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Saturday, April 30, 2016

Beth Porter's memoir Walking On My Hands a fascinating account of an entertainer's life

Review and interview by Doug Gibson

Beth Porter has had a fascinating career, able to share the evolution of entertainment and cultural shifts covering more than 50 years. Whether on stage, film, television and behind the scenes, she's had a successful tenure in the industry. Her memoir, Walking On My Hands is an intensely personal, honest autobiographical account of her life, the personal and the professional. It kept me reading way past my sleeping hours.

For cult movies fans, Beth is also known as the star of Andy Milligan's now lost "The Naked Witch." In her memoir she describes the kindness of her relationship with the late director, who was a colleague of her's in those day, directing, acting, and auditioning. She also had a role in Woody Allen's Love and Death. That's how I first became acquainted with her work. She also was in the 1974 film version of The Great Gatsby.

Below is my Amazon review of Beth's memoir, as well as an interview with her. The New York native lives in London today.

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A FASCINATING MEMOIR FROM A GIFTED STORYTELLER

I love this memoir. It's a ride through the cultural life of the past several decades. To take a short detour, I first became a fan of Beth Porter when, while watching "Love and Death" for the 100th time, I suddenly realized that "Anna" looked a heck of a lot like the star of a lost Andy Milligan film called "The Naked Witch." Sure enough, the same actress. A check of her IMDB page showed a long, distinguished career in the arts and I often thought of trying to reach her, and ask her about Milligan. I'm going on 10 years as one of those "no hopers" who are fans of Andy, and still doing very well.

Thanks to Facebook and a Milligan page, I learned that Beth Porter was working on a memoir and recently I was able to read it. It's a fascinating read. Besides her career, she opens up about her family, her love life, her politics, life in the film and stage world of 1960s New York City, and a successful career with the BBC, from acting to behind the camera. And she talks about traveling the world, a lot of Europe, in acting groups. She's a big part of the famous La MaMa Troupe. She recounts being on the West End. There are too many anecdotes to provide justice, but what can you say about an actress who a critic opined performed like Mae West thinking of a sex change? Or Beth hollering to Maggie Smith at a fat farm if it was her eyelashes that were fat? Or meeting Albert Finney and watching "Murder on the Orient Express" being filmed?

As for Milligan, Beth provides a softer, more endearing recollection of the gutter auteur. She recalls him as a serious, thoughtful actor and director who was using the soft-core era of the mid 60s to make more serious, almost low-budget Orson Welles types of films. She mentions that "Orphans of the Storm" serves as an inspiration for "The Naked Witch." What a pity this film is lost. For many of us, it's our "London After Midnight." Beth recalls doing Othello with Milligan, auditioning with him, and even stayed in his Staten Island home. She mentions the Caffe Cino era and Neal Flanagan and Johnny Dodd are among those in the pages. 

I could go on, but read the book. It may take a while but it's never dull and the author's talents and enthusiasm for life and all the change ups it throws us are on every paragraph. Frankly, this memoir could easily fit into a syllabus on contemporary entertainment in the latter decades of the 20th century.

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For $2.99 on Amazon Kindle, "Walking On My Hands" is a great bargain. What fascinated me so much about the books is the time capsule glimpses into certain eras of entertainment, places and culture. We can read about the world of independent film and acting troupes 50 years ago, but nothing is better than actually conversing and learning from someone who lived those times.
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Here's my interview with Beth Porter:

La Mama: What impact has that had on women's drama and comedy 50 years later?
PORTER: This is very difficult for me to answer because my relationship with theatre has changed so drastically, not least because I've lived abroad for so many decades. From my perspective I think there are more opportunities for women in show biz genres of all disciplines. But still not nearly enough. I've spoken about this through-out the book, actually. Do you have recollections of Shirley Stoler, cult actress and Caffe Cino actor, as well as La Mama?
PORTER: I must have met her, but by the time she'd returned from Tom O'Horgan's La MaMa mini-tour abroad in 1966, I was becoming part of what would soon become The La MaMa Troupe. Of course I saw her in some of her films and thought her a powerful if unpolished actress. Did you ever meet Hope Stansbury, who wrote the Milligan-directed "Vapors," was a waitress at Caffe Cino, and starred in several Milligan films?
PORTER: Yes, though we were never friends. I thought her appearance was striking! There are a couple of funny stories about her which were being circulated at the time. The first involves another person, whose name I've forgotten, but who was a tall, thin man who always wore his hair very long. The line was: Who's that over there? The answer was: Well, it's either [the man's name] going, or Hope Stansbury coming!
The other story involves Hope riding the subway on a particularly stifling NYC summer day. She looks up to see a man standing in front of her wearing a long raincoat which he opens to reveal he's naked, his penis staring her in the face. She says to the man, "Oh, yes, it is terribly hot, isn't it?" And that, Doug, is how legends are born! And on The Naked Witch, what's it like performing in your first film, the feelings, emotions. How did Milligan help or hinder?
PORTER: As you've read in my book, it wasn't my first film, but it was the first film in which I had the starring role. I was excited -- in my naivety -- that it would be the basis of my ambitions. Andy was primarily concerned with the many behind-camera roles he took. As I've written, he was always kind to me. You had mentioned you are in The Filthy Five. Were you paid for it? Do you recall those films, seeing them in theaters?
PORTER: Well, I'm not even sure it was The Filthy Five, as I've written. I can't remember anything about getting paid, which doesn't mean I wasn't. Money has never been important to me. I never went to see any of Andy's films - except for The Naked Temptress in London, as I've written about in my book. Judging from my own work with Andy, I didn't think any of the actors was anything special - including me. And some of them were just plain bad! Besides Neal Flanagan, who were some Caffe Cino, troupe, Milligan actors that made an impact on you?
PORTER: My off-off-Broadway memories are dominated by its atmosphere rather than any specific actors. To be honest, compared with some of the acting both off-Broadway and on B'way at the time, off-off-B'way performers weren't that accompished. Two who were: Seth Allen, despite his emotional problems, was capable of extraordinary theatrical electricity. Warren Finnerty of The Living Theatre especially in The Brig has also stayed with me over all these years. Joe Papp's Public Shakespeare Theatre showcased scores of fine actors. Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, and Robert Hooks [of The Negro Ensemble Company], were all committed to black performance, and proved how short-sighted it was of off-off-Broadway writers not to provide more roles for their talents.

Here are some recollections of Milligan from Beth's memoir:

"Andy and I became very close friends. ... I can only speak about my own relationship, which was always based on kindness." ... 

"Andy was never a conventionally good-looking man, his Irish features just awry. It gave an unexpected sadness to the twinkle in his smile. His intellect transcended much of the pettiness rife among insecure and unsuccessful actors. I found his analyses of classic drama informed and cogent. ... He also had an extensive knowledge of films, and at some point in his life had learned how to hand-make clothing." ...

"After Othello, Andy and I stayed in touch and one day he asked me to help him audition with a scene from Desire Under the Elms. ... I was so flattered that Andy had thought of me, and the scene he's chosen was one of Eugene O'Neil's most heart-rending." ...

"Andy proved a perceptive director, and I truly learned a lot from working with him. ... When the audition results were announced they wanted me but not Andy. He must have been devastated, but congratulated me warmly and hoped we'd be able to work together again. ..."

(ME IN CAPS) THEY DID WORK TOGETHER AGAIN IN THE NAKED WITCH. AS PORTER SAYS IN HER MEMOIR, IT WAS "at the time called nudie films ... but were in only tangential ways related to the soft-porn of recent years, and in no way even close to the hard-core images freely available online today." 

"... What Andy originally wanted to achieve was a low-rent version of the Orson Welles repertory company, crafting scripts far outside the usual prurient fare. ..."

MILLIGAN'S THE NAKED WITCH IS A VERY SMALL PART OF A MEMOIR THAT COVERS A LONG, INTERESTING LIFE IN THE ENTERTAINMENT WORLD. TO READ MORE, I RECOMMEND BUYING "WALKING ON MY HANDS,"

Thanks very much to Beth Porter for sharing her life with readers and providing Plan9Crunch the opportunity to review her book and interview her.

Monday, April 25, 2016

The Sinister Urge ... Ed Wood's 'anti-porn' film

The Sinister Urge , 1960, 75 minutes, Headliner Productions; directed by Edward D. Wood, Jr., screenplay by Wood. Starring Kenne Duncan, Duke Moore, Jean Fontaine, Carl Anthony, Dino Fantini.

By Doug Gibson

The Sinister Urge is probably the least of Wood's mainstream films -- after he made it he started his slow slide into pornography -- but it's still a treat for cult movie fans, and Wood buffs who haven't seen it are in for a big treat. The plot concerns two hard-working detectives (Duncan and Moore) doing their best Gannon and Friday imitations. They're committed to smashing the smut picture racket, and in doing so viewers see several plump bathing beauties die at the hands of a teenage maniac (Fantini) who goes crazy when he sees an uncovered breast.

Many Wood regulars work in The Sinister Urge. Besides Duncan and Moore, there's Anthony, Harvey B. Dunne, John Carpenter, Conrad Brooks and Wood also has a cameo. Duncan's girlfriend at the time, a stripper named Betty Boatner, plays the murder victim in the opening scene. Fontaine, who acts as a sort of a Godmother of pornography, is hysterical. She spends half her time lolling around in bedtime garb, and carps hysterically in a cigarette-smoke-infested voice that s deeper than Clint Eastwood's.

The whole film cost slightly more than $20,000, and its tightness shows that Wood -- at least when sober -- was a director who could turn in a film on budget and in time. Due to the cheapness, most of the film seems to revolve within a single small set that takes turns being a police station, living room, and office. There are a few outdoor scenes, which due to the tiny budget appear amateurish. Scenes from Wood's never-finished film Hellborn were inserted into The Sinister Urge as part of a disjointed attempt to link the dangers of teenage violence into the plot of The Sinister Urge. It's fun to watch Wood and Brooks playing teens fighting each other in this sequence.

The Sinister Urge was considered an exploitation film in 1960 but it's very tame today. There are lots of chases but very little violence. It's worth a rental and can easily be purchased from several companies. There is also a MST3K version that's amusing.

Rudolph Grey's oral biography of Wood, Nightmare of Ecstasy, has a lot of info on The Sinister Urge, including Wood's shooting proposal -- which is very detailed -- that he gave to Headliner Productions head Roy Reid. A sequel was planned but never filmed. Much of the cast came from acting teacher Harry Keaton's class. Keaton had a small role in the film. He was Buster Keaton's brother. Duncan had a reputation as a heavy in the B-western films racket. Despie its low budget, The Sinister Urge is very competently directed. As mentioned, Wood shows he was capable of using discipline and following a budget. Star Fantini recalls seeing the film in New York City's 42nd Street area. Fontaine had a nightclub act, according to Grey's book on Wood. Watch a scene from the film below:

Friday, April 15, 2016

The Flesh Eaters - They'll Rip Your Flesh Apart!



By Steve D. Stones

The early 1960s began to push the envelope for over-the-top graphic violence in movies. The films of Herschell Gordon Lewis, such as Blood Feast (1963) and Two Thousand Maniacs (1964) gave audiences a close-up look of flesh and organs being torn off human bodies. The Flesh Eaters (1964) also pushed the envelope for gore and violence on the screen.

A washed up, alcoholic Hollywood actress and her secretary are determined to make it to Province Town, a place across the Atlantic ocean close to the New York coast. They hire a pilot, played by Byron Sanders, to fly a chartered plane across the ocean. Sanders warns the two women that a dangerous storm is on the horizon. They offer to triple his salary, and off the three go across the Atlantic.

A failed engine forces the trio to crash land on a remote island in the ocean. Here they meet a crazed Nazi marine biologist named Dr. Bartel, played by actor Martin Kosleck. Kosleck seems to be type-cast here because he had a habit of being cast as a Nazi scientist in a number of other films from the 40s and 50s.

Dr. Bartel is conducting experiments on tiny carnivorous sea creatures that eat the flesh off the bones of other marine life. A human skeleton and several fish skeletons wash up on the shores of the island.
Being an evil scientist, Bartel offers a glass with the creatures in it to a shipwrecked beatnik, played by Ray Tudor. Tudor drinks the glass, thinking it is scotch, and immediately his stomach bursts open in one of the most graphic, appalling scenes of the film.

Eventually the carnivorous creatures in Bartel's lab grow into one large creature that looks like the cross between an octopus and a Sunday dinner roast. Sanders injects the giant creature with the blood of the remaining survivors. This somehow kills the beast.

Scenes showing the carnivorous creatures eating into the flesh of their victims were achieved by scratching small sections of the film negative. This is a crude optical effect, but it seems to work quite well.  Some of the strangest sequences are flash back scenes of Nazi experiment labs showing nude women being lowered into a pool of the creatures. Their skeletons are pulled from the pool with their hair still intact. These scenes were cut from television prints of the film.

Movie patrons were offered packs of "instant blood" to protect them from the flesh eaters. The film would make a great double-feature with I Eat Your Skin, also from 1964, since both films use the same theme of survivors who crash land on a remote island. Happy viewing!

Friday, April 8, 2016

'Keep Watching the Skies' -- the guide to 1950s science fiction


By Doug Gibson

Thirty-plus years ago, Bill Warren published the first edition of "Keep Watching the Skies: American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties." It is the indispensable guide to the genre's glory era.

Recently, Warren's book was updated for the 21st Century, and a two-volume set has been released by McFarland Press. The link to buying it is here . You can also call 800-253-2187 to order and the pub's website address is http://www.mcfarlandpub.com. There's 1,040 pages with more than 270 photos, and middle-pages inset of color photos of movie posters in both volumes.

Frankly, there isn't another resource book on this topic that can match what Warren and his researcher Bill Thomas have accomplished. It's manna for genre obsessives and scholars, but it can also be enjoyed by casual fans of the films, used as a reference and guide of the pros and cons of the films.

For the 21st Century edition, there's some new and updated essays and tidbits of information. Reviews have been revised, some updated. It amazed me that even the Bowery Boys fantasy outings are reviewed, there's even a small essay about them in the back. And the fantasy films of Abbott & Costello and The Three Stooges receive play. Warren accurately notes that the first Stooges sci-fi foray, "Have Rocket, Will Travel," plays like an extended comedy short of the team.

Also, I should mention that films are covered well into the 60s. "The Time Machine" shares space with "Wild Women of Wongo," "Them" with "Invisible Invaders" and add by the hundreds.

In a genre that is now sometimes slow to break new information, I found new nuggets of wisdom and facts in many of the reviews. So, if you're an established fan, you can spend $50 secure that you'll learn something in the reviews.

The reviews are satisfyingly long for an index-type book. None of the films are fobbed off with a few paragraphs. One thing about Warren that will either please or dismay, depending on your taste, is that he reviews the films in a non-nonsense, no overt affection for the genre bias. He looks at a film such as "Voodoo Island" or "Torbor the Great" or an Edgar Ulman cheapie much the same as he would review a conventional drama of the period. There are no review points that derive from the love of the genre.

If the film's poorly acted, wooden, badly directed, it gets a pan. It doesn't matter if it has cult status or not. I respect this but will add that films such as "Plan 9 From Outer Space," or "Beyond the Time Barrier," or any other cheapie that has cult status has something that makes them unique, and memorable. It's not an obligation to love these films. They had something that was not derivative. Hence they merit that acknowledgment.

Having said that, it's obvious Warren loves these films, even if he's harder on many of them that other genre fans. After all, he wrote 1,000-plus pages about them. And with some of the cult Z movies, he admits that the subject is notably bizarre.

One more thing. The index is fantastic. Poring through it underscores how much valuable scholarship is found in the pages of the two volumes.

I took me two weeks to get through both volumes and I'll spend decades revisiting the books to read about the films. "The Tingler," "The Creeping Unknown," "Devil Girl From Mars," "30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock" ... YOU WILL NEVER RUN OUT OF FILMS TO PERUSE.