Saturday, June 30, 2012

L’auteurist americain: Deceased Artiste Andrew Sarris (part one)

Critics who argue that technique should not call attention to itself are usually critics who not do wish to call attention to technique.  —The American Cinema, p. 54
The purpose of any truly great film critic is to enlighten as well as enrage, and Andrew Sarris, who died two weeks back at 83, did a hell of a lot of both in his half-century of writing about cinema. Sarris will forever be enshrined as the critic who brought la politique des auteurs to America, but at his best he also had a way of deftly summing up a filmmaker’s entire body of work in a few sentences — their themes, their visual style, and their narratives.
He is someone that all American film fans should know about, but since he was a writer first and foremost and not a TV presence (no “thumbs up” for him) and championed film as an art (no exaltation of the grindhouse, as with Tarantino), he is currently best known by students who are assigned his work, critics who still admire his fine writing, and those of us who are old enough to remember when reading contemporary film reviews was an integral part of the moviegoing experience.
When a recent biography and collection of Pauline Kael’s work were published in tandem, a few “theme pieces” were written to nostalgize about the Sixties and Seventies, when reading film reviewers (and film books!) was what movie buffs did in the hours they were not in movie theaters (no VCRs!). Kael and Sarris have often been linked together in articles of this kind, since they were the yin and yang of American film criticism during that period, most importantly because of their antithetical viewpoints about the auteur theory.
Kael was a top-notch writer, don’t get me wrong — I loved reading her collections when younger. But it was the strength of her writing that made all the difference. I still find it hard to see any kind of sustained viewpoint behind what she liked and didn’t like. Later in his career, Sarris developed into an idiosyncratic critic whose reaction to a particular film was hard to gauge (sometimes even after reading what he had written about it); Kael was always like that, with a few modest exceptions.
Admittedly, Sarris kept that “feud” with Kael alive for a while — she had fired the first salvo with her derisive 1963 Film Quarterly article “Circles and Squares: Joys and Sarris”; Sarris’ obits carried a bitchy remark she made when declining an invite to his wedding to critic Molly Haskell. But I remember AS making more remarks about PK than vice versa.
Speaking of his fellow critics, it was interesting to see in an online bio that rock critic emeritus Robert Christgau said Sarris seemed “full of himself.” This struck me as odd, because  Christgau’s letter-graded method of rating albums (which is now copied *everywhere*, most particularly Entertainment Weekly) was definitely a variation on his old Village Voice colleague Sarris’s much-debated/love-and-hated notion of assembling Hollywood filmmakers in a pyramid fashion, with a “Pantheon” at top and “Less Than Meets the Eye” auteurs at the bottom.
He first wrote about the “politique” in a 1962 essay in the magazine Film Culture called “Notes on the Auteur Theory” (echoing Truffaut’s “Une Certain Tendance du Cinema Francais”). According to his obits, Sarris spent a year in Paris in 1961 and became friendly with, among others, the critic-filmmakers who wrote for the Cahiers du Cinema. It was no surprise, then, that he was the American reviewer who imported the auteur theory.
I’m assuming anyone reading this blog knows the theory by heart — that the director is in a sense the “author” of a film, and that most filmmakers with any talent rework the same themes, characters, and narrative approaches the way that a great novelist does. In order to write this blog entry, I reread most of Sarris’s seminal 1968 book The American Cinema, which introduced the full range of his categorizing of American filmmakers.
I have very fond memories of the book. A dog-eared copy (which I still own and refer to) was given to me by my high school film teacher John Loose — who didn’t instigate my love of movies (my parents did that), but who was infinitely important in showing me how to look at films intelligently. The book became a key item on my movie-book shelf, along with Halliwell’s Filmgoer’s Companion (does anyone remember that tome?), the Movies on TV collection (which I later contributed to and edited for an edition), and various Films of-type pop paperback collections and profiles of individual personalities and genres.
Another Sarris volume that was important to me, which I borrowed from the library twice, was Interviews with Film Directors, which was one of the few other books Sarris came out with in his lifetime. That tome contained a few dozen fascinating talks with the directors I was discovering as a young film maniac and is rarely found in bookstores these days. (I in fact never have seen a copy sitting around in all my years of going to secondhand bookshops, but am sure some helpful soul has probably scanned it into the big portable library we call the Internet.)
But back to The American Cinema: I consulted it all through my college years as a seminal source of knowledge and information, as well as opinions that made me think “is he outta his fucking mind?” The book nonetheless struck me the way that Breathless and Mean Streets did: as a work that screamed to the rafters, “I LOVE MOVIES!” In the first flush of my film-fixation, that was manna from heaven.
So how does it stand up these days? Very well, because Sarris supplies in the preface, “Toward a Theory of Film History,” all the reasons that the auteur theory is an important and necessary tool for studying film, but he also elaborates at some length the ways in which it *doesn’t* work in various cases —thereby defeating the Kael-ist naysayers in one fell swoop.
The American Cinema was Sarris’ American version of the 1965 Georges Sadoul book Dictionnaire des cineastes, with his own addition, the aforementioned categories of directors (some of which had titles such as “Lightly Likeable” that were obviously intended to piss people off in the way that Christgau’s “grades” did). In the intro he addresses that seminal twentieth-century question: can a commercial work be a work of art?
The auteur theory said yes, that a director working for a cold-blooded, money-driven corporation could still make a personal work that mattered in the grand scheme of things. Sarris’ own twist on the theory was to create the categories and to encourage debate and argument (thus his long career in academia).
The American Cinema is a very odd sort of time-capsule, assembled by Sarris in 1968 just as the studio system was imploding entirely (thanks to the failures of big, awful musicals and the appearance of Easy Rider and the golden age of “maverick” American cinema — a period that Sarris wrote about on a weekly basis in the pages of the Voice). At points, he goes straight for the nearest play on words, as when he notes about Cassavetes that “too much of the time he is groping when he should be gripping.”
Those lines are somewhat cringe-inducing, but the reason the book has remained so important was Sarris’ ability to literally sum up a filmmaker’s career in a single line, as well to situate his visual style within certain traditions, be they that of Murnau and the moving camera, or Eisenstein and the miracle of montage. (I say “his” by the way, because his entry on Ida Lupino is one-stop-shop collection of sentences about every woman director he could think of to that date — except the avant-gardists, whom he never wanted to acknowledge.)
Beautiful examples of Sarris at his most incisive appear in the chapter entitled “The Pantheon,” where he discussed the 14 filmmakers (including the guy he's standing with in the pic above) he thought were the finest-ever to work in the American cinema (two of whom, Renoir and Ophuls, only made a handful of films over here) and in his “Far Side of Paradise” chapter (where the also-rans dwell).
There, in his entry on Nicholas Ray, he contrasts the approaches of Ray and John Huston by noting that, if one compared They Live By Night and The Asphalt Jungle, “one will notice that where Ray tends to cut between physical movements, Huston tends to cut between static compositions. Ray’s style tends to be more kinetic, Huston’s more plastic, the difference between dance and sculpture.”
In this sense Sarris carried on from James Agee, Manny Farber, and Otis Ferguson, the American film critics who would mingle theory and purely emotional statements about the films they loved (the same is true of Godard, Truffaut, and the Cahiers posse, of course). Along these lines, Sarris drops into his chapter on Keaton the fact that a scene in The General, where Buster makes a gesture to choke his girlfriend but then kisses her instead, is “one of the most glorious celebrations of heterosexual love in the history of the cinema,”
This is perhaps Sarris greatest strength as a critic — his emotional connection to the films he wrote about; the underside is the fact that he openly admitted here that he had no emotional connection to animation, documentaries, and the avant-garde. At one point in the book he pretty much cancels out the possible influence of the avant-garde on the mainstream, which means he wasn’t partaking of the then-gestating psychedelic cinema of the Sixties, which drew heavily on the avant-garde. He also couldn’t take into account the profound effect that Kenneth Anger and other undergrounders’ pop-saturated short films would have on future generations of music-videomakers.
The American Cinema is indeed a mixed bag of brilliant insight and sometimes blind devotion to, or misguided dislike of, certain filmmakers. The oddest thing about the book, which I’ll discuss below, is that he chose to never update or revise it. The filmographies were updated a bit (the single best inclusion being the addition of Napoleon to Stanley Kubrick’s filmo), but the entries were never rewritten by him in the forty-plus years since the book’s publication.
In later years, he publicly admitted he had gotten Billy Wilder (whom he put in the “Less Than Meets the Eye” category) horribly wrong. The Wilder entry in the book portrays him as a filmmaker who was too cynical for his own good; Sarris seems particularly irritated by the ways in which he saw Wilder forcing beautiful actresses to act out unpleasant suicide scenarios.
He even discounts with a single phrase Double Indemnity, which is, was, and forever will be, one of the finest film noirs ever made. He was a big enough man to admit that he was dreadfully wrong on the issue of Wilder, but never revisited his book to elevate Billy to “the Pantheon.” (His feelings about Kubrick similarly flipflopped, most notoriously when he finally 2001 when high, and realized it was a far better film than he’d thought it was previously.)
Sarris’ views on comedy were indeed both wonderfully on-target and then hopelessly misguided. In the latter category was his devotion to Blake Edwards, whom he praises to the heavens (and kept on praising throughout the Eighties in his Voice columns), while slamming Wilder, Tashlin, and Quine, whom time has proven were far better and much more interesting comedy filmmakers. (Blake Edwards had his moments, but my god, there was a preponderance of absolute tedious garbage, even in the “golden era” — his encountering Sellers was the miracle.)
On the positive side of the ledger, though, Sarris’ oddball categorical system of evaluating filmmakers once and forever enshrined the great movie comedians as the “auteurs” of their own movies. He conspicuously undervalued Laurel and Hardy, but his evaluations of W.C. Fields, Mae West, and the Marx Bros as “auteurs” of a kind wasn’t just lip service for the cults those comics gods had in the late Sixties. It was an acknowledgment that sometimes a dominant performer was indeed the “auteur” of his/her starring vehicle.
Of course, given my obsession with all things Jerry Lewis, I am still fascinated by Sarris’ entry on Jerry, which is in the form of a list of 12 reasons he doesn’t think Jerry is a good filmmaker. It’s quite a detailed argument — whereas it’s rather obvious that the love or hatred of Jerry (and the odd mixture of the two that some of his modern fans have) is a personal thing that is hard to justify, no matter how much critical acumen you possess. However, Sarris does sum it all up in his last two sentences on Lewis:
He has never put one brilliant comedy together from fade-in to fade-out. We can only wait and hope, but the suspicion persists that the French are confusing talent with genius.
To be continued…

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Recent Departures: a Deceased Artiste round-up

Many, many folks of note whose work I’ve loved have been kicking off lately. I hope to offer lengthier looks at three of them in the week(s) to come, but wanted to first offer a round-up of four who most certainly deserve a farewell salute (including the guy to the right).
For instance… the character actor best known for his appearances in the three Beatles live-action fiction films. Victor Spinetti was a Welshman who appeared in numerous stage productions and films that played internationally, including a trio starring his countryman Richard Burton (Becket, The Taming of the Shrew, and Under Milk Wood).
I remember him fondly as a stammering critic who “blames Fellini!!!” in Anthony Newley’s startling ego-fest Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? (1969), as well as (yeah) his three turns with the Beatles.
The oft-repeated story is that Lennon and Harrison visited him backstage when he was starring in the London production of Oh, What a Lovely War. They wanted him for “every one" of their films, because, George claimed, his mother wouldn’t go to see their films without Spinetti (whom “she fancied”).
Whatever the reason was, Spinetti was a seasoned character actor who incarnated nervous bureaucrats and nasty authority figures, as in his wonderfully oddball turn in Magical Mystery Tour:
Spinetti was a “guest” voice on one of the Beatles’ most ambitious Xmas singles (the ’67 one), “Christmas Time Is Here Again,” and also continued his Beatle connection into the music-video era, providing a cameo appearance with the great Roy Kinnear (another Beatle-connected actor) in the Mike and the Mechanics video for “All I Need is a Miracle.”
Beatlemaniacs are extremely good about sharing, and so it’s possible to watch Spinetti speaking about the Fabs on YouTube:
But the single best, rarest piece of footage I discovered on that hub site is a 1968 interview with Lennon and Spinetti when the play version of In His Own Write opened at the Old Vic. Spinetti wrote and directed the play and is quite eloquent about what made John’s writing special. For his part, Lennon talks about the influences on his writing (Lewis Carroll and Ronald Searle) and who he was compared to, but hadn’t read (James Joyce):
Moving to another character actor who made a great impression — in this case by being a sane person in the land of the insane — sitcom fixture Frank Cady died at the age of 96 two weeks back. Cady was of course “Sam Drucker,” the owner of the general store that served as the linchpin for the Paul Henning “universe” — it served as a backdrop for action on both Green Acres and Petticoat Junction, and was the place the Beverly Hillbillies came back to when they made visits “home.”
Cady had a hell of a resume as a bit actor, showing up in various noirs (DOA, The Asphalt Jungle, Ace in the Hole) and other Fifties classics (Rear Window, The Bad Seed), but he will forever be remembered as being the mellow and uncommonly sensible Drucker character. Here’s an interview he did where he discusses how he failed the audition for the role of “Otis the Town Drunk” on The Andy Griffith Show, but was lucky enough to lose that part and get the Petticoat Junction role a few years later.
Moving on to music — and yes, a LOT of memorable folk in the world of music have been dying lately — I salute Bob Welch, who was a member for four years in the “interim” version of Fleetwood Mac. FM did have at least one minor hit, “Hypnotized” during his time (1971-74) in the band, but it was when he left and was replaced by the “Buckingham Nicks” duo that they went through the ceiling.
Obits reported that Welch had had spinal surgery and was depressed about the fact that it did not go well; he died of a “self-inflicted gunshot wound.” Another, lesser, depressing fact in his obits was that Welch was one of the only important members of Fleetwood Mac who was not honored when the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — he had sued the band for royalties from the albums that he had participated in, so that was most likely the cause for him being left out.
His contribution to keeping the outfit afloat was seminal, in that they were between their British-blues-band and hot-singles-act personas when he was the lead guitarist. Reportedly he did make amends with Mick Fleetwood after the lawsuit (and R’n’RHOF snub). Fleetwood and Christine McVie had indeed worked on Welch’s most memorable effort (in my view), his first solo LP French Kiss, which had both his biggest hit, "Sentimental Lady" (a reworked song from his FM years), and this super-catchy number on it. What a blissfully cheesy “publicity film”!
One of the most notable TV-related deaths in recent weeks was that of Richard Dawson. Best known as a gameshow host, he also proved himself a capable comedian on both British and American series (including Laugh-In) and brought a note of class to whatever show he appeared on. Dawson first came on the show-biz radar as the comedian husband of sex kitten Diana Dors. The two even hosted a TV show together in England (she was always the main draw):
His first notable appearance on U.S. TV was on the terrific Dick Van Dyke Show. This clip is out of synch, but it shows Dawson doing what must’ve been his act at the time:
He did indeed come over to America as a representative of “swinging London,” but made a name for himself as the character Newkirk on Hogan’s Heroes. The film Autofocus suggests that Bob Crane was jealous of Dawson (perhaps for being effortlessly classy?). Dawson also appeared in a few movies (most notable the Ah-nold-starring Stephen King adaptation The Running Man). Here he is in a goofy 1966 picture called Out of Sight:
Further cementing his cool Sixties image is this Dating Game appearance, where he was “Bachelor No. 1.” Bachelor No. 3 is none other than Bill Bixby, and both gents are dressed to the nines in swinging-guy Sixties wear:
I’ve written and talked on the Funhouse TV show about the celebrities who didn’t care about playing the game shows they were on (my faves being Henry Morgan, his hero Fred Allen, and Ernie Kovacs). Dawson really cared about the games, but mostly so that he wouldn’t be “robbing” the contestants in going for a joke answer. Here he is debating over an answer on the show he lent a major dose of class (and the stray W.C. Fields impersonation) to, Match Game:
Dawson’s longest-running stint in show biz was as the host of Family Feud. Much has been made of his kissing the female contestants — he often defended himself by saying he did it “to wish them luck” as his mother had done with him as a kid (this begs the question of why he did it when the contestants were *leaving* the show, too — if you can get away with it, do it!). He rarely if ever cracked, but occasionally the insanely stupid answers a contestant gave would make him laugh:
One of the reasons I think Dawson was so perfect as a gameshow host was that, affectations to the side, he did come across as a genuinely decent guy who really liked the schlubs who were playing these games. This is reflected in two speeches he made on Family Feud. Firstly his goodbye speech for the original run of FF was a nicely delivered salute to those who’d helped keep the show on the air.
The most genuinely wonderful moment of Dawson’s TV career, though, never aired on the show. There was an additional speech he made to the studio answers of FF on the final show that was thankfully taped (but, again, was not included in the broadcast version of the show — they had to leave in more dumb answers!).
Part of Dawson’s personal mythology (that he never personally promoted) was how he was “dumped’ by the screen goddess Diana Dors, and was left alone to raise their two sons. I know nothing of the real Dawson, but this bit of video indicates that he was a genuinely warm guy; the fact that he came back out and delivered this speech knowing it wouldn’t get on the air separates it from all of the “telethon moments” in which someone broke down crying over a handicapped child. His urging people to do what they call in the theology biz “good works” seems positively real and not “for the camera”:
When Dawson retired from TV, he really retired. He did, however, consent to do a long interview for the “Archive of American Television” people, in which he discussed his television career. Here he talks about the infamous “kissing controversy” on FF:
In closing I’ll turn once again to a musical oddity (I do so love novelty tunes). I had no idea that Dawson released records in the Sixties (but was not surprised upon finding it out). He spoke-sang a tune (in the Burton-Harrison mold) for a “Hogan Heroes sing” album, but also released a single in 1967. The A-side, “Children’s Parade,” is pretty awful, but the piece de resistance is the extremely odd B-side. Titled “Apples and Oranges” (having nothing to do with the Syd Barrett/Pink Floyd tune of the same name), it is a another oddly maudlin piece that has an amazing last line. And I do mean amazing:

Monday, June 11, 2012

The 30th anniversary of Fassbinder’s death

30 years ago yesterday Rainer Werner Fassbinder was found dead at the age of 37 — he had died overnight, and the film 20,000 Years in Sing Sing was in the VCR near the mattress he slept on. In the three decades since his departure, film buffs the world over still haven’t caught up with his singularly brilliant and eternally vibrant body of work. I’ve documented on the Funhouse TV show my fascination with the work of RWF, and I wanted to commemorate this anniversary with a little “survey” post offering the best Fassbinder video links on YT.
I will present these in three batches: the first are interviews, the second are film clips, and the third are film clips involving music. In the first category I would of course first refer readers to two clips from my second interview with Juliane Lorenz, the head of the Fassbinder Foundation.
There has been some controversy over the years about Ms. Lorenz’s leadership of the FF from disgruntled individuals who knew RWF, but there can be no argument that she has done an exemplary job in getting Fassbinder’s works back into circulation in perfect prints and in keeping his memory alive.
In my first interview with her, we spoke about her personal relationship with him, but in the second interview, I focused much more on his work. She worked hand-in-glove with him as the editor on all of the later features he made (including the titanic Berlin Alexanderplatz), and so I asked her about his habit of only shooting single takes of scenes:
Since he was a master of “distancing” techniques, Fassbinder was often accused of being “cold” to his character’s difficulties. I asked Ms. Lorenz about this:
Fassbinder did several interviews on TV in Germany, but almost none of them have been subtitled in English. Thus I will point you to his appearance in Wim Wenders’ short Room 666 (1982), in which Wenders asked his colleagues to comment on the “future of film” (since even back in 1982, video was destined to usurp the cinema). Here is Fassbinder’s response to this question:
The longest and best interview with RWF to be subtitled is a 1978 chat with Peter W. Jansen that was conducted in his Paris apartment. The chat almost works like a therapy session, as the interviewer probes Fassbinder’s emotions and relationship with his work:
For those hardcore devotees like myself, there is nothing finer than discovering a truly rare piece of footage, even if it is not subtitled. Here is a documentary on Fassbinder and Sirk that shows the two men shooting the never-seen-in-America (except for one unsubtitled showing at MOMA in NYC) Sirk short Bourbon Street Blues (1979).
Now onto the films. I would recommend that anyone who is not familiar with Fassbinder’s work check it out in a movie theater, since he was a master of moving the viewer “in” and “out” of the action visually, and that just ain’t gonna register if you watch his films on anything smaller than a normal-sized TV set. In case you really do want to become acquainted with his work, the collector who put up a number of great Chabrol films, some great Truffaut and Rohmer films, and an equal amount of Bergman pics has also been putting up a lot of Fassbinder films.
Of the titles this gent put up (I’m going to take the plunge and assume such frenzied fan behavior came from a male):
— the single best intro to Fassbinder’s work is Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974)
— the most famous and “normal” title is The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979)
— the *rarest* is Lili Marleen (1981) (which has never been out on US VHS or DVD)
Beware of a Holy Whore (1971) is recommended for diehards who’ve seen the other films. OOP on DVD.
Fox and his Friends (1975) is one of his greatest German humiliation™ films ever — yes, some day I’ll trademark that term, which I’ve been using on the show for over 15 years now. OOP on DVD.
Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven (1975) is a slight film, but entertaining nonetheless. OOP on DVD.
Satan’s Brew (1976) is a title I’d warn every one but the most diehard fan away from.
To close out the films-online section, I must reference his masterpiece, Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980). The film contains the full range of emotion and is not only the finest thing Fassbinder made, but one of the finest things ever made for television (right up there with the works of Dennis Potter, Rod Serling, and other TV innovators). Here our hero, Franz Biberkopf, has a little discussion with his drinks:

And now the music. Fassbinder’s third short, The Little Chaos (1966) is a gorgeous little number that combines his Godard influence and his dark sense of humor, with a nice closer that beautifully uses a song by the Troggs:
Rainer rocks out with his greatest female star (although I do love all the others), Hanna Schygulla. This little bit of dancin’ is from Rio Das Mortes (1971):
Fassbinder absolutely loved Kraftwerk, and specifically the group’s song “Radioactivity.” He used it in Berlin Alexanderplatz, but here is its first appearance in an RWF film, in Chinese Roulette (1976):
And because one of the cornerstones of Fassbinder’s work was the absolutely beautiful scores of Peer Raben, I once again link to my montage of favorite musical moments from Raben in Fassbinder’s films:

Friday, June 8, 2012

Ustinov, Vallee, Tony Perkins, Dors, Dagmar, and Dali: The Mike Wallace Interview (Part Two)

To pick up where I left off — with Wallace positioning himself as the moral arbiter of middle-brow America — I should mention that the sponsor of The Mike Wallace Interviews was Philip Morris, touted proudly by Mike as having “a man’s kind of mildness.”
Wallace liked to play indignant in his interviews, and nowhere was that clearer than with people he didn’t think should be taken seriously. That could be a crazy Klan leader, or a starlet (Jean Seberg), or a young male star like Tony Perkins. Wallace’s interview with Perkins is an amazing program, since Wallace appears to want to do with Tony what he did with Jean — make him admit he’s young and untalented, that his belief systems are all wrong, and Americans should not be paying to see his films.
It’s easy to link Tony to the interviews with women that Wallace conducted, not because he was gay but because he played “sensitive” characters, and this could hardly be tolerated by the Man’s Man that was Mike Wallace. Thus, the questions run along the lines of asking Tony if he really believes he could be “the next Clark Gable or Gary Cooper,” whether his reputation as a “brooding misfit” is accurate, what he thinks of the Beat Generation, and (again, Wallace playing moral arbiter) what his religious beliefs are.
Tony of course made a career out of playing nervous characters, so here as himself he seems on-edge and uncertain whether Wallace is being complimentary or insulting (Mike’s hardline interviewer act was a role that he stumbled into in the mid-Fifties, as I noted in the last blog entry).
The strangest moments come when Wallace repeats anecdotes from a Newsweek article that paints Tony as a pain-in-the-ass prone to egomaniacal outbursts, and when Wallace wants to know what Perkins is doing when he has been spotted driving around Manhattan in the early morning hours. The later sleazy bios of Perkins provide the real answer to that question, but Tony says he just likes seeing the city when it’s empty and quiet.
What’s most startling about Wallace’s getting strident with Jean Seberg and Tony Perkins is that he absolutely fawns over Rudy Vallee, the old “vagabond lover,” who was completely irrelevant by the late Fifties. One must assume that Mike’s mom loved Rudy (or he himself had very fond memories of Vallee’s radio work), because much of the interview consists of Wallace breaking his “hard man” act to bow and scrape before Rudy — who is by turns self-deprecating and egomaniacal.
The best moment in this chat? The discussion of whether Rudy’s reputation as a cheapskate is real or made-up. Rudy pretty much confirms it’s all true, but also defends saving his shekels all the time.
Interestingly, Wallace does not fawn much over Kirk Douglas, who was of course a major show business name in the late Fifties. He asks Kirk the usual softball questions about being famous and how American movies help forge the American image overseas, but the oddest portion of the show is when Mike “gets tough” with him.
Douglas had made two movies in Germany (Paths of Glory and The Vikings), and Wallace says his “team” has found out that Kirk had an ex-Nazi on his payroll. Wallace cleverly asks Douglas how he feels “as a Jew” to know this (somehow Mike never i.d.’ed himself as Jewish in these hard-edged chats; in the one with Reinhold Neibhur he asks coyly about “our Jewish brothers”).
From that “hard” question, Wallace moves to interrogating Douglas on whether he’d ever employ a Communist. Kirk says no, but then Mike asks what about a former Communist…? This is two years before Douglas did indeed employ Dalton Trumbo on Spartacus, so maybe Mike had heard a story somewhere (man, he really could’ve worked for Fox News….).
A show business figure that Mike is by turns rude and respectful to is Britain’s “answer to Marilyn Monroe,” Diana Dors (the one-time wife of recent Deceased Artiste Richard Dawson). In his interview with her, Mike asks her to evaluate herself as a person and on a physical level, but also tries to sow some discord by asking her what she’s “ashamed” of, and if she is worried about getting old and losing her looks — Dors was of course famous for having gained weight within a decade of being a sexpot, so Wallace’s hard-edged questions again have a weird foreshadowing quality to them.
Wallace’s tut-tting seems particularly odd from the current historical vantage point when he’s trying to the put the screws to publisher Bennett Cerf. He goes on the premise that “book publishers expose children to obscene trash,” asking Cerf to deny that notion.
At one point he hands Cerf an “objectionable” novel and asks him if he’d publish it (Cerf says no), and whether it should be censored (Cerf says no again). Providing the obvious answer, Cerf (who was a delight in his weird wordplay on What’s My Line?) says that if you deny publications that to teenagers, they will only become more desirable.
Certain episodes of the series have been lost (or simply not donated to the U of T library — see below). One of the MW interviews that only exists in transcript form is his talk with writer Ben Hecht, who proved to be one bitter and sharply intelligent older gent. He states outright that “Americans can’t think for themselves, speak for themselves…. they’re terrified at making any crack against anything successful or popular."
Add to that the fact that he calls religion “part of an odd mythomania,” and you just know that old moralizin’ Mike must’ve been “disturbed” (it’s a “work,” kids, as they say in wrestling) by Hecht’s words. To further Hecht’s dismissal of the chipper side of the Fifties, he notes that Nixon is “the most well-dressed boy Washington has seen in a long time” and says that Ike is “trying to save the world by boring it to the point of inanity.” That sounds a lot more misfit-like than anything Seberg or Perkins came out with.
In fact, older men were generally the ones who didn’t let Mike get away with his brusque questioning (and one blonde — but we’ll get to her in a minute). The series’ only two-part interview, with master-architect Frank Lloyd Wright, finds Mike’s requests for quick answers being thwarted by Wright, who refers to his interlocutor as “my dear Mike.” Wright argues against organized religion (in favor of nature, which he calls his religion) and argues for the intelligence and vitality of the day’s youth, two things Wallace-as-moral-arbiter has to get a tad uppity about.
The most interesting part of the Wright interview happens when Wallace quizzes the architect on “the audience watching tonight that doesn’t understand or care about modern art.” Quite wisely, Wright says that their opinions are “worthless” (hey, Frank Lloyd, I’ll have you know that that same audience now watches American Idol and America’s Got Talent and… oh wait, you’re right….). He also grabs at a copy of his latest book, which somehow Wallace has gotten a copy of from the publisher (he remarks that he doesn’t have a copy yet — and you just know that Mike never got that book back…)
Since Wallace represented the average urban-American Joe, he obviously had to be startled and a bit peeved at the odd behavior of the original Warhol, master surrealist and relentless self-promoter Salvador Dali. In his interview with Dali, he asks him the besides-the-point question “Why do you behave the way you do?” and refers to his “clowning and showmanship.”
Dali controls the show from the beginning (his eccentricities were his stock in trade, and he wasn’t going to let any radio announcer turned hardboiled “newsman” spoil his shtick). He articulates some very spot-on things about the “atomic age” and the psychoanalytic aspect of his paintings and, according to Wallace, was all for camping the thing up because he asked him to “ask embarrassing questions” before the cameras started rolling.
Finally I turn to the other essential (for me) interview, with an individual who I greatly admire, Peter Ustinov (a clip from my friendlier, shorter interview with Sir Peter can be found here). Mike's interview with Ustinov begins with Wallace acknowledging the immense talent of Ustinov, but by the end he’s still gotten his barb in, with a question about Peter being able to do so many things, but not being “great” at any one of them (this from the radio announcer who failed and became a newsman by mistake). Ustinov was 36 at the time of the chat, and he was truly a self-effacing renaissance man — able to speak knowledgably about a great variety of topics, he still acknowledged the importance of humor to what he did (it was, he states, his “safety valve”).
Ustinov was the real deal, the kind of an entertainer and artist (and thinker) who had confidence in his own ability, but knew that he existed in a completely commercial industry (his response to Wallace’s bringing up “money” is to merely reply “surival,” and then speak about how he existed in “the century of the middleman”).
Not a fan of the military (he discusses how badly he faired as a soldier during WWII), he also rebuffs Mike’s attempt to compare him to Orson Welles, noting that Welles is a great dramatist, while he worked from a humorous perspective (not true for several of his finest works, including the film Billy Budd).
I should close out this survey of the Wallace shows online with Ustinov, given my great admiration for him, but I have to instead spotlight Dagmar, the comedienne (there’s a word not used after 1970) from the first late-night network show Broadway Open House, who is the one guest who quickly snaps back at Wallace (with humor) and who seems to keep him off-center throughout their chat.
Wallace’s questions to her are still rude as hell — again, this is the man who was bending over backward to praise Rudy Vallee, but he is okay with asking a woman who was a major star just a few years before “What do you miss now that you’re not as big-time as you used to be?” The answer to his query “why aren’t you on TV more?” is obvious: she wasn’t being asked, she had fallen out of fashion. She proves, however, to be a delight in his half-hour, because she continually tweaks Wallace’s hardboiled demeanor, to the extent that he winds up calling her “ma’am” by the end of the talk.
There are a number of other interesting interviews on the Harry Ransom Center page for the Wallace Interviews. Among them are Gloria Swanson, Lili St. Cyr, a festively attired head of the KKK, Oscar Hammerstein II (who discusses his liberalism while Mike posits that the media is intolerant of conservatism — Fox News!), George Jessel, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Lillian Roth.
According to Wikipedia and other writings about the series, Wallace also interviewed Rod Serling, guru for the greedy (and selfish) Ayn Rand, and Malcolm X in this series, but those interviews are not included on the HRC page.
At the end of the Rudy Vallee show Wallace touts Tennessee Williams as his next guest, but that show also isn’t online. That certainly could’ve been a lively encounter — imagine all the complaints about morality and abstraction in art that moral arbiter Mike could’ve brought up to him….