Insignificance (1985, Nicolas Roeg)

A theatrical, dialogue-heavy movie with occasional bursts of appalling 1980′s music. Four iconic celebrities meet up in a hotel room (I don’t think all four are ever in the room at once, though). A Cherokee elevator man (Will Sampson, memorable as the Native spiritualist in Poltergeist II) provides a guilty American grounding to it all.

The four leads are playing the popular image of their characters, not aiming for a rounded, realistic portrayal. Hence, Einstein (Michael Emil, mostly in movies by his brother Henry Jaglom) is brilliant but down-to-earth and funny, able to explain his work in everyday terms – Marilyn Monroe (Theresa Russell, who married Nic Roeg the following year, star of his Bad Timing and Eureka) is flirty, never stops using her breathy screen voice, intelligent and somewhat tortured – Joe McCarthy (Tony Curtis) is relentlessly trying to get everyone to admit they’re a communist – and Joe DiMaggio (Gary Busey) is hot-headed and jealous (even of Einstein).

I didn’t find the play interesting at all – maybe I’m too young for it. The idea seems like a good one, but the only parts I enjoyed were the bits of Roegian collage – some visual explosions at the end, an insert shot which goes back in time, each character’s childhood flashback. I did also enjoy Marilyn’s explanation of the theory of relativity using balloons, flashlights and toy trains. Afterwards, the balloons anchor each shot, giving me something fun to watch instead of the actors.

Also worth mentioning: the movie ends with Albert envisioning Marilyn being killed in a nuclear blast. Kind of intense after all the dialogue scenes that precede.

J. Rosenbaum:

The film is less interested in literal history than in the various fantasies that these figures stimulate in our minds, and Roeg’s scattershot technique mixes the various elements into a very volatile cocktail — sexy, outrageous, and compulsively watchable. It’s a very English view of pop Americana, but an endearing one.

The trouble with Blu-Ray: in the full-size version you can plainly read that the wall calendar in this shot says June 1954…

But in the insert shot, it’s been changed:

In fact, it’s such an obvious mistake that maybe it was done on purpose. The close-up is shot from the perspective of DiMaggio, a man who lives so firmly in the past that he can’t even register the current date – his eyes are still processing what they saw three months ago.

Buy from Amazon:
Insignificance (Criterion Blu-ray)

There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954, Walter Lang)

A flimsy, superficial story about a family with a history in showbusiness provides an excuse to put on a series of old-fashioned showtunes, including the title number, You’d Be Surprised, the best-forgotten A Sailor’s Not a Sailor (‘Til a Sailor’s Been Tattooed) and a seemingly hundred-minute version of Alexander’s Ragtime Band. Yet somehow it got a best-story oscar nomination, beaten out by a Spencer Tracy western.

The women were good in this, at least. Ethel Merman (more of a stage actress, only her second movie since the 30′s) plays the mom. I see she did an early version of Anything Goes and a movie called Alexander’s Ragtime Band – remind me not to rent that one. She and Dan Dailey (It’s Always Fair Weather, My Blue Heaven) play vaudeville performers who weather out the decline portrayed in Cradle Will Rock, start performing at movie theaters, and gradually expand their act as they have children who grow into Donald O’Connor (couple years after Singin’ in the Rain), Mitzi Gaynor (Donald’s gal in Anything Goes), and a horribly wooden Johnnie Ray, in just about his only movie role.

Drama (barely): Donald falls for young upstart Marilyn Monroe then he and Mitzi follow her on tour instead of sticking with the parents, Johnnie leaves showbiz entirely to become a priest, and they all happily reunite for a revival show at the end. Katy and I were not impressed. The same group – director Lang, writers the Ephrons, cinematographer Leon Shamroy – made Desk Set a couple years later.

How to Marry a Millionaire (1953, Jean Negulesco)

Ringleader Lauren Bacall (pre-Written on the Wind) rents a super-expensive apartment (belonging to a millionaire on the run because of tax troubles, played by David Wayne of Losey’s M remake, but that’s only barely important) along with friend Marilyn Monroe (four months after Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) and hanger-on Betty Grable (post-The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend, in one of her final film roles). They’re all attractive models, so the idea is they’ll start frequenting hangouts of the rich and famous in order to, duh, marry a millionaire. I thought the point of the apartment was men coming over to pick them up for dates will think they’re already wealthy (not gold-diggers) but when it takes longer than expected to get hitched they sell all the furniture to pay their rent, so the place looks kinda desolate.

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I thought the movie would be a musical, especially when it opened with an overture – but Katy thinks that was just to show off the mighty Cinemascope process (D.P. Joseph MacDonald would later shoot ‘scope favorites House of Bamboo and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter), and I thought it might’ve been a prestige thing for extremely oscar-winning composer Alfred Newman (father of Thomas, uncle of Randy). Looks like Katy was right – this was the first Cinemascope movie to be filmed (though somehow it was released second, after The Robe). Anyway, not a musical, just a girl comedy.

Cinemascope!!
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Bacall is being stalked by Cameron Mitchell (Hell and High Water, Ride in the Whirlwind), who she suspects to be a gas pump jockey but is really one of the richest men in the world (she finds out after they’re married… oh, the 50′s).

A lotta Marilyn:
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The movie would’ve been 50% better without Betty Grable, whose every scene is annoying. She goes off to a cabin with a married man then gets all whiny about it then catches the measles then falls for a forest ranger. Her character was the stupid one, a welcome change for Marilyn I’m sure – though M. wasn’t too bright either. Marilyn’s gimmick is she’s blind without her glasses but vainly refuses to wear them. She gets involved with a fake-eyepatch-wearing scam artist while Bacall flirts with an elder William Powell (he’s still got the mustache), who invites them to the party where Betty meets the married guy – I’m way out of order now. Anyway, Bacall almost marries Powell but they call it off with a few minutes to spare because she’s not convinced by her initial millionaire-lust anymore and she’s in love with her gas jockey. Also, Marilyn marries David Wayne at some point.

The girls with their false-alarm boyfriends:
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Cute movie, better than it looked like it’d be, but nothing brilliant. TCM agrees, “entertaining but insubstantial.” Director Negulesco also made the 1950′s Titanic and writer/producer Nunnally Johnson wrote some John Ford films in the 30′s and 40′s.

The girls with their new husbands:
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Mister Lonely (2007, Harmony Korine)

Immediately after watching Milk, I unaccountably wanted to watch something else featuring Diego Luna, who was the worst part of Milk. Not necessarily his fault though, and he’s been great before (in Y Tu Mama Tambien and Criminal) so I thought I’d give him (and hated Nashvillian Harmony Korine) a second chance.

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Here he’s a Michael Jackson impersonator who meets a Marilyn Monroe impersonator. She takes him to her commune retreat, staffed only by other celeb impersonators, including her abusive cheating husband Charlie Chaplin and their cute daughter Shirley Temple. Meanwhile in an entirely different movie, Werner Herzog is a priest who airdrops supplies to people in need. One of his nuns accidentally falls out of the plane and lands unharmed. A miracle is proclaimed, and all the nuns start skydiving without parachutes and landing unharmed.

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And that is good enough for me. That storyline (provided it’s done well, which it is) combined with moments of euphoria (MJ’s dances with sfx but no music, the camerawork on the falling nuns) is good enough. Korine is redeemed, Luna rises above being the crazy, clingy boyfriend in Milk, lovely Samantha Morton is freed from the dour prison that was Synecdoce New York, and all is well.

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Of course all is not well, exactly. Why does Werner annoyingly repeat everything he has just said? What is the connection between the nun bit and the impersonator bit? How come Michael is so easy around others and never seems all that lonely?

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I enjoyed it and didn’t worry too much about the questions above. Katy only watched the first half, which was all setup, and missed most of the story. The commune’s sheep are sick and have to be killed (with shotguns by the Three Stooges) and after that everyone’s depressed. They pick themselves up and decide to hold a spectacular show, open to the public. After much prep, the show is just okay and only ten people show up. That night Marilyn is discovered having hung herself from a tree. Charlie is painfully distraught (it’s a great turn in an interesting performance by French actor Denis Lavant, looking rough, star of Lovers on the Bridge). Michael takes the bus home and tells his agent (Leos Carax, director of Lovers on the Bridge, hmmm) that he’s quitting the impersonator business and is going to be himself from now on (after he is sung an uplifting song by the ghostly heads of his commune buddies upon some painted eggs). Meanwhile, in the other movie, the nuns set off in Werner’s plane for the Vatican to get their miracle blessed by the church, and the plane crashes on a beach killing everyone, heh.

Leos Carax:
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Movie is divided into four sections titled by MJ songs: “man in the mirror” (luna/michael)… “beat it” (leaving town for the commune)… “thriller” (drama and death)… and “you are not alone” (the finale). Very nice music by J. Spaceman and the Sun City Girls and camerawork by Michael Winterbottom’s reguar guy. Actors were good (and surprisingly not overdoing it), especially young Buckwheat, who may be a bit nuts. As The Pope and The Queen were James Fox and Anita Pallenberg, two stars of the movie Performance… interesting. And playing Samantha Morton’s daughter was actually Samantha Morton’s daughter.

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All About Eve (1950, Joseph Mankiewicz)

I don’t know much about Bette Davis, seems she was a big star in the 30′s and this was her comeback picture (was supposed to be Claudette Colbert but she got sick). Anne Baxter had been in The Magnificent Ambersons, later starred in I Confess, The Blue Gardenia and The Ten Commandments. Movie is over-narrated by both George Sanders (Moonfleet, Rebecca, Voyage to Italy) as a gossip columnist and Celeste Holm (High Society, Three Men and a Baby) as Bette Davis’s best friend. The friend’s husband is “writer” Hugh Marlowe (Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, Day the Earth Stood Still) and Bette’s beau and eventually husband is “director” Gary Merrill (of noir Where the Sidewalk Ends). Marilyn Monroe, a year or two before stardom but already showing her signature persona, has a small part as an aspiring actress.

Nice cinematography by Milton Krasner, who worked nonstop through the 30′s, shot some good noir pictures in the 40′s, and worked with Wilder, Ray, Minnelli and Hawks after this. Mankiewicz made this the same year as No Way Out, five years before Guys and Dolls.

Um, right, what happened in it? Bette is kinda washed up, I mean still a huge-selling star of stage (not screen) for her celebrated director/beau and writer/drinking buddy, but all the parts are still for younger girls and she’s starting to stretch the definition of young. Enter Eve, superfan who has seen every performance of Bette’s new play. Flattered, they let Eve hang around, but she’s not the innocent thing she claims to be – has been lying about her past and getting cuddly with the two men, conniving to put herself in Bette’s shoes, which she has very successfully done by the end (errr, the beginning, since it starts at the end).

Got a record 14 Oscar noms (winning writing, directing and picture) and even some awards at Cannes, beating out Sunset Blvd. The Third Man took it for cinematography, though. Lots (lots!) of self-conscious swipes at Hollywood (even one at the Oscars) and a few at television. I thought it was a little clunky, a little long, a little dry, overall quite good but didn’t strike my passions. Didn’t see Thee Acclaimed Bette Davis for the most part until the end when she is freaking out, and I guess in a couple other parts (see candy-eating scene below). Katy and Dawn liked it, too.

Who’s that on the right? Why, it’s the great Thelma Ritter, soon to be in Rear Window and Pickup on South Street. Center, facing Bette, is co-narrator and best friend Celeste Holm, and that’s one of the two male leads next to her, frankly they both looked the same to me:
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I loved the bit during this fight at home when Bette is furiously eating candy instead of screaming at this guy:
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Fey George Sanders with titular star Anne Baxter:
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Awesome rear-projection shot. They are just pretending to walk, rocking back and forth in front of a screen. Why?
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Terrific ending, with a new young hopeful who idolizes Eve and pretends (here, in a three-way mirror) to take her place, the cycle starting over again. This was the signature scene for small-time actress Barbara Bates, who never topped it and committed suicide twenty years later.
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Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953, Howard Hawks)

My most important discovery about this film is that Marilyn Monroe’s performance (specifically her facial gestures) is the basis for Dean Stockwell’s Ben in Blue Velvet. Look into their eyes. Discovery #2 is that the film had a sequel (based on the sequel to the source novel), Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, but the only two people who worked on both movies were star Jane Russell and the costume designer. Not even the studio was the same. Discovery #3 was that this film was based on a novel!

Very great movie, starring Marilyn and Jane Russell at about the halfway point of their respective film careers. Mismatched friends on a pleasure cruise to France, Marilyn is a gold digger who is no genius but still smarter than she ever lets on, and Jane wants to find a good man, money or no money. Tommy Noonan (charlie ford in I Shot Jesse James) is Marilyn’s very rich wimp of a fiance who is content to be loved for his money. Elliott Reid (mostly a tv actor, starring in an indie film later this year) is the private eye whom Noonan’s father hires to spy on the girls aboard the ship and who falls in love with Jane. George Winslow (apparently a pretty famous child actor at the time) is hilarious upper-class kid Henry Spofford III. And the great Charles Coburn (The Lady Eve) is Piggy Beekman, a diamond mine owner who bumps into Marilyn. Piggy ends up giving a diamond tiara to Marilyn, Piggy’s wife reports it stolen, and Jane has to sub for Marilyn in a climactic courtroom scene, even stripping down and performing her “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend” (better than marilyn’s version, according to Katy) in court to stall for time.

The Howard Hawks irreverent/comic worldview and his “alternative forms of social and sexual arrangements outside of Hollywood’s idealisation of the nuclear family” are in proud effect here. The songs are great, Marilyn is great, and Jane manages not to be blown off the stage nor does she act out to overcompensate. Katy liked it too!

Let’s Make Love (1960, George Cukor)

Amusing musical – widescreen, color, full of marilyn and better than its reputation. Written by playwright Arthur Miller (married to Marilyn) and one of the Normans from White Christmas (also wrote Lang’s Fury).

Unexciting frenchman Yves Montand (Tout va bien, The War Is Over) is mega-rich, hears of a low-key theater production in the hipster part of town that will be making fun of him, heads down there with employees Wilfrid Hyde-White (Col. Pickering in My Fair Lady) and Tony Randall (Rock Hunter, Down With Love and voice of the brain Gremlin in Gremlins 2). The director notices Yves and casts him as himself, a perfect lookalike. Yves isn’t interested in shutting the place down anymore because he falls for Marilyn during her outrageously sexy intro scene and aims to get her away from her boyfriend, pop star Frankie Vaughan. Yves hires comic Milton Berle, dancer Gene Kelly and singer Bing Crosby, playing themselves, to turn him into a star, but to no avail… so he tries to convince Marilyn that he’s the actual billionaire he’s playing in the play, also to no avail, until he takes her to his office and proves it at the end.

Cute movie, and title song and “my heart belongs to daddy” are hot tunes.

IMDB trivia: “Milton Berle placed ads in Hollywood trade papers seeking a Best Supporting Oscar nomination for playing himself.”

Some Like It Hot (1959, Billy Wilder)

“Real diamonds! They must be worth their weight in gold!”

Tony “Joe(sephine)” Curtis and Jack “Jerry/Daphne” Lemmon are musicians on the run from Spats Colombo after witnessing a hit on one Toothpick Charlie, so they dress as women to hide out on tour with an all-girls band in need. Hilarity ensues.

Considering this is One Of The Most Excellent Films In The History Of Film, I found it disturbingly non-excellent.

I mean, great dialogue, and funny jokes, and Marilyn Monroe and all… but really, one of the best movies ever made? It’s on the AFI list, but not on Rosenbaum’s list so I guess not everyone agrees.

I’m sure the sexual jokes and situations were ahead of their time and paved the way for the 20-some cross-dressing comedies that play the Landmark every year.

Really a fine movie… don’t know why I’m so grumpy about it. Gonna leave it alone now.