Woog's World / When our town became Tinseltown
Published 12:03 pm, Sunday, February 24, 2013
On Sunday night, much of America will tune in to the Academy Awards. People whose total experience in filmmaking consists of paying $15 for an SUV-sized pack of Jujubes will speak authoritatively about every nominee for Best Picture, Best Sound Effects and Best Best Boy.
It's been a while since Westport stood in the movie-making spotlight. (Not counting Harvey Weinstein, which is not easy to do.) But back in the day -- the day being "Westport as an artists' colony" -- we were home to movie stars. Just as interestingly, we were where movie stars made movies.
The granddaddy of them all is "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit." That man was of course Gregory Peck. He played the role of Tom Rath, a Connecticut-to-New York commuter working in public relations for a television network. Tom had to choose between becoming a "company man," or living his own, authentic life. Some of the most memorable scenes were shot on Westport's Main Street and the train station.
The plot is all very 1950s. Were the movie made today, the gray flannel suit would be replaced by blue jeans and Bluetooth. The PR executive would be a consultant. And the man might just as well be a woman. (She would probably wear a suit, but it would not be gray flannel.)
A decade or so later, "The Swimmer" caused waves. Based on a story by John Cheever -- who knew a thing or two about suburbia -- it starred Burt Lancaster as Neddy Merrill, a man who jogged across a valley that closely resembles Fairfield County. As he stopped at each pool, his life story unfolded.
If "The Swimmer" were filmed in Westport again, four and a half decades later, Neddy Merrill would have a much tougher time. For one thing, he'd find far more pools to swim in. He'd also probably want to stop in hot tubs and spas. Plus, the deer fences surrounding every back yard would slow him down considerably.
On the other hand, the neighbors he encounters would probably not just sit and chat, as they did in the 1960s. They'd all be at their summer homes.
A few years later, "The Stepford Wives" was filmed here. If "The Swimmer" could plausibly be about any upper class county, "The Stepford Wives" took aim directly at us. Decades later, everyone knows the plot -- and not just because of the 2004 remake. We know all about it because "Stepford Wives" has become part of our language. The term is synonymous with soulless, plastic suburban women. They're robots, and not just metaphorically.
Fortunately, we've come a long way, baby. In 2013, Katharine Ross's character would have plenty to do. She'd churn out spreadsheets for volunteer organizations, organize a campaign to eliminate gun violence, and compete in a Super Ironman.
Notice I said "and," not "or." Today's Stepford Wives do it all.
Two lesser known, but also shot-in-Westport, films were "Manny's Orphans" and "Here Come the Tigers." Both were directed by Sean Cunningham, in the brief period between his sex-blood-and-gore efforts, and his later stardom with "Friday the 13th" and "Spring Break."
"Manny's Orphans" and "Tigers" were "Bad News Bears" knockoffs. Using local kids -- and (ahem) me -- the underdogs miraculously (what a surprise!) knock off the more talented, better coached, better uniformed favorites in the sports of soccer and baseball, respectively.
Making the films were highlights of many Westport adolescences, even if the movies moved almost immediately from premieres at the Fine Arts Theater, to airplanes, then on to cable TV channel 52906.
If Sean Cunningham came back now, though, he'd have to refocus his cameras a bit. In Westport today, youth sports are all about the parents.
But perhaps the most important "Westport movie" was one that was not filmed here at all. "Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys!" came out in 1958. Based on a novel by Westporter Max Shulman, it showcased a fight by local citizens to keep a missile base out of their small Connecticut town.
Putnam's Landing was fictitious, but the story was true. Westport had just tried -- unsuccessfully -- to bar Nike missile sites from North Avenue (now Bedford Middle School) and Bayberry Lane (Westport Health District and Rolnick Observatory).
The film described the very real, but often comic, tensions between newcomers (the men in gray flannel suits) and old-timers ("Yankees"). It starred Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward -- and, in a roundabout way, it brought them to the town that together they called home for the next 50 years.
Of course, "Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys!" could never be made today.