A History of Violence: Dwayne Epstein Aims POINT BLANK to Uncover the Real Lee Marvin in First Definitive Biography and The Plaza Screens CAT BALLOU

Posted on: Jan 31st, 2013 By:

CAT BALLOU (1965); Dir: Elliot Silverstein; Starring Jane Fonda, Lee Marvin; featuring Q&A by Dwayne Epstein, author of the new biography LEE MARVIN: POINT BLANK, including a book signing; Sat. Feb. 2 3:00 p.m.; $5; The Plaza Theatre; sponsored by Atlanta Film Festival and A Capella Books. Trailer here.

By Andrew Kemp
Contributing Writer

Lee Marvin is an icon of 1960s cinema, a legendary screen tough-guy who punched hard and lived harder, or at least that’s how the story goes. Before he became famous on the screen, Marvin worked for years in thankless villain roles and bit parts, often outshining his co-stars, and it took over a decade of hard work and a few unhappy years in series television before he finally saw a reward for his effort. During his Hollywood peak, Marvin starred in a string of classics that rewrote the rules on screen violence and forever changed the landscape of American cinema: THE PROFESSIONALS (1966); THE DIRTY DOZEN (1967); POINT BLANK (1967).

Dwayne Epstein has spent almost two decades researching the life and legacy of Lee Marvin. Epstein had unprecedented access to the Marvin family and a mountain of records and personal letters, and the result is the first major biography of Marvin to dig into the roots behind the actor’s history of violence, his unusual family legacy, and the demons that drove him to alcoholism and hell-raising. Epstein will be signing his book—LEE MARVIN: POINT BLANK—at the Plaza Theatre on Saturday, Feb. 2 at 3 p.m. and provide a Q&A for the only film to gain Marvin any Oscar recognition, the western comedy CAT BALLOU. ATLRetro recently spoke with Epstein to ask him about the book and about Marvin’s storied career.

ATLRetro: You’ve written a large number of Hollywood biographies for the youth market. LEE MARVIN: POINT BLANK is the first adult biography that you’ve written.

Dwayne Epstein: That would be accurate. The other biographies I’ve written were for a company called Lucent, and they were for a series called People in the News. A lot of them were what you would call Hollywood biographies, but also about political figures. I wrote about Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi, as well as Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell, Denzel Washington. I wrote another book for Lucent called LAWMEN OF THE OLD WEST for a series called History Makers. That was just helpful and a way to pay bills while I worked on the Lee Marvin book.

Why Lee Marvin as the subject of your first major biography, then?

Lee Marvin has always fascinated me. I’m a baby boomer and I grew up watching THE DIRTY DOZEN on TV, way back when they were showing it in two parts. I can watch it now and distinctly remember when the first part would end and the second part would begin. Even when they show it on Turner now, uncut and all the way through. In all of his films, he was always very distinct to me, even when he was not the leading actor. Even more so after I decided to write a book on him, and the more I found out about him. He was much more than he was on screen, obviously, just like most people are. He was a fascinating man. When I researched the book, I discovered he really was the first of his kind, I mean of the post-war actors; he pretty much created the modern America cinema of violence as we know it. It came from him, not from Clint Eastwood. Lee Marvin predated Clint Eastwood by a couple of years.

You say you’ve been researching the book for a long time, and the research is obvious when you read it. How long did you research and work on the book?

I began in 1994, so that went on about 18 years. Many of the people I interviewed for the book are no longer with us, and it was a real saving grace in some ways that I was able to do it when I did. Such as his brother, who had never been interviewed before.

How did that come about?

That became kind of a cool story. Like I said, he had never been interviewed, and I found that his brother had worked for the New York City school district and that he was a teacher. I have a cousin in New York who works in the teacher union, and I contacted her and asked her if she knew of a way to get into contact with Robert Marvin, and she said if he had any connection with the teacher’s union at all, [she’ll] find him. And she did. At the time, he still lived in the Marvin family home up by Woodstock, NY. I took a shot and gave him a call, and lo and behold I wasn’t on the phone with him two seconds when I knew I had Lee Marvin’s brother. He sounded just like him.

Yeah, he had a distinct voice.

Yes, he did. That voice was one of his many, many great attributes as an actor.

Lee Marvin in POINT BLANK. MGM, 1967.

You mention in the book that there had been studio biographies written on Lee Marvin, but that they had inaccuracies. Why did it take this long for someone to get to the definitive Lee Marvin story?

When I say studio biographies, I mean something produced by the studio to promote the film. Not an actual print biography. Press books and press releases, what have you. Some of the misinformation that’s been put out there is a result of Lee Marvin himself. He loved mythology and he created his own mythology. One or two other books had been printed previously, and if there’s been misinformation there, it’s because Lee Marvin loved to tell stories. He was a heck of a storyteller. He knew a good story when he made one up, and he would promote it.

Your book is getting beyond all of that and collecting the facts from everyone else, though.

Right. As often as I could, I would verify a particular story from one source with another source. I would compare one version of a story to another, such as how he got started as an actor – him often saying he was fixing the toilet at the Maverick Theater in Woodstock when his destiny called. But there are several quotes from people in that same time period who say that would be pretty hard to do since the Maverick Theater didn’t have a toilet.

When reading the book, Lee Marvin’s family is just as important to the book as his career. He had the great uncle who died in Robert Peary’s North Pole expedition.

That’s one of the most fascinating things I discovered while doing the research. I was blown away to find out the true story behind Ross Marvin.

It’s kind of mind-blowing. Like, this guy had such a family history.

That was one of the early connections I made to create the theme of the book. If you believe in this thing about fate or destiny or what have you, it was there in Marvin’s life before he was even born. His trail was preset, as it was. It dates back even before Ross Marvin.

In what way?

I love this story, and Lee Marvin loved to tell this story, too. The earliest Marvins in America helped settle the colony of Connecticut, and there was a puritan named Matthew Marvin who would go on fiery pub raids to get the farmers out of the pubs and into the churches. There was fire and brimstone in Lee Marvin’s ancestry. He also had a varied history in terms of the colorful characters in it. He was related to George Washington and Robert E. Lee, which is why he has the name that he has. His older brother’s name is Robert, and he’s Lee. His mother was a very conscientious Virginia southern woman, and that kind of thing was important to her.

Lee Marvin in THE DIRTY DOZEN, MGM, 1967.

You talk about the theme of his family, and I noticed that there’s another theme running through his story about absent fathers. His father was always traveling, and his father was raised by his uncle who passed, and Lee Marvin was always traveling.

You’re right about that aspect, but to give it even more perspective, I would say that dysfunctional family was really a looming shadow in Lee Marvin’s life. The violence that was perpetrated during World War II did propel his career as an actor, but it wasn’t the end-all, be-all. Before that, he had travails in his family. There was alcoholism, there was abuse, all kinds of stuff. And like many families like that, there was still love. Everybody in the family loved each other, they just didn’t quite know how to handle their emotions.

I want to talk for a second about this interesting chapter that you wrote. Marvin is in the Pacific Theatre in World War II, and you construct his military career almost entirely through the letters that he was sending home. You have some commentary, but almost the whole chapter is just his letters. What was it about his letters that you found so compelling that you wanted to just let him take the stage?

I’m glad you mentioned that. That was a conscious choice based on a crisis I was facing. I knew how critical that chapter was. It was the very foundation to a lot of Lee Marvin’s life, and I didn’t want to screw it up. I’ve never seen battle, and badly written battles or wartime remembrances are untrue and they can really turn the reader off to the rest of the book. If it’s done well, listen, I’m not Ernest Hemingway. I can’t write that kind of thing. And it was quite a dilemma for me how to approach it, and then I realized while doing the research that if I put the letters that I had that had been previously given from Lee’s family in chronological order, I realized that he could write this chapter himself and he should. And that was the hardest part of doing that, deciphering what he wrote. He was dyslexic, and he had terrible handwriting. It was a lot like being an archaeologist, deciphering what he wrote. Putting them together, I realized this is Lee Marvin’s voice. Let him tell the story himself.

In one of those letters he writes, towards the end of his time in the war, he’s had his fill of war. But he spent a huge portion of his career recreating war and violence on film. Was he working through his experience, or was it just another job for him?

No, it was not another job for him, I can tell you that. There was something I discovered while researching the book, and I’ll take the heat for this if anyone gets mad at me. It was my diagnosis, for lack of a better word, that Lee Marvin had post-traumatic stress disorder. I had never read that anywhere, I came to that conclusion myself researching and reading about PTSD and reading about the symptoms. He pretty much matched all of them, and it really went unknown and undiagnosed until about 1980. Marvin died in 1987, so most of his life was spent without any knowledge of that. Consequently, in having these symptoms, he had to channel a lot of the anger and emotions and the symptoms of PTSD, nightmares, alcoholism, survivor’s guilt, a need for violence. All of these things kind of came together and he had to filter it somehow. Probably the most acceptable way to do so, aside from getting arrested on a daily basis, was becoming an actor. He prided himself on being able to do things on stage and on film that people weren’t allowed to do in everyday life.

Throughout his whole life, he had struggles with marriages and struggles with alcohol. There was that infamous Robin Hood party in Vegas. What is he, dangling women out of a window with bedsheets? Do you think his alcoholism was related to his PTSD?

I think there was a vicious circle kind of thing. He drank to forget, and when he drank, he became—there’s not any one thing, of course, but there was antisocial behavior, and being in Hollywood and being a big movie star in the 1960s, that kind of behavior became the talk of the town. People loved it. It’s not like working as a plumber in small time America, where it’s “did you see what Lee did at the party?” In Hollywood, it’s like “Wow! Wasn’t Lee great drunk at the party last night?” That kind of social strata encouraged it. It also ruined his marriages. A marriage, anyway.

A lobby card of the famous drunk on a horse scene from CAT BALLOU. Columbia Pictures, 1965.

I want to talk about CAT BALLOU for a minute. You’re signing books at a screening at the Plaza on Saturday. They’re screening the film that gave Lee Marvin his only Oscar.

One for one. One nomination, one Oscar.

The funny thing about that movie and it being his only Oscar is that it’s not really the kind of movie you’d associate when you think of Lee Marvin. Why CAT BALLOU? Why did it resonate?

It’s interesting. A few years before he passed away, a reporter said to Marvin “I don’t really think you deserve the Oscar for CAT BALLOU, it’s not really your best work.” He surprised the reporter by saying “You’re right. It wasn’t my best performance, and I don’t know if I did deserve the Oscar for that. But there is such a thing as being on the Oscar track, and I was on the Oscar track with that film.” He was as surprised as anybody to see how successful it turned out. But one of the reasons why it was as successful as it is, I interviewed the film’s director Elliot Silverstein, who told me some fascinating stories about the making of that movie. Lee didn’t play that movie for comedy. The main character, I mean, because it was a dual role. He played the main character of the drunken, burned-out gunslinger as a tragic figure. He played the character as someone who is past his prime, and what do you do with a gunslinger when nobody wants him anymore? He compared it to many things, an old soldier, a broken-down prize fighter, a retired athlete who had his day in the sun and is now making change, that kind of thing. There’s a wonderful moment when Jane Fonda tells her father, “How would I know he was going to be a drunk?” And when she says that, Marvin looks over his shoulder at her, with a look of pain in his eyes. It’s some of the best acting he’s ever done. But it’s not something that normally wins Oscars.

Lee Marvin in THE WILD ONE. Columbia Pictures, 1953.

Well, if the movie came out today, I feel like it would be the kind of role to get you an Oscar. It’s a dual role, which is difficult, and he’s playing outside of his type.

He is, but what’s interesting, too, is that he was cast because in a weird way he was making fun of the stuff he had done before. There’s a lot of Liberty Valance in Tim Strawn, Kid Shelleen’s brother. There’s a little bit of that in Kid Shelleen. Silverstein said that the reason he was casting Marvin in the first place is that a couple of nights before, he had seen Marvin in THE WILD ONE (1953), and he remembered the way he fell off his motorcycle. He did that in a very funny way; he knows how to move. There’s a little bit of a lot of other things Marvin had done on film that come across.

I noticed that myself, that dual role is kind of spoofing on his Liberty Valance role. If it was just the old coot, if it was just Kid Shelleen, does Marvin get the part, or does Jack Palance get it like he wanted?

The funny thing is, Palance let everyone know that he wanted the role. Apparently he wasn’t even considered for the part. [both laugh] And if Palance had done it, he would have been parodying the character that he played in SHANE, which is what put him on the map. But for Marvin, there were several major actors at the time that were considered and for some reason or another—well, we know specifically that Kirk Douglas passed on it. Jose Ferrar was considered, Burt Lancaster. Several others. As years go by, there’s a debate about how much of this is actual and factual and how much was urban legend. But I do know that once Lee Marvin got the part—and he had to be convinced, too, by his wife and his agent—and once he got the script, he started quoting the dialogue in the party circuit, because he thought it was the best dialogue he’d read in a long time. He had problems with the character because it was a physical character to play. You have to sell it broad, but with it being broad, you’ve got to be believable, or the audience is going to say a few seconds into it that this is just a cartoon. And yet, he was able to pull it off.

To me, he definitely deserved the Oscar.

That’s another thing, too. Comedies don’t generally win Oscars, and he pulled it off.

It was fairly late in his career when he won that Oscar, but it was also fairly late in his career when he became a household name. Why do you think it took so long for audiences to warm up to him?

There’s another question outside of film in general, and that’s do the times make the man or does the man make the times? With Lee, I think it was a combination of wonderful things converging at the right time. He wouldn’t have made it as a star in the 30s, 40s, and 50s because it was a different thing required by both the studios and audiences. The 60s were a very interesting time cinematically, culturally, in this country in that the rules were changing, both on film and in the culture at large. There was the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the generation gap, war, assassinations, rioting in the streets. This cultural basis helped Lee Marvin become a star. He wasn’t the only one, there were other stars at that time. You look at somebody like Steve McQueen. They’re different actors, but Steve McQueen wouldn’t have made it in the 40s and 50s. There’s always exceptions of course, Humphrey Bogart was the anti-hero of his time and didn’t look like a matinee leading idol, but Lee Marvin got something across to the audience that the audience wanted to see and hear, which is that man is a violent animal and I’m going to show you how violent he can be! And that was a component of the 1960s, a violent time. And movies like THE DIRTY DOZEN and POINT BLANK, which really wasn’t as accepted in its day as it became later on, a cult film, they were saying that guys in the middle class, with white hair and ties—they can do some pretty despicable things if they have to. And that’s what Lee Marvin was about. He was perfect for the 60s at that level.

Dwayne Epstein, author of LEE MARVIN: POINT BLANK.

One of the stories that jumped out at me from the book is that we talk about Lee Marvin redefining screen violence through his films, but another film that’s often credited with redefining screen violence was THE WILD BUNCH (1969). Now he didn’t star in that film, but there’s a bit in the book about him helping to write the screenplay!

He did. He was the one who introduced the story to Sam Peckinpah. A friend of Lee Marvin’s had been working on the script, and Lee would periodically go over and help him a bit and mold it. And that part—if ever a part had Lee Marvin written all over it, it was the role of Pike Bishop in the THE WILD BUNCH. But unfortunately, as things turn out, he made PAINT YOUR WAGON (1969) instead. And I think it’s one of the greatest ironies of all time, that a man who defined modern American screen violence missed out on making the most important violent film of all time. It changed everything. He missed out on that. You look at the American Film Institute [which] does that greatest 100 American films of all time, and Marvin has always just kind of missed the mark for being on those lists, for having his name-above-the-title type film in that list. It would have been THE WILD BUNCH, and he missed that, which is very sad.

So here’s a question, just for your opinion on his work. As he got older, a lot of aging actors go through that sad part of the career where they do a bunch of stinkers, and he did a few towards the end of his career. But he didn’t seem to sink as low as some have. He wasn’t Joan Crawford doing brain-dead horror movies.

Yeah, TROG (1970).

Yeah, yeah. So he had a knack for elevating material. Is there one film or performance in that forgotten section of his career you wish could be found again? Can you rescue something from the scrap heap?

The films themselves are of various quality—[but there are] ones that I think are worthy of being discovered. The film itself isn’t that good, but I thought he was wonderful in DEATH HUNT (1981). He did some wonderful things in that movie. Also, GORKY PARK (1983). It wasn’t a very good film; it wasn’t well-received. It was based on a popular novel, but he’d never played a guy like that before. He played an American businessman who was very rich and imports sable into the Soviet Union. He’s just this wonderfully deadly guy who can wear a three-piece suit and do something heinous at the same time. Just a great performance on his part. Like I said, something he had never done before. And probably the best of them all was THE BIG RED ONE (1980), which he did about five or six years before he died, Sam Fuller’s epic retelling of his own experiences in World War II. Lee Marvin is a nameless sergeant who—he does things in this movie that I’ve never seen him do, in that film acting. There are a lot of elements to film acting, and one of them is being able to convey without dialogue because it’s a visual medium. There’s a sequence at the end of the film where he’s helping a concentration camp refugee. He’s just liberated a concentration camp, and he helps a little boy. There’s almost no dialogue in that sequence for like 9 or 10 minutes, and it’s all played on Lee’s face. He’s very poignant, and he’s not over the top. It’s some of the best film acting I’ve ever seen. And it’s kind of being rediscovered. It’s important and it should be, because it’s a great performance and a great film.

Lee Marvin in THE BIG RED ONE. United Artists, 1980.

Actually, when I was young, probably about 9 or 10 years old, I would grab everything at the video store and try to watch it, and I saw THE BIG RED ONE then. I’m pretty sure it was my first Lee Marvin movie, and even as a kid watching it, I absolutely loved that movie. I still have a soft spot for it all the way to today.

I think in 2006, there was a restoration done.

I haven’t seen the restoration yet. I loved it in the original version, so I’d imagine I’d really love it now.

My personal opinion [is] I don’t think it was improved on all that much. I know it was meant to be a three-hour film and it got taken away from Sam Fuller, who by the way I got to know, he’s one of the many people I interviewed for the book. He loved Lee. That’s one of the tragedies, that they didn’t work together more. They worked together on television a couple of times. That was Sam Fuller’s opus, and he’s another film director being rediscovered. They discovered him in Europe first. He’s an American director, but in America he was considered a hack, and in Europe, he’s God. Now American film fans are starting to rediscover his work. He was quite an individual filmmaker. Nobody else could make a movie like THE NAKED KISS (1964) or SHOCK CORRIDOR (1963) or THE BIG RED ONE. There are things that are done in that movie that had never been done before in film, no matter how long we’d been making World War II films. The four lead characters with Lee Marvin looked like young soldiers. They don’t look like actors playing soldiers, they all looked to be the age 17 to 19, and they’re swimming in their uniforms, you know, the way it would be in real life. Things like that.

OK, so, it’s a topic that never seems to go away. Throughout his career, Lee Marvin had to field questions about cinema and violence in society. And unfortunately, your book is arriving at a moment when that conversation is back in the news.

Indeed it is. Unfortunately. The timing is badly fortuitous in terms of the book, but that conversation is out there.

Well, you quote Lee Marvin a couple of times in the book; basically his quote boils down to he wants the violence in his movies to be incredibly brutal and realistic because he thinks it acts as a deterrent. The rougher the violence, the less likely someone is to try it.

Right, that was his belief. I don’t necessarily hold to that belief, but Lee Marvin professed that. He believed that the more brutal you made it, the more you would turn people off. I don’t know if that’s necessarily the case. He made those statements before there were warfare videogames and things we see on the news on a regular basis that were much more graphic. The kind of violence Lee Marvin was talking about is not the kind of violence that, say, a Jason Statham action film has, where it’s quirky and cartoony, but it’s in your face every two seconds. It’s not like that MTV editing style that’s quick cutting, that’s not about the impact you would have on another human being. It’s like a videogame or cartoon. Let’s blow up as many cars as we can. Let’s shoot as many things as we can. Marvin’s point was, let’s show the threat of violence. I’m paraphrasing here, but he said, if I’m going to shoot somebody, I’m going to knock them down, walk over, shoot them two times, and then roll them over and shoot them again. And sell it! Not just have it happen quick and go on to the next thing. That’s not really what he thought violence was about. Violence is ugly, so show it to be ugly.

It’s funny. You have this image—well, before I read your book, Lee Marvin seems to appeal to a certain stereotype of a conservative tough-guy, pro-war cinema. Was Lee Marvin pro-war?

Let me tell you something, that’s one of my favorite things about this book. I’ve been reading blogs or comments about Lee Marvin. He’s often been called “America’s favorite badass,” “he’s not a wussy,” and “he would go out there and kick Obama’s ass!” Things like that. And people who say stuff like that don’t realize that Lee Marvin was not John Wayne. Most of his life, politically, Lee Marvin was a liberal Democrat. He worked for John F. Kennedy’s campaign in 1960. After Kennedy’s assassination, he kept his politics to himself, but the only thing he was really a hawk on was indeed gun control. He believed very strongly in the 2nd amendment and he would tell friends that, but politically, he was a liberal. I hate to disappoint John Wayne fans out there. By the way, John Wayne and Lee Marvin were friends. They worked together, but Lee Marvin would definitely not be put in the category of a Tea Partier. Another point, too, is that you can be a liberal and be a badass. [laughs]

In the book, there are two other actors that you explore the similarities and kind of dismiss those similarities with Lee Marvin, and that’s Humphrey Bogart and Clint Eastwood. If those two aren’t good comparisons, who is the best comparison to Lee Marvin, in your opinion, before and after his time?

There are elements in terms of being antiheroes—and by the way, what I wrote in the book about Bogart was really comparisons to Bogart before he was famous. Comparisons can be made, because Bogart’s career was very similar to Lee Marvin’s. He played a lot of bad guys and secondary roles before he made it with HIGH SIERRA (1941) and MALTESE FALCON (1941) and CASABLANCA (1942) and those films, but when Lee Marvin was doing supporting and secondary roles, he really tried to sell it and do the best job he could. If you look at Bogart in those early Warner Brothers films before he was famous, he looked so uncomfortable. He didn’t look like he was enjoying himself or having a good time. He looked like he was working, whereas Lee Marvin always tried to give a little more to the character, like saying to the audience, “I’m going to do something despicable here, and we’re going to have fun.” And that was a weird thing, too, that nobody had ever done before. There’s a lot of elements of Lee Marvin in other actors, you know? There’s a great quote by Errol Flynn in THE ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN (1948). He’s about to chase a girl, and he’d said he would never do that again. His friend says “I thought you weren’t ever going to do this again,” and Errol Flynn as Don Juan says “You know, there’s a little Don Juan in every man, and if I am Don Juan, there must be more of him in me!” The same goes for Lee Marvin. There’s a little Lee Marvin in a lot of actors, but there’s only one Lee Marvin, and there’s more of Lee Marvin in him than anyone.

One last question. Besides the obvious connection to one of his most well-known films, why choose the title POINT BLANK for your book?

I had a devil of a time coming up with a title. I had several things I was thinking of, but once I wrote the introduction, I realized that what Lee Marvin did that nobody else had done before him was that he presented violence on film like nobody had done before and consistently. That’s the other thing. There were moments of violence in American cinema that were pretty bad, like when Richard Widmark pushed a lady in a wheelchair down a staircase [in KISS OF DEATH (1947)], but after Richard Widmark did that, he never played that kind of character again which is, you know, a tragedy. But Lee Marvin, once he established himself, never walked away from how violent mankind can be. He was in your face with the way it was presented. I thought if I could come up with a name for that style, and that was point blank. Just that’s how he was. He was point blank, in your face, no excuses.

Andrew Kemp is a screenwriter and game writer who started talking about movies in 1984 and got stuck that way. He writes at www.thehollywoodprojects.com and hosts a bimonthly screening series of classic films at theaters around Atlanta.

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Retro Review: BARBARELLA, Take Two, or Today, I Watched Jane Fonda Narrowly Escape Death-by-Orgasm in the Excessive Machine; How Was Your Day?

Posted on: Jan 25th, 2013 By:

BARBARELLA (1968); Dir: Roger Vadim; Screenplay by Terry Southern; Based on a bande dessinee by Jean-Claude Forest; Starring Jane Fonda, John Phillip Law, Anita Pallenberg, David Hemmings, Milo O’Shea, Marcel Marceau; Plaza Theatre, Saturday, January 26 at 10:00pm; presented by BLAST-OFF BURLESQUE’S TABOO-LA-LA with live stage show before the screening including raffle of 10 8×10 signed photos of Fonda as Barbarella from Jane Fonda’s personal collection; Trailer here

By Andrew Kemp
Contributing Writer

Today, I watched Jane Fonda narrowly escape death-by-orgasm in the Excessive Machine. How was your day?

Although I’d never seen BARBARELLA (1968), the infamous sci-fi sex romp produced by Dino de Laurentiis and directed by Roger Vadim, before today, I definitely knew about it. Almost everyone knows about it. BARBARELLA is a movie with more reputation than respect, a movie that, depending on who you ask, is either awful or awfully amazing. Just its name invokes a few key images—that amazing poster by Robert McGinnis; Jane Fonda’s buxom, uh, hair. I grew up in a post-STAR WARS world, when just the sight of a science-fiction ray blaster promised a particular brand of space fantasy and action, but combine aliens and thrills with the promise of a naked, beautiful woman? There’s not enough concrete on Earth to build a wall an adolescent boy can’t climb.

But I never made it over that wall. Yes, it’s true that young boys can sniff out nudie films like pigs root up truffles, but you guys have never met my mother. I once got a few short minutes of FLASH GORDON (1980) and its adventurous female costumes on the TV before she stomped into the room, feeling a psychic disturbance, I suppose, in her son’s mind. She played goalie effectively until around the time I entered high school, and by then I had found other ways to see boobs. And so, somehow, Barbarella and I had never met.

Durand Durand (Milo O'Shea_ tries to defeat Barbarella (Fonda) with death by orgasm. Paramount Pictures, 1968.

BARBARELLA was a famous flop at the box office, but its racy content, goofy cheerfulness about sex and outrageous set design—the spaceship is lined with shag carpet!—fit snugly with the mood of the late 1960s, at least with certain segments of the youth. The film quickly gained a cult infamy, especially as its star, Jane Fonda, transitioned into A-pictures and won an Oscar for the popular detective film, KLUTE (1971). There’s always been kind of a funny dividing line between mainstream film and exploitation, and it’s thrilling when some star gets a weekend pass to play on the other side, whether it’s Bruce Campbell showing up in SPIDER-MAN (2002) or Jane Fonda taking her clothes off. It was impossibly tantalizing to know that a major actress had once bared it all in a sex adventure, especially before home video, when the only way to see something like BARBARELLA was to catch a revival screening, and there weren’t nearly enough of those. Lack of availability helped grow the film’s legend, and it soon became trendy and cool to latch onto its camp appeal. Even by the early 1970s, a club named Barbarella’s existed in the UK, and it became a key location in the developing punk scene, hosting bands like The Sex Pistols and The Clash. One rising band that played frequently at the club even sampled clips and songs from the film into their music, tweaking the name of the film’s villain, Durand-Durand, into their own name, Duran Duran.

But it was the 1960s; everyone was taking their clothes off, right? There were plenty of sex movies in the world. What is it about BARBARELLA that keeps it going? “I just remember seeing that strip tease during the opening and being in love with the world,” says Max Shell, director of the undead-chicken cult movie THE DEVIL’S COCK. “Dino’s [de Laurentiis] Euro Sci-Fi is about ‘getting it on!’”

Melanie Magnifique of Blast-Off Burlesque takes a more esoteric approach. “I was traversing the spirit lands, when this film was released in conventional space-time. When I first experienced it, many years later, it was still the powerful tale of a girl doing what a girl’s sometimes got to do!”

The famous poster by Robert McGinnis.

Aha! If there’s another narrative to the BARBARELLA appeal beyond sex, it’s girl power. The film came at this neat little intersection of the free love ‘60s and the peak of the misogynist spy fantasies like James Bond. There had simply never been a female action hero who freely used and enjoyed sex while saving the day. (Hell, it’s still hard to find a character like that today!) Perhaps this explains why Barbarella became a feminist icon, and a popular cosplay target for over 40 years. It’s common to see Barbarellas walking the floors at comic book shows and sci-fi conventions, and the heroine’s legend is so large today that the film lives under constant threat of remake, with the most recent major attempt fronted by director Robert Rodriguez as a vehicle for Rose McGowan, who he’d already cast once as an ass-kicker in his GRINDHOUSE entry, PLANET TERROR (2007).

Does BARBARELLA deserve its infamy? I finally sat down to watch the film today, and I was kind of amazed with what I found. Despite its legacy in the sexual revolution, BARBARELLA can sometimes be cruel, and other times naïve. After the famous opening strip scene (described in wonderful detail here on this very site), we learn that Fonda’s secret agent is a wide-eyed wonder. A child of a civilization that has evolved beyond violence and pain, she greets the world with simple joy and, when confronted with the bizarre horrors in an “unevolved” part of the galaxy, she simply pushes through and perseveres, using far more optimism than skill. Melanie Magnifique rightly describes Barbarella as “a female protagonist who wants to do the right thing, but is sometimes a little confused about what that thing is.” Fonda’s earnest devotion to her mission is entertaining, even if that mission sometimes devolves into bizarre, disconnected segments. She’s nearly devoured by carnivorous songbirds, for crying out loud.

As for the sex, my adolescent self would have enjoyed Fonda’s matter-of-fact approach to her body and to the sexual beings she encounters. She’s more or less willing to have sex just for the asking, which works both for and against her feminist reputation. On the one hand, the film is full of scenes of sexual aggression or sexual bartering. Sex is a currency that gets Barbarella from place to place, and there’s an unsettling trend towards sexual torture. It’s easy to read the film as misogynist, using Barbarella as a doll to act out aggressive male fantasies. But, on the other hand, there’s something charming and empowering about how Barbarella, after having been introduced to real sex (in the future, evolved beings do it with a pill) by an impossibly masculine hunter, Barbarella blossoms as a sexual being, pursuing sex with the chiseled angel Pygar and showing frustration when a bumbling freedom fighter (the awesome David Hemmings in the film’s best supporting role) wants to do it with the pill.

Although the film sought mainstream success, BARBARELLA is a movie destined for cult status. Like every good cult flick, there are moments that you simply can’t believe you’re seeing, scenes that should be impossible in a well-budgeted studio film, and yet here they are. This is a film for an audience, if simply so you can turn to the person next to you to share a laugh and one of those “holy shit” looks. This movie should be *ahem* a shared experience, not a solo trip. Even with all the sex, there’s something incredibly innocent about the film, and it serves as a window into a more optimistic, good-natured time. It’s fitting, then, that it’s being hosted at the Plaza this weekend by Blast-Off Burlesque. Burlesque itself is an art form that walks that beautiful line between sweetness and spice, and BARBARELLA is their kind of movie. When asked about the links between burlesque and BARBARELLA, Melanie Magnifique agreed: “It contains many simple theatrical tricks which are used to achieve special effects (we do that a lot).”

“Oh, also, we love to smoke Essence of Man.”

The show starts at 10 pm on Saturday with music, a dance party and complementary signature cocktails, but says Magnifique, “Come early to get your groove on!”

And be sure to read our other Retro Review: Jane Fonda Has No Clothes On: Stripping Down Our Love Affair with Psychedelic ’60s SF Camp Cult Classic BARBARELLA in Time for a Blast-Off Burlesque Taboo-La-La at the Plaza Theatre by Robert Emmett Murphy Jr.

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Retro Review: Jane Fonda Has No Clothes On: Stripping Down Our Love Affair with Psychedelic ’60s SF Camp Cult Classic BARBARELLA in Time for a Blast-Off Burlesque Taboo-La-La at the Plaza Theatre

Posted on: Jan 21st, 2013 By:

BARBARELLA (1968); Dir: Roger Vadim; Screenplay by Terry Southern; Based on a bande dessinee by Jean-Claude Forest; Starring Jane Fonda, John Phillip Law, Anita Pallenberg, David Hemmings, Milo O’Shea, Marcel Marceau; Plaza Theatre, Saturday, January 26 at 10:00pm; presented by BLAST-OFF BURLESQUE’S TABOO-LA-LA with live stage show before the screening including raffle of 10 8×10 signed photos of Fonda as Barbarella from Jane Fonda’s personal collection; Trailer here.

By Robert Emmett Murphy Jr.
Special to ATLRetro.com

BARBARELLA is a special kind of cinematic disaster. A lavish space-opera comedy released in 1968, the most important year in SF cinema since 1951, it had a $9 million budget, making it only modestly less expensive than the same year’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY ($10.5 M) and more expensive than that year’s PLANET OF THE APES ($5.8 M). Meant to celebrate the era’s new found sexual freedom and the changing role of women in society, BARBARELLA is one of those films in which the first five minutes tell you everything you are going to get, as well as promising you all the things it should’ve given us and simply failed to deliver.

The opening image is a lovely array of stars, and hanging within it an improbable and more than slightly feminine-looking space ship. We move in closer until we can see through a portal into the fur-lined cockpit…

Full stop. Christ, I can’t believe I just wrote that: “fur-lined cockpit.” You know that whoever came up with that idea was thinking ahead to an exhausted film reviewer of a more innocent age, sometime after midnight hammering out copy and tearing his hair out screaming, “HOW CAN I GET THIS PAST THE EDITORS!”

Jane Fonda as BARBARELLA. Paramount Pictures, 1968.

OK, so we can see through a portal into the fur-lined cockpit where a space-suited figure floats in a really excellent simulation of zero-gravity (also a simple illusion, the astronaut is filmed from above while lying on a plexiglass platform). The identify is hidden behind a featureless metal helmet. But the material transforms from metal to clear plexiglass (another fine piece of simple FX, the reflective metal is actually a liquid in a space within the helmet’s bowel-like structure. It’s merely drained through the bottom.) revealing the “spaceman” is actually a not-quite-yet-30 Jane Fonda, never looking more beautiful. Her expression not only evokes a potent come-hither sexual promise, but more importantly, pure delight.

The music comes up. The song is deliberately silly (unafraid to rhyme “Barbarella” and “psychedella”) but quite catchy, celebrating the film’s title character’s sex appeal in a way that is far more joyful than crass. Though the film is based on a French comic book, it’s geared to an American audience, so before we hear her name (already legendary across the ocean), the singer compares her to our more familiar Wonder Woman.

Fonda/Barbarella strips off her space suit. It’s a sectional outfit revealing her progressively, teasingly. She is completely naked beneath. The animated titles escape the seams of the garment like venting gasses, swirling around her, protecting her immodestly. Except when they don’t. They keep trying to obscure, but she is happy to reveal. And the wantonness is now more than just promise; she expresses ongoing sexual pleasure (perhaps the caress of the letters?). Finally, wholly naked, she presses a button, tumbles down the luxurious furs, and she clearly is sated.

It’s one of the greatest stripteases in film history.

The next four minutes aren’t half bad either. The dialogue is witty and provides a lot of narrative context without excessive exposition. Barbarella immediately gets a call on her video screen from Claude Dauphin as the President of Earth. Their greet each other by saying “Love,” in what is clearly a political party’s salute.

Barbarella: “Just a minute. I’ll slip something on.”

President: “Don’t trouble yourself, this is an affair of state.”

In short order we learn that Barbarella is a secret agent in a future so perfectly utopian and groovy that she is rendered childlike in her naivete. She is assigned the mission to find an evil scientist named Durand Durand (yeah, that’s where the ’80s band got their name from) and stop him from supplying weapons to primitive peoples and threatening to disrupt the proper social order.

Barbarella (Jane Fonda) strikes a dangerous pose. Paramount Pictures, 1968.

Barbarella: “Weapon? Why would anyone want to invent a weapon?…I mean the universe was pacified centuries ago.”

President: “What we know of it…We know nothing of Tau Ceti.”

Barbarella: “You mean they can still be living in a primitive state of neurotic irresponsibility?”

Sweet Barbarella seems only vaguely familiar with the concept of secrets (yeah, I know, she’s supposed to be a “secret agent,” but whatever) and can’t even say the word “war,” but instead babbles absurd multisyllabic euphemisms like “archaic insecurity” and “selfish competition.”

We’re now nine minutes into the film. After this point, there’s not a single Goddamn scene in the film that follows that compares, either in its sexiness, warmth of performances, generosity of humor, playful satire or technical achievement.

So why watch the remaining one and half hours?

I can think of three reasons:

1) The wonderfully creative and over-the-top costumes. Especially Fonda’s, who goes through a wide variety because since she’s constantly undressing, she is therefore constantly redressing.

2) The sets and props, which are even more impressively inventive than the costumes. I especially liked the aforementioned fur lined cock pit, the ice craft, the bird-shaped bird-cage that is the size of a small bus- well, the list goes on. Though the film showed little interest in evoking the title-character as she was presented in Jean-Claude Forest‘s comic strip, they did hire Forest as a consultant on the visuals. As wrote Graeme Clark: “[T]he film-makers’ maxim seems to have been, if it looks cool, if it looks weird, then put it onscreen.” And Gary Morris wrote, “[G]audy, colorful sets, looks like it was shot in the bowels of the Playboy mansion — especially our heroine’s spaceship, with its fur-lined walls that reek of ’60s softcore chic.”

3.) Maybe, deep down in your heart, you hate Jane Fonda, and want to just sit back, watch her flounder, and feel superior.

David Hemmings and Jane Fonda in BARBARELLA. Paramount Pictures, 1968.

Yes, Fonda has never been more beautiful, but there’s no doubt this is her career worst performance. Despite being charming in the first scene, her performance quickly degrades, as she becomes increasing wide-eyed, vacuous and cold. I have to wonder why she gets worse the farther she gets into the film. I do know it was made in France at the most important transition point in her acting and political career (her follow-up film, the same year, THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY? earned her first Oscar nomination, and by the time BARBARELLA was released, she’d embraced feminism and thrown her support behind the Native American occupation of Alcatraz Island). What I think happened is that in between takes she started listening to the babble of French intellectuals who analyzed the film’s actual content (and I should say, this is a film that shouldn’t be analyzed for content), and they revealed to her some uncomfortable things:

First, the bad guys are led by an arrogant intellectual who insidiously infiltrates and corrupts a primitive culture with the goal of undermining the larger community of peace-loving, wealthy, advanced societies. Meanwhile the good guys, also foreigners, are forced to intervene and also engage in infiltrating and saving the backward indigenous peoples through a nobler, but still newly introduced, ideology, military training and supplying advanced weapons. The good guys turn the indigenous people into a “third force” that will create a society more cooperative to the ideals of more civilized foreign powers. The overarching message is that if you want to preserve universal peace, start a proxy war. It’s almost Robert Heinlein-esque in the way the heroes are “forced” into engaging in foreign interventions. In other words, the movie is pro- the kind of Third Phase Imperialism that led both the USA and the USSR into the Vietnam conflict.

Ugo Tognazzi plays Mark Hand, the heroic Catchman, the guy who introduces Barbarella to the wonders of really good primitive sex. But he also spends most of his day using corporal punishment to discipline nasty, unsupervised, disrespectful children. He then rounds them up so they can be properly indoctrinated into their responsibilities to society. In other words, BARBARELLA the movie hates the youth culture.

And it didn’t like homosexuals much either.

Women are completely objectified, and the heroine is an utter bimbo (which the comic-book heroine was not). Though she does heroic things, she doesn’t have an idea in her head or a goal worth pursuing that wasn’t planted there by an older, dominant male. Also, after arriving on the planet, almost all the “sexy” scenes concern her being captured and tortured. In other words, the movie is amazingly misogynistic right at the dawn of American feminism.

Also, I think even French intellectuals probably thought that director (Fonda’s then-husband) Roger Vadim, was a sleazy creep who was ruining her career with films like this. Vadim’s life reflected the films bizzaro sexual anti-liberation. He was a serial husband with a penchant for woman barely more than half his age and made a habit of trading eachwoman in as soon as responsibility reared its ugly head. Prior to Fonda was Brigitte Bardot (probably the inspiration for the comic book Barabarella in the first place), who was 15 to his 22 and whom he drove to several suicide attempts before their divorce. He left Bardot for the more age- appropriate Annette Stroyberg, but then abandoned her with a two-year-old child for Catherine Deneuve who was 17 to his 33. He was already involved with Fonda during that third marriage – when Fonda and Vadim first met she was 18 to his 27 -and when Vadim abandoned Deneuve, with their two-month-old child, to move in with Fonda she was 26 to his 35. The two would separate not long after BARBARELLA, leaving yet another child too young to walk. During that separation he would get involved with Catherine Schneider who was 26 to his now-44. There would be another two marriages after that.

Fonda would eventually disown the film. At the San Francisco Film Festival in 1994, she was asked “Where was her head?”

“I don’t know – up my armpit, I guess,” she replied. “We all make mistakes. In my case, I keep getting my nose rubbed them.”

Worse still, Fonda turned down the role of Bonnie in BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967) to do this stinker. Faye Dunaway eventually got that role, and an Oscar nomination. Fonda should’ve listened to Virna Lisi. When Lisi was told to play the part of Barbarella, she terminated her contract with United Artists and returned to Italy.

Jane Fonda changes costumes again as BARBARELLA. Paramount Pictures, 1968.

Episodic in the same way J.R.R. Tolkien’s work was, BARBARELLA lacked the master’s flair for the actual episodes, as well as being completely lacking in forward momentum. It displayed none of Tolkien’s warmth or affection for his characters, and notably Tolkien’s much-maligned female characterization was far better than what we see in this film with a higher percentage of prominent female roles. It wasn’t even close to Tolkien’s capacity to pull the divergent threads of plot into a meaningful climax.

BARBARELLA was panned in its day but has grown into a cult classic. Today, many critics are generous towards it because of its camp value, of which there is a great deal (It’s listed with the “Top 100 Most Amusingly Bad Movies Ever Made” in THE OFFICIAL RAZZIE MOVIE GUIDE), but I can’t help but be put off when watching a film that contains much to snicker about, but when it tries to tell an intentional joke, it generally falls terribly flat. Forest’s original comic book was fun, and the movie’s original script was by the great Terry Southern, but later critics seem unanimous that Vadim was more interested in his sexual obsessions than Forest’s swashbuckling adventurism or Southern’s omni-directional satire. As a result, no one in the cast seemed to be having any fun, and lines that really should’ve been been amusing come off stale:

Barbarella: “Make love [in a manner that involves actual physical contact]? But no one’s done that for hundreds of centuries!”

“This is much too poetic a way to die!”

“A good many dramatic situations begin with screaming!”

Mark Hand: “Are you typical of Earth women?”

Barbarella in a revealing costume made all the more so because it was shredded: “I’m about average.”

Pygar the angel (John Phillip Law, who if anything, a worse actor than Fonda in this movie):

“An angel does not make love, an angel is love.”

“But you’re soft and warm! We’re told that Earth beings are cold.”

And explaining why he saved the evil queen who tortured him: “An angel has no memory.”

Pygar the angel (John Phillip Law) gives Barbarella (Jane Fonda) a ride. Paramount Pictures, 1968.

I will credit one cast member with carrying on like a true soldier. David Hemmings, in an underwritten part as the inept freedom fighter Dildano, was quite good. He offered some hints of what this film could’ve been.

Also very fine was a captivating soundtrack by Bob Crewe and Charles Fox performed by The Glitterhouse which featured Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour.

Vadim wanted to do a sequel to BARBARELLA, but that dream died with his marriage to Fonda. He then talked about a remake right up to his death, toying with leading ladies like Drew Barrymore. Other directors have expressed interest in the remake project, notably Robert Rodriguez.

In closing, I would like to recommend an exceptionally sophisticated homage to this really dumb film. CQ (2001) written and directed by Roman Coppola (son of Francis Ford) takes us back to Paris of the ‘60s where a young American filmmaker, Paul (Jeremy Davies), is trying to made personal art film/love letter to his girlfriend Marlene (Elodie Bouchez) but all that the honest camera can do is document her depression and resentments. So he gets a job assisting the director of an a cheesy sci-fi that is clearly a better version of BARBARELLA. That film’s director, played by Gerard Depardieu, is turning the project into a complete train wreck because he can’t come up with an ending, but really, can’t cope with the fact that the fantasy of revolution and liberty he creates on film will never translate to the real world. Paul gets drawn into the director’s lunacy through his growing infatuation with the film’s sexy star, played by Angela Lindvall, who remains the same impossible ideal of sexuality and liberty even when Depardieu’s camera is not rolling.

Robert Murphy is 47 years old and lives in New York City. Formerly employed, he now has plenty of time to write about movies and play with his cats.

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Kool Kat of the Week: Talking Taboo-La-La, Tura Satana, Travel, Truckin’ and The Rapture with the Beautiful “Barbilicious” Hays of Blast-Off Burlesque

Posted on: May 18th, 2011 By:

ATLRetro wishes Blast-Off Burlesque would put on a few more full shows— these seven delectable dolls and one groovy guy are way too much clever and creative to be on stage just twice a year now and we miss them at the Silver Scream Spookshow. But this talented ensemble is thankfully tiding Atlanta over with Taboo-La-La, a sexy vintage movie series with extras, at the Plaza Theatre. They kicked off with SHOWGIRLS in March, but this month’s show on Saturday May 21 is even more of a special treat as they present a rare chance to see exploitation classic FASTER, PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL! on the big screen (read ATLRetro’s exclusive review by Mark Arson here). Of course, it’s a Blast-Off production, so that’s just the tip of the fun from Tura Satana lookalike, beefcake boy and all-girls arm-wrestling contests to a shrine to recently deceased B-movie siren Satana and a silent art auction fundraiser for a documentary celebrating her life.

Dickie Van Dyke and Barbilicious. Photo credit: Derek Jackson.

To find out more, ATLRetro asked Barb Hays, aka Barbilicious, for a sneak peek behind the naughty plans and got her to spill a few sexy secrets. If you’ve been to a Blast-Off Burlesque performance—and shame on you, if you haven’t—you know each has a unique personality. For Barbilicious, it’s her big smile and a certain mischievious glint in her eyes that’s likely to grab your attention first. She’s the wacky comedienne who adds that extra “oh, my,” whether in an ensemble dance sketch where everyone is dressed in banana suits or steering a giant plastic bubble around stage in homage to Jane Fonda as Barbarella in the company’s Sci-Fi-A-Go-Go show last year.

 

Barb also drops a few tantalizing hints about future happenings involving an all-Blast-Off photo shoot next week, Blast-Off’s September show, her punk band LUST and the debut of Burt and the Bandits, her newest collaboration with the multitalented Jon Waterhouse (read ATLRetro’s profile of Jon here), at the East Atlanta Beer Festival also this Saturday.

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