Saturday, September 01, 2007

Shelley - The Glorious Bad Period

The true pillars of the art community have not only great individual works but entire periods in which collective works take on an even higher meaning. Picasso had the blue and cubist periods. Miles had the modal period. Dylan had his electric period. Less revered, but to me, equally important is Shelley Winters "bad period" which ran roughly from the mid-1960s after Alfie and ending in the mid-1970s with Next Stop Greenwich Village.

Not that differently than today, when Shelley passed her mid-40s, she faced the choice of continuing in prestige films and playing increasingly smaller parts or continue to play lead roles in flicks of less and less calibre. Shelley generally chose the latter option during this time period, and I would argue that we're all the better for it. At the time, and generally to the same extent to this day, she was pitied for taking on a number of these roles, but I have slowly been building my library from this era, and the cumulative impact, especially with a bit of distance of years, is staggering. Leading roles in big movies for women are meant for hot babes under 35. Leading roles for women over 35 in smaller budget movies are meant to be played as crazy, homicidal bitches. That speaks volumes about how our society views women and aging.

First, one can't help but admire Shelley's "Oh-what-the-hell-spirit", but at times she is extremely profound and moving. She seems to be saying, "You want me to play a mean, nutso broad. I'll do it, but I'll do it my way and make her human. Oh, and excuse me while I chew the scenery in the process." Sadly, her role in The Poseidon Adventure is often held up as the pinnacle or saving grace of that period, even garnering her an Oscar nomination. To me it's the nadir of that time and a cloyingly maudlin performance in which Shelley was robbed of the usual oomph and frequent nastiness she dared to exhibit during that time. Instead, I'd point to my favorites now proudly a part of my DVD library: Bloody Momma, Cleopatra Jones, Wild in the Streets and Blume in Love. Today I was finally able to acquire the absolute pinnacle of that period - the two-sider Whoever Slew Auntie Roo and What's the Matter with Helen? (Makes you wish she did an entire Who-What-Where-When-Why series.) It's the second film that is the absolutely best of the bunch. It's relatively hard to find and by no means a B-movie or second Banana role for Shelley. Created by much of the talent behind Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and the much more inferior Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte, it far exceeds my fond memories that go back to the last time I saw it on TV around 1970 or 1971.

It not only plumbs the dark shadows of southern California explored in The Day of the Locust, Chinatown and Baby Jane but also the even darker madness of the Great Plains evidenced in In Cold Blood and other tomes daring to expose the seamier sides of the supposed Heartland. It was these corn-fed folks, after all that came to pick the fruit, irrigate the valleys and bring a little dirt under the fingernails grit to Tinseltown and those orange groves that ultimately gave way to strip malls and Disneyland.

Helen is actually an often compelling film, glimpsing into the underbelly of 1930s Southern California and the people from the supposedly wholesome Midwest who turned it into a global magnet for people wanting to reinvent themselves. Besides amazing work by the leads, it includes Dennis Weaver looking surprisingly sexy and Agnes Morehead playing a radio evangelist. There's also a little girl belting out seductively "Oh, you nasty man!" It's not nearly as campy as I remembered it being. Auntie Roo's an entirely different story. Shelley brings pathos even when asked to give us screaming hysteria, and it's possibly Debbie Reynolds greatest role. Oh, and there are a lot of rabbits involved in the climax.

As Labor Day heralds the return of autumn, an end to summer silliness and hunkering down to the real work, I will likely shift from my tawdrier balmy days entertainment as I settle into expanding my ever burgeoning Criterion Collection library. But I strongly suspect I'll be pulling Helen out now and again to amaze and impress my hoity toity friends.

CODA: Back in the late 1990s, a friend of mine had an apartment on the far eastern edge of Beverly Hills near the border with West Hollywood. I would frequently house sit for him and walk his overweight Scottie, Colby. He had it on good authority that Shelley owned a duplex a few doors down and claimed he actually saw her once herding a green Jaguar down the street at break neck speed. To my pleasure, the dog's favorite place to pee was right across the street from the duplex. I always lingered a moment or two longer than needed until Colby pulled on the leash. One morning, just as she was beginning to whine for me to follow, I saw the hand of an older woman pull the drapes of one of the darkened room. The shadowy figure then moved to do the same to the two other windows and disappeared. By now, the dog was close to yelping, but I waited a few seconds more, saw nothing and relented to continue our walk. Though disappointed, this possibly close encounter was still a bit of a thrill. In my dream world, the window would have opened to reveal a tough broad chewing a cigar, holding a machine gun and belting out, "You wanna piece of this, pal? Then bring it on! Bring it on, baby!"

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At 4:33 PM, Blogger WAT said...

I thought she was great on Roseanne. That was her on Roseanne right?

At 5:00 PM, Blogger Junk Thief said...

Yes, she played Roseanne's grandmother who was a lesbian, as I recall. Not her greatest role, but proof that until the end still had plenty of spunk and took on risky roles.

At 6:51 PM, Blogger Gary said...

When I was in High School I was probably the only boy reading Shelley, her autobiography. She had a really fantastic career and quite the love life (according to her). I got swept away by her tales of Hollywood and it was from her that I discovered Monty Clift.

This well written post brought back such great memories of my wide eyed belief in things back then and all the possibilities of life. Gregg, I think you, Mark and I should plan a week of watching old movies and chillin'!

At 7:02 PM, Blogger Junk Thief said...

Gary - Wonder what that early interest as a youth in Shelley tells us about what was in your future? That movie marathon sounds like great fun. Should I run out and start stocking up on Jiffy Pop?

At 10:57 PM, Blogger Bryce Digdug said...

Fabulous. Debbie Reynolds is actually good in this. She comes right to the edge of ruining Siging in the Rain (do I have the right movie?), but now SITR is on my top 100 list. Minelli is a great visual director. I think it was Judy's wig in Meet Me... that made me initially hate Minelli.

At 11:05 PM, Blogger Junk Thief said...

Bryce - Rumor has it that during the snow people scene, Minnelli had to restrain Margaret O'Brien so she would not whack Judy's head too with her broom because that wig scared the poor tot more than anything in the Halloween scene. Unconfirmed, but Kenneth Anger told me that story years ago at a bar in Oceanside while running his hand up my inner thigh back when I was really young and so naive that I kept looking for the tea bag in the fourth Long Island Tea that he bought me.

At 4:36 AM, Blogger Pod said...

i have only seen here in the posiedon film when i was but a podule, but i remember liking her in it. how gay!

At 8:27 AM, Blogger Junk Thief said...

It doesn't mean you're gay, Pod, just sensitive.


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