Wednesday, January 21, 2009


The current Jeremy Piven/"Speed-the-Plow" controversy brings to mind a bit of Broadway folklore involving Jackie Gleason.

Back in the late 1950s, Gleason was anxious to open on Broadway in a musical and settled on one produced by David Merrick - Bob Merrill's 1959 "Take Me Along," co-starring Walter Pidgeon and based on Eugene O'Neill's "Ah, Wilderness."

"Open." Yes, the operative word, it seems, is that Gleason wanted to open in a Broadway musical, not necessarily appear in one for any length of time.

Well, the show was a huge success but, as the dust of the acclaim settled, Gleason quickly tired of it, calling in sick regularly. Columnists Dorothy Killgalen and Walter Winchell, among others, had a field day, speculating on why Merrick, noted for his temper and an ego as big as Gleason's, didn't explode.

Turns out, the legendary producer was prepared for Gleason's behavior, reportedly taking out a special insurance policy that covered him whenever his star missed a performance. Once Gleason found out, he retaliated by never missing another performance. He stayed with the show until his contract ended.

Time Magazine alluded to this feud in a piece titled "The Big Hustler" in which Merrick comments that Gleason repeatedly threatened during the nogtiations for the show to "get sick" if he wasn't kept happy. The now-timely article ran 47 years ago ... on Friday, 29 December, 1961.

Artword: The Playbill from Jackie Gleason's "Take Me Along," and Jeremy Piven

the contrarian: "30." Rocks. NOT.

The Ubiquitous Tina Fey, Writing TV's Best Sitcom
Once again, I am contentedly in the minority - TV-wise, that is.

A few years ago, I was bewildered by the euphoria among television critics over "My Name Is Earl." The first show seemed refreshingly oddball. The second show seemed the same. The third and fourth shows? No different. After a few weeks, I had the vague suspicion that I watching the same exact episode over and over again. And, still, despite this glaring creative bankruptcy, the reviewers continued to do head-spins.

Now it's "30 Rock." Exactly what is the big deal, folks? It's been lionized as one of the best sitcoms - ever - as well as the best currently on the tube. Hands-down. No questions asked. Well, I find it without a single thread of humor and, narratively, it's all over the place - a mess really.

The characters are, frankly, unappealing and - let's put it out there - I am so over Alec Baldwin (a favorite of mine, btw) and his redundant shtick.

Much of this is the result of the bad writing - which is supposed to be star Tina Fey's experetise. I was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt, accounting interference from top brass for much of the show's juvenile jokes - that is, until her outburst at the recent Golden Globes, "Suck it!," directed twice at critical internet pests. Real mature. Just like her show.


façade: Mickey Rourke

Mickey: Contemplative, Poetic and ... Threatening
Mickey Rourke burst onto the film scene in Peter Levin's powerful 1980 based on-a-true-story televison movie, "Rape and Marriage: The Rideout Case," in which he played John Rideout to Linda Hamilton's Greta.

He had already played small roles in two high-profile films - Steven Spielberg's "1941" (1979) and Vernon Zimmerman's black comedy, "Fade to Black" (1980) - but in another year or so, he'd take command of the big screen with a series of commanding performances in a string of estimable films that made him, yes, the latest "next James Dean."

For approximately a dacade, he reigned in interesting titles for the most interesting filmmakers - as Lawrence Kasdan's "Body Heat" (1981), Barry Levinson's "Diner" (1982), Nicolas Roeg's "Eureka" (1983), Francis Ford Coppola's "Rumble Fish" (1983), Stuart Rosenberg's "The Pope of Greenwich Village" (1984), Michael Cimino's "Year of the Dragon" (1985), Adrien Lyne’s “9½ Weeks” (1986), Alan Parker's "Angel Heart" (1987), Barbet Schroeder's "Barfly" (1987), Mike Hodges' "A Prayer for the Dying" (1987), Liliana Cavani's "Francesco" (1989), Walter Hill's "Johnny Handsome" (1989) and Roger Donaldson's "White Sands" (1992).

In those films, he brilliantly juxtaposed a certain delicacy with toughness, delivering his dialogue in an intimidating whisper. He was both seductive and threatening. And while women were attracted to other actors for their distinctly masculine features, they were drawn to Mickey's trademark lips, always pursed and usually with a cigarette ensconced between them.

Much about Mickey Rourke has changed - physically - but that soft whisper and those beestung lips remain ever intact. Welcome back.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

façade: Hermès Pan

For no specific reason (other than the fact that I want to), this little essay is devoted to that artist with the most exotic of names, Hermès Pan.

Pan - born Hermès Panagiotopoulos on 10 December 1909 in Memphis, Tennessee - was (1) a movie choreographer extraordinaire, (2) Fred Astaire's house dance designer, (3) Astaire's near-doppelganger and (4) the man who, with Astaire, groomed the sublime Barrie Chase for a career on screen that could have rivaled Cyd Charisse's.

But Chase elected to retire young. Silly girl.

Actually, there is somewhat of a hook: "Flower Drum Song," one of the films choreographed by Pan during his most active period (and a recent inductee in the National Film Registry), airs tomorrow on Turner classics - Sunday, 18 January at 2:15 p.m., est.

Pan's glory days were in the 1930s when he worked with Astaire and Ginger Rogers in their great Art Deco musicals. But much later, between 1957 and 1973 and towards the end of his career, Pan was apparently the go-to guy for film choreography, overseeing 16 films in as many years:

"Pal Joey" (George Sidney, 1957)
"Silk Stockings" (Rouben Mamoulian, 1957)
"Never Steal Anything Small" (Charles Lederer, 1959)
"Porgy and Bess" (Otto Preminger, 1959)
"The Blue Angel" (Edward Dmytryk, 1959)
"Can-Can" (Walter Lang, 1960)
"Bells Are Ringing" (Vincinte Minnelli, 1960 - uncredited)
"The Pleasure of His Company" (George Seaton, 1961)
"Flower Drum Song" (Henry Koster, 1961)
"Cleopatra" (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1963)
"The Pink Panther" (Blake Edwards, 1963 - uncredited)
"My Fair Lady" (George Cukor, 1964)
"The Great Race" (Blake Edwards, 1965)
"Finian's Rainbow" (Francis Ford Coppola, 1968)
"Darling Lili" (Blake Edwards, 1970)
"Lost Horizon" (Charles Jarrott, 1973)

Both "Can-Can" and "Flower Drum Song," made a year apart, feature beautiful ballet sequences that can be considered companion pieces to one another. Regarding "Bells Are Ringing," although Charles O'Curran is listed as its choreographer, Hal Linden singles out Pan in his commentary on the film's DVD. My suspicion is that Pan quietly contributed the steps for the "Midas Touch" number which is performed in the movie by Linden (and is basically obscured in the background).

Pan also choreographed Astaire's three acclaimed TV specials - "An Evening with Fred Astaire" (1958), "Another Evening with Fred Astaire" (1959) and "Astaire Time" (1960), which is where Barrie Chase comes into the picture. After a few small roles in films such as Edmund Goulding's "Mardi Gras," she was Astaire's new dancing partner.

In '59, Pan was hired by Frank Sinatra to choreograph the aforementioned "Can-Can," and brought Chase along to play the second female lead, Claudine, the main can-can dancer. (Chase, Pan and Sinatra had all worked together on "Pal Joey.")

Chase ultimately bolted the production when most of her musical numbers were given to star Shirley MacLaine, as detailed in the DVD's liner notes.

MacLaine herself recounted this to Newsweek in its May 28, 1998/Sinatra Tribute issue in a piece carrying her byline.

Talking to Sinatra in the piece, she wrote: "You strong-armed Twentieth Century-Fox to make 'Can-Can' because you thought I should do a musical. And you had them combine the two female leads into a single character so people could see more of what I could do." That's only partially true. The character of Claudine was watered-down but still very much exists in the film. It was eventually recast with Juliet Prowse, who replaced the very wise Chase. Bad film, that "Can-Can."

Pan performed infrequently on screen (as a "specialty dancer") - most notably with both Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth - but for the most part enjoyed watching his terpsichorean creations from the wings. He died of a stroke at age 88 on 19 September 1990 in Beverly Hills.

(Artwork: Hermès Pan kicks it up with Betty Grable in Walter Lang's "Coney Island")

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

missed opportunity: Jack Lemmon's "A Coupla White Chicks Sitting Around Talking"

Jack Lemmon tried his hand at directing on only one occasion - "Kotch," the 1971 comedy-drama starring his buddy Walter Matthau that airs on Turner on Tursday, 15 January at 5:15 a.m., est., as part of its Lemmon tribute.

He seemingly stopped there. Seemingly.

In the early 1980s, Lemmon was once on board to direct a film version of John Ford Noonan's off-Broadway hit, "A Coupla White Chicks Sitting Around Talking," for Burt Sugarman (the producer-husband of Mary Hart who would go on to produce the film of another play, Mark Medoff's "Children of a Lesser God," in 1986).

"White Chicks," adapted for the screen first by Noonan himself and then by Wendy Wasserstein, was to star Jill Clayburgh and Susan Sarandon, the latter having appeared in the piece on stage opposite Eileen Brennan.

20th Century-Fox went so far as to design pre-production ads for the film, but the project never came together.

(Artwork: Pre-production ad from a Variety pullout, circa 1981, for the shelved "A Coupla White Chicks Sitting Around Talking" film)

Sunday, January 11, 2009


–noun (plural -cies).
1. utterly senseless or foolish behavior as espoused by the E! channel; a stupid or foolish act, statement, etc., as espoused by the E! channel.
2. Psychology. the state of being an idiot, E!-style.

I'm currrently watching the E! channel's red-carpet coverage of The Golden Globes - two shows that handily qualify as dumb and dumber.

Watching a lot of unattractive, obnoxious gay guys and ditzy women heavily made-up to resemble prostitutes, it occured to me that there has been this concerted effort by a certain segment of the media to turn American women into ... idiots. I mean, does the average woman actually care about the borrowed, borderline ugly dresses of ambitious actresses desperate for attention? I guess we're currently experiencing this dubious phenomenon thanks to those vapid gay guys and heavily made-up women who hang on their every word - and also to the assembly-line of chick flicks and romcoms that reached something of a nadir lately.

But the real blame goes to "Sex and the City," which started all this product-placement obsessive preoccupation with shoes and handbags - and whose unfortunate run on HBO has been accurately described by sex columnist Dan Savage as "a reign of terror." Amen.

And who are you wearing?

(Artwork: Sarah Jessica - isn't she gorgeous?)

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

façade: Jack Carson

Now is the time to praise Jack Carson. Yes, Jack Carson - supreme character actor, companionable sidekick, likable screen presence.

I mention him because Carson (1910-1963) pops up on Turner Classics during its Star of the Month tribute to Jack Lemmon.

The two Jacks appear together in Mark Robson's "Phffft!," airing tomorrow, Wednesday, 7 January at 8 p.m., est., on TCM.

Carson arrived in Hollywood in 1937, found work at RKO as an extra and proved to be an adjustible wrench, an actor who could do anything - Sing. Dance. Do Comedy. Handle heavy drama. And support the star without upstaging the star. Which is very important in terms of career longevity.

Carson made something like a hundred movies, plus innumerable TV appearances, and he was especially effective in the 1950s when he provided titanic support in such films as George Marshall's 'Red Garters" (1954), Robson's "Phffft!" (1954), George Cukor's "A Star Is Born" (1954), Edward Buzzell's "Ain't Misbehavin'" (1955), Jack Arnold's "The Tattered Dress" (1957), Douglas Sirk's "The Tarnished Angels" (1958), Leo McCarey's "Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys" (1958) and Richard Brooks' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (1958), the latter two with Paul Newman.

My own favorite Carson performance was opposite Rosalind Russell in Michael Curtiz's "Roughly Speaking" (1945), whose story (based on a novel by Louise Randall Pierson) was ahead of its time in its observations of an independent-minded woman trying to cope and excel in a man's world and the husband who elects to back her up and support her even though he doesn't fully endorse - or even understand - her views.

Carson was a playful co-star in two 1948 musicals - opposite Doris Day in her first film, Michael Curtiz's "Romance on the High Seas," and Ann Sothern in James V. Kern's "April Showers." And there were good roles in such diverse films as Alfred Hitchcock's "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" (1941), Raoul Walsh's "The Strawberry Blonde" (1951), Elliott Nugent's "The Male Animal" (1942), Frank Capra's "Arsenic and Old Lace" (1945) and, of course, Curtiz's "Mildred Pierce" (1945).

I always found Jack Carson to be pleasingly human, ever-reliable and affable, someone to anticipate in a film. His final movie was Daniel Petrie's "The Bramble Bush," a Warner soap opera starring Richard Burton, Barbara Rush and Angie Dickinson made in 1960. He died three years later, at age 53, of stomach cancer.

(Artwork: Affable Jack Carson, much missed)

Friday, January 02, 2009

cinema obscura: Mike Binder's "Man About Town" (2006)

A lost Mike Binder film starring Ben Affleck has been popping up on The Movie Channel lately, namely "Man About Town," a comedy-drama about marital infidelity that premiered at the Santa Barbara Film Festival in February, 2006 but never had a theatrical run in this country.

It played Russia, Australia, the Netherlands and Belgium, among other places, but strangely enough, not here.

From what I gather, Affleck does a good job as a Hollywood talent agent who loses his confidence and starts to question his worth when he discovers that wife Rebecca Romijn has cheated on him.

The estimable supporting caswt includes John Cleese, Gina Gershon, Kal Penn, Bai Ling, Howard Hesseman, Jerry O'Connell, Adam Goldberg, Amber Valletta, Damien Wayans and Binder himself.

"Man About Town" - which Binder made between the Kevin Costner-Joan Allen film, "The Upside of Anger" (2005), and Adam Sandler's "Reign Over Me" (2007) - encores on The Movie Channel on Sunday, 11 January at 6 p.m., est., and again on Thursday, 15 January at 8 p.m., est.

(Artwork: Poster art for "Man About Town")

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Zero Eight

The Usual Suspects/The Unhearalded...

“In Bruges”/Martin McDonagh

“Slumdog Millionaire” (Danny Boyle/Loveleen Tandan)

“Burn After Reading”/The Coen Brothers

“Redbelt”/David Mamet

“4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” (“4 luni, 3 saptamâni si 2 zile”)/Cristian Mungiu

“Cassandra’s Dream”("Le Rêve de Cassandre")/Woody Allen

“Appaloosa”/Ed Harris

“Mamma Mia!”/Phyllida Lloyd

“Roman de Gare”/Claude Lelouche

“The Visitor”/Tom McCarthy

"Savage Grace"/Tom Kalin
"Man on Wire"/James Marsh
“Stop-Loss”/Kimberly Peirce
"Waltz with Bashir"/Ari Folman
“Love Songs” (”Les Chansons d'amour”)/Christophe Honoré
“Towelhead”/Alan Ball
“Tell No One” (”Ne le dis à personne”)/Guillaume Canet
“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”/David Fincher
“Milk”/Gus Van Sant
“A Christmas Tale” (”Un conte de Noël”)/Arnaud Desplechin
“Marley & Me”/David Frankel
“Flight of the Red Balloon” (”Le Voyage du ballon rouge”)/Hsiao-hsien Hou
“Wall-E”/Andrew Stanton
“Twilight”/Catherine Hardwicke
“Noise”/Henry Bean
"Smother"/Vince Di Meglio
“Chris & Don. A Love Story”/Tina Mascara and Guido Santi
“The Bank Job”/Roger Donaldson
“Role Models”/David Wain
“Priceless” (“Hors de prix“)/Pierre Salvadori
“Flash of Genius”/Marc Abraham
“Funny Games”/Michael Heneke
"The Secret Life of Bees"/Gina Prince-Bythewood
“Gran Torino”/Clint Eastwood
“RocknRolla”/Guy Ritchie
“Frozen River”/Courtney Hunt

And The Thesps...

Colin Ferrell - lead actor for "In Bruges" (with an able, invaluable assist from Brendan Gleeson, thank you) and "Cassandra's Dream"

Melissa Leo - lead actress for "Frozen River"

Aaron Eckhart - supporting actor for "Towelhead" and "The Dark Knight"

Dakota Fanning - supporting actress for "The Secret Life of Bees" and "Hounddog"

And a few more...
Josh Brolin/“W.”
Josh Brolin/“Milk”
Sean Penn/“Milk”
Richard Jenkins/“The Visitor”
Julianne Moore/"Savage Grace"
Misty Upham/“Frozen River”
Jane Lynch/“Role Models”
Greg Kinnear/“Flash of Genius”
Summer Bishil/"Towelhead"
Peter Macdissi/"Towelhead"
Anna Faris/"The House Bunny"
Diane Keaton/"Smother"
Clint Eastwood/“Gran Torino”
Viola Davis/"Doubt"
Dev Patel/“Slumdog Millionaire”
Emily Moritmer/“Redbelt”
Fanny Ardant"Roman de Gare”
Clyde/"Marley and Me"
Kevin Costner /"Swing Vote"
Madeline Carroll /"Swing Vote"
Mickey Rourke /"The Wrestler"
Marisa Tomei /"The Wrestler"
Sally Potter /"Happy Go Lucky"
Anamaria Marinca/“4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days”
Laura Vasiliu/“4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days”
Vlad Ivanov/“4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days”
Michelle Williams/"Wendy and Lucy"
Justin Long/“Zack and Miri Make a Porno”
Rosemarie DeWitt/“Rachel Getting Married”
Brad Pitt/“Burn After Reading” and Brad Pitt as "Benjamin Button"

Note in Passing: - In the "Way Too Much of a Good Thing" category, there's Michael Shannon in "Revolutionary Road." He's in two scenes. In the first, he seemingly strolls in from nowhere and effectively takes the movie hostage. He's riveting. In the second, however, Shannon becomes a major annoyance, his actorly tricks becoming obvious and self-conscious.

You can't wait until the scene is over and he's off screen.

(Artwork: Memorable images (for me, at least) from the film year 2008)