The Amazing Adventures of Movie Mike
Aaron: Ever have any screenwriters or directors confront you about one of your reviews?
Mike: Hardly ever, though I've gotten friendly letters from time to time from filmmakers. Cameron Crowe, Walter Murch, and John Boorman have been nice, and Paul Thomas Anderson actually gave my review credit for New Line deciding to give Boogie Nights a wider opening. (By the way, like many Ohioans, I have wonderful memories of P.T.'s movie-host father, Ernie, who was to Cleveland TV what Flippo was to Columbus. Tim Conway, Ernie's best friend at CBS affiliate Channel 8, once told me he was in possession of the memo from general management expressively forbidding Ernie to ride his motorcycle through the station.)
Occasionally, I'll hear something both favorable or un- relayed back to me from a work colleague as residue from an interview or party chatter. In the '80s, one of the top directors in the world told one of my colleagues that he thought I was a real asshole (his word). But I've been very kind to him many times over the subsequent years (he had yet to do a lot of his best work), so it's possible he has mellowed toward me; I hope so. The wildest thing that ever happened to me, many years ago, involved a producer who has done, in my estimation, a handful of good-to-great movies and then a highway of drek stretching from here to the moon. I took off caustically on his body of work, and for that, I was treated to a rambling, not very nice phone call. It was really strange and not a little creepy, particularly since it was about 9 a.m. on the East Coast, which meant it was 6 a.m. in L.A. Then, I remembered there'd been stuff in print about his rumored heavy cocaine use. I thought, "Hmmmm. We're starting little early in the morning, aren't we?"
He wouldn't remember this--it's possible he wouldn't even remember me--but the most pride-inducing directorial feedback I ever got was having Martin Scorsese call me "sick" three times in one day when he did a show at the AFI Theater in 1983, following a lunch where we did Donovan's Reef routines and discussed Perry Como's recording of "Papaya Mama." One of these times was when I told him I'd once programmed a mint 35mm Technicolor print of Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds in Bundle of Joy. Another was when I did my imitation of John Wayne as the Roman centurion in The Greatest Story Ever Told. The third was when he walked into my office cubicle and saw an original poster for Liberace in Sincerely Yours on my wall.
Aaron: What is your mail like? I noticed you were able to dodge a bullet by not being assigned to review The Passion of the Christ when it came out earlier this year. What reviews of yours have generated the most negative responses?
Mike: As soon as I say this, I'm going to jinx myself, but my mail is great. It has been years since I got a really vitriolic one (it was over my having given a three-star review to Priest, and some clown wrote the paper [that] I should be fired over it, and they printed it on the editorial page, thank you). Thus, had I reviewed, and panned, Passion, I surely would have gotten some flak because my reviewing colleague Claudia Puig certainly did. And, yes, I did dodge a bullet. She's in L.A., where they screened Passion a little sooner; in D.C., the screening was right up against deadline and technically past it. This and the fact that Claudia was raised a Catholic (enabling her to "see" things I never would have) were the main determining factors for her doing it.
My mail has always been 8-to-1 home viewing over theatrical. Some people find this hard to believe, but just think about it. Independent films are not going to be coming to a theater near you in 90 per cent of the country, and USA Today is everywhere. If you own a computer, you can get a DVD of just about anything in three days. The paper's income demographics are among the highest of any publication--exactly the people who are buying home theater units. So a lot of my mail is along the lines of "When will this be coming out on DVD?" I also have regular, very hip readers who want to know what I think of some new movie or DVD that we haven't yet reviewed. I'm very proud that I have a lot of readers older than I am but also readers in their teens. There was one year where I think I led the staff in most letters from federal prisoners, prompting the then editor of LIFE to say, "I like you, Mike; you round out our demographics."
The only time I ever caught hell from a studio came early in my USA Today career. Tri-Star had released a whole bunch of DOA's in a row, and I said that given the quality of their recent productions, they should consider changing their company name to One-Star. I got called into the editor's office on that one (I mean the editor of the entire paper) but only to help him fashion a response. The fact that they'd just brought out that slasher Santa Claus movie [Silent Night, Deadly Night] helped.
Aaron: Let's backtrack a little. What was it like going to the movies as a child of the '50s and '60s? Was going to the movies a family-oriented event?
Mike: At first, it was more with my mother because my dad got called back into the Marines during the Korean War, which is where I believe he was the day they delivered our first television set (which I remember well). My dad and I saw some of the action/adventures: Robert Aldrich's Vera Cruz, for one. I remember him taking me to see Demetrius and the Gladiators and noting that Susan Hayward "really knew how to walk." I was only (just) seven and didn't know what he meant, and the only other time I ever heard him make the same comment was the first time he saw the first girl I was really crazy about in high school at the pool.
But living in a small town, I could go by myself, with friends, or go with my cousins (with them, a lot of the big musicals). Even in the much larger Columbus at age eight, I could go with a buddy (each set of parents trading off on the driving). The first couple times I was able to do this (The Private War of Major Benson and Bogart in We're No Angels on consecutive Sunday matinees), it seemed like a huge deal. Then it became routine. On very rare occasions--you know, life-altering event movies--I was allowed to go with a buddy on a Friday night. The first two were Martin & Lewis in Artists and Models and a re-issue of The High and the Mighty (which I'd seen upon release).
Looking back, my peers and I were witness to a technological revolution, but we didn't think about it at the time because we had no previous frame of reference. I saw the third CinemaScope movie first-run (Beneath the 12-Mile Reef) at age six and hid under the seat when Robert Wagner fought the octopus. I saw the first VistaVision movie first-run (White Christmas) on Thanksgiving of 1954 with my grandparents, aunt, uncle, and cousins--a big group outing. The CinemaScope movies were in stereo. VistaVision was mono (I think The Ten Commandments, though, must have been stereo) but billed itself as "Motion Picture High Fidelity." The VistaVisions' were the best-looking prints I'd ever seen--and as a group, still were when I'd run Paramount's archival 35mm copies at the AFI Theater. (It was not uncommon for some in-the-know buff to drive down from as far away as Baltimore-to-Washington to see one.) Somehow, I missed 3-D, but I think that's because the novelty wore off even faster in smaller towns, where the movies were mostly exhibited in standard 2-D versions.
We had three neighborhood theaters in Columbus, which, combined, pretty well covered the Hollywood waterfront. But it was traumatic in 1958 when the one closest to me (and literally around the corner from where we moved in 1960) got torn down for a Super Duper grocery store. But in terms of going downtown to see the big ones first-run...well, it was really tough in the Midwest in those days. A movie might open in New York and LA in, say, November, win the Oscar in the spring and not get to its Columbus reserved-seat initial engagement until the summer or later (Lawrence of Arabia took a full year to get there first-run, and Columbus was the capital city at give-or-take the sixth most populated state at the time). Very frustrating.
There was a certain tension in my household between my dad being the ex-Marine and wanting me to face up to "the Real World" (thus, he was fairly liberal about what I could see) and my mother--who otherwise has never gotten close to the credit she deserves for my movie knowledge--wanting to protect me. I spent a lot of time sneaking around to what passed for adult fare in those days. (Once I was staying with my grandparents and told them I was going to a kiddie matinee that was in reality John Barrymore, Jr. as the "Lipstick Killer" in Fritz Lang's While the City Sleeps, an in-part newspaper movie I just loved at age nine.)
I think the last major battle we had was over One-Eyed Jacks in 1961 (my dad overruled my mother)--and this was a year after my mother had taken me to a double bill of Elmer Gantry and The Apartment. Oddly, Psycho didn't present a problem--probably because Hitchcock was considered "parentally OK." My friends and I would have been very, very resentful of the MPAA ratings system had we lived under it, but we would have circumvented it. Somehow. In fact, my now-in-college older son, who went to probably the most prestigious public high school in the U.S., grew up in a milieu where you always got into an R-movie if that was the movie to see. In fact, there was only one set of parents out of many in his group (the dad kind of a hypocrite not liked by the other parents) who took a tough line about what his kid could see. My own attitude: A good movie is a good movie and a bad movie a bad one, and I want you to see good movies. Period. This is not a negotiable item.
As for art-house movies, I was late getting to them because you had to be able to drive to the few art houses there were because the bus routes didn't serve them. The first one I remember seeing was Lord of the Flies in 1963, by which time I had already read the book. Not long after I got my first car, a theater not too far away became a full-fledged foreign revival house, and I was able to play some catch-up. The first time I saw Ingmar Bergman it was there and in a triple bill of Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence--which I do not recommend as a single dose, though it kind of was effective baptism by napalm. Later that summer, the same theater showed The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, and The Virgin Spring, and that mix was a little easier to handle.
Aaron: What was your reaction to seeing the dropping of cartoons and serials from the pre-show programming? At the time did you mourn the loss of these moviegoing rituals? Do you find it a little disheartening to go to a movie and have to sit through car commercials?
Mike: Serials, for the most part, ended just before I got the bug. I probably would have liked them. I was passive about newsreels--and I was a news junkie--because I didn't think they handled the news in a particularly interesting way. By the time they quit running cartoons, I didn't miss them because even by the time I was in my early teens, 24 hours were too few a day, and I was always in a time crunch. (Plus, I never liked the Pink Panther cartoons in the mid-late '60s, and one of my main neighborhood theaters always ran them). When I was little, I loved coming attractions because "real movies" came out 52 weeks a year. Today, they're one of the worst features in the so-called "moviegoing experience" that's among the most unpleasant experiences of life: 20 minutes of trailers for movies no real grown-up would ever want to see. What I really loved--though wouldn't have the time for today--were double features, even when one of them was some "B" with Richard Denning or John Agar or Dennis O'Keefe or John Payne.
You're right about today's commercials, too. This is after you've paid $9.50 to get in. Bring on DVD, I say. Though I do miss the waterbed ads from Midwest drive-ins in the '60s. "Two things go better with waterbeds...one of them is sleeping."
Aaron: Do you remember the first time you heard rock 'n' roll? What was your reaction to this new style of music?
Mike: Well, I think I mentioned earlier that I used to hear Alan Freed out of Cleveland in the early '50s before he conquered New York. I can't differentiate the tunes I heard at the time, but I certainly knew they weren't anything like Eddie Fisher. For a movie guy, I was a pretty active outdoor kid on nice-weather days, but in the winter, particularly, I would get up every Saturday morning and listen to the top-40 countdown from WJR-Detroit.
The first r&r song that made a huge impression on me was "Gee" by The Crows, which I think was about March of 1954. Real Doo-Wop, and it's on Rhino's first Doo-Wop box set. I really loved it. I remember watching Bandstand (not Dick Clark but a show with that name on local Cleveland Saturday afternoons) breaking--on the air--a cracked 78 of it. This really upset me, even though he wasn't commenting on the song; it was merely unplayable, so why not?
The period between about 1954-58 is one I love because the charts were so schizophrenic. Revisionists like to tell you that rock completely took over at once, but that's silly. Fisher, Les Paul & Mary Ford and a few others excepted, the same people who had a lot of hits in the early '50s--Perry Como, Nat King Cole, Johnnie Ray, Doris Day--still got in their licks for a long time, albeit not nearly as many nor as high-ranking. Chuck Berry's "Maybelline" in the summer of '55 was a benchmark; you could even buy it in the grocery store of my super-WASP community. "Rock Around the Clock" was everywhere but church services. The Stage Show and Milton Berle shows with Elvis were huge benchmarks, and Ed Sullivan was dipping into rock even before he took the Presley plunge. I remember Fats Domino doing "I'm in Love Again" on Steve Allen (who patronized rock, even if Jerry Lee Lewis did name his son after him). Fats did "Blueberry Hill" on Sullivan. I loved Fats as much as Elvis and still do. My oldest friend Jim was such a huge Domino fan that his school nickname became "Fats," even though he was the skinniest guy in our class.
We loved Little Richard and Jerry Lee--the more outrageous, the better. We also collected the short-lived rock-and-roll trading cards, which never caught on like their baseball/football counterparts (I remember opening a pack on the school playground and getting an Ivory Joe Hunter). I remember badgering my mother all day one time to let me stay up late and watch Chuck Berry on Alan Freed's TV show (I don't remember why this was an issue; it was a Friday night) and watching her jaw drop at his duck-walk doing "School Days" (God, what great lyrics to this day). It was like: This is what you were on me to see? In addition to mainstream WCOL, we also listened to Dr. Bop on Saturday nights from the R&B station: "This is Dr. Bop on the sceeeeeeeeeeeennnne! With a stack of shellac and his record machine." He made me a big LaVern Baker fan; Clyde McPhatter, too. But I also liked Dick Clark--and especially his Saturday night show sponsored by Beech-nut chewing gum. You got a lot of Duane Eddy.
I remember seeing Love Me Tender from an aisle seat at the Grandview Theater, as girls rushed past me to continue their uncontrolled weeping in the ladies room when Elvis got killed at the end. I remember being enraged when I wanted to see The Girl Can't Help It at the Grandview--and being forced instead to go to the Lane for a double bill of Anastasia and The King and I (two films I'm not crazy about to this day). In 1957, I doubt there was any bigger movie event for me than seeing Jailhouse Rock. (We loved the Elvis nostril flare/sneer and replicated it when someone snapped our pictures in family-gathering group shots--also Ricky Nelson's variation on the same).
I resisted the rock re-birth in the '60s for a while--because, like Dr. King, I felt I had already been to the mountain and regarded these mop-heads as semi-pretenders. (In other words, the Buddy Holly/Don McLean thing was, for me, no lie.) But when I did come around, I came back hard and fast, though I was more of a Stones and Who than Beatles fan. Plus, I had a very retro side and was still listening to Frank, Dino and Sammy. I grew up in an era and household where martinis were important, and this rubbed off on my music tastes.