DOROTHY STRATTEN

john cribbs

 

August 14, 1980 - Los Angeles, California

"Lovers in a movie on that great big screen,

He treats her like she's a queen she treats him like a king,

Wouldn't that be nice if life is lived that way,

It's a shame that ain't the way it is."

- Johnny Cash, "That's the Way It Is"

It's really not easy to portray New York City in movies. That fact is taken for granted because so many filmmakers set their stories there, drawing upon its history as the cinematic criterion for tales of romance (Breakfast at Tiffany's, The Way We Were), crime (The Naked City, Death Wish), terror (King Kong, The Taking of Pelham 123), urban anxiety (The Crowd, The Apartment) and corruption (Sweet Smell of Success, Wall Street). Even films set largely in and around a single interior (Rope, Wait Until Dark, Rosemary's Baby, The Odd Couple, Dog Day Afternoon) are able to tap into that New York feeling without too much effort, relying on viewers to bring their own idea of what a pictorial New York is supposed to feel like and what its setting should elicit in terms of plot and character. Falling back on the borough as an easy shortcut to establish mood, tone or background as opposed to actually using the geography of the city to tell the story is why so many directors fail to really capture New York - it's something I'll always hold against Woody Allen's Manhattan, for example. Even when Allen uses New York successfully, like in Annie Hall, it feels oddly hermetic, a "members only" club of which Allen WOULD like to be a member, as long as the audience is excluded. He may have actors running around the Ansonia, the Plaza, the Roxy, the lower West Side and Greenwich Avenue, Rockefeller Center and the Twin Towers, but the locations are always given a sugary romanticism and remoteness that's a little inaccessible: scenes in these movies might as well be set in Oz's Emerald City, or some other place I've never been before. Sidney Lumet is probably the best visual annalist of the city, but his films play out in such a grimy urban environment that it feels like Lumet's New York, not like the real thing. Not that there's anything wrong with that - it just isn't a New York I'm familiar with.

The New York in Peter Bogdanovich's They All Laughed is a New York I recognize (aboveground at least - I've never been much of a cab rider). It's bustling with crowds but strangely intimate, timeless in a way that its 1980 streets feel the same as they do today, as if thirty years hadn't gone by. The interiors aren't sets, they're real places: shabby offices, old apartments, mid-town shops and fun restaurants with live bands. The more ventilated scenes aren't played out on "classy" locales like the Staten Island ferry or Southside Sea Port, but on highways straddling the Hudson River. This New York is made for movement, not slow contemplative walks down piers or, god forbid, strolls through a phony FAO Schwartz a'la Eyes Wide Shut. Bogdanovich shoots actors in low angles between avenues, but the buildings never seem towering or intimidating to them as they effortlessly glide from one part of town to another. That's not to say the city couldn't easily dominate and defeat the protagonists, but it's just as likely to be on their side. The environment is as ambiguous as to the characters' fates, leaving it up to them how they're going to make out by movie's end while at the same time leading them to their destinations through the magnetism of its inalterable architecture. 

Opening on a taxi ride across the Brooklyn Bridge down the FDR, Bogdanovich's Manhattan is instantly welcoming and familiar, though I doubt anyone who's ever hailed a cab in New York has been lucky enough to have someone who looks like Patti Hansen for a hack. Ben Gazzara, employee of the Odyssey Detective Agency, is driving to a heliport to start tracking his latest mark: a wealthy industrialist's wife (Audrey Hepburn) who may be having an affair. We don't know this for a while though - Bogdanovich keeps the plot ambiguous for the first twenty minutes or so, letting the first scenes play out in the shots and the editing, allowing the audience to follow along as characters track each other and secretly observe inaudible meetings and unexplained rendezvous. Across town, Gazzara's co-workers Charles (John Ritter) and Arthur (Blaine Novak) follow another suspected adultress, the effervescent Dolores Martin played by Dorothy Stratten. Their mission is complicated by the fact that Charles has fallen for Dolores; her alleged unfaithfulness is even more of a blow to him than to her boorish husband.

When Charles finally meets Dolores he claims to be a travel agent - she responds that he doesn't look like a travel agent, rather "someone who travels himself." And it's true: the gumshoes tail their clients' wives everywhere, from snazzy hotel lobbies to a hopping rollertheque to shoe stores and a mid-town toy shop, to a hip country-western restaurant from the Rockefeller Center ice rink and back to the Odyssey office around which all events seem to revolve although we're only there for two scenes. Characters stumble upon each other coincidentally and not-so-coincidentally in the streets; they criss-cross and separate and come together again in a kind of boundlessly devised choregraphed madcap anarchy, a dizzying montage of movement that detractors have understandably misconstrued as messy storytelling on the film's part. Bogdanovich has stated that the movie was his attempt to capture the slapstick romantic comedy of classic Hollywood, but I think he came up with something entirely different and may have made an excellent film more or less by mistake. Although movies like It Happened One Night and Bringing Up Baby have their couples on the road, traveling to various locations, there's still a staginess to the various slapstick scenarios. Even the great Lady Eve goes from the Amazon to a transatlantic ocean liner to Bridgefield, Connecticut to a train and back again in reverse, but its locations are undeniably immaculately-assembled Hollywood sets. As much as Bogdanovich relies on transferring the kind of quick, witty dialogue inspired by these films, what he's most interested in is keeping people in motion moving from one place to another, giving each other adventitious tours of the city that lead to further connections and relationships; their activity breathes a life into the city that makes it seem full of endless possibilities. "We Never Sleep" boasts the slogan of the main characters' detective agency, tying them to the city's most alluring promise that there's always something happening, romance and excitement are just a block away. And the motivation for all this activity? Chasing after girls.

The incentive to go after the girl, however formulated (opposites attract, surface hatred, unrequited love), was the key driving force for hapless heroes of the classic Hollywood slapstick era but even more the silent comedy era, especially the films of Buster Keaton. Bogdanovich is a big Keaton fan, and while What's Up Doc? was the one with the straight-up epic Keaton comedy/chase set piece ripoff, They All Laughed manages to tap into that same lovestruck sweetness of films like Sherlock Jr and Seven Chances. John Ritter is cast in the film as a Bogdanovich doppleganger, complete with giant glasses, combined with the Keaton character in full vest suit and tie. His pursuit of Stratten's Dolores is made up of pratfalls on skates, awkward meetings and a general anti-social persona when forced to engage with other characters, things found in the persona of Keaton's protagonists. Meanwhile Bogdanovich the director exhibits as childlike an adoration for young/iconic women as Polanski, Truffaut, Vadim or Demy - They All Laughed is particularly reminiscent of his Young Girls of Rochefort period (younger Deneuve could have played Dolores, older Deneuve would have been an ideal Angela). His camera, run by Robby Mueller who, let's face it, is probably the best cameraman of his generation, is as much in pursuit of these women as Ritter's surrogate bumbler. Bogdanovich uses his love of film to express his love of women, employing the stuff of Capra and Lubitsch - smooth con artists, fast-talking chicks, unabashed sentimentality - to translate his own appreciation for the city and its female occupants to the screen.

Transplanting such harmless components of the slapstick romantic comedy to the early pre-AIDS 80's gives the movie an interesting tone, one in which would-be sordid happenings come off a lot less malicious than they should. Extramarital affairs, hidden identities, casual one-night stands, loveless marriages, subtle manipulations and constant secret surveillance both in public and through private windows are the makings of a good old Brian De Palma sleazefest, but the transgressions are so innocently staged as to be pardonably naive. For Bogdanovich there's nothing wrong with stalking the woman you love: voyeurism is just another form of connection. The relationships in the movie are so playfully incestuous - even Audrey Hepburn's young son brags about getting involved with one of Gazzara's equally young daughters (who is in actuality Bogdanovich's kid; Hepburn's real-life son plays Stratten's supposed secret lover who ends up with Camp). An affair between the boss of the detective agency and his secretary, a typically sleazy set-up, comes off as guiltlessly romantic: the boss' farewell to his wife over the phone when he's finally ready to leave her for the perky typist - "I'm not here" - is one of redemption as opposed to regret. There's something charmingly forthright about romance that quickly identifies women in unhappy relationships and the men who, licentious though they may be, understand them and are good for them: characters who bring out the best in each other.

They All Laughed is filled with things that shouldn't work yet miraculously do. John Ritter's incessant sitcom-style mugging and physical comedy would be deadly coming from anyone but the man who kept Jack Tripper a charming klutz for eight seasons of "Three's Company" (and one season of "Three's a Crowd"). Camp's pushy fast-talking dame in the Barbara Stanwyck-in-Meet-John-Doe spirit (pre-Amy Archer) should be an abrasive and intolerable anachronism, but Camp never falters from her energetic performance, has plenty of funny lines and does a great job singing with the country-western band. The gross-looking co-writer Blaine Novak playing precocious sidekick/wingman-on-skates Arthur is something that should be a huge blotch on the rest of the film that nevertheless works - he looks like an offensive hippy, but behaves more like a muppet. It's hard not to be charmed by him, as Angela's son is (although I don't know what the ladies see in him and his dated pick-up lines). The title is problematic. To me it doesn't fit the movie's tone, and seems to suggest that the film's audience are the ones who are meant to "all laugh" at the movie's hilarious jokes. They All Laughed is never not fun to watch, but it's not exactly a comedy - it's a musing on new and old relationships that does its best to recall the thrill of the chase while reflecting on the inevitable day one grows weary of it. "That's the Way It Goes," one of three Johnny Cash songs to occupy the soundtrack along with Sinatra's eponymous single, is a title that better fits the movie's abrupt and contemplative pitch, although I'll be the first to admit that it's not a very good title either (to be fair, both are better than At Long Last Love). "They All Laughed" does create a sense of fellowship in the cast that fits the communal giddiness of the movie, so I can't be too hard on it and I like that it's in past tense, suggesting the right kind of reflective posturing of some of its characters, mainly Ben Gazzara's aged lothario John Russo.

Gazzara doesn't play Russo as a character the way he did Jack Flowers. Russo's sadness seems to come from the actor's own experience (he had just been through a rough divorce) while his exterior coolness, cruising around town fluently and winning folks over with his effortless charm and bemused self-confidence, is as Sinatra-inspired as the film's title. Russo's is a charisma that feels earned, built up over years of experience getting knocked down and picking himself back up, and you want to share his breezy attitude and easy way with people. The first scene of the movie shows Hansen's cabbie reacting amusedly to her passenger, Russo's boss, a nervous, worried little guy who makes quiet protesting noises at Hansen lighting up a cigarette and playing loud music on the radio. Russo is her second passenger and her behavior towards him is immediately changed: he's blithe and non-judgmental, he wins her over so fully that she goes with it when he decides her real name doesn't suit her and insists on calling her "Sam." Later his silent "what do you want from me?" grin gets him slapped and then kissed in a matter of seconds. Despondency over his fading libido is always evident in his heavy expressions but never feels like self pity, even when he's lying in bed with Angela ruminating over his years of meaningless conquests. It's clear that he doesn't open up to just anyone, and in Angela he's found somebody he's not interested in feeding lines to - while he's never anything but frank or flippantly sarcastic with everybody, it's in their scene that the truth behind his dejected manner is being revealed for the first time.

As much of a problem as Hepburn is, lacking in performance and the youthful vigor of her co-stars (not to mention her awful-looking sunglasses), her iconic presence makes her the perfect "girl" for classic movie-loving Bogdanovich (this was her last leading role). Supermodel Hansen is self-assured and infatuating - it's surprising that she, like Novak, has so few credits besides this movie...apparently she threw her career away to be Mrs. Keith Richards for a while. Colleen Camp continues to prove the theory that her only alluring appearance is in the movie Clue, but makes up in pep and style what she lacks in looks and, thanks to her aforementioned fast-paced repartee, comes off as the funniest person in the cast (no wonder she booked the Police Academy gig). Still, the most notable of the female ensemble is Stratten, whose activities we first observe from a distance without dialogue. Her best part is a very Keaton-like moment where Ritter is watching her try on clothes with her boyfriend and secretly, between them, she allows him to approve or reject her choices from across the store. It's such a perfect instant of connection that her personality later on just can't match the amount of charm - Bogdanovich's biggest mistake may have been having her talk at all. "Better seen than heard," often said of Sharon Tate during her brief career, was a description that plagued Stratten as well. In this case it's more or less justified: Stratten wasn't really an actress - she had no range and a soft lisp that often rendered her dialogue nearly inaudible. She was really just a model who happened to look good on screen but to be fair, she looked really good on screen. She absolutely radiated, and where she lacked Tate's intelligent charm she had the power to appear absolutely stunning in any scene she walked into. She never would have amounted to much in a solo capacity, but her presence in this ensemble piece is ideal, with the cast giving her support and also allowing her to shine among them. Where she would have gone from here is anybody's guess: three weeks before post-production was completed, she was raped and murdered by her estranged husband and former manager.

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