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Backstage at the Oscars: “Raging Bull” and Raging Bull

Backstage at the Oscars: ‘Raging Bull’ and Raging Bull 
April 8, 1981

Early spring, they descend upon Hollywood like snow in Tibet: producers with horror films to hustle to the studios, emaciated writers with screenplays to peddle to the pro­ducers, press agents, foreign press, unemployed actors, fans from all over the globe who want to wallow in the glamour of it all, and the Oscar nominees. The lucky ones stay at the Chateau Marmont, which is as close to civilization as you can get in a town where nothing’s close to civilization. From a Chateau window, you can see the Yoga Center on Sunset Boulevard, the Liquor Locker, Schwab’s Drug Store of Lana Turner fame, and a mammoth billboard advertising The Final Conflict.

John Hurt of The Elephant Man is registered at the Chateau, as is the Raging Bull contingent. Robert De Niro is a recluse in the penthouse, Joe Pesci occupies a fifth-floor suite, and Martin Scorsese has rented a bungalow near the pool as an office where he auditions actors for The King of Comedy (De Niro and Jerry Lewis will star).

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Tradition has it that at 5 p.m., on Oscar night, while the sun is still shining on the Freeway, the lucky ones descend the Marmont’s carpeted staircase in thousand­-dollar tuxes and evening gowns. They lean against rococo balustrades in the lobby making light conversation while chewing their fingernails to the cuticles. An uniden­tified idiot bangs out “Hooray for Holly­wood” on the Baldwin. Limousines arrive. And in a puff, the nominees are off to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion where their fates are revealed on national television.

“After they leave, we have the quietest night of the year,” says Marmont manager Sam Heigman. “But when they return at midnight, the switchboard lights up like a Christmas tree:”

•••

It is three days before the ceremony. Joe Pesci, a short, fluffy-haired New York actor who’s been nominated for supporting De Niro in Raging Bull, is quietly chewing his nails while seated on a piece of Moorish sectional in his Chateau suite. Although Pesci’s onscreen performance is full of sound and fury, offscreen he’s shy and reticent. He says he was signed for Bull after he had given up acting. He was working in a restaurant when old pal Rob­ert De Niro told him he thought he was the right guy to play his brother in the movie.

Pesci’s not sure about the mechanics behind his nomination. “No one said any­thing directly, but I think it started when Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times had some good things to say about my performance. After that, United Ar­tists took out ads every few days in the Hollywood Reporter.”

How did he find out he was nominated? “I just heard it on the radio while I was driving my car,” he says. “Then a couple of days later, I got a telegram from Marty Scorsese wishing me congratulations.”

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Supporting Oscar nominations can be death to actors. It’s known as the Mercedes McCambridge syndrome; instead of being a step up, it’s a step to nowhere. Pesci received a few offers after his nomination but most were for roles in television films. He wasn’t interested. Before Raging Bull, he would have taken commercials, but tel­evision, he feels, is 10 steps backwards. He’d rather wait until another good film part comes along.

Three weeks ago, Pesci came to Califor­nia to see a friend, get some sun, play golf, and just hang out. Then United Artists moved him into the Chateau Marmont. They’re paying his rent for a week, but he’s reluctant to talk up the picture. He especially doesn’t like the idea of hyping Rag­ing Bull on TV.

“I’m not an excitable person,” he says between short telephone conversations with Scorsese and De Niro. “I can’t be doing flips for six months because I’m nominated. I grew up with the Oscars and I’m proud to be honored, but I still can’t help feeling that they made a big mistake.”

Was Pesci preparing himself for the emotional trauma of Oscar night? Yes. By not thinking about it. Should he win, he says, “I’ll not make a speech. If I did, I’d have to think of a lot of nice things to say to a lot of nice people. What I’ll probably do is talk to the actors who never receive recognition and say something inspirational to them. I’d like to say it without being dramatic.”

Joe Pesci lost to Timothy Hutton, who won for Ordinary People. He didn’t have a chance not to be dramatic.

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•••

No one is busier, glitzier, sillier, stodgier, or more sincere than Miss Rona. She is the Ed Koch of tinseltown, the populist, the moralist, the kid to kid. She is phony. She is real. She is Hollywood.

“Now, Carol,” asked Miss Rena on TV the morning after Carol Burnett won her libel suit against the National Enquirer. “Was there ever any time when the suit affected your relationship with your hus­band?”

“No, Rona,” answered Miss Carol, even ­more sincerely. “Joe has always been very supportive.”

Burnett’s victory has divided Hollywood. Drugstore cowboys at Schwab’s feel the jurors were predisposed to hate the ­Enquirer, If you live in Hollywood, you’ve got to be. Perhaps the Enquirer was punished far too severely, but to quote director Arthur Hiller (he’s making Making Love at Fox), “They’ve unfairly maligned so many celebrities, I’m glad Burnett responded and got her million-six.”

Yet one can’t help wondering if there is a correlation between Burnett’s suit during this Reagan conservative period and the innumerable lawsuits instituted against Confidential magazine during the McCarthy era. Ten celebrity suits are pending against the Enquirer. The L.A. Times reports “there may be an even more determined effort by the tabloid to defend itself against them.”

Burnett’s victory knocked Oscar out of the news, the weekend before the telecast. It was the talk of Hollywood.

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•••

So much tension, so much excitement, so much activity during Oscar week. Visiting here is like spending a day at the Club Baths. United Artists invites the press to meet its “new star in town,” Mrs. Frisby, the animated rat heroine of a feature-length fantasy now in production. MGM opens its Culver City gates to journalists and and sneaks scenes from Pennies from Heaven (Christopher Walken doing a bump-and-grind strip, Bernadette Peters shaking her ninotchkas in Steve Martin’s  face, Steve Martin dancing incredibly well for a comedian), followed by a luncheon on a sound stage (lox, shrimp, strawberries, cheesecake, and columnist Aaron Gold), followed by a set visit (Herbert Ross directing Steve and Bernadette in a replica of Fred and Ginger’s “Let’s Face the Music and Dance number)”.

Filmex is about to open with Atlantic City, the American Film Market at the Westwood Marquis Hotel has been run­ning for a week, and the Publicists Guild gives a luncheon at the Beverly Hilton (chicken fried in canned pineapple, broc­coli spears, publicist Renee Furst) at which Mary Crosby, Ron Howard, John House­man, Natalie Wood, and Linda Purl present “showmanship” awards. Goldie Hawn gets one as “the motion picture showman of the year,” a sexist title to numb Goldie’s feminist consciousness. Accumulating pre-Oscar awards has an effect on Academy voters, but no one expects Goldie to win for Private Benjamin. And she doesn’t.

Academy voters are desensitized and lobotomized by trade paper ads: Oscar winners are judged less by the the amount of money a studio will spend to plug what it’s pushing. Warner Bros. can take out approximately 20 Hollywood Reporter ads between Christmas and Oscar night lauding Goldie for Private Benjamin (the ads undoubtedly helped her get a nomination), but Universal will top them with 30 hailing Sissy Spacek in Coal Miner’s Daughter (an entirely new Oscar ad campaign was mounted). Major consideration is a studio’s investment in future projects for the nominee. Sissy is currently looping Raggedy Man for Uni­versal, which the studio feels could be as big as Coal Miner’s Daughter.

If an actor doesn’t play ball with the studio, he’s forgotten at Oscar time. Barry Miller got the best reviews for Fame and should have been pushed for a supporting nomination. He bad-mouthed the film. MGM didn’t hype Miller in any of Fame‘s innumerable trade paper ads; Two years ago, Paramount took out a paltry three Hollywood Reporter ads promoting Susan Sarandon in King of the Gypsies. Susan felt she was shafted: this was her finest moment. However Paramount was pushing co-star Eric Roberts as their Trav­olta of the future. Susan bought a couple of ads with her own money. Neither she nor Roberts was nominated, and Roberts’s movie career came to a standstill. (Ironically, his first film since King of the Gypsies is Raggedy Man, and the word is that he’s excellent.)

At the Publicists Guild luncheon, a Universal executive explains that “it’s all up to the gods. We can only push a little.” He thinks the Academy voters might choose Eva Le Gallienne for Resurrection because she’s old and she’s got lines like “If we could only love each other the way we say we do.” If, by some fluke, Ellen Burstyn wins for Resurrection (she doesn’t) her Oscar would bring the crowds in. Moviegoers adore Resurrection, he says, but the problem all along has been getting them to see it.

“Whatever it’s worth, whatever the cynicism, Oscar symbolizes the mystique and glamour of Hollywood,” proclaims Camille Lane, Universal’s advertising di­rector. “For those of us in the business, it is our one reaffirming moment of glory.”

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•••

Oscar means different things to dif­ferent people. To the owner of the Blue Parrot in West Hollywood, it’s renting a six-foot screen and listening to customers wonder if Angie had a face lift and why Sissy doesn’t get a good hairdresser. To the display designer at Ah Men on Santa Monica Boulevard, it’s a window with a Raging Bull poster and a mannequin in red boxer shorts. To Swifty Lazar, it’s hosting yet another star-studded bash up­stairs at the Bistro. To William Morris super agent Joan Hyler, “Oscar night is not just another business evening, but a rit­ual.”

This is Hyler’s second Oscar night. In 1975, she sat next to a nominee “who was drunker than anybody I’ve ever seen. I spent the entire evening worrying whether he’d throw up on my new Halston.”

Hyler’s date this year is client Peter O’Toole, nominated for The Stunt Man. She believes that a nomination separates  an actor from his peers. It’s prestigious, of course, but you can also up a performer’s price: With some actors, like De Niro and Robert DuVall, a nomination will Solidify what they’re already earning. Mary Steen­burgen’s worth should be affected because she’s new and young and on the brink of becoming a major movie star.

“For Peter O’Toole, the nomination makes Hollywood happy to have him back again. Peter’s been gone too long: he has an enormous talent. Unfortunately, you’ve got to keep reminding them. Hollywood’s a town with a very short memory,” says Hyler, whose clients include Patti Davis. The president’s daughter has done a very effective reading for a part in Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, and is supposed to be in the audience at the Oscar show.

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•••

Monday morning, March 30, the day the Oscars are scheduled. The Tuxedo Center on Sunset Boulevard resembles Mamie Stover’s whorehouse in Guam during World War IL Male customers line up outside. They all look anxious. Inside, they’re measured. They fork out $50 for a day’s tuxedo rental. The price includes studs.

At the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the bleachers are filled. The broadcast is still eight hours away. Fans are young. Many have brought sleeping bags, blankets, food, and portable television sets. Greg Aiken., 21, from Del Mar, arrived 36 hours ago and has been sleeping on a bench and using bathroom facilities at a nearby service sta­tion. Seven women from San Diego arrived the afternoon before and waited outside the stage door to see the stars come in to rehearse. Sissy Spacek was real nice. Donald Sutherland wore red shoes. Peter O’Toole looked tired and worn. Lily Tomlin signed autographs. Diana Ross was rude, Angie Dickinson asked, “Are you from the Enquirer?”, Robert Redford rushed in with his head down. “You can bet we won’t ski at his lodge,” says the den mother of the San Diego group, “and we’ll remember his behavior when we see his movies.”

It’s an innocent, good-spirited, picnic­ — more Woodstock than Day of the Locust. Several fans carry posters: “We love you Jane Fonda.” “Hooray for Sissy.” “Why isn’t Madeline Kahn nominated?” whines a bobby-soxer. “Because she doesn’t de­serve to be,” snaps a teeny-bopper.

Everyone has an opinion.

Back at Schwab’s the visiting reporter asks Barbara the cashier if the drugstore’s gone Oscar crazy today.

“No, it’s gone Ronald Reagan crazy.” Has he decided to appear in person instead of on film? “No. He was shot in Washington an hour ago.”

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•••

Televisions blare from every room in the Chateau Marmont. Reagan’s in surgery. Jim Brady’s near death. Maureen Reagan is furious. Michael Reagan is sad­dened. Dan Rather’s in tears. The coun­try’s gone crazy. The world’s about to col­lapse. Again.

The telephone rings: Joan Hyler’s sec­retary to say they’ve just gotten word from the Academy that the Oscars have been postponed until tomorrow. Marilyn Beck goes on ABC News to explain that the Oscar ball scheduled for the Beverly Hilton will now conflict with the closing night banquet of the American Film Mar­ket on Tuesday — caterers and florists are facing a major dilemma, and beauticians in Beverly Hills are going crazy. Later, a press agent, who’s scheduled a private par­ty for 50, phones complaining that he can’t fit all that quiche into his freezer so he’s giving a Reagan-watch party instead. A publicist from United Artists calls explain­ing that he’s having a terrible time rescheduling limousines: At the Chateau’s front desk, the manager cries, “I’m in trou­ble. I won’t have rooms for tomorrow.” An actor in the lobby (not nominated) won­ders if the assassination attempt is con­sidered an Act of God and if Tuxedo Cen­ter will charge him another day’s rental.

Oscar nominee Mary Steenburgen calls, too. She’s feeling “real disturbed.” Mary and her husband, Malcolm McDowell, have decided to watch television and eat in. “I’m glad they cancelled the show,” she says. ”It’s inappropriate that performers receive awards tonight. Right now, I feel a great deal of rage about the lack of gun control in this country. Like everybody else, I’m feeling real sad.”

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•••

Tuesday. The themes of politics, assassination, celebrity, and movies have never been more dramatically visible than backstage on Oscar night. A block away from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, a bomb squad truck blares its way toward the arena. Security has been stepped up. Usually 200 guards are on duty. This year, 350 policemen, sheriff’s deputies, and private plainclothesmen patrol inside and outside the hall. Many actors bring along their own bodyguards. Richard Pryor is always within thumb’s reach of his Man Mountain Dean.

An hour before the show, word filters to the press about John Hinckley’s letters to Jodie Foster, including the final one, not mailed, confessing his unrequited love and stating, “There is a definite possibility that I will be killed in my attempt to get Reagan.” The immediate reaction is life imitates art: Taxi Driver with Hinckley playing De Niro, minus Marty Scorsese’s direction. Especially in Hollywood, this sort of news upstages the Oscars.

Each year, before the Oscar show, Daily Variety columnist Army Archerd greets celebrity arrivals and pulls them up to a makeshift stage below the bleachers. He exchanges small talk with heavy-duty nominees as well as stars of yesterday like Cesar Romero and Gale Sondergaard. They wave at the fans (Angie Dickinson: “Thank you for being so patient”) and the fans, in turn, wave back and scream their approval. Hawn, Burstyn, Spacek, Moore, Duvall, Redford, but no De Niro or Scorsese. Would they attend? As it turned out, they either arrived hours early, or sneaked in a side door.

From the sidelines, one gathers that Oscar is an affair for those giving and getting awards, their families, Los Angeles society matrons, and studio executives. It is not an all-out industry celebration. Stars in disfavor this year, such as Barbra Streisand, Raquel Welch, and Al Pacino, stay away. Actors in TV series appear by the limousine-load. Bleacher babies know their faces and their TV names, but don’t know their real names

At 7 p.m., the press is allowed to enter the backstage area. We hear Reagan’s vid­eotape welcoming speech, while 200 of us wait patiently for a lone elevator that holds 10. The press room is Kafka interpreted by Bobby Short: men in tails and women in silken gowns beat out copy on 50-year-old Remingtons in uninterrupted rows of For­mica tables. Four 19-inch TV sets telecast the show, and a public relations woman keeps track of winners on a huge scoreboard, the way Nathan Detroit did in Guys and Dolls. In the TV media room, Miss Rona occupies a front row space (to Jack Lemmon: “Do you have any advice to give Timothy Hutton?” “Make Rona hap­py,” says Mary Tyler Moore to Lemmon. “Give Tim some advice”). In the photogra­pher’s room, Ron Gallela leads a brigade of accredited paparazzi (free-lancers are treated like dirt and kept the same dis­tance as the fans) all bringing their own unique vision to the very same photo­graphs.

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Had God given each journalist four eyes and ears, we’d watch the Oscars on the monitor screens at the same time we photograph or interview an entirely dif­ferent set of celebrities. Instead, we have to be selective. Nastassia Kinski and Sigourney Weaver in person gorgeously win out over the best short subject presen­tation on the tube.

Only award winners and presenters make the backstage rounds. Losers are spared the embarrassment. Sissy Spacek is the only star to make two backstage ap­pearances, having doled out an award for art direction, then winning one herself for best actress. Sissy says she’s relieved the awards are over: she isn’t in a celebratory mood.

Because there is so much glamour and power to select from, lesser award winners are ignored completely while their pres­enters are lauded and interviewed to death. Lily Tomlin appears in the press room with the winner of Special Optical Effects, but he might as well have been the incredible shrinking woman in the kitchen sink. Lily wonders why the Academy hadn’t junked the Reagan tape. “They should have made a new one from his hospital bed. That would have been an unqualified up for the people.”

Some reporters hog the stars. Radie Harris of the Hollywood Reporter hugs Tomlin. Peter O’Toole kisses Radie. Shirley Eder of the Detroit Free Press asks Lesley-Anne Down if she can check out the label on the inside of her dress — and does. Will Tusher of Variety yells, “It isn’t fair for others if the stars only talk to their friends in the media,” which prompts an­other journalist to yell, “They should only talk to their friends.” (Tusher is the most persistent interviewer, and asks the most inane questions. Radie and Shirley want to kill him.)

How each celebrity is treated depends on how he is perceived by the press. Mary Steenburgen, overjoyed with her support­ing award for Melvin and Howard, is met with affection. Diana Ross with goggle­-eyed awe. Lillian Gish with respect.

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Best screenplay winner Bo (Melvin and Howard) Goldman is chatting with the press when suddenly someone says, “Hold it.” Twenty newsmen turn their backs on Goldman to watch Robert Redford deliver his acceptance speech for best director (Ordinary People). They never get back to Goldman.

Redford generates a feeling of being either above it or below it all and is not a favorite in the press room. He exudes in­telligence, but his answers to questions are vague. He insists he’d never act in and direct the same film. He derides Holly­wood for “the current trend toward pyrotechnics,” and says he wants to make more intimate films which deal with emo­tions and social conditions.

There’s something about Redford — the blondness, the coolness, the good looks, everything that’s been written about before — that must be as awkward for him as it is for the person dealing with him. He makes you feel a little grubby. No one asks him to speak out about the assassination attempt or comment on Johnny Carson’s crack about Fort Apache, Charlie Chan, and Cruising (“It was a bad year if you were a gay Chinese from the Bronx”), or about Carson’s comments on Reagan’s cuts in arts funding or about the Burnett National Enquirer decision. So you talk direction and Ordinary People.

On the other hand, Robert De Niro is painfully shy. He rarely gives interviews. The press — at least, in New York — respects him and leaves him alone. Redford directed Ordinary People but De Niro is ordinary people, and what should have been one of the most gratifying evenings of his life turns into a nightmare.

When he accepts his Oscar for Raging Bull, De Niro concludes his speech by ac­knowledging “the terrible things that hap­pened in the world.” Then he takes a deep breath, clutches his trophy, and makes the backstage rounds. In the photo room, Ron Gallela asks him to hold a photograph of himself as Jake La Motta close to his face. This is not De Niro’s style, but he com­plies, with embarrassment. He enters the print media room as Sissy Spacek is being interviewed, and, as inconspicuously as possible listens to ebullient Sissy dispense quotes like “I’ve had the longest adolescence known to man or beast.”

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Then he faces the firing squad. Because of his distance with newsmen, there is no “hi, Bob, kiss, kiss, congratulations, kid­do.” Formalities are dispensed with in­stantly. The topic is assassination.

Somebody asks him to comment on the reports that Hinckley had used De Niro’s part in Taxi Driver as a model for his one­way relationship with Jodie Foster.

“That’s a whole different thing that happened,” he mutters. “It’s a loaded question.” De Niro’s eyes dart around the room, avoiding the eyes of journalists. The faint smile he had offered on arrival has disappeared. So has any semblance of joy. He looks terrified.

“It’s a question I don’t want to be asked. It’s hard to answer something like that. It’s an assumption. It’s not what it is.”

But isn’t it’true that … but didn’t CBS report that … but didn’t Hinckley say that …

Piranha time.

De Niro mumbles “I said what I had to say when I accepted the award. You’re really all very nice, but I have to go.”

And De Niro goes. He bypasses the TV room. He is spared the obligatory emo­tional content questions by Miss Rona. He skips the Beverly Hilton ball and heads straight back to his penthouse at the Chateau Marmont.

At midnight, the Chateau’s switchboard lights up like a Christmas tree. De Niro isn’t taking calls.

Oscar night is over. ■
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Confession: I Still Love the Original “Overboard”

In the past few years, two Hollywood trends have been surging toward an inevitable collision. First is the studios’ lazy dependence upon sure-thing remakes; second is the growing acknowledgment that mainstream cinema has produced some shockingly misogynist work in the name of romance. So it’s no surprise that when screenwriters Rob Greenberg and Bob Fisher decided to remake the 1987 Kurt Russell–Goldie Hawn rom-com Overboard, they flipped the leading roles: In the new version, out today, Eugenio Derbez is a wealthy playboy who’s pitched over the deck of his yacht one night, resulting in amnesia — and Anna Faris plays a single, working-class mom who convinces him they’ve been married all along.

In 2018, it had to be this way. I can’t imagine contemporary audiences swallowing the story of a carpenter (Russell) who essentially kidnaps a wealthy heiress (Hawn) and tricks her into believing she’s the mother of his four unruly boys. That’s not a rom-com premise; that’s a federal offense. And yet Overboard is one of my all-time favorites, a movie I watched so often growing up I could no more disown it than a beloved yet racist relative.

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Of course, Overboard and racist relatives certainly deserve a stern talking-to. I  admit that the original Overboard is a deeply fucked-up film. (I haven’t seen the remake.) Hawn plays Joanna Stayton, a spoiled heiress who spends her days sunning on a yacht with her skeet-shooting husband, Grant (Edward Herrmann). When their boat’s engine needs repairs, the couple docks in the fictional town of Elk Cove, Oregon, where a bored Joanna decides to have her closets remodeled. Enter Russell’s Dean Proffitt, who’s given 48 hours to finish the job. “Try not to touch anything,” Joanna instructs as she leaves him to his work.

When the two days are up, Dean shows off his handiwork, but the fussy Joanna finds fault and refuses to pay him. So when Dean later recognizes Joanna on a TV news segment about a woman who has washed ashore with no recollection of who she is, he gets his revenge by convincing the doctors at the mental ward that she’s his wife, a made-up woman he names Annie, and taking her to his ramshackle house to cook, clean, and care for his rowdy sons. Reader, would you believe they fall in love?

Overboard follows a sadly common romance trope: the woman who falls for her captor. But from the very start, the viewer’s sympathies lie squarely in Dean’s camp, not Joanna’s; the film’s glaring misogyny hides behind a smokescreen of class difference. It trusts that we believe she has it coming — that she’s being taught what really matters in life. Dean is a widower raising four kids on a carpenter’s salary, while Joanna is haughtier than a Trump flying commercial — she calls Elk Cove a “cesspool by the sea” and wonders whether Dean is “housebroken.”

Home sweet home

Hawn gamely delivers one of her most winning performances, employing her signature squinty-eyed glare like a diamond-encrusted dagger. Of course, director Garry Marshall invites the viewer to scoff at Joanna’s sense of entitlement even while ogling her ass; in one early scene, she taunts Dean by bending over in a one-piece thong bathing suit. Even when she topples into the sea in the middle of the night, while trying to fish out her wedding ring from behind a deck cushion, she’s not so much piteous as ridiculous, crying, “Oh, my hair!” Joanna plays the fool, but that role offers Hawn the opportunity to flaunt her comic skills. (It also, inevitably, illustrates the boundaries within which women were allowed to be funny in the late 1980s, and in some ways, still are; even at her most harried, Joanna/Annie is always ravishing, and the humor usually stems from the fact that she’s a stuck-up bitch.)

As Dean proceeds to gaslight “Annie,” going so far as to produce doctored photos of the two on their wedding day, we’re meant to find Joanna’s predicament not terrifying but hilarious. She’s forced to sleep on the couch, since, according to Dean, the bed gives her back problems. The fact that gentle Dean never forces himself on her — they don’t have sex until about two-thirds in, when it’s clear they’re genuinely falling for each other — is one of the film’s biggest lies; a man who would do what Dean’s done wouldn’t hold himself back. Overboard’s tone is always cheerful, never menacing, right down to the fact that the filmmakers clearly don’t want their audience to feel that Joanna is in any real danger. She’s just, you know, being enslaved by a spiteful contractor who was stiffed out of six hundred bucks and whose house could really use a woman’s touch.

How on earth could any woman fall for a man who would do this? But she does, and so do I — still — thanks to the explosive chemistry between Hawn and Russell, who had become a couple just a few years before filming Overboard, and whose authentic affection for each other shines through the undeniably grimy premise. Overboard holds up because of the connection between its leads, who are still going strong three decades later. Even screenwriter Leslie Dixon said as much in an interview last year, for the film’s thirtieth anniversary: “Kurt and Goldie were newly in love, and it shows on screen,” she said. “They’re so cute together that the audience just loves the film.”

Not for one breath do I mean to imply that the heat between a couple is a good excuse for abusive behavior. But there’s a difference between defending a retrograde movie and defending the actions of real human beings. Come at me if you must, but for me, this is one of those films that’s so much fun that I can find my way to love it in spite of its heinous sexual politics. If anything, they make it more fascinating. It’s hard to imagine the movie working with two leads who weren’t such a solid real-life couple; maybe Joanna’s predicament should have been portrayed in a more menacing light, but Overboard still delights because of the enthusiasm and unmistakable sense of trust between Hawn and Russell. They demonstrate how essential it is — not only for the process but also the product — for a filmmaker to create a safe environment in which a cast can play.

 

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Mod Madness from Vera Chytilová’s New Wave Daisies

Marie I and Marie II, the unholy-fool heroines of Vera Chytilová’s anarchic Czech New Wave 1966 classic, Daisies, have insatiable appetites: not just for pickles, sausages, bananas, and other suggestively shaped food, but for mayhem in general. Similarly, Daisies, a dada, gaga series of high jinks, oral fixations, and aggressive regression, devours the borders between sense and nonsense. Matching the lunacy of her characters, the formal elements of Chytilová’s movie, which BAMcinématek is showing in a new 35mm print for a week-long run, also suggest liberating disorder. A riot of technical tricks, Daisies shifts between color, black-and-white, and tinted images and includes a scene in which the two Maries, wielding scissors, essentially turn themselves into paper dolls.

Chytilová’s second feature, Daisies was originally planned as a send-up of bourgeois decadence; the director herself referred to it as “a necrologue about a negative way of life.” Yet, too freewheeling and unclassifiable, the film, which Chytilová co-wrote with Ester Krumbachová, gooses anyone hung up on rules: Daisies is dedicated “to those who get upset only over a stomped-upon bed of lettuce.”

Born in 1929 and the only female enrolled at the prestigious Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague in 1957, Chytilová devilishly flouts one of cinema’s most sacrosanct tenets: creating sympathetic characters. “We’re supposed to be spoiled, aren’t we?” Marie I (Jitka Cerhová), distinguished by her ponytails and Bardot-ish moue, says to Marie II (Ivana Karbanová), who often wears a crown of the titular flowers atop her strawberry blond bowl cut. The two actresses, both nonprofessionals—Cerhová was a student and Karbanová a salesclerk at the time; both would appear in a handful of films afterward—erupt in Woody Woodpecker–like laughs, their maniacal giggles belying the stealth radicals they’re portraying. Think a Laugh-In-era Goldie Hawn on a subversive mission behind the Iron Curtain times two.

Marie I and II—who might just as well be called Thing 1 and Thing 2 for the chaos they create—tease and trick with the faint promise of sex distinguished-looking elderly gentlemen into paying for expensive meals at restaurants until one of the women decides “this isn’t fun anymore.” Other hobbies include pyromania, rolling down grassy hills, and amateur linguistics (“Why does one say ‘I love you’? Why doesn’t one say ‘egg’?”). Their antics, purposefully wearying, reach maximum pandemonium during a gluttonous episode that soon becomes an orgiastic food fight. These two slim, mod beauties revel in their infantile defilement before swinging from chandeliers and catwalking down the buffet table.

But Czech censors weren’t amused and banned Daisies for “food wastage.” After the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, Chytilová, who unlike compatriot Milos Forman, refused to relocate to the West, was prohibited from making films until the mid ’70s (though her Daisies follow-up, We Eat the Fruit of the Trees of Paradise, was released briefly in her native country in 1969 before being pulled from theaters). Daisies has been praised as a feminist triumph—a claim that the director has been loath to embrace. In a tetchy interview with The Guardian in 2000, Chytilová stressed that she preferred “individualism” to “feminism.” “If there’s something you don’t like, don’t keep to the rules—break them. I’m an enemy of stupidity and simplemindedness in both men and women, and I have rid my living space of these traits.” The pretty nitwits at the center of her most famous film bear out her philosophy.

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Goldie Hawn Turned Down a Flaccid Penis

You may know Goldie Hawn merely as Kate Hudson‘s mother.

But I happen to know the lady as an Oscar winning movie star and a terrific comic actress whose memoir A Lotus Grows In The Mud I just managed to catch up with.

And one of the book’s most memorable bits has pre-fame Goldie going to the apartment of Li’l Abner creator Al Capp for an audition filled with a little too much dogpatch.

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When Capp asked her to lift her skirt and show her legs, Goldie got apprehensive.

Then Capp made her sit next to him on the couch, and the blonde cutie felt a tad vomity.

Remembers Goldie, “I see that my host has parted his silk robe to reveal a flaccid penis resting heavily against his wooden leg.”

It was his li’l Abner, as it were.

And his leg was the only wood he was sporting.

Disgusted, she turned it down, to which Capp snarled, “You’ll never get anywhere in this business, Goldie Hawn!”

He then threw a $20 bill at her, and THAT she went for.

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SUCH A TEASE!

Before the publishing industry completely sells out to the Kindle, it may want to check out photographer Erica Baum’s intriguing new exhibit The Naked Eye for some tips on how to spice up the print medium. Here, Baum (who has also experimented with the outdated library card catalog) zooms in on old paperbacks, with their pages edged in reds, greens, and blues that include slices of cheaply reproduced images of ’70s icons that peek out at the viewer. For instance, a photograph titled Shampoo shows—in between the fanned book pages—the happy surprise of a sexy Goldie Hawn in a scene from the 1975 film Shampoo. That sure makes us want to read on. And on March 15, in the spirit of this bookish show, Kenneth Goldsmith reads from The Weather, his take on an entire year’s worth of one-minute radio weather reports.

March 15-22, 2009

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Dreams of Burden

Invincible, the first fiction film by combustible cinematic wayfarer Werner Herzog to be released here in the 18 years since Where the Green Ants Dream, is also the erratic German visionary’s first consideration of the Nazi era since his debut, Signs of Life (1968). Herzog has always been a global holy fool, fixating on the poetic ironies that arise from the collision of man and earth, but the new movie takes 20th-century Euro-history at face value, as a drama between morally opposed forces. It may be the most traditionally conceived film he’s ever made. His subject, in itself, couldn’t be more Herzogian: Zishe Breitbart, a Polish blacksmithing Jew who, on the eve of the Nazis’ ascension to power, gained fame as “the strongest man in the world” in the Grand Guignol-like Berlin freakshow-nightclub run by con man-clairvoyant Erik Jan Hanussen. A softhearted innocent, Zishe is as much a stranger in a strange land as Herzog’s Stroszek, dimly breaking chains across his chest before crowds of bedazzled SS.

Hanussen is a popular avatar for Germany’s postwar culpa: He was secretly a Jew, so his role in the Nazi machine had to be a misguided, self-hating delusion. Weren’t they all? Herzog makes no excuses for him, as Istvan Szabo (and numerous writers) have; played by Tim Roth, Hanussen is a serpentine goldbricker with dreams of übermensch supremacy. (Roth is also a spot-on physical likeness.) Zishe (real-life Finnish “strongest man” titleholder Jouko Ahola) also masks his heritage at first—being made to don a blond wig and perform his stunts as “Siegfried”—but when this personification of German strength righteously admits his Jewishness to the mixed audience (including Himmler and Goebbels), a table-throwing riot ensues.

Ahola is no actor. Typically realist, Herzog has stocked the cast with genuine athletes, magicians, and musicians—better to see them exercise their uniqueness than feign convincing characterization. Never a filmmaker much concerned with believable performance (actual bugouts like Klaus Kinski and Bruno S. brought their own disquieting energies to the table), Herzog offers him little help, and often enough Invincible lumbers aimlessly along with him. What’s more disappointing is how filthy Invincible is with missed opportunities for Herzog to be Herzog.

When the guileless Zishe stands in the spotlight, bending a thick sword around his forearm as the throng of storm troopers cheer and the Hans Zimmer score begins to earnestly weep, Invincible attains a kind of melancholy grandeur. But the overlong film skimps on imagery. The hero’s dreams unaccountably visit the masses of red African crabs already seen in Herzog’s Bokassa doc Echoes From a Somber Empire, but otherwise Herzog fails to find the visual heart of Zishe’s story.

Which doesn’t amount to much after all—unlike Hanussen, who was assassinated in 1933 and buried without inquiry, Zishe lived, returned to the shtetl, and died an accidental death years before the war. There are echoes of golem myth in Zishe’s late insistence on being a “new Samson” to his people and his urgings that they arm themselves for the oncoming catastrophe. But it’s an association Herzog barely acknowledges; beyond a lovely Passover matzo-scramble, he has little grasp on his milieu’s Jewishness. You can’t help but think that a remake of The Golem would be, in fact, a more aptly Herzogian project.


Or Herzog could take on the sheer freakishness of Goldie Hawn, a proto-implanted, lip-swollen, leather-tanned, 56-year-old Beverly Hills monster of aging anxiety and passé cachet, to whom nature and time are devilish forces to be battled, padded, bleached, surgeried, and starved. But Hawn takes it on herself, in Bob Dolman’s The Banger Sisters, essentially incarnating the desiccated modern maturity of Kate Hudson’s character in Almost Famous. The movie may play in broad outline as pandering middle-age buddy-comedy, but it occasionally—occasionally—surfaces from its Baby Jane pancake to scan the empty life of Hawn’s lonely, spunk-weathered Whisky A Go-Go cocksucker. For a few brief moments, it’s the bravest work this Hollywood gargoyle has ever done.