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Attack of the 50-Foot Drunk

[whitespace] Robert Stack, Rock Hudson and Dorothy Malone
Dysfunctional Family Circus: Robert Stack, Rock Hudson and Dorothy Malone get drunk on emotion in Douglas Sirk's 'Written on the Wind.'

Sirk's Necco-ized colors and use of space refine the preposterous dilemmas of his players

By Richard von Busack

It's hard for me to take director Douglas Sirk as seriously as some esteemed critics do. Even so, I lament the fact that when a quartet of Sirk's films plays July 30-Aug. 5 at the Castro Theater in new prints, the audience will be baying like hounds. In that otherwise splendid movie palace, the crowd likes to underscore every bit of camp with stage whoops of understanding. I know I sound as wimpy as Bob Newhart, though, when I say that at least I understand why they'll be yowling.

The camp value of Sirk's sometimes-berserk films has been admired by Pedro Almodovar and John Waters, who learned a great deal from the director. (And Sirk was an icon to the German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who took him dead seriously.)

When Sirk outlines a moral lesson, he can really lean on the horn. Take the famous scene in Written on the Wind (1956): Dorothy Malone's bad, bad girl, Marylee Hadley, goes out of her mind from nymphomania and the bongo beat. Malone is perhaps best known as the bookstore clerk who gave Humphrey Bogart's Philip Marlowe a treat during a rainy day in The Big Sleep. This is her broadest role, doing the Oscar-winning, chiffon-clad dance of death in her bedroom. Cut to her poor, kindly millionaire father still reeling from being told, "Your daughter's a tramp, mister!" Weakened, he does a swan dive down a set of drastically precipitous stairs. (The spiral staircase in the Hadley mansion belongs in some vicious sub-Adam Sandler slapstick comedy; the architects really had a field day with these rich suckers.)

Of the four sirk films excavated from Universal's treasury, let's mention the other three, fast. Imitation of Life (1959) stars Lana Turner as an actress surrounded with a passel of movie-actress troubles. L'opera detergente Magnificent Obsession (1954) stars Rock Hudson as a wealthy slouch named Bob Merrick, who inadvertently kills a saintly small-town doctor.

Hudson the heel desires to make amends, but he screws the pooch further by chasing the doctor's widow (Jane Wyman) into traffic. Chastened by a local artist and holy man--a combination of Henri Matisse and Deepak Chopra--Merrick becomes a brain surgeon. As he studies medicine, Hudson's nylonoid hair turns snow white from longing for the injured widow.

I couldn't locate a tape of The Tarnished Angels (1958) even after an exhaustive AFI/Library of Congress-funded search through El Cerrito's video stores, but it has the same cast as Written on the Wind, was based on William Faulkner's novel Pylon and was considered "nasty" by Hudson; three strong recommendations in one compound sentence.

Written on the Wind is the one Sirk must-see. Riding in on a cloud of dead leaves are the dregs of the Hadleys, a once-proud oil family. Robert Stack plays Kyle, who is, to paraphrase Edith Massey in Polyester, "the drinkin'est guy in town." He's the booze hound in excelcis, complete with the most primo suave-drunk pickup line in history: "I wouldn't admit this to anyone but you, but I drink too much," he confides to Lauren Bacall. She falls for it. Bacall dries him out nicely for a while, but, as he's unable to sire a child, he returns to the sauce.

Every great self-loathing cliché of the drunk/lovelorn/addict is born afresh in Stack. It's even more of a pleasure if you pretend that Stack is actually Sean Penn, whom he certainly looks like if you squint. Stack staggers up the method actor Via Dolorosa, splashing his reflection in the mirror, roiling in bourbon-soaked jammies, staring with scorn at an empty bottle before hurling it against the bricks.

Kyle's neglected wife turns to his best friend, Hudson--one dull bookend deserving another. But both are too decent to act, despite psychic encouragement from the cheap seats. Meanwhile, Malone, denied the rocky Hudson, acts up, being hauled out of Oiltown's only bar again and again.

It's easy to mock the rich, chocolatey goodness of Sirk's films. Still, the look he created suggests a different candy, a long-dead confection called Necco wafers. Powdery, they were, and pretty with pastel food coloring never seen since in the confection business. The best argument for Sirk's divinity lies in his visuals: his Necco-ized colors and use of space refine the preposterous dilemmas of his players.

But you'd sooner find subtext in a swath of cotton candy. His tastefulness battles with and triumphs over bad-taste behavior. Today's own dramas--Stepmom, for example--have a chalky look that befits an age of irony. Maybe it's Sirk's own exposure to the extreme bad behavior of the Nazis that made him able to bring such passion to the theme that politeness is imperative. Remember that lesson--try to howl silently, OK? .


"Universal Sirk" at the Castro Theater: Written on the Wind, July 30-Aug. 1; Tarnished Angels, Aug. 2; Imitation of Life, Aug. 3-4; Magnificent Obsession, Aug. 5. For information, call 621-6120.

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From the August 2, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.




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