Thursday, February 02, 2006

Hooray for Hollyweird: A Winter Sojourn to Tinseltown, Part 1

This last weekend (January 27 and 28, to be exact) marked my fifth trip to the LA/Hollywood area in the last three years.

Dismiss the area all you want, seen-it-alls; call it an aesthetically unexceptional 'burg planted squatly into a smoggy, dry, sun-crisped semi-desert. Call it nothing more than a dirty, ugly little industrial town. All of the above could effectively be argued, but I could give a spit less. Hollywood's still utter magic to these unjaded movie-geek eyes.

The big draw for Rita and I was yet another Hollywood Collectors' Show. Since I covered my February 2005 Collectors' Show adventures in an earlier Blog, I'll spare you the exposition and leap straight into the highlights, which are as strange as they are abundant.

Tinseltown is one gloriously weird place; it socks away surrealism like a squirrel socks away nuts. For one thing, Barry White greeted us as we boarded the Avis shuttle to get to our rental vehicle. OK, maybe it wasn't really Barry White behind the wheel of the bus, but his barrel-chested build and slicked-back long hair provided the closest physical fascimile I'd borne witness to in awhile. Best of all, when he opened his mouth to announce stops, his voice--a melifluous boudoir basso-profundo--hammered the resemblance out of the park.

But I diverge. Most of the characters Rita and I bumped into were of the celebrity variety; and, as before, the money spent was more than justified by the stories told, the quirks unveiled, and--more than once--the childlike joy of the Hollywood experience captured in person-to-person form.

Actor Bo Svenson rose to fame playing real-life asskicking lawman Buford Pusser in the final two '70's Walking Tall movies, but in person he was as warm and gracious as he was towering (talk about literally walking tall). Svenson enthused about working with Quentin Tarantino in Kill Bill, and told a very amusing story about paying through the nose for sequel rights to Walking Tall for seven years, then dropping those rights just a year before a big studio snapped up the property. It's all in the timing, I guess.

Colleen Gray shared screen time with Tyrone Power, one of the most blindingly handsome men in cinema, in 1947's classic Nightmare Alley. She also more than held her own in the magnificent noir, Kiss of Death (opposite Richard Widmark's Tommy Udo, one of the pre-eminent psychos of the silver screen). Reflecting very fondly on Power, her still-lovely and expressive eyes twinkled a bit; the self-confessed girlhood crush she had on him years before they worked together professionally had obviously never dimmed. And when I asked her about her excellent (no lie) work in the title role of the silly-but-fun sci-fi opus, The Leech Woman, she related with great good humor the challenges of remaining grounded in character through all manner of absurdity. Gray demonstrated an unaffected humility about her considerable talents, paying much more credit to her good fortune than to her skills as an actress. She's wrong on that count, as anyone who's seen any of the above three movies could attest.

Of all of the more recent/modern actresses there, Joanna Cassidy always struck me (onscreen, at least) as a real successor to the Colleen Grays of yore, a pretty-but-tough cookie who was always the sharpest tool in the shed, a survivor of a dame with a brain to match her packaging. Sadly, a lot of that appears to be acting. Cassidy was pleasant enough in person, but flighty as all get out, and resolutely uninterested in talking(or maybe, um, unable to talk) to anyone. A real shame; some insight on her work in the underrated political thriller Under Fire (opposite Nick Nolte)woulda been welcome.

Besides Cassidy, the other big disappointment for us was meeting Richard Chamberlain, one of those rare TV stars (in the late '50's/early '60's, as Dr. Kildare) who successfully forged a respectable acting career long after his hit series left the airwaves. I've always enjoyed the man's work, though Chamberlain's never been the warmest onscreen presence (his chilly aloofness was actually used to sublime effect as the haughty Aramis in Richard Lester's wonderful Three Musketeers films of the '70's), and his lack of warmth in person echoed his screen persona. No, I don't expect every celebrity I attempt to chat with at one of these shows to be breaking out tea and crumpets, but Chamberlain's civil, disinterested and chilly behavior left me a bit bummed. Rita did extract a few reminiscinces about the great Oliver Reed, whom Chamberlain described as a weird guy who behaved perfectly well on-set but was pretty frightening in his off-time. We acquired his John Hancock for a couple of our friends who confessed crushes on the guy; I'm glad neither of them actually met him--it might've disappointed the hell out of them.

Fortunately, most objects of childhood crushing attending the Collectors' Show met or exceeded all swoony expectations. Fifties teen idol/surprise John Waters farceur Tab Hunter looked good, his boyishly handsome features well-weathered into maturity. And he was a jovial, warm, good-natured, and funny guy. He signed an original Dot LP, Young Love, for us, and took the time to chat with us about his storied tenure as a pop music star. If his line weren't already so long, I'd have loved to chat with him at much greater length (from Damn Yankees to Divine's leading man in Polyester? What a career!). The great part was, he really seemed like he would've enjoyed it as much as Rita and I would have.

Speaking of crushes, five members of the original TV Batman cast--Adam West, Burt Ward, Lee Meriwether, Yvonne Craig, and Julie Newmar--provided the biggest draw(and the longest lines)of the entire weekend. It's a measure of Rita's and my massive dorkiness that we'd already met three of the five (Ward, Craig, and Meriwether) at past functions over the years. Coming face-to-face with the original Batman and Catwoman, however, was a huge thrill. West was a real hoot, self-deprecatingly witty and sociable. Rita won major bonus points with him by bringing up The Relentless Four, a fun spaghetti western he shot in Spain in the mid-60's; it obviously delighted him to reminisce about something besides Batman. Fun as West was, though, I had (have) stars in my eyes for Julie Newmar.

Who did NOT have a crush on this woman? Of all of the (great) actresses who played Catwoman on TV and film, none proved to be so serendipitous a marriage of character and actor as Catwoman and Newmar. Her feline body language and sharp eyes always captivated, partly because (like a cat) you never knew exactly what she was thinking--whether she'd kiss you or kill you.

In person, she was--despite being well into her seventies--a willowy specimen of four-alarm fatal charm, and an intense flirt who had me damn near tongue-tied. When I confessed (like every other male in that long line, I'm sure) my enormous crush on her, Newmar stared deeply into my eyes and purred, "...I was thinking of you the entire time, darling." She took my hand and remarked how warm it was, her gaze never once leaving mine. I'm certain she lent just as much attention to every other guy she signed an autograph for, but that didn't shelter me from what could only be described as a serious bit of involuntary cardiovascular fluttering. Cue sigh...

Every Hollywood Collectors' Show has at least one guest--a really terrific actor who's still actively working--who induces a 'What the hell is HE doing here?' reaction. This show, it was the great Michael Madsen, one of modern cinema's finest tough guys (exhibits A and B, your honor: Reservoir Dogs and Kill Bill). Meeting him was one of the show's absolute highlights. Madsen really strikes me as the genuine article: Utterly no-bull, straight-shooting, honest and caustically witty .

He was an unaffected and amiable talker. Rita asked him about working with Johnny Depp on Donnie Brasco and Madsen remarked about Depp's quiet and isolated on-set behavior. "I actually became pretty good pals with Al Pacino, but Johnny...He was a nice guy, but he would give you the shortest possible answer to any given question." He said with a chuckle. "Maybe it was some sort of Method thing."

"I take it you don't have much regard for method acting?" I asked.

"Method acting?" Madsen said with a bemused smile. "I don't know what the hell it is! I just try to remember my lines, hope the cameraman makes me look good, and get the job done."

There aren't a lot of actors with the cajones to actively slag their latest, currently-in-theaters movie in front of fans, but Madsen did so--hilariously--when I asked him about his latest movie, the reputedly-less-than-stellar vampire flick Bloodrayne. "Don't waste your time," he said with his trademark sidelong grin. "No, wait, on second thought, rent it on DVD when it comes out, and watch it while you get really drunk with a bunch of friends." He also admitted that he and Sir Ben Kingsley (Madsen's co-star in Species as well as Bloodrayne) didn't exactly get along famously. "Kingsley asked for a stunt double for our big duel [in Bloodrayne]; I think he thought I was gonna kill him or something..."

With his jet-black hair, six-foot-two frame, and rugged good looks, Michael Madsen certainly cut a riveting figure. And my wife was damn near dumbstruck into silence in his presence (trust me, this doesn't happen often). I'm sure she wasn't the only girl to react in that fashion that weekend, either. Look up 'man's man' in the Dictionary, and you'll probably find Madsen's picture staring back at you.

All this, and I've only scratched the first few hours of our first day there. There's still a lot more to go, not the least of which includes a porn star, and a red-carpet bum rush. Like I said, Hollywood is a weird--but wonderful place. Stay tuned.


Ivan G. said...

You have no idea how envious I am that you got to rub shoulders with those celebs--particularly Colleen Gray. You da man!

JennyB. said...

You met Richard Chamberlain. I think I might swoon. Right now I'm trying very hard not to squeal and run around my office.

Oh what the hell...SQUEEEEEEEE!!!!!!

Okay, I feel better now. :o) And now I can read the rest of the entry. :o)

JennyB. said...

and now the rest...

I'm sad that RC was cool and detached, but I'm not surprised. I'm not sure that he's done many of those kinds of events. They just don't seem to be his cup of tea. I've always heard that he's a very nice man, but aloof and separate.

Your encounter with Julie Newmar, though. Wow!!! I can't wait to hear more about that in person.

And of course, more about the rest of the weekend. It sounds like you had another fabulous trip to the land of fannish heaven!