Everyone wants to be a star-maker. Director Mark Robson thought he had some form in this area after Valley of the Dolls (1968) showcased Barbara Parkins and Sharon Tate. There’s no doubt British actress Carol White reveling in critical kudos for Poor Cow (1967) had promise. But not necessarily good professional advice otherwise how to account for a supporting role in Prehistoric Women/Slave Girls (1967) her first picture after success in three BBC television productions. The female lead in Michael Winner’s I’ll Never Forget Whatisname (1967) was followed by a small role in the more prestigious John Frankenheimer drama The Fixer (1968). But none of these films did anything at the box office. Enter Mark Robson.
This thriller might have made her a star had it not been so darned complicated. It veers from paranoia to stalkersville to Vertigo via Gaslight without stopping for breath and some elements are so obviously signposted at the start you are just waiting for them to turn up. Plus, if ever a film has dated, it’s this one, going back to the days when abortion carried automatic stigma and fathers could get away with lines like “you murdered my baby.”
So, one of the few times in history San Francisco got snow (it averages zero inches annually according to Google) the meet-cute is sketch artist Cathy (Carol White) being hit by a snowball thrown by wannabe Kenneth (Scott Hylands, making his debut). But when she realizes how much he enjoys watching cats stalking canaries decides she doesn’t want his baby and aborts it. A few years later she marries congressional candidate Jack (Paul Burke from Valley of the Dolls) and when pregnant crosses paths with Kenneth who manages to insinuate himself into her family via her husband. Twist follows twist until we are on the Top of the Mark (a famous city landmark) for a gripping climax.
White does well as she shifts through the emotional gears but she is barely given respite from being overwrought so at times her acting appears one-dimensional rather than varied. In fairness to her, the movie’s plot gives her no chance to deliver a settled performance. Hyland looks as if he’s auditioning for a role as a serial killer, but the depth of his cunning and his twisted perceptions kept this viewer on edge -what it would take for Cathy to make amends will chill you to the bone.
Robson has some nice directorial touches, a scene reflected in the eye of a cat, a clever jump-cut from marriage proposal to marriage ceremony and some flies in milk. Mala Powers makes a welcome big screen appearance after nearly a decade in television. That this whole concoction emanated from the fertile imaginations of screenwriters Larry Cohen (It’s Alive, 1974) and Lorenzo Semple Jr. (Fathom, 1967) might give you an idea of what to expect.
Catch-Up: Mark Robson films previously reviewed in this Blog are: The Prize (1963) and Lost Command (1966).
Rather than write about the best films I have seen this year, I thought I would look at the four best books about films that I have read over the last twelve months. However, I’m beginning with an older book. I was so taken with Kirsten Stewart’s portrayal of actress Jean Seberg in the biopic Seberg (2019) that I sought out Garry McGee’s Jean Seberg – Breathless, Her True Story first published in 2007 and reprinted in 2018 in time for the movie.
This is a startling and ultimately a very sad book of the star as an American tragedy who shot to the heights in her first film and spent the rest of her life with a couple of exceptions falling earthwards. She took her own life, aged 40, in 1979. She was seen as both calculating and a victim, a woman of great strength and immense vulnerability, who used her popularity to espouse unpopular causes.
Her career followed no pattern anyone could understand, least of all Hollywood. Thrust into the limelight as a teenager when hand-picked as Saint Joan (1957) by director Otto Preminger – an experience that scarred her physically and mentally – she quickly shifted to France where she was enshrined in Jean-Luc Godard’s New Wave masterpiece Breathless (1960), but remained in France too long appearing in less prestigious productions. She was a vivid Lilith (1964) in Robert Rossen’s dissection of mental illness, but disappeared off the Hollywood map again until reappearing at the end of the decade in roadshow musical Paint Your Wagon (1969) – in which she stole the show from Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood. After blockbuster Airport (1970) and western Macho Callahan (1970) she departed Hollywood for good, her final films being made in Europe.
Why her career was so apparently topsy-turvy is explored in this excellent biography, the final departure from America propelled by the discovery that she was under investigation by the FBI.
Chinatown (1973) is one of the greatest noir thrillers ever made but with its director Roman Polanski now persona non grata in Hollywood, it remains to be seen whether the film will retain its high status. Sam Wasson’s The Big Goodbye, Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood leaves any discussion of the director’s sexual mores until the last chapters when the shock of the allegations against him threaten to overwhelm the entire book. That said, up till then, it is a riveting book, not just the convoluted process of making this particular movie, but especially fascinating when discussing the screenplay, the working methods of writer Robert Towne, and the tangled dealings with agents.
After The Godfather (1972), Paramount was on a high and studio boss and wunderkind Robert Evans was apparently untouchable – the studio had given him his own production company – but his wife Ali McGraw had run off with Steve McQueen and he was at war with studio president Frank Yablans. Jack Nicholson, however, was approaching a box office peak. Polanski was hot and if his touch was anywhere as good as Rosemary’s Baby (1968) it would be a slam dunk. But as the movie approached its premiere, it was looking more like a stinker. Preview audiences hated it. The original score was dumped, Jerry Goldsmith brought in to make the music more evocative of the period.
The author takes a wider view than the normal “making of” book and his portrayal of Hollywood at a time of massive change and the corrosive and often self-destructive nature of many of the personalities involved gives the subject material greater bite. A film of this book is being greenlit with Ben Affleck’s involvement.
According to Stephen Rebello, Valley of the Dolls (1968) is in a class of its own. It was top of the class in Bad Movies We Love, the book he co-wrote with Edward Margulies. Rebello has now accorded to his “making of” one of the longest book titles in history – Dolls! Dolls! Dolls!, Deep Inside Valley of the Dolls, The Most Beloved Bad Book and Movie of All Time. Rebello, of course, is famous for his opus on Psycho. Valley of the Dolls was based on the bitchy bestseller by Jacqueline Susann and the movie itself fell into a similar category. Director Mark Robson had been twice Oscar-nominated, once for his adaptation of Peyton Place, a novel occupying the same trashy ground as Valley of the Dolls. Although Natalie Wood, Lee Remick, Bette Davis and Kim Novak were at various times in the running, the book was such a huge bestseller that Twentieth Century Fox thought it would get away with a less-than-stellar cast. The best known of the stars Judy Garland was fired over her alcoholism. Rebello has an irreverent style, but a forensic eye for detail and has produced a highly-readable book of a film now termed a camp classic.
If Valley of the Dolls was in a class of its own, then so too was Ryan’s Daughter (1970), filmed on location in Ireland. In the David Lean canon, none of his pictures have been so maligned. While not approaching the sensational box office of Doctor Zhivago (1965) it was still a massive audience favorite. In Glasgow, where I lived, it ran as a 70mm roadshow presentation at the first-run ABC2 for an entire year. But it was mauled by the critics who felt it was clearly within their rights to dole out to Lean a public humiliation after inviting him to a meeting of the National Society of Film Critics where Pauline Kael and Richard Schickel in particular tore his film to shreds.
Quite why the book has taken so long to be published is another mystery given the author says he did the bulk of the research in 1999-2003. Maybe the publishers were counting on a 50th anniversary revival. Certainly, he has no shortage of material from the drunken and pot-smoking shenanigans of star Robert Mitchum to the miscasting of Christopher Jones and the director’s own haphazard personal life. MGM, which was going through a financial tsunami, backed the director to the hilt even as the budget continued to soar -it ran 135 days over schedule. Because of the overages Jones took home more than this £200,000 contracted salary and John Mills nearly double his original $200,000. Lean’s legendary perfection endangered the lives of the crew and actors during the storm sequence while the sex scene between Jones and Sarah Miles caused particular problems. The author alleges that Jones’ food was spiked. For some reason the author has dubbed this “one of the great movie follies” and while I would not agree with that estimation it remains an interesting read.