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Leonard Maltin on Lizabeth Scott

Recently, I talked with author, podcaster and Hollywood historian Leonard Maltin (whom I interviewed about the new and final edition of his annual movie guide last year) about the late actress Lizabeth Scott, who died on Jan. 31.

This is an edited transcript of our short interview.

Scott Holleran: Did you meet Lizabeth Scott?

Leonard Maltin: I met her twice, ever so briefly. Many years ago, we met at a reception honoring Hal Wallis—Bette Davis and Earl Holliman were there—and then again at the Golden Boot awards years later.

Scott Holleran: What do you think of her?

Leonard Maltin: On screen for me she defined the word sultry, which I realize brings me nearly into cliché territory, and most recently I saw the Film Noir Foundation’s restoration of Too Late for Tears (1949). I think I’ve underrated the film in the movie guide—she was good. Whether she had more range than we realize or she was perfectly suited to those femme fatale roles we’ll never know. But she certainly filled them very well.

Scott Holleran: Is she a good actress?

Leonard Maltin: Yes, I think so.

Scott Holleran: What are three essential Lizabeth Scott pictures?

Leonard Maltin: Dead Reckoning because it’s one of her more significant films. It teamed her with Bogart at the peak of his career and it’s a good movie. Then I would add Too Late for Tears because I think it is a prototypical film noir with a great part for her because she’s so persuasive as the femme fatale, and I suppose Pitfall (1948).

Lizabeth_Scott-publicityScott Holleran: What’s at the root of her cinematic appeal?

Leonard Maltin: She had a unique look—her looks were unusual. They were not conventional Hollywood looks and she had a certain bearing and attitude that seemed particularly suited to that film noir genre. She didn’t look like a sunny ingénue. So she’s always convincing.

Scott Holleran: Is it fair to describe Lizabeth Scott as a film noir actress?

Leonard Maltin: I don’t think it’s unfair because that’s what we really remember her for—but it is limiting because it implies that that’s all she could do.

Reference Links

My Thoughts on Lizabeth Scott

Interview: Leonard Maltin on Movies and the Last Movie Guide (2014)

Book Review: Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide (2015)

Interview: Leonard Maltin on Movies (2011)

Interview: TCM Host Robert Osborne on Lizabeth Scott

Dead_Reckoning_(1947)_film_posterCommercial Links

Buy Too Late for Tears

Buy Dead Reckoning

Buy Pitfall

Thoughts on Lizabeth Scott

LizabethScottLizabeth Scott is gone. She was 92. The actress, who reportedly died in Los Angeles on January 31, was striking, talented and unjustly undervalued and underemployed in Hollywood—where she was viciously smeared. But she was both luminous and, in a way, premature for a world that matched her ability. Having briefly met her, I think she probably knew it.

Many, possibly most, readers probably haven’t heard of her and there’s no reason why they should. The Scranton, Pennsylvania, native was raised as a Catholic, quit college to start working in New York City, and was discovered by legendary producer Hal Wallis (Casablanca, True Grit, Anne of the Thousand Days, Love Letters, The Furies, Now, Voyager, Sergeant York) who put her as the female lead opposite Robert Cummings in You Came Along (1945), directed by John Farrow and written by Ayn Rand. But she never truly got what she deserves.

Miss Scott was usually better than her parts and films. She possessed all the qualities being written about her in and throughout today’s media—the coastal Times newspapers predictably peg her as a ‘film noir’ actress—including the sexual intensity, the intelligence, the voice, the slightly androgynous air and the unaffected, tough exterior embedded with the will to submit at her discretion. She wore Edith Head’s glamorous costumes well and she was radiant, though she was rarely given the role in which to shine. From her early pictures, such as You Came Along, which she told me when we met was her first and favorite of her 22 movies, and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) to Loving You (1957) with Elvis Presley and Pulp (1972) with Mickey Rooney, she almost always added depth and at least brightness to the screen. She makes her films, which are mostly mediocre, worth seeing.

Miss Scott lived alone in the Hollywood Hills, evoking one of Scott’s heroines, screen legend Greta Garbo, and, throughout her career, she was an individualist, which left her open to ridicule and innuendo. Having once expressed that she wore men’s cologne and pajamas and confessed that she hated frilly dresses, she was smeared by a hack (and former Communist) who insinuated that Lizabeth Scott was a lesbian. This nearly destroyed her career. Citing damages, Scott sued for $2.5 million in 1955. The New York Times reports in Scott’s obituary that the lawsuit is “believed” to have been settled out of court for an undisclosed sum. As a leading lady in film noir and noirish pictures such as Desert Fury (1948) and Too Late for Tears (1949), Lizabeth Scott—who had co-starred with Burt Lancaster, Humphrey Bogart, Alan Ladd, Robert Mitchum, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Michael Caine and with Charlton Heston in his film debut—was finished. She withdrew from movies, focusing on occasional television appearances, a musical recording career and auditing philosophy courses at the University of Southern California (USC).

When I met the actress briefly during an event at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) honoring her late co-star Barbara Stanwyck several years ago, she was still the would-be movie star, not so much moving through as glowing throughout the room and taking everyone’s breath away while leaving them bewildered as to why. I told her that I had enjoyed her performances and I expressed an interest in interviewing her, which she at first waved off. Then I mentioned her first film, You Came Along, the Ayn Rand-penned picture in which she portrayed a government worker who falls in love with a troubled soldier on a bond tour. At the mere mention of this movie, she paused, moving closer. Her eyes grew wide and she gripped my hand and said: “I loved Ayn Rand.” She explained her reasons and we talked about my favorite writer, whom she said was one of the few in Hollywood whom she felt understood her ability. Then, Lizabeth Scott turned to her escort and asked him to give me the contact information to schedule an interview. I later proposed to interview Miss Scott as part of a series for the Ayn Rand Archives, which had just produced the long-awaited 100 Voices. But, while I would have treasured the opportunity to interview Miss Scott, I remember my moments with her fondly and I am confident that her proper place in motion pictures will be recognized in time. As she once said:

I don’t want to be classed as a ‘personality,’ something to stare at. I want to have my talents respected, not only by the public but by myself.”

Miss Scott was constantly compared to the late Lauren Bacall, another sultry, smoky-voiced actress from the same era in movies. But I think Miss Scott might have been the better actress, with wider range and a more compelling presence on screen (I mean no disrespect to Bacall, whom I appreciate in pictures such as Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not and The Shootist with John Wayne). It is too bad that Miss Scott is remembered as an early film noir prototype and not much else. The term femme fatale does not do her justice. Sadly, it is too late for that now. I think that it is probably still too soon for Lizabeth Scott and that the world is possibly not yet ready for the actress she might have become. But I experienced firsthand that Lizabeth Scott was ready for the world and on her own terms—and this is a grand lifetime achievement.

Reference links

Movie Review: Too Late for Tears (1949)

Interview: Leonard Maltin on Lizabeth Scott (2015)

Interview: Robert Osborne on Lizabeth Scott (2015)


Remembering Mike Nichols

afi_lifetime_achievement_award_mike_nichols_main-1The death of director Mike Nichols signals the end of an era. Throughout his career, Nichols was a rigorous intellectual in pursuit of serious artistic endeavors. He was the opposite of today’s vacant purveyors of cynical, vulgar fare; Mike Nichols had something to say, show and tell. From 1967’s picture about disillusioned youth, The Graduate, starring Dustin Hoffman, to 2007’s picture about disillusioned adults, Charlie Wilson’s War, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Nichols, who died in Manhattan at 83 this week, groped for stories about sifting through the mixed and muddled world of the 20th century and finding some kind of higher meaning, often and, at his best, elevating the good. Even his darkest fare, such as the pretentious Closer (2004), mined the world for meaning.

The German-born son of a Jewish doctor who fled Nazi Germany and a “miserable and manipulative” mother (upon whom he based his early comedy routines with partner Elaine May) captured in his work the evolving American ethos from goodness to self-doubt and eventual self-loathing. He did it with a particularly searching sense of humor (with a blue streak) that exists to examine and explore, not for the sake of the joke, but for the sake of the thought that accompanies, yields and evokes the laughter.

What the New York Times calls his “keen comic timing” comes from the genius of his early observations bred by intense alienation and social anxiety he may have experienced after a doctor’s error that left him hairless (he wore wigs). According to a bio on Turner Classic Movies (TCM), Nichols was inspired to become a director upon watching the stage work of Elia Kazan when Nichols was 16 years old. The New Yorker found himself fitting in for the first time in his life and identifying his own talent and ability, in America’s quintessentially melting pot, middle class city, Chicago, where he later said he discovered that he could be “happy and neurotic.” That’s where he first connected with his creative partner, the sharp, sardonic Jewish comedienne Elaine May. Their work set the standard for mid-century American comedy and Nichols went on to drop out of college, appear with May on television programs in comedy routines, and direct Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park (1963), originally titled “Nobody Loves Me”, with a then-unknown actor from the San Fernando Valley, Robert Redford. After gaining acclaim for directing on Broadway, he directed his first motion picture in 1966, an adaptation of Edward Albee’s foul-mouthed Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

Nichols, who struggled with depression and once considered suicide, went on a year later to direct the seminal film of the counterculture, The Graduate, which is heralded by the New Left though it ends with an affirmation of middle class values amid a distinctive score by Paul Simon. It became the biggest moneymaker of Mike Nichols’ career. His next hit came in the decade which briefly deviated from New Left dominance, the 1980s, in which Nichols depicted another lonely individual’s struggle against the dominant culture, Silkwood, starring Cher, Kurt Russell and Meryl Streep in the title role singing “Amazing Grace” while driving a Honda toward a decidedly unhappier ending than the back of the bus finale in The Graduate. By then, Nichols had started to produce through his Icarus Productions—Whoopi Goldberg’s profanity-laced standup show and the optimistic American-themed musical Annie and Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing on Broadway—including the groundbreaking ABC drama Family.

NicholsandMay1961PlaybillThough The Graduate came to represent Hollywood’s emerging anti-heroism, with glamorous movie stars and heroic stories pushed aside for dark, depraved themes and figures, Mike Nichols moved toward depicting an American resurgence of optimism and commercialism, in 1988’s unabashedly pro-capitalist Working Girl, with its opening and closing shots of the Twin Towers—referenced in Carly Simon’s theme song urging audiences to “let the dreamers wake the nation”—Statue of Liberty and the triumphal rise of the self-made entrepreneur in a skyscraper. The self-made is explored again in 1991’s quiet, underrated character drama, Regarding Henry, featuring Harrison Ford and Annette Bening as a couple who bring themselves into alignment with their chosen values after an act beyond their control radically changes their lives. His career reached its zenith with disease-themed TV productions Wit, which centers on cancer, and Angels in America, which dramatizes AIDS, preceded by his deceptively brilliant integration of his works in music, drama, humor, stage and cinema; an elated homage to being self-made, happy and neurotic, The Birdcage starring Nathan Lane and Robin Williams. That the adaptation of Jean Poiret’s La Cage Aux Folles was written by his original comedy partner Elaine May brings the outstanding career of the insatiable Mike Nichols full circle. Nichols, who is survived by his brother, children and wife, journalist Diane Sawyer, deserves to be studied and remembered. I think it may be another century before his brand of brightness, wit and intelligence make their way into pictures, shows and stories of high caliber again.

Joan Rivers, Rest in Peace

JoanRiversStillTalkingJoan Rivers, who died today at the age of 81, was more than a comedienne. She was also an intellectual. Her ability to think, the drive to think for herself, is crucial to grasping why she made millions laugh. She always started by making the audience think.

At her best, she was hilariously fresh, honest and funny. Watch her clips but let them play. She told stories, not just jokes. Though in her later years she could be crude and vulgar and I didn’t watch her cut-up routines, she was biting, incisive and brilliant. The neurotic Jew from Brooklyn was part of the act and in an age when people push everyone to fit in, conform and just follow, Joan Rivers basically said ‘up yours’ to conformity, political correctness and not making waves. She was an individualist, a true creator and a real, enterprising pioneer.

What waves she made. Named as the Tonight Show‘s first permanent guest host by Johnny Carson, at a time when hundreds of America’s top comedians were flagrantly pushing for the position, she filled in for the legendary host with impeccable skill. She wrote and directed a movie about a man who becomes pregnant, a character played by a then-unknown standup comic named Billy Crystal, whom she thought deserved to be a star. She portrayed a knife-wielding lesbian pining for a character played by Barbra Streisand on stage. She won an Emmy hosting a thoughtful daytime talk show, broke new ground by headlining a comedy show for a new television network called Fox and used her fashion experience (Rivers worked for Lord & Taylor and as a fashion coordinator) throughout her career, selling products on a shopping channel and hosting fashion shows.

Joan Rivers wrote books, including a breakthrough jokes book about a fictional tramp named Heidi Abromowitz, popularized the phrase “Can we talk?”, voiced the baby in Look Who’s Talking, made her movie debut opposite Burt Lancaster in The Swimmer and made a documentary. She worked with Mel Brooks and all the top comedians. She did it all without turning herself into a joke. Some may claim with credibility that that came later and I think to some extent it did – and for what it’s worth I think she made a mistake when she took the Fox job, angering Johnny Carson – but without question Joan Rivers was an original.

That she achieved exceptional success in several fields across multiple platforms – TV, cable TV, movies, theater, bestselling books, comedy – is more extraordinary because she was a woman, a fact she used though never while denigrating man. This alone is an accomplishment in an anti-male culture. Much will be said and written about Joan Rivers and some of the criticism will be true, though it should also be remembered that Ms. Rivers survived her husband’s suicide. Her legacy is the ability to make people laugh through an understanding of the world around them. Having lost Robin Williams, Americans are left with Billy Crystal as one of the last great comedians of the mind. Let it be remembered that his first big break, before Soap, before hosting the Oscars, before he looked mah-velous and rode horses with Jack Palance, came from a comedienne who was, at least to me when I met her, gracious, intelligent, magnanimous and hilarious all at once. As she wrote about the box office bomb Rabbit Test starring Billy Crystal in a book pictured here:

I believe that hell is not pain and fire, but boredom. I think you must take risks, must see how far you can push. If you really believe in something, you must try it, must do it. If you always take your shot, your life is going to be interesting. Failure is devastating, but here I am fifteen years later feeling that Rabbit Test was one of the most successful experiences I have ever had. It is part of my education, part of my consciousness…Hell, Rabbit Test may be on the shelf, but I can pull it out and know that I made it happen.”

I think this expression of failure and knowledge that her work is primarily the product of her mind and that she owned it – this commitment to the self-made – is what sets her apart. May Joan Rivers, who entered talking, left me laughing and is survived by her daughter, protege and professional partner, Melissa Rivers, and grandson Cooper, rest in peace.

Robin Williams

RWSadness was unmistakable from the beginning of the remarkable career of Robin Williams, who died from an apparent suicide last night, according to police in the northern California county where he lived. Anyone who remembers his exciting breakthrough in ABC’s Happy Days spinoff, Mork & Mindy (1978), could see it in his eyes. It was in almost everything he did, from his performance as the title character in George Roy Hill’s adaptation of John Irving’s absurdist novel The World According to Garp (1982) to his work in recent years, including TV’s The Crazy Ones. His manic humor usually overshadowed his serious acting ability, on display in everything from Garp to Good Will Hunting (1997) and numerous dramatic roles.

The humor was at his best hilarious, from an appearance on Eight is Enough to his role in Moscow on the Hudson and in any of his TV, film and standup comic performances. He made me laugh out loud for the first time when his character Mork the alien dropped an egg in Mindy’s kitchen and said, “fly, be free!” There are moments of comic genius in nearly all of his work and it’s evident that everyone has a favorite scene or moment as shock and grief are shared throughout social media. Among my favorites are his restaurant interchanges in Chris Columbus’ Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), choreography display in Mike NicholsThe Birdcage (1996) and his guest spots on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. But his ability to capture a tragic sensibility came across in his most indelible roles, for which he ought to be fondly remembered, too: Hook (1991), Good Morning, Vietnam, (1987), Dead Poets Society (1989), Bicentennial Man (1999), August Rush (2007) and one of my favorite pictures about aligning the adult with the childlike, Jumanji (1995). I still think his performance as T.S. Garp, the bastard son of nurse Jenny Fields, is underrated.

As Garp, a quality that might be called his ill-fated, infinite sadness was well deployed and portrayed, with Robin Williams as constant caretaker of prostitutes, transvestites, students and a Puritanical feminist mother, stalked by mutes and the man-hating Pooh Percy and wry observer of strange, dark and confusing times. In his sleeveless, rainbow down jacket on Mork & Mindy, he made millions of Americans laugh at his intelligent, improvised ridicule of the ridiculous and he kept on for 35 years. He spoke openly about his personal struggles and, as he leaves a wife and children and admirers around the world, Robin Williams’ legacy could be that life, especially its good humor, is driven by that which ought to be taken seriously.