Read the Movie

18 Sep

This piece took much longer to complete than I’d imagined, but posting it the morning after the Emmy awards makes sense too…

I recently enjoyed the pleasure of talking to an aspiring screenwriter. He’d heard some of my background from a longtime family friend and wanted to pick my brain. Such that it is. Okay. I admit to knowing quite a bit about the biz and screenwriting in general, but this many years removed from day-to-day involvement, I definitely do not claim to be an expert. On the other hand, I make my living teaching writing, and any teacher worth his or her credentials will always encourage students to “show, not tell.” It’s not always easy to explain that in a way that a student–of any age–can grasp straight away, and, to clarify, this applies not only to screenwriting and essays but also poetry as well. I know because I also co-edit a literary journal.

Of course, one thing students of any genre can do is spend more time engaged with comparable texts. Reading, in other words. For example, poets who want to do well should spend time reading poetry. The goal, to clarify, is not to imitate, per se, but to contemplate why a text works as well as it does–or not–to pick it apart, study the pieces, and learn how to apply its lessons to a new work of one’s own. Can you tell I’m a teacher, by the way?

Back to screenwriting. Anyone, do you hear me, anyone, who wants to write screenplays should consider actually reading screenplays in order to understand the very specific format as well as how the screenplay functions, which, to be clear, is as a blue-print for an actual film. Have you ever seen an actual blueprint for a house, btw, and then seen what the actual house looks like when completed? Often, screenplays that are published in book format look more like transcriptions of finished films. An outfit called Script City has been selling actual movie scripts for years and years. I know because I have read more than my fair share, and it’s all good. I once read a screenplay for a movie that was so awful, and had been through so many delays due to reshoots, that I purchased the script just to see if the original greenlit draft was any better than the resulting production. Btw, I found out about Script City about a gazillion years ago from a screenwriting mentor. He advised me to learn by reading the works of others. As I recall, all ordering was originally done via catalogue in the pre-Internet days.

Of course, books about screenwriting–and some wonderful software programs–exist for beginners. I have read my share, including some by no less than two-time Academy award winner William Goldman  though his books are more about the business in general and less “how to.” Still, he offers plenty of advice as he critiques movies that work–and those that don’t. And why, especially on a structural level, that is: the script.

In the course of my conversation with the young writer, I did mention a book or two, but I forgot one very important book that I think all first-time screenwriters should read; however, it’s not a book about screenwriting.

I’m referring to a mere sliver of a children’s chapter book by E.L. Konigsburg, entitled Father’s Arcane Daughter (additionally sold as Father’s Other Daughter). Maybe you’ve read it, maybe not. Maybe you recall Konigsburg as the author of the Newbury winning From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

Let’s back up. Way, way, back. Back all the way to 5th grade. My teacher–should I use her real name? Let’s call her Miss “M”–had the lovely habit of reading a chapter a day from among some of the most popular books for our age group, among them: A Wrinkle in Time (another Newbury winner), Chitty, Chitty Bang, Bang, and, of course, From the Mixed Up Files…., a particular favorite. I loved it so much that I read it and reread it myself, many times. Alas, I have never seen the movie adaptation featuring Ingrid Bergman but not for lack of desire, nor, to clarify, have I seen the TV adaptation with Lauren Bacall, but I digress.

In spite of winning top Emmys as one of 1990’s premiere TV movies, and in spite of a scrupulously adapted screenplay by Michael De Guzman, the latter was nowhere near the winner’s podium the night of the awards. Too bad because his adaptation is textbook perfect. (IMAGE: By Source, Fair use, Link)

Imagine the warm flutter of recognition when I discovered that one particular well-reviewed, and award winning, TV movie was based on another Konigsburg book. In the spring of 1990, CBS aired the newly rechristened Caroline? as part of the highly respected Hallmark Hall of Fame anthology series. I didn’t see it straightaway, but my mother did, and she taped it for me. She raved, btw, and so I looked forward to catching up with it. Of course, my mother didn’t know Konigsburg from kingdom come, so the author’s name in the credits didn’t mean much to her, but I recognized the author as soon as her name flashed in the credits. And I settled in for a tantalizing television treat. That’s right, television. Not movies-at-the-movies movies. Indulge me.

Caroline? beckons with ripe possibilities as a Gothic yarn, sometime in the 1950s, a great beginning though a bit of a ruse. After an absence of a dozen-plus years, a woman claiming to be a once scandalous debutante arrives at her father’s mansion, seemingly returned from the dead. That’s right, from the d.e.a.d., dead. Can this be the real Caroline Carmichael? Much has changed in daddy’s household in the interim. For  example, Caroline’s mother  passed away several years ago, grief-stricken over her daughter’s mysterious death. Now, daddy has remarried. Wife number two is noticeably younger than dad, and the two of them have kids of their own, a precocious son, Winston, and a daughter, Hillary, nicknamed Heidi, with noticeable physical and developmental challenges. Over time, Caroline’s relationships with her little brother and sister take center stage. More pressingly, this Caroline’s appearance comes just in time to make a claim on her recently deceased maternal grandmother’s estate–worth a considerable fortune.  Is this mysterious woman the actual Caroline or an impostor? Has she come for the money, or does she have another less obvious motive? Quite a puzzle, but the payoffs are huge.

A few years after I first saw Caroline?, my husband the book sleuth turned up a quite used paperback of Konigsburg’s original, and I eagerly plowed into it, surprised by how similarly it read to a treatment for a completed screenplay. What is a treatment, you might ask.  A treatment, as defined by WikiHow, is “a summary of a script, which is meant to explain the main points of the plot. It also gives good description of the main characters involved in the story. Treatments have no strict page limit, but shorter is usually better. Treatments are a tool of development for the writer, and they act as an extended pitch to a filmmaker.”  Another way to think of a treatment is a more fleshed-out version of an outline. Seasoned screenwriters understand the value of perfecting, so to speak, a treatment before plowing into the throes of a full-fledged screenplay. For the sake of a pitch, a treatment runs anywhere from 2-5 pages with maybe 2-3 paragraphs devoted to each act of the story. The idea is to introduce the characters, describe the conflict, and outline the major plot points, all the while utilizing present tense, describing the action as it unfolds and emphasizing strong verbs; moreover, the language must be streamlined, not fussy and adjective/adverb laden, to engage the reader and to keep the story moving, moving, moving.

A favorable response to the brief, presentation version of a treatment will prompt a writer to expand the draft (perhaps as many as 30-40 pages) to incorporate more specific detail, hammering out, to paraphrase, the action “scene by scene,” often one paragraph per scene, everything except, please note, the dialogue, most of which can be effectively summarized. To clarify, dialogue might be used occasionally in a treatment but only minimally.  The idea is for the writer to fully lock the details in place before embarking on the dialogue process. As it was once explained to me by a local screenwriting guru, if–or once–all the other elements are set, the writer can go back and just drop-in the dialogue as nuggets. That’s right. Use the treatment to nurse the story along so fully, so completely, that the dialogue is almost beside the point. Mr. Preston and aforementioned William Goldman assert that, contrary to popular belief, dialogue is not the fulcrum of successful screenwriting. Sure, audiences relish quotable lines in everything from Casablanca and All About Eve to Pulp Fiction and Juno (Oscar winners, all), among many others, and, yes, dialogue should be scripted in such a way as to reveal something about the character, as in syntax and vocabulary. The more specific the better. A good friend and fellow aspiring screenwriter once shared something he learned, and that is a reader should be able to tell which character is speaking in any given scene even if the names (on the page) are obscured. Think about it. As speakers in real-life, all of us have little idioms and curlicues specific to our personalities. At the same time film is a visual medium, meaning that showing is better than telling, and in that regard people (characters) are more likely to define themselves through their actions rather than their words. What they don’t say can be as telling as what they actually say. To be sure, punchy dialogue beats flat dialogue any ole day, but clever dialogue is no substitute for rock-solid structure.

Back to Konigsburg. Clearly, she had no way of knowing that a book she wrote in the mid 1970s would one day be the basis for a top rated TV movie, yet it’s no wonder that a producer would glom onto it as a project, or that a screenwriter–in this case, Michael De Guzman–would be able to adapt it so perfectly. The way it’s written practically screams “treatment.” No, it’s not written in present tense, but Konigsburg’s scenes read like short sketches with key details woven into elegantly efficient prose–and minimal dialogue. Everything the screenwriter needed was already on the page. There was almost nothing that had to be omitted for time considerations. Instead, the individual passages only needed to be translated  into structured scenes and rounded out just a bit for staging puproses.  Sure, details have been tweaked and specific storytelling elements have been rearranged, condensed, or combined, but almost everything in Konigsburg’s original blueprint appears in the tele-adaptation, and almost everything in the tele-adapation originated in Konigsburg’s original. It’s all there. For example, in the book the current Mrs. Carmichael (Caroline’s stepmother) regularly visits a hairdresser named “Mr. Rick” and drafts young Heidi into accompanying her as a matter of principle. In the movie, the hairdresser’s name has been changed to “Mr. Steve.” Who knows why the change was made, but what wasn’t changed is that Mrs. Carmichael places a great deal of importance on how she presents herself–and, by extension, seems most preoccupied by appearances in general, with special regards to her pampered daughter. Additionally, in the TV version, Caroline and her brother Winston engage in a heart-to-heart discussion while visiting the zoo, but this scene is an amalgamation of 2-3 scenes in the book, one of which, yes, takes place at the zoo. Again, it’s all there. Just not in the most strictly literal sense.

Kudos, btw, to director Joseph Sargent. Though overwhelmingly noted for his work in television rather than big screen features, 1990 was definitely a banner year. Not only did he earn an Emmy for directing Caroline?, but he also had the distinction of directing The Incident, starring Walter Matthau, which actually tied with Caroline? for that year’s Emmy for Best TV movie. Not a bad gig. His other credits, btw, include Miss Rose White, another Hallmark entry, starring Kyra Sedgwick and another Emmy winner for Sargent. Plus, he directed Alfre Woodard’s Emmy winning Miss Evers’ Boys along with Warm Springs, a top Emmy contender starring Kenneth Branagh as Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Sargent is a master at staging, whether it’s the  first intentionally puzzling shots of Caroline standing in front of the family estate (photographed through an elaborate screen), the reunion scene between father and daughter, a nifty feat in which Zimbalist comes about as close to any human in the history of film (or TV) to evincing a true Mona Lisa smile, or a seemingly routine shot in which Mr. Carmichael expresses doubt or confusion regarding his “own daughter.” Watch carefully, especially on subsequent viewings.

Interestingly, for all the acclaim accorded to Sargent for Caroline?, and its accompanying Emmy awards, no one in the cast earned as much as a nod from the television Academy though Zimbalist at least scored a Golden Globe nod, unsurprisingly losing out to Barbara Hershey–the Emmy victor in the same category–for Killing in a Small Town, a riff on an infamous murder case set in a Dallas suburb. (IMAGE: IMDb)

Caroline? is anchored by a quartet of stunning actresses, first and foremost of which is Stephanie Zimbalist. At the time she made the film, Zimbalist had not-so-recently wrapped her popular TV detective show Remington Steele  and needed to reinvent herself.  Never an especially flashy performer, this production provides an opportunity to portray someone who is never quite herself, never at peace, because she lives with the tacit understanding that her every word and every deed are second guessed by most everyone she meets, the assumption being that she is a fraud, but Zimbalist keeps us guessing. When asked a probing question about her past, does Caroline hesitate because she is truly stumped and simply needs to stall for time, or is she feigning a momentary lapse so as not to appear too quick, too eager, too over rehearsed, lest her infallibility arouse even more suspicion; after all,  Caroline has been away from her hometown, her circle of family, friends, and associates, for over a decade. Plus, by her own admission she has traversed the globe. Naturally, it would be odd for her memory about such mundane details as who dated whom in school and once-coveted family treasures to be razor sharp after such a lengthy and involved absence. Or would it? One particular standout occurs during dinner when the stepmother poses a challenge, what she believes to be her high card, but Zimbalist’s Caroline responds perfectly. Watch closely. It could simply not be improved. Another highlight occurs late in the story when she tries to explain to her brother how tired she is, tired of all the suspicion. The line comes straight from the book, and Zimbalist delivers it as if she really carries the weight of the world.

Pamela Reed leads the remaining trio of formidable actresses. Reed’s role is tricky because the second Mrs. Carmichael sees Caroline as an intruder and seems to plot against her every which way, but to be fair she is only out to protect what’s hers, mainly her husband who has been disappointed enough already, and  her two young children. She has to make sure this charismatic stranger doesn’t lead them astray or wedge herself where she doesn’t belong. Often, Reed shows her gracious civility as barely more than a mask she has developed out of necessity and through years of practice, but when the mask drops, she does not hold back. It’s an intelligent piece of work from Reed, an actress I often associate with comedy more than drama. Next in line is esteemed vet Dorothy McGuire, famous for, among others, her Oscar nominated supporting turn in 1947’s Best Picture winner Gentleman’s Agreement. In Caroline? McGuire briefly appears in flashback as the title character’s maternal grandmother, the woman whose vast fortune seeming impacts all the story’s major players. It’s sketchy role, to be sure, but McGuire (now deceased but in her 70s at the time) fills it with light, life, and just a twinge of mystery. Not much dialogue, consistent with the source material, but she adds layers of meaning to the few lines she does speak, providing just enough insight to be relatable to audiences. Last but certainly not least is Oscar winner Patricia Neal as the grand dame of Caroline’s former school, a woman not prone to suffering fools. Of all the people Caroline encounters upon her return, none looms as exactingly as Agatha Trollope. She wants answers, by gawd, and she’s going to get them. Neal and Zimbalist only share two scenes, but their final encounter is a doozy, much like watching two trapped and hungry beasts circle each other in a cage, certain that one will surely surrender to the other. (Or, perhaps more to the point, one will over-power the other.) Of course, Neal almost always appears to have an edge in any face-off with another actor, thanks to that marvelous voice, a kind of patrician Southern drawl laced with good manners, aged  bourbon, and whiff of tobacco smoke. Who will win? I’ve seen this thing dozens of times, and the answer is pretty much a draw, but I know who has the last word.

Of course, Zimbalist, Reed, McGuire, and Neal are not the entirety of the cast, so shout-outs to the rest of the bunch are in order. For example, George Grizzard, a Tony and Emmy winner, aims for subtlety in the role of a business tycoon confronted with the ghosts of his past. He wants to believe he has been given a second chance to be a good father to his long lost daughter, but he grapples with the present, maintaining an uneasy peace with his new wife, and still nursing old wounds. The role of Heidi is played by Jenny Jacobs with Barbara Britt playing the grown-up Hillary in modern day scenes that bookend the film, both fine and well; likewise, Winston is winningly portrayed by Shawn Phelan as a child and an especially well-cast John Evans assumes the adult role in the opening and closing sequences. Phelan is exceptionally good as the inquisitive brother, but, alas, his career was cut woefully short after a 1994 car crash left him in a vegetative state before he actually passed away in 1998 at the age of 28. He was right at 15 years old when he appeared in Caroline?, but he looked more elementary-to-middle school than high school age. May he rest in peace.

Konigsburg’s original tale unfolds in Pittsburgh, but the televised adaptation was filmed in Atlanta though the look is far from bright or sunny. Instead, it’s dark and moody with enormous credit going to the team who found, dressed, and photographed the estate in which much of the action unfolds. It’s dark (again), ominous, and creepy, a character unto itself, and it doesn’t look like a friendly place in which to raise children. (Though, to clarify, Caroline? was indeed filmed in Atlanta, same as 1989’s Best Picture winner, Driving Miss Daisy, the main set in the latter is definitely not the same location as the former, in spite of what misleading p.r. materials might suggest. That much is obvious, even to the untrained eye.) Kudos as well to costumer Peter Mitchell, whose wardrobe designs are stylish and seem mostly period correct (though occasionally more Kennedy-era 60s than Eisenhower 50s) and hairstylist Philip Ivey; the latter’s credits include the aforementioned Best Picture winner Driving Miss Daisy though at the time of the 1989/90 Oscars, hairstylists were not automatically included among teams nominated for Best Makeup, which Miss Daisy won, btw, though, to clarify, Lynn Barber, credited as the key makeup artist on Caroline? was among Miss Daisy’s Oscar winning makeup team.

Many wonderful movies have been made from books without losing anything in translation; similarly, some page-to-screen adaptations actually improve upon their source material, but Caroline? is special because if one is lucky enough to find a copy of both the book AND the TV film (seemingly impossible to find as anything other than VHS), the pathway to solid screenwriting becomes easier to navigate, less a mystery than the story about the heiress who came for dinner and never left…


Thanks for your consideration…

Hurbis-Cherrier, Mark. “The Key Stages of Script Development.”, powered by Focal Press (2016):

wikiHow to Write a Screen Treatment:


May the Sorcerer Be with You…

26 Jul

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

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

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

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

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

Then, there’s Sorcerer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for your consideration…

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


Friedkin, Sorcerer in the New York Times:


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

1 Jul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for your consideration….


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Maslin in the New York Times:

Siskel and Ebert’s website:–Wild-America–Out-to-Sea-1997

Stein in the San Francisco Chronicle:


Facts and Truth: Best Best Supporting Actress and Actor, Part II

4 Jun

I’m back. Again. A death in the family and another one of life’s little inconveniences delayed the final draft of this piece. Thanks for reading.

Several years ago, a man I dearly respected (now deceased) proclaimed, confidently, that “Facts are the enemy of truth.”  Let that settle for a moment. Facts are the enemy of truth. Facts may be indisputable, sure enough, but they might not illuminate the “whole truth.”  How does that work? Well, here’s how it might work. For instance, the truth is that The Wizard of Oz is one of the most beloved movies of all time. Over several decades, its characters, music, imagery, and much of its dialogue have profoundly permeated our collective consciousness as relatively few films ever have; however, the fact is that upon its original 1939 release, The Wizard of Oz did not rack up big box office dollars, nor did critics lavish unanimous praise. Oh sure, it sold lots of tickets, hardly a total dud, but MGM, the studio that produced the film, struggled to recoup its investment–at least in its original run. One theory is that the film generated far more reduced-rate tickets for children than standard adult admissions, and that partially explains the shortfall (Harmetz 288). But that almost seems too pat as many other kiddie films have raked up big bucks both before and since. Of course, bookkeeping in Hollywood has always been a bit of a magic act, so it’s hard to know what to trust. Ask any participant who’s ever been promised a cut of the profits; likewise, while the movie was not universally panned, many reviewers carped over one thing or another, mostly, it seems, in reaction to changes made to author L. Frank Baum’s original, and widely beloved, text. Other critics balked at the vaudevillian spin offered by actors Ray Bolger, Jack Hayley, and Bert Lahr (former vaudevillians, all) in the key roles of the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodsman, and the Cowardly Lion, respectively; after all, as Aljean Hamertz notes, vaudeville was dead by 1939 (23), so what was the point? Those old enough to remember its demise no doubt scratched their head in confusion.

Still again, another set of facts arise to challenge, if not refute, the previous set. For example, in spite of its wobbly reception, The Wizard of Oz still scored a handful of Oscar nominations in that season’s awards derby, including, please note, Best Picture. Additionally, the film snagged at least one trophy from Gone with the Wind, the year’s reigning champ (that would be Best Score, officially credited to Herbert Stothart, btw) and garnered two other wins, both of them beyond reproach because, here we go, the truth is that we can scarcely imagine The Wizard of Oz without lead actress Judy Garland or without her immortal rendition of “Somewhere over the Rainbow” (by E.Y. “Yip” Harburg and Harold Arlen).  For the ages, that, and the fact is that Garland snagged an honorary statuette (miniature, alas) for her outstanding “juvenile” performance, and her signature song (a song that ignited rounds of debate among studio personnel regarding its inclusion in the final print–after being excised temporarily) claimed Best Song honors. That the Academy awarded Garland an Oscar as a special achievement when no such accolade was required indicates that the film’s impact–regardless of what we presume are the facts–was considerable.

Garland never won a competitive Oscar. Indeed, in her entire career, and outside her honorary trophy for Oz, she was only nominated twice: Best Actress for 1954’s rousing remake of the well-worn Hollywood weepie A Star is Born, for which she famously lost (to Grace Kelly in The Country Girl) while still hospitalized after giving birth to son Joey Luft, and Best Supporting Actress for 1961’s star-studded Judgment at Nuremberg. West Side Story‘s Rita Moreno took the gold in that round. That’s all. Garland possibly deserved a little something for Meet Me in St. Louis when she was in the full bloom of her MGM stardom, but I digress. Back to Oz. Her performance ranks among the most memorable, most vivid, in all of cinematic history. Sure, intellectually we all know by now that she was 16 at the time the movie went into production and that, how to put this delicately, she was cinched and bound in order to suggest a more childlike, less womanly, profile. But even knowing that doesn’t destroy the illusion. For not one moment in the entire picture is she ever less than fully believable as the little girl lost from barren, sepia-tinted Kansas. We believe how caught up in the moment she is when Miss Gulch demands possession of Toto, the torrent of emotion in that single instant. Plus, later in the film when she cries out to Auntie Em via the crystal ball, and exclaims how frightened she is, we believe that too. We also believe, more than almost anything in the whole dang movie, just how much that girl loves her little dog.

The fact is that Victor Fleming, a rugged man’s man of a director, earned sole credit for his efforts on two of 1939’s most prestigious films: The Wizard of Oz, of course,  and the box office behemoth Gone with the Wind; however, the truth is that Fleming did not direct either picture in its entirety. For example, those sepia-tinted scenes that open The Wizard of Oz were actually shot after the Technicolor sequences that occupy the bulk of the film. By that time, Fleming was off, so to speak, to assume his duties on GWTW, and no less than King Vidor (The Big Parade, The Crowd, The Champ, and Stella Dallas) was assigned by MGM brass to wrap the production, albeit without recognition. It was Vidor, then, who can take credit for the impeccable staging of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” (Harmetz 164-165). Additionally, another director, Richard Thorpe had been hired before Fleming, but producer Mervyn Leroy found Thorpe’s work unsatisfying, so Leroy summoned George Cukor (Dinner at Eight, and Little Women) to help repair the damage–including scrapping all of Thorpe’s footage–before Fleming was fully locked into place (Harmetz 140-142). Interestingly, Cukor would segue to Gone with the Wind before being replaced by Fleming, but I digress. At any rate, Cukor’s lasting contribution, in his unofficial capacity, was fine-tuning the character of Dorothy–and shaping Garland’s performance. Apparently, in the Thorpe scenes, Garland sported a blonde wig and full makeup. Cukor pared back the look and reminded Garland not to forget that she was playing a child, a simple farm girl (Harmetz 143).

The cover of the Electric Light Orchestra’s Eldorado album, released more than 30 years after The Wizard of Oz, reveals one remarkable truth: without a face in sight, many of us recognize this image from The Wizard of Oz even if we don’t understand its relationship to ELO. Yes, I own a copy.

Cukor’s advice, and Garland’s adherence to it, is one of the reasons the performance is so successful. But there is another reason, something not often examined with the same affection or admiration as we carry for Garland. And that is, Garland’s performance is as successful as it is on some level because of the other members of the cast, specifically Margaret Hamilton and Ray Bolger, arguably the Best Best Supporting Actress and Actor to be overlooked by the Academy.

Given all we know about The Wizard of Oz’s reception back in the day, maybe it seems unsurprising that, again according to Hamertz, a number of reviews at the time scarcely mentioned Margaret Hamilton’s performance…incredible as that might seem to generations of audiences since then who have curdled in fear of her wickedness (Harmetz 297). Sure, for example, Hamilton’s Wicked Witch of the West placed a righteous 4th place on the American Film Institute’s 2003 retrospective of moviedom’s scariest villains, impressively behind only Hannibal Lecter (Silence of the Lambs),  Norman Bates (Psycho), and Darth Vader (Star Wars), but I wonder if we ever fully acknowledge Ms. Hamilton, the venerable character actress, or do we simply take her performance for granted. I think she and the character are so melded in our collective consciousness that we forget that Hamilton was, in fact, a working actress doing the best she could [1]—as the second choice when first choice Gayle Sondergaard bailed–in a project that was one of many in production at the time on the MGM lot.

It might seem foolish to claim that anything about Oz was considered routine as the production posed one technical challenge after another and certainly cost the studio a great deal, but while everyone involved gave the project his or her all, no one expected it to become a timeless classic.

Back to Hamilton. Here are some points to consider. First, can you believe that she only has 12 minutes of screen time, per Harmetz (296)? Yet, her all-encompassing malevolence haunts us. We absolutely buy into Dorothy’s sense of terror because we absolutely buy into the witch’s every hateful word and deed, and that is a testament to Hamilton’s enormous skills as an actor; moreover, if you need a further reminder of, again, just how skilled Hamilton is, remember that she gives not one but two performances in The Wizard of Oz. In the early Kansas sequence, of course, she plays Almira Gulch, officious, small-town fuddy-duddy who uses her social and business connections to take possession of Dorothy’s devoted doggie, Toto, thereby setting most of Act I into action. The transformation from Miss Gulch into the Wicked Witch of the West is far from cosmetic. Everything about Miss Gulch is uptight, clipped, no-nonsense. Dry.  She moves and speaks with crisp efficiency and is obviously humor-impaired. Hamilton’s witch, on the other hand, is fluid and pulsating. She growls, cackles, and shrieks while her body language is anything but stiff. She bends, stretches, and acts all the way to her trippy, elongated fingertips. And she revels in her own badass-ness. Miss Gulch, understand, hides behind the law because she can. Two distinctly different characterizations, courtesy of one resourceful performer. In contrast, remember that the Kansas farmhands played by Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, and Bert Lahr essentially preview the characters of the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion they respectively portray during the remainder of then film. Their Oz inhabitants are “bigger” but not necessarily distinct from their Kansas counterparts. Hamilton is the only one whose portrayals are decidedly and magnificently tonally different.

Bolger also makes a fascinating case. The actor was well-established on Broadway before he came to the movies, and while he did well enough in pictures, besides Oz his finest work was arguably onstage. For example, he won a Tony for the long-running Where’s Charley? How good is he in The Wizard of Oz? Good enough to make it hard to imagine anyone else in the role, but that is almost exactly what happened. For example, the well-known fact is that no less than Buddy Ebsen was originally cast as the Tin Man but suffered a near fatal allergic reaction to the aluminum dust originally created for the character’s makeup,  thereby opening the way for Hayley, but the truth is that Ebsen, an established hoofer, was actually the first choice to play the Scarecrow (Harmetz 118). Bolger was first approached to play the Tin Man (Harmetz 112) though who among us can believe that the remarkably agile, loose limbed Bolger could have ever been the first pick to perform in a stultifying tin can? Thankfully, wiser-heads prevailed, and Bolger was cast in the part for which he heavily campaigned.

Backing up just a bit, no less than Margaret Hamilton believes that Jack Haley never got the acclaim he deserved as the Tin Man due to the fact that he had to find a way to act and to convey his lovelorn character’s predicament in spite of the constraints brought on by unforgiving costume and makeup (Harmetz 176). I see her point, but I still think Bolger’s performance rates the more vivid accomplishment, and for two specific reasons. First, the miracle of Bolger in The Wizard of Oz is that he makes the sheer physicality of the whole thing, literally playing a character without a spine, seem so gosh darn effortless when it had to be anything but. The audience doesn’t see the work. Instead, just as is true for Hamilton, by now we all just see the Scarecrow–and not the skilled actor who makes it happen. Keep in mind that he also had to create his character with an unforgiving rubber bag glued to his face, restricting his ability to sweat, something akin to suffocation given the soundstage’s hot lights, as Harmetz relays (169.) Furthermore, when Dorothy confesses that she will miss the Scarecrow most of all, we naturally believe her, we’re touched, moved, what have you, because Bolger has convinced us  of his character’s fierce devotion in every instant of his character’s screentime; likewise, we understand much sooner than the Scarecrow does that he already has all the smarts he needs.  Bravo.

Years after the fact, Bolger seemed to understand, perhaps better than Haley or Lahr ever did, his role as a goodwill ambassador for the film, content that he would forever be identified as the Scarecrow, long after the luster of his other accomplishments had faded, preferring to focus on the positive aspects of being part of film history and, in true Scarecrow fashion, functioning as a guardian for the memory of Judy Garland. He died, btw, in 1987 at the age of 83.

^ Hard to imagine, isn’t it, that anyone at MGM could have looked at this clip of Ray Bolger from The Great Ziegfeld, 1936’s Best Picture winner, and exclaimed, “Let’s put him in a clunky tin costume that will completely restrict his movement!”

So, that’s my two cents, a little tribute to the greatest pair of supporting performances overlooked by the Academy.  This is not to sleight the talents of Hattie McDaniel and Thomas Mitchell, 1939’s actual Best Supporting Actress and Actor winners, and their contributions to Gone with the Wind and Stagecoach, respectively. McDaniel made history as the first African-American to win an Oscar, and the truth is her contribution to GWTW’s success cannot be underestimated even though the mere fact of that fabled film becomes progressively harder to reconcile with each and every passing year; likewise, the fact is that Thomas Mitchell officially won his Oscar for Stagecoach, but the truth is his performances in other notable 1939 releases, including Gone with the Wind (as Scarlet O’Hara’s downtrodden dad) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (another Best Picture contender) were probably key to his victory.

My goal is not to rewrite or to second guess Academy history, but to pay sincere tribute to a pair of performances that endure, legendarily so, without Oscar approval, specifically two purely supporting performances that work by effectively enhancing audiences’ appreciation of the film’s leading player. In this case, the truth supersedes the facts as recorded by Academy historians, and moviegoers benefit in a way that none of the principal players in the magical tale could have ever imagined.

Thanks for your consideration.


[1] –  Hamilton, mid to late 30s at the time, was divorced and raising a son on her own. She learned how to hustle for work, preferring to land as many gigs as possible without pricing herself out of the market. A two week gig often stretched to 6 weeks. She hit the jackpot with Oz as the shoot extended to 7 months.]


Work Cited

Harmetz, Aljean. The Making of the Wizard of Oz: Move Magic and Studio Power in the Prime of MGM –  and the Miracle of Production #1060. 1977. Delta, 1989.

Mother: The Next Big Short*

3 Apr

Family, friends, and fans of Darlene Cates suffered a tremendous loss last week when the Forney based actress passed away at the age of 69. Without any formal training, she rose to prominence with her role as housebound matriarch Bonnie Grape, fiercely protective mamma to then rising stars Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio in 1993’s What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, but, make no mistake, Ms. Cates more than held her own among her high-profile co-stars and went on to appear in a handful of movies and TV shows, always turning in riveting performances; however, as amazing as she was to watch onscreen, she was just as amazing in her off-screen life, effortlessly slipping into her roles as devoted wife (of more than 50 years), loving mother and grandmother, sister, role model, and dear friend. She shared her story, her warmth, and her talent with the world and inspired many, many of us in the process, and, now, the world will be a much different place without her though still a better place for those whose lives she touched with her affection, kindness, and laughter. As tribute, I am reposting this piece from 2014 and the occasion of her last film appearance. Rest in peace, dearest Darlene.

Confessions of a Movie Queen

I sometimes think that if a good movie gets made these days, it must be an accident. I mean, it must be a miracle. Of course, money is the biggest issue. Even the most low budget offering still costs thousands if not millions of dollars, and there are no guarantees that backers will ever see a return on their investments. Also, distribution–getting the finished film into theatres–is a racket unto itself. Of course, social media have made marketing more accessible than ever as evidenced by the whole Sharknado phenomenon. True independent filmmakers often take enormous risks to get their visions onscreen, and if/when that happens, well, yes, it’s a miracle. Miracles are good.

Mother poster designed by Jonas de Geer Poster for Franz Maria Quitt’s short film, Mother (2014), designed by Jonas De Geer. Clockwise from top: Darlene Cates, Ryan Jonze, Alexander Rolinksi, and Kaylyn Scardefield. I think Quitt’s movie is exquisite on its own terms though…

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The Best Best Supporting Actress and Actor Who Were Never Nominated for Best Supporting Actress and Actor, Part I

25 Mar

Hmmm, well the recent winners of Academy awards for Best Supporting Actress and Best Supporting Actor offer startling contrasts. In Best Picture winner Moonlight, Mahershala Ali’s Juan is situated in only the first act of a three-act tale, yet he makes a vivid impression that lingers throughout the remainder of the film; moreover, Ali rises, impeccably, to the challenge of a scene that requires him to act more internally  than externally. In other words, Juan is almost at a loss when asked difficult, troubling, questions,  but he knows he must answer truthfully, so he suffers silently while delaying the inevitable, choosing his words carefully.  Masterful. Ali packs a wallop, silent film style, with minimal dialogue.

In contrast, Viola Davis offers a much more robust portrayal as Rose, the  put upon wife of Denzel Washington’s Troy in Fences. Cliches be damned, Rose’s trajectory provides Davis the opportunity to navigate, full-throttle, one hell of an emotional roller coaster. Rose, god love her, wears her heart on her sleeve, and Davis, among our most majestic–and gutsiest–actresses, brings her speeches to brilliant life in scene after vivid scene.  It’s a startlingly raw performance rife with Davis’s own sweat and tears.  Ali’s and Davis’s portrayals are considered award worthy by Academy standards though they could hardly be more unalike.

Of course, I’m not here to second guess the Academy’s choices. Mainly, I just feel the need to reaffirm that, like so many other things associated with the Academy (and with life itself), there is almost no rhyme or reason when it comes to the supporting categories. Of course, after launching in the late 1920, the Oscars had been ambling along for just under a decade before the Academy expanded its acting awards from two to four.  The move was designed to improve the Academy’s numbers by luring members of the newly formed Screen Actors Guild into the fold. Let’s back-up just a bit. Seems by the mid 1930s, many actors no longer believed the Academy served their interests regarding representation within the Hollywood hierarchy (Wiley and Bona 55). Keep in mind that the Academy was formed not with the intent of awards but with the purpose of mediating labor disputes between talent and studio brass. (The awards were an afterthought, albeit self-congratulatory, but I digress.) The idea was that such governance in the form of an “academy,” so to speak, would preclude the need for unions, but the perception, not without some merit, was that the Academy failed to serve all members’ interests, thus the creation of the SAG (Wiley and Bona 47). To counter, the Academy offered to spread the wealth and create space to honor the achievements of so-called character players, thereby increasing its memberships since, after all, one had to be a member in order to vote for the awards (Wiley and Bona 70).

From the Nate D. Sanders auction house, circa 2012, this is the second Academy award for Best Supporting Actor, per Joseph Schildkraut (The Life of Emile Zola, 1937), the second such winner in Academy history. I often refer to this Oscar-variation as a plaque, as do many of the history books, but it functions more like a paper weight. Btw, the Academy’s advice to winners (or their families) who might want to auction off their trophies: Don’t. Since 1951, the Academy reserves first right to buy back all trophies for the tidy sum of $10.00. According to Stephen Ceasar of the Los Angeles Times, the Academy has the legal muscle to protect the integrity of its world famous its copyrighted trademark.

The Academy’s welcoming move also provided a convenient way to relegate character actors/actresses in such a way that would not necessarily pull focus from established brand name stars when it came time for awards consideration. Keep in mind, for example, that in 1935, the year prior to the creation of the supporting categories, three actors from Mutiny on the Bounty, Charles Laughton, Clark Gable, and Franchot Tone, duked it out for Best Actor. Laughton and Gable, as Captain Bligh and Fletcher Christian, respectively, were clearly co-leads in the famous tale, but Tone, in the lesser of the three roles, attracted attention based on one particularly showy speech toward the end of the picture (Wiley and Bona 60). Creating categories for secondary players would resolve such, er, uhm, inconsistencies. Oh, and keep in mind, as well, that the first few recipients of these newly created awards did not actually win traditional Oscar statuettes but plaques that featured a 3-D representation of the celebrated trophy. (Not to be confused, to clarify, with the “special” pint-sized versions of the trophy the Academy bestowed upon such juvenile stars as Shirley Temple, Mickey Rooney, or Judy Garland [See photo].) So, a year after Mutiny on the Bounty, and spurred by other factors, the Academy awarded its first ever supporting acting awards to Walter Brennan (Come and Get It) and Gale Sondergaard (Anthony Adverse). Btw, Gable, Laughton, and Tone lost to Victor McLaglen in The Informer.

Eventually, the Academy saw fit to award supporting players actual Oscars, beginning with the 43/44 edition (that is, the 1944 ceremony honoring 1943’s films). Those history making recipients were Charles Coburn (TheMore the Merrier) and Katina Paxinou (For Whom the Bells Toll); however, confusion was still very much in play, per Barry Fitzgerald who, yes, earned nominations for BOTH Best Actor AND Best Supporting Actor for 1944’s Going My Way. Though unexpected, the rules allowed for Fitzgerald’s double whammy. Fitzgerald won the latter while top-billed co-star Bing Crosby took top honors, and the hit film took Best Picture as well.  The Academy responded by establishing a policy that left designations for leading and supporting to studio executives, responsible for submitting potential candidate rosters to the Academy in anticipation of first round voting.

That seemed to work, better than nothing, for awhile though egos had to be placated when studios wanted to hedge their bets during campaign season, meaning that some stars, reportedly, did not appreciate their star status being called into question for expediency’s sake. For example, look no further than Anne Baxter, the titular Eve in 1950’s smash All About Eve. She didn’t take too well to the suggestion of competing for Best Supporting Actress alongside Thelma Ritter and Celeste Holm from the same film (Miller n.p.). Sure, Eve manipulates much of the action, undeniably, but Baxter lacks the star power of Bette Davis, at her brilliant best as Margo Channing, the Broadway legend around whom most of the story–and ALL other characters–revolve. Clearly, Baxter fulfills the role of a second lead: the antagonist to Davis’s protagonist. Nonetheless, Baxter got what she wanted: a Best Actress nomination, and in so doing she may have very well split votes and cost both herself and her co-star the trophy. Judy Holliday, reprising her stage role in Born Yesterday, won Best Actress, and even Anne Baxter later expressed regret at her choice (Miller n.p.); however, that wasn’t the only hitch in the process.  Famously, the story goes that a typo cost Roddy McDowall consideration for his stand-out supporting performance in 1963’s lavish Cleopatra. Apparently, a memo from Fox, the studio that released the picture, to the Academy misidentified McDowall as a leading player, and that was that. The Academy wouldn’t budge, and Fox claimed its hands were tied in the matter (Wiley and Bona 358). So, the Academy changed rules yet again to give the ultimate say to the voters themselves, regardless of studio promotional campaigns (358).  Even with powers voters enjoy, studio heads and actors still attempt to exert control and sway outcome.

In the years since Cleopatra, controversies over such designations are commonplace because such designations are arbitrary, subject to whim. For example, juvenile performances that are for all practical purposes “leading” are often–not always– categorized as “supporting” out of concern that younger, relatively untested players (such as Timothy Hutton in 1980’s Ordinary People) cannot successfully compete against established veterans in starring roles. The strategy worked, btw, in Hutton’s case. The same studio that released Hutton’s Ordinary People, Paramount, marketed Susan Sarandon as a Best Supporting Actress candidate for 1981’s Atlantic City even though she was clearly the film’s leading lady and more than held her own against legendary Burt Lancaster in the same film (Wiley and Bona 606). Maybe Paramount execs felt that Sarandon, hardly an unknown at the time, needed a showier role in order to be a truly competitive Best Actress candidate. Maybe, on the other hand, studio brass felt that Paramount could not effectively support three Best Actress hopefuls among its stable, the others being Diane Keaton in Reds, who ultimately earned a slot on the final roster, and Faye Dunaway (Mommie Dearest), who did not–in spite of a genuinely buzzworthy performance that had actually made a showing in the award season derby. At any rate, even Sarandon expressed surprise that she was ultimately nominated for Best Actress (606), a move that showed Academy voters still have minds of their own in such matters, despite studio machinations.  Btw, no less than already legendary Katharine Hepburn made Oscar history that year, garnering an unprecedented 4th performance Oscar, per her leading role in the hugely popular On Golden Pond. It would take Sarandon a decade for a second Oscar race (1991’s Thelma & Louise), and few more unsuccessful bids for her crowning achievement with 1995’s Dead Man Walking.

Other times, star players, even when playing subordinating roles–with limited screen time–scoff at the very notion of being promoted as a supporting candidate, feeling such a move is akin to begging for an easy win (per Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs, among others) (Wiley and Bona 830). Still again, studios often see the Oscars as nothing more than a numbers game, such that performers who clearly function as an onscreen team, John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction, OR Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain, to name only two, have to be split for awards consideration in order to increase a film’s awards potential. For example, if Ledger and Gyllenhaal are both nominated for Best Actor, and the film as a whole is up for 8 awards, that means, at best, the film will only take home 7 awards, as one actor’s win assuredly equals the other’s defeat, provided, of course, that they don’t actually cancel out one another (and let’s not forget that ties almost never happen). In such a case, shaky distinctions are made that place Ledger and Travolta as leading while forcing Gyllenhaal and Jackson as supporting in order to improve the odds.

Then, of course, there’s the whole “supporting” thing. What does it mean to be a supporting actor? Keep in mind that the Tony award equivalent is “featured” rather than supporting and is based on barely more than, 99.9% of the time, whether a player is billed above or below the title. Simple. But when the word “support” is used, we expect to see one actor in service of another, and that isn’t always so apparent. That noted, I remain fairly convinced that Ed Harris lost at least one, possibly two, of his four Oscar races for playing roles that were not as “supporting” as they might seem at first glance. For example, he mostly acted in a vacuum in 1998’s The Truman Show. Sure, his performance, as the mastermind behind the whole Truman escapade, showed plenty of skill, but, really, how did his performance actually support that of lead actor Jim Carrey as Truman? Did the two actors ever occupy the same space, playing off one another? In a word, no. Carrey’s Truman goes about his life in a picturesque coastal community (real-life development Seaside, Florida), and Harris’s Cristof surveys his creation from the safety of a secluded control tower. Simply, the two actors never had to meet in order to film their scenes, thereby calling into question the nature of “support.”

On the other hand, consider controversial Vanessa Redgrave in 1977’s Julia. Yes, Redgrave is clearly billed above the title, and, more, the movie is named after her character; however, Redgrave’s “Julia” functions as barely more than a memory of playwright Lillian Hellman, played by Jane Fonda, the obvious protagonist who carries most of the picture. The relationship forged by the characters when they were still children (framed in flashbacks with teen actresses) is what drives most of the story, but, tellingly, the audience only ever sees Julia, that is, Redgrave, through Lillian/Fonda’s eyes, and their few shared sequences are like puzzle pieces as Lillian revisits her past in fleeting glimpses, trying to make sense of the wealthy enigmatic friend who leaves America in order to study in Europe and joins the Nazi resistance. The audience waits for the moment when the two friends are reunited, at last, and it’s a doozy, with each actress spurring the other to greatness in a scene fraught with love, tears, and, oh yes, plenty of tension. Redgrave’s is the very example of an outstanding supporting performance, no doubt. Her award was almost a foregone conclusion; likewise, 2015’s Best Supporting Actor winner Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies) portrayed the character whose actions set the story in motion, but, make no mistake, Tom Hanks’s real-life James B. Donovan dominates the picture though he and Rylance strike a compelling dynamic.

Back to the present. What I so admire about Mahershala Ali’s Oscar winning performance in Moonlight is that he makes the most of his limited screen time, and his character is supporting in the most literal sense as in the sequence in which he teaches young Chiron (protagonist) how to swim in the ocean.  Perfect.

Davis’ performance more squarely follows the pattern of the “supportive spouse” that appeared with great frequency earlier this century, beginning with Dallas native Marcia Gay Harden (Pollock, 2000), Jim Broadbent (Iris, 2001), and Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind, also 2001) up through Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl, 2015). No doubt, cases could be made that any or all of the above might just as easily be recognized as secondary leads. Again, these are roles that provide actors and actresses sizable opportunities (and a lot of screen time) but fall short of being their respective projects’ true protagonists.

Wow. I certainly did not mean to write so much about this topic. I intended a few short paragraphs as a build-up to a piece on two extraordinary supporting performances–one female, one male–that the Academy somehow overlooked. Of course, context and timing are everything as we know that history is 20/20. So, I’ll stop for now, and save THAT post for the near future. In the meantime, what about you, dear reader? Dare you try to guess the two performances that I aim to spotlight next? My only hint is that they are included in the same film. Give it your best shot.

Thanks for your consideration….

Works Cited

Ceasar, Stephen.   “Winning an Oscar is priceless, but selling it gets you exactly $10.” Los Angeles Times, 25 February 2016.  Accessed  25 March 2017.

Miller, Frank.   “All About Eve (1950).”  Articles. TCM.  Accessed  25  March  2017.

Wiley, Mason, and Damien Bona.  Inside Oscar: The Unofficial History of the Academy  Awards, 10th Anniversary Edition, edited by Gail MacColl. Ballantine Books, 1996.

Oscars 2016/2017: Fashion Gallery

12 Mar

I know, it’s been close to two weeks, but the Oscars never really end, especially debates about who wore what. I have three rules governing my approach. First, I don’t believe in plugging names of designers who ply actresses with expensive loaner gowns in exchange for free publicity. Tacky. That’s a game that gets plenty mileage elsewhere. Next, I refuse to dwell on the negative. I only spotlight my faves. If I like it, I feature it. If I don’t like it, I’ll skip it rather than demean it. That noted, sometimes a gown that looks fabulous on TV doesn’t translate as well to still photos, so I’ll take a pass. Anyway, please look somewhere else for cattiness. Finally, aside from the top pick, there is no particular reason preference unless specifically noted.

Fasten your seat belts…here we go…Oh, and I do not hold rights to any of these images.

Hidden Figures star Taraji P. Henson didn’t score an Oscar nod for her memorable performance, but she wins my vote for Best Dressed. (IMAGE: Life and Style)


Scarlett Johansson’s Oscar nominated flick, Hail Caesar! (from the Coens) went home without the gold in the Art Direction category, but Johansson is a stunner though, perhaps, not to everyone’s taste.


Best Actress nominee Natalie Portman (not pictured) missed the ceremony due to pregnancy related complications, but ever glamorous Isabelle Huppert, nominated for Elle, flew in from France on the heels of winning her country’s Cesar award. (IMAGE: Pintrest)


Best Actress nominee Ruth Negga (Loving) makes a vivid impression in red. Her bright blue ribbon shows support for the ACLU.


Jessica Biel, all golden loveliness, dazzled on the red carpet. Besides being a vision herself, she was on board to support hubby Justin Timberlake, who performed his Oscar nominated tune, “Can’t Stop the Feeling” from Trolls. (IMAGE: Glamlog)


Kirsten Dunst. featured in Hidden Figures, makes a bold statement in basic black.


2001’s Best Actress honoree Halle Berry (Monster’s Ball) is a perennial winner on the red carpet. (IMAGE: Seattle Times)


Actress Leslie Mann dazzles in a magnificent ball gown. (IMAGE: JustJared)


Best Supporting Actress winner Viola Davis (Fences) proves that the third time is truly the charm. (IMAGE:


Best Supporting Actor nominee Dev Patel (Lion) escorts his beaming mom Anita Patel. (IMAGE: IndianExpress)


In his acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actor, Moonlight’s Mahershala Ali revealed that he and his wife welcomed a daughter into their family only four days earlier. Congratulations!


To be perfectly frank, one of my favorite looks of the whole awards season was this fun frock singer-actress Janelle Monae (Hidden Figures AND Moonlight) wore to the Golden Globes in January.

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