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).