Archive | September, 2011

“Atta Boy, Luther!”

28 Sep

The liner notes on The Ghost and Mr. Chicken soundtrack cd are full of behind the scenes tidbits, which almost makes up for the lack of extra features on the DVD.

I happen to know that John Waters loves a certain ghostly 1966 flick because we have actually spoken about it one-on-one. Twice, in fact. Now, if that makes me a name-dropper, so be it. I have also seen Johnny Depp on TV singing the same movie’s praises. The terrif  offering to which I refer is no less than 1966’s The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, starring the one and only, the legendary iconic comic genius, Mr. Don Knotts.  Even though the American Film Institute somehow forgot to include this priceless suspense-comedy gem in its 2000 retrospective of the 100 Funniest Movies (American style, that is),  it delivers plenty of laughs in scene and after scene, whether through clever dialogue (“With all her heart, she came home last night and vibrated for an hour”), priceless comic characterizations (including the grand theatrics of indomitable Reta Shaw and the fully vested, button down villainy of the incomparable Charles Lane), or a healthy dose of slapstick (much too much to include parenthetically).  Not only that, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken serves up a fair amount of thrills and chills alongside the laughs. I’ve seen this movie dozens upon dozens of times since my childhood in the sixties, and there are still moments that never fail to send chills up and down my spine. I like this movie so much, and think that it has so much to offer, that I decided to watch it with the students in my class.  Really? What is it about this movie that makes it worth recommending after all these years? The Ghost and Mr. Chicken continues to amuse, haunt, and inspire me as both a movie fan and a teacher thanks to Knotts’s extraordinary gift for comedy, the contributions of composer Vic Mizzy, and the lessons the film offers about  writing’s  dos and don’ts.

Yep, it’s true: despite his bumbling persona, Don Knotts was a man who enjoyed great success in life. For example, long before he won a staggering 5 Emmy awards for playing Barney Fife, he was elected 1942 Senior Class President at Morgantown High School in Morgantown, VA. Knotts passed away in 2006 at the age of 81.

First of all, Don Knotts is as much a comic genius as either Charlie Chaplin or Lucille Ball. The five Emmys he won as Best Supporting Actor for his memorable role as Deputy Barney Fife in the revered The Andy Griffith Show offer some pretty persuasive evidence of that. Of course, Knotts’s character in The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, Luther Heggs, is just a big screen variation of Fife, and why not? After all, the movie was penned by James Fritzell and Everett Greenbaum, two writers from the Griffith show. Though uncredited, Griffith reportedly worked on the screenplay according to the soundtrack’s liner notes; likewise, the movie was directed by another Griffith team member, Alan Rafkin. Furthermore, the plot of a fourth season episode of the Griffith show, entitled “The Haunted House” placed Fife in the same predicament as Heggs, investigating strange occurrences in a spooky old house. Are there similarities? Of course there are, but then Charlie Chaplin donned his bowler and funny shoes as “The Tramp” more than once, and when Lucille Ball finally found her niche in TV, she played her madcap “Lucy” character in a total of four series.

What good is a great hero without a great villain? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Charles Lane. Though not the actual bad guy of the piece, Lane plays a humorless lawyer who attempts to ruin Heggs in a libel suit. Nobody, but nobody, was better, or ever will be better, at playing sourpuss, officious bureaucratic pricks than Charles Lane, who racked up hundreds of TV and movie credits inhabiting one variation after another of a steely eyed functionary. He continued to work well into his 80s, and died at the age of 102 in 2007.

Yes, Don Knotts’s gift for comedy makes The Ghost and Mr. Chicken amusing after all these years, and, yes, there are similarities between Fife and Heggs; however, Knotts does not play a small town deputy. Instead, he portrays the local newspaper’s typesetter though he aspires to be reporter. What this character shares with Fife is that he’s a wiry little man with big dreams and even bigger emotional swings. Luther is a schlemiel who reacts first–and wildly–and asks questions later.  When he’s afraid, he isn’t just scared, he’s hysterical (“keyed up” is the term used to describe him more than once). For example, at the beginning of the movie, when Heggs thinks he’s stumbled onto a story about a murder, he’s wildly animated, so much so that his body seems to pull him in different directions all at once. Later, when he’s at the police station trying to file a report, he doesn’t take kindly to being told to calm himself. This is when Knotts cuts loose with righteous indignation, a rubbery face, and bulging eyes, all the while ranting and repeating the question, “Do murder and calm go together?”  Knotts even ups his own ante when he’s startled by the appearance of the very much alive man he believes has been murdered: “Calver, you’re dead,” he cries before he has a chance to even process what he’s just said.

Heggs is also the kind of guy who is super sensitive about his lack of obvious manly fortitude, so whenever he believes his masculinity–or integrity–is being questioned, his whole body stiffens, he puffs out his chest,  and then he barks out some inane line that’s supposed to make him seem like a real tough guy even when such a reaction might not be the most appropriate, but Knotts makes it funny because his bravado is often quickly undermined. In one lunchtime scene, he musters all his courage and lays down the law, so to speak, to one of his taunting co-workers. Heggs points his finger at the rival defiantly and proceeds to exit the diner in a huff only to be reminded that he has no tab upon which to settle his bill. Immediately, his whole body goes slack, and he’s a frustrated dithering mess.

Of course, Knotts can deliver pratfalls, and does so more than once, but my favorite bit occurs when he is standing almost–almost–perfectly still, and that is the moment Heggs experiences stage fright while delivering a speech at a special chamber of commerce picnic given in his honor. Again, when Heggs feels awkward in front of a crowd, he isn’t just mildly nervous. Instead, his whole body is at war: his neck and shoulders visibly tense; meanwhile, his fingers tremble, seemingly unable to be at peace, and he has no idea what to do with his arms. Not only that, his voice wavers at a high, thin pitch.  Sure, it’s funny when Knotts stumbles and goes off half-cocked, but he’s never funnier than when he struggles to appear gracious and eloquent and, once again, cannot calm his nerves. More than any scene in the movie, I think this one routine shows why Knotts is an acting genius. The next time you watch The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, try–try–to pay less attention to his pained face and half-baked speech and instead focus on how he acts all the way down to his fingertips; then, look at how he holds his shoulders. If this doesn’t show the mark of a skilled thespian, I don’t know what does. To reiterate, I don’t think Chaplin or Ball could have played this particular scene any better.

Among composer Vic Mizzy’s dozens of TV and movie credits, he is perhaps best known for the creepy and kooky, snap-snap happy, Addams Family theme. Interestingly, even though many of The Ghost and Mr. Chicken cast and crew were also associated with The Andy Griffith Show, Mizzy had nothing to do with that show’s larky, whistle-happy title music.

If Knotts makes me laugh, and he does, then Vic Mizzy’s score just flat-out gives me the willies. Mizzy might not have the name recognition as fellow film composers Henry Mancini, Bernard Hermann, or John Williams,  but he worked steadily in films and TV for decades before dying at the age of  93 in 2009. His score for The Ghost and Mr. Chicken isn’t just incidental. No, it is fully integral in that a key plot element is an old dusty, blood stained organ whose last owner reportedly stabbed his wife, and then, with blood still dripping from his hands, played the instrument maniacally before leaping to his death from a tower window. Twenty years later, his ghost reportedly haunts the decrepit mansion and plays the organ at midnight. It is this ghostly phenomenon that spooks Heggs into an inconsolable frenzy–and no wonder. Mizzy’s organ theme is as sinister and as overwrought as, say, Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.”  Certainly, it’s as startling as the opening strains of the old Perry Mason theme (by Fred Steiner), a show I avoided as a small child because the music actually terrified me. Anyway, every time I hear Mizzy’s swooping, diabolical organ music, I get goose-bumps. The sound of it is practically blood curdling. Indeed, it sounds like that very thing, that is, if you can imagine what the sound of blood actually curdling might be. Speaking of  Perry Mason, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken‘s main theme rightfully belongs to a whole genre known as “Crime Jazz,” of which the premiere entry is no doubt the theme from Peter Gunn (Mancini). Mizzy’s jazzy score helps set the tone for the whole movie from the first ominous strains  that play over the Universal logo scene to the opening credits sequence in which Heggs drives home during an evening storm, lightning cutting through the sky and an increasingly frantic game of one upmanship commences between an electric guitar, a xylophone, and a full-tilt horn section–while in the background an old woman shrieks about the murder she believes she’s just witnessed.  This main theme recurs throughout the movie though Mizzy shades it differently depending on the tone of each scene. A little more sly percussion and  nervy flute as Heggs  pokes his way through the allegedly haunted mansion; slowed down with a mournful woodwind during moments of  waxing nostalgic or self-reflecting. Mizzy launches another well-timed musical zap  when a victrola magically comes to life, and a old ragtime number plays at warp speed. It might not seem like much to read about in a blog, but every time I watch this movie with newcomers, they always jump at that very moment. Again, this movie continues to haunt me largely due to Mizzy’s wicked musical gifts. Oh yeah, according to the soundtrack liner notes, no less than Henry Mancini once said of Mizzy, “If you want a great job done fast, then get Vic Mizzy. No one does a better job than he does!”

The exteriors of the Ghost and Mr. Chicken’s Simmons manse were filmed on Colonial Street, located on the Universal Studio’s backlot. These days, Colonial Street is the setting for Desperate Housewives’ Wisteria Lane, and the facade of the Simmons place , known as the “Allison Home,” serves as the residence of Gabrielle and Carlos Solis.

Finally, one thing that continues to inspire me and makes this movie a natural for an in-class screening is what it has to offer about the dos and don’ts of skillful writing. Mostly, it’s the don’ts that dominate. As noted, Luther’s big dream is to be a reporter–and he has even earned a correspondence school certificate (as he has also learned karate via correspondence school).  The trouble is, Heggs is imaginative, but he’s not especially skilled, and his attempts at wit and erudition fall flat. There are two particular mistakes  he makes that I often find myself correcting with my own students. The first is a tendency toward the “water-is-wet” claim. I first learned about this claim when I read a book called Understanding Mass Media back in high school.  The gist of it is a statement that might sound profound to the unschooled ear but says absolutely nothing insightful about the given topic, that is, nothing that could not be deemed self-evident by anyone but the lowliest fool: water is wet. Yeah, right. I have to remind my students that arguments aren’t won by generalizations, so writers have to make sure that every word in a sentence, a paragraph, or a whole essay is somehow working purposefully and persuasively, and generalizations and circular reasoning won’t cut it. Luckily, my students get to  see and hear Luther make such pronouncements as, “When you work with words, words are your work” and something to the effect of, “Well, I’d rather eat good food over bad food any ole day of the week.” Of course you would, Luther. Who wouldn’t? Another area in which Luther errs is leading with an attention-getting device. I’ll be frank: when my students need a strong opening remark and are stumped, I encourage them to simply ask a question (“Should big businesses make campaign contributions to politicians?”). Most of the time it works; however, many students tend to lapse into rhetorical indulgence, and their essays become bogged down in questions that are never answered: “Shouldn’t the government be more interested in the welfare of the average American citizen and not just the owners of big businesses? Don’t we pay taxes also? Why should we stand for this?” I have to remind my students that posing a question is fine but some perspective is needed. They need to be arguing a case, presenting suitable evidence, and answering questions–not asking questions. Luckily, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken serves up a brief example of how this approach can turn sour rather quickly.  Once again, at the “C of C” picnic, Heggs begins his speech innocently enough by posing the question, “Who are you Luther Heggs to be a guest speaker at this luncheon,” but then he quickly dissolves into nonsense: “What is a guest speaker?” The rest is pretty much downhill from there as Luther continues to ask a host of other questions, each one followed by a clarification that turns into yet another question before ending abruptly. Indeed the best part of this entire speech is that it marries the overworked rhetorical question to the “water-is-wet” claim as Heggs answers the question “What is brave?”  by explaining that brave is “short for brave-er-rey,” as if that is somehow enlightening.  Thus, in one fell swoop my students get to see that too many rhetorical questions, coupled with a wealth of bogus “water-is-wet” claims, add up to a great big bunch of nothing, and make the speaker/writer look, well, a little foolish. Because the lesson is presented comically, it seems harmless and goofy rather than mean spirited, and I’m happy to report that in our post-screening discussion, a number of students picked up on this particular angle, so I hope they feel accomplished and well prepared for their next assignment, which is to write a movie review Let me clarify: what is a movie review ?

Thanks for your consideration…

If you want to read more about the Allison Home on the virtual tour of Universal Studios, please click on the following link: http://www.thestudiotour.com/ush/backlot/street_colonial_2.html

The following link should redirect you to a newspaper clipping detailing former class president Knotts’s visit to his school’s 60 year reunion:

http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=ufEyAAAAIBAJ&sjid=ywgGAAAAIBAJ&pg=6755,8215878&hl=en

Even though Vic Mizzy passed away a few years ago, he still has an official website that is apparently supported by representatives of his estate. Click here to access the site:

http://www.vicmizzy.com/

Dream Project

17 Sep

At the 2004/05 Oscars, Jamie Foxx, a North Texas native (born and raised in Terrell), triumphed in the Best Actor category thanks to his extraordinary work as the late great–blind–singer-musician Ray Charles in the musical biopic, Ray. I was thrilled for Foxx, and had actually been rooting for his eventual success for several months, well before Ray had even been released. I no longer remember the exact circumstances,  but I saw footage of him in some coming attractions featurette, sitting blindfolded at a piano with no less than the real Ray Charles (who passed away in June of 2004, a few months before Ray premiered). Something about Foxx’s devotion to the task, and the fact that he was being coached by Charles, just got to me, and from that point, I had a hunch that great things were in store. I didn’t know then, but soon found out, that Foxx was/is a talented pianist in his own right, that he had studied piano for years and had attended college on a music scholarship. Foxx was no doubt the best man to play the iconic Charles, and his dedication to the task was and is apparent. The Oscar was fully justified, even against the likes of Clint Eastwood (Million Dollar Baby) and Don Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda).

"Mack" Facts: number 1 on the charts for 9 weeks, beginning in October of 1959; in the top 10 for 52 weeks; 2 million copies sold; Bobby Darin's 4th gold record and biggest selling single; 2 Grammy awards

At the same time, another musical biopic provided an all-out showcase for its two time Oscar winning leading man though to much less hoopla, and that movie was Beyond the Sea starring Kevin Spacey as Bobby Darin, the Bronx born dynamo who crooned his way to stardom in the 1950s and passed away in 1973 at the age of 37. Darin (nee Walden Robert Cassotto) first hit the charts in 1958 with “Splish Splash,” a novelty tune he wrote in less than twenty minutes. Soon, he progressed to more sophisticated fare, such as “Dream Lover” (1959), “Mack the Knife” (1959), and, natch, “Beyond the Sea” (1960); the latter is the Americanized version of the French classic, “Le Mer,” while the rousing “Mack the Knife” originally appeared in The Threepenny Opera (by Bertold Brecht and Kurt Weill) and became a #1 smash for Darin, netting two Grammy awards: Record of the Year, and Newcomer of the Year. Other hits include “Lazy River,” “If I Were a Carpenter,” and several others. Posthumously, Darin has been elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame  and honored with a yet another Grammy for Lifetime Achievement. Darin also enjoyed success in the movies, earning rave reviews and an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor for Captain Newman, M.D. (1963). He was also nominated for a Golden Globe for 1962’s Pressure Point. When filming his first movie, Come September (1961), in Rome, Darin met and wooed America’s favorite blonde haired pint sized movie queen, Sandra Dee. The two were married for about six years and had one son, Dodd. Darin was also a political activist who had campaigned for the late Bobby Kennedy; he also hosted his own weekly TV variety show on NBC in 1972-1973.

When Kevin Spacey won the Best Actor Oscar for 1999's American Beauty, he joined Jack Lemmon and Robert De Niro as the only actors that had progressed from winning Best Supporting Actor to winning Best Actor. Denzel Washington has since made that same leap; meanwhile, Jack Nicholson and Gene Hackman have done the reverse. For better or worse, Nicholson did one better by bouncing back to Best Actor status.

Kevin Spacey, of course, is the frequently brilliant actor who made a name for himself onstage and in TV before conquering the big screen. In the eighties, he appeared on Broadway with Jack Lemmon in a revival of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night. Lemmon soon became a mentor, and he and Spacey worked together in the telefilm, The Murder of Mary Phagan (1988). Around the same time, Spacey earned the adoration of the critics–and fans–when he played the recurring role of “Mel Proffit” in the series Wiseguy. The actor’s stock took a huge leap in 1991 when he won the Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Play for Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers–and then watched as his role was awarded to Richard Dreyfuss for the film version. The next year, he made his first significant dent in the moviegoing consciousness playing Kevin Kline’s wily neighbor in Consenting Adults, a performance which netted him a Saturn nomination from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror. From there, he went on to the likes of The Ref, playing one half of a bickering couple opposite Judy Davis–and alongside Dennis Leary as well. In 1995, he was all over the place with roles in Swimming with Sharks (Independent Spirit Award nominee), Outbreak, and the spectacular one-two punch of Seven and The Usual Suspects. He won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for the latter though I will freely admit, I’m not at all a fan of the movie despite its Academy lauded screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie. (Too gimmicky.) 1997 brought top notch work in such high profile pics as LA. Confidential and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Two years later, Spacey once again dazzled critics and Oscar voters alike with a startlingly vivid  portrayal of a man undergoing a mid-life crisis in the suburban satire, American Beauty–the wicked flipside of upscale domestic dramas, such as 1980’s Best Picture winner, Ordinary People.  Spacey not only scored the Best Actor Oscar, he made the rare leap from Oscar winning supporting player to Oscar winning leading man, something that only his mentor (Lemmon) and Robert De Niro had likewise accomplished at that time. Furthermore, like Ordinary People, American Beauty also snagged the evening’s top prize. That noted, I’ve always believed that, Spacey aside,  the film is both a bit much and extremely overrated.

The irony of advertising: yes, "Spacey Dazzles" in Beyond the Sea, but the effect of this poster seems to be that his face needs to be obscured in order to quell suspicion about him being too old to play crooner Bobby Darin.

The naysayers insist that Spacey was and is too old to play Bobby Darin. Their argument is based on simple math: Darin died at the age of 37, yet Spacey was approaching 45 at the time he filmed Beyond the Sea.  That’s not a huge discrepancy. No, the real beef is that Spacey was about 20 years older than Darin was when he had his first big hit, and actually, that’s not a problem for me either.  First of all, for reasons various and sundry, Bobby Darin “matured” more rapidly than other men his age. What does that mean? Simply, Darin suffered a bout of rheumatic fever as a child and was told he would be lucky to live past the age of 16. Yes, he defied the odds, but his health was poor–a constant battle as the movie accurately portrays–and that no doubt aged him. As recounted in the book Dream Lovers by Dodd Darin (the son of Darin and Dee), Life reporter Shana Alexander once described Bobby as a “rather worn young man of 23” (123). Furthermore, Darin reportedly started losing his hair when he was “very young.  By the time he was on the stage performing, he was already wearing a toupee” (67). Plus, as Dodd Darin explains repeatedly in his book, his father was afraid he was going to die before he accomplished all that he wanted to do, so he pushed and pushed himself, both publicly and privately, burning the candles at both ends. Even Dick Clark recalls that Darin had a “maturity” that other “teen idols lacked,” which no doubt played a part in Darin’s decision at the ripe “old” age of 23 to move away from rock ‘n’ roll to standards, music he felt would be best appreciated by adults (104-105).  Another reason Spacey’s age doesn’t bother me–besides what I see as a credible likeness anyway–is Spacey’s passion for the project.  After all, Spacey doesn’t just portray Darin in Beyond the Sea, he also directs it, serves as one of several producers,  and shares screenwriting credit with Lewis Colick (whose original draft reportedly dates back to 1987). Indeed, if it had not been for Spacey, a film biography of Darin might have never been made. After all, according to the Internet Movie Database, no less than Bruce Willis and Johnny Depp had at one time been attached to filming the Bobby Darin story. I have almost no memory of the former though I definitely remember the buzz around the Depp project, which was to have co-starred Drew Barrymore as Sandra Dee (touchingly played by fresh-faced by Kate Bosworth in Beyond the Sea).  Well, for whatever reason, those earlier films never got made, but at least Spacey had the dedication and the drive to see Beyond the Sea to its completion, so good for him.

Of course, the skeptics still want to write the whole thing off as a great big Kevin Spacey vanity project, but that also doesn’t bother me because I feel that after winning two Oscars in five years, Spacey is entitled to indulge. Furthermore, as reported in Variety, Spacey “received not one penny as star and director of the $24 million pic; some of those $ are his,” so good for him, whatever his motivation. Plus, if the film were really a vanity project, why would Spacey surround himself with well-seasoned pros, such as Caroline Aaron, Brenda Blethyn, John Goodman, Bob Hoskins, and Greta Saachi, not to mention young, hot, and gifted real-life jazz musician Peter Cincotti?  Finally, the set-up for the film actually allows for some leeway since, taking a cue from the likes of Bob Fosse’s semi-autobiographical All that Jazz, Beyond the Sea is presented as a film-within-a-film, that is, a film-in-the-making about the life of Bobby Darin, in which the mature Darin directs and stars as himself. Come again?  See, that way, the audience knows from the beginning that this is the story of a fully grown man playing a much younger version of himself, and no further suspension of disbelief is required, but just to seal the deal, even the movie’s adult Darin faces questions about being age appropriate from a skeptical reporter.

The whole film-within-film thing might seem too gimmicky or confusing for some viewers; after all, the story skips around a bit, sometimes shifting locations and even time frames within a single scene. Additionally, there are some sequences in which Darin retreats into his own private space and engages in conversation with his boyhood self, winningly played by William Ullrich. This all makes sense considering the enormous identity crisis Darin suffered beginning in 1968 and on through 1969. Of course, like many other legendary entertainers, such as Cary Grant and Marilyn Monroe, Darin had to come to terms with the strange reality of a manufactured persona sometimes at odds with whom he believed himself to be as a person. In Darin’s own words, poverty-born Walden Robert Cassotto was an “ugly, short, balding double-chinned Italian with a big nose and puffy eyes” (122),  but onstage, he was a showbiz enterprise: “Bobby Darin,” a slick, tuxedo wearing showman with smooth moves and a voice that drove women wild, so, yes, there was that; however, Darin’s identity crisis didn’t stop there. As a grown man, he learned something about his family that even further challenged his sense of who he really was. Between that and the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, Darin felt the need to retreat, and to rethink who/what he wanted to be, which he did by giving away all his possessions and moving to a trailer out on Big Sur. It’s all there, however condensed, in Beyond the Sea, and the staging of this episode in Darin’s life gives Spacey a chance to show some of his strongest acting; moreover, the movie eloquently makes the point that it was, in fact, Walden Robert Cassotto who passed away in 1973–and not Bobby Darin, per se.

In this sequence, yellow-suited Bobby Darin woos Sandra Dee (played by Kate Bosworth) to the strains of "Beyond the Sea" while filming Come September in Rome. This sparkling musical number was actually filmed at the Sanssouci Park in Potsdam, Germany.

As good as Beyond the Sea is, and as great as Spacey is in it, it still suffers a few lapses. A lot of Darin’s story is simplified, and key players are omitted entirely, including a romance with singing sensation Connie Francis (predating Darin’s involvement with Dee). Also, even though the movie shows Darin and Dee in the process of separating, it backs away from showing that the pair actually divorced, and that Bobby briefly enjoyed a second marriage before his quite sudden death. Furthermore, the movie sometimes look like it was filmed on the cheap even though Spacey’s team includes such notables as cinematographer Eduardo Serra (Oscar nominated for 1997’s The Wings of the Dove, and 2003’s The Girl with the Pearl Earring), costume designer Ruth Myers (Oscar noms for 1993’s The Addams Family and 1996’s Emma), and production designer Andrew Laws (2003’s retro inspired Down with Love).  Part of the dilemma, as it were, is that in order to get the film made, Spacey had to seek out foreign investors, which necessitated filming in Europe. Much of  Beyond the Sea was shot during the winter at the enormous, not to mention legendary, Babelsberg Studios in Potsdam, Germany–not that there’s anything wrong with that, except that the movie often looks darker than it should, and  too enclosed for comfort. There are surprisingly few exterior shots, and many of those were clearly filmed against wintry gray skies. The overall effect is a little disconcerting, none more so than a brief foray into what is intended to be Rome, but is in reality a park on the grounds of Potsdam’s Sanssouci Palace. It’s a lovely, photogenic, backdrop, but it’s also obviously not Rome, and while the big set piece, an energetic rendition of “Beyond the Sea,” is a lot of fun, the shots don’t always match: sunlight here, not so much there.  Of course, this was Spacey’s directorial debut, so maybe a director with more experience might have been able to present a more persuasive re-creation.  On the other hand, there are some visual flourishes that work quite nicely, including a nice bit of shorthand when Darin comes to a reckoning about his identity by using a gold record as a mirror. Lovely. Plus, there’s a gorgeous shot of what is supposed to be Big Sur but is actually Dover, England of all things.

Beyond the Sea is wonderful entertainment that works on two important levels. First, it is a sincere tribute to Darin, one that serves as a fitting introduction to a blazingly talented man whose short life was fascinating and complex. After all, I’m willing to bet that someone somewhere reading this blog never knew until this very moment that Darin had ever been nominated for an Oscar. Right? Additionally, Beyond the Sea doubles as a stunning showcase for Spacey. Of course, it’s no secret that this actor excels at playing driven men, as exemplified by flashy performances in films such as  A Time to Kill, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, 21, and the recent hit comedy, Horrible Bosses, but Beyond the Sea allows Spacey  to portray the gentle frightened man-child beneath the cocky shell.  On the other hand, Spacey rarely gets the chance to perform as traditional romantic leading man, so Beyond the Sea is a nice change of pace; moreover, playing Bobby Darin allows Spacey to reinvent himself as a real showman: when performing in nightclubs and on TV, he perfectly captures Darin’s moves and mannerisms, but he really comes alive in the more intricately choreographed production numbers, righteously hoofing it up with athleticism,  grace, and skill. Watch out for those high kicks! Perhaps the bigger question is whether Spacey has the chops to match Darin’s vocal prowess, and the answer is a resounding “Yes!” Spacey’s voice is surprisingly supple, and, to my ears, he’s almost always perfectly on pitch. No, he doesn’t sound exactly like Darin, but he does incorporate  enough Darinesque inflections to create an effective illusion. It also helps that, per Spacey’s DVD commentary,  the musical arrangements heard in the film come straight from Darin’s own charts, thereby ensuring the utmost verisimilitude. Furthermore, his rendition of “The Curtain Falls” is powerful in its own right. I actually get chills every time I hear it. I’d say that as a first-time big screen song and dance man, Spacey equals or outmatches Roy Scheider, who was Oscar nominated for playing choreographer-director Bob Fosse’s alter-ego in All that Jazz, and/or Richard Gere, who won a Golden Globe–but no Oscar nom–for his spiffy turn as Billy Flynn, the tap dancing lawyer in Chicago.  Meanwhile, even though Jamie Foxx and Kevin Spacey did not face-off for the Best Actor Oscar, they did compete against each other at the Golden Globes for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy–Foxx won, natch–where their fellow nominees included an actor in a third musical biopic–and that would be Kevin Kline as composer Cole Porter in De-Lovely. De-lightful.

The paperback edition of Dream Lovers: The Magnificent Shattered Lives of Bobby Darin and Sandra Dee by their son Dodd Darin

I am by no means a Darin scholar, but I am a lifelong fan. I’ve listened to his music all my life, and I’ve seen a few of his movies; plus, I used to watch him on TV.  I  even read Dodd Darin’s book when it was first released several years ago. On the other hand, I confess that I’ve never seen Darin’s Oscar nominated Captain Newman M.D. in its entirety though I have found clips from it on YouTube, which I decline to post here for fear that it’ll be yanked off, and I’ll be in trouble of some kind. Even so, I can attest that Darin approaches brilliance in one long scene, in which  his disturbed soldier undergoes hypnosis with the help of a little sodium pentathol,  the gentle assist of Angie Dickinson, and the kind but firm care of Gregory Peck as the titular doctor. What I thought would be a hokey display actually turned out to be startlingly raw and seemingly true to life, as if Darin had channeled something from the great beyond….beyond the sea….

Thanks for your consideration…

The following link will redirect you to the Official Bobby Darin website, a comprehensive fan-organized collection of photos, statistics, updates on all things relating to Darin, his music, etc. The site has been up and running since 1997 and continues with the cooperation of  Dodd Darin and Andrea Darin, the widow of the late superstar, as well as Steve Blauner, Darin’s friend and manager–who still represents the late singer’s legacy: http://www.bobbydarin.net/

Also…  http://www.bobbydarin.com/

To read more of the Variety article quoted in this entry, please click here –  http://www.variety.com/article/VR1117909280

Fearless.

4 Sep

In 1996, Frances McDormand earned a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar for bringing to life one of the most original characters in recent memory (or what seemed like recent memory 15 years ago, but I digress), and that would be Fargo‘s plucky, pregnant Sheriff Marge Gunderson.  McDormand’s Marge is simply irresistible: pleasant disposition, empathic when necessary, determined, acute ability to analyze a crime scene and form an accurate hypothesis, handy with a weapon, and, of course, there’s that cute Minnesotan accent. Oh ya. McDormand is so absolutely perfect in the role that it’s inconceivable to think of anyone else playing it; moreover, the cultural impact of the character was/is so strong that I think McDormand would have won the Oscar no matter what year Fargo had been released, as evidenced by the fact that her Sheriff Gunderson was named #34 on the American Film Institute’s list of 50 Greatest Heroes.

Even so, McDormand didn’t win in just any year; she won in a year in which the race for even a nomination was especially crowded, so much so that a handful of exceptional performances–which would have likely been guaranteed nominations in a less competitive year–were unavoidably overlooked. Chief among the also-rans are Madonna, singing AND acting the role of a lifetime, in Evita, and Debbie Reynolds, enjoying a marvelous comeback in Albert Brooks’s Mother–a wry, well-textured performance which far outshines the film itself.  Other personal favorites include Illeana Douglas (Grace of My Heart), Winona Ryder (The Crucible), and Lili Taylor (I Shot Andy Warhol) [1]. Perhaps best of all among the rest of the pack is none other than Laura Dern in Citizen Ruth, a performance which brings to mind only one word: fearless.

In addition to Dern, Payne, and Taylor, the  Citizen Ruth DVD also features lively audio commentary by production designer Jane Ann Stewart which is quite illuminating. Of special note is the wastebasket seen above on the left.

What’s so fearless about Dern’s Ruth Stoops is that the actress is not afraid to just lose herself in that rarest of characters, and that is a protagonist with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Ruth is an addict, and her vice of choice is “hazardous vapor inhalation” (or “smelling drugs” to quote one of her many would-be saviors), to the point that she’s willing to experiment with any common household product she can find (sealant, spray paint, modeling glue, cleaning solutions, etc.). Ruth is also equally non-discriminatory regarding alcoholic beverages. Furthermore, she has been arrested so many times that she can’t even remember the exact number–not even close. Additionally, she’s been legally declared “unfit” as a mother and struggles to piece together the exact circumstances under which she lost custody of one of her four children.  Ruth isn’t especially bright, often missing the point of what people trying to help her are saying. She doesn’t even know when it’s best to be quiet while standing before a clearly agitated judge. On the other hand, yes, she possesses street smarts, or survival instincts if you will, but that often entails a brazen lack of gratitude and repeatedly abusing the trust of anyone who reaches out to her:  manipulating, stealing, etc.

Of course, it’s not uncommon for filmmakers to trot out super-villains with no greater motive than to destroy anyone or anything that crosses his/her path. A classic example would be Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) in Die Hard (1988) or the hit-man played by Oscar winner Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men (2007), and, of course, the boogie men in countless slasher flicks. It’s quite another thing for a director and/or screenwriter to trust an audience enough to present a protagonist without some easily understood motivation, a sympathetic trait, or other endearing quality.  Certainly, Monster (2003), the movie about real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos (played to Oscar winning glory by Charlize Theron) works as well as it does because writer director Patty Jenkins–with magnificent assist from Theron–works hard to humanize Wuornos, showing that even a murderer, however frightening, is not created in a vacuum. Of course, Wuornos’s actions are abhorrent, to say the least, but she is not presented as purely evil. She comes from a background of abuse, is under-educated, suffers from a lack of credible job experience, and despite her best intentions, is unable (like so many other women) to get ahead in life, so she turns to the dangerous business of  prostitution and eventually retaliates against the men who abuse her. Furthermore, Monster goes to great lengths to show again that, however twisted, Wuornos is capable of feeling love for another person (in the form of the character played by Christina Ricci). In contrast, even though Citizen Ruth is a comedy, Alexander Payne (director and co-writer) and Jim Taylor (co-writer) [2] make no such efforts to soften Ruth’s recklessness, which is part of what makes the film so entertaining. It’s fun to watch what this guileless creature does next.

Ruth’s predicament in a nutshell is thus: after Ruth is arrested for the umpteenth time in less than two years, a jail house physician informs her that she is pregnant. Again. At Ruth’s arraignment, the presiding judge is so incensed by the expectant mother’s lack of regard for the safety of her unborn fetus, he threatens her with the felony charge. He later makes a verbal agreement with Ruth to the effect that the charges will be dropped if she agrees to visit a doctor and take care of the matter, thus relieving the world of yet another unwanted child taking up space in “the system.” The doctor never says the word, “abortion,” but his message is clear: terminate the pregnancy STAT! To Ruth’s rescue comes a band of stalwart do-gooders led by Kurtwood Smith, Mary Kay Place, and Swoosie Kurtz.  This merry troupe is part of  a Christian-based, cultish fellowship with  an unshakable belief in the rights of the unborn. After drumming up their every last cent to pay Ruth’s bail, Gail and Norm Stoney (Place and Smith) invite the indigent young woman to stay in their basement while strategizing a way to persuade her to keep the child, thereby sending a message to the judge–who also has a less than amicable relationship with the group known as the Baby Savers. The problem is that Ruth, like many women who are misled about such “pregnancy centers,” believes that she  is being taken to an abortion clinic and reacts rather hostilely when she finds out otherwise; moreover, she soon finds that the Stoneys are shielding her from the press, refusing to allow her to speak for herself, and are instead inventing appropriate sound bites and feeding them to the press.

Those viewers who are firmly in the pro-choice camp will no doubt take delight in the way the filmmakers mock the Stoneys, their beliefs, and their entire banal existence: Norm’s dead-end job at a hardware store as well as his sexual hypocrisy, a quaint home full of tacky furnishings in which Gail takes enormous pride; Gail’s insistence on referring to the child born of her own accidental mid-life pregnancy as a “miracle;” both parents’ ignorance and/or denial about their teenage hellion daughter, the naivete of their faith, and their single-minded quest to make anyone and everyone follow their god and share their values.  What’s not to love about such blatant absurdity? There’s something freakishly entertaining about watching Ruth’s utter and deliberate disregard for her would-be saviors, especially given their self-righteous zealotry; however, just when the story seems to hit its peak, it takes a nifty turn and becomes an even richer tale because of it.

Of course, I don’t want to give away all the movie’s surprises, but Ruth is soon caught in a game of tug of war between the snarling pack of wolves in sheep’s clothing known as the Baby Savers and an equally formidable network of  Pro-Choice Activists, a group as militant in its own way as the Baby Savers but with a much more inviting vibe: foot massages, satellite TV, etc. Now, here’s where things get a little tricky, and some viewers might argue that the movie collapses on itself by attempting too much, or for not landing squarely in one camp or another. First of all, the presentation of the lesbian couple that rescues Ruth (yet again) is a bit mean-spirited, and that’s hard to take at first; however, given what the movie ultimately accomplishes, it seems only fitting that the filmmakers should have a little fun lampooning both groups of do-gooders. After all, as Payne and Taylor offer in the DVD commentary, “good deed do-ers” do not always act in purely selfless ways. They expect a little gratitude and are often stunned when they don’t get it. You see, Ruth really never hits “rock bottom” in the classic way that characters with addictions do in movies–and in the same way as real-life addicts. Hitting rock bottom usually entails said addict finally realizing that s/he has lost control and must change his/her behavior in order to be free from the trap of addiction. Ruth will have none of that. She has plenty of dark, anguished filled moments, but she rebounds quickly and moves on to the next distraction, leaving others stupefied in her wake.

No, Ruth is not terribly bright, and, no, she doesn’t ever reach that point of utter humiliation, debasement, and remorse that would prompt her to change her ways and become an honest upright person; however, she does come to realize at some point that she is being used as a pawn in a highly political struggle, and that it is likely–very likely–that members of both camps are more interested in her unborn baby than they are in her. There’s something ironic about a person as recklessly impulsive as Ruth whining that she never gets what she wants, but she does seem to have a point in this particular case.  Sure, she’s a colossal failure as a human being, and, yes, she routinely makes bad choices, but she sees her current situation for what it is: a means to an end for others with no little or no regard for her well being. With that in mind, she basically plays one side against the other in order to secure her best interests, and, frankly, I think audiences root for her to cut through all the noise and just get on with her life (I know I do) though I worry that she’ll be back on hard times sooner rather than later. I also think that in spite of some of the script’s lapses, the film makes the case that Ruth’s choice should be hers and hers alone, thereby reaffirming a woman’s right to choose, so we can all exhale.

Ready for her close-up: fearless Laura Dern in Citizen Ruth

Dern’s performance proves a constant revelation. She isn’t afraid of showing just how pathetic and nasty “huffing” is, yet at the same time she also shows the great enjoyment Ruth derives from it, and Payne doesn’t shy away from putting the camera right up in Ruth’s face, so the audience can see the anticipation and the intensity of the high in her eyes. Plus, she isn’t afraid to play stupid, as in her scene with the judge when she conducts herself with the emotional, and perhaps intellectual, maturity of a seventh-grader. She looks like hell throughout most of the movie too even though she she’s treated to a–ghastly–makeover by Place’s Gail Stoney. Of course, there are plenty of moments in which Ruth bawls her eyes out, either in outright despair, or something akin to a juvenile fit, or even a pretend crying jag, and Dern plays them all expertly. Think about that. How many times is an actor/actress asked to play three different levels of hysterical sobbing? Finally, next to the scene with the judge, Ruth’s utter cluelessness is best displayed during the anti-abortion counseling session. Her reaction to the chirpy pair played by Kathleen Noone and the recently deceased Kenneth Mars is an absolute howl, especially when Ruth spews out what has to be one of the most outrageous lines in movie history (a line that is almost topped by her final blow to a not so disinterested party in one of the movie’s final scenes). Again, Dern is fearless. It’s hard to imagine that too many actresses would be willing to go as far as Ruth/Dern does in this movie–and not worry about career repercussions as a result. By the way: besides Dern, Kurtz, Mars, Noone, Place and Smith,  Citizen Ruth also features a doozy of a performance by Kelly Preston, virtually unrecognizable as Jerry Maguire‘s ambitious, career oriented ex-fiancee from the same moviegoing season, as well as solid support from M.C.Gainey and spot-on cameos from Burt Reynolds and Tippi Hedren.

In early 1997, Entertainment Weekly  published its second annual Oscar race preview issue, handicapping the major races before the nominees were even announced. Besides weighing the chances of McDormand, Brenda Blethyn (Secrets and Lies), Diane Keaton (Marvin’s Room), Madonna, Reynolds and a few other high profile contenders, the editors singled out Dern as a “Loveable Longshot” in a special sidebar, which is how I first found out about Citizen Ruth though I scarcely recognized Dern in the accompanying photo. Here is a quote from the text: “Few people have seen LAURA DERN in Citizen Ruth. That’s a shame, because in a season full of actresses taking big risks, her blunt, unsentimental performance is the bravest, funniest high-wire act of all. As the screwy, incorrigibly stupid pawn of both anti-abortion fundamentalists and pro-choice lesbians, Dern is a heroine worth rooting for. That’s more than acting — it’s alchemy”[3].  Thanks to the EW blurb, I made a beeline to see the flick as soon as it opened at the old UA Ciné. Thanks, EW!  Okay, so Dern wasn’t nominated by the Academy. I get it; I just don’t get how she was overlooked for as much as an Independent Spirit Award or even recognition at the Sundance Film Festival. No, Dern’s only award came from the judges of the Montreal Film Festival, which is better than nothing but still seems like small potatoes. I guess that’s why the work sometimes has to be its own reward. Fifteen years later, I’m still singing its praises, right?

A 1991/92 Best Actress nominee for Rambling Rose (a movie produced by her then s.o., Renny Harlin, and co-starring her mother Diane Ladd, also Oscar nominated), Dern’s greatest impact has arguably been been felt on TV, including a recent Golden Globe award along with Emmy and Screen Actors Guild nominations for her performance as Florida election official Katherine Harris in Recount, the HBO docudrama about the debacle known as the 2000 presidential election. [She also boasts an Emmy nod for her HBO series Enlightened.]  That noted, her film resumé is none too shabby, what with the likes of Jurassic Park (1993), and a pair of high profile offerings from David Lynch, Blue Velvet (1986) and Wild at Heart (1990). Of course, with a meager budget of–only–three million, and a box office gross of barely one hundred grand (as reported on the IMDb via Box Office Mojo), Citizen Ruth is worlds removed from the stratospheric success of Jurassic Park, but given the choice of watching Dern duke it out against blood curdling dinosaurs in a jungle wonderland, or  against bloodthirsty do-gooders in the barren, wintry landscape of Omaha, Nebraska, I choose the latter. Now, that’s what I call fearless.

[1]  I also think a case could also be made for Heather Matarazzo, all of 11 years old when she filmed Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse; she was around 13 when the film was released in 1996.  Matarazzo packs a wallop as a junior high misfit who really can’t seem to catch a break between being mercilessly bullied at school and chronically misunderstood by her parents. Of course, she’s a middle child. At any rate, Matarazzo is as fearless in her own way in Solondz’s dark comedy as Dern is in Citizen Ruth; however, back in 1996/97, well before Keisha Castle-Hughes in Whale Rider (2003)  and Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012), it seemed a huge, huge leap to think that a juvenile star would make the final cut in a leading performance category. On the other hand, I do remember writing at the time that there wasn’t a trophy big enough to honor what Matarazzo achieved in her film–but I digress.

[2] Citizen Ruth was the first feature film from the team of Payne and Taylor, who eventually shared a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for 2004’s Sideways. Furthermore, Payne’s care with performers, already evident with Dern in Citizen Ruth, becomes even more apparent with each subsequent film, beginning with Reese Witherspoon’s lauded turn as Tracy Flick in Election (1999), and on up through the Oscar nominated performances of Jack Nicholson and Kathy Bates in About Schmidt (2002), as well as those of Thomas Haden Church and Virginia Madsen in Sideways.

Since I wrote this piece, Alexander Payne has made yet another trip to the Oscars with 2011’s The Descendants starring George Clooney. The movie was nominated in a number of categories, including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Director. It earned Best Adapted Screenplay honors for Payne along with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash; Payne’s usual collaborator Jim Taylor was on board as a co-producer. Since then,  Faxon and Rash have enjoyed success with The  Way Way Back. Furthermore, it looks like Payne and company could be heading back to the Oscars with Nebraska, which nabbed Best Actor honors for no less than Bruce Dern (yep, Laura’s dad, a longtime Hollywood veteran and former Oscar nominee–for 1978’s Coming Home) at the most recent Cannes film fest.

[3] To read more about Entertainment Weekly‘s preview of the 1996/97 Oscar campaigns, please click here: http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,286471,00.html