Tuesday, October 06, 2015

au revoir, chantal...

The singular Chantal Akerman has died. The Belgian feminist-auteur designed films that were artistically daring and sophisticated, even for France where she worked for 45 years. And yet, they were spare, minimal.  She made minutiae painterly and utterly fascinating.

Akerman began making shorts in 1968 and had one amazing short feature,"Hôtel Monterey," before she broke through in 1975 with the ambitiously modest (or modestly ambitious) “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.” With these two films, she secured a rarified niche for herself in filmmaking, a place where she was the only denizen.

"Hôtel Monterey" is a 65-minute portrait of the New York residential hotel, in which her camera eyes every nook and cranny, almost compulsively so.

With “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,” starring the hugely affecting Delphine Seyrig in a one-woman, three-hour-and-21-minute exercise, expands the previous film's vision and extends it to a human. Both films are constrained by time - with the Hôtel Monterey profiled during one long night and Jeanne Dielman during a single day.  And both are haunted by loneliness and a sense of emptiness. 

Human interaction is an infrequent, alien notion in these films, daringly so. One can hardly imagine an American studio supporting such eclectic, challenging work from any filmmaker, least of all a female director.

Akerman, who was 65 when she died on October 5th, made 47 features and shorts, too many of them unseen in this country or by me.  Included were the 1986 musical, "Golden Eighties" (aka, "Window Shopping") and the 1983 document about its painstaking preparation, "Les années 80."

Then, there was the atypical movie in which Akerman seemed to be invading Nora Ephron/Nancy Meyer territory - 1996's  "A Couch in New York"/"Un divan à New York." Much like Meyer's "The Holiday," this is the one about two people who switch residences - in the case of the Akerman film, Juliette Binoche, a Parisian woman feeling pressured by all the men in her life, and William Hurt, a New York psychotherapist tired of his patients and their problems. (BTW, "A Couch in New York" predates "The Holiday" by ten years.)

So, the two swap places - and, by extension, lives. Yes, both also become involved in the other person's life, with Binoche actually counseling Hurt's patients and Hurt being pursued by one of Binoche's jealous boyfriends. When he finally gets fed up, Hurt moves back to New York, meets up with Binoche and, to paraphrase the old song, something gives.

What sounds like a generic, formulaic sitcom turns into something quite magical in Akerman's hands. She deftly targets the hapless transfer of people to different places as something not just playful but potentially unstable and dangerous. Relationships usually take one into uncharted territory and that's what Akerman toys with so cynically here.

What makes her two difficult people seem so wrong for each other is exactly what makes them so exactly perfect for one another.

Not surprisingly, "A Couch in New York" has the kind of foreign fizz that's an acquired taste, especially for American audiences who are too easily put off by anything even remotely, well, foreign.

The film may be Akerman's most accessible and commerical, but its distinctive technique is pure Chantal, resplendent with tiny bits of business and, again, hugely observant. A prime Cinema Obscura.

Friday, October 02, 2015

cinema obscura: Reed's "The Public Eye" (1972) / Hutton's "The Pad (and How to Use it)" (1966)

In 1964, two delightful one-act plays by Peter Shaffer opened on Broadway, titled "The Public Eye"/"The Private Ear."

Or perhaps it was the other way around.

Shaffer also wrote "Equus," "Amadeus," "The Royal Hunt of the Sun" and "Five Finger Exercise," all plays eventually made into movies.

Universal, which was busy in those days scouting Broadway productions, immediately snapped up the film rights to "The Public Eye"/"The Private Ear" and then didn't know what to do with two one-act comedies. Both were eventually made into very pleasing, if little-seen movies.

"The Private Ear" was filmed by Brian G. Hutton in 1966 and retitled "The Pad and How to Use it" - a title inspired a little too obviously by Richard Lester's successful "The Knack and How to Get It."

It's thin but appealing plot - about a shy man who finally has the nerve to approach a woman while at a concert, only to lose her to his more dashing friend - provided material in which the film's young stars: Britain's Brian Bedford (a holdover from the play) as the nerd, James Farentino as the dashing hunk and especially Julie Sommars as the girl all truly excelled.

Essentially a glorified TV movie that was released, albeit briefly, to theaters, "The Pad and How to Use It" deserves to be rescued.

And seen.

"The Public Eye," finally filmed in 1972, had better luck. Well, sort of.

It was adapted for the screen by Shaffer himself and directed by the estimable Sir Carol Reed.

In it, a dull British banker named Charles (played by Michael Jayston) hires Julian Cristo (Topol), an odd, eccentric private detective, to follow his American wife, Belinda (Mia Farrow), whom he suspects is cheating on him. (The film was titled "Follow Me" in all other countries, except the United States, which honored Shaffer's original title.)

When Belinda becomes aware that she is being followed, she's flattered by the attention and starts to play games with her potential paramour. The private eye figures everything out - that the wife isn't unfaithful at all, but merely looking for something that her husband isn't providing - but that she's getting from him. It's a truly enchanting film.

"The Public Eye" made it into theaters - but just barely. Universal opened in unannounced and without any advance critics' screenings.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Lavin and De Niro Together! Again?

credit © 2014 Francois Duhamel / Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Ratpac-Dune Entertainment LLC. 

One of the advantages of Nancy Meyers' "The Intern" is the opportunity it affords us to see Linda Lavin, an infrequent visitor to the big screen, in a movie - and, more to the point, in a Robert De Niro movie, no less.

There's an interesting little story here...

Back in 1975, when she and her first husband Ron Leibman were the toasts of Broadway (Sylvia Miles referred to them as "the young Lunt-Fontannes"), Lavin was signed by Mike Nichols and Warner Bros. to make her film debut in an original Neil Simon screenplay, "Bogart Slept Here," co-starring with De Niro, Marsha Mason and Tony Lo Bianco.

This was a big break for a young actress known almost exclusively for her work on stage.  But Lavin's debut was interrupted when Nichols and De Niro battled, with Nichols firing the actor within the first week of production and Warners canceling the film altogether.  It's an episode telllingly detailed by the film critic Shawn Levy in his 2014 book, "De Niro: A Life" (Crown Archetype).
In an interview with Bob Lardine of Chicago Tribune dated July15th, 1979, Lavin offered a remembrance of the incident: "Mike Nichols was the director and the cast was terrific - Robert DeNiro, Marsha Mason and Tony Lo Bianco.  I rehearsed the first week, playing Lo Bianco's wife, and then all sorts of behind-the-scenes difficulties occured.  The entire project was shelved during the second week. Naturally, I was heartbroken. It would have been terrific breaking into film with that kind of first-rate talent. The movie was later rewritten and called 'The Goodbye Girl.'"  (Yes, "The Goodbye Girl," of course. It was released in 1977, with Mason still in the cast and Richard Dreyfuss in the role originally intended for De Niro.)

But Warners believed in Lavin, promptly casting her in the title role in "Alice," its 1976 sitcom adaptation of the 1974 Martin Scorsese film, "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore." The show was a hit, and a personal success for Lavin, running on CBS from August 31, 1976 to March 19, 1985.

It not only made Linda Lavin a household name but gave her a catchy, signature song to sing every week - "There's a New Girl in Town," written by David Shire and The Bergmans (Alan and Marilyn). And Lavin's eventual official film debut?  Well, that wouldn't come until about 10 years later, in 1984, with a bit  in "The Muppets Take Manhattan."

So, it's something of a kick to finally see her play a scene on screen with De Niro exactly 40 years after they were first cast together in a movie. And making it all perfect, it's a Warner Bros. movie.

In-between, Lavin has appeared in a handful of other movies, an eclectic mix that includes "I Want to Go Home" (1989), an Alain Resnais film, written by Jules Feiffer and staring Gérard Depardieu, and David Wain's Jennifer Aniston-Paul Rudd romp, "Wunderlust" (2012).

More recently, Lavin has been touring in a cabaret act that started with her 2012 album, ”Possibilities,” (Ghostlight Records), the title referring to one of the songs on the album -  her showstopping number, "You've Got Possibilites," from the 1966 Hal Prince musical, "It's a Bird...It's a Plan...It's.Superman." (The liner notes includes a cheer from Prince.)

By the way, the ”Superman” musical has a fascinating pedigree.  It was written by Robert Benton and David Newman, a year before they penned "Bonnie and Clyde" for Warren Beatty and Arthur Penn, and the terrific songs were by Charles Strauss and Lee Adams of "Bye Bye Birdie."

Oh, yeah, and it was a great show (recently given a limited revival), unfairly forgotten.

When Lavin played the Rrazz Room in Bucks County, Pa. in 2014 with Billy Stritch accompanying her on the piano, her act was titled "Possibilities," but when she and Stritch play the Rrazz Room of Philadelphia's Prince Theater (Saturday, October 17th at 8:00 p.m. and Sunday, October 18th at 3:00 p.m.), her set will be called..."Starting Over."  Just like "The Intern."

Note in Passing: The cuts on Lavin's album are "It Might As Well Be," "Hey, Look Me Over," " There's A Small Hotel," " In Love Again," "Corcovado (Quiet Night Of Quiet Stars)," "'Deed I Do," "It Amazes Me," " You've Got Possibilities," "Rhode Island Is Famous For You," "The Song Remembers When," "Walk Between Raindrops" and "Two For The Road."

Saturday, September 19, 2015

cinema obscura: Yves Robert's "Alexandre le bienheureux" (1968)

The late French filmmaker Yves Robert rarely received his due, but three years before he died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 2002 at the age of 82, he directed his twin art-house triumphs, "La Gloire de mon père"/"My Father's Glory" and "Le Château de ma mère"/"My Mother's Castle" (1990), handsome adaptations of Marcel Pagnol's childhood memoirs.

Belatedly, and suddenly, Robert became a critics' darling.

There were other Robert films, however, that I think were greater achievements, despite their self-effacing modesty - particularly "La Guerre des boutons"/"War of the Buttons"(1962), based on Louis Pergaud's much-filmed novel, and "Salut l'artiste" (1973), a light farce which teamed Marcello Mastroianni and Jean Rochefort to perfection as two working actors often trapped in thankless roles.

Arguably, Robert's best film - and certainly my personal favorite - is "Alexandre le bienheureux" (1968), which was known first as "Very Happy Alexander" and then simply "Alexander" during its brief U.S. life in 1969.

"Alexandre le bienheureux," which has the sensuous contours of a classic French peasant comedy, is a disarming celebration of laziness and fits in perfectly with the ethos and sensibilities of the late 1960s and early '70s.

I'm not sure the same film could be made today, given how driven everyone seems to be (including slackers). A contributor on IMDb in assessing the film refers to an essay, "Le Droit à la Paresse"/"The Right to Laziness", that Paul Laforgue wrote in 1880 in which Laforgue offered a positive definition for laziness, something that is generally considered as one of the biggest vices in the world.

Robert follows the same logic in his little film, which remains timeless in its appeal. It is hugely watchable and, despite its surface goofiness and anarchy, has a forbidden message worth savoring.

That great bear of an actor, Philippe Noiret, who died of cancer in 2006 at age 76, is unaccountably light and fizzy in the title role of a humble farmer who is henpecked and overworked by his ambitious new wife (Françoise Brion), known only (and humorously) as La Grande. She supervises him with a walkie-talkie. Poor Alexander's only friend is a little dog (played by a remarkable pooch named Kaly), of which La Grande, of course, disapproves.

Well, one day a new girl named Agathe (Marlene Jobert) zips into town in a bright red Citroen 2CV, and her entrance collides - fatally - with not only La Grande but also Alexander's decrepit in-laws. Suddenly free, Alexander retires from life, staying in bed 24/7, letting his farm go to pot (much to the chagrin of his neighbors) and letting his little dog do most of the chores. There are few images as charming as little Kaly carrying a basket in her mouth, shopping for cheese, milk and groceries for Alexander.

As it turns out, Agathe is as lazy as Alexander. They make a perfect - or imperfect - couple, living slovenly ever after.

"Alexandre le bienheureux" has never been released in this country on home entertainment in any format. I have a beta copy of the film made from a subtitled 16-mm print. It remains vital as long as my reliable old betamax remains operable.

Back in 1988, when I had just started reviewing out of Northern California, I interviewed David Zucker in regard to his "The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!" At one point, Zucker mentioned he was eager to work with John Candy, an actor he thought was being misused in movies.

He asked me if I had any ideas. I immediately offered "Alexandre le bienheureux" as a possible American remake. Zucker vaguely remembered the film and seemed genuinely interested in the idea. And so, with much anxiety, I loaned him my beta copy of it. About two months later, Zucker mailed the tape back with a little "thank you" note.

The film was never made and Candy, alas, died in 1994. Too bad. It would have been perfect for Candy.

Two final notes about Robert's endearing little film: La musique de Vladimir Cosma est sublime!  Et la photographie de René Mathelin est fabuleux!

All in all, formidable!

About the artwork. From top: The original French poster art for Yves Robert's "Alexandre le bienheureux"; two American display ads, before and after the title change; Kaly; Marlene Jobert;  Françoise Brion, Philippe Noiret, Jobert and Kaly pose on set; Noiret and Brion; Noiret and Kaly in a representative scene from the film, and a favorite filmmaker, Yves Robert, behind a huge moustache, directing.

Monday, September 14, 2015

holliday with lemmon

Judy & Jack, together (too infrequently)
During his five-decade film career, Jack Lemmon pretty much varied his co-stars, particularly his leading ladies.  But he managed to appear with Kim Novak in three titles ("Phffft!," "Bell, Book and Candle" and "The Notorious Landlady") and he made two movies each with Shirley MacLaine ("The Apartment" and "Irma La Douce"), Lee Remick ("Days of Wine and Roses" and "Tribute"), Dorothy Provine ("Good Neighbor Sam" and "The Great Race"), Sally Kellerman ("The April Fools" and "That's Life") and best of all - drum roll, please! - the inimitable, the one-and-only Judy Holliday.

Judy and Jack made two films - George Cukor's "It Should Happen to You" and Mark Robson's "Phffft!" - that were released back-to-back in 1954, although they weren't made consecutively (more about that later). And they almost made a third (and more about that later, too).  Jack often remarked that he felt blessed that, for his film debut in "It Should Happen to You," he was paired with Judy Holliday who, during the 1950s, was the darling of Columbia Pictures, where Lemmon was a new contract player.

Surprisingly, Holliday, who died of breast cancer way too young (age 44) in 1965, had substantial roles in only eight major films (with bits in four others).  Her movie career is bookended by two Metro titles - George Cukor's "Adam's Rib" (1949) and Vincente Minnelli's film musical, "Bells Are Ringing" (1960), an adaptation of her Comden-Green Broadway hit.

In-between, she appeared in six titles at Columbia, beginning with her Oscar-winning "Born Yesterday," also directed by Cukor and also an adaptation of one of her stage successes. The other titles were two more by Cukor, "The Marrying Kind" (1952) and "It Should Happen to You," "Phffft!" and two made with Richard Quine, "The Solid Gold Cadillac" and "Full of Life" (both released in 1956), after which Holliday left Columbia to return to Broadway for a run in the aforementioned "Bells Are Ringing."

All of Holliday's Columbia titles were filmed in black-&-white (with the exception of the final scene in "The Solid Gold Cadillac," a novelty showing the title car in glimmering gold). "Bells" was her only full color movie.

OK, I have to stop here and ask Sony Home Entertainment:  Where the heck is a boxed DVD set of Judy's six Columbia titles?  It's long overdue.
That said, back to the topic... "It Should Happen to You," based on an original screenplay written by Garson Kanin (under the working title, "A Name for Herself"), is a rather prescient - and very witty - tale of a New York model and wannabe celebrity named Gladys Glover (Holliday) who hatches a clever scheme to make a name for herself by renting a huge Columbus Circle billboard and having her name emblazoned across it:

Gladys Glover.  

Gladys Glover. That's all. Just her name. But it's enough to prompt curiosity and a buzz around Manhattan. Who - or what - is Gladys Glover?
 "It's Glover! Not a C, like you got it - G, like you haven't got it!" -Judy Holliday as the incorrigible Gladys

Gladys' eccentricity isn't enough to initially deter the ardor of a struggling documentary filmmaker, Pete Sheppard (Lemmon), who shrewdly finds a way to move into the apartment building where Gladys lives.  As her signs around New York multiply, Gladys' modeling career is kicked into high gear.  But she becomes a joke - the symbol of nothing, a dubious distinction that she seems to relish.

She's living a fraudulent life.  And Pete simply can't compete with - or stomach - her growing obsession with empty fame. It's become disruptive.

This makes for a cautionary tale but one that, thanks to Holiday's flawless timing and inimitable line readings, is hands-down hilarious.

As for Lemmon, he makes an auspicious, pleasing screen debut and, for once, the display ads introducing him as "a guy you're gonna like" are spot-on accurate.

The next film that Lemmon filmed was H.C. Potter's "Three for the Show," one of those irresistible piffles about someone who ends up, inadvertently, with two spouses. Officially, Potter's film is a remake of Wesley Ruggles' 1940 film with Jean Arthur, "Too Many Husbands." Betty Grable has the Arthur role here, with Jack and Gower Champion as her husbands.

You've also seen this before, of course,  in Garson Kanin's 1940 "My Favorite Wife" (with Cary Grant and Irene Dunne) and Michael Gordon's 1965 remake, "Move Over, Darling" (with Doris Day and Jame Garner).

The release of "Three for the Show" was held up and delayed until 1955 while Columbia dealt with the Catholic Church's Legion of Decency, which slapped the film with its notorious "Condemned" rating because, according to the Legion, it encouraged adultery.  Consequently, Lemmon's third film, "Phffft!," was released as his second - this one a comedy about divorce.

But it had no censorship problems.

Robson's "Phffft!" is a marital comedy written by playwright George Axelrod that has remained impressively contemporary for more than 50 years now.  This terrific film has always existed, inexplicably so, in the shadow of "It Should Happen to You!" Actually, maybe it's not all that inexplicable, given that Cukor's name always went further in movie-critics circles and among buffs than Robson's ever did.

Nevertheless, both films have one thing in common - uncommonly smart, alert scripts written by people who honed their skills on the stage. Axelrod - the author of the scripts for "The Seven Year Itch," "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and "The Manchurian Candidate" and the director of "Lord Love a Duck" - came up with sharp, ageless observations as he investigates the disintegration of the marriage of Nina and Robert Tracy (played by Holliday and Lemmon) and the way it inevitably rebounds.

"Phffft!" could be called post-trendy.

Axelrod's dialogue is a particular treat. That invaluable character actor,
Jack Carson, plays Charlie Anderson, Lemmon's best friend - a confirmed bachelor who forever hands out both bad and interesting dating advice. His lecture on the allure of facial hair provides an excellent case in point:

Charlie (to Robert): "Grow a moustache. A moustache is very important, It's all part of the famous Charlie Anderson Theory on the Efficacy of Face Hair in Dealing with the Opposite Sex. Sure. Always remember this, Bobby -- dames become unpredictable when faced with a moustache -- it both arouses and angers them -- Being as it is a symbol of masculinity, they feel drawn toward it."

At this point, the camera shifts to Lemmon's reaction and the remainder of Carson's pontification as scripted by Axelrod is deleted from the release print: "And at the same time, because of envy, they feel impelled to cause its removal. All men should raise moustaches from time to time."
Then there's the very funny dance sequence. Both the Lemmon and Holliday characters take dance lessons (independent of each other) at an Arthur Murray's, only to unexpectedly end up together in the next scene on the dance floor of a nightclub, doing a wickedly hilarous mambo (choreographed by an uncredited Jack Cole, who also designed the dances for "Three for the Show") - a movie moment every bit as memorable, and as witty, as anything in a Billy Wilder film.

By the way, Axelrod's full, original title for the film was "Phffft: Chronicle of a Happy Divorce."
The movie that Lemmon and Holliday almost made was Richard Quine's "My Sister Eileen" (1955), a wonderful film musical, thanks largely to a pleasing Jule Styne-Leo Robin score, early Bob Fosse choreography (before it became terminally mannered) and a smashing lead performance by Betty Garrett as Ruth Sherwood, her only real lead role in a film.
Garrett had inherited the role of Ruth when Holliday had to back out at the last minute. Janet Leigh is charming as her sister Eileen (and also dances well with Fosse) and Jack, in a largely supporting role, has fun with his giddily salacious number (pictured below), "Bigger Than Both of Us."

Director Quine started out as an actor and appeared in 25 titles, including Rosalind Russell's original "My Sister Eileen" film (1942), in which he played soda jerk Frank Lippincott, the young man nursing a crush on Janet Blair's Eileen. Thirteen years later, he would direct this film, with the role of Lippincott going to Fosse (billed here as Robert Fosse, incidentally). One can only imagine what Holliday would have been like in the role of Ruth, but frankly, I can't imagine "My Sister Eileen" without Betty Garrett. She's the film's heart, first-rate, plus her chemistry with Lemmon is grown-up, smart and sublime.
Notes in Passing: Lemmon made a fourth film with Kim Novak - George Sidney's "Pepe" of 1960 - but they never appeared together on screen.  Each had their own brief vignette with star Cantinflas. Also Garson Kanin's script for "It Should Happen to You" (with "A Name for Herself" on the cover page) is available for review at Lincoln Center's library in New York.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

the contrarian: "match me, sidney"

Speaking of Martin Milner...

Alexander Mackendrick's atmospheric
"Sweet Smell of Success"of 1957 is one of those films that I like but not as much as I'm supposed to.

I mean, what's not to like? The '50s New York ambience (shot in black-&-white, natch, by James Wong Howe) is seductive, and the acting duet of Burt Lancaster as ruthless newspaper columnist J.J. Hunsecker and Tony Curtis as the weak, fawning publicist Sidney Falco should be enough to get me through the film.

So, again, what's not to like? Well, the plot. Which, for me, is - well - kinda silly. Everything hinges on the fact that J.J. doesn't want his spoiled kid sister, Susan (played by a mink-wrapped Susan Harrison, who looks young enough to be Lancaster's daughter and yet who looks nothing like him at all), to marry a musician with the great name Steve Dallas (a character played by the always surprising Milner).

And this is what accounts for this so-called tough film's palpable angst.

Monday, September 07, 2015

character counts: martin milner

Maharis, Milner, the Corvette: Iconic

Martin Milner, who died yesterday (Sept. 6th) at age 83, was forever young and forever a character actor, never quite a leading man.

Milner seemed ageless throughout his long and diverse career, during which he played variations on the same basic character - the rock-solid, dependable best friend. Despite that, he was difficult to pinpoint.  With his blond, all-American good looks (replete with freckles), he could pass alternately for a laid-back, California surfer or a young Republican. 

Take your pick.

His acting career started in 1947 with a debut role in Michael Curtiz's "Life with Father" and ended 50 years later in 1997 with a guest role on the Dick Van Dyke series, "Diagnosis Murder."  In-between, he moved easily, back and forth, from movies to TV, from TV to movies, playing a lot of uncredited roles -  Alfred Hitchcock's "Dial M for Murder" and John  Ford's "The Long Gray Line," among them - during his first ten years in movies. 

Milner was singled out in Variety's May 10th, 1955 review of Ford's "Mister Roberts," signed Brog.: "Ward Bond, as the CPO, is another who stands out in the fine cast, among whom are Phil Carey, Nick Adams, Ken Curtis, particularly good as Dolan; Harry Carey Jr., Perry Lopez, Robert Roark, as Insigna; Pat Wayne, and Martin Milner, the latter excellent as the mushmouthed shore patrol officer who confines the sailors to ship after an especially riotous liberty."

Good roles in good films followed - Jack Webb's "Pete Kelly's Blues," Alexander Macenrick's "Sweet Smell of Success," Irving Rapper's "Marjorie Morningstar," Richard Fleischer's "Compulsion," William Castle's "13 Ghosts" and the role of Adam in the Mickey Rooney-Albert Zugsmith curiosity/collaboration, "The Private Lives of Adam and Eve" - a few of his jaw-dropping 112 credits.

But, inarguably, Milner was best served on two TV series about male bonding - the cop procedural "Adam-12," opposite Kent McCord (who became Milner's BFF in real life), which ran on NBC from 1968 to 1975, and especially - most especially - the seminal "Route 66," opposite George Maharis (and, later, Glenn Corbett), on CBS from 1960 to '64. 

The on-going tale of two guys, a sharp Corvette and a seemingly endless road across America, "Route 66" was a relative of sorts to Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" and like that literary sensation, it had an irresistible beat. It was special. And there really hasn't been anything like it on TV since.

If the prolific Martin Milner did nothing else, he would be celebrated for his moody performance as the wealthy, restless Tod of this iconic series.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

cinema obscura: Sidney Lumet's "A View from the Bridge" (1962)

As I've suggest in several essays here, the movie year 1962 was a great one, arguably the best - better than 1939 - with dozens of notable filmmakers working with a liberating freedom. One of them was Sidney Lumet, who devoted himself to adaptations of two legendary plays.

Most film aficionados admire the fidelity of Lumet's film of Eugene O'Neill's "Long Days Journey into Night," but few are even aware of his now largely forgotten version of Arthur Miller's hothouse drama, "A View from the Bridge," also from '62.

Frankly, it also slipped my mind until I read of England's recent Young Vic production, with Mark Strong in his Olivier Award-winning delineation of the conflicted Italian longshoreman Eddie Carbone. (Strong, left, is known largely as one of Great Britain's premiere character actors but he is actually Italian himself, born Marco Giuseppe Salussolia.)

But back to Lumet's film version, which starred Italian actor Raf Vallone (below) as Eddie and co-starred Carol Lawrence and Maureen Stapleton. Very much an international affair, Lumet's "A View from the Bridge," which cleaves closely to Miller's play, was a French-Italian co-production made in two versions - one spoken in English, the other a French-language version.

Eddie Carbone lives in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, unhappily married to Stapleton's Beatrice. Eddie is really in love with Catherine, the 18-year-old niece whom he and Beatrice have raised since childhood, but he is too artless to be fully aware of either his deeply suppressed feelings for Catherine or his casual rejection of Beatrice.

And there might be something else going with Eddie.

Carol Lawrence, fresh from the stage production of "West Side Story," made her film debut under Lumet's direction and, to the best of my knowledge, Catherine remains her only big-screen role. She tested for the film of WSS but, of course, that role went to Natalie Wood.

She's a lovely presence here and Michel Kelber's stark black-&-white cinematography seems to love her pale, soft skin and regal cheekbones.

Is rough-hewn Vallone in love with niece Lawrence or her boyfriend Sorel in "A View from the Bridge"?
Eddie faces a crisis when he agrees to help two of Beatrice's cousins enter the country illegally, particularly when Catherine is attracted one of them, the handsome Rodolpho (played by the French actor Jean Sorel).

He interferes not only by reporting Rodolpho and his brother Marco (Raymond Pellegrin, very good) to the immigration department, but by also accusing Rodolpho of being a homosexual. The film's big scene - a cause célèbre at the time - has a desperate Eddie planting a big, wet kiss on Rodolpho to prove his point about the young man's sexuality. By this point, "A View from the Bridge" has gone haywire. I mean, is Eddie still lusting for Catherine or is he now really interesed in Rodolpho?

On stage, "A View from the Bridge" was not a popular success. The original one-act version, directed by Martin Ritt and starring Van Heflin and Eileen Heckart, ran for only 148 performances in 1955.  A year later, a revised, two-act version premiered in England.

Despite its short run, theater critics liked it. But movie critics were decidely more divided in 1962, with Dwight MacDonald praising it and Pauline Kael accusing it of being a lame, would-be Greek tragedy.

Distributed in America by Continental Releasing, Sidney Lumet's "A View from the Bridge" is now virtually impossible to see.

A truly lost film.

Note in Passing: Wikipedia provides a fascinating glimpse into the work's bumpy history.  Incidentally, the last New York revival of the play was in 2010, with Gregory Mosher directing Liev Schreiber, Scarlett Johansson and Jessica Hecht, respectively as Eddie, Catherine ans Beatrice. Here is Ben Brantley's New York Times review of that production.

In the meantime, the Young Vic production is coming to Broadway this fall, beginning previews on October 21st and opening November 12th at the Lyceum Theatre, 149 West 45th Street, New York, NY 10036.
Sorel's tentative relationship with Lawrence incites a repressed, jealous and ultimately explosive Vallone.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

façade: dean jones

Dean Jones, who died yesterday (Sept. 1st) at age 84, was one of those reliable actors routinely taken for granted and terribly underrated.

He is perhaps best known for his work at Disney where he made 10 family-friendly films with such eccentric, animal-oriented titles as "That Darn Cat!," "The Million Dollar Duck," "The Ugly Dachshund" and "Monkeys, Go Home!"  Perhaps it's because so few people in the industry gave Jones or his Disney films much credit that it's rarely noted that those 10 little movies have a total reported gross in excess of $960 million.

Takes that, Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise and Robert Downey, Jr! 

A resourceful publicist would have touted Jones as "a one-man franchise."

But there was more to Jones than just his stint as Disney's idea of Jimmy Stewart Lite - tall, slender, affable and handsome in a non-threatening way.  For one thing, he was a trained singer and started his career as a vocalist, although he was never given the opportunity to sing in films.

And he started his career while he was still in high school in Decatur, Alabama, where he was born on January 25th, 1931.  While attending Riverside High School in Decatur, Jones hosted his own radio show, "Dean Jones Sings," and also produced local stage productions. 

He studied music at Kentucky's Ashbury University and after being discharged from the Navy, Jones got a job at the Bird Cage Theater, a part of Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park, Ca. where he was discovered by MGM head Dore Schary, who cast Jones in first screen role - an uncredited bit in Paul Newman's "Somebody Up There Likes Me" in 1956. 

Jones made his official screen debut the same year in the James Cagney film, "Those Wilder Years," followed by smallish parts in a couple Glenn Ford films, "Imitation General" and "Torpedo Run," "Never So Few," "Until They Sail," "Tea and Sympathy," the Elvis Presley vehicle, "Jailhouse Rock," and another Newman film, "The Rack."
Jones' film career was pretty much stillborn, with MGM opting to cast him in guest spots on its TV shows, when he decided to take a risk: He and Jane Fonda made their Broadway debuts together in Joshua Logan's 1960 production "There Was a Little Girl," in which Fonda played a rape victim.

The cast also included Joey Heatherton and Gary Lockwood (as one of the rapists). "There Was a Little Girl," an adaptation of  the Christopher Davis novel, wasn't a success, but Jones stayed in New York for the remainder of 1960 to star with Gig Young and Sandra Church in Lawrence Roman's comedy, "Under the Yum-Yum Tree," which was very much a hit - enough of a success, in fact, for NBC and Hy Averback to cast him in the title role of their sitcom, "Ensign O'Toole." Jones was "discovered" a second time.

He recreated his "Yum-Yum" role in the 1963 film version opposite Jack Lemmon and Carol Lynley and reunited with Fonda in the 1966 movie version of the stage comedy, "Any Wednesday," co-starring Jason Robards. And there were also good roles in "The New Interns" and (one of my guilty pleasures) "Two on a Guillotine," with Connie Stevens.

And then came the Disney films. But...

...then, somehow, Jones managed to disengage himself from the ducks, cats and Disney Dachshunds to return to Broadway memorably but briefly in 1970 for the Harold Prince-Stephen Sondheim-George Furth cult musical, "Company," as a replacement for Anthony Perkins. The documentarian D.A. Pennebaker filmed the recording of the show's songs in "Original Cast Album: Company," and while much is made of Elaine Stritch's grueling, repeated efforts to recreate her showstopper, "The Ladies Who Lunch," the single most powerful moment in Pennebaker's film, hands-down, is Jones' searing, passionate rendition of "Being Alive." That single scene in Pennebaker's film is Dean Jones' greatest moment.

Speaking of Perkins, that's who Jones oddly resembles in one of his last major roles, "Beethoven" - yes, "Beethoven," yet another animal-oriented family feature.  In a deliciously evil touch that adds a nifty curlicue to his career, Jones plays the film's Norman Bates-like villain, a nasty veterinarian named Dr. Varnick, out to harm the title St. Bernard.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

joe's dreaded genre

Marley as a pup in "Marley and Me," the only "animal movie" that one movie fan can tolerate.

During my years as a working critic, I harbored some very rigid opinions about what people assigned to the movie beat should and shouldn't do.

Celebrity interviews were out of the question.  Too dangerous.  My opinion was that no professional critic should sit down with a filmmaker or a movie star to discuss a project that the reviewer inevitably has to critique.  It's too easy to be charmed and flattered by the movie person sitting across from you - and too easy to adjust an initial impression of a film in favor of the film.  There's no getting around it: Movie people can be seductive.

As I once told an editor, "I don't do windows or interviews."

No, "reviewing" and "interviewing" should be two separate jobs done by different people. I was adamant about that and still am. Period.

Another of my pronouncements was that it was a movie critic's duty to see everything - anything on celluloid, in those days - that was available for review.  A responsible critic would never pick and choose based on likes and dislikes.  No genre should be avoided.  Doing so was contrary to being an adventurous moviegoer, to being opened to discovery, enlightenment.

There was no room for snobbery or elitism.

One was duty-bound to see everything, even if one wasn't reviewing a particular title. I extended this rule to self-described "movie buffs" as well.  See everything or risk being branded a lazy fraud.  I was impossible.

Well, I've changed my tune on that point since becoming a civilian moviegoer.  For one thing, the sheer number of movies being produced these days - and the ones lucky enough to get theatrical play are just the tip of the iceberg - makes it impractical to see eveyrhing.  But even if the vagaries of film distribution were more reasonable, I've come to realize that there are certain genres in which I have absolutely no interest.

Nothing could entice me, for example, to sit through a "sword and sandals" epic or anything set in "middle earth."  Life is way too short.

But more remarkable is that I have no interest in any film about animals which, may seem odd, because I love animals and consider myself something of an animal advocate.  I don't want to see any movie that's about a dog, cat, horse or lion.  Sorry, Elsa.  This occurred to me after I wrote my previous essay on a potential remake of ”Born Free.”

The fact is, movies about animals are always - always - sad and disturbing.  Awful things traditionally happen to the animal star.  The MGM/Lassie films are the worst.  "Old Yeller" is the pits. (Blasphemy!) I do like Asta in the "Thin Man" series and Pyewacket in "Bell, Book and Candle," but those films really aren't about them, are they?

And David Frankel's “Marley and Me,” for me, remains a great film because it is about a life - in this case, a dog from puppyhood to death - and because of its complete, unapologetic empathy for the animal.

It is such an intelligent, acute depiction of what's like to have a relationship with an animal and how the sudden absence of an animal companion can make one feel so terribly desolate because, well, the animal is always, reliably there - a point driven home in the scene where stars Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson watch home videos after Marley's passing.

In one of the videos, Aniston is standing at a kitchen counter talking to a friend.  She has a baby on her hip and eating food off the counter.  Marley is behind her and, almost absent-mindedly, without thinking, she gives Marley some of the food - because she knew he would be there.

A truly under-appreciated film, the only "animal movie" I can tolerate.

Note in Passing: Regarding the use of animals in films, check out this eye-opening, jaw-dropping exposé, "No Animals Were Harmed," that appeared in The Hollywood Reporter.
Marley in his prime, always there