Greetings, mi gente. Nice to see you all again. As we continue our slog through 2021, I found myself inspired by the idea of scandals and controversy. Sex, religion, racism, we seem not to be able to resolve any of our isms. Instead, we keep weaponizing them to devastating effect. At least we still have art to illuminate the darkest corners of our psyche to question and, hopefully, impact how we choose to view each other once we strip away the idea of “The Other.” That’s why I’m recommending this next group of film titles for the Carreón Cinema Club: The “It’s A Scandal” Edition.
Each movie listed here courted a wave of controversy when initially released. Audiences were either titillated, appalled, or couldn’t be bothered. Some of these films were not significant hits in their original years of release. More, they haven’t aged well or find themselves mired in more robust controversy in this era of political awakenings. Context is key when viewing these titles, which is why I think they are worthy of not being dismissed with nary a reason beyond, “It makes me uncomfortable” or “That’s wrong!” The Club is now in session.
Directed by Roy Rowland
Written by Jerome Weidman
Starring: Van Johnson, Ann Blyth
Streaming: TCM (until July 28)
If you think TMZ is a media scourge, your delicate sensibilities couldn’t survive the likes of Confidential Magazine. Considered a “pioneer in scandal, gossip, and exposé journalism,” as labeled by Wikipedia, Confidential made its yellow-hued debut in 1952. At its most popular, the magazine earned a circulation of five million copies per issue, surpassing Reader’s Digest, the Saturday Evening Post, Ladies Home Journal, and other leading, respectable publications of the decade. Scandals would eventually topple this dreadful rag, but its audience’s voracious appetite for its “stories” about Hollywood’s leading players at their weakest and most vulnerable, true or not, were devoured with bloodlust.
You’ll only need to read between the lines when watching Slander, which chronicles the life of a kids’ TV Show star Scott Martin, portrayed by Van Johnson. When the fictional periodical “The Real Truth” wreaks awful havoc on his life after refusing to corroborate an incendiary story on a popular actress, the collateral damage is swift. Outed for being a felon at the age of 19, the resulting judgment on Martin by the public breaks up his marriage and torpedoes his career. Here’s a clip featuring the great Ann Blyth as Martin’s beleaguered wife Connie and Steve Cochran as “The Real Truth’s” self-righteous and arrogant editor H.R. Manley.
Subtlety is not director-for-hire Roy Rowland’s strongest suit, with the melodrama and rather cliched dialogue marooning most of the cast, save for Cochran, who excels as the film’s villain. Slander rarely rises above its TV movie treatment, but it makes its point like a sledgehammer when Martin’s young son is struck and killed by a passing car after being bullied by his classmates about his dad’s criminal past.
Slander’s bravado finish with Johnson’s “on the nose” plea to a voracious public to stop consuming “The Real Truth” seems too good to be true, and it is. Imagine anyone saying on Jimmy Kimmel or CNN to the public, “Now that they’ve seen the extent of its power to destroy the innocent and not-so-innocent, stop your intake of gossip and reality garbage.” People would switch it off or swipe it away.
Although the outcome for editor Manley is too fantastic to spoil, it’s almost worth the entire movie. Almost. As for how Slander fared in its day. Well, audiences seemed to have preferred the pages of Confidential, with Slander proving to be a box office bomb for MGM. Johnson himself would be at the center of a scandal when a tell-all book written by his son revealed he’d left his wife for another man. Only in Hollywood, kids, only in Hollywood.
Directed and written by William Friedkin
Starring: Al Pacino, Paul Sorvino, Karen Allen
Rent: Amazon Prime, Apple TV+
The scorched earth of the 1970s left plenty of burning embers to ignite the start of the 1980s. With gender and sexual equality, rising conservatism, and extreme violence impacting mainstream entertainment, it is no coincidence that two erotic thrillers would reach cinemas with a resounding wail of controversy upon release in 1980. And both dealt with the LGBTQ+ communities, an evolving and powerful voice determined to right the wrongs perpetrated in society.
While it possesses considerable artistic and thematic strengths, Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill earned hackles for its depiction of cross-dressing. His turning a trans character into a vicious slasher movie trope offered little context or catharsis, only lurid violence. William Friedkin’s Cruising delivered that film year was something akin to a cultural firebomb, even before the production wrapped principal photography.
Within the confines of its standard-issue “serial killer on the loose in the big city” plot is an unflinching look at New York’s gay subcultures. Without question, the film is most urgent at night, where Al Pacino, as an undercover cop, roams the Leather/BDSM bars in the Meatpacking district in search of a murderer.
Thanks to Friedkin’s direction and Pacino’s controlled performance, Cruising rises above its cliched plot of crooked cops and an overburdened detective force bullied into solving the crimes before they ignite a political firestorm, just like in real life. The neighborhood where Cruising filmed did not take kindly to the project, with locals and activist groups disrupting production. Once finished, due to its candid depiction of gay sexuality, the MPAA demanded 40-minutes of cuts to reverse its original X-rating. The controversies endure with film historians and gay leaders lambasting Cruising’s linking violence with illicit sexuality, a gross judgment on queer life.
Seeking to counter the protests, Friedkin offered the following disclaimer at the film’s opening, “This film is not intended as an indictment of the homosexual world. It is set in one small segment of that world, which is not meant to be representative of the whole.”
It did little to mollify the objections to the film, which remain justified. The equation of gay sex with isolation, brutality, and murder permeates the movie because it does little to understand any of the motivations involved with the crimes. Few positive images materialize, and even those meet destruction by the film’s end. More, Pacino’s character seems to establish a connection with his gay self, but it is merely hinted at and not explored further.
We can argue the artistic merits of Cruising, but you cannot deny that the cameras did not shy away from the black and blue aesthetic of leather and BDSM culture. The result is a fearless time capsule of a culture embraced by many practitioners of this form of sexual expression. The film may focus on a youthful Pacino and the ensemble cast. Still, the background is where subversion exists, depicting queer culture and sexuality, breathtakingly and unexpectedly.
So why champion the film at all?
It’s a film history lesson that retains its power to illuminate and inspire a more explicit, honest discussion on how not to relegate sex and sexuality into something negative. Again, how else can we begin to improve the future without looking at the past? Cancel culture vultures need not apply.
SONG OF THE SOUTH (1946)
Directed by Harve Foster, Wilfred Jackson
Screenplay by Dalton Raymond, Maurice Rapf, and Morton Grant
Starring: Luana Patten, Bobby Driscoll, Ruth Warrick, James Baskett, and Hattie McDaniel
Finally, let’s talk about the nadir of Disney’s sometimes color-blind and tone-deaf oeuvre, perhaps the one film that may never see the light again by an audience outside academia. Based on the equally controversial Uncle Remus stories compiled by Joel Chandler Harris, you can see what inspired Disney to turn these moral fables into a major film. Unfortunately, the Mouse House decided to keep their animated musical in Harris’s chosen dialect for African-Americans featured in his work. The sounds are shocking, even by today’s standards.
Southern author Harris did not escape criticism with the original text, so why did Disney keep the same framing devices without contemplating the consequences? Several writers were part of the project, some recognizing and seeking to remedy the issues with the property, but the inherent problem remains. Despite its tuneful soundtrack and candy-hued visuals, the racial stereotyping depicted in the film is still difficult to accept today. The film industry, seeking a means to appease a justifiably angry NAACP, bestowed an honorary Oscar to actor James Baskett, who played Uncle Remus in the film. While Baskett may have been the first black male actor to win an Academy Award, it is essential to note that he couldn’t attend the 1946 premiere in segregated Atlanta.
If it is so venal, why should Song of the South even be viewed again? Quite frankly, it exemplifies what cancel culture does to our collective past. This lobotomy or erasure of art representing our worst selves does not magically clear our name as a flawed species. We are missing a chance to educate ourselves on how to make things better. What is missing in today’s “woke” discourse about art in the past is context. To understand where we want to go as a society, we must look back to see where we’ve been first. We need to give these examples their due and proper context as to WHY they are not images we need to repeat or reimagine.
It is your decision as to what you can accept in terms of the topics raised by the films. Have an open mind and question how these films can still fit in our worlds. Either way, I welcome your opinions. Until the Club meets again, stay safe and healthy, mis amigos.