Monday, September 29, 2008

A Fond Farewell to an Ingratiating Hero and Legend

I gained my first exposure to the man who would become my favorite male movie star early in my film-going years. Disaster movies were the rage in the early 1970’s, and The Towering Inferno was the biggest hit of them all, and therefore a must-see Christmas attraction for my family. There wasn’t much of a chance for the performers to upstage the blazing skyscraper, although I took note of the handsome, charismatic man who shared a tryst with Faye Dunaway before heroically trying to save Jennifer Jones, Bobby Brady, and the rest of the star-studded cast trapped in that high-rise fire. Over the next thirty-odd years, I had the pleasure of following Paul Newman’s endearing, enduring career, both as a modern movie star and as one of the best actors during a Golden Era for movies, from 1955-1970. When I heard of his death this weekend, I reflected on his remarkably rewarding life and career, and felt a bigger loss than I ever have upon learning of a movie star’s passing.

It was easy to relate to Newman. Although he was one of the best-looking men ever to grace a silver screen or anyplace else, and his movie-star glamour definitely added appeal to all the memorable heros and anti-heroes Newman portrayed, one always sensed the decent, regular guy from Shaker Heights who existed beneath the Greek God exterior. Newman lived a life that was anything but ordinary, but he remained a normal and down-to-earth person throughout the phenomenal string of successes he obtained, both on screen and off. His talent and durable connection with audiences allowed Newman to remain a powerful force in the movie industry for nearly fifty years, and this incredible staying power with the public is unmatched by any other actor I can think of.

Newman served his acting apprenticeship during the early-to-mid 1950’s doing live television, before he gained his big break costarring on Broadway in Picnic. While working on Picnic, he met and fell in love with the young Joanne Woodward, which led to a satisfying professional collaboration (The Long, Hot Summer, Rachel, Rachel, Mr. And Mrs. Bridge) and an amazing fifty-year marriage. His success in the William Inge hit also help garnered him a major role in The Silver Chalice, a film so despised by Newman that he once famously took out an ad before a television showing of the film apologizing for his involvement in the picture. During his first years as a star he was frequently labeled in looks and manner as a second-string Marlon Brando. However, viewing Newman’s work alongside formidable costars Frank Sinatra and Eva Marie Saint in the 1955 Producer’s Showcase televised musical production of Our Town reveals the sensitive nature and thoughtful acting unique to Newman’s persona was there from the beginning. Newman had another big success on television as “The Battler,” then broke through on the big screen with his warm, funny, and moving portrayal of boxer Rocky Graziano in Somebody Up There Likes Me. It was all gravy (and salad dressing) after that for Newman as he built an astounding list of major film credits, in the process becoming the movie’s #1 Box-Office draw by the end of the 1960’s, after scoring in Cool Hand Luke and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Certainly no other classic movie star whose career I obsessively reviewed on video once VCRs came into play in the 1980’s was also enjoying current success in the manner of Newman. At about the same time I wanted to throw a brick through the T.V. when Newman lost the 1982 Best Actor Oscar, I was discovering his Brick for the first time via an iconic, Oscar-nominated teaming with Elizabeth Taylor in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I could enjoy possibly Newman’s finest work in The Hustler, then be overjoyed a year or two later after a reprise of Fast Eddie Felson finally put a competitive Academy Award on his mantle (the Academy honored Newman with a Lifetime Achievement prize a year prior to his win for Best Actor). On the “classic” front, I completed screenings of Newman’s top-tier performances as Ben Quick, Hud Bannon and Luke Jackson, then moved on to viewing some enjoyable secondary titles in his catalog (Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys!, The Young Philadelphians, and From the Terrace among them), while Newman was concurrently racking up new hits and awards as Nobody’s Fool, The Road to Perdition, and Cars marked an impressive twilight to a legendary career.

It has been a pleasure over the years to spend so much of my time as an avid movie buff watching the imposing gallery of portraits Paul Newman created onscreen. His fine work in a slew of entertaining films has left such an impression on me that, although I never met Mr. Newman (the closest I came was obtaining an autographed photo after sending a fan letter to him) I, along with millions of others, feel I’ve just lost someone very close to me. However, I’m grateful that due to the timelessness of film, I can still pass many hours transfixed by the work of a true class act and actor, Mr. Paul Newman. Rest in peace, dear, kind sir.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Spending the Weekend With a Hot Tootsie

Last weekend I took in one of the cinema’s most perfect double bills, as the New Beverly Cinema offered up a showing of 1959’s Some Like it Hot and 1982’s Tootsie. The viewing brought back nostalgic memories from my childhood, as I first saw these two cross-dressing classics at roughly the same time, while Tootsie was enjoying it’s smash first-run in theaters. By coincidence, during Christmastime of that year my generous mother, aware that her movie-obsessed teenage son was going nuts over the fact the family didn’t own a VCR, made the (for us) extravagant $1,000 purchase of a new Zenith video recorder. As I was a huge Marilyn Monroe fan, mom also bought a copy of Hot to go with the VCR (the videocassette was also pricey- imagine paying $60-$100 bucks a pop for a title in 1982 dollars with no chance of finding an online discount, and even Blu Ray DVDs look like a bargain).

While I immediately embraced Tootsie as one of the funniest movies I’d seen, I didn’t initially warm up to Hot in the same manner. Although I was bowled over by the hilarity Jack Lemmon created in his go-for-broke interpretation of Jerry/Daphne, I may have been too focused on Monroe to properly assess the film’s other merits (Billy Wilder’s direction and script with I.A.L. Diamond, Tony’s Curtis’ killer take on Cary Grant, a great jazz score, etc.) even though I went into the showing well aware of the film’s reputation as one of the screen’s biggest laugh riots. A few months later, when my drama teacher learned I had the movie on tape, he asked if he could show it to the class during the last day of the semester. Their uproarious reaction to Hot surprised me, as even the students who came across as ultra-serious during the semester, either due to a dedication to their art or just because they enjoyed being pretentious, were in uncontrollable stitches. This response forced me to re-assess the film, and further screenings of Hot have allowed me to place the classic comedy in the high esteem it obviously warrants.

Although I was in the full throws of my passionate fascination with Monroe when I first laid eyes on her in a starring role via Some Like it Hot (my obsession was caused mainly through seeing her in the wealth of incredible pictures taken of her- what a camera subject!), I wasn’t as blow away by her charms as I thought I’d be. Although later screenings of her work in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, How to Marry a Millionaire, The Seven Year Itch, and The Prince and the Showgirl convinced me all the fuss was about something very special, in Hot I didn’t feel Monroe totally clicked, at least not in the spectacular way I imagined she would (and the way she did in some of her other hits). Possibly the myriad of problems Monroe was facing during this period (trouble with her marriage to Arthur Miller, an increase in dependency on drugs, her failure to have a child) kept the legend from creating career-best work. However, I believe a bigger factor affecting the quality of Monroe’s performance lies in her ties to the Actor’s Studio. From Bus Stop on, you often catch Monroe “acting” in a pretentious, self-conscious manner. Although coach Paula Strasberg may have set on the sidelines and approved, I think the instinctive approach Monroe used prior to her foray into the Strasberg technique served her just fine, and most of her best (and most spontaneous) work came prior to her venturing to New York to become a “real” actress.

However, we’re still dealing with Marilyn Monroe, and Hot offers a good example of why no other 1950’s Blonde Bombshell came close to emulating Monroe’s status as the era’s leading sex goddess. She truly does emit a radiant glow onscreen unlike no other actress; combine Monroe’s presence with the frail vulnerability she uses as Sugar Kane, and then try to picture anyone else in the role: Shirley MacLaine, one year shy of her iconic teaming with Lemmon and Wilder? Kooky and sweetly touching, but not the traffic-stopper Sugar Kane is meant to be. Jayne Mansfield? No problem causing fender-benders here, but too knowing with her overt sexuality. Wilder’s original choice, Mitzi Gaynor? Aren’t you really glad Monroe expressed an interest in working with the director again after The Seven Year Itch? Although her playing of Sugar may not be as energetic or as original as her work in some earlier roles, Monroe’s melancholic performance works very well for the film- although Hot’s an often crazed comedy, Sugar Kane is its sad little-girl-lost, and most of the heart found in the film comes from Monroe. Her warmth and humanity also keep the joke from getting too dirty in her two most famous scenes. Monroe’s wide-eyed innocence and childlike giggling as she cuddles with “Daphne” in an upper berth, unwittingly turning Jerry on in process, allows Sugar’s complete unawareness of Daphne’s true identity to be both funny and believable. Similarly, when Sugar is duped into believing Joe (Curtis), posing as an oil tycoon, is impodent, and successfully seduces him on a yacht borrowed from Daphne’s clueless paramour, Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown, raising idiocy to an art form), Monroe’s baby doll sensuality and charming comic sensibility help keep the scene light and breezy, even though Sugar really is being taken advantage of in a horrible manner. Later, when Sugar is heartbroken after being dumped by her ‘millionaire’, Monroe’s dazed poignancy brings the point home that Joe’s been playing games with a tender, sensitive soul, not a bombshell. Sugar deserves better, and Wilder and Diamond wisely alter her fortunes for the better during the dramatic change-of-events that close the film.

Jack Lemmon’s a wonder in his breakthrough role as Jerry/Daphne. Although Lemmon had risen to prominence in 1954 with costarring roles in two Judy Holiday films (It Should Happen to You and Pffft!), and he subsequently won a Supporting Actor Oscar in 1956 for Mister Roberts, his Hot work pushed him to the forefront of Hollywood’s top leading men, landing him a Golden Globe and his first Best Actor Oscar nomination (he lost to Charlton Heston, and the film wasn’t even up for Best Picture. Uh, okay). Lemmon’s long-term, rewarding association with Wilder would yield several other major hits over the next two decades, but for this viewer their first time was the charm. Of course Lemmon’s on the money in other Wilder hits, but if I have to pick between him singing to himself in The Apartment while he’s straining spaghetti via a tennis racket, or shaking a pair of maracas exuberantly as Daphne, only stopping long enough to tell Joe he’s engaged to Osgood, the choice is easy and logical. Lemmon is at his most ingenious and funniest in Hot, and I think it’s his best work on film, period (Lemmon stated comedy was harder for him to do than drama, but he sure makes it look easy here).

Tony Curtis’ career was on a phenomenal role around the time he filmed Hot. After doing fine work in a costarring role opposite Burt Lancaster and Gina Lollibrigida in Trapeze, one of 1956’s biggest hits, Curtis’ star stayed on the rise for the next several years, with a career-best performance in Sweet Smell of Success (check out the Siren’s terrific take on take on that classic over here) immediately following, an Oscar nomination for The Defiant Ones, the one-two comedy punch of Hot and Operation Petticoat, and appearances in hits such as The Vikings and Spartacus. In Hot, Curtis’ gives a smart, polished, and adept performance. Mid-film Lemmon’s wild antics start stealing the spotlight, but just when Curtis appears to be in danger of playing straight man to his brilliant costar, he comes up with a killer Cary Grant imitation under the guise of “Shell Oil Junior,” that warrants Curtis some front-and-center attention of his own as a first-rate comic actor. Just as importantly, Curtis keeps the often slick and self-serving Joe likable, even though the character could be a father to Sidney Falco, the slimy heel Curtis aced so memorably in Success. When Joe and Sugar finally get their happy ending, you believe Joe will do the right thing and settle down with his new lady love, as Curtis has managed to convey the notion that Joe, for all his mischievous endeavors, is a decent, kind character.

I can admire Dustin Hoffman when he’s trying to pull off the difficult task of taking on a Lenny Bruce or a Rain Man, but I think his star shines brightest in comedy, and I both admire and enjoy watching him when he’s going for the laughs. Hoffman’s eyes light up impishly and he’s raring to go whenever he’s gets his hands on a free-spirited, unconventional character such as the ones he plays in Wag the Dog and Meet the Fockers. In Tootsie, Hoffman’s lively (and sometimes bawdy) sense of humor is on sensational display, and he has no trouble running with the part of the film’s pain-in-the-ass actor, Michael Dorsey, who is obviously modeled after Dustin Hoffman. He has even more fun with Michael’s alter ego, the cleverly christened Dorothy Michaels, whom the talented Dorsey conjures up in order to get work on a popular soap opera. Was Hoffman ever funnier than when using Dorothy’s wispy yet high-pitched and formidable voice to get her way in just about every confrontation? Hoffman supposedly modeled his characterization of Dorothy after his mother. If this is true, Mrs. Hoffman is definitely a woman I would want sitting at the head of the table during my next dinner party.

As Julie Nichols, the leading actress on the soap Michael falls hard for, Jessica Lange pulls off the amazing feat of at least equaling the Monroe mystic. There are parallels between Sugar and Julie (they’re both abused by men, have problems with alcohol, bond easily with men posing as women, etc.) and, in addition to her beauty and vulnerability, Lange adds plenty of rich nuances to the role. Lange filmed Tootsie just after completing her harrowing, star-making work as Frances Farmer, and she creates in Julie a remarkably fragile heroine, yet also an edgy, nervy one. Lange even makes the character’s most unlikable action ring true. When Julie mistakenly thinks Dorothy is a lesbian, she appears to have little trouble cutting her ties with her close friend. I’ve always had a problem with Julie’s squeamishness towards Dorothy after this ‘discovery.’ However, Lange clearly conveys Julie’s apprehensiveness towards Dorothy with sensitivity and warmth, and she makes the line “I really love you, Dorothy, but I can’t love you” serve as a buffer that at least partially alleviates Julie’s character flaw (namely, an almost complete lack of acceptance towards Dorothy’s sexuality). Some feel Lange’s Oscar for Tootsie was a consolation prize for losing the Best Actress award for Frances, but her take on Julie is an integral component in Tootsie’s success (like Monroe in Hot, she brings the human element to the piece) and the movie would have a very different feel without her in the role.

It’s a good thing Lange won, as the film would be Oscarless without her. Similarly, Orry-Kelly’s eye-catching gowns for Monroe garnered Hot it’s only Academy Award in a year dominated by Ben Hur. Why is comedy usually held in less regard by the Academy than those big epics or message films such as Gandhi, which topped Tootsie for Best Picture, Director, Actor, etc.? I still haven’t got around to actually watching Gandhi (I think I get the idea though- it’s important and profound, and I should see it and then think about it for days), but I can’t imagine it could be as good for me or to me as Tootsie has been over the years. I did make it all the way through Hur once, and I think the film would have benefited from Heston doing some scenes in drag (how about performing that chariot race in high heels and lipstick, big Chuck?).

You already have Hoffman gleefully at his peak and Lange offering superb assistance, so all that’s left for Larry Gelbart and Murray Schisgal’s great screenplay (from Don McGuire’s story) and one of the best supporting casts ever to do is send the film’s quality and laugh quota into the stratosphere. Teri Garr, Dabney Coleman, Charles Durning, George Gaynes, and a nearly-naked Geena Davis all score handily. As Sandy, Michael’s actress friend and onetime, and onetime only, girlfriend, Oscar-nominated Garr possibly never did her lovable ditz routine better, and she obviously felt a friendly vibe towards Hoffman. Garr’s in complete synch with her costar’s performing style, and the notion that Sandy and Michael have developed a fairly complex relationship over the course of several years is effortlessly illustrated. Coleman follows up the boss-from-hell in played so believably in 9 to 5 with an even more skillful take on another rat-fink character, Ron Carlisle, the soap’s arrogant director and Julie’s two-timing boyfriend (when Dorothy responds to his male chauvinism by threatening to “kick his balls in” and later refers to him as a “macho sh—head” Coleman’s stunned reactions make these “take that” moments very sweet). Gaynes is so perfect as John Van Horn, the soap’s befuddled-yet-romantic lead actor, that it’s impossible to see the actor in any other role without calling his work in Tootsie to mind. Durning and Davis make distinct impressions as Julie’s father, Les (who develops a yen for Dorothy) and as the soap’s sexpot, April. Flitting around the dressing room she shares with Dorothy in the tiniest of underwear while she chats it up with her dumbstruck, wide-eyed costar, Davis exudes a wonderfully sexy, free spirit. Doris Belack is also excellent as Rita, the sage, down-to-earth producer of the soap. A current viewing of the film allowed me to focus more Belack’s alert, pitch-perfect work- she’s doesn’t get the laughs of her costars, but she’s a great pro, and she deftly sets up possibly the film’s most famous line- the classic “How do you feel about Cleveland” putdown.

As Michael’s blasé roommate, Jeff, and his put-upon, frequently irritated agent, George Fields, Bill Murray and Sydney Pollack come closest to stealing several hilarious scenes from Hoffman. Murray refused screen credit, but he gives a star performance- almost every line of his is a howler, and Murray uses his peerlessly glib, deadpan delivery to bring down the house time and again (I recall “You slut!” and “That is one nutty hospital” getting especially uproarious responses, both in 1982 and today). Early on, director Pollack’s beautifully portrayed exasperation and blunt sarcasm as George serves as a perfect contrast to Michael Dorsey’s overbearing pretentiousness. In their later scenes, Michael gets his revenge by leaving his agent speechless when he appears in his new guise as Dorothy, and Pollack proves himself to be just as funny being surprised and mortified by Michael/Dorothy as he is when he’s cutting his client down to size with George’s classic “You were a tomato! A tomato doesn’t move!” retort.

Currently, Some Like it Hot and Tootsie hold the lofty #1 and #2 positions on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Best Comedies. It’s a tall order to live up to such a ranking, but these two endlessly enjoyable movies hold up over many years and viewings. It was even more fun watching them on the same bill, and comparing and contrasting their various merits. Judging by my current screenings of these classics with a sizable and sizably entertained audience, neither film is in danger of losing its impressive status as a (or the) top comedy in the near or distant future.

On Monday, I put the dress away, saddled up, and moseyed back to the New Beverly, wherein I caught my first Randolph Scott/Budd Boetticher collaboration. These low-budget westerns the star/director team made in the 1950’s have gained quite the reputation during the last few decades and, after a fairly routine first half, 1957’s Decision at Sundown proved to be a refreshing change-of-pace from the plethora of oaters Hollywood was churning out during the period. It was nice to see what appeared to be some question regarding the degree of villain Tate Kimbrough’s (John Carroll) dastardly-ness (being a womanizer appears to be his biggest crime), and to see him admit to being nervous before going out to meet the laconic-yet-dangerous Bart Allison (Scott) for their final shootout. The women of Sundown also add a lot of flavor. Although they may fit into the standard good girl/bad girl mode, as portrayed by Karen Steele and Valerie French the two leading women of the piece also appear to have minds of their own, and they have no problem giving the males a piece of it when the action starts to heat up. A surprising but satisfying climax and a swift resolution to the film’s major conflict are other factors helping to place the memorable film above the level of an ordinary B-western.

Before Sundown, I spent an afternoon at the awesome Margaret Herrick Library, which houses a ton of movie-related material (including posters, stills, original screenplays, and much more). After roaming around gazing at some of the huge original posters on display (including a six-sheet of Queen Christina and a couple of King Kongs) and checking out a few Oscars (including Edith Head’s now-tarnished statuette for All About Eve, which was close enough to touch, but I didn’t dare for fear I’d be clobbered by the ever-attentive staff, who keep an understandably close watch over all the library’s abundant resources) I spent most of my time in the periodical section, wherein I checked out the 1956 Oscar race via a batch of Hollywood Reporters. It was interesting to review the ’56 Oscar derby; if anyone wonders how Mike Todd’s now-creaky Around the World in 80 Days managed to snag the top prize over other contenders, including Friendly Persuasion, Giant and The Ten Commandments, one only need take a peek at the Reporter and marvel at the manner in which, for the love of God, Todd, that undeniable master showman, must have set the Reporter owners up for life buying up space in the daily to crow on and on about his crowning achievement. I lost count of the number of pages the Reporter devoted to glorifying Days as the greatest piece of entertainment in history, and I could understand how a reader at the time might forget any other movies were made that, or any, year. Even poor Cecil B. DeMille, no stranger to self-promotion, must’ve finally said “f--- it, too good” after he couldn’t get much of word in for the almighty Commandments amid Todd’s ballyhooing of Days. Have to give credit to Todd for fearlessly one-upping everyone else in the business, but as I turned each page of the Reporter hoping at last to find that trade ad heralding Dorothy Malone in Written on the Wind or James Dean in Giant, only to be met by a fold-out advertisement featuring resounding endorsements of Days from approximately 150 critics around the globe, I signed and thought “There ought to be a law.” I’m afraid to even guess what Todd was up to in Variety. Good thing pandering for Academy Awards doesn’t hold much cache with Oscar voters today. Ha.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun Video

I love Cyndi Lauper and I love movie queens. I've had the idea of combining the work of these two favorites into a video for a long time. I had to remove the music track, but the imagery is intended to match up with Lauper's hit recording. I hope you enjoy the result over here (note: the video looks a lot better if you choose the "watch in high quality" option, if this viewing choice is available).