I'LL NEVER FORGET WHATSISNAME:
A TRIBUTE TO CHARACTER ACTORS

KEVIN MCCARTHY, PAGE 6

NOTE: These last three movies are late additions. They were all available on Netflix Instant, so I went ahead and watched 'em. Although the last one goes well out of its way (not that it was going anywhere important) to pay a well-earned tribute to McCarthy, none reflect any more a significant insight into the actor's work than they do his scant amount of screentime. But since I don't write for aintitcoolnews, I believe every movie - even ones that don't deserve to be written about - is worth writing about, I decided to take a crack at talking about the following three. But by all means, feel free to cut your loses and end the article right here. I wouldn't hold it against you.

 

   MY TUTOR (1983)

This movie is exactly what it sounds like: a sex romp along the lines of Private School and Hardbodies that studios churned out by the bushel after the success of Porky's. Expect lots of jokes about "big cramming sessions!"

Actually it's a lot like Mary Poppins, with some minor differences. For example, most of the actresses in Mary Poppins managed to keep their clothes on. But just like Mary Poppins, an older woman is brought in to instruct a rich kid about being responsible only to inspire him to reject his parents' stuffy outlook and find out what Really Matters. Unlike Mary Poppins, this tutor's method is to have lots of sex with the kid. And at the end she flies away (although technically it's on a plane.)

The movie suggests that this recent high school graduate's carnal relationship with his blonde, 30-year-old, skinny-dipping teacher, hired by dad Kevin McCarthy to tutor him in French so he can get into Yale, is perfectly fine and a good gateway to a healthy sex life with gals his own age. But come on, even the infamously indiscreet Mr. Shoop had more sense than to bed an adoring pupil! And why does he have to learn French to go to Yale anyway? For that matter, why does he even have to get good grades? Isn't McCarthy a wealthy yuppie Yale alumni with connections?

The relationship is made all the more icky by the actor playing the kid, a Tom Welling-esque shitstain with an exceptionally fey voice - it's impossible to hear large chunks of dialogue his voice is so high. In real life he was Mr. Olivia Newton-John, so he turned up in Xanadu, Grease 2 and her "Physical" video but the only other significant role he played was in 1989's Catch Me If You Can, Stephen Sommers' directorial debut about a hot shot car racer who convinces students to bet on his races in order to raise money to save their high school (?) Anyway, the character is a complete douche. A precursor to Tom Cruise's "white boy off the lake" rich asshole in Risky Business, he mopes around his mansion as if he had any real worries in his life. When the tutor's obnoxious Wall Street ex-boyfriend comes looking for her at the mansion, the kid squares off on him with a gun, even firing off a warning shot just above his head. It's played for laughs, but it's a little too intense - it seems like this is the way a lot of those real-life, high profile L.A. crimes end up happening.

Like many of the sex comedies of the era, My Tutor is essentially a porno without the unsimulated sex scenes (only simulated ones, presumably) but with some truly terrible attempts at jokes. There's an awkward Graduate reference when a heavily-accented Asian businessman puts his arm around the kid and says, "I want to say one word to you: computer chips!" (that's two words, silly Asian!)  There's a Hispanic brother-sister servant duo who speak perfect English but pretend they can't around McCarthy and his wife to...get out of work? Humiliate their employers? I'm not even sure what their motivation is, beyond it being a stupid joke late in the movie involving characters we haven't really seen at all. These are all pretty painful, but mostly the humor is sex-based so there's usually a large-chested actress to distract from their flatness (get it?) At one point, a young chick catches the guy reading a Karma Sutra-esque sex manual, gives it a look as he covers his face, then smiles: "Looks like fun." Hello!

The tawdry sex escapades and fantasies make the movie more or less tolerable. Many actresses appear in a state of undress, one of whom is the great Jewel Shepard, smoking hot as "girl in phone booth" featured in a fantasy sequence. Another incredibly good-looking gal seduces our young hero in a car before her biker boyfriend shows up to kick his ass. Curiously, Russ Meyer starlet/former stripper Kitten Natividad is pretty much the only woman NOT to shed her skivvies (she has a very short amount of screen time though, some of her scenes may have been cut.) There's even a pretty explicit blow-job-in-the-car scene, but the steamy sequence that can't go unmentioned is the coming together of tutor and student set to the soft ballad "The First Time We Make Love," with lyrics such as: "Like a child at school, I'm learning you" and "I can hear the clock measuring ecstasy/Every sound inside a touch/I can hear the warm music of you and me." In the words of Paul Cooney, precious!

Future hipster doofus extraordinaire Crispin Glover makes his feature film debut here. He's not at full-blown Crispin Glover weirdness at this point in his career, so his appearance isn't really worth mentioning except for one thing. A female character tells the lead guy she's dating a jock named Biff, to which the hero replies "Nobody's named 'Biff!'" It really seems like a winking reference to Back to the Future, despite the fact that Crispin Glover isn't the one saying it and My Tutor was released two years earlier than BTTF. Other than that, Glover does have a scene where he's placed shirtless on a giant spinning wheel by a leather-clad prostitute and sent round and round howling in terrified exaltation. Also he wears funny vests and a bow tie.

Of interest to Kevin McCarthy scholars is the return of the pin-striped suit he flaunted in Kansas City Bomber. It doesn't do much for him this time around: he drunkenly propositions the tutor at a party and is shot down. In the film, he's guilty of the following villainous deeds: 1) forcing his son to study hard and attend his alma mater rather than going to UCLA to "stargaze," 2) attempting to break up the relationship with the tutor once he's hip to it, 3) being rich. Pretty standard 80's Crusty Old Dad etiquette. Years ago, when I watched Fast Food hoping for a humorous confrontation between bad guy McCarthy and hero Jim Varney (with Traci Lords thrown in for good measure) only to have to sit through 92 laughless minutes to see McCarthy in one scene as the judge in a phony-looking courtroom at the end of the movie, I realized the 80's would be filled with these types of parts for McCarthy. His performance as "Mr. Chrystal" is so tepid, it's shocking to realize it came out the same year as The Twilight Zone: The Movie. It really makes you appreciate R.J. Fletcher, a bad guy character he didn't just phone in like he did several of his less-inspired roles in forgotten 80's flicks like this one.

Somewhat redeeming is the very end of the movie. After avoiding his father's plans for his future and saying adieu to the title tutor, the kid jumps into the air and clicks his ankles together - freeze frame! Cue eponymous theme song! I have to say, it's a much better freeze frame than the one in Kansas City Bomber, although the emotional note it punctuates is just as beguiling and undeserved.

Watching the credits roll over that image, I noticed a crew member's name listed as "Fred C. Dobbs" - Humphrey Bogart's character from Treasure of the Sierra Madre. You know your film's nothing to be proud of when even the best boy grip is too embarrassed to have his real name listed. But at the end of the day, I can't really fault the film. It has a realistic-looking motorcycle accident, which I couldn't even pull off in my own movie. And lots of naked breasts. And Kevin McCarthy, albeit ill-used.

 

  DARK TOWER (1987)

I was drawn to Dark Tower, like Browning's Childe Roland or Stephen King's Gunslinger, by the two directors listed on the imdb credits. The first is legendary cinematographer Freddie Francis, revered in the industry for his work with Michael Powell, John Huston and David Lynch. Between shooting two of the best-looking black and white films of all time - The Innocents and The Elephant Man - he set out as a director and made a slew of Hammer horror films such as the non-Octave Mirbeau based Torture Garden and non-Kevin McCarthy starring Nightmare. Dark Tower would be his last effort directing a feature, and things must have gone badly because he was replaced by Ken Wiederhorn (fictional "Ken Barnett" ended up with the title directing credit.) I just caught up with Wiederhorn last year, when I wrote about three of his films in October's Annual Horror Movie Marathon: Shock Waves (surprisingly good), Eyes of a Stranger (pretty decent) and Return of the Living Dead Part II (hugely disappointing.) I figured with these two notable chaps involved, this movie that I'd never heard of before must be worth watching, even if it had a troubled production and was completed in 1987 but not released until 1989. I mean, haunted building movies are fun right? Let's see, there's, um...Poltergeiest III? Uh oh.

Jenny Agutter from An American Werewolf in London plays some kind of businesswoman working in some kind of flashy yet generic high rise. One day a window cleaner is letching at her as she changes shirts when suddenly the wiring on his scaffold comes to life, strangles him and hurls him to his death. At this point, I'm thinking this could actually be a scaled-down, glorified haunted scaffold movie, but then other parts of the structure start behaving un-buildinglike (elevators go unpredictably up-and-down, sparks come out of sockets, sigh...a lot of that stuff.) After a man gets possessed by the building and gratutiously shoots 10 to 20 people in crowd attempting to hit Agutter, jaded cop Michael Moriarty deduces that the ghostly presence and spark enthusiast must be targeting her specifically. The script cleverly throws you off by making it seem like the ghost must be Agutter's late husband, who is mentioned as being dead numerous times, but in a smart twist it turns out to be...oh no, wait. It is the husband. Sorry about that.

It was shot in Barcelona - you can see Sagrada Familia in the distance of the city's establishing shot and in the end credits the producers thank "the officials of the city of Barcelona for their cooperation" - but practically the whole thing is set inside a rather unremarkable building and none of the characters are Hispanic, so I don't understand what the point of that was. The financing must have been somehow contingent on shooting in Spain, but I guess nobody told the guy who wrote the tagline, which is: "In a city that never sleeps...this building is a nightmare." Number one: What? Number two: Isn't New York popularly thought of as the "city that never sleeps?" Or was the Frank Sinatra hit a reworking of his less popular song "Barcelona Barcelona?"

There's not a lot to discuss here - only a few gratingly terrible moments. One scene in particular manages to simultaneously disgrace both the acting and screenwriting profession at the same time. Theodore Bikel, playing some sort of investigator (or psychologist? or New Age guru? I have no idea), talks to himself and deduces things aloud, ostensibly narrating the plot up to that point - to himself - in a room while flipping through files, until a woman shows up at the door and he says something like "Ah yes, Mrs. Such-and-Such, personal secretary to Blah-Blah, please come in." You know, Bikel managed to ruin the ending of the otherwise excellent I Bury the Living...maybe this is some kind of actor karma? Don't get me wrong, the man is a true American treasure.

The film's a mess, as one would expect based on the two directors who wanted their names nowhere near the final cut. I can't imagine the script would have ever been translated into a successful film, but the movie is full of continuity errors that are hard to know whether to blame on faulty editing or just shitty storytelling. For example, there's an extended sequence of Agutter running from some sparks and what-have-you that ends with her being pulled screaming into an elevator by some invisible force. The next time we see her, she's just fine, not shaken or anything, and doesn't mention the incident or what happened to her in the elevator to anybody - it's totally unresolved.

At this point, I will take a cue from the movie to randomly and without any pretext mention that it also stars Patch MacKenzie, whose name would be awesome if she were of the male rather than female persuasion ("Patch" is short for "Patricia.")

Kevin McCarthy, expending the bare minimum of his considerable charisma, turns up an hour into the movie as alcoholic, unshaven, beret-wearing Sergie (it's the beret that shows just how far he's fallen.) He's essentially the Max von Sydow/Zelda Rubinstein surrogate, with the notable exception of not once attempting to do anything to disperse the evil spirit. I mean, not one thing. He has Von Sydow-like dialogue such as "Let me die...I've seen too much already" and "The time has come - I am ready to spit in the eye of death!" It seems at first like it's going to be a fun time, but McCarthy only appears in about four scenes, has maybe a dozen lines total, and is mainly on hand to walk around the building with a look of astonishment. Again, I'm sure a failed production is to blame for the loss of his character, who it seems must have had more to do at some point. For instance, there's a jumbled series of events that follow his first appearance that seem like a clusterfuck of re-shoots and half-finished scenes. To lay it out in detail...

Scene 1: Sergie agrees to help rid the building of the ghost.

Scene 2: Bikel calls Moriarty from a phone booth to tell him "Sergie's missing."

Scene 3: Bikel is with Sergie in a bar, they exchange literally two lines: Bikel asks him what's up, Sergie says he's ready to do this.

Now what the hell was the point of all that? He already agreed to help in Scene 1. Why did the audience need to be told he's missing, only to have him show up in the next scene reiterating that is agreeing to help? His death scene is particularly embarrassing. We get shot of Michael Moriarty looking up, a shot of the back of someone wearing a completely different costume than McCarthy with a beam sticking in his abdomen, then an extreme close-up of McCarthy falling down. I had to rewind to make sure I didn't miss something. How and when did the beam hit him? Why did they need to reshoot an entirely different person with the protruding beam? Is it because McCarthy walked off set? I sure hope that was the reason.

In the 80's McCarthy was in his 70's, and even though he was making regular TV appearances (he was part of the main cast of two different series) and popped up in several Trix commercials, he still managed to pull off at least three of his greatest roles of all time. This was not one of them. He gets an "AND" credit, which implies that the movie at least acknowledges his greatness, but having him in the film is an insult. Stripped of his trademark suit, he's dressed like a hobo topped with a beret. Just doesn't work. He played a similar part (an exorcist) in 1990's The Sleeping Car, which starred David Noughton, another American Werewolf vet. These roles apparently paved the way for McCarthy's appearance in - sigh - 1991's DTV Ghoulies III: Ghoulies Go to College. Hey, work is work...McCarthy appeared in nineteen movies, twelve TV shows and a video game in the following decade. But since none of his 90's work other than small parts in two Joe Dante movies seem interesting or weird enough to check out - it's mostly crap like Greedy, Just Cause and The Distinguished Gentleman - we skip ahead to 2007 and one of McCarthy's final roles as...himself!

 

  SLIPSTREAM (2007)

Man, I hate when a movie opens with a mishmash of crappy wavy slow-mo digital flashes from future events...especially when the word "DREAM" flashes on and off over the images. I thought it was an annoying way for director-writer-star-composer-script girl Anthony Hopkins to open his movie, until it became apparent that this "broken record" aesthetic was going to continue throughout the film. You know what I mean: actors talking real fast in non-sequitors with lines looped and laid over each other mid-sentence. Visual word associations: someone says she's from Russia, Hopkins cuts to a quick pic of Stalin (who is Russian.) I don't need to list further examples, do I? You people understand what kind of movie this is. Hopkins described it as a film about "the nature of reality." What more needs to be said? It's what somebody who's seen some of David Lynch's films considers being experimental. There's even a Kyle MacLachlan lookalike.

It's relevant to this article because there is a scene inspired by The Killers, or When You Comin' Back Red Ryder?, or any other number of other movies where two people take a diner hostage and assault the patrons with a mixture of Psychology 101 and pop cultural references. The tedious duo, played by Christian Slater and Jeffrey Tambor, transition from telling their hostages that they will all hang tight like "peas in a pod!" to "say, that reminds me...you ever seen that movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers?" Hopkins gets his Tarantino on, really pushing the envelope by showing how two murderous goons talk about movies like normal film nerds by replacing Get Christie Love! with Body Snatchers. The whole sequence is shameless, but I was intruiged by the way it was presented, with an enthusiastic Slater incorrectly informing the diner crowd that the pod people "take over bodies" (which is how the lazy 2007 remake simplified the plot.) Things like that make me wonder if the screenwriter is getting it wrong, or if he made the characters explain it poorly on purpose as a gag.

Once Slater and Tambor get going on the topic of Body Snatchers, they can't believe none of the hostages have heard of Kevin McCarthy, who starred in the movie "in the '50s, when he was a big star" (??) It's not like in Out of Sight, when Karen Sisco is talking about Three Days of the Condor and "Robert Redford...when he was young" and you can tell she's really familiar with Redford's career and feels a tinge of sadness remembering his heyday. It's more like in I, Robot when Will Smith mentions some guy's name is "Harold Lloyd, like the silent comedian" and you have to wonder a) how a future cop in 2035 is familiar with the work of Harold Lloyd and b) why he would think that some person he just met knows who the fuck Harold Lloyd is. Slater refers to the Body Snatchers hero as "Kevin" ("But Kevin's a smart cookie!") and Tambour recalls the important day in his life when he actually met McCarthy. Suddenly there's a framed, autographed headshot of McCarthy on the wall (get it? dream logic) which Slater pulls down and pushes into the faces of the diner patrons while excitedly misremembering the plot of the movie. "They'rrrrrre the mainstream!" he claims of the pod people.

The real pay-off comes when Anthony Hopkins is driving in the desert at night and stops for a motorist in trouble who's looking for a ride to Vegas ("I'm afraid my car is about to expire!") McCarthy had already popped up earlier while Hopkins was waiting on line at yet another diner, telling him "You're next!" (in line, get it?) Hopkins gives McCarthy a ride as the image flips from color to black & white. Hopkins asks him, "You're Kevin McCarthy, aren't you? I saw you in a movie once: Invasion of the Body Snatchers." Unfortunately McCarthy's reply isn't "Really? No shit, asshole? So you happened to see me in the same movie anyone who happens to recognize me saw me in? I honestly thought you were going to say My Tutor. Nice work, retard." Instead he responds "Was I in that??" The way he reads the line is obviously supposed to fit in with the whole "dream logic" yadda yadda but I like to think he's being sarcastic.

Although it's great seeing McCarthy, still looking daper in a suit in his early 90's, and Hopkins obviously has a genuine affection for Body Snatchers and its star, the appearance is pretty much ruined by a lady in pink fur coat waving at the camera while standing next to a man in a suit playing guitar off the side of the road. Sir Anthony just couldn't help himself from including further sub-Lynchian imagery. A better send-off cameo for McCarthy was his last for Dante, a five second walk-on in Looney Tunes: Back in Action. Seen being led away by techs at an Area 51-like facility that holds every pop cultural figure Joe Dante loves (Robbie the Robot, the alien from This Island Earth, Marvin the Martian), McCarthy is in black & white, carrying a pod and mumbling his famous lines. More than just an amazing reference/cameo, it recognizes the timelessness of the actor and the role he could never leave behind while also suggesting it was time to hang up the pod. It's so brilliantly understated compared to the insane amount of name-dropping and explaining Hopkins feels he has to do in Slipstream (a film that's supposed to be mysterious): the perfect farewell to McCarthy, Body Snatchers and the Dante-McCarthy pairing that brought so many of us to the actor's fanbase.

 

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