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The Stars Are Out Tonight: Hollywood Celebrity Casts in the 70s

  Putting a lot of recognisable names in your Hollywood movie was not a trend that started with the decade of the nineteen-seventies, for there had been examples stretching back to the likes of Alice in Wonderland in the thirties, where most of the stars wore costumes and masks as if it was not bizarre enough, or those all-star films supporting the war effort like Hollywood Canteen or Thank Your Lucky Stars where Eddie Cantor insisted on sharing the screen with every celebrity the studio could rustle up. In fact, during the fifties one such effort won the Oscar for Best Picture when Around the World in 80 Days was a huge success, making it the ultimate in Hollywood self-congratulation when pretty much all of the community appeared in it in some capacity. But come the seventies, the lustre was coming off stardom, therefore we were offered would-be blockbusters which made it their mission to put a star in every significant role, all the better to increase its chances at the box office, after all, the more famous faces the more chances someone wants to see them, right?

That was certainly the idea with 1968's Candy which saw Marlon Brando and James Coburn among others embarrass themselves in a would-be hip sex comedy, but there was something more obscure around the corner even more attuned to that sensibility. There was a variety show in some countries from the late seventies to the eighties called Night of 100 Stars where a long list of celebrities would show up to do a bit of their repertoire, or simply show their face, and though it's unlikely seeing as how little seen it was, the 1970 all-star extravaganza The Phynx would appear to be the inspiration in light of the sequence that appears late on where a bunch of old movie actors and musical performers (plus a couple of sportsmen) are announced as if at some variety do. Whether the target audience would be aware of who most of them were by that stage considering many of them saw their heyday back in the thirties - not their thirties, the nineteen-thirties - was a moot point, indeed the whole thing seemed to be focused on telling the kids of the time what real entertainment was back in the days of those now elderly notables.

But who or what was The Phynx? It was Warners' attempt to get in on the Monkees' act by creating a prefabricated pop band, just at the point where that group had imploded (following their own cameo-packed financial disaster vehicle Head) and the notion was being carried by a collection of session musicians and singers under the name of The Archies, who didn't have the problem of any creative differences to trouble the money men since they were cartoons. Mind you, The Phynx might as well have been cartoons too since they were plucked from obscurity and promptly dumped back into obscurity once more when their movie was judged by the top brass at the studio to be almost unreleasable, which is why it was barely seen, and even then for the merest perfunctory amount of time to presumably fulfil some obligations. Phynx albums, which are seen in the movie to be filling record stores, were hardly seen either never mind played, in spite of being penned by Leiber and Stoller; they may not be their best work but there was a lot worse out there, yet the project was already deemed to be damned, no matter that it was obvious a lot of money had been splashed on its creation.

Naturally, even if you don't know who all the celebrities were who popped up, this made The Phynx weirdly fascinating with its eye-straining colour and straining so hard to be hip that it put its back out. Before that ageing lineup were introduced, having been kidnapped by Albanians so that the C.I.A. assembled band can go behind the Iron Curtain to rescue them (yes, that's the plot) we had been blessed with Clint Walker as the band's instructor at boot camp, showing off an unexpected flair for comedy thwarted by minimal screen time, Richard Pryor working in the kitchens (er, cheers), Andy Warhol superstar Ultra Violet as an aide (spaced out, natch) and James Brown, the Godfather of Soul himself, as, well, himself, though not called upon to sing. With scenes going on too long (the X-ray specs sequence they were so proud of they apparently could have filled the whole movie with it) and others thrown away, the foursome at the centre of this looked lost as they struggled to retain any cool, and when they were sharing the stage with such stars as Dorothy Lamour, Colonel Sanders, Butterfly McQueen and Joe Louis they came across as out of place as it was possible to be. There was one nice moment, however, when Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan asked if they could finally do it, which turned out to be saying "Me Tarzan!", "Me Jane!"

Casting a selection of big names could lend a respectability to your production, yet equally it could drag their supposed mark of quality down into the dregs of exploitation cinema. Come 1974, for example, more racially-charged films had emerged from America in this decade than any time before, but often they would be classed Blaxploitation when they mostly focused on a black cast getting one up on the white authorities. Unfortunately, there were not as many high profile African American stars as there were white ones, therefore you ended up with something like The Klansman to play to the mainstream audience of the United States where the issue was not so much how the minority felt about racism, but how the white majority felt about it, here represented by such luminaries as Lee Marvin and Richard Burton. This film became more legendary for the epic drinking activities of those two, with Burton in particular notorious for being so far into his alcoholism that he frequently had to be filmed leaning against something, sitting or even lying down.

Marvin could apparently function better under the influence, it was part of his legend after all, but even so he could not bring much engagement to a tale that had started out as a hardhitting Sam Fuller movie where his character was a Ku Klux Klan leader and saw the considerable error of his ways, to make him a slightly racist Sheriff who ends up battling the Klan when a series of murders and rapes get out of hand, to put it mildly. Wrapping this up with the conclusion that the race problem was best solved by having everyone involved take part in a mass gun battle, you can imagine subtlety was beyond replacement director Terence Young, and therefore the stars quotient was asked to stage a rape between Cameron Mitchell and Lola Falana for the ultimate in bad taste with celebrities, and Linda Evans was assaulted in that way as well, not by Mitchell but by an anonymous black actor which wound up with her being ostracised by the racist community (or “rashist” as Burton pronounces it). With O.J. Simpson picking off the bigots with a rifle, former Bond Girl Luciana Paluzzi dubbed by a Deep South accent and David Huddleston using the N word so often it would make Quentin Tarantino blush, only the following year's Mandingo, also star-studded, beat it for maximum discomfort.

1978 appeared to be the ultimate year for the celebrity-packed cast list trend, and perhaps the ultimate in taking the Night of 100 Stars aesthetic from television and placing it on the big screen was the notorious disaster Sextette which placed an eighty-five-year old Mae West centre stage, behaving as if she was still in the first flush of success. Now, she deserves immense credit for showing up the hypocrisy of the kind of censorship and prudery that was around at the beginning of the twentieth century, but by the point she made this pop culture had surpassed her, leaving a curious relic who had already appeared in a supporting role in the all-star comedy so risqué it was an embarrassment, Myra Breckinridge. Some thought she had acquitted herself fairly well there, in spite of the production falling down around her ears, though in truth her musical number was one of the worst elements of the whole mess, but she had been trying to get back to a headlining role in movies for some decades and believed Sextette was perfect for that.

However, watching the elderly Mae try to sashay her way through a wealth of sexual innuendo at that advanced age gave her the impression of a little old lady who had sufficiently lost control of her faculties that she just didn't know what she was saying anymore. In this movie, we were in a Mae West fantasyland where everyone was obsessed with her to the extent that crowds follow her character around, the media hangs on her every word, international incidents are caused by her absence and solved by her presence, and strapping men young enough to he her great-grandchildren cheerily lust after her. You could think, well good for her, we had enough films where the ageing male lead enjoys the attentions of a far younger actress, but if you didn't find that palatable there’s no reason you'll appreciate this. Naturally, for some viewers, far from being one of the most excruciating films ever made, Sextette was a camp classic, noting that West was practically the only woman in the cast so as not to provide a rival for her, so among those celebrities wheeled on to deliver a bit of shtick you wouldn't see any glamorous females, only glamorous males.

This has given Sextette a strong following among gay men as you can imagine, but even they must struggle with the notion that all these famed men had been or wanted to be bedded by the ancient Mae. Timothy Dalton, future James Bond, was her latest conquest, or he would be if the plot contrived to get them into their honeymoon suite, and the sight (not to mention sound) of this poor man blundering his way through The Captain and Tenille's Love Will Keep Us Together as he serenades her makes you just about forgive Pierce Brosnan for murdering ABBA in Mamma Mia! The fact that he was the main butt of the jokes about his Knight of the Realm actually being a homosexual made it all the more bemusing, but you also had Dom DeLuise singing the Beatles, Alice Cooper in a short wig and tuxedo (so he wouldn't be recognised?) at the piano, Tony Curtis as a Soviet delegate who needs to shag Mae to make a crucial decision, George Hamilton as a gangster ex-husband, Ringo Starr as a director, and who would have thunk Mae West would have outlived Keith Moon (a dress designer who goes pirate, oddly)? And Van McCoy, too?

You might be able to track this star-studded casting to the disaster movie genre, that most seventies of styles that made a major comeback in the nineties. But by 1978 that too was on the wane, leaving us with megaflops like The Swarm; it wasn’t the last of them, we still had Airport '79: The Concorde, Beyond the Poseidon Adventure or When Time Ran Out to go, but it assuredly sounded their death knell. This time said disaster was an invasion of killer bees, African bees as we are continually reminded in the dialogue, not the hardworking honey bee from The United States of America goddammit, who are given a tribute in a caption at the end credits, so who could producer and director Irwin Allen, the Master of Disaster himself, have recruited to combat them? When the film opens, a bunch of hazmat suit-wearing soldiers are investigating a missile base where everyone has been killed, and the only person they find alive is a certain British movie star. When the doors in the control room open to reveal him and he is demanded to identify himself, you half expect him to respond with "My name. Is Michael Caine" but alas he doesn't, even though it really is him, essaying the scientist role of Dr Brad Crane.

Brad obviously Americanised his name when he emigrated. But the also available Richard Widmark (as a General) is here to question why he is there, and he finds him very suspicious, especially when he reveals he knows it's those bees which closed down the base. Could Sir Michael be in cahoots with the insects, appears to be the issue here, which should offer some idea of how sensible this enterprise was. But it wasn't just Mike and Rick at loggerheads in a wise science versus stupid military sort of way, as we had other celebrities here too, present to fill up that necessary human sacrifice element for the decade's cinematic action dramas. High on the list we had the rather past it love triangle of Olivia de Havilland as the headmistress, Ben Johnson as the Sheriff, and Fred MacMurray as the Mayor, the greatest cast 1950 could assemble, but if you were sufficiently invested in wanting to find out which one of her elderly suitors Olivia chose, you would be dramatically let down to witness them first be run out of town by the bees, then when on the train out of there they insects strike again, somewhat improbably causing the locomotive to crash off a ridge whereupon it exploded in a fireball. So after all those soap suds Allen couldn't give a shit about Olivia's choice. Why should we?

Richard Chamberlain was there as well, and if you've seen The Towering Inferno you would be unsurprised to note Allen viewed him as cannon fodder, and less surprised to note our director was trying to conjure memories of that genuine blockbuster by having his bees set off explosions and fire across Texas. As Cameron Mitchell observes early on, there are credibility issues here, not least because Cameron Mitchell is in the cast too, but Patty Duke (Astin) showed up as a pregnant lady to be menaced, not only by the flying fiends but also by her doctor Alejandro Rey who seeing she is a single mother makes no bones about trying to romance her: isn't there something in the Hippocratic Oath about this? He's even leering at her after she's being wheeled out of the delivery room! Just one of many missteps and ludicrous elements in The Swarm, though some would say the presence of that cast, led by a past master of turning up in movies beneath his station Caine, rendered it essential for the bad film buff seeking a heavy dose of camp to make the day go by with a spring in their critical step. Henry Fonda, for it was he playing another boffin, had a line about studying Tibetan levitation that put just one of many preposterous images in the audience's heads.

As television was illustrating, another way of getting your stars together would be to stage a soap opera of sorts, and the so-called airport novels of the decade were providing fodder for the supposedly classy flicks that promptly flopped, more often than not, when the readers found the cinematic incarnations of their beach reads somewhat lacking. Among their number were two by Sidney Sheldon, The Other Side of Midnight and most notoriously Bloodline which coaxed Audrey Hepburn out of retirement to essay the role of a thirtysomething heiress (she was in her mid-fifties at the time) to a pharmaceutical fortune whose late father has been murdered to make way for their killer to reap the profits of a sale of the business. Among those suspects seeking to gain were Omar Sharif who is running two families, only one of whom is aware of the other, Romy Schneider who is introduced taking part in library footage of a Formula 1 race who not only wins but takes off her helmet to reveal herself to be – gasp! – a woman, James Mason who is a Tory M.P. standing against reintroduction of the death penalty and has a profligate younger wife in the shape of former Mamas and the Papas singer Michelle Phillips who is threatened with having her knees nailed to the floor, and so on.

Actually, the most egregious aspect of Bloodline were scenes that did not feature the celebs, as for some reason they sought to include Sheldon's snuff movie subplot which saw anonymous nude models being strangled during sex while being filmed on an 8mm camera. As if that wasn't bad taste enough, the bodies are seen being fished out of the Thames just opposite The Houses of Parliament, presumably to simultaneously indicate the location was London, that the production had the budget to visit various places around the world, and as a hint to the identity of the orchestrator of the killings. Trouble was, in the final edit they had cut out an explanation of why any of this was happening, which left audiences baffled as to what the snuff scenes had to do with any of the rest of it. You also had Audrey swearing at Ben Gazzara, who played her love interest, a Play School through the round window tour of a pharmaceutical factory, Inspector Gert Frobe bantering with a talking computer, and Sharif trying answer the phone while having sex.

This may make it sound better than it was, as for the most part it was a mess as all-star movies of the seventies tended to be, but by the end of the decade the disaster movie debacle had turned into the all-star comedy, as no less a talent than Steven Spielberg offered the world 1941, a huge flop that threw not only the famous faces at the movie but the stunts and spectacle as well, all in the service of making the audience laugh, which not many did. He may have been onto something, however, as in the coming decades we would be treated to hits as diverse as The Cannonball Run, The Player and Ocean's 11, all of which littered the screen with the big names of their day and were happy to have us chortle at them, intentionally this time. So it seems that the best thing to do with that assembly of stars is to have them make jokes, goof around, act against type if necessary, basically the sort of stuff that they were getting up to in the thirties with Alice in Wonderland or the forties with Thank Your Lucky Stars, but not the fifties with The Story of Mankind. The appeal of these may be more to the liking of the celebrities who get to let their hair down, but as Hail, Caesar! or Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie showed, there were no signs of the trend abating. At least they were a record of the very famous at that point in time for future generations to look back on and think, "Who?"
Author: Graeme Clark.


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