Another auto-post as I romp through the Happiest Place on Earth which, alas is not the Playboy Mansion, that’s the other and probably even better happiest place on earth. [Note: When I wrote that little crack I had no idea about Hef’s engagement. I guess 84 is when a boy decides it’s time to settle down.]
Moving along, below, it-boy and certain Oscar nominee James Franco teaches an important acting lesson to his brother, Dave, using a key scene from “Rebel Without a Cause.”
The funny part about this is that I used to think that the widespread assumption that poor old Pluto (Sal Mineo) was definitely and for sure non-platonically in love with Jim Stark (James Dean) was reading a bit more into things than was actually there in the film. Sure, I thought, Pluto might well be gay, but that wasn’t something we could be sure about from what was actually onscreen. I thought that people were making assumptions from our modern vantage point based on what we now know of the actual sex lives of Dean and Mineo. Okay, but then there’s the jacket cuddling and sniffing. Also, if Pluto’s so cold, why not just put it on rather than the childlike but kind of odd caresses? Also, he’s got a cardigan on and Dean/Stark just has an undershirt — and then he asks to keep it. What would Dr. Freud make of my obtuseness?
Director Nicholas Ray’s bombastic follow-up to “Rebel Without a Cause” failed in 1956, but has become a cinephile favorite despite being available only at museums and on Fox Movie Channel and TCM. Now presented fully restored and in a ultra-first-rate Criterion edition, film geeks may be entranced by Ray’s outlandish use of widescreen and color, but it also stands as one of the most profoundly emotional and disturbing of classic-era Hollywood melodramas.
James Mason (who also produced) stars as Ed Avery, a kindly suburban schoolteacher struck by a rare, painful, and deadly illness. The only path to survival is a new “wonder drug,” in this case cortisone, a steroid. In time, Avery seems recovered, except that he is slowly becoming a control-obsessed tyrant and drug addict with delusions of grander prone to increasingly extreme reactionary diatribes. Of course, his loving and too dutiful wife (Barbara Rush) and devoted young son (Christopher Olson) suffer. His health-obsessed P.E. teacher best friend (Walter Matthau, terrific in one of his earliest film roles) experiences some discomfort as well, but mid-fifties people were far more naive than we are now about science-driven “miracle cures.” “Bigger than Life” could have been called “Fascist With a Chemical Cause.” (Ray was the prototypical “Hollywood liberal.”) At heart, however, it is an exploration of the potential for madness underlying all family life and quite a baroque one. “Bigger Than Life” treats the potential dissolution of a family somewhat like sci-fi horror and, in this case, it kind of is.
It’s good to celebrate people while they’re still here, and that certainly applies to Dennis Hopper, a man who has made his mark upon the movies like very few people in film history. From his start as a young ensemble player on innumerable television shows and some very fifties era big Hollywood productions like “Rebel without a Cause,” “Giant,” and “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” (he’s at 199 credits on IMDb), to his emergence as a controversial counterculture star and filmmaker in the the late sixties, to becoming one of Hollywood’s best character actors with his beyond memorable roles in films like “Apocalypse Now,” “Blue Velvet,” “Hoosiers,” “True Romance” and numerous other films, he’s without a doubt a man to whom attention must be paid. As the director of “Easy Rider,” and the troubled but legendary “The Last Movie,” his influence on the American films of the early seventies, for both better and worse, is probably impossible to measure.
In that spirit, cinephile superstar writer and blogger turned filmmaker Matt Zoeller Seitz, formerly of The New York Times and the great group blog he founded, The House Next Door (now Slant Magazine’s official blog), has crafted the un-narrated cinema essay below for his present gig with the Museum of the Moving Image. It’s fairly long as these things go, but it is definitely worth your time.
Oh, and one thing that has been, and always will be, true about Dennis Hopper — he is most definitely not safe for work, unless, of course, you work somewhere extremely cool or extremely dangerous.
I’ll inevitably miss some important stuff this week, but I wanted to quickly acknowledge the passing of three interesting figures who all made their presence felt in the world of movies and who’ve all left us in the last day or so.
* Zelda Rubinstein is best known as the diminutive character actress who appeared in all three “Poltergeist” films in the 1980s as well as numerous other productions and was also known as an activist on behalf of AIDS sufferers and little people.
* Left radical historian Howard Zinn often rubbed me the wrong way in his articles but that can be a valuable service to a reader, too. In any case, there was no denying his provocative intelligence or his appeal to the leftish masses and his status as a genuine hero to innumerable activists. His most famous book, A People’s History of the United States — which I would admit to having not read yet, except I could have my progressive ID card revoked for the omission — was referred to as a great book in Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s Oscar winning screenplay for “Good Will Hunting.” Ironically, Zinn, a World War II bombadier and afterwards something close to a pacifist, detested Damon’s next film, “Saving Private Ryan.”
* Last but definitely not least in terms of cultural impact, the most famous of all literary recluses and the creator of the biggest movie hater in history of letters, J.D. Salinger, has passed on. Holden Caulfield may have hated Hollywood and his creator may have shielded him from adaptations, but, my God, how many of the cinema’s best known young male leads have a bit of HC in them? The Hollywood Reporter obituary I linked to mentions “Rebel Without a Cause” and “The Graduate,” but it goes far beyond that. It’s kind of hard to even imagine, say, Wes Anderson’s first two films if The Catcher in the Rye had never existed.
The final irony of course, is that, without Salinger’s passing, we may finally see adaptions of “Catcher,” notes Dylan Stableford. And, what about all those books Salinger reportedly wrote but never published? Hollywood’s hunger for new properties from literary big names should never be underestimated.