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Guestwords: Mad for Movies

Thu, 03/24/2022 - 05:15
This week’s contributor hopes the Southampton Cinema will be spared the wrecking ball.
Julie Greene

I had a disturbing experience recently driving into Southampton Village from Hampton Bays. As we passed by the Southampton movie theater, I saw an empty marquee, no twinkling lights, the front doors bolted shut, and a for sale sign plastered on the wall of the vacant building.

My mind immediately flashed to “The Last Picture Show,” Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 masterpiece, based on the novel by Larry McMurtry, about a tiny, dead-end town in north Texas. “Is this to be Southampton’s fate?” I wondered. The thought unsettled me, depressed me, especially after spending a perfect day out and about in the Hamptons with a high school friend who had flown in for a weekend visit.

I am a consummate cinephile and have been most of my life. One of the first films I remember seeing as a child was “The Wizard of Oz.” I marveled as the screen blazed into glorious Technicolor when Dorothy touched down in Munchkinland. I was certain the tornado was real, not knowing anything about soundstages, backdrops, and set designs until years later. I was simply mesmerized by the magic of movies.

I grew up in Des Moines, Iowa, in the 1950s, population approximately 175,000. Still, several grand movie palaces graced the main streets of downtown, with smaller ones dotting the city. The vibrant, neon-lit marquees delighted me, glowing bright at night, and I was always eager to read what movies were playing there or coming soon.

During stifling Iowa summers, the movie houses were the few air-conditioned places where we could find cool respite from the heat and be transported to another world — out West with Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier, down the rabbit hole with Alice to Wonderland, or off to Never-Never Land with Peter Pan.

Nothing excited me more than walking into a darkened theater to watch dramas unfold up on the silver screen.

When I was a teenager, my gramma lived a few miles from the Varsity Cinema near Drake University’s campus. My sister and I often trekked two or three miles down University Avenue with friends to catch the latest picture. We cheered as Dumbo flew, cried when Old Yeller died, yearned for a young love like the one portrayed in “A Summer Place.”

We combed through the movie magazines and sometimes fantasized about living in sunny California, frolicking happily in fun-filled days of surfing and meeting boys at the beach, just like Sandra Dee in “Gidget.”

In 1960, my family moved to Commack. I continued to relish trips to the movies, even more so when I got my driver’s license. By that time, there were more films targeting the teen audience: “Beach Blanket Bingo” with Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon, “Where the Boys Are,” “A Patch of Blue,” and my favorite, “Splendor in the Grass,” starring Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood, two of the most beautiful actors in the world.

Commack had a small cinema in the Mayfair Shopping Center, but mostly we drove to Huntington to see the latest motion picture. As gas was 30 cents a gallon and tickets around 70 cents, we went often. Commack had a drive-in, too, but I found the boisterous atmosphere distracting, so I rarely went.

My love affair with movies surged when I moved to Los Angeles in 1971. The minute my friend Dave and I arrived, after a scenic three-week road trip from Iowa, it was love at first sight. The palm trees, the Pacific Ocean, the mountains, the canyons, the white stucco buildings, and the climate, the sunny, subtropical climate that produced night-blooming jasmine, gardenias the size of teacups, birds of paradise, and luscious bougainvillea that draped over walls, fences, houses, everything.

L.A. was a paradise, chock full of amazing sights: the Hollywood sign, Hollywood Boulevard, the Walk of Fame, Sunset Strip, Griffith Park, the Hollywood Bowl, and countless movie theaters sprinkled across the huge sprawl of L.A. County.

Neither of us owned a television set, so movies were our go-to pleasure for weekly entertainment. On Sundays we usually drove into Westwood Village for dinner, then checked out a double feature at the cinema in Santa Monica on the way home to our 4th Street apartment. Forays to Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and other historic Hollywood movie palaces were saved for premieres and blockbusters.

Of course, with television, movie attendance began its steady decline. Things have changed radically ever since, particularly with the onslaught of cable companies sporting hundreds of channels, and later Amazon’s Fire Stick and Prime Video, and myriad other streaming services. It’s a miracle that anyone goes to the movies these days.

Still, I am a movie theater holdout. I enjoy the whole process: deciding which movie to see, getting there, buying tickets (plus a snack or two), picking out a good seat, and sharing the experience in the dark with a group of complete strangers. For me, there’s nothing else like it.

Last summer (one of the worst on record, with the scorching heat waves, drenching rains, and lingering pandemic), I decided to do nothing much but watch movies, concentrating on film noir. I enjoyed a double or triple bill almost every day. I researched film noir on the internet and ordered DVDs from the library. I watched everything from overlooked B pictures to classics from Hollywood’s heyday in the 1940s and ’50s. I read biographies, listened to directors’ and film historians’ commentaries, pored over online polls, and immersed myself in all things old Hollywood.

I learned more about stars I’d hardly known of and discovered character actors and forgotten players: Dana Andrews, John Garfield, Lizabeth Scott, Linda Darnell, Joan Bennett, Arthur Kennedy, and a host of others. I rewatched many of the films listed on the American Film Institute’s top 100 of all time, from the great directors, Hitchcock, Huston, Kazan, Preminger, Polanski, and featuring the great beauties: Marlene Dietrich, Gene Tierney, Lana Turner, Lauren Bacall, Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor, Ava Gardner.

Back in the day, the major studios churned out tons of movies every year. Warner Brothers made 40 films in 1940 alone, not counting all the B pictures. So far, having only scratched the surface, I’ve compiled a list of 50-plus films left to investigate.

Yes, I am mad for movies, a flick chick, obsessed with motion pictures.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m ready to tune in to number 29 on A.F.I.’s list of America’s greatest films, “Double Indemnity,” for the umpteenth time.

Alexa, please dim the lights.

Dianne Moritz is a children’s book author who lives in North Sea. This year’s Academy Awards telecast is Sunday night.

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