Timothy Carey THE WORLD'S GREATEST DIRECTOR!
Article and Interviews by HARVEY F. CHARTRAND
TIMOTHY CAREY IS REMEMBERED
for many great performances as a screen villain and oddball, but there . was another aspect to his career that was overlooked, at least until recently. Carey was a first-rate director, leaving behind a slim but unforgettable body of work. His magnum opus, The World's Greatest Sinner (1962), has been called "the best underground movie ever made." Actor-director John Cassavetes said the film had the "emotional brilliance of (Russian pantheon director Sergei Eisenstein)." It will soon be out on DVD, reaching a mass audience four decades after its limited release and still smelling fresh out of the oven.
"The World's Greatest Sinner is an amazing, love-it-or- hate-it kind of film," says experimental filmmaker Gerry Fialka.
"It's definitely bizarre and in some ways ahead of its time, anticipating the Jim Jones cult many years before it happened. Martha Graham really put it well when she said: The great artists aren't ahead of their time. They are their time! Tim was just reflecting what his times (the late 1950s and early 60s) were all about." The stifling conformity of America in the '50s—the era of the "man in the grey flannel suit"—was giving way to a new, more liberated and permissive society, heavily influenced by the world's first-ever teen culture, with its own music, movies, and values. A rebel himself and no stranger to the Beat Generation, Carey could sense that big societal changes and radical counterculture that would soon shake it's foundations.
The World's Greatest Sinner is the story of the mysterious transformation of insurance salesman Clarence Hilliard into a "rockabilly messiah." Clarence quits his job, changes his name to God, and exhorts his followers to become "superhuman beings," working the crowds at his pep rallies into a frenzy! Urged on by a sinister image-maker, God Hilliard parlays his rock stardom into a career in national politics, founding the Superhuman Being Party. His followers wear jet-black uniforms with God's name inscribed on their arm bands. At this point, Sinner becomes a souped-up, low-budget version of All the King's Men (1949), a fictionalized account of the rise and fall of Louisiana Governor Huey Long.
The concert performances that Carey unleashes in Sinner are genuinely exciting. Goateed and with dangling oil-slicked hair, Carey looks great and has the rock gyrations down pat; he radiates boatloads of charisma and exhibits genuine showmanship. It's also great to see this excellent actor (so often relegated to uncredited bit parts) in a lead role. Frank Zappa's music is deft and compelling, not some fake rock 'n roll soundtrack a la Les Baxter. Despite its limited distribution, Sinner's reputation spread far and wide. In 1969, while Carey was shooting his scene for Elvis Presley's last film, Change of Habit, the King approached Carey and asked for a copy of Sinner. He'd heard good things about it.
"Timothy was just an incredible, electrifying presence," says director Curtis Harrington, who worked with Carey in 1971 on the horror-thriller What's the Matter with Helen? "He was utterly fascinating in his own film, The World's Greatest Sinner."
Carey shot most of Sinner in El Monte and Long Beach, California from 1958 to 1962. The movie was mainly self-financed from Carey's earnings as an actor in such films as East of Eden (1955), The Killing (1956), Paths of Glory (1957), Gunfight at Dodge City (1959), The Boy and the Pirates (1960), and Mermaids of Tiburon (1962), as well as his frequent guest appearances on television in Westerns like Gunsmoke and Rawhide. Tim also got $25,000 in sponsorship from a man in Louisiana (M.A. Ripps, the producer of the drive-in classic Bayou, 1957, in which Carey starred)," recalls actor Gil Barreto, who played the Mexican gardener in Sinner. Tim kept on shooting until about 1965 and stopped, because he ran out of money and the guy wouldn't give him any more." (Even though Sinner was barely released in 1962, Carey continued working on it—re-editing the footage and shooting new scenes—for the rest of his life.)
"Sinner was 20 years ahead of its time," says Timothy's brother George Carey, associate-producer of the picture and had a bit part as a follower. Timmy showed it in screening rooms to studio heads, trying to get them interested, but the religious aspect upset them. People who could have advanced the film thought the public would condemn it as blasphemous. But Sinner does conclude with a miracle, a church scene where Clarence Hilliard begs for forgiveness. He has remorse for the type of person he has become, and seeks redemption. The problem was with the blasphemous stuff that came before. Not too many people could handle that."
"My personal opinion is that Sinner is very unusual," Barreto observes. "Nobody else but Tim would have dared to make a movie like that. Very controversial, especially when Tim pierces the host (to make God cry out in pain and reveal Himself).Tim's acting was good, but it was very strange."
Carey changed during the filming, Barreto reports, truly becoming the character he was portraying. Clarence Hilliard starts out sweet and loving and becomes a wicked man. Barreto recalls, "At first, I only had a few lines, but Tim was so nasty to the bit players that they started quitting the picture. As they disappeared, Tim kept giving me their lines, until I had a big supporting role. Tim became God Hilliard, and we really had God in person on the set. It was very difficult to be with Tim at times." Nothing would deflect Carey from bringing his vision to the screen. The result is there for all to see a crazed B-movie, insane, disturbing, and provocative, fueled by rage and passion.
Without the backing of a major studio, Sinner didn't stand a chance of getting a widespread release. Carey rented the Vista Theater in Hollywood to screen it, wore his gold lame suit, and pranced around on talk shows in an effort to drum up publicity. He rented other theaters frequented by the raincoat crowd. And yet we're still talking about Sinner all these years later, after many prestige pictures of that era are long forgotten. However, not everyone thinks highly of Sinner. "I saw all of the films that Timothy directed— Tweet's Ladies of Pasadena, The World's Greatest Sinner, and one other," says John Flynn, who directed Carey in The Outfit (1974). These were rather obscure, independent movies that were often seen in the '50s and '60s, like Kenneth Anger movies. They were crudely shot, over-acted, and bizarrely plotted. There was a bit of a 'home movie' thing about Timothy's films. For my taste, I didn't especially care for them. John Cassavetes was a brilliant guy, and maybe he saw things in them that I missed." (Actor-director Cassavetes was a friend and admirer of Carey's, casting him in Minnie and Moskowitz, 1971, and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, 1976.)
Carey's next directorial project— Tweet's Ladies of Pasadena (1972) —is his attempt at a late-night TV series; it's a one-hour show about the only male member of a Pasadena sewing circle that makes clothes for "nude" animals. "Tweet's Ladies of Pasadena is an amazing piece too," Fialka notes. "It's John Waters, years before Waters made the kind of films he made. Tweet's is like that—underground, trashy, freaky, whatever you want to call it— but it's way ahead of what John Waters was doing. It's Tim reflecting his creative spirit and the times (the psychedelic era) in which he was making this film. People like Francis Coppola and Jack Nicholson knew that Tim was quite a maverick, pioneer filmmaker. They wanted to work with him." (Carey appeared as the demented Lord High 'n' Low in The Monkees' Head, 1968, scripted by Nicholson.)
One could say Carey made Tweet's at great professional and personal cost. Coppola was eager to cast Carey as the dimwitted thug Luca Brasi in The Godfather (1972), but Carey turned down the part so he could film the Tweet's television pilot, which was never sold or broadcast.
"Timmy's big mistake of all time was not taking the part of Luca Brasi in The Godfather," laments George Carey. "He had the part, no question about it, but then decided he didn't want to get involved. Francis Ford Coppola definitely wanted Timmy in the film as Luca Brasi. Basically, Timmy was replaced (by Lenny Montana, a former wrestler). That part was Timmy's. All he had to say was he wanted it. But, that was Timmy. He passed that up and it was a big mistake."
Carey worked on another directing project in the late '50s, titled simply A.L. "A.L. is LA spelled backwards," explains Carey's son, producer-director Romeo Carey. "That was my father's first script. He shot a lot of it in 1956. There are great shots of downtown L.A. in a whole different era. A.L. was about a young couple from the Midwest who want to have their first child in the San Fernando Valley. They head for Los Angeles with their pet monkey, arrive, and get lost on the freeway, which was a common occurrence back then. The signage wasn't very good, and people got lost on these looping freeways for hours. The story all hap pens in a day, like The Bicycle Thief (1948)."
Carey's defender , John Cassavetes, loved A.L. He took it to Ned Tanen, studio head at Universal, and promoted the hell out of it. "The studio was interested in doing A.L., but they weren't going to let my father direct it." Romeo Carey reveals. "They wanted to get Daniel Petrie to direct it. They liked the script, but wanted to re-write it. My dad didn't like the idea of them re-writing it, without him having any say in it. My dad would rather not make A.L. under those conditions. But when you're dealing with studios, you have to surrender your independent spirit for money, and Dad wasn't willing to make that trade. He never could, so A.L. never got made. Dad attempted to film A.L. himself, using his own cast, he wasn't going to act in it. He found a shoemaker who he thought was perfect for the lead role. Dad started shooting on the freeway. After he got through 40 pages of the script, he abandoned the project, because he discovered that the actor was really good until he got to the more demanding scenes. Then he got cold feet, couldn't pull it off."
Other films were envisioned, but never produced. Carey wrote My Casa is Yours, about a singing Mexican cowboy who dreams of being a pro soccer player. Another script, entitled Commercials, was about an ad executive who joins forces with an anarchistic, dog-loving street musician. Greenwood is the story of Cass Matthews, a guy who pays for his 25,000 acres of alligator sanctuary by recording pop songs in Memphis.
In the '70s, Carey worked on Fiore, a story about a car wash worker who turns detective and tries to solve a necrophilia/ murder case so he can use the reward money to pay for his girlfriend's art school tuition. Fiore also went under the titles The Hillside Strangler and Necrophilia. Carey tried to sell it as a two-hour teleplay. The plot synopsis reads: "Tragic murders in the Pennsylvania Poconos have catapulted an obscure town into the national spotlight. Invariably, persons try to cash in on other people's misery. Fiore Reid, a nobody, now has the chance for the first time in his life to become a sombody!" "Fiore is a brilliant whodunit story." says Romeo Carey. "I would love to make this movie."
Carey's final project as a film director is Godfarter III (1989), an audition piece for Coppola, who was looking to cast the role of an elderly Mafia don for The Godfather: Part III (1990). Coppola condsidered Carey too young for the part (and may also have been put off by Carey's earlier eccentricities on The Godfather). Carey tried to convince the director that he could tackle the role of Don Altobello, but it wasn't meant to be, and Eli Wallach was eventually cast in the part.
Godfarter III consists mostly of scenes taken directly from the original script by Coppola and Mario Puzo. Romeo Carey recalls, "It was basically a screen test, but you also get to see behind-the-scenes of the making of the screen test and how my father worked with actors. I shot the screen test. I got a call from my father. He said, 'bring your camera tomorrow morning, I am going to shoot a screen test for Francis.' I showed up at his studio the next day with my camera and lights. In a single day, he put the project together, complete with the use of the Hilton Hotel, a limo, props, ten bodyguards in suits for his entrance, and his acting friend Robert Miano. My dad's intention was to prove to Francis that he could play an 80-year-old Don. (Carey was then 60.) We powdered his face white and sprayed his hair white. In the end, my dad was happy with the screen test and felt satisfied. I shot what he told me to shoot and then I edited the footage for him, and he sent it to Francis. Francis liked it a lot and was interested in my father for the part, but Dad suffered another massive stroke a few days after the shoot."
Carey's final years, before his death from a third stroke in 1994, were consumed with a project called The Insect Trainer, a stage play that he eventually planned to make as a feature film.
Inspired by the exploits of Le Petomane— a 19th-century Parisian circus performer known as "the world's greatest farter"—the play focuses on Guasti Q. Guasti, a dishwasher in a Chinese restaurant who is accused of murdering an old lady, after his powerful fart knocks her off her chair, causing her to strike her head against the stone floor. The crone dies and Guasti stands trial for her murder. Guasti then defends himself against the charges in court, delivering intensely dense, surrealistic monologues on the positive attri butes (indeed the necessity) of uninhibited farting for a healthy, well-rounded life.
"It's very sad that Tim never got to make The Insect Trainer" Fialka observes. "It really was the pinnacle project of his life. Tim worked on it for many years. Many actors wanted to work on The Insect Trainer with Tim, because it was like going to a workshop with a great actor! You remember Tim's great line from The Insect Trainer, Live longer, Live Healthier, and let thy arse make wind.!!!' Who in his right mind would ever write a play or make a film about farting? Tim would, but it wasn't just some sophomoric joke or adolescent regression. The Insect Trainer is rather a mature realization of the dangers of suppressing our emotions, especially for men. I mean, we cough in public. Why can't we fart in public? Who decides these things? But Tim would ask, 'Why would you suppress your body from functioning?' I would call Tim a liberator of feelings, rather than an intellectual."
In a letter to Carey (dated January 22, 1994), Ray Carney, a professor of film and American studies at Boston University, wrote, "Re: The Insect Trainer script—What an extraordinary, weird, wonderful, bizarrely unclassifiable work you've created. In the Joycean, Swiftian, Salvador Dalian vein, you violate all of the taboos, cross all of the boundaries, break all of the rules, and—ecstatically—take us to places almost never even dreamt of in drama before. The script is a 'gas' in the other sense of the word: It's hilarious—as well as humanly touching and moving. It's a celebration of eccentric, non-homogenized, non-normalized humanity. An expression of love for the lost and forgotten feelings and impulses of life. A recognition of some of the sadness and loneliness of all originals, pioneers, inventors. In short, you break up the mental and spiritual constipation that afflicts both art and life. You free the spirit. The laughter and thoughtfulness you provoke, if we let ourselves be affected by them, shake us out of our zombie- like trances of conformity. This is an awesome piece of work. Bravo. Bravissimo!" Prof. Carney's letter is a fitting epitaph to the amazing talent and spirit of Timothy Carey.