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Understanding Screenwriting #55: Life During Wartime, Get Low, Flipped, & More

I have always had mixed feelings about Todd Solondz’s films, which I expect is exactly what he wants.

Understanding Screenwriting #55: Life During Wartime, Get Low, Flipped, Mademoiselle Chambon, & More
Photo: IFC Films

Coming Up In This Column: Life During Wartime, Get Low, Flipped, Mademoiselle Chambon, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno, Caprice but first…

Fan Mail: I trust you all marked it down on your calendars. In his comments on US#54, David Ehrenstein and I actually seem to be in agreement over something. In this case it was the handling of the Jules-Paul affair in The Kids Are All Right. In regard to Phil Dunne’s comments on Jacques Tourneur, David returns with a quote from Fritz Lang from Contempt that “…on screen it’s pictures. Moving pictures they call it.” That’s absolutely true, and it is indeed the director’s job to find the pictures that will tell the story. Later on in this column you will get a nice demonstration of a director who doesn’t quite handle it right. In one of the great Kevin Brownlow documentaries (I think it is Hollywood: The Pioneers) he has an interview with Byron Haskin, a cinematographer and later director. Haskin is making fun of Michael Curtiz, of whom Peter Ustinov said in his memoir Dear Me that he “never learned American, let alone English, and he had forgotten his Hungarian, which left him in a limbo of his own, both entertaining and wild.” Haskin says that Curtiz used to walk around the set saying, “We visualize! We visualize!” Haskin thinks this is funny, but it struck me that it is the heart of directing.

“Doniphon” thinks the script for Way of the Gaucho (1952) was not very good, and Phil Dunne, who wrote it, would agree with him. Fox decided to produce the film primarily to use up money they had earned in Argentina, which Argentina had frozen. When Dunne and company got to Argentina, he discovered the book he had based the screenplay on was completely inaccurate. He also had to deal with Juan Peron’s “censors” who insisted on changes. Having heard about what happened, I am surprised the screenplay makes any sense at all. Doniphon says that Tourneur’s direction is the only reason people watch it today. It may be why Tourneur’s fans watch it, but people generally watch movies for all different kinds of reasons. The director is usually the least of those reasons. See my 2001 book American Audiences on Movies and Moviegoing, especially the chapter on directors, for a detailed discussion of that issue.

Life During Wartime (2009. Written by Todd Solondz. 98 minutes.)

Life During Wartime

But I LIKED Happiness: I have always had mixed feelings about Solondz’s films, which I expect is exactly what he wants. There is always a nasty side to his work, but the dark humor makes it work in the best of his films. That was particularly true of the 1998 film Happiness, which dealt with three sisters and their family. The script for that film built to a powerful, creepy scene in which a pedophile talks about what he does. Life During Wartime is a sequel of sorts to Happiness, which immediately raises the question: do we really want to check in with these people twelve years later? Well, as Raymond the butler says in Citizen Kane, umm, yes and no.

These are not characters you would probably want to hang out with in real life, but they can be interesting for 98 minutes on screen. In the opening scene, Joy and her boyfriend Allen are having dinner, but she seems to be upset about something. The waitress comes to take their order, but when Allen asks about the specials, the waitress gets furious with him, since she recognizes him as a phone stalker. Then we go to another scene of a couple talking over food, Trish, the oldest sister, and her new boyfriend, Harvey. And then we get a whole lot more two people scenes, often over food. You would think Nora Ephron co-wrote the script. Some of the scenes are interesting and the acting is terrific in all of them, but visually if not verbally they are very repetitive. We are caught in Solondz’s world in which the one person who smiles, Tish, is seen as in denial. Solondz’s films are hermetically sealed universes, and in this case it gets rather tiresome.

The film is about forgiveness and whether it is possible, but the dialogue spells that out in the most obvious ways. Solondz can write nice, subtle scenes, but he can also be a rather clumsy writer. He does break up all the dialogue scenes with some nice wordless ones featuring Bill, Trish’s husband and her kids’ father. He is just getting out of prison and he comes down to Florida, where Trish has moved, to try to reconnect. We see him walking around, following people, and in one scene breaking into Trish’s house to see where she and his kids live. Eventually he tracks down his oldest son at college and confronts him. I think structurally this is supposed to be the equivalent of his admission scene at the end of Happiness, but it just does not have the same power.

Much has been made of Solondz’s recasting all the major roles. Looking at the two films together, which I have not done, I suspect you will get a master class in what different actors bring to the same part. For example, in Happiness, Joy is played by Jane Adams with a wonderful deadpan expression. Shirley Henderson’s Joy in the new film emphasizes the neediness of the character, which gets tiresome. Dylan Baker was astonishing as Bill in the first film, but Ciarán Hinds brings a totally different quality to the part. Hinds embodies the emotional exhaustion that Bill has developed as a result of his years in prison. As much as I love Baker, I am not sure that quality is in his range.

The title is a bit baffling. Yes, there are occasional references to the War on Terror, etc., but they seem more like throwaway lines than any serious attempt to make the issue part of the film. After all, Solondz is not really interested in social issues except as they impinge on his universe. One review I read suggested the “wartime” is the war within the family, but these folks are just rather grim as opposed to warlike.

Get Low (2010. Screenplay by Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell, story by Chris Provenzano & Scott Seeke. 100 minutes.)

Get Low

Well, it’s not as depressing as Is Anybody There?: The night before my wife and I saw Get Low, we watched a 2008 British film called Is Anybody There? on DVD. I’m not doing a full item on it because it was a real downer. Written by Peter Harness, it stars Michael Caine in another of his great performances. Caine plays Clarence, a retired magician who comes to stay in a retirement home, where he sort of makes friends with Edward, the 10 year-old-son of the owners. Edward has a morbid fascination with the dead and dying and hopes to communicate with Clarence when he dies. Clarence dies and appears to come back as a badger. The film is relentlessly dreary. So when we went out to a movie the next night, we were looking for something a little more lighthearted. Unfortunately the one we were aiming for was in a small auditorium and only had seats in the front row, and we know enough about the auditoriums in this theater to know we would both have cricks in our necks if we sat there. Get Low, which was on our list to see, started at the same time, so we gave it a shot instead.

The script is based on a story told to Seeke by his wife’s family about a hermit in Tennessee in the ‘30s who arranged his own funeral while he was still alive. You can see why we might not want to see this after Is Anybody There? Seeke and his friend Provenzano could not find any background information on the story, which meant they could make it up as they wanted to. Provenzano developed the first drafts of the script ten years ago and eventually it found its way to producer Dean Zanuck (yes, of that family; he is Darryl’s grandson and Richard’s son) in 2002. Zanuck got Robert Duvall to play Felix, the hermit. The director selected, Aaron Schneider, did a draft and then when Provenzano was unavailable, Mitchell was brought on. (The background is from an article by Peter Clines in the July/August Creative Screenwriting. You can also look at a WGA interview with Provenzano and Mitchell who, unlike a lot of “collaborators,” actually seem to get along even though one was rewriting the other.)

So Felix wants his funeral while he is still alive so he can hear the stories people tell about him. And in Frank Quinn, who runs a funeral parlor, he finds somebody who is willing to do it for him. Two things right away: the film is promising us we will hear a lot of people’s stories about Felix, but it welches on that deal. We occasionally get some suggestions of stories about Felix, but not that many, since it turns out Felix wants to tell his story to a crowd. This not only gives Robert Duvall, who makes Felix different from all the other older curmudgeons he has played recently, a wonderful aria to play, but it keeps the film from dribbling away with a lot of unrelated talk. The writers set up a lot of mysteries about Felix, giving us hints of his past, so that we are perfectly willing not to hear the stories of others as long as we get his story.

The second thing is the character of Frank Quinn. He’s funny. There is no equivalent character in Is Anybody There? and it makes all the difference. Whatever depressing elements there are in Get Low, and there are more than a few, they are lightened by Quinn. Especially since Bill Murray plays him. Duvall and Murray, whom you might not think would have great chemistry, do since, in these roles, they both fight to see who can underplay the other. You have to watch and listen closely to get everything they are doing, but it the results are very rewarding.

The downside of the film is its director, Aaron Schneider. He was the co-writer and director of the 2003 short film Two Soldiers, which won the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film. He is primarily a cinematographer, working in both theatrical films and television. Get Low is very good to look at, but often his choices of where to put the camera in relation to the actors are not the best. A shot may be a great shot, but it may not tell the story as well as some other angle. And the coverage he got leaves Schneider, who also edited the film, with some odd cuts. Every cinematographer I have ever known always thought he could direct the picture he was working on better than the director. But direction and cinematography are two very different crafts. Some people, like Steven Soderbergh, can do both. Schneider can’t yet, but he may learn.

Flipped (2010. Screenplay by Rob Reiner & Andrew Sheinman, based on the novel by Wendelin Van Draanen. 90 minutes.)


Much less depressing than Life During Wartime: Writing about The Informant! in US#54, I discussed its use of the unreliable narrator. Here we have two narrators, both of them reliable, even though they are telling us very different things about the same events. If you think that makes for a lot of narration in this film, you are absolutely right. And every screenwriting textbook in the world will tell you to avoid narration. They are right. And the multiple narrators and piles of narration work perfectly here. Go figure.

The setup is simple: we are going to follow Bryce Lotski and Juli Baker through about six years of their lives, starting in grade school and ending in junior high. They live across the street from each other and sometimes he likes her and she doesn’t like him, and sometimes it is the reverse. What the script does (and I assume they get this from the book) is have Bryce and Juli narrate the film. Separately. In the opening scene we see Bryce and his family moving in and we get him telling us how he did not like Juli from the first time he saw her. Then we get Juli’s version of what happened. Yes, this could get very schematic, but it doesn’t. What the writers have done is make sure each time that Julie tells us her side, that tells us something more we, and Bryce, did not know. When we see one version, we look forward to seeing and hearing the other version, because the writers establish that pattern from the opening scenes. Late in the picture, there is a sequence where the junior high boys are raffled off as “basket boys,” complete with picnic baskets for a lunch with whichever girl bids the most for them. Bryce assumes because Juli has a pile of money with her that she intends to bid on him. Her version is very different.

The double narration works here at least partly because of the ages of the kids. They are, as kids those ages usually are, willing to change their minds on a dime. So we sort of need the narration to keep up with where each one of them is emotionally. The writers are also very, very good at setting up reactions for the actors to have that add to, or at least reflect off, the narration we hear.

In addition to Bryce and Juli, we also get their families and the writers give the family members a lot to play in their scenes. And a lot of variety to play, unlike Solondz in Life During Wartime. Flipped is intended as a much lighter film than Wartime, but the writers have given us a few surprising moments of depth with the older generation to help anchor the film.

The novel is set in the indeterminate present, but Rob Reiner, who also directs, wanted it set in a more innocent time. The film takes place from 1957 to 1963, and the writers and the production do not beat us over the head with the period detail. The costumes and cars are right, and even though I am not a particularly musical person, I appreciated the choices for the music of the period used on the soundtrack. It is not the usual relentlessly nostalgic stuff we have traditionally had in pictures like this.

So. There is no incest. No pedophilia. No car chases. No explosions. No “Rock Around the Clock.” Nobody dies. It stops before the Kennedy assassination. Enjoy, enjoy.

Mademoiselle Chambon (2009. Screenplay by Stéphane Brizé and Florence Vigon, based on the novel by Eric Holder. 101 minutes.)

Mademoiselle Chambon

I was so in the mood for this: The first ten minutes of this film is one of the worst openings of a movie I have ever seen. Every screenwriting textbook and every screenwriting instructor make the same point: the first ten pages of the script are crucial to get an agent to read it, to get a studio reader to read it, to get actors and directors to read it, and to capture the audience when the film is made. John Sayles once said you can do anything in the first ten minutes of a film, because you are establishing the world of the film. Brother Sayles and I should have a little talk about that “do anything” after he sees this movie.

We open on Jean, a construction guy, using a jackhammer. The particular sound effect they use this first time for the jackhammer is so obnoxious you want to scream. The other times we hear the jackhammer, the sound effect is less harsh. OK, that may be a directorial mistake. (Brizé directed as well as co-wrote.) But then we pick up on Jean, his wife Anne-Marie, and their son Jérémy on a picnic. Great, picnic on the grass, happy family. Jérémy is trying to understand his lessons on the direct object in a sentence. So they talk about it. And talk some more. And talk some more. About the “direct object,” for God’s sake. Well, I suppose Sayles is right: this first ten minutes establishes the world of the film: a long, talky, and slow world.

Needless to say, if the family is that happy at the beginning, bad stuff is going to happen. When Anne-Marie is unable to pick up their son at school, Jean does and meets the teacher, Véronique Chambon. Ah, sparks fly. Well, no, they don’t. She asks Jean to come to the French equivalent of career day and talk about his work. He does. Ah, sparks fly. No, but the camera slowly dollies in on her. This would suggest she is interested in him, but neither her expression nor his lecture justifies our imagining she is getting the hots for him. Later, we do know what makes him first interested in her. Then they jump into bed. Well, no they don’t. This film has been promoted as a French Brief Encounter (1945), in which a couple falls in love but manage not to consummate the affair. Except that Noel Coward’s lovers struggle over the effort they have to make not to sleep together. Jean and Véronique never break a sweat. And then, 85 minutes into the film, they do the nasty. That’s either too late (if they were going to do it, we want to see the outcome, as in Jules and Paul in The Kids Are All Right) or too early (leave it for the big finish). Jean has Véronique bring her violin to play for his father’s wedding, and hearing her play, Anne-Marie understands there may be something between Jean and Véronique. This is virtually the only scene in the entire film where we get a reaction that tells us about the emotions of any of the characters in the film.

When Véronique decides in the end to leave their town, Jean says he is going to come with her. She waits at the train station for him, but when he does not show up on the platform, she gets on the train and leaves. He has come to the station, but loses his nerve and does not join her. He goes back to his wife. Now go back and look at the similar train station sequences in Casablanca (1942), Brief Encounter, Love in the Afternoon (1957), and this year’s The Secret in Their Eyes. Enough said.

As you may gather from that list of train station scenes, I am a sucker for great romantic movies, particular when the lovers have to part because of duty and honor. One of my favorite lines in Roman Holiday is the Princess reacting to one of her staff reminding her of her responsibilities after she’s had her fling with the reporter: “If I were not completely aware of my duty, I would not have returned tonight. Or, indeed, ever again.” We don’t get a lot of romantic dramas like that much any more, which is why I had high hopes for Mademoiselle Chambon. It is not a good movie, but it may also just be the times we live in. I long since stopped trying to show Brief Encounter in my film history class at Los Angeles City College. The younger generation’s reaction to it was, “If they had the hots for each other, why didn’t they just, you know, do it?”

Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno (2009. Written by Serge Bromberg. 94 minutes in the American release.)

Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno

Welcome to the ’60, take one: Henri-Georges Clouzot was one of the great pre-New Wave French film screenwriters and directors, with at least three certifiable classics to his filmography: Le Corbeau (1943), The Wages of Fear (1953) and Diabolique (1955), and another, Quai des Orfèvre (1947), that comes close. He was a master of putting the screws on his characters, who usually were not very nice people. In Diabolique, for example, a wife and a mistress collaborate on killing their husband/lover. Or so we think, but it turns out to be even worse than that. Both The Wages of Fear and Diabolique were international hits, and in 1964 he was one of a number of foreign directors of the time given more money than he was used to by American sources to make a film. L’inferno was to star one of the biggest European stars of the time, Romy Schneider, as Odette, a young wife whose husband Marcel (Serge Reggiani) grows increasingly convinced in his fantasies that she is being unfaithful to him. Sounds like material that was right in his wheelhouse. The film was never completed.

Several years ago, Serge Bromberg, a French documentary filmmaker, found himself stuck in an elevator for two hours with Clouzot’s widow and they got to talking about the film. Reels of footage that were shot still existed, mostly without the accompanying soundtracks. What Bromberg has done is make this documentary about the making and unmaking of the original film, using the original footage, interviews with surviving members of the cast and crew, and a couple of contemporary actors acting out scenes from Clouzot’s script. It is the best “unmaking of a movie” documentary since Lost in La Mancha (2002).

At the risk of sounding like a complete auteurist, the fault for the production falling apart was completely Clouzot’s. As his former crewmembers point out, in the past he had been a perfectionist, but a disciplined one. Now he had the money not to be. He kept shooting material, particularly for the fantasy sequences, that was not in the script, always a danger sign. He also had three complete film crews, with the idea that one would be setting up the next scenes while he shot the current scenes. That did not work out because he was by nature obsessive about detail and would not let anything be set up unless he was there to personally supervise it.

The other problem was that he had seen the New Wave films, the films of Antonioni, and especially Fellini’s 8 ½. Like most directors and would-be directors, he was fascinated by the way Fellini was playing around with cinema, including flashbacks, dreams, and fantasies. Clouzot recognized the great change that was taking place in international films and he wanted to be part of it. Unfortunately, he wasn’t very good at that. The scenes in the footage that work best are the black-and-white “realistic” scenes where Marcel is growing more and more psychotic. There is a good Clouzot movie in those scenes, but the fantasy scenes, shot in color, are bad late-‘60s hippy LSD trip scenes. Unlike Fellini he had no feel for that kind of imagery. The most stunning image in the film is one of the black-and-white shots involving Romy Schneider, nude, on railroad tracks with a train bearing down on her. And it’s not rear projection. It is a bad Fellini shot, but a perfect Henri-Georges Clouzot shot.

Clouzot drove the actors so hard that Serge Reggiani, who had worked with him before, walked off the film. Clouzot had a heart attack, and the film was never finished. Clouzot’s script, however, was eventually sold to Claude Chabrol, who was closer in artistic temperament to Clouzot than any of the other New Wave filmmakers. Chabrol made it into the 1994 film Hell, which I alas have not seen. Maybe Todd Solondz will do an American remake.

Caprice (1967. Screenplay by Jay Jayson and Frank Tashlin, story by Martin Hale and Jay Jayson. 98 minutes)


Welcome to the ‘60s, take two, or, why are we watching a Doris Day movie?: Since we have been talking about spying and intelligence work a lot recently, I thought I would give this one a watch. It deals with industrial intelligence, one company spying on another, not a traditional subject in films, although last year’s Duplicity handled it very well, much better than this one.

The critical word on Caprice has been all over the map. Leonard Maltin lists it as a “Bomb” in his movie and video guides, but Andrew Sarris in The American Cinema puts it in italics in his listing of director Frank Tashlin’s film, Sarris’s designation of quality. Most of the user comments on the comment board on IMDb are not good, but Leslie Halliwell in his film guide gives it a star indicating there are some positive aspects to it. Halliwell’s thumbnail critique is “Incoherent kaleidoscope which switches from farce to suspense and Bond-style action, scattering in-jokes along the way. Bits of it however are funny, and it looks good.” I’m going to go with Halliwell on this one, although I like it less that I suspect he did. There was at least one scene in the middle of the picture that has stuck in my mind since I saw the film for the first time in 1967, so it was time to look at it again.

The film opens with very “Bond-style action” as two skiers zoom down the slopes of Switzerland, the one in black shooting at the one in white. The one in white dies and we go to an imitation-Maurice Binder credit sequence. Then Patricia is arrested by the French Sécurité and at the end of the scene we learn she has stolen plans for…a new underarm deodorant. The subject, as Frank Gilroy knew when he wrote about cosmetic thievery in Duplicity, is ripe for satire. But we do not get satire here. I don’t know what the original story was like, but subtle satire is not in Frank Tashlin’s wheelhouse. He got into films writing and directing cartoons, and he is best known for his slapstick comedies of the ‘50s with such living cartoons as Jerry Lewis and Jayne Mansfield. Patricia is played here by Doris Day, one of Hollywood’s biggest stars of the ‘50s and early ‘60s. Her specialty was perky, and nobody gave better perk than Day. The film is co-produced by her husband, Martin Melcher, and he made sure the film looked good. It is gorgeously photographed by the great Leon Shamroy, maybe a little too gorgeously. And Day is wearing very fashionable, mid-‘60s clothes. Fashionable if you were in your twenties, but Day was 45 the year this film was made. Her kind of perk at age 45 is a little hard to take. While she could do serious, as in the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, and light comedy, as in the 1959 Pillow Talk, being a serious spy in a partially serious film was not in her wheelhouse. And speaking of wheelhouses, her co-star was Richard Harris, trying to make a Hollywood career for himself, but light comedy was not what he did well. Day and Harris try, but there is no chemistry between them. The script does not help, since we are not sure in the beginning whether they are attracted to each other or not.

I suspect the script problems came from Tashlin trying to make it into something he felt comfortable with. On the one hand it is a big, glossy vehicle for a major female star, but her costumes are trying to be trendy. On the other hand, it is obviously influenced by the Bond films. The slapstick calls to mind the Pink Panther films. And one of the in-jokes involves Patricia going to a movie theater that is playing Caprice, starring Doris Day and Richard Harris, which is the sort of self-reflexivity the French New Wave would love. I suspect that Tashlin was just as confused about the changes in film in the ‘60s as Clouzot was.

The action scenes, particularly the two skiing scenes, are rather ordinary, although that may be because we are now watching them after On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) and the current Inception. The slapstick comedy sequences work the best. One involves Harris’s Christopher trying to get Patricia to admit she is working for her former boss against her current boss. She realizes he has a microphone in a sugar cube at an outdoor restaurant and does everything to drown out the sound, while Tashlin cuts away to her current boss trying to listen and reacting apoplectically to the other sounds.

Another slapstick scene is the one that stuck in my mind all these years. Patricia is trying to get a strand of hair off Su Ling, the sexy Chinese secretary to Stuart Clancy. Clancy has invented a water-resistant hair spray and Su Ling uses it. Patricia follows Su Ling to her home in the hills, and while Su Ling sunbathes on a deck built out over the hills, Patricia tries to cut a bit of her hair. This involves climbing out on the underside of the deck with a pair of garden shears, dealing with Su Ling’s large dog, and assorted other problems. Tashlin and his fellow writers have come up with a great slapstick scene, although, since Day was not particularly good at slapstick, it depends more on the writing and direction than it does the performance. The juxtaposition of Day’s stunt woman scrambling around as opposed to the nonchalance of Su Ling in her bikini is both funny and sexy at the same time, the sort of thing that Tashlin could bring off well. The rest of the script is the same sort of hodgepodge we have already discussed. It even ends up with a man dressed as a woman, possibly a nod to Psycho (1960).

There is another reason the deck scene stuck in my mind over the years. Su Ling is played by a young Chinese American actress named Irene Tsu. While I had seen a couple of pictures she had done before, this scene firmly implanted her in my mind. So much so that, five years later, when she enrolled in my History of the Motion Pictures class at LACC, I recognized her right away. It was the second semester I was teaching the course, and at the end of the semester I took some of the class time and had her tell the class about her experiences. She had worked with John Ford on 7 Women (1966) (Ford not only intimidated Irene, but Anne Bancroft as well) and Buster Keaton on the How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965). She said she was near tears when she saw Keaton’s Seven Chances (1925) in class because she knew nothing about his early days when she had worked with him.

Irene was fun to have as a student, both in that class and in my Screenwriting class. When I talked to her a few years ago, she asked me if she had been a “brat” in class. I said I would have described her instead as feisty. In the ‘60s she was one of only three Asian-American actresses who worked regularly in Hollywood. If you wanted dramatic/tragic, you went with France Nuyen. If you wanted perky girl-next-door, you went with Nancy Kwan. For glamor and humor, you went with Irene. One day I was walking on campus and saw her coming down the path towards me. When she got close, I put on a fan-boy face and said, “It’s, it’s…Nancy Kwan.” Irene, who is a friend of Kwan’s, may well have just lost a part to her. Anyway, she hauled off and slugged me in the arm. When I encouraged her to write scripts that dealt with her Chinese heritage, she eventually turned on me and said, “What do you want from me? I’m just a girl from New Rochelle, New York.” She was born in Shanghai, but came to this country when she was a small child.

I continued to follow Irene’s career after she left LACC. In 2006 my intrepid projectionist at LACC, Amos Rothbaum, scored a print of the 1996 Hong Kong film, Comrades: Almost a Love Story, in which Irene gives one of her best performances as an auntie to one of the major characters. I persuaded Irene to come to class and talk about the film and her career. Most of the men in the class fell in love with her, even though, as I reminded some of them later, she was old enough to be their mother. MILF. She still acts occasionally, although as she said that night, the only parts she gets offered these days are “Mothers, either with or without accents.” Which pretty much tells you everything you need to know about ageism, racism and sexism in Hollywood. You can check out Irene and her career on the IMDb.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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