The New Yorkers Arrive, Heralding Texan’s Boyhood

1 Dec

Ah, just as surely Black Friday once followed Thanksgiving Day, the year end accolades begin arriving as early as December 1. First out of the gate are the winners of the New York Film Critics Circle, and here we go:

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Hooray for the native son, that is Texas based filmmaker Richard Linklater whose latest, Boyhood, may very well be the movie with the most year end buzz–not bad considering that it was released back over the summer. Linklater, whose credits include everything from micro-budgeted indie Slacker (1991), to Dazed and Confused (1993), the Before Sunrise trilogy (1994 – 2013), School of Rock (2003), and Bernie (2012), stretched himself yet again with a traditional feature film shot over a 12 year period, thereby charting the growth of child actor Ellar Coltrane who, per the IMDb, grew an incredible 27 inches during production. Linklater’s execution might be unique in that he shows his character, played by a single actor, age from 5 to 18 in the span of 165 minutes, but his vision is comparable to that of Francois Truffuat who featured actor Jean-Pierre Léaud as character Antoine Doinel in a series of films, spanning 20 years, beginning with 1959’s 400 Blows when the actor was approximately 15 years old. I have more to add, and I will later, but this is good news for Linklater fans for now. Good news for Patricia Arquette fans as well, I was beginning to think she’d never get another strong film role.

Best Picture: Boyhood

Best Actress: Marion Cotillard (The Immigrant and Two Days, One Night)

Best Actor: Timothy Spall (Mr. Turner)

Best Director: Richard Linklater (Boyhood)

Best Supporting Actress: Patricia Arquette (Boyhood)

Best Supporting Actor: J.K. Simmons (Whiplash)

Best Screenplay:  Wes Anderson and Hugo Guiness

(The Grand Budapest Hotel, inspired by the works of Stefan Zweig)

Best First Film: Jennifer Kent (The Babadook)

Best Cinematography: Darius Khondji (The Immigrant)

Best Animated Film: The Lego Movie

Best Foreign Language Film: Ida (Poland)

Best Nonfiction Film: Citizenfour

Special Award: Adrienne Mancia

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I’m happy for Timothy Spall, a member of Brit director Mike Leigh’s repertory company. This time, Spall takes the lead as 19th century painter J.M.W. Turner. Spall won Best Actor honors at the most recent Cannes film fest, but he has not received as much media coverage as the likes of Michael Keaton (Birdman), Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything), and Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

^ J.K. Simmons is a regular acting demon. In Whiplash, he plays a demanding jazz conductor at a prestigious music school.  Watch the trailer for but a taste. I can’t wait to see the whole thing!

New York Film Critics Circle official site: http://www.nyfcc.com/awards/

Accolades and Actresses: Remembering Mike Nichols

29 Nov
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Mike Nichols was a movie industry giant; however, he only directed 22 films between 1966 and 2007. Even so, he earned accolade after accolade and repeatedly guided performers to new levels of greatness. His last film was the fact based Charlie Wilson’s War, starring Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, who earned an Academy nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

So, here is how my mind works: Mike Nichols unexpectedly passed away last week at the age of 83.

  • Heralding him as a wunderkind is no overstatement as he is one of precious few individuals to have earned an Emmy (Wit and Angels in America), a Grammy (the landmark comedy album, An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May), an Oscar (The Graduate), and a Tony (actually several Tonys, everything from directing Neil Simon hits such as Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple to producing and or directing such smash musicals as Annie and Spamalot). Furthermore, he was still in his 30s when he won his Oscar–and for only his second film, on the heels of scoring a nod for his first: 1966’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
  • I remember a skit from the old Carol Burnett show in which Burnett played a somewhat jaded sophisticate reunited with an old friend–played by Vicki Lawrence, of course–the latter having once looked up to the former something fierce. The gag was that Lawrence was on the verge of a huge showbiz breakthrough but Burnett’s character just couldn’t be happy for her friend’s success and kept trying to squash her hopes, pointing out how competitive Broadway is and that Lawrence’s chances for appearing in a hit play would depend on the auspices of an established playwright–to which Lawrence responded something to the effect that her play was written by Neil Simon. Undaunted, Burnett reminded Lawrence that even a well-written play was nothing without the right director. On cue, Lawrence came back with “Mike Nichols.” Sure she did, right?
  • Last week’s Entertainment Weekly features an Oscar preview, lamenting, of course, the relatively meager lineup of Best Actress possibilities, and that’s what gave me an idea about how to effectively address Nichols’ passing.

Burnett’s mean-spirited character was right. Having the right director can make all the difference to an actress, and Nichols certainly provided memorable showcases to some of Hollywood’s best. Not that it’s a contest, necessarily, but Nichols often brought out the best in actresses, particularly regarding awards consideration, more so, perhaps, than with actors though Richard Burton (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), Dustin Hoffman (The Graduate), Al Pacino (Angels in America), and Clive Owen (Closer) might take exception to the notion. Consider the following:

Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor went for broke in 1966’s Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf?, snarling and growling all the way to her second Oscar victory as boozy Martha in the adaptation of Edward Albee’s Tony winner and Pulitzer contender. Whereas the Academy had–arguably–been generous with Taylor and her first Oscar for 1960’s BUtterfield 8, she more than proved her mettle with this demanding role, in which she played considerably older than  her actual age.

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Sandy Dennis won the Academy’s Best Supporting Actress statuette for her performance in the emotionally exhausting role of Honey, who spends an evening with Martha and George (played in the film by Taylor’s then real-life spouse, Richard Burton) that’s so volatile it causes the young woman to become physically ill. Dennis was an often mannered actress who truly needed the guidance of a confident director, and she got just that with Nichols. That he should direct two Oscar winners in only his first film ranks as a considerable achievement.

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Like Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Bancroft might have seemed an unlikely choice to play brazen seductress Mrs. Robinson in 1967’s groundbreaking The Graduate. After all, Bancroft was still on the youngish side, approximately 36, not quite middle aged, and less than 10 years older than either Katharine Ross, as daughter Elaine (Best Supporting Actress nominee), or Dustin Hoffman, the titular recent college grad Mrs. Robinson so memorably seduces. Still, it was a career defining role for Bancroft who by that time had already won an Oscar for 1962’s The Miracle Worker. To clarify, Bancroft was bested for the 1967 trophy by Katharine Hepburn (Guess Who’c Coming to Dinner).

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Nichols courted controversy with 1971’s Carnal Knowledge, playing hardball in an “obscenity” trial that went all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States, which upheld the conviction of a theatre manager who exhibited the film though the court later reversed itself, attesting that the movie, however provocative, was not necessarily pornographic. Amid all the hoopla was and is Ann-Margret’s knockout performance as a needy high strung beauty Bobbie Templeton, whose relationship with priggish Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) proves her undoing. The actress, who up until that time had mostly played featherweight ingénues, immersed herself in the part of the damaged Bobbie, so much so that she reportedly pushed herself to the brink of a nervous breakdown. She won that year’s Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress and was a favorite to take home the Oscar as well though she was outpaced in the final stretch by the equally memorable Cloris Leachman in Peter Bogdanovich’s shot in Texas, The Last Picture Show. To clarify,  Nicholson earned a Globe nod, but Margret was the sole Oscar nominee in a cast that also included Art Garfunkle, Candice Bergen, Carol Kane, and Rita Moreno.

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By the mid 1970s, Bette Midler had established herself as a campy, hotter-than-hot Grammy winning cabaret artist, and Hollywood came a-callin’, but Midler turned down one film property after another. Apparently. she had been approached by Nichols for the female lead in The Fortune, alongside no less than Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson, but for whatever reason, a deal never materialized and Nichols cast Stockard Channing in her first leading feature film role, fresh from her triumph in the Joan Rivers penned TV comedy The Girl Most Likely To. The Fortune, with Channing as a kidnapped heiress, was far from a hit though Channing garnered respectable notices and a Golden Globe nomination for Best Newcomer (or something equivalent), losing to Marilyn Hassett in The Other Side of the Mountain.

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After The Fortune, Nichols took a break from films but returned in fine form with 1983’s Silkwood, starring Meryl Streep (left) as the real-life union activist and nuclear power whistleblower who died under mysterious circumstances in 1974. Streep earned her third consecutive Best Actress nod for the role, a year after her singular triumph in Sophie’s Choice; meanwhile, Cher (right) scored a Golden Globe as well as an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress in the composite role of Silkwood’s housemate, a lesbian named Dolly. Stripped of her glamour and asked to play emotionally complex scenes, Cher proved a revelation in the film though the role is pathetic and ill-conceived, a rare false note in an otherwise exceptionally crafted film. Indeed, Nichols garnered his third Best Director nomination for the film as well. Nichols and Streep would work together again throughout the next two decades. To clarify: Cher lost the Oscar to Linda Hunt (The Year of Living Dangerously) while Streep was bested by Shirley MacLaine (Terms of Endearment).

In the early 1980s, Nichols was all over Broadway, directing Glenn Close, Jeremy Irons, and Christine Baranski to Tony winning glory in Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing. Nichols was also instrumental in discovering comedian Whoopi Goldberg. The director had been given a tip about Goldberg’s downtown comic act and liked what he saw so much that he offered to help shape the material and mount a one-woman Broadway show. The rest is history. Whoopi was a smash, attracting the attention of no less than Steven Spielberg who catapulted Goldberg to movie stardom, and an Oscar nomination, for her big screen debut as the much maligned Celie in the adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer winning novel, The Color Purple. A few years later Goldberg nabbed the Best Supporting Oscar for her role as a psychic in the crowd pleasing Ghost.

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By the time Melanie Griffith appeared in Working Girl, she’d been acting in movies for more than a decade. having blazed across the screen as teenage sexpots in a trio of 1975 releases: The Drowning Pool. Night Moves, and Smile. The second generation starlet, daughter of The Birds star Tippi Hedren, earned raves in Brian DePalma’s Body Double and Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild but under Nichols’ care, she acquired the aura of a star in the role of a corporate underling plotting to stay one step ahead of the competition, earning that year’s Golden Globe for comedy and scoring her one and only Oscar nod for Best Actress. The winner that year was Jodie Foster in The Accused. Unevenly mixing office and sexual politics, Working Girl proved hugely popular nonetheless, earning Academy nominations in  multiple categories including Best Picture and Best Director.

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Working Girl is at its best whenever Sigourney Weaver appears as Griffith’s sly fox of a boss. Weaver savors the comically sinsiter role, finessing each line for maximum punch. Her every word to Tess (Griffith) drips with condescension, veiled insults masked as helpful hints thanks to Weaver’s cultivated tone, her velvety delivery. Weaver scored rare double Oscar nods in the 88/89 Oscar race, competing against Griffith for Best Actress (per Gorillas in the Mist), and seemingly leading the pack in the race for Best Supporting Actress. History dictated that Weaver should have won the latter, consistent with previous double acting nominees, but Geena Davis took home the trophy instead.

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Joan Cusack competed against Weaver for the 1988 Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Cusack played Griffith’s wisecracking best friend in Working Girl, her performance just short of a miracle given that Nichols did not do her any favors by having her appear with garish makeup and hair that even by 1980s big hair standards seemed ugly and exaggerated. Ultimately, the only Working Girl nominee to emerge victorious was singer-songwriter Carly Simon for “Let the River Run,” the anthemic track that opens and closes the film and provides the basis for the entirety of the score.

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After their lukewarm second collaboration, an adaptation of Nora Ephron’s Heartburn, Nichols and Streep reunited yet again for Postcards from the Edge, a a witty romp through Hollywood via Carrie Fisher’s semi-autobiographical novel about substance abuse and recovery as seen through the lens of a second generation film actress. After a string of emotionally demanding–and Oscar nominated–roles, Streep had recently opted for somewhat lighter fare, and Fisher’s vehicle was a perfect fit despite the character’s desperate attempt to stay sober while filming a B-action picture. Ironic detachment and movie-biz inside jokes help. Streep secured yet another Oscar nod though co-star Shirley MacLaine, as Streep’s dynamo of a mom, a still high-steppin’ musical comedy star (not unlike Fisher’s real life mom, Debbie Reynolds) was not as fortunate though she secured a Golden Globe nod. Ultimately, the Academy favored Kathy Bates (Misery) over Streep.

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Nichols was just about the perfect choice to direct 1998’s Primary Colors, based on the scandalous, reportedly fact based, novel that purports to take readers behind the scenes of Bill Clinton’s tumultuous first presidential campaign. John Travolta and Emma Thompson starred as the stand-ins for Bill and Hilary, respectively, but it was Kathy Bates (above), as a boisterous strategist who plays to win, that snagged the lion’s share of acclaim, earning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination and taking home the SAG prize, among others. Nichols’ frequent partner Elaine May also earned an Oscar nomination for her script; however, both she and Bates went home empty-handed on Oscar night. Judi Dench (Shakespeare in Love) took Supporting Actress honors

Wit,_2001_film

Before their work in Primary Colors, Emma Thompson and Nichols had worked together on 1993’s Best Picture nominee The Remains of the Day, a Merchant-Ivory production for which Nichols served as one of the producers. The Academy responded with nominations for both Thompson (a year after her Howards End victory) and Anthony Hopkins. In 2001, Nichols cast Thompson in HBO’s adaptation of Margaret Edson’s Pultizer winning play, Wit (also known as W; t). Not surprisingly, Thompson was in the running for just about every year-end award that season, including an Emmy (natch), but she was outmatched by no less than Judy Davis, strutting her stuff with considerable abandon as Judy Garland in the mini-series penned, in part, by Garland’s daughter Lorna Luft. Even so, Nichols actually earned an Emmy for his direction of the Edson project.

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Natalie Portman warranted an Academy Best Supporting Actress nomination for her performance as an enigmatic stripper in 2004’s Closer, which also featured fellow Oscar nominee Clive Owen and headliners Jude Law and Julia Roberts. This love roundelay is not for the faint-hearted, drawing unavoidable comparisons to the users in Carnal Knowledge. Portman dazzled in an extended monologue, a showy, Oscar worthy  feat, but she lost the Oscar to Cate Blanchett (The Aviator) though she and Owen both secured Golden Globes.

Backing up a bit, Nichols defied all odds when he adapted Tony Kushner’s epic, Tony and Pulitzer prize winning Angels in America for  television via HBO in 2003. Jumping around time and space, Kushner’s two-part play (Millennium Approaches and Perestroika) runs approximately six hours and examines the early days of the AIDS crisis, mixing fictional characters (specifically Jewish and Mormons coming to terms with commitment and/or their sexuality) and such historical figures as Roy Cohn (who succumbed to AIDS) and Ethel Rosenberg. Although there had often been talk of bringing the epic to the big screen, going back a decade to when the play premiered, it seemed inevitable that TV would be a better fit, and Nichols directed with extraordinary care…

Meryl Streep as Ethel Rosenberg

Meryl Streep played three characters, including the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg (pictured), in Angels in America and cleaned up at awards time, taking both the SAG award and an Emmy, among others.

 

Mary Louise

Mary Louise Parker also won an Emmy for Angels in America. She played the frustrated, Valium popping wife of a closeted Mormon. She and the drag queen known as Prior Walter (played by Emmy nominee Justin Kirk) frequently pop up in each other’s hallucinations.

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Thompson again, playing four roles in Angels, none more spectacular than the Angel whose entrance brings the first play to its thrilling climax. Thompson competed against Streep at the Emmys.

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Nichols, in front, accepting his Emmy for Angels in America. Behind him, the remarkable cast, including Emmy winner Jeffrey Wright (fifth from left), reprising the role for which he won also won a Tony, Emmy winner Al Pacino, as Roy Cohn (sixth from left), Emmy nominee Patrick Wilson (center), Emmy nominee Ben Shenkman (fourth from right), Emmy winner Mary Louise Parker (third from right), Emmy nominee Justin Kirk (second from right), and winner Meryl Streep (far right). Also featured is playwright Tony Kushner (fourth from left), who also won an Emmy for adapting his work.

Incredible, right? Angels, indeed. Thanks, Mike….

Halloween: Remembrance of Boogeyman Past

31 Oct

You can’t kill the boogeyman

Indeed, as one character in Halloween says to another…especially when there’s money to be made from multitudinous sequels. Seriously, people love to be scared, and scared at the movies, especially. To borrow another line from another source, if the boogeyman didn’t exist, we ‘d have to invent him. The so-called boogeyman has been a Hollywood staple for years and years. Sometimes, the boogeyman was a monster , a vampire, a space alien, a psycho-transvestite, a demonic child, or a creepy, telekinetic teen. The exact manifestation was less important than the idea of an evil, seemingly invincible entity, and the feeling of powerlessness such a being triggers within us. Of course, once the hero wins, and the lights return, everything and everyone goes back to normal. Or do they??? Somewhere  after Psycho, after The Exorcist and Carrie yet before today’s gamut of s0-called “torture porn,” a little known independent filmmaker named John Carpenter helped usher in the “slasher flick” era. Oh sure, Tobe Hooper had already done his part with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as had George Romero with Night of the Living Dead, but Carpenter played to a much bigger arena, yet he didn’t know, he could not have known at the time, that his film would one day be hailed as iconic.

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John Carpenter filmed Halloween in Pasadena, California in early 1978 on a paltry budget of approximately 300 grand, a meager sum even by 1978 standards. Keep in mind that such breakout hits as Rocky, 1976’s Best Picture winner, was filmed for what was at the time a comparatively modest one million, and that same year’s Carrie actually cost a bit more than that. Carpenter was not a complete unknown at the time as his resume already included Dark Star and Assault on Precinct 13. That noted, he has since confessed in at least one TV “making of’ documentary that he believed that, at best, he would have footage for a product reel with which to market himself when networking with studio personnel, producers, etc. To clarify, even though Carpenter co-wrote the film with his partner (the late) Debra Hill, who also produced, the Halloween film originated with producers Irwin Yablans and Moustapha Akkaad. Their idea was for a movie about babysitters being murdered. Carpenter and Hill took the basic premise along with a few notes from the producers and spun it into script. The finished film grossed in the neighborhood, so to speak, of 70 million dollars, a huge return of the original investment and almost unheard of at the time for an indie film, especially a genre picture that seemed almost exclusively destined for the drive-in circuit.

I’ll be perfectly frank. I remember reading about Halloween back in the waning months of 1978 when it first started attracting critical attention from the likes of the Village Voice after being dismissed initially; however, my recollection tells me that it didn’t actually play in Dallas until May or June of 1979. My old roommate and I saw it  during its opening weekened with another friend, a college student home from Austin, at the old Loew’s Quad Park Central where we were actually carded twice: once at the box office and then again by the crochety doorman who clearly enjoyed his power trip. I mean this guy was not in the mood for our smart mouths even though we were all 18 or older and had already shown our IDs to the cashier. Oh well. That wasn’t the worst of it.

The worst of it is that after months of build up, including multiple viewings of the trailer, I didn’t much care for Halloween. I was surprised by how predictable it was. Nothing about it surprised me, not really. Plus, I thought the pacing was, well, tedious. I saw the ending coming and groaned–loudly–at what I thought was dumb and inevitable. A few months later, my friend and I got the sweet bejesus scared out of us when we saw When a Stranger Calls starring Carol Kane, Charles Durning, Ron O’Neal, Colleen Dewhurst, Rachel Roberts, and the late Tony Beckley, so effective as the deranged killer, who died less than a year after the film’s release. Talk about the boogeyman. Yikes!  That was a scary one for my roommate and me. Indeed, we drove around for hours the night after we saw it, so afraid were we of returning to a darkened apartment without a ceiling light in the front room. Neither of us wanted to cross the darkened space to find the lamp. Ha!

Back to Halloween. For me, the thing that made Carpenter’s scary movie watchable was the then wonderful newcomer Jamie Lee Curtis, with only scant TV credits, whom I did not realize was the daughter of the the Psycho lady and the Boston Strangler, that is, Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis.  I thought Ms. Curtis was an exciting new talent, and learning more about her later served to deepen my appreciation. Even so, I quickly tired of her Scream Queen output: The Fog (another Carpenter offering), Prom Night, Terror Train, and even Halloween II. Luckily, Curtis eventually broke the typecasting mold and established herself as a commendable dramatic actress though her flair has always tended to be more comedic than anything. On the other end of the spectrum, I thought Donald Pleasance was a bit hammy, which for some people is very much the point. I was confused by P. J. Soles (also of Carrie) who at least redeemed herself shortly afterward with her full-tilt starring performance as Riff Randle in Rock and Roll High School.

I don’t ever want to watch Halloween again, and I can’t imagine watching any of the sequels; nonetheless, time and multiple viewings of a “Making of” documentary has helped mellow my distaste.  Oh sure, there’s something problematic with the narrative as teens in sexual situations are murdered while the most virginal character of all pretty much emerges intact. Moralizing much? Of course, in retrospect this dynamic can also be seen as a metaphor for unprotected sex during the early days of AIDS (which was just about to hit the public consciousness), similar to the revisionist take on William Friedkin’s once lambasteable Cruising which galvanized gays in early 1980.

Still, the simplicity of Halloween‘s premise approaches genius: a masked killer attacking baby sitters and their boyfriends in an otherwise sleepy little neighborhood on Halloween night. The story itself works–at least in theory–because it hits audiences on a primal level, every babysitter’s nightmare. (All the more reasons why the ever more convoluted sequels, not necessarily endorsed by Carpenter, seem almost like a violation.) Add to that Carpenter’s gifts for maximizing his resources while working on such a limited budget. Even with such considerations, the director still manages a tricky opening shot that begins across the street from the childhood home of  villainous Mike Myers, circles from back to front, enters the house, and travels up and down a set of stairs–with at least part of that tracking shot viewed from the perspective of someone wearing a mask. That this had to be achieved  as low tech as possible is amazing enough.What else amazes is that the crew had to work hard to manage all the lights and to maintain the illusion that the Meyers’ house was well appointed and not just a dilapidated two storey mess, which it was. According to some reports, if the camera had been allowed to shift in almost any direction. viewers would be able to see what a mess the house really was, but that’s not the case. What about that reworked Captain Kirk mask that hides the killer’s identity? Cheap but genuinely ghoulish. Also noteworthy is Carpenter’s now spinetinglingly familiar score, so effective at setting the mood. No wonder  it’s frequently used in movie trailers. Also, again, how resourceful of Carpenter to serve as both director and composer? So, yes, on some levels the movie is incredibly smart though the rushed shooting schedule resulted in a few technical or continuity errors, one being–as pointed out in the documentary–a shot of a palm tree even though the story is set in Illinois.

Still, even with the late blooming adulation and the impressive grosses, Halloween did not make much of an impact at that year’s Saturn Awards, per the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror films, snagging exactly one nomination: Best Horror Film. It lost to Wicker Man, btw [1]. Nothing for Carpenter’s direction. Nothing for Curtis or Pleasance though Carpenter clinched the “New Generation” award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association; however, Halloween endures just as the boogeyman endures. In the years since its release, the movie and its sequels have generated ever more frightening gobs of money. It also holds the #68 position on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 scariest movies. Furthermore, the Library of Congress has weighed in, elevating Halloween to “classic” status by virtue of including it in the National Film Registry among films of cultural or historical import. Not bad for a low budget horror quickie that even the director thought would more likely end up as part of a product reel than as a viable feature release.

We all know that Curtis surely went on to high profile roles in Trading Places, A Fish Called Wanda, True Lies (Golden Globe winner), and Freaky Friday while Carpenter’s career is full of fits and starts. He enjoyed a nice run with Escape from New York and guided Jeff Bridges to an Oscar nomination for 1984’s Starman. I personally enjoyed 1983’s Christine, from the Stephen King novel, but, alas, it’s been a few years since Carpenter has directed a well received big budget feature film, and I don’t  know that he will ever get another chance based on his spotty track record, but he’ll always have Halloween. The boogeyman is now and forever bigger than his maker.

Scary.

Happy Halloween, John.

 

[1] Other movies in contention for Saturn awards that year include Heaven Can Wait, Superman, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Magic, The Boys from Brazil, Coma, The Wiz, Capricorn 1, The Fury, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Piranha, Disney’s The Cat from Outer Space (starring Ken Berry, Sandy Duncan, Harry Morgan, Roddy McDowall, McLean Stevenson and a whole troupe of recognizable comic veterans), and Ralph Bakshi’s animated attempt at Lord of the Rings.

Link to  Halloween: The Inside Story documentary (on A & E) at the IMDb :

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1706681/?ref_=ttco_co_tt

Big Lubezki: The Best in the Biz?

26 Oct
Big Lubezki

^ After five previous nods, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki earned an Oscar for 2013’s Gravity. In his remarkable career, he has also amassed four American Society of Cinematographer nods, winning three times, on top of triple Ariel victories out of four nominations, plus numerous other accolades. He may very well top even himself with his latest, Iñárritu’s Birdman.

Have you heard? Michael Keaton is on the cusp of a major comeback via Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman which is just now opening in theatres across the country after causing a stir over the past month or so at various film festivals. The movie conveniently mirrors Keaton’s own career trajectory as an actor once identified with his role as a superhero–the so-called Birdman of the title–who attempts to reinvent himself onstage. Keaton, of course, had already established himself as an acclaimed, versatile actor, specializing in light comedy, as well as a box office draw before reaching all new super levels of stardom when he suited up for Tim Burton’s 1989 blockbuster, Batman. After the original and its smash sequel, Keaton walked away from the franchise and, somehow, lost part of his allure in the process. 

Now Keaton is earning stellar reviews, and he’s all over the place, such as a recent Entertainment Weekly cover story, which has to rank as one of the most extensive articles the magazine has published in years: approximately 8 pages’ worth.  I’m happy for Keaton. I always liked that he was quite vocal about his relationship with the Bruce Wayne character as opposed to his Batman alter-ego. Keaton made a lasting impression in Burton’s initial installments of the lucrative franchise, and while many moviegoers fondly remember the actor in Beetlejuice, Mr. Mom, and Night Shift, my faves–aside from the Caped Crusader–were always 1986’s Gung Ho (which I think is sadly undervalued) and 1989’s The Dream Team. He won the 1988/89 National Society of Film Critics award, btw, for both Tim Burton’s ghoulish comedy Beetlejuice and Glenn Gordon Caron’s recovery drama, Clean and Sober. 

In spite of all the Birdman hoopla, and multiple viewings of the trailer, I admit I haven’t been too stoked about seeing it, that is, until I read that Iñárritu has teamed with Oscar winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, and the pair has attempted to simulate the effect of a single, uninterrupted take, a la Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope. Well, I’m certainly down with that, especially on the heels of Lubezeki’s triumph with last year’s Gravity, which maximized cinematic trickery in order to suspend audience disbelief and send Sandra Bullock hurtling through space. Genius. Now, Lubezki is on the verge of topping himself, thereby begging the question, “Is the Big Lubezki the best cinematographer in the biz?”

I’ve been having an affair with Lubezki for more than 20 years. Here’s a look at the highlights:

 

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^ Como agua para chocolate (1992) PHOTO: Wikipedia

^ After establishing himself in his native Mexico and earning an Ariel nod–the Mexican Oscar equivalent–for Sólo con tu pareja, directed by Alfonso Cuarón, Lubezki moved to the international film arena with the hugely popular Like Water for Chocolate (aka Como agua para chocolate), this time under the direction of Alfonso Arau. Lubezki won his first Ariel while the movie proved a sure-fire crowd pleaser at the local Inwood theatre, running for seemingly at first weeks and then months on end. Of course, the draw was not so much Lubezki’s imagery, per se, but the thrill of lusty young romance and enormous attention to exquisitely realized food. 

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A Little Princess (1995) PHOTO: Cinema is My Passion

Lubezki attracted the attention of American filmmakers soon after Like Water for Chocolate and within a few years, he snagged his first Oscar nomination–for 1995’s A Little Princess, adapted from the same classic Frances Hodgson Burnett book that proved such a memorable vehicle for Shirley Temple in the 1930s. Directed by Cuarón, the production was filmed almost entirely on Hollywood sound stages and the Warner’s backlot, all to incredible effect. Lubezki was joined in the Oscar race by the design team of Bo Welch and Cheryl Carasick though they all went home empty handed.

 

 

For all the fuss over A Little Princess, I actually preferred Lubezki’s work in the same year’s A Walk in the Clouds, directed by Arau and inspired by Italian director Alessandro Blasetti’s Four Steps in the Clouds from the 1940s. This American remake takes place in California wine country, also in the 1940s. Keanu Reeves plays a returning soldier who pretends to be the husband of a pregnant grad student (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón) he meets on a bus. Complications ensue, mostly in the form of the woman’s tradition-minded dad (the great Giancarlo Giannini).  What the movie lacks in subtlety or believability it more than makes up for with gosh-darn swoony romanticism, courtesy of Lubezki’s painterly rendering of naturally lush landscapes, of course, along with highly photogenic actors, and Maurice Jarre’s majestic–and Oscar nominated–score.  (The above clip doesn’t really do Lubezki justice.) Though far from a major hit, the movie enjoyed a a few weeks hovering near the top of the box office charts during the waning days of summer, 1995. I still get a kick out of repeating the story about how I called the offices of the American Society of Cinematographers early in 1996 to learn the names of that year’s ASC nominees (for the purpose of making a mini lobby display where I worked at the time). When I expressed something akin to shock that Lubezki wasn’t a finalist, the kind woman who spoke to me confessed that she had gotten more calls and/or more comments about that particular omission than any other film all day. Maybe she was just flattering me. Still, it’s a good story. Ultimately, both the ASC and the Academy honored John Toll for Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, a stunning–and not unfounded–turn of events for Toll who had won the previous year’s Oscar for Legends of the Fall.

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The Birdcage (1996) PHOTO: DVD Subtitles Database

Wonderful Elaine May adapted The Birdcage from Jean Poiret’s La Cage aux Folles (first a play and then a hugely successful 1978 film). No less than Oscar winner–and May’s famously frequent collaborator–Mike Nichols directed.  Robin Williams gives one of his most winningly understated performances, and Nathan Lane, well, Nathan Lane tries hard. I hate to sound like an elitist, but I still much prefer the French original with Ugo Tonazzi and Michel Serrault inhabiting the roles played by Williams and Lane, respectively, though this 1996 Americanized edition was a huge, huge hit. I’m partial to the original mainly because Serrault goes farther in developing his character, a high strung drag queen who seems lost trying to “pass” as a straight man, than Lane doing the same bit. Serrault mines the material for real emotional depth while Lane just flails about looking to score easy laughs; however, that’s not even my biggest complaint. No, the real issue I have is that May’s script for all its punch so closely follows the original (which I saw multitudinous times) as to be merely redundant. What’s the point? Oh, I guess an American version absolves a few lazy moviegoers from reading subtitles, but that’s about it. Of course, many queer activists take great umbrage at what’s basically a gay minstrel show, anyway, that is, a movie about gays that appeals to “straight” sensibilities, and it’s hard to argue against that. Still, May and/or Nichols cleverly relocate the story from Saint-Tropez to Miami’s  South Beach, giving cinematographer Lubezki a chance to move away from the burnished palette in his previous films to something that really pops.  The next few years brought the likes of Great Expectations (1998), and the elegant yet funereal Meet Joe Black (1998).

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Sleepy Hollow (1999)

Lubezki scored his second Oscar nod for Sleepy Hollow, Tim Burton’s stylish re-vamp of Washington Irving’s classic creepy tale, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” starring Johnny Depp as Ichabod Crane (more or less) and Christopher Walken as the Headless Horseman. Though set in 18th century New York, the movie was filmed almost entirely in England at various real-life locations as well as on built from-the-ground-up exterior sets. Interiors were naturally filmed on studio sound stages. Furthermore, the creepy forest where much of the action takes place was actually an indoor set, thereby presenting multiple challenges for Lubezki who met the commanding challenge of lighting real exteriors and fake exteriors in such a way that the shots matched or at least evinced some thread of continuity. The effect, reportedly consistent with Burton’s vision, suggests the now revered horror films released by England’s Hammer Films beginning in the 1950s and up through the 1970s. In this case, the team of Rick Heinrichs and Peter Young won Oscars for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration.

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^ The New World (2005)

After Sleepy Hollow, Lubezki  reunited with Cuarón for Y tu mamá también (introducing heartthrobs Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna to international audiences in the process) and then hiccuped with 2003’s dreadful The Cat in the Hat (2003). He returned to form with the much better received–and dare I say slightly Burtonesque–Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004). Oscar nomination number three came the following year for The New World, director Terrence Malick’s take on legendary Pocahontas, the Native American woman (played by newcomer Q’orianka Kilcher) who reportedly saved the life of Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell) at the Jamestown settlement and went on to marry settler John Rolfe (Christian Bale).  Though far from a hit, and maybe not much of a history lesson, the movie nonetheless received raves for Lubezki’s sumptuous imagery. In his quest for historical authenticity, Malick and his team secured locations near the original Jamestown settlement in Virginia. Additionally, some footage was shot using 65 mm film for enhanced resolution.

 

 

Clearly already gifted, Lubezki graduated to a whole new realm of filmmaking when he reteamed with Cuarón for a dystopian thriller based on a novel by British mystery writer P.D. James, of all people. Besides the gritty monochromatic effect, Children of Men is also marked by an emphasis on long uninterrupted takes, especially a much celebrated opening in which the camera follows, and then bobs and weaves around leading actor Clive Owen as he exits a coffee shop and walks down a busy street just before an explosion. And so it begins. Lubezki claimed his first ASC award for this one though he lost the Oscar to Guillermo Navarro (Pan’s Labyrinth). By the way, I’m sure any resemblance between this film and the recent Lifetime series The Lottery, in which women have mysteriously stopped having babies, is purely intended as Children of Men screenwriter Timothy J. Sexton also created, executive-produced, and co-wrote the recent TV offering.

Lubezki reteamed with Malick on 2011’s Cannes fest champion, The Tree of Life, starring Brad Pitt and the then barely known Jessica Chastain. Sean Penn played a featured role as well. I really thought that with this incredible, almost singular, film, that seemingly chronicles almost every moment of a young boy’s life (while also hypothesizing about the earth’s creation), Lubezki would finally take home an Oscar. Simply, as the above trailer shows, the movie boasts one glorious image after another, much of it created using natural lighting. Most of The Tree of Life was filmed in or near Austin, Texas, though Dallas’s Thanksgiving Square has a cameo. The film, Malick, and Lubezki were all nominated for Oscars though none emerged victorious, the Academy being enthralled that year by the likes of such as The Artist and Hugo, with the latter’s esteemed Robert Richardson claiming the trophy in Lubezki’s category.  On the other hand, Lubezki found favor with this ASC peers and took home yet another guild award. Malick and Lubezki collaborated yet again on 2012’s To the Wonder, but that entry received scant attention.

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^ Gravity (2013)

Alfonso Cuarón reteamed with Lubezki for last year’s groundbreaking Gravity starring Sandra Bullock. Working closely together, Lubezki and his director designed an ever shifting lighting scheme to simulate the effect of floating in space: roving uninterrupted takes, with much of the action recorded in the closed confines of a so-called LED “lightbox.” Additionally, Lubezki dove into a tank with Bullock for a crucial underwater sequence. At last, Lubezki earned his Oscar–as did Cuarón.

 

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Birdman (2014) PHOTO: Entertainment Weekly

With Birdman, Michael Keaton may very well resurrect his career and earn the Oscar nod which has thus far eluded him.  This recent Entertainment Weekly article reiterates how Lubezki continues to conquer all new logistical challenges as he and Birdman director Alejandro González Iñárritu attempt the rarity of shooting a feature length film in a way that suggests one continuous take. This, I gotta see.

Thanks, Emanuel!

Lubezki at the Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0523881/?ref_=ttfc_fc_cr9

Link to Entertainment Weekly‘s Michael Keaton/Birdman cover story by Mark Harris: http://www.ew.com/ew/static/longform/birdman/desktop/

 

Remembering Misty Upham

20 Oct

How shocked was I to read that actress Misty Upham was found dead late last week. Apparently, she had been missing since early October, which I also didn’t know. Her body was discovered not too far from her home in Washington state.

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Misty Upham (1982-2014). Here she is at the 2013 premiere of August Osage County, playing caretaker to Oscar nominee Maryl Streep’s venomous, cancer ravaged matriarch. Upham also confronted pervy Dermot Mulroney in one memorable scene. The actress recently completed filming Cake, starring Jennifer Aniston.

Upham was hardly a household name, but the Native-American had amassed a considerable filmography in a relatively short period. After toiling in television early in her career, she moved to feature films and made a memorable impression in 2008’s harrowing Frozen River opposite Oscar nominee Melissa Leo as a desperate single mom whose path crosses Upham’s. The two form an uneasy alliance, transporting illegal aliens from Canada into upstate New York. This grim wintry tale packs quite a wallop, and a lot of that comes from Upham who scored an Independent Spirit nomination in addition to claiming honors from the Alliance of Women Film Journalists and the American Indian Film Festival. Not so incidentally, besides Leo’s Academy nod, writer-director Courtney Hunt competed for Best Original Screenplay honors.

From Frozen River, Upham went on to the likes of Django Unchained (2012), a major Oscar contender, and last year’s star-studded August: Osage County, in which she held her own up against a cast full of well seasoned hams, inclduing Oscar nominees Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts. Happily, Upham shared a SAG nomination for ensemble acting with her high-profile co-stars.

Her IMDb filmography lists 18 acting credits, including Skins (2002), with Eric Schweig and Graham Greene, along with TV’s Big Love, but the fact that she made her mark in three Oscar contenders, earning a passel of honors along the way, indicates that she might have very well been on her way to true stardom and also makes the mysterious circumstances of her death at age 32 all the more puzzling. Early reports indicated a possible suicide though Upham’s dad released a statement indicating that his daughter died from a fall and that she had possibly been in hiding from the police.

In an era in which confusion seems to be the norm, we might never know the truth, and that saddens me a great deal. Frozen River, indeed. Rest in peace, dear Misty….

Meanwhile, if you haven’t see Upham and Leo in their remarkable combined effort, isn’t it about time?

 

 

Misty Upham at the Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1130728/

Mr. Uphams’s statement in Peoplehttp://www.people.com/article/misty-upham-died-fleeing-police-father-claims

 

We Need More Hedy Lamarr

12 Oct
Hedy Lamarr

What did Hedy Lamarr (above) really think of her films? What did she consider her best work? Reports vary from source to source. For example, an IMDb trivia item indicates that Lamarr thought her best work was in Cecil B. DeMille’s blockbuster, Samson and Delilah. Certainly, that was far and away her most popular film. Another obscure source hails the adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat as her finest offering. In her memoirs, Lamarr singles out Experiment Perilous as the film she in which she most liked herself (101); however, she also writes, “most critics agree” that her best work was in 1941’s H.M. Pulham Esq. and that she also “liked it the best” (92). She praises the script’s “three dimensional character” and declares that the finished product was a “triumph for both Robert Young and me” (92). In his Lamarr book, Richard Rhodes corroborates, citing Lamarr’s claim that H.M. Pulham featured “her favorite role” (180). Alas, neither Young nor Lamarr were singled out for awards recognition at the close of the year.

Remember that classic Saturday Night Live skit with Will Ferrell as a zealous cow-bell-ist in a presumed flashback to the recording of Blue Oyster Cult’s “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper.” The joke is that the record producer, played by frequent SNL host–and Oscar winner–Christopher Walken, extols, to Ferrell’s delight, “We need more cowbell.”

Well,  I think we need more Hedy Lamarr. Let me explain. I saw a YouTube clip recently that showed a girl who is  consistently encouraged to focus more on being neat. pretty, and feminine rather than engage in science and outdoor activities. Really? In 2014?

Of course, we also have tremendous peer pressure, and young girls feel compelled to live up to impossible standards of beauty seen in movies, TV, and advertisements. It’s a dilemma, for sure. After all, the media serve huge whopping doses of fantasy often presented as reality, but putting all the blame on the media or restricting what images of womanhood are released into pop-culture is not the answer. Who doesn’t want and need–or crave–a little fantasy every now and then? All this fuss.

The allure of old-time Hollywood movie stars, such as Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, Ava Gardner, Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, and Clark Gable, was, well, their other-worldiness. We wanted and expected them to be better than us, to be  better looking, more romantic, and more dynamic. We live our lives in real time, and then we lose ourselves in the fantasy culture provided by the movies. To that end, the bosses at the Hollywood studios exerted a great deal of influence to cultivate the extraordinary images of stars both on and offscreen, the latter often as much an illusion as any spectacle unspooled on the silver screen. I’m not sure that stars were necessarily expected to be role models because there was something inherently fake about them, and that was generally well understood. Again, they were other-worldly, luminaries.

Enter Ms. Lamarr. Hedy Lamarr, nee Hedwig Eva Maria Kessler, was an Austrian born actress who came to America after making a splash in Europe with a tease of a film entitled Ecstasy (1933). She signed a contract with MGM, made her debut in the exotic Algiers (on loan to Walter Wanger at United Artists) opposite Charles Boyer, and was soon hailed as the most beautiful woman in Hollywood, no, the most beautiful woman in the world. Everybody said so. I once saw Lana Turner, no slouch in the looks department herself and Lamarr’s Ziegfeld Girl co-star, say in a TV interview that Hedy Lamarr was without the doubt the most gorgeous woman in all of moviedom, no question about it; however, the full-lipped raven haired  beauty with bedroom eyes was never content to rest on her good looks. Lamarr understood the power of beauty–and quite clearly traded on it–though she also understood its limitations:  “Any girl can be glamorous,” she once remarked. “All you have to do is stand still and look stupid” (Rhodes 3). Easy for her to say, right? She was beautiful beyond compare, yet I don’t think anybody ever really considered her stupid.

Fortunately, and thanks to her father, Lamarr developed an insatiable curiosity about the way things worked and worked on a number of inventions in her downtime in Hollywood, turning her drawing room into a fully functioning workspace (Rhodes 3). By now, we all know, or we should all know, that during the WWII years Lamarr famously collaborated with composer George Antheil on the development of broad spectrum radio,  a patriotic endeavor for her adopted homeland, that ultimately led to today’s omnipresent wireless communication, that is, cell phones, GPS, etc. Indeed, the pair was granted U.S. Patent No. 2,292, 387 for their “Secret Communication System” (187), and that’s why we need more Lamarr, to remind school girls that major beauty AND major brains are not mutually exclusive. The main thing is for girls to not feel pressure to be anything more/less than who they are.  Lamarr was exquisitely beautiful, but at least some of that was luck, but her curiosity about how things work(ed) was also an undeniable aspect of her genuine self, and she never forgot that.

Anymore, Lamarr is not looked at, or back on, fondly in the same way as, oh, just about anyone: Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Ingrid Bergman, Joan Crawford, Rita Hayworth, or even Betty Grable.  There are at least two reasons for that. First, Lamarr was hardly a world class actress. Oh, she wasn’t the worst actress on the lot, but she lacked thespic gusto. She could be engaging, true, but she rarely seemed spontaneous. Maybe she wasn’t as comfortable acting in English as she was speaking it conversationally. Maybe her beauty contributed to a certain level of self-consciousness. Another reason why Lamarr isn’t as emblazoned as the likes of Hepburn et al  in our collective moviegoing consciousness is because she was rarely offered  plum roles. In the 1930s, Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford reigned supreme among MGM’s actresses. In the 1940s, Greer Garson was the go-to woman for prestige pics, witness her six Oscar nominations between 1939 and 1945; nonetheless, in her day, Lamarr was one of MGM’s top draws although a great deal of her success no doubt came from the fact that she was often paired with high–higher–profile male stars, such as the aforementioned Charles Boyer along with Spencer Tracy, with whom she co-starred three times, (I Take this Woman, Boom Town, and Tortilla Flat), Clark Gable (Comrade X and the aforementioned Boom Town), James Stewart (Come Live with Me), William Powell (The Heavenly Body), Walter Pidgeon (White Cargo), and Bob Hope (My Favorite Spy) to name just a few.

A persistent myth is that Lamarr was once considered for Ilsa Lund, the Ingrid Bergman role, in Casablanca (itself perhaps influenced by Lamarr’s Algiers) though almost everyone associated with the 1942 classic insists that those claims are wildly exaggerated if not outright fabrications. Along those same lines, Lamarr reportedly had the chance to reteam with Charles Boyer in Gaslight, for which Ms. Bergman won her first Oscar. Alas, that scenario was not to be, though Lamarr acquitted herself admirably enough in RKO’s Gaslight-esque Experiment Perilous (long my grandma’s favorite Lamarr pic), co-starring George Brent and Paul Lukas. The movie’s shattering aquarium sequence is often credited with inspiring a similar scene in 1996’s Mission Impossible, btw.

Lamarr took control of her career when she formed a production company with Jack Chertok and Hunt Stomberg, the results of which were two starring vehicles, Strange Woman (which Lamarr insists at least broke even [120]) and Dishonored Lady (co-starring John Loder, her then–almost ex–husband). Today, both movies have their followers (I prefer the latter to the former), but neither did much to advance the star’s career. Indeed, in spite of meaty roles, both films can’t get around one of Lamarr’s weaknesses. She often doesn’t listen convincingly when she’s acting. She looks as though she’s pretending to listen while waiting to say her next line, and it keeps her at a remove from the audience’s favor.

She found her greatest box office success at Paramount in Cecil B. DeMille’s Technicolor extravaganza, Samson and Delilah.  The biblical epic was Lamarr’s first color picture, and she looks great…if also a little  bored. Unfortunately, despite the movie’s immense popularity, Lamarr was never able to capitalize on its success, and the remainder of her career–with the possible exception of 1951’s My Favorite Spy--is pretty much undistinguished.

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That’s Robert Young on the left and Lamarr on the right. Per Lamarr, a reviewer for Time magazine proclaimed her a “revelation” in 1941’s H.M. Pulham, Esq.

One of Lamarr’s film highlights is 1941’s H.M. Pulham, Esq., which she identified as her best work in Ecstasy and Me, her scandalous 1966 autobiography. Lamarr’s star at MGM was so big at that time she snagged top billing over Robert Young, who actually portrays the titular character, aka Harry, but we’ll get back to him.

Lamarr plays Marvin Myles, a women’s products copywriter at a New York City ad agency. She’s bold, fun, 100% authentic and has an amazing work ethic with a strong sense of office protocol. She’s utterly delighted by her new co-worker, Harry:  Harvard man and WWI vet from a well-to-do Boston family.  Oh, he’s a pip of a guy, but he also doesn’t recognize just how much he’s been shaped by his conservative, privileged background. At the same time. he’s intrigued by Myles and willingly surrenders to her charms–and why not? Lamarr inhabits the role and makes a smashing impression. She’s quick-witted, light-hearted, and light on her feet as well.  She’s also slightly frazzled, especially after a productive day though she clearly gets a charge out rolling up her shirt sleeves, so to speak, and getting down to business. Lamarr has rarely shown this kind of confidence and vitality, that is, without seeming forced and phony. Alas, her character–as noted–is saddled with a masculine name, which seems a ridiculously unfortunate choice, a tired statement about women driven to succeed in a man’s world–one that still rears its ugly head in Hollywood from time to time.

As good together as Miles and Pulham are, they can’t escape their pasts. She’s not looking to be a wife, yet, and he’s a product of a traditional upbringing in which marriage and family automatically follow love and romance. Oh, don’t worry, I’m not spoiling anything. Most of the story is told through a series of flashbacks as Pulham thinks back on the choices he’s made, including the choice to split from Miles and the whole of New York City in order to return to Boston, marry his childhood sweetheart, and manage affairs of the family.

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Also, per Lamarr, no less than Cue rhapsodized that she was “startling in her understanding” of her H.M. Pulham, Esq. role (92). Again, that’s Young on the left and Lamarr on the right.

As wonderful as Lamarr is, and in spite of her top billing, the movie really belongs to Robert Young. whose performance will likely come as a surprise to anyone only familiar with his work on such TV shows as Father Knows Best and Marcus Welby, M.D.–for which he earned a total of 7 Emmy nods, winning twice for the former and once for the latter. I have to say that the first several minutes of H.M. Pulham, Esq. collectively rank as one of my all-time favorite opening sequences. In the beginning, Pulham is a middle aged fuddy-duddy though Young was still in his 30s at the time. He has an established routine, one that he sticks to with great rigor, and his every crisp, measured movement is timed to his internal metronome. So, we watch as he methodically eats his breakfast, dutifully folds his napkin, and purposefully times the morning jaunt to his Boston office. This guy even wears rubber overshoes during sunny weather. Midway, in one of the flashbacks, when Young plays at least a decade younger than his actual age, he’s so delighted with with his circumstances that he can’t wipe a silly grin from his face, nor can he resist spinning with joy as if he’s as light on his feet and in his movements as a trained dancer.  Really, just everything about Young’s performance, well, both leads’ performances, actually, is enough to inspire awe.

The stars aren’t the only draws as this Warner Archives (print-on-demand) classic showcases everything that was once wonderful about the old Hollywood system. First, the print itself is pretty much a model of black and white clarity.  The folks at Warner make no claims that their pressed-to-order discs are taken from pristine prints. Instead, they instruct consumers that the best possible prints have been used, but that can mean just about anything. In this case, the results are smashing. One especially startlingly seamless sleight of cinematic hand occurs when Mr. Pulham walks from the street into a florist stand in one uninterrupted take, all the more remarkable given the sharpness of the foot traffic seen through the shoppe’s plate glass window from the inside. Another clever bit juxtaposes an exterior shot with some kind of trompe-l’œil effect featuring the stately Pulham family manse. Another well-executed scene offers a peek of snow almost magically falling outside a skyscraper windowOn the other hand, the WWI scenes are clumsy and obviously faked. Still again, another fun sequence shows Pulham’s love letter-inspired reveries continually interrupted by the sounds and voices of his current circumstances. For a fairly conventional story, this one displays impressive cinematic flourishes.

Furthermore, though HM Pulham, Esq. hardly registers as an all-time classic in the collective consciousness of most moviegoers, let alone the Academy, the National Film Registry, or the American Film Institute, the project merited MGM’s top-of-the-line talent, a testament to the idea that consistency  in all things was  key to the success of the old studio system [1]. To begin, the material stems from Pulitzer winning author John P Marquand (The Late George Apley).  The director is no less than King Vidor, whose many, many credits include Oscar nominated work for The Champ, The Crowd, and, oh yes, War and Peace [2]; meanwhile, H.M. Pulham, Esq‘s  crisp black and white cinematography is courtesy of Ray June, a three-time Oscar contender for the likes of 1957’s superb Funny Face. Legendary art-director Cedric Gibbons, designer of the famed Oscar statuette  with a whopping 39 nominations and 11 wins, is credited for his contributions to the picture along with set decorator–and Oscar heavyweight–Edwin B. Willis. These two giants shared Oscars for the likes of The Bad and the Beautiful, An American in Paris, The Yearling, and Gaslight [3]. Even so, the makeup team, headed by Jack Dawn, fails Lamarr in the pre/post flashback scenes by unimaginatively turning her into Elsa Lanchester’s Bride of Frankenstein (or Yvonne De Carlo’s Lily Munster) with an obnoxious too uniformly streaked silvery-white hair to suggest that she has aged, yet she’s only 40ish for cryin’ out loud, but this was SOP in Hollywood back in the day as anyone who’s ever seen, say, Bette Davis in Old Acquaintance can attest.

Some of Hollywood’s most reliable actors and actresses round out the formidable supporting cast, and that includes, in no particular order, the great Van Heflin (Best Supporting Actor for the same year’s Johnny Eager), Ruth Hussey (a supporting nominee for 1940’s The Philadelphia Story), Charles Coburn (a three time Academy nominee, winning for 1943’s The More the Merrier), Bonita Granville (nominated for 1936’s These Three), Anne Revere (Best Supporting Actress for 1944’s National Velvet with two additional nominations besides), wiry Charles Halton (clearly a silver screen precursor to the late, great Charles Lane), and Leif Erickson [4]. Eagle-eyed viewers may also spot a young Ava Gardner as an extra in a nightclub scene.

In H.M. Pulham, Esq., Hedy Lamarr’s Marvin Myles teaches the eager, young title character a thing or two about life in the big city, away from the comfy confines of Boston and his seemingly charmed life. In real-life, Hedy Lamarr, in spite of her oft quoted disdain for glamour, teaches us–still–that beauty and brains are not mutually exclusive, and that’s a powerful message for girls who to this day sometimes feel pressured to be one or the other. Of course, Lamarr is hardly alone. All of us know women of all kinds, of all shapes and sizes, who accomplish wonderful and industrious things each and every day, but as that dolt from Microsoft recently demonstrated when he suggested that it’s best for women in the workplace to be quiet rather than ask for raises and trust that, in spite of of ongoing discrepancies in pay between men and women, karma will save the day and bring home the bacon, we need more. We need more bold women. We need more Hedy Lamarr.

Thanks, Hedy!

Notes:

Lamarr, Hedy. Ecstasy and Me: My Life as a Woman. 1966. Greenwich: Fawcett, 1968.

Rhodes, Richard. Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, The Most Beautiful Woman in the   World. New York: Doubleday, 2011. Print.

[1] The argument goes something like this: take a movie as well regarded as Singin’ in the Rain, which was nominated for exactly 1 Academy award (Jean Hagen, Best Supporting Actress). Of course, today film fans and academics are likely to rate Singin’ in the Rain as one of the very best, if not THE very best, musical of its era. How could the Academy be so shortsighted? Well, again, one argument is that during the era in which studios kept pumping a steady stream of films into the marketplace, Singin’ in the Rain was just one of MGM’s top offerings, the norm rather than the exception. Time is what has rendered it so special in our collective movigoer’s consciousness. The same can almost be said for H.M. Pulham, Esq., a handsome, well-executed movie that was made in an era in which such movies were the goal year-round rather than the stuff of which Oscar campaigns are set in motion during the  fall and holiday months. The difference is that time has not lent it a comparable mystique.

[2] After five nods, the director was finally honored by the Academy with a life achievement award. We also now know that Vidor directed at least a portion of the sepia sequence that opens The Wizard of Oz.

[3] Of course, this was the era in which department heads were often accorded credit–and awards–for work which they may supervised without necessarily creating themselves.

[4] Born William Y. Wycliffe Anderson, the prolific character actor enjoyed great success with TV’s High Chaparral in the 1960s; in his early Hoilywood days he was married to no less than Frances Farmer.

Official Hedy Lamarr website: http://www.hedylamarr.com/business/ 

H.M. Pulham, Esq. at the Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0033686/

Lake Bell: Into a Man’s World

4 Oct

I skipped Woody Allen’s latest, Magic in the Moonlight. The trailer looked fabulous–filmed in the south of France–and I do like both Emma Stone and Colin Firth, of course, but the reviews were, well, mixed to lukewarm, and an Allen film truly needs the critics’ collective stamp of approval in order to break into the mainstream. Oh well, life is short, movies aren’t cheap, and my schedule these days is already hectic enough. On the other hand, I was surprised to see that the film was still playing in first-run theaters as recently as two weeks or so ago. Maybe I’ll catch up with it at my neighborhood discount house.

Now, back to Allen. A year ago, or thereabouts, Cate Blanchett was at the top of her game, earning rapturous reviews for playing Allen’s modern interpretation of Tennesee Williams’s tragic Blanche Du Bois, in Blue Jasmine. Blanchett went on to clean-up rather decisively in the year-end awards derby, ultimately claiming her second Oscar, and her first for Best Actress, in a field that also included Sandra Bullock in the box office phenom Gravity, which was earning film festival raves at this time a year ago, still a few weeks shy of its actual wide release.

In_a_World_poster

Quick! How many women have actually written, directed, produced, and starred in their own feature films? Not too damn many, relatively speaking. With In a World, Lake Bell joins the likes of Barbra Streisand who established herself as a quadruple threat with 1983’s Yentl. More recently, the late Adrienne Shelly wrote, directed, and played a supporting role in 2007’s Waitress, but, per the IMDb, she is not credited as a producer. Once upon a time, silent film star Mabel Normand wrote, directed, and starred in shorts, but her producer credits are scant. Of course, Lena Dunham is making, well, a world of difference with her HBO series, Girls; meanwhile, in the entirety of Oscar history, only Warren Beatty and Orson Welles have been represented in all four such categories for single achievements (Heaven Can Wait and Reds for the former; Citizen Kane for the latter.)  Woody Allen, Roberto Benigni, Kevin Costner, and Clint Eastwood are all Academy triple rather than quadruple threats. This is off the top of my head stuff, but, of course, as I often tell my students: more research might be needed.

Also generating plenty of buzz at this time last year was Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Enough Said, a solid romantic comedy which paired the popular TV actress with James Gandolfini, who’d passed away earlier in the summer; however, this is not a piece about Enough Said though the movie saw many year end accolades, including a Golden Globe nod for Ms. Louis-Dreyfus  and  a SAG nomination for Gandolfini.

Yet another film more or less making the rounds about this time last year–to generally positive reviews–was In a World, an indie showcasing the talents of quadruple threat Lake Bell: actress, writer, director, and producer [Note: I began writing this in September.], a massive undertaking for anyone, compounded by the fact that 1. Bell had never written nor directed a feature film. 2. She’s a woman in an industry still dominated by men; 3. She was clearly working with a micro-budget, reportedly less than a million–and in a mere 20 days to boot [1]. To be perfectly frank, the movie leaves quite a lot to be desired visually as though Ms. Bell ran short on light bulbs; however, despite the movie’s shortcomings, it still generates plenty of goodwill–and laughs.

In a World throws the spotlight on the little reported world of voiceover artists, everything from vocal coaches to product spokespersons and, most crucially, movie trailers. You know, the ones that begin with those three immortal words, “In a world…,” made most famous by the unmistakably resonant tones of Don LaFontaine, who passed away in 2008. In Bell’s world, the late LaFontaine’s considerable shoes have never been filled though one Sam Soto (Fred Melamed), now on the cusp of winning a “Golden Trailer”  lifetime achievement award (basically a real thing), looms as a ripe candidate.  The male dominated movie trailer world holds much fascination for Soto’s daughter Carol (Bell). She’s not exactly a slacker, but she still lives with dad while trying to support herself with freelance vocal coaching gigs and the like though that arrangement will be short-lived thanks to dad’s latest squeeze, who’s about the same age as Carol. Evidence of Bell’s screenwriting savvy surely comes to mind with her treatment of the young girlfriend played by Alexandra Holden. Bell sets up an expectation within the audience and then spins those expectations in a new and refreshing direction.

I like Bell as an actress. She damn near stole scenes with her exquisitely dry delivery as Alec Baldwin’s trendy second wife in It’s Complicated, no easy thing that, what with a cast that includes Baldwin, Steve Martin, John Krasinski, and, oh yes, someone named Meryl Streep.  Seriously,  Bell is all over the place in her own pic, not  only as Carol who slips in and out of a number of schticks, such as cockney mob wife, Russian Princess Leia, and something called “Sexy Baby,” voice among others. What most people don’t know, unless they listen to the audio commentary, is that Bell’s voice is heard throughout the movie in unexpected ways, serving a variety of off-camera bits, including a crusty old male agent with a thick accent. Besides the goofy voices, Bell performs commendably, working almost effortlessly at playing a true misfit: stringy auburn-to-maroon hair, bad posture, questionable wardrobe choices (30ish woman wearing preppy plaid skirts is bit peculiar, right?), and appropriately goofy line readings to go with goofy expressions, such as “sister code,” which is as successful with her sister as “fetch” is with Regina George and the rest of the Mean Girls. Her gift for physical comedy is plenty evident in a short scene in which she wakes up, tangled, in a strange bed. It’s a short bit, maybe only a minute, but it’s skillful work. Oh, and she’s not much of a dancer either. By the way, Bell’s performance earned her an American Comedy Award nod for Best Actress though she lost to Melissa McCarthy in the execrable, if hugely popular, The Heat.

As good as Bell is an actress, In a World really showcases her abilities as a crackerjack screenwriter. On one hand, her movie works as a Hollywood satire in miniature. For example, most films about the movie biz focus on the biggies: actors, directors, producers, and even writers. Someone is either trying to get ahead, is on his/her way down, or is itching for a comeback—and the stakes are high. Bell shows all of the competitive, cut-throat nature and petty bureaucratic bull-shit that’s par for the course in everything from Sunset Boulevard to The Player, Ed Wood, The Muse, and For Your Consideration, but she throws the spotlight on a part of Hollywood that’s unknown, and then asks the audience to actually care about people who take enormous amounts of pride and care doing a job that pretty much functions as background noise for most moviegoers, Don LaFontaine’s signature “In a word,..” not withstanding.

On the other hand, In a World is a comedy about a family ironically derailed by a lack of communication. At least two family members work in a field in which “voice” is everything, but they’re not so good at talking openly and honestly with each other; moreover, Bell provides a nifty twist in that the competition is between a father and a daughter rather than a mother and a daughter, a trope played out in such show-bizzy features as Mommie Dearest and Postcards from the Edge.  All of this comes together hilariously in a sequence juxtaposing an awkward pursuit between father and daughter and a “preview” of The Amazon Games, a Hunger Games-style dystopian action pic, the first we’re promised of an upcoming “quadrilogy,” which has to be the funniest word ever invented for a movie, and, of course, the characters in all their fevered enthusiasm keep repeating it. Again, Bell has a gift for coining goofy expressions.

Still, there’s room for secondary familial discord in Bell’s pic except that I don’t want to give too much away, but I will guarantee that, again, storylines converge in the most confounding way, resulting in a wildly inappropriate exchange as Carol bursts through a door exclaiming at the top  of her lungs, “Guess who’s a slutty whore!” You may actually have to stop to catch your breath before you allow yourself the giddy pleasure of a laugh. Along with that, Bell packs plenty of one-liners in her script, but they usually operate on a delayed beat. In other words, the moment may have already passed when the weight of the gag finally hits. Now, that’s talent, but don’t take my word for it. Bell’s accolades for either writing, directing or both include a Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the Sundance Film Festival–huge win, that–as well as Alliance of Women Film Journalists and Independent Spirit nominations; moreover, two groups, the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association along with the Phoenix Film Critics Society, honored In a World as the year’s most overlooked or unsung film. Indeed, for all the honors she scored, I still wish her movie had packed a bigger punch at awards time, meaning a Writers Guild nod, a shot at the SAG Best Ensemble prize, or, of course, recognition at the Golden Globes. I don’t know that an Oscar nod, even in the screenplay category, was ever really in the cards.

Of course, it’s no surprise that Bell demonstrates generosity with her fellow actors, starting with aforementioned Fred Melamed as the preening peacock of a dad whose self-regard is tempered with false modesty . In real-life, as Bell explains on the DVD commentary, Melamed actually works as a voiceover artist, but he definitely exercises his comic chops playing a proud fish in a pond, no fishbowl, that might actually be bigger (not smaller) than he thinks. Ken Marino as yet another preening peacock, an emerging star in his field, but more stooge, ultimately, than stud. I was, and am, amused by the wonderful Demetri Martin in the role of a sound engineer who pines for Bell’s Carol. Martin reminds me–in the best possible way–of Jason Schwartzman and  the wistful romantics he’s played in such films as 2005’s Shopgirl. Martin and Bell, or rather Louis and Carol, play well off each other’s eccentricities.  Stephanie Allyne contributes fine work as the office ditz. Oh, and In a World benefits from a variety of cameos, thereby coming across as more authentically Hollywood: Geena Davis, basking in the role of a powerful producer with a strong feminist agenda; Eva Longoria as herself but in a context that must be heard to be believed, and Cameron Diaz, seen briefly as a warrior in the much anticipated trailer for Amazon Games. Gotta love that quadrilogy.

Thanks for your consideration….

Official In a World website: http://inaworldmovie.com/

[1] Read the Rolling Stone article: http://www.rollingstone.com/movies/news/lake-bell-finds-her-directorial-voice-in-in-a-world-20130809 

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