Friday, December 5, 2014

WARNER ARCHIVES: Mr Buddwing (1966)...An American Dream (1966) ....

MEN UNDER SIEGE: WARNER ARCHIVES BRINGS BACK TWO FROM 1966; Watch as American males deal with a loss of identity...
By Don Stradley

The opening scenes of Mister Buddwing (1966) are so enticing that it's tempting to recommend the movie based on those alone. The title character, played by James Garner, wakes up in the middle of New York's Central Park, unable to remember his name or where he lives. Frantic, he finds a phone number in his pocket. He dials it. Who picks up on the other end? Angela Lansbury, doing a sort of late period Bette Davis impression. Good, right? 

It turns out that Buddwing met her husband the night before and was given the number. Buddwing goes to her apartment, blubbering that he can't remember anything. He doesn’t even know how he takes his coffee; she pets him like he's a big dumb dog. Then she gives him a couple bucks and tells him to go find himself. The scene is such an intriguing mix of tension and unintentional comedy that one wonders if the rest of movie can possibly live up to it. It doesn't. Still, Buddwing's frustrating, and often harrowing, 48 hour trip through New York offers enough amusing moments to offset the bits that don’t work.

MGM had purchased the rights to Evan Hunter's novel at the galley proof stage for $200,000. Hunter was hot at the time, having written the screenplay for Alfred Hitchock's The Birds, as well as many successful novels, screenplays, and TV shows. Directing Mister Buddwing was Delbert Mann, winner of a Best Director Oscar a decade earlier for Marty. Along with Garner in the title role, the movie featured some of the best female talents of the day, including Suzanne Pleshette, Katherine Ross, and veterans Lansbury and Jean Simmons. The film's nervous, jazzy score by Kenyon Hopkins was so well received that it was released as an LP. In other words, the production was loaded. Still, Garner dismissed it in his memoirs. 

"Worst movie I ever made," Garner wrote years later. "I'd summarize the plot, but to this day, I have no clue what it is." 

The movie, now available through the Warner Archives streaming service, follows Buddwing as he tries to recover his identity. He has only vague memories of a woman named Grace, who turns out to be his wife. Women on the street remind him of Grace, which sets off old memories of their courtship and turbulent marriage.  He eventually remembers the shocking incident that caused him to black out and lose his memory, and howls in agony as the truth comes flooding back into his mind. 

There was a time when Hollywood loved amnesia, trotting it out often as a plot device. What makes Mister Buddwing almost palatable is New York itself, as Mann and cinematographer Ellsworth Fredericks capture Washington Square, Central Park, Greenwich Village, New York University, Shubert Alley, the Plaza Hotel, St. Malachy's Church, and the Queensboro Bridge, all in a  smoky and smudged black and white. The city looks great, mythic and sprawling, though The New York Times reviewer noted that New York could still be "a drab place for producers with unconvincing scripts." 

Garner is believable as he shambles along, looking for clues to his identity. I like how he loses himself in crowds, becoming as anonymous and invisible as he feels. Strangely, he's much less convincing in the flashback scenes when he's playing the young lover wooing Grace. In those scenes, he seems as amateurish as the worst daytime soap opera star. Yet, he's quite believable as a frightened man who has lost his memory. At times, he shows more vulnerability than we remember seeing from him throughout his career. Garner's hatred of this movie says something about him. Perhaps he didn't like seeing himself in a role where he had to do more than smirk. 

Maybe Garner would have preferred Stuart Whitman's role in An American Dream (1966) (AKA See You In Hell Darling), a tawdry potboiler based on a novel by Norman Mailer. Whitman plays Stephen Rojack, an angry TV personality who accidently causes his wife's death, then embarks on an affair with an old girlfriend who happens to be a well-kept Mafia mascot. In time, everyone is after Rojack, including the cops, his father-in-law, and a quintet of well-coiffed mobsters. Characters stop occasionally to offer bromides about the world and its sorrows, but what’s meant to be philosophical comes off as heavy handed and clichéd, like what you might hear at a self-help group encounter. Noted NY Times curmudgeon Bosley Crowther suggested An American Dream was the year's worst film, calling it "...technicolored claptrap, which mixes standard gangster fare with soul-searching liverwurst." 

Made the same year as Mister Buddwing, An American Dream seems like a much older movie, with characters sneering at each other in a style that was already dated by ‘66, especially Eleanor Parker as Rojack's spoiled, half-crazed wife. She's a camp classic in herself, spitting her lines out like a third-rate drag queen impersonating Joan Crawford. If not for the '60s eye-candy created by cinematographer Sam Leavitt (known for his excellent photography on Anatomy of a Murder and A Star is Born), you’d swear this was a 1940s B-melodrama. Yet, this was a major studio production. Unfortunately, it was made at a time when the major studios were losing their touch. Director Robert Gist was primarily a TV director, and there are times when An American Dream feels like a 1960s TV drama. Gist's idea of creating tension  is to have characters yell at each other. (“You’re a gutless slob, afraid of life and afraid of death!”). Since Whitman is the star of the movie, he does the most yelling. His scenes with Parker border on hysteria - at one point they're rolling on the floor of her luxury penthouse biting each other - which was probably Norman Mailer's attempt at a Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf type of domestic drama. It's all a bit silly.

One wonders, though, if the original story provided catharsis for Mailer, who'd gained some notoriety for stabbing his wife just a few years earlier. Rojack is offered an 8-million dollar contract by his network after his wife’s death makes the news, which is probably Mailer's comment on our nation's sick culture. It's a fine starting point, but the film doesn't go for full-bore satire. Mailer may have hated the cult of personality, but he hated women more, and ultimately wanted to write a story of men being betrayed by ball-busting witches. Scenarist Mann Rubin was saddled with turning Mailer’s overwrought fiction into a movie; after removing Mailer’s high-wire prose, there’s not much left but a routine mob melodrama.

Mister Buddwing and An American Dream haven't aged well, but they do offer a look at an interesting time in America. The women's lib movement was not quite in full bloom in 1966, but Hollywood was already depicting middle aged men running in terror from something, questioning their identity, or in the case of Rojack, watching numbly as his wife plummets 30 stories to her death. American males were worried about the rapid changes in society, particularly where concepts of masculinity were concerned, best symbolized when Rojack approaches his  showdown with the mobsters armed only with his girlfriend's dainty little gun. As for poor Buddwing, he's reunited with his troublesome wife at the end. He's grateful, but he's as doomed as Rojack.

Mister Buddwing and An American Dream are both available through the Warner Archive streaming service.

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