Nice Guys Don't Work in Hollywood: The Adventures of an Aesthete in the Movie Business (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Peter Tonguette
By Curtis Harrington. Chicago: Drag City, 2013. 272 pp., illus. Paperback: $18.00.
Does the life and work of the director of Queen of Blood (1966), The Cat Creature (1973), and The Dead Don’t Die (1975) warrant a whole book?
In fairness, I have purposely listed some of Curtis Harrington’s lesser (or lesser-sounding) credits for dramatic effect. Yet, even a cursory look at his filmography reveals that these films are far from aberrations. After all, late in his feature career, he signed his name to Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell (1978). In this light, the publication of Nice Guys Don’t Work in Hollywood must be entirely attributable to the good name Harrington earned early in his career.
In his youthful experimental films (the best of which, such as 1946’s Fragment of Seeking, still hold up), Harrington evinced sufficient visual élan to inspire some critics to compare him to Josef von Sternberg. Yet, even those who admired Harrington’s filigreed imagery expressed reservations that his handiwork could carry the load for otherwise inferior films. Andrew Sarris’s verdict that the director’s “glossy surfaces have the feel of Sternberg, but not the feelings” now seems prescient.
When Sarris wrote his appraisal, in a largely ambivalent entry in The American Cinema (1968), Harrington had directed little more than the aforementioned experimental films and a few features, including the cult classic Night Tide (1961) and the superb Games (1967). There was, in other words, still reason to hope that he might one day approximate more than just Sternberg’s surfaces. But one of the most striking admissions in Nice Guys Don’t Work in Hollywood comes when Harrington writes that Gamesdid not turn out to be a promising start after all: “After Games, I was never again to make a film that ended up being entirely as I conceived it as a director.” Since this concession comes in the book’s final chapter—following countless pages recounting the trials and tribulations of working in low-budget, low-rent Hollywood—some readers might find themselves exclaiming: “So now he tells us!”
“I was forced to take on projects that I had neither the aesthetic vision for, nor the slightest intellectual interest in,” Harrington writes of the crazy quilt of B-movies and television series that made up his career by the late Seventies, after a cushy contract at Universal (which produced Games) came to an end. “It was a job and I needed the money.” But Harrington is too devoted to defending his own work on such questionable projects—perhaps because of his film-critic background (an index of Josef von Sternberg’s films, originally prepared for publication in Sight & Sound, is presented at the back of the book). For example, Harrington was compelled to use scraps from “a Russian film to which [producer Roger Corman] had acquired the American rights” to jerrybuild the science-fiction saga Queen of Blood. Despite the film’s dubious origins, however, Harrington proudly boasts that it helped to kick off “a whole series of science-fiction movies dealing with monstrous creatures from outer space, beginning with Ridley Scott’s Alien.” But isn’t it fair to ask if Ridley Scott has even heard of Queen of Blood, let alone seen it?
Later, Harrington rues the deletion of a scene from his serial-killer drama The Killing Kind (1973): “I had filmed a very important four-minute scene in which John Savage goes to the zoo and watches the apes behind bars, which reminds him of his own recent incarceration.” He adds that he wishes he had swiped the now-lost footage for future use—and, presumably, for posterity—but based on what is described here, it seems safe to say that we are not talking about another Greed or Magnificent Ambersons, in spite of Harrington’s efforts to convince us otherwise. His self-aggrandizing tone is especially comical when used in the context of the schlocky horror programmers of which he seems proudest.
At one point in Nice Guys Don’t Work in Hollywood, Harrington refers to “my friend Stanley Kubrick,” and elsewhere he places himself on the same plane as not only Kubrick but also Elia Kazan and John Cassavetes (because they all shared a willingness to work with “difficult” actor Timothy Carey). Well, one of these four is not like the others—namely, the one who had to put up with the “supercilious and arrogant” Joan Collins on the set of Dynasty. Faced with a career hurtling down what he calls “the slippery slope” from feature films to television, Harrington bravely tries to make do—even praising the famously dislikable Collins for her “superb ability to manipulate olives” on screen. “So many actresses fumble,” he writes. “They can’t manage to say a line and put on mascara at the same time. But with Joan, it’s a snap.”
While his anecdotes are usually entertaining enough, there is something pitiful in how little it takes to please Harrington after a certain point. Assigned to work on Dynasty’s so-called sister series, The Colbys, he is over the moon at the chance to direct Barbara Stanwyck. “My heart was in my throat the day I met her,” he writes, and he is equally effusive when discussing numerous other long-in-the-tooth stars whom he worked with (or nearly worked with), including Ray Milland and Rita Hayworth. Sometimes Harrington seems to be in a time warp, as when he thrills at the prospect of directing Lana Turner in the long-forgotten soap opera The Survivors: “It seemed only yesterday that Lana Turner had been the biggest movie star in the lexicon of Beaumont High School, and here I was about to direct her.” He sounds positively serene as he describes coaching Sylvia Kristel in the rudiments of screen acting during the making of Mata Hari (1985): “I would tell her which direction to look in—left or right—and when to look at another actor. She would have never thought to do these things on her own.”
Many of Harrington’s kind judgments of actors, crew members, and even agents confirm film programmer Dennis Bartok’s assertion in the introduction that Harrington was “an astonishingly sweet man.” I, too, had that impression based on my occasional interactions with Harrington in the early 2000s, when I interviewed him about Orson Welles (whose late work, incidentally, he did not mince words about) and wrote about his final film, a decidedly offbeat adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.” There is no question that Harrington led a rich life and struck up interesting friendships (with, among others, Anaïs Nin, Christopher Isherwood, and Kenneth Anger, all of whom are well sketched here), but what did his career really amount to?
In the Sixties, Andrew Sarris asserted that Harrington’s films represented “the triumph of décor over drama,” but only a decade later, when Harrington was spinning his wheels on Charlie’s Angels and Wonder Woman, the former could no longer compensate for deficiencies in the latter. There simply is no way to creatively direct Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell (which Harrington, to his credit, terms a “monstrosity”), and when the filmmaker laments the removal of “every Curtis Harrington touch” from an episode of Tales of the Unexpected, we start to wonder: Would the episode really have been that much better even if it had an abundance of “Curtis Harrington touches”?
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Peter Tonguette has written for many publications, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Sight & Sound.
Copyright © 2013 by Cineaste Magazine