On Letting Mothers be Mothers

2 May

Well, Mother’s Day will be a little different, a little sadder, this year.  No IHOP. No Hallmark. No mother. Not my own, anyway, though I still play Mother Hen when I get the chance.

I think a good friend and I will duck into the nearest multiplex one of these days to catch Mother’s Day, the latest holiday-themed ensemble piece from director Garry Marshall (New Year’s Day and Valentine’s Day). Of the star-studded cast, I am most intrigued by Julia Roberts, seemingly having a grand time time channeling matronly HSN realness.

Of course, even before Marshall and his latest cinematic bouquet, Hollywood long loved paying tribute to the women with whom, for better or worse, most of us will form the most complex, yet loving, relationship(s) of our lives.  Fans of classic cinema no doubt have a favorite movie mama, everything from Barbara Stanwyck’s noble Stella Dallas (an Oscar nominee from 1937) and Joan Crawford’s indelible Mildred Pierce (a 1945 Oscar winner) to the likes of the most recent Best Actress Oscar winner, Brie Larson in Room. The decades in between are packed with the likes of Jane Darwell’s formidable Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath (1940’s Best Supporting Actress honoree), Juanita Moore and Lana Turner–but mostly Best Supporting Actress nominee Juanita Moore–in 1959’s platinum-hearted Imitation of Life, Rosalind Russell as the stage mother of all stage mothers in Gypsy (1962), Mary Tyler Moore, the epitome of impeccably tailored WASPish reserve in Ordinary People (another Oscar contender, 1980),  Shirley MacLaine pulling no punches as headstrong Aurora Greenway in Terms of Endearment (Best Actress, 1983), Sally Field fully immersing herself in the thickness  of the mother-daughter conflict at the heart of the otherwise sassy Steel Magnolias (1989), and local fave Darlene Cates as the indomitable “Mama” Grape (Bonnie, that is) in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993). Of course, I could go on and on and on….

You probably have your favorite–or favorites.

On the flip-side, Hollywood often serves less flattering portrayals of motherhood, such as Mrs. Bates (Psycho, 1960), Harold & Maude‘s snooty socialite (the sublime Vivien Pickles, circa 1971),  Margaret White (Oscar nominee Piper Laurie in 1976’s Carrie), Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest (1981), and Oscar nominee Anne Ramsey as the cantankerous “Momma” in Throw Momma from the Train (1987), among others.

On this Mother’s Day, however, I want to recognize two of my favorite portrayals of motherhood from the past few years though “few” is a relative term since one of them is actually a decade old as of this writing. Nonetheless,….

Meet Little Miss Sunshine‘s Sheryl Hoover (from 2006), the woman who tries valiantly to play peacemaker to one and all: husband, daughter, son, father-in-law, brother and even–the unseen–sister. As played by ever-versatile Toni Collette, Sheryl is hardly an ordinary woman caught up in extraordinary circumstances. Instead, she’s more like a resoundingly ordinary woman coping as best she can on life’s merry roller-coaster. Look at her. She dresses nicely, not overly-styled or beyond  her means. Not cheap but definitely budget-conscious. In the first scene, we see that she wears a slim skirt topped by a non-descript shell. She certainly looks professional and well-groomed, nothing fancy but also, blessedly, nothing that reads as a caricature of what it means to be working class. I don’t think we ever learn where she works, exactly, but it appears she’s required to wear a name tag. My guess is bank teller, possibly real-estate agent, maybe retail, somewhere on the order of Macy’s or Kohl’s. My point is that a lot of times Hollywood gets it wrong, and many female characters are outfitted in clothes that seemingly have more to do with a given actress’s taste than what seems appropriate for the character, or the costumers, again, strain to evoke dowdiness or financial hardship. Not in this case. Kudos to costumer Nancy Steiner.

Sheryl Hoover tries to take care of her family, but she’s a little frazzled–and you would be also if you’d had the kind of day she’d had just as the movie opens. Her brother, a widely respected scholar, has tried to commit suicide, and Sheryl is tasked with bringing him home to temporarily share quarters with her spouse and children for safety concerns. This means that she has to walk a precarious line with her husband, a good looking but slightly clueless aspiring motivational speaker. Richard Hoover is a big dreamer, and he means well,  but he’s also a bit of a prig, and his goal of being the next Tony Robbins or Dr. Phil is a risky endeavor that keeps Sheryl on her toes as she is the sole breadwinner for the time being. She tries to fight back desperation, but her will is tested any time money enters the conversation. For now, the Hoovers live comfortably, but the meter is running. Her household challenges also include a  dark-haired teenage son who worships at the altar of Nietzsche and has taken a vow of silence until he is admitted into pilots school; a father-in-law with a randy mind, a filthy mouth, a drug problem, and nothing but love for his granddaughter; finally, Olive, the title character, a sweet-faced girl and kiddie pageant hopeful without a mean, or untrusting, bone in her body. Sheryl wants Olive’s pageant dreams to come true, but she’s hardly a micro-managing pageant mom. She just wants to do the best she can by Olive even if that means figuring it out along the way.

Like many moms on the go, Sheryl Hoover can barely catch a break. She, like many of us at one time or another, I’m sure, doesn’t necessarily smoke, but she likes to keep a pack handy for especially stressful times, something which her husband understands but does not approve. There she is, cruising along, trying to beat rush hour traffic after a day at work, but she needs to make that detour, the mission of mercy for the sake of her brother. Frantic, she puffs a cig  while trying to carry on a conversation with her husband–and I’m pretty sure she knows she shouldn’t be talking on the phone while driving–but her husband’s wise to her, so she covers as best she can. See? We’ve all been there. I’m not saying what she does is right, but it’s relatable.

Furthermore, like many harried moms in the 21st century, Sheryl Hoover frequently brings home dinner in a takeout bag. Her default choice is a bucket of fried chicken. And, once again, why not? After all, she’s only barely getting used to her eccentric–to put it mildly–father-in-law; now, she has another mouth to feed thanks to her brother’s devastation. You’d probably want to snag a bucket of chicken also. Still, Sheryl pushes on, throwing together a salad and encouraging everyone to have a least a bite or two of the green mix. She knows the pre-fab mashed potatoes in the family combo-pak do not constitute a real vegetable. And aren’t her mismatched drinking glasses, leftover from jelly jars and other assorted freebies (or special offers), a familiar sight? We had more than our share of those glasses when I was a kiddo. Home sweet home. Oh, and ever the gracious hostess, she serves dessert even if that means popsicles.

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Toni Collette’s remarkable career includes everything from award winning work in her native Australia to prestige entries in England and in the U.S. She boasts 11 Australian Film Institute nominations, with six wins, most notably for Muriel’s Wedding (1994) and Japanese Story (2003). Interestingly, she was even nominated for Little Miss Sunshine in her home country. In America, her award clout extends to an Oscar nomination for playing Haley Joel Osment’s weary mother in The Sixth Sense (1999) and an Emmy, among three nominations, for The United States of Tara. Her BAFTA, or British Academy, nods include Little Miss Sunshine and 2002’s About a Boy. Clearly, her work in The Sixth Sense, About a Boy, and Little Miss Sunshine  (even 2013’s Sunshine-esque The Way, Way Back) qualifies her as a movie motherhood all-star.

What I love most about Sheryl Hoover is her dedication to her children. I think she wages constant doubts about her ability to be an effective parent. We can see this when she weighs the cost of how much her brother should share about his recent suicide attempt when asked about it by his niece at the diner table. Of course, Sheryl understands that her brother’s tale is not an easy one for a small child to grasp–it involves a same sex lover–but Sheryl believes, much to her husband’s protestations, that there is no substitute for the truth, and she’s right. Sheryl also knows her daughter, a wee-bit on the chubby side, should enjoy being a kid even if that means splurging on fats and calories with a hearty helping of waffles a la mode for breakfast. No fat shaming or body image issues for her little girl for the sake of a crown, however valued. No ma’am. Besides her daughter, Sheryl supports her son (from a previous marriage) and his military aspirations even though she’s perplexed, maybe even fearful. Maybe she doesn’t try to dissuade him because she’s holding out for the possibility that he’ll change his mind as long as she doesn’t force the issue. Smart for her.

I love Sheryl the most when she rails against the naysayers who want to discourage Olive from competing in the pageant, especially since those naysayers are not more seasoned pageant veterans but members of her own family. Guileless Olive is a charmer, and she might win a pageant one day, but it’s obvious that she’s simply not as polished as her fellow contestants, but that’s okay with Sheryl because she’s not afraid of Olive failing or embarrassing herself (or her family). What Sheryl, this great compassionate mom, sees is that Olive has worked hard to be as prepared as possible AND enjoys what she’s doing. Winning is not as important to Sheryl as it is to others. She wants Olive to be a regular kid and have fun. “We have to let Olive be Olive,” Sheryl exclaims, and that is the moment I most cherish in this whole funny flick. I just wish more parents saw the world and their children as simply and as lovingly as Sheryl.

Little Miss Sunshine scored an impressive number of Oscar nominations back in the 2006/2007 Oscar race, Best Picture among them. The kitty also included trophies for Alan Arkin (Best Supporting Actor) as the loose-cannon grandpa and Best Original Screenplay for Michael Arndt’s miracle of a script; a miracle in that it looks so easy even though it breaks many of the standard rules for scriptwriting. Additionally, Little Abigail Breslin earned a Best Supporting Actress nomination, but she was up against powerhouse Jennifer Hudson in Dreamgirls, so the nomination had to suffice.

Actually, I think the whole cast was Oscar worthy, including Greg Kinnear as Richard and Steven Carrell as Sheryl’s brother. That noted, Toni Collette is the force that holds the movie together for this viewer. Abigail Breslin’s pageant girl might very well be the story’s catalyst, but Sheryl is the anchor, the protector. I could have easily supported a Best Actress nod for her in a year dominated by Helen Mirren’s exacting performance as Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen. Mirren was unstoppable, for reasons I never understood, other than members of the press as well as the Academy determined that after decades of superb work she had topped herself with a super-size big screen role and was overdue. To be clear, I never hated Mirren or her movie, but, as distinguished as it was,  the performance never struck me as a singular achievement. Mirren’s only competition that year seemed to be Meryl Streep, practically reinventing herself as a legendarily demanding fashion magazine editor in The Devil Wears Prada. At the time, Streep was my personal fave among the favored five though with the passing of the many years since, I appreciate more and more the dark genius of Judi Dench as a miserable school marm in Notes on a Scandal. Now, there’s a performance that rocks for the ages. By the way, Kate Winslet (Little Children) and Penelope Cruz (Volver) rounded out the final ballot.

Among the 2006 also-rans were Annette Benning (in the otherwise problematic Running with Scissors) Beyonce (better than her detractors might allow in Dreamgirls), and, as noted, Collette. My guess is that the role of Sheryl Hoover is simply not flashy enough to dazzle Academy voters. Again, in many ways, Sheryl is resoundingly ordinary–the charm of which likely escaped jaded Hollywood viewers–and what Collette does best is react to the much of the antics surrounding her. Every actor learns early on that all acting is reacting–this is essential to the craft–but for some reason, the Academy almost always favors acting that looks like acting. As Sheryl, Collette has her moments, but the role isn’t about those moments. You know, martyrdom, harrowing ordeals, long-winded impassioned speeches, tearful soliloquies, or fits of rage and righteous indignation. What we get instead is a woman  for whom body language says a lot and whose big blue eyes seemingly take-in everything. Study her face in closeups.

Collette aims to find truth in the heart of a basically good yet flawed woman doing the best she can as wife, daughter-in-law, and, yes, mother. I recently found a great quote from Little Miss Sunshine co-director Valerie Farris on LondonNet: “Toni is an amazing actress who plays the strongest character in the film. You identify with her,” says co-director, Valerie Faris. “She is smart and capable and makes good choices. She supports everybody in the family for who they are. Toni really understands this character. She has a big heart and she is a very open person and in the film, that comes across.” Well stated, Ms. Faris. Thank you.

My number two pick for a great cinematic modern American mother is Patricia Clarkson as Rosemary Penderghast, mother of–coincidentally–Olive Penderghast, played by Emma Stone, in Easy A, 2010’s high school update on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Truthfully, I think Clarkson and Stanley Tucci, as Clarkson’s hubby/Olive’s dad, both deserve great big heaping piles of accolades for playing the freshest, smartest pair of parents in almost any teen movie of the last decade or more; however, this day is about Mom.

After racking up more than 20 years in film exhibition, I well understand that makers of teen comedies understand exactly which audience they hope to reach with their products. At the same time, audiences, even teen audiences, likely benefit from being challenged rather than pandered (to). For example, in many teen comedies parents just come across as (pick one): dolts, stiffs, morons, absentee, self-absorbed twits, etc. Look no further, for instance, to Amy Poehler’s bimborella in the otherwise smart, Tine Fey penned, Mean Girls. Sure, Poehler is funny, but her character, straining to be hip and with-it, is pathetic. On the other hand, Clarkson in Easy A is refreshingly cool. She doesn’t try too hard to be her daughter’s bff because she already is her daughter’s friend on top of being a concerned, pro-active parent. Yes, she really likes her child and enjoys spending time with her even if that means hanging out in the kitchen, preparing dinner–and it’s not just the two girls; dad and little brother are right there, the way we like to think families should be during meal time. (Of course, one can argue that the family’s affluence–living comfortably in beautiful, tony Ojai, California–plays a HUGE role in their ability to spend so much time together compared to, say, traditionally working class or single parent households. Duly noted.)

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Some of the most refreshing moments in Easy A feature Olive Penderghast ( Emma Stone on the left) and her sweet-n-sassy mom Rosemary (Patricia Clarkson to the right). Ironically, and in spite of multiple performances as movie moms, including an Oscar nominated supporting turn in 2003’s Pieces of April, Clarkson is not a mom in real-life , nor has she ever been married. In 2010, she was surely a long-shot for another Best Supporting Actress nod for her fine work in Easy A. Competition was stiff, and Easy A, in spite of healthy box office and enthusiastic reviews, just didn’t register as a significant achievement. Too bad because to this viewer, this is exactly the kind of crackerjack portrayal that seems truly supporting and, likewise, tailor-made for supporting character awards consideration. For years, Clarkson, the dusky-voiced New Orleans native, has worked tirelessly to launch a film project in which she would star as Tallulah Bankhead,  the colorful Golden Age stage and screen actress with even more pronounced Southern roots, hailing from a prominent, politically well-heeled family in Alabama. Kathleen Turner and Valerie Harper have portrayed Bankhead onstage, but Clarkson seems born for the job.

What I also like about Rosemary Penderghast is that she knows how to communicate with her daughter in a way that seems just about on-target even in awkward situations. In other words, Rosemary understands that her child isn’t perfect and needs a little guidance, but she doesn’t want to intrude–too much–but she also needs to exert parental stewardship. That is, after all, her responsibility, so Rosemary learns to deflect some of these conversations with a dose of humor, and I applaud her for that. Rosemary also doesn’t mind tossing out, almost as casual asides, some of her own juvenile escapades. Of course, Olive is a wee bit embarrassed, and that’s okay because she now knows her mother won’t judge her–too much–for the mess she has created for herself by pretending to be, you know, “easy.” This is smart parenting.

The beauty of Clarkson’s performance is that she never goes too far. She doesn’t sacrifice the heart of the character for the sake of a laugh or vice versa. Once again, think back to Ana Gasteyer’s globe trotting zoologist mom in Mean Girls. While she’s definitely more grounded than Poehler’s character, she’s almost equally clueless about her daughter even though she appears to be cut from the same touchy-feeling peacenik cloth as Clarkson’s Rosemary. And, again, I actually enjoy Gasteyer. My point is  to show how Clarkson as Rosemary rises above the rest of the fray by playing a funny character that also represents positive parenting. What’s so bad about that? After all, we have to let mothers be mothers.

Thanks for your consideration…



Night and Day: On Patty’s Passing

10 Apr


This photo from the set of Me, Natalie (1969)appears in Patty Duke's 1987. autobiography Call Me Anna. She writes that she had attempted suicide a day earlier. She eventually landed a Golden Globe nomination for her work in the film.

This photo from the set of Me, Natalie (1969) appears in Patty Duke’s 1987. autobiography Call Me Anna. She writes that she had attempted suicide a day earlier. What a sad thing. She eventually landed a Golden Globe nomination for her work in the film. This image is the one that most shows me who Patty Duke is and how she saw herself (at least at the time).

We repeat truisms for a reason. We believe them to be true. Of course. Context is everything. Perspective is everything. Perspective changes everything. Time changes our perception. See? Certainly, I have had reasons to consider some of the above in the days since the passing of Oscar and Emmy winner Patty Duke.

As a child, I loved Patty Duke! I got such a kick out of her wacky sitcom. How special was that? All of sixteen and she had her own show.  I wanted my own show, and I wanted to play twins–twin cousins, that is.  Just like Patty Duke. There she was with her fabulous flip (kinda-sorta) as (insert–kooky, spunky or perky–here) teen Patty Lane, and there she was–again–as demure Cathy, no flip but more elegant, refined tastes, especially in clothes, not to mention ballet and crepes suzette. Plus, Cathy had that super-cool British accent. Sure, technically, she was supposed to be from Scotland, but try telling that to a three, four, or five year old, especially once Beatlemania and the British Invasion set-in.  Who could believe that one actress, a teenager, no less, was capable of such extraordinary gifts? And that was before I knew smack about The Miracle Worker or something called Academy Awards.

^ Probably one of the first songs to which I learned all the words. Incredibly, Duke and many of the original cast members re-reteamed for a 1999 TV reunion movie. 

Of course, I was too, too young to understand the implausibility of the premise. I just assumed Patty and Cathy were twin sisters. No, I was reminded by my pre-teen sister, they were cousins. Okay, that works. Doesn’t it? I wonder how the creator–that would be heavyweight Sidney Sheldon–ever successfully pitched the idea. Oh sure, I understand, now, there was some tom-foolery about the girls’ dads (trusty William Schallert–still living btw, at 93) were also twins, and I guess even a 6 or 7, maybe 8, year old might buy that one for a minute or two.

By most accounts, including the IMDb, this adorable lass, Rita McClaughlin (now Rita Walter) served as Duke's body double on The Patty Duke show. Whereas the show frequently made use of state-of-the-art split screen technology in order to show Duke's face as much as possible, trickier, less static shots, often required the use of a double (always photographed from the back). Enter McClaughlin. If her name sounds familiar, then you might remember her fondly, as I do, from her role as Carol on As the World Turns in the 1970s and 80s.

By most accounts, including the IMDb, this adorable lass, Rita McClaughlin (now Rita Walter), served as Duke’s body double on The Patty Duke Show. Whereas the show frequently made use of state-of-the-art split screen technology in order to spotlight the star as much as possible, trickier, less static shots, often required the use of a double (always photographed from the back). Enter McClaughlin. If her name sounds familiar, then you might remember her fondly, as I do, from her role as Carol on As the World Turns in the 1970s and 80s. (IMAGE: Monster Kid Classic Horror Forum)

Patty Duke’s show was cancelled after a three season run for a total of 103 episodes, per the IMDb. I also didn’t understand, then, why great shows, shows like Patty Duke’s, were cancelled. Did I even know the meaning of the word “cancelled”?  How thrilled I was, a few years later, when over the course of a summer my sister and I were laid up, recovering from tonsillectomies (yes, at the same time),  and we found reruns of The Patty Duke Show on one of the UHF channels. Remember UHF? What a summer! Patty Duke and all the ice-cream I could eat. Well, the promise of ice cream was how they, the adults, tricked us into being compliant with the whole tonsillectomy thing.  That part was a bit of an exaggeration as eating anything required too much effort, but Patty Duke, playing twin cousins, was back on TV; that much was true, and it helped.

A few years later, after yet another divorce in the family, my mother relaxed strict rules  about “bedtime” and allowed my sister and me to stay up and watch Valley of the Dolls on the late show. You know Valley of the Dolls, don’t you? Based on Jacqueline Susann’s provocative best seller (long held as the best selling novel of all time, per the Guinness Book of World Records), the movie served a heady mix of glamour and allegedly savage, “hard-hitting” drama as three career girls soar to rapturous show-biz highs, full of lucky breaks, fancy clothes (by Travilla), outrageous hairdos, nightclubs, premieres, awards, montages, montages, montages, and, of course, romance (laced, as it were, with hints of nudity), only to descend to the titular valley as a result of madness and misfortune brought on by pills (dolls), booze, and catfights. My mother carefully prompted my sister and me to the real-life parallels, such that Patty Duke’s Neely O’Hara was based, at least in part, on Judy Garland, legendary–and quite troubled–dynamo of screen, TV, and music (both live and recorded). Her battles with  addiction, dating all the way back to  her years as a child star at MGM, were hardly secret.

At any rate, I could not believe what I was seeing and hearing. Looky there at Patty Duke, no longer a teen comedy queen, but a legitimate dramatic actress at all of 20-21.  Her incredible range staggered my 11 or 12 year old imagination. She transformed from poor, put upon, sweet yet scrappy Neely, so egregiously mistreated by that bully Helen Lawson (a caricature of brassy Broadway diva Ethel Merman, played divinely by Susan Hayward) to a pathetic, manipulative mess. A monster who shrieked, growled, and suffered sloppy yet frightfully realistic nervous breakdowns. And catfights. What an actress! Patty Duke could seemingly do anything, and I was horrified–horrified–to think that she had not won yet another Oscar–by then, I was into the game–for such an earth-shatteringly brilliant performance. Did I mention, by the way, that I was 11, 12, maybe 13, at the time?

I watched Valley of the Dolls as often as I could, and I stayed up wee into the night, vampire style, reading my mother’s hardback edition. One day, the movie lost its magic for me, and I didn’t watch it for several years.  I’d moved on to other things, like Jane Fonda movies: Julia (1977), Coming Home (1978), and The China Syndrome (1979). I immersed myself in movie culture and expanded my knowledge; consequently, my tastes changed.

Then, came cable TV and videocassettes, and I returned to the Valley of the Dolls. (Sounds like a sequel, doesn’t it?) As an adult, even a young adult, however, I recognized the film as something entirely different from my easily swayed, romanticized childhood POV. Oh sure, parts of the movie look great, and Barbara Parkins (as Anne, Susann’s idealized version of herself) and the late Sharon Tate are fine, the latter portraying a doomed showgirl turned international sex symbol (rumoured to be a composite based on Marilyn Monroe and Carole Landis.) Alas, Ms. Duke does not fare as well. What once seemed earth shatteringly bold and brilliant suddenly read as baffling. Duke hams it up, thick and juicy style, straining–it seems–to shatter her “All American Girl” effect, making herself look silly, clueless, and over made-up, in the process. Of course, she isn’t helped by a script lacking in subtlety.  Everything that happens to these girls arrives at breakneck pace, and Duke’s Neely is no exception.

Though slammed by many critics, 1967's Valley of the Dolls lured scads of moviegoers into theaters with the promise of sexy babes and Hollywood dirt. In an appropriately twisted turn of events, Duke played a role at least partially based on mercurial entertainer Judy Garland while the latter was actually originally cast as a bad-ass Broadway bitch inspired by Ethel Merman, but Garland, overwhelmed, left the project and was replaced by dynamo Susan Hayward.

Though slammed by many critics, 1967’s Valley of the Dolls lured scads of moviegoers into theaters with the promise of sexy babes and Hollywood dirt, no, filth. In an appropriately twisted turn of events, Duke (above) played a role at least partially based on mercurial entertainer Judy Garland while the latter was actually originally cast as a bad-ass Broadway bitch inspired by Ethel Merman, but Garland, overwhelmed, left the project and was replaced by dynamo Susan Hayward who does not disappoint. (IMAGE: Pinterest)

With Neely, extreme swings are the norm, but Duke doesn’t modulate her performance accordingly, especially in the film’s latter half,  where it might make sense to pull back just a bit since the story is already over-the-top.  Instead, she barks her lines (most of them howlers), like a petulant 8 year old, and rips right through anything standing in her way, kind of like the old Tasmanian Devil. For her part, the actress always blamed director Mark Robson. Duke’s complaint has long been that Robson felt he needed to extract the actresses’ performances through any means necessary, including humiliation and indifference. Duke’s response was that as an actress she could and should be addressed as a working professional, not as a piece of scenery. To a degree, she might be correct in that Parkins corroborates Duke’s frustration on the DVD, claiming that Robson always seemed more interested in effects, the way staging would read on camera, than he was in working with the actresses to help develop their characters. Per Parkins, it was more about being told to turn to the camera after so many beats, or to make sure hands were in the shot performing a particular bit of business, such as holding a bottle of pills at a certain angle, but never explaining how to connect the dots. Also, both Duke (in her autobiography) and Parkins chide Robson for less than supportive treatment of lovely Sharon Tate, whom Parkins assails as not having a mean bone in her entire body. Alas.

For all of Valley of the Dolls‘ miscues, it survives, at least as classic camp, propelled as it is by 1960s glossiness and a compulsively watchable cat-fight between Duke and Susan Hayward that sets the bar–a very low bar–for such tomfoolery though the dialogue, ham-fisted as it is, crackles.  Even so, Duke’s final meltdown in a deserted alley still gives me shivers, probably the most authentic moment in her entire tortured performance. Whereas her intensity in other scenes seems ripe for mockery, I just can’t shake Neely’s seething desperation in that moment, and I wonder where Duke, as an actress, had to go in order to make it happen. Certainly, those who long to imitate it never quite get there, and the joke is on them.

Of course, speaking of matchless performances, nothing matches Patty Duke in her most famous, no, iconic, role: young Helen Keller in  1962’s The Miracle Worker. Duke first played Keller in the original Broadway production, beginning just shy of her 13th birthday; the show closed almost two years later, a healthy run for a so-called “straight” play, but the show’s legacy is even greater than that, and I’m not even including the famed movie version though maybe I should. Allow me.

In my last piece, I wrote about how Broadway vets, such as Carol Channing and Julie Andrews, are sometimes denied the opportunity to repeat their successes in big screen adaptations, but, luckily, that was not the case with Patty Duke and Anne Bancroft, in the role of Annie Sullivan, the fiercely committed teacher, the miracle worker of the title, trying with all her might to make a connection with her charge, a scared, bratty, over indulged deaf and blind girl, who, of course, would grow up to be a world class scholar and activist. But I digress. At any rate, thank goodness the gods of Hollywood casting decided to take a chance and allow Bancroft and Duke to recreate their stage roles for the movies even though there was a very real concern that by 1962, Duke had grown too tall to be convincing as a child. Fortunately, Ms. Duke was still small for her age, and the director and camera operator worked out staging and angles to manage the rest as best possible.

For all their success with both stage and screen versions of The Miracle Worker, Anne Bancroft (l) and Patty Duke (r), were not the first performers to play the roles of Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller, respectively, as Keller's story had previously aired as part of TV's Playhouse 90 with Oscar winner Teresa Wright as Sullivan and Patty McCormack as Keller.

For all their success with both stage and screen versions of The Miracle Worker, Anne Bancroft (l) and Patty Duke (r), were not the first performers to play the roles of Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller, respectively, as Keller’s story had previously aired as part of TV’s Playhouse 90 with Oscar winner Teresa Wright as Sullivan and Patty McCormack as Keller. (McCormack, of course, was already famous for her eerie, and Oscar nominated, performance as creepy Rhoda in The Bad Seed.

What a blessed achievement. What fascinates me the most about the film version of The Miracle Worker is how Bancroft and Duke work together so seamlessly. I’ve often remarked that they’re actually giving one performance, not two. That’s the pronounced degree of their connection. I would almost call it magical, but I think that demeans the achievement, the dedication and skill they bring to the piece. Their big dining room confrontation, choreographed to the nth degree as Duke describes in her book, is acting at its finest simply because it doesn’t look like acting. It looks like two very strong opponents unfolding in an unconventional, even banal, arena, getting to know  in  such an unorthodox way each other’s personalities, strengths, and weaknesses, through emotion and movement and with nary a word. I think it may very well be the most thrillingly acted scene in the history of American cinema.

When Patty Duke won Best Supporting Actress for 1962's The Miracle Worker at the age of 16, she became the youngest ever recipient of a competitive, rather than honorary, Academy Award. In so doing, she snatched victory from no less than Angela Lansbury, so memorable as the power hungry manipulator in The Manchurian Candidate. Duke also bested young Mary Badham, so memorable as "Scout" in To Kill a Mockingbird, as well as beloved vet Thelma Ritter in Birdman of Alcatraz (the last of her six nominations), and Shirley Knight in Sweet Bird of Youth.

When Patty Duke won Best Supporting Actress for 1962’s The Miracle Worker at the age of 16, she became the youngest ever recipient of a competitive, rather than honorary, Academy Award [1]. In so doing, she snatched victory from no less than Angela Lansbury, so memorable as the power-mad manipulator in The Manchurian Candidate. Duke also bested young Mary Badham, so memorable as “Scout” in To Kill a Mockingbird, as well as beloved vet Thelma Ritter in Birdman of Alcatraz (the last of her six nominations), and Shirley Knight in Sweet Bird of Youth. Estimable competition to be sure.

Of course, they both won Oscars, but that in itself is not what makes Duke and Bancroft in The Miracle Worker such a singular triumph. No, instead, consider this. Though long a favorite of high school drama departments, performed with varying degrees of success all across the nation (the clips are all over YouTube), with at least two TV remakes, the play has been revived only once on Broadway, and that revival came more than 50 years later and, alas, closed abruptly after a few dozen performances. Lesson learned. Duke and Bancroft own The Miracle Worker and likely always will.

For whatever reason, and there are likely several obvious ones, Duke’s movie career was otherwise spotty though, please note, that even before The Miracle Worker, she’d enjoyed some degree of success, playing the younger version of Kim Stanley’s character, a Marilyn Monroe-alike, in 1958’s The Goddess. For most of her career, Duke earned her living on the small screen. She never landed another series as successful as her early sitcom, but she earned a People’s Choice award for It Takes Two, a smart if short-lived series that ran on ABC from fall of 1982 through spring of 1983 for a total of 22 episodes. Co-starring Richard Crenna, the show was created by the same team that created Soap, Benson, and, eventually, The Golden Girls. (Per the IMDb, the kitchen set of It Takes Two was recycled for The Golden Girls.) Duke later reteamed with the same production company for Hail to the Chief, an even less successful sitcom about the first ever female President of the United States. Coincidentally, at about the same time Duke was playing president on TV, she held office as president of the Screen Actors Guild.

Duke’s biggest mark was in guest roles, TV movies, and mini-series. In If Tomorrow Comes, she played a young bride, married to a Japanese-American, in the days leading up to the Pearl Harbor attack. It was this 1971 offering, btw, that actually served as my introduction to the disgrace of America’s own internment camps. (Curious, isn’t it, how I’d already had some knowledge of the Holocaust but nothing about our own camps.) A few years later, Duke stunned me yet again playing an informant, one with a lot of baggage, in an incredibly intense episode of Police Woman, of all things [2], an episode that featured her then husband John Astin as a sleazoid, a man who pissed off the wrong person and ended up with a face full of brass knuckles. As I recall, this was also my introduction to whole idea of something as disturbing as brass knuckles. In the early 1990s, my sister and  I bawled our eyes out, straining not to, as we watched a Christmas season weepie entitled Always Remember I Love You about a mother and child reunion that hurts so good it elicits smiles through tears. I watched it every year after that as long as it aired, most notably on Lifetime, and I even had a lousy videotaped version, but I lost it long ago, and I the show hasn’t been rerun in close to two decades.

Duke won her third Emmy for portraying no less than Annie Sullivan opposite Melissa Gilbert, flush with success from Little House on the Prairie, as Helen Keller. Once again, Duke will forever own The Miracle Worker.

Duke (l) won her third Emmy for portraying no less than Annie Sullivan opposite Melissa Gilbert (r), flush with success from Little House on the Prairie, as Helen Keller in a 1979 TV adaptation. Once again, Duke will forever own The Miracle Worker. After all, who remembers Melissa Gilbert as Keller? Or Hallie Eisenberg (from a Disney TV remake), or Abigail Breslin from a recent stage revival?  (IMAGE: Amazon)

In her storied career as a TV star, Duke amassed a total of 10 Primetime Emmy nominations. Per her bio, she at one time held the record as the most nominated actress in Emmy history. Her resume also boasts one Daytime Emmy nod as well. Those nominations  include everything from an early bid for her own sitcom as well as a turn as Martha Washington and a character reportedly based on Rose Kennedy in the mini-series version of Taylor Caldwell’s mammoth Captains and the Kings. She also scored a nod for a supporting role in the tele-adaptation of Marilyn French’s  feminist classic The Women’s Room. Ultimately, she claimed three statuettes for her TV portrayals, including one for My Sweet Charlie, a landmark TV film co-starring the great Al Freeman Jr.

Patty Duke’s life was full of turmoil, everything from a positively Dickensian childhood, in which her single mother essentially relinquished her to the care of abusive showbiz promoters–Patty Duke wasn’t even her real name–to disastrous high-profile affairs, four marriages, a notorious paternity scandal, and well-publicized bouts of bipolar disorder. Duke eventually made de-stigmatizing mental illness part of her personal platform and even drew attention to the issue by writing about it in her book, which was later adapted into a TV movie in which, yes, she played her adult self.

What a curious life. As a child, little Anna-Marie was subverted into the public persona known as Patty Duke. As a teen, she played twins. Early in her career, she won an Oscar for playing Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker while as an adult she won an Emmy for playing Annie Sullivan, Helen’s teacher, in a TV version of The Miracle Worker. She acted the role of a fictional U.S. President and served as president of her union. Later, she even played the grown version of herself, always acting. Always a wild duet. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Anna Marie Duke-Pearce is survived by her husband Michael Pearce, and sons Sean Astin, MacKenzie Astin (both actors), and Kevin Pearce.

Find out more about Patty Duke’s autobiography, Call Me Anna, at Amazon.


[1] By 1974, Tatum O’Neal broke Duke’s record, earning Best Supporting Actress (Paper Moon) at all of 10 years old. Of course, labelling either Duke or O’Neal as supporting is a bit of a stretch considering their screen time and importance to their respective films’ plots, but I digress. To clarify, when Anna Paquin won in the same category for 1993’s The Piano, she was 11.

[2] Citing Police Woman probably seems pretty indefensible now, but back in its time it was hailed as a breakthrough, first of all, for being spun-off from the highly acclaimed anthology series Police Story (from Joseph Wambuagh). Beyond that, star Angie Dickinson did something that Anne Francis (Honey West) and Teresa Graves (Get Christie Love!) had not, which was headline a successful TV crime series with a female lead, the other two lasting only a season, or less, each. That noted, for all of Dickinson’s star power, and whatever contributions Wambaugh might have made, Police Woman devolved from its early promise over the course of its four season run. The aforementioned episode with Duke aired during season 1.


Miscast Matchmaker Match Made in Hollywood Heaven

27 Mar


I conducted my own investigation even though I knew what I would find.

My beloved Ruth Gordon starred as Dolly Levi in the original Broadway run of Thorton Wilder’s The Matchmaker  just a year or so shy of her 50th birthday. Good for her. She even earned a Tony nomination. Better for her. (To clarify, The Matchmaker was Wilder’s update of one of his earlier works, The Merchant of Yonkers [1], but I digress.) Similarly, Shirley Booth, still reaping the benefits of her Oscar triumph in 1952’s Come Back Little Sheba, portrayed the same Dolly Levi in the 1958 film adaptation of Wilder’s hit play at about the same age as Gordon. Fiftyish. No worries. Then, in 1964, Carol Channing took on the Levi challenge in producer David Merrick’s colossal Broadway musical version, famously titled (or retitled) Hello, Dolly! (staged by the one and only Gower Champion).  Still in her early 40s at the time and with a few high profile shows to her credit, Channing hardly qualified as an ingenue, even compared to the seasoned likes of Gordon and Booth; moreover, Channing had clearly experienced enough life to be utterly believable as a wily widow–and apparent Jill-of-all-trades–who, after a prolonged period of relative seclusion, finds love and seizes the chance to reclaim her place in the glittery nightlife of New York City, circa 1890. Channing scored a Tony, and soon afterward parlayed her popularity into an Oscar nominated–and Globe winning– supporting role as Muzzy Van Hossmere in 1967’s Throughly Modern Millie, starring Julie Andrews–then at the height of her popularity.

Taking all this into consideration, I have to admit that my mind still reels at the fact that when 20th Century Fox purchased the rights to Merrick’s property, someone in charge (producer Ernest Lehman?) thought it a grand idea to cast no less than blazingly new superstar Barbra Streisand, all of 27 (give or take), as this celebrated–and unequivocally middle-aged–character. Did I mention, by the way, that Streisand was only 27? Did I mention that my mind still reels?

Oh sure, Streisand, to quote Sandra Bernhard (in Without You I’m Nothing), was “hot, hot, hot” at the time; after all, she had just conquered Hollywood via the tremendously well-received big screen transfer of her Broadway triumph as legendary vaudevillian Fanny Brice in Funny Girl, for which she ultimately tied for Best Actress (with Katharine Hepburn in The Lion in Winter) at the 1968/69 Oscar ceremony.

In what truly qualifies as an ironic twist, Streisand either through sheer luck or by design snatched Dolly from Channing in a kind of turnabout of the occasion when Streisand lost a Tony for Funny Girl to Channing in Hello, Dolly! But, once again, I digress…

According to an article posted on the Turner Classic Movies website, Carol Channing, a Tony winner for her interpretation of Dolly, aroused concerns that her oversized personality might not be a good fit for the big screen adaptation. Reportedly, Broadway biggie Ethel Merman, for whom the part was reportedly intended, was considered as was, allegedly, Elizabeth Taylor--who can't sing--and Ann-Margret, which would have made even less sense than Streisand. Btw, among the many actresses who played Dolly on Broadway after Channing left the production: Betty Grable, Ginger Rogers, Martha Raye, and Pearl Bailey.

According to an article posted on the Turner Classic Movies website, Carol Channing, a Tony winner for her interpretation of Dolly, aroused concerns that her oversized personality might not be a good fit for the big screen adaptation. Really? Reportedly, another Broadway biggie Ethel Merman, for whom the musical role was reportedly originally intended, was considered for the movie, but that claim seems a tad dubious given that Merman, better known as a Broadway draw than a bona fide film star, had not even been allowed to recreate famous stage roles in Annie Get Your Gun and Gypsy for the movies. Plus, she was knocking 60 at the time. Other alleged contenders include(d) Elizabeth Taylor–who can’t/couldn’t sing as we all learned from A Little Night Music–and Ann-Margret, which would have made even less sense than Streisand. On the other hand, the IMDb reports that Ms. Margret was considered for one of the supporting roles though Shirley MacLaine, who’s had a featured role in The Matchmaker, is included as a possible Dolly. Backing up, can any of us really imagine Streisand and Ann-Margret in the same film? Btw, among the many actresses who played Dolly on Broadway after Channing left the production: Merman, Betty Grable, Ginger Rogers, Martha Raye, Phyllis Diller, and Pearl Bailey. Channing’s understudy, by the way, was future Laugh-In staple, Joanne Worley. Meanwhile,  good ol Rutanya Alda, eventually known for her role as put-upon personal assistant Carol Ann to Faye Dunaway’s riveting Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest, is credited on the IMDb as Streisand’s stand-in and photo double. (IMAGE: letterboxd.com)

Of course, to the Fox suits casting Streisand as Dolly made genius business sense due to her extraordinary appeal not only as a freshly bankable movie commodity but also as a top recording artist and proven TV draw, thanks to a series of popular well-received musical specials. Channing, on the other hand, despite being synonymous with Hello, Dolly! and with big screen credibility thanks to Thoroughly Modern Millie, seemed too much of a risk, no doubt because she had never carried a picture, and, likely, because she was over 40, rarely considered a selling point for an actress in Hollywood. Plus, the late 1960s were simply a hand-wringing time for the big studios as they attempted to stay current in a very confusing time, socially and/or culturally. After all, glossy, old-fashioned Dolly was released the same year as Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy, the latter of which was originally rated X and earned the distinction of being the only so rated film to win Best Picture (or, presumably, any other Oscar for that matter).

That doesn’t change the simple truth that Streisand, not even 30, was simply too young to play Dolly Levi, what’s the word, realistically. That has nothing to do with talent because Streisand’s talent has never been in question; however, gargantuan talent doesn’t necessarily guarantee that even a star of Streisand’s caliber is always the best choice for every role. What were those Fox guys thinking? For example, did it ever occur to them that while Streisand might have ensured a relatively strong opening, she still needed to convince the masses that she could effectively play a middle-aged widow if the picture were to have positive word of mouth with the general public? After all, too, too, much of the story hinges on the fact that Dolly and her late husband, Efrem, had enjoyed a deep, loving, committed relationship–she quotes him constantly–and that she has been alone for a considerable period. That just doesn’t play as well coming from a 27 year old. Plus, the filmmakers–perhaps wisely in retrospect–don’t even try to make Streisand look older or more mature. She looks like Streisand. She may even look like Streisand as Fanny Brice. Maybe she looks like Streisand playing Fanny Brice playing Dolly Levi. Yeah, that’s the ticket. (Methinks if this series of unfortunate events were to happen today, there would be a lot of hoopla about transforming the star with special “age” makeup. Blech.)

Yes, here we are at the conundrum of the whole thing. In Hello, Dolly!, Streisand simply looks like Streisand. No attempt is made to obscure her youth and vibrancy. Far from it. Of course, she’s styled to a fare-thee-well. No attempt to add creases to her face, or to dowdy-down her hair even though the script keeps referencing her age, her longevity, her colorful past. The effect at times is discombobulating–but only at times because as miscast as she clearly is, she knows what’s she doing, and what she’s doing is selling Jerry Herman’s wow of a score while also serenading audiences with the full sweet magnitude of her unlikely stardom–a kooky unconventional beauty with mesmerizing talent–and she simply dazzles in spite of  the incongruity of it all.

I once read that the late great Pauline Kael had described George Cukor’s monumental 1954 remake of A Star is Born starring Judy Garland, as the greatest one woman show in the history of movies. Something like that. I think Streisand in Hello, Dolly! gives Garland a run for her money in that regard. Literally, of course, nothing could be farther from the truth. Just as  Cukor surrounded Garland with resourceful supporting players, including magnetic James Mason, Dolly director Gene Kelly, legendary hoofer-turned leading man-turned filmmaker, fills the big, big screen with comic foils, energetic dancers, and scads upon scads of costumed extras, but for much of the movie Streisand seems to exist in a world of her own, and she seizes the screen, dominating a picture absolutely packed with detail in every frame.

Of course, this–what, singularity?–may prove distracting to some moviegoers who prefer their flicks to be plot driven stories in which characters interact with each other in order to advance the action. I mean, that is the gig, typically, is it not? Streisand skeptics may shudder and write the whole thing off to egomania, a charge the entertainment phenom has faced more than once, especially with the likes of her own crowd pleasing remake of A Star is Born (1976) and 1983’s Yentl, producing the former while producing and directing the latter. I fully admit that I’m not much of a fan of either film–and for the same reasons as all the other detractors. (I especially retch at the self aggrandizing A Star is Born remake in spite of Oscar winning tune “Evergreen” that Streisand composed with Paul Williams.) Other Dolly foes might protest on the grounds that Streisand “stole” a role that rightfully belonged to Channing, but that seems, well, unimaginative, meaning that there is no guarantee that Channing would have been cast even if Streisand had turned down the part. Of course, we all know that no less than Audrey Hepburn originally balked at the chance to play Eliza Doolittle in the big screen version of My Fair Lady, hoping her refusal would force the studio heads–Warners–to rethink their decision to NOT hire Julie Andrews who made the role famous in its landmark Broadway run. Nothing doing, the Warner’s people reportedly told Hepburn. If she didn’t take the role, someone else would–and they didn’t mean Andrews. That would never happen. So Hepburn, knowing she was licked and knowing, like Kenny Rogers, when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em, switched rather than fight.

Of course, fans of Dolly on Broadway (or its original cast album) might remain steadfast in their contempt due, again, to Streisand’s youth and how obviously miscast she is.

But I love her in Hello, Dolly!

In spite of all that. Yes, I should know better. Yes, I should know that I should know better, but for some reason, I don’t care. Maybe I need a support group, but I think Streisand nails this role in all its glory.

From June of 1971, one of my all-time favorite Mad magazine covers when Streisand was seemingly everywhere. I'm pretty sure I still have this issue, neatly preserved in plastic wrap, somewhere. (IMAGE: mikeshouseofwhacks.blogspot.com)

From June of 1971, one of my all-time favorite Mad magazine covers–when Streisand was seemingly everywhere. I’m pretty sure I still have this issue, neatly preserved in plastic wrap, somewhere. My two favorite Streisand performances are in Hello, Dolly! and What’s Up Doc? I enjoy Oscar winner Funny Girl, but I don’t love it in the same way as the others. Ditto perennial weepie The Way We Were. Oh, she’s fine  in the latter as dynamo Katy Morosky, more than up to the challenge, but curious editing choices work against her. I’m still working on Up the Sandbox and The Owl and the Pussycat. (IMAGE: mikeshouseofwhacks.blogspot.com)

What do I love about Streisand in Dolly? For starters, her comic timing works like a charm. A lot of the lines are actually clever, but Streisand makes them more clever (cleverer?); however, that is not her gift. No, what she actually does is find a way to make even the corny lines sound snappy. And that’s huge. (Again, the effect may read as Striesand playing Fannie Brice playing Dolly Levi, but that just makes the whole thing more fascinating.) Also, please notice–either the next time or the first time you watch–how fluidly she gesticulates. It’s not so much that her hands are always moving, that would be a bit much, but when they do move, every little detail, every bend of the wrist, every flick of a finger, reveals something about the character. Of course, those artfully manicured nails really deliver in the glamour department, all larger than life they are. Plus, I marvel at La Streisand’s energy level, knowing that nothing, or almost nothing, in movies is ever as easy as it seems, meaning take after take after take, but in this case that includes huge production numbers with layers of details (and, as such, more and more  potential gaffes to slow down filming), yet Streisand stays lively, buoyant, even in the heat of exterior scenes, or the hot lights of sound-stages, even under layers of period clothes–and that means long dresses, wigs (or a wig, but it’s a doozy of a voluminous Gibson Girl updo), and huge ornate hats. What a dynamo!

I watched both Hello, Dolly! and Funny Girl the first time that each premiered on regular network TV back in the day, and I enjoyed both tremendously, but as teen, or pre-teen, I must confess that I was confused about which "parade" song belonged in which movie. Of course, "Don't Rain on My Parade" is from Funny Girl while "Before the Parade Passes By" is from Hello, Dolly!

I watched both Hello, Dolly! and Funny Girl the first time that each premiered on regular network TV back in the day, and I enjoyed both tremendously, but as teen, or pre-teen, I must confess that I was confused about which “parade” song belonged in which movie when replaying them in my mind. Of course, “Don’t Rain on My Parade” is from Funny Girl while “Before the Parade Passes By” is from Hello, Dolly! (IMAGE: Pintrest – Pinned from brecious.tumbler.com)

Then, of course, there’s that voice. Somewhere along the way in her storied career, Streisand lost sight of her most valuable asset, that million dollar voice capable of elevating almost anything to the highest heights, a mixture of fierce control, yes, but brightened with pure emotion: everything from whispery soft to commandingly loud and clear. Over time, her musical performances became (or have become) too mannered, too strained, for my taste–though it’s obvious that she influenced a whole host of younger singers, such as Celine Dion.

In Hello, Dolly!, Streisand savors the words and melodies of titan Jerry Herman, and it’s a thrill just to hear THAT voice sing THOSE songs. The perfect merger of artist and material. Streisand’s two standouts, besides that rousing title tune, begin with “Before the Parade Passes By.”  There, seconds after a rollicking  exterior production number, director Kelly directs the camera to find Streisand as Dolly, alone on a park bench, framed by soft rich greenery, a deft touch against her lavender dress, sunlight dappling across her face. Then, she begins, quietly at first. She sees people laughing and dancing in the park, and she wants to join them, but how can she, a lonely middle-aged widow with baggage? (See what I mean?) Dolly has to get things right in her head first before she can proceed with the next chapter in her life, and Streisand’s voice pierces through the malarkey, and Dolly slowly comes to life–in character–until she’s all but breathless with exhilaration at the realization that time–and its parade–have not passed her by. Not yet. From there, Kelly cuts to arguably the biggest, splashiest parade scene in any movie this side of Cleopatra’s entrance into Rome per the 1963 Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton extravaganza, also an enormously expensive Fox production. On and on it goes, this parade, for what appears to be blocks and blocks in a replica of Old New York City, especially created on the Fox back lot. Stunning. Then, Streisand, that is, Dolly, musters up every single bit of fortitude she has and delivers a whammy of a full-tilt finish. Streisand brings Dolly to rousing life so that she’s now ageless, timeless. The second showstopper for this viewer, again, besides the obvious title tune, is “So Long, Dearie,” a campy, vampy, farewell to her intended–and quite perplexed–suitor. Streisand demonstrates yet again her considerable vocal range while strutting her considerable stuff with electrifying verve, milking every innuendo with aplomb and no doubt more than a coincidental nod to vintage saucy seductress Mae West, all in good fun.

The big screen adaptation of Hello, Dolly! also scores in other ways, not the least of which is Michael Kidd’s energetic choreography. Kidd, already legendarily famous for, among others, 1954’s box office smash–and Best Picture nominee–Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, works on a tremendous scale, and his work here is just as swell as, say, Kelly’s own Singin’ in the Rain, Jerome Robbins in West Side Story (1961) and Oona White in The Music Man (1962), those last two among my particular personal faves, and right up there, as well, with his own Seven Brides.

Now, about that title song. What a piece of work, everything from Streisand regally descending a grand staircase to a gaggle of high stepping chorus boys–outfitted as waiters in a lavish, bustling high dollar restaurant–to no less than the late great Louis Armstrong, already a Grammy winner at that point for his chart-topping cover version of the title song (which he actually recorded just prior to the stage show’s Broadway opening).  Armstrong, with his light-hearted, fizzy growl and twinkly eyes, creates movie magic when he serenades Streisand, and she returns the favor with giddy enthusiasm. For better or worse, Armstrong is the only performer with whom Streisand truly appears to connect during this massive endeavor. Or is it simply that he’s the only cast member who has enough razzle-dazzle star power–or is that confidence?–to match the vibrant leading lady? Meanwhile, Kidd is equally in good form in at least two other numbers, including “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” and “Dancing.”  Along those same lines, to be perfectly clear, nothing but nothing in this Hello, Dolly! would work without Jerry Herman’s delightful, diamond-hard score and the contributions of Lennie Hayton and Lionel Newman for adapting that score; those two won Oscars, by the way, as did sound engineers Jack Solomon and Murray Spivack.

Actually, Hello, Dolly!  did  very well at the 1969/70 Academy Awards ceremony, copping wins in three categories from a pool of 7 nominations, including Best Picture (losing, of course, to the more daring Midnight Cowboy as noted). First and foremost among those Oscar victories has to be honors bestowed upon a production design team headed by John DeCuir, Jack Martin Smith, and Herman A. Blumenthal (Art Direction), along with Walter M. Scott, George James Hopkins, and Raphael Bretton. Not a shabby bunch, this crew. Prior to Dolly!, they’d all, save Bretton, won at least one Oscar for such offerings as The King and I (1956), Cleopatra (1963), My Fair Lady (1964), and Fantastic Voyage (1966). Dolly! dazzles most in its exterior sets, a mock up Old New York, all of it created on the Fox backlot, that just seems, as noted, to go on and on forever. If the parade scene doesn’t convince you, take a gander at the milliner (played by Marianne McAndrew) and her perky assistant (lovely E.J. Peaker in a slim, forgettable role) during their first scene. In one sequence they walk across a block, turn a corner, cross yet another street, climb winding steps, and swing back around before reaching their destination. Additionally, dig that park bench scene and the gorgeous fountain Streisand passes (one of at least two among the exterior niceties). Also, what about the entrance to Dolly’s beloved dining establishment, The Harmonia Gardens? Yes, bigger is bigger. So persuasive–and costly–is this mammoth exterior contraption that Fox began renting it, mostly to TV cop shows, I’m sure, in order to recoup its considerable investment. Among the interiors, almost nothing is more lavish than the restaurant’s main set, as gaudy and rococo as one could ever hope to imagine: multiple levels, plush red carpet, chandeliers, gilded everything, statuary, private dining rooms, fussy, well-set tables, elaborate floral arrangements,  and, of course, a fountain. Skeptics and period purists may argue that even for Victoriana, too much is too much. I can see that to a point, but only to a point; after all, yes, the milliner’s shop is probably way too spacious and fanciful to read as anything but fantasy, which  could be distracting, certainly not the desired effect.  On the other hand, some of us relish the chance to revel in what appears to be a fully realized world unto itself, and for me this is a case in which a movie so rich with design begs to be seen on a giant screen.  (To clarify, the scenes set in Rochester NY,  were actually filmed on location in Garrison, New York with spectacular views of the Hudson River.) Shout outs as well to legendary costume designer Irene Sharaff, already a 5 time Oscar winner at that point (for the likes of An American in ParisThe King and IWest Side Story, and Cleopatra) who earned her 13th out of 14 Oscar nods. The standout look besides those fabulous hats and red-jacketed waiters, of course, is that gold beaded gown Dolly wears for her triumphant scene at the Harmonia Gardens. Exquisite, and no doubt a challenge for Streisand as the dress obviously weighs several pounds (40, per the IMDb, at a reported cost of $8,000.00). Sharaff lost in her category to Margaret Thurse of Anne of the Thousand Days, the year’s most nominated pic, starring Richard Burton as Henry VIII and Genevieve Bujold as tragic Anne Boleyn. Other nominations were accorded to cinematographer Harry Stradling, Sr. (a posthumous bid), and editor William H. Reynolds, and good for them. Everything is top-notch.

The late, great Danny Lockin as Barnaby Tucker in Hello, Dolly! The rising star, who'd already played in Dolly on Broadway, among other notable credits, was sadistically murdered in the late 1970s. Such an appealing performer and such a shocking loss. The whole saga can be found on multiple Internet websites. (IMAGE: danny-lockin.tumblr.com)

The late, great Danny Lockin as Barnaby Tucker in Hello, Dolly! The rising star, who’d already played in Dolly on Broadway, among other notable credits, was sadistically murdered in the late 1970s. I read about his unfortunate demise years and years ago, and it’s haunted me ever since. Such an appealing performer and such a shocking loss. The whole saga can be found on multiple Internet websites. (IMAGE: danny-lockin.tumblr.com)

For all of Streisand and her director’s razzle-dazzle Hello, Dolly! is not without its flaws, and not just the questionable casting of its lead actress–even if she delivers in spite of all that. No, the weakness, as indicated earlier, is that Streisand has no one to play against. The supporting cast is mostly weightless. Sure, future Broadway legend Michael Crawford (a 1988 Tony winner for The Phantom of the Opera) has an agreeable screen presence though his singing voice is a bit thin (obviously, that all changed by the time he conquered the Great White Way with his signature portrayal). He makes the best of his goofy role–I guess–as Cornelius Hackl, a lanky clerk with hopes of finding true love in the big city, but his screen time with Streisand is relatively scarce, and his presumed love-interest–the spurned milliner–is a snoozer. (Note: Crawford and Streisand are approximately the same age though, again, Dolly is supposed to be a mother hen to young Mr. Hackl.) That said, I want to give a shout-out to Danny Lockin as Crawford/Hackle’s sidekick, Barnaby Tucker. Lockin’s enthusiastic performance is marked by some of the most athletic dancing one could hope to imagine. Elsewhere, the aforementioned Peaker, oh so good on so many TV shows in the 70s, is wasted, as is Texas giant Tommy Tune.

“Unfortunate” pretty much describes the decision to cast the blandly pretty Marianne McAndrew in the role of hat maker Irene Molloy, a pawn in Dolly’s matchmaking scheme to land a suitor of her own. McAndrew fails almost from the beginning when she’s asked to launch into a song entitled, “Ribbons Down My Back.” From the outset, it’s obvious that McAndrew is lip-synching, and that in itself is not the real problem; after all, vocals for most movie musical numbers are prerecorded, with the performers pantomiming to their own tracks on-camera; however, what emerges sounds almost nothing like the actress’s speaking voice. Plus, McAndrew seems to lack any feeling for what she’s doing–as though she’s never even sung a note, on her own or with a record, in her whole life. I’m not even sure her lips actually move. It’s the opposite of joyous, for both her and the audience. That noted, McAndrew earned Golden Globe nods for both Best Supporting Actress and Most Promisng Newcomer. Her vocals, per the IMDb, are provided by Melissa Stafford (with possible assist by Gail Maiken).

Speaking of the opposite of joyous, the biggest casting blunder of all has to be that of Walter Matthau as the miserly stick-in-the-mud merchant Horace Vandergelder upon whom Dolly places all her hopes and dreams. It’s a joyless performance though skeptics might argue that Matthau is just staying true to the character–that it’s a thankless part. Maybe. Of course, part of the problem is that Matthau, approaching 50 at the time the movie was filmed, has no discernible chemistry with his leading lady, a huge factor of which can be attributed to an age gap of nearly 20 years, and, again, Dolly, technically, should be played by a more mature actress. (Some texts describe Dolly as being a friend of Vandergelder’s late wife.) The effect is frightening: to think that this vivacious, robust Dolly seems hell-bent on throwing away her youth and beauty on an ungrateful old raisin like Matthau. Unsettling.

Of course, Matthau pretty much registers disinterest during much of the movie. The legend, reported in almost every source I’ve ever read about this particular movie in all my many years, is that the actor couldn’t stand Streisand and made little or no effort to be cordial during filming. And it shows. Luckily, Matthau isn’t in the picture enough to ruin it,  only to remind audiences that this is supposed to be a love story every time he appears. The effect, for me, is, “Oh. It’s you. Again. Really?” It also doesn’t help that Matthau is saddled with the show’s worst song, the lamentable “It Takes a Woman.” Of course, Matthau is no singer. That’s the least of it, nor is the problem the schmaltzy lyrics. No, the worst part is that Matthau’s song is too melodically similar to the arguably more famous “We Need a Little Christmas” which found its way into composer Jerry Herman’s other smash musical, Mame. Jerry, you’re cannibalizing yourself.  Of course, Matthau probably seemed like a good idea at the time. He’d won Best Supporting Actor for The Fortune Cookie a few years earlier, and he and Jack Lemmon had just come off the smash big screen version of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple. Even so, Streisand, ever a showbiz trouper, keeps plugging away, making the most of her screen time with Matthau, especially during the Harmonia Gardens scene, relishing every line as though she actually believes she could fall for someone as charismatically bankrupt as Matthau’s character.

Also, I think casting any established, middle-aged actor opposite Streisand during that time was probably a bit of a feat, not because she was young, but because she was an upstart, a movie newcomer from New York with a galvanizing talent who was already landing plum parts–and earning major awards for her film debut–in a chummy, company town such as Hollywood. What seasoned vet wants to star opposite that, especially knowing that he would likely be overshadowed as his function would be to merely serve as the straight-man while the diva lands all the gags, the great costumes, the flattering closeups, etc.? Hint: Actors can be very insecure about such things. That noted, a friend of mine recently observed that Dick Van Dyke, a mere five years younger than Matthau, might have been a better fit; after all, Van Dyke at that time was a reliable–hugely appealing–actor who had yet to match earlier spectacular successes such as Bye, Bye Birdie, Mary Poppins, or his self-titled sitcom. Certainly, he didn’t attract much attention for his 1969 effort, The Comic, a fictional rags-to-riches-to rags saga about a silent screen star. I can visualize Dick Van Dyke as a Horace Vandergelder with a slight twinkle in his eye despite exasperation at Dolly’s shenanigans. Matthau just makes me shudder.

So, there we have it. A bravura leading performance by a young powerhouse actress who in spite of her considerable finesse is obviously miscast as decidedly middle-aged busybody. But what would the movie be without her? That noted, I hate that we don’t have Channing’s performance recorded for posterity on film. What else? A major Oscar contender that cost a fortune–and looks it–that apparently ranked among the year’s top grossing films while notably still failing to recoup its for-the-times enormous costs though we may never really get to the bottom of this since–A–Hollywood bookkeeping, especially in the less transparent 1960s, has always been a bit of a shell-game, and–B–the Internet has a way of rewriting history and not always with the most credible sources. Additionally, in spite of its seven Oscar nominations, again, including Best Picture, director Gene Kelly was shut-out even though the movie is technically accomplished. (He and Streisand, however, were honored with Golden Globe nominations.) Maybe Kelly was snubbed by the Academy’s directors branch because he let the budget get away from him, or because he allowed himself to be steamrolled by a presumed diva. Maybe in 1969 Hollywood, the Academy wasn’t as tolerant of actor-directors as it later became, especially given that this project lacks a personal touch and appears more on the order of an impersonal corporatized entertainment that, nonetheless, provided scads upon scads of jobs to numerous performers, artisans, technicians, and other in-demand personnel. Maybe.

^ This YouTube clip appears on a recent Hello, Dolly! Blu-ray but, alas, not on the DVD.

I’ve seen Hello, Dolly! dozens and dozens of times, and I enjoy it as long as I don’t think too much about it. I must say that its unbridled gaiety helped brighten many a darkened day over the past six months, and that’s one reason why I’m happy–and able–to write about it now. Of course, it has become familiar to younger generations by virtue of being referenced in Pixar’s popular–and Oscar winning–Wall-E. Between film repertory series, both old and new, I’ve been able to catch up with some of my favorite musicals on the big screen, those that I’d missed for one reason or another as a child, including Gigi (release before I was even conceived), West Side Story, The Music Man, Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music, and, yes, even Funny Girl. The King and I is next. Oh, how I’d love to see Hello, Dolly! in all its garish late 1960s splendor the way it was intended. It would be so nice to see it back where it belongs.

Thanks for your consideration…

[1] Technically, Wilder’s play has its origins in 19th century works by Johann Nestroy and John Oxenford; the former, Viennese; the latter, English. Read more from The Thornton Wilder Society.

Notes on the Oscars: Okay, Oscar, but…

5 Mar

So, Oscar, let me get this straight…

  1. The movie that wins the most Oscars, that would be Mad Max: Fury Road with 6, fails to nab either Best Picture or Best Director…is that right?
  2. The movie that wins Best Director, that would Alejandro Iñárritu–a rare back to back champ, per 2014’s Birdman–for The Revenant, also fails to win Best Picture…is that right?
  3. The movie that wins Best Picture, the acclaimed Spotlight, only wins two awards, the other being Best Adapted Screenplay (more on that to come)…is that right?

Some true believers will no doubt applaud the Academy for so seemingly judiciously spreading the wealth. Yeah, that’s a good one.

On the other hand, maybe this, what, disparity just signals what many of us have known or feared for a few years: Uncle Oscar is losing his credibility. If, maybe, he ever had any at all.

Here’s what I know about last week’s awards…

Screen shot 2016-03-05 at 5.36.14 AM

This is Brie Larson from the gut-wrenching Room. She also won an Oscar last night, a fact that seems to have been lost in most morning-after coverage, much of which overwhelmingly seems to have focused on Best Actor winner Leonardo DiCaprio. Both Larson and her film are a Must Watch. On a lighter note, I think her dress is endlessly elegant: cut, color, texture, all of the above. I think anybody would be hard pressed not to include her among the event’s Best Dressed. Okay, but now I read, per Entertainment Weekly, that she’s set to follow her Oscar winner with yet another King Kong opus. Really? Alas, this is an all-too familiar trend: win an Oscar for a low-budget anti-Hollywood establishment offering, and then coast on that success to mainstreamdom.


Welcome to Brooklyn, the movie, nit the NYC borough. I saw the John Crowley film the afternoon of the Oscars and loved it. Quite a bit, actually. Brooklyn, about an Irish immigrant trying to figure out her place in two very different worlds, competed for Oscars in three categories, including Best Picture and Best Actress, the breathtaking Saoirse Ronan. All grown now. Ronan first attracted the Academy's attention with an on-point performance as the chilling child antagonist in 2007's devastating Best Picture contender Atonement. I'm all about Brie Larson winning Best Actress, but I would have been equally pleased if Ronan had won. I can definitely imagine repeat viewings of Brooklyn, but maybe not so with Room.

Welcome to Brooklyn, the movie, n0t the NYC borough. I saw the John Crowley film the afternoon of the Oscars and loved it. Quite a bit, actually. Brooklyn, about an Irish immigrant trying to figure out her place in two very different worlds, competed for Oscars in three categories, including Best Picture and Best Actress, the breathtaking Saoirse Ronan. All grown now. Ronan first attracted the Academy’s attention with an on-point performance as the chilling child antagonist in 2007’s devastating Best Picture contender Atonement. I’m all about Brie Larson winning Best Actress, but I would have been equally pleased if Ronan had won. I can definitely imagine repeat viewings of Brooklyn, but maybe not so with Room. I loved every frame of this movie.

Swedish born Alicia Vikander solidified her reputation as one of moviedom’s most promising new stars by winning Best Supporting Actress for her performance in The Danish Girl. Vikander has been all over the place lately with roles in a number of high profile films, most notably–besides her Oscar winner, natch–would be last spring’s Ex Machina.  The sleek cautionary tale may have very well pulled off  the TWO biggest surprises of the night, first clutching honors for Best Visual Effects from splashier, bigger-budgeted offerings such as Mad Max: Fury Road and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the latter with its lavish 200 million price tag; meanwhile, Ex Machina reportedly cost a relatively meager 15 million. Maybe the Ex Machina team, Andrew Whitehurst, Paul Norris, Mark Williams Ardington, and Sara Bennett, won because they demonstrated resourcefulness, cleverness, and how to do more with less. Also, with her win, Bennett becomes the first female champion in the Best Visual Effects category. Good job!

This is Mark Rylance, and he won Best Supporting Actor for Bridge of Spies, portraying the mystery man at the center of all the action. Some reports have tagged him a "surprise" or "upset" winner, given the hoopla over Sylvester Stallone's comeback in Creed in which he yet again resurrected iconic character Rocky Balboa, originally made famous in 1976's Best Picture winner, Rocky, which Stallone also penned.

This is Mark Rylance, and he won Best Supporting Actor for Bridge of Spies, portraying the mystery man at the center of all the action. Some reports have tagged Rylance a “surprise” or “upset” winner, given the hoopla over Sylvester Stallone’s comeback vehicle Creed in which he yet again resurrects iconic character Rocky Balboa, originally made famous in 1976’s Best Picture winner, Rocky, which Stallone also penned. Okay, but Rylance’s victory was hardly a surprise since he also won early honors from the likes of the New York Film Critics, the National Society of Film Critics, and the British Academy, and I say well-deserved. The British born thesp is also an Olivier honoree back at home and  three-time Tony winner in the states: twice for Best Actor in a play (Boeing-Boeing, 2008; Jerusalem, 2011) and more recently for Best Featured Actor in a play Twelfth Night, 2014).

Screen shot 2016-03-06 at 8.19.57 PMBest Picture winner Spotlight, which looks at the real-life Boston Globe reporters who investigated allegations of sexual abuse among priests, was not my my favorite movie of the year,  but it’s well done and certainly held my attention. I would have easily included it among my top 10 if only I made top 10 lists. At any rate, congratulations to writer-director Tom McCarthy. No, he didn’t win Best Director, nor was he on the roster of producers in line for the Best Picture Oscar, but McCarthy, who’s been writing, acting, and directing for a few decades, shared the Best Adapted Screenplay trophy with Josh Singer. I’ve been rooting for McCarthy ever since 2011’s Win-Win. His other credits include 2003’s The Station Agent and 2007’s The Visitor; meanwhile, shout-out to Michael Keaton. Okay, he was not among the film’s Oscar nominated cast (that would be Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo), but he can boast of acting in consecutive Best Picture winners, the other being 2014’s Birdman, and that’s pretty incredible. Good job!

Pixar-Disney's Inside Out was one of 2015's most engaging movies. clever yet also surprisingly touching. No surprise that it won the prize for Best Animated Feature. Okay, but what would have been a surprise would have been a win for Best Original Screenplay, for which it was also nominated.

Pixar-Disney’s Inside Out was one of 2015’s most engaging movies. clever yet also surprisingly touching. No surprise that it won the prize for Best Animated Feature. Okay, but what would have been a surprise would have been a win for Best Original Screenplay, for which it was also nominated.

Screen shot 2016-03-06 at 9.01.59 PM

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the indomitable Jenny Beavan, two time Oscar winner for Best Costume Design. No, I wasn’t rooting for her or her vehicle, Mad Max: Fury Road, but I’m not necessarily surprised that she won, either. My pick was the great Sandy Powell for Cinderella, but I suspected that Beavan’s post-apocalyptic designs–the opposite of Powell’s lush offerings–might be an upset in the making.  I didn’t watch the telecast, but I understand hers was not the most popular win of the evening. Well, okay, but I actually like Beavan. This is her second Oscar, btw. Her first came almost 30 years ago for Merchant-Ivory’s romantic crowd pleaser A Room with a View; her eight additional nominations include the likes of Howards End (1992), The Remains of the Day (1993), Gosford Park (2001), and The King’s Speech (2010). I think it’s cool that a designer so closely associated with British period films won an Oscar for a film with an entirely different aesthetic. Good for her!






Behold the Thaw…

27 Feb

Hello. Even I wondered if I would ever write again. The enormity of loss suffered by my family in less than two years (one after another) took its toll on my ability to think about movies or writing for pleasure in a way that I could not have imagined.

The grip on my ability to function comfortably in this forum began last year just as the Oscar race hit its stride; after that, I witnessed a loved one’s downward spiral that monopolized much of my free-time and immobilized me to the point of despair though I still found occasional escape at the movies. More than once in the past year, I have contemplated posting something new, but, somehow, I always talked myself out of it. Then, in November, I realized I needed to stop fighting a need to rest and take care of myself. I thought I’d be back in form by the time the Academy announced this year’s nominees, but, wait, I realized I didn’t have much interest in this year’s outcome. Oh, I think some of the movies are just fine, but almost none of them inspire me, not the way Oscar nominees and winners have in the past. (Plus, I was and still am mystified about all the hoopla surrounding last year’s Best Pic, Birdman.)

Then, of course, there’s the matter of the Oscars and diversity. Oh dear. What to do? As has been  quoted elsewhere, the Academy’s membership is overwhelmingly white, male, and over the age of 60. This isn’t good for any of us. I think, right now, we all need a break from the Oscars, but I can’t speak for everyone, so I will only speak for myself. I still need to regroup before I throw myself back into the Oscar game full-force. I’m not boycotting, per se, but won’t watch just to watch.

That noted, I have some faves…. such as Bridge of Spies for Best Picture and Mark Rylance for Best Supporting Actor. The former has almost no chance of winning, and Rylance is waiting in the wings if Sylvester Stallone (Creed) runs out of gas in the last lap. Oh, I get it. My choice of Bridge of Spies for Best Pic dates me. It’s an old-school contender, but it works on almost every level, always a plus. Smooth, beautiful, meticulous. Of course, I’m sucker for a intricate Cold War thriller, especially when it’s based on a true story, such as this one. I liked it so much that even Tom Hanks wasn’t a distraction, For me, he’s been a deal-breaker for years, ever since Da Vinci Code. I also like Room and Spotlight, but Bridge of Spies would still be my top pick if I were voting.  (Meanwhile, I skipped Creed because I’m not willing to fork over good money to stare at Stallone’s reconstituted mug on a  40 foot screen.) Also, congratulations to Mark Ruffalo (Spotlight) on his third Best Supporting Actor nomination.

The nominations for Carol are good news as well, especially Cate Blanchett (Best Actress) and Rooney Mara (Best Supporting Actress) though, of course, both women are really worthy of Best Actress consideration. The decision to demote Mara, the less established of the two, to supporting status as a way of hedging bets is tiresome and one of the reasons Oscar is losing credibility. Another reason for me to skip this year’s ceremony.

Of course, the real find among the Best Actress candidates is Brie Larson, of Room, the likely frontrunner and good for her. I want to add a few more words about Room. If you are not familiar, and I’m sure most American moviegoers are not, Room, based on the novel by Emma Donoghue (who also wrote the screenplay), tells the story of a young woman who survives a teenage kidnapping while also raising her son, all within the confines of her kidnapper’s hidden lair, the “room” of the title. Though comparisons to the Jaycee Lee Dugard kidnapping are hard to dismiss, this Room is a fiction. What I love about this movie, and I applaud Best Director nominee Lenny Abrahamson, is the challenge of telling a story in a visually compelling way given the constraints of confining the bulk of the action to a single set AND working with a child actor, one who appears on screen almost every single second. For me, this is by far a greater accomplishment than, say, filming a wilderness epic, such as The Revenant, in which nature provides a vast, seemingly endless backdrop for one magnificent shot after another. Of course, to be fair, working in the bitter freezing cold is no picnic, but the Oscars are not necessarily an endurance contest, are they?

Meanwhile, cheers to Jennifer Lawrence for her slam-dunk in the truly inspirational Joy, as real-life entrepreneur Joy Mangano. For those who are counting, this is Lawrence’s fourth nomination–third in this category–in five years, but she just won three years ago; meanwhile, I wish I could extend hearty congratulations to Charlotte Rampling for snagging her first nomination in a most erratic career, stretching all the way back to the 1960s, but my early enthusiasm has soured into skepticism. Never a household name, at least not in this country, Rampling has certainly been a beguiling presence in all kinds of films in a variety of genres, some more successful than others. She makes a great smoky femme fatale in the right vehicle. Her 45 Years, in which a longtime married couple grapples–at last–with ghosts of the past, is earnest to the point of being dull. Dull in a way that only dull British films can be dull. Worse, in a year in which much attention has been paid to the Academy’s overwhelmingly “white” taste, Rampling stumbled when she spouted ill-advised comments about reverse racism or some such nonsense–remarks that she has since tried to qualify or clarify, but who’s listening? No one, I presume. For a real kick, skip 45 Years and dive into Swimming Pool, a French-English production, a sexy, spine tingling mystery, from 2003. Rampling earned Best Actress nods for both the Cesar and European Film awards for that one.

I have no preference for Best Actor. I didn’t love Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant, but I don’t necessarily begrudge him an Oscar either. His almost assured victory will make many people happy, so I’ll be happy for them though I’ll be glad when we see actors acting with other actors rather than in a vacuum. Among the other nominees, I wished I liked Bryan Cranston more as Dalton Trumbo, but his performance, though admirable, didn’t capture my imagination the way we like to think Oscar winners should.

On the other hand, little Jacob Tremblay, all of nine years old, NOW, should be in this race for his blisteringly good performance as Larson’s son in Room, a little guy who experiences a whirlwind of emotions as everything he’s known in his five brief years, his stability and security, is ripped from him in ways he can barely comprehend. He was originally considered a Best Actor shoo-in though I’m surprised that, per Rooney Mara, a Best Supporting Actor nomination didn’t manifest as compensation for what would have been a longshot in the leading category, anyway. True, Best Supporting Actor would have been a letdown–and dishonest as well. Still, it’s interesting to note that yet again, as has been noted in the past, the Academy seems much more receptive to child actresses than to child actors, per the nominations for Kiesha Castle-Hughes (Whale Rider, 2003) and Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild, 2012). 

In the Best Supporting Actress race, kudos to the Academy for finally, FINALLY, recognizing the great, great, great Jennifer Jason Leigh–for Quentin Tarantino’s Hateful Eight.  The actress who rose to challenge after challenge during the 80s and most of the 90s in the likes of Miami Blues, Last Exit to Brooklyn, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, Georgia, and Washington Square, without a single nod from the Academy, even with scads of other accolades along the way, has finally found herself on Oscar’s shortlist. Ah, the magic of Tarantino strikes again. Alas, I don’t see a win in  Leigh’s immediate future, what with most of the buzz divided between Kate Winslet (Steve Jobs), Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl–also splendid in multi-nominated Ex-Machina) and the aforementioned Mara. Oh, and a shout-out to Rachel McAdams, snagging her first nod for Spotlight.

Personally, if I were voting, I’d have been hard pressed to ignore the great Helen Mirren as Best Supporting Actress, going for the gusto in Trumbo,  all the while immaculately styled and coiffed as legendarily snippy, jingoistic, and ruthless Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, as famous for her poison pen as for her love of hats. Of course, Mirren already has an Oscar, for 2006’s The Queen–as does, for that matter, Winslet (2008’s The Reader)–but my guess is this year, Mirren might have been too good for her own good, what with another acclaimed performance–leading, not supporting–in The Woman in Gold. Maybe voters were just overwhelmed, and Mirren split votes with herself. On the other hand, performers have been known to snag dual nominations in one year. Along that same line, I could have easily imagined Cate Blanchett as a Best Supporting Actress nominee for her richly nuanced turn as Lady Tremain, the so-called Wicked Stepmother in Kenneth Branagh’s lavish, live action adaptation of Cinderella.

And that brings me to the only entry in the only category in which I have any emotional investment–okay, besides Inside Out for the animated feature award. At any rate, I am rooting, whole-heartedly, for costume designer Sandy Powell, the costuming genius behind Cinderella. It’s easy, for the uninitiated, perhaps, to write Cinderella–and Powell’s work in it–as just a pretty princess fantasy, but that’s almost too easy as Powell’s designs, intricate and multitudinous as they are, actually help tell, and even sell, this particular story, which is very much character driven, and that’s where Powell excels, everything from the stepmother’s drop dead 1940s femme fatale inspired wardrobe to the splashy cleverness of the step-sisters’ wild outfits to the finery worn by the prince and his officers. Then, of course, there’s that lavish ball gown, possibly the most luxurious costume of its type since Irene Sharaff’s spectacular creations for Deborah Kerr in The King and I. Oh, and Sharaff won in her category that year (1956-57). Then, if all that weren’t enough, Powell tops herself with the floral splendor that is Cinderella’s wedding dress.

A year ago, just as Cinderella was hitting screens, Powell seemed like a slam dunk for this year’s trophy. Of course, Powell is already a three-time champ, most recently for Young Victoria but also The Aviator and Shakespeare in Love.   She’s been nominated a dozen or so times, beginning with 1993’s Orlando (a standout), followed by 1997’s The Wings of the Dove. When she won for Shakespeare in Love, she was simultaneously nominated for The Velvet Goldmine, a fictional recreation of the 1970s glam-rock movement. Coincidentally, Powell is also competing against herself again this year, thanks to her work in Carol, a 1950s period picture that looks every bit as luxe as anything presented by producer Ross Hunter and/or director Douglas Sirk during the same era. Think Magnificent Obsession, All that Heaven Allows, or Imitation of Life–maybe even the non Hunter-Sirk The Best of Everything. Some prognosticators believe Powell is more likely to win for Carol, and that’s okay, I guess, but Cinderella, with costumes produced and/or supervised for hundreds of extras, may very well be the greater achievement. I’m sure Hollywood’s legendary costume designers would approve, beginning with grand champ Edith Head and on to Dorothy Jeakins (Oscar’s very first award winning costumer), the aforementioned Irene Sharaff, along with Jean Louis, Walter Plunkett, Orry-Kelly, and Adrian, natch. I’ll be ecstatic if Powell wins for Cinderella, but I’ll likely cheer if she wins for Carol as well. And why not? Carol is fabulous. That noted, I’m not in a mood to bet against the likes of The Revenant or the Mad Max movie.

All of that is fine and well, but I’m actually going to do something novel on Oscar day. I’m going to go see one of the nominated flicks, and that would be Brooklyn, up for Best Picture, Best Actress (Saoirse Ronan), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Nick Hornby). No, I haven’t seen all of this year’s nominees though I have seen quite a few; however, this is one offering that I truly wanted to see but just haven’t caught up with yet. Now, I have a chance, and I’ll catch up with the winners later.

Let the thaw begin!

Thanks for your consideration…

Powell at Variety.com

Powell in People





Missing In Memoriam: Oscar Nominee Lesley Gore (1946 – 2015)

8 Mar

The harrumphing began before the ceremony even concluded. Where, fans demanded, was Joan Rivers in the Oscar telecast’s “In Memoriam” segment? Sure, Joan was quite the beloved entertainer, but her contribution to motion pictures was barely more than a footnote. She wrote and directed the allegedly groundbreaking Rabbit Test (1978), starring a youngish Billy Crystal (then at the height of newfound stardom thanks to his role on Soap as one of TV’s first openly gay characters). Alas, the movie was critically drubbed, and tanked with audiences. Rivers also voiced the character Dot Matrix, a CP30ish droid in Mel Brooks’ Star Wars parody, Spaceballs (1987), a moderate hit in its day though now a cult favorite. Finally, Rivers’ next most significant contribution to the wonderful world of film was the 2010 documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. Say what you will about Rivers’ brashness or vulgarity, this film masterfully deconstructs that bravado and shows what makes the woman behind the comic mask tick, and what I really mean is that it bares for the all the world the incredible work ethic and energy of a tiny, tiny little woman already well into her 70s. Sadly, the Academy took a pass when it came time to nominate films for that year’s Best Documentary Oscar. No surprise there, as the Academy rarely favors documentaries starring millionaires, no matter how fascinating. With that in mind, Rivers was more like a movie outsider who reported–with an often appalling lack of taste–from the sidelines and made just as many enemies in the process as fans. Don’t get me wrong, Joan Rivers kept me in stitches from the time I was a kid watching the likes of Ed Sullivan, Merv Griffith, Johnny Carson, and all the rest, but in spite of her infamous red carpet interviews, her fame sprang more from TV than movies, so I was not surprised that she was not part of the “In Memoriam” clip.

Then, somebody cried “foul” that Elaine Stritch was also ignored. No doubt, Ms. Stritch was a formidable presence with a career approaching legendary status though her biggest triumphs were onstage–including Tony nominated performances in the original productions of Bus Stop and Company along with a revival of A Delicate Balance, not to mention her award winning one woman show and standby/replacement cast status for both Call Me Madam and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Did she make movies? Sure, including Woody Allen’s labored September, clearly inspired by the infamous Lana Turner-Johnny Stompanato murder case–Cocoon 2, Out to Sea (a somewhat guilty pleasure), and Monster-in-Law, with Jane Fonda and Jennifer Lopez. I think a case for Stritch is easier to make than one for Rivers, but I still don’t see her omission as scandalous by any means.


^ Lizabeth Scott (Photo: Girl Friday Films-blog)

On the other hand, one of my best friends was livid that Lizabeth Scott, who only passed away this January, was left out of the tribute. Scott, often compared to 1940s fan favorites Lauren Bacall, Rita Hayworth, and Veronica Lake, had a brief Hollywood career. Per the IMDb, she notched a mere 31 acting credits in a career that stretched from the 1940s through the early 1970s though she scored high profile roles in The Strange Lovers of Martha Ivers, Dead Reckoning, and Loving You, opposite Elvis Presley. Her career was thrown a curve during the height of the Hollywood Confidential era when she was rumoured to be a lesbian. Those allegations, by the way, were never substantiated. Scott sued, but the case ended in a mistrial. The scandal might not have definitively derailed the actress’s career, but it cast a pall. The Academy would have done well to include her in its tribute to the deceased.

Like so many stars of the 1960s, Gore guest-starred on the campy Batman TV series, playing  one of Julie Newmar's Catwoman minions. albeit with a musical twist as Ms. Gore performed one of  her own ditties, "California Nights."

Like so many stars of the 1960s, Gore appeared on the campy Batman TV series, playing one of Julie Newmar’s Catwoman minions. albeit with a musical twist as Ms. Gore performed one of her own ditties, “California Nights.” Purrrrrrrrrfect!

For me, the most egregious slight was dealt to none other than 60s era singer-songwriter, Lesley Gore (nee Goldstein) who passed away February 16, only days prior to the awards ceremony. There is every reason to be disappointed that Gore was left out of the tribute since, unlike Rivers, Stritch, and Scott, Gore was a former Oscar nominee. Years after her heyday as a pop music princess with such radio smash hits as “It’s My Party,” “Judy’s Turn to Cry,” and “You Don’t Own Me,” Gore co-wrote “Out Here on My Own” with her brother Michael for the movie Fame. Chronicling four years in the lives of a diverse group of students at Manhattan’s High School of Performing Arts (also known as PA), Fame featured a lively cast of newcomers along with rising star Irene Cara (already a vet with such credits as  feature film Sparkle and TV’s The Electric Company), an actual PA graduate. Ms. Gore’s lovely, plaintive ballad, exquisitely performed by Cara, while indeed Oscar worthy, stalled in a race dominated by the same film’s pulsating title tune, written by MIchael Gore and Dean Pitchord (also performed by Cara) and Dolly Parton’s rousing “9 to 5.”

Sixteen years later, Gore experienced a renaissance of sorts when her music figured prominently in two 1996 releases, The First Wives Club, a female buddy comedy headlined by Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton, and Bette Midler, and Allison Anders’ underrated Grace of My Heart, a fictionalized account of Brill Building era singer-songwriters like Carole King, Ellie Greenwich, and Cynthia Weill. Among its many subplots, including Everly Brothers soundalikes played by Andrew and David Williams (nephews of the late Andy Williams), Anders’ film featured Gore’s rapturous “My Secret Love,” a shimmering pop tune co-written by lead Denise Waverly (Illeana Douglas) to accommodate a prominent TV ingenue, reminiscent of say, Shelley Fabares, Patty Duke, or even Gore herself, played by Bridget Fonda. The twist–and no reflection on Fabares or Duke–is that Fonda’s lovely Kelly Porter is about to crack under the pressure of maintaining a closeted same-sex relationship. Secret love, indeed. Of course, Gore more or less wrote from experience, coming out of the closet about her decades long relationship around the same time (now, go back and listen to Cara singing “Out Here on My Own.” Plays a little differently, huh?)  The Kelly Porter sequence in Grace of My Heart works splendidly not only because of Gore’s talents but also the contributions of Combustible Edison’s Miss Lily Banquette, who supplies Porter’s voice in a style very much Gore-worthy

Unfortunately, despite a passel of wonderful tunes composed by the likes of Gore, Burt Bacharach, Elvis Costello, and even Joni Mitchell, the Academy bypassed the entirety of the Grace of My Heart soundtrack. Perhaps the movie was overshadowed by the somewhat thematically similar That Thing You Do!, Tom Hanks’s splashy directorial debut also set in the early-to-mid-sixties pop music world. The two films were released less than a month apart during the fall of 1996, but only one had the full support of a major studio. If you have not yet caught up with Grace of My Heart, by all means, please, add it to your queue.

On the other hand, during the same period Paramount released phenomenally popular The First Wives Club, in which a trio of spurned women–of a certain age–extract justice from the schmucks who unceremoniously dump them for pipsqueak playthings. The highlight of the film spotlights stars Hawn, Keaton, and Midler mustering their girl group prowess in a snazzy rendition of Gore’s classic anthem to sweet female independence, “You Don’t Own Me.” The First Wives Club is hotter than ever thanks to a Broadway-bound musical adaptation, one, hopefully, that will feature Gore’s tune as part of the finale. In the meantime, a friend has suggested that going as the white-clad first wives should be on our agenda for next Halloween. Ha!

I still can’t fathom how or why the Academy overlooked an actual Oscar nominee in this year’s “In Memoriam,” but I’m glad I can pay tribute to Ms. Gore now, albeit later rather than sooner.

Thanks, Lesley….

Oscars 2014/2015: Fashion Gallery

3 Mar

Well, by all accounts, this year’s Oscarcast took a tumble in the ratings. Oh sure, it still ranks as the highest rated entertainment–as opposed to sports related–program over the past 12 months, but the numbers were lowest in six years, definitely a dip from last year’s Ellen Degeneres hosted ceremony, which boasted the highest ratings in about 10 years. Of course, viewers are more likely to tune in the Academy Awards show when they have a rooting interest in the nominated movies, hence the whoppingly fantastic numbers for the 1998 do, the one in which blockbuster Titanic claimed 11 out of 14 awards. Right? In Ellen’s case, she presided over an evening in which such movies as 12 Years a Slave, Gravity, American Hustle, and The Wolf of Wall Street were well positioned. Not to mention a little flick called Frozen, a Disney computer animated extravaganza that seemingly captured the hearts and imaginations of young people in staggering numbers–and some not so young as well–with its anthemic Best Song sure-thing, “Let It Go.” Plus, Ellen is just so dang nice, a comedian who well understands how to put people at ease and make them laugh through her incredible good nature and implicit sense of boundaries. Her predecessor Seth McFarlane, and her successor, the ubiquitous Neil Patrick Harris, are much less fortunate in that regard. More on that to follow.

Also, consider the overwhelming, well, whiteness of this year’s race. No actors of color among the nominees though the winning director was born in Mexico, as was last year’s winner. Still, maybe not all potential viewers felt equally comfortable. Then, again, keep in mind that most of the major nominees were films with limited appeal, the exception being Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, which has earned over 300 million dollars domestically. All but shut out on Oscar night, in spite of six nominations (including  Best Actor, Bradley Cooper), the controversial featured might have fared better had it not so riled high profile media hacks.

With that in mind, consider one of the evening’s most talked about bits. So, after a commercial break, host Neil Patrick Harris was allegedly nowhere to be found, so the camera operator journeyed backstage only to find Harris in his tightie-whities, the whole thing an allegedly uproarious homage to Best Pictue frontrunner Birdman, as the seemingly dazed host took his place back onstage, still in his skivvies, similar to a sequence in which Birdman’s Michael Keaton takes to the street in his underpants as well, Okay, so here’s the problem. As of now, Birdman has earned about 38 million in this country, on an 18 million dollar budget, which means in this country at least more people HAVE NOT seen Birdman than those who have, so if you’re one of the have-nots, how are you supposed to take the sight of a 40 year old man, an openly gay man, let’s not forget for the sake of the haters, running around in his underwear for no discernible reason? See how that works? Harris over-estimates his appeal, and I imagine at that point lots of folks turned off their sets. That’s just a guess. The rest is ratings history.

Anyway, now on to the evening’s Best Dressed. That’s right, Best Dressed only. I don’t do Worst Dressed. That’s someone else’s job. That noted, I also don’t shill for designers the way some of these high profile celebrants do. Yes, free clothes for celebrities, in spite of their enormously enviable salaries, in exchange for shameless designer plugs during red-carpet interviews. Why? So, no.  Finally, aside from my number 1 pick, these do not appear in any special number. Here we go, led by….

Photo: Getty Images/Vogue

Cate Blanchett (Photo: Getty Images/Vogue)

Not the flashiest look of the evening, but oh so incredibly elegant, thanks to the high contrast between the tasteful, drop dead gorgeous black gown and the significant turquoise choker. Such a beautiful statement that nothing else is needed. I would have thought that Blanchett might have gone for a bold red lip. I know that’s always my first choice, but I guess she was wise to opt for a more neutral lip. Her simple, smoothed back updo is perfect as well. Oh, and what great arms. I’m envious.

Cate Blanchett-Jordan Murph-AMPAS-Shopping Blog

(Photo: Jordan Murph-AMPAS-Shopping Blog)

^ Viola Davis (Photo: Getty/the Fashion Spit)

^ Viola Davis (Photo: Getty/the Fashion Sp0t)

^ Anna Kendricks (Photo: Jordan Strauss-Invision-AP-Star)

^ Anna Kendricks (Photo: Jordan Strauss-Invision-AP-Star)

Picture 14

^ Best Actress nominee Reese Witherspoon

^ Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs (Photo: Jason Merrit-Getty/Zimbio)

^ Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs (Photo: Jason Merrit-Getty/Zimbio)

^ Best Supporting Actress nominee Meryl Streep (Photo: Getty Images/Vogue)

^ Best Supporting Actress nominee Meryl Streep (Photo: Getty Images/Vogue)

^ Zoe Saldana (Photo: Getty/Just Jared)

^ Zoe Saldana (Photo: Getty/Just Jared)

Picture 15

Best Supporting Actress nominee Kiera Knightley (Photo: Studded Hearts)

^ Jennifer Hudson (Photo: Getty Images/Vogue)

^ Jennifer Hudson (Photo: Getty Images/Vogue)

Model Bhiati Prinsloo who attended the ceremony with her husband, scheduled performer Adam Levine (Photo: Fashionisers/Zimbio)

^ Model Bhiati Prinsloo who attended the ceremony with her husband, scheduled performer Adam Levine (Photo: Fashionisers/Zimbio)

Picture 19

^ Margot Robbie (Photo: Gemplatinum.com)

^ Lupita Nyong'o (Photo: Reuters-Mario Anzuoni-Metro-Co-UK

^ Lupita Nyong’o (Photo: Reuters-Mario Anzuoni-Metro-Co-UK

Best Actor winner Eddie Redmayne (Photo:  Sydney Morning Herald-Getty)

Best Actor winner Eddie Redmayne (Photo: Sydney Morning Herald-Getty)

^ Sophie Hunter (l) and hubby, Best Actor nominee Benedict Cumberbatch (r) (Photo: Moviefone)

^ Sophie Hunter (l) and hubby, Best Actor nominee Benedict Cumberbatch (r) (Photo: Moviefone)

Okay, thanks for your consideration….let’s do it again next year….


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