Sunday, August 05, 2007

THE CASTRO THEATRE—The Evening Class Interview With Tavo Amador

Impressed with B.A.R. columnist Tavo Amador's on-stage presentations on Adrian, Jean Louis and Edith Head at Marc Huestis's recent Fabulous Fashion in Film Festival, I arranged to meet him at Queen Malika's on 18th Street to solicit his favorite experiences at the Castro Theatre.

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Michael Guillén: First of all, Tavo, how is it that you became a film columnist for the Bay Area Reporter ("B.A.R.")?

Tavo Amador: It was almost accidental. A very good friend of mine, the late Lyle Leverich, author of Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams, wanted me to interview him for the local paper but The Chronicle wouldn't allow it. I had never published anything before but I had written a mystery novel that Lyle was trying to help me get published. [David Steinberg's profile of Leverich for the Examiner can be found here and Leverich comments on A Streetcar Named Desire for KQED's Online Newshour here.] The B.A.R., however, was willing to let me interview him through Bob Ross, who I knew socially. So I interviewed Lyle in connection with Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams and then the Arts Editor at the time, Chris Covell, gave me a couple of other assignments. Then I just began to pitch ideas on films that were playing at the Castro or other films that were around or were being released (in those days) on VHS and then (later) on DVD and when Roberto Friedman became the Arts Editor of the B.A.R., he was extremely open to this kind of thing. So I've always been interested in movies and have always been interested in classic Hollywood and the Castro just is perfect for that.

Guillén: In contrast to David Lamble's work for the B.A.R., which is more reviewing and critiquing, your entries are more like essays?

Amodar: In a sense. I tend to focus more on classic films although once in a while I get to do something new—I reviewed Sophia Coppola's Marie Antoinette and I reviewed Capote with Phillip Seymour Hoffmann and I reviewed Dreamgirls—so, once in a while, I get one of those; but, usually it seems to be that I'm in the classic era.

Roberto Friedman and the B.A.R. have been much more supportive of the Castro Theatre than The Chronicle or the other papers. For example, for the Film Noir Festival we've always done comprehensive essays on the films that are being shown and, in addition, I've written many profiles of performers whose films are being featured in that festival. I've done profiles, for example, of Barbara Stanwyck or Ida Lupino or Susan Hayward or Joan Crawford, whose films have appeared at the Film Noir Festival, as companion pieces to the overview of the films being shown. The Chronicle tends not to do that.

Guillén: In conjunction with some of the on-stage tributes at the Castro Theatre, you've had the opportunity to interview Ann Miller?

Amador: Ann Miller's appearance at the Castro was her last public performance before dying and I may have done the last interview with her. The interview was conducted by telephone but she was very enthusiastic about the whole tribute to her at the Castro that Marc Huestis had organized. When I interviewed her she was in her home in Southern California. Because of the publishing timeframe and the deadlines, I had to interview her well before she actually came to San Francisco. She was very lively on the telephone. She apologized for keeping me waiting. She said The Chronicle's interview ran a little longer than she had expected. She had vivid memories of San Francisco because she had performed here when she was quite young and had danced at a club in the city that is no longer in existence. She wanted to know what the top seafood restaurant was in San Francisco these days….

Guillén: What did you recommend?

Amador: I told her that I really didn't know but suggested Aqua on California Street. I met her as part of the reception and she had the grace to say she had read my article and enjoyed it. Then she was just so lively on stage answering questions. She said, for example, that during the dance with Fred Astaire in Easter Parade, she had to wear flats because she otherwise would have been taller than he, but now she had shrunk so much that it wouldn't have been a problem.

Guillén: She was an extremely beautiful woman. How long did she dance? Was she still dancing at the time you talked with her?

Amador: No. Her last film appearance had been in David Lynch's Blue Velvet. She was no longer dancing. Her career began when she was quite young in the late '30s at Columbia. One of her most memorable films there was Stage Door in which she dances with Ginger Rogers. One of my favorite trivia questions is: after Fred Astaire, who was Ginger Rogers' most famous dance partner? Rarely does anyone say Anne Miller. They have a number together in Stage Door.

She had done Room Service with Lucille Ball and the Marx Brothers. After she stopped working at Columbia, she went back to Broadway and she starred in the original production of Too Many Girls, which featured Desi Arnaz. When Too Many Girls was filmed, she had the pleasure of introducing him to Lucille Ball so that gave her a great deal of satisfaction.

She said that her dancing idol was Eleanor Powell. I asked her—when she appeared in the remake of The Opposite Sex—"You and Dolores Grey were in the film yet June Allyson sings and dances and neither one of you gets a musical number. How did that happen?" She said, "I don't know but it's a good question." [Laughs.]

Guillén: What film did they screen at her tribute?

Amador: Kiss Me Kate, which I also reviewed prior to that particular event because it was part of a 3-D film festival. Kiss Me Kate was originally filmed in 3-D. It's very strange to see films in 3-D because they look less realistic than the conventional way of seeing them.

Guillén: Who interviewed her on stage?

Amador: Jan Wahl. Marc introduced her, as he did Debbie Reynolds. Debbie Reynolds was also available by telephone and right on time. I had mentioned to her that she had headlined in San Francisco—the first major AIDS fundraiser at Davies Symphony Hall—and my partner and I had bought tickets that entitled us to meet her backstage as well as to meet her at dinner at the old Ivys Restaurant. She remembered it very well. She said that—at the time—she had a great deal of difficulty getting performers to appear. There was still grave concern that—as she put it—"if you touch the afflicted, something will happen to you." I told her that I remembered a particular conversation that she had backstage with someone. The person asked her if she still heard from Eddie Fisher? She paused and she said, "No. And I don't think Elizabeth has either. Why don't you check with Connie Stevens?" [Laughs.]

Guillén: It's so funny, even as a child I remember that whole scandal. And Debbie Reynolds' song "Goody Goody" always seemed to me like a direct response to Eddie Fisher. I don't know if it was intended to be or not; but, it struck me that way.

Amador: She said she and Elizabeth had been reconciled for many many years and so I said, "Well, did you have a hard time filming the scene in
These Old Broads where the two of you dish the husband you have in common that Elizabeth's character has stolen from your character?" "Oh my God," she said, "Elizabeth adlibbed almost everything and I don't know how we got through it; all we did was laugh. It was Elizabeth's idea to make the comment about those skinny, hairy legs!" She said that Elizabeth offered to do that part even though she was in tremendous physical pain and almost immobile because she thought it would help Carrie Fisher, [Debbie's] daughter by Eddie [and one of the screenwriters for the film]. She said, "That's very typical of Elizabeth's generosity as a person." They had a great deal of fun filming it and she said, "It was the scandal of our era but nobody remembers it anymore."

Guillén: Well, a lot of people don't remember a lot of things anymore and that's why I think it's valuable the contributions you've been making. That evening at the Castro, what film was shown with Debbie Reynolds' tribute?

Amador: The Unsinkable Molly Brown. She was very funny. She recognized that the audience was largely gay and she said, "I've never been in a room with so many men who love me but don't want me." [Laughs.]

Guillén: So along with these interviews that you've conducted for the B.A.R. to promote the Marc Huestis tributes, you've also written up the Film Noir Festival for the B.A.R.?

Amador: Yes. As I said, the B.A.R. recognizes the value of the Castro Theatre, both to our neighborhood as it were, but to the city at large. In this age of megaplexes, it's very difficult to draw audiences to the Castro and we want to keep it thriving.

Guillén: Which I'm so glad to hear. Recently I spoke with Edward Millington Stout III who installed the Wurlitzer in the Castro Theatre and I was telling him that I've grown up in that theater. I came to San Francisco when I was 20 years old, within the first year was going to movies at the Castro, and all these years have gone to the Castro, yet it's only been recently that I've truly become aware of the tremendous influence those social experiences at the Castro have had upon my maturation.

Amador: For years, before the DVD revolution, the Castro was the most successful repertory theater in the country. But it's now more difficult because more and more films are being released on DVD and—while that's very good—it's not the same as seeing it on a big screen in the kind of theater that was meant to show many of these films. For me, movies are a paradox. On the one hand, they're intensely personal to our watching them in the dark; but, watching them in a theater with an audience is also part of the experience. On the other hand, it's also social and you can react to the film in different ways dependent upon the audience. The Castro allows that to happen very effectively.

Guillén: Absolutely. Among my five key moments at the Castro is when I first saw Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? I had never been with an audience that responded so fiercely to a film before in my life and it was a revelation to me about how fun it could be to go to a movie. In terms of your actually going to the Castro to view films, can you name five that you particularly recall?

Amador: Cleopatra. I had seen it when it came out because as a kid my two favorite actresses of my era were Elizabeth Taylor and Audrey Hepburn. Whenever one of their films came out, I was right there. I'd seen it on DVD and I'd seen it on television; but, I hadn't seen it on the big screen in quite some time. I was overwhelmed again by the lavishness of the production. It becomes apparent on the big screen. In the pre-digital age, they built every set. She really wore all of those costumes.

Guillén: She really came in on that giant palanquin.

Amador: Exactly. It really hits you, the scale of the film. I've been fortunate enough to visit Egypt and the thing that's very impressive about Egypt's remarkable monuments is their sheer scale. The film conveys that very powerfully. I'm not remotely pretending that it's historically accurate, but they did get that part right.

Another film I saw at the Castro—I'm a great fan of Tennessee Williams—and the restored Streetcar Named Desire played and it had some scenes that were cut of Kim Hunter's Stella being very seductive with Stanley. They were a revelation on the big screen. The film is a marvelous movie despite the censorship that it faced at the time. Tennessee Williams always said that he thought cinematically and—if a writer had the control over his work in movies that he has over the stage—he would have written for films; but, that lack of control made him focus on the stage where he actually had much greater say over how his works would be produced.

Guillén: It's amazing Streetcar ever got produced. From what I understand, by the time it made it to film, the original stage production was diluted.

Amador: There were two aspects that were very controversial. He was able to prevail in one. The first was the explicit reference that Blanche has to finding her young husband in bed with an older man, a friend of the family, and her reaction to it that triggers his suicide, which is why she's so haunted. That was cut. Anybody who saw the movie—both at the time and later—who was familiar with the play, could read into Vivian Leigh's performance exactly what was going on.

The second was the rape scene. Williams fought to keep that in. While it's not as graphic as it probably would be today, it is pretty clear that Stanley rapes Blanche and lies about it. That pushes her over the edge. Williams wrote to the censors about the film and he said that the movie did something that had not been done on the stage. He had always seen the play as fundamentally about Blanche, but on stage Marlon Brando's performance overwhelmed Jessica Tandy's Blanche and he said the movie restored the balance he had always anticipated because of Vivian Leigh's magnificent performance.

Guillén: I've actually read some pieces that have sought to steal the thunder from Tandy's portrayal of Blanche DuBois; claiming her performance was not as great as some people have claimed it was. Recently, also, I was speaking with critic David Thomson about Brando and he made an interesting observation about Streetcar: he said that Brando himself was aware that Streetcar was "a veiled portrait of a refined sensitive spirit finding the pleasures in rough trade" and that Williams himself was excited "at the prospect of the rough embrace." By "refined sensitive spirit", I presumed Thomson was saying "gay."

Amador: It's an interesting comment but Williams's critics at the time had to attack him for being openly gay and—what they did—was to say that his female characters were really variations on gay men. It's not true. Williams understood that women have strong sexual drives. He said that he modeled the character of Blanche on his own Aunt Belle. Williams's sister had been lobotomized because she was perceived as being oversexed. I think that what he saw was that women and gay men can look at straight men as sexual objects. Gay men have always been very open about it. Women now discuss it quite frankly and Williams was way ahead of his time in documenting that type of desire. I don't buy the argument that Blanche was really a gay man interested in rough trade. That simplifies it and robs Williams of his universality.

Guillén: Interesting rebuttal. Cleopatra. Streetcar Named Desire.

Amador: Singing in the Rain. I had never seen it on the big screen until I saw it at the Castro in connection with a tribute to musical comedies. I also reviewed the movie and did a career profile on Gene Kelly for the B.A.R. Singing in the Rain is hilarious. The music is wonderful, the story is so funny, and it is just superb on the screen.

Guillén: Debbie was only 19 at the time?

Amador: She was very young when she did it and she said that Gene Kelly made it clear that he didn't want her; that he didn't think she could do it. Louis B. Mayer insisted that she could and made sure that she had all the dance lessons that she needed and she's really quite good. Her dancing is very good in the film. She's spirited. It's a lively performance. It's hard to imagine anyone else in it because she's so good.

Guillén: Is it true that the rain in that famous rain sequence is actually milk?

Amador: That I don't know.

Guillén: Somewhere I heard that—in order for the rain to be picked up by the cameras when they were filming—they had to use milk. It's just something I've heard and I was hoping you could confirm it for me.

Amador: No, that one I can't confirm.

Guillén: Cleopatra. A Streetcar Named Desire. Singing in the Rain. Do you have two more?

Amador: The first time I saw The Women at the Castro, I had seen it in New York but I had forgotten parts of it and—when I saw it at the Castro—I just loved the credits. They were wonderful, with each of the female stars being introduced as the appropriate animal—the doe for Norma Shearer and the cheetah for Crawford—it was just hilarious and very clever. I appreciated the sets and everything else so much more than when I saw it in New York as a kid.

The other film that was absolutely hilarious at the Castro—when it was supposed to be hilarious—was Mildred Pierce. Eve Arden's delivery of some of her famous lines brings down the house in person each and every time. When she says to Joan Crawford: "Personally, I think alligators have the right idea; they eat their young." [Laughs.] That line resonates and, earlier in the film when she's changing a light bulb in the restaurant and she's showing quite a bit of leg and Jack Carson is giving her the up-and-down, she says, "Leave something on me; I may catch cold." It brings down the house every time.

Guillén: Recently I was transcribing Eddie Muller's onstage interview with Ann Blyth who was commenting that Eve Arden was not really like that in person. She was a quiet person who kept to herself and didn't dish out wisecracks. Yet, as someone who worked as legal support for most my adult life, Eve Arden's wisecracking persona served as a stratagem for surviving the ignobilities of the legal industry. I learned early on to defend myself through wisecracks. Often it got me in trouble for insubordination; but, at the same time, I ended up working for the most difficult attorneys in each firm because I stood up to them when other secretaries broke down crying. Those difficult attorneys often were the most powerful and that served me in the long run.

Amador: That's interesting. I interviewed Ann Blyth prior to her appearance at the Castro and she confirmed what Eddie Muller said about Eve Arden but she also said that Joan Crawford was nothing like Christina Crawford portrayed her, at least as far as her own experiences were concerned.

Guillén: Or—at the very least—even if Crawford was the mother portrayed in Christina's Mommie Dearest—she was still much more. She was a true star. Actually, Turner Classic Movies ("TCM") this month is doing their annual "Summer Under the Stars" and last Friday was their tribute to Joan Crawford. I watched Autumn Leaves and Berserk—both of which I'd never seen—but several times during the interstitials and during the TCM original documentary Joan Crawford: The Ultimate Movie Star, the point was stressed that it was unfortunate that Christina's portrayal of her mother is how Joan Crawford is being remembered, instead of for her greater noteworthy achievements.

Amador: Ann Blyth said she was extremely nice to her; that she tested with her; that—shortly after completing the film—Ann Blyth broke her back in a toboggan accident and that part of her recovery required her to swim. She said that Joan leant Ann her swimming pool. Ann was there all the time swimming, exercising. She said Crawford was always gracious, generous, a supportive actress who understood that this was a big change for Ann Blyth, a big opportunity for her, and she wanted the film to work and she wanted Ann to do well. I asked her if there was any sense of how important the film was to Crawford? She said, "We knew it was an important film but she was very professional, never let any nervousness or anything like that interfere with getting the job done." So there was another side to Crawford. I'm sure I wouldn't have wanted Joan Crawford to be my mother; but, her two youngest daughters have disputed Christina's accounts of the way they were brought up. So—unless you were there—who knows?

That's the thing that I like about reviewing classic Hollywood films: underscoring the difference between the behind-the-scenes reality and the image on the screen. I'm very big on letting viewers know who was gay and who was a lesbian at the time. The public response is ironic. For example, I recently reviewed a biography of Rudolph Valentino. I've done articles on Ramon Novarro. It's ironic that the two personifications of Latin lovers who drove women mad were both gay men and who actually had an affair. I find the irony behind that just wonderful and, again, the dichotomy between reality and image is amazing and Hollywood has done that very well all the time.

Guillén: Consistently. Just the other day I found out belatedly that Kerwin Matthews, who passed away last month, was gay in a relationship of 46 years! He had been living here in San Francisco running an antiques business once he retired from show business. I loved Kerwin Matthews as a young boy.

Amador: He was beautiful!

Guillén: He was beautiful; he was everything I wanted to be; he was having the adventures I wanted to have. I would have loved to have had the opportunity to meet him and to thank him for the influence he had on me as a young boy. Perhaps his gayness was a detail he felt private about and withheld from scrutiny purposely; but, nonetheless, I would have welcomed the opportunity to meet and interact with him.

Well, Tavo, I think that will cover it for today. Thank you for your five film experiences at the Castro.

Amador: Thank you. I'm available, Michael, to chat with you about anything you like. I was extraordinarily flattered that you took the time to post my talks. I couldn't believe it.

Guillén: What I love about the transcription of these social events is that—often when I'm at the theater having the experience—there's so much stimulation coming in from all angles that I miss things. When I go home and listen to my recordings, it allows me to savor more fully what's been presented. I thought your presentations included important information about Adrian.

Amador: It was the continuity of his work and the significance of his work—again, it's an easy thing to discount the importance of costumes and so forth—and I think to some extent it was discounted initially with the Academy because it was a profession dominated by gay men. It wasn't until 1948 that they started handing out Oscars for costume design. It's hard for me now to believe that kind of hypocrisy existed. The hypocrisy in Hollywood is something that we have to think about, even in classic Hollywood, as much as I like it.

When Elizabeth Taylor got involved in raising money for AIDS after Rock Hudson's death, she was interviewed by Barbara Walters and she said, "The hypocrisy in Hollywood infuriated me because—if it hadn't been for gay men—there would have been no Hollywood." She said, "I was so angry. People were not returning my phone calls; something I was not accustomed to. Frank Sinatra and Nancy Reagan told me to find another cause." But she wouldn't. Her own involvement with gay and bisexual actors emotionally has been well-documented—Montgomery Clift, James Dean, Rock Hudson, Roddy MacDowall—but, it was her courage and her willingness to say, well, hey, if it hadn't been for gay men there would be no Hollywood….

Guillén: Have you had a chance to interview Elizabeth Taylor?

Amador: No, that would be unbelievable. I would die happy.

Guillén: Let's work on it!!