Saturday, 20 March 2021

Reflections on ... Nancy & Lee in Las Vegas (1973)

This unexpectedly downbeat hour-long cinema verité-style Swedish film (made in 1973 but shelved until 1975) documents pop duo Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood’s residency at The Riviera Hotel. It instantly entranced me with its opening travelogue footage of early seventies Las Vegas in all its garish splendor. Filmed from a car window, we pass Vegas Vic the iconic neon cowboy followed by tantalizing peeks at the old-school mid-century casinos (mostly now long demolished): The Golden Nugget. The Sands. Caesars Palace. The Mint. Judging by one billboard, Sinatra’s friend and former leading man Elvis Presley is also in town, starring at the Las Vegas Hilton. But the tone is surprisingly wistful and suffused with melancholy from the start. One of the first things you hear is Sinatra’s voice complaining, “I wanna go home. I wanna go home to LA.” 

Nancy & Lee in Las Vegas is ultimately a contemplation on the cruel whims of show business, capturing Sinatra and Hazlewood on a downturn. With their heady hit-making days of the mid-sixties (heralded by the tough, sassy “These Boots are Made for Walkin’” in 1965) behind them, they are now considered passé and obligated to hustle as a nostalgia act. (Sinatra has recalled perceptively and without bitterness in the past about how in the late sixties, youth culture tastes shifted towards a preference for “serious” rock bands, making go-go booted girl singers in general and Sinatra’s brand of kitschy pop instantly obsolete. Alongside the disparate likes of Bobbie Gentry, Serge Gainsbourg and Yma Sumac, Hazlewood and Sinatra were among the acts rehabilitated in the nineties “loungecore” movement when their back catalogue was reissued on CD. They’ve been a hip reference point ever since). 

Their names may be displayed in lights and they’re headlining at the glittering high-end Riviera, but the film doesn’t make a Las Vegas residency appear glamorous. Nor is it particularly lucrative. Choreographer Hugh Lambert (Sinatra’s handsome and supportive husband, who is producing and directing her Riviera revue) confides that - initially at least - mounting the whole enterprise is so expensive it’s a money-losing venture for them. (The implication is that performing in Vegas will put Sinatra back on the map). Even Sinatra’s two bodyguards admit they are being paid peanuts for this gig. 

The focus shuttles between performance footage and backstage scenes of the musicians and entourage relaxing pre-and post-show in Sinatra’s ritzy green-and-white dressing room. They kvetch over cigarettes and beer about the indifferent audiences who talk over the songs, hostile reviews and The Riviera’s jaded and uninspired house band.  Sinatra’s between song patter onstage is surprisingly negative. She delivers a diatribe about how when she first began recording in the early sixties, people sniped that her surname bestowed her with an unfair advantage and guaranteed success. But all of her pre-“Boots” singles flopped, she snaps, so clearly it was the songs that mattered, not her family connections. Then she recalls how collaborating with songwriter and producer Lee Hazlewood changed her fortunes, resulting in a string of hits - except then he “abandoned” her to relocate to Sweden. Following that introduction, Hazlewood joins her for some duets. For connoisseurs of Lee and Nancy’s sublime “country exotica” oeuvre, these performances, including “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’”, “Did You Ever?” “Summer Wine”, “Jackson” and “Arkansas Coal” (so hushed and dramatic it’s almost performance art) offer the documentary’s highlights.   

“Psychedelic cowboy” Hazlewood gets a solo spot during the set (presumably while Sinatra changes costumes). Clad in double denim leisure wear, Hazlewood somehow looks even more seedy sans his trademark retro porn star ‘tache. His strange charisma is nicely captured as he croons a finger snappin’ rendition of the jazz standard “She’s Funny That Way.” At the end he ad libs “She’s kinda squirrelly that way. She’s kinda goofy that way. She’s kinda Nancy that way …” Sinatra herself is diminutive and doll-like. Backstage, she seems exhausted. Onstage, she’s luminous. At one point, we watch Sinatra seated before her dressing room mirror dreamily teasing and then meticulously smoothing her mane of golden hair. Nancy Sinatra was never more beautiful.

/ This candid shot of Sinatra chilling with "gal pals" Liza Minnelli and Goldie Hawn was clearly taken in the same Riviera dressing room /

Watch Nancy & Lee in Las Vegas here.

Sunday, 14 March 2021

Reflections on ... Rocco and His Brothers (1960)

/ Alain Delon and Annie Girardot in Rocco and His Brothers (1960) /

Recently watched: Italian art cinema virtuoso Luchino Visconti’s ambitious epic (177-minute!) tragedy Rocco and His Brothers (1960). In his review, critic Roger Ebert summarizes Rocco and His Brothers as “operatic” and “homoerotic” – both descriptions are apt! What greater recommendation is there? 

Led by widowed matriarch Rosaria, the Parondi family relocates from grinding poverty in the rural south to urban industrialized north (in this case, Milano) in search of better prospects. Instead, all they find is relentless catastrophe. And the options for the brothers seem limited to boxing or crime. 

Like his contemporary Pier Paolo Pasolini, Visconti had a superior “queer eye” when it came to casting handsome male actors. All five Parondi brothers are stone cold stunners – particularly beauteous young Alain Delon as Rocco. (We get ample opportunity to ogle the brothers wearing the de rigueur Italian neo-realism white “wife beater” vests, sparring in the boxing ring and showering). In terms of homoeroticism: also note the corrupt boxing promoter and how he is coded as vaguely sexually predatory (especially the scene where he walks into the gym’s changing room and stares frankly at Simone and Rocco as they shower. Although I can’t say I blame him). 

/ The memorable shower sequence in Rocco and His Brothers /

But arguably, the film is dominated by Annie Girardot as local prostitute Nadia, the Parondis’ new neighbour. Encountering the glamorous, sensual and insouciant Nadia throws a hand grenade into the family’s life, with both deeply flawed Simone (Renato Salvatori – magnificent in this complex and demanding anti-hero role) and Rocco falling hopelessly in love with her. Inevitably, heartbreak and death ensue. (As someone laments towards the end, “Christ will regret the suffering visited upon us!”). 

 / Annie Girardot and Renato Salvatori as the doomed couple in Rocco and His Brothers /

Perhaps understandably, Rosaria is prone to glancing skyward despairingly and calling Nadia a “putana.” (This archetypal black-clad Italian peasant mamma is actually played by volatile Greek actress Katina Paxinou. And Delon and Girardot are, of course, French actors playing Italian characters – and dubbed by Italian voices. Watch also for gorgeous young starlet Claudia Cardinale in a supporting role). I’m embarrassed to admit I wasn’t very au fait with Annie Girardot (1931 - 2011) beforehand but judging by her heart-wrenching performance here she was every bit the equal of other iconic European art cinema actresses like Jeanne Moreau, Anna Magnani and Monica Vitti. Time hasn’t blunted the impact of Rocco and His Brothers.

Sunday, 7 March 2021

The Lobotomy Room Test Kitchen ... Ann-Margret's Cookies


Ann-Margret is many things. A consummate entertainer. A “triple threat” (actress, singer and dancer). A sex kitten par excellence. An enthusiast of sequins. One thing she most definitely ain’t: a reliable recipe source. I attempted to make the redheaded vixen’s seemingly straightforward cookie recipe – and let’s just say it turned into a total hot mess!

My learnings: I bought North American style measuring cups rather than Googling the equivalent of every ingredient in grams. From my research: if you see the term “shortening” in an American recipe, replace with butter.  Granulated sugar and caster sugar are the same thing. “Chocolate morsels” and chocolate chips are also the same thing, and a 12-ounce package of chocolate chips (American) is pretty much the same as a 100-gram package (UK). Morrisons (my local grocery store of choice) didn’t have chopped pecans in stock, so I replaced them with a packet of chopped mixed nuts. 

I followed Ann-Margret’s instructions to the letter and carefully dolloped-out small “rounded teaspoon fulls” of the cookie batter onto a foil-lined baking tray. So far, so good. They are meant to create 100 (!) 2-inch cookies. I manged about 28 teaspoon-sized dollops onto the baking tray, so resolved to bake them in batches. But once in the oven, my cookies instantly swelled and “spread-out”, ultimately forming one giant mass and after 15-minutes (considerably longer than A-M instructs), they were still squidgy and under-cooked! (But smelled amazing). So, I left them in for a further 15-minutes until they were firmer and more of a golden-brown shade. Once it cooled I wound-up cutting this wodge of solid cookie into irregular “squares.” I mean, they taste like intensely sweet and delicious chocolate chip cookies (of course they’re delicious: their primary ingredients are butter and sugar) but they don’t look remotely like what I was expecting.  Same thing happened with the second batch. When I was scraping-out the last of the batter from the mixing bowl, the “cookie dots” became smaller – and those final cookies didn’t spread-out and flatten but remained individual circles. So that was the solution – take that “rounded teaspoon” of batter and reduce by half! 

In conclusion: little kids can make chocolate chip cookies. I’m a middle-aged experienced cook and I botched these. File under: never again!

Further reading

My recollections of seeing Ann-Margret perform at The Stardust casino in Las Vegas in 2005.

Saturday, 6 March 2021

Reflections on ... Inconceivable (2017)


Recently watched: Inconceivable (2017). Tagline: “The perfect family. Perfect friends. A perfect surrogate”. I’m using this period of enforced social isolation to explore the weirder corners of YouTube and Amazon Prime for long forgotten and obscure movies. (My boyfriend is accompanying me only semi-willingly).

This amusingly preposterous low-budget pregnancy-themed melodrama stars Nicolas Cage, Gina Showgirls Gershon and veteran scary diva par excellence Faye Dunaway. I know what you’re thinking - what a cast! Except it could have been even better! One of the lead roles (manipulative villainess Katie) was originally conceived for messy Hollywood bad girl Lindsay Lohan! (The studio demurred and Nicky Whelan, a nondescript Australian soap opera actress, played the part instead). With Lohan starring, Inconceivable would probably be embraced today as a minor modern cult favourite like Lohan’s I Know Who Killed Me (2007) rather than wholly forgotten. 

Anyway, Inconceivable cleaves very faithfully to the well-trodden conventions of eighties and nineties psycho-biddy psychological thrillers like The Hand that Rocks the Cradle and Single White Female (or in fact, The Temp which starred Dunaway herself!), but with the generic made-for-TV appearance of a Hallmark or Lifetime production. Cage and Gershon are Brian and Angela, an affluent middle-aged married couple who seemingly have it all – but struggle with infertility problems and crave another baby. They are susceptible, then, when seemingly innocent mysterious young single mother (and potential surrogate) Katie insinuates herself into their household. The only person suspicious of Katie’s intentions is Dunaway as Brian’s patrician mother. 

Points of interest: Nicolas Cage's ink-y jet black dye job gives him that that aging male Goth look suggestive of late-period Nick Cave or Marilyn Manson. And his indifferent performance couldn’t be more “phoned-in.” Gershon does most of the heavy lifting in terms of acting and at least tries to muster some identifiable human emotions. Obviously, the mere presence of the imperious La Dunaway adds instant camp appeal to any film she appears in. She apparently broke her leg just before production, so the director compensates by only filming Dunaway sitting down. You never see her standing or walking at any point. Somehow this immobility contributes to Dunaway’s stateliness. In the spirit of chivalry, I won't comment on Dunaway’s plastic surgery choices, but the huge equine veneers on her teeth do make her slur and lisp her lines. 

Fun facts: Inconceivable was filmed at the breakneck speed of just fifteen days and was scripted by Zoe King – the daughter of trash auteur Zalmon King, responsible for 1980s softcore faux-erotica like Wild Orchid (1989) starring Mickey Rourke. Inconceivable represented filmmaker Jonathan Baker’s directorial debut – and perhaps unsurprisingly, he’s never been entrusted with making a follow-up since. A nice example of Baker’s judgement: in an act of vanity, he made the executive decision to cast himself in a supporting role. Baker’s grandiose IMDb profile begins “Jonathan Baker has always been enthralled by smart storytelling and larger-than-life figures, taking inspiration from greats like Ernest Hemingway to guide his own sensibilities as a writer, producer, director and adventurer.” One of his personal quotes claims “I can wave my hand and make the impossible happen.” As the damning Hollywood Reporter review concludes: “the aptly titled Inconceivable is something that both Nicolas Cage and Faye Dunaway will want to leave off their filmographies, and at this point that’s saying something.” Inconceivable is FREE to view on Amazon Prime – as it should be!