MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

Not in any hurry to see summer blockbusters? Swim against the current with ‘Petulia,’ ‘The Loved One’ and other vintage DVDs

June 22, 2006
There might not have been a more awkward period in Hollywood history than the’60s. Social, political and economic forces way beyond the control of studio executives conspired to turn time-honored conventions and archetypes on their head, and the movies evidenced all the topicality of a Civil War re-enactment.
A couple of years before the Summer of Love, teens and young adults still were being fed a steady diet of drive-in fluff like “Beach Blanket Bingo” and “Viva Las Vegas” (great song, cookie-cutter movie). However charming, the Broadway hit “Bye Bye Birdie” already was ancient history by the time it hit movie theaters in 1963, and, in 1965, another Broadway vehicle, “My Fair Lady,” topped “Dr. Strangelove” for Best Picture Oscar.
Meanwhile, from Europe, “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Help” demonstrated that pop stars could star in smart movies and not lose any street cred, and such offbeat romances as “The Knack … and How to Get It” and “The Umbrellas of Cherbourgh” would tease the raging hormones of its target demographic. In New York, Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey countered Annette Funicello and Sandra Dee with their “Chelsea Girls.” (It’s kind of amazing to realize that the Disney dream girl and France’s Catherine Deneuve were born on the same day, a year apart, with Funicello being the elder actor. One wonders how a French director might have used her talents.)
Yes, boys and girls, there was a time in Hollywood history when the dollars of teenagers were considered less valuable than those of their parents and grandparents.
Blame it on the bossa nova or old habits dying hard, but, no question, the industry was in no hurry to bust headlong into the future. The Production Code may have been on its last legs, but the combined forces of the Legion of Decency, conservative lawmakers and regional censorship boards intimidated distributors and kept mainstream American filmmakers in a deep rut.
Handcuffed by the timidity of their employers, America’s best and brightest began to lose ground to directors, screenwriters and actors who enjoyed the freedom to tweak time-honored genres and invent characters that may have lived in the real world. Some held their nose and slogged onward, while such mavericks as John Cassavetes and Arthur Penn looked elsewhere for encouragement. That there was an audience for arthouse titles was proven by the box-office success of films by Bergman, Fellini, Kurosawa, Forman, Godard, and Truffaut.
This phenomenon wouldn’t last, of course. The newly established MPAA ratings system would provide a cushion between the studios and Congress, and Americans would soon grow weary of reading subtitles. Still, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, somethin’ was happenin’ but no one in Hollywood knew what it was … did they, Mr. Jones?
While Hollywood remained content to churn out Rat Pack (“Robin and the 7 Hoods”) and Elvis Presley quasi-musicals (“Kissin’ Cousins”), American filmgoers were free to salivate over images of Swinging London in such British imports as “Blow-Up,” “Georgy Girl,” “Alfie,” “What’s New Pussycat,” “Morgan!” and “Darling.” Interesting things were happening, as well, in the Haight-Ashbury, East Village, along the Sunset Strip and on campuses from Berkeley to Boston, you wouldn’t know it from the movies.
Outside of the fledgling indie-, underground- and experimental-film movements, the counterculture scene was chronicled in such goofy exploitation pictures as “The Trip,” “Psych-Out,” “The Love-Ins,” “The Wild Angels” and “Riot on Sunset Strip.” It took even longer for Hollywood to catch up with the increasingly louder anti-Vietnam War protesters, and, when it did, they were depicted as spoiled brats, shaggy juvenile delinquents or aging beatniks.
The studios couldn’t have been more out of touch with the youth of America, no matter if they were currently wearing flowers in their hair, jungle fatigues or baggy swimsuits.
I was reminded of this hideous period in domestic cultural history after I received a box from Warner Home Entertainment, containing several vintage DVDs from the same period. They included, “I Love You, Alice B. Toklas,” with Peter Sellers; “A Fine Madness,” with Sean Connery, Joanne Woodward and Jean Seberg; “The Loved One,” with Robert Morse, Jonathan Winters and Rod Steiger; and “Petulia,” with George C. Scott and Julie Christie. I hadn’t seen any of the films in decades, and, while some are better than others, they suggested to me that not everyone in town was oblivious to the tidal wave of change washing over America.
Very soon after he’d completed the Beatles movies, Richard Lester returned to America to employ his flash-and-dash pop sensibility on “Petulia.” In it, George C. Scott played a recently divorced doctor who, to his dismay, finds himself being stalked by a beautiful, if extremely kooky and married socialite, portrayed by a significantly Julie Christie (a mere six months older than Funicello). Their awkward courting dance is set against the backdrop of a San Francisco that’s about to be thrown into upheaval by an invasion of hippies and resulting outbreak of psychedelia, and the militancy of civil rights and anti-war activists.
Scott and Christie run in a much more established and wealthy class of the citizenry, but, as today, San Francisco’s relatively cozy confines ensured that people of all backgrounds and persuasions rubbed shoulders with each other on a daily basis. Christie’s Petulia may have been a total nut job, but her zest to escape the straitjacket of conformity eventually cut through the thick crust of a bedraggled man who only “wants to feel something.” Interspersed with the drama and comedy are snippets of concert footage shot by Nicolas Roeg of Big Brother and the Holding Company and the Grateful Dead, members of whom also appear in street scenes.
Lester infused “Petulia” with some of the same visual kineticism and pop sensibility that informed the Beatles films. Moreover, the picture never stooped to ridicule, exploit or overplay the then-burgeoning hippie scene. Like the tourists, seagulls, snooty upper-crusters and the Golden Gate, cameo appearances by Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan and Janis Joplin – on and off stage – were organically integrated into the narrative. And, it’s wonderful.
Lester was born in Philadelphia, but made his reputation as a brilliant comic director in England. “Petulia” was as much a study of America’s love affair with its possessions and trappings of status as it was the story of a cranky doctor who begrudgingly allows a little light to shine into his life, in the form of a blond half his age (and their affair would take on both of them).
Tony Richardson, a participant in both the British New Wave and Swinging London, was enlisted to direct “The Loved One.” The film was adapted from Evelyn Waugh’s scathing critique of post-war America’s growing obsession with physical beauty, the pursuit of immortality, material gluttony, endless wealth and development for the sake of development. All this was shown through the prism of an aspiring British poet who comes to Los Angeles to visit his ex-pat uncle, but, after the old fellow commits suicide, ends up working in a pet cemetery.
Although writers could barely see beyond its central parody of the funeral industry – and Los Angeles’ cemetery to the stars, Forest Lawn — “The Loved One” also spoke to deeper truths and horrors of the American Dream. Richardson was given a huge assist by novelist and screenwriter Christopher Isherwood and the legendary hipster, satirist and novelist Terry Southern.
The Cheshire-born Isherwood, of course, had penned the stories that would form the nucleus for both “Cabaret” and “I Am a Camera.” Southern, a Texas native, had written “Candy” and “The Magic Christian,” as well as a good deal of Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove.” He would later provide the screenplays for “Barbarella,” “Casino Royale,” “The Cincinnati Kid,” “Easy Rider” and the film adaptation of “The Magic Christian.”
As Peter Sellers had in “Dr. Strangelove,” Winters played the dual roles of the charlatan “Blessed Reverend,” proprietor of the Whispering Glade cemetery, and his brother, who must make the transition from Hollywood insider to an undertaker for beloved pets. Rod Steiger would deliver a similarly freaked-out performance as the facility’s chief embalmer, Mr. Joyboy. The scene in which Dr. Joyboy’s morbidly obese mother eats herself into oblivion is among the most grotesquely hilarious moments ever captured on film.
Sellers’ performance was the primary reason for my re-visiting “I Love You, Alice B. Toklas” … that, and a look at how the Los Angeles hippie scene was interpreted by director Hy Averback and co-writers Paul Mazursky and Larry Tucker. Not surprisingly, it was loaded with familiar period archetypes and caricatures right out of a summer stock production of “Hair.” At a time when Hollywood was stepping gingerly around the subject of marijuana and LSD, however, “I Love You, Alice B. Toklas” didn’t hesitate to promote some of the therapeutic benefits of re-creational drug use.
Sellers played a typically uptight L.A. lawyer, who, on the eve of his wedding, meets a stunningly beautiful and open-minded hippie chick. In return for a lift up Laurel Canyon, she introduces him to the ancillary benefits of Flower Power and Free Love. Not only does the lawyer abandon his fiancé and practice, but he also takes to sleeping in his wildly re-decorated car and turning his Hollywood Hills home into a crash pad. Just as he’s about to leap off the deep end, the filmmakers provide him with an escape path that leads not back to the office, but somewhere a bit more undefined and, therefore, more challenging.
Toklas’ recipe for hashish brownies provides a catalyst for much of the comedy, but the film doesn’t waste time balancing the hilarity with a morality lesson (a la “Reefer Madness”) … unless giggling one’s self to the brink of a heart attack could be considered a cautionary note. In this way, “I Love You, Alice B. Tolkas” stood in direct contrast to “Psych-Out” (a Dick Clark production), “The Trip” and other vehicles of ignorance and exploitation.
Also included in the box from Warners was the DVD of “A Fine Madness,” directed by Irvin Kershner, the only man to have helmed both a “Star Wars” and “James Bond” movie. Elliott Baker wrote the screenplay and novel upon which it was based.
Sean Connery already was an international sensation when he agreed to play Samson Shillitoe, a frustrated poet reduced to performing janitorial chores to support himself. The police are on his trail for skipping out on alimony payments, and, as befits a man suave enough to play 007, he has no problem at all getting laid. His conquests include a waitress, Rhoda, who’s rewarded for her generosity by being insulted in various less-than-poetic ways and getting thrown down a flight of stairs.
Yes, Shillitoe has rage issues, and they’re very serious. Even at his most convivial, he has all the social skills of a cobra. And, yet, the babes can’t wait to share a bed, floor, couch or whirlpool bath with him.
As ridiculous as it might seem in 2006, Connery’s character was promoted as being an incorrigible rogue and a “genius” who should be forgiven his extreme mood swings. After all, writer’s block can turn even the most pastoral of poets into raving lunatics … or, so the story goes.
This, of course, was nonsense. Karel Reisz’ uproarious “Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment” – also released in 1966 – chronicled the lengths to which a similarly tortured social misfit would go to woo the woman of his dreams, and, while his methodology was questionable, his humanity was never in doubt. The feminist movement had yet to make headlines – that would require a public bra burning outside the Miss America pageant – and, yet, it’s difficult to imagine anyone not walking out of a theater without wondering how Woodward and Seberg could stand still for such abuse of their characters.
As such, though, “A Fine Madness” is another document of its time, and fits with the other titles in this week’s release from Warners. Just as the studios had no idea how to profit from the counterculture, and not totally alienate those being lampooned, neither could they parse the difference between an anti-establishment protagonist and a lout.
Back then, the smart producers would seek, woo and import established talent from Europe, and throw enough money at them to make a convincing case for crossing the pond. Studio brass couldn’t have known it at the time, but this stopgap strategy also was buying them time before a new crop of home-grown filmmakers would graduate from film school and re-invigorate the American cinema.
Richardson, Lester, Schlesinger, Reisz, Roeg and poor old Michelangelo Antonioni — whose “Zabriskie Point” would lay a giant egg, but prove a boon to tourism in Death Valley – eventually would watch their hopes and inspiration melt in the glare of the California sun. In the mid-’60s, though, when even subtitles weren’t enough to keep the public from the movies, their work helped keep the dream alive for lovers of the cinematic art.
Considering the competition this summer, a film buff could do a lot worse than placing your order with Netflix and staying home to watch a bunch of 40-year-old movies. Indeed, it isn’t likely that adults will find anything better at the local multiplex than “Petulia” and “The Loved One” until the studios unleash their awards candidates five months down the road. – Gary Dretzka

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

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~ David Simon