The human comedy rarely comes wrapped in as gloriously trashy a package as Lipstick & Dynamite (full title: Lipstick & Dynamite, Piss & Vinegar: The First Ladies of Wrestling) (Koch Lorber Films), Ruth Leitman's unreasonably entertaining documentary about the "first ladies of wrestling." Here they are, the ladies (who were "no ladies," according to ads of the day) who bit, scratched, and body-slammed their way to immortality in the '40s, '50s, and early '60s, when a woman's position was supposed to be supine.
Many of Leitman's subjects had been mishandled by life from an early age; for them, fighting was simply a matter of survival against stepfathers, uncles, neighbors and other predatory males. Now, their bones brittle and their voices reduced to croaks, they're still putting the camera in a chokehold, refusing to go gentle into that good night.
The movie opens with a segment from What's My Line?, in which the panel is directed to guess the profession of Ella Waldeck, a prim-looking blonde. I won't tell you if she and a subsequent To Tell the Truth contestant, "The Fabulous Moolah," managed to fool their respective panels. But the very idea of a woman wrestler seems difficult for the likes of '50s black-and-white TV personalities, with their lacquered hair and jewels and gray suits—at least, a woman wrestler in an age without the Las Vegas glitz, when it was all so delectably seedy. Women entered the ring in the '40s when the men were at war. They were still wrestling when the men came back and their status changed.
You watch Lipstick & Dynamite and, as Walter from The Big Lebowski would put it, enter a world of pain. The chips on these women's shoulders have been pumped up from years of snarling rivalry (then, as now, the stuff of crude melodrama), bad pay, sundry fractures, and the outcast life. And yet the life force burns through. You won't believe the ancient Gladys "Killem" Gillem, who boasts that she wrestled dirty and was always a "tough son of a gun." Age has withered her something fierce, but that fighting spirit is undimmed. ("I slept on the ground with a good man and a bottle of whiskey and somebody really loved me for what I was," she reports, of her post-wrestling life.) And then there is Moolah, the one who made it big as both a wrestler and a manager (taking 25 percent), the one with the manse and the menagerie that includes a sweet, dependent midget wrestler who showed up at her door and was promptly adopted. Resented by many for her somewhat naked avarice, she emerges nonetheless as a champ.
We hear (and, distressingly, see) the young woman, groomed for a top spot, who is killed in the ring. And we hear about those who finally turned to alligator wrestling and lion taming to stay in show business. Leitman's camera maintains an appreciative detachment that lets each personality emerge. When these "ladies" meet in the end in a Gulf Coast reunion, you're glad that there is someone there to capture it. What a gutsy, sad, glorious life it was for the women warriors of Lipstick & Dynamite, who not only seized the day, but wrestled it to the mat... 3:42 PT
Last week, I asked for suggestions for a comedy CARE package for Woody Allen, in an attempt to remind him (yes, probably in vain) that comedy can be more than a diversion to take one's mind off the approach of death—that the great comic works can teach us much about life and handle subjects nearly as wrenching as tragedy. (Beyond the laughs, the difference is that in comedy the characters glimpse the abyss but do not tumble in.)
On this bleak day, it's easy to envision a farce about a person in a persistent vegetative state with a semi-liquefied cerebral cortex and no hope of recovery—easy because we've been living through a farce for the last two weeks. In the same way, Alexander Payne's acid Citizen Ruth (which no one nominated for Allen's package, strangely) is a grimly funny look at the politics of abortion. As someone who is illiberally conflicted about that procedure (I find myself both pro-choice and anti-abortion), I realize that Citizen Ruth did not give us the full picture. But I was grateful to see Payne dive into the maelstrom and demonstrate that comedy and farce can dig deeper than made-for-TV morality plays.
The greatest satires—from Aristophanes to Swift to that incendiary modern clown Dario Fo—use the form to expose hypocrisy. Even the seemingly frivolous bedroom farces of Feydeau traffic in the subversive message that whatever our public discourse, marriage has historically been anything but sacred. (Newt Gingrich, Randall Terry, and countless divorced guardians of morality should never be allowed to forget the gulf between their public declarations and private behavior.)
By far the No. 1 suggestion for Allen was Sullivan's Travels. I know it's heretical, but I find it the least interesting of the major Sturges comedies, precisely because it does a hairpin turn into solemnity and ends with the sort of sentimentalization of comedy (as something to take our mind off our woes) with which Woody Allen would agree. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with that idea—only that at a key point in the narrative, Sturges uncharacteristically loses the delicate balance he maintains in his masterpieces, Christmas in July, The Lady Eve, TheMiracle of Morgan's Creek, and Hail the Conquering Hero. [Correction: Yikes! How could I have left out Unfaithfully Yours?]
Many suggested something by Billy Wilder, especially The Apartment. I agree, although I enjoy his "serious" films—especially Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard—more because they're laced with wit.
Many also suggested Allen's care package should include films by Woody Allen, especially Annie Hall and Manhattan. I love both, but they're the beginning of the end and probably wouldn't sway him.
I hesitate to include Ingmar Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night, because it's the inspiration for one of Allen's most flaccid comedies, A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy. But it remains one of my favorite Bergman movies for its blend of sex farce with the director's rather hopeless view of love. The couples pair off successfully at the end, but the underlying despair never fully dissipates.
More choices that I endorse:
Groundhog Day. Wild comedy and sentimental romance, yet the idea of a ne'er-do-well being forced to master a single day gives this wonderful film a bittersweet aura.
Lost in America. All Albert Brooks' movies have desperate, serious undertones, but this still seems to me his most perfectly realized work—an anti-travelogue about the inability to escape oneself, even with a huge trailer (and "a microwave that browns"), a nest-egg, and memories of Easy Rider.
The War Comedies. Buster Keaton's The General juxtaposes physical comedy—some of the greatest ever seen on film—with battle footage inspired by Matthew Brady's Civil War photos. (For my money, those scenes are better than Griffith's in TheBirth of a Nation.) Although Allen seems to regard Duck Soup as blissfully mindless absurdity, it remains one of the great antiwar films of the '30s. Dr. Strangelove helped popularize the "sick" satire of the '60s while reminding us of the perils of mutually assured destruction. And Robert Altman's M*A*S*H proved that blood, death, and irreverence could be wedded to a passionately humanist worldview.
As usual, I'm extremely thankful for all the responses and regret being able to excerpt only a fraction of them here.
I agree with you that he needs a good re-reading of the classics: Shakespeare, Moliere, Shaw, Labiche, Feydeau, Gozzi, Terence and Plautus would all be profitable (and might keep him away from a camera for a year). But Allen's real ancestor was Greek: his movie Everything You Always Wanted To Know ... might be our most Aristophanic film. And since Aristophanes was the only serious foil to Socrates AND Plato, perhaps only he can convince Allen that a take-no-prisoners comedy is the best way to confront the most serious issues.
And he should be forced to watch the first American Pie; maybe then he'd realize how wrong he was to write it off.
[American Pie is pretty crude and slapdash, but its vision of male adolescent sexual panic—especially the fear of bodily fluids erupting at the most embarrassing times—is a modern, gross-out extension of one of comedy's classic motifs.—DE]
Groundhog Day: As penetrating a journey into life and how to live it as Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Trouble in Paradise—No social criticism, no emotional depths plumbed, just pitch perfect execution. The kind of movie P.G. Wodehouse might have made had he been more risqué. One Week: Buster Keaton short in which he tries to build a "do it yourself" house from scratch. The finished house looks like something out of Salvador Dali's dream. As artful and memorable as any tragic poetry.
It's not a movie, but ... The Simpsons. Anybody with an open mind and a good brain recognizes that the best episodes of this show aren't just hilarious, they're brilliant as satire, character studies. … [A]s Bart Simpson once said of Krusty, "That's funny on so many levels."
Some Like It Hot and The Apartment do not just make us laugh—they point at truths about human nature in a way and to a level that many "serious" films can never reach. It's too bad that Woody Allen decided to worship Bergman and not Billy Wilder.
Is it just me, or is South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut not only funny, but more meaningful in a post-9/11, post-nipplegate America? It's like Trey Parker and Matt Stone have a crystal ball that can see into the future—albeit one that makes fart noises when you turn it over.
For me, thematically, it's Tootsie: grand artistic aspiration (an actor trying to show the world what he can do), the pain of unfulfillable love (Dorothy toward Jessica Lange's character), the heartbreak of unrequited love (Charles Durning as Lange's father toward Dorothy), and, in the end, redemption. And, I think Woody would agree, it's hilarious!
Woody should watch Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy, a movie about loneliness and the absence of love, featuring characters who hilariously/tragically misdirect their energies in the search for intimacy. It features astonishingly good performances from Sandra Bernhard, Jerry Lewis (a real stunner, in fact), and Robert DeNiro, who manages to seem simultaneously completely innocuous and mortally dangerous.
Send Woody Allen, Election, arguably still Alexander Payne's finest film, that illustrates that even a "teen comedy" under the banner of MTV can sit at the adult table. Plus, the subplot of the teacher lusting after Reese Witherspoon should be close to Allen's heart.
La Ronde: This doesn't fall into the category of laugh out loud comedies, but I was trying to think of a great film that has comedy and drama side by side and Ophuls' film popped into my head. This is one beautiful movie and the simple, elegant form blends humor and pathos seamlessly. I also think that the theatricality of its presentation is part of what makes it such a great film ... it is so playful and alienating at the same time.
Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times is for me the most effective movie portraying the potential for capitalist driven technology to enslave us. If that's not an "exploration of a profound truth," I don't know what is.
Bill Murray is often a great presence, but Groundhog Day works so well because it doesn't stop at a high concept but takes the high concept as a means to explore how it's only once he learns how to love and give selflessly—not out of desperation, not out of narcissism—that he becomes free. It's a terrific movie that ages very well, leaving one much to think on. Bull Durham stands out to me because it's surprisingly complex in its take on love—how we deny ourselves what's good for us, how we resist what might actually work best. It also stands out because it's about adult love—helped because it's not Kevin Costner and a 24-year-old Jessica Alba type, but instead, Shelton was brave enough to cast an extremely sexy (and older than Costner) Sarandon.
—Michael O. Palmer
Including a TV series may be cheating, but The Office (the original BBC version—I guess its necessary to clarify that now) is one of the best, funniest, and most uncomfortable (in a good way) blends of laugh-out-loud comedy and gut-wrenching emotion I've ever seen. A skillful construction that could have easily turned out lopsided in lesser hands. So unexpectedly real it sometimes hurt to watch.
Send him King Lear,Waiting for Godot, Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience, and Aristotle's Poetics. Those ought to be "serious" works he likely respects and that might actually get him to think: Hey, the best tragedy taps the comic and visa versa. Only a schizoid imagination would try and surgically separate the two. Hamlet speaking to Yorick's skull is funny, and deliberately so. Gloucester's journey to the cliffside with Poor Tom (his son, in disguise) and ensuing "suicide" is funny, and deliberately so—critically so. The Blake poems are crafty in that they seem to be espousing a binary innocence/experience—it's a binary Allen has bought into. But Blake knew, and expected us to discern, that there is another innocence—an earned, non-victim, state of innocence on the far side of experience … call it grace. We ask for neither our childhood's innocence nor the "grown up table" of experience—but to attain to the grace beyond experience—Allan fell from that many films ago.
The Life Aquatic. I know you hated this one, but I think it deserves another try. And this isn't some cerebral, art-house pretension talking: This movie made me unusually happy for weeks, and I still get a stupid smile on my face when I remember a snippet of dialogue, or especially the scene where they demonstrate the helmets with the piped-in music. I think there is something Jungian going on here, because this film just bowled me over, and months later I am still at a loss to explain exactly why I loved it so much.