Bacall: Bogie’s Baby & The Look

14 Sep
Betty Bacall

The one and only Lauren Bacall, the very definition of “Hollywood royalty” (per a line in 1981’s Mommie Dearest), but Bacall was scrappy, a survivor who candidly documented her life’s many ups and downs in her book, By Myself (1978), which I read a long, long, time ago. She begins by describing a time as a teen she got busted for smoking when vintage concoction Sen-sen failed to hide her tobacco breath. She also recounted her relationship with Frank Sinatra, with whom she co-starred in Harper, and a tumultuous marriage to Jason Robards Jr., the father of her third child.

In celebration of the late Lauren Bacall’s birthday, Turner Classic Movies is running a Bacall marathon, beginning on Monday, 9/15/2014, and continuing through Tuesday, 9/16/2014.

We all know Lauren Bacall was Bogie’s baby. Bogie’s bride to be more precise, but in spite of her grand dame no-nonsense persona, she often played the role of the bridesmaid and only rarely the bride. I’m referring specifically to the 1996/97 Oscars. After decades in the movie biz, and a helluva late-start Broadway career, Bacall scored her first ever Oscar nod, oh about 50 years after making her film debut. Her nod came for her characteristically take-charge performance as Barbra Streisand’s glamorous, domineering ma in the latter’s Americanized remake of The Mirror Has Two Faces (a loose update on a similarly titled French movie from the late 1950s). In Streisand’s scenario, her brilliant, if mousey, English professor just can’t catch a break in a family dominated by such beauties as sister Mimi Rogers and her still vibrant mother, a widow who works as a makeup artist and still entertains her share of gentlemen callers. Babs feels as though mamala thinks less of her because she’s not a looker in the same league as everyone else, and mom really doesn’t help. She’d rather avoid the conversation. The role is a bit of a risk for Bacall because she sometimes comes across as cruel rather than nurturing, the way we want and expect mothers to be; however, director Streisand wisely waits for just the right moment to expose the mother’s vulnerability, and Bacall rises to the occasion expertly, exquisitely.

So, there we all were the night of the Oscars, and Bacall seemed poised for victory by almost any standard, not the least of which was the fact that in the preceeding weeks and months she had won both the Golden Globe and the Screen Actors Guild award, among other honors; however, when Kevin Spacey (the year’s previous Best Supporting Actor for The Usual Suspects) announced the winner, he called Juliet Binoche to the podium for her most excellent performance in the year’s leading contender, The English Patient (a choice that somehow suddenly seemed right to me even though I was actually rooting for neither her nor Bacall but Barbara Hershey in Portrait of a Lady). In her acceptance speech, Binoche could not have been more gracious as she exclaimed that she expected to Bacall to win, and that she thought Bacall really deserved to win. That kind of heartfelt tribute always sounds better with a lilting French accent. Oui. You can find the clip on YouTube.

So, on what should have been her big night, Lauren Bacall, a towering figure from Hollwood’s Golden Age still fighting the good fight, was upstaged–the bridesmaid to Binoche’s bride. Oh sure, several years later Bacall won an Oscar of her own, an honorary one for a lifetime of work, but in accordance with new Academy policy regarding non-competitive awards, Bacall was not feted during the annual televised ceremony, per se, lest 14 year old boys fidget and change the channel. Instead, Bacall’s tribute came a few months prior, November of 2009, and was recapped at the actual Oscar bash the following year.

Bogie-and-Lauren-Bacall-in-To-Have-and-Have-Not

Obligatory shot of Bogie (left) and Bacall (right)

I kind of feel the same way about Bacall’s passing last month, almost a month shy of what would have been her 90th birthday. Unfortunately for Bacall’s family, friends, and fans, her death was overshadowed by the shocking news of Oscar winner Robin Williams’s suicide a day earlier. Oh sure, Bacall’s demise generated plenty of press though not nearly the same magnitude as Williams’s untimely end. The same thing happened five years ago when 1970s bombshell Farrah Fawcett passed away the same day as longtime music sensation Michael Jackson. Fawcett died the morning of June 25 after a brave battle with cancer, but reports of Jackson’s death–under mysterious circumstances–later the same day grabbed more and more headlines though, of course, none of this should be a contest.

My own life has been remarkably difficult this year due to a series of family accidents, horrific illnesses, and, yes, death. I felt pressed to write about Willams, and I wrote as much as I thought I could under difficult circumstances, so I feel okay about that even though I thought I would add a few more pics and reminiscences. Then, I started writing about Bacall, and when I couldn’t be as timely about it as I would’ve liked, I skipped it. The same thing happened when Shirley Temple, James Garner, and Paul Mazursky passed, and I hate that, but my journalistic–as well as life–training tells me that timing is everything. Even a blog needs to be timely, so here I am trying to write about Bacall yet again on the eve of what appears to be a Bacall celebration this week on Turner Classic Movies, timed, precisely, to mark the occasion of her birthday: a marathon on Monday, 09/15, and Tuesday, 09/16 (her actual b’day).

Here’s what I wrote but never finished though I always intended to write about losing the Oscar and being overshadowed in death by Williams…

Poster - How to Marry a Millionaire_02

^ Cinemascope was one of many film features invented during the 1950s to compete with the booming TV medium. Whereas movies up to that point had been presented in a more technically square format (even majestic Gone with the Wind), widescreen presentations, such as Cinemascope, gave moviegoers an experience not easily replicated at home. How to Marry a Millionaire, in which Bacall (r) co-starred with Betty Grable (l) and top-billed Marilyn Monroe (center) was one of the first widescreen releases. It came out the same year as The Robe, which was released first though technically completed after How to Marry a Millionaire wrapped. This movie is one of my most pleasing of so-called guilty pleasures. I will watch it anytime I come across it while clicking through TV channels; moreover, I can put it in the machine on a Friday night and watch it multiple times over the weekend (sometimes back-to-back), and Bacall, as much as I love Monroe, is the main reason. As model Schatze Page, she’s so remarkably self-possessed that it’s hard not to get caught up in her bravado even when she’s clueless and self-defeating. Even more amazing is how young Bacall was at the time: 29 and counting. Of course, this whole thing is a fantasy that has nothing to do with real life. It’s also best kept in context as it does women no favors by painting them as single minded gold-diggers. On the other hand, reality TV shows us that there are still plenty of women ready to play the same role even though we presumably live in more progressive, more enlightened times.

Lauren Bacall, nee Betty Jane Perske, rose to full-fledged star status with her first film role, opposite Humphrey Bogart in 1944’s To Have and Have Not; she was barely 20 years old at the time, a New York model and stage actress, but there was something irresistibly worldly, self-possessed about her as though she could have only been dreamed up by a Hollywood screenwriter.  She wasn’t beautiful like Hedy Lamarr, Ingrid Bergman, or Rita Hayowrth, yet she was stunningly good looking, but, more importantly, she knew how to play to the camera. “The Look,” she became known as thanks to a signature pose: chin down, leonine gaze directed upward, all framed by a silken, side-parted cascade of hair. And then there was that voice: unmistakably deep and sultry, the aural equivalent of a martini–a gin martini–with cracked ice. As To Have and Have Not‘s “Slim” (a nod to Slim Keith, director Howard Hawks’s  equally worldly wife), Bacall made a brazen pass at Bogie’s character when she purred, “You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and… blow.” And, no, she was not dubbed by Andy Williams when she sang in the film, contrary to legend.

Here’s where I’ve resumed…

Bogie was hooked. The two were married a year later, this in spite of a 25 year age difference. She was Bogie’s baby, all right, and they made three more films together: The Big Sleep, Dark Passage, and Key Largo, the latter of which inspired a hit song by Bertie Higgins in the early 1980s: “We had it all / Just like Bogie and Bacall / Starring in our own late late show / Sailin’ away to Key Largo.”  So closely was Bacall identified with Bogie that her character even cracked wise about a fascination with older men, beginning with Bogart’s Oscar winning The African Queen, in 1953’s How to Marry a Millionaire, co-starring Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grable. Btw, all the Bogie-Bacall movies as well as How to Marry a Millionaire will be featured in the TCM event.

charlotte-rampling-nars

I’ve always thought that smoldering Charlotte Rampling, with her sharp cheekbones and husky voice, was her generation’s answer to Bacall as though she were specially designed for film noir. and that includes 1975’s Farewell, My Lovely with Robert Mitchum stepping into the role of Philip Marlowe–made famous by Humphrey Bogart in The Bg Sleep. She’s got “the look.”  I’m thrilled that Rampling continues to be a formidable presence. At 68, she was recently announced as the new face of Francois Nars cosmetics. If you haven’t caught up with her in 2003’s wickedly suspenseful Swimming Pool, you surely must.

After Bogart died in 1957, Bacall, a young mom with two children, had to reinvent herself and eventually did so by going back to the theatre, to New York, where she began. Oh, she continued to act in movies, but Hollywood didn’t know what to do with her….yet. She had to prove that she was more than Bogie’s baby.

She starred as a lothario reincarnated as a woman in Goodbye Charlie, a so-so play that nonetheless proved popular enough to warrant a film adaptation starring–not Bacall, the bridesmaid–Debbie Reynolds. A bit later, Bacall enjoyed a true Broadway success when she played the dental assistant roped into a harebrained scheme with her boss to fool the dentist’s jilted mistress [3]  into believing that Bacall is/was really his wife. Something like that. The play ran for almost three years, and Hollywood came a knockin’ but not as far as Bacall was concerned. She lost her role–the proverbial late bloomer–to Ingrid Bergman of all people–Bogie’s Casablanca co-star. Again, always a bridemaid…

Still, Bacall eventually scored two huge Broadway smashes. First, she secured the role of  aging tart-tongued diva Margo Channing in 1970’s Applause, the musical version of 1950’s smash, Oscar winning All About Eve. Against incredible odds, Bacall put her own stamp on a role made legendary by no less than Bette Davis. Bacall won her first Tony, and the show won a spate of other honors including Best Musical (the show also featured a Tony nominated turn by future TV regular Bonnie Franklin who actually sang the rollicking title tune). She went on to recreate the role in a special televised production and earned an Emmy nod in the process.  Bacall proved that Applause was no fluke when she won her second Tony for Woman of the Year in a role originated by Katherine Hepburn. Bacall’s competition that year included no less than Linda Ronstadt in Joseph Papp’s massively popular restaging of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance.

Kathleen Turner

Kathleen Turner hasn’t had a powerful leading role in a hit movie in more than a decade, but back in the 1980s, she was one of the most bankable actresses in the biz, and performances in neo-noir Body Heat and mafia themed black comedy Prizzi’s Honor clearly highlighted her Bacall-esque appeal. She’s got “the look” too.

Bacall’s Broadway success actually ignited renewed interest in Hollywood, and soon she was in front of cameras again in Agatha Christie’s classic star-studded whodunit, Murder on the Orient Express (directed by Sidney Lumet, 1974), luxuriating in her role as a colorful, seen-it-all, wealthy widow. She also attracted the attention of maverick director Robert Altman who featured her in a pair of films, HealtH (1980) and Pret-a-Porter (aka Ready to Wear, 1994). Just as the curtain rose for Woman of the Year, Bacall appeared on film as a Broadway star in The Fan, opposite James Garner with whom she shared the screen, both big and small, on multiple occasions. She also played the female lead in John Wayne’s final film, The Shootist (1976).

Bacall is a legend, and legends don’t die easily. Besides her incredible body of work in film, TV and theatre, she has influenced generations with her good looks, style, and passion. Not only was she immortalized in Higgins’s tune, Madonna referred to her in the classic 1990’s dance track “Vogue.”  Now, all of the luminaries mentioned in that classic ditty have passed, but, of course, they still live as style icons, and who or what is more iconic than “The Look”?

Thanks, Betty….

Bacall marathon at Turner Classic Movies: http://www.tcm.com/this-month/movie-news.html?id=1025725

More on Cinemascope at Widescreen Mueum: http://www.widescreenmuseum.com/widescreen/wingcs3.htm

[3] Brenda Vaccaro, born in New York but raised in Dallas, played the mistress in the Broadway production of Cactus Flower and earned a Tony nod, as Best Featured Actress, for her efforts. She also lost missed the chance to recreate her role for the movie version, losing the role to rising star Goldie Hawn, who nabbed the Academy’s Best Supporting Actress statuette.

Mother: The Next Big Short*

10 Sep

I sometimes think that if a good movie gets made these days, it must be an accident. I mean, it must be a miracle. Of course, money is the biggest issue. Even the most low budget offering still costs thousands if not millions of dollars, and there are no guarantees that backers will ever see a return on their investments. Also, distribution–getting the finished film into theatres–is a racket unto itself. Of course, social media have made marketing more accessible than ever as evidenced by the whole Sharknado phenomenon. The true independent filmmakers often take enormous risks to get their visions onscreen, and if/when that happens, well, yes, it’s a miracle. Miracles are good.

Mother poster designed by Jonas de Geer

Poster for Franz Maria Quitt’s short film, Mother (2014), designed by Jonas De Geer, Clockwise from top: Darlene Cates, Ryan Jonze, Alexander Rolinksi, and Kaylyn Scardefield. I think Quitt’s movie is exquisite on its own terms though I’ll also allow that my feelings are complicated by watching my own mother’s months of suffering and failing health–and, yes, even the passing of comic legend Joan Rivers (barely a year older than my own mom).

Of course, the big Hollywood studios have the resources to make all of the above possible, but the big Hollywood studios are no longer necessarily in the business of making movies–though every now and then one slips through the cracks. Look no farther than this past summer. One report after another explains that this past summer was probably the worst, at least domestically, in eight years, seventeen if you factor for inflation…but why do we need to factor for inflation? See, the studios are most interested in turning a buck, and movies are no longer just movies. They’re ground zero for a host of ancillary markets, mainly theme park attractions and video games, and that’s why so many of this past summer’s movies seemed more like video games. Of course, the U.S. is no longer Hollywood’s primary market, and many of these big budget action blockbusters actually perform better overseas than they do here, but this is not really news though it is the new business model.

On the other hand, I don’t want to pooh-pooh the studios too much. They might be corrupt, but that’s all they are, and every now and then a movie that’s fresh, inventive, and scaled to the human experience emerges, and if it hits with audiences, well, that’s a beautiful thing. We saw a handful of those last year. Gravity, from Warner Bros., comes to mind as does 12 Years a Slave, an indie released through 20th Century Fox.

At any rate, I recently found myself treated to a remarkable–dare I say miraculous–movie, a 30 minute short from actor-turned-first time writer-director Franz Maria Quitt.  Entitled Mother, Quitt’s film tells two almost interlocking stories about children–both young and old–and what has to be, for most of us, the most complicated relationship  of our lives–the one we share with our mothers: women who almost always know (or think they know) what’s best for us, including learning when to let go. In one scenario, a DJ living on the fringe takes a road trip with the son he barely knows, resulting in a little truth-telling about mothers and who abandoned whom. The other story concerns a female nurse, the DJ’s neighbor, and her own mom, a once glamorous model now all but bed-ridden after a devastating loss. As Quitt is a former actor, it’s hardly a surprise that he coaxes such persuasive performances from his small cast, most of whom are unknown to mainstream filmgoers; however, there is at least one familiar face in the cast, and that is the remarkable Forney-based actress Darlene Cates.

Cates first came to prominence as the indomitable Bonnie “Mama” Grape in director Lasse Hallstrom’s Texas-made What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, a whopping 21 years ago. Released without a whole lot of fanfare—outside of Texas, that is–back in the day, Hallstrom’s film didn’t exactly set box office records, but it was well reviewed and helped young Leonardo DiCaprio score an Oscar nod in his breakthrough as the Grape family’s mentally challenged sibling, Arnie. In a stellar cast that included Johnny Depp, long before his run as a box-office titan, (former) Oscar winner Mary Steenburgen, one-time Oscar nominee Juliet Lewis, as well as the likes of Crispin Glover and (future Oscar nominee) John C. Reilly [4], one Darlene Cates, an untested actress from Forney TX caught critics and moviegoers’ attention with a performance packed with raw emotion, holding nothing back either in the scenes requiring her to assert her incredible will against the town’s authorities, or the tender moments with her family in all its bewildering dysfunction.  Such was the magnitude of Cates’ s performance that Paramount Pictures (the releasing studio) actually campaigned for her as a Best Supporting Actress possibility though, alas, the nomination never materialized.

Dreamworks-The-100-Foot-Journey

Just as Darlene Cates is onscreen once again, her Gilbert Grape director Lasse Hallstrom is also delighting audiences with The Hundred-Foot Journey, a joint venture from media titans Steven Spielberg (Dreamworks) and Oprah Winfrey (Harpo). Hallstrom is no stranger to whetting moviegoers’ appetites, per 2000’s Oscar nomiated Chocolat. His newest makes effective use of the great–and Oscar winning–Helen Mirren (left and bottom right) who hits all the right notes, and then some, as a humorless restauranteur. This role needs all the spark it can get, and Mirren delivers; however, for me, the real star of the show is the amazing, American born actor Manish Dayal (left and lower right w/Mirren) who shines as an eager chef who wants to bridge French-Indian cultural gaps with fine cuisine. I enjoyed the movie  immensely and like to think of it as a food fetishist’s travelogue with a shout-out to Romeo and Juliet, delivered with all the subtlety of French perfume commercial. Yep, that about covers it. Strong but definitely satisfying. The movie also features the lovely Charlotte Le Bon (far left and upper right).

Since then, Cates has worked selectively as her health permits though she receives plenty of offers. I personally found her 1994 performance as a woman accused of murdering her husband in David Kelly’s idiosyncratic, Emmy winning Picket Fences even more powerful than her Grape turn. Her other credits include Touched by an Angel and the cultish Wolf Girl, also known as Blood Moon. A nifty trick that one, what with location footage in Romania and selected interiors–including those featuring Cates–shot at Las Colinas in Irving. What I like most about Cates as a performer is her ability to do more with less. Her acting isn’t fussy or mannered, but it’s real, and it’s real because she hones in on the emotional truth of a scene and nails it in ways both little and big. Beautiful. Again, she’s very good at registering a lot even when she’s perfectly still.

The role in Mother was written with Cates in mind, but director Quitt had his work cut out for him to make it happen, tracking her down through a network of sources only after auditioning a handful of actresses in his home base of New York.  His experience mirrors that of Lasse Hallstrom who reportedly had a small handful of high profile actresses practically throwing themselves at him when he was casting Gilbert Grape. Hallstrom didn’t find what he was looking for until Cates’ screen test, a serendipitous turn of events that began when TV talk show host Sally Jesse Raphael interviewed Cates (then unknown) about her struggle with weight.

A few years ago, Cates’s health took a dramatic turn, but as seen in Mother, she has rebounded nicely as she fearlessly inhabits the dark interiors of a woman who can barely look her own daughter in the eye. That daughter, by the way, is played by Kaylyn Scardefield in a beautiful performance of surprising economy. Another standout is young Alexander Rolinski, startlingly good as the young boy whose frustration about his seemingly irresponsible dad turns to something more akin to understanding and forgiveness during their time together. The dad is effectively played by Ryan Jonze whose credits include the likes of 30 Rock, Ugly Betty, Kings, and Sordid Things. Director Quitt makes a cameo, and DeAnna Dugan briefly appears in a key supporting role.

Props to Quitt for such a splendid debut effort, one with not only well acted moments of emotional honesty, but scene after scene of beautifully composed shots, showing a lot of maturity and resourcefulness given the constraints of indie filmmaking. Texturally, this film reminds me somewhat of Zach Braf’s splendid directorial debut, Garden State (2004) Of course, Quitt is aided in all of this by co-story developer Natalie Johnson, cinematographer Saro Varjabedian (w/assistance from Lee Peterkin), and editor Filip K. Kasperaszek. This is another instance of a work seamlessly combining footage shot in the New York/New Jersey area along with scenes filmed in Addison and Forney. Amazing.  Even more amazing, apparently,  is the road trip the crew took in a 15 passenger van from New York to Texas to work with Cates. Now, that’s true indie filmmaking.

Currently, a DVD, including a behind-the-scenes documentary, is in the works and will hopefully be available for distribution soon. In the meantime, Quitt has begun the arduous task of submitting his property for consideration in such film festivals as Sundance and South by Southwest.  I can’t imagine that he won’t succeed because his movie, at only 30 minutes, seems incredibly realized, that is, finished, polished; however, the business of film festivals is, well, a business, and it’s all so very competitive, but the rewards can be oh-so-sweet for those who believe in miracles.

*Funny story about how I arrived at this title.  As I was writing this piece, I was also watching an episode of Shark Tank featuring a delightful (and quite successful) 12 year old entrepreneur who boasted to the judges that he was the NBT, the next big thing. I thought it was funny and liked the idea of contrasting “big” and “short,” as in short film, certainly a better option than making a pun of the word ‘mother’ as in “Thank You Franz, May I Have a Mother,” right? 

Soliel Film presents Franz Maria Quitt’s Mother (2014): http://www.mothershortfilm.com/

Hollywood Reporter: “Box Office Crash: What Caused Hollywood’s Miserable Summer” by Pamela McClintock (Sept. 1, 2014)  –  http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/box-office-crash-what-caused-728367

CNN Money: “Summer bummer: Hollywood suffer big slump” by Jesse Solomon (August 1 2014) – http://money.cnn.com/2014/08/01/investing/summer-box-office-slump/

[4] Here we go: Steenburgen won Best Supporting Actress for 1980’s Melvin and Howard; Juliette Lewis was a supporting nominee for 1991’s Cape Fear; John C. Reilly had a breakthrough year in 2002, landing roles in three Best Picture nominees–Gangs of New York, The Hours, and Chicago, for which he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor.

Alas, Robin Williams: What Dreams…

12 Aug
moscow-on-the-hudson-williams-325

My favorite Williams’ performance is in 1984’s Moscow on the Hudson, the late director Paul Mazursky’s slice of life about a Russian circus musician who decides in the midst of New York’s landmark Bloomngdale’s department store to defect to the U.S. . The performance was, for Williams, relatively restrained, showing a lot of heart and sustaining a plausible Russian accent. He earned a Golden Globe nod, but it wasn’t the right vehicle to catch the Academy’s attention, not in an extremely competitive year that included such also-rans as Victor Banerjee (A Passage in India), Harry Dean Stanton (Paris, Texas), Robert Redford (The Natural), and Steve Martin (All of Me).

Oh dear. Robin Williams has died at the age of 63, an “apparent suicide.”  I don’t think it’s an understatement to say that Williams’ talent and his impact on pop-culture are almost too big to be addressed in a mere blog piece. Funny, for all we know about Williams there is still much more that we don’t know, his incredibly manic and giving public persona serving as defense to mask or keep at bay a tumble of secrets and insecurities. Yes, we know that he dealt with addiction, but the full-scope of what troubled him remains much a mystery.

What we know is that he was born into an affluent family–mom a former model, dad a high ranking Ford executive–educated at Julliard (where he roomed with Christopher Reeve), made his first major public splash as the alien Mork from Ork in the smash 1978 sitcom Mork and Mindy, becoming a household name in the process.  From there, he transitioned to big screen stardom in 1980 with Robert Altman’s live action, quasi-musical version of the old Popeye cartoon. He quickly followed with the big screen adaptation of John Irving’s The World According to Garp though he did not garner attention equal to that of his Oscar nominated co-stars, Glenn Close and John Lithgow. His big screen career was filled with amazing highs, including such monster box office hits as Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), Aladdin (1992), Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), and Patch Adams (1998), along with a host of accolades among them: four Oscar nominations, three for Best Actor and, finally, a win in the Best Supporting Actor category for 1997’s Good Will Hunting.

Williams also deserves to be remembered for his humanitarian efforts, which included co-hosting, with Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldeberg,  a series of Comic Relief USA fundraisers to help alleviate the struggles of the homeless.

His Best Actor Oscar nominations are as follows:
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^ 1. Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)

DEAD-POETS-SOCIETY

^ 2. Dead Poets Society (1989)

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L- R: Williams, Mercedes Ruehl (Best Supporting Actress winner), Jeff Bridges, and Amanda Plummer

^ 3. The Fisher King (1991)

Good Will

^ Finally,  Williams’s Oscar victory came with his supporting turn as a therapist opposite Matt Damon (r) in Good Will Hunting (1997)

 

I will be updating this piece throughout the day as time permits.

On Golden Fonda

1 Aug

listen2uraunt:

Turner Classic Movies is running Jane Fonda movies all day (Friday, August 1) as a prelude to a repeat of the summer’s earlier AFI tribute to the two-time Academy award winning actress, producer, activist, and feminist icon. As such, I feel the need to repost this piece as well. Enjoy!

Originally posted on Confessions of a Movie Queen:

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…

View original 4,924 more words

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.

Eli-Wallach-Anne-J300x300

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

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