May 12, 2014
Believe it or not, before he was one of the biggest laughing stocks of Hollywood, the butt of cheap jokes among philistines, and the object of forbidden desire among closested redneck homos, Don Johnson was an underground gay icon of sorts, mainly because he played the lead in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) star Sal Mineo’s original gay-themed 1967 play about prison rape, Fortune and Men's Eyes, which was later adapted into a film of the same name in 1971 (although, Johnson did not appear in it). In fact, Johnson’s first role in a film was as the eponymous lead of the largely forgotten counter-culture cult flick The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart (1970) starring alongside flagrantly flaming Fortune and Men's Eyes star Michael Greer (The Gay Deceivers, Messiah of Evil)—a man so gay that he recorded an album entitled ‘Tallulah in Heaven’ where he mimics the voice of queer icon Tallulah Bankhead—and not only does the film include gay undertones, but it also features the Miami Vice star oftentimes naked and even masturbating in a bathtub while reading a disturbing letter written by his mother. Based on the semi-autobiographical 1970 novel of the same name written by Robert T. Westbrook—the son of English-born Jewish gossip columnist Sheilah Graham Westbrook, who is probably best known for writing about Golden Age Hollywood and being the lover of F. Scott Fitzgerald (in fact, she immortalized her relationship with the writer with the book Beloved Infidel, which was adapted into a film in 1959 starring Gregory Peck)—The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart was, among other things, lauded by Andy Warhol of all people as being the film featuring the most accurate depiction of its hyper-hedonistic era, referring to the work as, “the quintessential, most truthful studio-made film about the '60s counterculture.” In fact, Warhol (who was suppose to appear as a ‘freak-out psychiatrist’) and his superstars Ultra Violet, Candy Darling, and Gerard Malanga were actually originally cast in the film, which was advertised in newspapers, but for whatever reason they never actually appeared in the work. While Warhol and his speed-addled superstars did not shoot a single scene for the film, alpha-superstar Joe Dallesandro (Flesh, Blood for Dracula) was hired for one of the lead roles but was fired after the first day after butting heads with the entire film crew, with the stoic sex icon apparently remarking to the assistant director of the film before permanently walking off the set, “I don’t want to give you that kind of pleasure, but you make me feel bad because this is the first job I’ve been fired from. And yet, it makes me feel happy because this is the stupidest film I’ve ever worked on!” Indeed, with its incessant nudity and voyeuristic camera angeles, The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart actually seems like a Paul Morrissey flick had it been produced by Hollywood as opposed to penny-pincher Warhol. Of course, unlike Morrissey’s works, the film also takes a less farcical approach to depicting the counter-culture generation and all its drugged-out degeneracy. Directed by a forgotten TV hack who worked on television series like Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1959-1962) and Mission: Impossible (1966-1971), The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart is like the more lurid little brother film to Midnight Cowboy (1969), albeit more immature but also more melodramatically tragic. The sordid story of a young would-be-filmmaker and all-around mentally weak loser who is addicted to masturbation and nihilism who falls in with a ‘sexually liberated’ counter-culture crowd, only to become all the more perverted and nihilistic, not to mention drug addicted, The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart is less a cautionary tale than a portrait of a ‘wasted’ generation that unwittingly sold its soul to rock n roll.
As a young man who hated growing up in sunny California and seeing all the fancy Cadillacs driving around, college junior Stanley Sweetheart (Don Johnson) long ago decided to enter a fantasy world of his own mind comprised of compulsive masturbation and daydreaming, as well as amateur exploitation filmmaking. Indeed, Stanley is sort of like a younger and less crazed Anglo version of antihero Rupert Pupkin from Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy (1983), as he constantly fantasizes about how he wishes things were as opposed to how they actually turnout. At the beginning of The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart, Stan the underman daydreams of walking up to a hot girl and impressing her so much with pretentious lines like “It is very difficult to adjust to the technocratic age” that she instantly swoons and starts making out with him in front of dozens of other college students. Instead, the girl, Cathy (Dianne Hull, whose credits include The Onion Field (1979) and Christmas Evil (1980), walks up to Stanley and ends up hitting on him, thus demonstrating his passive and somewhat effeminate character. After class, Stan looks at some porno mags and then jerks-off in his archaic bathtub while reading a strange letter from his mother, who writes that she hopes that she dies in a plane crash so that he can get the insurance money as she is afraid her son is incapable of ever supporting himself. To impress Cathy, Stan shows her a short black-and-white film he directed entitled ‘Head Less’ where he is bombarded by a couple of naughty naked nurses on a stretcher, only to become disappointed in the end because he gets sex instead of the new head he so deeply desired. Being from a somewhat traditional background, Cathy is shocked by the film but she is infatuated with Stanley so she pretends to like it and the two make out. When Stan goes out to a diner later that night, a middle-aged creep named Jim begins to brag about how much ‘pussy’ he used to get and then offers him $10 for his ass, thus causing the college boy to runaway in abject fear. Frustrated he has yet to get real sex, Stan tells Cathy she is “not a real woman” for refusing to put out, thus talking her into losing her virginity in the process by pathetic manipulative means (indeed, Stan's main talents are lying and manipulation). Of course, Stan soon loses interest in Cathy when he gets what he wants and when he discovers that her roommate Fran (Holly Near) is a loose lady who will put out for any man, he conspires to coerce his girlfriend into asking her best friend if she wants to star in one of his little movies in the hope that he will get some tail. Of course, Fran obliges but she is also rather fat but that does not stop softcore sex addict Stan from trying to get in her rather large panties. Indeed, Stan does direct Fran in a somewhat autobiographical short entitled ‘Masturbation’ but he also plies her with alcohol while they are shooting and eventually takes advantage of her when she is drunk. Naturally, after Stan screws fat Fran, he finds that the less than gorgeous gal is obsessed with him and routinely goes by his apartment for sex, which he always gives into, even though he finds the girl to be somewhat repugnant.
One night while sleeping with his girlfriend Cathy, who has no idea her charming boy toy is banging her beast of a best friend, Stan is woken up by his ambiguously gay musician friend Danny (Michael Greer) with a knock at the door. Danny ultimately starts a little party at Stan’s apartment and when Cathy discovers the party boy has weed, which she has never tried, she talks him into giving her some. Ultimately, Danny seduces Cathy with his hippie charms while they are stoned and she becomes infatuated with him, even though he has next to nil interest in her and has more of an interest in her boyfriend. Of course, Cathy breaks up with Stan and when he tries to tell her he loves her, she responds, “You’re such a lair. It’s one of your most endearing qualities. You know you’re just saying those things. You live in a dream world…you just need someone along to take care of you and give you a daily ration of sex.” Stan also attempts to have sex with Cathy after the bitter breakup, but she pushes him off and he gets so infuriated that he slaps her across the face and violently throws her out of his apartment. With his self-esteem destroyed, Stan dresses up like a gay hustler and goes to his lesbian friend Shayne/Barbara’s (Linda Gillin) apartment under the pretense of buying dope and attempts to pull a pathetic Marlon Brando act on his homegirl’s Asian girlfriend Andrea (Victoria Racimo). Needless to say, Stan begins a ménage a trios with Shayne and Andrea that involves drug-fueled paint orgies (indeed, they like to get naked, paint their bodies with kaleidoscopic colors, and engage in group sex). Stan also begins to look like a disheveled hippie bum and when his ex-girlfriend Cathy spots him at a concert, she barely recognizes him and seems rather disturbed by the fact that he brags about being on steady doses of speed, weed, and acid. While watching Danny perform with his band at one of his hippie gigs (Greer actually composed songs for the film’s soundtrack, which sounds like a rip-off of The Doors), a group of stoned degenerates begin cutting a girl’s arm against her will and smearing blood all over each other (Danny especially gets a kick out of this). Possibly due to the fact he is a repressed homosexual (which is hinted at in a couple scenes) and/or because he fried his brain on too much acid, Danny opts for committing suicide in front of his bourgeois mother by putting a shotgun in his mouth as if he is giving it a blowjob and pulling the trigger. Of course, Stan sees this unexpected event as a total bummer and complains to his fuck-buddy Andrea that he has “lost all sense of time.” In the end, Stan stands in front of a railing in a symbolic scene where he looks like he is in a prison cell and then walks away from the once-merry ménage a trios with his head looking down at the ground as if he has a major case of melancholia.
Ultimately, the rather simple yet effective message of The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart is that one becomes more enslaved to sex, drugs, and rock n roll than any sort of strict middleclass background, with protagonist Stanley going from being a goofy college student with a minor masturbation problem to being a sex and drug addicted spiritual slave and college dropout with a horrendous hobo-like wardrobe who is only respected by lecherous lesbos. Indeed, while Stan initially aspires to be at least a filmmaker, has a real girlfriend, and attends college, by the end he literally has nothing (not even his messy studio apartment) except a screwed up brain, a debilitating case of depression, and a dead friend. Notably, the protagonist decides to fully devote his life to debauchery after alpha-degenerate Danny, who cynically describes himself as having a “washed up life and a great bod,” gives him the following words of ostensible wisdom: “Why don’t you just do what you want to do? […] Just be. Well, accept everything. If your balling your chick’s best friend, well, why not? You don’t have to be a student, you don’t have to be a filmmaker. Just be.” Of course, Danny’s ‘laidback’ existence of ‘just being’, which is really just a passive form of nihilism that is practiced by someone who has totally given up on life and does not give a shit about anything, ultimately leads to his irrevocable mental derangement and rather messy suicide via shotgun in the mouth. Undoubtedly, if many ways, The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart is a confused work that is part exploitation (the voyeuristic camera always manages to catch flesh, especially Don Johnson and his Johnson), part sex comedy, part romantic comedy, part erotic Afterschool Special, part psychotic psychedelic psychodrama, and part coming of age flick, with a subtext about the negative effects of sexual repression thrown in for good measure. As for Don Johnson, The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart is the sole film I can think of that the actor starred in where he gives a believable and memorable performance, as his patently pathetic character radiates naivety, neuroticism, sexual frustration, and youth stupidity in a naturalistic fashion that is even more convincing than Jon Voight was in Midnight Cowboy. For whatever reason (I assume it is has to do with music copyrights), the film has never been released on VHS or DVD (I found a copy someone taped off TV), hence one of the reasons for its undeserved obscurity. Indeed, a work perfect for mainstream filmgoers that cannot bother to see aimless scenes of Little Joe suffering from perennial impotence in Warhol produced ‘Paul Morrissey Trilogy’ (Flesh, Trash, Heat), The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart is the one Hollywood film where the counter-culture movement is portrayed as it really was as a self-destructive road of nihilistic hedonism and false values that leads to nowhere except nowhere. A sometimes titillating and constantly entertaining time capsule about the most decidedly degenerate generation in American history that is thankfully now finally dying out, The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart is certainly the film to show someone if they want to understand the real (non)Weltanschauung that the hippies and their equally misguided descendents mindlessly espoused.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 10:46 PM
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