Friday, July 20, 2018

Casting About – Thoughts Regarding Tab Hunter, Scarlett Johansson, and Some Others

Last week’s big casting news was that Hollywood A-lister Scarlett Johansson was dropping out of a film called Rub & Tug. At first she had defended her casting as a transgender male in a biopic about the operator of a massage parlor by pointing to the much-honored performances of Jared Leto in The Dallas Buyers Club and Felicity Huffman in Transamerica. But in today’s hyperpoliticized environment the thought that a cisgender female would dare portray a transsexual stirred so much brouhaha that she ultimately passed on the role. (After all, Johansson had earlier gotten plenty of flack for her appearance in Ghost in the Shell, the screen adaptation of a manga series in which her character has Japanese roots.)

What’s a filmmaker to do? Johansson was chosen for these parts because her presence brightens prospects at the box-office. It’s of course possible that a currently unknown transgender male actor could play the role in Rub & Tug brilliantly and rocket to stardom. But the more likely outcome is that, without a major star in the lead, the film won’t get financed. If that’s the case, it will never be made. So how far does it pay to go to find an actor who has lived the challenges that a film depicts?  On the one hand, it’s marvelous to give unconventional performers a chance to show what they can do. In 1987 Marlee Matlin, who is actually deaf, won an Oscar as the angry young deaf woman in Children of a Lesser God. And just this past year, Millicent Simmonds beautifully played the key role of the daughter in A Quiet Place. It’s essential to the plot that this character be hearing-challenged, and so young Millicent’s real-life disability became an asset.

On the other hand, think of going out to find a real cerebral palsy sufferer capable of taking on Daniel Day-Lewis’s Oscar-winning role in My Left Foot. And think of Patty Duke as the young Helen Keller. In the name of realism (and political correctness), should director Arthur Penn have held out for an actual young actress who was both deaf and blind? Part of the thrill of going to the movies is marveling at the skill of actors who know how to transform themselves into people they are not.

The role Johansson was to have played involves not only a physical transformation but also a shift in psyche. Whoever might play the role has to be able to viscerally grasp what it feels like to be a woman who finds fulfillment through sexual reassignment. Granted, there’s no equivalency at all between being transgender and being homosexual, but I’ve long been struck by the fact that the really great gay roles (like those of the two cowboys in Brokeback Mountain) have largely been brought to life by emphatically heterosexual men (like Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal). Partly this is doubtless once again a box-office issue, along with a general discomfort about singling out gay actors to play gay roles.

Times may be changing, with more actors willing to come out of the closet now, but I doubt that gay performers want to be confined (in the name of realism) to specifically gay parts. The irony, of course, is that there was a long stretch where many of Hollywood’s favorite leading men were gay. Such Hollywood hunks as Rock Hudson and the late Tab Hunter looked the part of heterosexual dreamboats, and so they were required to live a charade, dating starlets and passing themselves off as red-blooded guys.They were thoroughly convincing. Ah well. . . .

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The World Cup and the Movies: Singin’ and Slidin’ in the Rain

John Sayles' film about the Black Sox scandal

To watch the aftermath of the recent World Cup – seeing the victors singing, dancing, and sliding on their bellies in the pouring rain while yellow confetti swirled down from on high – is to understand the meaning of the word jubilation. That sense of utter and complete spontaneity is something good movie actors try hard to capture. To act (on stage or on screen) is to feign your character’s emotional highs and lows as convincingly as possible.. There are diverse schools of thought, including the famous Method introduced by Stanislavski and embellished by a series of American drama gurus, as to how fledgling actors can learn to convey the truths of emotions not their own. To put it simplistically, some coaches encourage their students to mine their own psyches as a way to get in touch with feelings that will enhance their characterizations. But in any case actors look for ways to present the spontaneous emotions of someone else. And they need to be able to call up these emotions on cue, night after night (in a stage production) or take after take, if they’re shooting a film.

Sporting events of course have it all over movies when it comes to unexpected twists and turns. When crowds gather around the globe to watch the World Cup on large screens and small, they have no idea what’s coming next. There’s no director, no screenwriter, who has worked out in advance the most exciting possible outcome. That’s why we feel such angst when games are rigged (see, for instance, the Black Sox scandal, involving the fixing the 1919 World Series): our expectation is that here’s one area of life in which the playing field is supposed to be even, so that anything and everything can happen.

The jobs of actors and athletes are hardly the same. Still, there’s some interesting overlap. It has often been noted that jocks who engage in histrionics when bumped or tackled by an opponent are playacting, exaggerating the bodily harm they’ve suffered so as to extract the maximum penalty from the opposing team. And of course athletes work as hard as actors do (maybe harder0 to project an off-court, off-screen persona that will elevate their standing with the viewing public. Think Usain Bolt at the Olympic Games. Think any one of a number of star basketball players. Their swagger, their charisma give them appeal that can translate into endorsement deals, sportscasting opportunities, even movie roles.

I once wrote an article for the Los Angeles Times about a course offered by the University of Southern California, the sports home of many world-class athletes. Taught by Louie Piday, a working actress who had entered USC with a synchronized swim background, it was a drama class tailored to jocks who dreamed of pursuing an acting career when their playing days were done. Through acting exercises and scene study, they learned the rudiments of performance, and Piday did a great job of bolstering their self-confidence in this new field. By the time she finished reminding them of their well-developed sense of teamwork, discipline, and body control  (all essential tools for the acting hopeful), they all felt like future Oscar winners. I couldn’t help asking her later: was there any area in which these would-be thespians weren’t absolute naturals? Well yes—they weren’t so good at using their voices and speech patterns to best advantage. But with coaching and serious study behind them, some could surely make the grade.

Which brings me to LeBron James, whose signing with the L.A. Lakers has local basketball fans salivating.  Surprise! He wants to go Hollywood.

Friday, July 13, 2018

TV’s Dirty Dancing: Putting Baby in a Corner

No one pretends that the original Dirty Dancing is a masterpiece. Its  story beats are obvious; some of its casting doesn’t work (e.g. an older sister who resembles 17-year-old Baby not at all) and there’s woefully little discussion of the pitfalls of teen sex. But the 1987 film also has some unmistakable assets: a great score, an ending that appeals to the romantic in all of us, and (especially) a dance duo who make our hearts go pitter-pat. As bad-boy dance instructor Johnny Castle, Patrick Swayze is thrillingly sexy, while still managing to convince us of his tender side. Lithe Jennifer Grey (age 27), is credible as a sheltered teen learning how to spread her wings. When, late in the film, she leaps into Swayze’s arms for a triumphant “angel lift,” the moment is sheer terpsichorean perfection. Vicariously we too have the time of our lives, watching these born dancers go through their paces. Truly, they make ME feel like dancing.

Which is why I was curious to see the 2017 TV remake. The original, a modestly budgeted flick from Vestron that was expected to go pretty much unnoticed, made such an impact on young people everywhere that it wasn’t too surprising to see it re-tooled as a TV movie. This, after all, is an era in which the TV versions of several Broadway musical hits (The Sound of Music, The Wiz, Grease) have attracted big audiences. Those shows were all broadcast live, enjoying the energy as well as the challenge of in-the-moment performance. Dirty Dancing was not filmed in the same throw-caution-to-the-winds way. In order to replicate the atmosphere of Kellerman’s, the fictionalized Catskill resort of the movies, it was filmed on location, amid the lakes and piney woods of North Carolina. Still, this new Dirty Dancing is intended to come off as a genuine musical entertainment, which has helped contribute to one of the odder aspects of the storytelling.

The makers of this re-make brag about how they’ve improved upon the original by fleshing out such featured characters as Baby’s sister, mother, father, and the hot-to-trot divorcee who complicates life for Johnny. This turns out to mean that each of them gets a spotlighted musical number. You see, Baby’s mom (Debra Messing) is feeling neglected by her workaholic spouse, so she threatens divorce . . . but when she croons “The Way You Look Tonight” in front of a rapt Kellerman’s audience, her husband (Bruce Greenwood) realizes how much he loves her. Which leads, in turn, to him seated at the piano in the hotel’s rehearsal hall, playing and singing the very same tune. And Baby’s sister (Sarah Hyland of Modern Family) ventures a ukulele duet with the camp’s African-American piano player, Because the story is still set in 1963, the filmmakers are clearly trying to convey a brave social message.

My biggest problem, though, is with this film’s Baby, played by Abigail Breslin. She’s an appealing actress, whom I fondly remember from Little Miss Sunshine, but (alas) a dancer she is not. With her chunky, busty figure and physical awkwardness, she is convincing as the Ugly Duckling Baby of the early scenes. But her transformation into a skillful dance partner (as well as sexual partner) for Johnny is not to be believed for a moment. When they performed the famous “Angel Lift,” I was relieved that poor Colt Prattes, playing Johnny, remained upright. See below to compare the two versions.

One key plot point in Dirty Dancing remains an illegal abortion that comes close to ending in tragedy. It’s alarming, frankly, that in 2018 this seems like Dirty Dancing’s most timely detail.