ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD….THERE WAS ALSO LEE MARVIN

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the latest opus from favorite contemporary filmmaker, Quentin Tarantino, was anxiously awaited by yours truly like a kid awaits the end of the school year and the start of summer vacation. Seriously. Everything I had read and seen about it had me practically drooling in anticipation. Then I watched it.

(L-R) Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth and Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton leaning against the facade of Hollywood’s famed Egyptian Theater.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad picture, at all. It’s just that I guess my anticipation of it, had me expecting  more.
There’s also much to recommend. My family and I moved to California from New York in 1968 so I’m familiar with what the southern California scene of 1969 was like in those days. Tarantino’s re-creation of that time and place is something to marvel at throughout the film. Whether it’s the bus benches advertising Hobo Kelly, or the brief TV moment showing late night L.A. horror host Seymour, it brought back nostalgic childhood memories for yours truly.
Most of the performances in Once Upon a Time In Hollywood are also uniformly excellent. A true standout is Brad Pitt as the laconic stunt double and gopher to Leonardo DiCaprio’s fading TV star.
I say ‘most’ performances as some of them are downright strange. The film is peppered with cameos of real-life individuals and some are just strange. An actor playing Bruce Lee challenges Pitt to a fight in one of my favorite scenes and one of the most controversial in its portrayal of the legendary martial artist.
In another sequence, British Actor Damian Lewis makes a brief appearance as Steve McQueen at a party at the Playboy Mansion in a performance that can best be described as bizarre. While there is a resemblance, in speaking with McQueen biographer Marshall Terrill, we both agreed that the speech pattern Lewis invokes is just plain weird. He may have been trying to mask his British accent but the result is nothing like McQueen. Bizarre.
So, what is it about the film that received a six minute standing ovation when it premiered at the Cannes Film festival that I have a problem saying that it’s truly great? Simply put, the main character played by DiCaprio is just not worthy of much sympathy and being the central focus of the film, it’s the key factor keeping me from loving the film. Hate to say it but it’s true.
I won’t give away any more as I hate when writers do that sort of thing. Suffice to say, I’ll probably see it on DVD, if only to see again my Lee Marvin Point Blank interview subject, Clu Gulager as an aging Westwood bookstore owner. Until then, I wonder why such a big Lee Marvin fan as Tarantino left Lee Marvin out of the film when he was big box office in 1969. How big?  Check out Lee Marvin Point Blank to find that out. In the mean time….
-Dwayne Epstein

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THE “OTHER” LEE MARVIN BIOGRAPHIES

Ahh, Lee Marvin biographies. As for mine, the story of how I came to write Lee Marvin Point Blank began in the mid-nineties when I introduced myself to Steve McQueen biographer, Marshall Terrill. I had read his book, liked it, found a few minor errors in it and asked to meet him about it. Maybe my corrections would make its way into a revised text, or so I thought. Better than that, perhaps my name would get in the acknowelegements.
I was working as a waiter at the time, having all but given up pursuing my previous career as a staff writer on a local newspaper. When I did indeed meet with Marshall, a conversation began that went from our dual appreciation of Steve McQueen, to discussing the possibility of my writing a bio myself on a favorite film actor. Going through a list of candidates, we landed on Lee Marvin mainly because there had not been a suitable bio written of him and Marshall convinced me the time was ripe. Well, merely two decades later (!), I found an agent and a publisher who agreed.
Up until then, this is what existed on Marvin and what I think of them…..

Published in 1967 by Pyramid Books.

Published in 1967 by Pyramid Books.

• First up is this compilation, sleazily titled Hollywood Confidential, which contained a full chapter and a quotable interview with the actor from 1967. Truth be told, it’s the only decent chapter in the book that consists of articles from an old men’s magazine. Can you tell by the cover? Anyway, for a quite a while, other than film periodicals with some deep background info, this one chapter remained the only book that was available on the actor. That is until…..

Published in 1980 by St. Martin's.

Published in 1980 by St. Martin’s.

• At the time I began working on my bio, the book Marvin, by veteran British gossip columnist Donald Zec, was the only one in existence. Not to be too catty, but what a blown opportunity! Zec had Marvin’s co-operation on the project, as well as access to several now deceased interviews subjects, and what does he do with such gold? He constantly overwrites important passages with his own drippy, salacious style of gossipy prose. Very frustrating as both a fan of the actor and as a researcher, I must say. Lee’s first wife, Betty Marvin, told me she met with Zec. When they went to some restaurant, all he did was constantly point out the celebrities and what he thought of them, which she said she found particularly annoying, much like his writing style. ‘Nuff said.

Published in 1997 by Faber & Faber.

Published in 1997 by Faber & Faber.

• Lee’s second wife, Pam Marvin, penned Lee: A Romance in 1997 while I was still working on my own book. I attempted several times to interview her but was declined each time. On the last attempt I was made aware of the fact that she was writing her own book about  Lee and to leave it at that. When I wrote her that our two projects would not conflict with each other but actually be a boost, I received no response. I realized I was grasping with that statement but when her book came out, it turns out I was right. Hardly a full-fledged biography of Lee Marvin, it proved to be the memoirs of the author and her eventual life with the actor. Far too much of the tome is also taken up by the palimony case, in which the author includes trial transcripts with snarky italicized comments in between. I need not had worried.

Published in 2000 by McFarland.

Published in 2000 by McFarland.

• Robert J. Lentz’s book, Lee Marvin: His Films & Career, was aptly titled as it is in no way, shape, or form a biography. It is, however, a pretty comprehensive look at the actor’s career with a minimal amount of errors. It proved to be a valuable resource for further research on my part as it’s lengthy bibliography was a godsend. His personal assessment of Marvin’s films & TV work are fairly on the money in most but certainly not all cases. Some more biographical info would have been nice but my biggest quibble had nothing to do with the author. Speciality publishing companies, such as McFarland and Scarecrow put out wonderful products for the most part but can anybody explain to me why they are so damn expensive?!? Lentz’s book retails for $45.00!!! I know they sell mostly to libraries and research facilities, but c’mon! Not everybody can shell out such cash for a book, especially since most of their product lack even a dust jacket. Be reasonable for crying out loud! Geez!

Published in 2009 by iUniverse.

Published in 2009 by iUniverse.

• Now we come to Betty Marvin’s book, Tales of a Hollywood Housewife. At the outset, I should explain that I am extremely biased, as I got to know and genuinely like Betty. In fact, our first meeting consisted of an all-nighter, in which she reminisced about Lee over several bottles of wine and a whole lot of laughter and in truth, a few tears. I just can’t say enough about this remarkable woman. When she told me she was working on her book, she sought a minimal amount of advice from me, such as if she should use her real name or a non de plume. My advice was to call herself Mrs. James Coburn. Luckily, she didn’t take my advice. The book is a wonderful personal journey, from her traumatic childhood, through her years with Lee, up to the time of the book’s publication, in which she once again comes out triumphant. Sure, some of her our stories overlap during the Lee Marvin years, but certainly not to the extent that they conflict in any way. After all, my book was a biography of Lee Marvin. Hers was an unabashed autobiography without any hidden agendas or misleading concepts. A terrific read I highly recommend without reservation.

Published in 1999 by Naval Institute Press.

Published in 1999 by Naval Institute Press.

• Part of an interesting series of books on celebrities in different branches of the military, the one focusing on the USMC naturally had to include a chapter on Marvin. Titled Stars in the Corps, it did a thorough job of delineating the military careers of the those pictured on the cover. So why not put Oscar-winner and 1960s leading box office champion Lee Marvin among the cover montage? At least in place of say, oh, I don’t know, Hugh O’Brian? Barry Corbin? Lee Powell?????? Seriously, what were they thinking? Maybe it was because the chapter on Lee, though interesting, consisted of culled quotes from Donald Zec’s book (!). Ah well, such is life. I will add that the other chapters are pretty detailed and cover a substantial range of actors, with eye-opening accounts of their Marine Corps experiences. Once again, the catty part of me has to mention the downside: the writing is rather clunky, especially when it came to the actors’ post-military life and their acting careers.

Having said all that about the above titles, I think it becomes rather obvious why I came to research and write Lee Marvin Point Blank. Not merely a fan of the actor, there was clearly a dearth of good material about his life in the open market. All of which comes down to the the most obvious of all. What exactly is the best biography on the award-winning, legendary actor??? Hmm, I wonder…..
paperback

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CHARLES CHAMPLIN, 1926-2014

L.A. Times film critic and arts editor Charles Champlin died last Sunday at the age of 88 from complications involving Alzeheimer’s Disease. Being a lifelong movie fan, as a rule, I’ve never been a particular fan of most film critics, but Champlin was an exception. I found the more well-known critics to be pompous, pretentious and more often than not, just plain wrong about the films they reviewed. For the most part, that exception was Champlin. He wrote of films from a place of appreciation, and was generally less stuffy and esoteric than many of his contemporaries. To me, that translates to a simple yet all encompassing difference: He genuinely liked movies.
When I was in the earliest stages of researching Lee Marvin: Point Blank back in 1994, I traveled with fellow biographer Marshall Terrill (Steve McQueen: Portrait of an American  Rebel) to Lone Pine, California, for the annual film festival held there. It was a rather small town affair for anything deemed a film festival, yet there were a surprising number of interesting guests and speakers. Marshall told me to be prepared to catch a good interview on the fly so with tape recorder at the ready, I did just that. Since Lee Marvin had filmed the likes of Stranger Wore a Gun and Bad Day Black Rock in Lone Pine, I was fortunate enough to speak with such co-stars as John Ericson, John Mitchum, Anne Francis, and several others.
At one point, I found myself simply having chat with Charles Champlin. When I told him I was working on a book on Lee Marvin, he began giving me his thoughts on Marvin, at which time I asked if hed be willing to go on record. He simply nodded as I fumbled with the tape recorder. Below is the transcription of that all too brief conversation which was already at full steam by the time I hit ‘RECORD.’ Enjoy…..

Charles Champlin as he looked at the time I interviewed him at lone Pine, Oct. 8, 1994.

Charles Champlin as he looked at the time I interviewed him at Lone Pine, Oct. 8, 1994.

Champlin:…I could put you in touch with Frankenheimer.
Epstein: I would love that!
C: Because you know they did Iceman Cometh and Iceman Cometh is one of the best things Lee Marvin ever did. But I think they worked together two or three other times, at least in live television.
D: Right. I was just going to say that I think they did some TV together.
C: Yeah. And John was a terrific admirer of Lee Marvin’s.
D: I know he took a lot of flack in the beginning for casting Marvin and not Jason Robards, which everybody anticipated him doing. He said in an interview at the time that he didn’t want somebody who knew the part inside and out and wouldn’t add anything new to it.
C: That’s exactly right. It made sense. Marvin was an interesting man. In some ways a tragic figure. You always had the feeling about Lee Marvin that there was more work that should have been done.

Lee Marvin as 'Hickey' in Frankenheimer's film version of The Iceman Cometh (1973)

Lee Marvin as ‘Hickey’ in Frankenheimer’s film version of The Iceman Cometh (1973)

D: Capable of a lot more than…
C: He’ll be remembered for Cat Ballou. But it’s a problem that actors always have. I remember interviewing Robert Ryan once. Of course, they were both in Iceman
D: Several films; The Professionals
C: ….Dirty Dozen. Ryan said, “I made 75 films and all but three of them were dogs.”
D: That’s a great quote. I remember reading that.
C: Of course, it wasn’t true. Ryan brought great dignity to everything he did. He was one of those actors that couldn’t do anything wrong.
D: Terribly underrated.
C: I told John Ericson here that the first laser disc I bought was Bad Day At Black Rock because I thought Ryan was just wonderful. His villains were heroic, too. It’s nice to go both ways. He dared to go both ways.
D: I thought he was most….he was like evil personified.
C: Absolutely right. Like I said, Marvin was a terrific actor, too.
D: What quick thought come to mind when you think of Lee Marvin?
C: I have one of those memories of Lee Marvin explaining in Stanley Kramer’s Ship Of Fools how he never made it in baseball because he couldn’t hit a curve.

Marvin as Bill Tenney in Ship Of Fools (1964) explaining to Michael Dunn why his baseball career went south.

Marvin as Bill Tenney in Ship Of Fools (1964) explaining to Michael Dunn why his baseball career went south.

D: Curve ball low and inside, to Michael Dunn. Great scene.
C: That’s my memory. I never did an interview with him, to my knowledge, that I can remember. Cat Ballou of course was just a classic piece of film acting and film making, really. It was a wonderful idea. It’s Elliot Silverstein’s best film by far. There’s no question about that.

Marvin as Kid Shelleen, his Oscar-winning role in Cat Ballou (1965).

Marvin as Kid Shelleen, his Oscar-winning role in Cat Ballou (1965).

Marvin had a great versatility. Probably, he tended to get typecast, I suppose in those action roles because he did have a kind of lean and hungry look about him. But he was a good actor. I just think that all actors are the victims of what they can do. I think there’s so many. Maybe Ryan, too, is a causality of a system that puts you in a certain niche. Then it’s hard for you to get a decent role.
D: Maybe more so than Marvin because Ryan never seemed to have the kind of choices in roles that Lee Marvin did.
C: Yeah, well that’s true. Thank you very much.

Once I turned off the tape recorder, Champlin was as good as his word and did indeed put me in touch with Frankenheimer. Naturally, I wished I had spoken with Champlin at greater length but still feel very fortunate to have the time with him that I did. Yet again, another example on my part of not appreciating my luck at the time. He will be truly missed.

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