Saturday, August 31, 2019

In Memoriam: Valerie Harper 1939-2019

Though she's not known for it, Valerie Harper, like Mary Tyler Moore, started out as a dancer and chorus girl, appearing on Broadway with Lucille Ball in the musical Wildcats. She also played one of the hillbilly wives in the 1959 film version of the musical Li'l Abner. But dancing was soon left behind when Harper met future husband (one of two) Dick Schaal, a member of Chicago's Second City. Harper joined the famed improvisational troupe herself, it quickly become her true forte wasn't dancing but (like Moore) comedy. Harper and Schaal eventually relocated to Los Angeles, where, around 1970, she was asked to audition for a new situation comedy starring Dick Van Dyke Show veteran Moore titled The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Moore died two years ago, and in my obit for her I spent a paragraph discussing Harper and her character:

 Rhoda Morgenstern (Valarie Harper) The Mary Tyler Moore Show is often thought of as a "workplace comedy", but in the early years the series was neatly divided between Mary Richard's professional life and her personal life. If Lou Grant was the linchpin of the former, then wisecracking upstairs neighbor and best friend Rhoda served the same function in the latter. Not that the two worlds didn't occasionally merge, as Rhoda eventually becomes a familiar figure to the WJM-TV gang (MARY: Rhoda, you know my boss, Mr. Grant? RHODA: Oh, yeah. Hi, Lou!) Rhoda also figures into the workplace stories in another way. Whatever was going on in the newsroom, Mary was sure to tell Rhoda about. Just as what was ever happening in the many Rhoda-centric episodes, the WJM bunch was to find out through Mary. Nevertheless, it was outside of work that this relationship mattered. Mary and Rhoda forged a female friendship that rivaled that other sitcom pair, Lucy and Ethel. And without having to don disguises so as to sneak into a nightclub act. Pals and confidants as the song goes. Despite many differences between them. Mary was a WASP. Rhoda was Jewish. Mary grew up in the Midwest, Rhoda was from the Bronx in New York City. Mary was the daughter of a doctor, Walter (played by Bill Quinn), and thus probably grew up in the upper-middle class. I'm not sure what Rhoda's father, Martin (played by Harold Gould), did for a living--the internet is coming up short--but Rhoda has a kind of working-class brashness about her. What made this friendship especially intriguing, as well as comically tense at times, is that Rhoda had an inferiority complex that seemed centered on her best friend! Though roughly the same age, Mary was certainly the more mature of the two, and could sometimes come across as more as an older sister than a best friend. Rhoda was more streetwise, or at least came across as more streetwise, and sometimes called her more mature friend "kid" as a way of putting her in her place. But the main point of contention is that Rhoda envied Mary her good looks. Now, to my eyes, and no doubt to yours, too, Rhoda was herself a damn good-looking woman. True, in the early years of the show she had a weight problem. I know this because she would tell everyone, and especially Mary, that she had a weight problem ("I don't know why I'm putting this in my mouth. I should just apply it directly to my hips.") Eventually, she loses the excess pounds and even wins a beauty contest at the department show where she works (in an episode written by Treva Silverman, often credited for, if not creating, then at least fine-tuning, the character of Rhoda.) What vexes me is that in those episodes where's she supposed to be overweight, she merely looks to my eyes to be wearing baggy clothes. Nor is there any evidence that Valarie Harper (who like Moore started out as a dancer) ever had a weight problem. So did Harper just wear baggy clothes to convince us that the character she played was overweight, or maybe, just maybe, the character of Rhoda was never overweight to begin with, but just THOUGHT she was? I suspect the latter, but can't prove it. Anyway, the new, improved Rhoda didn't hang around for long. No, I don't mean she put the weight, or the baggy clothes, back on. She got her own show!  

A spinoff, actually, titled Rhoda. So she got to play the same character but in a far different setting. Rhoda returns to her home town of New York City just for a visit, and meets, through her sister Brenda (Julie Kavner), handsome hunk Joe Gerald (David Groh), a divorcee who owns a wrecking company and has a ten-year-old son Donny. This all happens in the first episode, which achieved a number-one Nielsen rating, the first time that ever happened for a series premiere. And it hasn't happened again in the 40 years since! So Rhoda decides to stay in New York permanently, dating Joe for the first eight weeks of the series, while at the same maintaining a comic relationship with the aforementioned Brenda (who has her own weight-and-self-esteem problems), the drunken doorman Carlton (producer Lorenzo Music), never seen but whose voice could be heard over the apartment intercom, and parents Ida and Martin, both of whom had earlier appeared on The Mary Tyler Moore Show (indeed, in the case of Ida, those appearances had revitalized Nancy Walker's career.) After some haggling--they briefly live together--Joe pops the question, Rhoda accepts, and a wedding the wedding is held in her parents apartment. Among the guests are TMTMS characters Mary Richards, Lou Grant, Murray Slaughter, Georgette Franklin, and, uninvited, Phyllis Lindstrom. The latter is given the task of driving Rhoda to the wedding, but forgets, and so the bride-to-be takes the subway and runs through the streets of Manhattan and the Bronx in her wedding dress. All of what I just described was a major media event in 1974. I mean, a real life major media event. The episode was watched by 52 million Americans, half the TV viewing audience, the highest ever up to that time. Why? Because people (including myself) loved Rhoda, and liked the fact that she finally got a happy ending. Unfortunately, that happy ending proved to be the series undoing.

The problem was, there's nothing particularly funny about a happy ending. Oh, sure, lot of movie comedies end happily, but that happiness is immediately followed by the closing credits. A TV series, if it's successful, is going to be there again and again and again. Which, in the case of a comedy, should mean laughs, and laughs, and more laughs. But on Rhoda, those laughs were in increasingly short supply. The marriage was awkward. On The Mary Tyler Moore Show Rhoda was known for her cutting remarks, but such remarks might wreck the marriage on her own series. So she held back. The series became very unfunny, while sitting at the top of the ratings. Then one day the producers decided the only way to make the show funny again was to have Rhoda and Joe divorce. And when that divorce happened, the show became much funnier. It also plunged in the ratings.

Wait a second! High ratings when the show is unfunny, and low ratings when the show is the opposite. What gives? Well, TV viewers no longer cared about funny. Rhoda wasn't a clown. She was their friend, a friend they never met and would never meet because she was totally fictional. No matter. Their friend deserved a happy ending, no matter how unfunny! Rhoda lasted five seasons, not bad for TV show back then, but by the time it was canceled, the one-time Neilsens champ could only muster a meager 94 in the ratings.

Afterwards, Valerie Harper did the usual ex-TV star things. Broadway knew she could be a draw, and so she played Tallulah Bankhead in one show, and Golda Meir in another. There was another sitcom in the 1980s, Valerie, which she was fired from over a salary dispute (the series carried on as The Hogan Family.) Ten years ago, Harper was diagnosed with lung cancer. She was 70 at the time, and it was assumed her stay on this Earth would soon end. But she made it to 80 anyway. Say what you want about the Grim Reaper, but he was far more generous toward Harper than the Nielsens. 

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Climate Change

Summer isn't over yet, so while it's still hot outside, make sure you have some ice cr--Wait a second. These two look like they're dressed for winter! Or at least late fall. You'd think they'd want some hot cocoa instead of ice cream. Well, it's actually Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman on the set of Spellbound (where they not only acted together, but also are said to have had a brief affair.) Back in 1945 almost all Hollywood films were shot in...Hollywood, where I'm told it's like summer all year round. However, the Alfred Hitchcock-directed film has a few scenes that take place in winter, albeit a studio-simulated winter, hence the coats. Think about that for a second. Dressed for winter in summer, or summer-like weather. Add in that they got the hots for each other, and it's no wonder they're wolfing down those ice cream bars!

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Quips and Quotations (What--Me Scary Edition)

See the awful monster.
See the bolts in his head.
See how he kills people.
Kill, kill, kill.
The monster likes to kill.
Poor, poor monster.
The monster is sick.
Sick, sick, sick.
He wants to be cured.
The doctor cannot cure the monster.
The monster does not belong to Blue Cross.

--Larry Siegel, Mad magazine


Monday, August 19, 2019

In Memoriam: Peter Fonda 1940-2019

First Paul Krassner, then D.A. Pennebaker, and now Peter Fonda. It's not been a good summer for the 1960s Counterculture, has it? Of course, the three men I mentioned represented different aspects of it. Krassner was instrumental in creating the counterculture, whereas Pennebaker was mostly on the outside looking in. And Fonda? An enthusiastic participant who did his best to remain part of that counterculture long after most people, including his sister Jane, moved on.

The son of one of my favorite Turner Classic Movie actors, Fonda decided to follow in father Hank's footsteps not merely by becoming a thespian but by doing so in the same place his dad (as well as Marlon Brando) got his start, the Omaha Community Playhouse. He eventually moved to Manhattan and Broadway, appearing onstage in the service comedy Blood, Sweat and Stanley Poole, which earned him the New York Drama Critic's Circle Award. From there he went on to Hollywood where guest starred on various TV shows, but got a bigger break when producer Ross Hunter cast him opposite Sandra Dee in the 1963 big screen hillbilly comedy Tammy and the Doctor (one of several movies about a comely backwoods girl variously played by Dee and Debbie Reynolds.) The film was a minor hit though it didn't quite make Fonda a star. But it did get him noticed. Next up was a supporting part in the Carl Foreman-directed World War II drama The Victors, which earned him a Golden Globe. Then came another supporting role in Lilith in which he played a mentally disturbed man who falls in love with a mentally disturbed woman played by Jean Seberg but loses out to a mentally disturbed psychiatrist played by Warren Beatty. After that a starring role in The Young Lovers, about a woman who gets pregnant without first getting married, back when getting pregnant without first getting married was considered something of a novelty. I see no evidence that this movie was even a minor hit, and Fonda's career stalled.

Actually, it may have stalled for reasons other than box office receipts. The aforementioned counterculture was beginning to take hold, and Fonda took a liking to it. He became friends with the mid-1960s folk rock band The Byrds, and through them ended up at a party at house in LA's Benedict Canyon that the Beatles were renting and where LSD, perfectly legal at the time, was the drug of choice. It's hard to say what happened exactly but an acid high George Harrison was worried about dying. An acid high Fonda decided to comfort Harrison by telling him about the time he was 11-years-old and accidentally shot himself in the stomach and almost died. "I know what it's like to be dead," he said. Regardless of whether Harrison was comforted or not, it spooked an acid high John Lennon, who booted Fonda from the party. A short time later he used Fonda's reminiscence as a tagline in his song "She Said She Said," though, as the title indicated, he changed the gender from male to female. Take that for ruining my party!

Fonda's counterculture shenanigans (he was also arrested in the 1966 Sunset Strip riot) must have got him the notice of drive-in movie impresario Roger Corman, one of the first to realize that there's gold in them thar hippies. He cast Fonda as the motorcycle-traveling lead in the B-movie The Wild Angels, which also featured Nancy Sinatra, Bruce Dern, and Diane Ladd. The B-movie ended up making A-movie money, finally making Fonda a star. His next film for Corman was The Trip, screenplay by Jack Nicholson (the same.) Ostensibly an anti-LSD film, acidheads flocked to it in droves, making it another big hit. Among its cast members was an actor who once appeared in a movie with James Dean. No, not Sal Mineo, not even Jim Backus, but Dennis Hopper. Fonda and Hopper, with the help of novelist Terry Southern (Candy, The Magic Christian), decided to write a screenplay together.

The result was Easy Rider. Fonda tried to convince Corman to produced but not direct it, Hopper wanting the latter duty. Corman balked, thinking the neophyte Hopper would fall flat on his ass. I imagine Corman himself fell flat on his ass once saw all the box office receipts he passed up on, but I'm getting ahead of myself. Fonda and Hopper managed to get financing from Columbia Pictures for what eventually became the Citizen Kane of counterculture motorcycle movies. Now I've seen Easy Rider, in which Fonda and Hopper also star (as Captain America and Bucky, though not exactly the way Joe Simon and Jack Kirby had in mind) several times and must say it's a rather uneven film. For those familiar with his writing style, it's obvious what part of the movie Southern wrote: the middle section featuring supporting player Jack Nicholson in a star-making performance. Meanwhile the first section, mostly dealing with a desert commune, and the third section, dealing with a trip to New Orleans during Mardi Gras (featuring then-unknowns Karen Black and Toni Basil as prostitutes) is almost devoid of dialogue! But director Hopper makes up for it with some great imagery, particularly the trippy New Orleans part. The movie today is regarded as a classic, and I think it's a classic. An uneven classic, but a classic. But before it became regarded as a classic it was merely a hit, grossing over $40 million dollars. In today's dollars that would be...a lot.

Film historian Leonard Maltin once wrote that Easy Rider almost destroyed Hollywood when every movie studio in town tried to duplicate its success. I don't know that I'd go that far, but it did almost destroy Dennis Hopper. He was given a lot of money to direct and star in The Last Movie (also starring Fonda), about a violent Western shot in Peru that the natives take a little too seriously. A very experimental film (which big budget mainstream movies rarely are), it won an award at the Venice Film Festival but failed miserably during a two week run in New York City. For the rest of the 1970s, Dennis Hopper was a Hollywood bit player, in every sense of the phrase. Peter Fonda, though, fared much better, starring in (and occasionally directing) many films over the next decade, though I sometimes get the impression that he was offered roles that Burt Reynolds and Steve McQueen had already turned down. His biggest hit during this period was the Allstate Insurance road picture classic, Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, in which he and Susan George played the title characters (it also featured Adam Roarke, who has almost as much screen time as Fonda and George, but, as he was not a star at the time, got left out of the above-the-title-credits.)

By the 1980s, Fonda was no longer a leading man in movies, but worked steadily nonetheless. he spoofed his own biker image in 1981's The Cannonball's Run. That was a hit. Split Image, in which he played the leader of a cult, should have been a hit but wasn't. He didn't make much of an impact in anything else until 1997's Ulee's Gold in which he indeed played lead as the reticent beekeeping head of a dysfunctional family. His performance (as well as the film as a whole) was highly praised by critics, and earned him an Academy Award nomination as well as a Golden Globe. How did the film do at the box office? Well, I've seen no evidence that it lost money. After that success, Fonda returned mostly to supporting parts, not unusual for an aging actor, no matter how big a star they once were.

Oh, those Fonda kids. I suppose in most people's minds Jane is the more radical of the two, thanks to the time she tried on a North Vietnamese helmet while on a visit to Hanoi, as well as for her 17-marriage to a radical, SDS co-founder and Chicago Seven co-defendant Tom Hayden. However, if you examine her life closely, it seems more a flirtation with the Radical Left that she may have lost interest in once the Radical Left lost its cache. It was Peter that was the true lifelong believer, and holding such a belief while trying to keep afloat in the notoriously choppy waters of show biz could produce some odd juxtapositions. Remember Circus of the Stars? It was a series of TV specials in the 1970s and '80s that featured celebrities performing circus stunts. Peter Fonda appeared twice, first riding--what else?--a motorcycle on a tightrope while former Miss America, substitute Catwoman, and Barnaby Jones costar Lee Meriwether dangled on a swing below. The second appearance he did a magic act in which he sliced up Italian actress Claudia Cardinale. The second time he appeared there was interview with him in the entertainment section of the newspaper promoting the show. In this interview he casually--or at least on the printed page it sounded casual--mentioned due to assaults on the environment he felt the world would come to an end in fifteen years, which would have been around 1993 or so. Or course, that didn't happen (though it could STILL happen, what with climate change and God-knows-what else.) The point, though, isn't whether Fonda was right or wrong, but that he said this in what was basically a puff piece for a cheesy-if-entertaining TV special run during sweeps week. The apocopolypse is upon, but first see what me and Claudia can do!

Here's another odd juxtaposition. During the 1996 presidential campaign, cable channel CNBC ran a series of public service announcements that had celebrities saying what they were do if they were president, and then ending with them saying that they weren't running for president but viewers should go and vote anyway. Wendy's founder said that if were elected, he would make it easier to adopt a child. Growing Pains mom Joanna Kerns said she would try to increase opportunities for young women. Ron Reagan Jr said that if he was elected he would immediately ask for a recount (I wish his father considered that.) Then there's Peter Fonda. What would he do if elected president? Abolish both houses of Congress, fire the federal judiciary, and lock the Supreme Court up in a room and not let them out until they came up with a new, improve Constitution. But, again, he wasn't running for president but you should go out and vote anyway. November came and went without either Bill Clinton or Bob Dole locking up the nine justices.

Peter Fonda had his Vietnamese helmet moment just last year. Upset, as were a lot of people, at President Trump decision to separate parents from their children on the Mexican border, he fired off this controversial tweet:

 Barron's older bother struck back:

Fonda eventually apologized.

Now, as much as I may like him as an actor, don't expect me to defend Peter Fonda. He's supposed to be this counterculture hero but then goes tweets something so nasty, so objectionable, so disgusting, so obnoxious, so terrible, so dreadful, so shocking, so appalling, so hideous, so ugly, so vile, so hateful, so horrible, so heinous, so sick, so unconscionable, so creepy, so vulgar, so cruel, so hateful, so reprehensible, and so evil that it might as well come from a member of what these days passes for the Establishment!

Now that I got that out of the way, let's go to the movies: