Monday, May 23, 2016

Retro Review: CANDY (1968)

(Italy/France - 1968)

Directed by Christian Marquand. Written by Buck Henry. Cast: Charles Aznavour, Marlon Brando, Richard Burton, James Coburn, John Huston, Walter Matthau, Ringo Starr, Ewa Aulin, John Astin, Enrico Maria Salerno, Elsa Martinelli, Sugar Ray Robinson, Anita Pallenberg, Florinda Bolkan, Marilu Tolo, Nicoletta Machiavelli, Umberto Orsini, Joey Forman, Fabian Dean, Lea Padovani, Peter Dane, Enzo Fiermonte, Buck Henry. (R, 124 mins)

Based on the controversial 1958 "dirty book" of the same name by Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg, CANDY is the kind of movie that could only have been made in the late 1960s. Unevenly mixing slapstick sex farce with trippy psychedelia and counterculture satire in one bloated, overly indulgent, and almost instantly dated package, CANDY is a chaotic all-star mess of the 1967 CASINO ROYALE variety, but like that film, it's an endlessly fascinating one. Contrary to the myth that's stuck over the nearly 50 years since its release, it was not a box office disaster. Indeed, opening in December 1968, it made $16 million and was the 18th highest grossing film of the year in the US, sandwiched between THE BOSTON STRANGLER and THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR. Adjusted for inflation, that's $111 million in 2016 dollars. Can you imagine something as balls-out insane as CANDY making $111 million in theaters today?

Adapted by Buck Henry, who had just been nominated for an Oscar for co-writing THE GRADUATE, and directed by Christian Marquand, the French actor who co-starred with Brigitte Bardot in the iconic AND GOD CREATED WOMAN (1956), CANDY's biggest draw was the spectacle of a huge cast of big names and a couple of Oscar winners starring in a smutty comedy based on a book that was widely considered pornography. Much less explicit than the book, the film nevertheless has a high raunch factor and a decent amount of nudity that still warrants the R rating it got 46 years ago. Opening with what looks like her arrival on Earth (2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY special effects mastermind Douglas Trumbull designed some of the surreal visuals in the opening and closing sequences), CANDY centers on naive high-school student Candy Christian (18-year-old Ewa Aulin) and her wild sexual escapades with a increasingly deranged parade of pervy older men. What was played as comedy in 1968 would undoubtedly be labeled rape by today's trigger warning-obsessed thinkpiece writers, but the oblivious Candy just rolls with it, starting with drunken poet MacPhisto (Richard Burton), who has his way with her in the back of his glass-bottom limo, slurping spilled champagne off the floor while ranting and grunting about his "overpowering need!" Arriving at her house while her social sciences teacher father T.M. (John Astin) is still at school, Candy is attacked by Mexican gardener Emmanuel (Ringo Starr) who shouts "Viva Zapata!" as he ejaculates and MacPhisto dry-humps a Candy-lookalike doll on the floor. Enraged by her dalliance with Emmanuel, her uptight, conservative father tries to take her to NYC with his lecherous brother Jack (also Astin), and Jack's swinging wife Livia (Elsa Martinelli), but they're accosted on the airport runway by Emmanuel's domineering, revolutionary biker sisters (Florinda Bolkan, Marilu Tolo and Nicoletta Machiavelli). Hopping aboard a refueled military plane that's been transporting the squadron of Gen. Smight (Walter Matthau) around the globe for six years, T.M. suffers a head injury while sexually frustrated Smight tries to force Candy to bear his child. Landing in NYC, they rush T.M. to the hospital where he's the next production in the gala theater of superstar brain surgeon A.B. Krankheit (James Coburn), who hosts a wild post-surgery after-party/orgy where Uncle Jack has sex with Candy in her father's hospital bed, pushing his brother onto the floor when he gets in the way. Krankheit seduces Candy in another room while a partially lobotomized T.M. wanders the halls, and even enraged hospital head Dr. Dunlap (John Huston) tries to spread unconscious Candy's legs and look up her skirt. From there, Candy is separated from Uncle Jack and Livia, and crashes the set of sex-crazed filmmaker Jonathan J. John (Enrico Maria Salerno) and is soon pursued by a pair of horny cops (Joey Forman, Fabian Dean). Then she meets a hunchback (Charles Aznavour) in Central Park, who asks her for "rub dub dub" before taking her back to his mansion, where he can fly and climb walls. Candy's next escapade finds her in an Indian temple housed in the back of a big rig, where she's mentored in the ways of bullshit philosophy and tantric sex by fake guru Grindl (Marlon Brando).

Unless you're in the mood for it, CANDY can be downright unwatchable, but the once-in-a-lifetime cast makes it mandatory viewing at least once (there's also model and longtime Keith Richards girlfriend Anita Pallenberg as Krankheit's chief nurse and boxing legend Sugar Ray Robinson as MacPhisto's chauffeur Zero). It gets more bewildering as it goes along, all the way to a fourth-wall breaking finale where a wandering Candy actually sees Marquand himself directing the movie that's imploding on itself. The good slightly outweighs the bad, and while some segments are tedious duds (the sequences with Matthau, Salerno, and Aznavour just land with a thud, and Starr's Mexican caricature is embarrassing even by 1968 standards), others are legitimately funny. Burton gets the best entrance of his career as MacPhisto, his hair and scarf constantly blown back by a seemingly supernatural wind that surrounds only him. Coburn is great as the demented Krankheit, with the notion of the rock star-like surgeon, years before Buckaroo Banzai, the height of the film's absurdist Southern influence (Southern also co-wrote DR. STRANGELOVE and would write 1969's star-studded and equally anarchic THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN, which also starred Starr). Brando is also quite amusing as the phony mystic, sheepishly trying to hide a footlong sub and a bottle of beer as Candy awakens after a marathon of Twister-like sex.

Of all the star power in the cast, the biggest surprise is Astin, who's a riot as the shameless horndog Uncle Jack, constantly leering and making suggestive, over-the-line comments as he tirelessly tries to get in his niece's pants. According to legend, Marquand's original choice for the T.M./Uncle Jack dual roles was Peter Sellers, and there's a lot of Sellers' style in Astin's performances, particularly the Clare Quilty skeeziness he brings to Uncle Jack's LOLITA-like designs on Candy. Probably because he was known as a TV actor, his spot in television history forever cemented by his Gomez Addams on THE ADDAMS FAMILY (he also briefly replaced Frank Gorshin as the Riddler in the second season of BATMAN), Astin isn't even granted the dignity of having his name above the title with the others--where, alphabetically, he would've been top-billed before legendary French singer Aznavour--even though between both of his roles, he's got the most screen time other than Aulin. Sellers would've been incredible but Astin's work in CANDY is rarely cited as one of its strong points and that's a shame. He manages to upstage his significantly higher-profile co-stars and gets some of the biggest laughs in the movie. Given an "introducing" credit even though it was her fourth film, Swedish actress Aulin's voice is dubbed but she certainly looks the part, and seems like a good sport considering she spends a good chunk of the film in various states of undress while being pawed by a bunch of overpaid and presumably highly intoxicated A-listers (quoted in the 2004 book The Candy Men by Terry Southern's son Nile, about the controversy surrounding the novel, Coburn claimed that inexperienced Aulin had a breakdown and needed several days off to decompress after dealing with Brando). CANDY's notoriety didn't really open any doors for Aulin, despite a Golden Globe nomination for Most Promising Female Newcomer (she lost to Olivia Hussey in ROMEO AND JULIET). She remained busy in Italian films, most notably the gialli DEATH LAID AN EGG (1968) and DEATH SMILES ON A MURDERER (1971), with her most high-profile post-CANDY role being in the Gene Wilder-Donald Sutherland comedy START THE REVOLUTION WITHOUT ME (1970). Tired of being offered the same kinds of sexpot roles, the now-66-year-old Aulin quit acting in 1974, enrolled in college, became a schoolteacher, and focused on raising her kids. She made a one-off comeback in a supporting role in the little-seen 1996 Italian comedy STELLA'S FAVOR and quickly returned to a life completely off the celebrity grid.

An unmistakable product of its time (featuring music by The Byrds and Steppenwolf), CANDY was hard to see after its theatrical run in 1968 (where it was in cinemas the same time as the similarly time-capsule-worthy SKIDOO), Outside of some occasional and highly-edited late-night TV airings, the film built a cult mystique as it essentially disappeared for a number of years. It was never released on home video until Anchor Bay's DVD and VHS editions in 2001. It recently debuted on Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Lorber, with a very good Buck Henry interview, where the 85-year-old comedy writing legend is pretty blunt about what works and what doesn't and shares a number of stories about the production.

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