Archive | August, 2013

Catching Up on Old News

14 Aug

Hmmm…to write about the passing of Eileen Brennan and Karen Black, or to just let it go? Oh wait, what’s that you say? Eydie Gorme has passed also….

Well, Eydie Gorme, of Steve (Lawrence) and Eydie, versatile, vintage singers with a most loyal following, has passed away at the age of 84. Her death follows the passing of Karen Black on August 8 at the age of 74. This is a most unusual coincidence because in Robert Altman’s 1982 film Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, Black played a transsexual who once worked as an Eydie Gorme impersonator. True that. Look it up.

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^ Karen Black () received her only Oscar nod, in the Best Supporting Actress category, for 1970’s Five Easy Pieces. She later parodied that movie’s oft-quoted diner scene on Saturday Night Live–during the show’s disastrous 1980-1981 season.

Some actors and actresses become stars; some do not. I’m not sure that Black was ever really a star, but that didn’t stop her from having a long rich career, acting in everything from from some of the most influential films of the 1960s and 1970s, including Easy Rider (1969) and Five Easy Pieces (1970), for which she earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination, to big-budget disaster flicks, such as Airport ’75. She worked with Robert Altman twice (or at least twice that I can readily recall), including 1975’s celebrated Nashville. Indeed, ’75 was a banner year for Black, what with Nashville, the aforementioned Airport ’75 (in which she played a flight attendant turned reluctant pilot–so memorably parodied by Julie Haggerty in 1980’s Airplane), and, oh yes, The Day of the Locust. The latter, adapted from Nathanael West’s scathing novel about Hollywood in the 1930s, presented Black in one  of the year’s most high profile roles for leading actresses–a platinum haired, would-be starlet–that seemed to generate just enough acclaim to warrant an Oscar nod, especially given all the hand wringing over the dearth of viable candidates. (To the degree that, as reported by Mason Wiley and Damien Bona on page 515 of Inside Oscar, Ellen Burstyn, the previous Best Actress winner, actually lobbied for Academy members to NOT vote for Best Actress as a protest against the perceived deficit.)  When the Oscar nominations were announced, Day of the Locust was recognized in two categories: Burgess Meredith (as the father of Black’s character) for Best Supporting Actor and Conrad Hall for Best Cinematography. Nothing for Black though she was up for a Golden Globe during the same season.  The year before that, she actually won a Globe for her supporting role as Myrtle Wilson in the oft-maligned adaptation of The Great Gatsby starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow.  A year after Nashville and Day of the Locust, Black had the distinction of appearing in what would ultimately become Alfred Hitchcock’s final film, Family Plot, for which I definitely have a soft-spot. Not vintage Hitch by any stretch, but an entertaining mix of suspense and oddball humor with a cast that also includes Bruce Dern, William Devane, and Barbara Harris.

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Left to right: Sandy Dennis, Cher, and Karen Black in Robert Altman’s Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. The production began as a short-lived Broadway play, by Ed Graczyk, directed by Altman with the same basic cast. Altman then reassembled the group for a relatively quick film adaptation. Alas, it is still not “officially” available on DVD though bootleg editions abound. Too bad. Graczyk’s play is creaky, mean-spirited, and just a little too high-falutin’ for its own good, but Altman’s movie (I saw it at the Inwood oh-so-many-years ago) is fascinating: visually stunning (thanks to a tricked-out set, some fancy slight of hand in the lighting design, and Altman’s probing camera)  as well as a great showcase not only for Black but also Cher (a Golden Globe nominee); Kathy Bates, barely known at the time, is also featured.

As an actress, Black amassed an amazing 194 TV and movie credits in her lengthy career (per the IMDb). Besides her work in prestige projects, she also gained quite a reputation for appearing in horror flicks: everything from Burnt Offerings (1976) with Bette Davis all the way up to Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses (2003). Black aficionados (Blackheads?)  no doubt still salivate over TV’s Trilogy of Terror, featuring Black in multiple roles and perhaps best known for the segment in which her character is terrorized by a monstrous voodoo doll come to life.  It’s both campy yet creepy nonetheless.   Thanks, Karen. Rest in peace.

Just days before Black’s death, the entertainment world lost another veteran character actress, the great Eileen Brennan who came to prominence in the 1970s per her performances in, among others, such major Oscar contenders as The Last Picture Show (1971) and 1973’s Best Picture winner–and box-office goldmine–The Sting. Of course, in the latter, she was given little to do as that the film was really a showcase for Paul Newman and Robert Redford–not to mention Robert Shaw and the likes of Charles Durning, Harold Gould, and Ray Walston. Oh, and Edith Head’s dandy, Oscar winning costumes. There was only a smattering of smallish female roles in the picture, but Brennan’s dry delivery gave added oomph, added resonance, to a few choice one-liners. I’ve always loved her turn as the saucy madame. (Again, not an enviable, substantial role, but Brennan made a strong impression.)

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Eileen Brennan (l) with Goldie Hawn (r) in Private Benjamin, the movie that earned both of them Oscar nominations. Brennan won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for the TV adaptation.

Of course, Brennan really came into her own as something of a national treasure when she teamed with Goldie Hawn for 1980’s smash hit, Private Benjamin, which featured actress-producer Hawn as a featherweight Jewish-American princess/widow who joins the military on the mistaken assumption that it’ll be just like a much-needed vacation.

Brennan plays Hawn’s nemesis, the seemingly humor impaired Capt. Doreen Lewis who doesn’t much care for Judy Benjamin’s frothy nonsense, and so a contest of wills begins with Benjamin finding she has greater, well, reserves than she ever believed possible, but she doesn’t necessarily have the last word, either. Or does she?

Actually, Brennan’s Capt. Lewis is kind of pathetic, the implication being that in order to succeed in the military, she has somehow failed as a woman. Believe me, it’s all there. You don’t have to dig too deeply.   At the same time, Brennan is (or was) such a crackerjack actress that, once again, her dry delivery and marvellously expressive face (Those eyes! That mouth!) make the character a hoot. Okay, so the audience laughs at her rather than with her–I don’t think she’s laughing, actually–but at least the audience was laughing, and even as foes, she and Hawn had great chemistry–to the degree, of course, that both actresses were nominated for Oscars: Hawn in the leading actress category; Brennan as a supporting player. Personally, I can hardly hear that old chestnut “Deep Purple” without thinking of Brennan in Private Benjamin, but even this many years after the fact, I’m not in the mood for spoilers.

Then, just as suddenly as she finally hit the big time, Brennan faced seemingly insurmountable tragedy, and we were all collectively shocked. The success of Private Benjamin the movie led to the creation of Private Benjamin the TV sitcom with Lorna Patterson on board as Judy Benjamin (seemingly with Hawn’s blessing), and Brennan as well as few other original cast members, including Hal Williams, returning. This time, Brennan was nominated for–and won–an Emmy for Best Supporting Actress, except that the whole thing turned into heartache after about a year when Brennan, out for dinner one night with Hawn (as they were obviously quite friendly off-screen) was hit by a car and severely injured. I think many of us believed we’d lost her forever. Her recovery was long and painful, succumbing to addiction and entering rehab. (Meanwhile, Polly Holliday, a popular sitcom veteran, gamely tried to fill the void left by Brennan/Doreen Lewis on the Benjamin series though it was a short-term fix that didn’t work, and the show was soon canceled.)

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Eileen Brennan as Mrs. Peacock in 1985’s Clue. The movie was hardly a smash back in the day, but this meme proves that it has been far from forgotten.

Eventually, Brennan made a comeback, but did she ever regain her career momentum? Hard to say though she worked steadily. She was a delight as a slightly discombobulated Mrs. Peacock in the big screen adaptation of the classic board game Clue (or, for purists, Cluedo). The 1985 Christmas offering, which also featured the comic stylings of Lesley Ann Warren and the late, great Madeline Kahn (not to mention the wonderful Tim Curry), was no doubt hampered at the box office by a gimmicky release pattern that relied on multiple endings (accorded to separate prints) to the whodunit in the hopes that moviegoers would see the movie more than once, Clue-hopping, as it were, from one theater to the next in order to catch all three endings.  Confusing, much? Hmmmm…seemed like a fun idea at the time, but it was asking a lot of audiences; however, much like, say, Troop Beverly Hills, which I wrote about last month (a movie clearly in debt to Private Benjamin, btw), Clue has thrived for decades on home video where all three endings appear in a single edition. Believe me, I know plenty of people who can quote the quip filled, entenderé laced dialogue, for days.

I can look on the Internet Movie Database and see that Brennan racked up dozen of credits over the last few decades, including a lot of TV appearances (netting a handful of Emmy nods in the process), but I remember that she made quite a vivid impression on me in 1990’s White Palace, in the role of Susan Sarandon’s sister. There seemed to be something mystical about her, and I was really rooting for Brennan to score an Oscar nod to solidify her comeback, but, of course, I was also rooting for Sarandon to score a Best Actress nod, but that didn’t happen either. Oh well. G’night, Eileen. Rest in peace.

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Remember when Ellen DeGeneres spoofed Bjork’s swan dress at the Emmy awards? Well, you must surely remember that she did so when this nation was at one of its lowest points: the aftermath of 9/11 when the awards had already been postponed at least once, but Ellen gave us permission to laugh again.

On the other hand, I am so incredibly thrilled that the Academy has invited Ellen DeGeneres to host this year’s (well, next year’s) telecast. I can’t believe it has taken this long. DeGeneres was a hoot during her last gig in 2007 (that is, the 2006/2007 ceremony). I loved that she made the most of her particular brand of “nice” humor, trotting out the carpet cleaner at one point to vacuum the aisles. That was a genius moment for me–mainly because it’s something that no other comedian would have ever dreamed of doing, but it was perfect for Ellen. Yeah, we just call her Ellen rather than Ms. DeGeneres.  I can’t wait to see what she has in store for us!

Btw, who’s your favorite Oscar host? I know Bob Hope holds the record with 18 engagements (as host or co-host), first in radio and later on television. Billy Crystal is apparently next in line with 9 appearances–as recently as 2012 (a year after the debacle known as Franco-Hathawaygate). Still, my all-time favorite is the one and only Johnny Carson who hosted five times in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  One thing that was so great about Carson but has escaped so many recent hosts is that he understood the audience wasn’t really there to see him. He knew his purpose (to keep the show moving and lively), and he most definitely knew his audience: “I see a lot of new faces, especially on the old faces” (Wiley & Bona 563). The problem with Crystal, who was brilliant in his first 2-3 outings, is that he seemed to become more and more preoccupied with making himself the center of attention with each and every gig. This was also part of my problem with Seth McFarlane earlier this year. For me, Steve Martin (who’s hosted solo twice and co-hosted with Alec Baldwin once) and DeGeneres come close, or closer, to matching Carson’s smoothly assured touch. When you’re really funny, and comfortable, the audience gets it, and they don’t have to be beaten over the head.  I’ll also give props to Hugh Jackman, and Whoopi Goldberg (a three time host) has had her moments too.

Thanks, Ellen!

The Name Game

10 Aug

For several years, entertainment reporters, movie biz insiders and/or analysts have been mourning the passing of the institution once known as “The  Movie Star.”  Oh, please don’t misunderstand. I think the general moviegoing public is still as fascinated by the Angelina Jolies and George Clooneys as they ever were, though both of them have had their share of clunkers, and wasn’t Robert Downey Jr. just named the highest paid movie star of the year thanks to his recent turns as Iron Man in both his own movies as well as The Avengers franchise? [1]  Certainly, Hollywood is still willing to pay top dollar for high profile talent. Downey, btw, reportedly earned 75 million in the year or so [2].

On the other hand, movie stars are no longer necessarily the guaranteed draw, or draws, that they once were. Since probably about the 80s and much more so now, the studios and even the big talent agencies have been pushing the idea of the high concept package, and that often means more and more emphasis on easily marketable franchises: movies based on comic books (I mean graphic novels), games, and, of course, sequels. If these movies score with big-name stars such as two-time Oscar nominee Downey, that’s great! If such movies score with lesser known talents, well, that’s probably even better for the studios–at least for awhile–since they are in more enviable positions when it comes to salary/contract negotiations with performers who might still be floating somewhere under the radar of the public consciousness.

Still, the point is what we once thought of as true-blue movie stars are no longer the guaranteed draws they were back in the day–not that every old-time Hollywood star never knew defeat, but, typically, the old studios took great care handling talent, with movies designed to play to a particular performer’s strength; likewise, movies were marketed much differently than they are now. Even so, the public often responded accordingly.  Moviegoers bought tickets to see their favorite stars in a variety of scenarios, often with the reasonable expectation of a good story with excellent performances and production values, and that’s no longer the case to the degree that it once was. Let me give you an example. Less than two years ago, Warner Bros. released Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, a post 9-11 movie toplined by two of America’s most beloved stars, Tom Hanks, a two-time Oscar winner, and Sandra Bullock–her first role since the blockbuster The Blind Side, also from Warner’s, which earned her a Best Actress Oscar. The movie, to put it nicely, performed sluggishly at the box office. Now, this isn’t a slam against Hanks or Bullock. Likewise, people might not have been in the mood for a movie that revisited 9-11 so close to the Xmas holiday. No matter. My point is that even with all their years and years of residual audience goodwill, the allure of Hanks and Bullock was simply not a guarantee of box office legs. On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine that Bullock’s latest smash, The Heat, would work with just anyone. Audiences have been flocking to see what happens when Bullock is specifically paired with the juggernaut known as Melissa McCarthy.

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The cast of Big Business (l-r): Lily Tomlin, Bette Midler, Lily Tomlin, and Bette Midler. The Divine Miss M won an American Comedy award for her performances in the film though Tomlin was every bit her equal.

Now, the reason for pointing out this trend can be summed up in exactly two words: Bette Midler. You know, I worked in the movie biz for over twenty years, and one of the things I noticed was the pull that a very select few stars had with the public, and Midler was one of them. During her reign as a top draw in comedies released through Disney’s Touchstone division, patrons at my box office window were more likely to plop down their money and ask for tickets to see “Bette Midler” than they were to ask for her given film by name. If she had a movie playing, customers wanted to see it, and they didn’t even really care what it was called.  This is not as common as you might have imagined. Most people don’t come up and ask for just any ole actor: Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman, Liam Neeson, Cameron Diaz, Hilary Swank, Jamie Fox, etc. Again, not that those stars haven’t had their share of hits, or that they weren’t occasionally referred to by name. With Midler, it was constant. You know who else customers used to ask for by name with alarming regularity? Ashley Judd. That’s right, Ashely Judd. I noticed this one Saturday when I was selling tickets for Judd’s slickly packaged Ida Lupinoesque “Woman-in-Jep” flick, Double Jeopardy. (See the “jep” part was no exaggeration.) Keep in mind that Judd’s high-profile co-star in this twisty thriller was no less than Texas’s own–Oscar winning–Tommy Lee Jones, but nobody asked for “Tommy Lee Jones” or “Ashley Judd and Tommy Lee Jones.” They wanted to see “Ashley Judd”–to the degree that Judd’s movie spent three weeks at number one in the fall of 1999 [3]. Her follow-up, Eye of the Beholder tanked–but only after opening at #1 on the domestic box office charts. Oh, and once again, people still asked for “Ashley Judd.”   I don’t recall that even Julia Roberts or Sandra Bullock were referred to by name with the same consistency as Judd though I do seem to remember that customers frequently asked for “Jodie Foster”–especially during the era of Panic Room and Flight Plan.

As for the men, I can assure you that people quite often ask for “007” rather than the name of any particular James Bond movie–no matter who’s playing the leading role. Way, way, back in the day, customers would quite often ask for “Bronson” (Charles Bronson), “Chuck Norris,” or “Arnold”–as in Schwarzenegger. I guess quite a few ticket buyers chimed in with”Tom Cruise” at one time. Additionally, seemingly everybody is on a first name basis with “Denzel.” I heard “Denzel” much more frequently than I ever heard “Denzel Washington, please.”  Oh, and generally Woody Allen fans will just say “Woody” or “Woody Allen” though his movies are typically niche oriented and play more to his core audience than to wide audiences.

Now, what about Bette? From the time she appeared with Richard Dreyfuss and Nick Nolte in Paul Mazursky’s Down and Out in Beverly Hills (an update on the French film Boudu Saved from Drowning) in early 1986 until the summer of 1988’s Big Business, co-starring Lily Tomlin, Midler was surely the undisputed queen of mainstream Hollywood comedies, all of them developed and released by the people at Touchstone, the then new arm of the Disney corporation, a move that allowed the powerful conglomerate to venture into more noticeably adult, or topical, content, including Splash (1984), Country (also 1984), and even NBC-TV’s The Golden Girls. Prior to her Disney windfall, Midler had famously scored an Oscar nomination for her first leading role in a major motion picture: 1979’s The Rose, a musical drama loosely based on the sad life and times of Texas’s own blues-rocker Janis Joplin. Of course, Midler has also been quoted as saying the harrowing pic was also based, at least in part, on her stormy relationship with her own controlling manager/agent/producer Aaron Russo, who actually co-produced the film; his onscreen counterpart is played by the late Alan Bates, but I digress.  Anyway, in spite of all the acclaim generated by The Rose, Midler’s next big screen feature, Jinxed was a notorious fiasco and pretty much curtailed her acting career, that is, until the folks at Disney came calling. (For those late to the party, before Midler branched into movies, she was a Grammy winning recording artist best known for covers of oldies, torch songs, and a bawdy concert persona.)

After Big Business, Midler seemed bound and determined to score in mawkish dramas. Oh sure, she managed to get by with Beaches, co-starring Barbara Hershey. Based on Iris Rainer Dart’s novel of the same name, Beaches covers a few decades in the lives of up-and-down childhood friends from quite different backgrounds, a variation on the likes of Old Acquaintance (Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins), which had already been remade in 1981 as Rich and Famous with Jacqueline Bisset and Candice Bergen. A mixed bag, Beaches benefited from a smash soundtrack featuring Midler’s Grammy winning cover of “Wind Beneath My Wings”; however, her attempt at revamping Barbara Stanwyck’s Oscar nominated Stella Dallas was much less successful, and soon afterward, Midler and Disney parted ways.  For the Boys, Midler’s labor of love (seemingly inspired by the likes of Martha Raye and Bob Hope), developed through her All Girls Productions, and heavily, heavily marketed by 20th Century Fox during the 1991 holiday season, was a bust though Academy members, impressed as they were by Midler’s pluck, saw fit to reward her with a Best Actress nomination. Since then, her film output has slowed considerably though there have been a few highlights, most notably The First Wives Club, and, okay, I guess Hocus Pocus (1993, also Disney) has acquired a loyal following.

Still, I want to focus on Midler’s original comedy quartet:  Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986), Ruthless People (a riff on O. Henry’s “The Ransom of Red Chief,” directed by the Airplane trio of David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker), the ever-so-slightly Shakespeare inspired Outrageous Fortune  (1987) co-starring Shelley Long (directed by Arthur Hiller), and the aforementioned Big Business with Lily Tomlin (directed by a solo Jim Abrahams). Once again, I want to stress that customers most often asked for “Bette Midler.” Not “Bette Midler and Shelley Long”  and not “Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin.” Just Bette.  These days, I tend to avoid both Ruthless People and Outrageous Fortune. The former is funny as hell, but it hasn’t aged well, becoming a relic of mostly what was awful about the 1980s; that’s pretty much the same with Outrageous Fortune. The production values are lousy, and the producers had to work hard–though not always successfully–to try to hide the fact that Midler was very much pregnant, and while she and Long both had their moments, and their are plenty of laughs, their chemistry didn’t strike many sparks. At least not in the same way that Midler and Tomlin do in Big Business, itself a take-off on Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, which is my favorite of all the Midler flicks of that era.

Of course, a comedy about two sets of twins has the potential for a lot of laughs and hilarious plot complications. After all, it’s been working since Shakespeare’s time, right?  Plus, besides the obvious joy in pairing Midler and Tomlin as twins on top of twins,  the movie has strong production values, meaning a handsome, lushly appointed Hollywood sound-stage recreation of New York’s fabled Plaza Hotel, which is where most of the story takes place. That, and some nice NYC exteriors including the real Plaza Hotel. Oh, and cheers to the costume designer Michael Kaplan for coming up with designs that not only serve the characters and help establish their personalities but also serve to show the connections between them, thereby advancing the plot. all of which brings us back to Midler and Tomlin.

What I love most about this film are the performances by these two gifted thesps, each of them bringing to life two distinctive characters. Two actresses, four performances. Midler plays a fiercely ambitious corporate mogul who mixes business with pleasure and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Her twin is naively ambitious with dreams of big city life, most of which have been fueled by watching too much TV, including glitzy prime-time soaper Dynasty. As this character, Midler acts with unfettered joy. When she’s on a roll, her eyes practically sparkle; as the tough talking, demanding executive, she delivers wicked one-liners with supreme self-possession. She even holds herself differently. No doubt, Midler scores the biggest laughs. Audiences are tickled by her bumpkin’s learning curve and startled by her big boss’s bitchiness.  As good as Midler is, Tomlin perhaps goes even further in delineating her characters: one twin is a big city fluttery neurotic with romantic notions of settling down in the country while the other twin is a sturdy, no-nonsense country gal, ever vigilant in her mission to protect the interests of her community from greedy corporate snakes. It’s fun watching Tomlin see how far she can go with each character, with or without a big laugh. It’s not just that she speaks in a different tone of voice for each character or that her body language is so different. No, it’s that these details are different in ways that seem exactly right. Plus, as already noted, the actresses get a lot of help from costumer Kaplan [4]: Midler’s characters tend to favor brighter colors, especially red and burnt orange, with the bumpkin trying to pull together–on a budget–what she believes approximates the glamorous wardrobe of her big city counterpart–without resorting to caricature. Also, look closely at how polka dots appear and reappear between Midler’s characters’ outfits; meanwhile, Tomlin’s separated-at-birth twins are drawn to pastels, especially pinks, while the country gal dresses strictly for comfort or function, and the city girl drapes herself in layers of soft, feminine fabrics.

Speaking of twins, and the clothes they wear, I cannot let pass the opportunity to point out how incredibly similar 2006’s The Devil Wears Prada is to Big Business in one key sequence: the entrance of feared fashion editor Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) into the Runway offices seems to have been lifted almost frame for frame Midler’s introduction in Big Business. Take a look.

^ In the role of big city Sadie, Bette Midler’s entrance into Big Business’s Moramax  building could have very well inspired a similar sequence in The Devil Wears Prada, 18 years later.

^ A slightly abbreviated version of Miranda’s entrance in The Devil Wears Prada. At about 45 seconds, it starts looking more and more like Big Business. Have fun!

Thanks for your consideration….

[1][2]: USA Today reports on Robert Downey Jr’s status per Forbes: http://www.usatoday.com/story/life/people/2013/07/16/robert-downey-jr-is-hollywoods-highest-paid-actor-says-forbes/2522583/

[3]: Double Jeopardy at Box Office Mojo: http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?page=main&id=doublejeopardy.htm

[4]: Kaplan’s many credits include 1983’s influential Flashdance (1983) as well as Clue (1985), and 1989’s Cousins (which I wrote about in June of 2012). He has amassed a total of four Costume Designers Guild nominations, including the recent Burlesque (2011) but, alas, no wins and no Oscar nods. Read more at the Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0438325/