Saturday, January 03, 2009

Here's To Edmund Purdom

Actor Edmund Purdom -- whose initial stardom in the stodgy 20th Century-Fox epics THE EGYPTIAN and THE PRODIGAL gave way to a lengthy career in international co-productions and dubbing gigs -- died January 1, 2009, in Rome, at the age of 84.

Born in Hertfordshire, England in 1924, Purdom's early work as a Fox contract player landed him minor bits in TITANIC and JULIUS CAESAR but, more importantly, put him in the right place at the right time. In 1954, when Mario Lanza put on too much weight to carry THE STUDENT PRINCE, director Richard Thorpe put Purdom in the lead, and when his JULIUS CAESAR co-star Marlon Brando pulled out of THE EGYPTIAN, Purdom rode that opportunity to a brief-lived stardom. His star then descended fast: He was named the 1954 recipient of the Golden Apple Awards' "Sour Apple" as "Least Cooperative Actor" and, by 1957, he was back in England working on the TV series SWORD OF FREEDOM. Two years later, he was doing anonymous voice work for THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK.

Much like Cameron Mitchell, Purdom found Rome to be a rich playground of opportunity for actors disregarded by Hollywood. His Italian career began with Riccardo Freda's TRAPPED IN TANGIERS (1957) and would eventually encompass some of the best, worst and most intriguing Italian pictures of his time: FURY OF THE PAGANS, NEFERTITI OF THE NILE, Sergio Corbucci's 1966 remake of THE MAN WHO LAUGHS, Pupi Avati's THOMAS E GLI INDEMONIATI, Jess Franco's LOS OJOS SINIESTROS DEL DR. ORLOFF and UN CAPITAN DE QUINZE ANOS, DR. FRANKENSTEIN'S CASTLE OF FREAKS, Massimo Dallamano's THE CURSED MEDALLION, MR. SCARFACE, Umberto Lenzi's riotous CITY OF THE WALKING DEAD aka NIGHTMARE CITY, PIECES, ATOR THE INVINCIBLE, AFTER THE FALL OF NEW YORK, ANTHROPOPHAGUS 2 aka MONSTER HUNTER and the TV-Movie SOPHIA LOREN: HER OWN STORY, in which he played actor-director Vittorio de Sica. In 1984, he directed his only film: DON'T OPEN 'TIL CHRISTMAS, a low-budget "slashing through the snow" item in which he also starred.

Purdom also narrated the English version of the film SWEDEN, HEAVEN AND HELL -- which happened to be the subject of two feature articles in VIDEO WATCHDOG #145, still on sale at newsstands at the time of his death.

The IMDb credits Purdom with the familiar quote, "One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one's work is terribly important" -- suggesting that he was the sort who preferred a lifetime of work to a "career."

Thursday, January 01, 2009

In Genuflection to Myriem Roussel

Since compiling my list of Twenty Favorite Actresses for this blog a couple of weeks ago, I have been unexpectedly blindsided by the work of another actress, another European actress, who somehow failed to captivate me on the first pass. I'm speaking of the Moroccan-born Myriem Roussel, best remembered for playing the title role in Jean-Luc Godard's controversial HAIL MARY (Je vous salue, Marie; 1985, pictured above and below). Were I compiling my list today, I'd be tempted to include Roussel -- a daring and talented, even iconoclastic actress, and one of the very few able to retain an aura of mystery while leaving little or nothing of her physicality to the imagination in various body-conscious films.

I've not been able to find out much about Roussel online except for a brief interview by Gerald Peary, which purports to be the only one she ever granted. (Colin MacCabe's book on Godard quotes her, in English, from another interview published in France.) Besides that, the IMDb shows that she has continued to work, for the last decade exclusively in French television. The IMDb lists a December 26, 1962 birthdate for her, while the French website for her current French teleseries DIANE, FEMME FLIC ("Diane, Lady Cop") records her natal day as February 26, 1961. Prior to HAIL MARY, she played small roles in Godard's PASSION (1982) and FIRST NAME: CARMEN (Prénom: Carmen; 1983, in which she's excruciatingly lovely as a swan-necked violinist), but the role that first caught my attention and led me back to these others was Luciano Odorisio's SACRILEGE [La monaca di Monza, 1986], in which she plays the 15th century historical figure of Sister Virginia Maria de Leyva -- the haughty, landowning nun at the nunnery at Monza who publicly offended a neighboring young nobleman, who had his comeuppance by seducing her repeatedly, corrupting her sisters, and undermining her authority in the eyes of the church.

It would be insulting and dismissive to call SACRILEGE a "nunsploitation" film, but that's how it was sold and how I approached it. I sought it out because I've been asked to contribute a chapter to a forthcoming biographical book about my friend, the actress Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni, and SACRILEGE was chronologically the first film she made, playing the small but important supporting role of Sister Candida. (Coralina has one important scene in the film that was actually banned from exhibition in Italy, but which is included in the Substance Video DVD -- a fact that amazes her, as she has never seen the footage and considered it lost!) What I didn't expect is that SACRILEGE would turn out to be such an elegantly crafted little gem; it's exquisitely photographed by Romano Albani (Argento's INFERNO) and also features one of Pino Donaggio's most beautiful scores. But what is most lingering about the picture is what lingers about the films Roussel made with Godard: the devotion it pays to her Renaissant loveliness, which somehow looks as much at home in a nun's habit as in the basketball uniform she sports in HAIL MARY. There's a scene in SACRILEGE where Sister Virginia, awakening to her sexuality under the smouldering, corruptive gaze of neighboring nobleman Giampaolo Osio (Alessandro Gassman), looks into a mirror and pulls her habit away from a cascade of long auburn hair. The effect is nearly breathtaking:

What makes this moment so powerful is how, in the space of these few frames, Roussel's expression subtly morphs from timid curiosity to combined arousal and sorrow -- she tears her habit like a hymen -- and then from awe at her mirror's disclosure of her sensuality to a final expression that shows contempt for her vanity as she feels herself empowered by it. It is the moment of Sister Virginia's emergence as a complete, sexual being, body and soul, and by this point in the movie, we feel our heart breaking for her as it also pounds for her. SACRILEGE closes with a freeze-frame of Roussel's face that is too dark to reproduce here, but believe me, it would not look at all out of place hung in the Uffizi Gallery.

Godard (who has cited Roussel as one of the three faces of his cinema, along with his ex-wives Anna Karina and Anne Wiazemsky) cast her in his films at a point when his work became obsessed with composition and the schism between the static nature of great paintings and the necessity of motion pictures to move. Roussel was the perfect Muse for this era of his filmmaking because her beauty is absolutely in keeping with that of the models who posed for the great paintings of antiquity. Godard underscores this fact in the PETITES NOTES... featurette that accompanies HAIL MARY on the New Yorker Video DVD by dissolving between one of Roussel's screen tests and a Leonardo da Vinci sketch of the Virgin Mary:

I liked PASSION and loved FIRST NAME: CARMEN (which offers a delicious quote from Rainer Maria Rilke: "Beauty is only the start of bearable terror") but must admit, as moved as I was by Roussel's performance, to not fully understanding what Godard was up to in HAIL MARY, a film whose impenetrable qualities were surely a deliberate part (if not a double entendre) of his semi-reverent plan. In my equal parts impressed/befuddled view, I think Peter Rainer of THE LOS ANGELES HERALD EXAMINER summed it up quite capably in his back-cover blurb "Bewildering, beautiful." Suffice to say, I glean as much -- if not more -- profound satisfaction from these two genuinely miraculous frames as I do from anything in HAIL MARY itself.

Coralina tells me that Myriem Roussel kept to herself during the making of SACRILEGE, and didn't get to know her. It was possibly the nature of Roussel's role in that film which made her remoteness from fellow cast members seem the correct stance to maintain, but the Peary interview also describes the actress as "shy." A hypothetical lack of social skills could also explain why Roussel, after breaking off with Godard, has made only a dozen or so features and a few shorts in the past 23 years, while Juliette Binoche -- who had an early supporting role in HAIL MARY, and isn't terribly good in it -- went on to an extraordinary career (not to mention high placement on my Top Twenty Actresses list). Online images of Roussel are rare -- but here's a link to a couple of shots of her from DIANE, FEMME FLIC which show her now as a less ethereal but still handsome woman in early middle age. Somehow a TV cop show isn't a port I would have forecast for this particular actress, but sometimes a so-so career is indicative of a sage preference for private life, security and personal happiness; I hope this has been the case with Godard's Mary. You want someone like this to be happy.
As with too many of my favorite actresses, very little of Myriem Roussel's work is available in English apart from the few titles I've mentioned, but I'm determined to see more of it. I'm particularly curious to see SADNESS AND BEAUTY (Tristesse et beauté, 1985), THE VENUS TRAP (Die Venusfalle, 1988) and THE EYE THAT LIES (L'oeuil qui ment, 1994).

Have a Super Fine 2009

Last night was December thirty-one
But now a brand new year's begun!
So let's turn off the Dick Clark show
And finish off the Veuve Cliquot
By toasting all we've left to do:
May all our New Year's dreams come true.

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Happiest Christmas

Donna and me at Cincinnati's Amarin restaurant, on our 34th anniversary -- December 23, 2008. Photo by Linda Wylie.

In many, mostly personal ways, 2008 has been the best year of my life to date and, though I don't think I expected it to be so, our 2008 Christmas turned out to be the happiest in memory and, I suspect, the happiest ever.
Donna and I usually spend the holidays alone, except for the evening we share with family members on Christmas Eve and one or two friendly visitors from out-of-town, but this year, we invited our friend Linda Wylie to come up from Nashville to share Christmas with us. We decided she would spend six days here, the 21st through the 27th, which meant that she had to bring her pet Westy, Shelby Gunn, with her. Our household of spoiled cats would be turned upside-down by the presence of a dog, but we felt they needed the experience. As it happens, our two male cats spent nearly all those days in our basement, cowering in groundless fear of the peppy little pooch, while our female -- the snooty one who never deigns to greet or acknowledge human company -- assumed the role of sovereign protector, venturing forth to flaunt her disregard of our four-footed guest and occasionally hiss to keep this bright-eyed intruder at bay.
Shelby Gunn, the Watchdog's watchdog.

We only got to know Linda -- who plays Nurse Moan-eek, the ditzy sidekick to Larry Underwood's Doctor Gangrene on the Nashville-based CREATURE FEATURE -- at WonderFest last year, but she rushed into our hearts and quickly became one of our dearest friends. More than that, it would now seem, she's like a missing piece from our household; while she and Shelby were here, both Donna and I felt happier and more complete. When she and I are together, I feel myself in the company of a kind of friend I've always needed but never had -- someone who makes me laugh, feel at ease, and become more of an extrovert (not to mention drink and smoke too much... but hey, it's the holidays); and when she and Donna are together, they become an amazing third entity -- funnier, more boistrous and uninhibited, always in perfect sync. We first bonded at Louisville's Sapporo, the world's greatest sushi restaurant, so sushi bar-hopping is a big part of our ritual. Linda and Donna even dress the part, donning matching chi-peis or complimentary kimonos (Donna's was given to her by Linda as a Christmas gift) and becoming Sista Red Dawn and Sista Golden Dawn... The Sushi Sistas!

Sushi sistas...

There were never such devoted sistas...

Caring, sharing every little thing that they are wearing...

Lord help the mista who comes between the Sushi Sistas!

I felt truly blessed to have both of these lovely ladies under my roof for a whole week -- and it actually became a whole week. We couldn't bear separating on the 27th, so the visit was extended by a day.
The highlight of that week, more than Donna's and my 34th wedding anniversary or presents or anything else, was seeing The Sushi Sistas sing along to various player piano rolls in the living room of our friends Joe & Patty Busam, including a WHITE CHRISTMAS medley that included the song "Sisters." They sometimes sounded like a pair of mangy cats squalling in the moonlight but, as I'm sure Joe and Patty would agree, witnessing this impromptu performance was the sweetest music to my eyes and ears. I was so happy to be in their zany orbit that I didn't even look at my presents, or remember what most of them were, after I'd opened them... not until last night when things returned to normal. (I did score some cool Xmas swag: a couple of Miles Davis box sets, some EC Comics reprints, and two volumes of TALES OF SUSPENSE Marvel Masterworks, including that unforgettable tale of terror, "Googam, Son of Goom.")
Linda and Shelby had to return home yesterday, and today our house feels like the Executive West Hotel in Louisville on the Monday after WonderFest closes out: much quieter, emptier, a little sad. Now it's time once again to lose ourselves in work and bring the next issue of VIDEO WATCHDOG into the world -- which should make our readers happy... right?
PS: VIDEO WATCHDOG #146 was mailed to our subscribers and distributors on December 19th, the week before Christmas, so it should be in the hands of our first-class subscribers by now or very soon. There's nothing up yet on our website about it, because we've been distracted, but, as it came out a bit late, we're calling it our December/January issue. The cover story is Mark F. Berry's interview with special effects veteran Harry Redmond, Jr., now 99 years of age, whose work on several classic RKO titles has earned him the extraordinary title of "Last Survivor of Skull Island"!