Thursday, November 26, 2015

The Broken Places: Why Joseph McBride Can Be Thankful

On Thanksgiving weekend, I’m thankful for my friend and colleague Joseph McBride: journalist, screenwriter, and film historian. Joe wrote the original script for Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, as well as classic biographies of such cinema greats as Frank Capra, John Ford, and Orson Welles. These days he’s a respected professor of cinema at San Francisco State University. I’m grateful to have swapped Roger Corman memories with Joe, and thankful for his many contributions to film study. 

But Joe’s latest book has taught me I should be thankful indeed for not having an upbringing like his. His brand-new memoir, The Broken Places, makes me realize that although Joe and I have enjoyed similar careers, his pathway and mine have been nothing alike. I am fortunate to have grown up in a stable household, with loving parents and kindly teachers guiding my way forward. Joe’s mother and father loved him too, but his upbringing (as the eldest of seven kids in an Irish-Catholic brood) was marred by his parents’ alcoholism and vicious fights. He was educated in parochial schools, where some of his teachers were fools and others were closet sadists who used him as a scapegoat on whom to vent their anger at the world. His deep-seated need for high academic achievement was balanced by an obsession with sin that stunted his social and emotional growth. Then, at age seventeen, while urgently pulling every string that might get him into Harvard, Joe had a severe mental breakdown that left him institutionalized for many months.

All this is described in the memoir in harrowing detail. Somehow he pulled through. He credits his recuperation partly to mentors and family friends who stepped in to lend moral support. But the book’s central figure is a fellow mental patient: a young woman—as troubled as Joe himself—who upends Joe’s basic assumptions and teaches him what it means to love. Kathy Wolf, half-Native American, all-sexy, contains within her slender form a volatile blend of anger, tenderness, and desperation. She’s an astonishingly complex figure, one I can imagine seeing on a movie screen.

Every era tends to have its special movie about mental illness. I’m much too young for The Snake Pit and The Three Faces of Eve, but when I was growing up a little indie called David and Lisa (1962) seemed to speak volumes to my generation. This love story set in a mental ward struck us then as both exotic and disturbing, but Joe McBride’s true-life narrative has got it beat.

It’s fascinating to me how movies became another source of Joe’s salvation. Back when he was still suffering from severe sexual repression, he had sought an outlet in crudely erotic flicks like Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! As he began to recover, he found encouragement in sumptuous films like My Fair Lady, which provided him with a romantic escape while also suggesting (through Eliza Doolittle’s evolution) the possibility of being transformed into a functioning social being. He reached an important personal milestone on the day that he, alone among all the congregants at a Sunday mass, refused to pledge support for the Catholic Church’s Legion of Decency. This powerful body condemned such popular movies as Baby Doll, Some Like It Hot, and Psycho, even objecting to Miracle on 34th Street, because it “reflects the acceptability of divorce” For Catholics, to defy the Legion's dictates was to commit a sin. By sitting with his arms folded while everyone else rose to take the pledge, Joe discovered in himself a passion that replaced religion with film as his true calling.

Happy Thanksgiving, Joe! And best wishes to all my readers as we head into the holiday season.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Sisters: "Caring, Sharing, Every Little Thing That We Are Wearing"

On December 18, Universal Pictures will be releasing what it hopes will be a big holiday smash: Tina Fey and Amy Poehler in a raunchy comedy called Sisters. It’s about two grown siblings who decide to throw the ultimate party before their parents sell the family home.

Forgive me, but when I hear the word “Sisters” in the context of a movie, I think about White Christmas, an amiable 1954 musical that’s something of a re-tread of the earlier Holiday Inn. Both films feature the best Christmas song ever written by a nice Jewish boy: Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.” For the second film, which stars Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye as army buddies, Berlin also wrote a duet showcasing the two female leads, songstress Rosemary Clooney and dancer Vera-Ellen. They play sisters who are trying to launch a showbiz career via a song-and-dance act that has the guys going gaga. Their big number is “Sisters,” in which they croon about their affection for one another: “Two different faces/ But in tight places/ We think and we act as one.” At the same time, they assert their own independence:  Lord help the mister/ Who comes between me and my sister/ And Lord help the sister/ Who comes between me and my man.” Deathless lyrics, right?

Frankly, it’s a pretty silly song. But my sister and I learned it, and performed it a lot for beaming relatives. Needless to say, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, for all their longstanding friendship, are no more actual sisters than were Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen. But it occurs to me that there are a number of actual sisters who’ve made the grade in Hollywood.

Back in the early days, there were Norma and Constance Talmadge. And of course, Lillian and Dorothy Gish, who played on-screen sisters at least once, in a 1921 French Revolution melodrama, Orphans of the Storm. It isn’t surprising, really, that siblings became stars in the silent era. Many, like the sisters Gish and Talmadge, came from broken homes in which the financial need was great—and Hollywood was very much the land of opportunity.  

The most famous sister pair who scored big in Hollywood? Doubtless, Olivia de Havilland and her year-younger sister, Joan Fontaine. Both became stars and Oscar winners. Though de Havilland won twice, for To Each His Own and The Heiress, she was bested in 1942 by sister Joan, whose performance in Hitchcock’s Suspicion was adjudged superior to de Havilland’s in Hold Back the Dawn. (Bette Davis, Greer Garson, and Barbara Stanwyck were also in the running.) Going head to head for the Oscar irreparably strained a relationship that had never been affectionate. Though de Havilland is perhaps best known as the mild, saintly Melanie in Gone With the Wind, Fontaine was outspoken about the fact that her sister resented her from her birth onward. As she put it years later, “I married first, won the Oscar before Olivia did, and if I die first, she'll undoubtedly be livid because I beat her to it!” In fact, she did precede her sister in death, in 2013. De Havilland lives on in Paris, aged 99.  

Today’s best-known sisters are Rooney Mara and the slightly older Kate Mara. Although Kate entered showbiz first, it is Rooney who has gained the most attention, with an Oscar nomination for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and talk of another for this year’s Carol. Apparently they’re close—let’s hope their family feelings survive Hollywood.

This post is dedicated, with love, to my sister Judy, who leaves today for a new life overseas.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Going Into Orbit Over “The Martian”

As Thanksgiving approaches, the world’s engineers and space scientists are expressing their gratitude for The Martian. This saga of a modern-day astronaut stranded on Mars is an upbeat movie that makes space exploration look exciting, shot by a team dedicated to ensuring on-screen scientific accuracy. I myself grew up in an era when space travel was regarded as a thrilling adventure, and government expenditure on space-going missions seemed like money well spent. It’s been far too long since we cheered a man on the moon. As someone with close family ties to Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Lab, which makes an important cameo in the film, I’m personally thankful for anything that encourages voyages (manned or unmanned) across the cosmos. Let’s keep those science nerd-types employed! And while we’re doing that, let’s keep alive mankind’s dreams of exploring our universe

Though I’m rooting for The Martian because of its whole-hearted endorsement of space science, I also love this project because of what it says about the screenwriting process. I teach in the screenwriting division of UCLA Extension’s world-renowned Writers’ Program, so I count among my students many teachers and doctors and airline pilots who’re convinced they have what it take to make it to Hollywood. Most won’t get very far, but it still remains possible for would-be writers, whatever their day jobs, to hit the jackpot in the movie game.

Take the case of Andy Weir. He’s a mild-mannered software engineer who grew up, as so many engineers do, enamored of science fiction. He’s been writing stories since childhood, but his very first novel, The Martian, was truly the little spacecraft that could. Weir researched the story intently—delving into such arcane subjects as botany, orbital mechanics, and weather conditions on Mars—and then, if Wikipedia is to be believed, offered it as a free serial on his website. Once he turned it into a low-rent Kindle ebook, it was endorsed on the Goodreads site, then discovered by Crown Books . . . and the rest is publishing history.  

But how did the 2011 novel become a 2015 Matt Damon movie, directed by Ridley Scott? Personally, I’m less interested in the business details than in the aesthetic challenges. Weir didn’t undertake the screenplay, which was written by Hollywood veteran Drew Goddard. Part of Goddard’s task was to explore the character of Mark Watney, who’s stranded on Mars when his crewmates leave him behind during a crisis, thinking him dead. Alone on Mars, without any initial way of communicating with earth, Mark does a great many creative things to stay alive. In a movie, we can watch him in action, but we can’t have access to his thought processes. The Mark of the novel keeps a running log, which shows us the way his mind works, and also introduces us to his vivid—sometimes profane, often very funny—voice. Movie audiences will never be satisfied with constant voiceover, so Weir’s idea of a log has evolved in the film into Mark’s series of video selfies, theoretically made for some far-off posterity. Given how much hard science is being thrown at us, it helps a lot to see Damon at his most brashly charming, spelling out his plans, crowing over his small successes, and struggling to absorb fuck-ups.

There are other good additions in the screenplay, like a deft characterization of an ultimate JPL space nerd who’s brilliant at solving problems of astrophysics but hasn’t yet figured out how to behave appropriately with actual human beings. And a new coda wraps up loose ends to give us a satisfying version of happily-ever-after.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Aftermath of a Bloody Friday Evening in Paris

Given the sad, sad news coming out of Paris, it’s hard to imagine we’ll ever return to thinking of France’s capital as a place of music, laughter, and romance. But I wouldn’t want jihadi terrorists to deprive me of the image of the City of Light, an enchanted place where joy reigns supreme. That’s why I suspect I’ll turn to my movie memories for consolation.

Hollywood has loved Paris in all four seasons: in the summer when it sizzles, in the winter when it drizzles, and so on. I’ve drawn up a quick list of my very favorites. Among musicals, there’s of course 1951’s An American in Paris, in which Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, and George Gershwin combine for a valentine to Paris as a city of love and art. Director Vincente Minelli actually stages the big final dream ballet as an homage to Parisian painters like Dufy and Toulouse-Lautrec. Caron also starred in 1958’s Gigi, a tuneful ode to the Belle Époque Paris of Colette, with its ambiguous morality and wonderful clothes.

Then there’s the irresistible combination of Paris and Audrey Hepburn. In the 1950s and 1960s the charming and beautifully dressed Mlle. Hepburn always seemed to be falling in love in Paris (and with Paris). Take Love in the Afternoon, where the object of her affection was William Holden. And Funny Face, made in the same year, in which Hepburn as a black-clad New York bohemian-type metamorphoses into a Paris fashion model, thanks to the skills of photographer (and love interest) Fred Astaire. In 1963, Hepburn starred with Cary Grant in Stanley Donen’s dazzling Charade, which manages to combine romance with a suspense thriller full of chases and bad guys. Three years later, she played opposite Peter O’Toole in a lighter romantic comedy, How to Steal a Million, set in the world of art forgery.  

And let’s not forget the notion of Paris as a culinary capital. In 1954’s Sabrina, a chauffeur’s daughter (Audrey Hepburn again!) transforms her life when she goes off to a Parisian cooking school. When she returns, she’s so chic, and so accomplished in the kitchen, that she wins the heart of both a millionaire playboy (Holden) and his more sensible brother (Humphrey Bogart). It’s amazing what French cooking can do. Which brings me to the Pixar flick Ratatouille, which charmed us back in 2007. Its star, of course, is a rat named Remy, whose mad culinary skills enable a scrawny kitchen underling to rise into the ranks of chefdom, at the same time that he finds romance and the opportunity to launch a bistro. None other than Peter O’Toole voices the role of a stuffy restaurant critic, Anton Ego, who finally re-discovers the joy of eating, thanks to Remy’s skill and dedication. (I get hungry just thinking about the savory pleasures of this film.)

Woody Allen loves Paris, of course. His 2011 Midnight in Paris starts with the story of a romantically-inclined nebbish (Owen Wilson in the Woody Allen-clone role) on a trip to La Ville Lumière with his materialistic fiancée and her folks. Their relationship does not go well, especially after he falls under the spell of true Parisian magic, involving mysterious trips back in time to the era of his expatriate literary heroes, Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald among them.

I’ve saved the best for last. There’s not much of Paris in Casablanca, but Rick and Ilsa’s memories of a happier and more peaceful time propel the World War II-era action forward. I feel that Humphrey Bogart says it best, “We’ll always have Paris.”

Friday, November 13, 2015

Women in Entertainment Power 100 – The Power of Transcending Rankings

Big news on the trade paper front: The Hollywood Reporter is scrapping its Women in Entertainment Power 100 rankings. This bombshell announcement comes from the Reporter itself, by way of an article penned by its president and so-called Chief Creative Officer, Janice Min. Presumably you’re asking right about now, “So what? “ 

The Hollywood Reporter, which dates back to 1930, has long been one of the entertainment industry’s two favorite trade publications. (The other, of course, is Variety, which began covering the movie industry in 1933.) I wrote for The Reporter for over a decade, and so I know how much the paper loves special issues in which successful Hollywood executives and business types are featured. There’s a snappy profile for each person on the list, lots of photos, and maybe a round-table discussion among those at the top of their game.  Over the years, I recall lists of the top Hollywood attorneys, the top agents, even the top doctors who cater to showbiz patients. There’s also a NextGen listing of up-and-comers under thirty. This sort of issue is a real revenue-generator: if your attorney or your client or your friend is on the list, you’re expected to take out a full page ad offering your congratulations.

The Women in Entertainment Power 100 started out, as I recall, as a Power 50. This was some 23 years ago, when Sherry Lansing had just made Old Hollywood sit up and take notice by being named chairman of Paramount Pictures. Given the significance of that event, it seemed time to laud women’s accomplishments in the entertainment industry. Over the decades the honor of being on the list led to an invitation to an exclusive lunch, with the media very much present. As I understand it, the Power 100  luncheon will continue. What’s now gone with the wind is the custom of ranking women in terms of their importance to the industry, with the #1 female (perhaps someone like film exec Stacey Snider or Oprah) flatteringly portrayed in living color on The Reporter’s cover.  

I always enjoyed writing for the Women in Entertainment issue. It gave me an opportunity to chat with important Hollywood figures, asking about their accomplishments, their aspirations, and how they spent their (rare) leisure time. Each year there were slightly silly questions too: for instance, what profession would they choose if they were not making/selling/promoting movies?  We writers never discussed rankings, and were warned never to promise that the women we were interviewing had actually made the list. Nonetheless, the rankings were clearly important, both to them and to their peers. The published article about each woman noted not only her current rank but also her position on the previous year’s list, so it was easy to spot the Reporter’s assessment of who was on the way up, who was stagnating, who was trending downward. I’m told that one episode of TV’s Hollywood-based Entourage revolved around an agent-character (played by Beverly D’Angelo) who connives to move up in rank. The Reporter’s new rationale is that women should not longer be vying against one another in a race to be Hollywood’s top (female) dog.

It was while working on a Women in Entertainment story that I chanced to meet HBO’s queen of documentaries, Sheila Nevins. She had never before been on the list, so of course she was thrilled—and delightful. From year to year, I enjoyed seeing Sheila move up in the rankings. Now I guess she’ll have to settle for being one on a list of one hundred. Which, come to think of it, is plenty good enough.