Thursday, May 25, 2017

character counts: John Goodman

Although he had early screen roles in "Sweet Dreams" and "Revenge of the Nerds," I first took note of the remarkable character actor John Goodman in David Byrne's still-fabulous 1986 new-style film musical, ”True Stories,” a movie that Goodman made after having scored big on Broadway the year before as Pap Finn in "Big River," Roger Miller's musical version of Mark Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."

Choice supporting roles followed.

Among them were "Raising Arizona," "The Big Easy," Punchline," "Burglar" and "Everybody's All-American," quintessential, laid-back '80s films that make one deeply appreciate - and, yes, seriously miss - the 1980s.

Hollywood seems incapable these days to produce straightforward, no-frill films of this variety. 

Anyway, the rest of America discovered Goodman in 1988 as Dan Conner on the excellent sitcom, "Roseanne." The show's creator, Roseanne Barr, may have trained as a stand-up comic but she was no slouch as an actress.  Still, she was savvy enough to surround herself with talent from Broadway (Goodman, Laurie Metcalf, Estelle Parsons and John Randolph), venerable movie people (Shelley Winters, Ned Beatty and even Tony Curtis), an up-and-coming hunk who could actually act (George Clooney), smart, cutting-edge comics (Martin Mull and Sandra Bernhardt) and terrific kid actors (Lecy Goranson, Sara Gilbert, Michael Fishman, Johnny Galecki and Stephen Dorff).

But, for me, Goodman's smooth, naturalistic performance as an average husband and dad was the titanic supporting structure of "Roseanne."

Now something of a household name, thanks to "Roseanne," Goodman continued to moonlight in supporting movie roles, but in the early '90s, something happened: Goodman started to score lead roles, beginning with Frank Marshall's "Arachnophobia" (1990). His name was suddenly above the title - for a while, at least.

I was reminded of this when I spotted a cable showing of "The Babe" in a TV listing. Goodman plays Babe Ruth in the 1992 Arthur Hiller film and it is inarguably his biggest screen role.

Around this time, Goodman had another lead role in Joe Dante's ”Matinee,” as well as starring parts in David S. Ward's "King Ralph" (opposite Peter O'Toole, no less), Brian Levant's "The Flintstones" and the Melanie Griffith-Don Johnson remake of "Born Yesterday" (in which Goodman replaced Nick Nolte in the Broderick Crawford role), directed by Luis Mandoki. He was also Bette Midler's leading man in "Stella," the now-forgotten re-do of "Stella Dallas."

And I can't ignore his star vocal turn as the furry James P. Sullivan, the imaginary friend of little Boo, in the heartwarming "Monsters, Inc." animation. Much like Dan Conner, Sullivan underlines Goodman's appeal as an actor - someone who inhabits a role so fully that he brings a cozy, lived-in feel to his line-readings, facial expressions and his movements which often seem almost choreographed.

For a big man, Goodman is incredibly light on his feet.

As dazzling as Goodman has been in his few starring roles, he's more in his element in smaller turns, particularly those for the Coen Brothers - the aforementioned "Raising Arizona," "The Hudsucker Proxy," "Barton Fink," "The Big Lebowski" and "O Brother, Where art Thou?" Exceptional.

But, currently, he seems comfortably ensconced back in supporting roles again.

More recently, Goodman has demonstrated just how invaluable he is in these roles in  such titles as "The Artist," "The Monuments Men" (working for and with his "Roseanne" co-star, George Clooney), "Trumbo," the Coens' "Inside Llewyn Davis" and "Argo," for which he deserved an Oscar nomination every bit as much as his co-star Alan Arkin. What? A mere piddling Oscar nomination? Heck, give this man his own golden statuette already.

Note in Passing: When I was reviewing out of Sacramento, filmmaker David Zucker made a stop in 1988 to promote the film "Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad." He said that he was hoping to find material that would suit John Candy and I suggested a remake of the 1968 Philippe Noiret French charmer, ”Alexander” (aka "A Very Happy Alexander" / "Alexandre le bienheureux"), directed by Yves Robert. But I hastened to add that it would be a better fit for Goodman. Anyway, Zucker had never seen it. I had an old Beta copy and he still had a Beta player. So, Zucker borrowed my tape, later returning it by mail and confessing that he was unable to find financing for it with either Candy or Goodman in the role.

A missed opportunity.
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~top: John Goodman as Dan Conner on "Roseanne" 
~photography: ABC 1988 ©
still shot of Goodman in "True Stories"
~photography: Warner Bros. 1986 ©

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~middle: movie poster for Universal's "The Babe"

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~bottom: still shot of Sullivan and Boo in "Monsters, Inc." 
~photography: Disney/Pixar 2001 ©
still shot of Goodman in "The Big Lebowski"
~photography: Gramercy Pictures 1998 ©

Friday, May 19, 2017

indelible moment: "North by Northwest"

Hitchcock's compulsively watchable masterpiece, "North by Northwest" (1959), contains any number of memorable moments.  Hell, the entire film is a memorable moment. But one scene, in particular, stands out for me.

It occurs rather early in the film when Cary Grant returns to the Plaza Hotel - accompanied by the fabulous Jessie Royce Landis, playing his glib, eye-rolling mother - to search the room of one George Kaplan, for whom Cary's Roger O. Thornhill, an advertising executive, has been mistaken.

Snooping around in the suite's bathroom, Cary examins a hairbrush.

Walking back into the bedroom, he announces to mother (in a deadpan manner patented by Grant), "Bulletin! George Kaplan has dandruff."

Grant's body language, telegraphing disgust with the idea of dandruff, perfectly complements his line reading.  He hunches his shoulders and slightly flails his arms, making spindly movements with his fingers:

"Bulletin! George Kaplan has dandruff."

Brilliant, just brilliant.

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~image: still shot of Cary Grant and Jessie Royce Landis in "North by Northwest" / MGM 1959 ©

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

"Our special tonight is roasted partridge with a lemongrass coulis, served with a goat cheese marmalade": "the dinner," acerbic and brutal

With his highly polarizing new film, "The Dinner," Oren Moverman has handily fashioned a rather brutal, fully-deserved attack on current American values that's at once elegant, acerbic and refreshingly languid.

And so it's no surprise that, after attracting much attention and admiration at the Berlinale (the Berlin Film Festival) in February, where it premiered, "The Dinner" is now at the mercy of provincial American movie critics who just don't "get it" and conservative movie audiences who clearly do.

At the performance I attended, the half dozen or so patrons sat there quietly throughout the entire film, only to boo and hiss when it was over.

One misguided woman actually demanded her money back.

These few moviegoers picked up on the film's message, perhaps only subliminally, but they caught what was clearly oblivious to the professional critics reviewing it, including - surprisingly - the almost always reliable Jeannette Catsoulis who wrote one of those brief, "let's get this one out of the way" reviews that The New York Times runs regularly these days.*

From where I sit, all this agitation over "The Dinner" isn't a negative at all.  It only means the film is clearly doing something right, pushing buttons.

And Moverman takes his time before he strikes, introducing us to Paul and Claire (Steve Coogen and Laura Linney) as they prepare for a night out with another couple at one of those comically pretentious restaurants that fetishizes food.  Paul, a contrarian and malcontent (after my own heart) really doesn't want to dine with "those people" - who happen to be his brother and sister-in-law, Stan and Kate (Richard Gere and Rebecca Hall).

He calls them "leeches."

The restaurant itself is a dark monstrosity - a cavernous villa, with all sorts of intimate nooks and crannies, where the specials are recited as if they were florid Shakespearean sonnets and where the servers (dressed like Bob Fosse dancers) walk, four to six in a line, carrying the treasured food in one hand, with the other hand tastefully pressed against their backs.

This is waitering as performance art.

The first offering, served on huge white plates, looks like strands of grass sitting on an artful drizzle of snot, topped with a miniature heirloom radish. This penchant for dining minimalism was perfectly captured in a hilarious 2012 essay titled "Tiny morsels arranged with tweezers," written by San Francisco chef /author Joyce Goldstein for the San Francisco Chronicle. 

The comic recitation of a restaurant's menu is something that director Mary Harron nailed in the opening scene of "American Psycho" in 2000 and that has seemingly been aped (and with a straight face) by newspaper restaurant critics. Although clearly not intentional, your average restaurant review in a big-city paper now reads like a humor column, what with its hilariously poetic description of dead fowl and bizarre sauces.  It's difficult to believe that anyone could top the absurdity of today's trendy, monied restaurants, but Moverman extends the joke, lacing it throughout his film.

Once the four principals are seated, we're given the impression that "The Dinner" might be a variation on Louis Malle's "My Dinner with Andre" (1981) - you know, a dinner conversation done in real time. But Coogan's troubled Paul instigates interruptions that guide us through a series of flashbacks which strive to explain the alarming reason for the dinner.

Gere's Stan is a U.S. Congressman who is accustomed to being in charge but can't control his mentally-ill brother's outbrusts.  The conversation takes forever to get started - or rather the revelation behind it takes forever to come out. Much like preparing a meal, Moverman slowly peals away layers, slicing and dicing his narrative. His source material is a 2009 novel by Dutch author Herman Koch, but Moverman doesn't divide his story into chapters but into food courses - L'Apéritif,  L'Entrée, Le Plat Principal, et al.
Moverman is testing our patience, just as Paul is testing Stan's.  The obsequious maitre d' and his staff are told to go away and we finally learn that these two couples have indulged children who did the unspeakable.

Stan, who is willing to sacrifice his career, wants his son and Paul's to own their horrible crime, but the others all are adamant about protecting the teenage boys at all costs, particularly Linney's Claire whose no-nonsense tiger mom devolves into a disturbing Lady Macbeth.  Now completely exposed, "The Dinner" can be seen for what it really is - a scathing, unapologetic attack on bad parenting that produces entitled monsters.

This is not exactly something that Americans want to hear, particularly during a night out at the movies, which explains the hostile reaction at the screening that I attended.  But Oren Moverman is not one to pander or coddle. And that's why "The Dinner" is never less than compelling.

And while all four leads are excellent, the film belongs to Steve Coogen, who turns in a major performance driven by both bravado and nuance.

BTW, this is the third time that Gere and Linney have starred together in a film.  Their previous films are "Primal Fear" (1996) and "The Mothman Prophecies" (2002).

Also, this is the third film version of Koch's book - the second remake of a movie originally made in The Netherlands in 2013 and, a year later, in Italy - all three films titled "The Dinner." The subject apparently is not unique to America but Moverman made his version uniquely American.

* Not all reviews of "The Dinner" have been tone-deaf.  Critics who have appreciated Moverman's bravado include Justin Chang of The Los Angeles Times, Owen Gleiberman of Variety and Boyd van Hoeij of The Hollywood Reporter. And full disclosure Jeannette Catsoulis is my favorite Times movie critic - not because we agree but because she's genuinely good.

Note in Passing: My good friend Marvin, who has seen all three films of the material, tells me that the mental state or instability of the brother (the Coogen character) is not addressed at all in the Netherlands version and that, while the Netherlands film is more plot-driven, the American film is much more political. Of the three, the Italian version is apparently less impressive than the other two.  Marvin is a huge fan of the Netherlands film but he "adored, adored, adored" (his words) Moverman's film.

I should add that Marvin has exquisite taste in movies.

And as for that woman who demanded her money back, she sat through every minute of the film and certainly got her money's worth.  One doesn't deserve a refund just because one is displeased with what's on screen.
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~Top: The cast of "The Dinner" in a scene from the film
 ~photography: The Orchard 2017 ©

~Middle: Steve Coogan and  Rebecca Hall

~Bottom: Laura Linney and Richard Gere at an even for the film

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

not a major motion picture!

Once upon a time, in a place now far, far away, the major movie studios would aggressively bid for the rights to a best-selling book or a hit Broadway play, hauling out the ubiquitous and over-heated advertising slogan, "Now a major motion picture!," for the finished product.

But with the advent of CGI, the Marvel/D.C. Comics franchises and saturation booking, Hollywood no longer cares about the prestige of filming a play or book. Strike that. If it's a book pitched to Young Adult readers or a crime thriller, it's chances of becoming a movie are actually very good.

But Broadway plays and musicals are another matter. Quick!  Name the last major movie you saw that was based on a Broadway play. Time's up! I could remember only David Lindsay-Abaire's Rabbit Hole," Yasmina Reza's "Carnage" (né "God of Carnage") and Tracy Letts' "August: Osage County," and none of these is very recent. More to the point, although all three were very good, not one was much of a success on screen.

Broadway musicals have it much worse, given that Hollywood has been willfully ignoring them for several decades now. The last great run of filmed stage musicals came between 1955 and 1965.  These were movies based on must-see shows that flourished in New York from the late 1940s through the 1950s, arguably the peak of the "musical comedy" form.

"The Pajama Game," "Carousel," "Damn Yankees," "The King and I," "Bells Are Ringing," "Oklahoma!," "Li'l Abner," "Flower Drum Song," "Pal Joey," "South Pacific," "Hit the Deck," "The Music Man," "Guys and Dolls," "Silk Stockings," "Gypsy," "Bye Bye Birdie,""Porgy and Bess,"  "Funny Face," "The Unsinkable Molly Brown," "Can-Can" and "My Fair Lady" all made it to the screen during the aforementioned ten-year span. And, of course, there were "West Side Story" and "The Sound of Music." Neither one could accurately be called a "musical comedy" - both are way too serious in intent - but, in tandem with "Oklahoma!" and "My Fair Lady," they are representative of what is inarguably the richest period for stage-to-film transferals.

At one time, the "film version" of a stage musical was a validation of the show in question, much to the chagrin of Broadway types who would invariably complain about the "bastardization" of one of their own by crass Hollywood. Now they can complain - and with good reason - about the studios' utter lack of interest. In other works, with theater people, "(You're damned it you do and you're damned if you don't."

And I'm sure exacerbating matters is the fact that certain bona fide hit musicals somehow fell through the cracks, never making it to the screen and, thereby, also inciting the Broadway community. Case in point: Rodgers and Hammerstein. Yes, films of their musicals were all major releases but, hey, where are "Allegro," "Pipe Dream" and "Me and Juliet"?  Seems that not all Rodgers and Hammerstein shows were worth filming.

During the period when "West Side Story," "Gypsy" and "Bye Bye Birdie" were all Broadway hits, there were titles that were equally successful, popular with both critics and theatergoers but that are now forgotten, largely because there was no drive to commit the to film. In recent years, there have been rumors of remakes of "Carousel" (with Hugh Jackman), "Gypsy" (with Barbra Streisand in charge), "My Fair Lady" (with an Emma Thompson rewrite) and even "Oliver!" But why rehash material that's been done, while worthy shows from the distant past continue to be ignored?

Like these:
"Take Me Along," produced in 1959 by David Merrick and directed by Peter Glenville, comes immediately to mind. A musical adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's "Ah, Wilderness" (with music and lyrics by Bob Merrill), it starred Jackie Gleason, Walter Pigeon, Eileen Herlie, Una Merkle, Robert Morse, Zeme North, Susan Lockey and Arlene Golonka. It was a monster hit in its time, along the lines of the current Bette Midler/"Hello, Dolly!" revival.

There's something of a crazy folk legend attached to the show:  Broadway musicals were so hot in the late '50s that Gleason wanted to be in one - and he was perfectly cast here as Uncle Sid, an incorrigible charmer. But, once the show opened, Gleason got bored with it and started calling in sick. He also wanted to annoy the combative Merrick.

But Merrick didn't bite.  He didn't care because he had apparently taken out an insurance policy, so he got paid every time Gleason didn't work. This never made any sense to me - it could have been a P.R. stunt - but it was rich fodder for the gossip columns at the time (think Dorothy Kilgallen and Walter Winchell).

Once Gleason got wind of this, presto! He was back on the job with regularity.

Bob Merrill's hummable title song was extremely popular (again, much like the song "Hello, Dolly!") but the pick of the score for me is the haunting "Staying Young" and Pigeon's soulful rendition of it. This is one show should have been a movie.It's a natural.

It should be noted here that, years before, MGM filmed its own musical version of "Ah, Wilderness" - the 1948 "Summer Holiday," directed by Rouben Mamoulian and with original songs by Harry Warren and Ralph Blane. Mickey Rooney starred in the role played in "Take Me Along" by Robert Morse, Walter Huston (in the Walter Pidgeon role) as his father and Frank Morgan as the affable drunk, Uncle Sid.

"The Most Happy Fella," a major hit in 1956, was also composer Frank Loesser's most ambitious undertaking - a three-act musical adaptation of the Sidney Howard play, "They Knew What They Wanted," about the "love affair" between a middle-aged Italian immigrant, who operates a vineyard in Napa, and a younger woman who has agreed to be his mail-order bride (even though she is eventually sexually attracted to the vineyard's young foreman).

The material is highly cinematic and screamed to be filmed.

 Loesser came up with a commanding hybrid here - a musical comedy with the contours of an opera. There are about 40 songs in the show, not including the overture, the two entre'acts and a few reprises.  It took four years for Loesser to complete.  He not only composed all the songs but he also wrote the script, a huge undertaking which involved omitting the political, labor, and religious material originally in Howard's play. Joseph Anthony directed the production, which was so intimidating that Columbia released two original cast albums of the show's score - one a three-record set that included the entire libretto and one a single recording of selected songs.

And then there's the marvelous "Fiorello," which was staged in 1959 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for its authors - Jerome Weidman and George Abbot (book), Jerry Bock (music) and Sheldon Harnick (lyrics). It won the Pulitzer but was never filmed.  It opened the same year as "Gypsy" and was just as popular - and yet it has never been filmed. There was such excitement about this show that Capitol recorded the cast album six days after "Fiorello" opened.

And yet is was never filmed. 

Directed by Abbott (with choreography by Peter Gennaro), "Fiorello" introduced Tom Bosley as the legendary New York City major Fiorello H. LaGuardia, a reform Republican who challenged the Tammany Hall political machine.

The show was a personal hit for Bosley who quickly moved on to do films ("The World of Henry Orient," "Love with the Proper Stranger" and "Divorce American Style") and, of course, television ("Happy Days").

There have been occasional revivals of "Fiorello" since its Broadway opening, most notably one for the Reprise! productions in 1999 that starred Tony Danza, which had a limited run but which Danza took to the Freud Playhouse in Los Angeles for a longer engagement.

Also, it was rumored that prior to his death in 1973, singer Bobby Darin expressed a desire to produce and star in a film version of "Fiorello," that it was a dream project for him. And he would have been great in the role.

But ... it was never filmed.

There have been other Broadway musicals that, although not filmed, came very close to being movies. Producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus were once so committed to filming the musical of "Zorba," with the star of the original non-musical film, Anthony Quinn, that they took out one of those "production about to begin" ads in Variety. John Travolta was listed in the ad as Quinn's co-star, presumably in the role Alan Bates played on film.

The idea ended with that Variety ad.

And getting back to David Merrick, in the early 1970s, he decided to expand his horizons and produce movies.  His first was Sidney Lumet's 1972 film version of the Robert Marasco that he had produced on Broadway two years earlier.  The stars were James Mason, Robert Preston and Beau Bridges (in the roles created on stage by Fritz Weaver, Pat Hingle and Ken Howard). His next planned film was of another one of his stage hits, the Burt Bacarach-Hal David musical, "Promises, Promises," with a Neil Simon script based on Billy Wilder's "The Apartment."

Merrick wanted a potentially well-cast Bridges for the role played on stage by Jerry Orbach (by way of Jack Lemmon), but decided to "temporarily" place "Promises, Promises" aside for something way bigger - the Robert Redford-Mia Farrow version of "The Great Gatsby."  Merrick produced two more films, both with Burt Reynolds" - "Semi-Tough" and "Rough Cut" - but never returned to "Promises, Promises" and Beau Bridges.

Another musical with a Neil Simon script, "They're Playing Our Song" (with music by Marvin Hamlisch and lyrics by Carol Bayer Sager), was also momentarily considered for the movies - with Gilda Radner and Bill Murray (more good casting) in the roles played by Lucie Arnaz and Robert Klein.

Again, it never happened.


Much more compelling was Twentieth Century-Fox's plans to film Stephen Sondheim's iconic "Follies" with a dream cast - Doris Day in the role created on stage by Alexis Smith and Debbie Reynolds in the Dorothy Collins part. The idea was referenced in a gossip column - where else? - but nothing came of it.  Too good to be true. Another missed opportunity, an unfortunate one.

Finally, there's the case of "She Loves Me," another Harnick-Bock musical that opened on Broadway in 1963 as an era was coming to a close.  This irrisistible musical confection was one of many adaptations of a Hungarian play titled "Parfumerie," by Miklós László. It was predated by the films "The Shop Around the Corner" (a straight comedy by Ernst Lubitsch) and "In the Good Old Summer Time" (also a musical by Robert Z. Leonard) and succeeded by "You've Got Mail" (another straight comedy by Nora Ephron).
"She Loves Me" was directed by Harold Prince and choreographed by Carol Haney and its cast was led by Barbara Cook (a few years after she played Marian the Librarian in "The Music Man") and Daniel Massey, son of Raymond and anticipated at the time as the next big thing (given his role as Noël Coward opposite  Julie Andrews as Gertrude Lawrence in "Star!").

And in support ... Barbara Baxley and Jack Cassidy.

Enter Blake Edwards and Julie Andrews who wanted to film "She Loves Me" in the early 1980s, after having scored a big success with "Victor/Victoria."

Andrews was perfect for the Cook role and the plan was for it to be an MGM film, which makes sense as Metro always fancied itself the movie-musical factory and that's where both "The Shop Around the Corner" and "In the Good Old Summer Time" were made.

Again, never made.

But in 2016, the Roundabout Theater Company staged an excellent revival starring the fabulous Laura Benanti and which, according to Wikipedia, was presented via BroadwayHD live stream on June 30, 2016, marking the first time a Broadway show had ever been broadcast live. The same performance was screened in movie theaters on December 1, 2016.

Notes in Passing: Recently, there have been shows that finally made it to the screen after a long delay (and long after fans had given up hope) - "Chicago," "The Phantom of the Opera," "Dreamgirls," "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," "Into the Woods" and "Les Misérables."  And there are four that became movies in a more timely manner - "Mamma Mia!," "Hairspray," "The Producers" and "Rent," although the latter two tanked on screen big time which seems odd, given that each had a huge, loyal Broadway fan base. Which didn't turn out for either one.  Go figure.

In his posted response, Kevin Deany reminded me of the stage musical version of "La Cage aux Folles," jogging my memory.  The late Allan Carr ("Grease") had wanted to film it with Jack Lemmon in the role of Albin and Frank Sinatra as Renato.  When Frank decided to stay retired from acting, Tony Curtis's name was mentioned as a possible co-star with Lemmon.

Another missed opportunity.

As for the future of stage musicals on screen, Universal already owns the rights to the popular "Wicked" and Trey Parker and Matt Stone plan to produce their own film version of their hit musical, "The Book of Mormon."

And is there any doubt that Lin-Manuel Miranda's "Hamilton" will be filmed?

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~images / from top~ 
~Poster art for "Mister Roberts" and "Gypsy"

~Poster art for "Take Me Along" and Jackie Gleason in a scene from the production

~Poster art for "The Most Happy Fella" and Robert Weede and Jo Sullivan in a scene from the productiion

 ~Poster art for "Fiorello" and Tom Bosley as the title character, and Tony Danza, and Bobby Darin, both with "Fiorello" connections

 ~Beau Bridges, on the set of "The Landlord," was considered for a planned film version of "Promises, Promises"

 ~Doris Day and Debbie Reynolds at a studio event in the 1950s; they were once considered for a film version of "Follies"

 ~Time magazine cover of Alexis Smith in "Follies"

 ~Barbara Cook and Daniel Massey in a scene from the original production of "She Loves Me" and the cover art for the cast album of the show

 ~Blake Edwards and Julie Andrews; they never got to film "She Loves Me"

 ~Laura Benanti in the 2016 revival of "She Loves Me"
 ~photography: Sara Krulwich / The New York Times 2016 ©