Friday, November 29, 2013

indelible moment: Adam McKay's "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby" (2006)

  Credit: Columbia Pictures

In anticipation of the latest Will Ferrell-Adam McKay collaboration, "Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues"  (opening December 18), I off this hilarious scene - the"Baby Jesus" grace - is from their best movie to date,  McKay's slyly subversive "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby," in which Will Ferrell plays a clueless George W. Bush (yep)  in the guise of clueless NASCAR stock car racing sensation Ricky Bobby.

The sequence in question has the Bobby family gathered around the table for a feast of fast-food takeouts. The clan includes Cal Naughton Jr. (John C. Reilly), Ricky's BFF (Cal is "shake" to Ricky's "bake"); Carley Bobby (Leslie Bibb), Ricky's hot wife; Chip (Ted Manson), Carley's father, and Walker and Texas Ranger (Houston Tumlin and Grayson Russell), Carley and Ricky's obnoxious sons. The wicked dialogue was written by Ferrell and McKay and There's a reason why Manhola Dargis touted "Ricky Bobby's" script as one of the five best original screenplays in her 2007 New York Times essay on recommended Oscar nominations for 2006.

And let the grace (and its sureally profane aftermath) proceed...

Ricky: Dear Lord Baby Jesus, or as our brothers to the south call you, Jesús, we thank you so much for this bountiful harvest of Domino’s, KFC, and the always delicious Taco Bell. I just want to take time to say thank you for my family, my two beautiful, beautiful, handsome, striking sons, Walker and Texas Ranger, or T.R. as we call him, and of course, my red-hot smoking wife, Carley who is a stone-cold fox.

Cal: Mmmm.

Ricky: Also wanna thank you for my best friend and teammate, Cal Naughton Jr. who’s got my back no matter what.

Cal: Shake and Bake!

Ricky: Dear Lord Baby Jesus, we also thank you for my wife’s father, Chip. We hope that you can use your Baby Jesus powers to heal him and his horrible leg. And it smells terrible and the dogs are always bothering with it!

Cal: Mmmm.

Ricky: (continuing) Dear tiny, infant Jesus...

Carley: Hey, you know, sweetie, Jesus did grow up. You don’t always have to call him “baby.” It’s a bit odd and off-putting to pray to a baby.

Ricky: Well, I like the Christmas Jesus best and I’m saying grace. When you say grace, you can say it to grownup Jesus, or teenage Jesus, or bearded Jesus or whoever you want.

Carley: You know what I want? I want you to do this grace good so that God will let us win tomorrow.

Ricky: Dear tiny Jesus, in your golden-fleece diapers, with your tiny, little, fat, balled-up fists...

Chip: He was a man! He had a beard!

Ricky: Look, I like the baby version the best, do you hear me? I win the races and I get the money.

Carley: Ricky, finish the damn grace.

Cal: I like to picture Jesus in a tuxedo T shirt, 'cause it says, like, “I wanna be formal..."

Ricky: Right!

Cal: "... but I’m here to party, too.” 'Cause I like to party, so I like my Jesus to party.

Walker: I like to picture Jesus as a ninja fighting off evil samurai.

Cal: I like to think of Jesus, like, with giant eagle’s wings.

Ricky: Yeah!

Cal: And singing lead vocals for Lynyrd Skynyrd, with, like, a angel band. And I’m in the front row, and I’m hammered drunk.

Carley: Hey Cal, why don’t you just shut up?

Cal: Yes, ma’am.

Ricky: Okay. Dear eight-pound, six-ounce newborn infant Jesus, don’t even know a word yet, just a little infant and so cuddly, but still omnipotent, we just thank you for all the races I’ve won and the 21.2 million dollars – woo!

Cal: Woo!

Carley: Woo!

Walker and Texas Ranger: Ow!

Ricky: Love that money! - that I have accrued over this past season. Also, due to a binding endorsement contract that stipulates I mention Powerade at each grace, I just want to say that Powerade is delicious...

Cal: Mmmm!

Ricky: ...and it cools you off on a hot summer day. And we look forward to Powerade’s release of Mystic Mountain Blueberry...

Cal: Mmmm!

Ricky: ...Thank you for all your power and your grace, dear baby God. Amen.

Carley: Amen!

Cal: Amen!

Ricky: Let's dig in!

Cal: That was a hell of a grace, man. You nailed that like a split hog!

Ricky: I appreciate that. I'm not gonna lie to you, it felt good.

Walker: Dad, you made that grace your bitch.

Carley: (to Walker and Texas Ranger) Hey, boys, I wanna see some napkins in the lap.

Ricky: Boys, how was school today?

Walker: I threw a bunch of grandpa Chip's war medals off the bridge!

Ricky: Sounds like a good day. Texas Ranger, how about you?

Texas Ranger: Well, the teacher asked me what was the capital of North Carolina.

Ricky: Mm-hmm?

Texas Ranger: I said, "Washington, D.C."

Cal: Bingo!

Texas Ranger: She said, "No, you're wrong." I said, "You got a lumpy butt." She got mad at me and yelled at me and I pissed in my pants.

Ricky I'm so proud of you, boys. You remind me of me - precocious and full of wonderment.

Chip: I can't hold my tongue. These kids are my grandchildren, and you are raising them wrong. They are terrible boys.

Walker: Shut up, Chip, or I'll go ape-shit on your ass!

Texas Ranger: I'm gonna scissor-kick you in the back of the head.

Cal: Yeah!

Ricky:: Yeah! Turn up the heat!

Cal: Go on and get some, boys!

Ricky: Come on.

Walker: I'm 10 years old but I'll beat your ass.

Texas Ranger: Chip, I'm gonna come at you like a spider monkey.

Ricky: Chip, you brought this on, man.

Chip: What is wrong with you?

Texas Ranger: Chip, I'm all jacked up on Mountain Dew.

Ricky: Whoo-hoo, I love that!

Chip: You gonna let your sons talk to their grandfather like that? I'm their elder.

Ricky: I sure as hell am, Chip. I love the way they're talking to you. 'Cause they're winners. Winners get to do what they want. The only thing you ever done with your life is make a hot daughter. That's it. That's it! That is it!

Carley: We wanted us some wussies, we would've named them Dr. Quinn and Medicine Woman, okay?

Ricky: I worked too hard for your bull, Chip. Everyone just keep eatin'.

Carley: (to Ricky, lunging at him) Come here! I'm hot!

[She lands on him and they kiss passionately - and inappropriately.]

Cal: Alright! I'll hold your hair.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

façade: Pamela Tiffin


Pamela Tiffin. Even the name has the perfect movie-starlet allure, circa 1960.

Tiffin's star shined briefly in the early 1960s when she made an auspicious Hollywood debut in three major back-to-back films, starting with Peter Glenville's 1961 adaptation of the Tennessee Williams play, "Summer and Smoke," starring Geraldine Page and Laurence Harvey. She followed this later the same year with a game, comic turn in Billy Wilder's "One, Two, Three" and in José Ferrer's remake of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, "State Fair," in 1962.

And then, it suddenly seemed over. A list of forgettable, youth-oriented films followed and then a turn in Italian films before she retired. She was married briefly to New York editor Clay Felker and, when last reported, was married to Edmondo Danon and lives with Danon and their two daughters in Manhattan.

Tiffin was a wisp of an actress, turning in small, quiet and yet craft-like performance in those first three films. Her rendition of "It Might as Well Be Spring" in "State Fair" (whether dubbed or not) is downright palpable, a beautiful moment in an otherwise forgotten film. I sense that she was an actress who needed the protection and direction of the studio system, which was on its last leg when Tiffin came along.

A few other noteworthy titles dot her filmography - John Sturges' "The Hallelujah Trail" (1965), Jack Smight's "Harper" (1966) and Jerry Paris' delightful "Viva, Max!" (1969) - but her potential was never truly fulfilled.

In 1964, she made "The Pleasure Seekers," Jean Negulesco's remake of his 1954 romance, "Three Coins in the Fountain," with co-stars Ann-Margret and Carol Lynley, who were probably her chief rivals at auditions in those days. In the early '60s, in terms of ingenués, they were the only game in town - the resident blonde, redhead and brunette.

(Artwork: Pamela Tiffin on the cover of a summer 1962 issue of Screen Stories, which profiles her film, "State Fair," inside)

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

cinema obscura: Billy Wilder's "Fedora" (1978)

Billy Wilder remained a vital, prolific filmmaker, while many of his contemporaries were slowing down with only an occasional film.

But Wilder kept churning out title after title, particularly in the 1950s and '60s. In 1957, for example, he was actually able to produce a wildly diverse trio - "Love in the Afternoon," "The Spirit of St. Louis" and "Witness for the Prosecution." Whew.

But after "The Fortune Cookie" in 1966, he abruptly pulled back. It was four years later when he returned with the troubled but appealing "The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes," followed another two years by "Avanti!," a sophisticated but clearly middle-aged entertainment. Yes, he was beginning to slow down, too, and would make only three more films, two of them rather lethargic Lemmon-Matthau teamings, "The Front Page" and "Buddy Buddy," the latter being Wilder's final film.

But sandwiched in-between was the compelling"Fedora" (1978), an attempt by Wilder to return to form. More accurately, it was a companion piece to his triumphant "Sunset Blvd." (1950), replete with the same leading man - William Holden. It was nearly 30 years later and Wilder and, to a degree, Holden were out to prove that they still had it in them to make a seminal, influential movie about the filmmaking process. Only this time, the pervasive eerieness of the material wasn't simple camp.

"Fedora" is genuinely eerie. Actually, it's downright creepy.

Once again, Holden plays a washed-up movie opportunist hoping to nudge a retired, reclusive actress - the Polish Fedora - toward a comeback with his new version of "Anna Karenina." But something is amiss, strange.

And when Fedora dies suddenly, after jumping in front of a moving train, Holden attempts to ferret out the ... "truth." That word comes with ominous underpinings. "Fedora" is an atmospheric, chilly affair, not quite as companionable as "Sunset Blvd.," and while Wilder opted for color cinematography (courtesy of Gerry Fisher's painterly hues) rather than black-&-white, he conjurs up dreamy shadow imagery that efficiently distills his film's disturbing themes. (A French-German co-production, "Fedora" is essentially the European sibling of "Sunset Blvd.")

The film's Big Secret, concocted by Tom Tryon (the late film-actor-turned-writer) for a short story in his 1978 collection, "Crowned Heads," remains provocative, and Wilder surrounded Holden with both a top international cast - Marthe Keller (pictured above with Holden), Hildegard Kneff, Stephen Collins, José Ferrer, Frances Sternhagen, Henry Fonda, Mario Adorf (below with Holden), Arlene Francis and Michael York - and a fabulous setting, the Greek Island of Corfu.

For the occasion, the director adapted Tryon's story in collaboration with his long-time writing partner, I.A.L. "Izzy" Diamond, and these vets make it clear that they are striving not for the modernity of the other films at the time but for something ageless. Again, not unlike "Sunset Blvd."

Their efforts here almost matched their previous projects. Almost.

Note in Passing: In his book, "Conversations with Wilder," Cameron Crowe writes, "Wilder is quick to point out that his original casting plan would have served the picture better." I believe, if my recollections are correct, that his original plan was to cast Vanessa Redgrave and her mother Rachel Kempson is the roles ultimately played by Keller and Kneff.

Friday, November 08, 2013

façade: The Two Arthurs

In the 1950s, your average male movie star was nothing less than iconic - bigger than life and capable of making his fans seem small and childlike. I mean, few men off-screen measured up to Burt Lancaster or Kirk Douglas. They were too intimidating to be our friends. Almost scary.

Closer to real life, as always, were the reliable character actors, and few were as relatable or as memorable as the two Arthurs - Kennedy and O'Connell - men who effortlessly inhabited a world and situations that were as familiar as our own. They were also polar opposites of each other, with Kennedy's characters often trapped in a discordant, dangerous psychological struggles with themselves, while O'Connell's seemingly innate easy-goingness made the viewer feel safe and comfortable.
Kennedy is particuarly unforgettable as the bad fathers in Mark Robson's "Peyton Place" (1957) and Delmer Dave's "A Summer Place" (1959) and as Frank Sinatra's cowardly brother in Vincente Minnelli's "Some Came Running..." (1959), for which he was nominated for a well-deserved Academy Award.

Arthur K. is also compulsively watchable in Joseph Pevney's "Twilight of the Gods" (1958), Richard Brooks' "Elmer Gantry" (1960), Gordon Douglas' "Claudelle Inglish" (1961), David Lean's "Lawrence of Arabia" (1962) and Robson's "Trial" (1955), among many other titles.

O'Connell, who appeared in something like 130 films, excelled in two in particular, both directed by Joshua Logan - "Picnic" (1955), as Rosalind Russell's reluctant, way-too pliable boyfriend, and "Bus Stop" (1956), as an old stallion trying to keep a young buck in line. He is bumbling and funny in Richard Quine's "Operation Mad Ball" (1957), solid and funny in Blake Edwards' "Operation Petticoat" (1959) and solid and typically supportive in Otto Preminger's sublime courtroom classic, "Anatomy of a Murder" (also 1959).

The good, gray, seemingly ageless O'Connell also had a curious knack for creating chemistry with the teen stars of his day - in Don Siegel's "Hound-Dog Man" (1959) which had him sharing scenes with Fabian and Carol Lynley; Frank Capra's "Pocketful of Miracles" (1961), opposite Ann-Margret (as her faux "royal" stepfather) and, most telling, as the cozy fathers of Sandra Dee and Elvis Presley in Paul Wendkos' "Gidget" (1959) and Gordon Douglas' "Follow That Dream" (1952), respectively.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

indelible moment: "Picnic" (1955)

Ah, the days when filmmakers had to be creative.

I'm not talking about cinematics but content. However, in this case, cinematics and content are irrevocably intertwined. In bringing William Inge's seminal play of longing to the screen (by way of Daniel Taradash's fine screenplay), director Joshua Logan faced the challenge of having the piece's star-crossed lovers - stumble-bum Hal and small-town queen Madge - be intimate with actually showing them engaging in sex.

He shrewdly solved the problem with a dance that has become an iconic screen moment, even though is lasts only a minute or so. Swooning and gyrating to "Moonglow" and "The Theme from 'Picnic,'" expertly intertwined by composer George Duning, stars William Holden and Kim Novak seem to be improvising their choreographed sex act.

But, in actuality, the dance was overseen by choreographer Miriam Nelson who, for some bizarre reason, was never credited.

Nevertheless, what she created in ... indelible.

Note in Passing: Turner Classic Movies will screen "Picnic" at 8 p.m. (est) on Wednesday, 1 September - in anticipation of Labor Day, aptly enough the backdrop of the film.