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The New, Original Wonder Woman (1975, Leonard Horn)

There are a number of things to talk about with The New, Original Wonder Woman. It’s a TV pilot movie. It’s a self-contained narrative about Wonder Woman, amiably but not quite enthusiastically played by Lynda Carter, coming to the United States in the middle of World War II. It’s this weird, campy, ill-advised serious “silly Nazis” played by comedic actors. It’s many things.

It’s also a painfully manipulative bit of condescension. After setting Carter up as the strongest lead possible, it turns out she’s willing to degrade herself as Lyle Waggoner’s secretary while incognito. It’s creepy. The way Stanley Ralph Ross writes it is creepy. It’s the last scene of the movie, which I don’t consider spoiling because Wonder Woman went to series. I myself was a “Wonder Woman” fan as a toddler. I’m trying to keep myself measured–going back to the show thirty-three years later, I was letting the promise of nostalgia carry a lot.

But no. I can’t. Some of New, Original is fine. But it’s all so disjointed, nothing can be good because it seems like other elements are moving in complete independence. I’m not sure if it’s Ross’s teleplay or if it’s just director Horn having a profound misunderstanding of what he’s doing, but cutting from Carter’s lame story to the silly Nazis? If it were intentional, there’d be a flow. Instead, Horn directs Stella Stevens poorly whenever she’s with John Randolph and Waggoner, but well whenever she’s with Red Buttons.

Oh, right, forgot. The thing about New, Original is it should be a camp classic. It has Cloris Leachman as Wonder Woman’s mom. Except Leachman’s terrible in the part. It’s a poorly written part and Horn’s direction of the Paradise Island sequence is the worst in the movie, but Leachman’s still terrible. It doesn’t work.

Meanwhile, Kenneth Mars and Henry Gibson play silly Nazis. Gibson loves the U.S.A. and sends messages by Mars’s carrier pigeons. The actors aren’t exactly having a blast, but they’re enjoying not letting themselves laugh at the material. They’re whole levels above not appearing miserable. Because Horn’s direction of those scenes isn’t good either. Mars, Gibson and Eric Braeden go for stuff and they get no support. It’s a shame. It’s almost this awesome short film about the conflicted bromance between Mars and Gibson. Or is Gibson just a heartless traitor?

But it’s not. Because Horn.

So most of Wonder Woman’s problems are because of Horn’s inept direction. It’s his inability to find the quality in his material. Red Buttons as a silly Nazi spy. Come on. It’s awesome. It has to be awesome or you can’t do it. And Horn doesn’t care. New, Original feels like someone knew what to do but no one listened enough to them.

And Carter’s okay. She has a good enough time–she’s enthusiastic about playing Wonder Woman and she’s very positive about it. But Waggoner gets too much emphasis, in the script, in the direction. Horn does some bad action sequences–Carroll Sax’s editing is awful–but Carter’s clearly the hero in them. You’re clearly supposed to watch it and think she’s kicking ass. Then Waggoner comes along and calls Lynda Carter in glasses dumpy. With poor John Randolph along to ask him to clarify the jokes for younger audiences. And Carter’s playing along so it can be “wink wink” but it’s more like “puke puke.”

So, as a pilot, I might hate watch “Wonder Woman” the series, but probably not. I hope the show was better. As a pilot movie, Horn manages to fumble a willing cast, an only occasionally odious teleplay and production values somewhere above a Roger Corman production. He should have done much better.

It really is kind of worth it at least once for the performances of Mars, Gibson, Braeden, Buttons and Stevens.

Oh, and there’s casual racism against the Japanese. It’s not even seventies TV casual racism, it’s seventies TV going overboard because it’s pretending to be forties propaganda blatant racism. It’s unpleasant. It’s not frequent, but it does stick out. Wonder Woman kind of does drown a bunch of Japanese sailors while saving Mars’s dippy butt. Mars is great and all, but come on. If Wonder Woman is going to crash a German plane into a Japanese submarine, she’s got to kill them all. Obviously, no one working on the pilot thought about it, which is the more disturbing part about it.

And New, Original isn’t like an homage to a forties propaganda movie. It should be, actually, just because of how well Mars and Gibson can keep straight faces. It’s just Horn being awful.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Leonard Horn; teleplay by Stanley Ralph Ross, based on characters created by William M. Marston; director of photography, Dennis Dalzell; edited by Carroll Sax; music by Charles Fox; produced by Douglas S. Cramer; aired by the American Broadcasting System.

Starring Lynda Carter (Wonder Woman), Lyle Waggoner (Major Steve Trevor), John Randolph (General Phil Blankenship), Red Buttons (Ashley Norman), Stella Stevens (Marcia), Eric Braeden (Captain Drangel), Severn Darden (Bad Guy), Fannie Flagg (Amazon Doctor), Henry Gibson (Nikolas), Kenneth Mars (Colonel Von Blasko) and Cloris Leachman (Queen Hippolyta).


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Five Easy Pieces (1970, Bob Rafelson)

About half way into Five Easy Pieces, the film really hasn’t given any clue as to what it’s going to be. It’s an incredibly complex character study, both in its approach to the narrative and in terms of Jack Nicholson’s protagonist. The beginning of the film, set in the oil fields of Southern California, ends up having to do very little with the story. It serves an easy purpose–to introduce Nicholson and establish his relationship with girlfriend Karen Black–but Five Easy Pieces hardly follows an epical course. The film could have just as easily started with Nicholson driving to Los Angeles to see sister Lois Smith.

The second half of the film, set on an island off the Washington coast, resembles the opening in terms of scene construction–Five Easy Pieces has short, concise scenes. For example, Nicholson’s devastating monologue–explaining himself to his stroke-impaired father–is not particularly long. I think there are maybe six edits in all. But it–along with the scene immediately preceding it–make Five Easy Pieces. After seventy-some minutes of hints at Nicholson, the scene finally reveals enough about the character for the film to be stoppable.

Five Easy Pieces moves on a momentum–it moves on long fades between scenes, whether it’s Nicholson hopping off a moving truck while the highway where he got on the back of the truck is still visible on the bottom half of the screen or it’s John P. Ryan’s nurse grinning wide for Smith (we don’t get to hear what Ryan says to her, because it’s just for her–the film frequently reserves things for the characters). I suppose it has three acts–I suppose I could even identify where they come in the running time–but it isn’t beholden to them. The film, from the first or second scene, moves where Nicholson takes it.

Nicholson’s Bobby Dupea is not a likable character. He’s a jerk, but a complex one. His relationship with Black is probably the film’s most complicated; it involves class differences, expectations and protectiveness. His relationship with Susan Anspach is similarly intricate. It’s the angle of entry to the character–even though the character’s emotions are never verbalized–it’s where the viewer can finally begin to understand something about Nicholson. It offers the first illumination of the character, a long time after first encountering him.

The film’s momentum and gradual pace do present one significant problem. The sequence with Helena Kallaniotes’s lengthy monologue, played for humorous effect–Nicholson’s famous chicken salad sandwich scene is in the middle–is a disaster. It’s long and goofy, ending with Kallaniotes looking the viewer straight in the eye. It doesn’t belong in this film or any other. It’s a transition between the two halves of the film. For a long time, it seems like the film can’t really recover from the spill. But then it does.

Nicholson’s great. Black’s great. Anspach is great. Smith’s great. Ralph Waite’s awesome as Nicholson’s brother, implying a character of enough depth to deserve his own examination.

Five Easy Pieces is a depressing piece of work, so depressing it’s almost hostile.

I can’t forget Rafelson. I haven’t seen Five Easy Pieces in a long time and, for whatever reason, I didn’t expect Rafelson to be a visual director. His composition is fantastic, the way he moves the camera, the way people move in his shots. But I think my favorite shot has to be the one where the viewer gets to see how much Smith misses Nicholson. It’s lovely.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Bob Rafelson; screenplay by Carole Eastman, based on a story by Rafelson and Eastman; director of photography, László Kovács; edited by Christopher Holmes and Gerald Shepard; produced by Rafelson and Richard Wechsler; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Jack Nicholson (Robert Eroica Dupea), Karen Black (Rayette Dipesto), Billy Green Bush (Elton), Fannie Flagg (Stoney), Sally Struthers (Betty), Marlena MacGuire (Twinky), Richard Stahl (Recording Engineer), Lois Smith (Partita Dupea), Helena Kallianiotes (Palm Apodaca), Toni Basil (Terry Grouse), Lorna Thayer (Waitress), Susan Anspach (Catherine Van Oost), Ralph Waite (Carl Fidelio Dupea), William Challee (Nicholas Dupea), John P. Ryan (Spicer) and Irene Dailey (Samia Glavia).


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