Frank Howson and the Boulevard of Broken Dreams (Part One)

*contains spoilers

When we talk about the Boulevard of Broken Dreams, most people might think of the 70s painting by Gottfried Heinwein (1948-), which features Humphrey Bogart (1899-1957 throat cancer), Marilyn Monroe (1926-62 barbiturate overdose), James Dean (1931-55 car accident) and Elvis Presley (1935-77 heart attack) in a late night diner.

Hienwein’s Boulevard of Broken Dreams

That painting in turn is based on an original from the 1940s which shows various lonely souls also in a late night diner. One critic said the 70s painting of the stars reflected “the tragic fate of some of our best loved celebrities”.

There is also a famous picture of James Dean walking down a city street smoking a cigarette which was also turned into a painting in the Boulevard of Broken Dreams series. This is the essential image and an enduring one for me of the young artist at the peak of his powers, yet isolated, and soon to meet a tragic end.

How they relate to three movies, which involve Melbourne-based writer and producer and sometime director Frank Howson, I hope to thread in this lumbering article. I hope it’s not too heavy and I might have overreached myself.

The trio of films includes Backstage (1988) starring pop/rock star Laura Branigan, the eponymous Boulevard of Broken Dreams (1988) about a dying Hollywood writer and Heaven Tonight (1989) about the Melbourne rock/pop scene, with a character apparently based on lead The Easybeats singer, Stevie Wright.

The Easybeats – Friday On My Mind (1965)

Watching Backstage is like watching microcosms within microcosms. The first miscrocosm being Australia, then the Melbourne theatre scene, and then the plays The Green Year Passes and The Seagull within the film itself – and eventually the play within the play of The Seagull. Watching over these microcosms are the critics. Like the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg on the billboard in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the critics are omnipresent and like God staring down in judgement.

Some actually do think themselves as Gods – in the case of Backstage, Robert Landau, played by Michael Atkins (1947-). Landau doesn’t like the idea of overseas stars coming to Melbourne to star in local stage productions. But he doesn’t like much anyway!

Aitkins and Branigan

Compare the reality of Branigan coming to Australia to make Backstage and the basic premise of a “vanity piece starring another imported star” automatically insulting local critics, even on a subconscious level. It has a built-in critic hate factor.

But also built into the script is the weakness of the main character Kate Lawrence’s performance on the stage in the movie, something which kind of critic-proofs and protects Branigan’s performance in Backstage.

Branigan’s Gloria (1982)

So central to Backstage’s critical and financial failure was poor Branigan’s Thespian abilities.

But as her character Kate says midway in the movie to Landau: “Sure the play stinks, so does my performance, but there’s not one thing in your reviews that says any thing is any good anywhere!”. The problem with most critics – anywhere – it seems.

But let me be one of the first to opine that those who spat at the film’s pretensions were mistaken. Sure it’s not Chekhov, but…

In Backstage, the waspish critic Landau has a habit of destroying careers with a stroke of a pen, or a tap on a keyboard. And in Backstage the critic’s role crosses the line into reality on several levels.

Backstage VHS cover

Branigan’s “American rock star” Kate Lawrence wants more to life than just playing stadiums – she wants to be an actress. Kate Lawrence: it sounds like an amalgam of stage actresses Kate Hepburn (1907-2003 cardiac arrest) and Gertrude Lawrence (1898-1952 hepatitis). It probably is.

Her agent finds there is a job going… with a Melbourne stage production with a stock comedy of manners entitled The Green Year Passes. Even before she begins rehearsals upon her arrival in Australia, she attends a boozy lunch/launch where vitriolic Landau rips into her and the producers for offering another production with an imported star… and not a very good one!

Not Quite Hollywood trailer (2008)

This by the way, was an issue during the Not Quite Hollywood era (all the 1980s) in Australia. Check out the documentary No Quite Hollywood: The Wild Untold Story of Ozploitataion which features Quentin Tarantino praising Aussie films from this era – you’ll be surprised! Anyway in Australia during this period the acting union started to kick up a fuss over the amount of Hollywood stars being used in local movies. Never mind if the stars were the real reason and drawcard for the movie being made in the first place. Poor producer Anthony I. Ginnane (1949-) had to take the productions of Strange Behavior/Dead Kids (1981) and Race for the Yankee Zephyr (1981) to New Zealand to film, so parochial was the actor’s union in Australia. Those films had at least three American stars, which didn’t sit well. Pity if they had been big box-office and more Aussies would have gotten work! Even today, in terms of stage productions which tour down under there must be a certain amount of Aussie talent in the cast. I spoke to one star about such frustrations. So Backstage is still timely but for those critics with a vested interest in “Australian” productions at the time… I just can’t help thinking it trod on their toes! My how times have changed in terms of filming overseas movies in Australia like Aquaman!!

Race for the Yankee Zephyr trailer (1981)

Anyway back to Backstage and Kate throws a glass of shiraz in Landau’s face. You go girl!

Rowena Wallace

They do, however, end up as friends as the movie develops, getting picked up by police for swimming in a city fountain. Branigan is daring enough to do a wet t-shirt scene and it’s one of her best scenes (not because of her bazookas!) along with an earlier scene with a reporter played by Rowena Wallace. There’s a kind of natural magic there.

As for Kate’s acting in The Green Year Passes, her American popular style clashes with the seasoned and studied Aussie actors whose inspiration is more London’s West End than New York’s Broadway. Kate’s discomfort later results in a stilted performance on stage to say the least.

In the meantime she sleeps with Landau, who has aspirations of writing for the stage, but apparently has writer’s block, or is scared to share his work. His father was a one-hit wonder and he’s scared he can’t top that.

Kate and Landau fall for each other further while she rehearses the play and keeps rehearsing music at the local pub. Always have a plan B! Like Madonna and Lady Gaga.

The opening night is a disaster and the producer Mortimer Wynde (Noel Ferrier 1930-97 undisclosed) says as he darts across the foyer at halftime, his cape all aflutter: “She’s ruining my show!”

Despite their love, Landau writes a scathing review of Kate: “Nice, nasty cynical stuff” with nothing positive to say at all. When they confront each other, he declares to her: “You were acting an actress acting. Three times removed”. Microcosms within microcosms… and in this case with a trichotomy to boot! I’ll make up the word trichotomy if it doesn’t exist.

“Where’s the fire woman!? Where’s the passion?!…. Help me and I’ll help you,” adds Landau.

Branigan’s Ti Amo (1984)

It is at this point where the muse strikes for both of them and Landau does a kind of Pygmalion (play 1912, movie 1938 and My Fair Lady movie 1964) by George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950 renal failure) and teaches Kate how to act. While he starts to write.

Her acting improves to the point where she gets an audition for the role of Nina in Anton Chekhov’s (1860-1904 tuberculosis) The Seagull (1896) on Broadway. Probably an overreach for Branigan, but that doesn’t matter, as you’ll see.

My Fair Lady trailer (1964)

Branigan as Kate does however give a credible recital from the landmark New Zealand play Foreskin’s Lament by Greg McGee at the audition. She gets the role of Nina! But even as she is in the wings of The Seagull on Broadway at the climax of the movie, she can’t get the music out of her head – she, like Branigan, will always be a singer – or Landau, who has dropped out altogether. She thinks he may have committed suicide like one of the tragic characters in The Seagull.

Backstage, let me stress again is about Branigan’s performance, Kate’s performance and the character Nina in The Seagull, who is also an actress.

The trichotomy of the Branigan/Kate/Nina performances exists within Backstage along with a writing trichotomy of Aitkens/Landau/Konstantin.

Chekhov’s Vanya on 42nd Street trailer (1994)

Aitkens the actor became a successful writer of comedy and drama in the United Kingdom after he made this movie, while Landau moves from critic to serious writer, as Konstantin develops as a writer as The Seagull progresses.

A young Chekov

The critics, in terms of Branigan’s acting, were stinging. For Kate the critics are stinging at first. For Nina, we assume the critics are unkind. In terms of Aitkins, his performance can’t be faulted. But for Landau he is a failed writer frightened of the critic within – an idealist/ perfectionist. With Kate as his muse and then lover, he will be a success like her. Konstantin is an idealist/perfectionist too and his free-form play within a play in The Seagull prefigures many a modern production. He was a man before his time and is a failure… for him the critics scoff at first, even at home, and then some success. So like The Seagull, there is some depth to Backstage… it is personal.

Konstantin’s failure as an artist is underscored by his successful actress mother who screams at him after the apparently embarrassing play within a play: “you’re nobody!”.

I’ve been there. It is not a good feeling for a failed artist with no community or connection. In that sense the artist and their work are one. It can be all so unbearable…

The hidden meanings contained within The Seagull are also about acting and writing.

Billy Howle as Konstantin in 2018’s The Seagull

While the life of an actress is one of social connection, the writer’s life can be a lonely and solitary one. At the end of The Seagull… and there are so many translations of the play, it depends who adapts Chekhov and which adaptation you see, the real secret of The Seagull maybe in the Russian… At the end… Nina has made the transition to actress but has sold her soul and broken her heart by loving the successful Trigorin and spurning Konstantin. For the writer Konstantin, he has found success but also has his heart broken for he has lost Nina forever. And nothing else seems to matter anymore…

The Sea Gull poster (1966)

The key to Backstage is The Seagull, even though only unrelated excerpts of the play are shown in the movie. When Konstantin kills himself with his second suicide attempt after Nina walks off, they both have a modicum of unfulfilled potential … but isn’t that the Boulevard of Broken Dreams for you in 19th Century disguise!

No wonder The Seagull is such a depressing play, but Backstage is the perfect antidote.

Also hidden is the symbol of the seagull, which is killed in the play. It is the symbolism of love and happiness of a girl who knew nothing else – except to be an actress.

As Nina says later with a broken heart: “I am the seagull”.

The seagull is killed out of sheer boredom by Konstantin, as if by a bored critic. It symbolises all Branigan’s/Kate’s/Nina’s acting aspirations. It is also the writing aspirations of Aitkens/Landau/Konstantin.

The subtext is hidden in Backstage, as if Backstage of Backstage of Backstage as it is contained within the play but not shown in the movie itself. There are those microcosms again.

Director Jonathan Hardy

For the co-writers of Backstage and I don’t know whose ideas are whose – the co-writer /director of the movie Jonathan Hardy (1940-2012), along with credited co-writer Frank Howson, may have failed at the time, but under further consideration, it should have been a runaway success! Just like the character Kate Lawrence’s career.

They survived the mauling. At least both writers were a part of the film community at the time. Their “art” in Backstage was viewed serious enough to be considered a failure on a large scale. But they had other fish to fry. As writers and creators of Backstage, they are like the successful writer Trigorin in The Seagull, who takes critical notes of those around him, and who moves on to the next project, or place, to stay. Or woman too!

Not Konstantin whom no-one takes remotely seriously as an artist. He is alienated, self-absorbed and not a success with women… and for him it’s pure heartbreak.

As a failed writer of fiction, I can relate very much to The Seagull, as nobody was interested in my work. I think Konstantin’s play within a play in The Seagull performed at home at the beginning was more successful than my writing, which was seen by a handful and never praised, except merely as a consolation. In the end, I had failed utterly, had also lost the love of my life forever, and isolated and alone, jumped the equivalent of three storeys… but survived. Everything was in vain. All broken dreams!

Branigan in wet tee

It was my only attempt at suicide, but I know, like Konstantin, a second attempt would be successful. So I had to let the fiction dream go, along with it went chain-smoking and alcoholism. Don’t worry I’m completely happy and well balanced now. But that is why for me The Seagull is such a powerful and personal play.

As one of the characters in Woody Allen’s (1935-) Shadows and Fog (1991) says about a failed writer character: perhaps you will be posthumously successful! It’s no consolation. Shadows and Fog incidentally is a positive take on Allen’s own absurdist play Death (1975). I still like Allen’s movies and don’t know what to believe about the scandal that surrounds him.

James Mason as Trigorin

Speaking of no consolation, think of John Kennedy Toole (1937-69 suicide) whose novel A Confederacy of Dunces won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize. He suffered paranoia and depression before gassing himself in his own car alone and far from home. There was a suicide note “to my parents”. He felt he had failed.

Another star with a broken dream on the boulevard!

The only positive critic for Konstantin in The Seagull is the doctor. And shouldn’t we all, if smart enough, be doctors. Cardiologists added years to the life of Backstage director Jonathan Hardy when he had to have a heart transplant! Helping others instead of the vanity of the arts and its broken hearts/dreams… but we’re not all that clever!

Shadows and Fog trailer (1991)

Back to Backstage/The Green Year Passes/The Seagull and the role of the “great” critic in all of them. In reality, Backstage was so lambasted by critics so that it would be hard for its writers not to be hurt. Meanwhile within Backstage, critic Landau crosses the line with his harsh criticism of The Green Year Passes and then attachment to Kate. While in The Seagull, the successful writer/critic Trigorin crosses the line in terms of Nina when he takes advantage of her admiration of him.

I don’t know if Aitkens took Branigan under his wing and explained to her the full meaning of The Seagull. She didn’t go to Juilliard but a lesser acting school.

When I say the film is critic-proof for Branigan, the experience for Frank Howson might have been more painful and disturbing, but it helped form the production of his two subsequent films…

Anyway when it comes to The Seagull in Backstage, it’s all so bloody symbolic I’ve probably tripped over myself several times!! I hope it hasn’t been too confusing for you.

As Nina says in The Seagull, after years of playing second rate theatres: “I am an actress”. And in the acting trichotomy of the film Branigan and Kate can say the same. Happily.

Landau kills a career out of sheer boredom, like the critics apparently killed Branigan’s acting career the same way. She didn’t do another starring role. But she proves she is an actress just like Nina whose acting career also never reached great heights.

The Seagull trailer (2018)

Nina says earlier the life of an actress is not an easy one but she wants to be one more than anything in the world. And as the poor, poor pitiful me Konstantin says – the writer’s life is a hard one. But I think I’ve explained that already.

Enough of The Seagull, I prefer Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya anyway.

Incidentally, the latest version of The Seagull starring the beautiful and talented Saoirse Ronan as Nina is not the full play but is quite good despite its flaws, while a taped Broadway version starring Frank Langella as Konstantin is another adaptation altogether.

Finally, in the context of a pop star playing Nina – Branigan can’t be faulted, and in the end Backstage may not be neo-realism, but as “pretentious” as this mainstream pop movie is – it’s all there, hidden as well as on display. And that’s what I love about Backstage.

In real life, Branigan was born in 1952 and came from a middle class broken home and went to acting school after high school in New York. Remembered mainly today for her still resonant song Gloria (1982), a song used to great effect at the end of the recent Gloria Bell (2019) starring Julianne Moore. Branigan’s career as a singer peaked with the album Self Control in 1985.

Branigan’s Self Control (1985)

I guess that overtures were made for Branigan to make Backstage during the brief honeymoon period after that album and her career was in decline when the movie was made in 1987.

Enter once more the Boulevard of Broken Dreams. Following the savaging of Backstage, Branigan was still happily married to her husband Larry Kruteck who was sixteen years her senior. They had married in 1978 and there were no children. He was her man in the wings, like Landau at the end of Backstage, when he finally turns up at the end of Kate’s performance in The Seagull.

She more or less retired when he got cancer in 1994 to take care of him until the end came just over two years later. There was a comeback of sorts in 2001, stymied by a fall from a ladder at home where she broke both legs. She recovered to do a stage musical about Janis Joplin for which she was not suited and relinquished the role shortly after.

Then on 26 August 2004, she died in her sleep aged 52.

Apparently she had been suffering a headache for a few weeks and failed to see a doctor for what was an undiagnosed brain aneurysm. Poor girl.

Backstage’s trichotomy ends with Kate’s career beginning to peak, Nina is an actress, and for Branigan it is the peak of her acting career.  She perhaps wisely didn’t pursue acting further – and didn’t really have to, as the film is pure wish fulfilment. Branigan/Kate/Nina face the worst men and critics have to offer. For Branigan, the film sums up all her dreams and aspirations and fulfils them. Fullstop.

I think for Branigan it really was meant to be a one-off. Its failure beyond the microcosm of Australia barely made a ripple beyond Variety… It barely got a release in Australia and I found it in a dollar bin on VHS at a video shop back in the 1990s. It now gets more likes than dislikes on YouTube.

It’s the perfect candidate for the Boulevard of Broken Dreams and here is also why.

In his book The Avocado Plantation, about 80s Australian movies of the Not Quite Hollywood era, David Stratton had little or nothing positive to say about Backstage. He goes into detail about the film and the reported subterfuge Frank Howson had to deal with other producers and the co-writer and director of the movie. Any control of the film was wrested from him. I don’t really know how many of Howson’s ideas are used in the final movie. And, furthermore the end credits show the film was “based on an idea by John Lamond”.

John D Lamond ((1947-2018 Parkinson’s disease) was responsible for the sexploitation film Felicity (1979) among others and the rather quaint in comparison romantic comedy, Breakfast in Paris (1982).

Felicity trailer (1979)

Howson’s idea to use Branigan was probably his main contribution to Backstage I am led to believe. Then there is his experience with colourful stage producers as well. But he got cut out of the production altogether in the end and went just short of removing his name from the credits because he didn’t see the final cut. He was not happy with the finished product. I won’t go into the skulduggery Howson faced.

All that has to affect a writer/artist. Backstage was for Howson a broken dream and a robbery of his ideas as well. But it led to something great…

PART TWO

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