Tuesday, June 22, 2004

No One You Know Lives Twice, Mister

Next time some superannuated Boomer tries to tell you how cool the '60s were, sit him or her down to watch The Pleasure Seekers. But only if it's someone you dislike.

This is a semi-remake of Three Coins in the Fountain, by the same director, Jean Negulesco. It carries over a few things from the earlier hit: three women in a picturesque location (Spain this time) have romantic complications; one of them tries to hook a man by pretending to be interested in the local art and architecture; a nice older man (Brian Keith, who, unlike Clifton Webb in the original, is not saddled with a fatal disease). What makes this movie so unintentionally ridiculous is that it takes this very old-fashioned story and tries to graft "up-to-date" elements onto it. So unlike the women in Three Coins, the characters in The Pleasure Seekers actually talk about who they have and haven't gone to bed with; one of them is at least considering trying to seduce her married boss away from his wife; there are some dismal attempts to write hip dialogue ("Oh, baby, you're such a drag"). The equivalent today would be remaking The Breakfast Club with the characters saying "word" and "don't go there" a lot.

Everything about the film is a testament to what was wrong with Hollywood movies in 1964, from the mostly static camera -- Negulesco was one of those directors who apparently believed that the best way to shoot in CinemaScope was to set the camera down and photograph characters talking to each other from opposite ends of the frame -- to the bad back-projection, to the bad post-dubbing of dialogue in the outdoor scenes. There's the confusion about genre and audience: some of it seems to be aimed solely at a "youth" audience, other parts of it seem aimed at Hollywood's then-vanishing general audience; there are several diategic musical numbers, but it's not a musical. And then there's the sheer tackiness of the whole thing, which reflects the tackiness of mainstream pop culture in 1964, a culture that had no confidence in the formulas that used to work but had found nothing to replace them (and in many respects, still hasn't). As an example of the tackiness, suffice it to say that there's a party scene where the guests are dancing to a really bad Bossa Nova arrangement of Rodgers and Hart's "Blue Moon."

The three women this time around are three young actresses who seemed at the time to be headed for Big Things: Ann-Margret (who gets the three musical numbers, written by Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn at their blandest), Carol Lynley and Pamela Tiffin. None of them really became huge movie stars, mostly because they were unlucky enough to emerge at the time when American movies were going into their worst-ever drought for women's roles. In the '60s, movie heroines were mostly eye candy: beautifully dressed and made-up, but otherwise pointless; it became common in this era to cast models or beauty-pageant contestants in major movies, because in these movies it wasn't necessary to have a leading lady who could act. In the movies of the '70s, women were still extraneous to the plot, but they were no longer beautifully dressed or made up, because the New American Cinema got rid of the old costume and makeup departments. This really wasn't much of an improvement.

Anyway, there are a lot of actresses in '60s movies who could have become big stars in another era. Ann-Margret certainly became famous, but she really didn't get to be a full-fledged movie star; there were a couple of bad movies in 1966 where she was the sole star (remember "The Swinger?"), but in most of her movies she was essentially a supporting actress. Even ten years earlier, she would almost certainly have been a big star in movie musicals. Pamela Tiffin really should have been a star; in 1961 she was wonderful in Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three as a ditzy Southern belle ("You can tell daddy I'm off to the U.S.S.R. -- that's short for Russia"). Wilder spoke highly of Tiffin's talent and intelligence. But she mostly wound up cast in bad youth movies (For Those Who Think Young) or minor parts in big movies (a nice turn as a bikini-clad Lolita type in Harper with Paul Newman), and she eventually wound up in Europe, playing thankless roles in bad international co-productions. And while I'm not the biggest Carol Lynley fan, I don't doubt that she too would have done better a decade earlier. There are other actresses from this era who could have been major stars if they'd started earlier; Paula Prentiss is one, Angie Dickinson another. It just so happened that Hollywood and to some extent England had embarked on two decades during which women were mostly decorations, targets, or altogether absent from movies. I wonder if that's one reason for the increased popularity of foreign-language films in the '60s: to see a beautiful actress in a really good part, you had to go to an Ingmar Bergman movie.

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