Sunday, July 9, 2006

Of Charlton Heston and Sharon Tate

I almost never buy movies. I live in a tiny studio apartment where space is at a premium, and I hate clutter. So I’m a serial renter.

But last week, I bought two new DVDs. Which means I really, really like these movies.

Both are better for their camp qualities than their cinematic virtues. Both have the same director: Mark Robson. One figures prominently in my childhood; the other, as I tell friends, is so bad, it’s art.

The first is “Earthquake,” the 1974 disaster epic in which Los Angeles is destroyed by an earthquake and a dam break, and Victoria Principal runs around in Big Hair. Charlton Heston growls through angry banter with screen wife Ava Gardner, and Genevieve Bujold plays Heston’s hottie-on-the-side. And then there’s Lorne Greene, George Kennedy and Marjoe Gortner. What’s not to love?

“Earthquake” is one of the first non-Disney movies I ever saw in a theater. I went with my Dad and my younger brother to see it at University Square Mall in Tampa, Fla. My brother was about five at the time - I can’t imagine what Dad was thinking - and he got so scared we had to leave the theater just before the end. (After already sitting through two hours of collapsing buildings, explosions and too many deaths to count.)

I needn’t have worried that I’d never find out how it ended. “Earthquake” made a reliable appearance on network TV fairly frequently through the ‘70s, sometimes spread over two nights. I watched it every time. I memorized lines and scenes. I know just when Corry is going to fall off the pedestrian bridge on his bicycle, when Barbara is going to get shoved out of the doomed elevator, and when Wilson Plaza is going to collapse on the survivors.

Ah, nostalgia.

The second movie begins with these words: “You’ve got to climb Mount Everest to reach the Valley of the Dolls.” Thus we are introduced to the zany, pill-popping and badly acted world of Anne, Neely and Jennifer.

“Valley of the Dolls” was, of course, Jacqueline Susann’s blockbuster novel from 1966 - the year I was born. Let me just say the movie doesn’t hold a candle to the book, which is actually quite good, in its trashy way. The movie is terrible. I repeat: terrible.

But it’s also wonderful in its terribleness. The clothes, music and styling are mid-’60s groovy. Sharon Tate is remarkably beautiful and remarkably wooden as Jennifer, the starlet loved more for her body than her talent. Patty Duke is explosively unstable as Neely. (The best casting agent in the world worked this film.)

Barbara Parkins is the unsung gem, as the cool beauty Anne. Parkins’ career never quite blossomed - perhaps this outing killed it - but she literally saves “Valley of the Dolls.” Without her as a redeeming anchor, it would be unwatchable.

There are so many great moments: Neely’s catfight with Helen Lawson, played by a bewigged Susan Hayward; Anne rolling in the Malibu waves in a drug-induced stupor; Jennifer struggling on the steps with her collapsing, fatally ill husband Tony. (Actual dialogue: ”Jen!” “Tony!” “Jen!” “Tony!” “Jen!”)

Even Jacqueline Susann, who is said to have hated the movie, makes a cameo appearance.

“Valley of the Dolls” just came out on DVD last month. My only question is, what took so long? Didn’t they know I was waiting?

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