The Surprise of Hilda Simms: Revisiting Black Widow (1954)

14 Mar

I began writing this piece in November, thinking I’d post it before the awards season launched in earnest, but it has taken a little longer than I’d expected, and I actually appreciate the extra time for more research and reflection….

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So, there we were, Michael and I, tuning into one of the old movie channels (either TCM or Fox Movies, likely the latter) a few years back as we often do on Saturday mornings. Within a few seconds we were caught up in the bold color palette of 1954’s Black Widow, not to be confused, mind you, with Scarlett Johansson’s Marvel character or 1987’s Black Widow starring Debra Winger and Theresa Russell.  Oh, I love that one too, a cross-country suspense melodrama pitting one determined federal agent in a mind game, not to mention a race against time, with a glamorous serial killer. Fun stuff, that–witty and two snappy performances by two charismatic stars. Plus, both films, the ’54 model as well as the ’87 version, carry the 20th Century Fox logo.

Still, to clarify, only the names and the studio are what connect the films.

The 1954 version is a more traditional mystery involving a Broadway producer, portrayed by ever-reliable Van Heflin, whose kindness toward a young aspiring writer–in the person of former child actress Peggy Ann Garner–soon leads to a shocking demise and ever mounting suspicion. The cast is further buoyed by the likes of Gene Tierney (as Heflin’s wife who scoots out of town for a bit, thereby creating conditions that set the plot in motion), George Raft (a driven, no-nonsense police detective), and, perhaps, best of all, Ginger Rogers [1], sublimely cheeky as Tierney’s best friend and the star of Heflin’s current hit play.  Her Carlotta (Lottie) is a self-possessed steamrolling fashion plate not unlike, say, All About Eve‘s mercurial Margo Channing–the one and only Bette Davis, and, yes, also a Fox production.

Mustachioed Reginald Gardiner creeps along as Rogers’ simp of a husband while veteran great Cathleen Nesbit steps up as a cleaning woman who works for both showbiz couples. Meanwhile, sharp-eyed fans of vintage TV shows will no doubt spot Bea Benaderret (Petticoat Junction) as a party guest and Mabel Anderson (Mrs. Stephens on Bewitched and scads of other gigs, including What’s Up Doc?) as club owner. That’s also Dallas’ own Aaron Spelling–and future almighty TV producer–as the lanky “Mr. Oliver,” an aspiring actor who arrives on the scene just in time to help Raft and the others close the case.

Black Widow looks smashing, thanks to Fox’s in-house Deluxe Color (aka Color by Deluxe) per cinematographer Charles Clarke, whose résumé  boasts one competitive Oscar (Hello, Frisco, Hello) as well as a technical achievement award and an honorary medal. Clarke is in good company with a production design team that includes legendary Oscar winning art director Lyle Wheeler (Gone with the Wind and The King and I among many, many, others) and one-named costume design sensation Travilla, a previous–shared–Oscar winner for The Adventures of Don Juan, with three additional nominations, but perhaps best known for the full-skirted white dress Marilyn Monroe wears in The Seven Year Itch, oh, and, of course, those blissfully over the top designs for Valley of the Dolls. Black Widow pops with bold strokes of color (lots and lots of blues), widescreen appeal marked by expansive sets and clear, crisp depth of field, along with sleekly authentic mid-century Modern interiors, keeping in mind that the two Manhattan power couples, Heflin and Tierney and Rogers and Gardiner, live in posh high rise dwellings–and that includes an impressive view of the NYC skyline. A fake view, mind you, but bas relief style, so it seems, as opposed to a mere painted backdrop–and with simply mahvelous light cues.  The movie is like its own effect.

In spite of its top-flight cast and visual appeal, Black Widow underwhelms in other ways. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I love this movie. It works incredibly well on its own terms, providing like-minded viewers a tidy package with a few twists along the way  though it does not necessarily succeed as an engrossing mystery. Keep in mind, the DVD is part of Fox’s “Noir” series, and that’s a bit misleading. There’s little noir-ish about it, not, say, compared to Fox’s all-time classic, Laura–starring Tierney in one of her signature roles. For that matter, Tierney’s Oscar nominated–and color saturated–Leave Her to Heaven (also Fox) works better as noir. That noted, I’ll leave it to others to debate whether color films qualify as “noir.” On the other hand, Black Widow, scripted by Nunnally Johnson (who also directs) from a story credited to Hugh Wheeler (using the pen, Patrick Quentin) [2], has more in common with a straightforward Agatha Christie whodunit or an amped-up big screen enhancement of such classic TV shows as Perry Mason or Dragnet. Entertaining enough, sure, but also stage-bound at times, even with snazzy visuals, talky, with perfunctory “Just the facts, ma’am” dialogue that tells as often as it shows while percolating along–make that simmering for those with short attention spans–to its conclusion.

So, there we were that Saturday morning, mesmerized by the colorful tale and then something surprising happened, surprising in the person of Hilda Simms.

Who is Hilda Simms, and why is she so surprising?

Hilda Simms is–was–an African-American actress from Minneapolis whose involvement with the American Negro Theatre Company launched a career that led to a starring role in Anna Lucasta on Broadway in the 1940s, inspired by Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie and staged with an all black cast though not necessarily conceived as such. Per the Internet Broadway Database (IBDb), the play ran for two years, and Simms later travelled across the Atlantic to star in the London production as well. She eventually heeded Hollywood’s call, appearing in a small number of films including 1953’s The Joe Louis Story, as Marva Louis (aka Mrs. Joe Louis).

What’s surprising about Simms’ role in Black Widow is that it’s essentially color-blind. For example, she’s not playing a domestic, a maid, as would have been typical of the time, and no reference is made to the color of her skin. None. In 1954. She’s first seen briefly as hat-check girl in Mabel Anderson’s watering hole–and, yes, okay, that looks suspiciously like a maid’s uniform. She re-appears later in the film as a cocktail waitress at a neon lit joint in a relatively lengthy scene opposite Heflin’s beleaguered “person of interest.” He’s been played and needs to avoid the police long enough to retrace a few steps and find the missing piece of a perplexing puzzle. Simms, as Anne, might be the one person to turn the investigation. She and Heflin are presented as equals, that is, two smart, seasoned adults trying to pick each other’s brains to arrive at one inevitable truth.

Look closely at director Nunnally Johnson’s staging. In their three minute scene, Simms and Heflin appear facing each other, mostly in a straight-on two-shot, with Heflin slightly slumped against the bar, thereby equalizing the space between them; moreover, Johnson cuts to Simms, from over Heflin’s shoulder (the actor’s back to the camera) at least as many times as he reverses the angle to favor Heflin. See? The characters–and the performers who inhabit them–are treated as equals through the director’s lens.

Simms makes quite an impression, bringing enviable cool to a small role that helps advance the plot.  As is often the case with performers who exude star quality, the audience wants to see more of her, but that is not to be in this particular film.

The website BlackPast.org features a profile of Hilda Simms (r) though it downplays her contribution to Black Widow, thusly: “Her only other movie role was that of the hatcheck girl in Black Widow (1954).” Though, again, Simms’ turn in the movie brief, the blurb does not best describe her importance in a key sequence (played opposite Van Heflin, as Peter r). Oh, and, again, Simms’ character has a name, and her name is Anne. This IMAGE is from the Noirish website, in which John Grant praises Simms’ “great turn” and also heralds Anne’s frankness, per her role in appraising Peter’s situation for what it is. Good call. https://noirencyclopedia.wordpress.com/2014/10/01/black-widow-1954/

 

As extraordinary as Simms is, let’s not kid ourselves.  Her role, while strongly written, is still a supporting one, barely more than a cameo, and even though she’d scored a Broadway triumph well before The Black Widow, her name is buried deep in the opening credits, nor is she featured in the DVD box art. Also, as a person of color in this enterprise, she’s the exception rather than the norm in an otherwise all-white cast. Face it: then, the 1950s, as now, Hollywood doesn’t often know what to do with women of color. Yes, the situation is improving, in both films and TV, as witnessed by the continued successes of such recent Oscar winners as Regina King, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, and Lupita Nyong’o (all, ahem, winners in the Supporting Actress category), along with biggies Kerry Washington, Taraji P. Henson, Angela Bassett, Audra McDonald, Alfre Woodard, the great Debbi Morgan, Jennifer Lewis, and the steady rise of Tiffany Haddish, among others [3], sure, but parity is still not the norm. Yet.

Still, Hilda Simms’ brief turn enriches Black Widow with cultural significance beyond its artistic merits, keeping in mind that 1954 also saw the release of the fabelled Carmen Jones, a modern adaptation of Bizet’s opera Carmen (with new lyrics by Richard Rogers, set, to clarify, to Bizet’s original score), with an all-black cast led by Dorothy Dandridge, who made history as the first African-American, male or female, to earn an Oscar nomination in a leading performance category. And good for her. After all, a dearth of opportunities for black performers led to an even bigger dearth of representation at the annual Academy awards. For example, prior to Dandridge’s success in Carmen Jones, the Academy had recognized exactly three black performers: Hattie McDaniel, who famously won 1939’s Best Supporting Actress statuette for Gone with the Wind; James Baskett, the recipient of an honorary award for his role as Uncle Remus in Disney’s Song of the South (1946), and Ethel Waters, portraying the grandmother of a light skinned black woman (Jeanne Crain) who passes for white in Pinky [4].  The end of the 50s saw Sidney Poitier make history as the first black Best Actor nominee (The Defiant Ones, 1958) and Juanita Moore’s Oscar nominated turn, supporting, in 1959’s ballyhooed remake of Imitation of Life. Hooray for these actors who made the most of their opportunities, yes, indeed, but their signature roles were not, to put it politely, color-blind. The actors were cast as much for their skin color as for their talent, and that can problematic when the roles were, or are,  developed and or scripted by white writers, whose conceptions or depictions of people of color might have been, well, limited by their own white remove. Furthermore, only Poitier graduated to superstardom, starring in, among others,  three of 1967’s biggest hits (two Best Picture candidates [5]), and, of course his landmark Best Actor award (Lilies of the Field, 1963). [Of course, Halle Berry made history as the first woman of color to win Best Actress, per 2001’s Monsters Ball, but I digress.]

I might be wrong; after all, I’m not an expert. I have not seen every single movie cranked out by the major Hollywood studios in the 1940s and 1950s. Simms’ turn in The Black Widow might not be quite the “surprise” I perceive it to be. For all I know, black actors and black actresses might have been given opportunities to play scads and scads of color-blind roles in dozens upon dozens of films of which I remain woefully ignorant, yet my experience tells me otherwise. A look at some of the era’s top grossing titles reveals movies dominated by whiteness. And, again, the Academy’s choices underscore that lack of representation; after all, even the great Ethel Waters was passed over for a second nod when she recreated her stage success in Member of the Wedding for the movies. Also, don’t forget that the MGM powers-that-be looked to Ava Gardner, not known as a singer, to play the role of bi-racial entertainer Julie in yet another big screen transfer of Show Boat when, again, Lena Horne, who was both gorgeous and an accomplished vocalist, would have been ideal. And I actually like Gardner in Show Boat, all things considered (including the fact that she was at least partially dubbed), but a cheat is a cheat. One possible exception? The great Juanita Hall, a Tony winning Broadway actress, African-American, who was cast as Asian women ( one Tonkinese [Vietnamese], the other Chinese-American) in both stage and screen versions of South Pacific and Flower Drum Song, and that’s also problematic, but, again, I digress.

Black Widow did not bowl over the critics in 1954, nor was it a box office biggie, necessarily, though it has attracted followers since then, mainly on the strength of its stunning visuals and the gaiety of Ginger Rogers’s snappy delivery. Seemingly, bland Garner, outmatched by almost every actor in any given scene, shouldered much of those negative reviews though not enough to bring her career to a complete standstill. To be perfectly clear, even with Hilda Simms’ jolt of a turn, the movie did nothing to advance her career in pictures, for sure.  Indeed, the IMDb shows only a smattering of credits for Simms, the most famous being, arguably, a 9 episode arc on The Doctors and the Nurses, a serialized drama from the early 1960s. Besides the fact that Hollywood has simply never known what to do with black actresses, Simms faced additional obstacles due to McCarthyism in the 50s as she refuted accusations that she had ties to the communist party even going so far as to pen an article entitled “I’m No Benedict Arnold.” Even though Hollywood never embraced Simms–and she likely never embraced Hollywood–she remained a vital active woman, hosting her own New York based radio program, starring in plays, including The Madwoman of Chaillot, serving as the Creative Arts Director for the New York Human Right’s Commission, and, importantly becoming a teacher and earning a master’s degree in education. She died in 1994 at the age of 75.

Despite Fox’s marketing strategies, Black Widow barely qualifies as noir, but it amuses as a guessing game, packs a punch as colorfully retro eye candy, delivers Hollywood charisma galore with a star laden cast, and surprises with the inclusion of super-stunning Hilda Simms, a knockout casting move as culturally significant as it is satisfying, and one that bucks 1950s Hollywood-think. And that’s a surprise for the ages.

(Sources listed following notes.)

[1] – To clarify, both Van Heflin and Ginger Rogers were Oscar winning vets at this point. Heflin won Best Supporting Actor for 1942’s Johnny Eager, starring Robert Taylor and Lana Turner; Rogers snagged Best Actress accolades for 1940’s Kitty Foyle, reinventing herself as a “serious” actress after her streak of successful musicals in the 1930s with Fred Astaire.

[2] – In his day, Johnson ranked as one of the busiest writer-hyphenates in the business, meaning he worked as writer, director, and sometime producer, earning Oscar writing nods per his adaptations of The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and Holy Matrimony (1943) with additional screenwriting credits for the varied likes of How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation (1956), The Dirty Dozen (1962), and 1942’s Roxie Hart (yes, essentially, the basis for Chicago), which starred Ginger Rogers, his Black Widow leading lady–74 writing credits, per the IMDb; additionally, his directorial credits include The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956) and The Three Faces of Eve (1957), both of which he also scripted. Meanwhile, Hugh Wheeler was best known for his work in theatre, winning Tony awards for his books (scripts) for the musicals A Little Night Music (’73), Candide (’74; that’s back-to-back wins), and Sweeney Todd (’79). His screen credits include the adaptation of 1972’s Travels with My Aunt. Apparently, “Patrick Quentin” was a common pen name among series detective fiction scribes, not unlike, say, “Carolyn Keene,” credited as the official writer of Nancy Drew books.

[3] – I’m referring to the likes of past and present greats, trailblazers who’ve left their marks on American pop culture, including Louise Beavers, Pearl Bailey, Claudia McNeil, Ruby Dee, Beah Richards, Eartha Kitt, Nichelle Nichols, Diahann Carroll, Pam Grier, Isabel Sanford, Phylicia Rashad, Oscar winners Whoopi Goldberg, Jennifer Hudson, and Mo’Nique, media dynamo Oprah Winfrey,  the aforementioned Lena Horne, and LEGENDARY Cicely Tyson, again, among others.

[4] – Of course, Crain, in spite of her extremely generous Oscar nod, was an especially egregious casting choice. Hello, Lena Horne, anyone? Okay, 30ish Horne might have been a wee old to play girlish Pinky, but she would be more credible than vanilla Crain.

[5] – In ’67, Poitier starred in Best Picture winner In the Heat of the Night as well as Best Picture also-ran Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, both among the year’s most popular audience draws as well. Additionally, he enjoyed great success with To Sir, with Love in the same year. In spite of all that, a Best Actor nod failed to materialize for the much in-demand actor (for…take your pick?), likely a case of Poitier being too good in too many films in one year, thereby splitting votes with himself. After turning to directing, successfully, btw, Poitier returned to acting with 1988’s Shoot to Kill and Little Nikita. He won a well-deserved Honorary Oscar in the spring of 2002.

 

Hilda Simms at BlackPast.org: https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/simms-hilda-1918-1994/

Hilda Simms per Curt Brown for the Star Tribune (Minnesota): http://www.startribune.com/hilda-moses-simms-went-from-st-margaret-s-academy-to-broadway-and-hollywood-blacklists/304005451/

Hilda Simms, per the IMDb: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0799968/

Hilda Simms, per the Internet Broadway Database: https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/hilda-simms-60107

Black Widow at Norish website, per John Grant: https://noirencyclopedia.wordpress.com/2014/10/01/black-widow-1954/

Easy-to-use “List of black Academy Award winners and nominees,” per InterPlanetary File System (IPFS) – Wikipedia (last updated in 2016 but suitable for the purpose of this post):

https://ipfs.io/ipfs/QmXoypizjW3WknFiJnKLwHCnL72vedxjQkDDP1mXWo6uco/wiki/List_of_black_Academy_Award_winners_and_nominees.html

Juanita Hall at BlackPast.org:  https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/hall-juanita-1901-1968/

Thanks, as well, to the National Association of Black Journalists: https://www.nabj.org/page/styleguideA

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That’s a Wrap: King and Queens’ Rhapsody

3 Mar

What can you say about a movie awards show that begins as though it were a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony?  Welcome to the 91st Academy Awards: ‘We are the Champions” vs. “Poker Face” edition.  Indeed.

To be clear, despite all the hoopla, this is not the first Oscar show to ever proceed without a host and since the show clocked in at just slightly more than three hours, that’s not such a bad thing.  Yes, the producers wanted to bring the show in at exactly three hours, and they came close, not bad for live television; plus, everyone at ABC and the Academy needs to realize that the show just is what it is. That’s the maddening thing, knowing that too many people  in charge want the show to be something other than what it is and continually chase after a demographic, fanboys, that’s not interested and likely never will be.

After the opening performance by rock legends Queen, fronted by Adam Lambert–yet again assuming lead vocals, per the long ago passing of iconic Freddie Merucry, the subject of multi-nominated Bohemian Rhapsody, an announcer introduced Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph, and Amy Poehler who delivered a lively but not tremendously inspired–nor funny–monologue before segueing to the award for Best Supporting Actress. I like Fey and the crew, and have especially loved Fey and Poehler on the Golden Globes, but the bit was not stellar. Fortunately, Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk) capped an incredible awards season by claiming Best Supporting Actress honors. She looked super-stunning in a white strapless gown and  began her speech, refreshingly, by thanking author James Baldwin, the legendary writer of If Beale Street Could Talk, the book, and then King thanked her mom. Often, writers get thanked toward the ends of speeches rather than at the beginning, so kudos to King for her graciousness, and, of course, once again to the late Baldwin for crafting such an indelible story. I just love that this former child performer has grown into an even more successful mature actress–and she did so without suffering the scandals that often plague such youngsters as they become young adults. Of course, King’s victory, the fifth by a Black actress in this category in just under 10 years, is welcome and shows evidence of more diverse approaches to moviemaking, but more work is needed to ensure that actresses of color, such as King, have more opportunities to star in leading, rather than supporting, roles.

With his Oscar for Green Book, Best Supporting Actor winner Mahershala Ali earns the rare distinction of being one of two Black men with multiple wins in competitive, rather than honorary, categories, that is, for acting, specifically, the other being Denzel Washington. Additionally, if my research holds, Ali is second only to Oscar winner Morgan Freeman among black men performing key roles, leading or supporting, in multiple Best Picture winners. Freeman famously appears in Driving Miss Daisy (1989), Unforgiven (1992), and Million Dollar Baby (2004), for which he also won Best Supporting Actor. Ali, of course, won his first Oscar for 2016’s Best Picture winner Moonlight. Elsewhere, iconic Sidney Poitier famously starred in two of 1967’s Best Picture nominees, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night, the latter taking top honors. To clarify,  by the time Poitier starred in two of 1967’s biggest hits, he’d already made history by winning Best Actor for 1963’s Lilies of the Field. Additionally, Forest Whitaker was still an up and coming talent when he delivered a strong turn in Platoon, 1986’s big winner, and later played a pivotal role in 1992’s sensational Best Picture nominee The Crying Game. He won a Best Actor Oscar for 2006’s The Last King of Scotland and then later played the title figure in Lee Daniels’ The Butler, a 2013 Best Picture nominee.  I’ll continue to research and update accordingly.

Daniel Craig and Charlize Theron, the latter looking uncharacteristically subdued, at least from the front, walked onstage to present Best Supporting Actor, much later in the show, yet the second time that the tradition of last year’s winners presenting awards to the new winners had been tossed aside, and I wondered what that was about, but the producers’ purpose would be made clearer later. At any rate, the upside–of sorts–is that Mahershala Ali (Green Book) wins a second Best Supporting Actor award–only two years after his first. Good job, Mr. Ali, and I guess, good work, too Academy. I enjoy Mahershala Ali, always, always, always, but I still have reservations about the machinations that went into this specific award since this actor’s work in Green Book is more leading than supporting, but two Oscars are still two Oscars, and this actor is a phenom. He’s certainly no flash in the pan, to be sure. To put Mr. Ali’s victory into context, consider that only two Black actors have scored more than one competitive acting trophy from the Academy, the other being, natch, Denzel Washington; moreover, consider that the likes of Jamie Foxx (Ray) and Forrest Whittaker (The Last King of Scotland) have yet to garner a single nod in the years since their Oscar victories.

Btw, when do we get to see the aforementioned Craig and Theron together in a smashing romantic comedy with hints of espionage and thrills?

Interestingly, over the past week, Richard E. Grant (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) was increasingly chatted up as a possible spoiler–more a threat, if you will, to Ali than sentimental favorite Sam Elliot (A Star is Born). Grant won an Independent Spirit award over the weekend, not that “indie” means the same thing it once did, adding fuel to the story of a possible upset.

So, RBG loses the Best Feature Length Documentary to Free Solo…so what? RBG is already a HUGE favorite, of at least those who have seen it, and Justice Ginsburg certainly does not need the Academy’s validation; plus, National Geographic, the entity behind Free Solo, traditionally produces quality offerings. Still, this girl is scratching her head over the snub of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the documentary about Fred Rogers that connected with moviegoers last summer and reminded all of us of what we miss most in our own neighborhoods in an era of increasingly cynical leadership.

Clever that, maybe too clever, showing a clip from Best Picture contender Vice only seconds before the same film is honored for Best Makeup, thanks, mostly, to the transformation of Best Actor nominee Christian Bale into Dick Cheney, among others, but mostly the work on chameleon Bale, virtually unrecognizable as aging, bald, and doughy Cheney. I guess that’s an achievement. Still not enough to convince me that I need to see Vice, but congrats, anyway, to the team that includes first-time nominees Kate Biscoe and Patricia Dahaney in addition to Greg Cannom, already a (previous) four-time winner.

Melissa McCarthy slayed, coming onstage to present Best Costume in a elaborate gown spoofing Queen Anne’s love of rabbits, per The Favourite‘s Sandy Powell–accompanied as McCarthy was by equally outrageous Bryan Tyree Henry; however, the winner was NOT Powell, who already has three statuettes–and was nominated twice this year (the other being Mary Poppins Returns). Instead, the Academy astutely awarded Ruth E. Carter, a previous two-time nominee, for her fantastic work in the super-hero blockbuster Black Panther, and well, well deserved, all things considered, given the degree of difficulty in her assignment, the enormity of a super-charged action-adventure movie with a larger than average cast.. Then, things got even better when Black Panther won in the Best Production Design category. These victories are significant in that Carter is the first Black woman to win in her category, AND because Best Production Design co-winner Hannah Beachler (w/Jay Hart) is, in fact, the first ever Black woman even nominated in her category. As with Carter, Beachler’s victory is historic. Of course, she shares her award with Jay Hart, previously nominated for Pleasantville and L.A. Confidential. The Black Panther production design award is especially thrilling because it involves creating a whole new super-fantastic realm as opposed to recreating historic locales–especially if that means redressing pre-existing locations (per The Favourite). These victories, specifically Carter’s and Beachler’s, stand as powerful rebuttal to dunder-headed remarks by no less than Matt Damon who mansplained to a Black woman, not that long ago, that diversity is created in-front of the camera, through casting, rather than behind the scenes talent. Eat your words, Damon, and savor defeat.

The Marvel streak continued with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse capturing the Best Animated Feature Film award, which is way cool because Spiderman is always cool, and this animated film is a break from the Disney-Pixar empire–and, to further clarify, this is a Marvel offering that comes to us free from the folks at Disney who own increasingly more of the Marvel titles. Oh, I get it, Sony-Columbia is still a big corporate entity, but not being Disney is in this instance is still an improvement. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’ve loved the past few Disney and/or Pixar winners in the Best Animated Feature category, Coco, Zootopia (especially Zootopia), and Inside Out, but I also like to mix things up a bit come Oscar time. Oh, and, Peter Ramsey, among the movie’s winning creative team, also made history as both the first African-American nominee in the category, but, also now the first ever African-American winner.

Thanks to multi-talented Tyler Perry, btw, for making special note that the Best Cinematography award presentation would be live, in real time, on camera rather than off-camera during a commercial and edited into the television show a bit later. This, a rebuff to the Academy’s original proposal (or the show’s producers’ proposal) to keep the show under three hours by relegating a few select awards to “lesser than” status, Best Cinematography for starters. Who can imagine not wanting to properly–correctly–honor the people who make the pictures in motion pictures possible? At any rate, the winner was Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, a black and white offering, which is cool. Even cooler, I guess, is the fact that director Cuarón, already an Oscar winning director, served as his own cinematographer for his most personal film. What a hardworking talent. Then, to the surprise of almost no one, Cuarón was invited back to the stage to accept the Best Foreign Language Film award. The “surprise” part is being reminded that no Mexican film has ever won in the category. Really? Yep, it’s true. Of course, Cuarón upped his own ante by taking Best Director as well–again, his second such win after 2013’s Gravity. If you’re keeping count, that’s 4 career Oscars…so far. (Note: he also won for editing Gravity.)

It’s hard to sometimes distinguish the two awards for sound, but one is essentially for sound effects while the other is specific to overall sound mixing. How Academy members, those who don’t specialize in sound, especially, are able to make their choices when marking ballots is bound to be a little intimidating…if not downright confusing. No surprise then when the same film, Bohemian Rhapsody in this case, wins both awards. It’s easier that way, but in this case likely justified, considering the film’s musical source. The film went on to capture additional honors for Best Editing. Good stuff.

Interestingly, Bohemian Rhapsody emerged the evening’s biggest winner, earning more Oscars in more categories than any other film: four in all (w/out also capturing Best Picture, to be clear), the biggest being Rami Malek’s Best Actor win for playing Queen’s legendary lead singer, Freddie Mercury. Malek had been a virtual shoo-in based, again, on numbers as he’d already won most of the season’s high profile awards: Golden Globe, SAG, and BAFTA (British Academy equivalent). I especially enjoyed Malek’s speech as he described being born of immigrant parents (from Egypt) and the experience of playing a queer man of Iranian descent. Again, diversity as that factors into the American Dream of equal opportunity is good–not that it’s always equal, and that’s my point. It needs to be and should be. Have I seen Bohemian Rhapsody yet? Nope, but, now, maybe I will. (My reasons for not seeing it, so far, are both complex and stupid, and I can live with that, but I don’t necessarily feel compelled to share, either, but I refuse to criticize a movie I haven’t seen.)

Speaking of Best Actor, you know what else I want to see? At Eternity’s Gate with four time nominee Willem Dafoe as Vincent Van Gogh. This is one I really, REALLY wanted to see–and from the moment I first read about it and/or saw the trailer. And I would have been pleasantly surprised if Bradley Cooper had won for A Star is Born. I thought he was especially compelling as the film’s burnt-out rock star, but his contributions as an actor–in a movie he directed, co-wrote, and co-produced–have been overshadowed by one thing or another.

Other clever bits: Queen Latifah cracking-wise that “It’s good to be queen” when introducing the clip from The Favourite, starring Best Actress contender Olivia Colman as Queen Anne. HA! Then, only a few minutes later, Keegan-Michael Key descending, brave man, from the rafters wielding an umbrella, Mary Poppins style–himself looking very 007ish–to introduce, yes, a Mary Poppins Returns Best Song nominee, “The Place Where Lost Things Go”  as performed by the one and only Bette Midler, a star well-familiar with how to make an unforgettable entrance.

Generally, the Best Song lineup was weak, weaker than usual, actually, and to the surprise of no one, A Star is Born‘s “Shallow,” fueled by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s powerhouse vocals, snagged the prize. This means that, as expected, Gaga emerges an Oscar winner, one way or another, whether for Best Actress or Best Song. Good for her. She and Cooper’s live performance loomed buzz-worthy in its intimacy, but Ms, Gaga cannot sole credit for the song, a collaboration between her, Mark Ronson, Anthony Rossamado, and Andrew Wyatt.  Wait a second. It took four people to come up with that? Yes, it’s catchy, but repeating “Shallow, shallow” over and over again is hardly genius lyric-writing. Four people. huh? Oh, but that emotional speech, endearingly goofy as it was, though, again, did Gaga’s collaborators feel shortchanged regarding their own acceptance speeches?

I enjoyed, if that’s the best word, Spike Lee’s incredible, fact-based BlacKkKlansman in which, yes, a real-life 1970s African-American police officer, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington… yes, Denzel’s son), infiltrated a Colorado chapter of the KKK, with the assist of a white–Jewish–partner (Adam Driver), even “fooling” no less than notorious klansman David Duke (Topher Grace). Of course, Lee’s films have not always been readily embraced by the Academy. It’s not that he’s never been nominated because he has, but he’s never won a competitive award, per, for example, his screenplay for Do the Right Thing or the documentary 4 Little Girls, and until this year, his movies, mostly Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X, have been overlooked as candidates for Best Picture and Best Director. Yes, he won an honorary award a few years ago, but this is better. A win for co-scripting, that is, adapting BlacKkKlansman, (in tandem with Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, and Kevin Willmott) along with nominations for, yes, directing and producing–as a Best Picture nominee. Good for Mr. Lee. He’s a visionary and a true mover-and-shaker within the motion picture industry, and kudos are long overdue.

That noted, the Lee movie I love most dates all the way back to 1990: ‘Mo Better Blues. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth more than a look as it stars Denzel Washington, incredibly sexy, or charismatic, in his first ever Lee vehicle (hot on the heels of Washington’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar for 1989’s Glory), and only Lee’s fourth feature film–along with a smashing jazzy score by the elder Lee, Bill Lee, with soundtrack contributions by Terrence Blanchard and Bradford Marsalis, along with gorgeous, gorgeous cinematography by the one and only Ernest R. Dickerson–and I still wince every time I think about how Dickerson was passed over for even a nomination from both the Academy AND the American Society of Cinematographers. How’s that? Among others, I gasped watching Samuel L. Jackson give what can surely be described as a volcanic performance in Jungle Fever, stupidly overlooked by the Academy (though honored at Cannes), also featuring Halle Berry in an early role. Lee’s Inside Man is a fun puzzle of a movie, richly cast with Denzel Washington (again), Clive Owen, Jodie Foster (outrageously good in a supporting turn), Christopher Plummer, Willem Dafoe (speaking of…), and Chiwitel Ejiofor. Then, of course, there’s always Crooklyn  starring the one and only Alfre Woodard.

On a more sobering note, how fitting (perhaps?) that Senator John Lewis, a colleague of Martin Luther King Jr., was on board to co-present a clip from Best Picture nominee–and ultimate winner–Green Book. And right as Black History Month comes to a close. Ah that. Well, many of us know by now what Spike Lee thinks about that  development, and that’s fine for him. I happen to like Green Book even if, okay, it truly was not my favorite picture of the year; however, since my top two picks, Crazy Rich Asians and If Beale Street Could Talk, were out of the running, why not Green Book? As stated, once Roma took honors for Best Foreign Language film, a Best Picture victory, as well, seemed a bit of a stretch. Plus, I think by choosing Green Book, Academy voters sent a message to home video platform Netflix. More people have seen Roma on Netflix than those who saw it in its miniscule Oscar-qualifying theatrical run, and that was always the plan: get it into theatres to beat the deadline, and then straight to home video. Yes, and the argument can be made that, compared to the high cost of ticket prices, not to mention even more outrageous concession prices (though shockingly low compensation for theatre employees), along with sketchy distribution patterns for foreign language films, Netflix seems a far more democratic approach to levelling the moviegoing field, granted. At the same time, I’ve read comments by industry professionals, lamenting that Roma movie truly deserves to be seen on the big screen in order for audiences to fully appreciate the genius of director Cuarón‘s vision, the depth and detail of his design, which are almost obliterated on home screens. Plus, movies were always intended as communal experiences, weren’t they? Think about some of the most incredible times you’ve had sitting in a dark, crowded theatre being thrilled by a spectacle so much bigger than life. (Black Panther, anyone?) It’s the movies. At least, it used to be. As I write this, reports indicate that no less than Steven Spielberg wants to rethink Netflix as that concerns eligibility for next year’s awards.

Amid all the back and forth regarding Green Book’s merits as the Academy’s pick for Best Picture, one important truth has not been given its due. See, here, Octavia Spencer, Best Supporting Actress winner for The Help (2011) with additional nominations for Hidden Figures (2016) and last year’s big winner, The Shape of Water? She’s right there in the middle of the image, resplendent in a midnight blue ball gown. A few members of Green Book‘s winning team thanked Ms. Spencer in their acceptance speeches. Does she appear in the movie? No, but she is credited as one of the film’s executive producers, and even though the Academy has restrictions on how many members of a producing team can appear on the ballot for Best Picture honors, meaning Spencer did not qualify for the gold, per se, but Spencer, Oscar or no, is still likely the first black woman with a producer’s credit on an Academy Best Picture winner. That’s huge, and certainly worth celebrating. To clarify, full-time media mogul and sometime actress Oprah Winfrey, similarly earned a producer’s credit on 2009’s Precious, a Best Picture contender without being included on the final ballot though she earned that distinction outright, and made history accordingly, as one of the eligible producers of 2014’s Selma. Furthermore, Kimberly Steward likewise earned a nomination as one of Manchester by the Sea‘s official team members just two years ago.   (IMAGE: https://goo.gl/images/SGauDL)

I make no claim to speak for all sides in the ongoing debate surrounding Green Book; however, I’m not surprised that the Academy selected Green Book as Best Picture because, well, it represents solid, middle of the road moviemaking. I believe it was the late film critic Gene Siskel who once opined that the Academy favors liberal politics served with conservative taste, and that’s why, say, Green Book wins over the likes of edgier offerings such as BlacKkKlansman; plus, Green Book is just commercial enough: $70 million and counting against production costs of 23 million. Does this mean that Green Book is really the best movie of the year? Gosh, no, and too many of us seem to forget that the Academy is an organization comprised of industry professionals who get together once a year to honor what they believe to be the best–again, among those who make movies for a living and whose tastes are shaped accordingly; they invite the rest of us to revel in their excess, I mean, success, and we respond accordingly, or not, and at our own peril.

Comparisons between Green Book and Driving Miss Daisy, 1989’s Best Picture winner–and a questionable choice for many? Well, duh. It’s hard to shake the comparisons between the two: the former, about an elderly Jewish woman and her decades long, sometimes contentious, relationship with her black chauffeur in Atlanta; the second, about a famous black pianist who’s driven to concert dates mostly in the south by a white man, an Italian-American, a beefy bouncer in need of extra cash. I get it. Still, Green Book is highly entertaining and was, indeed, an early Best Picture frontrunner, that is, before the releases of Roma and The Favourite. and some foolishness from the mouth of Best Actor nominee, Viggo Mortensen, who nonetheless was still acknowledged in winner’s acceptance speeches, including that of Mahershala Ali.

I still think Green Book holds value, in spite of some skeptics’ well-levelled criticism, because in this polarizing time with the demonizing of “others,” many Americans need to be reminded that maybe, just maybe, America wasn’t always so great for all its people, per the reality of the actual Green-Book, the real travel guide that advised African-Americans of hotels and motels that provided relatively safe accommodations for black people in an era in which segregation was very much a thing, let alone so-called “Sundown Towns,” in which those same black people were strongly advised–via  actual town ordinances–they best keep moving, and sooner rather than later, to either get out of town–or to stay hidden until the light of day.  Yes, the Green Book was a real thing. Then, when Dr. Shirley’s presumed queer identity is considered, Green Book’s relevance makes it harder to brush aside. Doesn’t it? (And we certainly didn’t get into any of that in Driving Miss Daisy, did we?) Plus, how many of us had ever heard of Dr. Don Shirley prior to Green Book? Not me, and not too many others, relatively speaking, I’m sure. So, yeah. (Though, again, members of Dr. Shirley’s family and Nick Vallelonga, co-writer and son of Tony Vallelonga [the driver] offer differing accounts of the two men’s time together, so there’s always that discussion.) Just to clarify: Green Book won three Oscars. The third, after Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor, was for Best Original Screenplay, per the aforementioned Vallelonga along with Brian Hayes Currie and Peter Farrelly (who also directed–minus famous sibling and collaborator Bobby Farrelly).

Finally, referring back to the one and only Gaga and her “Poker Face” tune from a few years back, what about Glenn Close’s own poker face upon losing the Best Actress award to Olivia Colman in The Favourite, playing Queen Anne…that’s one for King and two for Queens in one evening.  I recently read a comment, something to the effect that, perhaps, the best way to appreciate The Favourite is to consider it terms of America’s current White House, with Anne as a stand-in for the polarizing POTUS and the subordinates played by nominees Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone as representatives of a revolving door’s worth of opportunistic associates. Yeah, I can kind of see that, but even then Colman’s performance only works as a conceit, compared to Glenn Close’s flesh and blood portrayal,  and might as well have been played by Alec Baldwin in drag. I’m just not a fan of The Favourite, but that’s on me; again, it has nothing to do with the Academy though I also believe my reservations regarding whether Colman was campaigned for in the right category are justified.  Yes, there’s certainly no movie without Queen Anne, but she doesn’t drive the plot. It’s a quandary whereas Close surely is the driving force in The Wife. (As an aside, a close friend expressed deep surprise when he learned that The Wife was NOT based on a true story based on Close’s incredibly vivid portrayal. He was surer what we was watching was real.) I’ll give credit to Colman for her gracious shout-out to Close (ever the poker-face) and the transformative nature of her performance in The Favourite, which is hard to ignore given how affable she appears on red carpet interviews, talk shows, and acceptance speeches on various awards shows. In that regard, and in that regard only, her Oscar isn’t completely undeserved.

Also, as I write this and think about how it all might have played out differently if Colman had been nominated for Best Supporting Actress instead of Best Actress, I realize that such a turn might have resulted in a different outcome in the Best Supporting Actress race, and I wouldn’t have cared for that, either, so I’ll just stop here.

Thanks for your consideration…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Best Actress: Close…Closer…Closest

22 Feb

The Wife marks Glenn Close’s 7th Oscar race. She’s never won and while she might not necessarily be a lock, given strong competition from entertainer extraordinare, ever-fabulous Lady Gaga and her blazing performance in A Star is Born, she might vey well be…you know, closer than she ever has been.

Let’s take a look, shall we?

 

1 The World According to Garp, 1982 (Best Supporting Actress): Before breaking into movies, Close worked steadily in theater, earning a Tony nomination for her featured role in the musical Barnum–opposite Best Actor winner Jim Dale as the fabled showman. Close’s success in that show led to her big screen debut in director George Roy Hill’s adaptation of John Irving’s tremendous best seller. Cast as the titular Garp’s determinedly single mother, Close brought warmth to a role that surely needed it. Nurse Jenny Fields, a feminist icon within Irving’s somewhat twisted conceit, is a humourless–starchy–pragmatist who somehow seems almost virtuous in Close’s capable hands. Also, dig that Close is/was only four years older than Robin Williams, cast as Garp (taking over the role from child actor J.B. McCall once the character reaches adulthood), and, to clarify, Close is not burdened by trying to perform beneath a lot of heavy old-age makeup.

Fresh-faced Close was an early Oscar frontrunner that season, reaping accolades from the likes of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the National Board of Review, and the National Society of Film Critics, but the competition, overall, was fierce. For example, Terri Garr and Lesley-Anne Warren, likeable actresses who’d been bubbling along in the business for a bit longer than Close–though not necessarily much older–showed off fine comic chops in the likes of Tootsie and Victor/Victoria, respectively. Meanwhile, acting powerhouse—and previous Best Actress nominee (for 1964’s Séance on a Wet Afternoon)–Kim Stanley made one of her rare big screen appearances as real-life much lamented starlet Frances Framer’s domineering ma in Frances, starring Jessica Lange as the misunderstood Farmer. Ah yes.  That. The same year that Lange sparred futilely with Stanley, she also–and at Stanley’s behest–landed a plum role in Tootsie–alongside Garr. Lange was nominated for both films, a rarity, especially at that time: Best Actress for the searing dramatic role of a lifetime in Frances; Best Supporting Actress for the soft and cuddly soap opera actress who charms Dustin Hoffman’s masquerading heel of an actor in Tootsie. Cynics argue that since Lange had only the slimmest of chances in the Best Actress category, up against Meryl Streep’s colossal efforts as an irredeemably scarred Holocaust survivor in Sophie’s Choice, the Academy awarded her Best Supporting Actress for Tootsie as a consolation prize; another complaint is that Lange’s role in Tootsie was more leading than supporting, especially when weighted against Garr’s role as Hoffman’s frustrated acting pal. Whatever. I disagree on both counts, but it doesn’t matter. Lange won. Close lost, but she was only getting started.

2 The Big Chill, 1983 (Best Supporting Actress):  A year after her attention-grabbing work in Garp, Close solidified her appeal in writer-director Lawrence Kasdan’s seminal seriocomic take on what happens when former hippie radicals from the 1960s begin feeling the effects of everyday life more than a decade after college. What was once daring now seems irresponsible; what was once seen as conformist now reads as stable and good.  Wealth and security are no longer the enemies. They might even be necessary and, once again, good. In Kasdan’s scenario, once close friends, now at least partially estranged due to geography as well as careers and families, reunite under the most unpleasant of circumstances, the tragic passing of a key group member, as charismatic as he was restless. Kasdan populated his flick with some of the hottest up-and-comers of the era, casting Close and Kevin Kline as the so-called “glue,” or mom and pop, of the group, meaning more grounded, less quirky–and, by extension, less comedic.  Reportedly, Kasdan had to coax both Close and Kline into participating due to the fact that characters he envisioned for them lacked the color or obvious appeal of, say, a TV action star in the throes of divorce (Tom Berrenger), a button-down corporate lawyer feeling the stirrings of her biological clock (Mary Kay Place), or a snarky reporter from People (Jeff Goldblum), among others. Instead, Close and Kline, doctor and entrepreneur respectively, seem well-suited for one another and enjoy a enviable life of material comfort.

While The Big Chill did not score unanimous raves, it was generally well-reviewed, thanks to Kasdan and Barabara Benedek’s witty script, and, especially, the lively performances; likewise, the public embraced the movie–it played at my old theatre for a walloping 32 weeks (think about it)–turning the oldies-filled soundtrack into a best seller, ushering a new term into the lexicon, and unofficially inspiring the late 1980s’ TV show thirtysomething. (As well, the movie arrived at about the same time as the ubiquitous term, “Yuppie,” that is young upwardly mobile professionals.) Oscar buzz began building the minute the film hit the screens with one recurring blurb proclaiming that the entire cast should be awarded one great big Oscar.  Alas, Close was the only cast member singled out by the Academy, and it’s easy to see why. The whole lot of them perform splendidly, but Close’s Sara Cooper is arguably the best written role, the only character with a fully developed interior life: affable host (to a full house) on the outside, grieving hardest on the inside, lamenting a former lover who touched her in a way that even her husband can scarcely imagine.  Beautiful. The role was Kasdan’s gift to Close, and she invested her everything into it–once she accepted the challenge.

Despite reams of publicity, The Big Chill only garnered three noms, including Best Picture, yes. If the film had loomed as a stronger contender, overall, Close might have had a better chance. For the second year in a row Close was in a tough race, led by the likes of mind-bendingly good Linda Hunt, crossing the gender line in Peter Weir’s fascinating The Year of Living Dangerously and pop superstar Cher stripping away the glam in a key role–a composite–in the otherwise fact-based Silkwood.  Hunt cleaned-up among the various critics’ associations though Cher nabbed the Golden Globe. Less likely but still worthy: Alfre Woodward (Cross Creek) and Amy Irving (Yentl).  Any of them could have won and no one would have been able to put up too much of an argument–I know I wouldn’t have–but Hunt’s achievement was singular and an Academy first.

3. The Natural, 1984 (Best Supporting Actress):  Barry Levinson’s wondrously scaled, golden-hued tale of a once promising yet seemingly doomed baseball player fighting for redemption during the waning days of the Great Depression, is as much about Bernard Malamud’s mythic 1952 novel, a bitter pill, that, as it is about star Robert Redford’s enduring “Golden Boy” persona. Purists balked at Levinson’s changes, but his choice of reshaping the material as a movie lover’s valentine to Redford made the flick an audience favorite.  Close portrays the one seemingly irrefutably “good” woman in Roy Hobbs’ life–among a trio of otherwise vexed encounters–although she is not without a secret of her own. Iris, that’s her name, seems to serve one purpose: to inspire Hobbs to be a better baseball player and a more honorable man. It’s a thinly written role, and Close once lamented that it, along with Jenny Fields and Sara Cooper, was too First Ladyish, but she makes it work due to some marvelous underplaying and genuine rapport with Redford; plus she’s lovingly lit and framed by master cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (Oscar nominated then–and this year as well) . She even looks great in her period wardrobe.

Even so, a third consecutive nomination–and for a popular entry with multiple nods (but not, alas, for Redford in a signature role)–was not the ticket, not in the same year as Dame Peggy Ashcroft’s bravura turn as the increasingly agitated, nearly prophetic, Mrs. Moore in A Passage to India, one of the year’s leading Best Picture contenders (11 nominations) and Geraldine Page, still winless after 6 previous tries, devouring the screen in a smallish role with big emotions in The Pope of Greenwich Village. To the surprise of no one Ashcroft won, nary a false note in that performance, and Page had to wait one more year to be so celebrated. Close’s fellow nominees also included Christine Lahti, sashaying her way through Goldie Hawn vehicle Swing Shift, and Lindsay Crouse as Sally Field’s dutifully supportive sister (one with her own unfortunate sub-plot) in Places in the Heart, another Best Picture nominee. Of course, Lahti and Crouse continued to give strong performances in films and TV, but Close was on the verge of graduating to true big league stardom. (Meanwhile, I’ve longed believed that Amy Madigan, also in Places in the Heart, was more deserving of a nod than was Crouse, but I digress.)

The early to mid 1980s were particularly productive for Close as she triumphed on Broadway, earning a Best Actress in a Play Tony for Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing (1984), starred in landmark made for TV movie Something about Amelia (garnering Emmy and Golden Globe nominations), and graduated to big screen leading roles with back-to-back feature films in 1985.  Comic Maxie afforded her the opportunity to play dual roles as a the ghost of a 1920s flapper and a timid, no-nonsense housewife. The movie tanked though it has its admirers–and I know a few of them; nonetheless, it was a good showcase for Close and netted Golden Globe and Saturn nominations. At the same instant, Close starred opposite Jeff Bridges in the walloping legal thriller Jagged Edge, which scared and teased enthusiastic audiences into submission. I’ll admit that the movie gave me more than a few goosebumps–and a scary ride home with a friend after a midnight screening–but, even so, I found it a tad predictable, and Close’s performance as an attorney defending a sleazy client in a high profile murder case didn’t click for me. Nonetheless, it made a fortune, and Columbia Pictures lobbied hard for Oscar consideration though the effort failed–at least regarding Close. Robert Loggia, as a crusty investigator, nailed a Best Supporting Actor nod. Good for him. Even though Close was out of that year’s Oscar race, Jagged Edge‘s success no doubt helped her land her most iconic role.

4. Fatal Attraction, 1987 (Best Actress): Surely the most polarizing movie of 1987, Adrian Lyne’s steamy, sensational thriller about a one-night stand with terrifying consequences proved Close’s game-changer, besides introducing yet another term into the lexicon. As “Alex Forrest,” a seductive book editor brimming with dangerous energy who casts her alluring sights on a married lawyer, Close firmly established herself as a major player and smashed any notions of being able to only portray genteel First Lady types. The movie was everywhere in the fall of ’87 and even into early ’88: magazine covers, TV talk shows, you name it–and that was before the Internet as we now know it. Some analysts portrayed the flick as a metaphor for AIDS during a particularly fearful time while others blasted its sexual politics, demonizing a woman who is just as culpable in an illicit fling as is the married man (Michael Douglas) who breaks his vow (to saucy Anne Archer) but does not suffer consequences to the same degree. (Include me among those naysayers.) No matter. Word of mouth was killer-diller and audiences could not get enough. Easy to see why. Everything about Fatal Attraction is heightened: the sex, the atmosphere, the camera work, the editing and sound mixing–and, most of all, Close’s character. Not just her acting, but the whole conception of the character, her snaky blonde tendrils and over the top wardrobe, very much in the mode of 80s bigger is better styling. Close, who only landed the role after several other actresses were either uninterested or unavailable, immersed  herself into researching the psychological makeup of women like Alex, only to see her efforts undercut by a ghoulishly freaky ending, shot well after production had seemingly wrapped–and two previous endings were rejected as not delivering enough bang for the buck. Again, the naysayers pounced, calling b.s. on a preposterous third-act turn that sacrificed irony and insight for cheap thrills as Hollywood became more corporatized than ever and “high concept” became the hallmark. A friend once dismissed it as Peyton Place meets Night of the Living Dead.  I think the movie would have still worked, and would have still been a hit, without the slam bang finale, but we’ll never know. Despite the many, many negatives that Fatal Attraction invites, I don’t think, in retrospect, the Academy would have erred in honoring Close’s performance though, again, I did not feel that way at the time.

A couple of oddities marked the race for the 1987/88 Best Actress Oscar. For example, Meryl Streep continued exploring a wide array of roles in the little seen Ironweed, playing a Depression era derelict, full of dashed dreams. Streep was powerfully good though her role was clearly secondary to top billed Jack Nicholson, but even with top tier talent including author William Kennedy’s Pulitzer, the relentlessly downbeat film was a hard sell and tanked without much notice. Academy telecast viewers surely recognized Streep among the nominees but probably had no recollection of Ironweed. Sally Kirkland, an actress who’d worked consistently for a good long while without attracting a lot of mainstream attention, despite being well regarded within the industry as both performer and acting coach, commanded laudatory reviews for Anna, a low-budget indie scarcely seen outside the film festival circuit, save for obligatory Academy qualifying runs in New York and Los Angeles.  Galvanized by high praise, Kirkland campaigned vigorously, sinking her own money into trade ads galore. Seemingly through sheer will, she propelled herself into a leading contender though, again, audiences watching that year’s ceremony were probably confused. Who? What? Holly Hunter weighed in as the hotshot newcomer, per James L. Brooks’ Broadcast News, but despite Hunter’s obvious promise–since fulfilled–she paled in the company of pros Close and Cher (Moonstruck).  At the time, Cher was enjoying a career rebirth, firmly establishing herself as a full-blown movie star with three major films in the span of one year; plus, swoony Moonstruck was a crowd-pleasing romantic comedy–with rhapsodic reviews–in which the pop diva made a game attempt at adopting a Brooklyn accent and successfully played against her flamboyant image in the role of a no-nonsense, unapologetically pragmatic bookkeeper experiencing unexpected stirrings of grand passion.  At that moment, America was yet again in love with Cher, rooting for her. Close’s film, and her performance in it, didn’t inspire that kind of admiration. That noted, Close deserves credit for her singular contribution to a film that became a cultural milestone.

5. Dangerous Liaisons, 1988 (Best Actress): French author Pierre Ambroise François Choderlos de Laclos’s 18th century epistolary novel Les Liaisons dangereuses served as the basis for British playwright’s Christopher Hampton’s hit theatrical adaptation, netting a passel of Tony awards and launching the stateside career of Alan Rickman. Hollywood called, Rickman bolted for a juicy role in Die Hard, and Hampton adapted his own play with the anglicized title,  Dangerous Liaisons. Close, fresh from her triumph in Fatal Attraction. seemed ideally cast as the cunning  Marquise de Merteuil, whose need for spite, for control, motivates her to treat even those near and allegedly dear to her as though they were nothing more than petty amusements, lacking agency among their own affairs. Close is brilliant as the Marquise, slyly underplaying like a tightly wound coil until the point of no return, at which she surrenders her defenses and allows her emotions to spew, to burn, to rage.

Period pics are always a gamble in corporate Hollywood, especially in such cases wherein men sport poufy wigs, tri-cornered hats, fancy jackets, stockings, and knickers, but Dangerous Liaisons, replete with the finest trappings, turned out to be surprisingly commercial, especially in its ability to draw repeat viewers–as oh so many of my friends–and I–can attest. Close’s magnificent performance was certainly worthy of an Academy award, but that year’s race for Best Actress was as tight as the previous year’s had been wobbily. Setting aside Meryl Streep (A Cry in the Dark) and Sigourney Weaver (Gorillas in the Mist), two fine actress turning in exceptional performances, all the heat came from Close, Melanie Griffith (Working Girl), and Jodie Foster (The Accused). Regarding Griffith, her film was a lark of a comedy, a cross between All About Eve and 9 to 5, that no doubt benefitted from director Mike Nichols’s expertise, 20th Century Fox’s splashy promotional campaign, strong word of mouth, and the general public’s fascination with star Griffith, buoyed by tabloid headlines regarding her then recent stint in rehab and apparent rekindled romance with first hubby, TV and film actor Don Johnson. Griffith’s star power was undeniable. In the end, though Foster triumphed. An easy call in retrospect; after all, Academy voters, in step with the rest of the country, had either grown up with Foster–yours truly–or had watched her grow up in movies and on TV over two decades and were rooting for her to succeed, especially given the challenges she’d faced when attempting grown-up roles after taking time off for college.  At a mere 5’3″, Foster commanded movie screens giving a fearless, no-holds barred performance as a rape victim trying to correct her reputation after the legal system serves expediency rather than justice–inspired by, but only loosely based upon, a true story.  Simply, after seeing Foster muscle through The Accused‘s punishing demands, Academy members felt good about honoring her achievement–even amid such formidable competition. Come awards night, Foster delivered a memorable speech that effectively justified the Academy’s faith in her. Mission accomplished. Foster had arrived, and superstardom followed. On the other hand, Close took a different course

Foster would win a second Oscar a mere three years after her first victory; however, Close would not be in another Oscar race for more than two decades.  To clarify,  after Dangerous Liaisons, Glenn Close continued to star (or co-star) in high profile films, including Reversal of Fortune along with Franco Zefferelli’s Hamlet, and Disney’s campy live action reboot of classic 101 Dalmatians, chewing the scenery as legendary baddie Cruella DeVille–earning a Golden Globe nomination in the process. Broadway beckoned, again, and Close won Tony awards for a “straight” play (Death and the Maiden) as well as a lavish musical (assuming the coveted role of neurotic silent screen star Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, a role which she recently revisited more than a decade after its original run). On TV, Close regularly flexed her versatility in the likes of Hallmark’s highly lauded Sarah, Plain and Tall, a major Emmy contender, along with a couple of Emmy winners: Serving in Silence: the Margarethe Cammermeyer Story (based on a landmark case involving the constitutionality of banning gays and lesbians from joining the military), and Damages, a legal procedural series in which Close starred as a scruples impaired lawyer for five seasons. She even took on the role of Nellie Forbush in a teleadaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic musical South Pacific. Once the aforementioned Damages wrapped, Close was ripe for a big screen return.

6. Albert Nobbs, 2011 (Best Actress): Close’s most recent Oscar nod came for this mild curio, in which she effectively starred as a trans man, well before there was even such a term, working as a butler in Dublin, circa, say, 1890.  Nobbs has worked hard to reinvent himself and is generally successful though that has also come with the hefty price, meaning a life of loneliness. His goal, to borrow from Gosford Park, is to be the perfect servant, meaning to anticipate a client’s needs while also allowing that disappearing into the background is the better part of valor. Whatever its merits, Albert Nobbs was a dream project for Close as she donned additional duties as co-producer and co-screenwriter, adapting the script from a play by French playwright Simone Benmussa–itself based on a novella published in the 1920s by George Moore. Close had actually starred in an Off-Broadway staging of the play in the early 1980s, around the time of The World According to Garp, and even netted an Obie award (that is, the  Off-Broadway equivalent of a Tony). Not bad. She spent years trying to make the film happen, and the Academy recognized her diligence accordingly, but the film isn’t an unqualified success. Close’s performance is a bit too mannered, too obviously actor-ish, drawing more attention to the effort involved than to necessarily illuminating anything within the character. It didn’t help Close’s chances that she was all-but blown off the screen by cast mate–and Best Supporting Actress nominee–Janet McTeer, who had just the right amount of swagger in a role similar to Close’s Nobbs, meaning born female but successfully living as a male. Now, that was a performance, practically seamless.

Close generated a lot of goodwill with this big screen comeback of sorts, but she stood almost no chance of going home with an Oscar in a year dominated by Viola Davis, making a leap to super-stellar status in the humongously popular The Help (from the runway best seller by Kathleen Stockett), and Meryl Streep, working extra hard to humanize former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, often referred to The Iron Lady, a nickname not always used affectionately among Thatcher’s detractors. Streep, already a two-time winner, dating back to the late 1970s and early 1980s, was well overdue for a third Oscar after more than a dozen nominations in the interim. The Iron Lady film itself is a mixed bag, as much a curio as Close’s project, but it was the right vehicle for Streep and at the right time, apparently. If she hadn’t won, Davis would have been the likely beneficiary, and well deserved. Close was back in the game, but she watched from the sidelines with Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and Michelle Williams (My Week with Marilyn, an especially generous choice on the part of the Academy…and I typically appreciate Williams). Not only that, but did I mention that Close was all-but blown off the screen by cast mate–and Best Supporting Actress nominee–Janet McTeer, who had just the right amount of swagger…

Now, we have The Wife, in which Close is jaw-droppingly, staggeringly good as a woman who has spent the better part of her adult life playing the unsung helpmate to her acclaimed novelist husband, recently selected as a Nobel Prize winner for literature. We all know the old adage, “Behind every great man, there’s a woman,” and that is what this tale, based on Meg Wolitzer’s same-named novel, gets at as Close and her husband (Jonathan Pryce) travel to Stockholm for the award ceremony. A series of flashbacks, in which Close’s younger self is portrayed by her real-life daughter Annie Starke (a fine lookalike),  details the couple’s courtship and subsequent partnership, the end goal being to elevate and maintain the husband’s literary profile. The relationship, flawed as it is, works until it doesn’t. The mere pressure of being in a foreign country while dealing with the fine protocol of what is expected at such a prestigious international event builds to the breaking point as Close is generally ignored–when not being condescended to–and Pryce’s ego runs amok. Close is expected to be the dutiful, deferential, caretaker, and/or troubleshooter. Easier said than done. She’s hardly a pushover.

Is Close “a lock”? I don’t think she is in spite of a bevy of prizes, including the Golden Globe for Drama, the SAG award, and a tie with Lady Gaga for the Critics’ Choice awards, among a host of other honors. She’s been endearingly gracious in all her televised acceptance speeches, and that fosters additional goodwill. Six previous nominations notwithstanding she’s in an uphill climb as her film, directed by Björn L Runge and adapted by Emmy winner Jane Anderson, is hardly a box-office blockbuster, and that’s an understatement. On the other hand, Lady Gaga, updating a role made famous  by the likes of Janet Gaynor, Judy Garland, and Barbra Streisand (none of whom won Oscars for their performances), is in a blockbuster, but she’s also not a sure thing; after all, Ms. Gaga is also nominated for co-writing her movie’s anthemic power-ballad “Shallow,” which means, at least in theory, the Academy can honor Gaga as a songwriter (as was the case with Streisand), clearing the way to a more assured victory for Close. There’s also the matter, recently addressed by a few critics as well as Camille Paglia, that in Bradley Cooper’s version of the familiar showbiz tale, for which he directed, co-wrote, co-produced and starred, the emphasis, for once, is more squarely on the male superstar doomed in a downward spiral of addiction rather than the ascendant female whose love for her man is no match for his addiction, in spite of both their best intentions. Gaga is truly a force, but her role seems secondary to Cooper’s, and it’s an awkward balance compared to the way Close dominates her film.

The only nominee who seems truly down for the count is Melissa McCarthy, charting all new dramatic territory as infamous literary forger Lee Israel in Can You ever Forgive Me? We’re all happy for McCarthy’s success, now that she has moved beyond the in your face brand of raucous comedies that followed her breakout success–and Best Supporting Actress nomination–in 2011’s Bridesmaids, but the nomination is likely its own reward.  Olivia Colman (The Favourite) and Yalitza Aparicio (Roma) have the benefit of appearing in the two most nominated flicks of the year, 10 each, which raises their respective profiles, and Aparicio, the first ever indigenous person to be nominated for Best Actress, is a Cinderella story in the making as Roma is also her film debut. On the other hand, versatile, much-admired Brit Colman is an upset waiting to happen as she transforms herself into The Favourite‘s real-life grotesque Queen Anne. Even so, in spite of the fact that there is no story without Queen Anne, the role itself is secondary to the dueling supplicants portrayed by Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone. The movie is more about them than it is about the queen herself. How to reconcile that?

I think it’s a mistake for skeptics to assume that if Close wins, it will be a well-intended “career” acknowledgement rather than an achievement specific to her particular performance in The Wife.  The complexity of her character, the nuance, and the full range of emotions Close brings is beyond compare, really. Especially up against the more familiar trajectory of A Star is Born, in which a brilliant pop-star plays….a pop-star, albeit brilliantly. Is that an achievement?  A local TV host summed it best just a few days ago, explaining that, yes, she was skeptical about all The Wife hoopla–until she actually saw The Wife, and then she knew. Look at the play of conflicting emotions in Close’s face even when she isn’t speaking. Acting gold, if you will, but words barely do Close justice. As the TV host noted, The Wife has to be seen to be fully appreciated; after that, the competition is not even…..well, you know.

Thanks for your consideration…

 

 

 

Best Supporting: To SAG or Not To SAG ?

11 Feb

Well, the Screen Actors Guild awards, also slangily known as the SAGs, were not much help as a prognostication tool regarding this year’s Best Supporting Actress and Actor awards.

Here is what we know. Once known exclusively as SAG, the labor union representing 160, 000 entertainment industry professionals, everything from high profile TV and movie stars to DJs, broadcast journalists, puppeteers, and voiceover artists, is now officially recognized as SAG-AFTRA, following a merger with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. The organization dates back to the 1930s, founded practically in protest of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but has only been producing an annual televised awards ceremony for about 25 years.

The SAGs might be a more reliable barometer of Oscar voting than the much hyped Golden Globes for the simple fact that members of the Academy’s acting branch most definitely overlap as members of SAG. Of course, the guild encompasses a much larger voting body that also spans markets all across the U.S., allowing for more voices outside the Hollywood hierarchy; nonetheless, the groups share a relatively small but influential membership.

Do the SAGs and the Oscars always match up? Not always, but often, though some categories are more standard in that regard than others. For example, the last two SAG winners for Best Supporting Actor, Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards…) and Mahershala Ali (Moonlight) triumphed at the Oscars; however, Tommy Lee Jones (Lincoln, 2012) and Eddie Murphy (Dreamgirls, 2006) are two high-profile exceptions–among many. On the other hand, Robin Williams (Good Will Hunting, 1997) is an example of a performer whose work had gone relatively unrecognized during that year’s award season until he won the SAG–and then the Oscar. On the other hand, one has to go all the way back to Kate Winslet who won a SAG as a supporting player for 2008’s The Reader, to find a split for Best Supporting Actress between the SAGs and the Oscars, the twist being that the Academy nominated Winslet as a leading player for the same role–and for which she won. But I digress. Winslet’s bump to Best Actress worked out well for Penelope Cruz (Vicky Christina Barcelona) in the supporting category, btw.

RKing_Beale

In a recent Hollywood Reporter roundtable discussion, Best Supporting Actress nominee Regina King shared a story about how when she was a child on TV’s 227, star Marla Gibbs stressed the importance of always being present for other actors in a scene, advice she clearly heeds during tense, awkward confrontations in If Beale Street Could Talk. (IMAGE: https://kidskunst.info/linked/regina-king-on-if-beale-street-could-talk-and-the-power-726567696e61.htm)

Here is what happened in the Best Supporting Actress category at the recent SAG awards. Magnificent Regina King, whom we’ve all loved and watched grow up in movies and TV for decades (227, Boyz n the Hood, Friday, Jerry Maguire, Ray, Southland, and so much more), has dominated voting for much of the season thanks to her work in If Beale Street Could Talk as a devoted mom, circa 1974, trying to do the best she can in an unsettling situation (pregnant daughter whose boyfriend, and also the baby’s father, is apparently falsely accused of a crime and awaits a retrial in jail) . Her character is a woman on a mission, but the mission overwhelms her, especially when she embarks on a last ditch effort for redemption in Puerto Rico. Brilliant stuff. Even with a Globe and a Critics’ Choice award, among a whopping handful of accolades, King was somehow overlooked by SAG voters–surprising, that, given that she has worked steadily on both big and small screens for so long–and so well, earning three Emmys in the process (two seasons of American Crime and again in Seven Seconds).

With King out of the running for the SAG award, interest seemingly shifted to Amy Adams, for her portrayal of Lynne Vincent Cheney, wife of former VP Dick Cheney in Vice. Between leading and supporting categories (specific to film as opposed to TV), Adams has been nominated for the SAG award eight times, winning only as part of the American Hustle ensemble during the 2013-2014 derby; likewise, Adams has never won an Oscar in 5 previous races, the most recent being a run for Best Actress, per, once again,  2013’s American Hustle.

Adams seemed like a lock for the SAG trophy, a move which might have jump-started an Oscar victory, but the award failed to materialize. Instead, the guild honored ever-versatile Emily Blunt for playing the expectant mom–who indeed goes into labor while being stalked by massive creepy crawlies–in last spring’s terrific thriller The Quiet Place. Blunt was a “wow” in the demanding role. Of course, she was as she almost always is, but the trouble is, c’mon, she was clearly a star player in the enterprise (directed by her co-star and real-life hubby Jonathan Krasinski), and to even consider her as anything less is rubbish–AND an insult to young Millicent Simmonds as Blunt and Krasinski’s resourceful daughter, a true supporting player. No fair. The twist in all of this is that Blunt is out of the running for an Oscar, so with Adams still trying to muster momentum, the heavy betting likely favors King, keeping in mind that director Barry Jenkins clearly has the winning touch per his work with Mahershala Ali (Moonlight) only two years ago.

I can’t imagine that either Rachel Weisz or Emma Stone, effectively star players slumming as supporting aspirants, has much hope for The Favourite–even though the film is one of the year’s top nominees (10 nods, including Best Picture). Both are previous Oscar winners, with Weisz earning a most deserved win for 2005’s The Constant Gardener (supporting) and Stone only two years out from capturing Best Actress honors for La La Land. Stone, in particular, is too big to be handed a Oscar as a supporting player so soon after her first victory, but neither actress deserves supporting actress consideration in a film in which they–not the real life queen portrayed by Best Actress nominee Olivia Colman–drive the plot. The Favourite is an oddity in that it really has three leads, the gag being that without Colman’s Queen Anne, there cannot be a story, yet she is simply a prize, a dupe, even, to the women who manipulate her in a game of outfoxing each other. With neither actress offering Academy voters a compelling reason to choose one over the other, the likely scenario is that they will split votes. What a waste.

Roma‘s Marina de Tavira figures as the question mark in this guessing game. The Mexico City native, well established at home (per a previous pair of awards from the Mexican Cinema Journalists), plays employer to Best Actress nominee Yalitza Aparcio in director Alfonso Cuarón’s semi-autobiographical tale about growing up in the 1970s; effectively, Tavira portrays a character based on the director’s mother.  Besides the merits of the performance itself, Tavira benefits from being a fresh-face to many Academy voters, meaning less actressy without baggage from previous efforts. Plus, her film’s 10 nominations, comparable to those of The Favourite, signify strong support within the Academy, and who knows how that might play out on the final ballot.

The Academy’s generosity toward Weisz and Stone comes at the expense of gifted actresses who wowed audiences in true supporting, or featured, roles, beginning with Michelle Yeoh and Awkwafina (standouts in the incredibly overlooked Crazy Rich Asians), as well as Danai Gurira, thrilling as Black Panther‘s Okoye.   A fun longshot would have been Michelle Williams in I Feel Pretty.  Williams, often strong in Oscar nominated dramas (such as 2016’s Manchester by the Sea), demonstrates enviable comic chops as a squeaky voiced cosmetics tycoon, sharply contrasting her work as the embattled mom fighting for her kidnapped son’s life in 2017’s All the Money in the World (for which a fifth Oscar nod would have been just), but I Feel Pretty, starring Amy Schumer, performed only mildly at the box-office, not enough to qualify as a true achievement–though attention grabbing roles in blockbusters clearly didn’t favor Yeoh, Awkwafina, or Gurira.

Mahershala Ali, meanwhile, appears to be a lock for Best Supporting Actor, thanks to his masterful turn in Green Book as real-life pianist Dr. Don Shirley, an African-American in need of a chauffeur–i.e, bodyguard–during an early 1960s concert tour through still deeply segregated states in the southern U.S..  As noted, Ali won in this same category just two years ago for Moonlight, playing a drug dealer who takes on, uneasily, the role of a mentor to a young boy, struggling for acceptance in a chaotic world. Ali’s work in Green Book is worlds removed from Moonlight–and worlds removed, furthermore, from his role as Katherine Johnson’s (Taraji P. Henson) gallant suitor in the blockbuster Hidden Figures, released the same year as Moonlight. As Dr. Shirley, Ali’s great at conveying the character’s artful management of his own identity, always performing; plus, he credibly manages the dexterity required to portray a pianist. He has a Golden Globe, a SAG, a Broadcast Film Critics Association award, among others, to prove it. Additionally, he’s garnering extra attention right now thanks to his leading role in the revived True Detective series. Good for him.

Still, I think it’s a cheat that he’s being, what, shoe-horned into the Best Supporting Actor category for a film in which he clearly stars as a co-lead, sharing the screen with Viggo Mortensen, as Tony Vallelonga (aka Tony Lip), Dr. Shirley’s driver–a bouncer in need of a short-term gig while his usual post—the famed Copacabana–undergoes remodeling. Yes, Mortensen’s character is the audience’s path into the story, so he has a few minutes more screen time than Ali, but without Ali’s Dr. Shirley there is no story, which means Ali is, at least, a second lead. Of course, this is how studio interference and the politics of marketing manipulate and even corrupt Academy voting. Rather than honoring both men equally, the studios split them, affording, yes, better chances of BOTH winning, but also securing Ali out of Mortensen’s way and increasing the latter’s odds as the now three time Best Actor nominee is, so far, winless. But buzz for Mortensen has faded after a strong start (due, no doubt, to some unfortunate–ignorant–comments he made regarding racism, using the actual N-word when he could have just used the euphemistic “N-word” instead, and everyone would have gotten the point). At any rate, Ali might enjoy the last laugh. Not that any of this is a laughing matter.

Ali’s biggest competitor is none other than legendary hunk and damned fine actor Sam Elliott, up for his role as Bradley Cooper’s much put upon older brother–and general caretaker–in A Star is Born. The two actors’ performances are perfectly calibrated, a nifty feat. Of course, Elliott has been a working actor for, gosh, decades, with credits in movies and TV going all the way back to 1969’s Judd for the Defense (at least). His many, many credits include a season of TV’s classic Mission Impossible along with 1993’s righteous Tombstone, starring Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp and Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday; Emmy and Golden Globe nominations for Buffalo Girls, plus the likes of Mask and The Big Lebowski, along starring roles in acclaimed indie films, such as Lifeguard, Hero, and I’ll See You in My Dreams. Oh, and this veteran of oh so many cowboy flicks is a six time honoree, per the Western Heritage Awards. This is his first Oscar nomination and while I do not believe for an instant that he can’t triumph here–and Academy history shows that veteran actors do quite well in this category–I also freely admit that I blinked when he didn’t win the SAG award, and, yes, to clarify, he was nominated. I expected a win, given Elliot’s reputation and longevity–his popularity among actors in all media (including voiceovers)–but maybe Elliot like, say, oh, Harrison Ford, for one, is so good at what he does that it never seems like acting. Whatever. No, he’s not down for the count yet and if he wins, good for him.

Meanwhile, congratulations to Richard E. Grant (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) on his first ever nod, as well. The lanky Brit, of Swazi descent, has been a vibrant presence in movies and TV, in the U.S. and abroad, since the 1980s with key roles in Withnail and I, The Player, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Gosford Park, and, of course, Game of Thrones, among many, many others. Alas, I haven’t seen Grant’s nominated offering, for one reason or another, but, even so, I like him enough as a performer to be all about the nod even if only in the abstract. I can’t imagine NOT being thrilled if he wins, but his chances remain slim against the likes of Ali and Elliot.

The rest of the lot doesn’t offer much excitement. I’m a fan of Adam Driver, nominated for his role as John David Washington’s white ally in BlacKkKlansman, but I’m not rooting for him, either. Driver, of course, has already earned plenty of recognition for his work in the TV series Girls (3 Emmy nods), Hungry Heart (Best Actor, Venice Film Festival), Paterson (LA Film Critics, Toronto Critics), and, of course his villainous turn in the recent spate of Star Wars flicks. His nod here is a nice touch; nice, but goofy, given that Washington was overlooked by the Academy for his most compelling performance in the leading role. Given that, it’s hard to work up much excitement for Driver.  Least likely? Sam Rockwell, last year’s winner (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri), back again for impersonating no less than President George W. Bush to Christian Bale’s Dick Cheney in Vice. Merits of the film aside, what are the odds of back-to-back wins? Not great. The last time in this category, specifically, was when Jason Robards triumphed  first portraying Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee in 1976’s All the President’s Men and then following that up by taking on the role of popular novelist Dashiell Hammett in Julia (1977). I don’t think Rockwell’s work approaches the same level of gravitas–not compared to Ali and, yes, Elliot. (To clarify, Tom Hanks won back-to-back Best Actor trophies for 1993’s Philadelphia and 1994’s Forrest Gump.)

With Rockwell practically guaranteed to go home empty handed, his nod seems a bit of a waste. I would have loved for Jonah Hill to have been recognized with a third nomination in this category for reinventing himself in Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, giving an extremely affable performance as a fey guru-12 step sponsor to Joaquin Phoenix’s recovering wheelchair bound alcoholic . Hill, last in an Oscar race for 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street, has rarely seemed so relaxed–unforced–onscreen; plus, he seemed to have generated heaps of goodwill for his feature length directorial debut, Mid90s. Alas, his only awards consideration has been a nomination from the Indiana Film Critics Association.

I’m pulling for Regina King, SAG or no, and I’ll be fine with either Mahershala Ali or Sam Elliot. It would be hard to begrudge victories for Amy Adams, possibly Marina de Tavira, or even Grant…hard to begrudge, mind you, but not impossible.

Thanks for your consideration.

 

 

Oscars 2018/2019: The Misses Just Keep on Coming

23 Jan

Well, here we are, a particularly favorite time of year. The Oscars remind us every year that good films–and sometimes great films–are still being made, some from even within the corporate Hollywood framework. Of course, even so-called indie movies are not completely without ties to the big mainstream Hollywood studios, but that’s a thought for a different day.

Today, we’re all about the Oscars. Host or no host, an Oscar nod is still a big deal, and, again, good films are still being made; moreover, plenty of good films earn Academy recognition each and every year.

That noted, some of this year’s omissions are puzzling as are the outcomes of some twisted campaigns.

By now, many Academy devotees know that The Favourite and Roma lead the pack with 10 nominations each. I have yet to catch Roma, but it isn’t for lack of interest. Mostly, it’s lack of opportunity. Of course, I’m always down for just about anything from director Alfonso Cuarón, a quadruple contender, what with nominations for writing, producing, directing, and serving as his film’s cinematographer. Good for him. I can hardly wait.

On the other hand, The Favourite? Huh, not a fan. I know it’s a huge, well, you know, favorite with the critics, but I don’t get it. You know what I especially don’t get is how Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone, both previous Oscar winners, could be nominated for Best Supporting Actress (for, to clarify, The Favourite). Simply, this is a story with three leads: Best Actress nominee Olivia Colman as historical figure Queen Anne, with Weisz and Stone as conniving members–cousins–of Anne’s inner circle, each one trying to one-up the other in order to stay in Anne’s better graces to better serve their own agendas, their own fortunes. Without Anne, there is no story, so Colman has to be considered leading rather than supporting even though grotesque Anne does almost nothing to advance the plot. No, that distinction belongs to Weisz and Stone, so they’re actually driving the story in ways that promoting them as supporting players simply does not make sense.

Their nominations would be better filled by the likes of Michelle Yeoh and Awkwafina, both from Crazy Rich Asians, one of last year’s liveliest crowd pleasing movies, a box office behemoth–to the tune of $175 million domestic box office–that the Academy completely overlooked.  I was hoping that with 8 (or so) available Best Picture slots, Crazy Rich Asians would be an easy call with plenty of possibilities for extra nods in addition; after all, how many mainstream romantic comedies have we seen fully populated by Asian cast members–but that didn’t happen, and that’s what I mean when I claim, “The Misses Just Keep on Coming.”

Still, when all is said and done, Best Supporting Actress looks to be dominated by the one and only Regina King, a performer I admire tremendously, for If Beale Street Could Talk, but I’m surprised that the often lavishly praised film was shut out of so many categories, including Best Picture when it had been projected to be a major contender. If Beale Street Could Talk rivals Crazy Rich Asians as my favorite flick of the year, btw, with Green Book a notch or so down the list.

Along the same lines, what happened to a Best Documentary nod for Won’t You be My Neighbor?, all about legendary children’s host–and genuinely kind-hearted–Fred Rogers? 2018 was a year with a number of highly successful documentaries being released into the marketplace, almost none of which were as lauded as the Rogers doc. Possible exception? RBG, which details the remarkable career of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The latter made the final cut, but calling it a slam dunk, an easy win, due to Ginsburg’s ever-expanding base of ardent followers, seems a bit too easy.

Another example, of a “miss” on behalf of the Academy concerns the film Green Book, which, again, l enjoyed, but the nominations don’t make sense. Oh sure, I’m thrilled that only two years after Mahershala Ali triumphed in Moonlight, earning a Best Supporting Actor nod (while appearing in two Best Picture contenders, the second being Hidden Figures), he’s back in the race for Green Book. But wait a second. Does this make sense? Set in the early 1960s, Green Book tells the mostly true story of an Italian-American bouncer–played by Viggo Mortensen, enjoying his third nomination (Awesome!)–who gets hired to serve as a chauffeur for a prominent–real-life–African-American pianist (Ali) who’s preparing to tour in the southern states at a particularly volatile time. What the pianist needs is someone who’s not only an excellent driver/navigator but also someone with just enough muscle and street cred to help stave off trouble from the rednecks, but this arrangement begs the question: Why is Ali positioned as a supporting player? Greenbook does not exist without both Ali and Mortensen, or, rather, the characters they play. They’re both leads. Granted, Mortensen has perhaps a modicum more screen time, but only barely. Positioning Ali has a supporting player smacks of pure Hollywood politics, a way to spread the wealth among all things Green Book–and without a spoiler splitting votes with Mortensen, now in his third try at the gold.

Also missing from the Green Book slate is director Peter Farrelly. Sure not all directors of Best Picture nominees earn correlating nods from members of the Academy’s directors branch, but Farrelly is a current Directors Guild nominee, so his nod looked liked a sure-thing.

Still, I think I’m rooting for Ali even though I think he’s been insultingly placed in the wrong category. His performance in Green Book is a bit of a marvel. Notice how his Don Shirley is always managing his identity, well-aware of his place in a given room. Oh, and Ali is once again doing double duty as he’s also one of the featured voice artists for the nominated animated flick, Spiderman: Into the Spider-verse ; however, Ali is in great company with the likes of Sam Elliott, just about perfect as Bradley Cooper’s older brother–and longtime brother’s keeper–in the 11th jillion remake of A Star is Born. To put it kindly, Elliott is long, long, overdue for his first nomination in a career that spans, per the IMDb, more than 50 years and 99 film and TV credits. Everyone loves the swaggering Elliott with his rugged good looks and unmistakable resonant rumble of a voice.  Elliott brings a lot of goodwill to this race, and almost nobody will be sorry to see him win.

Kudos to Spike Lee, at long last, enjoying his first ever Best Director nomination for the fact-based BlacKkKlansman, also up for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay (a shared nod), which makes Lee a triple nominee. To clarify, Lee was nominated for his Do the Right Thing original screenplay almost 30 years ago, and he also earned a nod for his 1997 documentary 4 Little Girls. Of course, a lot of people thought he would have earned a nomination for directing, going back to Do the Right Thing or Malcom X (1992), not to mention the scathing Bamboozled. Still, BlacKkKlansman is a triumph, but how to explain the Best Supporting Actor nomination for Adam Driver–who’s very good in his secondary role–but nothing for the picture’s star, John David Washington? The misses just keep on coming.

So, Bradley Cooper is out as Best Director for A Star is Born even though the film netted a Best Picture nod in addition to nominations in three of the four performance categories (among others). Maybe the snub in the one category will sway votes in his favor as a Best Actor candidate. He’s awfully, awfully good, and he’s been nominated three times previously, twice as Best Actor (including 2014’s American Sniper) and once as Best Supporting Actor (2013’s American Hustle). To clarify, he’s also up for an award as one of the co-producers of A Star is Born as well as one of its co-writers (in addition to the nomination he earned as one of the co-producers of the aforementioned American Sniper). Cooper could be hard to beat though Mortensen and Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody) also bring star power to the race though the “happiest” surprise in the Best Actor race is Willem Dafoe, in his fourth race–but first for Best Actor–playing Vincent Van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate, a film that enjoyed only scant distribution during the late summer-early fall film festival season.

Per this viewer, the Best Actress race begins and ends with Glenn Close in The Wife, again, like At Eternity’s Gate is a little seen film but there’s nothing little about Close’s performance. This is Close’s 7th nomination, and, to clarify, she’s never won. I’m not an unconditional Close fan. I take her on a film by film basis, and I think she surpasses just about anything and everything she’s ever done with this particular film. I know a lot of people are rooting for Lady Gaga in A Star is Born, and I get that; however, I fully expect Gaga to win for Best Song (“Shallow”) which could work in Close’s favor. It would have been nice to see Constance Wu (Crazy Rich Asians) or Felicity Jones (On the Basis of Sex) in the race, but not to be. Of course, Jones portrays the aforementioned Ruth Bader Ginsburg in a dramatization of the Supreme Court Judge’s early career during a time when women lawyers were an anomaly. No matter how well turned Jones’ portrayal was or is, she was effectively competing with Ginsburg as presented in the RBG documentary, so that’s that.

Meanwhile, Emily Blunt demonstrated incredible range between her two starring roles in The Quiet Place (devastating) and Mary Poppins Returns (challenging the legend that is Julie Andrews and wowing audiences in the process),  but a nomination for one or the other was not forthcoming. This incredible actress is still without an Oscar nomination.

Meanwhile, congratulations to everyone associated with Black Panther, the first Marvel super hero movie to earn a Best Picture nod. Black Panther was, indeed, a major motion picture event, an entertaining, empowering smash, and its 7 nominations are well deserved–but is that enough?  What about director Ryan Coogler, or just about anyone in the stellar cast? Chadwick Boseman as the titular panther? Marvelous Danai Gurira as a warrior among warriors?

Stay tuned…

 

Dressed to Kill: Trick–or Treat?

27 Oct

What Brian De Palma doesn’t know or understand about trans people could fill an Olympic size stadium.

According to graphic designer Stephen Sayadian, he modelled the original Dressed to Kill 1-sheet (aka movie poster) on an iconic image featured in the 1-sheet for 1967’s landmark film offering The Graduate. Notice the figure hovering in the background and the presumably female leg that is either being slipped into, or out of, hosiery in the foreground. For comparison’s sake, please refer to the following: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Graduate#/media/File:Graduateposter67.jpg Meanwhile, per this image: http://www.impawards.com/1980/dressed_to_kill.html

 

When the super-sly director of such 70s hits as Carrie, Obsession, and The Fury, among others, unleashed audacious psycho-sexual mystery-thriller Dressed to Kill in 1980, the critics’ huzzahs rivaled the feminists’ outcries. The naysayers carped that De Palma, who also wrote the film, trivialized violence against women, at least, and conflated sex and violence, at worst. For example, the film opens with a woman’s fantasy of being sexually attacked in the shower–by someone other than her husband, apparently oblivious from a distance of only 3-4 feet. A few short scenes later, that same lonely woman enjoys a wild romp with a complete stranger–tall dark and handsome per her previous fantasy–she encounters at a museum; however, her sexuality threatens a crazed stalker, and the woman pays a fatal price for so casually abandoning her roles as devoted wife and mom. What a tired trope, right?

Elsewhere, further objections include the recurring idea of depicting women in dangerous scenarios as a means of exciting audiences, and keeping them that way as in the hot shot upscale call-girl (ugh) who discovers the slain woman’s body in an elevator and quickly becomes the target of the killer, lest she be able to make a positive ID.

De Palma probably doesn’t endorse violence against women in his day-to-day life, but his movies certainly illustrate a pronounced fascination with material that leans that way. I believe his defense is something to the effect that audiences, male and female, are more likely to fear for the safety of a woman, especially if she appears helpless, than they are a man–like, say, Rambo (that’s quote from a DVD featurette). That’s debatable. Keeping in mind that, in this case, the call-girl is played by luscious lippy blonde, Nancy Allen–De Palma’s then wife. Make of that what you will. He’s been married–and divorced–three times, btw.

Another slam against Dressed to Kill is the objectification of its leading female, the woman in the shower at the beginning. To clarify, that character, Kate Miller, is portrayed by Angie Dickinson, approaching 50 at the time and a golden-blonde stunner with impeccable bone structure, lovely brown eyes, and a fit and trim body. Even so, her nude shower scene involves De Palma’s sleight-of-hand in that the director hired Victoria Johnson, a well known model, famous for her nude pictorials in skin mag Penthouse, to serve as Dickinson’s body double–for below the neck shots–in the shower scene, a move that made headlines, small ones, even though the plan was to keep quiet about the switch, hoping the audience couldn’t tell the difference between a 20ish body and one well into middle age, no matter how fit.  At any rate, De Palma indulges the viewer, or is that the camera, in shot after shot, close-up after close-up, of breasts as the nude woman caresses her soapy body–and then De Palma points the camera toward the woman’s pubic area.

Again, this is problematic. To begin, Dickinson, to hear her tell the story, wasn’t too keen on filming the shower scene (though she had appeared nude in a movie at least once), feeling that it was not the best move for her at the time, coming off her just-wrapped role as TV’s Police Woman, a role model of sorts. Understandable, yes, but Dickinson’s decision prompted the need for a body double. Fair enough. Plus, did De Palma even look for someone closer to Dickinson’s age? So De Palma lures audiences with the voyeuristic thrill of a sweet, nubile body, one with especially perky breasts, to set-up what? Her bloody demise. That’s what.

On the other hand, I’ve been inclined to give De Palma a pass on the shower scene since the whole episode is revealed to be the character’s fantasy. Don’t we all idealize who we are and how we look in such flights of imagination? Why the hell not?

Still again, De Palma raises the ire of Hitchcock purists with his blatant allusions to, or rip-offs of, the master. What seemed clever in Sisters and Obsession (the latter, a clear throwback to Vertigo) was beginning to tire by the time of Dressed to Kill. For example, the opening sequence, in which Kate fantasizes about being attacked in the shower? An obvious allusion to Psycho (1960). De Palma references Psycho again when Kate is brutally slashed to death with a straight edge razor with the confines of an elevator subbing for the sensation of being likewise trapped in a shower stall. Cornered, nowhere to hide, nowhere to go; moreover, we all know by now, the killer in Psycho is revealed to be a grown man with a mommy fixation whose murderous ritual includes donning mom’s garb. Similarly, even though it might not be quite apparent at first, De Palma clues viewers in on the idea that Dickinson’s stalker is a dangerously conflicted cross-dresser–get it, Dressed to Kill–with delusions of being transsexual. I think.

In De Palma’s twisted logic, the killer is a transsexual who lives a double life with a female personality struggling for domination against a male personality in a male body. Yeah. Another tired–and wildly inaccurate–trope. What De Palma has actually written is a character who functions more as a schizophrenic or a patient with disassociative identity disorder (once known a multiple personality order), but De Palma in all his zealotry is just about the only person who doesn’t seem to recognize how foolish his conceit of “Bobby,” the killer, is.

In interview after interview, both then and recently, De Palma talks a good game about trans women and their ambivalence about their genitalia, but he sounds like such a fool. Again, what De Palma doesn’t know about transgender people could fill an Olympic size stadium.

Back in 1980, on the heels of William Friedkin’s wildly controversial Cruising [1], which gay activists protested due to its lurid depiction of an underground subculture, Dressed to Kill paled in comparison for sheer offensiveness in its portrayal of the trans population–but only because at that time, trans people functioned as a largely invisible segment of society, save for a precious few high profile personalities–Renee Richards, for one–and an occasional episode of Phil Donahue’s talk show, a clip of which De Palma shares in Dressed to Kill–for what purpose I really don’t know. As a primer on all things trans to demonstrate that De Palma had done his research?  It’s not that the trans community was okay with their struggles being so wildly misrepresented, but in the pre-Internet age  there was no real sense of community and certainly no political clout.

Today, of course, everything that seemed problematic with Dressed to Kill back in 1980 is by now magnified. Audiences no longer settle for women being portrayed as mere victims, and we have frank conversations about misogyny, sex workers, transphobia, and the gender binary. Not that such conversations fall on receptive ears consistently because we know they don’t.  Still, we’re moving in the right direction even though the pace never seems to suit many of us who are tired, tired, tired of the old boys club mentality and the way it has shaped society and normalized tropes that should have been retired a long time ago. And, yes, by the way: internalized misogyny is a thing.

I cannot deny that Dressed to Kill reeks of its director’s offensive choices, leaving little to be desired among hosts of moviegoers–and potential moviegoers. That noted, I have no time for people who complain about the politics of any movie without actually seeing it.

That noted, it’s hard to dismiss the film completely.

What I don’t want to do is try to sway, or to be accused of trying to sway, someone who’s most definitely not interested in watching Dressed to Kill that it isn’t as bad as the naysayers suggest because the naysayers make good points. Instead, I want to explain why I think the movie is worth a look to those who’ve never seen it but remain open and intrigued by the possibility.

First and foremost is Angie Dickinson in her greatest film role. The former beauty queen broke into showbiz in the 1950s and began hitting her stride with Rio Bravo (1959), winning a Golden Globe as Female Newcomer of the Year in a film top-lined by the likes of John Wayne, Dean Martin, and pop heart-throb Ricky Nelson. Nicely played, Ms. Dickinson. From there, she continued to work steadily throughout the 1960s before achieving even greater stardom in the 1970s with not only her successful Police Woman series (three Emmy nods, along with a Golden Globe award and two additional GG nominations) but also the racy cult classic Big Bad Mama from schlock-meister Roger Corman. During that time, as well, she and then husband Burt Bacharach, one of the most prolific composers of the times, reigned among Hollywood’s golden couples.

Following Hitchcock’s outline for Psycho, in a which a top-billed Hollywood actress (Janet Leigh) gets killed off fairly early, De Palma follows suit with Dickinson’s Kate Miller. She really isn’t in the picture for that long, but De Palma maximizes her presence, and she makes a vivid impression. Kate Miller is frustrated. Sex with her husband has become mechanical, something she endures without much pleasure. She’s at odds with her mother and can’t reconcile those feelings. Her uncertainty about her worth as a woman leads her, in a moment of desperation, to make a pass, a slight one, at her therapist, dryly played by Michael Caine. Naturally, Caine explains why a more intimate relationship is completely out of the question. Of course, patients often develop feelings of affection for their therapists; that much is understood, and Kate snaps to reality.

This is all good stuff. Dickinson’s Kate is extremely likeable in the early scenes, and that’s what the audience needs.  We have to feel that Kate is just like any other comfortably situated woman facing middle age and juggling roles of wife, mother, and daughter. Her son, btw, is a teenager (played by Keith Gordon), a techno whiz in the throes of completing a science fair project. Kate loves her son dearly and tries to keep up with his enthusiasm as he explains the workings of his latest invention, a home-made computer (this, keep in mind, when computers were simply not the everyday household item we take for granted today). Gordon, now more famously known as a director than an actor, was in his late teens when he filmed Dressed to Kill though he’s probably a year or two older than the character, Peter, as De Palma envisioned him. Nonetheless, he and Dickinson evince great rapport as she expresses concern about him staying up too late to work on his project while also playing the ever-supportive parent. The audience has to believe in the bond between Kate and Peter in order for understand everything Peter does after’s his mother’s death. It’s at this point that Peter turns amateur sleuth, jeopardizing both his life and that of Allen’s character.

Angie Dickinson in Dressed to Kill’s much praised museum sequence. The actress has gone on record with her belief that the 1980 film sensation represents her best work. She won a Saturn Best Actress trophy–per the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films–alas, her only award for such an accomplished effort. A supporting actress nod, from either the Hollywood Foreign Press or the Academy, would not have been unjust. After all, Janet Leigh’s featured turn in Psycho, in every way Dressed to Kill‘s antecedent, attracted the Academy’s attention. Why not Dickinson? Perhaps all the controversy, not the least of which includes the hubbub regarding a nude body double, worked against Dickinson even though, heck, stunt doubles are nothing new in Hollywood AND by that time Sissy Spacek had garnered Academy approval for De Palma’s blood-soaked Carrie. (IMAGE: https://www.ebay.ca/itm/Angie-Dickinson-Dressed-To-Kill-Original-8×10-Photo-N732/372308530823?hash=item56af515687:g:9BcAAOSwrU1a~bhA:rk:40:pf:0)

Back to Dickinson. Her triumph in Dressed to Kill is the famous museum set piece. Kate’s there to meet her mother-in-law and is only mildly enthused about doing so. From a bench, she takes in the sights, including the couples and families strolling amongst the art. She jots reminders to herself in pocket notebook. Then, in an instant, everything changes when a mysterious dark-haired man, sporting dark shades, sits down next to her. Kate clearly feels attracted to the man, and he’s definitely on the prowl, but she’s not necessarily ready to jump into bed either. Yet.

Extravagant filmmaking follows, per De Palma’s assured touch. Kate and her stranger play a curious game throughout the vast art-filled space [2]. Kate is clearly the pursuer, and the pursuant relishes the chase, practically luring her a la the Pied Piper. It’s 5 minutes of winding, ever more dizzying camera work by Ralf D. Bode, precision editing by Jerry Greenberg, and Pino Donaggaio’s thrilling score heightening the emotional pull–sweeping, intense, and frantic. For most of it, the lens focuses solely on Dickinson’s sun-kissed, expressive face as she navigates a host of changes. That she registers her character’s urgency as vividly as she does is even more impressive given that the mechanics of the shoot required Dickson to act while moving toward a camera operator, monitoring her own distance by holding a rope, hidden from the camera’s view, in order to ensure that she remain in focus each and every step along the way. Tricky business, that. Better still, Dickinson registers her character’s plight so strongly that a scripted voiceover, Kate’s interior monologue, which she was to record during post-production, never happened once De Palma saw the rushes and felt satisfied that his star’s performance obviated the need for words. Good job.

Just when Miller resigns herself to yet another disappointment, she’s whisked away in a taxi cab for an orgiastic fully clothed tussle–with a bit of audio enhancement to Kate’s enthusiastic moans via Rutanya Alda [3].  Later, after a tender interlude takes a curdled turn, Kate steps into an elevator, and we know the rest though Dickinson has another great bit when Kate, feeling embarrassed by her transgression, has a stare down with a seemingly over-inquisitive child.

Then, the murder, and it’s shocking, but despite De Palma’s skillful build up, the sequence lacks the visceral charge of Psycho‘s legendary shower scene.

From there, Dressed to Kill offers a few taut thrills, including a multi-layered interrogation scene bathed in suspicion and split screen/split diopter bravado involving the son (Gordon), the hooker (Allen), the psychiatrist (Caine), and a hard-nosed detective (indefatigable Dennis Franz, a frequent De Palma player); elsewhere, De Palma orchestrates a deliberately misleading subway pursuit involving a cop played by Susanna Clemm, and bit of techno-gadgetry orchestrated by Gordon’s whiz kid.

Alas, the movie stumbles toward its anti-climactic conclusion, followed by a tired gimmicky coda.

Despite its controversy, Dressed to Kill turned quite a hefty profit for Filmways Pictures on a relatively cheap budget by 1980 standards–in a season dominated by The Empire Strikes Back–though both the film and its director could do no better than runner-up status in some of the year end-voting, most notably from the New York Film Critics Circle. The film was not entirely overlooked by the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films, per the annual Saturn awards. De Palma’s next offering, Blowout, a political thriller that takes off from both Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-up AND the Kennedy assassination along with a definite nod to the Chappaquiddick scandal (involving Ted Kennedy and the late Mary Jo Kopechne) garnered stellar reviews but failed to excite moviegoers en masse in spite of a cast headed by John Travolta, Nancy Allen, and John Lithgow, all of them frequent or former De Palma collaborators.

The director long ago lost his cachet as one Hollywood’s leading filmmakers though certainly The Untouchables (1987), for which superstar Sean Connery won the 1987/88 Best Supporting Actor Oscar, and Mission Impossible (1996) scored big. De Palma’s bombastic revamp of gangster classic Scarface (1983), starring Al Pacino, became iconic later rather than sooner while Bonfire of the Vanities (from Tom Wolfe’s spectacular best seller) failed miserably [4]. Most everything else is hit or miss though the likes of Melanie Griffith (Body Double, 1984), Michael J. Fox (Casualties of War, 1989), John Lithgow (Raising Cain, 1992), Sean Penn (Casualties of War, 1989, and Carlito’s Way, 1993), and Frances Sternhagen (also of Raising Cain) have earned strong notices and awards buzz in works of varying quality.

Per the IMDb, Dickinson hasn’t earned a film or TV credit in almost ten years though she continued to work steadily throughout the 1980s and 1990s, including a Big Bad Mama sequel and such high profile mini-series as Hollywood Wives and Wild Palms. Coincidentally, Dickinson’s Dressed to Kill son, Keith Gordon, directed two installments of the latter.

Halloween season is upon us. Currently, Jamie Lee Curtis is basking in the big screen blockbuster success of yet another entry in the enduring Halloween horror franchise.  Good for her, AND good for director David Gordon Green, a Richardson High School graduate and local fave.  For those inclined to skip the crowds and stay home to watch scary movies, De Palma offers a frightening enough boogey woman, or, rather, a boogey man disguised as a boogey woman, in Dressed to Kill.  Indeed, the trick of Dressed to Kill is that De Palma’s thrilling technique as a visual storyteller comes with the price of his peculiar notions about violence against women and sexuality, not to mention gender identity and gender expression. On the other hand, Angie Dickinson’s vivid portrayal of a woman motivated by longing and contradictory impulses continues to make Dressed to Kill a treat.

Thanks for your consideration.

[1] – Coincidentally, per the Dressed to Kill DVD featurette, De Palma’s frustration with not being able to secure the rights to Cruising’s source material provided the impetus, at least partially, for developing Dressed to Kill.

[2] – Trivia: The museum’s exteriors were filmed at Manhattan’s easily recognizable Metropolitan Museum of Art right smack on bustling Fifth Avenue; however, when an interior shoot at the same location proved infeasible, De Palma and producer George Litto, both of them Philly natives, packed up production and moved–on the sly from studio brass–to the impressive Philadelphia Museum of Art.

[3] – Besides her famous supporting role in 1981’s Mommie Dearest, which I wrote about recently, Alda is a longtime De Palma colleague, logging appearances in some of his earlier, lesser-known films, in addition to 1978’s big budget The Fury.

[4] – Julie Salamon’s The Devil’s Candy (1991) expertly chronicles how just about everything turned sour with the big budget production, headlined by such major players as Tom Hanks,  Melanie Griffith, Bruce Willis, and Morgan Freeman (all of them pretty much cast for all the wrong reasons), the true folly of corporate Hollywood moviemaking.

 

 

 

Committed: Fabulously Faye

7 Oct

In my last post, I lamented Billy Wilder’s unfortunate Fedora, the dud movie adaptation of the late Thomas Tryon’s story of the same name, the leading entry in his Crowned Heads collection.  Within an instant of its publication, reports swirled that Faye Dunaway was being chatted up for the title role, a reclusive movie star whose erratic behavior is as puzzling as are her seemingly ageless good looks.

Ah, Dunaway, the one and only.  Before 1967’s Bonnie & Clyde, she was just another promising hopeful, but she soon became a household name thanks to the box office blockbuster based on the exploits of real-life Depression era bank robbers–from Texas, no less.  She earned an Oscar nomination and helped launch a fashion trend inspired by costume designer Theodora van Runkle’s interpretation of 1930s style. Dunaway soon followed with the sizzling Thomas Crown Affair, opposite Steve McQueen, another hit, but the next several years were marked by at least as many misses as hits; however, by the mid 70s, she was back on top.

As I child, wow, did I ever want to see Bonnie and Clyde and find out what was so cool about Faye Dunaway, but I was only 7, so I had to wait until the film appeared on network TV, cut-up and with commercials, so the experience was different from what I’d imagined. Never mind that I have seen it a few times since that first viewing. On the other hand, as a child, at least, I was mostly confused by The  Thomas Crown Affair, which I saw at the drive-in with my  family.  My favorite Dunaway performance is as mysterious Evelyn Mulwray in 1974’s Chinatown, pictured here, a remarkable blend of cool cunning and messy catharsis. She lost the Oscar to Ellen Burstyn for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, which nobody second-guesses, but Chinatown remains  an undeniable classic thanks  in part to Dunaway’s colossal efforts.  (IMAGE:  http://www.zimbio.com/The%2BWomen%2Bof%2BLos%2BAngeles%2BFilm%2B(and%2BTV)%2BNoir/articles/-x2Wk-ZgXDk/Faye%2BDunaway%2BEvelyn%2BCross%2BMulwray)

The turn began in 1973 with the release of Richard Lester’s boisterous, all-star take on Alexandre Dumas’s classic The Three Musketeers, featuring, as well, Richard Chamberlain, Oliver Reed, Michael York, Raquel Welch, and Charlton Heston. 1974 saw the release of the celebrated neo-noir Chinatown with Dunaway as an increasingly suspicious (or suspiciously acting) woman at the center of a confounding mystery. Her efforts earned her a second Oscar nod–one of the film’s 11 Academy nominations, including Best Picture. She also earned star-billing, along with Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, and William Holden, in Irwin Allen’s popular disaster epic, The Towering Inferno–which, to clarify, competed against Chinatown for top Academy honors. A rare feat, appearing in two Best Picture contenders in one year. Oh, and she even re-teamed, reluctantly, it seems, with Richard Lester and company for The Four Musketeers. She maintained her high profile in 1975’s The Three Days of the Condor. Her role in the political thriller was clearly secondary to that of Robert Redford–hot, hot, hot, at the time–but audiences flocked to theatres and made the movie a hit. 1976 brought Network and with it, not just another Oscar nod, but the coveted trophy itself.

About that Oscar. At the time, many prognosticators gave a slight edge to Liv Ullman for Ingmar Bergman’s typically somber Face to Face. While acknowledging a close race between Ullman and Dunaway, many critics harrumphed that watching the latter in Network was like watching a very good actress, no matter how exceptionally skilled, “act.” In other words, skeptics charged that her performance was more about performance for the sake of performance, rather than illuminating a character, and didn’t add up to much. I understand the concern, but I also disagree. Somewhat. I happen to love Dunaway in Network. I love her energy as a TV programming executive who thrills to her own power and the power of the medium itself. With those extreme highs come a few lows. In those moments, mostly when she’s face-to-face with co-star William Holden, a married, old-school newsperson in the throes of a mid-life crisis (of which Dunaway’s Diana Christensen is the key player), Dunaway affects a commendable stillness. She hangs on to his every word, not quite comprehending the language he speaks, the language of emotions–of love, indignation, and regret.  Indeed, per director Sidney Lumet in one of the DVD bonuses, Dunaway was so strong in one such exchange that he (Lumet) cut some of Dunaway’s lines–never even shot them–explaining that he got everything he needed in one visual. That’s powerful stuff. (Dunaway corroborates the story in her autobiography.)

At the same time, as much as I enjoy watching Dunaway in Network, I think she’s better, far better, than her material. Yeah, yeah, I know that the late screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky won a third Oscar, among other accolades, for his much ballyhooed Network screenplay, but Christensen isn’t a fully developed character. She’s a type, a stand-in for everything Chayefsky finds–found–lacking or distasteful, beginning with the soullessness of television and, it could be argued, the vapidity of successful business women. Same old tired misogyny, repackaged as cutting edge satire, 1976 style. Remember, Network premiered during a time in which women were feeling newly liberated and campaigning for equal rights, per the ERA. Even Lumet offers that the character has no vulnerability and is somehow less than fully human. Chayefsky shows more care for the characters portrayed by Holden, Best Actor winner Peter Finch (as prophetic anchor Howard Beale), and Best Supporting Actress winner Beatrice Straight (as Holden’s jilted wife). Dunway is tasked with playing the unplayable and making it believable.  That she does. At this point, it’s hard to imagine that any other actress could have risen to the task as authoritatively. Good for her. [Even so, I could have easily cheered, per Danny Peary, an Oscar victory for Sissy Spacek in her breakthrough role as telekinetic teen Carrie, 1976’s supernatural sleeper sensation.]

Commenting on an Academy award winning actress’s wardrobe might seem reductive, but kudos to Network costumer Theoni V. Alredge–who’d won for The Great Gatsby two years previous–for resisting the temptation to outfit the star in mannish suits as if to further underscore her character’s less than suitably feminine disposition. Instead, she’s right in step with the prevailing casual elegance of the 70s, per such designers as Halston and Diana von Furstenberg. At the time, and even for a time afterward, rumours abounded that Dunaway’s character was at least partially based on, or inspired by, Lin Bolen, NBC’s innovative daytime programming executive. Bolen passed away earlier this year. (IMAGE:  https://www.shrimptoncouture.com/blogs/curate/13077849-fashion-in-film)

Besides her award winning portrayal in Network, Dunaway also appeared in the same season’s Voyage of the Damned, a thrice Oscar nominated entry inspired by the ill-fated Jewish refugees aboard the SS St. Louis as it sailed from Germany to Cuba in 1939. With her Oscar, Dunaway fielded even more offers, starring as a high fashion photographer with psychic gifts in 1978’s suspenseful–if grisly–The Eyes of Laura Mars. The controversial flick turned a tidy profit, and Dunaway segued to Franco Zeffirelli’s lavishly promoted retelling of 1931’s The Champ, the classic weepie for which Wallace Beery won an Oscar [1]. The 1979 update starred Jon Voight, right on the heels of winning an Oscar for Coming Home, and child actor Rick Schroder–billed as Ricky Schroder–in the role made famous by Jackie Cooper. Dunaway had the thankless role of Voight’s ex-wife, but no matter. Audiences bawled their eyes out during the teary finale. And Schroder melted hearts, earned a Golden Globe for Best Debut Performance (along with other tributes), and launched a career of remarkable longevity, including such popular TV shows as Silver Spoons and NYPD Blue, minus the oft typical hazards that occur when child stars are no longer adorable–and easily marketable.

During those years, Dunaway worked as industriously in TV projects as she did in films–not to mention the big screen roles she declined. For example, her TV portrayals included such high profile offerings as Wallis Simpson, aka the Duchess of Windsor (The Woman I Love, 1972), Sister Aimee Simple McPherson (The Disappearance of Aimee, 1976), Eva Peron (Evita Peron, 1981), and a production of Arthur Miller’s After the Fall.  During that prolific period, Dunaway, for whatever reasons, passed on such biggies as 1975’s The Wind and the Lion (the Candice Bergen character, loosely based on an early 20th century international kidnapping crisis), Julia, in the role that ultimately won 1977’s Best Supporting Actress honors for Vanessa Redgrave (so strong is the latter as the elusive title figure, it’s hard to imagine Dunaway in the part),  and Norma Rae (1979), which famously catapulted Sally Field to big screen stardom–after thriving in television for years–and paved the way to Oscar number 1. Coincidentally, Jane Fonda, with whom Dunaway would have played opposite in Julia, also turned down Norma Rae–as did, per Wiley and Bona, Jill Clayburgh. But I digress.

Faye Dunaway absolutely should have portrayed Thomas Tryon’s screen siren, Fedora, an actress trapped by her own beauty, her own allure, and her own legend, as much a burden for her as it is her loved ones. Onscreen, the character is an immortal, a goddess; off-screen, she’s a wreck, increasingly paranoid and seemingly self-destructive.  As no less than Hollywood royalty Joan Crawford once famously opined, Dunaway was the only screen actress of her generation that–at least in Crawford’s eyes–had the makings of a true movie star. And why not? With her penetrating gaze, model-rrific cheekbones, and clotheshorse bod, Dunaway makes a ravishing camera subject, whether icy and remote or sultry and exotic. Plus, as she demonstrated in both Chinatown and Network, she has a fiercely intelligent and indelible talent. Also comparable to Tryon’s creation, she has long had a knack for generating controversy, specifically dividing co-workers on just about any given set [2]. I’m not sure how seriously Dunaway was ever considered for Fedora, really. Director Billy Wilder definitely had her in mind when he began the project. I also seem to remember an item about it, per one of the syndicated gossip columnists of the times, such as Rona Barrett, Joyce Haber, Dorothy Manners, maybe Rex Reed, or Liz Smith–among a few others.

All of which brings me to Mommie Dearest, speaking of Joan Crawford. At truly the peak of her fame, Dunaway nabbed the role of real-life “Hollywood Royalty,” Miss Crawford, in what looked to be a sure-fire hit.  Published not too long after Crawford’s passing, Mommie Dearest recounted the turbulent relationship between the actress and her adopted daughter Christina–as seen from Christina’s perspective.  The book broke ground in that it was the first of a long-line of “tell all” accounts by children of Hollywood notables, most of whom come off as lousy parents. If such books are to be believed. The Joan Crawford depicted in Christina’s take is a fright, a bully prone to outrageous drunken sprees in the middle of the night, railing against any perceived infraction against her tightly-controlled, picture-perfect, movie star worthy environment. The highlights, or lowlights, if you will, include a prolonged sequence in which young Christina is forced to eat a disgustingly rare piece of meat, a contest of wills that lasts for days. Another episode details Joan’s horror at discovering her daughter has hung an expensive frock on a wire hanger–as opposed to wooden and/or padded–and becomes violently enraged. On and on it goes. Joan’s final slap comes when she makes no provision for Christina in her will. Christina responded in kind by serving Joan’s head on a platter, memoir style, to a public eager to devour every page.

With Dunaway, already known as a Crawford fave (albeit in an entirely different context), eager and available, what could go wrong?

When the movie version of Mommie Dearest premiered in the fall of 1981, critics and audiences didn’t quite know how to respond. Like me, for starters. I read Christina’s book, hot off the press in ’78, and found it especially harrowing. I saw the movie during opening weekend at the old Highland Park Village theater and couldn’t reconcile what unfolded onscreen. Passages in the book that made me squirm in discomfort, fearful for young Christina’s safety and shocked by Joan’s apparent cruelty to a child, played much differently: absurdly comical with Dunaway going full throttle with heightened emotion, sometimes 0-100 in a matter of seconds. The knockdown dragout brawls between Joan and Christina (played as a child by Mara Hobel and as a young adult by Diana Scarwid) are staged so awkwardly, clumsily, as to be, well, laughable. What could have been an insightful, eye-opening account of child abuse devolved into mere camp.

Let’s be frank here. Mommie Dearest is not a great film, but it’s compulsively watchable not unlike, well, say, a train wreck. You know how it is when you just can’t look away even though you squirm the whole time and want to vomit, you know, because you’re as excited by the sheer bloody spectacle as you are repulsed. Even so, what makes Mommie Dearest so damn watchable is Dunaway’s commitment to bringing Crawford back to life.  To be clear, I do not mean to suggest that Dunaway’s performance is so bad that it’s actually good, a guilty pleasure if you will. Instead, I think it’s a masterful performance by a courageous actress in a film that as often as not works against its star player. How can that be?

The key to watching Mommie Dearest and savoring every minute detail in Dunaway’s performance is to focus on the face. No, this is not to say that Dunaway looks astonishingly like the real Crawford, because she doesn’t, even though many critics and fans certainly believe so. Okay, maybe more in some sequences than in others. No matter. Crawford, especially in the 1930s, the era of Grand Hotel and The Women, possessed (per one of her own titles) one of the most ravishing faces in the history of movies. It might not have been perfectly symmetrical, but it was perfect nonetheless, what with Joan’s doe-eyes, regal forehead, and bold slash of a mouth; however, as the 30s faded, and Joan had to reinvent herself to stay relevant–which she did–the face became more like a mask, starting with the exaggerated almost too-easy-to-mock  thick dark eyebrows and severe hairdos. And the ever increasingly absurdity of the drawn-on lips. Even so, was she ever more beautiful than she was in Humoresque, released a year after Oscar winner Mildred Pierce?

Back to Dunaway. In preparing to play Crawford, Dunaway learned after much practice how to compose her face muscles to replicate Crawford’s unmistakably haughty bearing, the mask of protection, to blot out, yes, the shitty life of poverty, despair, and likely abuse that shaped her into a driven, ambitious workaholic for whom nothing less than perfection was acceptable. All of that is in Dunaway’s face, scene after scene, especially the quiet ones, such as the moment when Crawford goes for her morning run with trusty assistant, Carol Ann (the great Rutanya Alda), driving along beside her among the winding roads of Brentwood. Crawford, never mind her adopted children, is her own greatest creation, and her every move, every deed, from exercising to cleaning house, must be punishing in order to hold value and act as a reminder she must never stop fighting to escape the past. For her, everything is business. Even having fun is business.

But a mask is still a mask. As Crawford, Dunaway’s face is rigid, impenetrable, but the eyes are alert–and plotting, plotting, plotting. Plus, again, Crawford, no matter what else she is, is an actress, always performing. Forget the tantrums, the hysteria over wire hangers, Dunaway’s Crawford is at her most cruel when she’s perfectly calm, resting on a swanky chaise lounge while delicately applying cream to her elbows and coolly taunting Christina for playing a childish game that she (Crawford) sees as a betrayal.

Dunaway doesn’t look too much like Joan Crawford in this still from Mommie Dearest though in some sequences she serves a more convincing illusion. This over-sized chaise, btw, is a magnificent piece of furniture and probably my favorite such item in any film. Ever. I can imagine living in it for a lazy weekend. That noted, for all the luxe furnishings in the film’s first  half, mostly Crawford’s lavish, impeccably furnished two storey Brentwood estate, and some of legendary designer Irene Sharaff’s contributions, the latter  portions appear  to have been  shot on a shoestring with sets that clearly look like sets, some likely recycled from  old TV shows. (IMAGE: https://ironingboardcollective.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/425-dunaway-mommie-dearest-0606081.jpg)

Another intriguing scene, which Dunaway plays expertly, begins in Crawford’s basement laundry room. Daughter Christina, by now a teen, is home from her fancy private school, going about the business of washing clothes. Then, Crawford descends, registering shame as she solemnly breaks the news to her daughter that money is tight, so “cutting-back” is the new order. This means that Joan has enrolled her daughter in a work-study program, thereby allowing her to continue at boarding school. This quiet exchange between mother and daughter plays touchingly as both Christina and Joan try to shrug the recent turn as a mere minor setback; after all, Joan toiled in a similar program when she was a girl–which we know to be true, actually. With Crawford ever the worker-bee, Dunaway plays much of the scene folding laundry.  Director Frank Perry, in one of his smart moves, thrusts the camera right into Dunaway’s face as she reveals how frightened she is at the thought of being cut loose, yet again, from a Hollywood studio contract–after her triumphant comeback with Oscar winner Mildred Pierce at Warners, once she and MGM parted ways–in another tautly played scene–in light of her being labelled “box office poison” by theatre owners [3].

Of course, by this point, we’ve just seen Crawford dripping in jewelry, throwing back cocktails, and explaining how she had to let go the housekeeper. So how can she afford all that jewelry? Everything comes together in the scene that follows the laundry encounter when Christina walks into Joan’s dressing room and finds her mother, passed-out drunk, surrounded by newly delivered shoe boxes, hat boxes and more–all freshly purchased; this, in spite of all the anguish over no longer earning a steady paycheck. Chilling stuff.

Mommie Dearest‘s reputation as a campy howler stems from a few ineptly staged scenes in which Dunaway comes across as frighteningly unhinged. No denying she goes over the top–way, way, over the top. One such offender is the infamous “No wire hangers” meltdown, which culminates with Crawford dragging her daughter into the bathroom and attacking her mercilessly with a can of Old Dutch cleanser–yep, it’s as bad as it sounds–with Dunaway freakishly ghoul-like thanks to a heavy layer of white face cream. Why add that ostentatious element to an already shocking scene? The last straw is a knockdown brawl between Crawford and teenage Christina that results in overturned furniture and Crawford choking the child until Carol Ann and a visitor intervene. It’s an ugly scene, and based on an actual incident. But the fault isn’t Dunaway’s.  As unfortunate as these missteps are, she never comes across as “hammy,” of over-acting like a rank amateur. Instead, she is frighteningly real, caught up in the moment, having tapped into some deep-rooted rage that must be unleashed. I get that.

No, much of the fault lies with the director, the late Frank Perry. Hear me out. Contrary to lore, Faye Dunaway has actually addressed the making of Mommie Dearest in multiple forums, such as her own book, in which she devotes a whole chapter to the movie, and an episode of Inside the Actors Studio w/James Lipton. Even so, the so-called talk is that she refuses to discuss the film. Not so. The essence of Dunaway’s account is that she was so consumed by the enormity and the complexity of the character, that is, Joan Crawford, that she kind of got lost in the process, and that a stronger director would have worked harder to rein her in a bit, to tell her when she’d gone too far–such as the scene in which Crawford goes ballistic and savagely cuts Christina’s hair–and help her modulate or shape the performance. To clarify, if the script dictates that Crawford take out her frustration by whacking her daughter’s hair, or choking her, then that is what it is. What Dunaway needed was someone to coach her so that Crawford’s reaction was believable. Instead, as noted, Dunaway often goes from 0 to 100 in a matter of seconds, and the effect is bizarrely comical when it should be heartbreaking.

Is Dunaway being too easy on herself and too hard on a director who is unable to defend himself? After all, Perry died in 1995–just as Dunaway published her book. Maybe Perry tried but never got through to his star. Perhaps. Even so, I’m inclined to agree with Dunaway based on some of the awkward staging and general ineptitude throughout the flick’s entirety.  Much of the time, the director seems to fail his star. What was Perry doing when he was supposed to be in charge of the set?  After all, what’s up with those shots, more than one, in which the camera fixates on teenage Christina’s white underpants? It demeans actress Diana Scarwid and robs the character of her dignity–on top of the abuse she suffers at her mother’s hands.

This is not to say that Perry fails time after time, but he seems to struggle with the bigger, emotionally elevated sequences. It’s in those instances, such as a blowout between Joan and her steady, Greg (played stiffly by Steve Forrest [4]), that everything goes haywire: not just acting, and not just Dunaway, but also staging and editing.  Perry lets the “big” scenes get away from him, but Dunaway suffers all the blame.

That noted, one scene in the last half of the movie plays extraordinarily well, demonstrating how sharp the rest of the film could have been if Perry had exercised just a little more diligence, a little more care. To backtrack, in the mid 1950s Crawford met and married Alfred Steele, the dynamic CEO of Pepsi Cola. Was it a marriage of convenience, given the fact that 50ish Crawford no longer had the security of a long-term studio contract and had to hustle for gigs, or was Steele the great love of her life as she often proclaimed? Maybe a bit of both. Nonetheless, Crawford relished her role as Pepsi’s Goodwill Ambassador but when Steele passed away suddenly in 1959, he left his widow with a pile of debt that effectively put Crawford at odds with Pepsi’s board of directors. (Once again, simplified for the sake of the movie.)

In a magnificently tense confrontation between indomitable Crawford and a roomful of hardened Pepsi execs determined to vanquish her, Dunaway takes charge. Seething with contempt, not just for the men across the table but the entirety of the male dominated establishment under which she has long toiled,  Dunaway’s Crawford is cagey, calculating. She’s not there to lose her cool though. If Pepsi wants a fight, she’ll fight–but not without a warning that she’s nobody’s pushover. The emotional ante builds and builds until there’s no holding back, and the eruption comes as a needed release. The scene has nothing to do with Crawford’s tumultuous relationship with her daughter, but it’s just about the only time in the movie in which Crawford’s anger is delayed, and the audience can savor every nuance in Dunaway’s tightly wound performance. Plus, again, notice how Perry frames the action: Crawford on one end, smug Pepsi execs on the other, cutting back and forth, bringing the camera closer and closer to Dunaway, looking every bit the well turned-out movie star who knows the value of putting on a “costume” in order to make a statement. The scene’s climax comes as Dunaway’s Crawford bellows at the suits, the fellas, not to “fuck” with her, and then hisses the reminder that I have memorialized as the tag line for this blog.

Again, if only other scenes had been consistently well-modulated. Certainly, with David and Lisa (for which he was Oscar nominated), Diary of a Mad Housewife (both, to clarify, Oscar nominated in multiple categories) and other prestige titles to his credit, Perry was hardly a lightweight, but his efforts on Mommie Dearest are uneven, to say the least, but I don’t think Perry had to pay for Mommie Dearest‘s miscalculations to the degree that Dunaway did. That noted, Perry’s follow-up, 1982’s bloated Monsignor, starring Christopher Reeve (and at least co-produced by Frank Yablans, also of Mommie Dearest, and clearly holding no grudge) tanked–and deservedly so. Still, Perry notched a minor comeback with 1985’s smart and sassy mystery-comedy Compromising Positions, toplined by Susan Sarandon in a cast that also included Judith Ivey, Raul Julia, Edward Herrmann, Anne De Salvo and a few others. It was the light success that Perry needed.

It took Dunaway a bit longer to recover, and that’s unfortunate, but not uncommon in an industry which measures success and failure differently for women than for men. It’s fair to say that the offers of quality material for Dunaway dwindled in the aftermath, which is not to say that she wasn’t offered variations of Mommie Dearest that would have relied on camp appeal. At the same time, Dunaway is at least partially responsible for the downturn, as she made a conscious choice to be less visible among Hollywood’s deal makers by moving to England to be with her husband (photographer Terry O’Neill) and begin raising a family, working only selectively–notably a couple of Agatha Christie adaptations. The feature films she actually completed during that era were mostly duds.

The rebound came with 1987’s Barfly, a low budget offering, surprisingly via exploitation masters Cannon Films, co-starring Mickey Rourke, penned by no less than renegade pulpy poet Charles Bukowski [5] (with Francis Ford Coppola earning a producer’s credit). Dunaway’s boozy hardluck case warranted a shout-out from Premiere, then in its infancy, as the comeback of the year. No Oscar nod, alas, but the Hollywood Foreign Press came through with a Golden Globe nomination–in a most competitive season. In the years that followed, Dunaway, well into her 40s by that point, worked pretty steadily, earning a Cable ACE nomination for Cold Sassy Tree (a project she developed) and an Emmy for an installment of the Columbo series, among other nominations and/or awards. She even made a cameo appearance in 1999’s reboot of The Thomas Crown Affair starring Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo.

So, what about Oscar consideration for Dunaway in Mommie Dearest? In spite of the film’s controversy, Dunaway eked out runner-up status in the tallies for awards from the National Society of Film Critics (with Pauline Kael, rhapsodic about Dunaway in print, rallying votes) and the New York Film Critics Circle; however, the Academy looked elsewhere for honorees. What about that? Here’s what. Do I think Dunaway deserved an Oscar nomination for Mommie Dearest? Yes, though I probably was less convinced at the time; nonetheless, I certainly would not have been surprised if the nod had materialized, all things considered. I definitely remember feeling that way at the time. There were three sure-things that year, no questions asked: Katherine Hepburn (On Golden Pond, the victor [6] ), Diane Keaton (Reds, the most nominated flick in more than a decade), and Meryl Streep (The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Streep’s first starring vehicle, in double roles no less, since winning supporting honors for Kramer vs. Kramer).  Next, Susan Sarandon in Atlantic City. Good for her. I loved Atlantic City, and I loved Sarandon in it. I was glad to see her land in the big leagues after appreciating her work in the likes of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and King of the Gypsies (a seriously under-valued performance). Famously, Paramount, Atlantic City‘s distributor, had positioned Sarandon as a supporting hopeful, but the Academy saw otherwise, and, again, good for Sarandon.

The fifth nominee is the one that has always struck me as anti-climactic. That would be Marsha Mason in Only When I Laugh, her fourth and–so far–final nod. Her first came with 1973’s Cinderella Liberty when she was a relative newcomer whose breakthrough season included not only her nominated flick but also critical fave Blume in Love. Mason’s next two nods were for films penned by her then husband, popular playwright Neil Simon (who passed away while I was writing this piece): The Goodbye Girl (1978) and the semi-autobiographical Chapter Two, playing her own fictional counterpart opposite James Caan (with whom she’d co-starred in Cinderella Liberty).  Only When I Laugh was another Simon collaboration. C’mon, three Oscar nominations for movies penned by her husband in less than 5 years? Really? This is not to say Mason isn’t worth watching–though I only have faint memories of seeing Only When I Laugh when it first appeared on cable–but somehow the nod just seemed rote, uninspired. Plus, the nod smacks of, what, cronyism [7]. That noted, Only When I Laugh was a hit, and the wealth was spread around as supporting players Joan Hackett and James Coco also earned Academy nods. Indeed, Hackett even won the Golden Globe in her category. (< The respected actress passed away in 1983, barely more than a year after her sole Oscar nomination.)

Mason was the safe choice, and I guess there’s nothing wrong with that, necessarily, but I’ve long thought that her slot would have, could have, and should have been better served by the inclusion of either Jessica Lange in The Postman Always Rings Twice, or, yes, Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest. Now, that would’ve been a race like no other.

Yes, Mommie Dearest is stupefyingly, howlingly, berserk (another Crawford title) at times, but that’s largely the director’s fault, and, sure, it’s hardly typical Academy fare (certainly not at that point in Hollywood’s timeline). Yes, Dunaway’s instincts sometimes veer to outlandish extremes but the good outweighs the bad. Upon close inspection, those moments are relatively fleeting and certainly do not represent the entirety of Dunaway’s efforts in Mommie Dearest, which are otherwise masterful, impassioned, and committed.

Thanks for your consideration.

[1] Beery actually tied with Frederic March (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) for that year’s Best Actor award.

[2] Without going into a lot of detail, let me add that reports of Dunaway’s–alleged–conduct have always made good copy. She feuded with Chinatown director Roman Polanski though he also professed quite a row with top-billed Jack Nicholson, yet, unsurprisingly, that outburst was later laughed off as just guys being guys. Double-standard much? Meanwhile, consider that in her self-published account of filming Mommie Dearest, actress Rutanya Alda (as Carol Ann, Joan Crawford’s star-struck fan turned personal assistant), describes a production fraught with delays thanks to its temperamental star. Alda also points the finger at interference from Terry O’Neil, Dunaway’s then boyfriend (and soon husband), a famous photographer in his own right who snagged an executive producer’s credit on the film. In her book, Dunaway writes that O’Neill made her feel protected during a demanding project with a director who was clearly in over his head. Still again, on the DVD commentary, producer Frank Yablans hails Dunaway as mostly pleasant and professional, save for a misstep on the first day of shooting. Who knows the truth at this point, except to say that even though Alda spares Dunaway almost nothing in her book, she nonetheless praises the star’s performance, effusively, in the finished film, per the DVD featurette.

[3] Crawford’s departure from MGM was reportedly more mutual than the cold dismissal depicted in the film though props to Howard Da Silva for slyly seizing the moment as MGM boss Louie B. Mayer.

[4] Forrest’s character, Greg Savitt, stands-in for multiple men in Crawford’s life, particularly show-biz lawyer Greg Bautzer, whose relationship with Crawford was reported to be quite volatile. Bautzer was still alive in the early 80s, so not using his real name might have been a move to avoid legal complications.

[5] Paraphrase from 2005 New Yorker article by Adam Kirsch quoted in  Wikipedia entry on Bukowski:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Bukowski#cite_note-9

[6] Hepburn’s 12th nod, a record at the time, and her fourth win, a feat still unmatched by any performer, that is, any performer, male or female, in any category, leading or supporting.

[7] Tellingly, Mason’s profile, that is, her marketability, slipped almost the instant she and Simon split in 1983. Yes, she recovered but certainly not with the same luster as in the Simon years.

Works Cited

Alda, Rutanya. The Mommie Dearest Diaries: Carol Ann Tells All. Ed. Jeremy Bright. Self-Published, 2013. Updated in 2015.

Dunaway, Faye, and  Besty Sharkey. Looking for Gatsby: My Life. Simon and Schuster, 1995.

Peary, Danny. Alternate Oscars: One Critic’s Defiant Choices for Best Picture, Actor, and Actress–From 1927 to the Present. Delta, 1993, pp. 233-234.

Thomas, Bob. Joan Crawford: A Biography. Simon and Schuster, 1978.

^ Note: I read Christina Crawford’s Mommie Dearest when she first published it in 1978; however, I long ago lost track of my copy. I remember giving, yes, giving, it to a friend who passed away years ago. At any rate, Thomas’s book, also published in 1978, of which I read excerpts at the time, and now own, corroborates at least some of Christina’s details about growing up in the Crawford household in the 1940s and 1950s, besides providing key details about the overall Crawford trajectory.

Wiley, Mason and Damien Bona. Inside Oscar: The Unofficial History of the Academy Awards, 10th Anniversary Edition. Ed. Gail MacColl. Ballantine Books, 1996. pp. 569; 599-606.