Monday, December 28, 2015

Can't I just be myself here? - T.R. Baskin (1971)

T.R. Baskin (1971) is one of those films that critics seems to hate and that no one really knows about.  My opinion is of the contrary.  I think it’s a very entertaining movie worth seeing!  The character in this film is unlike any I’ve ever seen before.  She is a confident woman with a sense of absurdist humor who also exists as an outsider.  On the surface, this is a film about the difficulties of a single person moving to a big city.  Instead of finding glamour and success, she finds the opposite.  What makes this story different though is that we never feel sorry for this character - the intention seems for the viewer to identify with her.

T.R. Baskin is played by a young Candice Bergen (most well known for starring in the sitcom Murphy Brown).  Watching this in retrospect of seeing Murphy Brown, you might go into this thinking that this is an early 70s women’s liberation thing.  About a woman coming to the city, starting off small, and then taking over the company.   The character of T.R. Baskin, as played by Bergen, certainly seems capable of that.  But that’s really not what we have here.  The film is puzzling because this looks like it might be the setup, but then the movie starts with T.R. being propositioned.  It is presented very of matter of fact though, without any sort of scandal.  T.R.'s attitude always seems to be - "I'll give it a shot, okay, what the hell".

She is a woman in her mid-twenties with a very honest perspective on life.  She refuses to play games and seems to see through people and the sometimes ridiculous ideals and standards they place on themselves.  She is a bit of a contradiction though - as T.R.’s outlook seems to get in the way of her having any sort of happiness or success.  She is a complex character because of her simplicity.  She is an outsider not because she tries to be bizarre, but because she seems weird to others.  Why?  Only for the fact that she does not try to be anyone but herself. 

The story is about when T.R. moves  to Chicago.  We know little of T.R.’s background.  She has left a home with her caring parents and set out on her own.   She has no great pretensions.  She gets an apartment, a job an office.  Only: Her apartment is a dump.  Her job is boring.  The guys she dates are jerks.  It's as if being propositioned were no different from other small sacrifices that one needs to make just to get by in the big city.
Told in a flashback style, the film starts near the end of the sequence of events.  T.R. meets up with Jack Mitchell (Peter Boyle).  He is a married man from Utica who is in Chicago for the weekend looking to meet a woman.  An old college friend named Larry (James Caan) gives Jack T.R.’s number.

When T.R. receives the call from Jack, she is reluctant.  She does not seem interested but possibly just agrees to meet him out of sheer curiosity.  After arriving at his apartment, the two discuss life.  Jack feels like she is making fun of him.  To reassure him that she is not, she takes off her clothes and waits in his bed.  Jack changes in the bathroom and gets into bed with her.  He kisses her, but she is disinterested and Jack realizes he is unable to perform.  T.R. finds the situation amusing and just laughs.  Probably the least sexy and unromantic bedroom scene ever filmed.

Instead of leaving, this becomes a sort of icebreaker.  While still in bed, the two discuss their dreams and aspirations and how, in their own way, they are both lonely.  We become sympathetic towards these characters, as they do to each other, even though it is far from any sort of romance.

In the flashback sequence it is revealed that T.R. met Larry (Caan’s character) one night while leaving a bad date.  T.R. notices Larry at a restaurant, stops in and sits with him.  Larry is a divorced children’s book editor and the two seem to hit it off and have a similar sense of humor.
They return to Larry’s apartment for more conversation.  There is a chemistry and the two make love.

The next morning, as she is leaving, T.R. assumes that Larry has mistaken her for a prostitute as she finds money he left her in her jacket pocket.

The viewer then has to take a bit of a leap.  Has T.R. actually decided to become a prostitute, instead of a typist, and this is why she is with Jack Mitchell?  Or is T.R. just herself, a typist, who is simply curious and bored when she receives a call from Jack?

The film is unusual because T.R. is always making the decisions in the film.  She is always what seems like one step ahead of all the characters in the movie, including the men.  At the end of the film, Jack asks her if she is happy.  She avoids answering the question.  “I don’t like to think about that.”

At the film’s conclusion, she returns home, calls her mom, and has a momentary breakdown.  Crying on the telephone, she assures her parents that everything is alright.

The movie is confusing because the viewer is waiting for something bigger to happen to T.R.  She does not fall in love with the city or find her place at the end of the film.  The point is that we are seeing the world from T.R.’s perspective.  In her eyes, the world is kind of crazy and she is just along for the ride.

If you’ve ever felt this way, then maybe T.R. is a heroine worth identifying with.  She’s crazy in a good way, almost like a character from a Cassavetes film, albeit a little less neurotic.

While the film has some funny moments, it’s more of a drama than a comedy.  Maybe it could be considered a comedy for existentialists?

 It’s all filmed on location in Chicago and the cinematography is great.  A real time capsule of Chicago in the 1970s and its mostly all filmed in real places such as the Carson Pirie Scott department store, the Sherman House Hotel, the First National Bank Building, and OConnells Coffee Shop on Rush Street. 

In a way, the urban setting, time and sense of absurdity reminds me a bit of one of Brain DePalma’s first films: Hi, Mom (1970) . That movie came out around the same time and it's about a  young man (played by Robert De Niro in an early role) who comes to New York City for the first time.  It’s also filmed on locations and also shows a character who never seems to fit in…so he eventually starts making “adult” movies. 

 (Still from DePalma's Hi Mom!, 1970)

T.R. Baskin was an early effort by director Herbert Ross.  He would go on to direct many other great films, my favorites being The Sunshine Boys (1975) and The Secret of My Success (1987).  In fact, The Secret of My Success has some similarities to T.R. as this is also, in essence, a movie about an outsider trying to make it for the first time in a big city.  Additionally, it features an 80s business woman/ Murphy Brown type character as the love interest!

The screenplay was written by Peter Hyam when he was still in his twenties.  It’s his first credit but he would go on to write and direct many other films including 2010, the sequel to 2001.

What attracted me to this film in the first place was the chance to see Peter Boyle in another movie.  I always felt like Boyle was a great actor after seeing him in the 1973 made-for-tv movie The Man Who Could Talk To Kids.  But of course I am most familiar with Boyle for his portrayal of Frank Barone on the sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond.  Boyle’s character in T.R. Baskin is far out shined by Bergen’s superb performance.  However, it was still cool to see him in an early role like this.

 Peter Boyle in The Man Who Could Talk to Kids (1973)

I don’t believe T.R. Baskin is currently available on DVD, but I was able to rent it from iTunes for a few bucks.  It’s an odd movie for sure, but in the best way.  Recommended.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Aging Playboys of the 1970s

Here are two character studies that deal with people in their early thirties aging out of their youth oriented careers/lifestyles.  These characters are struggling with adapting to society's expectations of them as adults.   I believe these to be strong characters who make decisions somewhat outside of the norm and are at a point in their life where a crucial decision has to be made.  It is rare to find films, even today, about such unique individuals who are still single this late in the game.  What to call this genre?  It's not coming-of-age; maybe it's better defined as -dropping into age-.  

The title of this post also alludes to the fact that (non nude) Playboy centerfolds are featured in both of these films - however, I would not say that this makes these movies particularly representative of that magazine.  The women in Lifeguard, are independent and sassy, for the most part.  And The Third Girl From The Left, while produced by Hugh Hefner, can also be viewed as a feminist film, as the script was written by singer Dory Previn and might even be considered thinly guised autobiography.

Lifeguard (1976).

Sam Elliott, famous for his roles in Western movies and TV shows, stars as Rick.  An aging surfer, Rick has worked as a lifeguard in Los Angeles since he was in his early twenties.  Now, at 32, he begins to feel pressure to be someone else.  These pressures come from outside as his 15 year old high school reunion approaches.   He also runs into an old classmate.  This  friend is now a car salesman at a Porsche dealership and makes the potential offer  for Rick  to make more money.

Despite these influences, Rick remains self-confident and charming.  His good looks are intact and he spends most of the film in nothing but his bathing suit.  He loves everything about being on the beach; the contemplative times during the winter as well as the rowdier summer months.  And he is great at his job, even though it offers few rewards.  He is also a mentor, taking a college student named Chris (played by Parker Stevenson of Hardy Boys fame), under his wing and offering life advice as well as beach safety skills.

Conflicts begin to arise when Wendy (Kathleen Quinlan), a cute seventeen year old loner, takes an interest in Rick and demands that he make love to her.  Rick is reluctant and shows genuine concern for the girl - the two become friends.  He does eventually give in, and sleeps with her once - but he knows this type of relationship is in the past for him.  Later, he ends up saving her from a drowning/ suicide attempt at the beach.  The relationship is expressed honestly despite this somewhat melodramatic description.

At the school reunion, Rick meets up with Cathy (Anne Archer), his former high school sweetheart.  She is divorced and the two are interested in each other romantically.  She encourages him to take the car salesman job and he contemplates starting a family with her and her five year old son.

Rick also visits his parents and his disgruntled father expresses a sincere disappointment in him.  He yells, "Why is it that I still have to worry about what you'll be when you grow up!"

Ultimately Rick decides to stay at the beach and his persistence against outside pressures is a surprise - both attractive and romantic in its own way.  The viewer is left feeling unsure of Rick's future after the film ends, but you certainly root for him and wish him the best.

The entire film is beautifully shot and captures Los Angeles beach life as it probably no longer exists.  Paul Williams also contributes a catchy original song to the soundtrack.  Direction is by Daniel Petrie, a long time television veteran, who would later direct the underrated coming-of-age films The Bay Boy and Square Dance.  Everything about this film looks beautiful - the actors, the actresses, the beach, the cars.  It's just a joy to watch all around.

The Third Girl from the Left (1973)

This is an obscure made-for-tv movie despite having two very famous actors in the lead roles: Kim Novak and Tony Curtis.  Rarely shown, it was released on DVD a few years ago as part of the Warner Archive collection.  As I mentioned before, this was a Hugh Hefner production, which would make it a curio in its own right.  But what makes it even stranger is that Dory Previn wrote both the script and songs for this picture - essentially penning a "woman's film" - making the Playboy connection even more atypical.  Previn worked on the music for several more famous films with her husband Andre Previn - most notably Inside Daisy Clover and Vally of the Dolls.  She later got divorced, had a famous breakdown and reemerged as an independent singer/songwriter who has gained a cult following for her autobiographical books and 4 records.

Kim Novak has always been one of my favorite actresses.  There is something so subtle, sad and unsettling about the characters she plays.  As an actress she is the master of the understatement and the characters she defines always maintain a sense of mystery about themselves.    She did try to separate her personal life from her Hollywood persona too...and lived in Big Sur in the 1960s, perhaps the embodiment of the character Elizabeth Taylor played in the wonderful film The Sandpiper.  In terms of Novak's output, Vertigo and Picnic are probably my two favorite films of the 1950's  and she is equally as alluring in the 1964 film Of Human Bondage.  In The Third Girl From The Left, we get an older Novak, and I must say that the casting is perfect.  She is essentially playing a showgirl aging out of looking the part- which is true to life for Novak as her star was fading after being one of the most sought out talents of the 50s and 60s.

This combination of Kim Novak and Dory Previn makes for a very personal film that is anything but run of the mill.  Certainly not for everyone, the movie has a dreamlike feel to it.  What it lacks in story, it makes up for in statement - the movie has an ending that asks a question rather than offer a conclusion.

The story focuses on Gloria (Novak), one of the last showgirls in New York City with an old-fashioned (not topless) act.  She has a long term relationship with Joey Jordan, lounge singer and playboy.  She loves Joey, and would like to marry him, but Joey is still fooling around and is unwilling to settle down.  He has an affair with a girl in Vegas (played by Hefner's then wife Barbi Benton) even though he genuinely cares for Gloria - he is unwilling to commit.

The main conflict comes from the fact that Gloria is becoming too old for her act as she approaches her mid thirties.  She is going to be phased out by a younger, more attractive girl - and eventually the act itself will be phased out altogether.  She'd like a commitment from Joey, but doesn't have the confidence to ask him straight out.  All of this puts her at unease about the future.

When Joey leaves for another Vegas trip, she has an affair with a younger man.  David (played by Michael Bradon) is a 23 year old hippy and sandwich delivery boy.  The two care for each other, but Gloria wants more for David than he possibly wants for himself.  The relationship becomes even more complicated when Gloria begins to consider that David was initially interested in her only as a nostalgic novelty.

Gloria's affair and ultimate decisions in the film are presented in the fashion of a metaphor and the viewer is left uncertain of the facts - Was this affair Gloria's daydream OR was it one of many affairs?  What we do realize is that Gloria's decisions are difficult, certainly more difficult than Joey Jordan's.  This makes Previn's song, "I Will Always Be Alone", sung by Tony Curtis, even more haunting.

Ultimately, I feel as though this is Previn's statement about the difficulties of being a female entertainer in the 1970s and the triumph over societal restrictions and norms.


I absolutely loved both of these movies.  They are dated, for sure, but I think that is part of the fascination.  Watch them and they'll take you back to a Los Angeles and New York City that really no longer exists.  As character studies, both of theses films continue to offer bold statements and left me with questions.   I appreciate the ambiguity, especially as someone in my thirties myself.  Not all the answers result from a "coming of age".  There remains a struggle worth seeking.