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 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QrXaG0riXz0)

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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):

http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9901E2DB173BE63BBC4152DFB566838C669EDE

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.

The_Weather_Man_Widescreen-front [1600x1200]

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:

http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-weather-man-2005

 

“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: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Greatest_(1977_film)#/media/File:The-greatest-movie-poster-1977.jpg

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: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Greatest_(1977_film)#/media/File:The-greatest-movie-poster-1977.jpg

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): http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9F00E6D71331E034BC4951DFB366838C669EDE

Memo to Mr. Beatty: Sooner not Later. Please.

1 Jun

Dear Warren Beatty, Disney Honchos, and Criterion Personnel: Dick Tracy (1990) deserves a super-deluxe, collectible, two-disc edition DVD. Thank you.

We live in the age of the comic-book super-hero movie, witness the boffo–to borrow vintage Variety-speak–grosses of Captain America: Civil War and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. For example, the former netted 179 million in its opening weekend and is now up to to 377 million and counting; meanwhile, the latter opened with 166 million and has earned 328 million so far (per Box Office Mojo).  These mega-budgeted, action-packed, effects laden spectacles run the business anymore, and the end is nowhere in sight. The question is:  how did this happen–and when?

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Once upon a time, the “two-way radio wristwatch” Chester Gould designed for Dick Tracy, later supplanted by the two-way TV wristwatch, seemed novel and futuristic. Today, we take for granted the convenience of smart phones, specifically Apple’s iPhone, and the newest member of the family: the smart watch.

Clearly, the movie industry’s confusion of the 1960s, with studios throwing money at musical extravaganzas such as The Sound of Music (1965), Oliver! (1968), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), Hello, Dolly! (1969),  and Paint Your Wagon (1969), and moviegoers lining up for the likes of Bonnie and Clyde (1967), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Easy Rider (1969), and Midnight Cowboy (1969),  gave way to the fertile period of the 1970s, the period that made the likes of The Last Picture Show (1971), The Godfather (1972), Chinatown (1974), Nashville (1975), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), and a host of other auteur classics and near classics possible. At the same time, the post-Kennedy assassination, post-Watergate era gave way to cynicism and paranoia, reflected in the likes of The Conversation (1974), The Parallax View (1974), Three Days of the Condor (1975), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Taxi Driver (1976), Network (1976), Marathon Man (1976), and, of course, All the President’s Men (1976). At the same time, Hollywood never forgot the value of escapist fare, and in the midst of all that gloom and audience fatigue, a few crowd-pleasers pointed the way to a sunnier, re-energized tomorrow: The Sting (1973), Rocky (1976), Star Wars (1977), and Superman (1978). Of course, somewhere in the middle of those bon-bons, Stephen Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) also set a new standard for thrills, chills, and box office oomph.

With the 1980s came a new model of business, motivated by the thirst for “popcorn” flicks, high-concept package deals brokered by the hot-shots at Creative Artists Agency (led by Mike Ovitz), and an increasingly corporatized atmosphere at the studios as media conglomerates became the norm. The early-to-mid 1980s gave us the likes of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T. (1982),  48 Hours (1982), Tootsie (1982), Flashdance (1983), Ghostbusters (1984), Beverly Hills Cop (1984), Rambo (1985), Back to the Future (1985), Top Gun (1986), a string of highly lucrative teen comedies from writer-director-producer John Hughes,  and dozens more. Then, in 1989, Warner Bros and Tim Burton, known at the time for idiosyncratic titles such as Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985) and Beetlejuice (1988), upped their game with Batman, an edgier alternative to the campy similarly titled TV show of the 1960s with its goofy effects, cut-out sets, puns, and cavalcade of guest stars–both in and past their prime–playing increasingly over-the-top villains.

Instead, Burton’s film, as has oft been reported, took its cue from graphic novels The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller and The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland. The line between good and bad seemed murkier than ever.  In the role of millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne and his crime-fighting alter-ego, director Burton generated a wave of controversy by casting Michael Keaton, mostly known at the time for comedies such as Night Shift (1982), Mr. Mom (1983), and Burton’s own Beetlejuice; however, Burton countered by explaining that he cast Keaton because he needed an actor who could effectively play the nuances of the Wayne character, an otherwise phenomenally successful man haunted by the murder of his parents, a murder he witnessed. Fortunately, Keaton proved himself the right man for the job, but he did not emerge the star of the show.

No, that distinction went to no less than (then) two-time Oscar winner Jack Nicholson, who played “The Joker,” Batman’s nemesis, a shade more sinister, but no less hammy, than his TV predecessor Cesar Romero (but not as darkly as he would eventually be portrayed by Oscar winner Heath Ledger in 2008’s The Dark Knight). Audiences savored Nicholson’s every lip-smacking move. The actor also made headlines by inking a then-unprecedented deal that entitled him to a cut of everything, meaning not only the film’s box office take (presumably from the first ticket sold) but also merchandising and sequels. He even demanded and was granted top billing. That’s right, over Keaton, the titular hero.

Burton’s grandly scaled film was unquestionably darker and even more violent than similar superhero fare. The soundtrack featured a breakthrough score by Danny Elfman, an obvious departure from audience fave John Williams, who had so memorably composed anthemic themes for the likes of Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Superman, and Raiders of the Lost Ark (again, among many others). Warner execs also engineered a way to incorporate music of reigning pop superstar Prince, the addition of which upped the film’s “cool” quotient. Production designer Anton Furst won an Oscar for creating an imposing Gotham City and all its environs, including Wayne Manor and the Batcave, marked by industrial, Art Deco, and Gothic influences.

Batman arrived amid a flurry of relentless hype, the likes of which I had never witnessed at that point in my theater exhibitor career (going on 7 years when it happened). Oh, I’m not naive. Of course, I understood very well that so-called ballyhoo was always essential to the Hollywood game, going all the way back to at least 1939’s Gone with the Wind with stops along the way up to Cleopatra (1963), with ample fanfare in between and well-beyond. Sure, I knew all about the marketing game, but, remember, even Star Wars and Ghostbusters, and oh so many others, were word of mouth hits, bolstered as they were by smart publicity blitzes. They did NOT hit the screens with pre-sold audiences. Batman was different. The buildup was almost unavoidable. Batman was everywhere: TV talk shows, TV commercials, magazines, whatever–and remember, this was before the Internet had the same utility as it does today. As I recall, this was the first time, outside of a radio station sponsored advance screening, that theaters sold tickets to Thursday night showings prior to the official Friday opening. Also, as I recall, our screening filled up three auditoriums. Unprecedented. Those first few days were grueling, grueling in a way that even 1983’s Return of the Jedi, which did benefit from a pre-sold audience, could not compare.

The result of all this masterful media manipulation is that Batman became the first movie to earn 100 million dollars in a mere 10 days [1]. Historic. Sounds much ado about nothing now, measured against Captain America‘s recent 179 million haul in only one weekend–but that’s kind of the point. Blockbusters are ever becoming the norm, and the stakes are getting higher.

So, what does any of this have to do with Dick Tracy, you might ask.

Released in June of 1990 by Disney subsidiary Touchstone Pictures and based on Chester Gould’s decades running comic strip (1931-1977)  Dick Tracy is superstar actor-turned-producer-and-Oscar-winning-director Warren Beatty’s long-laboured dream project about a big city, square-jawed detective battling a cast of colorful hoodlums–with such names as Big Boy, Eighty-eight Keys, Flattop, Little Face, and Mumbles. Add to the mix a scruffy street urchin and the affections of two polar opposite females: no-nonsense Tess Trueheart and vampy torch singer–and sometime gangster’s moll–Breathless Mahoney. The former portrayed by Glenn Headley; the latter personified by no less than pop royalty Madonna, Beatty’s then romantic flame.

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Madonna’s Dick Tracy-inspired I’m Breathless album netted a  #1 hit single, “Vogue” with its landmark music video directed by then relative unknown David Fincher, and an Oscar victor, “Sooner or Later” with music and lyrics by veteran Tony, Grammy, and Pulitzer winning tunesmith Stephen Sondheim. To quote Ira Gershwin, “Nice work if you can get it.” We’ll assume that’s Beatty, face obscured, sporting the fedora.

No doubt inspired by Batman‘s smashing success, the Disney brass launched Dick Tracy in June of 1990 with a tidal wave of publicity, the likes of which had scarcely been seen since, well, you know, the Bat guy from one year earlier.  Merchandising tie-ins galore, not the least of which was Madonna’s wall-to-wall, chart-topping radio smash, “Vogue,” which, technically, did not appear in the film but was instead featured on the singer’s Dick Tracy companion record album, I’m Breathless: Music From and Inspired by the Film Dick Tracy.  The album also featured contributions composed by legendary Stephen Sondheim, including future Oscar winner “Sooner or Later” and “More.” The Blonde One was everywhere that summer, garnering mucho media attention thanks to her globe-trotting Blonde Ambition tour, footage of which eventually formed the basis for 1991’s Truth or Dare documentary.

The Disney Store had just opened at NorthPark around that time (give or take a few months), and Dick Tracy merchandise lined the shelves, including a snazzy Madonna as Breathless Mahoney wristwatch which a friend gifted me with for my birthday–and which I still own.

Make no mistake, Madonna was hardly the whole show. Of course, aside from the rare misstep known as Ishtar (1987), Beatty had a reputation as a Hollywood power-player with a knack for assembling top-flight talent and working to exacting standards on ambitious projects, often to dazzling effect, including the aforementioned Bonnie and Clyde (1967), as well as Shampoo (1975), Heaven Can Wait (1978), and Reds (1981), serving as producer and actor in all of the above, earning Oscar nominations in as many as four categories–Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Screenplay–for both Heaven Can Wait and Reds.

Joining Beatty in supporting and/or cameo roles was a panoply of stars and character greats such as Al Pacino, straight from his sizzling comeback in Sea of Love, as nemesis Big Boy Caprice, Mandy Patinkin, Dustin Hoffman, Paul Sorvino, James Caan, Kathy Bates, Catherine O’Hara,  Charles Durning, William Forsythe, Dick Van Dyke, and Estelle Parsons (who, of course, had won Best Supporting Actress for her role in Bonnie & Clyde decades earlier), and several more.  The cast also included young Charlie Korsmo, who’d earned raves earlier in the year as widowed Jessica Lange’s youngest son in Men Don’t Leave. The script, incidentally, was penned by the hotshot team of Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr., the duo behind such hits as Top Gun and The Secret of My Success. (These writers were part of the aforementioned CAA stable where package deals were the name of the game.)

With all that fanfare, all that pedigree, Dick Tracy easily opened at the top of the box office charts, a position it maintained through two weekends (per Box Office Mojo), dipping only 31% from week 1 to week 2–and only 35% from week 2 to week 3.  More than respectable numbers, as anything less than 40% is considered within an acceptable range. (Falling more than 60% is grounds for disaster.) To clarify, Dick Tracy actually yielded the year’s third biggest opening haul. A hit is a hit is a hit, right?

Everything you need to know about Dick Tracy in one shot. That's ever-reliable character actor William Forsythe as "Flattop" with Oscar winning makeup effects by John Caglione, Jr. and Doug Drexler. The pair won in a year in which the competition included, among others, the heavyweight team of Ve Neill and Stan Winston, in the race for the celebrated Edward Scissorhands. (IMAGE: Touchstone Pictures/comicvine.gamespot.com

Everything you need to know about Dick Tracy in one shot. That’s ever-reliable character actor William Forsythe as “Flattop” with Oscar winning makeup effects by John Caglione, Jr. and Doug Drexler. The pair won in a year in which the competition included, among others, the heavyweight team of Ve Neill and Stan Winston,  for the celebrated Edward Scissorhands. This shot also provides a peek at Milena Canonero’s Oscar nominated costumes and director Warren Beatty’s vision of saturating each frame with blue, red, yellow, and green. Canonero, already a two-time winner, lost for Dick Tracy but has since gone on to triumph with 2006’s Marie Antoinette and 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. (IMAGE: Touchstone Pictures/comicvine.gamespot.com)

Generally, the critics responded favorably. Popular TV and print critic Roger Ebert gave it 4 stars and deemed it “visionary.” The New York Times‘ Vincent Canby lavished praise as well [2-3]. Much of the applause was in response to the top-notch cast as well as the movie’s incredible look, mainly the cartoony production design, festooned as it was from frame to frame in a palette dominated by primary colors: red, blue, yellow, and, okay, green (technically not a primary color) with other hues, mainly black and silver, used selectively. The stunning effect was part of Beatty’s vision to make this final product evoke a child’s sense of wonder–especially when reading the Sunday funnies. Because, remember, Dick Tracy was a comic strip rather than a comic book. Moreover, he was hardly a super-hero on the order of Batman or Superman. By the way, the film’s much ballyhooed “look” extended to the literal interpretations of the characters’ outrageous mugs and coifs.

At year’s end, as corroborated by Box Office Mojo, Dick Tracy held the number nine spot among the year’s top ten box-office hits, earning as much as 103 million (domestically), again, in an era in which 100 mil was considered the proverbial gold standard for achieving blockbuster status [4]. For all that, however, Beatty and his film could not quite escape being labelled a failure. Was it because, even with its robust box office take, it failed to recoup its cost? Well, that’s one way of looking at it. Certainly, filmmaker Beatty is not known for producing on the cheap. His flick had a reported price tag of 47 million, a lot for a Disney picture for the time–the studio being known as mostly tight-fisted; after all, the following year’s comic book extravaganza, The Rocketeer (also Disney),  cost a relatively meager 35 million, about the same as Batman. Still, Dick Tracy‘s returns–again, 100 million+ on a budget of 47 mil–might have looked better if not for what were surely exorbitant marketing costs. On the other hand, ticket sales are not the only measure of success. What about overseas markets, home video sales and rentals, cable and network TV rights, and all those merchandising tie-ins?

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Oscar winning art direction by Richard Sylbert and Rick Simpson; cinematography by famed Vittorio Storaro. Everything works. Sylbert was a true giant in his field with six nominations for the likes of Chinatown, Shampoo, and Reds (the latter pair under the eye of Beatty as either producer, director, or both). His credits also include Frances and Carlito’s Way. In 1990, he also collaborated on Brian De Palma’s infamous adaptation of Bonfire of the Vanities. His twin brother Paul also worked in films, also as a production designer. He earned an Oscar for Beatty’s  1978 update of Here Comes Mr. Jordan, retitled Heaven Can Wait.

Mainly, Dick Tracy was deemed a failure, a misfire, because it wasn’t Batman. Hardly an unqualified disaster, its success paled in comparison to its super-hero predecessor’s colossal cultural impact. Did it ever occur to anyone that maybe marketing it as something it really wasn’t might have been a bad idea? Batman‘s effect was emphatically dark and majestically gloomy while Dick Tracy was colorful and comedic around the edges, practically a romp. A romp with sassy singing and dancing, to be specific.

No matter. In early 1991, Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg drafted a memo, more like a mission statement, leaked to the press almost instantaneously, in which he expressed disappointment that the company he loved so much, a once rock-solid brand, if you will, unmatchable in its ability to deliver quality product–on a thrifty budget–to a welcoming audience, had lost its way in pursuit of big stars and blockbuster mentality [5]. Katzenberg further notes that Disney was actually in last place among the big studios when he came aboard in 1984, the same year the Touchstone subsidiary launched, and was top of the heap six years later.  Of course, the point of Touchstone was to reposition the struggling studio (reeling from a series of expensive, not to mention confusing, duds) by expanding the Disney market beyond the familiar family-friendly fare and branching out to more sophisticated titles along the lines of Splash, Country, Three Men and a Baby, Good Morning, VietnamDead Poets Society, and Down and Out in Beverly Hills, the film that launched bawdy Bette Midler’s comeback–and her reign as one of the biggest box office draws of the mid-to-late 1980s.

Katzenberg directed much of his frustration at the relative success (or failure) of Dick Tracy in particular, making special note that three of the year’s biggest hits, Home Alone, Ghost, and Pretty Woman (the latter also from Disney’s Touchstone subsidiary), had seemingly come out of nowhere to capture the public’s imagination in a way that Dick Tracy had not. “The idea is king,” he infamously exclaimed. What does that mean, anyway? Not all ideas are created equally, but almost every movie ever made surely began with what someone somewhere thought was a good idea. Even a bad idea still qualifies as an idea, right? On the other hand, again, the finished product (Dick Tracy, that is) was less a problem than the expectations and hype that preceded it

Of course, Katzneberg’s memo also revealed his sometimes fuzzy logic; after all, I always wondered what Uncle Walt, Disney, that is, would have thought of super-successful Pretty Woman and its leggy hooker waving his company’s once family-friendly banner. Of the three movies Katzenberg fawned over, only Home Alone, the year’s biggest hit, came close to qualifying as a genuine surprise hit since it really didn’t boast a “name” cast though it still came from a big studio–20th Century Fox–and with the proven clout of the aforementioned money machine John Hughes as writer and producer. In many ways, kid friendly Home Alone also seemed more Disneyesque at the time than actual Disney product; moreover, 1990 also saw the creation of yet another Disney subsidiary, Hollywood Pictures which premiered with creepy-fx driven comedy Arachnophobia.

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Designer Richard Sylbert and his team transformed the Universal backlot into Warren Beatty’s vision of a city splashed with lots of reds and yellows.

The saga took another twist about a month after Katzenberg’s missive made headlines, and that occurred when Dick Tracy earned a healthy 7 Oscar nods, mostly in the technical categories though Al Pacino earned a spot among the Best Supporting Actor finalists for his boorish buffoonery. That strong showing also heralded a nomination for Stephen Sondheim. The film’s nominees extended to such luminaries as production designer Richard Sylbert (a winner for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, in his sixth race), costumer Milena Canonero (already a two-time winner for Barry Lyndon and Chariots of Fire), and renown cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (3 for 3 with the Academy at the time: Apocalypse Now, Reds, and The Last Emperor).

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What Sylbert and his team could not create outright on the Universal lot, a crew of visual effects artists made possible with stylized matte paintings used as augmentation. Total Recall won the Visual Effects Oscar that year, reconfigured as a “Special Achievement Award” rather than competitive award due to that film’s for the times unparalleled technical triumphs.  IMAGE: A.V. Club.com

Come Oscar night, Dick Tracy triumphed in three categories: Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Makeup, and Best Original Song. Madonna performed the latter during the telecast, seemingly battling a case of nerves while channeling the ghosts of Blonde Bombshells Past. In an Oscar race dominated by Kevin Costner’s wildly popular Dances with Wolves, in which Costner–in true Beatty style–starred, directed, and co-produced, Dick Tracy‘s full tally put it second in the final count, Costner’s film going 7 for 12. Backing up, Dick Tracy‘s seven nods tied with Godfather III for second place in the nominations account, again, second to only Dances with Wolves. Isn’t this an achievement worth celebrating in a deluxe DVD rather than ignoring, as is the case with the current shabby offering?

So what happened next?

Clearly, Katzenberg’s memo did nothing to endear him to Beatty, and, actually, Katzenberg was more or less relieved of his duties a few short years later. He has since gone on to co-found, with Stephen Spielberg and David Geffen, the popular Dreamworks SKG production outfit. Beatty, meanwhile, returned to fine form just the very next year with the lavish Bugsy, a slick biopic about notorious–and reportedly handsome–gangster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, including his exploits in Hollywood and Las Vegas, not the least of which involved an illicit fling with Hollywood starlet Virginia Hill (played in the film by Annette Bening, later Mrs. Warren Beatty; Hill was reportedly the model for the character Joan Crawford once played in The Damned Don’t Cry). In one noteworthy departure for multi-faceted Beatty, he turned the directing reins over to Rain Man‘s Oscar winner Barry Levinson.  Beatty’s last brush with Oscar was for co-writing 1998’s controversial political satire Bulworth, which, yes, he also directed, co-produced, and starred.

A number of years ago, I began looking for Dick Tracy on DVD. I found it in the bins at my local Movie Trading Company. Easy enough,  but the edition offered no extras. Nothing. Really? Every so often I would check there, and on Amazon, for updates. I was holding out for a big splashy edition, to no avail. To clarify, even the Blu-ray is reportedly no-frills. Finally, I broke down and bought the only copy I could find. I watched it once. Maybe twice. Then, just a few weeks ago, I turned on the TV, and the movie was playing, and right during one of Dustin Hoffman’s big scenes (as “Mumbles”), I happened upon an online article about a Criterion edition of what? Tootsie. Starring whom? Dustin Hoffman. Then, it hit me. Why not a Criterion edition of Dick Tracy, for cryin’ out loud? Okay, maybe not Criterion, but why not something, some edition with loads of extras, commemorating one of the most ambitious movies of its time? Believe me, I’ve seen movies far less successful with DVD bonus features. I’ve also been surprised by some of Criterion’s titles.

At first, I thought there must still be bad blood between Beatty and the Disney people. Surely that could be a major factor. Of course, since Beatty and Madonna’s relationship soon fizzled, perhaps neither feels compelled to rehash that particular moment in their lives for the sake of a DVD featurette. Just a thought. While researching this piece, I discovered an article about a lawsuit between Beatty and the Chester Gould estate, which Beatty ultimately won. Is that the reason for the shabby DVD? Part of the lawsuit involved a 2009 “Making of…” TV special hosted by Leonard Maltin, featuring Beatty in character as Tracy. The special can be found on YouTube, but it’s mostly an overly scripted snoozer. Don’t look to it for anything resembling depth.

No, we the fans are still waiting for an awesome DVD edition though, of course, some of the principals, such as Sylbert, are no longer with us. Meanwhile, 86 year old Stephen Sondheim likely does not have much time to spare. Still, am I the only one who longs to see and hear a mind-bogglingly talented group of actors and artisans reflect this many years later on the full intricacies of such a celebrated if misunderstood production?

Even so, I hang on to hope. After all, once upon a time, Beatty held hope of a lavish biopic based on the life of Howard Hughes. That project never happened. Indeed, he was beat to the punch by Martin Scorsese’s heralded The Aviator (2004) starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Still, we now know that Beatty’s upcoming Rules Don’t Apply, his first directorial effort since Bulworth, features him in a supporting role as no less than Hughes. Better late than never. I have also seen a few headlines lately in which Beatty hints that he’s considering a Dick Tracy sequel [6] . I don’t know how that might work, but if an update of the current DVD is part of the pre-release push, I’ll play along. Mr. Beatty, please take note.

Thanks for your consideration…

[1] Link redirects to July 4, 1989, archived New York Times article by Aljean Harmetz, “Batman Sets Sales Record: 100 Million in 10 Days”: http://www.nytimes.com/1989/07/04/movies/batman-sets-sales-record-100-million-in-10-days.html

[2-3] Ebert’s review: http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/dick-tracy-1990 New York Times review: http://www.nytimes.com/1990/06/15/movies/review-film-a-cartoon-square-comes-to-life-in-dick-tracy.html?pagewanted=all

[4] Dick Tracy at Box Office Mojo: http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=dicktracy.htm  Of course, context is everything. Contrast the 1990 numbers with those from 2015. In 1990, only two movies earned over 200 million, and one movie in the top 10 didn’t even break 100 mil, the difference between being a hit, even a runway hit, and a blockbuster. In 2015, not a single top 10 hit earned LESS than 200 million. Movie budgets have skyrocketed–we all know that–as have ticket prices, thereby accounting for today’s NEED for mammoth box office dollars…though, of course, we have ample evidence to suggest, as well, that increased ticket prices mask decline in the number of actual tickets sold…the latest Star Wars movie being an exception: http://www.boxofficemojo.com/yearly/chart/?yr=2015&p=.htm

[5] This link redirects to the Letters of Note website and purports to include the full text of Jeffrey Katzenberg’s 1991 memo, or mission statement, in which he questions Disney’s involvement in Dick Tracy among other things. As an aside, this very memo reportedly served as writer-director Cameron Crowe’s inspiration for the “mission statement” that functions as the catalyst for Jerry Maguire’s career game-changer in the popular 1996 film: http://www.lettersofnote.com/2011/11/some-thoughts-on-our-business.html?m=1

[6] Variety item, dated April 13, 216,  describing new Hughes film, Gould lawsuit, and possible Dick Tracy sequel: http://variety.com/2016/film/news/warren-beatty-dick-tracy-howard-hughes-movie-1201752997/

On Letting Mothers be Mothers

2 May

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

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

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

You probably have your favorite–or favorites.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for your consideration…