Keepers of the Flame : As fans of Lee Marvin, the members of the BSOL watch his old movies and light up cigars in the late actor’s honor--even though they know the tough guy probably wouldn’t approve.
Here in Fixationsland we don’t receive many slick video presentations. Usually what crosses the transom are barely legible notes in which people tell us of their strange hobbies in scribbled script that looks like Mesopotamian filtered through Jaegermeister.
So we paid attention when a sharp video titled “The BSOL and You” arrived in the mail a few weeks back. The tape begins auspiciously enough, with a movie excerpt of Lee Marvin standing impassive as Angie Dickinson beats furiously on his chest. This is followed by a montage of scenes of the late actor chomping cigars, shooting machine guns, striding confidently down hallways, grimacing and doing other manly things.
The video cuts presently to a Garden Grove townhouse, where a somewhat less macho but similarly cigar-chomping man who identifies himself as Brother Liberty Valance announces, “Lee Marvin: Once these words on a movie screen meant to audiences everywhere that they were in for another original, gutsy, tough performance by one of motion pictures’ all-time screen greats.”
He is followed by two other men, identified as Brothers Chino and Steel Kelly, who proclaim the sad news that since Marvin’s death at age 63 in 1987 not only have most people forgotten him, but many confuse him with another white-haired actor, James Coburn. The video then cuts briefly to a shot of Coburn making dismayingly squirrelly kung fu noises and gestures.
This clearly is too much for any true Marvin fan to endure, so these three have banded together to form the BSOL, or, as they proclaim in unison on the tape, “the Bastard Sons of Lee!”
A visit to a recent meeting of the BSOL at Ron Walker’s home confirmed all the other salient features of their video: There’s the shrine to Marvin, a life-size laminated head shot of the actor, with a real burning stogie stuck in his mouth, representing “Lee’s fiery presence, which could not be extinguished even after death,” according to Steel Kelly, which is the BSOL name of Armand Castellanos. There are the monogrammed shot glasses and cocoa mugs featuring photos of Marvin’s mug. There is the Macaulay Culkin doll the BSOL members like to beat up.
“The doll was a gag gift I got from Brother Steel,” explained Brother Liberty Valance, a.k.a. Ron Walker. “And we decided that this is what’s wrong with Hollywood today, this cutesy kid. . .”
”. . . Who makes more money in one movie than Lee did in his career,” interjected a clearly disgusted Brother Chino, real name Dave Smith. As you’ve likely gathered, the members take their club names from film characters Marvin has portrayed.
“That’s such a travesty, and we felt it should be punished,” Walker continued. “We wrote ‘Death to John Hughes’ on the doll, because we feel (film director) John Hughes is the Antichrist of the cinema. Kevin (Culkin’s character) in the ‘Home Alone’ movies is as anti-Lee as film icons can get, so we systematically beat and humiliate the doll.”
Sound like your kind of club? The BSOL is looking for new members.
There are four of them now, as they’ve been joined by Brother Rico--Bob Kienast--who is Walker’s brother-in-law.
“I was over here one night, and out of the blue I mentioned Lee Marvin is one of my favorite actors, and Ron’s jaw dropped to the floor,” Kienast recalled. “I hadn’t even heard about their secret club. We never knew we were each big Lee Marvin fans.”
“And we’ve been trying to get a fifth member ever since,” Smith said. “We don’t have any idea how we’re going to get one. I guess we just wait till we hear someone walking down the street saying, ‘God, I love Lee Marvin!’ and sign them up.” (Or, to eliminate the guesswork, potential BSOLers can contact them via Brother Rico, P.O. Box 684, Cypress, CA 90630.)
They aren’t counting on their membership expanding much.
Kienast said, “It seems the comments we hear about Lee Marvin are 10-to-1 negative.”
“People just hate the guy,” Smith said, shaking his head.
“And he’s one of the most underrated actors and underrated enormous screen presences,” Castellanos complained.
“We all feel that Lee Marvin has sort of been forgotten,” Walker said of the actor who also appeared on television in a variety of dramatic anthologies, starred in the 1957-60 police drama “M Squad” and had a supporting role in “Treasury Men in Action.”
“Most people either don’t remember who he is, don’t like him, or think he’s James Coburn. And we feel he was one of the all-time movie greats, an incredible star, one of a kind. He should be respected like Humphrey Bogart or James Dean is. So we get together to celebrate our enjoyment of Lee.”
For more than two years Walker, Castellanos and Smith have met monthly (plus on the dates of the actor’s birth and death), to screen different Marvin flicks--they alternate between his starring and supporting roles--and enlarge upon the rituals of BSOL membership.
The tightknit organization started one day when friends Walker and Castellanos confessed their mutual admiration for Samuel Fuller’s gritty 1980 World War II epic “The Big Red One,” which features one of Marvin’s standout roles.
“Lee is all presence in that one,” enthused Castellanos. “So one night the three of us got together to watch it, and it was incredible. The next thing you know, as Ron tends to do, he blew it all out of proportion, and the BSOL was formed.” (The two also have a disproportionately large Godzilla collection.)
Once initiated, they began joking about needing an altar, and the smoking Lee was created, followed by the cocoa mugs (stored in a locked metal case kept by Castellanos, while Smith keeps the key), the Culkin doll and other rituals, which include the members lighting up a cigar each time Marvin does on-screen. As Walker explains in the video, “There’s nothing like sharing a good smoke with dad.”
In a film magazine, Walker read that cult filmmaker Jim Jarmusch had a small group of friends, including actor/singer Tom Waits, who call themselves the Sons of Lee Marvin and watch his films.
“So we’re the Bastard Sons, because we knew they’d never let us in their group,” Smith said.
“Tom Waits even sort of resembles Lee at his scruffiest and troll-iest,” commented Walker. “Tom Waits in ‘Short Cuts’ looks like Lee Marvin in ‘The Wild One.’ ”
Walker’s wife, Kienast’s sister Monica, is banished from the meetings, not that she considers this any great loss. “I think this is ridiculous,” she says of the monthly male gathering, where toted-in posters of Marvin in gun or bottle-waving roles compete with the living room’s Monet prints.
Her brother isn’t yet a full-fledged member of the BSOL.
To be that, he’ll have to catch up viewing all 25 Marvin films the charter members have screened so far. That includes a “trial by fire” double-header of the two worst Marvin vehicles the members have yet come across.
One of those, “Pocket Money,” was simply dull, they say, while “The Meanest Men in the West” was really painful.
Walker said, “It’s the only Lee Marvin exploitation film we’ve ever come across. You know, like the kung fu flicks exploiting any old footage they could find of Bruce Lee? Here, they took two completely different old episodes of ‘The Virginian,’ one with Charles Bronson before he was famous and another with Lee Marvin, and pieced them together to try to make one coherent story out of it.
“You’re supposed to believe they’re brothers, even though you never see them together. They’d use stock footage, and superimpose Lee into the scenes with this jiggly blue-screen effect, so you’d see the same shot of him firing a gun five times. It was totally incoherent, Cuisinart filmmaking.
“On its own it wouldn’t have been so bad, but following this other one, it was a real one-two punch. The BSOL almost disbanded right there, it was so heinous. But we knew when we got into this, Lee good or bad, we watch them all.”
Asking what the Brothers consider to be Marvin’s worst performances brought an immediate correction.
“I think we’ve all agreed that Lee doesn’t have any bad performances; he’s just in a lot of bad movies,” Walker said.
OK, then what were the poorest settings in which this rugged gem was placed?
Along with the aforementioned two, they cited “The Dirty Dozen: The Next Mission,” where, though it is still World War II, the characters are a good 20 years older than they were in the original film.
“Lee is totally on autopilot in that one,” Smith noted. “It’s like they had to put an IV in him just to get him to sit up and say his lines.”
Their greatest scorn is reserved for the 1955 film “Pete Kelly’s Blues.”
“One of the things we all scoff at are these lesser leading men that Lee must play second to. ‘Pete Kelly’s Blues’ was the worst because that was a Jack Webb ego-fest he directed, wrote and starred in. Lee plays his sidekick, and on two occasions Jack cold-cocks Lee and knocks him unconscious. Jack Webb punches like a girl! Lee Marvin practically knocks him over just by standing there, he’s such a powerful presence!” complained Walker.
“Jack Webb beating up Lee Marvin? C’mon!” Smith fumed.
“That hurt the Brothers, to see Jack Webb beating up Lee Marvin,” Kienast said.
They also have their favorite films, which include the original “The Dirty Dozen,” “Hell in the Pacific,” “The Professionals,” “Attack!” “Paint Your Wagon” and “The Big Red One,” from which they borrowed the emblem that adorns their BSOL sweat shirts.
When the grim day comes that they have viewed all the Marvin films and TV shows extant, they plan to spend the next 10 monthly meetings re-screening their 10 favorites. And after that?
“We’ve made a suicide pact,” Smith said.
Most of their daily lives aren’t especially action-packed. Walker, 28, works as a courier for State Farm Insurance. Smith, 27, lives in Westminster and works for a videodisc store while writing unproduced screenplays. Kienast, 35, lives in Anaheim and is a technical analyst for Sanwa Bank.
Castellanos, 28, of Santa Ana, at least had a marginally Marvin-like job until recently, working for Sears in a security/loss prevention capacity. Along with occasionally dishing out “reasonable force” to miscreants, he once caught hold of a shoplifter’s car door handle and was dragged through a parking lot for his troubles.
The only sign of Lee-ness other members can cite is having gotten drunk a time or three, though never at meetings.
“In the spirit of Lee, we should probably be slamming boilermakers the whole time, but we take our movies too seriously, so we don’t get loaded when we’re watching. We might have a shot of tequila out of our monogrammed BSOL shot glasses, but that’s it.
“Lee’s sort of the wild man. So maybe we live vicariously through him,” Walker said, citing not only Marvin’s screen roles but his legendary hard-drinking antics off-camera and his military actions, which included bashing in the teeth of a soldier he’d shot to get a gold tooth as a souvenir.
Walker said, “To someone like us, that’s about as far from our reality as you can get. It’s unimaginable.”
“Lee has actually shot people,” Smith said. “Granted, that’s old hat today. Everybody’s shot somebody now.”
Would Marvin approve of their little club?
“I think he’d think we were the biggest bunch of morons. He didn’t have too much use for Hollywood or fans,” Walker said.
“He might slap us around,” said Castellanos, hopefully.