Monday, August 20, 2012

The Son Begins to Rise

Forever scavenging the bargain bins and nooks and crannies of various stores in search of unusual movie and TV finds, I often come up with things I thought I might never see or, in some cases, stumble upon a movie I'd never even heard of. Such was the case with 1971's Summertree, a Vietnam-era tale about a young man who has many things he'd like to pursue (music and romance being at the top of the list), but whose future is threatened by the ongoing Southeast Asian conflict that is vacuuming up many of the young men his age.

Summertree first saw life in 1967 as a play, the first one written solely by Ron Cowen, and was performed in at the Eugene O'Neill Foundation in Waterford, Connecticut where Cowen's schoolmate and friend Michael Douglas had the starring role. The thoughtful, balanced work was very well-received and was then set to perform in New York City where it was produced by the Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center and then again at the Players Theater off-Broadway. Unfortunately for him, Douglas was let go and the play was headlined by David Birney in 1968.

Birney's costar in the play, by the way, was Miss Blythe Danner. Birney received stunning praise, sometimes from some of the most stringent critics such as the New York Times' Walter Kerr, and was given both the Theatre World Award and the Clarence Derwent Award (with Cowen receiving the Drama Desk Award for his writing.)

Meanwhile, Douglas, the son of hugely successful movie actor and producer Kirk Douglas, was continuing with his own career. He had worked as a second assistant director on his dad's 1965 film The Heroes of Telemark, appeared as a Jeep driver in his dad's film Cast a Giant Shadow (1966) and landed a starring role in the 1969 anti-war movie Hail, Hero! The latter film put him in the company of such skilled acting veterans as Arthur Kennedy and Teresa Wright, as his parents.

After having starred in his second picture, Adam at Six A.M. (1970), Douglas' father Kirk purchased the rights to the play Michael had been fired from and hired Cowen to adapt the screenplay. He paid Cowen $20,000 (an amount Cowen felt was too low, but reportedly accepted because Douglas convinced him that the project's theme would be a tough sell.) Cowen was then fired, replaced with Rod McKuen (who wrote two drafts before also being canned), then rehired, then fired again! Two other writers wound up with screen credit on Summertree. Thus, the project was muddied and marred by dispute from the get-go.

In the film, Douglas plays a college sophomore who is enduring his studies in order to please his father, working class Jack Warden. Warden doesn't like Douglas' major of Sociology, but is pleased enough that Douglas is enrolled at school (a situation that prevents Douglas from being drafted into The Vietnam War.) Douglas would much prefer to pursue a career in music, having played guitar by ear since he was a small boy, often in the backyard tree house of his family home.

Restless Douglas, while home on a visit to his parents, sees a TV advertise-ment for the Big Brother program and wonders if volunteering for them might ease some of his unrest. (The TV plays a subtle, but ultimately quite important, part of this movie.) Meanwhile, his mother (played by Barbara Bel Geddes) is just happy to have him around again and wants only for him to enjoy some sort of fulfillment, however it comes.

Once back at school, Douglas does become a Big Brother. His charge is diminutive Kirk Callaway, a street-wise black kid with a potty mouth and a ton of jive attitude. The two begin some tentative bonding in the bathroom while standing at the urinals (a good two decades before Burt Reynolds did the same in the 1993 cinematic bowel movement Cop and a ½.)

This seems like as good a time as any to mention that during one of the sequences with Callaway, Douglas shows off some enjoyably snug and revealing blue jeans!  You know that, as a rule, we only concentrate on the most important issues here in The Underworld...

Also, I continue to be amused at the haphazard, slipshod way in which 1960s and '70s promotional photos and lobby cards were issued.  Take this one of Douglas on the playground of an inner-city school, searching for the boy who he will become a Big Brother to.  The camera crew and equipment are completely visible behind him!

While chasing after Callaway, who takes his time to warm up to Douglas, Callaway falls and scratches up his knee, requiring a visit to a local doctor's office. The perky nurse on-site, Brenda Vaccaro, bandages up Callaway's bloody limb, but also attracts the attention of Douglas. With Callaway safely home, Douglas follows Vaccaro to her apartment and sits in the alley serenading her with his guitar (a scene depicted on the movie's poster) until she promises to come downstairs and go out with him.
The two strike up a tentative, but affectionate romance. It's also rather quirky since their first date is at a cemetery (!), though they do eventually graduate to a regular park (where they, this being the late-'60s, casually, openly smoke pot as they hunker down on their picnic blanket.) Before long, they fall head over heels for one another.

Their relationship is consummated one afternoon in her apartment with Douglas and Vaccaro kissing and lolling about semi-nude as leaves are superimposed over their faces and bodies. Afterwards, Douglas has his guitar out again and twangs on it while a topless Vaccaro lies in his naked lap. When she doesn't approve of the ditty he's come up with, they wrestle onto the floor where he declares his love for her.
At Christmas time, they separate to visit their respective families. He's helping Warden and Bel Geddes trim the (godawful) Christmas tree when Bel Geddes announces that she saw his snapshots of Vaccaro while unpacking his things. He relays to them that he is falling for her, but, more importantly, is considering changing majors and dropping out of regular school in order to enroll at the performing arts school instead.
Douglas, whose college roommates had been the pretty-square Rob Reiner and the long-haired, ultra-hippie Jeff Siggins (shown here enjoying a female classmate while having a conversation with Douglas!), decides to move in with Vaccaro. She returns from her visit with her relatives to find Douglas sacked out on her bed and little Callaway curled up on the sofa asleep.

Douglas auditions for the performing arts wing of the school and dazzles the faculty with his own composition. While there, he is spotted by a local nightclub owner who offers him a job singing and playing in between other acts. Things look promising for the young man. (Douglas appears to be playing the guitar himself and also sings a little occasionally in the movie.)
Trouble sets in when it's determined that, despite his obvious talent, he won't fit into the music program as a sophomore based on his prior lack of structure with regards to his learning of music. In other words, a technicality prevents him from pursuing his dream. Since he's already dropped out of college, the window is left open for him to be drafted and that's just what happens.

Warden arrives at Vaccaro's apartment, having been startled to find him not living in his old dorm, and hands him his enlistment notice. The three of them have an awkward conversation fraught with attempts at politeness mixed with concern and frustration.

Now, Douglas must decide whether to sign up for the army, pretend to be crazy, ill or gay in order to avoid service or flee to Canada where he'll have to remain as a fugitive from the U.S. Things are complicated further when he gets a hefty surprise from Vaccaro. The edges begin to fray slightly on their heretofore devoted relationship.

Opting for Canada versus his other options, Douglas stops off at home to bid farewell to his favorite tree, complete with boyhood tree house, and his parents. Warden and Bel Geddes are distraught about Douglas' decision, but have differing viewpoints on it. Ultimately, they have little choice but to watch him flee the country. However, this is not the end of the story. There are two twists before the film is over. One takes place as Douglas is outfitting his jalopy with some new tires and the other occurs in the closing seconds of the film. Naturally, I'm not going to divulge these, nor the surprise concerning Vaccaro, though that one was revealed in the movie's trailer. I am not much of a fan of spoilers!

Summertree was directed by a most unusual choice. After initial selection John Korty left the project, singer-actor-writer-composer Anthony Newley was enlisted to helm the movie. Newley had only directed once before, his X-rated, semi-autographical opus Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? In 1969. That Fellini-esque movie bore no relation to this far more conventional material and, apart from the love scene montage, he made no effort to imbue the picture with anything outre. At the time, his marriage to Joan Collins was unravelling. He would continue working on stage, on TV and in occasional films, but died in 1999 of renal cancer at only age sixty-seven.

Playwright Cowen continued to write, eventually contributing episodes of Family and Knots Landing, penning the acclaimed TV-movie An Early Frost, and creating and developing the series Sisters and Queer as Folk, all with his longtime partner Daniel Lipman. (Cowen is on the left, Lipman on the right.)

For his part, Michael Douglas did make it to the off-Broadway stage in 1971 and won the Theatre World Award for his role in a show called Pinkville. He then appeared on several TV shows and starred in the Disney film Napoleon and Samantha (1972), which costarred Will Geer and a little girl named Jodie Foster. From there, he joined Karl Malden for the TV series The Streets of San Francisco where he remained from 1972 to 1976.

Near the end of that run, his father Kirk gave him the movie rights to another play which he himself had wanted to star in, but was now too old for. Douglas produced the Oscar-winning smash One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest with Jack Nicholson in the lead. Slowly, he began to emerge as an actor again, with Coma (1978), The China Syndrome (1979) and It's My Turn (1980) paving the way for his smash successes Romancing the Stone (1984), Fatal Attraction (1987), Wall Street (also 1987, for which he won the Best Actor Oscar) and Basic Instinct (1992), among many others. He also continued to produce movies, whether they starred himself or not. Curiously, he only directed one time, an episode of San Francisco. He is currently sixty-seven and remains a viable big-screen star.

Douglas and Vaccaro had to share a trailer on this low-budget production and in the beginning had a sheet up between their dressing areas. However, after rolling around naked in bed for days during filming, it ultimately became rather ludicrous. By the end of the shoot, they'd become a couple in real life, a relationship that lasted six years. She (six years Douglas' senior) had been married once for five years and was in no hurry to do so again. During their relationship, she guest-starred two times on San Francisco (as different characters.)

Before Summertree, Vaccaro had earned three Tony nominations for her work in Broadway plays and had also scored two Golden Globe nominations, one for Most Promising Newcomer of the 1969 season (which went to Ali MacGraw) and one as Best Supporting Actress for Midnight Cowboy (which went to Goldie hawn for Cactus Flower.) Her loss to Goldie Hawn had to have stung a little since she had originated that very role opposite Lauren Bacall in the Broadway production!

Despite this being a story about Douglas' character and his having top-billing, the movie really winds up being quite a showcase for the talent and appeal of Vaccaro. Fans of hers simply must not miss it. She adds all sorts of dimension and texture to what could have been a very run of the mill girlfriend role.

During her time with Michael Douglas, she also wound up in one of his father's films, the craptacular, all-star 1975 film Once is Not Enough. Her role as spicy, sexually-free Linda Riggs won her an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress, but the award went to Lee Grant for Shampoo. Miss Vaccaro has appeared in a surprising number of films that I enjoy for one reason or another, from Airport '77 (1977) to Capricorn One (1978) to The First Deadly Sin (1980) to Supergirl (1984) and others. Now seventy-two, she has kept busy in recent years working on various TV shows, often just using her remarkably throaty voice. Oh, and let's not forget that she did get to punch Lee Grant in the face in Airport '77, not long after Grant won that Oscar!

Warden, who'd been acting on screen since the early-'50s (notably in 1957's 12 Angry Men), really began to hit his stride after this. An association with Warren Beatty lead to two Oscar nominations for him, one for 1975's Shampoo (with George Burns taking the statuette home for The Sunshine Boys) and another for 1978's Heaven Can Wait (with Christopher Walken winning for The Deer Hunter.) The year after Summertree, he won an Emmy for the memorable TV-movie Brian's Song. Later, he gleaned two more nominations for his series Crazy Like a Fox (with Robert Guillaume and Michael J. Fox taking home the award one time each.) Like Vaccaro, Warden has '70s Disaster Movie pedigree (of value only in The Underworld, probably!) for having worked in 1979's Beyond the Poseidon Adventure. Warden died in 2006 of heart and kidney failure at age eighty-five.
Though Bel Geddes had worked in movies since the late 1940s (with I Remember Mama in 1948 a highlight, along with a supporting role in 1958's Vertigo), she was chiefly a stage actress, one who originated quite a few roles that later went to others for the movie version. The primary one of these is Maggie the Cat in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Oddly enough, she did the reverse when she played the mother here after Priscilla Pointer had played it in New York. (I wonder if that was ever mentioned when Pointer later showed up on Dallas to play the mother of Cliff and Pam Barnes?)

When she was selected to work on Summertree, it had been a decade since her previous movie thanks to a husband who was ill with cancer and a brush with the blacklisting of the McCarthy era. A few years after this, she was signed on for the role which most people know her for, that of Miss Ellie Ewing on Dallas. There is plenty of Miss Ellie in her Summertree role, though, like so many of her parts, it is a rather frowsy, frumpy one. Bel Geddes, even at her glitziest, seemed to be glamour-proof, as if heavy makeup, slinky gowns and ornate hairstyling were prevented by Teflon from taking hold. However, what she did she did well and her closed-mouth smile spoke volumes here and in many episodes of Dallas. She won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for that part.

To be consistent, I must mention that she had been nominated for an Oscar for I Remember Mama, with Claire Trevor winning for Key Largo, and was bested for additional Emmys by Barbara Babcock of Hill St. Blues and Mariette Hartley in The Incredible Hulk (which was actually just a guest appearance.) Twice, she lost Golden Globes to actresses in miniseries (Natalie Wood in From Here to Eternity and Yoko Shimada in Shogun) because they had yet to have their own category! Already a breast cancer survivor, lung cancer claimed her in 2005 at age eighty-two.

Young Callaway, who was remarkably effective in the movie, though not without some indications that he was “acting,” was never again seen in a movie or TV show!
Also appearing are Bill Vint, as a soldier just home from the front, and Teri Garr, as one of Siggins' girlfriends. Vint, along with his brothers Jesse and Alan, were seemingly everywhere in the '70s. Though his career petered out by the late-'80s, he has done a low budget film about once every dozen years since that. He is currently seventy years old. Based on this picture and his lean, angular features, see if you can guess which famous movie star he portrayed a decade later. In 1980, he played the troubled Montgomery Clift in the TV-movie Marilyn: The Untold Story.

Garr began as a dancer in various beach romps and Elvis Presley movies, but soon became a very popular film actress, working in The Conversation and Young Frankenstein (both 1974), Oh, God! and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (both 1977), The Black Stallion (1979) and Tootsie (1982.) For the latter, she was nominated for an Oscar, but had to watch her Tootsie costar Jessica Lange take home the prize. (For the Baftas that year, Lange was in the Best Actress category, but Garr still lost, this time to Jamie Lee Curtis for Trading Places.) Sidelined with an increasingly troublesome case of Multiple Sclerosis followed by a brain aneurysm, she has had trouble working as much as she'd like, due in part to the insurance issues. She is currently sixty-four.
Reiner, of course, went directly from this to the hugely-successful sitcom All in the Family. For his role as Mike Stivic (a liberal, constantly as odds with his bigoted father-in-law Archie Bunker, played by Carroll O'Connor, Reiner was nominated for five Golden Globes (losing to Ed Asner of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, James Brolin of Marcus Welby, M.D., McLean Stevenson of M*A*S*H, Tim Conway of The Carol Burnett Show and Ed Asner in Rich Man, Poor Man.) He also took home two Emmy Awards with three additional nominations (the awards going to Asner, twice, and Ted Knight for The Mary Tyler Moore Show.) Since segueing into directing, he's been quite successful, counting This is Spinal Tap (1984), Stand By Me (1986), The Princess Bride (1987), When Harry Met Sally... (1989), Misery (1990) and A Few Good Men (1992) among others. He even scored an Oscar nomination for Men, but Clint Eastwood won it for Unforgiven. He's sixty-four today.

This was Siggins last movie after having portrayed, first, a few of Patty Duke's classmates on The Patty Duke Show and then a procession of hippie roles. Still alive, but apparently out of the business now, he is sixty-nine years-old. He did, however, pen a serio-comic political book last year called "Me for President and Pope."

Along with the disaster movie cache that Vaccaro and Warden bring to the table, there is also the brief sight of one Kathryn Janssen. Glimpsed through a window during a get-together at Douglas' parent's house, she is unmistakable as “Bun Lady,” one of the featured extras in 1972's The Poseidon Adventure. (Yes, fans of Poseidon are so obsessive that we know virtually every person on the ship and there are nicknames for most of them!)

Ms. Janssen was a frequent presence in the scenes of countless movies and TV shows from the '60s through the '80s and very often sported this large hunk of salt and pepper hair. While I don't come upon her as often as I do Leoda Richards (whose elusive identity was questioned here and finally solved here!), I do see her time and again when I'm watching old movies and TV programs and it's a treat to see her there.

I don't think that the young men of today can truly, truly appreciate what it must have been like to grow from teenagers into young men and have something like the draft staring one in the face. I know that I, as one of the THE most na├»ve, non-violent and sensitive kids ever, lived in fear of Selective Service. I remember registering for the draft and worrying that something would happen that would draw me into military service. (And this was in the far less turbulent 1980s!) Trust me, when confronted with the possibility of having to enter basic training and go fight, perhaps to the death, in a war someplace, I was more than ready to, as the song goes, “give peace a chance!” I admire anyone who takes on this responsibility willingly.

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