Tuesday, June 7, 2011

"Love" Didn't "Last" Too "Long"...

I've been a tad scarce the last several days, primarily due to preparation for a singing gig last weekend at a local event... outdoors, in 93 degree heat and 90% humidity. Ahhh, the life... And, not being used to singing in daylight, where I can see all the people, the distractions, etc..., I pulled a “Leslie Uggams” and humiliatingly missed a line of lyrics in one song. (If you don't get the Uggams reference, I suggest you click here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mrma76T5Wa4 – and do pee first!) Still, it didn't go as badly as her concert appearance did that time, nor did it go as badly as some of the numbers in the film I'm profiling today!

Wow. Today's featured movie is a legendary flop, one that acted like audience repellant when it hit theater screens, driving people out of their seats, and creating a piranha-esque feeding frenzy amongst the critics. Considering that it was created by a filmmaker
who had previously demonstrated significant talent and that so much garbage has come out since it release in 1975, one might be tempted to think that its reputation might be unfounded or that the piece might have gotten better with age. One might be wrong...

At Long Last Love was Peter Bogdanovich's love letter to those frothy, elegant musicals of the 1930s, often starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, with an additional nod to the screwball comedies of that and a slightly later era, featuring people like Cary Grant (a personal favorite of Bogdanovich's) and Carole Lombard (a beautiful blonde who wasn't afraid to indulge in on-screen tomfoolery.) He amassed sixteen songs by Cole Porter and cobbled together a featherweight plot that wended its way around them, not unlike those old movies had, when simple, threadbare stories merely represented a break in between the singing and dancing.

The story is practically told during the opening credits, in which a music box displays two cast-iron couples
dancing around in circles, only to have the couples separate, switch partners, dance together a while and then separate again, reuniting with their original partner. Such is the case in the course of the film where Burt Reynolds and Madeline Kahn fall for each other as Cybill Shepherd and Duilio Del Prete do the same, only to have the couples swap partners midstream, yet reconcile with their original mate before the film's close. All of this is played out in between and during the Cole Porter musical numbers that permeate the film.

The entire enterprise is set in a chrome and white wonderland, with occasional forays into lush green parks and gardens. No detail seems to have been spared in creating just the right patently artificial, yet elegant, backdrop in which the stars could perform their hearts out as they waft through the nostalgic surroundings.

The trouble began almost immediately with the casting of people who were not adept
at the talents required for the piece. True, non-singing stars like Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart and others were placed into musicals back in the day, but they were heavily trained (drilled!) and had an army of technicians along with the full force of a major studio to do everything possible to make them look and sound their best. And where the classic Hollywood musicals may have been slight in the plot department, the singing and dancing, when it arrived, was typically graceful, captivating and in some cases unforgettable. Some of the numbers in At Long Last Love are unforgettable, too, but not in the good way!
Reynolds, at the time a pretty major star, but not
quite the box office champ he would become in the wake of Smokey and the Bandit a couple of years later, possessed handsomeness and old Hollywood charm as well as a game attitude, but was far, far, far from being able to effectively sing legitimate standards, not to mention dance to them as well. In 1969's western Sam Whiskey, he warbled some sort of ditty that was punishment to the ears of the listener, but nevertheless pressed on with the desire to vocalize, even releasing a (now-camp.. hell, probably even then-camp) album called “Ask Me What I Am.” I don't know how many people took him up on that, but by the time At Long Last Love showed up, plenty of reviewers were willing to tell him what he was! He possessed one of those low, poorly-modulated voices that recalled one's listening to his under-talented dad croon in the car or the shower. Hardly, the type of talent required to headline a major movie musical! He tried his best at hoofing, too, but an ex-footballer and stuntman with bad knees and no prior experience was never going to cut the mustard there, either. Only his light-hearted personality (complete with trademark high-pitched cackle) saved him from complete decimation in this picture. In his auto-bio, My Life, he claims to have been drunk throughout the filming due to the utter lack of attention from a director obsessed with his leading lady.
Shepherd certainly didn't have to prove anything to the director to land her spot in the movie. During her film debut in 1971 for Bogdanovich's
The Last Picture Show, the former model fell in love with the already married director and proceeded to become the subject of his Svengali-like shaping. To many critics' chagrin, he placed the practically inexperienced performer at the center of his period drama Daisy Miller, rendering it damaged goods on arrival. Their two-pronged assault eventually became a major turn-off to the public. Prior beauty queen Shepherd also fancied herself a vocalist and in 1974, one year prior to the release of At Long Last Love, she released an album called “Cybill Shepherd Does it... to Cole Porter.” It may as well have been called “Cybill Shepherd Sticks it to Cole Porter.” She revisited the beleaguered composer for Long Last, but he won out in the end when her performing skills were trashed by practically every major critic save (a tone deaf?) Roger Ebert. Flouncing around braless (and perhaps more – or less, as the case may be) in flimsy blouses and gowns with all the grace of a wide receiver, she certainly made no one forget the utter elegance of the stars who'd originated the genre she was “paying tribute” to. Within the first twenty minutes of the movie, there are TWO instances of flies invading her personal space. One crawls along her bathtub (lovely) and one attaches itself to her hat at the racetrack. We all know what flies are most attracted to, don't we...?
Kahn was one of the few people featured in the film who had some legitimate
song and dance cred, having appeared on Broadway in a musical revue and the musical Two By Two. She was responsible for several engaging and hilarious musical moments in Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein and had even been cast as Miss Gooch in Mame before she and Lucille Ball clashed, resulting in her exit from the film. Even so, her unique, helium-like soprano sound didn't always mesh effectively with the type of music found here. Forced, in the opening number, to deliberately sing off-key and without proper presentation, she set the bar rather low for what was to follow (and most of the time, the participants couldn't even reach that level!) She had what I would term a “character” voice and that worked well during her interpretation of a bad stage show in the movie, but fell short when expected to become truly romantic and legitimate.

Del Prete (WHO??) is no Ezio Pinza, but manages to acquit himself
a bit better than a few of his cohorts. Prior to this undertaking, the Italian actor had appeared in more than a dozen movies (mostly made in his home country) with no less than Richard Burton, Glenda Jackson, Marcello Mastroianni, Franco Nero, Laura Antonelli and Dustin Hoffman as the stars (among others.) He had also appeared in Bogdanovich's Daisy Miller. (Almost everyone in the cast of this film had worked for the director before, Reynolds being an exception.) He also demonstrated a game sense of play for the material, but really there was no chance of emerging from this fiasco unscathed.
Two other chief players in the story were Reynolds' valet (John Hillerman) and Shepherd's secretary/assistant (Eileen Brennan), a duo that aptly goes though the motions of a magnet-reverse magnet sort of attraction and repellence
before settling into comfortable romance. Hillerman's expert underplaying and world-weary facial expressions were perfectly mated to Brennan's saucy, lascivious come-ons. The two pretty much walk off with the film, thanks to the ineptitude around them. Brennan had previously scored a hit in 1960's Little Mary Sunshine Off-Broadway and then originated the role of Irene Malloy in Carol Channing's Hello Dolly. Now, thanks to years of smoking, she wasn't quite the fresh soprano of old, but rather a crackly mezzo. However, it worked for her hard-living, seen-it-all character. Hillerman's and her duets might not have set ears ablaze, but they maintained something that plenty of the other numbers lacked and that was entertainment value!

The only other key cast member was Mildred Natwick as Reynolds' wealthy, energetic mother. (She had been in Daisy Miller, too.) This was more of a cameo appearance, just two scenes, but she lent an air of class to the decidedly relaxed proceedings. Famed character actor M. Emmet Walsh has one brief scene as a W.C. Fields-ish doorman and the movie could have used more of him.
This being a film I chose to watch, it's only natural that The Underworld's favorite extra, Leoda Richards, is present as well. She's in almost every movie I ever see! (Click on the label “Mystery Extra” in the column to the right for more info on her.) Here, she's part of a staid, elderly country club dance that the gay foursome tries to enliven. That's her with her hair pressed down in the pale grey gown, front and center, naturally!
Having crafted two popular and critically-acclaimed
films in the near-dead black and white format (The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon), he chose color for this one, but with the caveat that the sets and costumes were almost almost exclusively black, grey and white, with only some dark brown and navy or heavily desaturated pastels in a few of the clothes and some rich wood and foliage in the d├ęcor to veer from the concept. (The actors' skin and hair, of course, retained their color, but, apart from Madeline Kahn's Titian tresses, the color red is almost absent from the movie.)
Speaking of costumes, while most of the clothes are generally elegant and appealing, they do not always properly evoke the era that is purportedly being paid homage. For instance, Shepherd wears a suit that features a slit that goes seemingly all the way up to her taint (revealed when she and Del Prete are seated on the grass for a picnic. I don't think this is very accurate and if it is, I believe some sort of undergarment would have been in order. I have always found Shepherd's incredible “beauty” quite elusive. Pert and pretty in the early days, maybe, but thereafter I can't see it (though maybe my perception is colored by her attitude.) Those who like her may take pleasure in seeing her walk through a park like a Clydesdale with heaving, braless breasts pounding away in her blouse, but I didn't see the appeal. The ladies who wore those bias-cut, '30s slip dresses were lithe and lean and graceful, qualities I cannot see in Ms. Shepherd. Kahn, not someone who ever struck me as overweight, really, has a bulbous stomach in a couple of her outfits and was in need of something for the undercarriage in order to combat this. The costumer, Bobbie Mannix, later designed the almost instantaneously-dated gang clothing for 1979's The Warriors as well as the mostly vomitous concoctions found in the following year's Xanadu.

The less said about hair, the better. All the trouble was gone to for the elaborate and glamorous sets, furnishings and clothes, but then Shepherd's flat, swingy hair is strictly mid-'70s. Kahn's up-do looks like something a harried mom would wear to the grocery or to Jazzercize class and is equally anachronistic. Much was made about Burt's mustache being thinner (ala Clark Gable) but his toupee has nothing to do with the era, nor does Del Prete's dry-look blow-out. It was all about slicked down or combed back hair for the men. (The extras in the film all have their hair done correctly. Apparently, the stars had too much of their own say as to how theirs should look.)
Del Prete has a welcome (and mildly humorous) barechested scene in which he gives new meaning to to the term “cutaway” tails, but Reynolds wears a towel around his neck during his, obscuring what might have been one of the better moments of the movie. Oddly, these two seem to share better chemistry with each other than they do their leading ladies! It's surprising to see them occasionally giving wink-wink nods to a gay attraction (not a serious one, mind you, but all in fun) and demonstrating physical closeness, but in the end, there is no less spark between them than there is in the other ill-fated combinations. Reynolds and Shepherd try hard to click, but it never really comes off. He and Kahn fare a bit better. Del Prete comes off mostly as a prop rather than a legitimate love interest for either lady.
Reynolds and Shepherd have one number in a swimming pool (“Paging Esther Williams!”) in which they giggle through part of the lyrics as they struggle to stay afloat. For this scene, he dons one of those old fashioned tank-top style swimsuits along with a swim cap and nose plug, obviously opting for silliness over seriousness. That's fine, but the execution of the song is still pretty rough. He keeps moving briskly when out of the water, which makes fully capturing him in his suit a rather tough task.

To return to the music for a moment, there was one decision that doomed this project
to failure even more than the already tenuous casting. Bogdanovich declared that, instead of utilizing the time-tested method of recording all of the music in a studio, under careful supervision, mixing, editing and timing, he would film each of the numbers “live.” For actors who are not used to singing, dancing and acting all at once, something a person is either naturally adept at or eventually settles into after years of experience, this was a death knell to his or her performance.

Not only that, but when a singer is performing in a musical, he or she is usually on a stage, a fair distance from the audience, where (often necessary) facial contortions aren't as obvious as the vocalist attempts to hit every note in the best fashion possible. Pre-recording for film allows the performer to lip-synch to his own voice, focusing mainly on the visual presentation (or choreography) while avoiding facial scrunching, controlled breathing, concentration on perfection in the tuning and other aspects that are hurdles to camera-in-the-face filming.
It's one thing to have long takes in order to showcase a performer's agility, finesse and skill in musicianship. It's another to plant the camera in front of people who are barely able to carry a tune under the best of circumstances and then ask them to move effortlessly (with the ever-looming camera haunting them) and emote appropriately while in the midst of an area that had long since fallen out of familiarity and favor with most moviegoers, the sparkling, old-fashioned musical!

Watching the movie, one grimaces at the forced levity amongst the performers as they try to recreate the fluffy feeling of the old days to little or no avail. It's impossible to buy into this because you know in your heart that, within minutes, one of the principals is going to threaten to sing another song and, naturally, follows through on the threat with merciless regularity. Clever, classic songs that ought to be entertaining, amusing and enjoyable are, instead, gut-punched and butchered by several of the stars.
The result was an awkward, leaden, inappropriate mess with precious little to recommend it. The $6 million project (obviously
a more considerable sum in 1975 than it is now), was hard-pressed to drag in $1.5 million from the box office. (i.e. - It made back about one-fourth of its cost. One doesn't have to be an accountant to figure out that this was not good.) Following the foisting of this movie into release, Broadway legend, and close pal of Cole Porter, Ethel Merman allegedly said, “Thank God, Cole isn't alive to see this!” The response was so overwhelmingly negative that Bogdanovich actually wrote an open letter to the public, reported and printed through the media across the country, apologizing for the quality of the film. Needless to say, this action was abnormal in the extreme. After all, it's not like he was prohibited from creating or editing the film himself. The project was all his doing.

After this, the director ran for cover, reverting to what he believed would be the tried and true formula for success,
that is working with Ryan and Tatum O'Neal, the stars of his phenomenally successful Paper Moon, in his next film Nickelodeon. Burt Reynolds (shown here in a powdered wig!) was along for the ride again and, again, it resulted in failure. The studio backing the film expressly forbad Bogdanovich from casting Cybill Shepherd in it, in so much as a cameo role, but even the promise of her absence could not put butts in the theater seats. Shepherd's role had been written especially for her and she was crushed to forsake it, but she had no choice other than to swallow the rejection and offer up a friend from her modeling days, Jane Hitchcock, as a replacement. Hitchcock only made one other on-screen appearance after Nickelodeon. Perhaps the mid-70s, a time of new freedom on the screen, just wasn't the right moment to revisit the 1930s and, in this case, the 1910s. It was years before Bogdanovich helmed another film and his once-hot momentum was lost forever, though he did direct Mask, a well-received movie that led Cher to new heights as an actress. He has emerged as a sort of go-to guy for film history and commentary.

Reynolds, despite the imminent failure of Nickelodeon on top of At Long Last Love, proceeded to soar to the top of box office money-earners.
The late '70s and early '80s belonged to him (thanks in great part to the aforementioned Smokey and the Bandit) until he did one too many brainless action flicks and was felled by a very serious injury to the jaw. It was television, the sitcom Evening Shade to be specific, that rescued his career, paving the way for a comeback (shortlived as it was) that culminated in an Oscar nomination for Boogie Nights in 1997. He remains a working actor in TV & film projects of varying quality to this day.

Shepherd had better luck away from Bogdanovich when she worked with Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, in a supporting capacity. Unfortunately for her, her shot at being an A-List movie star was over and done with. She went into low-budget and otherwise obscure projects until 1983 when she was part of the ensemble cast of a prime-time serial called The Yellow Rose. Though it was short-lived, she next worked (often braless, again) on the combative Moonlighting which was, for a time, a spectacular success and reignited her career. She even starred in a couple of films again before returning to TV for the self-named series Cybill (which, like Moonlighting, was haunted by rumors of backstage squabbling.)

Kahn (working with Bogdanovich for the third time after What's Up Doc? And Paper Moon) escaped the debacle with little or no tarnish to her reputation. She continued to create a gallery of wacky, funny characters with and without Mel Brooks, landed her own brief, but wacky, series Oh Madeline and basically added a dollop of hilarity to most anything she did until being taken from this world far to early in 1999 of ovarian cancer at only the age of fifty-seven. At the time of her death, she was working as a regular on one of Bill Cosby's string of shows, this one called Cosby.

It was back home to Italy for Del Prete after this fiasco, but he remained a steadily-employed film actor there. He also continued his interest in music and released an album featuring the music of Jacques Brel. Like Kahn, he died far too young (at age fifty-nine) in 1998 of cancer.
Brennan had done The Last Picture Show and Daisy Miller and, like Kahn,
went on to a successful career after this. Her really big moment came in 1980 when she played with Goldie Hawn in Private Benjamin as an exacting, impatient, hot-tempered army captain. The role earned her an Oscar nomination and she was able to reprise the characterization in the subsequent TV series (starring Lorna Patterson), earning both a Golden Globe and an Emmy for her work. Her stint on the series was cut short in 1982 when she was exiting a restaurant after having dinner with Hawn and was struck by a car, leading to a very long, excruciatingly painful recovery period. Though she eventually returned to steady work (and still acts today), the event was both a bone crusher and a career crusher.

Hillerman continued to work in many film and TV projects, eventually becoming a fixture on Tom Selleck's Magnum, P.I. from 1980 to 1988, where he portrayed Selleck's wealthy employer. Like Brennan, he copped both a Golden Globe and an Emmy for his role, along with multiple other nominations. He went into semi-retirement in the mid-'90s and is now seventy-eight years old.

Miss Natwick, who had been appearing in films since the early '40s, would continue to act frequently, but mostly on television. She made only two more features after this one, Kiss Me Goodbye (with Sally Field, James Caan and Jeff Bridges) and Dangerous Liaisons
(with Glenn Close, John Malkovich and Michelle Pfeiffer); not such bad company to keep in one's old age. She passed away of cancer in 1994 at the age of eighty-nine.

The act of filming musical numbers “live” was rarely attempted again and certainly not for the duration of an entire film. Occasionally, a number might be done that way (such as Liza Minnelli's And the World Goes Round in New York, New York in 1977), but it was the exception rather than the rule and was done with people for whom singing was second nature.

So great a flop was At Long Last Love that it was never released on home video. No laser disc, no Beta, no VHS and no DVD.
A vaguely retooled edition (taking out dialogue to make room for yet another song!) was put together by Bogdanovich for television, but even that wasn't shown very much. The cost of the rights to all those Cole Porter songs only hindered its availability further. A soundtrack LP was released, though it surely couldn't have sold particularly well. It's bound to make its way to DVD someday (God forbid, on Blu-Ray?!) as most things eventually seem to be doing and perhaps by that time music and singers of it will have become so unlistenable that, by comparison, it won't seem so bad. I don't know if I'd bet on it, though.

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