Friday, August 7, 2020

Soaring and Crashing with The Great Santini

War is hell, but perhaps there are some for whom peace is worse. One such is Lt Colonel Wilbur “Bull” Meechum of the U.S. Marine Corps in the Pat Conroy novel that became a 1978 film. Meechum, who thrives on being in command (of his fighter jet, his men, all the members of his family) enjoys dubbing himself The Great Santini when he’s pulled off some flashy stunt. He’s played with panache by the always impressive Robert Duvall, who was Oscar-nominated for this role three years before he took home the statuette for Tender Mercies. A supporting actor nomination went to young Michael O’Keefe, for playing Meechum’s oldest son.

 O’Keefe, whose role is that of a sensitive high school senior with a talent for basketball, is in fact the eldest of seven children from a devout Irish Catholic household. Which made him an ideal choice to play Ben, the eldest of four kids reined in by their mother’s gentle devotion as well as their father’s strict, elaborate codes of conduct. The Great Santini treats his wife and children like members of his squadron, issuing commands, barking out reprimands, sometimes engaging in horseplay but always with the sense that he’s the one in charge. In an especially dramatic segment, a friendly one-on-one backyard basketball game between father and son turns into a violent confrontation when Meechum can’t bear being defeated by his own kid. The ramifications of this moment are huge, resulting in a disaster when Ben takes the court for real as part of his high school team.

 Though the film has other plot strands, its heart is in these fraught father/son clashes. That’s doubtless because Pat Conroy, the author of the original novel, was writing close to the bone, about his own memories as the eldest son of a Marine flyboy father whose commitment to military discipline, as well as military hijinks, threatened to tear a family apart. The word is that when the novel was published in 1976, other Conroys took umbrage at this spilling of family secrets, like Donald Conroy’s violent streak and his excessive drinking. Some in the family apparently picketed book signings, passing out leaflets urging would-be patrons to avoid buying Pat’s novel. Conroy has said that in later years his father would, with apparent good humor, autograph copies as follows: "That boy of mine sure has a vivid imagination. Ol' lovable, likable Col. Don Conroy, USMC (Ret.), the Great Santini." Happily, I’ve heard that in later years—partly as a response to the novel—the elder Conroy became a kinder and gentler man.

I was delighted to spot in the cast of The Great Santini (along with the always luminous Blythe Danner as Meechum’s Southern-born wife) an old Roger Corman chum of mine, Stan Shaw. Stan began his film career in 1974 with Corman blaxploitation flicks like Truck Turner and TNT Jackson. I knew him from the latter, in which—as the male lead--he enjoys both torrid sex scenes and violent kung fu clashes with the bodacious Jeanne Bell. When we worked together on publicity releases, I was impressed at Stan’s far-ranging artistic ambitions. Not content simply to be the hero or the bad guy, he aspired to do it all, even if this meant playing a baby, playing a dog. Still working, he’s had a long and varied career, mostly in television, small roles, and small films. In The Great Santini he plays Ben’s unlikely buddy, a sweet and simple soul who loves nature but falls prey to a white bully in one of the pivotal moments of Ben’s impressionable young life. 






Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Wilford Brimley: Farewell to an Old Guy Who Really Felt His Oats

Crusty Wilford Brimley, he of the walrus mustache and the passion for Quaker Oatmeal, has left us at the ripe old age of 85. Curiously, the former soldier and ranch hand made his mark on Hollywood by playing men much older than his actual years. He was only 51 when he co-starred in Ron Howard’s Cocoon with such Hollywood veterans as Don Ameche (age 77), Hume Cronyn (age 74), and Jack Gilford (age 77). His wife was played by sixty-year-old Maureen Stapleton, and the legendary stage and screen star  Jessica Tandy (age 76) was also featured in the cast. (In 1984 I was privileged to interview Tandy and her longtime spouse, Cronyn, backstage before a production of Foxfire. But that’s a story for another day.)

Cocoon, for those too young to remember, concerns a group of oldsters living in a Florida retirement community. Plagued by health challenges and a loss of youthful vigor, they are not much enjoying their so-called golden years. Then the unthinkable happens: the elderly folks, somehow rejuvenated by the magical life-force in a neighbor’s swimming pool, are visited by aliens who invite them to sail to a distant planet where they can live forever. It is not an easy parting: most of them will be leaving behind friends and family as they sail off into the unknown. A few (Gilford’s character among them) choose to stay where they are: as he puts it in a poignant speech, “This is my home. It’s where I belong.” 

Ron Howard, in 1985 still early in his directing career, was so anxious about guiding the performances of legendary thespians that he was plagued by bizarre dreams: “I’m on a set, and something is just not clicking. I’m scrambling around, trying to make it happen, but I don’t really have the answers.” When he makes a tentative suggestion, everyone on the set turns to him and yells, “You’ve got to be kidding! That’s the stupidest thing we’ve ever heard.” Then, in his dream, the thoroughly red-faced Howard lurches into a desperate song-and-dance routine. In fact, the acting veterans liked and respected the thirty-one-year-old Howard. Which didn’t mean they refrained from pushing back when necessary. In that swimming pool scene, Brimley, Cronyn, and Ameche are required to cavort like youngsters, doing exuberant flips, dives, and cannoballs. Because of the age of his performers, Howard hired doubles to execute these stunts, then discovered the three actors were miffed: “They wanted to do it themselves. And they did. They really taught me that you can’t generalize about what people can, or cannot, do because of age.”

Howard was also surprised to learn that each senior member of his company had a different approach, which he needed to blend into a unified whole. Of the four cronies whose actions dominate much of the film, Hume Cronyn devoted much mental energy to analyzing his role, while Jack Gilford called on the skills of a trained vaudevillian. The dapper Don Ameche, whose nimble (and Oscar-winning) breakdancing scene is one of the film’s highlights, turned out to be an old-school Hollywood film actor who begged Howard to give him precise direction. As for curmudgeonly Wilford Brimley, he was happiest when going his own way. A prime example is the fishing scene, in which his character breaks the news to his beloved grandson that he’s leaving for outer space. With Howard’s blessings, Brimley discarded the scripted lines and improvised a simple but deeply moving farewell. Says Howard, “It is one of the scenes I've always been proudest of, and I had virtually nothing to do with it.” 

Some of the material from this post was taken from my 2003 biography, “Ron Howard: From Mayberry to the Moon . . . and Beyond,” which has surprised me by becoming, during the pandemic, an Amazon bestseller in its Kindle edition. Up-and-coming: an audio version from Tantor. (Fingers crossed.)