Little seen outside of the arthouse rounds by then-fledgling Kino International, actress/writer Joan Hotchkis’ one-woman-show LEGACY garnered largely unfavorable reviews – particularly one from The New York Times’ heavily-quoted Vincent Canby – despite its success in the international film festival circuit. Now, THE MAFU CAGE director Karen Arthur’s directorial debut is available for reassessment beyond the arthouse circuit courtesy of Scorpion Releasing.
Elizabeth “Bissie” Hapgood (Joan Hotchkis, of Clint Eastwood’s BREEZY) is the archetypal WASP-ish upper class housewife. She suffers through daily visits to her ailing mother, she buys one of each Girl Scout cookie, she endeavors to create a bird’s nest centerpiece out of a punch bowl, her wedding train and shocking pink Christmas ornaments because her husband’s dinner guest is in ornithologist. When she can’t find the ornaments, she phones up her Mexican maid on her day off to ask her where she put them away last Christmas (because they’re not stored in the right wing of the house). She worries about her weight, she gabs about her smelly German au pair and her Japanese gardener’s proverbs to her friend on the phone. She masturbates in the bath, scrutinizes her bust in the mirror and finds it wanting. She consults her psychiatrist by phone on whether to kill herself or not. She watches soap operas, fantasizes about her first lover (Sean Allan) – who she didn’t want to marry because he had diabetes; she can barely stand her aging mother’s recent nervous tick of crying – and talks to the empty air of her perfect home about the inadequacy of her sex life with her husband (George McDaniel), her bedwetting adolescent son, her distant daughter and finally loses it over a butter knife that slips down into the garbage disposal… but who’s there to listen?
Shot in Hotchkis’ home, her parents home, Karen Arthur’s apartment (which she was sharing at the time with Donald Chastain, who scripted her next film THE MAFU CAGE), and her own Pontiac Firebird, LEGACY is a compelling and satisfying (if not entirely successful) one-woman-show… well, Hotchkis’ source play (a series of graphic monologues that were nevertheless more Ruth Draper than VAGINA MONOLOGUES despite much discussion of menstruation, gynecologists and the whereabouts of the clitoris) was a one-woman-show, LEGACY the film is an ambitious and rewarding collaboration between actor/writer, producer/director, cinematographer, editor and composer. Arthur’s first film was also her first collaboration with cinematographer John Bailey, Bailey’s wife and the film's editor Carol Littleton and composer Roger Kellaway who all worked on her follow-up THE MAFU CAGE (also available in a loaded special edition from Scorpion; Kellaway also scored the slasher SILENT SCREAM, which was Scorpion’s first DVD release and also a great special edition package). Arthur had met Bailey on the set of Arthur Penn’s NIGHT MOVES where she was a DGA trainee and he was a focus puller (Littleton was cutting industrial films at the time). Arthur saw Hotchkis’ stage performance of LEGACY and approached her right away to do a film of the play. Hotchkis had started developing her notes into a play at the Actor’s Studio under teacher Eric Morris, whose teaching ventured beyond Stanislavsky’s method. Hotchkis helped Morris with his first book on acting; in return, he directed her stage production of LEGACY.
Although it had a more cluttered mise-en-scene, THE MAFU CAGE carried over certain aesthetic and narrative elements of LEGACY (long takes, sudden washes of primary colors in the placid production design, a cloistered atmosphere breeding psychosis, exotic and experimental scoring and a chamber piece setup). Misplaced ornaments and vanishing silverware in Hotchkis’ dialogue hint at the deterioration of Bissie’s well-ordered world just as much as Arthur’s added visuals of stray lemons spilling out of Bissie’s arms and audio of the progressive clanking of ornaments as she tries to position them neatly in the bowl/nest. While producer/director Karen Arthur draws parallels to Cassevettes' A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE, Robert Altman's IMAGES (in which Susannah York's psyche splinters into a small ensemble cast of phantoms) might also make a more hallucinatory companion piece to LEGACY (more so than REPULSION). In some ways, it also anticipates Rip Torn's lighter New World Pictures production THE TELEPHONE, in which Whoopi Goldberg plays an out-of-work actress who slowly unravels in a set of monologues with her telephone, various off-screen neighbors, and a couple guest turns from Severn Darden, Elliot Gould and John Heard. Carla Lane’s British sitcom BUTTERFLIES also comes to mind, as it offers up a middle-class, middle-aged housewife Wendy Craig sometimes embarrassingly caught up in fantasy monologues to cope with a disinterested husband, layabout grown-up children, disastrous cooking, her body, God and a persistent admirer for comic-yet-poignant effect (with her crisis or crises commonly dismissed as women’s problems).
It is difficult to gauge the success of Hotchkis’ performance, or I should say the successful rendering of Bissie. For the bulk of the film, she does not engage our sympathies while inviting plenty of ridicule; but perhaps this is Hotchkis’ intent since she has spent so long perfecting the play at the Actor’s Studio and in actual stage performance (in her interview, Hotchkis says the film was shot in twelve days after two years of rehearsal). As the writer and a “beyond method” actress, she has freedom to deviate from her own material so long as she does not deviate too far from the carefully planned camera choreography. Arthur and Bailey’s long-take method of filming was certainly conducive to the stage origins of the material, while also being economical for such a low budget picture (and allowing Bailey to explore what he and Arthur refer to his Japanese film influence). In the commentary, Hotchkis says that she did not understand the reasoning behind some physical directions Arthur gave to her until she saw how they figured into the arty transitions in the edited film. Vincent Canby wrote that Hotchkis possessed “some talent” for satire, but not comedy or drama, and it is perhaps the lopsided focus (as writer and performer) on satirizing Bissie’s world that may tax the audience’s sympathy for such a character.
Bissie’s profane, ear-splitting diatribe about immigration, abortion, social diseases, welfare, and religion (including the Jewish wealth bit that once graced many a polite dinner conversation in the 1960s and 1970s) is the film’s standout moment as every racist, superior, crude, vulgar and hateful belief underlying her upper class sense of entitlement and resentment spills out over a mangled piece of silverware (not only does the design firm not make that style anymore, the firm no longer exists). A subsequent sequence that begins absurdly and comically ultimately culminates in one moment where the viewer truly pities this condescending, shrill, shallow and vain woman as we realize that even the ability to follow through with her thoughts of suicide has been bred (or beaten) out of her. Hotchkis, who was once a paraprofessional at California’s Institute for Group Therapy, likens her character’s venting to a nervous breakdown; although, she likens some other aspects of the character’s mental deterioration to Alzheimer’s.
Supporting actors MacDaniel and Allan followed up LEGACY with long lists of popular TV credits (the film is also the debut of STAR TREK series regular John de Lancie), but are given little to do here. Richard Bradford III, son of actor Richard Bradford (THE UNTOUCHABLES), plays Bissie’s son. Hotchkis’ daughter Sarah briefly appears as a Girl Scout and Arthur’s assistant Dixie Lee appears as Bisse’s mother’s physical therapist. Following THE MAFU CAGE, Arthur’s subsequent directorial career has included the interesting-if-underwhelming erotic thriller LADY BEWARE (with Diane Lane), episodes of CAGNEY & LACEY and HART TO HART, as well as roughly thirty TV movies including RICH MAN, POOR MAN – BOOK II, LOVE AND BETRAYAL: THE MIA FARROW STORY, and a handful of Hallmark Hall of Fame movies including a remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s SHADOW OF A DOUBT with Mark Harmon (NCIS). Bailey went on to collaborate with Paul Schrader on the Bertolucci/Scarfiotti/Storaro influenced looks of AMERICAN GIGOLO, CAT PEOPLE, and MISHIMA: A LIFE IN FOUR CHAPTERS, while Littleton went on to the likes of E.T. THE EXTRATERRESTRIAL and THE BIG CHILL (Bailey and Littleton collaborated with each other most recently on the dire-looking COUNTRY STRONG).
Shot in 16mm, LEGACY has been transferred to DVD (from the 35mm wetgate blow-up) in its full-frame ratio in a 16:9 palette; on 4:3 TV’s, there will be borders on all four sides (the full frame ratio may not have been multiplex theater projection friendly, but arthouse theaters could have shown it this way and the Bailey’s framing in this ratio is elegant). There is some speckling around the reel changes. The mono sound design is bold and clear, with Hotchkis’ dialogue and shrieks and Kellaway’s scoring distinct from one another in the mix. Hotchkis appears on the first of two audio commentary tracks. There are some dead spots in the commentary, but they are filled in by her character’s “commentary” from the feature. Arthur appears on the second commentary track and comments on both the qualities of Hotchkis’ performance and her writing, as well as her collaboration with Bailey and Littleton. She also mentions some aspects that did not work (like the inserts of Japanese erotic prints – selected by Bailey and Arthur from the UCLA collection – during Bissee’s masturbation scene or the flashes of a bustier actress’ chest during the scene where Bissee looks at her breasts in the mirror).
Although not quite the compulsive talker now that she claims to have been at the time of filmmaking, Hotchkis is more animated on her interview “The Legacy of Joan Hotchkiss” (33:29), in which she talks about the importance of sexuality in her work, and how the brain tumor she learned she had after the film was made may have influenced her performance. Arthur is also on hand for a long interview “Starting a Legacy” (46:02) which covers her beginnings as a dancer, choreographer, theater actress and TV actress before she enrolled in UCLA’s summer film program and made her first film, a short called HERS, before going into the background of LEGACY, its pre-production and its post-production and distribution (there is some repetition from the commentary, but the feature commentary is more focused on the production phase itself). She also describes how McDaniel arranged for a screening of the rough cut at Twentieth Century Fox. Arthur was surprised to find her audience included Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. The screening won her the funds to finish the film. She also describes touring with the film at film festivals, and how her mother provided additional funds to continue touring the film. She also mentions Hotchkis’ brain tumor when describing the actress’ sudden bizarre and out-of-control behavior during a screening. Arthur also brings up her reaction to the Canby review. Bailey and Littleton are paired in “Shooting a Legacy” (18:06) and discuss how the choreographed long-take photography was easy to shoot, but difficult to cut. Bailey talks about the Japanese film influence on his style, while Littleton mentions that they could not afford an assistant editor, so she trained Arthur to do it. A stills gallery of behind-the-scenes photographs rounds out the package. I listed the Scorpion DVD of Karen Arthur’s THE MAFU CAGE among my top ten picks for DVDBeaver’s 2010 DVD of the Year picks , and Scorpion’s first release of 2011 is already a contender for my next ten picks. (Eric Cotenas)
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