Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated '77 - Kate Hagen ""

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Underrated '77 - Kate Hagen

Kate Hagen is a writer living in Los Angeles. Kate became director of community at The Black List in 2014, where she manages and fosters the Black List community on social media and via the Black List website, edits and curates the Black List Blog, and was the co-host and co-producer of The Black List Table Reads podcast on Earwolf. Kate's work has been published by Lenny Letter, xoJane, Seed & Spark, and TCM, and she's the creator of 31 Days of Feminist Horror Films, now in its third year.

I found Mr. Goodbar as a teenager one Sunday morning while cruising HBO, and expected some of Diane Keaton's usual, delicious daffiness wrapped up in a sedate film about the problems of being a "Fast Girl" in late 1970s New York. What I found instead was a sobering footnote on the free love years, a meditation of single womanhood in New York City years before Carrie Bradshaw made it aspirational, and one of the most devastating endings ever put to film. I didn't read Judith Rossner's novel about sex and the 1970s single gal until much later, only a few years ago, but it only made me appreciate Richard Brooks' adaptation more -- he absolutely captures the sweaty desperation and smoky claustrophobia of singles bars from Rossner's novel (it should be noted that Rossner hated Brooks' adaptation, save for the casting of Keaton in the lead role.) Keaton is absolutely fantastic as Theresa Dunn -- the way she opens up her physicality as the film progresses, beginning with a softening of her face after the first time she has sex, is mesmerizing. Theresa's unabashed lust still feels revolutionary -- few female characters today are as in charge of their sex lives as Theresa is, and fuck with as little regret as she does. Because Theresa is the sexual aggressor in this story, Brooks is able to turn the men in her life into the sex objects in the film, not Theresa -- this is exemplified in a sequence when an infuriatingly handsome young Richard Gere boogies in and out of bed with Theresa in no more than a jock strap. But, it's Theresa's relationship with her sister Katherine (an Oscar-nominated Tuesday Weld) that provides the film with its emotional core, not a romantic or sexual relationship: Katherine too is allowed to have affairs, abortions, and a full dance card of her own. In the end though, of course, Theresa has to pay for the sin of her sexual liberation -- the sex she has gets rougher, the drugs she does get harder, and the men she lusts after become more dangerous characters. Thinking she'll leave her wild life and boring boyfriend (William Atherton) behind with the start of a new year, Theresa picks up one final paramour, Gary (Tom Berenger), on New Years Eve. She ignores multiple red flags with Gary (an ex-con who might be more interested in men) and when he can't get it up and Theresa asks him to leave, laughing about the whole sorry tryst, Gary goes ballistic. He stabs Theresa to death as he rapes her in an extremely horrifying, disorienting final sequence where we only see the violence through nauseating flashes of strobed light. And then, the movie is just...over. Even among 70s downer endings, GOODBAR's finale remains one of the absolute bleakest: there's no redemptive final beat with Katherine, hopeful message, or peaceful funeral for Theresa -- she's just gone, her death serving as punishment for the crime of being a woman who enjoys sex. Even forty years later, that fear still exists for every woman I know, and it's an insane line to have to walk -- knowing that any man you bring home could kill you -- especially as app dating culture makes us all more anonymous and the thrill of the chase accessible from anywhere, not just a barstool. LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR is unavailable on DVD thanks to the disco songs that soundtrack Theresa's hook ups (one particularly stunning club sequence is set to Diana Ross's "Love Hangover") and that's a damn shame -- it's an astonishing document of the "zipless fuck" era of female sexual liberation.
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Can we ever overrate Gena Rowlands and her work with husband John Cassavetes? I certainly don't think so. Rowlands wasn't nominated for an Oscar for OPENING NIGHT like she was for A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE or GLORIA, and that's probably because her performances in those films are all about maintaining the semblance of order and control, while OPENING NIGHT finds Rowlands at her freest and most unpredictable. We get to see Rowlands grapple with her own middle-age as her flailing actress avatar, Myrtle Gordon, feels increasingly haunted by the presence of a young fan who's died in pursuit of some of Myrtle's magic. "When I was seventeen I could do anything. It was so easy…my emotions were so close to the surface. I am finding harder and harder to stay in touch," Myrtle tells us, envious of the young fan's ability to emote like she once could. The level of trust, both personally and cinematically, exhibited by a totally fearless Rowlands and Cassavetes in the conception and execution of this film feels much like Myrtle's journey itself -- the Cassavetes family always put everything on the line just to make it to curtain call. With help from a tremendous supporting cast including Cassavetes repertory players like Ben Gazzara, and new additions, like the legendary Joan Blondell (or, as the credits roll, a tuxedo'd Peter Bogdanovich) OPENING NIGHT blurs the line between reality and fiction for Cassavetes and company -- it's Gena and John facing their own supposed obsolescence head-on, and tackling it with boozy, harrowing gusto. One can't help but wonder if OPENING NIGHT wasn't at least partially inspired by the failed stage play for A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE, which Rowlands says Cassavetes turned into the film after she insisted she could not perform Mabel Longhetti day in and day out. OPENING NIGHT shouldn't be anyone's first Cassavetes film (I'd start with WOMAN or FACES), but when you're finally ready for her, Myrtle Gordon will be waiting for you by the stage door in all her glory.
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I was so upset by this film's final act that I needed some actual quiet time -- that almost never happens to me at the conclusion of a film, not even SALO. I consider myself a major Altman fan, but none of his other films, interviews, or anecdotes could have prepared me the acid-flashback-trapped-inside-a-fever dream that is 3 WOMEN. It is best to go into this film knowing as little as possible, so I'll keep it brief: from the first moment we see Millie (Shelley Duvall) care for elderly patients at a California spa, we're transfixed by the specificity of her routines and the mesmerizing quality of her steady voice -- Altman's hypnotizing us, using the constantly flowing water at the spa coupled with Duvall's calm reassurance to welcome us into his desert dreamscape. Millie's routine is upset by the arrival of the mysterious Pinky (Sissy Spacek) -- though the two seemingly become fast friends, they become frenemies just as quickly after moving in together: bickering over hors d'oeuvre placement, color palettes, and, of course, men. The third woman in Altman's film is the enigmatic Willie (Janice Rule) the pregnant wife of their landlord and sometimes lover Edgar (Robert Fortier.) Willie's pastel, psychosexually-driven murals are only the beginning of the weirdness for Millie and Pinky though, as all three women morph, shift, and transmute through each other's identities (and various female archetypes) throughout the remainder of Altman's most impressionistic film. If THE GOODBYE GIRL is the ideal Saturday afternoon movie, then 3 WOMEN is best-suited for a lonely late night -- all the lights are off, you can't sleep while everyone else can, maybe you've got a half a joint left in the ashtray. Let Altman's most beguiling film wash over you, just like the running water at the spa.
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At a WGA panel a few years ago, Alexander Payne lamented the passing of another summer without a studio comedy of merit, and I return to that idea frequently -- remember when studio comedies were, you know, funny? Honestly, I'd sign a blood oath to get a major studio to release something like THE GOODBYE GIRL today. Despite THE GOODBYE GIRL's creative pedigree, boffo box office, and multiple Oscar nominations (including a Best Actor win for Richard Dreyfuss, the youngest actor ever to do so at the time) it's largely forgotten when lists of the best romantic comedies emerge like tulips each spring. And I have no idea why: I can't imagine any kind of reasonable explanation as to not liking this movie -- Marsha Mason and Richard Dreyfuss' chemistry is incendiary! Quinn Cummings set the standard for for foul-mouthed, precocious daughters in rom-coms! You get to see 1976 New York immortalized on screen! Dreyfuss may have won the Oscar, but Mason, working with then-husband Neil Simon, is the unstoppable engine of this film: she never stops moving, letting neither her minor triumphs and crushing defeats hold her back from just moving forward, even if that amounts to a life far, far away from the one she planned. This is THE ideal Saturday afternoon movie -- it's funny and sexy and sad, and guaranteed to cure any hangover, stomach bug, or post-nap-itis, try it as a double feature with ALICE DOESN'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE. Maybe contemporary audiences don't vibe with Neil Simon because they've seen so many poor imitations of his work that the real deal seems corny, but that's a much longer digression about audiences not being able to place old movies in context. time you're feeling low, or a little blue, or just want a real home-cooked-meal kind of a movie, the kind that nourishes you hours after you're done, fire up THE GOODBYE GIRL.
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Last month, we bid farewell to the great George A. Romero, and while his DEAD films stand as the high bar for excellence within the undead genre they created, one cannot overlook Romero's other work in horror, especially 1977/78's stupendously scuzzy MARTIN. Martin's serial-killing of women disguised as vampirism is an extreme take on the idea of teenaged male otherdom, and through Martin, not a ghoul, but a grounded character that definitely feels like he could be creeping around your own neighborhood, Romero gives us another supernatural tale ends up feeling far too real. Martin is a deeply disturbed young man, and while Romero (who also wrote the script) and star John Amplas do find moments of empathy within their conception of Martin, they also open the film with an extended sequence of Martin drugging, molesting, and murdering a naked woman (while luxuriating in her blood) before the credits even roll -- try adding a Save the Cat moment after that. As Martin's misdeeds become more shocking and we learn more about his past thanks to the stern, staunchly Catholic uncle (Lincoln Maazel) he's staying with, it's easy to see why Martin has created such an elaborate fantasy life for himself, since he's such a zero in the real world. You see, Martin keeps slipping into black and white daydreams where he's the alpha, a hunted vampire so seductive that no woman is immune to his charms -- very far off from his actual interactions with women, or anyone else, for that matter. He does toy with normalcy while pursuing the desperately lonely housewife Mrs. Santini (Elyane Nadeau)...but Martin's affair with her ends very, very badly for both of them. Romero's exploration of Martin's self-imposed vampirism as a metaphor for impotence and diminished virility in young men in post-Vietnam War America serves as another great addition to the complex themes he so often includes in his allegorical horror tales. Romero claimed MARTIN was his personal favorite within his own filmography, and it's easy to see why: it was shot for only $80,000 in Romero's beloved Pittsburgh, cast mostly with friends and family, and was the first time Romero would collaborate with special effects legend Tom Savini. MARTIN took Romero to some dark places, even for him, but it's impossible not to feel a kind of love in how this film was assembled by Romero's tight-knit community of local creatives. But, even given that and the film's karmically satisfying ending, it's still tough to leave MARTIN without feeling a little dirty...but hey, isn't that the mark of a great 70s downer?
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