VHS Vednesday: The Manipulator
THE MANIPULATOR (1971). Directed by Yabo Yablonsky. Starring Mickey Rooney, Luana Anders, and Keenan Wynn.
B.J. Lang (Mickey Rooney), an aging, out-of-work Hollywood make-up artist, has lost his mind. Imagining himself at the center of a world where he had always been a peripheral figure, he now believes himself to be a great director, barking orders on an abandoned soundstage to an imaginary crew--imaginary, that is, except for his "leading lady" Carlotta (Luana Anders), whom he has tied to a wheelchair. What follows is an extended mind-game as Carlotta humors B.J.'s delusions while desperately searching for some opportunity to escape.
The Manipulator (also titled B.J. Lang Presents) is a one-of-a-kind oddity. With its confined setting and small cast (essentially a two-person show between Rooney and Anders, with third-billed Keenan Wynn making only a brief appearance as a homeless man with the misfortune to stumble into their world), it seems as if it was originally intended for the stage, but writer/director Yabo Yablonsky (in his only directorial effort) piles on outlandish visual flourishes (freeze-frames, rapid-fire cutting, sped-up scenes, solarized footage, etc.) in an apparent attempt to make the material more cinematic. The result, however, is virtually unwatchable. Perhaps it might have worked better as a stage play, where the intimate space of a small theater could heighten the tension between the protagonists. On the other hand, it's hard to imagine this material working in any medium.
Who's Leaving This Off Their Resume?
In the Golden Age of Television, few performers excelled more than Mickey Rooney in one-man performances (Alcoa Theatre's "Eddie," The Twilight Zone's "Last Night of a Jockey"). Despite the presence of Anders and Wynn (as well as numerous hallucinatory extras), The Manipulator is, for all intents and purposes, yet another solo showcase for Rooney. However, it's not one he can be proud of...while the aforementioned shows gave Rooney the opportunity to build a solid character, B.J. Lang is a jumbled mess of tics, rants, and eccentricities (from singing a screaming rendition of "Chattanooga Choo-Choo" to appearing in rouge and blue eye-shadow). The script piles on too many crazy actions for Lang to ever be convincing as a crazy person.
Anders and Wynn fare better as the "straight men" to Rooney's lunatic; even as thinly-drawn as their characters are (the damsel-in-distress and the hapless-drunk), they at least are recognizable as human beings.
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