The many lives of Don Murray
by David Lamble
I confess there was a Don Who? moment that flashed across the cerebral bin where memories of the 20,000 or so films I've watched are stored. Don Murray? Oh yes, Advise and Consent, Bus Stop, The Hoodlum Priest. But credit the programming elves at the Roxie Theater with concocting a lovely 14-picture Don Murray weekend marathon, kicking off Fri., July 11, at 7:30 p.m. with the Fred Zinnemann-directed A Hatful of Rain, and ending on a romantic high with the Joshua Logan-directed Marilyn Monroe vehicle Bus Stop, Sun., July 13, at 9:15 p.m.
When I say "14-picture," I should qualify that claim with the small-print warning that Murray's resume is studded with TV turns – edgy TV, mind you, like an episode from ABC's 26-week Western The Outcasts, a 1968-69 series that was reportedly axed for its hyperviolence. The weekend will be punctuated by archival chats with Murray, still sprightly in his 80s, recalling his tenure as "America's least-remembered movie star."
Advise and Consent (1962) It's June 1962, less than a week past my 18th birthday, and my New York Times-employed Uncle Bill treats me to the big Broadway opening week of an Otto Preminger political warhorse that was my introduction to queers on the big screen. Austrian-born producer/director Preminger never did anything halfway. If Allen Drury's mega-hit novel (68 weeks on the Times' bestseller list) had a snap-crackle-and-pop climax where a closeted United States Senator (Murray's most memorable mainstream role) slits his throat after being threatened with exposure, then Preminger made sure his shame would ignite a lurid third-act moment that some would think distasteful, even grotesque. That is Sen. Brigham Anderson's trip to a purple grotto-style gay bar, where he encounters a long-ago college fling, John Granger (Ray Shaff). Okay, you've read Vito Russo's autopsy on this old chestnut in The Celluloid Closet, now experience why Preminger's widescreen scandal-trolling mini-epic (139 minutes) melodrama today reads like both a 1962 Washington, DC Who's Who (with real senators and congressmen as background "extras") and a prescient look into the not-so-distant future, when an ideologically polarized capital would mimic the film's state-of-art logo in flipping its dome.
A deal-clinching touch is a classic Preminger all-star cast, with screen/theatre veteran Henry Fonda silky smooth as "the egghead" with a "commie" past, Robert Leffingwell; teen sensation Eddie Hodges as the cool lefty's jam-sandwich-making son; queer off-screen British actor Charles Laughton, having studied Mississippi's John Stennis to get the swampy drawl of the implacable Leffingwell foe, Sen. Seabright Cooley; the avuncular, Canadian-born Walter Pidgeon as the designated adult in the chamber, Senate Majority Leader Bob Munson; a virtually unrecognizable and oh-so-young Betty White as the feisty Sen. Bessie Adams; a party-throwing "hostess with the mostess" in a career revival for Gene Tierney; a shrewd, conniving President, nicely essayed by Franchot Tone, old before his time; a genial everyman impersonation from Lew Ayres as a Vice President likely modeled on Harry S. Truman; a fast-lane boozehound senator impersonated by then-JFK brother-in-law Peter Lawford; a properly reptilian right-wing bogeyman given a gratingly aggressive energy by newcomer George Gizzard; Hollywood vet Burgess Meredith as Cooley's beaten-down cooperative witness; and rounding out the devil's brew, veteran comedy maven Paul Ford (TV's Sgt. Bilko) as Bob Munson's eyes-and-ears assistant. One of Preminger's sly tricks is concealing the party labels, so hard-core Republican Pidgeon can don the titular hero's cloak as the philandering but thoroughly decent Bob Munson, the man I confess both my teen self and my grouchy elder-critic self embrace as our personal hero. (7/13, 6:30 p.m.)
Shake Hands with the Devil (1959) For those who have forgotten just how involving a Hollywood-spun political potboiler can be, director Michael Anderson plants us convincingly in the familiar territory of Ireland's "Troubles" with the help of a late-career messianic turn from James Cagney as an Irish Republican Army (IRA) guerilla leader by night, Mr. Chips-style medical school lecturer by day. Murray's low-key grounded star wattage deftly conveys the confusion and moral icks experienced by an Irish-American kid doing a memorial stint in his dead dad's alma mater. The tension rises as Murray's man-in-the-middle is given a cook's tour of British atrocities against his people that strips away all his arguments for staying neutral. This one is effective and dramatically chilling as an IRA "recruiting film." Michael Redgrave, Glynis Johns and Cyril Cusack round out an impeccable supporting cast filmed where it happened.
The Hoodlum Priest (1961) Director Irvin Kershner makes fine use of the screen debut of blond boy Keir Dullea (2001: A Space Odyssey) as a teen delinquent whose path crosses that of Murray's crusading do-gooder priest. The creakiness of this early-60s "problem film"'s agit-prop style is tempered by some fine declarative performances, especially Murray's best-ever screen argument for saving wayward kids. (7/13, 3 p.m.)
Bus Stop (1956) This barnburner from director Joshua Logan caught me off-guard. Marilyn Monroe, fresh from the Actors' Studio, steals all her moments so seamlessly that you don't even consider looking for a cop. In the role that made him an icy-cool male lead (1955-62), Murray puts out a Grand Coulee Dam's worth of horny cowboy wattage, with veteran sidekick Arthur O'Connell subtly effective as uncle to a young man who is as hard to saddle as the rodeo steers and horses he sits astride. Chemistry is everything, and Murray probably recalls his clinches with Monroe with vastly greater affection that her Some Like It Hot co-star Tony Curtis, with his famous tag-line: "like kissing Hitler." (7/13, 9:15 p.m.)
The Confessions of Tom Harris (1966-72) If anything sums up the odd treats of the Murray Marathon, it's this tempestuous melodrama set partially in a rough-and-tumble amateur boxing world. Co-directors John Derek & David Nelson did the first draft, and actor Murray made finishing it his personal passion for six more years. (7/12, 10:15 p.m.)