Friday, December 09, 2016

reducing "hairspray" to a limp, joyless spritz

The bad timing and general pointlessness of NBC's unnecessary live production of the musical comedy "Hairspray" was exacerbated by arch, curiously lax staging.  More about the bad timing later.  More about the show's lethargy now.  This "Hairspray" was as middle-aged as the extras hired to play high-school students in the background and the dances.

It takes a lot of dubious, misguided decisions to level what should be a surefire show but NBC managed to check off just about all of them. Which is odd, given that the network got off to such a spectacular start with its 2013 staging of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The Sound of Music," a production which honored the show as originally written, restoring two fine numbers that were excised from the Disney-fied 1965 TODD-AO film.

But the success of "The Sound of Music" cornered the network into a rather rigid "family friendly" formula - musicals that appeal to kids, teens and their parents exclusively.  There's no place here for something like "Sweet Charity" or a Sondheim work.  Instead, we got the deadly "Peter Pan" in 2014 (a production that, seemingly, has impacted the career of its miscast star, Allison Williams) and a forgettable version of "The Wiz" in 2015.  What's next for the kids?  "Oliver!"? Yet another "Annie"?

Predictably, the announced production for 2017 will be "Bye Bye Birdie," a (teen-driven) show that has already been the basis of an inferior but wildly popular 1963 film version and an especially terrific 1995 TV version.

There's an expression for this - can you say creative bankruptcy?

In the meantime, the Fox network entered the picture earlier this year and raised the bar considerably with a jaw-droppingly excellent version of "Grease" performed before a live audience (a conceit that NBC appropriated for "Hairspray") and with a youthful enthusiasm that's been glaringly absent from the (again, middle-aged) NBC musicals.

If the consummate, immediate goal is to attract young audiences, a degree of youthfulness is an obvious necessity.  Instead, "Hairspray Live" (as it is officially titled) delivered about 2¼ hours of forced fun.

I can't readily comprehend the reason for NBC's "Hairspray," as the material was the basis of Adam Shankman's exceptionally good film version (the definitive "Hairspray") which played cineplexes as recently as 2007 - a production that benefited strongly from Leslie Dixon's textbook example of exactly how to adapt a cartoon-like play into a credible movie.

Adhering close to the stage book, "Hairspray Live" seemed rickety, devoid of the kind of solid foundation that supported the '07 film, something which affected its performances which were scattered all over the place.

On paper, the peerless Kristen Chenoweth (a musical comedy treasure) and the ever-reliable Martin Short (who can do anything) both seemed letter-perfect for their roles, but performances which should have worked with ease were undermind by either the TV script or simply bad direction.

Jennifer Hudson, strangely cast as the mother of a high-school student (she looked younger than her TV son), has a knockout singing voice but precious little stage presence and even less of the kind of powerhouse personality that her role required.  She also has the disadvantage of being compared to Queen Latifah who nailed the role in the Shankman film.

Having seen Harvey Fierstein in the stage version of "Hairspray" - and having a rocking good time watching him - I anticipated the same fun.  But it became clear that the kind of broad playing that marked Fierstein's stage performance works well only in the artificial setting of a theater.  It can't hold up under the close, relentless scrutiny of a camera.

There's a reason why Carol Channing was never considered for the films of "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" and 'Hello, Dolly!" or Ethel Merman for the movie version of "Gypsy." It would have been too much.  (Full Disclosure: I'm seriously dating myself here, but as a kid, I saw Merman in the original production and, yes, even on stage, she was too much.)

Anyway, in retrospect, John Travolta's decision to eschew even a hint of camp in his performance in the theatrical film was an astute one.

Then there's Maddie Baillio, the newcomer selected for the lead role that was played with such effortless pluck and sincerity by Nikki Blonsky opposite Travolta.  Baillio has a fine voice but, as an actress, she is (how can I put this?) - well - fairly vacant.  And while Hudson seemed too young for her role, Baillio looked too old to play a teenager.  But then just about every teenager in this production looked too old.  I have to ask: Why not cast the show with real teenagers?  There are certainly plenty of them out there.

An unctous Darren Criss was brought in to serve as on-screen host, an assignment that Mario Lopez pulled off so handily for Fox's "Grease Live."  Despite his yelping and fawning, Criss was an unconvincing cheerleader.

On the plus side, there was Ariana Grande who exhibited impressive restraint, grace and a sense of team spirit in a good but frankly supporting role; Garrett Clayton, who brought a fascinating sexual ambiguity to the role of a high-school heart-throb, and best of all, Dove Cameron, who managed to make her mean girl both loathsome and button-cute.

Cameron is a naturally witty actress. Get this woman a lead role already!

On the production side, the choreography by the estimable Jerry Mitchell was a decided disappointment, surprisingly rigid and jerky, rather than what the show's breezy score would inspire - liberating and free-flowing.

As for NBC's timing in airing "Hairspray," that was unavoidable, since these shows are announced and go into pre-production a full year before airing. For all its frivolity, "Hairspray" is an ardent plea for diversity, with the dance floor used as a level playing field for people of all color.  It indicts the racism which has been revived in recent years and has become disturbingly rampant in the past few months.  Compared to the racist venom and bile that have become routine in society and regularly covered by the media (always in lip-smacking detail), the crucial message behind "Hairspray" now seems weak, facile and, sadly, a little futile.  It's like using a pretty little pink Band-Aid to try and cover an ugly, festering sore.

That said, I have to admit that I was amused by the ads for some vintage products (Nilla Wafers!) that are rarely advertised on TV these days. A very clever touch. Also, the telecast restored a familiar line borrowed from another show, "Gypsy," that wasn't used in the Shankman-Dixon film - "I'm a pretty girl, Momma," given a famously iconic reading by Natalie Wood in the 1962 film of "Gypsy" and spoken in this production by Ariana Grande. (There's another "Gypsy" line quoted in one of "Hairspray's" lyrics - "Momma's gotta let go!," from the rousing "Rose's Turn" finale).

Note in Passing: During the telecast of "Hairspray," NBC promoted its next live musical - "Bye Bye Birdie," starring Jennifer Lopez (although it sounded like it used Ann-Margret's voice singing the title song written for the '63 movie).  This seemed way too premature.  Anything can happen in a year. It reminded me of the 2004 Tony Awards telecast.  Nicole Kidman was a presenter and the announcer introduced her as "the star of the upcoming film of 'The Producers'."  Well, when "The Producers" went into production a few months later, it was without Nicole Kidman.  She dropped out and Universal lost one of its big selling/marketing points.  Uma Thurman, almost as big a star as Kidman, came in and took over the role.

Monday, December 05, 2016

the working title

The above still from "Sexual Perversity in Chicago," directed by Edward Zwick from the David Mamet play of the same title, was included in the summer preview press kit distributed by TriStar Pictures in 1986.

However, by the time the film was released that July, the studio got cold feet and retitled it with the generic moniker, "About Last Night."

It always seemed too good to be true that TriStar would retain the work's original, edgier title. (And ,of course, the title was retained for the 2014 Kevin Hart remake with Joy Bryant, Regina Hall and Michael Ealy).)

In the meantime, I have a Kris Kritofferson autographed shooting script for a Michael Cimino film titled "The Jackson County War" which, of course, became "Heaven's Gate" (1980). And let's not forget that Billy Wilder's "Ace in a Hole" (1951) became "The Big Carnival" in Paramount's desperate attempt to rescue it from box-office failure.

Which brings me to the point of this essay - namely, those films that underwent a title change and rarely for the good. I've come up with a few others that originally had singular titles that were vetoed in favor of the nondescript. Feel free to share others that come into mind. Here goes:

Sir Carol Reed's "Nobody Loves a Drunken Indian" (1970), starring Anthony Quinn and based on the Clair Huffaker novel, became the more politically-correct "Flap" on screen and in display ads.

Norman Taurog's Cary Grant/Betsy Drake vehicle, "Room for One More," (1951) became "The Easy Way" for its TV syndication when Warner Bros. decided to spin the film into a sitcom in 1961. That new title stuck, even after the series was long forgotten. The original title returned when Warner Archives put the film on DVD.

Paul Mazursky's "Jerry Saved from Drowning" (1986)- a remake of the 1932 Jean Renoir French film "Boudu Saved from Drowming" ("Boudu sauvé des eaux") - became "Down and Out in Beverly Hills." Nick Nolte assumed the role originally played by the legendary Michel Simon . And Gerard Depardieu played the role in yet another remake, 2005's "Boudu," directed by Gérard Jugnot. Got that? 

Sidney Lumet's Brando-infused "Orpheus Descending" (1960) became "The Fugitive Kind." And Joseph Losey's "The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore" (1968) - like "Orpheus Descending," by way of Tennessee Williams - became "Boom!" The latter starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in roles played by Tallulah Bankhead and Tab Hunter on stage, under the direction of Tony Richardson.

Edouard Molinaro's "I Won't Dance" (1984), with the much-missed Kristy McNichol, became "Just the Way You Are."

Tony Bill's "The Baboon Heart" (1993), with Marisa Tomei and Christian Slater, became "Untamed Heart."

Peter Yates' "The Janitor Doesn't Dance" (1981), starring William Hurt as the janitor and Sigourney Weaver as a reporter, became "Eyewitness."

Robert Aldrich's remake of "No Orchids for Miss Blandish" (1971) became "The Grissom Gang." Among the cast in Aldrich's film are Kim Darby and Connie Stevens, both of whom were married at one time to James Stacy. 

Howard Zeiff's sweet-natured "Born Jaundiced" (1991)- a great title -  became "My Girl."

Robert Altman's "The Presbyterian Church Wager" (1971) became "McCabe and Mrs. Miller."

Altman's "Brewster McCloud and His Sexy Flying Machine" (1970) was simplied to "Brewster McCloud."

Altman's all-star "Prêt-à-Porter" (1994) was translated to "Ready to Wear," thanks to Harvey Weinstein.

When director Robert Mulligan and his producing partner, Alan J. Pakula, decided to film the 1954 Horten Foote play, "The Traveling Lady," they had no idea that a song written for the film would overtake the marketing.  The opening titles feature an open highway with the camera staring down at the road, moving along with it.  But then composer Elmer Bernstein and lyricist Ernie Sheldon wrote "Baby, The Rain Must Fall" for star Steve McQueen's character to sing. The film's screenplay was written by Foote but it was no longer known as a movie based on a distinguished play.  Lee Remick played the traveling lady on film, a role created on stage by Kim Stanley (who later reprised it for a live TV production).

Joan Micklin Silver's "Chilly Scenes of Winter" (1979), based on the Ann Beattie novel of the same title, became "Head Over Heels," only to revert back to "Chilly Scenes of Winter" for its re-release.

Andrew Bergman's "Cop Gives Waitress Two Million Dollar Tip" (1994), with Bridget Fonda and Nicolas Cage, became "It Could Happen to You."

Jon Avnet's hugely poplular "Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe" (1991), based on the book by Fannie Flagg, was reduced to "Fried Green Tomatoes."

George Cukor's Judy Holliday gem, "A Name for Herself" (1954), became "It Should Happen to You."

Roman Polanski shortened the title of his film version of "God of Carnage" to the monosyllabic "Carnage."

Finally, there's a film whose re-title I prefer - Jonathan Demme's "Citizen Band" (1977) , a so-so moniker that was momentarily changed to "Handle with Care" before Paramount decided to stick with the original.

Two other perfectly fine titles, meanwhile, were preserved at the 11th hour. Gilbert Cates' "I Never Sang for My Father" (1970) was slated by Columbia to be retitled "Strangers" (replete with a title song sung by Roy Clark) before someone there wised up and decided to keep the title of the lovely Robert Anderson play on which it is based.

And William Wyler's 1961 film version of the Lillian Helman play, "The Children's Hour," almost became "The Infamous."  This was the second time that Wyler directed Helman's material and the second time he had to deal with a title change.  He earlier filmed the play in 1936 and it was given  the title, "These Three." In this case, the change made sense, given that the original subject of homosexuality was supplanted by a plot about a romantic triangle. It was no longer "The Children's Hour."

Thursday, December 01, 2016

a feline critic reviews hitchcock's "psycho"

Found this marvelous little piece on You Tube, credited to RM Videos.  I've no idea if it was staged or altered or if the darling little cat is even watching "Psycho" or the election coverage at the time of the posting.

Doesn't matter. It's purrfect. (Sorry about that.)

Friday, November 25, 2016


Lauren and her sisters...

They growl, they purr, they whisper, they murmur, they sigh, they intone, they inflect, they modulate, they enunciate, they deliver.

They have voices, great voices, and while movies themselves may vary wildly, their voices guarantee something special, something forbidden.

I'm talking about actresses who talk to us in the dark.  Not all actresses, but the ones with those voices that stir impure thoughts.  I can imagine any one these women whispering, "I want you, Joe."  And that's what movies and movie stars are supposed to be about - fantasized relationships with teasing, arousing shadows on a screen, imperfect men and women who may not be good for anyone and who seem to be talking directly to each of us in the audience. It's intoxicating. A little sinful.


The 1940s had Lauren Bacall, already dangerously confident at 19 (the age when she made her film debut in Howard Hawks' "To Have and Have Not" in 1944) - always a woman, never a girl.  Her deep, smoky voice stood seemingly miles apart from Bette Davis' brittle snap and certainly Katharine Hepburn's yankee lockjaw (never a turn-on).

By the time we reached the 1980s, we had Kathleen Turner, Bacall's unofficial heir, who brought a robust, near-athletic quality to her line readings, often camouflaging plots we've seen 12 times before.

Actresses with voices that equal the mystery promised by Bacall and Turner have never been in the majority and, in recent years, seem to have become increasingly rare. With that in mind, a casual celebration is in order - a quick, scratch-pad tribute to those women with irresistible seen-it-all, done-it-all voices. Here's the deal:  I'll toss out the names, in no particular order.  You just have to sit back and imagine their individual sounds. And, with any hope, no one great voice will be inadvertently muffled.  (If I do miss one, remind me; I'm ready to hear suggestions.)

Kim Novak. A haunted beauty with a haunted voice that set her apart from other Hollywood blondes of the 1950s (Monroe!  Mansfield!).  Her voice projected an aching sadness.

Barbara Feldon.  Forever Agent 99. She spoke with a languid sexiness that brought grown-up thoughts to a silly sitcom.

Elizabeth Ashley. Her rasp is boozy and enticingly threatening.  Vocally, she's Bourbon on the rocks.

Debra Winger.  She of the great honking voice, almost nakedly forceful - enough for late-night stimulation.

Audrey Hepburn.  She looked like an elf but that voice was something else.  Indescribable. Absolutely singular.  That's why it was so ludicrous to dub her singing (with  Marni Nixon's pitch-perfect but soulless voice) in "My Fair Lady."  So what if she hit a bum note or two.  At least we would have known exactly whose voice was singing Lerner and Loewe.

Daryl Hannah. A tall, blonde, lanky beach girl whose unexpectedly scratchy voice makes her unexpectedly accessible.

Suzanne Pleshette. She had a husky voice that matched her dark, dusky beauty - and that came with a sneaky taunt.

Joan Crawford.   The Grande Dame of movie voices.  Ambitious and driven, she taught herself how to be a star and, more to the point, how to speak like one.

Piper Laurie. Her porcelain beauty - white, white skin and soft orange hair - is offset by a commandingly deep voice.

Hermonie Gingold. Need I say anything?  She spoke with a haughty impatience, underlined by perfect elocution and what sounds like a slight lisp.  When she concocts an anti-love potion for Jimmy Stewart in Richard Quine's "Bell, Book & Candle," she urges him to drink it "before it loses its strengthhhhh!" Priceless.

Zooey Deschanel. The new girl on the block.  Her voice is like sandpaper, only less abrasive. The apathetic, blasé intonations that she brings to her line readings make her a natural comedienne.

Diana Sands. Her unique voice somehow melded a gravel with a purr, a powerful combination that was put to superb use during her seduction of Beau Bridges in her greatest screen role in Hal Ashby's "The Landlord."  She left us too soon, way too soon.

Vanessa Redgrave. Her marvelously sonorous voice, made to recite Shakespeare or Joan Didion is tempered ever so slightly by a subtle out-of-breath quality.  Consequently, she brough an orgasmic rush to the dancer Duncan in Karel Reisz's "Isadora" and to the songs she sang as Guenevere in Josh Logan's "Camelot.". Best. Actress. Ever.

Demi Moore.  Rarely has the sound of congestion been so fetching.  Yes, congestion.  You want to feed her chicken soup but you don't want her to get better because the sound is so mesmerizing.

June Allyson.  She had adorable cracks in her voice.

Katherine Heigl. Seemingly punished by the media and her peers alike for being outspoken and having standards, Heigl comes with a focused, straight-shooting voice of a serious woman.  Formidable.  I like her. And the fact that she's a tireless animal advocate doesn't hurt.

Catherine Deneuve.  Thick, creamy, Gallic and rich.  Just like French cuisine.  She always spoke flawless English (at a time when colleagues such as Depardieu couldn't), with just enough of an accent. And she's aged beautifully, naturally. (Below with Daniel Auteuil in André Téchiné's excellent 1993 film, "Ma saison préférée.")

Sissy Spacek.  That homespun rasp is never less than endearing.

Ginger Rogers.  Arguably the screen's most versatile actress.  She could mold her voice to any role she plays - a serious woman, a gum-snapping chorine, a child-brat. For for some bizarre reason, I think of her voice in black-&-white, surrounded by Art Deco trimmings.  The mere sound of Rogers stimulates the imagination.

Whoopi Goldberg.  Dreadlocks and a cultured, velvety growl.

Janet Leigh.  Her voice changed with time.  As a young actress, it was very light, girlish. You could imagine her sipping a milk shake. But as she matured, it took on a deep womanliness.  She was someone you could meet for drinks.  Scotch, definitely.

Emma Stone.  Another new girl.  A child-woman whose voice is as assertive as her jut-out chin.  And she speaks with knife-edge timing.

Jacqueline Bissett/Charlotte Rampling. No-nonsense British women whose all-business, supple voices have an underlying tenderness. And admittedly, I'm a sucker for the precise diction.

Rosalind Russell.  Russell had muscle in that voice.  She would gladly compromise her naturally patrician inflections for mile-a-minute screwball comedy. 

Kim Basinger. A good-old-girl with a charming drawl, as comfortable as a porch hammock. Powerfully affecting.

Mary Boland/Lee Patrick. No one could do "high-society" as well as Boland (check out "Ruggles of Red Gap"), but Patrick did an amazing impersonation of her in "Auntie Mame."

Annie Potts. Other comic actresses would kill for her Looney-Tunes peep.

Glynis Johns. Yes, yet another Brit.  But different.  She speaks with a girlish gravel.  Unique.

Blythe Danner. Her honey-blonde hair always matched her voice, which flows like butterscotch through vanilla ice cream.

Betsy Drake.  aka, Cary Grant's third wife and his best match. Her sandy voice equaled her disarming down-to-earth looks and bearing.  A British tomboy.  Everything about her was appropriated by Julie Andrews for her role in "The Sound of Music."

Tippi Hedren/Melanie Griffith.  A mother-daughter team who share the same little-girl voice that has a naughty, sexed-up edge to it.

Kay Kendall. She spoke with the hauteur of a society dame.

Julie Christie. Her voices comes with an earthy majesty. Another word comes to mind, too.  Breathy.

Christine Lahti.  A real, unpretentious woman whose vocal flirtiness seems to come easy.

 JoBeth Williams and Sigourney Weaver always conveyed the same intelligence, experience and earthiness.

Dixie Carter.  The name says it all.  There's more than a bit of reveille in that voice.

Sally Kellerman.  That voice fairly drips with spaciness. There's a reason she was so wildly popular in the '70s.

Irene Dunne.  The unsung heroine of screwball comedies of the 1940s. (Forget Hepburn.)  I'm not exactly how to put it but when I think of her voice, the now unsued word "flibbertigibbet" comes to mind. Also, great singing voice as evidenced in the better version of "Show Boat."

I guess there are male actors who also come with an assortment of terrific voices, but they interest me less.  Nevertheless, if I had my choice and could handpick any voice I wanted, I would go with Herbert Marshall's, hands-down.  He had a voice of mellifluous maleness.  Dulcet-toned.  Resonant.  Rich.  A voice of "style," not "class" (horrible word).

Oh and how I wish that I sounded exactly like him. one gentleman

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

façade: richard fleischer

Although never fully appreciated in his lifetime, filmmaker Richard Fleischer does have a loyal cult following. And with good reason.

Actually several good reasons. And they are ... "The Narrow Margin" and "The Happy Time" (both 1952), "Violent Saturday" and "The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing" (both 1955), "The Vikings" (1958), "Compulsion and "These Thousand Hills" (both 1959), "Barabbas" (1962), "The Boston Strangler" (1968), "10 Rillington Place" (1971), "Soylent Green" (1973) "Mandingo" (1965) and "Tough Enough" (1983).

Fleischer, of the famed Fleischer dynasty ("Popeye," "Betty Boop" and "Koko the Clown"), directed about 50 films in his lifetime, most of which tended to come in under the radar, despite their accomplishments, and were given left-handed references at best by the critics during his lifetime.

He died at age 90 in 2006, about six months before Robert Altman passed.  But Fleischer never commanded attention as an auteur, as Altman did.  At the time of their deaths, my mind was filled with elusive thoughts about how much I admired (and perhaps overrated) Altman when I was a young Turk - and how I too often took Fleischer for granted as so many other critics had.

That could be because Fleischer didn't make the same movie over and over again, à la Altman.

Altman's chatty ensemble films all began to seem like undisguised variations on each other, while each Fleischer film, even the disposable, inferior ones, showcased the filmmaker's knack for trying different things, different genres - to change and keep growing.

I mean, Altman's "Nashville" and "A Prairie Home Companion" may have been separated by 30 years, but they could have been made back-to-back. (I like them both, however, and think that "Prairie" is an especially effective rumination on death.)

But enough about Altman. I am here to praise Richard Fleischer - and not at the expense of another filmmaker - and reminisce about all the joy he gave me.

A Richard Fleischer Film Festival would be incomplete without such idiosyncratic titles as "The Girl in the Red Swing" with Joan Collins as Evelyn Nesbit, "These Thousand Hills" (1959), a fine Western with Don Murray and Lee Remick, "The Last Run" (1971), a crime flick with George C. Scott; the nifty "Soylent Green, "The Incredible Sarah" (1976) with Glenda Jackson as Sarah Bernhardt and Daniel Massey as Victorien Sardou, and "Tough Enough," an engaging Dennis Quaid boxing film.

And in a league by itself is Fleischer's sublime anti-Biblical epic, "Barabbas," with the perfectly cast Anthony Quinn in the title role.

If I had to pick what I think is the best Fleischer, it would be "10 Rillington Place," the third side of Fleischer's first-rate crime trilogy that also includes "Compulsion" (1959) and "The Boston Strangler" (1968), both equally fine films. But for what it's worth, "Rillington" is my hands-down favorite Fleischer.

One of those rare crime thrillers that is not only frightening but genuinely unnerving and disturbing, Fleischer's movie stars Richard Attenborough in a thoroughly creepy performance as John Christie, a muderer who posed as a doctor, performing illegal abortions and going a step further by drugging, raping and then strangling his patients. He murdered eight women in London between 1940 and 1953.

John Hurt (and never did a name fit an actor so well) matches Attenborough every step of the way in a sadly wrenching performance as Timothy Evans, the husband of one of Christie's victims, who is falsely accused of killing his wife (Judy Geeson) - while Christie stands by and watches his arrest.

"10 Rillington Place"is an award-worthy film.

And yet the only Fleischer title nominated for a best picture Oscar was, of all things, the original movie musical "Dr. Dolittle" (1967). Fleischer himself was not nominated. (Herbert Ross staged the musical numbers for him.) He was the only director of the five nominated films that year not to get a nod; his slot went to Richard Brooks for "In Cold Blood," which was not nominated for best picture that year.

Actually, "Dr. Dolittle" is much better than its unfairly tainted reputation suggests. The film expresses an urgently empathetic regard for animals and boasts a tricky, literate song score by Leslie Bricusse, one of whose numbers posits the nifty observation that "a veterinarian should be a vegetarian." And his "When I Look In Your Eyes" is one of the most affecting, heart-breaking love songs to grace any movie musical.

And given that title star Rex Harrison (pictured above with a game co-star) had already taught linguistics to a guttersnipe in "My Fair Lady," it seemed like a natural progression for him to ply his skills on ... animals.

For more on this unhearalded filmmaker, check out Dave Kehr's astute New York Times essay, "In a Corrupt World Where the Violent Bear It Away," which was timed to coincide with a Fleischer tribute at New York's Film Forum in 2008.

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

indelible moment: Donen's "The Little Prince"

In the mid-1970s, Stanley Donen teamed up with Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe - you know, the guys who did "My Fair Lady" - for a musical film based on Antoine de Saint-Exupéry beloved gem, "The Little Prince"/"Le Petit Prince." The film was troubled given that the casting of The Pilot - Frank Sinatra, Gene Hackman, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Richard Burton were all suggested - proved gnawingly elusive.

Reliable Richard Kiley would play the role.

The resulting film ran a trim 88 minutes which was considered perfect in some quarters and suspect in others. Studio intervention? Hmmm. Donna McKechnie's role as The Rose seemed particularly truncated. But, overall, the movie is a tiny gem. Donen got it right, particularly in his casting of Bob Fosse as The Snake and, truly inspired, Gene Wilder as The Fox.

The film's stand-out moment is also the book's: It comes when Wilder, with his champagne-colored, fluffy hair and dressed in a handsome auburn suit, scurries about and stops in a field of wheat to intone:

                "It's only with the heart that one can see clearly.
                     What's essential, is invisible to the eye."

Lovely. And, yes, indelible.

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

the donald is no bill mckay...

...but he's errily like Crocker Jarman

Bill McKay, of course, is the young politician played by Robert Redford in Michael Ritchie's superbly harsh (and accurate) political farce, "The Candidate"  (1972), and Crocker Jarman, so smoothly played by Don Porter, is the entitled (and monied) incumbent McKay hopes to unseat.

And does.

Of course, Croker Jarman isn't the lead character in "The Candidate" and Donald Trump is unlikely to welcome the idea of being a supporting character in any movie, especially one directed by Oliver Stone.  I'm getting ahead of myself here.  Oliver Stone has yet to not announce any film devoted to Trump, so why do I think such a prospect is a sure thing?

Because it's irresistible, that's why.

So while I eagerly await a Stone movie titled "Trump" or "The Donald" or "Trump Fights Back" (the most ubiquitous newspaper headline of the past few weeks) or perhaps simply "H" (for huge), I'll concentrate on films and characters already available that are, well, Trump-esque. Here goes...

Lonesome Rhodes in "A Face in the Crowd" - This Elia Kazan-Budd Schulberg classic remains absolutely prescient in its depiction of someone who, having become drunk on his status of being an unexpected media sensation, turns to politics in his quest for power.  No one can top Andy Griffin as this character, but I'm willing to see someone try. 

Gladys Glover in "It Should Happen to You" - Judy Holliday, perfect as a curiously ambitious, vacant young woman with no discernable talent of any kind, who becomes The Symbol of Nothing.  Say no more.

Chance in "Being There" - Peter Sellers, atypically restrained, as an idiot who speaks gibberish that everyone is ready to read as pure genius.

Raymond Shaw in "The Manchurian Candidate" - Laurence Harvey excelled as an outsider programmed to destroy a political party - only he destroys the wrong (the right?) one in the end.  His clueless acolytes, meanwhile, robotically chant, "Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I've ever known in my life."

Professor Harold Hill in "The Music Man" - OK, this one requires singing - or at least speak-singing as perfected by Robert Preston in both the stage and film versions of this musical.  Hill is a natural-born con man who twists facts and tells outright lies to convince less astute people that "There's trouble - right here in (fill in any place of your choice)!"

What about Hillary, you say?  Well, she's a much less flamboyant, easy-to-spoof figure.  But given that we live in a political culture obsessed with equal time, I'll toss you this one:

Tracy Flick in "Election" - And, yes, Stone can recruit Reese Witherspoon to reprise her role.

Note in Passing:  I'm disheartened to share the information that (1) James Stewart reportedly was offered the role of Crocker Jarman in "The Candidate" and turned it down and that (2) James Stewart reportedly turned it down because it reflected poorly on conservative politicians.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

cinema obscura: Terry Hughes' "The Butcher's Wife" (1991)

Very much a companion piece to Richard Quine's "Bell, Book & Candle" (1958), Terry Hughes' "The Butcher's Wife" (1991) is a cozy New York comedy about a compelling woman with what might be magical powers.

And like Gillian Holroyd, the seductive heroine of Quine's film, Demi Moore's Marina in "The Butcher's Wife" is something of a bohemian.

These two women are "different," unconventional.  For one thing, they both favor walking around barefoot. It's no surprise that each one ends up among the denizens of Greenwich Village. Gillian, of course, is a witch.  Marina is something more curious, possibly a landbound mermaid.

Marina is a clairvoyant from a tiny island off the North Carolina coast who makes her way to New York to meet the man for whom she is fated - a Greenwich Village butcher named Leo Lemke (George Dzundza). Or so she thinks.  They marry almost insouciantly and Marina ensconces herself in his shop where she meets - and counsels - people from the neighborhood.

Her penchant for giving homespun, often unsolicited advice (mostly to women) attracts the attention of  Dr. Alex Tremor (Jeff Daniels), the local psychiatrist whose clientele is identical to Leo's.  (As I said, this is a very cozy Greenwich Village.) Among the characters who patronize both the butcher shop and the local shrink are a couple played by Frances McDormand and Margaret Colin (both terrific), and reliable Mary Steenburgen as a wannabe singer who seems more appropriate for Leo than Marina.

That's because Marina was really meant to be with ... Dr. Tremor.

The character of the ethereal Marina seems ready-made for Daryl Hannah but Moore, cast against type in an atypical soft role, is at once disarming and appealing and demonstrates remarkable chemistry with every other actor in the film - Daniels, Dzunda, Steenburgen, McDormand and Colin.  It's a terrific cast that also includes Max Perlich as Leo's helper, veteran actresses Miriam Margoyles and Helen Hanft as two neighborhood snoops and the great cross-dressing actor-writer Charles Pierce in a quick bit.

Best of all, there's playwright Christopher Durang, a veritable scene-stealer, hands-down hilarious, as one of Alex's more confused patients.

In interviews at the time of the film's release, Daniels said he modeled his character on Jack Lemmon and, if you look closely, there are indeed a collection of subtle, astute Lemmonesque references in his winning performance. 

George Dzunda is as endearing as ever (and what on earth ever happened to him?), while Mary Steenburger is a collection of adorable 'tics.  She also gets to sing a sad, heartfelt version of Irving Berlin's singular "What'll I Do?"  And any film that includes the strains of Stéphane Grappelli on the soundtrack is instantly a friend.

Sadly, "The Butcher's Wife" is Hughes' only theatrical film. He's better- known as a TV hand who has helmed many successful sitcoms, among them, "Friends," and, sadly, this background was seemingly used against him at the time of the film's release by status-conscious critics.

But Hughes also filmed many stage productions, often working in tandem with their original directors, among them two Stephem Sondheim musicals, "Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street," and "Sunday in the Park with George," as well as "Hughie," "Barnum," "The Gin Game," "I Do! I Do!" and Bruce Jay Friedman's controversial "Steambath." He's good.

I'd like to see Terry Hughes direct another film.  He's way overdue. His charming debut movie, now nearly 25 years old, has panache to spare.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

indelible moment: "Sometimes a Great Notion"

Richard Jaekel's heartbreaking drowning/death in the 1972 film directed by and co-starring Paul Newman. Utterly unforgettable.

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

the contrarian: "match me, sidney"

Alexander Mackendrick's atmospheric
"Sweet Smell of Success"of 1957 is one of those films that I like but not as much as I'm supposed to.

I mean, what's not to like? The '50s New York ambience (shot in black-&-white, natch, by James Wong Howe) is seductive, and the acting duet of Burt Lancaster as ruthless newspaper columnist J.J. Hunsecker and Tony Curtis as the weak, fawning publicist Sidney Falco should be enough to get me through the film.

So, again, what's not to like? Well, the plot. Which, for me, is - well - kinda silly. Everything hinges on the fact that J.J. doesn't want his spoiled kid sister, Susan (played by a mink-wrapped Susan Harrison, who looks young enough to be Lancaster's daughter and yet who looks nothing like him at all), to marry a musician with the great name Steve Dallas (a character played by the always surprising Martin Milner).

And this is what accounts for this so-called tough film's palpable angst.