Saturday, July 12, 2014

DON MURRAY: UNSUNG HEROThe Evening Class Interview With Don Malcolm

As the Roxie Theater launches into "A Special Weekend With Don Murray" as a ramp-up event leading to Don Malcom's documentary tribute Don Murray: Unsung Hero (scheduled for a late Fall 2014 release by MidCentury Productions), I bemoan my inability to be in San Francisco for this event and to hear the seasoned actor interact with his audiences; but, remain grateful to have attended the series press screenings and to have had an opportunity to sit down with Don Malcolm to discuss his championing enthusiasm for Murray who, he asserts, "went from acclaim to obscurity in the blink of an eye."

According to The Baseball Reliquary, Inc., Don Malcolm "has had a shadowy literary career ever since the mid-1970s, when he wrote the first 'hypertext' novel—before 'hypertext' had even been invented. In the 1990s he turned his offbeat style and disturbing, ambiguous tone to baseball, crashing together numbers and literature in the controversial follow-on to Bill James' Baseball Abstract, called The Big Bad Baseball Annual. He went on the lam in 2001 and [spent eight years] editing and writing for the Film Noir Foundation's e-zine, The Noir City Sentinel."

In his program notes for the Roxie weekend series, Malcolm writes: "The 1950s proved to be the death knell for the classic leading man in Hollywood. The explosion of 'sensitive' leading men appearing in that decade left little or no room for the character lead, which had flourished since the '30s. The 'sensitive' type was quickly supplanted by the anti-hero, leaving little or no room for the matinee idol who was dashing but not dangerous.

"Enter Don Murray, who straddled both the 'dashing' and the 'sensitive' type. While not from the 'method' school—he once joked that he was cast as the virginal sailor in The Rose Tattoo (his first major role on Broadway, in 1951) because there were no virgins at the Actors' Studio—he was AADA-trained and was poised to give '50s heartthrobs like Clift and Dean and Newman a run for their money.

"Murray had something more, however; a social conscience. He followed in the footsteps of Lew Ayres and became a conscientious objector during the Korean War. His alternative service in post-WWII Europe, particularly in Italy, where he found thousands of displaced persons living in caves and barbed-wire camps a decade after the war's end, would lead him to live a kind of double life once he was catapulted to stardom via his performance as the brazen young cowboy in Bus Stop (1956), holding his own against Marilyn Monroe and garnering an Oscar® nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

"Murray would spend the next six years fulfilling his vow to solve the refugee problem while trying to be a movie star on his own terms. Despite a series of artistic triumphs (1957's The Bachelor Party and A Hatful of Rain, 1958's well-turned-out pacifist western From Hell to Texas, and a memorable role opposite James Cagney in 1959's Shake Hands With the Devil), it proved to be a tightrope act—one that soon led to a series of crossroads in his personal and professional life."

My thanks to Larsen Associates and to Elliot Lavine for arranging time to converse with Malcolm in the lobby of the Roxie Theater.

* * *

Michael Guillén: First off, tell me a little bit about yourself and your background.

Donald Malcolm: The most recent thing on the CV, aside from this documentary I'm working on, would have been eight years of editing the Noir City Magazine, which had a different title originally. I stayed with that until it became impossible to juggle all the balls in the air at the same time.

Guillén: Previous to that, had you made other documentaries?

Malcolm: No, this is my first leap into the void. I'd been a film buff for a long time while working in all sorts of other areas: failed novelist, writer about film and film noir, primarily editing the journal. The rest will have to be swathed in mystery.

Guillén: A shady and checkered past, eh?

Malcolm: Yes!

Guillén: Don Murray: Unsung Hero is a marvelous project to start out a career as a documentarian. How did the idea come to you?

Malcolm: Through Foster Hirsch, who was serving on the board of the Film Noir Foundation, and someone I got to know early on in that process. He became an incredible resource because he's currently working on—if not his last book—then his best: a massive book on film in the 1950s, which is a period of time he's fascinated with since he grew up during those years and wants to revisit that period of films.

During one of our conversations back in 2009, he said, "Somebody that really needs to be brought back to consciousness is Don Murray." I remembered a couple of films Murray had been in so I didn't look like a complete idiot to Foster, but he assured me there was so much more. "It's a fascinating story," he said, "he's been forgotten." I did a little more digging, started looking around, and realized, "This is really strange. This is a guy who was very big, made some incredibly important films, and then what's the rest of this all about?" As I started watching his films, I realized something more needed to be done.

Foster was able to convince the Film Noir Foundation to show A Hatful of Rain at the Palm Springs Noir Festival. Don Murray came to that screening and we all had a chance to meet him. We were all so incredibly charmed by his intelligence and self-deprecation. He was the perfect antithesis to so many people you run into in the field, someone you really enjoyed meeting, and so we got to know each other a little more. We pushed our first idea of doing a film retrospective in his home town Santa Barbara and—since at that time I had moved there and was traveling between Santa Monica and Santa Barbara—we put that festival on and showed a few of the films programmed in the current series at the Roxie. That went over very well and at that point I made the decision that there was still more to do, that the Santa Barbara screenings were simply not enough, because Don's story—as I got to know more of it—made me think back on American history from the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, etc., and I sensed there was a narrative there that might marry together what happened to him and his career with what happened to the country. If I was careful and did my work and found the right people to articulate those ideas, I could fold those elements together and make a pretty interesting film out of it. That's when I took the leap into the void.

Guillén: We'll pursue those ideas in just a second, but first I want to touch upon your description of Murray's self-deprecation. The byline for the Roxie film series—"He went from acclaim to obscurity in the blink of any eye"—has an air of finality about it. How does Murray think about the sudden collapse of his career into obscurity? Is that how he perceives the experience himself?

Malcolm: I don't think he would argue too hard against that idea. If you read his autobiographical materials—which we hope will eventually come out soon in the wake of this documentary-in-progress—he was aware that when he came to Hollywood he was walking a thin line because he did not want to play the game the same way as everyone else, which cost him his marriage. Eventually Fox was not able to find him projects that he liked and weren't able to figure out a way to build on the success that he had with Bus Stop. His career was always teetering. He made films that had quite a bit of success and esteem, but he was right on that edge and fell off very quickly. He's aware of that. I don't think he would argue with our byline, but he might say, "You're being a little dramatic and pushing the story to get people into the seats; but, more power to you."

In general, he would agree that the collapse of his career was seemingly sudden but it wasn't anything he was not aware of at the time. He was more concerned with other, larger aspects beyond being a film star. He was more interested in dealing with his refugee project. When his wife Hope Lange came to Hollywood, her star became ascendant and she traveled into those circles, which created a point of separation between the two of them, whereas formerly she had been part of the project and very much supportive of him in those areas. So you had two or three things hitting at the same time; an interesting set of points of collision for him. He knew his career was on shaky ground and then all of a sudden his marriage fell apart as well. "Obscurity" might be a good word to describe his internal feelings, but he was also a guy who would always press on and find a way to do something else and find his way out of the predicament that he found himself in and, in some cases, put himself in.

Guillén: Let me be clear about this: was it that—as an actor working for a studio—they weren't able to secure scripts that fit with what he wanted to do? And what he actually wanted to do is more what you see today where an actor as a writer/producer governs his own career?

Malcolm: Correct.

Guillén: Which, further, was not readily amenable to the climate of the time?

Malcolm: Well, it was a trend that was beginning but you had to be an actor with enough box office clout to be able to do that.

Guillén: Such as Burt Lancaster?

Malcolm: Burt Lancaster is a great example. Kirk Douglas is another one. These were guys that formed their own production companies. Don, being a keen student, was aware of these models and the goal he had for Hoodlum Priest (1961) was his leap into the void to try to make that happen. The film did extremely well. It's a great ham-fisted film that works in all sorts of different ways, both in the box office, and how it has held up over the years. It's a template for what he would have done if a studio had been willing to take him on as an independent production arm, providing a reasonable budget and giving him a chance to make different kinds of films. Unfortunately for Don, that particular window of time and the studio executive who was particularly interested in Hoodlum Priest left United Artists just at exactly the wrong moment and the people who were left to negotiate the deal didn't have the same vision. That whole opportunity slowly evaporated. He had to go in a different direction in order to try to make his films, plus continue to find a way to make a living once he remarried and began to have children. Within a few years, he had a lot to contend with.

Guillén: Falling from relative stardom into relative obscurity, how did he persevere as an actor? How did he keep himself going?

Malcolm: He made a few concessions to the marketplace. We won't show it in the Roxie series, but you're invited to see the incongruity of Don playing a Roman soldier in a story called The Viking Queen (1967). Obviously, Sweet Love, Bitter (1967) was in that period so he kept finding ways to expand by doing whatever came his way that he found interesting. Eventually he finally realized that he had to go to television, which was something he had resisted, having been a stage actor and having a certain amount of looking askance at television that many of the New York natives had about Hollywood. But finally at that point he looked for a property and found a script that he liked called The Borgia Stick (1967) that became a highly-rated TV movie where people rediscovered him and realized that he had that laid-back dynamism that made for a wonderful leading man hero. That was exactly the kind of role he didn't want to play, because he wanted to be a character actor and a leading man. He wanted to have it all in the films that he made. But he made The Borgia Stick and it got to the attention of insiders like Jackie Cooper at Screen Gems who, of course, had his own career as a major child star and moved on. Cooper remembered working with Don in live television days and decided Don Murray deserved to be back in the public eye so he offered him three different TV shows, which is how The Outcasts (1968-1969) came about.

Guillén: So let's return to the idea you were mentioning earlier regarding the collapse of Don's studio career set against the shifting culture of the time, which led to the programming concept behind the Roxie series. Talk to me about coming up with the concept for this program.

Malcolm: Sure. There was a radical sea change that occurred in America basically within one year. In our documentary Jeanine Basinger relates a wonderful story that encapsulates that sea change well. She talks about her husband who went to Wesleyan at the time when it was still an Ivy League wanna-be school emulating the coat-and-tie approach. It took another 10 years before that approach evaporated completely, but at that time her husband was sitting in a class room with fellow tweed and tie students listening to their professor lecture when a young man threw the door open and walked barefoot into the room wearing blue jeans and a flower in his long hair. They all gaped at him in wonderment and a year later they all looked like him. This is, in essence, what happened to the country.

Obviously this goes back to the notion that there was a kind of liberal consensus that had emerged out of the rubble of the McCarthy era and had begun to make a lot of in-roads, even though there was a Republican President (Eisenhower) who today, by the way, would be considered hopelessly radical by his fellow party members of current stripe. There was more consensus of what was possible in the Democratic Party in the late '50s up through the beginning of the Vietnam War. What happened in 1964-1965 as we went into Vietnam, this whole thing exploded splintering into two or three different directions at once, which became the '60s as we know it. A lot of the people who were part of the original old Left found themselves ground up, ineffective, and left behind in this tide of rebellion, change and revolution that went on. Hubert Humphrey was the sacrificial lamb to the Democratic Party. I'm sure that Humphrey never wanted the things to happen in Chicago like they did. They ruined his chances to be President of the United States, for sure. A whole lot of people wound up having their own ability to work effectively in those areas compromised by the polarization that began in '64-'65, rolled through the country, and is still with us today.

Don's career ran afoul of that because he made a couple of choices for films that confused his friends who thought he was a particular kind of guy. He had made films where he played an outed gay senator (Advise and Consent, 1962) so he looked like a guy who was working on a progressive side. But then he made a film about Norman Vincent Peale (One Man's Way, 1964) and eyebrows raised. They asked, "What is he doing?" Well, he had seen some other issues that he wanted to bring up. It wasn't that he was going over to become a member of the fundamentalist group. The Confessions of Tom Harris (1966-1972) reads that way although, again, Don liked to walk tightropes in films he made. So he found himself in a spot where people just didn't have any bearings on him anymore and that was one of the reasons he fell into obscurity. He needed help from his old friends in order to get his career back on track. From 1969 on, he made a lot of efforts to do the same thing and had more adventures in his attempt to do so; but, he was tainted a little bit by some of the things that people assumed about him, which turned out to not really be true.

Guillén: So are you trying with this program to represent the diversity of his—"taste" isn't quite the right word—the range of creative tasks he chose for himself?

Malcolm: Yes, I think so; but, one area that's prominent in our program is the issue of race relations. This is an area where Don never varied from being ahead of the curve. When he made Call Me By My Rightful Name in 1972 about 10 years later, it probably seemed threatening or head-scratching to people because they thought the issue had been resolved—of course, the issue has never really been resolved—but that legacy is something we wanted to put into relief in the process. We wanted to give an anthology of all that, along with the other varied films he'd done throughout his career.

Guillén: It's been quite satisfying to see the preview clips of your upcoming documentary Don Murray: Unsung Hero, especially the one conversation you had with Don where he specifically addresses these race relation issues. Regarding the sea change you referenced earlier, or any kind of revolution for that matter, Confucius reportedly argued that if you want to change a culture you need to first change its language. The language of American discourse dramatically changed in the '60s, which meant that film language had to also change. Only often it didn't, and thus there were awkward transitions in narrative, and awkward depictions of how movies were trying to capture that cultural sea change and the shift in language. In your clip with Don I was struck by his comment that it's even harder to talk about race relations now because of cultural complacency, which excited me as he said it and made me yearn for a movie about that. Right? Because complacency has become the current language. The idealistic, rebellious language of "Hey man, hey man" that we saw in Sweet Love, Bitter—which was a language of the late '50s extending into the late '60s—is now a language that's almost comic, if quaint, and dated, because we're now much more cynical or—as Don brilliantly suggests—much more complacent.

Malcolm: We were fortunate to be able to interview Dick Gregory as a counterpoint to this story that reminds us that the issue of race relations is not solved and that people carry around the wounds of racism and prejudice even if we don't see them. It's clear that we need to continue to focus on this issue, just as Don said, and colliding these two individuals together made for a striking presentation. We're still debating exactly how we'll present that in the documentary, but I think it will be fairly close to what you've seen because I want people to see that there's still anger. The anger exists because it hurts to be discriminated against. We've had this long history of discrimination that can't be swept under the rug. We can't backslide from the accomplishments of the past and think that—just because we've made "x" amount of progress—we can have faith that all the young people following us are going to be without those prejudices. If we don't remain vigilant, we've shown in this country an immense capacity for backsliding.

This is paramount in Don's mind as we've discussed it. This was one of the reasons why he—over the course of our discussions—became more and more comfortable with this notion of our programming in this direction and became willing to go into the vaults to recover Call Me By My Rightful Name, make a new print of it, and have it be something that can be seen again. Perhaps this is the time when the story it tells through a romance of two men who were friends but have one potential point of division between them come rear its ugly head in the strangest and most unusual of ways makes for an interesting and compelling movie. I hope that people will see it and that it will become a part of an ongoing conversation for that subject matter.

Guillén: Which leads me to ask: how much has Don been involved in the curation of this program? You say he pulled Call Me By My Rightful Name from the vaults. Did he do that specifically for this program?

Malcolm: In order to get a handle on what happened, we had to go back and try to find as much material as we could. Don had been sitting on that particular film, simply because he felt, stoically, that no one seemed to want to see it. He didn't want to see the film decay, but he also didn't want to bother anybody about it unless somebody came looking for it. Here again is an example of his self-deprecation. He didn't want to press his particular viewpoint upon people by advocating for the film in any overly-aggressive way. Call Me By My Rightful Name was a property that involved breaking down Don's own barriers over time because he had been somewhat hurt by the fact that there was no place to play it once he had done it.

But to answer your question, Don has always been interested in how we've shaped the program. We've consulted him and taken his ideas into perspective. I drove the race relation issue over time and I think that's what convinced him to bring Call Me By My Rightful Name out of the vault and into the light of day again. It is a collaboration in that respect.

Guillén: Is Don aware of how he is situated in the nostalgic reappreciation of older films? In a sense, a curated appreciation distinct from how the films might have been received in their own time? Does he recognize this as a springboard to reintroduce himself to a new generation and possibly even kickstart a later phase of his career?

Malcolm: We should credit Foster Hirsch as being the man who was Don Murray's stalwart champion and who lit the fire under me. I was really shocked that no one had already done this. As I pursued this story and looked at the work, I asked myself why this appreciation of his career was languishing? Partly it was due to Don's finding a stoical point where he had found a way to forget about being forgotten. It was something he managed to accept. But now he sees there's an opportunity for some of the things he did to reassert themselves. He feels it's a good thing to have happen.

In terms of seeing how it's done, obviously we felt it would be better—because of the amount of the material—that we program it thematically (as we have) and not have it be a pick-and-choose. Nor did we want to oversaturate him into a lot of different places. Because none of Don's works fit comfortably into genres. As you've seen from the press screenings, he's always jamming genres together. Tom Harris is especially a very odd construction. It's a strange little film that went through a lot of peregrinations. But he enjoys that. He's a guy that likes to collide opposites. He likes to push them as far as they can go. The story of Tom Harris itself goes right to the edge of whether or not you're going to be able to identify with the lead character and believe in his transformation. I think Don recognized how far he pushed things and that he maybe went a little further than most people could really deal with, which is why he admitted in our clip that Tom Harris was the film that offended everyone. "Maybe I just couldn't help myself," he says. This is the restless spirit of a man who is very smart and interested in finding that spot of discomfort and riding it as far as he can. He didn't want to be simply a good-looking leading man. He wanted to push further and have us think about things.

Guillén: It's interesting that he purposely courted controversy and yet had some doubts about following through. Would that be a correct summation?

Malcolm: I would say that sometimes he didn't know the consequences of going out on a limb and then, after going there, he would step back and say, "Well, maybe I went a little too far with that." As far as him courting controversy, I think what actually happened was that there was a trap for him as an actor in being typecast, which he fought against as much as he could at every opportunity. It took him a long time to decide to do television because it was an easy option for him along the way and serious television was something of an anathema to him. He wanted to find a role like the one he played in The Outcasts, which as I said hit a level of discomfort. It wasn't that he wanted to make the audience uncomfortable; he just gravitated to a series of ideas that found that particular spot of discomfort.

One of the things about that is it makes it even more fascinating to look at this stuff today and be able to see that some of it involves issues that still haven't been resolved, even though we may think they've been resolved, and they still make us uncomfortable as we watch them—not because of awkward construction—but because they hone in on a spot that leaves you thinking, "Oh my God, he's really going to do this. He's really going to try to make this guy who's a rapist into a hero! He's actually going to make us believe this somehow through enough steps to make us see that this is a credible story because it really did happen." Tom Harris is a story that's stranger than fiction. It's hard for us to believe it; but, it really happened, and he's trying to say that from extremes you can come to a point of understanding.

Guillén: So for my final question, I'll play a little bit of a devil's advocate: why should we remember Don Murray? From a pantheon of stars, and an increased interest in character actors, what do you want people to walk away with from this series and your upcoming documentary profile? What do you want us to realize about Don Murray?

Malcolm: We should understand that he occupies a unique niche in a world of film that went through a maelstrom and he stayed true to himself. He didn't compromise his work or his ideals. He represents the type of artist and citizen who can provide a template for the way artists and citizens should operate so that the world will be a better place, and a less cynical place. That's a legacy in the work that he did in terms of the race relations films that will shine brightly for some time to come until we are able to, hopefully, resolve that issue. His work will continue to be a touchstone for us to come back to as we try to move forward and be a more progressive and better society as a whole. Don is an unsung hero in that regard.