Endless Don

The Roxie celebrates the roller-coaster career of an erstwhile Hollywood hunk

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Pet project: The Hoodlum Priest (1961)

arts@sfbg.com

FILM "Introducing Hollywood's newest hunk-a-man!" crowed the ads for 1956's Bus Stop, in which Don Murray made his film debut as the cowpoke besotted with Marilyn Monroe's movie-mad hick — a plum role in a big hit opposite the reigning box-office queen. The actor even got an Oscar nomination for this start at the tippy-top. But he didn't stay there long.

What happened? With "A Special Weekend With Don Murray ... America's Least-Remembered Movie Star," the Roxie aims to provide an answer. The event is part of a larger project set to culminate by year's end with the premiere of Don Malcolm's feature Unsung Hero, a documentary tribute to "The Extraordinary Times and Exemplary Life" of the aforementioned. Both doc and retrospective feature an ad line, "He went from acclaim to obscurity in the blink of an eye," that — like many of their subject's performances — goes a bit hyperbolically overboard with the best intentions. Murray's descent was gradual, owing mostly to some noble but commercially shaky vehicle choices. Even with better luck, would he have remained on Hollywood's fickle casting A-list much longer? The "14 provocative performances" the Roxie revives this weekend suggest probably not.

Arriving post-Brando, pre-New Hollywood, he now looks like a transitional figure: Capable, earnest yet effortful, too often trying to overcome his classic leading-man looks via Actor's Studio-style "intensity" that then passed as being more "real," but now looks far from natural. The only child of stage veterans, Murray made his Broadway debut in Tennessee Williams' 1951 The Rose Tattoo at age 21. After several years' relief work as a Korean War conscientious objector, he'd barely resumed his career before Bus Stop put it in hyperdrive. After that smash, he could have done anything he liked. What he chose, however, was invariably heavier and less populist: Somber, "daring" issue-oriented dramas that required him to flex acting muscles as men torn between one thing (good) and another (bad). They were respectably received, but seldom attracted the rave reviews, awards or audiences hoped for.

Like Oscar-winning Marty (1955) before it, 1957's The Bachelor Party was a big-screen version of a TV script by Paddy Chayefsky in his pathos-de-la-Average-Joe mode, with Murray as a young office worker panicked by his wife's unexpected pregnancy. The same year's A Hatful of Rain had him as a morphine-addicted Korean War vet sweating out another long dark night of the soul. Amid much theatrical hand-wringing, Tony Franciosa's concerned brother is so hammy he required the balm of his own Oscar nomination. After a couple of ambitious Westerns and prestige TV plays, Murray portrayed an American medical student who winds up fighting for 1920s IRA leader James Cagney in Shake Hands With the Devil (1959). A good movie about another unpleasant subject, it was not a success.

So it was back to the Old West (in 1960's One Foot in Hell, a title descriptive of all his roles then) before the actor realized a pet project he also produced and co-wrote. The Hoodlum Priest (1961) had him as a Jesuit rehabilitating ex-cons in St. Louis, including pre-2001 Keir Dullea's surly delinquent. Melodramatic yet reasonably fresh thanks to future Empire Strikes Back (1980) director Irvin Kershner's vivid location shooting, it was nonetheless poorly received — not least by its real-life inspiration, who found this screen portrait objectionable enough to sue over.

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