Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Geezer Power

On March 12, 1971, a new musical by John Kander & Fred Ebb was trying out in Philadelphia when it made theatrical history in the least desirable way. One of its stars, David Burns, died onstage of a heart attack. 

A beloved face on Broadway who had won Tony Awards for his performances as Mayor Shinn in The Music Man, as Senex in A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum -- and had created the role of Horace Vandergelder in Hello, Dolly! -- Burns was hailed by actors who had worked with and admired him throughout his long career. 

"He died with his boots on!" insisted Carol Channing.

His role in 70, Girls, 70 was taken over by Hans Conreid and the show limped to Broadway's Broadhurst Theater, where it opened on April 15th (less than two weeks after Stephen Sondheim's Follies had debuted at the Winter Garden). Although 70, Girls, 70 closed after nine previews and 35 performances, I was lucky enough to see two of those performances. 

A critically flawed musical with little in box office advance sales to keep it going, the show nevertheless entertained and satisfied its audiences. Why? Most of the characters were over 70 years old. Some of the actors in the original Broadway cast were veterans of vaudeville. Many in the audience were senior citizens. With the exception of Tommy Breslin (who was cast as a hotel bellboy), so were the performers.

The cast included such veterans of stage and screen as Mildred Natwick, Henrietta Jacobson (a long-time star of the Yiddish theater), Lilian Roth, Joey Faye, Lillian Hayman, Ruth Gillette, Lucie Lancaster, and Dorothea Freitag.  Here's Mandy Patinkin singing one of my favorite songs from the show:

The plot of 70, Girls 70 involved a group of senior citizens living in a dilapidated SRO hotel who turned to shoplifting in order to raise the money needed for a down payment on their building. A large part of the musical's message was that, as people age, they shouldn't just give up, wither away, and die -- there's plenty of life to be lived if you're willing to do so. Liza Minelli, who has appeared in six Kander & Ebb musicals (Cabaret, Flora The Red Menace, The Rink, Chicago, The Act, and New York, New York) fully embraced Mildred Natwick's second act solo entitled "Yes" in concert performances.

You can still find some notable seniors performing onstage. Now 81, Estelle Parsons is climbing up and down three flights of stairs during each performance of August: Osage County as she argues with 69-year-old Elizabeth Ashley.  At 83, Angela Lansbury is about to open opposite Christine Ebersole and Rupert Everett in a Broadway revival of Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit.

Jane Powell was 75 when she appeared in Stephen Sondheim's Bounce at the Kennedy Center. Last year, at age 75, Chita Rivera starred in a production of Kander & Ebb's The Visit for the Signature Theatre. At the ripe old age of 87, Gloria Stuart received an Academy Award nomination for her performance as the 101-year-old Rose in James Cameron's Titanic.

Whether it involves a starring or character role, a career marked by longevity is the goal of every actor. Thus, I couldn't be happier to tell you about 77-year-old Martin Landau's return to the silver screen in a beautiful new independent film shot in San Francisco's Tenderloin District. If Landau's name doesn't ring a bell, perhaps you remember him from his Academy Award winning performance as Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton's nostalgic black and white film, Ed Wood.

Who could possibly forget Landau's portrayal of Bela Lugosi battling a fake octopus in that film?

You don't want to miss Landau's exquisite performance in the title role of Harrison Montgomery, which will soon be shown at the San Francisco Independent Film Festival.  As an aging eccentric who once won the lottery, Landau (who is also executive producer of the film) handily steals the show from a much younger cast. It is a stunning display of craft communicating dramatic truth that will melt the hardest of hearts.

Octavio Gomez Berrios makes a strong impression as Ricardo Papa, a small-time Tenderloin drug dealer and starving artist whose talent remains unfufilled. Ricardo lives in a seedy Tenderloin apartment building whose inhabitants include the kindly Mrs. Cutsworth (Diane Baker) as well as a motley group of junkies, prostitutes, and thugs. One of Ricardo's street friends, Maurice (Brandon O'Neil Scott), is a not-very-bright black hustler with delusions of grandeur who wants a cut of Ricardo's drug earnings.  Torsten Sannar portrays an obnoxious building manager.

Living directly below Ricardo is Harrison Montgomery (Martin Landau), an eccentric old geezer who has spent years watching Wheel of Fortune.  Possibly autistic, Harrison believes that he has discovered a secret meaning in the way numbers are spelled out across the daily puzzles seen on the game show. Across the hall from Ricardo is Margot (Melora Walters), a single mother trapped in an abusive relationship with Gary (Ron Rogge), a manipulative older man who pays some of her bills but continues to sabotage Margot's artistic aspirations. 

Gary can barely tolerate Margot's 13-year-old daughter Lattie (Krista Ott),  a precocious piece of work who likes to snoop around the building, spy on Ricardo and has no concept of boundaries. When a series of Ricardo's drug deals go bad (and his supplier threatens the young artist's life), it is Lattie's quick thinking -- along with Harrison Montgomery's long-awaited miracle -- that save the day.

Directed by Daniel Davila (who co-wrote the screenplay with Karim Ahmad), Harrison Montgomery is a fable for modern times (much like David Kaplan's appealing Year of the Fish). It doesn't add an ounce of glamour to the squalor of the Tenderloin, but does benefit immensely from Adam Gubman's musical score and Michele Collier's drawings (animated by Matt Gulley) which winningly bring Ricardo's amateur pencil sketches to life. While the film is brutally realistic in its depiction of drug deals gone bad and people living in rundown resident hotels, its ending is poignant, endearing, and quite remarkable. I can't remember experiencing such an uplifting climax to a film in a long, long time.

The critical things you should know about Harrison Montgomery are that (a) this film will never bore you, (b) this film will never disappoint you, (c) this film will inspire you, and (d) this film will leave you feeling emotionally cleansed and spiritually refreshed. Here's the trailer:

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