Friday, February 17, 2017

boyle! garfield! avildsen!

Peter Boyle and Allen Garfield in Ritchie's "The Candidate"

For some reason, John G. Avildsen is one of those filmmakers who has received more criticism (hey there, Burt Reynolds!) than his due.

He directed "Rocky" (1976), but who remembers? Its writer-star, Sylvester Stallone, is generally regarded as its auteur. Prior to that, there were Jack Lemmon in his Oscar-winning turn in "Save the Tiger" (1973) and the charming "W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings" (1975, avec Reynolds).

Since then, Avildsen, who has been inactive of late, has amassed what I think is a varied and fairly impressive filmography of overlooked or forgotten films - "Slow Dancing in the Big City" (1978), with Paul Sorvino in a rare romantic lead; "The Formula" (1980) with Marlon Brando and George C. Scott; the hilarious Belushi-Akyroyd romp "Neighbors" (1981);  "Happy New Year" (1987), a remake of a Claude Lelouch French caper with Peter Falk; "Lean on Me" (1989), an early Morgan Freeman title, and, yes, two "Karate Kid" flicks. But nothing since 1999. Nearly 20 years.

But then there were Avildsen's early New York films - three crude, scrappy but atmospheric movies, made between 1970 and 1972, that defy easy pigeon-holing and seem alien by today's less interesting standards.  Three unique movies, two of which introduced arguably the best character actors of the 1970s and '80s, Peter Boyle and Allen Garfield, both utterly singular.

The movies?  "Joe" (1970) with Boyle.  "Cry Uncle" (1971) with Garfield. And "The Stoolie" (1972) with Jackie Mason in a truly revelatory performance as a small-time con man, crook, stool pigeon and unreliable friend. If you don't believe me, check it out.  But good luck finding it.

"Joe," which also introduced Susan Sarandon in a supporting role, is a savage comedy about its titular bigot - a film which predated Norman Lear's landmark 1971 series, "All in the Family," by a year. Boyle, who in 1970 also had an uncredited bit as a group-therapy crackpot in Frank Perry's "Diary of a Mad Housewife," is funny/scary as Joe Curran, a true blue-collar nightmare. Just try imagining Archie Bunker with a gun.

"Cry Uncle" is an amusing pseudo-porno about a private dick (get it?) in which Garfield waltzes through several scenes full-frontal and yet, thanks to Avildsen's cleverness, he doesn't seem to have a penis. Critics loved it.

Both Boyle and Garfield would go on to have terrific movie careers in some terrific films, three of which put them together on screen.

In 1972, Boyle and Garfield were on hand to help Robert Redford with his political campaign in Michael Ritchie's prescient "The Candidate"; they were on screen together again a year later in 1973 in Howard Zeiff's masterful farce, "Slither," with Boyle abetting star James Caan and Garfield giving Caan a difficult time; and in 1978, they are two among the ensemble of William Friedkin's "The Brinks Job." Two Avildsen graduates.

Boyle's screen career included such diverse titles as "Steelyard Blues," "Kid Blue" and "The Friends of Eddie Coyle" (all released in 1973),  "Taxi Driver" and "Swashbuckler" (both form 1976),  "Hardcore" (1979), "Where the Buffalo Roam" (1980), "Outland" (1981) and "Hammett" (1982).

It's been rumored that, on the basis of his performance in "Joe,"  he was William Friedkin's first choice to play Popeye Doyle in "The French Connection" (1971) but that his agent or manager at the time vetoed it and never told Boyle.  Gene Hackman, of course, got the role and won an Oscar.  I've no idea about the veracity of the reports but Boyle seemingly never came to terms with this lost role/opportunity.

However, years later, in 1974, he and Hackman teamed memorably for Mel Brooks' "Young Frankenstein." I've always wondered if, among their discussions, the subject of "The French Connection" ever came up.

Boyle died in 2006 and, despite the endless reruns of Ray Romano's  wonderful series,  "Everybody Loves Raymond," he is much missed.

An aside: I interviewed Boyle on the Universal lot when he was preparing for his role in James Goldstone's pirate flick, "Swashbuckler."  Boyle was engaging and gossipy and was eager to demonstrate his way with a pirate's cutless, a routine he had been rehearsing that day for Goldstone's film. I never got to ask him about "The French Connection."

Garfield, meanwhile, worked with some of the top director in some of the top films of the era - Francis Ford Coppola's "The Conversation" and Billy Wilder's "The Front Page" (both released in 1974), Robert Altman's "Nashville" (1975) and Peter Yates' "Mother, Jugs and Speed" (1976), among many others.  When his father died, Garfield reverted back to his birth name, Allen Goorwitz, as a tribute, beginning in 1978 for the aforementioned "The Brinks Job," and retained that billing for five years.

He suffered a massive stroke in 2004 and, according to IMDb, has lived in a Motion Picture & Television Fund long-term nursing home ever since.

Note in Passing: "The Comedian," the new Taylor Hackford film with Robert DeNiro as a stand-up comic attempting a comeback in an alien new era, is highly reminiscent of Avildsen's early work.  This movie, also based in New York, looks and feels as it might have been made in 1970.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

what about cary?

We've reached that time of year when thoughts turn to everything Oscar, including the usual, interchangeable stories about the greats who have been slighted.  Alfred Hitchcock's name is the one most invoked.

Rarely mentioned is Cary Grant for his star performance in Hithcock's "North by Northwest," the titanic supporting structure of that classic.

Eva Marie Saint and Martin Landau, the two major surviving members of the "North by Northwest" company, have participated in several Q-&-As about the 1959 film in recent years and the major focus of their discussions is invariably - and not surprisingly - its legendary director.

Makes sense, right?  Hitchcock, my favorite filmmaker (hands-down), is inarguably the auteur of "North by Northwest."  But wait!  Hold on.
 
His star is clearly his equal - much more so than any other actor or actress who has appeared in a Hitchcock film. Cary Grant is an invaluable, indispensable element  of "North by Northwest" as public relations mogul Roger O. Thornhill ("The O. stands for nothing"), aka "George Kaplan."

It's never been observed but, except for one brief sequence, Grant is in every scene, nearly every frame, of "North by Northwest," starting with the opening he shares with Doreen Lang (playing his secretary) and ending with the upper-berth clinch with Saint. Every scene but ... one.  Any guesses which one.  (See note below for the answer.)

Anyway, it's a towering, neglected performance that should shame the self-important Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (talk about a mouthful) which, almost thoughtlessly (and recklessly), hands its much-coveted golden statues to lesser performances that fade quickly.

So, I hope that in future interviews, Saint and Landau remember to acknowledge Grant's crucial contribution to "North by Northwest."

That said, there are two bits of trivia that have escaped even the film's most ardent fans.  And, no, I'm not referring to Hitch's usual cameo or the fact that the delightful Jessie Royce Landis was only seven years older than her screen son, Grant, when they made the film.

In the shot prior to Hitch's cameo (missing a bus), there are two women arguing over who has the right to a taxi.  One of the women is Alma, Hitchcock's wife. Another amusing bit has the melody, "It's a Most Unusual Day," being piped into the lobby as Grant enters the Plaza Hotel. Yes, it turns out to be a most unusual day as his character is mistaken by James Mason's thugs for one "George Kaplan."

A witty, clever touch by Hitch.

Notes in Passing: The only "North by Northwest" scene in which Grant doesn't appear is the one featuring Leo G. Carroll, Madge Kennedy and their fellow government operatives discussing the situation involving ...

"George Kaplan."

Also in a skit titled "Telephone" in their 1960 Broadway revue, "An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May," the acerbic comics reference "North by Northwest" (which was released a year earlier) by invoking the name "George Kaplan" repeatedly - and hilariously - as a running joke:

 "Kaplan.  That's K as in knife; A as in aadrvark; P as in pneumonia. L as in luscious. A as in aadrvark, again. N as in newel post. Kaplan."

The line is read by May who, as an officious Bell Telephone operator, affects nasal vocal inflections. Again, hilariously.


Full Disclosure:  One of my favorite interviews was with Eva Marie Saint who came to Philadelphia in either the late 1970s or early '80s in a play directed by her husband, Jeffrey Hayden.  I can't recall anything about the show, not even its title, except that her co-star was Ronny Cox.

She was a terrific interview.

Monday, February 06, 2017

poseurs, amateurs and other movie buffs

Woody Allen enlists Marshall McLuhan to help deflate the obnoxious pontifications of Russell Horton in "Annie Hall" (1977) 

“Hello.

 “My name is Joe.

“And I am a ... movie buff.”

Once upon a time, I was a member of a small, select, rather surreptitious subdivision of the moviegoing public.

As originally perceived, a movie buff was a solitary individual who was unlike your average moviegoer in two distinct ways: He (film buffs have historically been mostly guys) was known to attend movies alone and often saw certain movies multiple times, more than once. In less enlightened times, it was considered suspect, even undesirable, to watch a film without a companion - or to watch a movie more than one time!

Yes, friends, times have clearly changed. Case in point: the on-going, seemingly never-ending "Star Wars" craze, now 40-years-old.

A movie buff also was not discriminatory about film genres; he would sit through anything and everything. And true buffs would read movie reviews at a time when no one else read movie reviews - or was even aware that there was such a thing as movie reviews.  And, yes, they actually read the review, not just glance at the headline or the tell-nothing star-rating. 

Originally, there were no star-, numerical- or lettered-ratings. (Or thumbs!) There were no short cuts. One actually had to read the review.

I know. Crazy.

Finally, the original movie buffs learned how to “read” the movies that they watched – and if you don’t know what that means, look it up.

Movie buffs, as I knew and admired them, were curious and open-minded about film, two very important, crucial qualities.  They were adventurous.

This type of moviegoer – my type of movie buff - still exists but is quickly fading.  Frankly, we’re dying off.  And, during the past few decades, we’ve been supplanted not by a single new breed but by a few variations that have compromised the notion of what a movie buff can and should be.

First, there are what I call The Franchise Geeks, a brainless but dangerous group of moviegoers - dangerous because they are what drive the film studios.  The original Franchise Geek was born in the late ‘70s in response to such blockbusters as “Jaws” (1975), “Superman” (1978) and especially “Star Wars” (1977).  The second-generation Franchise Geek made his debut 1989 in tandem with the Burton version of “Batman,” and the millennial Franchise Geek is the target audience for series inspired by the comics of Marvel (“Spider-Man”) and D.C. (“The Dark Knight Rises”). 

The Franchise Geek cares about one thing and one thing only – the latest franchise CGI extravaganza – and is not really a movie buff at all.  But these geeks have power and influence.  The studios court them and some critics have lowered their standards to keep in step with them.

In their own simple(-minded) way, they're opinion-makers. Scary.

Next, we have The Siskberts, those people who suddenly discovered film and film criticism with the advent of “Sneak Previews,” the syndicated movie-review show hosted by Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert that ran on PBS from 1975 to 1983 before morphing into other versions (“At the Movies,” “Siskel & Ebert” and “Ebert Presents: At the Movies’). 

Gene and Roger (who I remember as good friends, as well as colleagues) did something crucial:  They brought movie criticism out of the closet, so to speak. To reiterate, few people paid much attention to movie reviews but Gene and Roger popularized the form.  A movie critic was formerly seen as some grumpy old professorial type, deserving of his misery. 

But here were Gene and Roger, two regular guys just sitting around and jawing – not about sports but about film.  And they made it look easy.

And, in turn, they inadvertently created a lot of little Siskbert monsters – clueless people who pontificate about movies and who now think they are experts on the subject.  Woody Allen anticipated this phenomenon with his astute and hilarious Marshal McLuhan sequence in "Annie Hall" (1977).

 As a personal experience, I recently met a Siskbert who complained that "Manchester by the Sea" has "serious editing problems." Huh?

I'm willing to wager that your average Siskbert has never heard of Pauline Kael or Andrew Sarris - and probably doesn't even read movie reviews at all.  Why bother?  They're their own critic, see? I mean, they are the critic.

Our next group, The Movie Bloggers, is a hybrid of the Franchise Geek and the Siskbert.  Because their views on film are presented as written words (on a computer screen, not a newspaper or a magazine), they actually perceive themselves as movie critics, not knowing that someone has to actually hire you and pay you before you can present yourself as such.  Some have also identified themselves as “film historians.” Oy.

But I’ve a hunch if you asked any blogger about their favorite Glenda Jackson movie, they’d look at you with a confused glazed expression.

Finally, there are two groups more closely related to the Original Movie Buff. The Graduates are film freaks from the 1960s who became hooked on the film of the same name, as well as “Midnight Cowboy,” “Easy Rider,” Medium Cool, “M*A*S*H” and “Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice” – just a few of the titles representing the then-New Wave in American filmmaking. 

Some of them may still be around – I’m certainly still a member – but they were drowned out by the Franchise Geeks when “Jaws” and “Star Wars” took over. The New Wave was suddenly finished. Stone. Cold. Dead.

Which brings us to The Codgers, who were among the Original Movie Buffs but refused to evolve. Your average Codger doesn’t like anything new and thinks that anything made after 1970 isn’t legitimate or worthwhile.  They sit symbolically on the porch in their rocking chairs complaining that no one makes musicals like the ones that Judy and Mickey made for Metro.  In their tiny universe, MGM is sacred.

BTW, one doesn't necessarily have to be old to be a Codger, whose beginnings can be traced to 1994, the year Turner Classic Movies debuted.  Many of them are devotees of TCM's Robert Osborne.

What all these subgroups lack is something that I alluded to earlier – curiosity and an open-mind.  One really doesn’t have to be fanatic about film or even well-versed in it. But a sense of adventurousness is crucial – a desire to see “The Lobster” and “Paterson,” as well as “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” and “Dr. Strange,” an enthusiasm for “La La Land” and “Our Kind of Traitor,” as well as “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Casablanca.”

There's no room for any kind of snobbery among movie buffs and when I use the word snobbery, I'm not strictly referring to an elitism.

Snobbery can come in all forms, both high-brow and low-. It's too restricting. Too exclusive. The hobby, pastime, avocation of being a movie buff must be rescued from exclusivity and anything restrictive. It must!

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

cinema obscura: Joseph Sargent's "Colossus: The Forbin Project" (1970)/redux

Watching Eric Braeden anchor CBS's obcessively watchable drama, "The Young and The Restless," with his effortless acting and wit, I felt compelling to dig my review of Braeden's "Colossus: The Forbin Project" out of the mothballs and re-run it (replete with original comments). 
 It was originally published on November 22, 2010. 
 Enjoy.

Joseph Sargent - born Giuseppe Danielle Sorgente (albeit in Jersey City) - has been a hugely neglected filmmaker, something of an adjustable wrench among directors, given that he can handle just about any genre effortlessly and without narcissistically stamping his name on it.

He tends to disappear within his subject matter, as evidenced by his output: The original (and superior) "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three" (1974), Burt Reynolds' pleasing "White Lightning" (1973), the solid war flick "The Hell with Heroes" (1968), Gregory Peck's "MacArthur" (1977), Susan Anton's underrated "Goldengirl" (1979), the Robert Blake-Dyan Cannon lark "Coast to Coast" (1980), plus several impressive TV films - "Hustling" (1975) with Lee Remick and Jill Clayburgh, the incredibly popular "Sunshine" (1973) with Cristina Raines and the ahead-of-its-time "The Man" (1972) with James Earl Jones as the first black President. "The Man," adapted by Rod Serling from Irving Wallace's novel, was detoured into theaters before actually playing on network TV.

But my favorite Sargent film remains 1970's juicy "Colossus: The Forbin Project," a title that has always been available on home entertainment but is honored here because, despite enthusiastic reviews, this fine movie has never been given its due - by either its studio or the viewing public.

Adapted by filmmaker James Bridges from D.F. Jones novel, the preternaturally observant movie details - in an immensely entertaining fashion - how a sophisticated computer, named Colossus, designed ostensibly to control the country's nuclear defense network, goes berserk with power, turning on its creator, Dr. Charles Forbin, and joining forces with its Soviet counterpart, Guardian, to become a single Super Power bent on taking over the world from humans. The film is creepy and witty.

Eric Braeden is commanding as Dr. Forbin in a performance that should have led to bigger and better things. For one, Braeden would have made a terrific 007. Instead, this fine actor has enjoyed a lengthy, lucrative run as the willfully evil patriach, Victor Newman, on NBC's excellent daytime drama, "The Young and the Restless." Smart Susan Clark, as the thinking man's love interest, and Canadian actor Gordon Pinsent as the Kennedy-like President of the United States provide atypically combative support as each one spars with Braeden over his beloved demon child.

Universal, alas, exhibited limited interest in the film which had the working title "Colossus" in production, was released initially as "The Forbin Project" and then as "Colossus: The Forbin Project" for a half-hearted rerelease.

Funny thing, all three titles are fine.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

mary golightly

It now seems like a dimly remembered dream but, once upon a time, a striking actress named Mary came to the Broadway musical stage as the Truman Capote character from "Breakfast at Tiffany's," Holly Golighty.

If you blinked, you missed it.

Mary? That would be the absolutely adorable (and perfect) Mary Tyler Moore, who left us on January 25th, at age 80, and who will most likely be remembered as a television legend than as a stage or film star.

Nothing wrong with that.

"The Dick Van Dyke Show," where we all first fell in love with her, and especially her own eponymous sitcom (need I invoke the title?) are both better than most movies or plays. Her potential seemed limitless and yet, despite opportunities in other mediums, Moore remained largely a TV personality.

But she made such an impression on the Van Dyke sitcom that Universal Pictures snapped her up for movies and then ...

...did absolutely nothing with her.                                                       

Moore was wasted in her film debut - Julie Andrews' thoroughly awful “Thoroughly Modern Millie” (1967), directed by George Roy Hill. She was then put in what, in retrospect, seems like two typical Universal romps that Doris Day most likely rejected - "Don't Just Stand There" (with Robert Wagner) and "What's So Bad about Feeling Good?" (with George Peppard).

Never heard of them?  There's a reason for that.

After casting her as a nun in a bad Presley flick, "Change of Habit" (1969), the studio gave up. About 10 years later, Robert Redford rescued Moore.

Her acting in Redford's "Ordinary People" is the best performance of 1980, hands-down - male or female.  She was nominated for an Oscar - and should have won - but the award went (no surprise here) to Sissy Spacek for the safer, more audience-friendly "Coal Miner's Daughter."

Moore eventually had roles in Allan Burns' "Just Between Friends" (1986) and David O. Russell's "Flirting with Disaster" (1996), but not much else.

Her life in the theater was even more sketchy. Moore starred on Broadway in a version of Brian Clark's "Whose Life Is It Anyway?," rewritten for a woman, in 1980 (Ian McShane originated the role and Richard Dreyfuss was in the film), and in an A. R. Gurney show titled "Sweet Sue" in 1987.

But her really big opportunity in the theater was in the aforementioned Capote musical - titled "Holly Golightly" or "Breakfast at Tiffany's," depending on when you saw it.  That is, if you were lucky to see it.

I saw it in 1966 (once again, I'm seriously dating myself here) at Philadelphia's Forrest Theater, where it tried out under its original title, "Holly Golightly."  I approached the show with a couple trepidations.

First, I am no fan of the film, "Breakfast at Tiffany's." I mean, exactly what is it supposed to be - a comedy, a drama, a serio-comedy? (I'm not sure even Blake Edwards knew what he was directing.) It's really nothing - an odd film that, for some reason, has earned undeserved classic status.
Secondly, although I'm a confessed Moore fan, she seemed wrong for the role of Holly - but then Audrey Hepburn, the film's star, wasn't a good fit either.  (Capote, John Frankenheimer, originally hired to direct the movie, and George Axelrod, its scenarist, all famously wanted Marilyn Monroe.)

Reservations about the musical aside, everything about the project was strictly A-list.  The colorful David Merrick (always good for some chaos) was producting and stage veteran Abe Burrows wrote the book for the musical and was its director.  (Some MTM trivia: Burrows was the father of James Burrows, who directed many episodes of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show.")  And the list goes on... Michael Kidd was the choreographer (above with Moore), with an assist from Tony Musante; Bob Merrill ("Funny Girl") wrote the music and lyrics (that's him below with Moore and Richard Chamberlain), and the legendary Oliver Smith did the production design.

Mary's co-stars were Richard Chamberlain (in the George Peppard role), Sally Kellerman (the Patricia Neal role) and Art Lund (the Buddy Ebsen role). So far, so good.

Until the reviews came in.

"Holly Golightly" was destined to become the third side of a notorious triumvirate, joining two other unlucky musicals based on films - "Lolita, My Love" and "Carrie."

Merrick wasted no time. Edward Albee (of all people) was brought in to write an entirely new script.  Burrows' book was completely scrapped and his response was to quite the show altogether.

Was Merrick nuts?  He pulled the rug out from under his cast by forcing a different script on them between the show's move from its out-of-town tryouts and its Broadway previews. Then he brought in Joseph Anthony ("Under the Yum-Yum Tree" and "Mary, Mary") as the new director.

By the time the show hit the Majestic Theater in New York for the previews, it was titled "Breakfast at Tiffany's."  Nothing helped.

Merrick closed the show before its official opening, "rather than subject the drama critics and the public to an excruciatingly boring evening" (his words). (A bit more trivia: In her entertaining memoir, "Read My Lips: Stories of a Hollywood Life," Kellerman claims that she and Merrick were romantically involved during the show's brief run. Huh?)

Years later, Moore revealed that she was convinced that, if the show hadn't closed, Merrick would have fired her before its official opening.

"Holly Golightly" is now just a footnote in Moore's career.  Some publicity shots from the show still exist and there's a Saturday Evening Post cover story trumpeting Moore's anticipated arrival on Broadway.  Not much else.

But there are also two You Tube videos that somewhat preserve the show in tiny bits and pieces - one with Moore singing a song titled (naturally) "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and one with Chamberlain singing another tune called (also naturally) "Holly Golightly," each accompanied by an array of grainy stills.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

notes on hollywood's eternal teenager

It will be a month soon since Debbie Reynolds, Hollywood's eternal teenager, died - on December 28th - and to commeorate her passing, Turner Classic Movies is devoting a full day to her on January 27th - January 28th.  "TCM Remembers Debbie Reynolds" consists of a dozen of her 40-plus theatrical films. The picks are curious, with signature titles missing and at least one embarrassment ("How Sweet It Is!") included.

Missing is "Tammy and the Bachelor" (1957), one of two personal hits for Reynolds.  The other, of course, is “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” (1964) which gets the Star Spot (8 p.m., est, January 27th) on Turner's slate. These are the two lone films which Reynolds carried alone, with no co-star of equal stature, as was the case with "The Singing Nun" (1966) - but that film was not nearly as popular as the other two. I had a lot to say about "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" in a 2012 essay, little of it complementary.

Considering the size of her output, Reynolds turned in straight dramatic performance in only three of her films - "The Catered Affair” (1956), which is also on Turner's schedule, “The Rat Race” (1960) and "Divorce American Style" (1967).  The latter two films feature her best acting, hands-down. Although "Divorce American Style" may have been sold as a comedy, Reynolds' performance in it is seriocomical and multi-faceted.

And she's rarely been as impressive as she is in "The Rat Race."

Oddly, "The Rat Race" is a film she didn't personally like. During an appearance on "The Merv Griffin Show" in the 1970s, Reynolds stopped Griffin cold as he raved about the film and her performance in it. "Awful movie" is how she described it.  She never explained how or why it is awful.  Anyway, Merv Griffin was spot-on in his praise.  Sorry, Debbie.

That said, Reynolds' films can be conveniently compartmentalized for those Debbie fans who would like to put together modest double-bills or sprawling marathons, apart from TCM's tribute.  Here are a few recommendations:

Her Bookend MGM Musicals: “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952) and “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” (1964)
Her Inside Joke in "Singin' in the Rain":  Everyone knows the plot of this movie classic. The Jean Hagen character - the insufferable Lina Lamonte, a silent-film actress trying to make the transition to talkies despite a horrible voice - makes a film musical, called "The Dueling Cavalier," even though she can't sing.  Debbie, playing a struggling actress, is brought in to dub her singing and, at the movie's premiere, it is revealed that it is Debbie who's really singing "Would You?" and "You Are My Lucky Star."  The joke is that Reynolds, who could sing, was dubbed herself for these two songs by Betty Royce. (The joke was further extended: To dub Lina's speaking voice for the film, Jean Hagen did the job herself.)

Her Metro B-Musicals: “I Love Melvin,” “The Affairs of Dobie Gillis,” “Give a Girl a Break” (1953) and “Athena” (1954)

Her Biggest, Splashiest Ensemble MGM Musical: “Hit the Deck” (1955)

Her Tony Curtis Double-Bill: “The Rat Race” (1960) and “Goodbye Charlie” (1964)

Her Glenn Ford Double Bill: “The Gazebo” and “It Started with a Kiss” both (1959)

Her 1959 Releases: “The Gazebo,” “The Mating Game” and “It Started with a Kiss” (all three directed by George Marshall) and “Say One for Me”(Frank Tashlin)

Her George Marshall Films: “The Gazebo,” “The Mating Game” and “It Started with a Kiss” (all 1959)
 
Her Frank Tashlin Films:  “Susan Slept Here” (1954) and “Say One for Me” (1959)

Her Charles Walters Films: “The Tender Trap” (1955) and “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” (1964)

Her Donald Losby Films: "The Mating Game" (1959) and "How Sweet It Is!" (1968).  Losby, a popular child actor, plays Debbie's little brother in "The Mating Game" and her teenage son in "How Sweet It Is!"

Her Films Based on Plays: “The Tender Trap” and “Hit the Deck” (1955), “This Happy Feeling” (1958), “The Gazebo” (1959),  “The Rat Race” (1960),  “The Pleasure of His Company”  (1961), “Mary, Mary” (1963), “Goodbye Charlie” (1964) and “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” (1964)
Her Misguided Attempt at Being Groovy: "How Sweet It Is!" (1968).  The films of the Beat Generation (read: 1960s) weren't welcoming to the stars of the 1950s.  But both Debbie and Doris Day tried to make the leap.  Doris called it quits, moviewise, in 1968 after "With Six, You Get Eggrolls" - which like Debbie's "How Sweet It is!," is an utter embarrassment.  The unsinkable Debbie, however, soldiered on.

Her Two Best TV Movies: “These Old Broads” (2001) “Behind the Candelabra” (2013)

Her Comeback Films: "Mother” (1996) and “In & Out” (1997)

Her Five Best Performances: (1) "The Rat Race" (2) "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" (3) "Divorce American Style" (4)  “Behind the Candelabra” (5) "Goodbye Charlie."

Her Flirtation with Camp: "What's the Matter with Helen?" (1971), a delicious mash-up of "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" and "Gypsy," with Shelley Winters in a must-see melt-down. A doozy.

Her Swan Song and Most Amazing Performance: “Behind the Candelabra” (2013)

Her Lost Movies: “This Happy Feeling” (1958), “Say One for Me” (1959), “The Second Time Around” (1960) and “My Six Loves” (1963) - And good luck finding any of them! (“This Happy Feeling” was directed by Blake Edwards, no less. Where is it?)

There are two missed opportunities in Debbie's career - “Bye Bye Birdie” and “Follies.”  Gower Champion, who directed "Birdie" on stage and was initially signed to helm the film version, wanted Reynolds and Jack Lemmon for his leads.  He had worked with both years before - with Debbie on "Give a Girl a Break" and with Jack on "Three for the Show."  Champion quit "Birdie" before it began production and instead went immediately into the delightful "My Six Loves," taking Debbie with him.

Debbie Reynolds and Jack Lemmon never made a film together, as difficult as that is to grasp.  "Birdie" would have been a terrific teaming for them.

As for "Follies," there were rumors in the 1980s that Fox wanted to film the Sondheim musical with Doris Day and Debbie in the roles created on stage by Alexis Smith and Dorothy Collins. And how great would have that been?

Finally, here is Debbie in arguably her greatest movie moment - the six-minute "He's My Friend" number from "The Unsinkable Molly Brown," with assist from her "Molly Brown" cast, especially Grover Dale and Gus Trikonis as her dancing movie brothers.  The music is by Meredith Willson and the choreography is by Peter Gennaro and it's just wonderful.

Monday, January 23, 2017

mike judge's strangled masterwork/redux

 Mike Judge's "Idiocracy," a 2006 movie made for the Trump era

The following review was originally published on May 28th, 2008, just as another Presidential primary was winding down, but given what happened recently, it's worth a reprint. I thought I'd never say this, but "Idiocracy's" time has finally come.  And whether it's still a laughing matter is debateable, given the cognitively insensitivie leadership currently directing the country.
 (FYI. The first four comments are from the original posting.)

Rent, stream, watch this movie today!

Belatedly, I come to "Idiocracy," the singular Mike Judge 2006 comedy that, for some bizarre and hugely masochistic reason, 20th Century-Fox decided to sacrifice. The mistreated movie opened in so few markets in '06, that, for all intents and purposes, it never really opened.

As a working critic, I never fully trusted the movie studios, particularly whenever one of them would try to elicit sympathy from reviewers because the poor studio was stuck with a really bad film.

While my colleagues would buy into the studio line that an unscreened film was a pathetic loser, I generally suspected that politics was afoot. You know, the filmmaker in question probably inadvertantly insulted a studio executive and, as a consequence, his/her film was being punished.

It never ceases to amaze me how a studio can release 10 consecutive lousy films and then single out one of them as the bad apple in the bunch. A case in point: Fox, the major that sidetracked "Idiocracy," also released - and with much fanfare - the depressingly mediocre (and eminently forgettable) "John Tucker Must Die" the same year.

It's a fact: Every studio that tries to "hide" a film from the critics has two or three hyped titles that are much, much worse. It's a little creepy to think that a lot of executives are overpaid to make such dubious decisions.

But let's get back to Judge's "Idiocracy," a spot-on indictment of the seemingly willful stupidity of some Americans. In it, Luke Wilson gamely plays a likably dim-witted guy who participates as a guinea pig in a top-secret Pentagon program studying ... hibernation.

When he wakes up 500 years in the future, Wilson's Joe Bowers is the smartest guy in the room.

This is the New America where being literate and articulate are equated with being gay. In fact, much of the recent idiot election talk about dreaded "elitism" could have come directly from Judge's prescient movie. (It's been demoralizing to watch as the two Democratic hopefuls vying for the Presidency dumbed themselves down for working-class America.)

There isn't one joke in "Idiocracy" that is not funny or that fails to nail its target. The film is brilliant. But, apparently, it disturbed some studio suit - or some befogged focus group recruited by said suit.

I have two questions:

1. Didn't someone at Fox read Judge's script before the studio greenlighted the project? Certainly, someone there was aware of the movie's incendiary, blatantly unpatriotic contents.

2. Would the same exact film have been sacrificed if, instead of B-lister Wilson, it starred, say, Adam Sandler or Will Ferrell or Jim Carrey or Steve Carell? I think the answer to that question is obvious. OK, here's a loaded question: Would "Idiocracy" have been so disparaged by its own studio if it came with the currently beloved "Judd Apatow" imprimateur?

For what it's worth, "Idiocracy" dwells in the same deliciously deranged universe as Harold Ramis' "Caddyshack," the Farrellys' "Kingpin" and Judge's own "Office Space." The film is hilarious, hands-down.

But the bigger joke here is 20th Century-Fox which, apparently, still exists in the 20th century - literally.

One final thing... Judge has been remarkably quiet about the fate of his modest masterwork, and there has been some speculation about whether he was complicit in the direct-to-DVD treatment of "Idiocracy." Was it planned all along for the film to be premeditated as another home-entertaiment cult hit, along the lines of "Office Space"? Who knows?

But "Idiocracy" seems to have turned into just that.

Note in Passing: Check out Rob Walker's wonderful New York Times magazine piece, titled, "This Joke’s for You" about not only the product placement in "Idiocracy," but also a product it has inspired - Brawndo, “The Thirst Mutilator.”

Friday, January 20, 2017

01-20-2017 / what to watch on TV today

If you're like me and you are trying to avoid turning on your television any time today, terrorized by what you'll see, fear not!  There's always Turner Classic Movies whose resourceful programmers have booked a screening of "A Face in the Crowd," Elia Kazan's dark and quite prescient political satire of 1957, starring Andy Griffith in a career high as a shameless huckster/opportunist/attention addict who accumulates a frightening amount of power.  Budd Schulberg's taut, astute script says all there is to say about 2017 - and, yes, its searing message was delivered 60 years ago. "A Face in the Crowd," much needed, airs today at 5:45 p.m. (est).

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

joe's dreaded genre - part 2

Credit: Walt Disney Productions (1941) ©
This was a week of good news and bad news for both movie buffs and animal activists. Count me in as a member of both unappreciated groups.

The good news is that the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's Circus, which has delighted little children for decades with its crass exploitation and shameful abuse of animals, is finally - at long last - folding its tent.

Not surprisingly, the plasticized anchors who host the local evening news (seemingly the same people in every market) bowed their heads in unison and lamented the passing of such a "beloved institution."

All of this is in preamble to a reminiscence.  It was my first week on the job as a movie critic in Philadelphia and things were rather slow.  There were no screenings.  As is the wont of newspaper editors, they wanted to get my byline in the paper, even if it wasn't attached to a new film.  Well,
the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's Circus was opening that night in Philadelphia and my editor thought it would be "groovy" (his word, not mine) if I reviewed it. Dutifully, I went and sat through the ordeal.

But I wrote my review of it not as an all-purpose critic but as an animal activist.  Not good.  You probably know where I am going with this.  The paper never ran my review.  Too radical.  This was not an auspicious start.

Yes, my first professional review was scrapped.

Now for the bad news for the movie buff/animal activist that defines me.  It has to do with footage unearthed by TMZ and turned into a cause célèbre by PETA . But first, I have to double back.

Back in 2015, I wrote an essay titled "joe's dreaded genre." It explained that, even though I love animals, I don't like movies about animals because movies about animals are always sad. Always. If you've noticed, terrible things tend to happen to animals in movies about animals.

What I failed to reveal in that piece is that I also have serious reservations about what is required to get animal to "act" in a movie, particularly a sad one full of one hardship after another. Yes, the "abuse" played out on screen may be simulated, but exactly what is the animal put through to complete the scene? What discomfort does it experience and withstand?

And beyond sequences depicting danger, even the most innocuous moment can be trying, stressful, for an animal. It is not natural for an animal to perform, any animal - not an elephant, not a dog and certainly not a cat. Nor a horse. Which brings me to a case in point...

My wife adores George Stevens' "Giant."  Me, not so much.  Yes, it's a great movie in most ways.  But for me, I can't get past the sequence in which Mercedes McCambridge abuses Elizabeth Taylor's beloved horse by driving her spurs into its sides.  It's a disturbing scene and the horse is clearly in agony. But was the horse "acting"?  Later, after the horse throws McCambridge, killing her (justice served), it limps back to the ranch - shot in silhouette, against a nighttime sky. An evocative, disturbing moment.

But also an ugly one.

For decades, I've wondered how the filmmakers got that horse to limp on cue.  Was it "acting" or real?  It's important to remember that "Giant" was made in less enlightened times when it was routine to trip horses (often crippling them) for action scenes. My guess is that the horse being bludgeoned with spurs and later limping wasn't "acting." It was abused, tortured, for the good of the movie.  The damn movie. And that's all that matter in the end.

Making that particular moment in "Giant' even more deplorable to contemplate (let alone watch)  is that, once the men in the film realize that McCambridge died after the horse threw her, they shoot the poor animal.

Which brings me to an upcoming film that wasn't designed to be  as iconic as "Giant" - "A Dog's Purpose," based on a book by W. Bruce Cameron that was apparently very popular. I wouldn't know. This movie was made by the estimable Lasse Hallstrom and stars Dennis Quaid (among other humans) and several dog actors as reincarnated versions of one dog.

It was a German Shepard named Hercules who was allegeddly mistreated by the film's second-unit crew and forced into mechanically-charged torrents of water. The dog seems distressed in the TMZ  footage and, exacerbating matters, the crew working for Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment, producers of the film, seems to be laughing on the video.

Filmmakers - such as Stevens and Hallstrom - are usually too busy directing scenes involving actors to know exactly how their second unit is operating. And that's part of the problem. That's why the American Humane Association is so crucial n such cases, given that it ostensibly monitors and reports on the treatment of animals on film sets.

I've a hunch that situations like the one involving Hercules on "A Dog's Purpose" happen all the time and are not just restricted to second-unit crews. In the not-too-distant past, stories like Hercules' were only hearsay. The difference these days is that anything can be caught on tape.

Ah, yes, the tape.  What we see is clearly incriminating, but spokespeople for Universal and Amblin have referred to the video as "edited," an important point. Also in an interview with Variety, Cameron has rightfully questioned why it took 15 months for the footage to be unearthed and revealed. Why not sooner? And why weren't authorities contacted at the time of the alleged abuse? And he also brings up the matter of it being an edited video, which is disturbing. What was eliminated? What was left out?

Reportedly, Hercules performed the stunt without any problems during rehearsal but became stressed during the actual shoot when a different side of the same pool was used.  Who knows. We may never know.

Whatever the truth is, the only issue that matters is whether it is moral or ethical to exploit animals for the sake of a movie or a circus or a zoo.

And in terms of moviemaking, given that so much can be easily accomplished these days with CGI, why use real animals at all in potentially dangerous or stressful situations? Remember, these animals don't volunteer to participate in movies. They have no choice. FYI: In an excellent byline piece for The Hollywood Reporter, the film's producer, Gavin Palone, confirms that a computer-generated dog was created for the difficult parts of the sequence in question and clears up the question of the edited video.  He also takes responsibility for whatever miscalculation made by the second-unit crew and the trainer in the handling of Hercules.

The point to all this is that a film set really isn't a place for Hercules - or any animal, for that matter.  And what's ironic - and sad - about this particular movie controversy is that "A Dog's Purpose" is a film whose intention was to celebrate animals, clearly not harm them.

Note in Passing: I always wanted to interview Doris Day, largely because I think she's terrific.  But I've also wanted to ask her about a film she made in 1962, "Jumbo," a musical named after its elephant star.  Jumbo is forced to do silly routines that are humiliating for a creature as magnificent and sentient as an elephant.  Was cruelty involved?  Doris is a vocal animal activist and this is one area of her career that I would love to discuss with her.

Addendum: This piece was updated with additional information on January 22nd and again on the  24th .

Saturday, January 14, 2017

façade: dick gautier

Dick Gautier, the one and only Conrad Birdie, at the 1960 recording of the Broadway cast album

Anyone who keeps up with this site is familiar with my disdain for George Sidney's 1963 movie version of the terrific Broadway musical, "Bye Bye Birdie."  Columbia approved so many unnecessary changes that one wonders why the studio even purchased the film rights to the show in the first place. And don't get me started (again) on the casting of Ann-Margret.

To his credit, Gene Saks honored the show with his excellent 1995 TV version of the show which, apart from the original stage production itself, remains the definitive "Bye Bye Birdie."  I shudder to think what NBC will do with its planned "live" version of "Birdie" threatened for later this year.

But back to the truncated '63 film... Among the innumerable mistakes made by Sidney and Columbia was the decision not to cast the actor who created Conrad Birdie on stage in 1960.  That would be Dick Gautier.

Instead the role went to Jesse Pearson, who played Birdie in one of its touring productions and brought a distinct smarminess to the character.

I would like to believe that Gautier was passed over because he simply was too old for the role when the movie was filmed.  (The camera never lies when it comes to someone's age.)  All I know is that I missed the sly humor that Gautier brought to the role, for which he was Tony-nominated.

The comedic touch that Gautier brought to Birdie was no accident.  When he was spotted by director Gower Champion and cast in the role, Gautier was doing stand-up at The Blue Angel, opening for singer Margaret Whiting..  He was reportedly surprised when Champion offered him the role because he claimed he wasn't all that familiar with Elvis (on whom Birdie is based) or his music.  He said that he preferred Gershwin.

The idea of Dick Gautier being a stand-up comic is one difficult to grasp because, well, he didn't look like a stand-up comic.  He had the looks of a movie star.  But after "Birdie," he went back to comedy, working with Mel Brooks and Buck Henry on "Get Smart" and with Brooks again on the promising but short-lived Robin Hood satire, "When Things Were Rotten."

Movie-wise, it is interesting to note that Gautier had roles in two films that reunited him with former "Birdie" cast members.

In his film debut in 1964 in Joshua Logan's "Ensign Pulver," he played the seabee Stefanowski among a crew that included Tommy Sands, James Coco, Jerry Orbach, James Farentino, Larry Hagman, Peter Marshall, Gerald O'Laughlin and, yes, Jack Nicholson. Kay Medford, who played Dick Van Dyke's mother in "Birdie" on stage, played a head nurse who gives Walter Matthau a difficult time while flirting with him. Given that "Pulver" was a released a year after the "Birdie" film, I've often wondered if Logan hired Gautier and Medford because both had been overlooked by Sydney and Columbia.

And in Bud Yorkins' "Divorce American Style," released in 1967, Gautier played Dick Van Dyke's attorney, handling his divorce from Debbie Reynolds. Van Dyke also has a history with the actor who played Reynolds' lawyer - Shelley Berman.  The two had starred in the musical revue, "The Girls Against the Boys," which was toplined by Bert Lahr and Nancy Walker and opened in 1959, a year before "Bye Bye Birdie."

The sequence in "Divorce American Style" in which all four actors appear, hashing out the details of the divorce, is a comic high point of the film.

Dick Gautier died on  January13th.  He was 85.  Long live Conrad Birdie.