For director Otto Preminger, each new film was a departure from the last, and this became his modus operandi, especially in the latter part of his career. With Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon (1970), he broached the difficult and misunderstood subjects of disability, mental illness, welfare and homosexuality. In the late 1960s, while under contract with Paramount Pictures, Preminger read Marjorie Kellogg’s debut novel Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon and snapped up the film rights a few months before the book was published. Kellogg, a former hospital social worker turned writer, was inspired to write a story that humanized an otherwise ostracized minority group. Her novel told the story of three young hospital patients who decide to live together: Junie Moon, an acid burn victim; Warren, a gay paraplegic; and Arthur, a young man with a mysterious degenerative neurological disorder.
The novel was a hit and resonated with young readers. The New York Times book critic Jonathan Kozol called it “a very gentle-spirited, small and special novel.” According to Kellogg, Preminger was particularly drawn to the resiliency of the characters. She said, “He admired strength in any form… I think he liked to see a situation that looked shaky or impossible and get into it and find out these things and find the strength of people.” Preminger hired Kellogg to adapt her own novel, and the two agreed on most script changes, although Kellog stood her ground on not changing the ending.
For the title role of Junie Moon, Preminger cast Liza Minnelli, who was still in the early days of her film career. Preminger was impressed with her performance in The Sterile Cuckoo (1969), which garnered Minnelli her first Academy Award nomination. According to Preminger biographer Chris Fujiwara, Preminger was drawn to the “strange, Chaplinesque humor that [came] through her body and eyes.” Paramount executive Peter Bart was unhappy with Preminger and especially distraught that audiences would have to watch a disfigured Liza Minnelli for two hours. The burn markings were altered to cover only half of her face and one arm.
Minnelli really connected with the role of Junie Moon. In a The New York Times interview she said, “For the duration of the film, Junie Moon and I were the same person. I felt what she felt, but I felt it as Junie Moon, not as Liza Minnelli, the actress.” Minnelli and Preminger had very different working styles and while the two didn’t clash on set, Minnelli was ultimately unhappy with Preminger, whom she viewed as a strict disciplinarian. During filming, her mother, Judy Garland, died. Preminger allowed Minnelli to take as much time off as she needed. Minnelli decided to make arrangements during breaks in filming and took only one day off for the funeral.
For the two male leads, Preminger cast newcomer Ken Howard, who was starring in the Broadway production of 1776, and theater director Robert Moore. Howard was offered an extended contract with Preminger and appeared in his next film, Such Good Friends (1971). Moore, who was directing Boys in the Band on Broadway, approached Preminger for a small part in his film. Moore saw this as an opportunity to study Preminger and learn how to direct a film through observation. Preminger was so impressed with Moore that he cast him in a lead role rather than a bit part.
With Moore came several stage actors, including James Coco and Leonard Frey. Kay Thompson, Liza Minnelli’s godmother and best known for her children’s book series Eloise, was cast as the eccentric rich landlady. Former football star turned actor Fred Williamson was cast as the fun-loving and empathetic hotel clerk Beach Boy. The cast was primarily made up of unknowns, with the notable exception of Anne Revere, who had been blacklisted by Hollywood in the 1950s and hadn’t been in a film since her role in A Place in the Sun (1951). According to Fujiwara, Revere summed up her experience working on the film by saying “It’s only a tiny part, but, after all those years, God, I loved doing it.”
Production ran from July to September 1969. There were a host of problems with the on-location shooting. In Massachusetts, filming took place in Beverly, Gloucester (Hammond Castle) and Manchester-by-the-Sea with little fanfare. Preminger even sponsored a contest with local filmmakers to produce a short documentary on the making of the film.
The trouble started when Preminger filmed a provocative scene where Minnelli disrobes in front of her date. That scene was shot at Blue Hills Cemetery in Braintree, MA, and outrage quickly ensued. There were four separate lawsuits filed against Preminger and Minnelli for public indecency and desecration of a cemetery. One of the lawsuits made it to court. The case was dismissed after several officers, who had been hired by Preminger for police detail during filming, noted that Minnelli was wearing a skin colored body suit and Preminger provided proof that one of the cemetery owners had granted him permission to film. In post-production, Preminger had taped over the headstones so names of the deceased would be obscured. As a result of the lawsuits, the Massachusetts legislature put into effect Section 42B of Chapter 114, which states, “No person shall use the premises of a cemetery or burial place for the purpose of making a motion picture film for commercial purposes without previous consent…” The law was put into effect on June 10th, 1970 and is sometimes referred to as the “Liza Minnelli Law.”
The production then moved to Naples, Florida. However, it was halted after one day when the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees demanded that five local members be added to the camera crew. According to the AFI, “Fred Williamson encountered discrimination at a local bar in Naples called the Anchor Lounge, where he was denied service. The incident resulted in fisticuffs, and a civil rights complaint was filed on behalf of Williamson.” Preminger shut down the Florida production on the second day. The remaining scenes were shot on Santa Monica Pier, Shelter Island in San Diego and in La Jolla, California.
Preminger hired folk singer Pete Seeger to write an original song for the film. He had previously approached Bob Dylan, who had no interest in the film and turned it down, but only after accepting two visits to Preminger’s beautifully decorated home. Seeger was filmed in Sequoia National Park performing “Old Devil Time” in the sequences that appear at the beginning and end of the film.
Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon premiered in May 1970 at the Cannes Film Festival, where it was poorly received. Paramount rushed to release the film that summer. It then opened in July of 1970 at the Beekman Theatre in New York City and in August at the Crest Theatre in Los Angeles. According to Preminger biographer Foster Hirsch, “Otto did not promote the movie with his usual fanfare. Notices were downbeat, business lackluster.” The film was criticized for Preminger’s heavy-handed approach in which he was overpowered by the subtleties of Kellogg’s story and script. In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “Preminger doesn’t direct movies as much as he makes frontal assaults on them.” However, there were some positive reactions to the film. Preminger’s decision to forego melodrama for a more character-driven approach gave the film more authenticity than it would have otherwise.
Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon was release on home video in 2016 with DVD and Blu-Ray editions from distributor Olive Films.