Weekend Entertainment for May 25-27, 2019

Some books and movies to discuss this Memorial Day weekend, thanks to several days of clouds ‘n’ drizzle that kept me inside most of the time. So while I’m letting a seasoned porterhouse come to room temperature before I sizzle it up for dinner (I posted a wonderful steak recipe & method here), I’ll tell ya about them.

I knocked off a couple of Hollywood gossipy quasi-bios this weekend, starting out with the one I grabbed a week back aong with a nice haul of other volumes at a big annual library sale – George Jacobs’ Mr. S – My Life With Frank Sinatra. Jacobs was Sinatra’s personal valet from the early 1950s to 1968, the PERFECT time to get all the dish ‘n’ dirt about bad marriages, Rat Pack Tales, the prime years of his music (if you ask me), dalliances with the Kennedys, and so forth. Jacobs mostly focuses on the sex lives of everyone he discusses, so this one was a very entertaining page turner. Sinatra would be incredibly loyal, sentimental and generous to people he liked, and could turn on a dime if he felt betrayed, cutting people completely out of his life & taking the grudge to his grave. Jacobs incurred Frank’s wrath by dancing with Mia Farrow at a Hollywood club, setting off gossip and rumors about affairs and such…. all perfectly innocent in Jacobs’ version, but Frank could never ever forgive the other men who he thought had eyes on “his” women – most often Ava Gardner, who he never could get over – but also the mismatched Farrow. Jacobs spins wonderful anecdotes – little wisps of his observations of Sinatra, and none of ’em disappoint. When I picked it up at the library sale and flipped through it to see if it’d be worth reading, every page I landed on contained another story about Frank getting pissed off at something or someone, smashing a phone, kicking a car radio, or threatening to kill himself – and I said “SOLD!” It was certainly a must-read item, an entertaining behind-the-scenes description of truly monstrous behavior towards people and especially lovers by the overly entitled – just perfect to make me feel both morally superior AND entertained.

Though my favorite item in the book turned out not to be about Sinatra – according to Jacobs, Yul Brynner was bisexual and had an affair with Sal Mineo. Watching The Ten Commandments every Passover just got WAY more interesting. (If only Gore Vidal had done the screenplay, I guess.)

If the Sinatra book was the shot of Jack Daniels, I guess Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations by Peter Evans & Ava Gardner was the chaser. I felt obliged to finally read the posthumous (for both Gardner and Evans) unsanitized version of Gardner’s memoirs – why not get the other side of the Sinatra/Gardner story, along with Gardner recounting all of her other adventures in her wonderful not-give-a-shit foul mouthed fueled by booze and ciggies style?

Journalist Evans gained Gardner’s trust back in the ’80s and conducted a series of meeting and interviews with her to put together an autobiography, but towards the end, Gardner decided to pull the plug on the project and get a different writer to collaborate with her on a cleaned-up version of her story.

This one is better, and certainly more honest… although I drifted from being interested in all the ups and downs of her life in Hollywood and failed marriages to feeling bad for her – not so much for all of the things she’d done, but for the clear regret she had towards the end of her life about them all. She was post-stroke with lingering lung problems, yet boozing along and smoking three packs a day anyway, and you get a sense that she just didn’t care about living much longer when she felt like the health problems had robbed her of her youth and legendary beauty.

Evans spends the most time on her upbringing and her marriage to Mickey Rooney – everything that follows takes up maybe the last 40% of the book, and Ava’s memory was a little foggy so we don’t get a lot of her insights into any of the films she made, the characters she played, or the like. The overall impression is that she looked back on her career not so much as an actress, but as a chronology of a visible object of desire, along with the various stories of men who both objectified and/or desired her in person. And the moments she seemed embarrassed by her honest profanity-laden takes on it all struck me as sad – I mean, why not say it loud and say it proud? Every now and then she’d display a “I did it, I enjoyed it, so what?” attitude, but I wonder how deep that really went. In any case, it’s an interesting read, if not an enlightening one.

In between sports, I also waded into some of the movies in the ever-growing queue. Some academic work on Brian DePalma led me to go back and rewatch his very underappreciated 1986 mob comedy Wise Guys, with Danny DeVito and Joe Piscopo as two schlemiel gofers for a low-end Newark mob boss (Dan Hedeya) who screw up a bet on a fixed horse race and for punishment, are separately assigned to hit the other. Uneven, but a fun formula comedy that doesn’t have dull spots. I’d remembered thinking how a movie like this, mostly about amazingly stupid and inept mafia (Pro Wrestler Lou Albano is the highlight as the always-shouting always-eating caporegime) would only be understood by Rhode Island & New Jersey audiences, and watching it again 30+ years later, I still feel that way. And as y’all should know, I love stories about comically stupid mafia, even if I have to write them myself. The ending wraps up a tad abruptly and it could use a couple more big comic set pieces… but I still have a soft heart for it. And as a go-with, I thought I’d rewatch another 1980s era mob comedy, Jonathan Demme’s Married To The Mob with Michelle Pfeiffer as Alec Baldwin’s mob widow trying to escape the life as well as the lustful intentions of mob boss Dean Stockwell, all the while under the surveillance and (of course) romance of FBI agent Matthew Modine. Demme seems to waffle in tone between mob violent-film and quirky 1980s David Byrne-soundtrack art house comedy, but it works. And it’s fascinating to see the TON of scenes that wound up on the cutting room floor that run under the ending credits.

This one was as I’d remembered it as well… Mercedes Ruehl stealing the show as Stockwell’s jealous wife, and a quickly moving quirky storyline that played out like the first light-hearted half of Demme’s earlier Something Wild before Ray Liotta shows up and things get very dark (one of the rare films that manages a complete 180 in tone and holds together as a good movie).

Finally, a dent in the VCR queue with a viewing of a recorded TCM showing of an old Jack Palance crime film, House of Numbers. Palance plays 2 brothers, not twins but close enough, thanks to some subtle make-up effects. One sits in San Quentin for 2nd degree murder, the other plots to break into the prison to switch places with him as part of an elaborate escape plot. The story is stupidly complex enough to maintain your interest tho – I kept trying to outguess what the hell the escape plot would actually be, and even after finding all sorts of weird holes in it, I didn’t care. Palance is very good here, along with Harold J Stone as a lecherously creepy prison guard, Barbara Lang as the convict’s hot wife he lusts after, and an uncredited Timothy Carey as (surprise!) a brooding borderline psycho cellmate. And when I saw Ed Platt’s name in the credits, I KNEW he’d play the warden (although I was hoping to see him play some sort of psychotic serial killing sex pervert… it’s the Get Smart fan in me). Not a bad film with an interesting resolution to the plot, especially after it telegraphs a lot of things that don’t all come to fruition… thanks to source material from a great writer like Jack Finney (who wrote the serialized novel) and screenwriter Don Mankiewicz, of the Hollywood Mankiewicz family. Don is mostly credited with TV episodes over the decades, but he wrote the “Court Martial” episode of Star Trek, one of the series best episodes, and just for that I’ll sit up and take notice. Also to notice is tht House of Numbers is co-scripted and directed by none other than Russel Rouse, the man who bookended his career with D.O.A. (good) and The Oscar (beyond terrible to the point of being great). This is more D.O.A version Rouse – tight dialogue, and most scenes done without talking – we watch Palance move around the prison in some great on-location shooting, as well as watch him prepare the various props for the prison escape plot with nothing explained to us – we have to watch it unfold step by step, and it works very well.

So another weekend in the books – a few more Yankee victories despite the injuries, a good start to the Stanley Cup, and a well cooked steak with a nice Primitivo & caesar salad. I’ll be checking out the Belmont Stakes past performances once they’re available and posting my hopefully-better-than-my-Preakness picks later this week.

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