Sunday, February 28, 2016

lily & blythe & charlotte & maggie

© Nicola Dove/Sony Pictures Classics  
Is Maggie Smith playing Auntie Mame to Alex Jennings' Patrick in "The Lady in the Van"?

Movie critics has been frantically busy with the pointless task of predicting the outcome of the Oscars, while also covering themselves:

Who will win...  Who should win...

Who cares?

Yes, Day of the Oscar is finally here.  Sight unseen, the show is already a bore.

Even more tiresome has been the talk of diversity among the nominated movies, or rather lack thereof.  It's been non-stop.  So much so that no one has bothered to step back and notice that four actresses of, well, advanced age shined in the kind of plum roles that are all too rare these days. Yes, Hollywood was a tad less ageist this year in terms of roles for women. (But not in terms of children: Apologies to "Room's" Jacob Tremblay, hands-down the year's best actor.  Sorry about that, Leo.)

The number four may not seem like a lot, but it's four more than modern cinema usually delivers. And it's something of a surprise that apparently Meryl Streep was not a contender for any one of these roles. Not one.

For the past few years, Streep has been the go-to actress for all the great "older woman" roles, even though she has talented contemporaries - Sigourney Weaver, Jessica Lange, Susan Sarandon, Michelle Pfeiffer, to name but four - who could have easily been cast in roles that went (almost without missing a beat) to Streep. I remember sitting through two stage productions - the musical "Momma Mia!" and the drama "August: Osage County" - and leaning over and making the same comment both times to my wife: "If this is ever made into a movie, the lead will go to Meryl."

The only actress in her league (and age range) who gives Streep a run for her money in terms of role-grabbing is the ubiquitous Helen Mirren.

I'm still surprised "Trumbo's" Hedda Hopper character wasn't snapped up by Meryl. I should probably stop here and confess that I think Streep is terrific (and that she was marvelous in both "Momma Mia!" and "August: Osage County"). Ditto Helen Mirren. But there are other actresses.

Such as Lily Tomlin, Blythe Danner, Charlotte Rampling and Maggie Smith, the four actresses referenced earlier, each of whom had a starring role in a film of some significance in the movie year 2015. By the way, at 67, Streep is the baby of the six actresses mentioned here, age-wise  Both Mirren and Rampling are 70; Danner is 73; Tomlin is 77 and Smith is, yes, a venerable, amazing 82.

Lily & Blythe & Charlotte & Maggie.  All four were touted for Oscar nominations.  Only one made the grade - Charlotte. And only one of them, in my opinion, was actually deserving of a nomination - Maggie.

Tomlin's acclaim came for Paul Weitz's "Grandma," a variation of sorts on Hal Ashby's "Harold and Maude" (1971), with Tomlin playing grandmother and mentor to Julie Garner's granddaughter, offering her no-nonsense and sometimes dubious advice.  Tomlin is Tomlin here, ever charming and ever companionable, even when she's being cantankerous - especially when she's being cantankerous. But as much as I enjoyed her work in "Grandma," does it define the idea of an award-worthy performance?  We all embraced Lily Tomlin in "Grandma" because, well, we all love Lily Tomlin. And, frankly, Oscars are routinely handed out for that reason.

The same argument can be made about Danner's showcase role in Brett Haley's "I'll See You in My Dreams."  Another actress who has lived in the shadow of Streep, the engaging  Danner - she of the hearty voice and distinctive stride - has rarely had the lead in a film during her 40-year movie career and has certainly never carried a film.  Danner's last great movie role was in Sidney Lumet's ”Lovin Molly” (1974).  After that, she largely played love interests and wives, devoting her non-movie hours to television, stage work and raising a family.

So her central role in "I'll See You in My Dreams" was a reason for celebration.  And apparently she was celebrated by a lot of critics, who seemed to rediscover her.  There was Danner in a role of some substance and worthy of her ability.  She was fuuny, she was sad, she was wistful and she even sang.  Irresistible. But the film surrounding her had the contours of a TV movie, lacking the kind of heft and credibility that rewards its star with an Oscar nomination.  That's what Danner deserves.

It's been heartening to witness the enthusiasm that has greeted Rampling for her performance in Andrew Haigh's "45 Years" because she has rarely been given credit for being a terrific actress.  That may be because she is a product of the Carnaby Steet era of British filmmaking when she and other actresses in her orbit (Jacqueline Bissett, Dominique Sanda and Jane Birkin, to name two) were viewed not only as movie stars but also jet-setters.

Rampling turns in a modestly contemplative performance in "45 Years," the kind that rarely gets noticed, and she is out-acted by her co-star, Tom Courtenay.

The film itself has been shrewdly made.  A couple, long married, learns that an old girlfriend of the husband's is dead. Actually, she died when he was still dating her.  But her body has just been found - more than 45 years later.  The situation produces stress, particularly for the wife. Many of the reviews of "45 Years" have speculated that the husband may have murdered the girl (who was pregnant at the time) and that the idea of this disturbs his wife. But none of this is even hinted at in the movie.

The critics have come to this conclusion largely because of Courtenay's odd, complex performance.  He seems guilty - at least through the eyes of his wife. And the audience is in league with her - at first. But as the film progresses, our sympathies shift. We become less suspicious of him and begin to see the wife as the one with serious psychological issues.

Rampling is especially memorable, disturbingly so, in the final moments of the film.  Again, this is a quiet performance, not really award-worthy but still, I'm thrilled Charlotte Rampling was nominated nevertheless.

Finally, there's Maggie Smith in Nicholas Hytner's "The Lady in the Van," turning in a shamelessly entertaining performance as a homeless woman who asks to park her dilapidated van in the driveway of playwright Alan Bennett (played by Alex Jennings in a clever dual-role) and stays there for 15 years, taking Bennett on a grand, unexpected adventure, alternately exhilarating and frustrating.

I saw this film - and Smith's performance in it - in a contrarian way.  From where I sat, her Miss Shepherd is a kind of decrepit Auntie Mame to Bennett's Patrick Dennis, opening doors for him - doors he never even dreamed existed (to quote Mame's final line from the play and movie) - although it is arguable that these are doors through which Bennett had no desire or inclination to pass. He's a most reluctant travel companion.

Smith's homeless lady very much exudes a curious jouissance.

And so, in my personal, solipsistic ceremony, the Oscar goes to Maggie Smith who is at once funny and poignant. And often at the same time.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

cinema obscura: Caspar Wrede's "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" (1970)

Let's hear it for Tom Courtenay.

A product of the raw-edged "kitchen sink" British dramas of the 1960s, Courtenay - best known for his flawless work in Tony Richardson's "The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner" (1962), as well as "Billy Liar," "King Rat" and "Otley" - always dissolved into the roles he played, never grandstanding.  One could never catch him "acting" for a second and, consequently, for most of his career, he functioned in the shadows of such peers as Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Alan Bates, Laurence Harvey, Terence Stamp, Peter O'Toole, Dirk Bogarde and Albert Finney.

Currently delivering another astute performance in Andrew Haigh's "45 Years," Courtenay has stood on the sidelines while his estimable co-star, Charlotte Rampling, has generated most of the critical praise.  Rampling has been nominated for an Academy Award for her performance, but not Courtenay, even though his role in the film is much more complex.

Which brings me to Courtenay's performance in  Caspar Wrede's "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" (1970).  Stark, spare, sparce. All the unsettling "S" words apply to "Ivan Denisovich," a faithful adaptation of Alexandre Solzhenitsyn's roman à clef of the same title - a work of fiction inspired by his own experiences as a prisoner in Stalin's Gulag.

Courtenay is mesmerizing in a performance of detailed miminalism as Ivan, branded a political prisoner while serving in the Russian army during World War II. Ivan is caprtured twice - first by the Nazis who place him in a P.O.W. camp, from which he escapes, and then by a suspicious Stalinist government which incarcerates him in a gulag for 10 years as a spy. That's 3650 days. 3650.


As its title says, the film is about just one day.

Wrede's accomplishment here - a risky one - is that, for 100 unrelentling minutes, the viewer experiences the boredom and tedium and, vicariously, the pain of Ivan's deadening, grueling daily routines.

And so, not surprisingly, "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" is an acquired taste. But the film's demands are definitely worth the effort.

Ronald Harwood - scenarist of "The Pianist" and "The Dresser" (which also starred Courtenay), among others - did the fly-on-the-wall adaptation, working from a translation of the original by Gillon Aitkin.


But it is Courtenay who brings it to life, achingly so.

Friday, February 19, 2016

façade: Grover Dale

Grover Dale attempting to teach society matron Lee Grant how to boogie in a witty scene from Hal Ashby's "The Landlord" (1970) That's Beau Bridges in the background, looking on in amusement

The screen has produced a wealth of wonderful dancers. Outstanding among the women are Rita Hayworth, Ann Miller, Eleanor Powell, Vera-Ellen and, of course, Ginger Rogers, arguably the most versatile of the group. But, Hollywood being Hollywood, it's the male dancers who commanded the most attention and praise - perhaps because they often collaborated with the choreographer or simply designed their own dances.

For this reason, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly immediately come to mind when we think about film and dance.  They dominated the field, often to the detriment of other fine male dancers (inadvertently so, of course).

Often overlooked are such terrific dancers as Gower Champion, Tommy Rall, Gene Nelson, Bobby Van and, initially, Bob Fosse - when he was just a dancer and supporting player usually billed as Robert Fosse.  He drew more attention when he moved into choreography and directing, as did Gower Champion.  Apologies to Fred and Gene, but screen dancing was rarely more thrilling than when Fosse teamed up with Van and Rall in George Sidney's "Kiss Me, Kate" (1953) or with Rall in Richard Quine's "My Sister Eileen" (1955) - or when Gene Nelson (perhaps my favorite of the bunch) kicked up dust in Bruce Humberstone's "She's Working Her Way Through College" (1952) or Fred Zinnemann's "Oklahoma!"(1955).

On a more (relatively) contemporary note, there's Grover Dale, who danced on-screen in only three movie musicals but made an indelible impression with his limited screen time in that trio. He also danced in the non-musical, "The Landlord."

Dale made his Broadway debut in 1956 in "Li'l Abner" and subsequently danced and acted in four major productions I saw as a kid - "West Side Story," "Greenwillow," "Sail Away" and "Half a Sixpence." After "Sixpence," he worked largely as a choreographer in the theater, taking time off occasionally to dance on film - which is where I really noticed his work.

Those films include his debut in Charles Walters' "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" (1964), Jacques Demy's "The Young Girls of Rochefort" ("Les demoiselles de Rochefort," 1967) and George Sidney's film of "Half a Sixpence" (also 1967).  Dale also had a curiously brief bit as Lee Grant's personal dance instructor in Hal Ashby's "The Landlord" (1970) - curious in that the film once included a musical dream sequence (inevitably deleted) involving stars Beau Bridges, Diana Sands and Lou Gossett - and, frankly, I've always wondered if that missing number was choreographed by Dale.
Dale, who is now 80, continued to choreograph for stage and screen.  He was married to the gorgeous dancer-actress Anita Morris until her death in 1994 and is the father of actor James Badge Dale who most recently starred with John Krasinski in the Michael Bay film, "13 Hours."

So let's see Grover Dale in action, first in the huge, sprawling "Money to Burn" number in Sidney's "Half a Sixpence," in which he recreated the role he played in the Broadway production and in which he manages to outdance everyone else on screen (and, in this scene, there are dozens).

The choreography is by Gillian Flynn:
  And then watch as he dances up a storm with Debbie Reynolds and Gus Trikonis (Goldie Hawn's first husband) in the rousing "He's My Friend" production number from Walters' "The Unsinkable Molly Brown," a song written especially for the film version by its composer Meredith Willson.

The choreography is by Peter Gennaro:

Monday, February 15, 2016

hail, coens!

"Hail, Caesar!," from the ever-inventive Joel and Ethan Coen, is an essentially pointless but hugely entertaining romp, but its pointlessness is the very quality that makes it so precious and necessary.  It's an affable reminder of a time when every movie didn't have to be "big," or "important" or "artistic" or "Box-Office Gold."  A movie simply had to be.

It's about Old Hollywood but it's also something of Old Hollywood itself.

The film comes with a certain appealing, unassuming modesty that might make it seem minor in the Coen canon but it is far from minor - not with its fabulous A-list cast or the refreshingly original idea behind it.

It just feels that way.

"Hail, Caesar!," set at Capitol Studios in the late 1940s or early '50s, is about a "fixer" named Eddie Mannix - a company man who specializes in damage control before that expression was coined.  It is Eddie's job to make sure that one of the studio's top male actors is seen at a premiere with a beautiful woman, preferably an actress also on the payroll, and to orchestrate the adoption of a baby by one of Capitol's female superstars.

Here's the deal: The baby is hers, see, but it was born out of wedlock.  Hence, the need to make it all look legitimate and, well, wholesome.

Josh Brolin plays Eddie and he receives top billing, which is more than deserved. The fact is, the cast is listed in alphabetical order, but still,  Brolin is the inarguable star of the Coens' stellar ensemble.

Scarlett Johansson is the unwed mother in a jam - the studio's coarse star of innocuous water musicals. And there's George Clooney as Capitol's biggest star, one with many questionable habits, and Channing Tatum as a song-and-dance man who's more than he seems, and Alden Ehrenreich as a singing cowboy of limited talent, and Frances McDormand as a no-nonsense film editor (ever hidden in a small, dark, smoke-filled editing room), and Jonah Hill as one of Capitol's in-house attorneys (handling the swimming star's adoption, which is creatively convoluted, of course), and Ralph Fiennes, witty as a fussy director named Lawrence Laurentz.

They all make terrific company.

But it's the peripheral stuff that makes "Hail, Caesar!" so irresistible, particularly Tilda Swinton, game as the twin gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker, both competitive and both deliciously venomous.

And then there's Clooney's esoteric throwaway reference to the film director Norman Taurog, whose whopping 183 credits can be seen here.

Any film that honors the under-appreciated Norman Taurog (Cary Grant's "Room for One More," "Boys Town," "Words and Music" and countless Martin & Lewis and Elvis films) is aces with me. Clooney's invoking of Taurog's name reminded me of the moment in Phil Thomas Anderson's "Inherent Vice" (which also featured Josh Brolin) when Serena Scott Thomas as Beverly Hills matron Sloane Wolfmann comments that the dramatic lighting in her her manse was "designed by Jimmy Wong Howe."

Perfect.

Note in Passing:  Christophe Lambert plays the German director of the sailor musical starring Channing Tatum in "Hail, Caesar!" and shares a scene with Josh Brolin - something of a clever inside joke.  Get the connection?  Both men have been married to Diane Lane.

Monday, February 08, 2016

wow!

I thought that it would be somewhat measured to let some time pass before commenting (belatedly) on Fox's bravura inaugural entrance into the Live! TV! Musical! sweepstakes - but my reaction remains ... wow!

While I still have some serious reservations about the queasily social/moral implications of what "Grease" is saying *, there is little doubt that, technically, Fox's "Grease: Live" blew NBC's rather timid, tentative attempts at the live TV musical out of the water (with apologies to Craig and Neil). In comparison, NBC's "The Sound of Music," "Peter Pan" (oy!) and "The Wiz" seem creaky and dated and, well, underwhelming.

"The Sound of Music" remains the ratings winner - with an average of 18.6 million viewers - but then it came on the scene with a genuine superstar in the lead, one with a huge following, Carrie Underwood.  And I will forever be grateful to Craig Zadan and Neil Meron for introducing America to the original stage production of that Rodgers and Hammerstein show (so much better than the 1965 Robert Wise version, which was terribly Disney-fied).

"Grease: Live," on the other hand, was clearly based not on the original off-Broadway musical but the 1978 cartoonish film version, as adapted by the late Bronte Woodard. In terms of the new TV genre, it came in second with 12.2 million viewers but it also nabbed an impressive 4.3 rating with that all-important age group, 18 to 49 years old.  And that matters.

Numbers aside, "Grease: Live," directed in tandem by "Hamilton's" Thomas Kail (who, I assume, oversaw the actors) and Alex Rudzinski (who handled the jaw-dropping technical accomplishments), worked as something of a new hybrid - part theater, part film, part reality TV and (like the original film) part cartoon - a creative mash-up that worked exhilaratingly well.  "Grease: Live" became better and better as it progressed, seemingly topping itself at every turn, and outdid itself with a big, bang-up finish.  When the cast appeared on camera for its version of the curtain call, a standing ovation was more than deserved. Bravo!

Julianne Hough was perfect in the role of Sandy, more age-appropriate than Olivia Newton-John who was 30 when she essayed the role in the '78 film, and while Broadway's Aaron Tveit was techically correct as Danny, at 33, he is way too old for the role - and looks it.  Plus, it doesn't help that he's no John Travolta. Vanessa Hudgens, a young pro, managed to turn Rizzo into a sympathetic character, somehow outdoing her estimable predecessor, Stockard Channing.  And Hudgens was outstanding in her two big numbers - although I personally had hoped that the producers of this version would have finally retired the cruel "Sandra Dee" number.

It just isn't funny, guys.

Kudos also to choreographer Zach Woodlee and his assistant Matthew Peacock (both from "Glee") who managed to equal Patricia Birch's outstanding dances for the original film, without imitating them at all.

Finally, a deep bow to  Rudzinski's 13 - count 'em - 13 credited camera operators: Bert Atkinson, Keith Dicker, Randy Gomez, Will Gossett, Nathaniel Hayholm, Ron Lehman, Tore Levia, David Levishon, Adam Margolis, Rob Palmer, Brian Reason, Damien Tuffereau and Easter Xau, all of whom made maximum use of the legendary Warner Bros. backlot.

* My problem with "Grease": Sandy has to reimagine herself as a sexpot to win Danny.  And what does he do? He simply dons a varsity sweater.

Seriously dated one-sided sexism.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

character counts: connie gilchrist

It's long overdue to give a shout-out to Connie Gilchrist. The character actress racked up 120 screen appearances - on both the big screen and little screen - and often had a single scene, such as her brief bit with Frank Sinatra in the early moments of Vincente Minnelli's "Some Came Running..." (1959). And she invariably walked away with the scene in question.

In that particular scene, Connie is caught by Frank leaving a local bar where she just had a beer.  She's plays a cleaning woman who works for Frank's awful brother (Arthur Kennedy), a bigwig in town and its biggest hypocrite who also employs her daughter (Nancy Gates) - and Connie is worried that her boozy afternoon indiscretion at Smitty's could cost both of them their jobs.

Then there's Morton DaCosta's "Auntie Mame" (1958), in which she was the redoubtable Nora Muldoon who delivers her young charge Patrick (Jan Handzlik) to his madcap relative (Rosalind Russell).  Disapproving and judgmental at first, Nora begrudgingly stays on at Beekman Place to become a part of its crazy world, eventually warming towards Mame.

And Connie was also Gladys Glover's landlady in George Cukor's "It Should Happen to You" (1954), Gladys of course being Judy Holliday.

And throughout her career, Connie managed to look the same, ageless.

She was born in Brooklyn (where else?) in 1901, appeared on stage in France, England and New York and often played Irish (although she was actually cast as Señora Martinez in 1942's "Apache Trail," mother of Donna Reed's Rosalia). Chances are, if you were alive during the 1950s, had a TV or went to the movies, you saw her all the time. Like a family member or friendly neighbor, she was always around. Connie died in '85 at age 84.

Having a beer with Thelma Ritter in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's "A Letter to Three Wives" (1948).