Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Neglected Gem #99: The World of Henry Orient (1964)

Merrie Spaeth, Peter Sellers, and Tippy Walker in The World of Henry Orient (1964).

In Nora Johnson’s 1958 novel The World of Henry Orient, set in Manhattan, the title character – a celebrity “pop pianist” with a glitzy, undisciplined technique, who plays Carnegie Hall and is a favorite of the gossip columns – barely appears. He is mostly just talked about, wondered over, or spied upon. No matinee idol, he is described as “fat and bushy-haired, with a pouting lower lip . . . unwashed . . . carrot-headed.” Only once, and in the worst possible circumstances, is he seen up close by either Marian or Val, the teenage girls and best friends who for their own reasons have decided to be obsessed with him. “The world” becomes the girls’ code name for the adventurous, exciting adulthood they are certain awaits them, while Henry Orient, insignificant and even absurd as an individual, assumes enormous importance as the symbol of their aspirations. Val, the less conventional of the girls, and herself a gifted pianist, calls him “the voice of my conscience. He’s so awful, and yet he seems to mean everything good.” She presciently frets that meeting the man himself “might destroy everything.”

Both girls are about 14, whimsical misfits and children of divorce. Marian is fortunate enough to live with a genial, tolerant mother and a sarcastic but warmhearted aunt figure; but Val, under pressure from the adults in her life – all of them women who are, in various parts, resentful or imperceptive – is being wrenched out of her weirdness and into a stale model of socialized girlhood. Marian, who regards Val with awe, begins to perceive what is happening:
Her mind – as full of color and imagination as a forest of tropical birds – had to be shaken down and shaped to fit the only kind of life that was possible for her; and it would, undoubtedly, become grayed and dull in the process. . . . I shared her fate; it was my world as well as hers, we would grow up into it at the same time, and it was shocking to see how it was already treating another of my generation. 
Depressed by her father’s absence and her mother’s benign contempt, Val begins to settle into the mold that awaits her. But Marian desperately tries to stave off her friend’s surrender. “You’ve built something,” she tells Val, “and I’ve helped. We made the world of Henry Orient. . . . Think how we organized our activity around something as ethereal as love, beautiful love! Love and efficiency!” The novel’s sadness, and what distinguishes it as a young-adult classic, is that the world of Henry Orient, exotic and enticing, also encompasses lies, alienation, and failure. The novel humanely observes the process of Marian’s growing up, of learning from Val’s example and coming to realize that “it’s good to be lonely sometimes, to be able to stand here and feel everything, all at once.”

The World of Henry Orient is a very fifties statement, a note of despair and defiance cast against an ethics of conformity. As such, it anticipates the youth revolt of the sixties, much of which stemmed from the awareness of such privileged kids as these that there were other worlds to be sought, other lives to be made. Marian’s reference to “my generation” echoes Allen Ginsberg’s in Howl, written two years before, and looks forward to Pete Townshend’s in the Who song of that title, seven years to come. We’re tempted to ask where Marian and Val fall on that revolutionary continuum; to picture them 10 or 15 years hence, and to imagine alternate fates for them. Do they stay friends? Does Marian become a child psychologist, Val an avant-garde musician? Marian a lockstep bourgeois, Val a drug statistic? Or do they find their feet as seventies feminists, reuniting to compare scars and wisdoms? That such wondering comes naturally is a tribute to the depth of the characters, and to Johnson’s success in creating a sense (as prophetic in its way as Ginsberg’s) of “the world” to come – those converging social and historical forces that we know, even if the characters do not, are gathering to meet them.

Despite being scripted by Nora Johnson herself, in collaboration with her father, the legendary writer-director Nunnally Johnson, the 1964 movie version of The World of Henry Orient can’t claim quite those resonances. Skimming the surface of the same story, working within its own commercial compromises, it coalesces into a coming-of-age story with aspects of sex farce and soap opera: a teen comedy for adults. Objectively, the farrago of elements shouldn’t work, yet the film like the novel is a kind of classic. Capturing female camaraderie and innocent hyperactivity while ringing notes of loss and sadness, it stands among the most unusual and touching Hollywood films of its day.

Tippy Walker and Tom Bosley in The World of Henry Orient.

Directed by George Roy Hill, shot by Boris Kaufman and Arthur J. Ornitz on locations ranging from the East 80s to Greenwich Village, Henry Orient occurs in a pristine bubble of autumnal and wintry beauty. This is the New York of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, that enchanted and enchanting place, both wholesome and glamorous, where there are no homeless men or piles of garbage, and a girl feigning illness on the sidewalk is not ignored, but rather is surrounded within minutes by a small village of kibitzing Samaritans. Hill visualizes girl power by framing Marian and Val almost heroically, shooting them from low angles: as much as the skyscrapers and monuments, they tower up to center the image. This feeds into a blissful montage of aimless running, leaping, and shouting, the girls flying up or floating down in slow motion against the Washington Square arch: an interlude which would be perfect if it ended 30 seconds sooner. (The only real negative against the film is its occasional surplus of whimsy – and the blackface aspect of the girls’ pidgin-Chinese talk and gestures.)

Part of the movie’s grace is that it doesn’t reserve all its feeling and sensitivity for the youngsters. The eclectic, even oddball crew of adults – Angela Lansbury and Tom Bosley as Val’s parents; Phyllis Thaxter and Bibi Osterwald as Marian’s mother and aunt figure – are given some exceptionally thoughtful, well-written scenes, including an all-female kitchen klatch about divorce and psychoanalysis. The movie creates an important scene (Val’s parents in a confrontation over infidelity) that is only implied in the novel; and in fact the father character is substantially expanded, since the novel has scarcely any male presence at all. Perhaps as a function of the daughter-father screenplay collaboration, Val’s movie dad is something of a gray-templed saint, a man both soulful and wealthy, who in the end determines to give up a globetrotting life of high finance to devote himself to his daughter. The corresponding scene, beautifully played by Walker and Bosley, is an emotional high point, and the kind of wish fulfillment movies were made to provide.

The character of Henry Orient (based on pianist, actor, and famously neurotic TV personality Oscar Levant, as witness the name) is puffed out considerably to accommodate the talents of Peter Sellers, whose first American movie this is. The fact that he’d never carried a picture, even in England, seems to have determined his U.S. debut as a secondary character who only seems to be at the center of things. “His scenes are cameos, virtually skits,” writes Sellers biographer Roger Lewis, who sees in them “the first sign of [a] falsity” that shaped the star’s performances after 1964, when international stardom meant he could no longer disappear within a multi-layered role (cf. Lolita and Dr. Strangelove). The running gag is the girls’ repeated (inadvertent) sabotaging of Orient’s sexual moves on a skittish married woman (Paula Prentiss), and some of this farce is broader than necessary. But Sellers’s slapstick is trim and loose, and his voice wittily negotiates the illogical shifts between Orient’s native Brooklynese and an affected crypto-Slavic accent. For an actor soon to retreat behind veils of egotism and self-regard, he is a surprisingly gallant lover, never hogging camera or laughs from his female foils. Prentiss combines her long-boned elegance with a funny, gulping paranoia, and Sellers has perhaps his best scene romancing the razor-sharp Lansbury, who smirks with appreciative lust at the seducer’s phony yet artful come-ons.

 Girl power and low angles: Merrie Spaeth and Tippy Walker.

But the picture’s heart is in the teamwork of Merrie Spaeth and Tippy Walker as Marian and Val. Neither had been in a movie before; Spaeth would never make another, and Walker would appear in just two others, along with a handful of TV roles. The two are amazing together. They have just enough technique – or instinct, or directorial coaching – to put across the girls’ highs and lows, but not so much of it that they register as calculating or self-aware. Their first conversation, on an East River bench, is wonderful for the writing (Val on the private school they both attend: “Do you like it?” “They say it’s the finest girls’ school in the country.” “I don’t either.”), but also for the documentary spectacle of kindred actors discovering each other. In a later scene, the girls spin afternoon fantasies of parental reunions as a turntable emits a Rachmaninoff concerto (a piece recognizable to pop fans as the basis of Eric Carmen’s 1975 hit “All By Myself” – a serendipity out of the future!). The shot is a long take, the scene a challenging duologue, but Spaeth and Walker weave in and out of their characters’ wants and wishes with the naturalness of soulmates, watching and hearing each other attentively. Throughout the movie, Hill gives the girls’ scenes an unhurried pace and intimate framing. Their faces are close, their smiles delighted, their embraces genuine.

George Roy Hill, who died 15 years ago, had one of the strangest, most misshapen of Hollywood careers. Beginning in theater and television, he made only 14 films over 26 years, and almost all were junk. Some were funny, lively junk (Period of Adjustment, Slap Shot), others were tepid but lucrative junk (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting), others were junk, full stop (The Great Waldo Pepper, The World According to Garp). Only two Henry Orient, and the 1972 Slaughterhouse-Five, from the Kurt Vonnegut novel – came close to being fully successful, let alone achieving the solid form and fluid edges of a classic. That’s quite a range of achievement, with enough divergence in taste and judgment to suggest that Hill had the artistic equivalent of a personality disorder. At his best, he showed an uncommon sensitivity with actors and camera, a feel for fine tones; at his worst, a cataleptic disregard for aesthetic or emotion. I can’t guess where his finer resources lay, why his access to them was so sporadic, or why his only other resort was to a meager professionalism empty of personality or sensibility. Hill remains a head-scratcher, and anyone who can find coherence in his canon is a far more gifted rationalizer than I.

Speaking of such things: it would feel dishonest not to note that, during the filming of Henry Orient, the married-with-children Hill had an affair with Tippy Walker, who was 16 at the time, an affair which lasted months beyond the filming. That might account for some of the deep feeling that is missing in other Hill films; then again, it might not. In any case, it’s a fact germane to the creation of something very special, and anyone who loves The World of Henry Orient must process it; for a fuller context, including Walker’s own mature estimation of the affair, read John Colapinto’s 2012 New Yorker story “A Star is Born, Lost and Found.” There, you’ll also read of Merrie Spaeth’s later life as a communications functionary for Republican politicians – among them George W. Bush, for whom she stage-managed the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” smear that decisively hobbled John Kerry’s 2004 Presidential campaign. Speaking as one viewer, I’ve never felt that these seamy post facto realities lessen the warmth of The World of Henry Orient, or qualify its tenderness. If anything – given the film’s near-miraculous poise upon that moment when innocence meets experience, and girls meet a world which will shape and be shaped by them – such facts only render it the more poignant.


– Devin McKinney is the author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (2003), The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda (2012), and Jesusmania! The Bootleg Superstar of Gettysburg College (2016). Formerly a music columnist (The American Prospect), blogger (Hey Dullblog), and TV writer (The Food Network), he has appeared in numerous publications and contributes regularly to Critics at Large and the pop culture site HiLobrow. He is employed as an archivist at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife and their three cats. His website is devinmckinney.com.

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