Celebrating Life, Death, and Ricky Gervais in GHOST TOWN (2008)

 

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Brit funny man Ricky Gervais is known for his brutal humor, as the controversial host of the Golden Globes, as the creator/writer/star of the original (2001 British version) “The Office,” and for his outspoken stances on atheism and animal rights. On his comedy styling, he never holds back and everyone is equally vulnerable to his verbal barbs.

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For a man who has very firm beliefs on the after-life (lack thereof in his case), Gervais has taken on the subject more than once in his career. In David Koepp’s GHOST TOWN (2008), Ricky is perfectly cast as the anti-social, easily annoyed, and cynical dentist Bertram Pincus. He’s the sort that will go out of his way to avoid social pleasantries to a dishonest and unkind effort. He goes through a life-altering experience when he comes out of a colonoscopy seeing ghosts. Turns out, Bertram discovers he was dead for seven minutes during the procedure and this has left him in a unique position where he is the only one who can see and chat with the dead.

Here is an example of Dr. Pincus’s typical difficulty in being ‘sociable’ with others, as he answers the pre-colonoscopy questionnaire:

Hospital Nurse: “Date of birth?”

Bertram Pincus: “Why?”

Hospital Nurse: “What day were you born?”

Bertram Pincus: “No, I understood the question. Why do you need to know that?”

Hospital Nurse: “Let’s leave it blank. Weight?”

Bertram Pincus: “Last night or this morning?”

Hospital Nurse: “You pick.”

Bertram Pincus: “Hundred eighty-two pounds.”

Hospital Nurse: “Number of alcoholic beverages consumed per week?”

Bertram Pincus: “Why do you need to know that?”

Hospital Nurse: “Well, they want to know.”

Bertram Pincus: “Well, I’m sure “they” want to know a lot of things, but I don’t want my intimate details auctioned off to the highest bidder, willy-nilly.”

Hospital Nurse: “I’ll put zero. Marital status?”

Bertram Pincus: “Pass.”

Hospital Nurse: “Profession?”

Bertram Pincus: “Irrelevant.”

Hospital Nurse: “Food allergies?”

Bertram Pincus: “I’m not going to be eating here.”

Hospital Nurse: “Are you allergic to sticking plaster?”

Bertram Pincus: “What a ludicrous question. I’m not answering any more of these, really.”

Hospital Nurse: “Do you smoke?”

Bertram Pincus: “Stop it.”

Hospital Nurse: “Do you wear dentures?”

Bertram Pincus: “Madame, listen.”

Hospital Nurse: “When was the last time you ate?”

Bertram Pincus: “A pertinent question at last. Yesterday, lunchtime. Thanks for asking. I had a tuna sandwich. Toast was soggy, but…”

Hospital Nurse: “Did you drink the laxative solution?”

Bertram Pincus: “Yes.”

Hospital Nurse: “Did it work?”

Bertram Pincus: “It was as advertised.”

Hospital Nurse: “Did you evacuate your bowls?”

Bertram Pincus: “I drank copious amounts of drain-cleaning fluid. What followed was fait accompli.”

Hospital Nurse: “Sir, what I’m asking is if you were…”

Bertram Pincus: “I shat. Okay? Good. Again and again. It was like a terrorist attack down there in the darkness and the chaos, the running and the screaming, okay?”

Hospital Nurse: “Fine with me.”

Bertram Pincus: “Good.”

Bertram Pincus: “Gross invasion of my privacy, this.”

Bertram hates people, dead or alive, so this poses an issue when he meets his neighbor Gwen (Tea Leoni), who is the polar opposite. Gwen is grieving the recent loss of her husband (Greg Kinnear as Frank) but her true nature is energetically bubbling with life.

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Frank is a sleazeball of a husband/ghost who cheated on his wife when he was alive and feels threatened now that his wife is potentially getting serious with a new man (Billy Campbell as Richard). Selfishly, he asks Bertram to get close to Gwen to help thwart her moving on, while threatening to have a multitude of ghosts all over NYC pester him if he doesn’t comply.

This film is essentially a formula romcom, but with a ghostly twist. As we watch Bertram fall for Gwen, we see him embrace kindness and shed his lack of humanity. He learns the life lesson in the beauty of unselfishly helping others.

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I can’t help but think that Ricky Gervais is secretly Irish. There’s a joke amongst my Irish rooted family that we look at death differently. Irish are known for embracing death, sometimes through poetry and song or via dark humor, as a celebration of life. We are unusually comfortable with the topic.

Not that Gervais wrote this screenplay. Director David Koepp (a popular screenwriter of modern classics like Jurassic Park) co-wrote this with John Kamps. This role suits Gervais well. As we watch Pincus evolve into a better human being, Gervais showcases his knack for making audiences laugh as easily as cry. The irony is of course that atheist Ricky Gervais is perfect for this heavenly role that focuses on the after-life head on.

With other projects since this role, Gervais has returned recently to a theme that tackles life after death. No ghosts or heavenly assertions, Gervais’s “After Life” (2 seasons, 2019 – 2020) on Netflix explores the life of a man in mourning, whose singular joy came from his recently deceased wife. He dwells in her memories, through flashbacks and home videos, and thoughts of suicide are frequent. He clings to his bitter, anti-social wit with a myriad of colorful characters that intersect in his life. Yet gradually he begins to see that life may be worth living when he becomes invested in their lives with small acts of kindness. This is especially true in his loyalty to his dog.

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With both of his roles in GHOST TOWN (2008) and “After Life,” Ricky Gervais displays a masterful ability to make us laugh and deeply touch our hearts, while centering on a topic that many find typically not very entertaining. Death is usually taboo in comedy, if addressed in earnest. Which he manages to walk that fine line of death in sincerity and comedic lines that induces snorting out loud. No easy task. As the best and generally most controversial comics often do, a brutally honest approach, with a mirror held up to society, is often the funniest.


*This piece was written in memory of Kathleen Feindt-Bailey (1960 – 2020), the recently passed wife of Steve Bailey, a friend, fellow blogger, and aficionado of classic comedy. See his work at: https://moviemovieblogblogii.wordpress.com/ or the The Life Goes On Blogathon, Hosted by MovieMovieBlogBlogII.

 

 

THAT TOUCH OF MINK (1962)

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Doris Day was 40 years old when Delbert Mann’s THAT TOUCH OF MINK (1962) premiered, cementing her ridiculous (yet popular) reputation as the “world’s oldest professional virgin.” At this point, she was flourishing in her career within a string of crowd-pleasing sex comedies and rom-coms from the late 1950s that continued into the 1960s. THAT TOUCH OF MINK followed a sure-fire formula with successful films like PILLOW TALK (1959) and LOVER COME BACK (1961), co-starring her good friend Rock Hudson and reliable sidekick, Tony Randall.

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Replacing Rock in this take is… wait for it… my favorite dashing hunk of the silver screen, Cary Grant as “Philip Shayne.” Replacing Randall as his second banana here is Gig Young as “Roger.” Replacing Thelma Ritter’s wisecracking maid from PILLOW TALK, or the more subtle spin of Ann B. Davis (yes, Brady Bunch’s family maid “Alice”) as her secretary in LOVER COME BACK, is the wonderfully sardonic roommate, Audrey Meadows, “Connie.” There are more recognizable character actors sprinkled about such as the creepy clerk from the unemployment office, “Everett Beasley” perfectly and hilariously portrayed by John Astin.

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Speaking of unemployment, that’s why I’m discussing this film. When Steve over at Movie Movie Blog Blog announced his “Unemployment Blogathon,” I immediately thought of this film. In the opening scene, Doris Day (my favorite actress, in case I failed to mention) as “Cathy Timberlake” makes her way to the unemployment office to file her weekly claim, with a job interview scheduled to follow. While filing her unemployment benefits claim, she runs into persistent obstacles from Beasley’s (John Astin) less than subtle pick up lines and sexual harassment. She thwarts his advances only to later have a long limousine splash her head-to-toe via a large mud puddle, as she waits to cross a busy NYC corner. Nothing makes for a solid first impression on a job interview than being drenched in mud. It’s wealthy business tycoon, Mr. Shayne’s (Cary Grant) limo, and he doesn’t stop.

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Frustrated, Cathy vents to her friend and roommate Connie (Audrey Meadows), who works at the automat across the street from Mr. Shayne’s. Spotting Cathy from his office window, Shayne sends his executive assistant Roger (Gig Young) over to apologize on his behalf. As you can imagine, this hands-off approach doesn’t fly with feisty Cathy.

Cathy Timberlake: How would you feel? Here I am, he practically runs me down and then drives right away! And doesn’t have the decency to apologize himself. Furthermore I have a job interview and have to go like this. He doesn’t care. 
Roger: Ohhh… 
Cathy Timberlake: You know what I’d like to do? 
Roger: Throw the money in his face? 
Cathy Timberlake: Exactly! I’d like to throw that money right in his face. 
Roger: Would you? 
Cathy Timberlake: Yes, I would. 
Roger: I’ve waited seven years for this moment. You come with me! 

She marches over to give Shayne a piece of her mind, with Roger cheering her on. But with one look at the breathtaking Shayne, her fire has fizzled and she suddenly turns doe-eyed, love-at-first-sight, and weak in the knees.

She proceeds to jet set around with him all day, as she charms his VIP business clientele. Impressed by her beauty as well as her business networking savvy, Shayne proposes a trip to Bermuda. Pretending to be more sophisticated than her “girl from Upper Sandusky” image, Cathy accepts despite her roommate’s discouragement. Things go rocky from there, as Cathy is nowhere near as cosmopolitan as she pretends to be. Certainly, not without a wedding ring first.

A funny scene revolving around unemployment occurs when Cathy lands a job in an office that appears to sort credit card accounts and billing. Her gig doesn’t last for very long. Upon discovery that it really wasn’t her own savvy that secured her position, but rather her Shayne connection, she’s infuriated. Again. In her rage, she randomly starts punching buttons on a huge sorting machine and marches out, unaware of her subsequent damage. In assessing the damage, Philip Shayne: “The Four Horsemen now have a riding companion. There’s War, Famine, Death, Pestilence, and Miss Timberlake!” There are few things more charming than Doris Day on-screen percolating frustration and anger.

You should note that these sex comedies from the 1960s played it safe despite the majority of the plots centered on sex, or the struggles around sex. Films like this were the bubble-gummed twist on an alternative to the ‘free love’ sexual revolution, which was blossoming just around the corner. Also, it may be tough for a modern, woke, #MeToo audience to watch them with today’s perspectives and not be aghast by the overt sexism. But keep in mind, even back then, they knew this was closer to parody than reality. (If you want to read more on this sex comedy sub genre from this era, take a look at my thoughts over at Classic Movie Hub: “Sex Comedies of Sixties”)

As for these caveman-like standards for gender equality, and societal norms for things like pre-marital sex, it’s a movie magic to imagine a vibrant, talented, and intelligent beauty like Doris Day approaching 40 years old playing the virginal, naive “girl” who is intended to be in her early twenties. Even Cathy and Connie’s apartment set-up feels more like a college dorm room, with their twin beds crammed into a shared room. Additionally, Cary Grant was 18 years her senior, and 58 years old when THAT TOUCH OF MINK was released in theaters. But do we notice or care about such glaring age issues? Not with the gorgeous, age-defying likes of Doris Day and Cary Grant. Such pesky truths melt away from the very moment our gaze first greets them.

An essential tool in this film’s charm box is an immaculate sense of style- from the set designs to the stunning wardrobes. The film delights us with a fashion show, too. Three-time Oscar nominee (including for this film) George Milo was the set decorator, and was notable for his work on several Hitchcock classics. The art direction came from two of the best in the industry, Robert Clatworthy (nominated for 4 career Oscars including Hitchcock’s PSYCHO and this film, plus a win) and Alexander Golitzen (nominated for 11 career Oscars, with 4 wins including SPARTACUS). The costume designer was Rosemary Odell, who was contracted to Universal from 1945 to 1967. She was adept in handling a variety of demands as she worked on westerns, noirs, and comedies from over a hundred pictures, including CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954), TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962), and horror-comedies like Abbott and Costello monster flicks.

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But here, the gowns and wardrobe pieces are as impeccable as Day and Grant themselves. Doris Day was a standout for her stunning fashions, and there’s no doubt Cary was known as the best dressed man in Hollywood for decades. He took a heavy hand in advising Day on her apparel and contributed his own personal books to enhance the set for key scenes. For example, he was the one who chose her raincoat, from an ad he saw, and arranged to get it in person. He was very meticulous in this regard.

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In her autobiography, Doris Day wrote: “Of all the people I performed with, I got to know Cary Grant least of all. He is a completely private person, totally reserved, and there is no way into him. Our relationship on That Touch of Mink (1962) was amicable but devoid of give-and-take…Not that he wasn’t friendly and polite – he certainly was. But distant. Very distant. But very professional – maybe the most professional, exacting actor I ever worked with. In the scenes we played, he concerned himself with every little detail: clothes, sets, production values, the works. Cary even got involved in helping to choose the kind of mink I was slated to wear in the film.” (source: imdb)

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The only problem the two faced on set was that each insisted a preference for a right profile for closeups. Cary Grant was the true professional and conceded. Not exactly the warm and fuzzies felt from the on-screen chemistry of leading men like Rock Hudson or James Garner, which better suited Day’s naturally warm and approachable persona behind the scenes.

Meanwhile, Grant assisted Gig Young in preparing for his role by suggesting he play up the neurotic obsessive character akin to Tony Randall’s similar roles, which worked well. Young often played the more serious or romantic types but I enjoyed him so much in this comic bit as Roger that I wish he did more like it. Tragically, Gig Young’s life ended in a murder-suicide with his fifth wife, 31 year-old Kim Schmidt, only 3 weeks after their wedding in 1978. As a big “Honeymooners”‘ fan, Grant rallied to get Audrey Meadows. I’m personally grateful because she’s delightful here as the protective pal with her maternal “honey” catch phrase on a loop.

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What does all of this have to do with unemployment? You’ll have to watch the film to see for yourself. Suffice to say, she may have started at the unemployment line, but she landed up getting the job she really wanted. Despite a few items here and there that don’t quite round the bases like PILLOW TALK, Mann’s THAT TOUCH OF MINK still packs an enduring punch with slapstick fare, style and solid performances.

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Fangirling Doris Day

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My love for Doris Mary Ann von Kappelhoff is no secret. As a classic film obsessive, I’m often asked who my favorite (male and female) movie stars are. With zero hesitation, Cary Grant and Doris Day. Even her name reflects that Day was destined to be star. Her mother gave her the name “Doris” after the silent film star Doris Kenyon. Later, “Day” was inspired from her early years singing with big band leader greats like Barney Rapp, who suggested she take the Day surname from the song, “Day By Day.” (Take a listen here: https://youtu.be/AqFfe6Y97Yc )

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Dancing was her initial attempt at stardom. She even won a $500 contest that routed her to Hollywood, but those dancing dreams dashed away the day before her trip, due to a car accident which seriously injured her. So her mother encouraged her to switch focus to singing. This landed her on the radio, followed by the concert stage, with bandleader greats like Bob Crosby and Les Brown and His Band of Renown. By the mid ’40s, her sultry yet approachable voice was quite popular, especially with the WW2 troops, and reaching the charts with number one singles such as “Sentimental Journey.” The time had come to transition that magical songbird to Hollywood musicals.

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She was a natural talent on screen. There was something so vibrant, so magnetic about her presence. As a novice to Hollywood in 1947, with her already seasoned voice combined with her stunning beauty, she was a standout even amongst the most shining constellations of stars. Beyond the colorfully light fare of musicals with the likes of Jack Carson, Doris sprinkled in more dramatic roles. In the ’50s, Day took on darker, juicier roles like the jazz singer paired with an obsessive Kirk Douglas in YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN (1950), as Ginger Rogers’ sister embroiled with the KKK in STORM WARNING (1951), as a desperate mother, along with Jimmy Stewart as the dad, fighting to save the life of their kidnapped son in Hitchcock’s 2nd attempt at THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1956), and as the abused singer Ruth Etting in LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME (1955).

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THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1956) helped solidify the featured song “Que Sera, Sera” as the reigning signature song of her career. Meanwhile, LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME stands as the most memorable of her dramatic roles. Unfortunately, this is in part due to the emotional pains Day suffered while filming the intense scenes of abuse paired with James Cagney. Day and Cagney were only performing roles of course, but during such pivotal scenes Doris couldn’t help but be painfully reminded of her first husband, jazz trombonist Al Jorden, who violently beat her while she was pregnant with her only child, Terry.

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As audiences said goodbye to the ’50s and mega musicals grew out of favor, Doris reinvented herself yet again with sex comedies in the 1960s. Many of these comedies are considered the most memorable of her career to this day. In films like PILLOW TALK (1959), LOVER COME BACK (1961), and THE THRILL OF IT ALL (1963), Day reflected society’s changing times as an empowered, talented woman with a career. Many of these films continued to focus on the battle of the sexes, sometimes as a savvy single gal in the workforce, sometimes as a mom juggling multiple roles while struggling to seek greater balance of power. And no one did all of this, while also projecting a powerhouse of stunning fashions, quite like Doris Day.

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Her career started as a jazz/big band singer in 1939 at the age of seventeen. On the Columbia records label, she created over 650 recordings within 2 decades from 1947 to 1967.

Day co-starred with some of the biggest names in the Golden Age of Hollywood during this time. Rock Hudson, Cary Grant, James Garner, Jack Lemmon, and Rod Taylor are just a few. With every role, and every A-list leading man, she shined even brighter. As for her reputation that she was typecast as the virginal girl-next-door, I wholeheartedly disagree. She was following the code handed down to her just like all the other actresses of her time. If you doubt her ability to exude a breathy, come-hither sex appeal, I highly suggest you watch her sex comedies again. (Or, schedule an appointment with your optometrist and cardiologist.)

Before I move on from my fangirling nirvana, I must point out what I believe to be her greatest strength: her instinct for physical comedy and masterful comedic timing.

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I don’t think Doris Day receives anywhere near the credit she wholly deserves for her innate sense of comedy. To me, it always feels like a fresh, new experience to witness her reactions, her interplay with fellow cast performances, her animated facial gestures. Absolutely- and hilariously- brilliant, every time. How is this even possible? I believe the answer lies in her authenticity. Her charisma was straight from the heart.

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Doris Day made her final feature film in 1968, co-starring with Brian Keith in WITH SIX YOU GET EGG ROLL. It’s such a funny and heartwarming movie that reflects very realistic challenges of blending families, a subject I’m personally familiar. Day’s career turned to television appearances, including her own show, “The Doris Day Show” (1968 – 1973).

Sadly, her main reason for even doing the show was because her manager/3rd husband Martin Melcher died, and upon his death, Day discovered he had made arrangements to terminate her Warner Brothers contract and start this TV gig, completely unknown to her. Tragically, she also discovered that Melcher, along with his business partner Jerome Rosenthal, had squandered over $20 million of Day’s earnings over the entire 17-year period of Melcher’s marriage to Doris. She had no choice but to do the show to earn back her money.

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Her strength and tenacity, in addition to her many assets, is impressive. But more so, my love fest with her also stems from those glimmers of a connection to my idol. I don’t share ANY of her talents. Not even close. But I love her fashionista goddess ways. I love that she had freckles. I love her deep passion for animals. (Yes, I belong to the Doris Day Animal Foundation.) I love her lifelong friendship with Rock. And I love that she was a survivor. She survived… a father that left/ran off with her mother’s friend when she was young, abuse from her first husband, death of her child, financial whirlwinds of great success to deeply in debt and back to into the black again, and four lousy marriages with men that clearly didn’t deserve her.

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In my own way, I felt a connection to Doris Day that went beyond admiration. I know many are mourning our darling of screen and song. To me, her light has not faded. Her gifts she bestowed to us continues to shine brightly. So, I’ll pop in my favorite Doris film, then play one of my Doris Day vinyls. See you on the flip side, Doris. I bet Rock is teasingly calling you Eunice right now.

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