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Sunday, Sep 24, 2006


He was more of a fashion accessory than a celebrity, a chiseled example of Hungarian beefcake perfectly complementing his wife’s over-sexualized cheese. But there was more to Mickey Hargitay than as brawn to Jayne Mansfield’s buxom beauty. While together they may have resembled biology gone baroque, individually, Hargitay and his much more famous bride were athletics and oranges. She was a considered caricature of the era’s leading visage of sensual beauty. Her talent was never measured in performances, but in appearance. For the rest of her tragically short life, Jayne Mansfield would fight against her summarization as a sex object, trying to avoid being championed solely on her chest. For her foreign born husband however, physicality was all he had.


Born into an athletic family (the Hargitay’s frequently preformed as an acrobatic troupe in their native Hungary), bodybuilding was not young Miklos’ first passion. He was a championship ice skater, and skilled at soccer. It wasn’t until he came to America in the 1940s to escape his country’s compulsory military service that he discovered the joys of muscle training and toning. Considered by most to be an odd, even perverted obsession with the human form, there was very little fame, or fortune, in being a muscleman. Yet the minute he discovered the joys of the gym, Hargitay proved he was a natural at the fledging sport and it wasn’t long before he was winning titles long dominated by Americans. In 1955, Hargitay was crowned Mr. Universe, matching the accomplishment of his inspiration and idol, Steve Reeves.


The surrounding recognition finally placed him within the flickering cultural spotlight. The saucy old school actress and nightclub personality Mae West – never one to pass up a well-built body – immediately hired Hargitay to be part of her revue in New York City. Suddenly, the untrained 30 year old was appearing before cosmopolitan crowds, the leering butt of West’s wicked wordplay and entendres. One night, reigning Broadway novelty Jayne Mansfield came to the Latin Quarter club to catch West’s act. The legend goes that, when asked what she was interested in that evening, Mansfield cooed “I’ll have a steak…and that man on the left”. Soon, Hargitay and his newfound heartthrob were inseparable.


They married in 1958. Hargitay went on to take a few small roles in Mansfield’s movies, including the triumphant big screen translation of her Great White Way hit Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? He even got to mimic his inspiration Reeves by portraying the mythic strongman in 1960’s The Loves of Hercules. It wasn’t long though before the novelty of both Hargitay and his honey started wearing off. After his stint hosting a TV exercise program and her string of unsuccessful starring roles, the couple soon found themselves working within the ridiculed realm of exploitation. In 1963, Mansfield bared all for the camera with Promises! Promises!, and 1964 saw Primitive Love, a sort of sex comedy spoof on the Mondo movie craze sweeping cinema.


Like all pairings that seem more aesthetically than interpersonally pleasing, Hargitay and Mansfield grew apart, then divorced. Taking custody of the three kids (including future Emmy winner and Law and Order star Mariska) and attempting to find a place in the unforgiving realm of fame, the more or less lost 41 year old wasn’t prepared for the shocking news of his ex-wife’s gruesome death in 1967. Reduced to performing a puerile, tacky club act overloaded with insinuation and kitsch, Mansfield was traveling between shows when her car was hit, head on, by a semi-tractor trailer truck. Killed almost instantly, the resulting carnage was brutal, becoming a media milestone in the still developing realm of tabloid journalism. The grindhouse gang even utilized the ghastly accident scene photos for an incredibly distasteful “documentary” on the actress entitled The Wild, Wild World of Jayne Mansfield. Of course, a grieving Hargitay and his children were featured in all their devastated sorrow. 


Now totally on his own, celebrity wise, Hargitay tried. He played a sadistic figure of vengeance in the Eurotrash classic The Bloody Pit of Horror, and starred in a few low budget Italian genre efforts. Yet by the mid 70s, his uniqueness had all but worn off. Mission: Impossible had given Peter Lupus (another noted bodybuilder) a shot at stardom, and he had proven much more versatile. Besides, another Eastern European was establishing his muscle man credentials on the circuit, and by the time of Hargitay’s final film role in 1973’s Rites, Black Magic and Secret Orgies in the Fourteenth Century, Arnold Schwarzenegger was on his way to his third straight Mr. Olympia title – and future superstardom. By the ‘80s, Hargitay was nothing more than a footnote, a forgotten figure in the life of an equally lapsed “love goddess”. In one of those ironies that only show business can support, a 1980 biopic of Mansfield featured Schwarzenegger as Jayne’s buff better half.

His latter years were not empty. Hargitay had remarried in 1967, and new wife Ellen would be his last life partner, remaining by his side until his death from multiple myeloma at age 80 on 14, September of this year. Hargitay had also been successful in business, and Schwarzenegger often pointed to him as the role model by which he modeled his professional and athletic career. Daughter Mariska slowly built her resume in Hollywood, and now stands as one of TV’s dramatic powerhouses. And thanks to the archival aspect of the new home video revolution, much of his and Mansfield’s dismissed work has enjoyed a kind of kitschy, cornball nostalgia. Yet lost within all this retro revisionism and show business scavenging is a wholly forgotten fact. Hargitay and Mansfield represented the beginnings of the body objectification that the present day pop culture lives by.


Unlike Marilyn Monroe, or the more obvious examples of sexual stardom to come, Jayne Mansfield was a classic cartoon, carnal in only the way an over-inflated dish like she could be. And in the world of corporeal synchronicity, she required a man large enough to fit her copious and unapologetic feminine fertility. Hargitay, all tight skin sculpting and Greek god idolatry, was the perfect personal accompaniment. He was considered male model of machismo - a manlier Steve Reeves, a less militant Jack La Lanne. Better yet, he proved that a few hours in the gym and some minor consideration for the way one looked could and would land you the sex siren straight out of the pages of those newfangled “men’s” magazines. They were the Tommy Lee and Pamela Anderson of the Eisenhower era, the Nick and Jessica of the pre-Camelot crowd. In a world not ready for outright discussions of lust and physical love, Mansfield and Hargitay represented the possibility, and the problems, associated with same.


Sadly, with his passing, Hargitay takes with him the last vestiges of that time. The couple’s infamous ‘Pink Palace’ – a cheesy mansion complete with a heart-shaped swimming pool – has long been raised by the current owner, and the seemingly outrageous physical forms that the couple carried have been usurped by individuals buying completely into the omnipresent plastic surgery concept of personal success. In a time where overweight businessmen accompanied their haggard housefrau wives to the local hot spot for a few potent potables and a little so-called sophisticated entertainment, Mansfield and Hargitay were said ideal’s illustrated Id. Now, they are just forgotten facets of a pre-revolution sexuality.


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Wednesday, Sep 13, 2006


Famed French filmmaker Luc Besson announced Monday 11, September that, after the release of his latest directorial effort, the live action and CG animated Arthur and the Minimoys (set for a 12 January release in the U.S.), he is leaving the industry to concentrate on “charity” work. It’s a semi-stunning announcement from a fairly prolific artist. Aside from the ten films he’s helmed over his career (which he lovingly refers to as his “babies”) Besson has been a major figure in International cinema. He has written scripts for such high profile action series as the Taxi films, the Transporter and it’s sequel, and two of Jet Li’s most popular efforts, Kiss of the Dragon (2001) and Danny the Dog (2005) – later retitled Unleashed. Yet its as a producer where the 46 year old has truly thrived, guiding dozens of films through their creation. Without him, such efforts as District B13 (2004), Guy Ritchie’s Revolver (2005) and the stellar slasher update Haute Tension (2003) may never have been made.


Now this announcement is really nothing new. As a matter of fact, it was sort of expected. Besson has been very vocal in interviews and comments about leaving the director’s chair after his 10th film, and apparently he is holding steadfast in this decision. Still, he does have his creative fingers in many motion picture pies. So unless this retirement includes his efforts behind a typewriter or managing a production’s bottom line, Besson will remain a very viable force behind the scenes of modern moviemaking. With that settled, the concern then becomes what we as an audience will fail to see with his departure. In essence the issue becomes what has Besson really given cinema that will be missed once he’s gone. Sadly, it doesn’t seem like very much, at least upon a fleeting first glance.


With rare exceptions, Besson’s films exist in a weird world made up of stunt work, speculation, and shootouts. Of the ten ‘children’ born in the 25 years of creating his filmic family, only three - The Big Blue, Atlantis and The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc - could be classified as defying the Besson basics. Two (Blue, Atlantis) are clearly based in his childhood love of the sea (Besson was raised by scuba diving instructor parents). The last, his interpretation of Saint Joan, was a far more personal undertaking for his then wife Milla Jovovich. The rest of his films – The Last Battle (1983), Subway (1985), Le Femme Nikita (1990), Leon/The Professional (1994), The Fifth Element (1997), Angel-A (2005) and next year’s Arthur – all maintain an awkward balance between fantasy and reality, using clear genre ideals to modify standard human stories. Some of these yarns - Element, in particular – were written while he was still a teenager, and often show their obvious adolescent ideas about heroism, love and the pathway to progress. 


There is one thing that’s certain, however; all of Besson’s films have a strong visual component. You can’t look at something like Le Femme Nikita or Leon and not be startled by the way in which this director’s camera moves. Sure, he can be too tricky and twee (Angel-A and Subway suffer from some of his more obvious cinematic tricks) and he frequently overloads the frame with more compositional elements than are necessary for the narrative. Sure, it’s an amazing looking moment when Jovovich’s character in Element stands on the ledge of a building overlooking a frighteningly futuristic New York City, but the density of the visuals actually detract from the moment. It’s hard to appreciate the scope of something when you’ve purposely rendered it infinite. Similarly, Besson believes in a primordial kind of plotting, a storyline that strongly follows a good vs. evil dynamic while sprinkling in a little eccentricity and character quirks along the way. There are always heroes and villains in a Besson film, though sometimes who’s who can be confusing and unclear. Yet thanks to their pure kinetic power, their daunting desire to light up the screen with their spectacle, a movie by Luc Besson gets a lot of logistical leeway. We appreciate the effort more than the effect.


But the fact of the matter remains, will anyone other than the Besson nation really care if this French fantasist hangs up his chapeau – at least for the time being? If Stephen Spielberg had stopped creating after a mere ten films, we would never have had Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, or Munich. In the case of Martin Scorsese, we’d have never seen The King of Comedy, The Last Temptation of Christ, Goodfellas or Casino. Perhaps it’s a clear case of a filmmaker knowing his limits. Besson must sense his stylistic and substantive aspects are restricted by his areas of interest, and there’s no branching out into other forms of filmmaking. He’s become known for his hyperactive action set pieces and frequently ingenious flights of fancy. After conquering the family film (the trailer for Arthur looks interesting, to say the least) Besson must believe there is nothing left to try. And as long as he can add to the steady stream of writing/producing credits, he will almost always be around.


So don’t mourn the loss of another “visionary” filmmaker – celebrate the fact that Besson knew better than to overstay his already waning welcome. Angel-A barely got distribution in the US, and without the standard CGI stunt casting (Snoop Dogg, David Bowie and Madonna are part of the English-speaking cast) it’s hard to know if the Weinstein Company would have picked up the Minimoys film for US distribution. When filmgoers are demanding remastered DVD versions of your earlier films over the delivery of something new – as is the case with Element and Leon – perhaps its time to pack your bags. Whether or not he ever really does focus on community work with kids as he says, Besson will best be remembered as a French firebrand who carved a special niche out of a tired Tinsel Town tenet. In this case, parting is not such sweet sorrow – it seems like the logical thing to do.


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Sunday, Sep 10, 2006


No, you’re not seeing things. That’s John Travolta in full drag as Edna Turnblad in the musical adaptation of John Waters’ Hairspray, set for release in 2007. Frankly, SE&L isn’t shocked by the casting. Travolta is a true musical comedy actor, and can definitely pull off the role originated by the late, great Divine. Besides, we’re more curious to see how Christopher Walken holds up has “her” husband, Wilbur. Not that’s a concept worth getting worked up over.


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Sunday, Sep 3, 2006


To call Joseph Stefano’s writing credits varied is like arguing that his one time collaborator, the Master of Suspense Alfred Hitchcock, had an ‘interesting’ way with the camera. Brought onto the director’s dynamic Psycho after James P; Cavanaugh’s script was rejected, Stefano seemed an odd choice to adapt a murder mystery. After all, his first few scripts had focused solely on his ethnic Italian heritage - most notable in the 1958 Sophia Loren/Anthony Quinn melodrama The Black Orchid. He had also created an award winning Playhouse 90 piece about racial prejudice in the military (1959’s Made in Japan). But when his agent asked him who he’d like to work with next, Stefano provided a list of names. Hitchcock’s was right near the top. When, shockingly, the famous auteur responded, it was with a copy of the famous low budget slasher film’s screenplay in hand.


With his passing on 25, August, 2006 the legacy of Norman Bates lost its central guiding light. Yet it would be his adaptation of Robert Bloch’s seminal story of an out of the way motel, an unusual desk clerk, and his domineering “mother”, that would also point the scribe in the direction of genre fiction over the next three decades. Though already established, the overwhelming success of Psycho led Stefano to other opportunities. An old friend, Leslie Stevens, asked Stefano to become a supervisory writer and a producer on the seminal speculative series The Outer Limits. Contributing stories and scripts for some of season one’s most memorable episodes (including the creepy “Zanti Misfits”) he helped lay the foundation for Limits’ claim as one of the best sci-fi shows on television.


After rejecting a chance to return to Hitchcock’s fold for The Birds – he supposedly found the idea laughable – Stefano went on to make strides in made for television movies, including A Death of Innocence (a 1971 murder mystery starring Shelley Winters) Home for the Holidays (a 1972 thriller about a husband who fears his wife is poisoning him) and the oddball Live Again, Die Again (Donna Mills is frozen and brought back 30 years later in this 1974 sci-fi effort). After 1977’s Snowbeast (another of the era’s Bigfoot movies), he had grown jaded and cynical. He took the 1980 death of his friend Hitchcock hard. He also hated how Norman Bates (a character he more or less created, avoiding Bloch’s decidedly drunken original) had been marginalized by the two sequels that eventually followed.


In 1991, audiences saw him contribute to the hack horror film The Kindred (1987), and he did do some work on Star Trek: The Next Generation and the Swamp Thing TV series. He would visit his ethnic past once again for the Al Pacino weeper Two Bits (1995), and even returned to the Norman Bates legacy with his prequel effort Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990). Near the end of his career, Stefano was also the unfortunate beneficiary of Hollywood’s remake fever. His “Feasibility Study” (based on a 1964 episode) was redone for the modern update of Outer Limits in 1997, and Gus Van Zant committed the ultimate redux sin, creating a near shot for shot remake of Psycho from Stefano’s original script. After that 1998 fiasco, Stefano turned his back on Tinsel Town, convinced it was bankrupt of originality and ideas. He would stay in the shadows until his death from a heart attack. Yet it is safe to say that no writer had more of an impact on the post-modern horror genre than Joseph Stefano. He helped popularize and legitimize the genre of slice and dice cinema. Yet he should be remembered for much more than Norman’s shower savagery. While iconic, it was not endemic of Stefano’s incredible talents.


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Sunday, Sep 3, 2006


He was the original Pa Kent, giving an infant from the planet Krypton a home here on earth. He was also the original Mr. Eddie’s father, looking for love while trying to raise his son solo. From his early days as a Columbia contract player, to his heroic service in World War II (where he helped build safe houses in France) Glenn Ford remained wholly original. His death at age 90 on 30, August 2006 was not so much a shock as a reminder of how much his presence in film was missed. Having long since retired from acting (his last onscreen role was in 1991) and in relatively poor health in recent years, Ford’s recognizable fame had more or less faded. But even without a current high profile celebrity, no one could match this amazing man’s considered career.


He was born in Canada, and came to the US when he was eight. Fresh out of high school, he was scouted by Tom Moore, a representative of 20th Century Fox. When the war arrived in the early ‘40s Ford took a break from his occasional bit parts to fight for his adopted country. After marrying fellow star Eleanor Powell in 1943, he returned from service to pick up his career. But it wasn’t until Bette Davis gave him a break in 1946 (with a role in A Stolen Life) that Ford found his footing. That same year, an appearance alongside Rita Hayworth in Gilda (they would go on to make six films together) shot him to superstardom. Thanks to his talent, Ford never again had to look back. He parlayed that success into roles in classic Westerns like 3:10 to Yuma (1957) and crime thrillers like The Big Heat (1953).


By the mid ‘50s, Ford was viewed as a Hollywood stalwart, a level-headed leading man who came across as decent and determined. But with his 1956 turn as the inner city schoolteacher fighting delinquency in The Blackboard Jungle (1955), the actor became a kind of subtle symbol for the growing problems between the generations…and the races. Thanks to the film’s youth appeal, and the Bill Haley and the Comet’s theme of “Rock Around the Clock”, Ford found himself in even bigger demand. He would go on to make Teahouse of the August Moon (1956), Experiment in Terror (1962) and the forgotten gem Rage (1966), among many, many others. He even dabbled in television, starring in the series Cade’s County (1971) and The Family Holvak (1975). But time was slowly catching up with Ford. After playing Superman’s dad in the original 1978 big screen adaptation, and a sinister psychiatrist in the silly slasher film Happy Birthday to Me (1981), he watched his star stock drop. Between ‘81 and ‘91, he only made six more films.


Though his marriage to Powell produced a son (Peter), it didn’t last. Ford never found the right person to share his life with, all three of his marriages after his divorce from Powell being short lived (none more than three years) and, sadly, childless. Ford adored children, and was said to spend most of his retirement playing with his grandkids. Over the years, he appeared in documentaries on Hollywood’s Golden Age, but continued complications with respiratory and heart ailments, as well as a series of strokes, left him frail and faltering. On the occasion of his 90th birthday in May of this year, he was scheduled to attend a 70th anniversary revival of a newly remastered print of Gilda. Regrettably, his ill health prevented his appearance. It would have been nice for this former Tinsel Town icon to have one last shot at the public adoration he so richly deserved. No matter what the current culture thinks, he was never forgettable. That’s because, no matter the role, Ford was always an original. 


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