Happy Birthday to Lily Tomlin, who turns 77 today. One of my favorite films of hers is also the best stamp film from the 70s, Robert Benton’s underrated neo-noir, The Late Show (1977). In it, washed-up private eye Ira Wells (Art Carney) forms an unlikely alliance with new-agey flake Margo Sterling (Tomlin) after the case of her missing cat leads to blackmail, adultery and the murder of his former colleague, Harry Regan.
After an early gunfight in front of his home leads to the death of a small-time crook, Ira discovers a wallet-size album of stamps on the corpse and starts to process the clue with Margo and his lowlife tipster contact Charlie (Bill Macy).
Margo: What’s that? Stamps?Ira: The Whiting jobMargo: Who? Whiting? I’ve never heard of anyone named Whiting...Ira: About 10 days ago, some place out in the valley.Margo: Who is that?Ira: That guy Whiting had a collection worth almost 50 grand.
Margo: Who is that? Who’s Whiting?Ira (to Charlie): There’s a Murder One tied to it, right?Margo: OK, don’t tell me, what do I care?Ira: Two guys broke into a house out in the valley. They tied up Whiting and his wife and started to lift the stamps. And then something must’ve gone wrong because they beat up Whiting and killed his wife.Margo: Oh how disgusting, I don’t want to hear any more.Ira: That’s what Harry was on to, right?Charlie: How should I know? He didn’t say.Margo: I don’t wanna hear anymore, you guys are too much!
Ira: Oh come on, Charlie, Harry knew about the stamps—what’s more, he told you about it, that’s why you knew what to look for on the bum!Charlie: Kid, I swear, he didn’t tell me anything. (sirens)Ira: Hear that? That’s the cops. They’ll be here in a coupla minutes. Now either you start to play it on the square with me, or I’ll feed you to them. Which considering your record...Charlie: You wouldn’t do that. (beat) OK, here’s the house number. Harry is tailing this guy Brian, looking for Margo’s cat. Then Brian and this pal of his pull off the Whiting heist. The next day Harry comes to see me and lays out the whole thing, wants me to check out the reward angle. I nose around, and sure enough, Continental Insurance is offering fifteen grand for the goddamn stamps.Ira: You guys were gonna split it. Just the kind of cheap grift Harry would go for.
Soon after, the trail leads Ira to fence and underworld kingpin Ron Birdwell (Eugene Roche), whom he confronts:
Ron: What’s your business?Ira: The Whiting job.Ron: Postage stamps, right?Ira: That’s right!Ron: What’s that got to do with me?Ira: The word is it could be tied in with you....Now stamps are a specialty item. Not just anybody can move them. So usually when a guy pulls a heist like that, he’s got the fence lined up in front.
As it turns out, the stamps are a red herring and the plot corkscrews out in other directions and they're never mentioned again. And the stamps we see--all US--really aren't very special. They are (as pictured from top to bottom):
- Abraham Lincoln (1958, Scott #1113)
- Forest Conservation (1958, #1122)
- Wheels of Freedom (1960, #1162)
- Employ the Handicapped (1960, #1155)
All four examples are in blocks of four and are taken from the original plate block (which I explained in a previous post), since you see the edge portion still intact. But that still wouldn't make them particularly valuable. What would make them valuable is if there were a perforation error, or if the image was off-center of the cut, or if there was an ink shift in the printing of the images. Obviously, these we see in the film were just mocked up for some production design without any real concern about philatelic details.
And like the plotting itself, those details aren't what matter. What counts is that Carney and Tomlin’s odd couple are an inspired pairing: he’s practical but crotchety, she’s quirky and deeply empathic and their oil & water chemistry add a lot of comic fizz to what is really a meditation on aging and loneliness. Like one of my favorite noirs, The Big Sleep (Hawks, 1946), the plot is labyrinth-like but the real story is not the mystery but rather the character dynamics. And while that film is saturated with sex, this one is grounded in melancholy as two perpetual misfits gradually find that trust and connection can appear under some of the most bizarre circumstances. Robert Benton would go on to win an Oscar two years later for Kramer vs. Kramer, but I think this remains the best film he ever directed. Go check it out.
My name is Sterling Hedgpeth and I’ve discussed the origin of my name, briefly, in a previous post, but it is a name I don’t encounter often—in real life or in pop culture, so whenever I see it (like Lily Tomlin’s character in The Late Show), I tend to remember it. Of course, the greatest cinematic Sterling was Sterling Hayden who, whether in supporting or leading parts, made indelible marks in such classics as Dr. Strangelove, The Godfather, The Long Goodbye, Johnny Guitar, and The Asphalt Jungle. He always brought an air of worn-down fatigue or coiled, violent energy to every film he did. Definitely from the less-is-more school of Mitchum and Marvin, he died in Sausalito 30 years ago, just a few miles from where I go to work every day. And aside from Sterling Morrison (the guitarist of the Velvet Underground), he may be my favorite Sterling to whom I’m not related.
Another great Sterling was Sterling Holloway, the indelible character actor with the gentle high-pitched voice, most famous for his contributions to the Disney canon: the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland, Kaa in The Jungle Book, and four shorts as Winnie the Pooh. And although I’ve never known anyone personally whose last name was Sterling, the movies have offered us Oscar-nominee Jan Sterling (terrific 50s actress with ice in her veins in Billy Wilder’s An Ace in the Hole) and ever-present comic actress Mindy Sterling, best known as Frau Farbissina in the Austin Powers films. And while his work has mostly been limited to TV, Sterling K. Brown did win an Emmy for his role in The People vs. O.J. Simpson, which I may get around to catching one day.
The only Oscar-winner with my name Is Stirling (with an i) Silliphant for the screenplay of In the Heat of the Night (Jewison, 1967). Quite bizarrely, he also wrote the screenplay for The Liberation of L.B. Jones, whose main character is named Moan Hedgepath. That movie even came out the year I was born! This is one of only two variations of my last name I’ve ever seen in a movie (the other being Paul Mantee’s small role in The Great Santini) and my last name has always been misspelled like these variations. While I’ve never seen Liberation, its cast (Lee J. Cobb, Anthony Zerbe, Lola Falana, Lee Majors, Barbara Hershey, Yaphet Kotto, Chill Wills, and Roscoe Lee Browne in the title role) intrigues me no end.
So here's a list of my 10 favorite characters named Sterling (first or last) in movies or TV
- Roger Sterling (John Slattery in TV's Mad Men)
- Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas in Out of the Past - Tourneur, 1947)
- Nat Sterling (Denzel Washington in Courage Under Fire - Zwick, 1996)
- Margo Sterling (Lily Tomlin in The Late Show)
- Tony Sterling (Donald Woods in Fog Over Frisco - Dieterle, 1934)
- Sterling (Patrick Stewart in Jeffrey - Ashley, 1995)
- Sterling Archer (H. Ron Benjamin in TV's Archer)
- Tim & Lionel Sterling (Ray Milland & Edmund Gwenn in The Doctor Takes a Wife - Hall, 1940)
- Robert Sterling (Roger Moore as James Bond's alias in The Spy Who Loved Me - Gilbert, 1977)
- Jim Sterling (Mark Sheppard in TV's Leverage)
The Marilyn Monroe & Bette Davis stamps are Scott #2967 & 4350 respectively. John Huston is #4671 and the Cinematography stamp from the American Filmmaking series is #3772g. Bambi, Alice in Wonderland and Dumbo are #3866, 3913, & 4194 while The Jungle Book (#4345) is a stamp I used on a card which I then forgot to send in to USPS, which is why it's missing the first-day-of-issue postmark. The Sport of the Gods stamp (#4337) was part of the Black Cinema issue and the quilled paper heart love stamp (#5036) was issued earlier this year.