Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Maestro: Cigarettes and Love, Lenny-Style

Leonard Bernstein was an integral part of my childhood, and maybe yours too. From 1958  to 1972, he was on television with the New York Philharmonic, explaining to kids in a compelling way the joys of classical music. Then there were the musicals he composed that set our toes a-tapping: On the Town, West Side Story, Candide. I discovered the lively film version of On the Town (about three sailors on shore leave in New York City at the height of World War II) long after its release in 1949.  When West Side Story came out on film in 1961, it was seen by everyone I know, and long afterward the infectious score was still buzzing around in our heads. Though the much more recent Spielberg version of West Side Story may have its virtues, no one can rob us Baby Boomers of our affection for the original.

 But it’s only now that Bernstein himself is on film, not as a composer but as the leading man of a biopic. Bradley Cooper, inspired by the memoir by Bernstein’s daughter Jamie, had long wanted to put his complicated life on film. Ultimately, Cooper was to be a triple (at least) threat: as co-writer, director, and star of this labor of love. Much has been made of the prosthetic nose used to transform him visually from Bradley into Lenny. At the theatre where I saw this film (soon to show up on Netflix), photos of the real Bernstein in various stages of life reveal just how close the makeup artists got in transforming a Philadelphia gentile into a New York Jew.

 Far more important than Cooper’s look, however, is the spirit he brings to this role. His Lenny is smart, funny, impetuous, wildly sociable, nicotine-addicted, and wholly dedicated to his role on the music scene. He’s also far more attracted to men than to women, a distinction the film makes early on in showing a life-changing moment. He’s roused from sleep in the early morning hours by a phone call telling him that the great Bruno Walter, slated to be a guest conductor of the New York Philharmonic, is down with the flu. As the orchestra’s assistant conductor, the 26-year-old Lenny needs to pick up the baton—without rehearsal. He makes the appropriate sounds of regret, hangs up the phone . . . and indulges in a triumphant yell of which Tarzan would be proud. Then, jumping into a bathrobe, he affectionately pats the behind of the young man who had been sharing his bed, and heads for Carnegie Hall. In one of the film’s many surreal moments, he arrives in that grand space, still in his bathrobe, ready to take on the world.

 But Maestro is not solely about Lenny. The film’s focus is his marriage to Felicia Montealegre, played by the always luminous Carey Mulligan. From the start, Felicia knows her husband’s sexual predilections, but is at first willing to overlook them for the sake of home and family. Ultimately the tensions within the home threaten to destroy it (in a scene cleverly staged as the gigantic balloons of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade pass by the Bernsteins’ Central Park West window). Still, the genuine love between these two talented and complicated people is what the film is all about. This nicely fits the genuine Bernstein quote that opens the film: “A work of art does not answer questions, it provokes them; and its essential meaning is in the tension between the contradictory answers." Quite so.

 See this in a theatre, if you can, to revel in the Bernstein score.



Friday, December 1, 2023

Postcards from Princess Leia: Jeff Ryan Explores an Inter-Galactic Bond

I just read, in the Los Angeles Times, about a religious cult that believes our world is guided by Galactics, most of them dead celebrities. And yes, Carrie Fisher’s name is on the list. There’s something about Fisher, better known to many of us as Princess Leia Organa of Alderaan, that transcends the usual Hollywood hype. In life and in death, she was not so much a movie star—and pretty much the sole female in a blockbuster series of outer-space epics—but also both a role model and a cautionary tale.  As a royal who has her ups and downs in six Star Wars films, starting with the so-called Episode IV: A New Hope in 1977, she is powerful and pragmatic. But she also tends to get kidnapped, humiliated, and made to wear wacky costumes (Those hair buns! That kinky harem outfit!). Fisher’s personal life was equally complicated: the well-heeled daughter of celebrities, she found fame early, but also faced marital disaster as well as serious addiction issues. Always honest with herself and her public, she eventually owned up to the bipolar disorder that helped to shorten her life, as a way to make the public aware of mental health challenges.

 Jeff Ryan clearly reveres Carrie Fisher, both for her contributions to pop cinema and for her forthright approach to her own failings. That’s why, when the publishing industry let him down, he launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to make his tribute to Fisher a reality. The result is a handsome 2023 volume called Your Worshipfulness: Starring Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia. Ryan’s is by no means an insider biography. Following Carrie’s sudden fatal heart attack in 2016, he never approached her colleagues, nor her bereaved family. Much of his research comes from published sources, including fan sites on the web and the memoirs of others involved in the Star Wars universe. He also delves deeply into Fisher’s own writings: her four novels and such non-fiction works as Wishful Drinking, in which she confronts her own topsy-turvy life.

 With affection and wit, Ryan sizes up what it was like to BE Carrie Fisher, paying special attention to her complicated but affectionate bond with her famous mother, one-time Hollywood cutie-pie Debbie Reynolds. (Postcards from the Edge—a 1987 Fisher novel about mother-and-daughter celebrities that later became a Meryl Streep screen hit—clearly reflects something of her own parental memories.) We also learn through Ryan’s book about the father who neglected her. (“Nice-guy” singer Eddie Fisher, whose marriage to Reynolds was at one time big Hollywood news, famously dumped Debbie when Carrie was two years old to marry the newly bereaved Elizabeth Taylor.) There’s also dish about Carrie’s short-lived marriage (1983-1984) to singer/songwriter Paul Simon. The strained relationship allows Ryan, always a clever wordsmith, a chance to get snarky: “They had not enough bridge, way too much troubled water.”

 Perhaps the most engrossing part of the book for me was the in-depth discussion of 2019’s Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker. The final triad of Star Wars films were meant to showcase what became of the famous trio—Leia, Luke, and Han Solo—as they grew older and the universe moved on. But Carrie’s unexpected death challenged George Lucas and his crew to figure out some creative solutions to her absence. They couldn’t ignore Leia, nor could they re-cast her. In the end, up-to-the-minute technology made all the difference, allowing the filmmakers to suggest Leia’s presence, even in the absence of the very special woman who embodied her. As Ryan himself might say, Good night, sweet Princess.






Tuesday, November 28, 2023

A Singular Film by John Singleton: Boyz N the Hood

About a month ago, the airwaves were filled with tributes to Richard Roundtree, dead at 81.  Back in 1971, at age 29, Roundtree soared to international celebrity in Shaft. The story of a tough, sexy Black detective combing the mean streets of Manhattan helped launch the blaxploitation craze, in which crime dramas, martial arts dramas, and the occasional urban comedy featured African American casts, raw languages, and funky musical scores. As an underling at Roger Corman’s down-and-dirty New World Pictures, I worked on my share of blaxploitation flicks, but ours tended to emphasize female nudity.  We were the first to corral the talents of the bodacious Pam Grier, but my most vivid memory of that era is working on 1975’s TNT Jackson, in which a Playboy centerfold named Jeanne Bell played a kung fu expert fighting off bad guys in Hong Kong.

 The blaxploitation era as a whole had the virtue of helping talented Black performers become stars. But it didn’t make for the world’s best movies. Cut to 1991, the year when a 24-year-old writer-director set Hollywood a-buzzing with a coming-of-age drama set in South Central L.A. Boyz n the Hood started out as part of Singleton’s application for the famous USC Film School. Feeling deeply connected to the gang-ridden urban environment in which he himself had grown up, he knew from the start that this was material he had to direct himself. Which didn’t mean he made the film in a vacuum. Some of the early material involving four young boys checking out a dead body was influenced by the 1986 film, Stand by Me. And when he sold his script to Columbia Pictures in 1990, the greenlight came quickly because of the box office success of Spike Lee’s 1989 streets-of-Brooklyn masterpiece, Do the Right Thing.

 Singleton’s story, which leaps seven years at mid-point, explores what it’s like to grow up in an area dominated by gang violence. At ten, the little boys of the Crenshaw neighborhood of South Central, are already aware that they can easily become targets. There are roughnecks around to taunt them, and the local police (including an arrogant Black cop) are less than helpful in keeping trouble at bay. Young Trey has the advantage of a tough-love dad determined to keep him on the straight and narrow; young Ricky is a budding football talent. But as this section ends, Ricky’s half-brother, the chubby Doughboy, is already being arrested for shoplifting. The stage is set for the drama that is to follow.

 As a very young filmmaker, Singleton was helped by a cast that contained old pros as well as some bright new talents. The script’s essential father figure, “Furious” Styles, was portrayed  by the gifted Laurence Fishburne, who’d played major stage roles and been featured in films like Apocalypse Now and The Color Purple. Fortunately, Singleton had met him on the set of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse¸ where he was working as a production assistant and security guard. Day jobs have their uses: Singleton met Ice Cube while serving as an intern on the Arsenio Hall Show, then gave him a central role (as the teen-aged Doughboy) that has propelled the rapper into a major acting career. The elegant Angela Bassett played her first significant film character as Trey’s upwardly mobile mother Reva in Singleton’s film; both Cuba Gooding Jr. and Morris Chestnut—as 17-year-old Trey and Ricky—essentially began their careers with Singleton. (Bassett has since become a two-time Oscar nominee, and Gooding won the supporting actor statuette in 1996 for Jerry Maguire.) Nia Long and Regina King can be spotted too.