Friday, February 17, 2017

Denzel Washington: Don’t Fence Him In

Having just seen Denzel Washington’s production of Fences at my local multiplex, I’m collecting my thoughts about the film’s Oscar chances. Fences, of course, is part of August Wilson’s so-called Pittsburgh Cycle of ten plays about the African-American experience. It reached Broadway in 1987, in a production toplined by James Earl Jones as Troy Maxson, a sanitation worker who once dreamed of baseball stardom. That production won Wilson and company a slew of Tony Awards, plus a Pulitzer prize.

Wilson was long ago approached by Hollywood regarding Fences. He made it clear he would never permit the play to be filmed unless a black director was at the helm. Still, before his death in 2005 at age 60, he wrote a screen adaptation of his stage play. The very enterprising Scott Rudin (Ex Machina, Captain Phillips) suggested Denzel Washington bring Fences to the screen, and this idea evolved into a much-lauded 2010 Broadway revival, starring Washington as well as Stephen McKinley Henderson, Mykelti Williamson, and the magnificent Viola Davis. All four have ended up in Washington’s film version, along with some excellent younger actors.   

So how do I feel about Fences as a movie? It’s a powerful representation of August Wilson’s theatrical world. It’s valuable in bringing to audiences who’ve never seen a Wilson play an articulation of his motifs, like the impact of the past upon the present and the role of racism in crushing (or cruelly twisting)  the black man’s spirit. But despite its Oscar nomination as one of the year’s best films, Fences remains at heart a play. And though August Wilson earned a posthumous nomination for adapting his own stage work into a screenplay, a quick look back at the original suggests to me that not much has been changed to take advantage of the screen’s unique properties. A Wilson play is all about language, its ebbs and its flows. Wilson characters deliver lengthy speeches full of poetic rhythms that can make them resemble arias. Yes, director Washington has added some visuals: street scenes, a glimpse of Troy Maxson and his crony Bono at work on a garbage truck. But mainly we have static locations (chiefly the crammed yard of Maxson’s Pittsburgh row house) and far more talking than most movies can handle. It’s brilliant talking, wonderfully executed, but this didn’t feel like a movie to me.

I also have mixed emotions about giving acting awards to performers who’ve just finished playing the identical roles on stage. As strong a performance as Washington gives, he’s already been duly rewarded with a Tony. Yet there’s talk about him becoming the new frontrunner for a Best Actor Oscar, given that he triumphed at the SAG Award ceremony over Casey Affleck of Manchester by the Sea. As always, external forces may be at work here. Affleck has some messiness in his past (accusations of sexual harassment) that may make some squeamish about supporting him, despite the stellar nature of his performance as Lee Chandler. And it’s tempting to see this shaping up as a year with an #Oscarsoblack tinge. But Denzel Washington isn’t lacking for Oscars on his mantel, and I’m personally in awe of Affleck’s subtle work. Of course, I don’t have a vote.  

Viola Davis is another story. I could argue, certainly, that what she gives is a Best Actress performance. Putting her in a Supporting Actress category is slightly unfair to her fellow nominees, like Michelle Williams and Naomie Harris, who do exceedingly well with much less screen time. But Davis has been due for years, and it seems her moment has finally come.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Humorous or Haunted: Will the Real Shirley Jackson Please Stand Up?

Some readers think of Shirley Jackson as a highly perverse writer with a taste for the macabre, the author of such creepy stories as “The Lottery.” (Stephen King is a serious fan.) Others remember her as a happy homemaker, someone who chronicled the misadventures of her four kids with both exasperation and amusement. Jackson’s Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons, highly popular in their day, made her a kind of forerunner to Jean Kerr (Please Don’t Eat the Daisies) and Erma Bombeck, both of whom wrote about domestic life with love and glee. I’ve just finished a fascinating new biography by Ruth Franklin. It’s called Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, and it argues that Jackson’s spooky predilections and her affectionate regard for her brood reveal two sides of a very complex personality.  

Shirley loved her kids and her kitchen. In an era (the Fifties) when being a housewife was considered a high calling, she excelled at whipping up creative meals, tending the family pets, and stimulating her children’s already-active imaginations. On the other hand, surrounded by her busy brood and a husband (critic Stanley Edgar Hyman) who was not a reliable helpmeet, she had to fight desperately to find time to sit down and write, an obligation that was all the more necessary because she was the family’s financial mainstay. Nor did her own inner resources make life easier: she hated her physical appearance and fought a losing battle to please her stern, unyielding mother. Later in life (she died of heart failure at the all-too-early age of 48) she struggled with agoraphobia. Which meant that for months at a time she was reluctant to stir from her large and ramshackle Vermont house. Given her penchant for writing haunted-house stories, her neurotic fear of leaving her own hearth and home speaks volumes.

In movie terms, Shirley Jackson is best know for The Haunting of Hill House, the 1959 novel that was Hollywoodized as The Haunting (1963). Directed by Robert Wise soon after his 1961 triumph with West Side Story, it’s an elegant black-&-white depiction of psychological terror, focusing on the effectively fragile Julie Harris. But the main character must be – and is – the huge, gaudy, and thoroughly enigmatic Hill House, in which a small clutch of psychic investigators plan to stay the night. Wise comes from a background as a film editor (he worked on Citizen Kane), and his startling shots do convince us that evil is afoot. The Haunting has been compared to Jack Clayton’s 1961 The Innocents, a movie that shook me to my core when I was a teen. For me The Haunting is not nearly so disturbing, though—despite small departures from Jackson’s original story—it remains an effective exploration of the ambiguity of evil. (I haven’t seen the big-name 1999 remake, but it’s been universally panned.)

After finishing the Jackson biography, I was moved to read more of Jackson’s own writing. I was promptly floored by the power of her last completed novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962). This eerie experiment in first-person narration takes us into the mind of a young girl with a very unusual perspective on life. Once again there’s a disturbing old mansion, and two unforgettable female characters who live in a world of their own making. (Yes, it sounds a bit like the real-life Grey Gardens.) Upon reading it, I thought it was ripe for film adaptation . . .  then discovered that a new British film of the novel will be released this year. Will it do Jackson justice? We shall see.

This isn’t much of a Valentine’s Day post, I realize, but some might argue that Jackson’s personal dichotomy illustrates what marriage is all about: two parts domestic delight and one part horror. Not that I’m speaking personally, of course.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Florence Foster Jenkins; Nevertheless, She Persisted

Meryl Streep, who spends her private life far from Hollywood, is not generally considered a rabble-rouser. She comes across as a solid citizen, who has lately been gravitating toward no-nonsense biographical roles, like Julia Childs and Margaret Thatcher. (For portraying Thatcher in The Iron Lady, she won her third Academy Award in 2012, out of a whopping 20 nominations.) Streep’s track record notwithstanding, she’s lately been vilified in some quarters as “overrated.”  That’s certainly questionable, but no more surprising than her choice of her most recent Oscar-nominated role, that of socialite Florence Foster Jenkins.

Like Childs and Thatcher, Florence was a real person. She lived from 1968 to 1944, when she died of a heart attack at age 76, just after her Carnegie Hall debut. So many of Streep’s recent characters (like Childs, Thatcher, and Vogue editor Anna Wintour, whom she essentially played in The Devil Wears Prada) are women of strength and talent. They may have their dark side, but they remain leaders and visionaries. Florence, though, is a bird of a different feather. A Manhattan heiress, she used her considerable wealth to promote the art of music—but also to showcase her own highly unmusical yowlings. Abetted by friends, sycophants, and a supportive common-law husband (played in the film by a charmingly ambiguous Hugh Grant), she insisted on performing difficult coloratura arias while wearing extravagant costumes of her own devising. Descriptions of her concerts are colorful: one onlooker wrote that a Jenkins performance “was never exactly an aesthetic experience, or only to the degree that an early Christian among the lions provided aesthetic experience; it was chiefly immolatory, and Madame Jenkins was always eaten, in the end.” Nonetheless, despite her total ineptitude, she had an unlikely array of fans, including such music-world greats as Cole Porter, Enrico Caruso, Gian Carlo Menotti, and Lily Pons. 

No one is quite clear on the extent to which Florence was deluded about her own abilities, or the lack thereof. In a scene that follows hard upon her raucous Carnegie Hall performance, Streep utters a phrase that Florence apparently spoke in real life: "People may say I can't sing, but no one can ever say I didn't sing." This statement implies a degree of self-awareness that makes the story of Florence Foster Jenkins a more intricate one than it first appears. It’s also true that Florence can be viewed as a victim, albeit one who found a way to rise above the very real pain of her existence. At age 17, without her father’s consent, she had eloped with Dr. Frank Thornton Jenkins, only to discover that he’d given her syphilis. Ravaged by the disease and by the quack medical treatments of the day, she may have developed (among other things) a hearing loss that prevented her from knowing the extent of her assaults on her listeners’ eardrums. Streep’s portrayal finds a way to make her self-delusion—if that is what it was—heroic. She shows such delight in her own eccentric performances that it’s hard to imagine denying her that pleasure. 

Still, it’s worth musing on the gender implications of this story. A woman who believes she has talent and insists on unleashing it can be considered endearing. (It is, in fact, a familiar stereotype: just think of Jean Hagen’s lovably dopey movie star, Lina Lamont, in Singin’ in the Rain.) But imagine a story about a talentless man who puts himself on public display. Like Laurence Olivier’s over-the-hill vaudevillian character in The Entertainer, he would surely be considered tragic. Only in women is incompetence seen as adorable. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

“Hidden Figures” – Lifting Us Toward a Greater America

Hidden Figures is exactly what we need right now (especially during Black History Month) -- a comfort film. In an era when a promise to “make America great again” has led to brutally divisive rhetoric on many sides, it’s cheering to see a movie that celebrates the coming together of all sorts of people in pursuit of a grand goal: putting Americans into space. This true story of three black female NASA employees, gifted in mathematics and what we today call STEM, is a heartening reminder that when we’re able to look past ethnic, gender, and religious differences, not even the sky’s the limit.

In Hidden Figures the cast of characters is (as a scientist might put it) binary. In and around Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia circa 1960, you were either white or black, either male or female. Brief screen-time is given to a thickly-accented Jewish survivor of  the Holocaust who now is working overtime to put astronauts aloft via the Mercury program. But among the space scientists, and also among the crowds gathered to watch and cheer, there seems to be no such thing as a Latino, a Middle Easterner or an Asian. Probably this reflects the reality of Virginia in that era, essentially the same one glimpsed in the equally excellent film Loving, which focused on the Supreme Court decision that overturned state bans on interracial marriage. In any case, Hidden Figures fundamentally belongs to three black actresses--Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle MonĂ¡e—who are so vibrant and appealing that it’s no wonder this film received the prestigious SAG award for its ensemble cast. (Mahershahla Ali, an Oscar favorite as the sympathetic drug dealer in Moonlight, here switches gears to play a straight-arrow love interest.)

Each of the three women at the center of Hidden Figures has impressive intellectual gifts. They are all ready, willing, and able to provide key technical support for a fledgling U.S. program that is desperate to overcome the Soviet Union’s head-start in space. But because of the color of their skin the three are relegated to a separate unit in a separate building. It is only when the NASA chiefs become desperate (in a pre-computer age) for expert mathematical help on the first Mercury launch that Katharine Goble (Henson) is ushered into the all-white, all-male domain over which Kevin Costner presides. Still, despite her elevation, she faces constant bias, dramatized by the head engineer’s refusal to allow her name on key reports and especially by her daily races to a distant “colored” bathroom when nature calls.

The bathroom issue, of course, reflects the Southern segregation policies of the time. But in many ways, all women were at a marked disadvantage at Langley (and probably throughout NASA)  in this era. They were valued as support staff, but were traditionally barred from strategic briefings and kept far from the inner workings of the space program. Women back then were assumed to be wives and mothers, waiting at home for their hard-working spouses. Those who snagged NASA jobs were herded together in their own divisions, and had to adhere to strict codes: modest dresses of a certain length, high heels, no jewelry other than a wedding ring and a modest strand of pearls. (Essentially, they were dressed not for long hours of work but for a tea party.) The supervisor character played by Kirsten Dunst hints at what happens when a smart woman is undervalued: she makes life miserable for those even further down the chain of command.      

But it’s the black trio you’ll remember: women who prove there’s no color bar in space.

Friday, February 3, 2017

James Bond’s Richard Maibaum: Stirred, Not Shaken

If you grow up in SoCal, you’re apt to know some movie folk.  When I was a small tyke living in a Hollywood apartment complex, my playmate’s father was a long-time cameraman at Paramount, a man who’d worked on such classics as Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard. And just recently I met someone whose dad was a studio carpenter. His claim to fame? For Cecil B. De Mille’s The Ten Commandments he constructed the “stone” tablets that Moses carried down from Mt. Sinai.

Then there’s my friend, Matthew Maibaum, who descends from genuine movieland royalty. Matt’s father, Richard Maibaum, contributed to the scripts of over fifty Hollywood movies, including Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, The Pride of the Yankees, and the 1949 Alan Ladd version of The Great Gatsby. But his real claim to fame derived from his long association with a certain famous secret agent. It all began over ice cream at Wil Wright’s in Hollywood. His friends Albert (“Cubby”) Broccoli and Harry Saltzman had enjoyed some success making low-budget war movies in England. Now they had a new idea. Broccoli handed Maibaum a paperback novel by a failed British spy named Ian Fleming, saying, “There may be something in it.”

Maibaum was stirred instantly by Fleming’s suave leading man, a chap named James Bond. He liked the possibility of action-adventure films set in exotic locales, but recognized that the outlandish elements of Fleming’s plots would only work if the scripts were laced with humor. In his hands, the Bond movies had the knack of making sly fun of themselves without resorting to buffoonery. As the filming  of 1962’s Dr. No, commenced, author Fleming was surprised that the filmmakers were not going for an elegant and brainy hero, on the order of David Niven. Instead they chose a brawny former Edinburgh milkman who’d also been a minor league soccer player, an underwear model, and a Disney musical star (of the forgettable Darby O’Gill and the Little People). The rest, of course, is movie history, with Maibaum writing 13 screenplays for a whole parade of Bonds.

Maibaum had started out as a serious playwright with social issues on his mind. While he was still a student at the University of Iowa, his anti-lynching drama made it to Broadway. He also wrote the very first anti-Nazi play, Birthright. Then his stage comedy about the insurance industry, Sweet Mystery of Life, was picked up by Hollywood and turned into a Busby Berkeley musical, Gold Diggers of 1937. After that he found himself in Hollywood to stay.

Unlike so many east coast intellectuals, Maibaum never believed he was lowering himself by writing for the movies. He was an affable man, tolerant of the beliefs of others, by no means a rabble-rouser. (Which meant he escaped from the Hollywood “red scare” of the 1950s totally unscathed.) Instead he was known for his gentleness, his wit, and his intellectual curiosity. My friend Matt remembers the day when his younger brother discovered in an encyclopedia the oddly shaped ring of islands known as Phuket, Thailand. Looking up from his Underwood cast iron typewriter, Maibaum was instantly fascinated by his son’s find. This was, he proclaimed, exactly where an exotic hit man would choose to live. That’s how Phuket became a location in one of the James Bond films starring Roger Moore, 1974’s The Man with the Golden Gun.

Richard Maibaum died at a ripe old age in 1991. His last Bond film was 1989’s License to Kill. What he would have thought of the latest and most serious Bond, Daniel Craig, is not for me to say.