Monday, August 29, 2016

cinema obscura: Robert Enders' "Stevie" (1978)

Jackson with Washbourne, wearing the flowered dress that Jackson's Stevie wittily describes as "they all came up."

Robert Enders' endearing "Stevie" (1978), adapted by Hugh Whitemore from his West End stage play, is essentially a precise acting duet between two titans of the British stage and cinema, Glenda Jackson and Mona Washbourne, respectively playing the poet Stevie Smith and her beloved aunt (who remains agreeably nameless throughout).

Yes, the piece is stagebound but also, somehow, surprisingly cinematic because Enders (a novice filmmaker at the time who worked largely as a producer) fills his movie with a sharp array of words - the tricky, observant wordplay of Smith's poetry (which Jackson reads directly into the camera at intervals) and Whitemore's affectionate imagination of the bracingly articulate conversations between Smith and her aunt, who lived together.

Through all the talk we come to know Stevie and her emotional problems.


All of this is staged in a cozy cottage designed by John Lageu and photographed by Freddie Young with an eye for the prevading warmth of the central relationship and Stevie's work.

There's a third character on the periphery - Freddy, a close friend played on stage by Peter Eyre and in the film by Alec McGowen - as well a Stevie as a child (Emma Louise Fox) who appears in flashbacks, moments that were only spoken about on stage. The addition of the flashbacks, as well as a narrator for the film (courtesy of Trevor Howard's marvelously sonorous intonations), are the only filmic compromises made by Enders, whose fidelity to the piece's frail nature is remarkable and admirable.

"Stevie" remains the only film directed by Enders, who died in 2007. His film was picked up for American distribution by First Artists, a fledgling company which had a short life in the late 1970s and which had little faith in "Stevie." It opened the film for two weeks in Los Angeles in 1978 and then promptly shelved it. Two years later, when First Artists was long gone, Enders bought back his film and opened it on the East Coast in 1980, where it was a huge hit with the critics and art-house patrons.

Other limited engagements in other cities followed.

It was made available on home entertainment in Great Britain, but never here. "Stevie" remains a lost film.

Note in Passing: Because of her film's irregular release pattern, Jackson never received the Oscar nomination that she so fully deserved. But the Golden Globes honored her and Washbourne in 1979 and both the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics Circle Awards gave the best actress and supporting actress awards to Jackson and Washbourne in 1981. Washbourne, who died in 1988 at age 84, was honored by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards in 1978 as supporting actress.
* * *

"Not Waving but Drowning"

"Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning;
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning

"Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he's dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.

"Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning."

-Stevie Smith

Sunday, August 21, 2016

delusional soulmates

I've long been fascinated by the vagaries of film distribution - how some movies seem to emerge at the right time, commenting on a current situation, although it could have never been planned that way.

That occurred to me while watching Stephen Frears' hugely entertaining biopic of "Florence Foster Jenkins," a society matron whose love of classical music compelled her to attempt a late career as an opera singer, even though she had no real talent for it.  Meryl Streep - in another of her seemingly effortless bravura performances - plays Florence with both deep humor and compassionate dignity, and Hugh Grant - in a great, revelatory performance (arguably the best male performance of the year) - plays the husband who both encourages Florence in her futile fantasy and protects her from whatever harshness that might suppress that beloved fantasy.

The movie is about a delusional person being enabled by the people around her and I made the connection to Donald Trump whose current quest for presidency is also being nurtured by the people around him.  There are obvious differences between Florence and Donald, to be sure, but their delusions are similar, as are the enablers taking care of them.

Monday, August 15, 2016

cinema obscura: Richard Benner's "Happy Birthday, Gemini" (1980)

The late Richard Benner, who died in 1990, was a promising Canadian filmmaker who, for reasons unknown, directed only three movies.

He broke through in 1977 with the hugely entertaining "Outrageous!," a drag-queen farce driven by fine-tuned, yet comic, turns by the cross-dressing Craig Russell (who also died in 1990), the fetching Hollis McLaren, reliable Helen Shaver and the cult filmmaker Allan Moyle ("Pump Up the Volume" and "Empire Records"). A decade later, Benner made the less-successful sequel, "Too Outrageous!," and that was that.

End of film career; onward to TV, which also lasted only briefly.

In-between his two Russell farces, however, Benner made his best, most assured film - 1980's "Happy Birthday, Gemini," based on the Albert Innaurato stage comedy that was simply titled "Gemini" when it was staged off-Broadway twice within a year - first by Playwrights Horizons in December 1976 and then by the Circle Repertory in March 1977 - and again on Broadway in May 1977. To call Innaurato's piece "audience-friendly" was an understatment. It was irresistible, playing a whopping 1,819 performances on Broadway. Sigourney Weaver, Danny Aiello and Robert Picardo were among the cast in its various stage incarnations.

In those days, a successful stage comedy was automatically snapped up for the screen (not any more!) and when United Artists decided to film it, the project was handed to Benner on the basis of "Outrageous!"

Essentially a backyard comedy, set among row houses in South Philadelphia, "Happy Birthday, Gemini" revolves around the 21st birthday celebration of one Francis Geminiani - played on stage by Picardo and in the film by Alan Rosenberg - a gay kid who had the misfortune to grow up in a rough-hewn neighborhood. An antic comedy of manners ensues as various friends, relatives and neighbors crowd their way in, making a lot of arm-flailing, neurosis-revealing commotion.

These include Francis's father, Nick (Robert Viharo), and his girlfriend, Lucille (Rita Moreno); next-door neighbor Bunny Weinberger (Madeline Kahn) and her obese son Herschel (Timothy Jenkins), and Francis's classmates from Harvard, the twins Judith Hastings (Sarah Holcomb) and Randy Hastings (David Marshall Grant). It's like this - Sarah has a crush on Francis, who in turn has a crush on Randy.

Blessed with this pleasing cast, Benner almost effortlessly whipped up a most companionable film. The three young leads, all new at the time, are especially good. Rosenberg and Grant both went on to have modest acting careers in film and television, with Grant branching off into producing and writing and Rosenberg occasionally directing for TV. But one has to grieve the sudden, unexpected disappearance of Holcomb, who debuted in 1978 in "Animal House," had a commanding dramatic role in "Walk Proud" a year later, and was most fetching in "Caddyshack," made in 1980, the same year as "Gemini." Four films in three years and then ... nothing.  She apparently dropped out.  Where is Sarah Holcolmb? A major loss.

Anchoring the film with appropriately diva-like performances are Moreno and the late Kahn, both old pros whose bravura work here should have elevated Benner's pleasing little comedy to near-classic status. As a film, it certainly deserved as large an audience as its stage source attracted.

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

façade: Judy Holliday

Judy and Dino played the Radio City Music Hall during the summer of 1960
The Museum of Modern Art remembers what Columbia Pictures (now enveloped by Sony) seems to have regrettably forgotten, namely that Judy Holliday was terrific - and bracingly idiosyncratic for a Movie Star.

Holliday was one of several companionable blondes who played and flirted with audiences during the 1950s.  No two were alike.  There was Marilyn, of course, the child-woman.  And Kim, the haunted blonde.  (No need for last names here, right?)  And Jayne and Mamie and Sheree, the latter brought in by Fox executives to keep Marilyn in line, a toxic decision that limited the talented Sheree North's career.  And then there was Judy, who was less sexualized than the others and, because of that, more accessible.

She also reflected a complicated comic styling, bringing affecting pathos to dialogue meant to be funny. Her singular line readings took her characters precariously close to being pathetic but her uncanny timing rescued her women, keeping their dignity intact and revealing them to be actually kind of smart.

No ditz she.

As a star, Holliday enjoyed a brief two-decade career, which ended prematurely in 1965.  She was 43 and she succumbed to breast cancer. Twenty years earlier, she replaced Jean Arthur during the out-of-town tryouts of the Garson Kanin comedy, "Born Yesterday" and subsequently starred in the 1950 Columbia Pictures film version, winning an Oscar.  As well as a Columbia contract.

The studio's head, Harry Cohn, initially had no interest in casting the untested Holliday in the film but Kanin and the film's director George Cukor convinced Cohn by first casting her in another collaboration.

That would be MGM's "Adam's Rib."

It was ingenious plan.  It worked. Holliday's scant film career consists of six Columbia titles bookended by two Metro films - Cukor and Kanin's aforementioned "Adam's Rib" in 1949 and Vincente Minnelli 's "Bells Are Ringing," based on the hit 1956 stage musical she headlined at the height of her stardom. The film version, released in 1960, was her final movie.

It is also her only film shot in color.  Judy Holliday was a black-&-white leading lady and the six films she made for Columbia come with a gray, overcast appeal, most of them filmed (or located) in a woozy New York of another time, a city that paired well with Holliday's distracted personality.

Given that she made only a half-dozen films for Columbia, it's disappointing that Sony has yet to combine those titles in a boxed DVD/BluRay set.  But for the time being, there's MoMA's Modern Matinees: Summer with Judy Holliday (curated by Anne Morra), which has been running since late July and continues through August 31st .

Judy & Jack Lemmon & New York in "It Should Happen to You"

At Columbia, between 1950 and 1956, Holliday worked with the venerable Cukor three times ("Born Yesterday," the prescient farce "It Should Happen to You" and the excellent dramedy "The Marrying Kind"); twice with Richard Quine, arguably Columbia's best house director ("The Solid Gold Cadillac" and "Full of Life"), and Mark Robson (the eternally modern and sophisticated - and criminally underrated - "Phffft!").

"Bells Are Ringing," already presented on July 27th, screens again at Moma on August 12that 1:30 p.m.  I hope to be there.  It would be great to see this Minnelli musical on a big screen again.

It's a fascinating movie because one can sense that Minnelli was aware of changing moviegoer tastes and that, sadly, screen musicals were no longer a welcomed treat.  As an act of accommodation, Minnelli made some shrewd changes in the Adolph Green-Betty Condom-Jule Styne material (note his filming of the "I Met a Girl" number" and his reinvention of "Mu-Cha-Cha"), creating a new-style movie musical for its time.

I just wish Vincente had filmed it in black-&-white. You know, for Judy.

Who, by the way, had an IQ of 172. No ditz she.

Note in Passing:  While all of Holliday's Columbia films were shot in black-&-white, the final scene of Quine's "The Solid Gold Cadillac" was photographed in color, to accentuate the glittering title vehicle.