Tag Archives: Carroll Baker

Ironweed (1987)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Life on the streets.

It’s the 1930’s and Francis Phelan (Jack Nicholson) has been living on the streets for over two decades. At one time he was a promising baseball player with a bright future, but then he accidently dropped his infant son and killed him. Dealing with the guilt and shame of it turned him into an alcoholic who roams the cold streets of Albany, New York looking for odds jobs and handouts when he can. He seeks out his lover Helen (Meryl Streep) for companionship and the two share a bottle of booze and their bitterness at the world that is ambivalent to their desperate situation.

The film is based on the novel of the same name by William Kennedy, who also wrote the screenplay and is directed by Hector Babenco who received wide claim for directing Pixote a film that dealt with homelessness in Brazil. This film is without question one of the best to tackle the lives of street people. Most films tend to treat the subject rather timidly and only analyze the topic from a distance (i.e. having a side character who is homeless, or maybe a main character who is temporarily on the streets), but this film engrosses the viewer completely into the homeless lifestyle while supplying absolutely no letup to their bleak existence. The result is a fascinating and revealing journey that shows how complex and multi-dimensional these people actually are while exposing every facet of the homeless experience including the indignities and dehumanization that they must face on a daily basis.

The casting is interesting particularly for the fact that both Nicholson and Streep had just starred together in Heartburn a year earlier playing a couple on the completely opposite side of the socio-economic scale. I commend Nicholson for tackling a challenging role that goes completely against his persona as normally he plays flamboyant types with over-the-top personalities, so it’s great seeing him take on a humble one who feels and acts like a complete miniscule to the world around him. However, the scenes where he interacts with the ghostly visions of people he has murdered in the past does not come off as successfully as it could’ve. The imagery is interesting, but the fact that he had played a character already that dealt with similar types of ghostly visions in The Shining causes the viewer to think back too much to that film and takes them out of this one.

Streep is outstanding and her constant ability to completely submerse herself into her characters and take on different accents with an amazing authenticity never ceases to amaze me. She really looks the part too by not only wearing no make-up, but having her teeth stained and darkened to effectively give off that decayed look. I’m genuinely floored at how many times most films neglect to do this. Actors portraying characters in destitute environments, or from the old west, may convey the down-and-out or rugged look physically, but their teeth still always look great when in reality they should’ve been in as bad of shape or worse as the rest of their bodies.

The supporting cast is good but they have little to do, which includes Fred Gwynne who appears briefly as a bartender. Carroll Baker though is excellent as Nicholson’s ex-wife. She was a blonde beauty that burst onto the scene in the ‘50s and was billed as the next Marilyn Monroe, but her acting ability quickly became suspect and by the ‘60s she was relegated to low budget B-movies and European productions, but in the ‘80s she made a Hollywood comeback in supporting roles and her appearance here was clearly her best performance and proves that she really could act. Margaret Whitton is also a standout as she takes part in one of the film’s few lighthearted moments as an eccentric woman who is prone to histrionic fainting spells and walking outside without any clothes.

The film though does suffer from a few too many dramatic peaks, which includes having two of Nicholson’s homeless friends die almost simultaneously, which only helps to lessen the effect by squeezing out more drama than it needs to, but overall this is a top notch effort where every scene and utterance rings true.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: December 18, 1987

Runtime: 2Hours 23Minutes

Rated R

Director: Hector Babenco

Studio: TriStar Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video, YouTube

Something Wild (1961)

something wild 1

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Rape and its aftermath.

Mary Ann (Carroll Baker) is raped one night while she is walking home from school. For whatever reason she decides not to go to the police and instead keeps the whole incident to herself, but living with her domineering mother (Mildred Dunnock becomes too much and she decides to run away. She finds herself a cheap apartment in a seedy part of the city and a job at a five and dime store. However, the emotional effects of the rape begin to gnaw at her psychologically. She no longer wants to get close to anyone, which alienates her from those around her. She considers suicide, but at the last minute is saved by Mike (Ralph Meeker) who takes her back to his modest basement apartment. There he imprisons her and refuses to let her leave until she falls in love with him.

In some ways this film was ahead-of-its-time. The dazzling opening credit sequence by Saul Bass is eye popping. Director Jack Garfein who at the time was married to Baker and just off of his success of The Strange One continues his push of exploring ideas with dark psychological undertones. The rape scene for its time is surprisingly graphic and the film doesn’t have a single line of dialogue uttered for the first fifteen minutes. New York gets captured in a cinema vertite style reminding me of the influential ‘Naked City’ TV-series that was out at the same time. The black and white photography helps accentuate the story’s grittiness and the surreal dream sequence that Mary Ann has towards the middle of the film is visually creepy and impressive.

Although not the strongest of actresses Baker still manages to give a compelling performance and although she was already pushing 30 she still looked very much like she was 18 or even younger. Meeker an outstanding actor who unfortunately isn’t very well known is solid. The film also offers a great chance to see young stars in the making including Diane Ladd in her film debut as well as Jean Stapelton as Mary Ann’s nosy neighbor and Doris Roberts as a petulant co-worker. There is even Clifton James with a full head of hair.

Unfortunately the film ultimately misses-the-mark and part of the problem is Mary Ann’s decision of not going to the police after she is attacked, which is never explained. This could have been because of the stigma placed on rape victims at the time, but it still comes off as frustrating and even off-putting to the viewer. Mike’s apartment is just a little too bare-bones looking almost like a prison cell instead. Maybe this was the director’s attempt at symbolizing how ‘imprisoned’ Mike and Mary Ann were, but if that was the case it was much too obvious. Realistically someone usually enlivens and personalizes the place where they live by at least putting up a few pictures on the walls. Also, Mary Ann’s doesn’t seem to put up much of an attempt at escaping. Mike locks the door from the inside and then passes out drunk and she could have just gone through his pockets to get the key. She is also left alone for several hours a day while he goes to work, which would have been enough time to cut through the bars on the windows, broken through the door, or even yelled for help out the open window.

Cinematically it has its moments particularly during the first hour, but the story itself seems dated and the character’s motivations confusing and unclear ultimately making it an experimental misfire.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: December 23, 1961

Runtime: 1Hour 52Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Jack Garfein

Studio: United Artists

Available: DVD, Amazon Instant Video

Star 80 (1983)

star 80

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: He kills his girlfriend

This film looks at the life of Dorothy Stratten (Mariel Hemighway) a teen from Vancouver who with the enticement of her controlling boyfriend Paul Snider (Eric Roberts) came to Hollywood to be a Playboy model. Soon she became a centerfold and budding film actress, but her boyfriend felt left behind and his ensuing jealousy lead to tragic results.

The film takes for granted that you know the story, which is based on fact and has shots from the final tragic scene sprinkled throughout. It was considered quite ‘topical’ and even in vogue at the time and yet for those born later this really won’t have much impact or significance. Stratten was just a young naive girl who got in over-her-head and her husband/manager was much the same way. For today’s audiences Stratten’s cult status has diminished significantly and probably should.

The plot has a sort of excruciating affect because we know what is going to happen and therefore sitting and watching it unfold seems almost tantamount to self-inflicted pain. The conclusion is intense, but leaves you feeling flat afterwards. There seems no reason to have made this film except for the sake of cashing in on its sleazy and provocative elements.

Director Bob Fosse creates a nice look for the movie with shades of soft lighting much like ones used for a photo shoot, which helps give it a distinctive quality.  However his direction is too manipulative and heavy-handed. It is structured like a documentary featuring talking head segments of supporting characters describing their take on the situation. These are spliced in throughout and really hurt the flow of the story and do not seem genuine. If they were going to take this route then they might as well have made it into an actual documentary and used the real people involved.

The two main characters are underwritten and overplayed. Hemingway has a cute young girl voice and her excited inflections are a nice addition to the character. However, her character is too sweet and naive almost to a Chrissy Snow-type extreme. She is also unable to stand up for herself at any time and it is hard for the viewer to sympathize with someone who can never help themselves.

Her boyfriend is just as bad in the opposite way. He is like the son-in-law from hell who wears suits that are so loud even your average pimp wouldn’t be seen in them. Roberts does give a good performance and supplies the film with a lot of its energy. This may be his best work and the film should be viewed for his presence only especially since it emphasizes him over Stratten anyways.

Cliff Robertson seems an odd choice to play Playboy founder Hugh Hefner as he doesn’t resemble him at all and never effectively creates his persona. The fictionalized character of director Peter Bogdanovich is no good either. He was supposedly the man who broke her away from the clutches of her boyfriend and gave her some independence. Yet here he seems just as creepy and controlling. Carroll Baker does the best of the supporting players as Dorothy’s mother a woman who can easily see through the man that her daughter can’t and at 52 she was really looking super.

In the end this film becomes as empty as the characters it is portraying. Even fans of the sleazy side of Hollywood will be disappointed. The disclaimer admits to being only a fictionalized account and therefore puts into question how fair or accurate any of it really is.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: November 10, 1983

Runtime: 1Hour 43Minutes

Rated R

Director: Bob Fosse

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: VHS, DVD