Archive | September, 2016

Tangled: The Hissing of Summer Lantana*

29 Sep



One of my all-time favorite movie posters. I had a mini version of it for years. That’s the back of Anthony LaPaglia’s head resting against Kerry Armstrong, with menacing lantana invading the cozy scene. Breathtaking. IMAGE: Wikipedia –

Yes, technically, summer has passed. I began writing this piece the week before Garry Marshall passed away, and then I got sidetracked writing about Frankie & Johnny, my favorite Marshall film. I came back to this piece, but was once again sidetracked when Gene Wilder died. Then, I just needed a short break before I resumed. So, here we are at last….even though, again, summer has passed.

Walking is one of my favorite ways to take care of myself. I love walking the way that many people love wine or chocolate, and, make no mistake, I loooove chocolate. I’ve been walking for fun and/or fitness for most of my life. I used to walk to work and back,  a mile or more, for decades. Didn’t drive. Luckily, I loved to walk. Great way to clear the mind, relieve stress, what have you. I try to take a health walk after dinner every evening.

Lately, I’ve been listening, really, deeply listening, to the buzz of cicadas as I walk among the heavily tree lined lanes of my neighborhood. I get lost in the sound, the thrilling complexity of it, layers upon layers of throbbing buzzing. For me, it’s quite likely hypnotic.

This same sense of awe is very much apparent in the Australian movie Lantana, right from the beginning.

In Lantana, the sounds of cicadas are heard before anything visual is revealed. Then follows a beautiful shot in which the camera glides among bushy lantana, masses of colorful blossoms and vivid green leaves growing wild, basking in sun-kissed richness. This gorgeous footage of flowers is deepened, amplified, by the droning buzz of cicadas, maybe frogs, and even crickets. The camera artfully descends into a dark hole in the clump, peers down into the thorny underbrush, slowly revealing something unfortunate, tragic, maybe even sinister. Brilliant. As much as I love this sequence, even I have to admit that it bears a wee resemblance to a similar sequence in David Lynch’s 1986 cult fave Blue Velvet, but Lantana is very much its own movie.

Before writing this post, I researched the lantana plant in order to put it into context, that is, the context that Australians, Australian filmmakers–screenwriter Andrew Bovell, producer Jan Chapman, and director Ray Lawrence, would find compelling. To that end, per the official New South Wales, website [1], “Lantana is one of Australia’s most debilitating invasive weeds” (para. 1). Additionally, “Widespread lantana infestations regularly impact on agriculture, the environment, forestry management, recreation and transport” (para. 2).  Furthermore, all varieties of the plant are considered to be “toxic” to both animals and humans (para. 3-7). Finally, “Lantana is a serious invader of disturbed ecosystems including national parks and reserves. The weed can form a dense understorey competing with native flora and limiting natural regeneration” (para. 11). This then is the “thicket” that occupies the heart of Lawrence’s film.  Not only does the tangled growth literally figure into the plot–twice, in fact–it serves as a metaphor for love and betrayal.

If there is an actual plot in Lantana, it is the story of a woman who disappears while driving along a deserted road in the thick of night. Her marriage is shaky, and, certainly, her husband’s behavior seems awfully curious. Of the two detectives assigned to the case, the male is in the midst of a full-blown midlife crisis, racked in equal parts by doubt and guilt. And for good reason.  That’s the plot, the linking thread among four heterosexual couples in various states of disarray: the unfaithful detective and his frustrated–and also not blind–wife; the missing woman and her suspicious-acting husband; an estranged duo in which the woman is desperately lonely to the point that she stalks a sometime “date” while her ex longs for reconciliation. A fourth couple’s struggles are financial. She picks up extra shifts at her job to earn as much cash as possible while laid-off hubby stays home and takes care of the kiddies. It’s hardly an ideal situation, but these people love each other and try as well as they know to make their relationship work. Unfortunately, a busybody neighbor, one with too much time on his or her hands, observes that the out of work hubby appears to be hiding something, something potentially deadly. Another couple operates on the periphery: yet another presumably hetero  married man cheats on his wife with–gasp!–another man, the patient of a therapist with troubles of his or her own who also happens to be treating one of the women experiencing marital difficulty. Tangled, right?

Lantana belongs to a rare class of motion pictures–okay, rare to me–that I call “solar plexus”  films. This is my own term as far as I know, and I’ve used it for years, well before Lantana ever screened. Other movies of this vintage, and it’s a small, small, group, include The Devil’s Playground (directed by fellow Aussie Fred Schepisi, 1976), Exotica (directed by Canadian Atom Egoyan, 1994), and The Ballad of Narayama (specifically, director Shohei Imamura’s 1983 remake of the Japanese classic from the 1950s). Maybe Frances (1982) and Monster (2003) rate as well, but, again, it’s a super select group. A solar-plexus film is not merely sad nor even depressing. It’s more profound than that, but even calling it profound seems pretentious. I like to think a solar plexus film hits squarely upon an uncomfortable emotional truth. Something painful about the human condition, not necessarily bad, but definitely, again, painful or uncomfortable. It weighs heavily to the degree that it creates its own unique bodily sensation,  I’ve only seen one comedy that came close to that sensation, and that is 2013’s Enough Said with Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini.

Lantana is about love and betrayal. I recently read somewhere that betrayal by a loved one is betrayal of the worst sort because we don’t expect such actions form a loved one. On the other hand, does betrayal by an enemy even qualify as betrayal? Is that even a thing? In this case, as the layers of betrayal are pulled back, the truth is even more unbearable than the unknown. Right in the solar plexus where the sensation lingers.

Once upon a time, beginning in the mid to late 1970s and up through the early to mid 1980s, film lovers all over the place fell, well,  in love with Australian cinema. And why not? The newly thriving industry, largely underwritten by the government, brought a fresh, hugely talented bunch of filmmakers to the forefront of popular and critical acclaim. For example, director Gillian Armstrong helped launch the careers of charmers Judy Davis and Sam Neil in the Victorian coming of age tale My Brilliant Career. Additionally, Peter Weir, well known in the states for Witness, Dead Poets Society, and The Truman Show,  made a name for himself with the likes of Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Last Wave, and Gallipoli, the latter starring exciting newcomer Mel Gibson who had already begun making a name for himself in George Miller’s Mad Max. Meanwhile, Fred Schepisi helmed the aforementioned The Devil’s Playground as well as The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. Before he scored in America with the likes of Tender Mercies and Driving Miss Daisy, Bruce Beresford triumphed in his homeland with The Getting of Wisdom and Breaker Morant. Finally, but not really final, is Philip Noyce. Americans know him from big budget blockbusters on the order of Salt (which I wrote about in 2011), Patriot Games, and Clear and Present Danger, but he attracted a lot of attention Down Under with Newsfront (a major Australian Academy winner), Heat Wave (Judy Davis again), and Dead Calm (Sam Neil and a very young Nicole Kidman).

Since that time, the Australian film community has continued to make amazing films, The Dish and Rabbit Proof Fence (the latter directed by the aforementioned Noyce) being two particular standouts; likewise, Australia shares its wealth, meaning some of the biggest names in American made films got their first big breaks Down Under: Toni Collette (Muriel’sWedding), Russell Crowe (Romper Stomper) [1], Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman (Flirting, plus the aforementioned Dead Calm), Guy Pearce (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert), and Naomi Watts (also, Flirting), among others. All well and fine, but the “wow” factor, the enthusiasm and intrigue of that first wave, has long passed as audiences explore other genres, other cultures–other styles of filmmaking. That being the case, maybe you missed Lantana in its theatrical run. Maybe you’d see it if you only had a reason.

I can give you 8 good reasons you should consider watching Lantana. Not coincidentally, that’s the same number of Australian Film Institute Awards (the Oscar equivalent) it won, setting a record at that time for sweeping all the major categories. If that’s not enough, how about 14 good reasons, that is, the number of AFI nominations it garnered? Are you ready? Here goes:

  • Anthony LaPaglia (Best Actor) – We’ve become so accustomed to seeing LaPaglia in American TV shows and movies, such as The Client, wherein he played Barry “The Blade” Muldano, not to mention Tony winning Broadway productions, such as A View from the Bridge, that it’s sometimes easy to forget that he is, in fact, a native Australian. As the weary detective whose marriage is falling apart at the seams, LaPaglia is the emotional heart of Lantana. He is at constant odds with himself, maybe at odds with everyone he encounters (including one of his children), and his confusion, melded as it is with his sense of justice, is palpable.  An Oscar nomination in the year that produced Denzel Washington (Training Day), Russell Crowe (A Beautiful Mind), Tom Wilkinson (In the Bedroom), Sean Penn (I Am Sam), and Will Smith (Ali) would have been more than okay with me as I wasn’t a HUGE fan of any of the nominees though they all had their moments, especially Wilkinson, I guess, in problematic films.  I’ve always believed that LaPaglia’s right-on performance in this film was a likely catalyst in him being cast as the lead detective in Without a Trace, the long-running American TV series for which he netted two Emmy nominations and one SAG nod as well, among other honors. As with his character on that show, he begins his case in this film by searching for a missing person, not by investigating a crime, per se.
  • Kerry Armstrong (Best Actress) – Armstrong plays LaPaglia’s no-nonsense wife. She doesn’t necessarily go snooping to see what he’s up to because she doesn’t have to. She might not know all the details, but she knows enough, and we feel for her because, among other things, Armstrong is a knockout, a casually elegant beauty on the order of America’s own Christy Turlington though Armstrong is, in fact, older by about a decade…no matter. She looks great, and audiences might be baffled by why her husband cheats, but, of course, we all know that, as is often the case, people in relationships who stray often do so for reasons that have NOTHING to do with the person being cheated upon and everything to do with the cheater. Still, it’s obvious that Armstrong’s character dearly loves her husband, and she’s just tired and lonely enough, and don’t forget so incredibly good looking, that she might be tempted to do something she will surely regret. Powerful stuff. She and LaPaglia have a great wordless scene that speaks volumes. They know how to just “be” onscreen. Oh, and the year that Armstrong won her Australian Film Institute award for Lantana, she also won an additional award from the same organization for her work in the TV show Sea Change. Not bad. Not bad at all.
  • Rachael Blake (Best Supporting Actress) – In a film rife with flawed characters, Blake’s divorcee is seriously one of the worst of the lot. She’s desperate for attention and affection, enough so that she hunts a recent fling, setting up an extremely awkward confrontation, and she makes overtures, overtures that could easily be misconstrued, to a neighbor. Aside from all that, she has a lot of free time on her hand, time that allows for a lot of voyeurism, amateur sleuth stuff that has far-reaching implications, both good and bad. She’s a mess, but, in a bit of a twist, her ex-hubby still seems wildly infatuated with her. Out of everyone she knows, he may very well be the only one who actually has feelings for her though she would rather be at home by herself, flailing through life, than reconnect. I don’t know if my response is more geared to the character than to Blake herself but this is probably my least favorite performance in the bunch, with or without her award. Something about her just reads as “awkward” to me, and I mean that in a Jane Lynch kind of way. Even her character is named Jane.  I actually like Jane Lynch, a lot, and Blake is actually a decade younger than Lynch, but Lynch has a way of portraying awkward people in a funny way. Blake isn’t going for comedy. Oh well. She’s a busy lady with multiple Australian Film Institute nods to her credit, besides her win for Lantana.
  • Vince Colosimo (Best Supporting Actor) – As an out of work husband whose actions attract the wrong kind of attention, Colosimo expertly plays every note of a character who is both more and less than what he seems at the outset. In other words, he might not be guilty, but that doesn’t necessarily make him innocent,  or smart, and that is a tricky assignment for any actor. Like Rachael Blake, Colosimo is a busy, busy, actor and has been for decades. In the 90s, he appeared on several episodes of the American series The Practice. At home, his range of credits include roles in The Great Gatsby (yes, the DiCaprio version helmed by Aussie Baz Luhrman) and Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. He boasts an additional trio of AFI nods, including Best Actor for Walking on Water, a big hit, as well, at the 2002 Berlin International Film Festival.
  • Andrew Bovell (Best Adapted Screenplay AND Harpers Bazaar AFI Screenwriting Prize) – I truly do not know the point in awarding two prizes for one screenplay, but there you have it. Bovell’s screenplay is so good that his own countrymen–and women–found enough reason to honor it twice. Of course, Bovell juggles the criss-crossing storylines and varied characters with dexterity, an admirable accomplishment, but Lovell’s greater achievement–arguable, of course–is hitting all the right emotional notes–and even some of the wrong ones, if that makes any sense. Again, before this movie arrives at its final sequence, many of these characters will face some disturbing truths. Some of them, the characters, that is, will come out on the other side of these knotty thorns with dignity intact and hope renewed. The others will not be so fortunate, and give Bovell credit for not tying up each story thread so nicely and neatly after so expertly showing us the dark and desperate side of humanity. Bovell’s other credits include being listed as one of the several writers of Baz Luhrman’s acclaimed, award winning, debut smash, Strictly Ballroom.
  • Ray Lawrence (Best Director) – If Bovell’s gift is for getting inside the heads of his imaginary characters, Lawence’s talent is for excelling likewise with real-life performers.  Certainly, members of the Australian Academy, many of them actors, no doubt, showed Lawrence and his cast their appreciation with all those awards. That consideration, by the way, extended to one more performer who was bested by one of her peers, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Besides noteworthy performances, Lawrence’s concerns include the movie’s lighting and music, both of which he recalls at length on Lantana‘s DVD.
  • Jan Chapman (Producer, Best Picture) – If Chapman’s name seems familiar, you might remember her from 1993’s The Piano which she produced though, to clarify, Jan Chapman should not be confused with Jane Campion, who actually directed The Piano, earning an Oscar nod for Best Director (only the second woman in Academy history so recognized) and actually winning the coveted statuette for her screenplay. Back to Chapman. She is one of her country’s most respected producers with a seemingly unerring eye for material, for recognizing talent, and for creating opportunities. She won Australia’s top film prize for The Piano as well as for this film and her filmography also includes accolades for The Last Days of Chez Nous (directed by Gillian Armstrong) and Bright Star (the John Keats biopic directed by Campion). Besides dominating the Australia Film Institute awards, Chapman and her film made a handsome showing at the Film Critics Circle of Australia derby, claiming prizes and/or nominations in many of the same categories.

Besides these wins, Lantana scored additional Australian Academy nominations for Best Editing (Karl Sodersten), Best Sound (the team of Syd Butterworth, Andrew Plain, and Robert Sullivan), Best Production Design (Kim Buddee), Best Costume Design (Margot Wilson), and Best Original Music Score (Paul Kelly). Let’s break this down.  Kelly lost in his category but emerged victorious at his country’s equivalent of the Grammy awards. Bing! Likewise, Syd Butterworth, of the sound team, was honored by members of his own guild for his work with location recording. Bing again! Regarding the nominations for art direction and costume, it really comes as no surprise that a contemporary film would not go all the way in categories often dominated, at least in the U.S., by period and/or fantasy films. That noted, these designers deserve props for defining the habits and environments of a large number of characters from a wide range of economic backgrounds, from obviously affluent to barely making ends meet, all of which shape the way they dress along with where and how they live. In that regard, the design team is a huge success since everything seems real and lived-in. Also, props to cinematographer Mandy Walker. She wasn’t even nominated for the AFI award, strangely, though she snagged a prize from her colleagues in the Australian Cinematographers Society, and good for her since she and Lawrence worked hard to achieve naturalistic lighting, even during night shoots, always a tricky proposition. Bing!

Still, I want to pay special tribute to one cast member who was nominated but lost–to one of her own cast members, no less. Ouch! I’m referring to Daniela Farinacci, nominated as Best Supporting Actress for her role as the put upon wife and mother, taken to working extra shifts as a nurse to help make ends meet while her husband seems helplessly between jobs. Per the IMDb, Farinacci barely had any TV or movie credits to her name when she signed on for Lantana, but, no matter, she’s a real spitfire, trying to hold on tightly to her loved ones in order to keep the family unit together while also trying to make sense of the confusion, and possible (perceived) betrayal that unfolds rather dramatically in a short period. With the possible exception of Thomas’s frustrated wife, Farinacci’s Paula may very well be the most decent, most likeable, character in the whole film. She doesn’t hide her emotions, and everything she does seems authentic. Too bad she lost to Rachael Blake in a role that doesn’t seem quite as compelling.

Among the large cast’s non-nominated pool are two stars well-known to audiences in both Australia and America. The first of those is Geoffrey Rush who, at the time of Lantana, had already achieved international glory, including an American Oscar, for portraying troubled yet triumphant Aussie pianist David Helfgott in 1996’s Shine–that and subsequent nominations for 1998’s Shakespeare in Love (Best Supporting Actor) and 2000’s Quills, in which he played the Marquis de Sade (Best Actor). Rush’s character exists in a strained marriage with no less than American thesp, Barbara Hershey. Coincidentally, Hershey’s lone Oscar nod–Best Supporting Actress for Portrait of a Lady–came in 1996, the same year that Rush won for Shine. To clarify, Hershey does not play her Lantana role with an Aussie accent. Instead, we understand her to to be a transplanted American. To further clarify, the role was not necessarily written that way. Apparently, Hershey won the part through persistence after reading the screenplay–and apparently after no other Australian native (Judy Davis? Sigrid Thornton? Rachel Ward? The late Wendy Hughes?) was deemed suitable or was willing to step up to the plate. Curious, but I digress.  The two characters played by Rush and Hershey struggle to remain civil to one another while pressing on after facing inexplicable tragedy. She clings to the catharsis of writing a book as a coping mechanism while he shields his feelings and clings to workplace minutiae as a means of avoidance. His reluctance to engage spurs within her almost crippling thoughts of infidelity, impairing her judgement. What a mess. Both performers deliver thoughtful performances with Rush definitely working through the murkier challenge.

Despite capturing honors all over the place, including England, France, and Italy, Lantana did not make much of a showing in the U.S. during the 2001/02 awards season. Not only did the Academy ignore the picture, it couldn’t even gain traction with the likes of the Screen Actors Guild or the Writers Guild. The smattering of prizes it did claim came from the National Board of Review (Special Recognition for Excellence in Filmmaking), the American Association of Retired Persons, that is, AARP, award (Best Movie for Grownups), and the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival, where it garnered prizes for director Lawrence, screenwriter Bovell, and the ensemble cast. It also tied for Best Picture with the Zookeeper.

Maybe you haven’t seen Lantana. Maybe you should. Maybe you should at least consider doing so. If you are a fan of, say, Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993), Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999), or 2005’s Best Picture winner Crash, per writer-director Paul Haggis, Lantana might be just the ticket. Oh, speaking of Altman, aside from his exquisite Gosford Park, I could not work up much enthusiasm for the Academy’s slate of Best Picture nominees that year. Oh, as noted previously regarding the Best Actor roster, the selected films had their moments, but moments, possibly a few standout performances, were all they had. To this day, and, again, with the exception of Gosford Park, I haven’t felt compelled to watch a single one of them again since seeing them in their original runs. Not once. What a strange time that was because both Gosford Park and Lantana did not open locally until early 2002, and I can remember being flummoxed for much of the holiday season, and I felt odd, weird, different, frustratingly unsatisfied that I had not seen that truly awesometastic movie that usually sparks a cinematic jolt followed by, as a good friend once described, movie afterglow. Then in short order, I saw Gosford Park and Lantana almost back to back, and I felt a rush, a wash of delirium as though I had been saved, saved by Lantana‘s tangled embrace.

Thanks for your consideration…

* Debt of gratitude to Joni Mitchell for inspiring this title

[1] – To learn more about the lantana plant:

[2] – Technically, Crowe was born in New Zealand while Naomi Watts was born in England, and even Nicole Kidman was, actually, born in Hawaii; however, they, as noted, eventually relocated to Australia and began their careers. To further clarify, directors Jane Campion (The Piano) and Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings) are actually from New Zealand though strongly identified with Australian cinema.

[3] – The big winner that year was A Beautiful Mind (admired the performances, not crazy about the finished product as a whole) though I believe the first installment of The Lord of the Rings scored more nominations (the series built steadily to its third entry). Rounding out the ballot were In the Bedroom (liked, didn’t love…hard to love), Moulin Rouge! (an acquired taste…I belive Time labelled it both the year’s Best AND Worst film), and, finally, Gosford Park, Robert Altman’s exquisite homage to “cozy” murder mysteries penned by Agatha Christie–scripted by Oscar winner Julian Fellowes, who later masterminded the wildly popular British series Downton Abbey.


A slightly different but no less elegant version of the Lantana poster. IMAGE: IMDB


Farewell, Mr. Wilder: The Candy Man Who Launched a Thousand Memes

5 Sep
Screen shot 2016-08-29 at 9.33.05 PM

“Come with me And you’ll be In a world of pure imagination Take a look And you’ll see Into your imagination.” Actor-writer-director Gene Wilder passed last week (Monday, August 29,2016) at the age of 83.

Who can take a sunrise (who can take a sunrise)
Sprinkle it with dew (sprinkle it with dew)
Cover it with choc’late and a miracle or two
The Candy Man (the Candy Man)
Oh, the Candy Man can (the Candy Man can)
The Candy Man can
‘Cause he mixes it with love
And makes the world taste good
(Makes the world taste good)
          I saw Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
at the Ridgewood theatre in Garland back when it was first released during the summer of 1971. I was 11 at the time, so, naturally, I loved the movie. I even loved the Ridgewood theatre. I loved Wonka’s visual effects and amazing art direction, such as the entry hall that changed dimensions and especially that lavish chocolate room with all the candied treats and chocolate river. Being 11, I didn’t know exactly what “art direction” entailed, exactly, but I thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d seen since Dorothy’s turn in Munchkinland in The Wizard of Oz. My love for Wonka didn’t end with its visual appeal. I also enjoyed the songs (obviously, the two I have quoted on this page), and, last, but certainly not least, I loved the the funny looking man at the center of it all. He was funny yet creepy and altogether enthralling. He first appears limping along with a cane and then launches into a somersault, a move which Wilder later relayed was his own idea and essential to his characterization in that, after that introduction, audiences would never know if Wonka was to be trusted. His face seemed perfectly innocent one minute, then smug; silly the next, and sinister the moment after that. Simply, I felt enchanted.
          Several months later, there I sat late one night at the foot of my mother and stepfather’s bed, watching the Academy awards all the way through for the first time ever. The big winner, of course, was  The French Connection. Never heard of it. Or Gene Hackman. Jane Fonda snagged Best Actress for Klute and didn’t make a politically embarrassing speech though everyone seemed to be afraid she would from what I understood, which was not much, actually. She barely looked like Jane Fonda to me, that is, the gorgeous pin-up from the likes of Barefoot in the Park. Instead, she had dark hair in a shag. In the Best Supporting Actress category, I was torn even though I had not seen any of the nominees’ films. On one hand, another one of my faves, Ann-Margret, whom I’d seen umpteen times in Made in Paris and Bye, Bye Birdie, was nominated for Carnal Knowledge (no, I didn’t know what that meant) against no less than Cloris Leachman, whom I’d grown to admire thanks to her role as Mary Tyler Moore’s kooky neighbor, Phyllis Lindstrom. Leachman won, looking nothing like Phyllis,  and gave a delightful speech. (Google it.) There was a lot I did not understand about the Oscars that year. What, after all, was A Clockwork Orange? Who were Nicholas and Alexandra?  Yes, I asked, Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? What the heck is Isaac Hayes doing up there in a vest made of chains, and who is Shaft? I knew who Charlie Chaplin was because his Little Tramp figure was so widely portrayed, but I didn’t understand why people were making such a big deal about him though I thought he delivered a sweetheart of a speech. Of course, to me, he looked as old as Methuselah.
          One thing I did know, irrefutably, was Willy Wonka. I sat up at the recognition of one of my favorite movies, and probably the only movie I’d seen in a theatre that year. Part of a babysitting gig with a neighbor across the street, but I digress.  Wonka was nominated for Best Song Score, per the team of Leslie Bricusse, Anthony Newley, and Walter Scharf. Of course, I didn’t know what a score was, let alone a score adaptation. To this day, I really cannot figure how a movie can reap an award for its song score without likewise meriting at least one Best Song nod? No “Candy Man”? No “Pure Imagination”? Really? The winner went to John Williams for Fiddler on the Roof. Eleven year old me asks, “What does it mean, this fiddler on the roof?”  Surprisingly, if not bewilderingly (so to speak), no Oscar nods for Wonka’s sets, per Harper Goff–still a hard one to figure–nor for Mr. Wonka himself, Gene Wilder.
          Not too many years later, I would learn something almost unconscionable: despite being one of the two or three most amazing movies ever made, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory was deemed a box office disappointment, at least at the time of its release. Of course, despite an underwhelming start, and a mostly unappreciative Academy, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory endures as a classic. Just like the Wizard of Oz, repeated TV viewings helped it build its audience as one generation shared it with the next. Rinse–with chocolate–and repeat. I was ecstatic to see it on the big screen several years later, probably ’84, in San Francisco, no less. Today, not only do viewers recognize Willy Wonka as a classic, so does the Library of Congress, per the National Film Registry, class of 2014.
          Around the time I learned about Willy Wonka not being, you know, a hit, I learned  (again, after the fact) that Wilder had actually snagged a Golden Globe nomination for his incredible performance. Amazing! Good for him.
          But, of course, Wilder was much, much more than Willy Wonka. And, now, alas, he has passed away. Before he made his big screen debut, playing a hostage in Bonnie and Clyde, Wilder had eked out a career in theatre, appearing in the original short-lived Broadway run of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in the same tragic role that eventually netted a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for Brad Dourif in the 1975 film adaptation. Additionally, during his years on the boards, Wilder also appeared in Mother Courage, the very play in which Anne Bancroft was starring in early 1963 and, as a result, missed accepting her Best Actress Oscar for The Miracle Worker (the result of which provided an infamous photo-op for Joan Crawford, thereby rubbing salt in a fresh wound suffered by Crawford’s co-star Bette Davis, competing against Crawford for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, but I digress). We can all breathe a healthy, hearty sigh of relief knowing that Bancroft facilitated Wilder’s introduction to her then beau and later husband Mel Brooks. From there, Wilder and Brooks thrived, starting with 1968’s The Producers for which Wilder earned a Best Supporting Actor nod for playing hapless accountant Leo Bloom, one half of a scheming duo trying to  bilk the system by orchestrating a guaranteed flop Broadway show, notoriously known as Springtime for Hitler. Besides Wilder’s Best Supporting Actor nomination (though, obviously, his is a leading role) [1],  Brooks snagged an Oscar for his screenplay.
          Over the next few years, Wilder worked steadily if not spectacularly though the highlights include(d) Wonka, of course, and Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex…, a parody of Dr. David Reuben’s landmark non-fiction “how-to” book of the same name. In his vignette, Wilder plays a doctor who falls in love with, well, no need for a spoiler or even a spoiler alert here. Really, it has to be seen to be believed, but Wilder is very convincing in a role that might have destroyed a lesser actor.  Again, it’s that face: sparkling blue eyes, wispy lashes, nice teeth, and an impish smile.  No, he’s not conventionally good looking like some of the bigger stars of the era: Steve McQueen, Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, or Ryan O’Neal, but he has kind features that can turn instantly…crazed.
          Wilder reunited with Mel Brooks not once but twice in 1974, firmly establishing himself as one of the best and brightest stars of the era. First came the bawdy western parody Blazing Saddles, pairing Wilder with Cleavon Little and featuring an Oscar nominated supporting turn by the late, great Madeline Kahn. The film soared to the top of year’s biggest box office hits and later placed as high as #6 on the American Film Institute’s 2000 salute to the 100 funniest films ever made. Even better, per our household, is/was the comic masterpiece, Young Frankenstein, a stunning black and white homage to all those classic Universal horror films from the 1930s. Wilder and Brooks netted Oscar nods for their screenplay, a highlight of which includes the former as Dr. Frankenstein (that’s Frankensteen) doing a righteously elegant “Puttin’ on the Ritz” with Peter Boyle in the role of the doctor’s monstrous creation. Classic.  Also along for the ride are Mary Feldman, Kenneth Mars, Madeline Kahn (of course), Teri Garr, and Cloris Leachman. This one also cracked the roster of 1974’s top 10 box office hits and is also recognized as an American classic by the Library of Congress and also appears, coming in at 13, on the AFI’s list of great American comedies. For those keeping score, Wilder appears in no less than 5  National Film Registry titles: Bonnie and Clyde, The Producers, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein. That’s quite a legacy.

          In 1976, Wilder teamed up with Richard Pryor for the comedy-thriller Silver Streak–featuring star-in-the-making Jill Clayburgh as Wilder’s romantic interest. Scripted by Harold and Maude‘s beloved Colin Higgins, Silver Streak proved popular with audiences and critics, netting Wilder another Golden Globe nod and setting the stage for future Wilder-Pryor pairings, most notably Stir Crazy. The 1980 prison themed comedy was directed by no less than Sidney Poitier and sold over 100 million dollars worth of movie tickets, the year’s third biggest box office attraction–just behind The Empire Strikes Back and 9 to 5.  In so doing, Poitier broke new ground as the first director of African descent to stake a claim in the then relatively exclusive 100 million dollar club. Poitier later directed Wilder in Hanky Panky, a North by Northwest style  yarn, like Silver Streak, that mixes comedy and intrigue. Hanky Panky was the film that brought Wilder together with Gilda Radner whom he later married [2], but I’m getting ahead of myself. Backing up a bit, Wilder and Pryor reunited for 1989’s See No Evil, Hear No Evil (directed by Silver Streak‘s Arthur Hiller). Hardly a blockbuster, the film nonetheless held the number one spot at the top of the box office charts for two weeks running. The final Wilder-Pryor outing, Another You was far less successful. Oh, and if you’re still keeping score, Silver Streak weighs in at 95 on the AFI’s list of 100 funniest movies, making that entry number four for Wilder. Again, that’s quite a legacy.
          Fresh from his back-to-back Brooks blockbusters, Wilder turned to directing with 1975’s The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother, featuring Marty Feldman and Madeline Kahn (natch); it’s one of Michael’s faves. Of all his directorial efforts, though,  one stands out to me for multiple reasons. In 1984, Wilder, working with producer Victor Drai, released an Americanized version of the French comedy Pardon Mon Affaire, retitled The Woman in Red. Wilder portrays a mild-mannered family man who becomes infatuated–to the point of obsession–with a leggy, voluptuously lipped model that, of course, he scarcely knows. Released by Orion Pictures in August of 1984 with the newly minted PG-13 rating, The Woman in Red was not projected to necessarily be big office, and that pretty much ended up being the case. Except at the theatre where I worked at the time, the old UA Prestonwood Creek 5.  Almost no movie in my 16 years at that venue serves as a better example of the old maxim: location, location, location. No, The Woman in Red really wasn’t a big hit, but it was a perfect fit for that particular theatre, selling out on Friday and Saturday evenings for weeks on end,  a must see for yuppie couples on date nights, and pulling respectable numbers among the ladies who lunch on the weekdays.  (I must have seen it at least a half-dozen times during its run.) This was our kind of picture, a sophisticated romantic comedy, a movie clearly designed for adult audiences, that performed well for us and maybe only so-so elsewhere. Of course, what seemed smart and sparkly during the 1980s doesn’t play so well this many years, no, decades, later. Much of the humor seems sniggery and sexist, and the plot is barely more than an excuse for Wilder to build comic set pieces, but Wilder, pushing 50 at the time, has an almost boyish charm, a naivete,  that helps sell the material.
          Do you want to know what else helps make The Woman in Red so memorable? A stunning passel of songs written and performed by Stevie Wonder, with guest vocalist Dionne Warwick.  No, The Woman in Red is not a musical, but Wonder’s smooth tunes provide an elegant counterpoint to the onscreen action. Of all the featured songs, of course, none became more successful than the lively “I  Just Called to Say I Love You,” which not only flourished as a damn near inescapable radio smash but also captured that year’s Oscar–and Golden Globe–for  Best Song. Not bad given that the competition included two hits from the Footloose soundtrack, a Phil Collins power ballad (“Take a Look at Me Now” from Against All Odds) and the theme to the wildly popular Ghostbusters. (Meanwhile, Best Song Score went  not to Wonder, who wasn’t even nominated, but to Prince for the iconic Purple Rain soundtrack, but, again, I digress.)
          The Woman in Red also launched Kelly LeBrock, as Wilder’s intended, on her path to stardom, however short lived. Of course, it didn’t hurt that she was the producer’s wife and all (at least at the time), but, still, what a knock-out; likewise, on her way to winning her second Tony award, Judith Ivey enjoyed one of her first significant film roles as Wilder’s trusting wife. Her character bounces all over the place, and Ivey clearly has fun with some of her line readings. Of course, she is almost 20 years younger than Wilder, so the costume and makeup people do their best to make her look a bit more matronly and/or age appropriate. Dig her 1980s overalls. (She was in her early 30s at the time.) The Woman in Red also features a scarily peculiar supporting turn by Gilda Radner as one of Wilder’s co-workers, a borderline pathetic take on the archetypal Miss Lonelyhearts figure. She’s so scary she could have been the model for Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction. Wilder’s treatment of this pitifully timid woman, pushed to the brink, seems cruel, and the role almost seems beneath the skill set of a performer with Radner’s immense talent, but the payoffs come soon enough. Finally, Wilder shows great generosity with supporting players Joseph Bologna and Charles Grodin, both of whom shine as members of Wilder’s gang of overgrown boys with roving eyes. Grodin, in particular, fares exceptionally well in a role that encompasses everything from comic hijinks to uncomfortable silences.  I remember reading a report from the time that Grodin, buoyed by many favorable notices, actually paid for his own campaign to snag a Best Supporting Actor nod, a move not unheard of when studios want to hedge their bets during awards season, preferring to sink money only into the sure things. In this case, Orion chose to lavishly promote Amadeus, which ultimately dominated that year’s Oscars, and invested less in campaigns for The Woman in Red and Woody Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose [3]. Grodin spent all his own cash to little avail. The performance, for what it is, works–but it worked better in 1984 than it does today because our perception of men like the one Grodin portrays has changed. Oh, and don’t forget all that gorgeous location footage of romantic San Francisco.
          Why am I writing so much about this all-but-forgotten 1984 Gene Wilder film, even with an Oscar? Simple. It was one of my mother’s all-time favorites. Seriously. Seeeeerrrriiiiioooouuusssllllyyy. She saw it on Labor Day weekend back in the day and almost never got over it. For years and years, she could barely mention it without doubling over in laughter. It gave her such tremendous joy watching Wilder try to squirm out of one awkward situation after another.  Of course, she also bought Wonder’s top selling record to enjoy anytime she wanted.
          So that’s where this tribute begins and ends. Wilder’s appeal extended, or extends, across generations. I loved him when I was a child while my mother didn’t come to love him until she was in her 50s. In the summer of 2005, when my niece was all of 11 (the same age I was when I first saw Willy Wonka), I loaded her up in the car with one or two of her friends, and off we went to see Johnny Depp play Willy Wonka in Tim Burton’s Charlie & The Chocolate Factory. Why not? After all, it was Johnny Depp. On the way out of the theatre, my niece sighed and said that she couldn’t wait to get back home and watch the real Willy Wonka. That’s a nifty trick, yes, even for Willy Wonka.  Wilder’s well-earned stardom endures in some of America’s favorite movies, and how many times a day does his delightful face pop up in a meme reminding us of how silly we can sometimes be? And is it just me, or do you also hear his soothing voice, softly dripping with sarcasm,  as you read those barbs? What a legacy.
Thanks, Gene.
[1] – Coincidentally, Wilder lost in his category to Jack Albertson (The Subject was Roses) who would co-star in Willy Wonka as little Charlie’s grandpa.
[2] – Wilder and Radner collaborated on three movies, the last of which was 1986’s ill-fated Haunted Honeymoon. The actress died of ovarian cancer in 1989. Wilder then dedicated much of his life to spreading cancer awareness, including promoting Gilda’s Club for cancer patients and their families. Wilder remarried some years after Radner’s passing and was still married at the time of his death.
[3] – Allen’s black and white offering about showbiz wannabes and gangsters netted nominations for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay; meanwhile, Grodin’s self-financed campaign proved unsuccessful, coming as it did in a season dominated by such heavyweights as Khmer Rouge survivor Dr. Haing S. Ngor in The Killing Fields, Adolph Caesar in A Soldier’s Story (that’s two Best Picture candidates), and the late Ralph Richardson, in Greystoke, his final screen appearance, not to mention newcomer John Malcovich in Places of the Heart (another Best Picture contender), and Noriyuki ‘Pat’ Morita in the crowd pleasing The Karate Kid.  By comparison, The Woman in Red wasn’t a significant enough achievement even as good as Grodin was in it. I would have applauded his nomination, but the deck was stacked against him.