31 May 1998
TOP OF THE BOTTOM
Five Shitty Classics on Video
by Matt Maranian
Almost anyone who lives in a modern capitalistic society knows what
it's like to walk past hundreds of titles in a video store, unable to make
a selection. Eventually all those names running vertically down the spine
of a video box begin to blur, and hasty selections are then often made.
Ninety minutes of your life is too precious to waste on a bad choice. Here,
bOING bOING offers some no-fail suggestions for your next trip to the video
store. &SHY; Matt Maranian
The Sonny and Cher Nitty Gritty Hour (1971)
I don't want to go on the record as condoning the use of narcotics --
but if you're so inclined, The Sonny and Cher Nitty Gritty Hour presents
more than just cause for killing off a few million brain cells. At the very
least, fiddle with the "bright," "color," "tint"
and "picture" knobs on your TV set to get the maximum effect of
this abrasive, down-the-rabbit-hole glimpse at the early television career
of Mr. and Mrs. Bono.
This shitty television special was the precursor to The Sonny and Cher
Show -- predating Cher's rib-tickling character "Laverne" or that
stupid, recurring pizza parlor sketch. Loosely incorporating the extremely
dated theme "battle of the sexes," The Sonny and Cher Nitty Gritty
Hour pushes the musical-variety envelope with an improvisational comedy
segment (quite possibly the first and last time anyone tried improvisation
on television -- this must have been a brainchild of Sonny's), in addition
to Sonny's flat, nasal vocals -- sounding much like a sick goose -- on "We've
Only Just Begun" and "The Beat Goes On."
Also included is a perfunctory "I Got You, Babe," after a lengthy
recount of their first meeting and the beginning of their relationship over
a black & white photo montage of "candid" shots at home with a
toddler-aged, latent-lesbian Chastity. Without question, Nitty Gritty's
high point is a number in which the pre-tattooed, pre-collagened, pre-orthadontic,
pre-peeled, pre-cradle robbing, pre-Harley-Davidson, pre-infomercial Cher
performs an overwrought "What's it All About, Alfie?" as Sonny
narrates: "Cher represents the American girl, 1971, torn between two
ways of life: the puritan ethic, and today's morality..." A near-anorexic
Cher then proceeds with an ungainly, modern, free-form drug-dance to a medley
of "All you Need Is Love"/"Funky Broadway" wearing only
skimpy, baby-blue panties (with protruding hip and pubic bones), knee-high
black vinyl boots and a gypsy-peasant halter top. The Sonny and Cher Nitty
Gritty Hour makes me tearfully nostalgic for the old, fun Cher; jagged teeth,
six layers of false eyelashes, Bob Mackie gowns and rouge stripes.
One viewing of The Nitty Gritty Hour pays out more grit that Sonny and
Cher may have originally planned, leaving one with the feeling of having
just been tied by the ankles to the back bumper of a fast truck and dragged
across several miles of rough asphalt. Important to consider: Sonny was
elected a congressman. You may want to lie down and rest after the end credits.
Promises! Promises! (1963)
As a rule of thumb, any movie starring the brilliant Jayne Mansfield
is sure to be worth the rental price, and Promises! Promises! showcases
Jayne at her seasoned best. Famous for being the "first" movie
to feature a big name celebrity topless; Promises! Promises! delivers in
less than four minutes after the opening title sequence. This low budget,
"adult" comedy gets a cross-country road-trip's worth of mileage
out of subjects like infertility, adultery, homosexuality and gigoloism,
and also stars Jayne's real-life husband Mickey Hargitay, plus a transgendered
creature called T.C. Jones.
The story concerns two couples vacationing on a cruise ship; Jayne's
character "Sandra" wants desperately to get knocked up but her
husband (the tremendously annoying Tommy Noonan) shoots blanks. After a
series of kooky mix-ups, both women become "with child" and it's
unclear which husband fathered which embryo. The glamorous, show-stopping
Jayne holds the whole movie together and, fortunately, she's featured in
nearly every scene. Her dresses are so tight that she has back-cleavage
and her hairstyles will have you frantically hitting the rewind button on
your remote. There's an interesting moment when Jayne's character "Sandra"
does an impersonation of "Jayne Mansfield" at a baby shower -alongside
a female impersonator hairdresser (T.C. Jones), and the dream sequences
are worthy of a Dalinian canvas. Look for big hunks of the camera appearing
at the bottom of the frame in some shots.
Jayne sings two great songs, "Lu Lu Lu, I'm in Love," performed
naked while writhing around in a sudsy bathtub, and "Promise Her Anything,"
executed in her best Las Vegas-nightclub style. The perfect time to watch
this movie is about two or three o'clock in the morning on a weeknight,
alone, drunk, in the dark -- with the glow of the television screen as your
only source of illumination. You'll soon find yourself hopelessly lost in
the strange, stale, wiggy world of Promises! Promises!
Wicked Stepmother (1988)
Albeit a far cry from Now, Voyager, Dark Victory, or All About Eve, Wicked
Stepmother could, in its own strange little way, be Bette Davis's finest
film. Though her portrayal of the aforementioned stepmother doesn't rival
any of her Oscar-winning roles, it's every bit as much a punch-packed performance.
This was Bette's last movie, and in 1988 as you may recall, Bette was
not a pretty picture. Her twisted, post-stroke mouth painted a glossy ruby
red is offset only by the deep, dark, crenelated lines running up and down
her sunken cheeks -- like the bark of an aged redwood smoothed over with
a heavy spackling of pancake makeup. The bright auburn pageboy wig is a
horrific compliment to the cadaverous pallor of her skin, and the overall
effect is actually quite dazzling -- or truly painful to witness, depending
on your constitution. Each of her lines is arduously delivered as though
she's taking her last gasps of life -- because in fact she was -- and watching
Bette maneuver her tiny, frail, boney frame from one end of a scene to another
-- grabbing on to nearby furniture for support, will certainly keep you
on the edge of your seat.
She plays "Miranda," a gold-digging witch who marries old men
and drains them of their funds -- it's not important to know the rest of
the story, and you only need to watch the first thirty minutes or so.
The video box promises "a campy, fun-filled witch's brew of entertainment,"
and though the movie tries awfully hard, it just misses. It's a shame too,
because they had Bette Davis in their favor, and she was obviously a good
sport. She has all the best scenes; chain-smoking and throwing herself at
a man young enough to be her great grandson. Unfortunately, she only appears
in the first half of the movie, and unless you're a big fan of Tom Bosley,
Richard Moll or ex-Bond girl Barbara Carrera, you should just fast forward
through to the end for Bette's final on-camera credit. This last incarnation
of Bette Davis will knock the wind outtaya!
Goin' Coconuts (1978)
Donny and Marie Osmond star in this theater-release feature film shot
entirely on location in Hawaii, with the ubiquitous Diamond Head prominently
featured in virtually every outdoor scene. There are Utah jokes, teeth and
toothpaste jokes, Marie wears her fashion trademark high boot/low boot,
and Donny delivers the line "cute, Marie, real cute." They both
rely on their musical variety show acting style, which goes THUD without
a laugh track, and their duets are laden with the same snappy repartee that
television audiences became familiar with on The Donny and Marie Show.
Upon boarding their plane to the Islands for a "big concert,"
a stranger gives the sassy, wise-crackin' Marie an ugly pukka shell and
driftwood necklace that, unbeknownst to her, is the missing piece to a treasure
map leading to a sunken U.S. submarine filled with gold bars!! A gang of
thugs go to all sorts of crazy lengths to get the necklace from the unassuming
Marie; there are some close calls too, like when she finds her hotel suite
ransacked, with a burglar three times her size riffling through her possessions
-- the quick-thinking Marie throws oranges at him and beats him with a pillow
until he runs away.
Donny and Marie's codependent sibling rivalry gets a little creepy, with
Marie behaving more like a jealous lover than a sister. She makes the virgin
Donny (calling him "D") feel guilty whenever he expresses interest
in spending time with any female other than herself, and when he finally
does get a moment in their hotel lobby with another girl, she barks "I'll
give you FIVE MINUTES -- then I'm going to come and get you!"
For their "big concert" (that lasts all of four songs), Donny
does a Polynesian slap dance -- wearing angel flights and a vest -- with
a bunch of half-naked luau dancers from "Kalo's South Seas Revue,"
and Marie swings poi balls, does a hula, and slaughters a couple of Hawaiian
tunes. Catching a glimpse of the dangerous criminals lurking backstage,
Donny and Marie take several laugh-riot encores to prevent coming face to
face with them. After a series of chase scenes on foot (with Donny being
mobbed by tourists), on motorcycle (with a brazen Marie poppin' wheelies),
and in motor boats (with Diamond Head in the background) the thieves are
accidentally blown up by a Kawasaki jet ski loaded with explosives. Donny
and Marie recover the gold bars, and soon after head back to Hollywood.
As their plane soars over the Pacific and into an amber sky, the end credits
roll to the thumping disco beat of their hot single "On the Shelf."
Liberace in Las Vegas (1980)
Liberace in Las Vegas is shock treatment for those who have never seen
"Mr. Showmanship" in action; this is his Las Vegas extravaganza
taped in its entirety.
The show opens -- on the video as it did live -- with a short film. We
see Liberace waking up in bed at his excessively decorated Las Vegas home,
stretching his arms and rising for his piano-shaped day. As he throws back
the gold lame sheets with piano key trim, his "butler" meets him
bedside and helps him into a hideous white and gold satin quilted kimono.
We follow Lee frolicking through various parts of his piano-themed house
-- the pool, the garden, the dining room, his bathtub (yikes!), and his
walk-in closets. Finally, he gets all gussied-up in his rhinestoned stage
costume, kisses his six frou-frou dogs goodbye and is escorted by the butler
and a french maid carrying a candelabra to his awaiting Phantom 5 Rolls
Royce limousine, customized with mirrored tiles. They see him off as the
camera pulls away from a close shot of the car's vanity plate, "88
KEYS." The car heads down the street, and eventually into the parking
lot of the Las Vegas Hilton. The film ends, fading to black, just as the
orchestra swells to a dramatic fanfare and the showroom's spotlights come
up on the same limousine driving out to center stage and parking. The chauffeur
(the infamous Scott Thorson) comes around and opens the car door. Out leaps
Liberace -- waving his bejeweled stubby fingers and bearing a smile that
looks almost like an epileptic seizure; his cheeks pulled up and back so
tightly that his mouth is permanently fixed with a leering grimace, his
upper lip peeled to his gumline, forcing his front teeth to chipmonkishly
protrude. Equally, his eyes have been lifted back so taut -- and are so
laden with eyeliner -- that he almost looks Asian.
As if making such an entrance -- and wearing a fox-fur and rhinestone
cape with a train fourteen feet long -- isn't enough, he has to comment
on it for the next ten minutes. "How did you like the entrance -- was
that OK?" he asks, and the audience cheers. "What to you think
about the car -- ya like it?" And again they applaud -- they applaud
an automobile! "I'm so glad you like the car" he continues, beating
a dead horse, "it really stops traffic when I shop at Safeway."
He then goes into a lengthy monologue about his fur coat. More or less this
is his act; talking about his clothing. He built a career -- a long and
prosperous career -- on this. He then needs special orchestration to remove
his coat, and receives a big round of applause for doing so.
The show is jam-packed with "surprises," including a Mexican
dance troupe, smoke machines, a rotating piano, an "exciting new talent"
named Marco Valenti for whom words can do no justice, and the "internationally
famous dancing waters." (The audience obediently applauds the water
upon Liberace's insistence.) He changes pianos as often as he changes jeweled
collar clips, often excusing himself to "slip out and get into something
more spectacular," emerging moments later in yet another garish, swingy
cape that cost the lives of several thousand mink or foxes -- always making
sure to comment on how expensive each costume is. Lee croons some old standards
and does a soft shoe, plays an extremely dramatic "Send in the Clowns"
plus his old standby "Chopsticks." You can easily fast-forward
through all the boring piano numbers without missing any of the show. That
he plays the piano is completely incidental.
After Lee sings "I'll Be Seeing You" and takes one of his last
of the show's several hundred gratuitous curtain calls, he dashes backstage
for a moment and returns harnessed to a fine cable. Quickly hoisted up over
the stage, he laboriously flaps the heavy folds of his ostrich feather and
rhinestone cape, swooping from one end of the stage to another, hanging
in the air like a pudgy, nellie Dracula. "Mary Poppins eat your heart
out" he drools, before touching ground.
Liberace in Las Vegas will either inspire you to begin your own exciting
career as a Las Vegas performer, or have you fervently promulgating the
virtues of socialism.
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