View from the Cheap Seats

Tales from Hollywood: Spector, Sellers & More

April 15, 2013 - 10:22 am   |   By 

I have taught college composition courses my whole life and it is not uncommon for the curriculum to ask the student to write a true story from their individual pasts.  When they collectively start bellyaching that their lives are boring and that they have no well from which to draw any autobiographical tales, I tell them one thing – everyone has stories.

And, while most of mine are of humorous intent, as I’m one to collect characters who revel in stupidity, you’ll find that I have some that breathe some serious fire and, in this case, one that has haunted me for years and has, very recently, been back in the forefront of our culture due to a brand new HBO film.

During football season in 2002 (as you’ll also notice that my calendar year begins and ends with the University of Oklahoma football team) my friend Gray Frederickson called me to have lunch.  I had recruited Gray from Beverly Hills to assist the state of Oklahoma as it went after Hollywood productions, and we were always up to something in that regard.  This time he told me that an actress friend of his was coming to Oklahoma City to visit him, recharge her batteries and think about what she wanted to do next in her professional endeavors.

I got her booked into a local hotel and met her the very next day.  While she had appeared as a lead in several Roger Corman pictures in the 80s and 90s and while, in her late 30s, she was staggeringly beautiful, the actress understood that there was indeed a “shelf life” on the type of characters that she could play, so she decided that she wanted to go into, of all things, stand up comedy.

Tracy Ullman was a particular hero of hers, so she decided to do “character comedy,” which meant she would create characters a la Saturday Night Live and inhabit them, in all makeup, on stand up stages in comedy clubs.  She wanted help creating the characters and writing their material.  I called one of my best friends named Rick Walker, who is the number morning host in the Oklahoma City market and a someone who is naturally funny to his shoelaces (By the way, Rick is also an excellent filmmaker, you can get on Netflix Sam and Janet, which he wrote and directed and which stars Gary Busey and a horror film called The Fun Park.).  They hit it off immediately and, I think, worked every afternoon for almost a week.  Who wouldn’t want to work with her – she was so grateful for the help and, I can’t say this enough, ethereal to look at.

I think she stayed in Oklahoma City from between ten days and two weeks before heading back to L.A. to assemble her material, maybe even shoot a television pilot, and then, eventually trying these characters out in front of audiences.

I do remember, very well, the last time I saw her.  It was later on Sunday evening and, as my wife and son were occupied, I invited her to a quick dinner.  When she came to the lobby of the hotel, she was a vision.  Black leather pants with a black leather jacket and tall heels.  She had about five or six inches on me.lanaclarkson 

We had a wonderful dinner then I took her back.  As she was leaving the next morning, she thanked me for the little I had done for her and gave me a big hug.  Guys like me never forget hugs from girls like her.

Over the next several months, I’d ask Gray if she had been in contact and always got the latest news pertaining to her.  Then one day, after the first of the year, I didn’t need to ask Gray about her because it was all over the news.  She was dead.  By a fatal gunshot wound that could have possibly been self inflicted.  And that her final seconds were spent in the house of legendary music producer and well known creep Phil Spector.

Her name, as you have probably guessed, was Lana Clarkson.

So, now comes the HBO picture Phil Spector, written and directed by David Mamet.  Not to give anything away, but the picture does leave one to believe that Lana committed suicide (actually, Gray was on the original witness list for the state to testify that she was nowhere near suicidal due to her excitement over her new comedy act) and that Specter, despite years of dangerous, crazy behavior towards women, was, in fact innocent.  Actually the movie plays out like one of Mamet’s stage works, a dream like fantasia of the entire case with Al Pacino, as Specter, wandering in and out of the film like a feverish nightmare.

I have to grant the film artistic license; however, there is a snippet of a scene that boiled my hide.  Jeffrey Tambor (as famed mob lawyer Bruce Cutler, who actually works in my brother’s building in New York, and Helen Mirren are the meat and potatoes of Specter’s defense team.  At one time they are in front of a television monitor watching an actress playing Lana doing her “comic characters” – an ex hippie and a straight from the 70s black dude.  Both attorneys watch her trying very hard to be funny and make sport of her efforts.  I, knowing what she went through to get to that stage in her life, was offended.

I’m not saying that I really knew Lana Clarkson – she was in my life for two weeks, then we talked on the phone several times after that, however, when she was with me she breathed delight and was a very intelligent, charming and lovely woman.  For those who wouldn’t necessarily know Lana from her brief film work, there is a website www.lanaclarkson.com dedicated to her memory.

 

Being There

petersellersbeingthereNow for something a little less serious – my friend Gray, after a very successful association with Francis Coppola, was hired to be an executive at Lorimar film productions.  Lorimar, you might remember was heavy into television production in the 70s and 80s (Dallas, The Waltons etc) and decided to go into film productions.  There are lots of great stories about the films made during this time by Lorimar (The Fish that Saved Pittsburgh?!?) but here’s one of my favorites.

When director Hal Ashby was attached to a film version of the Jerzy Kosinsky novel Being There, there was apparently great anticipation regarding the casting of the lead role Chance.  As most film buffs know, the part went to the late, great Peter Sellers and it could be argued that his was one of the great performances in all of American film.  Like, maybe, George C. Scott in Patton or Burt Lancaster in Elmer Gantry, it is impossible to imagine anyone else in the role.  Sellers took his ability to lose himself into a character to a new level – Gray said that Sellers used to call him every night in a different character voice – and the result was, well, inevitable, precious. Being There was the last film released while Sellers was alive and, although he lost the Best Actor award to Dustin Hoffman in Kramer vs Kramer, we all know who delivered the best performance that year or, for that matter, maybe of all time.

Now here’s the kicker – Gray ardently protested against the casting of Sellers and, as the film was not a box office success, argues today that his selection would have made the picture a hit.  Gray’s idea for the lead in Being There?  A new and upcoming, at the time, comedian, who had as yet made a feature film – zany, arrow through the head, Steve Martin.

beingthere

 

On Video

Raise your hand if you remember when the box office was ruled by a young actor, straight from the Broadway stage, Elliott Gould.  Otherwise known as Mr. Barbra Streisand, Gould, who many designated the lead player in the counter culture war film M*A*S*H.  From that landmark film, Gould was cast as a new breed of anti hero in many pictures through the early 70s. 

During this time period, he re teamed with Robert Altman, who directed M*A*S*H in a then modern day version of Raymond Chandler’s “The Long Goodbye,” playing detective Philip Marlow.  My favorite scene in the picture is Gould at his best and, knowing how Altman worked, was probably ad libbed.  While Marlow is sniffing around in some office or something, a security guard approaches and asks “Hey, who are you?” – then, without missing a beat, Gould says “Sidney uh Jenkins.”  My brother and I both use the name Sidney Jenkins when our own won’t suffice. 

Some of Gould’s other great films include Harry and Walter Go to New York and The Silent Partner, each on DVD.

whiffswadvdLike almost all actors who start out in a flash of fire, Gould faded as a leading man.  You still see him around in movies like Bugsy, Ocean’s 11 and American History X and when he appears on screen he still carries the devilish charm and acute smugness that made him a star in the first place.

The reason for all this drivel is that our friends at Warner Archive have released two of Gould’s pictures Whiffs, a M*A*S*H wannabe and I Will I Will for Now, co starring Diane Keaton.

Also on Warner Archive is one of the great misfires of all time.  Imagine a fictional film about a dysfunctional White House, with Bob Newhart as the president, Madeline Kahn as the first lady, Gilda Radner as the first daughter and Richard Benjamin, Bob Dishy, Harvey Korman, Rip Torn and Fred Willard as the first staff.  Written and directed by Buck Henry, the picture is called First Family and you probably need to see it just to realize that something with that much talent involved can be so terrible.  Also available from Warner Archive.

Let’s talk about Olive Films, which is releasing terrific classic films in blu ray right and left – this month there are four rarities in particular – Robert Altman’s That Cold Day in the Park, Anthony Mann’s film noir Strangers in the Night, Sam Fuller’s China Gate and Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep in the film adaptation of William Kennedy’s Pulitzer prize winning novel Ironweed.  I’ll be discussing these in depth as I watch, but go to olivefilms.com to see their entire catalog.

 

At the Theater

Spring Breakers is like a perverted version of Our Gang.  When Spanky et al were given some funny business or a cute line, the director would repeat it to them over and over until they could memorize it, they would quickly, lest the child forget, film a close up of the actor repeating the rehearsed line, then the editor would splice the joke into the middle of the action.  I think that’s how Harmony Korine, a cult director aiming for the big time, must have achieved coherency with the four young Disney girls playing the heroines in this picture.  He would tell them a line five or six times then goose them so that they would repeat it without either belching or hiccupping.

Our plot here tells the woeful tale of four bikini wearing college freshwomen who decided that, in order for them to travel for spring break, they must rob a restaurant for spending money.  Owning an eatery myself makes me wonder how a little dump like the one they heisted could cough up enough to get the getaway car out of the parking lot.

Once in Florida, they get arrested again, I think for just being too darn cute and a gold betoothed, braided hair wearing James Franco comes in just in time to start a gang war over drugs.

Spring Breakers really sort of had a chance –its vibrant out of focus images are colorful and Franco, slumming, looks as though he was Laurence Olivier stepping on the set of the Teletubbies.  However, here’s what gets me – these new pictures, made before the last schoolyard shooting have zero sensitivity toward the gun issue.  Especially in Spring Breakers, where every firearm is treated like a eyes not open yet puppy.  Don’t filmmakers know that audiences with any sensitivity are getting queasy about constant gun violence? 

At the end of our little adventure all of our princesses are left standing, while all around them are taking a dirt nap.  Here’s an idea for a sequel – Spring Broke.

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Have to end with a funny story.  A regular reader of The Bits, named Ken Williams discovered that he lived less than a mile from my restaurant and came in to see us… he’s also a fascinating fellow, he repairs movie projects, both film and digital, all over the country.  You never know who you’re going to meet on The Digital Bits!

See everyone at the Flix!

- Bud Elder

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