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As Dennis Hopper’s gritty and nihilistic film, Out of the Blue, we see and hear two things:

Out of the Blue Dennis Hopper, 1980

Out of the Blue
Dennis Hopper, 1980

the first is an 18-wheeler speeding along a stretch of road. In it sit a Halloween-costumed little girl and her beer-drinking dad. The drunk father teases his eleven year old clown of a daughter. She gleefully revels in his attention. Not too far ahead is a school bus full of elementary school age children. These are the trucker’s classmates. Their bus has stalled in the middle of an intersection.

A child and her addicted father on a Halloween joy ride to school quickly switches to a tragic crash into a school bus... Out of the Blue Dennis Hopper, 1980 Cinematography | Marc Champion

A child and her addicted father on a Halloween joy ride to school quickly switches to a tragic crash into a school bus…
Out of the Blue
Dennis Hopper, 1980
Cinematography | Marc Champion

The little clown too lost in the bliss of her father’s attention and her father too drunk to allow for appropriate reflexes, the 18 wheeler crashes directly into the school bus. Suddenly this shocking action is ended as that same little girl some four years later bolts up in her bed. She has been dreaming. Linda Manz plays “Cebe” and we at once see the magic that this young actor was able to bring to the screen. She has no dialogue. She doesn’t need any. Her face shows it all. Confused, frightened and bemused. Cebe (clearly named after the Trucker mode of communication, the CB radio) appears to be uncertain if she has fully woken from the nightmare. But it only takes a few seconds for the audience to notice two visible scars on her face. This scene and whatever hope that what we have just witnessed by simply be a nightmare is killed with an instant cut to the cab of that 18 wheeler. Sitting in a ramble overgrowth of weeds, the cab is basically demolished. It is the dead of night, Cebe sits in the driver seat wearing her father’s Post-Hippie leather cap. She is talking into the CB radio transmitting a rant that we soon will realize fuels her ability to analyze and move forward in her life:

“Subvert normality. Punk is not sexual, it’s just aggression. Destroy. Kill All Hippies. I’m not talking at you, I’m talking to you. Anarchy. Disco sucks. I don’t wanna hear about you, I wanna hear from you. This is Gorgeous. Does anybody outthere read me? Disco sucks, kill all hippies. Pretty vacant, eh? Subvert normality. Signing off. This is Gorgeous. Signing off.” 

The listening truck drivers do not understand. Cebe doesn’t care. She simply needs to be heard.

Linda Manz as Cebe Out of the Blue Dennis Hopper, 1980 Cinematography | Marc Champion

Linda Manz as Cebe
Out of the Blue
Dennis Hopper, 1980
Cinematography | Marc Champion

Originally intended to be a Canadian film about a child psychologist who saves and offers redemption for a fifteen year old girl who has murdered her own father. If what one is to believe what has been reported, stated and written, this entire film was intended to be a star vehicle for Raymond Burr. The producers had been lucky to cast American actor, Linda Manz, as the teenager in trouble. The film’s original director was in over his head and working with a script that seemed more aimed at some sort of “white-wash” of cultural tragedy more appropriate for ABC’s After School Special than cinemas. Dennis Hopper had taken the job to play the murdered father. After the original director walked-off, the iconic actor was asked to make his first directorial turn since his infamous The Last Movie failure.

Dennis Hopper immediately set out to re-write the perversely tidy teenage murderer saved script into something attached to humanity and reality. Raymond Burr was a tax credit for the film’s producers. Hopper manipulated Burr into thinking that he was still the lead actor. He apparently filmed a great deal more than the two brief scenes in which we see him in Hopper’s film. The Child Psychologist is reduced to a half-heartedly sincere bureaucrat. Hopper switched the perspective from a Canadian Social Worker to that of the tormented teenage girl. He also rejected the general premise of “Cebe.” She was no longer just a one-dimensional child victim turned murderer. Hopper’s Cebe was a damaged teenage girl trying to make sense out of her situation, her life and her own identity. Hopper, a former Hippie and addict, quickly decided to have Cebe obsessed with two cultural touchstones: Elvis and the PUNK Movement.

Only her father's old leather cap and a safety pin for her check remains to complete her warrior armor... Linda Manz Out of the Blue Dennis Hopper, 1980 Cinematography | Marc Champion

Only her father’s old leather cap and a safety pin for her check remains to complete her warrior armor…
Linda Manz
Out of the Blue
Dennis Hopper, 1980
Cinematography | Marc Champion

Suddenly, Linda Manz was given more to do than simply supply screen presence and predictable emotions cued by violins. She was given the lead role of an abused child hellbent on rebellion and pushed to the emotional edge of sanity.

Cebe seeks more than to subvert normalcy, she seeks to subvert life itself because it is the only way she can figure a way to motivate through the pain, grief, humiliation and confusion of her life. Born to two rebels, Linda Manz’s Cebe is essentially the manifestation of free love, hippie ideology, mind-expanding drug use and confusion. Her mother appears to be a kind, but painfully emotionally-stunted ex-Flower Child. Here, Mom is only physically grown up. She married her true love, a tough Hippie Biker type who quickly grasped onto the life of a heavy hitting trucker.

Despite it all, a child needs to love her parents. Linda Manz & Dennis Hopper Out of the Blue Dennis Hopper, 1980 Cinematography | Marc Champion

Despite it all, a child needs to love her parents.
Linda Manz & Dennis Hopper
Out of the Blue
Dennis Hopper, 1980
Cinematography | Marc Champion

Cebe’s mother has forever give her heart to her husband, but she gladly hands over her body for some stability and a fix. We slowly figure out that Sharon Farrell’s Kathy is a closet heroin addict. She loves her daughter the best she knows how. Kathy doesn’t view her daughter’s rebellious nature as odd or worrying. Within Kathy’s limited understanding, Cebe is her father’s daughter. A natural born rebel. While Kathy has already hooked up with Dad’s best friend and former local nemesis, she is still married to Dad.

Kathy can’t wait for Daddy to get out of prison so that they can be a Happy Family again.

Burning what little ideal she covets of her parents, a child on the verge... Out of the Blue Dennis Hopper, 1980 Cinematography | Marc Champion

Burning what little ideal she covets of her parents, a child on the verge…
Out of the Blue
Dennis Hopper, 1980
Cinematography | Marc Champion

This was never a happy family. Cebe seems to be the only one fully aware of this.

She, too, is excited about her father’s release from prison and return to home. However, Linda Manz’s skill as a naturalistic actor allows her to show us that she is not so certain things will be getting better. She hopes that they will, but Manz’s forever perplexing ability to convey mixtures of emotions that often run against the very grain of her character’s dialogue and actions, we know she really expects that things for her are about to get a whole lot more difficult.

Her bedroom offers a great deal about the complexity of our lead character. Innocent childhood toys and 1970’s era children’s art remain in tact, but are almost buried beneath the impact of shrines to Elvis. Cebe has crafted old Elvis album art and magazine photographs into collages better suited to religious iconography. A huge amplifier, drum kit and an electric guitar take the front and center of her room.

While the Elvis art seems old and fading, newer posters, pictures and magazine cut-outs weigh down the walls. These are all related to PUNK rock. The Subhumans, Sex Pistols, Teenage Head & Public Enemy are among the iconic bands name-checked on Cebe’s walls. Linda Manz’s Cebe was something altogether new to cinema.

OUT OF THE BLUE, Linda Manz, Sharon Farrell, 1980

OUT OF THE BLUE, Linda Manz, Sharon Farrell, 1980

This is the child of an addicted murderous father and an Up With People hippie gone to seed. Born into a life of instability, threat and fear — Cebe is constantly seeking new totems and sounds to bolster herself. She must reinforce her strength and appearance of knowledge and power to stay ahead of the game.

She clearly does not possess a clear understanding of either Elvis or PUNK rock. But she painfully understands the messages conveyed.

She may not understand the joke that Elvis had become by the time she was old enough to know his music. She also may not understand the corporate ownership of “Johnny Rotten” / “Sid Vicious” or the tragedy of their lives, but she gets the over-all jest of what they and their music stood/stand for.

She can’t articulate what “pretty vacant” actually means, but she somehow understands it applies to her life and the lack of hope it provides.

Rebellion is all she has.

A startling glimpse into the psyche of a 15 year old girl born of free love, addiction and rebellion. She hides it, but the numbing reality of her life is constantly revealed by the all-too-realistic nuance of Linda Manz's performance. Out of the Blue Dennis Hopper, 1980 Cinematography | Marc Champion

A startling glimpse into the psyche of a 15 year old girl born of free love, addiction and rebellion. She hides it, but the numbing reality of her life is constantly revealed by the all-too-realistic nuance of Linda Manz’s performance.
Out of the Blue
Dennis Hopper, 1980
Cinematography | Marc Champion

Upon her father’s return things around Cebe seem to take on darker aspects.

Her mother’s drug use is now done in the living room. Even though Dad is home, Mom is all the more open about pursuing her sexual needs.

Dad has taken his drinking to a new level.

Classmates and some parents view her father’s return as an injustice to the children who were killed by the drunken crash four years earlier.

Worse yet, mother loses her worries in H while Dad and his pal take matters into their own hands and murder the father of one of the children killed in the tragic accident.  The angry father feels the need for vengeance. Even a hint of his anger is enough to stir Dad to go into full attack mode.

Cebe runs away. She sleeps on the streets and ends up in a sexualized world of predators. Smart enough to run from this world, she still returns home.

Sleeping on the streets seems a safer alternative to home. This is no late 70's After School Special. This is dire and real. Linda Manz Out of the Blue Dennis Hopper, 1980 Cinematography | Marc Champion

Sleeping on the streets seems a safer alternative to home. This is no late 70’s After School Special. This is dire and real.
Linda Manz
Out of the Blue
Dennis Hopper, 1980
Cinematography | Marc Champion

When she gets back, she has hardly been missed.

The final straw arrives when a drunken argument between Mom, Dad and dad’s best friend, played by Don Gordon, lead to a non-sensical idea that Cebe has become too butch (or “a dyke“) to use Mom’s words. In drunken/stoned stupor it is decided that Don must have sex with Cebe to set her “straight.” Hearing it all from her room, Cebe begins to transform into a sort of asexual PUNK God.

Fighting off her father as if where a lion, her bedroom chair legs aimed at him like spears — the father retreats. After slapping the stoned out mom a bit, mom returns to Cebe’s side to help her into her nightgown.

So angry. So alone. So desperate. Cebe’s rebellion takes a very dark turn.

She opts to patricide and suicide as her ultimate “PUNK” revenge. Just as you would expect from Dennis Hopper, the nihilistic ending feels almost surreal. But it isn’t. This is a reality born of rage. No child psychologist can apply some words and therapy to take away the crime of her murders. If Cebe knows two things it is that she wants to kill her parents. It is hard not to relate to her conclusion. It is her suicide that is the tragedy.

Hopper’s film offers a grim view of a societal issue.

Embracing the ideology of PUNK rebellion and the reality of her life, Cebe teases her drunk, brutish and leering father's sexual advances. Linda Manz and Dennis Hopper Out of the Blue Dennis Hopper, 1980 Cinematography | Marc Champion

Embracing the ideology of PUNK rebellion and the reality of her life, Cebe teases her drunk, brutish and leering father’s sexual advances.
Linda Manz and Dennis Hopper
Out of the Blue
Dennis Hopper, 1980
Cinematography | Marc Champion

By the time the film was ready for release, several minutes involving the disturbing scene in which the daughter sexually taunts her father prior to brutally killing him had to be edited to secure an “R Rating.” Originally conceived as a Canadian film, the Canadian Film Board quickly demanded funds returned and denied Canadian approval. The film was not released to Japan until the 1990’s over concerns related to rebellion, patricide and suicide. In the US the film barely managed a limited release. While it was largely supported by film critics — even Jack Nicholson stepped out of the celebrity bubble to promote the film which he felt had something very important to say.

The film quickly became a source of infamy.

Bebe applies her make-up to bolster strength. Linda Manz Out of the Blue Dennis Hopper, 1980 Cinematography | Marc Champion

Bebe applies her make-up to bolster strength.
Linda Manz
Out of the Blue
Dennis Hopper, 1980
Cinematography | Marc Champion

Interestingly, it began to develop a misleading reputation as a PUNK Rock Movie. It is not.

Costumed for fun a school bus full of children are trapped Out of the Blue Dennis Hopper, 1980 Cinematography | Marc Champion

Costumed for fun a school bus full of children are trapped
Out of the Blue
Dennis Hopper, 1980
Cinematography | Marc Champion

When AnchorBay was able to release the theatrical cut on DVD in 1999, the sales started off high. Driven by the rumors surrounding the film as PUNK Statement. Those sales quickly dwindled. Out of the Blue is not a fun movie. It is grim, gritty, realistic and offers the audience no easy way out. While the film does suffer from budget restraints. The crash into the school bus is not as potent when the film returns to the incident the second time and “goofs” can be seen. But mostly, this angry film remains a valid glimpse into human darkness.

A disturbingly logical but incorrect application of Elvis and PUNK mythology into identity. Linda Manz transforms... Out of the Blue Dennis Hopper, 1980 Cinematography | Marc Champion

A disturbingly logical but incorrect application of Elvis and PUNK mythology into identity.
Linda Manz transforms…
Out of the Blue
Dennis Hopper, 1980
Cinematography | Marc Champion

Although I am unsure if he has ever publicly discussed this film, it clearly had impact on Harmony Korine. Any Knowledgeable film-buff will see this film’s influences on Korine’s work.

It also captures teenage rebellion with a cause.  

Technically, AnchorBay no longer has this film in print, but copies can still be found on Amazon. Sadly, many other versions of this film are out there on DVD. Be warned: most are of very poor quality. Most look as if second-hand dubbed from old VHS tapes.  And most of the non-AnchorBay prints are heavily censored. It remains to be seen if this film will ever find it’s way to restoration.

1969’s Coming Apart offers an equally realistic and dark journey to the heart of human self-destruction, but with a different sort of reason in mind.  Milton Moses Ginsberg’s much discussed film is one of style, human pain and classic NYC Method Acting. Often compared to  Jim McBride’s David Holzman’s Diary. In truth Ginsberg’s film has very little to do with McBride’s groundbreaking film beyond the use of “documentary” style and mirror metaphor. The idea of exploring identity and/or sexual identity is not really traceable to one work of art. What makes Ginsberg’s experimental 1969 film so important is that it captures more than just a time capsule moment within the 1960’s Counterculture Movement as it brings focus to the resulting identity problems that movement helped to acerbate. It also serves as a great example of the power to be found within filmmaking.

Setting up a hidden movie camera in a mirrored box designed to look like an object of art. Welcome to the world of "Joe Glassman" Coming Apart Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969 Cinematography | Jack Yager

Setting up a hidden movie camera in a mirrored box designed to look like an object of art. Welcome to the world of “Joe Glassman”
Coming Apart
Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969
Cinematography | Jack Yager

Having just survived a devastating end to a relationship which led him to securing an apartment in the same building as the woman who had rejected him, Milton Moses Ginsberg essentially found himself in an existential downward spiral. This experience drove him to create the script for Coming Apart. An almost shockingly detailed script, he also sought to utilize some of the most respected young actors trained directly under the mythic teachings of Lee Strasberg. Very few of the actors seen in this film were not members of the original Actor’s Studio. It’s three leading actors were among Strasberg’s most prized pupils. They were also known as his most fearless actors who fully embraced every philosophy of Strasberg’s ideology. Rip Torn, Viveca Lindfors and Sally Kirkland may not have been the most famous, but they commanded a great deal of respect within the realm of NYC Actors and Method Acting. The easiest way to sum up Strasberg’s Method Acting was to understand and pursue acting as truth. Truth without filter. Truth without censor. Truth pursued at all costs and concentration. Essentially, Method Acting seeks to pursue the truth of the human soul to it’s deepest and often darkest depths. This was and remained the essential elements of all three actors.

Checking his hidden camera's perspective... Rip Torn Coming Apart Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969 Cinematography | Jack Yager

Checking his hidden camera’s perspective…
Rip Torn
Coming Apart
Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969
Cinematography | Jack Yager

Milton Moses Ginsberg once stated that the Coming Apart script served as a “vehicle for actors to reach into their souls and I found two actors who could reach deeper and better than any others at that time.” He was referring to both Rip Torn and Sally Kirkland. But the entire film is filled with Method Actors. This is particularly interesting to note as most who have seen Coming Apart walk away from the experience thinking that they have seen improvisation and even partial biographical film. This is not at all true. Almost everything in the film is scripted. While Ginsberg was not afraid of improvisation, he expected that each actor honor his script. They did. Each was fully invested in the three week project.

It is interesting to note that every single film snag, break, audio interference, audio loss and distortion is clearly listed and often even drawn into the script. When we are unable to hear or see something it is because Joe can’t deal with hearing or seeing it himself. The only post-production decision to deviate from the script was Rip Torn’s long rant into the camera. It was originally to be an articulated four minute rant during which Torn’s Joe experiences an emotional break. Ginsberg felt at looking at Rip Torn’s face was far more insightful than his own words. So he added unplanned chops and drops of sound during this one scene.

The idea of the film stems from the writer/director’s own self-destructive act of almost stalking a former lover, the premise is quite simple. A burned-out and emotionally ravaged psychiatrist rents an apartment in the same building as that of a woman with whom he had what he feels was a meaningful affair. However, this does not stop the doctor from pursuing an experiment in which he hides a movie camera within a mirrored box. Intended to look like a piece of modern art, he places this hidden camera so that it captures the goings on in the living room from one perspective. Trained on a sofa, “Joe” has placed the sofa in front of a huge mirror. In this way, the camera picks up all activity from two perspectives.

"What's this?" "Kinetic art object." "What?" "Modern sculptory." Coming Apart Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969 Cinematography | Jack Yager

“What’s this?”
“Kinetic art object.”
“What?”
“Modern sculptory.”
Coming Apart
Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969
Cinematography | Jack Yager

While he has set up the apartment as a sort of trap which will require his former lover to interact with him, he is also intent on filming his interactions with women. What at first seems like an extended and sick “bachelor’s weekend” soon devolves into an examination of sexuality and identity at it’s core root. Almost immediately the audience is placed in the role of Voyeur. It is an uncomfortable place to be. There is very little erotic about the goings-on, but it is quite sexual. It is also intense, provocative and disturbing.

When Joe’s former love confronts him for having crossed a line by moving into her building, Joe’s idea backfires. Viveca Lindfors’ Monica is not interested in Joe. If anything she pities him. But is Joe even worth pitying?

"Did I do this to you, Joe?" Viveca Lindfors & Rip Torn Coming Apart Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969 Cinematography | Jack Yager

“Did I do this to you, Joe?”
Viveca Lindfors & Rip Torn
Coming Apart
Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969
Cinematography | Jack Yager

Joe’s first visitors are there strictly for sex. The first encounter comes the closest to being erotic. The second encounter with Elaine played by Lois Markle in one of the film’s few comical moments, presents Joe with a type of sexuality he has perhaps only studied or discussed with patients. When presented with a true sadist, Joe isn’t sure about what he should do. In both comical and realistic ways, Markle’s characters tries to turn Joe on by exposing the permanent scars caused by cigarettes. It would seem that Elaine enjoys being a human ashtray.

This does nothing for Joe. She quickly suggests putting on provocative clothing. She even quickly runs back to her home to return in full-on BSDM gear designed to entice. Joe seems more curious than turned on. As she shows off her spike heel shoes, Joe asks her if it is hard to walk in them? She advises that these shoes are not for walking. Just when it seems she is about to give up all hope of getting laid, Joe decides to feign interest. As he pursues her on the floor, we see her legs up in the hair and she returns to her cooing and moaning while yelling, “You’re raping me! You’re raping me!” We see Joe hesitate and Elaine reach up and pull him back to her. She then returns to pretending that Joe is raping her. This is the only “light” moment to be found in Coming Apart.

Are you sure you don't want to put a cigarette out on me? Rip Torn & Lois Markle Coming Apart Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969 Cinematography | Jack Yager

Are you sure you don’t want to put a cigarette out on me?
Rip Torn & Lois Markle
Coming Apart
Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969
Cinematography | Jack Yager

The entire film runs like a document of what we would now call “found footage.” The scenes cut off. The film appears to run out or break. The audio goes off and on. The light has impact on the quality of the film and the way in which we can see. This approach has an interesting sort of effect for the viewer. Even when we don’t want to see everything, we often strain to keep up with what is going on in front of us. It is inappropriate. It is far too private. Welcome to being the target of the film. We are somewhat seduced into an act of voyeurism. The problem is that the eroticism of this film is short-lived. The erotic quickly becomes heart breakingly neurotic. Coming Apart is just that. We end up watching two people falling apart — or as their connection is grounded in the sexual, they are both cuming apart.

When we first see Sally Kirkland’s Joann, she sits on the sofa slacked and bored. Far too young for Joe and not the sort of woman we have been seeing. She is beautiful, but clearly not sitting there waiting for sex. However, Joann comes to animated life when we see Joe actually take an interest in her. In what is extremely naturalist and real dialogue we discover that Joe and Joann have run into each other just outside the building. She is also a former therapy patient who had quit therapy. She claims to have no interest in therapy, but Joe insists that it would be inappropriate for him to see her. He explains that he has cut back on therapy sessions and has taken this apartment to work on a paper for which he has been given a grant to write.

A drunken/stoned gathering quickly devolves into an uncomfortable challenge of group sex and sexual identity... Sally Kirkland is disengaged as "Sarabelle" The Clown hits on Joe... Coming Apart Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969 Cinematography | Jack Yager

A drunken/stoned gathering quickly devolves into an uncomfortable challenge of group sex and sexual identity…
Sally Kirkland is disengaged as “Sarabelle” The Clown hits on Joe…
Coming Apart
Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969
Cinematography | Jack Yager

This only seems to serve to excite Joann. Sally Kirkland’s character seems to be literally morph into a sexual being. She begins to shamelessly flirt with Joe. She mentions that she is involved with a man who likes to experiment. He likes to watch her get it on with other men. As she is clearly exciting Joe, she begins to tell him about an orgy she recently attended.

When he asks her more about orgies she responds, “It’s wilder than you can imagine.” And, it is here that we start to understand that Joann is every bit as broken as Joe. As she continues to try and excite him, she stumbles onto her own issues and woes. They slip out more clearly defined than a tale of her orgasm. “Why am I telling you all this for? You’re not my doctor!” Yet, she can’t help but keep speaking. Her rambling becomes less erotic than tragic and filled with self-loathing. Her energy drained, Sally Kirkland’s Joann is heart-broken and filled with a confused anger. Her body has started to fold in on itself but she continues to attempt some idea of body flirtation.

She tells him that her lover likes to call her “Whore.” It is apparent that Joann herself is confused why she has shared with Joe. It is a source of pain for her.

An awkward lapse of silence follows. Without any sort of reasoning, Joe offers “I’m lonely, too.”

This of course is as if he has given invitation. Joann has now placed herself across the room, hand close to Joe’s crotch — soon her head rests there as well. After allowing her to sublimate her entire body poised to give him oral pleasure, Joe cruelly dismisses her, “You’ve got to go to work and I’ve got to go home to my wife.”

"Let's make the most of a bad thing, shall we?" Rip Torn & Sally Kirkland  Coming Apart Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969 Cinematography | Jack Yager

“Let’s make the most of a bad thing, shall we?”
Rip Torn & Sally Kirkland
Coming Apart
Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969
Cinematography | Jack Yager

But Joe may have met his match. Joann quickly turns the tables on him by pointing out that she’s relieved he has a wife. A slight pause as she glances toward his crotch, “I thought you were a fag.”  This comment seems to have a far greater impact than we expect. Before long Joann is back an affair begins. Or at least, a sexual relationship begins. We see her consistently working hard to bring him sexual pleasure, but Joe seems to have lost the ability to achieve a hard-on. Drunk and nude, both Joann and Joe seem miserable. The camera unknown to Joann, Joe appear to start mugging at his camera — at us. It quickly becomes clear he is trying not to cry.

Later Joann returns, after a bit of an argument they end up attempting to have sex. She ends up masturbating against Joe’s leg. Sexuality between Joann and Joe seems to illicit impotence for Joe and rage for Joann. Just before his camera’s film runs out, he commands that Joann face away from him on all floors. The implication being that he can’t look at her to fuck her. Yet, Joann agrees. Four on the floor, Joanne waits. As Joe stands and removes his underwear, the film runs out.

A bit further into the film Joann returns with a whole group of people. All of whom seem to be in various degrees of intoxication. Group sex takes place, but it seems to present Joe and Joann with frustration. Joann seems angry. Joe seems afraid. When he mistakes a transgender female for a biological woman — this is 1969, but this person looks far more female than male. Later Joe is presented with a nude gay man who clearly wants to pleasure Joe. This is a returning theme in the film. Joe’s heterosexuality is consistently under scrutiny. It is never clear how much Joe’s developing sexual issue is related to the fact that perhaps he is sexually conflicted or merely depressed.

Sally Kirkland looks into the abyss... Coming Apart Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969 Cinematography | Jack Yager

Sally Kirkland looks into the abyss…
Coming Apart
Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969
Cinematography | Jack Yager

The downward spiral for Joe and Joann continues. Joe is clearly experiencing a nervous breakdown. Joann has been kicked out of her home — she claims this is because she has become Joe’s sex toy. Yet he refuses her a place to sleep. Telling her she stinks. We know that they have just had another unsuccessful attempt at sex. Beyond abusive, we have entered the realm of human cruelty.

At one point, Sally Kirkland’s Joann tells Joe: “You’re not as strong as I thought. You’re frightened. You’re weak-willed. There’s no mystery about you. None!”

She aims this as a threat, but she doesn’t give up. She continues to pursue Joe despite repeated failures, insults and even physical threat. It is illogical, but feels believable real.

It is crucial to note that there is nothing amateur or limited within Coming Apart. Each and every performance is so authentic in emotion, sexual need, desperation and rage that the viewer feels uncomfortable watching the interactions especially given that Ginsberg films it all from a secret camera perspective. Filled with mirror reflections that capture information from all perspectives with limitation of being stuck in the position of a perverse voyeur. A limited budget does not matter. Nothing is boring. The opposite. However, very little if any of it is “enjoyable.”

Half nude, loaded gun and on the attack: Sally Kirkland's break results in unhinged destructive blood-lust Coming Apart Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969 Cinematography | Jack Yager

Half nude, loaded gun and on the attack: Sally Kirkland’s break results in unhinged destructive blood-lust
Coming Apart
Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969
Cinematography | Jack Yager

Everything we see feels real. In fact, at the time the film was released many labeled it as pornographic. It carried an “X-Rating” and is still rated “NC-17” despite being tame in comparison to many films other than the entire movie just feels so real. And an even larger number of people refused to believe it was fictional. Even some of Rip Torn’s friends were convinced he had left his wife, Geraldine Page, for several weeks. Hired Ginsberg to take credit for shooting a film which was simply a drunken Torn having his way with women. This was something that was a source of both comedy and annoyance for both Rip and his wife. As for Sally Kirkland, she soon found herself being questioned about the idea of “Art vs. Pornography.”

Raging and murderous, Sally Kirkland tosses a piece of art directly at us, or, uh, Joe's hidden camera... Coming Apart Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969 Cinematography | Jack Yager

Raging and murderous, Sally Kirkland tosses a piece of art directly at us, or, uh, Joe’s hidden camera…
Coming Apart
Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969
Cinematography | Jack Yager

Perception is attacked... Coming Apart Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969 Cinematography | Jack Yager

Perception is attacked…
Coming Apart
Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969
Cinematography | Jack Yager

The film was made at the darkest moment of the counterculture revolution. 1968 was indeed a tipping point for the United States.

Erotica was very much a part of the Counter-Culture Revolution in the New York City art world!” Kirkland explained during a Q&A of the film in the late 1990’s.

Coming Apart for many of the actors was a natural extension of the revolution that they were so deeply vested. The was a revolution against war, oppression, inequality and perhaps most importantly — the Counter Culture was acting out against the regimented cultural and societal perceptions of what normalcy was supposed to be.

Like Dennis Hopper’s gritty little strange 1980 movie, 1969’s Coming Apart was also a subverting normality. It is of particular interest that this was all captured in what most would consider the final year of the 1960’s.

Reality shatters Coming Apart Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969 Cinematography | Jack Yager

Reality shatters
Coming Apart
Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969
Cinematography | Jack Yager

Despair, contempt, loneliness, heart break and rage destroy realistic perception once and for all... Coming Apart Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969 Cinematography | Jack Yager

Despair, contempt, loneliness, heart break and rage destroy realistic perception once and for all…
Coming Apart
Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969
Cinematography | Jack Yager

 

In the late 1990’s Sally Kirkland bluntly asserted to the audience for whom Coming Apart had just been screened, “People are still dealing with this revolution!

 

Nothing left to see or say. Coming Apart Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969 Cinematography | Jack Yager

Nothing left to see or say.
Coming Apart
Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969
Cinematography | Jack Yager

 

While more than a few of her fellow artists would consider Sally Kirkland an eccentric, none would ever argue her intelligence. An esteemed, highly intelligent and articulate individual, Sally Kirkland really hit the nail on the heard. 46 years on and Ginsberg’s Coming Apart is still shocking and confusing viewers. In many ways, this film’s examination of sexuality, loneliness, desperation and human rage goes beyond authenticity. It pursues and touches the rawest of human nerves. For many, it might be easier to watch the extreme torture porn of Srdjan Spasojevic’s A Serbian Film.

The film continues to polarize audiences. However most cinephiles, critics and actors now see this film as a masterpiece.

Kino had issued a great DVD of the film in 2000. I get contradictory reports about whether or not Kino still has the rights to continue to print their DVD of the film. However, while it has sold well a second reprint was never required. Or, it was never done. It can still be found on Amazon. There are no plans in place to give this historic and highly personal film a restoration it deserves. It would be a good time to more forward as all three of the key players for this film are in their 70’s and early 80’s. One of the challenges seems to be regarding the use of Jefferson Airplane music.

One thing is for sure — neither of this films should be forgotten.

Actually, I don’t think either will. Both Out of the Blue and Coming Apart carry a certain cred that is undeniable. They also both retain a level of curiosity. Neither fit into mainstream cinematic ideas. Both push the envelope without sacrificing artistic merit. These two films have respective followings.

Naked despair, rage and sexuality come to limited cinemas in 1969. Coming Apart Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969 Cinematography | Jack Yager

Naked despair, rage and sexuality come to limited cinemas in 1969.
Coming Apart
Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969
Cinematography | Jack Yager

Matty Stanfield, 10.4.2015

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