Friday, April 30, 2010

façade: praising pam

My wife and I wandered back to ABC's "Dancing with the Stars" this year, after having consciously avoided it for a couple of years, and we rediscovered why we liked the show in the first place. Much like the annual Golden Globes telecast, DWTS is a party. You sit back, sip a highball - or two - and enjoy the fizzy fun without having to dress up or leave the house.

Every year that we watched, there was a revelation and, this year, the pleasant surprise was Pamela Anderson, a personality who, frankly, had only existed on the periphery of my life. I never paid much attention to her. But, on this show, dancing with Aussie pro Damian Whitewood, she's been indeed a revelation. Hands-down. Anderson doesn't just dance - which she does extremely well, by the way - but rather inhabits each routine with a specific movie-driven character. Marilyn one week, Loren the next.

She was especially a knock-out Dolly Parton in the hugely clever "9 to 5" bit that Whitewood choreographed for her. One week, judge Carrie Ann Inaba declared, "I'd love to see you on Broadway!" Hey, me, too.

Bruno Tonioli, meanwhile, has enthusiastically noted and admired Anderson's deep, concentrated focus with each little character piece she danced. And she received well-deserved high praise from dance critic
Gia Kourlas in her most astute New York Times assessment of DWTS:

"As a dancer, Ms. Anderson isn’t like other people, either: apart from being an actual celebrity, which is increasingly rare on “Dancing With the Stars,” she’s the only imaginative dancer in the bunch.

"Buxom, blond and full of saucy insouciance, Ms. Anderson has said that she had never had a dance lesson in her life. Even so, she is a natural performer, with rhythm, an understanding of when to be subtle or fierce and a sense of how movements connect to create a story. And that’s all accomplished with a tongue-in-cheek self-awareness.

"She’s flexible, has great legs and even in high heels could probably run the length of a football field. For a ballroom dancer, that’s key; just as a point shoe creates an extension of the foot, Ms. Anderson’s stilettos achieve the same sensation on the dance floor.

"In her mesmerizing rumba last week she floated along so smoothly, lingering in each pose a millisecond too long — this was genius — that her partner, Damian Whitewood, eyes flashing like a desperate Broadway dancer, was the one trying too hard to please. Ms. Anderson may be sexual, but that doesn’t mean that she is cheap. She doesn’t flaunt her sexuality; it’s simply a part of her.
Bob Fosse would have loved that."

Where have you been all these years, Pamela Anderson?

Or perhaps I should ask, where have I been? More to the point, where is the management to push you in the right direction? You are so much more than an animated pin-up. You're a real movie star. Or could be.

Get this woman a good real! And quick.

Monday, April 26, 2010

cinema obscura: "Two Loves" (and other lost Shirley MacLaine titles)

MGM's "Two Loves," directed by Charles Walters in 1961, is a lost Shirley MacLaine film co-starring Laurence Harvey and Jack Hawkins. Filmed on location in New Zealand and based on a Sylvia Ashton-Warner novel titled "The Spinster" (also the film's working title), the film casts MacLaine against type as a repressed teacher of native children whose methodical, cloistered world is upset when she is sexually challenged by randy drifter Harvey and an intimidating Hawkins, who plays the headmaster of her school.

Other lost MacLaine titles from the same era include Daniel Mann's "Hot Spell" (1958), starring Anthony Quinn and Shirley Booth - it was prominently (and surprisingly) featured in MacLaine's most recent film, Garry Marshall's "Valentine's Day" - and Joseph Anthony's "Career" (1959), co-starring Dean Martin, Anthony Franciosa and Carolyn Jones. Jack Cardiff's "My Geisha" (1962), long unavailable, was finally made availalble on DVD a couple of years ago. All three titles are Paramount films.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

breeding contempt

Oh, no! Are we experiencing Jane Lynch overkill?
"Familiarity breeds contempt, while rarity wins admiration."
Roman philosopher, rhetorician, & satirist (124 AD-170 AD)
If there was ever any doubt about the validity of Apuleius' observation, one has only to look in the direction of modern television programming.

A show that one loves this year is likely to be dreaded a few years into the future. "Seinfeld" and "Roseanne" are two expert sitcoms that didn't know when to quit, losing their momentum and wearing out their welcome. Both were literally unwatchable their last two seasons.

"Ugly Betty," on the other hand, was a dramedy whose initial promise had dwindled in record time - by Season Two. It became both cloying and annoying when it became disturbingly clear that Betty was GOING TO BE RIGHT ABOUT EVERYTHING. Consequently, it got to a point where I couldn't tolerate even looking at star America Ferrera anymore.

Right now, my concern revolves around "Glee," a first-rate weekly musical comedy whose modest merits have been a tad overrated by both wroking critics and its supporters (which, in some cases, are one and the same). The show reached its nadir somewhat early - with its "Madonna episode" on 20 April, a show which I found, well, cringe-worthy.

It's one thing for the producers to have the show's talented cast perform the Madonna song catalogue exclusively - and quite another to fawn over the self-promoting singer to the point of making the viewer sick to his/her stomach. I mean, the show behaved as if Madonna was still relevant.

But my greatest fear is the potential for Jane Lynch Overkill. I like Lynch way too much for me to get sick of her so soon - and I have the uneasy feeling that that's exactly what's happening. She has seemingly taken over the show as its resident villain but I, for one, wish the powers there would use her more sporadically - and more selectively.

Also, the jokes about Matthew Morrison's marcelled-looking hair have become tiresome in record time, no matter how well Lynch reads them.

As the most astute David Hiltbrand desperately pleaded in his Philadelphia Inquirer column on 24 April, "Can I please have my show back?"

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

cinema obscura: Karel Reisz's "Isadora" (1968)

Redgrave's Isadora Duncan entertains herself while her distracted lover James Fox concentrates on his art in Karel Reisz's lost masterwork "Isadora" (1968)
The general personality profile of a lost movie is that it is small and that its original release came with little fanfare. Such films usually come in under the radar. Invisibility is the trademark of a lost movie.

What's difficult to grasp is a major movie that seems to fall off the map. Case in point: Karel Reisz's brilliant, messy Isadora Duncan biopic, "Isadora," which provided star Vanessa Redgrave with her most emblematic, self-defining role. Duncan, a solopistic, sexually uninhibited artist who experimented with dance, liberating it, was also a defiant free-thinker, and the like-minded Redgrave tore into the role as if it were a raw piece of meat and she was starving. It's something to behold.

Unfortunately, the film was undermined by its studio even before anyone, critics included, got to see it. Universal, with Oscars in its eyes, rushed the 168-minute art film into a single Los Angeles theatre for one week in December of 1968 to qualify for that year's Academy Awards. Misunderstood, it was promptly panned by The Los Angeles Times (shades of Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo"), although Vanessa Redgrave did get her Oscar nomination - losing, unbelievably, to Barbra Streisand and Katherine Hepburn who won in a tie vote that year.

Anyway, based on this one review, Universal panicked, recalled the film and deleted some 40 minutes (shade of Terry Gilliam's "Brazil," a future Universal victim). By the time it opened in New York on April 27, 1969, it had a new title - the generic, TV-movie-sounding "The Loves of Isadora" - and, according to Vincent Canby's dismissive review in The New York Times, it ran 128 minutes. (This conflicts with reports that puts the edited version at 131 minutes, but what's three minutes when 40 have been cut?)

Despite its already troubled history, Universal gave Reisz permission to screen the film in competition for the Golden Palm at The 22nd Cannes Film Festival (held May 8-23, 1969), where Redgrave took home the best actress award. Presumably, the original version was screened at Cannes, given that it played there as "Isadora," not "The Loves of Isadora."

The film then disappeared from the landscape until it was incarnated, briefly, in the 1990s when a "director's cut," running 153 minutes, was released on VHS (a version which was televised by the Bravo cable channel, with some minor editing of nudity) and then it disappeared again.

The final nail in "Isadora's" coffin came at The Orange British Academy Film Awards last February 21, when Redgrave was awarded its highest accolade, the Academy Fellowship, to an approving crowd at London's Royal Opera House. Voluminous clips from just about all of Redgrave's important films preceded the award itself. But not "Isadora."

Not the film that, arguably, contains her single greatest screen performance.

On his invaluable movie blog, Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, Dennis Cozzalio prominently displays Pauline Kael's famous comment,
"Great movies are rarely perfect movies." That sums up "Isadora." Perfectly.

Friday, April 09, 2010

doris & gig & shirley & dean

There are screen teams - and then there are screen teams.

My interest is in those teams who haven't been aknowledged as teams.

Per se.

Let's take Doris Day, as an example. She is most identified with Rock Hudson, Gordon MacRae, Gene Nelson and James Garner but she actually appeared in more films with ... Gig Young:

-Gordon Douglas's "Young at Heart" (1954)

-George Seaton's "Teacher's Pet" (1958)

-Gene Kelly's "The Tunnel of Love" (1958)

-Delbert Mann's "That Touch of Mink" (1962).

These four titles would make a nice, tidy Saturday-afternoon film festival.

Then there's Shirley MacLaine, most closely linked with Frank Sinatra and Jack Lemmon.

Her most frequent co-star, however, was Dean Martin who shared seven - count 'em - seven films with her:

-Frank Tashlin's "Artists and Models" (1955)

-Vincente Minnelli's "Some Came Running" (1958)

-Joseph Anthony's "Career" (1959)

-Lewis Milestone's "Ocean's Eleven" (1960)

-Joseph Anthony's "All in a Night's Work" (1961)

-J. Lee Thompson's "What a Way to Go!" (1964)

-Hal Needham's "Cannonball Run 2" (1984).

And, oh yes, Shirley and Gig teamed up in Charles Walters' "Ask Any Girl" (1959).

From top to bottom:
Doris Day and Clark Gable prop up Gig Young in George Seaton's "Teacher's Pet"; Young and Elisabeth Fraser surprise Day and Richard Widmark in Gene Kelly's "The Tunnel of Love"; Shirley and Dean team in "All in a Night's Work" and "Career," both directed by Joseph Anthony

Monday, April 05, 2010

façade: Nancy Kwan

Kwan in her most iconic moment - the "I Enjoy Being a Girl" number from Henry Koster's film of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Flower Drum Song" (1961)
In anticipation of Brian Jamieson's new documentary, "To Whom It May Concern: Ka Shen's Journey," which played San Jose's Cinequest 20 Film Festival in February, today's space is devoted to words about and images of the sublime Nancy Kwan, an enchanting film presence who flirted fleetingly with movie fame in the 1960s in a string of titles that never quite matched her talent and magnetism but which challenged the notion of who could be a star when moviegoers still weren't colorblind.

Kwan dancing with Lionel Blair in her first film, Richard Quine's "The World of Suzie Wong" (1960), and with her leading man, William Holden

Born Ka Shin Kwan in Hong Kong in 1939, Kwan was 20 and studying at England's Royal Ballet School, when she was snagged by producer Ray Stark and director Richard Quine as a last-minute replacement for France Nuyen, the play's original star, in Quine's 1960 film version of playwright Paul Osborn's "The World of Suzie Wong," with William Holden as her leading man. Nuyen had been a sensation opposite William Shatner on Broadway - Josh Logan directed - but untimely weight gain reportedly is what ruled her out for the film.

Nancy Kwan/then
I was always charmed by Kwan's ever-so-slight speech impediment, a quality which added immense vulnerability to her affecting portrayal of Mee Ling Wong, aka Suzie Wong.

The following year, she appeared in Henry Koster's faithful 1961 film adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Flower Drum Song," a film which made use of Kwan's dance training and which has become legendary for Koster and producer Ross Hunter's decision to go with an all Asian cast. (It's a recent addition to the National Film Registry.) The film's only Caucasian (not counting extras, including an uncredited Virginia Grey) is Herman Rudin, as the vagrant who holds up Benson Fong.

Nancy Kwan/now
Miyoshi Umeki, James Shigeta and Jack Soo joined Kwan in what should have been starmaking roles for all of them, but "Flower Drum Song," for some bizarre reason, effectively ended their film careers. Umeki and Soo segued into TV work ("The Courtship of Eddie's Father" and "Barney Miller," respectively), although Soo was recruited again by Hunter for a shocking racist role in George Roy Hill's awful "Thoroughly Modern Millie"; Shigeta went on to play supporting parts in forgettable films, and Kwan, the most productive of them all, appeared in a string of pleasing, if uneventful films ("Honeymoon Hotel," "Fate Is the Hunter," "The Main Attraction," "The Wrecking Crew," "Arrivederci, Baby!," "Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N." and an amusing conceit titled "Tamahine," Philip Leacock's clever take on Debbie Reynolds' "Tammy") before abruptly disappearing.

At one time, Stark was preparing to team her again with Holden in a film version of Richard Rodger's interracial musical, "No Strings," which starred Diahanne Carroll and Richard Kiley on Broadway, but the project was aborted when Carroll reportedly complained about changing the female lead's ethnicity - and with good reason. The character of international model Barbara Woodruff is shaped by America's civil rights and racial issues that, while not spelled out in the play, are crucial to the role. At one point, Kwan was poised to appear in Wayne Wang's film of Amy Tan's "The Joy Luck Club," but that obviously never happened. She still acts occasionally, most recently in 2006's "Ray of Sunshine," which was made her her third husband, actor-director Norbert Meisel.

In 1996, Kwan buried her only child, actor Bernie Pock, who died at age 33. Jamieson's documentary no doubt covers much of this, tracing how Ka Shen became Nancy. Among those interviewed in the film are Joan Chen, Vivian Wu, Sandra Allen and, yes, France Nuyen, the actress who, inadvertently, presented Nancy Kwan with her big break.

I read somewhere that Kwan once starred as Martha in a stage production of Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Viginia Woolf?," an intriguing bit of casting that I would have loved to see. She is missed.