in memoriam

Hangover Square (1945, dir. John Brahm) and the Tragedy of Laird Cregar

(CN dieting, death)

Art that foreshadows the death of its creator– especially the death of a younger artist– contains an emotional gravity that’s hard to put into words.  This is certainly true for artists who intentionally create art to communicate their pain and self-destructive tendencies, like Elliott Smith or Amy Winehouse, but for a film actor, a particularly significant last work can retrospectively take on an element of particularly poignant, even eerie, tragedy.  I have never seen this phenomenon unfold quite like Laird Cregar’s performance in Hangover Square, which I saw last night at the Noir City Film Festival.

Laid Cregar, in a publicity still for Rings on Her Fingers (1942)

Laird Cregar, in a 1942 publicity still.

Hangover Square is a haunting Victorian tale of George Bone (Cregar), a composer who suffers from stress-induced, murderous fugue states.  Despite his formidable, brooding physical presence, George is gentle and sensitive, vulnerable to the opinion of others by the very nature of his vocation.  His friendship with his pretty blonde neighbor Barbara (Faye Marlowe) would be romantic in any other film, but is chaste in this one.  George lives a life of solitude, obsessed with his art.  Although his life’s work is classical music and he is hard at work on a concerto commissioned by Barbara’s father Sir Henry (Alan Napier), he is distracted by femme fatale Netta (Linda Darnell), who manipulates him into composing popular songs for her to perform.  Netta leads him on for the sake of her own rising star, but has her eye on svelte theater producer Eddie (Glenn Langan) as a mate.

Hangover Square was Laird Cregar’s only starring role.  He had a successful career as a character actor, his 6’3″, 300 lb body contributing to effective portrayals of villains, his characters often significantly older than the twentysomething actor.  He performed with and has been compared to Vincent Price.  However, Cregar grew tired of being typecast.  He wanted to be a leading man, but saw his weight as a barrier, describing his character type as “a grotesque.”  Starting in 1942, he crash dieted and used amphetamines to lose over 100 lbs.  In 1944, he starred in The Lodger, a horror film about a man who may be Jack the Ripper, followed by his leading role in Hangover Square.  Not satisfied with the results of his diet, Cregar opted for weight loss surgery in late 1944.  The stress that the operation caused his body led to a fatal coronary a month later, two months before the release of Hangover Square.  He was 31.


Laird Cregar in Hangover Square

As one might expect from a film whose protagonist kills people, Hangover Square doesn’t end well for George.  Trying to arrest him for Netta’s murder, Scotland Yard follows him to the debut of his concerto.  He starts a fire in an attempt to evade them, which rages out of control.  Everyone must evacuate the building before the performance is complete, despite his attempts to force the musicians to continue.  In desperation, he sits at the piano and continues from where the fleeing orchestra has left off.  The last image of the film is of George playing his masterwork as he is consumed by smoke and flames.

Cregar’s performance of George Bone serves as a grimly appropriate memorial, struggling with his mind that both created and destroyed, just as Cregar himself struggled with a career that allowed him to pursue his art but confined him in stock character roles due to his appearance.  The role he was slated for after Hangover Square went to Vincent Price.  We’ll never know if Cregar’s career could likely have been as fruitful and celebrated as his colleague’s.

See Also:

Virtual Virago: Heavy: the Life and Films of Laird Cregar

Link: Listen to Chris Farley as the Original Shrek

Footage of the original voiceover work and matching storyboards for Shrek, with Chris Farley as the title character, was recently leaked.  This coincides with the premiere of biographical documentary I Am Chris Farley, which will be available on VOD on Tuesday.  Word from the limited theatrical release is that I Am Chris Farley is a touching tribute to a sweet, insecure, funny guy who died way too young.

In Memoriam: the Dissolve

It’s one of the oldest cliches in film history:  the sudden and untimely death of a mentor.

On Wednesday, the Dissolve announced that they will no longer be producing new content.  (Today is the two-year anniversary of the site launching.)  I initially resisted the impulse to write about it– partially because I was paralyzed by how really really fucking sad the news made me, but also because I didn’t feel like I had anything to add to the discussion.  I was never an active member of the site; despite the praise for the civility of the Dissolve’s comments sections, I have a Pavlovian aversion to them, plus I never felt like anything I could have said would be smart or timely enough to warrant posting.  I’m also not a film critic, so I don’t have any thoughts on what this means about the profession’s trajectory.

But even if I don’t have anything new or insightful to say about this sad event, I can say that the Dissolve had a huge impact on CPBS.  I started writing this blog in part because I fantasized about being skilled enough to be part of the Dissolve, but at the same time, I wanted to focus on my interests and use my particular lens.  I don’t think I’m in that league, but I will continue to use their work as an aspiration for my own, both in the quality of analysis and balance between academic and casual.

The Dissolve was, of course, part of my life outside of this blog.  They were my go-to source for deciding which films were worth seeing in theaters– and many sincere thanks are due to them, especially Scott Tobias, for convincing me to see Under the Skin and Duke of Burgundy on the big screen, because those were not only two of the best cinematic experiences of my life, but both films that work for me on the level of cyphers for complicated and somewhat ineffable aspects of my life experience.

I have no doubt that the talented team behind the Dissolve will be on their feet and onto new projects very soon, and I look forward to following their work.  In the meantime, I and many others will continue to run around in the backyard, playing at being Dissolve staff.

Related links:

Happy 100th birthday, Orson Welles

He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?

–Tana (Marlene Dietrich), Touch of Evil 

A few months ago, I saw a theater production called Mr. Burns: a Post-Electric Play.  Mr. Burns is three snapshots in three acts of life in the United States after a catastrophe that causes the nation’s electric grid to shut down.  We see society rebuilding itself from the detritus of our contemporary world through the lens of performance art, specifically the survival and evolution of The Simpsons episode “Cape Feare.”  As the timeline progresses two, ten, then eighty years out from the disaster, “Cape Feare” evolves from a Simpsons episode being recounted by two fans to fellow survivors around a campfire, to a highly stylized opera in which characters and stories have synthesized various aspects of culture, such as Mr. Burns in Joker makeup giving a version of Robert Mitchum’s speech about the battle between love and hate from Night of the Hunter.

I bring this up not to brag about the best play I’ve ever seen (okay, maybe a little bragging), but because it’s such a vibrant illustration of how pieces of history and culture survive through being contained within newer works.  For instance, I will be watching Cape Fear for the first time this week in preparation for a Director’s Club bonus episode, but I have a basic understanding of the plot and characters thanks to “Cape Feare,” which was probably in turn the most exposure some of my Simpsons-watching peers who didn’t have classical music as a presence in their lives had of Gilbert & Sullivan.

I bring all this up as a precursor to my experience of Orson Welles, who was born May 6, 1915.  I was 1 when Welles died, so I have no memories of him as a living person.  My first exposure to Welles was caricatures of him in later life, as in 1994-1995’s the Critic:

I knew him as an glowering old man who embodied fat stereotypes.  I’m sure a lot of my memories of this images of Welles are mixed up with similar jokes about Marlon Brando. I found out somewhere along the way that he had created the War of the Worlds radio play, but it was difficult enough to wrap my brain around a play that was limited to sound and had the power to drive people to hysteria, let alone the man behind it.  (This was before Welcome to Nightvale, kids.)

My image of Orson Welles was changed as a teenager when I saw Cradle Will Rock, featuring Angus MacFayden’s portrayal of Welles as a leonine artistic genius on the vanguard of modern theater, and again as an inspirational vision in Ed Wood (played by Vincent D’Onofrio and voice by Maurice LaMarche, who also provided the voice acting for Welles in The Critic):

Two seemingly disparate images of a dynamo and a has-been, both large but the latter cartoonishly fat, and neither quite adding up to a full, real artist and human being.  Welles is, of course, best known for his association with Citizen Kane, usually found at the top of best-of lists.  But this often feels perfunctory, especially being so chronologically removed from Citizen Kane that its reputation far proceeded my viewing of it.  Welles feels like the cinematic equivalent of Shakespeare in this respect.

I started watching other films that Welles directed about a week ago, hoping to find something to write about for CPBS and not realizing it was almost the 100 year anniversary of his birth.  (I like to think this is a sign that I am part of a brilliant fat person hive mind that transcends the limits of death.)  I’m not usually automatically enraptured by well-regarded classic films, so hopefully this comes across as more than a cliche reaction:  I was completely blown away by Welles’ mastery of the camera in The Lady from Shanghai and Touch of Evil.


WOW.  (This clip is violent, be forewarned.)

At the end of Touch of Evil, Welles’ character Captain Quinlan is proven to be right in his hunch about the perpetrator of a crime, although the other characters have been disregarding him because of his reputation as a corrupt drunk.  It’s nearly impossible to eclipse one’s reputation.  It may be foolishly idealistic, but given the sheer brilliance of his work, I hope that Welles’ legacy as a great director and writer will live on at least as much as the fat jokes about him.

Related links:

Link: The epic uncool of Philip Seymour Hoffman

I’ve been a long term admirer of Philip Seymour Hoffman, and was deeply saddened by the news of his death last year.  His charisma was polymorphous; he could bring warmth and humanity to even the most detestable character.  One of the first roles I noticed him in was as Allen in Todd Solondz’s Happiness.  Watching him make obscene phone calls to the various women in the film, I wondered, Why do I like this guy?

I’d been considering a series on Hoffman as a long-term project for this blog, but considering his prolific 20+ years making movies, I’m more than happy to let the professionals do the heavy lifting.  God bless Nathan Rabin, whose recent article at the Dissolve presents a comprehensive look at Philip Seymour Hoffman’s career.

RIP Robin Williams (1951-2014)

Next door the tv’s flashing
Blue frames on the wall,
It’s a comedy of errors, you see,
It’s about taking a fall.
To vanish into oblivion
Is easy to do,
And I try to be, but you know me
I come back when you want me to.

–Elliott Smith, “Miss Misery”

Very few people would categorize Robin Williams as a fat actor, but as the blogger is a child of the 90’s, he deserves a brief memorial on CPBS.

Grief isn’t a zero sum game, and I know that people around the world from all generations are mourning today.  But Robin Williams has a special place in the hearts of many early millennials as one of the main actors of our childhood, our first celebrity.  He was one of the first to make that connection in my mind between movies and real people, the idea that a person could make a life out of playing make-believe.

When I was in second grade, my “boyfriend” was a huge fan of Mork and Mindy.  Our romantic life consisted of me giving him a smooch on the cheek, to which he would respond “Nanoo nanoo!”.  I wonder how he’s doing today.

I remember the excitement when Aladdin came out, that Robin Williams was the voice of the Genie, a casting choice that ushered in the era of stars lending their voices to animated features as a norm.  I remember the excitement about seeing Hook in theaters because Robin Williams was playing Peter Pan, also there was some guy named Dustin Hoffman in it who my parents liked.  I didn’t even know that Steven Spielberg directed it until a few months ago, if you were clinging to any delusions about me being any kind of authority on film.  His performance in Mrs. Doubtfire holds similar nostalgia for me, making me reluctant to admit its problematic areas as a grownup feminist.

I started high school and started taking acting lessons and getting interested in Deep Art Films around the time that Good Will Hunting came out, and Robin gained attention for doing a spate of more serious roles.  I didn’t know about his earlier films like Good Morning Vietnam at that point, but it felt like a cultural shift that paralleled my own sudden moodiness and dissatisfaction with the world I had been dropped into.  I never got around to seeing One Hour Photo, but just knowing that the silly, wacky guy from my childhood was now an obsessive weirdo felt appropriate on a cosmic level.  And then I saw Dead Poets Society, which told me that I could find an internal freedom through art, and as the detainee of a Catholic high school, that means everything.  (On a similar note, his grounded and warm performance in The Birdcage was one of the first gay characters I saw who was neither a hollow stereotype nor a sterilized victim.  I tend to have political reservations around straight actors portraying queer/trans characters, but that film was a very welcome respite during a time when I was trying to sort through my own sexual and gender identity while being steeped in cis/heterosexism.) 

In my sophomore religion class, two classmates of mine had written on the chalkboard: “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may/ Old time is still a-flying/ And this same flower that smiles today/ Tomorrow will be dying”.  I wonder how they’re doing today.

I didn’t know about his struggles with mental illness.  It’s scary to be living with a mood disorder and see someone else who is successful and talented and “supposed to” have more reasons to live succumb to their illness.  I felt that shadow cast by my own mind when Elliott Smith died, and I feel it today.  Many other people who live with mood disorders feel that way today; if you are one of them, and you’re struggling, please reach out to friends or family.  It can be difficult to share your pain, but please believe that there are people in this world who want you in it, and listening to you vent or being there while you cry or helping you distract yourself are tasks they do willingly.  If you feel like you may harm yourself and don’t know who to talk to, please consider calling a number from this list of suicide hotlines.  If you want to express concern and support for a loved one who is depressed, advice blogger Captain Awkward has some ideas for how to do so.

In response to news of Robin Williams’ death, film critic Keith Phipps referenced the old joke about the man who goes to a doctor because he’s depressed.  The doctor recommends he take his mind off his worries by going to the circus to see the famous clown Pagliacci.  “But Doctor,” the man replies, “I am Pagliacci.”  It’s so easy to see people in one dimension, to see them as means to an end, to shoehorn them into our expectations.  The comedian who must always be in a joking mood, who exists for our entertainment (and only one specific type, as we express surprise that a funny person would be able to give a competent dramatic performance).  The person who says they’re depressed; I don’t see what there is to be so sad about, they should cheer up.  The fat character whose pathetic antics make the slim protagonist look better by comparison.  The black youth who must be up to no good, whose lives are regulated and terminated by law enforcement “just doing their job”.  This mentality is the slippery slope to alienation and oppression, and it affects all of us sooner or later. I’m not saying that his public persona drove Robin Williams to die by suicide, but I can only imagine that it must have been lonely inside that persona at times.  

Robin Williams was a man of great talent, and gave the world decades of work to appreciate and enjoy.  As we remember him, let’s think of a blue genie and an alien and a Southie psychologist, but above all, let’s think of a human being who struggled and triumphed and failed and carried on and loved and was loved.  

Was deeply loved, even if we didn’t realize how much so until yesterday.

A Selection of Articles Memorializing Robin Williams:

Please share your memories of Robin Williams in the comments.