Friday, August 18, 2017

cinema obscura: Costa-Gavras' "Betrayed" (1988), unfortunately it's time has come

Given that racism and racists in this country have been empowered in the past few days, it seems an apt time to revisit a Costa-Gavras cautionary tale of real-life horror. "Betrayed," made nearly 20 years ago, deals head-on with the white supremacist movement but at the time of its release, the neo-Nazis of the film seemed like a distant fringe group, whose activities were far, far away from your local cineplex - not so uncomfortably close.

The screenplay was written by Joe Eszterhas, who was hot at the time (the era's Aaron Sorkin), specializing in heavy-handed incendiary topics, and who perhaps was prematurely dismissed by easily annoyed movie critics.

Eszterhas, to his credit, knew how to take what might be unsettling and even perverse on paper and turn it into material for a popular movie. And he usually placed a woman - his heroine - in a situation that in earlier movies was for-men-only. (Back in the day, Eszterhas was labeled a sexist, but from the current vantage point, he really wasn't.) In this case, the game Debra Winger plays an FBI agent named Cathy who changes her name to Katie when she goes undercover to entrap a supremacist-farmer named Gary, played by an equally game, eerily effective Tom Berenger.

To accomplish this, Cathy ingratiates her with Gary with the idea of starting a faux romance. She lets him conveniently pick her up in a rural bar, gets to know his children and his mother and pretty much becomes a fixture in his life, initially much to her displeasure. Gary has a penchant for making such comments as ''We have to return America to real Americans'' (sound familiar?), while another hate-monger declares that "people should be able say what they want, regardless of how ugly it may be.''

The shrewd Eszterhas then does something jaw-dropping: He has Cathy actually fall for Gary, in spite of herself and in spite of his hateful behavior. By now, he has an emotional grip on her that she hardly expected.

Cathy is understandably conflicted, inspiring the ever-resourceful Winger to turn in another masterful performance of quiet intelligence.

At the time, I remember her (and Berenger) being better than the film itself. But with the passing of time, perhaps we've caught up, however grudgingly, with the film's relentless creepiness. Certainly, Costa-Gavras doesn't hesitate to "showcase" (for lack of a better word) obscene viciousness of Gary and his all-white, all-male friends, his "buddies," who casually praise Nazis while reviling Jews, Blacks and homosexuals.

No, the filmmaker doesn't hedge. Back in '88, he and Eszterhas were accused of lacking subtlety, of running our faces in the ugliness. Which seems like pathetically naive these days. I've no idea who now owns "Betrayed," which was made by United Artists, but some resourceful art-house programmer or DVD decision-maker should do something with it.

Like now.

Monday, August 14, 2017

indelible moment: DaCosta's "Auntie Mame"

That incorrigible Liberal, Mame Dennis, trapped by arch Conservatives (and close talkers) Doris and Claude Upson who threaten to turn her beloved nephew Patrick into "an Aryan from Darien"

For my money, there are any number of memorable moments in Morton DaCosta's hugely entertaining film of his Broadway hit, "Auntie Mame."

Armed with a terrific script by Betty Comdon and Adolph Green (working from the stage original by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee) and abetted by his Broadway star, Rosalind Russell (plus the divine Coral Browne), DaCosta breezily swept his audience from one richly comic scene to another. There are umpteen of them in "Auntie Mame" and singling out one is near-impossible, but my hands-down favorite arrives late in the film when Russell's Mame Dennis pays a visit to her nephew Patrick's future in-laws, Claude and Doris Upson, at their Colonial-style manse in Mountebank (their signpost reads "Upson Downs"), described as being "right above Darien and completely exclusive and restricted."

"Exclusive to what and restricted to whom?," asks an annoyed, impatient Mame. Mame Dennis, you see, has zero tolerance of intolerance.

Claude and Doris, played to the hilt by Willard Waterman and Lee Patrick, are Conservative to the max, terribly unctuous and given to talking up close. Mame, on the other hand, is a Liberal and decidedly a provocateur.

The Upsons' flagstone patio is decorated to reflect "authentic Colonial Americana" (Doris' words), replete with assorted chachkes and a spinning wheel. (Robert Hanley and George James Hopkins collaborated on the witty set decorations for the film.) While plying Mame with "daiquiris made with honey" and canapes made of "strained tuna fish, clam juice and peanut butter" (a recipe from the Ladies Home Journal), the Upsons announce that they plan for Mame to go in with them and buy the adjoining property as a wedding gift for Patrick and their daughter, Gloria.

The phonograph in the background is playing "Tiptoe Through the Tulips," as Claude shakes his daiquiri mixture in time to the rhythm.

"But we have to move fast," Claude intones. "Some people are bidding on that property. The wrong kind. Fella named Epstein. A-bra-ham Epstein."

"This section is restricted only to our property line," Doris adds. "So we feel we have an obligation to make sure that - well - you know."

Exactly how Mame upends the Upsons' plans provides the film with the perfect punchline/comeuppance - and me with an indelible moment.

Made more than five decades ago, DaCosta's "Auntie Mame" remains a bracing, ever-modern cheer for the left that the right can


~Lee Patrick, Rosalind Russell and Willard Waterman in a scene from "Auntie Mame"
~Warner Bros. 1958 © 

Saturday, August 12, 2017

not a major motion picture!

Once upon a time, in a place now far, far away, the major movie studios would aggressively bid for the rights to a best-selling book or a hit Broadway play, hauling out the ubiquitous and over-heated advertising slogan, "Now a major motion picture!," for the finished product.

But with the advent of CGI, the Marvel/D.C. Comics franchises and saturation booking, Hollywood no longer cares about the prestige of filming a play or book. Strike that. If it's a book pitched to Young Adult readers or a crime thriller, it's chances of becoming a movie are actually very good.

But Broadway plays and musicals are another matter. Quick!  Name the last major movie you saw that was based on a Broadway play. Time's up! I could remember only David Lindsay-Abaire's Rabbit Hole," Yasmina Reza's "Carnage" (né "God of Carnage") and Tracy Letts' "August: Osage County," and none of these is very recent. More to the point, although all three were very good, not one was much of a success on screen.

Broadway musicals have it much worse, given that Hollywood has been willfully ignoring them for several decades now. The last great run of filmed stage musicals came between 1955 and 1965.  These were movies based on must-see shows that flourished in New York from the late 1940s through the 1950s, arguably the peak of the "musical comedy" form.

"The Pajama Game," "Carousel," "Damn Yankees," "The King and I," "Bells Are Ringing," "Oklahoma!," "Li'l Abner," "Flower Drum Song," "Pal Joey," "South Pacific," "Hit the Deck," "The Music Man," "Guys and Dolls," "Silk Stockings," "Gypsy," "Bye Bye Birdie,""Porgy and Bess,"  "Funny Face," "The Unsinkable Molly Brown," "Can-Can" and "My Fair Lady" all made it to the screen during the aforementioned ten-year span. And, of course, there were "West Side Story" and "The Sound of Music." Neither one could accurately be called a "musical comedy" - both are way too serious in intent - but, in tandem with "Oklahoma!" and "My Fair Lady," they are representative of what is inarguably the richest period for stage-to-film transferals.

At one time, the "film version" of a stage musical was a validation of the show in question, much to the chagrin of Broadway types who would invariably complain about the "bastardization" of one of their own by crass Hollywood. Now they can complain - and with good reason - about the studios' utter lack of interest. In other works, with theater people, "(You're damned it you do and you're damned if you don't."

And I'm sure exacerbating matters is the fact that certain bona fide hit musicals somehow fell through the cracks, never making it to the screen and, thereby, also inciting the Broadway community. Case in point: Rodgers and Hammerstein. Yes, films of their musicals were all major releases but, hey, where are "Allegro," "Pipe Dream" and "Me and Juliet"?  Seems that not all Rodgers and Hammerstein shows were worth filming.

During the period when "West Side Story," "Gypsy" and "Bye Bye Birdie" were all Broadway hits, there were titles that were equally successful, popular with both critics and theatergoers but that are now forgotten, largely because there was no drive to commit the to film. In recent years, there have been rumors of remakes of "Carousel" (with Hugh Jackman), "Gypsy" (with Barbra Streisand in charge), "My Fair Lady" (with an Emma Thompson rewrite) and even "Oliver!" But why rehash material that's been done, while worthy shows from the distant past continue to be ignored?

Like these:
"Take Me Along," produced in 1959 by David Merrick and directed by Peter Glenville, comes immediately to mind. A musical adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's "Ah, Wilderness" (with music and lyrics by Bob Merrill), it starred Jackie Gleason, Walter Pigeon, Eileen Herlie, Una Merkle, Robert Morse, Zeme North, Susan Lockey and Arlene Golonka. It was a monster hit in its time, along the lines of the current Bette Midler/"Hello, Dolly!" revival.

There's something of a crazy folk legend attached to the show:  Broadway musicals were so hot in the late '50s that Gleason wanted to be in one - and he was perfectly cast here as Uncle Sid, an incorrigible charmer. But, once the show opened, Gleason got bored with it and started calling in sick. He also wanted to annoy the combative Merrick.

But Merrick didn't bite.  He didn't care because he had apparently taken out an insurance policy, so he got paid every time Gleason didn't work. This never made any sense to me - it could have been a P.R. stunt - but it was rich fodder for the gossip columns at the time (think Dorothy Kilgallen and Walter Winchell).

Once Gleason got wind of this, presto! He was back on the job with regularity.

Bob Merrill's hummable title song was extremely popular (again, much like the song "Hello, Dolly!") but the pick of the score for me is the haunting "Staying Young" and Pigeon's soulful rendition of it. This is one show should have been a movie.It's a natural.

It should be noted here that, years before, MGM filmed its own musical version of "Ah, Wilderness" - the 1948 "Summer Holiday," directed by Rouben Mamoulian and with original songs by Harry Warren and Ralph Blane. Mickey Rooney starred in the role played in "Take Me Along" by Robert Morse, Walter Huston (in the Walter Pidgeon role) as his father and Frank Morgan as the affable drunk, Uncle Sid.

"The Most Happy Fella," a major hit in 1956, was also composer Frank Loesser's most ambitious undertaking - a three-act musical adaptation of the Sidney Howard play, "They Knew What They Wanted," about the "love affair" between a middle-aged Italian immigrant, who operates a vineyard in Napa, and a younger woman who has agreed to be his mail-order bride (even though she is eventually sexually attracted to the vineyard's young foreman).

The material is highly cinematic and screamed to be filmed.

 Loesser came up with a commanding hybrid here - a musical comedy with the contours of an opera. There are about 40 songs in the show, not including the overture, the two entre'acts and a few reprises.  It took four years for Loesser to complete.  He not only composed all the songs but he also wrote the script, a huge undertaking which involved omitting the political, labor, and religious material originally in Howard's play. Joseph Anthony directed the production, which was so intimidating that Columbia released two original cast albums of the show's score - one a three-record set that included the entire libretto and one a single recording of selected songs.

And then there's the marvelous "Fiorello," which was staged in 1959 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for its authors - Jerome Weidman and George Abbot (book), Jerry Bock (music) and Sheldon Harnick (lyrics). It won the Pulitzer but was never filmed.  It opened the same year as "Gypsy" and was just as popular - and yet it has never been filmed. There was such excitement about this show that Capitol recorded the cast album six days after "Fiorello" opened.

And yet is was never filmed. 

Directed by Abbott (with choreography by Peter Gennaro), "Fiorello" introduced Tom Bosley as the legendary New York City major Fiorello H. LaGuardia, a reform Republican who challenged the Tammany Hall political machine.

The show was a personal hit for Bosley who quickly moved on to do films ("The World of Henry Orient," "Love with the Proper Stranger" and "Divorce American Style") and, of course, television ("Happy Days").

There have been occasional revivals of "Fiorello" since its Broadway opening, most notably one for the Reprise! productions in 1999 that starred Tony Danza, which had a limited run but which Danza took to the Freud Playhouse in Los Angeles for a longer engagement.

Also, it was rumored that prior to his death in 1973, singer Bobby Darin expressed a desire to produce and star in a film version of "Fiorello," that it was a dream project for him. And he would have been great in the role.

But ... it was never filmed.

There have been other Broadway musicals that, although not filmed, came very close to being movies. Producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus were once so committed to filming the musical of "Zorba," with the star of the original non-musical film, Anthony Quinn, that they took out one of those "production about to begin" ads in Variety. John Travolta was listed in the ad as Quinn's co-star, presumably in the role Alan Bates played on film.

The idea ended with that Variety ad.

And getting back to David Merrick, in the early 1970s, he decided to expand his horizons and produce movies.  His first was Sidney Lumet's 1972 film version of the Robert Marasco that he had produced on Broadway two years earlier.  The stars were James Mason, Robert Preston and Beau Bridges (in the roles created on stage by Fritz Weaver, Pat Hingle and Ken Howard). His next planned film was of another one of his stage hits, the Burt Bacarach-Hal David musical, "Promises, Promises," with a Neil Simon script based on Billy Wilder's "The Apartment."

Merrick wanted a potentially well-cast Bridges for the role played on stage by Jerry Orbach (by way of Jack Lemmon), but decided to "temporarily" place "Promises, Promises" aside for something way bigger - the Robert Redford-Mia Farrow version of "The Great Gatsby."  Merrick produced two more films, both with Burt Reynolds" - "Semi-Tough" and "Rough Cut" - but never returned to "Promises, Promises" and Beau Bridges.

Another musical with a Neil Simon script, "They're Playing Our Song" (with music by Marvin Hamlisch and lyrics by Carol Bayer Sager), was also momentarily considered for the movies - with Gilda Radner and Bill Murray (more good casting) in the roles played by Lucie Arnaz and Robert Klein.

Again, it never happened.


Much more compelling was Twentieth Century-Fox's plans to film Stephen Sondheim's iconic "Follies" with a dream cast - Doris Day in the role created on stage by Alexis Smith and Debbie Reynolds in the Dorothy Collins part. The idea was referenced in a gossip column - where else? - but nothing came of it.  Too good to be true. Another missed opportunity, an unfortunate one.

Finally, there's the case of "She Loves Me," another Harnick-Bock musical that opened on Broadway in 1963 as an era was coming to a close.  This irrisistible musical confection was one of many adaptations of a Hungarian play titled "Parfumerie," by Miklós László. It was predated by the films "The Shop Around the Corner" (a straight comedy by Ernst Lubitsch) and "In the Good Old Summer Time" (also a musical by Robert Z. Leonard) and succeeded by "You've Got Mail" (another straight comedy by Nora Ephron).
"She Loves Me" was directed by Harold Prince and choreographed by Carol Haney and its cast was led by Barbara Cook (a few years after she played Marian the Librarian in "The Music Man") and Daniel Massey, son of Raymond and anticipated at the time as the next big thing (given his role as Noël Coward opposite  Julie Andrews as Gertrude Lawrence in "Star!").

And in support ... Barbara Baxley and Jack Cassidy.

Enter Blake Edwards and Julie Andrews who wanted to film "She Loves Me" in the early 1980s, after having scored a big success with "Victor/Victoria."

Andrews was perfect for the Cook role and the plan was for it to be an MGM film, which makes sense as Metro always fancied itself the movie-musical factory and that's where both "The Shop Around the Corner" and "In the Good Old Summer Time" were made.

Again, never made.

But in 2016, the Roundabout Theater Company staged an excellent revival starring the fabulous Laura Benanti and which, according to Wikipedia, was presented via BroadwayHD live stream on June 30, 2016, marking the first time a Broadway show had ever been broadcast live. The same performance was screened in movie theaters on December 1, 2016.

Notes in Passing: Recently, there have been shows that finally made it to the screen after a long delay (and long after fans had given up hope) - "Chicago," "The Phantom of the Opera," "Dreamgirls," "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," "Into the Woods" and "Les Misérables."  And there are four that became movies in a more timely manner - "Mamma Mia!," "Hairspray," "The Producers" and "Rent," although the latter two tanked on screen big time which seems odd, given that each had a huge, loyal Broadway fan base. Which didn't turn out for either one.  Go figure.

In his posted response, Kevin Deany reminded me of the stage musical version of "La Cage aux Folles," jogging my memory.  The late Allan Carr ("Grease") had wanted to film it with Jack Lemmon in the role of Albin and Frank Sinatra as Renato.  When Frank decided to stay retired from acting, Tony Curtis's name was mentioned as a possible co-star with Lemmon.

Another missed opportunity.

As for the future of stage musicals on screen, Universal already owns the rights to the popular "Wicked" and Trey Parker and Matt Stone plan to produce their own film version of their hit musical, "The Book of Mormon."

And is there any doubt that Lin-Manuel Miranda's "Hamilton" will be filmed?

* * * * * 
~images / from top~ 
~Poster art for "Mister Roberts" and "Gypsy"

~Poster art for "Take Me Along" and Jackie Gleason in a scene from the production

~Poster art for "The Most Happy Fella" and Robert Weede and Jo Sullivan in a scene from the productiion

 ~Poster art for "Fiorello" and Tom Bosley as the title character, and Tony Danza, and Bobby Darin, both with "Fiorello" connections

 ~Beau Bridges, on the set of "The Landlord," was considered for a planned film version of "Promises, Promises"

 ~Doris Day and Debbie Reynolds at a studio event in the 1950s; they were once considered for a film version of "Follies"

 ~Time magazine cover of Alexis Smith in "Follies"

 ~Barbara Cook and Daniel Massey in a scene from the original production of "She Loves Me" and the cover art for the cast album of the show

 ~Blake Edwards and Julie Andrews; they never got to film "She Loves Me"

 ~Laura Benanti in the 2016 revival of "She Loves Me"
 ~photography: Sara Krulwich / The New York Times 2016 ©

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

the same movie: McGuane times two

A good writer is a magician of sorts, a fabulist who can make the trite seem, well, fabulous.

Thomas McGuane certainly qualifies as a good writer and, back in the 1970s, he produced two scripts seemingly married to the same essential plotline.

Released a year apart, Frank Perry's "Rancho DeLuxe" (1975) and Arthur Penn's "The Missouri Breaks" (1976) are both original scripts about cattle rustlers and land barons. Both are Westerns but the former is modern, comedic and, at 93 minutes, rather breezy, while the latter is darker, more traditional and, at 126 minutes, something of a trial to sit through.

While it's never been acknowledged that both are based on the same material, it's compelling to compare and contrast, observing how McGuane creatively moved his pieces - his characters - around, changing relationships while adhering to a tale told twice. Here goes...

Point One

In "Rancho DeLuxe," Jeff Bridges and Sam Waterston play two contemporary cattle rustlers who, perhaps unwisely, set their sights on the livestock of the newly transplanted Clifton James and wife Elizabeth Ashley, who came to Montana from Scehnectady, New York.

In "The Missouri Breaks," Jack Nicholson leads a cattle-rustling ring and decides - again, perhaps unwisely - to take on cattle baron John McLiam, a widower with a grown daughter, played by Kathleen Lloyd.

Point Two

In "Rancho DeLuxe," James hires pokey old Slim Pickens to ensnare rustlers Bridges and Waterston. Traveling with Pickens is his niece, Charlene Dallas, who is what James Agee would have called "a dish." Ah, but Pickens and Dallas are not exactly what they seem to be.

In "The Missouri Breaks," McLiam hires Marlon Brando, a cattle-rustling regulator with an eccentric way of handling the job. He dons disguises to dispatch his unfortunate prey. In both films, the hired hand recruited to entrap the rustlers engages in a kind of play-acting. Both Pickens and Brando play characters who consider their line of work a "sport," approaching it in highly theatrical ways that are not all that dissimilar.

Point Three

In terms of "love interest," in "The Missouri Breaks," Nicholson forges a relationship with Lloyd, while in "Rancho DeLuxe," one of James' goons, played by Harry Dean Stanton, becomes smitten with Dallas. (Note in Passing: Richard Bright plays James' other goon - Burt to Stanton's Curt.)

In both cases, the romance is doomed by deceit and betrayal.

Point Four

The respective endings is what sets the two films apart. "The Missouri Breaks" ends on a note that's bloodier than anything that preceded it, as difficult as that is to image." "Rancho DeLuxe," on the the other hand, ends without violence, with the two heroes rather blissfully in jail, a dénouement that, oddly enough, recalls the ending of ... "The Producers."

Point Five

Oh, yes, and the two films were released by United Artists. And perhaps not coincidentally, Elliott Kastner was a producer on both films.

Friday, August 04, 2017

marilyn and the bullies

In my hazy dreams, I see Marilyn Monroe playing Mrs. Robinson to Dustin Hoffman's Benjamin Braddock. 
 That's if she had survived, of course.

Tomorrow - August 5th - is the anniversary of Marilyn Monroe's death.  She passed 55 years ago when she was 36. Fifty-five years. Unbelievable.

When I contemplate people who are no longer with us, I generally think of all the events in life that they've missed. For example, critic Pauline Kael. She died in 2001. I wonder what she'd make of the movies since then.

But in Marilyn's case, I think of what we've missed. I fantasize about all the possible roles she could have played if she survived into middle and old age - and the new breed of filmmakers with whom she might have worked. She would be 91, but a couple decades earlier, I'd like to think that such directors as Robert Altman, Bob Fosse, Mike Nichols, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and Woody Allen would have all wanted to work with her, even in spite of her well-publicized issues and insecurities.

Mike Nichols originally wanted a veteran movie star for the role of Mrs. Robinson in "The Graduate" (1967) and his first choice was Doris Day. A missed opportunity when Day turned down the role. In my dreams, I see Monroe seducing Dustin Hoffman in that film. And a year earlier, and deglamorized for the occasion, she would have made a compelling Martha in Nichols' adaptation of Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

Other characters and movies cloud my dreams:
  • Marilyn in the Ellen Burstyn role in Peter Bogdanovich's "The Last Picture Show."
  • Marilyn working with John Cassavetes on "A Woman Under the Influence."
  • Marilyn as Lady Pearl in Altman's "Nashville." 
  • Marilyn singing Sondheim in Harold Prince's "A Little Night Music." 
  • Marilyn making her foreign-film debut in François Truffaut's "The Last Metro."
  •  And, finally winding down before retirement, Marilyn in the Jessica Tandy roles in "Driving Miss Daisy" and "Fried Green Tomatoes."
  • One more: Think of her trademark whisper if Steven Spielberg used her as the voice of the title alien in "E.T. - The Extra-Terrestial." I could well imagine that. Hey, a guy can dream.
My fascination with Monroe clearly dates back to my childhood. As a kid, she was my first movie-star crush. I was not alone. I remember other kids in my neighborhood - little girls, as well as little boys - who were crazy for her. My theory is that we all sensed a kindred spirit in her.

While Monroe was viewed by adults largely as a brazen sex symbol, children responded, perhaps only subconsciously, to her undeniable child-like quality. True, she was a grown woman, hugely attractive to men, but we all sensed that, somehow, she was also one of us, another kid.

And, as her career progressed, there was something else that made her affecting. It was the irony that she remained an underdog even as her importance soared. She had become a major star but that didn't stop her studio from exploiting and bullying her. Twentieth Century-Fox, the studio that groomed her for stardom, clearly underestimated Monroe. She was no longer the silly dumb blonde who Darryl F. Zanuck had signed. Frankly, she probably never was. She had opinions. And that was unacceptable.

Of all the roles that Monroe played, I've a hunch that the character closest to her own personality is Vicky Parker from Walter Lang's "There's No Business Like Show Business" (1954). Vicky, whose voluptuous good looks and overall blondness camouflage her drive and ambition, has pretensions of being a major star - and nothing and nobody will stop her. She goes after what she wants and becomes a star - and she makes enemies.

There was no way that Monroe would have had the clout to move on to such films as Joshua Logan's "Bus Stop" (1956) and John Huston's "The Misfits" (1961) if she continued to "know her place."

She took a break from Fox and all the rampant bullying and went East to New York, where she fell in with ... more parasitic bullies. While they may have considered themselves less vulgar than Hollywood denizens, the New York elite who befriended Marilyn - her Actor's Studio mentor Lee Strasberg, her personal acting coach Paula Strasberg, photographer Milton Green and husband Arthur Miller - could also be called out for exploiting her (but in an altogether different way).

The bullying hasn't ceased. Even 55 years after her death, Marilyn Monroe remains the subject of adulation, as well as exploitation and criticism.

For TCM's recent screening of Billy Wilder's "Some Like It Hot" (1959) - the July 29th edition of The Essentials - host Alec Baldwin and his guest Tina Fey engaged in the usual Monroe negativity. A huge disappointment.

Baldwin commented (rather gratuitously) that he never found Monroe attractive. I smiled and thought to myself, "I think the feeling would be mutual, Alec." Fey was a tad more generous, I guess, when she commented that, over the years, she's "warmed up" to Monroe.

When they inevitably brought up Monroe's reputation for being disruptive and troublesome on movie sets, my jaw dropped. Really? I squirmed for Alec Baldwin, the last person who should toss a stone in that direction.

OK, full disclosure: Baldwin is a terrific, versatile actor and Fey has a brilliant mind and winning personality. I like and admire them both. But in another 55 years, as the Monroe obsession continues, they'll be footnotes.

Note in Passing: "Sleep well, sweet girl. You have left more of a legacy than most, if all you ever left was a handful of photographs of one of the loveliest women who ever walked the earth."
 -columnist Dorothy Kilgallen, August 1962. 
This group shot of young starlets new to Hollywood, taken for an issue of Life magazine, illustrates what made Monroe so special. In a picture involving seven other actress, the camera and our eyes are drawn instinctively to her.
*  *  *  *  *
~additional images~

~Marilyn as the not-so-dumb Lorelie Lee in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes"
~Twentieth Century-Fox 1953 ©

~Marilyn reading! 
~photography: Bert Stern 1954 ©

~Marilyn with co-stars Mitzi Gaynor (left) and Ethel Merman on the set of "There's No Business Like Show Business"
~Twentieth Century-Fox 1954 ©

Sunday, July 30, 2017

"freeze, liberal!"

Traditionally, right-wingers have gleefully trivialized/branded Hollywood as an evil factory for liberal propaganda, usually invoking the all-purpose expression "bleeding-heart" and any handy synonym for "weak," while also demonizing the likes of Susan Sarandon and George Clooney.

Hollywood, the land of wussies.

But wait!

Have these rednecks even been to a Hollywood movie lately? I ask because, in order to see "The Big Sick," I had to sit through six or seven trailers for upcoming films - movies ostensibly starring reputable actors but whose real recurring star is the .357 Magnum or whatever gun of choice is preferred by wuss filmmakers these days. One trailer after another featured phallic guns of all sizes, loudly neutralizing undesirables.

The movies seemed designed to appeal to gun-rights advocates, not ninny liberals, and the transparent product placement of guns in every film gives the weird impression that each could have been produced by ... the NRA.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

a heartfelt plea to tcm: "stop already!"

In the words of Howard Beale, the unhinged newscaster created by Paddy Chayefsky, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!

I exaggerate. Actually, I'm more annoyed - and disappointed - than angry. My exasperation is in response to the introductions and post-screening discussions that run in tandem with the films screened by Turner Classic Movies in prime time and on weekends. There's this exhausting tendency by TCM hosts to reiterate the same information - sometimes facts, mostly opinions - over and over and over and over and over again. And again.

This is beyond redundancy, way beyond.

Case in point: Did you know that Ethel Merman, the star of the 1959 stage version of "Gypsy," was passed over when the 1962 Warner movie was made and that Rosalind Russell got the role?  This bit of information, which has been stale since 1962, is repeated every time Turner screens "Gypsy," which is a lot. "Gypsy" is a TCM staple and deservedly so. It's terrific.

Object lesson number 2: Did you know that Alfred Hitchcock's original choice for the title role in 1964's "Marnie" was Grace Kelly and that Tippi Hedren got the role after Kelly, pressured by her royal in-laws, demurred? Turner treats this as a newsflash every time "Marnie" is aired, even though your average movie buff (of a certain age) has known this since, well, 1964. Whoever writes the Turner intros needs to find fresh information.

It would also be an improvement if the intros avoided facile gossip, a la "No one expected Monroe, Grable and Bacall to get along," a sexist tidbit mentioned whenever 1953's "How to Marry a Millionaire" is screened.

What's particularly annoying (disturbing actually) about the "Gypsy" and "Marnie" examples is that both come with the implicit message that Merman and Kelly would have been superior to Russell and Hedren in their respective films when the preserved performances clearly say otherwise.

Anyway, I've lost count of the number of times (hundreds?) that the Merman-versus-Russell/Kelly-versus-Hedren discussions have taken place.

Let's start with "Gypsy" which was showcased on June 22nd during TCM's Gay Hollywood celebration - the gay connection being Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book for the original stage production (and continued to needlessly tweak it until the day he died).

It was hosted by Dave Karger, a former Entertainment Weekly writer, and author William J. Mann, neither of whom gave any indication of having seen the original stage production but nevertheless talked authoritatively about both it and Mervyn LeRoy's '62 film (whose fidelity to the play is impressive).  Sure, both may have heard about the '59 stage "Gypsy," but frankly, opinions based on hearsay are worthless.

I winced on cue when they brought up the dog-eared Merman information and generally dismissed Russell's definitive performance in the film. Mann commented that she was "pretty good."  OK, I'm seriously dating myself here, but I actually sat in a theater and saw Merman in "Gypsy."

It was my first Broadway show and I was taken to see it because my friend Steve Curry played one of Baby June's newsboys in the show. I remember Merman being extremely broad in the role, almost a caricature, and that she tended to sing directly to the audience rather than to her co-stars on stage (something which Laurents himself observed and disliked).

My recollection may be based on a childhood experience (I was a fairly observant kid) but, unlike the theater freaks who pontificate ad infinitum about "Gypsy" and Merman, I actually experienced both.  Russell, a world-class actress, brought nuance and compelling patrician airs to the role.

She's more than just "pretty good."

"Gypsy" became something of an obsession early on.  I've seen as many productions of it as I could - and more than one Madam Rose, which as Mann astutely pointed out is what the character is called in the show, never Momma Rose (something which also bugged Laurents). Linda Lavin, Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters and others all brought something to the role but none of them fully located the tragic figure that Russell so effortlessly captures in the film.  Her line readings, her razor-edge timing and Warners' creative commingling of her singing voice with Lisa Kirk's conspired to create a fully-formed character that has been only two-dimensional on stage. Russell is flat-out excellent. Hands-down.

The Kelly-Hedren reference came up yet again following the July 21st screening of 1954's "Rear Window," which features Kelly and is one of many titles in Turner's on-going "Fifty Years of Hitchcock" series. TCM's Ben Mankiewicz hosts with the Swiss documentarian Alexandre O. Phillipe, whose latest work, "78/52," is a full-scale examination devoted to the filming of the shower sequence in "Psycho" and who, for lack of a better description, is "Hitchcock literate."

Phillipe's observations, to date, have not only been well-reasoned, intuitive and informative, but also refreshingly adventurous, not at all predictable.

Anyway, after the screening, Mankiewicz brought up Kelly and, without missing a beat, mentioned that Hitchcock originally wanted her for "Marnie."  I appreciate that Phillipe immediately stepped up and flatly stated that Hedren "crushed" the role of Marnie - a "tour-de-force" performance, he added.  At last! Another champion for a criminally underrated performance. Kelly was a limited actress who often could be charming, but I can't imagine her meeting the intimidating challenges of this role.

Hedren turns in revelatory, intricate work as a damaged woman caught in a destructive cycle, a performance that has grown in retrospect for many critics (see Richard Brody below). Turner will air the film again tomorrow (July 28) at 8 p.m. (est) and, this time around, listen to the sad, child-like voice Hedren affects whenever she regresses into her past. And she's matched by Sean Connery as the man, curiously both empathetic and brutal, who is intrigued enough to take the time to understand her.

I'm really curious about tomorrow's discussion of the film. On the one hand, "Marnie" is a Mankiewicz favorite, having been one of his monthly picks back on September 23rd, 2009. On the other hand, the usually affable Ben has been a tad combative in his stint with Phillipe.

Their chemistry hasn't been exactly smooth and, after Wednesday's screening of "Vertigo," Mankiewicz was curiously and uncharacteristically negative, calling the film's ending "contrived." Phillipe argued compellingly in its defense (does the ending imply that the James Stewart character commits suicide?) but to little avail. It was an interesting dynamic to say the very least. (If all this was an attempt by Ben Mankiewicz to bring an added dimension to TCM by incorporating a little verbal fisticuffs - a friendly arugument, an occasional debate about a film- I say Bravo!)

But back to "Marnie." Much like "Vertigo," its spiritual twin, it was critically maligned upon its initial release. And also much like "Vertigo," contemporary critics have stepped back and found much to praise about the film, particularly Hedren.

"Vertigo" is now viewed as a masterwork and I've a hunch that the status of "Marnie" will take the same route and continue to grow.  That said, I'm turning the remaining space over to Richard Brody, the movie editor for The New Yorker magazine and the author of “Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard.” He's also one of our best movie critics. 

In his capsule review of "Marnie" for the magazine, Brody has had this to say about Hitch's minor masterpiece and its luminous star:

"Tippi Hedren’s cool grace in 'The Birds' hardly prepares a viewer for her porcelain froideur as a sexually traumatized kleptomaniac in Alfred Hitchcock’s psychologically resonant, visually transcendent film, from 1964. Sean Connery co-stars as a businessman who hires Marnie as his secretary, lusts mightily after her, and, catching her with a hand in his till, takes it upon himself to win her heart—and, above all, her body—by healing her mind. Borrowing liberally from himself (notably, several tropes from 'Spellbound,' 'Vertigo,' and 'Psycho'), Hitchcock gives his obsessions luridly free rein—intentionally and not. He was, in fact, obsessed with Hedren, whose rejections he repaid with harsh treatment, and it shows in his images: few films have looked as longingly and as relentlessly at a woman, few onscreen gazes at an actress have so perfectly crystallized an integral and unique style of performance, and few performances have so precisely defined a director’s world view, even unto the vanishing point. He could, and did, go no further."

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(from top)

~Tippi Hedren in "Marnie"
  Universal Pictures 1964 ©

~Dave Karger and William J. Mann
  Turner Classic Movies 2017 ©

~Ethel Merman in "Gypsy"
 Friedman-Abeles 1959 ©

~Rosalind Russell performing "Some People" and "Rose's Turn" in "Gypsy" and
with Ann Jilliann in the "Dainty June and Her Farmboys" number
 Warner Bros. 1962 ©

~Ben Mankiewicz and Alexandre O. Phillipe
 Turner Classic Movies 2017 ©

~Grace Kelly
 Paramount Pictures 1956 ©

~Alfred Hitchcock with Hedren on the set of "Marnie"
 Universal Pictures 1964 ©

~Hitchcock in his cameo for "Marnie"
 Universal Pictures 1964 ©

Friday, July 21, 2017

cinema obscura: david beaird's "it takes two" (1988)

David Beaird's "It Takes Two," from 1988, is an unusually accomplished and knowing little film, at once enchantingly funny and shrewdly observed.

There is an inclination to call this a lost film but, the fact is, this is a movie that was never found in the first place. It was half-heartedly released (by United Artists, then on its last leg) and casually dismissed by critics (that is, those who bothered to see it). No surprise, it never found an audience.

It is very much an independent film but no one grasped that back in '88, largely because of unfortunate timing. "It Takes Two" was ahead of its time by just a few months. In 1989, Steven Soderbergh's "Sex, Lies and Videotape" would become the darling of film festivals and would open the door for small, edgy films dealing with real-life man/woman issues. Which exactly describes "It Takes Two." But it was too late for Beaird's film.

Set on the eve of a wedding, "It Takes Two" deals with what men ostensibly want (hot cars and hotter women, and lots of them) and what women want (love and a security that might be restricting). Men here, represented by the groom-to-be, are painted as dreamers, while women, in the form of his sweetheart and future wife, are seen as realists.

It's the familiar battle of the sexes and, although the film comes with an undeniable '80s feels, it has a sweet, unpretentious touch that's ageless. And, as in most romantic comedies, the man and woman here are each outraged by (and attracted to) an element in the other's character.

The man and the woman here are essentially kids, just barely out of high school. Travis Rogers and Stephi Lawrence have lived in Waxahachie, Texas, all their lives, on their families' respective farms. Travis' family breeds horses and is strictly lower middle-class, while Stephi's dad, "Bull" Lawrence (the name says it all), is admired as the local "manure mogul."

Travis and Stephi are absolutely crazy about each other and, what's more, they were made for each other. But they see matters, life, differently.

Travis has never been to a big city and has never owned anything fine, anything to call his own, and has never been with anyone except Stephi - and he hasn't really been with her. (They're both virgins.) He has dreams of fancy cars and panting blondes, dreams followed by nightmares of Stephi locked inside his queasy stomach - dressed in her wedding gown.

Stephi is spoiled, a bit self-centered and something of a nag, but (thanks to some three-dimensional playing here) you just know how much she caares about Travis and how she only wants to make him happy.

When he announces that he wants to invest most of his hard-earned money in a fancy Tovare, advertised as an American imitation Lamborghini, and that he plans to go to Dallas right before their wedding to buy one, Stephi goes along with him, but only after a few fights.

Their fights are actually a kind of mutual criticism, very realistic, and as most married couples know, they are sometimes the only road to accommodation - torturous, painfully introspective but necessary.

So while Stephi prepares for the big wedding, which is only 46 hours away, Travis goes to Dallas, aptly Oz-like in his eyes, to buy his car. The sales clerk, a blonde named Jonni, is the kind of woman that Travis saw only in his dreams and she takes him for a ride in more ways than one. (It's a sly touch that the autoplex where Jonni works is named Emerald Motors.)

Travis' pursuit of his male fantasy turns into a male nightmare that somehow ends kind of dreamy, thanks to the efforts of writers Richard Christian Matheson (son of Richard Matheson) and Thomas Szollosi.

Back in 1988 when I first saw (and reviewed) "It Takes Two," I felt that I had discovered some remarkable, attractive new talent.

George Newbern and Leslie Hope, the stars, are two accomplished players who should have gone further in the nearly 30 years since "It Takes Two" was first released. Newbern as Travis is a crackerjack leading man, at turns funny and serious and always willing to expose himself to the audience. His Travis is a fine character study of a young man old enough to grow a mustache but young enough to look silly with one.

Leslie Hope (who, back in the day, was soon to be seen in Oliver Stone's "Talk Radio" and with Matt Dillon in "Kansas") is the titanic supporting structure of this film. As Stephi, Hope reads dialogue as if she were having a candid conversation with her friends and has a smile to die for. In the film's big scene, when Stephi thinks Travis has stood her up at the altar, Hope has a monologue that defines her unusually complex character.

Kimberly Foster, who plays Jonni, is sort of a neo-Kim Novak, a striking blonde with a punky edge, a heart of gold (of course) and, most important, a streak of decency. She's excellent. And a special note about the invaluable character actor Barry Corbin who plays the aforementioned Bull and who brings a tangy, lived-in feel to the role. You could say the same about "It Takes Two" - tangy, lived-in and also ... bittersweet.

Oh, and by the way, just prior to its release, "It Takes Two" was titled "My New Car." Neither generic title does the film justice.

Notes in Passing: Five years later, in 1993, George Newbern and Leslie Hope would be teamed again, in the nifty Drew Barrymore faux Hitchcock thriller, "Doppelganger," directed by Avi Nesher. Newbern would become best known for his role as Kimberly Williams' young husband in the "Father of the Bride" twins, while Hope would move from acting to directing.

And the talented David Beaird would direct "Scorchers," a 1991 guilty pleasure starring Faye Dunaway. Highly recommended fun. Beaird hasn't made a film since 2005's "The Civilization of Maxwell Bright," starring Patrick Warburton, Simon Callow, Eric Roberts, Austin Pendelton and Jennifer Tilly. And based on Beaird's filmography, that's one I'd like to see.
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~Leslie Hope and George Newbern in "It Takes Two"
~photography: United Artists 1988 ©

Friday, July 07, 2017

blasphemy & sacrilege!

Or, Rain already, rain on her parade! Do it!

Willam Wyler's "Funny Girl" (1968) is the final candidate for my disruptive Hall of the Overrated. Perhaps this is a premature end, considering the many other titles that I would have liked to tackle here. "Independence Day"! "Rain Man"! "The Silence of the Lambs"! The list goes on: Films that other moviegoers (and critics) have enjoyed and even obsessively loved.

"Funny Girl" is also the third title on the list that belongs to my favorite genre - the film musical, particularly the film musical that's an adaptation of a stage play. At the risk of seriously dating myself, I should note that I saw all three shows in their original Broadway productions - "West Side Story" as a kid and, later, "Cabaret" and Funny Girl" as a young adult.

But more about that later.*

During its lifespan, the movie musical was routinely overseen by people with music backgrounds but, every so often, Hollywood would assign one to director not connected with the genre but a solid craftsman nonethless: 
  • Howard Hawks - "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes"
  • Fred Zinnemann - "Oklahoma!"
  • Henry Koster - "Flower Drum Song"
  • Francis Ford Coppola - "Finian's Rainbow" (and, later, "One from the Heart")
  • Sir Carol Reed - "Oliver!"
  • Sidney Lumet - "The Wiz"
  • Milos Foreman - "Hair"
  • Sir Richard Attenborough - "A Chorus Line"
  • Martin Scorsese - "New York, New York"
  • Peter Bogdanovich - "At Long Last Love"
  • John Huston - "Annie"
  • Michael Ritchie - "The Fantasticks"
Some of these pairings worked (Hawks, Zinnemann), some didn't (Lumet, Attenborough). In the case of "Funny Girl," Columbia brought in the estimable William Wyler (he of "Ben-Hur" fame, as well as "The Best Years of Our Lives" and "The Children's Hour," among many other varied films) and teamed him with the star of the 1963 Broadway show, Barbra Streisand. And, apparently, there was a power struggle over exactly who was the film's auteur - its seasoned director or its driven leading lady.

Caught in the middle is the movie itself which is at once big and splashy and gaudy - and also lengthy and lethargic. At its best, it's highly disappointing. Not that the original show itself was that great, apart from Streisand's showstopper-after-showstopper performance. She was the only reason to see it. As for the material, it served simply as an opportunity for its composer, Jule Styne, to repeat the same formula (a vaudeville-based musical biography) that worked so successfully for him with "Gypsy" a few years earlier. But there's really no comparison at all.

"Funny Girl," which chronicles both the personal and professional life of Ziegfield star Fanny Brice, remains  merely a serviceable musical comedy that, both on stage and on film, has functioned strictly as an over-the-top showcase for its star. This was made apparent when the material was blown up to 70mm proportions for the film. Wyler's camera is ruthless.

Unless you are an avid Streisand fan or have a deep appreciation for the kind of broad performance she delivers, his movie is something of a trial to sit through. And little is more deadly than its first 15 minutes.

Streisand enters an empty theater in full Grande Dame mode, looking pained and full of regret and ready to share the struggles of her journey. Cue to flashback. Now looking younger (in an anacronistic way, circa 1968), she performs what's supposed to be a novelty number, "If a Girl Isn't Pretty," with character actresses Kay Medford (as her mother) and Mae Questel, but the way it's staged here, the song is downright funereal.

So who made the decision to open the film this way? Wyler? Streisand? Producer Ray Stark? Or Isobel Lennart, who wrote the scripts for both the play and the film? Or was it one of those decisions by committee?

Matters don't improve as Streisand is indulged by a beached Wyler - dancing a fractured version of "Swan Lake," trying to balance herself on roller skates, playing a pregnant bride and acting coy with Omar Sharif.

And then there's the faulty lip-syncing - which is actually kind of funny.

In spite of its bloat, "Funny Girl" plays like a watered-down version of Styne's previous hit. Picking Wyler to direct this material was probably a ploy to give the film something of a pedigree and I guess he delivered that. But for all its razz-a-ma-tazz, "Funny Girl" feels stillborn and that's probably because of Wyler. He was the wrong choice. In comparson, Mervyn LeRoy - who directed the 1962 Warner film version of "Gypsy" - had an active background in (and feel for) vaudeville and it shows. And it helps that he made such titles as "Gold Diggers of 1933," also for Warners.

* Note in Passing: "Gypsy" was another show that I saw as a kid, the original production with Merman. I often think about the musical shows I saw growing up. It was a natural part of my youth. So when did it become a gay thing to enjoy musicals? Exactly when did men begin to define their masculinity by the movies they watch?  I ask because my wife and I each had fathers who loved musicals, both on stage and on screen  No big deal.

Both took their families to tryouts of new musicals in Philadelphia and both loved "Oklahoma!," "South Pacific" and "The Music Man" on screen. A musical was just another type of movie to see.  This week, a Western. Next week, a musical. And the week after that, something with Clark Gable or Doris Day. It simply didn't matter. A movie was just a movie.

And some variety made movies even better. But not anymore. Men now think that their sperm count or testosterone level will shrink if they watch a musical. This phobia was driven home by Larry David who wrote an episode of "Seinfeld" - episode 17, season four, to be specific - titled "The Outing," in which George (Jason Alexander) purchases two tickets to a "Guys and Dolls" revival as a birthday present for Jerry (Seinfeld).

One for him, one for Jerry.

Uptight that anyone would think he is gay, Jerry screams in his unique Seinfeldian way, "Isn't that a lavish Broadway musical?"

To which George responds, "It's 'Guys and Dolls,' Jerry, not 'Guys and Guys'!"

"The Outing" first aired February 11, 1993 and matters haven't changed.

Sadly, it's gotten much worse.

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~Barbra Streisand and Kay Medford in "Funny Girl"
~photography: Columbia Pictures / Rastar Productions 1968 ©

~Jason Alexander and Jerry Seinfeld in "The Outing"
~photography: Castle Rock Entertainment / NBC 1993 ©