Tag Archives: Walter Matthau

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

1 Jul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for your consideration….

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Maslin in the New York Times:

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

Siskel and Ebert’s website:

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

Stein in the San Francisco Chronicle:

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

What Is This Charade?

25 Jul
Charade Poster

Per the IMDb, a clerical error regarding “copyright” status in the credits rendered Charade as part of the public domain immediately upon its 1963 release. Luckily, Criterion has a super-edition that features lively commentary by director Stanley Donen and scriptor Peter Stone. Admittedly, part of the fun is listening to these well-seasoned pros bicker–good naturedly–as they hash their sometimes hazy memories of a movie they filmed decades earlier.

So, there we were watching 1980’s Hopscotch, the non-sequel that reunited 1978’s House Calls stars Walter Matthau and Glenda Jackson in the same way that 1979’s Lost and Found reunited George Segal and Jackson in a non A Touch of Class sequel. Interesting, isn’t it, that in such a brief period Jackson reteamed with high-profile co-stars in new projects.

Hopscotch, directed by legendary Ronald Neame, whose credits include everything from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie to The Poseidon Adventure, is a heck of a lot of fun as Matthau’s intelligence operative goes rogue rather than settle into forced retirement. Ever-reliable Matthau has great fun as the CIA equivalent of a wascally wabbit. He even notched a Golden Globe nod. The script, based on a novel by Brian Garfield, was nominated for both a Writers Guild award as well as the Poe prize. Well done. Jackson could have phoned in her performance,  but she didn’t. Again, she and Matthau are in fine form. Plus the thing was filmed all over the place:  Savannah, London, Munich, and Salzburg. For some reason I thought Paris, put in a cameo as well, though that’s not confirmed on the IMDb (nor in the DVD featurette).

Seeing Matthau in this light-hearted caper brought back fond memories of Matthau in 1963’s Charade, top-lined by Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. Charade, set in Paris and directed by Stanley Donen (Singin’ in the Rain), has often been pegged the best Hitchcock movie that Hitchcock never made, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Hepburn plays a widow whose murdered husband lived a double-life. Grant portrays a shadowy figure who often arrives either at the nick-of-time when Hepburn is in peril, OR he appears suspiciously at the most inopportune time.  Matthau pops up for a few scenes as a bumbling bureaucrat at the U.S. Embassy. He makes the most of his screen-time, still a few years shy of winning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for The Fortune Cookie.

FYI: The rest of the Charade cast includes two more future Oscar winners, James Coburn and George Kennedy, in addition to Ned Glass.  They’re like a goon squad that may or may not have conspired to kill Audrey’s Charlie.

Charade ignited a mild controversy or two during its original run. First, consider that the movie opened in early December of ’63, barely two weeks after the assassination of President Kennedy (yes, in Dallas, TX). As detailed in his commentary, even director Donen questioned the appropriateness of Hepburn and Grant using the word “assassinated” (and its variants) in one scene. The director alleviated that concern by quickly arranging to have the “offensive” dialogue dubbed (or redubbed), substituting “eliminated” instead.  Not a seamless transition but serviceable given the gravity and immediacy of the matter. Another cause for alarm came about due to the comparatively high body count. Now, this may seem spectacularly difficult to grasp in the post-Pulp Fiction, post-Saving Private Ryan, post-Saw era, but we’re  talking only five. Five dead bodies, total. Five dead bodies with hardly a speck of blood between them, but the censors argued that the deaths were treated casually, or, worse, humorously. Per Donen,  he had to slightly rework a scene in order to appease the standards and practices watchdogs.

Arabesque

Fresh from his Charade triumph, director Stanley Donen signed on for another round of cinematic cloak and dagger with Arabesque. The frothy thriller, filmed in and around swingin’ London, plays much campier than Charade, making even Hitchcock’s delightfully convoluted North by Northwest seem positively restrained. Arabesque’s plot is purely nonsensical, but the striking visuals and mid 1960s “mod” quotient help make the blasted thing imminently watchable. Per the IMDb, Peck was not the director’s first choice for the male lead. That honor reportedly went to Charade’s Cary Grant, but the actor was ready for retirement and especially not interested in playing a romantic hero opposite a much younger female co-star. He’d already expressed a similar concern during the production of Charade. Critics may carp that Peck is miscast as an American scholar at Oxford, but I get a kick out of the way he seems to be channeling Grant, adding another layer of fun. In many ways, this is Loren’s movie. Oh, she doesn’t give a performance in any way comparable to, say, her Oscar winning Two Women. Mainly, she’s used as a clothes horse, averaging what appears to be one Christian Dior costume change per scene. That’s right, Dior. Well, if Audrey Hepburn can insist on Givenchy, Loren is equally entitled to wardrobe by Dior. Of course, Loren, so sheerly beautiful, dazzles in one close-up after another though she lacks Hepburn’s vulnerability.  The Italian superstar plays an Arab mobster’s mistress who may know more about a secret code than she cares to share with Peck. Arabesque is by no means a classic, but while it wasn’t a huge hit on the order as Charade, it wasn’t a flop either [3]. Existing on a level somewhere between James Bond and The Pink Panther, both of which were in vogue at the time,  it’s all good fun with music by Henry Mancini, and a title sequence designed by  Maurice Binder. Tell me this poster doesn’t read as “Bond-esque.” No extras on the DVD–if you can find it.

Still, in spite of those momentary glitches, Charade with its high-wire mix of suspense, guessing games, witty banter, comic foils, and movie-casting nirvana (in spite of the two leads’ more than twenty year age gap) played to packed houses, possibly outpacing even Hitchcock’s super-scary The Birds from the same year, depending on the source [1]. Additionally, Grant and Hepburn both snagged Globe nods as well as Laurel and British Academy honors: a win for her, a nomination for him. Meanwhile, writer Peter Stone, whose screenplay had kicked around Hollywood for awhile, including being tweaked into story form for Redbook magazine, won an Edgar Allen Poe award as well as Writers Guild recognition. Finally, Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer shared an Oscar nod for their theme song (a variation of Manicini’s title music with added lyrics).

So, as our Hopscotch night turned into a Hopscotch/Charade double feature, I thought about what a swell movie Charade is, and I’ve thought so ever since I first saw it. Instantly captivated, I was.  That was, gosh, decades ago. I’m pretty sure  the occasion was a Saturday night late show, probably channel 8. I think I was babysitting. Anyway, I was biting my nails in suspense the whole time, from one twist to the next and all the way through the climactic showdown in and around the famed Palais Royale (a combination of the actual Palais Royale, a less historic theatre better suited for shooting interiors, and an intricately designed set).

The next day, after the double-feature, I had a thought. I remembered that Alternate Oscars author Danny Peary bravely, if not brazenly, elected to NOT award “Best Picture” any 1963 release. Peary’s argument is that while there were still a number of good films that year, none of them were up to the standards of, say, Lawrence of Arabia, which had won the previous year, or even West Side Story, the 1961 victor. Of course, this flies in the face of what the Academy awards represent: the achievements of any given year for better or worse. The record is what it is. I actually wrote about this very thing in May of 2012.

On the other hand, Peary makes a point, however misguided. 1963’s Best Picture line-up probably leaves something to be desired. Peary argues that Best Picture winner Tom Jones looks smug and dated these days, and, in retrospect, it may have very well received a boost at ballot time from the British invasion that began sweeping the country in February of 1964. Seems plausible. The other nominees represent extremes. On one hand, there’s Cleopatra, lavish, yes, but bloated and–let’s face it, Liz–badly acted. Talk about irony, the film sold enough tickets to be one of the year’s top earners even though it didn’t sell nearly enough tickets to recoup its enormous, record breaking, production costs. On the other hand, Elia Kazan’s America America, a three hour black and white movie inspired by his emigrant father, seems to have  had no lasting impact, not that it achieved anything close to mainstream status at the time.  What about How the West Was Won?  A huge hit, no doubt, but the three-strip Cinerama extravaganza is practically unwatchable in anything but its widescreen glory. That noted, it now takes its place among the classics in the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry.

Historically, the odds were against the fifth nominee Lilies of the Field  (which earned Sidney Poitier a historic Best Actor trophy [2]) as Ralph Nelson was shut-out by his peers in the directors branch. Oh, and that omission actually tips the scale even more in Peary’s favor as Kazan and Tom Jones‘s Tony Richardson were the only directors among the five Best Picture nominees recognized by the Academy,  the other three slots accorded to Frederico Fellini (), Otto Preminger (The Cardinal), and Martin Ritt (Hud). Okay, Peary almost makes sense. How can three of the year’s five Best picture nominees not have corresponding Best Director nods, and how can the films of three nominated directors not be included among the five Best Picture slots?  Again, maybe Peary has a point. 

Cary Grant

In Charade, Audrey Hepburn plays vulnerability and wide-eyed panic so well that it’s hard for audiences to resist; however, Gary Grant may very well have the more difficult assignment, essaying a character whose motives, much like his name, seem to change from one scene to the next. Is he really protecting Miss Hepburn from danger, or is he danger personified? It’s a tricky balancing act, and Grant performs with aplomb, but he covered similar territory in at least two Hitchcock films: Suspicion (as Joan Fontaine’s scheming husband) and To Catch a Thief (the prime suspect in a series of jet-set burglaries). Luckily, his charm and sophistication remain intact in his last great film role.

Even though Peary refuses to honor any 1963 film with his phony award, he includes a list of his personal favorites along with some well-regarded also-rans, including The Nutty Professor, The L-Shaped Room, The Birds, Jason and the Argonauts, the aforementioned Hud, and a few others.  And no Charade. What, no Charade? It occurred to me to double-check Peary’s 1963 entry, and there it was, or, rather, there it wasn’t. I started this blog to write about movies that somehow failed to make the cut with Oscar voters, but now I find myself wanting to defend a film that didn’t even make an imaginary list of sub-par contenders.  How can that be? Did Peary just forget that Charade came out in 1963? Would his chapter for that year have turned out differently if I had been there to put a bug in his ear? After all, the IMDb was still in its infancy when Peary wrote his book. Maybe he just didn’t have as many resources as I did/do.

Still, Peary can write whatever he wants in his own book. I can’t fault him for that though I am a little stunned that someone who basically writes off a whole year’s worth of output can still find praise for the likes of The Nutty Professor, Jason and the Argonauts, The Birds, etc., without also seeing some value in such a popular and generally well liked enterprise as Charade. What’s not to like? [To clarify, I’m a fan of many of the movies Peary likes–that’s not my gripe.]

That noted, I’ll allow that the oft-repeated favorable comparisons to Hitchcock might be a tad hasty. Of course, I’m not real big on the word “Hitchcockian” though I have been known to use it from time to time, so, okay, I’m guilty. My concern about the term at all is that it’s lazy or sloppy and not even always appropriate. In the case of Charade,  the usage is almost justified considering Grant’s presence; after all, the quick footed, charismatic leading man enjoyed great success in such Hitchcock films as North by Northwest and To Catch a Thief. Even Donen and Peter Stone acknowledge the superficial similarities to the latter, what with Grant and  the gorgeous travelogue footage of the French Riviera as well as the larky tone and the  budding romance between the two impossibly glamorous leads, yet  Ms. Hepburn definitely does not fit the bill of the typical Hitchcock icy blonde goddess, such as To Catch a Thief‘s Grace Kelly, who smolders just beneath the surface. In contrast, Heburn is brunette, approachable, and vulnerable.

Charade-tumbler

Golden Globe nominees Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn cavort all over Paris in Stanley Donen’s comedy-thriller Charade. Hepburn previously worked with director Stanley Donen on 1957’s Funny Face, partially filmed in Paris, as well as 1967’s Two for the Road with Albert Finney, also shot on location in France. Many critics, including Danny Peary, herald the pair’s final collaboration as Hepburn’s finest performance though she was Oscar nominated, instead, for the same year’s Wait Until Dark. Prior to Charade, Grant worked with Donen on Indiscreet with Ingrid Bergman.

Also, Charade‘s set-up is more straightforward than many–but by no means all–Hitchcock films in that Stone’s script plays more as a whodunit whereas Hitchcock tends to favor cat  and mouse scenarios. Think about it. Consider, oh, just about any Hitchcock film: Rear Window, Shadow of a Doubt, Rope, Strangers on a Train, and Frenzy. In these films and others, there’s little or no question about the murderer’s identity. The dilemma is how long before the good guy catches up with the bad guy. In Charade, the first murder takes place within seconds. Nothing is known about the either the victim or the assailant though at least three possible suspects are introduced in short order.

Additionally,  one of Hitchcock’s signatures is that the audience usually knows more at any given moment than the characters do. Look no further than Vertigo, in which tension builds as the audience waits for the moment when leading man James Stewart snaps to the deadly duplicity  that has already been revealed in another character’s flashback; however, in Charade, the action unfolds from the perspective of Hepburn’s widow, so almost without exception the viewer only knows as much as she does. Still, Charade does include what Hitchcock once labelled the “MacGuffin,” that is, the elusive “thing” that everybody wants and which serves as the catalyst for much of the plot.  In Charade, Donen turns this one’s “reveal” into a doozy of a surprise, one that caught me off-guard for at least the first 2-3 times I saw it, years apart I might add, but that’s what makes the movie so much fun.

Some highlights include Grant and Kennedy sparring atop the American Express building, or rather, a studio re-creation of said building’s rooftop, bringing to mind the rooftop climax of To Catch a Thief. Even so, while the location has clearly been faked, Donen insists that what the audience sees is Grant, upwards of 60 at the time, doing much of his own footwork. Keep in mind that before he became a Hollywood star, Grant worked as an acrobat.  Oh, and soundstage trickery is evident in a pretty well-executed scene in which the two stars enjoy a dinner cruise down the Seine. The sequence begins with an actual location establishing-shot before cutting to Grant and Hepburn framed against a filmed  plate of Paris at nightime, but Donen does his best to sell the illusion through a clever sound mix that involves a slight echo when the vehicle passes under a bridge. There’s also a nifty Paris Metro sequence which leads to the Palais-Royale showdown in which the action cuts back and forth among three vantage points in the  darkened, cavernous theatre.

I love Charade so much, and think that’s it’s so complete as is, that I could never imagine watching Jonathan Demme’s 2002 remake, The Truth about Charlie with Mark Wahlberg and Thandie Newton. Since the Demme version tanked, I guess no one else was interested in seeing a classic defiled either.  And that’s the real truth about Charlie. I wonder what Danny Peary has to say about that.

Thanks for your consideration….

 

^ In many ways, Maurice Binder’s Charade title sequence is reminiscent of Saul Bass who designed the opening credits for such high profile Hitchcock films as Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Psycho–all to the strains of Bernard Herrmann’s thrilling scores, but Binder was no mere copycat. Binder, who died in 1991, was one of the most influential designers in the biz, responsible for conceptualizing the look of the James Bond credits as well as 1987’s Oscar winning The Last Emperor (one of my all-time faves), in addition to Donen’s Arabesque and Two for the Road among many many others. Binder featured at Art of the Title: http://www.artofthetitle.com/designer/maurice-binder/

[1] According to an article by Jeff Stafford on the Turner Classic Movies website, Charade actually outpaced Hitchcock’s The Birds at the box office. The figures listed in Cobbett Steinberg’s book, Reel Facts: The Movie Book of Records, published in 1978 by Vintage Books (a division of Random House) support Stafford’s assertion though, keep in mind, that as a late 1963 release, Charade most of its money in 1964. Click here to access Stafford’s piece: http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/3838/Charade/articles.html

On the other hand, the lists of 1963’s top earners on the IMDb and Wikipedia are much different. I can’t explain the difference–re-releases, adjustments for inflation–since until fairly recently industry figures were reported in rentals, that is, the fees paid to studios from exhibitors based on percentages of ticket sales. Almost nothing was reported in grosses–even as late as Steinberg’s book–though a safe bet, as it was once explained to me, is that a gross could be figured my multiplying the rental by 2.5  Read more at Box Office Mojo: http://www.boxofficemojo.com/about/boxoffice.htm

[2] Interestingly, Peary strips Poitier of his win and favors Jerry Lewis (The Nutty Professor) instead, listing only official nominee Rex Harrison (Cleopatra) as a finalist; likewise, Peary elevates official nominee Leslie Caron in The L-Shaped Room (one of my mother’s faves) over actual Best Actress winer Patricia Neal (Hud): Peary, Danny. Alternate Oscars. New York: Delta (a division of Dell), 1993. 168-171, 190-191.

[3] Per Steinberg’s book, Charade was 1964’s 4th biggest earner while Arabesque tied for 14th in 1966.

Charade at the IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0056923/?ref_=nv_sr_1

Hopscotch at the IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0080889/?ref_=nv_sr_1

Arabesque at the IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0060121/?ref_=nv_sr_1