Empire of the Dead for Marvel.

Arguably Night of the Living Dead was one of the last great horror masterpieces, and there can be no real debate regarding its influence. In the wake of Night of the Living Dead there would be a whole plethora of imitators featuring their own versions of the living dead. Without Night of the Living Dead, there would be no Return of the Living Dead (1985), no 28 Days Later (2002), no The Walking Dead, no iZombie, no Z Nation. Alongside  Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, Night of the Living Dead would introduce a new sort of monster in the horror genre, the dead raised not by the supernatural but through various pseudo-scientific means (radioactive contamination, viruses, and so on).

Of course, the fact is that George Romero did make more films than his "Dead" movies. He had proven himself an excellent director with Night of the Living Dead and so it should be no surprise that he would direct other films that would become cult classics. Martin numbers among his very best films, not simply as a variation on vampire lore, but more importantly as a film that is both satirical and thoughtful. Knightriders is one of the best takes on Arthurian legend, a film that addresses the dangers of having utopian dreams in a world that is definitely not utopian. Of course, as might be expected, George Romero was at his best directing horror movies, and he directed classics besides Night of the Living Dead and Martin: The Crazies, Creepshow, and Monkey Shines. What is more remarkable is that many of his films were made in Pittsburgh without the support of a major studio. Truly independent and extremely talented, George Romero was one of the best auteurs to emerge outside Hollywood.

Monday, 17 July 2017

The Late Great Martin Landau: Man of a Million Faces

There are those actors that you have never known life without. You cannot remember where you first saw them, because they have always been around as far as back as you can remember. Martin Landau was one of those actors for me. Mission: Impossible debuted when I was only three years old and my family watched it regularly throughout its run. Later I would see Martin Landau in his many guest appearances on the various syndicated reruns I loved. He was in everything from The Wild Wild West to Gunsmoke, as well as such movies as North by Northwest (1959) and Nevada Smith (1966). Only a little later I would see him as Commander John Koenig on the science fantasy TV series Space: 1999. He was always there throughout my adult years, appearing on TV shows like Murder, She Wrote and movies like Crimes and Misdemeanours (1989). He won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his work on Ed Wood (1994). Even in recent years he has still been active, guest starring on The Simpsons and providing his voice for Frankenweenie (2012). He even appeared at Turner Classic Movies Classic Film Festival this year. It then seems impossible that Martin Landau is gone. After all, he had always been with us and, what is more, he was still active. He was one of my favourite character actors of the modern era.

Sadly, Martin Landau died Saturday, July 15 2017 at the age of 89.

Martin Landau was born on June 20 1928 in Brooklyn, New York. He attended James Madison High School and the Pratt Institute. He had planned to become an illustrator. When he was only 17 he got a job at the New York Daily News as a cartoonist, illustrating Billy Rose's column "Pitching Horseshoes" and acting as an assistant to Gus Edson on the comic strip The Gumps. After five years he quit the New York Daily News to pursue acting.

Mr. Landau made his stage debut in 1951 at the Peaks Island Playhouse in Maine in Detective Story. That same year he appeared in First Love at the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village. He made his television debut in 1953 in an episode of The Goldbergs. In 1955 he enrolled at the Actors Studio. Out of the 2000 applicants to the Actors Studio that year, only he and Steve McQueen were admitted.

Martin Landau's career took off in the late Fifties. He made his film debut in Pork Chop Hill in 1959. That same year he appeared in what might be his most famous role in a feature film (outside of perhaps only Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood), playing the sinister Leonard in North by Northwest. He also appeared in the film The Gazebo (1959). Mr. Landau made frequent guest appearances on TV shows in the late Fifties. He guest starred on such shows as Omnibus, Armstrong Circle Theatre, Schlitz Playhouse, Maverick, Sugarfoot, Lawman, Gunsmoke, Tales of Wells Fargo, Rawhide, Playhouse 90, Wanted: Dead or Alive, and Wagon Train.

The Sixties saw Martin Landau play what might be his best known role, that of master of disguise Rollin Hand on Mission: Impossible. Rollin Hand was a professional quick change artist and impersonator who lent his skills to the Impossible Missions Force on a regular basis. Indeed, in addition to disguise and impersonation, he was also a skilled escape artist and skilled at sleight of hand. Mr. Landau was nominated three times for the Emmy Award for Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Dramatic Series for his role as Rollin Hand. Sadly, after three seasons he and his wife Barbara Bain (who played Cinnamon Carter on the show) left Mission: Impossible due to a contract dispute.

In addition to his regular role on Mission: Impossible, Martin Landau was busy in the Sixties making guest appearances on other shows. He guest starred on such shows as Bonanza, Checkmate, The Rifleman, The Detectives, The Untouchables, The Defenders, The Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, I Spy, The Wild Wild West, The Big Valley, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and Get Smart. He continued to appear in films as well, including Stagecoach to Dancers' Rock (1962), Decision at Midnight (1963), Cleopatra (1963), The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), The Hallelujah Trail (1965), Nevada Smith (1966), and They Call Me Mister Tibbs! (1970).

In the Seventies Martin Landau starred on the cult science fiction TV series Space: 1999. On the show he played Commander John Koenig, the commanding officer of Moonbase Alpha. The show only ran for two seasons. He also guest starred on Columbo. Mr. Landau appeared in the TV movies The Fall of the House of Usher (1979) and The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island (1981). He appeared in the films A Town Called Bastard (1971), Black Gunn (1972), Una Magnum Special per Tony Saitta (1976), Meteor (1979), The Last Word (1979), The Return (1980), and Without Warning (1980).

The Eighties saw Martin Landau's career revitalised after he played New York financier Abe Karatz in Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988). For the role he was nominated for the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. He received another nomination for Best Supporting Actor for Crimes and Misdemeanours (1989). He also appeared in such films as Alone in the Dark (1982), Trial by Terror (1983), The Being (1983), Access Code (1984), Treasure Island (1985), Sweet Revenge (1987), Empire State (1987), Run If You Can (1988),  and The Colour of Evening (1990). He guest starred on such TV shows as Matt Houston; Hotel; Murder, She Wrote; the revival of The Twilight Zone; and the revival of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

It was in 1994 that Martin Landau played Bela Lugosi in the movie Ed Wood. He won the Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for the part. He also appeared in such films as Firehead (1991), Mistress (1992), No Place to Hide (1992), Sliver (1993), Eye of the Stranger (1993), Time Is Money (1994), City Hall (1996), The Adventures of Pinocchio (1996), The X Files (1998), Rounders (1998), Carlo's Wake (1999), Edtv (1999), Sleepy Hollow (1999), and Shiner (2000). On television he played Woodrow Wilson in the mini-series The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century. He voiced The Scorpion in the animated series Spider-Man.

In the Naughts Martin Landau had recurring roles on the TV shows The Evidence, Entourage, and Without a Trace. He guest starred on In Plain Sight. He appeared in such films as The Majestic (2001), Hollywood Homicide (2003), Love Made Easy (2006), David & Fatima (2008), City of Ember (2008), and Finding Grandma (2010).  In the Teens he appeared in such films as Mysteria (2011), Entourage (2015), Remember (2015), and The Red Maple Leaf (2016). He was the voice of Mr. Rzykruski in the animated film Frankenweenie. There are several films in post-production in which he starred that are set to come out later this year or next year. On television he guest starred on Hallmark Hall of Fame.

I have to admit I will always remember Martin Landau best as Rollin Hand on Mission: Impossible. I have to believe it was the first role in which I first saw him, and it was certainly the role in which I saw him most often in the early part of my childhood. In many ways it is perhaps fitting that I remember him best as Rollin Hand. Rollin Hand was billed on stage as "the Man of a Million Faces", and "the Man of a Million Faces" could just as easily describe Martin Landau himself. Indeed, in the role of Rollin Hand, Martin Landau often found himself also playing the character that Rollin was impersonating!

As an actor Mr. Landau was a chameleon, able to transform himself into anything a role called for. It was something he did throughout his career, even before he played Rollin Hand on Mission: Impossible. He played a wide variety of historical figures in his career, including Bob Ford, Doc Holliday, Caiaphas, Edwin Booth, Abe Karatz, Simon Wiesenthal, Bela Lugsoi, and Woodrow Wilson. He was well known for playing a number of heavies in his career, but even then there was a good deal of variety. He played the dirty coward Bob Ford in an episode of Lawman only a year before he appeared as the menacing Leonard in North by Northwest. He played General Grimm, a megalomaniac with his own private army, in The Wild Wild West episode "The Night of the Red-Eyed Madmen" only a year before he played stone cold gunman, thief, and killer in Nevada Smith. Martin Landau did play a lot of heavies, but no two were ever alike.

The simple fact is that while many actors are known for one particular type of role, the roles Martin Landau played were so varied that it is very difficult to say that he was known for only one type of role. This can be seen by looking at his best known roles. Leonard in North by Northwest was a well-dressed, cold-hearted killer who might just be in love with his boss. Rollin Hand was considerably more light hearted, a serious master of disguise, escape artist, and prestidigitator with a bit of a sense of humour. Commander Koenig on Space: 1999 was serious and at times emotional, but also had a good sense of humour. Bela Lugosi was a once great actor at the end of his career, addicted to drugs and only a shadow of his former self. The variety in Martin Landau's best known roles reflected the roles he played throughout his career. Every role Mr. Landau ever played was different from ones he had played before. And even when a particular movie or TV show wasn't very good, Martin Landau always was. In the end he truly was a Man of a Million Faces, one of the greatest character actors of the modern era.. 

Friday, 14 July 2017

Susan Cummings Passes On

Susan Cummings, a German actress who made frequent guest appearances on American television in the Fifties and Sixties, died on December 3 2016 at the age of 87.

Susan Cummings was born Susanne Gerda Tafel in Bavaria on July 10 1930. She was still a teenager when she worked both as a singer and as a model. She made her film debut as a singer in Merrily We Sing (1946), billed as Suzanne Tafel. She later appeared in an uncredited, bit part in An American in Paris (1951). In 1953 she appeared on stage in New York using the stage name Suzanne Ta Fel.  She made her television debut in episodes of Mr. District Attorney using the same name. After 1954 she would be billed as Susan Cummings.

In the Fifties Susan Cummings played Georgia in the single season TV show Union Pacific. She guest starred on such shows as Waterfront, The Lone Wolf, Adventures of the Falcon, Studio 57, The Adventures of Kit Carson, Science Fiction Theatre, The Ford Television Theatre, The Third Man, Perry Mason, The Man From Blackhawk, The Untouchables, The Millionaire, Gunsmoke, Peter Gunn, Bat Masterson, and The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp. She appeared in the films Security Risk (1954), Headline Hunters (1955), Swamp Women (1956), Secret of Treasure Mountain (1956), Utah Blaine (1957), Tomahawk Trail (1957), Man from God's Country (1958), and Verboten! (1959).

In the Sixties she guest starred on such shows as Laramie, Checkmate, Cheyenne, The Twilight Zone, and McHale's Navy. She appeared in the film The Street Is My Beat (1966). She appeared one last time on screen in the movie A Time for Love (1974).

Susan Cummings was certainly lovely. She was also fairly talented. During her career she played everything from secretaries to femmes fatales a cryptographer in the famous Twilight Zone episode "To Serve Man". It was little wonder that she was so much in demand as an actress in the Fifties and Sixties.