Tuesday, August 23, 2016

In Good Company in Malibu, Where Folks Do the Darndest Things

So Rio 2016 has been put to bed.  I admit I’m a sucker for the Olympic Games. Yes, I know all the problems as well as all the annoyances of the NBC primetime coverage. (How many times can anyone bear to watch a commercial in which a grown woman insults her elderly dad because his “How I Met Your Mother” stories are not as exciting as the Internet?) But televised sports continue to grab me because of their unrivaled spontaneity. It’s the surprises that I’ll remember, like Joseph Schooling from Singapore beating the best in the field in the 100-meter butterfly. And South Africa’s Wayde Van Niekerk, raised with the legacy of apartheid, setting a world mark in the 400-meter sprint. Not to mention U.S. women’s beach volleyball stars Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross, down and out after their sloppy semi-final loss to a Brazilian pair, coming back from a serious deficit to tame two more Cariocas (and the crowd) for a hard-fought bronze medal.

Our entertainment media claim to believe in spontaneity too. That’s the point of all those reality shows where supposedly ordinary people (like duck hunters and stage mamas and “real housewives”) say the darndest things. I’m dating myself when I remember back to Art Linkletter’s House Party and People Are Funny, shows in which everyday folks were manipulated into showing off their goofy side. Those were innocent programs: a Linkletter specialty well known to schoolchildren in the L.A. area was to invite a few kids onto the show and coax them into comic answers to his theoretically artless questions. But if the Linkletter programs and such later entertainments as Candid Camera can be considered innocent merriment, today we expect a raunchy bluntness that’s not exactly extemporaneous. The shows’ makers carefully seek out “average” folk who lack a filter, then dream up situations that encourage them to go berserk. And they’re hardly above (on competition-type shows) stacking the deck by choosing heroes and villains in advance. I know someone who was quietly removed from a major competitive show when she refused to become the designated bad girl, the one who lives to undermine the hard work of others. Unscripted? Think again.

Which brings me, somehow, from Rio to Malibu, home of Gidget and Three’s Company.  I had gone with friends to one of my favorite SoCal places, the Getty Villa. Built by zillionaire J. Paul Getty to match the style of ancient Rome’s Villa dei Papiri (which was destroyed by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D.), it houses a marvelous collection of Greek and Roman antiquities, beautifully displayed. Among the villa’s glories are its intricately patterned marble floors as well as the spectacular trompe l’oeil paintings on the walls of its enclosed outer peristyle. Where did Getty’s team find the craftsmen to do this sophisticated work? Why,  they were European emigrés, who’d made their living decorating the sets for Hollywood’s great Bible epics, like Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments. Score another one for the influence of the film industry on Southern California cultural life.

Later, we had dinner in an outdoor Italian café that epitomized Malibu’s own dolce vita. This café  too has a showbiz history: a birthday party for Barbra Streisand at which Andrea Bocelli led the singing, local resident Jim Carrey coming in several times a week to pretend to be a waiter. While we sat there, feeling blissful, the young women at the next table pulled out their phones, very excited. They’d spotted a Kardashian, complete with spouse and kids. In Malibu, even Kardashians are just part of the landscape. 

The Getty Villa, with inlaid flooring

Friday, August 19, 2016

Rio 2016 – Boys Gone Wild?

Unfortunately—despite all the excitement involving female gymnasts, women’s beach volleyball, and an American sweep of the women’s 100 meter hurdles—the big news coming out of the Rio Olympic this week involves a quartet of American swimmers. Yes, their competition is over, but that hasn’t stopped them from making waves.

I admit I only know what I read in the papers, or hear from the lips of the unflappable Bob Costas. But it seems that medal-winner Ryan Lochte and three of his buddies went to a party hosted by French athletes. They had a lot to drink, then grabbed a cab at about 4 a.m. to return to their quarters. At some point the cab was accosted by fake Rio cops who pointed weapons at the athletes and robbed them of their wallets and valuables before fleeing into the night. That’s the story Lochte told his mom in the U.S., by phone, and soon it was all over the news media, serving as a reflection of the dangerous streets of Rio during the Olympic games.

No question that Rio can be dangerous. There’ve been several disturbing incidents in the last few weeks, including the mugging of the games’ head of security by men with knives immediately after the opening ceremonies. But this robbery of gold-medal American athletes caused a major headache for the Rio de Janeiro police force, which became determined to investigate. When they looked into the swimmers’ allegation, discrepancies began to appear. A security video that captured the foursome’s return to the Olympic Village called into question the timing of their taxi adventure. Not only that: they appeared to have on their persons some items they’d claimed were stolen hours earlier. Now three swimmers have been detained in Rio (two were pulled off an airline flight just before its departure) for questioning by the cops. And Lochte, already back home, also has some serious ‘splaining to do.

I feel sorry—for the swimmers, for the Rio police, for sports fans everywhere—that the excitement of the games has been marred by whatever is going on. Are the U.S. athletes liars? Contemplating this possibility, my movie-besotted brain latched onto several movies in which small lies have big consequences. There is, for instance, 1961’s The Children’s Hour, in which a young troublemaker at a girls’ school hints at a lesbian relationship between two teachers (played by Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine), leading to tragedy. In 2007’s Atonement, another young girl (remarkably played by 12-year-old Saiorse Ronan) is drawn by her own jealousy and sexual confusion to accuse an innocent man of attacking her sister.

I don’t know, of course, if the four American men are liars. And their behavior, thank goodness, doesn’t seem to be leading to tragedy so much as embarrassment. They do admit they’d had too much to drink at that party. So I should probably be thinking about movies of a different sort. Like those of the last twenty years that feature overgrown male adolescents acting badly. Like Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn in Wedding Crashers. Or the guys in The Hangover. Or Seth Rogen in anything he had a hand in writing, like Superbad or This is the End.  Or that circle of slackers (Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel, and company) in Knocked Up. Such movies—especially those overseen by Judd Apatow—can be really, truly funny. But the portrait they paint of young men with too much booze on their brains has some disturbing implications for our culture. At the movies we find them lovable. But in real life? Maybe not so much.

Since this was written, of course, the world has learned that this was indeed a case of American boys behaving badly, and then blaming others for their own misdeeds. Not exactly a proud moment for our nation.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Boys in the Boat: A Triumph of the American Will

Amid all the excitement about Michael Phelps, Simone Biles, and Usain Bolt, I suspect most Rio Olympics fans are not aware of the gold medal just won by the U.S. women’s eight crew. In fact, they are a dynasty unto themselves, having won eleven straight Olympic and world championships. Not with the same rowers, of course. A changing cast of smart, strong young women (8 wielding oars and 1 coxswain with a megaphone) has made sure the tradition of American dominance in women’s crew continues. The average armchair sports buff, though, is probably not paying attention.

 But I’ll bet Daniel James Brown is thrilled. Brown is the author of one of the most exciting books I’ve read in a long time, The Boys in the Boat. Its subtitle: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The “boys” were a hardscrabble team from the University of Washington, who had to overcome many hurdles on their way to Germany. Brown, a Seattle resident, was lucky to stumble upon their story, and to get to know the few surviving teammates. His book is an inspirational story of survival through grit and pluck, set at a perilous moment in world history.

The top Oscar-winner from 1981 was Chariots of Fire, a stirring real-life tale about runners at the 1924 Paris Olympics. Its focus was on two outsiders on the British men’s team—a Jewish immigrant’s son and a devout Scottish Christian—who struggled to find acceptance among their aristocratic teammates, most of whom hailed from Britain’s elite (and snooty) universities. In The Boys in the Boat, there’s something of the same social tension. It’s the Depression era, and the Pacific Northwest young men, the sons of lumberjacks and dairy farmers, are having a tough go just coughing up their school fees. But hard times have honed their desire to win, and a brilliant coach named Al Ulbrickson proves to be a master at shuffling line-ups and making sure these tall, sometimes awkward collegians function as a unit. There’s also a master boatbuilder with the charming name of George Lyman Pocock who sees the poetry of rowing, and is able to impart it to rough-hewn young stalwarts with more practical matters on their minds.

 On the road to Berlin, Ulbrickson’s team first had to defeat their arch rivals at the University of California. Then it was on to the east coast, where they felt abashed in the company of well-heeled Ivy Leaguers, for whom rowing was a longstanding tradition. If they were intimidated by American bluebloods, they felt even more so when competing against powerhouse British teams. This was all good practice for their arrival in Berlin, where Hitler and his Nazis was determined to prove Aryan superiority through sport. Brown details the spectacular venues provided by the host nation, as well as the efforts made by Nazi Germany to hide its racist ideology and put out the welcome mat to athletes from all over the world.

Rowing sports were a huge deal in that era, and fans near and far gathered in front of radios to hear the outcome of the men’s eight. The stands were packed with enthusiasts, and Hitler himself sat in the VIP box to cheer his country’s crew team on to victory. But it didn’t happen. Somehow the scrappy Americans overcame all obstacles to eke out a win. German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, who’d been assigned to document the 1936 Olympics for posterity, captured the race with her cameras. But in her classic 1938 documentary, Olympia, the victory of the American crew had no place.  

The Boys in the Boat has been optioned by the Weinstein company for filming, but there are still no concrete details about an upcoming production. I do know a young actor, also a gifted rower, who’d be perfect for a major role. (Josh Pence, I’m looking at YOU!)  Meanwhile, we can watch bits of Riefenstahl’s footage on YouTube, as in this little documentary, made to inspire female rowers.

Friday, August 12, 2016

"Superbad": A Long Way from Andy Hardy

I’m much too young for the Andy Hardy movies, which flourished just before and during World War II. Andy (played by Mickey Rooney) was an amiable small-town adolescent. He was always getting into scrapes involving money and girls, then afterward learning the error of his ways through chats with his father, the kindly but upright Judge Hardy. This was an adult’s-eye view of what growing up ought to be.

Since then, the high school years have been presented in vastly different lights. The 1950s saw the rise of teen problem films, including 1955’s Blackboard Jungle and Rebel Without a Cause, that spotlighted young people who felt isolated from the world around them. Teenage characters in these films -- Sidney Poitier’s Greg Miller and James Dean’s Jim Stark among them – were viewed with sympathy, even when they misbehaved. But these films left us feeling that help for these lost souls would come through interventions from good-hearted adults, like Blackboard Jungle’s dedicated teacher and Rebel’s remorseful father. 

When George Lucas made American Graffiti in 1973, he pretty much wiped adults out of the picture of a small-town cruise night among a group of new high school graduates. The young people in this film deal with their problems among themselves, without adult interference. This approach had great appeal to the youthful viewers who were being courted by studios in the post-Sixties era. And American Graffiti has a winning frankness about the role of drinking, sexual attraction, and car culture in the lives of teenagers. Still, Lucas set his film back in time (“Where Were You in ’62?” was the film’s nostalgia-inducing catchline), and so the bad behavior we see on screen seemed slightly dated, even when the film was new.

In the 1980s it was John Hughes who captured the sense of what it’s like to be a high school student, in such widely popular films as The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Again, the focus is almost entirely on young people whose support systems among parents and teaches seem to have broken down.  The Breakfast Club, especially, concentrates on deeply troubled teens whose campus misdeeds have led to official punishment. But nothing they’ve done (pulling a fire alarm, playing a prank, skipping school) seems, to our modern eyes, all that bad.

Then there’s 2007’s Superbad, which takes the misbehavior of graduating high school seniors a giant step further. The cringe-worthy acts of the two central characters and their friends seem to have the ring of contemporary truth, maybe because screenwriters Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg started creating the project while still in their own teens, basing some of the shenanigans we see on screen on their own lives (and, I assume, their own fantasies). The seniors played by Jonah Hill (as Seth) and Michael Cera (as Evan) are not shown to be troubled in any dramatic way. Rather, they’re presented as realistically horny adolescents, obsessed with male and female body parts and stoked by the possibility of getting laid before they go off to pursue higher education. Says Seth, early on, “The point is to be good at sex before you go to college.”

As a way to pursue their goal of getting in the pants of some attractive classmates, they (and their doofus pal Fogell) get involved with a desperate scheme to stock Emma Stone’s graduation party with booze. Complications of course arise: a liquor-store robbery, some rogue cops, and teen sex foiled by drunken upchucking. My own high school days were much tamer. But I suspect my kids would feel right at home.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Barbra Streisand: A Person Who Needs (Hollywood) People

For Barbra Streisand, this may be the best of times and the worst of times. At age 74, she’s just kicked off a new national tour with an acclaimed performance at L.A.’s Staples Center. The tour, modestly named “Barbra: The Music . . . the Mem’ries . . . The Magic!”, is designed to showcase a new duets album that goes on sale August 28. At the same time, the long-gestating new Barry Levinson film project, a reworking of the Broadway musical Gypsy, has once again lost its financing, and will not be starting production in fall as planned. Which means it’s more unlikely than ever that we’ll see Streisand play the iconic role of Mama Rose.

Gypsy, the 1959 Broadway hit that combined the talents of Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents, Jules Styne, and Stephen Sondheim, originally featured Ethel Merman as the indomitable mother of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. It’s a role for a powerhouse singer as well as a great actress. The Hollywood “geniuses” behind the 1962 film version chose to cast Rosalind Russell, a Hollywood legend but not someone exactly known for her musical chops. (That’s one of many reasons the movie is barely remembered today.)  In major stage and TV revivals, the part has gone to Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bette Midler, and Bernadette Peters. From what I’ve learned from Neal Gabler’s respectful new biography, Barbra Streisand: Redefining Beauty, Femininity, and Power, Mama Rose would be an ideal fit for Streisand. She certainly has the pipes for the job, as well as the combination of vulnerability and strength that the role demands.

 According to Gabler, Streisand’s goal was always to be an actress. She diligently studied the craft (fellow acting student Dustin Hoffman remembered her as “a hungry baby bird”), but of course it was singing that provided her with a breakthrough moment. It came with Broadway’s Funny Girl, the musicalized story of Ziegfeld Follies entertainer Fanny Brice. I learned from Gabler that director Jerome Robbins lobbied for Anne Bancroft to play the leading role. Others in contention included Broadway stalwart Mary Martin and comedienne Carol Burnett. Gabler describes Funny Girl as “a Jewish story of an outsider trying to win acceptance in a world of beauty and glamour wrapped around the story of romance doomed by a driven Jewish woman’s success.” Which made it the perfect role for Streisand, who shared both Brice’s ethnicity and her profound discomfort with her less-than-All-American looks. Writes Gabler, “Certainly others could have played Brice. But only Streisand had lived Brice.” 

The Broadway success of Funny Girl took Streisand to Hollywood, where she promptly became an Oscar winner. Thereafter she appeared in some not-entirely-suitable roles, like that of the middle-aged lead in Hello, Dolly! Gabler himself is most partial to The Way We Were, which he sees as revealing Streisand’s own personal strengths and weaknesses. The film’s failed romance with the character played by Robert Redford shows Streisand’s Katie  paying a price “for her moralizing, for her perfectionism, for her gutsiness, for her ardency,  for her stridency, for her lack of conformity—for all the things her fans had come to love about her and about her characters. She pays a price to be Barbra Streisand.”

Of course Streisand has played many other movie roles, and has been gutsy enough to defy the Hollywood system by directing herself in Yentl, The Prince of Tides, and The Mirror Has Two Faces. All have suffered critical slings and arrows, but the lady marches on. Who can forget the way she was? And we have high hopes for what she is yet to be.