I was quite saddened to hear about the death of the great actor-comedian Jonathan Winters a few days ago (04/11). He was a true genius, a giant, but, of course, his was not the only high-profile entertainment related death in the past week or so. Famed movie critic Roger Ebert passed away earlier in the month after a long, brave, and quite public battle with cancer. Ebert’s death is another reminder that movie critics, whether in print or on the air, are no longer as esteemed as they once were. After all, how many can you name? These days, critics don’t wield the same power that they used to, thanks mainly to the Internet, in which word of mouth on a film spreads instantaneously, and bloggers specifically though I usually don’t bother with reviewing current movies too much, except during awards season, but that’s a different story. Anyway, RIP, Roger.
^ Jonathan Winters (1925-2013)
Winters, on the other hand, was a personal fave. I used to love watching him on all those TV variety shows, game shows, and talk shows in the 1960s and 1970s on up through the 1980s, I guess. I’ll tell you what. I had the pleasure, or luck, of standing in line next to him one day several years ago at a gift shop in Montecito, CA. He was dapper (I even think he wore an ascot), and, yes, reserved. I was in absolutely in awe of him, but I absolutely did not stare, nor did I initiate conversation. He had a huge presence, and I could tell he just wanted to tend to his business without a lot of fuss. I haven’t met that many celebrities in my life, but I have met a few. Some of them, John Waters especially, really enjoy interacting with fans. Kathy Bates was also an engaging woman; however, Winters was not like that. Well, as I said: he was a genius. Even so, in spite of all his accolades, including an Emmy (for his supporting role in the Randy Quaid sitcom Davis Rules), a Golden Globe nomination, a Golden Laurel nod, a TV Land “Pioneer” Award, a Lifetime Achievement honor from the American Comedy Awards, and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Winters was never nominated for an Oscar. Well, of course, not every talented person who works in front or behind a camera earns Oscar recognition.
Still, Winters did have the distinction of appearing in two big hits that were also major Oscar contenders: 1966’s The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming earned 4 nods, including Best Picture and Best Actor (Alan Arkin); 1963’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World received 6 nods, nothing for Best Picture; however, Winters was, as noted, nominated for a Golden Globe. Not bad, not bad at all, Of course, an entertainer of Winters’s stature hardly needs validation from the Academy, but knowing his work is somehow part of the Academy’s honor roll is a nice touch. The nicer touch is that his work remains, and we can watch Winters on YouTube and on DVD; plus, we know that he influenced, and still influences, many younger comedians and/or actors, most spectacularly I would say, Robin Williams with whom he worked on TV’s Mork and Mindy back in the day. Thanks, Jonathan, and rest in peace.
^ Annette Funicello (1942-2013)
Earlier in the week, on April 8, “America’s Sweetheart” Annette Funicello passed away at the age of 70. Like Ebert, Funicello had also braved a long and public health crisis. In her case, it was multiple sclerosis. Funicello was only 70, younger than my mother, but she’d been in the public consciousness almost all of her life, beginning with her stint as one of the Mouseketeers in the original incarnation of Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club. Per the IMDb and other recent reports, Funicello was scouted for the series by no less than the man himself, and when the series was over, the perky teen star was offered a contract to keep working for Disney, which she did–at least for awhile.
As a blossoming young woman, she reinvented herself by co-starring with Philly pop-crooner Frankie Avalon in a series of so-called Beach Party movies released by Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson’s cut-rate American International Pictures in the swingin’ 60s. Those films, which capitalized on both the surfing craze and the rock-n-roll movement, were nothing more than mindless fluff about teenagers, presumably college students, who hung out at the beach, danced, sang, flirted, broke-up, made-up, and engaged in all kinds of improbable shenanigans. Though the series featured lots of curvy girls in bikinis, and cute bare-chested guys, their sexual thrills were pretty tame compared to a lot of offerings from the same era–and definitely compared to today’s sexy flicks. And that’s not a judgment. I merely want to make a point. To say the critics hated the Beach Party movies would be an understatement, but kids loved them. I know because I watched them anytime I had the chance. That’s the thing. The movies were more childlike than anything else. Real college students of the era probably had better things to do than worry about Annette and Frankie, so the flicks’ real appeal was likely to the preteen set. Anyway, those films obviously made money, or Arkoff and company would not have kept making more of them, not to mention a host of clones. Still, Frankie and Annette were always fun to watch, and that was enough for a time (or for the times). Of course, there really isn’t a such thing as an endless summer, so even when she could no longer convincingly play a big-haired teen, Funicello frequently appeared on scads of TV shows and eventually became the TV spokesperson for Skippy brand peanut butter, and that was all good because who wouldn’t trust America’s sweetheart?
Like Winters, Funicello was a one-time Golden Laurel nominee, and she has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Her filmography also includes one–minor–Oscar contender: 1961’s Babes in Toyland. Disney’s first live action fantasy-musical, based on Victor Herbert and Glen MacDonough’s 1932 operetta, pairs Funicello with dreamy Tommy Sands and also stars Ray Bolger, Ed Wynn, Tommy Kirk, and a very young Ann Jillian. Though a reported box-office flop, Babes in Toyland nonetheless secured Oscar nods for Bill Thomas’s colorful costumes and George Bruns’s score. It was also a Golden Globe nominee (for Best Musical/Comedy) as well as a WGA nominee (Ward Kimball and Lowell S. Hawley); the soundtrack was Grammy nominated as well. Not bad. Funicello also starred in Disney’s popular The Shaggy Dog, starring Fred MacMurray; she also sang on the soundtrack for 1961’s The Parent Trap, Oscar nominated for Best Editing and Best Sound.
In the late 1980s, Funicello and Avalon reteamed for one last Beach Party extravaganza: Back to the Beach. Two years later, the duo enjoyed a cameo in one of my all-time favorite guilty pleasures, but, I’m getting way ahead of myself. In the meantime, rest in peace, dear Annette.
^ Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (1927-2013)
Finally, the passing that most stunned me was that of someone much less known than Ebert, Winters, or Funicello, and that is the great novelist and screenwriter, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Who? Jhabvala, hardly a household name, was one of three key players in what was once known as Merchant-Ivory Productions. I know, right? You think it should read “Ivory Merchant,” but I digress. At any rate, the trio of producer Ismail Merchant (born in India), director James Ivory (born in America), and screenwriter Jhabvala (born in Germany) began making films in the 1960s with the adaptation of Jhabvala’s own novel, The Householder (1963), followed by Shakespeare Wallah (1965). By the 1970s, the trio was winning raves for the likes of such indie offerings as Roseland, set in Manhattan’s famed ballroom (with a cast that includes one-time Oscar winner Teresa Wright, along with Lou Jacobi, Geraldine Chaplin, Christopher Walken, still largely unknown outside of New York, and Helen Gallagher, an Emmy winner for her work on Ryan’s Hope); The Europeans, starring Lee Remick in an adaptation of Henry James’s novel, arrived in 1979 with costumes–by Judy Moorcroft–worthy of an Academy nomination . By the 1980s, Merchant-Ivory was enjoying a nice long run as critics’ darlings and specialty house faves, what with the likes of Heat and Dust, starring Julie Christie in an adaptation of Jhabvala’s own Booker prize winning novel, and The Bostonians, another Henry James adaptation that boasted a bold–and Oscar nominated–performance by no less than Vanessa Redgrave; the cast also included Christopher Reeve, Linda Hunt, Jessica Tandy, and the formidable Nancy Marchand.
The Merchant-Ivory films were generally celebrated for their “tastefulness,” for attracting respected acting talent, for seemingly rich and authentic costume/production design on meager budgets (frequently netting Oscar nods and/or wins), and for Jhabvala’s wonderfully economical screenplays drawn from literary classics (especially E.M. Forster and Henry James). Now, it is true that Jhabvala did not write every single movie released under the Merchant-Ivory banner. It is also true that, even though she was widely regarded as essential to the outfit’s success, she never achieved full-parity with the two males, that is, the company remained Merchant-Ivory rather than Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala. On the other hand, it’s also true that with all their team’s success stories, Jhabvala achieved something that neither Merchant nor Ivory were able to do: she actually won Oscars for two of the trio’s major Academy Award contenders…
^ Jhabvala won her first Oscar for 1986’s A Room with a View (which seemed to play forever, locally, at the Inwood theater), adapted from E.M. Forster’s comedy of manners involving British tourists in Florence. The film’s romantic leads are played by Julian Sands (l) and Helena Bonham Carter (r) while the supporting cast includes such vets as Judi Dench, Denholm Elliott, and Maggie Smith. It also includes one of Daniel Day Lewis’s earliest film performances. A Room With a View garnered 8 Oscar nods, including Best Picture, Best Director (Ivory), Best Supporting Actress (Smith), and Best Supporting Actor (Elliott). Of those, statuettes were ultimately awarded to Jhabvala for her screenplay and for the film’s costume and production design teams. The movie also earned accolades from, among others, the National Board of Review and the British Academy of Film and Television.
Between 1986 and 1992, Merchant-Ivory released a handful of films, most notably Maurice (pronounced Morris), based on a posthumously published E.M. Forster homoerotic love story. Maurice starred James Wilby, Hugh Grant, and Rupert Graves. Jhabvala did not pen the screenplay, but she was back on board for the production of 1990’s Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, based on two semi-autobiographical novels by Evan S. Connell about growing up amid conservative affluence in Kansas City Missouri during the 1930s and 1940s. The title characters were portrayed by longtime real-life couple, and acting giants, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodard; the latter reaped a well-deserved Best Actress nod for her performance, which I thought approached perfection, but she lost to Kathy Bates (Misery). After seeing Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, which was partially lensed on location in Kansas City, I decided had to visit the city for myself to see if it was/is as beautiful as it is depicted in the film. It took more than a decade, but I was not the least bit disappointed.
Jhabvala claimed her second Academy Award for 1992’s Howards End, another Forster adaptation that covers class consciousness and family loyalty. Merchant-Ivory vets Helena Bonham Carter (top right), Vanessa Redgrave, and Rupert Graves were joined by Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins, fresh from his Oscar victory for The Silence of the Lambs. The movie was a huge art-house hit, once again enjoying a healthy run at the Inwood theatre before an expanded awards season run the following year. It earned 9 Oscar nods, including Best Picture, Director (Ivory, again), and Supporting Actress (Redgrave). Thompson won Best Actress, and besides the award for Jhabvala, the film also secured a win for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (Luciana Arrighi and Ian Whitttaker).
^ Remains of the Day (1993): The last of the Merchant-Ivory group’s trio of Best Picture nominees is also perhaps its most emotionally devastating, thanks to the splendid, and Oscar nominated, leading performances by Anthony Hopkins (l) and Emma Thompson (r). Based on the Booker prize winning novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, the story examines the increasing tension between household staff members and the mighty, if fading, aristocracy at a magnificent estate at the dawning of World War II. The top-notch supporting cast includes Hugh Grant, Christopher Reeve, James Fox, Ben Chaplin, and Lean Headey. Oh, this one is so good that it hurts. Again, it scored a bunch of Oscar nominations, 8 total including Best Picture, Director (Ivory), Best Adapted Screenplay (Jhabvala), and the aforementioned Hopkins and Thompson; however, this time the film failed to win a single award as it faced tough competition in key categories from the likes of Schindler’s List, The Piano, and even The Age of Innocence. Still, Jhabvala’s 2 for 3 track record with the Academy is most impressive.
After the release of The Remains of the Day, the Merchant-Ivory group never again achieved another breakout success though each of the films has its own admirers: Jefferson in Paris (1995) starred Nick Nolte as, well, you know, and Thandie Newton as Sally Hemings; Surviving Picasso (1996) featured a lesser Anthony Hopkins performance but served as marvelous showcase for beautiful Natasha McElhone; The Golden Bowl (2000) arrived with an all-star cast that included Uma Thurman, Kate Beckinsale, Angelica Huston and Nolte. One of my best friends heralds it as among the very best of the Henry James adaptations. Le Divorce (2003) was a rare contemporary outing starring Kate Hudson and Naomi Watts. I think the M-I influence can be seen in such varied movies as The Painted Veil (2006), Letters to Juliet (2010), and even The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2012). What these films share with the M-I predecessors, besides exceptional performances (especially by top-tier actresses), period finery and/or scenic locations, are the recurring themes of love, loss, regret, happiness, cultural contrasts, and class consciousness.
I was always fascinated by the Merchant-Ivory people. They managed to make movie after movie, year after year, through five decades; some were hits, others not so much, but the team always found money and talent for their projects; moreover, as already noted, their movies were reportedly made on micro-budgets, yet they always managed a lot of bang for their bucks. Ismail Merchant, who passed away in 2005, had a reputation as a marvellous chef who often cooked splendid meals for cast and crew; he and Ivory were personal as well as professional partners, and the two of them along with Jhabvala, also married, reportedly lived and worked in the same brownstone in New York City. I can’t find the article in which I first read that, but I think it was in the same piece that Jhabvala offered some advice that any screenwriter needs to know, which is that writing novels is art while writing screenplays is craft. I understood it as soon as I read it, and with Jhabvala boasting prestigious awards for both her novels and her movie scripts (not to mention her longevity), I took her words, so to speak, to heart. Good call, Ruthie.