Saturday, June 28, 2008

the contrarian: Withering "Sex"


About a month ago, when "Sex and the City - The Movie" opened in the number one spot with $57,038,404, a lot of ink was spent celebrating its feat and noting how the film had doubled its box-office predictions.

For some reason, everyone was happy about the film's success, as if we all somehow shared it it.

So happy, in fact, that the media conveniently overlooked the film's whopping 62.8% drop in its second week in release. That's huge, but there was no ink - no ink at all.

And the film has been dropping ever since. By week three, it was out of the Top Five.

Anyway, here's how Box Office Mojo reports the film's gross to date:

May 30–June 1 / $57,038,404

June 6–8 / $21,218,305 (a 62.8% drop)

June 13–15 / $9,788,353 (a 53.9% drop)

June 20–22 / $6,532,394 (a 33.3% drop)

June 27–29 / $3,770,000 (estimate) (a 42.3% drop).

The film plummeted and has continued to do so, with no one acknowledging it or offering some theory on its rapid fall.

My take is that the movie disappointed audiences that first week and became a victim of bad word-of-mouth. It simply isn't funny. The series was a comedy; the movie isn't. It's a soap opera.

And who came up with that brilliant idea anyway?

After the film was in release for a week, its star and prime mover, Sarah Jessica Parker, appeared on "The View" and confessed that deciding to do the series on which the movie is based was not easy. She liked the career she had. (I did, too.) "I always thought I had an enviable career," she said. Perfectly put. Prior to "Sex and the City" - which indeed did stop the nice momentum of her career - Parker moved smoothly from stage ("The Substance of Fire," "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," "Once Upon a Mattress") to film, a particularly eclectic slate of films ("L.A. Story," the film of "The Substance of Fire," "Honeymoon in Vegas," "If Lucy Fell," Miami Rhapsody," "The First Wives Club" and two for Tim Burton, "Ed Wood" and "Mars Attacks").

Since the series, Parker's films have been largely uneventful, despite a brave, potentially audience-alienating turn in "The Family Stone."

This certainly would not be the first time that a successful project has stymied a performer. "Sex and the City" - which arguably offered Parker her role of a lifetime - could adversely affect her career the way "Psycho" negatively influenced Tony Perkins'.

So, if "Sex and the City - The Movie" somehow manages to get her movie career back on track, it will have accomplished a lot. She deserves it.

Parker is a really good actress.

If it doesn't, well, one has only to watch the show's reruns and DVDs and savor her turn as Carrie Bradshaw to be reminded of just how good she is.

(Artwork: Variety drumbeats "Sex and the City - The Movie"; Sarah Jessica as Carrie)

turner rep: Oscar Levant Got It All Wrong

Oscar Levant may have been a sharp, erudite wit but his famous quip about Doris Day - "I knew her before she was a virgin" - is way off base.

Doris, to the best of my knowledge, never played a virgin. The closest she came was her miscast, virgin-like working girl in Delbert Mann's foolish yet strangely watchable "That Touch of Mink," in which she frets and frets over Cary Grant's attempts to seduce her.

In the best of her films, she played spirited, independent working women - "feminists," when we had yet come up with that word - who routinely gave men a difficult time. "Love Me or Leave Me." "The Pajama Game." "It Happened to Jane." "Teacher's Pet." "Please Don't Eat the Daisies." "The Ballad of Josie." And especially "Lover Come Back," in which she spends most of the film telling off Rock Hudson in no uncertain terms. ("Lover Come Back" airs on Turner Classics Sunday, June 29th at 4 p.m., est.)

She gives him what-for.

That's when she isn't doing her inimitable slow burn.

Hudson plays a self-satisfied sexual opportunist in "Lover Come Back" (also directed by Delbert Mann) and while the sexual part certainly annoys Doris's character, it's his character's lazy unprofessionalism that really offends her and sets her off.

No, Doris was never a virgin. She was a tough professional. And a real woman.

She was also - always, invariably - a lot of fun. The battle of the sexes was a natural, effortless romp when she was around.

(Artwork: Doris Day - reliably, deceptively, bubbly)

Sunday, June 22, 2008

turner rep: Peter Glenville's "Summer and Smoke" (1961)

Five reasons why Peter Glenville's 1961 film of "Summer and Smoke," airing Monday, June 23rd at 3:45 p.m. (est) on Turner, fascinate me (besides the fact that it's a solid film):

1. It's based on one of Tennessee Williams' lesser-known plays.

2. It was Geraldine Page's follow-up film to her first film "Hondo," which she made eight years earlier. The movie would start Page on an Oscar-nominee roll. Her next assignment was Richard Brooks' film of another Williams play, "Sweet Bird of Youth," in a role she created on Broadway.

3. It was Pamela Tiffin's debut movie, followed the same year by Billy Wilder's "One Two Three."

4. It was Rita Moreno's film immediately prior to "West Side Story."

5. Glenville, who died in 1996 of a heart attack, was a stage director who made only seven films, among them Danny Kaye's lost "Me and the Colonel" (1958); "Term of Trial" (1962) with Laurence Olivier, Simone Signoret and Sarah Miles; "Becket" (1964) with Burton and O'Toole, and Graham Greene's "The Comedians" (1967) with Burton and Taylor.

In "Summer and Smoke," Glenville also directed the great character actress, Una Merkle, and just prior to filming, the two joined forces for the 1959 Broadway musical, "Take Me Along," based on Eurgene O'Neill's "Ah, Wilderness," with music and lyrics by Robert Merrill, and starring Jackie Gleason, Walter Pidgeon and Robert Morse.

(Artwork: Geraldine Page, Laurence Harvey and Pamela Tiffin in "Summer and Smoke")

Thursday, June 19, 2008

simply cyd (there was only one cyd)


The divine Cyd Charisse, who left us on June 19th at age 86 or thereabouts, was a full-scale movie star, even though few people, fans included, thought of her as an actress per se. Perhaps it's too intricate to think of dance as a highly stylized form of acting. But that's what it is.

Cyd Charisse elevated every move she danced on film, even in the most benign MGM musical, to a tidy little drama. Working with some of the best dancers and choreographers, she became adept at a singular kind of storytelling. Michael Kidd, Eugene Loring, Hermes Pan, Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire were all her choreographic mentors.

And each time, I'm sure she exceeded their expectations, particularly with the graceful sexuality that she managed to sneak into each number for and with them. OK, perhaps she wasn't really that sneaky about it.

Although Charisse eventually segued into dramatic roles in such films as Joseph Pevney's "Twilights for the Gods," Nicholas Ray's "Party Girl," Minnelli's "Two Weeks in Another Town" and Phil Karlson's "The Silencers," one mostly remembers her fabulous dances on film, each punctuated by those long, shapely, seemingly endless legs:

The "Broadway Melody Ballet" from Donen and Kelly's "Singin' in the Rain" ... "Dancing in the Dark" and the "Girl Hunt Ballet," both from Minnelli's "The Band Wagon" ... And those otherwise anonymous dance numbers from Rouben Mamoulian's "Silk Stockings," Donen-Kelly's "It's Always Fair Weather" and Minnelli's "Brigadoon."

A handful of wonderful, lyrical musical moments. That doesn't seem like very much. And yet, it's a lot.

Cyd Charisse - that wasn't her real name, of course, and yet she managed to effortlessly embody it - was alternately exotic, beautiful and just plain radiant. And sexy.

And she could dance.

And that made her ... cinematic.

More than cinematic actually. Divine.

Note in Passing: Turner Classics, which coincidentally screened "Brigadoon" yesterday (June 18th), will be showing "The Band Wagon" at 9:15 a.m. (est) on Monday, June 23rd, and will also devote an evening to the actress-dancer on Friday, June 27th, with screenings of "Singin' in the Rain," "The Band Wagon" and "Silk Stockings," beginning at 8 p.m. (est).

(Artwork: Cyd and Fred in the sublime "Dancing in the Dark" number from Minnelli's "The Band Wagon")

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

façade: James Shigeta, matinee idol


Turner's impressively ambitious and nakedly revealing investigation of how the film industry has seen and portrayed Asians in movies has run the gamut as one might expect of the fastideous TCM, capturing some wonderful, laudatory highs and far, far too many lows.

The series kicked off with Cecil B. DeMille's fascinating "The Cheat," a 1915 silent film that introduced the iconic Sessue Hayakawa to Western audiences, and included Yasujiro Ozu's recent Father's Day entry, his 1942 masterwork of self-sacrifice, "There Was a Father"/"Chichi Ariki."

In between, there have been titles about the struggles of Asian actors and filmmakers to present their authentic vision, as well as the struggles, too often in vain, of Caucasian filmmakers to portray them.

Forget about the slant-eye make-up applied to the likes of Katharine Hepburn. For the most part, Hollywood's view has been routinely, almost casually, insensitive and decidedly unempathetic.

Joining TCM's Robert Osborne for some serious discussions about such matters has been Dr. Peter X Feng, editor of "Screening Asian Americans" and author of "Identities in Motion: Asian American Film and Video." And there have been added insight provided by filmmaker Wayne Wang, writer Amy Tan, film scholar Elaine Mae Woo, film producer Janet Yang, actresses Lauren Tom, Ming Wen, Rosalind Chao, France Nuyen, Nancy Kwan and Miiko Taka, among others, and ... James Shigeta.

For a brief, shining moment, the talented and very handsome James Shigeta was poised to be a major Hollywood leading man. In the space of two years, Shigeta was auspiciously showcased in no fewer than five films of impressive diversity - Sam Fuller's "The Crimson Kimono" (1959), his debut film; James Clavell's "Walk Like a Dragon" (1960); George Marshall's "Cry for Happy" (1961); Etienne Périer's "A Bridge to the Sun"/"Pont vers le soleil" (1961), and Henry Koster's film of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, "Flower Drum Song" (1961).

With a line-up like that, Shigeta should have had it made. He was the definition of a matinee idol. But it was to be only temporary.

For some bizarre reason, what seemed to be a flourishing film career came to a halt, with Shigeta spending most of his time playing guest roles on TV series ("Burke's Law," "Dr. Kildare," "Ben Casey," "Perry Mason" and the like). Apparently, Hollywood wasn't color-blind after all. Later on, he had roles in Charles Jarrott's "Lost Horizon" musical remake (1973), a disaster with a Burt Bacharach-Hal David score; Jack Smight's "Midway" (1976) and, still later, John McTiernan's "Die Hard" (1988). But his movie career, for all intents and purposes, never really got back on track.

What happened? For the life of me, I can't understand why Hollwood - so good at exploiting people - let Jim Shigeta be so criminally neglected. Am I wrong to think there was a whiff of racisim was at play here.

Four of those film films in which Shigeta excelled, demonstrating his versatility, are being aired as part of Turner's invaluable "Asian Images in Film" series, starting early June 19th, at 1:30 a.m. (est) with "Walk Like a Dragon," in which Shigeta plays a proud immigrant in 1870’s California caught in a love triangle with a Chinese woman (Nobu McCarthy) and a tough cowboy (Jack Lord). Mel Tormé co-stars for director Clavell, the writer who, of course, helmed TV's "Shogun."

At 8 p.m. (est) on June 19th, Turner will screen Périer's "A Bridge to the Sun"/"Pont vers le soleil," a true story about a Tennessee blonde (Carroll Baker) who married a Japanese diplomat (Shigeta) before World War II, then followed him to Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor. This film contains, arguably, Shigeta's best screen performance.

Fuller's "The Crimson Kimono," Shigeta's first film, will be shown at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, June 24th. In this Los Angeles-set noir, Shigeta plays a detective who finds himself in a love triangle with his partner (Glenn Corbett) and a woman (the late, wonderful Victoria Shaw) who is entangled in their current murder investigation. Not surprising for Fuller, "The Crimson Kimino" was ahead of its time, both for its exploration of racism and its romance between an Asian man and a Caucasian woman, something Shigeta would explore again in "A Bridge to the Sun."

At 11:30 p.m. (est) on June 24th, Koster's terrific, unfairly underrated "Flower Drum Song" unreels. Full disclosure: This is my favorite Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, largely because it doesn't follow the usual R-&-H forumla. Lacking the team's penchant for pretention and preachiness, this look at Asian life in San Franciaco is modern, lively and quite jazzy. A tale of generational conflicts and hard-dying traditions, the material casts Shigeta, in his last major film role, as a conflicted guy caught between being Chinese and American.

"Flower Drum Song" features an all-Asian cast, save for one Caucasian role - that of a white derelict (Herman Rudin) who robs Master Wang Chi-Yang (Benson Fong) on his doorstep. Nice touch. I love it.

Shigeta, whose deep, natural baritone always added a natural authority to his line readings, did his own singing in the film - an endearing, lilting work that has improved with age. It's terrific.

Note in Passing: The only major Shigeta film missing from Turner's line-up is Marshall's "Cry for Happy," a wartime comedy that starred Glenn Ford, Donald O'Connor and Miiko Taka and which paired Shigeta with his "Flower Drum Song" co-star, Miyoshi Umeki.

(Artwork: James Shigeta in his prime; with Carroll Baker in Périer's breakthrough "A Bridge to the Sun"; being interviewed by filmmaker Arthur Dong during the Spotlight tribute to him at the 24th San Francisco International Asian-American Film Festival in 2006, and Nancy Kawn, aglow in wide screen, in the Hermes Pan-choreographed "Grant Avenue" number from Koster's terrific "Flower Drum Song.")

sundance screenings


The Sundance Channel has a couple titles this week worth watching/taping.

First, there's Thompson's 2006 French-made "Avenue Montaigne"/"Fauteuils d'orchestre" about the theater people of Paris. It's an extremely companionable film and noteworthy, for me at least, for another relaxed Sydney Pollack performance.

The late director-actor plays a character named Brian Sobinski bur he's essentially playing himself.

"Avenue Montaigne"/"Fauteuils d'orchestre" airs Thursday, June 19th at 1:30 p.m. (est), with repeat showings scheduled for 5:15 p.m. (est) Sunday, June 22nd, Wednesday, June 25th at 10 p.m. and Saturday, June 28th at 7 p.m. (est).

Secondly, there's Peter Watkins' "Privilege," which was the rage of 1967 and starred one of the "It" girls of the era, model Jean Shrimpton. Watkins' also directed "The War Game" and "Edvard Munch."

In a plot not that far removed from Elia Kazan's "A Face in the Crowd," Paul Jones (the lead singer of Manfred Mann) plays a manufactured British rock star with an almost unnatural hold on his fans. He can do no wrong. It doesn't take long for a religious-right group to ensnare him and try to exploit his popularity to recruit the nation's youth to Christianity.

"Privilege," which in retropsect seems particularly pertinent to what's happening today, has never been released in the United Staters on home entertainment in any format. Its screening on Sundance at 7 p.m. (est) on Friday, June 20th is a rare one. But not the only one. It will be repeated at 4 p.m. (est) Wednesday, June 25th.

By all means, tape it.

(Artwork: Sydney Pollack can be seen on the Sundance Channel in Danièle Thompson's "Avenue Montaigne," and the poster art from "Avenue Montaigne"/"Fauteuils d'orchestre" and "Privilege")

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

the contrarian: Billy Wilder's "Irma La Douce" (1963)



No matter what measure one might use, Billy Wilder's film version of "Irma La Douce," airing on Turner Classics at noon (est) on Sunday, June 22nd, looms as a major embarrassment - a leering piece of "tired businessman's entertainment" that's sexed-up and yet decidedly unsexy.

Full disclosure: I loved this film as a kid and, I guess, it helps to be 12 to truly appreciate it.

What's odd is that the material - nonsense about a man pretending to be his prostitute-girlfriend's most valuable client - had potential, and worked very well as a saucy international stage musical with music by Marguerite Monnot (famed for "The Poor People of Paris") and original book and lyrics by Alexandre Breffort.

The musical originated at the Theatre Gramont in Paris, opening November 12th, 1956. The London production, with the book and lyrics translated by Julian More, David Heneker and Monty Norman, opened July 17th, 1958 and ran for a whopping 1512 performances. Later, it was optioned for New York by David Merrick and the original Broadway production opened September 29th, 1960 at New York's Plymouth Theatre and ran for 527 performances. Sir Peter Brook ("Marat/Sade") directed both the London and New York productions of the musical.

Wilder somehow managed to take what was a light soufflé on stage and turn it into an obvious, leaden and, at 147 minutes, elephantine mess - 147 minutes and that's without all the songs.

The famed director took Monnot's clever, likable melodies and promptly deleted them from his script, relegating them to the background as incidental music (scored by André Previn). Even reduced, Monnot's contribution remains the only worthwhile thing about the film. That and designer Alexandre Trauner's sprawling soundstage recreation of Paris' Les Halles district - a "Disneyland for adults," Wilder quipped.

The play's rousing showstopper, "Dis-Donc, Dis-Donc," was retained - well, sort of - as a dance number for the film's eventual Irma, Shirley MacLaine, a moment in the film which seems to lead up an intermission break that never comes.

Wilder had always intended Jack Lemmon to play a guy desperate to keep his girlfriend as pure as possible, so much so that he dons a disguise and hires her to pleasure him. When Lemmon signed on, Wilder was in negotiations with Elizabeth Taylor to play Irma. Bachelor Lemmon to the New York Times at the time: "Lucky girl!"

Meanwhile, Wilder was trying to ward off Marilyn Monroe who, reportedly, desperately wanted the role. Taylor got caught up in a little number called
"Cleopatra" and Monroe eventually segued into George Cukor's
"Something's Got to Give." MacLaine, who of course worked with both Wilder and Lemmon on "The Apartment" and who was perfect for the role, ultimately won it and played Irma.

An aside: one has to wonder if Wilder may have entertained thoughts of making a musical given MacLaine's song-and-dance background and the fact that Lemmon had starred in a few film musicals. And also because one of Wilder's supporting players here is the late Bruce Yarnell who played the role of Hippolyte and who was a rising young star in the musical theater at the time (B'ways's "The Happiest Girl in the World" with Janice Rule). Yarnell was once under consideration by Richard Lester to play Captain Miles Gloriosus in the film of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," the role eventually played by Leon Greene.

"Irma" was shot largely on a soundstage in Hollywood, but by the time the crew got to France for some location work, Monroe had died from an overdose and Lemmon had married Felicia Farr (with both Wilder and director Richard Quine serving as his best men in Paris).

On the basis of the wild success of this film and the two that followed it - "Under the Yum Yum Tree" and "Good Neighbor Sam," both directed by David Swift - Lemmon was the Number One box office star of 1964. Lemmon would disavow "Yum Yum" which makes sense (it's pretty low) and "Sam" which doesn't (it's an engaging comedy).

He would have done well to also distance himself from the adolescent smirk of "Irma La Douce" but I guess he had too much regard for Wilder.

(Artwork: Window card for Billy Wilder's "Irma La Douce," and the dust jacket for the reel-to-reel tape of the original Broadway cast album)

* * *

Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Fizzy Bubbeleh Flick


American moviegoers may have half-consciously rejected any serious film about the current wars but they've embraced profane comedies about swarthy Middle Eastern men with insatiable sex drives - yes, the very men who have been generalized as "the enemy."

Last year, Borat.

This year, Zohan.

And who can blame the audience?

These films use low-down comedy to humanize people we've been encouraged to peg as "different" and certainly threatening.

As the title characer in Dennis Dugan's genuinely witty and insightful "You Don't Mess with Zohan," Adam Sandler has let his usual close-cropped hair grow into a head of wild, unruly, excited-looking ringlets and has pretty much fetishized the rest of himself as well.

This is inarugably his most sexually liberated performance, replete with a seemingly permanent bulge in his pants.

Dugan's film - which received some well-earned praise from A.O. Scott in The New York Times - is loaded with characters, but it belongs to Sandler, something the star accomplishes effortlessly, without hogging the screen.

It has nothing to do with gender when I say that "You Don't Mess with Zohan" is as hilarious as its opposite-sex counterpart, "Sex and the City," isn't. (Is there even one joke in that movie?) The sly "Zohan" script - by the ubiquitous Judd Apatow, Robert Smigel and Sandler himself - works miracles with a running joke incorporating hummus and I loved the recurring visual gag involving an Israeli soft drink called Fizzy-Bubbeleh.

Is that a real product? It should be.

(Artwork: Zohan rules!)

the contrarian: The (Godawful) Tonys


The theatah.

Say what you will about The Oscarcast and its well-fed bloat, it isn't nearly as annoying or as pathetic as The Tonys, which seems to exist within a universe unto itself - a world of entitlement, driven by the bliss of delusion.

Nothing else explains the rampant pretention or the misguided, insufferable sense of self-importance and solipsism that New York's theater community regularly exudes, especially on Tony night.

It's as if everyone connected with what Variety calls The Rialto watched "All About Eve" once too often, committed Joseph L. Mankiewicz's sharp, scathing but highly artificial script to memory and now actually (mis)takes it for reality.

It's camp, people.

This year's show reached its nadir of snobbery when playwright Tracy Letts in accepting his award for "August: Osage County," thanked his producers specifically for mounting "an American play on Broadway with theatre actors." Take that, you lowly film actors, so presumptuous enough to dare think that you're actually good enough for the theatah.

Frankly, to be fair, just about all show-business awards shows are anathma to me. But this one is absolutely the worst.

And why is it that only show people shower each other with fawning, pointless adulation? Why don't carpenters celebrate their crafts?

Or plumbers even?

I'm dead serious.

Note in Passing: The only tolerable moment on this year's Tonys came when "Boeing-Boeing" best-actor winner Mark Rylance - the risk-taking actor who notoriously performed unsimulated, real sex on screen in Patrice Chéreau's "Intimacy" (2001) - handily deflated the evening's parade of poseurs by reciting an extended quote from Lewis Jenkins' prose poem "Back Country," in lieu of an actual acceptance speech. It prompted a head-scratching response from the supposedly sophisticated audience.

It wasn't Rylance who was bizarre; it was everyone else.

He was also dead serious.

(Artwork: Poster art for Mankeiwicz's campy "All About Eve" and the amusing Mark Rylance)

Saturday, June 14, 2008

the contrarian: Misquoting/Demonizing Katherine Heigl


Having spent a long time as a working journalist - far too long than is reasonably healthy - I developed something of an aversion to the species.

Show me a journalist who isn't self-important or self-righteous and I'll show you a dead journalist.

That may sound like a wild generalization but, believe me, spend enough time in the vicinity of one and experience the puffed-up self-quoting and you'll know what I mean.

Case in point: The media's lip-smacking dissing of actress Katherine Heigl for doing the decent thing and rejecting a potential Emmy nomination for her work on ABC's pansexual soap opera, "Grey's Anatomy."

"I did not feel that I was given the material this season to warrant an Emmy nomination and in an effort to maintain the integrity of the academy organization, I withdrew my name from contention," Heigl told Gold Derby writer Tom O'Neil at the L.A. Times Envelope Web site.

Entertainment Weekly immediately posted this headline on its icky website: "Katherine Heigl Out of Emmy Race, Blames Writers." Huh?

Exacerbating matters, Dave on Demand, an unctous, self-consciously snarky weekly column in The Philadelphia Inquirer, drooled:

"You have to wonder if she knows how pretentious and petulant this announcement makes her sound.

"First of all, it's not like she was a lock to win this thing. When she took Best Supporting Actress in a Drama Series last year, it was her first Emmy. In fact, it was her first nomination.

"And even that was a huge upset. Not only was she not the best supporting actress, she wasn't even the best actress from her own show in the category. (Sandra Oh and Chandra Wilson were also nominated.) So for her to act like this Emmy stuff is old hat to her is wildly arrogant."

First off, a journalist is the last person who should use words such as "pretentious," "petulant" and "arrogant," particularly within the confines on a single article. (The column's author, who writes in a way-too-eager-to-impress-his-editors style, adds insult to injury by referring to Heigl as "honey," a well-worn, nay, dated piece of sexism which said editors, people ostensibly paid to edit the Inky, found bizarrely acceptable.)

Secondly, you have to wonder about the motivation when a journalist resorts to selective editing because Heigl also went on to say:

"In addition, I did not want to potentially take away an opportunity from an actress who was given such materials."

This part of her statement, in which Heigl explains and justifies her controversial stance, has been conveniently overlooked.

Instead the media is looking for easy ulterior motives on Heigl's part, the easiest being that she has stars in her eyes and would prefer to have a movie career. And what performer in Hollywood wouldn't?

But that's a distraction, shading what Heigl really said, namely that she did not give an award-worthy performance this year - that the material didn't lend itself to a golden statuette - and that an undeserved nomination would deny another, more worthy actress.

That's not arrogant or pretentious, honey; that's character. Furthermore, she said nothing negative about her writers or their work.

Also lost in the fray are these facts:

1. Heigl was arugably the most supportive player on “Grey’s Anatomy” of the recent strike by television and film writers. She was an active presence on the picket line, a staple, and went on record, several times, saying that she would not violate any picket line to attend any ceremony.

2. Heigl was the most vocal member of her TV cast to defend co-star T.R. Knight against the sexist insults of Isaiah Washington.

3. She had the veracity to call a spade a spade, referring to her break-out film, the hugely overrated "Knocked Up," as being "a little sexist." (I've a hunch that she was being coyly diplomatic here.)

Heigl has emerged as something refreshing on the moldy/creepy Hollywood landscape - an outspoken woman with uncompromising principles and beliefs. If George Clooney is "the last movie star in Hollywood" (as Time magazine recently pontificated), then Katherine Heigl is easily the last honest person there. It's not a matter of ingratitude.

It's a matter of having cojones, scruples.

Anyway, I'm hoping that Heigl doesn't succomb to what has become the newest all-American bad habit - hastily wimping out.

You know, being intimidated into apologizing. Apologize? For what?

(Artwork: The gloriously, incorrigibly truthful Katherine)

turner rep: Father's Day

Not surprisingly, Turner Classics celebrates Father's Day tomorrow with end-to-end films about fathers, its centerpiece attraction being Gilbert Cates' fine, indelible 1970 film version of the Robert Anderson play, "I Never Sang for My Father," being screened at noon (est).

"Death ends a life,
but it does not end a relationship,
which struggles on in the survivor's mind
toward some resolution,
which it may never find."


This near-poetic, achingly simple line by Anderson bookends the film, summing up its theme about the stranged relationship between an aging father and his grown son, played in a duet of perfection by Melvyn Douglas and Gene Hackman. Hackman, conveying strong innocence and innocent strength, has never been more sensitively masculine as a dutiful son being emotionally exploited by the old man, played by Douglas in an intuitive, truly revelatory performance.

I swear but Douglas's work here seems to get better with each viewing.

Each viewing has also made me greater appreciate Cates' direction, which is unobtrusive and clearly, selflessly, in service to his actors, who also include Dorothy Stickney as the mother, Estelle Parsons as the family's banished daughter and, as the two women in Hackman's life, Lovelady Powell and Elizabeth Hubbard.

Cates was one of the producers of the 1968 stage production, which was directed by Alan Schneider and starred Alan Webb, Hal Holbrook, Lillian Gish and Teresa Wright (Mrs. Anderson) in the roles played on film by Douglas, Hackman, Stickney and Parsons. Like Anderson's previous play, "Tea and Sympathy," the material was highly autobiographical - both deal with sensitive sons with rigid fathers.

"I Never Sang for My Father," however, was originally written by Anderson as a screenplay, titled "The Tiger," and although such filmmakers as Sidney Lumet, John Frankenheimer and Irvin Kershner had an interest in it, the material couldn't get produced. For a while, it was considered by CBS as a teleplay, a vehicle for Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn (as the parents), but that fell through, too, and at Elia Kazan's suggestion, Anderson rewrote his script for the stage.

The play was a success and, when Cates himself decided to direct the film version, Anderson was encouraged to go back to his original film script and reinstate two characters that had been cut from the play - Norma (the one-night stand brilliantly played in the film by Powell) and the son's fiancée, Peggy (Hubbard).

In 1988, "I Never Sang for My Father" was finally filmed as a teleplay. It was faithful to the play, without the characters of Norma and Peggy. The idea was to have Holbrook, who played the son in the play, essay the role of the father this time around, with Daniel J. Travanti as the son. But by the time it was filmed, Harold Gould was in the role of the father.

Also in Turner's tribute to father-child relationships are Otto Preminger's sly, cosmopolitan "Bonjour Tristesse" (1958), being screened at 8 a.m. (est); Mark Rydell's piquent "On Golden Pond" (1981), at 2 p.m.; Frank Capra's endearing "A Hole in the Head" (1959), at 4 p.m.; Vincente Minnelli's shrewdly complicated "The Courtship of Eddie's Father" (1963), at 8 p.m.; Minnelli's chestnut,"Father of the Bride" ((1950), at 10:15 p.m., and Norman Jewison's expansive "Fiddler on the Roof" (1971), at 3:45 a.m. Monday.

The fathers include David Niven, Henry Fonda, Frank Sinatra, Glenn Ford, Spencer Tracy and Topol, respectively.

Note in Passing: Daryl Chin has reminded me that Yasujiro Ozu's masterwork of self-sacrifice, "There Was a Father"/"Chichi Ariki" (1942) - a lovely tale of a widower-teacher who devotes himself to menial jobs to assure his son of the best education - is being screened by Turned as part of its Father's Day package at 2 a.m. (est) Monday. Years later, the son's offer to care for his father is denied because the father doesn't want his son to harm his career.

Definitely worth taping. "There Was a Father"/"Chichi Ariki" is also available on Japanese DVD, with English subtitles.

(Artwork: Douglas and Hackman turn in extraordinary performances in the indelible "I Never Sang for My Father" from Robert Anderson's play; the poster art for "Bonjour Tristesse" and the DVD dustjacket for "There Was a Father"/"Chichi Ariki.")

Friday, June 13, 2008

turner rep: Jack & Walter



The intertwined careers of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau are celebrated by Turner Classics with a four-film mini-tribute, starting at 10:15 p.m. (est) on Saturday, June 14th, and continuing until the wee hours on Sunday.

Kicking things off is Billy Wilder's sardonic, gray-colored farce, "The Fortune Cookie" (1966), which was sort of a blind date for the boys - their first film together and the start of their unexpected teaming.

Matthau has the showier role as the shady, game-playing lawyer, Whiplash Willie Gingrich; Lemmon - playing Willie's easily manipulated brother-in-law, Harry Hinkle, a convenient accident victim - pretty much handed the film over to him. Lemmon may be immobolized in a wheelchair but his quiet performance, free of the usual Lemmon fussiness, is a revelation - an education in relaxed, minimal screen acting.

The talented Judi West and Ron Rich shine in supporting roles - she as Lemmon's disreputable wife and he as the athlete who allegedly crippled him - and they're so good that one has to wonder exactly what happened to them. West, who had made a name for herself in the Marilyn Monroe role in the Broadway production of Arthur Miller's "After the Fall," went on to marry actor John Rubenstein, but did little film work thereafter. Rich, to the best of my knowledge, made only one other film, 1968's "Chubasco."

What a waste.

"The Fortune Cookie" will be followed by the two actors' sole directing credits - Lemmon's "Kotch" (1971), at 12:30 a.m. (est) Sunday, with Matthau in the title role as a lively senior, and Matthau's own "Gangster Story" (1960), a tidy noir in which the actor does double-duty, also playing the role of a cop killer who plans a robbery. Carol Grace, Matthau's wife, has the female lead. It airs at 4:45 a.m. (est)

"Plaza Suite" (1971), Arthur Hiller's film of one of Neil Simon's stage comedies starring Matthau, pops up in-between at 2:45 a.m. (est)

Note in Passing: Matthau's connection to Lemmon goes beyond the few films they made toghther. In 1958, Matthau was directed by Norman Taurog in a forgotten little character-driven comedy for Warner Bros. called "Onionhead" It was Matthau's second film with Andy Griffith, following Elia Kazan's "A Face in the Crowd" (1957), of course.

The leading lady in "Onionhead" with Griffith and Matthau was Felicia Farr, the future wife of ... Jack Lemmon.

Coincidentally, "A Face in the Crowd" also airs on Turner on Saturday, June 14th - at 8 p.m. (est) - as an entry in "The Essentials," hosted by Robert Osborne and Rose McGowan.

Now, if only Turner could ressurect "Onionhead."

(Artwork: Lemmon and Matthau - before "Grumpy Old Men" and before "The Odd Couple" - in "The Fortune Cookie"; poster art for "Onionhead")

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

cinema obscura: MGM Feeling Groovy, Circa 1970




"Oh, Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore!"

That immortal line, of course, was spoken by Dorothy Gale in "The Wizard of Oz," but I've a hunch that the same sentiment was uttered by some confused MGM executive as the most staid of the major studios found itself confronted by the counterculture of the late 1960s.

Metro self-consciously inaugerated the new year and the new decade with its February, 1970 release of Michelangelo Antonioni's "Zabriskie Point." It was a very big deal - and an even bigger flop. But that didn't stop Metro.

In May of the same year, the studio screened, with much fanfare, its hot-potato campus-unrest flick, "The Strawberry Statement" at the Cannes Film Festival, concurrrently releasing its X-rated sex comedy about love children, "The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart," in New York city.

"Zabriskie Point" is still remembered - and the critical reaction to it has been adjusted upward in some quarters. But "The Strawberry Statement" and "The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart" have long been forgotten.

It's impossible to see either one.

"The Strawberry Statement," directed by Stuart Hagmann from a script by Israel Horowitz (adapted from a novel by James Kunan), is an overwrought, exploitative drama about a clueless kid (Bruce Davison, hot off Frank Perry's "Last Summer") who joins a student revolution as a way to meet girls and eventually gets caught up in campus violence.

Talented Kim Darby, who was a protegé of the great Kim Stanley at the time, had the female lead and her role here was supposed to rescue her from the memory of the very square "True Grit" (1969), her breakthrough movie. But it was not to be. She eventually found a good role in Robert Aldrich's lost film, "The Grissom Gang" (1971), but actually had better luck in an earlier movie, Harvey Hart's "Bus Riley's Back in Town" (1965).

Leonard Horn's "The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart," based by Robert T. Westbrook on his autobiographical novel, is actually a buoyant, racy little comedy with an appealing young cast - Dianne Hull, Victoria Racimo, Holly Near, Michael Greer, the extraordianry Linda Gillen, who could have been a major film comedienne, and in the title role, a game and very randy Don Johnson. The film is little more than a series of vignettes about aimless, uncertain kids seeking their identities, which includes a lot of sexual experimentation and, for Stanley Sweetheart, masturbation (hence, the film's original X rating).

Horn keeps everything well paced and clearly empathizes with his youthful cast. And as a bonus, he includes hilariously arty little films-within-the-film, knowing, misguided spoofs (of shorts) made by college dropout/wannabe filmmaker Stanley.

This film is worth rescuing.

Cinema Obscura is a recurring feature of The Passionate Moviegoer, devoted to those films that have been largely forgotten. Suggestions welcome.

(Artwork: Post art from "The Magic Garden of Stanely Sweetheart" and "The Strawberry Statement," two counterculture attempts from Metro)

cinema obscura: Chris Bradley and Kyle LaBrache 's "Pittsburgh" (2006)


odd·ball (äd′bôl′) - noun - Slang an eccentric, unconventional, or nonconforming person

In June of 2006, Variety printed film critic Ronnie Scheib's review of "Pittsburgh," a mockumentary about Jeff Goldblum's intent on playing fast-talking con man Professor Harold Hill - "the Robert Preston role" - in the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera production of Meredith Willson's "The Music Man."

Goldblum's motivation had less to do with tackling a classic American musical than with getting a job for his then-fiancee Catherine Wreford, a Canadian singer-actress, to keep her in the country. Wreford is perfect for the role of Marion and Goldblum would seal the deal by offering himself in the star role. Not only that. In a bit of truly novel casting, he also drafted friends Ed Begley, Jr. and Ileana Douglas to play Mayor Shinn and Eulalie Mackechnie Shinn.





"Pittsburgh" would be either an irresistible gem or god-awful, but either way, it had to be a lot of fun.

Well, the film opened in Pittsburgh (of course), where is received an unenthusiastic review from Ed Blank in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and then it, well, disappeared.

Now out on DVD, the film is indeed irresistible fun, with filmmakers Chris Bradley and Kyle LaBrache attempting what Christopher Guest does so easily - and almost hitting their target. Almost.

There's not much to "Pittsburgh." It may be the most bizarre vanity project that I've ever seen, but you have to love a film in which the show's director, Richard Sabellico, casually tells Goldblum that "you're not exactly my first choice for this role" and in which Goldblum mugs his way through the role of Harold Hill with all the finesse of Groucho Marx. (Zero Mostel?) He does the most curious things with his hands, literally drumming his fingers across his face at choice moments.

Oddball.

Begley makes a great clueless foil and Douglas comes through as few friends would, actually staging a breakup with boyfriend Moby for the cameras.

Frankly, everything feels staged in "Pittsburgh." It's veracity is questionable. A comic con job.

Oddball.

There's still Warners' pristine 1962 film version to enjoy, but the production of "The Music Man" that the Civic Light Opera staged looks as if it was impressive, too.

Note in Passing: There have been unsubstantiated rumors going around that director Adam McKay and Vince Vaughn are planning a remake of "The Music Man" with Vaughn as Harold Hill and John C. Reilly as Marcellus Washburn (the role Buddy Hackett played in the '62 movie). Sounds like perfect casting to me. No one can truly replace Robert Preston in the lead but if any contemporary comic actor can handle the fast dialogue and the lyric to the tongue-twisting "Trouble," it's Vaughn. Plus any new version that can erase the harrowing memory of the recent Matthew Broderick TV version of Willson's show is most welcomed and most appreciated.

Cinema Obscura is a recurring feature of The Passionate Moviegoer, devoted to those films that have been largely forgotten. Suggestions welcome.

(Artwork: Coming out of nowhere - Jeff Goldblum as The Music Man in "Pittsburgh"; the poster art for the original Broadway production; Robert Preston - the real thing - in Warners' 1962 film version of the musical, and Vince Vaughn, perhaps the next Harold Hill?)

Sunday, June 08, 2008

cinema obscura: Dick Shawn (& Ernie Kovacs)


In his weekly DVD report for The New York Times, Dave Kehr writes about the new DVD of Blake Edwards' sadly neglected 1966 wartime comedy, "What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?" (Actually, Edwards' film is more than just a comedy.)

Dave jogged my memory with his generous mention of Dick Shawn in the film: "... the picture really belongs to the innovative stand-up comedian Dick Shawn, here in his most significant movie role." Yes, his most significant movie role - sadly.

Shawn, who died in 1987 at age 65 of a heart attack, was yet another example of a talent criminally misused by Hollywood, wasted in small roles that starred other people - supporting Natalie Wood in "Penelope," Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in "The Producers" and the sprawling ensemble cast of "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" where, stripped down to a vintage red squarecut bathing suit, Shawn did a wild twist with that eternal dish, Barrie Chase.

He never quite made the leap to the kind of name-over-the-title parts that went to Jack Lemmon, whose roles Shawn could have handily played. ("Some Like It Hot"? "Mister Roberts"?) Both he and Tony Randall pretty much lived in Lemmon's shadow, perhaps getting Jack's castoffs. They were the same and yet each man was different.

Jack was the normal everyman, Tony the urbane neurotic and Dick the sexy cool cat.

After years doing stand-up in clubs and on television, Shawn made his movie debut - "and introducing Dick Shawn" - for director Mervyn LeRoy in Columbia's pleasing "Wake Me When It's Over," based on Howard Singer's 1959 novel about military bureaucracy and the teasing, newly-found sexual freedom being tested at the time.

The great cast, which LeRoy reportedly selected to closely match the characters in Singer's book, includes Ernie Kovacs, Jack Warden, Don Knotts, Marvin Kaplan, Raymond Baily, Nubu McCarthy and Margo Moore.

"Wake Me When It's Over" is yet another Columbia title that has evaded every form of home entertainment. It seems only the lesser titles that Shawn made later in his career ever made it to video or DVD.

Anyway, his next film came three year's later - Stanley Kramer's thudding "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World," followed by Michael Gordon's 1965 "A Very Special Favor," with Rock Hudson and Leslie Caron, Edwards' "What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?" and two more 1966 films, Arthur Hiller's "Penelope" and Gordon Douglas's Jerry Lewis film, "Way ... Way Out." He gave a rare dramatic turn in Richard Brooks' "The Happy Ending" in 1969 and, of course, there was Mel Brooks' "The Producers," but the remainder of his filmography is negligible. His movie career should have been better.



Minor film roles and a lot of forgettable TV monopolized the rest of his career. Shawn's last film, released in 1988 after his death, was "Rented Lips" for Robert Downey, Sr. Martin Mull, Jennifer Tilly and Robert Downey, Jr. co-starred.

In 1964, Shawn interrupted his then-young movie career to do the stage comedy, "Peterpat," written by Enid Rudd, co-starring the also much-missed Joan Hackett and directed by Joe Layton. Dick Shawn and Joan Hackett? Together. On stage. Sure "Peterpat" flopped and closed after 21 performances, but it sounds like it was heaven to me.

Getting back to Ernie Kovacs, this late, great comic actor is also long overdue for a rediscovery. Sure his TV standup routines have been showcased on DVD but how about the other films that he made for Columbia? In addition to LeRoy's "Wake Me When It's Over," there's Sir Carol Reed's "Our Man in Havana" (1959), which at least pops up on Turner Classics occasionally, and Irving Brecher's "Sail a Crooked Ship" (1961), with Robert Wagner and Delores Hart. Kovacs' 1960 film for Columbia, Richard Quine's "Strangers When We Meet," is available on DVD and, thanks to its recent exposure on Turner, has undergone a deserved rediscovery and re-evaluation.

Note in Passing: Check out Dave Kehr's blog for more on "What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?"

Cinema Obscura is a recurring feature of The Passionate Moviegoer, devoted to those films that have been largely forgotten. Suggestions welcome.

(Artwork: Dick Shawn gets groovy with that dish Barrie Chase in Stanley Klramer's "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World"; Shawn with Natalie Wood in "Penelope"; the poster art for "Wake Me When It's Over," Shawn's debut movie; the comic actor in something he did on TV with David Hartman; the Playbill for "Peterpat," and the late, great Ernie Kovacs.)

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

turner rep: Sophia Loren


Note: Turner Rep is a recurring feature, appearing several times throughout the month and devoted to highlights from the Turner Classics' schedule for the month. Why? Simple. Because Turner Classics remains a veritible college education in film.
Today: Turner's celebration every Wednesday of a certain Italian bombshell.


Sophia Loren.

Everyone likes Sophia Loren, right? Who doesn't? Well, when it comes to voluptuous Italian actresses from the 1950s and '60s, I personally prefer Monica Vitti, who managed to turn in some remarkable work without (1) a powerful husband, (2) outsized ambition and (3) any pretentions whatsoever.

Let's face it. Loren's career was cemented when Anna Magnani dropped out of "Two Women," leaving the field clear for Loren to do a first-rate Magnani impersonation, winning an Oscar along the way.

But wait! Loren is easy to take and easy on the eye. She is incredibly likable and charming, and these starry qualities are underlined by the tribute that Turner Classics is paying tribute to Loren every Wednesday this month. The best thing about it is not the predictable showing of the overpraised "Two Women," but a handful of Loren titles that are just about impossible to see these days. Thank God for Turner.

Airing at midnight (est) tonight is "The Millionairess" (1960), Anthony Asquith's adaptation of the George Bernard Shaw play - as well as an uncomfortable pairing of Loren (as the world's richest woman) and Peter Sellers (as an ascetic doctor who could care less about money, women or rich women in particular). Something's gotta give, right? Well, nothing gives exactly in this film, despite the respective passion of its two stars. Still, it's wonderful to be able to see this lost film again.

At 5:30 a.m. on June 5th, Turner will air Francesco Rosi's "C'era una Volta" (1967) under its original Italian title. You may recognize it as "More Than a Miracle." It's a witty, charming fairy tale about a beautiful peasant girl (guess who), a handsome prince (Omar Sharif) and a dish-washing contest (you heard me right) used to decide who will be his bride.

June 11th brings us a double bill of compelling Loren dramas, beginning at 8 p.m. (est) - Sir Carol Reed's "The Key" (1958), about a key to a wartime apartment and the woman (Loren) who comes with it, and Sidney Lumet's rarely screened "That Kind of Woman" (1959) about a working girl (Loren) and the soldier she meets.

William Holden and Tab Hunter are the leading men, respectively, with "The Key" offering the remarkable Trevor Howard, Oskar Homolka and a young Bryan Forbes (before he tackled directing) in support and "That Kind of Woman" (highly recommended!) teeming with the likes of George Sanders, Barbara Nichols, Keenan Wynn and Jack Warden.

A week later, on June 18th, plan to stay in and spend the evening - all night, actually - with a quartet of little-known Loren titles. Kicking off at 8 p.m. (est), there's Delbert Mann's "Desire Under the Elms" (1958), with Anthony Perkins; Martin Ritt's "The Black Orchid" (1959), with Anthony Quinn; Michael Curtiz' "A Breath of Scandal" (1960), with John Gavin and Maurice Chevalier, and Anatole Litvak's compulsively watchable "Five Miles to Midnight" (1963) with Perkins (again) and Gig Young.

If that's not enough, you can stay up for early morning screenings of Stanley Kramer's "The Pride and the Passion" with Grant and Sinatra and Henry Hathaway's "Legend of the Lost" with the Duke (both from 1957). Loren certainly had some great leading men.

Turner wraps up its Sophia celebration with a deliriously eclectic mix on June 25th, starting at 8 p.m. (est) - Jean Negulesco's "Boy on a Dolphin" (1957) with Alan Ladd and Clifton Webb; the Anthony Mann-Samuel Bronston epic, "The Fall of the Roman Empire" (1964) with Stephen Boyd and James Mason; George Cukor's don't-miss "Heller in Pink Tights" (1960), and Arthur Hiller's noble but ill-fated attempt to film a truly overrated (read: ghastly) Broadway musical, "Man of la Mancha" (1972), whose only asset is Loren, a wonder as Aldonza/Dulcinea.

(Artwork: Vintage Sophia goes down easy; poster art for Sidney Lumet's "His Kind of Woman," and the late Stephen Boyd, Loren's co-star in "The Fall of the Roman Empire")

turner rep: Joshua Logan's "Fanny" (1961)


Note: Turner Rep is a recurring feature, appearing several times throughout the month and devoted to highlights from the Turner Classics' schedule for the month. Why? Simple. Because Turner Classics remains a veritible college education in film.
Today: Joshua Logan's "Fanny" (1961), being televised on TCM's "The Essentials," at 8 p.m. (est) on Saturday, June 7th, with a discussion by Robert Osborne and Rose McGowan.


The late Joshua Logan, who came to film from the stage, could hardly be considered one of the darlings of movie critics. Never one to go along with the crowd, I've always rather enjoyed his work, particularly his films based on plays - "Picnic," "Bus Stop," "Tall Story" and "Camelot."

Arguably, his best movie was 1961's "Fanny," based on the acclaimed Harold Rome stage musical of the same title, which Logan directed on Broadway in 1954 - and which, of course, was itself based on the extraordinary Marcel Pagnol stage-and-film trilogy, "Marius"/"Fanny"/"César."

For his film version, Logan went with a songless story, relegating Rome's great score to the background and this curious decision remains one of the unexplained mysteries of the cinema, particularly as Logan had a history with the material.

Considering the musical backgrounds of two of its stars, Leslie Caron and Maurice Chevalier, there's a possibility that "Fanny" started out as a film musical and that the decision to excise Rome's songs was a last-minute one. It's difficult to believe that Jack Warner would hire the stars from "Gigi" and not star them in a musical. The film's showing on TCM coincides with "Fanny's" inaugural release on DVD. Too bad as Logan isn't around to explain his reasons for eschewing the songs on the disc's commentary. We'll never know.

Pagnol's sweet, simplistic plot, set in the port of Marseilles in the 1930's, deals with Marius (played by Horst Buchholz, who had a good year in 1961, also making Billy Wilder's "One, Two, Three"), a restless dreamer weary of taking orders from his cafe-proprietor father, César (Charles Boyer) and longing to be a seafaring adventurer. On the eve of his departure, Marius impregnates his girlfriend, Fanny (Caron).

Her predicament is solved when the elderly, wealthy Panisse (Chevalier), a friend of César's, agrees to marry her.

There are many memorable moments in "Fanny," the most indelible for me involving a conversation between Boyer and Chevalier, who is on his deathbed in the scene. Boyer asks Chevalier what he'll miss the most about life, and one of the things that Chevalier comes up with is ... "lunch."

"Fanny" certainly wasn't the only stage musical to lose its songs as a film. Two years later, in 1963, Billy Wilder made a songless version of "Irma La Douce" (using Marguerite Monnot's original score for the background; lyrics by Alexandre Breford); "Hazel Flagg" was made into the 1954 Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis pseudo-musical, "Living It Up," retaining most of Ben Hecht's stage script (albeit changing the sex of the lead character) but only a few of the Jule Styne-Bob Hilliard score, and "Whoop-Up!" became the 1968 Elvis Presley vehicle, Peter Tewkesbury's "Stay Away, Joe," minus all of the Moose Charlap-Norman Gimble stage songs. Elvis used his own.

For the record, "Fanny" was one of the five films nominated for best picture of 1961. The others were J. Lee Thompson's "The Guns of Navarone," Robert Rosen's "The Hustler," Stanley Kramer's "Judgment at Nuremberg" and, of course, Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins' "West Side Story." "Fanny" was also nominated for William Reynolds' editing, Jack Cardiff's cinematography and Morris Stoloff's orchestrations of Rome's score. Boyer was nominated as best actor.

Note in Passing: "Fanny" marked another one of Caron's title-role characters, following "Lili," "Gaby" and "Gigi."

(Artwork: poster art for both the stage and film versions of Harold Rome's "Fanny"; Rose McGowan, Robert Osborne's co-host on TCM's "The Essentials")

Sunday, June 01, 2008

turner rep: Milos Forman's "Hair" (1979)



Note: Turner Rep is a recurring feature, appearing several times throughout the month and devoted to highlights from the Turner Classics' schedule for the month. Why? Simple. Because Turner Classics remains a veritible college education in film.
Today: Milos Foreman's "Hair" (1979), being televised early tomorrow, June 2nd, at 3:45 a.m.


Milos Foreman's brilliant 1979 film version of the Ragni-Rado-MacDermott tribal rock musical, "Hair," opened at a time when critics were particularly resistant to the idea of movie musicals, much more so than audiences.

The studios, perhaps in an effort to court the reviewers, began pairing their big musical properties with a rather eclectic group of iconic filmmakers - Sidney Lumet and "The Wiz," John Huston and "Annie," Sir Richard Attenborough and "A Chorus Line" and Foreman and "Hair." The ploy didn't work. The critics remained resistant, although Foreman's film was far better received that those by Lumet, Huston and Attenborough.

Personally speaking, I find "The Wiz" (which looks at if it had been shot through a microscope) and especially "A Chorus Line" (whose material I always found pretentious and insular) both unwatchable, but Huston's "Annie" is perfectly fine and "Hair" is utterly unique, thanks largely to the commingling of Foreman's singularly foreign sensibility and choreographer Twyla Tharp's unconventional moves.

Unfortunately, at 121 minutes, the release print of "Hair" doesn't contain everything that Forman filmed. Missing are musical numbers that, while trimmed from the film, can still be heard on the soundtrack album - the seminal "Frank Mills," "Air," "My Conviction," "Abie Baby" and "Fourscore."

After Foreman expanded his "Amadeus" (1984) from 160 minutes to 180 minutes in the 2002, I hoped that he would go back and restore "Hair." But the harsh reality of the film business is that unsuccessful films are rarely given a second chance. There was a reason (not necessarily a good one) to expand "Amadeus": It had won eight Oscars.

The big omission from the "Hair" score is, of course, "Frank Mills," a song which one would think is inexpendable. Sung by the character of Chrissy, played in the film by Suzette Charles (whose role was entirely eliminated), the song is like a lulling anthem to the sweet obliviousness of apathy and is achingly beautiful in its utter simplicity.

If the name Suzette Charles rings a bell, it's because she would go on to be named Miss America - by default. In 1983, at age 20 (four years after "Hair" was filmed), Charles was named first runner up in the contest, after Vanessa Williams, and was eventually given the crown when Williams was revealed to be the subject of compromising photographs.

When I mentioned all this to Foreman during an interview for the initial release of "Amadeus," he was delighted although he admitted that, by then, he had only a dim memory of Charles and her participation in "Hair."

Regarding the other songs missing from "Hair," Annie Golden sang "Air," Charlotte Rae did "My Conviction" and the late Nell Carter was among the singers on the combined "Abie Baby"/"Forescore."

One bit of trivia: The old RCA two-record soundtrack for the film does not list who sang what in the film, but the souvenir program for the movie included a removable plastic recording of selected songs from the film, with the singers listed (including Charles on "Frank Mills").

One of the songs in the film, "Walking in Space," is sung on screen by a young Asian actress playing a Vietnamese girl, but the singing voice coming out of her mouth belongs to ... Betty Buckley. I always wondered why that voice sounded so familiar - and so great.

Note in Passing: Two other film musicals of the era were helmed by less illustrious filmmakers - "Grease" by Randall Kleiser and "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" by the late Colin Higgins. Both, along with "Annie," were hugely popular with audiences, particularly "Grease" (as we all know by now). So much for the myth that moviegoers turned their backs on the genre. Not so. It was the studios that rudely slammed the door shut.

(Artwork: Twyla Tharp's athletic dance corps performs to the rousing "Ain't Got No" number in Foreman's "Hair")

cinema obscura: Norman Taurog's "Room for One More" (1952)



Cary Grant made a lot of films in his lifetime and perhaps the only one that stands as a truly lost movie is Norman Taurog's charming 1952 family comedy, "Room for One More," which teamed Grant with his adorable wife at the time, Betsy Drake.

Based on a memoir by Anne Perrot Rose, with a screenplay written by Rose and her husband Jack, the film warmly chronicles what happens when the independent-thinking Anne (played by Drake in the film) decides to add to her family by fostering a troubled teenage girl (Iris Mann) and an embittered little boy with braces on his legs (Clifford Tatum Jr.) - much to the chagrin of "Poppy" (Grant), as the Rose's three biological children (George Winslow, Gay Gordon and Malcolm Cassell) call their father.

Given the recent popularity of such large-family remakes as "Cheaper by the Dozen" and "Yours, Mine and Ours" (both pretty bad), it's surprising that Warners has not only ignored this property but inexplicably buried it. When the film went into syndication in the 1960s, it was given a new title, "The Easy Way," so as not to confuse it with the Warners TV series adapted from it in 1962 (starring Peggy McCay and Andrew Duggan in the Drake and Grant roles). The series lasted only one season but the film has been saddled with the replacement title ever since. It has never been released on home entertainment in any form and now it's even disappeared from television. It was last broadcast on Turner Classics several years ago - with "The Easy Way" superimposed over the original title in the credits.

"Room for One More" is an effortless mix of comedy and pathos, incredibly warm and poignant. Drake in particular shines with her brusk line-readings. It's evident to me that the sporty British tomgirl persona that Julie Andrews and Emma Thompson both exhibit comes directly from Drake. She was the template for this screen type. Andrews even appropriated Drake's "look" for "The Sound of Music."

As for Grant, he was always great with children on screen, as evidenced by "Mr. Blandings Builds his Dream House," "The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer" and "Houseboat" and he's entirely memorable, entirely Cary Grant here.

Incidentally, Drake came up with the idea for "Houseboat" and even wrote the original screenplay, but by the time the film was made, she was no longer Mrs. Grant; the script was rewritten and Sophia Loren was cast in the female lead.

If there's any way you can track down "Room for One More," by all means do. See it and savor it. Hopefully, Warners will find it on some studio shelf, where it's been long forgotten, dust it off and release it on DVD.

Cinema Obscura is a recurring feature of The Passionate Moviegoer, devoted to those films that have been largely forgotten. Suggestions welcome.

(Artwork: Variety ad for trade-show screening of "Room for One More" in 1952)

S&TC Redux

A funny thing happened to "Sex & the City" on its way to the big screen. It lost its sense of humor. Somehow, a TV sitcom - introduced on HBO in 1998 - that was alternately lively, ribald, often scandalous, achingly human and compulsively watchable has morphed, some ten years later, into a shameless, elephantine soap opera.

You can say a lot about the new film of Candace Bushnell's unsinkable material, some of it complimentary, but you can't say it's funny.

Oddly enough, the same misdirection plagued two network clones - "Cashmere Mafia" and "Lipstick Jungle" - that greedily planned to exploit the popularlity of S&TC.
"Cashmere Mafia" and "Lipstick Jungle" had everything down pat - the self-satisfied characters, the fashions, the conspicuous consumption, the free-flowing alcohol, the snarky dialogue - everything but the humor. Both, presented as dramas, missed the crucial point that S&TC was at heart a comedy.

You'd expect that the minds behind "Sex & the City: The Movie" - Darren Starr and Michael Patrick King, who also shepherded the series - to know better, but no. Their four formerly plucky heroines now practically have "bloodhounds yapping at the rears," to paraphrase Thelma Ritter from "All About Eve." And, oh, the heartbreak of it all...

Gone is the cartoonishness of the shared lifestyle of Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) and company, a group of women given to shocking outbursts and rampant sarcasm. There was a belief in some quarters that the show was really about four gay men - only disguised as women. I remember when Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwartzbaum posited this compelling theory in one of her movie reviews.

It made sense and I personally came to see (and enjoy) S&TC as a show not about women, but about four cross-dressing men. I mean, the Samantha character (Kim Cattall) in particular always had the contours of a female impersonator - you know, way, way bigger than life.

"To Wong Fu, Thanks for Everything, Carrie Bradshaw"?

Whatever. On the show, Samantha, a serial bimbo, was raunchy and funny. In the film, she's neither. Now anchored to one man (a slack-jawed Jason Lewis), she misses her bed-hopping so much that she suffers a slow, prolonged meltdown throughout the film, becoming a peeping tom.

Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) was always snarky and funny. Now, she's just snarky - and always angry. And, frankly, unpleasant to be around. You can understand why her dull, nondescript husband (David Eigenberg) would have a quickie with another woman (although you can't quite understand why the woman was interested in him). As he whines and pleads for forgiveness (not attractive), Miranda near-sadistically rejects him (with Cynthia bringing her most defiant, Nixonian reading to the situation).

Charlotte (Kristen Davis) remains what she was on the show - a velvet steamroller. She may seem silly and look sweet and innocent, but she's a killer. Tears, manipulated on cue, are her lethal weapon. I never liked her.

Which brings us to Carrie, still willfully self-involved and shallow. The film is about her and how she's betrayed for the umpteenth time by Mr. Big, née John James Preston (Chris Noth), whose newly-developed paunch is exacerbated by a silly cummerbund in one scene. (This guy's a catch?)

Carrie's misplaced and quite pathetic Cinderella complex and her self-pity, both of which dominate most of the film's 148-minute running time, could have been material for purple-colored, Douglas Sirk-ian filmmaking if only the movie had retained some of the material's original campiness.

Supporting players from the TV series - Lynn Cohen, Willie Garson, Mario Cantone, Candice Bergen, Evan Handler - are reduced to wallpaper here. Their characters are all personality-free and have the skimpiest dialogue.

Only Parker seems to matter and it's a good thing that she's such a good actress because she somehow makes the 148 minutes of navel-gazing not only bearable but fascinating. Carrie is her role of a lifetime and Parker takes full advantage of it (but to the detriment of her talented co-stars).

Memorably following behind Parker are Jennifer Hudson, who is natural and charming as Carrie's assistant, and a young actress named Dreama Walker who nearly walks off with the movie in her one scene as an "Upper East Side Waitress" (as her character is identified).

S&TC remains an unstoppable retro-cult piece. Women who would normally object - and strenuously - to being called silly and shallow have embraced it in a near-mindless way. It's encouraged middle-aged women, not just young girls, to dream about being Cinderella. Not a pretty picture.

The word "empowerment" was drastically redefined by Bushnell's material. So much for the advances of women, so much for feminism. There's a reason why sex columnist Dan Savage ("Savage Love") has referred to S&TC's successful run on HBO as a "reign of terror."

The show - and now the movie - has a lot of explaining to do.

Note in Passing: Wasn't this film made by James Ivory in 1989? Back then, it was called "Slaves of New York," based on the tome by Tama Janowitz (the Candace Bushnell of her day - well, not quite), and Bernadette Peters played the Carrie Bradshaw role.

"Slaves of New York"? Sounds like another candidate for Cinema Obscura. Whatever happened to that film?

(Artwork: Carrie and Samantha, ignoring one another, in a scene from the TV show; Noxeema Jackson (Wesley Snipes), Chi-Chi Rodriguez (John Leguizamo) and Vida Boheme (Patrick Swayze), the female impersonators from "To Wong Fu, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar," and the poster art for James Ivory's "Slaves of New York")