Retro Television Reviews: Sarah T — Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic (dir by Richard Donner)


Welcome to Retro Television Reviews, a feature where we review some of our favorite and least favorite shows of the past!  On Sundays, I will be reviewing the made-for-television movies that used to be a primetime mainstay.  Today’s film is 1975’s Sarah T — Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic.  It  can be viewed on YouTube!

In 1975, two years after shocking audiences in and receiving an Oscar nomination for The Exorcist, Linda Blair played Sarah Travis.  Sarah is fourteen years old.  She has a high IQ.  She lives in a nice suburban home.  She has an older sister named Nancy (Laurette Sprang) and she makes a good deal of money working as a babysitter.  Sarah lives with her mother, Jean (Verna Bloom) and her stepfather, Matt (William Daniels).  She misses her father, a chronically unemployed artist named Jerry (Larry Hagman).  Jerry is the type who will complain about how no one is willing to give him a chance while he’s day drinking early in the morning.  Jerry’s an alcoholic.  That’s one of the many things that led to Jean divorcing him.  (Matt is fairly regular drinker as well but it soon becomes apparent that he can handle his liquor in a way that Jerry cannot.  Matt has a glass of Scotch after work.  Jerry has his daughter by a slushy so he can pour his beer in the cup.)  Jean is always quick to keep Sarah from drinking.  When someone offers her a drink at a party, Jean replies that Sarah only drinks ginger ale.

Of course, the name of this movie is Sarah T. — Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic so we already know that Jean is incorrect about that.  When we first meet Sarah, she is fourteen and she’s been regularly drinking for two years.  She’s even worked out a system where she gets liquor delivered to the house and then tells the deliveryman that her mother is in the shower but she left the money for the booze on the dining room table.  Like many alcoholics, Sarah has become very good at tricking people and hiding her addiction.  Of course, Sarah doesn’t think that she’s an alcoholic but …. well, again, just check out the title of the film.

When Sarah goes to a party with Ken (Mark Hamill, two years before Star Wars), the handsome captain of the school’s swim team, she ends up having too much to drink.  Nice guy Ken not only takes her home but also takes the blame, telling Jean and Matt that he was the one who gave Sarah the alcohol.  Jean, convinced that this is the first time that Sarah has ever gotten drunk, forbids her from spending any more time with Ken.  In the morning, Jean comments that Sarah will probably have a terrible hangover and maybe that’s punishment enough.  The joke, of course, is on Jean.  Sarah doesn’t even get hangovers anymore.

Soon, Sarah’s grades start to slip and she starts to skip class so that she can drink.  Still blaming Ken for all of Sarah’s problems, Jean finally takes Sarah to a psychologist, Dr. Kitteridge (Michael Lerner).  Dr. Kitteridge announces that Sarah is an alcoholic and recommends that she start attending A.A. meetings.  Sarah does go to one meeting, in which she meets a surprisingly cheerful 12 year-old alcoholic.  However, Sarah still has a way to go and so does the movie.  I mean, we haven’t even gotten to the scene where Sarah begs a group of older boys to give her the bottle of wine that they’re clumsily tossing in the air.  By the end of the film, she’s even managed to hurt poor, loyal Ken.

Myself, I hardly ever drink.  Some of that is because, like Sarah, I’m the daughter of an alcoholic and a child of divorce and I’ve seen firsthand how difficult it can be to live with an addiction.  (My Dad has been sober for five years and I am so proud of him!)  Of course, another reason why I hardly ever drink is because my tolerance for alcohol is amazingly low.  I get drunk off one sip of beer.  Long ago, I realized my life would be a lot easier and simpler if I just didn’t drink and so I don’t.  Watching the film, I wondered if I was watching what my life would have been like if I had gone the opposite route.  Would I have ended up like Sarah T?

Probably not.  Sarah T is one of those films that was obviously made with the best of intentions but it just feels inauthentic.  A lot of that is due to the performance of Linda Blair, who often seems to be overacting and trying too hard to give an “Emmy-worthy” performance.  There’s not much depth to Blair’s performance and, as a result, the viewer never really buys into the story.  At her worse, Blair brings to mind Jessie Spano shouting, “I’m so excited!” during that episode of Saved By The Bell.  (Blair was far better served by B-movies like Savage Streets, in which she got to kick ass as a vigilante, than by films like this.)  As well, the film’s portrayal of A.A. is so cheerful, upbeat, and positive that it almost felt like a Disney version of InterventionWho are all of these happy addicts? I wondered as I watched the scene play out.

Because I’ve been a bit critical of his acting abilities in the past, I do feel the need to point out that Mark Hamill gives the best performance in this film.  He plays Ken as being a genuinely decent human being and it’s hard not to sympathize with him as he gets in over his head trying to deal with Sarah.  If Blair plays every emotion on the surface, Hamill suggests that there’s a lot going on with Ken.  Deep down, he knows that he can’t help Sarah but he still feels like he has to try.  Though Blair may be the star of the film, it’s Hamill who makes the biggest impression.

As a final note, this film was directed by Richard Donner, who is best-known for directing The Omen, Superman and Lethal Weapon.  This was Donner’s final made-for-TV film before he moved into features.  There’s nothing particularly special about Donner’s direction of Sarah T.  If anything, the film’s pacing feels a bit off.  Fortunately, just as Linda Blair would get to prove herself as one of the queens of exploitation cinema and Mark Hamill would go on to achieve immortality as Luke Skywalker, Donner would get plenty of opportunities to show himself to be one of Hollywood’s premier, big budget maestros.

As for Sarah T., I would recommend watching it on a double bill with Go Ask Alice.

Lisa Reviews A Palme d’Or Winner: Barton Fink (dir by Joel and Ethan Coen)


With the Cannes Film Festival underway in France, I decided that I would spend the next few days watching and reviewing some of the previous winners of the Palme d’Or.  Today, I got things started with the 1991 winner, Barton Fink.

Directed by the Coen Brothers and taking place in the mythological Hollywood of 1941, Barton Fink tells the story of a writer.  Played by John Turturro, Barton Fink is a playwright who has just had a big hit on Broadway.  We don’t see much of the play.  In fact, we only hear the final few lines.  “No,” one the actors says, in exaggerated “common man” accent, “it’s early.”  From what we hear of the reviews and from Barton himself, it seems obvious that the play is one of those dreary, social realist plays that were apparently all the rage in the late 30s.  Think Waiting for Lefty.  Think Hand That Rocks The Cradle.  Think of the Group Theater and all of the people that Elia Kazan would later name as having been communists.  These plays claimed to tell the stories of the people who couldn’t afford to see a Broadway production.

Barton considers himself to be the voice of the common man, an advocate for the working class.  He grandly brags that he doesn’t write for the money or the adulation.  He writes to give a voice to the voiceless.  When his agent tells him that Capitol Pictures wants to put Barton under contract, Barton resists.  His agent assures Barton that the common man will still be around when Barton returns from Hollywood.  There might even be a few common people in California!  “That’s a rationalization,” Barton argues.  “Barton,” his agent replies with very real concern, “it was a joke.”  Barton, we quickly realize, does not have a sense of humor and that’s always a huge problem for anyone who finds themselves in a Coen Brothers film.

In Hollywood, Barton meets the hilariously crass Jack Lipnik (Oscar-nominated Michael Lerner).  Lipnik is the head of Capitol Pictures and he is sure that Barton can bring that “Barton Fink feeling” to a Wallace Beery wrestling picture.  Barton has never wrestled.  He’s never even seen a film.  The great toast of Broadway finds himself sitting in a decrepit hotel room with peeling wallpaper.  He stares at his typewriter.  He writes three or four lines and then …. nothing.  He meets his idol, Faulknerish writer W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney), and discovers that Mayhew is a violent drunk and that most his recent work was actually written by his “secretary,” Audrey (Judy Davis).  He seeks help from producer Ben Geisler (Tony Shalhoub), who cannot understand why Barton is having such a difficult time writing what should be a very simple movie.  Barton sits in his hotel room and waits for inspiration that refuses to come.

He also gets to know Charlie Meadow (John Goodman).  Charlie is Barton’s neighbor.  Charlie explains that he’s an insurance agent but he really sells is “peace of mind.”  At first, Barton seems to be annoyed with Charlie but soon, Barton finds himself looking forward to Charlie’s visits.  Charlie always brings a little bottle of whiskey and a lot of encouragement.  Charlie assures Barton that he’ll get the script written.  Barton tells Charlie that he wants to write movies and plays about “people like you.”  Charlie shows Barton a wrestling move.  Barton tells Charlie to visit his family if he’s ever in New York.  Charlie tells Barton, “I could tell you some stories” but he never really gets the chance because Barton is usually too busy talking about his ambitions to listen.  Charlie tells Barton, “Where there’s a head, there’s hope,” a phrase that takes on a disturbing double meaning as the film progresses.  Just as Barton isn’t quite the class warrior that he believes himself to be, Charlie isn’t quite what he presents himself to be either.  Still, in the end, Charlie is far more honest about who he is than Barton could ever hope to be.

When it comes to what Barton Fink is actually about, it’s easy to read too much into it.  The Coens themselves have said as much, saying that some of the film’s most debated elements don’t actually have any deeper meaning beyond the fact that they found them to be amusing at the time.  At its simplest, Barton Fink is a film about writer’s block.  Anyone who has ever found themselves struggling to come up with an opening line will be able to relate to Barton staring at that nearly blank page and they will also understand why Barton comes to look forward to Charlie visiting and giving him an excuse not to write.  It’s a film about the search for inspiration and the fear of what that inspiration could lead to.  Towards the end of the film, Barton finds himself entrusted with a box that could contain his worst fears or which could cpntain nothing at all.  There’s nothing to stop Barton from opening the box but he doesn’t and it’s easy to understand why.  To quote another Coen Brothers film, “Embrace the mystery.”

There’s plenty of other theories about what exactly is going on in Barton Fink but, as I said before, I think it’s easy to overthink things.  The Coens have always been stylists and sometimes, the style is the point.  That said, I do think that it can be argued that Barton Fink’s mistake was that he allowed himself to think that he was important than he actually was.  Self-importance is perhaps the one unforgivable sin in the world of the Coen Brothers.  Like most Coen films, Barton Fink takes place in a universe that is ruled by chaos and the random whims of fate.  Barton’s mistake was thinking that he could understand or tame that chaos through his art or his politics.  Barton’s mistake is that he tries to rationalize and understand a universe that is irrational and incapable of being explained.  He’s a self-declared storyteller who refuses to listen to the stories around him because those stories might challenge what he considers to be the “life of the mind.”

Barton Fink is a film that people either seem to love or they seem to hate.  Barton, himself, is not always a  particularly likable character and the Coens seem to take a very definite joy in finding ways to humiliate him.  Fortunately, Barton is played by John Turturro, an actor who has the ability to find humanity in even the most obnoxious of characters.  (As obnoxious as Barton can be, it’s hard not to want to embrace him when he awkwardly but energetically dances at a USO club.)  Turturro has great chemistry with John Goodman, who gives one of his best performances as Charlie.  It’s putting it lightly to say that most viewers will have mixed feelings about Charlie but the film makes such great use of Goodman’s natural likability that it’s only on a second or third viewing that you realize that all of Charlie’s secrets were pretty much out in the open from the start.  Michael Lerner deserved his Oscar nomination but certainly Goodman deserved one as well.  The rest of the cast is full of Coen Brothers regulars, including Jon Polito as Lerner’s obsequies assistant and Steve Buscemi as Chet, the very friendly front deskman.  And finally, I have to mention Christopher Murney and Richard Portnow, who play two of the worst cops ever and who deliver their hardboiled dialogue with just the right mix of menace and parody.

Barton Fink won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, defeating such films as Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever and Lars Von Trier’s Europa.  It also won awards for the Coens and for John Turturro.  It’s perhaps not a film for everyone but it’s one that holds up well and which continues to intiruge.  Don’t just watch it once.  This isn’t a film that can fully appreciated by just one viewing.  This isn’t a Wallace Beery wrestling picture.  This is Barton Fink!

Cleaning Out The DVR: Outlaw Blues (dir by Richard T. Heffron)


The 1977 film, Outlaw Blues, opens in Huntsville State Prison. An arrogant country music star named Garland Dupree (James T. Callahan) is about to perform for the prisoners. He’s hoping his Huntsville concert will do for him what playing at Folsom did for Johnny Cash. The warden insists that Garland listen to a song written and performed by a soft-spoken prisoner named Bobby Ogden (Peter Fonda). A visibly annoyed Garland agrees but he doesn’t actually listen while Bobby performs. Instead, Garland is too busy arguing with the manager of his record label, Hatch (Michael Lerner). However, the members of Garland’s backup band record Bobby as he sings.

Several months later, Bobby is about to be released from prison when he learns that Garland is performing his song. Not only has Garland made it a hit but he’s also taking credit for writing it! Garland and Hatch even copyrighted the song, something that Bobby was never able to do because he was in prison.

Released from prison, Bobby ends up in Austin. He wants to stay out of prison and get his life straightened out. He wants to pursue a career as a singer. And he wants Garland to admit that he stole Bobby’s song. Unfortunately, when Bobby confronts Garland, things escalate and Garland ends up accidentally getting shot. Garland survives but now Bobby has the police after him. With the help of one of Garland’s former backup singers, Tina Waters (Susan Saint James), Bobby tries to become a star while staying one step ahead of the cops. Like the outlaws of old, Bobby and Tina sneak around Texas, performing where they can. (Knowing that any publicity is good publicity, Tina often calls the cop just as Bobby finishes his show, all the better for her and Bobby to make a dramatic escape.) Hatch is eager to record and release a Bobby Ogden record but both Bobby and Tina know that he can’t be trusted. But with the cops closing in, what choice do they have?

For a film about criminals on the run, Outlaw Blues is a surprisingly loose and laid back movie. It’s definitely a product of the 70s. It celebrates rebellion and doing your own thing, it mixes drama and comedy and, because it was made in the 70s, you know there’s always a good chance that, regardless of how pleasant the majority of the film may be, everyone’s going to die at the end of the movie. That definitely adds some tension to the film’s story that might not otherwise be there. For the most part, though, this is an enjoyable little lark of a drive-in movie. It celebrates individualism while also finding time for a few songs and a car chase or two.

A good deal of the film’s charm is the result of the chemistry between the two stars. Peter Fonda and Susan Saint James just seem as if they belong together and they both play characters who are written with slightly more depth than you might otherwise expect from what was obviously meant to be a cheap, drive-in film. Tina may appear to be a hippie but, as played by Saint James, she eventually turns out to be a clever businesswoman and promoter. As for Peter Fonda, he definitely had his acting limitations but he also had a nice smile and a far more likable screen presence than you might suspect if you only know him from his remote performance in Easy Rider. In Outlaw Blues, Fonda’s inexpressive manner feels right for someone who has spent most of his life in prison and who is still adjusting to being on the outside. Fonda wins you over and, once his character falls in love with Saint James, Fonda starts to relax and you get the feeling that both he and Bobby Ogden are having fun.

Outlaw Blues may be a minor 70s film but it’s likable. It has an amiable spirit which makes it worth watching.

Anguish (1987, directed by Bigas Luna)


John Pressman (Michael Lerner) is a mentally unbalanced, middle-aged, diabetic mama’s boy who is losing his eyesight.  When his mother (Zelda Rubinstein) orders John to go out and collect healthy eyes, it leads to John going on a rampage that eventually brings him to a movie theater.  After he barricades everyone inside, he starts to pick off the patrons one-by-one, removing their eyes with a scalpel.

Meanwhile, in another theater, an audience watches John’s rampage on the big screen.  Is the story of John Pressman just a movie?  Maybe.  But in the audience, people start to react strangely.  A woman breaks down in tears.  When John Pressman starts to kill people in his movie, a man in the audience starts to kill people in the real theater.  When the mother in the movie-within-a-movie sends her son out to get eyes, is she after the eyes of the people in her movie or the people watching in the audience?  Has the madman in the audience been possessed by the movie or is he just another spree killer, an ever-present threat in both the movies and the real world?  And how will his rampage be stopped?

Anguish is a clever, multi-layered Spanish horror film.  Watching the film, it’s important to remember that it was produced in the middle of a worldwide moral panic about whether or not people could experience violent movies without becoming violent themselves.  At first, it seems like the film is saying that horror movies are a bad influence but then there’s a twist ending that turns the entire premise on its head.  As the movie peels away layer after layer of plot, you’ll find yourself wondering what’s real and what’s just a movie.

An unheralded horror classic, Anguish is two good movies in one.  Obviously, the film about John Pressman and his crazy mother is considerably more cheesy than the one about the madman in the “real” world but both films are full of atmosphere, suspense, and a some surprisingly grisly violence.  The movie-within-a-movie also features Michael Lerner and Zelda Rubinstein, two actors who just seem like they were destined to play a henpecked son and his crazy mother.  Lerner is one of the best character actors around and Anguish gives him a rare leading role.  Lerner makes the most of it, carefully cutting out eyeballs while his mother’s voice echoes in his head.

Anguish is a good head trip of a film.  It’s long been rumored that Anguish contains subliminal images and sounds that are designed to make the people watching feel nervous.  I don’t know if that’s true, though the film does open with the following classic warning:

During the film you are about to see, you will be subject to subliminal messages and mild hypnosis.

This will cause you no physical harm or lasting effect, but if for any reason you lose control or feel that your mind is leaving your body — leave the auditorium immediately.

Luckily, Anguish is available on DVD and Blu-ray so you can watch it in the safety of your own home.

A Cry For Help (1975, directed by Daryl Duke)


Harry Freeman (Robert Culp) is a radio talk show host in California who specializes in abusing his listeners.  They call in and they tell Harry their problems and their opinions and then Harry tells them that they’re stupid and whiny.  Despite (or maybe because of) his abrasive style, Harry is very popular.  Everyone on the California coast listens to him in the morning.

When a depressed teenage girl named Ingrid (Elayne Heilveil) calls his show and says that she’s going to kill herself, Harry doesn’t taker her seriously and tells her to go ahead and do it.  It’s only after he hangs up on her that he realizes that she might have actually been telling the truth.  When Harry calls the cops to tell them about the call, they treat him in much the same way that he treated Ingrid.  They refuse to take him or Ingrid seriously.

Not getting any help from the police, Harry turns to his listeners.  He asks them to help him track down Ingrid and to keep her from harming herself.  The film alternates between scenes of Ingrid meeting people throughout the day and then Harry in his studio, taking calls from those people.  Since Ingrid is no longer listening to Harry’s show, she has no idea that people are looking for her and it becomes a race against time to find her before she carries out her plans.

A Cry For Help is largely a showcase for Robert Culp, a talented actor whose career was often harmed by his own independence and reputation for being abrasive.  That reputation made him the perfect choice to play Harry and Culp gives a terrific performance as a not particularly nice man trying to do the right thing for once.  Interestingly, the film keeps it ambiguous as to whether Harry has really had an attack of conscience or if he’s just trying to save Ingrid for the publicity and the ratings.  Even at the end of the film, it’s hard to know if Harry was really worried about Ingrid ending her life or if he was just looking to promote himself.

Along with Culp, the film’s cast is a who’s who of 70s television actors.  Among those who Ingrid and Harry deal with during the day: Michael Lerner, Bruce Boxlietner, Ken Swofford, Chuck McCann, Julius Harris, and Gordon Jump.  Seeing Jump in the film was especially interesting since he would later star in another production about the potential power of radio, WKRP In Cincinnati.

A Cry For Help is a suspenseful made-for-TV movie from 1975.  It’s never been released on DVD but it is on YouTube.

The King of Love (1987, directed by Anthony Wilkinson)


From the depths of the 80s comes this soapy film about a publisher played by Nick Mancuso whose father issues fuel not only his rise but also his fall.  When the movie starts, Mancuso is dying because he’s been shot by an unknown assassin but he still needs someone to give him some answers before he can give up the mortal coil.  Much like Dutch Schultz deliriously babbling about his dog Biscuit after getting fatally wounded, Mancuso spends his last minutes flashing back to how he became America’s most controversial magazine publisher.

In a ruthless and methodical fashion, Mancuso rose up the ranks from being just a lowly photographer to being the publisher of Love, a magazine that may remind you of Playboy and Penthouse but which is definitely not either one because it’s called Love.  Because sex and nudity sells, Love grows to be a billion dollar empire but, along the way, Mancuso uses and alienates everyone who gets close to him.  With his outspoken views on politics and his advocacy for free love and personal freedom, he also become the number one enemy of anti-pornography crusaders everywhere.  Only his partners, Nat (Michael Lerner) and Annie (Sela Ward), are willing to stay with him, mostly because they’re both in love with him.

Mancuso is obsessed with running a rival publisher out of business.  Jack Kraft (Rip Torn) is just a ruthless as Mancuso and he also might be his father.  In fact, everything that Mancuso does is because he wants to get revenge on Jack for not being there for him as he was growing up, even though he doesn’t have any definite proof that Jack is actually his father and Jack refuses to say whether he is or isn’t.  As Mancuso lies on his death bed, Jack stops in for one last visit.  Mancuso finally asks Jack flat-out if he’s his father.  “I don’t know,” Jack answers, as the film draws to a close.  I know that’s a big spoiler but it probably does not matter because this film has never been released on video and it probably never will be.  My mom has a copy on VHS tape, which she recorded when it originally aired in 1987.  It even has the original commercials.  It’s possible my mom may have the only copy of this film in existence, I don’t know.

The King of Love‘s attempt to be daring and racy is sabotaged by its origin as a made-for-TV movie from the 80s.  There may be a lot of talk about sex but you’re not going to see or hear anything that could have gotten ABC fined by the FCC.  What’s most interesting about The King of Love is the way that the film combines the personas of the three most famous adult magazine publishes.  Mancuso dresses like Bob Guccione, spouts Hugh Hefner’s philosophy, and ultimately suffers Larry Flynt’s fate.  Otherwise, the movie’s not very interesting at all but it is also ways enjoyable to watch Rip Torn play an arrogant bad guy and Michael Lerner manages to overcome a bad script and give an effective performance as Mancuso’s conflicted second-in-command.

Film Review: Firehouse (1973, directed by Alex March)


Firefighter Shelly Forsythe (Richard Roundtree) has just been assigned to a new firehouse and, from the minute he shows up, it’s trouble.  Not only is he resented for taking the place of a popular (if now dead) firefighter but he’s also the first black to have ever been assigned to that firehouse.  Led by angry racist Skip Ryerson (Vince Edwards), the other firemen immediately distrust Forsythe and subject him to a grueling hazing.  However, Forsythe is determined to prove that he’s just as good as any white firefighter and refuses to be driven out.  While the firehouse simmers with racial tensions, a gang of arsonists is setting buildings on fire.

Firehouse does not have much of a plot but what little it does have, it deals with in a brisk 72 minutes.  Forsythe shows up for his first day.  Everyone hazes him.  Forsythe gets mad.  There’s a big fire.  And then the movie ends, without resolving much.  Ryerson is still a racist and Forsythe is still mad at almost everyone in the firehouse.  The characters are all paper thin and most of the fire fighting scenes are made up of grainy stock footage.  What does make the film interesting is the way that it handles the causal racism of almost every white character.  Ryerson, for instance, comes across as being an unrepentant racist but the film suggests that this is mostly due to him being too stubborn to change his ways and that Ryerson’s not that bad once you get to know him.  When Andrew Duggan’s fire chief instructs Forsythe not to take any of the constant racial remarks personally, Firehouse portrays it as if Duggan is giving good and reasonable advice.  The mentality was typical for 1973 but wouldn’t fly today.

One reason why Firehouse ends so abruptly is because it was a pilot for a television series.  At the time Firehouse aired, it had been only two years since Roundtree starred as John Shaft and NBC hoped that to recapture that magic on a weekly basis.  However, it would take another year before the Firehouse television series went into production and, by that time, Roundtree had left the project.  In fact, with the exception of Richard Jaeckel, no one who appeared in the pilot went on to appear in the short-lived TV series.

The DVD of Firehouse is infamous for featuring a picture of Fred Williamson on the cover, in which Williamson is smoking a cigar and wearing a fireman’s helmet.  Williamson does not appear anywhere in Firehouse and I can only imagine how many people have sat through Firehouse expecting to see a Fred Williamson blaxploitation film, just to discover that it was actually a Richard Roundtree television pilot.  Firehouse probably would have been better if it had starred Fred Williamson.  Roundtree’s good but sometimes, you just need The Hammer.

An Olympic Film Review: Goldengirl (dir by Joseph Sargent)


The 1979 film Goldengirl is a film that I had wanted to see ever since I first came across this trailer on one of the 42nd Street Forever compilation DVDs:

Wow, I wondered.  What was Goldengirl’s secret and why was she ordering James Coburn to kiss her feet?  For that matter, why did James Coburn have a haircut that made him look exactly like this old lady who used to live next door to my grandma in Fort Smith?  What did it all have to do with the villain from The Spy Who Loved Me and just how drunk was Robert Culp when he shot his scenes?  Even more importantly, why did Goldengirl keep running into that wall?  That looked painful!

I did some research.  (That’s a fancy way of saying that I looked the movie up on Wikipedia.)  I discovered that Goldengirl was made in 1979.  It was originally meant to be a television miniseries that would not only air during the 1980 Summer Olympics but which would feature Goldengirl competing at those Olympics!  However, during production, it was decided to just use the material for a feature film instead. (Hmmmm, I thought, behind-the-scenes drama!  Intriguing!)  The film was released in June of ’79 and, despite one rave review from Vincent Canby in the New York Times, the film failed at the box office.  Add to that, the U.S. ultimately boycotted the 1980 summer games, which made Goldengirl‘s Olympic-set climax a bit awkward.

I also discovered that Goldengirl is nearly impossible to see.  It’s never been released on DVD or Blu-ray or any digital or streaming service.  So, I resigned myself to the fact that I’d probably never see Goldengirl and, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I really didn’t care that much.

However, for the past few days, I have been absolutely obsessed with the Winter Olympics.  Even though it was a Summer Olympic movie, I decided to go on YouTube and see if anyone had uploaded Goldengirl since I last checked.

And guess what?

They had!

Now, here’s the problem.  The two guys who uploaded Goldengirl also talked over the entire movie.  Don’t get me wrong.  The movie looked about as good as a VHS copy of a movie from 1979 is ever going to look.  And I could still follow Goldengirl‘s story, even if I sometimes had to really strain to hear the dialogue over the two guys “commenting” on it.  Still, it meant that I had to put a bit more effort into watching this movie than it perhaps deserved.  It was kinda hard not to resent that.

Anyway, I have finally seen Goldengirl and I can now tell you that it’s a pretty lousy movie.  Goldengirl is Goldine (Susan Anton).  Her father is a German scientist who used to work for the Nazis.  When he came to the United States, he decided to prove that his theories of eugenics were correct by adopting a daughter and breeding her to be the world’s greatest athlete.  Working with a psychiatrist named Dr. Lee (Leslie Caron, for some reason), they have not only turned Goldine into the world’s greatest athlete but they’ve also turned her into a bright, smiling media personality.  (Dr. Lee has trained Goldine, through the use of a vibrator, to always give the right answer when she’s asked a question.)  Now, they just need Goldine to win three gold medals at the Summer Olympics and for PR agent Jack Dryden (James Coburn) to make Goldine into a star.  Dryden is the only person who really cares about Goldine as something other than an experiment or a way to make money.

Goldine spends almost the entire movie running.  There’s one running montage that seems to go on forever.  Susan Anton was a model when she was cast as Goldine.  She’s got the right look to be a celebrity but she’s never convincing as an Olympic-class athlete.  Whenever Goldine competes, we either get a close-up of Anton running in slow-motion with no other runners around her or else a long-shot that’s designed to keep us from noticing that Anton isn’t really on the track.

Really, that’s entire film.  On the basis of the trailer, I was expecting that Goldengirl would turn out to be a robot or something like that.  Instead, it just turns out that her stepfather has spent years injecting her with vitamins and hormones and now, as a result, she has diabetes.  Seriously, that’s it.  She gets pretty mad when she finds out that her handlers have put her health at risk just so she could win a race.  But then she goes ahead and runs the race anyway so I guess it was all for the best.  Seriously, that’s the entire freaking movie.  It doesn’t help that Anton’s acting is amateurish and the rest of the cast seems bored.  Only Curt Jurgens really makes much of an impression, mostly because he’s too sinister not to be memorable.

The trailer is better than the movie.  That’s the secret of Goldengirl.

A Movie A Day #335: Ruby and Oswald (1978, directed by Mel Stuart)


The year is 1963.  The month is November.  The city is Dallas.  The President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, is coming to visit and two very different men have very different reactions.  An eccentric and lonely strip club owner, Jack Ruby (Michael Lerner), worries about an anti-Kennedy ad that has just appeared in the Dallas Morning News.  Another loner, a strange man named Lee Harvey Oswald (Frederic Forrest), is busy making plans of his own.  When Kennedy is assassinated, history brings Ruby and Oswald together in a way that a shattered nation will never forget.

This is a curious one.  It was made for television and, according to Wikipedia, its original running time was 180 minutes.  The version that I saw, on VHS, was barely 90 minutes long so obviously, the version I saw was heavily edited.  (In the 70s, it was common for made-for-TV movies to be reedited for both syndication and overseas theatrical release.)  Maybe that explains why Ruby and Oswald felt do disjointed.  In the version I saw, most of the emphasis was put on Jack Ruby running around Dallas and getting on people’s nerves.  Very little time was devoted to Oswald and the film was almost entirely stolen by Lerner. Michael Lerner is a familiar character actor.  You may not know his name but you will definitely recognize his face.  Lerner was convincing and sometimes even sympathetic as the weaselly Ruby.  Ruby and Oswald supported the Warren Commission’s findings, that Oswald killed Kennedy and Ruby shot Oswald out of a sense of loyalty to Jackie Kennedy.  Michael Lerner’s performance was so good that he almost made that theory plausible.

One final note, for fans of WKRP in Cincinnati: Gordon Jump and Richard Sanders, best known as Arthur Carlson and Les Nessman, were both in Ruby and Oswald, though they did not share any scenes together.

Horror Film Review: Strange Invaders (dir by Michael Laughlin)


In 1983, two years after the release of Strange Behavior, director Michael Laughlin and Bill Condon teamed up for another “strange” film.  Like their previous collaboration, this film was a combination of horror, science fiction, and satire.

The title of their latest collaboration?

Strange Invaders.

Strange Invaders opens in the 1950s, in a small, all-American town in Illinois.  Innocent children play in the street.  Clean-cut men stop off at the local diner and talk to the waitress (Fiona Lewis, the scientist from Strange Behavior).  Two teenagers (played by the stars of Strange Behavior, Dan Shor and Dey Young) sit in a car and listen to forbidden rock’n’roll music.  A lengthy title crawl informs us that, in the 1950s, Americans were happy and they were only worried about three things: communists, Elvis, and UFOs.  On schedule, a gigantic UFO suddenly appears over the town.

Twenty-five years later, mild-mannered Prof. Charles Bigelow (Paul Le Mat) teaches at a university and wonders just what exactly is going on with his ex-wife, Margaret (Diana Scarwid).  In order to attend her mother’s funeral, Margaret returned to the small Illinois town where she grew up.  When she doesn’t return, Charles decides to go to the town himself.  However, once he arrives, he discovers that the town appears to still be stuck in the 50s.  The townspeople are all polite but strangely unemotional and secretive.  Charles immediately suspects that something strange is happening.  When the towns people suddenly start shooting laser beams from their eyes, Charles realizes that they must be aliens!

Fleeing from the town, Charles checks all the newspapers for any reports of an alien invasion.  The only story he finds is in a cheap tabloid, The National Informer.  The author of the story, Betty Walker (Nancy Allen), claims that she just made the story up but Charles is convinced that she may have accidentally told the truth.  At first, Betty dismisses Charles as being crazy.  But then she’s visited by an Avon lady who looks just like the waitress from the small town and who can shoot laser beams.

Teaming up, Charles and Betty investigate the aliens and try to figure out just what exactly they’re doing on Earth.  It’s an investigation that leads them to not only a shadowy government operative (Louise Fletcher) but also a man (Michael Lerner) who claims that, years ago, he helplessly watched as his family was destroyed by aliens.

Like Strange Behavior, Strange Invaders is a … well, a strange film.  I have to admit that I prefer Behavior to Invaders.  The satire in Strange Invaders is a bit too heavy-handed and Paul Le Mat is not as strong a lead as Michael Murphy was in the first film.  I was a lot more impressed with Nancy Allen’s performance, if just because I related to both her skepticism and her sudden excitement to discover that her fake news might actually be real news.  I also liked Micheal Lerner, so much so that I almost wish that he and Le Mat had switched roles.  Finally, I have to say that Diana Scarwid’s performance was so bizarre that I’m not sure if she was brilliant or if she was terrible.  For her character, that worked well.

Strange Invaders gets better as it goes along.  At the start of the film, there are some parts that drag but the finale is genuinely exciting and clever.  If the film starts as a parody of 1950s alien invasion films, it ends as a satire of Spielbergian positivity.  It’s an uneven film but, ultimately, worth the time to watch.