Archive | June, 2013

Myth and Music in the Majestic Old West

22 Jun

Okay, well, yesterday was the first day of summer, and I was feeling great. I wasn’t stressed or rushing to work as I have been for the past month.  Instead, I was moving at my own pace, and the weather was mostly agreeable. Oh, sure, it was a little hot and humid for my taste–and for this early in the season–but it wasn’t unbearable, and the sky looked great: clear, blue, bright, and sunny.  As I drove along with my windows rolled down, the radio blaring, I realized none of the music on my favorite stations was working for me. Instead, I wanted to be accompanied by the sweeping strains of a big, corny, old-fashioned western, something big, something wide, open, and full of promise like the myth of the majestic old west that Hollywood  has been selling for roughly a century. Whether you actually  like westerns themselves or not, and I’m not necessarily, a huge, HUGE fan as are some of my family, friends and associates from my days in the biz, the music is pretty spectacular. Here are some faves.

^ How the West Was Won (1962): This epic, all-star western featured an Oscar nominated score by legendary Alfred Newman and Ken Darby.  Four directors–John Ford, Henry Hathaway, George Marshall, and Richard Thorpe–were hired to bring the project to completion with each responsible for different chapters in the mammoth saga, which was also filmed in true Cinerama, a super-deluxe wide screen process requiring a bank of three cameras–side by side–capturing all the action; later, the film had to be screened using three synchronized projectors.  Imagine that.  In her new memoir, Unsinkable, actress Debbie Reynolds vividly describes the challenges of shooting on location under such cumbersome circumstances. How the West Was Won competed for 8 Oscars at the 1963/64 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Color Cinematography, and, again, Best Score. The movie ultimately claimed prizes for Best Editing, Best Sound, and Best Original Screenplay (as the latter category is now called). The movie is also part of the National Film Registry and has been recognized by the American Film Institute as number 25 of the greatest ever movie scores.

^ The Magnificent Seven (1960): Based on Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai (1954), John Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven features a thrilling score by yet another legend, Elmer Bernstein. This one may very well be the most iconic western score of all, and that’s saying quite a bit. Bernstein earned an Oscar nod though the trophy in his category ultimately went to Ernest Gold’s almost equally iconic score for Exodus. A hard call.  Bernstein’s score also shines in the 10 spot on the AFI’s list of greatest film scores. The rugged cast includes Steve McQueen (talk about magnificent), Charles Bronson, Yul Brynner, James Coburn, Brad Dexter, Robert Vaughn, and Eli Wallach.

^ The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966): A friend of mine reminded me that I would have to include Ennio Morricone’s haunting score for Sergio Leone’s s0-called Spaghetti western in my list of the best of the best, but she need not have worried. How could I not include this unforgettable classic. Too bad the Academy never saw it that way. Not even a nod though Morricone, whose career includes the Oscar nominated scores for 1978’s Days of Heaven and 1986’s The Mission,  was finally recognized with an honorary award for his body of work during the 2006/2007 Oscar telecast.  Of course, this is the film that took Clint Eastwood from TV to big screen international superstardom.

^ High Noon (1952): I would be remiss not to recognize “The Ballad of High Noon” (Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin’),” the Oscar winning song–by Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington–from Fred Zinnemann’s vintage real-time western that propelled Gary Cooper to his second Best Actor Oscar. The original is sung by the one and only Tex Ritter.  It appears on the AFI’s list of 100 greatest movie songs.  A fairly new souped-up DVD edition of this flick is currently on my Amazon wish list.

Bonanza (1959 -1973): It would be a shame not to celebrate some of small screen classics, starting with this “galloping” gem credited to, per the IMDb, Ray Evans, Jay Livingston, and David Rose (the latter also famous for, among others, “The Stripper”).  Though the Bonanza theme was never officially singled out for an Emmy, Rose eventually won a statuette for his scoring contributions late in the series’ run; meanwhile, Evans and Livingston had to make do with the Oscars they won for “Buttons and Bows” (The Paleface, 1948), “Mona Lisa” (Captain Carey, USA, 1950),  and “Que Sera Sera’ (The Man who Knew Too Much, 1956); they also gave the world the popular, and Oscar nominated, “Tammy” (Tammy and the Bachelor, 1957). Oh, and wasn’t that Michael Landon just dreamy? Meanwhile, Pernell Roberts for all the world looks like “trade.”

Rawhide (1959 – 1966): Eastwood again. And so butch. The single version even includes the line, “hell-bent for leather.” Lovely. Anyway, this one is, once again, from the team of Dimtri Tiomkin and Ned Washington–with vocals by Frankie Laine; however,…

…^ Carol Kane just about stole The Lemon Sisters (1989), a dream project for her, Diane Keaton, and Kathryn Grody, with her version of the TV classic. Am I the only person who actually saw this one in a theater? Its release was delayed forever; when it finally arrived, it came and went quicker than the crack of a whip.

^ The Big Valley (1965 – 1969): Not a classic on the order of, say, Bonanza, Rawhide, or Gunsmoke, but  a solid effort, and a nice showcase for Barbara Stanwyck who won an Emmy and multiple nominations…though the blue eye shadow is a bit much. Still, Lee Majors and Linda Evans offer such lovely eye candy. The theme is by George Dunning. A few years ago, a big screen version, with Jessica Lange as matriarch Victoria Barkley, was announced, but nothing ever came of it.

Dallas (1978 -1991; 2012 – present): Jerrold Immel’s theme for the original series is a modern western classic, and I definitely hear a musical thread linking it to the scores for How the West Was Won and The Magnificent Seven. The 1980s gave TV viewers some grand themes with the likes of Knots Landing (also Immel), Dynasty, and Falcon Crest (both by Oscar winner Bill Conti), but Dallas was the  first and best. Like most of the tunes featured here, it sounds great at a local Friday night high school football game. Fortunately, the producers of the recent TNT  Dallas update had the good sense to treat Immel’s theme with some reverence.

I’ll stop here though I know I have not included all the favorites, such as  The Man who Shot Liberty Valance, “Blaze of Glory” (Young Guns II),  and oh so many of the TV themes.  I’ve also glossed over the old timey singing cowboys (Gene Autry and Roy Rogers) and cowgirls (Patsy Montana and Dale Evans) that were faves of my mother’s and grandmother’s generations, but please feel free to leave comments about your picks.

Thanks for your consideration…

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Oldman Look at My Life

18 Jun

I’ve been first and last
Look at how the time goes past.
But I’m all alone at last.
Rolling home to you

from “Old Man” by Neil Young

Well, the latest from the recent Cannes shindig, yeah, a month ago,  is that Steven Spielberg and Ang Lee have kissed and made up. What’s that, you say? You had no idea that these two world class filmmakers had been engaged in a lover’s quarrel? Well, kinda, something like that. I guess it all stems from the fact that Spielberg recently lost Best Director at the Oscars to Ang Lee. Spielberg’s Lincoln went into the race with the most nominations and a healthy box office take; however, as Ben Affleck’s Argo scored heaps of favorable publicity, thereby inching toward certain victory in the Best Picture race, Spielberg initially appeared to be the default choice in director category until a seemingly last minute surge for Lee, nominated for Life of Pi–a technical marvel that tantalized viewers in a way that Spielberg’s flick did not. Suddenly, Lincoln seemed safe, old school, rote.

Who knows how history will judge either film. What we do know is that for the time being, Lincoln is most famous for being the vehicle that helped star Daniel Day Lewis win an unprecedented third Best Actor Oscar. At this point, almost no one has any doubt that DDL wasn’t full well deserving of accolades galore for portraying one of America’s most revered statesmen. What’s especially interesting is the way DDL so thoroughly dominated a category populated by big name actors (including previous winners and/or nominees, such as Denzel Washington and Joaquin Phoenix) going for broke by bringing to life especially complex characters in generally well-reviewed, high profile projects. Great actors, great performances. All of them deserving and so powerful that they overshadowed excellent turns by John Hawkes (The Sessions), Jack Black (Bernie), and even Tom Courtenay (Quartet).

The 2011/2012 Best Actor race was not quite so dazzling. Oh sure, the talent was evident, including an engaging movie-starish  turn (in the best sense) by Brad Pitt in Moneyball and even noticeably mis-cast superstar George Clooney in The Descendants, both films among the year’s top contenders. Meanwhile, what about the other three, starting with the winner? France’s Jean Dujardin starred in The Artist, an almost too insufferably hip, or worse, cute,  for its own good B& W silent film that paid tribute to Hollywood’s past. Both Dujardin and his vehicle enjoyed novelty status–and a huge p.r. push by the Weinstein folks–but even with all that, and an eventual win for Best Picture and Best Director, The Artist never caught on with mainstream American audiences. I wonder if Dujardin would have stood out among the competition if The Artist had been released in the same year as the recent batch of contenders. Somehow, I doubt it, but I digress.

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The 2011 adaptation of Tinker Tailor Solider Spy was directed by Sweden’s Tomas Alfredson, perhaps best known in the U.S.A. for 2008’s Let the Right One In. The Oscar nominated screenplay is by the personal and professional team of Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O’Connor. Among the film’s accolades are an Oscar nominated score by Albert Iglesias as well as the following: 11 British Academy nods, including the award for Outstanding British Film, an American Society of Cinematographers nomination for Hoyte Van Hoytema, a “Technical Achievement” honor for production designer Maria Djorkovic at the British Independent Film Awards, an ensemble acting prize from the Central Ohio Film Critics Association, a USC Scripter nomination for Straughan and O’Connor as well as screenplay honors from the Online Film Critics Society.

Elsewhere, the 2011/12 roster included Mexico based actor Demián Bichir,  with a smattering of  American credits, in the highly acclaimed indie A Better Life (directed by Chris Weitz).  If I had been voting, I would have been torn between Pitt and Bichir; however, there is still one more intriguing entry, and that is Gary Oldman as John Le Carré’s semi-retired master spy George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Oldman was and is such an interesting–yet worthwhile–choice for Oscar consideration for multiple reasons.  First, Oldman and the press and/or the Hollywood community in general have not always been on the best of terms. The actor, to put it mildly, can sometimes be a little, well, mercurial (as I once described him). He can, allegedly, be a beast on the set not to mention a difficult interviewee during press-junkets.  I’m sure he has made plenty of enemies along the way, and that can often be an obstacle because members of the Academy are more likely to honor actors, directors, writers, etc., who aspire to be team players. Yes, there’s always room for mavericks with huge egos–as long as those mavericks also have integrity. Oh sure, you might be asking, but are the Oscars a popularity contest, or are they a means of honoring significant achievements? Well, the answer is a little bit of both.

Another thing Oldman had working against his favor was that his film, while generally well-reviewed, was not exactly a box office smash even though it had been generating interest since the late summer 2011 Venice Film Festival. Maybe the studio that released it (Focus Features, a subsidiary of NBC Universal) didn’t know how to market it properly, but waves of mainstream audiences failed to materialize. Let me give you an example.  Leonardo DiCaprio’s full-tilt performance as J. Edgar Hoover in Clint Eastwood’s woefully uneven J. Edgar earned Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations in spite of the fact that the well-publicized flick sank at the box office, earning about 37 million at the U.S. box office.  Even so, DiCaprio was widely considered a shoo-in for an Oscar nod just about up until the nominations were announced. By that point, however, his movie had the taint of failure and seemed less like an award worthy achievement. On the other hand, Oldman’s flick grossed less than that, about 24-25 million, so his nomination is seen as bit of a surprise. Plus, there seemed to be more excitement around other performers/performances at the time, such as critics’ darling Michael Fassbender in a host of films, most notably playing a sex addict in the envelope-pushing Shame, and golden guy Ryan Gosling in either The Ides of March or Drive. It’s entirely possible that both actors cancelled themselves out by appearing in too many vehicles seemingly all at once. Nonetheless, my point is still that by the time the 2011/12 Oscar nominations were announced, DiCaprio, Fassbender, and Gosling seemed better positioned to nab one of the five slots than did Oldman.

Before I add more comments about why Oldman’s nomination was so unlikely, given the way the game is often played, I want to come right out and add that I was actually thrilled about his nomination. I enjoyed both the performance and the film as a whole quite a bit–even if it was not my absolute favorite.  I’m just a bit stunned that such unconventional work in a hard-to-sell film actually played as well to Academy members as it did, considering the competition. Nothing I write is intended as a criticism. Just observation.

immortalbeloved

Gary Oldman packed a wallop in his first major big screen role as doomed punk-rocker Sid Vicious in 1986’s Sid and Nancy. From there, he was the go-to actor for edgy roles such as Lee Harvey Oswald in Oliver Stone’s J.F.K.; however, even in England, his home country, he’s never been an awards fave, save for his semi-autobiographical Nil by Mouth. I loved him as Ludwig von Beethoven in 1994’s Immortal Beloved (1994). Of course, by the time he channeled both Adolph Hitler AND Ross Perot in 1997’s The Fifth Element, he’d become too insufferably over-the-top for many film enthusiasts though he found a whole new, and younger, audience when he took on the role of Sirius Black in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

Okay, so why is this performance so different from the usual Oscar template? First, even though Oldman’s George Smiley is assigned the task of piecing together a complex puzzle and is, therefore, the audience’s eyes and ears, he does not necessarily dominate the film in an obvious way. Indeed, Oldman is continually surrounded by top-flight British actors such as Benedict Cumberbatch (especially good), Colin Firth (on the heels of his own Best Actor Oscar for The King’s Speech), Tom Hardy, Cirian Hinds, John Hurt, Toby Jones, and Mark Strong to name just a few, all of them weaving in and out of the story under mysterious circumstances. Furthermore, George Smiley is not prone to big emotions even when he suffers greatly on the inside.  Of course, we know from decades and decades of Academy history that big impassioned speeches–like those delivered by, say, Colin Firth and DDL, are an Oscar staple. With relatively few exceptions, Oscar voters prefer acting that is conspicuous, which is why a showboating ham such as Jack Nicholson can win an Oscar for the likes of As Good As It Gets (1997) while poor Peter Fonda, doing masterfully understated work in Ulee’s Gold (also 1997), gets relegated to also-ran status. In Oldman’s case, his performance was even more understated, his character less sympathetic,  than Fonda’s.  Indeed, Oldman’s Smiley spends most of his time onscreen listening, trying to make sense of disturbingly curious details all the while silently nursing a wounded heart and contemplating the cost of living a life fraught with secrecy, deception, and paranoia. He has a lot on his mind. but he rarely verbalizes in it, preferring to internalize.  Of course, any good actor knows that all acting is re-acting, as the old mantra goes, but it’s quite a feat to be able to hold the camera’s –the audience’s–attention for long stretches without a lot of bravado, but that’s what Oldman does. He uses his acting skills to make listening look like art.

Of course, Jean Dujardin’s fans will likely argue that because he appeared in a silent film, he achieved a similar degree of greatness. Well, he at least achieved an Oscar, but I feel like Dujardin’s performance was rigged, coasting as it was on novelty. Yeah, I guess it was expressive on some level, and Dujardin can mug and mime in character, but I’ve seen more persuasive acting by silent greats such as, say, Charlie Chaplin. Does that make sense?  I just think Oldman somehow went deeper…down to the subtlest detail in body language. Furthermore, I guess it could be argued that because Oldman has so often in his career played, well, loud and crazy, he offered Academy members something they had not expected by playing a character so subdued.

So, what’s at stake here?  Le Carré’s saga is the anti-Bond. No one looks dashing in a tux. There are no souped-up Aston-Martins with ejector seats. No one is a super-villain; witty banter is kept to a minimum. Instead, this is  1970s Cold War realness–cold in more ways than one:  dreary, wet, and functionally industrial, all of it meticulously realized by designers Tatiana Macdonald and Maria Djorkovic. Plus, in a major shift from the book’s opening, the movie begins with an episode only presented as part of a series of flashbacks in the original text.   A British agent is sent to Budapest to rendezvous with an Hungarian officer who wants to defect. In exchange for the Brits’ cooperation, the officer promises to reveal the name of highly placed mole within the intelligence agency known as “The Circus.” Alas, the mission turns into a bloodbath with the British operative seemingly left for dead–along with innocent bystanders.  The debacle forces the resignation of ‘Control,’ the agency’s increasingly frail chief (Hurt). When Control leaves, Smiley leaves with him though under a cloak of suspicion. On one hand, sure, he’s loyal to ‘Control.’ On the other hand,  even Control isn’t sure Smiley is to be trusted. You see, Smiley was also in Eastern Europe at about the same time as the doomed Budapest mission, so is it possible he’s the mole? Did he sabotage the mission?

With Control out of the way, a new team, led by Toby Jones’s Percy Alleline, comes to power. Control dies, and a broken Smiley, his marriage on the skids, wonders what to do with himself.  Meanwhile, another mission, this one in Istanbul, also turns unexpectedly bloody, thereby once again raising concerns about a mole. At this point, a bureaucrat outside the agency summons Smiley back into service in order to conduct a top-secret investigation.  Hmmmm…how does a retired spy investigate other spies? That’s the story.

carre-oldman-uk-premiere-tinker-tailor-soldier-spy-01

John le Carre (l), master spy novelist, and Gary Oldman (r) together on the red carpet promoting the opening of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Le Carre did not adapt his work for the screen though he is credited as one of the film’s executive producers.

Full disclosure: I never saw the famous, award winning 1979 BBC adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy starring Alec Guinness, but both Michael and I did, in fact, read Le Carré’s original in the months leading up to the most recent version’s theatrical release. We found a nifty new hardback edition for a good price at a store famous for, well, selling books at half their original value. At any rate, not only is it a dense, complex text, it’s also dense, complex, and dry, but it’s also fascinating as Le Carré–via Smiley–takes readers through the back stories of these aging men, and at least one woman, who have spent decades in service of intelligence work, going back as far as the glory days of WWII, when objectives and enemies were easily identified, up to the rampant paranoia of the Cold War, a time of hidden agendas in which trust is the most precious commodity.  Le Carré  gives the reader everything he/she needs to know in order to keep up with Smiley, but some patience is required. One of the beauties of the movie is that Oldman puts a face on all that intrigue. Plus, with each and every viewing, Smiley’s methods become increasingly clearer.  Yep, this is one of those movies that actually improves with multiple screenings–for those willing to go along for the ride. I can easily imagine how bewildering the experience might be to those with little or no familiarity. I know some Le Carré purists have issues with the adaptation, including the casting of Oldman who does not match the description of Smiley offered in the book. Yes, some of the details, including two key locations, have been changed, but I think the essence, and most of the major plot points, remain the same. Adapting this work for the cinema would be a challenge for even the most seasoned screenwriter.

Okay, at 2,500+ words, I know I need to wrap up this thing, but I really want to push this absorbing little flick because I’m sure that most of my readers have not seen it. Okay, I want to praise the filmmakers for pulling off one of the book’s most thrilling passages with hardly a hitch–yet another example of Cold War paranoid scrutiny involving Smiley’s only ally within the agency (Cumberbatch), dispatched to retrieve sensitive files in an intricately plotted scenario requiring split-second precision.  Another thing that really caught my attention was the amount of same-sex coupling and/or switch-hitting that goes on in both the print and screen versions. Holy mother of all that is queer, what a shocker!  Nothing is especially graphic, but considering the times in which the book was first published, Le Carré’s choice to depict manly men with eyes for each other certainly ran counter to then prevailing stereotypes of homosexuals as effeminate weaklings. (The movie goes a bit further in its frankness.) Oh sure, none of the characters are necessarily “out” in the way we think of today, but Le Carré, with a background in intelligence work, just wrote about what he saw–and what he saw were homosexuals who were working as something other than dancers, florists, designers, and hairdressers. On the other hand, cynics will likely jump on the author for portraying homosexual and bisexual men as anything less than morally and ethically virtuous as though the writer’s goal were to paint ALL such men as slippery types without conscience or moral compass who should not be trusted under any circumstances.  I understand the cynics’ discomfort, but I’m not sure I agree either.

Not an Oldman fan? Not sure you want to devote the time and concentration needed to sift through a movie of such labryinthine proportions?  Understood; however, if you’re a fan of state of the art cinematic technology, maybe the featured product reel will entice you. Like spies, the best visual FX work in films is that which is not easily detected.

Thanks for your consideration….

Visit John le Carré’s official website, which includes news and interviews about this film and more: http://www.johnlecarre.com/

Cicely Tyson at the Tony Awards: This is the Moment*

10 Jun
Cicely-Tysons-Tony-Awards-acceptance-speech

^ Cicely Tyson with her Tony for Texas native Horton Foote’s evergreen The Trip to Bountiful. Regular readers will no doubt notice that I’ve included only this one photo of Tyson. Usually, I like to include multiple photos not only to make a given article more visually appealing but also as a way to include so-called sidebars with additional, perhaps non-essential, info. I’m refraining from that this time because I want to control what image becomes the default if/when this article is shared through social media.  I want my readers to see Tyson holding her Tony rather than defaulting to pictures of her from Sounder, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Sweet Justice, etc.

Congratulations to the one and only Cicely Tyson, American acting royalty, on her Tony win for Best Actress in a Play per her performance in Horton Foote’s vaunted The Trip to Bountiful. Where to begin?  In her incredibly moving speech, Tyson explained how important it was for her to return to Broadway after a thirty year absence. Her last credit had been for a revival of The Corn is Green. Tyson’s desire to succeed onstage one last time–she’s approaching 80–mirrors the concerns of  Foote’s Carrie Watts, an elderly woman who yearns to return to her childhood home–the Bountiful of the title.

Regrettably, Tyson’s speech was interrupted by “Mr. Stick Man,” as Julia Roberts once famously referred to the orchestra leader who tried to play her off during her Oscar acceptance speech for Erin Brockovich. Apparently, Tony winners are given a measly 75 seconds, which doesn’t seem quite enough–especially for a phenom such as Tyson.  Of course, most winners could do themselves a favor by actually preparing a real speech–as Tyson appeared to have done; instead, what viewers are generally treated to are barely prepared winners who are more interested in reading lists of names rather than making a thoughtful speech. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: a list of names is not a speech. If TV producers and programmers want to know why certain demographics remain immune to the joys of watching awards shows, they should consider offering a seminar to nominees on how to make a memorable acceptance speech. Certainly, this is something that Jodie Foster and Tom Hanks already know how to do–and to do well. I thought Tyson was well on her way to a fully moving, full magical, moment, but, oh, that shameful Mr. Stick Man. As if we really needed any more of host Neil Patrick Harris’s shtick. Oh, I like Harris well enough, and I’m glad he’s found his niche as an entertainer, but last night’s show seemed to drag on and on, which is not usual for the Tonys, often the classiest awards  show of all. Am I the only one who thought that having actors from current musicals appear onstage as their characters to introduce segments was a little, well, stupid? Mostly, it was a waste of time. Cicely Tyson, on the other hand, was not a waste of time. Luckily, she just incorporated the idea of “wrapping it up” into her speech and brought it to a somewhat graceful close.

I’ve been a Tyson fan for awhile. No, I didn’t get to see 1972’s Sounder, for which she earned a Academy nomination for Best Actress, when it played seemingly forever–I want to say at the old UA Cine–but it wasn’t for a lack of trying.  I pushed, begged, and pleaded with my mother to take me to see it, or for us to see it together, but those were not the salad days of my childhood, so  I had to wait and catch up with Sounder when it finally aired on TV.  I’d originally read about the movie in some kind of scholastic weekly reader. What I’d actually read was a condensed version of the script, more like a transcript of the finished movie that resembled the text of a play. I’m sure I eventually read the Newbery winning book by William Armstrong. I’d also read about Tyson when she appeared on the covers of both People and Parade. Such an exciting time!

Of course, Tyson was making waves back in the early 1970s, a time when it seemed possible for black actresses to break through Hollywood’s color barrier and create meaningful work. (She’d already established herself on East Side/West Side, among others, before she hit the big leagues with Sounder, but I digress.)   I think we’ve learned in the decades since then, when Tyson’s recent and not so recent big screen efforts have included brief, if welcome, appearances in the likes of 2011’s Oscar nominated–and SAG winning–The Help and, reaching back, 1991’s Fried Green Tomatoes, that Hollywood just doesn’t get it yet. Oh sure, some progress has been made, but the truth is that opportunities for women–especially women over 40–come along far less often than opportunities for men, and actresses of color must scramble ever more diligently to find work that is both meaningful and visible. No easy feat in the best of circumstances.

Clearly, Tyson’s victory last night showed that even in the highly competitive Broadway arena, both actors and actresses of color often flourish per the awards to Courtney B. Vance (Best Featured Actor in a Play for Lucky Guy)**, Patina Miller (Best Leading Actress in a Musical for Pippin) and Billy Porter (Best Actor in a Musical for Kinky Boots). Interesting aside: both Miller and Porter play roles that play with gender as well since Porter portrays a drag entertainer, and Miller shines in the role that made no less than Ben Vereen a major star–and a Tony winner–in the original production of Pippin back in the 1970s; likewise,  Tyson’s Tony is for a role already made famous by another actress, and that would be the late Geraldine Page, who finally won Best Actress–in her eighth Oscar race–for the movie version of The Trip to Bountiful, filmed in and around the Dallas area back in 1985.  Oh, okay, maybe getting to shine in original work is ideal, but a good role is a good role, a great actress is a great actress, etc.

Indeed, long before Page won her Oscar, and Tyson won her Tony, the role of Carrie Watts had already worked wonders for Lillian Gish, who played the part both on Broadway and on television.

Of course, like Alfre Woodard, another fabulous actress of color who has been sadly under-employed in Hollywood feature films, Tyson has done some of her most formidable work in television, most famously the breakthrough mini-series The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman in which she played a woman who survived the horrors of slavery and reconstruction long enough to see the Civil Rights movement.  Who wasn’t riveted by the intensity and integrity of this massive work, three years before Alex Haley’s Roots (also featuring Tyson)?  Tyson won a well-deserved Emmy for her work as Pittman, as well as a British Academy nod, and went on to earn accolades for the likes of King (in which she played Coretta Scott King to Sounder co-star Paul Winfield’s Martin Luther King), The Marva Collins Story, and The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, for which she won another Emmy in the supporting category. All in all, Tyson boasts an impressive nine Emmy nominations, including one for her short-lived TV series Sweet Justice, in which she co-starred with Melissa Gilbert. I watched it back in the mid 1990s. I was super-excited that Tyson was starring in her own series–even if she shared the screen with Melissa Gilbert; they played attorneys. Duh. Sure, the run was brief, but it worked as a vehicle for Tyson, and it depicted her as strong, vital, contemporary woman; moreover, it was encouraging to see her take charge in a TV show so closely on the heels of  what was barely more than a cameo in a big hit film such as Fried Green Tomatoes. Again, TV often scores in ways that movies do not.

I still have my paperback copy of Ernest Gaines’s The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman that was given to me by my mother when I was in junior high right after the special aired. I’ve read it 2-3 times.  It’s a novel, you know. My well-worn copy has a disclaimer of sorts on the cover advising readers that it is indeed a work of fiction however rooted (Sorry, Alex) in historical fact.  Okay, I recently used the book in a class I taught entitled “Research Methods.”  The idea was for the students to distinguish which, among a batch of a dozen or so selections, were primary sources and which were secondary or tertiary sources. Likewise, which sources were credible and which ones were not?  I specifically picked Gaines’s book because I wanted my students to think through all of the implications: if Miss Jane Pittman were referred to in an essay about depictions of slavery and racism in popular culture, it would be considered a primary source as a work of literature; if an essay were about the historical realities of slavery and racism, Miss Jane Pittman would definitely be lacking. I was tickled by how clever I was. I was struck by the improbability that I would still own a paperback that I’d owned since the 70s, almost a full forty years later, and I marvelled about how many things I’d lost or given away in the decades since then, and all of it, the whole of Tyson and Miss Jane Pittman, came flooding back to me. That was exactly two weeks ago today, so it was all still fresh, right here just below the surface, when Tyson accepted her award last night. This is the moment, indeed.

Thanks, Cicely…

* Also, thanks to Frank Wildhorn, Leslie Bricusse, and Steve Cudden for inspiring me with “This is the Moment,”  from Jekyll and Hyde: The Musical.

** My apologies to the talented Mr. Vance, a three-time Tony nominee with no previous wins, and his fans for not including him in the original draft of this article.

Oh, and okay…PS to Tracy Letts: Congratulations on your Tony for Best Leading Actor in a play for yet another revival of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Given that Letts already boasts a Tony and a Pulitzer for writing August: Osage County, he may very well be the only person ever honored with a Pulitzer as well as Tonys for writing AND acting. I’ll have to investigate that one.  (I know that Alfred Uhry and John Patrick Shanley have Oscars, Tonys, and Pulitzers, but those are all for writing…but I digress.)

Girlfriends All Over Again

2 Jun
Frances Ha

Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha brought memories of Claudia Weill’s Girlfriends to mind almost immediately. The movie’s soundtrack includes snippets of legendary composer Georges Delerue’s score for King of Hearts, Philippe de Broca’s classic anti-war cult film, another feature I practically memorized after repeated viewings at the old Granada theatre. It was startling to hear Delerue’s familiar tunes in an all-new context.

Well, Michael and I just saw the much buzzed about Frances Ha, the latest offering from indie writer-director Noah Baumbach, whose credits include an  Oscar nominated screenplay for 2005’s The Squid and the Whale.  Baumbach co-wrote Frances Ha with Greta Gerwig, who also stars as the title character. I gather that some folks don’t love Frances Ha so much, but, overall, I think most of the reviews have been positive.  Indeed, the enthusiastic write-ups I’ve been reading–for awhile–prompted my curiosity. I can scarcely believe that I caught the movie in only its second weekend in Dallas. Lucky me.

Here’s the thing. As much as I enjoyed Frances Ha, and I enjoyed it quite a bit, I kept having, as the late great Yogi Berra reportedly exclaimed, “…deja vu all over again.” In this case, while watching Frances Ha, I kept flashing back to Girlfriends, the 1978 feature debut of filmmaker Claudia Weill.  Now, I’m not accusing Baumbach and Gerwig of stealing from Weill. Hell, I don’t even know if either Frances Ha collaborator has ever seen Weill’s film;  however, I HAVE seen Weill’s film, more than once, rest assured,  and I can’t shake the urge to compare it to Frances Ha. In so doing, I hope to alert audiences to a true gem of American independent cinema.

Okay, here we go…

  • 1A.  Frances Ha shows what happens when two roommates, best friends since college, go their respective ways. One woman (‘Sophie,” played by Mickey Sumner) is settling comfortably into a monogamous relationship with a seemingly buttoned-down corporate guy whose career aspirations lead the couple to Japan of all places; the other woman, the Frances of the title (Gerwig), is socially awkward and struggles to stay afloat in New York City.  Without her bff, she feels untethered.
  • 1B.  Girlfriends shows what happens when two roommates go their respective ways. One woman (“Ann,” played by Anita Skinner) is settling comfortably into married life with a seemingly buttoned down corporate guy and enjoying the occasional weekend getaway to the country; the other woman, Susan Weinblatt (Melanie Mayron), is socially awkward and struggles to stay afloat in New York City.  Without her bff, she feels untethered.
  • 2A. As Sophie and Frances are separated, they each build up petty resentments toward the other based on what one wants that the other already has.
  • 2B. Ditto with Ann and Susan in Girlfriends.
  • 3A.  Money is so tight for Frances that she can barely keep a roof over her head. She basically couch-surfs in order to survive.
  • 3B.  Money is so tight for Susan that she can barely make ends meet. Things get so bad for her that the electric company disconnects her service; she also allows a waifish hitchhiker to couch surf with her.
  • 4A.  Frances’s goal is to make it in NYC as a professional dancer-choreographer. She even teaches children’s dance classes just to make ends meet.
  • 4B.  Susan’s goal is to make it in NYC as a professional photographer. She even works bar mitzvahs and weddings just to make ends meet.
  • 5A. Frances and her boyfriend have a tense heart-to-heart talk about moving in together, but Frances is reluctant to commit.
  • 5B. Susan and her boyfriend (played by no less than then little known Christopher Guest) have tense heart-to-heart talk about moving in together, but Frances is reluctant to commit. Plus, she questions her bf’s mashed potato skills.
  • 6A. Spoiler! Someone is faced with an unwanted and/or unplanned pregnancy.
  • 6B. Spoiler! Someone is faced with an unwanted and/or unplanned pregnancy.
  • 7A. Christine and Gordon Gerwig, presumably Greta’s parents, appear as Frances’s parents.
  • 7B. A woman named Norma Mayron, presumably Melanie Mayron’s mom, is listed in the credits as ‘Mrs. Weinblatt,’ for her cameo as Susan’s mother.  For real.

Discrepancies: In this original 1-sheet, the tile appears as two words though it appears as one word in the opening credits. Plus, everything I’ve ever read about the movie, on the Internet, a review in Variety, and in Danny Peary’s book Alternate Oscars, features it as one word as I do throughout this blog piece. Additionally, in at least two interviews with Weill that I recently found online, she states that Warner Bros. bought the rights to the film in 1979 though its US release date is listed as 1978. My memory also tells me it was 1978 as do most of the awards news of the time, that is the 78/79 awards as opposed to 79/80.  Look closely in the lower left corner: that’s the Warner’s logo in black.

Girlfriends represents a seminal moment in my development as a filmgoer. While not a big hit, the well-reviewed flick arrived with a lot of buzz after screenings at the Toronto International Film Festival (where it won the audience award) as well as the annual Cannes shindig. (I thought it won an award at Cannes, but I cannot verify that.) Not bad, not bad at all. Weill had previously worked as a documentarian, including collaborating with Shirley MacLaine on the Oscar nominated The Other Half of the Sky: A China Memoir. Anyway, she earned at least a partial grant for Girlfriends, collaborating with Vicki Polon on the script. Now, I can’t find any credible sources to corroborate any of the following info, but I have a pretty good memory, so here’s the backstory as I recall reading about it back in the day. Fully financing Girlfriends was touch and go to the degree that the movie was shot mostly on weekends whenever funding was available. I also have a notion, I want to say from a 1978 Rolling Stone cover story, that Gilda Radner, then at the peak of her Saturday Night Live popularity, was an early candidate to play Weinblatt. Besides Mayron, Skinner, and Guest, the cast also includes Bob Balaban, Amy Wright, and esteemed veterans, Eli Wallach and Viveca Lindfors. Pretty impressive given Weill’s limited budget and newcomer status.

At any rate, the story famously goes that Weill filmed the whole thing in 16mm, and after it wowed audiences in Cannes, Warner Brothers snagged the rights, transferred the original to 35mm, and released it stateside in late summer/early fall of 1978. Locally, it played at the old General Cinema Northpark  III & IV, across the expressway from the mall and the original GCC Northpark I & II where almost everyone saw Star Wars. Let’s think about this for a moment. These days, we take alleged indie films for granted; likewise, today’s films directed by women, while still only a fraction of their male counterparts’ output,  are hardly the novelty they were back in the 1970s.  Imagine what an enormous coup it was for a grainy low budget–basically independently financed–film directed by a woman, “rescued” by a major studio,  to play in one of Dallas’s premiere first-run houses. Amazing.  My friend Rhonda and I saw it right after it opened. We loved it, and we chatted about it afterward with a woman who worked at the theatre.  She liked it as well and confessed that it had been a hard sell for a lot of customers who were put off by the title, concerned as they were that they might see a show about lesbians.

rolling-stone-cover-volume-277-11-2-1978-gilda-radner

I’m pretty sure that this November 1978 issue of Rolling Stone is where I read that Radner had once been linked to Claudia Weill’s acclaimed Girlfriends. It’s fun to imagine Radner in the role of quirky New York everywoman Susan Weinblatt, but the SNL player’s  stardom might have very well overwhelmed the project.

Anyway, that particular era was magical for me as I started seeing movies at the rate of one or two a week, and not just the latest fad blockbuster. Instead, I was seeking out the films I’d read about in fancy magazines and newspapers: Girlfriends was one; Days of Heaven was another. I felt so grown-up–I was 18 at the time–and I could not get enough. That same period is when I was spellbound by Woody Allen’s stark Interiors, which seemed quite profound at the time. Oh well. Despite Allen’s overly schematic screenplay, Interiors still holds value as a style exercise, not to mention an incredible showcase for such actors as Geraldine Page, Maureen Stapleton (both Oscar nominated), Diane Keaton, Mary Beth Hurt, E.G. Marshall, Richard Jordan, and Sam Waterston. But I digress. Other movies that I caught for the first time that year were Julia, Coming Home (both still popular in second run houses), Harold and Maude, and Midnight Express. In early 1979, when the same friend and I stumbled upon the Granada theater–after a fortuitous visit to the old Peaches Records and Tapes on Cole–Girlfriends was the first movie we saw at what would soon become my home away from home. I found out several months later than two of my best friends from h.s., that I’d lost touch with for about a year after graduation, had also seen Girlfriends around the same time and fell in love with it also.

Girlfriends was different from most so-called career girl movies that Hollywood once cranked out regularly. For starters, Susan Weinblatt is was not conventionally WASPy pretty. Instead, she has dark frizzy hair and schlepps around in shabby boho chic clothes yet not quite as camera ready as, say, the garb sported by Diane Keaton in Annie Hall or Ali MacGraw in Love Story. Furthermore, Weinblatt’s body is proudly, well, average. She’s neither too thin nor comically heavyset. Sometimes she looks a little chunky, but I attribute that to her layers of baggy clothing; it’s also possible that over the protracted shooting schedule, Mayron’s own weight fluctuated. My point is not to obsess over this woman’s body but to emphasize how refreshingly normal she appeared in the same era that produced the likes of  Farrah Fawcett, Susan Anton, and Cheryl Tiegs–all of them blonde, bronzed, and toned. Also, even though Weinblatt modifies her hairdo over the course of the film, she does not subject herself to one of those phony Ugly Duckling/Cinderella Swan Princess makeovers that are commonplace in so many movies about women today.

Additionally, the Big Apple of Weinblatt’s era is much different from the New York City depicted in Frances Ha. In contrast to the colorful picture perfect views that were once purely Hollywood, New York in the 1970s was perceived as cold, dirty, and corrupt, and that’s apparent in Girlfriends. After all, this was the era of Serpico and Taxi Driver. Not only does Weinblatt’s city look uninviting, it also seems strangely underpopulated. Furthermore, despite Weinblatt’s best attempts to brighten her pad, she basically lives in a dump. Her fridge is also understocked.  On the other hand, the NYC of Frances Ha, in the post Sex and the City era, is glittery, lively, and relatively hospitable. There’s bustling nightlife, of course, and the characters all eat well. Also while Frances definitely struggles financially, most of her friends, some of whom are being subsidized by their parental units,  live in comfortable if  hardly deluxe. dwellings.  Frances does not undergo a makeover, but in in contrast to the earlier film, the roommate is dark-haired, and Frances is the blonde. She’s a dancer, so she’s slender, but she’s also not reed thin. She still looks real. One more thing: Girlfriends is low-budget, and it looks every cent of that. I don’t know what the budget for Baumbach’s film was,  and I don’t guess it matters since securing funding doesn’t ever get easy; however, I do think the fact that Baumbach shot in black and white is deceptive. Yes, the final product looks low-budget, but that whole sequence in Paris, yes, Paris France, hints at healthy coffers. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Interestingly, there’s much more graphic discussion about sex in Frances Ha than there is in Girlfriends though the latter actually comes closer to depicting sex as in a brief post-coital nude scene with Mayron and Guest and flashes of nudity of Ann and her husband on their honeymoon. (Weinblatt’s photography includes a surprisingly frank for-the-times nude as well.)

During the 1978/79 awards season, Girlfriends made a little noise, including a spot on the National Board of Review’s Top Ten honor roll, Italy’s David di Donatello accolades for Weill, a Globe nomination–Best Film Debut–for Skinner, and a British Academy nod–Most Promising Newcomer–for Mayron, whom I was really hoping to see as a finalist in the Oscar race for Best Actress. (Given the times, I  probably had much less hope for Weill.)  Mayron’s was my second favorite leading actress performance of the year–after Jane Fonda who ultimately claimed the Academy’s trophy for Coming Home. I have always been less enamored of Fonda’s reported strongest competition that year: Jill Clayburgh in An Unmarried Woman (too self-conscious for my tastes). Mayron’s Susan Weinblatt got to me not because she was so dramatic or emotional or any of that stuff. Instead, I was captivated by how “lifelike, ” how nuanced, she was. By the end of the movie, I felt like I truly knew and understood the character, who, don’t forget, was maybe only a decade older than I was. I also had dreams of running off to New York–to either be a writer for SNL or a reporter/graphic designer for Rolling Stone. So, yeah. An aside: besides Mayron, I would have been happy to see Susan Sarandon in the game for her striking portrayal of Eric Roberts’s scandalously young mama in King of the Gypsies, the film that was supposed to launch the crazy good looking Roberts as the next big thing.  Again, I digress. Not surprisingly, Mayron is included in Danny Peary’s Alternate Oscars, not as the actual alternative choice but as one of only two runners-up as he takes the Oscar from Fonda and gives it to Clayburgh, demoting Fonda to the same status as Mayron in the process. Well, that’s certainly not bad company. It’s still too early to think about next year’s Oscars, but I can imagine that Gerwig is, for the time being, well-positioned for a Globe nod in the Musical or Comedy category. She’s also likely to figure in the race for a Spirit award as well.

Besides aforementioned Peary, do you know who else was a major champion of Girlfriends? No less than Stanley Kubrick, that’s who. It seems funny that Kubrick, such a meticulous master of controlled cinema, would be so taken by a little indie, but it is what it is. (If you don’t know who Kubrick is, I can’t imagine why you would be reading this blog.) Here’s the oft-repeated quote from a 1980 interview with Kubrick conducted by Vicente Molina Foix: “I think one of the most interesting Hollywood films, well not Hollywood – American films – that I’ve seen in a long time is Claudia Weill’s Girlfriends. That film, I thought, was one of the very rare American’s films that I would compare with the serious, intelligent, sensitive writing and filmmaking that you find in the best directors in Europe. It wasn’t a success, I don’t know why; it should have been. Certainly I thought it as a wonderful film. It seemed to make no compromise to the inner truth of the story, you know, the theme and everything else” (qtd. in Castle 2).  Hmmm….yep, we’ll see if any of today’s cinema legends look  back fondly on Frances Ha in a year or two–or if anyone will care over thirty years after the fact.

One reason that I’m so happy to write about Girlfriends today is because it is now available on DVD through Warner Archives, which means it’s issued on-demand from the best available print (and it never looked all that great in the first place); of course, there are no extras, but that’s beside the point to me. I think this particular motion picture is too important to ignore–important not only on a personal level but also as an artifact of both 70s era indie filmmaking and the emerging role of women in cinema. I’ve even given copies as gifts.

Funny thing, I have not read a single review that compares Frances Ha to Girlfriends even though the similarities are so obvious. What I have read are comparisons between Lena Dunham’s Globe winning HBO series Girls and Frances Ha. Interestingly,  Weill has directed at least one episode of  Dunham’s hit show. Weill’s follow-up to Girlfriends was 1980’s It’s My Turn starring Jill Clayburgh and Michael Douglas. Clayburgh was one of Hollywood’s most in-demand actresses by that time, and It’s My Turn is a particular favorite of mine. I try to watch it at least once a year. It’s also available as a print-on-demand DVD from Warner Archives. Oh, and in 1981, on the heels of It’s My Turn, Weill reportedly became only the third woman in history (likely after Dorothy Azner and Ida Lupino) to be invited into the directors branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Again, that only underscores to me what an important film Girlfriends is and why it deserves to be remembered.  For the past few decades, Weill has worked more frequently in TV rather than in the movies. Her resume includes the likes of Cagney and Lacey, Caroline in the City, Once and Again, and thirtysomething.

Mayron, of course, played a character named Melissa–a photographer don’t forget–on ABC’s groundbreaking thirtysomething, earning multiple Emmy nominations for her work and actually winning the trophy once. Girlfriends, to clarify, wasn’t exactly her first credit as she had also appeared in the buzzworthy Car Wash (1976) as well as Valerie Harper’s successful Rhoda sitcom (which is where I first saw Mayron), and even the Emmy nominated TV movie about prostitution Hustling, starring Lee Remick and, again, Jill Clayburgh in a breakthrough role. After Girlfriends, Mayron segued to the heralded TV event, Playing for Time starring Vanessa Redgrave and Jane Alexander. In 1988, Mayron co-produced, co-wrote, and starred in the independent feature Sticky Fingers, a punchy comedy about shopaholics, that reunited her with Christopher Guest. Not surprisingly, the movie performed better in Dallas, home of Neiman Marcus, than many other U.S. cities.   These days, Mayron still acts, but she’s also made her mark as a director with such features as The Babysitters Club and the locally filmed Slap Her, She’s French. Most of her work behind the camera is for TV, including Providence, Dawson’s Creek, Army Wives, and Pretty Little Liars.  Her work has brought her a Directors Guild nod for  “Toothless,” which originally aired as part of The Wonderful World of Disney, whereas Weill boasts a Daytime Emmy nom for “The Great Love Experiment,” an entry in the old ABC Afterschool Specials.

For the moment, Frances Ha registers as a pleasant diversion though there are no doubt restless suburban youth who will see it and begin plotting their own escape to New York;  meanwhile, the significant,  if virtually forgotten, Girlfriends deserves to be revisited all over again. Maybe it’s time to investigate how to nominate a film for the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry. Yeah, that’s the ticket.

Thanks for your consideration…

Link to online version of Kubrick interview as it also appears in the Stanley Kubrick Archives edited by Alison Castle:

http://www.taschen.com/pages/en/catalogue/film/reading_room/126.an_interview_with_stanley_kubrick.2.htm

Vineyard Gazette article which credits Weill a one of the first female directors in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences: http://www.mvgazette.com/news/2009/08/14/big-screen-small-stage-claudia-weill-keeps-it-real

Trying to verify the location of that long shuttered Peaches Records and Tapes. I knew it was either McKinney or Cole:

http://blogs.dallasobserver.com/dc9/2009/04/echoes_and_reverberations_snap.php

Gilda Radner photo shot by Franceso Scavullo for Rolling Stone featured at Fine Art America: http://fineartamerica.com/

Frances Ha’s soundtrack credits on the IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2347569/soundtrack