Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Magic Garden Of Stanley Sweetheart

Based on the semi-autobiographical, 60s mod & hippie (love & drug) counterculture book by Robert T. Westbrook, "The Magic Garden Of Stanley Sweetheart" (1970) is a mostly faithful adaption. The story is of a boy named Stanley (a very young Don Johnson) who studies filmmaking at Columbia University . Stanley spends most of his time usually lost in daydreams and masturbation until he begins a relationship with classmate Cathy (Dianne Hull) who he romances.

As time goes by, Stanley becomes bored within the relationship, and begins an affair with her plump roommate Fran (Holly Near).

The scene where he's trying to film Fran for one of his independent short films (apropriately titled "Masturbation") is at times funny, awkward, and clumsily executed.

Stanley also occasionaly meets up with friends

Originally to costar Joe Dallesandro as Danny, he was fired from the set after one day of shooting and was replaced by Michael Greer.

Barbara (Linda Gillen) and Andrea (Victoria Racimo) who he'll sometimes get high with. One night while Stanley and Cathy are sleeping, the uninvited three friends stop by to get Stanley and Cathy loaded. During the stoned experience you find Danny picking up on Cathy and Stanley becoming increasingly jealous. Soon however, Cathy will leave Stanley to pursue her new crush, while Stanley is left all alone to his daydreams. The "Magic Garden" refers to the place in his mind that he somehow finds solace and peace through his imagination and daydreams. The book will make this point clearer, than in the movie. At this point Stanley will fall into a hallucinagenic menage a trois with the two girlfriends Barbara and Andrea, only changing the direction of the film from light comedic romance to drug addict casualty. But these scenes are fantastic. Where else (but in the 60's) can you find such images as group sex, body painting, drugs galore, and psychedelic light shows all wrapped up with the most sugary bubblegum pop song in the world? (the song in question being "The Gingerbread Man"!) These scenes for counter culture freaks are absolutely priceless! What's really interesting is how downbeat the endings of movies were in the late 60's or early 70's. Why must every film from that era always be a casualty tale or sort? Also, another interesting aspect of the film is the hints of homosexuality in the script. Danny's leering at Don Johnson's bare chest suggests something that is never fully developed until the surprise ending which in itself has also got homosexual conatations (the sparing of the rabbits life signifying sensitivity, and the barrel of the gun signifying the phallus???). It's fitting that an actor like Joe Dallesandro (from Andy Warhol Factory and Paul Morrissey film fame) would have played the role of Danny. Because at times the film resembles some of Paul Morrissey's films in the depiction of New Yorker drop outs. Don Johnson at the time was a popular actor amongst gays, due to the exposure he received from the play "Fortune In Men's Eyes" a gay prison story directed by Sal Mineo. And one time TV show director Leonard Horn does every shot in an exploitative manner. You'll see numerous shots of Don bare chested, bare butt, or just plain nude. Also the obligatory gay pick up scene (ie: "Midnight Cowboy") in a cafe (which seems slightly out of place), where actor Brandon Maggart tries to pay Stanley for sexual services. All these scenes make for an awkwardness that the film either suffers or benefits from. (depending on your tastes?) I found myself slightly unsure of the director's intention with some of the material, which satisfied the thinking side of me, to make me want to see the film again. Was this a coming of age, sexual awareness film? A romantic comedy or drama? A drug counter culture film? I found it to be all these things. The film is by no means perfect (the acting is slightly shoddy at times), but I do think it's a tad underrated. I kept seeing these really horrible reviews of the film, but it wasn't too bad at all. It's always entertaining and interesting, and never dull. It's got a great soundtrack, (especially "Magic Mountain" by Eric Burdon and War) the clothes look great, and some of the filming is quite imaginable. It's a story that probably a lot of younger guys could and would relate to. Check out the scene when Stanley's short film called "Headless" is played for Cathy, it's a pretty funny and far out.

In May of 2002 I contacted writer Robert T. Westbrook concerning his book "The Magic Garden Of Stanley Sweetheart." I had recently found the film and offered him a copy of it on videotape, in turn he was extremely gracious in answering some questions concerning his life, book and screenplay work. Having been a fan of the book a couple of years before seeing the film, it was exciting to get so much information. Thanks again for your time Mr. Westbrook!

Jarrod LaBine: First off, I'd like to ask how you felt about the casting of the film of such a personal story. Did you find Don Johnson a suitable actor for Stanley, or did you find him miscast?

Robert Westbrook: I was against Don Johnson from the start -- I never liked him even a little. At the age of 19 he was a real twerp, a hustler of the worst kind, and I thought he was utterly miscast. I was overruled by the producer, Marty Poll.

J. L.: I found it interesting that you had written the screenplay as well as the book. Did you ever write any other films after that? Were you ever involved with any other aspects of the production, outside of screenplay?

R. W.: I've fooled around with a few screenplays, but basically I've avoided Hollywood ever since "Stanley Sweetheart," feeling a bit burned. I love movies -- good movies, that is -- but decided I just don't quite have the personality to succeed in Hollywood. Iris Murdoch once wrote that to succeed in the movies you have to be like a ship with a strong bow . . . and probably that's not me. Officially, I was the "associate producer" on the film, but every idea I suggested was nixed.

J. L.: I'd read on the dust jacket of the book that you had also attempted writing and directing your own underground films, what had ever came of these films?

R. W.: I was an undergraduate at Columbia in the 60s but spent most of my time at the West End Bar or roaming around with a 16mm Bolex camera. I made a bunch of strange, short films . . . but I have no idea what happened to them. For a while, I moved around a whole bunch -- Europe, New York, California, then back to Europe again, and thus lost a lot of stuff.

J. L.: The book seems to be an autobiographical account of possibly your own life, was this the case? Is it a personal book for you?

R. W.: Yes, totally. An autobiographical account of my Columbia days.

J. L.: Unfortunately, there is not much written about the film, and so information! about it is hard to come by. Because it is one of my favourite books, I'm naturally curious of why the film had slipped into obscurity (especially because it was Don Johnson's first film), and only a handfull of people that I've met know about it. One site named (a 70's film rarity site) even went so far as deeming it "lost", until I contacted him! If you could offer any information on the history of the book and film, I'd be completely appreciative (and delighted).

R. W.: I really don't quite know the answer to why the film (and book) have slipped into obscurity. Marty Poll once told me that Ted Turner (who took over MGM after the film was made) was a prude and didn't like it. I'm not entirely sure if that's true. Most of all, the 60s were over-exploited by the media, and when the movie came out in 1970 everyone was completely sick of the whole sex/drugs/hippie thing -- a period which remained a kind of embarrassment until very recently, perhaps. Anyway, these are only conjectures. To be honest, I feel that one day the general public will discover me, though perhaps after my death -- then that first novel and the movie will maybe come back. Other than that, I feel that for a writer (or artist of any kind) the main thing is just to work, put out your best effort . . . and what the world will make of it, or not make of it, is not really the point. As for me personally, fame and fortune have certainly avoided my path, but I'm glad to report a rich, wonderful life with much adventure and many fine people to love.

R. W.: Anyway, I hope this satisfies some of your curiosity. For me, "Stanley Sweetheart" was a kind of wave -- I was 23, I sold the book for quite a lot of money, went very wild, got married to Katie Heflin (who was signed orignally to play Cathy), and by the time the wave was over (and the money gone) I was living the simple life in a redwood forest in northern California. Basically, I'm glad I didn't stay in Hollywood as a screenwriter -- I'm not certain I'd even still be alive, with all the various possibilities of abuse that come with fame and fortune.


  1. It's great seeing an article that goes its way in respecting this film. Sure, it's not perfect but not at all deserving of the heaps of curses it has received. A true lost film, it seems, of that time is THE SIDELONG GLANCES OF A PIGEON KICKER, also from MGM. Also, YOU'VE GOT TO WALK IT LIKE YOU TALK IT OR YOU'LL LOSE THAT BEAT.

    Also, how wonderful that you got to speak with Westbrook!

  2. Thanks for the comment, sorry that I didn't even see it until today. I thought that I'd let you know that I'm working on a much larger piece on the film The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart, and I appreciate your interest in the film. I recently just uploaded the entire original trailer from the film on youtube. You can find it at this link:

    I would really love to see both The Sidelong Glances of A Pigeon Kicker and You've Got To Walk It Like You Talk It Or You'll Lose That Beat, but they are both extremely rare. Thanks again!