Monday, October 16, 2017

small screen, big screen

There have been a lot of trends - some fleeting, some that have become fixed - during the course of movie history, but one that has never been recognized (to the best of my knowledge) is the transition of television personalities to feature-film directing that occurred during the 1980s.

While a handful of them had experience in producing and directing series, the most productive were actors who appeared in those series, mostly sitcoms. They directed some of the most popular and, in many cases, critically-acclaimed films of the 80s, but for reasons that I cannot exactly pinpoint, the directing careers of many of them were curiously short-lived.

With the exception of one (maybe two), they all faded out along with the '80s themselves. So, today, I intend to pay tribute these filmmakers who, based on their output, have every right to be called auteurs.

Ron Howard. Howard made his official directorial debut for Roger Corman  with 1977's "Grand Theft Auto," but his new career really kicked into gear with "Night Shift" (1982) and particularly Tom Hanks' "Splash" (1984). Working in tandem with producer Brian Grazer, he created a string of companionable hits ("Cocoon," "Parenthood," "Cinderella Man," "Frost/Nixon" and "Rush") and is in his 40th year (as difficult as that is to believe) as a director. Howard won an Oscar for directing "A Beautiful Mind" in 2001 and remains incredibly active compared to his TV peers. 

Rob Reiner. Reiner, of course, zoomed out of the gate with the seminal mockumentary, "This Is Spinal Tap," in 1984 and then, a year later, gave us John Cusack and Daphne Zuniga (remember her?) in the enchanting "The Sure Thing." This was followed by - now hold on - "Stand By Me," "The Princess Bride," "When Harry Met Sally...," "Misery," "A Few Good Men" and "The American President," all in a space of 10 years. Like Howard, his career as a filmmaker has lasted beyond the '80s. Reiner still makes films but his focus has clearly switched to politics and activism. Good move.
Frank Oz. Ok, he's known largely as the voice of Miss Piggy and as a Muppeteer, but he started a most satisfying directing career 1982. Here goes: "Little Shop of Horrors," "In & Out," "Bowfinger," "HouseSitter," "What About Bob?," "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" and "The Dark Crystal." Say no more. 

Garry Marshall. Marshall, who died in 2016 at age 91, directed his final film, "Mother's Day," that year - one of those all-star omnibus movies in which he came to specialize. He made his first film, "Young Doctors in Love," in 1982, and then did the pleasurable "The Flamingo Kid,"  "Beaches" and "Nothing in Common," with Jackie Gleason and Tom Hanks. There was "Frankie and Johnny" (based on a Terrence McNally play) and "The Princess Diaries," but he will forever be known for "Pretty Woman." Personally, in terms of a Roberts-Gere pairing, I prefer "Runaway Bride."

Danny DeVito. My personal favorite of the TV-bred directors. DeVito made a sensational debut directing the very original Hitchcock takeoff, "Throw Momma from the Train," in 1987. Since then, he's directed only five features - all good.  "The War of the Roses" and "Hoffa" (with Jack Nicholson in the title role) are easily his most accomplished films, but I equally admire the misunderstood "Death to Smoochy" and the offbeat charmer, "Duplex," barely released by Miramax. Lately, DeVito has directed a string of shorts and seems to have gone back to acting, although he has a completed feature, "St. Sebastian" (with William Fitchner and Constance Zimmer), his first in 14 years.
Penny Marshall. Marshall, not surprisingly the only woman in the bunch, made her debut with the very entertaining Whoopi Goldberg comedy, "Jumpin' Jack Flash" (1986). But then came something much bigger - "Big" (again with Hanks) in 1988. After that, she directed a movie every two years, with the excellent "Awakenings" and the feminist crossover hit, "A League of Their Own"  (Hanks!), being the standouts - followed by "Renaissance Man," "The Preacher's Wife" and her last (in 2001), "Riding in the Cars with Boys."

 Leonard Nimoy. Nimoy had a ten-year career directing feature films, starting (naturally) with two "Star Trek" titles - "Star Trek III: The Search for Spock" in 1984 and "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home" in 1986. He had a huge hit with "Three Men and a Baby," Disney's 1987 remake of a French comedy, and challenged himself with the difficult Diane Keaton-Liam Neeson drama, "The Good Mother." There were only two more films after that - "Holy Matrimony" and the Gene Wilder comedy, "Funny about Love," from which Farrah Fawcett's entire performance was famously deleted. Nimoy died in 2015 at age 83.

Alan Alda. After writing the screenplay for Jerry Schatzberg's "The Seduction of Joe Tynan," Alda spent the '80s directing four films and then called it quits. They were "The Four Seasons" in 1981, followed by the very good "Sweet Liberty," "A New Life" and "Betsy's Wedding."

James L. Brooks. Brooks, the sitcom king, hit the big screen big time with that piece of Oscar bait, the irresistible "Terms of Endearment," in 1983. Three years later, there was the much-admired "Broadcast News" (also Oscar-worthy), followed by the notorious "I'll Do Anything," a film that started life as a musical but was released as a straight dramedy, and the enormously popular "As Good as It Gets." In 2004, he directed my personal favorite Brooks film, "Spanglish." His last film, in 2010, was Reese Witherspoon's badly-titled "How Do You Know?"
Worth noting are those TV hands who failed to make an impression on the big screen. James Burrows, who has helmed scores of sitcoms (mot notably "Friends"), directed only one film to date - 1982's "Partners," a cop comedy with Ryan O'Neal and John Hurt (as his gay partner). Also one-timers are Jay Sandrich and Terry Hughes who directed "Seems Like Old Times" (1980) and "The Butcher's Wife" (1991) respectively -  two very appealing comedies.

Sandrich was the chief director of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and Hughes, a British director, oversaw "Third Rock from the Sun," as well as two filmed-on-stage Sondheim pieces, "Sunday in the Park with George" and "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street."

Finally, there's the estimable John Rich, who was behind "All in the Family" and "The Dick Van Dyke Show." Rich, who died at 86 in 2012, directed five features in the 1960s - the Tony Curtis-Jerry Lewis comedy, "Boeing, Boeing," "Wives and Lovers," "The New Interns" and two Elvis titles, "Roustabout" (with Barbara Stanwyck) and "Easy Come, Easy Go."
* * * * *
~auteurs from the small screen
(from top)

~Frank Oz directing Nicole Kidman in "The Stepford Wives"
 ~photography: Paramount/DreamWorks 2004©

~Ron Howard
~Rob Reiner
~Danny DeVito
~Penny Marshall
~Leonard Nimoy
~Alan Alda

Thursday, October 12, 2017

harold & maude, donald & cary

It's odd, isn't is, that in a "free society," conformity is not merely expected but actually demanded, with persistent coercion soon to follow.

Two weeks or so ago, when Donald J. Trump first expressed his latest outrage - namely about the lack of patriotism indicated by those NFL players who kneel in protest during the National Anthem - Turner Classic Movies screened the 1952 Cary Grant comedy, "Room for One More."

It was a Saturday - September 24th - and I remember thinking that, if there was a remote chance that Trump was also watching the film, we'd be exposed to yet another flag-waving tirade about American loyalty/pride.

Why? Because towards the end of this charming family movie, there's a Boy Scout sequence, during which the original Pledge of Allegiance is recited, a version that does not include the words "under God"!

I can envision the Tweet...
  • Cary Grant is, without question, the WORST EVER actor. A total joke. I predict he will never make another movie. And "Room for One More." VERY DISAPPOINTING. God is a really great guy. A VERY GOOD FRIEND. 

But, remember, the film in question, directed by Norman Taurog, is from 1952.  The words in question were added two years later in 1954.

For years, it was believed that those two words were included in response to the onset of the Cold War. Not true, even though the two coincided.

The original version of the Pledge of Allegiance was written in 1887 by George Balch, a Rear Admiral devoted to teaching loyalty to the United States to children and immigrants.

It was revised in 1892 - in largely the form as we presently know it - by Francis Julius Bellamy, a Christian socialist minister who disapproved of Balch's version. In '54, George MacPherson Docherty, the Presbyterian minister of the church attended by President Eisenhower, suggested that something was missing and had the two words, "under God," incorporated into the Pledge. So much for the separation of church and state, right?

I had an image of Trump screaming at his TV screen - and tweeting - as the Turner movie aired. Then another movie - and another character - came to mind:  Dame Marjorie Chardin, aka Maude, who had some radical ideas on the subject of patriotism that could prompt yet another tweet.

In "Harold and Maude," Hal Ashby's terrific 1971 film, Maude (Ruth Gordon) talks about her lifelong activism, prompting her new best friend, Harold Chasen (Bud Cort) to ask, "What were you fighting for?"

"Oh, big issues," Maude explains. "Liberty. Rights. Justice. Kings died, kingdoms fell. I don't regret the kingdoms - what sense in borders and nations and patriotism? But I miss the kings." 

Colin Higgins, who wrote "Harold and Maude," was clearly ahead of his time. He knew that patriotism, ostensibly a good thing, could also be divisive, setting up unnecessary borders. And walls. And conformity.

As the NFL has regretably demonstrated.
* * * * *
(from top)
~Cary Grant (from left), George "Foghorn" Winslow, Betsy Drake (aka, Mrs. Grant), Iris Mann and Gay Gordon reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in "Room for One More"

~The Boy Scout ceremony in "Room for One More"
 ~photography: Warner Bros. 1952© 

~Hal Ashby directing Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon in "Harold and Maude"
 ~photography: Paramount Pictures 1971©

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

how to handle a woman, hollywood-style

The latest, way-too-familiar Hollywood story of a powerful man exploiting women who are powerless coincided with my renewed interest in movie dubbing. While your average modern moviegoer is transfixed by the miracles created by CGI, my fascination has long been with the curious art of dubbing, specifically the dubbing of singing in movie musicals.

So, while Harvey preoccupied everyone else, I wasted the good part of several days perusing You Tube for clips of who-dubbed-who in screen musicals, prompted by my previous essay, “whose voice is it anyway?”

Replacing one performer's voice with another's is unquestionably an odd bit of movie trickery, especially given that vocal delivery is central to an actor's achievement. But when the dubbing of singing in musicals is done right (which, admittedly, has been rare), it can be absolutely magical.

Anyway, I found a terrific two-parter - ”Dubbing Through the Decades, Part 1” (March 2nd, 2013) and ”Dubbing Through the Decades, Part 2,” (August 31st, 2016). This was pig heaven for me. Screening one clip after another, I picked up on something. While the singing for both men and women has been routinely dubbed in musicals for years, there has been more media interest when an actress is dubbed - more negative attention.

And the scrutiny has been more intensive when the actress in question is clearly a major player. There were three such situations in the 1960s when Natalie Wood, Rosalind Russell and Audrey Hepburn - all A-list actresses - were dubbed in film musicals. No one cared that Nancy Kwan was dubbed for "Flower Drum Song" in 1961 - I suppose she wasn't major enough - but the implied failings of Wood, Russell and Hepburn were gleefully reported.

Exacerbating matters, the actresses' respective studios made no attempts to protect them, even though each star was highly paid and important to the film in question. Someone cynical (like me) might see this as a form of control, using humiliation to keep a star - a female star - in place.

In each case, the actress signed on with the understanding that she would do her own singing and, also in each case, the studio reneged on its promise and brought in a ghost singer, reportedly behind  the star's back.

That singer was usually - you got it! - Marni Nixon, the bane of '60s movie musicals. Making no attempt to sound like the actress in question, Nixon dubbed Wood in "West Side Story" (1961) and Hepburn in "My Fair Lady" (1964), after both actresses trained, rehearsed and recorded their songs.

Wood and Hepburn were betrayed by their studios, despite being crucial to their respective films, ostensibly because their voices weren't "perfect." But there are times when perfection isn't necessary - or even important. You Tube clips of both stars doing their own singing underline this point.

Wood is surprisingly good, given her small voice and the demands of the "West Side Story" score, impressively mastering even high notes. She sings sincerely (as seen here), with much heart, and whatever tentative wobble there is totally fits the charming character she's playing.

It should be noted that just about everyone in "West Side Story" was dubbed (with the exception of George Chakiris, who does little singing in the film) - Richard Beymer, Rita Moreno and Russ Tamblyn, whose singing was dubbed by fellow cast member Tucker Smith. (It's disconcerting to watch Tamblyn and Smith sing and hear the same exact voice.)

But Natalie's dubbed voice got all the attention.

Dubbing Audrey Hepburn in "My Fair Lady" was, arguably, the biggest mistake of all - largely because Hepburn had one of the most distinctive speaking voices, unexpectedly husky for so frail a woman. For me, nothing is worse than to see Hepburn open her mouth and then hear Nixon's perfect but soulless voice come out of it. Nixon's singing for Hepburn is the only flaw in an otherwise pristine movie musical. Again, Hepburn's singing (as seen here) is perfectly fine, particularly on "Wouldn't It Be Loverly?"

She sounds like ... Audrey Hepburn.

Hepburn was Jack Warner's first and only choice to play Eliza Doolittle and he pursued her until he wore her down. Warner reportedly kept offering her money and more money - and she kept saying no until the payoff was too large to ignore. She said yes, she played the role beautifully, she recorded her songs dutifully and then she was criticized by the press relentlessly when it was revealed that her singing was dubbed.

Rosalind Russell's adventures with "Gypsy" (1962) are interesting. She and her husband Frederick Brisson wanted to option Gypsy Rose Lee's memoir to make a straight drama, but the book was tied up with the stage musical which Warner Bros. had purchased. The two forces came together and Russell was signed to play Madam Rose. Given that she had already sung in the film "The Girl Rush" and in the stage and TV productions of "Wonderful Town," it was assumed that she could handle the Styne-Sondheim score, which she recorded with vocal coach Harper McKay. If she could sing on a Broadway stage night after night, why not on film?

But the "Gypsy" score was written specifically to fit the big, brassy voice of its original stage star, Ethel Merman, and Russell wasn't a belter. Still, she was a pro and sang them well (as seen here) - or well enough.

In the end, Warners brought in Lisa Kirk to do most of the singing and then did something creative, interpolating the two voices. Kirk, who does an uncanny vocal impersonation of Russell, does most of the heavy lifting, with Russell herself singing "Mr. Goldstone, I Love You" (live, no less), "Together, Wherever We Got" (subsequently deleted from the film), a lovely (live) reprise of "Small World" and the first part of "Rose's Turn."(Natalie Wood, also in "Gypsy," did her own singing this time out.)

In terms of vocal accuracy, Kirk's achievement on "Gypsy" remains one of the two best examples of movie-musical dubbing, the other being Nixon's work on "The King and I" (1956). When Twentieth Century-Fox was ready to film the musical, it cast Maureen O'Hara, a good actress who could actually sing, in the role of Anna. It was perfect casting, until composer Richard Rodgers balked. (He was turned off by the fact that O'Hara was then currently in what he considered an "inferior" pirate movie.)

Fox then opted for Deborah Kerr, who couldn't sing, and brought in Nixon who, on this one occasion, succeeded in approximating the sound and inflections of the star: The voice coming out of Kerr's mouth when she sings sounds like her own. A year later, Nixon also dubbed a song that Kerr sang in Fox's "An Affair to Remember" (1957) and she became the studios’ go-to person for voiceover work in the 1950s and '60s.

Wood, Russell and Hepburn were all disappointed and angry about the dubbing, particularly as all three worked hard to surmount intimidating scores. But there were other performers - some already known as singers - who were burned by the studios. Case in point: Juanita Hall.

Hall originated the role of Bloody Mary in "South Pacific" and played and sang it several hundred times during its Broadway run. One of the highlights of the show was her rendition of  "Bali Ha'i." She also appears in the 1958 film version, where she pre-recorded her two songs.

But Richard Rodgers (again) was unhappy and insisted that her vocals be dubbed by the more operatic Muriel Smith, who played the role in London. Rodgers thought that Hall's voice had become too harsh. Huh? She's playing a native. It makes no sense that she sound like a trained soprano.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with Hall's reading of "Bali Ha'i" (as seen here) that's available on You Tube. I certainly prefer it to Smith's.

The dubbing of Hall was unnecessary and, in the case of Wood, Russell and Hepburn, I would have preferred to hear the actresses themselves.

Whether or not a performer is a great singer is of little importance to me. I would rather see a genuine Movie Star as the lead in a musical than a trained singer without much screen presence. It was a kick to see (and hear) Marlon Brando in "Guys and Dolls," Elizabeth Taylor in "A Little Night Music"," Clint Eastwood in "Paint Your Wagon," Julia Roberts in "Everyone Says I Love You" and Robert DeNiro in "New York, New York." To repeat myself, there are times when perfection isn't necessary - or important.

I'm a majority of one here, particularly among other musical enthusiasts - and the general moviegoing public. Audiences react weirdly when an actor who isn't known for singing actually has the audacity to sing on screen.

They tend to laugh, nervously.

And the Hollywood studio heads traditionally thought otherwise about non-singers, too. When they couldn't secure a Doris Day for a musical, someone who could sing and also had box-office clout, the inevitable option was to hire another Big Star, whether she could sing or not - so long as she was a draw - and then dub her, grudgingly, behind her back.

Just another way to control, humiliate and keep an actress in line.

Nothing new really.

Notes in Passing: Marni Nixon was no Hollywood outsider. She was married during her reign as voiceover specialist to legendary film-score composer Ernest Gold. A confidentiality clause was a given, to keep everything hush-hush, but the Nixon name became familiar when Kerr herself revealed "the secret." In interviews, Nixon came across as someone who saw herself as the victim of ungrateful actresses. She would snidely comment how Wood and Hepburn weren't "good enough" and about how angry they were about being dubbed, making no apparent attempt to empathize with them or consider their point of view.  On one occasion, she proclaims, "Audrey Hepburn was not a major singer!"

Poor form.

And, no, she did not dub Marilyn Monroe's voice in "Gerntlemen Prefer Blondes" (1953), as has been occasionally and erroneously reported. Nixon merely provided the operatic "No, no, no, no!" line that leads into "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend." Marilyn took over from there.

Also, re the "South Pacific"/You Tube clip linked here, there's a brief bit of dialogue that was cut either before the film's release or after its roadshow engagements in which Ken Clark (as Stewpot) says to Ray Walston (Luther Billis), "Never mind, big dealer, I like you. Saxy!," while he strokes Walston's arm. The moment is brief and stands out because the quality is visually inferior (washed out) to the scene that contains it. Fairly randy.

Why are these kids singing?

Did you know that all the Von Trapp kids in "The Sound of Music" (1965) were dubbed? Crazy, right? I mean, why were these kids hired in the first place?  Maybe I have a double standard. I can understand why a studio would dub the singing voice of a major star for a musical but why seven kids actors who are interchangeable with at least 7.000 other kid actors?

I mean, those Von Trapp kids weren't that cute.
* * * * *
(from top) 

~Audrey Hepburn singing "Woudn't It Be Loverly?" in "My Fair Lady"
 ~photography: Warner Bros. 1964©

~Natalie Wood singing "Tonight" in "West Side Story"
 ~photography: United Artists 1961©

~Rosalind Russell singing "Small World" in "Gypsy"
 ~photography: Warner Bros. 1962©

~The Von Trapp children singing "So Long, Farewell" in "The Sound of Music"
 ~photography: Twenieth Century-Fox 1965©

Friday, October 06, 2017

whose voice is it anyway?

Something that runs in tandem with moviegoing for most buffs is the curiosity about how films are made - how this or that was done, how an effect was achieved, etc. But, sometimes, it's best not to know - not to have too much information. It can kill the glorious mystery of movies.

A personal case in point:

Back on July 29th, during a post-screening discussion of Billy Wilder's "Some Like It Hot" for TCM's "The Essentials," Tina Fey commented to host Alec Baldwin that, in her opinion, the revelation in the film in Tony Curtis.

She echoed an opinion I've expressed for years, Marilyn Monroe and Jack Lemmon notwithstanding. Monroe and Lemmon have the showier roles in the film and, reportedly, received more attention from Wilder - Monroe because she was disruptive (and because she was the star) and Lemmon because Wilder genuinely liked him. Tony was left to his own devices.

Or so it always seemed to me.

And it also seems that Curtis' work in "Some Like It Hot" has been generally overlooked by the critics and public as well - and for dacades. It's a terrific performance as the actor ping-pongs his way through the film as a randy musician (very much "a Tony Curtis type"), as a Cary Grant impersonator and as a very proper woman named Josephine who purses her lips like Eve Arden and speaks in a trilling voice through half the film.

But wait! I've belatedly discovered that the high-pitched voice that Curtis affects for Josephine may not have been his at all. He might have been dubbed for his cross-dressing scenes. That shrill may belong to Paul Frees.

Frees, a prolific voiceover artist in the 1950s and '60s known as "the man of a thousand voices," was brought in to dub several characters in "Some Like It Hot" and, apparently, one of his assignments on the film was to dub Curtis' falsetto dialogue. What? I learned this from Movie Dubbers, an exhaustive, alphabetical list of 711 movies in which a performer’s singing or speaking voice was dubbed. The list was compiled by Ray Hagen, Laura Wagner, Steven Tompkins et al. (and last updated on June 24th, 2015).

And while I can’t attest to its accuracy, it makes for incredible reading. In the case of "Some Like It Hot," Movie Dubbers additionally lists actor Tito Vuolo (who plays Mozzarella in the film) as someone who also did some dubbing for Curtis. What?! Fascinating stuff but also very disillusioning.

Having this information doesn't diminish my appreciation of Tony Curtis' performance in the film but I now wonder if I will be able to watch "Some Like It Hot" in the same way. The fact is, one can't erase knowledge.

The other "finds" on Movie Dubbers include Peter Sellers partially dubbing some of Humphrey Bogart's dialogue in "Beat the Devil"; Angela Lansbury for Ingrid Thulin in "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse"; Diane Keaton, Goldie Hawn, Bette Midler and Stockard Channing dubbing the actresses who played their characters as young girls in "The First Wives Club"; Richard Loo for Sessue Hayakawa in "The House of Bamboo"; Patricia Hitchcock for both Piero Giagnoni and Luisa Boni in "Land of the Pharoahs" and for Donna Corcoran in "Moonfleet"; Rich Little for David Niven in "Trail of the Pink Panther," and Ronnie McDowell who dubbed the singing of the actors who played Elvis (Kurt Russell, Dale Midkiff and Don Johnson) in TV movies. Needless to say, most of the list is devoted to the handful of ghost singers (apparently a cottage industry) used in movie musicals.

Fun reading. But did I really want to know all this? The answer: Probably.

Notes in Passing: Frankly, I'm surprised that some enterprising young documentarian hasn't devoted a film to Paul Frees; according to IMDb, the man has a whopping 356 credits, mainly in voiceover work, including narrations and cartoons. He passed in 1986, at age 66, from heart failure.

And finally, full disclosure: I came to Movie Dubbers rather circuitously - by way of the invaluable site, Vienna’s Classic Hollywood, which I check out regularly. Vienna devoted one of her posts to “Martha Mears: Queen of the Dubbers” (published October 22nd, 2016) and one of her readers, named Bob, provided the link to Movie Dubbers. Which piqued my interest.

Of course.
* * * * *
~Tony Curtis, in character, in "Some Like It Hot"
 ~photography: United Artists 1959©

Thursday, September 28, 2017

the queer cinema index

Film producer Sandra Schulberg ("Quills") is also the president and executive director of IndieCollect, which advocates for the heritage of independent film - the documenting, preserving and saving of indies of all stripes. But her current focus is celebrating the strides made by LGBTQ films with an invaluable new research tool, The Queer Cinema Index

Schulberg's plan is to introduce a database devoted to LGBTQ titles that will aid in the research and vetting of a proposed 12,000 titles. Working with curator Bob Hawk, her gung-ho, optimistic goal is to have 8,000 titles researched and indexed within six months. To accomplish this, Schulberg is crowdsourcing early donations so they can earn a matching grant in early October - which is, like, next week. They are clearly working on a tight deadline. So, quick, check out the link for information on donations.

Given that LGBTQ characters have been portrayed, for better or worse, in films for decades now, a source for researching those characters and films is way overdue. Consider this: Lillian Hellman's ”The Children’s Hour” - the basis for two excellent William Wyler films (one with acute fidelity to the play) and a 2011 London revival (starring Keira Knightley, Elizabeth Moss, Ellen Burstyn and Carol Kane) - opened on Broadway at Maxine Elliott's Theater on November 20th, 1934, close to a jaw-dropping 85 years ago.

So, no, LGBTQ characters haven't been closeted, movie-wise, at all - although, with the advent of independent cinema in the 1980s and the release of such titles as Stephen Frears' "Prick Up Your Ears," James Ivory's "Maurice" and Richard Benner's ”Happy Birthday Gemini,” among many others, one could say that an exhilarating liberation took place.

Now, it's time to index these titles, LGBTQ films both recent and old, famous and unknown, and that's the exact plan that Schulberg and Hawk have in mind. Operating in much the same way as the databases at the American Film Institute (AFI) and the Academy Library, QCI will provide scholars, archivists, programmers and the merely curious with access to countless titles and hopefully a few unexpected discoveries (always a bonus) which, in turn, can initiate revivals and retrospectives and give distributors a strong impetus to invest in restorations and re-releases.

Those moved to make a donation (hopefully before October 1st) will be designated as Founding Sponsors, with acknowledgement as such on the QCI website. Donations are fully tax-deductible and, more to the point, are a way to respond to the current oppressive and intolerant political climate.

So, why be dismayed when one can promote independent and alternative cinema, possibly save a movie and, in some small way, have a voice?

And one can never overestimate the added insight and intimacy that come with new information about a familiar and favored film. You would think that watching movies, non-stop, is enough for the insatiable film buff. Not really. Easily as satisfying is found information about a beloved title - research, the conjoined twin of every all-embracing movie experience. 

BTW, if the name Schulberg rings a bell that's because Sandra is the niece of the late writer Budd Schulberg, he of "On the Waterfront," "What Makes Sammy Run?" and "A Face in the Crowd" fame. I wish he were still alive so that he can appreciate/savor the prescience of "A Face in the Crowd."

Note in passing: A quick "thank you" to my friend Michael and his producing partner Catherine for giving me the heads up about QCI.
* * * * *

~Gary Oldman and Alfred Molina in "Prick Up Your Ears"
 ~photography: Mary Evans/The Samuel Goldwyn Company 1987© 

~the logo for IndieCollect

Thursday, September 21, 2017

aronofsky's unrelenting provocation

"Darren Aronofsky’s 'mother!' Will Likely Be 2017’s Most Hated Movie!"

So blared the headline for a movie review on The Verge site when Aronofsky's work - a true cinematic affront - played The Toronto International Film Festival a few days prior to its national release.

"The most hated"? Perhaps. But, frankly, who cares? It's an opinion, that's all. "The best..." The worst..." "The most..." When it comes to movies, why do opinions lean towards overstatement and exaggeration? Sorry, but in this case, a more interesting consideration is why "mother!" might be hated, particularly when one considers the execrable junk that moviegoers sit through week after week and that weak-willed critics leniently endorse.

"The most hated?" No, but it is certainly "the most talked-about and debated." That's something that one could hardly say about anything recently critically-acclaimed or about any of the recent Oscar winners. Quick! I challenge you to name the last three Best Picture winners. You probably can't because most Oscar winners, risk-free and politically correct, prove to be unmemorable. "mother!" is hardly unmemorable.

From where I sit, Aronofky's film in currently on the same fascinating journey previously taken by Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo," Charles Chaplin's "A Countess from Hong Kong," John Huston's "The Misfits," Peter Bogdanovich's "At Long Last Love," Elaine May's "Ishtar," John Boorman's "Exorcist II: The Heretic," Francis Ford Coppola's "One from the Heart" and, most notably, Michael Cimino's "Heaven's Gate" - all "hated" films.

Each and every one of them angered critics and the public alike - each was called "the worst" - and the disapproval lingered and burned for years. What sets "mother!" apart from all of them is that it is willfully troublesome, with hellish imagery and sounds that grow more repellent, pronounced and overwhelming until it, well, simply expires. The end.

Given that this site is devoted largely to movies that have been unpopular and mostly misunderstood, "mother!" fits right in - and one of the qualities that I like and admire about the film is just how inscrutable it is and how it is not audience-friendly at all. It's also elusive. "mother!" has had critics flailing about as they've attempted to define, describe or pigeon-hole it.

Exactly what is it? A psychological thriller? A religious horror film? A movie about the most traumatic home invasion imaginable? Or is it the dark, dark comedy as A.O. Scott bravely called it in The New York Times?

Superficially, it's your basic woman-in-distress movie - a variation on Roman Polanski's 'Rosemary's Baby" about an entrapped woman married to man whose ways are suspect to say the least. It can also be taken as a filmic nightmare, plain and simple - a movie that catches us while we're still awake and then lulls us into a dream that, almost insidiously, turns bad, holding the heroine (and us) captive in a place that's clearly hell.

The latter point has prompted critics to label it a religious allegory and I have to admit that I am disappointed that Aronofsky and his stars, Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem, supported that analysis when they were interviewed by Melena Ryzik for The New York Times. (Bardem feels that the film is about "the birth of a religion as a cult.") I was hoping Aronofsky would remain quiet and simply leave his film open to free interpretation.

Here's my take, an analysis as fractured as the movie itself... We are introduced to a nameless husband and wife - played by Lawrence and Bardem - although the end credits list them as "mother" and "Him" (capitalized as one does when referring to God or Jesus - hence the religious slant). He's a poet struggling with writer's block.  His only feedback comes from her. She tends to restoring his childhood home that was destroyed by fire. She is devoted to Him and to home.

They live a solitary life that should be blissful, but Aronofsy creates immediate tension and anxiety by having his camera trail (stalk, actually) Lawrence whenever she is on screen. It is seemingly attached to her at the hip as she walks from room to room and turns and goes up a staircase. She is never alone even when, ostensibly, she is alone.

It's a nerve-wracking conceit that never lets up and that becomes more suffocating as the film progresses - or should I say as it regresses?

The solitude ends when an elderly stranger shows up at their door and is invited to stay the night by Bardem, much to Lawrence's distress. The man's wife, a truly unsettling woman, shows up the next day and the two are invited - again by Bardem - to stay as long as they want. It turns out that the stranger is dying. He's also a fan and wanted to meet Him before passing. Tellingly, this attention is catnip to Him. He can't resist it. He can't say no to this creepy couple - or their two grown sons, who also show up.

Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer (excellent!) play the older couple (also nameless), and while Scott likened them to George and Martha in Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," they are closer to Minnie and Roman Castevet (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer) from "Rosemary's Baby."

Our initial feeling of dread, it turns out, is well-founded. Awful things happen, mostly to the Lawrence character who just wants to make her husband happy, but as more and more people invade their home, taking over and destroying the hard, meticulous work she put into it, the more Him becomes oblivious, self-centered and narcissistic - and the more she becomes invisible. Not just to Him but to the hordes of hangers-on now populating their home. Her pleas to Him to stop this madness go unacknowledged because - and this is important - he listens to no one.

He can't get enough attention. There are never too many people - his "core" support - in their home. He enjoys the jarring chaos that comes with all the fawning - and he is complicit in the destruction that follows.

Maybe this is a stretch but, for me, the crazed, surreal narrative of "mother!" matches the current political climate. Him is reminiscent of someone currently in the public eye who creates chaos (and possible destruction) with his insatiable need for attention and adulation. Sitting through this movie, cringing and witnessing something all too recognizable, I saw it not as something religious but as a nasty political allegory.

"mother!" may be the first Trump-era horror movie.

That said, Aronofsky's direction is impeccable and completely, relentlessly focused. His choreography of the crowds and the crowded excess that ravenously overtake Lawrence's world, abetted by Matthew Libatique's invaluable cinematography, make for major, awesome filmmaking.

The director creates a hysteria that's absolutely brilliant but beyond the appreciation of the average moviegoer. A seriously misunderstood movie.

Notes in Passing: Since writing this and sharing my political allegory theory, reader "v.h." posted a a compelling response in the comment section, extending this observation - "I saw Jennifer Lawrence as Hillary Clinton during the primary and after the election as everything seemed to gang up on her and everything fell apart." Great catch.

BTW, "mother!" received a rare F rating (no surprise here) from CinemaScore, one of only 19 movies to be so graded. (Such sites have become the bane of the movie industry.) Meanwhile, the readers of The New York Times responded to the Times' review and Ryzik's interview with their own opinions. The movie is divisive and polarizing. Is that so wrong?

Any film that truly impassions people is a positive, all too rare these days. 
* * * * *
~Javier Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence in a scene from "mother!"
 ~photography: Paramount Pictures 2017©

Sunday, September 17, 2017


I'm here today to play devil's advocate - to advance an observation that will probably be unpopular with most movie critics and film aficionados.

It's my contention that there is no such animal as a "perfect film" - that even an entitled movie lauded universally as a masterpiece or masterwork can have a distracting flaw or blemish. It's a troubling notion, particularly when the seemingly perfect film in question is the work of a favored director. Blind loyalty can delude even the most reasoned movie buff.

Throughout the years, there have been certain filmmakers in my private universe who can do no wrong - early on Billy Wilder and Richard Quine, and then Hal Ashby and Paul Mazursky, and perennially, Vincente Minnelli and Alfred Hitchcock. Especially Alfred Hitchcock. To him, I'm blindly loyal.

It's disturbing for me, after watching a masterwork for the umpteenth time, to discover belatedly (and improbably) that it has - this can't be! - a flaw. This just can't be. But it be. Suddenly, a film that's the definition of "perfection" isn't. This revelation is the result of having watched Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo" for the 758th time and Billy Wilder's "The Apartment" for the 962nd time, both on Turner Classic Movies, always on Turner (even though I have DVDs of both that, for some reason, I've never watched).

"Vertigo" routinely tops every arbitrary movie list as "the greatest film ever made," and deservedly so. "The Apartment" has been a personal favorite since forever, the one movie that fueled my passion for movies.

It pains me to say this but neither one is the perfect film that I discovered decades ago. Their respective blemishes, while hardly damaging, are disillusioning nevertheless. As well as annoying and ... unnecessary.

"Vertigo" is Hitchcock's lulling 128-minute metaphor for the tingling dangers of falling in love, the operative word, of course, being "falling."

Jimmy Stewart spends the first half of the film simply following Kim Novak around a shimmering '50s San Francisco. Kim Novak is gorgeous. San Francisco is gorgeous. So far, perfection. Stewart's obsession mirrors Hitchcock's for actresses who worked for him and, in the film's second half, after Novak is seemingly gone, he tries to recreate her cosmetically, the way a controlling filmmaker would. He's blissfully possessed. The initial dreaminess of the film becomes a nightmare that is not at all unappealing.

Blemishing the wonder of "Vertigo," however, is the unwatchable tribunal scene - archly written by Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor and poorly acted by Henry Jones as a sonorous, accusing coronor and Tom Helmore as the old friend who framed the Stewart character. It stops the film cold, adds little to the narrative and, largely because of Jones, is a trial to watch.

It's difficult to believe that this scene, which is heavy-handed and atypically unsubtle (in contrast to the rest of the film), was written by the same authors and directed by the same filmmaker responsible for the movie surrounding it. It could be cut without affecting "Vertigo" at all.

As for "The Apartment," it's a caustic and acerbic workplace comedy, streaked by nastiness, and comes with Wilder's trademark cynicism and his rather blatant lack of sympathy for any of his characters. It remains as bracing and as incorrigibly satisfying as it was almost 60 years ago.

But then there are those awful scenes with Shirley MacLaine (in the victim phase of her career) as a lovelorn elevator operator and Fred MacMurray as the imperious, rather repellent (married) executive with whom she's having an affair - an affair not the least bit believable. One never has an understanding of what these two see in each other. Would MacLaine's character actually be attracted to someone as dull as MacMurray's?  And he seems more inclined to seduce a tall blonde - a model or an actress - rather than a downtrodden unskilled worker with a kookie haircut.
These scenes are pure soap opera - glaringly out of place in a movie as smart as "The Apartment" - and they're poorly acted. Or perhaps MacLaine and MacMurray simply have no chemistry. Or perhaps the actors don't believe this relationship any more than I do. Whatever, it doesn't work.

MacLaine, meanwhile, has been given True Romance dialogue (tied to the affair) that is cringe-worthy. For example:

"Why do people have to love people anyway? "  


"I was jinxed from the word go. The first time I was ever kissed was in a cemetery."


"I just have this talent for falling in love with the wrong guy in the wrong place at the wrong time."

"When you're in love with a married man, you shouldn't wear mascara."
This stuff was written by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond? Really? (And I don't buy for an instant that MacLaine is "in love" with MacMurray.)

There are curious elements in two other films by Wilder and Alfred Hitchcock that, while not exactly flaws, never made much sense to me and could be explained by only the filmmakers themselves - if they were still around to answer questions. In the case of Hitchcock, the film is "Rear Window" and the curiosity is the villain played by Raymond Burr.

Perhaps it's the contrarian in me but, except for his confrontation with Jimmy Stewart at the end of the film, I never found Burr's Lars Thorwald to be much of a threat. In fact, for me, through most of the film, he's a rather sympathetic character married to what appears to be a harridan.

That's not to excuse the character for murdering his wife, but it seems that, as conceived by writer John Michael Hayes and Hitchcock and as played by Burr, Lars is an ineffectual man more than a little pathetic.

I almost feel sorry for the guy as he's relentlessly targeted by Stewart, Grace Kelly and Thelma Ritter. Is it just me or did Hitch plot this reaction?

Finally, there's Wilder's "Some Like It Hot," always heading lists as "the best comedy of all time" - and a seemingly perfect one at that.

But there's this inconsistency in the film that has come to annoy me...

The early scenes in the film paint the Tony Curtis character as an unapologetic womanizer and irresponsible screw-up and Jack Lemmon's as the voice of reason, trying to keep his friend in check.

With me so far?

But once the guys crossdress, their personalities seemingly switch. Suddenly, Curtis is the cautious one, intent on reigning in Lemmon who is acting like a flake. Plus, Lemmon is now the womanizer, ogling the women in the band he and Curtis just joined and fantasizing about sex - and getting "a cup of that sugar" - i.e., Sugar Kane (aka Marilyn Monroe).

If Wilder were still alive, I'd like to ask him if putting on dresses is the reason why Tony Curtis suddenly becomes, well, proper and prudent and Jack Lemmon transforms into a leering, incorrigible burlesque comic.

I don't presume to rewrite Wilder and Diamond's inventive script, but wouldn't it make more sense if Lemmon remained the more serious one of the two guys, becoming involved with Marilyn, and if Curtis remained the irredeemable scamp that he is - and in Joe E. Brown's arms? Just asking.

* * * * *
(from top) 

~Paul Bryer (seated from left), James Stewart and Henry Jones in the tribunal sequence from "Vertigo"
~Jones and Tom Helmore in the same scene
 ~photography: Paramount 1958©

~Two images of Shirley MacLaine and Fred MacMurray in "The Apartment"
 ~photography: United Artists 1960©

~Raymond Burr in "Rear Window"
 ~photography: Paramount 1954©

~Jack Lemmon in "Some Like It Hot"
 ~photography: United Artists 1959©