Archive | September, 2013

Coven Call

28 Sep

Ugh. Well, the Emmy awards (Emmys? Emmies?) were last Sunday, and almost everyone has complained that it was one of the worst awards telecasts ever.  In a hyphenated word: epic-fail. The normally righteous host Neil Patrick Harris stumbled through dumb, seemingly inappropriate routines (a Sofia Vergara breast joke, really? In 2013? From a gay man, no less?); then there were bizarre and totally unnecessary musical performances by Elton John and Carrie Underwood. Oh, and what about those strange, and incredibly morose tributes to recently deceased TV greats, such as Jean Stapleton (eulogized by an emotional Rob Reiner, Stapleton’s long ago All in the Family castmate) and James Gandolfini (a particularly emotionally wrenching speech delivered by Edie Falco, who played Gandolfini’s wife in the Emmy winning The Sopranos).  Why these performers were singled out for special recognition while other legends, including Larry Hagman (duh!) and Jack Klugman (The Odd Couple and Quincy), were lumped together for the “In Memoriam” clip, is hard to figure.

The winners were a mixed bag. Oh, okay, huzzahs for Julia Louis-Dreyfus and her amazing streak of four Emmy wins (among more than a dozen nominations) for three separate  comedy series: Seinfeld, The New Adventures of Old Chrstine, and (the latest) Veep, for which she also won last year. This is apparently an Emmy record.  I haven’t caught the new show as I’m not an HBO subscriber. Still, I’m sure Veep is a riot. I say this because I’m a huge fan of the scathingly hilarious political satire In the Loop (2009), from the same fertile mind of Veep’s writer-producer-director Armando Iannucci. Plus, Dreyfus and her Emmy winning co-star Tony Hale surely delivered the show’s funniest moments. Hear that, Neil Patrick Harris? Meanwhile, Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s big screen romantic comedy Enough Said (with the late Gandolfini) is garnering heaps of buzz. I hope to see it just as soon as possible.

Elsewhere, all the hoopla for Bryan Cranston’s Breaking Bad drug warlord (by now, a three time winner) and strong sentiment for Jon Hamm (already 0 for 5 as Mad Men‘s enigmatic Don Draper) were all for naught as the Emmy in the Best Actor in a Drama series went to veteran film actor Jeff Daniels in The Newsroom, his first ever series (from renown Aaron Sorkin). Okay, and congrats to Texas’s own Jim Parsons for this third win in the Best Actor in a Comedy series. I almost never watch Parsons in The Big Bang Theory, but a lot of my friends do, and, yes, he’s quite good. I also  almost never EVER watch ABC’s Modern Family, but  I get such a kick out of Ty Burrell that I’m pleased his show keeps winning the award for Best Comedy. This makes four in a row.

The nominees I was most interested in were Linda Cardellini (Mad Men), Sarah Paulson (American Horror Story: Asylum), and, of course, Jessica Lange (also American Horror Story).  Oh, and Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men), but I digress. I think my favorite shows were generally shut-out even though American Horror Story: Asylum went into the race with more nominations (17) than any other contender, ultimately claiming wins only for “Sound Editing in a Miniseries, Movie, or Special) and James Cromwell (Best Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or Movie). I like Cromwell (remember how great he was as the farmer in Babe, 1995), so, good for him. Lange won in her category last year, so I really wasn’t expecting a repeat victory. Oh, my fashion picks for the night were Heidi Klum and the always amazing Diahann Carroll. Deal with it.

Now, on to season three of American Horror Story: Coven,  in which Lange, Paulson, and a few others return as new characters in a completely different story (from either Season 1 or Season 2,) spun by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk.  The first season was set in a haunted house in modern day Los Angeles; last season focused on a Catholic run mental institution in Massachusetts during the 1960s. Season three finds Lange and company as members of, well, a coven in New Orleans in a story that skips around in time (like, say, Dark Shadows, maybe).  Has any TV show ever assembled such a wealth of talent? Looky, looky: two Oscar winners, a trio of one-time Oscar nominees, multiple Emmy and SAG award winners and/or nominees, no doubt a splash of Golden Globe honorees, and a pair of two-time Tony winners. Yes.

Okay, we all know how great Lange is (two Oscars, two Emmys, etc.), or how great I think she is, so there’s no need to revisit her list of accomplishments. Instead,  let’s take a peek at all the rest…

Kathy

^ Kathy Bates in Dolores Claiborne (1995)

Kathy Bates and Jessica Lange first appeared together onscreen in 1990’s Men Don’t Leave starring Lange as a widow trying to start life over in Baltimore with her two sons. Bates played “Lisa,” the flip proprietor (or proprietress if you will) of a trendy gourmet deli who hires Lange as an assistant manager though their relationship is shaky from the outset. The two actresses worked again years later on the blink-and-you-missed-it road pic Bonneville (2008) also starring Joan Allen.

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1995 was such a great year for leading actress candidates that there was no room on the Academy’s final ballot for Angela Bassett (Waiting to Exhale), Kathy Bates (Dolores Claiborne), Annette Bening (The American President), or Jessica Lange (Rob Roy, pictured above); those were my personal faves, but strong cases could also be made for  Sandra Bullock (While You Were Sleeping), Michelle Pfeiffer (Dangerous Minds), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Georgia), Golden Globe winner Nicole Kidman (To Die For), or even Minnie Driver (Circle of Friends). I know, right? Susan Sarandon won that year for portraying anti-capital punishment activist Sister Helen Prejean in Dead Man Walking.  Not my first choice, but still an excellent pick. I love Sarandon and certainly she’d more than paid her dues at that point, so I was thrilled for her. Plus, Dead Man Walking was quite a powerful film. For me, the difference is that while Sarandon held my attention as I watched DMW, her performance did not resonate later to the degree that her nominated co-star Sean Penn’s did, nor did Sarandon  wallop me with the same impact as she had in earlier offerings, such as 1992’s Lorenzo’s Oil.

Of course, when Lange and Bates first teamed, early in 1990, the latter was known mostly as a respected theater vet–and SMU alum– who occasionally worked as a supporting player in movies; however, by the end of 1990, she had fully come into her own as a powerful screen actress thanks to her breakout role as an obsessed, okay, crazed, fan who terrorizes a vulnerable–injured–writer (played by James Caan) in the adaptation of Stephen King’s Misery. The character gave Bates an opportunity to showcase her boundless talent in a way that her previous film roles had not, and Academy  members were so taken that they rewarded her with the Oscar for Best Actress.

A year later, Bates was in the unique position of appearing with the previous Best Actress winner Jessica Tandy (Driving Miss Daisy) when they paired for the surprise smash Fried Green Tomatoes (to clarify, likely the first time that two consecutive Best Actress winners had co-starred in a film released so closely on the heels of their victories). Besides her win for Misery, Bates boasts two more Oscar nods, both in the supporting ranks. First, she was recognized  for 1998’s Primary Colors, in which she played a  ferocious campaign strategist in a film that purports to take audiences behind the scenes of Bill Clinton’s first run for president–with John Travolta as the fictionalized stand-in for the smooth talking contender. Bates later earned accolades as a frisky Earth-mother  type, including a nude dip in a hot tub (as I recall), opposite Jack Nicholson in 2002’s About Schmidt. I forgave the Academy for bypassing her turn as the so-called “Unsinkable” Molly Brown in Titanic because, aside from looking more like the real deal than, say, Debbie Reynolds (who garnered a Best Actress nod for a musical biopic loosely based on the real Brown), Bates didn’t really do anything with the role that hadn’t already been done.

That noted, I still hold a bit of a grudge that she was ignored for her superb work as the strong but simple title character in 1995’s Dolores Claiborne (another King offering) : a  caregiver charged with murdering her elderly employer–interspersed with flashbacks of a younger Dolores as a wife and mother seemingly trapped in a bad marriage.  I’ll be frank, Bates as Claiborne was my absolute favorite performance by a leading actress in all of 1995. I was in awe of what she brought to the character each and every second she appeared onscreen, and I think both the movie and her performance are more genuine than the flashy, mechanical Misery. More recently, I think she gave stand-out supporting performances in 2008’s Revolutionary Road (as a real-estate agent whose chirpiness masks a world of disappointment) and 2009’s The Blind Side (as a well-meaning tutor with a sly disposition). Like Lange, Bates is no stranger to TV, having earned, among others, Emmy nods for her work in David E. Kelly’s short-lived Harry’s Law.  Oh, and I met her one time, back when I was still working at the movies, and she was in the area filming the barely released Curse of the Starving Class. I remember her as gracious and funny.

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^ From earlier in 2013: Angela Bassett at the premiere of Olympus Has Fallen, in which she played the director of the Secret Service. Word is she plays New Orleans’s legendary voodoo priestess Marie Laveau in American Horror Story: Coven

Angela Bassett had been working in TV and films for years, including roles in Boyz n the Hood (1991) and Malcom X (1992), before landing the role of a lifetime as Tina Turner in 1993’s musical bio-pic What’s Love Got to Do with It? Bassett fully delivered the goods as the powerhouse entertainer, earning a Golden Globe and emerging as the only serious challenger to Oscar frontrunner Holly Hunter in The Piano. From there, Bassett became one of Hollywood’s most in-demand actresses. For example, in 1995, she appeared in three high profile pics: Strange Days (produced by James Cameron and directed by future Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow), Vampire in Brooklyn (opposite Eddie Murphy; directed by Wes Craven), and Waiting to Exhale, from Terry McMillan’s bestselling novel (directed by Forest Whitaker and co-starring Loretta Devine, Lela Rochon, and the late Whitney Houston).  The first two flicks out of the gate flopped despite loads of publicity, but Waiting to Exhale performed solidly if not spectacularly. It opened in the #1 on the box office charts and held on to its audience long enough to earn 67 million in the U.S.–against a budget of 16 million (per Box Office Mojo). Quite a tidy profit. Furthermore, I think Bassett was well-deserving of a repeat Oscar nod for her work as jilted wife who survives the various stages of grieving, but that didn’t happen though she won an Image award for her portrayal. Bassett continues to work regularly in a wide range of projects. Among her many honors are an Emmy nomination for playing Rosa Parks and a Screen Actors Guild nod for Ruby’s Bucket of Blood. Interestingly, earlier this year she played Coretta Scott King in a made-for-TV film about both King and Dr. Betty Shabazz, the widow of Malcom X whom, as previously noted, Bassett portrayed in Spike Lee’s film starring Oscar nominee Denzel Washington (and again in the little seen Panther, also 1995);  Mary J. Blige took on the role of Shabazz in the newer project.

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^ Gabourey Sidibe was indeed red-hot after she made her professional acting debut in the movie Precious,

Gabourey Sidibe achieved the unthinkable when she auditioned for the lead role in Lee Daniels’s Precious (from the novel Push by Sapphire). At the time, Sidibe had never acted professionally though she’d appeared in school productions. Nonetheless, not only did she win the role, her performance registered so strongly that she earned an Oscar nomination, among many other honors, for Best Actress. Though well into her twenties, she perfectly brought to life the horrifically tormented teen who has been consistently let down–and/or abused–by almost every adult she ever encountered, most especially her own family members. Sidibe’s nod was no fluke as the movie also earned nominations for Best Picture and Best Director, among others, ultimately claiming statuettes for Best Supporting Actress (Mo’Nique as Precious’s nightmare of a mother) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Geoffrey S. Fletcher). Even so, for all the acclaim of that first effort, Sidibe has not appeared in too many high-profile projects in the years since. The highlights include a supporting role on the Showtime series The Big C, starring three-time Academy nominee–and recent Emmy winner–Laura Linney, and the all-star caper flick Tower Heist headlined by Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy among others; however, all that star-wattage was not enough to outweigh the negative publicity that occurred from director Brett Ratner’s alleged homophobia. The film barely broke even. Now 30, Sidibe could use a hit.

Sarah Paulson

^ Sarah Paulson as  terrfiied Lana in American Horror Story: Asylum

Sarah Paulson earned both an Emmy nod and a Saturn nod for her performance as Lana, the railroaded lesbian reporter, in last season’s edition of American Horror Story. Poor Lana. Not only was she railroaded simply because of her sexuality, she barely survived her ordeal, scraping by through one atrocity after another all the way up to an unforgettable climax.  Paulson and Lange had previously worked together in the Broadway revival of Tennessee Wiliams’s The Glass Menagerie. Additionally, Paulson was featured in the first season of American Horror Story.

Frances Conroy

^ Frances Conroy : In AHS: Coven, will Jessica Lange get the chance to killer her again…again?

Like Lange and Paulson, Conroy is back for round three of American Horror Story.  Last year, she dazzled as the Angel of Death via 1940s film noir. The look was retro-glam per Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, or Hedy Lamarr and quite a switch from her previous role.  In the first season of the show, she played Lange’s ghoulish housekeeper (llllllloooooonnnnnngggggg  story), to which Lange’s Constance once threatened, “Don’t make me kill you again.”  A decade or so ago, Conroy earned all kinds of accolades, including multiple Emmy nods and at least two Screen Actors Guild awards, for portraying the matriarch of Six Feet  Under. Prior to that breakthrough role, Conroy had toiled for decades as a versatile, well-respected actress of stage, screen, and TV. She appeared in three Woody Allen movies along with the Oscar nominated The Aviator (as the mother of Katharine Hepburn, played by Oscar winner Cate Blanchett) and Broken Flowers, the Jim Jarmusch film that also boasted a fine supporting turn by Lange though the two actresses never shared any scenes. Conroy is also a one-time Tony nominee: Best Featured Actress in a Play (The Ride Down Mt. Morgan).

mare

^ Mary Megan Winningham. You can call her ‘Mare’ for short.

Mare Winningham comes to American Horror Story straight from one of the summer’s hottest shows, Stephen King’s Under the Dome.  This versatile, much sought-after actress has had quite the remarkable career, and that includes a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for 1995’s Georgia, in which she beautifully inhabited the role of a country-folk singer (think Emmylou Harris or Nancy Griffith) drawn into the downward spiral of her less successful sister (Jennifer Jason Leigh).  Winningham caught the acting bug early, playing Maria Von Trapp in a Los Angeles high school production of The Sound of Music with Kevin Spacey as Captain Von Trapp. True that. Val Kilmer was another classmate, btw.  Anyway, Winningham actually began acting professionally while still a teenager, and she was all of 21 when she won her first Emmy (Best Supporting Actress in a Movie/Mini-series for Amber Waves of Grain, 1980).  Since then, most of her best known work has been on television, earning a total of seven Emmy nods including a second win for portraying Lurleen Wallace opposite Gary Sinise in a mini-series about controversial politician George C. Wallace.  Her most recent Emmy nod was for Kevin Costner’s acclaimed mini-series Hatfields & McCoys. Prior to that, she was recognized for her work in the mini-series adaptation of Mildred Pierce (with Kate Winslet trying on the role that helped Joan Crawford win an Oscar back in the 1940s). Speaking of Costner, interestingly enough, he and Winningham have by this point worked together enough almost to be considered a team, what with collaborations in the aforementioned Hatfields & McCoys as well as Wyatt Earp, The War, and Swing Vote.

Christine-Ebersole

^ Christine Ebersole, dazzling in red, the night she claimed her Tony for Grey Gardens.

In 1982, right around the time she had moved on from Saturday Night Live, during the show’s tumultuous post-Lorne Michaels, post-Jean Doumanian, readjustment,  Christine Ebersole popped up for a few minutes as a cutie-pie actress and potential date for Dustin Hoffman’s desperate birthday boy in the blockbuster comedy Tootsie; however, Hoffman’s Michael Dorsey flips for Jessica Lange’s Julie Nichols, and that’s that. Years and years later, Ebersole scored her second Tony for Best Actress in a Musical for Grey Gardens, the unlikely tuner based on a cultish 1970s era documentary about two eccentric members of the Bouvier family (making them relatives of the one and only Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis) reduced to living in absolute squalor in the dilapidated titular mansion located in the Hamptons. Ebersole’s challenge was unique in that she portrayed both characters (Big Edie and Little Edie) at different points in their lives: in the first half, she was the younger version of Big Edie (the mother) when life was oh-so-good. In the second act, she portrayed the  grown-up, 70s version of Little Edie,  a rather pathetic middle aged woman, with Alopecia totalis, who has been dominated by her mother (played in the second act by Tony winner Mary Louise Wilson) for far too long. Something like that.  On the heels of the Grey Gardens musical, no less than Lange starred–to Emmy winning effect–as decrepit Big Edie in an HBO recreation of the same story (w/Drew Barrymore surprisingly on-target as Little Edie). Now, Lange and Ebersole are about to cross paths again. Yay!  Can’t wait! Though Ebersole has appeared in such high profile films as Tootsie and Amadeus (1984’s Oscar winner for Best Picture), she more often works in television and on Broadway. Her first Tony, btw, was for the 2001 revival of 42nd Street.

Patti LUpONE

^ Two-time Tony winner, Patti LuPone. Don’t cry for her.

Patti LuPone first made her mark as the lead character in the 1979 Broadway debut of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Evita. To say she was a smash hit would be an understatement. The Julliard grad had already earned her Broadway stripes in the likes of The Robber Bridegroom, but Evita made her a star; she plowed over the competition at the subsequent Tony awards, and she hasn’t stopped since, starring in everything from revivals of Sweeney Todd, Anything Goes, and Gypsy (earning a Tony award for the latter and Tony nods for the other two) to the recent adaptation of Pedro Almodovar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (another Tony nod) among many, many others–on and off Broadway.  Sure, most of her most acclaimed work has been in theatre, yet she still has plenty of film and TV credits, including a leading role in the series Life Goes On (1989-1993) and an  Emmy nomination for a hilarious one-time turn in Frasier (as a domineering relative by marriage) as well as smallish roles in  Driving Miss Daisy (1989’s Best Picture winner) and Witness (a 1985 Best Picture nominee). She was also among  the celebrated cast of David Mament’s State and Main.

The quality of Mercy

Lily Rabe as Portia in the 2010 Broadway production of The Merchant of Venice.

Lily Rabe is another three-time AHS vet. Last season, she tackled a difficult, if not always successful role, as a sweet nun (steamrollered by Lange and coveted by James Cromwell’s Nazi surgeon), transformed by demonic possession. Yep, AHS always packs a wallop. Rabe, the daughter of playwright David Rabe and the late great 70s-80s screen icon Jill Clayburgh (playing mother-daughter in the hilarious cult-film Never Again in the early 2000s) established her stage credibility with a Tony nominated turn as Portia (“The quality of mercy…”) in William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice  opposite no less than legendary Al Pacino as Shylock. Rabe also appeared as recent beauty school graduate Annelle in the revival of Steel Magnolias with Ebersole in the role of grieving mother M’Lynn and Delta Burke as wisecrackin’ beauty shop owner Truvy.

AHS: Coven will also see the return of Taissa Farminga, a season 1 player who was not on board for the second round. On the other hand, the new edition will once again feature young actor Evan Peters, who has already appeared in both seasons–to startling effect. A new high profile addition is that of Emma Roberts, no not Emma Watson nor Emma Stone. This Emma has both  good looks and acting in her genes as she’s the daughter of Eric Roberts and niece of Julia Roberts (Oscar nominee and Oscar winner, respectively). I’ve not seen much of her work though I enjoyed her in the 2007 attempt to launch a new film franchise based on the classic teen mystery series, Nancy Drew.  It wasn’t a hit, but Roberts acquitted herself well enough.

Oh, and if all that weren’t enough, it appears we’ll be treated to a recurring character played by the inimitable Leslie Jordan. Now, that’s  a Coven to die for….

Thanks for your consideration.

American Horror Story: Coven premieres Wednesday, October 9, on F/X

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Love at Large: Noir is All Around

13 Sep
Loveatlarge

The three Love at Large leads (l-r): Elizabeth Perkins, Tom Berenger, and Anne Archer. At the time of Love at Large’s release, Berenger was still basking in the goodwill generated by his Best Supporting Actor nod for 1986’s Platoon. Interestingly, a year after Platoon, Berenger appeared with beautiful Mimi Rogers and Lorraine Bracco in Ridley Scott’s exquisitely packaged romantic thriller Someone to Watch Over Me. Berenger played a married detective who becomes intimate with an eyewitness (Rogers) in a murder investigation. Unfortunately, the movie was released too close on the heels of  the only slightly similar Fatal Attraction (featuring Oscar nominee Anne Archer) and could not match that film’s powerful hold on audiences. I think Someone to Watch Over Me and Love at Large would make an excellent double feature.

I’ve recently become reacquainted with two of my favorite Alan Rudolph movies. The other night, I turned on my TV just as one of the retro movie channels began running 1984’s Songwriter, starring Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Rip Torn, Melinda Dillon, and Golden Globe nominee Lesley Anne Warren.  More recently, I finally splurged and bought a copy of 1990’s Love at Large, starring Tom Berenger, Elizabeth Perkins, Anne Archer, and, oh yes, Neil Young. Love at Large has actually been on my Amazon wish list for quite some time, years maybe, and every now and then, I get an email alert that there are only “X” number of copies still in stock (for the time being), or the price has dropped, or whatever.  Usually, I resist such pitches, but this time I chose not to ignore the advisory because I really enjoy the movie, it’s hard to locate as a rental, and, heck, I  actually had a few extra dollars at my disposal.

Anyway, this sudden re-entry of Rudolph into my life prompted a conversation between Michael and me. We were trying to pinpoint the last time we saw an Alan Rudolph movie in a theater. I seemed to recall that he had actually directed a big screen version of Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast at Champions. Did he really? Did I just imagine it? I know we didn’t see it. I also remembered that Emily Watson had starred in a Rudolph movie that I skipped. What was the title? Was she in the Vonnegut adaptation? Anyway, to find the answers to these questions and more, I went to the trusty Internet Movie Database, and what I discovered shocked me: Rudolph hasn’t made a movie since 2002’s The Secret Lives of Dentists. Wow. Has it really been that long? Oh, and, yes, he did direct Breakfast of Champions, with a cast that included Bruce Willis, Albert Finney, Nick Nolte, and Barbara Hershey. By all accounts, it was dreadful mess and flopped hard. Oh, and, yes, Emily Watson starred in Trixie (2000), but I’m not a huge Watson fan, so that’s that.

Still, it’s been more than ten years since Rudolph was behind a camera. Oh, and I checked: he hasn’t died. He’s actually second-generation Hollywood, the son of prolific TV director Oliver Rudolph whose many,  many credits include everything from Adam-12 to Batman, The Brady Bunch, The Donna Reed Show, McHale’s Navy, and oh so many others. The younger Rudolph first came to prominence as a protege of Robert Altman with 1976’s Welcome to L.A.  Altman produced the film, and it featured many of his repertory players: Keith Carradine, Geraldine Chaplin, Sally Kellerman, and Sissy Spacek (who starred in Altman’s Three Women).  It is true that Rudolph’s films bear no small resemblance to Altman’s, what with that snaky camera movement and characters with tortured inner lives; plus , Rudolph’s offerings can be a tad talky–not that that’s a bad thing either. I also happen to think that  Rudolph’s films recall Neil Jordan at this best, considering the characters’ haunted romanticism along with lots of intrigue and reversals of fortune. The main difference between the other two directors and Rudolph is that he sometimes traffics in quirkiness–there it is, the dreaded word–which isn’t always necessarily a good thing. Sometimes a little is, frankly, too much.  Sometimes not. Also, Rudolph is rarely as commercial as Jordan and the late Altman when they’re/were on a roll.

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Noir much? My first Rudolph experience was Remember My Name (above) starring Geraldine Page along with the then real-life married couple Anthony Perkins and Berry Berenson (both now deceased). Chaplin won the Best Actress prize at the 1978 Paris Film Festival. I saw Remember My Name at the historic Highland Park Village, not too long after its balcony was converted to a second auditorium–back in the day when Saturday nights were owned by the Rocky Horror Picture Show crowd.

Of course, many of Rudolph’s best films revel in the mystique of film noir. You know the effect:  weary cynical loners, femme fatales, low-life hoods, powerful mobsters, diners, smoky bars and clubs, back alleys, rain-swept streets, and a touch of neon.  Rudoph’s musical sensibility also contributes to the noir aspects of his films, specifically the jazzy scores of composer Mark Isham, marked as they often are, by the lonely sound of a muted trumpet; likewise, look at some of the titles: Remember My Name and Trouble in Mind, both of them inspired by famous blues songs.

On the other hand, not all of Rudolph’s movies embrace noir-ish elements as is the case with Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, his Dorothy Parker biopic; its unofficial companion piece, btw, is The Moderns, which features a mix of fictional characters along with real-life figures, such as Ernest Hemmingway (played by Kevin J. O’Connor), in 1920s’ Paris. Additionally,  Roadie and Songwriter are all about the music biz, or at least the fringes of it. The latter also represents what is sometimes known as Rudolph’s “hired gun” efforts, meaning the films were scripted by others as opposed to the films for which he has sole authorship. Mortal Thoughts, with Demi Moore, Glenn Headley, Bruce Willis, and Harvey Keitel, would also fall into that category.

Rudolph is also known for his generosity with performers–actresses specifically.  Of course, ever luminous Julie Christie earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, on top of several other accolades,  for playing a former movie star in the depths of despair in 1997’s Afterglow. She would have gotten my vote If I’d been a member of the Academy though I freely admit that I’m completely enthralled by Christie in almost all things.  Jennifer Jason Leigh seemed destined for an Oscar nod thanks to her larger-than-life turn as the one and only Dorothy Parker in the aforementioned Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle. The Academy had other ideas though Leigh was still recognized by other groups  including the National Society of Film Critics and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (i.e., a Golden Globe nod); Leigh’s critics were likely turned-off by the heavily affected speaking voice she used for the character; however, both she and Rudolph defend the choice based on recordings of Parker reading her own work, and, certainly, Leigh hits all the right emotional notes of a complex, no, difficult, woman, dazzlingly so–but I digress. In 1984, Lesley Anne Warren not only earned a Globe nomination for the aforementioned Songwriter (in which she  played a country singer whose decline is as swift as is her rise to fame), she also scored a flashy role in Rudolph’s wildly acclaimed Choose Me.  Other actresses who have been honored with either awards or nominations from critics or at film festivals include (in no particular order)  Lori Singer (Trouble in Mind), Genieve Bujold (The Moderns), Lara Flynn Boyle (Equinox), and Geraldine Page (Remember My Name). That’s not to say that Rudolph isn’t kind to actors–witness the frequent collaborations with Keith Carradine, multiple appearances by Kristofferson and Willis, not to mention Matthew Modine who snared an Independent Spirit Award nomination for playing dual roles in Equinox.  Furthermore, Rudolph wasn’t the first director to hire singer-songwriter Willie Nelson as an actor, but he certainly provided a nice showcase for Nelson’s laid-back style.

For all of that, however, nobody was lining up to serve accolades for Love at Large, but I think it’s, well, gorgeous, noirish fun. Here’s the set-up: Berenger plays Harry Dobbs,  as a friend observed, a shamus.  Maybe not the brightest private dick on the planet, but he usually gets the job done. Oh, and his girlfriend (Ann Magnuson) is a real piece of work, seemingly incapable of happiness. They barely tolerate each other. Then, in true noir fashion, a beautiful and mysterious woman (Archer) approaches Dobbs about a job, a job that should be straightforward if laced with an element of danger;  however, complications pile up quickly, not the least of which  involves Berenger’s character crossing paths with another detective, confident yet high-strung,  played by ever-adorable Elizabeth Perkins.

In the same way that Hitchcock lets audiences in on Vertigo‘s big surprise well before James Stewart’s character discovers the truth, in Love at Large Rudolph similarly reveals his hand to the audience while keeping Berenger and Perkins in the dark about a twist that spins the story into an entirely different, and no less perilous, direction.  In this way, Rudolph creates tension and ups the fun quotient for audiences willing to kick back and enjoy the show. Even so, there’s still plenty of mystery for audiences to savor.

Anne Archer Beauty

^ When Anne Archer starred in Love at Large, she was enjoying a major career boost thanks to her Oscar nominated turn as Michael Douglas’s sexy, and too good be true, wife in the 1987 blockbuster Fatal Attraction. In 1990, she appeared in Love at Large as well as Narrow Margin. Archer is second generation Hollywood. Her dad is prolific TV and film actor John Archer while Marjorie Lord (Make Room for Daddy) is her mommy. Her husband is Terry Jastrow, with whom she co-starred and co-wrote 1982’s Waltz Across Texas.

Besides Rudolph’s nifty script (with a few more than obvious puns), the movie benefits from heavy atmospheric touches, such as nighttime exteriors awash with smoky haze and interiors that recall old Hollywood at its most luxe. To clarify, for all practical purposes, Love at Large unfolds in present day Portland, Oregon–or rather what passed for the present in 1990. It looks fairly contemporary at first glance; however, Rudolph and his team of designers and location managers (Susan Mina Eschelbach, Ingrid Ferrin, Charles Harrington, Steve Karataz, and Steven Legler) play a nifty trick, drawing on elements that suggest earlier eras: ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, etc.  A little Art Nouveau, a little Art Deco. Some of the film absolutely looks modern while the nightclubs and hotels–with massive suites–positively evoke memories of, say, Casablanca and Laura–only in color, reminiscent of, say, Millers Crossing and Bullets over Broadway, two movies from the 1990s that were set during Prohibition.  Meanwhile, per the IMDb, Dobbs drives a car from the 1970s while Perkins tools around in a 1960s model. There’s also plenty of blue lighting effects, playing upon a song that Archer’s character sings: ” You don’t what love is until you’ve learned the meaning of the blues.” Oh, and speaking of that little ditty,  Rudolph and cinematographer Elliot Davis (who also worked with the director on Equinox and Mortal Thoughts) come up with a doozy of a shot, pulling in for a tight close-up  of Archer  at the microphone thrillingly timed with a dramatic lighting cue.  A bit of perfectly synchronized movie magic that reminds us why we love to go to the movies, and why we especially love noir.  Well, that’s just one of the showiest shots Rudolph serves. The truth is, the movie unspools one incredible image after another; however, unlike the almost mechanical precision/composition of, say, a Coen brothers movie (such as Millers Crossing), there’s something dream-like about Rudolph’s imagery. Again, that’s why we love the movies.

In the end, Rudolph does not give his audience the satisfaction of a neat and tidy ending without any loose ends. No, there are questions galore left unanswered, but I think that’s the point. Others might hate it. The movie’s title indicates that love is somehow too big too be contained. It roams where it roams.  As depicted, love is a mystery that cannot  be explained. I think that’s also why Rudolph sets his story in a period non-specific film noir fantasyland: to show once again that love is timeless yet also mysterious. Oh, and then there’s that Leonard Cohen song that plays over the opening credits: “Ain’t No Cure for Love.”  No cure whatsoever. Again, love is both inescapable and inexplicable.  It’s at large.

he-said-she-said-movie-poster-1991-1020235207

Elizabeth Perkins would have made a great foil for Woody Allen (better than a noticeably strained Helen Hunt) in 2002’s The Curse of the Jade Scorpion. Oh, if you ever get a chance, check her out opposite Kevin Bacon in He Said, She Said (above), a little-seen, gimmicky battle of the sexes comedy that gives Perkins a chance to shine even more than she does in Love at Large.

The three principals, Archer, Berenger, and Perkins, acquit themselves admirably, conforming as they no doubt do  to Rudoph’s vision. Archer is a knock-out, and, again, Rudolph photographs her with great care to heighten her allure; however, some audiences might not appreciate the breathless affectation she brings to almost every line reading. I like it because I think it fits Rudoph’s italics-heavy conceit. Ditto Berenger and his goofy cragginess. It’s not realistic, but then this is not a realistic movie. Instead, it’s film noir as a metaphor for love. Nothing especially realistic about that. Perkins plays it fairly straight, but she has a sassiness that very nearly recalls old-school “Gal Friday” roles from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Plus, with her dark curly hair, striking dark brows, thick lashes, and pouty red lips, she brings to mind vintage glam–and one of the greatest of all Hollywood beauties, also named Elizabeth, and that’s no less than Elizabeth Taylor, of course, though somehow more accessible. (Oh, and let’s not forget that Taylor portrayed the mother of Perkins’s Wilma Flintstone in the first live action, big screen adaptation of the old animated Flintstsones TV series, so someone somewhere saw the resemblance. )

I’ve always thought Perkins was one of our most under-appreciated actresses. Yes, she works steadily, and she even boasts Emmy and Golden Globe consideration for her supporting turn on Weeds, aside from her portrayal of a frustrated toy company executive in the now classic Big and fine work in Barry Levinson’s celebrated Avalon (released the same year as Love at Large), but too much of her output has been in, well, second tier vehicles, projects that just somehow missed the mark creatively or under-performed commercially, per her recent short-lived sitcom, How to Live with Your Parents (for the Rest of Your Life). Sometimes, as in Weeds, she’s the supporting player rather than the lead. Too bad. I think Perkins could have easily stepped into almost any role that Meg Ryan played in her heyday. Think about it.

Love at Large also boasts a formidable supporting cast that includes the aforementioned Magnuson along with Ted Levine (a year before he became famous for playing the terrifying Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs), Kate Capshaw, Annette O’Toole, and Ruby Dee, who comes on like gangbusters as Perkins’s detective agency boss.  Barry Miller and Kevin J. O’Connor have smallish roles as well.  And then there’s Neil Young, who contributes barely more than a cameo. Still, it’s worth the wait.  Wink.

Alan, come back. We miss you.

Thanks for your consideration…

Oh, one more thing…

mike_mckean

Btw: Am I the only person who has ever noticed a striking resemblance between actor-writer Michael McKean (above), the real-life spouse of Love at Large actress Annette O’Toole, and Ted Levine (below) who plays the spouse of O’Toole’s Love at Large character? Okay, maybe the resemblance isn’t 100% though the butterflies in McKean’s photo certainly bring to mind Levine’s moth obsessed serial killer  in 1991’s Oscar winning The Silence of the Lambs. Uh-huh.

In The Silence of the Lambs, the villain of the piece (Jame Gumb aka Buffalo Bill) surrounds himself with weird flying creatures. In this case, it's those creepy "death head" moths.

Fearless.

2 Sep

I’m reposting this piece from almost exactly two years ago, not because I think we need more debate about reproductive rights, but because I’ve had time to reflect on a thing or two and because this filmmaker is generating more awards buzz. I’ve added a few notes, in italics, at the end of the piece. Oh, and happy Labor Day! Ha!

Confessions of a Movie Queen

In 1996, Frances McDormand earned a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar for bringing to life one of the most original characters in recent memory (or what seemed like recent memory 15 years ago, but I digress), and that would be Fargo‘s plucky, pregnant Sheriff Marge Gunderson.  McDormand’s Marge is simply irresistible: pleasant disposition, empathic when necessary, determined, acute ability to analyze a crime scene and form an accurate hypothesis, handy with a weapon, and, of course, there’s that cute Minnesotan accent. Oh ya. McDormand is so absolutely perfect in the role that it’s inconceivable to think of anyone else playing it; moreover, the cultural impact of the character was/is so strong that I think McDormand would have won the Oscar no matter what year Fargo had been released, as evidenced by the fact that her Sheriff Gunderson was named #34 on the American Film Institute’s list of 50 Greatest Heroes.

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