Wednesday, January 25, 2012

façade: James Farentino

For some elusive reason, the recent passing of James Farentino (1938-2012) has me haunted.

I guess from where I sat, he had everything - good looks, talent, you name it - and yet throughout his bumpy career, he remained...

an almost leading man.

He was married four times - most famously to Elizabeth Ashely (before she hooked up with George Peppard) and also, for quite a while, to Michele Lee. In their own way, Farentino and Lee were the Lunt and Fontanne of the '70s, only groovier, natch. He was also one of the many actors who challenge Marlon Brando and dare to attempt "A Streetcar Named Desire" - in 1973 - for which he received a Theatre World Award.

But, movies, which should have been his prime venue, somehow evaded his appeal.

News of his death immediately brought to mind two films, both lost of course, that he made in the late 1960s when screen stardom seemed within reach - Brian G. Hutton's "The Pad - and How to Use It" (1966) and Fred Coe's "Me, Natalie" (1969). And both are quite wonderful.

Let's start with "Me, Natalie," a vehicle for Patty Duke which should have rehabilitated her professional reputation after the disaster of Mark Robson's "Valley of the Dolls" (1967) but didn't. Too bad. The film is a minor gem and Duke tears into her role of an ugly duckling with the kind of passion that wins Oscars - or used to.

But she did receive a well-deserved Golden Globe for her efforts.

Duke is Natalie Miller, a girl with what she perceives to be a nose problem. Her nose isn't big, but it has a hump - and this is the source of all her problems, her self-deprecating humor and her general discontent. When she moves out of her parents' home and into her own apartment, Natalie finally comes into her own. For one thing, she meets Farentino's handsome David, whose attention gives her the confidence she needs but whose presence creates a different set of problems.

Farentino, pictured in a scene from the movie above, is effortlessly dashing as a guy who seems too good to be true - and is.

Surrounding Duke, in addition to Farentino, is a stellar New York cast - Nancy Marchand and Phil Sterling as her doting parents; Martin Balsam as her understanding uncle; Solome Jens as Natalie's co-worker at a club questionably called the Topless Bottom Club; Elsa Lanchester as her eccentric landlady; then-newcomers Bob Balaban, Catherine Burns and Deborah Winters as assorted denizens in Natalie's universe, and most curious of all, Al Pacino in his first film role as a jerk who uses Natalie.

"Me, Natalie" was produced by Stanley Shapiro, who came up with the story (fleshed out by scenarist A. Martin Zweiback) and who also wrote a couple of Doris Day's popular '60s comedies. The director, Fred Coe, meanwhile. began life as a Broadway producer - he oversaw Anne Bancroft on stage in "The Miracle Worker" and "Two for the Seesaw" and produced the 1962 film version of the former - but was active in TV direction in the late 1940s and throughout the '50s. (He also produced the classic "Mr. Peepers" series.) Coe made an auspicious movie directing debut in 1965 with "A Thousand Clowns," followed by "Me, Natalie." He also directed the 1971 TV movie version of "All the Way Home," based on a play (by way of the James Agee novel) that he produced on Broadway.

Then there's "The Pad - and How to Use it" - and how it got to the screen.

Here goes... In 1964, two delightful one-act plays by Peter Shaffer opened on Broadway, titled "The Public Eye"/"The Private Ear."

Or perhaps, it was the other way around.

Shaffer also wrote "Equus," "Amadeus," "The Royal Hunt of the Sun" and "Five Finger Exercise," all plays eventually made into movies. Universal, which was busy in those days scouting Broadway productions, immediately snapped up the film rights to "The Public Eye"/"The Private Ear" and then didn't know what to do with two one-act comedies. Both were eventually made into very pleasing, if little-seen movies.

"The Private Ear" was produced for film by Ross Hunter in 1966 - an atypical excursion for him into small-scale moviemaking. Hutton was hired to direct and the film was eventually retitled "The Pad and How to Use it" - a title obviously inspired by Richard Lester's successful "The Knack and How to Get It."

The thin but appealing plot - about a shy man who finally has the nerve to approach a woman while at a concert, only to lose her to his more attreactive friend - provided material in which the film's young stars truly excelled: Britain's Brian Bedford as the nerd, Farentino as the hunky friend and especially Julie Sommars as the woman.

Essentially a glorified TV movie that was released, albeit briefly, to theaters, "The Pad and How to Use It" deserves to be rescued and seen.

Farentino had nothing to do with the companion piece, "The Public Eye" which was finally filmed in 1972. It had better luck than "The Pad."

Well, sort of. "The Public Eye," its title retained for the screen, was adapted for the screen by Shaffer himself and directed by the estimable Sir Carol Reed. (The film was titled "Follow Me" in all other countries.)

In it, a dull British banker named Charles (Michael Jayston) hires Julian Cristo (Topol), an odd, eccentric private detective, to follow his American wife, Belinda (Mia Farrow), whom he suspects is cheating on him. When Belinda becomes aware that she is being followed, she's flattered by the attention and starts to play games with her potential paramour.

The private eye figures everything out: The wife isn't unfaithful at all, but merely looking for something that her husband isn't providing - something that she now seems to be getting from the detective, of all people.

"The Public Eye" made it into theaters - but just barely. Universal opened in unannounced and without any advance critics' screenings. For a while, it popped up occasionally on the Sundance Film Channel.

"Me, Natalie," "The Pad" and "The Public Eye" all remain teasingly inaccessible. It took the sad news of James Farentino to restore their fleeting pleasures to my memory. And to remind me of the actor himself.


Alexandra McHugh said...

"The Public Eye" - Lovely little movie

kaachua said...

looking for a dvd of follow me or the public eye as it was called in the usa. is there anyway i can procure it.

pls reply at will appreciate your help.

joe baltake said...


To the best of my knowledge, "The Public Eye"/"Follow Me" has never been put on home video in any format. I have two suggestions though.

1) As the film has been shown (infrequently) - under its original American title, "The Public Eye" - on the Sundance channel, perhaps someone can tape it for you if and when it airs again, if you don't have access to it

2) Check out eBay. There are a lot of obscure titles available there, usually taped off commercial TV.

Good luck

Lucas said...

You mention Brian G. Hutton. He's usually dismissed in film circles. I wonder how many people who do diss or dismiss him without actually knowing his work, or perhaps having watched some of his films casually and not considered them very much. Auteurist hierarchies tend always to be hard at work, and we want to separate directors into categories of auteurists or hacks, but someone like Hutton shows that there is a lot of room to argue for a space in between.

joe baltake said...

Yes, Lucas, I wouldn't brand Hutton either an auteurist or hack. There's a lot of wiggle room between those two extremes. He was more of a journeyman filmmaker - usually a hired hand - who got the job done.

jan said...

You've really jogged my memory with all of these film. I fondly remember "The Public Eye" but can barely recall "The Pad" or "Natalie." I must be getting old.

jbryant said...

Though I've seen only two of Brian G. Hutton's nine films (WHERE EAGLES DARE and THE FIRST DEADLY SIN -- not sure how I've managed to miss KELLY'S HEROES all these years), he's fascinated me for a while now. According to imdb, he quit the film biz and became a plumber, though this seems to be an error (sometimes he reportedly performed maintenance on properties he owned, leading tenants to mistake him for a plumber). There doesn't seem to be much info on him out there. I'd like to see the interview he did last year for Cinema Retro magazine's issue about KELLY'S HEROES; maybe that would shed some light.

gary said...

loved that you unearthed The Christian Licorice Store and Me Natalie!

ben said...

The Public Eye is available for streaming on Netflix