Friday, February 27, 2015

character counts

character counts - This is a new recurring feature devoted to those familiar faces - Hollywood's invaluable character actors, addressing them by their names.  Which too few of us know, even dedicated cinéphiles. 

First up, the endearing Roland Young, who played patrician gents (often inebriated) in screwball comedies and is best known as Mr. Topper from ... "Topper," Norman Z. McLeod's 1937 hit (and its assorted sequels). 

Cosmo Topper.

Young had a beguiling smile (and smiling eyes) and, when he talked, he barely opened his mouth, so that much of what he said usually came out as a relaxed, kinda spacey mumble, as if he was conversing with himself. 

Jerry Seinfeld would defintely tag him a low talker.

Given that and his diminutive demeanor, the teeny-tiny autograph just above Young's right shoulder in the photo below is most appropriate.

My favorite Young performance?  As George, the Earl of Burnstead (yes!), in Leo McCarey's ever-wonderful "Ruggles of Red Gap" (1935).

A hyper-elegant actor, a super-sophisticate.  If he were alive today, he'd be the face of Tom Ford.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

the post mortem

Photo Credit: mptvimage.com

To paraphrase a popular line from innumerable movies, watching the Oscars is like banging your head repeatedly against a brick wall.

It feels so good when it's over.

Not surprisingly, the rating for The Oscarcast was down this year.  First, it was reported that the numbers were down by 10 percent from last year.  Then, the figure went to 14.9 percent, before ballooning to the current number, 16 percent (in some quarters, 17 percent).  Oy.

In an excellent analysis today in The New York Times, titled "Oscars Show Growing Gap Between Moviegoers and Academy," the decline is dissected and defined in thorough fashion by Brooks Barnes and Michael Cieply.

The low rating is no surprise because of the films and performances in question.  It has become apparent that there's a correlation between the movies involved in the competition and the level of enthusiasm that the viewers, average moviegoers, have for those films.  This year, the buzz surrounded such titles as "Boyhood," "Whiplash" and the 2015 winner, "Birdman," films with which movie critics and die-hard cinéphiles may obsessed, but not the moviegoing public.

In point of comparison, the public was obsessed with the 1998 Oscar winner - the big-studio "Titanic." That year, the Oscarcast drew an average of 57.25 million people over its length, which was a 29% increase from the previous year when the indie, "The English Patient," dominated the show.

In recent years, as more independent filmmakers have become members of the academy, the five slots for Best Picture have become dominated by independent films.  This apparently became cause for concern because the Academy expanded the field to as many as 10 titles, so that more popular titles had a chance to vie for the top award.  But this year, there was only one popular film among the eight nominees - "American Sniper."

Not even "Interstellar," which is not only a big and popular film but an extremely thoughtful one, managed to make the grade.

The show itself, meanwhile, was so unmemorable this year that most of the dialogue has revolved around the annually problematic In Memoriam sequence.  Someone is always left out.  For some reason, everyone seems up in arms this year about the exclusion of Joan Rivers, whose handful of films included a witty cameo in Burt Lancaster's "The Swimmer" and the comedy "Rabbit Test," which she directed.  Her other titles are negligible. Elaine Stritch, also slighted, had a similarly lightweight résumé.

There have been no complaints, however, that a real movie star - Lizabeth Scott - was conspicuously missing from this year's In Memoriam. Scott was a major fixture in several film noir classics, arguably the definitive femme fatale.  Granted, she passed in 2015 - on January 31 - but Rod Taylor, Anita Ekberg and Louis Jourdan, all of whom died after her, were included. In the scheme of things, who cares about Joan Rivers? She was a peripheral player at best.

And while we're at it, the fine director Joseph Sargent ("The Taking of Pelham One Two Three," "MacArthur") was also overlooked.

Bad form. Very bad form.

Postcript:  Two readers, Beth and Charlotte, alerted me to the fact that the Academy has a complete In Memoriam photo gallery on its site.  Everyone is there - 129 names in all, alphabetized.  Joan Rivers is there.  Elaine Stritch is there. Lizabeth Scott is there.  Joe Sargent is there. So why didn't the Academy simply refer the media to its site when all the fuzz started?  An Academy spokesperson has been apologizing for the Rivers omission, saying "You can't include everyone."  Which is true. Listing 129 names would have added yet another half hour to an already unwieldy show.  But directing the curious to the Academy's site could have avoided an unnecessary misunderstanding.  Flawed communication here.  Anyway, click here for the Academy's photo/memoriam link.

Monday, February 23, 2015

cinema obscura: tom kalin's "savage grace"

It's official.

The acting royalty of the moment is the duo of Julianne Moore and Eddie Redmayne, the current guardians of the Best Actress and Best Actor trophies - until two other privileged thespians are announced at the next Oscarcast. In 2016. Of course, they retain their gleaming gold statuettes in perpetuity. They don't have to relinquish them at the next Awards Season.

But Moore and Redmayne, both hugely talented and highly deserving of their Oscars, have a fascinating history - one that predates their award-winning acting in "Still Alice" and "The Theory of Everything," respectively.

They created something of a scandal back in 2007 when they appeared as a rather unorthodox mother and son in Tom Kalin's deliciously wicked "do-you believe-the rich-actually-behave-this-way?" opus, "Savage Grace." Never heard of it?

That's because, inexplicably, despite its pedigree, it came and went under the radar.  It would make sense if some enterprising young executive at IFC Films, which released "Savage Grace," suggested an art-house re-release. This effort by two Oscar winners deserves to be seen.

The film covers the rather unhealthy exploits of the fabulously wealthy Baekeland family - father Brooks (Stephen Dillane), who was the heir to the Baekeland plastics fortune (Brooks's grandfather invented Bakelite);  his ambitious, society-obsesssed wife Barbara (Moore), and their son Tony (Redmayne) - and traverses the years immediately following World War II up until the 1960s, flitting from New York to Paris to London.

The relationship between Brooks and Barbara is toxic, to say the least, and with that dynamic serving as something of a model, it's no surprise that the individual and shared behavior of mother and son, Barbara and Tony, is wildly dysfunctional. We're talking decadence here, as father, mother and son sleep around and with each other's paramours and with each other.  Yes, there's incest and, for good measure, murder.

Don't be put off by the expected sordidness because, with people this wealthy, entitled and privileged, "Savage Grace" is handsomely appointed and glamorous to the hilt. It's fun to slum with the filthy rich.
Photo Credits: IFC Films

Sunday, February 22, 2015

unfashionable

This will probably be a rant.  It's about the Oscars, after all.  But I'll try to exercise a little self-control.  Here goes...

I thought I had come up with only one reason to watch the Oscarcast tonight.  But then I realized that there are actually two - and one of them is the pleasure in watching the indefatigable host Neil Patrick Harris in action. Unless the usual excess overwhelms and numbs Harris - which would be uncharacteristic for this enterprising performer - he should shepherd his audience safely through hours of rampant narcissism, shameless self-promotion, bad jokes, arch presentations, faux humility, thinly-veiled bragging and desperate stabs at social consciousness.

The other reason?

Well, that would be to see who wins the Best Actor trophy.  There is absolutely no suspense among the other major acting nominees.

Julianne Moore, J.K. Simmons and Patricia Arquette will undoubtedly continue their on-going winning streaks in the Best Actress, Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress categories, respectively. Yawn.

As for Best Picture, its history alone should help Richard Linklater's "Boyhood" nail that top slot. Or perhaps that critics' darling, Alejandro González Iñárritu's "Birdman," will nab the big brass ring, leaving the average televiewer/moviegoer thinking, "Huh? What just happened?" 

Linklater may or may not win as Best Director, but frankly, I don't care. It seems that his achievement with this particular film had more to do with painstaking coordination than with the usual standards for direction.

That leaves Best Actor - Carell, Cooper, Cumberbatch, Keaton and Redmayne.  For months, pundits had been confidently pontificating that "It's Michael Keaton's year" - that is, until Eddie Redmayne started picking up trophies at lesser awards shows.  Then it was all over for Keaton and it became "Redmayne's year" - that is, until "American Sniper" opened Big and, forthwith, salesman Bradley Cooper was gamely all over the place.

On second thought, do I really care who wins Best Actor?  In all honesty, no.  Which brings me back to only one reason to watch Hollywood's 87th Giveaway Show. Even the most star-struck film journalist knows that the Oscar has relatively little to do with achievement (although most pretend otherwise) and that it's all about popularity in its various, mutated forms.

A person gets nominated - and wins - because (1) he/she is likeable and/or venerable, or because (2) a big studio money machine is behind that person, making sure to keep that person in your face for four months straight, or because (3) the film in which he/she is involved has been critically endorsed and is, therefore, obviously a winner - and so anyone who is even remotely associated with that film must also be a winner.

That said, here are a few unpopular, contrarian complaints, pontifications, observations and questions about this year's Oscars in particular - and the so-called "awards season" (in all its trumped-up, shameless glory) in general. Given that I no longer answer to an editor and therefore not obliged to feign interest in the event, my thoughts will be unexpurgated.

"Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)."  I've rarely been in sync with other critics but the fawning enthusiasm for Iñárritu's film really makes me feel like an outlier.  The plot about a washed-up movie actor attempting a comeback in a self-written Broadway play might have been engrossing if either the actor or his play was interesting - or if the film about them wasn't so glibly self-satisfied. Exacerbating matters is a collection of thoroughly unpleasant characters and a clanging drum score (credited to Antonio Sanchez) that's so jarring that now, whenever I see, hear, write or say the title "Birdman," I associate it with severe head pain.

"The Grand Budapest Hotel."  Wes Anderson’s fussy, all-male fantasia was also confounding. Frankly, the silly storyline about a fey concierge who claims to have had sex with the titular hotel's decrepit female patrons and is rewarded by one of them with a priceless painting (leading to a desperately unfunny chase) is made bearable only by Adam Stockhausen's remarkable production design and the three different aspect ratios employed by cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman. But the brand of "charm" that permeates this film is like sweet, sticky caramel. Sorry, but Anderson's precious frat-house film is way too twee for me.

"Selma."  Going in, there were two bright Oscar promises among the attention-seeking candidates - this Ava DuVernay biopic centering on Martin Luther King's voting-rights march in 1965 and Angelina Jolie's "Unbreakable," based on Lauren Hillenbrand's huge best-seller about World War II hero Louis Zamperini.  Remarkably, Jolie's film, which earned good reviews, went absolutely nowhere in terms of awards.  Nothing.  Nada. DuVernay's movie, meanwhile, was the center of two controversies, one of which may have led to the other.  After DuVernay was the subject of unflattering opinion pieces and editorials for negating LBJ's role in the design and passing of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, her film managed to snag only two Oscar nominations - for Best Picture and Best Song. Overlooked were DuVernay herself for direction and her star David Oyelowo.  Hollywood racism was targeted by the supporters of "Selma."  There was no mention, however, that perhaps the Oscar snub was self-created, the result of an agenda that turned off many voters.  But, hey, a Best Picture nod ain't exactly chicken feed

"Whiplash."  Hands-down, the most ludicrous film of the year - one which positions percussion as a blood sport  - and it's weighed down by the most ludicrous character of the year, a maniacal jazz instructor straight out of "Full Metal Jacket."  Honest.  I couldn't make this stuff up.  I love that J.K. Simmons, who plays the role (and will win the Oscar), is finally receiving peer recognition but it's for a performance that simply makes no sense.

"Wild."  Just the thought of Laura Dern makes me smile.  Terrific actress.  She has nailed every role that she's played.  Never a misstep.  She's been around since the '80s and has had some really revelatory roles  ("Wild at Heart," Rambling Rose," "We Don't Live Here Anymore," "Everything Must Go" and especially HBO's "Enlightened") but her part in "Wild" isn't one of them. Again, I'm happy she's nominated but keep asking myself, "Why?"

"Foxcatcher."  When an actress, who is charming and attractive, deglamorizes herself for a serious role, the critics - mostly male - call her on it.  She'll be accused of nakedly angling for a top acting award (or, at least, some critical praise) or of being ambitious and self-promoting.  Most male critics would deny that they are sexists, but when they write stuff like this, they are - the cads.  And the fact is, one could make the same exact generalizations about anyone who sets themselves up as Oscar bait, even men.  But no one commented on Steve Carell's transparent Oscar bid as multimillionaire wrestling nut John E. du Pont in Bennett Miller's film, where he dons a huge prosthetic nose and cosmetically changes his hairline and skin tone.  Sure, Carell is convincing but who wouldn't be with that kind of help?  Carell has turned into an extraordinary film actor with a really eclectic filmography. And, from where I sit, he has been much more convincing is roles that required less showcasing ("Little Miss Sunshine," "The Way Way Back," "Crazy. Stupid. Love.," "Dan in Real Life," "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World") and those not considered Oscar-worthy ("Dinner for Schmucks," "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" and particularly "The 40-Year-Old Virgin").   He's another actor who I like - a lot - but, frankly, his turn in "Foxcatcher" has been overrated.

"Still Alice." The film itself received bad reviews, deservedly so.  It's a strange hypbrid - part Lifetime movie and part predictable Sundance/indie fare. It's a toxic combination that almost steamrolled its two great performances - from Julianne Moore and Kristen Stewart. This is another "problem movie" in which the problem (in this case, Alzheimer's disease) revolves around well-heeled, entitled people. Which has become typical in indies.  Moore, of course, plays a privileged, educated woman with a cool career. She lives in a handsome Manhattan brownstone and has a beach house.  When she takes winter walks on a beach, the beach in question is an indie beach - somehow, free of other people.  (It's accompanied, of course, by one of those spare, tinkly piano scores.) She has the beach to herself so that she can contemplate the dementia that is taking over her cultured life.  When she visits a "home" that caters to Alzheimer's patients, they are all old and poor, unlike Moore's character, but the film would be more interesting - and more honest - if it was about those poor souls.

Academy Snobbery.  If the Academy is indeed steeped in racism, it doesn't surprise me.  It's been guilty of every other -ism that exists. It also becomes all hoity toity at awards time.  So, let's get back to Kristen Stewart.  Why wasn't she nominated for her performance in "Still Alice"?  She's spectacular in it, its steely center.  But, of course, the status-conscious Academy would never consider someone, however talented they are, who has become tabolid fodder and who stooped to appear in the "Twilight" franchise.  The same goes for Channing Tatum, who is the heart and soul of "Foxcatcher" and whose performance is much more impressive than either Carell's or the mannered one by mumbling Mark Ruffalo (inexplicably another nominee this year).  But, of course, the Academy would never entertain the idea of honoring Magic Mike.  The horror. Hollywood behaves as if performers like Stewart and Tatum are good enough to make money for the industry, but reward them when they excel in their roles as actors?  Never.  (And while we're at it, a long-overdue shout-out for "Nightcrawler's" Rene Russo, also slighted this year.)

OK, end of rant.

Wait!  One more thing. The year's best actor, despite who wins tonight, is actually Jake Gyllenhall (also overlooked, natch), so mesmerizing in "Nightcrawler."  To expand on that, it might be a bit anti-climatic but these are the performers most deserving of accolades/awards in 2015.

In my opinion. 
  • Jake Gyllenhall / "Nightcrawler" - Best Actor
  • Jennifer Aniston / "Cake" - Best Actress
  • Channing Tatum / "Foxcatcher" - Best Supporting Actor
  • Kristen Stewart / "Still Alice"- Best Supporting Actress   
Note in Passing: Not enough has been written about Jennifer Aniston's remarkable performance in "Cake," a fine film whose aborted box-office life seemed to be the result of a bizarre release pattern.  As a woman addicted to pain medications prescribed after an unseen accident, Aniston brought an astonishing generosity of spirit - and unexpected lightness - to a work that could have been an unrelenting downer.  There is a subtle form of humor in the film, thanks to Aniston's razon-sharp line readings and eccentric demeanor. She creates nervous laughter, but it's real. 

Monday, February 16, 2015

au revoir, m. jourdan

The dashing Louis Jourdan, who passed on Saturday - February 14 -  at the amazing age of 93, was something of an anomaly.

First case in point:  He was a classically handsome movie star who was married to the same woman for 68 years - until his beloved Berthe's death in 2014 - and there were no scandals during those nearly seven decades.

No extramarital affairs. No dalliances. No easy movie-set flirtations.

Another observation: Due to his proficiency with the English language, which he spoke fluently early on, Jourdan is a Frenchman better known for his American films (the first of which was Alfred Hitchcock's "The Paradine Case" in 1947) than for his Gallic movie career (which started in 1939 with Marc Allégret's "Le corsaire").  In fact, he had barely a hint of an accent.

More: Despite his good looks, Jourdan was rarely the dreamy leading man in his films.  Quite the contrary, he could be refreshingly petulant and irritable (as he was in Vincente Minnelli's "Gigi"), an uptight prig (Walter Lang's "Can-Can"), a heel (Jean Negulesco's "The Best of Everything," above with Suzy Parker), a psycho husband (Andrew Stone's "Julie"), a callous rake (Max Ophuls’s "Letter from an Unknown Woman") and an outright villian (John Glen's "Octopussy" and Wes Craven's "Swamp Thing" and its sequel). And he sang - unexpectedly - as he did, rather well, in both "Gigi" and "Can-Can."

But his matinee-idol status was cemented by what was indeed a dreamy-leading-man role in  Jean Negulesco's "Three Coins in a Fountain" in 1954.

Louis Jourdan was born Louis Robert Gendre in Marseille, France on June 19, 1921.  For his career, he took his mother's maiden name.  He acted in a whopping 86 movies and TV shows (again, predominantly American) and served as a soothing, unseen raconteur for an 87th - speaking the witty expository narration of Billy Wilder's "Irma La Douce" (1963):

"This, then, is the story of Irma La Douce...
A story of passion, bloodshed, desire and death...
Everything, in fact, that makes life worth living." 

One fascinating fact about Jourdan's career that has been overlooked by the various obituaries and appreciations:  He was the original male lead, opposite Barbara Harris, in the 1965 Alan Jay Lerner-Barton Lane musical, "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever," playing the psychologist, Dr. Mark Bruckner, to Harris' Daisy Gambel.


He played the role during its Boston tryout at the Colonial Theatre but was replaced by John Cullum before the show reached Broadway.  His character was originally written as a Frenchman but the nationality was changed to accomodate Cullum.  However, when Vincente Minnelli filmed the musical in 1970 with Barbra Streisand (in the Harris role), the doctor was again a Frenchman - this time played by Yves Montand.

But Minnelli changed the character's name to ... Marc Chabot.

French, you know.

Note in Passing: Oddly enough, Minnelli had directed Jourdan in both "Madame Bovary" and "Gigi."  Given that, it's a bit curious that he didn't give Jourdan at second chance at "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever."

Friday, February 13, 2015

the biggest company picnic ever

Recently, while channel-surfing, I came upon a telecast featuring several self-appointed Oscar analysts.  These days, you can't get away from them.

During what was a rather urgent conversation/debate, one of the participants lamented how the Oscars have become "politicized."

Really?

Even in its earliest incarnation, dating back to 1928, the Oscar was not about achievement.  Far from it. In fact, there are two reasons why Hollywood invented the Oscar and both were decidedly non-artistic.

One was all about, for lack of a better word, "appearances" - the desperate need to appear respectable. And the second reason involved the one element that has always driven the movie industry - power.

The industry had a rather sullied reputation back in the 1920s, seemingly promoting sex and violence and threatening to corrupt children and destroy the family unit and, by extension, the country.  There was a serious threat of government censorship that could stymie the industry.

So what better damage control than to champion all the wonderful, uplifting and artistic accomplishments of movies? By giving awards to itself, the industry somehow would acquire "class."  True, that doesn't make any sense at all but, if you think about it, the ploy worked.

The second, more pressing reason for the creation of the Oscars had to do with union-busting, which had become difficult on a studio-by-studio basis.  But, as the saying goes, United We Stand.  By banding together as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the studios became one powerful monolithic structure and the awards themselves personified this.

The Oscar became a symbol.  And the less-than-subtle implication was that, if someone was a member of a union, that person would be ineligible to vie for an award. The Academy originally consisted almost solely of studio executives who selected the nominees and winners, rewarding those who played along. It was not uncommon for the wives, mistresses and girlfriends of the executives to win the top acting awards. 

One of the unexpected bonuses of all this was increased box office - money.  Big Money. An Oscar-winning film or performance proved Hollywood had "class" and, in turn, impressed the paying public.  All of this has contributed to the movie industry's preening, overbearing self-regard.

It was a win-win situation for the movie industry which has ran with its shrewd idea for 87 years now, making the Oscars bigger (if not necessarily better) with each decade. And certainly more political.

Of course, all of this has been forgotten (or conveniently eradicated) by both Hollywood and those in thrall of it. A bit of history has vanished.

Note in Passing:  Curiously, the various movie unions never went away - and actors, long under the thumbs of the studios, eventually unionized themselves, forming The Screen Actors Guild (SAG).  The studios may have lost their union-busting fight but they won the respectability - and the respect - that they so desperately coveted.  Thanks to the Oscars.

Monday, February 09, 2015

voices

Lauren and her sisters...

They growl, they purr, they whisper, they murmur, they sigh, they intone, they inflect, they modulate, they enunciate, they deliver.

They have voices, great voices, and while movies themselves may vary wildly, their voices guarantee something special, something forbidden.

I'm talking about actresses who talk to us in the dark.  Not all actresses, but the ones with those voices that stir impure thoughts.  I can imagine any one these women whispering, "I want you, Joe."  And that's what movies and movie stars are supposed to be about - fantasized relationships with teasing, arousing shadows on a screen, imperfect men and women who may not be good for anyone and who seem to be talking directly to each of us in the audience. It's intoxicating. A little sinful.

Seductive.

The 1940s had Lauren Bacall, already dangerously confident at 19 (the age when she made her film debut in Howard Hawks' "To Have and Have Not" in 1944) - always a woman, never a girl.  Her deep, smoky voice stood seemingly miles apart from Bette Davis' brittle snap and certainly Katharine Hepburn's yankee lockjaw (never a turn-on).

By the time we reached the 1980s, we had Kathleen Turner, Bacall's unofficial heir, who brought a robust, near-athletic quality to her line readings, often camouflaging plots we've seen 12 times before.

Actresses with voices that equal the mystery promised by Bacall and Turner have never been in the majority and, in recent years, seem to have become increasingly rare. With that in mind, a casual celebration is in order - a quick, scratch-pad tribute to those women with irresistible seen-it-all, done-it-all voices. Here's the deal:  I'll toss out the names, in no particular order.  You just have to sit back and imagine their individual sounds. And, with any hope, no one great voice will be inadvertently muffled.  (If I do miss one, remind me; I'm ready to hear suggestions.)

Kim Novak. A haunted beauty with a haunted voice that set her apart from other Hollywood blondes of the 1950s (Monroe!  Mansfield!).  Her voice projected an aching sadness.

Barbara Feldon.  Forever Agent 99. She spoke with a languid sexiness that brought grown-up thoughts to a silly sitcom.

Elizabeth Ashley. Her rasp is boozy and enticingly threatening.  Vocally, she's Bourbon on the rocks.


Debra Winger.  She of the great honking voice, almost nakedly forceful - enough for late-night stimulation.

Audrey Hepburn.  She looked like an elf but that voice was something else.  Indescribable. Absolutely singular.  That's why it was so ludicrous to dub her singing (with  Marni Nixon's pitch-perfect but soulless voice) in "My Fair Lady."  So what if she hit a bum note or two.  At least we would have known exactly whose voice was singing Lerner and Loewe.

Daryl Hannah. A tall, blonde, lanky beach girl whose unexpectedly scratchy voice makes her unexpectedly accessible.


Suzanne Pleshette. She had a husky voice that matched her dark, dusky beauty - and that came with a sneaky taunt.

Joan Crawford.   The Grande Dame of movie voices.  Ambitious and driven, she taught herself how to be a star and, more to the point, how to speak like one.

Piper Laurie. Her porcelain beauty - white, white skin and soft orange hair - is offset by a commandingly deep voice.

Hermonie Gingold. Need I say anything?  She spoke with a haughty impatience, underlined by perfect elocution and what sounds like a slight lisp.  When she concocts an anti-love potion for Jimmy Stewart in Richard Quine's "Bell, Book & Candle," she urges him to drink it "before it loses its strengthhhhh!" Priceless.

Zooey Deschanel. The new girl on the block.  Her voice is like sandpaper, only less abrasive. The apathetic, blasé intonations that she brings to her line readings make her a natural comedienne.

Diana Sands. Her unique voice somehow melded a gravel with a purr, a powerful combination that was put to superb use during her seduction of Beau Bridges in her greatest screen role in Hal Ashby's "The Landlord."  She left us too soon, way too soon.

Vanessa Redgrave. Her marvelously sonorous voice, made to recite Shakespeare or Joan Didion is tempered ever so slightly by a subtle out-of-breath quality.  Consequently, she brough an orgasmic rush to the dancer Duncan in Karel Reisz's "Isadora" and to the songs she sang as Guenevere in Josh Logan's "Camelot.". Best. Actress. Ever.

Demi Moore.  Rarely has the sound of congestion been so fetching.  Yes, congestion.  You want to feed her chicken soup but you don't want her to get better because the sound is so mesmerizing.

June Allyson.  She had adorable cracks in her voice.

Katherine Heigl. Seemingly punished by the media and her peers alike for being outspoken and having standards, Heigl comes with a focused, straight-shooting voice of a serious woman.  Formidable.  I like her. And the fact that she's a tireless animal advocate doesn't hurt.

Catherine Deneuve.  Thick, creamy, Gallic and rich.  Just like French cuisine.  She always spoke flawless English (at a time when colleagues such as Depardieu couldn't), with just enough of an accent. And she's aged beautifully, naturally. (Below with Daniel Auteuil in André Téchiné's excellent 1993 film, "Ma saison préférée.")

Sissy Spacek.  That homespun rasp is never less than endearing.

Ginger Rogers.  Arguably the screen's most versatile actress.  She could mold her voice to any role she plays - a serious woman, a gum-snapping chorine, a child-brat. For for some bizarre reason, I think of her voice in black-&-white, surrounded by Art Deco trimmings.  The mere sound of Rogers stimulates the imagination.

Whoopi Goldberg.  Dreadlocks and a cultured, velvety growl.

Janet Leigh.  Her voice changed with time.  As a young actress, it was very light, girlish. You could imagine her sipping a milk shake. But as she matured, it took on a deep womanliness.  She was someone you could meet for drinks.  Scotch, definitely.

Emma Stone.  Another new girl.  A child-woman whose voice is as assertive as her jut-out chin.  And she speaks with knife-edge timing.

Jacqueline Bissett/Charlotte Rampling. No-nonsense British women whose all-business, supple voices have an underlying tenderness. And admittedly, I'm a sucker for the precise diction.

Rosalind Russell.  Russell had muscle in that voice.  She would gladly compromise her naturally patrician inflections for mile-a-minute screwball comedy. 

Kim Basinger. A good-old-girl with a charming drawl, as comfortable as a porch hammock. Powerfully affecting.

Annie Potts. Other comic actresses would kill for her Looney-Tunes peep.
Glynis Johns. Yes, yet another Brit.  But different.  She speaks with a girlish gravel.  Unique.

Blythe Danner. Her honey-blonde hair always matched her voice, which flows like butterscotch through vanilla ice cream.

Betsy Drake.  aka, Cary Grant's third wife and his best match. Her sandy voice equaled her disarming down-to-earth looks and bearing.  A British tomboy.  Everything about her was appropriated by Julie Andrews for her role in "The Sound of Music."

Tippi Hedren/Melanie Griffith.  A mother-daughter team who share the same little-girl voice that has a naughty, sexed-up edge to it.

Kay Kendall. She spoke with the hauteur of a society dame.

Julie Christie. Her voices comes with an earthy majesty. Another word comes to mind, too.  Breathy.

Christine Lahti.  A real, unpretentious woman whose vocal flirtiness seems to come easy.  JoBeth Williams and Sigourney Weaver always conveyed the same intelligence, experience and earthiness.

Dixie Carter.  The name says it all.  There's more than a bit of reveille in that voice.

Sally Kellerman.  That voice fairly drips with spaciness. There's a reason she was so wildly popular in the '70s.

I guess there are male actors who also come with an assortment of terrific voices, but they interest me less.  Nevertheless, if I had my choice and could handpick any voice I wanted, I would go with Herbert Marshall's, hands-down.  He had a voice of mellifluous maleness.  Dulcet-toned.  Resonant.  Rich.  A voice of "style," not "class" (horrible word).

Oh and how I wish that I sounded exactly like him.

...plus one gentleman


Friday, February 06, 2015

talking heads

Marjane Satrapi's "The Voices" is a charmingly gruesome oddball film with a charmingly unstable oddball hero.  Jerry (a remarkable Ryan Reynolds) has been on the mend, mentally, and disenfranchised ever since an ugly childhood event in which he was only peripherally involved but that left him with a damaged reputation. His Wonder Years were hell in general.

Jerry's stunted and his overall sense of dislocation has brought him to Anywhere, U.S.A. where he works for Milton International, a bathtub factory.  He lives in the curiously solitary apartment above the abandoned Mellow Lanes bowling alley with his dog Bosco and cat Mr. Whiskers, both of whom speak to Jerry in distinct voices (provided by Reynolds himself). Bosco, a kind soul, has a good-old-boy country drawl, while the snide, foul-mouthed Mr. Whiskers talks with, improbably, a Scottish brogue.

Jerry also talks, once a week, to his psychoanalyst Dr. Warren (Jacki Weaver), whose one mission is to keep Jerry on his meds - so he won't hear voices.  Actually, it's because of the meds that he thinks Bosco and Mr. Whiskers are talking to him.  Anyway, Mr. Whiskers, a brilliant provocateur, coerces Jerry to date and kill a few of the young women in the accounting department of Milton.  (The ladies unlucky in love are gamely played by Gemma Arterton, Anna Kendrick and Ella Smith.)

Yes, Jerry becomes a serial killer.

Well, to be precise, he becomes a serial decapitator. He stores the women's heads in the refrigerator in his little apartment, chatting with them (they talk back, too) and feeding them cereal. "The Voices" is clearly an acquired taste (to put it mildly), hardly easy to recommend, but I absolutely adored it.

Satrapi, who wrote the graphic novel "Persepolis" and co-directed its 2007 film version with Vincent Paronnaud, is apparently drawn to stories of exile and dislocation which have the potential to be dispiriting. But she offsets this unpopular passion with her appreciation and use of pop-art primary colors and kitschy production design and "The Voices" fairly snaps visually.

Reynolds, who has broken away from the Hollywood mold since "Green Lantern" (Atom Egoyan's The Captive" and Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's "Mississippi Grind"), is totally in concert with Satrapi's vision here.

His performance is immersive and fully committed, at once funny, affecting and frightening.

Together, Satrapi and her star refuse to honor audience expectations, to the point that "The Voices" closes with a nifty production number in which the entire cast sings and dances - to a ditty titled "Sing a Happy Song" (!).

Again, oddball.

"The Voices" isn't receiving a wide release.  No surprise here.  Or even a reasonably limited release.  (Full disclosure: I saw it On Demand.)

What's surprising - and heartening - is that it got made in the first place.

Photo Credits: Reiner Bajo/Lionsgate  © 2014 

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

cinema obscura: Stig Björkman's "Georgia, Georgia" (1972)


Now is the time to praise the great Diana Sands, who died at age 39 of cancer way back in September of 1973, just as she was becoming that truly rare commodity - a major and majorly serious film actress. She left only a handful of film roles behind - ranging from Joshua Logan's delightfully frivolous "Ensign Pulver" (in which she and Al Freeman, Jr. are quite comic) to Hal Ashby's crucial race-relations comedy, ”The Landlord.”

But her best work came in a film that virtually disappeared almost immediately following its release in 1972.

Stig Björkman's "Georgia, Georgia," based on an original script by Maya Angelou, is a shockingly emotional and gaspingly original examination of a taboo topic - dealing with a back woman overtaken by "white fever."


Obviously, Angelou's screenplay is penetrating a very specific black psyche here, and much of its brilliance is directly related to Sands' nakedly brave performance as
American songstress Georgia Martin.

Georgia has developed something of a cult following in Europe - a status which Georgia's traveling companion/mother figure, Alberta (played with fierce intensity by Minnie Gentry), feels has compromised the singer's blackness in general and her heritage in particular.

Starting her concert tour in Sweden (where most of the movie was filmed), Georgia is clearly experiencing a crisis of identity and seems to be willfully drifting away from "her community," particuarly when she, well, drifts into an affair with a white man (Dirk Benedict, below with Sands).

Made at the height of the Vietnam war, "Georgia, Georgia" also manages to weave in some then-topical political asides, such as a group of black Vietnam deserters who hope to enlist Georgia as a convenient mouthpiece - a spokesperson "to talk up for the black deserter community." 

It's all compellingly fascinating as both Georgia and the film surrounding her refuse to do anything that we would expect of them.


Björkman, who directed "Georgia, Georgia," giving it a pulsing pace, was a former movie critic in Sweden before turning to filmmaking and, at one time, was considered one of Sweden's most promising and gifted young directors. But he seems to have inexplicably disappeared, along with this film, having produced very little output (all of it Swedish) since '72.

Diana Sands' last film was 1974's "Honeybaby, Honeybaby," for director Michael Schultz. She was about to appear in John Berry's "Claudine" (also a '74 film) when she died, replaced in the film by Diahann Carroll, who received an Oscar nomination for the role as a single mother struggling to raise her family in Harlem. James Earl Jones co-starred.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

indelible moment: Aldrich's "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?"


"You mean, all this time we coulda been ... friends?"
-Baby Jane Hudson to her sister Blanche, dying on a Santa Monica beach.