Bedroom Eyes. Literally.

9 Oct



This is the original 1-sheet for 1987’s The Bedroom Window, directed by the recently passed Curtis Hanson, and starring Steve Guttenberg, Isabelle Huppert (l-r, in foreground) and Elizabeth McGovern (in background). The movie was one of a relative few, that also included Blue Velvet, Crimes of the Heart, and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, produced and released through Dino De Laurentis’ short-lived American mini studio, De Laurentis Entertainment Group. (IMAGE:  Wikipedia.)

A hotshot young architect woos the glamorous wife of his  well connected boss one night at a party. The attraction is mutual, and the two slip away for a tryst at the young man’s comfortable, spacious apartment overlooking a historic park in Baltimore. As their encounter concludes, the man excuses himself to an adjoining room, and his married lover peers out the bedroom window, jolted by the sight–and sounds–of a woman struggling to get away from her attacker, a scary looking brute with piercing eyes and a shock of red hair. A duck tail no less. [Is his red hair meant as some sort of signifier, OR is it a form of convenience for the writer to make the character register visually? Not clear.]   From the bedroom window, the woman panics, creating enough of a distraction for the victim to break free from her assailant. Alas, all is still not well as the lovers soon discover that shortly after thwarting one attack, a similar incident, one with a deadly outcome, was perpetrated not to far from the previous occurrence. Our lovers feel the pang of guilt, knowing that the married woman saw enough to identify the perpetrator but is not willing to divulge the circumstances, lest she jeopardize her cushy domestic situation. In what seems like a good idea for only 5 minutes or so, the young architect decides to contact the police and relay’s his lover’s version of events as his own. After all, he really only intends to provide a description of the attacker, not much more. How does it all go so wrong? Well, of course, the attacker knows that the man is lying.  During the first tussle, he got a good look at the woman in the window. Of course, he can’t tell the police that without incriminating himself, so he has to take other measures; meanwhile, the detectives on the case have their doubts as well. Also, what about the woman who actually got away? She never saw her attacker’s face–he grabbed her from behind–but she might know more about the architect and his story than even she’s likely to admit to the police.

Writer-director-producer Curtis Hanson (l), an Oscar winner for co-scripting 1997’s L.A. Confidential, which he also directed, passed away on September 20, 2016, yet another casualty of dementia which also claimed the life of Charmian Carr, forever known as lovely Liesl from 1965’s blockbuster, The Sound of Music, the same week. Hanson was 71 at the time; Carr only 73.  Hanson had worked steadily in Hollywood for years before L.A. Confidential bolstered his profile. Adapted from James Ellroy’s noirish tome about police corruption and Hollywood’s seamy underside, circa 1950, and with a cast that includes Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, and Kevin Spacey, L.A. Confidential dazzled critics and earned 9 Oscar nominations (second only to Titanic during the 97/98 Oscar race), ultimately netting Best Supporting Actress honors for Kim Basinger (r), as a tempting Veronica Lake lookalike, in addition to the aforementioned honors accorded to Hanson and co-screenwriter Brian Helgeland. The director worked with Basinger again on 2002’s 8 Mile, starring rapper Eminem, which also captured the 2002 Best Song Oscar: “Lose Yourself,” by Eminem, Jeff Bass, and Luis Resto. Those acclaimed efforts aside, they are not my Hanson faves. Obviously, I have a strong affection for The Bedroom Window, but I also got a kick out of 1992’s The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, which gave Rebecca DeMornay a showy lead role, one with tremendous range, in a big hit film–not necessarily a great film, but a stunning vehicle for its star:  “Peyton,” a troubled young widow posing as a soft spoken nanny for the purpose of extracting deadly revenge. Hard to justify as more than a souped up genre piece, the film re-energized De Mornay’s stagnant career, albeit briefly;  nonetheless, she scooped up a Saturn nomination as did Julianne Moore, only beginning to make a name for herself in movies at the time, in a supporting role as one of Peyton’s snoopy targets. Hanson also provided a change of pace role for Meryl Streep in 1994’s action-packed The River Wild, gave Cameron Diaz one of her strongest roles as a self-destructive mess, per In Her Own Shoes (2005), and, for my money, directed Michael Douglas in one of his  most inspired performances with 2000’s Wonder Boys, for which he was surprisingly overlooked by the Academy though the film secured an Oscar for Bob Dylan and his song, “Things Have Changed.” (Maybe Douglas was not so surprisingly overlooked given the way the otherwise well-received film was ineffectively marketed.) Before Hanson turned to directing, he honed his skills as a screenwriter, most notably with the darkly comic Canadian-made crime thriller, The Silent Partner (1978), starring Elliott Gould and Christopher Plummer. Must be seen to be believed. One of his first directorial efforts, Losin’ It (1983)starred a pre-Risky Business Tom Cruise alongside Shelly Long, back when her classic TV show Cheers was still in its infancy. He also scripted the same year’s Never Cry Wolf directed by Caroll Ballard.  Rest in Peace, Mr. Hanson. (IMAGE: The Guardian)

This, ladies and gentlemen, is the deliciously juicy plot of 1987’s The Bedroom Window,  scripted and directed by Curtis Hanson, “a romantic thriller” promoted at the time by the De Laurentis Entertainment Group as being “in the tradition of the master of suspense.” Funny, that. The announcer in the trailer stops short of actually naming just whom that master of suspense might be, but the movie’s title, based on Anne Holden’s novel The Witnesses, is an obvious homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window.  And that’s not the worst thing to ever happen. Of  course, to clarify, The Bedroom Window is hardly in the same league as its obvious namesake, but it’s a lot of fun for what it is, tantalizing tomfoolery for old school suspense movie buffs; moreover, this is actually my favorite from the late director who only passed away a short time ago.

Let me be clear. I have no illusions about the movie being an unsung masterpiece, but I enjoy the story’s twists and turns (admitting that it sputters toward the end), as well as Hanson’s swanky visuals (with expert assistance from cinematographer Gilbert Taylor), and the performances of the three leads along with two key supporting players.

First up is the male lead, the architect with questionable judgment played by Steve Guttenberg. It seems odd now, given that he hasn’t appeared in a splashy hit movie in some time and that he was never a critics’ darling (more likely, the brunt of jokes), but Guttenberg was once upon a time a pretty reliable–that is, bankable–Hollywood leading man thanks to such offerings as Cocoon (1985), Short Circuit (1986), Three Men and a Baby (1987), and the lucrative Police Academy franchise.  More boyishly good looking than ruggedly handsome, Guttenberg, despite a decent eye for selecting properties, was most often considered a lightweight actor in the press, and that actually works in his favor in this particular role.  Why? Because his character is supposed to be a pretty lousy liar, so it makes sense that his performance is marked by obvious phoniness. If he were any more convincing, he wouldn’t find himself in such jeopardy in the film’s second half. I like watching him buckle under the weight of his own duplicity. Done! In the Hitchcock pantheon, Guttenberg would be more akin to generally likeable Bob Cummings (in Saboteur or Dial M for Murder) who rates merely adequate–or, worse, wooden–compared to the more complex, dynamic characters played by Jimmy Stewart (specifically Rope, Rear Window, or Vertigo) or charismatic Cary Grant (Suspicion, Notorious, To Catch a Thief, or North by Northwest).

Next on board is silkily beautiful French actress Isabelle Huppert. Already famous in her own country for the likes of Violet (César nominee), Every Man for Himself, Loulou (César nominee), Godard’s Passion, Coup de Torchon (César nominee), and Entre Nous (among many others), The Bedroom Window was not Huppert’s first American film though she doesn’t seem to speak English comfortably–even with a dialogue coach [1]. The issue isn’t pronunciation, per se, as she’s easily enough understood, but she lacks ease speaking lines and lines of dialogue convincingly, persuasively. Luckily, she is gorgeous, which is really the point. The audience is not asked to identify with her so much, but to see her through Guttenberg’s eyes, so beautiful that all judgment flies out the window; after all, Guttenberg’c character flirts with disaster from the get-go when he invites his boss’s wife for a rendezvous in his apartment, for cryin’ out loud. In the late 1980s, when most of us were wearing too much makeup, battling over-processed hair, and trying to look swell in glitzily preposterous fashions, Huppert strolls into this movie looking like a sleek femme fatale from Hollywood’s Golden era, say someone on the order of Veronica Lake, so prominently referenced in Hanson’s L.A. Confidential–that or the effortlessly chic star of a French art film [2]. Of course, her performance would be nothing without retro-glam flourishes courtesy of costume designer Clifford Capone, hair stylist Milton Buras, and makeup artist Stefano Fava–and, again, exquisitely lit by Gilbert Taylor. Huppert’s Sylvia Wentworth doesn’t necessarily have the inner-vibrancy that characterizes some of the master’s beat known “cool blondes, ” such as Grace Kelly (mostly Rear Window and To Catch a Thief), Eva Marie Saint (North by Northwest) or even Kim Novak in Vertigo. Instead, she’s just cool, that is, icy. Cold.  But of course, her cool reserve contrasts quite nicely with Elizabeth McGovern’s liveliness as the final major player.

The third of the major leads is played by Elizabeth McGovern. With the blush of such early successes as Ordinary People (1980’s Best Picture winner in which she played Timothy Hutton’s freshly-scrubbed, apple-cheeked crush) and 1981’s Ragtime, portraying scandalous beauty Evelyn Nesbit to Oscar nominated glory, fading fast but long before capturing the viewing public’s imagination with the phenomenally popular Downton Abbey, McGovern was in need of a career jolt when she signed on for Bedroom Window. She found exactly that, going for broke in a role that requires absolutely no subtlety.  She plays a straight-talkin’ cocktail waitress who survives an attack and then aligns herself with Guttenberg when she realizes what a schlemiel he is, way over his head and sinking fast. Her character needs to clear him from suspicion in order to bring the real villain to justice. and she’s pretty brazen in her efforts. In some of the early scenes, McGovern’s Denise serves a hearty helping of butch-ilicious swagger, but, over time, her defenses soften, and her playful side emerges.  She even dons a long honey-colored wig and sexy girlie costume to help snare the killer, a 180 degree turn from her first encounter with Guttenberg at the police station. It’s almost as though McGovern is playing two characters, like, oh, the aforementioned Kim Novak in Vertigo.

Two actors make vivid contributions in key roles. Most notable of the pair is Brad Greenquist as the slippery killer, slippery in that even with his red hair, he is so otherwise non-descript that he disappears in a crowd of people, thereby making it difficult for detectives to backtrack his movements or to corroborate Guttenberg’s accounts of following him. At the same time, he looks awfully spooky when he gets riled up or is  about to attack. This actor performs confidently, cannily, in a role that actually requires a lot of skill.  Yes, as indicated, he does not necessarily register strongly among patrons at a rowdy bar, but, of course, the audience knows who he is, and he keeps our interest in a largely wordless role. How wordless is up to some debate, and that is part of the fun. The killer’s lawyer, meanwhile, is played by the ever-reliable Wallace Shawn, showing much more force in this rare dramatic role than we have come to expect in some of his more comedic high profile role, such as the same year’s The Princess Bride. When cross-examining Guttenberg, Shawn is unrelenting, but his seemingly non-threatening demeanor practically blind-sides the chump–and, so, the tables are turned.

Besides the obvious Hitchcockian allusion in the title, The Bedroom Window has filmic fingerprints all over it–and not just Hitchcock’s For example, anyone who has ever seen, say, 12 Angry Men (which came out 20 years previous) or My Cousin Vinny (released five years afterward) will recognize the trap that Shawn’s attorney sets for Guttenberg’s schemer. Still, it adds up to a few tense moments for everyone in the courtroom and all of us in the audience who, somehow, want to root for the architect even when we know, almost from the start, he’s in deep doo-do0.  As produced by Oscar winner Robert Towne, the genius who scripted Chinatown (1974), one of the most intriguing movies of the 1970s or any other decade, I have to wonder if he made any creative contributions to Hanson’s offering. By the by, Chinatown was the movie that critics most often favorably compared Hanson’s L.A. Confidential to upon its 1997 release, but I digress. I also have to wonder, back to Bedroom Window, if the architect’s last name, Lambert, is an allusion to Lampert, the last name of Audrey Hepburn’s character in Charade. Maybe it’s just a coincidence. Also, what about that sequence set in a theatre during a ballet performance? The echoes of  both Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (the ’56 version with the climactic Albert Hall scene) and North by Northwest (the shocking turn at the United Nations building) are hard to ignore, but, again, that’s almost part of the fun, given that the whole movie in many ways functions as put-on, a lark.

Speaking of filmic fingerprints, one of Guttenberg’s early breaks came with Diner, writer-director Barry Levinson’s first homage to his birth place, good old Baltimore, Maryland. The Bedroom Window brings Guttenberg back to Baltimore, home to the late Edgar Allan Poe, another master of suspense. Indeed, McGovern’s Denise works at a bar called Edgar’s. At one point, she walks under a neon sign that spells out “Nevermore.” This reference isn’t a lark. It’s a raven.

Thanks for your consideration…

[1] – Per the IMDb, that would be Neil Robinsoon.

[2] – Since The Bedroom Window, Huppert has only selectively worked in U.S. films though she fared well in Hal Hartley’s The Amateur (1994). Back in France, she has since accrued 10 additional César nominations, including the stylish 8 Femmes, winning at long last for La cérémonie (1995); meanwhile, the Cannes judges unanimously voted her Best Actress for 2001’s La pianiste, released in the U.S. as The Piano Teacher.

Please click here to read Curtis Hanson’s obituary on The Guardian’s website:

Tangled: The Hissing of Summer Lantana*

29 Sep



One of my all-time favorite movie posters. I had a mini version of it for years. That’s the back of Anthony LaPaglia’s head resting against Kerry Armstrong, with menacing lantana invading the cozy scene. Breathtaking. IMAGE: Wikipedia –

Yes, technically, summer has passed. I began writing this piece the week before Garry Marshall passed away, and then I got sidetracked writing about Frankie & Johnny, my favorite Marshall film. I came back to this piece, but was once again sidetracked when Gene Wilder died. Then, I just needed a short break before I resumed. So, here we are at last….even though, again, summer has passed.

Walking is one of my favorite ways to take care of myself. I love walking the way that many people love wine or chocolate, and, make no mistake, I loooove chocolate. I’ve been walking for fun and/or fitness for most of my life. I used to walk to work and back,  a mile or more, for decades. Didn’t drive. Luckily, I loved to walk. Great way to clear the mind, relieve stress, what have you. I try to take a health walk after dinner every evening.

Lately, I’ve been listening, really, deeply listening, to the buzz of cicadas as I walk among the heavily tree lined lanes of my neighborhood. I get lost in the sound, the thrilling complexity of it, layers upon layers of throbbing buzzing. For me, it’s quite likely hypnotic.

This same sense of awe is very much apparent in the Australian movie Lantana, right from the beginning.

In Lantana, the sounds of cicadas are heard before anything visual is revealed. Then follows a beautiful shot in which camera glides among bushy lantana, masses of colorful blossoms and vivid green leaves growing wild, basking in sun-kissed richness. This gorgeous footage of flowers is deepened, amplified, by the droning buzz of cicadas, maybe frogs, and even crickets. The camera artfully descends into a dark hole in the clump, peers down into the thorny underbrush, slowly revealing something unfortunate, tragic, maybe even sinister. Brilliant. As much as I love this sequence, even I have to admit that it bears a wee resemblance to a similar sequence in David Lynch’s 1986 cult fave Blue Velvet, but Lantana is very much its own movie.

Before writing this post, I researched the lantana plant in order to put it into context, that is, the context that Australians, Australian filmmakers–screenwriter Andrew Bovell, producer Jan Chapman, and director Ray Lawrence, would find compelling. To that end, per the official New South Wales, website [1], “Lantana is one of Australia’s most debilitating invasive weeds” (para. 1). Additionally, “Widespread lantana infestations regularly impact on agriculture, the environment, forestry management, recreation and transport” (para. 2).  Furthermore, all varieties of the plant are considered to be “toxic” to both animals and humans (para. 3-7). Finally, “Lantana is a serious invader of disturbed ecosystems including national parks and reserves. The weed can form a dense understorey competing with native flora and limiting natural regeneration” (para. 11). This then is the “thicket” that occupies the heart of Lawrence’s film.  Not only does the tangled growth literally figure into the plot–twice, in fact–it serves as a metaphor for love and betrayal.

If there is an actual plot in Lantana, it is the story of a woman who disappears while driving along a deserted road in the thick of night. Her marriage is shaky, and, certainly, her husband’s behavior seems awfully curious. Of the two detectives assigned to the case, the male is in the midst of a full-blown midlife crisis, racked in equal parts by doubt and guilt. And for good reason.  That’s the plot, the linking thread among four heterosexual couples in various states of disarray: the unfaithful detective and his frustrated–and also not blind–wife; the missing woman and her suspicious-acting husband; an estranged duo in which the woman is desperately lonely to the point that she stalks a sometime “date” while her ex longs for reconciliation. A fourth couple’s struggles are financial. She picks up extra shifts at her job to earn as much cash as possible while laid-off hubby stays home and takes care of the kiddies. It’s hardly an ideal situation, but these people love each other and try as well as they know to make their relationship work. Unfortunately, a busybody neighbor, one with too much time on his or her hands, observes that the out of work hubby appears to be hiding something, something potentially deadly. Another couple operates on the periphery: yet another presumably hetero  married man cheats on his wife with–gasp!–another man, the patient of a therapist with troubles of his or her own who also happens to be treating one of the women experiencing marital difficulty. Tangled, right?

Lantana belongs to a rare class of motion pictures–okay, rare to me–that I call “solar plexus”  films. This is my own term as far as I know, and I’ve used it for years, well before Lantana ever screened. Other movies of this vintage, and it’s a small, small, group, include The Devil’s Playground (directed by fellow Aussie Fred Schepisi, 1976), Exotica (directed by Canadian Atom Egoyan, 1994), and The Ballad of Narayama (specifically, director Shohei Imamura’s 1983 remake of the Japanese classic from the 1950s). Maybe Frances (1982) and Monster (2003) rate as well, but, again, it’s a super select group. A solar-plexus film is not merely sad nor even depressing. It’s more profound than that, but even calling it profound seems pretentious. I like to think a solar plexus film hits squarely upon an uncomfortable emotional truth. Something painful about the human condition, not necessarily bad, but definitely, again, painful or uncomfortable. It weighs heavily to the degree that it creates its own unique bodily sensation,  I’ve only seen one comedy that came close to that sensation, and that is 2013’s Enough Said with Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini.

Lantana is about love and betrayal. I recently read somewhere that betrayal by a loved one is betrayal of the worst sort because we don’t expect such actions form a loved one. On the other hand, does betrayal by an enemy even qualify as betrayal? Is that even a thing? In this case, as the layers of betrayal are pulled back, the truth is even more unbearable than the unknown. Right in the solar plexus where the sensation lingers.

Once upon a time, beginning in the mid to late 1970s and up through the early to mid 1980s, film lovers all over the place fell in love with Australian cinema. And why not? The newly thriving industry, largely underwritten by the government, brought a fresh, hugely talented bunch of filmmakers to the forefront of popular and critical acclaim. For example, director Gillian Armstrong helped launch the careers of charmers Judy Davis and Sam Neil in the Victorian coming of age tale My Brilliant Career. Additionally, Peter Weir, well known in the states for Witness, Dead Poets Society, and The Truman Show,  made a name for himself with the likes of Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Last Wave, and Gallipoli, the latter starring exciting newcomer Mel Gibson who had already begun making a name for himself in George Miller’s Mad Max. Meanwhile, Fred Schepisi helmed the aforementioned The Devil’s Playground as well as The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. Before he scored in America with the likes of Tender Mercies and Driving Miss Daisy, Bruce Beresford triumphed in his homeland with The Getting of Wisdom and Breaker Morant. Finally, but not really final, is Philip Noyce. Americans know him from big budget blockbusters on the order of Salt (which I wrote about in 2011), Patriot Games, and Clear and Present Danger, but he attracted a lot of attention Down Under with Newsfront (a major Australian Academy winner), Heat Wave (Judy Davis again), and Dead Calm (Sam Neil and a very young Nicole Kidman).

Since that time, the Australian film community has continued to make amazing films, The Dish and Rabbit Proof Fence (the latter directed by the aforementioned Noyce) being two particular standouts; likewise, Australia shares its wealth, meaning some of the biggest names in American made films got their first big breaks Down Under: Toni Collette (Muriel’sWedding), Russell Crowe (Romper Stomper) [1], Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman (Flirting, plus the aforementioned Dead Calm), Guy Pearce (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert), and Naomi Watts (also, Flirting), among others. All well and fine, but the “wow” factor, the enthusiasm and intrigue of that first wave, has long passed as audiences explore other genres, other cultures–other styles of filmmaking. That being the case, maybe you missed Lantana in its theatrical run. Maybe you’d see it if you only had a reason.

I can give you 8 good reasons you should consider watching Lantana. Not coincidentally, that’s the same number of Australian Film Institute Awards (the Oscar equivalent) it won, setting a record at that time for sweeping all the major categories. If that’s not enough, how about 14 good reasons, that is, the number of AFI nominations it garnered? Are you ready? Here goes:

  • Anthony LaPaglia (Best Actor) – We’ve become so accustomed to seeing LaPaglia in American TV shows and movies, such as The Client, wherein he played Barry “The Blade” Muldano, not to mention Tony winning Broadway productions, such as A View from the Bridge, that it’s sometimes easy to forget that he is, in fact, a native Australian. As the weary detective whose marriage is falling apart at the seams, LaPaglia is the emotional heart of Lantana. He is at constant odds with himself almost every minute, maybe at odds with everyone he encounters (including one of his children), and his confusion, melded as it is with his sense of justice, is palpable.  An Oscar nomination in the year that produced Denzel Washington (Training Day), Russell Crowe (A Beautiful Mind), Tom Wilkinson (In the Bedroom), Sean Penn (I Am Sam), and Will Smith (Ali) would have been more than okay with me as I wasn’t a HUGE fan of any of the nominees though they all had their moments, especially Wilkinson, I guess, in problematic films.  I’ve always believed that LaPaglia’s right-on performance in this film was a likely catalyst in him being cast as the lead detective in Without a Trace, the long-running American TV series for which he netted two Emmy nominations and one SAG nod as well, among other honors. As with his character on that show, he begins his case in this film by searching for a missing person, not by investigating a crime, per se.
  • Kerry Armstrong (Best Actress) – Armstrong plays LaPaglia’s no-nonsense wife. She doesn’t necessarily go snooping to see what he’s up to because she doesn’t have to. She might not know all the details, but she knows enough, and we feel for her because, among other things, Armstrong is a knockout, a casually elegant beauty on the order of America’s own Christy Turlington though Armstrong is, in fact, older by about a decade…no matter. She looks great, and audiences might be baffled by why her husband cheats, but, of course, we all know that, as is often the case, people in relationships who stray often do so for reasons that have NOTHING to do with the person being cheated upon and everything to do with the cheater. Still, it’s obvious that Armstrong’s character dearly loves her husband, and she’s just tired and lonely enough, and don’t forget so incredibly good looking, that she might be tempted to do something she will surely regret. Powerful stuff. She and LaPaglia have a great wordless scene that speaks volumes. They know how to just “be” onscreen. Oh, and the year that Armstrong won her Australian Film Institute award for Lantana, she also won an additional award from the same organization for her work in the TV show Sea Change. Not bad. Not bad at all.
  • Rachael Blake (Best Supporting Actress) – In a film rife with flawed characters, Blake’s divorcee is seriously one of the worst of the lot. She’s desperate for attention and affection, enough so that she hunts a recent fling, setting up an extremely awkward confrontation, and she makes overtures, overtures that could easily be misconstrued, to a neighbor. Aside from all that, she has a lot of free time on her hand, time that allows for a lot of voyeurism, amateur sleuth stuff that has far-reaching implications, both good and bad. She’s a mess, but, in a bit of a twist, her ex-hubby still seems wildly infatuated with her. Out of everyone she knows, he may very well be the only one who actually has feelings for her though she would rather be at home by herself, flailing through life, than reconnect. I don’t know if my response is more geared to the character than to Blake herself but this is probably my least favorite performance in the bunch, with or without her award. Something about her just reads as “awkward” to me, and I mean that in a Jane Lynch kind of way. Even her character is named Jane.  I actually like Jane Lynch, a lot, and Blake is actually a decade younger than Lynch, but Lynch has a way of portraying awkward people in a funny way. Blake isn’t going for comedy. Oh well. She’s a busy lady with multiple Australian Film Institute nods to her credit, besides her win for Lantana.
  • Vince Colosimo (Best Supporting Actor) – As an out of work husband whose actions attract the wrong kind of attention, Colosimo expertly plays every note of a character who is both more and less than what he seems at the outset. In other words, he might not be guilty, but that doesn’t necessarily make him innocent,  or smart, and that is a tricky assignment for any actor. Like Rachael Blake, Colosimo is a busy, busy, actor and has been for decades. In the 90s, he appeared on several episodes of the American series The Practice. At home, his range of credits include roles in The Great Gatsby (yes, the DiCaprio version helmed by Aussie Baz Luhrman) and Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. He boasts an additional trio of AFI nods, including Best Actor for Walking on Water, a big hit, as well, at the 2002 Berlin International Film Festival.
  • Andrew Bovell (Best Adapted Screenplay AND Harpers Bazaar AFI Screenwriting Prize) – I truly do not know the point in awarding two prizes for one screenplay, but there you have it. Bovell’s screenplay is so good that his own countrymen–and women–found enough reason to honor it twice. Of course, Bovell juggles the criss-crossing storylines and varied characters with dexterity, an admirable accomplishment, but Lovell’s greater achievement–arguable, of course–is hitting all the right emotional notes–and even some of the wrong ones, if that makes any sense. Again, before this movie arrives at its final sequence, many of these characters will face some disturbing truths. Some of them, the characters, that is, will come out on the other side of these knotty thorns with dignity intact and hope renewed. The others will not be so fortunate, and give Bovell credit for not tying up each story thread so nicely and neatly after so expertly showing us the dark and desperate side of humanity. Bovell’s other credits include being listed as one of the several writers of Baz Luhrman’s acclaimed, award winning, debut smash, Strictly Ballroom.
  • Ray Lawrence (Best Director) – If Bovell’s gift is for getting inside the heads of his imaginary characters, Lawence’s talent is for excelling likewise with real-life performers.  Certainly, members of the Australian Academy, many of them actors, no doubt, showed Lawrence and his cast their appreciation with all those awards. That consideration, by the way, extended to one more performer who was bested by one of her peers, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Besides noteworthy performances, Lawrence’s concerns include the movie’s lighting and music, both of which he recalls at length on Lantana‘s DVD.
  • Jan Chapman (Producer, Best Picture) – If Chapman’s name seems familiar, you might remember her from 1993’s The Piano which she produced though, to clarify, Jan Chapman should not be confused with Jane Campion, who actually directed The Piano, earning an Oscar nod for Best Director (only the second woman in Academy history so recognized) and actually winning the coveted statuette for her screenplay. Back to Chapman. She is one of her country’s most respected producers with a seemingly unerring eye for material, for recognizing talent, and for creating opportunities. She won Australia’s top film prize for The Piano as well as for this film and her filmography also includes accolades for The Last Days of Chez Nous (directed by Gillian Armstrong) and Bright Star (the John Keats biopic directed by Campion). Besides dominating the Australia Film Institute awards, Chapman and her film made a handsome showing at the Film Critics Circle of Australia derby, claiming prizes and/or nominations in many of the same categories.

Besides these wins, Lantana scored additional Australian Academy nominations for Best Editing (Karl Sodersten), Best Sound (the team of Syd Butterworth, Andrew Plain, and Robert Sullivan), Best Production Design (Kim Buddee), Best Costume Design (Margot Wilson), and Best Original Music Score (Paul Kelly). Let’s break this down.  Kelly lost in his category but emerged victorious at his country’s equivalent of the Grammy awards. Bing! Likewise, Syd Butterworth, of the sound team, was honored by members of his own guild for his work with location recording. Bing again! Regarding the nominations for art direction and costume, it really comes as no surprise that a contemporary film would not go all the way in categories often dominated, at least in the U.S., by period and/or fantasy films. That noted, these designers deserve props for defining the habits and environments of a large number of characters from a wide range of economic backgrounds, from obviously affluent to barely making ends meet, all of which shape the way they dress along with where and how they live. In that regard, the design team is a huge success since everything seems real and lived-in. Also, props to cinematographer Mandy Walker. She wasn’t even nominated for the AFI award, strangely, though she snagged a prize from her colleagues in the Australian Cinematographers Society, and good for her since she and Lawrence worked hard to achieve naturalistic lighting, even during night shoots, always a tricky proposition. Bing!

Still, I want to pay special tribute to one cast member who was nominated but lost–to one of her own cast members, no less. Ouch! I’m referring to Daniela Farinacci, nominated as Best Supporting Actress for her role as the put upon wife and mother, taken to working extra shifts as a nurse to help make ends meet while her husband seems helplessly between jobs. Per the IMDb, Farinacci barely had any TV or movie credits to her name when she signed on for Lantana, but, no matter, she’s a real spitfire, trying to hold on tightly to her loved ones in order to keep the family unit together while also trying to make sense of the confusion, and possible (perceived) betrayal that unfolds rather dramatically in a short period. With the possible exception of Thomas’s frustrated wife, Farinacci’s Paula may very well be the most decent, most likeable, character in the whole film. She doesn’t hide her emotions, and everything she does seems authentic. Too bad she lost to Rachael Blake in a role that doesn’t seem quite as compelling.

Among the large cast’s non-nominated pool are two stars well-known to audiences in both Australia and America. The first of those is Geoffrey Rush who, at the time of Lantana, had already achieved international glory, including an American Oscar, for portraying troubled yet triumphant Aussie pianist David Helfgott in 1996’s Shine–that and subsequent nominations for 1998’s Shakespeare in Love (Best Supporting Actor) and 1990’s Quills, in which he played the Marquis de Sade (Best Actor). Rush’s character exists in a strained marriage with no less than American thesp, Barbara Hershey. Coincidentally, Hershey’s lone Oscar nod–Best Supporting Actress for Portrait of a Lady–came in 1996, the same year that Rush won for Shine. To clarify, Hershey does not play her Lantana role with an Aussie accent. Instead, we understand her to to be a transplanted American. To further clarify, the role was not necessarily written that way. Apparently, Hershey won the part through persistence after reading the screenplay–and apparently after no other Australian native (Judy Davis? Sigrid Thornton? Rachel Ward? The late Wendy Hughes?) was deemed suitable or was willing to step up to the plate. Curious, but I digress.  The two characters played by Rush and Hershey struggle to remain civil to one another while pressing on after facing inexplicable tragedy. She clings to the catharsis of writing a book as a coping mechanism while he shields his feelings and clings to workplace minutiae as a means of avoidance. His reluctance to engage spurs within her almost crippling thoughts of infidelity, impairing her judgement. What a mess. Both performers deliver thoughtful performances with Rush definitely working through the murkier challenge.

Despite capturing honors all over the place, including England, France, and Italy, Lantana did not make much of a showing in the U.S. during the 2001/02 awards season. Not only did the Academy ignore the picture, it couldn’t even gain traction with the likes of the Screen Actors Guild or the Writers Guild. The smattering of prizes it did claim came from the National Board of Review (Special Recognition for Excellence in Filmmaking), the American Association of Retired Persons, that is, AARP, award (Best Movie for Grownups), and the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival, where it garnered prizes for director Lawrence, screenwriter Bovell, and the ensemble cast. It also tied for Best Picture with the Zookeeper.

Maybe you haven’t seen Lantana. Maybe you should. Maybe you should at least consider doing so. If you are a fan of, say, Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993), Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999), or 2005’s Best Picture winner Crash, per writer-director Paul Haggis, Lantana might be just the ticket. Oh, speaking of Altman, aside from his exquisite Gosford Park, I could not work up much enthusiasm for the Academy’s slate of Best Picture nominees that year. Oh, as noted previously regarding the Best Actor roster, the selected films had their moments, but moments, possibly a few standout performances, were all they had. To this day, and, again, with the exception of Gosford Park, I haven’t felt compelled to watch a single one of them again since seeing them in their original runs. Not once. What a strange time that was because both Gosford Park and Lantana did not open locally until early 2002, and I can remember being flummoxed for much of the holiday season, and I felt odd, weird, different, frustratingly unsatisfied that I had not seen that truly awesometastic movie that usually sparks a cinematic jolt followed by, as a good friend once described, movie afterglow. Then in short order, I saw Gosford Park and Lantana almost back to back, and I felt a rush, a wash of delirium as though I had been saved, saved by Lantana‘s tangled embrace.

Thanks for your consideration…

* Debt of gratitude to Joni Mitchell for inspiring this title

[1] – To learn more about the lantana plant:

[2] – Technically, Crowe was born in New Zealand while Naomi Watts was born in England, and even Nicole Kidman was, actually, born in Hawaii; however, they, as noted, eventually relocated to Australia and began their careers. To further clarify, directors Jane Campion (The Piano) and Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings) are actually from New Zealand though strongly identified with Australian cinema.

[3] – The big winner that year was A Beautiful Mind (admired the performances, not crazy about the finished product as a whole) though I believe the first installment of The Lord of the Rings scored more nominations (the series built steadily to its third entry). Rounding out the ballot were In the Bedroom (liked, didn’t love…hard to love), Moulin Rouge! (an acquired taste…I belive Time labelled it both the year’s Best AND Worst film), and, finally, Gosford Park, Robert Altman’s exquisite homage to “cozy” murder mysteries penned by Agatha Christie–scripted by Oscar winner Julian Fellowes, who later masterminded the wildly popular British series Downton Abbey.


A slightly different but no less elegant version of the Lantana poster. IMAGE: IMDB

Farewell, Mr. Wilder: The Candy Man Who Launched a Thousand Memes

5 Sep
Screen shot 2016-08-29 at 9.33.05 PM

“Come with me And you’ll be In a world of pure imagination Take a look And you’ll see Into your imagination.” Actor-writer-director Gene Wilder passed last week (Monday, August 29,2016) at the age of 83.

Who can take a sunrise (who can take a sunrise)
Sprinkle it with dew (sprinkle it with dew)
Cover it with choc’late and a miracle or two
The Candy Man (the Candy Man)
Oh, the Candy Man can (the Candy Man can)
The Candy Man can
‘Cause he mixes it with love
And makes the world taste good
(Makes the world taste good)
          I saw Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
at the Ridgewood theatre in Garland back when it was first released during the summer of 1971. I was 11 at the time, so, naturally, I loved the movie. I even loved the Ridgewood theatre. I loved Wonka’s visual effects and amazing art direction, such as the entry hall that changed dimensions and especially that lavish chocolate room with all the candied treats and chocolate river. Being 11, I didn’t know exactly what “art direction” entailed, exactly, but I thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d seen since Dorothy’s turn in Munchkinland in The Wizard of Oz. My love for Wonka didn’t end with its visual appeal. I also enjoyed the songs (obviously, the two I have quoted on this page), and, last, but certainly not least, I loved the the funny looking man at the center of it all. He was funny yet creepy and altogether enthralling. He first appears limping along with a cane and then launches into a somersault, a move which Wilder later relayed was his own idea and essential to his characterization in that, after that introduction, audiences would never know if Wonka was to be trusted. His face seemed perfectly innocent one minute, then smug; silly the next, and sinister the moment after that. Simply, I felt enchanted.
          Several months later, there I sat late one night at the foot of my mother and stepfather’s bed, watching the Academy awards all the way through for the first time ever. The big winner, of course, was  The French Connection. Never heard of it. Or Gene Hackman. Jane Fonda snagged Best Actress for Klute and didn’t make a politically embarrassing speech though everyone seemed to be afraid she would from what I understood, which was not much, actually. She barely looked like Jane Fonda to me, that is, the gorgeous pin-up from the likes of Barefoot in the Park. Instead, she had dark hair in a shag. In the Best Supporting Actress category, I was torn even though I had not seen any of the nominees’ films. On one hand, another one of my faves, Ann-Margret, whom I’d seen umpteen times in Made in Paris and Bye, Bye Birdie, was nominated for Carnal Knowledge (no, I didn’t know what that meant) against no less than Cloris Leachman, whom I’d grown to admire thanks to her role as Mary Tyler Moore’s kooky neighbor, Phyllis Lindstrom. Leachman won, looking nothing like Phyllis,  and gave a delightful speech. (Google it.) There was a lot I did not understand about the Oscars that year. What, after all, was A Clockwork Orange? Who were Nicholas and Alexandra?  Yes, I asked, Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? What the heck is Isaac Hayes doing up there in a vest made of chains, and who is Shaft? I knew who Charlie Chaplin was because his Little Tramp figure was so widely portrayed, but I didn’t understand why people were making such a big deal about him though I thought he delivered a sweetheart of a speech. Of course, to me, he looked as old as Methuselah.
          One thing I did know, irrefutably, was Willy Wonka. I sat up at the recognition of one of my favorite movies, and probably the only movie I’d seen in a theatre that year. Part of a babysitting gig with a neighbor across the street, but I digress.  Wonka was nominated for Best Song Score, per the team of Leslie Bricusse, Anthony Newley, and Walter Scharf. Of course, I didn’t know what a score was, let alone a score adaptation. To this day, I really cannot figure how a movie can reap an award for its song score without likewise meriting at least one Best Song nod? No “Candy Man”? No “Pure Imagination”? Really? The winner went to John Williams for Fiddler on the Roof. Eleven year old me asks, “What does it mean, this fiddler on the roof?”  Surprisingly, if not bewilderingly (so to speak), no Oscar nods for Wonka’s sets, per Harper Goff–still a hard one to figure–nor for Mr. Wonka himself, Gene Wilder.
          Not too many years later, I would learn something almost unconscionable: despite being one of the two or three most amazing movies ever made, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory was deemed a box office disappointment, at least at the time of its release. Of course, despite an underwhelming start, and a mostly unappreciative Academy, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory endures as a classic. Just like the Wizard of Oz, repeated TV viewings helped it build its audience as one generation shared it with the next. Rinse–with chocolate–and repeat. I was ecstatic to see it on the big screen several years later, probably ’84, in San Francisco, no less. Today, not only do viewers recognize Willy Wonka as a classic, so does the Library of Congress, per the National Film Registry, class of 2014.
          Around the time I learned about Willy Wonka not being, you know, a hit, I learned  (again, after the fact) that Wilder had actually snagged a Golden Globe nomination for his incredible performance. Amazing! Good for him.
          But, of course, Wilder was much, much more than Willy Wonka. And, now, alas, he has passed away. Before he made his big screen debut, playing a hostage in Bonnie and Clyde, Wilder had eked out a career in theatre, appearing in the original short-lived Broadway run of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in the same tragic role that eventually netted a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for Brad Dourif in the 1975 film adaptation. Additionally, during his years on the boards, Wilder also appeared in Mother Courage, the very play in which Anne Bancroft was starring in early 1963 and, as a result, missed accepting her Best Actress Oscar for The Miracle Worker (the result of which provided an infamous photo-op for Joan Crawford, thereby rubbing salt in a fresh wound suffered by Crawford’s co-star Bette Davis, competing against Crawford for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, but I digress). We can all breathe a healthy, hearty sigh of relief knowing that Bancroft facilitated Wilder’s introduction to her then beau and later husband Mel Brooks. From there, Wilder and Brooks thrived, starting with 1968’s The Producers for which Wilder earned a Best Supporting Actor nod for playing hapless accountant Leo Bloom, one half of a scheming duo trying to  bilk the system by orchestrating a guaranteed flop Broadway show, notoriously known as Springtime for Hitler. Besides Wilder’s Best Supporting Actor nomination (though, obviously, his is a leading role) [1],  Brooks snagged an Oscar for his screenplay.
          Over the next few years, Wilder worked steadily if not spectacularly though the highlights include(d) Wonka, of course, and Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex…, a parody of Dr. David Reuben’s landmark non-fiction “how-to” book of the same name. In his vignette, Wilder plays a doctor who falls in love with, well, no need for a spoiler or even a spoiler alert here. Really, it has to be seen to be believed, but Wilder is very convincing in a role that might have destroyed a lesser actor.  Again, it’s that face: sparkling blue eyes, wispy lashes, nice teeth, and an impish smile.  No, he’s not conventionally good looking like some of the bigger stars of the era: Steve McQueen, Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, or Ryan O’Neal, but he has kind features that can turn instantly…crazed.
          Wilder reunited with Mel Brooks not once but twice in 1974, firmly establishing himself as one of the best and brightest stars of the era. First came the bawdy western parody Blazing Saddles, pairing Wilder with Cleavon Little and featuring an Oscar nominated supporting turn by the late, great Madeline Kahn. The film soared to the top of year’s biggest box office hits and later placed as high as #6 on the American Film Institute’s 2000 salute to the 100 funniest films ever made. Even better, per our household, is/was the comic masterpiece, Young Frankenstein, a stunning black and white homage to all those classic Universal horror films from the 1930s. Wilder and Brooks netted Oscar nods for their screenplay, a highlight of which includes the former as Dr. Frankenstein (that’s Frankensteen) doing a righteously elegant “Puttin’ on the Ritz” with Peter Boyle in the role of the doctor’s monstrous creation. Classic.  Also along for the ride are Mary Feldman, Kenneth Mars, Madeline Kahn (of course), Teri Garr, and Cloris Leachman. This one also cracked the roster of 1974’s top 10 box office hits and is also recognized as an American classic by the Library of Congress and also appears, coming in at 13, on the AFI’s list of great American comedies. For those keeping score, Wilder appears in no less than 5  National Film Registry titles: Bonnie and Clyde, The Producers, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein. That’s quite a legacy.

          In 1976, Wilder teamed up with Richard Pryor for the comedy-thriller Silver Streak–featuring star-in-the-making Jill Clayburgh as Wilder’s romantic interest. Scripted by Harold and Maude‘s beloved Colin Higgins, Silver Streak proved popular with audiences and critics, netting Wilder another Golden Globe nod and setting the stage for future Wilder-Pryor pairings, most notably Stir Crazy. The 1980 prison themed comedy was directed by no less than Sidney Poitier and sold over 100 million dollars worth of movie tickets, the year’s third biggest box office attraction–just behind The Empire Strikes Back and 9 to 5.  In so doing, Poitier broke new ground as the first director of African descent to stake a claim in the then relatively exclusive 100 million dollar club. Poitier later directed Wilder in Hanky Panky, a North by Northwest style  yarn, like Silver Streak, that mixes comedy and intrigue. Hanky Panky was the film that brought Wilder together with Gilda Radner whom he later married [2], but I’m getting ahead of myself. Backing up a bit, Wilder and Pryor reunited for 1989’s See No Evil, Hear No Evil (directed by Silver Streak‘s Arthur Hiller). Hardly a blockbuster, the film nonetheless held the number one spot at the top of the box office charts for two weeks running. The final Wilder-Pryor outing, Another You was far less successful. Oh, and if you’re still keeping score, Silver Streak weighs in at 95 on the AFI’s list of 100 funniest movies, making that entry number four for Wilder. Again, that’s quite a legacy.
          Fresh from his back-to-back Brooks blockbusters, Wilder turned to directing with 1975’s The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother, featuring Marty Feldman and Madeline Kahn (natch); it’s one of Michael’s faves. Of all his directorial efforts, though,  one stands out to me for multiple reasons. In 1984, Wilder, working with producer Victor Drai, released an Americanized version of the French comedy Pardon Mon Affaire, retitled The Woman in Red. Wilder portrays a mild-mannered family man who becomes infatuated–to the point of obsession–with a leggy, voluptuously lipped model that, of course, he scarcely knows. Released by Orion Pictures in August of 1984 with the newly minted PG-13 rating, The Woman in Red was not projected to necessarily be big office, and that pretty much ended up being the case. Except at the theatre where I worked at the time, the old UA Prestonwood Creek 5.  Almost no movie in my 16 years at that venue serves as a better example of the old maxim: location, location, location. No, The Woman in Red really wasn’t a big hit, but it was a perfect fit for that particular theatre, selling out on Friday and Saturday evenings for weeks on end,  a must see for yuppie couples on date nights, and pulling respectable numbers among the ladies who lunch on the weekdays.  (I must have seen it at least a half-dozen times during its run.) This was our kind of picture, a sophisticated romantic comedy, a movie clearly designed for adult audiences, that performed well for us and maybe only so-so elsewhere. Of course, what seemed smart and sparkly during the 1980s doesn’t play so well this many years, no, decades, later. Much of the humor seems sniggery and sexist, and the plot is barely more than an excuse for Wilder to build comic set pieces, but Wilder, pushing 50 at the time, has an almost boyish charm, a naivete,  that helps sell the material.
          Do you want to know what else helps make The Woman in Red so memorable? A stunning passel of songs written and performed by Stevie Wonder, with guest vocalist Dionne Warwick.  No, The Woman in Red is not a musical, but Wonder’s smooth tunes provide an elegant counterpoint to the onscreen action. Of all the featured songs, of course, none became more successful than the lively “I  Just Called to Say I Love You,” which not only flourished as a damn near inescapable radio smash but also captured that year’s Oscar–and Golden Globe–for  Best Song. Not bad given that the competition included two hits from the Footloose soundtrack, a Phil Collins power ballad (“Take a Look at Me Now” from Against All Odds) and the theme to the wildly popular Ghostbusters. (Meanwhile, Best Song Score went  not to Wonder, who wasn’t even nominated, but to Prince for the iconic Purple Rain soundtrack, but, again, I digress.)
          The Woman in Red also launched Kelly LeBrock, as Wilder’s intended, on her path to stardom, however short lived. Of course, it didn’t hurt that she was the producer’s wife and all (at least at the time), but, still, what a knock-out; likewise, on her way to winning her second Tony award, Judith Ivey enjoyed one of her first significant film roles as Wilder’s trusting wife. Her character bounces all over the place, and Ivey clearly has fun with some of her line readings. Of course, she is almost 20 years younger than Wilder, so the costume and makeup people do their best to make her look a bit more matronly and/or age appropriate. Dig her 1980s overalls. (She was in her early 30s at the time.) The Woman in Red also features a scarily peculiar supporting turn by Gilda Radner as one of Wilder’s co-workers, a borderline pathetic take on the archetypal Miss Lonelyhearts figure. She’s so scary she could have been the model for Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction. Wilder’s treatment of this pitifully timid woman, pushed to the brink, seems cruel, and the role almost seems beneath the skill set of a performer with Radner’s immense talent, but the payoffs come soon enough. Finally, Wilder shows great generosity with supporting players Joseph Bologna and Charles Grodin, both of whom shine as members of Wilder’s gang of overgrown boys with roving eyes. Grodin, in particular, fares exceptionally well in a role that encompasses everything from comic hijinks to uncomfortable silences.  I remember reading a report from the time that Grodin, buoyed by many favorable notices, actually paid for his own campaign to snag a Best Supporting Actor nod, a move not unheard of when studios want to hedge their bets during awards season, preferring to sink money only into the sure things. In this case, Orion chose to lavishly promote Amadeus, which ultimately dominated that year’s Oscars, and invested less in campaigns for The Woman in Red and Woody Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose [3]. Grodin spent all his own cash to little avail. The performance, for what it is, works–but it worked better in 1984 than it does today because our perception of men like the one Grodin portrays has changed. Oh, and don’t forget all that gorgeous location footage of romantic San Francisco.
          Why am I writing so much about this all-but-forgotten 1984 Gene Wilder film, even with an Oscar? Simple. It was one of my mother’s all-time favorites. Seriously. Seeeeerrrriiiiioooouuusssllllyyy. She saw it on Labor Day weekend back in the day and almost never got over it. For years and years, she could barely mention it without doubling over in laughter. It gave her such tremendous joy watching Wilder try to squirm out of one awkward situation after another.  Of course, she also bought Wonder’s top selling record to enjoy anytime she wanted.
          So that’s where this tribute begins and ends. Wilder’s appeal extended, or extends, across generations. I loved him when I was a child while my mother didn’t come to love him until she was in her 50s. In the summer of 2005, when my niece was all of 11 (the same age I was when I first saw Willy Wonka), I loaded her up in the car with one or two of her friends, and off we went to see Johnny Depp play Willy Wonka in Tim Burton’s Charlie & The Chocolate Factory. Why not? After all, it was Johnny Depp. On the way out of the theatre, my niece sighed and said that she couldn’t wait to get back home and watch the real Willy Wonka. That’s a nifty trick, yes, even for Willy Wonka.  Wilder’s well-earned stardom endures in some of America’s favorite movies, and how many times a day does his delightful face pop up in a meme reminding us of how silly we can sometimes be? And is it just me, or do you also hear his soothing voice, softly dripping with sarcasm,  as you read those barbs? What a legacy.
Thanks, Gene.
[1] – Coincidentally, Wilder lost in his category to Jack Albertson (The Subject was Roses) who would co-star in Willy Wonka as little Charlie’s grandpa.
[2] – Wilder and Radner collaborated on three movies, the last of which was 1986’s ill-fated Haunted Honeymoon. The actress died of ovarian cancer in 1989. Wilder then dedicated much of his life to spreading cancer awareness, including promoting Gilda’s Club for cancer patients and their families. Wilder remarried some years after Radner’s passing and was still married at the time of his death.
[3] – Allen’s black and white offering about showbiz wannabes and gangsters netted nominations for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay; meanwhile, Grodin’s self-financed campaign proved unsuccessful, coming as it did in a season dominated by such heavyweights as Khmer Rouge survivor Dr. Haing S. Ngor in The Killing Fields, Adolph Caesar in A Soldier’s Story (that’s two Best Picture candidates), and the late Ralph Richardson, in Greystoke, his final screen appearance, not to mention newcomer John Malcovich in Places of the Heart (another Best Picture contender), and Noriyuki ‘Pat’ Morita in the crowd pleasing The Karate Kid.  By comparison, The Woman in Red wasn’t a significant enough achievement even as good as Grodin was in it. I would have applauded his nomination, but the deck was stacked against him.

When Garry Met Michelle in the Moonlight

28 Aug

Writer-producer-actor and director Garry Marshall passed away on July 19, 2016. My regrets for this delayed tribute.

So, by now, most of us know that Garry Marshall has passed away. He died of pneumonia following a stroke at the age of 81. So sudden. After all, only a few months previously his Mother’s Day premiered, an ensemble piece that followed the pattern of interlocking multi-character stories that Marshall began with Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve. Mother’s Day featured a compelling performance by Jennifer Aniston as a woman bearing the slings and arrows of divorce aftermath, that is, when the spouse has already moved on to a new s.o. Frequent Marshall muse Julia Roberts appeared in the flashy role of a lifestyle guru not unlike HSN superstar Joy Mangano or even Martha Stewart. Of course, Marshall famously directed Roberts and Richard Gere in a pair of blockbuster romantic comedies, Pretty Woman–the movie that effectively transformed the actress from promising newcomer to full-fledged star–and Runaway Bride, the former in 1990 and the latter in 1999.

Before Roberts and Marshall’s 1990 smash, he had long established his credentials on TV, writing for scads of sitcoms and then coming into his own empire as creator-producer of such fabelled 1970s hits as Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, and Mork and Mindy, not to mention his small-screen adaptation of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple. In the 80s, he segued to feature films, directing and sometimes even writing (or co-writing) such films as The Flaming Kid, a less angsty, nice change of pace role for a then still young Matt Dillon that also featured what appeared to be a certain Best Supporting Actor caliber performance by Richard Crenna (alas, only garnering a Golden Globe nod rather than Oscar approval). The pre-Pretty Woman titles include such  star-studded offerings as 1986’s Nothing in Common (Tom Hanks and Jackie Gleason), 1987’s Overboard (Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell), and 1988’s Beaches (Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey). Of course, not everything that Marshall touched turned to box-office gold, as was the case with Overboard (which nonetheless has its admirers)  and Exit to Eden.

My favorite Marshall film is none of the above. I don’t necessarily hate Pretty Woman, but I find it a bit problematic aside from Marshall’s exemplary work with actors, and not just Oscar nominee Roberts, but also Richard Gere, Hector Elizondo, MVP of Marshall’s rep company,  and even Elinor Donahue. I enjoyed it. Kind of, but once was definitely enough. I seldom stop and watch it if I happen to catch a glimpse while flipping channels. Nope. Not interested. Now, Frankie and Johnny (1991) is in a whole other category. Indeed Michael and I watched it on VHS, along with Rear Window and 84 Charing Cross Road, the night before we got married.

Frankie and Johnny, apparently more loosely–than tightly–adapted from Terence McNally’s two character play, Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune [1], is about two lonely New Yorkers who might very well find love in spite of setbacks that have left both of them, well, a little anxious. He, Johnny, that is, wants the world, and he wants it now. Why not? Just released from prison and estranged from his family, he wants to make up for lost time and somehow “correct” the mistakes he made during an early marriage. She, Frankie, on the other hand, is resolutely NOT looking for love, and while she notices something attractive in Johnny, his intensity curdles her faintest enthusiasm.

Consistent with McNally’s text, Johnny works as a short-order cook, and Frankie toils as a waitress. Unlike the original, McNally, credited as the sole screenwriter, reconceptualizes the story which originally unfolds in a single setting over the course of a one-night stand–and takes the audience into the daily lives of the characters and the world they inhabit, mainly the bustling Apollo Cafe, owned and operated by ever-reliable Elizondo as Nick. The rest of the cast includes Kate Nelligan as flashy waitress Cora and Nathan Lane as Frankie’s de rigueur gay neighbor [2]. Also on board in a smallish though effective role as yet another waitress is ever-wry Jane Morris who, like Elizondo, frequently appears in Marshall’s films.

The movie adaptation is famous for two things, maybe three. First, it was reportedly the first major motion picture to shoot in New York City after a strike shut down production in 1990 though exact documentation is hard to locate. At any rate, Marshall plunks his cast right in the thick of things, including playing handball on street corners and alleyways and a stop at the flower market, a lovely sequence that includes one of the all-time great “reveals.”  While Marshall sometimes overplays his hand at portraying New York as a cold, fearful place, it is also busy and colorful, somehow more diverse than the affluent Manhattan often depicted in the films of Woody Allen.

Secondly, Frankie and Johnny is notable in its casting, especially the role of Frankie. Kathy Bates portrayed the insecure waitress in the play’s original off-Broadway production but lost the movie role to Michelle Pfeiffer. It was the second time in only a matter of years that Bates, a seasoned, vital character actress with plenty of stage cred, saw one of her signature stage roles go to a more conventionally youthful–dare we say thinner and/or prettier–Hollywood star. The first indignation came when Sissy Spacek was cast as the suicidal epileptic in the 1986 screen version of Marsha Norman’s Pulitzer winner Night Mother, for which Bates had earned a Tony nomination.

I’ll be the first to admit that I was originally one of those skeptics. I’d long been a Bates fan,  thanks to her supporting roles in the likes of Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (in which she was an eerie ringer for someone I happened to know, since deceased), The Morning After (1986), and Men Don’t Leave (1991), spot on as the no-nonsense proprietor of a gourmet deli in the latter, and I wanted her to have greater opportunities. Plus, the idea that she would be overlooked because she was no longer ingenue material–if she ever really was–seemed disgraceful. So, I truly didn’t think I would enjoy seeing Michelle Pfeiffer as Frankie, but the trailor hooked me–good job–and I gave the movie a look.

Pfieffer won me over, and in doing so she also reminded skeptics, like me, of a point that we might have not considered. In real-life, good looks–like Pfeiffer’s–aren’t everything. The truth is that in NYC and points all across the map, there are plenty of attractive young women who do not aspire to be models, actresses, or TV personalities, and these same lovely people toil in tons of non-glamorous jobs, such as waiting tables. Of course, they do. Their lives are not carefree. They might even be burdened by the expectation that because they are so attractive they would want to aspire to more, but maybe they enjoy what they do. Insecurities, disappointment, and living paycheck to paycheck aren’t necessarily the exclusive dominions of folks who might not live in a state of perpetual camera-readiness.  That’s the unvarnished truth.  Pfeiffer’s Frankie doesn’t necessarily want to be a waitress for the rest of her life, but she’s good at it, and it pays the bills… …for now.

This is one of my two favorite Pfeiffer performances, the other being that bravura turn as Selena Kyle, a.k.a. Catwoman, in 1992’s Batman Returns. This character, in spite of her confusion and misgivings, seems fully-realized, like someone any of us might want to hang out with after work, especially if we all worked at a diner. She reminds me just a bit, but a significant bit, of one of my best friends, a woman I know who used to be a waitress and despite having teen-tiny wrists was the go-to person for opening exasperatingly tight jar lids.  Pfeiffer seems to inhabit Frankie so fully that I wouldn’t be surprised if she had actually worked as a server at some point in her past–and why not? A lot of actors and actresses do that very thing while pursuing acting gigs, always scouting for the next big break. She also, I’ll freely admit, reminds me a bit of myself, especially the part of her that sometimes just wants to grab some take-out on the way home and plop down in front of the TV and watch a movie–the same as I used to do on Saturday nights in my 20s when The Facts of Life and The Golden Girls were staples after a grueling day of selling tickets at the box office window. (For some reason, however, I think Frankie’s routine is intended almost as indictment of her fragility, and I take an exception to that.)

Frankie’s emotions are all over the place, and Pfeiffer hits all the targets, you know, the weepiness and frustration. She’s great at all that, but those aren’t necessarily the most lasting or insightful aspects of the performance. For example, she delivers a zinger of a line in response to a well-meaning, if also dunder-headed and snoopy, question posed by Pacino’s Johnny. Additionally, she puts a great spin on a painfully icky moment when Johnny, again, makes an abrupt and incredibly awkward request. Most of us probably want to look the other way as soon as Pacino utters the words, but, luckily, McNally gives Frankie a speech as a distraction, and she milks it for its full value. Finally, and this is truly best of all, Pfeiffer is great at reacting. You know the old saying, “all acting is reacting.” That’s what she does. She listens, and that is sometimes when her confusion is most apparent. Along with that, she’s great at bits of business that underscore whatever she might be thinking. At one point, Johnny tries to sweet talk her while hanging out behind the diner–and notice, if you will, the way Pfeiffer’s Frankie chews the lip of her paper cup in the process. Perfect. Almost magical work, this, but no Oscar  nomination though the Hollywood Foreign Press saw fit to nominate her for a Golden Globe in the Musical or Comedy category. She lost to Bette Midler’s over-hyped For the Boys, a high-profile labor of love that nonetheless flopped–and flopped hard, but the HFPA and the Academy were a forgiving lot that season. But I digress.

Kate Nelligan and Hector Elizondo both deserve praise as well. The former, a Canadian whose biggest successes have often been on stage, fully delivered a cinematic one-two punch back in 1991, what with her role as the outwardly rollicking waitress Cora in this film as well as Nick Nolte’s domineering mother in Prince of Tides (in which she plays the character as both a young woman clawing her way out of a bad marriage and a refined, if ice-cold, aging matriarch). The appeal of Cora is not the bawdy, good-time gal stuff–though it presents a contrast to the the performance in Prince of Tides–but those moments when Cora carefully lets down her guard, such as a from the heart, post-coital pep-talk to a recent conquest. In that season’s awards derby, Nelligan won a British Academy Award (supporting) for Frankie and Johnny. She also claimed honors from the National Board of Review. She came in third place among the New York Film Critics Circle for both this movie and The Prince of Tides, ultimately scoring a Best Supporting Actress nod from the Academy for the latter.  Mr. Elizondo, meanwhile, brings warmth, understanding, and maybe even love to his role as the owner-operator of the jumpin’ diner. Though sometimes uncredited, Elizondo has actually appeared in 17 Marshall movies, going all the way back to 1982’s Young Doctors in Love. Among those, he is probably most loved for his role as Pretty Woman‘s decorous hotel manager, an elegant performance that did indeed net a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor–and how great is that? For if Elizondo in Pretty Woman is not the epitome of what it means for one actor to support another actor, then I don’t know what is.  That noted, I think I prefer his work in Frankie and Johnny. He’s somehow looser and seems to be enjoying himself. Maybe he’s just having fun with the accent, but he is as different in this one from Pretty Woman as he is from either in Nothing in Common, in which he steals scene after scene. Good stuff.

Marshall’s talents in this film extend beyond his grace with actors, as he also works wonders creating the characters’ environment, especially the café itself. It may very well be the most fully realized depiction of what it’s like to work in such a setting. At least in my experience. Have I ever worked at a bustling diner in NYC or anywhere else? No. But I spent my late teens and early twenties working in fast-food outlets: two years at one location, a year and a half at a second. I have fond memories of both. One was more suburban with a hearty bunch of breakfast regulars and a close-knit team of workers who definitely aimed to please. The other place was closer to downtown Dallas, and while I don’t remember anything special about our breakfast brunch, I know we saw a little bit of everything on a daily basis, and, again, my co-workers and I were great pals, often hanging out during the down time in our split-shifts. This day-to-dayness is what Marshall captures so accurately. Everyone at this diner is always in motion. Even when they stop to chat, they are still doing something, and activity swirls around them. Look how they move. They’ve been working with each other in tight quarters for so long they’re attuned to each other’s rhythms. They communicate silently as is the case with Frankie’s aforementioned knack for opening jars. They also get on each other’s nerves, too, and that’s also okay. I want to add that one character, a slightly older waitress played by Goldie McLaughlin, reminds me oh-so-much of a woman who was a fixture at one of the places, a tiny thing who charmed customers but took no guff.  She had worked there so long. Everyone loved her, she was untouchable, but the signs of affliction were always there. To clarify, the actress looks like nothing like my real-life counterpart–nothing–but their stories are so similar.

The diner does not look like a set, not at all, but it could be. Whatever it is, it works, so props to the production design team led by Albert Brenner along with Carol W. Wood and Kathe Klopp. Pfeiffer’s apartment, on the other hand, is clearly a set, looking somehow cramped yet just a little too spacious, all things considered. Still, the furnishings look suitably eclectic, and that bathroom, well, we’ve all seen it and lived it. I know I have. Marshall also sets Johnny up for a kind of Rear Window moment as she has a up-close view into neighboring buildings and sees things that occupants assume are private, but that’s part of city life when everyone is bunched up right next to and on top of each other. I’ll even give a shout-out to the wardrobe and makeup staff (too numerous to list here) for not trying too terribly hard to “drab-down” Pfieffer and make her look homely. Her waitress uniform is what it is, and when she isn’t working, she looks like anybody else one might find on the streets or at home doing housework. Her party frock, selected by her gay neighbor, isn’t such a knock-out, and may very well look just a tad…too…cheap. (Not tacky, exactly, but probably cheaper looking than it needs to be.)

With so much to praise, what about Pacino? Why have I avoided writing about his performance, that is, praising him? Of course, he’s Pacino, and he’s always worth watching. Indeed, he has many watchable moments in Frankie and Johnny, but that might be part of the problem. Watching Pacino as Johnny is like watching a wonderful actor act wonderfully. Sure, it’s entertaining, but it’s entertaining as a performance rather than as a portrayal, a characterization. In other words, there is seldom a moment in which I actually believed that Pacino was anything other than Pacino, whooping it up and wearing his considerable heart on his sleeve, all good, all well and fine, but not dipping too far beneath the surface like his co-star. Again, he has many tender and engaging moments, but Johnny is almost too good to be true. Maybe the problem is the way the character is conceptualized because Johnny is one pushy guy, yet he is somehow supposed to be endearing–the way a saviour is endearing–in spite of that. Luckily, as fans of Brian De Palma’s cult classic Scarface already know, Pacino and Pfieffer definitely have chemistry, such that she makes his brashness almost palatable.

Music fans will not be disappointed. The title inspiring classics are both present, that would be a rousing, rock-a-billy version of “Frankie and Johnny” by–no, not Elvis–James Intveld who, as I learned while researching this article, provided the singing voice for Johnny Depp’s titular character in John Water’s Cry Baby (1990). On the other end of the musical spectrum, no less than Marvin Hamlisch, credited as the score’s  composer, plays piano on Claude Debussy’s stirring “Clair de Lune,” used to great effect in one of the film’s richest sequences.  All that AND Rickie Lee Jones, alternately purring and wailing her way through “It Must be Love,” also to great effect.

Frankie and Johnny, if I have not stressed this point enough, was hardly a box office hit–even with the star wattage of its two leads and the fact that it was Marshall’s follow-up to the phenomenally successful Pretty Woman. Of course, the fall of 1991, when this film was released, was a particularly bruising period for movies. One possible factor can be attributed to no less than the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings, televised in October of 1991 just as Frankie and Johnny arrived at movie theaters. This is not news, by the way, as Variety, the Hollywood Reporter, Entertainment Weekly, and maybe even USA Today were all over it back in the day. National events definitely affect box-office as anyone who works at the movies can attest–look no further than the L.A. riots in ’92, and, of course, 9/11.

Thank you, Garry Marshall, for this thoughtfully produced and acted movie. I actually think of it as a gift because it was so unexpected. Nothing Marshall had done before it prepared me for its beauty.  And I treasure it.  Rest in Peace, Mr. Marshall.

Thanks for your consideration…

[1] – Clair de lune translates into English as “by the light of the moon” or “moonlight.”

[2] – Lane, well-known in theatre circles at the time for his roles in a handful of McNally’s plays, had yet to achieve marquee status, per Broadway revivals of Guys and Dolls and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the Americanized remake of French Farce La Cage Aux Folles, redubbed The Birdcage, and, of course, the smash musical incarnation of Mel Brooks’s The Producers.


The Philadelphia Nuns’ Story

5 Jul

Oh, my. We are right here in the thick of it, aren’t we? That would be an election year almost like no other, and too many of us thought the 2000 showdown was a circus. Not to mention a little thing called “Watergate” (i.e., the elephant forever in the room).  Now, look where we are, but don’t worry. This is a movie column, not a political one, so I’m not about to leap onto a soapbox, but what about movies that are also political, you might ask?

Okay, I’m game. Well, I’m game in regards to one particular political film. See, between Alexander Payne’s Election (1999), which used high school student council campaigns to make a larger point about politics in general, and Robert Downey’s Putney Swope (1969), which viewed racism through the lens of corporate greed and one-upmanship, lies the masterfully wicked Nasty Habits, director Michael Lindsay Hogg’s 1977 re-imagining of the then still-recent Watergate scandal within the confines of a Philadelphia convent. That’s right, a cast of nuns, many portrayed by some of the era’s most acclaimed actresses. re-enacting the bad and the ugly of former President Richard Nixon and his bumbling accomplices during the 1972 election and the subsequent cover-up and investigation.

Based on Muriel Spark’s novella, The Abbess of Crewe (1974), Nasty Habits is definitely an acquired taste, but I love it, finding it appropriately savage as we expect from smart satire. Keep in mind that when the movie premiered in 1977, the events depicted were barely 5 years old and had more or less been chronicled with due dignity in 1976’s All the President’s Men, the Oscar winning adaptation of Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s Pulitzer winning investigative series on the Watergate break-in and the subsequent cover-up.  Even so, the events still made ripe targets for scandal, and setting the whole dirty business in a fiendishly yet matter-of-factly corrupt Philadelphia convent gave/gives it an appropriately brittle edge; after all, we expect more from nuns than we do politicians, especially given the massive popularity of, say, Lillies of the FieldThe Sound of Music and the flurry of  sisterly inspired movies and TV shows that followed in the 1960sbut, then, once upon a time, we probably expected more from politicians. Didn’t we? At the very least, we might have suspected the worst from our elected officials in Washington, but even though we knew unmistakably about corruption and, say, adultery, we hoped those to be isolated incidents and could still claim a certain degree of innocence regarding the highest office in the land, that is, the sanctity of it. Of course, when the Watergate story broke, and Spark set her sights on satirizing it, women weren’t as visible in the political arena as they are today, so that created a sense of tension in the text as well.

I ached to see Nasty Habits when I was a high schooler. At that time, thanks to the likes of Animal Farm and A Modest Proposal (per British Lit), and such TV shows as Saturday Night Live,  All in the Family, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, and PBS’s never-ending repeats of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, I was keen on satire–what a concept!–and wanted a dose whenever and wherever I could find it. Alas, the movie was a hard sell, coming a few months on the heels of the brutal Network, and fizzled unceremoniously though it did have fans as highly placed as Vincent Canby of the New York Times and Pauline Kael of the the New Yorker, both of whom found praiseworthy elements in spite of some skepticism. Canby lauded the movie for being funny in parts, so much so that (for him, at least) the less funny parts were doubly aggravating. In other words, the so-called good parts deserved much much better. Kael, much more effusive in her review, delighted in the performances and commended the director, most famously known at the time for the landmark Beatles documentary Let It Be, on his deft work with the cast, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

A few years ago I wrote that Nasty Habits was on my movie bucket list, but that all changed with the 2014 DVD release, and it did not, nor does not, disappoint. Almost any and every dirty trick that most of us remember about that particular era is right there on the screen, only twisted for maximum satirically induced discomfort. And fun. Now, I watch Nasty Habits just about anytime I want, and the time is ripe for discovery for those less familiar. Oh, and I also have the book in hardback.

Now, about that cast. If you’re reading this and think the whole idea of nuns engaging in such political skullduggery as tasteless at best and downright sacrilegious at worst, well, that’s certainly a concern. Maybe the film can be better appreciated using a different lens, and that would be the lens of formidable talent. Consider this: among its major players,  the cast of Nasty Habits could–at that time–boast a total of  11 Oscar nominations with three wins, and multiple Tony wins and/or nominations besides, plus at least one Emmy celebrant. And they were all women. Think about that. As I have noted in a previous post, 1977 was some kind of wonderful for actresses.  How wonderful was it? Well, it was so wonderful that Newsweek published not ONE but TWO cover stories that year, spotlighting exciting, meaningful new movies starring the likes of Sissy Spacek, Shelly Duvall, and Janice Rule in 3 Women, Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave in Julia, and Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine in The Turning Point. See? Not just a single actress with a plum film role, but films with two or more leading ladies. Plus, as the following gallery so aptly demonstrates, Nasty Habits contributed to the trend as well. Please consider the following:

Glenda Jackson (above) portrays Sister Alexandra, the nun who would be President Richard Nixon--or Nixon-like. As the film begins, Sister Alexandra is close to being named successor to dying Abbess. Sister Sister Hildegarde. Alas, the old nun dies before she can make the appointment official, thereby setting the story into motion as SIster Alexandra faces an election which pits her in a contest with young Sister Felicity, who already has the support of the noviates but who also has a thing or two she'd rather keep on the down low.

Glenda Jackson (above) portrays Sister Alexandra, the nun who would be President Richard Nixon–or Nixon-like (below). IMAGE: YouTube (

Screen shot 2016-06-24 at 4.17.51 PM

President Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994); IMAGE: Wikipedia/U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

As the film begins, Sister Alexandra is close to being named successor to dying Abbess, Sister Hildegarde (Estelle Winwood).  Alas, the elder nun dies before she can make the appointment official, thereby setting the story into motion as Sister Alexandra faces an election which pits her against young Sister Felicity, who already has the support of the novices but who also has an active libido she’d rather keep on the down-low. Thus, the righteous old guard, fronted, if not led, by Sister Alexandra, rallies a smear campaign to discredit Felicity and swing the election in Alexandra’s favor even if that means bending or even breaking a commandment or two.  Yes, there is a break-in, with so-called plumbers, illicitly recorded conversations, and references to Machiavelli.

British born Jackson was right at 40 when Nasty Habits opened, and she had been on a roll for most of the decade. Never known for glamorous movie star looks on the order of, say, Julie Christie, Jane Fonda, or Faye Dunaway, Jackson had nonetheless conquered Hollywood through sheer force of talent, wowing her peers in the Academy with award winning performances in Women in Love (1970) and A Touch of Class (1973), the latter, like Nasty Habits, produced through Brut Productions, yes, a subsidiary of the once fabled Faberge toiletries empire. In addition to her Oscars, Jackson also earned nominations for 1971’s Sunday, Bloody Sunday (scripted by the New Yorker‘s Penelope Gilliat), and 1975’s Hedda, an adaptation of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler; the latter a combined effort from Brut and PBS though, to clarify, released theatrically. Oh, yes she had also made quite a splash in the BBC series Elizabeth R, taking on the role of Queen Elizabeth I, garnering international acclaim, and, yes, an Emmy. She segued from Nasty Habits to the popular House Calls (1978) co-starring Walter Matthau and later reteamed with the actor for Hopscotch (1980). She also earned fine notices and award consideration for her portrayal of  poet Stevie Smith in Stevie (1978) and earned an Emmy nod for playing the lead in a mini-series based on the life of actress Patricia Neal. To clarify, these are only the highlights. Her resume is exceptionally varied. Eventually, Jackson retired from movies and pursued a career in British politics.

As Sister Alexandra, Jackson never stoops to merely impersonating Nixon or goofing on his familiar mannerisms although one particular line of dialogue is an unmistakable beaut. Instead, she plays Alexandra as someone full of confidence and even self-adoration, high on her own cleverness and love of power though shielded by a veneer of soothing charity and calm respectability. She’s a smart cookie, cagey enough to manipulate people into doing her bidding from a respectful distance in order to evince plausible deniability in the process. This ranks among the shrewdest of Jackson’s work even if it’s not among her most popular. Canby labelled it the best thing she had done in years (at that point), coming off a less than successful Sarah Bernhardt biopic (produced by Readers Digest, no less), and Kael raved about Jackson’s “biting delivery,” adding that “She believes in nothing but herself, and appreciates her own refinement and aplomb. In Alexandra, snobbery achieves perfection.” Kael also describes Alexandra as both a “sacred monster” and a “romantic authoritarian.”  High praise, indeed.

Bringing considerable clout to the proceedings is Geraldine Page as Sister Walburga, the Prioress, and a stand-in for H.R. Haldeman (below), White House Chief of Staff during the Nixon years.

Bringing considerable clout to the proceedings is Geraldine Page as Sister Walburga, the Prioress, and a stand-in for H.R. Haldeman, White House Chief of Staff during the Nixon years. (IMAGE: YouTube)

In real-life, Haldeman and his co-conspirator John Erlichman (dubbed “the Berlin Wall” by White House patsy John Dean) were eventually tried and committed on multiple charges, including obstruction of justice and perjury, for their roles in the Watergate cover-up.

At the time of Nasty Habits, Page was a five time Oscar nominee with no wins though that would change with the release of 1985’s The Trip to Bountiful, the Dallas based indie for which she earned her 8th nomination. She won her Academy trophy for Best Actress in the spring of ’86 and passed away in June of the following year. Interestingly, in spite of all those Oscar nods, Page was arguably better known as a theatre actress, especially for acclaimed performances in Tennessee Willams’ plays Summer and Smoke and Sweet Bird of Youth (a Tony nomination, among a quartet, for the latter), both of which eventually netted Page Oscar nominations for their film adaptations. I’m particularly fond of Page’s tour de force as a movie star restless for a comeback in Sweet Bird of Youth (1962). Alas, as splendid as she was in that flick, she was more than matched by Anne Bancroft, the victor for The Miracle Worker.  Whew! What talent! The actress also earned two Emmys during her esteemed career (refer to IMDb). Incredibly, she netted her first Oscar nod for what was labelled a supporting turn in Hondo, a 3D western starring John Wayne. Besides the specific films listed here, her other Oscar nominations include: You’re a Big Boy Now (Best Supporting Actress, 1966), Pete ‘n’ Tillie (Best Supporting Actress, 1972), Interiors (Best Actress, 1978), and The Pope of Greenwich Village (Best Supporting Actress, 1984). Believe me, she makes the most of her limited screen-time in the latter.

One of my favorite scenes in Nasty Habits occurs early in the film when Jackson, Page, and Anne Jackson (see below) retire to their bathing quarters at the end of an eventful day. There, divided into private stalls, each with its own tub, the sisters begin the task of disrobing one cumbersome garment at a time though refraining from stripping down all the way before sliding into warm baths. What’s interesting about the scene, a part from watching these performers engage in dialogue while working through complicated bits of “business,” is seeing the characters’ personalities, their vanity, emerge when they’re free from their habits, secure that nobody is watching. In an instant, Page’s Sister Walburga experiences fleeting delight as her long hair cascades around her shoulders, greeting her newly free tresses like a long lost friend. One gathers that Walburga’s luscious locks are a secret she keeps from her fellow nuns who are much modestly coiffed.

Anne Jackson

If Page’s Sister Walburga serves as the stand-in for Haldeman, then Anne Jackson’s Sister Mildred, Mistress of Novices, suffices as John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s domestic affairs advisor. (IMAGE: YouTube)

Among this star-studded cast, Anne Jackson was surely the least familiar, meaning that most of her best work appeared to be onstage or in episodic television rather than in films.  For example, she earned a “Best Featured Actress” Tony nomination for Middle of the Night (1956), an Obie, the off-Broadway Tony equivalent, for The Typists & The Tiger (two one acts by Murray Schisgal that were eventually packaged as one film, The Tiger Makes Out, for which she recreated her stage role); she also starred on Broadway in the hit Luv–also by Schisgal–which Mike Nichols directed to great acclaim.

Per the previously mentioned scene in which Alexandra, Walburga, and Mildred retire to their bathing quarters, pay special attention to Mildred. The fact that she applies some kind of topical cosmetic patch to her forehead naturally reveals her vanity, but look closely at how she does it. The actress incorporates a sly visual detail that let’s the audience know that these characters should not trust each other. Of course, we know it, but they don’t, so we anticipate their downfalls.

Of course, I hate to second any casting director that manages to secure the talents of Glenda Jackson, Geraldine Page,  Melina Mercouri, Anne Meara, and Sandy Dennis in one film, but the casting of Anne Jackson in this role has always been a puzzler. Oh, she’s fine, and she does have that nice bit of business in the bathing sequence, but I’m not sure she’s singular, either. Not-so- -right-off-the-top-of-my-head, I can imagine that Barbara Harris (mentioned elsewhere in this piece) or Eileen Brennan might have provided a little more spark, so to speak, in this role.


Melina Mercouri portrays Sister Gertrude, a missionary and obvious counterpart to Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State to President Richard Nixon.

Melina Mercouri portrays Sister Gertrude, a missionary and obvious counterpart to Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State to President Richard Nixon. (IMAGE: YouTube)

Actually, Mercouri garnered second billing on this film, right behind Jackson, providing evidence of her star power though she is less essential to the plot than the characters portrayed by Page and Jackson. Younger readers (or moviegoers) might ask,” What’s so special about Mercouri?” Born in Greece, Mercouri dazzled audiences in 1960’s Never on Sunday, which teamed her with future hubby Jules Dassin.  The actress reaped Best Actress honors at Cannes and later scored an Oscar nod. The movie’s inescapably catchy theme song actually landed a statuette for composer Manos Hatzidakis, from a total of 5 nominations including two for writer-director Dassin (who also played the leading male role). From there, she and Dassin segued to Phaedra (an update on Hippolytus by Euripides), for which she earned additional accolades, and then onto 1964’s larky heist-capade, Topkapi with Maximilian Schell and Oscar winner Peter Ustinov–still one of my favorite flicks and a must-see for anyone with fond memories of the first Mission Impossible installment directed by Brian de Palma, but I digress. Mercouri and Dassin made several films together, including 1978’s Medea-inspired A Dream of Passion.

Coincidentally, and much like Jackson, by the time Mercouri appeared in Nasty Habits, she had begun focusing on politics in her homeland and soon retired from acting. She served multiple terms as Greece’s Minister of Culture between 1981 and 1994, the year of her death.

Her Sister Gertrude, not especially admired by either Canby or Kael, is a hoot. At first, Gertrude is eager to help facilitate the impending election, but her efforts are rebuffed by Page’s prioress. Later, Gertrude finds it more prudent to distance herself from the erupting scandal and copters from one far-flung, absurd location to the next, either evading calls from Jackson and her team or simply speaking in non-sequiturs–like a true diplomat. She also delivers the sharpest line in the whole movie when she explains the difference between a problem and a paradox. Her storyline somewhat parallels Kissinger’s in that, while she no doubt accomplishes some good in the course of her actions, she’s also savvy when it comes to managing her identity, and that means steering clear of the evergrowing mess at the convent. Meanwhile, don’t forget that even as the Watergate scandal took on ever more crazy twists and turns, Kissinger still found time to accept his Nobel Peace Prize. In her review, Kael put forth the idea that Mercouri might have been hired based on her accent rather than her acting skills. Harsh, that, though it is certainly true that Mercouri’s strong Greek accent is more than a match for Baviarian born–Manhattan raised–Kissinger’s thick gravelly tonation.  I have a theory, as well,  that by hiring a famous Greek star to play one character, the producers were also able to make a not-so-subtle reference to another:  former Vice-President Spiro Agnew who was also of Greek descent and who also generated plenty of controversy and/or concern during the Watergate years (please refer to the following profile of Anne Meara).

Anne Meara

Anne Meara plays Sister Geraldine, a spoof of Vice-President Gerald Ford. (IMAGE: YouTube)

Meara’s character did not appear in Spark’s original novella, and that makes sense given that Ford was not a part of Nixon’s inner circle when reports of the Watergate break-in first circulated.  During the investigation into Nixon and his crew’s alleged malfeasance, a separate outcry erupted over then Vice President Spiro Agnew’s charges of bribery, money laundering, and/or tax evasion. Agnew pleaded nolo contendere (no contest) and promptly resigned. Then, Nixon nominated Gerald Ford, House Minority Leader at the time (and former member of the Warren Commission), to fill the position. Of course, when Nixon vacated his position amid all the impeachment brouhaha, Ford assumed the role of POTUS, filling the remainder of Nixon’s term, thereby becoming the only person to serve as both President and Vice President of the United States without the benefit of an actual election. He also has the distinction of a complete name switcheroo as his mother changed baby Leslie Lynch King Jr.’s moniker to Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr. upon her early divorce and remarriage to the elder Mr. Ford. (Talk about an identity crisis.) That’s the history lesson.

For those, like myself, of “a certain age,” we’ll always have fond memories of seeing Anne Meara and husband Jerry Stiller work their magic on Ed Sullivan and The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson, along with scads and scads of other TV shows as the celebrated comic duo of Stiller and Meara. This lady wasn’t just funny, and she wasn’t even JUST hilarious. She was committed. A trained actress first and foremost, she had a gift for comedy–but the laughs came because she understood the value of characterization. Well, that’s my two-cents.

At the time of Nasty Habits, Meara had just come from switching gears with short-lived TV drama Kate McShane, groundbreaking in that it was the first series to portray a female lawyer as a leading rather than supporting character (and, again, a risk for a performer more known for comedy). For her efforts, Meara was rewarded with an Emmy nomination though, again, the show did not last a full season. I watched it–until I didn’t or couldn’t watch it. In her stellar–not Stiller-career, Meara actually earned four Emmy nominations (in comedy and drama categories), and a Golden Globe nomination (for a turn on the popular Rhoda sitcom). She also placyed a recurring character on the longrunning daytime drama All My Children. Her work in theatre includes four stints on Broadway, dating all the way back to A Month in the Country (1956) up to a 1993 revival of Anna Christie, for which she snared a Tony nomination for Best Featured Actress in a Play. Additionally, she was no stranger to off-Broadway houses, with a whole string of credits. Furthermore, Meara also made her mark as a writer, winning an Outer Circle Critics Award for her play,  After-Play AND a Writers Guild nod for co-writing, with Lila Garrett, The Other Woman, a made for-TV film in which she co-starred with Hal Linden. Her lengthy filmography include Lovers and Other Strangers, a pop-up in The Out of Towners, and, perhaps most famously, as the frustrated English teacher in 1980’s original Fame.

The ascension of Meara’s Sister Geraldine through the ranks is played for pure slapstick and encapsulates much of what was known about Ford: mainly, that he was an athlete, the star player on his college football team–and that, ironically, he turned out to be bit of a bumbler as an adult, taking a few notable tumbles during his time in office. In the early days of Saturday Night Live, still in its infancy when Nasty Habits premiered, Chevy Chase skyrocketed to stardom by parodying Ford’s so-called “klutziness.” Meara doesn’t flail quite as spectacularly, but she nails the laughs nonetheless. Pauline Kael wrote, “Anne Meara combines the brassy, gum-chewing delivery of the wisecracking gold-diggers of the thirties with the expressive gestures of a top banana. Everything she does is funny.” She provides broad laughs to offset the sting of brutal satire.

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With her owlish spectacles, Sandy Dennis is the unmistakable stand-in for White House counsel John Dean (below); IMAGE: YouTube

Sandy Dennis was one of the most exciting young actresses of her era. She first made her mark on TV, starting with daytime serial The Guiding Light when she was 19ish (circa 1956). From there she transitioned to an early film role in 1961’s Splendor in the Grass though never turning her back on the small screen; however, she also made a tremendous splash on Broadway, earning consecutive Tony awards for A Thousand Clowns (Best Featured Actress in a Play, 1963) and Any Wednesday (Best Actress in a Play, 1964). Shunned for the film adaptations of both hits (losing out to Barbara Harris and Jane Fonda, respectively), Dennis more than made up for those snubs when she was cast in the 1965 film version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf–and earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar (though, as these things go, her victory came at the expense of Melinda Dillon who’d played Dennis’s role–as Honey–onstage). Her screen clout established, Dennis signed-on to star as an idealistic teacher in Up the Down Staircase, yet another hit (I used to watch it almost any time it aired.) The likes of Sweet November and That Cold Day in the Park followed. In 1970, she co-starred opposite Jack Lemmon in the smash Neil Simon comedy The Out-of-Towners; both stars earned Golden Globe nominations. I saw the movie in theaters as a child, and most of us who did see it will never forget Dennis’s memorable variations of “Oh my God, George…”

Depending one one’s POV, John Dean was either the patsy or the turncoat in the whole sordid Watergate affair. Did Dean know about and even participate in the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover-up? Yes, that much is a given, but over the course of the investigation, Dean also came to believe that he was being set-up to take the fall, and that’s when he began cooperating with prosecutors. His subsequent televised testimony before the Senate Watergate Committee in 1973 made national headlines and seemed to run for days and days, interrupting many a school kid’s summer TV viewing schedule. Dean pleaded guilty to charges of obstruction and paying hush money, and served a short prison sentence, all the while working with prosectors building cases against Haldeman, Ehrichman, and John Mitchell, former Attorney General and Nixon campaign director (who does not have a Nasty Habits stand-in). Dean was also barred from practicing law and now works as an author and consultant. He was still in his early thirties during the Watergate years. I certainly didn’t think he was an old man back then even though I was still in junior high, but I didn’t realize just how young 30 can be.

And so it is with Dennis’s Sister Winfred, at best a provisional–easily expendable–member of the convent’s inner-circle A bit clueless at times, her hands are nonetheless dirty; thus, she seems the ideal stooge to take the fall for a cover-up that involves breaking and entering, theft, and, yes, paying hush money. But maybe she only appears clueless.

For my money, and Michael’s as well, for that matter, Dennis rivals Jackson for top honors in this enterprise. My memory is that numerous reviewers singled her out for praise though Canby was not amused, pretty much labelling her performance as inexcusable or something equally cringe inducing, yet as Kael observed, Dennis plays the part exactly as Spark describes in her novella’s second paragraph: “Sister Winifrede says in her whine of bewilderment, that voice of the very stupid, the mind where no dawn breaks….”  That’s the expectation right from the get-go, and Dennis runs with it, giving a performance of sweet comic perfection which Kael lauded as a form of  bliss (comparable to watching the late great Jack Gilford), further stating that “she’s a feminine version of a Shakespearean fool–her stupidity is a form of enchantment.”

Of course, for all her early success, Dennis nonetheless had her detractors. As with Geraldine Page, the naysayers often complained that Dennis’s trembly mannerisms, a propensity for fidgeting and twitching, marred her performances. Nonetheless, she retained a modicum of popularity, assuming the female lead in the longrunning Broadway hit Same Time Next Year (filling the role originated by Ellen Burstyn). Indeed, Dennis’s stint in the play began just as Nasty Habits was hitting screens. Working as writer, actor, and director, Alan Alda cast Dennis in 1981’a well received The Four Seasons. Then, in 1988 Woody Allen hired her for a brief but potent role in Another Woman, fully taking advantage of of her fabled neurotic persona. In the late 70s, she weighed in as an early champion of Ed Graczyk’s play Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, well before its brief–unsuccessful–1982 Broadway run and subsequent screen adaptation, a low budget indie hit, directed by Robert Altman and starring Dennis, Cher, and Karen Black (along with relative newcomer Kathy Bates).  Her performance in that one, all nervous tics and quivery line readings, provides plenty of ammo for the skeptics, no doubt, but she hits all the right psychological or emotional notes of a woman slowly unravelling due to a lifetime of delusions and denial.  

The “wronged” party in Nasty Habits, Susan Penhaligon as Sister Felicity, is a bit of a washout. The character is not compellingly written, an idealistic twit who doesn’t invite much sympathy, and doesn’t seem to necessarily parallel her obvious real-life counterpart, Senator George McGovern–Nixon’s competitor during the 1972 election. Worse, Penhaligon doesn’t seem particularly inspired. No “oomph,” there. Does anyone root for her?

Interestingly, Spark set her story in an English convent, but the moviemakers switched the locale to Philadelphia though much of the movie was shot in England, anyway. That’s right, England doubled for Philly. Maybe it is a conspiracy.

Also, referring to the previous observation that many moviegoers from my generation remember Meara from her numerous appearances with husband Jerry Stiller, a number of younger readers might only know her as the mother of Ben Stiller of Zoolander fame. Indeed, Meara made a cameo appearance as Winona Ryder’s potential employer in Stiller’s first outing as a feature film director, Reality Bites. Best line: “Define irony.”  Again, I digress. The point is that Nasty Habits was truly a family affair, not only for Meara but also Page and Jackson as all three actresses’ husbands pop-up in small roles as well, that would be Jerry Stiller, Rip Torn and Eli Wallach, respectively.

Nasty Habits shows yet again that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Isn’t that the old saw?  Moreover, the movie and the book are really a reflection of any of us, however improbable.  A corrupt nun somehow seems funnier than a corrupt politician, but isn’t the point that if even a nun feels the thrill of power, then the rest of us somewhere in the middle should beware–not of “them,”  but of us? We already know we’re not expected to be perfect or saintly, so where, when, and how do we draw the line? Questions for another day, perhaps. Again, maybe the best way to enjoy the movie is to simply bask in the glory of this amazing cast, playing “Nasty” to the hilt. Hallelujah.

Thanks for your consideration…

Vincent Canby’s New York Times review (19 March 1977):

Kael, Pauline. When the Lights Go Down. New York: Holt Reinhart, and Winston, 1980.

Kael’s review of Nasty Habits originally appeared in the February 21 issue of The New Yorker.

Spark, Muriel. The Abbess of Crewe. London: MacMillan London Ltd, 1974.

Note: If Spark’s name seems familiar, it’s because she’s more famously known for penning The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, for which Maggie Smith won the 1969 Oscar for Best Actress.

A Little Something for Dad OR Weather Man Appreciation Day

18 Jun

I come to praise Nicolas Cage, not to bury him or to throw milk shakes at him.

with regards to William Shakespeare

On Father’s Day, maybe we can reflect on the career of Oscar winner Nicolas Cage. His reputation anymore is that he’s something of a hack, a money-grubber who latches on to big paycheck jobs in over-the-top action flicks.  I can’t–or don’t–relate.

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In its original 2005 domestic run, The Weather Man earned a paltry 12.5 million,  a drought given its relatively meager 22 million budget. I wouldn’t begin to guess how many people have viewed it on TV, DVD, or online though I don’t think it’s yet regarded as a cult classic. But that could change. To that end, and if  you’re genuinely curious, it might help to make connections with other films, starting with Jerry Maguire (1996) or In Good Company (2004). The former famously stars Tom Cruise, Texan Renee Zellweger, and Oscar winner Cuba Gooding, Jr. (directed by Cameron Crowe); the latter features Dennis Quaid and Topher  Grace (directed by Paul Weitz). Like The Weather Man, both films veer between comedy and drama and examine masculine identity in the face of evolving professional and familial dynamics. Continuing, Weitz actually co-wrote 2002’s About a Boy with his brother Chris (adapted from Nick Hornby’s novel), who also directed. This one features Hugh Grant in one of his most compelling performances as a cad-turned-reluctant-father-figure to young Nicholas Hoult who, coincidentally, plays Cage’s son in The Weather Man.  About a Boy evinces a well honed appreciation for life’s awkward moments, as does The Weather Man, whether such moments elicit laughs–or cut to the quick so that any of us want to go hide; it co-stars Toni Collette and Rachel Weisz. Additionally, Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life (2011), starring Brad Pitt, Sean Pitt, and Jessica Chastain, is at least as visually interesting as The Weather Man, and definitely charts the tug of war between father and son though laughs are scarce. I would also put The Weather Man in the same league with arguably lesser known, and perhaps more female-centric, films such as Men Don’t Leave (1990) and Unstrung Heroes (1995). Jessica Lange stars as a widow with two sons in Paul Brickman’s Men Don’t Leave; meanwhile, Diane Keaton directs John Turturro and Andie MacDowell in a true gem of a film that, like Men Don’t Leave and The Weather Man, is keen on the fabric of every day life (with sly touches of humor) and the way families sometimes fall apart and come back together in unexpected ways. Stretching a bit, I can see a link to the fantastical Frequency starring Dennis Quaid (yet again) and Jim Caviezel as a father and son reunited across the time-space continuum (directed by Gregory Hoblit, 2000).  Also, because of its black humor and  exciting use of Chicago as cinematic playground, The Weather Man definitely has a thing or two in common with Stranger than Fiction (2006), with Will Ferrell toplining a cast that includes Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Linda Hunt, Queen Latifah, and Emma Thompson (directed by Marc Forster). If you enjoyed any of films included here, chances are you are also the target viewer for The Weather Man.

Once upon a time, he dazzled audiences with genius performances in quirky films–or is that quirky performances in genius films? You know, Raising Arizona (once again, GENIUS!!!), Moonstruck (that incredibly impassioned speech to Cher late at night during the snowfall–a triumph of acting OVER writing), Vampire’s Kiss, Wild at Heart, and Honeymoon in Vegas. I also liked  Guarding Tess (somewhat subdued opposite formidable Shirley MacLaine) and even Snake Eyes (lesser De Palma but not without its intriguing elements). I even think his often criticized performance in Peggy Sue Got Married makes all kinds of sense in context–but that’s for another day.  I also confess to somehow missing 2000’s Family Man, a riff on It’s a Wonderful Life–but, then, I’m one of the few people I know that has always had difficulty embracing the original 1946 Christmas classic. Oh, and I once knew a woman who couldn’t praise Matchstick Men enough.

During 1995/96 awards season, Cage achieved what many of most ardent admirers had long hoped to see. He  won an Oscar for playing a suicidal, alcoholic, burn-out writer in Leaving Las Vegas. By the time he walked onstage to accept his golden statuette that March evening, he had collected virtually every major award to be had, including but not limited to:  Golden Globe, SAG, and National Board of Review, along with NY, LA, and DFW critics. The Oscar was his to lose–but, of course, he didn’t. Was I glad he won? Yeah, maybe. Of course, he’s a good actor, but I wasn’t a fan of the film, and frankly, I thought he tried too hard. For this viewer, Leaving Las Vegas–including Cage–was uneven, all over the place. I thought Sean Penn (Dead Man Walking) gave a much more compelling performance–in spite of that damned pompadour. I was also very much moved by Richard Dreyfuss’s popular Mr. Holland’s Opus, a comeback of sorts for the previous Oscar winner (1977’s The Goodbye Girl), but Dreyfuss and Penn were there mainly for the ride. It was Cage’s time. (Oh, and please don’t ask me to comment on either Anthony Hopkins as Richard Nixon or the late Massimo Troissi and El Postino.)

So, Cage wins the Oscar, and then something happens. We start seeing him in a whole different light, what with The Rock, Con-Air, and Face/Off in rapid succession. This was high octane Cage, and the public did nothing but buy tickets. As time passed, we saw fewer City of Angels (an American update of Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, co-starring Meg Ryan) and more Gone in Sixty Seconds. Oh sure, he paused long enough for a relatively restrained World Trade Center (directed by no less than Oliver Stone) and even earned a second Best Actor nomination for 2002’s Adaptation though that one, a take off on Susan Orlean’s non-fiction The Orchid Thief with Cage playing twins (both obnoxious), is definitely an acquired taste. Most of his latest offerings tend to invite scorn and snickers.

All that brings us to 2004 and National Treasure, a huge hit that was actually a lot of fun with Cage cast as a modern Indiana Jones type historian and cryptologist on a thrilling quest involving, among others, the Declaration of Independence. Released in November, just ahead of the Thanksgiving crunch, the movie scored generally enthusiastic reviews and spent three weeks at the top of the box office charts.  The flick was such a success that Paramount quaked. Originally, the studio had intended to release its Cage offering, The Weather Man, during the same time, no doubt for Oscar consideration, but apparently the consensus was that the market could not bear competing Cage vehicles, and that the less thrilling, more character-driven Cage film would be the loser. With that in mind, Paramount pulled all advertising and looked to spring of 2005.

^ That little ditty featured in The Weather Man‘s trailer is “The Passenger” by Iggy Pop. Miraculously, it is also heard in the film. 

Based on  its appealing trailer, one that appeared to show Cage back in fine form, I was super-stoked to see The Weather Man even if I had to wait a few more weeks, or months, to see it. Nothing happened though. Later rather than sooner, Paramount announced that The Weather Man was back on its release schedule–for fall of 2005, again, no doubt as a potential Oscar contender. (Btw, I can find little or no documentation of any of this on the Internet, but I had friends working at the then Paramount branch office at the time, keeping me posted. That office subsequently closed after Paramount and DreamWorks struck some kind of production deal, the details of which escape me.)

Anyway, I saw The Weather Man the very day it opened, probably at the old Keystone theatre (formerly Loews, formerly AMC, formerly Regal), now a Studio Movie Grill.  I loved it, finding it quite moving, unexpectedly so. The trailer promotes it as, yes, a quirky comedy, and it definitely has its comedic moments, but it’s also dramatic and goes to some dark and dare I say tender places, hitting a raw nerve or two along the way.

Cage’s David Spritz is a Chicago based TV weatherman with aspirations of moving to one of the major networks. He’s fine enough at his job though it’s a dice-y occupation given how personally many viewers receive the message, blaming their resulting frustration on the messenger, thus the occasional milkshake or other fast food item in the face. Yeah. As successful as David is at his job, he’s a mess as a father. His marriage has fallen apart–his ex-wife (the always game Hope Davis) is already seriously involved with someone else–and Dave simply does not know how to be a good father any more than he knew how to be a good husband. His two school-age kids aren’t doing well. His daughter smokes and can no longer fit into her clothes to the point that she’s being taunted by her classmates in an especially cruel, vulgar way; meanwhile, his teenage son is being groomed by a potential pedophile. Dave tries, maybe too hard, even, but he keeps tripping over his own good intentions–or what he believes are good intentions.

Part of Dave’s issue is that he doesn’t know how to be a good father likely because his own father failed him. In this case, dad is portrayed by no less than Michael Caine (a curious casting choice) as a Pulitzer winning author–and buddy of no less than President Jimmy Carter. Caine’s elder Spritzel is a regal, powerful man–a dry academic who believes he’s always right, and he can barely hide the disappointment in his son. Mostly, he doesn’t understand his son’s occupation or interests and never really took the time to learn or to empathize.  How can David ever hope to be a positive force in his own children’s lives if he has only ever disappointed his own father?

What goes on between these two men is a particularly tortured dynamic, and watching it play out is not easy, but that’s what I like about this movie: its complexity. Aside from the aforementioned pedophile (and believe me, that’s not a spoiler–you’ll recognize the what-what the minute he utters his first line), characters  are not necessarily painted as either good or bad, and the reward is watching these works in progress  (all of them have their differences). David Spritz isn’t always likable, or smart, but in Cage’s capable hands, I root for him anyway. I can’t even say it’s because I see his innate goodness…let’s say not entirely innate, but I like that he keeps trying. That’s what comes across, a sincere effort to be better–that, and the way he wanders through the movie with a continually baffled look on his face, astonished that he can be so wrong,  so misunderstood, at almost every turn.

I think if The Weather Man had been a bigger hit, if the studio had understood what it had, and marketed it more effectively, Cage might have swung some year-end awards cred. Do I mean an Oscar or even an Oscar nod? Maybe not; after all, 2005 also saw Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote), Heath Ledger (Brokeback Mountain), David Strathairn (as Edward R. Murrow in Good Night, and Good Luck), Terrence Howard (Hustle and Flow), and, my personal fave, Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line–the whole lineup hailed at the time by many Oscar analysts as one of the strongest ever for Best Actor, not a weak link in the bunch. Simply, competition was too tough that year for a movie that was not even a marginal success  to gain a foothold.

What if Paramount had released The Weather Man in 2004 as originally planned? Well, that was pretty much an open shut and case the minute critics and audiences gasped at Jamie Foxx’s magnificent portrayal of Ray Charles in, what else, Ray. Clint Eastwood (Million Dollar Baby) and Leonardo DiCaprio (The Aviator) had their champions as did Don Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda) and Johnny Depp (Neverland), but no deal.

Still, I do think Cage’s performance was at least worth consideration among other groups, even if that meant “only” a Golden Globe nomination. Something. A film festival trinket?  Cage didnt’t even rate a shout-out from the Chicago Film Critics Association even though it apparently earned “Thumbs Up” from respected Chicago based  critic Roger Ebert and his onscreen partner Richard Roeper. Next to the comedic gold on display in Raising Arizona, which defies awards consideration because it really is just TOO good, too special, for such categorization, this is my favorite Cage performance (with Moonstruck a close third), and quite possibly his most underrated. This is a fully rounded characterization, rich with nuance. What it’s not rich in, mercifully, is bluster. In other roles, when Cage’s characters feel the heat, the actor often cuts loose, crazed, maniacal, but the effect is almost always cartoony, hardly resembling real-life. Not so as The Weatherman. Instead, David Spritz is waging war with himself, trying to keep that rage in check, a struggle he mostly wins with one understandable exception. I also like the way he underplays a potentially awkward conversation with his daughter. Exhale.

Meanwhile, one of my contacts at Paramount was certain that Michael Caine was a sure thing for Best Supporting Actor, so let that be a heads up, Caine fans. As noted, Caine would not have been my first choice for the role though he brings considerable presence to the screen, but somehow, I just don’t quite buy him as Cage’s dad. Something is off. On the other hand, maybe that’s the point. That noted, I think these many years later, either Donald Sutherland or Clint Eastwood might have made a better match. Yes, Clint Eastwood. I can easily see him playing this eloquent, detached individual who doesn’t suffer fools.

This isn’t a one man show, mind you, or even a two-man show. This is also a spectacular manifestation of director Gore Verbinski’s vision–riding on the smash success of the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie at the time–in conjunction with a team of first-rate team of designers and technicians: Phedon Papamichael (cinematographer), Tom Duffield (production designer), Patrick M. Sullivan Jr. (art-director), Rosemary Brandenburg (set decoration), and  John David Wolfe (location scout). This team has worked ever so skillfully to recreate Chicago as a richly textured, wet and wintry wonderland full of blues and grays, not a lot of warmth, but every surface is so exquisitely lit as to appear eminently touchable. Of course, Chicago, already architecturally interesting, presents a spectacular canvas. Dig that animal statuary and the way it’s utilized as a kind of unlikely emotional touchstone. Everything is seemingly bursting with life, yet it’s not, and the rain functions as free-flowing tears. What a moment.

As pointed out on the DVD, Chicago makes a great location for a movie about a weather man because the elements are so extreme. For example, the weather in Los Angeles is unchanging. New York, on the other hand, has varying weather, sure, but it’s also familiar to moviegoers. The point being made in this movie is that even a TV weather man cannot control the weather any more than he, or any of us, can control one another; therefore, the weather has to be working against the characters, keeping them unsettled. The movie’s opening shot, Lake Michigan at its iciest, establishes the dynamic beautifully, followed within seconds by the spectacular view from Spritz’s high rise apartment overlooking the Chicago river. It’s all about perspective.

Again, this is a technically stunning movie, and Cage wasn’t the only party to be overlooked for awards consideration. My second biggest complaint would be saved for cinematographer Phedon Papamichael. What an artist, but. again, nothing. No Oscar nod, and not even a scrap from the American Society of Cinematographers. Really? I mean, not to overwork a metaphor, but this movie is just dripping with gorgeous imagery.

Also, credit goes to Verbinski and his team of producers as well as, of course, screenwriter Steven Conrad. He, Verbinski, and Cage benefitted from the expertise of meteorological advisor Tom Skilling, who appears briefly as one of Cage’s weather station colleagues. Shout out, as well, to Bryant Gumble as himself. Additionally, composer Hans Zimmer contributes another fitting score, and dig Cage’s camera ready coif, styled by Larry Waggoner. Spot on. Every day is a good hair day for this dude.

Maybe, just maybe, this doesn’t sound like such an appealing movie for Father’s Day viewing, all things considered. Understood. That noted, I’m glad I finally wrote about it because this is actually one of a handful of movies that inspired me to launch this blog–it along with InfamousDrugstore Cowboy, Letter from an Unknown Woman, Citizen Ruth, and a few others. I really do think that while it’s not entirely a neglected masterpiece, it is definitely and undeservedly neglected. So skip it for now if you think it will cast a dark cloud on you and your dad’s bonding time. Instead, think about it like this: here we are in mid-to-late June in Dallas, TX, and it’s been raining off and on, mostly on, for days and weeks, but it appears to have stopped for the time being, so that can only mean one thing. Summer is coming to Texas, and that  entails a heck of a lot of heat and very little precipitation. Soon, we’ll all be parched and miserable,  clamoring for relief, and that might very well take the form of a movie holiday, something cool, windy, and, yes, wet. That will be your cue to stay indoors, chill, and give The Weather Man his shot.

Thanks for your consideration…

As indicated my the image of the DVD box in the sidebar, Ebert and Roeper gave The Weather Man “Two Thumbs Up.” You can read Ebert’s review by clicking here:


“Find Your Strength in Love”

5 Jun

Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing. – Muhammad Ali

Well, if anyone had ask me when I began this blog back in 2011 if I ever thought I’d be writing about boxer Muhammad Ali, I would have answered, “Not likely.” Yet, here we are. The man himself passed away Friday evening, June 3, 2016, at age 74 and after a decades long battle with Parkinson’s disease–a legend, an icon in both sports and popular culture arenas, so to speak. What a life. I am not in a position to make sweeping claims about the life of the man once known as Cassius Clay–how many of us first remember him–nor am I a sports expert with enough background to write about his accomplishments in the ring though the evidence speaks for itself.

What I know, and what I write about, are movies.

Back in 2001, the late Mr. Ali was accorded the big screen biopic treatment, courtesy of writer-director Michael Mann, then riding high on widespread critical acclaim and Oscar nominations for c0-producing, directing, and co-writing 1999’s tobacco industry takedown The Insider, an expose framed as a suspense story as seen from the perspective of a real-life 60 Minutes producer (played by Al Pacino). Stepping into the role of Ali in Mann’s film was none other than box office contender Will Smith, a hugely popular actor who had risen through the ranks to top box office status thanks to such smash hits as Bad Boys and Men in Black. We played Ali at the theater where I worked. I didn’t love it, and I don’t remember it being an especially impressive crowd pleaser during its run. That noted, Smith earned his first Oscar nomination for his efforts, so good for him. The movie also helped co-star Jon Voight–embodying no less than blustery, high profile sports announcer Howard Cosell–snare a supporting actor nod, so good for him as well.

IMAGE: Columbia Pictures/Wikipedia:

Reviewing The Greatest in a New York Times piece entitled, “Ali’s Latest Victory is ‘The Greatest,'” Vincent Canby wrote, ” You might call Muhammad Ali a natural actor, but that would be to deny his wit, sensibility, drive, ability, enthusiasm, poise and common sense, all of which are the conscious achievements of an ambitious man who has known exactly what he has wanted for a long time.”  IMAGE: Columbia Pictures/Wikipedia:

Truthfully, I always thought the Mann-Smith production was a bit redundant since no less than Muhammad Ali himself had already dramatized his own life story with 1977’s The Greatest in which he, to clarify, portrayed himself. Why watch Smith act Ali’s life story when Ali had already committed the story to celluloid more than a decade earlier? That, and the fact that Ali had also already been the subject of an Oscar winning documentary, When We Were Kings, in 1996?

But I digress.

Released in the spring of ’77, literally days ahead of the Star Wars juggernaut, and based on Ali’s book (co-authored by Herbert Muhammad and Richard Durham and adapted by Ring Lardner, Jr.), The Greatest also featured such talent as Lloyd Haynes, Roger E. Mosley, Paul Winfield, and James Earl Jones–the latter cast as Malcolm X.

My guess is that most moviegoers either don’t know or have forgotten about this film. I didn’t see it when I was a kid, but, then, I didn’t see that many first-run flicks at that point; however,  I did catch up with it years and years later, sometime in the 1990s, well before Mann’s take.  I remember most vividly watching the opening credits, and the song that played over footage of Ali jogging. That song was and is “The Greatest Love of All,” recorded by George Benson, and composed by Michael Masser and Linda Creed. By all accounts, Benson–a top recording artist of the times with such hits as “Masquerade” and a cover of The Drifters’ “On Broadway”–enjoyed considerable success with this tune, but I, for the life of me, don’t ever remember hearing it on the radio, but I recognized it right away when I watched the movie that morning.

^Opening of 1977’s The Greatest: AMC via YouTube

Of course, the song’s relative obscurity took a wild turn with the emergence of Whitney Houston, who belted out the song, full-throttle anthem style, on her 1985 debut album–released on the Arista label, the same as The Greatest soundtrack. Houston’s is the version that most of us know and love, and why not? It’s freakin’ gorgeous with the singer’s impassioned delivery, a stirring arrangement, and powerfully inspirational lyrics. It even earned a Grammy nomination for Record of the Year two years after the album’s release, a feat, that. Yet, for all of Houston and her mentor Clive Davis’s savvy, we must remember that they didn’t invent the song–in the same way that they also didn’t invent the singer’s mega-smash “I Will Always Love You,” a Dolly Parton original made even more famous by Houston’s bravura cover for 1992’s The Bodyguard soundtrack…but I digress.

The point is that “The Greatest Love of All,” shortened to “Greatest Love of All” for Houston’s rendition, is a classic, a triumphant entry in the so-called Great American Songbook. We’ve heard it so many times that it has beome a part of us, a part of our collective consciousness. It’s been performed and parodied hither and yon, but we need to remember its source. The overall effect is much different when seen in its original context, the story of a man on a journey to be his authentic self–and winning against considerable odds. It bespeaks a kind of poignancy.

It probably comes as no surprise to find that the song was overlooked for Best Song consideration by the Academy back in the day. Of course, as I have noted in a previous column, which I always intended to extend to a second edition, the 1977/78 Oscars represented a disconnect in Uncle Oscar’s music branch. Again, also overlooked for Academy consideration were any and all songs from both Saturday Night Fever (an indisputable pop culture landmark) and New York, New York. Of course, the race pretty much began and ended with “You Light Up My Life” from the film of the same name. The song, covered by Debby Boone, was everywhere, racking up stratospheric sales and soaring to the top of Oscar’s “Most Wanted” list. No doubt coming in a close second would have to be Carly Simon’s radio-friendly “Nobody Does It Better” from The Spy Who Loved Me, yet another entry in the popular James Bond series. In that context, “The Greatest Love of All” probably didn’t seem like a significant achievement. On the other hand, what about the other three nominees? Hmmmm…hard to find fault with Disney contenders, “Candle on the Water” (Pete’s Dragon) and “Someone’s Waiting for You” (The Rescuers). The former certainly had its fans and was performed in the film by no less that ever-reliable Helen Reddy; the latter appeared in one of the studio’s best received films–both critically and commercially–in several years. To further clarify, the former was combination of live action and animation (per Mary Poppins) while the latter was an animated delight. Again, who would complain? Of course, the fifth nominee, “The Cinderella Waltz” from The Slipper and The Rose has always been a head scratcher. Simply, there were better choices, “The Greatest Love of All” being just one of them.

Of course, an Academy nod isn’t the end-all, be-all, and we know this better than ever, thanks to Houston’s magnificent recording. Besides the subsequent Grammy nomination, other accolades include–belated–recognition from the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers as one of the Most Performed Feature Film Standards. And it all began in a film about the incredible life and times of Muhammad Ali.

There are amazing stories to be found about this song and its creators, but they have almost nothing to do with Ali or even Whitney Houston, so save those for another time. You can google to your heart’s content.

In the period around 1987-1989, “Greatest Love of All” kept me going through some dark times. I especially embraced it after the soloist performed it one Sunday morning at the church I attended. Suddenly, everything made sense, and I kept coming back, and keep coming back, to the last line: “Find your strength in love.”

Ever since I first heard those words, I’ve held on to the hope that it is indeed  possible for all of us to find our strengths in love.

Thanks for your consideration…

^ This clip includes the lyrics and the full version of George Benson’s version of “The Greatest Love of All”

Vincent Canby’s review of The Greatest in The New York Times (21 May 1977):