That wonderful, singular actress Shelley Duvall celebrates her 70th year today. Some performers remain in our consciousness for the overwhelming character they project, others inhabit their roles with such power they are just legends for a kind of inimitable genius. While Duvall belongs to the latter category she possesses a kind of eccentric consistency that means she is out on her own, beyond conventional representation. She was not only the muse of Robert Altman so for me she is always the mysterious Millie of 3 Women; she also became the most important actress in the world of Stanley Kubrick when he terrorised her on our behalf in The Shining. I will always love her in Joan Micklin Silver’s F. Scott Fitzgerald adaptation, Bernice Bobs Her Hair. More than an actress, singer and even set decorator, she became a highly successful TV producer with Faerie Tale Theater. We are not worthy. Many happy returns.
I love Elliott Gould. Have done since first laying eyes on him when I was, oh, probably, nine years old. And I love cats. So even if I didn’t love this movie, I’d love the poster (there are several but this is my 500th blog entry so I chose my favourite). And this has inhabited my mental landscape since that age. It’s funny, it’s smart, it’s an amazingly daring adaptation of Chandler, whose books I adore, it’s done by the great Leigh Brackett (and I was so happy to discover this was a woman) and Robert Altman (who took up the offer to direct when both Hawks and Bogdanovich turned it down. The fools). The title song, which I had presumed was an old movie song, was composed for this by John Williams and Johnny Mercer and reappears in many guises as commentary in the narrative. It’s updated to the Seventies and set in Los Angeles, a city that I love. It’s about Hollywood. It’s about a suicidal alcoholic writer whose resemblance to Hemingway is overwhelming. He’s played by controversial actor Sterling Hayden, who was off his rocker throughout shooting. And he’s married to Nina Van Pallandt of Nina & Frederik fame (look them up). The scenes at their beachside home were shot at Altman’s place in Malibu. It’s also about a crazy violent guy played by director Mark Rydell. And it’s about what you find yourself doing when your friend double-crosses you. And it’s about a private eye who needs to find food for his cat late at night. It was completely misunderstood upon initial release, withdrawn and re-released months later with the second poster (below): ah, said the critics! Now we get it! Or some of them did. It looks beautiful, like California always ought to look, thanks to Vilmos Zsigmond. It’s one of the reasons I love movies. Everyone has their own Philip Marlowe. This is mine. MM#500
This was hardly what a mainstream audience expected of a western released in the year of the Bicentennial, but then Robert Altman’s certain tendency towards revisionism was an altogether acknowledged thread throughout his work and this film co-written with Alan Rudolph (adapted from a play by Arthur Kopit) was no exception. Essentially a deconstruction of the myth of the making of the west, it declares itself in the title sequence, with Paul Newman credited as ‘The Star’ and Burt Lancaster as ‘Legend Maker.’ There are nice supporting performances from Altman regulars like Shelley Duvall and Geraldine Chaplin (who would star in Rudolph’s own Remember My Name) as well as Kevin McCarthy and Harvey Keitel but sometimes you yearn for the clear(er) lines of Shane because this is, sometimes, fatally dull.