Sunday, January 29, 2017

mary golightly

It now seems like a dimly remembered dream but, once upon a time, a striking actress named Mary came to the Broadway musical stage as the Truman Capote character from "Breakfast at Tiffany's," Holly Golighty.

If you blinked, you missed it.

Mary? That would be the absolutely adorable (and perfect) Mary Tyler Moore, who left us on January 25th, at age 80, and who will most likely be remembered as a television legend than as a stage or film star.

Nothing wrong with that.

"The Dick Van Dyke Show," where we all first fell in love with her, and especially her own eponymous sitcom (need I invoke the title?) are both better than most movies or plays. Her potential seemed limitless and yet, despite opportunities in other mediums, Moore remained largely a TV personality.

But she made such an impression on the Van Dyke sitcom that Universal Pictures snapped her up for movies and then ...

...did absolutely nothing with her.                                                       

Moore was wasted in her film debut - Julie Andrews' thoroughly awful “Thoroughly Modern Millie” (1967), directed by George Roy Hill. She was then put in what, in retrospect, seems like two typical Universal romps that Doris Day most likely rejected - "Don't Just Stand There" (with Robert Wagner) and "What's So Bad about Feeling Good?" (with George Peppard).

Never heard of them?  There's a reason for that.

After casting her as a nun in a bad Presley flick, "Change of Habit" (1969), the studio gave up. About 10 years later, Robert Redford rescued Moore.

Her acting in Redford's "Ordinary People" is the best performance of 1980, hands-down - male or female.  She was nominated for an Oscar - and should have won - but the award went (no surprise here) to Sissy Spacek for the safer, more audience-friendly "Coal Miner's Daughter."

Moore eventually had roles in Allan Burns' "Just Between Friends" (1986) and David O. Russell's "Flirting with Disaster" (1996), but not much else.

Her life in the theater was even more sketchy. Moore starred on Broadway in a version of Brian Clark's "Whose Life Is It Anyway?," rewritten for a woman, in 1980 (Ian McShane originated the role and Richard Dreyfuss was in the film), and in an A. R. Gurney show titled "Sweet Sue" in 1987.

But her really big opportunity in the theater was in the aforementioned Capote musical - titled "Holly Golightly" or "Breakfast at Tiffany's," depending on when you saw it.  That is, if you were lucky to see it.

I saw it in 1966 (once again, I'm seriously dating myself here) at Philadelphia's Forrest Theater, where it tried out under its original title, "Holly Golightly."  I approached the show with a couple trepidations.

First, I am no fan of the film, "Breakfast at Tiffany's." I mean, exactly what is it supposed to be - a comedy, a drama, a serio-comedy? (I'm not sure even Blake Edwards knew what he was directing.) It's really nothing - an odd film that, for some reason, has earned undeserved classic status.
Secondly, although I'm a confessed Moore fan, she seemed wrong for the role of Holly - but then Audrey Hepburn, the film's star, wasn't a good fit either.  (Capote, John Frankenheimer, originally hired to direct the movie, and George Axelrod, its scenarist, all famously wanted Marilyn Monroe.)

Reservations about the musical aside, everything about the project was strictly A-list.  The colorful David Merrick (always good for some chaos) was producting and stage veteran Abe Burrows wrote the book for the musical and was its director.  (Some MTM trivia: Burrows was the father of James Burrows, who directed many episodes of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show.")  And the list goes on... Michael Kidd was the choreographer (above with Moore), with an assist from Tony Musante; Bob Merrill ("Funny Girl") wrote the music and lyrics (that's him below with Moore and Richard Chamberlain), and the legendary Oliver Smith did the production design.

Mary's co-stars were Richard Chamberlain (in the George Peppard role), Sally Kellerman (the Patricia Neal role) and Art Lund (the Buddy Ebsen role). So far, so good.

Until the reviews came in.

"Holly Golightly" was destined to become the third side of a notorious triumvirate, joining two other unlucky musicals based on films - "Lolita, My Love" and "Carrie."

Merrick wasted no time. Edward Albee (of all people) was brought in to write an entirely new script.  Burrows' book was completely scrapped and his response was to quite the show altogether.

Was Merrick nuts?  He pulled the rug out from under his cast by forcing a different script on them between the show's move from its out-of-town tryouts and its Broadway previews. Then he brought in Joseph Anthony ("Under the Yum-Yum Tree" and "Mary, Mary") as the new director.

By the time the show hit the Majestic Theater in New York for the previews, it was titled "Breakfast at Tiffany's."  Nothing helped.

Merrick closed the show before its official opening, "rather than subject the drama critics and the public to an excruciatingly boring evening" (his words). (A bit more trivia: In her entertaining memoir, "Read My Lips: Stories of a Hollywood Life," Kellerman claims that she and Merrick were romantically involved during the show's brief run. Huh?)

Years later, Moore revealed that she was convinced that, if the show hadn't closed, Merrick would have fired her before its official opening.

"Holly Golightly" is now just a footnote in Moore's career.  Some publicity shots from the show still exist and there's a Saturday Evening Post cover story trumpeting Moore's anticipated arrival on Broadway.  Not much else.

But there are also two You Tube videos that somewhat preserve the show in tiny bits and pieces - one with Moore singing a song titled (naturally) "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and one with Chamberlain singing another tune called (also naturally) "Holly Golightly," each accompanied by an array of grainy stills.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

notes on hollywood's eternal teenager

It will be a month soon since Debbie Reynolds, Hollywood's eternal teenager, died - on December 28th - and to commeorate her passing, Turner Classic Movies is devoting a full day to her on January 27th - January 28th.  "TCM Remembers Debbie Reynolds" consists of a dozen of her 40-plus theatrical films. The picks are curious, with signature titles missing and at least one embarrassment ("How Sweet It Is!") included.

Missing is "Tammy and the Bachelor" (1957), one of two personal hits for Reynolds.  The other, of course, is “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” (1964) which gets the Star Spot (8 p.m., est, January 27th) on Turner's slate. These are the two lone films which Reynolds carried alone, with no co-star of equal stature, as was the case with "The Singing Nun" (1966) - but that film was not nearly as popular as the other two. I had a lot to say about "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" in a 2012 essay, little of it complementary.

Considering the size of her output, Reynolds turned in straight dramatic performance in only three of her films - "The Catered Affair” (1956), which is also on Turner's schedule, “The Rat Race” (1960) and "Divorce American Style" (1967).  The latter two films feature her best acting, hands-down. Although "Divorce American Style" may have been sold as a comedy, Reynolds' performance in it is seriocomical and multi-faceted.

And she's rarely been as impressive as she is in "The Rat Race."

Oddly, "The Rat Race" is a film she didn't personally like. During an appearance on "The Merv Griffin Show" in the 1970s, Reynolds stopped Griffin cold as he raved about the film and her performance in it. "Awful movie" is how she described it.  She never explained how or why it is awful.  Anyway, Merv Griffin was spot-on in his praise.  Sorry, Debbie.

That said, Reynolds' films can be conveniently compartmentalized for those Debbie fans who would like to put together modest double-bills or sprawling marathons, apart from TCM's tribute.  Here are a few recommendations:

Her Bookend MGM Musicals: “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952) and “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” (1964)
Her Inside Joke in "Singin' in the Rain":  Everyone knows the plot of this movie classic. The Jean Hagen character - the insufferable Lina Lamonte, a silent-film actress trying to make the transition to talkies despite a horrible voice - makes a film musical, called "The Dueling Cavalier," even though she can't sing.  Debbie, playing a struggling actress, is brought in to dub her singing and, at the movie's premiere, it is revealed that it is Debbie who's really singing "Would You?" and "You Are My Lucky Star."  The joke is that Reynolds, who could sing, was dubbed herself for these two songs by Betty Royce. (The joke was further extended: To dub Lina's speaking voice for the film, Jean Hagen did the job herself.)

Her Metro B-Musicals: “I Love Melvin,” “The Affairs of Dobie Gillis,” “Give a Girl a Break” (1953) and “Athena” (1954)

Her Biggest, Splashiest Ensemble MGM Musical: “Hit the Deck” (1955)

Her Tony Curtis Double-Bill: “The Rat Race” (1960) and “Goodbye Charlie” (1964)

Her Glenn Ford Double Bill: “The Gazebo” and “It Started with a Kiss” both (1959)

Her 1959 Releases: “The Gazebo,” “The Mating Game” and “It Started with a Kiss” (all three directed by George Marshall) and “Say One for Me”(Frank Tashlin)

Her George Marshall Films: “The Gazebo,” “The Mating Game” and “It Started with a Kiss” (all 1959)
 
Her Frank Tashlin Films:  “Susan Slept Here” (1954) and “Say One for Me” (1959)

Her Charles Walters Films: “The Tender Trap” (1955) and “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” (1964)

Her Donald Losby Films: "The Mating Game" (1959) and "How Sweet It Is!" (1968).  Losby, a popular child actor, plays Debbie's little brother in "The Mating Game" and her teenage son in "How Sweet It Is!"

Her Films Based on Plays: “The Tender Trap” and “Hit the Deck” (1955), “This Happy Feeling” (1958), “The Gazebo” (1959),  “The Rat Race” (1960),  “The Pleasure of His Company”  (1961), “Mary, Mary” (1963), “Goodbye Charlie” (1964) and “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” (1964)
Her Misguided Attempt at Being Groovy: "How Sweet It Is!" (1968).  The films of the Beat Generation (read: 1960s) weren't welcoming to the stars of the 1950s.  But both Debbie and Doris Day tried to make the leap.  Doris called it quits, moviewise, in 1968 after "With Six, You Get Eggrolls" - which like Debbie's "How Sweet It is!," is an utter embarrassment.  The unsinkable Debbie, however, soldiered on.

Her Two Best TV Movies: “These Old Broads” (2001) “Behind the Candelabra” (2013)

Her Comeback Films: "Mother” (1996) and “In & Out” (1997)

Her Five Best Performances: (1) "The Rat Race" (2) "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" (3) "Divorce American Style" (4)  “Behind the Candelabra” (5) "Goodbye Charlie."

Her Flirtation with Camp: "What's the Matter with Helen?" (1971), a delicious mash-up of "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" and "Gypsy," with Shelley Winters in a must-see melt-down. A doozy.

Her Swan Song and Most Amazing Performance: “Behind the Candelabra” (2013)

Her Lost Movies: “This Happy Feeling” (1958), “Say One for Me” (1959), “The Second Time Around” (1960) and “My Six Loves” (1963) - And good luck finding any of them! (“This Happy Feeling” was directed by Blake Edwards, no less. Where is it?)

There are two missed opportunities in Debbie's career - “Bye Bye Birdie” and “Follies.”  Gower Champion, who directed "Birdie" on stage and was initially signed to helm the film version, wanted Reynolds and Jack Lemmon for his leads.  He had worked with both years before - with Debbie on "Give a Girl a Break" and with Jack on "Three for the Show."  Champion quit "Birdie" before it began production and instead went immediately into the delightful "My Six Loves," taking Debbie with him.

Debbie Reynolds and Jack Lemmon never made a film together, as difficult as that is to grasp.  "Birdie" would have been a terrific teaming for them.

As for "Follies," there were rumors in the 1980s that Fox wanted to film the Sondheim musical with Doris Day and Debbie in the roles created on stage by Alexis Smith and Dorothy Collins. And how great would have that been?

Finally, here is Debbie in arguably her greatest movie moment - the six-minute "He's My Friend" number from "The Unsinkable Molly Brown," with assist from her "Molly Brown" cast, especially Grover Dale and Gus Trikonis as her dancing movie brothers.  The music is by Meredith Willson and the choreography is by Peter Gennaro and it's just wonderful.

Monday, January 23, 2017

mike judge's strangled masterwork/redux

 Mike Judge's "Idiocracy," a 2006 movie made for the Trump era

The following review was originally published on May 28th, 2008, just as another Presidential primary was winding down, but given what happened recently, it's worth a reprint. I thought I'd never say this, but "Idiocracy's" time has finally come.  And whether it's still a laughing matter is debateable, given the cognitively insensitivie leadership currently directing the country.
 (FYI. The first four comments are from the original posting.)

Rent, stream, watch this movie today!

Belatedly, I come to "Idiocracy," the singular Mike Judge 2006 comedy that, for some bizarre and hugely masochistic reason, 20th Century-Fox decided to sacrifice. The mistreated movie opened in so few markets in '06, that, for all intents and purposes, it never really opened.

As a working critic, I never fully trusted the movie studios, particularly whenever one of them would try to elicit sympathy from reviewers because the poor studio was stuck with a really bad film.

While my colleagues would buy into the studio line that an unscreened film was a pathetic loser, I generally suspected that politics was afoot. You know, the filmmaker in question probably inadvertantly insulted a studio executive and, as a consequence, his/her film was being punished.

It never ceases to amaze me how a studio can release 10 consecutive lousy films and then single out one of them as the bad apple in the bunch. A case in point: Fox, the major that sidetracked "Idiocracy," also released - and with much fanfare - the depressingly mediocre (and eminently forgettable) "John Tucker Must Die" the same year.

It's a fact: Every studio that tries to "hide" a film from the critics has two or three hyped titles that are much, much worse. It's a little creepy to think that a lot of executives are overpaid to make such dubious decisions.

But let's get back to Judge's "Idiocracy," a spot-on indictment of the seemingly willful stupidity of some Americans. In it, Luke Wilson gamely plays a likably dim-witted guy who participates as a guinea pig in a top-secret Pentagon program studying ... hibernation.

When he wakes up 500 years in the future, Wilson's Joe Bowers is the smartest guy in the room.

This is the New America where being literate and articulate are equated with being gay. In fact, much of the recent idiot election talk about dreaded "elitism" could have come directly from Judge's prescient movie. (It's been demoralizing to watch as the two Democratic hopefuls vying for the Presidency dumbed themselves down for working-class America.)

There isn't one joke in "Idiocracy" that is not funny or that fails to nail its target. The film is brilliant. But, apparently, it disturbed some studio suit - or some befogged focus group recruited by said suit.

I have two questions:

1. Didn't someone at Fox read Judge's script before the studio greenlighted the project? Certainly, someone there was aware of the movie's incendiary, blatantly unpatriotic contents.

2. Would the same exact film have been sacrificed if, instead of B-lister Wilson, it starred, say, Adam Sandler or Will Ferrell or Jim Carrey or Steve Carell? I think the answer to that question is obvious. OK, here's a loaded question: Would "Idiocracy" have been so disparaged by its own studio if it came with the currently beloved "Judd Apatow" imprimateur?

For what it's worth, "Idiocracy" dwells in the same deliciously deranged universe as Harold Ramis' "Caddyshack," the Farrellys' "Kingpin" and Judge's own "Office Space." The film is hilarious, hands-down.

But the bigger joke here is 20th Century-Fox which, apparently, still exists in the 20th century - literally.

One final thing... Judge has been remarkably quiet about the fate of his modest masterwork, and there has been some speculation about whether he was complicit in the direct-to-DVD treatment of "Idiocracy." Was it planned all along for the film to be premeditated as another home-entertaiment cult hit, along the lines of "Office Space"? Who knows?

But "Idiocracy" seems to have turned into just that.

Note in Passing: Check out Rob Walker's wonderful New York Times magazine piece, titled, "This Joke’s for You" about not only the product placement in "Idiocracy," but also a product it has inspired - Brawndo, “The Thirst Mutilator.”

Friday, January 20, 2017

01-20-2017 / what to watch on TV today

If you're like me and you are trying to avoid turning on your television any time today, terrorized by what you'll see, fear not!  There's always Turner Classic Movies whose resourceful programmers have booked a screening of "A Face in the Crowd," Elia Kazan's dark and quite prescient political satire of 1957, starring Andy Griffith in a career high as a shameless huckster/opportunist/attention addict who accumulates a frightening amount of power.  Budd Schulberg's taut, astute script says all there is to say about 2017 - and, yes, its searing message was delivered 60 years ago. "A Face in the Crowd," much needed, airs today at 5:45 p.m. (est).

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

joe's dreaded genre - part 2

Credit: Walt Disney Productions (1941) ©
This was a week of good news and bad news for both movie buffs and animal activists. Count me in as a member of both unappreciated groups.

The good news is that the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's Circus, which has delighted little children for decades with its crass exploitation and shameful abuse of animals, is finally - at long last - folding its tent.

Not surprisingly, the plasticized anchors who host the local evening news (seemingly the same people in every market) bowed their heads in unison and lamented the passing of such a "beloved institution."

All of this is in preamble to a reminiscence.  It was my first week on the job as a movie critic in Philadelphia and things were rather slow.  There were no screenings.  As is the wont of newspaper editors, they wanted to get my byline in the paper, even if it wasn't attached to a new film.  Well,
the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's Circus was opening that night in Philadelphia and my editor thought it would be "groovy" (his word, not mine) if I reviewed it. Dutifully, I went and sat through the ordeal.

But I wrote my review of it not as an all-purpose critic but as an animal activist.  Not good.  You probably know where I am going with this.  The paper never ran my review.  Too radical.  This was not an auspicious start.

Yes, my first professional review was scrapped.

Now for the bad news for the movie buff/animal activist that defines me.  It has to do with footage unearthed by TMZ and turned into a cause célèbre by PETA . But first, I have to double back.

Back in 2015, I wrote an essay titled "joe's dreaded genre." It explained that, even though I love animals, I don't like movies about animals because movies about animals are always sad. Always. If you've noticed, terrible things tend to happen to animals in movies about animals.

What I failed to reveal in that piece is that I also have serious reservations about what is required to get animal to "act" in a movie, particularly a sad one full of one hardship after another. Yes, the "abuse" played out on screen may be simulated, but exactly what is the animal put through to complete the scene? What discomfort does it experience and withstand?

And beyond sequences depicting danger, even the most innocuous moment can be trying, stressful, for an animal. It is not natural for an animal to perform, any animal - not an elephant, not a dog and certainly not a cat. Nor a horse. Which brings me to a case in point...

My wife adores George Stevens' "Giant."  Me, not so much.  Yes, it's a great movie in most ways.  But for me, I can't get past the sequence in which Mercedes McCambridge abuses Elizabeth Taylor's beloved horse by driving her spurs into its sides.  It's a disturbing scene and the horse is clearly in agony. But was the horse "acting"?  Later, after the horse throws McCambridge, killing her (justice served), it limps back to the ranch - shot in silhouette, against a nighttime sky. An evocative, disturbing moment.

But also an ugly one.

For decades, I've wondered how the filmmakers got that horse to limp on cue.  Was it "acting" or real?  It's important to remember that "Giant" was made in less enlightened times when it was routine to trip horses (often crippling them) for action scenes. My guess is that the horse being bludgeoned with spurs and later limping wasn't "acting." It was abused, tortured, for the good of the movie.  The damn movie. And that's all that matter in the end.

Making that particular moment in "Giant' even more deplorable to contemplate (let alone watch)  is that, once the men in the film realize that McCambridge died after the horse threw her, they shoot the poor animal.

Which brings me to an upcoming film that wasn't designed to be  as iconic as "Giant" - "A Dog's Purpose," based on a book by W. Bruce Cameron that was apparently very popular. I wouldn't know. This movie was made by the estimable Lasse Hallstrom and stars Dennis Quaid (among other humans) and several dog actors as reincarnated versions of one dog.

It was a German Shepard named Hercules who was allegeddly mistreated by the film's second-unit crew and forced into mechanically-charged torrents of water. The dog seems distressed in the TMZ  footage and, exacerbating matters, the crew working for Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment, producers of the film, seems to be laughing on the video.

Filmmakers - such as Stevens and Hallstrom - are usually too busy directing scenes involving actors to know exactly how their second unit is operating. And that's part of the problem. That's why the American Humane Association is so crucial n such cases, given that it ostensibly monitors and reports on the treatment of animals on film sets.

I've a hunch that situations like the one involving Hercules on "A Dog's Purpose" happen all the time and are not just restricted to second-unit crews. In the not-too-distant past, stories like Hercules' were only hearsay. The difference these days is that anything can be caught on tape.

Ah, yes, the tape.  What we see is clearly incriminating, but spokespeople for Universal and Amblin have referred to the video as "edited," an important point. Also in an interview with Variety, Cameron has rightfully questioned why it took 15 months for the footage to be unearthed and revealed. Why not sooner? And why weren't authorities contacted at the time of the alleged abuse? And he also brings up the matter of it being an edited video, which is disturbing. What was eliminated? What was left out?

Reportedly, Hercules performed the stunt without any problems during rehearsal but became stressed during the actual shoot when a different side of the same pool was used.  Who knows. We may never know.

Whatever the truth is, the only issue that matters is whether it is moral or ethical to exploit animals for the sake of a movie or a circus or a zoo.

And in terms of moviemaking, given that so much can be easily accomplished these days with CGI, why use real animals at all in potentially dangerous or stressful situations? Remember, these animals don't volunteer to participate in movies. They have no choice. FYI: In an excellent byline piece for The Hollywood Reporter, the film's producer, Gavin Palone, confirms that a computer-generated dog was created for the difficult parts of the sequence in question and clears up the question of the edited video.  He also takes responsibility for whatever miscalculation made by the second-unit crew and the trainer in the handling of Hercules.

The point to all this is that a film set really isn't a place for Hercules - or any animal, for that matter.  And what's ironic - and sad - about this particular movie controversy is that "A Dog's Purpose" is a film whose intention was to celebrate animals, clearly not harm them.

Note in Passing: I always wanted to interview Doris Day, largely because I think she's terrific.  But I've also wanted to ask her about a film she made in 1962, "Jumbo," a musical named after its elephant star.  Jumbo is forced to do silly routines that are humiliating for a creature as magnificent and sentient as an elephant.  Was cruelty involved?  Doris is a vocal animal activist and this is one area of her career that I would love to discuss with her.

Addendum: This piece was updated with additional information on January 22nd and again on the  24th .

Saturday, January 14, 2017

façade: dick gautier

Dick Gautier, the one and only Conrad Birdie, at the 1960 recording of the Broadway cast album

Anyone who keeps up with this site is familiar with my disdain for George Sidney's 1963 movie version of the terrific Broadway musical, "Bye Bye Birdie."  Columbia approved so many unnecessary changes that one wonders why the studio even purchased the film rights to the show in the first place. And don't get me started (again) on the casting of Ann-Margret.

To his credit, Gene Saks honored the show with his excellent 1995 TV version of the show which, apart from the original stage production itself, remains the definitive "Bye Bye Birdie."  I shudder to think what NBC will do with its planned "live" version of "Birdie" threatened for later this year.

But back to the truncated '63 film... Among the innumerable mistakes made by Sidney and Columbia was the decision not to cast the actor who created Conrad Birdie on stage in 1960.  That would be Dick Gautier.

Instead the role went to Jesse Pearson, who played Birdie in one of its touring productions and brought a distinct smarminess to the character.

I would like to believe that Gautier was passed over because he simply was too old for the role when the movie was filmed.  (The camera never lies when it comes to someone's age.)  All I know is that I missed the sly humor that Gautier brought to the role, for which he was Tony-nominated.

The comedic touch that Gautier brought to Birdie was no accident.  When he was spotted by director Gower Champion and cast in the role, Gautier was doing stand-up at The Blue Angel, opening for singer Margaret Whiting..  He was reportedly surprised when Champion offered him the role because he claimed he wasn't all that familiar with Elvis (on whom Birdie is based) or his music.  He said that he preferred Gershwin.

The idea of Dick Gautier being a stand-up comic is one difficult to grasp because, well, he didn't look like a stand-up comic.  He had the looks of a movie star.  But after "Birdie," he went back to comedy, working with Mel Brooks and Buck Henry on "Get Smart" and with Brooks again on the promising but short-lived Robin Hood satire, "When Things Were Rotten."

Movie-wise, it is interesting to note that Gautier had roles in two films that reunited him with former "Birdie" cast members.

In his film debut in 1964 in Joshua Logan's "Ensign Pulver," he played the seabee Stefanowski among a crew that included Tommy Sands, James Coco, Jerry Orbach, James Farentino, Larry Hagman, Peter Marshall, Gerald O'Laughlin and, yes, Jack Nicholson. Kay Medford, who played Dick Van Dyke's mother in "Birdie" on stage, played a head nurse who gives Walter Matthau a difficult time while flirting with him. Given that "Pulver" was a released a year after the "Birdie" film, I've often wondered if Logan hired Gautier and Medford because both had been overlooked by Sydney and Columbia.

And in Bud Yorkins' "Divorce American Style," released in 1967, Gautier played Dick Van Dyke's attorney, handling his divorce from Debbie Reynolds. Van Dyke also has a history with the actor who played Reynolds' lawyer - Shelley Berman.  The two had starred in the musical revue, "The Girls Against the Boys," which was toplined by Bert Lahr and Nancy Walker and opened in 1959, a year before "Bye Bye Birdie."

The sequence in "Divorce American Style" in which all four actors appear, hashing out the details of the divorce, is a comic high point of the film.

Dick Gautier died on  January13th.  He was 85.  Long live Conrad Birdie.

Monday, January 09, 2017

Meryl vs.The Donald, or America's Premiere Actress Deflates The Clown Prince of Vulgaria

Credit: Paul Zimmerman/Getty Images ©
Streep doing The Donald at a Delacorte Theater event on June 6

God bless the Golden Globes. Where else would one experience the unexpurgated joy of witnessing a serious, intelligent person putting our much-dreaded President-Elect in his place? And for giving a "bad performance," no less. Yes, we expect more even from reality stars.

Perfectly worded and immaculately spoken, with just the right vocal inflections and facial expressions, Streep's monologue did an exemplary job humbling someone who is unlikely to know the meaning of the word.

His first impulse, of course, was to dismiss her as an "overrated actress" - a frankly hilarious and clueless opinion given the mind-blowing montage of Streep film clips shown prior to her masterly on-stage performance.

This bizarre observation comes less than two - count 'em - two years after he praised Streep as "an excellent actress" and  "a fine person, too." But then, it wasn't so long ago that he cheered the Clintons. Fickle or forgetful?

Or perhaps it's simply a matter of veracity.

It reminds me of my late, much-missed father-in-law's take on the subject: "He's such a liar that I wouldn't believe him even if he swore that he was lying."

Note in Passing:  For those purists out there who think that only certain people are qualified to give political opinions and viewpoints, I ask, "Since when?"  Does Sean Hannity or Rachel Maddow really know more about our political culture than Meryl Streep - or me or you?  (Meryl Streep is as qualified to talk politics as The Donald is to be president.)  As a critic, I've spent decades having average people come at me with critiques of movies.  (One guy recently went on about the "editing problems" of "Manchester by the Sea"!  Huh?)  I've had to get used to it.  I suggest that our politicians also learn to adapt.  With the 24/7 non-stop news cycle ever in our face, people will have opinions. And we won't be silenced.

We won't, I tell you!

Thursday, January 05, 2017

on the fence

Credit: David Lee/Paramount ©
Davis and Washington impress and confound in the film of Wilson's "Fences"
                                
I admire Denzel Washington's film version of the legendary 1983 August Wilson play, "Fences," but not for the reasons that critics and audiences (mostly theater-goers) have been applauding for the past 30-plus years.

Frankly, initially, the film repelled me which was a surprise, given that I'm inarguably part of the liberal demographic for which both the play and film were designed. Wilson, who died in 2005, was deservedly revered for providing a voice for the downtrodden and neglected, and "Fences," considered by many to be his masterwork, is a piece of a ten-part mosaic titled "The Pittsburgh Cycle," an ambitious project that examines, in-depth, both the progress and the stasis of the African-American experience.

The full- and two-page display ads splashed with euphoric quotes about the film made me question my own opinion of the film, which is decidedly less enthusiastic.  Thinking about it, it became clear that it wasn't the film or material that repelled me but the central character, Troy Maxson, which Washington bravely decided to play himself.  Troy is 53-years-old and embittered.  He works collecting garbage in Pittsburgh and is hounded by both the highs and lows of his life - the one high point being a flirtation with major league baseball (but while there was still a color barrier) and the main low point being a prison sentence (for an accidental murder).

Wilson achieved something truly daring with Troy.  He created a politically incorrect character with almost no redeeming value.  Troy's arrogant, destructive behavior makes empathy or sympathy almost impossible.  He's repellent.  Here's a man who screws over his brain-damaged veteran brother, Gabe (Mykelti Williamson), screws over his disregarded older son, Lyons, from a previous relaltionship (a very good Russell Hornsby), screws over his seemingly despised younger son, Corey (Jovan Adepo) - and in an especially petty and vindictive manner - and who, worst of all, screws over his loyal wife, Rose (Viola Davis), with a jaw-dropping lack of regard.

Troy has a very curious sense of entitlement.

Exacerbating matters is the man's penchant for relentless pontificating and grandstanding, non-stop monologues of self-regard that remind us that "Fences" is very much a filmed play. We could pity Troy - he's a tragic figure - if he just wasn't so awful. And Washington ferociously tears into the role as if it were a raw slab of meat, refusing to lighten it or finesse us.

It's tough to watch.  Several people have complained to me recently about Kenneth Lonergan's "Manchester by the Sea" being "depressing."  Well, frankly, I found this film much more daunting and depleting.

Watching the actor go at it, I wondered if Denzel Washington, Movie Star, was a distraction - if audiences are able to see past his prevailing image as a good guy and take Troy for what he is.  Like James Earl Jones, who created the role on stage, Washington's image is one of intense integrity.  It makes me wonder if the casting of a Jones or a Washington is crucial to "Fences.  Does the "right" actor makes Troy more tolerable for audiences?

Also problematic but less so is Rose who (by my count) has at least three moments in "Fences" during which she describes all that she gave up for Troy, the dreams that she denied.  And she speaks with authority - and with an articulate quality that belies her situation.  She comes across as such a strong, independent and eloquent woman - or at least her words do - that one wonders exactly why she would put up with Troy for 18 years.

Would a real-life Rose be like this Rose?

It's these reservations that made "Fences" fascinating to me.  It's like I saw another film, not the one being raved about in those lavish ads.

Note in Passing:  Although it's been noted that Wilson produced the movie script for "Fences" just before his death in '05, there have also been rumors that playwright Tony Kushner was brought in to do some ghostwriting.  Wilson receives sole screen credit for the screenplay adaptation, but Kushner's "co-executive producer" credit is rather telling.

Sunday, January 01, 2017

twenty-sixteen

Credit: Ben King/Broad Green Pictures ©
Liam Hemsworth and Kate Winslet in 2016's best unseen movie

Now to deal with the naval-gazing critical ritual of analyzing the quality (or lack thereof) of the previous year's movie output. Unlike most of my peers, I had an aversion to this exercise (and to movie lists in general) when I was a working critic and do it now only for contrarian reasons.

You won't find me rhapsodizing about "Manchester by the Sea," "La La Land" or "Hidden Figures" (all titles that I admire) or any of the other usual suspects of what the experts call "the awards season."  In the spirit of this site, today is devoted to movies ... "neglected and mostly misunderstood."

And, so, my marginalized perspective of 2016...
  • "The Dressmaker" ~ Jocelyn Moorhouse's eccentric ensemble comedy - black and bleak and thoroughly delightful - headed by a frighteningly clear-eyed and focused Kate Winslet is my favorite film of the year, the only movie that I've seen more than once.  It's a loopy revenge farce. Boiling mad, Winslet's Tilly Dunnage returns to Dungatar, the dusty Aussie town and the scene of her terrible childhood. She is out to even the score with the creepy townspeople who tormented her in her youth and levels the entire unpleasant town in a finale that tops DePalma's "Carrie."  The supporting cast includes the invaluable Judy Davis as Winslet's decrepit crone of a mother; Liam Hemsworth as a strapping hunk who moons over Rodgers and Hammerstein's "South Pacific" (and Tilly, of course); Hugo Weaving as a police chief with a fondness for women's clothing; an unrecognizable Kerry Fox as the schoolteacher who was Tilly's chief tormentor; Caroline Goodall as a woman with pretensions who returns to Dungatar to find a suitable wife for her son, and Barry Otto as the evil town pharmacist with posture so bad that it has to be seen to be appreciated.  "The Dressmaker," adapted by Moorhouse and her husband, filmmaker P.J. Hogan ("Muriel's Wedding" and "My Best Friend's Wedding"), from a novel by Rosalie Ham, was developed in 2000 but didn't go into production until 2014.  It played a few film festivals in 2015, attracting little interest, and opened to bizarrely dismissive reviews.  When the dominant gorilla (read: The New York Times) dismisses a film, all the subservient apes usually follow suit.
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  • Ten other unlucky or forgotten titles worthy of praise ~  Woody Allen's "Café Society," Matt Ross's "Captain Fantastic," Yorgos Lanthimos's "The Lobster," The Coen Bros.' "Hail, Caesar," Luca Guadagnino's "A Bigger Splash," Susanna White's "Our Kind of Traitor," Derek Cianfrance's "The Light Between Oceans," Warren Beatty's "Rules Don't Apply," Max Showalter's "Hello, My Name Is Doris" and Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon's "Sausage Party." That adds up to ... 11?
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  • Hero reduction has become a popular blood sport among critics and, this year, two solid films inspired by modern history were shrugged off, largely because their makers (both masters) are no long trendy.  Oliver Stone's "Snowden" and Clint Eastwood's "Sully" both present rare, fresh insight into stories that have been covered to death by our relentless 24/7 news cycle.  Refreshingly old-fashioned in their storytelling, both are compulsively watchable.
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  • And now ~ ta-da ~ for the actors you won't find at this year's Oscarcast.  Best actor Hugh Grant / "Florence Foster Jenkins." Best actress Sally Field / "Hello, My Name Is Doris."  Supporting Actor Stellan Skarsgård / "Our Kind of Traitor." Supporting Actress Margo Martindale / "The Hollars." Bravo to them all.