Bobcat Is Back With a Big-Ass Show … Cagney and Raoul Walsh … An Actress Speaks

Peter Bogdanovich’s Movie of the Week

In 1970–a decade before the video cassette age–Orson Welles had rented a house for a year in Beverly Hills, and one evening I brought over a portable 16-millimeter projector so that we could run a print I’d borrowed of James Cagney at his annihilating best in Raoul Walsh’s amazing 1949 gangster picture, White Heat [Saturday, June 6, Turner Classic Movies, 82, 8 P.M.] . Both Orson and I had seen the movie before, and we both remembered it as being one of Walsh’s and one of Cagney’s–individually and together–finest, most exciting and most memorable; that night confirmed this for us. Orson, of course, was vocally most delighted by the film’s extraordinarily subversive qualities. Here is Cagney at his most savagely antisocial, a psychopathic, chronically migrained, aging, train-robbing mama’s-boy killer (named Cody Jarrett), and yet when that most honorable Federal undercover agent Edmond O’Brien bullshits his way into the gang, you are rooting for Cagney all the way. Welles and I were actually hissing O’Brien! Orson laughed, happy with the film’s relentlessly perverse effect: Because of Cagney’s hypnotic charismatic personality and his sheer brilliance as an actor, law and order is undercut, and a kind of breathtaking anarchy almost becomes alluring, if it weren’t so terrifying underneath.

Raoul Walsh was one of the five directors whom Cagney (out of some 80 he’d worked with) characterized as “a real director.” Which was what? I asked. And Cagney said, “A real director is a guy who, if I don’t know what the hell to do, can get up and show me!” Walsh had been a fine silent actor as well, so Cagney, confident of being in great hands, gives by far his most daring performance. The section when he goes berserk in the prison mess, having heard of his mother’s death, is absolutely hair-raising. A number of people have commented on Walsh being the only conceivable director who could have Cagney sit on his mother’s lap and get away with it. In fact, the move seems absolutely organic to the character. British actress Margaret Wycherly, as his deadpan whiskey-voiced mother, is a marvel herself. Not to mention Virginia Mayo as the ultimate gun moll incarnate and Steve Cochran equally definitive as her oily lover.

And when Cagney commits suicide rather than give up–standing cockily on that gigantic globelike gas tank (in a field of gas tanks), shooting directly into it, yelling, “Top o’ the world, Ma!” just before his world blasts into smithereens–it is among the most ambiguously thrilling moments in movie history. White Heat both revived Warner Brother’s gangster cycle of the 30′s and also ended it conclusively for the golden age, which still had about 13 years to go. In other words, this was the climax of the gangster genre.

Now if you crave more in this Cagney-Walsh outlaw mood, you’re in luck, because the other good one (of a decade earlier) is on right afterward, their 1939 rags-to-riches-to-doomsday epic The Roaring 20′s [Saturday, June 6, TCM, 82, 10 P.M.] . This one features Humphrey Bogart in a large supporting role, made just before he hit it big the following year as the aging gangster lead in Walsh’s tragic High Sierra . Here Bogie is terrific as a remorselessly cynical hood, but his final moments of fear are among the least convincing of his career. Cagney, on the other hand, has a death scene that is haunting: Shot several times, he runs a block and then up the steps of a church and halfway down again before he finally falls dead. The actor told me he was inspired for this scene by seeing a Clyde Beatty documentary in which a huge gorilla got shot; what he remembered most was the beast’s surprise at being mortally wounded and its refusal to accept it right to the end. Afterward, Cagney’s head is cradled in the arms of the only woman who really loved him and when asked if she knew the guy, she responds with the classic epitaph: “Yeah, he used to be a big shot.”

The Ford Watch: If you want to see Frank Sinatra’s “gal that got away,” the wildly beautiful and talented Ava Gardner, in the finest performance of her career–the only one for which the Academy nominated her for best actress–then see John Ford’s African-adventure love story, with Clark Gable and Grace Kelly at the other corners of a richly potent triangle, 1953′s gloriously color-photographed Mogambo [Sunday, June 7, TCM, 82, 1:30 A.M.] . And the Hitchcock Watch: If you haven’t seen Cary Grant in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 fugitive-on-the-run Vistavision color masterpiece North by Northwest [Sunday, June 7, TCM, 82, 11:30 A.M.] , you are in for one of the most enjoyable rides in picture history; one of my absolute favorites, so more anon.

Wednesday, June 3

It’s your second chance to catch the finale of The Larry Sanders Show . [HBO, 28, midnight.]

Thursday, June 4

Bobcat Goldthwait doesn’t do that thing with his voice as much anymore. He outgrew that in 1991, around the time he wrote, directed and starred in Shakes the Clown , the ” Citizen Kane of alcoholic clown movies.” …

For its first foray into original programming, the cable station FX has turned to the tightly wound funnyman to host an improvisational game show in which regular people make fools of themselves. It’s called Bobcat’s Big Ass Show , it began June 1, and although FX doesn’t broadcast in New York, you can get a lawn chair and watch in the window of the FX headquarters on 24th Street and Fifth Avenue.…

“The thing I like about the game show is that, even though there will be the cheesy game-show element where I have to say where the guests will be going, everything else I have to ad-lib,” said Mr. Goldthwait over the roaring freeway from his terrace in Los Angeles …

Mr. Goldthwait’s other work responsibilities include directing music videos and making enemies with Howard Stern. He’s also working on something called Teen Jesus . “It’d be Jerusalem, 90210 ,” he said. “Angst-ridden teen years with an Aaron Spelling backdrop. You know, Jesus moves to a new town and he’s an outcast. He wins the swim meet by walking across the pool, he talks to the bullies. Joseph and him have a lot of struggles–’You’re not my real dad!’” …

So why’d you set Jay Leno’s chair on fire? …

“I really think I did it because I was bored. I did his show once and then he had me back on, and I think I resented him for asking me back. I’ve known him for years, and it was almost because he was surprised and happy that he had finally asked me that kind of bothered me. The idea of being a regular on the show also kind of bothered me, like fucking Carrot Top. He called me at home after I set the chair on fire and he goes, ‘I’d like to have you on the show, but people are really mad,’ and I go ‘Jay, it’s the Jay Leno show, you don’t have to talk to anyone about it.’ And he goes, ‘You don’t have to be a dick.’ He’s too easy a whipping boy, but after he booked me for the second time, he got pissed because on Jon Stewart , I said that I thought he killed Ron [Goldman] and Nicole [Brown Simpson] for the material. Then they canceled my appearance. He’s obsessed that everyone think he’s a nice guy. He called me up at home to say, ‘I hear you’re talking about me in the clubs.’ I told him I think he’s kind of fucking nuts.” …

Other talk-show memories? “I was gonna throw up on Regis and Kathie Lee; I was gonna put ipecac in a mug and I told [Garry] Shandling this and he wanted to put it into Larry Sanders . So we talked about it on his show, and then when I went on Regis , they were worried I was gonna do it. They were checking my coffee mug even though I had it right in my pocket. Instead, I took the pin out of a fire extinguisher and ran after Kathie, blowing up her skirt. Then I ripped off my T-shirt and put the loud mike on my nipple. Man, that hurt, but they said it was one of the show’s biggest ratings spikes. I wasn’t allowed to say the name of my new show on their show. You know, I wish someone would just give me the rule book. They assume you know–I can say ‘dildo’ on Vibe and I can’t say it on Keenen . They bleeped me when I did a fucking Tyson joke. I can understand them bleeping the language, but they just cut the whole thing. But it’s all very fleeting. We stole these fiberglass-panel doors from Keenen . They’re on my set now. I’m writing across from Keenen , it’s just, like, funny how, like, show business is based on fruit baskets. The more baskets you get, the more heat you have.” …

Did you like Seinfeld , Bobcat? “It seems like there’s a school of comedy where the more superficial you can keep it, the more you are rewarded. These guys are about crafting a good joke and keeping any form of spontaneity and any form of angst out of your act. Or anything weird. Andy Kaufman and Richard Pryor have more to do with molding me. I couldn’t do a show for nine years, and at the end have you still not know who I am. Even in this goddamn game show, I find myself telling personal stories. It’s really weird, this whole school where they worship writing jokes. I mean, how many people do you really need to write a Monica Lewinsky joke?” [FX, Fifth Avenue and 24th Street, 10:30 P.M.]

Friday, June 5

Actress Victoria Labalme has been doing commercials for the last two and a half years. “I thought it would be fun,” she told NYTV. “I call it a total roulette because you never know when you can hit it and make a lot of money. People often think it’s easy, but what happens is you’re changing your schedule and running around all the time. On one day at 10 A.M., I had to be a businesswoman for Pepsi; at 10:40 I had to be the letter A for Sesame Street ; at 1:20 I had to be a depressed mother for Effexor; at 3:25 I had to be a chic SoHo gallery owner for Toshiba; and at 3:50 I had to be a jogger for Tampax, looking like Helen Hunt. They often say, ‘We’re looking for an Ally McBeal or Helen Hunt type,’ and I look somewhere in between … I had a call-back for Denny’s in which I was selling five different breakfasts for $1.99. The first time through, the director said, Great. Then he asked me to make it more cheerful. I did it again, and he told me to be a little stern. The next time he wanted me to look at the platters and add a giggle. There are like five people in the room, and each time you read it, they lean together and confer. When I was done, they told me I ‘nailed’ it, and I never heard from them again.” …

During tonight’s N.B.A. finals game between Chicago and Utah in Salt Lake City, Ms. Labalme delivers the punch line as a juror in a Holiday Inn commercial. [WNBC, 4, 9 P.M.]

Saturday, June 6

Sex and the City : Sex on HBO no longer means titillating twaddle for swingin’ couples. The bigger story here is the clothes that stay on, not the ones that come off. Sex and the City began as a column in this newspaper by Candace Bushnell, then it was a book, and now it’s in the hands of Darren Star, the boy auteur behind the sex-and-shopping soaps Beverly Hills, 90210 , Melrose Place and Central Park West . [HBO, 28, 9:45 P.M.]

Sunday, June 7

Jeff Greenfield’s new magazine show (co-anchored with Bernard Shaw), Newsstand , debuts tonight. Formerly of ABC News and Nightline , Mr. Greenfield said this show will offer him “a chance to stretch.” …

Before becoming a pundit and reporter (“I left politics to write and decided you can’t do both and then stumbled half-assed into TV”), he was a speechwriter for John Lindsay and an aide and speechwriter for Robert Kennedy. “I was a junior aide, but it was an exhilarating experience,” Mr. Greenfield said. “He is one of the most impressive public figures I have ever known. I can’t profess objectivity, but even if you forget the emotional and romantic side, he had an incredibly original mind. He was talking about the need to redefine the Democratic Party years before Clinton. He was a tough-minded thinker, not in any way an intellectual, but his mind was like a steel trap.” …

Anyone in his league today? …

“I do not look at politicians as an inferior species–there are lots of interesting people … John McCain, Bill Bradley, Bob Kerrey. One of the reasons politics is less compelling is it’s a much more placid time.… But I’m not rooting for a national crisis so that we can have more to cover; I’ll take the dullness” [CNN, 10, 10 P.M.]

Monday, June 8

Dear Michiko, No one’s ever really gotten inside my head the way you did. I really, really loved the piece, and I bet a lot of other single women (with or without Pulitzers) feel exactly the same way. Yours truly, Ally McB. [WNYW, 5, 9 P.M.]

Tuesday, June 9

Heinz Meng has been teaching biology, ornithology, entomology and zoology at State University of New York at New Paltz since 1950. He bred the first captured peregrines, and he has appeared on To Tell the Truth and as one of David Letterman’s guests. One night he tuned into Larry King Live , where the host was talking to Jack Hanna (from the Columbus Zoo in Ohio). He was not impressed. “It could be called The Comedy of Errors ,” said the 74-year-old Mr. Meng by speakerphone. “but it certainly was not funny. I had heard about Jack Hanna and I thought, I’ll watch it. And then I couldn’t believe what he said so I had to write it down. A lot of things he said were jokes, but they didn’t seem like jokes. He was saying things like sometimes bats pollinate flowers with their droppings. Droppings can fertilize the ground in which the plants grow–but they certainly do not pollinate the flowers! I think probably he’s said these things so many times that he believes them himself. I guess he’s got a pretty good personality and he looks pretty good, from what girls tell me. I can’t tell. I can only tell if a girl looks good, not a man.” Tonight on Late Show With David Letterman, News Radio ‘s Andy Dick. [WCBS, 2, 11:35 P.M.]