The Cult Movies of Director Larry Peerce and The Bell Jar (1979) Part Two

*contains spoilers

The two films Peerce made following The Sporting Club were A Separate Peace (1972) which is based on the latent homosexuality amid the athleticism and secret societies of American selective boarding schools in the novel by John Knowles (1926-2001). Writer Gore Vidal (1925-2012 pneumonia) in the later period of his self-mythologising claimed to be one of the characters. Knowles helped write the screenplay with George Segal’s (1934-2021 after heart surgery) brother Fred Segal (1925-76) whose only other screenplay A Change of Seasons received a Razzie nomination. I couldn’t source a copy of the movie but saw it on tv in the late 1980s after reading the book and the fact it was selected as one of the 50 Worst Movies Ever Made in the famous book of the same title. It seemed competent and well before its time.

The young men in A Separate Peace (1972)
He was pushed… A Separate Peace (1972) poster art

To watch Ash Wednesday (1973) and it’s hard to get past the scenes of surgical mutilation which are a real turn-off as it tells of an aging beauty, in the form of Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2011 congestive heart failure), who undergoes a face-lift so as to keep her older and disinterested husband played by Henry Fonda (1905-82 heart disease) faithful. The film is Peerce’s first international movie and it took him to Italy to direct it. But there is no substitute for youth as Taylor finds out despite diet and possible monkey gland injections – as ‘surgical’, biological’ and ‘chronological’ are the key words used as reminders of her true age despite her facelift which is hidden in her hairline but gossiped about by her hair-dresser. There fountain of youth comes only within the young and the film is a snapshot of Taylor on the cusp of middle age, when she could still tastefully bed a younger man and wear Valentino and furs with true style. It is perhaps a possible camp item as the movie stars the It Boy of the European Jet Set, the androgynous bisexual German actor Helmut Berger (1944-), who stares longingly and affectedly at Taylor before finally bedding her.

Taylor was nominated for a Golden Globe for her work but Peerce received no further consideration. I sometimes wonder if the woman who slaps Berger’s face and storms out of an Italian restaurant is actually Marilyn Hassett but it seems unlikely. The Ash Wednesday of the title seems to relate to the Catholic rite of confession of sins and showing devotion to God in a time of penance, mourning and mortality. But upon exiting the church after apparent prayers of adoration, Taylor is immediately caught up in the skin-deep world of a gay fashion shoot on the steps which leads to her affair and the realisation finally that her marriage is over. It’s not as bad as its reputation.

Ash Wednesday (1973) poster
Liz Taylor on the cusp in Ash Wednesday (1973)
Helmut Berger in bed with Liz Taylor in Ash Wednesday (1973)

Then Peerce directed the hit movie The Other Side of the Mountain (1975) and had an affair and/or married actress Marilyn Hassett (1947-). This film suffers from criticism for containing the same kind of schizophrenic anachronisms as A Separate Peace in terms of its hairstyles and costumes and so forth. This may have been because of the declining budgets that Peerce was working with, or may have been a deliberate move to keep these movies relevant and appealing to modern-day audiences. Both movies were set in the 1940s or 50s, apparently. Some of the attitudes are also modern along with the language.

The Other Side of the Mountain was made at Universal and was about the life of Olympic hopeful Jill Kinmont (1936-2012), played by Hassett, who at only the age of seventeen broke her neck in a skiing mishap which left her a paraplegic in 1955. It tells of her love for fellow skier and flying daredevil Dick ‘Mad Dog’ Buek (1929-57 plane crash) who is played by Beau Bridges. The fact that Kinmont was a virgin upon her paraplegia and can’t ‘make love’ as a result is perhaps a part of the modern fascination the film probably had on audiences when it became a surprise hit at the cinemas. Hassett’s work was seen as sensitive enough to win a Golden Globe as a New Talent as we follow this once elite champion to a rehabilitation centre …

The real Dick Buek and Jill Kinmont before her accident
The real Jill Kinmont (left) with actress Marilyn Hassett
Beau Bridges as Buek and Marilyn Hassett as Kinmont

It is there she is called ‘Gimp of the Month’ by fellow inmates when she mentions she was interviewed by a magazine following her accident, while another fellow with a disability tells her: “You know where you find the word sympathy in the dictionary? Between sh*t and suicide!” The real Kinmont worked as a technical advisor while the song Richard’s Window by Olivia Newton-John was nominated for an Oscar – the sole one it got.

The beauty of the screenplay is that the disabled Kinmont realised “how darned lucky I am” but the film is formulaic right down to its contrivance that Buek was killed on Kinmont’s birthday which really wasn’t true.

Universal had enough faith to use Peerce for Two-Minute Warning (1976), which could be seen as some kind of low-budget, at least in look, blockbuster in the cycle of disaster movies. It is perhaps another bourgeois nightmare in the same vein as The Incident but the characters here are less interesting and played by stars rather than character actors. The film is about a sniper who turns up at a capacity filled Coliseum stadium in Los Angeles to watch a bit of footy and kill as the viewer remains in limbo while we wait for actors such as David Janssen (1931-80 heart attack), Jack Klugman (1922-2012 prostate cancer), Martin Balsam (1919-96 stroke), Beau Bridges and Gena Rowlands (1930-) to be possible targets. Charlton Heston (1923-2008 pneumonia) is the nominal star as a hardened cop, while John Cassavetes turns up leading a SWAT team.

Alternate VHS title for The Deadly Tower (1975)
Two-Minute Warning (1976) poster
Mid-1970s 3-D first person shooter video game The Maze

The worship of physicality and sporting prowess matches the assassin’s prowess with a rifle as the cauldron of the stadium is perhaps the most epic melting pot for Peerce to show off his flawed characters compared to the intimacy of The Incident. The loving of your neighbour in the next seat isn’t necessarily so, while new and close friendships may spontaneously occur on the other hand. This is America and it is the land of the free and there is that Freemasonry again between fellow sports fans and movie fans. America at the time was also the place where gun nuts were becoming more prevalent and Peerce uses the perspective of a first-person shooter, just like the computer games which were beginning to emerge at around the same period, albeit primitive and unwieldy, they would soon morph into Doom and Far Cry. Meanwhile, you could go and see Two-Minute Warning to indulge the gun nut inside of you – and hopefully, that would suffice. The killer is faceless throughout the movie until the end.

The tv movie The Deadly Tower (1975) starring Kurt Russell (1951-) had been a rating hit previously and was based on the real-life sniper shootings at the University of Texas tower in 1966. These events had already inspired Peter Bogdanovich’s (1939-) low-budget movie Targets (1968) which was released quickly in the wake of Bobby Kennedy’s demise.

The triumph of gun culture… Lee Harvey Oswald’s rifle
Are you a sharp shooter as well?
Surely not the CBS logo in jest…
Gun violence, sport and television meld also in reality for Two-Minute Warning (1976)

Two-Minute Warning hands Peerce the opportunity to deal with what he perhaps hated the most and that was the gun culture but he had a script which offered little insight into the reasons why or offer any solution except to once more shoot back. It was perhaps torture he was given this essay for making The Sporting Club.

The film wasn’t allowed to be shown on network tv by NBC unless it was altered. There was discussion about violence on tv affecting children around this period… something no-one seems to care about today in terms of video games and screen prevalence around the world. Anyway, extra footage was added and it was shown eventually without Peerce’s credit in 1978. Ironically, the film received an Oscar nomination for its editing and that’s it. Charlton Heston then became a spokesman for the National Rifle Association. Peerce was perhaps again stigmatised but at least there was a role for partner Hassett.

Thank God the president’s motorcade is diverted to prevent another political assassination in this unlikely movie if only in terms of the assassin secreting himself in the Coliseum. The movie Black Sunday (1977) was more credible but flopped as it had the Goodyear Blimp possibly deliver a bomb upon a stadium the following year in a more international take on the same subject.

Two-Minute Warning (1976) trailer
Oswald’s rifle? You should see Charlton Heston’s gun collection. There’s photos out there!
Black Sunday (1977) one-upped Two-Minute Warning but not at the box office

If Peerce shows any indictment of the media, it’s the fact that tv normalises it along with the network news. The pat reaction of even bothering to say prayers after the latest mass shooting is nothing compared to watching Two-Minute Warning the extended version on television with the CBS logo an apparent way to shoot people through. It all seems like an in-joke now between ads for a game of football. I bet it was a rating hit.

“Don’t try and get logical about these kooks,” says Cassavetes about the average gun, sports or movie fanatic… and now computer game addict.

Peerce and Hassett’s affair transcended the gun debate and they made The Other Side of the Mountain Part Two (1978) which continued the story of Marilyn Hassett. It featured the tag-line: “For everyone who believes in happy endings.” This would contrast to the next and final film the couple made together for the cinemas, at least in a sense, The Bell Jar (1979), which was based on the novel by poetess Sylvia Plath (1932-63 suicide by gas).

Time for a happy ending… The Other Side of the Mountain Part 2 (1978) poster
The Bell Jar (1979) quad poster

“I am a stupid intellectual asshole,” says Sylvia Plath’s character, who we assume is autobiographical, once her boss has broken her down about her dream to become a respected poet. She has just started her dream job at a New York fashion magazine which doesn’t suit the writing she was prepared to do as a self-confessed neurotic. She has already discussed suicide with her latently homosexual friend who is another girl from her academic past. She has already passed on marriage with a well-hung prospective doctor who said she could write at night while the children were in bed … and he would even help her do the dishes!

Peerce handles a scene with Hassett, as she almost dry-retches and screams through an apartment window, after escaping being raped, with the utmost conviction, and if there had been just as many effective moments in the movie, he may have gotten his lover the award she perhaps coveted. As it is, Peerce’s another almost masterpiece of sorts frames Hassett forever as he rejected the frame of possibly being rushed and then maybe asked to complete Two-Minute Warning for the mass audience of television. The Bell Jar is almost his artistic revenge… and wasn’t made under the straight-jacket aegis of a major studio but produced by the soon to be defunct AVCO-Embassy Pictures.

Another The Bell Jar (1979) poster

Plath’s character then starts to move from neurotic to unhinged as she becomes classically mad upon giving up her job and returning home to her family – it happens – acting disturbingly at the family breakfast table itself. You can’t go round doing that at home, so she is given shock treatment to cure these outbursts of bizarre behaviour and failure to conform… The beginning of the end for some deluded artists as you don’t see many Oscar winners giving speeches about their time in the locked ward in a mental hospital. Yet it is the cure for many a ‘normal’ citizen who then takes their place in society and accepts their conventional lives or who fall through the cracks into obscurity. Plath’s tears are those of artistic failure and rejection and thus she is revered by depressives and other, I shouldn’t say, lost souls but those who live and still create art on the fringe. She is a cult.

Peerce seems to have lost the artiness of his earlier work, but it was a panned and scanned version of the movie I saw. The scorn or indifference he received for some of his big screen work would lead to him perhaps wondering: ‘Why bother?’, in terms of composition, at a time when he was perhaps turning back to television as a medium. No matter as The Bell Jar, at least, cares.

Madness had won out over the artist temporarily… and so Plath’s real-life choice instead to settle into marriage with Ted Hughes while writing, as another conventional route to artistic success, compared to the more successful well-trodden path of working for a high-profile publication and then using your connections to have your ‘hobby’ published and promoted by the very firm you work for, as well as by the rest of the bandwagon media, is a fatal decision which echoes in the book, the movie and Plath’s very life.

Sylvia Plath herself reading
Plath as confessional poet based The Bell Jar on her own experiences

Plath throws success away in The Bell Jar, due to neurosis and too much self-belief. She didn’t realise the odds were stacked against her and that wasn’t the way the publishing world worked. If Plath triumphs as an artist with the writing of The Bell Jar in real life, then it would be in terms of post-humous success and notoriety…

“Dying is an art and I do it exceptionally well,” her character says in the movie: “Of course, if you botch the job, you get thrown in the looney bin.” I guess if they can find room in one these days as society’s woes lead to mental illness becoming more prevalent as more people succumb to life’s complexities which can be both financial and emotional.

Peerce’s social conscience is keen to tackle this subject long before it has been taken seriously as it is an issue that is beginning to be faced seriously by governments and liberal minded celebrities around the world.

Plath killed herself only a month after the book’s publication in 1963 and its publication had been delayed after executives at the publishing firm described it as “disappointing, juvenile and overwrought” along with its title Diary of a Suicide. Plath had warned in interviews about the “straight-jacket” of writing but her life seemed to be marred by conforming to the straight-jacket of society beyond the walls of the places where she had been educated in the years that bookended her breakdown. She was lost beyond the walls of academia… which had fertilised her artistic dreams. Should a potential artist ever be indulged, especially from childhood? Or should such dreams be crushed or erased early on by society?

The real-life Hughes was not faithful to Sylvia Plath
The Bell Jar is acknowledged as some type of classic
Sylvia (2003) quad poster

Just to reiterate further, The Bell Jar is the fine line between madness and art. Plath summed up the madness of wanting to write and how when you are denied that dream, or it is perverted by convention, it can drive you insane. The word ‘writer’ is a personal and all-consuming concept beyond reality and within the self – and the rejection of a manuscript can move further into the personal rejection of the human being. Then there’s the critics!

Peerce’s movie evokes something of this, just as the low-budget movie version of the novel I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (1977) captured something of schizophrenia and madness. It’s a hard topic to tackle and few have succeeded because they do not really know the subject first-hand, while those who do are seen as invalid or dirty and unworthy of being able to tackle the issue on screen or aren’t allowed to be published or given the opportunity to properly share their story or an artistic rendition.

The real-life Plath suicided, possibly due to the philandering of her husband the poet Ted Hughes, who left her home with the kids the night she put her head in the gas oven … perhaps he didn’t do the dishes either.

“I’m going to be the arrow. I’m going to be the arrow that kills me,” to quote again from the movie which ends with a suicide albeit not of the Plath character herself. Yet.

Marilyn Hassett in despair as Sylvia Plath in The Bell Jar (1979)
The confessional poet’s grave

The Bell Jar is the pact of love in terms of Hassett and Peerce. It’s failure both criticallyl and financially doesn’t harm this pact and the fact it is a love child of sorts. They knew they had forged something ahead of its time and so perhaps they parted in the transitory world of human relationships and movie making after its completion.

I guess everyone has a sacrificial lamb in their past as a catalyst and sometimes it is the self.

Here Comes the Heart is the closing song by Janis Ian and in terms of art and sex even if it is only with the self and unable to be shared ‘legitimately’… It is the heart sometimes sick and alone within itself which comes to grief…. I guess by the very nature of The Bell Jar, it’s not surprising that it has yet to tackled since. There are plans for a limited tv series.

The movie Love Child (1982) followed for Peerce and the performance of Amy Madigan (1950-) was touted as possible Oscar material but her role as a petty criminal who ends up in deep trouble in a woman’s penitentiary … including getting pregnant to prison guard Beau Bridges, didn’t get the attention the producers perhaps wished for. Madigan would get a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for Twice in a Lifetime (1985). This true story is kind of like a tv movie which was the direction that Peerce was gravitating to and which would eventually consume the rest of his career. The Panavision photography looks good.

Love Child (1982) VHS cover
Yes there was something known once as CBS-Fox
Why Would I Lie (1980) quad poster

Next came the family film entitled Why Would I Lie? (1980) starring Treat Williams (1951-) in which a young boy played by Gabriel Macht (1972-), in his debut, are part of a plot about near-compulsive lying as Peerce tries to create a family comedy about a serious issue once again but it was rejected by the public and the critics. Macht was in the tv show Suits and was a guest at Megan Markle’s wedding to Prince Harry. This film seems to be missing in action and I have only seen a short clip featuring a dated song by B.J. Thomas (1942-) which at least spouts the wisdom of reading Treasure Island in its lyrics.

Along came the equally dated music of Hard to Hold (1984) which was an album and a movie which was supposed to make a big star of Rick Springfield (1949-) who had a Number One hit with the song Jessie’s Girl in 1981. There was one hit from the soundtrack titled Love Somebody which is okay and its best position in the charts was five in the States. Using a script by the writer of hit movie Flashdance (1982), the title seems to be a total double entendre but the actor and the music failed to ignite at the box office or in terms of classic hits.

Love Child (1982) trailer
Hard to Hold (1984) poster
Comedian John Belushi with one of his less harmful addictions

The screenwriter’s career was also dashed. It also didn’t help that the film was toned down for a more universal rating despite its title. I haven’t seen it so I can’t really give it a thumbs down. I saw the making of the movie where Peerce talks about how the concert footage was staged and filmed in epic style… but it was all for nought.

Peerce would give his final ‘up yours’ to the Hollywood establishment in a way with his film version of journalist Bob Woodward’s book about the life and final days of Saturday Night Live comedian John Belushi (1949-82 drug overdose) … Wired (1989) is almost like showing the negative of a film and not the actual print to speak in such terms. It isn’t recognised positively at all as a movie. The negative is also that the reality is disguised in the life of Belushi both in terms of actual names and performances having to be fictionalised and so two negatives somehow create a positive… as the negative reality of John Belushi’s life in terms of drug abuse as well as the fact he possibly really was a bit of an asshole in his final days. Along with the fact all the critics were ‘too’ negative about the film all the time and everywhere! However, the film really does look at Belushi with rose-coloured glasses no matter what his family and friends said about the production and as Peerce’s last movie it shows a total disconnect that Hollywood can have with some of its performers and creators. It is the natural follow-up to The Bell Jar.

Peerce’s movie is a fantasy which positively tells us that the spirit of John Belushi remained alive to himself – as well as in the heart of the public – for a while after his death from a heroin and cocaine speedball given to him by a female junkie and the media circus which ensued. Yet with what appears to be the repression of this film after its dismissal upon release, the spirit of John Belushi, which could have been celebrated for all time by Wired, instead remains unreleased on home entertainment sources such as Blu-ray… So, Belushi is relegated to the forgotten comics of yesteryear as Saturday Night Live is no longer a phenomenon and because those who loved him said the film was notorious because it wasn’t the ‘true’ and ‘real’ story… I don’t think it was ever meant to be.

Journalist Bob Woodward’s popular book
The poster for the movie Wired (1989)
Ray Sharkey (left) as the Guardian Angel and Michael Chiklis as John Belushi in Wired (1989)

Bob Woodward had investigated and produced his highly successful book entitled Wired in 1984… such was the tragic depth of the material that even the image of Woodward is injected into the proceedings of this fantasy movie in the segueing structure which includes fictional performances by Belushi, moments in his past life and even Belushi’s spirit caught in the netherworld with his Hispanic guardian angel played by Ray Sharkey (1952-93 AIDS). It’s as if there is some sort of hangover effect to dying prematurely as the result of an overdose after a long running drug induced haze. The true limbo of drug addiction. It is also true of the legends who just died too young in terms of the media.

Actor J.T Walsh (1943-98 heart attack) plays Woodward and in the end presides over the very reason why the actor would fall under the spell or addiction of cocaine, dope, alcohol and prescription drugs … add loose women just to name a few foibles. There is no real answer as Belushi then becomes the quintessential victim of all those addictions and thus a kind of saint and hero of the excesses of American life. At least he wasn’t a gun nut! But it is quoted that he smoked three packs of cigarettes a day…

A fake Belushi mug-shot as Jake Blues
Michael Chiklis is in some sort of limbo in the fantasy Wired (1989)
The Seinfeld set which features a VHS of Wired (1989) – shows the cult.

It is also reported that J.T. Walsh – who died because of his addiction to cigarettes, just like Belushi – was fired by Belushi’s Blues Brothers and Saturday Night Live partner and best friend Dan Aykroyd (1952-) from Loose Cannons (1990) because of his association with Wired. The true story of Belushi was somehow told in Wired and yet those who loved Belushi seemed to have lived for a time in denial about the man who would behave badly outside of their sphere and who had also alienated and abandoned them, sadly, in the end because of the psychotic side effects of cocaine addiction.

The character of Seinfeld had a copy of Wired in his VHS collection I am told in the very popular television series which shows it was already considered a cult item. I have my VHS copy also and while Peerce doesn’t necessarily go out with a masterpiece, this slightly garish celebration by those who loved Belushi but weren’t a part of the Hollywood establishment and who couldn’t afford copyright and who weren’t allowed it, or wouldn’t even dare infringement, have kind of triumphed in celebrating a beloved comic as well as a junkie who went belly up. I guess law-suits keep it in limbo just like Belushi’s character and legend as a result.

Director Larry Peerce remains underrated
Real-life couple Peerce and Hassett on The Bell Jar (1979) set

I should mention that Peerce had also directed The Big T.N.T Show (1966) which was an iconic concert film and a sequel to The T.A.M.I Show (1964). It was perhaps a reason why he was chosen to helm Hard to Hold. There’s an great list of performers from Ray Charles to Donovan to Ike and Tina Turner in The Big T.N.T Show. It was originally shot on tape and then transferred to film so I don’t know if Peerce only edited it or if he was even present at the original concert at all. Anyway, he moved on to television and made many mini-series and tv movies in the 1990s which in the end had a kind of Christian bent before his retirement when he was about 70 years of age in around 2000 or so.

An interesting collection of movies from a forgotten director with a bit more social conscience from an early age compared to others whose careers would later flourish. It began with a dynamic bang and ended in the fantasy of a drug-induced haze. Dream on… he said as the 1960s seemed to revisit a lost America anno Domini… Maybe some type of Super-intelligence will come to the rescue of the planet, along with some benevolent aliens in our gut and Earth will become the socialist dream of The Great Society it once and for all deserves to be and heals the planet… or at least they will comfort us with our screens in the meantime.

The cast of Zach Synder’s Army of the Dead (2012) turn to crime …
And they appear to be the disenfranchised cast of The Incident who sat by too long…

By the way, director Zach Snyder’s (1966-) borderline cult material of his Netflix distributed production of Army of the Dead (2021) is almost the total evolution of the cautionary tale told in Peerce’s The Incident and its docile population. In Army of the Dead, the broad sections of America’s once great society – if it ever was one at all – are now reduced to the despair and humiliation of borderline poverty-stricken Trump produced employment… They are law-abiding workers who must turn to criminal behaviour as a bond as they instead pick on innocent citizens who happen to be zombies – the deadly and evil Mr In-between of the so-called undead… not dead and not really alive, nor terribly bright otherwise. This seems to be the citizens of The Incident finding revenge for being disenfranchised after standing by and seeing themselves being forgotten and attacked… and yet the zombies are just as disenfranchised themselves! This blurring of the lines in America’s political and wealth schism remains a top-rating and often box office phenomenon in America to this day, as American citizens happily turn their guns on each other in the possible wastelands that are parts of that nation today.

Director Zach Snyder

It was all created through the zombie lore of George A. Romero (1940-2017 lung cancer), which has now received a tweak in terms of zombie legend and their mythos. It should be remembered that Romero’s film Night of the Living Dead (1968) came out a year after The Incident (1967) and was being filmed just before Bobby Kennedy’s assassination. Peerce’s America had come full circle instantly with the release of Night of the Living Dead which gave individuals the right to shoot their fellow citizens or bash their brains in without fear of feeling their own guilt or judicial retribution. The killing in zombie movies is legitimised murder without conscience on a mass scale without care if it is even woman or child. There seemed to be no bad karma in killing a zombie, even if it was your best friend… perhaps a touch if it was a close friend or family member, which added to the appeal of the zombie tradition still without the guilt. Whether these popular movies and tv series remain a release valve for Alphas who want to kill, or nerds who want to prove themselves with guns, remains cinema and television’s cross to bear as zombies such as me tend to watch the Romero films, in particular, almost indiscriminately. Myself, like Snyder, revere Dawn of the Dead (1978) and the director even remade it in total homage in 2004.

Lest we forget the Christian horror movie lover’s built in notion of actually surviving Judgment Day and the resurrection of the dead on planet Earth. Even if heaven is promised, you can kill zombies indiscriminately and end up going there – but you’re still not in a hurry as it possibly doesn’t exist either… The survival instinct then kicks in as you defy the possible odds that your body will only end up a zombie and was nothing but a vessel containing a brain. There may be a God but heaven isn’t necessarily guaranteed. Plus you kind of save your own soul and that of others if you commit suicide after you’ve been bitten by an infected zombie!! It’s all a question for the soul to debate with other souls! It is only a movie after all which is part of the screen’s attempt to alleviate suffering and help create heaven of Earth if only in bite size pieces! … But not everyone has the riches while many live in unrelieved poverty and some turn to crime…. and we’re back to the lost yet hopefully not yet scuttled socialist dream again. Love ya work, Larry!

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