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Those Lips, Those Eyes (DVD Review)

13 Jun, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Manufactured on demand via online retailers
$19.98 DVD
Rated ‘R.’
Stars Frank Langella, Tom Hulce, Glynnis O’Connor, Jerry Stiller.

Until age eight, I grew up close enough to Cleveland to be totally immersed in its pop/sports culture, so it is difficult to get a feel for the operetta niche audience that would have spent gleeful summer 1951 nights there watching live performances of, or snippets from, Rose Marie or The Vagabond King. Not only were the Indians and Browns highly competitive and a key to the city’s psyche — but also perched to steal thunder from sports announcer Jimmy Dudley on the radio was disc jockey Alan Freed’s promotion of rhythm-and-blues music, that precursor to Chuck Berry rock and roll. Operettas were a bit out of their time: within the next five years, MGM would film remakes of Rose Marie and The Student Prince, Paramount would disinter Vagabond, and they’d all basically stink up the joint.

Despite this — and despite a rather marked absence here of “Cleveland verisimilitude” — Lips is somewhat of an underseen sleeper/charmer that has just been made available in Fox’s new “on-demand” package of predominantly United Artists titles. It gets a huge boost from lead Frank Langella — right after he played Dracula but a long ways before he played Richard Nixon (talk about two sides of the same coin). Langella captures the poignancy and a lot of the arrogance displayed by actors with talent but perhaps not enough of it — stuck in the sticks and (at best) mercurial in dealing with others. Plus, the late screenwriter David Shaber did grow up in Cleveland, so who’s arguing?

Thomas Hulce (before he became the Oscar-nominated Tom of Amadeus) plays the pre-med hopeful who shoulders his blue collar parents’ dreams — until he starts dogging in summer school because he has gotten the theatrical bug. Working on the backstage crew despite a transparent ineptitude with props, Hulce’s Artie character gets befriended by Langella’s “Harry Crystal,” whose stage name has more marquee zest than the one his parents gave him. Harry lost five years to World War II and then five more trying to make up the gap. A stage purist with a snob quotient, he does not appear to be one of those early ‘50s actors willing to gravitate toward live TV (even if his talents ran that way). Time is running out, and he seems to know it.

With a major exception of Artie, for whom Harry ends up doing a favor for the ages, the younger company underlings regard Harry as a pain. Artie is more charitable because a) with him, Harry leaves the charm button mostly on; and b) the kid is a little green, in the manner of young guys who have to transport flashy dates in dad’s pickup truck. In this case, dad (played by Jerry Stiller, Ben’s own real-life pop) is a t-shirted laborer from those days six decades ago when it was easier for an uneducated hard-worker to carve out a solid middle-class existence. The flashy date here is a company chorine named Ramona — a heavily made-up looker with dancer’s legs who might be available, though without particularly advertising it. She’s well-played by Glynnis O’Connor, who at the time was probably best known for the acclaim she’d gotten as the early-adolescent co-lead of 1973’s Jeremy seven years back, opposite Robby Benson. Well, time marches on.

Will Harry ever catch a break from New York agents and bookers, even assuming that one of them is in the mood for a severe Lake Erie side trip to watch him perform? Will Artie’s classroom daydreaming cause him to flunk out of a high-pressure classroom situation whose heavy homework time expenditure is being sapped by the old-school music of Rudolf Friml? Will Artie (to use a 1951 Alan Freed example) be able to ape the behavior of the guy in Billy Ward & the Dominoes’ "Sixty Minute Man"? Or will he only be Ramona’s two-minute man if he can’t score someone’s spare room?

On this last count, there’s some spoiler potential in terms of how the movie plays out. So let’s just emphasize that the major reward of a likably minor movie comes from savoring the svelte flamboyance Langella brings to a role that possibly no other actor at the time could have played this well (was he ever really and truly this thin)? As for Artie on both the professional and romantic counts, perhaps he’d better heed the advice from a No. 1 Billboard hit from the following year that I strongly suspect Freed never played: Perry Como’s "Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes."

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