Black Comedy Mother Lode
For over 50 years, Beverly Garland (1926-2008), born 90 years ago today, was a memorable go-to mother for many a TV series, from The Bing Crosby Show and My Three Sons to Scarecrow and Mrs. King and Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. She played wise and witty as well as an intrusive busybody and unwitting aggravator with seasoned aplomb. (Some diehard genre fans even have a soft spot for her endangered sci-fi heroines in The Alligator People and the Roger Corman favorites It Conquered the World and Not of This Earth.) But a rather unclassifiable “cult favorite” provided her with a sullen, sharp-tongued, chain-smoking mother part Garland felt was one of her best. That role of Mrs. Stepanek, a Great Barrington, Massachusetts, maven who rides roughshod over her dreamy, alluring and, as it turns out, predatory teenage daughter (played in captivating fashion by Tuesday Weld), came with debuting feature-film director Noel Black’s wickedly subversive black comedy Pretty Poison (1968). Garland told historian Tom Weaver in his compendium Interviews with B Science Fiction and Horror Movie Makers: “It was a small part, but it had so much to say that you understood why Tuesday Weld killed her mother. I worked hard to make that understanding not a surface one, but tried to give you above and beyond what you would see in such a short time.” Guide for the Film Fanatic author Danny Peary judged Garland’s work “deliciously cold,” but the film’s bigger chill would arise from the disorienting dynamic between Anthony Perkins as the intellectually buzzy but psychologically scarred – and creepily fantasy-prone – boy-man Dennis Pitt, a factory worker newly arrived in town, and his intended mark, flag-waving high school marching band member Sue Ann Stepanek (Weld), who buys into his shadowy espionage games to the pathological hilt. Garland would carry her weight as a strict and controlling mother, but darling daughter would prove deliriously darker. Peary observes: “The definitive Weld movie role, Sue Ann needs excitement – and if you want her, you have to keep feeding it to her. Her sexiness has less to do with her body than with eyes that sparkle with wickedness, her conceit, the nervous edge in her voice. This small, peaceful Massachusetts town is a microcosm of a sick, self-destructive America.” With “sharp humor scattered throughout its serious framework,” Peary concludes, “this is one of the few still-sparkling gems of the late ’60s.” The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael also championed the film, calling it “an unobtrusive little psychological thriller, subtle and very smart.” The “beauty of a script” (Kael) by Lorenzo Semple, Jr. (The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor), based on Stephen Geller’s novel She Let Him Continue, won the New York Film Critics Award. Pretty Poison arrives on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray outfitted with two Audio Commentaries, one with Director Black and Film Historian Robert Fischer, the other with Executive Producer Lawrence Turman and resident TT movie mavens Lem Dobbs and Nick Redman, plus a Deleted Scene Script Segment with Commentary by Black and an Isolated Music & Effects Track highlighting Johnny Mandel’s spare but effective score. It’s a malevolent mother-daughter matchup for the ages, thanks to willowy Weld and birthday honoree Garland, who told biographer Deborah Del Vecchio about a confrontational scene, “Yes, Tuesday and I really slapped each other around. I think really good actors like to be very physical when something like that is called for.” And home viewers get to play along November 15. Preorders open November 2.