August 29, 2013
Marion Dougherty, the legendary casting director at the center of the new documentary Casting By (currently airing on HBO), got her start in the early days of television. She spent nearly a decade on Kraft Television Theatre, earned her first on-screen credit (below) during a brief stint on a live version of Ellery Queen in 1958, and wielded a creative influence over Route 66 and Naked City that would be difficult to underestimate.
In interviews, Dougherty was puckish but also taciturn. “Casting is a game of gut instinct. You feel their talent and potential in the pit of your stomach. It’s about guts and luck,” she said in 1991. The New York Times carped that, because of the instinctive nature of casting, “there’s not really much they can say” when Casting By interviews casting directors.
Fortunately, in Dougherty’s case, there is another way to examine her process in detail. Dougherty left a substantial paper trail – in particular, an index card file that spans nearly forty years and thousands of performers. The earliest surviving cards date from around 1961, when Dougherty became the East Coast “casting executive” for the two Herbert B. Leonard-produced dramas, and the file appears to become a nearly complete record of every actor Dougherty met after 1968, when her feature film career began to gain momentum. The card file comes up in several anecdotes mentioned in Casting By, and at one point Dougherty reads aloud from the card containing her original assessment of Gene Hackman, from 1962: “good type – his reading was nothing but I believe he could be v. good – esp. as gentle, big dumb nice guy.”
(Disclosure: I appear briefly in Casting By, and worked as an archival researcher on the film. Also, while the archival materials discussed below are not presently available to the public, the filmmakers have told me that Dougherty’s estate has donated them to the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.)
In Casting By, Jon Voight describes his disastrous television debut on Naked City. Dougherty’s card file reveals that some months before she hired him for that episode, Voight had read unsuccessfully for Route 66 (based on the description, probably for the role played by Lars Passgard in “A Gift For a Warrior”).
In general, Dougherty’s notes on actors were more pragmatic than poetic. “V.G.” (for very good) or “Exc.” (excellent) are abbreviations that appear on hundreds of cards, as is the triumphant “used” (meaning she hired the actor for a part). Disapproval was registered just as bluntly, with notes like “boring” or “square” (a favorite word) or “I thot dull” [sic]. But if Dougherty rarely wrote more than a hundred words on any given actor, her notes in their totality offer an enormous amount of insight into how she thought about the art of acting, as well as a kind of hands-on philosophy of her own craft.
In one sense, casting for Dougherty was a process of taxonomy. In her office, the card file was separated into six drawers organized by gender, age, and ethnicity (much like the Academy Players Directory, which was for many decades the industry’s mug book for working actors). Dougherty jotted down actors’ heights (a consideration in pairing off men and women) as well as their ages and how far she felt they could deviate from it on screen (“40, could go to 60,” she wrote of Dominic Chianese, years before he became one of television’s most famous senior citizens as The Sopranos’ Uncle Junior). She thought in terms of class, with some specificity: “upper middle or upper” and “blue collar” are notations she used. She also noted regional accents, and asked actors whether they could discard them. Going beyond class, Dougherty made notes on types: “rural”; “street”; dangerous.” She often wrote down whether an actor was right for comedy or “serious” material, or both. “Excellent for comedy high or low – imagine she’d be good also for drama as she’s very intelligent, feeling person,” Dougherty observed of Charlotte Rae. In auditions and meetings with actors, she didn’t just evaluate the level of talent on display; she was also thinking ahead to how she might use what she saw.
Dougherty also recorded whether she thought actors were good-looking, or sexy (not the same thing), and whether they were right for “romantic” leads. And she sometimes speculated on whether an effeminate actor was a “fag” or, later, “homosexual” or “gay.” Even in the early cards where the terminology is outdated, though, those notes come across not as homophobic but as an attempt to assess whether actors could “play” straight in an industry in which gender norms were rigid.
If her inclination to pigeonhole actors into basic categories seems antithetical to the idea of casting directors as diviners of the more ephemeral qualities of talent, it’s important to remember that Dougherty retired around the same time as the Internet Movie Database was launched. Her card file was, more than anything else, a mnemonic device, a way of sorting out the blur of hundreds of auditions during a period when there was no Google to summon dozens of images of every small-part player. In Casting By, Dougherty points out a system of remembering actors by associating them with people in her own life: “I would put down anything that hit my mind – I put down ‘has eyes like Aunt Reba’ and I knew what that meant, because Aunt Reba was very elegant and sort of snooty and [had] beautiful eyes.”
The cards reveal how elaborate this associative ritual could become. Dougherty often compared new actors to those she had grown up watching on the screen. Robert Forster (assessed in 1966, prior to his debut in film or television) reminded her of a “more polished” John Garfield. The mature Roy Thinnes struck her in 1991 as “sort of a cross between [Jack] Palance and Steve Forrest.” For character actors, Dougherty would match other character actors: Sully Boyar (from The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 and, famously, a single scene in The Sopranos as Carmela’s psychiatrist) was “a poor man’s Zero” (Mostel, that is). David Doyle: “like a jokey, younger Orson Welles.” Diane Ladd: “reminds me of Nina Foch or Miriam Hopkins.” With Burt Young, Dougherty got into a debate with herself that underlines how specifically she understood actors’ qualities. “He looks a bit like younger less ugly Ernie Borgnine . . . Great for hoods,” she wrote, then added, “not really, more Borgnine or [Richard] Castellano” – actors, in other words, whose warmth and humor undercut their menacing looks. Dougherty’s other favorite source of metaphor was the animal kingdom. “She looks like a bird,” she wrote of Calista Flockhart. Grace Zabriskie was a “pug” (but “not unpretty,” Dougherty hastened to add), Henry Winkler a “bassett hound.”
Although most of Dougherty’s index cards refer to specific meetings with actors, she would sometimes create a card just to record the name of an actor who had impressed her on the stage or screen. She first observed Robert Redford in a 1960 Playhouse 90, Lawrence Pressman on Broadway in 1968’s The Man in the Glass Booth, and Rue McClanahan and Holland Taylor in the 1969 Off-Broadway production Tonight in Living Color. Dougherty thought Peter Boyle was “damn good” in Joe and noticed Joe Don Baker (“a cross between Ralph Meeker and Marlon Brando”) in a supporting role in another 1970 film, Adam at 6A.M.
But while many cards, especially during Dougherty’s studio years – in the mid-seventies, she moved from New York to Los Angeles to become the head of casting for Paramount and later Warner Bros. – chronicle auditions for specific films, the majority of the insights she recorded were gleaned from conversation. Her notes make it clear that Dougherty was less interested in an actor’s line readings than in the sense she got of the his or her personality during her gentle questioning about their backgrounds, their aims for the future, and their self-assessments of their strengths and preferences as a performer. “When I talked to people, very often I didn’t talk about what they did in movies or plays or anything else,” Dougherty explained to the Casting By filmmakers. “I would ask them about where they learned acting, what they did, and I’d ask them about what their animals were and what their kids were – just anything that would give me an idea of them.”
(That said, Dougherty disdained actors who wouldn’t read for a part, and one suspects those actors were at a serious disadvantage when it came to films that she was casting. “[G]ood actor but won’t read and I don’t dig that,” is her only note on Brock Peters.)
Dougherty’s notes on her conversations with young actors are a touching record of where her passion lay. Even in her private files, only the most abjectly clueless or unprepared auditioners were subjected to Dougherty’s scorn. “Came in totally unprepared to read . . . a real lox,” she wrote of one popular Saturday Night Live star. Her genuine enthusiasm for young actors, for kernels of talent and expressions of conquer-the-world excitement, comes across again and again in her casting cards. She took notes (in 1961) on how Martin Sheen read from the Bible at a talent show and moved from stagehand to actor in his first hit show, The Connection, and (in 1966) how Bo Svenson had done kabuki in Japan, a play in Hong Kong, and “Bergman pix as a child” (!). Actors who struck her as intelligent, and in particular actors who expressed a desire to play against their image, won her admiration. What actor wouldn’t tell a casting director that they wanted to do meaty, serious work and not just get by on their good looks? And yet Dougherty recorded variations of that remark many times, with evident credulity.
“We had a nice talk; I chided him about being late,” is one of her more motherly notes – written in reference to a twenty-two year-old Jude Law. Her protective impulses also extended towards older actors fallen on hard times. Casting By reveals that one small-part actor, Tom Spratley, lived in the boiler room of the 30th Street townhouse that was Dougherty’s headquarters during its heyday (and a nexus for a variety of eccentric, up-and-coming actors and writers). Dougherty helped to discover Rocky actor Burt Young, and he became a sort of mascot around the 30th Street office as she and her assistants helped him through a period of personal tragedy in the seventies. Even when Dougherty perceived a talent as limited, she was looking for ways to use it creatively. “He was hammy, paunchy, and totally wrong for the part,” she wrote of one character actor. “However, he could be used for overbearing, dumb, etc . . . with a firm director he’d be useful.”
Dougherty used the card file to keep tabs on actors who had caught her eye. Although new meetings would occasionally merit a new card, Dougherty’s habit was to add updates to an actor’s original card whenever they caught her attention, either in a film or an audition. In some cases, a single card documents decades of brief encounters. Dougherty created a card for Paul Dooley when he replaced Art Carney in The Odd Couple on Broadway in 1966; she updated it again in 1970 (when she saw him in The White House Murders on stage), in 1973 (a cryptic note: “Cuckoo’s Nest – interested”), in 1976 (“used” in Slap Shot), and in 1979 and 1980 (when she saw him in Breaking Away and Popeye). (Those references to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Slap Shot, both of which were officially cast by Mike Fenton and Jane Feinberg, are among the many intriguing mysteries to be found in the cards. Slap Shot was directed by George Roy Hill, who knew Dougherty from Kraft Theatre and was her companion for many years; it’s likely that she consulted on the casting for all his features, even those that she didn’t work on formally.)
Dougherty’s addenda to her cards document a process of constantly upgrading her assessment of an actor’s skills or range. Tim O’Connor, a consummate underplayer, “always bored” her until she saw him in Tonight in Living Color; then she raved that he was “very good . . . attractive and virile, yet funny.” When Dougherty saw Mitchell Ryan on Broadway in Wait Until Dark, she was frustrated: “he is not able to reach the audience – strangely removed – Has now had a lot of classical [experience] but still nothing that reaches out and makes contact – too bad because he’s very good rugged type.” Two years later, she scrawled this note underneath her earlier comments: “Finally hit it in Moon For the Misbegotten.” Overwhelmingly, Dougherty looked for the positive, delighting in finding new wrinkles in what actors could do and new angles on how she could use them. Only occasionally would she watch an actor for a while and conclude there was less than met the eye. “She really can’t hack it,” Dougherty wrote of one underground actress who appeared in many cult movies. “He really is an Ivy League bore,” was her assessment of an actor who eventually became a major TV star playing just such characters.
Some of Dougherty’s cards have “courtesy” written at the top – a code indicating that she met with an actor as a favor to someone, in some cases with a reluctance reflected in the iconoclastic casting director’s notes on the meeting. But Dougherty also took referrals willingly, often seeing actors recommended by directors and other casting directors she trusted, or sounding them out on actors she’d met. It’s fascinating to trace who sent whom to Dougherty’s attention. Naked City director Walter Grauman pointed her towards Richard Benjamin in the early sixties (according to the card, Grauman had used Benjamin in five episodes of The New Breed, although that credit isn’t noted anywhere online). Al Pacino, one of her discoveries, sent her the character actor Richard Lynch, he of the distinctive facial burn scars, in 1972. Spratley “raved about” Ed Begley, Jr. in 1976. Sometimes the intel from Dougherty’s trusted sources was more cautionary. Of the character actor Michael Higgins (Wanda; The Conversation), Sidney Lumet had “seen him be brilliant just a couple of times” – a back-handed compliment if ever there was one, and yet a fair assessment of an actor who worked a lot but tended to recede into the background.
Another invaluable bit of information captured in Dougherty’s card file is an alternate history of what-might-have-been casting – a record of auditioners who came close to getting iconic parts that went to someone else. Lois Smith “gave [a] damn good reading” for the Brenda Vaccaro role in Midnight Cowboy (although she “had no comedy” when she read for Norman Lear’s Cold Turkey). Dougherty “would have used” Ray Liotta for the Sam Bottoms role in Bronco Billy. George Roy Hill thought that Christine Baranski had a “very good face for whore if Swoosie [Kurtz] can’t do it” (but Kurtz did, in The World According to Garp). Tom Skerritt (“think he has a lot of sadness in him”) read well for unspecified roles in A Man Called Horse and Smile. Dougherty liked Susan Tyrrell for Dark Shadows (well before her film debut) and The Day of the Locust. She read Richard Gere for The Day of the Locust, too – possibly for the lead – but she was suspicious of his charm and thought he’d be better suited to play villains (which is how she eventually cast him in Looking For Mr. Goodbar).
Casting By explains that Dougherty’s retirement was not a graceful one. Ousted at Warner Bros. in 1999 (when keeping track of actors using index cards must have struck outsiders as prehistoric) with a classic Hollywood knife in the back, she learned of her firing from an announcement in the trade papers. Although her enthusiasm for actors was never diminished – she noticed Naomi Watts and Paul Rudd in her final years at Warners – Dougherty had soured on television, the medium that launched her. “Sexy lady – has just done a pilot – there goes that!” she groused on Annette Bening’s card in 1987 (although the pilot didn’t sell, and Bening became a film star). “Hope he gets the right part before TV snaps him up – give him a chance to learn more. He then might be a real leading man,” she wrote of Julian McMahon (ten years away from his TV stardom in Nip/Tuck) in 1993. It was a potent irony: television, the medium that launched her, had come to represent for Dougherty a minefield in which actors would learn bad habits and short-circuit promising careers.
Dougherty died in 2011, after suffering dementia for several years. It’s a shame that she didn’t remain active long enough to notice the renaissance in television that began with The Sopranos, and continues. One could easily imagine her in a Manhattan brownstone, scouting for new faces for Orange Is the New Black, going out the same way she came into the business sixty years ago.
Editor’s Note (9/5/13): At the request of the Marion Dougherty Estate, most of the cards originally used to illustrate this piece have been replaced with others.
Photos courtesy HBO.
July 25, 2013
“Why not directing? There’s no big mystery about it. It’s – well, it’s just having a point of view and – and a certain amount of selection and taste.”
– Vince Edwards
Last month, I wrote about the problems of writing about television direction. With the auteur concept in film criticism, the collaborative nature of the medium becomes a dangerous trap: how do we determine, through research or comparison, which decisions were made by the director rather than by the writer, the cinematographer, the actors, or the editor? Television multiplies that problem by sheer volume – most directors racked up a hundred or more TV episodes during their career – as well as access – logistically, how many of those hundred or more shows can be located and screened in quick succession? Compounding the daunting element of scale is the assumption that television is not a director’s medium. More than in feature filmmaking, the director’s role is proscribed, with producers, stars, and editors routinely making decisions that would typically fall to the director in cinema. The process of discerning a television director’s personal style is a kind of reverse engineering. It’s not enough to study Director X’s episodes of many different series. One also needs to look at other directors’ episodes of the same series, as a means of identifying which touches are unique to Mr. X and which might be part of a given show’s overall “house style.” And, perhaps, familiarize oneself with the unquantifiable work of many actors: how are they different under Mr. X’s direction than under someone else’s?
The fraternity of fanatics who have seen enough television to be qualified to undertake such studies is small. I’m one of them, but even I find the prospect intimidating. In the back of my mind, I have a list of a dozen or so episodic directors active between the fifties and the seventies who consistently delivered first-rate work. But it would take a pretty big research grant to fund the hundreds of hours necessary to write authoritatively about even one of those bodies of work.
Which brings us to Vincent Edwards, the star of Ben Casey, and also an occasional director of television segments. Edwards might seem an unexpected choice to serve as our guinea pig here, but there are certain factors that make him well-suited to our purpose. First, his videography is manageable: he helmed only about twenty-two hours of television across nearly thirty years. Second, he was famous, which means that we have access to more biographical information than we would expect to find for a rank-and-file television director. Third, the case of the television-star-turned-director is a fairly specific phenomenon that recurs across the history of successful TV series, and we may be able to benefit from certain generalizations about how it happens, and what the results tend to be.
The other factor that makes Edwards interesting is that he’s something of an extreme case. Edwards came to mind when I was reading reviews of a Mad Men episode directed by John Slattery (who, like his co-star Jon Hamm, has become one of the series’ regular directors). One mentioned Slattery’s “lovely lyrical images,” another his “usual visual flair.” The seven episodes of Ben Casey that Edwards directed are also precociously cinematic. In fact, Edwards’s kid-in-a-candy-shop infatuation with the camera and its possibilities is so manifestly in evidence that his work on Ben Casey has attained a tiny cult following among the handful of aficionados who pay attention to such things. (The post seems to have been swallowed by the internet, but Edwards-as-director came in for a round of both admiration and scorn a few years back in one of the discursive discussions on auteurist extraordinaire Dave Kehr’s blog.)
“I just went up [to the producers of Ben Casey] and said, ‘I wanta direct a show.’ They said, ‘OK, we’ll find a script.’”
– Vince Edwards
The script that Edwards pulled was a heavy female melodrama called “Dispel the Black Cyclone That Shakes the Throne.” The patient of the week was one Clarissa Rose Genet (Mary Astor), a reclusive opera star whose comeback has been thwarted by blindness (because blind people have never become successful recording artists) and also by the controlling impulses of a live-in manager (Eileen Heckart) who prefers that her solo client remain as helpless as possible. Although Clarissa’s heterosexuality is carefully established by the introduction of an old flame (James Dunn), it’s implied that the hysterical, unsympathetic manager, Polly Jenks (Eileen Heckart), is motivated in part by an obsessive same-sex attraction. Can Dr. Casey untangle all these unhealthy attachments and convince Clarissa to have the surgery she requires?
“It needed – uh, fluidity,” said Edwards of this rather lugubrious outing. “Fluidity” translated into a range of showy, often unmotivated camera movements. Fittingly for someone with a megastar’s ego, Edwards began his directing career on a crane: “Cyclone”’s cold open commences with a crane down into Clarissa’s cavernous foyer, and then a two-minute long-take in which Polly and a doctor (Wilton Graff) outline some of the basic facts of the plot. Edwards tries to enliven several routine dialogue scenes by sending the camera on a slow, circling prowl around the actors. There’s a distracting fast pull-back on Astor during a scene in which she makes a pivotal shift in loyalty, from Polly to her estranged, alcoholic daughter (Luana Anders), and an equally flashy zoom in on Heckart at the moment when Polly learns she has been fired.
Amid the expected overzealousness of a freshman director, though, there are good instincts. Edwards creates a number of stark, forceful close-ups on his actors:
“Where does the shadow go when the sun has set?” is the last line of the episode – Polly’s, as she contemplates an empty life after her break with the healed Clarissa. Edwards creates a literal correlative for this line, a dramatic final image in which the camera pulls back, isolating Heckart in a shadowy hospital corridor amid a row of bright spotlights extending into the background. No actual hospital anywhere in the world, it’s safe to say, has ever employed a lighting scheme of this sort.
Edwards’s second episode, “For a Just Man Falleth Seven Times,” concerns dying businessman Thomas Hardin (Lew Ayres), who experiences a burst of strength and euphoria during his final hours. Once buttoned-down, now impulsive, he goes forth into the seedy side of town and proposes marriage to a coded prostitute (Lee Grant). Edwards tries out more ambitious compositions in the red light district sequences: a handheld camera following Ayres as he walks through the scuzzy streets, a god’s-eye point of view to establish a waterfront dive. The circling pans from “Cyclone” recur, and Edwards sets up several compositions that can be called signature shots. The most evident is a positioning of actors at right angles in different planes, which creates a dramatic depth of field and also allows Edwards to eschew the standard shot-reverse shot grammar of the television conversation. Here it is in “For a Just Man”:
And an earlier instance in “Cyclone”:
Amid the show’s rudimentary sets, Edwards sought out striking places to put the camera. In “For a Just Man” he positions Grant and Sharon Farrell (playing Ayres’s daughter) behind the fence that surrounds the upper-floor terrace (an indoor set) where patients are often seen recuperating.
An identical shot recurs in Edwards’s next episode, “Every Other Minute It’s the End of the World”:
The ninety-degree positioning of actors reappears in “Every Other Minute,” too:
“Every Other Minute” is a convoluted story about a teenaged girl (Patricia Hyland) who’s going blind as a result of diabetic retinopathy; the twist is that her father (Francis Lederer) is a survivor of Nazi medical experimentation and thus vehemently opposes the experimental procedure that Dr. Casey proposes to save Hyland’s eyesight. The script never recovers from that cringeworthy (in)convenience, not even after a wild second-act curveball. Edwards, rather like Dr. Casey, is hell-bent on experimentation, most of which does not spring organically from the material. There’s an attention-grabbing move in a scene between Casey and the German refugee, in which the camera suddenly whirls around a hospital wall and places the two actors in silhouette, behind the window. The dialogue at that moment is routine; nothing in it compels such an extreme shift in emphasis. (Casey even turns off an overhead lamp for no reason, except to make the lighting more dramatic.)
Edwards also sets up some odd shots in a scene where a frantic Hyland go-go dances herself into a coma. At one point, Edwards creates an impossible image, intercutting overhead shots of the dancers with low-angle shots taken from a hole in the floor (which is, of course, not evident in the wider shot). A moment later, Hyland appears to be positioned upright against a wall, even though her character is supposed to be lying on the floor. These shots are disorienting, but without evident purpose.
Hyland, of whose brief acting career Ben Casey was one of the high points, recently spoke favorably of Vince Edwards as “a lovely, generous director” who instilled “a warm sense of trust in her.” Fifty years earlier, Eileen Heckart offered a similar endorsement of Edwards’s first time behind the camera: “I didn’t think much of the script, but he was brilliant. He’d done all his homework.”
All of Edwards’s first three directorial turns feature not just strong performances but, notably, strong performances by women. In “Cyclone,” the two leads deliver work that’s well within their range – Astor world-weary and formidable, Heckart sharp and shrewish – but there’s also a fine, fragile performance by Luana Anders (below) as the neglected, wistful daughter. In “For a Just Man,” solid, enjoyable work by Lew Ayres is upstaged by the two younger women in Hardin’s life: open-faced Sharon Farrell, playing Cordelia to Hardin’s lear, and Lee Grant as the waterfront wife, bitter but secretly vulnerable. (Farrell was dating Edwards at the time; Grant took a similar approach to a similar character two years later on Peyton Place, and won an Emmy for it.)
It’s commonly assumed that actors who become directors will function best as actors’ directors, and Edwards seems to succeeded in that regard. “People who are actors often know how to deal with actors really well. They don’t treat them like a light fixture,” said Hyland. “There’s just a little more rapport.” But another, less intuitive scenario is that actors will take performance as something already mastered, and become more consumed initially with mise-en-scene, because it’s the aspect of the job that’s new to them. This was true of Vic Morrow, the Combat star who started directing for his series a year after Edwards, and of Sydney Pollack and Mark Rydell, two young character actors who initiated a permanent transition into directing on Ben Casey – and of Edwards as well.
Compared to what came before, Edwards’s next three episodes – “Eulogy in Four Flats,” a quasi-comedy about an old con man who fakes illness so that his neighbors will take care of him; “Three L’il Lambs,” an unsold backdoor spinoff about three newly-minted residents of varying skill and commitment; and “Run For Your Lives, Dr. Galanos Practices Here,” a silly, cliched yarn about the generational conflict between an aging Latin American revolutionary and his assimilationist doctor son – were comparatively restrained. The signature shots are still in evidence – for instance, the god’s-eye point of view in “Eulogy”:
And the ninety-degree positioning of actors in “Three Li’l Lambs”:
But the eye-catching set-ups are less evident. In fact, only this restricted composition in “Three Li’l Lambs,” which emphasizes one character’s anxiety about his professional performance and echoes the earlier behind-the-fence set-ups, stands out. (It’s also another long take that allows a two-person conversation to play out without cuts.)
A laziness begins to creep in: “Eulogy” contains a twenty-three second shot of Edwards descending a flight of stairs, a shot duration which (along with some of the endless dancing scenes in “Every Other Minute”) suggests that Edwards’s episodes may have come in short. “Galanos,” in particular, is almost entirely conventional in its lighting and composition. And the performances are uneven: Norman Alden is quite moving in the scene shown above, in which his character expresses uncertainty about the choice of medicine as a career, but he conspicuously overplays an earlier scene in which the character botches a diagnosis. Was Edwards passing out of his experimental phase and trying out a more conventional style? Or was he simply getting bored? Did it matter that none of his second three episodes included female roles as prominent as those in the first three?
If there were only six Edwards-directed Ben Casey segments, they would form a predictable arc from novice’s enthusiasm into easily-distracted TV star’s boredom. But there’s a seventh, an episode called “If You Play Your Cards Right, You Too Can Be a Loser,” which is as overstuffed as its title and as gloriously, wonderfully, touchingly self-indulgent any television episode ever has been. Into it, Edwards crams every crash zoom, Dutch angle, ostentatious dissolve, extreme overhead angle, and action-framed-by-a-random-object-in-the-foreground composition that he can muster. (A very small selection of them appears below.) It is his “Wagon Wheel Joe” moment.
What to make of “If You Play Your Cards Right”? Some of Edwards’s excess is justified by the delirium that is periodically experienced by the central character, a glue-sniffing wife-beater (!) played by Davy Jones (only months before he turned into a Monkee). Much of it, though, seems to be an expression of disinterest or contempt toward the material, which is difficult to fault. The script is tawdry and unsubtle, and Jones’s fatal miscasting sinks what ever chances it had; there isn’t even a bit of throwaway exposition to reconcile his British accent with the American ones in which the actors (John McLiam and Louise Latham) cast as his parents speak. In its final season Ben Casey morphed into a serial, and one could argue (perhaps feebly) that the splintering of episodes like “If You Play Your Cards Right” into three or four discrete subplots invites a disorienting mise-en-scene. And there’s one other X factor, the replacement of the long-time cinematographer Ted Voigtlander with his former camera operator, William T. Cline. But Cline’s imagery in the fifth season is generally no more adventurous than the gifted Voigtlander’s had been, and other directors’ episodes in that year are far more sedate. Plus, there is evidence of a clash between Cline and Edwards. (In his memoirs, producer John Meredyth Lucas claimed that Edwards packed on the pounds in between seasons, then scapegoated Cline for making him look fat after the need to slim down was pointed out.) When Edwards went off the directorial rails, it was his own doing.
The initial assumption one makes about TV stars who begin directing their own shows is that they do so purely as an expression of ego. (“Isn’t directing a TV show that you’re acting in an exercise in vanity?” is how The Atlantic put it, rudely, to Slattery last year.) Perhaps. The actors who launched abortive directing careers off their long-running hits often tend to be the same stars who used their clout to seize control of those shows and push out the original creative teams – for instance, Richard Boone on Have Gun Will Travel and Alan Alda on M*A*S*H. Edwards falls into this category to the extent that, after Ben Casey became a hit, the show’s set ran according to his whims. Although there’s no evidence that Edwards controlled the hiring of producers, or influenced story content, as Boone and Alda did, there was little question of anyone saying no when he expressed the desire to direct.
But it’s important to consider the context behind Edwards’s career move. Ben Casey’s initial producer, Matthew Rapf, was committed booster for young talent and the series was a training ground for aspiring directors from the beginning. Sydney Pollack did his first important television work on Ben Casey, and then paid that forward by inviting his friend Mark Rydell out from New York for an on-staff apprenticeship as a director-in-training. Pollack and Rydell in turn became mentors of sorts to Edwards as he prepared to direct. Crucially, in the years just before Ben Casey, Edwards had the good fortune to work as an actor for some of the most promising filmmakers in Hollywood. He’d garnered some acclaim for leading roles in two existential, quasi-independent films noir (Murder by Contract, 1958; City of Fear, 1959) directed by Irving Lerner, who (presumably at Edwards’s behest) became a regular director on Ben Casey. Edwards appeared in The Night Holds Terror (1958) with John Cassavetes, who remained a friend and cast him in a memorable cameo (as a dumb lug who beats up a whole jazz combo in a long pool-hall confrontation) in the second feature he directed, Too Late Blues. And Edwards was in The Killing (1956), and always spoke proudly of having working with Stanley Kubrick. A smart observer – and Edwards, whatever his other flaws, was anything but dumb – couldn’t help but absorb some of the creativity and enthusiasm of these men.
Edwards shot home movies and other films with a personal eight-millimeter camera, and became an avid shutterbug; according to his second wife, the actress Linda Foster, Edwards’s still photographs displayed an excellent eye for composition. (Notwithstanding that a sneering TV Guide article suggested that Edwards mostly enjoyed photographing the pretty nurses on the set of Ben Casey.) Foster and others suggested that Edwards’s interest in directing was not an indulgence but, in fact, a remedy for some of his diva behavior on the Ben Casey set. The more cerebral task of directing diverted his attention from the excesses of stardom and other personal problems and refocused it on the work. “Vince was volatile but when it came directing he quieted right down and got to work. And he worked hard at it,” said actress Kathy Kersh, who was briefly married to Edwards during Ben Casey and appears in “Three Li’l Lambs.”
Asked if Edwards was a cinephile, Foster said no, but noted that his filmgoing was highly focused. “He’d say we’ve got to go this or we’ve got to go see that. It was quite specific. He was never a ‘let’s go to the movies’ type of person. The only movie I remember he liked [in the seventies], he was crazy about Stallone and Rocky.” Earlier, in a 1966 interview, the actor cited at least one influence that suggested he’d been paying attention to new developments in the cinema: Richard Lester’s peppy mod comedy The Knack … And How to Get It, which opened in Los Angeles in July 1965. Given the chronology, The Knack almost certainly explains the left turn in Edwards’s style between “Dr. Galanos” and “If You Play Your Cards Right.” In that interview, Edwards complained about “old-school” (his words) directors who “are so determined to keep the picture in frame that everything becomes ‘static’” (the reporter’s paraphrase, apart from the last word). Lester seems to have liberated Edwards as a visual stylist.
Unfortunately, at the same time, ABC liberated the actor in a different way: they cancelled his show at the end of the 1966 TV season.
“[Directing] brings a different sort of adulation. Kazan isn’t mobbed by teen-agers.”
– Vince Edwards
However much Edwards might have enjoyed his work on the back end of the camera, becoming the next Elia Kazan wasn’t on his mind when Ben Casey went off the air in 1966. His priorities, according to a 1965 TV Guide interview, were marriage, kids, and a movie career. Edwards left Ben Casey with a three-picture deal at Columbia and a successful nightclub act that he’d originated during his summer vacations.
Edwards also had a crippling addiction to gambling – specifically, horse racing – one that had been amply covered in the press and that earned him a reputation around town for epic unprofessionalism. He regularly bolted from the set during the middle of the day to go to the racetrack, and even though he’d made millions off of Ben Casey, he was always putting the touch on friends and co-workers for a loan. His lazy attitude towards acting didn’t help, either. While rival TV doctor Richard Chamberlain, also a wooden unknown when Dr. Kildare made him a star, studied the craft and grew into an acclaimed performer, Edwards clung to the snarl and the somewhat smarmy charm that landed him the Ben Casey role. His one-expression-fits-all acting was fodder for nightclubs’ and columnists’ wit. After the three films he top-lined flopped, Edwards had nowhere to go but back to television. If you play the ponies wrong, you too can be a loser.
In 1971, Edwards starred as a psychiatrist in Matt Lincoln, a clear attempt to recreate the magic of Ben Casey; it failed after one abbreviated season. In the meantime Edwards had married (twice) and fathered three kids; with movie and now even TV stardom eluding him, he’d tried all of those goals he enumerated in 1965. Directing worked its way back to the top of the list. One of the last Matt Lincoln episodes was his first directing credit in five years, and his deal with Universal (which produced the series) extended to the closest thing to an auteur effort in Edwards’s videography. Maneater (1973), starring Ben Gazzara and Sheree North, was the first project that Edwards directed without also acting in. He originated the telefilm himself. The story idea about tigers on the loose came from a crony and former stand-in, George Frazier, who had been an animal trainer, and Edwards wrote the teleplay with another member of his entourage, an occasional Ben Casey writer named Marcus Demian. (Horror master Jimmy Sangster did a credited rewrite.) Cecil Smith, TV critic for The Los Angeles Times, wrote that Edwards “builds a fine sense of tension” in his direction, but Maneater earned little attention and mixed reviews.
According to Foster, Edwards expressed a preference for directing over acting more than once, and “tried to develop a couple of things,” but Maneater became the only film or television project that he would originate. During the seventies, Edwards’s always precarious personal life took a nose-dive. He’d been to several psychiatrists to try to control his gambling, but always ended up ditching the sessions and heading to the track. Foster divorced him after nearly a decade of marriage, because of the gambling, and in 1976 he filed for bankruptcy.
It’s likely that most of Edwards’s directing credits after Maneater were undertaken primarily out of financial necessity. He enjoyed a parallel career going back and forth between acting and directing, but most of the directing gigs came from producer friends; Edwards never established himself as a sought-after director. Nearly all of his episodic directing during the seventies and eighties traces back to either David Gerber, Aaron Spelling (a pal since the sixties who called Edwards his “itty-bitty buddy,” and with whom Edwards shared a business manager), or Glen A. Larson (at whose Hawaii estate Edwards married his third wife in 1980).
Most of those shows, with the exception of Gerber’s Police Story, can be charitably called junk, and Edwards was no longer the biggest wheel on the set but, now, just another down-on-his-luck journeyman director. Ten years after the impossible object that is “If You Play Your Cards Right, You Too Can Be a Loser,” do we find anything of the old exuberant Vince Edwards, cineaste, in the likes of Larson’s pablum? Surprisingly, yes – if only a glimmer.
It’s harder to analyze performance in the likes of BJ and the Bear and The Fall Guy than in Ben Casey. Most of the shows Edwards directed in the seventies emphasize action and spectacle over character-driven drama. Of the seven Edwards-directed segments I was able to view, the most accomplished performance came from a young actress: Anne Lockhart (below), playing the guilt-ridden girlfriend of a villain in a two-part Hardy Boys.
Lockhart also turns up in Edwards’s Battlestar: Galactica two-parter, “The Living Legend” (which inspired perhaps the high point of Ronald D. Moore’s remake of that series, making it, in hindsight, the most significant of Edwards’s later directing efforts), giving a less polished performance but still a striking, sexy one. Lloyd Bridges, the primary guest star in “The Living Legend,” does all the things you’ve seen Bridges do a hundred times before, but Edwards assists him with a shadowy entrance that foreshadows the direction his character will turn:
Edwards’s other excursion into the Battlestar empire was a single episode of Galactica 1980, “The Super Scouts Part 1.” In one shot Edwards revives the familiar right-angle positioning of actors that he used repeatedly in Ben Casey:
“Super Scouts” also brings back another favorite Casey tic, the slow circling pan, which is why this child actor ends up addressing Lorne Greene over his shoulder in their scenes together:
Greene and the boy have scenes together on the same set in the second half of this two-parter, which was directed not by Edwards but by Sigmund Neufeld, Jr. While the gauzy fog filter is used there, too, the camera remains static in Neufeld’s scenes. Thus Galactica serves as a rare petri dish in which elements of house style (the filter) can be distinguished from choices made by individual directors (the camera movement).
There are new techniques, not evident during Ben Casey, that Edwards favors in the seventies shows. Here’s a close-up of Lorne Greene from “The Living Legend” in which the actor is positioned toward one side of the frame while others bustle out-of-focus in the background in the other half of the image:
A nearly identical set-up occurs at least three times in Edwards’s episode of BJ and the Bear, “Silent Night, Unholy Night.” Edwards also displays a facility for staging action in real locations, something that Ben Casey – which very rarely left the soundstage – afforded little opportunity to do. Scenes shot in a bank and a department store in “The Super Scouts Part 1” and on the USC campus in Edwards’s episode of David Cassidy – Man Undercover capture more of the flavor of those locations than one typically observes in television location shoots. The “Super Scouts” sequence in which Barry Van Dyke “accidentally” robs a bank builds a unexpected amount of tension as it progresses. As a standalone sequence, it’s more effective than the banal story into which it’s integrated.
Edwards’s rebirth as a TV director fizzled out in the early eighties. There was one outlier, an In the Heat of the Night episode in 1990, and then nothing. According to Linda Foster, he never defeated his addiction to gambling. “He never was going to be a serious filmmaker, because he was too interested in the sixth race at Santa Anita,” said Mark Rydell, who noticed Edwards’s divided focus even as he began preparing for his first turn as a director. “He was a little bit like a rabbit running around rabbit holes. I don’t think he had the patience and discipline to see things through half the time. And he’d get frustrated and take himself off to the racetrack,” said Foster.
“The ultimate satisfaction in film is the director’s. I love it,” said Edwards in 1973, in what may have been his final recorded statement on the subject. “But it’s two months’ work for two weeks’ pay. As an actor, you come in to do an 11-day TV movie, take the money and run. You can’t do that as a director. At least I can’t. I have to be involved every step of the way through post-production up until it’s on the air.”
Sources (in addition to linked text above): Dwight Whitney, “Anybody Know What Kind of Mood Vince-Baby Is in Today?” TV Guide, April 4, 1964; Whitney, “Vince Baby Plays It Cool,” TV Guide, February 18, 1967; Cecil Smith, “Will Ben Casey Make a Comeback?” Los Angeles Times, December 6, 1973; Kathy Kersh interview in Tom Lisanti and Louis Paul, Film Fatales: Women in Espionage Films and Television, 1962-1973 (McFarland, 2002); John Meredyth Lucas, Eighty Odd Years in Hollywood: Memoir of a Career in Film and Television (McFarland, 2004); and July 2013 telephone interviews with Patricia Hyland Tackett, Mark Rydell, and Linda Foster Winter.
June 4, 2013
I used to do an occasional roundup post wherein I would comment upon interesting new TV-related articles I’d read. Ever since I’ve been on Twitter (@smilingcobra), I’ve just been posting those links there — it’s more efficient and I never liked putting a lot of effort into writing posts that would become instantly disposable.
However, I can’t resist a little annotation on two recent articles that are totally unrelated but still strike me as two halves of the same whole. One is Matt Zoller Seitz’s attempt to make an auteurist case for the episodic television director. The other is a DGA Magazine article about directing The Good Wife. Where Seitz compiles through-lines by looking at the TV shows themselves, Ann Farmer comes at it from the other direction, by polling some Good Wife producers and directors in search of concrete examples of the directors’ contributions to specific episodes. (Totally irrelevant coincidence: When I interviewed veteran TV director Michael Zinberg for last year’s “Turkeys Away” oral history, he called me from the set of The Good Wife. Which reminds me, I’m still waiting for that introduction to Archie Panjabi.)
Whereas the role of the television writer changed seismically when episodic television shifted from a freelance to a staff model, the of the episodic director is essentially the same as it has been since the fifties. The almost complete separation of filmic and three-camera sitcom directors, the director’s hierarchical disadvantage relative to producers and actors and cameramen who work on their shows full-time, the gulf between A-listers who direct the hot shows and rank-and-file directors who get stuck with everything else — none of those factors have changed much since the late fifties. There have been some intriguing exceptions to these old patterns in recent years – a director’s occasional commitment to a staff job on a show, as Seitz noted, or the relatively new form of the one-camera sitcom – but none of them have become the rule. Plus, even those new things aren’t that new: in the old days, a director would turn producer once in a while (Walter Grauman on Felony Squad, Boris Sagal on T.H.E. Cat), and hybrid half-hour dramedies like The Law and Mr. Jones, which were the closest antecedent to single-camera comedies, attracted an odd mix of comedic and dramatic directors, just as today’s single-cams pull in both established TV comedy directors and indie-film outsiders (whose widespread infiltration of episodic TV during the HBO era of the early 2000s is also something that a few older shows like East Side / West Side and The Bold Ones tried).
So, nothing is new under the sun — which is why it’s remarkable, and frustrating, and revealing, that the subtext of that Good Wife piece is one of defensiveness, and that the idea Seitz is getting at is so hard to pin down. It’s easy to talk out one’s ass about “the director” — to simply default to auteurist lingo in criticism and write that Thomas Schlamme did this or that, without actually investigating who came up with what idea. But to really write authoritatively about a TV director’s work, or style, is extremely challenging. A glance at Seitz’s scattershot examples shows how much work is left to be done: there are nods to The Twilight Zone (John Brahm) and All in the Family (Paul Bogart), but most are from post-2000 shows Seitz has written about elsewhere. Of course, there are TV director auteurs from every era, but we’ve only scratched the surface in picking them out or isolating what qualities differentiate them from their peers. John Frankenheimer’s roving camera made him a behind-the-scenes star of the Playhouse 90 period, and most of my fellow sixties television cultists have figured out that Sutton Roley – the Orson Welles of early television – crammed nearly every TV episode he directed with a ton of strange angles and extreme lenses. But there are dozens of other early episodic directors with an eye almost as bold as Roley’s, and an especially problematic class of “actor’s directors” (like Paul Bogart, whom Seitz mentions) whose touch is probably only detectable by subtraction. (Many episodic TV directors had, or have, their own “stock companies” — but while we know all of those beloved John Ford and Preston Sturges actors well, we haven’t yet enumerated Paul Bogart’s or Ralph Senensky’s favorites.)
Most of us watch television by program, whether it’s one episode per week or in marathon form. To write knowledgeably about an episodic director’s work, you’d have to turn that sideways, and scrutinize specific episodes of dozens of different series, with an eye peeled for formal connections that aren’t always obvious. Then you’d have to try to account for factors that derived from other creative contributors, or “house styles.” Series like Ben Casey or Star Trek had such distinctive lighting schemes that you would expect any director’s episodes of those shows to vary from their personal “look,” whatever it might be. A series star’s performances aren’t likely to vary much from episode to episode (or are they?), but what can be discerned by comparing actors’ one-off work across many shows, for particular directors? Why might Don Gordon have walked through a dozen guest shots and then absolutely nailed the title role in The Defenders‘ “Madman”? Was it simply a response to stronger-than-usual material, or was the director (Stuart Rosenberg) the x factor? Or why, to put it another way, might Sutton Roley’s touch be more muted on some series than others? Probably because of budget constraints, or producers and cinematographers who preferred a less showy style. Roley always fought the system, which is why his body of work stands out, but there are other directors who did extremely innovative work on “friendly” shows and totally anonymous work on other series.
In the DVD-and-torrenting era, the texts are available for this kind of scrutiny in a way that they weren’t until ten or fifteen years ago — but I haven’t taken it on, and I’m not aware of anyone else who has, either. (Actually, I do know some gonzo cinephiles who are expert on some of the TV-movie directors of the seventies, but little or none of their work has been published yet.) Finding the director’s touch, I think, is the ultimate brain-teaser of television scholarship.
P.S. So, I’ve been missing in action for a while, huh? Writing for money and sundry other things have kept me away from the important work for longer than planned. If things go as planned, though, this space should be sputtering slowly back to life over the next couple of weeks.
March 8, 2012
When I wrote about Leonard Heideman more than two years ago, the response was anti-climactic. This was the story of an important television producer with a deadly secret in his past, and a generation of repercussions from that secret, culminating in Heideman’s suicide. I’d spent three years, off and on, gathering data, watching Heideman-scripted TV episodes, and trying to convince reluctant friends and family members to share their memories of this talented but disturbed individual. Apart from the initial news accounts of Dolores Heideman’s death, almost none of what I wrote had been reported before. When I began, and knew little about Leonard Heideman except that he’d killed his wife and written for Murder, She Wrote, I thought about writing up the story as an acerbic only-in-Hollywood anecdote. Once I dug in, I realized that approach would have been in horribly bad taste, and I became obsessed with getting all the facts right and being fair to all the parties in this tragic tale.
Everyone who read the piece seemed to like it, but I guess I expected more. Comments from Hollywood veterans who knew or worked with Heideman (or, more likely, “Laurence Heath,” as he was later known). Some interest from the true crime community, perhaps, or from one of those semi-scuzzy cable magazine shows. Or, worse, angry reactions from some of the Heideman or Heath family members who declined to be interviewed and opposed my reporting of the story. In fact, apart from a one-sentence response from one of the sources I did quote in the piece, the only communication I received from the Heideman/Heath family was a recent e-mail from a distant relative and family historian, who confirmed several of the educated guesses that I couldn’t verify during my research. But when I pressed for more details, the family member never responded.
So for the most part, “Lenny the Knife” – as my research associate and I morbidly took to calling him – remained confined to this little corner of the internet. Maybe the Los Angeles Times editor who turned down my Murder, He Wrote pitch as “old news” was right.
All of this comes to mind because I noticed an obituary in Thursday’s Los Angeles Times for one of the minor figures in the Heideman saga. Maxwell Keith, one of the three-man team of high-powered lawyers who succeeded in clearing Heideman, the violent killer of his wife, with an insanity plea, died this week in Templeton, California, at the age of 87. Keith’s claim to fame was his doomed defense of two Manson acolytes, Leslie Van Houten and Tex Watson. The Times obit also mentions another famous Los Angeles murder case, that of Dr. R. Bernard Finch – a dentist who conspired with a pretty young mistress to kill his wife – in which Keith and his then partner, Grant Cooper, were the attorneys of record. The jury put Finch away for twelve years. Even though it was, locally, a high-profile case (and it would’ve broken Keith’s 0 for 3 record), I guess I’m not surprised that the Times didn’t mention Cooper and Keith’s successful defense of Heideman.
Keith is not quoted in my Heideman history for the simple reason that I couldn’t find him. Even though an odds-defying percentage of them were still alive when I was researching Heideman, I had terrible luck with the police and the lawyers who worked his case. Glen Kailey, one of the uniformed officers who arrested Heideman on the night of the killing was still living, but seemed to have fallen off the planet (or more likely into an elder care facility that defied public records searches). Both of the primary detectives on the case were alive, too, but when I tracked down O. D. de Ryk, the senior investigator, he told me that his former partner suffered from advanced dementia. As I questioned de Ryk, I sensed that he, too, suffered from memory loss; the few details he could remember about the Heideman matter were questionable. (Kailey and de Ryk both died in 2010.)
As for the attorneys, Grant Cooper was long dead. Godfrey Isaac – in his eighties but still a practicing lawyer at the time – declined to be interviewed minutes after receiving my request, and ignored my subsequent e-mails. (Although in his single curt reply, Isaac did mention a detail that allowed me to identify him amid the pseudonymous figures in Heideman’s memoir.)
As for Maxwell Keith, one reason I failed to track him down is that he was no longer licensed to practice law. The Times obit politely reports that Keith retired in 1995, but the State Bar of California’s website tells a different story. In December 1996, Keith resigned “with charges pending”; ten years before that, he had been disciplined by the Bar on another matter. The Bar association handily keeps track of its active members, but had no contact information for Keith; and all the phone numbers I found and tried led to dead ends. That was what reporting the Heideman story was like: every tangent seemed to lead down another rabbit hole of secrets and lies.
December 23, 2011
At the risk of coming across as schoolmarmish in every post, I must raise a point of order in a matter of semantics.
Criterion’s re-release of 12 Angry Men, on DVD and Blu-ray, is turning up on a lot of best-of-the-year home video lists. Also on those lists I’m frequently seeing two of the disc’s extras – kinescopes of the original Studio One “12 Angry Men” and the completely new-to-home-video Alcoa Hour “Tragedy in a Temporary Town” – referred to as “teleplays.” The nomenclature traces back to the copy on Criterion’s website and on the discs themselves.
As far as I know, however, a “teleplay” is just a script written for television. A show derived from a teleplay is something else – an “episode” or a “broadcast” or just a “show.” The Writers Guild of America, all the TV writers who have ever used the term in my presence (which is not many; they usually just call ‘em scripts), and even Wikipedia make this distinction. You could stretch the point and argue that Criterion has used the term this way in order to emphasize the primacy of the writer’s contribution in live television, but that’s not really how their copy reads. Particularly cringeworthy is a reference to “Frank Schaffner’s teleplay of 12 Angry Men,” which implies that Schaffner was the writer of that show rather than its director.
Of course, I realize that the term “teleplay” (or, um, “kinetoscope”) probably has no meaning at all to the average consumer today. But if I, or any hardcore TV fan or anyone in the industry, picked up the Criterion 12 Angry Men in a store and read the jacket copy, I think we’d expect to find a PDF file of the scripts on the disc rather than the shows themselves. I think Criterion has muddied the terminology in a narrow field here, and I hope this misuse of the word doesn’t spread.
Incidentally, I haven’t seen the 12 Angry Men disc. I wrote about Sidney Lumet and “Tragedy in a Temporary Town” earlier this year and didn’t think I had much else to had in this space. But I’m curious about the extras, and I’m delighted that Criterion is seeking out live television material to incorporate into its disc releases.
Every time I think I’ve found all the good oral histories, something new pops up. When I was researching last week’s Walter Doniger obit, I learned that Doniger had been interviewed in a book by John Ravage called Television: The Director’s Viewpoint (Westview Press, 1978). Around the time I was busy being born, Ravage, an academic, spent some months on television sets in Los Angeles, talking to about a dozen working directors. Some of them (especially Boris Sagal, Buzz Kulik, and Doniger) gave few other interviews of substance before they died.
I didn’t have Ravage’s book when I wrote the piece on Walter, but it arrived today and it’s very good. Frankly, a lot of these interview books fail because the interviewer doesn’t know what he or she is doing, but Ravage understood how television actually got made and asked really good questions. This one is worth buying for a penny on Amazon.
Meanwhile, I hope to have something more substantive up before Christmas and, if not, then soon after. Several suppiers of review copies (and one nameless publicist who apparently only thought about sending me that DVD set rather than actually putting it in the mail) had asked me to write about their wares before the holidays and, well, I guess they know better now. Anyway: happy holidays to everybody. Treat yourself to some classic TV DVDs and maybe you’ll accidentally buy one of the ones I was supposed to plug.
June 21, 2011
In the current issue of Film Comment, the distinguished film scholar David Bordwell offers a vital piece called “Never the Twain Shall Meet: Why Can’t Cinephiles and Academics Just Get Along?” In it, Bordwell points out that cinema, to a far greater extent than more rarified art forms (literature, visual arts, music, architecture), has inspired popular and scholarly traditions of criticism that rarely overlap. In fact, the approaches of popular film critics (or “cinephiles,” as Bordwell calls them) and university scholars are so far apart that their members are often actively hostile toward one another. Bordwell, a career academic at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and also a blogger widely respected among unaffiliated movie buffs, is an ideal figure of compromise to broach the subject, and he concludes that a “hands across the aisle” rapprochement between the two camps could be brokered via the internet.
Sorry, but I’m not ready to surrender my arms just yet.
Bordwell’s topic might seem like a pointless exercise in inside baseball, and one not particularly germane to this blog (although I will connect it to the subject of television, if you’ll bear with me). But most of the other film critics and enthusiasts of my personal acquaintance hold strong opinions on the subject, and it has certainly colored my own fifteen years as a semi-professional media historian.
Bordwell’s article resonated with me because it brought back a lot of memories from my own undergraduate education, which was perpetrated during the late nineties in the University of Southern California’s cinema-television program. At the time, the program was dominated by scholars huddled under the umbrella of “Grand Theory” – a collection of cultural-studies disciplines (semiotics, reception studies, psychoanalysis, feminism & queer theory) which connected only tangentially to art appreciation and aesthetics. In practice, this meant reading a lot of essays about movies in which no individual film was discussed or even named. Bordwell uses the phrase “smother living work under a blanket of Grand Theory,” and that accurately describes the dispiriting attitude I encountered all too often. Instead of embodying a broad curiosity about film as a medium, these cultural scholars tended to cherry-pick texts and trends that supported whatever specialty they had staked out on the Grand Theory map. (Bordwell: “the habit of interpreting films as charade-like enactments of theoretical doctrines.”)
The few USC faculty to whom I was able to relate – like Rick Jewell, a rigorous historian of Hollywood production methods – seemed to exist on the margins of this not-really-about-films film school in which I found myself mired. I took what I could from teachers like Jewell, but on the whole I emerged from USC with a sense of resentment towards a curriculum that often seemed to condescend to the material I went there to learn about. A big part of that problem was the basic indifference or even contempt toward the craft of writing that I encountered in the critical literature I read. The impenetrability of academic writing is an old joke, but it bears repeating that, as Chris Fujiwara puts it in a response to Bordwell’s article, “there is probably no professional sphere in which the lack of desire to write and the lack of interest in writing are more endemic than academia.” My own formal education therefore had the effect of alienating me from its auspices: although I’ve occasionally written pieces that drew in part on some cultural-theory notions gleaned from college (for instance, this post-feminist reading of The Donna Reed Show), I’ve made a conscious decision to place my work on the popular side of cinephilia (or telephilia, as the case may be) because I want to reach an audience who will read about East Side / West Side or The Patty Duke Show because they want to, not because they have to. (Fujiwara: “The system of ‘publish or perish,’ together with the reliable assurance that what gets published will remain unread (not infrequently, I imagine, even by those who get paid to edit and review it), guarantees an abundance of terrible academic writing.”)
One quibble I have with Bordwell’s piece is that, perhaps for reasons of space, he uses the term “research” a lot without ever defining it precisely. For Bordwell, research seems to represent the serious work of scholars; whenever non-academics produce valuable research, it’s a happy accident. (Bordwell writes that Joseph McBride’s heavily footnoted Spielberg biography “is academic in the best sense.”) Of course, Bordwell’s own work is prodigiously detailed and specific (see, for instance, his blog post about flashbacks-within-flashbacks), so I suspect he would be surprised and disappointed by how infrequently I encountered the same breadth of curiosity and rigor among the faculty and grad students in my USC program. Bordwell suggests that “academic research is less geared to evaluation” but I often found that academics were highly evaluative. It’s just that they were quick to judge texts based on their usefulness to a particular scholarly discipline or approach rather than on their value as art.
I hit my breaking point with this form of myopia when Jeff Kisseloff published his pioneering work The Box: An Oral History of Television 1920-1961 during my USC years. Kisseloff’s book gave me more insight into understanding how television was made than anything I’ve read before or since. And yet, when I recommended it to one of my television professors, not only did she have no interest in teaching the book, but she wouldn’t even read it. It was inconceivable to her that oral history could teach her anything useful about television. I encountered that attitude – that the work of the scholar should be abstract and contemplative rather than nuts-and-bolts – all the time, and it’s why I take exception to Bordwell’s non-definition of “research.”
My own definition of research, then, would be along the lines of investigative journalism: perusal of archival records, excavation of contemporary publications, viewings of obscure works, and yes, actually talking to people who created the objects of one’s study. Bordwell’s implication that the success of non-academic scholar like McBride in this area was somehow exceptional offended me slightly because, in my view, McBride is the rule, not the exception. Much of the best movie and television history (if not always the best criticism, which is Bordwell’s primary focus) is the work of outsiders, not of academics. Of course, that’s the opposite of how it ought to be.
I promised to apply some of these thoughts to television, and I think the best way to do that is to question another generalization of Bordwell’s: that mainstream or cinephile critics are mainly auteurists. I guess there’s a broad tradition, perhaps more among editors than writers, of following the DGA’s possessory-credit lead and referring to most films as the work of their directors, without any investigation of who actually did what; but I also think that many good mainstream critics are equally likely to come at movies from a context of national cinemas, movie star personas, zeitgeist notions, or any of a dozen other frameworks.
Anyway, it occurs to me that the idea of an auteurist approach breaks down completely when you try to apply it to television.
That’s because the episodic director is rarely the primary creative force in television (except for cases where a Michael Mann or a Martin Scorsese directs an HBO pilot), and understanding the process of who fills that power vacuum is work that few mainstream (and academic?) critics have attempted. The “showrunner,” a relatively new term and a relatively modern conception, has become a sort of default auteurist figure among television critics, but it’s often misunderstood and selectively applied. Most critics probably don’t realize that a showrunner may or may not be the same thing as an executive producer or a head writer (for instance, Dick Wolf’s Law & Order shows and Jerry Bruckheimer’s C.S.I. franchises all have their own showrunners, and yet more strongly reflect the sensibilities of Wolf and Bruckheimer). And I don’t understand why Mad Men and Deadwood are widely understood as the singular visions of their particular creators, and yet I’ve never read any auteurist criticism devoted to, say, John Wells or Ryan Murphy (even though ER and The West Wing, once it passed from Aaron Sorkin’s to Wells’s control, have a great deal in common, and Murphy’s superficially very different Nip/Tuck and Glee are of a philosophical piece). There are also cases where actors, cinematographers, executives, and other less-than-obvious figures who set the tone in television – not to mention exceptional television directors who really are auteurs but whose work is so spread out that they haven’t been recognized as such – but I’ve seen little work that tries to grasp any of that.
The popular/academic schism in film culture in film culture may be bad, but at least it’s indicative that some approaches have been codified. In the television realm, I sense that the academics are still chasing their trends instead of doing serious research (can I tell you how many Buffy-loving hipsters I ran afoul of during my USC sojourn?) and most popular critics are just trying to keep up with the screeners that land on their desks, without looking hard enough at the bigger picture.
Speaking of academics: Lynn Reed is a graduate student at Skidmore College who has been exploring ideas related to her master’s thesis in a good blog. Her starting point is Mad Men, which she follows into tangents as inevitable as feminism and as unlikely as Remington Steele. Reed has a fascinating piece up about a Mary Tyler Moore-like sitcom that Sex and the Single Girl author Helen Gurley Brown pitched to Warner Bros. and ABC – in 1962. Needless to say, this proposed show that envisioned a female protagonist with a sometime boyfriend she “had no plans to marry” was a bit ahead of its time. I’d love to read what, if anything, resides in the Warner Bros. Archives at USC to document the reaction of the studio’s television executives (at that time a typically cigar-chomping, old-school bunch) to Brown’s salvo of premature feminism.
Speaking of journalists: My pal Tom Lisanti has a fine three-part interview with sultry France Nuyen on his blog. He doesn’t say why it was omitted, but evidently the Nuyen profile is a leftover from one of his worthwhile books about sixties ingenues. Nuyen was Eurasian and hard to cast, but I always thought she was a subtle, wistful actress, with a sexy, marbly voice. Nuyen is pretty frank but Lisanti didn’t get the one quote I was looking for – a response to the strange, cryptic, misogynistic barbs about his brief marriage to Nuyen that Robert Culp delivered on his I Spy audio commentaries. Culp evidently had some unresolved issues on the subject, and didn’t mind telling the world about them.
And blogger Mel Neuhaus has another amazing three-parter, this one with child actress turned sixties ingenue Sherry Jackson. Jackson is forthright about her entire career, but the really eye-popping revelations come in the first installment, during which she reveals the truly toxic environment on the set of the happy-family sitcom Make Room For Daddy. The whole series (including part two and part three) is a must-read. There is equal room in my philosophy, I’m proud to say, for both thoughtful criticism of shows like Mad Men and salacious gossip about Danny “Plate Man” Thomas’s kinky sexual proclivities.
February 7, 2011
Who was Hilda Brawner?
If you’re a fellow devotee of the New York-based television dramas of the early sixties, I’ll bet you’ve wondered the same thing at some point.
Hilda was a pretty brunette who appeared on Broadway a lot, starting in the late fifties, and then in some of the last gasps of live television. On stage, Elia Kazan directed her in Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth; the stars were Paul Newman, Geraldine Page, and Rip Torn, and Bruce Dern and Diana Hyland toiled alongside Hilda in the supporting cast. For television, she was on The DuPont Show of the Month and on The Guiding Light for a while in 1963. She played small parts on The Nurses and Route 66 (in the Sam Peckinpah-directed episode “Mon Petit Chou,” with Lee Marvin and playing second fiddle to French import Macha Meril, later the star of Godard’s Une Femme Mariée).
If you’re lucky enough to have seen Reginald Rose’s meticulous, devastating indictment of capital punishment, the “Metamorphosis” episode of The Defenders, then you will remember Hilda as the wife of Robert Duvall’s young death row inmate. But it’s most likely that you recall Hilda from Naked City, which seemed to hold a particular affection for her. She appeared on the show three times, first in secondary roles, then finally in a lead in “Alive and Still a Second Lieutenant,” latterly famous as Jon Voight’s television debut. In “Alive,” Hilda played the girlfriend of Robert Sterling’s sweaty, ulcerous business executive (dare I say it? a Roger Sterling type; could the actor be the source of the name?), who spirals out of control following a violent road-rage incident.
Now that you’ve seen the screen grab above, you’ll have some idea of why I became mildly obsessed with Hilda — and with whatever happened to her. Because Hilda’s last credit came in 1964, and there seemed to be no trace of her after that. Did she die young? Marry and raise four kids on Long Island? Hook up with a network executive and ensconce herself on Central Park South?
Well, no, none of that, it seems. Hilda Brawner, pretty ingenue, changed her name and became Hildy Brooks, busy character actress. Hildy played supporting roles in lots of movies (The Anderson Tapes, Islands in the Stream, Playing For Keeps, Eating) and guest-starred in dozens of television episodes during the seventies and eighties. I remember her as one-third of “A Very Strange Triangle,” a bisexual love story that was controversial when it aired on The Bold Ones in 1971. Hildy still works – she’s in one of the last episodes of Nip/Tuck, one that I haven’t seen yet – although I couldn’t locate her for this piece. Are you out there, Hildy?
Incidentally, although I seem to be the first person on the internet to put Hilda & Hildy together, I can’t really take credit for it. Her name change is mentioned in a couple of memoirs, and Jeffrey Sweet’s Something Wonderful Right Away: An Oral History of The Second City & The Compass Players. Plus, there was a big clue that I missed for years: under different names, Hilda and Hildy played the same role in the two recorded versions of O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, Sidney Lumet’s videotaped videotaped Play of the Week two-parter of 1960 and John Frankenheimer’s film from 1973. Here she is in both.
Hilda Brawner (left) and Julie Bovasso as Margie and Pearl, 1960.
Hildy Brooks (left) and Nancy Juno Dawson as Margie and Pearl, 1973. Below: Hildy Brooks in a 2007 episode of Boston Legal.
January 16, 2011
The silence of recent weeks is because I’ve been away on location, so to speak. Digging around in the archives is one of my favorite things to do, in part because I always come across reams of trivia that’s fascinating even if it’s not relevant to what I’m researching. For instance:
- Roxie Roker, who played the female half of the Willises, the interracial couple on The Jeffersons, worked behind the scenes at NBC before she succeeded as a performer. Roker turns up in the 1954 NBC staff directory as a secretary to one Edward A. Whitney, Supervisor of Broadcast Operations at 30 Rockefeller Center, the network’s New York headquarters. I’ll be she was one of a very small number of African Americans manning a desk at 30 Rock in the year of Brown v. Board of Education.
- According to the daily production reports of George Roy Hill’s Hawaii (1966), the busy television actors Antoinette Bower, Dennis Joel Olivieri, and Madlyn Rhue spent a day looping voices during post-production. As was customary at the time, they did not receive screen credit. Next time you watch the film (and I’m sure you’re going to get right on that), try to pick out their voices. Hawaii, incidentally, emerged from the ashes of an ambitious attempt at a two-part historical epic that would have reunited the director Fred Zinnemann and the writer Daniel Taradash, who had been responsible for the cinema’s best-known depiction of the fiftieth state, From Here to Eternity. I don’t know why the project collapsed, but Zinnemann and Taradash spent most of 1961-1962 working on the script for it.
- The pilot script for Rod Serling’s western series The Loner was actually “The Vespers,” which was the second episode broadcast during the show’s original network run in 1965. Neither Tony Albarella’s Filmfax article on the series nor either of Serling’s biographers point out that fact. It makes sense that Serling’s meaty, message-y story of a clergyman (Jack Lord) whose pacifism is tested in a most heinous way is the script that sold the series. It’s one of the last glimmers of greatness in his oeuvre. I’m not sure why the network chose a slightly less distinguished episode, “An Echo of Bugles,” to premiere the series. Probably, it had more “action.”
As to what archive yielded these various factlets, and what subject I’m researching, I can’t yet say . . . but look for more substantive reportage soon.
November 24, 2010
Regrettably, the obituary clipping pile has been mounting again. As usual, I’m passing over comment on some well-known figures, like the dramatic director Lamont Johnson and Fox television executive William Self, in order to briefly mention some deaths which have been less widely reported.
Bill Bennington, who died on September 26 at the age of 96, was a live director who specialized in event and sports programming. According to director John Rich, who was his assistant for a time in the early fifties, Bennington directed the first Academy Awards telecast and the unsuccessful attempt of English Channel swimmer Florence Chadwick to swim from the California coast to Catalina Island, both in 1952. At the time, Bennington was a staff director for NBC’s West Coast operation, where he also directed for Betty White’s daytime variety show. When ABC began broadcasting NCAA games in 1960, Roone Arledge hired Bennington away from NBC to be the primary director of the network’s football games. According to sportswriter W.C. Heinz, it was Bennington who cut to the first crowd shot in a televised football game, during a 1952 broadcast of the Poinsettia Bowl. (Bennington’s death was mentioned in the latest DGA Monthly, and confirmed via the Social Security Death Index. I haven’t found an obit, even a paid one.)
Lloyd Gross was another live director, a CBS staffer who worked on many types of shows before getting pegged as a game show man. He directed episodes of the live seriocomedy Mama, broadcasts of Perry Como’s and Mel Torme’s eponymous shows, and live coverage of early Miss America pageants and Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parades. His game show resume included some of the most popular entries in that genre: Beat the Clock, Masquerade Party, What’s My Line, To Tell the Truth, and Supermarket Sweep, the 1965 hit that kept David Susskind’s high-toned Talent Associates production company afloat during lean times. Gross died at 92 on October 16.
Michael N. Salamunovich was a veteran assistant director and production manager who died on October 23 at age 88. As a staffer at Dick Powell’s Four Star Productions, Salamunovich worked on nearly every series produced at that studio from the late fifties until its collapse in 1965: Wanted Dead or Alive, The Rifleman, Richard Diamond Private Detective, The Zane Grey Theatre, Burke’s Law, The Rogues, Honey West, and so on. I’ve transcribed the credits of hundreds of those shows, and Salamunovich always stood out for a silly reason: his name was so long that it forced whoever made up the credits to add an extra line to the regular template. Salamunovich stayed in the business well past the usual retirement age: his last job was as the unit production manager on ER during its early seasons.
Michel Hugo was a tremendously prolific director of photography from the late sixties through the mid-nineties. Born in France in 1930, he died in Las Vegas (where he taught at the University of Nevada) on October 30. Hugo did long stints as the DP on Dynasty and Melrose Place, but his credits from his first decade or so in Hollywood contain a multitude of cult items: series (Mission: Impossible, The Streets of San Francisco), movies of the week (Thief, Earth II, The Night Stalker, The Morning After), and feature films (Head, Model Shop, R.P.M., The Phynx, One Is a Lonely Number, They Only Kill Their Masters, The Spook Who Sat by the Door, Bug). I’m going out on a limb here, just surveying the titles rather than going back to the video for a second look, but I’m going to suggest that Hugo may have been a practitioner of a specific look that I kind of miss: essentially realistic, proficient in the stylistic flourishes of the era (your lens flares and your rack focuses), but also unapologetically colorful and brightly lit enough to work on television.
I should also note that the links above to the paid death notices for Gross and Salamunovich will likely no longer be valid in a few days. That’s because the paid obits for most major U.S. papers have been hijacked, in their on-line form, by an outfit called Legacy.com, which firewalls the obituaries (and reader comments) after thirty days unless someone pays to “sponsor” them. This practice strikes me as rather crummy, to put it mildly . . . especially since I’m beginning to find evidence that the death notices are not even being stored in the electronic archives of the newspapers in which they appeared in print.