What Is This Charade?

25 Jul
Charade Poster

Per the IMDb, a clerical error regarding “copyright” status in the credits rendered Charade as part of the public domain immediately upon its 1963 release. Luckily, Criterion has a super-edition that features lively commentary by director Stanley Donen and scriptor Peter Stone. Admittedly, part of the fun is listening to these well-seasoned pros bicker–good naturedly–as they hash their sometimes hazy memories of a movie they filmed decades earlier.

So, there we were watching 1980’s Hopscotch, the non-sequel that reunited 1978’s House Calls stars Walter Matthau and Glenda Jackson in the same way that 1979’s Lost and Found reunited George Segal and Jackson in a non A Touch of Class sequel. Interesting, isn’t it, that in such a brief period Jackson reteamed with high-profile co-stars in new projects.

Hopscotch, directed by legendary Ronald Neame, whose credits include everything from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie to The Poseidon Adventure, is a heck of a lot of fun as Matthau’s intelligence operative goes rogue rather than settle into forced retirement. Ever-reliable Matthau has great fun as the CIA equivalent of a wascally wabbit. He even notched a Golden Globe nod. The script, based on a novel by Brian Garfield, was nominated for both a Writers Guild award as well as the Poe prize. Well done. Jackson could have phoned in her performance,  but she didn’t. Again, she and Matthau are in fine form. Plus the thing was filmed all over the place:  Savannah, London, Munich, and Salzburg. For some reason I thought Paris, put in a cameo as well, though that’s not confirmed on the IMDb (nor in the DVD featurette).

Seeing Matthau in this light-hearted caper brought back fond memories of Matthau in 1963’s Charade, top-lined by Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. Charade, set in Paris and directed by Stanley Donen (Singin’ in the Rain), has often been pegged the best Hitchcock movie that Hitchcock never made, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Hepburn plays a widow whose murdered husband lived a double-life. Grant portrays a shadowy figure who often arrives either at the nick-of-time when Hepburn is in peril, OR he appears suspiciously at the most inopportune time.  Matthau pops up for a few scenes as a bumbling bureaucrat at the U.S. Embassy. He makes the most of his screen-time, still a few years shy of winning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for The Fortune Cookie.

FYI: The rest of the Charade cast includes two more future Oscar winners, James Coburn and George Kennedy, in addition to Ned Glass.  They’re like a goon squad that may or may not have conspired to kill Audrey’s Charlie.

Charade ignited a mild controversy or two during its original run. First, consider that the movie opened in early December of ’63, barely two weeks after the assassination of President Kennedy (yes, in Dallas, TX). As detailed in his commentary, even director Donen questioned the appropriateness of Hepburn and Grant using the word “assassinated” (and its variants) in one scene. The director alleviated that concern by quickly arranging to have the “offensive” dialogue dubbed (or redubbed), substituting “eliminated” instead.  Not a seamless transition but serviceable given the gravity and immediacy of the matter. Another cause for alarm came about due to the comparatively high body count. Now, this may seem spectacularly difficult to grasp in the post-Pulp Fiction, post-Saving Private Ryan, post-Saw era, but we’re  talking only five. Five dead bodies, total. Five dead bodies with hardly a speck of blood between them, but the censors argued that the deaths were treated casually, or, worse, humorously. Per Donen,  he had to slightly rework a scene in order to appease the standards and practices watchdogs.

Arabesque

Fresh from his Charade triumph, director Stanley Donen signed on for another round of cinematic cloak and dagger with Arabesque. The frothy thriller, filmed in and around swingin’ London, plays much campier than Charade, making even Hitchcock’s delightfully convoluted North by Northwest seem positively restrained. Arabesque’s plot is purely nonsensical, but the striking visuals and mid 1960s “mod” quotient help make the blasted thing imminently watchable. Per the IMDb, Peck was not the director’s first choice for the male lead. That honor reportedly went to Charade’s Cary Grant, but the actor was ready for retirement and especially not interested in playing a romantic hero opposite a much younger female co-star. He’d already expressed a similar concern during the production of Charade. Critics may carp that Peck is miscast as an American scholar at Oxford, but I get a kick out of the way he seems to be channeling Grant, adding another layer of fun. In many ways, this is Loren’s movie. Oh, she doesn’t give a performance in any way comparable to, say, her Oscar winning Two Women. Mainly, she’s used as a clothes horse, averaging what appears to be one Christian Dior costume change per scene. That’s right, Dior. Well, if Audrey Hepburn can insist on Givenchy, Loren is equally entitled to wardrobe by Dior. Of course, Loren, so sheerly beautiful, dazzles in one close-up after another though she lacks Hepburn’s vulnerability.  The Italian superstar plays an Arab mobster’s mistress who may know more about a secret code than she cares to share with Peck. Arabesque is by no means a classic, but while it wasn’t a huge hit on the order as Charade, it wasn’t a flop either [3]. Existing on a level somewhere between James Bond and The Pink Panther, both of which were on in vogue at the time,  it’s all good fun with music by Henry Mancini, and a title sequence designed by  Maurice Binder. No extras on the DVD–if you can find it.

Still, in spite of those momentary glitches, Charade with its high-wire mix of suspense, guessing games, witty banter, comic foils, and movie-casting nirvana (in spite of the two leads’ more than twenty year age gap) played to packed houses, possibly outpacing even Hitchcock’s super-scary The Birds from the same year, depending on the source [1]. Additionally, Grant and Hepburn both snagged Globe nods as well as Laurel and British Academy honors: a win for her, a nomination for him. Meanwhile, writer Peter Stone, whose screenplay had kicked around Hollywood for awhile, including being tweaked into story form for Redbook magazine, won an Edgar Allen Poe award as well as Writers Guild recognition. Finally, Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer shared an Oscar nod for their theme song (a variation of Manicini’s title music with added lyrics).

So, as our Hopscotch night turned into a Hopscotch/Charade double feature, I thought about what a swell movie Charade is, and I’ve thought so ever since I first saw it. Instantly captivated, I was.  That was, gosh, decades ago. I’m pretty sure  the occasion was a Saturday night late show, probably channel 8. I think I was babysitting. Anyway, I was biting my nails in suspense the whole time, from one twist to the next and all the way through the climactic showdown in and around the famed Palais Royale (a combination of the actual Palais Royale, a less historic theatre better suited for shooting interiors, and an intricately designed set).

The next day, I had a thought. I remembered that Alternate Oscars author Danny Peary bravely, if not brazenly, elected to NOT award “Best Picture” any 1963 release. Peary’s argument is that while there were still a number of good films that year, none of them were up to the standards of, say, Lawrence of Arabia, which had won the previous year, or even West Side Story, the 1961 victor. Of course, this flies in the face of what the Academy awards represent: the achievements of any given year for better or worse. The record is what it is. I actually wrote about this very thing in May of 2012.

On the other hand, Peary makes a point, however misguided. 1963’s Best Picture line-up probably leaves something to be desired. Peary argues that Best Picture winner Tom Jones looks smug and dated these days, and, in retrospect, it may have very well received a boost at ballot time from the British invasion that began sweeping the country in February of 1964. Seems plausible. The other nominees represent extremes. On one hand, there’s Cleopatra, lavish, yes, but bloated and–let’s face it, Liz–badly acted. Talk about irony, the film sold enough tickets to be one of the year’s top earners even though it didn’t sell nearly enough tickets to recoup its enormous, record breaking, production costs. On the other hand, Elia Kazan’s America America, a three hour black and white movie inspired by his emigrant father, seems to have  had no lasting impact, not that it achieved anything close to mainstream status at the time.  What about How the West Was Won?  A huge hit, no doubt, but the three-strip Cinerama extravaganza is practically unwatchable in anything but its widescreen glory. That noted, it now takes its place among the classics in the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry.

Historically, the odds were against the fifth nominee Lilies of the Field  (which earned Sidney Poitier a historic Best Actor trophy [2]) as Ralph Nelson was shut-out by his peers in the directors branch. Oh, and that omission actually tips the scale even more in Peary’s favor as Kazan and Tom Jones‘s Tony Richardson were the only directors among the five Best Picture nominees recognized by the Academy,  the other three slots accorded to Frederico Fellini (), Otto Preminger (The Cardinal), and Martin Ritt (Hud). Okay, Peary almost makes sense. How can three of the year’s five Best picture nominees not have corresponding Best Director nods, and how can the films of three nominated directors not be included among the five Best Picture slots?  Again, maybe Peary has a point. 

Cary Grant

In Charade, Audrey Hepburn plays vulnerability and wide-eyed panic so well that it’s hard for audiences to resist; however, Gary Grant may very well have the more difficult assignment, essaying a character whose motives, much like his name, seem to change from one scene to the next. Is he really protecting Miss Hepburn from danger, or is he danger personified? It’s a tricky balancing act, and Grant performs with aplomb, but he covered similar territory in at least two Hitchcock films: Suspicion (as Joan Fontaine’s scheming husband) and To Catch a Thief (the prime suspect in a series of jet-set burglaries). Luckily, his charm and sophistication remain intact in his last great film role.

Even though Peary refuses to honor any 1963 film with his phony award, he includes a list of his personal favorites along with some well-regarded also-rans, including The Nutty Professor, The L-Shaped Room, The Birds, Jason and the Argonauts, the aforementioned Hud, and a few others.  And no Charade. What, no Charade? It occurred to me to double-check Peary’s 1963 entry, and there it was, or, rather, there it wasn’t. I started this blog to write about movies that somehow failed to make the cut with Oscar voters, but now I find myself wanting to defend a film that didn’t even make an imaginary list of sub-par contenders.  How can that be? Did Peary just forget that Charade came out in 1963? Would his chapter for that year have turned out differently if I had been there to put a bug in his ear? After all, the IMDb was still in its infancy when Peary wrote his book. Maybe he just didn’t have as many resources as I did/do.

Still, Peary can write whatever he wants in his own book. I can’t fault him for that though I am a little stunned that someone who basically writes off a whole year’s worth of output can still find praise for the likes of The Nutty Professor, Jason and the Argonauts, The Birds, etc., without also seeing some value in such a popular and generally well liked enterprise as Charade. What’s not to like? [To clarify, I'm a fan of many of the movies Peary likes--that's not my gripe.]

That noted, I’ll allow that the oft-repeated favorable comparisons to Hitchcock might be a tad hasty. Of course, I’m not real big on the word “Hitchcockian” though I have been known to use it from time to time, so, okay, I’m guilty. My concern about the term at all is that it’s lazy or sloppy and not even always appropriate. In the case of Charade,  the usage is almost justified considering Grant’s presence; after all, the quick footed, charismatic leading man enjoyed great success in such Hitchcock films as North by Northwest and To Catch a Thief. Even Donen and Peter Stone acknowledge the superficial similarities to the latter, what with Grant and  the gorgeous travelogue footage of the French Riviera as well as the larky tone and the  budding romance between the two impossibly glamorous leads, yet  Ms. Hepburn definitely does not fit the bill of the typical Hitchcock icy blonde goddess, such as To Catch a Thief‘s Grace Kelly, who smolders just beneath the surface. In contrast, Heburn is brunette, approachable, and vulnerable.

Charade-tumbler

Golden Globe nominees Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn cavort all over Paris in Stanley Donen’s comedy-thriller Charade. Hepburn previously worked with director Stanley Donen on 1957’s Funny Face, partially filmed in Paris, as well as 1967’s Two for the Road with Albert Finney, also shot on location in France. Many critics, including Danny Peary, herald the pair’s final collaboration as Hepburn’s finest performance though she was Oscar nominated, instead, for the same year’s Wait Until Dark. Prior to Charade, Grant worked with Donen on Indiscreet with Ingrid Bergman.

Also, Charade‘s set-up is more straightforward than many–but by no means all–Hitchcock films in that Stone’s script plays more as a whodunit whereas Hitchcock tends to favor cat  and mouse scenarios. Think about it. Consider, oh, just about any Hitchcock film: Rear Window, Shadow of a Doubt, Rope, Strangers on a Train, and Frenzy. In these films and others, there’s little or no question about the murderer’s identity. The dilemma is how long before the good guy catches up with the bad guy. In Charade, the first murder takes place within seconds. Nothing is known about the either the victim or the assailant though at least three possible suspects are introduced in short order.

Additionally,  one of Hitchcock’s signatures is that the audience usually knows more at any given moment than the characters do. Look no further than Vertigo, in which tension builds as the audience waits for the moment when leading man James Stewart snaps to the deadly duplicity  that has already been revealed in another character’s flashback; however, in Charade, the action unfolds from the perspective of Hepburn’s widow, so almost without exception the viewer only knows as much as she does. Still, Charade does include what Hitchcock once labelled the “MacGuffin,” that is, the elusive “thing” that everybody wants and which serves as the catalyst for much of the plot.  In Charade, Donen turns this one’s “reveal” into a doozy of a surprise, one that caught me off-guard for at least the first 2-3 times I saw it, years apart I might add, but that’s what makes the movie so much fun.

Some highlights include Grant and Kennedy sparring atop the American Express building, or rather, a studio re-creation of said building’s rooftop, bringing to mind the rooftop climax of To Catch a Thief. Even so, while the location has clearly been faked, Donen insists that what the audience sees is Grant, upwards of 60 at the time, doing much of his own footwork. Keep in mind that before he became a Hollywood star, Grant worked as an acrobat.  Oh, and soundstage trickery is evident in a pretty well-executed scene in which the two stars enjoy a dinner cruise down the Seine. The sequence begins with an actual location establishing-shot before cutting to Grant and Hepburn framed against a filmed  plate of Paris at nightime, but Donen does his best to sell the illusion through a clever sound mix that involves a slight echo when the vehicle passes under a bridge. There’s also a nifty Paris Metro sequence which leads to the Palais-Royale showdown in which the action cuts back and forth among three vantage points in the  darkened, cavernous theatre.

I love Charade so much, and think that’s it’s so complete as is, that I could never imagine watching Jonathan Demme’s 2002 remake, The Truth about Charlie with Mark Wahlberg and Thandie Newton. Since the Demme version tanked, I guess no one else was interested in seeing a classic defiled either.  And that’s the real truth about Charlie. I wonder what Danny Peary has to say about that.

Thanks for your consideration….

 

^ In many ways, Maurice Binder’s Charade title sequence is reminiscent of Saul Bass who designed the opening credits for such high profile Hitchcock films as Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Psycho–all to the strains of Bernard Herrmann’s thrilling scores, but Binder was no mere copycat. Binder, who died in 1991, was one of the most influential designers in the biz, responsible for conceptualizing the look of the James Bond credits as well as 1987’s Oscar winning The Last Emperor (one of my all-time faves), in addition to Donen’s Arabesque and Two for the Road among many many others. Binder featured at Art of the Title: http://www.artofthetitle.com/designer/maurice-binder/

[1] According to an article by Jeff Stafford on the Turner Classic Movies website, Charade actually outpaced Hitchcock’s The Birds at the box office. The figures listed in Cobbett Steinberg’s book, Reel Facts: The Movie Book of Records, published in 1978 by Vintage Books (a division of Random House) support Stafford’s assertion though, keep in mind, that as a late 1963 release, Charade most of its money in 1964. Click here to access Stafford’s piece: http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/3838/Charade/articles.html

On the other hand, the lists of 1963’s top earners on the IMDb and Wikipedia are much different. I can’t explain the difference–re-releases, adjustments for inflation–since until fairly recently industry figures were reported in rentals, that is, the fees paid to studios from exhibitors based on percentages of ticket sales. Almost nothing was reported in grosses–even as late as Steinberg’s book–though a safe bet, as it was once explained to me, is that a gross could be figured my multiplying the rental by 2.5  Read more at Box Office Mojo: http://www.boxofficemojo.com/about/boxoffice.htm

[2] Interestingly, Peary strips Poitier of his win and favors Jerry Lewis (The Nutty Professor) instead, listing only official nominee Rex Harrison (Cleopatra) as a finalist; likewise, Peary elevates official nominee Leslie Caron in The L-Shaped Room (one of my mother’s faves) over actual Best Actress winer Patricia Neal (Hud): Peary, Danny. Alternate Oscars. New York: Delta (a division of Dell), 1993. 168-171, 190-191.

[3] Per Steinberg’s book, Charade was 1964’s 4th biggest earner while Arabesque tied for 14th in 1966.

Charade at the IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0056923/?ref_=nv_sr_1

Hopscotch at the IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0080889/?ref_=nv_sr_1

Arabesque at the IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0060121/?ref_=nv_sr_1

 

Return to Elvis! Elvis! Elvis!

11 Jul
Soundtrack album

Look closely at the back side of this Girls! Girls! Girls! soundtrack album, and you will see the name of veteran producer Hal B. Wallis who made his name at Warner Bros with such classic films as Yankee Doodle Dandy, Now Voyager, and Casablanca. Wallis finessed an agreement with Elvis’s manager Colonel Tom Parker to produce many of the King’s films at Paramount which, in the early to mid 1960s saw heady profits as the home base for both Elvis and Jerry Lewis. Nice work if you can get it. Meanwhile, Wallis sunk his  earnings from the Elvis flicks into fancy prestige projects as Becket and Anne of the Thousand Days.

Anyone who grew up in the 1950s or ’60s, possibly the ’70s, maybe even the ’80s, most likely watched an Elvis Presley movie or two, probably more, either at the movies–and that includes drive-ins–or on TV. A lot of the latter for sure. Per the IMDb, between 1956’s Love Me Tender and 1969’s Change of Habit (w/Mary Tyler Moore as a nun of all things), Elvis made a total of 31 feature films. He was in the military for part of that stretch in the ’50s, meaning most of the films were made in the 1960s. As popular as they were, a lot of Elvis’s movies were awful: formulaic, rushed through production–sometimes as many as three a year–and increasingly filmed on the cheap in order to maximize profits. Even so, we all have our favorites and not without reason. For example, Jailhouse Rock features that amazing musical number featuring the title track while the generally acclaimed King Creole boasts no less than Casablanca‘s Michael Curtiz sitting in the director’s chair and source material by Harold Robbins.

When I was a child I was crazy about Fun in Acapulco, which I first remember seeing in a theatre, though Viva Las Vegas long reigned as my absolute favorite. What’s not to love, right? Elvis meets Ann-Margret in one of the most smokin’ hot romantic pairings in screen history: she sizzles, he smolders.  These two really brought out the best in each other, especially when singing and dancing though Elvis’s fiercely protective manager, Colonel Tom Parker, kept Ms. Margret in-check on that count lest she upstage Mr. Presley; after all, Elvis was somewhat out of his comfort zone, working for MGM rather than Paramount, per usual. Plus, Viva Las Vegas was directed by George Sidney, who catapulted Ann-Margret  to major stardom with 1963’s Bye Bye Birdie, so, yes, the colonel micro-managed the production from behind the scenes in order to protect his star’s rep. Still, even with limited interaction in musical sequences, Elvis and A.M. are sexy as all get-out. In spades.  Yet as fab as Ann-Margret and the King were, they only made one film together, no doubt the doing of Colonel Parker though the two stars remained close throughout the years.

Elvis’s most frequent leading lady was no less than popular TV star and sometime pop-singer Shelley Fabares. Famous for her role on The Donna Reed Show and her #1 hit, “Johnny Angel,” Fabares shared the screen with Elvis three times: Girl Happy, Spinout, and Clambake.  Clearly, they enjoy rapport though the movies aren’t anything special, but at least Fabares fared better than the likes of such co-stars as Moore, Nancy Sinatra (Speedway), and Mary Ann Mobley (Harum Scarum), the latter being the dregs of the dregs.

Meanwhile, I have a soft spot for Blue Hawaii mainly because I practically melt when I hear “Can’t Help Falling in Love with You,” which a dear friend sang–beautifully–when I was escorted down the aisle at my wedding oh so many years ago. Of course, one surprising downside is that the Academy snubbed that particular tune while Grammy voters found the soundtrack worthy of a nod. Another downside to Blue Hawaii is that poor Angela Lansbury was barely 10 years older than Elvis when she was cast as his mother, so there’s a casting credibility issue. Luckily, Lansbury redeemed herself from that thankless task by going for the gusto as Laurence Harvey’s  politically ambitious mother in The Manchurian Candidate though, wait for it, Lansbury was only three years older than Laurence Harvey, the man who played her son; she then set her sights on Broadway with Mame, and the rest is history, but I digress. Still, Blue Hawaii was a major success and cast the mold for Presley’s subsequent films: exotic locales, fun in the sun, lots of girls, and plenty of music. Indeed, Blue Hawaii was followed in short order by Girls! Girls! Girls!, which like its predecessor was filmed on location and followed the now  familiar formula.

So it came to pass that in the deepest darkest days of this past winter, Michael and I happened upon Girls! Girls! Girls! one night, presumably on Turner Classic Movies, and I was instantly captivated. By an Elvis movie. Oh sure, I’d seen it as child (probably at a drive-in), and I easily remembered parts of it, but I had no memory of how revved up with color it was, and is. I mean this is one bright sunny movie, perfect for obliterating winter doldrums, but also a nice summer lark after a long day at the office.  See, as I watched that frosty winter evening, I also turned to the IMDb to learn some behind-the-scenes particulars, and what I found is that Girls! Girls! Girls! is in fact the only Elvis movie, the only one, to ever be nominated for a Golden Globe, and, yes, that surprised me. Oh, okay, it’s not like a Globe is the same thing as an Oscar, everybody knows that, but I also thought that Elvis’s popularity would render a Globe nod a no-brainer, especially for some of the classier entries, such as Viva Las Vegas, King Creole, Flaming Star, and a precious few others.

To clarify, in the case of Girls! Girls! Girls!, the GG nomination was for the film as a whole:  Best Motion Picture Musical; not surprisingly, it lost to The Music Man in a competition that also included Gypsy and Billy Rose’s Jumbo (starring Doris Day), all of which I actually enjoy. To further clarify, Elvis’s name frequently appeared on the  Laurel award honor roll, voted by theatre owners and managers via the trade mag, Motion Picture Exhibitors:  second place for Girls! Girls! Girls!; third place for Viva Las Vegas. He actually won for Tickle Me, the only acting award of his career. Really? I fully confess that I used to watch Tickle Me whenever it aired on the old late show, and enjoyed it immensely as a kind of mystery/comedy even though it retains a large cheese quotient. (Backing up to Blue Hawaii, it finished 4th in the Laurel voting for Best Musical.)

Elvis (center) and Girls, Girls: Stella Stevens (l) and Laurel Goodwin (r), both of them gorgeous in dresses designed by legendary Edith Head

Back to Girls x 3. What’s so special about this one? First, as noted, the colors provide an amazing and welcome sensory jolt, and by the colors, I really mean one color specifically, blue: blue skies, blue waters, and even co-stars Laurel Goodwin and Stella Stevens attired in shockingly blue outfits–designed by no less than the illustrious Edith Head [1]. Even the doors in Elvis’s rival’s office are intensely blue. Right? It’s like Blue Hawaii only bluer. The cinematography, btw, is credited to no less than Loyal Griggs, a multiple Oscar nominee and, in fact, a winner for 1953’s magnificent Shane [2].

Interestingly, and in contrast to Fun in Acapulco, Elvis ventured to Hawaii for the shoot. Apparently, security concerns kept him from making the trip to sunny Mexico for the later movie. Now, this is important because Fun in Acapulco is clearly cobbled from location shots with stunt doubles (or a stunt double), and studio trickery including some obvious process shots, also known as rear projection, also known as the precursor to blue and green screen technologies [3]. Oh, there are still plenty of process shots in Girls! Girls! Girls! as Elvis’s character spends plenty of time in a fishing boat out on the water; however, there is just enough of actual location footage to help suspend disbelief, especially since the process stuff is actually pretty clever, almost seamless, compared to, say, the same era’s Beach Party flicks, some of which were also directed by Norman Taurog [4]. The process shots are also more persuasive than those of Elvis and Ann-Margret water-skiing in Viva Las Vegas, which are kind of  obvious and lame.

Elvis in Boat

Process shot or actual location footage? In Girls, Girls, Girls, filmed in Hawaii, it isn’t always easy to tell.

Girls! Girls! Girls! also contains a couple of swell musical numbers. A lot of the songs in Elvis movies are and were forgettable, mere filler to justify a soundtrack album as well as to compensate for skimpy scripts. Oh, there are a few such lackluster ditties in G!G!G!, but two in particular rise above the rest. First and foremost would have to be “Return to Sender,” a genuine Elvis classic that was actually recorded for the film (as opposed to a convenient retread). The other number is an especially imaginative tango, of all things, set in the teeny bachelorette apartment of Presley’s newest squeeze, played by Laurel Goodwin. The whole scene is a pip because Elvis actually prepares and serves dinner even though it’s the girl’s place, but that’s just the beginning. Presley and Goodwin cap their evening with the ingeniously conceived “The Walls Have Ears,” which finds the pair dancing amid noisy neighbors and rattling walls. Truly, it must be seen to be believed, and I won’t spoil it by including a clip. Go find it and watch it for yourself. You’ll probably be delighted in a way you might not have imagined–especially if it’s been 20, 30, or 40 years since you last saw it. Credit for the staging of this ditty belongs to choreographer Charles O’Curran whose credits include G.I. Blues, also with Presley, and Bells are Ringing.

Rio2

Return to Rio: My favorite movie of the summer, so far, is Rio 2. Okay, technically, I know it was released in April, but I didn’t see it until it hit my neighborhood discount house last month, and I’ve actually seen it twice. Oh, and I never even saw the first one, don’t know why, but when I saw the trailer for the sequel, I was blown away. Why? Well, just like Girls! Girls! Girls!, Rio 2 is just insane with color, maybe the most intense, color-rich animated movie I’ve seen since Fantasia. Michael compared it favorably to Yellow Submarine. The story is a little perfunctory, but, this non-Disney/Pixar flick offers some pleasing musical numbers. (The original featured the Oscar nominated “Real in Rio,” co-written by Sergio Mendes) Coincidentally, this cartoon creature feature includes a rainy, late night scene reminiscent of such a scene in Girls! Girls! Girls! Oh, this one is available for home video this coming Tuesday: 07/15. Check it out! Btw: #2 on my list of summer faves is Jersey Boys, which I also hope to see again soon.

So, when I ask myself, what was it about Girls! Girls! Girls! that prompted the Hollywood Foreign Press to nominate it for Golden Globe–after I rule out bribes by the suits at Paramount–the answers I find most satisfactory are the lush cinematography and/or production values, and a few nifty musical numbers.  Plus, the movie was a big hit, of course.  Also, Elvis works hard to give a real performance. What’s that, you say? I’ve spent the past week or so reading reviews of ALL Elvis movies by a number of seasoned Elvis fans/bloggers, and one frequent complaint is that he plays a character who is quite unlikeable at times.  Yes, I agree. His “Ross Carpenter,” a down on his luck fisherman with both girl troubles and money woes, isn’t always nice, and what a great challenge for Elvis or any actor. How did the Colonel let this one get past his Elvis image gauge? In many movies, Elvis played characters that seemed stamped out of cardboard, characters that seemed to exist only to curry favor with audiences as though Presley could not manage that on his own.  Another favorite scene, set on a lanai during a late night rainstorm, shows a softer side of Elvis, a sweetness and vulnerability that didn’t find its way into his later movies.  Another plus.

Of course, we’re still in the fantasy realm of Elvis, not, say, Lawrence of Arabia, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Longest Day, The Miracle Worker, or The Manchurian Candidate, all of them released the same year. One of the most glaring flaws is, of course, racism in the form of exoticizing the locals, especially a pair of sisters–wee youngsters of Chinese descent. Played by real-life siblings, Elizabeth Tiu and Ginny Tiu, these are some adorable moppets, but their very “differentness” seems exaggerated to the point of rendering them as barely more than show-biz pets or dolls if you get my drift, something less than human. You know, the way clumsy American tourists make a fuss over “native” children. At any rate, what played as cute in the early 1960s registers most differently in a presumably more culturally enlightened era though, to clarify, it’s not Elvis, per se, who treats the girls condescendingly; it’s the filmmakers who are to blame.  Oh, well, at least the girls get to do something. Not so Stella Stevens, wasted in the nothing role of a catty one-time fling, that is, ex-fling, who just can’t seem to let go. She drains the energy out of almost every exchange but puts over a sultry night club number or two, and she looks swell. Goodwin hardly fares better. She’s a good sport, but she lacks pizzazz. It’s no wonder that, per the IMDb, her acting career was relatively short-lived.

Poor Elvis. Well, sort of. He truly was a victim of his own success. Reportedly, he hated many of his own films and yearned for a chance to prove he had it in him to be a great film actor rather than a merely passable one. The trouble wasn’t really with him but rested with that damn Colonel Parker. The legend is that Elvis was considered for the male lead in 1961’s blockbuster adaptation of West Side Story, but the colonel didn’t feel it was the right vehicle for his star, what with gangs and knives–not to mention the fact that Elvis would have had to share the screen with a huge cast of actors, singers, and dancers that might have pulled focus. Nothin’ doin’. Of course, West Side  Story was a box office blockbuster that also scored big at the Oscars, taking awards in 10 categories, including Best Picture and Best Director–shared, in an Academy first, by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins (though the latter, hired specifically for the dance sequences, was dismissed midway through production, but I digress). Several years after quitting films with Change of Habit, Elvis was approached as a possibility to play the doomed rock star in Barbra Streisand’s remake of A Star is Born, but, once again, Parker intervened on behalf of his client, reportedly with a list of demands that did not set so well with Babs who was also one of the film’s producers. Instead, the role went to rugged country singer-songwriter  and sometime actor Kris Kristofferson who at least temporarily reinvented himself as a sexy leading man. A year after A Star is Born, Elvis passed away at the age of 42. Only 42, a legend in his time, no doubt, but also a study in unrealized potential and a mass of contradictions. Maybe he could have built on the potential he showed in his early films, but he  allowed himself to be manipulated by someone who stubbornly resisted opportunities for real growth.

Still, as Girls! Girls! Girls! proves, not all of Elvis’s many, MANY, films were mindless failures. Indeed, as I came home today to finish the article, I turned on the TV and found King Creole on the second or third channel I selected, most likely TCM yet again. More good stuff, including gorgeous black and white cinematography, New Orleans location footage, and a fascinating sequence set in the rain. As much a treat in the summer as Girls! Girls! Girls! was in the winter. Maybe it really is good to be the King after all.

Thanks for your consideration…

Elvis at the Internet Movie Database  http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000062/?ref_=nv_sr_1

[1] For the uninitiated, in her illustrious career Head racked up a whopping 35 Oscar nods (in both color and black & white categories), taking home a total of 8 statuettes, a record for both a woman and a costume designer. Her detractors insist that, as the longtime head of Paramount’s costume department, she often took credit for work that wasn’t hers. Her Oscar winners include The Sting, All About Eve, Samson and Delilah, The Facts of Life, and A Place in the Sun. Among the films for which she was nominated for but did not win is the Shirley MacLaine extravaganza, What a Way to Go!

[2] Griggs was previously included in the piece, “Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road…” from December 30, 2013.

[3] In other words, actors performing before a pre-filmed “plate ” to simulate the effect of riding in cars, surfing, or any other outdoor activity that presents filming challenges.

[4] Among Taurog’s nearly 200 credits are 1931’s Skippy, for which he won an Oscar, as well as Boys Town (1938). He might have directed portions of The Wizard of Oz though uncredited.  His filmography also includes some of the Martin & Lewis outings.

Remembering Eli Wallach: “Indelible”

30 Jun

It’s been quite a week…

Eli Wallach National Board of Review

Eli Wallach never earned an Oscar nod in a career that spanned 60+ years and well over 100 credits. Theoretically, he came close via his turn as an aging screenwriter in 2006’s The Holiday starring Kate Winslet, Cameron Diaz, Jack Black, and Jude Law. Wallach earned great notices for the holiday release. and was profiled as a likely candidate in top newspaper and magazine Oscar preview features. Despite a bit of buzz, awards consideration was slim, meaning nothing from the Academy, the Hollywood Foreign Press, the Screen Actors Guild, or any of the critics’ societies. That noted, during the same season Wallach received a lifetime achievement award from the National Board of Review.

Eli Wallach was never a star on the order of say, Clint Eastwood or Steve McQueen, with whom he co-starred in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and The Magnificent Seven respectively, but he achieved greatness nonetheless, forging a stellar career as one of America’s most prolific character actors with more than 160 film and TV credits, per the IMDb, going as far back as 1951’s Lights Out up through Ghost Writer and the Wall Street sequel, both in 2010. Did I happen to mention, by the way, that when he died last week he’d reached the ripe old age of 98? Incredible. Still working all the way up through his mid 90s.

Born in Brooklyn, Wallach claimed the University of Texas as his alma mater. Indeed, he famously attended classes in Austin, and acted in theatre productions, alongside no less than legendary Walter Cronkite, the newcaster once famously hailed as the most trusted man in America. Besides being a UT grad, Wallach studied “The Method” at the Actors Studio in New York under the direction of Lee Strasberg.

Wallach won a Tony for Tennessee Williams’s The Rose Tattoo. His other stage credits include Camino Real, also by Williams, along with Mister Roberts, starring Henry Fonda, Teahouse of the August MoonLuv, and Rhinoceros among many, many others.

the-uglyArguably, however, he made his greatest impression in such Sergio Leone films as the aforementioned The Magnificent Seven and The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. Still, he scored many other impressive credits, including How the West was Won, The Misfits (top-lined by Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, and Montgomery Clift), How to Steal a Million, Cinderella Liberty, Nasty Habits (which co-starred his wife of 60+ years, Anne Jackson), Girlfriends, The Two Jakes (1990’s underrated yet also unnecessary sequel to Chinatown), and The Godfather Part III. His versatility was legendary, no accent seemingly beyond his talents,witness his role as a Central American dictator in 1964’s odd Kisses for My President, a strangely sexist comedy starring Polly Bergen as the first female President of the United States of America. Too bad the movie seems more fixated on the challenges faced by Madame President’s husband, good ole Fred MacMurray, than those faced by the Chief Executive herself. Still, Wallach was, to quote the New York Times, “droll” in a role that didn’t offer much.

On TV, he appeared on the likes of Kojak, The Young Lawyers, L.A. Law, Law and Order and Murder, She Wrote (of course). He was one of three actors to step into the role of Mr Freeze on the campy Batman TV series (the other two being George Sanders and director Otto Preminger).  He lent his voice to the docudrama Houston, We Have a Problem, twenty years before Ron Howard tackled the same material in 1995’s Oscar nominated Apollo 13; he also appeared in the acclaimed mini-series The Executioner’s Song, starring Texan Tommy Lee Jones as Gary Gilmore.

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Four years after being honored by the National Board of Review, Wallach was singled out for career longevity honors by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences at the annual Governors awards. He is seen here with actress Anne Jackson, his wife of 66 years. Their successful marriage serves a powerful rebuttal to the claim that showbiz marriages buckle under the pressures of such a demanding profession.

Wallach’s long and varied career represents the best and worst of the peculiar profession known as acting. Because he was never a big-name star, he enjoyed career longevity; after all, being a star is a fickle thing. We want our stars to be beautiful, fit, sexy, and young, or at least youngish. Once stars start losing their luster,  aging like the rest of us, there are fewer choices: reinvent themselves as character actors, try fiendishly to keep up with the youngsters in a youngster’s game, or, well, retire (that or get the boot by failing miserably at that youngster thing). Wallach endured because he was first and foremost,  an actor–a gifted, rigorous actor who knew how to deliver a solid performance regardless of how big or small the role. Oh, and actors like Wallach work for much less than their bigger name counterparts, always a plus in the ledgers. On the other hand, because he knew how to disappear into a role, the audience almost never caught him “acting,” which means he seldom earned special recognition from peers and critics for even some of his more high profile work. Not a single Oscar nod, per se, in spite of some huge hits and major awards contenders though the Academy ultimately honored him with a 2010 Governors Award for “a lifetime of indelible screen characters.” [Italics added for emphasis.] He earned a Golden Globe nod for portraying a shady Sicilian in Baby Doll (1956) in addition to British Academy honors for the same film. He found greater favor with Emmy voters, snagging five nominations with one win, for 1966’s Poppies are Also Flowers (a TV movie about heroine smuggling starring Yul Brynner, Omar Shariff, and a host of others). His last Emmy race was for an appearance on Nurse Jackie back in 2010.

Turner Classic Movies will honor Eli Wallach on Monday, June 30, with a marathon that includes Baby Doll, How the West Was Won, The Misfits, and, yes, Kisses for My President.

Additionally, Wallach’s films have been written about in the following posts:

  • “The Ghost Writer or the Riddle of  ‘How Many Best Picture Nominees Does It Take…?’ Part Two” (August 1, 2011)
  • “The Movie Bucket List” (January 1, 2013)
  • “Girlfriends All Over Again” (June 2, 2013)
  • “Myth and Music in the Majestic Old West” (June 22, 2013)

Thanks, Eli…

Wallach at the Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0908919/?ref_=nv_sr_1

Wallach at the Internet Broadway Database: http://ibdb.com/person.php?id=63879

TCM Marathon https://pressroom.turner.com/us/tcm/tcm-remembers/tcm-remembers-eli-wallach#.U7DeLRzP974

Wallach’s obituary in UT’s The Daily Texan:

http://www.dailytexanonline.com/2014/06/26/acting-legend-and-ut-alum-eli-wallach-has-passed-away

Bosley Crowther on Kiss for My President in the New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9F06E4DB1F3DE733A25751C2A96E9C946591D6CF

The Hightowers of Austin, TX

25 Jun

Well, Michael and I just got back from vacation. For real. We haven’t had a vacation in three years. Two years ago when our plans fell through rather abruptly, I decided multiple viewings of Woody Allen’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, set in the picturesque New York countryside, would suffice. When scheduling difficulties and other concerns dictated that we forgo an out of town vacation last summer, I found solace in Agatha Christie’s luxurious Evil Under the Sun in all its sunny Adriatic glory. Exquisite. This year, fortune smiled upon us, and we made plans to visit our state capital, Austin, TX. In some ways our destination was chosen for us. Several weeks ago, maybe as much as two months, I saw a feature on the morning news about a luxury bus service–Vonlane, to be specific–that makes daily trips to and from Austin: huge, comfy seats, plenty of leg room, an attendant, and snacks included. What a kick! Austin looked better and better.

Aside from a brief period in the early 1980s, I’ve lived in Texas for most of life, yet I’ve only been to Austin a total of three times. Once, when I was around 12 or 13, and our family—or what was left of it after the divorce–made a road trip across the state with stops in San Antonio, San Marcos, and Austin. I did not set foot in Austin again until 2006 when I was there to receive a medal I’d earned as a member of Richland’s chapter of the Phi Theta Kappa honor society. Incredibly, in spite of my involvement in the Dallas poetry scene for many, many years, I’ve never made the trek to the Austin International Poetry Festival. Tons of my friends and fellow poets–including my own husband–have made that pilgrimage, but not me. No ma’am. I’ve also never felt compelled to venture on down to the annual see-and-be-seen carnival of madness known as South by Southwest. I also don’t care if I never make that trip even though, again, I know plenty of people who have and have loved every minute of it.

So, anyway, there we were in Austin, strolling up and down Congress Avenue, watching from Lady Bird Lake (aka the Guadalupe River) as the bats emerged at dusk from underneath the famed Congress Avenue bridge,  checking out the sights on Sixth Street as well Guadalupe Avenue, and visiting the historic Elisabet Ney museum in the old Hyde Park district. Of course, we made it to the capital building, but that was a site I’d already visited during my previous visits, so it wasn’t a must-see, necessarily. We also spent an afternoon poking around on the University of Texas campus. We’d managed a little time there when I made the trip for the Phi Theta Kappa event because the ceremony was held on the premises. Easy enough. One highlight was spending a few minutes with the magnificent statue of the one and only Barbara Jordan. Anyway, I don’t consider myself an especially morbid person, but curiosity got the best of me, and we made a beeline to the infamous UT tower, the site of the blood curdling 1966 sniper attack that more or less ushered in the era of modern domestic terrorism, that is, if you don’t count the JFK assassination in downtown Dallas.

Nadineposter1987

The original 1-sheet for Nadine, similar to the art work for 1983’s A Christmas Story, appears to be inspired by Norman Rockwell’s classic cover art for an issue of the old Saturday Evening Post. Alas, the DVD artwork is much more generic. Also, the DVD boasts no extra features.

 

While we were in Austin, we stopped at a used DVD outlet that had a whole Texana section,  focusing specifically on locally filmed features, but the store didn’t stock one of my favorite titles, 1987’s Nadine, from Oscar winning writer-director Robert Benton, starring Kim Basinger and Jeff Bridges. Born and raised in Waxahachie and schooled at UT before he headed to Columbia University, the director’s most famous works carry traces of his Texas roots, first with his Oscar-nominated screenplay for 1967’s sensational Bonnie & Clyde, and then again with 1984’s nostalgic and inspirational Places in the Heart, filmed in Waxahachie (Benton’s birthplace), for which he won the Academy’s Best Original Screenplay Oscar–to go along with the pair of Oscars he’d already earned for 1979’s smash adaptation of Kramer vs. Kramer. The more I thought about Benton and Nadine, actually shot on location in Austin,  the more I wondered whether Benton had a far darker sense of humor than even the strangely, sometimes inappropriately, humorous Bonnie & Clyde hinted. See, the two main characters in Benton’s 1987 offering are Nadine and Vernon Hightower. Hightower, get it? As in a sniper high in a tower…in Austin, really?  How did this curious lapse get past Benton and the entirety of the Tri-Star marketing team? What were they thinking, or were they? How much trouble could it have been to change the last name to something banal like Johnson, Connolly, or Briscoe?

Seriously, though, Nadine is actually one of my favorite flicks of 1987 vintage. Oh, it wasn’t anything close to a hit. Per the IMDb, it cost 12 million, not a huge amount for a mainstream film–from a major studio–back in the 80s, but, also per the IMDb, it only earned about half of that domestically. Even so, Nadine performed well enough at the old UA Prestonwood Creek 5. It was our kind of movie, and it held up well enough in a summer that also included Stakeout, Adventures in Babysitting, Full Metal Jacket,  La Bamba, and The Big Easy.   True confession: I liked Nadine so much that I sometimes sat through back-to-back showings when I wasn’t working. What’s that you say, back-to-back showings, really? Oh, did I mention that it’s only 87 minutes long?

Set in 1954, Nadine covers a lot of territory in its brief running time: part screwball comedy, with alternately bickering and sweet-talking soon-to-be ex-spouses (that’s a lot of hyphens), and part noir, that is, Texas noir, with twangy colloquialisms,  crooked businessmen, good ole boy bad guys, double and triple crosses, a dead body or two, guns, of course, and rattlesnakes.  Again, all in 87 minutes.  One of my former co-workers, a film major (who has subsequently made quite a name for himself as a TV producer), argued that he couldn’t get into Nadine because it was too simple, almost like a cartoon. Exactly. In its own way it is very much like a live-action cartoon, and I’m good with that, because it’s so tightly constructed. I happen to think Benton’s screenplay is a textbook example of what good screenwriting is, or can be; so much so, that anyone who ever thinks s/he wants to write a screenplay should study it just like, well, it were a textbook.

Not that Benton has written something profound, or even wildly exciting, because he hasn’t, but the lesson for novices is to apply what Benton as screenwriter does in Nadine to almost any story in almost any genre. For example, where does Benton begin his story? Tempting to answer, “At the beginning,” right?  No, Benton starts somewhere near the middle. The first major plot turn–and it’s a doozy–happens about two minutes after the opening credits. Two minutes! Suddenly, with little or no preparation, the audience is right in the middle of the action, and then Benton fills in the particulars gradually, bit by bit, and not via flashbacks either. Instead, the specific details reveal themselves not so much through pages of expository dialogue as through characterization. The dialogue shows as well as it tells, with subtext a-plenty, but the characters generally define themselves by what they do rather than what they say, anyway. Ah yes, that’s also worth noting. Although Benton definitely has a way with dialogue, he also knows how to tell a story visually, which is the hardest thing for young screenwriters to crack. When the characters are sharply developed, and a given scene is properly orchestrated, the writer doesn’t need his/her characters to explain or comment upon what is happening to them in order to advance the story. The audience can read it in all kinds of clues, and this movie is a marvel of that very thing. Sit back and watch how many visual cues just snap into place with little or no verbal accompaniment. One scene in a dinky trailer really spotlights Benton’s gift for visual wit. The surprise isn’t that Benton knows how to perfectly set-up a gag–after all, he’s credited as one of the writers for the uproarious What’s Up Doc?–but that he can do so with three actors occupying such a tight, tight, space.

Though giving the most delightful performance of her career, Basinger never had much hope of earning an Oscar nod for such an insignificant film as Nadine even though she received strong reviews, and in spite of writer-director Robert Benton’s seasoned pedigree, not in a year dominated by the likes of Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, Holly Hunter in Broadcast News, and Cher in just about anything. That was also the year that Sally Kirkland funded her own massive campaign for the independently made Anna, and the likes of Barbara Hershey (Shy People), Angelica Huston (The Dead), Christine Lahti (Housekeeping), and Maggie Smith (The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearn) had to sit it out along with Diane Keaton, renewing her star energy in the commercially successful comedy Baby Boom. Basinger kept plugging away for 10 more years before she finally won Best Supporting Actress for her role as a Veronica Lake lookalike in 1997’s LA Confidential.

Nadine‘s second biggest selling point has to be leading lady, Kim Basinger.  At the time, Basinger was still a smashingly good looking, if somewhat muted, actress looking for a great career-defining role.  She’d done well enough with supporting parts in The Natural (1984) and Blake Edwards’s remake of Truffuat’s The Man Who Loved Women (1983), but Robert Altman’s big screen adaptation of Sam Shepherd’s Fool for Love didn’t generate much heat despite the potentially explosive material and top-notch talent. The icky Blind Date, also from Blake Edwards and co-starring Bruce Willis, in his “official” big screen debut, performed moderately well  in the spring of ’87, that is, well enough for Willis though it did almost nothing to enhance Basinger’s reputation. Nadine provided her a star making opportunity even if the film didn’t quite take-off with the public. Still, what a performance! (Unofficially, Willis had appeared in a handful of movies often as an uncredited extra before making it big in TV’s Moonlighting.)

Nadine is a manicurist in the middle of a divorce who has also just learned that she’s pregnant. She’s pretty certain she can make it without her big talkin’ night-life lovin’ would-be entrepreneur of a husband, but she has other concerns, and when she tries to correct a momentary lapse of judgement, she stumbles into a situation much bigger and much uglier than she could have ever imagined, a veritable stewpot of Chinatown-esque  skulduggery, if you will. That’s when and why she turns to her ex. Really, she just needs for him to perform one little favor, but she can’t afford to let him know that she’s really, well, just using him. At least that’s the way  it seems from the start.

What struck me most about Basinger’s Nadine on first viewing is the way she moves, whether running or walking–briskly. Maybe it’s the period clothes, a flouncy full-skirted dress, a beautifully tailored cinched suit–flamingo colored, no less–or vintage high heels, but her every movements is comical, animated,  just like, yes, a cartoon character. Now, ask yourself how often you notice the way a character  walks in any movie? Do most actors make a point of differentiating their own walk from that of their characters’? Depends on the character,  I guess, especially if s/he has an obvious limp or some other frailty. In this case, Basinger creates a woman in a state of near-constant excitement. She’s frequently agitated, and she can’t stop–kind of like the Energizer Bunny (which this movie predates by two years)–and won’t stop until she gets her life and every component in it back in order. She’s also a quick talker, a quick thinker, and Basinger lets the audience see the wheels turning inside her head, planning the next often desperate move. Then, at other times, she’s fun and flirtatious,  or scared and vulnerable. Again, there’s a lot of character, a lot of emotions, to play at a fairly rapid clip as the story zigs and zags breathlessly from comedy to romance to high stakes chases. By the way, according to most reports, Benton wrote the character with Basinger  specifically in mind. Beautiful. Of course.

door floor 2

Bridges (top) and Basinger (below) reteamed for 2004’s The Door in the Floor, a partial adaptation of John Irving’s A Widow for One Year, an incredible piece of filmmaking, much much darker and more realistic than Nadine. In this one, they play a couple, their marriage in shambles after the deaths of their teenaged sons. Even though Bridges never stood much of a chance, he was chatted up as a longshot Best Actor contender by both Entertainment Weekly and USA Today, ultimately earning a Sprit award nomination. Like Nadine this one was far from a hit, but it deserves to be seen. Add it to your queue.

Basinger is not the whole show. She’s matched by Jeff Bridges in the role of Vernon Hightower, the scheming husband, who is quite a bit more than he initially seems. On one hand, Vernon comes across as a fool, a loudmouthed bumbler easily manipulated by his ex. On the other hand, he’s also a hustler, not a great hustler, but he knows enough to stay afloat. As the story progresses, Vernon’s true savvy becomes apparent, and he registers more as a victim of bad timing than as a flat-out schmuck. He definitely isn’t as smart as he thinks he is, but he’s smarter than he’s often given credit for being, and it’s obvious that he loves Nadine.  Bridges doesn’t exactly play the straight man to Basinger’s Nadine because he gives as good as he gets in their scenes, but he also knows when to underplay and let Basinger shine; after all, the movie isn’t titled Vernon.

The cast is rounded out by a few veteran aces and at least one right on time newcomer. First, there’s the magnificent Texas native Rip Torn as scummy wheeler-dealer named Buford Pope. No doubt, he’s a deadly serious business man who gets what he wants most of the time, but when he’s pitted against Nadine and Vernon, well, he’s more like Wile E. Coyote and just can’t catch a break. Torn plays the crafty scalawag beautifully and as only he can. At the time, he was enjoying a career resurgence thanks to an Oscar nominated turn as one of Cross Creek‘s most colorful locals–that and a bodacious turn in Alan Rudolph’s Songwriter (1984) starring Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson. Also along for the ride are Gwen Verdon, as the motherly proprietor of the beauty shop where Nadine works, and Jerry Stiller, a grizzled photographer who has seen a lot of action. It’s only a brief bit, but Stiller nails it. Character actor Jay Patterson shows up for a few scenes as Vernon’s equally enterprising cousin.  Patterson does marvelous work, deftly spinning corny–almost immature–lines into pure comic gold, and he manages to not look like too much of a buffoon when playing a scene in his underwear and socks. The find in all of this is actress Glenne Headly in a breakthrough role as Vernon’s latest squeeze Renée Lomax, a former beauty queen with a bit of a Marilyn Monroe affectation and, most importantly for Vernon, connections in the beer biz. Headly only has three scenes, but she seizes each and every one, taking no prisoners as Lomax bares her heart and soul with full abandon. It’s a sharp, sharp performance that screams, or screamed, for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. Trust me. Writing in the New York Times, critic Vincent Canby praised all of the performances, “especially” Basinger and Bridges but also Torn, Headly, and Stiller. Of course, Benton deserves some credit for the great performances; after all, he guided three Oscar winners: Sally Field (Places in the Heart), Dustin Hoffman (Kramer vs. Kramer), and Meryl Streep (Kramer vs. Kramer), not to mention a few more contenders, such as Paul Newman (Nobody’s Fool, 1994).

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Broadway regular William Youmans appears briefly in Nadine as Vernon’s accordion playing barkeep, Boyd. They have one of the funniest exchanges in the film: Youmans has only a smattering of film and TV credits, including another small role as a smirking clerk at a sleazy hotel motel in 1985’s Compromising Positions. His Broadway credits include Titanic and Wicked. I was super surprised to see him as Prior Walter in the Dallas Theatre Center’s production of Angels in America: Perestroika in 1996.

One thing missing from Nadine is Chuck Berry’s “Nadine,” which would seem like a perfect fit even though, technically, Berry’s tune wasn’t recorded until the early 1960s. At the same time, Benton has already cheated ever so slightly in the music department because there are almost no 1950s hit songs to be heard anywhere in the movie. I know Renée Lomax listens to Lefty Frizzel’s  “If You’ve Got the Money I’ve Got the Time” on her car radio, but that’s about the most of it; however, and this is the cheating part, Benton relies heavily on the music of California-tinged country duo, Sweethearts of the Rodeo, that is, sisters Janis and Kristine Oliver (at the time, Janis was known as Janis Gill, then wife of emerging country superstar Vince Gill). Their sound brings to mind the deft harmonies and country infused pop of the Everly Brothers in their heyday, so the effect works in context. The women’s infectiously upbeat “Since I Found You” plays over the opening credits, and then the gorgeously slowed-down “I Can’t Resist” adds the perfect, longing touch to a tender, beautifully played late night scene between Nadine and Vernon. Here again, Benton reveals himself as the total filmmaker. Not only does he know how to draw the best from his performers, he’s also smart enough to not get too fancy with the camera, and he understands how to use music to tie the whole thing together. A third Sweethearts of the Rodeo tune, “Midnight Town/Sunset Girl” plays in the background of a scene set in Vernon’s two-bit lounge.

Benton and his team do a wonderful job with the period details, including a well-placed bottle of Evening in Paris perfume in classic cobalt blue on Nadine’s dressing table. Mercifully, the movie doesn’t seem over-designed. None of it looks too studied, too pristine, to be believable. Benton also includes dutiful classic noir elements, such as rain-slick streets and neon signs. In one scene, Nadine is framed against Venetian blinds in a darkened room, another noir signifier, the only source of light being the glow of red neon just outside the window.

Well, that just about does it. It’s only 87 minutes, so how much more can I possibly write? Twenty-seven years later,  and Benton has only made a smattering of films since then, and even fewer good ones, one possible highlight being 1998’s Twilight, starring Paul Newman, Susan Sarandon, and Gene Hackman, along with James Garner, Stockard Channing, Reese Witherspoon, and M. Emmett Walsh. 2003’s The Human Stain, adapted from a Philip Roth novel,  qualifies as a low-point though it helped launch the career of charismatic Wentworth Miller. To be fair, Benton is approaching his eighty-second birthday, so I guess that’s one reason why his output has decreased over the past two, almost three, decades. Meanwhile, Bridges, never the most commercial of actors in spite of a number of high-profile hits, has honed his craft in a wide variety of projects, including fan favorite The Big Lebowski along with The Contender, in which he played the President of the United States and netted a fourth Oscar nod. As far as the Academy goes, Bridges finally hit paydirt with 2009’s Crazy Heart–for me, an inferior retread of Robert Duvall’s Oscar winning Tender Mercies–for which he won Best Actor, followed a year later by an Oscar nominated turn as Rooster Cogburn (the role for which John Wayne was finally lionized by the Academy) in the Coens’ startling True Grit reboot. Basinger, currently seen in Paul Haggis’s Third Person, continues to work though, like many actresses over 40, the trick is to find challenging roles in quality films that people actually want to see. She played Eminem’s mom in 8 Mile and First Lady in The Sentinel, top-lined by Michael Douglas and Keifer Sutherland. On the other hand, Guillermo Arriaga’s The Burning Plain spotlighted three amazing actresses, the other two being Charlize Theron and Jennifer Lawrence (but TV’s The Mermaid Chair strained for greatness). Still, Basinger made a huge impression as a celebrity look-alike escort in 1997’s LA Confidential, securing Best Supporting Actress honors in her first Oscar race. At the time, award winning scribe William Goldman [*] gushed, “By the way, she is just splendid in the part, her best work since Nadine” (239).  Right, William?

Thanks for your consideration…

PS: Keep Austin weird.

 

Goldman, William. The Big Picture: “Who Killed Hollywood?” and Other Essays. New York: Applause, 2000.

Vincent Canby’s review of Nadine in the New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9B0DE0DF1031F934A3575BC0A961948260

Jeff Bridges in The Door in the Floor as one of the 2004/05 Oscar longshots per USA Today: http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/life/movies/news/2005-01-13-overlooked-by-oscar_x.htm

* – Goldman won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and Best Adapted Screenplay honors for All the President’s Men (1976). He also adapted both Magic (1978) and The Princess Bride (1987) from his own novels. His other credits include screenplays for Harper (1966), The Stepford Wives (1975),  Marathon Man (1976) and Misery (1990).

 

 

 

Goodbye, Ruby Dee…

15 Jun
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Ruby Dee at the 2007/2008 Screen Actors Guild, the year in which she won for her supporting performance in American Gangster.

The indomitable Ruby Dee died this past week, June 11, at the age of 91. Funny thing, I didn’t see that much coverage in the major news outlets, not really.  Oh, I read a headline late one night, but I don’t remember seeing anything on the next day’s morning news shows.  Maybe I missed it. I’ve had a hectic week; however, I do remember what seemed like wall-to-wall coverage a week or so earlier when poet-activist Maya Angelou passed away and then again when venerable TV actress Ann B. Davis died as well.

Coincidentally, I had just been thinking about Ruby Dee a few days earlier as I watched last Sunday’s Tony awards presentation, and London born Sophie Okonedo, Oscar nominated for 2004’s Hotel Rwanda, snared Best Featured Actress in a play honors for her performance as Ruth Younger, wife of scheming Walter Lee Younger, in the acclaimed revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s landmark play, A Raisin in the Sun. Of course, Dee portrayed Ruth Younger in the original stage production back in 1959, the first play by an African-American woman on Broadway, and then later in the 1961 film version, for which she won Best Supporting Actress from the National Board of Review. I’m pretty sure that I first saw Dee in Raisin when it first aired on TV, and then I saw her again, again, and again as she forged an impressive career that actually began well before her work with Hansberry.

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Ruby Dee recreating her stage role as Ruth Younger in the film version of Raisin in the Sun, for which the National Board of Review hailed her as the year’s Best Supporting Actress.

Dee’s IMDb profile boasts a staggering 111 acting credits, including playing Rae Robinson in a 1950 film based on the life of baseball great Jackie Robinson–with no less than Robinson actually portraying himself (more than six decades before last spring’s hit 42 starring Chadwick Boseman as Jackie and Nicole Behari as Rae/Rachel).  Dee also made her mark in the long running daytime drama The Guiding Light as well as prime time’s  phenomenally popular Peyton Place in the 1960s. In the early 1980s, She co-hosted a PBS series with her husband of 50+ years–and fellow Civil Rights actvist–Ossie Davis, who passed away in 2005.  She once had a guest-starring role on The Golden Girls, playing a much cherished yet misunderstood  character from Blanche’s childhood. She played iconic Mary Tyrone in a 1982 tele-adaptation of Eugene O’Neil’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, for which she won a Cable ACE award (a big deal at the time as cable TV was all but ignored by Emmy voters).  When it comes to Emmy awards, well, Dee made quite an impression there as well, logging six Primetime nominations, including one for a stint on Evening Shade (on which Davis worked as a cast member) and one win, Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or Special for Decoration Day (1990); furthermore, she garnered three more Emmy nods for her work in daytime television. Whew!  That’s a lot.

Dee was a frequent NAACP Image award honoree. As recently as 2010 she was nominated for the TV movie America. She earned a total of eight Image nominations, including the fact-based Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years (1999), co-starring Diahann Carroll. She won twice, for the series Promised Land and for  Spike Lee’s hit, Do the Right Thing; she later appeared, to devastating results, in Lee’s 1991 Jungle Fever–as the mother of Wesley Snipes as well as Samuel L. Jackson’s  unstrung crack addict, Gator. Additionally, Dee was inducted into the Image Hall of Fame along with Davis in 1989 and won the President’s Award in 2008, the same year she was nominated for American Gangster.

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Ruby Dee in 2007’s American Gangster, her sole Oscar nominated role as the mother of the real life drug lord played by Denzel Washington.

Ah, American Gangster. The 2007 epic docudrama based on the exploits of drug smuggler Frank Lucas. The movie starred Denzel Washington as Lucas opposite Russell Crowe as New Jersey based law enforcer Richie Roberts. No matter those two megawatt stars, Dee stole the show as Lucas’s mother and earned her only Oscar nomination–seven years after sharing with Davis a Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award. Indeed, for her work in American Gangster, Dee actually won her only competitive SAG Award: Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role. She was 85 at the time, and only 5’2″, but no worse for wear as she hauled off and slapped Washington in what for me was the overblown movie’s best scene. By Oscar week, Dee seemed neck-and-neck-and-neck in a tight three way race for the gold that included Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone) and Tilda Swinton (Michael Clayton)–not to mention gender bending Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan in I’m Not There and thirteen year old Saoirse Ronan in Atonement. Talk about spanning the gamut right? An 85 year old and a 13 year year old in the same category? At any rate, Swinton’s name was called when the contents of the coveted envelope were revealed at last.  Dee lost the Oscar, true, but it wasn’t a total defeat as she continued to work in acclaimed projects for the next several years.

Her many other accolades include the Kennedy Center Honors and the National Medal of the Arts, from the National Endowment for the Arts; she shared both honors with Davis. Looking back, Dee never delivered a stirring poem at a presidential inauguration or wrote a literary classic like Angelou did, but she still made her mark as an activist for change. A whole column could be devoted to her work on behalf of justice and civil rights; likewise, as much as I loved the late Ann B. Davis, both as the ever dependable housekeeper Alice on The Brady Bunch or in her Emmy winning role as sidekick Schultzy on The Bob Cummings Show, I think Dee’s acting accomplishments inspire ever greater awe. Whether with Ossie Davis or on her own, Dee’s hard work, devotion to excellence, and indefatigable spirit, led her to the heights of American acting royalty, a true jewel in the crown.

Thanks, Ruby….

Ruby Dee at the Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0002039/?ref_=nv_sr_1

Bosley Crowther reviews The Jackie Robinson Story in the New York Times, May 17, 1950: http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9907E7DC153EEF3BBC4F52DFB366838B649EDE

 

On Golden Fonda

10 Jun

I’m rushing to complete this piece before TNT airs Jane Fonda’s American Film Institute Life Achievement Award celebration sometime this month; the tribute was taped less than a week ago. I’ll probably skip the TV program. Oh, I’ve watched these annual shindigs from time to time going all the way back to the 70s when Bette Davis, James Cagney, Orson Welles, and Alfred Hitchcock were honored, but for some reason the last several tributes have seemed extremely edited, to force the fun factor, and that bothers me. Besides, I don’t need the AFI, necessarily, to remind me how much I love the films of Jane Fonda or to help me remember my favorites.

When I was a wee thing, I thought Jane Fonda too gorgeous for words. Truthfully, if I saw any of her movies at that time, it would have likely been Barefoot in the Park (1967), co-starring the equally and improbably gorgeous Robert Redford; the two later reteamed for 1979’s smash The Electric Horseman (directed by Sydney Pollack), but I digress. No, mostly I recall seeing pictures of Fonda in my mother’s movie magazines, Modern Screen, Photoplay, etc. Based on what I’d heard, I imagined that she ran around naked in most of her films, mostly Barbarella. Then, she cut her hair, apparently dyed it black, and protested the war–to put it mildly. I didn’t know what to think about all that, but I was still a child, only 11 or 12. I didn’t understand the full implications of her actions, but I also didn’t want my older brother to be drafted, yet I also wanted America “to win,” so I was more confused than anything else. Fonda won the Oscar for Klute during that period, coincidentally my first time to make it through the Academy Awards from start to finish. I outlasted everyone else in the house. The French Connection won Best Picture, btw. Still, I somehow knew that Fonda played a prostitute in Klute, thereby further fostering the notion that she probably appeared nude in most of her films.

This column is not for Fonda haters. Politically, she and I probably have a lot in common. but that’s not to say that I agree with, or follow, her every move. It’s easy to write her off as a bit of a dilettante, given that she was raised second generation Hollywood and has had a tendency to attach herself to powerful charismatic men; however, she’s also a damned fine actress, and while actresses of her caliber are still doing their gosh-darnedest to create meaningful work, I think almost none of today’s top tier stars use their star power in quite the same way that Fonda did at her peak in the late 1970s and early-to-mid 1980s. Not only is she a two-time Academy Award winner for Best Actress, with five additional acting nominations, she also made her mark as an astute movie producer whose credits include such smash hits as Nine to Five and On Golden Pond though to clarify, she almost never received screen credit on the films she developed with ally and business partner Bruce Gilbert through IPC films–though we’ll get to that. Right now, these are my reminisces of a lifetime of movies starring the one and only Jane Fonda.

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Left to right: Lee Marvin, Jane Fonda, and Lee Marvin in Cat Ballou, the movie that announced Jane Fonda as a star in the making.

Cat Ballou (1965): Fonda plays the title character in the mid 1960s western romp, but Lee Marvin won all the accolades, including the Oscar for Best Actor, in dual roles. Legend has it that Ann-Margret was actually the first choice for the role of the would-be school marm turned would-be outlaw. The story goes that Margret’s agent turned down the offer without notifying his client first [*]. Yikes! Fonda was on her way.

 

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Jane Fonda as Barbarella. Who looks like this in real-life? No one.

Barbarella  (1968): Fonda and her then husband, French film director Roger Vadim, teamed up for this far-flung futuristic sex farce based on a comic strip. Though reportedly more scandalous than profitable in its time, it has nonetheless influenced a host of filmmakers, as well as 1980s pop-superstars Duran Duran, and once upon a time no less than Drew Barrymore threatened to star in a remake. Thank god that never happened though Britney Spears clearly jumped at the chance in her video for “Oops! I Did It Again.” I caught up with Barbarella years and years ago at the old Granada theatre, and it had not aged well. Whatever the film’s weaknesses, Fonda is not one of them. She’s the very definition of eye-candy, and the opening credits are a hoot.

 

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Besides earning an Oscar nomination for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Fonda was also named the year’s Best Actress by the New York Film Critics Circle.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?  (1969): A year after Barbarella, Fonda and Vadim were on the skids, and the spaced-out sex kitten reinvented herself as a serious actress of the highest order in Sydney Pollack’s searing look at the desperate participants in a grueling Depression-era dance marathon. Fonda earned her first Oscar nomination, losing–not entirely undeservedly–to the great Maggie Smith in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Affable long-time character actor Gig Young took the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his audacious turn as the crass, cruel emcee. The Academy also nominated supporting actress Susannah York and director Pollack. Indeed, They Shoot Horses Don’t They, besides having one of the most iconic movie titles of all time, also holds the distinction of being nominated for more Oscars, nine, without also competing for Best Picture. It was, in fact, the most nominated film during the 1969/70 race with the top award going to Midnight Cowboy. The cast  also includes Michael Sarrazin, Bonnie Bedelia, Red Buttons, and Al Lewis.  I saw this unrelentingly harsh movie the first time it aired on network television and have never cared to revisit it since then even with that stellar cast.

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Fonda (l) and Sutherland (r) not only co-starred in Klute, they jointly campaigned against the war. Sutherland escorted Fonda to the ceremony the night she won her Oscar. The two later reteamed for Steelyard Blues.

Klute (1971):  Fonda took home the 1971 Best Actress Oscar for her, for the times, surprisingly frank portrayal of call-girl Bree Daniels in this Alan J. Pakula thriller starring Donald Sutherland as the title character, a detective investigating the disappearance of a male executive with possible ties to Fonda’s character. The critics and the Academy went bonkers for Fonda in this film, especially as she worked hard to make her character a complex, fully dimensional human being rather than the stereotypical hooker with a heart of gold depicted in many films, but  after a number of viewings through the decades, I remain a tad unconvinced that the performance is all that though I have misgivings about the film in general.  I understand that her matter-of-fact take had just enough of an edge to make an impact.  I still prefer Julie Christie (McCabe and Mrs. Miller), which I’ve also seen several times, or Vanessa Redgrave (Mary Queen of Scots).

Fonda as Lillian Hellman

^ Jane Fonda as Lillian Hellman in Julia. To put it kindly, the real-life Hellman didn’t possess Fonda’s movie star good looks. Indeed, the two women bear almost no resemblance. If Julia were made today, I’m afraid there would be a pronounced effort to make the actress look more like the real deal, a feat that would probably involve prosthetics, but I applaud Fonda for eschewing such gimmicks as they often distract from rather than enhance a performance, a characterization.

Julia (1977): The years immediately following Klute were lean for Fonda as her activism alienated her from both mainstream audiences and the Hollywood corporate power structure tthough she jumped at the chance to work with George Cukor on the U.S. – Russia ill-fated remake of The Bluebird. In the spring of 1977 she caught a break when the dark comedy Fun with Dick and Jane, co-starring George Segal along with Ed McMahon, turned into a surprise hit. In the fall, her comeback at 39-going-on-40 was seemingly complete as she commanded the screen as “scrappy” playwright Lillian Hellman in Julia, based on a remembrance, long disputed, of Hellman’s to-the-manor-born childhood friend who later used her inheritance as a member of the European resistance. In this tantalizing puzzle of a tale, taken from the intriguingly entitled memoir Pentimento, Hellman, a Jewish playwright making her mark with The Children’s Hour while duking it out with mentor and sometime lover Dashiell Hammett, embarks on a tense journey to smuggle money into Berlin and reunite with her long cherished friend. The movie opened in the fall of 1977 though I didn’t catch up with it until weeks, if not days, prior to the 1977/78 Oscars when it had shifted its run from the old GCC NorthPark to the historic Highland Park Village, and I have to say it was the most important moviegoing event of my life up to that point–and, keep in mind, I’d seen Star Wars the first week it opened in May of ’77. Certainly, the European flourishes and period decor of the theatre contributed to the ambience. At any rate, I loved everything about  Julia, including the incredible true story–as we were led to believe at the time–along with the European locales, the cinematography by Douglas Slocombe, the breathtakingly composed opening shot, the stunning score by Georges Delerue, the luxe period costumes by Anthea Sylbert, and, of course, the righteous performances of Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave (seen mostly in flashbacks as the glorious title character), Jason Robards Jr. (as Hammett), and Maximilian Schell (particularly good as the enigmatic emissary known as Mr. Johann). Fonda nabbed another Academy nod for playing a woman with tremendous gumption in spite of herself, but her generosity with other actors was becoming apparent as Redgrave and Robards both won golden statuettes–it was Robards’ second consecutive win–and Schell yielded an additional nomination. As much as I love Diane Keaton, my heart broke when Fonda lost the Oscar to the  Annie Hall star. I’d never experienced anything as emotionally nuanced as the big reunion scene between Lillian and Julia in a Berlin cafe. I was willing putty in the hands of two highly skilled thespians, and it felt like heaven. I didn’t react nearly as strongly to Annie Hall, so, yes, Fonda’s loss broke my heart; however,  it would not stay broken for long.

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In the fall of 1977, Newsweek deemed Fonda and Julia worthy of a cover story: “Hollywood’s New Heroines.” Indeed, it was a heady time for actresses as earlier the same year, the same magazine featured no less than Sissy Spacek (below) just as she was being feted by the Academy for Carrie and co-starring with Shelley Duvall and Janice Rule in Robert Altman’s 3 Women.  Duvall later tied for Best Actress at that year’s Cannes fest and would have likely figured in the Oscar race in a less competitive year. How competitive was it? Well, all five of that year’s Best Actress nominees starred in Best Picture finalists: Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine in The Turning Point, Marsha Mason in The Goodbye Girl, and Fonda; moreover, The Turning Point and Julia went into the final stretch as the frontrunners with 11 nominations each, including Best Picture and Best Director. (Julia was directed by legendary Fred Zinneman, already a two-time winner for From Here to Eternity and A Man for All Seasons [1].) Star Wars was next with 10 nods. [<The three most nominated films, btw, were all released by 20th Century Fox, clearly having a banner year.] The list of failed Best Actress possibilities from that race includes not only Duvall and Spacek but also Liza Minelli (New York, New York), Kathleen Quinlan (I Never Promised You a Rose Garden),  Gena Rowlands (Opening Night), and Lily Tomlin (The Late Show), all of whom were Globe nominated. That was also the year that Keaton dazzled critics in the steamy big screen adaptation of  Looking for Mr. Goodbar, Judith Rossner’s sensational novel about a doomed thrill-seeker amid New York City’s ever adventurous swingle scene. Cases could be made for a few other sterling performances in films that were relatively obscure or otherwise indifferently received, but you get the gist.

 

Spacek Newsweek

^ When Sissy Spacek appeared on the cover of Newsweek in the spring of ’77, she was basking in the glow of her Oscar nod for Carrie and earning raves for both Robert Altman’s 3 Women and Alan Rudolph’s Welcome to LA. She hosted SNL, portraying no less than Amy Carter, around the same time.

 

 

 

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Jane Fonda (r) gave Jon Voight (l) the role of a lifetime in Coming Home. I was thrilled by his Oscar victory and don’t think he’s ever been better. I’d still rank it among my top five leading male performances. Easily. With the possible exceptions of Harold and Maude–also directed by Coming Home’s Hal Ashby–and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, I have probably paid to see this one in theatres more times than I have any other movie.

Coming Home (1978): With this earnest tale of Vietnam veterans learning to cope in a politically charged climate, Fonda moved from onscreen talent to behind the scenes mover-and-shaker as she co-produced the film with partner Bruce Gilbert.  At the time, many Americans who either fought in the war or lost loved ones during the fight, criticized Fonda for being a hypocrite given the militancy in which she had previously attacked the war and anyone connected to it, but the film actually shows a great deal of compassion for the soldiers who sacrificed some of their humanity while fighting a senseless and unpopular war. Of course, it’s always been easy to dismiss Coming Home, as well, as an icky love triangle in which an affection starved woman finds sexual happiness from a seemingly incapacitated pacifist (Jon Voight) rather than an overwound gung-ho soldier (Bruce Dern), and, yes, I guess that claim is hard to dismiss, but I also think there’s lots of other stuff to praise, mostly the believable, nuanced performances, and the compassion the filmmakers show for the vets. To clarify, many of the patients at the VA hospital are actually played by real-life veterans, and, per the DVD,  they improvised their dialogue in key scenes. The movie competed against, among others, writer-director Michael Cimino’s macho-fueled, operatic Vietnam epic The Deer Hunter for Oscar’s top prize though Fonda and Voight claimed top honors for Best Actress and Best Actor respectively. Voight also won the Cannes Best Actor prize; meanwhile, Bruce Dern and Penelope Milford, as a woman Fonda befriends at the VA hospital, welcomed nods in the supporting acting categories [2]. Oddly, Fonda is absent from the DVD commentary though Voight, Dern, and cinematographer Haskell Wexler contribute. The movie clocks-in at #78 on the AFI countdown of the 100 greatest love stories.

California Suite

1978 was a heck of a year for Jane Fonda. Besides starring in Coming Home, she also appeared in Herbert Ross’s star-studded adaptation of Neil Simon’s California Suite, featuring Oscar winner Maggie Smith (lower right). Fonda also teamed with James Caan and Jason Robards in Comes a Horseman, directed by Alan J. Pakula, which also boasted an Oscar nominated supporting performance by Richard Farnsworth. Oh, and please note: though photographic evidence is scant, Fonda wore the same gown to accept her Coming Home Oscar that she’d worn the year before when she was up for Julia. That was the 1970s; no actress would consider doing the same today.

 

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Left to right: Jack Lemmon, Jane Fonda, Michael Douglas, and the reactor towers at the Three Mile Island nuclear power facility in Philadelphia. The China Syndrome, written and directed by the late James Bridges, earned four Oscar nominations, including a Best Actor nod for Lemmon, who also scored the top acting honors at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival.

The China Syndrome (1979): This suspenseful, nuclear power cautionary tale opened on Friday, March 16, 1979. I saw it the following Monday, March 19, at one of the GCC NorthPark theaters, either the I & II near the mall, or III  & IV across the expressway. My gut tells me the latter, but more than 30 years later, it’s no longer crystal clear. Plus, that’s not even the real story. No, the real story unfolded on March 28, 1979, when one of the reactors at the Three Mile Island nuclear power facility in Philadelphia suffered a partial meltdown and made headlines and cover stories all across the map. In an instant, Fonda found herself with the most relevant movie of the year, and all of us who’d already seen it could barely, well, contain ourselves. Naturally, I had to take a second and third look in the Three Mile Island aftermath. Fonda plays a flame-haired TV reporter, a throwback to the vintage Brenda Starr comic strip, who’s often assigned fluff stories but stumbles upon a cover-up at a plant outside of Los Angeles. Her eager cameraman is played by Michael Douglas, who also shares producer credit. The trio is rounded out by Jack Lemmon as a plant supervisor who knows more than he cares to admit. The whole thing just builds and builds to a shocking climax, and Fonda’s Kimberly Wells serves as the audience’s surrogate along the way. On one hand, the actress seems to be repeating herself by playing a naive woman whose consciousness is raised. On the other hand, the characters are otherwise night and day, and Fonda works hard to make Wells unique. Unsurprisingly, she earned her third consecutive Best Actress Oscar nod, also unsurprisingly losing to Sally Field in Norma Rae (a role that Fonda might have played under other circumstances) in a race that also included Bette Midler’s powerhouse debut in The Rose. The China Syndrome appears on the AFI’s list of greatest thrillers, weighing in at #94.

9 to 5

My first manager at the old UA Prestonwood Creek 5 kept scrupulous records regarding box office performance for all the films we played. Throughout the years, even as ticket prices rose and big budget blockbusters such as Return of the Jedi, Ghostbusters, Top Gun, and Batman grew grew increasingly popular, Nine to Five’s original numbers continued to hold as one of our best house performers not only for ticket sales but also for longest runs, measured in weeks.

Nine to Five (1980): Not the funniest ever made, but a lot of fun, and a huge, huge, hit. Fonda’s business savvy is evident all over this offering about sexism and office politics as three capable yet undervalued secretarial workers unite against macho-fueled corporate tyranny. Fonda and company [3] shine light on the very real disparity between men and women in the workplace, an issue not entirely resolved today but especially noteworthy at the time, yet the message is cloaked in a more than generous dollop of humor. See? Nine to Five has a message, but it’s also an office comedy; likewise, The China Syndrome works as a suspense flick, and Coming Home tells a moving, complex love story. Fonda remembers her audience as well as her purpose. In this one, she portrays a prim divorcee trying dutifully to fit-in with her more seasoned co-workers, and she’s a constant delight as her straight-laced “Judy” learns to roll with the punches though more often later rather than sooner. Of course, in Nine to Five she’s aided immeasurably, once again, by her ability to cast the right people. In this case, Lily Tomlin as the sensible widow with children who’s continually passed over for promotions, and  Dolly Parton, in her film debut as a cute, curvaceous, and plainspoken secretary constantly fighting her boss’s sexual advances. (Give credit to Dabney Coleman for making the most of the women’s boss, “a sexist, egotistical, lying hypocritical bigot”; to his credit he understood who the stars of the movie were and didn’t get in their way.) The DVD commentary is a real treat as the three stars are reunited, and their affection for one another is most apparent.  Of course, Parton didn’t just act in the film, she wrote the catchy title tune which, let’s face it, has become a workforce anthem. Parton nabbed an Oscar nod for the tune. She also scored a handful of Globe nominations: Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy; Best Newcomer, and, yes, Best Song. She lost the song award to the ubiquitous “Fame” (from the movie of the same name). Parton went on to snare a pair of Grammy awards as well as a People’s Choice award for her track. Nine to Five is an AFI fave as it ranks #74 on its roster of funniest comedies while Parton’s ditty comes in at #78 on the organization’s list of greatest movie songs [4].

 

Jane Fonda In 'Nine To Five'

Jane Fonda in Nine to Five and Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie: practically separated at birth. Same curly hairdo, similar glasses and fussy wardrobe.

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Clockwise from left: Henry Fonda, Katharine Hepburn, and Jane Fonda filming On Golden Pond. Not only did Mr. Fonda earn an Oscar, at last, Ms. Hepburn won an unprecedented 4th Best Actress Oscar for her work as the sage who must manage both husband/father and daughter. Though deceased for many years, Hepburn remains the Academy’s sole four-time performance winner. Meanwhile, Jane earned her only Best Supporting Actress nomination for her work in the film, which included mastering a tricky backward flip into the water. At the same time audiences were flocking to On Golden Pond, Jane was also starring in Rollover, IPC’s second seasonal offering, opposite Kris Kristofferson.

On Golden Pond (1981):  Arguably Fonda’s most personable film as it presented the opportunity for her to appear onscreen with her dad, screen icon Henry Fonda. The actress-producer and her partner purchased Ernest Thompson’s play about an aging couple’s annual summer retreat,  and a final attempt for their grown daughter–with a son of her own–to work through longtime conflicts with her ornery, distant dad.  Though some critics complained that the resulting effort was just a tad too sweet, the public gobbled it up, going back again and again and making it one of 1981’s top tier hits though it technically made most of its money in early 1982. At Oscar time, it garnered 10 nods [5], including Best Picture and Best Director (Mark Rydell), placing second only to Warren Beatty’s epic Reds which led the pack with 12. Ultimately, Chariots of Fire pulled a Best Picture upset. Incredibly, in spite of being one of America’s most beloved actors, Henry Fonda had only been twice nominated by the Academy at that point: for playing Tom Joad in 1940’s The Grapes of Wrath, and for co-producing 1957’s Best Picture candidate Twelve Angry Men, in which he also starred. A year prior to On Golden Pond, Mr. Fonda had been honored with an honorary Oscar for his body of work; however, with his daughter’s vision, he found the perfect valedictory role and won a competitive Oscar at last. Alas, Mr. Fonda’s health was in rapid decline, and he was unable to attend the 1981/82 ceremony. Jane accepted the award for him. He passed away in August of 1982 at the age of 77. The AFI has singled this one out multiple times, including the enduring romance between the characters enacted by Mr. Fonda and Ms. Hepburn (100 Years…100 Passions) and the inspirational message of the film as a whole (100 Years…100 Cheers).

The Dollmaker

By the mid 1980s, Fonda had established herself as a fitness guru with a bestselling lines of books, workout videos, etc. Amid her busy schedule, she starred in, and co-produced, the Emmy winning TV movie The Dollmaker (1984), in which he portrayed a 1940s era Appalachian woman transplanted to Detroit, so her husband can find work.

 

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Agnes of God (1985): No Fonda Oscar nod for this one, nor did she produce it, but she still gives a compelling performance in Norman Jewison’s adaptation of John Pielmeier’s successful play about a court appointed psychiatrist investigating a novice who claims she gave birth to a dead baby after an immaculate conception. Though Fonda did not find favor with the Academy for this one, she shares the screen with no less than Anne Bancroft (l) and Meg Tilly (r), both of whom did make the Academy’s short list: Bancroft for playing the formidable Mother Superior who clashes repeatedly with Fonda, and Tilly, sublime, as the troubled novice. Geraldine Page took the Best Actress Oscar that year for The Trip to Bountiful while Angelica Huston nabbed supporting actress honors for her wicked, wicked Maerose Prizzi in Prizzi’s Honor.

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Fonda lost her last bid for Oscar glory to newcomer Marlee Matlin (Children of a Lesser God) in a race that also included Sissy Spacek (Crimes of the Heart), Kathleen Turner (Peggy Sue Got Married), and Sigourney Weaver (Aliens), who was actually my first pick, followed by Turner. I would have given Fonda’s nod to either Jessica Lange (also Crimes of the Heart), Helena Bonham Carter (either A Room with a View or Lady Jane), or Julie Andrews, doing exceptional work as a violinist with multiple sclerosis in the adaptation of Duet for One.

The Morning After (1986): This Sidney Lumet mystery signals Fonda’s last Oscar nomination, a nod I’ve always felt was, well, generous. Oh, don’t get me wrong. Fonda demonstrates in scene after scene that she is more than capable of emoting–as if none of us knew that already–but I also think she’s somehow miscast. Simply, she doesn’t look like the boozy, washed-up, movie actress that the script keeps saying she is, the next big thing that never was. Mainly, she just looks like she’s acting. A lot. Personally, and for reasons that might not be easily explained, I’ve always thought the role would have been better served by Angie Dickinson–and that’s not an insult to Dickinson. I just think she had a worldly lived-in glamour that robust Fonda–at the peak of her fitness empire–lacked. Plus, Dickinson deserved a meaty role at that point in her career; however, this was yet again a feature that Fonda developed with her partner, so mine is a moot consideration. Dickinson or any other actress never stood a chance. The movie opens promisingly enough as Fonda’s hot mess of a character wakes up next to a dead body, a stabbing victim, in a strange loft. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work so well as a mystery because there aren’t enough suspects to make the story compelling, and the “reveal” seems tacked on almost as an afterthought. Still, Lumet provides a visually interesting tour of sunny LA, a novelty for the famously east coast based director. Fonda’s co-stars include Jeff Bridges and Raul Julia.

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Still a knockout, Fonda easily topped my 2012/13 Oscar’s “Best Dressed” list.

After The Morning After, Fonda completed the overblown, if entertaining, Old Gringo (1989) with Jimmy Smits and Gregory Peck–the latter as no less than fabled writer Ambrose Bierce. From there, she filmed Stanley and Iris (1990) with Robert DeNiro, and then she took a decade-plus break from movies during her marriage to media mogul Ted Turner. She made a comeback with Monster-in-Law, opposite Jennifer Lopez, in 2005 and even copped a Golden Globe nod. She also published her memoirs to considerable acclaim. Since then, she has triumphed on Broadway in 33 Variations, enjoyed a recurring role on Aaron Sorkin’s Newsroom,  and appeared–briefly–as Nancy Reagan in last year’s White House based hit, Lee Daniels’ The Butler. She and Tomlin are prepping a new series for Netflix. I’m glad she came out of retirement and continues to find interesting projects. It’s crazy to me that she’s only three years younger than my mother and about the same age that her father was when he passed away. Amazing. I can hardly wait to see what she does next. Maybe I’ll watch the AFI telecast after all.

Thanks, Jane…

TNT airs the AFI tribute to Jane Fonda on Saturday, June 14, 2014. Check your listings for times.

Jane Fonda Walk on the[*] This alleged twist of fate involving Fonda, Ann-Margret, and Cat Ballou might only be the stuff of legend though it is reported on the IMDb as well as in Ann-Margret’s autobiography (p. 89 in my long cherished paperback copy). Anyway, we just have to take Margret’s word for it. I don’t remember reading anything about it Fonda’s book. I will say that I can imagine it happening since during that era, the mid 1960s,  Jane Fonda, Ann-Margret, and, say, Tuesday Weld loomed large as saucy starlets who could play darling ingenues one minute and then sex it up for a walk on the wild side–the title of one of Fonda’s films–the next. Btw: Per Margret, her agent signed her up for Kitten with a Whip after turning down Cat Ballou.

[1] Writer Alvin Sargant won the first of his two Oscars for his Julia screenplay; he won again for 19890’s Ordinary People, adapted from Judith Guest’s best-selling novel.

[2] The trio of Nancy Dowd, Walso Salt, and Robert C. Jones won Oscars for the Coming Home screenplay; technically, Salt and Jones received final credit for reworking Dowd’s original treatment.  Salt, who also won for 1969’s Midnight Cowboy (starring Jon Voight), has since been memorialized with an annual screenwriting award at the Sundance Film Festival named in his honor. Actress/writer/director/producer Lake Bell won that honor in 2013 for her wrly amusing In a World.

[3] “and company” includes, among others, director and co-writer Colin Higgins along with co-writer Patricia Resnick. Higgins famously wrote Harold & Maude, which was directed by the previously mentioned Hal Ashby, also of Coming Home. Higgins would later direct Parton in the rousing Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.

[4] Nine to Five‘s legacy includes two TV spin-offs, one on ABC and the other syndicated, both of them featuring Rachel Denison, Parton’s younger sister, as Doralee. The show also spawned a short-lived Broadway musical featuring songs by Parton and a cast that included Tony nominee Alison Janney in the Tomlin role.

[5] Thompson won an Oscar for adapting his own play.

Cannes Do

25 May

Ah, it’s that time again, time for the annual Cannes fest to be a launching pad for several more months’ worth of film excellence and potential awards contenders.  Two years ago, French-Austrian Amour made a splash and went on to score Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Director–ultimately claiming the statuette for Best Foreign Language Film.  On the other hand, last year’s buzziest Cannes winner, Blue is the Warmest Color, garnered all kinds of accolades in the states yet was received, well, less than warmly by the Academy, being shut-out in all categories. Still again, veteran American character actor Bruce Dern scored big for Alexander Payne’s Nebraska at last year’s shindig, thereby setting the stage for a hearty round of nods for Dern, Payne, and the film itself–along with Best Supporting Actress candidate June Squibb.

Bennett Miller

^ Best Director winner Bennett Miller’s credits include 2005’s Capote and 2011’s Moneyball, both of which figured in the Academy’s Best Picture races. His latest stars Steve Carrell, Channing Tatum, and Mark Ruffalo in a startling true story about Olympic caliber wrestlers, families, coaches, and mental illness.

Here are this year’s big winners:

  • Palme d’Or
 – Winter Sleep (directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
  • Grand Prize
 – Le Meraviglie (The Wonders), dir: Alice Rohrwacher
  • Best Actress
 – Julianne Moore (Maps To The Stars)
  • Best Actor
 – Timothy Spall (Mr Turner)
  • Best Director
 – Bennett Miller (Foxcatcher)
  • Jury Prize – Tie
Mommy (dir: Xavier Dolan); 
Goodbye To Language (dir: Jean-Luc Godard)
  • Best Screenplay
 – Leviathan by Andrey Zvyagintsev and Oleg Negin
  • Camera d’Or
 – Party Girl (directed by Marie Amachoukeli, Claire Burger, and Samuel Theis)
  • Short FilmLeidi, dir: Simón Mesa Soto
  • Special Mention: Aïssa, dir: Clément Trehin-Lalanne
, Ja Vi Elsker, dir: Hallvar Witzo

Per published reports, Turkish filmmaker Ceylan has a substantial track record at Cannes, twice winning the Grand Prix award and taking Best Director on another occasion. As recently as 2013, he earned an Independent Spirit nod for Bir zamanlar Anadolu’da (Once Upon a Time in Anatolia).

This is the first Cannes award for England’s Timothy Spall, like Dern a respected character actor in his homeland; however, his work is not completely unknown on the French Riviera as he is a cherished member of writer-director Mike Leigh’s repertory company, and Leigh’s films, such as 1996’s Secrets and Lies,  often do well at the famous film fest. Of course, younger viewers are likely more familiar with Spall from his role as Peter Pettigrew in the Harry Potter movies, but I digress. Backing up, Spall’s Mr. Turner, about the life of British landscape painter J.M.W. Turner (1775 – 1851) is Leigh’s latest production, and that’s quite a good thing. I’m usually up for a Leigh film, and I still have glorious memories of Topsy-Turvy, his behind the scenes look at Gilbert & Sullivan and their creation of The Mikado, featuring Oscar winning costumes and makeup in addition to a grand performance by Jm Broadbent as the formidable W.S. Gilbert.

Apparently, Julianne Moore was not in attendance, but I’m super-excited for her.  It’s been too long since she had a worthy film role. Oh sure, I know she won an Emmy and a host of other accolades for her role as failed vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin in 2012’s Game Change. That’s great, and I’m not a snob about TV, but I’d rather see Moore work her acting chops on the big screen in the same way that, as much I get a kick out of  watching Jessica Lange in American Horror Story, I’d still love to see her do more feature films. Of course, we all know opportunities for actresses over 50 tend to be somewhat sparse, comparatively speaking, that is. Still, I have to say I was hugely, HUGELY, disappointed that Moore aligned herself with last fall’s unfortunate remake of Carrie, stepping into the role of Carrie White’s whole-heartedly mentally unbalanced mom, a character made famous by Oscar nominee Piper Laurie in 1976.  Just a bad idea, the remake. A friend and I recently discussed Moore and her career as it’s been a dozen years since the heights of Far From Heaven, for which she earned a Best Actress nomination, and The Hours, for which she also scored a nod in the supporting actress category. Those were her third and fourth Oscar nominations, on the heels of 1997’s Boogie Nights (Best Supporting Actress) and 1999’s The End of the Affair (Best Actress).  In  Maps to the Stars, from the ever-controversial David Cronenberg, Moore reportedly plays a fading Hollywood actress looking for a comeback. Right?

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I happen to think that Hilary Swank (l) is, in a word, brilliant, but she doesn’t work as often as I would like. I’m sure she would like to work more as well. I’ve often thought that she must be difficult to cast, something I blamed on her almost being too good playing a cross-gender role in 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry, but I  thought those perceptions would have changed after Million Dollar Baby. I whole heartedly recommend 2010’s Conviction, and I eagerly await The Homesman, from actor-director Tommy Lee Jones (r).

Speaking of actresses in need of a comeback, the film I read about most in online Cannes updates was The Homesman starring two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank and directed by Texan–and onetime Oscar winner–Tommy Lee Jones, who wowed Cannes’ jurors in 2005 with The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, which he produced, directed, and starred in, taking home that fest’s Best Actor prize in the process. Swank was all of 30 when she won her second Oscar, for 2004’s Million Dollar Baby, five years after skyrocketing to stardom with Boys Don’t Cry. Now, she’s inching toward 40, and it’s been a while since she had a screen role of any consequence. 2009’s Amelia, with Swank as doomed pilot Amelia Earheart, failed to attract much attention while 2010’s fact-based Conviction, in which she plays a woman who completed law school in order to defend her brother, impressed enough members of the acting community to warrant a SAG nomination–but that seems like a long time ago.

Jones’s period western also features Meryl Streep–with daughter Grace Gummer–John Lithgow, Tim Blake Nelson, James Spader, Wiliam Fichtner, irrepressible Texas born character actress, Jo Harvey Allen, and Hailee Steinfeld, who made a splash a few years ago in the Coens’ acclaimed reboot of True Grit, earning a Best Supporting Actress nomination at a mere 14 years of age. Of all the Cannes entries that I read about, this is the one that I most want to see. Luckily, it has been picked up for distribution. Hopefully, we’ll see it just in time for the second wave of awards contenders.

Thanks for your consideration….

 

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