Sometime in the mid-1990s, on the corner of 82nd Street and Riverside Drive, I stopped to gawk at an icon.
“Yes, it’s me,” Eli Wallach said, apparently accustomed to silent, slack-jawed admirers on New York City street corners. He greeted me with a smile, shook my hand, and patted me on the shoulder as if we were old pals – which, sadly, we were not. Then he took off down the street with his wife, Anne Jackson. I’m not often at a loss for words, especially around celebrities, but I was on this particular occasion. I think I mumbled, “pleased to meet you,” or “I’m a big fan of your work,” or something equally witty. But I don’t really remember because, you know, I was standing right next to Eli Wallach.
I first discovered Wallach in the ’70s as the “frigid fiend” Mr. Freeze on reruns of Batman, a show I watched daily after school with a religious fervor the nuns at St. Joseph’s couldn’t even hope to inspire. As a high school student, I saw the work for which he was better known: the conniving Tuco in Sergio Leone’s THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY (1966), and the existential bandit Calvera in John Sturges’ THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960). Even panned-and-scanned on the 19-inch TV I leased from Rent-A-Center, both were unforgettable.
In 2010, at the first TCM Classic Film Festival, I was a bleary eyed audience member at Grauman’s Chinese Theater when Robert Osborne interviewed Wallach before an early morning screening of THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY. Osborne mentioned that the then-94-year-old was appearing in two movies that year, and had been in two the year before, and two the year before that.
“I never stop,” Wallach said. “When I die, I’ll stop.”
Sadly, Eli Wallach stopped on Tuesday at the age of 98. But, thanks to TCM, our appreciation of his work continues. The network has announced that they’ll pre-empt scheduled programming on Monday, June 30 for an 11-hour tribute to the Red Hook, Brooklyn native with five films from the early years of his half-century Hollywood career.
The selections are surprisingly eclectic, like a pot luck supper whipped together for surprise guests. And the retrospective excludes his two most enduring movies (see above), both of which TCM has aired previously. Taken as a whole, the five films demonstrate that Wallach could pretty much play any part believably – especially if there was facial hair involved.
The day begins at 9 a.m. (ET) with KISSES FOR MY PRESIDENT (1964), with Polly Bergen as the first female commander in chief, top-billed Fred MacMurray as her emasculated “first gentleman,” Anna Capri and Ronnie Dapo as their wisecracking son and teen daughter, and Wallach (“also starring”) as a visiting Central American dictator.
Curtis Bernhardt’s farce, released by Warner Bros in December of 1964, feels like a situation comedy pilot, with knee-slappers like: “You’re with the Secret Service? Do you know any good secrets?” It’s unlikely that it was, though, considering MacMurray was already committed to a popular sitcom: My Three Sons. The former film noir tough guy was then in his fifth season as pipe-smoking pop Steve Douglas on ABC (the show would move to CBS the following year, where it continued until 1972).
Not surprisingly, Wallach is the funniest thing in KISSES FOR MY PRESIDENT. As military strongman Rodriguez Valdez, Jr., he shows up half an hour into the film, to salsa-inflected fanfare, and immediately seeks to charm the chief executive (who he calls “Miss”). He fails, of course, and is handed off to the First Gent, who takes him on a broadly slapstick tour of the Capitol.
With the exception of MacMurray and Wallach’s stop-off at a burlesque show, KISSES FOR MY PRESIDENT feels like a Disney family comedy, the kind of films the tireless MacMurray was already making at the Mouse House, like THE SHAGGY DOG (1959), THE ABSENT MINDED PROFESSOR (1961), and SON OF FLUBBER (1963). Still, it’s a lot of fun, particularly if you enjoy the comedic talents Wallach demonstrated in his iconic Westerns. But beware the cop-out ending, which drowns the Second Wave Feminist concept in a warm pool of Mad Men-era chauvinism.
FACIAL HAIR: Mustache • RECOMMENDED: Yes
Next up is ACT ONE (1963) at 11 a.m. Former MGM studio chief Dore Schary directed this Moss Hart biopic, adapted by Schary from Hart’s autobiography of the same name.
George Hamilton (age 24) stars as a blandly charming Hart with the far-more-interesting Jason Robards as the notorious George S. Kaufman, with whom the playwright first collaborated on Once in a Lifetime (1930) and later You Can’t Take it With You (1936) and The Man Who Came to Dinner (1939). Bert Convy plays Hart’s buddy Archie Leach, better known as Cary Grant, and here completely lacking the accent that any moderately talented impressionist could pull off. Jack Klugman is producer friend Joe Hyman and Sam Levene is agent Richard Maxwell.
Wallach plays Broadway producer Warren Stone, and if you blink, you’ll miss him. So don’t blink.
Any charm to be found in the mostly mediocre ACT ONE lies in its Algonquin Roundtable-Era setting, with icons like Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley and Alexander Wolcott hovering around the periphery. Fun fact: Kaufman and Hart based The Man Who Came to Dinner’s Sheridan Whiteside (played by Monty Wooley in the hilarious 1942 film) on Wolcott. Feel free to mention that to the Literati at your next cocktail party.
With Hamilton’s contrived narration (“It’s happening, Moss! It’s all true!”), ACT ONE is cornball hokum that feels much older than its 1963 vintage. It’s stunning to think that Wallach would make a film as different as THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY less than three years later.
FACIAL HAIR: None • RECOMMENDED: Not really
Calling the Cinerama epic HOW THE WEST WAS WON (1962), which follows at 1 p.m., an “Eli Wallach film” is sort of like calling STAR WARS (1977) a “Peter Cushing movie.” Wallach (11th-billed in the alphabetical credits) plays desperado Charlie Gant in the Henry Hathaway-directed, train robbery climax, which must have been a logistical nightmare to shoot with three synchronized cameras. Wallach’s mustachioed bandit here is reminiscent of his bearded bandit in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, only less fun. He does his best to lighten up the beautiful but bombastic proceedings, but ten minutes out of 164 doesn’t make much of an impact.
Just about every famous actor you’ve ever heard of shows up in what the trailer proclaims is “the most fabulous film ever conceived.” In retrospect it may not even be the most fabulous film of 1962, but it’s certainly fascinating for what it tried, but ultimately failed, to do. (Due to the complicated nature of the shooting process, the prohibitive cost, and the difficulty in retrofitting the film for non-Cinerama venues, only one other narrative film was shot in in the format. All other releases were documentaries.)
Warner Bros. did an excellent job stitching together the “cinematic panorama” of the original three-screen Cinerama process into one 2.89 aspect ratio image for the 2011 Blu-ray, but no TV set of any size will ever capture the immersive quality of seeing a film like this in the theater in its native format. I somehow managed to miss HOW THE WEST WAS WON when it was screened digitally at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood during the 2012 TCM Film Fest, which is something I still haven’t forgiven myself for.
FACIAL HAIR: Mustache • RECOMMENDED: Yes (for historical significance)
“We’re all dying, aren’t we?” Marilyn Monroe says to Wallach in John Huston’s THE MISFITS (1961), which airs at 3:45 p.m. This line (and a disturbing number of others) from Arthur Miller’s relentlessly quotable screenplay proved to be prophetic. Clark Gable succumbed to a heart attack within days of the wrap, Monroe died the following year, and Montgomery Clift five years later – all well before their time.
Now that we’ve gotten past that gruesome piece of trivia, on to the movie.
Monroe plays Roslyn, a recently divorced dancer in Reno, Nevada taken under the mentoring wing of veteran divorcee Isabelle (the always stellar Thelma Ritter). Gable is Gay, the aging cowboy who falls for Roslyn, and Montgomery Clift is the young rodeo cowpoke who complicates matters. Wallach plays Guido, a mechanic who falls under Roslyn’s spell from the get-go, but remains fourth in a three-man race. Monroe and Wallach first worked together at the Actors Studio in New York in 1955, and they have a clear rapport on screen. The brief scene in which Guido discusses the death of his wife with Roslyn is nearly perfect: smartly written, subtly directed, and memorably underplayed.
Not a whole lot happens in THE MISFITS, but what does feels experimental, autobiographical, and haunted. Gable deconstructs his smirking lothario persona, the once boyish Clift looks frozen and frightened (following a 1956 car wreck that left his face partially paralyzed), and Monroe seems overcome by the nervous, damaged personality that ultimately defeated her.
Lots of Old Movie Weirdos debate the end of the “Classic Film Era.” I think you can make a case for the end being THE MISFITS, as Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe ride off into the moonlight without even so much as a goodbye.
FACIAL HAIR: Five o’clock shadow • RECOMMENDED: Highly
BABY DOLL (1956) at 6 p.m. was Wallach’s first film role after a decade on stage, and it’s one of his best. With a screenplay by Tennessee Williams, adapted from his one-act play 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, Elia Kazan’s film is set (and shot) in Mississippi, where two cotton farmers compete for the attentions of a 19-year-old nymphette.
Karl Malden is Archie Lee, the middle-aged failure who’s married to the manipulative “Baby Doll,” but isn’t allowed to touch her until she turns 20. Wallach plays Vacarro, the hot blooded Sicilian Baby Doll can’t keep her hands off. And Oscar-nominated Carroll Baker is the title character, a woman-child who sleeps in a crib in the nursery and spends much of the film “slopping around in a slip,” to the consternation of her husband.
There’s so much to recommend here: Williams’ oddball script, Kazan’s documentary-like staging, Boris Kaufman’s gorgeous black and white cinematography (also Oscar-nominated), and the courageously esoteric performances of the leads. This is a perversely hot and sexy film, surprisingly so for 1956. According to TCM, the Legion of Decency condemned the film as “grievously offensive to Christian and traditional standards of morality and decency,” and New York’s Cardinal Spellman forbade his parishioners from seeing it. If that’s not an incentive to watch it, I don’t know what is.
If you can only catch one of the movies on Monday, this is it. While THE MISFITS may be a better film all around, Wallach is front and center in BABY DOLL, and he gives a passionate, playful performance that teases the greatness that was to come.
“We’ve got nothing to do but wait for tomorrow, and see if we’re remembered or forgotten” Carroll Baker says at the end of BABY DOLL. Thanks to his legacy of great work, Eli Wallach will never be forgotten.
FACIAL HAIR: Mustache • RECOMMENDED: Highly
One more thing: if you’re in or near the New York City area, the new restoration of THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY screens in DCP on July 2 at the Harvey Theater at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, as part of the Big Screen Epics series. BAM says the historic Harvey, which began life as a Vaudeville house in 1904, is the “largest, grandest movie venue in Brooklyn.” I say it’s worth the trip to the borough of Eli Wallach’s birth to watch what is, arguably, the greatest of his films.
Thanks to Elise Crane Derby for posting the videos from TCMFF. To watch the TCM Celebrates Eli Wallach retrospective video from TCMFF 2010 click here.