Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Don't Take Your Love to Town

I wanted to talk about the under-seen, under-appreciated 1977 film Ruby, but before I do that, as a semi-objective film blogger/reviewer, I need to come clean and declare my eternal love for Piper.

No, not this Piper, although she is right purty,

and not this one either, although he is awesome,

Oh, hell no! Not even close!

Let me give out some hints. She's been nominated for three Oscars and won an Emmy. She's worked with directors like Robert Rodriguez, Bruce Beresford, Norman Jewison, Dario Argento, David Lynch and Brian DePalma. She's co-starred with Albert Finney, Richard Harris, John Gielgud, Mel Gibson, John Travolta, Tony Curtis, Robert Duvall, James Garner, Walter Matthau, George C Scott, Paul Newman, Jack Lemmon, William Hurt, James Woods, Salma Hayek, Lauren Bacall, Carrie Fisher, Haley Mills, Olivia Hussey, Talia Shire, Shirley MacLaine, Sandra Bullock and Sissy Spacek. Of course, I'm talking about none other than the legendary actress that goes by the name...

Piper Laurie
Although she's probably best known for The Hustler, I first noticed Piper Laurie in Michael Pate's Australian film Tim which starred a very young Mel Gibson as a mentally challenged man who is befriended by her character. Tim is a curious film for a variety of reasons, one of the most interesting of which is that Laurie was cast because Pate had seen her in Curtis Harrington's Ruby. Laurie did the film Ruby following her monster come-back in DePalma's Carrie for which she was nominated for an Oscar.
In Ruby, Laurie once again plays a mom with a strange daughter. But instead of a frumpy, religious zealot, Laurie plays a beautiful but aging gun moll who "could have made the big time" as a singer/actress. Unfortunately for her, she took up with some mob guys, and unfortunately for them, they all got sent up the river. Sixteen years later, Ruby runs a drive-in theater that borders a swamp and shows movies like Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. She subsequently hired all the mob guys after their release from prison including her right-hand man Vince, played by Stuart Whitman. Her troubled daughter Leslie, who also lives with her, is mute, weird and tends to bite people when first meeting them. Leslie is played by the fabulous Janit Baldwin who had a great mini-career as a character actor in the 70's with films like Prime CutBorn Innocent, Phantom of the Paradise and Born of Water. Baldwin has an odd, distinctive kind of prettiness which makes her believable in roles such as a groupie (PoP) or carnival hooch girl (BoW), but she can also play a very creepy and menacing delinquent (BI) or a mentally disturbed character, as in Ruby, with great aplomb. Outside of Laurie's performance, Baldwin's is the most captivating thing about the film.

Curtis Harrington seemed to be at his best when doing stories with over-the-top, diva-like, maternal characters as evidenced in films such as The Killing Kind and Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? but Ruby may be at the top due in no small part to Piper Laurie's presence. She's like a younger, middle-aged version of Nora Desmond who is obsessed with the past and still has all her movie and music paraphenalia on hand.  She's the kind of woman that rocks a full length evening dress, complete with feather boa, while never leaving the house. Speaking of which, for a low budget horror movie, the make-up, wardrobe and set decorators went all out in their respective jobs really glamming Ruby up to her fullest and effectively creating her world in a small space. 

If you want to get an idea of Laurie's acting range (which is the big reason I love her), check out Ruby, Carrie and Tim back to back. Not too many actors could pull off such disparate roles with so much skill and style. Also, it's hard to imagine Ruby being the film that it is without Laurie's strong presence. The movie is essentially a ghost story with Ruby and her daughter the epicenter of events. There are some imaginative kills along the way, one involving a soda machine, and one taking place on the actual drive-in screen. The environment of the theater, home and nearby swamp were also effectively created and add a nice dose of atmosphere. However, without Laurie and Baldwin to anchor it, the film would have been left wanting in a big way. The two actresses are very interesting to watch and keep the viewer involved even when there isn't horror stuff occurring. 
Curtis Harrington is one of my favorite directors because he usually adds some kind of poetic and stylistic element to his work even in the context of a horror film. He was hampered a bit with Ruby as his DoP was a bit iffy and it shows at times. Also, Harrington apparently had a running battle with the executive producer who tacked on the crappy, jump scare ending. To further complicate matters, the initial VHS and TV release was heavily edited for violence and the original theatrical cut wasn't available for years. But the VCI Entertainment DVD release from 2001 is the original that I first saw in the theater way back in the day. It still has that tacky ending, but the rest of the film is all Harrington's. Night Tide is my favorite of all Harrington's films, but Ruby is a strong contender for second place and was a big box office sleeper when it was initially released. Although it's currently out of print, the VCI DVD (pictured above with only Janit Baldwin's image) is worth tracking down as it has a commentary track with Laurie and Harrington as well as an interview with the director. There is also a new, bare bones, double feature DVD that was put out recently with the uncut version of Ruby along with Kiss of the Tarantula.
So summing up, Piper Laurie + Curtis Harrington + Janit Baldwin = WIN. Final score 7.5/10

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