Friday, July 20, 2012

the storyteller

"Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women as I Knew Them" (HarperCollins/$25.99/356 pages), Frank Langella's compulsively readable debut as a writer, is the ideal beach book.

Langella, who is every bit as inventive a writer as he is an actor, calls this tome "a memoir," but that's a stretch. It's a series of encounters that Langella had with a number of notables - 66 in all - and all of them, except for one (Rachel "Bunny" Mellon), are deceased. Langella wittily presents them, his "Cast of Characters" (his words), "In Order of Disappearance."

That's why Whoopie Goldberg, Langella's longtime companion, is not included.

Only dead folk here. And I have a theory on that: The dead can't challenge what's written about them. Consequently, I doubted much of what I read here. I'm not questioning Langella's veracity, I'm not calling him a fabulist, but rather, I'm exhibiting my own dark, cynical skepticism.

Case in point: His reminiscence of his fleeting encounter with Marilyn Monroe, the first celeb in the book, seems like a fantasy. It was the winter of 1953 and the young Langella was "aimlessly looking for something in New York - unaware of what I was looking for." Then he encounters "a long black Limousine from which a white-gloved had appeared." It's ... Marilyn Monroe.

"She turned briefly to her right, saw me standing there, smiled like a sunbeam, and said in a soft whisper: 'Hi.'

"An indefinable yearning to free myself from a life I instinctively felt was killing my soul had caused me to venture forth that day without guidance or direction ... Marilyn Monroe had, I'm certain, awakened that morning yearning for something she too could not define; a tortured soul that I saw only as a beautiful woman and a Movie Star."

I love it, but I don't believe it for a second.

To Langella's credit, he confesses his own flights of fantasy up front. Of his remembrances, he writes: "I admit they are most likely prejudiced, somewhat revisionist, and a tad exaggerated here and there. But were I offered an exact replay of event as they unfolded, I would reject it. I prefer my memories."


Of a fractious backstage situation between Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, which isn't pretty, Langella describes it as "an incident not recalled by either."


But who cares? This stuff is fun to read, preferrably with a gin-&-tonic in hand. His take on Anne Bancroft is particularly delicious: "Potentially one of the greatest actresses of her generation, she was consumed by a galloping narcissism that often undermined her talents."

He writes of an incident at Bloomingdale's perfume counter where Bancroft "saw a woman across the way smiling at her. She smiled back. The other woman returned hers with an even broader smile. And Annie said she felt inextricably drawn to this woman, wanting to go around the counter to embrace and kiss her passionately, until she realized she was looking into a mirror."

Great stuff.

What's really interesting is Langella's description of Coral Browne's relationship with columnist Radie Harris who apparently was obsessed with Browne. Harris, Langella writes, "had a bum leg, walked with a cane and wore a brace."

And doesn't that description exactly fit the columnist character that Browne played in Robert Aldrich's "The Legend of Lylah Clare"?

Read this book. Now.

Note in Passing: Curiously, Langella makes little mention of "Diary of a Mad Housewife," the film that put him on the map, or its director Frank Perry, and nothing of his beguiling co-star in the film, Carrie Snodgress.

Strange, given that both of them are ... dead.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

"Manchurian Candidate Redux"

"I am United States Senator John Yerkes Iselin, and I have here a list of two hundred seven persons who are known by the Secretary of Defense as being members of the Communist Party!"

-James Gregory, as a clueless but ambitious politician addressing the Senate in "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962), a film, written by George Axelrod and directed by John Frankenheimer, that has proven to be quite prescient.

Jump to a dialogue between Gregory and Angela Lansbury as his machiavellian wife:

Lansbury: "I'm sorry, hon'. Would it really make it easier for you if we settled on just one number?"

Gregory: "Yeah. Just one, real, simple number that'd be easy for me to remember."

Jump to Gregory, addressing the Senate again:

Gregory: "There are exactly 57 card-carrying members of the Communist Party in the Department of Defense at this time!"

Excuse me, but does any of this sound vaguely familiar?

I've been waiting for months for someone, anyone, to link the recent deranged rants of Rep. Allen West (R-FL) - "I believe there’s [sic] about 78 to 81 members of the Democrat Party that are members of the Communist Party ... No, they actually don’t hide it. It’s called the Congressional Progressive Caucus” - to James Gregory's tirade in "The Manchurian Candidate" 50 years ago.

Yes, fifty years.

But then former GOP presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann came along, alledging that Huma Abedin, longtime aide to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, may have ties to - gasp! - the Muslim Brotherhood. Oy!

Since no one else has picked up on the connection or made the comparison or offered an opinion, I'll do - and add the unsolicited comment that the professional Republicans, seemingly more desperate than ever, have lost it.


Wednesday, July 18, 2012

a fan's notes: catching up

France's "Une vie de chat" preserved the fleeting, precious felicity of modern-day moviegoing - a rarity these days

I'm back!

Having exhausted all mental energy in April with my (admittedly self-indulgent) tribute to movie dance sequences that no one else cares about, I decided that I needed a respite from the sound of my own voice reverberating in my head.

But that didn't stop me from keeping up with what is euphemistically referred to these days as popular culture. So here are twenty thumbnails of what I saw...

"Snow White and the Huntsman" - A prime example of the aggressive masculinization of modern movies. Even fairy tales aren't safe from testosterone poisoning. Exacerbating matters is Charlize Theron's one-note performance of the wicked queen who intones ad infinitum "Bring her to me!"

"Bernie" - Delicious. The ever-evolving Richard Linklater brings the best of juicy fiction to the sordid true story of an awful woman and the sweet guy she nags into murdering her. Jack Black, Matthew MacConaughey and Shirley MacLaine, as the wealthy old shrew, turn in companionable performances, and isn't it fascinating how, in her career, Shirl has gone from victim to victimizer?

"Modern Family"/"Keeping Up with the Kardashians" - The enthusiasm for ABC's most beloved possession, "Modern Family," evades me. It's strictly a conventional sitcom (boob dad, smart wife, chauvinist granddad, bratty kids) with a new paint job (a couple gays, plus a Latina) for the illusion of topicality. No, the real "modern family" is E!'s "Keeping Up with the Kardashians," a lively sitcom (with Scott and Kourtney playing role-reversed Lucy and Ricky, respectively), disguised as Reality TV. It's the best guilty pleasure going.

"Dark Shadows" - Johnny Depp was once a singlar fringe actor who lived in France and made alt films with intriguing filmmakers. Then, he became a pirate, moved to L.A. and sold out. He's entertaining as hell (and as game as ever) in Tim Burton's take on the cult '70s soap opera, but he's given one gimmicky performance too many (and always for Burton). I just wish he'd go away.

"A Cat in Paris"/"Une vie de chat"- A cat burglar who's literally a cat (actually, he's the feline sidekick of the human thief). Très charmant.

"Magic Mike" - If Burt Reynolds made a male-stripper flick in the 1970s, it would look like this affable Steven Soderbergh concoction. (It even comes replete with the much-reviled Warner logo from the '70s.) Star Channing Tatum, apparently playing himself, is all charisma, and Matthew MacConaughey (again) throws himself with gusto into the role Reynolds might have played.

"Rock of Ages" - Talk about throwing oneself into a role, catch Tom Cruise's revelatory turn in Adam Shankman's musical, a kinda update of "42nd Street." Ditto for Alec Baldwin. Anthony Lane, who is paid by The New Yorker to review movies, complained about the film's characters breaking into song. With influence peddlers so lame, it's no surprise the film musical is stone cold dead.

Lena Dunham- Like most Flavors of the Month, Dunham has been wildly overrated. HBO's recent "Girls," her edgy take on clueless young women of the new millenium who don't even get pleasure from sex, had its moments but, if I absolutely have to watch people having sex, can't they be remotely attractive?

"Moonrise Kingdom"- Wes Anderson being Wes Anderson (read: arch and precious). The critics felt obliged to love it, sight unseen, with the result being a bunch of reviews that make even less sense than the movie itself which (for all its archness and preciousness) is curiously watchable and enjoyable.

"The Amazing Spider-Man"- Amazing? Hardly. It's the same joyless superhero film that Hollywood feels compelled to make for its braindead core audience every few months. Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone are adorable (up to a point), but once the talented Rhys Ifans was turned into a reptile, I walked out.

"Savages"- Oliver Stone returns to form - impressively - with this sumptuous film lumiere, a delirious, sun-struck stoner film crossed with drug-war darkness. Game performances from Benicio Del Toro, Salma Hayek, John Travolta and particulary Blake Lively, Aaron Johnson and Taylor Kitsch. A movie this good deserves the two socko endings that Stone playfully devised for it.

"The Newsroom"- Aaron Sorkin's witty and urbane dialogue, as alert as ever, is trumped by the bloated, pervading self-importance here. I worked with journalists for 30 years and this HBO series captures them accurately, inadvertently illustrating exactly why I personally liked so few of them.

"The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel"- Like taking a tiny vacation with terrific companions (Dench! Wilton! Smith! Wilkinson! Imrie! Nighy! Pickup!).

"Darling Companion"- Lawrence Kasdan has made his first "old man's" film, a listless ensemble piece in which Kevin Kline trots out his imperious Fraiser Crane schtick (he isn't very good) and in which Elizabeth Moss's trademark odd line readings are revealed to be simply bad line readings (she isn't very good either). But Diane Keaton, as always, is like an old, reliable friend. She redeems the film.

"The Five-Year Engagement"- One those titles you enjoy and then immediately forget. Actually, there are a lot of films like this these days.

"Take This Waltz"- A naggingly flirtatious affair is finally consummated, but is it all a fantasy? We'll never know. This Sarah Polley-directed film benefits mightily from star Michelle Williams' seductive, playful otherness.

"Ted"- Genuinely hilarious and, for once, the token female character (played by Mila Kunis who makes the most of it) is no token. Mark Wahlberg is slyly funny here the way he was in "I ♥ Huckabees," for which he deserved more acclaim.

"To Rome with Love"- Minor but enjoyable. Woody Allen on autopilot. Am I the only one who thinks the Alec Baldwin character makes no sense whatsoever?

"Your Sister’s Sister"- Lynn Shelton's novel take on the ménage à trois. Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt play the (they-don't-)lookalike sisters, one a widow, the other a lesbian; Mark Duplass is the guy who sleeps with both. Yeah, novel.

"The Dictator" - All I remember about this nonentity from provocateur Sasha Baron Cohen is a birth sequence as disgustingly unfunny as it is gratuitous.