Archive | October, 2011

That’s Dope

27 Oct

A neighborhood fixture since 1947, the Inwood Theatre's neon sign was designated an official Dallas landmark by the city council in 1988.

This post is dedicated to my friends at Dallas’s beautiful Inwood Theatre, which was recently singled out by USA Today as one of the “10 Great Places to See a Movie in Splendor.” Well, it’s about time. I love the Inwood Theatre and see movies there as often as possible. During the 1980s and 1990s, the Inwood was simply the go-to spot for the finest in specialty/indie films. These days, Dallas has more such theaters, including the Magnolia, which is also part of the same Landmark Theatres chain that owns the Inwood–and is now a part of the Cuban Wagner group–Cuban being Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks.  Even so, nothing beats the Inwood for beautiful old world elegance, and it’s the only historic theater of its kind still operating in Dallas. Luckily, it has been thoughtfully refurbished and is as modern as some of the newer players. In short: it really does represent the best of both worlds.

Oh, the many movies I have seen at the Inwood–hundreds and hundreds, I’m sure. Don’t ask me to name them all, or even half, because there are just so, so, many.  Oh sure, I missed the two year run of The Sound of Music back in the mid 1960s for reasons so petty they defy a rational explanation; however, I later had the privilege of meeting the manager from that era, and he shared a lot of  Sound of Music stories, including one about a site visit from director Robert Wise. I even saw the photos. When I was in high school, I was too poor to make the trek from Garland to see Tommy. On the other hand, a year or so later, I won a pass to a screening of The Deep. My real love affair with the Inwood began in the early 1980s when the theater became a showcase for specialized programming.  Let me rattle off some of the highlights: Diva (my absolute favorite French film), Come Back to the 5 and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, Stop Making Sense, Paris, Texas,  Babette’s Feast, A Room with a View, Far North, Howards End, Apartment Zero, Much Ado About NothingLike Water for Chocolate, Paris Burning, Ruby in Paradise, Indochine, Hamlet (the full-scale Kenneth Branagh adaptation), Life is Beautiful, Run, Lola, Run, The Cooler, and The Girl with the Pearl Earring.  Well, that’s just a starter list. I also saw the re-releases, or restored versions, of McCabe and Mrs. MillerCasablanca, Rear Window, and Metropolis.  I’m sure I’m missing a few stellar achievements, and I apologize.

While Miramax was generating reams of publicity during the 1989-1990 awards season with the likes of My Left Foot and sex, lies, and videotape, Gus Van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy, from Avenue Pictures, quietly sneaked in and won top honors from the National Society of Film Critics. I first saw the movie at a screening at Dallas's Inwood theatre.

For some reason, the Inwood entry that stands out most in memory is 1989’s Drugstore Cowboy, directed by Gus Van Sant, and starring Matt Dillon in a breakthrough role, but let’s back up just a wee bit before Drugstore Cowboy‘s release in the fall of 1989 to, say, May of the same year. I think most film industry analysts, scholars, and good old fashioned aficionados would agree that 1989 was a seminal year in the evolution of so-called independent film (which has also been tagged at various times as “specialty films” and “art house” fare). Why 1989? Well, that was the year in which a little known filmmaker from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, rocked audiences, the press, and the jurors at the Cannes Film Festival in May of that year. The filmmaker was Steve Soderbergh, and the film was sex, lies, and videotape. Soderbergh’s film won three awards at Cannes, including the Palme D’Or (the Golden Palm, aka, Best Picture), and Best Actor for James Spader, a young blond WASPish actor with an exciting presence who was better known at that time for playing supporting roles, often of the slimeball or weasel variety (a notable exception being 1988’s super fun modern take on Jack the Ripper, Jack’s Back, in which Spader played the twin lead roles). sex, lies, and videotape also did wonders for the career of actress Andie MacDowell, a dark haired beauty with a Southern twang who had had an awful time trying to transition from model to actress.  Director Soderbergh was only 26 at the time, and sex, lies, and videotape, which had also generated a lot of buzz at the previous  Sundance Film Festival, was his first feature film. With its provocative title and stunning cast of relatively fresh young faces, sex, lies, and videotape helped change the face of popular moviegoing. There was nothing “fringe” or “specialized” about it. It was just an enthralling slice of cinematic life with major crossover appeal. Made for a modest one million or so, it eventually grossed a healthy 24 million.

The U.S. distribution of sex, lies, and videotape was handled by a little company called Miramax, founded by brothers Bob and Harvey Weinstein. The company had been around for years and was not in the business at that time of actually making and/or financing movies. Mainly, the company’s goal was to buy the rights to independent films and to secure a place for them with exhibitors. By the end of 1989, Miramax  proved that its success with sex, lies, and videotape wasn’t exactly a fluke when it picked up the rights to Italy’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, Cinema Paradiso, as well as Irish filmmaker Jim Sheridan’s My Left Foot. The latter tells the story of (male) artist Christy Brown, who was born with cerebral palsy, and, as the title indicates, did indeed learn how to paint using his left foot. The film was an astonishing, virtuosic showcase for actor Daniel Day Lewis, who had mostly been hailed as a “promising newcomer” up to that point with roles in A Room with a View and My Beautiful Laundrette (both in 1986).  At Oscar time, Lewis won the actor for Best Oscar against a strong lineup that included Morgan Freeman (in Best Picture winner Driving Miss Daisy), and Tom Cruise (playing paralyzed war veteran turned anti-war activist Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July), not to mention another staggeringly talented newcomer Kenneth Branagh in Shakespeare’s Henry V, a film in which Branagh not only played the lead role but also directed (his first film), and for which he was Oscar nominated in two categories. Not bad. My Left Foot also earned a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Brenda Fricker (as Christy Brown’s ma), and earned additional nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. (The fifth nominee was Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, but I digress.)

On the other hand, despite the big build-up, the Academy backed away from showing too much love to sex, lies, and videotape. Soderbergh was nominated for writing, but not directing, one of the year’s most talked about films (whose title became something akin to an instant catch-phrase), and despite rave reviews, a plethora of publicity, and consideration by other awards societies, both Spader and MacDowell were glossed over for Academy nominations. I was perturbed about this at the time, a wee bit more so for McDowell than Spader, but I was also frustrated at the time that the Academy couldn’t see its collective way to nominating Matt Dillon for his impeccable work in Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy, an arguably less celebrated offering from indie outfit Avenue,  which, as the title so obviously suggests, is a wry druggy black comedy about a lifelong user–and career criminal–with solidly middle class values and aspirations.  Twenty-two years after the fact, this film still resonates. I think about it often and would rather watch it any day of the week over sex, lies, and videotape or My Left Foot, both of which I loved, loved, loved, back in the day.

Drugstore Cowboy is based on James Fogle’s semi-autobiographical novel about his days back in the early 1970’s when he and a ragtag makeshift family robbed pharmacies up and down the Pacific Northwest coast; however, they weren’t in it for the money. It was all about the narcotics. Fogle, represented in the film by Dillon’s Bob Hughes, was no blue-jean clad, acid tripping, counter-culture hippie like the popular stereotype of that era. Instead, Hughes is a bit of a square, favoring plaid pants, V-neck sweaters, and old-school golf shirts; the look is no mere affectation as Hughes considers himself an avid golfer. Indeed, there’s something funny about Hughes’s resolutely middle class, middle age, mindset–he even hollers, “Honey, I’m home”  after stumbling through the door of a motel following a nasty scrape at a hospital dispensary. The absurdity of Bob’s apparent squareness is compounded by the fact that he is still a young man. Dillon was only in his mid-to-late twenties when he made the film–and Fogle was still in his early 30s during the time  chronicled in his book.

"Upon entering my vein, the drug would start a warm itch that would surge along until the brain consumed it in a gentle explosion that began in the back of the neck and rose rapidly until I felt such pleasure that the whole world sympathized and took on a soft lofty appeal. Everything was grand then."

Make no mistake:  Hughes is a self-described dope fiend, a man so caught up in his addiction that he can’t even wait to get home before he indulges, preferring to shoot up in the back seat of his getaway car–much to the chagrin of his sexy wife Diane, played with gusto by Kelly Lynch.  Dillon’s bedroom eyes are never dreamier than in tight close-ups as he slumps over against the backseat window and gives himself over to yet another drug induced high. Furthermore, Hughes is so enthralled with his addiction that he no sooner walks away from one haul than he grows antsy to plan another heist. Not only that, he’s so preoccupied with scoring drugs that he can’t even think about making love to his own wife, once again to her chagrin. One of the most comical scenes in the film comes when Diane tries to rouse Bob with a flirtatious strip routine much to Bob’s tweaked-out bewilderment. Dillon’s twitchy reactions to Lynch’s bump and grind are priceless. He honestly believes his wife is about to go off the deep end, to the point that he wonders if she’s high on airplane glue–as though neither of them lives in a drug induced free-for-all.  Diane doesn’t take well to her husband’s lack of affection, which gives Lynch the chance to deliver  one of the most quoted lines in the whole film: “You won’t fuck me and I always have to drive” (sic).

Even though Bob has been in and out of the slammer throughout his adult life, his crimes tend to be non-violent; however, in spite of all of Bob’s precautions and superstitions, his posse hits a streak of bad luck. Bob and his crew are so sloppy anymore that they can barely stay ahead of the police. Plus, the actual escapes are becoming narrower and narrower. Years of consuming drugs and trying to avoid the law have taken their toll, and Bob, to his detriment, allows himself to be controlled by fear and paranoia. He is so spooked by the idea of hexes and curses that he has a laundry list of things which must be avoided at all costs, including dogs and placing hats on beds. He is even haunted by visions of hats, lots and lots of hats. The thrills come to a crashing halt when tragedy befalls the group,  and Bob decides to go straight. It’s not so much that Bob hits rock bottom and sees the error of his ways. No, it’s more like he is so exhausted by all the work that goes into a life of being a dope fiend and a thief, that he would rather switch to a life of actual normalcy than continue to fight.

Bob: "Diane was my wife. I loved her, and she loved dope. So we made a good couple. " Diane: "You won't fuck me and I always have to drive."

The group disperses, including Bob’s wife who simply doesn’t have it in her to go straight, and Bob heads off to a 21 day Methadone program. He eventually gets a modest flat and a job in a machine shop. There’s something touching about these scenes as Bob tries to adjust to a uneventful “virtuous” routine that allows him the  time to enjoy simple pleasures like a nice cup of tea in the morning or end of the day.  Dillon is also especially good in a couple of scenes when he explains who he is to a drug counselor, played by Beah Richards. He doesn’t apologize, beg  forgiveness, or make excuses. He doesn’t even cry.  He just tells the counselor the honest truth:  “I’m a junkie, I like drugs, I like the whole lifestyle. But it just didn’t pay off. You know, you don’t see my kind of people. Because my kind of people don’t beg dope, they go out and get it. ” He also explains, “Well, to begin with, nobody, and I mean nobody, can talk a junkie out of using. You can talk to ’em for years but sooner or later they’re gonna get ahold of something. Maybe it’s not dope. Maybe it’s booze, maybe it’s glue, maybe it’s gasoline. Maybe it’s a gunshot to the head. But something. Something to relieve the pressures of their everyday life, like having to tie their shoes. ”  Dillon is so good at what he does that it often seems as though he isn’t acting at all. Listen to the subtle shifts in his voice when he tries to sway a motel manager to give him a break in order to buy time after an unpleasant turn of events. Plus, he’s always doing something interesting with his body language, but not in an overt way. I’d say there’s hardly a single false note in his performance though it lacks the time honored traditions that signify the whole “Acting with a Capital A” effect that curries favor with Academy voters. If Drugstore Cowboy were one of those movies, Dillon would break down with his counselor, or experience a catharsis after hitting rock bottom and seeing the light, especially after one particularly grim awakening. Instead, he shows that he’s like anybody else just trying to make sense out of a less than perfect world.

Now, allow me to be abundantly clear about a thing or two. Yes, much of Drugstore Cowboy is played for laughs, but as a person who has seen first hand the devastating effect that addiction can take on a family, I  don’t necessarily think that director Gus Van Sant’s purpose is to make drug use funny. I think the point is that the characters’ cluelessness about who and what they are is at extreme odds with their dead-end lives, and there is something bizarrely funny about that.  At one point, Bob explains to one of his minions that driving a truck is a smart choice for an impending nighttime robbery  because it provides the perfect cover: good ole farmboys out for “a joyride.”  His stoner friend earnestly replies, “I always wanted to be a farmer, Bob.” Even  on the DVD commentary, Dillon and Van Sant repeatedly compare Bob and Diane to the characters played by Jackie Gleason and Audrey Meadows on the old Honeymooners TV series, albeit the skid row edition, and nothing says skid row better than Portland Oregon during what looks to be the dead of winter. Furthermore, despite the laughs, of which there are several, the movie also shows that the momentary pleasures of habitual drug use are not to enough to justify all the trouble these characters put themselves through in order to get high. Not only that, the film serves as a bit of a cautionary tale in that even when Bob goes straight, his past is always catching up with him.  Indeed, even Fogle, the author of the source material, has had a hard time going straight. He was actually in prison at the time of the film’s release, and his book had not been officially published (how a then little known filmmaker like Gus Van Sant secured the rights in the first place is a bit of a mystery). In the years since then, Fogle has run up against the law numerous times, and is once again serving time. The ending to the movie is both ambiguous and curiously ironic.

William S. Burroughs (l) as "Tom the Priest" explains to Matt Dillon's Bob Hughes (r) that "Narcotics have been systematically scapegoated and demonized." Father Tom further warns of a time "in the near future " in which "right-wingers will use drug hysteria as a pretext to set up an international police apparatus."

Besides the stellar performances by Dillon and Lynch, Van Sant has assembled quite a colorful cast, including James Le Gros, as dim sidekick Rick; Heather Graham, as Rick’s  beautiful but naive girlfriend Nadine;  Grace Zabriskie, as Bob’s conflicted, tart-tongued ma (and her beehive hairdo is spot-on);  Max Perlich, the neighborhood’s  jittery pint-sized thug; husky voiced James Remar, a police detective who, despite his self-righteous, gruff demeanor, might very well be the only real friend that Bob has, and the aforementioned Emmy winner and former Oscar nominee Beah Richards [1]  as  Bob’s drug counselor.  The movie’s casting coup is none other than the since decreased Naked Lunch author William S. Burroughs, a well known former drug fiend in his own right who plays a character named “Tom the Priest,” a frail,  unfortunate junkie who turned Bob on to drugs when the latter was still an altar boy. Oh yeah.  Burroughs, with his natty style, gravelly voice, and sardonic delivery, has a rollicking good time with the brief bit. I’ll never forget that night when I saw this movie at the Inwood. Burroughs’ every entrance, every utterance, and even the flashing of his name during the opening credits, elicited applause, whistles, and lots of laughs from the audience. Good times.

Drugstore Cowboy isn’t just cinematic; it’s textured. Oh sure, Van Sant and cinematographer Robert Yeoman have fun conjuring Bob’s hallucinatory collages, a few of which have the same effect as Dorothy watching farm animals and the like sweep past her bedroom window in The Wizard of Oz‘s twister sequence. No, it’s more than that: the screenplay is textured: in any given scene, the characters are operating on multiple levels, and the dialogue often works on multiple levels. Of course, Van Sant and co-writer Daniel Yost never forget that who the characters are, and who think they are, is a constant source of tension; moreover, since they are paranoid junkies, they are not even always on the up and up with one another.  The other element that shows a lot of texture is the locations and the way they are presented. Here again, credit goes to Yeoman, as well as a whole design team that includes David Brisbin, Eve Cauley,  Margaret Goldsmith, and Beatrix Aruna Pazstor.  The sets look appropriately lived-in, but not too tacky, and the costumes are chosen to suggest something about the characters, as well as where, when, and how they live, without lapsing into period shtick. Finally, a lot of praise is owed to composer Ellior Goldenthal [2]  for creating a score that serves as more of an aural landscape, a fitting accompaniment to Bob’s drug induced state. Plus, he and Van Sant throw in a few–just a few–well chosen oldies, including “For All We Know” by Abbey Lincoln, “Put a Little Love in Your Heart” by Jackie DeShannon, and “The Israelites” by Desmond Dekker and the Aces.

Drugstore Cowboy was instrumental to the careers of most everyone involved, but especially Dillon and Van Sant. For starters, the movie helped Dillon definitively transition from the youthful roles  (Little Darlings, The Outsiders, The Flamingo Kid, etc) that made him a teen favorite to fully adult characters. He followed Drugstore Cowboy with a remake of Ira Levin’s classic murder mystery A Kiss Before Dying. In 1992’s Singles, he stole almost every scene as an aspiring long haired musician (whose backup band was played by members of the still up and coming Pearl Jam). He reteamed with Van Sant f0r 1995’s To Die For; exactly ten years later, he scored an Oscar  nomination as Best Supporting Actor for playing the thankless role of a racist police officer who exhibits surprising depth in controversial Best Picture winner Crash.  In 2010, he was on view as a detective in a more traditional heist film entitled Takers. Drugstore Cowboy was Van Sant’s second feature film (following Mala Noche), and he went from the likes of  My Own Private Idaho and To Die For to more mainstream success with Good Will Hunting (1997), which, besides being a major Oscar contender (including nominations for Best Picture and Best Director), was released under the Miramax banner. Only by that time, Miramax was no longer merely a distributor of independent films but was also financing films and operating as an arm of the huge Disney conglomerate. Yikes! By the way: I actually loathed Good Will Hunting, and I’m proud to say it. I was embarrassed for Van Sant, even with all those Oscar nominations. Van Sant’s more recent titles include Elephant and Milk. The former, inspired by Columbine High School massacre, was the big winner at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival; the latter portrayed the life of slain gay rights activist Harvey Milk. That film was also nominated for Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director, and it provided a stunning showcase for Best Actor winner Sean Penn.

Back to the 1989-1990 awards: despite being snubbed by the Academy, Drugstore Cowboy fared quite well during the pre-Oscar derby, claiming the National Society of Film Critics’ prizes for  Best Picture and Best Director, as well as Best Screenplay honors for Van Sant and Yost. The pair also won a writing award from the Los Angeles Film Critics even though that group saved its top awards for Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. At that year’s Independent Spirit Awards, Matt Dillon bested frontrunner James Spader for the Best Actor trophy. Drugstore Cowboy also won Independent Spirit Awards for Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, and Best Supporting Actor (Max Perlich). Lynch lost the Independent Spirit award for Best Actress to sex, lies, and videotape‘s Andie MacDowell; Heather Graham lost in the supporting category to Laura San Giacomo in the role of MacDowell’s duplicitous younger sister.

When I started this blog over the summer, I’d always had plans to write about Drugstore Cowboy as one of the greatest movies of its time, and a truly independent film in the often misunderstood indie genre–misunderstood in that many of the so-called independent film companies, as my friend Tom Hendricks at the Inwood (see MUSEA below) will certainly testify, are simply boutique enterprises funded by the major conglomerates (i.e., “independent film” is a relative term). Nevertheless, Drugstore Cowboy endures, just as the Inwood Theatre endures; moreover, per the USA Today accolades, the Inwood thrives and does so with splendor–and that’s no dope. Thanks for your consideration…

[1] Richards was Oscar nominated as Best Supporting Actress for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967); her Emmy wins are for The Practice and Frank’s Place. To read more about her illustrious career, click here: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0723968/

[2] Goldenthal has since won an Oscar for his score to the 2002 biopic about iconic artist Frida Kahlo, Frida. Read more about him at: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0006106/

Other helpful links:

USA Today (9/29/11): “10 great places to see a movie in splendor”

http://travel.usatoday.com/destinations/10great/story/2011-09-29/10-great-places-to-see-a-movie-in-splendor/50611456/1

Inwood Theatre site with official history:

http://www.landmarktheatres.com/market/dallas/inwoodtheatre.htm

Link to the website for MUSEA, the ‘zine dedicated to anti-corporate art (created and produced by Tom Hendricks):

http://www.Musea.us/

The MUSEA blog at WordPress.com:

http://musea.wordpress.com/

Seattle Times article about James Fogle’s latest arrest: http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/theblotter/2014402016_drugstore_cowboy_author_headed.html

The Little Movie about the Big Red Horse that Could

14 Oct

Margo Martindale (l) as Elizabeth Ham and Diane Lane (r) as Penny Chenery in the climactic Belmont sequence in Secretariat. The film’s epilogue features a photo of the real Miss Ham showing that Martindale’ s hat is an excellent match for one sported by the woman who came up with the official racing name of the horse everyone else referred to as “Big Red.”

Well, apparently, ‘I’ll Have Another’ won’t have much of anything.  This year’s much ballyhooed Triple Crown contender has been retired, apparently due to tendonitis, and won’t be running in today’s race at Belmont. No Triple Crown again. On the other hand, we can all still savor the sweet victory of Secretariat, the most legendary race horse of them all; this article was originally published on October 14, 2011, but the movie is still as worthwhile as it ever was…

Last month, the great veteran character actress Margo Martindale won the Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series thanks to her role in Justified. Her role was that of a despicable maven of a reportedly nasty backwoods clan. Well, I never saw the show, but that appears to be the gist of it. For Martindale, it was a nice break  given that, despite all the acclaim, her character didn’t make it past the season finale. Still, Martindale is one of the most reliable  actresses on the scene with roles in everything from the landmark TV series Lonesome Dove to such popular  big screen entertainments as The Firm (1993) and Practical Magic (1998) as well as prestige, Oscar caliber fare, including Dead Man Walking (1995), The Hours (1995), and Million Dollar Baby (2004). She’s lent her considerable gifts to such diverse offerings as The Laramie Project to Hannah Montana: The Movie; more recently, she was seen in this past spring’s well reviewed Win Win. Additionally, her resume includes a Tony nomination for her featured role as “Big Mama” in the 2003 Broadway revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Also on hand for  last month’s Emmy awards was Diane Lane, nominated as Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or [TV] Movie. Lane was up for the award based on her performance as Pat Loud in Cinema Verite, an HBO docudrama about the making of TV’s groundbreaking reality series, An American Family. The 1973 PBS production focused on the unraveling of a seemingly average upper middle class family from Santa Barbara, California. Unlike what passes as “reality” on most of today’s glut of such fare, An American Family was real-life unfolding, more or less in real time without a lot of contrivance and narratives dreamed up in the editing process. Among that show’s unexpected turns were Pat Loud’s on- camera decision to divorce her husband, and the more or less coming out story of the Loud’s gay son Lance, who, as the first openly gay series regular on American TV,  became an icon for the Gay Liberation movement (he passed away in 2001). Unlike Martindale, Lane lost in her category, unsurprisingly, to Kate Winslet in the new adaptation of film noir classic, Mildred Pierce (for which Joan Crawford won 1945’s Best Actress Oscar).

Interestingly, though Lane is fourteen years younger than Martindale,  the former has actually been acting professionally in movies and TV a bit longer than the latter. After all, Lane delighted audiences as a teenager way back in 1979’s A Little Romance while, aside from commercials, Martindale’s first actual TV credit is for 1988’s  The Child Saver. Coincidentally, Martindale’s second TV credit (per the IMDb) is the aforementioned Lonesome Dove, which also featured an Emmy nominated performance by none other than guess who? Diane Lane. Also coincidentally, it was almost exactly a year ago that the two women appeared together in Secretariat. Released on October 8, 2010, Secretariat tells the amazing story of the titular colt, the most famous, and most beloved, Triple Crown winner in the history of organized American “Thoroughbred Horse Racing.”  To clarify: the Triple Crown is the honor reserved for horses that win three of the year’s biggest annual horse races, the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes. Triple Crown winners are rare. There have only been 11 winners since 1919; moreover, there has not been a Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.  Not only was Secretariat one of the last three horses to bear the Triple Crown (with Seattle Slew on board in 1977), he was the first such champion in 25 years. Additionally, his victories were decisive, especially his triumphant run at the Belmont, an astonishing record that still holds to this day.

It seems odd that it took so long for Hollywood to tell this great story. The film, directed by Randall Wallace (the Oscar nominated screenwriter of 1995’s Best Picture winner, Braveheart), was released by the folks at Disney proper–not one of their many subsidiaries–and in the weeks and months leading up to Secretariat‘s debut, buzz started building that it would be the new-next The Blind Side, the 2009 Sandra Bullock smash hit that earned its star an Oscar and even snagged a “surprise” Best Picture nomination. My guess is all that buzz was generated and/or leaked by someone at, or affiliated with,  the studioFull disclosure: I’m a huge, huge fan of The Blind Side, and for reasons that are probably too complicated to ferret through in the space of this blog. That noted, the  comparison to The Blind Side probably did more harm to Secretariat than good. Allow me to “unpack” that, if you will: first of all, the Blind Side was a Warner Bros’ film, and not a Disney film, so that’s already problematic because by all accounts, even the suits at Warners didn’t know what they had on their hands until it just sort of erupted.

Anyone who doesn’t think that Disney had The Blind Side’s success in mind when it came time to promote Secretariat need only compare the DVD cover art of both films…

Let’s backtrack just a bit.  In the fall of  2009, when Warners was preparing its year-end slate of holiday blockbusters and Oscar hopefuls, the movie that reportedly was deemed most worthy of the studio’s consideration was Clint Eastwood’s Invictus, starring previous Oscar winner Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela. Certainly the combination of Eastwood and Freeman seemed promising, what with the enviable success of the pair’s Million Dollar Baby (2004), which not only took in considerable box office bucks, it also earned two Oscars for Eastwood for directing and producing, as well as one, as previously noted,  for Freeman as Best Supporting Actor; however, the reality was much different because Invictus, which was an incredibly moving film, proved to be a tough sell at the box office though Freeman was deservedly nominated for Best Actor. Meanwhile, the studio was, well, you know, blind-sided by the success of  the Bullock film, which tells the story NFL player Michael Oher who was born into horrifying poverty in Memphis, Tennessee, and was adopted by a loving, wealthy family during his high school years. To clarify, Oher is black, his adoptive mother is white, and she doesn’t like to be told, “no.”  Lord, have mercy. Made for a reported–and measly–29 million, The Blind Side made all of its money back on opening weekend even though it placed second in the weekend tallies (behind one of the Twilight movies), and it just never stopped: 10 weeks in the top 10 (hitting number one only once),  another 10 in the top 20 (often ranking as high as 11 or 12), for a slammin’ domestic gross of over 250 million dollars. Believe me, no one saw this coming. Movies about rich white women adopting under-resourced black youth is not what Hollywood is all about, not with the likes of effects driven spectacles like Twilight, Sherlock Holmes, and Avatar in the fray, which, indeed, were the movies The Blind Side was competing against in the marketplace. In contrast, Twilight: New Moon fell out of the box office top 20 during week 10, and Sherlock Holmes did so during week 11. Both movies made over 200 million domestically, but they also cost considerably more to produce and market than did The Blind Side.

The DVDs of both The Blind Side and Secretariat feature covers that depict silhouetted figures framed against glowing, “inspirational” skies. Likewise, they both sport taglines announcing that each is based on a “true story” that is either “extraordinary” or “impossible.” What’s curious is that the faces of the leading ladies are both obscured, and, as I recall, Sandra Bullock had already won the Best Actress Oscar by the time her movie came out on DVD, so why was her contribution so marginalized?

Again, The Blind Side was a genuine phenomenon, and it was foolish for the people at Disney to even attempt to frame Secretariat in a similar manner–as it would be stupid for any horse owner, trainer, or jockey to up and announce that s/he had found the next Secretariat. That brings me to the second reason that trying to market Secretariat as another The Blind Side showed a lack of foresight. Michael Oher’s story was not one that was necessarily known by millions upon millions of people. It was certainly not history making front page news. In that way, The Blind Side had the advantage of delighting audiences by telling a story that was not overly familiar. Secretariat‘s story is actually legendary. The outcome is already well known; otherwise, there wouldn’t be a story  at all. Furthermore, since the big red horse was never really an underdog in the truest sense of the word, there’s not even a David and Goliath angle to use as a hook.  Of course, movies about historical events often run the risk of being so well known that they can seem anti-climactic, especially in these economically tough times. On the other hand, there are exceptions, one of the most famous being Titanic (1997). To clarify, a movie that tells a true story in which the result is already known is not necessarily a bad thing. It just represents a marketing challenge, a disadvantage, if you will, and I think the people who designed the advertising campaign for Secretariat  miscalculated when they tried to, well, ride the coattails of a movie with only a superficial resemblance.

Now, the question is, other than the fact that big-time studio personnel are often greedy, stupid, and unimaginative, why would the folks at Disney ever think to link their movie with The Blind Side in the first place? Well, for starters, they are both true stories, uplifting stories at that, and they are both set in the world of sports although football and horse racing are miles removed from each other in almost every conceivable way. Plus, they are both set in the South. The Blind Side is set in Tennessee, and much of Secretariat takes place in Virginia. Fair enough. Finally, and most convincingly, both movies include strong female characters played by reliable, likable actresses. Indeed, it is Diane Lane’s appealing performance as Penny Chenery (married name Tweedy), Secretariat’s owner, that gives the movie its twist.

Since the story of Secretariat is so well known, screenwriter Mike Rich, borrowing from the book Secretariat: The Making of a Champion by William Nack, shifts much of the focus on Mrs. Tweedy, a so-called “housewife” who made the decision to “split”  her time with her husband and children in Denver in order to oversee her incapacitated father’s Virginia stables rather than sell the business, which she was actually encouraged to do by family members; the movie gets at this almost right from the beginning when Lane is wedged between two actors named Dylan telling her what to do: Dylan Walsh plays her husband Jack (a lawyer), and SMU alum Dylan Baker as her brother (a Harvard economics professor). Penny’s story is one of the most intriguing aspects of Secretariat. Keep in mind that in 1973, the women’s movement was taking hold as women all over the country were having their consciousness raised. Penny’s story is a perfect metaphor for the times as evidenced by the fact that she breaks generations of social taboos when she disregards the “No Women Allowed” policy at a fancy, old moneyed men’s club where one of her father’s associates is eating lunch. I don’t know if this event actually happened, but I’m sure someone does; however, I did recently read a report in which Chenery was singled out as being one of the first women to be admitted to the fabled Jockey Club, and that was as late as 1983–a full ten years after Secretariat won the Triple Crown. Additionally, the movie gets a few more historical details right as it shows the Tweedy’s teenage daughter Kate involved in a protest against the Vietnam War, a startling, yet welcome, reminder of a time in which even high school students spoke out against an unpopular war.

diane-lane-secretariatjpg-1093c33abfd8ca2f

Diane Lane in Secretariat: the challenge of playing opposite an animal, a thoroughbred no less, while wearing a bouffant hairdo and the sensible yet elegant wardrobe of a Nixon era wealthy white woman.

Kate’s activism is a fitting contrast to Penny’s reticence early in the film. Though Kate wears her sense of right and wrong on her sleeve, Penny doesn’t necessarily agree with or even understand her daughter’s need to be outspoken. The mother doesn’t dissuade her daughter’s interests, exactly.  Mostly, she’s mystified more than anything else. In contrast, Chenery’s style is much more reserved than her daughter’s, yet she’s no less opinionated, and that’s kind of the point. Once Penny, a college graduate, rediscovers her twin passions for horses and for running a business, her consciousness is raised, and she learns to speak out for what she believes–and does so eloquently–just like scores of other women from the same era; however, none of that changes who she is as a person. It’s not a radical transformation. She does not burn her bra, let her hair go “natural,”  and turn into either Norman Rae or Jane Fonda in Coming Home (1979). Even so, Lane navigates the subtle shifts in Tweedy well; moreover, given Penny’s unfailing poise, Lane is not afforded many opportunities for Hollywood grandstanding, but this game actress  is completely captivating as she shows Penny trying to juggle multiple roles: wife, mother, daughter, sister, female interloper, business woman, and animal lover.  There’s also something amusing about seeing this normally earthy screen goddess a bit, well, reined in, as she conducts all of her business sporting a bouffant hairdo and the sensible yet elegant wardrobe of a Nixon era wealthy white woman. Once again, Lane has not been “drabbed down” too severely, but she is definitely ” in character,” and she looks more mature than what her actual age suggests though in actuality she’s only about 5 years younger than Ms. Tweedy was back in 1973.

Lane shines in a number of sequences. My favorite are those in which Penny holds her own against the male establishment during heated press conferences. She chooses her words carefully, never loses her composure, and even manages to be slightly self-deprecating. There’s also another scene in which Chenery struggles to set aside a crushing loss during a late night phone call to her daughter. It’s a short scene, barely more than a flicker, but it packs a solid punch. It hardly hurts that the scene is smashingly photographed through a rain splattered phone booth, carrying with it all the attention to composition and palette that brings to mind an Edward Hopper painting. She also has the challenge of acting in a handful of scenes opposite only the horse, and she does so with just the right amount of conviction. She’s also asked to breathe new life into a scene that’s basically a retread of Scarlett O’Hara’s “With God as my witness” speech, which she does with aplomb. Plus, she’s positively exultant when she echos her father’s sentiments as she exclaims,  “Let him run, Ronnie, let him run” during the climactic Belmont race.

June 9, 1973, Belmont Park: When Secretariat was already ahead by a dozen lengths, announcer Chick Anderson historically proclaimed, “He is moving like a tremendous machine!” Secretariat went on to win by a staggering 31 lengths, capturing the Triple Crown in the process. Jockey Ronnie Turcotte’s response was, “I finally had to turn to see where the other horses were. I know this sounds crazy, but the horse did it by himself. I was along for the ride.” In the DVD featurette, actress Diane Lane lavishes praise on Turcotte for being as “one with Secretariat in that moment” and calls the jaw dropping finish, “archetypally untouchable.”

Besides Lane, the best reason to see Secretariat is….Secretariat, a horse so singular it takes 5 other horses to play him in the movie (per the IMDb). I was junior high age back in 1973, and while I certainly remember all the talk about Secretariat and the Triple Crown, I didn’t know enough about horse racing, or even wanted to know enough about horse racing, to appreciate this magnificent creature’s record breaking streak. For example, not only did he set the record for the best time at the Kentucky Derby, a record that still stands (1 minute: 59 + 2/5 seconds), he ran every quarter-mile at an increasingly faster speed. Then, there’s the Belmont, the last of Secretariat’s trio of amazing finishes: a mile and a half in 2 minutes and 24 seconds–and by a margin of 31 lengths ahead of his nearest competitor.  The movie’s recreations of the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes are thrillingly filmed, edited, and scored. Maybe the next best thing to actually being at the races. The Preakness is represented by footage of the actual race  as Penny’s family watches on TV back in Denver, and that’s a nice touch. Of course, not everybody is a fan of horse racing, and I’m sure it’s tantamount to cruelty in some quarters. I don’t know about that, but I do know that by all accounts, Secretariat was well-loved by every member of his team. One of the best things about the DVD is the documentary that features interviews with people, including Penny Chenery, who speak about their own experiences with the horse that ESPN honored as number 35 on its list of  North America’s 100 greatest athletes of the 20th century. All the testimony indicates that Secretariat loved to run, loved getting attention, and was generally cognizant of all the fuss he created. Of course, it’s truly impossible for a human to know exactly what an animal thinks (or what another human thinks, for that matter); however, it’s also possible that animals are far more intelligent than humans would sometimes like to admit. The story of Secretariat works as well as it does because the people who surrounded him were in awe of him.

The real Eddie Sweat and Secretariat: a picture is truly worth a thousand words. Sweat died of Leukemia in 1998; he is played in the film by Nelsan Ellis, a SAG nominee and Golden Satellite winner for his work on TV’s True Blood.

Randall Wallace has assembled  a solid cast and crew to help him bring this story alive. Of course, there’s the great Martindale, who plays Elizabeth Ham, the real-life secretary who once worked for Chenery’s dad and came up with the great red horse’s stage name. In this version, Ham exists only to be a tireless supporter of Penny Chenery. It’s not an especially demanding role, but it allows Martindale to deliver a few zingers, and she plays the role with equal parts piss, vinegar, warmth and grace, all wrapped up in a Southern accent with a dollop of relish.  No doubt the most colorful figure in the movie, literally and figuratively, is the trainer Lucien Laurin, played with full tilt quirky bravado by John Malkovich. Critics of the movie, including people who knew the real-life Laurin, complain that the costumer goes overboard with Laurin’s loud outfits; however, a photograph in the epilogue, along with other images found on the Internet, shows that Laurin was indeed a flashy dresser as were many men at that time. Wallace also elicits credible work from actors who seem well chosen to play the WASPy men (good and bad) in Penny’s life: James Cromwell, as Ogden Phipps, “the richest man in America” who becomes Penny’s ally in spite of himself; Fred Dalton Thompson, the real-life lawyer-actor-politician  as Bull Hancock, the man who facilitated the legendary coin toss; Scott Glenn as the senior Chenery, a kindly man who has moved from the twilight of this life into the fog; also, the aforementioned Dylan Baker, who plays Penny’s brother, an esteemed economics professor in his own right. Not surprisingly, Baker plays a thankless role, that of an educated man whose scholarly instincts  stifle his imagination and repeatedly put him at odds with his sister’s ability to strategize and think outside the box. Luckily, Dylan Baker is so expert at playing these kinds of twits that he could do it in his sleep. The key role of Eddie Sweat, Secretariat’s groom, is played by Nelsan Ellis, best known for his highly acclaimed work in the TV series True Blood.  Ellis goes for broke and plays the role with such enthusiasm that it’s easy for audiences to believe that Sweat and Secretariat have genuine affection for one another. Of course, some critics scoff that Ellis veers toward something akin to playing Sweat as an Uncle Tom; however, the facts show that no human spent more time with  the legendary horse than Sweat, so I’m inclined to give the filmmakers–and Ellis–the benefit of the doubt.  The last important role in the film is that of  Ron Turcotte, played by jockey turned actor Otto Thorwarth, who seems to be having a great time portraying a racing legend. Three other key team members are cinematographer Dean Semler (an Oscar winner for 1990’s Dancing with Wolves), editor John Wright (an Oscar nominee for 1994’s Speed) and composer Nick Glennie-Smith. Though not a household name, Glennie-Smith has been honored three times by his peers in the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers: The Rock (1996), The Man in the Iron Mask (1998), and We Were Soldiers (2002).

Secretariat has a few unfortunate lapses. Much of the dialogue is expository, that is, dialogue too stagey to be truly conversational, especially in the early sequences when all the characters are being introduced, and the episode of the famous coin toss is being explained.  Without going into a lot of detail: before he was even born, Secretariat became the property of Ms. Chenery as the result of a longtime ritual involving her dad and another breeder. The coin toss itself only takes a few seconds, but getting there takes a lot of talk.  I also think director Wallace and his team overplay the mythic/spiritual/gospel angle. The opening of the film features narration by Lane as she goes all the way back three thousand years to the book of Job, and, to clarify, she literally uses the words “three thousand years.”  What’s so bad about that? Well, I was taught in the hallowed halls of the prestigious private university wherein I majored in English, to avoid lofty opening statements such as “Since the beginning of time…” and “For thousands of years…” I think Secretariat’s story is spectacular enough on its 0wn terms that it doesn’t need to be heralded as a continuation of some holy, ancient myth–even if that myth includes an equine analogy. The repeated use of “Oh Happy Day” by the Edwin Hawkins singers (1969) also seems a bit much at times; however, since the song is so closely identified with the film’s era, it’s almost–almost–perfect . Regrettably, an update in the closing credits paint a misleadingly sunny portrait of the Tweedys’ marriage; it was not a total success, but, I guess that really doesn’t have anything to do with what’s on screen.

When Secretariat opened last fall and didn’t immediately draw crowds as big as those that flocked to see The Blind Side a year earlier, cynics were too quick to dismiss the film, but the movie held on at the box office for several weeks in spite of all the negative comparisons to the Bullock offering: five weeks in the top 5, and another five in the top 10. Secretariat continued to play in theatres until February of this year, earning a total of 59.6 million. For a film with a budget of 35 million, that’s not a stellar return once marketing and distribution costs are considered. On the other hand, Secretariat has an impressive second life on home video. It currently ranks number 27 on Amazon’s list of best selling “Kids and Families” movies,  which is none too shabby considering that it was released on DVD in January of this year (yes, while it was still playing in theatres).  I have to say I found this movie in every possible way much more agreeable, much more entertaining, than  2003’s horse racing movie Seabiscuit, which snagged 7 Oscar nominations including Best Picture (winning exactly 0, to clarify).  Given the Academy’s bent last year for recognizing actresses playing thoroughly unpleasant roles (a possible reaction to Sandra Bullock’s still fresh win in an unapologeticly feel-good film), it’s no surprise that Lane was overlooked as a Best Actress contender, but, once again, the editing, cinematography, and score are certainly worthy of awards’ consideration. The movie wasn’t completely forgotten as it was nominated for some minor awards such as a Golden Satellite (a Golden Globe knockoff) for Semler’s cinematography.  Finally: when Secretariat died in 1989, an autopsy showed that his heart was double the size of an average horse. Some fans see that as a metaphor for his great big generous spirit while some experts use that fact to explain away his astonishing victories. Who knows what’s what? I like this quote from George Plimpton I found on one of the ESPN pages as the last word: “He was the only honest thing in this country at the time. This huge magnificent animal who wasn’t tied up in scandal, wasn’t tied up in money, he just ran because he loved running,”

Thanks for your consideration…

On your mark, get set, go!

Go to the official Secretariat website with archival Q & A column by Penny Chenery, details about her work with retired thoroughbreds, and bios on all the key members of Team Secretariat:

http://www.secretariat.com/

See the official ESPN list of the 20th century’s greatest athletes; click on Secretariat’s name for a bio featuring quotes from Penny Chenery and jockey Ron Turcotte:

http://espn.go.com/sportscentury/athletes.html

Penny Chenery discusses the movie and divorce:

http://www.drf.com/news/penny-chenerys-life-unscripted

Saturday Post article about the coin toss, Eddie Sweat (the horse’s groom), and Ron Turcotte’s magnificent ride at Belmont:

http://thesaturdaypost.org/blog/tag/ron-turcotte/

Penny Chenery, one of the first women elected to the Jockey Club, ten years after Secretariat’s record breaking year:

http://cs.bloodhorse.com/blogs/wgoh/archive/2009/09/15/classic-ladies-by-dan-liebman.aspx

Sweet and Salty Movie Fun

6 Oct

Angelina Jolie, as photographed by Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott for the October 2011 cover of Vanity Fair.

Angelina Jolie is on the cover of the current Vanity Fair. It’s a gorgeous photo, no doubt. Okay, I’m sure it’s retouched, but if she didn’t already have such exquisite features, all the Photoshop in the world couldn’t make her look as ravishing as she does in this particular image. You see, Jolie has a new movie, due out by the holidays. The name of the film is In the The Land of Blood and Honey, but Jolie is not the star. Instead, she’s the writer and director.  The movie is a love story set against the backdrop of the Bosnian war. Of course, there will likely be an Oscar campaign. That’s just the nature of the business. Thematically “important” movies with big stars and/or major directors typically enjoy  a big Oscar push, and I’m usually good with that because I understand the purpose of the Oscars and how they function. Besides, Uncle Oscar gets it right quite often. For example, look no further than last year’s big champ The King’s Speech, starring Best Actor winner Colin Firth, to find a film that hits all the right notes in the prestige department and still scores as a popular entertainment.

On the other hand, to see how Oscar sometimes falls into the trap of  honoring earnest obvious work for all the wrong reasons, look at last year’s Best Actress race. Why not start  with winner  Natalie Portman in Black Swan?  Again, I full well understand the appeal of Ms. Portman’s film, and her performance in it, but I could never fully embrace it either. Of course, she’s a splendid actress, and she clearly pours her heart, body, and soul into the role of a studiously single-minded ballerina slowly losing her grip on reality. The problem then as now is that Portman isn’t necessarily playing a character in Black Swan–she’s playing a conceit, and while that shouldn’t have any bearing on the quality of her work, I think that in a roundabout way it does because no matter how entertaining, the performance isn’t grand enough to camouflage the seams in the material. Furthermore, and this is important–well, it’s important to me–I can’t imagine watching, or wanting to watch, Portman in Black Swan ever again.  I do think one of the hallmarks of an Oscar caliber performance is that it should stand the test of time–and how can anyone ever know that if no one is willing to watch said performance again?

Of all the actual nominees, I was most impressed by Blue Valentine‘s Michelle Williams–as a woman whose marriage, built on a shaky foundation in the first place, is in a rapid state of decline. Like Portman in Black Swan, Williams gives her all to this sad, sad, woman, but to what end? As  powerful as it is, it’s also something of a dead end and not remarkable enough to warrant a second viewing. Plus, I’m not certain that an actress should have to play a woman who is repeatedly debased in order to assert her talent.  Elsewhere, I thought Annette Bening gave a subtle, commendable performance in The Kids are All Right, but aside from some other fine performances, the film left me cold. Jennifer Lawrence showed her mettle in The Winter’s Bone–and I did indeed admire the film as a whole–but, even so, the Oscar nomination seemed just a tad generous. I freely admit that I avoided Nicole Kidman’s Rabbit Hole.  I’m not a fan of the Oscar winning actress (The Hours, 2002), and from what I’d read about the play–a couple grieving the death of a child–I just didn’t think I could sit through it. The horror, the horror.

The cynical take would be that all five of these women mustered up as much grim determination as they could to act themselves into year end awards consideration, which apparently worked. I would have gladly traded  any of the official nominees for Naomi Watts’ ripped-from-the-headlines turn as Fair Game‘s former CIA operative Valerie Plame, whose cover was scandalously blown to bits by members of the Bush administration in 2003. Plame’s story is, indeed, an important one, yet the world of political espionage and intrigue also makes it as suspenseful as a vintage thriller; however, Fair Game was a box office bust, and while ticket sales are no guarantee of cinematic excellence, the simple truth is that the Academy is looking to honor “achievement,” which doesn’t always allow much room for movies that under-perform in the market place, unless there is also some other timely factor which bears heralding.

The website "Matt's Movie Reviews" actually features 4 different posters for Salt, presumably for foreign markets. Speaking of foreign markets, Salt grossed $175 million overseas in addition to another 118 million in the United States, for a grand total of 293 million, give or take.

What I would have liked to have seen in the most recent Best Actress race was someone actually having fun. Two of my faves were and still are Diane Lane in Secretariat and Emma Stone in Easy A, both of which I intend to write about soon enough, but for now I want to throw the spotlight back on cover girl Angelina Jolie because I  think that almost no performer, male or female, exhibited as much good old fashioned fun at the movies as she did in the outlandishly twisty action flick, Salt.  The set-up is thus: Jolie plays Evelyn Salt, a bad-ass CIA operative who yearns to leave behind a life of derring-do in order to lead a more traditional 9 to 5 existence with her sexy yet nerdy European born arachnologist husband. Just when she thinks her dream is about to come true, a crackpot Russian defector inexplicably outs her as a sleeper spy. (Shades of Plame.) Is she, or isn’t she? Of course, her employer wants to keep her in custody pending an investigation, but Ms. Salt has another idea or two. The movie is a great big whirlwind of fun as Salt runs–and runs and runs and runs–for her life, outwitting her pursuers through one death defying stunt after another.

Let me perfectly frank: Salt is about as stupid as a movie can possibly be. First, even taking into account Hollywood’s need to pile on stunt after stunt, Salt pretty much takes the cake for unrelenting adrenaline pumping absurdity. Not only does Salt survive one incredible escape after another, she pretty much does so with barely a scrape; moreover, and this is one of the truly fun parts of the movie, there’s just something deliriously yet deliciously far-fetched about a movie that in a roundabout way links Angelina Jolie, of all people, to the Kennedy assassination, but don’t take my word for it. Watch it for yourself.

Sublime stupidity aside, the movie works as well as it does primarily because Jolie is so committed to the material, and I don’t mean just because she allegedly performs her stunts as the commentary and featurettes on the DVD work hard to assert. Now, I wasn’t there on the set when the movie was being filmed, but my guess is that while Jolie might have done a few stunts for shots that couldn’t be  easily faked, I doubt the film’s insurance company would have allowed the star player to risk life and limb in such extreme conditions. Plus, the fact is that a woman named Janene Carleton is listed as “stunt double: Angelina Jolie” in the complete list of cast and crew reported on the Internet Movie Database.  So there. No, what I mean when I write that Jolie is committed is that she is fully emotionally invested in this character. I really don’t know how she does it,  but Jolie’s every move, facial expression, and line reading is infused with palpable urgency. Of course, it certainly helps that Jolie is committed as well as a true movie star. What does that mean? Well, for starters, the camera loves her (though I’ve always thought she should consider gaining about 15 lbs). Additionally, and for better or worse, there’s just something larger than life about her. She’s glamorous, mysterious, aloof, and people are so fascinated by her that they follow her every move. Of course, being a great star is not the same thing as being a great actress, but Jolie is, at the very least, a shrewd actress, and that’s something that transcends technique.

Evelyn Salt: calm, cool, collected desk jockey and domestic goddess.

Another thing that makes Salt so much fun is watching Jolie’s array of transformations. In the beginning she looks like hell, beaten and bloodied in a North Korean prison, bravely withstanding torture as she steadfastly refuses to admit that she’s a spy. Minutes later, she’s the world’s most improbably chic desk jockey, sporting a beautifully tailored suit with a slit skirt. The look is completed by killer pumps and an intricately braided ponytail. One high octane chase sequence later, she reinvents herself as a black clad urban ninja who’s preparing to go underground. Literally. Then, she takes a brief detour and models the latest in camera ready Cossack garb. Finally, her most stunning transformation is what I call the movie’s “transjoyous” moment. Allow me to clarify: per the DVD,  Salt was originally conceived as a vehicle for a top male star–Tom Cruise if memory serves; however, at some point, Cruise became unavailable, and the script found its way to Angelina Jolie, who’d harbored a dream to act in a James Bond type adventure–but as Bond, and not as a so-called “Bond girl.” Anyway, the concept was completely overhauled and tailored to Jolie’s strengths.  Of course, Salt isn’t the first movie to feature a female character that was initially written as a male.  Sigourney Weaver’s “Ripley” in the first Alien film is one such example.  It is, therefore, a transjoyous moment indeed in this movie in which the female lead, who at one time had been a male lead, makes her boldest move when the disguises herself as a man. So, take that, Natalie Portman!

My favorite moment in Salt is also its most startling. I don’t want to ruin it for newbies, but let me just say that Salt, to borrow one of The Ghost and Mr. Chicken‘s catch phrases,  does what a girl has to do and makes her whole body “a lethal weapon.” Shocking? You betcha, but, for some reason, it makes me howl with delight every time. That noted, I freely admit that I am not, I repeat, I am not a 100% dyed-in-the-wool, full-fledged Angelina Jolie fan. I do not make a point of seeing all her films, nor do I necessarily even enjoy those  that I do see; however, I thought she was alarmingly good in her Oscar winning supporting role in Girl, Interrupted  (1999) though I’m not one of those fans who insist that she stole the film from star Winona Ryder (in a more reactive role). I pretty much despised her widely heralded “Best Actressy” turn as Mariane Pearl, the French born widow of slain American journalist Daniel Pearl, in A Mighty Heart (2007).  Apparently I’m in the minority on that one because she was nominated for almost every conceivable award, including a Golden Globe, a Screen Actors Guild Award, and an Independent Spirit Award.  Indeed, practically the only award for which she was not nominated, is the Oscar. Maybe I’m not in the minority after all. On the other hand, I was suitably impressed by her Academy nominated work in 2008’s fact-based Changeling, which I intend to write about at a later time.

Yes, Angelina, there really is an Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films.The non-profit organization was founded in 1972, and it is based in Los Angeles, CA.

Of course, even a stupid movie with a fabulous leading performance cannot happen without a director, and Salt‘s is none other than Aussie Philip Noyce, whose credits include two of the best Tom Clancy adaptations, Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, as well as 2002’s stunning, fact based, eugenics themed drama Rabbit Proof Fence (which the Academy stupidly overlooked in every category, by the way). Noyce must be given credit for orchestrating such wildly over the top set pieces and for keeping the movie chugging along at a breathless space–and he gives Jolie all the breathing room she needs. That noted,  though Jolie is front and center throughout most of the movie, she gets able support from the likes of Liev Schreiber, Chiwitel Ejifor, and Corey Stoll (the latter scores memorably as Ernest Hemmingway in Woody Allen’s sleeper hit Midnight in Paris, and looks nothing like his character  in Salt).

It would be hard to argue that Angelina Jolie was somehow robbed of an Oscar nomination for her work in Salt because no matter how compelling she is in the film, the film still is what it is, and what it is, now and always,  is stupid; however, it’s also a heck of a lot of fun, fun, fun! Maybe it wasn’t the “best” performance by a leading actress in all of 2010, but it was and is certainly my favorite performance by a leading actress in all of 2010. The movie was more or less overlooked by the Academy except in the category of “Best Sound Mixing, ” which it lost,  unsurprisingly, to Inception.  I think at the very least it should have been nominated for “Best Makeup” for all those fabulous looks (blood and gore as well as gender bending). That noted, the movie won Best Action/Adventure film at the Saturn Awards (from the Academy of  Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films), and Jolie was indeed nominated as Best Actress, but to whom did she lose the coveted trophy? The girl in the paranoid ballet fantasy,  of course. Of course. (Please note: according to Internet reports, there are no less than three versions of this movie on DVD, starting with the original theatrical edition, as well as an extended cut, and also a director’s cut. I can only verify two versions available on Amazon, but so what? I obviously saw the theatrical edition, loved it, and I’m good with that.)

Thanks for your consideration…

LINKS!

Vanity Fair:

http://www.vanityfair.com/magazine/toc/contents-201110

To learn more about the Saturn Awards and the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films:

http://www.saturnawards.org/

Check out Matt’s Movie Reviews:

http://mattsmoviereviews.net/