(The following is about the filming of "Can Hieronymous Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness?"--a new film by Anthony Newley, scheduled for national release this summer. The author is a student at the Graduate School of Business Admniistration.)
BY THE TIME you have been out in Hollywood for one week, you can expect to have heard that everything which was supposed to have happened to Lana Turner in Schwaab's Drugstore a long time ago was actually a big fake. Hollywood is full of cynics who will probably persist in tearing down this legend for years. These same people will say the picture business is closed up as tight as it ever was. They are sure the studio had Miss Turner under contract before they put her in a sweater and on a soda-fountain stool with a straw in her mouth--to be discovered.
Yet, while this legend bothers them, it does not upset them nearly as much as what they claim the whole movie industry boils down to these days. In 1969, they will say, a starlet will have to sleep her way to the top. What these cynics fail to realize is that sometimes a girl hits stardom with the help of such things as beauty and talent.
In fact, not one of the girls who wait for a break in Hollywood is going to tell you that she sleeps for the sake of her career. And if she does sleep around, it is defensible: The new morality is not so permissive that girls will sleep with men they do not like. And, these days sleeping is not enough. Although it is not certain that it ever was, today, with so much openness about it, it is probably even less important.
NONE OF THE stars right now exudes virginity. Katherine Ross, maybe. But Dunaway? Fonda? Ali McGraw? Deneuve? Certainly not Deneuve. Still, they are somewhat traditional. They will sleep with you, but they have to love you, at least at the moment. They have to really believe they love you.
When the world changed and the people who make movies realized that the new kind of girl--whose purity seemed, heaven help them, "qualified"--was not only more appealing, true, and erotic, but also bigger money, then Hollywood created her.
Now, this raises the question of Who is Mercy Humppe? An archetype of sorts? Hieronymous Merkin, her lover, says she is "the personification of every nymphet he ever chased across the green meadows of (his) imagination." In fact, she is more than that. Mercy Humppe is a virgin who makes love gladly and, therefore, a kind of magical creature. I mean how many girls could you be as sure about. You've seen her take her clothes off. You've seen him take her clothes off. There is no question about Mercy and yet there is. After six times in one day you could pass her off, at a hundred to one, as Alice in Wonderland. She has in her face and body what Katherine Hepburn's voice must have suggested the first time anybody heard it.
MERCY HUMPPE'S indulgent innocence is something a lot of writers and directors have been trying to make into a picture for a while now. It could have been portrayed in a more complete, but not in a more classic way. If you know what I mean, Mercy Humppe is the textbook study.
The girl who plays her is not. And until you understand how really far the experience-philosophies of joy, body, and emotion have penetrated through the new middle class of Americans, Connie Kreski is damn hard to figure out. A nice Catholic girl from Michigan and a registered nurse too, but Miss January of 1968 (a couple of years ago, even on the coasts, you wouldn't have been able to make the fit). Her discoveries (there were two), occurred in ways that are about as close to the Legend of Lana Turner as you can get. First, on the side lines of a football field, Mr. Anson Mount, the Public Affairs Manager for playboy magazine, saw enough one afternoon to ask the nursing student if she were interested. Then, probably a year later, in the offices above the Playboy Club in London, she passed Anthony Newley. She had gone to England with the money the magazine paid her and ended up staying, all together, a year--three months on Malta, shooting Newley's flick.
SHOOTING! She signed the contract with Universal at the continuity girl's desk. It was not the proverbial start of a career role. For example, the sets were a big old pole bed put down where the sea comes in to make its last foam on the beach and, next to it, what looked like an attic or The Old Curiosity Shop was reconstructed on the sand.
Anyway, Hieronymous, the main character, is a movie star, writer, and every other kind of icon, who, at the beginning of the movie and sporadically throughout, is shown unreeling the rushes of a film autobiography (by chapters) in front of his grandmother and children. He is forty while this is happening; his birthday was yesterday. Mercy was longer ago than that, before his impregnation of and marriage to Polyester Poontang--but she haunts the film, nevertheless. The film has been made as a sort of sexual monument, with poetic love introduced only occasionally, each time in Mercy's image.
Out there on location in Malta were a lot of people the new starlet probably hadn't met before. For instance, George Jessel played The Presence, who follows Hieronymous, wears ivory suits with ivory lace shirts and ivory ties, carries an ivory parasol, and goes through Borscht Belt jokes (very well, if you like them) at several crucial points. Milton Berle was the devil, Mr. Goodtime Eddie Filth, who honest-to-God baked big-breasted sex in a private oven and also hand cranked the shaft that turned Mercy's Merry-go Round.
CAN HIERONYMOUS MERKIN Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? is a crack in the face at filmmakers "who have to have endings" or whom Newley thinks are not romantic enough. Naturally, its best success in making this point comes not from characterizations of producers, directors, and writers who make up the sub-plot of Merkin putting together his film, but from the contrast of these with the few good lyrical sequences (Such as Mercy baring her nipples and shivering).
For that matter, there is not enough of her in the film. Once or twice I got the feeling they had pro-rated her across the hour and forty-seven minutes. She could have been a great character because many people right now are looking for something like her. But she has not been developed in the script as well as Miss Kreski plays her and, except for the physical image, you often have to use your imagination.
NOW, I GUESS that if Universal has Connie under contract that means she is going to be in another movie sometime. I saw her on their lot in California in March and she said she thought so and hoped so. She came into the room wearing mod shoes, a mini-skirt, and a chiffon thin blouse with nothing under it. I thought, My God, like in the magazine, she had broken her fingernail, she said, which was funny to think of because it is so cute a crisis for a starlet to have broken a fingernail. Then she did herself one better. She had a pile of snapshots of herself to go through. I leaned over her shoulder and watched her handle them with the finger with the band-aid on it.
"The best picture I've seen of you," I said, "was the full page one they did in the review of Playmates."
Connie said, "Some people told me I looked tired in that one, like I'd just gotten out of bed. I don't know, I guess I liked the stills from the movie that we're in. They were more me."
Later On I said, "Your know, if I write anything about you at Harvard, people are going to want to know why you think it's important to be a movie star instead of, say, working in a ghetto or Africa."
"In the first place, I'm not a movie star. I was in a movie. It's just another job. Mercy Humppe was a nice role."
That left me feeling guilty about having asked. Overall it is a very genuine and beautiful and very human metamorphosis that people like Connie are taking Hollywood and America through. I mean, she is a nurse--and that is harded to become than a speechmaker.