Monday, August 27, 2018

cinema obscura: James Salter's "Three" (1969)

It's a thankless exercise for even the most astute filmmaker to delve into iconic material - material already perfected by another filmmaker.

Case in point #1: François Truffaut's "Jules et Jim" (1962)

Case in point #2: Paul Mazursky who, perhaps foolheartedly, challenged himself with the langorous relationship among two men and a woman in "Willie and Phil" (1980), despite the looming presence of  "Jules et Jim."
Mazursky wasn't the only one. In 1969, novelist James Salter directed "Three," his first - and only - film in which jetsetter Charlotte Rampling seductively drifts around hugely photogenic Mediterranean locations, distracting college buddies Sam Waterston and Robie Porter. The film follows them as they eat, drink, tour and flirt around the subject of sex.

It's about the simple of joy of just hanging out.

Salter, a "writer's writer," is someone whose name still intrigues cinéphiles, despite his modest output. He wrote the stories on which Dick Powell's "The Hunters" (1958), Stacy Cochran's "Boys" (1995) and Sean Mewshaw's "Last Night" (2004) were based. He penned the scripts for Sidney Lumet's "The Appointment" and Michael Ritchie's "Downhill Racer" (both 1969 releases) and Richard Pearce's "Threshold" (1981). He also collaborated on the script for Gregor Nicholas's "Broken English" (1996).

And that's it.

Salter, who died in 2015 at age 90, went to school with fellow writer Jack Kerouac. His pedigree was enviable, his rare film work eclectic.

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~Sam Waterson, tall and dark, and Robie Porter, blond and hunky, with dream girl Charlotte Rampling in James Salter's lost film, "Three"
~photography: United Artists 1969©

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

façade: Hermès Pan

For no specific reason (other than the fact that I want to), this little essay is devoted to that artist with the most exotic of names, Hermès Pan.

Pan - born Hermès Panagiotopoulos on 10 December, 1909 in Memphis, Tennessee - was (1) a movie choreographer extraordinaire, (2) Fred Astaire's house dance designer, (3) Astaire's near-doppelganger and (4) the man who, with Astaire, groomed the sublime Barrie Chase for a career on screen that could have rivaled Cyd Charisse's.

But, alas, Chase elected to retire young.

Pan's glory days were in the 1930s when he worked with Astaire and Ginger Rogers on their great Art Deco musicals. But much later - between 1957 and 1973, towards the end of his career - Pan was apparently the go-to guy for film choreography, overseeing 16 films in as many years:

"Pal Joey" (George Sidney, 1957)
"Silk Stockings" (Rouben Mamoulian, 1957)
"Never Steal Anything Small" (Charles Lederer, 1959)
"Porgy and Bess" (Otto Preminger, 1959)
"The Blue Angel" (Edward Dmytryk, 1959)
"Can-Can" (Walter Lang, 1960)
"Bells Are Ringing" (Vincinte Minnelli, 1960 - uncredited)
"The Pleasure of His Company" (George Seaton, 1961)
"Flower Drum Song" (Henry Koster, 1961)
"Cleopatra" (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1963)
"The Pink Panther" (Blake Edwards, 1963 - uncredited)
"My Fair Lady" (George Cukor, 1964)
"The Great Race" (Blake Edwards, 1965)
"Finian's Rainbow" (Francis Ford Coppola, 1968)
"Darling Lili" (Blake Edwards, 1970)
"Lost Horizon" (Charles Jarrott, 1973)

Both "Can-Can" and "Flower Drum Song," made a year apart, feature ethereal ballet sequences that can be considered companion pieces. Regarding "Bells Are Ringing," although Charles O'Curran is listed as its choreographer, Hal Linden singles out Pan in his commentary on the film's DVD. For reasons that we can only assume, director Vincente Minnelli fired Pan from "Bells" but retained the one number that he choreographed - "The Midas Touch," performed by Linden and chorus girls (and basically obscured by Minnelli in the background).

Pan also choreographed Astaire's three acclaimed TV specials - "An Evening with Fred Astaire" (1958), "Another Evening with Fred Astaire" (1959) and "Astaire Time" (1960), which is where Barrie Chase comes into the picture. After a few small roles in films such as Edmund Goulding's ”Mardi Gras,” she was Astaire's new dancing partner.

In '59, Pan was hired by Frank Sinatra to choreograph "Can-Can" and brought Chase along to play the second female lead, Claudine, the main can-can dancer. (Chase, Pan and Sinatra had previously worked together on "Pal Joey.") Chase ultimately bolted the production when most of her musical numbers were given to star Shirley MacLaine, as detailed in the "Can-Can" DVD's liner notes. MacLaine herself recounted the incident to Newsweek in its May 28, 1998/Sinatra Tribute issue carrying her byline.

Talking to Sinatra in the piece, she wrote: "You strong-armed Twentieth Century-Fox to make 'Can-Can' because you thought I should do a musical. And you had them combine the two female leads into a single character so people could see more of what I could do."

Well, that's only partially true. The character of Claudine wasn't eliminated. It was watered-down but still very much in the film. And it was eventually recast with Juliet Prowse after a very wise Chase bolted. Good move.

”Can-Can” is an incredibly bad film.

Pan also performed infrequently on screen (as a "specialty dancer") - most notably with both Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth - but for the most part, he enjoyed watching his precise terpsichorean creations from the wings.

He died of a stroke at age 88 on 19 September, 1990 in Beverly Hills.
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~ Hermès Pan kicks it up with Betty Grable in Walter Lang's "Coney Island"
~ photography: Twentieth Century-Fox 1946©

Sunday, August 19, 2018

truffaut vie!

Perhaps I'm a fatalist by nature. But it seems that whenever an important filmmaker dies - one who functioned either in front of the camera or from behind - film itself seems diminished. Bit by bit, as each one passes. Alfred Hitchcock. Jack Lemmon. Natalie Wood. Hal Ashby. Steve McQueen. Sydney Pollack. Cary Grant. Diana Sands.

There are more, way more, but these are the names who come to mind immediately - the ones whose passing, for personal reasons, hit me the hardest. Their replacements seem insufficient but film goes on.

Then there's François Truffaut (1932-1984), the dashing French filmmaker/critic/actor whose role in the development of the New Wave in the 1950s not only revolutionized French cinema, bringing an exhilarating urgency to it, but influenced filmmaking worldwide, including America's own New Wave of the late 1960s-early '70s.

Truffaut began his life behind the camera in 1959 with the autobiographical "Les Quatre Cent Coups" ("The 400 Blows"), a remarkable, achingly powerful debut starring his frequent collaborator, Jean-Pierre Léaud, as his on-screen alter ego. And in 1978, towards the end of his career (and life), he directed the equally autobiographical, "La Chambre Vert" ("The Green Room"), starring ... himself.

He brought himself into the films that he made in-between as well, only less subjectively - as an astute, objective observer of life in general.

He appealed to non-francophiles by filming Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451," starring Oskar Werner and Julie Christie, in English, and charmed American audiences with his performance as scientist Claude Lacombe in Steven Spielberg's "Close Encounters of a Third Kind."

There was a vague feeling of desolation when Truffaut passed at age 52 from a brain tumor. Too soon - not only for Truffaut, whose mission was to make an even 30 films and then retire, but also for movie enthusiasts who had convinced themselves that he'd make many more. He never made it to 30. Truffaut directed 21 titles, seven of which are currently being screened, under the title "Truffaut X Seven" ("Truffaut fois sept" in French), at New York's Metrograph rep house, @ No. 7 Ludlow Street (212-660-0312), through August 24th.

The titles selected by the Metrograph programmers are not what an avid Truffaut aficionado would expect. The debut film is missing, as is the seminal "Jules et Jim"("Jules and Jim") and "Le Dernier métro" ("The Last Metro"), arguably Truffaut's masterwork. But there are four consecutively-made titles from his middle period, and included are his two playful takes on Hitchcock, "La Sirène du Mississipi" ("Mississippi Mermaid") and "La Mariée était en noir" ("The Bride Wore Black"), with Catherine Deneuve and Jeanne Moreau, respectively, as irresistibly disreputable femme fatales, as well as two affecting titles about children, "L"Enfant sauvage"("The Wild Child") and "L'Argent de poche" ("Small Change").

Here are all 21 feature films (shorts not included) directed by François Truffaut, with the seven Metrograph titles highlighted:

"Les Quatre Cent Coups" ("The 400 Blows," 1959)

"Tirez sur le pianiste" ("Shoot the Piano Player," 1960)

 "Jules et Jim" ("Jules and Jim," 1962)

 "La Peau douce" ("The Soft Skin," 1964)

 "Fahrenheit 451" (1966)

 "La Mariée était en noir" ("The Bride Wore Black," 1968)

 "Baisers volés" ("Stolen Kisses," 1968)

"La sirène du Mississipi" ("Mississippi Mermaid," 1969)

"L'Enfant sauvage" ("The Wild Child," 1970)

"Domicile conjugal" ("Bed and Board," 1970)

"Les Deux anglaises et le continent" ("Two English Girls," 1971)

"Une belle fille comme moi" ("Such a Gorgeous Kid Like Me," 1972)

"La Nuit américaine" ("Day for Night," 1973)

"L'Histoire d'Adèle H." ("The Story of Adèle H.," 1975)

"L'Argent de poche" ("Small Change," 1976)

"L'Homme qui aimait les femmes" ("The Man Who Loved Women," 1977)

"La Chambre Vert" ("The Green Room," 1978)

L'Amour en fuite" ("Love on the Run," 1979)

"Le Dernier métro" ("The Last Metro," 1980)

La Femme d'à côté" ("The Woman Next Door," 1981)

"Vivement dimanche!" ("Confidentially Yours," 1983)

Of course, no Truffaut retrospective would be complete without all his films being screened. But this is a good, left-of-center tribute. Personally, I would have certainly included "Tirez sur le pianiste" ("Shoot the Piano Player"), with Charles Aznavor as a seemingly small-time pianist juggling relatives, thugs, a woman, a past and some secrets; "La Peau douce" ("The Soft Skin"), about a wrenching love affair (for the married man, at least) starring Françoise Dorléac (Catherine Deneuve's late sister) as the other woman, and "Une belle fille comme moi" ("Such a Gorgeous Kid Like Me"),  an incredibly watchable romp starring an exuberant, colorful Bernadette Lafont. Quel dommage!

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(from top)

~Truffaut lives!
~Photographie: Pierre Zucca 1968 ©

~François Truffaut et Jean-Pierre Léaud
~Photography: Richard Avedon 1971©

~Truffaut and Bernadette Lafont on the set of "Such a Gorgeous Kid Like Me"
~Photography: Les Films du Carrosse and Columbia Pictures 1972© 

~French poster art for "Jules et Jim"

~Catherine Deneuve and Jean-Paul Belmondo in a scene from "La sirène du Mississipi"
~photography: Les Artistes Associés  1969©

~French poster art for "Tirez sur le pianiste"

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

character counts: barbara nichols

Barbara Nichols (1929-1976) - Our all-time favorite brassy, sassy, big-mouthed '50s blonde, hands-down
One of the fleeting pleasures of watching '50s movies is the occasional date with Barbara Nichols, not so much one of the many blonde bombshells (and Marilyn-wannabes) who drifted, rather languidly, throughout the decade but a first-rate supporting performer and team player. Fox had its CinemaScope trademark blonde, Monroe, in its stable (keeping Sheree North and Jayne Manfield on hold for whenever MM acted up) and Columbia had Judy Holliday and Kim Novak playing different degrees of blonde and dumb. But on the fringe, working freelance, were such names as Mamie Van Doren, Joi Lansing, Britain's Diana Dors and ...

Barbara Nichols.

Of the bunch, Nichols came across as the toughest and most likable. She was the Damon Runyon blonde - brassy, sassy and resplendent with her Brooklyn accent - among the more machine-tooled bottle blondes.

Her big year was 1957 when she played the poignant role of Rita in Alexander Mackendrick's "Sweet Smell of Success," the wise-cracking Gladys Bump in George Sidney's "Pal Joey" and Poopsie in Stanley Donen and George Abbott's "The Pajama Game." Other roles came - Philip Dunne's "Ten North Frederick" (1958) with Gary Cooper; Raoul Walsh's "The Naked and the Dead" (also '58) with Aldo Ray; Sidney Lumet's "That Kind of Woman" (1959) with Sophia Loren and Tab Hunter, and Sidney's "Who Was That Lady?" (1960), with Dean Martin, Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh and fellow bombshell Lansing (playing her sister, no less), along with bits with Robert Cummings (and Lansing again) on "The Bob Cummings Show"/"Love That Bob" sitcom.

Her scratchy, chalk-on-a-blackboard voice fueled these films and made most of them memorable, but sexpots, like dancers, usually don't age well. By the 1960s, Nichols was left with guest roles on TV series, although she had something of a personal triumph on Broadway in Ray Evans-Jay Livingston's "Let It Ride," starring George Gobel and Sam Levene - a 1961 musical version of Mervyn LeRoy's 1936 film, "Three Men on a Horse," with Levene recreating his original movie role.

Barbara Nichols died young - at age 46 - in 1976 from an automobile accident that severely damaged her liver and ultimately put her in a coma.

character counts - This is a recurring feature devoted to those familiar faces - Hollywood's invaluable character actors -  addressing them,  finally, by their names.  Which too few of us know, even some dedicated cinéphiles.

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(from top)

~Barbara Nichols, off screen

~The usual "bombshell" studio publicity shot

~Nichols with Janet Leigh and Joi Lansing in "Who Was That Lady?"
~photography: Columbia Pictures 1960©

Thursday, August 09, 2018

voter fraud

Poor Oscar.

Like many pampered, overindulged children, Oscar has been something of a disappointment. Oscar is like the popular kid in high school who fails to live up to his/her potential later in life, subsequently overshadowed by its "lessers" - upstarts, wannabes and competitors. Like The Golden Globes.

While everything seems to go swimmingly for the Globes, poor Oscar has struggled desperately to hold on to its sense of entitlement and relevance, only to see its popularity wane a bit more with each passing year. The annual Golden Globes bash, hosted by The Hollywood Foreign Press, is the coolest movie party of the awards season, pulled off with ease, whereas the Oscarcast is largely viewed as self-important, elephantine and stiff.

And the turnout seems to dip a bit more every year. Ratings don't lie.

And so, a few years ago, Oscar's doting helicopter parent – The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences  – started to manipulate factors that would make its precious problem child appear more important and popular.

Yes, manipulate.

And to coin a currently popular word, obstruct.

For the past few years, the Academy has been busy rewriting its rule book to appease anyone who has voiced disappointment in the yearly nominees and ultimate winners. The most recent update, as detailed by Brooks Barnes in The New York Times, is the introduction of a new category called Best Popular Film. This is so that a franchise installment based on a Marvel or D.C. comic is assured that it will share the spotlight with those hoity-toity indie films that invariably win Best Picture seemingly every year.

It's pretty much a transparent attempt to control what wins an Oscar, which strikes me as something particularly dubious. And it isn't the first time that the Academy stepped in to control matters. It's simply another half-baked incarnation of an idea actually attempted several years ago.

For more than six decades, the Best Picture nominees were restricted to just five. But in the 1980s, with the full-on advent of the independent film - an event that can be traced back to the triumverate of Steven Soderberg's "Sex, Lies and Videotape," Harvey Weinstein's Miramax Pictures and the Sundance Festival - the contours of the Best Picture category changed.

Suddenly, monster films like "Ben-Hur," "Around the World in 80 Days" and "The Sound of Music" no longer had clout with the voters. The turning point was when "Shakespeare in Love" won over "Saving Private Ryan" in 1998.

Slowly, the independents overtook the Oscars and popular mainstream extravaganzas were being shut out, much to the chagrin of the big studios. There were complaints.  In 2009, after the franchise film “The Dark Knight” failed to get an expected Best Picture nomination, the Academy - a stage mother to end all stage mothers - stepped in to correct such slights in the future and to quell anticipated complaints from pesky industry malcontents. It elected to grease the squeaky wheels by expanding
and opening up the Best Picture category to include as many as 10 titles.

That way, action and comic-book movies had a chance to be included and honored.  You know, art.

But guess what. Right! Despite the revision, nothing changed.

Since that expansion, even more fringe titles have been nominated for Best Picture. Usually eight or nine. (For some reason, there have yet to be ten nominated films. I’ve no idea what the official cut-off point is.) 

Mainstream titles have remained a distinct minority. Case in Point: The 2017 Best Picture nominees. Most were largely fringe titles, specifically items that don't lend themselves to an IMAX presentation - "Lady Bird," "Phantom Thread," "Call Me by Your Name," "The Shape of Water," "Get Out," "Darkest Hour" and "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri."

Steven Spielberg's "The Post" is the lone throwback to the kind of old-fashioned film that routinely snagged the top Oscar, and Christopher Nolan's "Dunkirk" is the only title that's broad-shouldered and Big.

Meanwhile, the Academy has been busy "updating" its membership, expelling antiquated voters unlikely to get behind a superhero movie for Best Picture and replacing them with newbies - 774 new faces invited to join in 2017 and another 928 invited this year. The 2018 potential inductees - listed in The Hollywood Reporter - are a tad embarrassing.

The other big news is that the Academy plans to make sure the next giveaway show doesn't exceed 180 minutes, including commercials - during which less popular awards (editing? cinematography?) will be doled out so as not the burden the average Oscar viewer with trivia. But I'm sure that ABC, which is televising the thing, will find room for god-awful production numbers and the coy bit where host Jimmy Kimmel invades a neighboring movie house to surprise the audience with his celebrity pals.

This unctuous routine seems to have become a yearly event.

Changes, changes.

But one element will remain the same. The Academy will continue to give more Awards to the wrong films and people than to the right ones.

Note in Passing: Regarding the wrong people/films winning and the right ones losing, the joint snub that still bothers me the most is the passing over of Judy Garland and Montgomery Clift for their deeply felt supporting performances in Stanley Kramer's "Judgment at Nuremberg" in 1961 in favor of Rita Moreno and George Chakiris in the Robert Wise-Jerome Robbins production of "West Side Story." Really? Closely following is Susannah York, whose Oscar for Sydney Pollack's "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" in 1969 went to Goldie Hawn for her work in Gene Saks' "Cactus Flower." Huh? And I still can't quite grasp that Jack Nicholson wasn't even nominated for Mike Nichols' "Carnal Knowledge" in 1971. Any Oscar snubs that bother you?  Share!     

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(from top)

~The Oscar
~photography: ©The Academy of Arts and Sciences

~Judy Garland and Montgomery Clift on the set of  "Judgment at Nuremberg"
~photography: United Artists 1961©