Archive | July, 2017

May the Sorcerer Be with You…

26 Jul

Sure, we all know the hype. “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” A long time ago? 40 years this summer (okay, this past May) to be exact. And the galaxy was actually our own. If you lived in Dallas–as I did–you saw George Lucas’s original Star Wars entry at the long gone General Cinema NorthPark I and II. That’s where I saw it. First week, in fact. If you missed it, well, too bad. It played at the one location for over a year. Hard to imagine in this day and age with so much stock invested in the mammoth opening weekend.

Of course, Star Wars was and is the game changer of all game changers as far as moviegoing and moviegoers were/are concerned, an effect which can be aptly described as stratospheric.

But this piece isn’t about Star Wars because, again, we all know the hype.

As crushingly popular as Star Wars was, it did not necessarily steamroll the competition at the box office during the heady days of summer ’77, legend to the contrary. Oh, to be sure, nothing else released that season impacted the public consciousness (and raked in as much coin) as Star Wars and, arguably, only Steven Spielberg’s December offering, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, excited audiences as intensely, but, make no mistake: the summer of ’77 had plenty of films for all tastes, many of which were quite successful in their own rights. For starters, the contenders include Burt Reynolds, Sally Field, and Jackie Gleason, who, along with Jerry Reed and director Hal Needham, had a rollicking good time in the slam-bang chase comedy Smokey and the Bandit. Also, super-hot Nick Nolte, coming off the breakthrough mini-series Rich Man, Poor Man, teamed with super-sexy Jacqueline Bissett in underwater adventure The Deep, capitalizing on the success of 1975’s blockbuster Jaws, like The Deep based on a best-selling novel by Peter Benchley. To underscore the Benchley connection, director Peter Yates even cast Jaws heavy Robert Shaw.

Also, racking up considerable ticket sales during that time were The Spy Who Loved Me, debonair Roger Moore’s third outing as Agent 007 in the James Bond franchise, AND Richard Attenborough’s star laden World War II film, A Bridge Too Far. Star laden meaning the likes of top tier talent, such as (in no particular order) Sean Connery, Michael Caine, Gene Hackman, James Caan, Elliott Gould, Laurence Olivier, Ryan O’Neal, AND Robert Redford, among others. Even George Segal’s thriller Rollercoaster rode the Sensurround express to the profit margin; meanwhile, Eva Gabor and Bob Newhart lent their recognizable voices to Disney’s delightful animated adventure The Rescuers [1].

Then, there’s Sorcerer.

We know the reviews for Sorcerer were generally on the tepid side, but at least marketing personnel were able to glom onto a rather persuasive quote, per Newsweek’s Jack Kroll. Not that it helped. Btw, the film’s title comes from the name splattered across one of the vehicles as a christening of sorts. (IMAGE: https://www.amazon.com/Sorcerer-VHS-Roy-Scheider/dp/6301790170)

Based on the same source material as the French classic known in the U.S. as The Wages of Fear (directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot), Sorcerer looked to be another smash for director William Friedkin, hot, hot, hot at the time thanks to the back-to-back successes of The French Connection, 1971’s Best Picture winner, and The Exorcist, the diabolical pop culture sensation of 1973–and a major Oscar contender as well. Ruggedly handsome Roy Scheider, ripe with all the goodwill from aforementioned box office giant Jaws, and a Friedkin veteran with a Best Supporting Oscar nomination to his credit via The French Connection, led the international cast. So far, so good.

Despite that illustrious pedigree, Sorcerer failed to find much favor either with critics or the general public. Indeed, the movie’s bloated budget—in excess of $20 mill, a lot for 1977—necessitated the involvement of two studios, Universal and Paramount. By all accounts, even with international ticket sales factored, Sorcerer still lost money. The long-repeated post-mortem is that Sorcerer suffered unfortunate timing, released as it was on the heels of Star Wars, but that seems a tad too easy; after all, a number of summer ’77 releases performed very well, so why not Sorcerer?

Let’s back up. The story unfolds as four outlaws, strangers from all backgrounds across the globe (Mexico, Israel, France, and New Jersey, USA) flee their enemies, including law enforcement, for varying reasons, and end up in a hardscrabble village situated within the jungles of Latin America. Conditions are harsh, and the men are miserable, but they have few options if they expect to remain alive and relatively safe. Meanwhile, an agent for an American oil company arrives in the village, looking for drivers to transport six cases of nitroglycerin across extremely hazardous terrain to the site of a horrific accident at a remote drilling site. The men are promised a small fortune for their efforts, but, of course, the success of the mission is far from a sure thing. One false move and the whole thing blows up, literally. End of story. Desperate as they are, the men must not only overcome the inherent obstacles of the dense, jagged, rain-swept jungle, they must learn to trust each other, and these are not the most trusting or trustworthy guys. The suspense just mounts, mounts, and mounts. And, again, there’s nitro.

By now, you have likely figured out that the film has absolutely nothing to do with sorcerers nor any other aspect of the magical realm.(See sidebar.) Anyone hoping to hop aboard the mysticism bandwagon would surely be disappointed. The title sounds truly fantastic but is terribly misleading. Don’t you think? You know what title wasn’t misleading? Star Wars. You know what else? Smokey and the Bandit (this being the era in which CB radios had already popularize the term “Smokey”); likewise, The Spy Who Loved Me is about, well, spies. Who knows? Sorcerer might have fared better with a more descriptive title. This point is virtually impossible to deny, and I would be surprised if it weren’t the result of studio meddling. No doubt the suits felt that Sorcerer was alluringly ominous enough to attract fans of the director’s previous hit, all about demonic possession don’t forget; after all, look how well Carrie and The Omen had performed in the interim, but did those same suits ever contemplate the backlash that could erupt from a title that promised what it did not deliver?

With all that in mind, the reason for Sorcerer’s failure is not hard to imagine given its complexity, its density, and moral ambiguity. No, the matter can’t be as simple as unfortunate timing in the wake of the Star Wars juggernaut though Sorcerer comes up short as mass entertainment in comparison. In other words, consider how neatly Star Wars distinguishes the good guys from the bad guys. Meanwhile, say, Smokey and the Bandit definitely plays with expectations of good guys and bad guys but does so for laughs, and audiences respond to star Burt Reynolds’ rakish charm. Furthermore, the Bond movie gives us a tried and true hero. The Deep serves eye candy with its good looking leading players and lure of Bermuda. See? On the other hand, Sorcerer asks audiences to identify with a quartet of criminal lowlifes and makes it hard to root for any of them. Scheider, the lone American in the bunch (but by no means a star…yet), weighs in as a robber whose misdeeds spin from bad to worse. Furthermore, not everyone makes it to the final reel, so no happy ending either, which can kill all-important word-of-mouth. Star Wars had word of mouth as did Smokey and the Bandit and some of the others. In the pre-Internet area, word of mouth spread rapidly, directly, and audience members were ready to get back in line for second and third viewings. A fun time at the movies has that effect. Sorcerer, well, not so much.

Likewise, the thing so many of us love about Star Wars is the giant crawl at the beginning that carefully sets up the story for us before plunging us right into the action. Not so, Sorcerer. The movie begins in Vera Cruz and in a matter of seconds shows one man shooting another. We know nothing about either man or why we should even care. No dialogue, no explanation. Friedkin quickly cuts to a busy street in Jerusalem where three terrorists plant a bomb in broad daylight and quickly flee the scene. Why? Friedkin never explains. All we know is that one of the terrorists survives a subsequent raid by the military police. Then, we find ourselves in Paris. And so it goes. Friedkin shows much more than he tells, but some audiences like to be told. They want to be told and maybe even need to be told. Maybe.

Also, what about that jungle, the setting for most of the movie? It’s sticky, dirty, and harsh, treacherous, unrelentingly so. It certainly doesn’t look as sparkling or as The Deep, that’s for sure. Definitely not as glamorous or exciting as the “far, far, away” environs dreamed up by George Lucas and his team of designers.

So, Sorcerer portrays despicable rotters enveloped by greed in the thick of a seething, hellacious jungle with little or no hope. Not a pleasant thought when moviegoers can just as easily choose a space fantasy unlike anything in recent memory: bigger, louder, more visually spectacular, otherworldly. Or maybe those same moviegoers faced sold-out auditoriums—it happens—and looked for a second choice. Almost anything else would prove lighter, more entertaining, more agreeable, than Sorcerer.

But what about the critics? Sure, Sorcerer was a tough sell for the masses, but what about the critics? Did they lavish high praise on Friedkin’s continued genius? Not so much. Maybe they were too enamored with the French original and found Friedkin’s take bloated rather than lean, a genuine concern. On the other hand, the critics weren’t exactly kind to The Deep, either, or even A Bridge Too Far, as I recall, but, again, unlike Sorcerer those movies held more appeal for the general public.

That noted, many critics who were mostly underwhelmed by Sorcerer at least gave credit to Friedkin for one spectacularly gut-wrenching sequence. Amid a torrential downpour, Scheider and the rest steer their heavy, over-sized vehicles with their nitro laden cargo across a seriously dilapidated bridge that looks like it could capsize any minute. Everything about the sequence, the effects, the cinematography, the editing, the sound mix, not to mention the incredibly skilled acting, renders this one of the most thrilling edge-of-the seat sequences in all of moviedom, a real nail-biter not easily forgotten. And I’ve only ever seen it on my TV screen. I can only imagine the level of suspense that would build from seeing it on a mammoth screen, Star Wars style. Cinemark Classics series, are you listening?

Of course, part of what sells the moment in Sorcerer is Friedkin and company’s absolute commitment to creating an illusion that’s as realistic as possible. In other words, what unfolds on the screen for a few almost unbearably intense moments in every way looks as though it is happening in real time, unfolding second by treacherous second right in front of viewers’  eyes. How did he do that? By all accounts, his perfectionism turned into something akin to obsession (the likes of which have been compared to Francis Coppola on the set of Apocalypse Now) and crafting the scene so that it looked on film the way it did in his head was one of the biggest factors in the runaway budget. Maybe his actors weren’t acting after all and were generally terrified, pushed to the brink of desperation. Whatever. It all reads on camera, spectacularly so.

Now, of course, comes the all-important moment of truth. Per the old saying, “One swallow does not a summer make,” can one truly extraordinary episode make a whole film extraordinary? I say yes. Sorcerer is extraordinary, and well-worth any true cinephile’s time because the oft-praised spine-tingling sequence only has value because of everything that comes before it. Friedkin has to put viewers into the headspace of the characters in order to have the terrific payoff of one gangbuster sequence, and that means watching the trucks teeter and sway across the puny, tenuous bridge, knowing the contents inside, knowing  the weight of the mission, and what it means to all involved. That takes methodical storytelling capability, and that’s what Friedkin possesses in abundance. For example, Scheider’s character doesn’t have the best of luck with getaway drivers, so he’s set for a battle of wills with himself and with nature, looking for retribution in the most extreme conditions. Plus, Friedkin doesn’t stop with the bridge sequence. He has at least one more zinger for audiences, a total Rube Goldbergesque scenario spotlighting the unique talents of the surviving terrorist from the Jerusalem episode (played by the singularly credited Amidou). Again, the payoffs come later rather than sooner, but only because Friedkin begins with such forethought.All that aside, yeah, maybe the film runs out of gas, so to speak, before the credits roll, but that doesn’t negate its staying power.

Come Oscar time, Sorcerer eked a single nod, Best Sound. Of course, it lost to Star Wars. No surprise there, and certainly not unjust.  The Academy recognizes achievements, and Star Wars was that. Sorcerer was not. Of course, Friedkin had set the bar unusually high, what with past triumphs The French Connection and The Exorcist. Sure, Sorcerer scores as a technical marvel with first rate editing (Robert K. Lambert and Bud Smith, the latter nominated for The Exorcist) and cinematography (Dick Bush and John M. Stephens), not to mention Tangerine Dream’s hypnotic score, along with the aforementioned sound team, but the movie could not escape the taint of failure. The Academy may have very well been tempted to lavish honors on such an exciting, ambitious project with a lesser director at the helm even with disappointing box office. And better reviews.

I missed out on Sorcerer back in the day, but not for a lack of trying. The image of that truck teetering on that rickety, rain-swept bridge–per the newspaper ads and the TV spots (in an era in which commercials for movies were much less pervasive than today) excited my imagination, let me tell you. Still, moviegoing was something of a luxury. I saw Star Wars, sure, and Scorsese’s New York, New York (another box-office lightweight in spite of splashy press), but I missed most of the others, including I’m not too proud to say, The Other Side of Midnight. Oh, okay, I actually won tickets to an advance screening of The Deep at the Inwood (when it was still part of the ABC/Plitt Interstate chain) though I couldn’t stay for the whole thing, but I digress. Sorcerer was on my movie bucket list for the longest time, but that changed a few years ago, and Michael and I were both super-charged when we finally saw it.

I’m not sure we have the definitive DVD of Sorcerer…yet. There might have been a Criterion version once upon a time, but that no longer appears to be the case. I’d like to learn more background on the making of the film, including commentary by Friedkin. The years after Sorcerer were not exactly kind.  His account of the famed Brink’s Job, starring no less than Peter Falk, didn’t bring much favor, and he spun a whirlwind of controversy with 1980’s seedy crime thriller Cruising, starring Al Pacino. Interestingly, the latter, which gay activists slammed without mercy due to its lurid, one sided depiction of homosexuality in New York City as a bastion of soulless sadomasochism, is now seen by many as a metaphor for the killer known as AIDS that would damn near obliterate a whole generation of young men. Much of Friedkin’s output since then has been undistinguished though regained some footing with 1985’s To Live and Die in LA, and he directed an acclaimed TV remake of 12 Angry Men, good enough to warrant a passel of Golden Globe, Emmy, and SAG nods and/or actual awards for the likes of Hume Cronyn, Jack Lemmon, Edward James Olmos, George C. Scott, Courtney B. Vance, and Friedkin himself. His last noteworthy big screen effort was 2000’s Rules of Engagement, starring Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson but also featuring Amidou (among many others). Scheider, sadly, has passed, so no DVD extras with him, but he left some stunning performances, including his dazzling Oscar nominated turn as Bob Fossee’s alter ego in All that Jazz, and after seeing Sorcerer, we have to wonder more than ever that Fossee ever considered Scheider for the role in the first place.

So, where and how does this Sorcerer‘s tale end? Director William Friedkin struck gold with such hits as The French Connection and The Exorcist, virtually ensuring carte blanche for his next project. When Sorcerer‘s costs ballooned, expectations for another blockbuster grew as well. But so did concerns. Alas, the movie tanked, and tongues wagged accordingly.  Friedkin’s supporters lamented that his project couldn’t compete against Star Wars, which Fox released shortly prior to Sorcerer‘s premiere. Sounds plausible, right? After all, we all know how much the public loved Star Wars, and we know how that enthusiasm translated to record breaking ticket sales. But. The “but” being that the summer of ’77 produced several big grossing films, all of them more than worthy of holding  their own against George Lucas’s space epic. That noted, Friedkin’s cinematic genius aside, Sorcerer  failed to resonate with moviegoers because it didn’t offer the easy hook and marketable elements that those other films offered. Case closed? Not so much. Critical favor seems to have swung the other way, and the film is finding an all new, appreciative audience thanks to advances in media platforms.  Now, moviegoers can find and view Sorcerer without a lot of fuss and can further appreciate it on its own merit, an explosive thriller marked by genius.  May the Sorcerer be with you.

Thanks for your consideration…

[1] Per the website, The Numbers, here is how these specific movies, save Rollercoaster, stacked up at year’s end: Star Wars (1), Smokey and the Bandit (4), A Bridge too Far (8), The Deep (9), The Rescuers (10), and The Spy Who Loved Me; all of the above were securely in the top 10, with Smokey and the Bandit holding the #2 spot, during the summer months with a few  late year entries, such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind(2) and Saturday Night Fever (3) shaking things up a bit.

http://www.the-numbers.com/box-office-records/domestic/all-movies/cumulative/released-in-1977

 

Friedkin, Sorcerer in the New York Times:

 

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Out to Sea of Love Boat Meets Jack & Walter & Brent & Martha

1 Jul

Besides co-starring in the likes of The Fortune Cookie, The Odd Couple (and one belated, poorly received, sequel), The Front Page, and two entries in the Grumpy Old Men series, among others, Matthau (l) and Lemmon (r) appeared separately in Oliver Stone’s JFK. Additionally, Lemmon directed Matthau to Oscar nominee status in 1971’s Kotch, which is Lemmon’s only directorial offering. Counting  Kotch and JFK, they made 10 films together. Lemmon passed away in 2001  at the age of  76 while Matthau passed at the age of 79 in 2000.  IMAGE: http://www.impawards.com/1997/out_to_sea_xxlg.html

So glad the right title finally came to me…I imagine the pitch went something like this: “It’s like The Odd Couple/ Grumpy Old Men meets The Love Boat.” That would be Out to Sea, released 20 years ago this very week. 20 years. Like Titanic, also a Fox release [1], also set on a ship, but different. Way different.  Based on the pitch, Out to Sea is everything one would expect it to be yet in a cast chock-full of talent, one performance stands out and elevates the material to a whole new level of giddiness.

Out to Sea once again teams Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, cinematic icons–and Oscar winners–whose combined talents fueled several popular films, beginning with 1965’s The Fortune Cookie (for which Matthau won Best Supporting Actor [2]). The familiar formula casts Lemmon as a no-nonsense neat-nik  and Matthau as a slobby schemer. Right? Out to Sea does not disappoint in this regard. The set up is remarkably simple and efficient. Small-time gambler Matthau is in over his head and needs a quick score. He believes landing a gig as a dance host on a luxury cruise ship, in such close proximity to lonely, wealthy widows (“broads,” he says), will leave him rolling in dough. Trouble is, he’s not much of a dancer, so he calls on Lemmon. Once upon a time, Lemmon was married to Matthau’s sister, but the former has been in a slump ever since his wife’s painful death. Matthau reasons that Lemmon, an experienced ballroom dancer, needs a break,  a breath of sea-air as it were,  and the chance to meet new people. Matthau also figures that Lemmon can help him with all that dancing stuff; otherwise, his cover will be blown. Of course,  Matthau misrepresents his intentions when he persuades Lemmon to join him. Believe it or not, director Martha Coolidge, working with writer Robert Nelson Jacobs, gets the ball rolling in about two quick scenes, and then Lemmon and Matthau are on their way–and so are we.

That’s the Odd Couple/Grumpy Old Men part. The Love Boat part comes once the star duo boards the ship. Just as the late Aaron Spelling’s fluffy long-running TV series featured once and future Hollywood greats and near greats as cruise passengers in various states of romantic confusion, dutifully attended to by a loyal crew of regular players, Out to Sea offers a troupe of seasoned pros, beginning with vivacious three-time Oscar nominee Dyan Cannon [3] paired with Broadway  powerhouse Elaine Stritch [4]. Cannon portrays a risk-loving fortune hunter, and Stritch barrels along as her brassy mama and ferocious protector. Cannon, inching toward 60 when the movie was released, may very well benefit from every cinematic and ‘cosmetic’ trick known to man and womankind in order to appear youthful–that much is obvious–but she still comes across as utterly alluring. Plus, her righteous giggle is infectious. Her character, btw, plays Matthau’s mark. He believes she’s loaded–and vice versa. Meanwhile, Stritch mostly croaks one-liners in her singularly raspy growl, throwing in a sly reference to her best known Broadway anthem, “The Ladies Who Lunch.” The lady also displays her still shapely gams when she and one of her illustrious co-stars take a spin on the dance floor.

Meanwhile, Lemmon meets stunning Gloria DeHaven, a lonely widow who feels like a fifth wheel as she tags along with her newly wedded daughter and son-in-law for their intended romantic getaway. DeHaven and Lemmon begin awkwardly and engage in deep soul searching before finding comfort as each has to come to terms with the past before being open to new possibilities. This is truly inspired casting, what with Lemmon and DeHaven both in their mid 70s, and how often do people in that demographic see themselves represented on the big screen, enjoying such a rendezvous?  Influential critic Gene Siskel particularly lavished praise on DeHaven’s performance, hailing it as the film’s strongest. (DeHaven, btw, had been acting in movies since she was a child in the 1930s.)

The rest of the star-studded cast includes Broadway and TV star Hal Linden [5] and Golden Age Hollywood hoofer Donald O’Connor (most notably, Singin’ in the Rain [6] among many, many others), both as Matthau and Lemmon’s fellow dance hosts. Neither disappoints, again, with considerable credit going to director Coolidge. She gives light-footed O’Connor, in his last film role, an opportunity to show he still has the right  moves in a snappy solo routine and in an additional number in which he, as previously noted, teams with powerhouse Stritch. No less than (then) influential New York Times film critic Janet Maslin singled out O’Connor in her otherwise mostly dismissive review. She writes, “Also here, and in a fine position to give dance instruction, is Donald O’Connor. Though Mr. O’Connor hasn’t enough to do and mostly stands by cheerfully, sometimes the film just stops to let his fancy footwork draw a well-deserved round of applause.”

Additionally, TV vets Rue McLanahan (Emmy winner from perennial fave The Golden Girls) and Estelle Harris (aka Mrs. Costanza on then wildly popular Seinfeld) appear as the fluttery proprietor of the cruise line and yet another perky passenger on the prowl for romance, respectively. Oh-so-distinguished Edward Mulhare, whom many of us remember from his Emmy nominated turn in the TV adaptation of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (a role he inherited from no less than Rex Harrison), smolders as a shadowy figure who also has designs on Cannon (also Mulhare’s last big screen role).  The scenes he shares with Cannon and Matthau are often accompanied by a riff on the familiar James Bond theme (with sultry echoes of the Gershwins’ “Summertime” for good measure). Fun stuff. Two more key roles are filled by Esther Scott, as a sympathetic nurse who once tended to Lemmon’s wife, and Allan Rich, as a know-it-all who momentarily catches DeHaven’s fancy. Concetta Tomei (between gigs on China Beach and Providence) pops up for a scene or two as Harris’ pal. These illustrious vets boast plenty of showbiz razzmatazz, but they’re not the whole shebang.

Of course, Lemmon and Matthau are the marquee draws here and even though they have played variations of this routine more than once (including Billy Wilder’s 1975 remake of The Front Page), they do not disappoint. Lemmon brings poignancy to his role, and he and DeHaven are well matched. Meanwhile, Matthau seems to be better than ever. By 1997, he could have easily coasted, but his comic instincts seem as sharp as ever, and he appears to be enjoying himself. Oh, and he and Lemmon are still a sublime comic duo with Lemmon ready as ever to fire back when Matthau goes overboard, so to speak. While the duo’s Grumpy Old Men films attracted hoardes of moviegoers, no doubt securing Out to Sea‘s fast track through the development process, the stars are goofier here, more likable and entertaining, and less, well, grumpy, caustic, and (for me) hard to take. This sunnier variation more readily lends itself to repeat viewings.

Yes, Spiner (center) achieves comic hilarity with his rendition of “Oye Como Va,” but he also performs standards “Cheek to Cheek” and “Sway” with aplomb as well. Gene Siskel heralded Spiner’s “well performed, old-fashioned comic villain.” IMAGE: https://www.cineplex.com/Movie/out-to-sea/Photos

As good as these stars are, they have nothing, and I mean nothing, on Texas native Brent Spiner who brings a cartoony villain to crazy life in what is a master performance that spins (yes) the whole dang movie on its head. Spiner plays one Gil Godwyn, the spectacularly blustery cruise director who figures as the Coyote to Matthau’s Road Runner.  With his preposterously phony British accent, Gil Godwyn pointedly warns his new recruits: “I’m your worst nightmare–a song and dance man raised on a military base.” (Note to self, btw, always use alliteration when naming a villain. Thanks.) Godwyn, to borrow a line from Martin Balsam’s character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, is a phony–but a real phony. For example, we know he’s a phony based on that cringe inducing over-enunciated accent and the fact that he acts as his own unseen announcer, building himself up, 3rd person style, with aplomb before seizing the stage for a hopelessly old-school production number that nonetheless jazzes his intended audience of cruise passengers. True, he runs a tight ship and means every word of every one of his threats,  yet we can also see that he’s as big a schemer and a manipulator as is Matthau’s character. Godwyn just has a bigger scheme in mind–and it involves schmoozing  McClanahan’s big bucks business woman. Spiner doesn’t really make a false move here, and it’s not just the accent or the nimble body language. He mostly refrains, as well, from rubbery facial tics and instead acts with an intense steely eyed gaze–that, of course, and a ridiculous mustache that at least looks about as phony as his accent sounds.  The effect really comes down to the full immersion into the character. He’s completely invested, and the ferocity of his performance may come as quite a surprise for anyone familiar with only his best known role as Data, the droid, on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

To say Spiner is versatile is quite the understatement. A year prior to Out to Sea, he appeared in key roles in Phenomenon (starring John Travolta), the mega-blockbuster Independence Day, and the big screen Star Trek entry, First Contact [7]. Plus, at about the same time he appeared in Out to Sea, he was wowing the critics and the public alike as John Adams in a highly acclaimed revival of the musical 1776. He earned a Drama Desk nomination for his role in that one, but, surprisingly, nothing in the way of Tony consideration, in spite of considerable buzz. In contrast, Out to Sea was hardly the kind of significant achievement that warrants Oscar, or even Golden Globe, consideration even though Spiner’s delectable performance impressed many critics, in spite of so-s0 reviews for the film in general. Even Maslin could not resist, hailing Spiner as the movie’s “scene-stealer” and adding that “The cruise director’s own musical numbers are something to see.” Agreed. His take on the classic “Oye Como Va” is not only something to see, it’s something that should be experienced, so wickedly good is Spiner in the film’s most inspired gag. What’s particularly telling is not the incongruity of the set-up but that Spiner lets the audience see just how well-rehearsed Godwyn is in his presentation. He has every little gesture worked out well in advance. Nothing is spontaneous with this guy, Godwyn. Spiner lets the viewer see the performance inside the performance. My long-held belief (and I saw the movie the week it opened as it played at my multiplex) is that Spiner’s Gil Godwyn is as every bit a fully realized comic creation as, say, Kevin Kline’s imbecilic Otto in 1988’s A Fish Called Wanda, a Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner, and William Hickey’s rottingly geriatric, yet no less wily, Don Pardo in Prizzi’s Honor, an Oscar nominee during the 1985/86 season [8]. If either of those two classic performances tickled your funny-bone, then you should definitely check out Spiner in Out to Sea if you have not done so already.

In researching this piece, I discovered that Ruthie Stein of the San Francisco Chronicle pegged Martha Coolidge as an often underrated director, and I concur. Of course, Out to Sea is hardly the pinnacle of her career, but Coolidge has a gift for storytelling, a great eye, and a real skill for finessing acting talent as evidenced by some of her best known works, including 1991’s Rambling Rose, netting Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress Academy nominations (among others) for mother-daughter acting team Laura Dern and Diane Ladd, respectively, along with Halle Berry’s widely praised portrayal of Hollywood sensation Dorothy Dandridge in the made-for-TV offering, Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, for which Berry won an Emmy, a Golden Globe, and a Screen Actors Guild award. The production itself won top awards, as well, but Coolidge had to make do with nominations. What I most like about Coolidge, besides her enormous generosity with actors, is simply her willingness to not be pigeonholed into one genre or another, everything from teen oriented comedies such as Valley Girl and Real Genius in the 1980s, starring Nicolas Cage and Val Kilmer, respectively (the former’s breakout role, btw), to the nostalgic, “magical” Three Wishes (starring Patrick Swayze and Mary Elizabeth Mastrontonio), and the aforementioned character-driven period pieces Rambling Rose and Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, among a host of TV credits, including topical If These Walls Could Talk 2.

To her credit, Coolidge has an eye for talent in front of AND behind the camera as evidenced by a team that includes costumer Jane Robinson who graces DeHaven with an extremely flattering little black dress and drapes Stritch in an evening gown with a seductive thigh-high slit. Better, again, to show off those gorgeous stems. Robinson outfits curvy, golden-tressed Cannon with the kind of care and reverence a child aspires to when dressing a Barbie doll. That’s not an insult, btw. It’s Glamour with a capital G. The designer also has fun costuming dancers in Godwyn’s limited revue. Coolidge’s crew also consists of cinematographer Lajos Kaltai who goes a long way toward making the production look by far more luxe than budget constraints might suggest. Props also to composer and/or music supervisor David Newman who has a whole clever arsenal of cues at his command. Coolidge also has able helpmates in the extensive design and technical crew (s) who work hard to seamlessly blend location footage from a real ship as well as exterior sequences suggesting Mexico (but actually California), and a studio mockup of a ship, employing plenty of green screen technology, a fact only made apparent during outakes featured in the closing credits. All of this, again, Coolidge manages while also working with a large cast, meaning lots of speaking roles to keep straight, but also lots of personalities–big ones, no doubt, and all of them “of a certain age”–jockeying for screen time.

Not all films that generally escape the public’s radar become cult classics, not even with the surge in home video platforms. I’m pretty sure Out to Sea is one such offering. Fans of Lemmon and Matthau in general probably like it, but I concur with the likes of Siskel and Ebert, who gave Out to Sea their classic “Two Thumbs Up” when they jointly reviewed it on their popular TV show, finding it more enjoyable than the Grumpy Old Men series. No doubt that while Lemmon and Mathau’s  Grumpy Old Men films attracted hoards of moviegoers, easily securing Out to Sea‘s fast track through the development process, the stars are goofier here, more likable and entertaining, and less, well, grumpy, caustic, and (for me) hard to take. This sunnier variation more readily lends itself to repeat viewings. Furthermore, while neither Siskel nor Ebert elaborated on the film’s full star wattage, they held both DeHaven and Spiner in high regard, and, again, awarded the film their ultimate seal of approval. Of course, Siskel and Ebert also accorded Men in Black “Two Thumbs Up” when it was released the same week as Out to Sea all those years ago. So that was what Matthau and Lemmon were competing against that summer at the box office. Lousy timing. So maybe it didn’t emerge as a cult classic. I’m fine with it being a guilty pleasure except that I don’t feel guilty at all. I feel lucky. Lucky to spend a couple of hours on a ship with a cast of all-stars and no need for Dramamine to spoil the fun.

Thanks for your consideration….

 

[1] – Technically, Titanic was jointly produced by Paramount and 20th Century Fox.

[2] – In his long and varied career, Matthau amassed a total of three Oscar nods while Lemmon ranked as an Academy fave, winning twice (Best Supporting Actor for 1955’s Mister Roberts, and Best Actor for 1973’s Save the Tiger) from a pool of eight nominations. His total number of nods, btw, puts him in the same company as Marlon Brando, Peter O’Toole, and Al Pacino.

[3] – Cannon’s many honors include two Best Supporting Actress nominations (Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, 1969; Heaven Can Wait, 1978) in addition to a shared nod (with Vince Cannon, her manager, no relation) for the 1976 short film Number One; she won a Golden Globe for Heaven Can Wait. She segued from Out to Sea to a recurring role in TV’s Ally McBeal.

[4] – At the time of Out to Sea, Stritch was a frequent Tony bridesmaid, what with nods for straight plays, such as Bus Stop and a Delicate Balance (revival), as well as Stephen Sondheim’s landmark musical Company (1970), in which she legendarily belted out the demanding “Ladies Who Lunch.” In a curious twist, Stritch’s subsequent one-woman Broadway show, reflecting on the many highs and lows of her fabulous career, won a special Tony–but the actual trophy was bestowed upon the show’s producers, not the star herself; however, she claimed victory at last when the televised version of the production garnered her an Emmy. She won two other Emmys for guest starring roles in Law and Order and 30 Rock. She passed away in 2014 at the age of 89.

[5] – Before his long-running Barney Miller sitcom in the 1970s-80s, garnering the popular actor seven Emmy nods (one for each year the show aired) and four Golden Globe nods in the process, Linden enjoyed a successful career on Broadway, dating all the way back to the 1950s, including a triumphant Tony winning turn in the musical The Rothschilds. Additionally, he earned multiple Daytime Emmys for hosting the afternoon educational program FYI in the 1980s.

[6] – Cinephiles know that despite its now illustrious reputation, 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain did not curry much favor with Academy voters, earning exactly two nominations–one for supporting actress Jean Hagen in the comic role of shrill silver screen goddess Lina Lamont, and another for composer Lennie Hayton per his orchestral contributions to a score that already included a handful of classic songs by producer Arthur Freed and colleague Nacio Brown (among others); however, to make a long story longer, O’Connor snagged a Golden Globe for his rollickingly good performance, which includes the show-stopping solo “Make ‘Em Laugh,” along with other such energetic numbers as “Fit as a Fiddle,” “Moses Supposes,” and the rousing “Good Morning.”

[7] – Incredibly, Spiner competed against himself for the Saturn Best Supporting Actor award, nominated for both Independence Day and Star Trek: First Contact, winning (not surprisingly) for the latter.

[8] For funsies, let’s go ahead and put Spiner’s performance in the context of Oscar’s 1997 Best Supporting Actor race since, after all, the mission of this blog is to specifically highlight achievements not recognized by the Academy. So, the race that year seemingly boiled down to two main competitors: Robin Williams (Good Will Hunting) and Burt Reynolds (Boogie Nights). Reynolds, in his first ever Oscar race, might have very well won had he just shut his trap and not made such a mess of things by bad mouthing his movie, his director (Paul Thomas Anderson), and even his agent prior to the film’s actual release. Once the movie proved popular, especially with critics, Reynolds (portraying a silvery haired pornographer/father-figure) came across as an ungrateful twit, thereby throwing the ball into Williams’ court per his fourth nomination.  Simply, Williams’ time had arrived: the right role in the right film at the right time. That noted, I was not so much of a fan of either Good Will Hunting or Boogie Nights, finding Williams’ big “It’s not your fault speech” to be especially insufferable and phony. Better was the park bench scene between Williams and star/co-writer Matt Damon, but for this viewer the whole thing just smacked of cheap sentiment and smug self-indulgence. My pick among the final five was Robert Forster, so memorable as the world weary bondsman who finds himself with a schoolboy crush on Pam Grier’s stunning but desperate title character, Jackie Brown. Without a lot of fuss, Forster brings nuance and depth to a role that works best in small moments. That he does so in a film populated almost entirely by heartless, scuzzy lowlifes (murderers, smugglers, and the like) makes him even more compelling. Veteran Forster’s role was not necessarily a comeback because he’d worked steadily since the heady 1960s, in such films as Reflections in a Golden Eye and Medium Cool, but Jackie Brown, fueled by director Quentin Tarantino’s cachet, made the actor relevant again even if the movie as a whole wasn’t as enthusiastically received as Tarantino’s phenomenal Pulp Fiction. He had only the slimmest of chances. The race was rounded out by Greg Kinnear (As Good as It Gets), as Jack Nicholson’s neighbor, victim of a gay bashing whose assault helps set the plot in motion, and Anthony Hopkins delivering robustly as John Quincy Adams in Steven Spielberg’s Amistad. Kinnear looks to be the lightweight in the bunch. Oh, he’s not terrible in his nominated effort, and he’s generally a likable actor, but the role of the misunderstood and/or victimized gay artist is a tad precious–and probably looks even worse now with 20 years of hindsight.  I think most of us were surprised that year when Rupert Everett failed to land a nod for his crowd pleasing turn as Julia Roberts’ gay pal in My Best Friend’s Wedding. He’d been in the mix for much of the award season, so an Oscar nod seemed likely. I certainly would not have quibbled. So, where does Brent Spiner fit into all this? He doesn’t, alas. Do I think he’s every bit as deserving as any or all of the official nominees? You betcha, but I don’t even know if the studio felt compelled to launch a campaign of any kind, given the film’s lightweight status and middling performance. Furthermore, in spite of some laudatory reviews, I’m pretty sure Spiner himself probably never figured on any kind of year-end accolades. Still, I think his performance holds up as well as Kline’s or Hickey’s  recognized turns; moreover, Spiner’s Gil Godwyn in all its twisted genius still stands, Oscar nod or no. Oh, and between Spiner, the official Academy lineup and even Everett, Spiner’s performance is the only one I’ve watched more than once, so that’s something.

 

Maslin in the New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9b02e4d71730f931a35754c0a961958260

Siskel and Ebert’s website:

http://siskelandebert.org/video/6UYH1RUBXUXS/Men-In-Black–Wild-America–Out-to-Sea-1997

Stein in the San Francisco Chronicle:

http://www.sfgate.com/movies/article/FILM-REVIEW-Comic-Sea-Change-Lemmon-2819082.php