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Chances Are…You Have Not Seen This Movie

19 May

This post came about because of two specific turns. First, this past April (just last month), I finally seized–reveled in–the opportunity to see Barry Lyndon, Stanley Kubrick’s fabulous re-imagining of William Makepeace Thackeray’s The Luck of Barry Lyndon, in a theatre on a big screen: a 20th century re-imagining of a 19th century novel written about the 18th century.  Oh sure, I’ve seen it many times on home video (VHS, DVD), but the movie’s allure has always been, even for its detractors, the visual thrill. And what a thrill for Michael and me because I saw it less than a week after having three teeth pulled (including both lower wisdom teeth–with more bruising, btw, than my oral surgeon had ever seen from such a procedure); moreover, the night in question just happened to coincide with a major weather-alert incident with reports forecasting almost nothing but certain doom, regarding treacherous storms with strong winds, hail, and more–to the degree that many local college campuses, including my own, cancelled evening classes and sent students and staff packing by late afternoon. As such, we were faced with the question of whether to take the risk, but I’d already waited over 40 years.  Art won, and the storm blew over pretty much without incident.

Additionally, this past February, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences determined, in its collective wisdom, that Alfonso Cuarón should be awarded this year’s Oscar for Best Cinematography for Roma, a film Cuaron also directed. He also won Best Director, the first time one person has won awards in both categories. Roma stands as only the first Black and White film since 1993’s Schindler’s List to snag the cinematography award. In that case,  many moviegoers well know that Hollywood giant Steven Spielberg directed Schindler’s List, and that he won Best Director while the Academy likewise voted his inspirational, fact-based Holocaust drama the year’s best film. On the other hand, far fewer people likely remember that Janusz Kaminski served as that film’s celebrated cinematographer–or that he returned to the winner’s circle a mere five years later to collect his second trophy for Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan.

Such is the cinematographer’s life.

Interestingly, if not ironically, more people have seen Roma via streaming platform Netflix than they have seen it on a big screen in a movie theatre. Again, this seems a tad unfortunate, given that by all accounts Cuaron’s images are rich with details, and how can much of that not be lost when the images are shrunk, reduced to fit on a TV screen, per my own experiences with Barry Lyndon, even what passes for most big screen TVs, or, worse, a hand-held device such as a phone or tablet? Of course, I’m sure Academy members saw Roma the way it was intended, per standard regular Academy sponsored screenings during campaign season–or screenings hosted by the film’s producers or distributors. The rest of us have to make do if, that is, we choose to watch. To clarify, the strategy behind Roma was a limited stint in theatres–then direct to streaming, and of course, from an economic standpoint streaming makes sense. Or does it? Really?

Meanwhile, backing up to esteemed Spielberg, the two-time Academy winning director–and Hollywood heavyweight–hopes to redefine, if not restrict, Netflix’s presence at next year’s Oscars, lest the platform service dominate the next round the way it and competitors Amazon Prime and Hulu have established such a foothold among TV’s Emmy awards, per the likes of, say, The Crown (Amazon Prime), The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu), and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Netflix). Per Spielberg, “Once you commit to a television format, you’re a TV movie” (qtd. in Lang, par. 4). He further explains that films need to be given more than cursory Oscar qualifying runs of about a week or so in a handful of theatres before appearing on streaming services (Lang, par. 4). Spielberg is hardly alone in the matter, per similar complaints waged by director Christopher Nolan during the previous go-round, per his stunning war film Dunkirk, which was not only shot on film but also in a widescreen format (see link below).

Back to the Oscars: any live television event presents logistical challenges, and this year’s edition proved especially susceptible. At one point, and who knows if it was the Academy’s board of directors, the ceremony’s production team, or ABC network executives, but someone somewhere hatched the idea that the Best Cinematography award (among a select few other trophies) would be presented off-camera, that is, during commercial breaks. The winner’s speech–including the walk to the stage to accept the award–would be recorded but edited for time considerations and inserted later in the program. Fortunately, wiser heads prevailed, especially after the likes of Martin Scorsese and a few others raised strenuous objections.

Suddenly, the art of cinematography seems under-valued. What’s up with that? Movies need cinematographers and cinematography as much as, maybe more than, well, maybe we need to go back to the beginning. Anyone reading this blog surely has a solid understanding of cinematography, but let’s backtrack just for grins.

First, what is the literal meaning of the word cinematography? This definition comes from howstuffworks.com:

Basically, cinematography means bringing a story to life visually. The word’s Greek roots are kinema (movement) and graph (writing). Bringing movement to screenwriter’s script requires more than simply shooting photos or video of a scene. The primary cinematographer, or director of photography, works with the film’s director to capture the underlying story in a way that will captivate the movie audience. Camera operators and cinematographers for specific scenes or types of scenes work to fulfill the overall vision.

Furthermore, what does a cinematographer do exactly, and how is that different from a director? This one comes from theartcareerproject.com:

A cinematographer or Director of Photography (DP), is responsible for all the visual elements of a film; in other words, this professional is literally, the eye behind the camera. Under the guidance of the film’s director, the cinematographer makes creative decisions affecting the picture’s lighting, camera motion, shot color, depth of field; as well as scene composition with regards to actor positioning, zoom, lens usage and techniques. A successful cinematographer must be trained and knowledgeable regarding all aspects of photography, including special effects, filmography, modern equipment; as well as possess a marked talent for communication with film directors.

Simply, the director has a vision for a film, and it’s the cinematographer’s duty–in tandem with the art director–to make sure that conditions are optimal for that vision to be translated through the camera lens, necessitating a deep understanding of the interplay between light and shadow. That’s what it’s all about, really.

Now then. The art of cinematography is the art of movies itself, and it’s silly that the Academy would even consider not giving the 5 nominees–and one winner–the very best of the best, per industry professionals, their full respect at the industry’s biggest shindig. Maybe silly, as well, to think that, again, an image on a phone or a tablet reveals anything magical about the art of movies.

Many ardent moviegoers–including those within the Academy’s ranks–often confuse what’s being photographed with the degree of skill involved in the effort to capture an image, or, okay, a moving image. A great many of us respond to breathtaking natural vistas, the sweep of historical epics, or lavish musicals with fabulously colorful production numbers. Need an example? Here’s one: Lawrence of Arabia (1962). How about another? Perhaps Ben-Hur (1959). And don’t forget about the likes of, say, Barry Lyndon (1975), The Last Emperor (1987), Dances with Wolves (1990), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), or La-La Land (2016), among so, so many others [1], such as, okay, The Garden of Allah (1936) and Blood and Sand (1941).

Understood. Even so, the most jaded moviegoers–and don’t you think the Academy’s membership includes more than  a small handful–often confuse what’s being filmed with the  cinematographer’s skill-set, especially as that entails scenic vistas, per the likes of Days of Heaven (1978), The Mission (1986), A River Runs Through It (1992), Legends of the Fall (1994), There Will Be Blood (2007), or The Revenant (2015), and that’s not necessarily accurate [2]. Of course, to be clear, shooting on location, outdoors no less and amid rugged terrain, rates a tremendous challenge for everyone involved. Still, what about the challenge of filming in a confined location and on, say, a tight budget? (Rear Window, anyone?) Sounds easy enough, yet, we should always remember what two former mentors, both now deceased,  told me: movies are moving pictures, motion pictures. Sure, intellectually, I knew that in a literal sense,  but it’s a reminder that movies have to be visually interesting in order to hold audiences’ attention, and superbly executed cinematography is one way to begin.

Back in my theater days, I spent many hours in the box office reading trade publications, such as Variety, Hollywood Reporter, and Film Journal. Back at home, I subscribed to, or regularly purchased, the likes of Premiere, Entertainment Weekly (still do), American Film (published, natch, by the American Film Institute), Film Threat, American Cinematographer (per the American Society of Cinematographers), and Film Comment (via the Film Society of Lincoln Center). It was the latter that ran a feature called the “Cinematographers Roundup,” or something to that effect,  every five years or so, an update of the best and brightest in the biz, the vets as well as the newcomers, and what they’ve done–or had done–lately and how well recent offerings compare to previous efforts, both in terms of prestige (that is, prestigious collaborators) and overall technical quality. In one such roundup, the writer offered guarded praise, but praise nonetheless, for William Fraker, a six time Oscar nominee, and his then recent entry Chances Are, mostly achieving a touch of vintage Hollywood luster, per “a nifty 40s deja vu” (McCarthy 33). I cannot explain why I remember this particular film being singled out in an article I read 25 years ago, but it’s the truth. I guess I remember because I enjoy the movie and have long delighted in its quality of light, for lack of a better term.

Chances Are premiered in 1989, a Tri-Star release directed by the late Emile Ardolino, an Oscar winner for the documentary He Makes Me Feel Like Dancing (1983) who’d just enjoyed a commercial triumph with 1987 breakout hit Dirty Dancing. Scripted by sisters Perry Howze and Randy Howze (Maid to Order [1987], Mystic Pizza [1988]), Chances Are is a comedic reincarnation fantasy on the order of, say, Heaven Can Wait, Warren Beatty’s 1978 smash (with, ahem, Oscar nominated cinematography by no less than William Fraker), itself a remake of 1942’s heralded–Oscar winning–Here Comes Mr. Jordan. Simply, Chances Are begins with the 1963 wedding of Corrine (Cybill Shepherd) and promising lawyer Louie (Christopher McDonald). Fast forward one year as Corrine announces her pregnancy on the same day Louie is hit by a car and dies, leaving the distraught widow–and expectant mother–to turn to Louie’s best friend Philip (Ryan O’Neal), a reporter, for strictly platonic support. Meanwhile, at the heavenly reincarnation station, Louie, so impatient to return, pushes his way to the head of the line (of other potential returnees) and takes off for his next-life, that of newborn, without a crucial injection to wipe his memory. Uh-oh. Could be trouble. Sooner or later. Some 20+ years later, recent Yale grad Alex (Robert Downey Jr.) meets pretty lawyer-to-be Miranda (Mary Stuart Masterson) in the library then bolts for D.C. where he hopes to wow real-life Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (played by venerable Henderson Forsythe [3]). The meeting doesn’t go as Alex had planned, but he makes an impression on Phillip, who takes the young man under his wing. Soon, Phillip brings Alex to dinner at his friend Corrine’s elegant townhouse on a tree lined, brick paved street in Georgetown,. Corrine, now a curator at the Smithsonian, is celebrating the return of her daughter Miranda, home for summer break. Yep, coincidences abound. Suddenly, Alex experiences flashbacks about things he shouldn’t be remembering. And he’s falling in love–with Corrine–all over again.

Chances are you might not have seen this movie, but you might have heard it. Of course, classic crooner–and Texas native–Johnny Mathis is heard singing the familiar title song, credited to Robert Allen and Al Stillman, during the opening credits (and later, “Wonderful Wonderful ” by Sherman Edwards and Ben Raleigh), but there’s more. That keyboard featured in the poster is not a random design element. Piano actually figures in the plot as Louie, Corrine’s long lost love, composes a special tune that is heard throughout in the film and is, in fact, the melody to the Oscar nominated song “After All,” with music by Tony Snow and lyrics by Dean Pitchford, performed by Peter Cetera and Cher at the movie’s conclusion. Though a solid radio-friendly hit, the song lost the Oscar to the deliriously clever “Under the Sea” (The Little Mermaid), per Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, and, no, Cetera and Cher did not perform live on the Academy telecast. Instead, James Ingram and Melissa Manchester served as proxies. (IMAGE: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0097044/mediaviewer/rm1030348288)

Chances Are is set in and around historic Georgetown with pit stops along the way to such famous Washington D.C. landmarks as the U.S. Capitol building, the Jefferson Memorial, and even exteriors on the grounds of the Smithsonian Institute. Even so, the bulk of the action unfolds within Corrine’s townhome, but make no mistake: while the filmmakers treat viewers to what appear to be scenes staged right outside a real Georgetown home, the interiors–living room, dining room, kitchen, Corrine’s magnificent bedroom quarters–are all shot on soundstages. Make that, extremely well-lit soundstages. As befit the dwellings of a museum curator, let alone someone reluctant to let go of the past, Corrine’s townhouse is richly appointed and perfectly organized. Everything in its rightful place, down to the finest detail. This is where Fraker, in tandem with Art Director Dennis Washington and Set Decorator Robert R. Benton (a previous four time Oscar nominee), achieves the kind of high gloss effect of, say, vintage Ross Hunter, the legendary Hollywood producer known for deluxe romantic melodramas and saucy, crowd pleasing comedies throughout the 1950s and 1960s, per Imitation of Life, Pillow Talk, Midnight Lace [4], Flower Drum Song, and Thoroughly Modern Millie.

Corrine has moneyed taste, no doubt, though the allure is not so much about luxurious trappings, nor vibrant Technicolor splashes, but, rather, exquisite lighting. No matter the time of day or night, the rooms are bathed in inviting–and extremely flattering–warmth. Consider the charming breakfast nook with its wide view of Corrine’s picturesque patio. Oh sure, to clarify, it’s easy enough to discern that the magnificent backyard area is actually part of a set, not an actual exterior location, but that’s not the point. The point is the magnificent cheery, sun-dappled lighting effects that spill through the window, making everyone look freshly scrubbed, even airbrushed–while making everything else look sparkling and ready for the pages of a high-tone interior decorating magazine. Furthermore, Ardolino stages a whole backyard cookout on the same spacious, green-filled patio set–and dig how beautifully illuminated the actual real-life street outside the townhouse is in a few select night-time shots.

Fraker’s generosity extends to the slightly Carol Lombardesque Cybill Shepherd, who, again, has been lit and framed as well as any Golden Age Hollywood leading lady. Notice, especially, the silky radiance of her blonde hair, either swept back and contained or soft, loose curls framing her face. Stunning [5]. Of course, backlighting helps. No doubt Fraker employed a specially targeted light source to play up Shepherd’s clear blue eyes: vulnerable to the point of tears in a few sequences, including a Smithsonian ball; elsewhere, alert and ready for adventure when she catches a glimpse of herself in a car mirror.  Oh, and that Smithsonian episode with its tribute to First Ladies even features beautifully lit mannequins, for cryin’ out loud–not to mention Corrine’s stunning midnight colored ballgown designed by Albert Wolsky [6], with its tempting folds–not to mention dynamite fit.

Another standout sequence occurs when O’Neal and Masterson engage in a heart-to-heart during a stroll alongside the National Mall’s reflecting pool. The images are startling clear and bright even though the actors are in motion. Are we to believe Fraker, and Ardolino, achieved this feat using only natural sunlight? Do we understand, intellectually, that a system of lamps and reflectors was utilized to help Mother Nature along? Do we care? This is the way we want D.C., or anywhere, to look when we travel to tourist destinations. But of course.

Realism, it isn’t. It’s the world, a self-contained world, presented in the way that Hollywood knows best–better to nurse the dreams of hopeful moviegoers, generation after generation. Of course, why should we expect realism, or naturalism, in a movie predicated on the super-natural? Nonetheless, while Chances Are received a passel of mostly positive reviews upon release, there were also plenty of sneers. The biggest complaint was that the movie was, well, stupid, and inhabited by resoundingly stupid characters. Indeed, at least one of the high profile cast members (Masterson?) eventually spoke disparagingly about the enterprise, practically apologizing for being involved. Really? This is a comedy about reincarnation, hardly the first, and the rules that apply to more conventional offerings should not be applied. Should they? For example, I don’t recall Beatty’s Heaven Can Wait, a major Oscar contender, being similarly scrutinized to the same degree. The characters in Chances Are don’t react stupidly to their circumstances, necessarily; instead, they react like characters in a movie. It’s a conceit, and one decides to either roll with the conceit or not. Same as many Shakespearean comedies. Okay, maybe it’s not as seamless or laugh out-loud hilarious as Heaven Can Wait, but it’s cute and noticeably more sustained than, say, the ill-fated Two of a Kind, which reunited Grease stars John Travolta and Olivia Newton John to less than lukewarm effect.

Even with charges of stupidity and one disgruntled actor, Chances Are boasts a handful of smart, comedic performances, beginning with star Shepherd who was enjoying a career renaissance at the time thanks to the action popularity of Moonlighting, ABC TV’s fun and flirty, witty, wacky retro-ish detective series (again playing up her Lombardesque quality of kooky sophistication), co-starring then up and coming megastar, ever acerbic Bruce Willis. As Corrine, Shepherd’s great. Prim one moment, vulnerable the next. She pulls off a swell transformation as the guarded widow reconnects to her sexuality via the far fetched possibility of being with the reincarnation of her long buried husband, but that’s only half the story. Continuing, Corrine finds herself slowly awakening to the romantic charms of Phillip, the man who’s been there all along, pining in his own non-threatening way–torn between his loyalty for his long departed best friend,  his sense of duty to help take care of fatherless Miranda, and his simmering attraction to Corrine. The turn begins when Shepherd tosses a compliment Phillip’s way, almost as an afterthought, at the Smithsonian gala–and watch O’Neal’s perfect reaction in kind. A bit later, Shepherd conveys a world of emotion  and maybe longing in just a glance during an dinner prepared by O’Neal with Downey as an awkward third wheel. Also, notice how the normally pulled together Corrine becomes disheveled when her real-life and fantasy life collide. She’s come undone, indeed, and Shepherd makes it charming and funny.

The two male leads, Downey and O’Neal, bring a great deal of fun to the proceedings as well. Downey, as Shepherd’s reincarnated hubby, has the showier role. Still in his early 20s at the time, fresh from attracting all kinds of attention from the likes of Weird Science (1985) and Less than Zero (1987), and not quite yet the magnet for scandal and still several comebacks away from reinventing himself as Iron Man [7]), he’s quite beautiful: impossibly thick dark hair, dark eyes, long, lush eyelashes, and a ruddy complexion. Plus, he’s got great timing, and timing is everything in comedy; moreover, he’s got a looseness that at least plays like improvisation in a few key scenes, such as when he tries to explain his situation to Corrine but steers away on a tangent. During the big gala at the Smithsonian, he dances up a storm with a prominent matronly donor. That noted, Downey is at his best when he doesn’t seem to be trying too hard. A little of his mugging goes far, maybe too far. (I never warmed, btw, to Christopher McDonald who plays Louie in the opening sequence.) On the other hand, O’Neal skillfully under-plays, and good for him. Of course, all of us know–from his days working with wunderkind director Peter Bogdanovich on the likes of What’s Up Doc (1972) and Paper Moon (1973), that O’Neal has serious comic chops. Casting him opposite Shepherd, once a tabloid staple per her longtime personal and professional collaboration with Bogdanovich, seems truly inspired (though the truth was much more complicated [Shepherd 150-154, 227]). At any rate, the audience wants to see Corrine and Phillip as played by Shepherd and O’Neal get together and live happily ever after.

For whatever reason, Masterson, who’d recently scored as a major scene stealer in Some Kind of Wonderful (from brand-name teen-magnet writer-producer John Hughes) [8] is about the only principal player who doesn’t seem to be enjoying herself, maybe because less is at stake with her character (maybe it’s the unflattering “grown-up” wardrobe), but the supporting cast is full of winners, beginning with Emmy winner Susan Ruttan (L.A. Law) who pops up for a brief loopy bit as a New Age acolyte–this being the age of the Harmonic Convergence, Shirley MacLaine’s Out on a Limb (delving into exploration of past lives and not-so-subtly referenced in the film), and the surge of interest in the healing properties of crystals–offering momentary support, maybe even insight, to Downey. Elsewhere, venerable character actress Fran Ryan has a game go at portraying a bored but apparently loaded museum patron who suddenly becomes coquettish, falling hard–literally–for Downey’s charms. The great Joe Grifasi appears as Louie’s droll spiritual caseworker, assigned to return to earth and correct a situation that has gotten way out of hand. Add to the mix the one and only Kathleen Freeman (as an officiously cautious Yale librarian), Dennis Patrick (Corrine’s distinguished if bored Smithsonian superior), James Nobel (perhaps best known as Benson‘s Governor Gatling, as Corrine’s bemused analyst), and, again, the Tony winner Henderson Forsythe as Ben Bradlee.

Chances Are was perhaps a middling hit, at best, when it played in theaters back in ’89 even though, again, the critics were generally kind. (Siskel and Ebert both praised it, per the link that follows.) Still, despite its so-so overall box office returns, it fit nicely with a lineup at the old UA Prestonwood that also featured–at the same time–1988 holdover The Accidental Tourist (a Best Picture nominee featuring an Oscar winning turn by Geena Davis) and Cousins (starring by birthday-mate Isabella Rossellini along with Ted Danson). Lots of love, romance. and complications at the suburban multiplex, perfect for the ladies who lunch bunch who flocked to our theater regularly. For director Ardolino, it was a hiccup between strong performers Dirty Dancing (1987) and Sister Act (1992) [9]. Shepherd continued to work steadily, including a stint as a cloyingly insincere TV exec in Woody Allen’s Alice (1990), before hitting the jackpot in TV yet again with her self-titled sitcom, which she helped develop, based on aspects of her own life [10] and a smart showcase for her talent though the show was undone by backstage shenninagans, mostly network interference. She later appeared in several episodes of The L Word and even played lifestyle maven and media mogul Martha Stewart in a pair of made for TV films. Ever resilient, ever indefatigable, she keeps on keepin’ on.

Cinematographer Fraker passed away in 2010 at the age of 86. His last feature film credit was 2002’s Waking up in Reno. A six-time Oscar nominee, he never won the golden statuette though interestingly, he was not even nominated for what might be his most enduring work, 1968’s action classic, Bullitt starring Steve McQueen.

Epic scale pageantry will always play better on the big screen than on a TV, pad, or smart phone, yet Chances Are shows that even a small scale movie can be rich with imagery, such that a big screen still showcases the art of cinematography better than home video though as I learned with Barry Lyndon, sometimes home video is all we have. Until we don’t. Luckily Netflix isn’t the only game in town as more and more theater chains are bringing back classics and near classics for limited engagements. I’m thrilled that I got to see Barry Lyndon in a theatre on a big screen in spite of concerns about wisdom teeth and weather. I loved every millisecond of every passing frame. My next goal is to see Hello Dolly, one of the biggest and brassiest of all big screen musicals, on a giant screen in August. Hmmmm, maybe in another 30-40 years, Roma will finally play in theaters on a bigger than life screen as well.

Now, for your further consideration, I conclude with a piece published by American Society of Cinematographers earlier this year, breaking down milestones of cinematography with more background on the likes of Lawrence of Arabia, Days of Heaven, and, yes, even Barry Lyndon as outlined in this post as well:

https://theasc.com/news/asc-unveils-list-of-100-milestone-films-in-cinematography-of-the-20th-century

Thanks for your consideration….

[1]  – Per the following:  Lawrence of Arabia – Cinematography by Freddie Young; directed by David Lean; Ben-Hur – Cinematography by Robert Surtees; directed by William Wyler; Barry Lyndon – Cinematography by John Alcott; directed by Stanley Kubrick;  The Last Emperor – Cinematography by Vittorio Storaro; Dances with Wolves – Cinematography by Dean Semler; directed by Kevin Costner; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – Cinematography by Peter Pau; directed by Ang Lee; and La La Land – Cinematography by Linus Sandgren. Furthermore, despite their exotic locations, The Garden of Allah (Europe and North Africa) and Blood and Sand (Spain) were photographed mostly on Hollywoood backlots with limited location footage outside California: Yuma, Arizona in the case of the former; Mexico City, Mexico, per the latter. Additionally, both films share the rare distinction of double Oscar winning cinematographers. The special honors for The Garden of Allah, when color was still the exception rather than the rule,  were shared by W. Howard Greene and Harold Rosson while Ernest Palmer and Ray Rennahan both claimed statuettes for Blood and Sand.

[2] – As follows: Days of Heaven – Cinematography by Néstor Almendros; directed by Terrence Malick; The Mission – Cinematography by Chris Menges; directed by Roland Joffé;  A River Runs Through It – Cinematography by Philippe Rousselot; directed by Robert Redford; Legends of the Fall – Cinematography by John Toll; directed by Edward Zwick; There Will Be Blood – Cinematography by Robert Elswit; directed by Paul Thomas Anderson; The Revenant – Cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki; directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu.

[3] – Though Forsythe boasts numerous impressive stage credits, including a Tony for playing the sheriff in the original production of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1978), he’s known, or was known, to millions of TV viewers for playing Dr. David Stewart on classic daytime drama As the World Turns for more than 30 years. The actor passed away in 2006 at the age of 88.

[4] As I put the finishing touches on this post, word comes that Doris Day, the iconic superstar of music and films, and star of such Ross Hunter productions as BOTH Pillow Talk and Midnight Lace–as well as The Thrill of it All–has passed away at the age of 97. Day, already a well-regarded Hollywood fixture, began the most successful phase of her movie career with 1959’s Pillow Talk (opposite Rock Hudson), earning her sole Oscar nod and achieving, for the times, a new level of glamour and sophistication (that peaked, to this viewer’s mind with 1962’s That Touch of Mink, opposite Cary Grant, alas, not a Hunter production) ; meanwhile, Hunter’s “brand,” btw, was parodied to lavish effect in 1964’s What a Way to Go, starring Shirley MacLaine.

[5] – Don’t forget that Shepherd famously promoted L’Oreal hair care products both on TV and in print ads for several years until, that is, as she memorably harrumphed in her memoir, “my hair got old” (7), which was merely 40something for cryin’ out loud. Like women over 40 don’t color their hair, L’Oreal? Idiots. I love Shepherd unabashedly, btw. She’s gorgeous, smart, seasoned, flip, and outspoken. My kind of broad. Exactly.

[6] – By that point, Wolsky had already won an Oscar for All That Jazz (1979) and would go on to score a second win for 1991’s Bugsy, among other honors.

[7] – Those comebacks include a well-earned Oscar nod for portraying cinematic genius Charlie Chaplin (in Chaplin, 1992), 1993’s likeable Heart and Souls, a “heavenly” comedy that makes a nice double feature with Chances Are, and for which Downey won a Saturn award, the lead in 1995’s sumptuous, Oscar winning costume romp Restoration, a brief spin in the series Ally McBeal (graced by a Golden Globe, a SAG award, and an Emmy nomination), yet another Oscar nod for a  hilarious if controversial supporting performance (in…black face) in 2008’s outrageous war movie parody Tropic Thunder, same year as Iron Man. His triumph as Iron Man paved the way for the “bro-mantic” Steampunk reinvention of cherished Victorian sleuth Sherlock Holmes (2009) with Downey as the titular Holmes and Jude Law on board as Dr. John Watson.

[8] – While Some Kind of Wonderful was actually directed by Howard Deutch, not Hughes, please note that Hughes, in fact, also wrote and directed Downey’s Weird Science; meanwhile, Masterson surely regained her footing later the same year (1989) by earning Best Supporting Actress accolades from the National Board of Review for Immediate Family (starring Glenn Close and James Woods) even though the Academy couldn’t be bothered. Then, a year or two later, Masterson achieved cinematic immortality as bee charmer extraordinare, Idgie Threadgoode, the thrilling life force of smash hit Fried Green Tomatoes–AND for which she absolutely positively SHOULD HAVE been Oscar nominated instead of, say, Bette Midler’s ludicrous For the Boys.

[9] Ardolino also directed Three Men and a Little Lady, 1990’s so-so follow-up 1987 blockbuster Three Men and a Baby. From Sister Act, he segued to TV, directing Bette Midler as Mama Rose in an acclaimed adaptation of classic Broadway musical Gypsy. Ardolino passed away in 1993, only weeks before Gypsy aired. He was posthumously Emmy and DGA nominated for his work on the TV film.

[10] – In her illustrious career, Shepherd, the Memphis born beauty queen-turned-top model-turned versatile actress and cabaret star, not to mention outspoken feminist and LGBT ally, has staked her claim in a trio of iconic movies, The Last Picture Show (a 1971 Best Picture nominee), The Heartbreak Kid (1972), and Taxi Driver (a 1976 Best Picture contender). She reprised her Last Picture Show role of man-chasing teenager Jacy Farrow in Texasville, some 20 years after the fact–the book of which was dedicated to her by Larry McMurtry who also penned the original. In addition, her work in both Moonlighting and Cybill brought recognition from the likes of the Golden Globes (a total of 6 nominations, 3 wins), the People’s Choice Awards (5 nominations, 2 wins), a SAG nomination,  a Viewers for Quality Television Award, a GLAAD media award, a Golden Apple Award for Female Star of the Year (1996), and 4 Emmy nominations. Nice work if you can get it, indeed, per the same-named George and Ira Gershwin song Shepherd sang during the opening of her sitcom.

Works Cited

McCarthy, Todd.  “The Euro-Wood Look: Speed of Light.” Film Comment. September – October 1989.

Shepherd, Cybill, and Aimee Lee Ball. Cybill Disobedience. Harper Collins, 2000, pp. 7, 150-154, 227.

 

See also:

Brent Lang reporting on Spielberg and Netflix in Variety:

Steven Spielberg vs. Netflix: How Oscars Voters Are Reacting

Chris Nolan on shooting on film and the effect of Netflix:

https://qz.com/1035657/dunkirks-christopher-nolan-imaxs-70mm-film-could-be-cinemas-best-defense-against-netflix/

And https://www.huffingtonpost.in/2018/04/01/christopher-nolan-on-the-romance-of-celluloid-avoiding-social-media-and-making-films-in-trump-era_a_23400324/

On cinematography at How Stuff Works:

https://entertainment.howstuffworks.com/cinematographer1.htm

On cinematographers at The Career Project:

https://www.theartcareerproject.com/become/cinematographer/

Siskel and Ebert review Chances Arehttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rd3JK0Q2yGE

Chances Are review on Roger Ebert’s website: https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/chances-are-1989

Cinematographer William A. Fraker at the Internet Movie Database: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0005710/

 

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The Surprise of Hilda Simms: Revisiting Black Widow (1954)

14 Mar

I began writing this piece in November, thinking I’d post it before the awards season launched in earnest, but it has taken a little longer than I’d expected, and I actually appreciate the extra time for more research and reflection….

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So, there we were, Michael and I, tuning into one of the old movie channels (either TCM or Fox Movies, likely the latter) a few years back as we often do on Saturday mornings. Within a few seconds we were caught up in the bold color palette of 1954’s Black Widow, not to be confused, mind you, with Scarlett Johansson’s Marvel character or 1987’s Black Widow starring Debra Winger and Theresa Russell.  Oh, I love that one too, a cross-country suspense melodrama pitting one determined federal agent in a mind game, not to mention a race against time, with a glamorous serial killer. Fun stuff, that–witty and two snappy performances by two charismatic stars. Plus, both films, the ’54 model as well as the ’87 version, carry the 20th Century Fox logo.

Still, to clarify, only the names and the studio are what connect the films.

The 1954 version is a more traditional mystery involving a Broadway producer, portrayed by ever-reliable Van Heflin, whose kindness toward a young aspiring writer–in the person of former child actress Peggy Ann Garner–soon leads to a shocking demise and ever mounting suspicion. The cast is further buoyed by the likes of Gene Tierney (as Heflin’s wife who scoots out of town for a bit, thereby creating conditions that set the plot in motion), George Raft (a driven, no-nonsense police detective), and, perhaps, best of all, Ginger Rogers [1], sublimely cheeky as Tierney’s best friend and the star of Heflin’s current hit play.  Her Carlotta (Lottie) is a self-possessed steamrolling fashion plate not unlike, say, All About Eve‘s mercurial Margo Channing–the one and only Bette Davis, and, yes, also a Fox production.

Mustachioed Reginald Gardiner creeps along as Rogers’ simp of a husband while veteran great Cathleen Nesbit steps up as a cleaning woman who works for both showbiz couples. Meanwhile, sharp-eyed fans of vintage TV shows will no doubt spot Bea Benaderret (Petticoat Junction) as a party guest and Mabel Anderson (Mrs. Stephens on Bewitched and scads of other gigs, including What’s Up Doc?) as club owner. That’s also Dallas’ own Aaron Spelling–and future almighty TV producer–as the lanky “Mr. Oliver,” an aspiring actor who arrives on the scene just in time to help Raft and the others close the case.

Black Widow looks smashing, thanks to Fox’s in-house Deluxe Color (aka Color by Deluxe) per cinematographer Charles Clarke, whose résumé  boasts one competitive Oscar (Hello, Frisco, Hello) as well as a technical achievement award and an honorary medal. Clarke is in good company with a production design team that includes legendary Oscar winning art director Lyle Wheeler (Gone with the Wind and The King and I among many, many, others) and one-named costume design sensation Travilla, a previous–shared–Oscar winner for The Adventures of Don Juan, with three additional nominations, but perhaps best known for the full-skirted white dress Marilyn Monroe wears in The Seven Year Itch, oh, and, of course, those blissfully over the top designs for Valley of the Dolls. Black Widow pops with bold strokes of color (lots and lots of blues), widescreen appeal marked by expansive sets and clear, crisp depth of field, along with sleekly authentic mid-century Modern interiors, keeping in mind that the two Manhattan power couples, Heflin and Tierney and Rogers and Gardiner, live in posh high rise dwellings–and that includes an impressive view of the NYC skyline. A fake view, mind you, but bas relief style, so it seems, as opposed to a mere painted backdrop–and with simply mahvelous light cues.  The movie is like its own effect.

In spite of its top-flight cast and visual appeal, Black Widow underwhelms in other ways. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I love this movie. It works incredibly well on its own terms, providing like-minded viewers a tidy package with a few twists along the way  though it does not necessarily succeed as an engrossing mystery. Keep in mind, the DVD is part of Fox’s “Noir” series, and that’s a bit misleading. There’s little noir-ish about it, not, say, compared to Fox’s all-time classic, Laura–starring Tierney in one of her signature roles. For that matter, Tierney’s Oscar nominated–and color saturated–Leave Her to Heaven (also Fox) works better as noir. That noted, I’ll leave it to others to debate whether color films qualify as “noir.” On the other hand, Black Widow, scripted by Nunnally Johnson (who also directs) from a story credited to Hugh Wheeler (using the pen, Patrick Quentin) [2], has more in common with a straightforward Agatha Christie whodunit or an amped-up big screen enhancement of such classic TV shows as Perry Mason or Dragnet. Entertaining enough, sure, but also stage-bound at times, even with snazzy visuals, talky, with perfunctory “Just the facts, ma’am” dialogue that tells as often as it shows while percolating along–make that simmering for those with short attention spans–to its conclusion.

So, there we were that Saturday morning, mesmerized by the colorful tale and then something surprising happened, surprising in the person of Hilda Simms.

Who is Hilda Simms, and why is she so surprising?

Hilda Simms is–was–an African-American actress from Minneapolis whose involvement with the American Negro Theatre Company launched a career that led to a starring role in Anna Lucasta on Broadway in the 1940s, inspired by Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie and staged with an all black cast though not necessarily conceived as such. Per the Internet Broadway Database (IBDb), the play ran for two years, and Simms later travelled across the Atlantic to star in the London production as well. She eventually heeded Hollywood’s call, appearing in a small number of films including 1953’s The Joe Louis Story, as Marva Louis (aka Mrs. Joe Louis).

What’s surprising about Simms’ role in Black Widow is that it’s essentially color-blind. For example, she’s not playing a domestic, a maid, as would have been typical of the time, and no reference is made to the color of her skin. None. In 1954. She’s first seen briefly as hat-check girl in Mabel Anderson’s watering hole–and, yes, okay, that looks suspiciously like a maid’s uniform. She re-appears later in the film as a cocktail waitress at a neon lit joint in a relatively lengthy scene opposite Heflin’s beleaguered “person of interest.” He’s been played and needs to avoid the police long enough to retrace a few steps and find the missing piece of a perplexing puzzle. Simms, as Anne, might be the one person to turn the investigation. She and Heflin are presented as equals, that is, two smart, seasoned adults trying to pick each other’s brains to arrive at one inevitable truth.

Look closely at director Nunnally Johnson’s staging. In their three minute scene, Simms and Heflin appear facing each other, mostly in a straight-on two-shot, with Heflin slightly slumped against the bar, thereby equalizing the space between them; moreover, Johnson cuts to Simms, from over Heflin’s shoulder (the actor’s back to the camera) at least as many times as he reverses the angle to favor Heflin. See? The characters–and the performers who inhabit them–are treated as equals through the director’s lens.

Simms makes quite an impression, bringing enviable cool to a small role that helps advance the plot.  As is often the case with performers who exude star quality, the audience wants to see more of her, but that is not to be in this particular film.

The website BlackPast.org features a profile of Hilda Simms (r) though it downplays her contribution to Black Widow, thusly: “Her only other movie role was that of the hatcheck girl in Black Widow (1954).” Though, again, Simms’ turn in the movie brief, the blurb does not best describe her importance in a key sequence (played opposite Van Heflin, as Peter r). Oh, and, again, Simms’ character has a name, and her name is Anne. This IMAGE is from the Noirish website, in which John Grant praises Simms’ “great turn” and also heralds Anne’s frankness, per her role in appraising Peter’s situation for what it is. Good call. https://noirencyclopedia.wordpress.com/2014/10/01/black-widow-1954/

As extraordinary as Simms is, let’s not kid ourselves.  Her role, while strongly written, is still a supporting one, barely more than a cameo, and even though she’d scored a Broadway triumph well before The Black Widow, her name is buried deep in the opening credits, nor is she featured in the DVD box art. Also, as a person of color in this enterprise, she’s the exception rather than the norm in an otherwise all-white cast. Face it: then, the 1950s, as now, Hollywood doesn’t often know what to do with women of color. Yes, the situation is improving, in both films and TV, as witnessed by the continued successes of such recent Oscar winners as Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk, 2018), Viola Davis (Fences, 2016), Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave, 2013), and Octavia Spencer (The Help, 2011), all, ahem, winners in the Supporting Actress category, along with biggies Kerry Washington, Taraji P. Henson, Angela Bassett, Audra McDonald, Alfre Woodard, the great Debbi Morgan, Jennifer Lewis, Wanda Sykes, and the steady rise of Tiffany Haddish, among others [3], sure, but parity is still not the norm. Yet.

Still, Hilda Simms’ brief turn enriches Black Widow with cultural significance beyond its artistic merits, keeping in mind that 1954 also saw the release of the fabelled Carmen Jones, a modern adaptation of Bizet’s opera Carmen (with new lyrics by Richard Rogers, set, to clarify, to Bizet’s original score), with an all-black cast led by Dorothy Dandridge, who made history as the first African-American, male or female, to earn an Oscar nomination in a leading performance category. And good for her. After all, a dearth of opportunities for black performers led to an even bigger dearth of representation at the annual Academy awards. For example, prior to Dandridge’s success in Carmen Jones, the Academy had recognized exactly three black performers: Hattie McDaniel, who famously won 1939’s Best Supporting Actress statuette for Gone with the Wind; James Baskett, the recipient of an honorary award for his role as Uncle Remus in Disney’s Song of the South (1946, by now embarrassingly dated though no fault of charismatic Baskett), and Ethel Waters, portraying the grandmother of a light skinned black woman (Jeanne Crain) who passes for white in Pinky [4].  The end of the 50s saw Sidney Poitier make history as the first black Best Actor nominee (The Defiant Ones, 1958) and Juanita Moore’s Oscar nominated turn, supporting, in 1959’s ballyhooed remake of Imitation of Life. Hooray for these actors who made the most of their opportunities, yes, indeed, but their signature roles were not, to put it politely, color-blind. The actors were cast as much for their skin color as for their talent, and that can problematic when the roles were, or are,  developed and or scripted by white writers, whose conceptions or depictions of people of color might have been, well, limited by their own white remove. Furthermore, only Poitier graduated to superstardom, starring in, among others,  three of 1967’s biggest hits (two Best Picture candidates [5]), and, of course his landmark Best Actor award (Lilies of the Field, 1963). [Of course, Halle Berry made history as the first woman of color to win Best Actress, per 2001’s Monsters Ball, but I digress.]

I might be wrong; after all, I’m not an expert. I have not seen every single movie cranked out by the major Hollywood studios in the 1940s and 1950s. Simms’ turn in The Black Widow might not be quite the “surprise” I perceive it to be. For all I know, black actors and black actresses might have been given opportunities to play scads and scads of color-blind roles in dozens upon dozens of films of which I remain woefully ignorant, yet my experience tells me otherwise. A look at some of the era’s top grossing titles reveals movies dominated by whiteness. And, again, the Academy’s choices underscore that lack of representation; after all, even the great Ethel Waters was passed over for a second nod when she recreated her stage success in Member of the Wedding for the movies. Also, don’t forget that the MGM powers-that-be looked to Ava Gardner, not known as a singer, to play the role of bi-racial entertainer Julie in yet another big screen transfer of Show Boat when, again, Lena Horne, who was both gorgeous and an accomplished vocalist, would have been ideal. And I actually like Gardner in Show Boat, all things considered (including the fact that she was at least partially dubbed), but a cheat is a cheat. One possible exception? The great Juanita Hall, a Tony winning Broadway actress, African-American, who was cast as Asian women ( one Tonkinese [Vietnamese], the other Chinese-American) in both stage and screen versions of South Pacific and Flower Drum Song, and that’s also problematic, but, again, I digress.

Black Widow did not bowl over the critics in 1954, nor was it a box office biggie, necessarily, though it has attracted followers since then, mainly on the strength of its stunning visuals and the gaiety of Ginger Rogers’s snappy delivery. Seemingly, bland Garner, outmatched by almost every actor in any given scene, shouldered much of those negative reviews though not enough to bring her career to a complete standstill. To be perfectly clear, even with Hilda Simms’ jolt of a turn, the movie did nothing to advance her career in pictures, for sure.  Indeed, the IMDb shows only a smattering of credits for Simms, the most famous being, arguably, a 9 episode arc on The Doctors and the Nurses, a serialized drama from the early 1960s. Besides the fact that Hollywood has simply never known what to do with black actresses, Simms faced additional obstacles due to McCarthyism in the 50s as she refuted accusations that she had ties to the communist party even going so far as to pen an article entitled “I’m No Benedict Arnold.” Even though Hollywood never embraced Simms–and she likely never embraced Hollywood–she remained a vital active woman, hosting her own New York based radio program, starring in plays, including The Madwoman of Chaillot, serving as the Creative Arts Director for the New York Human Right’s Commission, and, importantly becoming a teacher and earning a master’s degree in education. She died in 1994 at the age of 75.

Despite Fox’s marketing strategies, Black Widow barely qualifies as noir, but it amuses as a guessing game, packs a punch as colorfully retro eye candy, delivers Hollywood charisma galore with a star laden cast, and surprises with the inclusion of super-stunning Hilda Simms, a knockout casting move as culturally significant as it is satisfying, and one that bucks 1950s Hollywood-think. And that’s a surprise for the ages.

(Sources listed following notes.)

[1] – To clarify, both Van Heflin and Ginger Rogers were Oscar winning vets at this point. Heflin won Best Supporting Actor for 1942’s Johnny Eager, starring Robert Taylor and Lana Turner; Rogers snagged Best Actress accolades for 1940’s Kitty Foyle, reinventing herself as a “serious” actress after her streak of successful musicals in the 1930s with Fred Astaire.

[2] – In his day, Johnson ranked as one of the busiest writer-hyphenates in the business, meaning he worked as writer, director, and sometime producer, earning Oscar writing nods per his adaptations of The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and Holy Matrimony (1943) with additional screenwriting credits for the varied likes of How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation (1956), The Dirty Dozen (1962), and 1942’s Roxie Hart (yes, essentially, the basis for Chicago), which starred Ginger Rogers, his Black Widow leading lady–74 writing credits, per the IMDb; additionally, his directorial credits include The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956) and The Three Faces of Eve (1957), both of which he also scripted. Meanwhile, Hugh Wheeler was best known for his work in theatre, winning Tony awards for his books (scripts) for the musicals A Little Night Music (’73), Candide (’74; that’s back-to-back wins), and Sweeney Todd (’79). His screen credits include the adaptation of 1972’s Travels with My Aunt. Apparently, “Patrick Quentin” was a common pen name among series detective fiction scribes, not unlike, say, “Carolyn Keene,” credited as the official writer of Nancy Drew books.

[3] – I’m referring to the likes of past and present greats, trailblazers who’ve left their marks on American pop culture, including but not limited to Louise Beavers, Pearl Bailey, Claudia McNeil, Ruby Dee, Beah Richards, Eartha Kitt, Nichelle Nichols, Diahann Carroll, Gail Fisher, Pam Grier, Tamara Dobson, Isabel Sanford, Phylicia Rashad, Loretta Devine, Madge Sinclair, S. Epatha Merkerson, CCH Pounder, Lynne Thigpen, Oscar winners Whoopi Goldberg, Jennifer Hudson, and Mo’Nique, media dynamo Oprah Winfrey,  the aforementioned Lena Horne, Diana Ross, and LEGENDARY Cicely Tyson, again, among others.

[4] – Of course, Crain, in spite of her extremely generous Oscar nod, was an especially egregious casting choice. Hello, Lena Horne, anyone? Okay, 30ish Horne might have been a wee old to play girlish Pinky, but she would have been more credible than vanilla Crain.

[5] – In ’67, Poitier starred in Best Picture winner In the Heat of the Night as well as Best Picture also-ran Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, both among the year’s most popular audience draws as well. Additionally, he enjoyed great success with To Sir, with Love in the same year. In spite of all that, a Best Actor nod failed to materialize for the much in-demand actor (for…take your pick?), likely a case of Poitier being too good in too many films in one year, thereby splitting votes with himself. After turning to directing, successfully, btw, Poitier returned to acting with 1988’s Shoot to Kill and Little Nikita. He won a well-deserved Honorary Oscar in the spring of 2002.

 

Hilda Simms at BlackPast.org: https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/simms-hilda-1918-1994/

Hilda Simms per Curt Brown for the Star Tribune (Minnesota): http://www.startribune.com/hilda-moses-simms-went-from-st-margaret-s-academy-to-broadway-and-hollywood-blacklists/304005451/

Hilda Simms, per the IMDb: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0799968/

Hilda Simms, per the Internet Broadway Database: https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/hilda-simms-60107

Black Widow at Norish website, per John Grant: https://noirencyclopedia.wordpress.com/2014/10/01/black-widow-1954/

Easy-to-use “List of black Academy Award winners and nominees,” per InterPlanetary File System (IPFS) – Wikipedia (last updated in 2016 but suitable for the purpose of this post):

https://ipfs.io/ipfs/QmXoypizjW3WknFiJnKLwHCnL72vedxjQkDDP1mXWo6uco/wiki/List_of_black_Academy_Award_winners_and_nominees.html

Juanita Hall at BlackPast.org:  https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/hall-juanita-1901-1968/

Thanks, as well, to the National Association of Black Journalists: https://www.nabj.org/page/styleguideA

That’s a Wrap: King and Queens’ Rhapsody

3 Mar

What can you say about a movie awards show that begins as though it were a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony?  Welcome to the 91st Academy Awards: ‘We are the Champions” vs. “Poker Face” edition.  Indeed.

To be clear, despite all the hoopla, this is not the first Oscar show to ever proceed without a host and since the show clocked in at just slightly more than three hours, that’s not such a bad thing.  Yes, the producers wanted to bring the show in at exactly three hours, and they came close, not bad for live television; plus, everyone at ABC and the Academy needs to realize that the show just is what it is. That’s the maddening thing, knowing that too many people  in charge want the show to be something other than what it is and continually chase after a demographic, fanboys, that’s not interested and likely never will be.

After the opening performance by rock legends Queen, fronted by Adam Lambert–yet again assuming lead vocals, per the long ago passing of iconic Freddie Merucry, the subject of multi-nominated Bohemian Rhapsody, an announcer introduced Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph, and Amy Poehler who delivered a lively but not tremendously inspired–nor funny–monologue before segueing to the award for Best Supporting Actress. I like Fey and the crew, and have especially loved Fey and Poehler on the Golden Globes, but the bit was not stellar. Fortunately, Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk) capped an incredible awards season by claiming Best Supporting Actress honors. She looked super-stunning in a white strapless gown and  began her speech, refreshingly, by thanking author James Baldwin, the legendary writer of If Beale Street Could Talk, the book, and then King thanked her mom. Often, writers get thanked toward the ends of speeches rather than at the beginning, so kudos to King for her graciousness, and, of course, once again to the late Baldwin for crafting such an indelible story. I just love that this former child performer has grown into an even more successful mature actress–and she did so without suffering the scandals that often plague such youngsters as they become young adults. Of course, King’s victory, the fifth by a Black actress in this category in just under 10 years, is welcome and shows evidence of more diverse approaches to moviemaking, but more work is needed to ensure that actresses of color, such as King, have more opportunities to star in leading, rather than supporting, roles.

With his Oscar for Green Book, Best Supporting Actor winner Mahershala Ali earns the rare distinction of being one of two Black men with multiple wins in competitive, rather than honorary, categories, that is, for acting, specifically, the other being Denzel Washington. Additionally, if my research holds, Ali is second only to Oscar winner Morgan Freeman among black men performing key roles, leading or supporting, in multiple Best Picture winners. Freeman famously appears in Driving Miss Daisy (1989), Unforgiven (1992), and Million Dollar Baby (2004), for which he also won Best Supporting Actor. Ali, of course, won his first Oscar for 2016’s Best Picture winner Moonlight. Elsewhere, iconic Sidney Poitier famously starred in two of 1967’s Best Picture nominees, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night, the latter taking top honors. To clarify,  by the time Poitier starred in two of 1967’s biggest hits, he’d already made history by winning Best Actor for 1963’s Lilies of the Field. Additionally, Forest Whitaker was still an up and coming talent when he delivered a strong turn in Platoon, 1986’s big winner, and later played a pivotal role in 1992’s sensational Best Picture nominee The Crying Game. He won a Best Actor Oscar for 2006’s The Last King of Scotland and then later played the title figure in Lee Daniels’ The Butler, a 2013 Best Picture nominee.  I’ll continue to research and update accordingly.

Daniel Craig and Charlize Theron, the latter looking uncharacteristically subdued, at least from the front, walked onstage to present Best Supporting Actor, much later in the show, yet the second time that the tradition of last year’s winners presenting awards to the new winners had been tossed aside, and I wondered what that was about, but the producers’ purpose would be made clearer later. At any rate, the upside–of sorts–is that Mahershala Ali (Green Book) wins a second Best Supporting Actor award–only two years after his first. Good job, Mr. Ali, and I guess, good work, too Academy. I enjoy Mahershala Ali, always, always, always, but I still have reservations about the machinations that went into this specific award since this actor’s work in Green Book is more leading than supporting, but two Oscars are still two Oscars, and this actor is a phenom. He’s certainly no flash in the pan, to be sure. To put Mr. Ali’s victory into context, consider that only two Black actors have scored more than one competitive acting trophy from the Academy, the other being, natch, Denzel Washington; moreover, consider that the likes of Jamie Foxx (Ray) and Forrest Whittaker (The Last King of Scotland) have yet to garner a single nod in the years since their Oscar victories.

Btw, when do we get to see the aforementioned Craig and Theron together in a smashing romantic comedy with hints of espionage and thrills?

Interestingly, over the past week, Richard E. Grant (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) was increasingly chatted up as a possible spoiler–more a threat, if you will, to Ali than sentimental favorite Sam Elliot (A Star is Born). Grant won an Independent Spirit award over the weekend, not that “indie” means the same thing it once did, adding fuel to the story of a possible upset.

So, RBG loses the Best Feature Length Documentary to Free Solo…so what? RBG is already a HUGE favorite, of at least those who have seen it, and Justice Ginsburg certainly does not need the Academy’s validation; plus, National Geographic, the entity behind Free Solo, traditionally produces quality offerings. Still, this girl is scratching her head over the snub of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the documentary about Fred Rogers that connected with moviegoers last summer and reminded all of us of what we miss most in our own neighborhoods in an era of increasingly cynical leadership.

Clever that, maybe too clever, showing a clip from Best Picture contender Vice only seconds before the same film is honored for Best Makeup, thanks, mostly, to the transformation of Best Actor nominee Christian Bale into Dick Cheney, among others, but mostly the work on chameleon Bale, virtually unrecognizable as aging, bald, and doughy Cheney. I guess that’s an achievement. Still not enough to convince me that I need to see Vice, but congrats, anyway, to the team that includes first-time nominees Kate Biscoe and Patricia Dahaney in addition to Greg Cannom, already a (previous) four-time winner.

Melissa McCarthy slayed, coming onstage to present Best Costume in a elaborate gown spoofing Queen Anne’s love of rabbits, per The Favourite‘s Sandy Powell–accompanied as McCarthy was by equally outrageous Bryan Tyree Henry; however, the winner was NOT Powell, who already has three statuettes–and was nominated twice this year (the other being Mary Poppins Returns). Instead, the Academy astutely awarded Ruth E. Carter, a previous two-time nominee, for her fantastic work in the super-hero blockbuster Black Panther, and well, well deserved, all things considered, given the degree of difficulty in her assignment, the enormity of a super-charged action-adventure movie with a larger than average cast.. Then, things got even better when Black Panther won in the Best Production Design category. These victories are significant in that Carter is the first Black woman to win in her category, AND because Best Production Design co-winner Hannah Beachler (w/Jay Hart) is, in fact, the first ever Black woman even nominated in her category. As with Carter, Beachler’s victory is historic. Of course, she shares her award with Jay Hart, previously nominated for Pleasantville and L.A. Confidential. The Black Panther production design award is especially thrilling because it involves creating a whole new super-fantastic realm as opposed to recreating historic locales–especially if that means redressing pre-existing locations (per The Favourite). These victories, specifically Carter’s and Beachler’s, stand as powerful rebuttal to dunder-headed remarks by no less than Matt Damon who mansplained to a Black woman, not that long ago, that diversity is created in-front of the camera, through casting, rather than behind the scenes talent. Eat your words, Damon, and savor defeat.

The Marvel streak continued with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse capturing the Best Animated Feature Film award, which is way cool because Spiderman is always cool, and this animated film is a break from the Disney-Pixar empire–and, to further clarify, this is a Marvel offering that comes to us free from the folks at Disney who own increasingly more of the Marvel titles. Oh, I get it, Sony-Columbia is still a big corporate entity, but not being Disney is in this instance is still an improvement. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’ve loved the past few Disney and/or Pixar winners in the Best Animated Feature category, Coco, Zootopia (especially Zootopia), and Inside Out, but I also like to mix things up a bit come Oscar time. Oh, and, Peter Ramsey, among the movie’s winning creative team, also made history as both the first African-American nominee in the category, but, also now the first ever African-American winner.

Thanks to multi-talented Tyler Perry, btw, for making special note that the Best Cinematography award presentation would be live, in real time, on camera rather than off-camera during a commercial and edited into the television show a bit later. This, a rebuff to the Academy’s original proposal (or the show’s producers’ proposal) to keep the show under three hours by relegating a few select awards to “lesser than” status, Best Cinematography for starters. Who can imagine not wanting to properly–correctly–honor the people who make the pictures in motion pictures possible? At any rate, the winner was Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, a black and white offering, which is cool. Even cooler, I guess, is the fact that director Cuarón, already an Oscar winning director, served as his own cinematographer for his most personal film. What a hardworking talent. Then, to the surprise of almost no one, Cuarón was invited back to the stage to accept the Best Foreign Language Film award. The “surprise” part is being reminded that no Mexican film has ever won in the category. Really? Yep, it’s true. Of course, Cuarón upped his own ante by taking Best Director as well–again, his second such win after 2013’s Gravity. If you’re keeping count, that’s 4 career Oscars…so far. (Note: he also won for editing Gravity.)

It’s hard to sometimes distinguish the two awards for sound, but one is essentially for sound effects while the other is specific to overall sound mixing. How Academy members, those who don’t specialize in sound, especially, are able to make their choices when marking ballots is bound to be a little intimidating…if not downright confusing. No surprise then when the same film, Bohemian Rhapsody in this case, wins both awards. It’s easier that way, but in this case likely justified, considering the film’s musical source. The film went on to capture additional honors for Best Editing. Good stuff.

Interestingly, Bohemian Rhapsody emerged the evening’s biggest winner, earning more Oscars in more categories than any other film: four in all (w/out also capturing Best Picture, to be clear), the biggest being Rami Malek’s Best Actor win for playing Queen’s legendary lead singer, Freddie Mercury. Malek had been a virtual shoo-in based, again, on numbers as he’d already won most of the season’s high profile awards: Golden Globe, SAG, and BAFTA (British Academy equivalent). I especially enjoyed Malek’s speech as he described being born of immigrant parents (from Egypt) and the experience of playing a queer man of Iranian descent. Again, diversity as that factors into the American Dream of equal opportunity is good–not that it’s always equal, and that’s my point. It needs to be and should be. Have I seen Bohemian Rhapsody yet? Nope, but, now, maybe I will. (My reasons for not seeing it, so far, are both complex and stupid, and I can live with that, but I don’t necessarily feel compelled to share, either, but I refuse to criticize a movie I haven’t seen.)

Speaking of Best Actor, you know what else I want to see? At Eternity’s Gate with four time nominee Willem Dafoe as Vincent Van Gogh. This is one I really, REALLY wanted to see–and from the moment I first read about it and/or saw the trailer. And I would have been pleasantly surprised if Bradley Cooper had won for A Star is Born. I thought he was especially compelling as the film’s burnt-out rock star, but his contributions as an actor–in a movie he directed, co-wrote, and co-produced–have been overshadowed by one thing or another.

Other clever bits: Queen Latifah cracking-wise that “It’s good to be queen” when introducing the clip from The Favourite, starring Best Actress contender Olivia Colman as Queen Anne. HA! Then, only a few minutes later, Keegan-Michael Key descending, brave man, from the rafters wielding an umbrella, Mary Poppins style–himself looking very 007ish–to introduce, yes, a Mary Poppins Returns Best Song nominee, “The Place Where Lost Things Go”  as performed by the one and only Bette Midler, a star well-familiar with how to make an unforgettable entrance.

Generally, the Best Song lineup was weak, weaker than usual, actually, and to the surprise of no one, A Star is Born‘s “Shallow,” fueled by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s powerhouse vocals, snagged the prize. This means that, as expected, Gaga emerges an Oscar winner, one way or another, whether for Best Actress or Best Song. Good for her. She and Cooper’s live performance loomed buzz-worthy in its intimacy, but Ms, Gaga cannot sole credit for the song, a collaboration between her, Mark Ronson, Anthony Rossamado, and Andrew Wyatt.  Wait a second. It took four people to come up with that? Yes, it’s catchy, but repeating “Shallow, shallow” over and over again is hardly genius lyric-writing. Four people. huh? Oh, but that emotional speech, endearingly goofy as it was, though, again, did Gaga’s collaborators feel shortchanged regarding their own acceptance speeches?

I enjoyed, if that’s the best word, Spike Lee’s incredible, fact-based BlacKkKlansman in which, yes, a real-life 1970s African-American police officer, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington… yes, Denzel’s son), infiltrated a Colorado chapter of the KKK, with the assist of a white–Jewish–partner (Adam Driver), even “fooling” no less than notorious klansman David Duke (Topher Grace). Of course, Lee’s films have not always been readily embraced by the Academy. It’s not that he’s never been nominated because he has, but he’s never won a competitive award, per, for example, his screenplay for Do the Right Thing or the documentary 4 Little Girls, and until this year, his movies, mostly Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X, have been overlooked as candidates for Best Picture and Best Director. Yes, he won an honorary award a few years ago, but this is better. A win for co-scripting, that is, adapting BlacKkKlansman, (in tandem with Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, and Kevin Willmott) along with nominations for, yes, directing and producing–as a Best Picture nominee. Good for Mr. Lee. He’s a visionary and a true mover-and-shaker within the motion picture industry, and kudos are long overdue.

That noted, the Lee movie I love most dates all the way back to 1990: ‘Mo Better Blues. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth more than a look as it stars Denzel Washington, incredibly sexy, or charismatic, in his first ever Lee vehicle (hot on the heels of Washington’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar for 1989’s Glory), and only Lee’s fourth feature film–along with a smashing jazzy score by the elder Lee, Bill Lee, with soundtrack contributions by Terrence Blanchard and Bradford Marsalis, along with gorgeous, gorgeous cinematography by the one and only Ernest R. Dickerson–and I still wince every time I think about how Dickerson was passed over for even a nomination from both the Academy AND the American Society of Cinematographers. How’s that? Among others, I gasped watching Samuel L. Jackson give what can surely be described as a volcanic performance in Jungle Fever, stupidly overlooked by the Academy (though honored at Cannes), also featuring Halle Berry in an early role. Lee’s Inside Man is a fun puzzle of a movie, richly cast with Denzel Washington (again), Clive Owen, Jodie Foster (outrageously good in a supporting turn), Christopher Plummer, Willem Dafoe (speaking of…), and Chiwitel Ejiofor. Then, of course, there’s always Crooklyn  starring the one and only Alfre Woodard.

On a more sobering note, how fitting (perhaps?) that Senator John Lewis, a colleague of Martin Luther King Jr., was on board to co-present a clip from Best Picture nominee–and ultimate winner–Green Book. And right as Black History Month comes to a close. Ah that. Well, many of us know by now what Spike Lee thinks about that  development, and that’s fine for him. I happen to like Green Book even if, okay, it truly was not my favorite picture of the year; however, since my top two picks, Crazy Rich Asians and If Beale Street Could Talk, were out of the running, why not Green Book? As stated, once Roma took honors for Best Foreign Language film, a Best Picture victory, as well, seemed a bit of a stretch. Plus, I think by choosing Green Book, Academy voters sent a message to home video platform Netflix. More people have seen Roma on Netflix than those who saw it in its miniscule Oscar-qualifying theatrical run, and that was always the plan: get it into theatres to beat the deadline, and then straight to home video. Yes, and the argument can be made that, compared to the high cost of ticket prices, not to mention even more outrageous concession prices (though shockingly low compensation for theatre employees), along with sketchy distribution patterns for foreign language films, Netflix seems a far more democratic approach to levelling the moviegoing field, granted. At the same time, I’ve read comments by industry professionals, lamenting that Roma movie truly deserves to be seen on the big screen in order for audiences to fully appreciate the genius of director Cuarón‘s vision, the depth and detail of his design, which are almost obliterated on home screens. Plus, movies were always intended as communal experiences, weren’t they? Think about some of the most incredible times you’ve had sitting in a dark, crowded theatre being thrilled by a spectacle so much bigger than life. (Black Panther, anyone?) It’s the movies. At least, it used to be. As I write this, reports indicate that no less than Steven Spielberg wants to rethink Netflix as that concerns eligibility for next year’s awards.

Amid all the back and forth regarding Green Book’s merits as the Academy’s pick for Best Picture, one important truth has not been given its due. See, here, Octavia Spencer, Best Supporting Actress winner for The Help (2011) with additional nominations for Hidden Figures (2016) and last year’s big winner, The Shape of Water? She’s right there in the middle of the image, resplendent in a midnight blue ball gown. A few members of Green Book‘s winning team thanked Ms. Spencer in their acceptance speeches. Does she appear in the movie? No, but she is credited as one of the film’s executive producers, and even though the Academy has restrictions on how many members of a producing team can appear on the ballot for Best Picture honors, meaning Spencer did not qualify for the gold, per se, but Spencer, Oscar or no, is still likely the first black woman with a producer’s credit on an Academy Best Picture winner. That’s huge, and certainly worth celebrating. To clarify, full-time media mogul and sometime actress Oprah Winfrey, similarly earned a producer’s credit on 2009’s Precious, a Best Picture contender without being included on the final ballot though she earned that distinction outright, and made history accordingly, as one of the eligible producers of 2014’s Selma. Furthermore, Kimberly Steward likewise earned a nomination as one of Manchester by the Sea‘s official team members just two years ago.   (IMAGE: https://goo.gl/images/SGauDL)

I make no claim to speak for all sides in the ongoing debate surrounding Green Book; however, I’m not surprised that the Academy selected Green Book as Best Picture because, well, it represents solid, middle of the road moviemaking. I believe it was the late film critic Gene Siskel who once opined that the Academy favors liberal politics served with conservative taste, and that’s why, say, Green Book wins over the likes of edgier offerings such as BlacKkKlansman; plus, Green Book is just commercial enough: $70 million and counting against production costs of 23 million. Does this mean that Green Book is really the best movie of the year? Gosh, no, and too many of us seem to forget that the Academy is an organization comprised of industry professionals who get together once a year to honor what they believe to be the best–again, among those who make movies for a living and whose tastes are shaped accordingly; they invite the rest of us to revel in their excess, I mean, success, and we respond accordingly, or not, and at our own peril.

Comparisons between Green Book and Driving Miss Daisy, 1989’s Best Picture winner–and a questionable choice for many? Well, duh. It’s hard to shake the comparisons between the two: the former, about an elderly Jewish woman and her decades long, sometimes contentious, relationship with her black chauffeur in Atlanta; the second, about a famous black pianist who’s driven to concert dates mostly in the south by a white man, an Italian-American, a beefy bouncer in need of extra cash. I get it. Still, Green Book is highly entertaining and was, indeed, an early Best Picture frontrunner, that is, before the releases of Roma and The Favourite. and some foolishness from the mouth of Best Actor nominee, Viggo Mortensen, who nonetheless was still acknowledged in winner’s acceptance speeches, including that of Mahershala Ali.

I still think Green Book holds value, in spite of some skeptics’ well-levelled criticism, because in this polarizing time with the demonizing of “others,” many Americans need to be reminded that maybe, just maybe, America wasn’t always so great for all its people, per the reality of the actual Green-Book, the real travel guide that advised African-Americans of hotels and motels that provided relatively safe accommodations for black people in an era in which segregation was very much a thing, let alone so-called “Sundown Towns,” in which those same black people were strongly advised–via  actual town ordinances–they best keep moving, and sooner rather than later, to either get out of town–or to stay hidden until the light of day.  Yes, the Green Book was a real thing. Then, when Dr. Shirley’s presumed queer identity is considered, Green Book’s relevance makes it harder to brush aside. Doesn’t it? (And we certainly didn’t get into any of that in Driving Miss Daisy, did we?) Plus, how many of us had ever heard of Dr. Don Shirley prior to Green Book? Not me, and not too many others, relatively speaking, I’m sure. So, yeah. (Though, again, members of Dr. Shirley’s family and Nick Vallelonga, co-writer and son of Tony Vallelonga [the driver] offer differing accounts of the two men’s time together, so there’s always that discussion.) Just to clarify: Green Book won three Oscars. The third, after Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor, was for Best Original Screenplay, per the aforementioned Vallelonga along with Brian Hayes Currie and Peter Farrelly (who also directed–minus famous sibling and collaborator Bobby Farrelly).

Finally, referring back to the one and only Gaga and her “Poker Face” tune from a few years back, what about Glenn Close’s own poker face upon losing the Best Actress award to Olivia Colman in The Favourite, playing Queen Anne…that’s one for King and two for Queens in one evening.  I recently read a comment, something to the effect that, perhaps, the best way to appreciate The Favourite is to consider it terms of America’s current White House, with Anne as a stand-in for the polarizing POTUS and the subordinates played by nominees Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone as representatives of a revolving door’s worth of opportunistic associates. Yeah, I can kind of see that, but even then Colman’s performance only works as a conceit, compared to Glenn Close’s flesh and blood portrayal,  and might as well have been played by Alec Baldwin in drag. I’m just not a fan of The Favourite, but that’s on me; again, it has nothing to do with the Academy though I also believe my reservations regarding whether Colman was campaigned for in the right category are justified.  Yes, there’s certainly no movie without Queen Anne, but she doesn’t drive the plot. It’s a quandary whereas Close surely is the driving force in The Wife. (As an aside, a close friend expressed deep surprise when he learned that The Wife was NOT based on a true story based on Close’s incredibly vivid portrayal. He was surer what we was watching was real.) I’ll give credit to Colman for her gracious shout-out to Close (ever the poker-face) and the transformative nature of her performance in The Favourite, which is hard to ignore given how affable she appears on red carpet interviews, talk shows, and acceptance speeches on various awards shows. In that regard, and in that regard only, her Oscar isn’t completely undeserved.

Also, as I write this and think about how it all might have played out differently if Colman had been nominated for Best Supporting Actress instead of Best Actress, I realize that such a turn might have resulted in a different outcome in the Best Supporting Actress race, and I wouldn’t have cared for that, either, so I’ll just stop here.

Thanks for your consideration…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Best Actress: Close…Closer…Closest

22 Feb

The Wife marks Glenn Close’s 7th Oscar race. She’s never won and while she might not necessarily be a lock, given strong competition from entertainer extraordinare, ever-fabulous Lady Gaga and her blazing performance in A Star is Born, she might vey well be…you know, closer than she ever has been.

Let’s take a look, shall we?

 

1 The World According to Garp, 1982 (Best Supporting Actress): Before breaking into movies, Close worked steadily in theater, earning a Tony nomination for her featured role in the musical Barnum–opposite Best Actor winner Jim Dale as the fabled showman. Close’s success in that show led to her big screen debut in director George Roy Hill’s adaptation of John Irving’s tremendous best seller. Cast as the titular Garp’s determinedly single mother, Close brought warmth to a role that surely needed it. Nurse Jenny Fields, a feminist icon within Irving’s somewhat twisted conceit, is a humourless–starchy–pragmatist who somehow seems almost virtuous in Close’s capable hands. Also, dig that Close is/was only four years older than Robin Williams, cast as Garp (taking over the role from child actor J.B. McCall once the character reaches adulthood), and, to clarify, Close is not burdened by trying to perform beneath a lot of heavy old-age makeup.

Fresh-faced Close was an early Oscar frontrunner that season, reaping accolades from the likes of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the National Board of Review, and the National Society of Film Critics, but the competition, overall, was fierce. For example, Terri Garr and Lesley-Anne Warren, likeable actresses who’d been bubbling along in the business for a bit longer than Close–though not necessarily much older–showed off fine comic chops in the likes of Tootsie and Victor/Victoria, respectively. Meanwhile, acting powerhouse—and previous Best Actress nominee (for 1964’s Séance on a Wet Afternoon)–Kim Stanley made one of her rare big screen appearances as real-life much lamented starlet Frances Framer’s domineering ma in Frances, starring Jessica Lange as the misunderstood Farmer. Ah yes.  That. The same year that Lange sparred futilely with Stanley, she also–and at Stanley’s behest–landed a plum role in Tootsie–alongside Garr. Lange was nominated for both films, a rarity, especially at that time: Best Actress for the searing dramatic role of a lifetime in Frances; Best Supporting Actress for the soft and cuddly soap opera actress who charms Dustin Hoffman’s masquerading heel of an actor in Tootsie. Cynics argue that since Lange had only the slimmest of chances in the Best Actress category, up against Meryl Streep’s colossal efforts as an irredeemably scarred Holocaust survivor in Sophie’s Choice, the Academy awarded her Best Supporting Actress for Tootsie as a consolation prize; another complaint is that Lange’s role in Tootsie was more leading than supporting, especially when weighted against Garr’s role as Hoffman’s frustrated acting pal. Whatever. I disagree on both counts, but it doesn’t matter. Lange won. Close lost, but she was only getting started.

2 The Big Chill, 1983 (Best Supporting Actress):  A year after her attention-grabbing work in Garp, Close solidified her appeal in writer-director Lawrence Kasdan’s seminal seriocomic take on what happens when former hippie radicals from the 1960s begin feeling the effects of everyday life more than a decade after college. What was once daring now seems irresponsible; what was once seen as conformist now reads as stable and good.  Wealth and security are no longer the enemies. They might even be necessary and, once again, good. In Kasdan’s scenario, once close friends, now at least partially estranged due to geography as well as careers and families, reunite under the most unpleasant of circumstances, the tragic passing of a key group member, as charismatic as he was restless. Kasdan populated his flick with some of the hottest up-and-comers of the era, casting Close and Kevin Kline as the so-called “glue,” or mom and pop, of the group, meaning more grounded, less quirky–and, by extension, less comedic.  Reportedly, Kasdan had to coax both Close and Kline into participating due to the fact that characters he envisioned for them lacked the color or obvious appeal of, say, a TV action star in the throes of divorce (Tom Berrenger), a button-down corporate lawyer feeling the stirrings of her biological clock (Mary Kay Place), or a snarky reporter from People (Jeff Goldblum), among others. Instead, Close and Kline, doctor and entrepreneur respectively, seem well-suited for one another and enjoy a enviable life of material comfort.

While The Big Chill did not score unanimous raves, it was generally well-reviewed, thanks to Kasdan and Barabara Benedek’s witty script, and, especially, the lively performances; likewise, the public embraced the movie–it played at my old theatre for a walloping 32 weeks (think about it)–turning the oldies-filled soundtrack into a best seller, ushering a new term into the lexicon, and unofficially inspiring the late 1980s’ TV show thirtysomething. (As well, the movie arrived at about the same time as the ubiquitous term, “Yuppie,” that is young upwardly mobile professionals.) Oscar buzz began building the minute the film hit the screens with one recurring blurb proclaiming that the entire cast should be awarded one great big Oscar.  Alas, Close was the only cast member singled out by the Academy, and it’s easy to see why. The whole lot of them perform splendidly, but Close’s Sara Cooper is arguably the best written role, the only character with a fully developed interior life: affable host (to a full house) on the outside, grieving hardest on the inside, lamenting a former lover who touched her in a way that even her husband can scarcely imagine.  Beautiful. The role was Kasdan’s gift to Close, and she invested her everything into it–once she accepted the challenge.

Despite reams of publicity, The Big Chill only garnered three noms, including Best Picture, yes. If the film had loomed as a stronger contender, overall, Close might have had a better chance. For the second year in a row Close was in a tough race, led by the likes of mind-bendingly good Linda Hunt, crossing the gender line in Peter Weir’s fascinating The Year of Living Dangerously and pop superstar Cher stripping away the glam in a key role–a composite–in the otherwise fact-based Silkwood.  Hunt cleaned-up among the various critics’ associations though Cher nabbed the Golden Globe. Less likely but still worthy: Alfre Woodward (Cross Creek) and Amy Irving (Yentl).  Any of them could have won and no one would have been able to put up too much of an argument–I know I wouldn’t have–but Hunt’s achievement was singular and an Academy first.

3. The Natural, 1984 (Best Supporting Actress):  Barry Levinson’s wondrously scaled, golden-hued tale of a once promising yet seemingly doomed baseball player fighting for redemption during the waning days of the Great Depression, is as much about Bernard Malamud’s mythic 1952 novel, a bitter pill, that, as it is about star Robert Redford’s enduring “Golden Boy” persona. Purists balked at Levinson’s changes, but his choice of reshaping the material as a movie lover’s valentine to Redford made the flick an audience favorite.  Close portrays the one seemingly irrefutably “good” woman in Roy Hobbs’ life–among a trio of otherwise vexed encounters–although she is not without a secret of her own. Iris, that’s her name, seems to serve one purpose: to inspire Hobbs to be a better baseball player and a more honorable man. It’s a thinly written role, and Close once lamented that it, along with Jenny Fields and Sara Cooper, was too First Ladyish, but she makes it work due to some marvelous underplaying and genuine rapport with Redford; plus she’s lovingly lit and framed by master cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (Oscar nominated then–and this year as well) . She even looks great in her period wardrobe.

Even so, a third consecutive nomination–and for a popular entry with multiple nods (but not, alas, for Redford in a signature role)–was not the ticket, not in the same year as Dame Peggy Ashcroft’s bravura turn as the increasingly agitated, nearly prophetic, Mrs. Moore in A Passage to India, one of the year’s leading Best Picture contenders (11 nominations) and Geraldine Page, still winless after 6 previous tries, devouring the screen in a smallish role with big emotions in The Pope of Greenwich Village. To the surprise of no one Ashcroft won, nary a false note in that performance, and Page had to wait one more year to be so celebrated. Close’s fellow nominees also included Christine Lahti, sashaying her way through Goldie Hawn vehicle Swing Shift, and Lindsay Crouse as Sally Field’s dutifully supportive sister (one with her own unfortunate sub-plot) in Places in the Heart, another Best Picture nominee. Of course, Lahti and Crouse continued to give strong performances in films and TV, but Close was on the verge of graduating to true big league stardom. (Meanwhile, I’ve longed believed that Amy Madigan, also in Places in the Heart, was more deserving of a nod than was Crouse, but I digress.)

The early to mid 1980s were particularly productive for Close as she triumphed on Broadway, earning a Best Actress in a Play Tony for Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing (1984), starred in landmark made for TV movie Something about Amelia (garnering Emmy and Golden Globe nominations), and graduated to big screen leading roles with back-to-back feature films in 1985.  Comic Maxie afforded her the opportunity to play dual roles as a the ghost of a 1920s flapper and a timid, no-nonsense housewife. The movie tanked though it has its admirers–and I know a few of them; nonetheless, it was a good showcase for Close and netted Golden Globe and Saturn nominations. At the same instant, Close starred opposite Jeff Bridges in the walloping legal thriller Jagged Edge, which scared and teased enthusiastic audiences into submission. I’ll admit that the movie gave me more than a few goosebumps–and a scary ride home with a friend after a midnight screening–but, even so, I found it a tad predictable, and Close’s performance as an attorney defending a sleazy client in a high profile murder case didn’t click for me. Nonetheless, it made a fortune, and Columbia Pictures lobbied hard for Oscar consideration though the effort failed–at least regarding Close. Robert Loggia, as a crusty investigator, nailed a Best Supporting Actor nod. Good for him. Even though Close was out of that year’s Oscar race, Jagged Edge‘s success no doubt helped her land her most iconic role.

4. Fatal Attraction, 1987 (Best Actress): Surely the most polarizing movie of 1987, Adrian Lyne’s steamy, sensational thriller about a one-night stand with terrifying consequences proved Close’s game-changer, besides introducing yet another term into the lexicon. As “Alex Forrest,” a seductive book editor brimming with dangerous energy who casts her alluring sights on a married lawyer, Close firmly established herself as a major player and smashed any notions of being able to only portray genteel First Lady types. The movie was everywhere in the fall of ’87 and even into early ’88: magazine covers, TV talk shows, you name it–and that was before the Internet as we now know it. Some analysts portrayed the flick as a metaphor for AIDS during a particularly fearful time while others blasted its sexual politics, demonizing a woman who is just as culpable in an illicit fling as is the married man (Michael Douglas) who breaks his vow (to saucy Anne Archer) but does not suffer consequences to the same degree. (Include me among those naysayers.) No matter. Word of mouth was killer-diller and audiences could not get enough. Easy to see why. Everything about Fatal Attraction is heightened: the sex, the atmosphere, the camera work, the editing and sound mixing–and, most of all, Close’s character. Not just her acting, but the whole conception of the character, her snaky blonde tendrils and over the top wardrobe, very much in the mode of 80s bigger is better styling. Close, who only landed the role after several other actresses were either uninterested or unavailable, immersed  herself into researching the psychological makeup of women like Alex, only to see her efforts undercut by a ghoulishly freaky ending, shot well after production had seemingly wrapped–and two previous endings were rejected as not delivering enough bang for the buck. Again, the naysayers pounced, calling b.s. on a preposterous third-act turn that sacrificed irony and insight for cheap thrills as Hollywood became more corporatized than ever and “high concept” became the hallmark. A friend once dismissed it as Peyton Place meets Night of the Living Dead.  I think the movie would have still worked, and would have still been a hit, without the slam bang finale, but we’ll never know. Despite the many, many negatives that Fatal Attraction invites, I don’t think, in retrospect, the Academy would have erred in honoring Close’s performance though, again, I did not feel that way at the time.

A couple of oddities marked the race for the 1987/88 Best Actress Oscar. For example, Meryl Streep continued exploring a wide array of roles in the little seen Ironweed, playing a Depression era derelict, full of dashed dreams. Streep was powerfully good though her role was clearly secondary to top billed Jack Nicholson, but even with top tier talent including author William Kennedy’s Pulitzer, the relentlessly downbeat film was a hard sell and tanked without much notice. Academy telecast viewers surely recognized Streep among the nominees but probably had no recollection of Ironweed. Sally Kirkland, an actress who’d worked consistently for a good long while without attracting a lot of mainstream attention, despite being well regarded within the industry as both performer and acting coach, commanded laudatory reviews for Anna, a low-budget indie scarcely seen outside the film festival circuit, save for obligatory Academy qualifying runs in New York and Los Angeles.  Galvanized by high praise, Kirkland campaigned vigorously, sinking her own money into trade ads galore. Seemingly through sheer will, she propelled herself into a leading contender though, again, audiences watching that year’s ceremony were probably confused. Who? What? Holly Hunter weighed in as the hotshot newcomer, per James L. Brooks’ Broadcast News, but despite Hunter’s obvious promise–since fulfilled–she paled in the company of pros Close and Cher (Moonstruck).  At the time, Cher was enjoying a career rebirth, firmly establishing herself as a full-blown movie star with three major films in the span of one year; plus, swoony Moonstruck was a crowd-pleasing romantic comedy–with rhapsodic reviews–in which the pop diva made a game attempt at adopting a Brooklyn accent and successfully played against her flamboyant image in the role of a no-nonsense, unapologetically pragmatic bookkeeper experiencing unexpected stirrings of grand passion.  At that moment, America was yet again in love with Cher, rooting for her. Close’s film, and her performance in it, didn’t inspire that kind of admiration. That noted, Close deserves credit for her singular contribution to a film that became a cultural milestone…meanwhile, let it be noted, that while Cher’s hold on the public’s imagination seldom wavers, her film career peaked with Moonstruck per the random smattering of projects in the interim.

5. Dangerous Liaisons, 1988 (Best Actress): French author Pierre Ambroise François Choderlos de Laclos’s 18th century epistolary novel Les Liaisons dangereuses served as the basis for British playwright’s Christopher Hampton’s hit theatrical adaptation, netting a passel of Tony awards and launching the stateside career of Alan Rickman. Hollywood called, Rickman bolted for a juicy role in Die Hard, and Hampton adapted his own play with the anglicized title,  Dangerous Liaisons. Close, fresh from her triumph in Fatal Attraction. seemed ideally cast as the cunning  Marquise de Merteuil, whose need for spite, for control, motivates her to treat even those near and allegedly dear to her as though they were nothing more than petty amusements, lacking agency among their own affairs. Close is brilliant as the Marquise, slyly underplaying like a tightly wound coil until the point of no return, at which she surrenders her defenses and allows her emotions to spew, to burn, to rage.

Period pics are always a gamble in corporate Hollywood, especially in such cases wherein men sport poufy wigs, tri-cornered hats, fancy jackets, stockings, and knickers, but Dangerous Liaisons, replete with the finest trappings, turned out to be surprisingly commercial, especially in its ability to draw repeat viewers–as oh so many of my friends–and I–can attest. Close’s magnificent performance was certainly worthy of an Academy award, but that year’s race for Best Actress was as tight as the previous year’s had been wobbily. Setting aside Meryl Streep (A Cry in the Dark) and Sigourney Weaver (Gorillas in the Mist), two fine actress turning in exceptional performances, all the heat came from Close, Melanie Griffith (Working Girl), and Jodie Foster (The Accused). Regarding Griffith, her film was a lark of a comedy, a cross between All About Eve and 9 to 5, that no doubt benefitted from director Mike Nichols’s expertise, 20th Century Fox’s splashy promotional campaign, strong word of mouth, and the general public’s fascination with star Griffith, buoyed by tabloid headlines regarding her then recent stint in rehab and apparent rekindled romance with first hubby, TV and film actor Don Johnson. Griffith’s star power was undeniable. In the end, though Foster triumphed. An easy call in retrospect; after all, Academy voters, in step with the rest of the country, had either grown up with Foster–yours truly–or had watched her grow up in movies and on TV over two decades and were rooting for her to succeed, especially given the challenges she’d faced when attempting grown-up roles after taking time off for college.  At a mere 5’3″, Foster commanded movie screens giving a fearless, no-holds barred performance as a rape victim trying to correct her reputation after the legal system serves expediency rather than justice–inspired by, but only loosely based upon, a true story.  Simply, after seeing Foster muscle through The Accused‘s punishing demands, Academy members felt good about honoring her achievement–even amid such formidable competition. Come awards night, Foster delivered a memorable speech that effectively justified the Academy’s faith in her. Mission accomplished. Foster had arrived, and superstardom followed. On the other hand, Close took a different course

Foster would win a second Oscar a mere three years after her first victory; however, Close would not be in another Oscar race for more than two decades.  To clarify,  after Dangerous Liaisons, Glenn Close continued to star (or co-star) in high profile films, including Reversal of Fortune along with Franco Zefferelli’s Hamlet, and Disney’s campy live action reboot of classic 101 Dalmatians, chewing the scenery as legendary baddie Cruella DeVille–earning a Golden Globe nomination in the process. Broadway beckoned, again, and Close won Tony awards for a “straight” play (Death and the Maiden) as well as a lavish musical (assuming the coveted role of neurotic silent screen star Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, a role which she recently revisited more than a decade after its original run). On TV, Close regularly flexed her versatility in the likes of Hallmark’s highly lauded Sarah, Plain and Tall, a major Emmy contender, along with a couple of Emmy winners: Serving in Silence: the Margarethe Cammermeyer Story (based on a landmark case involving the constitutionality of banning gays and lesbians from joining the military), and Damages, a legal procedural series in which Close starred as a scruples impaired lawyer for five seasons. She even took on the role of Nellie Forbush in a teleadaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic musical South Pacific. Once the aforementioned Damages wrapped, Close was ripe for a big screen return.

6. Albert Nobbs, 2011 (Best Actress): Close’s most recent Oscar nod came for this mild curio, in which she effectively starred as a trans man, well before there was even such a term, working as a butler in Dublin, circa, say, 1890.  Nobbs has worked hard to reinvent himself and is generally successful though that has also come with the hefty price, meaning a life of loneliness. His goal, to borrow from Gosford Park, is to be the perfect servant, meaning to anticipate a client’s needs while also allowing that disappearing into the background is the better part of valor. Whatever its merits, Albert Nobbs was a dream project for Close as she donned additional duties as co-producer and co-screenwriter, adapting the script from a play by French playwright Simone Benmussa–itself based on a novella published in the 1920s by George Moore. Close had actually starred in an Off-Broadway staging of the play in the early 1980s, around the time of The World According to Garp, and even netted an Obie award (that is, the  Off-Broadway equivalent of a Tony). Not bad. She spent years trying to make the film happen, and the Academy recognized her diligence accordingly, but the film isn’t an unqualified success. Close’s performance is a bit too mannered, too obviously actor-ish, drawing more attention to the effort involved than to necessarily illuminating anything within the character. It didn’t help Close’s chances that she was all-but blown off the screen by cast mate–and Best Supporting Actress nominee–Janet McTeer, who had just the right amount of swagger in a role similar to Close’s Nobbs, meaning born female but successfully living as a male. Now, that was a performance, practically seamless.

Close generated a lot of goodwill with this big screen comeback of sorts, but she stood almost no chance of going home with an Oscar in a year dominated by Viola Davis, making a leap to super-stellar status in the humongously popular The Help (from the runway best seller by Kathleen Stockett), and Meryl Streep, working extra hard to humanize former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, often referred to The Iron Lady, a nickname not always used affectionately among Thatcher’s detractors. Streep, already a two-time winner, dating back to the late 1970s and early 1980s, was well overdue for a third Oscar after more than a dozen nominations in the interim. The Iron Lady film itself is a mixed bag, as much a curio as Close’s project, but it was the right vehicle for Streep and at the right time, apparently. If she hadn’t won, Davis would have been the likely beneficiary, and well deserved. Close was back in the game, but she watched from the sidelines with Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and Michelle Williams (My Week with Marilyn, an especially generous choice on the part of the Academy…and I typically appreciate Williams). Not only that, but did I mention that Close was all-but blown off the screen by cast mate–and Best Supporting Actress nominee–Janet McTeer, who had just the right amount of swagger…

Now, we have The Wife, in which Close is jaw-droppingly, staggeringly good as a woman who has spent the better part of her adult life playing the unsung helpmate to her acclaimed novelist husband, recently selected as a Nobel Prize winner for literature. We all know the old adage, “Behind every great man, there’s a woman,” and that is what this tale, based on Meg Wolitzer’s same-named novel, gets at as Close and her husband (Jonathan Pryce) travel to Stockholm for the award ceremony. A series of flashbacks, in which Close’s younger self is portrayed by her real-life daughter Annie Starke (a fine lookalike),  details the couple’s courtship and subsequent partnership, the end goal being to elevate and maintain the husband’s literary profile. The relationship, flawed as it is, works until it doesn’t. The mere pressure of being in a foreign country while dealing with the fine protocol of what is expected at such a prestigious international event builds to the breaking point as Close is generally ignored–when not being condescended to–and Pryce’s ego runs amok. Close is expected to be the dutiful, deferential, caretaker, and/or troubleshooter. Easier said than done. She’s hardly a pushover.

Is Close “a lock”? I don’t think she is in spite of a bevy of prizes, including the Golden Globe for Drama, the SAG award, and a tie with Lady Gaga for the Critics’ Choice awards, among a host of other honors. She’s been endearingly gracious in all her televised acceptance speeches, and that fosters additional goodwill. Six previous nominations notwithstanding she’s in an uphill climb as her film, directed by Björn L Runge and adapted by Emmy winner Jane Anderson, is hardly a box-office blockbuster, and that’s an understatement. On the other hand, Lady Gaga, updating a role made famous  by the likes of Janet Gaynor, Judy Garland, and Barbra Streisand (none of whom won Oscars for their performances), is in a blockbuster, but she’s also not a sure thing; after all, Ms. Gaga is also nominated for co-writing her movie’s anthemic power-ballad “Shallow,” which means, at least in theory, the Academy can honor Gaga as a songwriter (as was the case with Streisand), clearing the way to a more assured victory for Close. There’s also the matter, recently addressed by a few critics as well as Camille Paglia, that in Bradley Cooper’s version of the familiar showbiz tale, for which he directed, co-wrote, co-produced and starred, the emphasis, for once, is more squarely on the male superstar doomed in a downward spiral of addiction rather than the ascendant female whose love for her man is no match for his addiction, in spite of both their best intentions. Gaga is truly a force, but her role seems secondary to Cooper’s, and it’s an awkward balance compared to the way Close dominates her film.

The only nominee who seems truly down for the count is Melissa McCarthy, charting all new dramatic territory as infamous literary forger Lee Israel in Can You ever Forgive Me? We’re all happy for McCarthy’s success, now that she has moved beyond the in your face brand of raucous comedies that followed her breakout success–and Best Supporting Actress nomination–in 2011’s Bridesmaids, but the nomination is likely its own reward.  Olivia Colman (The Favourite) and Yalitza Aparicio (Roma) have the benefit of appearing in the two most nominated flicks of the year, 10 each, which raises their respective profiles, and Aparicio, the first ever indigenous person to be nominated for Best Actress, is a Cinderella story in the making as Roma is also her film debut. On the other hand, versatile, much-admired Brit Colman is an upset waiting to happen as she transforms herself into The Favourite‘s real-life grotesque Queen Anne. Even so, in spite of the fact that there is no story without Queen Anne, the role itself is secondary to the dueling supplicants portrayed by Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone. The movie is more about them than it is about the queen herself. How to reconcile that?

I think it’s a mistake for skeptics to assume that if Close wins, it will be a well-intended “career” acknowledgement rather than an achievement specific to her particular performance in The Wife.  The complexity of her character, the nuance, and the full range of emotions Close brings is beyond compare, really. Especially up against the more familiar trajectory of A Star is Born, in which a brilliant pop-star plays….a pop-star, albeit brilliantly. Is that an achievement?  A local TV host summed it best just a few days ago, explaining that, yes, she was skeptical about all The Wife hoopla–until she actually saw The Wife, and then she knew. Look at the play of conflicting emotions in Close’s face even when she isn’t speaking. Acting gold, if you will, but words barely do Close justice. As the TV host noted, The Wife has to be seen to be fully appreciated; after that, the competition is not even…..well, you know.

Thanks for your consideration…

 

 

 

Best Supporting: To SAG or Not To SAG ?

11 Feb

Well, the Screen Actors Guild awards, also slangily known as the SAGs, were not much help as a prognostication tool regarding this year’s Best Supporting Actress and Actor awards.

Here is what we know. Once known exclusively as SAG, the labor union representing 160, 000 entertainment industry professionals, everything from high profile TV and movie stars to DJs, broadcast journalists, puppeteers, and voiceover artists, is now officially recognized as SAG-AFTRA, following a merger with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. The organization dates back to the 1930s, founded practically in protest of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but has only been producing an annual televised awards ceremony for about 25 years.

The SAGs might be a more reliable barometer of Oscar voting than the much hyped Golden Globes for the simple fact that members of the Academy’s acting branch most definitely overlap as members of SAG. Of course, the guild encompasses a much larger voting body that also spans markets all across the U.S., allowing for more voices outside the Hollywood hierarchy; nonetheless, the groups share a relatively small but influential membership.

Do the SAGs and the Oscars always match up? Not always, but often, though some categories are more standard in that regard than others. For example, the last two SAG winners for Best Supporting Actor, Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards…) and Mahershala Ali (Moonlight) triumphed at the Oscars; however, Tommy Lee Jones (Lincoln, 2012) and Eddie Murphy (Dreamgirls, 2006) are two high-profile exceptions–among many. On the other hand, Robin Williams (Good Will Hunting, 1997) is an example of a performer whose work had gone relatively unrecognized during that year’s award season until he won the SAG–and then the Oscar. On the other hand, one has to go all the way back to Kate Winslet who won a SAG as a supporting player for 2008’s The Reader, to find a split for Best Supporting Actress between the SAGs and the Oscars, the twist being that the Academy nominated Winslet as a leading player for the same role–and for which she won. But I digress. Winslet’s bump to Best Actress worked out well for Penelope Cruz (Vicky Christina Barcelona) in the supporting category, btw.

RKing_Beale

In a recent Hollywood Reporter roundtable discussion, Best Supporting Actress nominee Regina King shared a story about how when she was a child on TV’s 227, star Marla Gibbs stressed the importance of always being present for other actors in a scene, advice she clearly heeds during tense, awkward confrontations in If Beale Street Could Talk. (IMAGE: https://kidskunst.info/linked/regina-king-on-if-beale-street-could-talk-and-the-power-726567696e61.htm)

Here is what happened in the Best Supporting Actress category at the recent SAG awards. Magnificent Regina King, whom we’ve all loved and watched grow up in movies and TV for decades (227, Boyz n the Hood, Friday, Jerry Maguire, Ray, Southland, and so much more), has dominated voting for much of the season thanks to her work in If Beale Street Could Talk as a devoted mom, circa 1974, trying to do the best she can in an unsettling situation (pregnant daughter whose boyfriend, and also the baby’s father, is apparently falsely accused of a crime and awaits a retrial in jail) . Her character is a woman on a mission, but the mission overwhelms her, especially when she embarks on a last ditch effort for redemption in Puerto Rico. Brilliant stuff. Even with a Globe and a Critics’ Choice award, among a whopping handful of accolades, King was somehow overlooked by SAG voters–surprising, that, given that she has worked steadily on both big and small screens for so long–and so well, earning three Emmys in the process (two seasons of American Crime and again in Seven Seconds).

With King out of the running for the SAG award, interest seemingly shifted to Amy Adams, for her portrayal of Lynne Vincent Cheney, wife of former VP Dick Cheney in Vice. Between leading and supporting categories (specific to film as opposed to TV), Adams has been nominated for the SAG award eight times, winning only as part of the American Hustle ensemble during the 2013-2014 derby; likewise, Adams has never won an Oscar in 5 previous races, the most recent being a run for Best Actress, per, once again,  2013’s American Hustle.

Adams seemed like a lock for the SAG trophy, a move which might have jump-started an Oscar victory, but the award failed to materialize. Instead, the guild honored ever-versatile Emily Blunt for playing the expectant mom–who indeed goes into labor while being stalked by massive creepy crawlies–in last spring’s terrific thriller The Quiet Place. Blunt was a “wow” in the demanding role. Of course, she was as she almost always is, but the trouble is, c’mon, she was clearly a star player in the enterprise (directed by her co-star and real-life hubby Jonathan Krasinski), and to even consider her as anything less is rubbish–AND an insult to young Millicent Simmonds as Blunt and Krasinski’s resourceful daughter, a true supporting player. No fair. The twist in all of this is that Blunt is out of the running for an Oscar, so with Adams still trying to muster momentum, the heavy betting likely favors King, keeping in mind that director Barry Jenkins clearly has the winning touch per his work with Mahershala Ali (Moonlight) only two years ago.

I can’t imagine that either Rachel Weisz or Emma Stone, effectively star players slumming as supporting aspirants, has much hope for The Favourite–even though the film is one of the year’s top nominees (10 nods, including Best Picture). Both are previous Oscar winners, with Weisz earning a most deserved win for 2005’s The Constant Gardener (supporting) and Stone only two years out from capturing Best Actress honors for La La Land. Stone, in particular, is too big to be handed a Oscar as a supporting player so soon after her first victory, but neither actress deserves supporting actress consideration in a film in which they–not the real life queen portrayed by Best Actress nominee Olivia Colman–drive the plot. The Favourite is an oddity in that it really has three leads, the gag being that without Colman’s Queen Anne, there cannot be a story, yet she is simply a prize, a dupe, even, to the women who manipulate her in a game of outfoxing each other. With neither actress offering Academy voters a compelling reason to choose one over the other, the likely scenario is that they will split votes. What a waste.

Roma‘s Marina de Tavira figures as the question mark in this guessing game. The Mexico City native, well established at home (per a previous pair of awards from the Mexican Cinema Journalists), plays employer to Best Actress nominee Yalitza Aparcio in director Alfonso Cuarón’s semi-autobiographical tale about growing up in the 1970s; effectively, Tavira portrays a character based on the director’s mother.  Besides the merits of the performance itself, Tavira benefits from being a fresh-face to many Academy voters, meaning less actressy without baggage from previous efforts. Plus, her film’s 10 nominations, comparable to those of The Favourite, signify strong support within the Academy, and who knows how that might play out on the final ballot.

The Academy’s generosity toward Weisz and Stone comes at the expense of gifted actresses who wowed audiences in true supporting, or featured, roles, beginning with Michelle Yeoh and Awkwafina (standouts in the incredibly overlooked Crazy Rich Asians), as well as Danai Gurira, thrilling as Black Panther‘s Okoye.   A fun longshot would have been Michelle Williams in I Feel Pretty.  Williams, often strong in Oscar nominated dramas (such as 2016’s Manchester by the Sea), demonstrates enviable comic chops as a squeaky voiced cosmetics tycoon, sharply contrasting her work as the embattled mom fighting for her kidnapped son’s life in 2017’s All the Money in the World (for which a fifth Oscar nod would have been just), but I Feel Pretty, starring Amy Schumer, performed only mildly at the box-office, not enough to qualify as a true achievement–though attention grabbing roles in blockbusters clearly didn’t favor Yeoh, Awkwafina, or Gurira.

Mahershala Ali, meanwhile, appears to be a lock for Best Supporting Actor, thanks to his masterful turn in Green Book as real-life pianist Dr. Don Shirley, an African-American in need of a chauffeur–i.e, bodyguard–during an early 1960s concert tour through still deeply segregated states in the southern U.S..  As noted, Ali won in this same category just two years ago for Moonlight, playing a drug dealer who takes on, uneasily, the role of a mentor to a young boy, struggling for acceptance in a chaotic world. Ali’s work in Green Book is worlds removed from Moonlight–and worlds removed, furthermore, from his role as Katherine Johnson’s (Taraji P. Henson) gallant suitor in the blockbuster Hidden Figures, released the same year as Moonlight. As Dr. Shirley, Ali’s great at conveying the character’s artful management of his own identity, always performing; plus, he credibly manages the dexterity required to portray a pianist. He has a Golden Globe, a SAG, a Broadcast Film Critics Association award, among others, to prove it. Additionally, he’s garnering extra attention right now thanks to his leading role in the revived True Detective series. Good for him.

Still, I think it’s a cheat that he’s being, what, shoe-horned into the Best Supporting Actor category for a film in which he clearly stars as a co-lead, sharing the screen with Viggo Mortensen, as Tony Vallelonga (aka Tony Lip), Dr. Shirley’s driver–a bouncer in need of a short-term gig while his usual post—the famed Copacabana–undergoes remodeling. Yes, Mortensen’s character is the audience’s path into the story, so he has a few minutes more screen time than Ali, but without Ali’s Dr. Shirley there is no story, which means Ali is, at least, a second lead. Of course, this is how studio interference and the politics of marketing manipulate and even corrupt Academy voting. Rather than honoring both men equally, the studios split them, affording, yes, better chances of BOTH winning, but also securing Ali out of Mortensen’s way and increasing the latter’s odds as the now three time Best Actor nominee is, so far, winless. But buzz for Mortensen has faded after a strong start (due, no doubt, to some unfortunate–ignorant–comments he made regarding racism, using the actual N-word when he could have just used the euphemistic “N-word” instead, and everyone would have gotten the point). At any rate, Ali might enjoy the last laugh. Not that any of this is a laughing matter.

Ali’s biggest competitor is none other than legendary hunk and damned fine actor Sam Elliott, up for his role as Bradley Cooper’s much put upon older brother–and general caretaker–in A Star is Born. The two actors’ performances are perfectly calibrated, a nifty feat. Of course, Elliott has been a working actor for, gosh, decades, with credits in movies and TV going all the way back to 1969’s Judd for the Defense (at least). His many, many credits include a season of TV’s classic Mission Impossible along with 1993’s righteous Tombstone, starring Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp and Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday; Emmy and Golden Globe nominations for Buffalo Girls, plus the likes of Mask and The Big Lebowski, along starring roles in acclaimed indie films, such as Lifeguard, Hero, and I’ll See You in My Dreams. Oh, and this veteran of oh so many cowboy flicks is a six time honoree, per the Western Heritage Awards. This is his first Oscar nomination and while I do not believe for an instant that he can’t triumph here–and Academy history shows that veteran actors do quite well in this category–I also freely admit that I blinked when he didn’t win the SAG award, and, yes, to clarify, he was nominated. I expected a win, given Elliot’s reputation and longevity–his popularity among actors in all media (including voiceovers)–but maybe Elliot like, say, oh, Harrison Ford, for one, is so good at what he does that it never seems like acting. Whatever. No, he’s not down for the count yet and if he wins, good for him.

Meanwhile, congratulations to Richard E. Grant (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) on his first ever nod, as well. The lanky Brit, of Swazi descent, has been a vibrant presence in movies and TV, in the U.S. and abroad, since the 1980s with key roles in Withnail and I, The Player, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Gosford Park, and, of course, Game of Thrones, among many, many others. Alas, I haven’t seen Grant’s nominated offering, for one reason or another, but, even so, I like him enough as a performer to be all about the nod even if only in the abstract. I can’t imagine NOT being thrilled if he wins, but his chances remain slim against the likes of Ali and Elliot.

The rest of the lot doesn’t offer much excitement. I’m a fan of Adam Driver, nominated for his role as John David Washington’s white ally in BlacKkKlansman, but I’m not rooting for him, either. Driver, of course, has already earned plenty of recognition for his work in the TV series Girls (3 Emmy nods), Hungry Heart (Best Actor, Venice Film Festival), Paterson (LA Film Critics, Toronto Critics), and, of course his villainous turn in the recent spate of Star Wars flicks. His nod here is a nice touch; nice, but goofy, given that Washington was overlooked by the Academy for his most compelling performance in the leading role. Given that, it’s hard to work up much excitement for Driver.  Least likely? Sam Rockwell, last year’s winner (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri), back again for impersonating no less than President George W. Bush to Christian Bale’s Dick Cheney in Vice. Merits of the film aside, what are the odds of back-to-back wins? Not great. The last time in this category, specifically, was when Jason Robards triumphed  first portraying Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee in 1976’s All the President’s Men and then following that up by taking on the role of popular novelist Dashiell Hammett in Julia (1977). I don’t think Rockwell’s work approaches the same level of gravitas–not compared to Ali and, yes, Elliot. (To clarify, Tom Hanks won back-to-back Best Actor trophies for 1993’s Philadelphia and 1994’s Forrest Gump.)

With Rockwell practically guaranteed to go home empty handed, his nod seems a bit of a waste. I would have loved for Jonah Hill to have been recognized with a third nomination in this category for reinventing himself in Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, giving an extremely affable performance as a fey guru-12 step sponsor to Joaquin Phoenix’s recovering wheelchair bound alcoholic . Hill, last in an Oscar race for 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street, has rarely seemed so relaxed–unforced–onscreen; plus, he seemed to have generated heaps of goodwill for his feature length directorial debut, Mid90s. Alas, his only awards consideration has been a nomination from the Indiana Film Critics Association.

I’m pulling for Regina King, SAG or no, and I’ll be fine with either Mahershala Ali or Sam Elliot. It would be hard to begrudge victories for Amy Adams, possibly Marina de Tavira, or even Grant…hard to begrudge, mind you, but not impossible.

Thanks for your consideration.

 

 

Oscars 2018/2019: The Misses Just Keep on Coming

23 Jan

Well, here we are, a particularly favorite time of year. The Oscars remind us every year that good films–and sometimes great films–are still being made, some from even within the corporate Hollywood framework. Of course, even so-called indie movies are not completely without ties to the big mainstream Hollywood studios, but that’s a thought for a different day.

Today, we’re all about the Oscars. Host or no host, an Oscar nod is still a big deal, and, again, good films are still being made; moreover, plenty of good films earn Academy recognition each and every year.

That noted, some of this year’s omissions are puzzling as are the outcomes of some twisted campaigns.

By now, many Academy devotees know that The Favourite and Roma lead the pack with 10 nominations each. I have yet to catch Roma, but it isn’t for lack of interest. Mostly, it’s lack of opportunity. Of course, I’m always down for just about anything from director Alfonso Cuarón, a quadruple contender, what with nominations for writing, producing, directing, and serving as his film’s cinematographer. Good for him. I can hardly wait.

On the other hand, The Favourite? Huh, not a fan. I know it’s a huge, well, you know, favorite with the critics, but I don’t get it. You know what I especially don’t get is how Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone, both previous Oscar winners, could be nominated for Best Supporting Actress (for, to clarify, The Favourite). Simply, this is a story with three leads: Best Actress nominee Olivia Colman as historical figure Queen Anne, with Weisz and Stone as conniving members–cousins–of Anne’s inner circle, each one trying to one-up the other in order to stay in Anne’s better graces to better serve their own agendas, their own fortunes. Without Anne, there is no story, so Colman has to be considered leading rather than supporting even though grotesque Anne does almost nothing to advance the plot. No, that distinction belongs to Weisz and Stone, so they’re actually driving the story in ways that promoting them as supporting players simply does not make sense.

Their nominations would be better filled by the likes of Michelle Yeoh and Awkwafina, both from Crazy Rich Asians, one of last year’s liveliest crowd pleasing movies, a box office behemoth–to the tune of $175 million domestic box office–that the Academy completely overlooked.  I was hoping that with 8 (or so) available Best Picture slots, Crazy Rich Asians would be an easy call with plenty of possibilities for extra nods in addition; after all, how many mainstream romantic comedies have we seen fully populated by Asian cast members–but that didn’t happen, and that’s what I mean when I claim, “The Misses Just Keep on Coming.”

Still, when all is said and done, Best Supporting Actress looks to be dominated by the one and only Regina King, a performer I admire tremendously, for If Beale Street Could Talk, but I’m surprised that the often lavishly praised film was shut out of so many categories, including Best Picture when it had been projected to be a major contender. If Beale Street Could Talk rivals Crazy Rich Asians as my favorite flick of the year, btw, with Green Book a notch or so down the list.

Along the same lines, what happened to a Best Documentary nod for Won’t You be My Neighbor?, all about legendary children’s host–and genuinely kind-hearted–Fred Rogers? 2018 was a year with a number of highly successful documentaries being released into the marketplace, almost none of which were as lauded as the Rogers doc. Possible exception? RBG, which details the remarkable career of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The latter made the final cut, but calling it a slam dunk, an easy win, due to Ginsburg’s ever-expanding base of ardent followers, seems a bit too easy.

Another example, of a “miss” on behalf of the Academy concerns the film Green Book, which, again, l enjoyed, but the nominations don’t make sense. Oh sure, I’m thrilled that only two years after Mahershala Ali triumphed in Moonlight, earning a Best Supporting Actor nod (while appearing in two Best Picture contenders, the second being Hidden Figures), he’s back in the race for Green Book. But wait a second. Does this make sense? Set in the early 1960s, Green Book tells the mostly true story of an Italian-American bouncer–played by Viggo Mortensen, enjoying his third nomination (Awesome!)–who gets hired to serve as a chauffeur for a prominent–real-life–African-American pianist (Ali) who’s preparing to tour in the southern states at a particularly volatile time. What the pianist needs is someone who’s not only an excellent driver/navigator but also someone with just enough muscle and street cred to help stave off trouble from the rednecks, but this arrangement begs the question: Why is Ali positioned as a supporting player? Greenbook does not exist without both Ali and Mortensen, or, rather, the characters they play. They’re both leads. Granted, Mortensen has perhaps a modicum more screen time, but only barely. Positioning Ali has a supporting player smacks of pure Hollywood politics, a way to spread the wealth among all things Green Book–and without a spoiler splitting votes with Mortensen, now in his third try at the gold.

Also missing from the Green Book slate is director Peter Farrelly. Sure not all directors of Best Picture nominees earn correlating nods from members of the Academy’s directors branch, but Farrelly is a current Directors Guild nominee, so his nod looked liked a sure-thing.

Still, I think I’m rooting for Ali even though I think he’s been insultingly placed in the wrong category. His performance in Green Book is a bit of a marvel. Notice how his Don Shirley is always managing his identity, well-aware of his place in a given room. Oh, and Ali is once again doing double duty as he’s also one of the featured voice artists for the nominated animated flick, Spiderman: Into the Spider-verse ; however, Ali is in great company with the likes of Sam Elliott, just about perfect as Bradley Cooper’s older brother–and longtime brother’s keeper–in the 11th jillion remake of A Star is Born. To put it kindly, Elliott is long, long, overdue for his first nomination in a career that spans, per the IMDb, more than 50 years and 99 film and TV credits. Everyone loves the swaggering Elliott with his rugged good looks and unmistakable resonant rumble of a voice.  Elliott brings a lot of goodwill to this race, and almost nobody will be sorry to see him win.

Kudos to Spike Lee, at long last, enjoying his first ever Best Director nomination for the fact-based BlacKkKlansman, also up for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay (a shared nod), which makes Lee a triple nominee. To clarify, Lee was nominated for his Do the Right Thing original screenplay almost 30 years ago, and he also earned a nod for his 1997 documentary 4 Little Girls. Of course, a lot of people thought he would have earned a nomination for directing, going back to Do the Right Thing or Malcom X (1992), not to mention the scathing Bamboozled. Still, BlacKkKlansman is a triumph, but how to explain the Best Supporting Actor nomination for Adam Driver–who’s very good in his secondary role–but nothing for the picture’s star, John David Washington? The misses just keep on coming.

So, Bradley Cooper is out as Best Director for A Star is Born even though the film netted a Best Picture nod in addition to nominations in three of the four performance categories (among others). Maybe the snub in the one category will sway votes in his favor as a Best Actor candidate. He’s awfully, awfully good, and he’s been nominated three times previously, twice as Best Actor (including 2014’s American Sniper) and once as Best Supporting Actor (2013’s American Hustle). To clarify, he’s also up for an award as one of the co-producers of A Star is Born as well as one of its co-writers (in addition to the nomination he earned as one of the co-producers of the aforementioned American Sniper). Cooper could be hard to beat though Mortensen and Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody) also bring star power to the race though the “happiest” surprise in the Best Actor race is Willem Dafoe, in his fourth race–but first for Best Actor–playing Vincent Van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate, a film that enjoyed only scant distribution during the late summer-early fall film festival season.

Per this viewer, the Best Actress race begins and ends with Glenn Close in The Wife, again, like At Eternity’s Gate is a little seen film but there’s nothing little about Close’s performance. This is Close’s 7th nomination, and, to clarify, she’s never won. I’m not an unconditional Close fan. I take her on a film by film basis, and I think she surpasses just about anything and everything she’s ever done with this particular film. I know a lot of people are rooting for Lady Gaga in A Star is Born, and I get that; however, I fully expect Gaga to win for Best Song (“Shallow”) which could work in Close’s favor. It would have been nice to see Constance Wu (Crazy Rich Asians) or Felicity Jones (On the Basis of Sex) in the race, but not to be. Of course, Jones portrays the aforementioned Ruth Bader Ginsburg in a dramatization of the Supreme Court Judge’s early career during a time when women lawyers were an anomaly. No matter how well turned Jones’ portrayal was or is, she was effectively competing with Ginsburg as presented in the RBG documentary, so that’s that.

Meanwhile, Emily Blunt demonstrated incredible range between her two starring roles in The Quiet Place (devastating) and Mary Poppins Returns (challenging the legend that is Julie Andrews and wowing audiences in the process),  but a nomination for one or the other was not forthcoming. This incredible actress is still without an Oscar nomination.

Meanwhile, congratulations to everyone associated with Black Panther, the first Marvel super hero movie to earn a Best Picture nod. Black Panther was, indeed, a major motion picture event, an entertaining, empowering smash, and its 7 nominations are well deserved–but is that enough?  What about director Ryan Coogler, or just about anyone in the stellar cast? Chadwick Boseman as the titular panther? Marvelous Danai Gurira as a warrior among warriors?

Stay tuned…

 

Dressed to Kill: Trick–or Treat?

27 Oct

What Brian De Palma doesn’t know or understand about trans people could fill an Olympic size stadium.

According to graphic designer Stephen Sayadian, he modelled the original Dressed to Kill 1-sheet (aka movie poster) on an iconic image featured in the 1-sheet for 1967’s landmark film offering The Graduate. Notice the figure hovering in the background and the presumably female leg that is either being slipped into, or out of, hosiery in the foreground. For comparison’s sake, please refer to the following: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Graduate#/media/File:Graduateposter67.jpg Meanwhile, per this image: http://www.impawards.com/1980/dressed_to_kill.html

 

When the super-sly director of such 70s hits as Carrie, Obsession, and The Fury, among others, unleashed audacious psycho-sexual mystery-thriller Dressed to Kill in 1980, the critics’ huzzahs rivaled the feminists’ outcries. The naysayers carped that De Palma, who also wrote the film, trivialized violence against women, at least, and conflated sex and violence, at worst. For example, the film opens with a woman’s fantasy of being sexually attacked in the shower–by someone other than her husband, apparently oblivious from a distance of only 3-4 feet. A few short scenes later, that same lonely woman enjoys a wild romp with a complete stranger–tall dark and handsome per her previous fantasy–she encounters at a museum; however, her sexuality threatens a crazed stalker, and the woman pays a fatal price for so casually abandoning her roles as devoted wife and mom. What a tired trope, right?

Elsewhere, further objections include the recurring idea of depicting women in dangerous scenarios as a means of exciting audiences, and keeping them that way as in the hot shot upscale call-girl (ugh) who discovers the slain woman’s body in an elevator and quickly becomes the target of the killer, lest she be able to make a positive ID.

De Palma probably doesn’t endorse violence against women in his day-to-day life, but his movies certainly illustrate a pronounced fascination with material that leans that way. I believe his defense is something to the effect that audiences, male and female, are more likely to fear for the safety of a woman, especially if she appears helpless, than they are a man–like, say, Rambo (that’s quote from a DVD featurette). That’s debatable. Keeping in mind that, in this case, the call-girl is played by luscious lippy blonde, Nancy Allen–De Palma’s then wife. Make of that what you will. He’s been married–and divorced–three times, btw.

Another slam against Dressed to Kill is the objectification of its leading female, the woman in the shower at the beginning. To clarify, that character, Kate Miller, is portrayed by Angie Dickinson, approaching 50 at the time and a golden-blonde stunner with impeccable bone structure, lovely brown eyes, and a fit and trim body. Even so, her nude shower scene involves De Palma’s sleight-of-hand in that the director hired Victoria Johnson, a well known model, famous for her nude pictorials in skin mag Penthouse, to serve as Dickinson’s body double–for below the neck shots–in the shower scene, a move that made headlines, small ones, even though the plan was to keep quiet about the switch, hoping the audience couldn’t tell the difference between a 20ish body and one well into middle age, no matter how fit.  At any rate, De Palma indulges the viewer, or is that the camera, in shot after shot, close-up after close-up, of breasts as the nude woman caresses her soapy body–and then De Palma points the camera toward the woman’s pubic area.

Again, this is problematic. To begin, Dickinson, to hear her tell the story, wasn’t too keen on filming the shower scene (though she had appeared nude in a movie at least once), feeling that it was not the best move for her at the time, coming off her just-wrapped role as TV’s Police Woman, a role model of sorts. Understandable, yes, but Dickinson’s decision prompted the need for a body double. Fair enough. Plus, did De Palma even look for someone closer to Dickinson’s age? So De Palma lures audiences with the voyeuristic thrill of a sweet, nubile body, one with especially perky breasts, to set-up what? Her bloody demise. That’s what.

On the other hand, I’ve been inclined to give De Palma a pass on the shower scene since the whole episode is revealed to be the character’s fantasy. Don’t we all idealize who we are and how we look in such flights of imagination? Why the hell not?

Still again, De Palma raises the ire of Hitchcock purists with his blatant allusions to, or rip-offs of, the master. What seemed clever in Sisters and Obsession (the latter, a clear throwback to Vertigo) was beginning to tire by the time of Dressed to Kill. For example, the opening sequence, in which Kate fantasizes about being attacked in the shower? An obvious allusion to Psycho (1960). De Palma references Psycho again when Kate is brutally slashed to death with a straight edge razor with the confines of an elevator subbing for the sensation of being likewise trapped in a shower stall. Cornered, nowhere to hide, nowhere to go; moreover, we all know by now, the killer in Psycho is revealed to be a grown man with a mommy fixation whose murderous ritual includes donning mom’s garb. Similarly, even though it might not be quite apparent at first, De Palma clues viewers in on the idea that Dickinson’s stalker is a dangerously conflicted cross-dresser–get it, Dressed to Kill–with delusions of being transsexual. I think.

In De Palma’s twisted logic, the killer is a transsexual who lives a double life with a female personality struggling for domination against a male personality in a male body. Yeah. Another tired–and wildly inaccurate–trope. What De Palma has actually written is a character who functions more as a schizophrenic or a patient with disassociative identity disorder (once known a multiple personality order), but De Palma in all his zealotry is just about the only person who doesn’t seem to recognize how foolish his conceit of “Bobby,” the killer, is.

In interview after interview, both then and recently, De Palma talks a good game about trans women and their ambivalence about their genitalia, but he sounds like such a fool. Again, what De Palma doesn’t know about transgender people could fill an Olympic size stadium.

Back in 1980, on the heels of William Friedkin’s wildly controversial Cruising [1], which gay activists protested due to its lurid depiction of an underground subculture, Dressed to Kill paled in comparison for sheer offensiveness in its portrayal of the trans population–but only because at that time, trans people functioned as a largely invisible segment of society, save for a precious few high profile personalities–Renee Richards, for one–and an occasional episode of Phil Donahue’s talk show, a clip of which De Palma shares in Dressed to Kill–for what purpose I really don’t know. As a primer on all things trans to demonstrate that De Palma had done his research?  It’s not that the trans community was okay with their struggles being so wildly misrepresented, but in the pre-Internet age  there was no real sense of community and certainly no political clout.

Today, of course, everything that seemed problematic with Dressed to Kill back in 1980 is by now magnified. Audiences no longer settle for women being portrayed as mere victims, and we have frank conversations about misogyny, sex workers, transphobia, and the gender binary. Not that such conversations fall on receptive ears consistently because we know they don’t.  Still, we’re moving in the right direction even though the pace never seems to suit many of us who are tired, tired, tired of the old boys club mentality and the way it has shaped society and normalized tropes that should have been retired a long time ago. And, yes, by the way: internalized misogyny is a thing.

I cannot deny that Dressed to Kill reeks of its director’s offensive choices, leaving little to be desired among hosts of moviegoers–and potential moviegoers. That noted, I have no time for people who complain about the politics of any movie without actually seeing it.

That noted, it’s hard to dismiss the film completely.

What I don’t want to do is try to sway, or to be accused of trying to sway, someone who’s most definitely not interested in watching Dressed to Kill that it isn’t as bad as the naysayers suggest because the naysayers make good points. Instead, I want to explain why I think the movie is worth a look to those who’ve never seen it but remain open and intrigued by the possibility.

First and foremost is Angie Dickinson in her greatest film role. The former beauty queen broke into showbiz in the 1950s and began hitting her stride with Rio Bravo (1959), winning a Golden Globe as Female Newcomer of the Year in a film top-lined by the likes of John Wayne, Dean Martin, and pop heart-throb Ricky Nelson. Nicely played, Ms. Dickinson. From there, she continued to work steadily throughout the 1960s before achieving even greater stardom in the 1970s with not only her successful Police Woman series (three Emmy nods, along with a Golden Globe award and two additional GG nominations) but also the racy cult classic Big Bad Mama from schlock-meister Roger Corman. During that time, as well, she and then husband Burt Bacharach, one of the most prolific composers of the times, reigned among Hollywood’s golden couples.

Following Hitchcock’s outline for Psycho, in a which a top-billed Hollywood actress (Janet Leigh) gets killed off fairly early, De Palma follows suit with Dickinson’s Kate Miller. She really isn’t in the picture for that long, but De Palma maximizes her presence, and she makes a vivid impression. Kate Miller is frustrated. Sex with her husband has become mechanical, something she endures without much pleasure. She’s at odds with her mother and can’t reconcile those feelings. Her uncertainty about her worth as a woman leads her, in a moment of desperation, to make a pass, a slight one, at her therapist, dryly played by Michael Caine. Naturally, Caine explains why a more intimate relationship is completely out of the question. Of course, patients often develop feelings of affection for their therapists; that much is understood, and Kate snaps to reality.

This is all good stuff. Dickinson’s Kate is extremely likeable in the early scenes, and that’s what the audience needs.  We have to feel that Kate is just like any other comfortably situated woman facing middle age and juggling roles of wife, mother, and daughter. Her son, btw, is a teenager (played by Keith Gordon), a techno whiz in the throes of completing a science fair project. Kate loves her son dearly and tries to keep up with his enthusiasm as he explains the workings of his latest invention, a home-made computer (this, keep in mind, when computers were simply not the everyday household item we take for granted today). Gordon, now more famously known as a director than an actor, was in his late teens when he filmed Dressed to Kill though he’s probably a year or two older than the character, Peter, as De Palma envisioned him. Nonetheless, he and Dickinson evince great rapport as she expresses concern about him staying up too late to work on his project while also playing the ever-supportive parent. The audience has to believe in the bond between Kate and Peter in order for understand everything Peter does after’s his mother’s death. It’s at this point that Peter turns amateur sleuth, jeopardizing both his life and that of Allen’s character.

Angie Dickinson in Dressed to Kill’s much praised museum sequence. The actress has gone on record with her belief that the 1980 film sensation represents her best work. She won a Saturn Best Actress trophy–per the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films–alas, her only award for such an accomplished effort. A supporting actress nod, from either the Hollywood Foreign Press or the Academy, would not have been unjust. After all, Janet Leigh’s featured turn in Psycho, in every way Dressed to Kill‘s antecedent, attracted the Academy’s attention. Why not Dickinson? Perhaps all the controversy, not the least of which includes the hubbub regarding a nude body double, worked against Dickinson even though, heck, stunt doubles are nothing new in Hollywood AND by that time Sissy Spacek had garnered Academy approval for De Palma’s blood-soaked Carrie. (IMAGE: https://www.ebay.ca/itm/Angie-Dickinson-Dressed-To-Kill-Original-8×10-Photo-N732/372308530823?hash=item56af515687:g:9BcAAOSwrU1a~bhA:rk:40:pf:0)

Back to Dickinson. Her triumph in Dressed to Kill is the famous museum set piece. Kate’s there to meet her mother-in-law and is only mildly enthused about doing so. From a bench, she takes in the sights, including the couples and families strolling amongst the art. She jots reminders to herself in pocket notebook. Then, in an instant, everything changes when a mysterious dark-haired man, sporting dark shades, sits down next to her. Kate clearly feels attracted to the man, and he’s definitely on the prowl, but she’s not necessarily ready to jump into bed either. Yet.

Extravagant filmmaking follows, per De Palma’s assured touch. Kate and her stranger play a curious game throughout the vast art-filled space [2]. Kate is clearly the pursuer, and the pursuant relishes the chase, practically luring her a la the Pied Piper. It’s 5 minutes of winding, ever more dizzying camera work by Ralf D. Bode, precision editing by Jerry Greenberg, and Pino Donaggaio’s thrilling score heightening the emotional pull–sweeping, intense, and frantic. For most of it, the lens focuses solely on Dickinson’s sun-kissed, expressive face as she navigates a host of changes. That she registers her character’s urgency as vividly as she does is even more impressive given that the mechanics of the shoot required Dickson to act while moving toward a camera operator, monitoring her own distance by holding a rope, hidden from the camera’s view, in order to ensure that she remain in focus each and every step along the way. Tricky business, that. Better still, Dickinson registers her character’s plight so strongly that a scripted voiceover, Kate’s interior monologue, which she was to record during post-production, never happened once De Palma saw the rushes and felt satisfied that his star’s performance obviated the need for words. Good job.

Just when Miller resigns herself to yet another disappointment, she’s whisked away in a taxi cab for an orgiastic fully clothed tussle–with a bit of audio enhancement to Kate’s enthusiastic moans via Rutanya Alda [3].  Later, after a tender interlude takes a curdled turn, Kate steps into an elevator, and we know the rest though Dickinson has another great bit when Kate, feeling embarrassed by her transgression, has a stare down with a seemingly over-inquisitive child.

Then, the murder, and it’s shocking, but despite De Palma’s skillful build up, the sequence lacks the visceral charge of Psycho‘s legendary shower scene.

From there, Dressed to Kill offers a few taut thrills, including a multi-layered interrogation scene bathed in suspicion and split screen/split diopter bravado involving the son (Gordon), the hooker (Allen), the psychiatrist (Caine), and a hard-nosed detective (indefatigable Dennis Franz, a frequent De Palma player); elsewhere, De Palma orchestrates a deliberately misleading subway pursuit involving a cop played by Susanna Clemm, and bit of techno-gadgetry orchestrated by Gordon’s whiz kid.

Alas, the movie stumbles toward its anti-climactic conclusion, followed by a tired gimmicky coda.

Despite its controversy, Dressed to Kill turned quite a hefty profit for Filmways Pictures on a relatively cheap budget by 1980 standards–in a season dominated by The Empire Strikes Back–though both the film and its director could do no better than runner-up status in some of the year end-voting, most notably from the New York Film Critics Circle. The film was not entirely overlooked by the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films, per the annual Saturn awards. De Palma’s next offering, Blowout, a political thriller that takes off from both Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-up AND the Kennedy assassination along with a definite nod to the Chappaquiddick scandal (involving Ted Kennedy and the late Mary Jo Kopechne) garnered stellar reviews but failed to excite moviegoers en masse in spite of a cast headed by John Travolta, Nancy Allen, and John Lithgow, all of them frequent or former De Palma collaborators.

The director long ago lost his cachet as one Hollywood’s leading filmmakers though certainly The Untouchables (1987), for which superstar Sean Connery won the 1987/88 Best Supporting Actor Oscar, and Mission Impossible (1996) scored big. De Palma’s bombastic revamp of gangster classic Scarface (1983), starring Al Pacino, became iconic later rather than sooner while Bonfire of the Vanities (from Tom Wolfe’s spectacular best seller) failed miserably [4]. Most everything else is hit or miss though the likes of Melanie Griffith (Body Double, 1984), Michael J. Fox (Casualties of War, 1989), John Lithgow (Raising Cain, 1992), Sean Penn (Casualties of War, 1989, and Carlito’s Way, 1993), and Frances Sternhagen (also of Raising Cain) have earned strong notices and awards buzz in works of varying quality.

Per the IMDb, Dickinson hasn’t earned a film or TV credit in almost ten years though she continued to work steadily throughout the 1980s and 1990s, including a Big Bad Mama sequel and such high profile mini-series as Hollywood Wives and Wild Palms. Coincidentally, Dickinson’s Dressed to Kill son, Keith Gordon, directed two installments of the latter.

Halloween season is upon us. Currently, Jamie Lee Curtis is basking in the big screen blockbuster success of yet another entry in the enduring Halloween horror franchise.  Good for her, AND good for director David Gordon Green, a Richardson High School graduate and local fave.  For those inclined to skip the crowds and stay home to watch scary movies, De Palma offers a frightening enough boogey woman, or, rather, a boogey man disguised as a boogey woman, in Dressed to Kill.  Indeed, the trick of Dressed to Kill is that De Palma’s thrilling technique as a visual storyteller comes with the price of his peculiar notions about violence against women and sexuality, not to mention gender identity and gender expression. On the other hand, Angie Dickinson’s vivid portrayal of a woman motivated by longing and contradictory impulses continues to make Dressed to Kill a treat.

Thanks for your consideration.

[1] – Coincidentally, per the Dressed to Kill DVD featurette, De Palma’s frustration with not being able to secure the rights to Cruising’s source material provided the impetus, at least partially, for developing Dressed to Kill.

[2] – Trivia: The museum’s exteriors were filmed at Manhattan’s easily recognizable Metropolitan Museum of Art right smack on bustling Fifth Avenue; however, when an interior shoot at the same location proved infeasible, De Palma and producer George Litto, both of them Philly natives, packed up production and moved–on the sly from studio brass–to the impressive Philadelphia Museum of Art.

[3] – Besides her famous supporting role in 1981’s Mommie Dearest, which I wrote about recently, Alda is a longtime De Palma colleague, logging appearances in some of his earlier, lesser-known films, in addition to 1978’s big budget The Fury.

[4] – Julie Salamon’s The Devil’s Candy (1991) expertly chronicles how just about everything turned sour with the big budget production, headlined by such major players as Tom Hanks,  Melanie Griffith, Bruce Willis, and Morgan Freeman (all of them pretty much cast for all the wrong reasons), the true folly of corporate Hollywood moviemaking.