Friday, December 7, 2012

Randal Kleiser | Grease

the death of sandra dee
by Douglas Messerli
Bronte Woodard and Allan Carr (screenplay, based on the musical by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey), Randal Kleiser (director) Grease / 1978

Having just watched the film musical Grease again the other afternoon, I am even more amazed at the remarkable success of the work, at one point one of the highest grossing movies, and voted on Channel 4’s 100 greatest musicals, the “best musical” ever. For me the film doesn’t hold up, and perhaps was never more than a kind of spirited winking at the 1950s world for folk who weren’t yet born during that decade. Surely it has very little to do with anything I experienced growing up during the same time.

     The “legendary” dance numbers are mostly intense posturings by the affable John Travolta playing Danny Zuko; as I’ve said elsewhere, he may be a dancer (at times he even moves like one), but director Randal Kleiser hardly ever allows us to even catch glimpse of his foot work; yes, Travolta’s body shifts and swerves, girls go flying through his legs, and his hands move with Egyptian precision as if he were a cool hipster, but a good imitator and a fast camera might achieve the same tricks. Australian-born Olivia Newton-John as Sandy Olsen has an appealingly fresh face and a pleasant voice, and Jeff Conaway as Kenickie at least has the look of the period down cold.

     Of the major cast members, perhaps only Stockard Channing as Betty Rizzo can really act; and she has perhaps the most touching song of the film, “There Are Worse Things I Could Do,” in which she catalogues all the lies, tricks, and just plain meanness of the so-called “nice” girls, which she definitely is not. Yet she also has the most hypocritical song of the show, “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee” in which the “Pink Ladies” attempt to implant a spike into the heart of 1950s sweetness—while simultaneously satirizing their new acquaintance Sandy Olsen—with put downs of Sandra Dee’s and Frankie Avalon’s (the latter who, ironically plays one of the girls’, Frenchy’s, Teen Angel, advising the “beauty school dropout to return to Rydell High) bikini beach outings, along with Troy Donahue, Elvis Presley, and others. Originally, the butt of their jokes was also set to include Sal Mineo, but that stanza was pulled when Mineo was stabbed to death a few weeks before the film started shooting. In fact, none of the Grease characters have any of the real angst or suggest the dangerous energy of any of these earlier figures, and the innocuous innocence of the film’s figures flattens a work which does little more than reference other cinematic icons.

      Even the film’s several nods to Rebel without a Cause merely reveal its emptiness, particularly in the scene paralleling the game of “chicken,” which in the original sends one car and its driver over a seaside cliff. Here the scene is played out in the protective culvert of the Los Angeles river, where only a little bit of mud might send the speedster’s out of control. Even the Ben Hur reference to the evil Leo’s attempts to drill through Danny’s car, result in little more than a flat tire, and the race comes to end with both sides blithefully surviving.

     In between, Kleiser stuffs his movie with other iconic figures from the period, including Eve Arden, Dody Goodman, Sid Ceasar, Joan Blondell,  Ed Byrnes, Alice Ghostley, Fannie Flagg, and Sha-Na-Na, as if that might convince us that his picture was an honest presentation of day. Strangely, all it did for me was to shift my sympathies from the attractive youth to the rumpled elderly. Certainly Arden, Ceasar, Goodman and Blondell were far wackier, out of control, and were much more fun. Kookie, of “lend me your comb” fame, always had better-looking hair—and still does in this film.

      Combine this with large production numbers of probably competent dancers who here are made to appear to each be simultaneously dancing in frenzied movements of their own making— as if everyone were performing in a different movie—and you have something, at times, what looks like a disaster. Even director Kleiser, so I am told, hated the disco-inspired title song! Well, you can’t have everything—although the film comes close to attempting it.

     Oh, did I forget to tell you the story? Boy meets girl and falls in love. Unfortunately, the new girl in town, an outsider from another country, discovers herself, after her splendiferously romantic summer, with the boy, attending the same Los Angeles school (much of it actually filmed in Venice High School) which he attends, and wherein he behaves completely differently, attempting to fit into the hipper hometown patterns of behavior. The poor girl feels betrayed, dismayed. But she soon discovers that there is no one way of behaving, especially in this big city of multiple realities. Even the conventionally rebellious Pink Ladies eventually accept her.  By movie’s end the girl finds her own way of attracting the boy, “going bad”—as one of the potential Sandys, Marie Osmond, interpreted it—which merely consists of being sewn into a black leather body suit and shouting out “You’re the One That I Love!” Girl gets boy and everyone lives happily ever after. Rise up from the grave, Sandra Dee, all is forgiven!

    Sound familiar? It should. It’s just another version of what I have been describing as the sub-genre of L.A. movies, “Rebels without a Home.”

Los Angeles, December 6, 2012

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