Sunday, October 25, 2015

Richard Cuffari - Illustrator

Richard Cuffari (1925-1978) was one of the most prolific illustrators in the 1970's for children's and young adult novels.  Here is a gallery of some of his book covers (he illustrated around 200 books).  He is one of my favorite artists and I'll read pretty much anything with a Cuffari cover.  If anyone knows anything about this artist's life, please share it with me.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Carol Sobieski

Carol Sobieski was a screenwriter active in the late 1960’s through the 1980’s.  She died in 1990, at only 51, but the work she left behind is consistently remarkable.  She had a great ability for scripting dramas involving youth.  I’ve previously written about two of her movie of the week scripts on this blog: Unwed Father and The Neon Ceiling.  These are my two favorite films, so of course I’ve sought out other work penned by this unique author.  She also worked as a writer on the shows Peyton Place and Family, my two most beloved tv shows.

According to the IMDB, she penned at least five teleplays for the tv series Insight.  Would love to see these programs, and hope to eventually make it to UCLA to view them (they maintain an archive of this program, by appointment only).

Sobieski is best remembered for her scripts to popular movies in the 1980’s including The Toy and Annie - that fit thematically with her previous scripts of kids, mature for their age, taking on more than they can handle.  She also adapted several novels and short stories, including Sarah, Plain and Tall,  The Bourne Identity (tv miniseries) and the critically acclaimed Fried Green Tomatoes.

Her two original scripts for television that have the biggest cult following are Sunshine and Sunshine Christmas.  Both were later adapted into popular novels by one of the best selling young adult authors of the 1970’s, Norma Klein.  John Denver’s music was used in the film.  Sobieski also wrote the screenplay for Honeysuckle Rose that starred another country singer, popular at the time, Willie Nelson.

Two other often overlooked gems by Sobieski are the two horse films, Casey’s Shadow and Sylvester.  Both are beautifully filmed movies that never quite found a huge audience.  Like The Neon Ceiling, both take place in rural settings and feature an older single man, somewhat cranky and unhappy, who is placed into a situation where his love for a younger person changes his hard attitude towards life.  These films are a must for any fan of Sobieski’s work because she was paired with excellent directors who faithfully adapted her dramas.  Both are often billed as family films, but as in all of Sobieski’s work, there is nothing saccharine here.  She writes her adults as cold and harsh and her kids as tough and mature.  She never sways away from talking about sex and death.  Her characters are never “cute” and Disney films, these are not:

Casey’s Shadow (1978), directed by Martin Ritt.  Set in Louisiana and stars Walter Matthau.
The story is about an impoverished family of three boys and their single father who work as horse trainers.  Their race horse is named after the youngest son, Casey.  Casey is a tough kid - he never really knew his mother, he works hard on the farm and he gambles when he has to.  His father, played by Matthau is rough on him.  When Matthau’s character sees a chance to be a winner with his new horse, his drive for success may be at the sacrifice for the trust he’s built with his struggling family.

Sylvester (1985), directed by Tim Hunter.  Set in Marfa Texas and stars Melissa Gilbert.  Around this time, Tim Hunter also wrote the classic coming of age drama Over The Edge and directed an adaptation of SE Hinton’s TEX.  If you like those two films as much as I do, then Sylvester should also be a must watch on your viewing list.  Melissa Gilbert plays the part of a tough tomboy perfectly.  Similar to the character in Unwed Father, she has decided to take on the responsibility as a single parent (raising her two younger brothers) at an early age.  Her relationship with an older man, Foster - played by Richard Farnsworth, is also reminiscent of the relationship of Jones and Paula in The Neon Ceiling.  The story centers around Charlie (played by Gilbert), a 16 year old orphan who is intent on turning a rogue horse named Sylvester into a champion despite difficult odds.   It is the most lavishly shot of all Sobieski’s screenplays and all the actors are perfectly cast.  For me, it’s one of her greatest films as it combines many of the thematic elements of her 1970’s movies.  It’s sort of a combination of Unwed Father, The Neon Ceiling and Casey’s Shadow.

Here are some more Sobieski scripts that I am eager  to watch:

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Neon Ceiling 1971

The Neon Ceiling from 1971 is a haunting drama that I’ve been obsessed with for some time.  So many top Hollywood names worked on this movie yet it remains a mystery as to why it is such a discarded and forgotten film.  It was never released on DVD or VHS and is rarely shown, if ever, on television.  Despite these factors the movie remains a unique example of human tragedy that could be at least viewed, as of now, on YouTube.  One of its many attractions is that the script follows and adds a slightly feminist edge to the criticism of the American Dream that was begun by classic mid century dramatists such as William Inge or Tennessee Williams.    It’s basically the first edgy independent film that was made specifically for television.  

Consider the talent involved:

  • Produced by John Badham, who would go on to direct Saturday Night Fever.
  • Directed By Frank Piersen, writer of such classics as Cool Hand Luke and Dog Day Afternoon.
  • Written by Carol Sobieski who also penned another unknown telefilm, Unwed Father, that I previously wrote about here.   She also wrote The Toy, one of the funniest movies of the 1980’s.

The film’s small cast includes:

  • Lee Grant, who dedicated a chapter of her autobiography to this movie.
  • Denise Nickerson, her first film before gaining fame for her role as Violet in the classic adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory made the same year.
  • Herb Edelman costars in a small role but most TV viewers will recognize him as the actor who later played Stanley Zbornak (Dorothy’s ex husband) in the 80s sitcom The Golden Girls.

Gig Young is really the star of the show here.  You might recognize Young from the classic Twilight Zone episode The Walking Distance.  Young excelled at playing tragic characters and he would later win and Academy Award for his best supporting role in They Shoot Horses Don’t They.  The Neon Ceiling was made right after this film and Gig was at the top of his game.

In real life, Gig Young  was as troubled, if not more, than the character Jones who he plays in The Neon Ceiling.  The tragedy  of his own life adds another level to viewing The Neon Ceiling in retrospect.  An alcoholic who suffered from depression, he murdered his own wife before committing suicide.  He was also a man obsessed with youth, always marrying women nearly half his age - and this sentiment is also eerily reflected in the film The Neon Ceiling.  Despite the tragedy and desperation of Gig’s life, he was a great actor that was perfect for this particular role.  Perhaps this is the real reason that this film has slipped into obscurity.  The darkness of Gig’s own life almost mirrors the desperation of Sobieski’s script.

With the small cast and limited settings this film could easily be adapted into a stage play and it would work well.  As it stands, filmed on location in the California desert, the cinematography adds an authenticity to this motion picture that underscores its brilliance. 

The original music was scored by Billy Goldenberg.  It is subtle but it sneaks up on you and might just make you cry - once you get emotionally wrapped up in these characters.  Goldenberg was one of the most prolific composers for television in the 1970s including runs on the hit Columbo and the lesser known, but equally great Harry O.

Here is the setup for the story: 

Carrie Miller (mid to late 30’s) is a housewife in San Bernardino California.  Her husband is a dentist, who has been having affairs with his nurse.  Carrie considers herself mentally unstable and has been in and out of psychiatric hospitals.  Yet there is no real evidence that there is something wrong with her.  Mostly she is unhappy with her marriage and bored.

Neither parents pay much attention to the development of their daughter, Paula Miller.  Paula, at age 13, is on the verge of adolescence.  She is curious about sex in a purely analytical way - maybe it will help solve her parent’s marital difficulties.   Paula seems isolated from her peers as well as her family, but is also wise beyond her years.

One desperate evening, Carrie wakes up Paula in the middle of the night.  She tells her daughter to pack her bags.  They are leaving, running away.  Paula is not surprised.  This is not the first time this has happened.  Without telling the husband, they get  in their Ford and leave their suburban neighborhood behind.  Miller is aware that they are leaving but pretends he is sleeping and does nothing to try and stop them.

The car rides off into the mysterious night as the scattered headlights on the highway blur.  Carrie asks her daughter, “Do you know who we are?”  She continues,   “We are nobody way out on nowhere hanging on to nothing.”

Carrie and Paula eerily sing the Halleluia chorus from Handel’s Messiah.  Carries is bright eyed.  Paula is fearful.  It is a call for freedom and possibly the desire for something that doesn’t even exist.  The titles The Neon Ceiling appear…

The next day Carrie and Paula are still driving and approaching the desert by mid morning.  Paula is reading a book on marital problems and is trying to give advice to Carrie, who barely listens.  When Paula suggests that she needs to use a restroom, Carrie pulls over to a dilapidated cafe that also serves as a gas station.

The place seems to be abandoned.  After poking around inside for a bit, Paula decides to turn on the water to fill a glass.  Enter, Jones (or Jonesy).  In the script Jones is described in the following manner: “He is a filthy giant of a man, unshaven, shoeless, tough as a horned toad, imposing as a mountain, smelly as a goat.”

Gig Young plays the character with flair.  He is both brutal and charming.  One moment he is dancing, the other he is breaking glasses.  His behavior is intriguing because it is gloriously unpredictable.

In this scene he basically scares the hell out of his visitors.  Carrie and Paula run back to the car only to discover that they are out of gas and actually need to ask Jones for help.  This is where the drama begins because it turns out their car is dead - leaving them stranded at the edge of the earth with this lunatic. The stage is set and the rest of the movie takes place at the service station in the California desert bordering on Nevada.  

Carrie’s feelings go from hatred to love and to find out why and how, you’ll need to watch the movie because I don’t want to give it away here.  Will Paula be able to get the attention and discipline from Jones that she was lacking at home?  Will Carrie commit suicide?  Will Jones kill everyone (just kidding), or at least show us a gentler sign; the cause of his distress?

The Neon Ceiling, if seen through Paula’s eyes could’ve been told as a coming of age story.  Instead, what we get is three stories.  On the one hand, we have the story of a desperate housewife attempting to break hold of the way a woman is supposed to act - almost a liberating feminist plea.  Both are interesting stories, but Jones’ story overpowers them both.  His is the story of a lonesome man who retreated to the desert and made a Neon Ceiling his art.  Jones is the disgruntled artist, a man at odds with the world who still has a gift for simplifying the world’s complications with truth.  As he states to Paula when fixing the busted jukebox: There’s nothing in this world that’s broken that old Jonesy can’t fix with his bare hands.

I urge you to watch The Neon Ceiling.

The stills and script are from my personal collection (collected over a 5 year period).