Archive | August, 2011

“Bad Timing,” or “Toby, Tell Me Tru”

29 Aug

The one and only, the original Tiny Terror: Truman Capote

At the 2005/2006 Oscars, Philip Seymour Hoffman won Best Actor for playing writer Truman Capote in the biopic, Capote. More specifically, Hoffman won for playing the famously flamboyant author (pictured to the left) during the years in which he wrote his 1966 masterpiece  In Cold Blood, a novelized account of the 1959 senseless killing of a Kansas farm family, the subsequent hunt for the perpetrators, the ensuing trial, and the ultimate punishment: death by hanging.  Capote not only met the two killers, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, in the course of his research, he reportedly befriended them, more so Smith than Hickock. Writing In Cold Blood took a considerable toll on Capote,  and he never completed another book in his life.  His story is fascinating, and, arguably, quite tragic. When Hoffman won his Oscar, he had long been a favorite of the critics, either for his standout work as a supporting player in high-profile features (Boogie Nights, Patch Adams, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Red Dragon), or as a leading man in below-the radar indie flicks (Flawless, Owning Mahowny, Love Liza). Despite years of acclaim, Hoffman had never been nominated for an Oscar prior to Capote, and the Academy responded favorably to the change-of-pace role in the prestigious offering, a project that was tailor made for him. The screenplay is based on the book by Gerald Clarke, and it was adapted with Hoffman in mind by actor-writer Dan Futterman; it was directed by Bennett Miller, another longtime Hoffman pal.  Capote was a relative box office hit, and Hoffman’s Academy Award, for which he competed against Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain, was a virtual certainty; however, most moviegoers probably do not realize that, per the New York Times, at the same time Hoffman and company were filming Capote in Canada in 2004, another feature covering the same period in Truman Capote’s life was being shot in Texas. Apparently, nobody films in Kansas anymore.

The “other” Capote film is entitled Infamous, and it stars a British actor by the name of Toby Jones as the colorful author. Prior to portraying Capote, Jones was arguably best known in this country for providing the voice of Dobby the House Elf in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002). Infamous was adapted from George Plimpton’s book, Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career (1997). The film was written and directed by Midland’s own Douglas McGrath, the director of acclaimed adaptations of Jane Austen’s Emma (1996), and Charles Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby (2002); he was also Oscar nominated for co-writing Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway (1994). Unfortunately, Infamous was not released until 2006 in order to avoid competing with the other author biopic. As such, it was hard for Jones and company to get any traction in the awards arena in light of Hoffman’s success. Nonetheless, my belief is that if Jones’s film had appeared on the scene before Hoffman’s did, the outcome of the Oscars would have been much different. I feel certain that Jones would have at least been nominated, and Hoffman might still be an Oscar hopeful rather than an Oscar winner.

Allow me to be perfectly frank: while I readily expected Hoffman to win the Oscar that year, he was in no way my personal pick. If I had been voting, I would have gone for Joaquin Phoenix’s incredible performance as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line. Among the official nominees, my second choice would have been David Strathairn as Edward R. Murrow in Good Night and Good Luck; otherwise, I was also a great fan of Eric Bana’s taut, un-nominated performance in Best Picture contender, Munich as well as Nicolas Cage’s under-appreciated work in The Weatherman and/or Ralph Fiennes in The Constant Gardener. For my money, Hoffman’s performance was too actorish and/or affected. I always felt like I was watching him putting on a show rather than inhabiting a role. Worse, and this is why Hoffman’s performances so often fail to impress this viewer, I just couldn’t escape the feeling that he was somehow judging his character.  My take has always been that Hoffman acts strictly from the head, and that he somehow believes he is better or smarter than the people he portrays. Coincidentally, this particular trait is often something about which Capote was accused regarding his own characters. Anyway, it was hard for me to feel anything for Capote as depicted by Hoffman.

British actor Toby Jones in Infamous

Toby Jones at least has the advantage of being more physically correct for the part of Truman Capote than is Hoffman. Of course, both actors have blondish hair, blue eyes, and bear a passable resemblance to the real Capote in close-ups, but Jones comes much closer to matching Truman Capote in the crucial area of height. Now, let me just state right here that I do not in any way think that Hoffman’s height should have been held against him as far as the Oscar goes; however, I also think it is important to understand that Truman Capote was not known as the “Tiny Terror” because he stood 5′ 9½” (which is Hoffman’s height, per the Internet Movie Database). No, Capote’s height–also per the IMDb–was a mere 5’3″; Jones’s height is officially recorded as 5’5″, which is still two inches taller than the real deal, but, believe me, he photographs–not only in this role, but almost everything in which I’ve seen him–as much, much smaller. There, I said it. If Toby Jones is 5’5″, I’m Julie Newmar. What is important is not so much that Jones is closer to Capote’s height than Hoffman is, but that Jones’ performance is rooted in Capote’s particular reality, that is, that Tru’s diminutive stature actually informed who he was as a person. In other words, he spent a lot of his life developing a scrappiness, and towering personality, to help compensate for what he lacked in heft. At the same time, he could just as easily use his shortness as a means of drawing attention to himself. Just think about all those times you saw Truman Capote on TV back in the 60s and 70s (maybe later…he died in 1984 at the age of 59). All that chutzpah is in Jones’s performance.

Beyond that particular consideration, there is the matter of the voice. In Infamous, “Gore Vidal” (meticulously played by Michael Payne) describes Capote’s voice, thusly: “To the lucky person who has never heard it, I can only say: imagine what a brussel sprout would sound like, if a brussel sprout could talk.” If that doesn’t work as a description for you, then try this. How about a lisping baby voice with a Southern drawl? Or maybe the love child of Donald Duck and Daffy Duck. Good enough?  Whatever is it is or was, it was uniquely Capote’s, and a voice one seldom hears in a grown man, and Jones pretty much nails it. Hoffman’s Capote voice had the effect of a stunt: it was inconsistent and the strain was apparent.  The voice that pours out of Jones seems organic. Of course, being a less familiar actor, he has a certain advantage of of having a less recognizable voice–but even I wasn’t prepared for the incredible difference between Jones’s actual voice and the one he uses in Infamous. (Please play the following clip from Hollywood One on One; btw, that should be Toby Jones, not Toby Keith–the famous country & western singer, lol.)

Of course, being able to replicate the voice–of anyone–could just as easily be the mark of a great impersonation rather than well rounded flesh and blood portrayal. Indeed, those in the pro-Hoffman camp insist that Jones’s performance works best as an impersonation, a party trick, and that Hoffman comes much closer to fully capturing Capote as both a man and a great  artist. I’m in the camp that sees the situation as nearly opposite.  Once again, I think everything Jones does seems to show exactly in what context Capote was received when he left his glittery New York social circle and plopped down in Holcomb, Kansas shortly after the November 1959 murders before any arrests had been made. At that time, the provincial community had just been rocked by a heinous crime, and neither the police nor the townspeople had any idea who the killer–or killers–might have been; therefore, they were quite likely to be reluctant, to say the least, to let down their guards and speak candidly to a strange little writer from New York City with a peculiar voice and an unorthodox flair for fashion. Through Jones’s scrupulous service to the material, McGrath is able to fully show what Capote was up against, in addition to how his determination and use of humor to disarm skeptics proved invaluable. After all, as the film initially demonstrates, Capote already had a knack for persuading his many socialite friends to open up and reveal their deepest secrets, thereby providing him endless sources of gossip. One of my favorite scenes in Infamous, rooted in fact, is a Christmas celebration in which Capote, accompanied by his longtime friend Harper Lee (Sandra Bullock–more on her later), cuts through all that midwestern reserve by dropping names (like Jennifer Jones, Humphrey Bogart, and Frank Sinatra) while spinning a wild yarn about his collection of shawls  and a dental emergency when working on a film in Italy.  Yes, y’all, it’s the real Truman show, all right.  In contrast, Hoffman’s Capote only comes across a tad off-center and even a little self conscious, but don’t take my word for it. Consider this quote from Rex Reed–who actually knew Capote–from the New York Observer: “They gave the Oscar to the wrong Truman Capote. I do not begrudge the versatile, popular Philip Seymour Hoffman his Oscar for playing the tiny terror in Capote, but he was doing an impression. In Infamous, the second movie about the tortures that the literary sensation endured while writing his masterpiece, In Cold Blood, a diminutive actor with a titanic talent named Toby Jones literally becomes the man himself. This is no lisping impersonation learned from watching old Johnny Carson shows: Mr. Jones moves into Truman’s skin, heart and brains. Infamous shows you the man’s soul. It is a monumental achievement of great artistry and depth. In some ways, the movie is better, too.”

Rex Reed writes of Sandra Bullock as Harper Lee: “…next to the shattering and sensitive central performance by Toby Jones, the biggest and most gratifying surprise in Infamous is Ms. Bullock.” He further adds that, “She paints a penetrating portrait of the ultimate loner, sharing so much with her idol while gallantly keeping her own sense and sensibility to herself.”

As fine as he is, Jones isn’t  the sole reason for seeing Infamous. McGrath has assembled a marvelous cast to stand-in for Capote’s famous coterie of friends. For example, Sigourney Weaver is just about perfect as Babe Paley. It’s not a showy role, but Weaver reportedly did her homework and incorporates some of Paley’s mannerisms into her characterization. Not only that, the statuesque Weaver seems an ideal choice to play the eternal and much rhapsodized over fashion plate, a 1958 inductee into the Fashion Hall of Fame; moreover, there is a certain irresistible symmetry in casting Weaver, daughter of  innovative NBC president Pat Weaver, to play the wife of longtime CBS president William S. Paley, n’est-ce pas? Even better is frequent McGrath player Juliet Stevenson as influential fashion editor Diana Vreeland (first at Harper’s Bazaar, then at Vogue).  Stevenson is an absolute howl when she delivers a monologue about how much she detests the word “eccentric,” and she evinces a mighty fine train wreck when dramatically yet awkwardly demonstrating the popular “Twist” dance craze. Perhaps best of all is Sandra Bullock  as Harper Lee, a brilliant author in her own right as well as Capote’s best friend from childhood. Indeed, Capote is well known as the inspiration for the character of Dil in Lee’s Pulitzer winner To Kill a Mockingbird, which is being prepped for publication when the film begins. Bullock’s Lee is, in a word, solid: warm, gracious, down-to-earth, and the ideal candidate to help keep Capote grounded in uncomfortable situations, such as his initial visit to Kansas. Bullock is glammed-down for the role, with a short unfussy “do” and clothes that seem drab compared to the likes of Vreeland and Paley, but she’s still recognizable as good ole Sandy Bullock, so there is relievedly no distracting transformation to sway focus. Furthermore, she wisely underplays this wonderfully written role–always there to tell Truman the truth no matter what–and the result is nothing but charming, seemingly effortlessly so, but it’s charm with substance. This is simply one of the most stunning things Bullock has ever done, and, here again, I say that Bullock’s interpretation of Harper Lee is unquestionably an improvement over the bitter sourpuss presented by Best Supporting Actress nominee Catherine Keener in Capote.  I can’t imagine that that woman could ever write two sentences anyone would want to read, let alone one of the most beloved novels of the 20th century. I also want to give a great big shout-out to Plano native and recent Tony winner John Benjamin Hickey* in the mostly thankless role of Capote’s longtime companion, Jack Dunphy.

The real Perry Smith (l) and Truman Capote (r) as photographed by Richard Avedon for a piece that eventually appeared in Life magazine.

Infamous is not without its shortcomings, the most notable being an obviously miscast Daniel Craig in the crucial role of Perry Smith. The problem is not so much that Craig is famously sandy haired and blue eyed, and that Smith was both dark haired and dark-eyed. Hair dye and colored contacts take care of all that, but Craig’s hair looks like it’s been shoe-polished more than anything else. There is also something wrong with Craig’s hunky hulking presence, the way the mere sight of him overwhelms tiny Truman even though all the evidence pretty well proves that Smith was much closer to Capote’s own diminutive size. On the DVD commentary, McGrath tries to explain away the discrepancy by pointing out that the role was originally to have been played by Mark Wahlberg (who would have been perfect), but a scheduling conflict forced the director to look elsewhere–and that elsewhere was no less than Mark Ruffalo (who also would have been perfect), but that also did not work, so Craig was a rather last minute choice. Well, good for him for coming on board so late in the game (before he was announced as the most recent James Bond). That noted, I do wish McGrath had at least taken a meeting with Giovanni Ribisi before allowing Craig to sign on the dotted line.  Certainly, hiring an actor with Craig’s imposing build provides a menacing touch, which is somewhat effective though misleading to those unfamiliar with the particulars of the case.  For example, in the 1967 adaptation of In Cold Blood, Smith was played by 5’4″ Robert Blake. Furthermore, Smith was played by Clifton Collins Jr. in Capote, and, for better or worse, he seemed more evenly matched with Hoffman. All those misgivings about Craig aside, the actor surely deserves props for being an incredibly game actor and trying hard in a role for which he is entirely unsuited. Interestingly, he was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for his performance in Infamous, which, surprisingly, is an honor that Collins cannot also claim.

I’ll leave it to the various bloggers, scholars, Wikipedians, and even Rex Reed to debate the historical accuracy of both Capote and Infamous. The former seems to take a rather cynical viewpoint, suggesting that Truman Capote was a manipulative bastard whose artistic ambitions got the best of him. Infamous is arguably much more forgiving though it has also been rebuked for taking liberties regarding the specific–intimate–nature of Capote’s relationship with Smith, including at least one ugly, unfortunate encounter. That noted, McGrath’s audio commentary provides a lot of insight into some of the choices he made, detailing his own research and explaining how many of the sequences in the film have at least some factual basis. One such example is the comic effect of seeing Jones’s Capote decked out in jeans and a ridiculous cowboy hat as a means to blend in with the Kansas folk and invite their trust, all of which McGrath insists is quite true. You’ll also have to draw your own conclusions about the opening scene in which Gwyneth Paltrow shows up as a torchy nightclub singer who warbles “What is this Thing Called Love?” When McGrath describes the point he wants to make with the scene, it makes sense, but the work should really speak for itself.

Winning a Best Actor Oscar didn’t catapult Philip Seymour Hoffman into major league stardom. Oh sure, he works regularly, but his most acclaimed performances are mostly in secondary roles, hence his Best Supporting Actor nominations for 2007’s Charlie Wilson’s War and 2008’s Doubt (though in the case of the latter, he could have just as easily been promoted as a leading player). Meanwhile, Jones’s sole honor for his outstanding work in Infamous was to be named British Actor of the Year via the London Critics Circle Film Awards. Definitely an honor. Definitely better than nothing. Likewise, Jones has landed some high profile gigs since Infamous, including playing Irving “Swifty” Lazar in Frost/Nixon and Karl Rove in W. Not bad. He can also be seen in this summer’s super hero pic, Captain America, and will appear in next year’s hot, hot, hot, The Hunger Games (based on the best selling novel series by Suzanne Collins), but why wait when you can watch Infamous now? If you haven’t seen either Capote biopic, start with Infamous. If you have seen only Capote, you owe it to yourself to watch Infamous. If you saw Capote after Hoffman won the Oscar, and you thought, “What the heck was that all about,” then you really need to watch Infamous. Really.

Thanks for your consideration…

For Rex Reed’s full review of Infamous, please click on the link below:

http://www.observer.com/2006/10/that-gal-from-speed-drives-truman-take-2/

To read more about Infamous in the New York Times, please click on the following link:

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/14/movies/14infa.html?ref=douglasmcgrath

To find Earl Steinbicker’s account of assisting Richard Avedon at the time of In Cold Blood, please click on this link:

http://assistingavedon.typepad.com/assisting-avedon/2009/09/in-cold-blood.html

* Hickey won Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured role for the 2011 revival of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart.

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Help!

22 Aug

Left to right: Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Emma Stone, and Bryce Dallas Howard. Btw: how many of you out there know how Howard, daughter of Oscar winning director Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind, 2001), got her name?

Congratulations to director Tate Taylor and the remarkable cast of The Help, the hotter than hot adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s huge, HUGE, best selling novel* about black-white relations in the South, as seen through the eyes of the maids and the women they work for way during the early 1960s. In its second weekend in release, The Help performed a rare trick at the box office by graduating from the number two spot on the charts and landing squarely at the top. That almost never happens because a movie’s opening week ticket sales are typically its strongest. Movies in wide release seldom earn more money in their second week compared to the first. Instead, a drop of about 20-25 % is expected from first week to second, and anything in that range is considered a safe-bet for proving those much pined for “legs.” A drop of over 50% is often considered a disaster. What’s interesting about how The Help performed is that it did show a slight decrease: 26+ million the first weekend  versus 20+ million the second week,  a drop of about 21% (per Box Office Mojo); however, the film also showed an increase in the number of screens on which it was playing (+ 156), so that’s a nifty trick. In contrast, the previous weekend’s number one film Rise of the Planet of the Apes lost 220 screens and took a 41% hit in revenue. Even so, there was plenty of competition over the weekend with the relaunches of franchise efforts, such as Conan the Barbarian and Spy Kids, as well as the Fright Night remake-and the very female friendly One Day starring Ann Hathaway.

Perhaps best of all is just knowing that The Help, made for a relatively modest 25 million, pretty much recouped its initial investment in its first weekend. Of course, distribution and marketing costs are not factored into that budget, nor, presumably, is the fee for purchasing the rights to Stockett’s novel in the first place. Nonetheless, this is pretty much a win-win situation for the makers of the film, and the target audience, which, let’s face it, is primarily women. Of course, every time a summer movie with a strong female following proves successful at the box office, the media goes crazy about how Hollywood has forgotten what a viable demographic we are contrary to all that nonsense about catering to 14 year old boys. Whatever. We got a great big dose of all that at the beginning of the summer when Bridesmaids made money hand-over-fist as well. Don’t expect Hollywood to change anytime soon (not that everyone associated with the enterprise of making movies is corrupt). Successful women’s pictures are often viewed as flukes by industry insiders. After all, the fact that Ann Hathaway’s picture basically tanked over the weekend (a tepid 5 million) will be proof enough to some studio executives that there simply aren’t enough female moviegoers in the 30+ age range to support more than one film at a time. (I saw the Hathway film and enjoyed it though I also think it was badly marketed.) That reasoning will be further bolstered by claims that the Stockett film had a built-in audience due to the book’s staggering success. Furthermore, it was only about a month or so ago I read a report in which an executive at a major studio (which shall remain unnamed) filed a memo to the effect that said studio was no longer in the business of making movies with female characters as leads.  By the way, Bridesmaids is a a Universal picture, and The Help comes from the Disney  and DreamWorks empires, so those are not the culprits.

I enjoyed the movie version of The Help, primarily because I got to see a lot of wonderful actresses go to town with such juicy material. I liked the book well enough–found parts of it problematic–but I was not as sold on it as I know a lot of other readers were. That noted, I don’t regret reading it by any means. At any rate, I’m sure the studio marketing folks are already at work devising an Oscar campaign for The Help‘s talented cast, so let’s consider that for a moment. There are three main characters in the film: Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), a black maid who narrates the story and helps bring the other maids together to tell their own stories in a book proposed by a white writer; Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone), a recent college graduate struggling to make a career as a serious writer, and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), a feisty maid who speaks her mind–and then some. Davis is a two-time Tony winner (most recently Best Actress for the revival of August Wilson’s Fences, co-starring Tony winner Denzel Washington), and a previous Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee for 2008’s Doubt. Fresh from last year’s teen hit, Easy A, Stone is the current “It” girl of Hollywood, thanks to her role in another recent summer hit, Crazy Stupid Love.  My guess is the studio will campaign for both actresses as leads, and position Spencer, in a more comical role, as a supporting player. I can’t imagine all three actresses being promoted as leads; on the other hand, packaging all the players as part of an ensemble, and therefore, all “supporting,” would be a safe alternative. The worst idea would be to promote only one true lead (either Davis or Stone) and label everyone else supporting. Aside from those three principals, the studio then must figure out whether to splurge on any campaigning for the rest of the fine cast, including Bryce Dallas Howard (as the racist vindictive Junior League president), former Oscar winner Sissy Spacek (as Howard’s addled mother), Allison Janney (as Stone’s long suffering mom), and Jessica Chastain (a vulnerable new bride who forms a life altering alliance with Spencer’s Minny; the two actresses make a nice team, btw).  Chastain, who also performed admirably in this years’s Tree of Life, might very well suffer an embarrassment of riches and cancel herself out of the upcoming Oscar race. There is a slim possibility that Emmy winner and one-time Oscar nominee Cicely Tyson, seen in flashbacks as Skeeter’s gone but not forgotten nanny, could eke out a nomination as well. Of course, the Oscars are quite political, and we are only now barely approaching the time of year in which the studios begin releasing the prestige films that usually catch Academy members’ attention, so there is no guarantee that any of these women will be nominated in any category.

New on DVD: The Conspirator, a fascinating look at the trial of Mary Surrant and her alleged involvement in the plot to assassinate President Lincoln. The Conspirator is directed by Oscar winner Robert Redford (Ordinary People, 1980), and it is the first offering from the American Film Company, the mission of which, per is official website, is “Founded on the belief that real life is often more compelling than fiction, The American Film Company produces feature films about incredible, true stories from America’s past. Central to the company’s filmmaking will be prominent historians, assuring that each production remains true to the history from which it is drawn.” The film stars the often under-rated James McAovy and Dallas darling Robin Wright, whose smashing performance as Surrant has to be considered a true Oscar contender, even at this early date.

Thanks for your consideration…

*Released in 2009, the hardback edition is currently number 21 on the Amazon best seller chart while the paperback movie tie-in is currently number 1. The combined print and online editions also put it at number 1 on the New York Times list as well. The book has been on multiple best seller lists for as many as 100 weeks, according to various published reports.

To find out more about box office facts and figures, check out Box Office Mojo.com:

http://www.boxofficemojo.com/

…That Certain Thing Called “The Boy Friend”

15 Aug

Three years after the 1958 musical Gigi won a record breaking 9 out of 9 Oscars, including Best Picture, West Side Story earned a whooping 10 out of 11 including Best Picture as well.

The movie musical was a Hollywood staple throughout the 1930s, the 1940s, and the 1950s; however, by the 1960s, as film historians like to point out, the social upheaval of the times set off a change in the tastes of moviegoers who clamored for the likes of, say, Blow-Up (1966), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Darling (1965), Easy Rider (1969), The Graduate (1967), Midnight Cowboy (1969), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). Suddenly, musicals seemed quaint, or so goes the theory. Certainly, there is ample evidence to suggest that the historians’ claim is solid, which makes it all the more ironic that the 1960s also saw more musicals win the Oscar for Best Picture than in any other decade–four in all–beginning with West Side Story (1961), on through My Fair Lady (1964), The Sound of Music (1965), and Oliver! (1968). Furthermore, these winners were all huge hits. The Sound of Music even soared to the number one spot on the list of Hollywood’s all-time biggest moneymakers, besting longtime champ Gone with the Wind (1939). Additionally, there were other great big musicals that made scads of money, earned good–if not uniformly great–notices, and achieved some level of Oscar recognition, including Mary Poppins (1964), The Music Man (1962), The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964), Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), and Funny Girl (1968). Still again, there is no use in denying that the there were some colossal failures as well: Dr. Dolittle (1967), Sweet Charity (1969), Star! (1968),  and Paint Your Wagon (1969) among them. Meanwhile, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) and Hello Dolly! (1969)  are examples of film musicals that reportedly managed to earn spots among their years’ top earners while still being written off as failures due to their stratospheric costs.  Of course, all of these films doubtless have their admirers and have continued to stay in the public consciousness thanks to repeated viewings on TV and the advent of home video.  I know that Hello Dolly! is a huge personal favorite, a guilty pleasure if you will, and a major Oscar contender, but I digress.

It was into this confusing morass that dauntless British film director Ken Russell released 1971’s The Boy Friend, his frequently brilliant adaptation of Sandy Wilson’s 1950’s stage hit of the same name–but perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s backup: set in the 1920s at a girls’ finishing school on the French Rivieria, Wilson’s show is a parody of musicals from that innocent era before Oklahoma! (1943)–or even Showboat (1927)–in which the plots were barely more than agreeable reed-thin excuses upon which to lavish scores chock-full of hummable tunes along with splashy production numbers featuring leggy chorines in pretty costumes. In this case, the story centers on a lovesick poor little rich girl (Polly Browne),  a messenger boy, a dash or two of subterfuge, a case of mistaken identity, a pair of long lost lovers reunited at last, and a masquerade ball in which all misunderstandings are resolved and everyone lives happily ever after. Wilson’s show was a smash when it opened in England in 1953, and when it transferred to Broadway in ’54, it  provided a significant career boost to Julie Andrews and paved the way just a few short years later for her triumph as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. A 1970 revival starring Judy Carne similarly worked wonders for Texas born Sandy Duncan (in the showy role of Maisie), who not only earned a Tony nomination but also enjoyed a brief run as the “It” girl of television and movies.

Ken Russell's The Boy Friend: newly released on DVD from the Warner Archive Collection

Russell’s version ups the ante by turning Wilson’s original into a show within a show, that is, a movie about a second rate theatrical production unfolding in a dreary English town in which the frequently inept onstage antics are intercut with scenes of backstage conflicts. These desperate, strictly small-time, performers plot to sabotage each other in their bids to catch the attention of a famous movie producer; meanwhile, the Cockney assistant stage manager (60’s supermodel Twiggy in her leading lady debut) finds herself playing the role of Polly after the original star (deliciously tongue-in-cheek Glenda Jackson) suffers a foot injury.  In a 1971 featurette included on the recent DVD release, Russell is described as having three goals in translating the material from stage to screen: “a typical stage musical of the 20s, an affectionate salute to the cinematic musical fantasies of the 1930s, and a takeoff on all the backstage Hollywood musicals of all time.”   Happily, Russell achieves all of that and a bit more. Wilson, of course, provides the means to the first goal, and Russell plays up the stage show aspect by setting much of the action on an actual proscenium stage full of mostly flat cartoon colored sets and props while the actors over-enunciate and mug wildly as they play to the back row. The second end is achieved  when the visiting director (“De Thrill” played by Vladek Shayball) fantasizes about how he would restage the musical numbers for the silver screen, often to deliriously kaleidoscopic Busby Berkeley effect. He’s not alone as at least two other numbers are grandly reconceptualized in the imaginations of their participants. Finally, Russell realizes his idea of a backstage musical with the framing device of the visiting director and the ensuing competition among actors, similar to Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland’s “Let’s put on a show” spectacles, while Twiggy’s unlikely, “You’re going out there as an understudy, but you’re coming back as a star” routine echos the likes of  Ruby Keeler in 42nd Street. Finally, the backstage drama is given a meta-kick by the inclusion of a love story in which Twiggy’s character–also named Polly–nurses a crush on her male co-star, played by actor-choreographer Christopher Gable.

The musical numbers in The Boyfriend are boffo; they never fail to excite me. If I could only list one favorite, it would have to be “I Could Be Happy with You,” a duet between Twiggy and Gable. The bit begins as a simple tap dance with accompaniment provided by a windup record player, and then it morphs into something much more thrilling in which the pair  twirl and glide across a giant record as it spins atop an equally giant turntable, Twiggy’s white chiffon contrasting with the disc’s shiny black surface. If that weren’t improbable enough, the two are then joined by a few dozen chorus girls wearing Art Deco metallic outfits with fan-like headpieces. An elaborate tap routine follows with intricate choreography and overhead photography. The scale of another rousing show stopper, “Safety in Numbers” simply has to be seen to be believed. No spoilers. Two other numbers highlight the dark side of Russell’s vision although they both serve up a few laughs in the process. In  the energetic “Won’t You Charleston with Me?”  scheming Antonia Ellis (as Maisie) furiously attempts to upstage her more than capable partner, Texas titan, Tommy Tune. Slow to catch on, Tune eventually snaps into action, giving as good as he gets. Similarly, in “It’s Never Too Late to Fall in Love,” knockout Caryl Little bumps and grinds her way all across the stage, leaving her partner (Max Adrian) flailing in a prop wheelchair.  As songs, both “Won’t You Charleston with Me?” and “It’s Never Too Late to Fall in Love” are catchy in their own right, but they are certainly given greater dimension when their light heartedness is underscored by the manipulations of the actors, and Russell does not back away from revealing the the desperation in their faces. These characters are so worn out by their bleak, small-time gig that they would rather take a risk and seize the day–even if it means failing or ruining the same chances for their fellow players–than make nice and share the spotlight. This tension is what gives the numbers their kick, so to speak.

"Now Twiggy, listen to me: you're going out there an iconic 1960s supermodel, but you're coming back a two-time Golden Globe winning movie star!"

In a year which also saw Best Actress winner Jane Fonda in Klute, as well as such nominees as Julie Christie in McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and Vanessa Redgrave in Mary, Queen of Scots, or even iconic Ruth Gordon in Harold and Maude, it would be hard to make a case that Twiggy was somehow denied an Oscar, or even a nomination, for her performance for The Boy Friend, so I won’t; however, she did win the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Actress-Musical or Comedy, besting Gordon and Sandy Duncan (Neil Simon’s Star Spangled Girl) in the process. She also won a Globe for Most Promising Newcomer.  Twiggy’s performance is utterly delightful–better than what the prejudice against models-turned-actresses would suggest, especially if said model-actresses are required to sing in their film debuts. Twiggy’s singing voice is sweet and clear. Sure, her delivery is tentative, but that quality actually works in her favor since her character is not a polished performer but rather a shy, wide eyed innocent thrust into a situation for which she is entirely unprepared. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the camera loves her. One of the most most charming things I think I’ve ever seen in a movie happens early on when she launches into the title tune while swaying to and fro in a rose covered swing. She also becomes radiantly alive when she’s backstage nursing her crush and singing old fashioned ditties, such as “You Are My Lucky Star” and “All I Do is Dream of You” to herself. For these interludes to work, Twiggy need not be a polished song stylist, she need only be emotionally honest and unaffected.

The Boy Friend was nominated for exactly one Academy Award: Best Music, Scoring Adaptation and Original Song Score for the team of Peter Maxwell Davies and Peter Greenwall. Okay, fine, but what about the exquisite costumes by Shirley Russell (Mrs. Ken Russell at the time) and the magnificent production design by Tony Walton? Do I think it would have been grand for Ken Russell to have been Oscar nominated for this ambitious film? Absolutely. Is it a crime that he wasn’t?  Maybe. After all, he was named the year’s Best Director by the National Board of Review. He was also nominated by the Writers Guild for his screenplay. On the other hand, for members of the Academy to overlook Shirley Russell and Walton is maddening. Of course, Mrs. Russell has a wonderful mannequin in Twiggy, and she knows how to move beautifully in order to show the various gowns to their best effect, but of course, Twiggy is not the whole show. There are scads of fantasy costumes, and even some of the more low-key offerings are not without a witty detail or two, such as a black and white pullover sweater that features a martini glass, complete with an olive. Of course, both designers work in two realms: the obvious limitations of stage, and the unlimited luxury of surging imagination. Besides that giant record player, there’s a nifty bit in which an army of dancers appears to hover in front of an American flag, a feat achieved by a cleverly painted set of risers. Another choice bit of scenic design is the “Poor Little Pierette” sequence in which shades of blue, silver, black, and white work together to evoke a picture-perfect twinkly nighttime setting. Of course, credit for the film’s look also extends to cinematographer David Watkin.

In the DVD “making of” featurette, production designer Tony Walton describes how he was inspired to create the look of the “Poor Little Pierette” number by a collage made of “fabrics, and acetate, and paint, and silver paper” he found in a Portobello antique shop.

The Boy Friend was hardly a box office sensation when it was released. My guess is that moviegoers flocking to the likes of The French Connection (the 1971 Best Picture winner) and the X-rated A Clockwork Orange (a Best Picture nominee)–or even Russell’s own The Devils–simply couldn’t relate to a movie about an ingenue who gets a showbiz break and dances on a giant record. A tad too corny to be taken seriously, as it were; likewise, older audiences–and that includes Academy members–who grew up on easy-breezy family friendly musicals might have taken offense at Russell’s post-Modernistic sensibility as though he were making a mockery of the musical-comedy genre, and, by extension, the people who love them. After all, wasn’t Russell being a little nervy when he cast a leading lady with little or no acting experience and a voice far removed from the likes of songbirds such as Julie Andrews and Barbra Streisand?  Actually, my take is that the skill and artistry so apparent in The Boy Friend show Russell’s enormous affection for musicals as well as a desire to make them relevant to the era’s hip young crowd.  In contrast, in the same year, United Artists enjoyed great success with the big screen version of Broadway’s then longest running hit, Fiddler on the Roof: robust ticket sales, eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director (Norman Jewison), and three wins–among them Best Cinematography (Oswald Morris) and Best Music, Scoring Adaptation and Original Song Score (John Williams). Of course, it is also easy to argue that Fiddler‘s success can be attributed to its more literal approach, moreover, the tale of Russian-Jewish peasants features a dramatic undercurrent that appears organic as opposed to the obvious contrivances in Russell’s  film. Also, as Fiddler was still playing on Broadway, it had undeniable built-in audience appeal. Even so, the following year director Bob Fosse’s widely heralded cinematic reworking of Cabaret  fared much better than The Boy Friend, earning a total of eight Oscars, including Best Director, Best Actress (Liza Minnelli), and Best Supporting Actor (Joel Grey); the movie was nominated for a total of ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Its eight wins still hold the record for the most Oscars awarded to a movie that did not also claim Best Picture (which went to The Godfather). What’s significant about Fosse’s Cabaret in comparison to Russell’s The Boy Friend is that Fosse similarly rethinks much of the original material such that with one exception all the musical numbers are relegated to the stage of Berlin’s seedy Kit Kat Klub, generally providing commentary–ironic or otherwise–on the action occurring outside the club. Furthermore, 2002’s highly successful, Oscar grabbing big screen transfer of Chicago is conceptually similar to both The Boy Friend and Cabaret in that the musical numbers spring from the imaginations of the characters, specifically showbiz wannabe Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger), and are generally contained within the make-believe recreation of Roxie’s favorite hangout, the Onyx club. Maybe Russell was just ahead of his time. That noted, in the years between Cabaret and Chicago, director Herbert Ross’s Pennies from Heaven (1981), wherein lavish song and dance routines are the projections of characters plodding through the Great Depression, flopped at the box office though it did earn a trio Oscar nominations, including Best Costumes (the one and only Bob Mackie). By the way, I happen to enjoy Pennies from Heaven as much as I also enjoy The Boy Friend, Cabaret, and Chicago.

The soundtrack cover of the My One and Only cast album starring Twiggy and Tommy Tune. That's presumably 6'7" Tune on the left in the foreground with Twiggy to his right. The show ran for 767 performances. When Twiggy left after a year's run, she was replaced by Sandy Duncan, who had earlier appeared on Broadway in The Boy Friend.

Though not a hit at the time, The Boy Friend did not seem to permanently damage the fortunes of anyone involved. Russell’s career continued on an erratic track with such highs as 1975’s Tommy (based on The Who’s rock opera), Altered States (1980), and Lair of the White Worm (1988). His only Oscar nomination is for directing 1969’s Women in Love. Now in his 80s, Russell has not directed a feature film in a few years. While Twiggy did not conquer Hollywood, she did not vanish from the scene either, racking up a few dozen credits in film and television on both sides of the Atlantic. Furthermore, in the 1980s, she and Tommy Tune enjoyed major Broadway success in My One and Only. Twiggy was nominated as Best Actress in a Musical while Tune won Best Actor in a Musical as well as Best Choreographer, besides being nominated for Best Director.  More recently, Twiggy spent a few seasons as one of the judges on America’s Next Top Model and currently has a line of clothing sold on the Home Shopping Network. Speaking of Tune, he has fared best of all: a nine time Tony award winner for his work as an actor, director and choreographer for such shows as Seesaw (1973), Nine (1982), Grand Hotel (1989), and The Will Rogers Follies (1991)not to mention 1978’s The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas for which he earned a pair of nominations.  Costume designer Shirley Russell went on to Oscar nominated glory for the likes of Agatha (1979) and Reds (1981) while Tony Walton, already a previous nominee for Mary Poppins (starring his then wife, Julie Andrews) did double duty as the production designer and costume designer of the hit adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (1974), garnering an Oscar nomination for his wardrobe work. He actually co-won an Oscar for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration for Bob Fossee’s 1979 semi-autobiographical hit All that Jazz.  Cinematographer David Watkin worked on 1981’s Best Picture winner Chariots of Fire and won an Oscar in his own right for 1985’s Out of Africa. Glenda Jackson, who filmed her brief role fresh on the heels of winning the Best Actress Oscar for Russell’s Women in Love, earned her second Oscar just a few years later for A Touch of Class (1973). She eventually abandoned acting in favor of politics and was elected to Parliament in the early 1990s. Finally, The Boy Friend marks the last film of British character actor Max Adrian in the role of the kimono wearing harried stage director/harried over-the-hill actor. He snared a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the British Academy Awards for his performance; he passed away in 1973 at the age of 70.

I have written a lot about The Boy Friend. Why is that? After all, I didn’t even see it way back in the day though I saw plenty of publicity stills in the movie and fashion magazines of the time. I did not catch up with it until I rented it on VHS during the summer of 1990, and it more than lived up to my expectations. Believe me, I’d waited a long time to see Twiggy and Christopher Gable dance on that giant record. I spotted The Boy Friend on cassette in a clearance bin at my neighborhood discount chain a short time after that, but I opted to purchase another movie–the name of which I no longer remember–instead. I have often regretted that decision ever since then, or at least since the introduction of the DVD, because it did not seem like The Boy Friend would ever be released in that format. The message boards of the IMDb and Amazon.com have been full of comments for years from people such as myself, dying to own a copy to no avail. There was talk at one time of releasing it as part of a Ken Russell boxed set, but that never happened either. Happily, thanks to manufacture-on-demand technology, this 1971 gem is now available through the Warner Archive Collection. This new arm of the Warner conglomerate is a great way to make rare titles available to aficionados without incurring the huge overhead needed to produce–and market–a mass run of titles that might have only limited appeal. In this day and age of the instantly disposable blockbuster that’s quite an astute plan. Of course, there are some disadvantages in that these selections are usually priced a bit higher than more current, more popular, releases, but there are also some good sales every now and then. Furthermore, in most instances there is no remastering involved (the discs are made from the most available print in the best condition), the cover art tends to be generic, and there are no extras most of the time. The Boy Friend is a real find in that it is remastered, does not feature generic cover art, and actually includes a short “making of” featurette. Wow! The Warner Archive Collection has helped me secure at least four other movies that I thought I’d never see again, including a guilty pleasure from the 1970s and another–not guilty–favorite movie from 1990 that I plan to write about soon. MGM has also now jumped into the act, releasing some of its more obscure titles in the “on demand” format. That’s also worked out well for me. I’m hoping Paramount falls in line sooner rather than later because my VHS copy of a nifty mystery-comedy from 1985, starring a future Oscar winner, is on life support.  You can find the Warner Archive Collection by googling it easily enough, or you can look up a movie on Amazon to find whether it’s available through Warner Archive.

Thanks for your consideration…

Btw, you can find out more about all the movies mentioned in this article by going to the Internet Movie Database; you can possibly look for more information on Box Office Mojo though it’s a better resource for movies made after 1980. Additionally, you can also learn more details about Broadway shows by referring to the Internet Broadway Database.


Like a Rock…

4 Aug

Rock Hudson: An American Movie Giant

For baby boomers, such as myself, our parents and even our grandparents, Rock Hudson was known for being one of Hollywood’s greatest stars: good looking, and as rugged and durable as his earthy screen name suggests. To Gen-Xers, Hudson was arguably more famous for his death rather than his talent or his many celluloid triumphs, being the first American celebrity to succumb to the ravages of AIDS in 1985. As if that weren’t bad enough, I’m afraid that many of today’s younger audiences have no awareness of Hudson at all, and that’s unfortunate.

A hunkalicous 6’4″ with thick dark hair and a rich baritone voice, Hudson was just as comfortable as a traditional leading man in glossy romantic dramas (Magnificent Obsession 1954;  All that Heaven Allows, 1955; Written on the Wind, 1956) as he was in romantic-comedies (most notably a trio of successes with Doris Day…more about that later), along with a few westerns (such as 1969’s The Undefeated with John Wayne), action flicks (Ice Station Zebra, 1968), and even sci-fi (1966’s Seconds, a flop when originally released, now with a considerable cult following). He was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar for 1956’s Texas-sized epic Giant, from the Edna Ferber best seller. Per the Internet Movie Database, he earned many other accolades in his career, including four Golden Globes and three Photoplay Gold Medal awards (the latter actually predate the Oscars and were the equivalent of today’s People’s Choice awards); moreover, he was voted one of the top ten box office stars eight times between 1957 and 1964 in the Quigley publications’ annual poll of theatre exhibitors. Among current stars, perhaps George Clooney comes closest to matching Hudson’s stature and appeal.  When Hudson’s popularity with moviegoers waned (after some 60 films), he turned to television, starring in the hit series McMillan and Wife from 1971 till 1977 as well as a handful of mini-series (Arthur Hailey’s Wheels, and Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles) in addition to a stint on the wildly popular 1980s prime time soap opera, Dynasty.

Tony Randall (l) and Rock Hudson (r) could write a bad “bromance” in Send Me No Flowers.

Hudson died in 1985, just a few months after he went public about having AIDS. Though he never publically disclosed any details about his sexuality, there had long been whispers/speculation that he might be gay; however, Hudson deflected such rumors by engaging in a short-lived marriage to his agent’s secretary. Furthermore, in Pillow Talk (1959), the first of Hudson’s smash trio of romantic comedies with Doris Day, he mocked the notion that he could ever be gay by portraying a suave ladies’ man who pretends to be a mild-mannered homosexual in order to rattle Day’s confidence, keeping her defenses off-balance in order to lure her into bed. Seeing a man of Hudson’s magnitude pretend to be captivated by fabrics and recipes seemed utterly ridiculous to audiences back in the day. Since Hudson looked so foolish trying to act gay, the assumption was that he was much too much of  real man in order to be a….fruitcake. In one fell swoop, Hudson managed to save himself by reinforcing some of the standard shopworn stereotypes about gay men. Lovely. In his last movie with Day, 1964’s Send Me No Flowers, Hudson takes the gag even further by engaging in a relationship with Tony Randall that evokes something akin to that of a old married couple (what we now call a “bromance”).

Rock Hudson (l) and Paula Prentiss (r) in Man’s Favorite Sport?, a real fish out of water story–hold the fish

Of course, while Hudson wasn’t necessarily out, many of his showbiz buddies have gone on record since his death with reports that his sexuality was pretty much an open secret among his closest friends and other Hollywood insiders. As such, as Armistead Maupin relates in The Celluloid Closet (1996), there was something strangely amusing about seeing a gay man portraying a straight man pretending to be, not just gay, but a nelly sissy. Perhaps no movie better plays a great big guessing game about Hudson’s sexuality than Man’s Favorite Sport?. Simply, this 1964 comedy presents Hudson as Roger Willoughby, an ace salesman and fishing expert at Abercrombie & Fitch in San Francisco. (Yes, before Abercrombie & Fitch reinvented itself as clothing store for people who don’t really like to wear clothes, it was a sporting goods store for the wealthy and privileged, but I digress.) Anyway, Willoughby’s big dilemma is that he’s not really much of a fisherman. Instead, he’s more like a super-slick scholar who’s learned everything he knows about fishing from reading books and listening to his customers. Unfortunately, his boss pressures him into entering a high profile tournament,  a gig arranged by the host lodge’s  fast talking female public relations agent, Abigail Page (Texas’s own San Antonio Rose, lovely Paula Prentiss). After Roger outs himself as as a “phony” to Abigail, she comes to the rescue by offering to teach him how fish on the fly, so to speak, and hilarity ensues.

I saw this movie in theatres when I was a child–twice, in fact–and I liked it a lot. And why not? It’s filled with some priceless gags, and my young mind was suitably dazzled by the revolving restaurant that figures in a key scene. I probably saw it on TV a few times in the sixties, maybe the seventies, and I sort of forgot all about it until I read Danny Peary’s Alternate Oscars. In the book, Peary makes a case for Prentiss as the Best Actress of 1964–over Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins— based on her performance in this film.  Well, I don’t know about all that, but I when I came across the DVD for something like $5.00 at a local outlet three years ago, I thought it would be fun to revisit. After all, I’ve always liked Prentiss–especially in Where the Boys Are (1960), and The Stepford Wives (1975)–plus, I wanted to see that revolving restaurant again. Luckily, I got much more for my money than I had expected.

Honestly, I don’t know what legendary director Howard Hawks (Bringing Up Baby, 1938; His Girl Friday, 1940) and writers Pat Frank, John Fenton Murray and Steve McNeil had in mind when they set out to make  Man’s Favorite Sport?, or Hudson’s reasons for accepting the role,  but years of learning how to “read” a film, along with an appreciation for “camp” and an understanding of Queer theory certainly give the movie extra dimension and enhance my viewing pleasure. Don’t worry: I won’t give away the movie’s most telling line,  but I do ask that you consider the following because it helps to know that…

  • Hudson was, indeed, a gay man at odds with his public image similar to the way his character experiences issues with his private/public identity.
  • In drag culture, the highest compliment one queen can pay to another is to say she is “totally fish” as a measure of that queen’s level of “realness.” In other words, “fish” is code for “woman,” so remember that every time Hudson utters the word, “fish” or “fishing.” (Btw: if you need more info about this particular slang, I suggest you turn to the online Urban Dictionary.)
  • In one sequence, Prentiss and another female go all aquatic, thereby metaphorically transforming themselves into what? Fish.
  • Hudson goes to ridiculous lengths to secure privacy when he finally decides to “out” his phobia of fish to Prentiss; likewise, it’s easy to imagine the paranoia a gay person might have felt about divulging his/her orientation during the same time period.
  • Prentiss’s voice drips with disdain every time she calls out Hudson’s Willoughby for being a “phony,” especially when questioning him about his fiancee; substitute the word “homo” for “phony,”  and you’ll be good to go for a few laughs.
  • Pay special attention to the way that Prentiss and Hudson play switcheroo with gender norms, especially when she asks him out to dinner.
  • Speaking of both gender norms and Willoughby’s fiancee, notice the robustly butch nickname assigned to Hudson’s steady girl.
McMilland and Wife

McMillan and Wife, co-starring Susan St. James, aired on Sunday nights in weekly  rotation with McCloud starring Dennis Weaver, and Columbo starring the recently deceased Peter Falk. The trio of series aired under the umbrella title, NBC Mystery Movie.

Fun stuff! Per Peary, Prentiss is delightful, but the movie is really all about Rock Hudson and the many qualities that made him a great star long before the spectre of AIDS. His sheer physical being is a wonder to behold, and, thankfully, he’s smart enough and gifted enough to know how to use that great big strapping body of his for wonderful comic effect. Plus, he’s got that deep, rich masculine voice and exquisite dry delivery. Furthermore, and as noted time and time again, he’s ridiculously handsome.

My belief is that Man’s Favorite Sport? is just as cheeky regarding sexual orientation an/or gender identity in its own way as is the more obvious Some Like It Hot, and my hope is that Man’s Favorite Sport? finds a new audience and becomes recognized as a camp classic if not an outright classic. If you haven’t seen a Rock Hudson movie lately, it’s time to check out Man’s Favorite Sport?. If you have never seen a Rock Hudson movie, start with Man’s Favorite Sport? If you only know Hudson from his comedies with Doris Day, get over it and turn your attention to Man’s Favorite Sport?.

To learn more about Hudson, check out this official website managed by CMG Worldwide, “the exclusive business representative of the Estate of Rock Hudson”:

http://www.cmgww.com/stars/hudson/index.php

You can also check out his awards and filmography on the Internet Movie Database; btw, the IMDb lists his height as 6’5″, but the official Rock Hudson site indicates 6’4″:

http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001369/

Finally, you can read more about the annual Quigley poll at:

http://www.reelclassics.com/Articles/General/quigleytop10-article.htm

Thanks for your consideration…

The Ghost Writer, or The Riddle of “How Many Best Picture Nominees Does it Take..?” Part Two

1 Aug

Part II –  Among the 2010/20101 Best Picture nominees, I was most pleased to see the field being led by the likes of  The King’s Speech (12 nominations, and, ultimately, the evening’s biggest winner), and Inception (eight nominations, 4 wins); likewise, I was a true fan of the Coens’ True Grit reboot (10 nominations, 0 wins) as well as the modestly scaled but astonishingly potent The Winter’s Bone (4 noms, 0 wins), but what I find hard to fathom is that even with an expanded pool of ten candidates, the Academy somehow skipped over The Ghost Writer–and not just for Best Picture, but in all categories.

Pierce Brosnan as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, uh, I mean Adam Lang

Tautly directed by Roman Polanksi, and based on the novel The Ghost by Robert Harris, The Ghost Writer stars Ewan McGregor  as an unnamed scribe hired to assist a former British Prime Minister (a Tony Blairish type played by Pierce Brosnan) to complete his memoirs after the PM’s previous ghost writer, and longtime aide, dies mysteriously. Was it suicide or murder? Hmmmmmm…meanwhile, the PM is accused of actions linking him to war crimes. Hmmmmm…..again.

Things for the new writer take a turn for the worse immediately after he’s hired when he gets mugged right outside his residence. The action then swiftly shifts from soggy London to an even drearier island near Cape Cod where Brosnan’s enigmatic Adam Lang is holed-up in his American publisher’s Bauhaus style beach digs. Once there, McGregor finds himself caught up in a contest of wills between Lang’s eagerly officious administrative assistant (Kim Cattral trying hard to evince a British accent) and his bitter controlling wife (Olivia Williams). The PM himself appears amiable enough, maybe a little dim even, until he’s agitated, at which point his demeanor turns quite abrupt. Additionally, the PM’s original manuscript is kept under strict, state of the art lock and key, and McGregor also appears to have a stalker,  a man whose son was “killed in one of Lang’s illegal wars.” Eventually, the controversy surrounding Lang becomes so overwhelming that his handlers arrange a diversion by sending him to Washington D.C. for a a brief round of high profile meetings (including photo-ops with the vice-president and a Secretary of State who looks a lot like Condoleeza Rice). At the same time, McGregor relocates from his creepy seaside inn to the guest quarters of the beach house, specifically the room which had once been used by the now deceased ghost writer.

Ewan McGregor as the unnamed “ghost”

“Hitchcockian.” There it is. The word has been overused, I know, but in this case, it truly applies.  Simply, McGregor’s writer is the proverbial outsider who gets sucked into a scenario far more sinister and complex than he could ever imagine.  While making room for his things in the guest room closet, the writer stumbles upon a secreted stash of photos and documents that call into question Lang’s account of his own entry into the political realm. McGregor’s snooping leads him to a revealing encounter with a withered old islander played by Eli Wallach. Soon, McGregor becomes the target of a conspiracy, or at least that’s what he believes after venturing off the island in a borrowed vehicle in one of the film’s tensest sequences.  I’ll stop there. The rest you need to experience for yourself.

Olivia Williams in a role worlds removed from the mournful wife in The Sixth Sense or the object of affection in Rushmore

Aside from the knotty script, co-written by Polanski and Harris, The Ghost Writer also benefits from a host of sharp performances, which includes not only Brosnan and McGregor but also Tom Wilkinson, effectively understated in a brief yet consequential role, and Williams, whose confident turn as Lang’s sardonic wife earned her Best Supporting Actress honors from the National Society of Film Critics and London’s Critics Circle award. The cast also includes Timothy Hutton and Jim Belushi. Special attention must also be paid to the design team led by Albrecht Conrad, who won the European Film Award for his efforts. The beach house in particular, with its oversized windows, bold cantilevered staircase and juxtaposition of  rough “natural” textures with stark minimalist furnishings, is practically a character itself so essential is it to establishing the mood of the piece, and even more remarkable considering the interiors, and select components of the exterior, are one massive set. Indeed, with the exception of some second unit shots, the entire production was filmed in Germany. Furthermore, as evidenced on the DVD featurette, some of the exterior shots are actually a  combination of partial sets and green-screen technology. Additionally, the score by Alexandre Desplat would doubtlessly thrill Bernard Herrmann–Hitchcock’s collaborator on Vertgo (1958), North by Northwest (1959and Psycho (1960). (I think the Ghost Writer score is even comparable to Herrman’s non-Hitchcock 1962 offering, Cape Fear, a score so memorable it was resurrected for the 1991 remake. )  Desplat’s work, by turns ominously thunderous and disconcertingly tinkly, netted the composer a bevy of prizes, including honors from the Los Angeles Film Critics and recognition as “Composer of the Year” at the World Soundtrack Awards in Belgium. Though not nominated by the Academy for Ghost Writer, Desplat can at least take some comfort in his nod for Oscar fave The King’s Speech.

The Ghost Writer: winner of 6 European Film Awards, including Best Actor (Ewan McGregor) and  Best Production Designer (Albrecht Conrad)

Besides the awards won by Williams, Conrad, and Desplat, The Ghost Writer snared numerous other year end accolades, including a nice haul at the European Film Awards (Best Film, Director, Actor for McGregor, and Desplat, among others), in addition to the Silver Bear for Polanksi at the 2010 Berlin Film Festival, and a shared nomination for Polanski and Harris at the USC Scripter Awards. Additionally, Pierce Brosnan was a a multiple Best Supporting Actor nominee, and even won a prize at the Irish Film & Television awards. How this splendid, richly satisfying, and deliciously dark movie managed to not pick up a single Oscar nomination, in a year in which there were 10 slots open in the Best Picture race, is a great big mystery to me. Of course, it is entirely possible that the members of the Academy felt like they had already done their part to honor the previously nominated director of Rosemary’s Baby* (1968) Chinatown (1975), and Tess (1980) when they recognized his achievement for 2002’s fact-based drama The Pianist, a film which echoes his own experience as a Holocaust survivor. Beyond that, there is not enough room on this blog to speculate.

Academy Awards are nice, and, yes, winning or being nominated is a great way for a film to achieve some kind of permanent stature in the annals of film history. Luckily, the invention of home video technology is a way to keep films alive long after their theatrical runs and the waves of publicity generated by the Oscars. Maybe after reading this, you’ll feel inclined to give it a look. If my enthusiastic review is not inducement enough, then consider this: it’s super-duper hot in Texas right now, so hot that we might even “beat” the sweltering, record setting heat wave of 1980, but in the world of The Ghost Writer, there’s a cool, eternally rainswept village waiting, calling like a siren’s song.

Thanks for your consideraton…

* To clarify: Though Polanksi was nominated as Best Director for both Chinatown and Tess, and though he did indeed direct Rosemary’s Baby, he was not nominated as Best Director for that film though he was nominated for writing the screenplay based on Ira Levin’s novel.