Saturday, August 29, 2009

Film Review: GEORGIA, GEORGIA (1972)

Why the Hell isn't this on DVD yet? -- Number 39

GEORGIA, GEORGIA (1972 Kelly-Jordan Enterprises/Cinerama) Starring Diana Sands, Minnie Gentry, Dirk Benedict, Roger Furman, Terry Whitmore. Directed by Stig Bjorkman. Screenplay by Maya Angelou.

Despite her stature as a two-time Tony nominee and marquee stage star for a decade, Diana Sands had to wait until 1972 to receive top billing in a feature film. The gifted actress was arguably Broadway's biggest African-American star during the 1960's but was repeatedly denied a silver screen breakthrough. When the time came to film her biggest Broadway hit, THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT, Hollywood turned to Barbra Streisand. When she gave a marvelously layered performance in Hal Ashby's THE LANDLORD, Lee Grant received the Oscar nomination that Sands deserved. Finally, Sands was cast as the lead in Kelly-Jordan Enterprises' first foray into film, GEORGIA, GEORGIA.

Sands' title character is a pop music diva arriving in Stockholm for the latest stop on her world tour with her inner circle, hired maid and surrogate mother Minnie Gentry and homosexual business manager Roger Furman. During her stopover, black Vietnam deserter Terry Whitmore angles for a private audience with Sands to convince her to bring attention to the plight of his fellow expatriate defectors, but the apolitical prima donna shows no interest. Whitmore next tries to reach her through the more sympathetic Gentry, who sees an opportunity to play matchmaker. Meanwhile, impotent white photographer Benedict (also a Vietnam veteran) is assigned to capture Sands on film for a magazine article and ends up capturing the ice queen's heart.

Maya Angelou's debut screenplay is nothing if not ambitious. She explores the loneliness of a single, successful woman at the top; the effect of the Vietnam experience on its shell-shocked vets and the plight of deserters who are permanently seperated from their homes and families; the sicknesses of racism and obsession with racial purity; and the often poor choices that larger than life stars make for their inner circle (i.e. Elvis, Selena, Michael). Stockholm is just about the last setting you would expect for a penetrating drama on racial issues, and the setting is just one of several curveballs Angelou has in store. Sands is largely unsympathetic: spoiled, condescending, self-important, shallow and abusive to her hired help. For her part, the older Gentry is far from a comforting mother figure; damaged by her experiences with racism, she seethes inside with hatred towards Caucasians and her smiles are often chilling, rarely reassuring. The script is perhaps too ambitious: for example, when Furman asks Sands why she keeps Gentry around, the question warrants more than a one line explanation ("to remind me of what I escaped").

Despite filming in his native Sweden and coming off the challenging experience of directing non-professionals exclusively in his prior feature (I LOVE, YOU LOVE) Bjorkman is the wrong director for this film.  He's far more comfortable with his locale than with the issues Angelou raises. Budget limitations are distractingly obvious, the pacing is uneven and the editing is consistently choppy.

Most damaging is Bjorkman's complete failure to establish the title character as an international superstar named "the most popular American singer in Europe" as we're told in the first few minutes. The director seems most intent with deglamorizing the songbird, and the sexy, enticing Diana Sands of THE LANDLORD and DOCTORS' WIVES is only occasionally in evidence here. Typical is the botched opening. Angelou's rousing "Bird of Paradise" plays over Sands' arrival at the airport. Instead of letting the uplifting song play and following Sands as she triumphantly enters Stockholm, Bjorkman cuts away after less than a minute and whisks us to an awkwardly staged press conference. The necessary strong introduction to Sands' Georgia Martin never materializes, and her concert is also badly mishandled: poorly attended and featuring a lukewarm finale instead of the must-see spectacle we anticipate from "the goose that lays golden eggs". The failure to dub Sands is also unfortunate; she's a fantastic actress but a mediocre singer, and lacks the vocal range for the show-stopper that is sorely needed.

As a result of the numerous missteps, it's impossible to buy Georgia Martin as a Diana Ross or Eartha Kitt on the world stage and Angelou's story is robbed of much of its power. In the end GEORGIA, GEORGIA seems more about Gentry and her consumption by hate than its title character.

Despite not having the budget or director for its intentions to be fully realized, GEORGIA, GEORGIA is still worth seeing for Angelou's imperfect but still intriguing debut screenplay and for the underappreciated performers in front of the camera. Minnie Gentry is best known today as Terrence Howard's grandmother, but she had four decades of stage experience before making her film debut here at age 57. She's very good overall, convincingly portraying Alberta's loosening grip on reality. A young Dirk Benedict also makes a solid film debut, and Roger Furman, well known as a stage director and playwright who founded Harlem's New Heritage Repertory Theatre, makes his only feature film appearance and nicely avoids the stereotypes as Sands' gay manager.

So...why isn't this on DVD yet?

Poor direction and budget constraints that are too obvious keep the film from reaching its full potential. The subject matter is in some ways dated and the film is crudely edited.

GEORGIA, GEORGIA is very obscure; surprisingly, this received only a brief VHS release in 1983 at the height of Dirk Benedict's A-TEAM fame, then disappeared.

The stars are primarily known for stage (Sands, Gentry, Furman) or television (Benedict) rather than for their respective film careers. Only Sands ever played a lead on the big screen, and only one other one at that (the misfire HONEYBABY, HONEYBABY).

Why it should be on DVD:

Maya Angelou fans would certainly be interested in her debut screenplay; she also wrote the songs "Bird of Paradise" and "I Can Bring down Rain".

There's precious little of Diana Sands' film work available as it is: amazingly, only A RAISIN IN THE SUN, WILLIE DYNAMITE and HONEYBABY, HONEYBABY are on DVD. GEORGIA, GEORGIA is far from a perfect showcase for the late star, yet it is the better of her two starring vehicles. Even in a less than ideal role and hampered by the budget, Sands is still very convincing off the concert stage and well worth watching.

Dated, perhaps, but certainly not irrelevant: the dysfunctional inner circle of the superstar seems as timely as ever in the wake of Michael Jackson's death, and Gentry's hair-raising comments about Sands "dishonoring her race" are sadly still echoed in news stories in America today. Also of note: the appearance by real life Vietnam deserter Terry Whitmore, who by this time had already been the subject of a documentary (TERRY WHITMORE, FOR EXAMPLE).

TiVo alert: Diana Sands' theatrical swan song WILLIE DYNAMITE will air on Turner Classic Movies' TCM Underground at 2:30 A.M. on September 26th. With Roscoe "Gordon" Orman as the titular pimp(!).

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Happy Birthday Diana Sands

Today would have been Diana Sands' 75th birthday.

In paying tribute to the late, great actress, whose best known films are likely A RAISIN IN THE SUN and THE LANDLORD, Chris Poggiali at TEMPLE OF SCHLOCK hosted a roundtable discussion of her hard to find 1972 film GEORGIA, GEORGIA.

I was very honored to be invited to participate, and would like to give special thanks to Chris for the opportunity to finally see a film that's very hard to find and has been on my want list for a long time.

Of course, The Horn Section will be offering a review of GEORGIA, GEORGIA in the near future as well. In the meantime, here's the roundtable.

Diana Sands starring in THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT on Broadway, 1964  (with Alan Alda)

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Film Review: TRIBES (1970)


"Why the Hell isn't this on DVD yet?" -- Number 38

TRIBES (1970 ABC-TV/20th Century Fox) Starring Darren McGavin, Earl Holliman, Jan-Michael Vincent, John Gruber, Danny Goldman, Antone Curtis. Directed by Joseph Sargent.

Quintessential flower child Jan-Michael Vincent is drafted into the Marines under D.I. Darren McGavin. Honed by his daily practice of meditation and yoga, Vincent turns out to have ideal mental focus and physical conditioning for boot camp itself. He also has the highest score on the aptitude test despite lacking a high school diploma. But being a superior practice player won't be enough. It is McGavin's job to turn the hippie into a killing machine at game time, something utterly rejected by Vincent with his pacifist beliefs. McGavin also must deal with Vincent's growing influence within his platoon due to exemplary drill performances and Holliman's belief that McGavin is losing control of his men.

TRIBES isn't specifically about the Vietnam War, but the then-ongoing conflict looms large throughout, as it is clear that's the post-graduation destination. Coming from an era in which long-held beliefs and authority figures were being questioned throughout American society, TRIBES succeeds in depicting the dehumanization of boot camp and also effectively presenting both the pacifist and militaristic sides of its conflict. This despite the limitations placed on it in budget and content (no foul language allowed!) as a network television project.

The film was successful enough in its original airing to earn an Emmy for the teleplay by Marvin Schwartz and Tracy Keenan Wynn and overseas theatrical release under the alternate title THE SOLDIER WHO DECLARED PEACE. You'll see clear influences on better known theatrical films to follow, such as FULL METAL JACKET (i.e. the opening barber sequence, in slo-mo, and a latrine scene that anticipates Private Pyle's tragic end) and HEARTBREAK RIDGE (in which a career gunnery sergeant also sees how ill-equipped he is to deal with a changing world). But TRIBES is considerably more subtle in making its points than either. At 93 minutes, it's also leaner.

McGavin and Vincent both give solid performances and Emmy nominated Joseph Sargent keeps the sharply edited film visually interesting throughout. Sargent, who is still going strong today at age 84, would go on to direct the original TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE, MacARTHUR, and two of the very best films ever produced by Home Box Office, MISS EVERS' BOYS and SOMETHING THE LORD MADE.

All but forgotten today and long overlooked, TRIBES is yet another example of why the first half of the 1970's was truly the Golden Age of the made for TV movie.

So.....why isn't this on DVD?

Given the short description of "hippie joins the marines" and the aforementioned limitations within the boundaries of early 1970's network TV standards, the film can't help but come across like something of a period piece at first glance.

As a general rule, early 1970's made for TV movies don't get DVD releases unless they have a marketing hook (i.e. "Spielberg's first film" or "James Caan shortly before THE GODFATHER").

Why it should be on DVD:

It is among the best made for TV movies of its era, which is high praise considering that era includes DUEL, MY SWEET CHARLIE, BRIAN'S SONG, THE EXECUTION OF PRIVATE SLOVIK and WELCOME HOME JOHNNY BRISTOL (also dealing with Vietnam) among many others.

Regarding that "marketing hook"; while Jan Michael-Vincent's career might have gone completely off the rails, shouldn't an early effort from Joseph Sargent mean something? It's also the first script from Tracy Keenan Wynn (THE LONGEST YARD and yet another outstanding made for TV movie from 1974, THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MISS JANE PITTMAN). Hard to find on VHS, TRIBES occasionally airs on Fox Movie Channel.