Sunday, March 26, 2017

when the legend becomes fact, print the legend

The veracity of "Feud: Bette and Joan," the first installment of a planned anthology by Ryan Murphy based on famous rivalries, is frankly unknown.  But exactly how well researched it is or how much of it is facile speculation is really beside the point when a show is this deliriously entertaining.

This episode is based on the long-standing mutual dislike that Joan Crawford and Bette Davis shared throughout their lengthy careers that culminated when both agreed to play opposite each other in Robert Aldrich's great "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" in 1962. The alleged feud always struck me as one-sided, with Davis more guilty of hostility than Crawford.  Davis seemed forever on the offensive (apparently resentful that Crawford, to her a lesser actress, had become a huge star), while Crawford was on the defensive, always forced to protect herself.

No one in Murphy's version comes off looking good - and that also includes Aldrich, Jack Warner, Hedda Hopper and a seemingly catty Joan Blondell.

The driving force behind the series and the feud itself is the sexist opinion that Davis and Crawford were desperate - and, by extension, angry - because of their ages. But watching Susan Sarandon (incredible) and Jessica Lange (nuanced as always) in those respective roles snapped me out of the fantasy haze that Murphy handily creates and back into reality.

Why?  Well, Davis was only 54 when she made "Jane," while Sarandon who plays her will be 71 in October.  Crawford, meanwhile, was 56 when she filmed her role; her portrayer, Lange, is currently 66.  Both women work regularly these days, no questions asked, and Meryl Streep, who is also 66, may be the most productive actress currently working in film.

One other observation:  After "Jane," both Davis and Crawford worked almost exclusively in what many people have dismissed as horror films.  True, Crawford made some cringe-worthy movies during that period ("Strait-Jacket," "Berserk," "Trog"), but Davis's efforts were all fairly good ("Dead Ringers," "The Nanny," Aldrich's "Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte").

One could reason that, curiously, Lange's career has taken a somewhat similiar path, given her recent frame-breaking collaborations with Murphy.

But, again, no one seems to care.

In its own bizarre, unexpected way, "Feud" is a sign of progress.

* * * * *
~image: Work Wanted ad placed by Bette Davis in the
September 24th, 1962 issue of Variety, one month prior to the October-November openings of "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?"

Thursday, March 23, 2017

indelible moment: "North by Northwest"

Hitchcock's compulsively watchable masterpiece, "North by Northwest" (1959), contains any number of memorable moments.  Hell, the entire film is a memorable moment. But one scene, in particular, stands out for me.

It occurs rather early in the film when Cary Grant returns to the Plaza Hotel - accompanied by the fabulous Jessie Royce Landis, playing his glib, eye-rolling mother - to search the room of one George Kaplan, for whom Cary's Roger O. Thornhill, an advertising executive, has been mistaken.

Snooping around in the suite's bathroom, Cary examins a hairbrush.

Walking back into the bedroom, he announces to mother (in a deadpan manner patented by Grant), "Bulletin! George Kaplan has dandruff."

Grant's body language, telegraphing disgust with the idea of dandruff, perfectly complements his line reading.  He hunches his shoulders and slightly flails his arms, making spindly movements with his fingers:

"Bulletin! George Kaplan has dandruff."

Brilliant, just brilliant.

* * * * *
~image: still shot of Cary Grant and Jessie Royce Landis in "North by Northwest" / MGM 1959 ©

Monday, March 20, 2017

sinatra's big, beautiful mess

Why was "I Love Paris" deleted from Twentieth Century-Fox's 1960 embarrassment, namely its film version of Cole Porter's "Can-Can"?

"Why?!," I ask, with some annoyance.

It's a question of little importance, given the lousy movie involved, but it has bugged me nevertheless for far too long, actually for a few decades.

True, Hollywood has a history/reputation for deleting popular/familiar songs from its film versions of Broadway musicals. "Another Opening, Another Show" is missing from George Sidney's 1953 movie of "Kiss Me, Kate" (another Porter musical). "Together, Wherever We Go" was cut from Mervyn LeRoy's 1962 film version of "Gypsy." And Glenn Erickson has written astutely on his invaluable DVD Savant site about the witty "Coffee Break" number being deleted from David Swift's 1967 take on "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying." All terrific musical moments.

But "I Love Paris" is really a different case. The song is a classic, the pick of Porter's score. In a way, it's sacred. Or should be.  Even in Hollywood.

Then there's the movie itself. No one would ever mistake Fox's loopy, misguided version of Porter's show for a good movie. It is not totally without its charms (most notably, Porter's score, or what's left with it) - or without a certain morbid curiosity. But how did it end up so glaringly bad?

That's the first of several questions which have made this film unintentionally fascinating for five decades now. Of course, I've already asked the most pressing questions connected with the film, namely (1) why was "I Love Paris" scuttled at seemingly the 11th hour, and (2) who exactly made this dubious decision? For years (no, make that decades), there was no response because, frankly, no one noticed or cared to ask.

And at a mere two hours and 11 minutes, did the film really require an intermission? But I digress. Back to "I Love Paris"...

It's a major Cole Porter song, the signature song from the show that contained it, and yet it never occurred to any entertainment journalist or critic to ask why it's missing from the film version of Porter's stage production, either at the time of the film's release or thereafter.  There have been innumerable books about its star Frank Sinatra but apparently, none of the authors thought to ask either. But the foolish excision of "I Love Paris" - and the apparent disappearance of the footage - pretty much underlines the sad, wavering road that "Can-Can" took to the screen.

The play opened in 1953 with Lilo in the lead as La Môme Pistache. Fox's Darryl Zanuck purchased the film rights in August of 1954, with the intention of making it with French star Jeanmarie and Gwen Verdon (who appeared as Claudine in the Broadway production). Zanuck hired Nunnally Johnson to adapt Abe Burrows' wonderful stage book and also to direct.

Johnson's script, dated August 27, 1955 and available from Script City, is highly faithful to the Broadway production, retaining all of Porter's score.

When Johnson dropped out, the film languished at Fox, with both Claude Binyon and Henry Ephron taking turns dickering with the script, and with Dick Powell and Vincente Minnelli, among others, as potential directors who came and went. Then on April 22, 1958, Fox issued a press release, announcing that "Can-Can" was being put into production as a vehicle for Marilyn Monroe (her first film for the studio since 1956's "Bus Stop"), with Maurice Chevalier as one of her co-stars. Cary Grant was also mentioned.

But this incarnation of "Can-Can" got only that far - as a press release sent to entertainment editors. That version, of course, was never filmed.

Enter Frank Sinatra, who would act in the film under a contractual obligation required by 20th Century Fox after he walked off the set of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Carousel" in 1954.

Sinatra was initially hesitant about doing the film, not being exactly a good fit for the property, but Fox prevailed and lured him into the picture by having Charles Lederer (who nimbly adapted "The Front Page" into "His Girl Friday" for Howard Hawks) create a new character for Frank to play - a lawyer/scamp named François Durnais - and by paying him $200,000, along with a percentage of the film's profits and making him a partner on the production, a partnership that would have an impact on the film.

Sinatra's Suffolk Productions would oversee the film in tandem with Jack Cummings Productions. Sinatra took the hands-on approach, bringing in Dorothy Kingsley, who had tailored "Pal Joey" for him, to completely revamp the stage script. Kingsley not only cut most of Porter's songs but also altered who would sing them. Songs that were sung by females on stage, were given to male characters in the film, and vice versa.

I should stop here and confess that, for me, Sinatra always exhibited exquisite good taste, particularly musically. I'm a fan. But in the case of "Can-Can," both his decisions and motivation were fuzzy at best.

Among his dubious decision was to bring his house orchestrator Nelson Riddle on board to arrange the musical numbers; Somehow, Sinatra and Riddle managed to insert the anachronistic "ring-a-ding-ding" into the lyric of Porter's "C'est Magnifique." Then there's Shirley MacLaine, Frank's co-star in Minnelli's "Some Came Running," recruited as the female lead - renamed Simone Pistache for the film - and seriously miscast in the role.

So far, so ... bad.

Shirley is a trained dancer but is not exactly - how shall I put this? - light on her feet. Reviewing the film, New York Times movie critic Bosley Crowther, who genuinely disliked her in the film, diplomatically called her shrill performance "undignified" and remarked about her being "heavy-footed, groping and galluping" throughout the film's gaudy centerpiece - the "Garden of Eden" ballet, performed as part of something called the Four Arts Ball, staged in the film's notorious cabaret, the Bal De Paradis.

Anyway, MacLaine's addition to the production inspired the departure of the second female lead, Barrie Chase, who was hired to play Claudine.

Chase, who also had a bit in Sinatra's "Pal Joey" (she was one of two ballerinas who helped undress Kim Novak during her strip routine), was a protégé of Hermès Pan, the legendary choreographer enlisted to stage the dances for "Can-Can." She, of course, was also Fred Astaire's dancing partner on his wonderful '50s TV specials which Pan choreographed.

Barrie Chase untimately bolted the production when Sinatra handed most of her dance numbers over to MacLaine (La Môme/Simone was not a dancing role on stage), a detail confirmed both in the film's DVD liner notes and by Shirley MacLaine herself in a piece carrying her byline in Newsweek's special Sinatra Memorial tribute issue (28 May, 1998).

Speaking directly to Sinatra in the piece, she wrote: "You strong-armed Twentieth Century-Fox to make 'Can-Can' because you thought I should do a musical. And you had them combine the two female leads into a single character so people could see more of what I could do."

Me, me, me.

Most of this statement is untrue: Sinatra didn't strong-arm Fox; it was the other way around. Also, the character of Claudine was watered-down but not eliminated.  The role, still very much in the film, was recast. Juliet Prowse replaced Chase who, in retrospect, made a very wise decision.

Pan's dances are the film's most invaulable feature, hands-down. This was an especially productive time for Pan. In the space of about 15 years, in addition to the aforementioned "Pal Joey" and "Kiss Me, Kate," he also choreographed "Silk Stockings," "Porgy and Bess," "Flower Drum Song," "My Fair Lady," "Finian's Rainbow," "Lost Horizon," "Darling Lili" and, uncredited, the "Midas Touch" number from Minnelli's "Bells Are Ringing."

Now about "I Love Paris"...

Reviewed prior to its release by Variety on Friday, 1 January, 1960, "Can-Can" ran 134 minutes - a scant running time for a roadshow musical, not including either the film's Overture or its Entr'acte - but it did include the song, "I Love Paris," as a duet featuring the iconic pairing Sinatra and Chevalier (a holdover, remember, from an earlier concept of the film).

Alright, let me see if I get this... Frank Sinatra and Maurice Chevalier on screen together singing "I Love Paris" -  and someone at Fox makes the decision to delete it?  Who? And why? Am I repeating myself here?

By the time the film opened in New York on 9 March, 1960, its running time was reduced to 131 minutes, suddenly three minutes shorter.

Those missing three minutes were the "I Love Paris" number.

Greg M. Pasqua writes on "It was sung in the club just before the engagement party scene on the boat in Act Two. It was sung as a performed song with Sinatra singing from the stage. Fox determined it slowed the film down, so they cut it before the film was released. You can spot the change in continuity where the song would have occurred."

In the release version of the film, the song is heard only fleetingly over the opening credits. So let's see: The sequence in which it was performed by Sinatra and Chevalier "slowed the film down"? And by eliminating three minutes, the film took on a quicker pace?  Three minutes. Really?

Prior to the film's New York opening that week, the magazine section of The New York Times published a photo spread on "Can-Can" in its Sunday, 21 February, 1960 edition, which included this still of Sinatra and Chevalier singing (excuse its fuzziness), the only shot of the number I've ever seen:
The duet, of course, can be heard on the Capitol soundtrack album - it's beautifully haunting - and there's a slightly longer track of it on the "Frank Sinatra in Hollywood" CD.  Ah, yes, that wacky soundtrack album...

For some bizarre reason, the songs are not listed in chronological order on the soundtrack but, for lack of a better expression, are scrambled, with the film's Entr'acte listed as the first track on side one.  Again, huh?

Back on, Mark Andrew Lawrence took the trouble to put the songs in their proper order so that, as Lawrence puts it, "the program flows beautifully from one track to the next." Below is his rearrangement to parallel the order in which each song is performed in the film. The parenthetical numbers indicate their actual order on the Capitol LP.

1. Main Title/"I Love Paris"/"Montmart" (#7 on the album)
2. "Maidens Typical of France" (#9)
3. "C'est Magnifique" (#8)
4. "Live and Let Live" (#4)
5. "You Do Something to Me" (#5)
6. "Let's Do It" (#6)
7. "It's All Right with Me" (#2)
8. Entr'acte (#1)
9. "I Love Paris" (#11)
10. "Come Along with Me" (#3)
11. "Just One of Those Things" (#10)
12. "Can-Can" (#12)

I took the liberty of adjusting Lawrence's listing of songs because it has Sinatra's "It's All Right with Me" coming after the Entr'acte, when in actuality, it leads directly into the intermission. The missing "I Love Paris" opened the second act. Incidentally, the film's Overture, the music for both an "Apache" dance and the "Garden of Eden" ballet, the fade-out "I Love Paris" choral and the exit music were never included on the soundtrack.

Speaking of Porter's songs, the makers of the movie version seriously tampered with his "Can-Can" score, adding "Let's Do It," "Just One of Those Things" and "You Do Something to Me," from other Cole Porter shows, while eliminating seven of the original songs from the stage show - "Never Give Anything Away," "I Am in Love," "If You Loved Me Truly," "Never, Never Be an Artist," the lyric to "Can-Can" and, most missed, "Allez-Vous-En," although its melody is used for the "Apache" dance.

Oh, yes, did I remember to mention that "I Love Paris" was deleted?

Given the importance of that song to the Porter show and the importance of Sinatra himself to the movie, is it unfair to conclude that Frank may have possibly had something to do with the song's deletion?

I mean, his initial reluctance to be in the film in the first place, coupled with the questionable decisions in terms of its script, scoring and casting, not to mention the screwy soundtrack album, makes one wonder if he could have been toying with Fox. We'll never know.  Frustrating.

And exacerbating matters is that the footage of "I Love Paris," missing since 1960, apparently no longer exists. Which is especially curious.

Why?  Because Sinatra was famous for saving everything.

Notes in Passing: First, at the outset here, I mentioned that the film is not without its charms, chief of which is the obvious fun that Sinatra and MacLaine are having. If only their fun was contagious. But more to the point, there's Tom Keogh's superb titles design - one of the movie's most laudable features. Done in dazzling primary colors and with a deep bow to Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lutrec, Keogh's titles promise a great film that never really follows.

Which only makes one wish that "Can-Can" was a better movie, one actually worthy of the attention Fox lavished on it.

Secondly, Twentieth Century-Fox was so high on the film that it made a deal with a Westwood (CA) theater to play it exclusively for two years. But that was before the reviews came in. It played only a few months.

Still, "Can-Can" was a big moneymaker in its day. Huge. No surprise.

And finally, Howard Thompson, noted for his memorable (and witty) New York Times capsules of movies for their TV airing, aptly commented that "Can-Can" seems "more like Hoboken than Paris." Say no more.

~top: Frank Sinatra between scenes on the "Can-Can" soundstage, reading the script
~photography: Bob Willoughby / Twentieth Century-Fox 1959 ©
* * * * *
~middle: still shot of  Sinatra and Maurice Chevalier performing "I Love Paris" / Twentieth Century-Fox 1959 ©
* * * * *
~bottom: an example of Tom Keogh's artwork for the film

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Please release me, let me go: Harve Foster and Wilfred Jackson's "Song of the South" (1946)

A few weeks ago, in anticipation of Disney's half-live action, half-animation redo of its 1991 animated musical, "Beauty and the Beast," Entertainment Weekly, in its usual penchant for overkill, published an extensive spread on all the great/memorable/iconic songs to come from Disney films.

Conspicuously missing was "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" from "Song of the South" (1946), a film that has become something of a problem for Disney for racial reasons (whether true or not) and that subsequently is now a lost movie.  I understand Disney's stance but really can't rationalize why Entertainment Weekly would ostracize the song from its coverage.

Movies are demonized for the most facile reasons and "Song of the South," directed by Harve Foster and Wilfred Jackson, has been treated as the studio's bastard child far too long. It deserves studio reappraisal by now, given that the complaints about it date way back to the 1970s.

There's nothing wrong with it.

No, at least not in terms of sociology and race. Nevertheless, it remains perhaps the only Disney title that has never been hyped to death as a DVD "Disney treasure" ensconced within the legendary "Disney vault."

To say that it's been ostracized or suppressed or that it has become Disney's pariah is putting it mildly.

What's weird is that Busby Berkeley's genuinely offensive "Babes on Broadway" (1942), replete with Mickey and Judy in blackface for their jaw-dropping "Waiting for the Robert E. Lee" finale, is an MGM favorite and a Turner Classics staple, screened (way too often as far as I'm concerned) with nary a complaint - as are David Butler's "My Wild Irish Rose" (1947) and James Whales' original "Show Boat" (1936), with Irene Dunne (of all people) in blackface.

For the record, "Song of the South" - the original half-live action, half-animation attempt - is about how Uncle Remus (played by James Baskett) uses his tales of Brer Rabbit to help a little boy (Bobby Driscoll) handle his parents' separation and his new life on a plantation. Remus' tales include "The Briar Patch," "The Tar Baby" and "Brer Rabbit's Laughing Place," which come alive in sparkling, charming animation - and a great deal of wit.

Back in 2007, critic Sam Adams pointed out in Philadelphia's City Paper, that "rumors circulated in 1996 and again last year that the movie might finally be committed to disc, but after publicly hemming and hawing over a period of months, Disney announced there were no plans to release 'Song of the South' in any form." There's only one word for such behavior:


Release it already, preferably with someone credible, say Whoopi Goldberg, asking (as she did for Warners' racially-based cartoons) - exactly what all the fuss is about? Or maybe Oprah might want to sign in on this.  Or Tyler Perry or Lee Daniels or Spike Lee.  Someone with credentials would have to endorse it if its reputation proves to be unfounded.  But first Disney would have to screen it for these people.

Really, the punishment has to end already.

Friday, March 10, 2017

white, or lacking in color

At long last. It may have taken 50 years but someone finally has taken the race-relations premise of "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" and turned that unsatisfying vanilla film inside-out, finding equal parts of humor and horror in the notion of a privileged white girl bringing her black boyfriend home to meet to her progressive (read: liberal) parents on their sprawling estate.

That someone is Jordan Peele, the talented comedian best known for his companionable partnership with Keegan-Michael Key.  "Get Out" is Peele's directorial debut, an astonishing one - something of a major achievement for a first feature. It is at once a tense thriller, a subversive comedy and a bracing social commentary, a combination which is easy to recommend (and with some enthusiasm) but, frankly, rather tricky to review.

Carefully constructed, intelligent and thought-provoking, "Get Out" is one of the most original films in ages. I love the idea of a movie about the very real danger that white people pose to blacks, particularly given that whites have feared and conveniently demonized blacks (and often without good reason) for decades, a bigotry that's become more transparent, palpable and apparently acceptable during the past eight years.

An early scene depicts a moment that is now naggingly familiar to us all - a white cop approaching a car containing a black man.  But Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), a photographer from New York, isn't the driver of the car.  He's its passenger.  The car was being driven by his white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) who had an accident when a deer darted across a back road. Doesn't matter however. The cop wants to see Chris' identification.

"That's bullshit!," Rose snaps. The cop backs off and drives away. But, given disturbing news stories from the past few years, one can only imagine what would have happened if it was Chris who challenged the cop.

It's an unsettling start, to say the very least, and it's exacerbated in an unthinkable way when Rose and Chris arrive at her parents' palatial manse in an unnamed suburb that reeks of exclusivity and restriction.

You half expect to encounter a welcome sign that reads "Whites Only" - except for the domestic help, of course. Dean and Missy (yes, that's what she calls herself), Rose's parents, have two curiously subdued blacks on staff, a grounds keeper named Walter (Marcus Henderson) and a maid named Georgina (Betty Gabriel, excellent), brought on to care to Dean's ailing father and mother and who stayed after the two elders passed.

"I couldn't let them go," Dean explains to Chris, a line that takes on deeper meaning as the film progresses. He later comments something about how much he enjoys experiencing "another person's culture."

I should mention at this juncture that Dean (Bradley Whitford) is a neurosurgeon and Missy (Catherine Keener) is a psychotherapist - two occupations that drive the film into increasingly uncomfortable places - and then I should say no more. A continuing synopsis would be a huge spoiler.

However, I will add that Peele stages a bravura sequence involving Dean and Missy's annual outdoor party and the creepy white people who attend every year, all of whom have pretensions and awkwardly patronize Chris.

It's a moment that handily defines the film's title.

Much of the film's humor comes from a character named Rod (Lil Rel Howery, in a scene-stealling performance), Chris's best friend back in New York who works conveniently as a T.S.A. officer and was concerned about Chris heading out into the unknown with Rose. Meanwhile, the film's tension escalates with the arrival of her brother, Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones), a medical student who is also something of a loose cannon.

As for the social commentary of "Get Out," one doesn't expect a trip to the suburbs and a lawn party to morph into an urgent message on the on-going shameful and unconscionable exploitation of black people (will it ever stop?), with sly references to slavery added. But something is amiss.

How and what Peele accomplishes in his film will not be revealed here.

No, it's something that can be experienced only first-hand. And should be.

Note in Passing: Mention should be made of the first-rate work of cinematographer Toby Oliver, editor Gregory Plotkin and particularly composer Michael Abels who wrote the kind of background/mood score that can be appreciated and enjoyed apart from the film itself.

* * * * *
~image: Alison Williams and Daniel Kaluuya 
 ~photography: Justin Lubin / Universal Pictures 2016 ©

Sunday, March 05, 2017

hollywood's problem child

He is a child of privilege, born and raised with a sense of entitlement.

He is Hollywood’s Golden Child.  Literally. 

He is Oscar.

There are other, lesser awards that aspire to be like him and that covet his immense celebrity, but they don’t share his elevated station in life.

And like many pampered, overindulged children, Oscar has been something of a disappointment.  Awards in his name have been given more often to the wrong films and people than to the right ones.   

And the annual black-tie party that celebrates his greatness, the Oscarcast, has been at once gauche, boring and embarrassing.

Oscar is like the popular kid in high school who fails to live up to his potential and is often overshadowed by wannabes and competitors.

The turnout for his party this year, for example, was the lowest in nine years.  Each year, as ratings drop a little more, he seems to become less relevant. Meanwhile, his helicopter parent – The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences  – continues to manipulate factors that would make its precious Oscar appear more important. Yes, manipulate.

Somehow, that strikes me as something particularly dubious.  Case in point: In 2009, after the franchise film “The Dark Knight” failed to get an expected Best Picture nomination, the Academy - a stage mother to end all stage mothers - stepped in to correct such slights in the future and to quell anticipated complaints from any other pesky malcontents. 

Heaven knows, for years, the five Best Picture slots had generally been monopolized by arty indie fare.  So the category was opened up to include as many as ten – ten! – nominees.  That way, action and comic-book movies had a chance to be included and honored.  You know, art.

But guess what: It didn’t work. Since that expansion, even more fringe titles have been nominated for Best Picture. Usually eight or nine. (For some reason, there have yet to be ten nominated films. I’ve no idea what the official cut-off point is.) Mainstream titles remain a distinct minority.

There was more tampering with the potential results this year.

When too few films and people of color were represented in the competition for the past two awards seasons, the Academy went into its Rolodex to get weed out those voters (read: old and white) holding back the hands of time.  The conceit worked. There was certainly more diversity among this year's nominees. But none of this impressed moviegoers.

What the Academy fails to acknowledge that there is a definite correlation between what films are nominated and how many viewers tune in to the Oscarcast.  It’s become apparent that the average moviegoer has written off the Oscarcast because he/she simply doesn’t care about any of the films involved.  There may be interest in "Moonlight," this year's Best Picture winner, among movie critics, festival groupies and film-industry people, but not among people who go to movies as a pastime.

The ratings were down this year because, frankly, among the nine titles being honored were the aforementioned “Moonlight” and “La La Land” (a musical, for heaven’s sake!) and “Fences” and “Lion”  and “Manchester by the Sea” and “Hell or High Water” and other movies that did not include a single tormented Superhero from the Marvel or DC Comics archives. 

The last Oscarcast whose ratings soared was in 1998 – the year of “Titanic,” a film that people other than movie critics, festival geeks and industry people adored. It was big and popular and glamorous.

The little-known (and -seen) "Moonlight" is the polar opposite, an edgy downer about race and sexuality.  It's not the kind of film that one dreams of building an Oscar party around.  Its unexpected victory has been attributed to the changes in voting, but it actually benefited from a carefully-orchestrated, shrewdly-timed 11th hour backlash on the internet against "La La Land," which had been the front-runner all season.

In a matter of a few weeks, its fate changed. 

"Moonlight's" win made no sense until one became aware of the willfully ignorant charges made against "La La Land" on the web. Yes, unbelievably, the musical lost its Best Picture Oscar because that category was ostensibly seized and appropriated by resourceful internet writers.

As for this year’s "party," the Oscarcast itself, it was especially pathetic, what with tiny bags of candy being parachuted into the theater at intervals and “tourists” being bussed in to partake in all the forced fun and to hobnob with the rich and famous.  And the extensive padding included one particularly gratuitous bit that had current stars (like Charlize Theron and Seth Rogen) mooning over vets (Shirley MacLaine and Michael J. Fox).

It was also a show whose over-the-top political correctness even seeped into commercials that pontificated on behalf of empathy and compassion to the point that it became cringe-worthy – and I say that as a card-carrying liberal who routinely votes on behalf of empathy and compassion.  As I watched all this, I remarked to my wife that right-wing pundits would have a field day with this show, which played like a bad caricature of liberalism.

It was difficult to take and I tuned out early on when Viola Davis won her award.  OK, full disclosure: I was crazy about Viola Davis before she became a household name.  As a working critic, I took note of her early film performances in “Out of Sight,” “Antoine Fisher,” “Far from Heaven” and “Solaris.”  Her win for “Fences” was no surprise.  And it was evident that she expected it, too, because her acceptance speech was less of a speech than a monologue, a carefully prepared one-woman play, during which Davis gave a performance that rivaled her work in “Fences.”

I managed to snap back into consciousness for the controversial note on which the show ended - the wrong film being announced for the top prize.

Americans like to find blame somewhere, anywhere, and everyone in the media and on-line was quick to target poor Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway for simply reading the information that was given to them. 

Beatty was clearly confused when he opened the envelope and I believe that he handed it to Dunaway to show her that a mistake had been made.  And she assumed that he was leaving it up to her to announce the winner. 

In an earlier lifetime, I interviewed Beatty and found him to be a calm, methodical, savvy, intelligent man.  So I was surprised that he didn’t stop the show, look into the camera and tell the audience that a mistake had been made – that he and Dunaway had been given the wrong envelope – and then simply wait things out until the powers corrected the error. 

The Academy still would have had a wildly dramatic finale but it would have been a good deal less embarrassing, particularly for the team that made “La La Land” - the film that deserved to be named Best Picture.

Notes in Passing: There were two moments during the Oscarcast that left me jaw-dropped (aside from the Best Picture win).  One was when host Jimmy Kimmel referred to Trump tweeting during his "5 a.m. bowel movement."  A low point in bad taste.  The second was when presenter Vince Vaughn described Kimmel as "an unshave Sal Mineo."  Huh?  Made no sense.  If my memory serves me correctly, Kimmel had a beard growth on his face (and hardly resembles Mineo). Embarrassing.

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

cinema obscura: Richard Quine's "Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feeling So Sad" (1967)

Richard Quine's "Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feeling So Sad" (1967) is the cult film that never was. At turns eccentric, experimental and awful, it's a surprise that this witty attack on momism ever got made, particuarly by a major studio.

Based on the off-Broadway hit by Arthur Kopit, the film casts a game Rosalind Russell as Madam Rosepettle (a reference to Madam Rose?), a certifiable steamroller who dotes on her Venus flytraps and cat-eating Piranhas and her babified son Robert Morse (who still wears Doctor Dentons) and who keeps her late, taxidermal husband Jonathan Winters carefully preserved.

The singular Barbara Harris (in her second film role, following 1965's "A Thousand Clowns") plays the babysitter at the resort hotel where Madam Rosepettle, Junior and Dad are ensconced. Natually, she falls for Junior, whose name is actually Jonathan. On the sidelines are such cinematic loons as Hugh Griffith and Lionel Jeffries.

The film doesn't work but it's not exactly unwatchable, thanks to Quine's sure hand which manages to produce several curious/memorable sequences.

Incidentally, Quine started out as an actor and appeared in 25 films, including Rosalind Russell's "My Sister Eileen" (1942), in which he played the role of Frank Lippincott, the young man nursing a crush on Janet Blair's Eileen. Thirteen years later, he would direct Betty Garrett, Janet Leigh and Jack Lemmon in the musical remake for Columbia, with the role of Frank Lippincott going to Bob Fosse, who also choreographed the film.

Another 12 years later, in '67, he would reunite with Roz Russell for "Oh Dad, Poor Dad."

Quine, who had a fascinatingly eclectic career as a filmmaker ("Pushover," "Bell, Book and Candle," "The World of Suzie Wong," "Synanon," "Strangers When We Meet," "Sex and the Single Girl," "Hotel," and "The Moonshine Wars"), died in 1989, a suicide by gunshot. For a good part of his career, Kim Novak (with whom he made four films) was his muse.

Sunday, February 26, 2017


Credit: Van Redin/Twentieth Century-Fox 2006 ©

Terry Crews and Luke Wilson in Mike Judge's "Idiocracy" (2006)

About a month ago, I re-published a 2008 essay here on the sudden relevance of Mike Judge's 2006 comedy, "Idiocracy." It turns out that great minds think alike. In today's New York Times, Andy Webster profiles Judges' film for a series of upcoming screenings in New York this week:

"If ever an era was in dire need of pointed commentary and point-blank humor, it is our fractious present. So hail the IFC Center for the series Autocratic for the People: An Unpresidented Series of Star-Spangled Satires. And for Mike Judge’s crude but prescient 'Idiocracy' (2006), playing Friday, March 3, through Sunday, which nails our media-addled-and-addicted culture with a precision often inducing queasiness

"Luke Wilson plays a G.I. who, with Maya Rudolph, submits to a cryogenic experiment that goes wrong. He awakens in 2505, in a society where the intellectual elite have stopped reproducing, leaving the country in a putrefying trash heap (with actual mountains of garbage) of ubiquitous corporate branding and monster-truck competitions, where spoken language consists of “hillbilly, Valley-girl, inner-city slang and various grunts,” and narcotized couch potatoes sit in armchairs with built-in toilet seats. The president (Terry Crews)? He’s a porn star and Ultimate Smackdown champion. Get the picture?"

Apparently, the comparison was not lost on Judge who was reportedly planning "Idiocracy"- inspired  anti-Trump ads during last fall's campaign marathon. I've no idea if he ever went through with the idea. My hunch is that if they ever did materialize, they would have gained attention for adding even more heat to an already incendiary election season.

* * * * * *

Originally, for decades it was only the Oscars - until the Oscars became the host for a endless stream of parasites, most prominently the Golden Globes.  And then there was another year-end movie award to be doled out and another and another and still another.  The crafty, opportunistic ones managed to snag a televised show on which to hand out awards.

And Hollywood and its denizens couldn't get enough of either the awards (no matter how cheesy) or the telecasts that market them.  It was sickly symbiotic: An insatiable star could collect an armful of trophies, while the members of the assorted awards-producing groups got to hang with the film's A-list attention addicts, maybe even be photographed with a few.


Naming The Most Embarrassing Movie Award Show is way more difficult than predicting the Oscars (duck soup), given that they're all shameful. But the most offensive for me is The Independent Spirit Awards telecast.

For some reason, this show brings out celebrities' worst insecure need to be "cool" in a way that makes high school kids seem sophisticated.

"What the f***!" is the level of response that a winner is likely to invoke at the Indies. Trendy stars get on stage and horse around (forced fun!) and their attempts at being glib are excruciating to witness.  At the same time, they want to be admired as serious artists, see, because - well - they are.

* * * * * *
Speaking of indies, there are two stalwart champions of the form who continue to work on modest, fringe projects, often below the radar, seemingly eschewing traditional stardom - a rare commitment these days.

They would be Naomi Watts and Michael Fassbender.

After being nominated for a best actress Oscar in 2012 for her performance in "The Impossible," Watts has spent the last five years appearing in now fewer than 17 films. Seventeen.

She's had supporting roles in some highly estimable films ("Birdman," "Demolition" and "St. Vincent"), made a slew of independent titles ("Adore," "Sunlight Jr.," "While We're Young" and "The Sea of Trees"), appeared in two movies with Jacob Tremblay ("Shut In" and "The Book of Henry") and, for fun, did the funny but reviled "Movie 43" and a couple "Divergent" films. Upcoming are "The Glass Castle," "The Bleeder" and the delayed release of "About Ray," made in 2015 with Elle Fanning (as a transgender) and Susan Sarandon and now titled "Three Generations."

The "X-Men" films notwithstanding, Fassbender has compiled an eclectic filmography in the past few years. True, he's had high-profile roles in "Macbeth," in "Steve Jobs" and "12 Years a Slave" (both of which brought him Oscar nominations) and, most compellingly, in Ridley Scott's "The Counsellor." And he worked with Scott (again) and Steven Soderbergh on a couple mainstream oddities ("Prometheus" and "Haywire," respectively).

But then there were David Cronenberg's "A Dangerous Mind" (as Carl Jung) and such tiny titles as "Frank," "Slow West," "Trespass Against Us," "Assassin's Creed" and "The Light Between Oceans." Next up: Terrence Malick's "Song to Song," an ensemble piece with Ryan Gosling, Natalie Portman, Rooney Mara, Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale, Holly Hunter, Benicio Del Toro, Val Kilmer and Haley Bennett, and Thomas Alfredson's "The Snowman," co-starring Rebecca Ferguson and Chloë Sevigny.

* * * * * *
Speaking of Sevigny, a profile in The New York Times is a much-needed reminder of her utterly unique persona.  There is no one on the American film scene, past or present, who is remotely like Sevigny, a throwback to the jet-setting actresses of the 1960s and '70s who flourished on the international scene - Charlotte Rampling, Suzy Kendall,  Jacqueline Bissett, Catherine Spaak, Dominique Sanda, Mimsy Farmer, Catherine Deneuve, Geraldine Chaplin, Romy Schneider  and Jane Birkin. She's just that vivid.

* * * * * *
 Finally, a sad farewll to Sevigney's "Big Love" leading man, Bill Paxton, who died earlier today, reportedly from complications from heart surgery.

 He was 61.

I first encountered him in Kathryn Bigelow's vampire frolic, "Near Dark" (1987) and admired his work is so many other titles - Carl Franklin's "One False Move" (1992), Walter Hill's "Trespass" (1992), Mike Binder's "Indian Summer" (1993), Ron Howard's "Apollo 13" (1995), Sam Raimi's "A Simple Plan" (1998), Ron Underwood's "Mighty Joe Young," the aforementioned "Haywire" (2011) and his two films with Helen Hunt, John Irvin's "Next of Kin" (1989) and Jan DeBont's "Twister" ( 1996).

His 2001 directorial effort, "Fraility," starring Matthew McConaughey, is a brilliant thriller - one of the best, on par with Charles Laughton's "Night of the Hunter" (1995).  And "Big Love," of course. Bill Paxton will be missed.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

indelible moment: "South Pacific" (1958)

The scene occurs near the end of Act I in Joshua Logan's 1958 Todd-AO film version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "South Pacific," just after Nellie Forbush (Mitzi Gaynor) performs in the Thanksgiving variety show for the seabees. Emile De Becque (Rossano Brazzi) is waiting for her backstage, talking to Lt. Joe Cable (John Kerr), who will sing the concise but powerful "Carefully Taught," featuring Richard Rodgers' prescient lyric.

Nellie [To Emile]: I've been meaning to call you but...

Emile: You have asked for a transfer. Why?  What does it mean? 

Nellie: I'll explain it to you tomorrow.

Emile: No. Not tomorrow. Now. What does it mean?

Nellie: It means that I can't marry you. Do you understand? I can't marry you.

Emile: This is because of my children.

Nellie: It's not because of your children - they're sweet.

Emile: It is their Polynesian mother then - their mother and I.

Nellie: Yes. I can't help it. It isn't as if I could give you a good reason. There is no reason. This is emotional. It's something that is born in me.

Emile: It is not. I do not believe this is born in you.

Nellie: Then why do I feel the way I do? All I know is I can't help it. I can't help it!  [To Cable]  Explain how we feel!  Please, Joe!  Nellie departs 

Emile [To Cable]: What makes her talk like that? Why do you have this feeling, you and she? I do not believe it is born in you. I do not believe.

Cable: It's not born in you. It happens after you're born.

Cable sings, Emile listens

(Music No. 39 - "CAREFULLY TAUGHT")

You've got to be taught to hate and fear
You've got to be taught from year to year
It's got to be drummed in your dear little ear
You've got to be carefully taught

You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made
And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade
You've got to be carefully taught

You've got to be taught before it's too
Before you are six or seven or
To hate all the people your relatives hate
You've got to be carefully taught...

You've got to be carefully taught!

Great song, arguably (and sadly) the song of the times - although I'm sure Trump would complain about the lousy melody and bad rhymes and dismiss Rodgers and Hammerstein as overrated (or, worse, liberals) and "South Pacific" as a disaster. And its status as a classic? Fake news.

Friday, February 17, 2017

boyle! garfield! avildsen!

Peter Boyle and Allen Garfield in Ritchie's "The Candidate"

For some reason, John G. Avildsen is one of those filmmakers who has received more criticism (hey there, Burt Reynolds!) than his due.

He directed "Rocky" (1976), but who remembers? Its writer-star, Sylvester Stallone, is generally regarded as its auteur. Prior to that, there were Jack Lemmon in his Oscar-winning turn in "Save the Tiger" (1973) and the charming "W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings" (1975, avec Reynolds).

Since then, Avildsen, who has been inactive of late, has amassed what I think is a varied and fairly impressive filmography of overlooked or forgotten films - "Slow Dancing in the Big City" (1978), with Paul Sorvino in a rare romantic lead; "The Formula" (1980) with Marlon Brando and George C. Scott; the hilarious Belushi-Akyroyd romp "Neighbors" (1981);  "Happy New Year" (1987), a remake of a Claude Lelouch French caper with Peter Falk; "Lean on Me" (1989), an early Morgan Freeman title, and, yes, two "Karate Kid" flicks. But nothing since 1999. Nearly 20 years.

But then there were Avildsen's early New York films - three crude, scrappy but atmospheric movies, made between 1970 and 1972, that defy easy pigeon-holing and seem alien by today's less interesting standards.  Three unique movies, two of which introduced arguably the best character actors of the 1970s and '80s, Peter Boyle and Allen Garfield, both utterly singular.

The movies?  "Joe" (1970) with Boyle.  "Cry Uncle" (1971) with Garfield. And "The Stoolie" (1972) with Jackie Mason in a truly revelatory performance as a small-time con man, crook, stool pigeon and unreliable friend. If you don't believe me, check it out.  But good luck finding it.

"Joe," which also introduced Susan Sarandon in a supporting role, is a savage comedy about its titular bigot - a film which predated Norman Lear's landmark 1971 series, "All in the Family," by a year. Boyle, who in 1970 also had an uncredited bit as a group-therapy crackpot in Frank Perry's "Diary of a Mad Housewife," is funny/scary as Joe Curran, a true blue-collar nightmare. Just try imagining Archie Bunker with a gun.

"Cry Uncle" is an amusing pseudo-porno about a private dick (get it?) in which Garfield waltzes through several scenes full-frontal and yet, thanks to Avildsen's cleverness, he doesn't seem to have a penis. Critics loved it.

Both Boyle and Garfield would go on to have terrific movie careers in some terrific films, three of which put them together on screen.

In 1972, Boyle and Garfield were on hand to help Robert Redford with his political campaign in Michael Ritchie's prescient "The Candidate"; they were on screen together again a year later in 1973 in Howard Zeiff's masterful farce, "Slither," with Boyle abetting star James Caan and Garfield giving Caan a difficult time; and in 1978, they are two among the ensemble of William Friedkin's "The Brinks Job." Two Avildsen graduates.

Boyle's screen career included such diverse titles as "Steelyard Blues," "Kid Blue" and "The Friends of Eddie Coyle" (all released in 1973),  "Taxi Driver" and "Swashbuckler" (both form 1976),  "Hardcore" (1979), "Where the Buffalo Roam" (1980), "Outland" (1981) and "Hammett" (1982).

It's been rumored that, on the basis of his performance in "Joe,"  he was William Friedkin's first choice to play Popeye Doyle in "The French Connection" (1971) but that his agent or manager at the time vetoed it and never told Boyle.  Gene Hackman, of course, got the role and won an Oscar.  I've no idea about the veracity of the reports but Boyle seemingly never came to terms with this lost role/opportunity.

However, years later, in 1974, he and Hackman teamed memorably for Mel Brooks' "Young Frankenstein." I've always wondered if, among their discussions, the subject of "The French Connection" ever came up.

Boyle died in 2006 and, despite the endless reruns of Ray Romano's  wonderful series,  "Everybody Loves Raymond," he is much missed.

An aside: I interviewed Boyle on the Universal lot when he was preparing for his role in James Goldstone's pirate flick, "Swashbuckler."  Boyle was engaging and gossipy and was eager to demonstrate his way with a pirate's cutless, a routine he had been rehearsing that day for Goldstone's film. I never got to ask him about "The French Connection."

Garfield, meanwhile, worked with some of the top director in some of the top films of the era - Francis Ford Coppola's "The Conversation" and Billy Wilder's "The Front Page" (both released in 1974), Robert Altman's "Nashville" (1975) and Peter Yates' "Mother, Jugs and Speed" (1976), among many others.  When his father died, Garfield reverted back to his birth name, Allen Goorwitz, as a tribute, beginning in 1978 for the aforementioned "The Brinks Job," and retained that billing for five years.

He suffered a massive stroke in 2004 and, according to IMDb, has lived in a Motion Picture & Television Fund long-term nursing home ever since.

Note in Passing: "The Comedian," the new Taylor Hackford film with Robert DeNiro as a stand-up comic attempting a comeback in an alien new era, is highly reminiscent of Avildsen's early work.  This movie, also based in New York, looks and feels as it might have been made in 1970.