Tag Archives: 1970s

The Boys in the Band

 

Boys in the Band

[Originally published on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

Some years ago, while staying up till the wee hours while organizing something or other, I turned on the TV and flipped channels till I could find a good movie to keep me entertained while I worked. I happened to catch the beginning of a film that I’d never heard of before that night, and it turned out to be a milestone in gay-themed filmmaking, a cult classic that alternately (and sometimes simultaneously) delighted and appalled New York theatrical audiences in 1968 and then moved to the screen in 1970. That film was The Boys in the Band.

Written by gay playwright Mart Crowley, the play attracted celebrities and the New York in-crowd nearly instantly after it opened at a small off-Broadway theater workshop in 1968. The cast of nine male characters worked together so successfully that the whole bunch of them made the transition to the screen in 1970, which is nearly unheard of. Crowley had been a well-connected and respected but poor young writer when his play became a smash in 1968. While still a young man, he knew how the Hollywood game was played and how to jockey his success into control over the casting of the film. Working with producer Dominick Dunne he adapted his script into a screenplay and watched director William Friedkin, who also directed The French Connection and The Exorcist, lovingly keep the integrity of the play while opening it up and making it work on the screen.

It’s hard to believe that the play opened off-Broadway a year before the Stonewall riots that set off the modern-day gay rights movement in New York and then swept across the country. The characters in the play, and the whole play itself, are not incidentally gay—the characters’ behavior and the play’s content revolve around their homosexuality. For better or worse, the characters play out, argue over and bat around gay stereotypes: the drama queen, the ultra-effeminate “nelly” fairy, and the dimwitted cowboy hustler (a likely hommage to the cowboy gigolo Joe Buck in the 1965 novel Midnight Cowboy, which was made into a remarkable film by John Schlesinger in 1969). The play also features straight-seeming butch characters who can (and do) “pass” in the outside world, and a visitor to their world who may or may not be homosexual himself.

The action takes place at a birthday party attended only by gay men who let their hair down and camp it up with some very arch and witty dialog during the first third of the film, then the party is crashed by the married former college pal of Michael, the host. A pall settles over the festivities as Michael (played by musical theater star Kenneth Nelson) tries to hide the orientation of himself and his guests. That is, until the party crasher brings the bigotry of the straight world into the room, and Michael realizes he’s doing nobody any favors by keeping up the ruse. During the course of the evening he goes from someone who celebrates the superficial and who has spent all his time and money (and then some) on creating and maintaining a reputation and a public image, to a vindictive bully who lashes out at everyone and forces them all to scrutinize themselves with the same homophobic self-hatred he feels. He appears at first bold and unflinching in his insistence on brutal honesty, but he goes beyond honesty into verbal assault, while we see reserves of inner strength and dignity from characters we had underestimated earlier in the play. Though The Boys in the Band isn’t the masterpiece that Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is, I see similarities between the two in the lashing out, bullying and name-calling that alternates with total vulnerability and unexpected tenderness.

The self-loathing, high-camp hijinks, withering bitchiness and open ogling made many audience members uncomfortable, a number of homosexuals among them. Some felt the story and the characterizations were embarrassingly over-the-top and stereotyped. They thought that having the outside straight world peek in and see these characters up close would only make them disdain homosexuals even more. This is a legitimate criticism; the nasty jibes, pointed attacks, and gay-baiting that goes on among and against gay characters here is the sort of in-fighting that could encourage bigots to become more entrenched in their prejudices when seen out of the context of a full panorama of daily life for these characters.

However, the play and film were also groundbreaking in that they depicted homosexuals as realistic, three-dimensional men with good sides and bad. Even as we watch one character try to eviscerate the others by pointing out the supposedly gay characteristics that make them appear weak and offensive to the straight world at large, there is also a great deal of sympathy and empathy shown among the characters under attack, and even towards the bully at times. Sometimes this tenderness is seen in the characters’ interactions, and sometimes it is fostered in the hearts of the audience members by the playwright. He has us witness people behaving badly, but we recognize over time how fear and society’s hatefulness toward them has brought them to this state.

These characters may try to hold each other up as objects of ridicule, but the strength of the dialog is that we in the audience don’t buy it; with each fresh insult, we see further into the tortured souls of those who do the insulting. We see how, as modern-day sex columnist Dan Savage put it so beautifully in an audio essay on the public radio show This American Life in 2002, it is the “sissies” who are the bravest ones among us, for they are the ones who will not hide who they are, no matter how much scorn, derision and hate they must face as a result of their refusal to back down and play society’s games. Similarly, to use another theatrical example, it is Arnold Epstein, the effeminate new recruit in the Neil Simon 1940’s-era boot-camp play Biloxi Blues, who shows the greatest spine and the strongest backbone in the barracks when he does not hide who he is, and he willingly takes whatever punishment he is given stoically and silently so as not to diminish his honesty and integrity or let down his brothers in arms.

The situation and premise of The Boys in the Band are heightened and the campy drama is elevated for the purposes of building suspense, rather like the action in a Tennessee Williams or Eugene O’Neill play, where the uglier side of each character is spotlighted and the flattering gauze and filters over the lenses are stripped away dramatically as characters brawl and wail. The emotional breakdowns are overblown and the bitchy catcalling is nearly constant for much of the second half of the film, which becomes tiresome. However, the play addresses major concerns of gay American males of the 1960s head-on: social acceptability, fear of attacks by angry or threatened straight men, how to balance a desire to be a part of a family with a desire to be true to one’s nature, monogamy versus promiscuity, accepting oneself and others even if they act “gayer” or “straighter” than one is comfortable with, etc.

It is startling to remember that, at the time the play was produced, just appearing to be effeminate or spending time in the company of assumed homosexuals was enough to get a person arrested, beaten, jailed or thrown into a mental institution, thrown out of his home or job, even lobotomized or given electroshock therapy in hopes of a “cure.” In 1969 the uprising at the Stonewall Inn in New York City’s Greenwich Village by gay men fighting back against police oppression was a rallying cry and gave homosexuals across the nation the strength to stand up for their rights and refuse to be beaten, threatened, intimidated, arrested or even killed just for being gay. However, anti-gay sentiment in retaliation for gays coming out of the closet and forcing the heterosexual mainstream to acknowledge that there were homosexuals with inherent civil rights living among them also grew.

Cities like San Francisco, Miami, New York and L.A. became gay meccas that attracted thousands of young men and women, many of whom were more comfortable with their sexuality than the average closeted American homosexual and who wanted to live more openly as the people they really were. There was an air of celebration in heavily gay districts of these cities in the 1970s and early 1980s in the heady years before AIDS. It was a time when a week’s worth of antibiotics could fight off most STDs, and exploring and enjoying the sexual aspects of one’s homosexuality (because being a homosexual isn’t all about sex) didn’t amount to playing Russian Roulette with one’s immune system, as it seemed to be by the early to mid-1980s. Indeed, of the nine men in the cast of the play and the film, I was shocked and disturbed to learn that five of them (Kenneth Nelson, Leonard Frey, Frederick Combs, Keith Prentice and Robert La Tourneaux) died of AIDS-related causes. This was not uncommon among gay male theatrical professionals who came of age in or before the 1980s. The numbers of brilliant Broadway and Hollywood actors, singers, dancers, directors and choreographers attacked by AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s is staggering.

When the film was made in 1970, all of the actors were warned by agents and others in the industry that they were committing professional suicide by playing openly gay characters, and indeed, several were typecast and did lose work as a result of their courageous choices. Of those nine men in the cast, the one who played the most overtly effeminate, campy queen of all (and who stole the show with his remarkable and endearing performance) was Cliff Gorman. He was a married heterosexual who later won a Tony playing comedian Lenny Bruce in the play “Lenny,” which went on to star Dustin Hoffman in the film version. Gorman was regularly accosted and accused of being a closeted gay on the streets of New York by both straights and gays, so believable and memorable was his performance in The Boys in the Band.

The play is very much an ensemble piece; some actors have smaller and more thankless roles with less scenery chewing, but it is clear that it was considered a collaborative effort by the cast and director and that the enormous mutual respect and comfort of the characters with each other enriched their performances and made the story resonate more with audiences than it would have otherwise. The actors saw the film and play as defining moments in their lives when they took a stand and came out (whether gay or straight) as being willing to associate themselves with gay issues by performing in such a celebrated (and among some, notorious) work of art. When one of the other actors in the play, Robert La Tourneaux, who played the cowboy gigolo, became ill with AIDS, Cliff Gorman and his wife took La Tourneaux in and looked after him in his last days.

In featurettes about the making of the play and the film on the newly released DVD of the movie,  affection and camaraderie among cast members are evident, as is a great respect for them by director William Friedkin. Those still alive to talk about it regard the show and the ensemble with great love. As Vito Russo noted in The Celluloid Closet, a fascinating documentary on gays in Hollywood which is sometimes available for streaming on Netflix, The Boys in the Band offered “the best and most potent argument for gay liberation ever offered in a popular art form.”

According to Wikipedia, “Critical reaction was, for the most part, cautiously favorable. Variety said it ‘drags’ but thought it had ‘perverse interest.’ Time described it as a ‘humane, moving picture.’ The Los Angeles Times praised it as ‘unquestionably a milestone,’ but ironically refused to run its ads. Among the major critics, Pauline Kael, who disliked Friedkin and panned everything he made, was alone in finding absolutely nothing redeeming about it. She also never hesitated to use the word ‘fag’ in her writings about the film and its characters.”

Wikipedia goes on to say, “Vincent Canby of the New York Times observed, ‘There is something basically unpleasant . . . about a play that seems to have been created in an inspiration of love-hate and that finally does nothing more than exploit its (I assume) sincerely conceived stereotypes.'”

“In a San Francisco Chronicle review of a 1999 revival of the film, Edward Guthmann recalled, ‘By the time Boys was released in 1970 . . . it had already earned among gays the stain of Uncle Tomism.’ He called it ‘a genuine period piece but one that still has the power to sting. In one sense it’s aged surprisingly little — the language and physical gestures of camp are largely the same — but in the attitudes of its characters, and their self-lacerating vision of themselves, it belongs to another time. And that’s a good thing.'” Indeed it is.

 

[Originally published in August, 2014]

Suburbia

bill

Photo of a Tupperware party by Bill Owens from his book Suburbia

When I was a child growing up in the San Francisco suburb of Livermore, the publication of photographer Bill Owens‘s exploration of Bay Area suburban life, Suburbia, was a big deal in my home town. His book of photojournalism, published in 1973, garnered significant media attention; it was even written up in Time magazine. The book was of particular interest in Livermore because its stars were our town’s own citizens. The Tupperware ladies, toy-gun-toting little boys, Barbie-collecting girls and block party barbecuers whose black-and-white portraits  filled the book lived in the Livermore-Amador Valley. Several of my mother’s friends and our own family doctor appeared in its pages.

Even now, historians, postcard manufacturers and bloggers republish photos from the book. Art galleries, major museums and other institutions around the world include Owens’s photos in exhibitions. Gallerists and pop culture historians point to his work when they want to expose the supposedly tacky superficiality of American suburban life during that awkward period between the clean-cut, rule-following fifties and the shaggy, sexy, if-it-feels-good-do-it seventies.

Richie

Photo of six-year-old Richie Ferguson by Bill Owens from Suburbia

Bill Owens took these now-iconic photos when he was a staff photographer at the Livermore Independent News starting in 1968. My mother’s boyfriend at the time was himself a reporter at the Independent who worked alongside Owens, so I met the photographer at a party shortly after the publication of his book. He had the no-nonsense confidence of a man who is used to sizing up a situation quickly, figuring out the most visually compelling elements, and getting in and out of an event in a hurry, before his subjects have a chance to become too self-conscious or studied in their poses. News photography has always required such skills, but in the days of film photography, there was a pressing need to be able to edit one’s work on the fly and be quick about it. Film was costly, and all photos needed to be developed and cropped by the photographer on short deadlines if they were to make it into the next day’s paper. Taking too many shots or too much time was a luxury that local papers and their staff photographers could ill afford.

In the seventies, there were few television channels or news radio stations, and of course there was no Internet with which individuals could share news directly, so the local newspaper was the primary source of in-depth information on all things regional. Newspapers had to report on crime, business, sports, laws, fashion, civic and social events, so photographers like Bill Owens had to get in and out of multiple places and events daily. But while Owens came from that journalistic tradition, in his photoessays he took the time to focus not only on what people did, but also on how they felt about their lives and suburban surroundings. He let his subjects express their pride, ambivalence and concerns about living in a growing, post-war, middle-class community. It was a time of prosperity and expanding social and sexual openness, but also a time of war, increasing crime and political unrest. Our town was largely insulated from the drama and violence that was shaking bigger cities at the time, but middle-class angst and drama were plentiful.

In his photographs and in the commentary his subjects provided, Owens caught suburbanites in private moments. They questioned whether they were capable parents, or took pride in living what they considered to be the good life. Some admitted that while they’d found the money to buy a house, they couldn’t afford to furnish it. People opened up to him, agonized over whether they were setting good examples for their kids, beamed as they showed off their prosperity, or sat half-naked on the edge of a bed daring the world to judge them for being comfortable with themselves.

Ozzie Davis

Photo of Livermore’s Ozzie Davis Toyota dealership by Bill Owens from his book Suburbia

The world was used to urban photographers like Diane Arbus or Gordon Parks taking awkwardly intimate photos of people looking embarrassingly real in big, gritty cities like New York. Time and Life magazines brought images of war and rioting into our homes each week in full-color photo spreads. In comparison to large-scale photojournalistic  works about the Great Events of Our Time, a photoessay treating the inhabitants of a middle-class enclave near San Francisco as if they were significant enough to be worthy of their own project was a fresh and intriguing idea. It was exciting to be in the spotlight after always feeling like we had been on the edges of things.

Livermore is less than an hour from San Francisco, which was the hippie movement’s Ground Zero during the 1960s. Though only a half-hour from Berkeley, scene of some of the nation’s most bitter and frequent anti-war protests during the years when these photos were taken, Livermore had for many years been a bastion of traditional conservative values.

A wine-growing community dotted with ranches, Livermore was known as little more than a cow town until the early 1950s. My high school’s mascot was a cowboy, and the street behind the main school building is still called Cowboy Alley. But while the community had long been based on rancho culture, by the 1960s and 1970s Livermore’s biggest employer was what was known as the “Rad Lab,” rad being short for radiation: Livermore was and is the site of one of the nation’s largest national nuclear weapons laboratories. What is now known as the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory opened its doors in 1952, and by the time Bill Owens’s book was published two decades later, the laboratory directly employed about 10% of the city’s population.

For six decades, Livermore has had one of the largest concentrations of top nuclear physicists in the world, meaning that my town was home to a huge number of highly educated, fact-loving scientists, their well-educated spouses, and their smart and skeptical kids. Most of those who worked at the lab were strong believers in the theory that the specter of “mutually assured destruction” by the Soviet and U.S. superpowers in case of a nuclear war would keep either side from initiating war as long as both sides kept designing, building and stockpiling more and more threatening, long-range and expensive weaponry.

The Cold War-era belief that spending billions on the development and creation of weapons of mass destruction was necessary to keep us safe from communists (who were building their own gigantic nuclear arsenal on the other side of the world) sounds like a conservative stance to us today, but there were plenty of political moderates and even liberals working at the lab. Democrats like Presidents Kennedy and Johnson were staunch anticommunists who had instigated and escalated our involvement in wars meant to stop the spread of communism. Fear of communist expansion and take-over was by no means a solely Republican fear. Engineers and physicists who prized rational thinking above all were often open-minded and modern in their thinking in many fields and they came in many political flavors, not just conservative ones.

By the time that Bill Owens set about photographing our city’s denizens, formerly rural Livermore’s population included many erudite, cultured people of all political persuasions who were curious about the world in general. Many of the problem-solvers who had descended on Livermore from around the globe brought with them great worldliness and interest in culture and erudition. Though Livermore had once been thought of as a quiet farming community out in the boonies, by the 1960s it was surprisingly full of eclectic amateur theatrical events, excellent public schools with award-winning musical ensembles and a community symphony. An ambitious annual cultural arts festival takes over much of the downtown corridor during early October every year to this day.

However, because of the popularity of Bill Owens’s book, the place where I grew up became famous for people who represented everything superficial and embarrassing about suburban American culture. The real Livermore was a lively mixture of experts in fields from agriculture and livestock to nuclear weaponry to the arts. The book that both celebrated and embarrassed us was on the coffee table of every hip and educated family in town, and we felt both pride and chagrin over the images shown within its pages. There was delight over the fame the book brought us, and recognition of ourselves in the photographs and stories told in the book, but also a bit of shame over the parts of the book that made us look like overconsuming, self-absorbed buffoons.

Another understandable but misleading aspect of the book was the fact that the long agricultural history and natural beauty of the place got lost in the focus on the tract housing developments and accoutrements of post-war Northern Californian living, so the richness of the culture and the long history of people living close to the land in Livermore and the surrounding valley all but disappeared.

Big cities like New York can handle having people think a large proportion of their citizenry is odd or tacky, but Livermore has suffered unfairly over the years by having people choose the least flattering photos and stories from our signature photoessay to represent our whole populace. Although those of us who lived in the Bay Area in the early seventies grew used to hearing that our region was rife with proto-New Age philosophies, encounter groups, redwood hot tubs, free love experimentation and all varieties of omphaloskeptic behavior, for many people (like my self-righteous hippie father) Bay Area suburbs like Livermore came to represent not the cool, sexy, mind-expanding elements of the Age of Aquarius but the shallow, consumerist, un-self-aware aspects of modern living.

In the decades since I left Livermore, the city has nearly doubled in size thanks to its proximity to the tech boom in San Francisco and Silicon Valley. My home town has long been one of the more affordable corners of an outrageously overpriced region. It is still home to one of the nation’s top nuclear weapons laboratories, as well as to Sandia National Laboratories, which develops, engineers and tests the non-nuclear components of nuclear weapons. But its economy and culture are no longer quite so closely tied to the nuclear research culture as they were when I lived there. Yet echoes of that culture reverberate in modern literature and film: the writer of the popular science fiction novel The Martian, Andy Weir, grew up in Livermore. He went to my high school, worked at Livermore’s Sandia Labs, and he is himself the son of a particle physicist who worked at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. It’s likely he had a literature or composition class with my mother at some point; I like to fantasize that she may have encouraged his considerable writing talent in some small way. Though Weir wasn’t even born when the first of the photos in Suburbia was taken, the influence of Livermore’s science-friendly, intellectual, problem-solving culture helped to nurture his curiosity and imagination, just as it did my own.

Child of the Sixties

Laura in GG Park, March 1969

The author in Golden Gate Park in the late 1960s

Among my childhood photo albums are pictures of me wearing daisy chains and sitting on the grass in Golden Gate Park. I have vivid memories of spending time with my father and his friends in the park and in the adjoining Haight-Ashbury district when I was a very little girl. I was tiny, but I remember San Francisco, the epicenter of the hippie movement, during 1967’s legendary Summer of Love and in the years thereafter.

Though I grew up in the suburbs, I often visited what people in the Bay Area refer to simply as The City. All my life I have felt a special pride in my connection to San Francisco. My mom gave birth to me there, in a hospital just a few blocks’ walk from the famous intersection of Haight and Ashbury Streets. My dad (whom I only lived with for the first few months of my life, and only saw occasionally from babyhood onward) brought me to various hippie happenings there during his visits with me from the time I was about three years old. He hoped to make up for what he saw as the soulless bourgeois childhood I was supposedly experiencing in the Bay Area’s eastern suburbs.

The PBS American Experience documentary on the Summer of Love shows a San Francisco very much as I remember it during that time, albeit from about three feet off the ground. As a young child, I found San Francisco’s hippies often scary and off-putting. Even as a very little girl I had a sense of the importance of personal space and a desire that things be done safely, with purpose and according to plan. I was much more of a cautious goody-goody than even my mother, a high school teacher whom my father denigrated for being too suburban. I followed rules; my father and his friends generally did not. My dad hated authority, rules and The Man, so he and his friends would take joy in challenging the establishment whether or not I was with them.

I was always the only child present on visits with my father, and was usually ignored, so I spent a lot of time in watchful anxiousness, hoping not to be put in harm’s way. I was frightened by his and his hippie friends’ lack of concern with their actions or with me; they were lackadaisical, careless, loudly vulgar and sometimes stoned, so I felt ill at ease and unprotected with them.

People often talk about how loving and peaceful hippies were, but I saw also an enormous amount of anger directed by them toward rules, history and authority. That anti-establishment anger was often channeled for good in such campaigns as the fight for full and equal rights for African-Americans, women, Native Americans and homosexuals, among other downtrodden groups. The often strident and unpleasant but necessary challenges to the entrenched establishment gave young people in particular the courage to question the wisdom of their leaders and force their government to justify its wars. They gave the populace the courage to stand against unjust laws and corrupt political practices. It was this movement that eventually gave journalists the courage and necessary establishment backing to bring down a powerful sitting president during the Watergate scandal just a few years later.

While the nation often benefited from the outspoken challenges of those who had felt stifled by government, big business and the limiting social mores left over from the 1950s, there was also an upsurge in more generalized antisocial behavior. The rise of the hippies led not only to social activism, peace and love, but also to huge numbers of (mostly) young people breaking rules just for the hell of it. Many wrapped their destructive or selfish behavior in a cloak of righteousness. Some took advantage of the new social openness to examine their psyches and motivations honestly and to try to relate to others in more direct and healthy ways; others just found this newly socially acceptable preoccupation with self an excuse for narcissistic behavior.

The ensuing decade of the 1970s was dubbed “The Me Decade” with reason. During the 1960s, modesty had lost favor while self-regard and constant awareness of one’s own needs and desires became viewed as positive things. Exuberant self-expression and in-your-face sexuality went from being shocking in the early 1960s to being surprisingly common within a decade. In the early 1970s, when I visited the high school where my mother taught (and which I would later attend), obvious bralessness was very common not only among the students but even among teachers. Some of the younger teachers wore hot pants to school. Overt sexuality was, however, considerably less evident in high school teachers’ fashions by the time I myself entered high school later in the seventies.

To be fair to those who were part of the laissez-faire San Francisco hippie culture of the 1960s, I saw plenty of self-absorption and self-aggrandizement even among more establishmentarian suburbanites during that time and in the decade that followed. Social boundaries were not well respected in general in the late 1960s; millions of people (not just hippies) were sharing their formerly private thoughts (not to mention their bodies and lots of adult-themed talk and media) with great abandon and carelessness, and we kids were often exposed to too much knowledge too soon. Those of us who appreciated having some boundaries in our lives were often ignored or denigrated by people who felt superior because of their mod, carefree sensibilities. Some, like my father, mistook the desires of others (like his young daughter) to follow laws, keep order or avoid conflict or offense as being necessarily conservative traits. They are not.

There was a middle ground in which people challenged the status quo more gently; they didn’t want social anarchy but still believed strongly in the promise of liberalism. Yes, many San Franciscans, hippies included, sought peaceful, meaningful, respectful social change and worked hard for it. But from my own perspective, as a very young person, I saw measured, realistic and inclusive social activism in the suburbs, too, even among those whom my dad and his friends found so hopelessly square.

Fluffy Mackerel Pudding

Fluffy

[A treat from the archives: this has been revised from an article originally published on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

In the 1970s, Weight Watchers and other companies created packs of recipe cards that they gave away with hideous giant plastic recipe boxes in order to try to hook gullible Americans (and perhaps Canadians, though I hope they had the good sense not to follow their U.S. cousins) into subscribing to a series of monthly recipe packs which arrived with billing statements and hefty postage fees. The special introductory offers provided a free recipe box and the first set of recipe cards in the hopes that the person ordering them (a.k.a. the sucker) would then get (and pay for) a new set of recipe cards every month. After a year or so, the sucker would have a whole collection of supposedly mouth-watering original recipes that would allow a hungry family to eat hearty, wholesome meals that would satisfy all their nutritional needs and cravings for just pennies a serving.

Once the vast majority of Americans realized they could get a free plastic recipe card box and 24 or so cards featuring scary color photographs of unappetizing food and then cancel their “memberships” in the recipe clubs, they were all stuck with giant awkwardly sized recipe boxes into which nobody could fit any of the recipes they might actually want to keep. I know this because I ordered my own giant plastic free recipe box when I was a child, and I kept it for years figuring I would someday figure out how to store actual recipes in it, to no avail.

A few years ago, I stumbled onto a brilliant website with fabulously unappetizing (and splendidly captioned) examples of Weight Watchers recipe cards from 1974. (The photos and captions are also available in book format as The Amazing Mackerel Pudding Plan: Classic Diet Recipe Cards from the 1970s by Wendy McClure.) Whenever I return to the site in hopes of lifting my spirits, I always start my pilgrimage to Tacky Town with my personal favorite recipe: “Fluffy Mackerel Pudding,” the highlight of the “Convenience Fish” section. The name speaks volumes.

Next, I make my way through the pack to revisit other mouth-watering delights such as “Hot Wrap Ups,” which include a hot lettuce, pickle, chive, caper and celery combo, as well as “Rosy Perfection Salad,” an exciting little number featuring shredded red cabbage in molded purple gelatin. Who could say no to a brandy snifter full of “Jellied Tomato Refresher,” or a man-pleasin’ pan full of “Mackerelly“?

The “Fish Tacos,” which are completely tortilla-free, look especially  enticing with their shredded green cabbage, tomato chunks and some sort of chopped fish on a bed of . . . toast. And in the “Budget Best Bets” category, don’t forget “Frankfurter Spectacular,” a sexy little dish of hot dog halves wrapped around a pineapple core and garnished with carrot, potato and pineapple chunks. Between meals, why not fix yourself a plate of “Polynesian Snack,” featuring the excitement you can only find in a dish composed of canned bean sprouts, buttermilk, pimiento and fruit pieces. That’s snackin’ satisfaction!

For a peek at “Snappy Mackerel Casserole” or the famous tortilla-free “Marcy’s ‘Enchilada,'” you must check out the Candyboots Web site. The wicked captions on each card are the artificially colored maraschino cherry on the top of the whole delicious experience.

Want to make your very own dinner of fluffy mackerel pudding tonight? Here’s the recipe:

FLUFFY MACKEREL PUDDING

2 stalks celery
1 medium green pepper
8 ounces drained, canned mackerel, flaked
1 tablespoon dehydrated onion flakes
2 teaspoons prepared mustard
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/8 teaspoon mace
Dash of ground cardamom
2 medium eggs, slightly beaten
2 medium eggs, hard-cooked, and sliced

Put celery and green pepper through a food grinder (or chop finely in blender). Combine with mackerel, onion flakes,mustard, salt, pepper, mace, and cardamom; mix well. Blend in raw eggs. Divide evenly into 4 (8 ounce) heatproof cups. Bake at 350°F (moderate oven) for 35 to 40 minutes. Garnish each with 1/2 sliced egg. Makes 4 luncheon servings.

For more off-putting recipe ideas from the 1970s, check out the Dinner is Served 1972 blog.

Only the Shadows of Their Eyes

I just watched the last 15 minutes of Midnight Cowboy, a movie I have admired for decades and seen a half-dozen times, but which brings me pain each time I watch it. It’s one of those films that I cannot turn away from if I happen to run across it while changing channels, so powerful are the performances and so unflinching is the focus on captivating yet repellent characters.

Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight are natural, believable and awkwardly honest in their roles (which are among the finest performances of their careers); John Schlesinger‘s direction is unflinching and powerful. Schlesinger was unwilling to turn away from the sorts of intimate, painful moments that other directors tend to cut away from in order to soothe audiences and tie up loose ends. He avoided palliative measures, trusting his audiences to handle the pain and unfairness at the heart of his characters’ worlds and sit with their devastation and disappointment even as the final credits rolled by.

The film begins with what sounds superficially like an upbeat tune with an ambling gait, the song “Everybody’s Talkin‘” sung by Harry Nilsson. The song, which won a Grammy and was a million-selling single in 1969, is deceptive; listen to the lyrics and you’ll see it’s about an overwhelmed man who can’t handle or comprehend the needs and conversations of the people around him  and longs to move far away to a place without cares, “somewhere where the weather suits my clothes.” He sings:

Everybody’s talking at me
I don’t hear a word they’re sayin’
Only the echoes of my mind

People stopping, staring
I can’t see their faces
Only the shadows of their eyes

It’s easy for the casual listener to notice only the upbeat qualities of the song and the positive fantasies of the young man as he imagines himself moving lightly through the better life that awaits him:

Banking off of the northeast winds
Sailing on a summer breeze
And skipping over the ocean like a stone

The song suits the story of handsome but none-too-bright young Texan Joe Buck (played by Jon Voight) who leaves Texas in a hurry and moves to New York convinced that he’ll be a big success as a gigolo wearing his cowboy hat, boots and pretty-boy grin, and as he walks around Times Square in his fringed leather jacket he seems to be just a sweet, overgrown, oversexed kid. And he is, at first. Full of hope and confidence but leaving a disturbing and misunderstood past, he soon becomes overwhelmed like the man in the song. He longs to escape his life, first running to New York, then to Florida with his friend Rico (played by Dustin Hoffman). But in this story, there is no easy, rambling way through life or around trouble, and there’s no way for Joe to stop the cascade of horrible lessons that come with being too trusting, hopeful and needy while living among broken, wary people.

Midnight Cowboy is an exceptional film which captures the disturbing power of the fine novel by Leo James Herlihy upon which it’s based. Indeed, the movie, the only X-rated Best Picture Oscar winner ever, was a huge critical success despite its reputation for grim, mature subject matter, and it won Oscars for best picture and best direction. While the story is gritty, it isn’t by any means pornographic; the X rating was misleading. But the story is adult in nature, ultimately cynical, tragic and hopeless. The main characters are hustlers, professional liars at the bottom of society who are not very bright and are willing to take advantage of people in pain. Yet the story is told in such a way that, although we cringe when the principal characters harm themselves and others, we cannot help but feel our own hearts break as we watch their hopes go down in flames.

So why do I come back to this film, and why do I love other devastating Schlesinger films about unrequited love and loss (like his beautiful, faithful adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd and the 1971 drama Sunday Bloody Sunday with its exquisite performances by Peter Finch and Glenda Jackson) and of moral decay (like Marathon Man) so much? I suppose it’s because Schlesinger was a masterful storyteller who managed to focus  on difficult, broken and fearful people, people on the edges of society, people who are willing to live in shadows. He let us watch them lash out at others in desperation, flail and grasp for meaningful connection with other people, and then have to live with their losses and failures. There are few redemptions in Schlesinger’s stories, but there is great humanity. Schlesinger helped viewers get under the skin of his characters and understand their pain without whitewashing their behaviors or putting them on pedestals. He loved flawed people and stories full of heartache, and he made a career of getting the intelligentsia to peer more closely at and care for stories about the very people those same people might cross the street to avoid in their daily lives.

Schlesinger, who was gay, incorporated homosexual themes into several of his films and teleplays, sometimes portraying gay men as self-loathing (as he did in a disturbing scene in Midnight Cowboy) but also including one of the first depictions of a successful, honorable, well-adjusted professional homosexual man in modern cinema (in Sunday Bloody Sunday). He treated his characters’ sexuality with the same straightforwardness he showed toward their other characteristics; it was simply another facet of their lives. This matter-of-factness, which made Sunday Bloody Sunday particularly advanced for its time, was part of a wave of naturalism in film also seen in the work of other important directors of the late sixties and seventies such as Martin Scorsese, Mike Nichols, Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, Sidney Lumet and Peter Bogdanovich.

It may seem odd that some human beings (like me) seek out stories of loss, failure and emotional pain like this one both as forms of entertainment and as cathartic experiences. Such films shine a light on the human condition and help viewers like me to understand and empathize with the misbegotten and seemingly cursed people of the world in a way that feels especially visceral and real. Films like Schlesinger’s are, however, at enough of a remove that film lovers who appreciate a good dose of angst with their drama can feel safe sidling up to the misfits, losers and dangerous people who inhabit the underworld that Schlesinger created. There’s a voyeuristic thrill at getting so close to the people and emotions that scare or excite us, followed by a shock when we realize how close they are to ourselves.

Harry Nilsson, The Disciplined Wildman

In the early 1970s, Harry Nilsson’s pure, beautiful voice was everywhere. He had a great way with a popular song and he composed tunes that were alternately heartbreaking (“Without You”),  intense (“Jump Into the Fire“), bubble-gum sweet (“Me and My Arrow,” and the theme to “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father“), tender (“The Moonbeam Song“), silly (“Coconut“) and generally wonderful. One of his biggest hits was a song he didn’t compose but which he turned into an international hit with the plaintive simplicity of his voice: “Everybody’s Talkin‘,”  the theme to the 1969 movie “Midnight Cowboy,” turned him from a composer  into a huge star. Nilsson was a famously rowdy and seemingly totally undisciplined mess, a huge drinker and taker of drugs who stayed up for days on end carousing with friends like John Lennon and Ringo Starr. But then he could stumble into a recording studio after having been up all night shouting and smoking and filling his body with poisons and pour out a pitch-perfect performance of a song like “Without You” in a single take. When you listen to this song, pay attention to his extraordinary phrasing: each line unspools in one long, beautiful phrase without a single breath: “No I can’t forget this evening / or your face as you were leaving / but I guess that’s just the way the story goes” is so heartbreakingly effective when delivered as one single, aching, perfect thought. Nowadays it’s rare to hear even the most athletic 20-year-old having enough breath control to hold a phrase that long without breathing between words, and sometimes even breathing between the syllables of a single word, losing continuity, feeling and the meaning along the way. Nilsson always had a soft spot in his heart for pop standards sung by trained musicians, and while he lived like a rock star, he sang with the warmth, control and sweetness of a midcentury balladeer. His story is beautifully told in the 2006 documentary “Who Is Harry Nilsson . . . And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him?

Low-Key Lustre, Elegant Beyond Price: Women’s Magazines of the Sixties

Beauty Shop

[Revised from an article originally published in Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

I recently purchased a great selection of vintage magazines dated from 1960 to 1971 and I’ve been enjoying stepping into the past each time I sit down to read them. My latest vintage magazine adventure has been with the June 1966 issue of McCall’s, the long-running popular women’s magazine. It’s been fun to compare it to the Good Housekeeping magazine from 1960 I wrote about a few weeks ago. In just that six-year span, the advertising copy grew much more florid, less concerned with keeping a perfect household and more concerned with personal sex appeal. I don’t know if it was the popularization of the birth control pill in the early 1960s that caused the subsequent cultural obsession with sexiness that sprouted in the 1960s and 1970s (as many social historians suggest), but the move from wanting a sparkling oven and a perfect meatloaf for one’s husband and children to the quest for bouncier hair, more luxurious nails and more kissable lips for an unnamed man is quite pronounced.

I love the over-the-top ad copy: “Suddenly everyone’s all eyes (and sighs!) over [Max Factor] Shadow Creme. The new glowy-eyed eye shadow that slips on like a dream, because it’s cream!” Adjectives morph into ad-copy-ready verbs to try to add youth and vigor to a phrase: with dreamy creamy eye shadow one can “sleek on a shy narrow line of color.” Or how about the nail polish which will apparently change your life with its heart-stopping, eye-catching beauty? You don’t just brush it on, you slither it on. Not slather, slither: one must apply it sexily, with the thrilling undulations of a snake. Yes, with Revlon Crystalline Nail Enamel, “Even before you slither it on, you’ll see the big difference. . . . On your nails it glows with a soft, low-key lustre. A quiet kind of chic. You’ll be smitten with the deep, velvety quality of it. The plushness. The cover. The delicate—but definite—color. Elegant beyond price.” I’m practically having palpitations just thinking of it.

Not getting enough action, you brown-haired beauties? The problem is with your makeup: you need Clairol Flicker Stick. “This is only for the brunettes who rather enjoy having their hair mussed occasionally. The very first lip gloss for Brunettes Only. Give your lips a lick of something new.” That’s wildly suggestive compared to the ads of 1960 and before. Another rather bold ad features a photo of a man in a business suit with his head and one hand both cropped away and his other hand holding a telephone. The focus of the photo is the man’s crotch, which is shown splay-legged sitting on an office chair. The headline? “If your husband doesn’t lift anything heavier than a telephone, why does he need Jockey support?”

The ad goes on to say that “During a normal day, a man makes a thousand moves that can put sudden strain on areas that require male support. Climbing stairs. Running to catch a bus. Bending. Reaching. Simple things, yet they are the very reasons why every man needs the support and protection that only Jockey brand briefs are designed to provide.” Otherwise, what, he might get a wedgie? Or lose his ability to sire a child because he ran up the stairs too fast? They seem to imply that his very manhood is in peril should he wear the wrong underpants.

The fashion emphasis by 1966 is on younger, fresher, livelier styles. The concern isn’t so much about using the latest and greatest (and shortly-thereafter-to-be-determined dangerous) drugs, pesticides and cleaning agents around the house in an effort to be more chemically controlled and germ-free, as had been so popular in 1960. By 1966 there was more of a desire to spend money and time on disposable products that made living more convenient and fun. The hedonism index rises dramatically during the 1960s, and there’s more of a desire to consume new, specialized products and live for today without concern for the cost or waste involved. There’s definitely a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses kind of jonesing for the latest, hippest disposable new thing.

For example, paper napkins and towels and coordinating tissues and became popular, and having one’s scented, dyed toilet paper match one’s scented, dyed facial tissues was a must. Ads offered bright, bold bath towels with garish flower power colors and patterns, then showed coordinating Lady Scott bathroom and facial tissue with colored flowers printed onto the paper in Bluebell Blue, Camellia Pink, Fern Green and Antique Gold. It’s a “color explosion in towels and napkins.” “Pop! go the colors of Scotkins—newly pepped-up to bring zing to table settings” and “gay bordered towels.” Don’t forget to “Scheme your tables with the vibrant new designs in the first cushioned paper placemats by Scott.” Scheme your tables?

Best of all, “Color explosion flashes into fashion with the paper dress!” For $1 plus a 25 cent handling fee you could buy a paper shift dress in a red and white bandana print or a black and white op-art geometric design. Original “Paper-Caper” dresses, still folded in their original envelopes, are now quite collectible; one of the bandana print was recently available on eBay for $25; another auction house is asking $150 for the op-art version. “Dashingly different at dances or perfectly packaged at picnics. Won’t last forever . . . who cares! Wear it for kicks—then give it the air.” Campbell’s soup cashed in on the disposable dress craze while demonstrating their pop art cred: they sold their own Andy Warhol-inspired paper “Souper Dress” printed with images of Campbell’s soup cans. Each sold for $1 plus two Campbell’s Soup labels in the sixties. Want one now? Ebay recently listed one with a starting price of $749; it sold for $1,125. Missed out on that one? Don’t worry; another has been listed for sale for $2,000.

Paper dresses were available in very simple styles, which were much like most fabric dresses of the day. Most women did at least some home sewing in an effort to economize, and almost all girls were taught to sew and cook in school, so essential were those skills deemed for females of the day. Many dresses were shapeless, boxy shifts, easy for any home sewer to whip up with a pattern bought at the nearest department store. My mother, an accomplished seamstress and knitter, never stopped with simple shifts; she made me wonderful pintucked blouses, perfectly tailored little coats, intricately cable-knitted sweaters and lovely dresses. We spent many happy hours in all the department stores’ sewing sections from as far back as I can remember. We visited the fabric departments of five-and-dimes like TG&Y (which was affectionately nicknamed “Toys, Garbage and Yardage”), popular stores like Mervyn’s and Penney’s, and slightly tonier establishments like the Bay Area’s Emporium-Capwell stores. Every good department store had a fabric section with a wide variety of materials, notions and patterns. Nowadays it’s hard to find fabric stores that aren’t superstore fabric-and-craft chains, and sewing is a niche market attended to by specialty stores only.

I don’t mean to get too personal, but do you remember spray deodorant? Wet and smelly, it got all over everything, spewed fluorocarbons into the air and ended up wasting a lot of product due to overspray, but it was oh, so popular in the sixties and seventies. But how do you market something like that to women? Like this: “Slim, trim, utterly feminine, hardly bitter than your hand . . . new cosmetic RIGHT GUARD in the compact container created just for you.” “Elegant . . . easy to hold, Right Guard is always the perfect personal deodorant because nothing touches you but the spray itself.” What a prissy little product, huh? And for those not-so-fresh moments that can’t be discussed in polite company, there was Quest, “a deodorant only for women.” It was a powder that “makes girdles easier to slip into,” among other things.

Having a separate female version of a product with prettier packaging was very popular: all sorts of spray cans and discreet boxes featured what looked like miniature wallpaper designs, floral themes and delicately drawn feminine profiles of wispy women who appeared unaware that they were being watched while they sniffed daisies (which are rather stinky flowers, actually).

I wish I could still send a quarter to Kotex for the fact-packed booklet titled “Tampons for Moderns.” One can only imagine the bouncy, well-groomed young women in the line drawings that must have illustrated the booklet, which I see in my mind’s eye as having a turquoise cover bearing a confident-looking brunette wearing a fresh white dress. (Such products are often advertised by women in white to emphasize their fresh, clean, pure quality and the idea that you won’t be the unclean mess you’ve been made to think you are if you’ll just use their products.) The booklet must have read a lot like the brochures and booklets I got at school during the seventies, full of “gee, it’s great to be a woman!” ad copy that played up the ease with which one could stay well-groomed, pretty and presentable even when afflicted by the horror of the condition that could barely be hinted at but which every female experienced. A “really, it’s not so bad!” tone lay behind every phrase and the subtle instructional nature of each conversational paragraph was supposed to allay concerns. I think it actually emphasized the unmentionable quality of the subject matter: this stuff is so important and secret, the text implied, you need official instruction books to deal with what every woman from time immemorial has gone through—but we still can’t address any of it head-on.

Before reading this magazine I’d forgotten just how popular hairpieces were in the sixties. They were quite common accessories and supplemented many women’s wardrobes, often with rather ridiculous results. Remember, many women still went to the hairdresser for weekly perms, blow-outs, cuts and curls and slept with their hair in hard plastic or itchy metal-and-nylon brush curlers or pincurls every night, spraying their coifs afresh with new coats of sticky Aqua Net hairspray each morning and avoiding washing their hair for as long as possible between beauty parlor visits. Adding fluffy, braided, curly, straight or poufy switches, falls or wiglets (don’t you love that word?) to the mix wasn’t a big stretch. Long hairpieces, braided or twisted, or fluffy poufs added onto the top or back of a hairdo weren’t uncommon; teasing hair up into domes, small head hillocks or B-52-large beehive cones was a regular thing. I remember women with hair that rose a good four to six inches above their heads and never moved, no matter what the weather did. Women only entered swimming pools without bathing caps in movies; public pools wouldn’t allow a woman or girl to swim unless a rubber cap, often covered in ridiculous colored rubber “petals” that came off and floated in the water, completely covered her head.

Of course, a women’s magazine couldn’t be simply about making oneself prettier for one’s man. A good housewife also had to feed him (using lots of prepared food products) and heat or chill the leftovers in appliances that came in sexy new colors and promised easy-care features. The Admiral Duplex Freezer/Refrigerator ad features eight—count ’em! eight!—exclamation points on one page, so you know it must have been a sensational product. With this fabulous appliance’s automatic ice maker, there’s “no filling, no slopping, no mess.”

But what to feed a hungry man on a hot summer night when you don’t have time to whip up a big batch of sloppy joes with Shilling’s or Lawry’s sloppy joe mix? Meat-laden salads! When housewives of the sixties grew tired of the same old coleslaw, Best Foods Mayonnaise had the answer: hollow out a cabbage, scallop the edges of the emptied cabbage head (with kitchen shears, apparently) and pack it to the brim with coleslaw into which you’ve mixed canned tuna. Or maybe you’d prefer to dollop cottage cheese, celery seeds, shredded carrots and green peppers into your coleslaw? Cottage cheese was plopped on everything in the sixties and seventies, as I remember. The iconic healthy breakfast depicted on TV shows or in ads always included a half-grapefruit with a mound of cottage cheese astride the fruit flesh and a maraschino cherry popped gaily on top. Why anyone would want to consume those three items at the same time was always a mystery to me. What if you’re not into tuna slaw or cottage cheese and cabbage? California coleslaw includes crushed pineapple and quartered marshmallows. To wow the guests at your next picnic, serve this candy-sweet coleslaw in a cabbage cut to look like an Easter basket, complete with orange peel “bow,” as shown in the ad, and you’ll “perk up wilted appetites.”

Of course, not every woman alive in the 1960s was a housewife. Many, like my single mother, worked, whether out of pleasure, necessity or both. But the jury was still out on whether those who didn’t strictly need to work to pay the basic bills had either reason or right to do so. Paying women less than men for equivalent work because it was assumed that their work wasn’t essential to their family’s income was common; refusing to promote them or extend them personal credit that wasn’t cosigned by a husband or other man was also an everyday thing. When my mom bought her own house with her own savings in 1970, it was quite an accomplishment and unusual among the people we knew.

This issue of McCall’s has a letter related to an article about working women published in a prior issue. A reader writes of having worked steadily her whole life out of necessity, but angrily derides the choices of women who work out of a desire to serve, for career fulfillment or for personal satisfaction. “I have nothing but contempt for the wives of prosperous men who, in their own boredom and greed, take jobs away from those who really need to work.” She can’t see the validity of working for personal satisfaction or from a desire to help others or to extend one’s world beyond one’s husband’s sphere. These opposing arguments played out regularly in the court of public opinion (and in courts of law) throughout the next couple of decades as women fought to be allowed the same access to education, employment and advancement without respect to whether they had as much “need” to work as men.

When the woman of 1966 worked too hard and felt depressed over her inability to get ahead on the job, whether at home or out in the world of paid employment, what could she do to find the vim and vigor she needed to get through the day when her get-up-and-go and gotten up and gone? McCall’s had the answer for that, too. Anacin, then a popular over-the-counter headache medicine (and still available at drugstores today), was touted as not just a pain reliever but a mood elevator in an ad with the headine “Casts away gloom, depression . . . as it relieves headache pain fast! Anacin has a combined new action that actually casts away gloom and depression as headache pain goes away in minutes. . . . [F]ortified with a special ‘mood-lifter’ or energizer that brightens your spirits, restores new enthusiasm and drive. With Anacin you experience remarkable all-over relief.” Wow! How did this remarkable wonder drug effect such miraculous changes? What super-effective secret ingredients were at work? Anacin’s remarkable active ingredients amounted to nothing more than aspirin and caffeine. Yes, taking two cheap aspirin and a few cups of coffee would “cast away gloom” and relieve headaches just as quickly. After all these years, now you know.

Of Wolves and Hustlers: American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street

American Hustle

Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Jennifer Lawrence in “American Hustle”

[Originally published on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

Of this year’s contenders for the Academy Award for Best Picture, two of the nine feature constant frenetic movement, explosive bursts of speech, uncontrolled intensity of feeling and unrelenting, feverish, heedless action. “American Hustle” and “The Wolf of Wall Street,” both of which are based on true stories about risk-loving con artists, were directed by two of the most lauded and original directors in Hollywood, David O. Russell and Martin Scorsese. Their ability to keep up the hyperactive pace while moving their stories forward with constantly thrumming energy is laudable. There are moments of broad comedy in each movie, and fine actors get to strut and display their big-time acting chops like peacocks. However, the frantic energy of each story kept me from engaging with or feeling much concern for the characters, nearly every one of whom is profoundly, even dangerously, self-absorbed. The manic movement of each story, the outsized and all-consuming appetites of the characters and their frequent disregard for the serious impact their actions had on others made me itch to leave the cinema so I could escape the company of these heedless narcissists.

I have few complaints about the quality of the acting in either film. Each is well cast over all, and the dynamic performers chew their scenery powerfully, bug out their eyes on cue, thrash at each other, spew metaphorical venom and sometimes actual spittle with gusto. They mime their egregious behavior quite capably in scene after scene. But the pace is relentless, the hustle is constant, and the inflated egos bump up against each other with such regularity that I felt they were invading my personal space as well.

Wolf

Leonardo DiCaprio and Matthew McConaughey in “The Wolf of Wall Street”

This cinematic overkill, especially “The Wolf of Wall Street,” felt assaultive instead of merely entertaining. These films feature some of the most skilled and intuitive actors in movies today, and I love their fervent energy, which seems to have been the major element that Russell and Scorsese cared about this year. However, I also value these actors for their intuition, for the quiet intensity that each has shown in prior work. Neither film allowed these actors to show this end of their range, and it is range of emotion displayed in a single story that really wows me, not just intense, unbridled feeling overwhelming scene after screaming scene.

We have seen these actors give outstanding performances, so we know what they’re capable of. Christian Bale is a force of nature and has been carrying massive films on his capable shoulders since he was twelve years old. In “Empire of the Sun,” young Bale led an epic Spielberg movie on the strength of his performance and made us believe in and fall in love with him. In “Her,” Amy Adams must convey emotional exhaustion and fragility as well as inner strength and resourcefulness—and she does. In “The Departed,” an undercover cop played by Leonardo DiCaprio lies his way into a dangerous organized crime leader’s inner circle, and seeing the cost to his psyche of living in terror is excruciating. Few actors could play that role with such tormented intensity. In “Silver Linings Playbook,” David O. Russell’s hugely successful and moving Best Picture nominee from just last year, Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper are misfits with huge hearts and huge tempers. They hunger but hold back, explode and then retreat. They bob and weave and engage, connect and then just miss each other. The audience shares in their yearning to find a safe harbor in each other.

But in “American Hustle,” the actors rush at each other, scream and punch, and the mascara runs, the hair gets pulled, and the poor Steadicam operator whirls in 360-degree circles to amplify the mayhem going on around him because of the intense, no-holds-barred way in which Russell films his movies. In “The Wolf of Wall Street,” Scorsese overloads us with scene after scene of excess: offices filled with screaming, raving, swearing stock traders oozing testosterone and pumping fists, anxious to defraud any patsy they come across; hotel rooms full of hookers and blow; drug-fueled orgy scenes so full of outlandish spectacle that our eyes roam wildly over the screen as we try to focus on a single episode of decadence at a time. It all blurs together in a giant Quaalude-fueled, Armani-clad, cocaine-covered slurry of outrageous excess.

There are rich and enjoyable scenes in each film, of course. “American Hustle” was written by David O. Russell and Eric Warren Singer; “The Wolf of Wall Street” was penned by Terrence Winter, creator of “Boardwalk Empire” and frequent writer and producer of “The Sopranos.” Both provide lively, vulgar, rapid-fire dialog, and their actors relish every syllable. Jennifer Lawrence’s drunken, desperate, boundary-free turn as con man Christian Bale’s wife Rosalyn in “American Hustle” is a knock-out performance. She mixes cockiness with desperation as she warns Amy Adams’s character to stay away from her man, and she struts, lures and confronts with stunning confidence and charisma. Lawrence has the instincts and impeccable timing (both dramatic and comedic) of a much more experienced actress. Her performance makes it clear that having won a Best Actress Oscar last year (with the same director and one of the same co-stars) with a self-assured performance at such an early age was no fluke.

Amy Adams’s performance here is less successful. She’s a talented actress and a very likeable woman; her interview with James Lipton on Bravo’s “Inside the Actor’s Studio” last month showed her to be a thoughtful, disciplined, generous actor, articulate and devoted to her craft and to those with whom she works. But I never bought her in her role as Sydney, a lying, manipulative homewrecker with nerves of steel who is vital to the con artistry involved in bringing down corrupt politicians. She brings a quiver and insecurity to all her roles which often gives them a spark of life, but here that vulnerability undermines the ruthlessness of her character. The British accent she adopts for part of the film was so uneven and unconvincing I could never believe that any character would buy it; throughout the film I was always aware that she was a playing a role. Adams has a natural softness that suits her well in most of her films, and while she was surprisingly effective as a foul-mouthed barmaid in Russell’s earlier and extremely entertaining film, “The Fighter,” here she plays too much against type. Her character in “American Hustle” is so conniving and happy to use any and everyone that she left me cold—like nearly every other character in this over-adrenalized movie.

However, I do applaud Russell for providing rich and chewy roles for women in most of his films, roles that allow women to be as lively, influential, exciting and messed up as the men. Scorsese’s films are usually all about the men, and in “Wolf of Wall Street,” the women are again  primarily foils for stories about over-grown boys gone very, very bad.

Bradley Cooper shows angst and confused anger as well as anyone; he used these skills to great effect in “Silver Linings Playbook,” behaving erratically and often badly without losing our sympathy. In “American Hustle,” his character is so violent, duplicitous, vain and selfish that despite the good performance, I couldn’t care about him and didn’t enjoy spending time with his portrayal of nasty, erratic FBI agent Richie. Similarly, Christian Bale (whose Oscar-winning performance in Russell’s film “The Fighter” was sensational) gained over 40 pounds and sported the worst comb-over in the history of cinema to become Irving for this film. While he has more heart than the rest and even experiences moments of regret, those fleeting episodes of conscience rarely interfere with his putting his interests first. Jeremy Renner’s portrayal of Mayor Carmine Polito is one of the more sympathetic characters here, but when the lying, law-breaking politician is one of the better-behaved members of the ensemble, you know you’re hanging out with the wrong people.

The behavior is even more outrageous and consideration for the safety or well-being of others is completely lacking in “The Wolf of Wall Street.” As in “American Hustle,” the story is told in a nonjudgmental way; indeed, in the character of Jordan Belfort, a corrupt stockbroker who was convicted of market manipulation and fraud, Leonardo DiCaprio narrates the story of his rise and fall himself. Audacious behaviors that threaten people’s livelihoods and even lives are presented as sources of amusement and are seen as sexy and exciting. Matthew McConaughey’s cameo early in the film as an enthusiastically despicable character is heartily enjoyable, but what seemed like over-the-top self-absorption in that scene proved to be reined in and subtle compared to the rip-snortingly outrageous fever pitch the film builds to over the following two hours. Jonah Hill plays DiCaprio’s sidekick Donnie Azoff with relish and delight; Donnie provides much of the comic relief of the film, but Hill plays him not just as a clown but as a man in over his head. Donnie was clearly not born with the gifts of  suave, slick, sick-hearted Jordan, so watching his decline hurts more than seeing Jordan’s fall. For dramatic purposes, Terrence Winter was wise to emphasize the relationship between these two men above all others in this film since there is a strange and interesting chemistry between them, but I notice that, again, Scorsese has chosen to present a story in which women are noticeably peripheral to the action, except as sexy visual filler.

Scorsese is an interesting case; he is capable of great restraint and beauty in a film like “The Age of Innocence,” and even his most volatile and violent characters live in worlds that are beautifully designed, lit and filmed. He has one of the most aesthetically sophisticated points of view of any director working today, and we owe him an enormous debt of gratitude for his many years of efforts to support film preservation. But his enthusiasm for extremes of behavior and expression, and his desire to make viewers not only experience but wallow in assaultive excess, cause me to view his work with a wary eye. Much as I admire a Scorsese classic like “Goodfellas” and admire his guiding touch in the excellent HBO series “Boardwalk Empire,” I must always prepare myself for a barrage of ugliness when I enter a cinema that presents his films, for violence is inherent to most of his greatest work. He is famed for working with the meticulous editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and they certainly know how to build tension. But fine filmmaking involves more than bottling up rage until it is compressed to such a point that the bottle shatters. Nobody does explosive rage better than Scorsese, but in his latest film, he does it at the expense of the quieter moments that allow an audience to breathe, to relax, and to get inside the workings of a character so that we can feel enough about him or her to care when something happens to change his or her world. In this film he works more in words than in blood, it’s true, yet the energy behind the story feels as violent and visceral as the energy in his more deadly works.

My favorite Scorsese film, “The Departed,” features a crackerjack cast (Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen, Vera Farmiga), including one of the director’s favorite actors, Leonardo DiCaprio. Leo has become to Scorsese what Robert De Niro was to the director’s earlier films. He is at his best when he channels his vulnerability alongside his rage; we must see the bruised boy within the powerful men he usually plays in order to be drawn into and care about his characters. In “The Wolf of Wall Street,” he has a chance to express his explosive power unchecked, and it’s damned impressive, but the role misses the element that makes DiCaprio a truly great actor: his range, his fragile core, the pain his characters generally feel when they harm others. His performance here is powerfully ugly, and the character moves along his nasty trajectory so quickly that we get very little time with him before he becomes a monster. DiCaprio deserved his Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination (and perhaps the Oscar itself) for his amazing work in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?” and gave exceptional performances in “Revolutionary Road” and “The Departed” and wildly entertaining performances in “The Aviator,” “Catch Me if You Can” and other fine films. But “The Wolf of Wall Street” is not the film he should win his first Oscar for.

DiCaprio, like Christian Bale, is one of the finest actors of his generation, and Leo is, over all, a more versatile performer than Matthew McConaughey, who has proven his own mettle over the past four years. However, McConaughey’s performance in “Dallas Buyers Club” is the more moving and astonishing feat of acting; his is the performance I would like to see win a Best Actor Oscar this year. In “Dallas Buyers Club” he was able to show range, raw vulnerability, and a talent that moves from abject deathly illness and despair to victorious, cocky success, all in a brittle, emaciated body that is as far as a man can get from the muscled, oiled, powerful physique he displayed in “Magic Mike” just two years ago. Christian Bale is a remarkably realistic actor, and he gives his all here, but the character is limited in his range of emotion and expression as well. Bale whispers, shouts, cajoles and generally shows much more versatility that the other actors in “American Hustle” are allowed, but his role cannot provide us with a breathtaking conversion from lost soul to redeemed hero the way McConaughey does in “Dallas Buyers Club.” I don’t blame DiCaprio or Bale for not being worthy of Oscars this year; they did what they were hired to do admirably and often enjoyably, but they did not have the opportunity to reinvent themselves on the scale that McConaughey did, and he proved himself as adept and committed any actor alive.

As explosive as the characters directed by Scorsese can be, director David O. Russell is famous for his own scary relationship to anger. He was involved in two of the most famous altercations in movie-making history with two of Hollywood’s best-loved movie stars. His ego and temper are legendary. During the making of his wickedly funny, surprisingly moving war film “Three Kings,” George Clooney was so appalled by Russell’s contemptuous treatment of the film’s crew that Clooney and Russell got into an argument so heated it broke down into physical fighting between the star and the director. During the making of his mediocre film “I Heart Huckabee’s,” Lily Tomlin, with whom Russell worked successfully in the funny road-movie farce “Flirting with Disaster,” found Russell and his style so difficult to work with that their disagreement quickly rose to a shouting match that was recorded and shared widely the world over. They’ve since made up with each other, and in his interviews (as well as in most of his films) he shows a self-deprecating wit, enthusiasm, devotion to craft and (occasional) sensitivity that allow one to see how all-consuming his passion for movie-making is, and how difficult it has been for him to allow a single element of it to elude his control. He is still famously touchy, tightly coiled and sometimes turns adversarial with surprising speed. However, with his great recent success he seems to have learned some element of humility; he credits his becoming more patient and loving to the fact of his having a severely bi-polar son for whom he has had to sacrifice much. He says it was his experience with his son that drove him to make “Silver Linings Playbook,” and he certainly brought great love and passion to that project, which deserves its great success.

Perhaps it was his having moderated his expression of anger in his private life that led Russell to find an appropriate professional outlet for his extremes of emotion and led to the boisterous “American Hustle.”  As many reviewers adore the film as were overwhelmed by it. Audiences were certainly seduced by the disco-era costumes, interiors and, especially, hairstyles; it is a visual feast of seventies tackiness. But it is the film’s energy level that either delights or repels audiences the most. Russell works differently from most directors, and that shows up on the screen. Jennifer Lawrence calls Russell’s style “weird and instantaneous,” Robert De Niro says it’s “spontaneous and chaotic.” Russell likes to film in enclosed spaces and to use a Steadicam (hand-held camera) operator to follow the action around the room (or even inside a car) and to film multiple takes of a scene in quick succession without turning off the camera. Actors have to keep their energy levels up and their characters intact because at any moment they might have to repeat, react to, change the dialog in or continue a scene without knowing in advance. (This process is what Lily Tomlin found so unnerving during the filming of “I Heart Huckabees.”) Some find it exhilarating, and the energy certainly shows up on the screen. David Denby of the New Yorker says, “‘American Hustle’ is built around many acts of cynical manipulation, but it is generous, even kindly, in spirit. … What he puts on the screen here is faster than life and more volatile than common realism, but it’s definitely not farce. His characters act stupidly because they want something desperately, and his actors, all of them taking enormous risks, form an ensemble that is the equal of anything from Hollywood’s golden age.”

I did not find it so. I was able to enjoy some of the film as it progressed, but the more I think about it in retrospect, the more it disappoints me. The selfishness of nearly every character wore me down and left me cold. Because the script for “American Hustle” bounces from one fraught, intense scene to the next, the viewer never gets to relax, either. I found this frenetic pace, along with the inherently unlikable qualities of the characters, distanced me from them and made me weary of all the niggling details of their exchanges. The film is ostensibly about the famous Abscam sting operation run by the FBI in the 1970s. The operation set up and entrapped public officials who were on the take by involving known swindlers working on behalf of the government. Since a story that relies on backroom political bribery is not always inherently gripping, the real heart of the film is in the personal entanglements between the people who entrapped the politicians and their motivations for doing such work. I found the explanations of these intrigues overly detailed and the histrionics of the five primary characters tiring enough that I started checking my watch halfway through the film. I was relieved to see Louis C.K. portray the only reasonable, normal person on screen, but Bradley Cooper as the FBI agent treated him so badly that I began to cringe in anticipation every time Louis’s face appeared. Christian Bale’s character, for all his many flaws, is the only one who shows actual concern for the people he harms along the way, but it came too little and too late for me to enjoy his characterization much.

There is more to a great film than the alternation of emotional compression and explosive rage, and there is more to a great director than the ability to prod an actor into spewing and screaming. While I look forward to future projects from all of the actors, writers and directors involved in these films, I hope that at this year’s Academy Award ceremony their directors are not rewarded for these exhausting, overwrought paeans to excess.