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Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon

(1970) * R
113 min. Paramount. Director: Otto Preminger. Cast: Liza Minnelli, Ken Howard, Robert Moore, James Coco, Fred Williamson, Leonard Frey.


I'll say this for Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon. It's a film that takes a big roll of the dice. Is it wrenching? Is it wacky? Well, it's definitely weird. A genuine cinematic curiosity, the film has historical value as part of director Otto Preminger's oeuvre (albeit from his later, eccentric years) and for its leading performance by Liza Minnelli at a significant moment in her life and career. That's the good news. The bad news is that Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon is hopelessly dated and poorly constructed, a ridiculously starchy melodrama made up of unconvincing convictions and groan-worthy wisecracks: anyone coming to it for the first time is almost certain to walk away disappointed.

Twelve days into production on Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon, Minnelli's mother, Judy Garland, died. The devastating blow couldn't have made an already troubled production (Minnelli reportedly called Preminger "tyrannical") any easier, although some have associated her emotional scenes in the film with her personal pain at the time. The truth is that Minnelli's not at her best here, athough her work is commendable under the circumstances and her charm apparent despite the film's awkward direction. The star plays the titular 23-year-old, whose name just about screams "free spirit" but whose pixie-ish appearance has been blotted by permanent scarring from third-degree burns to her left hand, arm, and most of her face. On a date gone horribly wrong (and presented in an extended flashback), her psychotic suitor (Ben Piazza) coerces her to strip in a graveyard before beating her and dripping battery acid on her. (Scandalized, a Braintree, Massachusetts resident sued Preminger, on behalf of the town, for shooting the graveyard scene there, but Preminger prevailed in court.)

Minnelli already had two film credits (Charlie Bubbles and The Sterile Cuckoo, for which she received her first Oscar nomination), but her co-stars Ken Howard and Robert Moore were making their feature-film debuts. (Moore, as it turns out, was also making his feature-film swan-song as an actor, though he went on to direct Murder by Death, Chapter Two, and The Cheap Detective, among others.) Howard plays Arthur, who suffers from an unplaceable neurological ailment comprising "seizures, left-sided weakness, and tremors of the hand," while Moore plays sassy gay paraplegic Warren Palmer. Exiting the hospital at roughly the same time, the three hatch a plan to live together. As Palmer explains, "We would have, among the three of us, one good pair of hands, one good pair of legs, three good livers, three warm hearts, and three functioning brains."

And here is where the best can be said for Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon, adapted as it is by lesbian writer—and former hospital-based social worker—Marjorie Kellogg from her own novel. Kellogg and perhaps especially Preminger steer away from pity and toward the character's courage and drive for independent living, for making their way in the world despite all that's stacked against them. Junie won't take "no" for an answer from the owner of the dilapidated bungalow the trio rents and embarks to fix up. Warren seizes on the opportunity for a vacation to a seaside resort, one he reasons that he and his roomies deserve. Arthur, although conspicuously fragile, eventually proves his mettle by declaring, almost verbatim, the title of the film. For his part, Preminger stated, "Perhaps it is fear. Whatever it is, people want to close their eyes to cripples. So I decided to make a film about these three crippled young people."

Also in the film's favor: a fine supporting performance by James Coco as Mario, the local fish-market owner who takes to his new neighbors. Coco's relatively naturalistic warmth and humor conjure an oasis in the wilderness (as in the expressive non-verbal gag of Mario looking up "sodomy" in the dictionary). And the restless camerawork owes to the great Boris Kaufman (On the Waterfront, 12 Angry Men, The Pawnbroker), lensing his final film.

/content/films/4955/1.jpgBut I have been delaying the inevitable. Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon is the very "picture" of tin-eared tonal inconsistency, with moments of look-away camp and persistently erratic pacing that cause the narrative to lurch from scene to scene. Preminger's grasping for youth-culture relevance and new-cinema cool, while sort of admirable, just come off as embarrassing. The director's lack of the requisite finesse for the material becomes more obvious with each scene. Occasionally a humorous conceit functions for a moment, but the drama is uniformly inept: we don't pity the characters, but we don't feel anything for them either.

Here's Junie wearing her comically oversized sombrero to hide her disfigurement. There's Warren, spinning a fabulist fantasy sequence or chowing down on hot dogs with his new gay friend Beach Boy (Fred Williamson!), an employee of the Patty's Hideaway resort. And there's Arthur, stumbling through a hallucinatory flashback of his troubled youth, his anxiety depicted by a succession of figures in ghostly makeup, taunting him. In another bizarre scene, the friends' landlord Miss Gregory (played by Minnelli's godmother Kay Thompson) baits Warren, with a supposedly valuable cross, to rise from his wheelchair and walk. While Moore can and does fall back on flamboyance to sell most of his material, Howard's awkward, unconvincing performance is that of a man who's trapped and looking for an exit.

A movie that committed to a satirical picaresque through a largely uncaring world might have made the more outré scenes work, but nestled next to sunny scenes that play in the comic-heartfelt vein of a James L. Brooks movie (like the moment when Arthur gifts Junie with a fresh whiting from his new job at the fish market, prompting the response "Thank you, Arthur. I dont believe any man has ever given me a fish before")—well, let's just say things fall apart. By the time the theatrically gay Warren makes passionate on-the-beach love to a Wordsworth-quoting female prostitute (Emily Yancy), the story definitively reaches a point of no return, and the even less convincing climax that follows for Arthur puts the final nail in the film's coffin.

Admittedly, the film has its defenders, some of them enthusiastic, but lousy looping and an oddball score ranging from crazed jazz to muzak contribute to the film's disconnect from most audiences and critics. It's probably a bad sign that the warmest emotional connection goes out to Pete Seeger in his film-framing performance of "Old Devil Time." Seeger strums the lovely ballad as he meanders through the woods, and the song's expression of the film's themes more artfully renders them than anything that plays out between Seeger's appearances: "Old devil fear, you with your icy hands/Old devil fear, you'd like to freeze me cold/When I'm afraid, my lovers gather round/And help me rise to fight you one more time."

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Aspect ratios: 1.78:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0

Street date: 8/16/2016

Distributor: Olive Films

Whatever one thinks of the film, we can all agree that Olive Films' release of it is downright heroic. Though the film has played on network and cable TV, it has never received a DVD or Blu-ray release until the Olive discs now hitting shelves in 2016. Olive Films is just the outfit to release the film, since the company put out The Otto Preminger Collection in 2012 with three of the director's films of a similar vintage (hard to say why this film—likewise a Paramount title—didn't join the three films in the set at that time).

Picture quality is excellent. Aside from a bit of dust, a quite clean source print gets a stable transfer here. Color is the most striking feature of the hi-def Blu-ray image, though the natural film grain also proves very pleasing. Black level isn't very deep, so shadow detail is negligible, but this may well be endemic to the source material.

Audio comes in a DTS-HD mono track that is a touch harsh and, obviously, offers limited dynamic range, but the music is warm, and dialogue comes through loud and clear. (Happily, Olive also supplies the film with English subtitles, albeit riddled with misspellings and typos, for the deaf and hard of hearing.) No bonus features here, but the film's the thing that will draw Minnelli and Preminger fans to this long-lost cinema curio.


Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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