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Iconic photographer Bruce Weber, perhaps most famous for his black-and-white shots of shirtless ephebic boys that gave Abercrombie & Fitch its sexy image, explores another type of American masculinity in the documentary Nice Girls Don’t Stay for Breakfast, his long-in-the-works portrait of classic Hollywood’s favorite antihero, Robert Mitchum. Also shot mainly in gorgeously grainy black-and-white, the film consists of interviews with people who knew, worked with or admire Mitchum — including, besides family members, actors such as Johnny Depp, Liam Neeson and Benicio Del Toro — as well as previously unseen interview and B-roll footage that Weber shot with the star himself before he passed away in 1997. A cinematic valentine to one of the onscreen greats, this is a warm, jazzy homage to a much-celebrated but also very complicated man whose complexity nonetheless remains forever just out of reach. It premiered at the Venice Film Festival in its Classics sidebar and should find a spot at festivals and cinematheques interested in celebrating an enduring screen legend.
Both Weber and Mitchum have contributed significantly to the (always-evolving) notion of what exactly constitutes American masculinity, so there is an affinity between the artists that is entirely natural. Nice Girls Don’t Stay for Breakfast — named after the song by Mitchum’s The Wonderful Country co-star Julie London that’s also very telling in terms of what a man’s desires and privileges might be — is fascinating as a first glimpse at how complex both the man himself and many of the tough-guy characters he played were, though the movie is always more anecdotal than really analytical.
There’s a lot of footage of Mitchum during a recording session of a (never released) jazz album at Capitol Records in Los Angeles, where his banter with fellow singer Marianne Faithfull suggests a playful and warmhearted side that wasn’t always evident in his screen roles. Footage of him talking to various admirers on the phone between interviews with Weber also suggests there was a script of sorts he frequently followed even in real life, with Mitchum always being self-deprecating, funny and polite but recycling the same setups and jokes. In one of the most priceless moments in the film, Weber, who is also occasionally heard in a voiceover, asks Mitchum to recite a line he uses a lot, which makes him frown and then pretend he has no idea what Weber’s talking about. Another strong moment sees one of his grandchildren recount how she helped prevent a suicide attempt by the actor, though Weber doesn’t have either the material or the desire to further probe the darker recesses of Mitchum’s mind, preferring to let his role choices and music do the heavy lifting for him.
While indeed self-deprecating, funny and polite as the older and still very handsome gentleman who finally said yes to Weber’s project after a lot of wooing, the doc does make it clear that not all of these adjectives would apply to some of Mitchum’s exploits as a younger man. They include an incident involving a black dildo planted into his birthday cake; Liz Taylor stalking him as a young girl; or Mitchum, after having been jailed for marijuana possession, devising a diabolical plan to take revenge on a prison guard who said his career would be over because of his jail time (it involves the man’s Polish wife, a lot of vodka and her bed). That said, while some of these antics — mostly recounted by others, it has to be noted — are pretty out there, flashes of his nice-guy persona surfaced even then, with Danny Trejo recounting how, after Mitchum’s experience behind bars, he donated money to have tables installed so the detainees didn’t have to hold their plates anymore when they ate.
The celebrity interviews yield the least interesting tidbits. Del Toro recounts this one time he hung out in a bar with the actor who played one of his childhood bogeymen; Depp, who co-starred with him in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, suggesting he was “very manly but very warm”; and Neeson and Clint Eastwood barely say anything of note. One curious omission is former lover Shirley MacLaine, who according to Going Home’s Brenda Vaccaro was the second love of his life, after his wife of many years, Dorothy, though the director partially solves this by including an excerpt from her autobiography in voiceover.
Weber’s film is not a strictly biographical one, so there’s no sense of Mitchum’s difficult younger years before he became famous or even a sense of how his career evolved. That said, there are countless film excerpts interspersed throughout, with Weber often picking scenes that center on Mitchum’s characters’ masculinity, with female protagonists falling in love with him, hitting him or, as in Cape Fear, being smeared with egg yolk and raped. His late co-star in that scene, Polly Bergen, here explains how she fell in love with Mitchum after being frightened, battered and hurt while shooting that scene on their first day; perhaps the most elegant way to suggest something of the complexity of Mitchum’s appeal. However, and perhaps inadvertently, the Cape Fear clip chosen also has a metatextual element, as the scene centers on forced consent to avoid charges of rape, which feels slightly icky when one remembers Weber himself has been accused of sexual assault in the wake of the #MeToo movement.
While Weber and editor Chad Sipkin don’t use the clips to construct any kind of critical argument, the cumulative effect of seeing all these clips together does suggest something about how Mitchum’s choice of roles was more interesting than those of many clear-cut leading men of the era, with his willingness to explore antiheroes and villains — his unforgettable turn as the minister in The Night of the Hunter is, of course, also included — allowing audiences to see different sides of human nature and how to be (or how not be) a man.
Since Nice Girls Don’t Stay for Breakfast seems to semi-improvise its way from one anecdote or film clip to another, it’s only appropriate its soundtrack is suffused with jazz as well. (No doubt, the fact Weber’s most noteworthy documentary project, 1988’s Let’s Get Lost, was about jazz great Chet Baker might have something to do with it as well.) The moments with Mitchum in the recording studio form the audio backbone of his latest feature, though Weber also includes other cuts, including a surprising but quite effective rendition of It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World — a song dealing with masculinity! — sung live by James Brown and Pavarotti. Weber and his cinematographers, including Jim Fealy and Lance Acord, shot the black-and-white material on grainy 16mm and 35mm stock, with Weber often using suggestive pillow shots between longer shots, with billowing curtains in the wind, cresting waves underneath a pier or clouds moving in front of a full moon adding to the melancholy and poetic atmosphere that suggests how, later in life, Mitchum significantly mellowed — even if he lost none of his complexity.
Production company: Just Blue Films
Director: Bruce Weber
Producer: Eva Lindemann-Sanchez
Executive producer: Nan Busch
Directors of photography: Theo Stanley, Jim Fealy, Frank Stanley, Shane Sigler, Lance Acord
Editor: Chad Sipkin
Music: John Leftwich
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Venice Classics)
Sales: Little Bear
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