Saturday, September 06, 2008

Little Shop of Horrors (1986)

It's the "Musical of the Month"!

One of the funniest sequences in Frank Oz's adaptation of the Off-Broadway hit Little Shop of Horrors is the introduction of the villain, Audrey II. At first Audrey II, a "strange and unusual plant" seems like a godsend for a struggling flower shop down on Skid Row. Tarty but kind Audrey (Ellen Greene) and mousy Seymour (Rick Moranis) have convinced their boss Mr Mutchnik (2-time Oscar nominee Vincent Gardenia) to display Audrey II in the window to drum up business. Immediately, to Mutchnik's disbelief, the pathetic trio are deluged with eager customers. The jokes fly fast, both visually and aurally, as huge handfuls of flowers are tossed about and overly expository dialogue is continually repeated in doorways, over registers and through windows.

Director Frank Oz was an inspired if obvious choice for transferring Little Shop from its stage pot into the larger garden of cinema with roots intact. The Audrey II would have to be a massive puppet villain and he knew from felt and foam. He provided the unforgettable voices of both Miss Piggy and Yoda and had previously directed the eye-popping puppet spectacle The Dark Crystal (1982). His filmography is wildly uneven but Little Shop proved the true jewel in his resume. It was, like the Audrey II, a strange and unusual movie for its time.

It's not really up for debate: the 1980s Musicals were Skid Row. The genre was the most undesirable of movie zip codes.

Rick Moranis and Ellen Greene belt out "Skid Row" with affecting desperation

Movie musicals were rare, and when they did arrive they were ill attended and relatively uninspired. Eventually filmmakers moved away. Maybe it was an unavoidable collapse, what with Bob Fosse's 70s masterpieces (Cabaret and All That Jazz) casting 'Can't top this!' shadows and MTV shrinking the taste for musical narratives into bite sized portions. Gentrification of the musical genre would start with the animated blockbusters of the 90s. Live-action musical would follow finally kicking up their heels again at the turn of the millenium. This is why I still cherish Little Shop of Horrors (1986). In the mid-80s it was rather like the Audrey II (prior to all the icky flesh eating!). For musical aficionados it was a strange and unusual sight but very welcome indeed.

I've always been fascinated with the decision making process involved in stage to screen transfers. Many movies based on plays are notoriously nervous about appearing "stagy". Little Shop of Horrors mostly avoids this awkwardness and seems delighted to be an odd hybrid of both traditions. The movie version never tries to present reality. The sets come with painted backdrops; pouring rain never once douses the trio of narrators (doo wop girls as Greek chorus = endlessly amusing) -- but it also takes obvious care to honor the "motion" in pictures. The camera is always moving, restlessly trying out new angles and there is a nifty depth of field to the production, even within small rooms. Little Shop acknowledges the diorama views provided by stage shows, but your eye is continually moving around and inside the prosceniums: up and down staircases, peeping through smudged windows and traveling through doorways. Frank Oz is taking you into every nook and cranny of Skid Row.

But the single most brilliant decision made in transfer was the retention of Ellen Greene for "Audrey" the role she created.

Audrey in a fog. Yet there isn't an out of focus moment in Greene's portrayal

Most movie musicals jettison their original stars, occasionally to their benefit (not all stage performers can kindle the same fire onscreen), but often to their detriment (the size of stardom superseding all else including vocal technique and general rightness for a role). Little Shop of Horrors provides us with the rare opportunity of seeing a star-making stage turn transferred in full with none of its magic diminished.

Greene's Audrey is a risky and unmovie-like creation (it's easy to imagine the same thing on stage -- which usually isn't a compliment), but her confidence and creativity are stunning. She so thoroughly owns the role that the performance transcends its origins. She'd performed Audrey hundreds of times but it's still vital and alive. She's Seymour's heart and the heart of the movie. To keep the blood of this production pumping she's got to swallow huge amounts of air. The oxygen only escapes her again in huge blasts, barely audible squeaks or quiet pockets of breathy tenderness. Greene's voice is a marvel both in song and spoken word. And so's her look: that impossible silhouette, round cartoon breasts, helmet hair, and tiny frame were surely visible from the back row in the theater and so, undoubtedly, was the performance. Yet for all of that she's still endearing in closeup.

I'd go so far as to nominate Ellen Greene for Best Actress for 1986. At the Oscars that year the nominee pool was a famously two-horse race (documented here before) between Marlee Matlin in Children of a Lesser God (working the disability hook that Oscar is often moved by), and Kathleen Turner in Peggy Sue Got Married who was inhabiting the more hit-n-miss terrain of the 'huge movie star whose time has (supposedly) come'. Here's a comparison chart:

I haven't seen any of these films recently, save Little Shop, so my nominees are subject to change (Farrow would be the first to drop but... for whom? Melanie Griffith in Something Wild? Jessica Lange in Crimes of the Heart? One of Oscar's choices?), but this is how I'm calling it today with Little Shop's soundtrack playing in my head. Forget "Somewhere That's Green", Ellen Greene was robbed of Something That's Gold in 1986. Marvel at this injustice: she wasn't even up for a Golden Globe for Comedy or Musical performance! Awards bodies were channeling her sadistic dentist boyfriend that year, weren't they? There weren't enough kindhearted Seymour's standing beside her.

Blogosphere of Horrors (MotM Participants)
Mondo Musicals has written about this movie extensively. It shows. His new piece is about the altered ending and the details surrounding it's release.
Warner Bros intended the film for the audience least likely to appreciate its genre-bending sensibility. For Little Shop was marketed not as a Halloween treat...but as a family-friendly Christmas picture.
Much Ado About Nothing on that great Greek Chorus
Movies Kick Ass Jose let's a train of thought carry him all sorts of places
Criticlasm remembers his first time with the movie and revisits to see if it remains as loveable
StinkyBits on his favorite bits and the most troubling one
...the plant becomes ever more like a manifestation of the vagina dentata, albeit with the voice of an urban black man. Two great castration anxiety tropes squished together in one giant puppet.
Monday morning, we'll round up the possibilities for October's Musical of the Month and reveal November's too!


Anonymous said...

my 86 noms

kathleen turner - peggy sue got married
sigourney weaver - aliens
julie andrews - duet for one
marlee matlin - children of a lesser god
anne bancroft -'night mother

Hayden said...

I've just posted mine. I'm not quite sure how to to this. :)

Anonymous said...

Sissy Spacek, Crimes of the Heart
Kathleen Turner, Peggy Sue Got Married
Sigourney Weaver, Aliens
Helena Bonham Carter, A Room with a View
And I totally agree with Anne Bancroft in 'night Mother.

alternate: Madonna in Shanghai Surprise...Juuuust kidding. Heehee!

Agustin said...

two things
When you announced that Little Shop would be this month's musical I immediately remembered that I had the dvd at home, never knew why though. I put it on my dvd and after about 30min I realized its not a musical! It was the original movie from 1960! On the next few days I found the whole movie musical on youtube. This was my first movie I watched with it, and hopefully the last, it's not the best. I loved it. This is my favorite kind of musical , the kitschy, weird and with diva-like characters (The greek chorus).

It's funny how 2 of the girls from the greek chorus ended up being mothers in african american family shows. Tisha Campbell-Martin in the now defunct My Wife and Kids and Tichina Arnold on the still running Everybody Hates Chris.
Michelle Weeks mysteriously disappeared, but checking on her imdb's message board I found this link


agustin thank you. I actually always wondered what happened to each of them but I hadn't bothered to investigate

Anonymous said...

I thought the musical Little Shop worked better on stage.

By the way, I mentioned Jack Nicholson's performance from the original version on a web site a few years ago. Someone attempting to correct me was totally unaware that the musical was based on Roger Corman's film.

Y Kant Goran Rite said...

Just curious - why would Farrow be the first to drop from your ballot? Hannah is one of my favourite Farrow performances


Y Kant --I think Farrow is terrific in the movie but it's not really that much of a showcase part --so many other people are helping to carry that movie. In a way it's almost an "all supporting characters" movie even if she is the title character.

mrripley i saw DUET FOR ONE back in the day but I can't remember it well enough to judge Julie Andrew's performance. I just remember I was horrified that she was so R rated in it ;) ... I was still in the Mary Poppins/Sound of Music stage of fascination plus I was young.

peter that's funny. Yes there were screen to stage to screen adaptations before Hairspray. ;)

I saw the Broadway revival of this a few years ago but it didn't work as well for me as the movie. Maybe it was the casting ?

Unknown said...

If Greene was robbed from a nom at least - which I heartfully agree with - you forget that Steve Martin gave one of the biggest scene-stealing turns in history of moviemaking. His dentist is simply, legendary, and is one of the most outrageous snubs of the year. I'd compare it to Rutger Hauer's for Blade Runner, to mention just another jawdropping snub.


i was all over Little Shop in my own film awards that year (yes i was writing them up in little notebooks in school LONG before the Film Experience existed) so Steve Martin was nominated too.

I think my best pictures were some combo of
HANNAH AND HER SISTERS, A ROOM WITH A VIEW, ALIENS, MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE, PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED and LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS but there might have been something more embarrassing in the mix. can't remember. 1986 is a blur and i probably didn't see that many movies.

Anonymous said...

nat thanks for the response about andrews but she is v v good in the film i never felt farrow was at her best in hannah and her sisters in fact i always say hershey stole the showw she seemed to me far more at home in husbands and wives a total mystery as to why she missed out in 92 as actress.

can i ask nat then who would your 86 supp actresses be

i'll guess



mrripley -- it's not a mystery at all as to why they passed Mia over for the latter.

One) they don't like her. She's the single most overdue modern actress having been oscar worthy several times and in classic films and not one Oscar nomination to show for it

and two) Oscar wanted to steer clear of the whole separation custody battle semi-incestuous drama mess between Woody & Mia. It was disastrous PR for the movies reception. and it's still kind of a miracle that they made the movie at all given what was going down in their personal life.

I'm not sure i've seen enough from 1986 to have a full supporting actress list but it would most definitely include both WEIST & SMITH.

Glenn said...

I meant to do something for this. Truly I did, but I had a film fest this weekend and... well, yeah.

Ellen Greene is amazing though. I'd never seen her before watching this movie and the moment she opened her mouth I was stunned.


Glenn, I hope you're able to see PUSHING DAISIES eventually. She has a recurring role (along with Swoosie Kurtz) and they've already let her sing twice !

ant said...

I love this musical. The whole cast really is amazing. Everyone's so good that Bill Murray--who I love--is not even close to the best thing happening in a movie. That's solid gold. I'm also really happy that Ellen Greene is experiencing a revival on tv the past couple years with Heroes and Pushing Daisies.

Anonymous said...




I love Mia in that 1992 film too. But then I usually love her. ;)

snubs are snubs are snubs but the continual cold shoulder for her is the most appaling regular one.

but nobody is talking about LITTLE SHOP? dissenters? fans? how recently have you seen it y'all?


oh and btw agustin how can you sit through an entire movie on YOUTUBE? I don't get it. ;) i can handle short intervals of the fuzzy bad video but 2 hours. You're a stronger man than I

Unknown said...

nat, I honestly think that we should also discuss the magnificent deleted ending that in my opinion raises the director's cut to the masterpiece level. It's on you tube, too, and it's a 22 minutes watch worth of every single second. The movie hasn't been ever released on DVD in Spain, so my copy is a UK one... I'm eager to get my hands on a bluray criterion edition... but I know, I can dream...

Anonymous said...

Wow. I'm all about Marlee Matlin that year. One of my top 5 for the decade.



i should probably watch CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD again. I was a little young for it at the time and I just remember believing heartily that she was getting a lot of credit for her very real non-performance related triumph (it's not every day you see an actor with a disability headlining a major film)

but maybe my anti-sentiment contrarianism contributed to that assessment. i should rewatch.

Anonymous said...

yes nat when she reveals her voice to hurt i just though well deserved nd was't so bothered by mt own miss weaver not winning,why wasn't she nommed in 79 too for ripley.

Seeing_I said...

Thanks for the link, Nathan! You're right, Ellen Greene was robbed. I think the Academy values comedy performances far less than dramatic ones, and just didn't know what to make of a characterization so adorably cartoonish, but so full of heart. Oh well, we know better, don't we!


but it's still SO weird that even the Golden Globes didn't notice her. I know I'm getting repetitive here but, seriously, what the f***? This would be a slam dunk today.

at least we get to see her semi-weekly again on television.

for those interested in her, I'd suggest taking in her official site as well.

par3182 said...

i'd seen the stage show twice and was so looking forward to the film i saw it the day it was released

and was so gobsmacked that the ending had been changed i resented the entire film (even with everything else it had going for it)

it took me several viewings before i could let go of that

(but i'm still waiting for that mythical special edition dvd all these years later)

nowdays i'm just amused there was ever a time you could see a film without knowing what changes have been made. such simple times...

Agustin said...

I could stand the whole movie in youtube just because the movie was great. it just kept me through, even though I was really tired and I had to wake up early in the morning, it was just the power of the movie itself, it makes youtube video quality tolerable!

Glenn Dunks said...

Nat, the Golden Globes didn't even nominate All That Jazz for Best Picture Musical/Comedy. The only nom that movie got was Roy Scheider for Best Actor in a Musical/Comedy. How screwed up is that?!

Janice said...

I admit I've never seen the film or the stage production, but this blog-a-thon and all the talk of the deleted ending got me curious, so I watched the alt (or rather, the original) ending (in three parts) on You Tube...and my god is is brilliant (although the Mean Green Mother number does go on just a little too long.) the black and white rough print actually added to the odd beauty - it hearkens back to the Corman original, as well as the the low budget horror and monster films of the '50's and '60's (like the original Godzilla) that the ending saterizes and pays homage to.

And yes, in answer to Stinky Lulu's question, I think the conflagation of race and gender in Audrey II (women and blacks, the most potent sources of fear to "civilized" white patriarchial culture) is intentional. The ending still seems so relevant today, and in ways the filmmakers could not have anticipated - Monsanto and genetic engineering, anyone?

Anonymous said...

My line-up:

1. Sigourney Weaver, Aliens: The BEst Actress of that year...
2. Sandrine Bonnaire, Vagabond: The French young actress steals the show in that film.
3. Marlee Matlin, Children of a Lesser God: Her Oscar is a little bit strange, but her nomination was very well deserving.
4. Kathleen Turner, Peggy Sue Got Married: I Prefer her in "Romancing in the Stone"
5. Sissy Spacek, Crimes of the Heart:

Alt: Mia Farrow, Hannah and her Sisters: Awfully overdue actress. Fantastic in The Purple Rose of the Cairo and Alice, but I think Hershey and Wiest steals the show

Unknown said...

I forgot to add that LSOH is my #3rd all time favorite film, right after Airplane! (#2) and John Carpenter's The Thing (#1). We all know that your favorite films come always from the way and moment of your life they got to you. I always thought LSOH was way, way ahead of its time. Frank Oz, despite The Stepford Wives or The Score - which I still think of as interesting failures - is to me a safe bet when going to the theaters, including the vastly underrated Death at a Funeral.

is that so wrong? said...

Thanks for posting something so loving toward Little Shop.... I adore the show too, and usually always have those damn songs in my head (I love them dearly). It's an infectious movie with and even more infectious performance by Greene (who I agree is absolutely necessary in the film, and who sounds great both on the Broadway soundtrack and that of the film).... which leads me to hope they find more excuses to plug her into musical sequences with Kristin Chenoweth in "Pushing Daisies".

Brian Darr said...

Love this little symposium, Nathaniel. Wish I could have participated- a few months ago I saw the film again for the first time in ages with an appreciative crowd at the Castro Theatre- in 70mm no less!

Hopefully the Mondo Musicals piece is right in suggesting that there may be a version that restores the ending coming down the pike sometime. When I was a youth I loved the film so much that I used to fantasize about playing a role if my high school ever decided to put it on as a musical- in truth I was a band geek and probably would have been far too shy to actually audition. Moot point- they did Grease and Cabaret instead.

Anyway, this time around I found myself with a few misgivings about the film- mostly the ending, but also with some of the racial threads identified so well at StinkyBits. But the music, the great cast (hear hear on Ellen Greene for a fantasy Oscar nomination- maybe win?) and the spectacle of it all still made for a marvelous experience on the big screen.

Anyway, sorry for being so delayed in finally reading this, but thanks again for organizing it!

jimmy said...

this film shows the destructive consuming nature of drugs in an interesting way, too bad no one can see past the puppetry and famous faces.

Term Papers said...

It was the original movie from 1960! On the next few days I found the whole movie musical on youtube.

James T said...

I recently rewatched it and it's really as good as you say it is.

And you're totally right about Greene! She just nailed every moment! And that voice! Huge!

I found this perf of the song and I thought you'd be interested: