Archive | June, 2012

Miss Firecracker: “She Really Lights My Fuse!”

29 Jun

You’re 29 years old (give or take).  A few years ago, you were just a small town girl from Mississippi a-majorin’ in theatre at a prestigious, private university in a tony enclave near Big D.  Now, your first full-length, professionally produced play has made the leap to Broadway, dazzled critics and audiences alike, and captured the Pulitzer Prize. Did I mention that you’re only 29 years old, and that this is your first full length professionally produced play?

^ Beth Henley’s most recent play is entitled The Jacksonian; it had its world premiere in LA with a cast of such luminaries as Ed Harris, Glenn Headley, Amy Madigan, and Bill Pullman.

The playwright is none other than SMU alumna Beth Henley, and the play is Crimes of the Heart, the darkly comic yet somehow still life-affirming saga of the troubled McGrath sisters: Lenny (Lenora), Meg, and Babe. When the play begins, childlike Babe has just shot her older politico husband, thereby prompting lonely eldest sister Lenny to reach out to estranged middle sister Meg to come back home. Seems Meg’s been out in Hollywood trying to make it as a singer but not having much luck, which, for her, is par for the course.  Meg’s life has been seemingly cursed ever since she found her mother’s dead body oh-so-many years ago, the victim of an apparent murder-suicide. You see, Mrs. McGrath not only hanged herself, she hanged the family’s old yellow cat along with her. The girls, whose dad skipped town years earlier, leading to the mother’s eventual mental unrest, were raised by their granddaddy–now deathly ill himself–and he might not have done such a bang up job: Meg has spent a lifetime trying to suppress her feelings by courting as much pain as possible; Lenny is so self-conscious about her own body that she’s allowed herself to become an old woman well before her time–she’s actually only 30, but her sensibility is that of a woman well-past retirement age; finally, Babe was barely past her high school majorette phase when she jumped at the chance to wed a powerful wealthy man. Only later did she realize that she was out of her league in a loveless marriage. Unfortunately, Babe’s temporary solution leads to an even bigger dilemma, and that’s where the story begins.

There’s no doubt that Crimes of the Heart made Beth Henley a darling of the theater world. Besides winning the Pulitzer, it was nominated for a bunch of Tony awards, including Best Play–and two nods for Best Featured Actress: Mia Dillon (Babe) and Mary Beth Hurt (Meg); the cast also included Dallas’s own Peter MacNicol as Babe’s earnest young attorney. Later, future Oscar winner Holly Hunter would make her Broadway debut when she stepped into the role of Meg…but more about Hunter later.  Eventually, Crimes of the Heart was made into an Oscar nominated film starring a trio of powerhouse talents: Diane Keaton (Lenny), Jessica Lange (Meg), and Sissy Spacek (Babe), all of whom were previous Oscar winners. Spacek secured another nod as did Dallas’s own Tess Harper in the role of Chick, the sisters’ prissy, meddlesome cousin.  Henley wrote the screenplay and earned a Oscar nod for her efforts as well. She also worked with no less than rock star-turned-director David Byrne on the screenplay for 1986’s True Stories, which was filmed in and around the Dallas area.

Of course, the trouble with starting your career at the absolute pinnacle is that there really isn’t anywhere else to go but down, and that’s exactly what happened to Henley with her next Broadway play, The Wake of Jamey Foster, which opened in October of 1982. Despite a cast of such reliable talents as Hunter, Anthony Heald, Patricia Richardson (another SMU alumna), Belita Moreno (SMU again), and the great character actor Stephen Tobolowsky (another Dallasite, as well as an SMU grad and occasional Henley collaborator), the play received scathing reviews and closed after only 12 performances. That’s apparently the problem with success that comes too early–but not necessarily too easily–in a career: everyone starts waiting, almost eagerly, for the other shoe not to just drop, but to plummet.

^ Holly Hunter’s Carnelle Scott performs a marching tap dance routine to the Star Spangled Banner in Miss Firecracker.  Carnelle has been practicing her talent act for five years; it’s very polished.

Henley managed to recover ever so slightly with her next venture, The Miss Firecracker Contest, which never made it to Broadway but instead enjoyed a modest run off-Broadway beginning in 1984.  It also helped put Holly Hunter on the map. The Miss Firecracker Contest, with Hunter as a young woman hell-bent on rehabilitating her tarnished reputation by becoming a  beauty queen, closed in 1985; by 1987, Hunter, who’d only had tiny parts in a few films, was starring in both Raising Arizona and Broadcast News. She received a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her work in the latter.  She followed Broadcast News with the film version of The Miss Firecracker Contest, simply retitled Miss Firecracker (1989).  The movie was also future Oscar winner Tim Robbins’s next gig after bolstering his rep with a knock-out performance, so to speak, in 1988’s Bull Durham. Miss Firecracker was also the premiere offering from Corsair Pictures, which was the short-lived production arm of the former United Artists theater chain (which has since morphed into Regal Cinemas, but I digress). I would say that most people have not heard of Miss Firecracker, with Hunter’s…crackerjack performance, which is too bad. I’ll always have a soft-spot for Crimes of the Heart, mainly because I’m such a huge fan of all three leading actresses, but Miss Firecracker gets to me on a gut-level. It’s one of the best movies that almost nobody has ever heard of, let alone seen.

Hunter plays Carnelle Scott, a small town misfit scraping by, so to speak, at the local catfish farm–that is until her tardiness gets her dismissed in the first several minutes of the movie. Carnelle is an orphan who was raised by her aunt, but now the aunt too has passed away, and Carnelle lives alone in a ramshackle Victorian home that has seen better days. Carnelle has also seen better days. When she was a child, Carnelle suffered from ringworm and used to cover her head with a cap festooned in yellow feathers.  She also idolized her two older cousins: Delmount (Robbins), the would-be philosopher with a self-defeating violent streak that’s somehow manifested in an unruly head of hair, and Elaine (Mary Steenburgen), perhaps the most legendarily beautiful woman to ever wear the crown of Miss Firecracker, the queen of the town’s annual Fourth of July celebration. These many years later, with Elaine and Delmount long gone, and Carnelle all too aware that she’s about to be too old to enter a beauty pageant, she decides to make her move. If nothing else, she wants to prove to the townspeople that she’s no longer the promiscuous tart she had been a few years earlier. Plus, almost more than anything, she hopes that some of her cousin’s luster will rub off on her in the form of the beautiful red evening gown that helped the latter on her way to victory several years earlier. Seeing Elaine in her pageant finery waving at an adoring crowd from high atop a parade float is one of Carnelle’s most cherished childhood memories–in a childhood, don’t forget, without a lot to cherish. As it turns out, Elaine comes back home to give a speech at the pageant although she also has other things on her mind; likewise, Delmount, who’s also only been scraping by, returns home with a plan to change his destiny and, perhaps, to help Carnelle change hers as well.

The Miss Firecracker Contest’s Final Five (left to right); Amy Wright as Missy Mahoney, Angela Turner as Caroline Jefferson, Holly Hunter as Carnelle Scott, Barbara Welch as Joe Ann Jacobs, and Lori Hayes as Sally Chin. Dig Hunter’s wwwwiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiillllllllddddddd red hair. One of the drawbacks of home video is that the redness of her hair loses some of its shock  in the transfer from one medium to the next. On film and magnified on the big screen, the color was blazingly intense.  If this were a 2012 release, the hairstylist, Cydney Cornell, would be eligible for an Oscar under the Academy’s newest rules. You might think that hairstylists have always been included among teams nominated for Best Makeup, but that is not necessarily so though that oversight has only recently been addressed.

I think Hunter’s particular greatness in this role is how she truly understands that Carnelle is on a journey. See, Henley is a tricky writer. She’s from the South, of course, and she pokes fun at the South, so the task for any actor is to find the truth that’s often buried deep down in the characters in order to keep them from spilling over into mere camp–or even banally inspirational. The movie was shot in the summer of 1988 in Yazoo City, Mississippi, and Hunter was exactly 30 years old at the time, and while 30 is hardly over the hill, Hunter is quite effective at registering someone much, much younger. Carnelle’s exact age is never mentioned in the movie though Henley’s notes in the published edition of the play puts her at 24. Nonetheless, there are times when Hunter’s awkward body language–it helps, of course, that’s she’s super petite (5’2″)–and her wide open face suggest someone even younger than that: a person who’s perhaps chronologically a young adult but who’s still very much a lost, abandoned, and even naive child–even with her somewhat checkered past. Carnelle looks up to Elaine with nothing but profound and unabashed admiration. At other times, such as when she’s surrounded by a flurry of activity at the pageant’s headquarters, Carnelle looks like a kid in the world’s biggest toy/candy store. She can hardly believe it’s all really happening for her. In one other sequence, she turns misty-eyed watching another contestant’s talent act. That’s the part of Carnelle that wants to be loved, and she sees in other people’s beauty what she can’t see in herself. No playwright can get all of that on the page. Oh sure, the details for such are all in the blueprint, the raw text, but it takes the subtlies of acting to manifest it so sublimely for the audience’s pleasure.

Hunter is quite amazing at times. At one point, Carnelle is certain she has flubbed the preliminary round of judging, thereby curtailing any actual involvement in the pageant, and her heartbreak is devastating and genuine–look at the bulging, straining muscles in her neck as she wails on and on about her disappointment. This isn’t an actress who’s pretending or just going through the motions. No, every fiber of her being is fully in the moment, at one with the character’s suffering–however comic it might seem from the outside looking in, at a safe remove. (Of course, her guilelessness practically obliterates that remove.) Carnelle’s despair is soon dispelled–another sterling moment–and, ta-da!–she’s pageant-bound. (Though some of my friends and I have often wondered if Carnelle’s entry to the next level of the pageant is not motivated in part by a desire by the officials to maintain the peace with cousin Elaine.) At any rate, Carnelle soon gets her big chance to impress the audience (both in the pageant and those watching the movie) and the judges with what is called a “marching tap dance routine to the Star Spangled Banner,” and it’s a doozy, I assure you, with Hunter rising to the nearly impossible challenge of actually going through the motions of the choreography but also “selling” the idea that this is something genuinely artistic and beautiful rather than flat-out ridiculous–and she does all that. By the end of the routine, she’s positively radiant.

I won’t give away too much more–as in whether or not Carnelle wins the pageant–but I will reiterate that Carnelle is on a journey, and she has to have the full experience of the pageant in order to grow into who she truly is. It is in these scenes that Hunter astonishes as she continually plumbs the depth of her character’s core. There’s a feistiness, sure, but there’s also strength, determination, a surprising amount of tenderness, and, yes, grace.

There are three main supporting characters, but let’s start with the two that are closest to Carnelle, at least by blood, and they are Elaine and Delmount. Mary Steenburgen brings Carnelle’s snooty cousin Elaine to brilliant life, which probably isn’t as easy as Steenburgen makes it look; good acting never is.  Now, some people might argue that as Streenburgen plays her, Elaine is much too much a phony, but I think that’s something easily explained–and absolutely right. Of course, Elaine is a phony, a pretentious snot with a Southern accent as thick and sweet as molasses–but rather than make her a mere bitch, Steenburgen pulls back Elaine’s facade just enough for the audience to get a glimpse of her soul: her every word and every gesture are calculated to a fare-thee-well, so watching her as she tries to navigate one awkward encounter after another is delightful. It’s all a performance with Elaine, an effect. That much is obvious. What I get out of it is that Elaine has been raised to be a people-pleaser, and that training likely figured into her pageant success and her seemingly perfect marriage–but where has all that dutiful daughter/beauty queen/wife stuff left Elaine? Is there a part of herself she can hold onto when she thinks no one is looking? Steenburgen rises to the challenge of going where Henley leads her in order to show that Elaine is only human. Of course, practically the only person in the community that is not enthralled with Elaine is her brother Delmount. In this piece as well as in Crimes of the Hearts, a recurring theme in Henley’s work is that even when siblings grow into otherwise mature adults with rich and varied experiences,  they lapse into their old established childish behavioral patterns when they’re forced into close quarters. In this, Steenburgen and Robbins are right on target. They seem to be having fun portraying mutual antagonism, which is really the point. If Delmount and Elaine didn’t get some psychological satisfaction out of their petty skirmishes, they wouldn’t keep them going, would they?  I’ve always thought Robbins’s appeal in his early comic roles is that for the longest time, he had a baby face, doughy and unformed, atop a fully adult body–at 6’5′, he is reportedly the tallest ever Academy Award winner. Of course, those twinkly blue eyes add immeasurably to his charm. This man-child quality is perfect for Delmount, a grown man who talks a good game but still has nightmares, no doubt from watching his own strong-willed mother literally morph into some kind of beast before finally passing away. For Delmount, love comes in unexpected ways, and it allows him to relax for awhile.

By the time Alfre Woodard (above) appeared in Miss Firecracker, she’d already earned an Oscar nomination and garnered  two Emmy awards. Her Oscar nod was for one of her early film roles, 1983’s Cross Creek–starring no less than fellow Miss Firecracker thesp Mary Steenburgen. Woodard made a vivid impression as a backwoods woman with man problems who talks her way into a housekeeping job for Marjorie Rawlings (Steenburgen), author of The Yearling and Jacob’s Ladder.  Woodard’s first two Emmys were for supporting roles on  breakthrough dramas Hill Street Blues and L.A.Law. She has since gone on to achieve a total of 4 Emmy statuettes, including one as Outstanding Lead Actress in a Mini-series for 1997’s Miss Evers’ Boys (based on the shameful Tuskeeghee experiment). She also won a Screen Actors Guild award as well as a Golden Globe for her work in the telefilm. All in all, Woodard has amassed a staggering 16 Emmy nominations, including nods for recent stints on True Blood and Desperate Housewives. She’s still waiting for another great big screen role worthy of her talents; meanwhile, she’s about to be seen as “Ouiser,”  the character made famous by Shirley MacLaine, in a TV remake of Steel Magnolias.

After Elaine and Delmount, the third key supporting character is Carnelle’s seamstress, a sweet young woman from impoverished conditions (“She lives down by the river”) who, incredibly, began sewing outfits for frogs–as opposed to expensive dolls–when she was just a child. Besides this particular quirk, Popeye has a medical condition that, as her nickname suggests, causes her eyes to bulge out just a bit–and that’s just one part of her affliction. Don’t worry. I won’t spoil the surprises in her story. She gets  a chance to explain the whole thing to Delmount in one of the movie’s best scenes.  Now there’s, for lack of a better word, a twist to all of this. Director Thomas Schlamme saw fit to cast the great Alfre Woodard in the role. Woodard, for the uninitiated, is African-American. Henley did not write the character with any specific race or ethnicity in mind. Indeed, a Latina, Belita Moreno, played the role off-Broadway, but that was simply incidental.  Another friend of mine, a white actress if there ever were one, played the part several years ago (a few years after the movie) in a local production–not that there’s anything wrong with that.  By the way, some of my best friends are white. Why am I mentioning this? Well, it’s because I love Woodard, and I think she is marvelous in this role. Her Popeye is such a sweet presence, and her budding romance with Delmount is one of the movie’s many delights. The problem is that because Popeye is a little naive, ditsy even (dare I say childlike), and has, you know, those big bulging eyes, some critics originally lambasted Schlamme and/or Woodard and/or Henley for verging perilously close to the old “pickaninny” caricature of black females not unlike, say, Butterfly McQueen’s portrayal of silly, mouthy, slow-witted “Prissy” in Gone with the Wind.  Well, I guess that’s one way of looking at it, but I think Woodard just shines in the role. It’s certainly not her fault that the role is written the way it is, right? My friend played the role much differently than Woodard’s approach, but she couldn’t change the essence of the character: an earnest country bumpkin. Woodard,  with her, yes, soulful eyes, beautiful smile, and overall savvy as an actress, makes the role her own–and something far more resonant than a simple stock character. (Personally, I was horrified by the pickaninny-ish caricature of former Secretary-of-State Condolezza Rice served by Thandie Newton–via director Oliver Stone–in W, the 2008 biopic of then prez, George W. Bush.)  Plus, it would be ridiculous to make a movie about life in small town Mississippi without a single person of color in a major role. Not only that, Henley’s approach has always been equal opportunity in that she manages to poke fun at almost everyone, black/white, young/old, whatever; the other pageant contestants are a pretty motley bunch, to be sure, with all kinds of oddball flourishes. It’s the job of the actors/actresses to humanize these characters, and that’s exactly what Woodard does. Popeye isn’t a pickaninny; she’s just Popeye. Schlamme and Woodard take a risk here–not the least of which includes depicting an interracial couple, in the 1980s no less, without a single mention of race to be found between them.

The cast is rounded out by a handful of reliable character actors and a few eager newcomers. First is no less than Scott Glenn, almost unrecognizable as Mac Sam, Carnelle’s sometime squeeze, a carny operator plagued by a lifetime of health issues and rotten luck. He looks like a hippie burnout who never recovered from the 1960s, more dead than alive, actually, yet Glenn invests the character with such tenderness. It’s not a big role, not a flashy one, but Glenn makes a vivid impression. This is the same tough guy that was so riveting as the baddie in Urban Cowboy (drawing comparisons to Clint Eastwood, as I recall); one of his next screen appearances–after Miss Firecracker–was as button-down FBI investigator Jack Crawford in The Silence of the Lambs. What a smart actor.

Trey Wilson (seen here in Raising Arizona) was a Texas native who had been toiling away in show business, on stage, screen and television, before he really hit his stride as the fast-talkin’ furniture dealer Nathan Arizona in the Coens’ Raising Arizona. From there, he soared to the heights of Bull Durham, in the role of the put-upon minor league baseball team manager. His other films from that era include Married to the Mob, Twins, and Great Balls of Fire. In Miss Firecracker, he plays a pageant official whose initial goofiness gives way to something much more poignant. He died in January of 1989, just shy of his 41st birthday–and a few months before the release of Miss Firecracker. The film is dedicated to him.

Next, the late Trey Wilson has a ball playing “Mr. Benjamin Draper,”  one of the pageant’s most visible movers and shakers. Draper is the proverbial big fish in a small pond, and anyone who has seen Wilson in his colorful roles in Raising Arizona and Bull Durham knows that the man has no qualms about portraying a buffoon though he’s capable of much more than that, presenting Draper as a lovesick Southern gentleman still nursing a boyhood crush. Of course, Wilson didn’t invent the character. Henley was there to provide the blueprint, but, again, it’s up to Wilson to take Henley’s conceits and find a way to make them endearing to/for audiences, and he does so in fleeting moments with telling gestures; meanwhile,  Texas’s own Ann Wedgeworth (a Dallas transplant by way of Abilene) pops up for a few scenes as the pageant’s Mother Hen, the woman whose job it is to mentor the eager, if unformed, hopefuls in their pursuit of that certain Firecracker “spark.”  Never mind that Miss Blue seems a bit frazzled, worse for wear, herself. She’s like one of Tennessee Williams’s faded Southern belles with all of the tics and none of the baggage.  Wedgeworth has played eccentric characters such as this one on more than one occasion–she had a small role in the same year’s Steel Magnolias–but, of course, directors hire her because she’s good at what she does, and her mere presence–the recognizability of her face if not her name–creates a sense of expectation about a character before the actress even opens her mouth–though her distinctive twang just sweetens the pot. Amy Wright, who’d just been seen as William Hurt’s late blooming sister, Rose, in The Accidental Tourist (1988), is a hoot as one of the town’s leading busybodies, Missy Mahoney; she and her sister Tessy, played by future Tony nominee, Veanne Cox, will likely one day inherit the title of the town’s oddball spinsters. These two are so superficially interchangeable that townspeople can’t tell them apart, referring to each of them only as “Mahoney girl,” at one time or another, yet their temperaments are quite different. Missy is a stuffy prude while Tessa is still at the giggly schoolgirl age. Ever-reliable character actor Bert Remsen drops in for a brief bit as Delmount’s particularly gruff and nasty immediate supervisor at his already unpleasant job. Look carefully as well, and you’ll see Houston’s Greg Germann, years before he hit it relatively big as Ally McBeal’s ex-husband, and, yes, that’s no less than Brent Spiner (as “Data” on TV’s Star Trek: The Next Generation at the time of this film) clocking-in for barely more than a walk-on as a preacher. Angela Turner, a leggy blonde, plays Caroline Jefferson, the allegedly prettiest girl in town. She has all the right stuff, that one, though Henley has given her a quirk or two as well. Finally, gorgeous Lori Hayes scores in the smallish role of a Sally Chin, a contestant who performs her talent act with considerable aplomb and actually looks stunning while doing so.

Director Thomas Schlamme (l) and his wife, the great actress, Christine Lahti (r). She makes an amusing cameo appearance in the film as one of Elaine’s old pals. Of course, Lahti is an Oscar nominated actress in her own right, thanks to her scene stealing turn in 1984’s Swing Shift starring Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell. Additionally, she actually won an Oscar for directing and co-producing 1995’s live action short-film, Lieberman in Love in which she also co-starred with Danny Aiello, Nancy Travis, and Beth Grant; her many other honors include both an Emmy and a Golden Globe for her work on TV’s Chicago Hope.

As noted, Thomas Schlamme directs the film. His resume at the time consisted of TV work, and he has only directed one feature film since Miss Firecracker:  1993’s So I Married an Axe Murderer starring Mike Meyers and Nancy Travis (a dud).  On the other hand, over the past two decades, Schlamme has distinguished himself as one of the most respected of all TV directors, having garnered scads of Emmy and DGA awards for his work on Tracey Takes On…, Sports Night, and, most famously, The West Wing (on which he also served as a co-producer).  There’s no doubt that he knows how to bring out the best in his actors.  On the other hand, the first chunk of the movie is mostly visually flat. It’s not horrible, but it’s not especially inspired either. Well, part of that is just the reality of having to film some of the earlier scenes in an old rundown Victorian house that is not especially photogenic. Of course, when Bruce Beresford shot Crimes of the Heart, he spruced up his location into Victorian gingerbread loveliness. Schlamme could have had his design team perform a similar makeover, but he didn’t, and his approach seems true to the material even if it doesn’t offer much in the way of eye candy.  That noted, there is one interior shot that works like a charm for me, and that’s a closeup of Miss Popeye as she peers through the glass panel of the front door, a panel that is partially obscured from the inside by sheer drapery. The beauty of this image always takes me by surprise, and then I wonder how long it must have taken to light it. The movie becomes much more visually interesting once the action switches to the annual Fourth of July shindig, which, of course, includes the pageant.  Schlamme and production designer Kristi Zea work together to create a county fair that’s colorful and exciting without lapsing too far into kitsch or caricature. It looks and feels like the real deal rather than a Hollywood manufactured set.  Furthermore, as the festivities stretch from morning to night, Schlamme and cinematographer Arthur Albert create some movie magic, perfectly capturing the mystical quality of a lazy summer evening in the country: at once soothing and mysterious like the fabled “blue hour” of lore.

Again, as someone who has both read the play and seen it performed live, I have to say that the movie is actually an improvement on the original text.  Of course, Henley does the usual job of  “opening up” the story. The action in the stage version unfolds either in the old family home or backstage at the pageant. The movie takes place all over Yazoo City, Mississippi (a real town, btw) with plenty of pageant coverage both on and offstage–and those scenes are some of the movie’s most fun and/or memorable.  Liberating the action in this way allows Henley to more fully develop  things that were sketchy or only hinted at in the text–and that includes introducing a few new characters.  Of course, sometimes writers and directors fail when they are too literal in their handling of an adaptation, forgetting the value in the power of suggestion. In Henley’s case, the approach works because it allows her to pare away some of the stagey, expository dialogue and instead frees her to focus on the visual element, showing her characters in the business of doing whatever is they’re doing without having to over-explain themselves. Henley has also, wisely, rethought much of the material, playing with chronology, lifting small snippets of dialogue from given passages and recontextualizing them, and, best of all, tinkering with some of the characters’ motivations, which gives the story some Tennessee Williams-style heft. (Yes, I have referenced Tennessee Williams twice in this piece though I fought myself over it.)

During the 1989/90 awards season, Steenburgen was the only Miss Firecracker cast member to receive any kind of accolade: a Best Supporting Actress nomination per the Chicago Film Critics Association. Well, good for her. Steenburgen was actually having a good year in ’89, what with her fabulous performance in this film along with her role opposite Steve Martin in the more well-known, well-liked, Parenthood.  [Steenburgen is a previous Best Supporting Actress winner for 1980’s Melvin and Howard.] I happen to think that Robbins, Woodard, Glenn, Steenburgen, natch, and, especially, Hunter  all give award worthy performances in this film, but, of course, it’s no surprise that they were overlooked (Steenburgen’s one nod, aside).  Okay, so, no Oscar nomination for Hunter. I get it, but what about a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy? Really? Well, no, of course not. Awards are tricky business. With so many films competing for attention, it often takes more than good work alone for a movie to be considered a worthy contender–and in 1989, Miss Firecracker was barely even a blip compared to the likes of Steel Magnolias and Driving Miss Daisy (also based on high profile plays about the South). This movie just wasn’t a hit, not even relative to its tiny budget. For me, the bigger mystery is how Miss Firecracker was allowed to fail in the first place. Again, it was Hunter’s follow-up to her Oscar nominated performance in the popular Broadcast News as well as Robbins’s first feature after his breakthrough in Bull Durham–not to mention the possible allure of Steenburgen, Glenn, and Woodard, hardly unknowns.  More confusing is how the mighty United Artists theater chain dropped the ball with its own product. As noted, UA briefly got into–or back into–the production end of movies with Corsair Pictures, so it seems that with all the muscle of one of the biggest–if not the biggest–exhibitors behind it, the movie should not have lacked for anything in the way of distribution or marketing, two major hurdles for most “sensitive” low-budget films, but that was apparently not the case. Btw: this experiment did not last long, as Corsair only released a few more films before closing for good.  The company might have fared a little better with Michael Caine in A Shock to the System. Well, there’s a reason why these monopolies were dismantled in the first place.

I, of course, was a UA employee for many years, and I sure did my part to help sell the movie as it was my theatre’s 1989 second quarter project picture. Indeed, this was one of the first big promotional campaigns on which I took a leading role. I worked every possible angle I could from arranging tie-ins with local businesses to decorating the lobby, etc.  I’d seen the movie weeks in advance of its opening, and I loved it so much that I just wanted to do all I could to help it succeed. It was a tricky chapter in my own life, full of both old doubts and dreams of many new possibilities, and, similar to Carnelle, I just wanted to make my own mark in a business that I loved while I had the chance. To that end, I succeeded even if the movie did not, earning first place in our region, which meant a nice plaque and a cash bonus.  By now, Miss Firecracker is more than 20 years old, and the play upon which it is based is almost 30 years old. Almost everyone has gone on to bigger and better things: Hunter triumphed in 1993’s The Piano, earning virtually every accolade available including an Oscar; Robbins went on to divide his time between acting and writing/directing. He won a Best Supporting Actor for the tragic–dark and tragic–Mystic River, but only after earning a Best Director nod for 1995’s fact-based Dead Man Walking (for which his then longtime lady-love Susan Sarandon won her Best Actress Oscar); Woodard, as noted in the sidebar, has primarily distinguished herself in television, as has director Thomas Sclamme. Steenburgen, who’d already won a Best Supporting Actress for Melvin and Howard (1980) long before Miss Firecracker, stays busy with television work also though she had a role in last summer’s smash hit, The Help.

Beth Henley still hones her craft in the wonderful world of theater though she has not had an official Broadway play in years and years.  I often wonder if Henley was really writing about herself to a certain degree in Miss Firecracker. Is she Carnelle, the Mississippi girl who’s determined to get the heck out her small town and make it big, or is she more like Elaine, the girl who got out, hit it big, and then had to regroup when things got tough? Does it even matter anymore? In my book, she’ll always be a winner.

Thanks for your consideration…

Beth Henley at the Internet Broadway Database:

Beth Henley at the Internet Off-Broadway Database:

A review of Henley’s The Jacksonian in the LA Times:


Nora Ephron: A Life in Film

27 Jun

Well, I guess we all got word late last night that popular screenwriter-director Nora Ephron had passed way at the age of 71. Cause of death? Leukemia.  There has been a lot of coverage today,  and I don’t know what I can add, but I’ll try. Before Ephron became famous in her own right as an Oscar nominated screenwriter, she’d actually grown up in a showbiz family….

RIP: Nora Ephron, 1941 – 2012

Nora Ephron was born to screenwriters Henry and Phoebe Ephron. Among their many collaborations is the Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy comedy about love and office politics circa 1957, Desk Set. Interestingly, Heburn was in her 50s when the movie was made though her age is scarcely, if at all, mentioned. If the movie were being made today, her age would be a critical story element since 50 year old single women are some kind of anomaly that must  be explained in modern-day Hollywood.

The Ephrons received their only Oscar nomination(s) for Captain Newman, M.D (1963), which featured, as well, an Academy nominated supporting performance by singer-actor Bobby Darin. The duo earned multiple Writers Guild noms for such films as Carousel (1956), Daddy Long Legs (1955), and There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954).

The Ephrons also wrote Take Her, She’s Mine, a “wild” 1963 comedy about an over-protective dad (Jimmy Stewart, lower left) who has to learn how to let his college age daughter (Sandra Dee, upper right) take care of herself through one crazy adventure after another. The movie is reportedly based on the Ephrons’ experience with their own Nora. There are worse things than being represented onscreen by Sandra Dee.

After establishing herself as a writer in other media, Nora Ephron broke into screenwriting with 1983’s Silkwood, the fact-based account of Karen Silkwood, the Oklahoma based nuclear power worker and would-be whistle blower who died under mysterious circumstances in the 1970s; the film earned Oscar nominations for Ephron (shared with co-writer Alice Arlen), director Mike Nichols, Meryl Streep, as the title character, and Cher (bottom right), in the supporting role of a  composite character named Dolly.

Ephron’s rather tumultuous marriage to famed Watergate era Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein was the basis for her novel, Heartburn, which was then adapted for film in 1986. The movie was yet another collaboration with director Mike Nichols. This time, Ephron’s alter ego was played by no less than Meryl Streep (l).  Jack Nicholson (r) stood-in for Bernstein.

Ephron received her second Best Original Screenplay nomination for 1989’s When Harry Met Sally…, a Rob Reiner film starring Meg Ryan (l) and Billy Crystal (r). The movie became famous for, among other things, a scene in a NY Deli in which Sally simulates an orgasm. It also introduced many moviegoers to the smooth stylings of crooner Harry Connick Jr. One of the most popular romantic comedies of the past few decades, its detractors insist it’s just a Woody Allen retread.  It’s a cute movie, but, yes, at times it at least resembles an Allen film. Dig Ryan’s Annie Hall look.

After divorcing Bernstein, Ephron eventually married–and stayed married to–writer Nicholas Pileggi, whose non-fiction mob expose, Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family, became the basis for Martin Scorsese’s acclaimed Goodfellas (1990). Interestingly, the same year that Goodfellas was released, Ephron wrote a comedy about a mobster in the witness relocation program, My Blue Heaven starring Steve Martin (l) and Rick Moranis (r). The movie was directed by Herbert Ross, and Ephron reportedly drew upon the real-life figure, Henry Hill, who was the source for Pileggi’s book. (Hill just passed away on June 12 at the age of 69.)

Ephron’s first foray as a director was 1992’s This Is My Life (which she also wrote), starring the great Julie Kavner as a stand-up comic trying to raise two daughters, played by Samantha Mathis and Gaby Hoffman. Of course, Ephron was, at least for awhile, a single mom with two children. Hmmm…. Though not a huge hit, the movie is worth a look–or two. At the end of 1992, when all the critics were complaining that there had not been enough good roles for leading actresses to deliver a suitable slate of Oscar nominees, I don’t recall anyone rushing to this film’s defense, which is too bad for Kavner, and her fans, as she has never been given another great big juicy film role like this one.

Ephron hit the jackpot with her second directorial effort, 1993’s Sleepless in Seattle–starring Tom Hanks (l) and Meg Ryan (r). Though barely more than a tribute to 1950s weepie An Affair to Remember, with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr as lovers whose plans for a romantic rendezvous go horribly wrong, the movie casts a spell in its own right. (Besides, An Affair to Remember is actually a remake of 1939’s Love Affair with Charles Boyer and Irene Dunn.) Sleepless… is actually my favorite Ephron pic largely, I think, due to the wonderful performances by Hanks and Ryan, who seem more evenly matched than do Ryan and Crystal in When Harry Met Sally. A nifty trick, that, since they are separated for much of the movie. Not only did Sleepless in Seattle earn more money than When Harry Met Sally…, it played in theatres longer as well. We enjoyed a lovely run with it at the old UA: it opened in June and then ran through the summer and on into September.  Five years later, Ephron, Hanks, and Ryan reunited for You’ve Got Mail, a cyber-age update on The Shop Around the Corner (a 1940 Lubitsch comedy starring Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan), in which professional rivals unwittingly become romantic pen-pals.

Ephron produced 2000’s Hanging Up, which was written by her sister Delia and directed by Diane Keaton (l), who also starred alongside Meg Ryan (center) and Lisa Kudrow (r). Delia Ephron’s filmography also includes credits as co-producer of Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail. Hmmm…sisters are as sisters do. Not only was this movie a family affair for Nora and Delia, the three big name stars also play siblings.

Ephron’s final film was 2009’s Julie and Julia starring Meryl Streep (center) and Amy Adams (r) in a story that intercuts the rise of celebrated “French” chef, Julia Child (Streep) with the ups and downs of an aspiring blogger (Julie Powell, played by Adams) who is inspired by Child to expand her own culinary skills. The movie helped Streep earn her 16th Oscar nomination.

Nora Ephron was born into a family of Oscar nominated screenwriters and grew up to become an Oscar nominated screenwriter herself. Portions of her life were even dramatized for film. Some of her most famous movies were either inspired by or adapted from other motion pictures. She married a writer whose work influenced her own, and she also collaborated with her sister on a few projects, including one about sisters. Yes, hers was truly a life in film.

Thanks, Nora…

Happy Birthday, Cousin…

18 Jun

Today is my birthday. Most anybody who knows me well knows that I share a birthday with Paul. Sir Paul McCartney of The Beatles, that is.  Well, this has always been a lucky thing for me–and I’ve never had to stop and think for a minute when asked that inevitable question, “Who is your favorite Beatle?”  Well, it’s Paul, baby, all the way. Always has been; always will be.  Of course, besides being one of the most legendary and fabulously successful musicians/recording artists of all time,  Paul is also an Oscar winner. Oh sure, he’s acted in a number of films, but his Oscar is a rather bittersweet thing as he and his bandmates (John, George, and Ringo) shared a win for the Let It Be soundtrack, the documentary that more or less captured on film the beginning of the end of the Fab Four. Sad face. McCartney also boasts nominations for the classic “Live and Let Die” (for the 1973 007 film of the same name), and the title tune to the 2001 Tom Cruise/Cameron Crowe oddity, Vanilla Sky.  A number of film scholars believe Paul and the gang should have been honored by the Academy for 1964’s  A Hard Day’s Night [1], but, of course, as I wrote about earlier regarding the Bee Gees and the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, sometimes it takes Uncle Oscar awhile to catch up with pop culture; after all, from the Academy’s perspective, the real British musical invasion of 1964 was all about whether My Fair Lady or Mary Poppins would capture all the golden glory.

I also share a birthday with Roger Ebert (yeah, okay, I guess), and Carol Kane, whom I wrote about several months ago when her 1975 Oscar nominated offering Hester Street was ushered into the National Film Registry. I also celebrate my special day with Isabella Rossellini. Yep, today Isabella Rosellini turns a whopping 60 years old. Well, good for her. Of course, in many ways, this Swedish-Italian model-turned-actress has been better known for her, um, say, complicated personal life rather than her output in the wonderful world of films.

^ Isabella Rossellini was the face of Lancome for most of the 1980s and on through the early 1990s until the suits (and probably a focus group or two) decided that at 40+, Rossellini was too old to help sell skin care, lipstick, mascara, etc.–but shouldn’t Rossellini’s classic, timeless beauty be the point?  Too bad for the cosmetics giant because Rossellini helped give the brand an identity–anyone and everyone who knew anything in the day about makeup and/or fashion certainly made the connection between Rossellini and Lancome. Now, the company just rides the flavor-of-the-month wagon. Who cares? (And, yes, I’m sure this photo is retouched; that’s a given.) [Since I wrote this piece, Lancôme has invited Rossellini back into the fold, serving as an ambassador for the company as new , female-centric, management recognizes the value of reaching out to women of all ages…because beauty is for everybody.]

She’s famously the daughter–a twin, in fact–of the luminously beautiful Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman (a three time Oscar winner), and Italian director Roberto Rossellini. Among his many honors are an Oscar nomination for the Paisan screenplay, a shared Grand Prize for Rome, Open City at the 1946 Cannes Film Festival, and a quartet of nominations for the Golden Lion, the top award at the Venice Film Festival; he won for The Great War; he was nominated for Stromboli, the film that first paired him–scandalously–with Bergman.  Ms. Rossellini, on the other hand, was once married to Martin Scorsese though he never featured his wife in any films.  After divorcing Scorsese, Rossellini enjoyed a long-term relationship with director David Lynch and a subsequent fling with mercurial actor Gary Oldman.  Lynch, of course, featured Rossellini in 1986’s “arthouse” instant classic Blue Velvet, and then again in 1990’s Cannes Golden Palm winner, Wild at Heart. The weird thing is that when Lynch used his beautiful lady-love in his films, he always turned her into a grotesque creature, which seemed cruel to me–as though he were jealous of her marvelous good looks and wanted to punish her. On the other hand, since Rossellini was, at that time, so well known for being the face of beauty in a slew of Lancome ads, maybe she relished the opportunity to liberate herself from all that in order to get down and dirty. Perhaps.

My first exposure to Cousin Cousine was well before it was nominated for three Academy Awards. I ran across an ad for it in someone’s discarded New York Times or Village Voice when the movie first opened in the Big Apple. When I was in high school, my mother and her friends often bought such publications, as well as the New Yorker and New York, and I read them whenever I could get my hands on them. Hey, I was a high school kid in Garland in the 70s, and I clung to the idea that New York was good for whatever ailed me. Anyway, I want to say that Cousin Cousine played at the famed Paris theatre. I distinctly remember the logo on the ad.  A few decades later, a good friend of mine would be running the place.

Regrettably, with Rossellini well past the age of 40,  good parts are often hard to find though she has eked out a perfectly respectable filmography per her work on/in the likes of Chicago Hope (Emmy nomination), Death Becomes Her (Saturn award for Best Supporting Actress), and The Saddest Music in the World.  I like Rossellini best, however, in Cousins, director Joel Schumacher’s gorgeous adaptation of the 1975 French film, Cousin Cousine.

Co-written by Jean-Charles Tacchella and Danièle Thompson, Cousin Cousine is a modern-day pastoral comedy about a man and a woman, incidentally cousins by marriage, who turn to each other for strictly platonic comfort when they realize that their respective spouses are cheating with each other. In an ironic twist, the cheated-upon eventually become lovers as well, which is a complication that the two original adulterers never saw coming as their fling was about nothing more than cheap sex. Love is another matter entirely. When released in the states in 1976, Cousin Cousine was greeted with enthusiastic reviews and, for the times, generous ticket sales, that is, generous considering its subtitles and limited distribution. The Academy was so impressed that its various branches nominated the film in three categories: Best Foreign Language Film,  Best Original Screenplay, and Best Actress, Marie-Christine Barrault in the role of the virtuous–to a point–romantic heroine. Interestingly, even though fair-haired Barrault was singled out by the American Academy, the French had a much different take, instead showering honors on dark haired vixen Marie France Pisier as the flighty adulteress–she won the Cesar award for Best Supporting Actress; Barrault wasn’t even nominated. I have to say I agree with the French on this one.  I missed Cousin Cousine when it first played in Dallas–a quick run designed to capitalize on the film’s Oscar nods, no doubt–but I caught up with it in the spring of ’79 at the old Granada theatre, and I was riveted by Pisier though I thought Barrault was pretty and charming–but an Oscar nomination? Really? [2]  Pisier segued to the lead in the lavish film treatment of Sidney Sheldon’s The Other Side of Midnight, a flop aside from its Oscar nominated costumes by famed Irene Sharaff; Barrault appeared as one of three women battling for space in Woody Allen’s consciousness in the uneven–if fascinating–Stardust Memories (1980).

Schumacher’s 1989 translation pretty much follows the original’s template–only with a title that’s actually worse. Who wants to see a movie about cousins falling in love with each other? That’s what the title suggests even though, again, the two leads are only cousins-in-law.  I mean, that might have been fine for Ashley Wilkes and Melanie Hamilton Wilkes in Gone with the Wind, but nobody went to see the 1939 epic because of those two knuckleheads. Schumacher’s movie might have just as well been titled Three Weddings and a Funeral, actually, because that’s pretty much the scenario as major chunks of action occur at various family gatherings.

This ad for the videocassette release of Cousins, starring Isabella Rossellini (l) and Ted Danson (r), seems designed to capture the carefree spirit of the original film’s advertising campaign.

Even with that teensy-misgiving about the title, Rossellini is a delight in the role that helped Marie-Christine Barrault garner a nod back in the 1970s. This is not the kind of part that screams acting awards, Barrault’s success aside,  because it doesn’t traffic in big emotions. Rossellini’s Maria is an introvert. Sure, she’s beautiful, but it’s the antithesis of 1980s glitz and glamour: no over-moussed scrunchy perms; no high-fashion “power” makeup. No Lacroix. Instead, Rossellini is a woman prone to keeping to herself and that means dressing down in almost shapeless pastel colored clothes with her chin length hair smoothed back away from her face.  It’s almost as though she wants to disappear into the background. Of course, there’s always that knockout bone structure and those dreamy eyes. Maria might want to retreat into the woodwork–she knows her marriage is a sham, and has known it for a long time though she thinks she can salvage her disappointment by being a good mother–but her basic goodness and her capacity to love are always smoldering just beneath the surface, thereby making it impossible for another man not to be attracted to her; her husband is just too inside his own head to see her as she truly is. Indeed, hubby even goes so far as to place Maria on a pedestal to his own detriment.

Again, a lot of the “acting” that Rossellini is required to do consists of being sad throughout chunks of the movie. Of course, it’s probably easier to merely look sad rather than to convey genuine sadness, and that’s where Rossellini excels: outwardly, yes, there’s body language–but how do you get inside such a reticent character? Rossellini’s deeply expressive eyes pretty much do the trick. Of course, this sad, almost strange, woman is being wooed by a man who’s an unabashed romantic, and it’s fun watching him tease the fun-loving, dare I say girlish, side into fruition. If Maria were to blossom too suddenly, the audience wouldn’t buy it, so Rossellini modulates, building from being tentative to more fully assertive one gesture, one giggle, one sidelong glance, at a time–and when she finally allows herself to feel true unabashed joy, it’s dazzling, miraculous even. Also, when a director casts an actor/actress with a face capable of registering so much  with little or no fuss, it cuts down on the need for lots of dialogue, thereby rendering the film more cinematic as evidenced in a near wordless sequence set at a commuter train depot: a complete story in itself. This is a performance so “natural,” so unaffected, that it doesn’t even seem like acting, which, of course, is what makes it so extraordinarily intriguing. Of course, fans of Barrault will say her performance works in the same way that Rossellini’s does, and that the artless unaffected quality is part of its charm–and why Barrault scored an Oscar nomination. Maybe, but I don’t remember caring about Barrault’s character, or her happiness, the way I did, and still do, with Rossellini’s interpretation. I think she somehow manages to take the character and/or level of performance to the so-called next level. Also, as an aside, I think that by writing Maria as an Italian and/or casting an actress with Rossellini’s heritage, the filmmakers maintain much of the original film’s European sensibility, or flavor, if that makes any sense.

Even so, Rossellini isn’t appearing in a love story all alone in a vacuum. She has a leading man, of course, and he’s played by none other than Ted Danson, who at the time of this film was enjoying huge success on TV’s Cheers, besides recently co-starring in yet another American remake of a French film, the hugely popular Three Men and a Baby, per  France’s Three Men and a Cradle [3]. Danson is  ruggedly handsome–he was once the Aramis man in ads–and he looks just about right as Larry, the laid-back guy who dreams of getting away from it all though he’s still very much in a rut: he’s in the second of two bad marriages, and he hasn’t had much luck with jobs ever since he decided he wasn’t cut-out for the corporate rat race. He and Rossellini have a lovely rapport, and Danson’s considerable charms are also needed to get past the parts of the script that present Larry as the perfect dad to a teenage son. I’m not saying being a great dad is a bad thing–I would never say that–but I just think this particular script strains a bit too much to make sure audiences know that however lacking Larry is in some areas, he is beyond reproach as a parent. I don’t know that I need to know all that.

As with the French source material, the original cheaters are played by a couple of scene-stealers.  First up: Sean Young as Larry’s spouse, Tish. Yes, it’s popular these days to make fun of Young for her, well, peculiar antics, and the truth is she was already garnering unfavorable press around the time this movie was produced and/or released; however, her work in Cousins shows that whatever she is now, she has given a few fine performances in the past. (Remember how good she was in Blade Runner?) Tish is a knockout who believes people only value her for her beauty, so she spends a lot of time, and exerts a lot of energy,  trying to convince others of her worth. The trouble is that, aside from being good at her job, she isn’t really sure about who she is on the inside.  As such, her emotions are all over the place, and Young registers those changes swiftly and commendably–and when Tish realizes that she’s made one mistake too many, she plays heartbreak beautifully and unexpectedly; I think audiences even root for her in the end.  Meanwhile, get a load of a pre-CSI William Petersen as Tom, Maria’s (Rosselinii) husband.  He’s a  car salesman, and, indeed, a smooth operator, but he has a short fuse, and he’s so eaten up with envy and keeping up with the Joneses that he’s his own worst enemy. Plus, he’s a serial philanderer, and Petersen, playing a such a vile individual, does a wonderful job of showing a man whose ongoing thirst for sex is almost painfully funny.  Watch his eyes and lips twitch at the idea of visualizing Young in her black underwear. Marvelous. These two are seemingly perfect for each other–except they’re really not.  Here again, I would have easily given nods to both Young and Petersen for their performances in this film: they do the nearly impossible by playing naughty misfits that are subtly comic–and, therefore, potentially believable–rather than outrageously comic. In Cousins, the outrageous comedy is saved for Lloyd Bridges as Danson’s rambunctious uncle–and a potential new love interest for Rossellini’s widowed mother. Lloyd attacks this gregarious role like a pit-bull, playing all the way to the back row and milking each and every laugh for all its worth. It’s a little too corny for my tastes–plus, this grandpappy makes some questionable choices with Danson’s son that we’re supposed to find somehow charming, but it’s not enough to ruin the picture.  As I recall, Paramount actually sprang a few bucks for a Best Supporting Actor campaign on Lloyd’s behalf.  If it had paid-off, it would have been great because it might have bought more attention to the film.

Furthermore, the delightful cast is completed by the likes of Norma Aleandro, Keith Coogan, and Gina DeAngeles. Aleandro is the sensational Argentine actress who earned international acclaim, including Best Actress honors at Cannes, for the harrowing The Official Story in 1985 [4]; two years later, she scored a Best Supporting Actress nod for Gaby: A True Story. In Cousins, she plays Rossellini’s strongly opinionated mother, Edie, and the two women spar convincingly in one thoughtfully written scene in which Edie thinks it’s the right time for a good ole heart-to-talk though Maria views the situation differently. Coogan, grandson of the one and only Jackie Coogan (Uncle Fester in the old Addams Family TV show among others) and the star of such hits as Adventures in Babysitting and Toy Soldiers in his own right, has fun with his role as Danson’s teenaged angsty-multi-media artist who wears his heart on his sleeve; he also looks cool in his vintage threads. (In pains me to add that he’s now in his 40s.)  Finally, let me just stop and praise Gina DeAngeles, a pip of an actress who once played a character listed as “Old Crone” in Moonstruck. This, um, rather old, eccentric actress first caught my attention in Woody Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose (1984), playing the domineering matriarch of a bunch of hoodlums. Then, in almost rapid succession, she popped up in Allen’s Radio Days (1987), the aforementioned Moonstruck, Cousins, and a few others. I know almost nothing about the woman, like how long she’d been acting when she started appearing in movies, but I’ve been obsessed with her for years. I even wrote a prominent film magazine one time and asked when the editors might decide to do a feature on her. The editors’ response was that I should watch as many of her movies as possible. Oh well. She looks like the Italian version of Lillian Carter (mother of President Jimmy Carter), and she can be almost frighteningly intense with her steely gaze, yet at the same time, her comic timing is razor-sharp. I bet in her whole lifetime, she never told a joke that fell-flat.  How she was ever overlooked for a guest spot on The Golden Girls is beyond me. At any rate, her role in Cousins is basically that of a one-woman Greek–make that Sicilian–chorus.  She seemingly knows all and tells all.

Cousins is directed by Joel Schumacher, and, yes, like Sean Young he has become an easy target.  Many film enthusiasts blame him for destroying the Batman franchise that Tim Burton had launched (or relaunched) so successfully in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Schumacher apparently went from bad (Batman Forever) to worse (Batman and Robin) and seemed to tarnish his reputation forever in some circles. True, this man has directed a lot of overblown junk in his day, but, don’t forget, before he “ruined” Batman, he directed Susan Sarandon to Oscar nominated glory in the 1994 adaptation of John Grisham’s The Client (a movie that seemed to work for both the public and the Academy–always a plus).  Plus, he created quite a stir–in a good way–when he cast Colin Farrell, then an unknown quantity to many US. moviegoers, as the lead in 2000’s Tigerland. Schumacher’s work with actors  in Cousins is yet more proof that he is not a hack by any means.

The original 1-sheet for Cousins. I don’t know that this poster does a great job of really selling the movie, or telling its story, but it sure is pretty. I had it on a wall in my place for a long while after the movie had come and gone. I had the perfect spot for it. Standing (l-r): Keith Coogan, William Petersen, Isabella Rossellini, and Ted Danson; sitting (l-r): Sean Young, Lloyd Bridges, Norma Aleandro, Katharine Isabelle, and the late, great Gina DeAngeles. I have no idea about the boys or the dog.

Furthermore, the movie is visually sublime, full of nifty touches, one of the most interesting being “Weddingland,” a matrimonial theme park which is the setting for one of the movie’s best sequences.  Cousins was filmed in and around Vancouver and Victoria, British Columbia, and in spite of years of trying, I’ve never been able to track down the actual location of the Weddingland sequence, but it’s a stunner.  (Weddingland looks a lot like the Danish community of Solvang in California, but there’s no indication that it is fact the shooting location, and it would be an odd choice, logistically, since the rest of the movie was filmed in Canada.) Of course, Schumacher’s background is in visual merchandising: he graduated from the Parsons School of Design and had worked as a department store window dresser before he broke into the movie biz–first as a costume designer [5]. At any rate, there’s something fascinating in the Weddingland sequence in which almost every shot seems to be perfectly coordinated with Rossellini’s creamy pastels and her beautiful sash (a gift from her husband in an act of contrition) [6], and/or her mother’s floral prints. Look closely: the mother’s cigarette is lavender and matches the colors in her dress.  Another scene in a chic restaurant seems entirely designed to bring out the blue in Lloyd Bridges’s eyes. Perhaps best of all is the sequence in which Larry and Maria enjoy a breezy motorcycle ride en route to a lake for an afternoon getaway. The gorgeous natural scenery and thrilling aerial shots, along with Rossellini’s uninhibited beauty and the giddily rhapsodic strings in Angelo Badalamenti’s luscious score, make the whole thing divinely over-the-top, like the world’s most fabulous perfume commercial or an attempt to out French-i-fy French cinema at its own game. Later, and this is important, there is a shot of Rossellini soaking in all the beauty of the lake from a cottage porch, a shot in which the audience clearly sees Maria through Larry’s eyes, that is without a doubt one of the most breathtaking images I have ever seen in a movie–the setting, the lighting, and composition instantly bring to mind Maxfield Parrish’s intensely saturated mythological vistas, and I would be willing to bet that this was exactly Schumacher’s intent–and, fortunately, he doesn’t overplay his hand: the shot builds and then is gone in an instant, with Schumacher wisely leaving the audience wanting more. (Unfortunately, unless you watch the movie on pretty large TV, the impact of its stunning visuals will be diluted–per that slim lavender cigarette of Aleandro’s; on the big screen, it is/was almost too sublime for words.)

Victor Lanoux (l) Marie-Christine Barrault in a scene from Cousin Cousine.

Because Cousins wasn’t a huge hit in its day, it is hardly surprising that it fell short with the Academy as well though the critics were generally kind to Rossellini. (I’m including a link to Roger Ebert’s review.) Of course, whether it was a hit at all is a matter of interpretation, I guess. Per the Internet Movie Database, the film cost an estimated $13 mil (these are 1988/89 dollars, mind you) and pulled in around 22 million in the U.S., a number corroborated by Box Office Mojo. Of course,  22 mil is obviously more than 13 mil, but once you factor in the costs of marketing and distribution, generally about half as much as the production costs, you’re left with a meager profit, if any. I don’t know that I trust the way the figures have been reported for this movie–mainly because I know too much about the business of reporting grosses works.  At any rate, I remember playing this movie back in the day, and I remember that it performed quite well for us, maybe playing for as many as 10 weeks. The theatre I worked in at the time definitely knew how to crank up the THX sound for summer and holiday blockbusters, such as Return of the Jedi (1983), Fright Night (1985), Top Gun (1986), Aliens (1986), Batman (1989), and Independence Day (1996),  but our bread and butter demographic during the rest of the year was the Far North Dallas Ladies-Who-Lunch-Bunch, and, believe me, when the women in this crowd liked a movie, such as this one, they would come in droves, week after week [7].  That’s the interesting thing about the biz: a movie can perform quite splendidly in some markets while only doing middling business in others. The old UA would always do well on this kind of movie even if other theatres did not. (On the other hand, kiddie movies were always hit and miss with us even when they were gangbusters everywhere else.)

Ted Danson (l) and Isabella Rossellini (r) featured on the Cousin’s DVD package.

As I have noted in previous articles, 1989 was a highly competitive year for actresses with the Oscar line-up including at least three candidates that were right on the money, and a pair of likeable lightweights [8].  There were several omissions from films with far higher profiles than Cousins,  so Rossellini’s exclusion not shocking, especially since someone had already been nominated for a movie using the same material. Oscar doesn’t generally “do” remakes, the recent revision of True Grit, starring Best Actor nominee Jeff Bridges, aside.  That noted, even given Rossellini’s predicament, and the omissions of Sean Young, William Petersen, and, okay, Lloyd Bridges,  I think Cousins should have been better promoted by Paramount: cinematography (Ralf Bode), music (Badalamenti [9]) , art direction (Mark S. Freeborn/Linda Vipond), and, heck, even screenwriter Stephen Metcalfe’s faithful adaptation.

I’m glad I own a DVD copy of Cousins. Similar to the Ladies who Lunch, I can watch it again and again, sometimes keeping it in the machine for repeat viewings. It’s something pretty that helps me unwind after a stressful day. Still, I do wish there were some extras: interviews with Schumacher, Rossellini, and the rest of the cast, or even an audio commentary. Something. It’s one thing for a movie to be overlooked by the Academy. It happens. It’s quite another for such a beautiful film to be so shabbily treated by the studio that made it. Doesn’t Isabella Rossellini deserve just a tad more respect regarding her only conventional romantic leading lady role in a mainstream Hollywood film? In a word: oui.

Thanks, Isabella, and happy birthday to you…

Roger Ebert’s review of Cousins:

[1] – I’ll leave it to the experts to debate the Oscar worthiness of the Yellow Submarine score and/or its individual songs–except that since the title tune was not unique to the movie, it was not eligible.

[2] – By the way: the Best Actress Oscar that year went to Faye Dunaway (Network); the competition also included Liv Ullman (Face to Face), Sissy Spacek (Carrie), and Talia Shire (Rocky).

[3] – The 80s was definitely the decade in which remakes of French films seemed like a good idea to American producers and/or studio heads. A few others include The Toy (1982, adapted from Le Jouet), The Woman in Red (1984 from Pardon mon affaire), and The Man with One Red Shoe (1985 – The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe).

[4] Technically, Aleandro tied with Cher  (in Mask) for the Cannes honor.

[5] An early Schumacher  job was as costumer on Woody Allen’s Interiors; he also wrote the screenplay for the original Car Wash; his other credits as a director include Lily Tomlin’s satirical The Incredible Shrinking Woman, along St. Elmo’s Fire, The Lost Boys, and Flatliners. Always a slick stylist, Cousins is softer than Schumacher’s usual bag of tricks, but by the time he got to the Batman movies, he was far too impressed with himself, throwing way too much at the screen.

[6] – Actually, Maria’s Weddlingland ensemble represents a bit of a compromise as the character sports gifts from both her husband (Tom) and her soulmate (Larry).

[7] – Add to Cousins the following films that were big favorites of the ladies who lunch at the old UA (i.e., multitudinous repeat viewings over several weeks, if not months): The Accidental Tourist (1988), The Big Chill (1983), The Bodyguard (1992), Children of a Lesser God (1986), 84 Charing Cross Road (1987), Moonstruck (1987), Peggy Sue Got Married (1986), Steel Magnolias (1989), The Woman in Red (1984), John Sayles’s Baby, It’s You (1983), and anything starring Bette Midler; of course, Titanic (1997) played to all demos–and even though it seems unlikely to think so, Driving Miss Daisy (1989) had great legs, as they say in the biz, and attracted scads of moviegoers young and old alike–not just little old ladies.

[8] The three heavyweights, in my opinion, were Jessica Tandy (the winner–for Driving Miss Daisy), Jessica Lange (Music Box), and Isabelle Adjani (Camille Claudel). The lightweights, to me, were Michelle Pfeiffer (The Fabulous Baker Boys) and Pauline Collins (Shirley Valentine); neither were bad, but I don’t think they were exceptional.  Collins is an interesting case: her movie was released by Paramount, and, again, per Box Office Mojo, earned a scant 6 million in ticket sales, far less than even Cousins, but because Collins had won the Tony for the stage version of Shirley Valentine, I guess Paramount opted for the prestige factor and invested in a real campaign. (Skeptics will likely ask whether it isn’t possible that Academy voters simply preferred one actress to another and that all this other stuff is beside the point. Of course, there’s always that, but, there again, Oscar campaigning is very much a reality, and at the end-of-the-year, it’s hard for movies to get noticed without some kind of push by the studios, and not all films are promoted equally. Simple as that.) Collins was also Globe nominated, btw.  Certainly, onstage it was a powerful role as Collins more or less enacted all the characters in a one-woman show; however, with the movie considerably “opened” for the screen and cast with terrific supporting actors such as Tom Conti, Bernard Hill, Joanna Lumley, and Alison Steadman, Collins’s performance somehow seems less remarkable as does the material itself.  Among the high profile actresses overlooked that year: Andie MacDowell (sex, lies, and videotape), and Sally Field (Steel Magnolias), among others.

[9] – The lush romanticism of Badalamenti’s score for Cousins is atypical of his more well-known work for director David Lynch in such “eerie,” for lack of a better word, projects as Blue Velvet (1986) and TV’s Twin Peaks, which followed Cousins by a year.

Once, Twice, Eight Times Blessed

11 Jun

The Tony Awards, honoring the best of the current Broadway season (the pinnacle of American theater for many professionals and fans alike) were held last nigh, Sunday (06/10/2012). I skipped them, a rarity that, because I was watching the season finales of The Killing and Mad Men–and I don’t record shows anymore because if I don’t watch it while it’s actually airing, the chances are slim that I’ll make time to catch it later.  Here are some highlights:

^ Steve Kazee triumphed as Best Actor in a Musical for Once, which also won Best Musical in addition to 6 other awards. The most honored show at last night’s Tonys, Once is based on an Oscar winning film of the same name.

  • Best Musical: Once

Before Once was a smash Broadway musical with 8 Tony awards, it was a 2007 Irish indie flick about a random, if meaningful, encounter between a male and female musician  that won the Oscar for Best Song (“Falling Slowly”).  Besides Best Musical, Best Actor, and Best Director, Once also captured Tony awards for Best Book of a Musical (Enda Walsh),  Best Orchestrations (Martin Lowe), Best Scenic Design (Bob Crowley), Best Lighting Design (Natasha Katz), and Best Sound Design (Clive Goodwin).

^ Bruce Norris wins a Tony for Best Play (Clybourne Park) less than two months since he snared a Pulitzer Prize. nice work if you can get it, indeed. Right, Bruce?

  • Best Play: Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris

Norris won the Pulitzer earlier this year as well. His play spins off from the characters and situations in Lorraine Hansberry’s classic A Raisin in the Sun (1959), offering glimpses at life in the same community in Hansberry’s original both before and after the African-American Younger family moves into an all-white neighborhood.  Norris reportedly thanked Hansberry in his speech.

^ Audra McDonald (l) onstage performing a number from the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess and (r) on the red carpet at the Tonys with her fiancee, Will Swenson

  • Best Actress in a Musical – Audra McDonald (Porgy and Bess–aka The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess)

McDonald has now won a staggering 5 Tony Awards, which puts her in a three-way tie with such legends as Julie Harris and Angela Lansbuy for most wins by an actress although, technically, Harris has an additional Lifetime Achievement award as well, bringing her total to 6. McDonald’s previous wins are for A Raisin in the Sun  (Best Featured Actress Actress in a Play, 2007),  Ragtime (Best Featured Actress in a Musical, 1998),  Master Class (Best Featured Actress in a Play, 1996), and Carousel (Best Featured Actress in a Musical, 1994); FYI:  Despite being officially titled Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, this staging of the classic American opera has undergone significant tinkering, thereby making it’s title somewhat of an orymoron.

  • Best Actor in a Musical – Steve Kazee (Once)
  • Best Actress in a Play – Nina Arianda (Venus in Fur)

This was arguably the most heated of all acting contests as Arianda was competing against a trio of popular, previous winners, Stockard Channing (Other Desert Cities), Linda Lavin (The Lyons), and Cynthia Nixon (Wit), in addition to a widely heralded newcomer, Tracie Bennett in the powerhouse role of Judy Garland in End of the Rainbow.  It does seem a little odd to me that Bennett was positioned in this category rather than the “musical” category, btw, since she does perform several of Garland’s greatest hits in the show.

James Corden: One Man, Two Guvnors–and one Tony

  • Best Actor in a Play – James Corden (One Man, Two Gu’nors)

I don’t know who Corden is, but I’m grateful that Tony voters weren’t all gaga starrry-eyed over Phillip Seymour Hoffman in the big hit revival of Death of a Salesman. A few years ago, the Tonys sort of lapsed into a trend of honoring movie stars seeking acting cred by appearing in limited runs of high profile shows.  Plus, I simply can’t imagine that Hoffman is really any good as Miller’s Willy Loman.

  • Best Director (Musical) –  John Tiffany (Once)

^ Legendary director of stage and screen, Mike Nichols

  • Best Director (Play) – Mike Nichols (Death of a Salesman)

Okay, y’all, listen up: Nichols is one of a rarefied few individuals who has won a Tony, an Oscar (Best Director –  The Graduate, 1967), an Emmy (Best Director – Angels in America,   2003;  Wit ,  2001), and a Grammy (the comedy album, An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May). Actually, Nichols has multiple Tony awards, for either directing or producing such shows as Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, Luv, Plaza Suite, The Prisoner of Second Avenue, Annie (producer),  The Real Thing (director and producer), and Spamalot.  Wow!

  • Best Featured Actress in a Musical – Judith Kaye (Nice Work If You Can Get It)

Judith Light on winning a Tony: “…the luckiest girl in the world.” Incredibly, Light’s role was originally played off-Broadway by Linda Lavin, who left the production for The Lyons when it opened on Broadway, earning her own Tony nod in the process.

  • Best Featured Actress in a Play – Judith Light (Other Desert Cities)

Light was just nominated last year in the same category for Lombardi. I was never much of a fan of her 80s sitcom Who’s the Boss though I’m always glad to see her when I can.  I have been a huge HUGE fan ever since her two-time  Emmy award winning portrayal of Karen Wolek on daytime’s  One Life to Live back in the late 70s and early, early 1980s.  Fans and people in the biz are still raving about her testimony in the Victoria Lord murder trial.  Riveting stuff if you can find a clip on YouTube without gnarly audio.

  • Best Featured Actor in a Play – Michael McGrath (Nice Work If You Can Get It)
  • Best Featured Actor in a Play – Christian Borle (Peter and the Starcatcher

A new play that purports to be a prequel to Peter Pan. Huh? I’m skeptical though it seems to have worked for Norris’s play.

  • Best Original Score – Newsies  (Alan Menken and Jack Feldman)

Menken, of course, already has 8 Oscars for his work on Disney’s animated musicals, such as The Little Mermaid, Beauty & the Beast, Aladdin, and Pocahontas, winning two Oscars for each film (for scoring and for songwriting). No single living human being has more Oscars than Menken. Newsies originally began life as a flop Disney live-action musical starring a then teen-aged Christian Bale, and it was the “cult” of Bale that helped give the movie a strong afterlife on home video, thereby setting the stage, so to speak, for the current smash Broadway edition.

  • Best Revival of a Musical –  The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess
  • Best Revivl of a Play – Death of a Salesman

Official Tony Awards site:

The Internet Broadway Database:

Huffington Post article on Judith Light:

Read about Linda Lavin’s incredible year on Broadway in the New York Times:

Thanks for your consideration, and thanks for not c0mmenting on the fact that I have written about Broadway theatre even though the name of this blog is Confessions of a Movie Queen.

Moonrise and Marigold

7 Jun

I’ve never understood why the summer is so bereft of entertainment when it seems we need it most…

– Comment from a friend in a recent email exchange

Funny thing, my friend’s comment, because for decades, summer has indeed been the season that the big movie studios have considered ground zero for so-called popcorn escapist fare though that was not always necessarily the case. Nonetheless, the phenomenal successes of Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977), and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) forever changed the playing ground for successful summer programming. That doesn’t have to be bad thing necessarily when the movies are well-executed–which, of course, is entirely subjective.  Even so, over time, this trend has gotten, well, a tad repetitive. I don’t want to knock comic-book movies in general, but, really, why so many? The suits will tell you that in an ever-increasingly global society, these are the kinds of movies that perform well overseas: elaborate visual effects and high octane action sequences translate into any language. That’s the rationale, I assure you. Please keep in mind, too, that America is no longer the only market in town. Indeed, many big-budget action blockbusters earn more money overseas than in the states, which is why more and more of them, including Marvel’s The Avengers, Battleship, and Prometheus,  are opening elsewhere first.  What’s scary to me, besides the added surcharge for 3-D flicks (thereby artificially pumping ticket sales for such flicks), is that even though the heroes thwart the bad guys in the end, often setting up a sequel in the process, ( I digress), it seems the message is really gloom, doom, and destruction, and that’s not everyone’s idea of entertainment. Plus, I get it: I sound old if I complain that these movies are played at a pitch that can best be described as thundering; meanwhile, why do so many of these “entertainments” all seem like over-produced video games? Again, the suits will tell you that they’re just having to compete with a whole generation of moviegoers with ADD (attention deficit order) or ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). Of course, those same suits fail to acknowledge their own culpability in perpetrating such a seemingly unavoidable trend though, of course, the answer is really more simple than even they might care to offer. Why do so many movies seem like video games? Well, because they are likely a springboard for an actual video game–that and/or a theme park attraction. Why can’t a movie just be a movie? Oh, I forgot: corporate greed.

In other news, after only 5 weeks in release, The Avengers is now poised at the number three spot on the domestic list of all-time biggest grossers. Really? In only 5 weeks it did that?

Meanwhile, despite all the box office buzz for the  high profile films,  a smaller, quirkier film has been making quite a splash as well. For the past two weeks, Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom has boasted the highest per screen averages in the country, which means that while other movies are making more money overall, Anderson’s film is selling more tickets per theatre than some of the blockbusters. For example, Snow White and the Huntsman (last weekend’s big new hit) opened on over 3,000 screens and averaged approximately $15,000 per screen for the three day period; meanwhile,  Moonrise Kingdom has only been playing in well less than a hundred theaters all across the country. In its first week, it was only playing in 4 theatres, presumably in New York and LA. That weekend, it pulled in almost $131,000 per theatre. The second week, it jumped to 16 theatres and earned $54,000 per screen.  Nice.

Moonrise at Cannes (l-r) Wes Anderson, Jason Schwartzman, Bob Balaban, Jared Gilman, Tilda Swinton, Kara Hayward, Edward Norton, and Bruce Willis (not pictured: Bill Murray and Frances McDormand). Can you believe it’s been 14 years since Anderson “discovered” the then 18 year old Schwartzman and cast him as the lead in Rushmore? Moonrise Kingdom is their fourth feature film together.

I’m not an unabashed fan of Texas native Anderson’s work. I generally can either take it or leave it though I loved 1998’s Rushmore–and was pleasantly surprised by his stop-motion Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009).  I think Moonrise Kingdom is a gem–better even than what the trailer might suggest. It’s a slight variation on Romeo and Juliet set in 1965, complete with a knockout cast of well-known vets  (Ed Norton, Frances McDormand, Harvey Keitel, Tilda Swinton, Bob Balaban, and Bruce Willis along with Anderson regulars Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman), plus two bright young stars (Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman), and Anderson’s trademark off-kilter humour and a strong visual sensibility that can perhaps best be described as “Storybook Post-Modernism.”  I was stunned to read that Anderson, working with his usual cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman, shot the whole thing using Super 16. Wow! It looks marvelous. I can easily imagine this one as an Oscar contender come early next year. I wonder how it will fare once it eventually goes into wide release. If you’re a fan of retro-cool Mad Men, and you’ve enjoyed the budding near romance between Sally (Don’s daughter), and Glen, you should make a beeline to the closest theatre playing Moonrise Kingdom.

Another movie that’s holding its own remarkably well in this summer’s sweepstakes is The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which I like to describe as something akin to a trip to India with all the color and none of the hassles and/or unpleasantries of international travel (not the least of which would be, well, the stench).  Directed by John Madden, of 1998’s Best Picture winner Shakespeare in Love (not the sports announcer), the movie plays like a cross between, say, 2010’s Letters to Juliet (with a to-die-for performance by Vanessa Redgrave) and the same year’s Eat Pray Love.  The sterling cast includes such vets as Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Maggie Smith, and Bill Nighy, along with Dev Patel (one of the best things about the otherwise overrated 2008 Best Picture winner Slumdog Millionaire); all give smartly etched performances–and I don’t say that lightly. I’m not always such a fan of Dench, who won an Oscar for Shakespeare in Love, though I was blown away by her in 2006’s Notes on a Scandal. Normally, I reserve a particularly unflattering nickname for her…you can find a hint of said name toward the end of the first sentence in this paragraph.  Anyway, I don’t know if this ensemble piece will still be remembered come awards time, but that does not make it any less worthy of consideration. The cinematography, btw, is credited to Ben Davis (whose résumé include 2005’s  Imagine Me & You), and the music is by the great Thomas Newman (the 10 time Oscar nominee–and no wins–whose filmography includes Little Women and American Beauty).

^ Kudos to Maggie Smith. The 77 year old, two time Oscar winner is currently enjoying great success on the big screen in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and on television with the BBC import Downton Abbey. Smith won a well deserved Best Actress Oscar for 1969’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and then snagged Best Supporting Actress for 1978’s California Suite (in which she played an Oscar nominated actress). Her other nominations include Travels with My Aunt (Best Actress, 1972), and three nods for Best Supporting Actress (Othello, 1965; A Room with a View, 1986, and Gosford Park, 2001, written by Oscar winner Julian Fellowes, who, of course, created Downton Abbey).

Also, just to further illustrate the point that not everyone is looking for “action, action, action,”  please consider that this film, in which most of the big name cast consist of performers in their 60s (at least), was #6 at the box office last weekend, which is more than “not bad” given that it is only playing on 1300 screens (give or take); moreover, it’s been in the top 10 ever since its second week in release when it expanded from 27 theatres to 178. Most impressive, indeed.

I’m sure there are cynics out there who will argue that The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel actually advocates colonialism as the Brits somehow “fix” what the people of India seem to not be able to do for themselves, but I think that’s a rather narrow interpretation. What I see is a movie that shows how globalization fosters understanding between cultures and that learning to do so can be win-win if everybody sacrifices/gains something in the process. These people–on “both sides”–need each other, and I think that it’s okay to admit we need things from other people sometimes. Who wants to watch a movie in which people are entirely self-sufficient? Also, to contrast this movie to, say, A Passage to India (either the original text by E.M. Forster or the acclaimed 1984 film adaptation by David Lean), the difference seems to be that in the earlier work, the situation appears hopeless: the English colonialists and the Indian natives will never be able to co-exist. The Best Marigold refutes this by not privileging one group over the other.

This is just “talk.” Go see the movie…

Thanks for your consideration…

All figures:  Box Office Mojo –

Oh, What a Grand Illusion Separated at Birth

5 Jun

Quick! What was the first foreign language film ever nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture? If you guessed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) or Life is Beautiful (1998), go to the back of the class. Oh sure, those movies were major contenders in that they both broke the record for number of nominations doled to foreign language films, what with Life is Beautiful‘s record-breaking 7 nominations bested by Crouching Tiger‘s 10 nominations only two years later; however, before them, there were, among a few scant others, a couple of Swedish entries in the early ’70s: Jan Troell’s The Emigrants (1972), followed by Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers (1973), the latter of which was distributed in this country by of all people, Roger Corman and his New World Pictures. A stretch of the imagination, that one, given Corman’s usual offerings of cheap thrills squarely aimed at the drive-thru crowd, such as about a half-dozen flicks with the word “nurses” in the titles, Angie Dickinson’s immortal sexy crime sage Big Bad Mama (1974), and Ron Howard’s early car chase/crash spectacles, Gone in 60 Seconds (1974) and Eat My Dust (1976).

^ French actor Pierre Fresnay in Jean Renoir’s 1937 Grand Illusion, the first ever foreign language film to compete for Oscar’s Best Picture award.

As I mentioned in my article on Constantin Costa-Gavras’s Music Box, 1969’s Z was the first so-called foreign language film to be nominated for Best Picture as well as Best Director,  but to find the first ever foreign language film to compete for Oscar’s top prize, one has to go all the way back to 1937’s Grand Illusion (aka La grand illusion), directed by Jean Renoir (which was nominated in 1939 for the 1938 Best Picture award).  Renoir’s classic is not only foreign, it’s also multi-lingual as it is presented in French,  German, and English; the setting is WWI, but the message is anti-war, which is fine by me. It’s often hailed as one of the finest movies ever made, certainly one of the finest anti-war movies ever made. No less a master than Orson Welles once said, “If I had only one film in the world to save, it would be Grand Illusion.”  Guess what? This legendary film is about to be restored and re-released into theatres to mark its 75th anniversary. I can’t wait!

^ Jean Dujardin in The Artist, a silent French film with English subtitles, set in Hollywood during the transition from silents to talkies, that won the recent Best Picture Oscar as well as a golden statuette for its leading man. Am I the only person startled by the resemblance between Dujardin and Pierre Fresnay? Look at the chin, the cheekbones, even something vaguely similar in the eyes.

You know what else? When I saw the trailer for Grand Illusion this afternoon, I was struck–repeatedly–by the resemblance between one of the actors, Pierre Fresnay, and recent Best Actor Oscar winner Jean Dujardin (of The Artist, the French produced silent film set in Hollywood during the end of the silent era; the subtitles are in English).  What do you think? Sure the films were released more than 70 years apart, but the actors positively appear to have been separated at birth. I think the resemblance still holds even sans mustache…and the mustaches aren’t even an exact match.

Okay, while we’re on this foreign film trivia binge, here are a few more: First non-American movie to compete for Best Picture? England’s The Private Life of Henry VIII (1932/33), which also earned a Best Actor award for star Charles Laughton.  First non-American movie to actually win Best Picture? Another British import: Laurence Olivier’s self-directed production of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1948), which again, also captured Best Actor though Olivier lost the Best Director prize to John Huston (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre). First foreign language film to win any Oscars?  Switzerland’s Marie-Louise, presented in French, which won Best Original Screenplay (1946). First movie to receive an honorary award for “Best Foreign Film”? Italy’s Shoe-Shine (directed by Vittorio de Sica, 1947). First movie to win Best Foreign Language as an annual competitive Oscar? Fellini’s La Strada (1954). First movie to both win an honorary Foreign Film award and a regular competitive Oscar? Japan’s Gate of Hell (1954). Yes, the title leaves much to be desired–it sounds like one of today’s multitudinous zombie flicks–but this is a visually sumptuous medieval epic–directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa, not Akira Kurosawa–that blew Michael and me away several years ago when we picked it up at Premiere Video. What are you waiting for, the next Transit of Venus? Anyway, besides being named the year’s Best Foreign Film, Gate of Hell also took home the Oscar for Best Color Costume Design (Sanzo Wada) over such likely candidates as the fab remake of A Star is Born starring Judy Garland. Are you still here? Why aren’t you at Premiere Video already?

^ Not only did Tienosuke Kinugasa’s Gate of Hell earn an honorary Oscar for Best Foreign Language film, in addition to a competitive Oscar for its color costume design by Sanzo Wada, it also won “Grand Prize of the Festival” at the 1954 Cannes Film fest. If you get a chance to see this movie, do yourself a favor and turn yourself over to the experience.

By the way, backing up to Renoir and Grand Illusion. The filmmaker is, yes, the son of painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir. He, the younger, is also famous for The Name of the Game, among many others. He was awarded a lifetime achievement award by the Academy at the 1974/75 ceremonies. Btw: Grand Illusion should hit Dallas, in an exclusive engagement, this weekend (Friday, June 8).

Thanks for your consideration…

Grand Illusion re-release webpage:

Grand Illusion at the Internet Movie Database:

Gate of Hell at the Internet Movie Database:

Bona, Damien. Inside Oscar 2. New York: Ballantine, 2002. Print.

Matthews, Charles. Oscar A to Z: A Complete Guide to More Than 2,400 Movies Nominated for Academy Awards. New York: Doubleday, 1995. Print.

Wiley Mason, and Damien Bona. Inside Oscar: The Unofficial History of the Academy Awards, 10th Anniversary Edition.  New York: Ballantine, 1996. Print.