Saturday, February 28, 2009

1962: "Hollywood Musicals are BIG Again"

Saving The Movie Musical - Again. Is it Too Late?
One of the more absurd segments of the recent Oscarcast was a deranged extravaganza, created by the dreadful Baz Luhrmann, ostensibly celebrating the return of the movie musical.

Yeah, pure fantasy.

The best Hollywood can do these days is produce one musical a year. Actually, 2007 produced two - Tim Burton's "Sweeney Todd - The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" and Adam Shankman's "Hairspray."

Next up: Jim Carey and Jake Gyllenhaall in a planned, "contemporized" remake of Adler-Ross's Damn Yankees," with no one yet set for Lola, the female lead. That probably won't make it to the screen until, say, 2010. Which means there will be no movie musicals in 2009. None. Nada.

Face it: Musicals have been struggling in Hollywood for years - nay, decades. Back in August of 1962, the cover story of LOOK magazine was about - yes - the big comeback of the movie musical. The movie year 1959 produced only Otto Preminger's "Porgy and Bess" and Melvin Frank's "Li'l Abner," neither of which seemed to excite moviegoers.

Matters didn't look good back then.

A year later, in 1960, there was Walter Lang's embarrassing "Can-Can" and Vincente Minnelli's pleasing "Bells Are Ringing." The Minnelli film wasn't a huge success but you can see how the director sensed that the the movie musical was on its last leg and he experimented accordingly to make it more palatable for audiences. The next time you see it, check out how Minnelli's staging invigorates the "I Met a Girl" number by having star Dean Martin sing it while fighting his way through sidewalk traffic, and he turns "Mu-Cha-Cha" into a pseudo-musical number by eschewing the song's lyric and staging the dance in an off-the-cuff, improvistory manner.

Matters were so dire that when Joshua Logan brought "Fanny" to the screen in 1961, he reduced the Harold Rome score to background music. But, the same year, there was a turaround, albeit a brief one, for the musical with the success of Henry Koster's "Flower Drum Song" and Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins' Oscar-winning "West Side Story."

These two prompted Hollywood to hanker down and produce José Ferrer's remake of "State Fair," Morton Da Costa's "The Music Man," Mervyn LeRoy's "Gypsy," Chalres Walters' "Jumbo" (that's Doris Day and Martha Raye, above, in a scene from the film) and George Sidney's "Bye, Bye Birdie" over the next two years - as a group a hook for the LOOK magazine piece, titled "Hollywood Musicals Are BIG Again."

Billy Wilder's "Irma La Douce," on the other hand, went the "Fanny" route, sans Marguerite Monnot and Alexandré Breffort's fabulous songs (most of it adapted as background/mood music by André Previn).

Since then, Hollywood has tried different ways to rehabilitate the genre. Logan put both "Camelot" and "Paint Your Wagon" on film with strictly A-list casts; when Roger Corman produced the film of "A Little Night Music," as insurance, he stayed with its stage director, Harold Prince (the ploy didn't work; the film didn't click); when "The Wiz," "Annie" and "A Chorus Line" were made, the studios entrusted them to serious filmmakers - Sidney Lumet, John Huston and Sir Richard Attenborough, respectively.

Nothing worked. The critics disapproved and audiences stayed away.

Yes, there were sporadic, near-freak hits - Wise's "The Sound of Music" and Bob Fosse's "Cabaret" (two films I don't particularly like), Randall Kleiser's "Grease" (a film which has more than worn out its welcome) and Colin Higgins' "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" (I like it actually).

Still, these were few and far between. The film musical has never really bounced back. After all these years - nearly 50, by my count - it's still struggling to be accepted again, accepted unconditionally.

Getting back to the planned remake of "Damn Yankees," who will - could - play Lola? Who? Well, almost any of the following talented actresses, all of whom are age-appropriate for Gyllenhaall: Amanda Seyfried, Amy Adams, Zooey Deschanel, Kate Hudson, Amanda Bynes, Anne Hathaway, Evan Rachel Wood, Rachel McAdams, Reese Witherspoon and Scarlett Johansson. Personally, I'd go with either McAdams or Deschanel.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

façade: Stephanie Courtney

Am I the only one out there totally enchanted by Stephanie Courtney, the pert redhead who drives those witty Progressive Insurance commercials?

I certainly hope not.

Actually, if all the buzz about her on IMDb is any indication, not a few people have become taken by her. Now if only some resourceful casting agent or director in Hollywood would sit up and take notice.

I mean, get this girl a movie.


Not surprisingly, Courtney is member of the main company of the famed Groundlings Theater troupe, based in Los Angeles, where she can be found regularly performing in its trademark sketch and improv shows.

The Stony Point, N.Y. native, is a graduate of New York's Neighborhood Playhouse and has appeared in stand-up clubs, on TV (she plays Marge on "Mad Men") and in films ("The Heartbreak Kid" and "Blades of Glory," in which she plays the kind of role described only as "reporter at sign up").

But the roles, alas, have been small ones.

The Progressive ads represent her best showcase to date.

She's also performed at the Aspen Comedy Festival, where she appeared in "Those Courtney Girls", a show she co-wrote with her sister, Jennifer.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Connie Stevens' "Saving Grace B. Jones"

Connie Stevens, one of the more pleasing starlets of the 1950s, steps away from her pervasive image and steps behind the camera for a companionable, old-fashioned drama about a small-town Missouri family and the prodigal daughter who comes home
Helping out on the selection committee of The 18th Philadelphia Film Festival and Cinefest 09, and writing program notes, I've been in the comfortable position to discover a few gems that, hopefully, will see the light of day beyond the usual dead-end film-festival circuit.

Over the next few weeks, I'll share some of my discoveries with you. First up: Connie Stevens' "Saving Grace B. Jones." Yes, that Connie Stevens.

OK, full disclosure. I’m crazy for Connie Stevens. Her performance in Delmer Daves’ "Susan Slade" (1961) is an unheralded triumph, and her Cricket Blake on the TV series Hawaiian Eye is downright iconic.

A seriously underrated performer, Stevens has experimented with directing – first with "A Healing," a 1997 documentary about nurses who served in Vietnam, and now with her first narrative, the Missouri-set "Saving Grace B. Jones," an old-fashioned ‘50s melodrama, in which Tatum O’Neal (below with child actor Evie Thompson) delivers an affecting comeback performance as Grace, a troubled woman reconnecting with her family following years of institutionalization.

Reminiscent of the work of William Inge, Stevens’ movie is handsomely filmed and boasts a cast that includes Piper Laurie, Penelope Ann Miller, Michael Biehn, Scott Wilson and Joel Gretsch as a guy who was once married to Grace for one day. The film contains several talented child actors, mostly girls, and Stevens does something risky and experimental by encouraging them to give animated performances. Their work, much of the earlier part of the film for that matter, comes with the ebulience that always marked Stevens' own work as a performer.

Stevens was a Warners TV actress ("77 Sunset Strip"/"Hawaiian Eye") who had a co-starring role in "Parrish" and the lead title role in the aforementioned "Susan Slade," in which she's excellent as an unwed mother forced to live a double life when her mother (Dorothy Maguire), in an effort to protect Susan, opts to pose as the mother of the child.

There is something so internal and timorous about Stevens' handling of the role that one could well imagine her as a Hitchcock blonde. (There are shades of "Marnie" here.) Stevens had fun in the comic William Conrad thriller, "Two on a Guillotine" (1965) and in Bud Yorkin's "Never Too Late" (also '65), from the Broadway comedy, and she appeared in Robert Aldrich's "The Grissom Gang" (1971), in which she shared the screen with Kim Darby - the ex-wife of Stevens' ex-husband, James Stacy. Got that?

But her film-acting career never really took off. There were reports that the role that Stevens really wanted was Eliza Doolittle in Warners' film of "My Fair Lady," but Jack Warner refused to entertain the thought.

Too bad. I've a hunch that she could have pulled it off.

Anyway, Stevens, seemingly the eternal starlet, is now 70 and with "Saving Grace B. Jones" perhaps her career will be rediscovered/redefined, affording her the credit she so richly deserves.

The 18th Philadelphia Film Festival and Cinefest 09 will run from March 26th until April 7th, 2009.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Oscar (Dis)honors Jer

Winslet? Oui! ... Penn? Oui, oui! ... Lewis? Non!!
The decision-makers behind The Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Scientists were so transparently embarrassed about giving an award to Jerry Lewis (even a token, arbitrary one) that they couldn't even bother to document his not unimpressive accomplishments in film - both in front of and behind the camera. So why did they bother honoring him at all?

Last night's brief, anti-climatic treatment of the veteran star at the Academy's annual giveaway-and-barbeque hoedown - The Oscars - was embarrassing and awkward, actually topping the decision to have Jennifer Aniston on stage for several agonizingly endless minutes while Brad Pitt and Anjelina Jolie gawked from front row center. The best word to describe this insincere tribute is "rushed." A better word: Disgusting.

Yes, I realize that Lewis, one of film's more misunderstood commodities, was honored last night with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award - and that his Muscular Dystrophy activism was the real driving force behind this award - but here was a rare, fleeting opportunity when Hollywood could have stepped up and re-evaluated and redefined his career for those obtuse critics who just never "got" him. It could have echoed what The New York Times' Mahohla Dargis expressed in her Times' piece, "Hey, Laaaaady! It’s the King of Comedy" (2/22/09). But, surprisingly, even Dargis gives Lewis' directing accomplishments short shrift.

Besides, past Hersholt winners have been lavished with career praise.

So, why not Jer?

As for the rest of the show, the less said, the better - the self-loathing of Hollywood much in evidence.

You have a serious problem when the set (designed by New York architect David Rockwell) is the chief attraction of the night and when the producing team of Laurence Mark and Bill Condon makes the dubious decision to allot more time to a pointless production number celebrating the "return of the movie musical" (a naked fabrication here - the genre is still struggling, mightily, to rebound), while offering severely truncated versions of the year's three Oscar-nominated songs. Yeesh.

Adding insult to injury, the movie-musical extravaganza was the brianchild of the dreadful Baz Luhrmann, who operates as if he's a department-store window decorator who somehow stumbled into filmmaking. Forget about the movie musical making a comeback.

When is the Oscarcast going to bounce back?

Or is it just plain hopeless?

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

façade: George Roy Hill

The unfairly neglected George Roy Hill (1921-2002)
Turner Classic Movies screens George Roy Hill's "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" - his biggest hit - at 8 p.m., est., on Monday, 16 February, bringing attention to an underrated filmmaker who, at best, received mostly left-handed compliments during his brief screen career.

It was his sixth film and it starred Paul Newman and Robert Redford.

Hill made 14 major films in about 25 years before retiring in 1988 to teach his craft at Yale, and from where I sit, there isn't really one embarrassment among them. Wait! I take that back: There's "Thoroughly Modern Millie," a film that I dislike to the point of irrationality.

He was an active force in New York during the 1950s, directing both plays and live TV dramas, including among other titles, the original Playhouse 90 production of Abby Mann's "Judgment at Nuremberg" in 1959 (wherein Maximilian Schell played the same role that would inevitably win him an Oscar two years later for the 1961 Stanley Kramer film version).

Hill directed the original stage production of the Tennessee Williams comedy, "Period of Adjustment," and when MGM made it into a movie in 1962, Hill was part of the package, guiding star Jane Fonda through one of her most charming performances. He followed this directorial debut with another filmed play, Lillian Hellman's "Toys in the Attic," made a year later and starring Dean martin, Geraldine Page and Wendy Hiller.

His third film was the very charming and very urbane 1964 Peter Sellers lark, "The World of Henry Orient," which Hill would also direct as a Broadway musical, titled "Henry, Sweet Henry," in 1967. Two films with Julie Andrews followed in 1966 and '67, both roadshow attractions - "Hawaii" and "Thoroughly Modern Millie," respectively.

Then came "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."

From that point on, Hill helmed a pleasingly eclectic selection of titles, including "A Little Romance" (1979), Diane Keaton's "Little Drummer Girl" (1984) and what I consider to be His two best films, "Slaughterhouse-Five" (1972) and "The World According to Garp" (1982). He reunited with Paul Newman and Robert Redford, of course, for the Oscar-winning "The Sting" (1973), himself taking the best director Oscar that year, and would subsequently also direct Bob in "The Great Waldo Pepper" (1975) and Paul in "Slap Shot" (1977), both fine, sturdy films.

His last film was "The Funny Farm," with Chevy Chase, made in 1988. Hill died from complications from Parkinson's disease in 2002, at the age 81

Monday, February 09, 2009

Pyewacket (and that other movie award)

Pyewacket (and friend): A Most Bewitching Winner
The Oscar has been somewhat diminished during the past decade or so as movie awards shows started to multiply one after the other.

But there is only one movie award for animals - The PATSY Award, which is an acronym for Picture Animal Top Star of the Year and which, like the Oscar, was thought up as a public relations stunt. The Hollywood office of the American Humane Association, which is supposed to oversee and monitor the use of animals in films and curtail any potential for abuse, conceived the award in 1939 after a horse was killed during an accident on Henry King "Jesse James," starring Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda.

But for some bizarre reason, the first actual PATSY wasn't awarded until 1951 and it went to the titular mule in Universal's "Francis the Talking Mule" - and it wasn't until 1958 that the award was actually presented. It went to the inimitable Pyewacket, Kim Novak's chatty "familiar" in "Bell, Book and Candle." According to Hollywood legend, Novak - a noted animal lover/activist - bonded so completely with the Siamese that he was given to her at the commencement of filming.

Anyway, you can check out Pyewacket's memorable turn in Richard Quine's "Bell, Book and Candle" when Turner Classic Movies airs it three times over as many months, starting, Thursday, 12 February at 10p.m., est., followed by encore performances on Sunday, 15 March at 4 p.m. and Wednesday, 22 April at 11:15 a.m.

Note in Passing: Check out this terrific take on "Bell, Book and Candle" by Jeremy Richey. From "The Amplifer."

Saturday, February 07, 2009

cinema obscura: Henry Levin's "The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker" (1959)

Clifton Webb, whether playing Lynn Belvedere, Frank Bunker Gilbreth or Horace Pennypacker, battled kids (and kid actors) as no one else in Hollywood could
In Henry Levin's "The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker" (1959), based on the popular Liam O'Brien play, the bracingly fey Clifton Webb got to play for one last time - and to refine - a character he had made all his own.

Namely, the precise curmudgeon who, either by design or accident, ends up in the company of a lot of children, a role/character which also appealed to Cary Grant. A singular mainstay of the Fox stable of actors, the stage-trained Webb proved his acting chops in such serious films as Otto Preminger's "Laura" (1944), Edmund Goulding's "The Razor's Edge" (1946) and Jean Negulesco's "Titanic" (1953), among others.

But for all intents and purposes, he became his own one-man franchise in a string of family-friendly films about kids.

There was Walter Lang's sublime "Sitting Pretty" (1946), so successful that it spawned two sequels ("Mr. Belvedere Goes to College" and "Mr. Belvedere Rings the Bell"). Then came Lang's "Cheaper by the Dozen" (1950), about the sprawling Gilbreth clan, which also sired a sequel ("Belles on Their Toes"), although one sans Webb, as well as a bad Steve Martin remake. And, finally, there was Levin's "Mr. Scoutmaster" (1953).

"The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker" came towards the end of Webb's career. He made his last film, Leo McCarey's difficult-to-see "Satan Never Sleeps," in 1962 and he died of a heart attack at age 77 in 1966.

In the delightful
"Pennypacker," Webb assumes the role played on stage by Burgess Meredith - that of one Horace Pennypacker, an unrepentent bigamist who has set up two households full of children in both Philadelphia and Harrisburg, shuttling between the two. Webb gets around the questionable qualities of his character by playing it in his standard way - as a resolute, extremely willful, likable free-thinker.

What's especially impressive about the film - or rather Levin's pacing of it - is that it isn't the least bit hectic or antic, instead taking its composure from its confident star. The terrific cast includes Dorothy McGuire as Mrs. Pennypacker of Philadelphia, Charles Coburn as Webb's father-in-law (and chief foil), Jill St. John (new to films at the time) as one of his older children and Ron Ely (a one-time "Tarzan") as her love interest.

It would be nice if Fox Home Entertainment unearthed "The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker" - and, for that matter, "Mr. Scoutmaster," too - for a boxed set devoted to Webb. Both have been unseen for far too long.

Note in Passing: The same year, Webb made another film for Levin and Fox, "Holiday for Lovers," from the Ronald Alexander play, also co-starring St. John, along with Jane Wyman, Carol Lynley and Gary Crosby.

Like "The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker" and "Mr. Scoutmaster," it is a Webb-Levin film that is lost. Three for three.

guilt by association

Cooper and Johansson in "He's Just Not That Into You" - a RomCom, yes, but also a pretty good film.
The RomCom, that Hollywood artwork formerly known as The Chick Flick, has the dubious distinction of being the bane of modern movies.

Each one seems to get worse than the one that preceded it, with the genre reaching something of a nadir with Gary Winick's obnoxious "Bride Wars." The modern RomCom - awful expresion but, hey, it's slightly more preferrable to The Chick Flick (and the movie-biz hot shot who thought up that expression should be strung up by his testicles) - would lead you to believe that it is about, for and by women. But given that it's largely a man-made creation (the operative word here being man), it isn't about women at all. It's all about consumption and what male movie executives perceive as the contemporary woman's near-idiotic need to be acquisitive in terms of "accessories," the greatest of which is a man.

Ken Kwapis's "He's Just Not That Into You" has the double distinction of being a cut above the rest - way, way better than the rest - and of being lumped in with the others by movie critics whose job description these days has devolved into making lists and compartmentalizing everything and everyone. Kwapis's film is a spikey refreshment in which the female half of his cast is interested in relationships, not necessarily with expensive shoes, designer clothes, babies as the new adornment or even big weddings. Each one just wants a guy she can depend on, a nice guy who will feed her truth and not the unrealistic lies the glossies feed her.

Kwapis, working from a screenplay credited to Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein, knows how to pace a comedy line/moment and he's a first-rate handler of his exceptional ensemble cast - Ben Affleck, Jennifer Aniston, Drew Barrymore (one of his producers), Jennifer Connelly, Kevin Connolly, Bradley Cooper, Ginnifer Goodwin (in essentially the film's lead role), Scarlett, Johansson, Kris Kristofferson and Justin Long.

But it is Jennifer Connelly who stands out with her impressively complicated, thoughtful performance which, as Manohla Dargis notes in her New York Times review, "cuts loose and goes (relatively) dark." I've no idea if what Connelly does was in the script or if it's the handiwork of an especially resourceful actress but she works wonders here.

Speaking of Dargis, she's been on a kind of mission lately to wise up moviegoers to the dangers of these lulling, brainless movies. I like what she says, and she says it well, but as these films gang up on her, this estimable critic runs the risk of becoming a broken record.

But getting back to "He's Just Not That Into You," this fine, nervy film may have come along a little too late in the game to save itself, let along the pathetic subgenre that it represents. But even if it only works as a corrective to last year's obscene "Sex and the City - The Movie" - inarguably the "Ben-Hur" of RomComs - it would have accomplished a lot.

Notes in Passing: Speaking of "S&TC," while everyone has been busy clamoring about that film's alleged box-office prowess and clout, no one - no one - has noted that it didn't even manage to eke its way into the Golden Globes' "comedy or musical" category this year. Nope, those nominees were "Mamma Mia!," "Burn After Reading," "In Bruges," "Happy-Go-Lucky" and the winner, "Vicky Christina Barcelona." Strange, right? And who says the Hollywood Foreign Press has questionable taste?

Also, reportedly, the minds behind the upcoming Oscar giveway have asked the nominees and most major players to avoid the Red Carpet this year. Too much of a distraction. It appears that the public these days is much more interested in who's wearing what (or who) rather than if "Slumdog Millionaire" wins. These awards shows have become near-tangental to the mindless Red Carpet frolics that precede them.