Thursday, August 09, 2018

voter fraud

Poor Oscar.

Like many pampered, overindulged children, Oscar has been something of a disappointment. Oscar is like the popular kid in high school who fails to live up to his/her potential later in life, subsequently overshadowed by its "lessers" - upstarts, wannabes and competitors. Like The Golden Globes.

While everything seems to go swimmingly for the Globes, poor Oscar has struggled desperately to hold on to its sense of entitlement and relevance, only to see its popularity wane a bit more with each passing year. The annual Golden Globes bash, hosted by The Hollywood Foreign Press, is the coolest movie party of the awards season, pulled off with ease, whereas the Oscarcast is largely viewed as self-important, elephantine and stiff.

And the turnout seems to dip a bit more every year. Ratings don't lie.

And so, a few years ago, Oscar's doting helicopter parent – The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences  – started to manipulate factors that would make its precious problem child appear more important and popular.

Yes, manipulate.

And to coin a currently popular word, obstruct.

For the past few years, the Academy has been busy rewriting its rule book to appease anyone who has voiced disappointment in the yearly nominees and ultimate winners. The most recent update, as detailed by Brooks Barnes in The New York Times, is the introduction of a new category called Best Popular Film. This is so that a franchise installment based on a Marvel or D.C. comic is assured that it will share the spotlight with those hoity-toity indie films that invariably win Best Picture seemingly every year.

It's pretty much a transparent attempt to control what wins an Oscar, which strikes me as something particularly dubious. And it isn't the first time that the Academy stepped in to control matters. It's simply another half-baked incarnation of an idea actually attempted several years ago.

For more than six decades, the Best Picture nominees were restricted to just five. But in the 1980s, with the full-on advent of the independent film - an event that can be traced back to the triumverate of Steven Soderberg's "Sex, Lies and Videotape," Harvey Weinstein's Miramax Pictures and the Sundance Festival - the contours of the Best Picture category changed.

Suddenly, monster films like "Ben-Hur," "Around the World in 80 Days" and "The Sound of Music" no longer had clout with the voters. The turning point was when "Shakespeare in Love" won over "Saving Private Ryan" in 1998.

Slowly, the independents overtook the Oscars and popular mainstream extravaganzas were being shut out, much to the chagrin of the big studios. There were complaints.  In 2009, after the franchise film “The Dark Knight” failed to get an expected Best Picture nomination, the Academy - a stage mother to end all stage mothers - stepped in to correct such slights in the future and to quell anticipated complaints from pesky industry malcontents. It elected to grease the squeaky wheels by expanding
and opening up the Best Picture category to include as many as 10 titles.

That way, action and comic-book movies had a chance to be included and honored.  You know, art.

But guess what. Right! Despite the revision, nothing changed.

Since that expansion, even more fringe titles have been nominated for Best Picture. Usually eight or nine. (For some reason, there have yet to be ten nominated films. I’ve no idea what the official cut-off point is.) 

Mainstream titles have remained a distinct minority. Case in Point: The 2017 Best Picture nominees. Most were largely fringe titles, specifically items that don't lend themselves to an IMAX presentation - "Lady Bird," "Phantom Thread," "Call Me by Your Name," "The Shape of Water," "Get Out," "Darkest Hour" and "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri."

Steven Spielberg's "The Post" is the lone throwback to the kind of old-fashioned film that routinely snagged the top Oscar, and Christopher Nolan's "Dunkirk" is the only title that's broad-shouldered and Big.

Meanwhile, the Academy has been busy "updating" its membership, expelling antiquated voters unlikely to get behind a superhero movie for Best Picture and replacing them with newbies - 774 new faces invited to join in 2017 and another 928 invited this year. The 2018 potential inductees - listed in The Hollywood Reporter - are a tad embarrassing.

The other big news is that the Academy plans to make sure the next giveaway show doesn't exceed 180 minutes, including commercials - during which less popular awards (editing? cinematography?) will be doled out so as not the burden the average Oscar viewer with trivia. But I'm sure that ABC, which is televising the thing, will find room for god-awful production numbers and the coy bit where host Jimmy Kimmel invades a neighboring movie house to surprise the audience with his celebrity pals.

This unctuous routine seems to have become a yearly event.

Changes, changes.

But one element will remain the same. The Academy will continue to give more Awards to the wrong films and people than to the right ones.

Note in Passing: Regarding the wrong people/films winning and the right ones losing, the joint snub that still bothers me the most is the passing over of Judy Garland and Montgomery Clift for their deeply felt supporting performances in Stanley Kramer's "Judgment at Nuremberg" in 1961 in favor of Rita Moreno and George Chakiris in the Robert Wise-Jerome Robbins production of "West Side Story." Really? Closely following is Susannah York, whose Oscar for Sydney Pollack's "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" in 1969 went to Goldie Hawn for her work in Gene Saks' "Cactus Flower." Huh? And I still can't quite grasp that Jack Nicholson wasn't even nominated for Mike Nichols' "Carnal Knowledge" in 1971. Any Oscar snubs that bother you?  Share!     

Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you.

(from top)

~The Oscar
~photography: ©The Academy of Arts and Sciences

~Judy Garland and Montgomery Clift on the set of  "Judgment at Nuremberg"
~photography: United Artists 1961©

Sunday, August 05, 2018

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 Dzunda). 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 seemed 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 local 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 Steenburgen 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.

George Dzundza PictureBut 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 30 years old, has panache to spare.

Note in Passing: The wonderful  George Dzunda, I've learned, retired from acting in 2011 and now is a director of regional theater. He is much missed on screen.

 Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you.

(from top)

~George Dzundza and Demi Moore in a scene from "The Butcher's Wife"

~Margaret Colin, Francis McDormand and Jeff Daniels in a scene from the film

~Mary Steenburgern singing Irving Berlin's "What'll I Do?"

~Publicity still of Dzunda

~Daniels and Moore
~photography: Paramount Pictures 1991©

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

indelible moment: DaCosta's "The Music Man"

From the PM archives... This essay was originally published in 2010 and is being dusted off today (with a few minor revisions) due to reader request.  It's been a popular post, largely because of the two photos. Apparently, readers cannot get enought of them. So, enjoy. Again.

Not Surprisingly, Morton DaCosta has never been appreciated among rigid cinéphiles. He directed only three films, two of which were based on stage plays that he helmed - and rather triumphantly - on Broadway.

They would be "Auntie Mame" and "The Music Man."

I suppose that his status as a stage director made him a questionable filmmaker in the minds of those who self-identify as cinematic purists.

But the two DaCosta films based on his stage successes are anything but lacking. Far from it. "Auntie Mame" (1958) and "The Music Man" (1962), both Warner Bros. titles, are films that have a fierce fidelity to their respective source material but are also uncannily - creatively - cinematic.

He shrewdly honored the works' stage backgrounds by employing a curious blackout device to end certain sequences in both films. The lighting grows dim in certain scenes until the characters on screen are surrounded in blackness - very much a stage-bound device but one that works.

DaCosta's eye for the film medium, meanwhile - which crops up when one least expects it - is especially evident in his witty staging of the piano lesson near the beginning of "The Music Man," set during the clever Meredith Willson musical number, "If You Don't Mind My Saying So."

Shirley Jones is the piano teacher to Monique Vermont's student and, for the occasion of the lesson, DaCosta and cinematographer Robert Burks playfully filled the expansive Technirama screen with the piano's entire keyboard. It's a visually eccentric moment and it jumps out at me - like a pop-out book - every time I watch this wonderful musical (which is often).
Note in Passings: DaCosta's third film, also for Warner Bros., was 1963's "Island of Love," starring his "Music Man" lead Robert Preston, Tony Randall, Walter Matthau and Betty Bruce. It was decidedly not based on a stage play. Turner Classic Movies will screen it 6 a.m. (est) on August 9th.

Finally, in one of my responses back in 2010 to two of DaCosta's relatives, I mentioned that I was planning a profile on the director. The essay, titled ”tec” (DaCosta's nickname), was published on July 3rd, 2013.

Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you.


~Shirley Jones and Monique Vermont in the "If You Don't Mind My Saying So number from ""The Music Man"
~photography: Warner Bros. 1962©

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Sheldrake & Trump / Baxter & Bush

~how Billy Wilder anticipated the #MeToo movement and that "Access Hollywood" tape
"What's so interesting about looking at movies again - you're different and they're different."
-Molly Haskell
Inevitably, I return to Billy Wilder's "The Apartment."

I celebrated it as "the film that defines me" when I introduced this site back in 2006 and have referenced it multiple times with each additional viewing - and with the recognition that I saw a slightly different movie each time. When it was new, in 1960, the film was praised for how masterfully Wilder combined equal measures of the bitter with the sweet, but as it seemingly morphed decade after decade, that balance played out.

With each passing year, its affable hero and lovelorn heroine have become a little less innocent - and much more complicit in their respective situations, losing the sympathetic appeal that made them so likeable in 1960. As a result, the movie itself has taken on a dramatic muscularity.

Suddenly, years on, it had a notable toughness.

And as it approaches its 60th anniversary, "The Apartment" has remained remarkably modern. All that's missing really are cell phones and laptops - and self-service elevators, of course. It could pass for a recent movie. Yes, modern - and pertinent.  During my most recent engagement with "The Apartment," two moments struck me with their relevance to today.

But, first, a little set-up: C.C. (Bud) Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is an ambitious puppy who works in the company's Premium Accounting Division (desk #861) of Consolidated Life of New York and who (1) "lends" his apartment to several of his superiors for their extramarital affairs and (2) has this crush on Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), an elevator operator in the Consolidated building who is otherwise committed to an ill-fated affair with J.D. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), the (married) head of Consolidated personnel. Baxter is so delusional that he actually thinks he is in a relationship with Fran because they speak whenever he's in her elevator.

Anyway, Sheldrake finds out about Baxter's apartment and, in exchange for a big promotion, Baxter promises the boss exclusive use of it. The day Baxter moves into his new office, he is confronted by the executives who have been using the place - Dobitsch, Kirkeby, Eichelberger and Vanderhof - and who are unhappy about its unavailability, making veiled threats.

These subservient chimps are interrupted when the dominant ape, Sheldrake, appears. Clearing them out, he has the following, rather familiar conversation with a very unctuous, eager-to-please Baxter:

Sheldrake: Well, how does it feel to be an executive?

Baxter: Fine! And I want you to know that I'll work very hard to justify your confidence in me!

Sheldrake: Sure you will. (a short pause) Say, Baxter, about that apartment - now that you got a raise, don't you think we can afford a second key?

Baxter: Well, I guess so.

Sheldrake: You know my secretary - Miss Olsen...

Baxter: Oh, yes! Very attractive! Is she the lucky one?

Sheldrake: No, you don't understand. She's a busybody, always poking her nose into things - and with that key passing back and forth, why take chances?

Baxter: Yes, sir! You can't be too careful! (a pause) I have something here - I think it belong to you.   

Sheldrake: To me?

Bud hands Sheldrake a make-up compact.

Baxter: I mean - the young lady - whoever she may be. It was on the couch when I got home last night. The mirror is broken. It was broken when I found it.

Sheldrake: So it was. She threw it at me.

Baxter: Sir?

Sheldrake: You know how it is - sooner or later, they all give you a bad time.

Baxter: (acting like a big man himself) I know how it is!

Sheldrake: You see a girl a couple of times a week - just for laughs - and right away she thinks you're going to divorce your wife. I ask you, is that fair?

Baxter: No, sir! That's very unfair ... especially to your wife!

Sheldrake: Put me down for Thursday again.

Baxter: Roger! And I'll get that other key!

A few scenes later, during an office holiday party at Consolidated, Baxter invites Fran into his new office to model something - a black bowler hat called the Junior Executive. Not sure how he looks in it, Fran hands Baxter her compact so that he can see for himself. He looks surprised.

Fran: What is it?

Baxter: The mirror - it's broken.

Fran: I know. I like it this way. Makes me look the way I feel.

Baxter's phone rings, Fran leaves and then he also leaves, disappointed and disgruntled that she's Sheldrake's paramour. He ends up in a cheap bar with a pick-up who he takes home - where he finds Fran, passed out on his bed. Suddenly, Baxter - of all people - is self-righteous. The hypocrite starts talking gibberish about how it's "all over" between them:

Baxter: All right, Miss Kubelik - get up! It's past checking-out time, and the hotel management would appreciate it if you would get the hell out of here. (a pause) Look, Miss Kubelik, I used to like you - I used to like you a lot - but it's over between us!  So beat it!  O.U.T.!  Out!
I can't think of the number of times that I've watched these sequences and simply took them in stride - the "locker-room talk" between Sheldrake and Bud (much less graphic than the boasting Trump-Bush "Access Hollywood" incident but still offensive) and the way Sheldrake, your standard entitled bully and liar, steamrolls/threatens Miss Olsen (Edie Adams), his secretary and former mistress; Fran, a lowly elevator operator and current mistress; Bud, so desperate for recognition of any kind, and of course his wife.

I believe the current word of choice for his behavior is "inappropriate."

It would amazing if Billy Wilder and his co-writer A.I.L. Diamond were still with us to discuss the dynamics of their ever-relevant script and how their film has turned out to be so prescient - so much more than "bittersweet."

Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you.

(from top)

~The opening title card for "The Apartment"

~Fred MacMurray and Jack Lemmon in a scene from "The Apartment"
~photography: United Artists 1960©

~A mirror reflection of Lemmon; Shirley MacLaine, and Hope Holliday with Lemmon
~photography: United Artists 1960©

~a hypocritical Lemmon berating an unconscious MacLaine
~photography: United Artists 1960©