Santa Claus and the Cold Hand of Death

Fox poster art for the June release dismissed the Christmas angle, which was known to be bad box office.

2021 author’s note: In honor of the holidays, I’m re-posting this piece on a picture I just watched yesterday (again). I wrote this about 17 months before the release of Dutch Girl.

On Thanksgiving morning I was watching a bit of New York City’s Macy’s parade on television, which inspired me to revisit one of my favorite seasonal touchstones, Miracle on 34th Street. I try to watch it every year, but this time what really hit home was the scene when the woman brings the adopted Dutch girl to see Santa. Lately, I’ve been deep-diving into all things Netherlands—the language, the culture, and especially the history of life in Holland during the Nazi occupation of 1940 to 1945.

If you were living in the Netherlands when the Germans marched in on a pleasant May morning, there was a decent chance you would not be living when they were driven out in 1945. If you happened to live in Rotterdam, you could have died in the German bombing of the central city that forced the Dutch surrender four days after invasion. If you were a Jew, you would have been given a one-way ticket to a concentration camp. If you were deemed an enemy of the state, you might have been shot. If you got caught up in the combat of 1944 and 1945 when the Allies came in, well, either side could have gotten you. If you made it as far as the Hunger Winter just before war’s end, you might have starved. And if you happened to be standing under an Eighth Air Force bomber, well, duck, cover, and pray.

When Miracle on 34th Street was released in June 1947, its audience knew all too well the horrors that Holland had weathered. So, when the Dutch girl’s adoptive mother explains to Santa that the girl comes from an orphanage in Rotterdam, it would have sent chills through many. The girl’s parents clearly had died in the war, and the child is emotionally scarred as a result. She has only one wish, and that’s to connect with Sinterklaas, the Dutch St. Nicholas who each November sails by ship from Spain and lands in some obscure part of the Netherlands with his sidekick, Zwarte Piet the Moor, who lugs a sack full of presents and candy for the good children. After stepping ashore like MacArthur in the Philippines, Sinter sets out on a white steed to make his way through the lowlands while poor Piet goes afoot. In many Dutch households, Sinterklaas knocks at the door and comes in for a December 5 sit-down that amounts to a performance review for the children living there. If you’re good, well, you don’t have to fear the bearded man with the lethal staff, scary mitre, and lurking strong-arm man. You get gifts and candy in your wooden shoes placed neatly under the Christmas tree. If you happened to be a bad kid, however—and this is where it gets a little weird—Zwarte Piet manhandles you into the sack and carries you back to Spain.

The forlorn look of a refugee from the world’s darkest days.

I always loved the Miracle on 34th Street scene between Santa and the Dutch girl for the elemental conflict presented. Her poor caretaker doesn’t want to expose this little war orphan to a department-store Santa who can’t possibly understand her language or needs. I always understood her culture shock at being in New York, U.S.A. What only became clear on this viewing after my Nederland immersion is the aura of death surrounding the child and what motivated her forlorn look when she first interacts with the Macy’s Santa. The girl, who seems to be about seven years old judging by the missing front teeth, lights up when Santa suddenly begins speaking to her in Dutch and she gets the confirmation she needs: He really is Sinterklaas.

I have to hand it to Edmund Gwenn for doing as well as he does with what is truly a tough language to learn, even if it’s only a few lines. Marlene Lydon does as well with her Dutch impression as any seven-year-old California girl with missing front teeth possibly could. And at plot point one, when Natalie Wood as little Susan watches the interaction between Santa and the orphan and begins to suspect that Santa is more than a department-store stand-in, it’s the best moment of all—her jaw drops and she experiences real magic for the first time in her very sensible life.

In my experience, horses don’t do the roof any good, but there is Sinterklaas on his white steed, while poor Zwarte Piet ends up with the short end of the stick. In modern appearances Piet is usually played by a Caucasian in blackface, and there has been a formidable social backlash in the Netherlands.

There are so many things to love about Miracle on 34th Street (the original–I refuse to accept more recent imposters). I’m not the biggest Maureen O’Hara fan, but as Mrs. Walker she underplays beautifully throughout, like when she tries to tell Susan that Santa isn’t real even though, as Susan points out, he can speak Dutch. “I speak French,” Walker reasons, “but that doesn’t make me Joan of Arc.”

O’Hara, Wood, and Gwenn, part of a perfect cast in a perfect film.

I’m not breaking new ground here when I go on and on about this perfect film, a triple Oscar winner (one for Gwenn and two for the writing). I just wanted to take a moment to call out that scene and the all-new effect it had on me after a lifetime of viewings. And if I don’t get another column up in the next little while, Happy Holidays, one and all, from the Netherlands salt mines where I toil, pretty much night and day.

P.S. Don’t forget to order Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, which has proven to be the perfect holiday gift for active-duty service members, veterans, armchair generals, and lovers of everything Hollywood.

The Comet

As a self-respecting guy, I never had any use for a movie entitled Pollyanna, especially a Pollyanna released as a live-action feature by Disney. All I knew of Disney live action was what I’d experienced as a kid in the 1960s; you know, computers wearing tennis shoes, slime that made you jump high, and monkeys going home. Even as a kid I saw this wing of the Disney studio as producers of ridiculous, cornball stuff.

Now here I am well past my wonder years and I stumbled on Forever Young, the Hayley Mills memoir, and had my eyes opened to a pop culture phenomenon I knew nothing about since most of it happened before my time. Apparently, Hayley Mills hit the 1959 motion picture landscape like a tidal wave, first in the independent British feature Tiger Bay, which led to her personal introduction to Walt Disney and a starring role in Pollyanna, which was the brainchild of a 1950s TV director named David Swift, who managed to convince the big man of the validity of bringing the goody-two-shoes character Pollyanna to the screen.

My only real-time connection to Hayley Mills was when as a late-teenager she starred in The Trouble with Angels, which I remember sitting through as one of the first pictures I ever saw on the big screen. It wasn’t made by Disney but it felt like Disney, and Hayley Mills didn’t make much of an impression.

Thanks in part to a diary she kept and in part to her 2010s deep dive into Disney production files, Mills was able in her autobiography to reconstruct the experience of that first trip to Hollywood to make Pollyanna, and her backstage view prompted me to block out time and give Pollyanna a try. I sat down with slime and monkeys firmly in mind, and two hours and 14 minutes later, I was sobbing. Yes, my friends, I confess I was sobbing at live-action Disney.

The Disney studio surrounded Mills with veteran actors like Jane Wyman, Ed Platt, Adolphe Menjou, and Anne Seymour, seen here listening to a grim Karl Malden sermon about how “death comes unexpectedly!” (Others in the cast but not pictured here are Donald Crisp, Nancy Olson, and James Drury.)

Now I understand why this girl proved a global sensation hitting midway between Elvis and the Beatles. She describes herself in Forever Young as an untrained young actress who just liked to be on-camera and this captures the utterly natural screen presence of a 12-year-old Hayley Mills, who as orphaned Pollyanna arrives in a small, uptight town circa 1915 filled with bitter people to live with her strict Aunt Polly, played in veteran style by Jane Wyman.

The term “pollyanna” is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a person characterized by irrepressible optimism and a tendency to find good in everything,” and in dictionary.com as a person “excessively sweet-tempered and optimistic even in adversity.” The Mills/Disney Pollyanna is much more the former than the latter, an ingenuous yet canny observer of the human condition who barges her way into the lives of bitter recluses played by Agnes Moorehead and Adolphe Menjou and subtly brings them back from the brink of loneliness and despair to see the good in themselves and then in others.

Pollyanna meets and begins to influence a cranky friend played by Agnes Moorhead.

Pollyanna’s positive influence on the town around her grows so slowly over two hours of run time that we only realize the girl’s impact when she faces a health crisis and the previously embittered townspeople respond by charging en masse to Aunt Polly’s mansion to show their support and then, cue the waterworks (I teared up just writing this paragraph).

Pre-pubescent Hayley Mills was a revelation, with enormous blue eyes that threaten to leap off the screen to devour the viewer. Her eyes are almost science fiction, they’re so powerful. My reaction to Pollyanna made me seek out the feature that preceded it, Tiger Bay. Boy, what a contrast in plots, with young Horst Buchholtz in his breakthrough role as a good guy driven to kill his girlfriend as witnessed through the letter box slot by Hayley Mills and her sci-fi eyes. In Forever Young Mills describes her agonizing 12 year old’s crush on the 24-year-old Buchholtz, who would soon go on to make The Magnificent Seven. Their chemistry in Tiger Bay is purely compelling and overcomes any audience notions to question aspects of the noirish plot.

Crazy chemistry between Horst and Hayley in Tiger Bay.

Forever Young delves rather deeply into Mills family history, but then picks up steam when Hayley gets into acting—it’s clear that’s really when life began for this little girl. She takes you inside production of a 1950s indie feature and then suddenly we’re in Walt Disney’s office for meetings with the living legend and seeing blow by blow the back-and-forth negotiations between reluctant father John Mills and Disney lawyers who are on a mission to sign Hayley to a seven-picture contract.

I’m only halfway through the book but it’s already been something of a life-changer for me. For those not in the know, Hayley’s big sister is accomplished actor Juliet Mills, or “Bunchie” to those in the family while Hayley is “Bags.” On the set of Pollyanna Hayley meets actor Kevin Corcoran of the acting Corcoran clan, who is referred to in the book by his on-the-lot nickname of “Moochie.” I guess what I’m saying is the charm factor is high in Forever Young as we see stars of the screen and TV as regular people worth knowing.

So now you’re caught up on what’s been going on with me; I’ve seen Hayley’s comet for the first time and I’m getting up to speed on a talent who is proving, to me at least, quite capable of holding her own with Elvis and the Beatles.

The eyes that launched several Disney ships.

Road Test

It’s official: Warrior: Audrey Hepburn saw release by GoodKnight Books Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, the same date a splashy feature about the book called “Warrior Woman” went online at people.com, coinciding with a two-spread version in the Oct. 11 print edition of PEOPLE magazine. PEOPLE had given similar attention to Dutch Girl upon release in 2019, and so I knew the spotlight in this top periodical would launch Warrior in style.

I was in Dallas this past week fulfilling a long-standing commitment to appear before a private group and my appearances there—and at Interabang Books, a well-respected Dallas indie bookstore—provided opportunities to road test messages in Warrior before live audiences.

Signing books at Interabang after presenting about the book.

It’s safe to say this packaging of Audrey Hepburn was a big hit with three diverse audiences over two days. As I told the story of her remarkable courage in so many circumstances during the UNICEF years, I could hear noteworthy gasps from groups that numbered up to 380 people. Just about everyone knows something about Audrey, and many speak warmly about moments they find special from her 20+ motion pictures. But nobody had previously understood the ferocity of her personality for causes she believed in or her fearlessness under fire. And when I say “fire” I am covering a range—from attacks in the press to bursts of AK-47s going off at close range.

Audrey’s son Luca Dotti introduced me to his real mother in 2019 and encouraged me to investigate this unknown side of her, the idea that demure Audrey was in fact a “badass.” He said he first realized it during his years at an exclusive Swiss academy when the principal called his mother to reveal that Luca had been caught kissing a girl—quite a scandal for the institution. Audrey listened to the revered head of the academy and then asked a simple question: “How are his grades?” She was assured he was an outstanding student. And upon hearing that, she told the principal, “Thank you. That’s good to know. As to the other matter, please leave the raising of my son to me” and hung up the phone. Luca couldn’t believe it; after living day to day among a student body that trembled in fear of this powerful academician, his mother had just tossed off a display of real power and put the principal in her place. For the first time Luca understood that his mother just happened to be the fastest gunslinger in the west, and that if anyone crossed her, they would pay a price.

This incident occurred before the UNICEF years when Audrey would grow into her true badass self, a woman of strong belief who followed her heart and Spidey senses to anyplace in the world where she felt she was needed—the poorest countries and regions facing famine, disease, and war. An audience member at one of the appearances asked, “What did Audrey actually do when she went to these places?” This is a great question, and it plays straight to my own pre-conceived notions about Audrey Hepburn and UNICEF. As I lived my misspent youth in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I experienced Audrey’s activities as background noise. I imagined she was just another celebrity determined to get attention and see her name in the paper.

In this photo taken by her companion, Robert Wolders, Audrey’s all smiles and girlish; underneath she carries a deadly serious message. She has just been airlifted by Sikorsky helicopter to a perilously remote mountain valley in northern Vietnam near the Chinese border. There she is offered traditional Tày garb and dons it eagerly to show solidarity with these wonderful people who have been oppressed by a U.S. government embargo still in effect a full 15 years after the end of the Vietnam War.

My response to the question posed on Friday was that in 1988 when she signed on with UNICEF Audrey had one of the most famous names in the world, earned for a unique face and body, appearances in some landmark films, awards including an Oscar and a Tony, and the glamorous way she wore clothes. Two marriages and divorces had added a sex angle to spice things up. That was her starting point–she knew she could get some attention for UNICEF. Then slowly and surely, Audrey came to understand the true power of her name and how much media interest she could draw by making appearances in public; rather than doing it at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, she’d do it in a village in Ethiopia where there was a famine, or in a far-flung mountain valley in northern Vietnam where a U.S. embargo was pressing down on civilian populations. She would go there, and the media would follow, and she’d put Audrey Hepburn and suffering children on camera together and hammer home that UNICEF had just helped these people dig a well or irrigate their crops or vaccinate their children and if you nice people out there will send some money, we will put it to great use digging more wells and irrigating more crops and vaccinating more children. “UNICEF helps people help themselves,” she explained.

I have so many examples of Audrey Hepburn’s displays of personal courage all over the world, but it’s way too early for spoilers and I want you to go out and buy the book. And if you happen to be ready to place an order, might I recommend bookshop.org, which represents independent bookstores across the United States. They call themselves the “rebel alliance” taking on the “empire” and that puts me in mind of star destroyers, droids, and princesses in distress. Who wouldn’t want to help the rebel alliance?

Plucky Rebel Alliance pilots get their briefing on taking down the Death Star.

The Decision

In 1987, the mink company Blackglama landed Audrey Hepburn (photographed by Richard Avedon) for its ongoing campaign showing legendary stars wearing fur. The photo sums up her life in retirement.

At age 58, Audrey Hepburn had no reason to leave an idyllic life of retirement in a Swiss village overlooking Lake Geneva to go campaigning for UNICEF. She lived in a beautiful home, family all around, a world-class fruit and vegetable garden she loved tending, and her best friend just up the hill. Audrey lived with Robert Wolders, the love of her life, third time being the charm after two tough marriages.

But there were nightmares, memories of World War II that ate at her many nights. Living in the Netherlands as a pre-teen and then a teenager, she had existed through every day of Nazi terror. She had watched the Germans march in and five years later endured the last days when the Allies drove them out again house by house, grenade by grenade. In between she experienced all the indignities of life under occupation, all the deprivation, all the outrages. Yes, the war had left quite an impression.

A convergence of issues prevented Audrey from living out her days in the seclusion of Tolochenaz, Switzerland. First, she was a van Heemstra, Dutch nobility that had for centuries felt the noble obligation of helping those less fortunate. “It’s just what one did,” as she expressed it. Second, she was an empath imprinted with memories of that war and out there in remote corners of the world were people suffering as she once had suffered. Their wars weren’t global; they were armed regional conflicts between political groups, religious groups, tribes, or clans within a country. She detested the term “civil war” but technically, that’s what they were and caught in the middle sat entire populations.

Audrey began her UNICEF career by accident. She was invited to emcee a benefit concert in Asia and then a second concert in a different country. Her participation was minimal—just a few minutes at the podium—and in each case UNICEF officials witnessed a mob of reporters desperate to cover the latest from this elusive celebrity. The top blew off the fundraising thermometer when Audrey Hepburn participated, which meant UNICEF must get Audrey to participate more often.

It’s an overlooked fact that Audrey attempted to dodge this commitment because she knew what it would mean for her partner, her family, and her own well-being. Nobody on her side of the fence wanted to see the brand known as Audrey Hepburn become a UNICEF representative because all sensed what it would mean. She knew, too. She knew her own nature and how totally she had always pledged herself once she made any promise. For a couple of months she backed away, listened to a drumbeat of entreaties from inside the family, and then finally, when she couldn’t back-peddle any further, she announced a decision. In so doing, she gave UNICEF a lot more than it bargained for.

I believe I’ve made a case that what she did with the next five years of her life altered the course of history, but you can decide for yourself. Warrior: Audrey Hepburn will be released by GoodKnight Books in hardcover, audiobook, and all ebook formats on September 28.

My Head Explodes Every Time

Warrior: Audrey Hepburn by Robert Matzen
Twenty-eight years after first working together, Jimmy Lydon (left) greets Martin Milner’s Officer Malloy … and my head explodes.

Since I was a kid I’ve watched Adam-12, the realistic police show that ran in the U.S. from 1968 to 1975. I still watch it often, having seen some episodes, who knows, 10 times? Maybe 20. A couple of episodes always make my head explode because James Lydon’s in them, like the one in season 7 when Malloy goes to a halfway house to secure a place for an aging ex-con.

OK, very quickly the backstory: Adam-12 chronicles the experiences of Officer Pete Malloy, played by Martin Milner, who trains young Probationary Officer Jim Reed, played by Kent McCord. The kid’s a rookie in season 1 and a wily pro by season 7. At the time the series was made, Milner had been kicking around as a player in various theatrical features and TV shows and had the lead in the popular series Route 66 from 1960-64. McCord was a newbie when Adam-12 began, a find of the series executive producer, Jack Webb. You can still see Kent McCord at autograph shows today, looking great in his 70s. Milner died in 2015 at age 83; Lydon is still with us at age 98.

So, anyway, in this episode, playing the operator of the halfway house is Lydon, whose career went back to child roles in 1939. Most famously, during the war years then-Jimmy Lydon played the title character Henry Aldrich—teenaged son in the all-American Aldrich family (made famous on Broadway and radio)—in a number of feature film adventures for Paramount Pictures. Then in 1946 Lydon was cast in a very big and high-profile film, Life With Father, which would become one of the major hits of 1947, directed by Michael Curtiz and starring William Powell and Irene Dunne.

Making his onscreen acting debut as one of the sons in Life With Father was Martin Milner, then age 15, playing John Day, younger brother of Clarence Day, Jr., played by Lydon.

I cut my teeth on Life With Father. I’ve seen Life With Father so many times I can recite all the lines before the actors have a chance to spit them out. And so, every time I see this episode of Adam-12, when Jimmy Lydon walks out a middle-aged man to shake hands with cop Martin Milner after they had once played brothers onscreen in a very big picture, my mind is blown thinking about the history these two shared on that Burbank set, and what must it be like to see each other again?

They were witnesses as volcanic Mike Curtiz, suave leading man Bill Powell, and elegant Irene Dunne worked together day after day. They experienced the pressure as Jack Warner attempted to transition Broadway’s immensely popular hit Life With Father to the screen with the rights-holders breathing down the filmmakers’ necks every day.

Warrior: Audrey Hepburn by Robert Matzen
Milner and Lydon flank William Powell in a publicity shot of Father Day and his four sons.

What do you think about when you’re Jimmy Lydon with 150+ acting credits and lots of additional work as a producer, and you’ve got a small speaking part in an Adam-12 as an act of kindness from EP Jack Webb, and you’re working with this guy Milner who was once just a kid with no experience and played your little brother in Life With Father? Is it just another four hours on the Universal lot? Hey, how’s it going, Marty? Or do you look at Milner and the memories come cascading back, boom, boom, boom, and he’s still 15 and you’re 23 again and teleported to the Warner lot in its 1946 heyday. Here they are in 90 seconds working together as brothers in Life with Father.

We know Martin Milner and Kent McCord had become good friends by this time, so did Milner introduce Lydon by saying, “Hey, I watched this guy kiss Elizabeth Taylor!” Who wouldn’t be impressed by that? Thinking about all this made me revisit Alan K. Rode’s epic Michael Curtiz biography, which details the difficult production of Life With Father, the 72nd picture in the career of Curtiz and so just a tiny bump in the road for the titan. In it, Lydon gave some great quotes about working in that particular pressure-cooker.

Did Jimmy and Marty share a nostalgic laugh about the time Curtiz drove Lydon and Taylor through take after take of a key scene and on take eight Liz burst into tears and fled to her dressing room with Curtiz in hot pursuit screaming obscenities that he intended to be an apology? “Sonoffabeech, Elizabeth! Don’t cry!” ranted Curtiz. Lydon, at age 90, tells this story in an onstage Q&A with Rode that’s available on YouTube.

Warrior: Audrey Hepburn by Robert Matzen
A page from the Life With Father pressbook reflects the importance of a very young (and very expensive)
Elizabeth Taylor to the production.

Taylor was then age 14 and rocketing to stardom as reflected in the attention she received in the lavish Life With Father pressbook that suggested promotions for the film—many of them involving the natural beauty of Elizabeth Taylor. Jack Warner had traded for her from MGM at great expense even though she had already gained a reputation for being high-strung—her whatever it was, 15 minutes of screen time had cost Warner $350,000 and the services of his contract player Errol Flynn, used by MGM in That Forsyte Woman.

You can see why my head explodes every time, because all these thoughts cascade through my mind witnessing the simple interaction of two actors in a scene shot in 1974 during the last season of Adam-12.

Warrior: Audrey Hepburn by Robert Matzen
Wish I knew what you were thinking, you guys.

Author’s Note: Next time we’ll continue the countdown to release of Warrior: Audrey Hepburn and look at the reasons Audrey decided to take on a gig for UNICEF. It was, for her, no easy choice.

What’s Next

Warrior: Audrey Hepburn by Robert Matzen
Strolling with Robert Wolders in Gstaad.

The book Warrior: Audrey Hepburn that I wrote in close collaboration with Luca Dotti, Audrey’s son, will be released September 28. It tells the story of a side of her that’s been touched on in other biographies but never explored. And it’s a common human theme, particularly among women: “I left the workforce to raise my children and now they’re grown. What do I do next?”

Audrey Hepburn found Audrey Hepburn a tough act to follow. An impossible act to follow. As an ingenue she had won a Best Actress Academy Award and been nominated four other times. She had won three British Film Academy Best British Actress awards and her mantel also held Golden Globes, New York Film Critics Circle Awards, and on and on. She had conquered Broadway and won a Tony and as a sidelight became the world’s most important clothes horse. Even after she was long retired, publishers hounded her to write a memoir.

At age 57, with older son Sean working in L.A. and younger son Luca on his own in Italy, Audrey stood at this important and vexing crossroads in frustration. She may still possess some vestige of the face that had launched a thousand magazines, and some sense of the talent that had earned her all those honors, but film roles for women in her age bracket were in 1986 what they are today: scarce. She had dutifully kept the same agent into the 1980s that had represented her in the Sabrina days, Kurt Frings, and he reviewed script after script and sent many on and always Audrey reviewed them with disappointment. Too violent, too depressing, too gory, too vulgar.

But despite her chronological age, she knew she was still young. Inside she felt the same exuberance that had gotten her through two shows a night dancing in West End choruses 35 years earlier. She ate healthily and loved long walks in the Swiss countryside. She traveled often—one week would find her in Paris and the next in Hollywood.

Staying in film was the obvious answer. She had never loved film work and yet films had earned her a nice living and it’s what she knew, so she kept looking at the scripts and even threw her hat in the ring for the role of a society matron in a television miniseries, The Two Mrs. Grenvilles, and it was here she learned the latest of life’s lessons: When you jump into such a casting pool as this, you better be ready for sharks. Not only did Academy Award-winner Claudette Colbert want that part; so did Academy Award-winner Bette Davis, and Colbert got it and would earn an Emmy nomination.

Funny thing about Audrey Hepburn: She had an ego that resulted inevitably from decades of success and an inferiority complex several times wider. Fame bewildered her because she didn’t consider herself pretty enough or talented enough to have earned it. All she could say with certainty and a lot of pride was that she worked damn hard and gave herself with total commitment to any job she took on. She had to work twice as hard as everybody else because she was, in her mind, only half as good an actress.

So what about that memoir? She probably could have commanded a million-dollar advance but no way would she ever do such a thing. Because of the war she had some skeletons in the family closet that she must keep locked away. More than that, editors would expect the inside story on her life and career and that meant dishing about friends and co-workers. She may have known that Humphrey Bogart was a bitter man who had no patience for her on the set of Sabrina, but that was her business, just like her affair with co-star William Holden on the same picture was her business. She would never dream of sharing these matters with the world.

Resting in the Swiss sun, perhaps pondering what would come next.

The life she was living in retirement wasn’t exactly torture. She owned a Swiss farmhouse tended by a wonderful staff. She maintained a world-class fruit and vegetable garden that provided bounty for the table almost year-round. She had minded her money to the extent that she could provide for herself and her family. And she had finally at long last found the love of her life, former actor Robert Wolders. She could easily live out her years at home, or visiting family, honoring famous friends, endorsing the occasional product, and presenting at the Oscars.

But that was just it—Audrey Hepburn had never done things the easy way, so why start now? And that is the jumping-off point for Warrior. Other authors always treated this as just another chapter in the story of her life. The final chapter. To me, it’s the beginning of an epic adventure.

Pre-order the 368-page GoodKnight Books hardcover Warrior: Audrey Hepburn now.

Re-Enter the Dragon

Image shows Van Williams as the Green Hornet and Bruce Lee as Kato.
Van Williams and Bruce Lee as the Green Hornet and Kato, circa 1967.

While growing up, I had many heroes and I’ve discussed some of them in these columns. One I haven’t mentioned is Bruce Lee, better known to young-me as Kato on the 1966-67 TV series The Green Hornet and then in some martial arts motion pictures. I took Bruce Lee for granted as one of the coolest human beings ever and never thought of him as Asian or a minority or anything of the kind. He was just 100% Ohmygod Badass. Now through adult eyes I can see what he accomplished on television way back then in a United States ruled by and for white people. We had seen Asians play sidekicks and serve as comic relief, but a young Asian male as the soft-spoken and deadly enforcer of an otherwise unremarkable superhero the likes of Britt Reid/The Green Hornet; well, this was new.

Not long ago I watched a particular episode of The Green Hornet and Lee’s fight scenes struck me dumb. I wish I could find that sequence to show you but here’s something similar—it’s kinda dark but in several seconds you get the idea. What Lee brought wasn’t the same old quality of stuntmen for Adam West and Burt Ward throwing air punches with meat-slammer sound effects; Lee brought something else—something muscular and pulverizing that defied gravity.

Image shows Bruce Lee in The Big Boss.
Bruce Lee in The Big Boss.

After his all-too-brief turn as Kato, Lee went on to carve a successful career in Asian pictures that hold up well today, including The Big Boss and Fist of Fury, and then the Warner Bros. release Enter the Dragon, which I made my dad take me to see twice in first run.

Bruce Lee’s death from a freak allergic reaction to a painkiller made for another of those traumatic childhood events for me—Pete Duel had been taken at the turn of 1972, Roberto Clemente at the turn of 1973, and then Bruce Lee that July. Three of my heroes gone in 18 months, like, literally, my top three, at ages 31, 38, and 32.

All of which is to say you won’t find anybody who respects the achievements or memory of Bruce Lee more than I do, which is why I love the depiction of Bruce Lee in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. I more than love it. I love-love it. I could watch it on a loop for a week, or a month. As far as I’m concerned Tarantino brought Bruce Lee back to life just for me, exactly the Bruce Lee I needed in childhood and exactly as I would have wanted him to be. This Bruce Lee is funny and arrogant, as full of himself as I could wish him to be in his young prime during the Kato run. Who the hell wouldn’t be arrogant, doing what he could do? He encounters our stuntman-hero Cliff Booth backstage during filming of an episode of The Green Hornet, with Booth standing by to play an extra. Pretty soon they’re engaging in a friendly best-of-three-falls marital arts match and it’s one fall each with the third round dead even when the fight’s broken up.

Image shows the backstage showdown between Bruce Lee and Cliff Booth.
Bruce Lee re-imagined in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.

I’m no expert at hand-to-hand combat but there’s a misperception when Lee goes flying into the door of a car that Booth drove him there. But it seems as if Booth simply sidestepped a Lee attack and some deflected momentum took Lee into the car. That’s a fine point but an important one because there was quite the backlash from Lee admirers over the portrayal of “Bruce Lee” in Once Upon a Time. They said, How dare you disrespect our hero in this way? How can you imply some middle-aged stuntman could hold his own with the great Bruce Lee? Lee’s daughter led this charge and complained loudest of all.

Well, I loved both Bruce Lee and this depiction of Bruce Lee, and it’s pretty clear that Quentin Tarantino loved Bruce Lee and paid homage with this depiction. He brought Bruce Lee back to life, for crying out loud, and back into the spotlight in a fantastic way. Of course, this was a caricature of Bruce Lee like so much in the picture is caricature, but the reaction to my last column about the ending of Once Upon a Time indicated that for many people, the Bruce Lee vs. Cliff Booth sequence produced smiles to rival the ones resulting from that dreamlike happy ending when we fade out to Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger, and Wojciech Frykowski living happily ever after.

I wish Quentin Tarantino would bring my dad back to life like that. Go ahead make him an arrogant physics professor who speaks in the third person. I promise I won’t say, “How dare you besmirch my father’s memory!” because he’d be alive again. Heck, he’d be bigger than life, if only for 5 or 10 glorious cinematic minutes.

Mike Moh as Bruce Lee.
Welcome back, my very good friend.

The Way It Should Have Been

I need to talk about the greatest moviegoing catharsis of my life. I’ve been thinking about this for a long while and now that I’m between books, I need to capture it even though I figure it’ll bore some.

Oh, shameless plug: Warrior: Audrey Hepburn, published by GoodKnight Books, drops Tuesday, September 28. Lots more coming about this soon but for now, back to our story.

When I was growing up, Charles Manson managed to claim a place in the environment, like those steel plants in the Mon Valley that belched smoke into the air I breathed every day. Just like that, Manson polluted the earth by corrupting souls on the one hand and snuffing out lives on the other. We lived with Manson and his followers for decades and decades as they rotted in jail. Every so often one of them would come up for parole and state the case why they should be set free, and all of us on the outside went, No.

Just, No.

And all the while, in that expanse of time, ever widening, Sharon Tate remained dead, and the child she was carrying, and those who died with her—Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger, Wojciech Frykowski, and Steven Parent, along with Rosemary and Leno LaBianca, murdered the next night. And there were other murders before and after. All these people should have been living all those years and none of them were because of Charles Manson.

When Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood came along in 2019, I was skeptical and didn’t know what to expect. How would the Manson experience be presented? Would he be glorified? Even if he wasn’t, how could any of us live through the nightmare all over again? Then upon release I started hearing raves from my friends. “A crackerjack show!” wrote one. “A triumph! You’ll love it!” said another. Wait, what? A movie about Charles Manson and Sharon Tate??

But I just sat through that ending and experienced the pure magic all over again for maybe the, I don’t know, seventh time?

SPOILERS BEGIN HERE

If you haven’t seen the picture and intend to, stop reading. I’ll place a photo below—Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton, Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth, and director Quentin Tarantino—to create some space so you can avert your gaze and click away from my page.

In the movie, self-doubting TV star Rick Dalton lives just down the hill from Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski on Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon. On the horrible night, when Manson disciples Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, and Patricia Krenwinkel drive up Cielo toward the Tate house, Dalton belligerently orders them off his private street. He has no idea who they are or their intentions; he just wants them gone. As a result of the confrontation, they decide they must kill Dalton before proceeding on to kill everyone in the house at the end of Cielo Drive.

What follows inside Dalton’s house after the killers break in should be horrifying, and it is. This is one of the most violent, cringeworthy five minutes in the history of a major motion picture. But I for one and I suspect many or most of my generation find it to be beautiful and poetic.

As Rick Dalton floats in his backyard pool wearing headphones and listening to music, best friend and stunt man Cliff Booth and sidekick Brandy, a pit bull, take on Watson, Atkins, and Krenwinkel in the living room. Each of the murderers dies a more horrible death than the last at the hands of our heroes—Rick is jolted from his in-pool reverie in time to deliver the coup de grâce to Susan Atkins, who was arguably the worst of the lot.

A friend of mine born after the 1969 Manson murders watched Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood and said she wasn’t impressed; she didn’t get it. And of course you’d be lost throughout because this is an ode to that era with dozen upon dozen pop culture references designed to make baby boomers smile. But you really wouldn’t get the ending unless you lived through the butchering of innocent people and then Manson’s self-aggrandizing attempts to make a mockery of the justice system.

Finally, on the 50th anniversary of those summer 1969 murders, justice was served if only in Tarantino’s alternate reality. From the turnabout killings of the would-be killers to the fade out where Sharon, Jay and the others live happily ever after to Maurice Jarre’s haunting main credits soundtrack theme lifted from the 1972 western, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, I take temporary satisfaction that every so often, for a little while, something wrong has been put to right.

I remember seeing Judge Roy Bean on first run in 1972 and not liking it very much; it was written by John Milius, who has been a big influence on Tarantino’s writing style. This fictionalized western about a real-life good-bad guy in West Texas began with a title screen that read, “… Maybe this isn’t the way it was … it’s the way it should have been.” And that is the brilliance of Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. It’s the way it should have been in the summer of 1969, and my friends and I appreciate the intention and the feelings it leaves behind.

“Good Luck, Dear Rose”

I have a Dutch family. None of my ancestors are Dutch, but I inherited a whole family in the Netherlands by researching and writing Dutch Girl, an effort that began in 2015 with our first visit to Arnhem. It was there I discovered Audrey Hepburn’s connection to that spot on the map, which intrigued me all the more when I tried to research her wartime years in Arnhem and found little available information, with much of that conflicting. What I did learn pretty quickly was that Audrey lived in Arnhem from December 1939 to sometime in the middle of the war, and then moved to the next village to the east, Velp.

That first lunch in June 2017 with Ben van Griethuysen, Annemarth Visser ‘t Hooft, Rosemarie Kamphuisen, and me. After Ben’s mother was killed in an Allied fighter attack late in 1944, it was hospital volunteer Audrey Hepburn who comforted him.

In the spring of 2017, I contacted Velp’s leading historian, Gety Hengeveld, to request her help with information; at once she marshaled forces there and served as a point of contact for my upcoming research visit. Gety put together a luncheon so I could interview several wartime survivors at once, and there, in June 2017, I met my Dutch family, which included several names you’ll recognize if you have read Dutch Girl. I sat next to Rosemarie Kamphuisen that day, and we didn’t exactly hit it off because I believe trust didn’t come easily to her, and who was this American author and what were his intentions? Through lunch she held in her lap a published history of her family, including the war years, and she would refer to it to refresh her memory and conjure up dates related to the German occupation.

In the end she allowed me to photograph the relevant pages of her family history when lunch had concluded. Why? I guess she had judged me to be OK and beyond that, “You are our liberators!” she said to me with what I can only describe as awe and wonder in her voice. Just by being an American, I had qualified in her mind as one of the liberators, and I was honored and a little embarrassed to be lumped into the same group as the Allied troops that had attempted to liberate Velp in 1944 and succeeded a year later.

Mary and I saw Rosemarie on our next research trip in April 2018 during Velp’s solemn Liberation Day ceremony that takes place the Sunday closest to 16 April, the date everyone in the village, including Audrey Hepburn and her family, were freed from German occupation. Rosemarie greeted us like family and we sat and talked after the ceremony for a long time. We agreed to meet for dinner at a local restaurant a few days later and when Mary and I arrived at the restaurant, there was Rosemarie waiting for us, standing beside a bicycle that seemed much too big for her—she must have been at that time somewhere around 88 years old, and she had biked to our meeting! I will never quite get over that, but bicycles are the Dutch way of life and key to their sense of independence and health.

That day we learned all about Rosemarie and her family. She’d had a hard life including a bad marriage that forced her to start over from scratch while supporting five children. She had also become a force in the local community, a volunteer for senior citizens’ groups and historical preservationist.

Just for some perspective, Rosemarie was a bit younger than Audrey but also Audrey’s contemporary in Velp. She remembered the van Heemstras and was very fond of Dr. Henrik Visser ’t Hooft, the Velpsche doctor for whom Audrey volunteered and local Resistance leader.

Of this fascinating man she said, “I have known hard times in my life, and he supported me without many words, but by respecting me and giving a boost to my self-confidence. In one way or another he gave me the feeling that he loved me in the most decent way possible. At his farewell reception [in the 1970s] he hugged me with the words: “Good luck, dear Rose.” It was just what I needed.”

Rosemarie participated in the committee that placed a historical marker and statue at the site of Villa Beukenhof in Velp and staged their unveiling in September 2019. The committee invited Audrey’s son Luca Dotti and me to speak at the ceremony, which was simply spectacular, attended by about a thousand people, brass band, parade, and a lavish book signing of the Dutch version of Dutch Girl. Those events marked the last times we saw Rosemarie. Our planned 2020 return visit was canceled by Covid and we couldn’t provide in-person moral support when she suffered a debilitating heart attack about a year ago. The best we could do was speak to her on the phone and keep touch via email.

Rosemarie Kamphuisen passed away yesterday in hospice, but not without one last battle. She kept warning us that her heart was giving out, but we kept believing that nothing could really stop her. She came from good stock that had helped defeat the Nazis, and she’d beaten the odds and successfully raised her children and gone on to help me write Dutch Girl. I’m so happy to report she also provided important reminiscences that appear in my latest book, Warrior: Audrey Hepburn, due September 28.

One of the hazards of writing books about World War II is that an author meets and works with wonderful, important people in the autumn of their lives and they become family and then they move on. It happens over and over and it hurts. But above the sense of loss is such gratitude that we met to establish new and loving relationships in the course of capturing stories important to history. These people live on in my books, and in my heart, forever.

With many in my Dutch family in September 2019. From left, Patrick Jansen, whose father wrote the most important diary of the war from the perspective of Velp, Mary Matzen, Gety Hengeveld, Annemarth Visser ‘t Hooft, me, Johan Vermeulen, whose home was destroyed by the Germans in the battle of Arnhem, Rosemarie Kamphuisen, Josje Mantel, and Dick Mantel, whose job as a teenager was to make the lives of the occupying Nazis as miserable as possible. Dick lived across the street from the van Heemstras on Rozendaalselaan and Baron van Heemstra and Audrey would sneak over to listen to Radio Oranje on the Mantel’s secret radio set.

Lives of Adventure

Warrior: Audrey Hepburn by Robert Matzen
Left to right, Yvonne Waller, Mel Ferrer, Sandra Waller, Ian Quarles van Ufford, Miesje, and Audrey in Burgenstock, 1964.

Anyone who knows me can tell you without hesitation: that Matzen, he’s never satisfied. And it’s true. Something about my DNA makes it difficult to just stop and smell the rose for the rose and say, yes, this is a perfect moment. Case in point: When you write a book, you cast your subject in cement and it dries and what you’ve written is what there is, the problem being that your subject, whether Carole Lombard or James Stewart or Audrey Hepburn, continues to be affected by the physics of history. New facts emerge, perspectives change, and your book becomes ever more a snapshot in time, leaving the author to think, Damn, I wish I had known about this or that back when it mattered! The nature of biography makes me grateful for my blog, this little historical annex where I can update the record as needed.

SHAMELESS PLUG ALERT: I’ve written another book that you will be hearing about called Warrior: Audrey Hepburn, which will be released by GoodKnight Books in September. In it you will meet a super-cool relative of Audrey’s named Vero Roberti “who lived a life of adventure,” as I say in the narrative. I think you will love Vero like you loved Otto, Count van Limburg Stirum if you have read Dutch Girl. Anyway, in the past few weeks I heard from another member of Audrey’s family who lived a life of adventure. This woman said in email that she knew Ella, and Miesje, and of course Audrey—Aunt Audrey, in fact—and I had to get on the phone with her and find out more.

Yvonne Waller is the daughter of Ian Quarles van Ufford, Audrey’s half-brother. Ian as you’ll remember was the younger son of Hendrick Gustaf Quarles van Ufford and Ella van Heemstra (Alexander being the older son). They were Audrey’s older half-brothers who lived mostly apart from her until 1939 on the eve of World War II, when Audrey’s mother Ella van Heemstra had Audrey flown over from boarding school in England and all the van Heemstras reunited in Arnhem.

When Ian turned 16 and lived in the Arnhem suburb of Velp, the ruling Germans in the Netherlands forced him to Berlin where he worked as a slave laborer in a munitions factory until liberation by the Russians in the battle of annihilation for Hitler’s last stronghold. Ian would become another whose memories of the war were too dark to discuss. He told his daughter only two stories: one about falsifying papers and another about having a miniature radio hidden in a matchbox, but even relating this much would result in sleepless nights for a man who had seen too much.

Warrior: Audrey Hepburn by Robert Matzen
Ian Quarles van Ufford, just back from Berlin where he was forced to work as a slave laborer in a munitions factory until liberated by the Russians during the climactic battle of World War II in Europe. He walked from Berlin back to his home, Villa Beukenhof, in Velp.

After the fall of Berlin, Ian walked the 300 miles to Velp from Berlin, and he told Yvonne that upon arriving at Villa Beukenhof he knew he was home when he saw Audrey’s makeup box in her bedroom window. Ella would later give the makeup box to Yvonne, “and I go off to college and the poor makeup box is thrown away.” Such is life.

Another piece of family history I didn’t know was that after the war Ian worked for a cargo shipping company operating between the Netherlands and Indonesia, which led to the beginnings of his business career there.

Yvonne and I hit it off from hello. After working so closely for so long with Audrey’s son Luca, I feel like I know many of the people in the family, and Yvonne really did know them and so we had plenty to talk about. As for her life of adventure, she was born in Jakarta, Indonesia, where her father worked as an executive for Unilever Corporation in what turned out to be a very successful career that took him and his family to various posts around the world.

Early in the conversation Yvonne provided new information about Ella’s marriage to Hendrick Quarles van Ufford and their brief life together in the Dutch East Indies. “My grandfather was an operations guy [for Shell Oil] and he would go around to the different oil rigs and he’d be gone for months at a time, and this is one of the stories that I have to tell you. One day my grandmother, Granny, Grandmother Ella, sat with my mother—we were at that time living in Paris—she sat with my mother and she said, ‘You know, I was only 24 years old and Fafa, that was his nickname, he would be gone for months at a time. And I’m 24 years old! I need a life too!’ And that’s how she met Ruston. Imagine, it was colonial times, so she would have to go with all of her servants. All the ladies who looked after her, you know, keep her cool, fan her, and they would all have to go with her to see Ruston!”

Now for a correction to the history I had presented in Dutch Girl: According to family history as Yvonne heard it, Ella deserted Quarles van Ufford and her sons Alex and Ian for Ruston: “This is what I heard,” said Yvonne. “She left [with Ruston]. My grandfather took his boys, went back to Holland, set up in Holland, met a Norwegian lady, and lived with her and she took care of the boys. Then one day as the boys are napping—and this is one of those crazy Quarles stories—she [Ella]comes in through the servants’ quarters, takes the boys, and from that moment on, they live with her.” In other words, Ella didn’t have her children in tow when she embarked on the impetuous liaison with Joseph Ruston that led to marriage and Audrey. At some point as the boys were living near The Hague after many years apart from their mother, she reclaimed them.

Warrior: Audrey Hepburn by Robert Matzen
Audrey’s half-brother Ian Quarles van Ufford and his bride Yvonne Scholtens, November 1951.

Yvonne told me about her life on the road with a Dutch business executive-father who was always on the move, from Indonesia to Holland, then Tehran, then Bangkok, then Rangoon, then briefly in Sweden before heading back to Indonesia. On the way, at Christmas 1963, they stopped at Bürgenstock, Switzerland, for Christmas with Audrey, Mel, and infant Sean. “Aunt Miesje was the first person to ever give me a Toblerone bar,” said Yvonne with a laugh, “so I have wonderful memories of Miesje—she was truly a great lady. We were walking in the mountains and she stopped and pulled it out of her bag and said, ‘Here, you can have this.’” I asked for more detail on Miesje and she said, “She was very sweet. With Grandma Ella you had to watch your Ps and Qs. She could be very severe; if you’d go out to lunch or dinner with her, she’d always appear with a stern face on, almost like a mask. But Aunt Miesje was much more approachable and very sweet. I have only fond memories of her.” Yvonne noted the dry humor of the van Heemstra family and a constant twinkle in Miesje’s eye, which jibes with Audrey’s many comments to the effect that humor had gotten the van Heemstras through occupation’s darkest moments in Velp.

Ella, on the other hand, Yvonne described as a “tough cookie. She never shouted, but oh boy, you really sat up and watched your manners. It wasn’t that you were scared of her. That’s just the way Granny was and you behaved!”

Interestingly, there was very little discussion in the family about the death of Otto van Limburg Stirum; the topic seems to have remained too painful a memory for subsequent generations. “All I know is he was a wonderful man,” said Yvonne. And Ian’s big brother Alex seems to have been a mystery to his own family and didn’t remain close to Ian or Audrey. He lived in Japan and had nothing to do with the family. “I don’t think I ever met him,” said Yvonne.

Back to the story, with Yvonne’s family in Jakarta again after a hasty move from Sweden: “Just before the coup d’état of Sukarno [1965] we left very early in the morning. My dad stayed behind, and my mother, my sister, and I went to Switzerland where Audrey welcomed us and we stayed at Tolochenaz for a couple of months before we found an apartment. The company had been nationalized, Dad stayed, went through the coup d’état … and that was a bit tricky. He was on the list of 60 people who would have been shot if Sukarno had won the coup d’état.” Historical note: An Indonesian coup attempt that began in Jakarta would lead to hundreds of thousands of murders throughout the country and its islands over the span of a year, and Ian showed remarkable courage to remain at his post for Unilever during this time.

I could go on and on about this fascinating new friend. Yvonne has lived California, U.S.A., for 25 years now. She told me about her visits with Aunt Audrey in Paris and other places, about attending Luca’s christening, and about Audrey’s attendance at Yvonne’s wedding and her sister’s wedding. “She was very generous, Audrey, very generous, extremely generous. When you’d see her it was like a party. It was always wonderful to see her—there was nothing better.”

Yes, Yvonne Quarles van Ufford Waller has lived a life of adventure, just like Vero Roberti, and Audrey Hepburn for that matter. Thank you, Yvonne, for a great hour on the phone. I hope we can meet up again soon.

Warrior: Audrey Hepburn by Robert Matzen
According to Yvonne: “Christmas 1967 Villars sur Ollon:  left to right: Oma, Hubertine Scholtens, my mother’s mother who survived a Japanese war camp in Indonesia , me, Granny – Ella van Heemstra, my mother Yvonne Quarles van Ufford, then sitting down is my sister Sandra and in the sleigh is my brother Andrew.”

When Greg met Larry

Last night I watched the 1978 political thriller, The Boys from Brazil. I didn’t like it, which isn’t surprising because I don’t like many movies, actually most movies, but what I stumbled upon in my analysis afterward is what I consider to be a (for me) fatal flaw of some 1970s all-star vehicles like this one.

For example, I am endlessly bothered when I think about A Bridge too Far, the 1977 Joseph E. Levine WWII epic about the Market Garden campaign. It’s a true story with an all-star cast including Sean Connery as the British major-general who leads a parachute attack on a key Dutch town in the riskiest part of a risky operation. The mission is supposed to be a cakewalk and turns into anything but, and this British general ends up hiding in a Dutch family’s attic surrounded by Germans while his command is ripped to shreds. Imagine the psychology of this man, a British bigshot, sitting impotent for 24 hours in a civilian attic.

The script skims the surface of this incident and Connery plays it accordingly. Where’s my mark? What are my lines? Between an uncaring screenplay and a work-for-hire performance, history lovers are left 44 years later with a cardboard cutout of Sean Connery in a British uniform standing here and standing there, with nothing meaningful revealed about his character other than that every situation aggravated him. Clearly, the script of A Bridge too Far prioritized balanced screen time for its all-star cast above characterization.

Connery as an aggravated General Urquhart. Doesn’t he look like a cardboard cutout?

On to The Boys from Brazil, the Lew Grade epic of 94 clones of Adolf Hitler placed into hand-chosen families around the world during the 1960s by Nazi war criminal Dr. Joseph Mengele. Oops, sorry, I guess I should have warned, “spoiler alert,” because the fact they are clones of Hitler is revealed at plot point 2. Gregory Peck plays Mengele and Laurence Olivier plays the Jewish Nazi hunter chasing Mengele. Pardon me, but a little of these two in this circumstance goes a long, long, very long way, and after a while Peck, as creepy Mengele, dissolved into Peck the actor, ever-broadening his performance as if realizing how silly the whole thing was and deciding what the heck, let’s chew some scenery. In The Boys from Brazil, Olivier played the exact same character in the exact same makeup and using the exact same accent as he had in A Bridge too Far the previous year when he was cast a Dutch doctor (Where’s my mark? What are my lines?). Which is to say, this was Olivier’s stock performance by the latter 1970s, and what scraps of scenery Peck left behind Olivier grabbed at and gobbled up.

I remember what a big deal The Boys from Brazil was on first run, two titans of the screen in opposition, which didn’t interest me as a kid, so I didn’t see the picture then and I’m gratified these four decades later that my instincts were right. Now all grown up, I got to thinking what is it about these all-star epics from the 1970s that doesn’t hold up for me? The Boys from Brazil does boast an interesting and offbeat all-star cast that includes, below the top-liners, James Mason, Lili Palmer, Steve Guttenberg (still in his baby-fat youth), Anne Meara, Denholm Elliott, Rosemary Harris, Michael Gough, and even TV veteran John Dehner.

Lili Palmer making her best of a supporting role as the Nazi hunter’s sister and assistant. She did a nice job and left the scenery chewing to Olivier.

Budgets are always a problem in Hollywood and they certainly proved a factor in 1970s blockbusters. Your Joseph E. Levines and Lew Grades followed a formula where you hired known names up and down the cast and slotted them into this week in this location and flew them in and here’s your lines and here’s your mark and, Action! The screenplay merely connected the stars to the situation. Levine and Grade as filmmakers were slaves to a big-name formula and an unforgiving bottom line, and that’s why Sean Connery trudged into the middle of location shooting in the Netherlands and hit his marks, delivered his lines, collected his paycheck, and flew home without an iota of interest in who Maj.-Gen. Roy Urquhart really was or what he endured psychologically in the battle of Arnhem.

Part of the filmgoer experience back then in pictures like The Boys from Brazil was, oh, there’s Michael Gough! Oops, there was Michael Gough because he was murdered after a single line of dialogue. Hey there’s John Dehner! Oops, there was John Dehner after Mengele murdered him in the cellar. Cameos here, cameos there, cameos everywhere in a Lew Grade picture. It’s high-gloss surface entertainment with nothing much to make you think, except maybe that in 1978 bad people ran around plotting to set up authoritarian regimes and rule the world just like they do today.

To Kill a Mockingbird this ain’t. When a young Hitler clone’s dogs rip Mengele to shreds, the audience is served catharsis with a side of camp.

I finally checked The Boys from Brazil off my list. I do admit to enjoying these time capsules of production in the 1970s, and it’s nice to see Gregory Peck alive again and working in a big-budget spectacular. The print was beautiful, as fresh and crisp now as it was during the Carter administration. But after a first reel that sucked me into creepiness and murder in Paraguay, I caught on that the filmmakers didn’t take this picture seriously, so why should I? I went into the viewing feeling the creeps and came out two hours later drenched in camp and a gallon of Mengele’s blood.

I’m curious what you think about any number of these all-star WWII-related spectacles of the 1960s and 70s. Battle of the Bulge, Tora, Tora, Tora, Midway, A Bridge too Far, and so on. Was it The Longest Day that began the trend of big names slotted into here’s-your-lines-here’s-your-mark roles? John Wayne as the world’s oldest and most out-of-shape parachute colonel? Richard Burton as a pilot held together with, uh, safety pins? Connery again as a cynical Scottish private hitting the beach?

Actors still say it today: “It’s a living.” They take the paychecks where they can get them and the pictures float around in the cloud forever, waiting to be streamed. I guess you could argue that all these movies are escapism to entertain you for two hours, mindlessly or not, and maybe I’m too picky and too demanding. If that’s the case, never mind. I am a Virgo after all.