The closest thing produced in the History of Cinema that could approximate the hamfisted, insinuating and obsessively repetitive rhetoric of this year’s U.S. Republican presidential candidates must be Columbia’s 1965 scandalous hootenanny of liquor and sex, LOVE HAS MANY FACES.
This movie, lensing lusty and hustling lifestyles of Acapulco expats from beachbums to millionaires, brings tasty elements like wrongful death and sexual blackmail into the plot mix; however, the movie’s baseline — and the obsession of almost every character — brings it back to the knowledge that Lana Turner’s character, Kit Jordon, loves to fuck. And somehow that’s a bad thing.
In a parallel manner to Republican communication strategies, LHMF‘s script finds as many ways (within the standards of mid-1960s censorship) to cloak itself in self-fabricated, self-comforting moral superiority while fixing a voyeuristic (yet spurning) gaze at Lana’s urge to leap on the nearest available man. As with candidates and their stump speeches, this issue is repeated obsessively, despite the protestations of those who obsess that the topic is distasteful.
The era of the film’s release, 1965, was when the Production Code’s enforcement was slipping, so in many ways the film plays like a pre-Code film, where risqué topics (like abortion and sex for pay) are talked about but never actually shown. This probably explains one serious fault in the film: it’s top-heavy in dialog with a lack of real movie moments — everyone stands and delivers what they’re feeling, disclosing their motivations, but the camera seldom gets a chance to do its real job.
Yet this constant dribble of crypto-insinuation and innuendo makes LHMF one of those rare ‘bad’ movies that plays better with another viewing: when you de-code the taboo topics they’re talking about, you know what the hell they’re getting at the second time around.
The responsibility for its weaknesses in filmmaking language seems due to front office devotion to the script, making sure the titillation stays intact, plus perhaps demands of the top performers. (Forty years ago, Pauline Kael explained to me the reason mega-stars like Dean Martin, Sinatra or Taylor and Burton made such awful movies on location during the ‘sixties was because they would only work for a few hours each morning so they could golf and swim all afternoon. It’s an easy conjecture that a similar situation could have happened with Turner at one of her favorite destinations.) The lackadaisical feel of the film doesn’t seem due to any shortcomings of director Alexander Singer. A high school friend of Stanley Kubrick, Singer also entered the movies via camerawork. (When James Wong Howe made a 1954 documentary in New York on Chinese American artist Dong Kingman, Singer was his camera operator.) Before LOVE HAS MANY FACES Singer showed a mature hand on his first movie, the visually and verbally literate cult feature, COLD WIND IN AUGUST, about an aging stripper’s infatuation with an innocent young man. Afterward, he helmed many episodes of the rulebreaking, hypercinematic TV series The Monkees.
But Singer’s fresh talent seems weighted down by the unwieldiness of the production package assembled by the front office, and perhaps the dictates of the veteran heavy-players overruling the talented-yet-rookie director. As with almost all later Lana Turner vehicles beginning with the box office goldmine of 1957’s PEYTON PLACE and continuing with Ross Hunter epics like IMITATION OF LIFE and PORTRAIT IN BLACK, packaging was everything. This time it’s a layer cake of stars on the wane (Turner, Ruth Roman), those in peak form (Cliff Robertson, Hugh O’Brien), and those on the upswing (Stephanie Powers), with no scrimping for the cake’s icing: big paycheck professionals signed on to give luxurious harmonics to the experience, like the deeply warm cinematography by legendary Joseph Ruttenberg and a score (with tie-in pop tune) by David Raksin (LAURA). Marguerite Roberts (author of another hodgepodge of elliptical innuendo: M-G-M’s postwar, kinda-sorta adultery-ish Greer Garson vehicle DESIRE ME), who was jumpstarting her career that stalled due to the Hollywood Blacklist, penned story and script. But judging from her effort, perhaps she was rusty due to professional idleness during the ‘fifties.
For in LHMF, nothing really is at stake and there’s nothing to hang onto. The whole film is stacked as titillation upon titillation (or probably back then as shock upon shock), which delivers an experience similar to listening to a tableful of bored tweens being pottymouthed at a McDonald’s on Saturday night.
So this bread and circus offering of purple passion among the parasol drinks surprisingly isn’t much of a crowd-pleaser. But what’s even more bizarre is how it’s stuffed with Gay eye-candy and Queerified (but unfortunately not Camp) outlooks: the body of a beachboy washed ashore is in a position that looks like he’s begging to be fucked; at Hugh O’Brien’s entrance he’s nearly trampled by a gaggle of male admirers who can’t get close enough to him (in some scenes, his swimtrunks are so tight you can discern whether or not he’s circumcised); two beach studs shack up in a manner more emblematic of lovers than stallions-for-hire (fussing over who gets to wear the burgundy sport coat?!), etc. There’s even a couple of jokes about Fire Island and Oscar Wilde.
Despite the lax morality of the plot, the tidy ending supports family values. Cliff Robertson, tempted to stray from his marriage to Lana by philandering with young, fresh Stephanie Powers when both have rooms at the same hotel, is saved from wearing a Scarlet Letter by Powers’ sudden attack of turista. (How poignant!) And again, mirroring contemporary American conservatism, Lana gets gored by a bull as if a ‘punishment’ from the Almighty for being a ‘slut.’
However, going as far back as the American Mutascope Company’s 1897 footage of a belly-dancing Little Egypt, the movies have always tried to tease and titillate us. This movie was Little Egypt, Class of ’65. And if you’re in the properly receptive state, there are intentional and unintentional kicks to be sampled in this film.
Watching the faked dramatics and ersatz clinches of LOVE HAS MANY FACES, it’s hard to believe that EASY RIDER was just three years down the road. Yet, like LHMF, EASY RIDER had its teases too: of free love and LSD. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…