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One can’t help but wonder what might have happened if John Carpenter had filmed his own script of Eyes of Laura Mars. It is a rather silly question as he did not film his own script. Instead that duty was assigned to the skilled filmmaker, Irvin Kershner. The only director bold enough to stand his ground against the likes of George Lucas while shooting his film for the Star Wars franchise and the director who was able to assist Barbra Streisand tone it all down to play a very believable housewife in a very surreal experimental film of the early 1970’s, Up The Sandbox.

"And your eyes say everything. You wanna keep me here forever I can't escape. One minute's so sincere. Then you completely turn against me. And I'm afraid..." An Iconic Movie Poster Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978

“And your eyes say everything. You wanna keep me here forever
I can’t escape. One minute’s so sincere.
Then you completely turn against me. And I’m afraid…”
An Iconic Movie Poster
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978

Up until 1977 he had never directed a horror film. It is clear that the under-appreciated film artist was less interested in the terror aspects of Carpenter’s script than in using it to focus on the problematic trend of mixing sex with violence as a form of subversion or perverse eroticism. One merely has to glance at only one of Rebecca Blake’s photographs taken for the film to understand that she is carefully constructing slick photographs in the vein of Helmut Newton or Guy Bourdin. Interestingly, these provocative and aggressively misogynistic photographs point toward where Karl Lagerfeld would be headed later on.

Is Laura Mars really only selling shampoo here? Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Photograph | Rebecca Blake

Is Laura Mars really only selling shampoo here?
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Photograph | Rebecca Blake

John Carpenter’s original screenplay is fairly simple: A Post-Feminist (???) fashion photographer takes controversial photographs which capture not only the erotic elements of the female form in stylish clothing, but acts of brutal violence and murder. Violence and murder usually aimed at women.  Her work is highly profitable and has made her a bit of a celebrity. As a coffee table book collecting some of her most infamous photographs hits the stores, people close to her begin to be murdered in horrible ways that always culminate with their eyes being gouged out.

Even more disturbing, the photographer begins to lose her own vision only to be replaced with the POV of the killer for the duration of each murder. Amping up the horror is the fact that the pop culture princess of fashion photography discovers that all of her photographs mimic a number of brutal and confidential police shots of actual murders. Hence, it would appear that Ms. Mars is somehow psychically linked to a serial killer. It is the psychotic madness of a killer who has been inspiring her art. Art that many are eager to purchase and admire.

Eventually, the killer sets his sites on Laura Mars herself. As the killer tries to kill her she is put in the chilling position of POV limitation — she can only see herself as the killer goes after her. Essentially blind with only disorienting and panicked visions of her own body as target, she is a prisoner of the killer’s eyes ...and her own.

Taking aim... Faye Dunaway Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Taking aim…
Faye Dunaway
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

John Carpenter deserves a great deal of credit with coming up with an original and scary concept. It is unlikely he viewed as any sort of cultural or pop art commentary, but the circumstance of the imagined situation opens that door. Enter the decision to hire Irvin Kershner as the director. By securing the respected film director, the already infamous producer of the project was able to seal a deal with Faye Dunaway to play the lead character. In 1977, this was a casting coup. Dunaway was at the height of her cinematic power in the mid to late 1970’s. A beautiful and respected Academy Award winning actress, Ms. Dunaway was sought after.

Initially Jon Peters was rumored to have wanted to talk his then Life Partner, Barbra Streisand, into taking the role. The script was too violent and dark for Streisand’s taste. She did agree to sing a theme song which turned out to be a surprisingly rock-driven song. The esteemed Conrad Hall was rumored to be first choice to serve as the film’s cinematographer, but Kershner wanted Victor J. Kemper. He got him.

Several gorgeous models were hired to serve as models and actors. Tommy Lee Jones was secured for the leading male love interest. And thanks to a large paycheck, several respected actors were cast in supporting roles — most notably Brad Dourif and Raul Julia. This was an A List Production out of the gate.

Armed and ready to take aim at herself. So to speak. Faye Dunaway Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Armed and ready to take aim at herself. So to speak.
Faye Dunaway
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

When the results of the finished film screened in 1978, viewers were presented with a cinematic cornucopia of ideas and images. Some of these worked. Others failed. Mixed together — Eyes of Laura Mars became a largely mixed experience for film critics and an often vexing one for the audience. The film was a hit. Though filled with tension, the movie failed to actually be scary.

While Laura Mars‘ photographs are violently and sexually graphic, the film is surprisingly restrained. Most certainly the violence and amount of nudity earned the film an R rating, but there was a loopy sort of immature logic holding the film together.

Some did find the movie disturbing. Some found it to be a fun ride with more than a few unexpected twists. Others were just left a bit confused.

A male's smackdown on a beautiful woman is intended to sell cologne. Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Photograph by Rebecca Blake

A male’s smackdown on a beautiful woman is intended to sell cologne.
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Photograph by Rebecca Blake

37 years later Eyes of Laura Mars continues to entertain. Sadly, much of the entertainment grows out of unintentional camp.

This is not to say that this odd bit of big-budget 1970’s filmmaking does not hold some merit. But the film’s merits are easily over-powered by the strange plot, Dunaways’s soap-opera like turn and some deeply campy “stupid model” moments. The movie is a fun, pretty and ungrounded mess. And over the past decade it has developed a sizable cult following.

Most view Eyes one of those “So Bad It’s Great” cinematic guilty pleasures. While I can understand ascribing this uncomfortable thriller to that genre, I’ve never been certain that it should be regarded as a bad film.

A glam but deadly car crash in Columbus Circle, but what is being sold here? Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

A glam but deadly car crash in Columbus Circle, but what is being sold here?
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

I grew up in a fairly small town in Texas. We were not too far from Houston, but we did not always get movies when they “opened.” More often than not, movies arrived to our town several weeks or a month after the movie had already been in circulation. This was the case with Eyes. It opened late into its run at our fairly new mall cineplex.

My father had no understanding of what was or wasn’t appropriate for a child. He took me with him to see this movie. The woman who sold us out tickets already knew me as the kid who she would often pull out of a movie to ask where my parents were. I’m not sure if it was before or after the time my father took me to see Eyes of Laura Mars, but this theater manager pitched a fit when my father took me to see Looking for Mr. Goodbar.

Hurry! I Need more film! I'll push my skirt up further while you take care of that! Faye Dunaway Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Hurry! I Need more film! I’ll push my skirt up further while you take care of that!
Faye Dunaway
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Her attempts to prevent my father from taking his little boy to see adult movies always failed. Mr. Goodbar was a traumatic experience. But Eyes was not one. In fact nothing I saw made my jaw drop or caused me any real confusion.

The thing I most remember about seeing this movie was that my father was forced to really get his shit together because no one was admitted after the first ten minutes of the movie’s start. My father had the annoying habit of arriving at the middle of a movie and then staying to see the first half at the next screening. But he had to arrive on time for Eyes of Laura Mars. I also remember noting that he was truly glued to the screen. It seemed like the casually naked models and the violent photographs interested him.

I was not scared by the movie. While I had not yet become educated in filmmaking, I did know who John Carpenter was — and I was frustrated that the Halloween dude wasn’t making a movie he wrote.

"This is Lulu & Michele! We're not home so go to Hell! But if you're not a horny creep, leave a message at the beep!" Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

“This is Lulu & Michele! We’re not home so go to Hell! But if you’re not a horny creep, leave a message at the beep!”
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Eyes of Laura Mars is not a truly bad movie. It may not be scary, but it has its share of intense moments. It also offers a rather lucid capture of 1970’s NYC and its fashion scene.

Sony did issue the film to DVD, but the HD download currently available via iTunes is far superior to the non-remastered print that the ever-cheap Sony put on DVD. One major thing about the Sony DVD is that it features a film-length commentary from the late Irvin Kershner. In that commentary he speaks of not having had much knowledge of the fashion world at that time. He was surprised when he heard female models talking, disrobing, doing drugs and giggling like school girls.

A staunch liberal, Kershner was also more than a little repulsed by discovering that there seemed to be a misogynistic attitude toward women by an industry devoted to women as their focal demographic. This concerning misogyny would change the film’s tone. No new comer to the Sexual Revolution, he was very much surprised by the attitude of the female models he encountered as well as what he saw as The Studio 54 Culture. Clearly this is what motivated Kershner.

Oh, the model's life and selling cars while being abused and killed... Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Photography by Rebecca Blake

Oh, the model’s life and selling fashion! No prob with nudity or killing or being killed. But they do have problems with the color of the dresses… Sex, violence and Misogyny Sells Clothing!
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Photography by Rebecca Blake

At the time of the film’s release more than a few critics were annoyed by the ample use of casual nudity and the constant stream of violence against women. Kershner explains that he didn’t need to include all the nudity and explicitness of the faked photographs, but these aspects of the plot tied to the world of fashion greatly disturbed and interested him. These aspects seemed to signal that this once simple slasher movie could serve as something a bit deeper in the form of societal and cultural commentary. Or so it seemed.

It wasn’t so much the clothes that the photographers were wanting to capture as the sexuality of the models. And the models were more than happy to comply. Sex was their commodity and it was taking on a sinister tone from Kershner’s perspective. The non-actor models didn’t need to be asked or walked-thru to be nude for the film. They treated their scenes as they would a provocative fashion spread. Off came the clothing and on went the vapid conversing and drug-taking.

Kershner saw and attempted to capture a world in which the female model had no issue with being nude or posing as a victim, but their psyches were challenged when they had to wear “pink” or any color that they didn’t like. Carpenter’s original screenplay was re-crafted to “realistically” capture this world. A intriguing idea in theory does not always manage to fully morph onto the screen.

A lovely book for the late 1970's coffee table? Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

A lovely book for the late 1970’s coffee table?
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Kershner was very careful not to discuss too much about Faye Dunaway. It is no secret that she became frustrated with the making of the film but also the way in which it was promoted. This was really the first film in which Dunaway failed to connect to the production.

A deeply stylized and theatrical actor, Faye Dunaway always had a 1940’s sensibility about her — hence her success in films like Bonnie and Clyde, The Thomas Crown Affair, Towering Inferno and Roman Polanski’s classic film, Chinatown. She had managed to take her style of acting to a whole new level for Sidney Lumet’s brilliant Network and won the Oscar.

As Laura Mars Faye Dunaway appears to be a bit lost. It often feels as if she is fighting against what Kershner wanted. Continually dressed in flowing robes or gowns, Laura Mars seems to edge toward Gothica. She is power-dressed with purpose and that purpose is not to be sexy.

Glam Gothica with a pretty flower hat, how is Laura Mars to compete with her abused models? Tommy Lee Jones has to decide where to look as Faye Dunaway emotes for her life... Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Glam Gothica with a pretty flower hat, how is Laura Mars to compete with her abused models?
Tommy Lee Jones has to decide where to look as Faye Dunaway emotes for her life…
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Surrounded by The Beautiful Elite of the modeling world, Dunaway is constantly subverting her assigned wardrobe to a new purposes. It seems almost comical to watch her photographing a fake car crash tragedy with her models either playing dead or cat-fighting in undies and minks. Kershner’s commentary avoids much discussion, but it seems an odd choice that Dunaway’s Laura Mars opts to hike up her skirt and do a Old-School Hollywood leg reveal as she shoots her pictures.

Decidedly not sexy, it just seems uncomfortable. Dunaway strictly refused any nudity in her love scenes with Tommy Lee Jones. But one suspects she desperately wanted in on some of the semi-nude cat fights she was left to “photograph.” The audience is less interested in Dunaway’s Laura as they are in the barely clothed fighting beauties amidst the wreckage.

The killer probes the ice pick into Laura's eye on the cover of her slick new book of KINK. Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

The killer probes the ice pick into Laura’s eye on the cover of her slick new book of KINK.
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Eyes of Laura Mars gets the late 1970’s NYC Fashion World down correctly. The clothes feel and look very much from the 1977 era. The fashions being photographed look legit. And the wealthy photographer may edge toward the dramatic, but her clothing is clearly upscale and in style.

Kershner also captures the feel and look of the true 1977 NYC. Hell’s Kitchen, Columbus Circle and the Fashion District look like they are from another reality compared to now. This is most assuredly an on location shoot. The grime and grit plays a key role to the film. And although he did not shoot there, one of the movie’s early moments features a PR party given in honor of Laura Mars‘ work and new book that could easily be mistaken for a Studio 54 event.

At this event, Kershner makes no excuses for the vapidity of models like Lulu and Michelle, but both Darlanne Fluegel and Lisa Taylor are comically believable in their roles. It is in this early scene we are given a glimpse into their characters’ personalities.

Disco music blaring, the models pose in preparation for Laura's killing portrait... Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Disco music blaring, the models pose in preparation for Laura’s killing portrait…
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

The director is also to be credited for showing the importance of gay male culture within the world of Laura Mars without falling into homophobia. Little is actually articulated, but we know these men are gay. Rene Auberjonois delivers a solid performance as Laura’s close friend and business manager. We not meant to make fun of him.

And while both Raul Julia and Brad Dourif are wasted, they put forward great work here. Tommy Lee Jones is also strong except when pitted against Dunaway’s convulsively confusing turns. Jones is playing the role as realistically as possible, but he often finds himself in bad soap opera territory when kissing or making love to his leading lady. This is not his fault. Dunaway’s work here often feels like that of an insecure fading movie star who is afraid of losing her place at the table. Sadly Kershner didn’t seem to be strong enough to talk her down. This is of particular surprise given his track record for getting the best out of his actors. It is safe to say that Dunaway’s finest work has been given under infamous duress with tempermental directors.

Roman Polanski or Barbet Schroeder anyone?

Art crime? Faye Dunaway is probably more covered than comfortable amidst all this beautiful flesh. And murder. Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Photograph by Rebecca Blake

Art crime?
Faye Dunaway is probably more covered than comfortable amidst all this beautiful flesh. And murder.
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Photograph by Rebecca Blake

While it was most definitely a fail on the part of Kershner to not better execute the horror of a film that was obviously intended to be a slasher flick, I doubt we would really remember this film if it had followed that path.

It should be noted that one of the few genuinely creepy moments in the movie is when we are limited to Laura Mars‘ POV which is trapped in the POV of the serial killer who is chasing her at full speed with intent to kill. Arte Kane’s musical score is manically-pitched and when edited into this threatening but non-violent scene, it does illicit a good deal of tension.

Even still, there is a major bit of let down when acts of actual real-time murders happen. Thanks to the musical score and the trippy use of POV there is some suspense, but the cinematic pay-off in these slasher scenes feel like something you might have seen on Charlie’s Angels.

Well, minus the nudity.

Learning how to shoot a handgun and ready for romance! Faye Dunaway and Tommy Lee Jones Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Learning how to shoot a handgun and ready for romance!
Faye Dunaway and Tommy Lee Jones
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

This is very little gore in this film’s violence. Of course the film’s Big Reveal which Columbia Studios built up by closing ticket sales after the first ten minutes of the movie, has never seemed at all shocking to me. Even as a child I had figured out the identity of the killer before the film decides to reveal it.

Even still, it is a nightmarish situation that is interesting when compared to the “fashion art” our heroine has been crafting with her stylishly perched skinny leg and handy Nikon camera. This is perhaps the film’s most winning turn of horror — it is the film’s use of murder as fashion and violent death as eroticism that leaves a queasy sort of taste on the cinematic palate.

Killing to sell a car... Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Photograph by Rebecca Blake

Killing to sell a car…
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Photograph by Rebecca Blake

Irvin Kershner’s take on Carpenter’s script may not have gone to the logical horror route of the Slasher Film, but it’s twisted turns guide the audience to a surprisingly gruesome walk toward the pop culture of the future.

And Faye Dunaway’s odd performance does leave an impression.

It should be noted that this performance does not straddle an artistic line as her work in the ill-advised Mommie Dearest. Instead her work as Laura Mars is consistently up-ending itself. The manic and insecure diva-ish turn has, over the years, added a level of paranoia.

This paranoia plays well into both schisms of the infamous movie: The Uncomfortable and The Cult of Camp.

Putting her best leg and high heeled foot forward. A promo shot of Faye Dunaway which she would later claim she disliked. Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Photograph by Rebecca Blake

Putting her best leg and high heeled foot forward. A promo shot of Faye Dunaway which she would later claim she disliked.
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Photograph by Rebecca Blake

Perhaps it is unfair to lay Dunaway’s failure all on her. She is given some very strange dialog:

While in a post orgasmic embrace she murmurs:

“I can’t understand. [slight pause] how it’s possible. [slightly longer pause] to live your whole life. [pause ] without someone. [slight pause] and be doing more or less OK. And then suddenly you find them. You recognize them.”

cue lush love theme as Tommy Lee Jones plants a big smooch on her face.

What do those words even mean?

Faye Dunaway gets and gives more than an eyeful Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Faye Dunaway gets and gives more than an eyeful
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Perhaps Eyes of Laura Mars is a bad movie. Or maybe it is simply flawed. It doesn’t matter. Once you see it you will never forget it.

Matty Stanfield, 12.4.15

 

There will ever only be one Sandy Dennis.

When Broadway still mattered. Sandy Dennis, the star in the $7 dress.  TIME Magazine, 1967 Illustration | Boris Chaliapin

When Broadway still mattered. Sandy Dennis, the star in the $7 dress.
TIME Magazine, 1967
Illustration | Boris Chaliapin

A truly unique visionary of an actor graced with an undeniable charisma and presence that was solely her own, once you’ve seen her in action — you will not be able to forget her. At times her instinctively odd take on realism and her characters could be grating. A good example of this for me would be her odd turn in Alan Alda’s The Four Seasons or Mark Rydell’s The Fox. Other times her work was truly transformative as in Mike Nichol’s cinematic masterpiece, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or Robert Altman’s slow-burn human psyche horror show, That Cold Day in the Park or his off-beat film of Ed Graczyk’s Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.

"Yes, but I chose to rise above the attitudes of this small town, while you chose to lay spread over a gravestone and take them inside you." Sandy Dennis Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean  Robert Altman, 1982 Cinematography | Pierre Mignot

“Yes, but I chose to rise above the attitudes of this small town, while you chose to lay spread over a gravestone and take them inside you.”
Sandy Dennis
Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean
Robert Altman, 1982
Cinematography | Pierre Mignot

Owen Sound has a great MUBI list site regarding the late American Actress.

https://mubi.com/lists/let-me-tell-you-about-sandy-dennis-there-should-be-one-in-every-home

It is from his list I pull the following quotes:

“Sandy was a marvelous actress. She was so gifted she made every part look easy…and she didn’t choose easy parts. It was a great pleasure to work with her.” – Gena Rowlands

“Sandy Dennis is so special, so unique – an incredible woman and artist.” – Elliott Gould

“Sandy was the most amazing actress: spellbinding. The audience would hang on her every pause. And as we all acknowledge, her characterizations were miraculous; no one can say then nor now from where her profound inspirations came. But there they were, for herself and for all of the world, forever.” – Karen Black

Sandy Dennis Head Shot NYC, 1964 Photographer unknown to me.

Sandy Dennis
Head Shot
NYC, 1964
Photographer unknown to me.

While her actual first big screen role was in the iconic Elia Kazan’s 1961 Splendor in the Grass, it would be several years later before she would be given a real role. Opposite the truly iconic Taylor & Burton as the mousy housewife for which she would win the coveted Academy Award.

Introducing to the Big Screen: Miss Sandy Dennis "I peel labels!" George Segal, Sandy Dennis, Elizabeth Taylor Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Mike Nichols, 1966 Cinematography | Haskell Wexler

Introducing to the Big Screen: Miss Sandy Dennis
“I peel labels!”
George Segal, Sandy Dennis, Elizabeth Taylor
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Mike Nichols, 1966
Cinematography | Haskell Wexler

Film and Stage critics adored her as much as they often scorned her. Often their darling, Roger Ebert famously summed up his respect for Sandy Dennis when he reviewed her performance in  1967’s Up The Down Staircase:

“We need more films that might be concerned, even remotely, with real experiences that might once have happened to real people. And we need more actresses like Sandy Dennis.” 

The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther would write:

“Sandy Dennis is engagingly natural, sensitive, literate, and thoroughly moving vivid performance…” 

It is rare to run across many negative reviews of her stage craft. Having studied under Uta Hagen and a strict Method Actor, Sandy Dennis’ stage work is a thing of legend. She received two Tony Awards. While she had many on Broadway and off-Broadway roles, the one for which she is most known is the lead in Any Wednesday. It is of note that actors still speak of this apparently amazing performance.

Sandy Dennis received the second of two Tony Awards for her infamous Broadway performance.   Any Wednesday , 1964

Sandy Dennis received the second of two Tony Awards for her infamous Broadway performance.
Any Wednesday , 1964

However, in the world of film acting her often odd take on character and line readings could illicit the most cruel of critical commentary. The New York Times‘ controversial Vincent Canby was seldom kind to female actors who failed to fit into his limited idea of female beauty. He once said the following:

“Miss Dennis, mugging outrageously and badly, gives the kind of performance that, 40 years ago, would have sent her to bed without her supper. It’s rude, show-offy and, worse, it’s incompetent. Watching her do a double-take is like watching a small tug trying to work the QE2 into her Hudson River berth in a gale. It’s long and boring.”

Interestingly, this particularly nasty review was alone as other film critics rallied her performance in the film to which his acid comic critique was offered. Actually her comic delivery in Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s surprisingly subversive and funny satire of the Nixon Administration within the walls of Catholicism and a convent remains second only to Glenda Jackson’s leading role.

Sadly forgotten satire of Nixon and the Watergate Scandal. They won't have Sister Agnes to kick around anymore! Nasty Habits Michael Lindsay-Hogg, 1977

Sadly forgotten satire of Nixon and the Watergate Scandal. They won’t have Sister Agnes to kick around anymore!
Nasty Habits
Michael Lindsay-Hogg, 1977

Perhaps the most respected American Film Critic of her day, Pauline Kael, was seldom a fan of Dennis. She famously wrote, that Dennis had “made an acting style of postnasal drip.”

This criticism was labeled as “valid” when Sandy Dennis herself stated that she agreed and that she needed to find a way to move in a different direction. As her career continued many of her biggest Film Theory supporters would complain of her consistently nervous interpretation of character.

Sandy Dennis was never able to completely abandon her ticks, mannerisms and phrasing. For her this was an element of humanity that seemed to draw her like a moth to flame. A self-admitted loner, she would say and write that she really didn’t enjoy people. She preferred her cats. However the psychology of the human condition fascinated her deeply. In most women she saw a culturally-infused sort of insecurity. The fragileness of the human condition was something key in her interpretation of character. She was often thought of as a seemingly fragile person, but this seems to be more a reaction to her work than herself.

Not too many people seemed to get into her private life. She preferred a bit of distance. Her love was found in animals. There almost seems to have been a thought forming in her head that we should be in the cages at the zoo. Humans were the ones to be studied and watched. Non-human animals were more open to love. This is just my read on what I’ve read and heard about this great artist. I also must point out that this does not hold entirely true. To those whom she did let in, she was much loved. And that love was returned.

Poor Miss. Frances Austen. She tries not to look, but she seems to live in a house of mirrors. And they are no longer reflecting "reality" That Cold Day in the Park Sandy Dennis / Michael Burns Robert Altman, 1969 Cinematography | László Kovács

Poor Miss. Frances Austen. She tries not to look, but she seems to live in a house of mirrors. And they are no longer reflecting “reality”
That Cold Day in the Park
Sandy Dennis / Michael Burns
Robert Altman, 1969
Cinematography | László Kovács

Those who knew and loved her, felt she was a strong and often staunchly independent person. In the very early 1980’s when Robert Altman convinced her to take to the Broadway stage for Ed Graczyk’s unusually quirky Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean she found herself working with an untrained pop superstar, Cher. Cher did not encounter a fragile person. Cher has stated that Dennis was quick to point out her “bad reading” of her role. Cher, no fragile person herself, pushed harder until she earned Dennis’ respect.

Despair, rage, delusion and regret. Sandy Dennis brings it forward with Karen Black and Cher Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean Robert Altman, 1982

Despair, rage, delusion and regret. Sandy Dennis brings it forward with Karen Black and Cher
Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean
Robert Altman, 1982

At that time a supporting player, Kathy Bates, was more than eager to work with both Altman and Dennis. After Sandy Dennis died she commented:

“Sandy was the great peacemaker of the group when we were doing Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. She was the solid one with her feet on the ground, which was interesting to me at the time, because she had such an ethereal quality as an actress. I also remember her wonderful sense of humor and her gorgeous hair. I think she was still seeing Eric Roberts at the time and we were all very jealous.”

Also at the time of Ms. Dennis’ death, Sean Penn’s full commentary offers a great deal:

“Sandy Dennis never met an unpredictable instinct she didn’t like. She was an actress and woman with beautiful idio-syncrasies and gentleness. There’s never been anyone like her. And me and movies miss her a lot. I directed the movie that turned out to be her last, The Indian Runner, which we shot in and around Omaha, Nebraska. I was honored to work with her and I’m pleased to know that she’s being honored by her own.”

Frail, tired and dying Sandy Dennis gave her all in what would be her final performance. The Indian Runner Sean Penn, 1991

Frail, tired and dying Sandy Dennis gave her all in what would be her final performance.
The Indian Runner
Sean Penn, 1991

But looking back when Sandy Dennis fully entered the world’s pop culture chart as Edward Albee’s “Honey” in Mike Nichol’s brilliant film adaptation — Dennis’ portrayal goes far deeper than what “we” were used to seeing in 1966 cinema. This is not a surface performance. It is naturalistic and brutally real. And yet, there is something deeply odd about it. The oddness is what Dennis’ is able to sneak in with awkward pauses, drunken lapses of self-restraint and intoxicated epiphanies.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Mike Nichols, 1966

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Mike Nichols, 1966

There is a strange new sort of presence on the screen. Both Burton and Taylor are pitch-perfect in their perverse roles. When the door is opened to reveal their after-party guests appear to be exact opposite of who they are. George Segal is also brilliant and bland as the good-looking former jock now tied in what is most likely a loveless marriage. Sandy Dennis’ “Honey” appears to be a reserved, polite and friendly middle class wife. Before long this mouse takes on a level of dark sorrow and fear that is both tragic and scary. In a strange way, thanks to Dennis’ delivery, “Honey” surprisingly game participant in her hosts’ sick game.

"I peel labels!" George Segal, Sandy Dennis, Elizabeth Taylor Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Mike Nichols, 1966 Cinematography | Haskell Wexler

“I peel labels!”
George Segal, Sandy Dennis, Elizabeth Taylor
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Mike Nichols, 1966
Cinematography | Haskell Wexler

As she confusingly takes her place in this twisted domestic game, “Honey” reveals something that only seems like a memory in the faces and actions of the other three characters: she is human and she is breaking under the weight of her life and this demented game.

There is something almost inexplicably raw and powerful in Sandy Dennis’ fragmented and almost stuttering method of speaking. Her lines come out like twitches and spastic after thoughts. While the other actors deliver with venom, gusto, pain and grief — Sandy Dennis subverts Albee’s words to the introspection of human psychology.

While the other actors seem to be absorbing the characters into their very pores, Dennis seems to be doing the opposite. She is absorbing into the pores of her fictional character. A sort of distorted version of self into fiction. Or at least this is how it feels. Dennis took a supporting role and amped it into the heretofore unbreakable personas of two of the biggest movie stars of all time. A supporting performance is seldom this transformative. 

Never mix. Never worry. Sandy Dennis Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Mike Nichols, 1966 Cinematography | Haskell Wexler

Never mix. Never worry.
Sandy Dennis
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Mike Nichols, 1966
Cinematography | Haskell Wexler

No one would ever dare argue that there was any other choice to receive that Oscar but Sandy Dennis. No one had ever seen a woman do this. Marlon Brando had done it, but here Sandy Dennis is free of censorship. It would be a couple of more years before Marlon Brando would turn it all upside down in Last Tango in Paris.

With an Oscar under her arm, Sandy Dennis was primed for movie stardom. Or was she?

Warner Brothers recognized the talent and everyone was aware of the acclaim she had achieved on Broadway in Any Wednesday, but they simply could not imagine “Honey” managing to play the “kept girl” of that play. I mean, aside from Streisand’s turn in Funny Girl, this was the most talked about stage performance of the day. No. Jane Fonda would be cast in the film version. At the time more than a few actors were upset.

Warner Brothers' consolation prize to Sandy Dennis for not casting her in the film of "Any Wednesday."  Sandy Dennis and Anthony Newley in Sweet November Robert Ellis Miller, 1968

Warner Brothers’ consolation prize to Sandy Dennis for not casting her in the film of “Any Wednesday.”
Sandy Dennis and Anthony Newley in
Sweet November
Robert Ellis Miller, 1968

However Warners had a plan. They loved the play, Sweet November, but didn’t feel that Barbara Harris had “movie star potential” so the same film director, Robert Ellis Miller, who would direct Fonda in Dennis’ original role would also direct Denis in Harris’ role.

Both casting decisions were ill-advised.

Jane Fonda gave it her best, but she wasn't yet able to achieve what the part required.  Any Wednesday Robert Ellis Miller, 1966 Cinematography | Harold Lipstein

Jane Fonda gave it her best, but she wasn’t yet able to achieve what the part required.
Any Wednesday
Robert Ellis Miller, 1966
Cinematography | Harold Lipstein

Jane Fonda had not yet fully gained access to her voice. And the director was in way over his head trying to “tame” Dennis’ style of acting to blend in with Anthony Newley’s “hammy” approach. Any Wednesday is only worth watching for the fashions. But despite all of the flaws, Sweet November, does offer a good deal of uneven entertainment. And while it all gets far too corny to believe, Sand Dennis does manage to retain some of the plays bittersweet charm. In the end the film almost works.

She would also secure the lead role in Robert Mulligan’s acclaimed 1967 film, Up The Down Staircase. Her performance is solid here as the teacher who wants to effect change for her students but doesn’t know how. This was a bit of ideal casting.

"When I finally get the chance, the first few precious minutes to talk to them about something I want them to understand, and I find that I am some kind of enemy. The butt of some enormous joke." Sandy Dennis Up The Down Staircase Robert Mulligan, 1967 Cinematography | Joseph F. Coffey

“When I finally get the chance, the first few precious minutes to talk to them about something I want them to understand, and I find that I am some kind of enemy. The butt of some enormous joke.”
Sandy Dennis
Up The Down Staircase
Robert Mulligan, 1967
Cinematography | Joseph F. Coffey

This success was met with controversial failure when Mark Rydell cast her opposite both Anne Heywood and Keir Dullea in a modern take on DH Lawrence’s The Fox. A soft focus haze of timid eroticism with Anne Heywood in full-on glam, Keir Dullea aiming for full-on handsome male lead — Sandy Dennis’ realistic spin as Heywood’s long time lesbian lover is far too-grounded to make sense as Heywood and Dullea seem to be dancing on air and Dennis walks about suspecting both.

"Maybe you need a man around the place." D.H. Lawrence comes to the screen... The Fox Sandy Dennis, Anne Heywood and Keir Dullea Mark Rydell, 1967

“Maybe you need a man around the place.”
D.H. Lawrence comes to the screen…
The Fox
Sandy Dennis, Anne Heywood and Keir Dullea
Mark Rydell, 1967

It does not work. Only Dennis is credible here, but mismatched to both of the other more Hollywood-aligned actors.

It was shortly after the mistake of Sweet November that Sandy Dennis would once again receive a great film role. This time it was an Independent Canadian film by Robert Altman. Director and actor were equally interested in each other and Altman seemed to have an interesting short-hand with Dennis. His way of communicating worked perfectly in reigning in Sandy Dennis’ often eccentric take on her characters.

Neurosis morphs into sociopathic horror with Sandy Dennis as Miss. Frances Austen in That Cold Day in the Park Robert Altman, 1969

Neurosis morphs into sociopathic horror with Sandy Dennis as Miss. Frances Austen in
That Cold Day in the Park
Robert Altman, 1969

In the case of Altman’s That Cold Day in the Park, she didn’t need to bring any more eccentricity as the role of Miss. Frances Austen could easily be blown off the charts and into camp. This is not what Altman was after and it was certainly never be the intention of Sandy Dennis. However her’s was an often untethered sort of talent. Altman managed to assist her in containing it.

Sandy Dennis plays her character like only Sandy Dennis can, but with an elite and elegant level of restraint. She is a wealthy but lonely virgin spinster. She lives a seemingly mundane life among older people. It is never clearly articulated, but thanks to Dennis’ performance we receive several clues that something is wrong with “Miss. Frances Austen.” Actually, we are almost certain something is very much wrong.

Poor Miss. Frances Austen. She tries not to look, but she seems to live in a house of mirrors. And they are no longer reflecting "reality" That Cold Day in the Park Sandy Dennis / Michael Burns Robert Altman, 1969 Cinematography | László Kovács

Poor Miss. Frances Austen. She tries not to look, but she seems to live in a house of mirrors. And they are no longer reflecting “reality”
That Cold Day in the Park
Sandy Dennis / Michael Burns
Robert Altman, 1969
Cinematography | László Kovács

When she notices an apparently homeless, mute and handsome man sitting alone on a park bench in the park, Miss. Frances Austen breaks convention and insists the “helpless” boy come to her swank home to warm up and have some food. She sends her cook and butler away. Why does she even have a cook and a butler in such a small but nice condo? It is never clear.

This film was mis-judged by film critics at the time of its release. It is an appropriate bookend to Altman’s interest in the psycho-sexual thriller. A few laters, Altman would pursue this genre again in Images — a film which received more acclaim than I think it deserved. Here, in TCDITP Altman more precisely and effortlessly slips into a woman’s damaged psyche.

Much of the credit is deserved to Sandy Dennis. The film is short and fast-paced. Yet it is filled with fairly uncomfortable and realistic scenes between Dennis and Michael Burns as the handsome young man. As Miss. Frances Austen begins to open-up to the mute mostly nude young man who is unable to speak either with/to her — things start to take an oddly warped vibe. Clearly, Miss. Frances Austen (and her name bears repeating) is a virgin and dealing with a whole lot more than sexual repression.

“I’m not going to get under the covers or anything. I’ll just lay on top. I have to tell you something. If you feel that you want to make love to me, it’s all right. I want you to make love to me. Please.” Sandy Dennis on the verge of something… That Cold Day in the Park Robert Altman, 1969 Cinematography | László Kovács

“I’m not going to get under the covers or anything. I’ll just lay on top. I have to tell you something. If you feel that you want to make love to me, it’s all right. I want you to make love to me. Please.”
Sandy Dennis on the verge of something…
That Cold Day in the Park
Robert Altman, 1969
Cinematography | László Kovács

The “twist” does not come as a “surprise” or even a device in a very smart move by Robert Altman. We know what is coming. This handsome mute boy is “playing” Miss. Frances Austen. He is using her for his own twisted fun and grift. The actually unexpected “twist” comes shortly after the “expected” one.

Just because it says “Exit” doesn’t mean it is a way out. Sandy Dennis That Cold Day in the Park Robert Atman, 1969 Cinematography | László Kovács

Just because it says “Exit” doesn’t mean it is a way out.
Sandy Dennis
That Cold Day in the Park
Robert Atman, 1969
Cinematography | László Kovács

After this twist is delivered, the viewer is likely to chuckle and feel reasonably entertained by this strange little movie. The thing is — Robert Altman and Sandy Dennis had just pulled-off a great cinematic trick. The final turn of the movie isn’t going to leave your mind. What seems comical gradually takes on the sinister and disturbing. There are  no jokes, camp or “bad” moments. Altman’s That Cold Day in the Park is near perfect and horrifying.

Sadly, this film was probably a little too “out there” at the time it was released. Appreciation for this film has really only taken hold in the last decade. Much credit should be given to Bruce LaBruce and his very Independent and very Queer-Core re-working of Altman’s film in his 1991 experimental and controversial cult film,  No Skin Off My Ass. This movie helped bring Altman’s forgotten film back into discussion. A discussion and re-evaluation which finally led to Olive Films doing a 2K restoration for blu-ray release. That Cold Day in the Park continues to claim its rightful place in cinematic history.

"Oh My Goooood!" Sandy Dennis & Jack Lemmon  The Out of Towners Arthur Hiller, 1970

“Oh My Goooood!”
Sandy Dennis & Jack Lemmon
The Out of Towners
Arthur Hiller, 1970

Oddly enough, Sandy Dennis would soon be cast in her most mainstream success opposite Jack Lemmon in Arthur Hiller’s 1970 adaptation of Neil Simon’s The Out of Towners. Filmed on location in a decaying 1969 NYC, Hiller’s film is as silly as it is insightful as a glimpse into what appears to be a truly dying city. Lemmon and Dennis play off of each other brilliantly. The film is blessed with some genuinely comic moments. Sandy Dennis’ “read” of “Oh my God” is hysterically funny. The film was a box office hit.

When they take you for an out-of-towner, they really take you. Sandy Dennis & Jack Lemmon The Out of Towners Arthur Hiller, 1970

When they take you for an out-of-towner, they really take you.
Sandy Dennis & Jack Lemmon
The Out of Towners
Arthur Hiller, 1970

While the money made was probably a great thing, Sandy Dennis never seemed to be particularly comfortable with success. She quickly retreated to the theatre and teaching at The Actor’s Studio. She would continue to take roles in movies but these were more often more “off the grid” type of films. An exception was 1977’s smart satire from Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s Nasty Habits. 

This clever film featured an incredible cast with Glenda Jackson (think Richard Nixon as a Mother Superior) in the lead. The supporting players as corrupt nuns (all the equal to someone involved in the Watergate Scandal) included Sandy Dennis (in a truly goofy turn as the nun equal to Nixon’s John Dean), Melina Mercouri, Geraldine Page, Anne Jackson, the great Anne Meara, Jerry Stiller, Eli Wallach and Rip Torn. Sadly the film failed to find an audience. There is hope that someone will resurrect this film soon. It is almost impossible to even find stills from this film.

A seemingly lost classic... The Watergate Scandal for Nuns. Geraldine Page, Sandy Dennis, Glenda Jackson and   Melina Mercouri Nasty Habits Michael Lindsay-Hogg, 1977

A seemingly lost classic…
The Watergate Scandal for Nuns.
Geraldine Page, Sandy Dennis, Glenda Jackson and Melina Mercouri
Nasty Habits
Michael Lindsay-Hogg, 1977

When Robert Altman called again, Sandy Dennis agreed to come aboard for his return to the Broadway Stage. This would eventually be filmed into a strange but potent film, 1982’s Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. The film failed to register at the time of it’s release, but it appreciation for this film has grown into a solid following.

Karen Black and Cher look through the mirror of time at Sandy Dennis' "Mona"  Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean Robert Altman, 1982 Cinematography | Pierre Mignot

Karen Black and Cher look through the mirror of time at Sandy Dennis’ “Mona”
Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean
Robert Altman, 1982
Cinematography | Pierre Mignot

After this it seems the roles she chose were largely based on requests from fellow-artists she respected (Alan Alda, Woody Allen, Larry Cohen, Bob Balaban and Sean Penn) or ones that provided a quick and easy paycheck (976-EVIL, the 80’s reboot of  Alfred Hitchcock Presents and an odd appearance on The Love Boat)

Her supporting role as Millie Dew in Bob Balaban’s odd and very demented 1989 satire, Parents, is a stand-out. Sicker than sick, often disturbing but always darkly comic — Sandy Dennis is clearly having some fun and adds a great deal to an already impressive cast. Miss. Dew stands out. For more than a few reasons. If you’ve seen it, you will know to what I refer. This is a brilliant little movie that deserves to be revisited. 

"This will be delicious!" Randy Quaid and Mary Beth Hurt have very different plans for their son's guidance counselor, Miss Millie Dew played to the hilt by Sandy Dennis. Parents Bob Balaban, 1989 Cinematography | Ernest Day / Robin Vidgeon

“This will be delicious!”
Randy Quaid and Mary Beth Hurt have very different plans for their son’s guidance counselor, Miss Millie Dew played to the hilt by Sandy Dennis.
Parents
Bob Balaban, 1989
Cinematography | Ernest Day / Robin Vidgeon

Her final performance was for Sean Penn and his directorial debut, The Indian Runner. Even though she was unable to complete the film, she made a memorable impression. It is a sigh of relief to know that she exited the stage with such a great role in a great film.

Sandy Dennis was a fairly private person. Perhaps more so, she simply did not enjoy the company of people. She had been in a decade long term relationship with Gerry Mulligan, an essential American Jazz artist. And she had a four year relationship with actor, Eric Roberts. While this was clearly far more than just a romance, Dennis opted to end it. There was no scandal, they remained friends. She was never bothered with rumors of her bi-sexuality. Eric Roberts had publicly discussed that she had shared her sexual experiences with other women to him and close friends. Even though she wrote her memoirs, there is much about her that is largely unknowable.

Aside from her work and esteemed professional reputation, the strongest testament of who Sandy Dennis was remains in the clearly beloved memories of her close friends, students and colleagues. Perhaps her two closest friends were Brenda Vaccaro and Jessica Walter. Equally respected and well-liked, it speaks volumes that these two women were her dearest friends.

She had been battling cancer for sometime. She passed away in her home surrounded by her life’s true joy: her cats. She was only 54 years old.

I really like something that fellow actor and a friend, Ian McKellen, wrote in 2004:

“Had she lived, by now she would have been a veteran actor of formidable powers or perhaps, eschewing work, she would simply be an animal-lover at home, smiling indulgently at the craziness of the world around her.”

Sandy Dennis with one of her beloved cats. Sandy Dennis 1937 - 1992 RIP Photograph | © Michael Tighe, 1991

Sandy Dennis with one of her beloved cats.
Sandy Dennis
1937 – 1992
RIP
Photograph | © Michael Tighe, 1991

A foundation was started in 2012 in her hometown of Hastings, Nebraska. There is a great deal of information to be found here about the legendary actress. The goal of the foundation has never been clear to me, but contact information can be found there should you want to pursue.

The Sandy Dennis Foundation

Matty Stanfield, 9.18.2015