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    A Special Starting Place

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    In a 1971 San Antonio Light interview months before her new film, Dalton Trumbo’s shattering Johnny Got His Gun, would premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, actress Diane Varsi (1938-1992), who would have turned 80 today, talked about her chosen craft which she got to practice only sporadically across 20 years: “The very thing that led me to want to act was very mysterious, even to me. I thought there was a whole communal feeling in film. That the idea of film was to be a service of humanity, a means of communication. But the spirit was power.” Her screen career got off to a powerful start when she was cast as defiant, small-town teenager Allison MacKenzie in the talent-packed all-star cast of Peyton Place (1957), the eagerly anticipated screen adaptation of Grace Metalious’ scandalous bestseller. Allison was in some ways the most intriguing character in that she observes the hypocritical goings-on in the outwardly idealistic New England town and functions effectively and compassionately within its borders, yet after she learns the secret truth behind her parentage from her protective, pillar-of-the-community mother (Lana Turner) and experiences the trauma of another woman’s suicide, she turns her back on her past life and pursues a writing career in Manhattan, later returning to both cover the climactic trial of one-time best friend Selena Cross (Hope Lange) and possibly mending fences at home. It was a tall order of a role for the new Twentieth Century Fox contract player, and in casting her, producer Jerry Wald reportedly considered the fresh-faced Varsi a “confused, pimply little bunny. Exactly right.” Inside Oscar® authors Mason Wiley and Damien Bona noted: “After sneak-preview audiences indicated that Varsi was their favorite among Peyton Place’s group of newcomers [which also included Lee Philips, Russ Tamblyn and David Nelson], the studio gave the 20-year-old the big buildup. She was a cover girl on Modern Screen and a frequent item in the columns whenever she went on a studio-arranged date.” Her forceful work earned her a Most Promising Newcomer Golden Globe Award and one of the film’s nine Academy Award® nominations (including Best Picture and Mark Robson as Best Director) – five in the acting categories – and she would make three more Fox films in quick succession, 1958’s Ten North Frederick and From Hell to Texas and, most notably 1959’s Compulsion. However, the previously noted descriptive “studio-arranged” would prove smothering to the free-spirited Varsi, who broke from her personally unfulfilling contract and went out on her own, never again to match the impact of her cinematic initiation before her untimely death at age 54. That makes Peyton Place on a marvelously extras-appointed Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray a poignantly powerful tribute to today’s birthday honoree.

    Alternate Actress Awardees

    The final deadline for membership voting on the 90th Academy Awards® for 2017 movies closes next Tuesday, and it’s always interesting to pull out one’s dog-eared copy of film historian Danny Peary’s 1993 Alternate Oscars® to revisit his definitely partisan but well-reasoned essays for his eclectic choices for Best Picture, Actor and Actress throughout the 64 years he covered. Previous blogs [...]

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    All Action, Sex 'n' Violence, Frankly

    Filmmaking requires obsession and writer-producer-director Samuel Fuller had that by the bucketload, even extending to the ballyhoo called for in promoting a movie, particularly one with a revenge-obsessed protagonist taking on a world of corruption and cruelty by outmatching his opponents in calculation and persistence. “In interviews in preproduction publicity as well as promotional materials, Fuller described Underworld U.S.A. (1961) as [...]

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    Helping Hands on a Rough Trail

    Sixty years ago today, the final entry in the terrific trilogy of late-1950s Westerns made by director Delmer Daves and star Glenn Ford rode into New York theaters, following in the hoof prints of Jubal (1956) and 3:10 to Yuma (1957). Ford’s son Peter wrote in his 2011 biography Glenn Ford: A Life: “Many Hollywood movies have a long and circuitous [...]

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    Takakura Times Three

    Through the action, drama and humor of more than 200 films, most originating in his native Japan with occasional international outings, the ruggedly handsome face, expressive eyes and stoic, slow-burn aura of cinema icon Ken Takakura (1931-2014) seemed to suit a variety of characters, from cynical hard cases to shattered souls, from chillingly efficient criminals to vulnerable, haunted outsiders. On what [...]

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    Happily Hailing Harold

    Two screen legends of titanic talent. Two movies with jazzy and bluesy song scores linked to backstage stories shaped around the ups and downs of show business careers. Two torchy title tunes that became inextricably linked to the musical legacy of their respective leading ladies. The link between them, born this day in Buffalo, NY, 113 years ago, is one [...]

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    Our Novak Valentine

    For a Valentine’s Day remembrance, we salute one of the silver screen’s loveliest and underestimated actresses, the captivating Kim Novak, who turned 85 yesterday. Film historian David Thomson falls into the “underestimated” camp; in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, he muses: “Film sometimes flinches at the expertise of actresses, and the sympathetic viewer may come to realize that there [...]

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    Tough Variations on a Warm Personality

    “When the movie industry was shaken up like a kaleidoscope in 1969/70 there emerged strange new patterns,” historian David Shipman wrote in his The Great Movie Stars: The International Years, “and George Segal was discovered to be one of the big new names. He certainly hadn’t been before, though he’d been in films for almost 10 years. Segal hadn’t quite [...]

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    Two Lousy Lawyers and a Crumbled Cookie

    Though it hasn’t been authoritatively documented by scholarly historical evidence, the Great Emancipator Abraham Lincoln, born 209 years ago today, gets the credit for it, and it certainly ranks up there among the top five actual and/or legendary observations he made about the human condition: “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the [...]

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    Way to Go, Joe

    “You think I’m funny?…Funny, ha-ha?...Like a clown?...Do I amuse you?” Actually, GoodFellas Academy Award® winner and Jersey boy Joe Pesci, turning 75 today, has been funny and scary and hapless and brutal in more than 30 movies across more than 40 years. He may be most noted for his menace-laden Raging Bull, GoodFellas and Casino Martin Scorsese troika, as [...]

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