Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Manipulator (1971): or, Hey Kid, Let's Put on a Show!

There was a time when there were not that many people in the world more famous than Mickey Rooney. The star of the hugely successful 1930s and 40s series of "Andy Hardy" movies for MGM, Rooney was the perfect embodiment of all-American male purity, optimism, and energy, a kid whose boundless enthusiasm and willingness to put himself out there couldn't help but result in a happy ending. His onscreen partnership with music and film legend Judy Garland only cemented his star status. In 1940 he shared a special "Juvenile" Oscar with Deanna Durbin "for their significant contribution in bringing to the screen the spirit and personification of youth, and as juvenile players setting a high standard of ability and achievement." Hell, rumor even has it that Walt Disney named his most famous creation after the lad. THAT'S how famous he was.

But as often happened to actors who achieve their greatest fame as youngsters, Rooney found it difficult to make the transition from Golden Boy to more dramatic, adult roles; the studios and public just weren't willing to accept Andy Hardy as a grown man, and Rooney's diminutive stature didn't help him any there. In the middle years of his career, plagued by drug addiction and unable to find big studio work (with the exception of his now infamously un-PC portrayal of buck-toothed Japanese neighbor Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany's), Rooney was forced like others before him to take some film roles that many considered far beneath his ability and reputation.

Perhaps none of these roles was further removed from that fresh-faced boy of the 40s than Rooney's portrayal of demented wannabe-moviemaker B. J. Lang in Yabo Yablonsky's 1971 cinematic freakout, The Manipulator.

We open the film in a pouring rainstorm, showcasing some excellently composed shots of an old-fashioned streetlamp and a decrepit back alley. A trench-coated figure wanders down a lonely back street and finally ends up at the stage- and movie-props warehouse that may or may not be his home. Once inside he takes off his weather-wear to reveal--well, MICKEY ROONEY, but with a bushy gray beard that makes him look like a kinder, gentler Coffin Joe. He's also wearing exactly the same sunglasses Kermit the Frog wore when pretending to be a big-shot producer in The Muppet Movie, which makes me wonder if Jim Henson was a fan of the film.

"I watched a snail crawl along the edge of a straight razor. That's my dream. That's my nightmare."

After taking a moment to collect his thoughts--and doubtless shake off the heebie-jeebies inspired by the full-sized, taxidermied rocking horse and cobweb-covered mannequins that surround him--Rooney begins what amounts to a 90-minute KEE-RAZY rant, as B. J. Lang starts "directing" a film that only he can see, barking instructions to the nonexistent film crew at at times answering himself back in his peons' subservient voices.

This goes on for a while, and it's to Rooney's credit that it never gets particularly boring--though a viewer gets the very real feeling that Mickey is perhaps more than a little "altered" here, and not just through method acting, Rooney's years of training and experience come through strong and he is able to hold your attention and make you interested in his character's psychosis. He's assisted greatly by the work of cinematographer Baird Bryant, whose work will be consistently wonderful throughout--extreme closeups of dust-covered props and extreme Dutch angles give the creepy old warehouse a "haunted playroom" ambience that's quite effective.

It's during this part of the movie Lang first starts hallucinating what might be scenes from his movie, but in fact are a kind of waking nightmare--kabuki-faced women and naked old men doing a slow waltz in front of the derelict props, mannequins smiling and laughing at the action, and Lang himself pushing them on to great heights of frenzy. I was reminded favorably of the opening sequence of the Roald Dahl TV series "Tales of the Unexpected", in the best possible way.

Hallucinations in a Deranged Mind

Soon Lang starts hearing high-pitched noises that could be whimpers or mad laughter, and at first this seems just another manifestation of his madness. However, the stakes are raised when he pulls back a dusty curtain to reveal the source of the noises: the wheelchair-bound Carlotta (Luana Anders), an actress Lang has somehow kidnapped and is forcing to perform in his "masterpiece." Note that when I say "wheelchair-bound" here, I don't mean she's paralyzed--I mean she's literally bound, tied to the wheelchair with strips of cloth and stout cord, unable to move till Lang calls for ACTION.

Obviously Carlotta has been Lang's prisoner for quite some time, as when Lang appears she immediately starts begging for food. "I'm hungry, Mr. Lang...Mr. Lang, I'm hungry!" Lang ignores her pleas for a while, chastising his actress for being late to the set and reliving a few more memories of his glory days in studio-era Hollywood. Eventually he relents to her pleas, though, feeding her spoonfuls of baby food from a small glass jar. The way Carlotta snaps at the offered spoon every time Lang's attention wanders is actually kind of chilling, emphasizing the mental and physical strain the poor girl is under.

The rest of the movie is pretty much Lang tormenting Carlotta by insisting she perform the romantic lead in his version of Cyrano de Bergerac, with Lang himself as her long-nosed hero, of course. More mental torture is in store as the increasingly unhinged director reminisces about the Old Days some more while applying Carlotta's make-up--all while in the persona of the fey make-up man Lang in fact used to be, with Rooney wearing heavy eye-shadow, lipstick, and tons of rouge! Again, Rooney manages through force of acting talent to take the strange, silly scene and make it somewhat chilling, coming off like nothing so much as a crazy old man in Nora Desmond drag.

He's ready for his close-up.

As good as Rooney is in his TOTAL COMMITMENT to the aged movie-obsessed psycho role, Luana Anders is unfortunately just that BAD as his helpless victim. Granted, it can't be easy to perform 3/4 of your role while completely immobile, but Anders' whiny line readings and attempts at petulance just come off as amateurish and painful to watch. She's a long way from Pit and the Pendulum (1961) and Easy Rider, that's for sure.

You'd think that an hour of watching an old man act crazy for the benefit of a young(er) lady tied to a chair would get tedious, and unfortunately you'd be right. Despite Rooney's periodically excellent performance, the plot wears thin by the halfway point, and even Carlotta's eventual required escape (accomplished through a piss-poor all-around heart attack scene in which the spasming Rooney releases Anders so she can get his pills) and extended game of hide-and-seek through the creepy warehouse (featuring a cameo by a frankly embarassed-looking Keenan Wynn as a homeless drunk crashing in the costume department) do little to spice things up.

What *does* help spice things up, though, are Yablonsky's frequent detours into cinematic Acid Trip-ville. Not only do we have repeats of Rooney's earlier creepy hallucinations and more extreme close-ups than you can shake a powder-puff at, we also get Mickey doing a rendition of "Chattanooga Choo Choo" at Keystone Kops speed (TWICE), an extremely odd wrap party/orgy sequence (featuring moustachioed men in harem girl outfits, writhing masses of gauze-draped hippie chicks, and a naked toddler Rooney cradles to his chest protectively, whispering "My baby! My baby!"), and a delirious Carlotta dashing down long corridors of hanging sides of beef only to encounter a string quartet performance going on in a butcher's locker, men in tuxes and women in furs enjoying the chilly, meat-scented performance! And yes, it makes just as much sense as it sounds like.

Sonata in D minor, for Cello and Spare Ribs

When it's talked about at all, The Manipulator is often compared to Otto Preminger's infamous LSD-fueled flop Skidoo (1969), in which Rooney also had a role. I haven't seen that film yet, but judging from the synopses I've read, that sounds about right--only replace the all-star cast with a one-star cast, and remove the Preminger prestige factor. While LSD is never mentioned in The Manipulator, one can't help feeling it or some other mind-altering drugs (or perhaps a coctail of *all* of them) had a hand in forming Yablonsky's vision.

Yablonksy himself never directed another film but had some success as a playwright and screenwriter; in fact, the stage version of The Manipulator (entitled B. J. Lang Presents: Cyrano) is still periodically produced. His teleplay for the TV movie Revenge for a Rape (1976) also got some good notices.

Rooney was famously "born again" in the 70s, becoming good friends with Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker and making frequent appearances on the PTL Club. He also experienced a latter day career resurgence, as his boyish stature and aged baby-face looks suit him very well playing kindly and/or crotchety grandfather types. He's still working, recently putting in a role as an unlikely heavy in the blockbuster Night at the Museum. Rooney always says he's proud of everything he's done, and only wishes he could have done more--still, I have to wonder if his post-conversion pride extends as far as The Manipulator.

Whatever the case there, for a Mad Movie fan, The Manipulator has an undeniable charm. Despite the late-film drag and the rather silly ending, the joys of the weird visuals and Rooney's kind of amazing performance more than even it out. Though it's been called "one of the most bizarre, inept films ever made" by those who obviously haven't seen as many such films as I have, I give The Manipulator 2.25 thumbs. It's on the Mill Creek 50 Drive-In Movie Classics set, so it's easy to come by for those interested. If you get the chance, give it a spin.



The Duke of DVD said...

Dear Christ, that image of Rooney in drag fills me with a nameless dread; it will haunt my dreams.

What a bizarre movie you've brought us, Vicar. Bravo on a superb review, as usual. You make us want to watch such things as Mickey Rooney ranting at nothing while a wheelchair-bound girl asks for more baby food.

(special kudos for the Apocalypse Now reference, I let loose a guffaw at that one, sir)

ThatQuebecGuy said...

Sold, I'll be buying 50 Drive-In Movie Classics anytime now, I just hope I'll enjoy it as much as I enjoyed 50 Chilling Classics. Damn those folks at Mill Creek Entertainment, actually giving me quality and quantity for my hard-earned money.

The Vicar of VHS said...

@Duke of DVD--I really wasn't expecting much when I went into this one, but it truly is one of the more bizarre finds I've stumbled upon recently. It helps that through my older brother, the Minister of Musicals, I had experience with Mr. Rooney's prior work. ;)

@ThatQuebecGuy--the Drive-In Classics set has its share of gems, though not quite as many as Chilling Classics yet. There *is* a lot of crap on the set as well, but as with my previous Mill Creek experiences, it more than evens out in the end. Happy hunting!

Samuel Wilson said...

I remember this film getting a rave review in the Slimetime book and I've had it sitting in a couple of Mill Creek box sets. Vicar, your comments will have me finally looking at it sooner rather than later.

Anonymous said...

Here's a lost curio from the acid-inspired days of indie filmmaking. A tripped out vision of insanity featuring a tour de farce performance by Mickey Rooney. It's also an amazing achievement, which quickly destroys any preconceptions you might walk in with...Almost the entire film is set in a warehouse chocked with hallucinatory backdrops, old movie props, scrap sculptures, and cobwebs. And Rooney (who's in nearly every scene) stars as B.J. Lang, a crazed old man who believes he's the greatest director of all time in the midst of planning his next epic -- while in actuality he's just a deluded has-been stumbling through an abandoned building. Looking particularly haggard and sporting a scraggly beard, Rooney gives a brave, over-the-top performance consisting of stream of consciousness monologues and acting that transcends the boundaries of camp. It's one of the ultimate psycho performances of all time, and Rooney's jolly persona only adds a more deranged touch to the brew, especially when we discover B.J. isn't just a menace to himself. You see, he's keeping a young woman (Luana Anders) captive in his warehouse, and keeps referring to her as "Carlotta", his personal starlet. Tied to a wheelchair and pleading for food ("I'm hungry, Mr. Lang," she begs repeatedly, until he finally spoons her some baby food), Rooney torments Carlotta and forces her to act out scenes for his "camera"; while Mickey dances, screams, emotes, practices death scenes, wears rouge and lipstick, and spends the second half of the flick with a fake Cyrano nose... Essentially, it's a two-character work (except for a five-minute stumble-thru by Keenan Wynn as a wino) -- a theatre piece that's been adrenalized by wild editing, hyper-kinetic photography, strobelights, freeze frames, and every imaginable camera trick in the book. Directed by first-timer Yabo Yablonsky (whose only other credit was co-scripting John Huston's soccer flick VICTORY), and with labyrinthine art direction & set decoration by Larry Cohen, it's a slim concept (SUNSET BOULEVARD meets THE COLLECTOR) mutated into a hallucinogenic, comic nightmare in which the fantasy world of filmmaking takes its toll and reality takes a backseat to illusion. Foremost there's Rooney, who (hard to believe) is unforgettable -- whether he's playing a broken, pathetic man reminiscing about the past, or chasing Luana past sides of beef (?) with a rapier. After 90 minutes of its dizzying pace, you feel like you're on the verge of madness too. Overbearing, pretentious and brilliant, this is one film that bares repeated viewing.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Hi Anonymous! Thanks for the supplemental review! Did you ever think of getting your own website?

Oh, wait--since what you have there is cut and pasted from here:


I'm guessing you already DO have a website. Unless for some reason you're just randomly pasting related reviews from one site to another...which makes no sense. :P

Kentie said...

I bought that DVD collection and I am halfway through the movie now.

highway2344 said...

Nothing about the amazing Gil Melle score? Possibly the best thing about this movie...

Emily said...

I admire your powers of observation, dear Vicar. As you know, I'm getting through it right now and finding it challenging to keep my eyes onscreen. I agree that it has an avant garde charm that truly does go all out, but if I see one more slo-motion scene of Carlotta running down a hallway I may have to kidnap Mickey Rooney and force him to perform my favorite plays.

Come to think of it, this feels very much like bad avant garde theater. But this is coming from someone who spent way too much time with bad avant garde theater in college, so that may explain a lot of my bitterness.

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