Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Not Sucking in the Seventies

The PFA had a program in September and October called The Outsiders: New Hollywood Cinema in the Seventies. In a simultaneous but separate series, the UCLA Festival of Preservation, a few films from the 70s were screened. I list films from both series here under the banner of 1970s films screened at the PFA recently.

The Heartbreak Kid starring Charles Grodin, Cybil Shepherd & Eddie Albert; directed by Elaine May; (1972)
The Landlord starring Beau Bridges, Pearl Bailey & Lee Grant; directed by Hal Ashby (1970)
Hickey & Boggs starring Bill Cosby and Robert Culp; directed by Robert Culp; (1972)
Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song starring and directed by Melvin Van Peebles; (1971)
Mean Streets starring Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro & Amy Robinson; directed by Martin Scorsese; (1973)
The Last Picture Show starring Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybil Shepherd, Cloris Leachman & Ben Johnson; directed by Peter Bogdanovich; (1971)
The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover starring Broderick Crawford, Michael Prks and Rip Torn; directed by Larry Cohen; (1978)
Wanda starring and directed by Barbara Loden; (1970)
Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean starring Sandy Dennis, Cher, Karen Black & Kathy Bates; directed by Robert Altman; (1982)

I know that Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean was released in 1982 but it feels like a 1970s film with its 1950 nostalgia. Besides, the source material (a play) premiered in 1976.

Some of these films are much celebrated. The Last Picture Show was nominated for 10 Academy Awards; Cloris Leachman & Ben Johnson won Best Supporting Awards in their gender categories (beating out co-stars Ellen Burstyn and Jeff Bridges, respectively. Mean Streets established Martin Scorsese's career. Sweet Sweeback's Baadasssss Song is credited with launching the Blaxploitation film craze in the 1970s.

Although I was anxious to see those films, the lesser known works proved to be a revelation to me. I have long had a wariness towards films from the 1970s. Selecting from programs at local rep houses over the past few years has improved my attitude towards 1970s films. This PFA program was impressive by showcasing a varied sample of films which kept my interest with one exception.


Let's get the obligatory plaudits for the two classics out of the way.

I had never seen Mean Streets before. IMDB and the PFA notes listed Robert De Niro first in the credits so I was expecting him to have the largest role. However, it was Harvey Keitel who had the biggest role and whose performance shined the brightest. If anything, De Niro's Johnny Boy seemed out of place which indicates to me that De Niro has played these strong, silent, violent types for so often that I forgot he had any acting range. Johnny Boy is a flake, a small-time hustler looking skip out on his debts and get one over. You think of a guy like that and you think of Steve Buscemi type, not De Niro. Mean Streets was pre-Godfather II and pre-Taxi Driver.

De Niro had not yet performed the roles and sculpted the screen persona which the public would remember him for. So strong is De Niro's screen presence that I can recall two classic parodies. Of course, De Niro parodied himself in Analyze This (was there a sequel?). More entertaining was a Saturday Night Live skit with Alec Baldwin doing a De Niro impersonation on the fictitious Joe Pesci Show. That skit was over 15 years ago and I recall vividly.

The budget looked miniscule for Mean Streets but Keitel and De Niro make up for it. Charlie (Keitel) is a small time hood who seems destined to work in his uncle's business - his uncle just happens to be the neighborhood mafioso. Charlie isn't so keen on tht. A religious man, Charlie is consumed with Catholic guilt and that's before he even officially joins his uncle's crew. Johnny Boy (De Niro) is at the other end of spectrum. Charlie's best friend, Johnny is weaselly, violent and ultimately psychotic. There is a subplot involving Johnny's epileptic sisters and Charlie which makes 1973 seem a lot longer than 38 years ago.

Charlie wants to get off the mean streets of New York but his family, girlfriend and friendship with Johnny Boy work against him. Compared to some of Scorsese's later works, Mean Streets seems toned down and ineffective but clearly Scorsese had a notion of what he would later accomplish in films such as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas. Mean Streets is an interesting look at De Niro and Scorsese early in the career and the New York state-of-mind in the early 70s.


I won't waste space recounting the plot of The Last Picture Show which was based on a novel by Larry McMurtry. The Last Picture Show is a tremendous film. The large cast gives uniformly tremendous performance. I mentioned Leachman, Burstyn, Bridges and Johnson were nominated for their performances. I thought Timothy Bottoms and, in particular, Cybil Shepherd, gave outstanding performances also. What was most striking about the film is the look. Bogdanovich and Cinematographer Robert Surtees shot it in black and white and recreated the flat look of films from the 1950s which is the era
Last Picture Show show was set it.


Akin to a guilty pleasure, my favorite film of the series was The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover. Made a scant five years after J. Edgar Hoover's death, the film never received a full release. I'm amazed a film like this could be made so soon after Hoover's death. Broderick Crawford plays Hoover and he seems to be having a great time. Michael Parks, who would go on to be staple of Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino films, revels in his role as Robert Kennedy. Full of "ums" and "ahs" and serving up a Boston accent thicker then any clam chowder, Parks just chews up the scenery every moment he is on screen. The two men square off against each other and they are evenly matched. If anything, Parks' RFK seems to be more a mischievious boy pestering an old man.

Having seen (but not blogged) about Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar, The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover covers much of the same ground with the sanctimony, heavy handed references to Bush's War on Terror or explicit scenes to Hoover's sexuality. The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover aimed for something lower than Eastwood but achieved something greater.

By the way, my favorite cinematic depiction of J. Edgar Hoover was his portrayal by Richard Dysart in a television movie called Marilyn & Bobby: Her Final Affair. In the film, Hoover's righ-hand man and FBI Associate Director Clyde Tolson receives a late night call which wakes him up. While never leaving his bed, he answer the phone on the nightstand. After listening for a moment, he hands the phone to the person next to him in bed...none other than J. Edgar Hoover.


The Heartbreak Kid was a discovery. I had never heard of the film which was made by Elaine May, the director of Ishtar. Charles Grodin plays a self-absorbed and self-deluded man who begins cheating on his wife while they are on their hooneymoon. The temptress is none other than Cybil Shepherd who I'm discovering had a number interesting film parts in the 1970s. Shepherd is in Florida on vacation with her parents, played by Eddie Albert and Audra Lindley (who is best known as Mrs. Roper from Three's Company). When the family goes back to Minnesota, Grodin follows them with the goal of winning Shepherd's hand in marriage. The Heartbreak Kid is a hilarious comedy with dark overtones. Grodin's character is particularly dispicable although he has a certain tenacity that you can't help but admire and ridicule simultaneously.

May cast her daughter, Jeannie Berlin, as Grodin's irksome wife who nonetheless engenders sympathy from the audience. There is a love scene where Berlin is nude. Maybe the problem is with me but I found it peculiar that an actress would agree to a nude love scene in a film her mother is directing, but it was the 1970s afterall.


The Landlord was an interesting film featuring Beau Bridges (who I thought looked a little like Brad Pitt) as wealthy WASP who buys a tenement building in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Park Slope is as ritzy as gets in NYC outside of Manhattan but in 1970, it was the ghetto. The literal setup is a preppy white guy, in a lavender shirt, driving up in convertible VW Beetle. His intention is to evict the tenants and remodel the building. However, the tenants (who include Pearl Bailey and Louis Gossett, Jr.) refuse to cooperate. In addition, Elgar's (Bridges) family is aghast at the thought of Elgar living in the slums.

Slowly, Elgar involves himself with the tenants' lives; even going so far to have light-skinned African American girlfriend and a one-night stand with another, albeit darker skinned, African American. Elgar may have gone native but he is still Whitey as far as most of the tenants are concerned. The film has a couple twists before it is over.

The Landlord was Hal Ashby's first film. Best known for Harold and Maude, Ashby starts The Landlord as comedy and moves into some serious race issues. Along the way, Ashby adds some dreamlike sequences which gives the movie a film school feel. I'd grade it an A but Ashby could have benefited from a little more experience in making films.


Speaking of film school projects, both Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song and Wanda gave me the same feel although neither was a polished as The Landlord.

Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song was an independent, micro-budget film whose box office success led studios to capture the same audience with what became known as Blaxploitation films. All the elements of Blaxploitation are present in Sweetback: prodigiously endowed black man (I liked the sex off showdone with the female motorcycle gang leader), evil white cops, oddball cast of ghetto characters, blatant misogyny, etc. Director Melvin Van Peebles changed the rules with Sweetback. Evoking images of slaves chased down by their white masters, Van Peebles has Sweetback running all over Los Angeles, encountering outlandish situations along the way. The ending has Sweetback coated in white dust and sand trying to make his way to Mexico (how ironic is that?). The coda states clearly that Sweetback will come back and kick ass on The Man.

Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song wasn't a great film but it was entertaining within its context. If it wasn't one of the first film of its genre, I may not be so charitable but I think Van Peebles skills and vision would win out regardless. The biggest impediment Sweetback faced as a miniscule budget and compressed shooting schedule.

Wanda was directed by Barbara Loden who was the wife of Elia Kazan and passed away at the early age of 48 in 1980. Wanda was Loden's only feature film as a director. She borrows from Italian Neorealism and uses the depressed Pennsylvania coal country to convey the world weariness of postwar Italy. Loden plays the eponymous character who divorces, abandones her children and falls in with an abusive armed robber. A little dim witted or perhaps unwittingly nihilist, bad decisions keep Wanda wanding around the country and through her life with no apparent meaning or goal.

Wanda is one of these films (which seem prevalent in the 1970s) where there is no moral or lesson to be learned. Wanda seemed lost and aimless at the beginning of the film and the ending sheds little insight into how the events that have transpired will effect.

Wanda was a bit of a slog for me although Loden and Michael Higgins (who plays the bank robber) shine in the scenes they have together.


Hickey & Boggs reunited Bill Cosby & Robert Culp who costarred in the television series, I Spy. The film was also Culp's sole feature film director credit. The film reminded me a bit of Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye except it was a bit more stylish. I'm surprised Hickey & Boggs isn't better known.

Hickey & Boggs (I can't remember which one is which & I'm too lazy to look it up) are two low rent LA detectives hired to track down a missing woman. The trail leads to large sums of cash and dead bodies. Unwilling to drop the case, Hickey & Boggs run afoul of gangsters, black militants and the cops. Hickey & Boggs are two sad sack, world weary private dicks in the 70s who won't drop a case even if their lives are at risk. In that sense they are cut from the Phillip Marlowe mold.

In the middle of the film is one of the most visually impressive scenes I can recall. Film at the LA Coliseum, Hickey & Boggs are money drop or maybe surveilling a money drop. Culp and DP Bill Butler use the open space and grandeur of the Colesium to incredible effect. They use the geometric patterns made by the seats as the backdrop and the steps to the lip of stadium as the gauntlet. The shootout is exciting and makes full use of the framing shots. The shots make the people look tiny which is also the way Hickey & Boggs feel about themselves as they slowly discover what they are up against.

Hickey & Boggs is a very good film. Since it is largely unknown, it's one of those films you recommend to people and it impress them after viewing it that you knew about the film.


Finally, Altman's Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean...this is the kind of film which makes Altman inaccessible to the pubic at large. Like a bad Tennessee Williams play, Five and Dime is a lot of talk about secrets that I just couldn't care about. There is a plot twist which is surprising but not enough to salvage the film. Completely set within a diner/drugstore, Five and Dime could have benefited from some addition locations and camera angles.

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