Archive | April, 2012

“It’s Not Me.”

30 Apr

This past March, I was just about to finish writing about Casablanca and its 70th anniversary, but I wasn’t sure how to bring the article to a close.  I decided it was best to take a little break, so I saved my draft, logged out of WordPress, and switched to Google News. That’s when I saw the headline  announcing that John Demjanjuk, the retired Cleveland autoworker who had long been accused and convicted of being a Nazi war criminal (nicknamed “Ivan the Terrible” of the Treblinka death camp), had passed away at the age of 91. Reading about Demjanjuk–yet again–brought back to me–also yet again–the horrors of the Holocaust and helped me put some of the themes of Casablanca into the context of its time. Of course, this many years removed from WWII,  we remember the glamour, romance, and intrigue of Casablanca though we likely gloss over the urgency of the times, the desperation of the film’s background characters, the ones who “wait and wait and wait” for safe passage out of Europe, similar to the doomed real life passengers aboard the St. Louis, the so-called Voyage of the Damned, the subject of a 1976 Oscar nominated feature film. Reading about Demjanjuk’s death, for better or worse, provided the inspiration I needed to wrap-up the Casablanca piece–and was just the “sign” I needed to begin writing about another movie, one that I had always intended to write about when I first started this blog. (It just took longer than I thought it would.) That movie is Constantin Costa-Gavras’s Music Box (1989), which borrows its basic premise from the trials of Demjanjuk among other events close to the heart and mind of screenwriter Joe Eszterhas.

Jessica Lange earned her fifth Oscar nomination in 8 years for her work as Ann Talbot in Music Box. Though not as flashy as her portrayals of  Frances Farmer and Patsy Cline, Lange fully inhabits the role of a lawyer defending her father in a complicated case involving allegations of war crimes. Lange’s delivery cuts like a knife, especially in one key exchange with a vulnerable adversary: “So, didn’t joining Legal Aid ease the guilt, Jack? What if going after war criminals doesn’t do it either? What are you going to do then? Are you going to find Jesus?”

Music Box (no “The”) tells the story of Ann Talbot, successful Chicago lawyer and first generation American of Hungarian descent, who offers her expertise to what initially appears to be either a clerical error or a case of mistaken identity regarding her father’s application for citizenship, dating back to the period right after Word War II. As Ann and her father (Michael J. Laszlo, aka, Mischka) soon discover, the Hungarian government wants Laszlo extradited, so he can be tried as a war criminal, a Special Section death squad member during the height of the Holocaust. Ann is a crackerjack attorney, and even though she specializes in criminal law, she eventually agrees to take her father’s case; however, as good as she is in the courtroom, she begins to crack under pressure, spending long hours reading horrifying depositions and listening to witness after devastating witness flown in for the trial by the Hungarian government. Because one potential witness is on his deathbed (or thereabouts), the case’s principal players journey all the way to Budapest–where the hits just keep on coming.

Michael’s case is complicated for a number of reasons, including the possibility that his rather public anti-communist activism has made him a target of the Hungarian government (this is, after all, the waning days of the Cold War, so a little paranoia is in order).  Additionally, Ann has to contend with fact that her judge is Jewish, and the federal prosecutor might very well be using the case to work through some personal demons of his own. There is yet another twist that includes Ann’s mentor, who just happens to be her old-moneyed ex-father-in-law, a well-heeled die-hard right-winger who, despite his veneer of respectability, is probably dirtier than anyone else in the bunch. He was once an intelligence officer. He might even be a Holocaust-denier.

I’ve always believed that this movie is less about whether Michael J. Laszlo is who he says he is and more about the effect the case has on Ann, the woman who must defend someone whom she loves though that someone might very well be a beast–or might have been a beast at one time. It’s fun to watch Jessica Lange in this role. At that point in her career, Lange was most famous for playing extroverted, high energy (and/or high maintenance) types, such as Frances Farmer and Patsy Cline (brilliant, and Oscar nominated, as both, natch). Ann Talbot is different. She’s affectionate with her family (including her brother and her son, of course), but she lives a lot of her life in her head.  Lange’s is a thoughtful, contemplative kind of performance, and all that braininess serves her well in the courtroom where she is quick to pounce on every technical inconsistency, such as reminding the judge about the difference between a Special Section ID card and a photostat of a Special Section ID card.  She also seems to relish, in her own quiet way, throwing out a line of apparently misleading questioning, only to take a seemingly  harmless response from a witness and use it against him/her. Of course, Ann goes through a number of emotional changes in the film, but even so, Lange modulates those changes so that they’re always consistent with the Ann’s reserved demeanor rather than out-of-character outbursts befitting the proverbial Oscar baiting display.  She also gets to speak Hungarian during one particularly startling scene in the Budapest sequence; however, even at the time of the film’s release, the naysayers were carping that Lange had played one “drabbed-down” character too many, and Music Box was just more of the same. Well, I respectfully disagree. Lange had moments of true glamour in both Frances and Sweet Dreams (the Cline biopic), as well as her gorgeously fluttery Oscar winning role as the pampered soap opera star in Tootsie and even the seriously flawed Everybody’s All-American (1988), in which she portrayed a Southern beauty queen.  Okay, so Lange’s short, curly, brunette wig in Music Box is not especially flattering. I get it; at the same time, her wardrobe is anything but “dowdy,” “dumpy” or any of those other judgmental terms. Ann Talbot is a successful lawyer, and she dresses like one.(Even better, reds and earth tones are definitely flattering colors on her.) She always looks professional, which is how she should look. She need not look like a movie star.

Of course, Music Box is most obviously a Holocaust film. Screenwriter Eszterhas and director Costa-Gavras do not back away from the atrocities of the era, but rather than offer graphic flashbacks, the horrors are relayed through the testimonies of the survivors with their worn, weary faces,  and pained voices: women with a lifetime of rage, men still in touch with their shattered youth(s).  Besides the specifics of the Holocaust, there are a couple of equally intriguing themes.  The first of these is the idea that as much as we love someone (father, mother, spouse etc.), we might not really know who that person is no matter how much we think we think–we presume–to. This realization can be devastating when that someone is, indeed, one of our parents, as some of my friends and I have discovered as we’ve gotten older. Boy, could I tell you some stories. Maybe we idolize our parents, or parent, as Ann does, and cannot accept the fact they are human and as much a product of their upbringing as we are of ours. Everyone has a skeleton or two in a closet somewhere, and this does not necessarily mean that our parents are evil or have committed atrocities against humanity, like Laszlo is accused of doing, but all of us have likely made choices that seemed right for us at the time but later seem peculiar–or worse–in the cold light of day. That brings up another theme: the way we can compartmentalize our actions–so much so that it’s hard to believe we have done certain things in our lives.  Of course, if we’re lucky, we all do foolish things as kids, but then we develop a conscience and somehow divorce ourselves from our previous actions, knowing full well that we would never do–could not possibly do–something that we did with ease without a second thought when we were younger. Of course, some people never develop that conscience, exactly, although even then they’re probably good at rationalizing their behavior. They might not say, “It’s not me. I could never do such a thing,” but they would probably be fine with, “Yes, it would be wrong for you to do such a thing, but it’s not wrong for me in this case because…so screw you.”  This, of course, takes us back to the Holocaust or any other act of torture and/or barbarism.  As detailed in the book, Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People: The Dynamics of Torture by John Conroy, the “grunts” in these types of situations, the lower level facilitators who actually perform heinous acts of torture and murder, often portray themselves as victims as well, arguing that what they did was not necessarily of their own choosing, but that they were just following orders–from the real barbarians–in order to save their own lives.  This idea is also prevalent in Kate Winslet’s Oscar winning, The Reader. This is what is known as a lose/lose situation.

Okay, so, yes, Lange earned her fifth Oscar nod for Music Box, which is actually quite a good thing: it speaks to the power of her performance, given that the film was pretty much a box office dud, a relatively inexpensive dud, but nothing even close to a hit. All things considered, I’m even okay with Lange losing that year, knowing that her competition included winner Jessica Tandy in Driving Miss Daisy, Isabelle Adjani in Camille Claudel,  and Michelle Pfeiffer, delectably entertaining if ridiculously over-hyped, in The Fabulous Baker Brothers. I know it’s routine at this point to dismiss Tandy’s Driving Miss Daisy, but I actually adore the movie, and even though I might have preferred another actress to win the Oscar that year, I have no problem with Tandy’s victory. Her performance was solid gold to me, and I think she resisted many of the sentimental traps in the material.  Likewise, Lange’s slot among the final five could have easily been filled by actresses in movies with higher profiles starting with Andie MacDowell (sex, lies, and videotape) and Sally Field (Steel Magnolias) near the top of the heap, followed by the likes of, say, Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally or even Kathleen Turner in War of the Roses (not to mention some of my fave performances in lesser known films: Holly Hunter in Miss Firecracker and Isabella Rossellini in Cousins).   So there. (To clarify: MacDowell, Field, Ryan, and Turner were all Golden Globe nominees as were Tandy, Pfeiffer, Lange, and even Pauline Collins–in Shirley Valentine–the fifth Oscar nominee.)

As satisfying as Lange’s nomination is, it doesn’t take away from the sting of the movie being shut-out in every other category, and this is a movie with a lot to offer. For me, the most glaring omission is the screenplay by Joe Eszterhas. Of course, by now it’s also routine to portray Eszterhas as one of the greatest hacks in Hollywood history. The former reporter turned screenwriter broke into movies with Sylvester Stallone’s F.I.S.T. in 1978, and then followed with the likes of Flashdance (1983), a movie that many critics find/found too easy to hate, and Jagged Edge (1985), a courtroom thriller starring Glenn Close and Jeff Bridges that just rubbed me the wrong way even though it was extremely popular with audiences.  Eszterhas also wrote 1988’s Betrayed, with Debra Winger and Tom Berenger in a drama that purports to show the underpinnings of the white separatist movement; Betrayed was the first collaboration between the writer and director Costa-Gavras.  Later, a few years after Music Box, Eszterhas scored a record breaking paycheck–a cool three million–for Basic Instinct, a spec script about a serial killer on the prowl in San Francisco.  As sensational as all get-out, the movie made a star, however briefly, of Sharon Stone.  The rest of Eszterhas’s resume is more of the same: Sliver (also with Sharon Stone), Jade (might as well be Basic Instinct/Jagged Edge Part II), and Showgirls (the flop that at the time made Flashdance look like great art, now considered a camp classic).  By all accounts, Eszterhas is a stubborn, quite outspoken SOB, and he has made tons of enemies over the years, recently engaging in a war of words with no less a prime crackpot than Mel Gibson; therefore, it’s not  surprising, given  the preponderance of evidence, that members of the Academy never felt like recognizing Eszterhas though that is regrettable in the case of Music Box, which rates high on my scale of cinema’s best written movies. Ever.

Even though Music Box was mostly ignored by the American audiences and the Academy, the film was well received at the 1990 Berlin Film Festival where it shared the Golden Bear, the top prize, with Larks on a String, from Czech director Jiri Menzel. That’s the official Golden Bear icon in the lower left corner of the poster.

What’s so great about Music Box? Well, as I have told many, many folks just as they sit down to watch it for the first time, there is not a wasted word in the whole thing. Everything, that is, every word, counts. Of course, any good screenplay should be tight, with little or no flab or show-offy flourishes, but that is not always the case. In other words, Eszterhas has made a movie for adults, and he trusts that his audience is capable, more than capable, of listening and paying attention to each and every word, each and every little detail. If viewers tune out for as little as a nanosecond, they’ll miss out, or be seriously confused, when all the pieces start falling into place–when they do, they do so, as the old saying goes, quick, fast, and in a hurry, showing little or no mercy.  This script is something like an impressionistic painting, especially one by Georges Seurat: Eszsterhas has a lot on his mind, but connecting all the dots for audiences isn’t one of them though I can imagine that some viewers might find some of the script too obvious. It is, and it isn’t. I guess it’s a matter of taste.  As previously mentioned, Eszterhas weaves a lot of thematic material throughout this tale, and one of things that makes it so intriguing is, again, all that Cold War paranoia, the idea that Laszlo could very well be guilty of something while at the same time be framed by Communist officials who do not even trust the truth when it works in their favor.  Naturally, I cannot give away all the twists and turns, but let me add a few more tidbits. First, this is a powerful film though it rarely trades in loud “a-ha” moments that are common place in thrillers, mysteries, and courtroom dramas. Also, and I say this with all the kindness in the world: those viewers with ADD and/or a reluctance to engage their critical thinking skills might want to proceed with caution. (For the record, the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay that year went to Tom Schulman [Dead Poets Society], who won over the likes of Steve Soderbergh [sex, lies, and videotape], and Spike Lee [Do the Right Thing].)

Eszterhas draws upon real life in more ways than one. Of course, he borrows liberally from the Demjanjuk case; moreover, he even has one of his characters comment on the similarities between the two. First, the real Demjanjuk and the fictional Laszlo were/are questioned because of discrepancies in their applications for citizenship. Additionally, one of the most obvious parallels is the matter of the identification card.  In the 1980s, during Demjanjuk’s first trial, much scrutiny was placed on the authenticity of the ID  card that purported to show Demjanjuk as a member of the so-called Special Section though the defense’s claims were ultimately dismissed.  In Music Box, Lange’s Talbot and Frederic Forrest’s Jack Burke dicker repeatedly over such a card, each one topping the other in a high stakes game of “My Expert is Better than Yours.”  The accuracy of the witness statements, decades after the fact, is something else that Eszterhas draws upon in his fictionalized version–and, as it turns, out, this was also a crucial development in the Demjanjuk case after it was revealed that another man had been identified conclusively as Ivan the Terrible, which did not lessen the case against Demjanjuk as a war criminal in general. It’s complicated. Also complicated is Ezsterhas’s own history.  He was actually born in Hungary near the end of the war and spent some time in a refugee camp before moving to America with his family in the early 1950s.  According to a report in the New York Times that appeared as Music Box premiered, Ezsterhas heard horror stories about the Holocaust from his father, a Catholic priest and newspaper editor, as well as actual Holocaust survivors.  As the writer explained in the article, even after he came to America, he was still haunted by the stories and the possibility that members of his own family might have actively participated in such despicable acts, a feeling shared by a woman he met many years after the  fact in San Francisco. It was this lingering doubt/guilt/suspicion, along with the Demjanjuk trial, that prompted him to write his film though there is still a twist or two. In 1990, the year AFTER Music Box‘s American theatrical run, Eszterhas was shocked to find that his own dad was accused of writing anti-semitic tracts during the 1930s, including “Nemzet Politka” (“National Policy”), in which he compared Jews to parasites. Another  article in the New York Times likens the piece to the Hungarian version of Mein Kampf.  Whoah!

Of course, Eszterhas and Lange aren’t the whole show. Certainly, Greece’s acclaimed director Constantin Costa-Gavras knows his way around a political thriller with human rights at its core. His 1969 Z was the first film to be Oscar nominated for Best Picture and Best Foreign Language film in the same year (it won the latter); likewise, 1982’s Missing, the fact based account of the disappearance of an American journalist (Charles Horman) and America’s involvement in a Chilean coup back in the 1970s, earned nominations for Best Picture, Director, Actor (Jack Lemmon), and Actress (Sissy Spacek), besides claiming the Golden Palm at the 1982 Cannes fest. In Music Box, the director works crisply and efficiently: the material is dense, so the best thing to do is put the camera in the right place, make sure the actors are well lit, and keep moving. It’s not ostentatious film-making by any stretch, but it’s smoothly professional and effective. One of my favorite bits in any movie I have ever seen is the transition that takes Ann from the hustle and bustle of her own apparently thriving, if  cluttered, office to the more calming, richly and studiously appointed, spacious environs of her ex-father-in-law’s practice. The actual establishing shot only last a few seconds, but it says everything about this man, his wealth, his position–and, most importantly, how he views himself. The director has a first-rate group of collaborators, including cinematographer Patrick Blossier and composer Philippe Sarde. The early portions of the film, set in wintry Chicago, are cool and crystal clear, a highlight being a scene with Ann and her dad in a cemetery (visiting the grave of the long deceased mother/wife). Once the action switches to Budapest, the images are warmer, dappled in sunlight as though the truth is near. Sarde’s score is, in a word, intriguing.  There’s something Old World about it though it’s not overdone; it’s more like a subtle, even sneaky, undercurrent that only occasionally draws attention to itself.

Just as interesting as the stories of Demjanjuk and Eszterhas, actress Elzbieta Czyzewska, as Melinda Kalman, one of Music Box’s most compelling witnesses, has a fascinating tale of her own. Once hailed as the most popular actress in Poland, she left the country in the 1960s. She’d met and married journalist David Halberstam while he was stationed in Poland, and when he left the country, she followed him shortly afterward. The marriage didn’t last, and the actress often found herself just barely scraping by from one job to the next. Her credits, btw, include the underground classic, Putney Swope, directed by Robert Downey Sr. Czyzewska seemed to have the misfortune of being hired for stage roles that were rewritten and recast before the shows they were in premiered. In the early 1980’s, she befriended a pretty young actress, named Joanna Pacula, who was new to the U.S. from Poland. As the story goes, Czyzewska helped Pacula make valuable contacts, and soon the younger actress made a splashy movie debut in the adaptation of the novel Gorky Park–and Pacula, after a falling out with her mentor, never spoke to Czyzewska again. Sounds a lot like All About Eve, doesn’t it? The specifics of the encounter between Czyzewska and Pacula so intrigued filmmaker Yurek Bogayevicz that he reportedly based the 1987 movie Anna on it though Czyzewska was apparently under the impression that she would be playing the title character, or, rather herself, when it came time to shoot the movie. Instead, the role went to cult actress Sally Kirkland–with model Paulina Porizkova filling in for the Pacula counterpart. Though the completed film is wildly uneven, and was barely seen outside film festivals and Oscar qualifying runs in New York and L.A. (it never opened in Dallas), it’s a tour de force for Kirkland, and she financed her own extravagant “For Your Consideration” Oscar campaign with pages upon pages of ads in the trade magazines and serious rounds of personal appearances (talk shows, parties, premieres, magazine interviews, etc.). Kirkland’s strategy worked. Not only did she garner an Oscar nod, she also won the Golden Globe, as well as Independent Spirit Award, and she tied with Holly Hunter (Broadcast News) for the LA Film Critics Award. Good for her; maybe not so good for Czyzewska, who continued to work onstage and in films and TV, including Sex and the City, until she passed away at the age of 72 in 2010.

Even with all this technical excellence, Costa-Gavras still knows that the material needs skillful performances if it is to truly capture the imagination of audiences, and, again, there is every reason to marvel at the caliber of work on display. The key to the entire enterprise is German actor Armin Mueller-Stahl, who portrays Lazslo.  At the very least, Lazslo is a proud man though he often seems at odds with himself. On one hand, he’s scarcely able to control his own emotions at times; on the other hand, he’s smart enough to understand that everything he says and does is being closely monitored–even by his own daughter–so he frequently evaluates the way he presents himself and adjusts what he thinks he can. It’s not quite a true poker face, and I guess that’s what makes it interesting. Again, no Oscar nod for this actor in this role, but he scored one for his more obvious–almost cartoony–work in 1996’s Shine.  Even better, in this viewer’s humble opinion, is Donald Moffatt as Ann’s dryly cynical ex-father-in-law. This tall distinguished actor has appeared in everything from Murder She Wrote to Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman; he played Walt Whitman in the latter, btw. He’s even played the President of the United States twice: the fictional prez in 1994’s A Clear and Present Danger, and Lyndon B. Johnson in The Right Stuff (1983).  In Music Box, he delivers every line with precision, always close to making a jab but layering it with calculated sincerity just in case he hits a nerve. The other standouts are the witnesses, especially Sol Frieder (as Istvan Boday), Michael Shilo (as Geza Vamos), and Elzbieta Czyzewska (as Melinda Kalman; see sidebar).  The director puts the camera right up in these performers’ faces, and it’s magic of a kind, so naturalistic are the performances. I’ve seen these same performers in many other things, a lot of TV reruns, mainly, and I’m always thrown off-guard when I see them out of context, playing roles that are entirely different. Of course, that’s their job as skilled actors, but in Music Box, they have the ring of truth and/or authenticity. I’m not too much for second person pronouns, but I think after you see this movie, you’ll be willing to swear you’re watching actual Holocaust survivors.  (Only one of the pivotal Hungarian characters is actually played by a Hungarian actor; okay, maybe two–but you’d never guess.) Another interesting casting choice is James Zagel as Judge Irwin Silver. In real life, Zagel, who is listed in the credits as J.S. Block, is actually a Chicago based federal judge; he recently presided over the trial of former Illinois Governor, Rod Blagojevich. I like the chutzpah, for lack of a better role, this man brings to the part of a judge who seems like he’s seen and heard enough before the trial is even seriously underway.  Of course, not everyone in the cast is 100% tip-top. Frederic Forrest, as Ann’s courtroom adversary, and Cheryl Lynn Bruce, as Ann’s investigator and confidante, both suffer through thankless roles. The performances aren’t terrible, but they’re not exactly riveting either as they pretty much function as a.) members of a Greek chorus,  b.) the voices of reason, or c.) Ann’s conscience.  Well, at least they’re committed.

Wow! I’ve written over four thousand words, and I still haven’t answered two pressing questions: 1. How does it all end? 2. What’s the significance of the title?  First things first. Well, there’s no way I’m going to divulge the ending of the movie right here, except I will say that the ending packs a wallop, and Eszterhas sets it up brilliantly. It’s so “literary” that it’s worthy of a whole blog piece in itself, so pay close attention early on, as early as the fourth scene, or so (during Ann and her father’s first exchange with Forrest’s Burke), and you’ll find that the seeds have already been planted.  Finally, what about that cryptic title? On one hand, it could very well be called Pandora’s Box, right? At any rate, music boxes are a recurring motif throughout the film. There is one prominently displayed in the opening credits, and another one in Ann’s ex-father-in-law’s office. Listen carefully to what he says just as Ann is opening the music box. Beautiful.  I’ll stop here. As much fun as it is to write about this incredible movie, the real satisfaction comes from actually watching it unfold onscreen at its own steady pace.  That’s the power of movies.

Thanks for your consideration…

Further reading

BBC News obit of John Demjanjuk:

Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People at Amazon:

Joe Eszterhas discusses his inspiration for Music Box:

Joe Eszterhas on his father’s anti-Semitic past:

Huffington Post profile of Judge James Zagel:

New York Times obituary of Elzbieta Czyzewska:

More on Elzbieta Czyżewska:

Jessica Lange’s Oscar Nominations (all for Best Actress except where noted):

1. Tootsie (Best Supporting Actress, 1982) w

2. Frances (1982)

3. Country (1984)

4. Sweet Dreams (1985)

5. Music Box (1989)

6. Blue Sky (1994) w



20 Apr

Alas, poor Levon Helm has passed away from throat cancer at the age of 71. Besides securing his place in the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame as the drummer and sometime singer of The Band during the 1960s and 1970s, in addition to various solo projects, Helm carved out a credible career as an actor with a string of movie credits (not counting Martin Scorsese’s 1978 documentary,  The Last Waltz), beginning with his near-miraculous performance as country music queen Loretta Lynn’s dad, Ted Webb, in  1980’s Coal Miner’s Daughter starring Sissy Spacek.

Levon Helm (1940 - 2012) as Ted Webb, the coal miner in Coal Miner's Daughter.

Helm’s Webb is a taciturn proud man who works hard, way down deep in the mines of “Butcher Holler,” Kentucky in order to support his large family. Though perhaps too quick to judge, and, of course, stubborn as hell, this man only wants to do right by his family. He loves his children, especially his equally willful daughter Loretta, and takes seriously his role as a provider and guardian of her soul.  Even so, years of working amid all that coal has aged him prematurely and probably hardened him more than he might realize. Helm manages to convey all of this in a performance that is the model of quiet economy. I saw Coal Miner’s Daughter right after it was released early in 1980, and I was blown away by Helm’s performance. Apparently, as an oft repeated story goes, Lynn herself even fainted when she first saw Helm in full makeup for the role.

Of course, I guess most of us knew early on that Spacek’s singular portrayal as music legend Lynn would garner the actress, at the very least, an Oscar nomination the following year. I mean, come on, she ages from a lovesick teenager to an adult married woman with a mountain of hair and grown children of her own, a business woman as well as an artist who works hard for her money while trying to please her fans, her rascally husband, and her whole family alike, even as all of it pushes her to the brink of collapse. Plus, Spacek just nailed, as few actors in music biopics have, her real-life character’s distinct vocal delivery: heartfelt, sincere, and with just the right amount of twang to make audiences do double takes.  No mere impersonation, this. That Spacek and Lynn bonded so publicly only makes the latter’s Oscar success so much the sweeter as Lynn was at the ceremony that night, cheering on her new friend from Texas.

At the same time,  I fully expected Helm to be nominated as one of the year’s best supporting actors, but that didn’t happen. I can’t complain too badly since most of the lineup was on-point. I don’t think any of us would want to take the then twenty-year old Timothy Hutton’s Oscar away from him for his emotionally nuanced turn as the troubled-teenage son, a victim of survivor’s guilt, in Best Picture winner Ordinary People, though an argument can also be made that Hutton’s role was too large and flashy to be considered supporting.  The other nominees that year included Judd Hirsch (Hutton’s therapist, whose brashness provides a startling contrast to the frosty reserve of Hutton’s mother and father, played by Best Actress nominee Mary Tyler Moore and Donald Sutherland, respectively), Jason Robards (an effective, extended cameo as a decrepit Howard Hughes in Melvin and Howard), Joe Pesci (Raging Bull), and another young actor, Michael O’Keefe (as Robert Duvall’s conflicted son in The Great Santini). Truthfully, I don’t know whose nomination I would take away and give to Helm, but I know to this day I have a hard time believing he was shy enough votes to warrant a nomination, especially since Coal Miner’s Daughter was such a huge hit and earned a total of seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. Helm didn’t even sneak in as a Globe nominee. Oh sure, it is what it is, but it stinks. It stunk then; it stinks now. It will still stink tonight when I pull out my DVD of Coal Miner’s Daughter and watch it again for old time’s sake. (I also can’t believe that Beverly D’Angelo likewise failed to snare a nod for her scene stealing bit as Lynn’s feisty musical mentor, the late great Patsy Cline, but that’s a blog entry for another time.)

Almost no one remembers, I’m sure, that Helm’s former bandmate Robby Robertson also made his debut as a movie actor in 1980’s Carny, which was released around the same time as Coal Miner’s Daughter, so Oscar nomination or not, Helm’s performance still remains part of an American classic. Some of his most noteworthy credits include The Right Stuff (1983), Smooth Talk (1985) and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005) in addition to the TV series Midnight Caller, as well as the acclaimed TV movie The Dollmaker (1984), which earned Jane Fonda an Emmy award. Helm’s sole recognition for his work in films was as part of the cast of The Three Burials…(headed by Cannes winner Tommy Lee Jones), per the Western Heritage Awards.

Of course, Helm was first and foremost a musician, and his music is featured in a variety of movies. He can even be heard on the Coal Miner’s Daughter soundtrack. Interestingly, the same year that Helm was part of The Right Stuff, The Band’s “The Weight” (with Helm singing lead vocals and the familiar “Take a load off, Annie/Fanny” chorus) was effectively used as part of a memorable sequence in The Big Chill. Of course, that soundtrack is now regarded as an essential element of The Big Chill‘s overall success. Furthermore, not only did The Right Stuff and The Big Chill come out at around the same time, they were also both nominated for Best Picture of 1983.  Yep, between his music and his second career as an actor, Helm found himself affiliated with three Best Picture nominees in four years. Not a bad day’s work for a singing drummer. R.I.P.

Thanks for your consideration…

100 Years Ago….

13 Apr

Yes, it's true. The Titanic and most of its passengers met their icy cold demise 100 years ago this week (the night of April 14th into the morning of April 15th, to be exact). Director James Cameron's 1997 imagining was not the first time the story had been told for the big screen, but Cameron's version was certainly the biggest and quite possibly the best, a powerful, skillfully executed film that became a worldwide moviegoing event, a box office blockbuster of epic proportions and an Academy Award victor like almost no other: 11 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, from a total of 14 nominations. At the time, its 11 wins were equal only to Ben-Hur (1959), and its 14 nods put it on par with All About Eve (1950); since then, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) has amassed an incredible 11 awards out of a total of 11 nominations.
In recognition of the 100 year mark, Cameron has released a special 3-D version of the film because, somehow, we now know that a horrible real-life tragedy only has value if it can be seen through jacked-up overpriced 3-D glasses, and because a combined box office gross of over one billion dollars (closer to two billion, actually), 600 million of which was generated in the United States, is somehow not enough anymore, not enough to compensate for all those lives lost at sea in the cold wet dark...

Nick and Nora Redux

12 Apr

Okay, so when I opened up my current issue of Entertainment Weekly (dated April 13, 2012), I was surprised to find an article all about how director Rob Marshall (Chicago, 2002) has apparently signed a deal to direct a big screen reboot of the classic Thin Man series.  According to the EW report, Marshall will be joined by none other than Johnny Depp as dapper detective Nick Charles. Of course, anyone who knows anything about The Thin Man knows that a “Nick” is only as good as his “Nora,” and that’s where we might have a problem.

Besides their six films together in The Thin Man series, Myrna Loy (l) and William Powell were a frequent--potent--onscreen duo and were paired for a total of 14 films (though one of those consists of only a cameo on Loy's part). Some of their more notable features include Manhattan Melodrama and Evelyn Prentice, both of which came out in 1934, the same year as the Oscar nominated The Thin Man. Among other highlights are two 1936 Best Picture contenders, The Great Ziegfeld and Libeled Lady; the former won the top award.

Let’s back-up: created by Dashiell Hammett, the original Thin Man novel was published in 1934. It told the story of a retired–boozy–detective (Nick), his funny loving heiress wife (Nora), and a case in which the bad guy–not our Nick Charles–turned out to be the titular “man.” MGM snapped up the rights and released a big screen version soon afterward that was so well received that it cinched a Best Picture nod and spawned a handful of sequels–or further adventures, if you will. For some reason, the “Thin Man” moniker stuck, and all the remaining films were titled accordingly however misleading. The witty Charleses were famously played by William Powell, whose  pitch-perfect performance earned the actor his  first Oscar nomination, and Myrna Loy, who always gave as good as she got though she was not accorded the same respect from her peers that Powell was; indeed, despite a career that included over a hundred film and television credits, 1946’s Best Picture winner The Best Years of Our Lives among them, Loy didn’t receive her due from the Academy until she received an honorary award in 1991–when she was almost 90 years old. I’m sure she appreciated the tribute. I saw her receive the award on TV. She said she was very happy, but I’m not sure that she had that much clarity. She died two years later.

The Thin Man formula of a sexy hetero couple enjoying the good life and solving crimes while trading clever quips has spawned scads of copycats, especially on TV, per the likes of Hart to Hart, Remington Steele, and Moonlighting, as well as  J.J. Abrams’ recent Undercovers. I’ve watched all of them at one time or another, and I think there’s no reason not to mention such big screen pairings as Manhattan Murder Mystery (which reunited Woody Allen and Diane Keaton) and Undercover Blues (boasting the especially pleasing pairing of Kathleen Turner and Dennis Quaid). I guess some enthusiasts might count the Angelina Jolie-Brad Pitt vehicle Mr. and Mrs. Smith, but I don’t know that I’m well enough to make that comparison.

I’m definitely keen on Marshall heading this project. He’s been in a bit of slump, so maybe this will be turnaround for him.  He’s got a great sense of style, and he works wonders with actors per the Oscar nominations for the likes of Chicago‘s Renee Zellweger, Queen Latifah, John C. Reilly, and Best Supporting Actress winner, Catherine Zeta Jones, not to mention the nod that Penelope Cruz snagged for her scene stealing work in Nine–and the acclaimed, if Oscar snubbed, performance by Gong Li in Memoirs of a Geisha. At the same time,  I’m actually a little afraid of Depp as Nick Charles. There was a time when I thought Depp could do no wrong. He’d been around for a few years by the time he fully caught my attention with a heartbreakingly brilliant performance as Edward Scissorhands (1990). From there, I was hooked–and for the next several years, Depp rarely disappointed: Benny & Joon (1993), What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993), Ed Wood (1994), and Donnie Brasco (1997). I regret that I somehow missed him in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995).  I was thrilled when Depp hit the commercial jackpot as Captain Jack Sparrow in 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean:  The Curse of the Black Pearl. The first installment of the extremely lucrative series was a rollicking delight, a wonderful big screen extravaganza with a little something for everyone: adventure, romance, suspense, comedy, over-the-top effects, lavish production design, and, of course, Depp’s gloriously weird performance. It’s not easy portraying a character who is at once mincing, swaggering, and falling down shit-faced. On the other hand,  as subsequent outings have shown, a little of Jack Sparrow goes a long way. (I skipped the last one altogether.) Since then, I’ve come to the conclusion that Depp acts from the outside-in; that is, the look of the character is established first, followed by a few defining tics, and that’s that. Nothing he has done lately comes anywhere close to suggesting the emotional depth of Edward Scissorhands–who operated from a distinct disadvantage–or the quiet grace of Gilbert Grape.  Most of his recent work has been insufferable: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), Sweeney Todd (such a wasted opportunity, Oscar nod or not), and Alice in Wonderland (2010).  He was relatively subdued in his Academy nominated role of playwright J.M. Barrie in Finding Neverland (2004) and even earned his second of three Oscar nominations though I think he was uncomfortably miscast. The recent widely circulated snapshot of his “Tonto” getup in the new Lone Ranger pic makes me uncomfortable: it’s too–to borrow a term form one of my friends–self conscious, maybe even grotesquely so. The memory of  TV’s Jay Silverheels deserves better. Additionally, I’m sure his upcoming big screen version of Dark Shadows, directed by none other than Tim Burton (their eighth collaboration [see below]) with Depp in the iconic role of vampire Barnabas Collins once made famous by Jonathan Frid, will be a huge hit,  but the preview looks like an insufferable mishmash. I think these two guys actually bring out the worst in each other, but, of course, the hits just keep on coming, so, obviously, I’m in the minority. What I’m not in the minority on is Depp’s disastrous turn in the Charadeseque mystery-adventure romp The Tourist with Angelina Jolie. What a wretched nightmare. Depp, to put it nicely, is no Cary Grant, so I’m a little worried about him stepping into Powell’s shoes.

My concerns about Depp aside, my real worry is over the casting of Nora Charles. The Entertainment Weekly article includes a wish list of 7 possible contenders, including Emma Stone and Carey Mulligan.  Oh, don’t get me wrong. I adore Emma Stone, and I think she could have a ball with the role, but the age difference between her and Depp is scary.  Per the IMDb, Depp will turn 49 this year while Stone will turn 24. That’s quite a gap.  Apparently, the age gap is written into the characters, and reportedly Hammett based the pair in part on his own relationship with playwright Lillian Hellman. True enough, Hammett was older than Hellman–but only by a comparatively moderate eleven years. Depp is how much older than Stone? Well, he’s more than twice her age. Just to clarify: William Powell was thirteen years older than Myrna Loy, which is much closer to the difference between Hammett and Hellman. I can handle it, but I don’t like it. Not really.  At the time of the first Thin Man movie, Powell was approximately 42, and Loy was 29 or thereabouts. That’s a noticeable difference, though it doesn’t seem creepy until the realization hits that Powell was already through high school before Loy even started first grade.  What’s creepier is knowing that Depp could actually go through high school almost twice before Stone would start first grade. We’re talkin’ grandpappy here, aren’t we? If my math is wrong, please let me know.  I don’t think Mulligan is such a good choice, either. She’s still more than twenty years younger than he is. Ouch!  Emily Blunt is also on the EW list,  and she’s twenty years younger as well. Even so, Blunt, like Stone, definitely has the chops as she proved so memorably as the catty administrative assistant “Emily ” in The Devil Wears Prada. Rachel Weisz, who actually is the EW editors’ first choice, is only seven years younger than Depp, so that’s certainly not objectionable, and she is an Oscar winner (per her supporting role in 2005’s amazing The Constant Gardener). Even so, I tend not think of Weisz as the “sparkling” heiress type. I’m also not thrilled with Kristen Wiig as a candidate even though she’s only ten years younger than Depp.  I am a huge, HUGE fan of Wiig, but I think her comedic approach is best suited for more outrageous character types. For better or worse, whoever plays Nora Charles will be competing with Loy, and part of her gift was her ability to find the magic in subtlety. Amy Adams might actually be the best of the EW pool. She is extremely versatile as evidenced by the range of her Oscar nominated roles in Junebug (2005), Doubt (2008), and The Fighter (2010), not to mention Enchanted (2007) and The Muppets (2011). Plus, she’s only eleven years younger than Depp, but I don’t get excited imagining her and Depp onscreen together. Plus,  I just happen to think there are better candidates that EW overlooked.

Meet my number 1 pick to play Nora Charles in the proposed Thin Man reboot: Tina Fey. Whom you would like to see in the classic role? Drop me a line.

Okay, before I reveal my number one pick to play Nora Charles, let’s all be clear about one thing, which is that I understand that there is no reason whatsoever to remake The Thin Man; however, if a remake is going to happen–and we’ll see how that goes–it might as well be done the right way, so without much further ado, here’s my pick to play Nora Charles. Are you ready? Why, it’s Tina Fey, of course!  Whereas Fey’s former SNL castmate Kristen Wiig is great at finding the humor in difficult characters, Fey specializes in the all too rare commodity of genuine wit, which is harder than simple sarcasm or snarkiness. Almost nobody in the biz is better at tossing off a one-liner than Fey, who, of course, frequently writes her own material. Plus, with her dark hair and eyes,  I can easily visualize Fey and Depp as a couple. Plus, Fey is a mere seven years younger than Depp, which is a nearly perfect compromise between what seems right to me and what seems right to Hollywood in that regard.

Here are some more possibilities: Reese Witherspoon and Charlize Theron. Anybody who has ever seen Witherspoon in her iconic role of Elle Wood in Legally Blonde knows that she is a delightful comic actress; moreover, she knows how to play a woman who might be pampered but still knows how to take control of a situation.  Witherspoon’s Oscar for playing the straight talking, yet vulnerable, June Carter opposite Joaquin Phoenix’s desperate Johnny Cash in Walk the Line shows that she has what it takes to hold her own in difficult company.  Plus, her blonde hair and blue eyes would contrast perfectly with Depp’s dark good looks. Theron is a complicated choice, Yes, she won an Oscar for starring in the harrowing story of serial killer Aileen Wuornos and established herself as a dramatic heavyweight, but she’s no stranger to comedy, per her roles in Trial and Error, and  Woody Allen’s Celebrity and, especially, Curse of the Jade Scorpion. Plus, her recent turn in the darkly funny Young Adult shows that she has not lost a lick of her crackerjack comic timing. Theron is about 12 years younger than Depp. Not bad. Plus, they have already shared the screen in–the largely forgettable–The Astronaut’s Wife.  Plus, they’re both tallish–practically the same height–and, once again, there’s that whole blonde/brunette contrast.

Once upon a time, I would have been mad–in a good way–to see Elizabeth Perkins as Nora Charles.  I hate it that this wonderful actress, who seemed so close to major stardom at one point, never got the truly memorable big screen role that she deserved. I must be one of only a few dozen people that think her He Said, She Said, co-starring Kevin Bacon,  is an under-appreciated gem just ripe for rediscovery. Oh sure, Perkins hasn’t floundered exactly; after all, she has scads of  Emmy, Golden Globe, and SAG nominations for her supporting role in TV’s Weeds.  That’s not “nothing,” but it’s  also not Merylville, Jessicalangeville, Juliaville, or Sandraville, either. Alas, Perkins was never really a big name, and now, on top of all that, she has the disadvantage of being over 50 and trying to make a buck in Hollywood. I’m glad every time she gets a chance to work, but does anyone really think the Hollywood suits would cast a 50 year old woman in a romantic-comedy thriller opposite a slightly younger man? Not likely.  Why does this sexist and/or ageist line of thought persist? When it will it end? It’s a mystery.

Thanks for your consideration…

Here  is a link to the Entertainment Weekly article about casting Nora Charles. Notice the gendered headline: ‘Who will be Depp’s Leading Lady” as opposed to “Who Will Play Nora Charles?”,,20584359,00.html

Here are the eight movies that Depp has starred in for director Tim Burton:

  1. Edward Scissorhands (1990)
  2. Ed Wood (1994)
  3. Sleepy Hollow (1999)
  4. Charley and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
  5. Corpse Bride (2005)
  6. Sweeney Todd (2007)
  7. Alice in Wonderland (2010)
  8. Dark Shadows (2012)